Liberating Power of Exiled Laughter: Gender, Caricature, and the Antifascist Movement in Prewar Czechoslovakia. The Case of Simplicus.
When Hitler took power in 1933, many artists and intellectuals left Germany and continued their work after emigration. One of the countries that provided a new “home” to a number of those exiled was Czechoslovakia.
By January 1934, a group of German artists had already published in Prague the first issue of a satiric weekly magazine called Simplicus. Although the Czech version of this periodical was terminated early on, the German version, initiated by Hans Nathan and Heinz Pol, continued to be published under the title Der Simpl through 1939.
Bringing together Czech and German artists and writers, including John Heartfield, Franti_ek Bidlo, Antonín Pelc, Adolf Hoffmeister, Josef _apek, Peter Nikl, Erich Godal, and Hella Guth, one of very few women contributors, Simplicus or Der Simpl belonged to one of the most important sites of the antifascist resistance in the First Czechoslovak Republic.
Humor, irony, and satire became crucial weapons in fighting the national-socialist ideology and, moreover, became an important platform for overcoming the tension that existed between Czech and German cultures for centuries.
It also should be pointed out that the history and accomplishments of Simplicus/Der Simpl are only sparsely known both in the Czech Republic and abroad. The magazine was banned by the Nazis during the Second World War, was swept aside again after the 1948 Communist coup d’etat as a cosmopolitan and pro-Semitic tribune, and, unfortunately, remains on the margins of any historical interest until today.(For more details about the activities of exiled German intellectuals in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, see, for instance, B. Havránek and R. Fischer eds., Deutsch-Tschechische Beziehungen im Bereich der Sprache und Kultur (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1968); Ludwig Hoffmann ed., Exil in der Tschechoslowakei, in Großbritanien, Skandinavien, und Palästina (Frankfurt: Rüderberg-Verlag, 1981).)
Although the target of images and texts published in Simplicus was mainly the Third Reich, the magazine also addressed other political and social issues, such as economic crisis, unemployment, homelessness, and domestic politics of the First Czechoslovak Republic. Last but not least, Simplicus regularly provided space for the “lighter,” apolitical genre of humor and caricature, including eroticism and relations between sexes.
These Amourösitäten, represented in an explicitly lusty manner by Erich Godal, provided rather bizarre company to the political caricature that commentedon anti-Semitism, Aryan supremacy, or war armament. The relationship between the two reached an almost carnivalesque dimension in which political resistance went hand in hand with hedonism and pleasure.
In this article, I will examine how this strange marriage between antifascism and eroticism operated in the most popular Czech magazine of political caricature of the 1930s. Since Simplicus was a weekly periodical, and a detailed analysis of its development during theist six-year-long existence would require more space than this article allows, I have decided to focus only on the first volume from 1934/35.
I will show how the relationship of images of gender and sexuality alongside national, ethnic, and religious identities (Czech, German, Jewish, Christian, etc.) helped to fight the political enemy and dismantle many nationalist and racist myths, while using a range of stereotypes of femininity and masculinity.
Thus, instead of analyzing the role of gender images in shaping nationalist discourse, I will shift my attention to how such images contributed to the deconstruction of nationalism, xenophobia, and racism and, consequently, and rather paradoxically, how they challenged their own biases.
As the title of the magazine suggests, Simplicus followed a legacy of a famous Jugendstile magazine of caricature, Simplicissimus, published around the turn of the 19th century in Vienna. Both of these periodicals collaborated with a number of important modern artists, but there was one crucial difference between them.
While Simplicissimus presented itself as an apolitical tribune (which, of course, does not mean that it was ideology-free), its successor used the power of humor, laughter, and nonsense to undermine political conventions and annihilate repressive ideology.
In “The Author as Producer,” Walter Benjamin claims that “there is no better start for thinking than laughter. And, in particular, convulsion of the diaphragm usually provides better opportunities for thought than convulsion of the soul.”(Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Peter Demetz ed., Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Schocken Books 1978), 235.)
So how did the writers and cartoonists of Simplicus exert their diaphragms and vocal chords, and did their humor have the potential to make the subscribers think critically about the world and about themselves?
Caricature and humor have played a crucial role in Czech modern culture, and their importance has always culminated in moments of political instability (just think about the world-renowned character of soldier Schweik from the novel by Jaroslav Ha_ek that appeared when the First World War broke out).
The degree to which caricature threatened the fascist regime and its Czech collaborators in the 1930s was well documented by The First International Exhibition of Caricature (První mezinárodní výstava karikatury a humoru) that opened in Mánes Gallery in Prague in the spring of 1934, around the same time that the first issue of Simplicus was published.
The exhibition brought together drawings, collages, and photomontages by Czech, German, French, and Soviet artists and, with its 12,000 visitors, became the peak of prewar cultural solidarity in the fight for democracy, peace, and artistic freedom.
However, shortly after the opening, the Prague-based fascist embassies of Germany, Italy, and Austria protested against the exhibition, and their political intervention at the Czechoslovak Ministry of International Affairs resulted in the removal of the most provocative pieces from the gallery, including those of John Heartfield, Georg Grosz, and František Bidlo.
Such unprecedented censorship stirred a lot of disagreement among the left-wing European intellectuals, and Simplicus, which co-initiated the exhibition, reacted with a number of sharp caricatures at the first possible occasion.
I. Masculinity in the Pillory
As is apparent from the cartoon that appeared on the cover of Simplicus, Adolf Hoffmeister, the author of the campaign against censorship, used a risky yet very effective strategy when he appropriated the very language of what he wanted to undermine: fascist propaganda. Replacing the displayed caricatures with the orderly photographs of First Reich potentates, he confronted repressive conservatism with critical and revolutionary thinking.
The hidden juxtaposition between removed images of distorted bodies and exaggerated grimaces characteristic of caricature and idealized photographic portraits was also used to demonstrate a conflict between Entartete Kunst ; a condemning fascist synonym for modern artistic forms, and the official neoclassical academic style of national socialism, promoted as the only truly beautiful art by Hitler’s cultural politics.
Remarkably, the male face and body was used here as both an ideal of new German art that incorporates Aryan purity and supremacy and as an incarnation of omnipotent control and surveillance. If the truly revolutionary power of humor consists of undermining the very foundations of that on which the social structure stands, it should come as no surprise that the very concept of masculinity was put in the pillory by the Simplicus contributors.
And yet, masculinity was immune to subversive and deconstructive power of the avant-garde in most of the interwar periodicals, no matter how revolutionary and progressive they were. The representation of men in Simplicus as laughable despite their pompous egotism and political power-as ridiculous, weak, and unmanly creatures-is thus a rather unusual phenomenon.
While the prototype of the ideal Aryan male body could be found in classical Greek sculpture, the German Man according to Simplicus was “blond like Hitler,” “slim like Goering,” “well-built like Goebbels” and “masculine like Röhm.” Bidlo, an author of these caricatures, conceived a man-as opposed to a woman-as a sexual object.
More importantly, he used discrepancy between the promoted physical proportions and physiognomy of a supreme German nation and the actual appearance of masters of racial hygiene policies to sarcastically point out that, as Hoffmeister put it, “the caricature of illusions is reality.”(Adolf Hoffmeister, “Karikatura a krise,” Žijeme 2.6 (1932): 163.)
Josef Goebbels, the First Reich’s minister of propaganda, a small, sickly looking man, infamously known for monitoring ideologically improper language and degenerate images, became a particularly popular character in Simplicus. The editors paid homage to their future censor in the first issue. They published fictional “samples” from Goebbels’s first novel, written in 1929, a satirical autobiography that documented the author’s adventurous route “from a little student to a great politician.”
Titled German Destiny in Journal Records, the novel illustrated by František Bidlo merged the private and the public aspects of Goebbels’s life. Despite Goebbels’s reputation as a fanatic bawler without sex appeal, this spoof highlighted erotic desire, love, and sexuality as the most powerful sources of both Goebbels’s political success and the future of the German nation itself:
“May 12: . . . I want to become a man. To get solid contours. Personality! I want to find a path toward a new German! . . . June 8: How little valid are all these thoughts when one falls in love. Before, everything was calmly hanging within me, like a firmly tied clock pendulum. Now, the machine of the clock is wound up, and the hands start working. . . . June 14: A genuine German man continues to search for God his entire life; poor man who is done. “June 15: Once again: Men create history, including the bad history. June 21: Woman is neither an angel, nor a devil. She is a human being, and she isn’t unimportant. . . . The role of woman is to be beautiful, and to give birth to children. It isn’t that cruel and old-fashioned as it might sound. A female bird adorns herself for her partner, and she hatches an egg. A male bird reciprocally takes care of food. Otherwise, he is on guard and protects [his family] from enemies.”(Michael Josef Goebbels, “Nemecký osud v listech deníku,” Simplicus 1.1 (1934): 14-15.) “September 3: Woman without grace is like a house without entrance. […] The real woman loves an eagle. I’m revolutionary.”(Ibid. 15.)
The paraphrased Goebbels diary is a sharp satire on the absurdity of the fascist propaganda, where erotic fantasies and quasi-scientific reflections on human sexuality are used as a weapon to destroy false myths about the Great Germany.
Nevertheless, no matter how grotesque the representation of masculinity in this opus magnum, it is still based on the traditional male cult of heroism and the official presentation of the phallus as the symbol of the social and political power; the revolutionary victory of Goebbels the politician happens simultaneously with the revolutionary victory of Goebbels the procreator.
However, Simplicus developed a much more subversive allegory of masculinity that completely transgresses traditional gender coding. In the cartoon entitled “Abnormality of German Shock-Workers (Storm-Troopers)” , the soldier embraces his round stomach and exclaims with a shocking expression: “Oh, for Hitler’s mustache, it seems to me I’m going to have a baby!”
The fear of effeminate men was one of the strongest symptoms of modern era that naturally culminated with growing emancipation of women, and such threat was even bigger for the Third Reich that praised a nuclear family, criminalized homosexuality and abortion, and demonized any aberration from traditional gender roles as immoral and deviant.
Thus while a fascist worker or a soldier who falls in love with the nation was seen as a model to be followed, the exaggerated image of boundless love that ends up with pregnancy and turns the “natural laws” upside down threatened the very foundations of national socialist ideology.
In Sekora’s cartoon, the obsessive love to the Mother Nation generates a negative oedipus complex and new, non-phallic male subjectivity, which is predicated upon identification with the feminine. The Nazi politicians, portrayed as beauty idols with their loyal and devoted male servants carrying the burden of reproduction, are unmistakable signs of masculinity in crisis.
Facing an increasing danger of war and loss of civil liberties, the Simplicus contributors realized that what was at stake was not only freedom but also the supreme position of men in both family and society. Attaching attributes of femininity to male cartoon characters was not only subversive but also a potentially self-ironic gesture.
When Richard von Krafft-Ebing defined the male and female character in his famous book Psychopathia Sexualis (1882), he used a dichotomy between an active and passive principle to explain natural inclination of men towards sadism and of women towards masochism. He conceived male sadism as an excessive expression of masculinity, but male masochism was for him a pathological manifestation of hidden feminine psyche.
From such a psychosexual perspective, the self-caricature of men in Simplicus could be interpreted as masochistic. Such masochism was a risky business, but I would like to argue that it also was a challenging way to cope with the internal anxiety of a political, social, and cultural castration. In other words, it was a complex process of solving an internal conflict between fear and pleasure or defense and desire in order to fight restrictive norms, taboos, and prohibitions.(Compare with Ernst Kris, “Zur Psychologie der Karikatur,” in Die ästhetische Illusion, Phänomene der Kunst in der Sicht der Psychoanalyse (Frankfurt: 1977).)
II. Make Love and War: Coito-ergo sum!
One of the most effective means for promoting ideas of racial segregation in Germany in the 1930s was relating race and state-sponsored policy of procreation and natality. Women’s professional activities were seen as unfeminine, jeopardizing the entire future of the Third Reich. The most proper role for any German woman was to be a good mother devoted not only to her husband but also to the entire nation.
In 1934, the national socialists passed a new legislative program of compulsory sterilization for “unfit” citizens, and the statistics recorded an upturn in the birth and marriage rates among the Aryan population.(For a detailed analysis of the relationship between motherhood, national socialism, and art during the Weimar Republic, see Marsha Meskimmon, We Weren’t Modern Enough (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).) Unlike the Third Reich, the First Czechoslovak Republic provided a relatively liberal law about family, and the left-wing intellectuals, including those collaborating with Simplicus, were particularly progressive in this respect.
A conservative and racially segregating ideology of sexuality and political overdetermination towards motherhood appeared at the top of the list of issues to be challenged and examined in Simplicus, as is demonstrated by Peter Nikl’s Philosophy of the Third Reich with the subtitle “Coito – ergo sum!” . The piece shows a happy Nazi family with a pregnant mother of six, loyally bringing a glass of beer to the breadwinner and “head” of the family.
Nikl’s cartoon is a brilliant piece of satire, resting on the knife-edge between pastoral idyll and grotesque caricature, between the joyous evocations of family life and the horrors of ethnic hygiene policies.
Moreover, the pun on the key sentence of Descartes’s philosophy-“I think therefore I am”-even reinforces an ironic and sad link between the age of reason, dominated by positivist science, technology, and industry and the misuses of their findings and inventions for enslavement or extermination of the undesirable “other.”
In this cartoon, the machinery of state-sponsored mass procreation prophetically anticipates the later mass genocide, and the laughter literally “freezes on one’s lip.”
Appropriating the very same clichés one wants to undermine became a common strategy in Simplicus, and a number of contributors used it to challenge the most pervasive stereotypes associated with motherhood. (As we shall see later, other signs or attributes of the feminine remained much more intact.)
Under the exclamatory title “Women, Give Birth for the Nation-Now?!” Petr Roj published a mytho-poetic elegy in which he praised Germany as the most loving and caring country, a paradise on earth for everybody, but mainly for mothers: “Do you know the land where oranges blossom, where heroic women get metal honors on their chest only because they have given birth many times?” he asked pathetically.
“It is the country of thousands of years of culture, of old Romans . . . where a woman with four deliveries gets Hitler as a Godfather by the fifth one. . . It is a culture of sensibility, customs, national pride, [where] a mother is honored and loved within a woman, a child within a mother, and a soldier within a child. It is a shame to talk about our nation. . . We have no decorations of honor for mothers with more children-we are small and weird. [But] how could childless women cope with their own consciousness? . . . Who will put a gas mask on their faces, who will turn on the water roadblocks, who will take care of munitions? There won’t be anybody . . . who’d close the eyelids of these women’s gas masks after they pass away. [Let’s] increase the number of our children to fight crisis and war.”(Petr Roj, “Ženy, rodte pro vlast – ted?!” Simplicus 1.29: 4-5.)
Roj’s change of rhetoric from worship of the neighbor nation to condemnation of his own, from excited optimism to fearful lamentation, is full of absurdity. Here, the German mother becomes both an unreachable model for all women and an allegory of the German nation. On the one hand, she embodies most stereotypes about femininity; she is, in fact, represented as one big womb, a brainwashed breeding machine. On the other hand, her reproductive functions are elevated onto a pedestal, and she becomes a political agent.
She is a warrior whose battlefield is bed, but whose mission is to purify the German race, and she prays : “I pray the war doesn’t start before they all reach a military-service age!” I would like to argue that although the antifascist artists of Simplicus deployed traditional iconography of the mother, they used it not to maintain but to challenge its social and cultural implications.
The comic aspect of the mother in the service of the national state has a sharp edge of criticism: it points out the instrumentalization and objectification of women, and suggests that motherhood is a masculine and politically charged structure that supports male social hierarchies.
Of course, the authors of these parodies were men, and they could not reflect the concerns and experiences of women who were mothers; yet, instead of petrifying the existing patriarchy with their revolutionary humor, they called for disobedient and “unruly women” who would fight their common enemy.
III. Desire and War: The Spring Sicknesses
The Czech avant-garde praised sexuality and eroticism in the 1930s for opening hidden sources of creativity and unconsciousness. However, while Surrealists conceived the relationship between sexuality, love, and revolution as a means to break psychic and political restrictions, as well as to merge reality and imagination, the politically engaged artists, whose work was more connected with popular genres of culture, including caricature, used eroticism as a weapon of direct political interventions.
Regardless of which stratum of culture they occupied-“high” or “low” (and it should be emphasized that such classical distinction was often abandoned)-the left intellectuals radically dropped the notion of the body being a neutral ground.
Whether it was painted or printed, “serious” or “humorous,” the body became a battleground where Eros and Thanatos, principles of pleasure and of death, went hand in hand.
When Sigmund Freud defined humor he claimed that “ (h)umor is not resigned; it is rebellious. It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle, which is able here to assert itself against the unkindness of the real circumstance.”(Sigmund Freud, “Humour,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 21, trans. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 163.)
If the carnivalized pleasure principle has a potential to threaten the social order, then, as we can see on a bizarre relationship of love and war in Simplicus, what might be a cynical or even exploitative humor in circumstances of peace and freedom, could become subversive, or even revolutionary, in the times of war and tyranny.
Mad love, l’amour fou, which Surrealists claimed to be the highest form of love, was metamorphosed by the Simplicus artists into a cruel carnival of everyday reality full of irrationality and madness-reality where national ideals turn into hatred, and peaceful homes into gas chambers. We read, with chills, a humorous text called “Eroticism in Gases,” which the anonymous author describes as “a harmonious picture of how mankind lives and flourishes in war gases.”
The beauty of the flirting couples covered in hermetically sealed and tight rubber clothing and gas masks is well demonstrated by one of František Bidlo’s illustrations of the text, which reads,
“An impatiently expected exhibition ‘Eroticism in Gases,’ accompanied by a luxurious fashion show, was just opened. Our reporter was going from one section to another . . . with breathtaking admiration. He was astonished by wonderfully fitting and gas-resistant outfits on slim, girlish bodies. It would be a pity if acids would corrode such lovely beauty. . . . ‘Even in the gases a woman’s inside could spring into beautiful flowers of her humanity.’ . . . The masks are elaborated so well that the face loses no personal charm; moreover, some of those little imperfections (pimples, warts, or freckles) are beneficially covered.”(“Erotika mezi plyny,” Simplicus 1.15:4.)
Regimes sympathizing with fascism or under the surveillance of fascist agents applied many rules, duties, and regulations to people’s sexuality and personal lives that often reached levels of absurdity. Although such an existential situation was horrific, its surreal and Kafkaesque dimension provoked parody-like mockery that scandalized and exaggerated its perversity.
Just look at Antonín Pelc’s cartoon in four film figures entitled “The Braun Love Is Paradise” published in one of the summer issues of Simplicus: (1) “Huh, a Semite is ravishing our race!” (2) “Let’s march to save our race!” (3) “Oh, my most esteemed Aryan couple, pardon me, and don’t get disturbed in your activities” (4) “In the name of the nation, keep going!”
Here, the repression and nationalist dogmatism turn into a gigantic pantomime that stirs laughter (a convulsive or even hysterical laughter, but laughter nonetheless) but certainly not forgetting, to paraphrase the title of Milan Kundera’s book.(Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, trans. Michael Henry Heim. (New York: Penguin Books, 1986).)
“It is our great luck, our rare privilege, that in the uncertainty of our age, of our future and our directions, in the midst of everyday bitter disappointments we can laugh heartily,” wrote Karel Teige, the foremost Czech avant-garde theorist and artist, in his interwar essay “On Humor, Clowns, and Dadaists.”
“We can make fun about the tragic and nonsensical situation of the world, we can abuse our own poverty by uncurbed jokes. We need the happy and entertaining humorist art as salt. It is certain that modern Muses are light Muses. Today’s human being who struggles with difficulties for his existence has too little time and will to engage with dull and ostentatious academic works. A human being enslaved and mechanized by capitalist system naturally wants short, wild and poetic signs, which should also be provided by humorist art which, like most modern art, has to work with abbreviations, and be synthetic and surprising. And, as a matter of fact, a new era has given birth to new forms of humor. . . . Mockery is a weapon of libertarian and revolting spirit against the rotten and corrupted bourgeois society and morality.”(Karel Teige, “O humoru, klaunech a dadaistech,” in Avantgarda známá a neznámá, vol. I (Prague: Svoboda, 1971), 571-572.)
If all modern Muses are light Muses, as Teige suggested, if all of them are women, and, last but not least, if the concept of the Muse implies that women arouse inspiration but artistic creativity is forbidden to them, one should finally wonder whether Simplicus tried to revise and unsettle any stereotypes about femininity, or whether it preserved them to keep the gender hierarchy uninjured, as “The Division of Labor” by Chéri would indicate.
IV. Femininity: Prostitutes and Criminals
Unlike older humorist periodicals that ridiculed the New Woman as an abnormal creature who appropriates and imitates manly manners , Simplicus rarely included such images.
While caricatures of independent and significantly modern women were extremely popular in most European satiric magazines, Simplicus‘ agenda did not include a direct discrediting of women’s emancipation or satirical criticism of women who had transgressed traditional gender roles in favor of independence, whether financial, social, or sexual.
Moreover, as we have previously seen, some of the customary iconographic models of femininity, including motherhood, were rather self-destructive; they were used to deconstruct their own bias.
Since the mother did not incarnate a paradigm of innocence, purity, and devotion, the traditional binary model “mother” (associated with the good) versus “whore” (associated with the evil) lost its old meaning through which men had controlled the proper woman’s role in society.
Let us look at the cartoon by Antonín Pelc called The Saturday Wage in Zajícek’s Main District. The picture shows an old, fat, and rather repulsive industrialist, Mr. Zajícek, sliding a bill under the black stocking of a young, attractive prostitute who sits on his lap. From behind the window, we see a thin, ghostly silhouette of a hungry miner, perhaps an unemployed one, sadly peeping into Zajícek’s house.
Pelc’s drawing sarcastically comments on the drastic situation of worn-out and underpaidworkers exploited by the rich and snobbish bourgeoisie, but its meaning is more complex than simply drawing on class inequality.
The woman selling her body to a lustful bourgeois undoubtedly gets a higher wage than the hard-working men behind the window but, just like him, she is owned by and dependent on her “boss.”
The exaggerated parts of the prostitute’s body-breasts, thighs, and buttocks-correspond with pictures of female nudes displayed in the neoclassical boudoir, and as such, they are more projections of Mr. Zajícek’s desires than of the cartoonist’s fantasies.
Moreover, the thousand crown bill on the prostitute’s naked flesh and the two alluring nude pictures on the open safe full of money in the lower left corner, clearly signify the co-modification of female sexuality.
Pelc does not represent the prostitute as an evil seductress or a mere symbol of social decay and sin but as a bad conscience of the capitalist machine of endless exploitation.(It should be emphasized that the leftist artists and intellectuals in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s uncompromisingly attacked capitalism and all forms of private ownership, including the patriarchal dominance of women. This is not to say that the ways by which they wanted to obtain class and gender equality were not biased, but they provided an unprecedented criticism of these issues.)
Of course, Simplicus was a satiric magazine and, despite its critical and political engagement, provided even lighter forms of humor that were afflicted with misogyny and crossed limits of both good taste and wittiness.
However, those few cases of banal jokes featuring women-and it should be stressed that these jokes were in the absolute minority-were balanced by intelligent and empowering irony, where the objectification and co-modification of women were used to disempower the political adversary.
When Erich Godal drew Love of a Woman Spy, which appeared on the front page of Simplicus on March 8th, it might have seemed like an inappropriate provocation. On the day that is celebrated as the International Women’s Day, a woman was shown as a criminal performing espionage, a malicious gangster and prostitute with no moral inhibitions.
And yet, it is she who is in charge of the situation while her lover sleeps on the couch. Although her strategic mistake of stealing the same document twice makes her a fool and the whole situation comic and absurd, she is an incarnation of threat for men in power.
The link between femininity and criminality was drawn by Cesaro Lombroso in his famous La donna deliquente (first published in 1893). It strongly influenced many modern intellectuals who used it as an important argument for assigning women to inferiority and asserting moral and intellectual supremacy.
Printing this image on the International Women’s Day might have been a sheer coincidence, especially since there was no other indication of related topics in the entire issue of Simplicus.
It is also similarly presumable that Godal did not make any conscious reference to Lombroso’s book in his cartoon., Yet the timing of the image could not have been better because it suggested that women, like criminals, but also like humorists, are outside of the law; attempting to evade its effects, if only for a moment, by gaining pleasure and power-from love, subversion, laughter or self-irony.
When Mikhail Bakhtin talked about transformation of life under ideological oppression into carnival in his monumental study Rabelais and His World, he emphasized both the subversive potential of carnivalized Eros and the creative and liberating aspects of laughter: “Laughter purifies from dogmatism, from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naiveté and illusion, from the single meaning, the single level, from sentimentality.”(Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helen Iswolsky (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1968), 128.)
Although Bakhtin was primarily focused on the Middle Ages dominated by the church authority, the revolutionary force of the comic could be traced in other periods of European history when ideological dogmas and intimidation took over.
In Simplicus, the explosive politics of the erotic, the critical, and the satirical, were pitted against the official authoritarianism whose unspoken name was anti-Semitism, fascism, and war. The strategies of Simplicus were far from celebrating scandal for scandal’s sake, and its authors beat the nationalist clichés while crossing the normative language and visual conventions.
Moreover, the magazine itself became a truly international and multiethnic tribune whose revolt against fascism and ethnic hatred expanded not only beyond the limits of what is traditionally associated with politics and ideology, but also-perhaps even more importantly for the purpose of my paper-beyond the limits of gender-neutral territory.
Everything, including gender issues, depends on historical, cultural, and social context, and it should be read as such. From this point of view, what appears as gender bias today changes its meaning and implications when it is seen from historically and politically shifted perspectives.
And yet, one crucial issue remains open and unchallenged in relation with Simplicus : All the authors of the caricatures I discussed above were men, and their criticism of gender stereotypes and sexual policy was explicitly focused on the side of the enemy and extreme conditions of the Nazi regime.
Their own masculine identity remained unharmed and coherent, winning both moral and physical superiority over the enemy. Face to face with this inconsistency (and lack of self-criticism), one wonders whether they would be as quick to support women’s rights in the democratic system risking to lose their own cultural and professional primacy.
Last but not least, considering the fact that most of the Simplicus subscribers and readers were men as well, one needs to ask: Who got the privilege to enjoy the liberating power of laughter, and what does it say about the gender (in)equality?