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The Yale Journal of Criticism 9.1 (1996) 57-61

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Chaplin Times Two
Theodor W. Adorno
Translated by John MacKay

Translator's Introduction
In his writings on contemporary culture, Theodor W. Adorno was inclined to treat laughter with suspicion, in particular the kind of laughter generated by popular film comedies and other products of the "culture industry." What received its comic comeuppance in such films, he claimed, was anything opposed to or unassimilable by the status quo; such mirth produced a false sense of liberation masking blind conformity to a cruel social order. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment he glumly observed: In the false society laughter is a disease which has attacked happiness and is drawing it into its worthless totality. To laugh at something is always to deride it, and the life which, according to Bergson, in laughter breaks through the barrier, is actually an invading barbaric life, self-assertion prepared to parade its liberation from any scruple when the social occasion arises. Such a laughing audience is a parody of humanity. Its members are monads, all dedicated to the pleasure of being ready for anything at the expense of everyone else. Their harmony is a caricature of solidarity. What is fiendish about this false laughter is that it is a compelling parody of the best, which is conciliatory. Delight is austere: res severa verum gaudium.1 Nonetheless, like his associates Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, Adorno was a great admirer of the screen's most celebrated comedian: Charlie Chaplin. For all three men this admiration was informed by a sensitivity to the political overtones of Chaplin's work; Benjamin remarked that Chaplin had directed himself "toward both the most international and the most revolution ary affect of the masses--laughter,"2 while Kracauer noted "a touch of utopia about [Chaplin's] challenges to space, time, and gravitation."3 The two brief essays which follow are Adorno's responses both to the tough poignancy of Chaplin's art and to Chaplin the man, whom he got to know during his Californian exile (1941-49). His comments, which culminate in a remarkable personal anecdote, hint at an alternative conception of laughter, of a critical laughter soberly aware of its own affinities to domination. The first essay appeared under the title "Kierkegaard prophesies Chaplin" in the Frankfurter Zeitung, May 22, 1930; the second as "Chaplin in Malibu" in Neue [End Page 57] Rundschau, Vol. 3, 75th year, 1964; they first appeared together under the present title in the volume Ohne Leitbild (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969), 89-93.--jkm

Prophesied by Kierkegaard
In Repetition, one of his earlier pseudonymous writings, Kierkegaard gives a detailed treatment of farce, true to a conviction which often leads him to seek, in the refuse of art, that which eludes the pretensions of

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But when one recalls the scene in The Gold Rush where Chaplin. For the most part. which in fact negates meaning. and by means of this genius he also improvises the whole scenic setting. is 2 of 4 . He speaks there of the old Friedrichstädter Theater in Berlin and describes a comedian named Beckmann4 whose image evokes. Only through this bestial quality would earliest childhood have brought itself safely into wide-awake life. One can well imagine that Chaplin's cryptic dimension. which gathers here in the quiet noise of the village into transparent peace. At least he should be allowed a long and thorough grace period. he is also able to come walking like one and in such a way that one experiences everything. latch onto that which is devoid of intention. while he strolls on with the cane and hat that so become him. would understand the clown himself. itself tends toward banality or stupidity just like the empty ideas on which it is sharpened by the clever mind. that it would rather. I do not wish to offend in this way. that of the Chaplin who was to come. The link between mind and clown is as understandable as it is unfortunate. Its loss demands silence. like a ghostly photograph in a lively film. populated the cityscape of 1840 like staffage. among whose number he proudly counts himself--as far as I know. II In Malibu The fact that profundity is irritated by profound topics. He is able not only to portray an itinerant craftsman. like that language. but to expression. This has nothing to do with sympathy towards a begging.6 would be reckoned a good thing if only profundity. Only because I knew him many years ago would I stress. which hang more loosely and less amusingly on him than his traditional costume. However. exploiting the apparent inability to resist of that which from itself sets forth no meanings and which possibly.7 As always the situation is the same: more information about the clown is to be found among children who. which as clown he in turn parodies. comes walking into the gold mining town and disappears crawling into a cabin. Only one capable in the language common to the clown and to children. abandoned and unshreddable victim. this difference pertains not only to his soigné elegance.'s great self. like the old man in the illustration "Winter ade":8 Nature. In this way they move away from the conundrum whose solution is the only interpretive task worthy of Chaplin. according to Benjamin's phrase. so self-satisfied and untrammeled by an object. surveys the smiling hamlet from the dusty highway. his powerful. it is as if his figure. his stick in his hand. sees the footpath that goes down by the village pond when one turns off there by the blacksmith's-. [End Page 58] profundity uses unhackneyed topics as a pretext for vagueness and banality. from this background the star only now has finally emerged.where one sees [Beckmann] walking along with his little bundle on his back. to the extent of its immediacy. hears its quiet noise. a language distanced from sense. would not then wear itself out. so pitilessly suppressed by the process of becoming an adult. or precisely that which makes this most perfect clown more than his genus. The passage reads: He is not only able to walk. For his precedence over other clowns. The children's darling is spared no demonology.encourages interpretations which inflict more injury the higher they elevate him. explosive and quick-witted agility recalls a predator ready to pounce. irrecoverable by adults. with the mild fidelity of a daguerreotype. It is known how different Chaplin looks in private from the vagabond on the screen. communicate with his image and with the meaning of his activity. Psychoanalysis tries to relate the clown-figure to the reaction formations of earliest childhood. menacingly. who brushes against the world like a slow meteor even where he seems to be at rest. There is something about the empirical Chaplin that suggests not that he is a victim but rather. in whom fleeing Nature bids a shocked adieu. two or three observations which might contribute to a descriptive account of his image [zur ecriture seines Bildes].contained works. as mysteriously as they do with animals. suddenly recognized by Kierkegaard. but he is also able to come walking.5 The one who comes walking is Chaplin. and especially in the face of Chaplin. To come walking is something very distinctive. The invisible tail of street urchins is the comet's tail through which the earth cuts almost unawares. the imaginary landscape that he brings along is the meteor's aura. is. that he would seek victims. their club is the only one to which he belongs-. tear them apart. without any philosophical pretensions. one owes it to him to certify once again the laughter he arouses before decorating him with the trumpery of great categories. pounce on them. He can come walking onto the stage followed by street urchins whom one does not see. before any crystallization of a stable self. untroubled and undaunted.

" (Note from Soren Kierkegaard. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. John Osborne (London: Verso. it is 3 of 4 . All the laughter he brings about is so near to cruelty. among other works. One scarcely dares speak to him. 163-4. Trans. was a leading member of the Frankfurt School and author of Philosophy of Modern Music. is itself in a compact with the very evil that in vain seeks to destroy him--in vain. thereby placating it. Any time spent with him is an uninterrupted performance. Repetition. Benjamin. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. and. ed. It is as though he. I extended my hand to him a bit absent-mindedly. If Chaplin the private citizen lacks the features of the famous clown (as though these features were under a taboo). He once imitated me. Adorno. I was extremely startled.connected with the fact that he as it were projects upon the environment his own violence and dominating instinct [sein [End Page 59] Gewaltsames und Beherrschendes]. and indeed the principle of reason itself. While Chaplin stood next to me. 159. a major 20th century philosopher of culture and society. and fixes its restless circling into a fabric that has little more in common with the causal world than Cloudcuckooland has with the gravitation of Newtonian physics.11 Theodor W. 1983). one of the guests was taking his leave early. 367. who sleeps in the baggage rack so as not to ease off training even for a moment. Unlike Chaplin. 4. ed. grown-up life to recede. which the children cheer. "Friedrich Beckmann (1803-1866). and trans. 3. 88. 1972). started violently back. he produces only over great intervals of time and in an intensely and openly self-critical spirit. Siegfried Kracauer. just like Kafka's trapeze artist. but sensed immediately that I could not reveal my shock to the injured man at any price. The actor had hardly moved away when Chaplin was already playing the scene back. famous German comic actor. Aesthetic Theory and (with Max Horkheimer) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1977). Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press. Gesammelte Schriften III. Hong and EdnaH. trans. then it is exposed to the allegorist. 6. but eternally secure. Presence of mind and omnipresence of mimetic ability also characterize the empirical Chaplin. Fear and Trembling and Repetition.) 5. Minima Moralia. He acts incessantly. no one could be less pretentious than he--but rather from fear of disturbing the spell of the performance. using mimetic behavior. Incessant and spontaneous change: in Chaplin. Notes 1. because his goodness. solely in such proximity to cruelty does it find its [End Page 60] legitimation and its element of the salvational. he has all the more of the juggler about him. But this endows his incarnate existence with an imaginary element beyond the official artforms. almost instantly. Together with many others we were invited to a villa in Malibu. Theory of Film (New York: Oxford University Press. John Cumming (New York: Continuum. 1960). 2. The man was one of the lead actors from The Best Years of Our Lives. and through this projection of his own cul pability produces that innocence which endows him with more power than all power possesses.9 he plays with the countless balls of his pure possibility. His lady killer was schizophrenic. caused purposeful. 1980). "Rückblick auf Chaplin" in Benjamin. since his youth. for he had already destroyed that evil in his own image. Let my remembrance of this event and my thanks be my congratulations to him on his 75th birthday. Perhaps I may justify my speaking about him by recounting a certain privilege which I was granted. from 1824 the leading actor of the Königstädter Theater for many years. In a split second I transformed my frightened expression into an obliging grimace that must have been far ghastlier. and surely I am one of the few intellectuals to whom this happened and to be able to account for it when it happened. he lost a hand during the war. Hella Tiedemann-Bartels (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. not from awe of his fame--no one could set himself less apart. on the coast outside of Los Angeles. JKM. 141. It is well known that he does not confine his mimetic arts strictly to the films which. The Rastelli of mime. 183-185: "If the object becomes allegorical under the gaze of melancholy. HowardV. A vegetarian Bengal tiger: comforting. a film famous shortly after the war. trans.10 When I shook his right hand and felt it return the pressure. entirely without having earned it. and in its place bore practicable claws made of iron. Adorno (1903-1969). this is the utopia of an existence that would be free of the burden of being-one's-self. if melancholy causes life to flow out of it and it remains behind dead. Cf.

4 of 4 . Enrico Rastelli (1896-1931). 9.A. Joanna Spiro. "Winter ade" ("Adieu. 795. which he did in order to raise money to help cover his wife's medical expenses. is allegory. It is indeed characteristic of the sadist that he humiliates his object and then--or thereby--satisfies it. Freud's discussion of the comic as the result of a "comparison between the ego of the grown-up and the ego of the child" in "Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious" in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. Lance Duerfahrd. Brill (New York: Modern Library. The actor described here was Harold Russell (b. Alexander Ulanov. Acclaimed for his performance as one of the three returning veterans in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). And that is what the allegorist does in this age drunk with acts of cruelty both lived and imagined.1914 in Nova Scotia). Dr. a 19th-century liberal and populist poet and philologist perhaps best known as the author of the old German national anthem. Christa and Jeffrey Sammons. as he became the first Oscar recipient to sell one of his awards. . Winter") is the title of a children's song by Hoffman von Fallersleben (1798-1874). Michael Kerbel. is without equal in giving expression to nature.. 1966).. Carol Hightower. like a stern sultan in the harem of objects. and it is a powerful one." Russell made history again in 1992. It may not accord with the authority of nature. 11. the other a special Oscar given "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans. "Deutsch land. and ed. Russell became the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same role: one for Best Supporting Actor." 7.unconditionally in his power. Cf. Patrick Noon. who in fact lost both his hands as a soldier during World War II. such significance as it has. The translator would like to thank the following people for their assistance: Charles Musser. For the only pleasure the melancholic permits himself.. Italian juggler. That is to say it is now quite incapable of emanating any meaning or significance of its own. .. .A. Richard Field." "Winter ade" is an ironic song of "sad farewell" ("Adieu. 8. but the voluptuousness with which significance rules. Dan Friedman. 10. it acquires from the allegorist./ But your departure is such/ That now my heart laughs"). trans. Deutsch land über alles. Winter!/ Parting brings sorrow.

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