To Which Childhood Shall We Return? Walter Benjamin’s Child versus Georges Bataille’s “True Child” (Take 1)

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The schlemiel is a man-child.  The character presupposes a man who has not grown up or a child who has not matured to become a man.   The schlemiel lives in the world of people but is in his own world because he doesn’t know how to live in that world.  He lives in a world of dreams and in dreams every little ‘thing’ matters and holds deeper significance.  Everything has a secret.  This interest in little things distracts the schlemiel from “the big picture.”  It distracts him from the world.  The little things makes him absent-minded.

To be sure, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi characterizes Sholom Aleichem’s Motl in this manner.  He is a character who gets caught up with things; and, as a result, Motl can’t understand his mothers suffering, his life situation, the death of his father, the disaster unfolding around him.   Near the end of Motl, The Cantor’s Son, Motl is optimistic and excited about the fact that he is going to America and will come into contact with more things!  Ezrahi, at one point, briefly evokes Walter Benjamin and his fascination with things to illustrate.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t pursue it further.

I would like to suggest that we contrast two types of men-children which have, most recently, entered the Schlemiel Theory blog space: Georges Bataille’s child and Walter Benjamin’s.

What we have seen thus far is that Georges Bataille wanted, like Walter Benjamin (in his essay on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) to “return to childhood.”  Both thinkers noted that the return to childhood would not, by any means, be without disaster.  Since the world has rejected youth and childhood, and since the project of writers who supported the “youth movement” has failed, the return of childhood, Benjamin tells us, can only come in the aftermath of an “implosion.”

Echoing Nietzsche, Bataille envisioned a KINDERLAND to come.  He also saw it in the aftermath of a disaster.   But, based on what we have seen so far, we can say that while Benjamin didn’t describe childhood and disaster in depth, Bataille did.

More to the point, Bataille seems to have gone further than Benjamin in describing what kind of child he wanted to be and what kind of disaster this implied. Indeed, Bataille distinguished between the “true child” and the false one.  The true child, for Batialle, is a child who experiences shame, terror, and powerlessness.  The true child, in other words, is passionate; s/he knows, in the depths of her existence, that the “serious exists.”  And this knowledge is disasterous and tragic.

Even though Bataille renounced all projects, he didn’t regard his “spiritual exercise” of becoming a child or stupid as a project.  However, when and if his pursuit of becoming a child does become a project (that is, when and if it becomes too obsessed with a goal), the true child (which Bataille aspires to be) would – Bataille avers – “laugh” at his seriousness.   This laughter frees the “true child” from the serious project.  Yet, this laughter does nothing to mitigate the true child’s powerlessness, shame, and terror.  All laughter does is lighten the weight of shame and powerlessness.  But in doing so laughter embraces stupidity.  Bataille’s “true child” revels in it.   The true child is Bataille’s description of a real and an ideal child; the child he wants to be and can become only through humiliating himself.

Batialle’s model of the “true” child is far removed from the schlemiel.  By contrasting the two, we can have a better idea of what makes the schlemiel unique. 

I suggested this contrast yesterday. The schlemiel gets caught up in dreams and all the little details of life.  The schlemiel gets distracted by things.  The schlemiel isn’t passionate.  He doesn’t experience shame, terror, and powerlessness.  The schlemiel doesn’t know that seriousness exists or, if he knows, it really doesn’t matter to him or her.  He can’t laugh at his passion because, quite simply, he isn’t passionate.

You couldn’t find a greater contrast between one man-child and another than between Bataille’s “true child” and the schlemiel.

Benjamin’s child is different: his “true child” has more in common with the schlemiel than with the passionate “true child” that Bataille aspired to.

In a piece entitled “Old Forgotten Children’s Books,” which was published in 1924 in Illustrierte Zeitung, Benjamin describes the child in a different manner:

For children are fond of haunting any site where things are visibly being worked on.  They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, and carpentry.  In waste products they recognize the face that he world of things turns directly and solely from them.  In using the thing, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.  

What I would like to suggest is a little different from what I suggested at the outset with Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi.  The main thing about Benjamin’s “true child” is not his or her passion, and not his obsession with things, so much as her relationship to “waste products” and “things worked on.”   All the things that Benjamin’s true child is interested in are partial.

This child is distracted from the “world of things.” However, children “produce their own small world of things within the greater one.”  This small world was a world that Benjamin was attracted to.

What I wonder is if the child’s world of waste and the child’s miniature world are intimations of what Benjamin would call the world of childhood that lays in the future.  This world of childhood is in the aftermath of disaster.  But, if we look again, we can notice that in this world-to-come the child plays in ruins.  He doesn’t care about the disaster so much as how he can relate one fragmented thing to another.  Perhaps this is the dream of a schlemiel: to live in the garbage and to play in the garbage while not seeing the disaster around him.

In contrast to Bataille’s man-child, Benjamin’s lacks passion but doesn’t lack a love for garbage.  What this implies is that Benjamin didn’t see the path to childhood as passing through humiliation and shame, as Bataille did, he saw the path of childhood as passing through the garbage dump.  Benjamin’s schlemiel turns to broken things – not to passions. He does not know that “seriousness exists.”  And, in this, it seems there is no violence or self-destruction.

If this is the case, then how can we understand Benjamin’s Apocalyptic warnings in his essay on The Idiot?  Such warnings and premonitions puzzled Benjamin’s closest friend – the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem. He could understand Benjamin’s interest in garbage, partial things, and micro-worlds, but he couldn’t understand Benjamin’s interest in the daemonic  “destructive element.” To be sure, sometimes Benjamin would turn to the destructive child, but, as we shall see, this only happened when Benjamin, personally, had to face failure.

And when that happened, his man-child, his schlemiel, went from being a child that plays with fragments to a shameful creature.

While Bataille’s true child passionately embraced failure, stupidity, and shame, Benjamin’s did not.   His child doesn’t get those things.  When he’s at play in the ruins nothing else matters.  But when he fails, it seems as if his child becomes a shameful figure – a reminder of how ridiculous and tragic things are.

At this point, you might be wondering why such intelligent men like Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille would want to return to childhood?  What would drive them to envision the child of the future, the “true” child?  Why would they spend so much time reflecting on such things?  Did they do so because they realized that maturity was a joke and that modernity had lost what gave it life; that is, childhood?   How would living out childhood as an adult – how would becoming a man-child – be redemptive?  Why were they so desperate for childhood?

We’ll leave these questions for our next blog entry….

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