Ludic Clowns, Grotesque Masks
According to Callois, Ludus cannot connect to ilinx, our primary mode of game because ludus can only be used to discipline the effects of ilinx—to reign it in, so to speak. This concept of ludus as a disciplining mechanism has allowed me to finally address an issue I’ve had with Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. The circus seems like it would be a liberating place and, indeed, it is in this novel compared to other locations. However, the circus is a separate, detached realm (or at least pretends to be) that is structured by real political forces: The Imperialist Circus it’s called—run by a guy who looks kind of like Uncle Sam. The circus is a symbol for American Imperialism as well as the freedom that it brings. Contrast these two passages:
“Surely I can rely on a fellow Amurrican to see the glory of it! All nations united in the great Ludic Game under the banner of Liberty itself” (Carter 102)
“When Walser first put on his make-up, he looked in the mirror and did not recognize himself [. . .] he felt the beginnings of a vertiginous sense of freedom [. . .] Walser’s very self , as he had known it, departed from him, he experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, within dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque” (103)
Perhaps this feeling is closer to mimicry and ilinx than that “ludic” game of the circus. Callois argues that ludus is related more with agon and alea and that it disciplines acting and the theater into an art. Carter connects the circus to alea by describing the circus ring in terms of Fortune:
“the circus ring turns into that durably metaphoric, uroboric snaked with its tail in its moutsh, wheel that turns full circle, the wheel whose end is its beginning, the wheel of fortune, the potter’s wheel on which our clay is formed, the wheel of life on which we all are broken” (107).
In a paper I wrote for an Art of the Novel course I argue (without the knowledge of the meaning of ludus) that Carter’s novel portrays the clowns of the circus in terms of what Bakhtin calls the Romantic Grotesque rather than the renaissance grotesque he finds in Rabelais. Carter is well aware that festival is only a temporary reversal and reprieve—we cannot live in it forever. I cite from my own paper:
“Drawing from the narrator’s explanation, Magali Cornier Michael argues that the clowns’ “freedom to choose the self they wish to become undermines the Western concept of an essential self or soul that exists prior to socialization. The political potential of a concept of the self as constructed rather than essential is great, since it allows for the creation of new versions of the self” (Michael 196). However, Michael ignores the catch to self-creation. Buffo explains to Walser, “once the choice is made [of a certain face, identity] I am condemned, therefore, to be ‘Buffo’ in perpetuity, Buffo forever” (Carter 122). Grik even describes most clown faces as already fixed Platonic ideas: “the faces exist of themselves in a disembodied somewhere, waiting for the clown who will wear them, who will bring them to life” (122). Indeed, Buffo makes it clear to Walser that he must accept his new identity as constitutive of his subjectivity: “You must know what you have become, young man, how the word defines you, now you have opted to lose your wits in the profession of the clown” (120). The word, the new name, and the mask all define the limits of Walser’s agency.
Therefore, the clown’s mask fixes Walser’s being rather than allowing him to juggle with it. This fixed quality, argues Rory Turner, shows that the clowns are a Romantic rather than Rabelasian grotesque: “The romantic grotesque consists in much the same imagery as the grotesque, but the imagery is presented in a fashion that loses the regenerating capacity of the grotesque” (Turner 49). Whereas the carnival mask is liberating, the Romantic mask mirrors the new bodily canon defines definite individuals rather than connecting him or her to universal human characteristics. Bakhtin writes, “[i]n the new bodily canon the leading role is attributed to the individually characteristic and expressive parts of the body: the head, face, eyes, lips, to the muscular system, and to the place of the body in the external world” (Rabelais 321)” (Riley 4-5).
The disguise is “ludic” because it doesn’t have any effect in the real world—it is, as Callois writes, “a makeshift device to allay boredom while we await something preferable” (Callois 31). The clowns’ actions in the circus, no matter their regenerative power within the ring, cannot change the fact that they are part of the Imperial Circus with Liberty at the head of its Ludic Game. It is as if our American values of Liberty and Freedom are distractive signifiers for true civic participation!
Indeed, we find this very recognition of the emptying out of the sacred in contemporary manifestations of the spirit of carnival (which combines ilinx and mimicry). Callois writes that the mask “necessarily lsoes its power of metamorphosis in a society freed from bondage to the mimicry-ilinx combination” (128). It loses its power of metamorphosis because it becomes affixed to a particular individual as we saw in the above quotation from Bakhtin’s book. The body becomes closed, static, individual, and sterile rather than open, fluid, grotesque, general, and fertile.
The mask becomes a means of hiding and liberation from external social constraints rather than a means of metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood in the general narrative of sacred life and societies. The mask affixes identity rather than allows one to “juggle with being” as Walser read his make-up at first. Instead of a temporary overturning of the social order, our contemporary “mask”—the uniform—transforms the individual into a powerful, anonymous authority. Anonymity is not related to joy and celebration but to the evasion of taking personal responsibility for actions.
Let us look now to two characters in the ‘circus’ discussed by Callois. I will place his observations in dialogue with the chief clown of Carter’s circus—Buffo the clown. Callois knows, like Carter, that the circus is a “closed and rigorous” universe such that the circus cannot really be considered play but, he thinks, two activities can be associated with ilinx and mimicry. Buffo the clown King realizes that the clown’s ‘work’ is not play. I wrote in the earlier paper:
“Not only the clowns in the circus, but for every performer, this “play” is forced and, we know, “nothing is more boring than being forced to play” (109). Buffo is aware of this paradoxical way of life: “we know we are mere hirelings hard at work and yet those who hire us see us as beings perpetually at play [. . .] so there is always an abyss between their notion of our work as play, and ours, of their leisure as our labour” (119)” (Riley 7).
But Callois seems to maintain that the chief clown’s grotesque imitation, ending in catastrophe plays out a sort of sacred mythology. Buffo plays out this mythology, but instead of sticking to playing out the illusory ritual of sacrifice, he goes mad and really murders someone on stage. This is a break in the ‘pretend’ that cannot intrude upon the circus’ closed world.