Humor, Hilarity, Hypocrisy and Irony: The Purpose of Comedy in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Author and historian Barbara Tuchman said “Satire is a wrapping of exaggeration around a core of reality.” In the German macabre novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer where, for author Patrick Suskind, The Third Reich, ”was for my generation always in the back of our minds.”(2) and in a novel full of references to German stories like The Name of the Rose and Faust where misbehavior is often deadly, it might appear, depending on the reader, easy or very difficult for humor to find a foothold. Suskind’s “…relentless irony – a tone of barely suppressed hilarity that permeates ”Perfume” (2) seems atypical of the ‘precision German engineering’ culture. So who was Perfume intended for? Perfume had a wide reception, but was it made to be entertaining, or did Suskind intend to have it closely analyzed by expert German literary critics, or both? Answers of the novel’s themes range from “an indictment of Enlightenment rationality, an allegory of the fascist mind, or simply as a cynical postmodern pastiche that serves the reader titillating but derivative kitsch.” (2) As for comedy, upon closer examination the masterful so called layers of ¨double coding¨ of humor woven through the text are revealed. Humor, in the form of satire, irony, parody, and it’s many other forms, is used throughout the text are used for two purposes: Draw in layman and erudite reader through different forms of comedy, helping to entertainingly lighten up the novel, and also simultaneously on a much more deeper sophisticated level use parody, pastiche, satire, and kitsch to call for a re-evaluation of the creative process in literature post-enlightenment.
Set in 18th century France, the tale of a man with a magical sense of smell and a crazy destructive obsession is often strangely relatable. Perfume illuminates contemporary issues with many comical moments with multi-leveled black humor. As simple as it might appear, general comedy appeals to the layman reader. Aspects of the novel appear ridiculous enough, Suskind apparently saying ”I thought it was such an absurd story”(2) spark an immediate interest, ensuring the average American high school student can adore the novel even with absolutely no knowledge of any German texts or cultural aspects present. For the layman reader, aspects of the novel appear so ridiculous they arouse curiosity. Read by many as a murder mystery novel, humor serves to entertain readers the way a serial killer in a horror movie might by telling his victim a joke before he kills them. Ignoring the massively complex analyses which has been done on Suskind’s use of a protagonist without a personal sent yet with a superhuman sense of smell, the unique, ‘funny’ part is what may draw the ignorant teenager in. It sounds obvious, but a clear trait of humor first allows for an understanding of the immensely complex use of various humor within Perfume. Readers with even a slightly dark sense of humor can also laugh at the foolish pseudoscience of the lillumium fatale without understanding the supposed undermining of the enlightenment, get a good chuckle out of the orgy scene where, just as Grenouille is about to be executed, he uses the perfume he’s created to turn the townspeople’s hatred for him into love and to inspire an orgy which collapses class distinctions and pairs “grandfather with virgin, odd-jobber with lawyer’s spouse, apprentice with nun, Jesuit with Freemason’s wife—all topsy-turvy, just as opportunity presented” (7), the anticlimactic ending, and the ridiculous chronological deaths of all minor characters Grenouille meets without needing a masters degree in literature. The harshness and depressing nature of ending may be a “hollow victory for evil” (5) but is also a silly anticlimactic ending to a rather crazy book after Grenouille’s crazy success with his olfactory magnum opus. Sophisticated cynical jabs at human nature and undermining of enlightenment ideals, crazy taboo topics made light of all appeal to the cynical satirist in us all, making us enjoy reading the novel without any pre-existing knowledge of German Scholars and texts. Humor is used in parody and pastiche form to provide the same entertainment to people who do have knowledge of Germanic literature and German culture.
Still, satire’s place in the novel is certainly more important and complex than might appear at first glance. German literary critics were enamored with Perfume and it’s masterful allusions to German history and ancient German texts and stories. There are many comedic parts only a more ‘educated’ reader will understand and appreciate. In the same vein the illuminum fatal can be seen as goofy, it’s failure makes fun of, and thus undermines the enlightenment, used to critique french society and German culture. An example is the clear connection between enlightenment and fascism, and how enlightenment is proven not to be the antiseptic to fascism, in fact the cold nature of the ‘age of reason’ could in fact be a catalyst for the rise of fascism, as shown by the relationship between Grenouille and Richis. Richis is the ‘eye’ the representation of the intellectual enlightenment, must suppress his instinctual incestuous desire for his daughter, while Grenouille, an uneducated murderer is able to have a huge number of people rally around him through the creation of his perfume and the arousal of a very primitive and ‘unintellectual’ sense in smell. Because Grenouille is an idiot, Suskind makes fun of evil and monstrous murders Grenouille is a funny guy, appealing to a rather base human emotion in the reader, an emotion very much absent in Grenouille. Perhaps this suggests to be human requires a sense of self, not just in possessing a personal sent, but also in possessing a sense of humor. The closest Grenouille gets is a brief cynical smirk. Such intellectual humor also exists in small details, someone with a bit of a religious background can laugh at the irony of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the name of a saint enamored with baptism as a force for inclusion given to an infant who was attempted to be drowned by his mother who didn’t want him. Humor escalates to be present on a much larger scale, up to the novels existence as a whole. Such is possible as a ‘postmodern’ novel, postmodernism is able to send many ideological messages at once, it can make fun of old traditions by turning them on their head and use irony and satire to give them new meaning, going against the establishment using the establishment to be revolutionary, while also idolizing them and perpetuating their traditional messages. Allegorical German allusions to texts, among many other references driving home many different themes and messages. Humor both ironically takes away from and balances out the dense existentialism and references to Germanic texts and adds to them through parody giving them new meaning. Some critics have gone so far as to accuse Perfume of “cannibalizing” past styles. “Addressing the question of literary influences, Suskind claims to be a blissfully ignorant epigone whose memory is so poor that he barely remembers what he has read, much less who wrote it, which, it seems to him, is a fortunate handicap for a creative writer since it frees him from the anxiety of influence and creates an uncomplicated relation to plagiarism, without which, he paradoxically insists, nothing original can be written.” (1) Some critics believed because Suskind had taken from previous texts, Perfume was nothing more than a composition of uncited sources.
“The very issue of creative identity that Suskind’s tongue-in-cheek essay on literary amnesia playfully mocks became a main focus of the critical discussion of Das Parfum. The novel’s blatantly derivative style and its free-ranging appropriation of canonical texts were criticized by some as the product of a literary parasite who invades and feeds on anterior texts. (1) “Readers saw Suskind’s parasitic perfumer as a self-reflexive metaphor for the postmodernist’s epigonal guilt and so failed to perceive the ironic (and more accurately postmodern) implication that all writing is an assimilation of previous writing, just as all identity is an assimilation of previous models of subjectivity. By foregrounding the plagiarism that Suskind thinks is essential to creativity, Perfume undermines the traditional assumption that the literary text is the exclusive personal property of its author. In so doing, Suskind suggests that the humanist notion of the autonomous self, idealized since the Enlightenment, has caused a fundamental misunderstanding, if not a perversion, of the creative process.”(1). As a living literal pastiche of perfume, such a radical intellectual concept is expressed in ironic jab at the literary process itself. “American Germanist Judith Ryan argued the novel’s pastiche implies a critical strategy that forces an overdue reassessment of established literary values, especially of conventional notions of creativity. As such, the pastiche citationality of Perfume challenges the notion of artistic autonomy that had emerged in the Enlightenment aesthetics of Kant and Schiller and was elaborated by certain Romantics and their modernist successors…Increasingly, we witness the emergence of writers who construct their texts as hybrid reproductions of prior texts assimilated into a synthetic pastiche…Even though the parodic qualities of a novel like Perfume tend to obscure its critical function, its pastiche still effectively exposes illusions of creative mastery and textual ownership encoded in the precursor texts that it seems to exploit. More than a parasitic parody that feeds on dead poets, Perfume can be productively interpreted as an enactment of literary anamnesis that contributes to a working through of complex psychic and social issues.”(1) Among these issues include an analysis of the rise of fascism in German after Hitler (funny since Perfume takes place in France.) “After Hitler’s exploitation and contamination of the German cultural tradition, vast portions of its intellectual heritage, especially those relating to Romanticism, were disavowed, leaving Germany (already geographically and politically divided) with an impoverished group identity. Presumably, the implication that the writing subject of a novel like Perfume has been swallowed by the black hole of postmodern ecriture, only to re-emerge as an irrationally destructive and cynical parasite, is too frightening to contemplate in a culture clinging to the shreds of an incohesive collective identity.”(1) So, in addition to simply being entertaining, ironically a purpose usually overlooked, humor serves to subvert standards of creativity and comment on the dangers of the enlightenment.
Suskind’s own sparse public comments, include his prediction for the novels release. “If I ever finished it, it might have a certain level of readers, people interested in history and literature. Maybe 5,000 copies.” (2) certainly seem to point to the expectation of higher level analysis. Whether the books success depends on readers ignorance or capacity for understanding, your appreciation for the novel may just depend on your sense of humor.
(1) The Germanic Review, Fall 2000 v75 i4 p259Narcissism and Creativity in the Postmodern Era: The Case of Patrick Suskind’s Das Parfum. (Critical Essay) JEFFREY ADAMS. Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2000 Heldref Publications
(2) Adams, Robert M. “The Nose Knows.” The New York Review of Books 20 Nov. 1986: 24-26.
(3) Butterfield, Bradley. “Enlightenment’s Other in Patrick Suskind’s Das Parfum: Adorno and the Ineffable Utopia of Modern Art.” Comparative Literature Studies 32.3 (1995): 401-418.
(4) Ryan, Judith. “The Problem of Pastiche: Patrick Suskind’s Das Parfum.” The German Quarterly 63.3/4 (1990): 396-403.
(5) O. Rarick, Damon. “Serial Killers, Literary Critics, and Süskind’s ‘Das Parfum.’” www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25594403.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A7406623c272137fdb1c7b4736017a027.
(6) OÌktem, ZuÌleyha CÌ§etiner. Mythmaking across Boundaries. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.
(7) SuÌskind, Patrick. Perfume. Penguin Classics, 2010.
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