4. Burlesque v. Irony

The Rogue, the Clown and the Fool

Burlesque caricatures that which it critiques: it unmasks through mimicry. To this extent the burlesque comedian is the post-industrial descendent of the pre-industrial folk figures M. M. Bakhtin called up out of Rabelais to dispute the Formalists' valuation of the "poetic" novel:

The rogue, the clown and the fool, [...] their existence is a reflection of some other's mode of being--and even then, not a direct reflection. They are life's maskers; their being coincides with their role, and outside this role they simply do not exist.
They grant the right not to understand, the right to confuse, to tease, to hyperbolize life; the right to parody others while talking, the right not to be taken literally, not "to be oneself"; the right to live a life in the chronotrope of the entr'acte, the chronotrope of theatrical space, the right to act life as a comedy and to treat others as actors, the right to rip off masks, the right to rage at others with a primeval (almost cultic) rage--and finally, the right to betray to the public a personal life, down to its most private and prurient little secrets.[17]

Miller, also drawing upon Rabelais in an effort to dispute another "poeticization" of the novel, reaches conclusions uncannily parallel to Bakhtin's:

I should have been a clown; it would have afforded me the widest range of expression. Had I become a clown, or even a vaudeville entertainer, I would have been famous. People would have appreciated me precisely because they would not have understood; but they would have understood that I was not to be understood.[18]
Out of that dark, unstitched wound, that sink of abominations, that cradle of black-thronged cities where the music of ideas is drowned in cold fat, out of strangled Utopias is born a clown, a being divided between beauty and ugliness, between light and chaos, a clown who when he looks down and sidelong is Satan himself and when he looks upward sees a buttered angel, a snail with wings.[19]

Miller's modern clown is born "out of strangled Utopias" in recognition that the opportunity for folkloric clowning has disappeared with the town square and the official court--the "theatrical space" of Bakhtin's "entr'acte." Where the folkloric clown mocked subjectivity upon the vanishing ground of "common sense," the burlesque comedian must do so upon the common ground of "nonsense." But this nonsense, which is the inescapable reality of a "cosmos-on the flat," and the vaunted emptiness of the burlesque comedian, may all too easily be mistaken for a negative sublime--a vision of the grotesque, of meaninglessness, of the void--and as such recaptured by ironic knowledge, the aesthetic structure Miller criticizes as a Modern variant of Romantic subjectivity.

It is here that wandering urban anecdotes and fast paced diatribes, interspersed with Miller's burlesque, provide the sense of movement and direction necessary to turn the nonsensical hodge-podge revealed by the post-industrial clown from a potentially empty object of ironic contemplation into an infinitely variable experience. In Miller's narrative, as on the burlesque stage, it is "timing" that binds the empty gesture in a series of acts which unmask--not in a revelatory moment, but in due course; not in space, but in time--the structure-in-dispersal that governs modern urban life. Miller's modern urban clown is the "megalopolitan" descendant of the Shakespearean Fool. But the "villain" licensed to speak to royalty has been turned out of court into the street: "In the middle of the court is a clump of decrepit buildings which have so rotted away that they have collapsed on one another and formed a sort of intestinal embrace."[20] Denied the public space of his pre-industrial forbearers, Miller's burlesque clown must make use of the lines and turns of the city streets and that storytelling at a "fast pace" which is their analogue. Thus, time--"Cleo dances every night!"--predominates over tropes of theatrical space as the organizing principle of Miller's burlesque. Miller's clown is an unemployed Fool, a street comedian, and speaks as such:

How a man can wander about all day on an empty belly, and even get an erection once in a while, is one of those mysteries which are too easily explained by the "anatomists of the soul." On a Sunday afternoon, when the shutters are down and the proletariat possesses the street in a kind of dumb torpor, there are certain thoroughfares which remind one of nothing less than a big chancrous cock laid open longitudinally.[21]

Turned out into the street, Miller's Fool no longer speaks as "one of those anatomists of the soul."[22] Mysteries are no longer to be explained hierarchically in terms of man's higher and lower nature, but "longitudinally" by analogy with the city streets. The shift from vertical to horizontal organization is Miller's polemical flattening of the heights and depths of Romantic and Modernist aesthetics.

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