He Says I Look Like a Jew: Anti-Semitism, Misfortune, and Crypto-Jewishness in Robert Walser’s “Jakob Von Gunten”



What I love about a great novelist is his or her ability to surprise the reader.  However, sometimes the surprise throws everything the reader thought about the writer into question.  This is especially prescient when the main character of his or her novels is often someone we find charming, pitiable, and yet insightful.  What happens when that character says or does something surprising that puts our identification with the character (and the novelist) into question? More to the point, what happens when that surprise has anti-Semitic content?  How does it alter the way we read a writer?  And how does a reader go beyond the surface to figure out the meaning or point of this or that anti-Semitic content? All of these questions came to the surface when I came across some anti-Semitic content in Robert Walser’s 1908 novel, Jakob Von Gunten.  Reading it, I wondered if Walser, a  very subtle writer, was affirming it, rejecting it, and trying to go beyond what Karl Marx and others called the “Jewish Question,” or actually identifying with the “misfortune” of Jewishness.

Robert Walser’s characters are often pitiable and yet endearing.  In a recent essay I wrote on Robert Walser’s novel, The Tanners (written the year before, in 1907), I address an important moment in the text when Simon (the main character of the novel, who I associate with the folkloric character, Simple Simon), in a drunken state, tells a table of strangers to say cheers to misfortune.   He is a torn man.  Strangely enough, he wants to celebrate this.

Misfortune is educational, that’s why I’m asking you to raise your glasses with the glittering wine to drink a toast to it.  And again! There.  I thank you.  Let me tell you, I’m a friend of misfortune, a very intimate friend, for misfortune merits feelings of closeness and friendship.  It makes us better – that’s doing us quite a good turn…No, it’s destiny – misfortune – that’s beautiful.  It’s also good, for it contains fortune its opposite.  (259)

Reading this one feels great pity for the main character who, gradually, seems to destroy himself.  His self-hatred and torn character, which is based on the fact that he feels responsible for not being able to keep a job, cannot reconcile itself with the fact that he would rather walk or wander the world and let go of the demand of society…to work:

That I’d have to withdraw into apathy, antipathy, and bitterness.  No, things stand quite differently, they stand brilliantly, they couldn’t stand anymore brilliantly for a person just becoming a man: It is I –I – who have insulted the world.  The world stands before me like an infuriated, offended mother: that face I’m so in love with: the face of Mother Earth, demanding atonement! I tally up everything I’ve neglected, dreamed away, overlooked and transgressed. (349)

He is miraculously saved by a waitress in a restaurant he wanders into.  Unlike Simple Simon at the fair, she gives him a free taste of pie and listens to his story (with all its misfortunes).  She tells him to “stop.”

You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully.  You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly.  Do you know what it is you need?  You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate.  (350)

These last lines are profound.  And the journey I went through, as a reader, showed me how powerful Walser’s tragic-comic message is.   Walser, in the novel, suggests that Simon’s brother, Kaspar, a visual artist, is the perfect humble servant.  Kaspar isn’t a torn servant.  Simon is.  This makes recognition him feel imperfect and like a failure.   This leads him to self-deprecate to a level which, as we see above, is nearly suicidal.  Walser’s tragic moral lesson is that when a person is going down that path he or she cannot save him or herself through writing or, as Walser puts it, “daydreaming.”  You or I need the other because nothing, save for her words, can make us stop and save us from the self-torment that comes with failure and self-sabotage.

The other – like the woman who, as Walser’s passage suggests above, teaches Simon to whisper – teaches us to whisper when speaking to her rather than scream at ourselves.

Although I was inspired by this final message in his novel, I knew full well that Walser’s characters, like Simon, are hard to read.  Their self-doubt and bitterness is lacerating, but the insights we read, and the wonderfully creative writing style, from page to page, sometimes redeems it and makes us forget about how tormented he is. Either way, these light, comic moments come in spurts.  They are, like the character, small. And the reader, for taking the reprieve they offer, becomes small and naïve.  After all, who wants to be bitter.  It’s better to dream.  Who needs misfortune?

But most recently my reading of Walser has been altered.

When I came across an anti-Semitic comment in Robert Walser’s Jakob Von Gunten, I was shocked.  Speaking of his friends Kraus, who is also at the Benjamina Institute (which teaches people how to be servants), the main character, Jakob, writes of a Kraus’s reaction to a photographic portrait of himself.  Jakob, before saying this, is a character who is quite similar to Simon of The Tanners. But this changes the portrait of Walser’s Simpleton:

The portrait, a really good one, shows me looking out very very energetically into the world.  Kraus tries to annoy me and says that I look like a Jew.  At last, at least he laughs a bit.  “Kraus,” I say, “please realize, even Jews are people.”  We quarrel about the worth and worthlessness of the Jews and it is splendid entertainment.   I wonder what good opinions he has: “The Jews have all the money,” he thinks.   I nod, I agree, and say: “It’s the money that makes people Jews.  A poor Jew isn’t a Jew, and rich Christians, they’re dreadful, they’re the worst Jews of all.”  He nods.  At last, at last I have found the person’s approval.  (57)

As one can see, Jakob tries to change Kraus’s perspective about Jews by trying to break Jews up into two groups: Jews who are wealthy and Jews who are poor.  And he expands the definition of Jew to be anybody who is rich (such as “Rich Christians”).  Even so, Jew remains a derogatory term (Karl Marx in his essay, “On the Jewish Question,” does much the same by associating capitalism with Judaism).   It is anti-Semitic.  Walser’s Jakob basically sees goodness in terms of a generic kind of poverty, and not as “Jewish.”

Kraus responds by saying that Jews and Christians really “don’t exist” there are only “mean people and good ones.  That’s all”(57).   He asks Jakob what he thinks about this idea which reduces everyone to humanity rather than to faith.   The two have a “really long discussion.”   But we don’t hear the conclusion.  It disappears.  And what happens, in stead, is Jakov’s paen to the truly humble servant: Kraus.  In contrast to Kraus, his life is meaningless and truly small:

The good, fine soul.  Only he doesn’t want to admit it….Kraus has character: how clearly one feels that.  Of course, I’ve written the account of my life, but I tore it up.  Fraulein Benjamenta warned me yesterday to be more attentive and obedient.  I have the loveliest ideas about obedience and attentiveness, and it’s strange: they escape me. (57)

I find this detour fascinating because the appeal to charm comes into conflict with the anti-Semetic thread (that he also tried to redeem by calling all rich people Jews).   He portrays himself as a hopeless daydreamer who is really innocent.  He can’t be a perfect servant, like Kraus, because his mind (like our minds) likes to wander. This is charming.

He associates morality with daydreaming:

I am virtuous in my imagination, but when it comes to practicing virtue?  What then? You see, then it’s quite another matter, then one fails, than one is reluctant.  Also I am impolite.   I long very much to be courtly and polite, but when it’s a question of speeding ahead of the inductress and opening the door for her respectfully, who’s that scoundrel there, sitting at the table?  Who springs up like a gale to show his manners? Aha, it’s Kraus.  Kraus is a knight from head to toe.  (58)

In his analogy, he is the one who sits down.  He’s belated. Kraus’s service is on time.  While Kraus is the “knight” who “belongs in the middle ages,” Jakob is an ethical failure.  Like a schlemiel, his intentions don’t match his actions.  (He is good in his imagination but fails to act…on cue.)

Kraus is the perfect model to his comical failure: “Kraus only wants what is right and good.  That is no exaggeration at all.  He never has bad intentions.  His eyes are frighteningly kind….When one looks at Kraus, one can’t help feeling how hopelessly lost in the world modesty is.  (58)

As a reader, I wonder, can Kraus redeem anti-Semitism? Has his reduction of Jew to humanity saved the day?  And can I forgive Jakob for his attempt to re-define Jewishness (albeit in a way that retains traces of anti-Semitism)?

In the end of the section, before the reader is presented with Jakob’s autobiographical essay, which he tore up, Walser’s narrator, Jakob appeals to the compassion of the reader.  The words he chooses are echoed in the work of Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, and even Paul Celan:

I like listening for something that doesn’t make a sound.  I pay attention, and that makes life more beautiful, for if we don’t have to pay attention there really is no life. (59)

Walter Benjamin notes something like this in his Kafka essay when he writes – reflection on what makes Kafka’s fiction so unique – that “attention is the silent prayer of the soul”(Illuminations, 134).

What’s astonishing is that this whole reflection – which ends off reflecting on the beauty of listening and attention – starts off with Kraus’s “comic” anti-Semitic insult that Jakob looked “like a Jew” in a photo.    And, strangely enough, the very last words point out why he might “look like a Jew.”  In contrast to Kraus, Jakob is too urban and distracted by the “promises’ and “turmoil” of the city:

Kraus…has an education that is as simple as it is purely human.   The turmoil of the big city with all its many foolish, glittering promises leaves him completely cold.  What an upright, tender, solid human soul!  (57)

The city makes him look tormented and pushes him to dream not act.  He is not simple.  Like the other, better, Jew, he is poor.  And his poverty is urban; it has to do with the “turmoil of the city.”  The Jew is associated with the city but also with poverty and wealth.   Only Kraus seems to be fully human.  He is a faithful servant.  Jakob is a distracted dreamer whose life is a misfortune.

I’ll end off with the first two stanzas from a well-known Heinrich Heine poem – written in the 19th century – which Walser may have heard second hand or read. The sad fact of the matter is that the author of this poem was a famous German Jew who many would call “self-hating.”  The poem speaks for itself.


“The New Jewish Hospital in Hamburg”


A Hospital for Jews who are sick and needy,

For those unhappy threefold sons of sorrow,

Afflicted by the three most dire misfortunes

Of poverty, disease, and Judaism


The worst by far of all three the last is,

That family misfortune, thousand years old,

The plague which had its birth in Nile’s far valley….

Addressing this “misfortune,” Heine ponders whether time will “e’er extinguish, this glowing ill.”  But then he turns to but doesn’t name Jesus directly, as the “man of deeds” and “the heart” who offers some kind of solace:

Yet in the meantime let us

Extol the heart which lovingly and wisely

Sought to alleviate pain as far as may be,

Into the wounds a timely balsam pouring.




A man of deeds, he did his very utmost,

Devoted to good works his hard earned savings,

In his life’s evening, kindly and humanely,

Recruiting from his toils by acts of mercy.


Heine’s “man of deeds” sounds a lot like Jakob’s characterization of Kraus.  But the last line of Heine’s poem tells us that “the man of deeds” is different from the Jews who can’t seem to end their misfortune.  It is incurable: He “wept deploring,/ his brethren’s great, incurable misfortune.”

Reading Walser, I wonder if and whether the irony, in the spirit of Heine, is that Jakob’s worst misfortune is not that he isn’t Kraus but that he is really….Jewish.  But as Hannah Arendt suggests in her reading of the schlemiel, this misfortune can be read in a comical sense.  Perhaps Jakob – because he can’t seem to leave misfortune behind but, at the same time, also seems to be the only one who is truly free in a world where simplicity is warped by elitism and phoniness – might be what Heine would call a schlemiel.  Like Heine’s schlemiel, Jakob could be read in terms of what Arendt would call a “lord of dreams.”

When Kraus tells him that he “looks like a Jew,” perhaps he meant it in a comical and not an anti-Semitic sense?  Either way, the fact of the matter it that the question of anti-Semitism circles around this Robert Walser character and its possible relationship to Heine’s reading of the Jew and even the schlemiel is thought-provoking (to say the least). My discovery of these pages has given me and should give anyone interested in the schlemiel or in the fiction of Robert Walser a lot to think about.




A New Essay for Berfrois: “How Simple is Simon? Unemployment, Masochism, and Daydreaming in Robert Walser’s “The Tanners”


Click here to see my latest essay for Berfrois:  “How Simple is Simon? Unemployment, Masochism, and Daydreaming in Robert Walser’s “The Tanners.” It takes Robert Walser’s novel, The Tanners as its subject and tests out Walter Benjamin’s reading of poverty and unemployment. As the title suggests, I read Walser through the spectrum of unemployment, daydreaming, and masochism. Since it speaks to the issue of the poverty and misfortune of a Simpleton, I take the folkloric rhyme about “Simple Simon” as the leitmotif.  (And as you can see from the suggestive image above, I relate Charlie Chaplin’s films, which take on the travels of the vagabond, to Walser’s novel and the themes of unemployment, poverty, masochism, and daydreaming.)

I hope you enjoy the essay.

I will be writing and publishing more on Walser’s novel and the powerful ideas it suggests in upcoming posts for www.schlemielintheory.com 


The Power of Weakness and the Laughter of Humiliation in Georges Bataille’s “The Impossible” – Take I


Like many people, I choose what I read selectively.  While I often read fiction that speaks to my lifeworld, I sometimes pick up a novel that challenges my life and tests my boundaries.  But what really drives me to these texts is a kind of vicarious curiosity.  What, I wonder, would it be like if I were to take on the assumptions of the main character or narrator?  What would I have to sacrifice or affirm if I were to take on the life of this or that narrator or character?   Can the tendencies of a character or narrator change my way of thinking or living?   If it stays within the private space of reading, that doesn’t seem likely.  Only if I were to, so to speak, take these characters or narrators as models – as one does in traditional Judaism or Christianity – would these texts come to life.

For many years, I have had a love/hate relationship with the fiction of Geroges Bataille.  I find many his ideas – in his more theoretical texts and in much of his fiction –  to be very disturbing, gross, and challenging.  It’s hard for me to understand how I can reconcile my beliefs in Judaism with his scatological tendencies toward an ecstasy grounded in the exchange of fluids such as blood, semen, and feces.  Amongst these tendencies is also a kind of violence – either directed at a character or the narrator, himself.  But what makes these tendencies fascinating is the suggestion that his books are – like the books of different saints and mystics – spiritual exercises.   They suggests, in other words, the possibility of embodying the text and bringing to life.

In his novella, The Impossible, and in a few other places in his work (such as his essay, “The Jesuve”), there is a unique referencing of a religious sensibility that I find intriguing.  Since I am working a lot on the notion of smallness, weakness, failure, and humor in my schlemiel project, I am interested in how these realities can be used in a sense that is at once secular and religious.  In The Impossible, Bataille’s interest in weakness, failure, and humor  borders on both but it takes them in a more Christian kind of direction.  Batialle was looking for a kind of physical embodiment – in the text – that is undergirded by the passion of humiliation.   His reading of smallness and weakness is much more ridden with pathos (and the same goes for the laughter found throughout his corpus) than all schlemiel narratives.  The humiliation we see is much more lacerating.  In its efforts to turn the text into a sensuous embodiment, The Impossible, unlike many schlemiel narratives, seems to take more to violence and excess than to a kind of humility that speaks to love and goodness.

The two epigrams of the novella come from two Christian saints: Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila.  The epigram of Saint Catherine uses terms that mix the physical and the spiritual: “When he was buried, my soul reposed in peace and quiet and in such a fragrance of blood that I could not bear the idea of washing away the blood which had flowed from him onto me.”  The second epigram states that the physical “agony” of Saint Teresa of Avila provided “inexpressible delights.”

The admixture of pain with delight and the sensory exaltation of blood and its “fragrance” suggest an embodiment of spiritual experience that takes delight in pain and blood.   This is certainly counter-intuitive.  Why does embodiment of Godliness have to come through pain and waste?   Bataille insists on this connection and suggests that he is a  part of a mystical tradition that takes these elements to heart.

The first part of the book is entitled “A Story of Rats: (Journal of Danus).”  In the journal, the narrator takes us along on his spiritual search to experience “the impossible.”    His state, from the very first words, suggest that he derives pleasure from the pain that comes with love and rejection:

Incredible nervous state, trepidation beyond words: to be this much in love is to be sick (and I love to be sick).

What the narrator has is not a passion for an idea so much as for the physicality of a woman (and women) he loves.  He loses his mind over her (who he calls “B”) and revels in this loss and the ensuing weakness:

B. doesn’t cease to dazzle me: the irritation of my nerves makes her even more impressive. Everything about her is extraordinary! But in my trembling I have doubts – she’s so facile (She’s false, superficial, equivocal…Isn’t that obvious? She gets muddled and extricates herself more or less, says foolish things haphazardly, lets herself be influenced by fools.  (15)

What she wants from him (“out of playfulness, out of kindness”) is “the impossible.” What that is, however, remains a question.  Is it his love which is impossible?  Is it his powerlessness?  Since he doesn’t know what it is and how to give to her, he is humiliated.  The irony is that he enjoys the feeling of this unhappiness and wants more:

: it’s not a feeling of happiness but my powerlessness to reach her that stops me: she eludes me in any case, the sickest thing about me being that I want this and I want my love to be necessarily unhappy.  Indeed I no longer seek any happiness: I don’t want to give it to her, and I want none for myself…She’s the way she is, but I doubt that two beings have ever communicated more deeply in the certainty of their impotence. (16)

The problem with this is that there is an assumption that if the narrator torments himself more, he will come closer to her.  But really he is only coming close to himself and his failure.   The endless pull of self-deprecation and self-immolation is seen as some kind of holy passion.  And, in the end of this passage, he revels in the “certainty” of his shared impotence (as if it were objective and true).

The passion for failure and weakness are also of interest to such thinkers and writers as Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Antonin Artaud, and Jean-Luc Nancy.  It is interesting how – for both Bataille and Nancy – the pain of the body and the passion of desire are figurations for a kind of post-Christian embodiment of spirituality.   Embodiment is not just in the exposure to the desired other but the self-laceration of the subject.  The ideal state of the impossible is failure and weakness.  These categories, as one can easily figure out, are contrary to those that society emulates.  And this creates a kind of irrational passion that thrives in an excess of pain and weakness.  Torment.

For anyone to take this on, one would have to sacrifice the desire for happiness, joy, and success.  Contrary to what a reader may think, Bataille suggests, through this novella, that these sacrifices and this life of weakness are desirable and that the best figures for embodiment are based on mixing a drive for sex (Eros) with a death drive (Thanatos).    Mixing the two together, how can one live?  How can one be happy by being so…unhappy?

While many a schlemiel may live in miserable circumstances, they, by and large, are happy.  While they have what Bataille would call, in his novella, a “naïve certainty of chance,” schlemiels don’t translate each opportunity into a moment of weakness and pathetic self-humiliation.   A schlemiel, though usually a poor failure, lives a life that is more comic than tragic.   His humiliation is not so deep, bloody, and painful.  His torment is surprising, not desirable.




Should I Stop Moving? On the Affirmation of Stuff, Not Experience


I recently came across an article in Slate that suggested that the “spiritual journey,” which rejects stuff in the name of “experience,” was a hoax.  I put all of these things – save stuff – into quotation marks because that’s exactly what the author of the essay does.    The author, Elissa Straus, thinks that experience is a cloak for sexism.  She takes aim at Henry Thoreau to bolster her argument:

The first proponent of experience over stuff that many of us come into contact with is Henry David Thoreau, who so quotably “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” But, as Kathryn Schultz enumerates in her glorious takedown of Thoreau published last year in the New Yorker, what “not life” really meant was engaging in “a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.” In other words, it wasn’t so much stuff that he gave up—and while he did give up a lot of stuff, he got to choose what to live without—but people.

This argument suggests that what Thoreau meant about experience was sexist because it is solitary.  That would mean that any solitary experience, which needs to put people aside in order to think or come close to God, is sexist.   This would imply that philosophy and mystical experience are, by their very nature, sexist.  Women – many a saint – would also be regarded sexist for this gesture.

Straus goes on to argue that the proof is in the Beat “pudding.” It was men, not women, who went “on the road.”

The Beats made the Thoreauvian agenda of routing out “not life” their own—and adapted it to a postwar consumerist America. Minimalism for them was seeking residence in the automobile and open road, which they would accessorize with cigarettes and women. (Both of which were disposed of, and replaced, with a near-equal ease.)

Apparently, we have inherited this sexist legacy.  The desire to travel that many youth take on – for the sake of experience – is really a rejection of the domestic (which is, for the author, a feminine space):

The present day inheritor of this tradition is the regular traveler, a creature enabled by our age of affordable airfare and open borders, inspired, perhaps, by the highly produced peregrinations of Anthony Bourdain. His or her tastes might not run as expensive as Tony’s, but the insistence that experiences matter more than stuff endures. But as with those who came before, it’s the domestic, and not stuff, from which they are really rebelling.

The author, now in her 30s and running a home, suggests that she learned her lesson and that she was, in short, duped by this privileging of experience:

I fell victim to the experiences over stuff paradigm in my early teens and spent much of my 20s trying to live up to Thoreauvian and Kerouacian notions of self-actualization. I’m now, at 36, about eight years into the “stuff” phase of my life (mortgage, husband, kid), and I have learned far more about myself during this period than I ever did while sojourning around the globe. Domestic stuff—our couch, our dining table, the bathtub, the dishwasher—don’t just serve as the backdrop to my life; they are the tools we use while engaging with one another, and ourselves. Experiences. I’m living what Thoreau would likely consider “not life,” and I find it far more life-affirming than anything I could achieve alone in a cabin in the woods. A pity Thoreau never gave it a shot.

While I understand the importance of the domestic, I don’t think that the rejection of the journey in the name of the domestic (a kind of Nietzschean inversion of the Platonic – matter over ideas, etc) is the right route to take.  It suggests another kind of metaphysics that, I fear, is growing in America and in many first world countries. For arguments sake, let’s call it a a metaphysics of the couch.  This rejection of the adventure of experience has a deeper root that needs to be exhumed.  Moreover, in response to this article I think it is necessary to recover the notion of experience and reconfigure it with the domestic.

To explain, I’d like to contrast two types of experience.  Emmanuel Levinas contrasts the experience of Odysseus (in Homer’s Odyssey) to the experience of Abraham.  In his contrast, he notes that Odysseus leaves home and comes back to home. After leaving Ithaca and defeating many mythical creatures by virtue of his cunning, he exalts (as Theodor Adrono would say) the power of the reasoning self which is the master of nature and the home.  In contrast, Abraham is commanded to leave home and not to return to it. He goes out toward the other and to a land which, in the future, will be shown to him.  The contrast is between a kind of experience that is more masculinist to another that is relational.

The author of the article needs to reframe her argument to include both types rather than reject one for the other.  Kerouac and Whitman, to be sure, wanted to meet people.  They went outward. Their experience was not for their own sake. Whitman’s multitudes were not private experiences.  They were meant to be shared and worked to encourage us all – all Americans and all people who read him – to experience the world (which includes nature and people).  And in this he was a lot like Abraham.

The home, no doubt, is very important and essential.  It needs to be balanced out with this. While Whitman and Kerouac went out on their own, Abraham took his family with him on his travels.   And he also loved brining strangers into his home.  Experiences can be had inside the home, too.

Levinas writes extensively on the domestic and the home in his book Totality and Experience.  He suggests that the home is nourishing and that alterity can also happen in the home. As I suggested above and as the thinker Jacques Derrida has also suggested, in one’s home the host becomes the guest.  There is an inversion that occurs when we serve others.  I would also suggest that everydayness can become other as well by way of humor.

That aside, the metaphor of the journey (or experience) needs to be retained.  Whether in the house or outside of it, the minute we reject the notion of the journey we fall into the hole of everydayness in which nothing is new and in which wonder slips between the cracks.  Traveling is another way of going outside of oneself and one’s narrow perspective.  Staying at home, surfing the internet, checking Facebook every ten minutes, or watching Netflix on the couch with your family or a few friends, is an affirmation of a “metaphysics of the couch.”   And this would be a mistake.  We need to seek out transcendence and get away from our everydayness. To see the world as a mirror of your home doesn’t help.   Another kind of vision is needed and that requires a different way of thinking.

Instead of falling into the trap that a film like Neighbors proposes where there are only two options (nostalgia or accepting everydayness), we need to look at the spiritual experience (which is possible through movement and movement alone) differently.  Instead of snickering at it and finding it cliché, we need to once again ask when and how it is possible.  To be sure, the very act of thumbing our noses at experience – as this article does – is an act that reinforces a metaphysics of the couch.     The affirmation of stuff over experience is a dead end.  We just need to recover what was once called experience.

How can we make our world wonderful again?  Isn’t the claim that experience is over the greatest obstacle?  Aren’t we always moving toward the other and isn’t this an experience?  Where do we draw the line?  Perhaps laughter at this trade off can bring us back to our senses?  Perhaps the schlemiel – who often stumbles and spills the soup on people – leads us to rethink where we are moving?  After all, he’s on a journey and although s/he doesn’t always learn from his experiences, s/he is going somewhere.


The Danger of (Over)Interpretation: On Adorno’s Plea Against Artistic Semblance and “Micrological Study”


When someone sees a great artwork or reads a compelling novel or poem, he or she usually wants to know why it has such an affect.  Is it the choice of words?  Is it the theme? Is it the critique it levels on society? Humanity? Religion? As a literary and cultural critic, I know very well what its like to explore these questions.   When I teach courses on literature and philosophy, I often tell my students to see themselves as literary or philosophical detectives or psychoanalysts so as to figure out what is said and what is not said.  (The latter being more important than the former.)  For in doing so, one can get at the meaning of poems and art.  As Walt Whitman once suggested in his poem “Song of Myself,” we all want to get at the meaning of poems.  With this in mind, he tells his reader something counter-intuitive.  Don’t look for the meaning.  Just spend time with “me.”  I will show you that “you” are the meaning of each poem:

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…..there are millions of sons left,

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…nor look through the eyes of the

            dead…nor feed on the specters in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

While the thinker Theodor Adorno would disagree with this view, he would suggest that people not over-interpret art.  For in doing so, art becomes semblance and loses its singularity and becomes what he calls “semblance”:

When artworks are viewed under the closest scrutiny, the most objectivated paintings metamorphose into a swarming mass and texts splinter into words.  As soon as one imagines having a firm grasp on the details of the artwork, it dissolves into the indeterminate and undifferentiated, so mediated is it.   This is the manifestation of aesthetic semblance in the structure of artworks.  (101, Aesthetic Theory)

Adorno calls the act of over-interpreting “micrological study.”  By micrological study of any work of art, the artwork loses its “particularity” and its “concretion vanishes.”

But interpretation is not the only problem.  The artwork is also a problem.  For Adorno the truth of art “requires the purposeless.”  If an artwork is “different from what it is,” then it is truthful.  If an artwork is consistent with itself, it becomes not itself, but, for Adorno, a lie.   If there is a contradiction between what the artwork is and what it purports to be, then it is semblance.   The contradiction or rather irony marks the plight of modern art; its “dialectic.”

The dialectic of modern art is largely that it wants to shake off its illusoriness like an animal trying to shake off its antlers.  (102)

What Adorno is looking for is a kind of artwork that is so singular and unique that it can’t be identified with anything.  It must be powerless:

By the autonomy of their form, artworks forbid incorporation of the absolute as if they were symbols.   Aesthetic images stand under the prohibition on graven images…Hermetic works do no assert what transcends them as though they were Being occupying the ultimate realm; rather, through their powerlessness and superfluity in the empirical world they emphasize the element of powerlessness in their own content.  (104)

Addressing the claim that such hermetic works do not change the world and are regressive, Adorno argues that they are actually “progressive”(104).

In spite of the summary verdicts passed on it everywhere by those who are politically interested, radical modern art is progressive, and this is true not merely in the techniques it has developed but of its truth content.  What makes existing artworks more than existence is not simply another existing thing, but their language.  Authentic artworks are eloquent even when  they refuse any form of semblance.  (104).

Adorno sees no truth in artworks that simply serve as a mirror to who we are.  He sees these “enlightened” works as regressive.

In an age where we are so interested in creating a political system and a form of entertainment that truly represents us, how do we read Adorno’s admonitions?  People on Facebook, for instance, would hate what Adorno calls art.  Most people, after all, only click on things that they can “identify with” and provide a likeness to themselves.  There is no “ban on images.”  In fact, that is unheard of.  Perhaps Adorno would say that we are a regressive society because we simply can’t understand or tolerate singularity.

On the one hand, the tendency to over-interpret things keeps us from apprehending singularity.   On the other hand, most people prefer entertainment and art (if any) that is comprehensible and powerful (not hermetic and powerless).   We tend to believe, more like Walt Whitman, that we are the meaning of all poems and that our mundane experiences of reality are actually extraordinary.  Everydayness is not hermetic.  For Whitman, it is poetic.  But for Adorno, it seems to be regressive.

Who’s right?

Perhaps the best way to find out is to think about the singularity of art and its implications.  But what framework should we use to do this?  Because we are so wrapped up in seeing ourselves reflected in social media, media, film, Netflix, and politics, that its hard to imagine what singularity means anymore.


Yiddish for Parrots or Pirates? On Gary Barwin’s “Yiddish for Pirates”


In a brilliant essay on literature and music, Milan Kundera argues that the “history of literature” can be understood in terms of “two halves.”  The first half of literature is comic.  He associates it with Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Francois Rabelais’ Gargantuan and Pantagruel.  In contrast, the second half of literature is realistic and historical.   Kundera associates it with Emile Zola, Walter Scott, and Honore de Balzac.   The two are at odds: “the chasm between the aesthetics of these two halves makes for a multitude of misunderstandings.”   Citing Vladmir Nabokov’s reading of Cervantes, Kundera notes how, for the realist, Don Quixote is “overvalued, naïve, repetitive, and full of unbearable, and implausible cruelty….poor Sancho, moving along from one drubbing to another, loses all his teeth at least five times”(58, Testaments Betrayed).   Kundera takes Nabakov to task by pointing out that while “Sancho loses too many teeth…we are not in the world of Zola, where some cruel act, described precisely and in detail, becomes the accurate document of social reality; with Cervantes we are in a world created by the magic spells of the storyteller who invents, who exaggerates, and how is carried away with his fantasies, his excesses….Cervantes’ great founding work was alive with the nonserious, a spirit that was later made incomprehensible by the Romantic aesthetic of the second half, by its demand for plausibility”(59).    By pointing out this chasm and the misunderstanding that comes out of it, Kundera suggests the possibility of bridging it with a new kind of novel.  The model, for Kundera, is Kafka’s Amerika.  Kundera calls it a “literature made of literature.” It manages, as Kafka envisioned, to draw on and subvert Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield by revising certain motifs in a comical manner.

“Literature made of literature” is a good phrase to use to describe what, in the Jewish tradition, is called Midrash and it aptly describes Gary Barwin’s newest novel, Yiddish for Pirates.  To be sure, the name of the novel suggests that pirating is a central motif of the novel.  But since it is more in a comical than in a realistic sense and because the narrator of the story, after all, is a parrot, I would call the novel an act of parroting.   But with a difference.  The parrot doesn’t merely take for this or that language or tradition and repeat it.  The parrot is a storyteller and his job, like that of the Torah, is to convey not just a memory but a moral teaching.

Throughout the novel, we find parroting at work in the plot, characters, and humor. By way of such comical parroting, Barwin is able to bridge the gap between the comic novel and the realistic novel.  What is most fascinating is the fact that the subject of the realistic novel, which he interpolates into the comic novel, is something that has never been addressed by way of a comical postmodern Canadian novel: the Jewish experience of the Inquisition, living as Marranos, and the journey to the New World.

Because of its comical elements, its focus on Yiddishkeit, and its nuanced reflections on spatial and temporal displacements, Yiddish for Pirates suggests a literary experience that can be found in the Torah and modernist fiction.   It gives the reader an opportunity to experience something akin to an embodied comical faith.  One can experience this through a reading that cares for a plot and characters whose relationships over time and space – which are “pirated” from biblical and historical sources – can be the source suffering, hope, and comical joy.    The irony is that this kind of faith requires a good sense of humor coupled with a strong sense of Jewish history and its vicissitudes.  One has to, to play on the novel and use a metaphor for embodiment, know how to ride the waves.

Faith, Time, and Learning

In a 1956 interview with William Faulkner, the interviewer, Jean Stein, asked Faulkner about who he thought the greatest writers of his youth were.  He replied that Thomas Mann and James Joyce were.  But he added that one must read them “as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.”  The fact that Faulkner saw the link between literature and the “Old Testament” rather than the “new” is telling.    What is the link between modernist literature (as we find in Joyce and Mann) and the Torah (“old Testament”)?

Modernist fiction is very interested in the relationship of fragmented time to plot, character, and narration.  The characters and the perspectives of the narrators are limited.  Likewise, faith, in the Torah, has a lot to do with fragmented time and limited perspective.   Characters and readers are rooted in time and its jagged temporal unfolding.  As the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig noted in his opus, The Star of Redemption, Judaism consists of three temporal relations that are totally distinct from each other: Creation (Past), Revelation (Present), and Redemption (Future).   Time is, for this reason, measured in terms of the process that the Jewish people have to go through before the arrival of Redemption.  And this process need not be linear it can take on a number of different rhythms.

But time just doesn’t happen.  According to Rosenzweig this temporal process includes another three other points of relation: God, Man, and World.  Time, in other words, unfolds in terms of man’s relationship with God, God’s relationship with the world, man’s relationship to the world, etc.   Harold Bloom, in his book Agon: Towards a Theory of Revision, helps us to better understand what this means.  He notes that the unfolding of time has, for the Bible (Torah), a moral and educative meaning.  Through time, the Biblical character learns about God, the world, and him or herself: “Because learning is a process in time…The thought-form of the Hebrew Bible depends upon a movement in the fullness of time, a movement in which moral learning can take place”(59).   To Bloom’s observations, I would add that this kind of “moral learning” is also connected to two other elements found throughout the Torah: 1) a movement from place to place (the process is, so to speak, a journey) and 2) the process of living through different relationships.   All of these elements suggest that Judaism is temporal, relational, and embodied.  Judaism is not a religion dominated by a spirituality that transcends the world, history, and humanity.  It is a religion that is primarily relational. 

The same can be said for Barwin’s novel.   The irony is that the main relationship in the novel is comical: it is between a parrot and a human being.  And, like many a Kafka story, the reader, at some point, is startled to discover that their narrator is an animal.  It is the animal who is the cipher of tradition and through the animal the relationship and the story lives on.   But unlike many of Kafka’s animals, this one tells jokes.  Perhaps, by trusting the comical animal narrator, one has, in a sense, a kind of comical faith that “parrots” the faith that is found in the Bible?


Moishe and Aharon: Pre-Modernity, History, and the Model Relationship

Instead of revising modern history, Yiddish for Pirates decides to focus on the relationship between Jews and four pre-modern worlds: the world of the Eastern European shtetl (in which Yiddish was the lingua franca), the world of the Inquisition, the world of Pirates at Sea, and the world of the frontier (which took Columbus on a search for the New World and others for the “fountain of youth”).   Barwin’s decision to focus on this time is timely since it suggests, with each world, a different relationship with history that needs to be given a new kind of figuration.

At the very outset, Yiddish for Pirates asks the reader to take the relationship between a 500-year-old Parrot narrator named Aharon and his companion (the hero of the novel) Moshe to heart.   Drawing on and revising the Biblical relationship of Moses to Aaron, the novel plays on the Biblical text that notes how Moses had a speech impediment and needed his brother to speak for him.    The irony is that while Moshe remains a dramatic and heroic character, the narrator is comedic and anti-heroic.    The juxtaposition of the two makes for a rich text and gives the reader a lot to think about.    And it is through their relationship – in a Rosenzweigian and Bloomian sense – that time unfolds and learning happens.

The first relationship of the novel is established with the reader and it is at once comical and serious.   Aharon says hello to the reader and one can hear a voice that is at once comical, very intelligent, and Yiddish.  It also suggests a voice that knows too much, remembers too much.  And in so doing bridges the chasm between the comic and the realistic/historical.

Hello.  Howaya?  Feh.  You think those are the only words I know? Boychick, you don’t know from nothing.   You ain’t seen knowing.  I may be meshugeh crazy, but I know from words.   You think I’m a fool shmeggege?  I’m all words.

Hello? If you want the story of a life, don’t wait for your alter kaker old gramps over there to wake up.  Maybe he’ll never wake. But me? Listen to my words.  They tell some story. Because I remember.  Sometimes too much, but I remember. 

To be sure, the comic voice gives the reader a way to identify with finitude that is not tragic.  It is familiar and intimate in ways that family members are with each other.  (The novel suggests a familial relation in the epigraph: “For the whole misphocheh (family), fore and aft.)  And this is the voice that accompanies not just the reader but Moses on his journey from Europe to the New World.

Barwin, thoughout the novel, also stresses the burden of memory and the responsibility of telling the tale.  But this is, like many a human endeavor, hard to accomplish.  We try to remember.  But we often forget.   As Aharon jokingly notes, “I speak many language and I’m fluent in both remembering and forgetting.”    But, in truth, the pain of losing the memory of Moishe, for the narrating parrot, is great since he takes Moishe as a loving companion.   It’s his  memory and the story itself, however, that distract and have a life of its own: “The horizon is always the story, and as soon as we get there, it’s somewhere else.”  Displacement is at work everywhere.  It is also the substance of exile.   Rather than take this in a tragic sense, Aharon conveys displacement in a tragic-comic sense.  Through his humor, he makes the best out of exile.  He embodies it through his humor.

For instance, in a scene where a battle is described, Aharon injects humor so as to avoid too much pathos and drama.  Notice the punch line: “It wasn’t much of a battle…There was a the customary disemboweling, cutting off of noses, hands, and of shmekles”(7).

Moishe is portrayed as leaving the shtetl in Eastern Europe for the high seas and adventure.  At the outset he’s depicted as a schlemiel.  He doesn’t want to fight on Shabbos.    And this, at the outset of the novels four parts (Air, Fire, Sea, and Land), suggests his initial comic condition as a luftmensch (a man who lives, comically, on air): “A boychik with big ideas, his kop – his head – bigger than his body”(11).   The body is a “scrawny map of himself.”  As the novel progresses, Moishe matures and his body becomes strong.  He goes from a schlemiel to a mensch.

But Aharon, the  parrot-narrator, remains a comical figure throughout.  And for good reason.  As Kundera notes, while the playfulness of the narrator – which we see in Cervantes and Kafka – gives freedom to the modern novel, the realistic narrator is bound to detail and pathos.    Aharon’s comedic view of himself and things – which is mediated through his constant self-deprecation and use of Yiddish – gives him a kind of freedom and also makes him into an endearing schlemiel of sorts.  He doesn’t age, while Moishe does.  He may be “grey” and old but he’s young because of his comic demeanor.

An important aspect of the novel is the coupling of humor with friendship.  It is more interesting than the journeys through the Spanish Inquisiton and the journey to the New World that are embarked on in the novel.  It survives all of the realistically depicted battles, acts of revenge, and exploits that are found throughout the novel.    And, in many ways, it – is what keeps Yiddishkeit alive.  After all, the parrot knows more Yiddish than anyone, even Moishe.

Aharon’s epiphany at the beginning of the novel and his reflection on loss at the end demonstrate this powerful motif that parrots the Torah and its stress on the power of relationship and family.  Barwin’s poetic cadences bring the importance of language to this relationship and its embodiment.  It shows us how time unfolds through a relationship which is textual, physical, and comical:

I saw Moshe and the boychick was soon imprinted like words of indelible ink on the farkakteh page of my brain.  Who decides such a thing? Like waking up the morning after shoreleave with an anchor tattooed across your hiney, it isn’t, emes, exactly the result of choice.  But I need to be needed and the poor shnook needed me.  (18)

While in the Torah, Moishe and Aharon are real brothers and their being together is meant to be, here it is a friendship that is meant to be and it is based on a profound need of the other.    The last few pages of the book depict the moment when they both reach the Fountain of Youth, but Moishe takes the more dangerous route and ends up dying.  Aharon, however, takes a different route and accidentally (like a schlemiel) stumbles into the fountain.  He lives while Moishe dies. But he doesn’t see Moishe’s death.  He is separated from him in his last moments:

I pushed myself through.  How? Like anyone else, first one foot than the other.  Immediately I began to fall.  I only knew which way was up because it was the direction I wasn’t going. Then I found my wings and began to flap. 

I saw bupkes.  Nothing. Nada. I flew in little circles, not knowing where the walls were, not knowing how far was down.  I heard the gurgling water.  The Fountain or the shpritizing of a kvetchy sea serpent. I could not tell.

Then a rumbling.  Some kind of upset tuml in the kishkas of the cave. Then raining down of water from above. Then – Sh’ma Yisroel – the vessels of the world burst open.  (332)

The Kabablistic imagery and the revelation are coupled with comedy.  He falls into the fountain and feels renewed but then he remembers Moishe.  And Barwin goes on to parrot many different motifs from the Torah regarding Moses failure to reach the Promised Land:

Moishe? Where was Moishe? What had happened?

…Though I burned with pain, I searched. 

My captain.  My Moishe. My other.

He was gone. 

Nothing but the unbridled river flowing over the open pit of the Fountain.  It was a jumble of broken rock.  Moses lost before he reached the Promised Land.

They all were gone.


Moishe. My captain. My shoulder.  (332-333)

But tragedy doesn’t have the last word.  Comedy does.  And even though it is bittersweet, it shows us how Barwin writes a “literature on a literature” in which a character develops, in the Bloomian, Biblical sense, and in which time is articulated through relationship.  In the end, he survives, like many a schlemiel and like many a Yiddish story, through humor.  He embodies the story:

Nu. So there’s the question.  And then what happened?   Let me tell you. Five hundred years.  It happens.I t’s takeh why I have these words.

Was I shpritzed by the Fountain when I fell? Or did it pish on the gantseh megillah, the whole story? 

They say when I tell it, it seems as if it goes on forever. Na. I was that story, have become the whole shpiel.  Have passed it down to a long line of pisher parrots who also tell it.  And tell it to you now.  What, they were busy with something else? Any life is just another life out of order.

As long as you have the words.  (335)

Aharon, drawing postmodernly on Woody Allen, adds the punchline that he parrots/pirates (albeit substituting the words “I don’t mind dying” with “I want to live forever”):

Emes, I always said: I want to live forever.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.  (335)

But the final joke (which is also said earlier in the novel) and punchline of the novel addresses the anxious quintessence (the name of the last chapter) of the Jew/Yid:

Which reminds me: A man goes to the theater with his son.

“One adult and one child,” he says at the box office.

“That’s no child,” the ticket seller says, “He looks at least thirty.”

“I can’t help it that he worries.”

In this joke, Barwin manages to bridge the gap between the two halves of literature while, at the same time, articulating an understanding of Jewishness over time.  It is at once comic and tragic.  In this joke, we hear family, trauma, and history and we see…a shoulder shrug.  Like the parroting narrator, the subject of the joke, the Jew, is at once old and new.   While Jews have been stressed by history, humor has helped them (and this novel and its parrot narrator) to journey (and oftentimes flee) and yet live on.  And hopefully it will continue to do so.  This lesson – which is embodied in Aharon and this joke – is worth parroting.  Perhaps this is what comic faith is.  As with all jokes, its all in the timing.