Beckett's writing, like Lewis's, arises out of an analogous reflection on a peculiar type of laughter as the zero degree of subjectivity—a condition shared by the artist, his characters, and his reader/spectators. Critics have often pointed to Nell's observation in Endgame as a kind of encapsulated version of Beckett's tragicomic vision: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that." Less often remarked is the way that laughter , not happiness or unhappiness per se, is primarily at stake in Nell's meditation. For she goes on to say: "Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more" (19). This concern with laughter (and its disappearance) is consonant with the play as a whole, in which laughter, even where cruel or bitter, is an index of a minimal residue of humanness. Thus, asked to survey the horizon, Clov quips (pointing the telescope at the audience), "I see . . . a multitude . . . in transports . . . of joy," then turns to Hamm and asks, "Well? Don't we laugh?" Hamm replies: "I don't," and Clov concurs: "Nor I" (29).
Beckett's dramatic works of the fifties, with their post-Unnameable return to embodied characters and a comparatively "expansive" space of play, can be seen as recurring to the late modernist mode of the thirties
and early forties, after the admitted exhaustion of the trilogy and "texts for nothing." And in fact, Beckett's last English novel, Watt , contains a meditation closely connected to the scenes from Endgame quoted above: in my view, a genuinely theoretical reflection on the nature of laughter. Its fictional framing is minimal, coming as it does in the long freestanding monologue of the departing servant Erskine to the newly arrived Watt:
Of all the laughs that strictly speaking are not laughs, but modes of ululation, only three I think need detain us, I mean the bitter, the hollow and the mirthless. They correspond to successive . . . excoriations of the understanding, and the passage from the one to the other is the passage from the lesser to the greater, from the lower to the higher, from the outer to the inner, from the gross to the fine, from the matter to the form. The laugh that now is mirthless once was hollow, the laugh that once was hollow once was bitter. And the laugh that once was bitter? Eyewater, Mr. Watt, eyewater. But do not let us waste our time with that. . . . The bitter, the hollow and—Haw! Haw!— the mirthless. The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout—Haw!—so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus , the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs—silence please—at that which is unhappy.
Three things are notable about Erskine's remarks on laughter. First is that from the start he focuses on a particular kind of laughter: "strictly speaking not laughs, but modes of ululation . . . successive excoriations of the understanding." In short, this laughter has nothing to do with the laughter of humor but is rather a specifically satiric laughter, an exasperation of the mind and a lamentative howling. Erskine underscores this difference between ordinary laughter and satiric laughter by situating the latter above the "tragic" affects on his hierarchy of value. Thus, below the lowest mode of satiric laughter, the "bitter," is "eyewater" (i.e., tears), peremptorily dismissed as a waste of time.
Second, the lower two planes of satiric laughter, the bitter and the hollow, correspond to the objects of traditional satire: the bitter laugh is aimed at the unjust ("that which is not good") and is thus "ethical"; the hollow laugh is aimed at the untrue and is thus "intellectual." The modes of satire that provoke these forms of laughter depend on a stable position in ethical norms in the first case, in knowledge in the other. The satirist must him- or herself know the good and the true, and s/he
may assume the existence of at least a few listeners who also know them and who can thus understand the satire. But the last plane of laughter, the mirthless, occupies a strange, placeless, asocial space: the threshold-an originary in -adequation—between the mind and the world. The mirthless laugh is "dianoetic," pertaining to thinking, and specifically to a thinking that attempts to extend beyond the inherent properties of the mind itself. It laughs at unhappiness, which begins, Erskine implies, not with unhappy circumstances but with recognizing the world's alterity as such.
Finally, this laughter—as with Lewis's—is self-reflexive. The mind's recognition of the world's alterity is also a self-recognition. The mirth-less laugh is the event of this recognition. It is the trace of consciousness confronting its minimal condition, the "beholding . . . of the highest joke," the genesis of consciousness as unhappy consciousness. The mind is unhappy and laughs at (the) unhappiness, which is itself: "the laugh laughing at the laugh." Such self-reflexivity should not, however, be understood as an example of the high modernist turn to authorial subjectivity as the basis of symbolic unity and, correlatively, its highlighting of epistemological questions (for example, the ironic occultation of truth in Conrad's novels). On the contrary, Beckett's assumption of an originary "infelicity" of mind and emphasis on "mirthless" laughter implicitly debunks the high modernist paradigm and its traffic in epistemological conundrums. Beckett disenchants the whole question of truth in favor of exploring epistemically contingent, "ungrounded" phenomena of pleasure, pain, social power, and death. "Yes or no?" Beckett's "seedy solipsist" Murphy asks. His free-floating commentator adds: "The eternal tautology."
Unlike Lewis and Beckett, Djuna Barnes does not explicitly theorize laughter in her work. Nevertheless, implicit in her literary depictions is a problematic of threatened subjectivity and self-reflexive laughter similar to that identified in these other late modernist authors. Near the beginning of Nightwood , for example, the Jewish "aristocrat" Felix Volkbein finds himself at a party at Count Onatorio Altamonte's house in the company of circus actors and the ubiquitous Dr. Matthew O'Connor. Suddenly the Count makes his appearance, only to dismiss his party guests without further explanation. When the bewildered Felix asks the oxymoronically named (or hermaphroditically endowed) circus performer "Frau Mann" about the Count's authenticity, this "Lady" replies: "Herr Gott !. . . Am I what I say? Are you? Is the doctor? . . . Yes or no?" Where everything is not what it seems, Frau Mann implies,
the very question of authenticity becomes nonsense, yes and no become tautological. Laughter, in turn, the late modernist's self-reflexive laughter, is the only appropriate response to this nonsensical world from which authenticity has been banished. Dr. O'Connor observes the scene, collecting himself in the face of the absurd through an inward-directed laughter: "The doctor was lighting a cigarette and in its flare the Baron saw that he was laughing silently" (N , 21). The Doctor's laughter shores up the ruins of his crumbling, night-roaming self, stopping his moral vertigo in a stiffening jolt. In a clear projection of his own desires and fears, Dr. O'Connor explains the Count's strange behavior in fancifully ribald terms. "Count Onatorio Altamonte," O'Connor claims, "suspected that he had come upon his last erection" (N , 21). Yet there is little need to ask how O'Connor might know of the Count's final tumescence, or whether he had guessed correctly. The Doctor's "explanation" refers first and foremost to himself. His punning play on the "last erection" before the "resurrection" is a joke on his own cockeyed condition, shuffling between the privies of Paris and the altars of its churches. He laughs self-reflexively, "hardening" himself against a threatening yet seductive loss of boundaries, maintaining his human "erection" against the temptation to dissolve himself into the darkness and night air.
Dr. O'Connor's hardening of the self through laughter stands in stark contrast to Felix's near-dissolution by it. On hearing the phrase (uttered by O'Connor) "the cold incautious melody of time crawling," Felix loses control of himself:
Felix . . . broke into uncontrollable laughter, and though this occurrence troubled him the rest of his life he was never able to explain it to himself. The company, instead of being silenced, went on as if nothing had happened. . . . This only added to the Baron's torment. He began waving his hands, saying, "Oh, please! please!" and suddenly he had a notion that he was doing something that wasn't laughing at all, but something much worse, though he kept saying to himself, "I am laughing, really laughing, nothing else whatsoever!" (N , 16)
I would suggest that this bizarre scene, almost incomprehensible in terms of narrative motivation, reflexively represents within the text the perilous place of Barnes's reader before her text. Felix, himself precariously balanced in his own mask and costume, discovers the impossibility of reading —of interpreting—the unreal world of the Count's party. O'Connor's conceit ("the cold incautious melody of
time crawling") combines an evocation of infantile spatiality ("crawling") and the absurd passage of time (a terrifying reality), for Felix). It triggers the regressive unraveling of "the Baron's" confected identity. The demonic laugh that he hears comes from somewhere else, a sheer alterity. It is a mirthless laugh, expressing the perplexity of Barnes and her reader, to whom every form of relation to these characters is barred but one, the laughter welling up around Felix. And yet, the position of author and reader is inscribed nowhere else than within Felix himself. The laugh is self-reflexive, self-confirming, preserving the minimal condition of subjectivity and saving Felix from utter disintegration as a "character": "I am laughing, really laughing, nothing else whatsoever." The laugh brings him back "to himself," literally stiffening him against the next wave of the doctor's verbal onslaught: "As abruptly he sat straight up, his hands on the arms of the chair, staring fixedly at the doctor who was leaning forward as he drew a chair up exactly facing him" (N , 17).