Michael Kinnucan

On the Jerk


ISSUE 28 | TRAUMA AND LAUGHTER | MAY 2013

The Shame of the Jerk

Since my life has been without suffering worthy of the name, my only reference point for the concept of the psychological concept of the “flashbacks” which I’ve heard victims of trauma experience is the way I remember moments of intense humiliation. Such moments will sometimes leap out at me years later with extraordinary vividness, the shame as intense now as it was then. My clearest memories of childhood are of this sort. For example I can remember where I sat in my fourth-grade classroom, what color the walls were, what you could see out the window, only because one spring day in fourth grade, my best friend at the time, a girl named April, asked the teacher apropos of some science lesson how old she would be in light years. Scarcely had the words left her mouth when my hand shot up and I announced to the class at large that “you can’t have an age in light years because light years measure distance not time.” (I mean duh, April! Get with it!) At which point my teacher, who had perhaps spent four or five too many years among fourth-graders, repeated my words in a mocking nasal imitation of my voice: “Light years measure distance not time.” The whole class (except for April, who was a loyal friend) burst into hysterical laughter and I looked around for a hole I could die in.

When I have told this story to friends (a natural inclination not to tell it losing out to a perverse compulsion to tell it), they laugh at fourth-grade me’s humiliation but are kind enough to point out that my teacher was an unbelievable asshole. Fair enough. But that’s not a moral I was competent to extract at the time, and it’s not why this memory still makes me breathless with shame whenever it occurs to me. What I realized then, and still feel now, is: what a little turd! Basically I had decided that the whole class might benefit from an object lesson in how extremely clever I was, and I delivered it by humiliating someone (my good friend no less) for asking an innocent question. And I got what I richly deserved, a quick and dirty example of the iron law of egos: the bigger they are the louder they pop when needled, and the more satisfying the sound. My need for attention and my nasty way of getting it were shameful, and my teacher’s response was as if to say: “You like to hear the sound of your own voice, do you? So here’s what you sound like! You wanted to be looked at—well, everyone’s looking at you now!”

Childhood is of course one long humiliation, which is why we work so hard to forget it (or idealize it, which comes to the same thing). Why has this particular humiliation stuck with me so intensely, while others are mercifully forgotten without trace? I worry that the reason will be all too obvious to those who know me well: it’s my characteristic trauma. Put it this way: an egotist wants to do or be something that’s impressive enough to be looked at and liked and admired, and that’s all well and good when he manages to do or be that thing. But when he fails, he’s condemned not to obscurity but to a far worse fate: he becomes the naked spectacle of a pathetic, unjustified desire to be seen. A failed attempt at dignity (beauty, intelligence) is intrinsically hilarious, one of the great sources of the comic; but that doesn’t really help the person being laughed at.

We’re all egotists, a bit (aren’t we, guys? Aren’t we?!), so we’re all faced with this risk: you have to try to be liked, but if you fail you’ll be laughed at and despised precisely for trying, for wanting. Writing is a clever compromise with the risks of visibility (I’ll be two states away by the time you read this; when you’re looking at me I’m already not there), but when I was a kid I hadn’t figured out any of the angles, and the threat of humiliation was a huge part of my inner life. For example I could hardly bear to watch a play: I spent the whole performance on the edge of my seat, terrified that at some key moment an actor might forget her lines and be left speechless in the spotlight. To this day I have trouble watching live standup, because I can’t bear the presence of someone who just isn’t funny but desperately wants me to laugh. The sort of tact which moves the conversation away from someone’s embarrassment impresses me as a very high form of charity.

Freud argues in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that flashbacks are produced by an event too shocking to be properly “felt” at the time; they “endeavor to master the stimulus retroactively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis.” When the event burst through the door, the victim had already jumped out the window; a confrontation that should have occurred never did, and the flashback is the attempt to arrange the meeting retroactively.

Granted, Freud was thinking of people who had manned the trenches in World War I, not people whose teacher made fun of them that one time, but perhaps you’ll forgive me for attempting to apply his analysis to my own petty troubles. After all, the two phenomena raise the same basic question: why is the thing you’d most like to forget the most unforgettable? What could induce a mind generally governed by the pleasure principle to return again and again to the site of its misery?

Freud proposes a very strange answer: the flashback is an attempt to gain control of the event, but this control requires us to experience the anxiety we “omitted” the first time around. Two objections arise immediately. First, the traumatic event does produce anxiety when it occurs—what, then, is “omitted”? Second, the flashback produces anxiety every time it recurs—so why (why oh why) must it continue to be repeated? These are really the same question, a question both quantitative (how much anxiety is “enough”?) and conceptual (how the hell is “developing anxiety” going to help me “master” anything?).

Anxiety is about the nothing—in the trench case, the nothing of death, in my own small case the nothing of the ego, of the “self.” About the nothing there’s nothing to be learned, no one is master of the nothing, and no matter how many times we return to the scene of trauma we’ll always find nothing there. Thankfully, nothing needn’t be lived as the traumatic flashback; it can also take the form of a joke.

Louis CK and Jerking Off

The comedian Louis CK has a bit about how fathers are supposed to be horrified at the idea of their daughter becoming a stripper. Louis himself isn’t worried about that—after all, strippers show off something lots of normal people want to see (a beautiful young woman’s body), and they’re well compensated for the service. It’s all very natural. Whereas Louis himself, I mean he’s a fat old man who gets up on stage and talks about what his dick looks like. No one wants to see that! It’s bizarre, it’s sick. A stripper in the family would be a substantial improvement.

Who’s the joke on, here? It seems like Louis is making fun of himself—he has made a living humiliating himself so people will laugh at him, he talks about what a crappy father, what a dirty old man, what a pathetic sad sack he is, instead of trying to maintain the shred of dignity with which the old ought to veil their collapsing bodies. But obviously at a deeper level he’s making fun of his audience: what kind of pervert shows up to watch this thing? Get out of here, you sickos! Go and ogle some pretty girl—that’s pathetic but Jesus at least it’s comprehensible. What kind of person gets off on watching some fat old man make fun of himself? Even the old man knows you’re sick, and when he tells you so you chuckle like imbeciles—who’s humiliated now?

A simple but highly serviceable model of comedy holds that what’s essentially funny is someone else’s humiliation. As Hobbes has it: “Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” This statement is usually laughed off as further evidence for what the weak-stomached take to be Hobbes’s misanthropy, but in many circumstances the observation remains quite apt. Small children think it’s hilarious when Bugs Bunny conks someone on the head, and in quite recent times they’d have been allowed to amuse themselves by, say, throwing rocks at a blind man or tying cans to a cat’s tail. Kings’ courts had fools to be mocked and kicked around.

But the progress of civilization has perverted this admirably simple impulse just as it has so many others: the pleasure of seeing another creature humiliated has largely been restricted to those pockets of savagery we allow to persist in the midst of society (BumFights, middle school), while in normal adults the instinct for the comic has undergone certain vicissitudes or derivations. Whether our consciences have become too refined or our sensibilities too etiolated, we can no longer laugh heartily at the simple sight of a dwarf dressed as a king the way our forebears could; we require something a bit more spicy. We want to be humiliated, we want to be mocked. It hurts so much we laugh so much it hurts.

Witness the development of the modern sitcom, starting in the late eighties with Married with Children and Seinfeld, running through Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development to Louie and Girls: the progression is toward humiliations so vivid and identifiable they “hurt to watch,” and for this very reason we can’t look away. For goodness’ sake, some episodes of Louie aren’t even “funny” anymore—the show remains recognizable as a sitcom only because scenes of intense, visceral shame and discomfort have become conventions of the genre. The sitcom is steadily advancing toward the point at which it will be unbearable to watch.

The relationship between the comedian and his audience is a sort of sadomasochistic contract: we pay to be humiliated, to be forced to laugh at ourselves. Mediocre comics will single out a member of the audience and go after him for laughs (I’m looking at you, Daniel Tosh); a better comic knows that he’s humiliating the audience every time they laugh. “Yeah, this guy knows what I’m talking about”—laughter is an admission of guilt here. And of complicity. The open secret of the sadomasochistic contract is that the masochist consents, the bottom gets off too—which makes the situation more, not less humiliating. And funnier, in turn.

We consider the masochistic comedy of humiliation less morally suspect than its sadistic cousin, but I wonder whether we should. Is it really “okay” to share a good laugh at our constant failure to be decent, dignified human beings? Is it “okay” to chuckle in acknowledgment that you’re just like the characters on Seinfeld, instead of reacting with nausea to the very thought and condemning those parts of yourself? In some cases I think the answer is no. Ever since the civilizational advance pejoratively named “PC” attained its fraught hegemony, there have been standup comics making their living on jokes about how now it’s not “okay” to think black people are all criminals because, you know, whatever, but well we all secretly do so heh heh. And like ha ha no fuck you. Be better or be ashamed not to be better, but don’t laugh it off. Likewise, as a friend of mine once observed, it’s a good thing the Daily Show is only half an hour long: after an hour of comedy where the “joke” is again and again the unmitigated failure of our democracy and the vapid, sordid bad faith of those who govern us, half the studio audience would be openly sobbing and there’d be barricades in the streets. Comedy can function as a safety valve and a cynicizing machine, teaching us to live with the emptiness of the ideals we pretend to affirm. A defense of comedy as destructive of hypocrisy runs smack into the objection that hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue; hypocrisy helps us hold our ideals above the sea level of human meanness toward into which they tend to sink.

But of course not every pretension is an ideal; most are just ego, inflated with great effort, pump by pump, and always just about ready to pop. It’s tiring to maintain a self-image, a lifelong and rather pointless vigil, and those who spend too much time on it tend to lose their sense of humor. Which is why the sudden conception of the emptiness of one’s own ego is often such a relief. It’s liberating, the way burning a twenty can be. (Freud gives a much more modern definition of laughter than Hobbes: laughter is the sudden lifting of a long repression.) A good comedian’s jokes often come down to the observation that vanity (our carefully constructed self-regard) is vanity (in the sense of Ecclesiastes, as empty as the wind); this frees us for a while from the enterprise of the ego. We have nothing left to lose, not even our pride.

Baudelaire, That Jerk

In a fascinating essay on Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin points out that involuntary memory—the flashback—is a characteristically modern experience. For a cyclical society with communal commemorations, the distinction between intentional memory and the memory which overwhelms unannounced would not exist. Every Easter mass recalls every previous one, but the character of this recall does not raise the question of voluntary recall vs. spontaneous reminiscence. The subject who experiences an involuntary memory is the person who, turning a corner in a strange city, encounters a scent or a face which plunges him into revery on some forgotten element of his childhood, a childhood whose companions have scattered to the wind. This experience, triggered by signs legible only to the remembering subject in a language he himself does not fully understand, is necessarily solitary and unpredictable. The radical differentiation between the memory we call to mind and the one which overwhelms us unannounced, so important to Bergson and to Proust, registers a completely modern experience of time: in the modern world the past arrives just the way the future does, unannounced, with a jolt.

Baudelaire, who as Benjamin observes was the great poet of this jolt, a jerky poet, and who all his contemporaries recognized as a huge jerk himself, tells a fantastic joke about jolts in a prose poem from Paris Spleen entitled “Beat the Poor.” He describes how, years ago, he set himself the uncongenial task of reading all the books on social progress which were then fashionable and shut himself up in his room for a fortnight to do so. Having dragged himself the miserable works of these “entrepreneurs of the public good” (“those who advise the poor to make themselves slaves, and those who try to persuade them that they’re all kings who have been dethroned”), he emerges dazed, bleary-eyed and incredibly thirsty. As he’s walking into a bar he encounters one of the poor in person—a beggar who fixes him with the sort of piteous look “that would make kingdoms fall, if spirit could move matter”—and, well, I’ll let him tell it:

En même temps, j’entendis une voix qui chuchotait à mon oreille, une voix que je reconnus bien; c’était celle d’un bon Ange, ou d’un bon Démon, qui m’accompagne partout. Puisque Socrate avait son bon Démon, pourquoi n’aurais-je pas mon bon Ange, et pourquoi n’aurais-je pas l’honneur, comme Socrate, d’obtenir mon brevet de folie, signé du subtil Lélut et du bien avisé Baillarger?

Il existe cette différence entre le Démon de Socrate et le mien, que celui de Socrate ne se manifestait à lui que pour défendre, avertir, empêcher, et que le mien daigne conseiller, suggérer, persuader. Ce pauvre Socrate n’avait qu’un Démon prohibiteur; le mien est un grand affirmateur, le mien est un Démon d’action, un Démon de combat.

Or, sa voix me chuchotait ceci: “Celui-là seul est l’égal d’un autre, qui le prouve, et celui-là seul est digne de la liberté, qui sait la conquérir.”

Immédiatement, je sautai sur mon mendiant. D’un seul coup de poing, je lui bouchai un oeil, qui devint, en une seconde, gros comme une balle. Je cassai un de mes ongles à lui briser deux dents, et comme je ne me sentais pas assez fort, étant né délicat et m’étant peu exercé à la boxe, pour assommer rapidement ce vieillard, je le saisis d’une main par le collet de son habit, de l’autre, je l’empoignai à la gorge, et je me mis à lui secouer vigoureusement la tête contre un mur. Je dois avouer que j’avais préalablement inspecté les environs d’un coup d’oeil, et que j’avais vérifié que dans cette banlieue déserte je me trouvais, pour un assez long temps, hors de la portée de tout agent de police.

Ayant ensuite, par un coup de pied lancé dans le dos, assez énergique pour briser les omoplates, terrassé ce sexagénaire affaibli, je me saisis d’une grosse branche d’arbre qui traînait à terre, et je le battis avec l’énergie obstinée des cuisiniers qui veulent attendrir un beefteack.

Tout à coup,—ô miracle! ô jouissance du philosophe qui vérifie l’excellence de sa théorie!—je vis cette antique carcasse se retourner, se redresser avec une énergie que je n’aurais jamais soupçonnée dans une machine si singulièrement détraquée, et, avec un regard de haine qui me parut de bon augure, le malandrin décrépit se jeta sur moi, me pocha les deux yeux, me cassa quatre dents, et avec la même branche d’arbre me battit dru comme plâtre.—Par mon énergique médication, je lui avais donc rendu l’orgueil et la vie.

Alors, je lui fis force signes pour lui faire comprendre que je considérais la discussion comme finie, et me relevant avec la satisfaction d’un sophiste du Portique, je lui dis: “Monsieur, vous êtes mon égal! veuillez me faire l’honneur de partager avec moi ma bourse; et souvenez-vous, si vous êtes réellement philanthrope, qu’il faut appliquer à tous vos confrères, quand ils vous demanderont l’aumône, la théorie que j’ai eu la douleur d’essayer sur votre dos.”

Il m’a bien juré qu’il avait compris ma théorie, et qu’il obéirait à mes conseils.


At the same time, I heard a voice whispering in my ear, a voice I knew well; the voice of a good Angel, or of a good Demon, who accompanies me everywhere. Since Socrates had his good Demon, why shouldn’t I have my good Angel, why shouldn’t I have the honor, like Socrates, of acquiring my certificate of insanity, signed by the insightful Lelut and the sagacious Baillarger?

The difference between the Demon of Socrates and my own is that his would appear to him only to forbid, warn, suggest, and persuade. That poor Socrates had only a prohibitive demon; mine is a great approver, mine is a Demon of action, or Demon of combat.

This is what its voice whispered to me: “He alone is equal to another, if he proves it, and he alone is worthy of freedom, if he can conquer it.”

Immediately, I pounced on the beggar. With a single punch, I shut one eye, which became, in a second, as big as a ball. I broke one of my nails smashing two of his teeth, and since I didn’t feel strong enough to beat up the old man quickly, having been born fragile and not well trained in boxing, with one hand I grabbed him by the collar of his outfit, and I gripped his throat with the other, and I began vigorously to bounce his head against a wall. I should admit that beforehand I had examined the surroundings with a glance, and I had ascertained that in that deserted suburb, for a long enough time, I was beyond the reach of any policeman.

Having next, with a kick directed to his back, forceful enough to break his shoulder blades, floored that weakened sexagenarian, I grabbed a big tree branch lying on the ground, and I beat him with the obstinate energy of cooks trying to tenderize a beefsteak.

Suddenly,—Oh miracle! Oh delight of the philosopher who verifies the excellence of his theory!—I saw that antique carcass turn over, straighten up with a force I would never have suspected in a machine so peculiarly unhinged. And, with a look of hatred that seemed to me a good omen, the decrepit bandit flung himself on me, blackened both my eyes, broke four of my teeth, and, with the same tree branch beat me to a pulp.—By my forceful medication, I had thus restored his pride and his life.

Then, I made a mighty number of signs to make him understand that I considered the debate settled, and getting up with the self-satisfaction of a Stoic sophist, I told him, “Sir, you are my equal! Please do me the honor of sharing my purse. And remember, if you are a true philanthropist, you must apply to all your colleagues, when they seek alms, the theory I had the pain to test upon your back.”

He indeed swore that he had understood my theory, and that he would comply with my advice.

So who’s the joke on here? At first it’s on the beggar, who expects a coin and gets a kick and then some—but the beggar gets his own back in the end. It’s the hapless poet who comes off worst here, the guy who (reading between the lines) gets drunk enough to pick a fight with a sorry old man and then loses. The ubiquitous poet-hero of Baudelaire’s works is often depicted this way, closer to Don Quixote than to Byron: a comic figure, hapless, vain and incapable. Baudelaire presents himself as part eccentric, part charlatan, always hobbling along after some great idea which even he can only occasionally recall. There’s something of Beckett’s puppet-show farce in the scene: rag-dolls going at each other with their crutches.

But at a deeper level the beggar and the poet are collaborating in a standup routine whose object is the bourgeoisie, the litterateurs of social progress and their ilk. These people wish to harness the poor to the regime of accumulation of the bourgeoisie, offering the underprivileged either the laughable middle-class “work ethic” or at least its ridiculous pretensions and aspirations.

Baudelaire proposes an inverse logic: true charity is not to give but to take away. Elimination, not accumulation, is the goal. The beggar appears to have nothing left to lose, but he does own one thing: an expectation, hope for a coin. Giving him a coin wouldn’t raise his status in life, it would just obligate him to doff his cap and do a shuffling little bow. But in betraying this expectation and humiliating the beggar, the poet frees him to pursue the logic of the encounter—to beat a poet up and steal his money, money which arrives now not in the burdensome form of charity but as the booty of a hard-won victory, and which (one imagines) will immediately go to fund a thoroughly enjoyable three-day bender which will be the best time this beggar has had in years.

It’s useful to read “Beat the Poor” as a perverting parody of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Because really, what a smug piece of ascendant-bourgeois propaganda that bit of the Phenomenology is! The master, the aristocrat, seemingly very admirable in his way but essentially an idiot whose mind is filled with foolish ideas of “honor” that, after all, don’t pay a dime, and the slave, the bourgeois, ah yes apparently working like a dog to put food on someone else’s table, apparently trembling at his master’s every word, but secretly confident that if he works long and hard like a good slave, accumulates valuable job experience transforming matter and so forth, someday he’ll be the one with the corner office and someone will be trembling at his gaze. This text captures what Baudelaire most thoroughly loathes about the bourgeoisie: their conviction that they have something worth having, that they’ve got it made, a conviction they stroke and encourage by giving to charity. The trouble with the rich, in his view, is that they don’t know how poor they are; the trouble with the poor is that they’re not yet poor enough.

The joke isn’t a vindication of aristocracy, of course—just as it was a central tenet of Baudelaire’s work (and life, for that matter) that money exists only to be poured out with orgiastic abandon, likewise honor and glory exist only to be exposed to humiliation. The beggar promises to spread Baudelaire’s doctrine—to pick a fight with a bigger beggar and lose badly just as the poet lost to him. If the story sides with anything, it’s poverty not only of the wallet but of the spirit, insofar as such poverty leaves one absolutely exposed to the encounter with a jerk. (The richer one is, the more “traumatic” an experience like the one described can be: a rich and respectable man would die of shock at such an event, would wonder how someone dared to do such a thing, how they dared.) Accumulation insulates us from encounter: the man of substance is “thick.” The glory of the poet is to own nothing and to lose even what he has, to face humiliation everywhere, to drink away his time and money and reputation, to lose a fight every day. Only in this way can he be prepared to give himself entirely to any moment, as a poet must. The Baudelairean poet is the absolute comedian, his poverty a sly but thorough evisceration of all we call our wealth. He lives dirt-poor and (unlike us) he dies laughing.