Chelm is a real place in Poland that some say has existed since the 9th century. It is also a mythological place where, legend has it, all the Jews are schlemiels.
From the YIVO encyclopedia, we learn that Chelm-like stories have existed, in print, since 1597. But the legend itself may go back further. And as the encyclopedia points out, many Yiddish writers either cited these stories, retold them, or modeled their own mythic schlemiel cities on Chelm.
In America, the most well-known Chelm stories, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, come to us by way of I.B. Singer. When I was a child, my Rabbi – who presided in a conservative synagogue in a small town in the Adirondacks named Knesseth Israel – used to read them to us every Saturday so as to inspire us before we had the “children’s minyan.” (He would gather the children around him and either read these stories or a variety of fun Hasidic stories. I liked these best, however; we all did. I can remember giggling with my friends as he told them. Imagine that, I used to think, a town of fools and led by fools!)
I mention the fools of Chelm in this blog entry because this land of Schlemiels relates, however obliquely, to what Benjamin and Dostoevsky (apparently wanted): namely, a KINDERLAND (a land of children) which I discussed in yesterday’s blog.
The term KINDERLAND actually comes from Nietzsche but it became a key word for Georges Bataille, a good friend of Walter Benjamin.
It is well-known that Benjamin and Georges Bataille were friends. To be sure, Benjamin’s archival material, much of which we have today, was left with Bataille. (As J.M. Coetzee notes in his 2001 essay on Benjamin for The New York Review of Books, Bataille hid and preserved the Arcades Project manuscript.)
The two may have spoken of this vision of a land of children. But we can have no doubt that they discussed their utopian visions as the Nazi spectre hung over Europe and crisis loomed on the horizon.
Bataille takes to the word KINDERLAND in a piece entitled the “Nietzschian Chronicle.” There, he writes (in capital letters) of a Nietzschean KINDERLAND which challenges “every man’s VATERLAND.”
According to Bataille, this KINDERLAND was something of a prophesy which was expressed by none other than DIONYSOS:
The very first sentences come from ‘realms of dream and intoxication’. The entire message is expressed in one name: DIONYSOS. When Nietzsche made DIONYSOS (in other words, the destructive exuberance of life) the symbol of the will to power, he expressed in that way a resolution to deny to a faddish and debilitating romanticism the force that must be held sacred.
This prophesy, says Bataille, is wrapped up in the future. And it bespeaks the renewal of life. And, like Benjamin, he notes that KINDERLAND will only come about through destruction and “decomposition.”
Elsewhere, in an essay entitled “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Bataille notes that “action alone proposes to transform the world, make it similar to dreams.” This language of dreams, youth, and action is familiar to this blog.
As I noted in an earlier blog entry, Schlemiels and “Messianic activists” share the same problem: they confuse dreams with reality. Here, Bataille insists, in the name of Nietzsche and his prophet DIONYSOS, that action will transform the world into a KINDERLAND.
In his “Nietzschian Chronicle” he suggests that this Land would be “without a head.” This has striking resonance when one thinks about the “Wise Fools of Chelm” who lead the land. Their judgments are foolish and childlike in nature. They lead “without a head.” (But, in I.B. Singer’s version, this is laughable. Its not real. And, more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything destructive about this.)
When I was a kid, the fools of Chelm used to make me laugh aloud. But I could never imagine a KINDERLAND in reality. And perhaps this is the trick.
Although I would dream of such a land as a child, I’m not so sure I would do so as an adult. This land of children they envision couldn’t be Chelm. Or could it? Would there be any fools in the KINDERLAND?
What exactly did Benjamin and Batialle mean when they (and apparently Dostoevsky) imagined a land of children? Did they share the same vision of this KINDERLAND or differing visions?
We can hear their call for life, which resonates with the tones of vitalism, but can we imagine the land? What, after all, would a KINDERLAND look like? If we can’t imagine a KINDERLAND in reality, perhaps we can say that KINDERLAND is a text? Is it the Derridian text where everything is play or in play? Is this a land without a head? A land without a center? Or is it….Chelm?
And must we destroy the land (and ourselves) to redeem the land, as Bataille and Benjamin suggest we should when the land is lacking “youth”? Is this the only way to the future KINDERLAND?
(I’ll leave this post, as Paul Celan says with respect to the Other, an ‘open question.’ Celan says that the poem is going toward the other, toward the future, but does this mean we are going towards Chelm, KINDERLAND, or “?”)
But….perhaps the interchange between Dwayne and Alvy Singer bears a clue of where we’re going?