Leopardi's and Beckett's dianoetic laugh: the intermediate space of desire in the Operette Morali and Krapp 's last tape.
Key words: Leopardi, Beckett, Desire, Dianoetic laugh, Krapp's Last Tape
The work of both Giacomo Leopardi and Samuel Beckett is concerned with what the Irish writer terms the "ablation of desire" (Proust and
Three Dialogues 18). The latter could be described as a moment of insight into, and experience of, disintegration of being, an instant Beckett equates to the "perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being" (Proust 19). Beckett's art appears to concern itself with ablating further this desire and thus creeping increasingly closer to the paradoxical ending of the consuming effect of desire.
It is in this same context in Proust (1931) that Leopardi's poem "A Se Stesso" is repeatedly quoted: "In noi di cari inganni| non che la speme, il desiderio e spento" (Proust 18). Before quoting this poeta, Beckett catalogues Leopardi as one of the sages who proposed the only impossible solution--the removal of desire--to living, a proposal Leopardi expresses in excerpts from the Zibaldone dipensieri: "non c'e maggior piacere (ne maggior felicita) nella vita che il non sentirla" 3895). (1) This apparently negative outlook in both authors has received considerable critical attention. (2)
It is intriguing to note, however, that B eckett's primary quotation from Leopardi's "A Se Stesso": "Non che la speme, il desiderio e spento" links the notion of "speme" or "speranza" (hope) to that of "desiderio" (desire), for the purpose of negating both. In Leopardi, however, the nexus between desire and hope is an intricate one, and the Italian poet ultimately admits the irreducibility of both. In Leopardi, hope cannot ever be completely emaciated to the extent that "anche una scintilla, una goccia di lei, non abbandona l'uomo, neppur accadutagli la disgrazia la piu diametralmente contraria ad essa speranza" (Zibaldone 285,1). This explains why "speranza" (hope) and "desiderio" (desire) are interlaced with the "indefinito" (indefinite): "Dalla mia teoria del piacere seguita che l'uomo, desiderando sempre un piacere infinito e che lo sodisfi intieramente, desideri sempre e speri una cosa ch'egli non puo concepire" Zibaldone 1017,1, my emphasis). (3) Leopardi's "teoria delpiacere" is mostly expostulated in the entries in the Zibaldone dated between the 12th and the 23rd of July 1820. In these indices, Leopardi defines pleasure as the cessation of pain and thus as characterized by nothingness and negativity. (4) The idea that pleasure is a distraction from the agonizing human condition ar the mercy of an insatiable desire is already found in many Enlightenment thinkers. (5) The theory of pleasure is oftentimes construed as being at the very kernel of Leopardian poetics.6
Indeed, it has to be underscored at the outset that despite Beckett's reading of Leopardi, where the former emphasizes the Italian poet's proposal to extinguish the flame of desire, Leopardi theorizes endlessly about the infinity of desire (Zibaldone 165-66). For Leopardi, infinite desire interlaces with an equally infinite and prospective hope, creating the contradiction between the impulse to fulfillment, unconditional happiness and the reality of what he terms "souffrance," a concept that approximates Beckett's "suffering of being." Furthermore, it is not to be overlooked that as a widely-read and well- informed reader of Leopardi, it is hard to believe that Beckett would not have been aware of the implications of the chosen quotation.
Thus Leopardi's advocating of the removal of desire is interwoven, particularly in his later work, with the idea that the attempted dissolution of desire often leads to boredom (noia). While Leopardi gives this word various definitions, noia also connotes desire in its purest state, desire of desiring in spite of the lack of an object of desire. One can sense here an echo of the same noia that in "Dialogo di Torquato Tasso e del suo genio familiare" was intended as "desiderio puro della felicita" ("pure desire of happiness," Operette morali 176).
In Pensieri, for instance, noia is not the suspension of desire (as it had been defined elsewhere), but the most extreme form of the sublime. At the root of noia are no longer the sterility and aridity of the passions but the profundity of feeling and magnanimity. Leopardi states: ... il non potere essere soddisfatto da alcuna cosa terrena, ne, per dir cosi, dalla terra intera; considerare l'ampiezza inestimabile dello spazio, il numero e la mole maravigliosa del mondi, e trovare che tutto e poco e piccino alla capacita dell'animo proprio; immaginarsi il numero del mondi infinito, e l'universo infinito, e sentire che l'animo e il desiderio nostro sarebbe ancora piu grande che si fatto universo; ... e pero noia, pare a me il maggior segno di grandezza e di nobilitY, che si vegga della natura umana. Percio la noia e poco nota agli uomini di nessun momento, e pochissimo o nulla agli altri animali. (Pensieri LXVIII)
Sublime noia implies going through that terrifying experience of the empty interstellar spaces, which finds expression early in Leopardi with "L'Infinito." The vastness of the "interminati spazi" (infinite spaces), which denote man's irrelevance, and its chill knowledge, are also ubiquitous in the "souffrance" and the "suffering of being." (7)
It is thus undeniable that while in both Leopardi's and Beckett's work the abrogation of desire and the resulting notion of nothingness play an important role, neither Leopardi nor Beckett are nihilists. I argue that it is through desire-as-paradox at the heart of their particularly dark humor that the well-spring of their so-called nihilism is found not to run deep enough. Keeping in mind Beckett's own warning against "the neatness of identifications" (Disjecta 19), the claim here is not that Leopardi and Beckett are non-nihilists or anti-nihilists. What is being proposed is that, despite the well-recognized spectre of nothingness that haunts each writer's oeuvre, Leopardi and Beckett both offer a knot of resistance, that "very little in fact, but not nothing" which Simon Critchley expounds (Very little ... Almost Nothing xxiv). It is through their shared dianoetic laugh, an expression of what I construe as a similarly conceived dark humor, that this resistance can be evinced.
Dianoetic laughter can constitute relief. Beckett defines the laughter that results from dianoia in his novel Watt where, according to Arsene, the object of this "mirthless laugh" is neither "that which is not good" nor "that which is not true" but "that which is unhappy" (Watt 47). The dianoetic laugh, in Arsene's words, is the "laugh of laughs, the risus purus," (47), which risibility resists earthly miseries. In Endgame this Beckettian principle of resistance is expressed in Nell's statement: 'Nothing is funnier than unhappiness' (CDW 101).
Jacobsen and Mueller state that the dianoetic laugh is directed primarily against the mysterious, malignant outer forces, although the immediate victim of that laugh is the human being who suffers (The Testament of Samuel Beckett 92). They also claim, however, that the dianoetic laugh is directed against "that which mocks suffering," that is those malevolent powers which delight in torturing poor mortals (The Testament of Samuel Beckett 174). The human victim is thereby erased. Yet surely the human sufferer has the right to wed affliction and wit and promote laughter at his own misfortunes. I argue that this is a right Leopardi and Beckett support through their portrayal of dianoetic laughter at the crux of which is desireas-paradox. It is thus in spite of the remarkable predilection for ataraxic bliss, (8) expressed in their work, that Leopardi's and Beckett's characters oftentimes wryly mock their distress, and it is through this mockery that they give expression to desire. It is my contention that Sigmund Freud's thinking about humor is particularly pertinent to the Leopardian and Beckettian contribution to theories of the comic, while the desire-as-paradox at the heart of this humor, particularly desire in Beckett, could be construed as Lacanian.
Desire in this context is Lacanian in the way (very reductively put) it condenses Freudian 'wish' and 'drive' while adding an elusive supplement. It makes explicit that which is already implied in the Freudian drive; that which is impossible to fulfil in its very naming. (9) Lacan states: "Freudianism hews a desire, the crux of which is essentially found in impossibilities" (Ecrits 722). Significantly, however, the drive, a motivation tracing the human need for satisfaction, becomes, in desire, a motivation tracing a human need for signification. Lacan writes:
... it was certainly the Word that was in the beginning, and we live in its creation, but it is our mental action that continues this creation by constantly renewing it. And we can only think back to this action by allowing ourselves to be driven ever further ahead by it. (Ecrits 225)
In Beckett, the role of an ambivalent desire as an infinite and paradoxical force that underlies but contemporaneously emerges during the humorous moment is analyzed through old man Krapp's laugh in Krapp's Last Tape (1958). Krapp is driven primarily by desire since, I argue, his motives lie in the language of the body expressed in a body of language that struggles with unconscious desires. On the one hand, desire regresses to assert that its source holds its very death. On the other hand, it lucidly and satirically moves forward, despite being fully aware that it is directed toward an absence, a something that language cannot attain and contain. This interminable desire is the driving force behind the conflicting and paradoxical forces in Krapp's humor. Furthermore, the emergence of desire-as-paradox expressive of the dianoia at the kernel of the reverberating laugh in this play, contributes to our witnessing a change in the type of theory of the comic deployed from beginning to end.
In Leopardi, the intertwining of humor and a not entirely discreditable desire is found in his Operette Morali (1835) and in the Zibaldone di pensieri (posthumously published in 1898). I focus on the role of the Leopardian dianoetic laugh, which, I argue, opens a paradoxical in-between space for the infinite movement of desire. I focus on excerpts in Leopardi's Zibaldone dipensieri and the moral tales "Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro" and "Detti Memorabili di Filippo Ottonieri."
While the notion of desire under scrutiny is mostly explored through Lacan's reading of Freud, the humor in question, as alluded above, goes back specifically to Freud. Not surprisingly, this is the same notion Simon Critchley exhumes in On Humor in his defense of Beckett, whose resistance to nothingness is construed as taking the form of the comic. What Freud has to say about humor, and particularly the drives at its core, deserves specific attention in relation to Leopardi's and Beckett's dianoetic laugh. (10)
In Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud distinguishes between the comic and humor, describing the latter as "a means of obtaining pleasure in spite of the distressing affects that interfere with it; act[ing] as a substitute for the generation of these affects, put[ting] itself in their place." The conditions of humor are given when "we should be tempted to release a distressing affect and if motives then operate upon us which suppress that affect in statu nascendi." (Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious 228). Freud goes on to pay homage to disaster humor and its variant, gallows humor--where the threat of death and facts of human catastrophe are transformed into the material for jokes.
Freud would revise this conception of humor in his 1927 paper "Der Humor," translated as "Humor," in order to reflect his later theory of ego, super-ego and id. In the later work he concludes that humor is the contribution made to the comic by the inflated position of the super-ego, who reassuringly laughs at the ego. According to the latter conception, unlike the humor of jokes, one laughs at oneself and acknowledges this in a dignified humorous attitude that has "something liberating about it" ("Humor" 428). But the most interesting observation that Freud makes in the 1927 essay is that, "the putting through of the pleasure principle bring [s] humor near to the regressive or reactionary processes" ("Humor" 429).
The pleasure principle emerges from the reactionary mechanism of "a return to the peace of the inorganic world," (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 166) but also, as Freud specifies, "the pleasure-principle however remains for a long time the method of operation of the sex impulses" (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 143). One cannot thus overlook that the pleasure principle in Freud operates at the heart of the dualistic theory of death and life forces (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 167). Gavriel Reisner underlines that death and life are both goals of desire (The Death Ego and the Vital Self 14). Reisner explains that while, on the one hand, there is what he terms, "an opposition to desire within the ego ... this anti-desire," on the other hand there is also "a force of desire which supersedes the ego" (14). This thought adds an interesting twist to the matter. As much as the regressive, reactionary forces of that "opposition to desire within the ego" are crucial to this humor, one cannot ignore that struggling against this force is the "desire which supersedes the ego." Humor thus lies not only near to the regressive process, or, as Freud defines it in the same essay, the ego which refuses to be wiped out by the surrounding engulfing distress, but it also has to struggle against an opposite force of desire, "the keenest threat to the sovereignty of the ego" (Death Ego 34).
Freud thus affirms that humor conceals repressed desire ("Humor" 429), without, however, also highlighting its opposing force. Humor indeed strives to allow that same "desire which supersedes the ego" (Death Ego 34), to break through the pressure weighing down on it. The way repressed desire erupts in humor is through language; a language mostly made up of witticisms, jokes and puns. It is a language characterized by lack, by the inability to grasp the underlying unconscious desires. It is a language that can only signify a coming to terms with a loss, ultimately the lack-of-being, or the desire that is "desire for desire, the Other's desire," that defines the Lacanian split subject (Ecrits 723).
If, at this point, we bring in as supplement to Freud the Lacanian registers of human experience, the Symbolic, Imaginary and Real orders of being, some crucial distinctions can be made between the energies, actions and expressions of the dual movement of desire at the core of this humor. The transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic Order entails a loss: a loss of "the Other's desire since it is originally desire for what the Other desires" (Ecrits 662). And if an intrinsic link can be traced between the Imaginary and the death drive, on the one hand, and the Symbolic and the life drive, on the other, then the Imaginary involves a yielding, while the Symbolic entails play. The latter is, however, a play of signifiers which, as in the fort/da game described in Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, is a presence playing on an absence. To regress to the Imaginary is to turn away from desire, to lose and undo desire, Reisner's "anti-desire" (Death Ego 21). This is the desire to cease desiring, the "ablation of desire" that I initially referred to. The Symbolic, on the other hand, progresses by the finding of desire, but significantly this desire "comes from the Other" (Ecrits 724).
The humor under discussion, construed by deploying Lacanian tools, results in a struggle between Imaginary desire, which forcefully attempts to still the current and stop it mid-stream, and Symbolic desire which fights back satirically. Freud's insistence that "humor is not resigned; it is rebellious" ("Humor" 429), and is inextricably linked to something unsettling, grimacing and yet potentially elevating, acquires new meaning when perceived in this light ("Humor" 428).
Freud's second revised version of humor, analyzed in its intriguing aspects from a Lacanian perspective, comes conceptually close to the humor expressed by Leopardi's and Beckett's dianoetic laugh. This guffaw at once witnesses the human frailty in all its repressed misery and fights it by laughingly giving expression to such agony, accepting the finitude of physis--ephemeral physicality.
This humor echoes the one deployed by pre-Socratic philosophers to which Leopardi referred as "veramente sostanzioso, esprimeva sempre e metteva sotto gli occhi, per dir cosi, un corpo di ridicolo." (11) Beckett would specifically refer to the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus of Abdera as early as his first published novel Murphy (1938), where "in the guffaw of the Abderite naught is more real" (Murphy 246).
This dark humor, stemming from Democritus and the pre-Socratic philosophers, woven through the centuries, owes its intricacies to numerous contributions. It is not surprising that Leopardi should contribute to this dark humor in order to attempt to alleviate the "suffering of being," a concept that, as stated above, the Italian poet-philosopher comes close to expressing through his notion of "souffrance."
In the Zibaldone and in Pensieri, Leopardi defines laughter as a means of success and integration in the mundane: a superiority that, however, masks only weakness. Leopardi proposes to suspend desire by slicing open laughter, which conceals the malicious nature of the human being's desires from itself:
D'infinite cose che nella vita comune, o negli uomini particulari, sono ridicole veramente, e rarissimo che si rida; e se pure alcuno vi si prova, non gli venendo fatto di comunicare il suo riso agli altri, presto se ne rimane. All'incontro, di mille cose o gravissime o convenientissime, tutto giorno si ride, e con facilita grande se ne muovono le risa negli altri. Anzi le pig delle cose delle quali si ride ordinariamente, sono tutt' altro che ridicole in effetto; e di moltissime si ride per questa cagione stessa, che elle non sono degne di riso o in parte alcuna o tanto che basti. ("Detti Memorabili di Filippo Ottonieri" in Operette Morali 322). (12)
The humor-smokescreen in Leopardi is doubly oxymoronic. Desire is directly linked to amor proprio (self- love) and the impossible search for happiness. The latter implies that to cut through humor and reveal the consuming effect of desire, man needs to be distanced from his search for happiness and readily admit the insignificance of physis--ephemeral physicality. This task, as Farfarello tells Malambruno in "Dialogo di Malambruno e di Farfarello," is well-nigh impossible:
FARFARELLO: Dunque, amandoti necessariamente del maggiore amore che tu sei capace, necessariamente desideri il piu che puoi la felicita propria; e non potendo mai di gran lunga essere soddisfatto di questo tuo desiderio, che e" sommo, resta che tu non possi fuggire per nessun verso di non essere infelice. ("Dialogo di Farfarello e di Malambruno," in Operette Morali 100-01).
Perceived from the latter angle, Leopardi's is more of a Hobbesian laugh, a strained, joyless grimace or rather "that passion that hath no name". (13) The clear Hobbesian echoes in Leopardi have deep roots because, in arguing about how pleasure induces one to draw near to the thing that provoked the feeling, while pain induces one to "retire from the thing that displeaseth" (Human Nature 43), Hobbes outlined an early utilitarian, materialist psychology similar to the one which Leopardi would later expound in the (above) mentioned "teoria delpiacere." Pleasure, which ultimately masks pungent pain, is evoked by that which is specifically finite: "Tutto cio che e finito ... desta sempre naturalmente nell'uomo un sentimento di dolore ... Nel tempo stesso eccita un sentimento piacevole ... e cio a causa dell'infinita dell'idea che si contiene in queste parole finito, ultimo" (Zibaldone 2251,1).
According to the "teoria del piacere," pleasure and pain stem from need, from the desire for self-preservation: "E questo amore del piacere e' una conseguenza spontanea dell'amor di see della propria conservazione" (Zibaldone 196). Desire in Leopardi is founded on this same amor proprio, a desire for pleasure that can never be completely satisfied and thus a desire based on lack. Amor proprio is also at the heart of Leopardi's longing to reach the ablation of desire, which is not in contradiction with desire as a quest for the above-mentioned Freudian death drive. Antonio Prete reads the Leopardian desire as a return adumbrated in the Eros-Thanatos dilemma of the Freudian death drive (Pensiero Poetante 17).
Amor proprio, however, constitutes "souffrance," which is the case with every living, striving organism. This is expressed in the famously terrifying inscription above Leopardi's garden of unhappiness:
Entrate in un giardino di piante, d'erbe, di fiori. Sia pur quanto volete ridente. Sia nella piu mite stagione dell'anno. Voi non potete volger lo sguardo in nessuna parte che voi non vi troviate del patimento. Tutta quella famiglia di vegetali e' in stato di "souffrance," qual individuo piu, qual meno. (Zibaldone 4175-78)
The removal of desire, proposed at a later stage, is explicitly announced in Leopardi's poem "A Se Stesso" (quoted subsequently by Beckett), which knows its roots and motivations in this inscription. Only distraction through a multitude of chores can drive a wedge between man's desire of amor proprio and the inevitable "souffrance" to which it leads. Rather than the humor smokescreen, however, the attenuation of this pain is possible, I argue, through the Leopardian dianoetic laugh that, while laughing at human suffering, concomitantly resorts to the stormy depths of the imagination. (14) In Leopardi the world is ultimately a fable that nourishes illusions. On the 1Th of December 1823 Leopardian illusions are still crucial; he writes: "Tutto e follia in questo mondo fuorche il folleggiare. Tutto e degno di riso fuorche il ridersi di tutto. Tutto e vanita fuorche le belle illusioni e le dilettevoli frivolezze." (15)
It is in this paradoxical but highly creative zone, where the body laughs at the engulfing misery of its ephemeral physicality, displacing the latter to the drive exerted by the imagination, that the Leopardian humor mentioned by Pirandello in L 'Umorismo (42) comes to life. (16) Through this very humor the nihilistic notion regarding man's doom is fought. Indeed, for Leopardi, humor acts like a double-edged sword. While it offers strong resistance to the ubiquitous earthly delusions and to the consuming effect of desire, acting as a buffer between man and his passions, it is also the only conceivable way to respond to the trials and tribulations of life, paradoxically allowing expression to the desiring self through the imagination. As Freud would put it, almost a hundred years later, using his topographical model of ego, superego and id, "in bringing about the humorous attitude, the super-ego is actually repudiating reality and serving an illusion." ("Humor" 432). Indeed Leopardi's humor is worked through a tongue-in-cheek kind of writing whereby the laughter of his so-called cosmi-comic writing faces the stark confrontation between its fable-like quality and the finitude of the physical world.
Counterpoising the Hobbesian echoes of superiority theory in his excerpts about humor, in May 1825 Leopardi gives expression to his dianoetic laugh: "quanto piu l'uomo cresce ... e crescendo si fa piu incapace di felicita, tanto egli si fa proclive e domestico al riso, e piu straniero al pianto" (-Zibaldone 4138). This is a dignified ageing laugh that is echoed in Eleandro's, "la disperazione [che] ha sempre nella bocca un sorriso" ("Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro" 404-406). It is a dignified humor that acknowledges and bravely takes stock of human weaknesses, not precluding the infinite human predisposition to desire in vain. In Freud's words it is "humor ... [as] the contribution made to the comic through the agency of the super-ego" ("Humor" 432). Leopardi's humorous attitude towards oneself prefigures Freud's humor that turns the oedipalist concept on its head, where, as Freud points out, the superego treats the ego as one treats oneself as a child from an adult perspective, recognizing and laughing at one's insignificance. This humor is superior to the laughter of superiority, which, on its own, is simply the expression of repressed desire and unconscious aggression ("Humor" 429).
The Leopardian ageing laugh is imbued with dignity and value in the way the laughter of superiority is not, because through it one can, at least partially, find solace. In the classical quaestio--whether it would be better to laugh or cry when confronted with the misfortunes and unhappiness of the world--for Eleandro, the obvious choice is the Democritian laughter, central to Leopardi as also to Beckett, a guffaw that laughs madly at the ills of the physical world:
Ridendo dei nostri mali, trovo qualche conforto; e procuro di recarne altrui nello stesso modo. Se questo non mi vien fatto, tengo pure per fermo che il ridere dei nostri mali sia l'unico profitto che se ne possa cavare, e l'unico rimedio che vi si trovi. ("Dialogo Di Timandro e di Eleandro," Operette Morali 406-7)
Laughing at our ills, or in Winnie of Happy Days' words, "laughing wild amid severest woe" (Collected Dramatic Works 150), (17) is also Beckett's attempt to offer resistance against earthly insignificance. This is particularly the case in the grotesque comedy deployed in Beckett's drama. Krapp's Last Tape offers what could be construed as a craftily-nuanced portrayal of that same "force of desire which supersedes the ego" that intriguingly attempts to surface in the grim humor of "wearish old man" Krapp (CDW 215). This humor is inextricably interlaced with the ubiquitously repressed desire of not simply the old man, but also his younger self/ves on tape. Through his dark humor, Old Krapp both retreats from the fast encroaching darkness (literal and metaphorical) which, following his listening, almost threatens to engulf him, but he also attempts to brace for the final "on" of his last tape. At the experiential kernel of Old Krapp's humor, as is the case in Leopardi's humor, it is desire-as- paradox that has taken root. It is repressed desire as well as the necessary continuation of desire, the infinite desire that will maintain its quest. In Beckett's play this desire could be construed as corresponding to Lacan's notion of the desire for the Other, which finds its locus in language. Lacan writes:
Desire is that which is manifested in the interval that demand hollows within itself, in as much as the subject, in articulating the signifying chain, brings to light the want-to-be, together with the appeal to receive the complement from the Other, if the Other, the locus of speech, is also the locus of this want, or lack. (Ecrits 263)
The voice on tape can be conceived of as such a complement from the Other in relation to old Krapp. The intricate relationship that slowly unfolds between old Krapp and the voice towards which he directs his longing to "be again" can be appropriated to Lacan's understanding of desire as lack-of-being. The concept of paradoxical and infinite desire is thus illuminated, as old Krapp laughingly attempts to silence the desires of the past but is increasingly traversed by the desire of the voice, of the Other.
When Krapp is first listening to the tape, still "adjacent to strong white light" (CD W215), he repeats the action that Krapp-at-thirty-nine describes: "I close my eyes and try to imagine them" (CDW218). His attempt to assume the identity of his former self paradoxically both fails and succeeds because the same lack-of-being inhabits both the past Krapp and the present older counterpart. This is clear when old Krapp initially laughs, twice joining in the brief laugh of Krapp- at-thirty-nine, who is being dismissive of his younger self full of "aspirations" and"resolutions". The voice prefigures the later Krapp when it says "Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp" (later echoed by "hard to believe I was ever as bad as that"), but it is also the expression of a repressed desire to once more be that young "whelp" (CDW 218). This is the same desire that regresses to the Imaginary where its course is resisted, being trapped as a subject of repressed desire. At this initial stage, this is the laugh that laughs at another.
The attempt to assume his former identity fails and succeeds with pronounced emphasis in the laughter that follows in that, significantly, the third time old Krapp is left to laugh all "alone" (CD W 218). It is old Krapp who now laughs at his old self, recognizing the impossibility of self-reconciliation. His old self laughs heartily at the wish expressed by his younger self to drink less, a laugh that becomes all the more resonant as we hear Krapp the elder's cork-popping in the dark. Old Krapp's laughing "alone" echoes with accentuated emphasis the dark, sardonic, wicked, but lucid laugh, the weaker Freudian laughter that arises out of a palpable sense of inability and failure. Old Krapp's desire has now been displaced to a dissembled language that is as tattered as his old self, and the lucid recognition that follows this laughing "alone" accompanies old Krapp till the last line of the play. Indeed the laughable aspect of "rusty" old Krapp has changed from beginning to end, spanning, as Ronan McDonald says: "[a] rich and multiple irony, in which the middle-aged man derides his youthful ambitions and then, years later, derides the derider. The sheer disappointment of advancing age has rarely been dramatized with an economy that so satisfyingly combines poignancy and humor" (The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett 60).
It is also a humor, as referred to above, which changes from beginning to end. Old Krapp initially manifests all those gestures and movements that give off the whiff of comicality and remind us of Henri Bergson's "something mechanical encrusted on the living." ("Laughter" 84). It is the kind of comic that comes complete with stock farcical numbers, such as the pratfalls, the fumbling with objects in and out of pockets, the sudden pulling out of bananas and the tossing of objects (banana skin in this case) into the pit, reminding us of the rupture of the fourth wall theatrical convention usually deployed for comic effect. Krapp's "wearish" self also jars with his strikingly comic attire: the too-short trousers, the clownish capacious pockets, the boots that are more than a size too big and the buffoon-like "purple nose" (CDW215).
Nonetheless, throughout the play, the two core concepts in Bergson's discussion of laughter, rigidity and repetition, slowly but steadily start to change form. As the play progresses, the clumsiness of the buffoon-like creature is of a less automaton-type, increasingly shorn of its funny side, beginning to verge on a palpable human ineptitude. This unfolds through the increasingly brisk switching on and off of the tape recorder, the more impatient winding backwards and forwards, the longer and more frequent tense brooding. In this bewildering display of euphoria and wretchedness, one starts to recognize the farcical reversals and cracked grandeur not of an ordinary clown, but a very tragic one. (18) What is slowly unveiled through these increasingly agitated gestures, which reach their apex with the violent "wrench[ing] off [of] tape" (CDW, 223), is the sense of lack-of-being, the desire for the Other inhering in the old man. This alienation from his former self is reflected in an alienation from his old language on tape and the frustrated desire for the Other is displaced onto fragmented utterances oddly strung together: "Maybe he was right. [Broods. Realizes. Switches off Consults envelope.] Pah! [Crumples it and Throws it away. Broods. Switches on.] Nothing to say. Not a squeak" (CDW, 222). Krapp's linguistic competence increasingly reveals absence within its structure: a stark, fragmentary language that reflects his enfeebled condition: "What's a year now? The sour cud and the iron stool" (CDW 222). This is a far cry from the energetic and smug voice that declared: "Thirty-nine today, sound as a bell, apart from my old weakness, and intellectually I have now every reason to suspect at the ... (hesitates) ... crest of a wave-or thereabouts" (CDW 217). There is none of the arcane vocabulary of his younger self and, as happens with "viduity," a term old Krapp is now obliged to look up, Krapp's desire has been displaced onto a language that revolves endlessly around absence, particularly around the metonymic displacement to the "fare well to love" entry on one of the spools. The latter is an episode whose impact and temptation Krapp is unable to overcome, as he is, however, equally unable to undo his former aspiration to that farewell.
Indeed, the risibility of the "wearish old man," which appears from the beginning as tinged with melancholy in its interweaving of pathos and buffoonery, crystallizes by the end of the play into a language that is a direct manifestation of an infinite cycle of desire and finally a silent acknowledgment of an absolute impotence against it. The final stage direction informs us that Krapp remains motionless, immobilized by the "strong white light," but his mind is as intensely focused as the darkness offstage, where the evocation of the Caravaggesque chiaroscuro highlights the disturbingly imbued scuro of his mind bursting at the seams. (19) Krapp is besieged by relentlessly un-giggling voices, and he is haunted by laughter-less metaphysical dungeons. This final image cannot alienate us, for it is all too recognizably human.
The persona of Krapp has passed from an evocation of Bergson's "mechanical arrangement ... at the back of the series of effects and causes" ("Laughter" 116), creating a situation that belongs to the human attempting to be non-human, to an osmotic movement, whereby that initial puppet-like creature slowly recovers his crude humanity by giving vent to his frustrated desire through his cut up language. The latter clearly reflects his inability to reconcile with his former speech and self. This language increasingly works absence within its structure, until, by the end, the intense lucid stare takes over. And, while the first thesis has to be granted to Bergson, its opposite, that is the comicality of the thing-become-human, is the position argued for by Wyndham Lewis who, in "The Meaning of the Wild Body" (1927), proposes:
The root of the Comic is to be sought in the sensations resulting from the observations of a thing behaving like a person. But from that point of view all men are necessarily comic: for they are all things, or physical bodies, behaving as persons. It is only when you come to deny that they are 'persons', or that there is any 'mind' or 'person' there at all, that the world of appearance is accepted as quite natural and not at all ridiculous. (The Complete Wild Body 158-9)
Lewis thus stretches the argument about the funny aspect of thing-become-person to arrive at his root of the comic--a person acting like a person: a humor that entails detaching oneself from one's body. Leopardi's outer ageing laugh detached from an inner suffering, as well as the same splitting in the self that Freud construes during the humorous moment, spring to mind. This is the same splitting that paves the way for the Lacanian split subject, where desire, realized at the level of language, points to the impossibility of attaining a unified perception of the self. It is in this gap within the self that Krapp's humor takes root. It is a humor that starts by laughing at a human being behaving like a thing, and at a voice to which he feels superior. By the end, however, what is sadly humorous is that same disjunction that torments the old self whose infinitely cyclical desire is elusive.
The dark laughable aspect in a person behaving like a person, in Krapp resigning to carry on with his old self, is in the wintry consolation of Krapp pulling himself up short in front of himself. Old Krapp's humor is a celebration of the dianoetic laugh. It is a "certain fragile affirmation" (Cambridge Companion 65), which echoes the Leopardian guffaw laughing in the face of the recognition of human insignificance. It is the lack of "desire to express, together with the obligation to express" (Three Dialogues 103) that compels one to soldier on.
Leopardi's and Beckett's laugh thus has a more pronounced positive side,pars construens, than a negative side,pars destruens. The Leopardian and Beckettian dianoetic laugh is ultimately a cognitive laugh in its wise acceptance of the finite. It is constructive in its knowledge that that final "incomparable" (almost deafening) silence has, in the end, to be faced.
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(1) The Zibaldone di pensieri was posthumously collected, in the Donzelli edition of this work, in six volumes with six different sub-titles. The collection of specific indices under equally specific titles had been proposed, but never actually published, by Leopardi himself. Manuale di Filosofia Pratica is the volume (the second in the collection) where most indices related to the removal of desire are to be found.
(2) Giuseppina Restivo is perhaps the critic who has most extensively dealt with arguments related to Leopardi-Beckett studies. See, for instance, "Caliban\Clov and Leopardi's Boy: Beckett and Postmodernism" in Beckett and Beyond. Ed. Bruce Stewart. Buckinghamshire: Colin Smyth, 1999, pp. 217-30.
(3) The reference to "speranza" in the excerpts posthumously collected as Trattato delle passioni in the Donzelli edition of the Zibaldone di pensieri is linked to the desire for happiness and to compassion.
(4) Leopardi builds on ideas exposed by the eighteenth-century French and Italian "ideologues" starting with Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertius.
(5) In particular, reference could be made to PietroVerri and his seminal essay "Idee sull'indole del piacere." Verri had also linked pleasure to hope and thus to a ful fillment that always pertains to the future. Leopardi's "teoria del piacere" however, also differs substantially from the one of Enlightenment thinkers.
(6) One case in point is Lucio Derla's "La teoria del piacere nella formazione del pensiero di Leopardi" in Rivista critica di storia della filosofia, 148-69.
(7) These infinite spaces later become a bitter image in "A Se Stesso," the same poem Beckett chooses to quote three times in Proust, where infinity becomes "l'infinita vanita del tutto" ("the infinite vanity of everything" Canti 136, my translation).
(8) Ataraxia is a term used to imply a lucid state, characterized by freedom from cognition of outer reality, a similar state to the above-mentioned "suffering of being". The initial solution to Leopardi's modern subject, (and this again comes close to what is proposed for the Beckettian subject in Proust), is atarassia (conceived according to the Stoic rules that pave the way for the attainment of happiness). This is the same atarassia Leopardi would desperately seek in Manuale di Epitteto, which he translated in 1825. Clearly, atarassia is only partially crucial to Leopardi. One year and a half later the Recanati poet would already admit that Stoicism could be tedious and rather than restoring peace to the soul, it could bring about exasperation: "Sono stanco della vita, stanco della indifferenza filosofica [indifferenzafilosofica to him means Stoicism], ch'e il solo rimedio de' mali e della noia, ma che in fine annoia essa medesima." Letter to Francesco Puccinotti, August 16, 1827, in Epistolario, eds. Franco Brioschi and Patrizia Landi, p. 1366. Indeed, Leopardi strived to achieve atarassia but was never successful at achieving it. The best example can be found in the concluding lines of Aspasia, where atarassia is the result of a defeat and not the state of a victorious struggle.
(9) Lacan's elusive descriptions foreground the transformations of desire as an elusive power: "it is precisely because desire is articulated that it is not articulable." Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006, p. 681. Henceforth Ecrits.
(10) Morton Gurewitch had already suggested that Freud's thinking about humor yields valuable dividends with regard to Beckett's humor. The Chicago Review 33, no.2 (1982): 95.
(11) Quoted in Luigi Pirandello. L'Umorismo. Milan: Amoldo Mondadori, 1986, p. 42.
(12) For passages dealing with the same argument see Zibaldone 1774 (23 rd September 1821); Zibaldone, 3000 (11th July 1823); Pensieri CVI.
(13) In Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Vol.l-2. New York: Bobbs -Merrill, 1964, p.61.
(14) While the drive to pleasure and pain is focused on material desire, that same pleasure and pain can be subsumed in memory from which imagination finally springs. Imagination, possessing sensations in act and remembrance, can create the new.
(15) In "Storia Del Genere Umano" Leopardi explores the importance of dreams and illusions (Operette Morali 28-9).
(16) In L 'Umorismo, Pirandello specifically cites Leopardi as a good example of 'umorismo' as opposed to 'comicita', (which recalls, as explained above, the same Freudian distinction between humor and the comic). On listing Italian literati who are truly capable of umorismo, Pirandello states: "penso a quei certi dialoghi e a quelle certe prosette del Leopardi" (L 'Umorismo 127).
(17) Winnie is here echoing Thomas Gray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.
(18) Ruby Cohn has dealt at length with Beckettian humor. In Back to Beckett Cohn, arguing against Hugh Kenner, who had emphasized Beckett's affinity with tragic yet indomitable clowns, declares that "the clown mask is shattered by anguish" (Back to Beckett 4). In Just Play: Beckett's Theatre, Cohn states that Beckett's humor "has grown grimmer" and that, though his "wide appeal ... rests uneasily upon his humor," his vision is "tragic ... in its frustration at absurdity" (11). In The Comic Gamut Cohn expounds a tragicomic cosmic irony ("ironic cosmological comedy") as the key to Beckett's major works. Though Cohn acknowledges that Beckett is a master of Chaplinesque clowning, "cosmic irony" (which usually conveys a sense of injustice, victimization and acrid pathos) remains the most important category. For Cohn, Beckett's laughter is non-cathartic since it is "a mask for, not a release from, despair" (The Comic Gamut 287). This description resembles Baudelaire's portrait of Melmoth the Wanderer's demonic laughter.
(19) The light-dark opposition has been regarded as emblematic of a fundamental dualism in the play. See James Knowlson. Light and Darkness in the Theatre of Samuel Beckett. London: Turret Books, 1972 and James Knowlson, ed. The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, vol. III: Krapp's Last Tape. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
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|Title Annotation:||Giacomo Leopardi and Samuel Beckett|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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