Getting Closer to the Sources

Monika Rinck

Illustration by Dianna Xu

But where do you water your camels?

The poet wants to get closer to the sources. The philosopher feels stupidity rise inside him the deeper he immerses himself in thought, it is said in a much-cited text: he is mute, tired, full of aversion, awaiting the shock of difference. It's his daily exercise that prepares thought. An as yet dry swimmer circling his arms at the edge of the pool, gazing blankly over the water. Someone reciting idiotic rhymes in the kitchen and scratching himself all over. Someone lying on her back and humming, and yet another hesitantly doing his nails.

Do the stuff-thoughts now arise? Are they now germinating? The door to the mess is left open by the compulsive hoarder—overabundance is also a fear of chaos, the ritual is quite upright, yet endangered, on the brink, wrapped up in market events, shouts, dowels, oranges, second-hand clothes, mobile phones, cucumbers, leather belts, knives, scissors, and olives. When does thinking succeed? And where does it come from when it’s new?

You are familiar with the underdetermined, the rough, the panicky, the tense, the ridiculous, the amorphous, the semiotic, the overstrained, the mimetic, the poetic, the idiotic, the peculiar and so forth. These are formless, until now unthinkable figures, like the notion of literal sense without sound or the contours of an as yet content-free thought. It is not out of the question that the new, in order to reach the light, has to traverse a dark corridor of stupidity. That is the only way, and therefore tennis, the pump and latex were invented in ancient times. Are you Mrs Subsoil? A glass of milk formally addressed its ex—and the situation suddenly tilted.

What belongs to the advent of the new is a slightly distracted tension of thought that only subsides when a sustainable thought arises. It is the insecure and overtaxing anticipation of a space that is created and thus legitimised with the thought I cannot yet think. Therefore, an empty volume must be established in mute anticipation, into which, however, loitering inner vandalism immediately rushes and where it resides, in fear, distress, and fury. Encouraging and distracting. Did you water the gerunds? Better yet, I dowelled them. Here, everything and nothing fits. Julia Kristeva calls the Song of Solomon the soundtrack of a funeral orgy.

A woman goes to the gynaecologist. That’s enough. Please, don’t tell that one. Too late. It would have been better not to tell me that one. For the poet must be economical with his pre-ideological resources, of which few are left anymore. You know bad jokes, stupid jokes, good poems, malicious speech acts, which are all unforgettable for one reason or another. The enormous inner productivity of the malicious statement is appalling, it commandeers its addressees to such an extent that they soon wish they had never heard this or that in all their born days. It is the ability to resonate for decades that the unforgettably bad joke, the unforgettably evil insult, and the unforgettably beautiful lines of a poem have in common. Meanwhile, the idiot would like to share the following idyll with you.

Ich lag und sann, da kamen Kram-Gedanken.
Natürlich ist es recht, den Kram im Kopf zu haben.
So hältst die Sterne du in ihren Bahnen.
Statt aus der Welt heraus zu existieren
und fremd zu sein wie dir mehr als den Tieren.
Lass deinen Kram wie Himmelskörper strahlen
und denke dir zum Abschluss Brombeerranken.

[I was lying and musing when the stuff-thoughts came.
Sure, it’s alright to have that stuff in your head.
That’s how you keep the stars in their orbit.
Instead of existing from out of the world
and being foreign to yourself more than the animals.
Let your stuff shine like heavenly bodies
and in the end think of blackberry twines.]

There is an unhallowed coincidence between the beauty and the cruelty of a statement fostered by repetition and involuntary memorisation. If there is linguistic love—You’ve spoken so nicely—there will also be a form of linguistic hate. Whether the speaker only cites or reveals him- or herself—or reveals him- or herself in spite of and through citing—does matter in a certain respect, but it doesn’t play a big role in regard to the sympathy one feels for the statement. Just like it doesn’t matter whether the idiot invented the evil joke he’s telling in that moment or whether it was lying around in his mind for several years.

The idiot observes the increase of a very unfunny hardness in many areas, which is regretted by those who advocate and exercise it, as well as by those who exemplarily submit themselves to it. Two homoeopaths addicted to gambling in the slot-machine casino at three o’clock in the morning tissue the machine that immediately tilts. One says: I burnt all the money and am solvent. I’m as solvent as a sea of flames. Two homoeopaths in the slot-machine casino at three o’clock in the morning raise their legs to their foreheads, point to their stretched knee pits and click their tongues. The underpaid temp dressed in an imitation of a green uniform comes up and says: I see “an angry, a furious sobriety compared to which the description of visionary intoxication seems contemplative: ecstasy is a standstill of pure presence in quiet savouring.” Then malicious dowels worth around 200 euros rattle out of the machine. The evening is saved.

Many people—supported by multiple applications—want to submit themselves to a panicky simultaneity, or at least no longer resist it, using distracted multitasking to constantly prove (or swipe) their ability to do so. This form of alleged presence is the opposite of savouring. At times, even sexuality and efficiency seem to merge! Horror! The poet gauges the outbreak of disconcerting ridiculousness, the tang of deeply propitious shenanigans and other staggering games. The strainer says to the demigod: I’ll let you pass, but only half of you. With Roger Caillois we could argue: playfulness often lacks one half; while “ilinx” (the intoxication of vertigo) and “alea” (the freedom of chance) are missing, agon and mimicry are there ad nauseam.

It’s really a pity to see how drab the games have become that society provides for its recreation. Yet they seem to work, at least with the assistance of drugs. “A change in mood is the most precious thing that alcohol achieves for mankind, and on that account this ‘poison’ is not equally indispensable for everyone. A cheerful mood, whether it is produced endogenously or toxically, reduces the inhibiting forces, criticism among them, and makes accessible once again sources of pleasure which were under the weight of suppression. It is most instructive to observe how the standards of joking sink as spirits rise. For high spirits replace jokes, just as jokes must try to replace high spirits in which possibilities of enjoyment, which are otherwise inhibited—among them the pleasure in nonsense—can come into their own: ‘Mit wenig Witz und viel Behagen.’[‘With little wit and much enjoyment.’]”

The poet does not want to suggest that ridiculousness, possibly even in its fucked-up, neo-infantile variant, is an advisable refuge, no—he is not interested in an evasive movement of fleeing on all occasions, but foremost in the moment of gushing. Where the idiot has opened this floodgate, perhaps with the intention of escaping, ridiculousness rushes towards him. Ridiculousness gushing in? Heartless, insentient. Walrus on small party skewers. Pickled onions. Highly flexible. Always ready, when the shenanigans erode, to add layers of new, moist (posh) shenanigans.

Hence, ridiculousness is also what is alien, undermined, or blurred by the unrestrained laughter of the demon. On the etymology of the German word for ridiculousness, “Albernheit”: from the Old High German “alawari,” friendly, benevolent (10th century), it is also associated with honesty and truth, and only in the 16th century is ridiculous, childish, frivolous behaviour added. According to Gert Mattenklott, “until at least the 19th century, an ancillary meaning of the word is retained that is fuelled by the subcultural understanding of the etymology. [ . . . ] ‘Albern,’ we can read in the Romantic Encyclopaedia (of Sciences and Arts by Ersch and Gruber), is most likely derived from the elves, whose name was originally the same as that of the spectre of the dream. But this spectre, the nightmare (“Alptraum”), is called so because the elves used to be thought of as housing on the mountaintops, in the Alps.”

So something remains that one cannot know, just as it is often the unknown that causes laughter, the unforeseeable that breaks into our expectations without any dose at all. It quickly becomes clear that the world and the humans on it are outside of their own access in relation to themselves. There is no control. Along with the ridiculous and its energies, something alien enters into the body. The idiot tries to keep on breathing, shakes his hair in front of his face, sits on his hands, his eyes are tearing, tearing, tearing, he doesn’t look up anymore, doesn’t dare to. But what is visible from afar is that his shoulders are twitching, while the Argentinian female soprano singer on stage burbles the last four songs untouched. And even after he presumes that the stimulus has worn off, and slowly sits upright again, laughter can repeatedly flare up in another spot, but in the same body—and infect others. “Laughter throws itself at others, riveting the air with its exuberance.

And at times this exuberance extends beyond all resistance. For what is foreign is already there: “It is a psychosomatic reaction that can grip one, often intensified by a certain mood of relaxation or also total tension.” Ridiculousness takes control of the body and the soul, it is therefore unnecessary to continue distinguishing between the two. They then vouch for each other, give in to each other. Like an exuberant form of eroticism that sets in after the embarrassment of even having a body at one’s disposal (or the other way around: of a body disposing of us), something which one always already secretly suspected, but has now been renewed as common knowledge, with another body in the confetti of desire. Shared ridiculousness replacing embarrassment can amount to redemption. It possibly even saves the artwork.

Its [the artwork’s] ridiculousness is, however, also part of a condemnation of empirical rationality; it accuses the rationality of social praxis of having become an end in itself and as such the irrational and mad reversal of means into ends. The ridiculous in art, which philistines recognize better than do those who are naively at home in art, and the folly of a rationality made absolute indict one other reciprocally; incidentally, when viewed from the perspective of the praxis of self-preservation, happiness—sex—is equally ridiculous, as can be spitefully pointed out by anyone who is not driven by it.

What the idiot finds so appealing about this—apart from the wishful dream of dealing with human sexual drives in a tender and at once crude and ridiculous manner—is the idea of a literature with an effect, with a direct bodily effect—and because there is this exhilaration, we are obliged to arrange things in such a way that it can break out once in a while. It is indeed a small everyday miracle to laugh together with strangers, because it comes about and a contagious impulse spreads. It transforms situations, in which one maybe waits next to others indifferently or morosely, into collective happenings.

And then there’s the compulsive instigation: “loch, so loch doch, so loch doch schon” (“laugh, come on and laugh, come on and laugh already”), culminating in the more resigning than spontaneous affirmation: “üch loch müch kronk” (“I’m nearly dying with laughter”). To die of laughter is the idiom, and sometimes one reads of fractured ribs allegedly caused by especially strong and violent fits of laughter. I die of laughter, out of a body, into the social body, but also out of a social body. It is a social sound with monstrous portions, but they are not foreign to the social sphere either. Not much is needed, and the little that is can be endlessly repeated for the desperate joy of those in high spirits. At times, a word suffices and the willingness to vary it in all possible ways: „Hlahla! Uthlofan, lauflings! Hlahla! Ufhlofan, lauflings! Who lawghen with lafe, who hlaehen lewchly, Hlahla! Ufhlofan hlouly!” This is the beginning of Velimir Khlebnikov’s famous poem that has been translated in many different ways. “In its enactment, laughter both calls into question the lines of a social order while reinstating others; it gives way to the forces of danger, of the incommensurable, aligning us with the irrational, and the spirited vitality of the nonsensical—madness, foolery, shenaniganery, and clownery - while also figuring a set of actions and agencies that operate through the common and the sensical. Laughter, in other words, makes sense while explicitly entertaining all that lies in opposition.” Of course, there are forms of exhilaration directed against others who in some way deviate from the given norm, a heartless form of amusement promoting defence and exclusion and, all in all, operating at the service of self-assurance. It is an open secret not only among Egyptologists engaged with the humour of ancient Egypt that the number of misanthropic jokes exceeds the philanthropic ones by far.

But the person who doesn’t laugh along has not revealed where his norm limits lie and whether he shares decisive preconditions of communication with the group. This palpable pressure to conform, this compulsion of group laughter showing itself in ostensible disinhibition, lets it appear as a ritual of oppression meant to determine one in regard to taboos that even when they are momentarily loosened guarantee repression. Not laughing along, which, as yes-manship and inhibition (this may be the case, of course), usually puts the person to shame, is often an unconscious refusal to again comply with the norms premised in the laughter. The laughter then appears unbearable, as the illusory frenzy of freedom of a society of philistines. 

Sure, in general these kinds of jokes may also be told, but the idiot certainly has the right not to enjoy them.

What is particularly mean, here, is that the person met with hostility is prompted to participate cognitively. For in order to grasp something as misanthropic you first have to understand it. That is a form of participation against which you can hardly defend yourself wilfully. The idiot remembers jokes he was told as a child and that he did not understand at all at the time. He simply lacked the misogynistic background against which they became meaningful. Retold with a scandalous and murmuring undertone, he found them empty and harsh, but precisely for that reason eerie—and, admittedly, enticing as well. He would love to have laughed, because the clandestine tone in which they were told impressed him. The idiot says he recalls each and every one. “So, finding a joke token funny is putatively thought to be a matter of enjoying it because you understand it. Here, enjoyment or pleasure is key to finding the joke token or other sort of humour token funny. However, it appears obvious that one may fail to enjoy humour—an intended racial slur, for example—just because one understands it for what it is.” At the end the advice is given to have some jokes followed by silence, which in the face of the partially unconscious sources of racism, sexism, and homophobia is not the worst tactic: “Sometimes silence is the best policy.

Indeed, humour is a weapon. If the reader thinks of Kurt Tucholsky in this context, he or she will perhaps welcome this statement. But a weapon is neutral; it can serve anyone who gets hold of it. The reader could also imagine other agents and would be in a terrible situation. In the end, it is a question of hegemony. If it is ethically tenable, even imperative, to laugh at those in power, on the one hand, and reprehensible to ridicule the weak, on the other, the situation must always be negotiated anew. Where is the divide? It can change depending on the perspective and those involved. Sharing the worldview of the person telling the joke can contribute to finding something funny, but not necessarily, for example, in face of a sort of satire that “requires unjustified stereotypes to formulate justified critique.

It is not only the content but the entire situation that turns a laughable speech act into a violent speech act. This dependency on the situation—“on peut rire de tout, mais pas avec tout le monde,” that one can laugh about everything but not with everyone—makes it difficult to draw a border with which one can distinguish between a good and a bad joke. But on the other hand, one is indeed able to do so.

translated from the German by Karl Hoffmann