Hans Schnier, the main character in Heinrich Böll’s 1966 novel The Clown, is mired in the aftermath of WWII.  No one has learned anything from the greatest tragedy of all.   They continue to deny their humanity by labeling, marginalizing and dismissing problematic people.  Böll reduces the denials down to a short list of labels including:

Principles of order
Catholic air
Jewish Yankees
Spiritual weapon
Cast away
Forget about the past
Human nature
Metaphysical horror  
Be a good girl, dear

Böll reuses the labels liberally, making them more and more ridiculous with each use, just as those who seriously use them make them more and more truthful. 

The labels become phantom objectivities that stand in for reasoned thinking, endowing the speaker with a reputation for cunning thought while reinforcing a growing uniformity within the society.  One only has to repeat the phrases.  In rare moments, a thought-leader creates a new slogan as cunning propaganda, justified not by its veracity but by its effectiveness, by how quickly it is picked up and used as a weapon. 

Schnier is a professional clown paid to satirize clerics and bureaucrats.  His art is appreciated on stage, but when he mingles, trying to live his art, he becomes labeled, marginalized, essentialized and dismissed.  But he is a clown and a clown must be sad.  

The real damage takes place in the body of women where pleasure plays with pain and freedom fights totalitarianism.  The Schnier family ignorantly sacrificed their daughter Henrietta and deny it with a phrase.   A salvo of platitudes drives Marie Derkum from freedom to marriage-as-bondage.  One man was living happily with a divorced woman and her 3 children until a grave-faced priest told him to “put an end to these immoral goings-on”.  He must “cast away” the woman and her children.  She took to prostitution to support herself and he to alcoholism to dwell in his misery. 

Thus by hackneyed phrases, the populace herds itself into compliance.  I’m reminded of the 24/7 advertising compressing us into consumers with slogans.  Buy this hardware, hire that service, vote this candidate.  As America slips gracelessly into totalitarianism, bumper stickers that flatten thought and promote belligerent ignorance make road smoother.  

Böll is pointing out artistic opportunities in The Clown.  Imagine the commercial bombardment of slogans turned against the evil empire musically.  Imagine detouring abrasive advertising into a poetic orgy.  Imagine.  


Jim Strope