José Carlos Mariátegui - Outline of an Explanation of Chaplin

The Chaplin issue seems to me, within any explanation of our times, no less considerable than the Lloyd George issue or the MacDonald issue (if we look for equivalents in Great Britain alone). Many have found Henri Poulaille’s assertion that The Gold Rush (En pos del oro and La quimera del oro are barely approximate translations of this title) is the greatest contemporary novel to be excessive. But —always situating Chaplin in his country— I think that, in any case, the human resonance of The Gold Rush far outdoes Mr. H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History and the theater of Bernard Shaw. This is a fact that Wells and Shaw would surely be the first to recognize. (Shaw exaggerating it enormously and Wells attributing it somewhat melancholically to the shortcomings of secondary education).

For his works, Chaplin’s imagination selects subjects no less than the return of Methuselah or the vindication of Joan of Arc: Gold, the Circus. And furthermore, he executes his ideas with the greatest artistic efficacy: the regulation intellectualism of the guardians of aesthetic order would be scandalized by this proposition. Chaplin’s success is explained, according to his mental formulas, in the same way as that of Alexandre Dumas or Eugène Sue. But, without recurring to Bontempelli’s reasoning on novels of intrigue, nor endorsing his reevaluation of Alexandre Dumas, this simplistic judgement is disqualified as soon as we remember that Chaplin’s art is enjoyed with the same delight by doctors and illiterates, by literati and boxers. When we speak of Chaplin’s universality we are not appealing to the proof of his popularity. Chaplin has every vote: that of the majority and of the minorities. His fame is at once rigorously aristocratic and democratic. Chaplin is a true kind of elite, for all of those who do not forget that elite means chosen.

The search, the conquest of gold, the gold rush, has been the romantic chapter, the bohemian phase of the capitalist epic. The age of capitalism begins in the instant that Europe abandons the theory of gold in order to search for real gold, physical gold. For this reason above all others, the discovery of America is so intimately and fundamentally linked to its history. (Canada and California: great stops on its itinerary). Without a doubt, the capitalist revolution was primarily a technological revolution: its first great victory is the machine; finance capital, its supreme invention. But capitalism has never managed to emancipate itself from gold, despite the tendency of the productive forces to turn it into a symbol. Gold has not ceased to stalk its body and its soul. Bourgeois literature has, however, almost completely neglected this subject. In the nineteenth century, only Wagner feels it, expressing it in his grandiose and allegoric manner. The gold novel appears in our days: Blaise Cendrars’s L’Or and Crommelynk’s Tripes d’Or are two distinct specimens but are related to this literature. The Gold Rush also belongs, legitimately, to it. On this end, Chaplin’s thinking and the images in which it is expressed are born of a great contemporary intuition. The creation of a great satire against gold is imminent. We already have premonitions of it. Chaplin’s work grasps something that is stirring intensely in the subconscious of the world.

In the movies, Chaplin embodies the bohemian. Whatever his disguise may be, we always imagine Chaplin in the vagabond look of the Tramp. To reach the deepest and most naked part of humanity, Chaplin requires totally the poverty and hunger of the Tramp, the bohemianism of the Tramp, the romanticism and insolvency of the Tramp. It is difficult to define the bohemian exactly. Navarro Monzó —for whom Saint Francis of Assisi, Diogenes, and Jesus himself are the elevation of this spiritual lineage— says that the bohemian is the antithesis of the bourgeois. The Tramp is the anti-bourgeois par excellence. He is always ready for adventure, ready for change, ready to depart. No one imagines him in possession of a savings book. He is a little Don Quixote, a troubadour of God, comic and restless.

It was logical, then, that only Chaplin was capable of taking an interest in the bohemian, romantic venture of capitalism: that of the prospector. The Tramp could set off for Alaska, enlisted in the greedy and miserable phalanx that went out to discover gold with their hands on the steep and snow-covered mountains. He could not stay behind to acquire it through the capitalist arts of trade, of industry, of the stock market. The only way to imagine the Tramp rich was this one. The end of The Gold Rush —which some find vulgar, because they would prefer that the Tramp return to his bohemia without even a shirt— is absolutely fair and precise. It does not obey Yankee technical reasoning in the slightest.

The entire work is unsurpassably constructed. The sentimental, erotic element intervenes in its progress as a mathematical measure, with rigorous artistic and biological necessity. Jim McKay finds the Tramp, his old friend in deprivation and wandering, in the exact moment that the Tramp, in romantic tension, will with maximum energy take up the decision to accompany him in search of the huge lost mine. Chaplin, the author, knows that erotic exaltation is a state of affairs favorable to creation, to discovery. Like Don Quixote, the Tramp must fall in love before setting forth on his reckless journey. Rashly and bizarrely in love, it is impossible for the Tramp not to find the mine. No force, no accident, can hold him back. It does not matter that the mine does not exist. It does not matter that Jim McKay, his brain clouded by the blow that erased his memory and made him lose his way, is fooling himself. The Tramp would find this fabulous mine no matter what. His pathos gives him supernatural strength. The avalanche and gales are powerless to stop him. At the edge of a precipice, he has enough strength to beat back death and somersault over it. He must come back from this journey a millionaire. And who, within the contradiction of life, could be the logical companion on the Tramp’s victorious adventure? Who but Jim McKay, this ferocious, brutal, absolute prospector who, crazed with hunger on the mountain, one day wanted to murder the Tramp in order to eat him? McKay has, rigorously, completely, the constitution of the perfect prospector. The starving, desperate ferocity that Chaplin attributes to him is neither excessive nor fantastical. McKay could not be the complete hero of this novel if Chaplin had not conceived of him as resolved, in an extreme case, to devour his companion. The prospector’s first obligation is to survive. His reasoning is Darwinian and mercilessly individualist.

In this work, then, Chaplin has not only brilliantly seized an artistic idea of his age but has expressed it in terms of strict psychological science. The Gold Rush confirms Freud. It descends, in terms of myth, from Wagnerian tetralogy. Artistically, spiritually, it today exceeds the theater of Pirandello and the novels of Proust and Joyce.

The circus is the bohemian spectacle, the bohemian art par excellence. In this sense, it has its first and closest affinity with Chaplin. The circus and the cinema, on the other hand, display a visible kinship within their technical and essential autonomy. The circus, although in a different manner and style, is the movement of images, like cinema. Pantomime is the origin of cinematographic art, quintessentially mute, despite the effort to make it speak. Chaplin, precisely, comes from pantomime; in other words, from the circus. The cinema has murdered theater as bourgeois theater. It has been able to do nothing against the circus. It has taken from Chaplin, an artist of the cinema, the spirit of the circus, in who everything bohemian, romantic, nomadic that exists in the circus is alive. Bontempelli has dismissed, unfulfilled, the old bourgeois, literary, babbling theater. The old circus, meanwhile, is alive, agile, identical. While theater must be reformed, remade, returned to the medieval “mystery,” to plastic spectacle, to agonistic or circus techniques, or approaching cinema with the synthetic act of the mobile scene, the circus needs only to continue: in its tradition we find all its elements of development and continuation.

Chaplin’s last movie is, subconsciously, a sentimental return to the circus, to pantomime. Spiritually, it has much in the way of Hollywood evasion. It is significant that this has not impeded but rather favored a complete cinematographic realization. I have found, in a seasoned avant-guarde magazine, objections to The Circus as a work of art. I am of the entirely opposite opinion. If the artistic, in cinema, is above all the cinematographic, Chaplin has hit the nail on the head like never before with The Circus. In this work, Chaplin has managed to express himself using images alone. The title cards are reduced to a minimum. And they could have been suppressed entirely without the spectator understanding the comedy any less.

Chaplin, according to a piece of information which he always insists upon in his biography, comes from a family of clowns, of circus artists. In any case, he himself was a clown in his youth. What force has been able to take him away from this art, so consistent with his bohemian spirit? The attraction of the movies, of Hollywood, does not seem to be the only or even most decisive of these. I have a taste for historical, economic, and political explanations, and even in this case, I think it possible to try one, perhaps more serious than humorous.

The English clown represents the highest stage of evolution of the clown. It is as far as possible from those so-depraved, excessive, garish, Mediterranean clowns we are accustomed to finding in traveling, wandering circuses. The English clown is an elegant, measured, mathematical mime who exercises his art with a perfectly Anglican dignity. Great Britain has come to the production of this kind of human —as with the purebred hunter or racer— through a rigorous and Darwinian principle of selection. The laugh and gesture of the clown are an essential, classic note of British life, a wheel and movement of the magnificent machinery of Empire. The art of the clown is a rite; his comedy, absolutely serious. Bernard Shaw, religious metaphysician, is nothing other in his country than a clown who writes. The clown does not constitute a type but rather an institution, one as respectable as the House of Lords. The art of the clown represents the domestication of the bohemian’s savage, nomadic buffoonery according to the taste and needs of a refined capitalist society. Great Britain has done to the circus clown’s laugh the same thing it did to the Arabian horse: it has educated it with capitalist and zootechnical art for the Puritan entertainment of its Manchester and London bourgeoisie. The clown is a conspicuous illustration of the evolution of species.

Having appeared in an age of exact and regular British apogee, no clown, not even the brilliant Chaplin, could have deserted their art. The discipline of tradition, the mechanism of custom, undisturbed and unshaken, would have been enough to automatically halt any evasive impulse. The spirit of severe, corporate England was enough, during a period of normal British evolution, to maintain a clown’s loyalty to the profession, to the trade. But Chaplin has entered history in a moment in which the axis of capitalism was shifting quietly from Great Britain to North America. The imbalance of British machinery, registered early by his ultra-sensitive spirit, has operated on his centrifugal and secessionist impulses. His genius has felt the pull of capitalism’s new metropolis. The pound sterling under the dollar, the crisis of the coal industry, the weavers’ strike in Manchester, separatist agitation in the colonies, Eugene Chen’s note on Hankow: Chaplin, alert receiver of the most secret messages of the age, had already had premonitions of all these symptoms of a slackening of British power when, out of a rupture of the internal equilibrium of the clown, he was born. The Tramp, the artist of the cinema. The gravitation of the United States, in rapid capitalist growth, could do nothing else than drag Chaplin into the destiny of a clown that normally would have been carried out until the end if it had not been for a series of short circuits in the high-voltage currents of British history. How different Chaplin’s fate would have been in the Victorian era, even if the cinema and Hollywood had already turned their spotlights on!

But the United States has not spiritually assimilated Chaplin. Chaplin’s tragedy, Chaplin’s humor, obtain their intensity from an intimate conflict between the artist and North America. The health, the energy, the élan of North America hold and excite the artist, but its bourgeois childishness and social-climbing prosaism repulse the bohemian, who deep down is a romantic. North America, in turn, does not love Chaplin. The managers of Hollywood, as is well-known, consider him to be a subversive, an enemy. North America feels that there is something in Chaplin that escapes it. Chaplin will forever be accused of Bolshevism among the neo-Quakers of Yankee finance and industry.

This contradiction, this contrast, nurtures one of the greatest and most pure phenomena of contemporary art. The cinema allows Chaplin to help humanity in its fight against pain with a reach and simultaneousness that no artist has ever reached. The image of this tragically comic bohemian is a daily travel allowance of happiness for the five continents. With Chaplin, art achieves its highest hedonistic and liberating function. Chaplin, with his wounded smile and looks, eases the pain of the world. And he contributes to the miserable happiness of mankind, more than any of its statesmen, philosophers, industrialists, or artists.