The clown knows that life is cruel. The ancient jester’s motley coloured costume turned his usually melancholy expression into a joke. The clown is used to loss. Loss is his prologue.
The energy of Chaplin’s antics is repetitive and incremental. Each time he falls, he gets back on his feet as a new man. A new man who is both the same man and different. The secret of his buoyancy is his multiplicity.
The same multiplicity enables him to hold on to his next hope, although he is used to his hopes being repeatably shattered. He undergoes humiliation after humiliation with equanimity: even when he counter-attacks, he does so with a hint of regret. Such equanimity renders him invulnerable – invulnerable to the point of seeming immortal. We, sensing this immortality in our hopeless circus of events, acknowledge it with our laughter.
In Chaplin’s world Laughter is immortality’s nick-name.
There are photos of Chaplin in his mid-80s. Looking at them one day, I found the expression on his face familiar. Yet I didn’t know why. Later it came to me. I checked it out. His expression is like Rembrandt’s in his last self-portrait: Self-portrait as a Laughing Philosopher or as Democritus.
‘I’m only a little nickel comedian,’ he says; ‘all I ask is to make people laugh.’
Excerpt from ‘Confabulations’ by John Berger, Penguin, 2016