- Charles Baudelaire’s Falling ManTheorizing Trauma as Permanent Parabasis
Like a spider dismantling the remnants of yesterday’s web and replacing them with a grander design, Baron Haussmann has ordered workers to pry loose the cobblestones of Old Paris and replace them with quarried setts for the foundation of his new boulevards. The immense crowds, previously cramped in the narrow veins of the medieval topography, now stroll along wide thoroughfares. Yet the conjunction of the old city and the new produces seams at which crooked, raised paving stones confront the smooth boulevards, creating a disruptive margin in the transition from the medieval to the modern. Jostled perhaps by the crowd or distracted by some newly installed café, an absentminded pedestrian catches his foot on a protruding stone and stumbles. No matter how vigilant the placement of one’s feet, such falls cannot be avoided; the collapse is inescapable and, as such, it seems to represent a defining characteristic of the experience of modernity for poets such as Charles Baudelaire.
In De l’essence du rire, Baudelaire conjures this scene while developing a theory of laughter based upon the witnessing of “a failure in the physical order” and the sense of superiority that it produces in the witness. Examining a common example of this failure, Baudelaire asks,
What is there so delightful in the sight of a man falling on the ice or in the street, or stumbling at the end of a pavement, that the countenance of his brother in Christ should contract in such an intemperate manner, and the muscles of his face should suddenly leap into life like a timepiece at midday or a clockwork toy?1 [End Page 73]
For Baudelaire, this laughter results from the observer’s sense of pride at the realization that he has not fallen—a realization establishing an inter-subjective, oppositional relationship between the confident superiority of the nonfallen and the humiliating inferiority of the fallen. He argues that laughter originates in an inherent contradiction within human nature: “It is at once a token of an infinite grandeur and an infinite misery—the latter in relation to the absolute Being of whom man has an inkling, the former in relation to the beasts. It is from the perpetual collision of these two infinites that laughter is struck.”2 The witness to the fall feels himself elevated in comparison to the bestial flailing of the fallen and subsequently chuckles at the stranger’s fate.
Nevertheless, this laughter is made possible only by preserving a distance between the fallen and the spectator. To demonstrate this, Baudelaire offers two possible reactions to an accident of this type. The first, as we have seen, is the laughing spectator who feels pride at what he considers his upright condition, but Baudelaire also introduces us to the Sage, who understands the consequence of such a fall and resists laughter because of it. Baudelaire writes that “the Sage laughs not save in fear and trembling” because it signifies for him something terrible. In the fall of his “brother in Christ,” the Sage recognizes both the possibility of his own fall and something even more terrifying—the certainty that this fall has already come. The capacity for laughter indicates to the Sage a symptom of humanity’s degraded state because “human laughter is intimately linked with the accident of an ancient Fall, of a debasement both physical and moral.”3 The fallen pedestrian reminds him of our postlapsarian state and the rupture that allows human nature to experience both the “infinite grandeur” and “infinite misery” at the core of laughter.4 There is no witness who has not also fallen, and so empathy should always tinge laughter with a sense of dread.
Despite these disparate reactions, Baudelaire seems less interested in the response to another’s accident than he is in the response to one’s own suffering. After all, he remarks, “the man who trips would be the last to laugh at his own fall.” Laughter bursts forth only from one who forgets that he is also fallen, and rarely is the contradiction between superiority and inferiority maintained within the same subject. Baudelaire’s...