Beckctt's "dramatic dehiscence" and Lewis's "disappearance of the spectator" point to a shared sense that their contemporary reality—both subjective and objective—was somehow becoming "less real." Both testify to a blurring of sharp boundaries between subject and object; and both register the diffuse feeling of disorientation that pervaded the inner and outer words in which the modern subject moved. The outer world—of crowded streets, of department stores, of movie houses, of political rallies—had taken on fantastic, aestheticized shapes once found only in dreams, paintings, or fiction. The inner life, in contrast, had appropriated the object-world in which people lived and moved, now taking the shape of a city street, later of a shop window, then perhaps of a cinema or a fascist parade. It is in response to this new configuration of self and its boundaries that late modernism finds its contextual and affective basis. For once the stable line between subject and object began to lose its sharpness, thickening and breaking apart in complex rhythms, a whole series of precepts central to earlier modernism had to be rethought. The heroic subjectivity of the innovating artist; the organic convergence of form and content in a symbolic unity set down by the artist on paper, on canvas, in stone; the exhibition of stylistic mastery as a criterion of value; the belief in an underlying mythic or aesthetic order to history; and the possibility of redeeming tradition through its transfiguration into art—all these basic tenets of modernism's aesthetic ideology were put in doubt by the object's new dispensation, at least for those artists willing to extend their uneasy intuitions to their practice.
Since I have argued for the historically situated nature of late modernism, it is appropriate to approach a definition by considering a work of the period in question. In his 1934 book Men Without Art , Wyndham Lewis offers an extended explanation and justification of his own writing as defined against several of his contemporaries. It is this text, then, that will provide my point of departure for a more specific depiction of late modernism's physiognomic traits.
Lewis begins his exposition by noting the problem of his own situation as an artist: "I am a satirist. . . . But I am not a moralist. . . . [I]t is these two facts, taken together, which constitute my particular difficulty" (MWA, 87). Lewis notes that traditionally the satirist needed the moral sanction of the community to do what he does: launch satirical attacks and provoke laughter. Yet Lewis believes that shared moral values have evaporated and feels no moral solidarity with others. He is forced, under these circumstances, to consider the possibility of "nonethical satire," " 'satire' for its own sake," to justify his own case.
What is notable in Lewis's discussion is his intense self-consciousness about his own lack of determinate social location. As an artist, his identification with a community, the Rebel Arts group or the vorticists or even the "men of 1914," was a thing of the past. His attacks on his former colleagues in Time and Western Man and on the Sitwell and Blooms-bury coteries in The Apes of God had severed whatever links remained. He was no less clear about the impossibility of his "situation" in the political domain, to which, in fact, his views on "nonethical satire" represented a practical response (as did, in another vein, his ambivalent embrace of fascism). Thus, in his 1937 autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering , Lewis wrote: "Nineteen-thirty-seven is a grand year. We are all in the melting pot. I resist the process of melting so have a very lively time of it. I know if I let myself melt I should get mixed up with all sorts of people I would sooner be dead than mixed into. But that's the only sense in which I'm conservative. It's myself I want to conserve. I wouldn't lift a finger to conserve any 'conservative' institution. I think they ought to be liquidated without any exception at all." Lewis's nonethical satire is written by an authorial subject in extremis: one revolutionary enough to wish all existing institutions liquidated but without solidarity with any collective or community; one threatened with extinction and hence dedicated foremost to self-preservation.
The identity of such a threatened subject is guaranteed, in the last instance, by its discreteness and self-continuity—qualities symbolized above all by the integrity of the individual body. As Lewis's chapter "The Piecemealing of the Personality" in The Art of Being Ruled suggests, he thus conceives the primary threat to the subject to be dismemberment (a thinly metaphorical fate that Lewis often renders literal in his fictional works, through scenes of decapitation and other bodily violence): "Continuity, in the individual as in the race, is the diagnostic of a civilized condition. If you can break this personal continuity in an individual, you can break him . For he is that continuity. It is against these joints and sutures of the personality that an able attack will always be directed" (AOBR, 204). Yet satire, in its scurrilous abuse of grotesques and "puppets" (a prominent word in Lewis's satiric lexicon), discloses precisely the vulnerability of everyone to such attack on the "integrity" of body and of person:
It is unnecessary to enumerate the tragic handicaps that our human conditions involve—the glaring mechanical imperfections, the nervous tics, the prodigality of objectless movement—the, to other creatures, offensive smells, disagreeable moistures—the involuntary grimace, the lurch, roll, trot or stagger which we call our walk —it is only a matter of degree between us and the victim of locomotor-ataxy or St. Vitus's dance. (MWA , 93)
"Unnecessary" it may be, but satire will address itself precisely to enumerating and even exaggerating the fragility, friability, and permeability of the human body.
Laughter, to which Lewis assigns a highly specific function, serves to resolve this apparent contradiction. For laughter, in Lewis's view, functions to inoculate the organism against the buffetings it faces from without: "Laughter . . . has a function in relation to our tender consciousness. . . . It is the preserver much more than the destroyer" (MWA , 89). It is an "anti-toxin of the first order" (MWA , 93). It protects the "tender consciousness"—which Lewis always sees as endangered by the modern "climate"—by hardening up the organism, "stiffening" it: "There is a stiffening of Satire in everything good, of 'the grotesque,' which is the same thing" (MWA , 99). The laughter evoked by satire, if it is to have this "healthy" effect, must be diffuse and impersonal: "in a sense, everyone should be laughed at or else no one should be laughed at. It seems that ultimately that is the alternative" (MWA , 89).
At this point, Lewis draws out the implications of this view that "everyone should be laughed at." Clearly, he says, this goes against the
grain of our decency: we normally suppress our laughter at the deformed and infirm. Yet to justify, his theory, Lewis proposes to take the issue to its extreme. He conjures up the image of laughter in the face of the recent trench warfare:
So far so good: but what of the shell-shocked man, for instance? He is often very funny, and it is very difficult not to laugh. But that is like laughing at the contortions of a dying man, and it would be too brutal a society that made a habit of laughing at its shell-shocked persons—especially as it would be to the society, of the laughers to which ultimately the responsibility for these disfigurements would have to be brought home. Therefore there is no society that does not refrain from guffawing at the antics, however "screamingly funny," of its shell-shocked men and war-idiots, and its poison-gas morons, and its mutilated battle-wrecks. (MWA , 92)
If this passage is almost painful to read, it is not (for me, at least) because of the "brutality," it seems to suggest in its author. On the contrary, for all the pretense of "coolness," one senses a vertiginous hysteria: the price exacted from its author to suppress a rising scream. Lewis evokes here a kind of unspoken primal scene of his writing: the loss of bodily and affective control before the sight of shocked, damaged, mutilated human bodies—the everyday world of wartime Flanders and Passchendaele.
Peter Sloterdijk has noted how Thomas Mann anatomized the cynical laughter of the Weimar years in three terrible scenes in The Magic Mountain . The first two scenes relate the involuntary laughter of interlocutors who have heard matter-of-fact accounts of the corpses, pulmonectomies, and other grim details of the sanitorium. The last scene of laughter, however, is of a different order: a pure automatism, like Ezra Pound's imagined "laughter out of dead bellies." A patient having a lung operation breaks into laughter out of "pleural shock," a reflex of the pleura being palpitated: "I heard myself laughing, while I was kicking the bucket, but not like a human laughs, but rather, that was the most disgraceful and nauseating laughter I have heard in all my life, for the palpitation of the pleura, gentlemen, that is as if one were being tickled in the utmost shameless, most exaggerated and most inhuman way."
This laughter, like the laughter of dying bodies and of soldiers driven mad by the sight of them, a laughter utterly unrelated to any spiritual response, is strictly a limit-experience. It is what Lewis calls "perfect laughter," which, he says, "would be inhuman" (MWA , 92). Yet below this limit is another zone of laughter minimally touched by moral consciousness or personal concern. It confronts the absurd as a component
of the anthropological condition, yet preserves the historical memory implied in thinking the limit of a laughter of "pleural shock" or of a belly convulsed by shrapnel. Lewis suggests that such a laughter is essentially reflexive, "non-personal and non-moral": "And it enters fields which are commonly regarded as the preserve of more 'serious' forms of reaction. There is no reason at all why we should not burst out laughing at a foetus, for instance. We should after all only be laughing at ourselves !—at ourselves early in our mortal career" (MWA , 92). It is the self-reflexive laughter ("laughing at ourselves!") of the survivor in the face of alterity and death, the subject's minimum self-confirmation, the minimal trace of the instinct for self-preservation. I laugh, therefore I (still) am.
Laughter has an intimate relationship with the situation of the embodied subject in external space, a fact that should give pause considering Lewis's insistence—both in his theory of satire and in his criticism of other modernists—on spatiality over time and physical exteriority over psychological interiority. As I will discuss Time and Western Man in greater detail later, here I want to take up Lewis's expressed preference for the "ossature" and "shell" of the living organism (his "favorite part" being the dead one) over its soft, fluxive innards. Likewise, he prefers "the rigid stylistic articulations of the grasshopper," the outer armor as it were, to "the jellyfish" (MWA , 99).
This imagery, hinging on the distinction of inside and outside, unconscious and conscious, and surface and depth, is reminiscent of Freud's depiction in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of consciousness as a rigidified, deadened shield against excess stimuli from without. Freud evolved this theoretical model, as I have already noted, in response to the traumatic dreams of shell-shock victims in World War I. These dreams seemed to contradict the psychoanalytic model of dreams as wish fulfillment and thus impelled Freud to postulate the "death drive" to explain the conservative repetition, seemingly "beyond the pleasure principle" evident in wish fulfillment dreams, of such traumatic dreams. In developing his argument, Freud employs a largely unstated but crucial analogy between the shattered experience of the adult shall-shock victim and the inchoate experience of the infant, regressing across the divide of adult speech from the postlinguistic tics and abreactions of the trauma patient to the prelinguistic pulses and affects of the prelinguistic human animal. To survive, the trench soldier needed to inure himself against the constant bursting of flares, the thunderous noise, the confusion and bloody terror of artillery bombardment. Yet this process
is, Freud suggests, only an extreme—and sadly ineffective—version of the normal condition of the human organism in the world. In infancy, however, the balance of external and internal forces is so much skewed toward the stimuli coming from outside that the child's experience is as potentially devastating as that of the soldier. Freud's task, then, is to explain why soldiers get shell shocked from trench warfare, while babies, under normal circumstances, do not end up traumatized by their surroundings.
By way of an answer, Freud offers the hypothesis that our conscious psychic life serves to channel and screen external stimuli that would be overpowering energies were their intensity not reduced. This consciousness originates in a kind of deadening of the sensory system that spans the mind and body, a devitalizing of sensory life in order to delay the reactions of the body and allow an interval of choice and reflection. Freud uses the metaphor of a hull of inorganic armor around a vital core, a hardened sheath formed of blasted layers of once-sensitive matter, which serves the life of the whole by suffering the storm of stimuli coming in from the outer world:
Its outermost surface ceases to have the structure proper to living matter, becomes to some degree inorganic and thenceforward functions as a special envelope or membrane resistant to stimuli. In consequence, the energies of the external world are able to pass into the next underlying layers, which have remained living, with only a fragment of their original intensity. . . . By its death, the outer layer has saved all the deeper ones from a similar fate—unless, that is to say, stimuli reach it which are so strong that they break through the protective shield. . . . The protective shield is supplied with its own store of energy, and must above all endeavor to preserve the special modes of transformation of energy operating in it against the effects threatened by the enormous energies at work in the external world—effects which tend towards a levelling out of them and hence towards destruction.
For Freud, consciousness, in contrast to traditional images of it as active, living soul, is a rigidified, deadened filter against experience—a hard outer shell, sacrificed to preserve life and prevent breaching of the inner organism by all but the most violent of shocks (like the war experience manifest in traumatic dreams).
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno reinterpret Freud's image of defensive hardening culturally and politically. They suggest that an emphasis on "coldness" and "hardness"—so much a part of the political discourse of the German right, and for Lewis, significantly, the pri-
mary quality of satire—can be seen as a corporeal defense against the "seduction" of pure space, the death-drive understood as an assimilation to the dangerous extensiveness of inanimate nature.  Idiosyncrasy—often the occasion of laughter—represents for them a potential dissonance in human spatiality, which may set in motion a dialectic of dissolution and defensive stiffening:
In idiosyncrasy, individual organs escape from the control of the subject, and independently obey fundamental biological stimuli. The ego which experiences such reactions . . . is not wholly in control of itself. For a few moments these reactions effect an adaptation to circumambient, motionless nature. But as the animate approaches the inanimate, and the more highly-developed form of life comes closer to nature, it is alienated from it, since inanimate nature, which life in its most vigorous form aspires to become, is capable only of wholly external, spatial, relationships. Space is absolute alienation. When men try to become like nature they harden themselves against it. Protection as fear is a form of mimicry. The reflexes of stiffening and numbness in humans are archaic schemata of the urge to survive: by adaptation to death, life pays the toll of its continued existence.
As Lewis suggests in his remark on satire, however, laughter may, like mimicry, fulfill a defensive function against a threatening "outside." Laughter may turn back self-reflexively on the subject, "stiffening" the self against danger, marking that minimal "spatial" difference between conscious life and the pure extensivity of dead nature: a difference that preserves the subject, however diminished, in situations of adversity.
In an extraordinary remark in his 1948 essay on Charlie Chaplin, the film critic André Bazin draws together these threads of laughter, self-defense, and mimicry in an example taken from contemporary popular culture. Bazin notes, in passing, how many of Chaplin's gags involved a peculiar way of "brushing aside danger": " 'Camouflage' is not really the right term. It is more properly a form of mimicry. One might go so far as to say that the defense reflexes of Charlie end in a reabsorption of time by space." Echoing the analysis of insect mimetism advanced by Roger Caillois during the 1930S, also a crucial influence on Horkheimer and Adorno, Bazin's comments suggest that Chaplin's comedy depends on a kind of mechanical interruption of the flow of images and a breaking apart of the organic structure of movement. Such an interruption, however, is no .thing more than a capacity implicit in the technical medium and apparatus of film itself, which simulates continuous motion by projecting a steady stream of discrete, slightly different images. Supplementing Bazin's claim that time is reabsorbed by space,
then, we might say that Chaplin's organic body becomes a mimetic extension of cinematic technology, which breaks down movement into constitutive fragments, discarding some while isolating and accentuating others. Having incorporated the technical principle of montage into his physical movements, Chaplin is able to mirror it back to the camera in embodied form. By perfecting the equivalence between his body and the "cinematic body" produced by the camera, Chaplin becomes the very allegory of cinema in its inaugural phase and the changes in experience it will precipitate.
Bazin continues his discussion by elaborating the image of the comic film star as mimetic insect:
The painted canvas tree in which Charlie is hiding blends in with the trees of the forest in a way that is quite "hallucinating." One is reminded of those little stick-like insects that are indiscernible in a clump of twigs or those little Indian insects that can take on the appearance of leaves, even leaves that caterpillars have nibbled. The sudden vegetable-like immobility of Charlie-the-tree is like an insect playing dead, as is his other gag in The Adventurer when he pretends to have been killed by a shot from a gun. But what distinguishes Charlie from the insect is the speed with which he returns from his condition of spatial dissolution into the cosmos, to a state of instant readiness for action. Thus, motionless inside his tree he flattens out, one after the other, with swift precise movements of his "branches," a file of German soldiers as they come within range. (149)
Both Bazin's rejected metaphor of "camouflage" and Chaplin's repeated regression into the backdrop before the oncoming column of German soldiers underscore how closely the issue of mimicry was tied to the historical context of war—for Chaplin, World War I, for Bazin, more immediately, World War II. At the same time, Bazin implicitly seconds Lewis's conception of a self-reflexive, defensive laughter, finding it in the laughable mimicry of the beleaguered little man. Chaplin's characteristic rhythm of fall and recomposure in the face of superior powers, human or mechanical, evoked a new sort of minimal self, as much corporeal as psychic, as much technical as organic, and held together by stiffening bonds of a laughter without exterior object.
In her essay "Place Names," Julia Kristeva explores precisely this minimal articulation of space in relation to the child's acquisition of language and the eventual sublimation of spatiality in syntactic structures. One section of the essay, entitled "Space Causes Laughter," considers precisely the scenario I pose above—but here not with respect to the
regression of a formed subject, rather with the nascence of the subject, the progression of the infant toward speaking/forming. Kristeva evokes a scene of a primary fusion of scattered elements in a crystallizing burst of laughter:
Voice, hearing, and sight are the archaic dispositions where the earliest forms of discreteness emerge. The breast, given and withdrawn; lamplight capturing the gaze; intermittent sounds of voice or music—all these meet with anaclisis [the "leaning" of one drive on another, for example, oral erotic drives on hunger—T.M.] . . ., hold it, and thus inhibit and absorb it in such a way that it is discharged and abated through them. . . . At that point, breast, light, and sound become a there : a place, a spot, a marker. The effect . . . is no longer quiet but laughter. The imprint of an archaic moment, the threshold of space, the "chora" as primitive stability absorbing anaclitic facilitation, produces laughter.
This archaic laughter of the infant is, Kristeva emphasizes, unconnected to a "sense of humor," which "presupposes the superego and its bewilderment" (284). But it responds sensitively to temporary derangements of space such as distorted faces, caricatures, vertiginous movements, and falls. It absorbs and discharges the rapid, violent, excessive "facilitations" of the body in space: "they stop there, impart the jolt—laughter. Because it was bounded but not blocked, the rate of facilitation discards fright and bursts into a jolt of laughter" (284)."
This account, transferred from the nascent self of the infant to the marginal, endangered self of the adult in extremis, resonates strongly with Lewis's image of a laughter linked to self-affirmation rather than humor. Lewis, though at times very funny, nonetheless opposes "humor," "clowning," and mere "fun making." Already in the opening pages of Tarr , Lewis puts his eponymous hero up to an attack on "the University of Humour that prevails everywhere in England as the national institution for developing youth." "Humour," Tarr argues, "paralyses the sense for Reality and wraps people in a phlegmatic and hysterical dream-world." Two decades later, speaking on BBC Radio, Lewis would make the distinction between humorous and satiric laughter explicit: "Satire laughs as much as humour laughs. But satire laughs differently. In the satirist's laughter good humour is not implicit. But it would not be accurate to say that, in consequence, bad humour is of the essence of his mirth. . . . He merely takes his laughter more seriously, as it were. Laughter for him is an explosive agency, and its object is to blast, rather than to tickle." His "humor" is a serious matter,
occasioned more by a spatial disturbance (an "explosive agency") than by anything "funny." It serves to absorb shock experience and to deflect it aggressively outward as self-preserving laughter.
Late modernist writing seeks to provoke this "serious," aggressive laughter. It is a deliberate conjuring, through the deformation of the body, through the evocation of its vulnerable "joints and sutures," its unpleasant "moistures" and "smells," of that "riant spaciousness" (Kristeva) that ends in laughter. Lewis thus writes:
"Satire". . . refers to an "expressionist" universe which is reeling a little, a little drunken with an overdose of the "ridiculous"—where everything is . . . steeped in a philosophic solution of the material, not of mirth, but of the intense and even painful sense of the absurd. It is a time, evidently, in which homo animal ridens is accentuating . . . that wild nihilism that is a function of reason and of which his laughter is the characteristic expression. (MWA , 232)
Satire, which Lewis often puts in scare quotes to indicate his unconventional "late modernist" definition, is thus the art of a minima moralia, the voice of "damaged life" persisting at the threshold of disappearance as a self.
Late modernist texts are, of course, complex literary structures, not tissues of pure laughter. Yet their forms have more than a casual relation to laughter. As Georges Bataille suggests, laughter suppresses knowledge, affirming and canceling it at the same time:
He who laughs does not, theoretically, abandon his knowledge, but he refuses, for a time—a limited time—to accept it, he allows himself to be overcome by the impulse to laughter, so that what he knows is destroyed, but he retains, deep within, the conviction that it is not, after all, destroyed. When we laugh we retain deep within us that which is suppressed by laughter, but it has been only artificially suppressed.
What Bataille describes psychologically as a relation between the mind, laughter, and knowledge can also, however, be understood in textual and rhetorical terms. In his studies of Rabelais, in fact, Bakhtin made precisely this translation from laughter as an affective expression to laughter as a formal component of texts. He argues that laughter can be "reduced," that is, sedimented into forms that preserve its disruptive force while restricting its active presence: "Under certain conditions
arid in certain genres . . . laughter can be reduced. It continues to determine the structure of the image, but it itself is muffled down to the minimum: we see, as it were, the track left by laughter in the structure of represented reality, but the laughter itself we do not hear." As a formal component of texts, laughter gives rise to modes of irony, parody, and satire in which the literal, denotative sense of a text is convulsed by a disruptive negation or deformation of sense. In works of reduced laughter, the text's form and figures are "altered," made other, blurred by a rhythm of doubling in which meanings are alternately posited and canceled. Through its reduction, its containment in generic forms and conventions that silence its explicit presence, laughter moves from folk practices and rituals (i.e., carnival, the feast) into the forms of discourse and, ultimately, the history of literary genres.
Intuitively, it causes us no particular problem to grasp that there might be a relation between laughter and textual forms. After all, it is common enough that texts make us laugh, which at least suggests the possibility of moving from one to the other. Yet on reflection, the way in which this happens seems rather mysterious. How is it that something as abstract and disembodied as, say, a description in a book brings about such a concrete, bodily response as laughter? It is even less clear how the process might be turned around: how physically embodied laughter could become virtual in language, "reduced," sedimented in textual forms. While Bakhtin's remarks are enormously provocative, one quickly reaches problems in explaining exactly how this process might work. Is the idea of "reduced" laughter just a clever theoretical cipher, a convenient way for Bakhtin to move between social context and textual forms without really explaining the mechanisms involved? For Bakhtin, I am tempted to answer this question in the affirmative. I also believe, however, that Bakhtin's sense of a transitive relation between embodied laughter and textual forms is correct and can be put on firmer theoretical grounds. For this task, it is necessary to turn to Freud's 1905 study of jokes, but to put it to somewhat unexpected use. For it is not Freud's psychoanalytic theory of jokes that offers the crucial key to this puzzle of relating laughter to textual form but rather his discussions of phenomena excluded from the ambit of psychoanalytic theory because they need not entail the workings of the unconscious: smut and the comic.
The first key lies in verbal behavior that is related to jokes but that exists on their margins: "smut." Freud argues in the third chapter of his study, "The Purposes of Jokes," that in certain situations a speaker uses
obscene language as a means of seduction; the speaker is trying to make the interlocutor see , in imagination, the sexual content of the words, and thus to arouse. If the attempt works, words pass rapidly into action, the clothes come off, and as Francesca tells a horrified Dante, they "read no more that day." If, however, the immediate aim is somehow inhibited, by situation or by the interlocutor's refusal, obscene speech takes on a peculiar autonomy, becoming a pleasurable end in itself. It is this autonomized obscenity that constitutes, properly speaking, smut. "Since the sexual aggressiveness is held up in its advance towards the act," Freud writes, "it pauses at the evocation of the excitement and derives pleasure from the signs of it in the woman" (Freud assumes that the seducer is male and the seduced is female). This account provides us with an important analogy to Bakhtin's idea of "reduced laughter," for smut, in Freud's view, is "reduced arousal." In smutty speech, the words remain charged with a latent residue of the sexual scene and may suddenly modulate back toward action if the context changes—the nosy neighbor leaves, the interlocutor has a third double martini, "Old Blue Eyes" comes on the radio, and so on.
In Freud's account of smut, the affective force of the words, their ability to cause arousal, depends on a capacity of language that he leaves relatively unthematized here but that forms an important part of his theory of dreams: the intertranslatability of words and images. Words can conjure up images of the body, can make us see a sexual content, and can affect bodies by means of this capacity. In his chapter "Jokes and the Species of the Comic," Freud offers a theory of how the affective interface between psychic and corporeal acts arises, to explain how, for example, incongruities of movement or scale can make us laugh. He suggests that perceptions of space and motion come about imitatively. The imitative performance of movements sets a standard of "innervatory sensation," which can then be remembered even in the absence of an actually performed movement. In this way, embodied perceptions of actual objects, spaces, or movements can become memories of embodied states, which have the ability to affect the body when reactivated. In a provocative extension of these ideas, Freud goes on to suggest that our ways of expressing ourselves, not only gesturally, but also verbally and even conceptually, retain elements of these mimetically learned states. He calls this intermixture of embodied perceptions and affects with verbal and conceptual expressions "ideational mimetics." Thus, to take a simple example, our conventional use of metaphors of largeness and smallness reveals traces of our mimetic relations to objects and
spaces. Finally, Freud suggests that these mimetics not only form part of our intersubjective communication, for example in language, but also underlie intrasubjective processes like imagination.
This discussion of ideational mimetics is highly suggestive for our attempt to consider how texts and laughter might be transitively related, as Bakhtin's notion of "reduction" suggests. Freud, in essence, posits imitative activity as the crucial missing link that articulates the complex relations among language, imagination, affectivity, and embodiment. Moreover, if, as I have indicated, one of the essential historical characteristics of the interwar years is an enforced drive to imitation (what I call "generalized mimetism"), then Freud's theory suggests that late modernist literature may be registering a crucial change in the "ideational mimetics" of the period—that stock of figures, narrative structures, and images of voice that testify to the lived experience of the body in a determinate social space. The ideational mimetics of late modernism reveal the desperately heightened incongruities in the social experience of artists between the wars—incongruities that provoked self-reflexive laughter.
In texts structured in this way by reduced forms of laughter, open laughter only breaks out at points where the force of incongruity exceeds the containing energies of the image, at sites where figures rupture and forms fail. In late modernist works, accordingly, self-reflexive laughter bursts out above all at moments of maximum stress on characters, pushed to the limits of madness, dissociation, and death. The potential for such eruptive 'manifestations of laughter, however, underscores the tenuous nature of all such containing structures of literary form. Though from the position of the threatened subject, a writing structured around self-reflexive laughter may represent a potential foothold against disintegration, it nonetheless offers a significantly weaker formal principle than more symbolically unified modes. Laughter is at once articulated and mobile; it has an ambivalent relation to form. As Helmut Plessner writes: "To laughing . . . belongs . . . the significant and conscious relating of an expression to its occasion, an expression which breaks out eruptively, runs its course compulsively, and lacks definite symbolic form."
In the case of late modernist writing the "occasion" is the writing itself, which seeks to provoke self-reflexive laughter as its "significant" and "conscious" expression. Yet as such, this intention represents a very weak organizing basis—an almost substanceless subjective ground for giving form to a work. This hypothesis is confirmed by the observable
lack of formal solidity in late modernist works, an absence of overall symbolic form, which runs the gamut from pastiche in works like Barnes's Ladies Almanack to out-and-out collapses of large-scale form in Beckett's Dream of Fair to Middling Women and Lewis's The Childermass . By comparison, the remnants of the Bildungsroman used by Joyce and Lawrence, the adventure genres adapted by Conrad, the tightly symmetrical structures of the late James, even the buried mythic underpinnings of Ulysses and The Waste Land represent relatively strong symbolic constructions for the author to renew creatively. Whether by compulsion or deliberate strategy, the late modernist writer stood opposed to the discursive mastery of earlier modernists.
With these general theoretical observations in mind, we can now turn briefly to Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes, to indicate how their work is animated by similar concerns as those expressed by Lewis, if in less openly polemical and programmatic ways.