Antoine Watteau, The Italian Comedians, probably 1720, oil on canvas.

A Pierrot for the Present

Or "Living in a Constant State of Laugh-Cry."

by Esmé Hogeveen
May 3 2020, 9:30am

Antoine Watteau, The Italian Comedians, probably 1720, oil on canvas.

It’s been five weeks of self-isolation and all of my friends are bored of talking about themselves. I live in Canada, so though the emergency relief isn’t perfect—and certainly isn’t supporting everyone equally—I recognize that my peers and I find ourselves in better positions than many in the world. My dog Willie and I have been self-isolating in Toronto and I’ve noticed that when I phone a bud, the conversation usually begins with a bit of rhetorical side-stepping.

“How are you doing?”

“I don’t know. Good? Bad? Fine?”

To cut to the chase (I have a phone plan with limited daytime minutes), I’ve caught myself asking: “Have you cried yet today?”

Ironically, or perhaps not ironically at all, this question typically evokes laughter. Chuckles, chortles, high-pitched peels, belly laughs, giggles, and thigh-slapping guffaws have long been bedfellows with tears, sobs, and all manner of delicate and indelicate weeping. Yesterday on CBC radio (Canada’s equivalent of NPR), a journalist remarked upon the challenge of maintaining tonal sensitivity, while not overwhelming listeners with relentlessly dire news. “How much laughing is okay when there is so much suffering?” the radio host mused.

When people are overwhelmed, they tend to laugh—or cry. In a 2014 article in The Atlantic titled “The Science of Laughing Through the Tears,” writer Andrew Giambrone explores the phenomenon of people simultaneously accessing both ends of the emotional spectrum in order to self-regulate. Citing work by Oriana Aragón, a psychology researcher at Yale University, Giambrone explains that “people may laugh when they’re nervous in order to moderate their nervous feelings; likewise, people may cry when they’re happy to recover from distracting giddiness.”

Lately I’ve been thinking about the archetype who best embodies this bathetic fusion: the tragicomic clown or fool. Let me be clear, I’m not thinking about the cherry-wigged, slap-happy Bozo, the 20th-century archetype who inspired Ronald McDonald and countless birthday party entertainers and Halloween movies. Rather, I’m referring to Bozo’s more muted, self-reflective predecessor—the sad clown, also known as the Pierrot.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, "Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles," 1718-1719.

An iconic loner with a painted white face and exaggerated brows; loose-fitting, white button-up smock and pantaloons; and a permanently wistful mien, Pierrot emerged from Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte tradition during the 16th century. Within Italian and French clowning traditions, the hapless Pierrot often appears in plots that feature his beloved wife Columbine absconding with Harlequin, leaving Pierrot alone and broken-hearted. Despite being the butt of early modern cuckold jokes, Pierrot’s softer masculinity endeared him to contemporary audiences and his appeal grew over subsequent centuries (one may note a conspicuous reference in Porches’ new video). During the 1800s, Pierrot became a Romantic darling, and his mime-like silence and watchful reserve spurred comparisons to the developing Modernist archetype of melancholic artist during the 19th and 20th centuries. (It is perhaps also noteworthy that Pierrot was occasionally performed by women in 19th-century France, shifting the character’s identity toward potential androgyny.)

A figure who uniquely combines naïveté and world-weariness, Pierrot is the embodiment of the laugh-cry. Despite perpetually facing reasons to despair (that swaggering Harlequin just won’t leave Columbine alone!), Pierrot’s hopefulness—laughable though some audiences may find it—is also what fortifies him. As a fleshy precursor to the emoticon with neon sapphire tears streaming down its grinning yellow face, I’d argue that Pierrot is an unexpected symbol for the present—that is, of course, only if we’re lucky enough to be stuck at home and watching the clock, awaiting another Groundhog Day-like morning.

Perhaps experiences of commingled happiness and sadness, elation and grief, facilitate moments of unexpected calm simply by compelling us to acknowledge the surreal forces that govern reality. In many ways, COVID-19 has laid bare the absurd flimsiness of structures supposedly keeping chaos at bay. This very evening, as I type, Astra Taylor, an American activist and writer, shared a Reuters’ post with the headline: “Special Report: Former Labradoodle breeder tapped to lead U.S. pandemic task force.” Taylor commented: “An amazing headline, if you read it with detachment and not terror.”

Pierrot doesn’t reveal social machinations by investigating. Instead, he simply watches and learns. As audience members, we witness Pierrot observing and are compelled to reflect upon our own underlying motives, desires, and lost opportunities. Since Pierrot has been so widely interpreted by varying aesthetic movements, it is impossible to distill a precise personality or set of values. Across myriad representations, however, we consistently see the sad clown representing the tension between holding things together and acknowledging crushing uncertainty.

In Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Jan Kott writes, "The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognize this world as rational.” In the present moment of profound uncertainty—where developing a cogent sense of the big picture seems necessary, but increasingly difficult—Pierrot seems more relevant than ever. The crestfallen clown is distinct from the Joker, that over-considered icon of 2019, because Pierrot isn't interested in causing a ruckus. Rather, he (or she or they!) comments from the sidelines, observes from a distance (via Zoom, perhaps!?), and tries to make sense of nonsense and a lack of control.

Returning to the CBC’s host question, “How much laughing is okay when there is so much suffering?,” it seems clear that while thoughtfully calibrating tone has almost never been so important, people still crave momentary release. Levity through laughter can be like an ephemeral sun patch on an unswept floor. A reminder of possibility or change, or even that one’s perspective is bound to shift alongside uncontrollable global forces. If there is an occasional spot of sun, maybe it’s okay to briefly sit—alone, of course, or only with one’s pod mates—and to laugh and feel a glimmer of hope. If you end up laughing and crying, you’re definitely not alone.