Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On Kaufman and Existential Psychology

"The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice—it’s conformity."
- Rollo May, 1953

Watching footage of the late great Andy Kaufman is a disorienting experience. Kaufman the performance artist challenged his audience to review and confront dasein; he was especially concerned with contrasting the mitwelt and the eigenwelt. At the same time, Kaufman the man was a shy, sensitive, and deviously brilliant artist whose existential anxiety pushed him to become a performer who eschewed commercial success and achieved cult immortality. Kaufman’s life typifies much of Rollo May’s existential phenomenological psychology, specifically the six ontological principles.

The Biography episode on Kaufman is quite good. I highly recommend it to build a strong understanding of the art and strife of he who left the world wondering if he was a naive and addled man-child or a master of performance philosophy. (Four parts)

At the age of five Kaufman was already facing anxiety and nonbeing. After the birth of his brother, he began staring out the window for hours, observably sad, likely experiencing angst that he was being replaced, leading him to confront nonbeing. This normal anxiety, which he was unable to address in early psychotherapy transformed into neurotic anxiety regarding social interaction; Andy was a shy child and experienced his awareness of social situations as threats to his being. He struggled to make friends, but was obsessed with television and loved to entertain even at a young age. We can understand Kaufman as phenomenally centered; he was an individual who felt an acute awareness of the chasm between the participants within the mitwelt; a chasm that he could manipulate and exploit as performer with audience, but was unable to be bridged to form authentic interpersonal relationships.

In his teens, Kaufman took drugs to dull his experience of threat in the world. This solution provoked ontological guilt as Andy was forfeiting his ambition in order to avoid confronting being. May defined destiny as the limitations of the individual, and in the face of ontological guilt Kaufman chose to engage with his destiny, challenging the limitations of his neurotic social anxiety. Since incapacitating shyness prevented authentic engagement in others, this desire to connect and be truly of the world became the daimonic force behind Kaufman’s life. Frustrated in his ability to participate in other beings, it was through dedication to transcendental meditation and yoga that he was able, as active agent, to control this neurotic under-participation and embrace what became neurotic over-participation in others, though only as a performer, he still struggled with interpersonal relationships. Controversial and avant-garde, Kaufman saw a meteoric rise to fame.

(Points of interest specific to this essay start around 4:25)

During performances Kaufman relied heavily on the ontological guilt of the audience, as well as the inherent disparity between the mitwelt and eigenwelt. Kaufman used intentionality to bridge the subject-object gap in his art; he challenged the audience to agree to a series of concessions to explore the concept of self-consciousness, as he deconstructed his role as artist (subject) and art (object). There is no way to understand Kaufman’s performances without seeing them for yourself, and video is a pale simulacrum as it is unable to capture the experience of collective reality.

In an HBO special, Kaufman tells a few stale jokes to booing and embarrassed chuckles. Kaufman freezes and stares out into the audience. "There’s just one thing I don’t understand. And that’s why you’re going boo on the jokes, and then sometimes, when I don’t want you to laugh, you’re laughing? Like right now." (1977)  Kaufman apologizes and runs off stage in tears while the audience chuckles uncomfortably, wondering what they just witnessed. Kaufman’s comedy challenges the way people experience dasein. As elements of Kaufman’s performance, the audience encounters the ontological guilt when they commit violence on the reality of Andy as they draw their own conclusions to laugh or cry, to corroborate or to reject their current experience of subjective reality which is being artfully and purposefully subverted, to search for the "real" Andy or, like him, to be dedicated to the greater truth of the character.

Kaufman was passionate in his pursuit of existential freedom; he explored the freedom of doing in his character Tony Clifton, the pioneering construct of immersion comedy. When appearing as Clifton, Kaufman became an object and experienced being through Clifton, and this worked primarily because the audience was swept up into the collective experience of this reality and personified Clifton and responded to him as a separate entity from Kaufman. Clifton would insult audience members and harass hosts, show up drunk for gigs. In an almost incomprehensible stunt, Clifton was fired from an appearance on Taxi for drinking and bringing prostitutes on the set and had to be bodily removed by security, Kaufman calmly came to work the next day. Clifton violently and destructively encouraged confrontation of nonbeing. Before the communication boom, rumors and confusion built, and Andy exploited these opportunities as an architect of the shared experience.

The bulk of Kaufman’s performances were dedicated to the freedom of being. He, as a performer, "was" and the audience was responsible for the way they contextualized and responded to his performance. Kaufman was indiscriminate in the response he sought, performing material intended for children with a deep authenticity while the audience laughed not with but at him, or provoking the audience to acts of physical violence against him, as he postured and played with the roll of audience loathing. This controversial career strategy speaks to May’s courage for self-affirmation; the only way Kaufman was able to overcome anxiety and nonbeing was to fuel his manic, daimonic ambition to be, and give the whole of himself to his artistic endeavors, choosing self-expression and existential exploration over prudent career moves. Kaufman experienced safe career choices as stifling limitations mired in ontological guilt; he resented his role on Taxi, without which he would not have received the same level of early exposure, and used it to leverage his performance art.

So emerged his period of wrestling women, and later an orchestrated wrestling match where his opponent does him serious bodily injury and seems to not be aware that he is being lampooned (to make a very long, very funny story short).

Despite being successful and famous, Kaufman kept a job as a busboy at a diner, reportedly to stay grounded. There is some speculation among Kaufman’s friends that this too may have been some form of performance art, and since Kaufman was at the center of this phenomenon, and keeper of his perceptions and intentions regarding this action, it is impossible to say for certain. What remains is the significance Kaufman ascribed to the act; regardless if it was for art or for mindfulness, Kaufman saw his busboy work as something that mattered, something that was important for him to engage in, and was fulfilling on a deep level.

Distant and incomprehensible, Kaufman grappled with issues around the four forms of loving. Unable to meet women without his success, he indulged extensively, using sexual behavior to overcome his isolation. He had few close friends and only one significant relationship, and all report the challenges of interacting intimately with Andy, showing he struggled with eros and philia, the forms of love associated with close bonds to others, and instead finding himself surrounded by fawning sycophants or those willing to tolerate his eccentricity. Agape, however, played a central role in Kaufman’s life.

In his passion and dedication, he exemplified the central tenet of agape: that things matter, that actions matter. He cultivated a childlike experience of the world, and felt deeply and passionately about golden age television, Howdy Doody, wrestling, and Elvis. He was dedicated to transcendental meditation, grounding his experience in the world. He was frequently wounded when his works were misunderstood, or when others broke promises to him, as was the case when a staged denouncement by SNL (which Kaufman orchestrated) turned into an authentic blacklisting. He was also devastated when his application to attend a transcendental meditation summit was rejected because they felt he would make a mockery of the event, when in reality meditative practice was the spiritual cornerstone of Kaufman’s life.

(It is important to note Andy never married) 

His aggressive and deliberately provocative performance art caused a sharp decline in popularity before his death from cancer at the age of 35. Kaufman grappled with the ability to come to terms with the consequences of his actions in the face of these repeated career failures; he grappled with ontological guilt of the violence his art committed against the perception of others, as he was forced to again address the chasm he perceived in the mitwelt. We see here the destructive impact of the daimonic influence; Kaufman was driven to extreme and unheimlich performance featuring violent outbursts. This drive was both the seat of his creative impact and cult immortality and the cause of the destructive behavior which lead to his eventual undoing; he was becoming unemployable, and even a movement which professed love and acceptance as its mantra washed its hands of him.

Kaufman was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after this run of devastating career set-backs.  During this time he sought faith healing and avoided conventional cancer treatment.  Kaufman lived his life as one who was becoming; becoming an active agent in control of his anxiety, becoming the consummate performer, becoming characters framed as equally true or equally false as the unknowable Andy Kaufman, becoming concepts like audience loathing, becoming famous, becoming infamous, and (had he not died) Kaufman would have continued exemplifying the concept.  His friends said he lived his life as if he knew he could die at any moment, and that confrontation of nonbeing is central to existentialism. It speaks to the existential nature of Kaufman’s work that after his death many of his fans and even some of his friends assumed it was another performance piece.

Kaufman, A. (Director). (1977). Andy Kaufman on HBO. (A. Kaufman, Performer)
May, R. (1953). Man's Search for Himself. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Zmuda, Bob (Producer). (1999). Andy Kaufman’s Really Big Show [Biography]. New York: A&E Network.

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