A Response to Jeffrey Bernstein’s Guest Blog Post: “Schlemiel, Schlemazel…Augenblick Incorporated”


Comedy is all about timing.  As they say in showbiz, “it’s all in the timing.”  So, if “it’s all in the timing,” how do we understand comic timing?   More to the point, how does schlemielintheory.com understand the timing of the schlemiel?

I have been thinking about the timing of the schlemiel in many different entries.  But, to be sure, one of the most insightful entries into the timing of the schlemiel came to me by way of a guest post by Professor Jeffrey Bernstein.   On March 24th, he wrote a guest post for schlemielintheory.com entitled “Schlemiel, Shlimazel….Augenblick Incorporated.”  It addressed an earlier post (and other posts) that addressed the relationship of the schlemiel to the prophetic and the messianic.    Bernstein’s post, on the one hand, looks into how and whether the schlemiel’s temporality relates to the models of temporality handed down to us from such religious figures and theologians as Paul, Augustine, and Luther, on the one hand, and from such philosophers as Giorgio Agamben and Martin Heidegger.  On the other hand, he asks, in the wake of these whether another model exists.  I think Bernstein is on the right track and I would like to briefly go over his readings and his suggestions before I give my two cents.

Bernstein begins his blog post by correctly noting that one of my posts suggests the tradition of the “augenblick” (the wink of the eye).  He cites that passage:  “Winking is not a straightforward gesture.  It is oblique.  And it is immediate, like a blink of an eye.”

Commenting on this, Bernstein notes that when he read this he thought of the “augenblick” of the religious and philosophical tradition and Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeit (“now-time”).  Bernstein’s question, upon seeing this, was about whether or not there is a “schlemielich temporality.”

To answer this question, Bernstein turns to the classic (American) schlemiel joke about a schlemiel and a schlemazel (or shlimazel, as one transliteration from the Yiddish has it) who go out to eat and the schlemazel asks the schlemiel to get him some soup.  When he comes with the soup, the schlemiel accidentally trips and pours the hot soup on the schlemazel.  In Bernstein’s retelling, the temporal aspect is highlighted:

Schlemazel:  Ow!  Vey iz mir!  That soup’s hot!  Look what you did!

Schlemiel:  Oy! Look what I did!

Commenting on this joke, Bernstein notes that there, apparently, isn’t anything indicating anything “messianic” or “prophetic.”

There doesn’t appear to be any prophetic aspect to this caricature—but of course, the littlest things contain the deepest truths.  Soup is hot; we make messes; we burn—such is life.  And what can we do except scratch our foreheads and say ‘Oy! Look what I did!’  This may be the adult secret contained in many of our childhood experiences.

To be sure, this last line does offer an important clue. But before explaining why this is the case, Bernstein correctly notes that the “augenblick” – that I associated with the schlemiel by way of the wink – does have a source in theology and philosophy.  On this thread, Bernstein points how many thinkers and theologians in the 20th century – such as Barth, Heidegger, Rosenzweig, Lukacs, Benjamin, Kafka, Adorno, Bloch, Schmitt, etc – “all attempted to articulate the sense that if historical change is to happen, it will do so instantaneously and non-teloelogically.”  To do this, many of them drew on the concept of the “augenblick.”  As Bernstein points out, however, this is nothing new.

To be sure, it goes back to Paul and finds its way to Augustine and then to Luther.  Bernstein points out how Paul’s notion of “Kairos” marks a sense of immediate and non-teleological historical change:

(It is) the eschatologically charged instant in which the encounter with God and the acknowledgment of messianic time occurs.

As Bernstein also points out, this notion resurfaces in Augustine’s “discussion of ‘the present’.  Years after Augustine, Paul’s notion of Kairos is translated, for the first time, into German by Luther as “augenblick.”  Augenblick translates Paul’s claim that the redemption will come in a “twinkling of an eye.”

After citing the religious thread, Bernstein points out the thread that leads from philosophers such as Martin Heidegger to Giorgio Agamben who read the Augenblick against the “mechanical conceptions of temporality.”  He correctly notes that Heidegger and Agamben both oppose Aristotle’s reading of Kairos as “opportune time” and how they both lean more toward Paul’s reading of Kairos.

Taking all of this into account, Bernstein argues that Augenblick is not the right term to use in reference to the schlemiel.  The reasons are as follows:

(1) ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’ (understood as sudden and arresting) are both set over against a conception of time as homogenous, empty, identical and simply quantitative, and (2) as such, both terms are markers for a presence which the schlemiel  always seems to refuse (or, perhaps, fails to attain).

In other words, the schlemiel is much more prosaic.  He/she doesn’t appeal to this concept of time which “bears witness to a religious tradition in a context that is poetic.”  Rather, Bernstein tells us that it appeals to a Jewish sense of time.  Citing Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s book Jews and Words,  Bernstein points out that Jews look forward and face the past.  This recalls the reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus by Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and Hannah Arendt’s essay on Kafka (and her introduction to her book by the same title) “Between Past and Future” where she situates the “he” of Kafka’s novels between the past and the future.

How does all of this reading of Jewish temporality relate to the schlemiel?

Bernstein brilliantly argues that “the schlemiel does not prophesy so much as ‘register prophetically’ what has already happened as what will always already continue to have been happening (Oy, look what I did).”   The schlemiel doesn’t have an “Ahah!” moment so much as an “oh…yeah!” moment.  And this is not by any means an moment of Kairos or messianic anticipation (with all of its poetry and pathos).  Rather, it is quite a prosaic and mundane moment.

I think Bernstein’s reading of the schlemiel’s temporality is right on the money.  Thirteen days before he wrote his guest post, I was pondering this kind of Jewish temporality vis-à-vis the moment in Walter Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism (in One Way Street).  In my blog entry, entitled “Wink, Wink! Walter Benjamin’s Childhood Secret and his Calling to Schlemieldom,” I point how he discovers that he already is a schlemiel:

In the aphorism, Benjamin notes how, in a dream, he “visits” the home of the famed German writer, thinker, and poet: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  He notes that even though he was in Goethe’s house, “he didn’t see any rooms.”

Benjamin tells us how the interior of his dream space appears to him from his angle-slash-perspective: “that it was a perspective of whitewashed corridors like those in a school.”  This implies that he feels like a young student in Goethe’s house (or, rather, school of thought). In the house-slash-school, there are “two elderly English lady visitors and a curator.”  They are only “extras.”  They lead him to the secret, which, we must underscore, is to be read and written.  The curator asks that he and the two elderly ladies “sign the visitors’ book lying open on the desk at the end of the passage.”

When he opens the book to sign, he has a revelation about his name and his prophetic calling:

On reaching it, I find as I turn the pages my name already entered in big, unruly, childish characters.

He realizes that he doesn’t have to sign!

This is the prophetic calling of the schlemiel.  To be sure, his name is “already” written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  The words literally wink at him: Benjamin is in on a big joke.   This passage suggests that we all know that Benjamin was always meant to be a fool.  Moreover, it is written in the book of Goethe: the prophet, so to speak, of all German scholarship.

In the blog entry following this one, I call his realization (humorously) the “schlock of discovery.”  The point of the shock is, as Bernstein would say, not a poet “Aha-moment” so much as a prosaic “oh-yeah-moment.”  Benjamin’s discovery has a belatedness to it which is unmistakable.  And it has a prophetic element to it as well since it does, as Bernstein says, “prophetically register what has always happened as what will always already continue to happen.”  And when Benjamin says “Oy, look what I did,” he realizes that he, like a schlemiel, didn’t know what he did and only finds out later about it.  But, ultimately, the lingering question for Benjamin – in the “Vestibule” aphorism – is really “who”did this?  Am I the source of this prank or something/someone else?

I want to thank Professor Bernstein for clarifying the schlemiel’s temporality for me.  It is prophetic and messianic but in a way that is more prosaic that anything we find in Paul, Augustine, Agamben, or Heidegger.  And this temporality yields a prophetic and messianic kind of time that is “other.”

Bernstein ends his piece on the schlemiel’s temporality with a contrast that brings out what is at stake; it’s the difference between a poetic and a prosaic ending-slash-beginning:

If life is poetic, we turn to TS Eliot: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness.”

If it is prosaic, what else is there to do but laugh? Incipit schlemiel…

In lieu of this, I find it fascinating that, in relation to the Messianic, the Midrash associates real laughter with a laughter-to-come.  In making this claim (or rather interpretation) it uses Psalm 126:2 as its textual basis:

Then our mouth was filled with laughter And our tongue with joyful shouting; Then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

Q: How do we reconcile the schlemiel’s belatedness with this laughter to come?

A: It’s all in the timing.




‘Clumsy Scribblings of Senseless Children’s Hands’: On Heidegger and Kafka’s Temples


One of the most “Greek” moments of Martin Heidegger’s celebrated essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” can be found in his description of the “temple work.”  Heidegger depicts the temple as “giving things their look” and “men their outlook.”  The temple “lets the god himself be present and thus is the god himself.”

The temple gathers everything together into itself and creates a “holy precinct”:

It is the temple work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. 

Besides being the ground for the “shape of destiny for human being,” Heidegger says that the temple is the condition for the possibility of a nation’s “return to itself” and the only basis for the “fulfillment of its vocation.”

The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people.  Only from and in this expanse does the nation first return to itself for the fulfillment of its vocation.

Through the temple, the earth becomes the earth, the sky the sky, the gods the gods, and, most importantly for Heidegger, a nation a nation.  Because it does all of this, the temple is the ultimate work of art.  It delineates, as Heidegger says, the holy from the unholy.

Kafka, in contrast to Heidegger, has a different story to tell about the temple.  In a parable entitled “The Building of the Temple,” Kafka depicts a temple whose holiness is tainted (or rather marked) by the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands.”  Before we look into the meaning of this kind of marking, we need to make a close reading of how Kafka depicts the temple as such.

Kafka begins his parable by talking about the builder of the Temple – the artist – who he depicts as a kind of magician.  The world literally goes to him as if it were waiting all its life to be “put to work” in the name of holiness.

Everything came to his aid during the construction work.  Foreign workers brought the marble blocks, trimmed and fitted to one another.  The stones rose and placed themselves according to the gauging motions of his fingers.  No building ever came into being as easily as did this temple – or rather, this temple came into being the way a temple should.

By saying that it came into being “the way a temple should,” Kafka’s narrator implies that temples should, in a Heideggarian sense, “come together” in the “temple work” and preserve the “truth.”  Heidegger would not disagree with this; although his description differs, he would agree with the spirit of Kafka’s initial description of the temple work.

Knowing full well that this description of the temple is too Greek and too Holy, Kafka ruins it by way of introducing “instruments…magnificent sharpness” and their “senseless scribblings.”

Except that, to wreak a spite or to desecrate or destroy it completely, instruments obviously of a magnificent sharpness had been used to scratch on every stone…for an eternity outlasting the temple, the clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands, or rather the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers.

Heidegger notes that sometimes the god’s leave the temple for historical reasons and what remains behind, quite simply, are ruins.  No holiness or unholiness remains.  But, for Kafka, what remains are the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands.”  The desecration of the temple by such scribblings remains.

But there are many questions that arise out of this parable which have yet to be answered.  Who used these instruments and why should their mark outlast the temple? Does this survival make the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands” more significant?

The fact of the matter is that, for Kafka, the only thing that remains of the temple are “childish” gestures – what he calls scribblings (which make us think of hands). And, as Walter Benjamin notes of Kafka, we should read his work by was of a close attention gesture.

Regarding gesture, we notice that in the first part of the parable the gesture of “his fingers” (their slight movement) is in harmony with the act of building the perfect temple.  These are gestures of a mature and responsible adult who is passionately committed to the holy.  One can imagine that such an artist would arduously be at work building Heidegger’s temple.

Thinking by way of gesture, Kafka understood that the greatest offense to the adult nature of the holy is the gesture of a child.  As he notes, the gesture of the child is “clumsy” and “senseless.”  To add to the contrast, Kafka notes that this gesture comes from their hands as opposed to “his” fingers.

The gesture of children’s clumsy hands finds an echo in Walter Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism which I have written many blogs on.  As I noted in these entries, Benjamin saw the image of himself in Goethe’s house (and it wouldn’t be off to call it a temple) ruined by childish writing.  He didn’t write his name; someone else did.  He didn’t bring his ruin on; someone else did.  Nonethless, he is marked by this “childish scribbling.”

To be sure, it is a child’s scribblings which, for both Benjamin and Kafka, ruins holiness.  For Benjamin, his discovery of this scribbling is the discovery of himself as a schlemiel.  His destiny is bound to this childish kind of writing and he is well aware of the fact that it clashes with the holiness of Goethe’s temple.  Kafka is also aware that this writing marks the temple and ruins it; he is aware that he is the one who must relay this message to us. Even though he is not the one who perpetrated the writing, he reports on it.  It is, so to speak, his awareness of the schlemiel and his ways that he reports.   The schlemiel – regardless of his good intent – has a way of ruining perfection.  The schlemiel’s actions (gestures) are clumsy and senseless scribblings.  And, in many novels and in Hasidic stories, perfection is ruined in the name of something to come.  Ruining the temple, the Greek one, is not simply an act of rebellion or ridicule.  It is preparatory and it opens up the most foolish thing of all: hope.

Citing Kafka’s aphorism, Maurice Blanchot – in his essay “Kafka and Literature” – ends his essay with the claim that “art is like the temple of which the Aphorisms speaks.”  Blanchot explains the meaning of this claim by likening art to a place of where opposites dwell together:

Art is the place of anxiety and complacency, of dissatisfaction and security.  It has a name: self-destruction, infinite disintegration.  And another name: happiness, eternity.    

The problem with Blanchot’s reading of the parable is that, like Heinz Politzer, it leaves out the comic aspect of this parable and prefers, instead, a generalization about opposites dwelling in the same place.  He prefers the paradox as such.

Rather than simply see the paradox, which is of course relevant, I’d suggest we see the children’s senseless scribbling as something that both Benjamin and Kafka thought of as standing in the way between themselves and holiness.  They both desire the holy, but, unlike Heidegger, they both understand that no matter what they do they will always slip into the childish gestures of the schlemiel.  They see themselves by way of this predicament and know that it will be an endless embarrassment.  Yet, as I mentioned above, they saw such ruination as opening to something other, something to come.

Heidegger, on the other hand, seems to believe that perfect temples could still be made and that the destiny of nations could be predicated by such a free-standing structure.   For Kafka and Benjamin, one can’t think of the temple without thinking of the schlemiel and his childish, senseless scribbling.

The schlemiel’s writing is written on the temple wall.  Kafka could see it.  Too bad Martin Heidegger and Albert Speer couldn’t….