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French Forum 28.1 (2003) 142-145

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Gordon, Rae Beth. Why the French Love Jerry Lewis: From Cabaret to Early Cinema. Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 2001. 274 pp.

It is important not to miss the subtitle of Rae Beth Gordon's new book. Although aspects of Jerry Lewis' career cap its analysis, the text primarily focuses on the reciprocal relationships that medical, philosophical and psychological discourses maintained with cabaret performance and early silent comedies between 1870 and 1910. Inscribing itself within the field of spectator studies, Gordon's book adroitly pushes back the boundaries of film scholarship to examine the cinema's roots in earlier traditions and explore how these traditions informed artistic production and viewer appreciation. The corpus is rich and well chosen, bringing to light a significant number of criminally underacknowledged performers and directors. Furthermore, her exploration of the permeable borders between scientific discourse and its popular counterparts (hypnotism, somnambulism, magnetism) is interesting and well documented. In general, the book convincingly establishes strong ties between a number of disparate disciplines.

Gordon posits the cinema as a hysterical art form, as the logical continuation of a new kind of spectacular entertainment that emerged during the French fin-de-siècle. She sees this period marked by an enthusiasm for a frenzied performance style that rejected logical thought, coherent language and traditional narrative to embrace the body and revel in extreme sensations. This kind of performance seemed properly pathological: it was intimately linked with the contemporary [End Page 142] scientific positions on hysteria and mental illness that were generating intense fascination in mainstream society.

In order to analyze how mainstream society received popular culture, the book explores the late nineteenth century conception of the subject as split between higher (mental) and lower (physical) tendencies, between a capacity for reason and a "corporeal unconscious." While this model is successfully associated with its sociocultural context, however, the text also problematically extends it to contemporary spectators. What gradually emerges from this study of the cultural fascination with "wild" or "primitive" behavior is the understanding that these impulses are fundamental parts of the human psyche. For Gordon, the fact that viewers today continue to instinctively imitate the tics and gestures of on-screen characters confirms that all are still subject to the imperatives of the corporeal unconscious.

This is a difficult position. The text clearly works in defense of the Low, whose qualities are depicted as universal. Nevertheless, implying that the model of a divided subject transcends its specific historical period means reifying the high/low split: the opposing categories of "reason" and "the irrational" are accepted as inherently true. It is just as true, however, that these categories are gendered, raced, and classed in particular ways. Although Gordon recognizes that the representations of hysteric/epileptic movement were often tied to specific groups of social "undesirables" (political extremists, the mentally ill, the racially "inferior"), she needs to give more attention to how these representations were pieced together from particular racial stereotypes and cultural practices. If it's true that fin-de-siècle French society was obsessed with pathology, the text does not satisfactorily broach the larger questions this assertion entails: why does the distinction between reason and instinct become crucial during this period? What causes could have motivated this urgent need for a clearly defined Low?

Positing High and Low as transcendent categories also engenders a second problem. The universal grasp of this kind of argument is difficult to reconcile with a book that claims to focus on a national obsession. Gordon frequently draws on examples from Germany, England and the United States. Since the corporeal unconscious as presented here transcends cultural boundaries, the extent to which the love of Jerry Lewis' brand of hysterical comedy is typically French remains [End Page 143] unclear. The question of national identity and the specificity of national traditions required more rigorous treatment.

Ultimately, the book fails to deliver on its initial promise: we don't really learn why the French love Jerry Lewis. The discussion of the Gallic enthusiasm for Lewis' work is consigned...


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