Comedy, Nihilism, and Hope: Paul deMan and Walter Benjamin’s Differing Approaches to Irony (Take 1)

images

(“Still Life With Skulls” by Max Beckmann painted in 1945)

Irony has its targets.  More often than not, irony looks to simply do damage to its target so as to throw it into question.  Sarcasm, however, looks to do more than damage.  As  the most extreme form of irony, sarcasm looks to destroy its target.  In the midst of such destruction, one traverses the limit of nihilism and madness.

Paul deMan, in his essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” would call this the “irony of irony.”

The irony of irony is that it doesn’t give the joke teller or the one who laughs a sense of superiority and self-consciousness.  Rather, the “irony of irony” destroys its target and itself.

As we pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, deMan misread Baudelaire’s essay on laughter so as to argue that the “irony of irony” is the secret of Baudelaire’s essay.  The implication of this claim is that Baudelaire, basically, was a nihilist.  The irony of irony destroys everything.

However, deMan notes that, for some artists and thinkers, language (or a “form of himself that is mad but doesn’t know itself”) may remain in tact (in the aftermath of ironic destruction):

Absolute irony is a consciousness of madness, itself the end of all consciousness, a reflection on madness from the inside of madness itself.  But this reflection is made possible only by the double structure of ironic language: the ironist invents a form of himself that is “mad” but that does not know its own madness…This might be construed to mean that irony, as “folie lucide” which allows language to prevail even in extreme stages of self-alienation, could be a kind of therapy, a cure of madness by means of the spoken or written word. (216)

He attributes this “therapeutic” view to Jean Starobinski and radically disagrees with it.  DeMan sees no hope in language and he sees no way possible of reconciling “the world of fiction” with the “real world” let alone the self with itself, nature, or others.  For deMan, where one finds irony there one will find infinite fragmentation.  (And for deMan, irony is everywhere.)  The irony of irony only escalates a nihilistic process that, for deMan, seems inevitable.

But Starobinksi is not alone.  DeMan tells us that Schlegel and Kierkegaard were also “unhappy” and sought for a way out or the “irony of irony.”  DeMan tells us that Schlegel, in response to his discovery of the irony of ironies, asked the “rhetorical” question: “What gods will be able to rescue us from these ironies?”  DeMan reads this rhetorical question to mean only one thing: for both Schlegel and Kierkegaard faith was the only answer to their problem with irony; that is, their problem with language:

“For the later Friedrich Schlegel, as for Kierkegaard, the solution could only be a leap out of language into faith”(223).

At this point, deMan cites Baudelaire’s claim, which we noted in an earlier post, that the wise do not laugh and find laughter to be inferior.  This, for deMan, can mean only one thing, which for him is impossible: no one can live an existence free of irony or free of language.  Even the faithful are bound to language and cannot, therefore, escape irony.

But, more importantly, for deMan the only thing left over in the wake of the “irony of irony” is nihilism.  One can turn neither to God nor to language for hope.

For deMan, the “unhappy consciousness” is one that realizes that there is only impotent rage and anger at the world, existence, self-hood, and, most importantly for deMan (as a thinker and writer), language.  All of them are intrinsically ironic.   There is, as Jean-Paul Sartre might say, no exit.

Walter Benjamin thinks otherwise.  His reading of Baudelaire proposes that gestures and figures of language can give us hope.  But Benjamin suggests that we look for hope in the midst of the crisis which characterizes the unhappy consciousness – that is, out of the anger, rage, and violence (out of the Spleen) that Baudelaire’s poetry and prose exudes.

The irony of it all is that this kind of language is not simply something that one can cling to; rather, it is destructive.  It evinces a kind of “heroic melancholy” which holds the fragment as the basis for all thought and hope.

What interests me most, in this reflection, is the relationship of Benjamin’s faith in fragments to Benjamin’s image of himself as a schlemiel.  How was this ironic self-image redemptive?  How could the image of himself as a schlemiel (as a man-child) provide hope and help him to narrowly escape the nihilism that deMan sees around every corner of language and fiction?

To better understand this, I will devote the next few blogs to looking into Benjamin’s readings of Baudelaire and Heroic Melancholy.  I will also be looking at some of Baudealire’s prose pieces which look at the figures of the child and the fool as ironic self-images and, I would argue, redemptive figures.

DeMan’s readings of Benjamin and Baudelaire suggests that they both were trapped by nihilism; I would like to argue that they traversed the limits of nihilism.  More importantly, Benjamin did this by way of a reflection on himself (and Kafka) as a man-child and this, for Schlemiel-in-Theory, is worthy of our undivided attention.

A Map of Misreading: Paul deMan’s (Mis)reading of Madness in Baudelaire’s “Essay on Laughter.”

DownloadedFile

One can tell a lot about an author by virtue of things that he or she mentions and highlights in his or her writings.  Charles Baudelaire, a poet and an incredibly talented prose writer, was fully aware of what is at stake in an essay.  And he knew full well that the final “notes” of any essay should hit on the main point.

To be sure, Baudelaire’s essay on laughter ends on a positive note.  There, he points out that the Absolute Comic, which is best illustrated in the work of ETA Hoffman, evinces man’s superiority over nature.  And that all laughter, all comedy, is inter-subjective and shared by human beings.  Baudelaire’s reading of laughter is amplified and given exquisite detail by the philosopher Henri Bergson, who, like Baudelaire, sees an intersubjective element of comedy which is based on the superiority of élan vital over the mechanical.  Laughter, for Bergson, is equated with life and becoming (not stasis and empty repetition).  And like Baudelaire, Bergson emphasizes the progressive aspects of comedy.

However, Baudelaire doesn’t arrive at such a view without a few misgivings.  It must be noted that, earlier in the essay, Baudelaire points out that the significant comic and the laughter that attends it do in fact manifest a kind of (Satanic) madness of superiority.  And, as I pointed out in my last blog entry, he also notes that comic madness is diametrically opposed to the madness of humility.  Nonetheless, he argues that, in the end, man’s sense of himself as different from nature may manifest madness, but, ultimately, this madness is mitigated by the Absolute comic.

To be sure, Baudelaire says that since the madness of humility is no longer an option for modern society, all nations must become pure by way of a madness that asserts superiority over nature.  And comedy is the means to achieving such an intersubjective “purification.”

In other words, comedy, for Baudelaire, is a “good” thing.  As Baudelaire notes in his description of mimes like Pierrot, the laughter evoked by the Absolute Comic is intoxicating.  It enlivens the crowd and produces joy.

There is one problem.

As I mentioned above, Baudelaire notes, early on, that the comic is Satanic.  He points out that it is a manifestation of fallen-ness.  But by the time he finishes the essay, this is no longer the main issue.  Baudelaire decided that it was more important to emphasize man’s inter-subjective superiority over nature than to emphasize fallen-ness, madness, and the Satanic.

Paul deMan, in his essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” was not satisfied with Baudelaire’s conclusion.  He ignores Baudelaire’s final note and, instead, focuses in on madness and the hidden meaning of man’s superiority over nature.  In deMan’s hands, “superiority” has a very negative and alienating note.  In addition, Baudelaire’s insistence that comedy is shared and inter-subjective is rejected.

Right off the bat, deMan notes:

In the first place, the accent falls on the notion of dedoublemant (duality) as the characteristic that sets apart reflective activity, such as that of the philosopher, from the activity of the ordinary self caught in everyday activities.  Hidden away at first in side-remarks such as this one, or masked behind a vocabulary of superiority and inferiority…the notion of self-duplication or self-multiplication emerges at the end of the essay as the key concept of the article, the concept for the sake of which the essay had in fact been written (212).

In this gesture, deMan shifts the focus from superiority and doubling to “self-duplication or self-multiplication.”  DeMan goes on to argue that “superiority” is not in relation to others – which is what Baudelaire and also Henri Bergson note.  Rather, superiority “merely designates the distance constituitive of all acts of reflection.”

In deMan’s reading, Baudelaire is really telling us that the effect of laughter is extreme alienation from the world and oneself.  Instead of attaining self-knowledge by way of laughter, deMan tells us that the laughing subject experiences the abyss.  His madness is not based on superiority so much as on a radical and debilitating loss of his center.

For Baudelaire…the movement of the ironic consciousness is anything but reassuring. The moment the innocence or authenticity of our sense of being in the world is put into question, a far from harmless process gets underway.  It may start as a casual bit of play with a stray loose end of fabric, but before long the entire texture of the self is unraveled and comes apart.  The whole process happens at an unsettling speed. (214)

DeMan’s rhetoric, as Jacques Derrida might say, “supplements” Baudelaire and rewrites his text.  In deMan’s hands, Baudelaire affirms madness and eschews all forms of inter-subjectivity.

Irony is unrelieved vertige, dizziness to the point of madness.  Sanity can exist only because we are willing to function within the conventions of duplicity and dissimulation, just as social language dissimulates the inherent violence of the actual relationships between human beings (216).

By writing in this way, DeMan is, so to speak, going backwards.  He is unraveling Baudelaire’s text to show that at the root of his comedy is what Baudelaire would call Spleen: the physical and symbolic organ associated with rage, anger, and melancholy.

Walter Benjamin saw Baudelaire’s allegorical prose and poetry as a response to Spleen – or what Max Pensky calls “impotent rage against the world.” Benjamin saw such aesthetic responses as a manifestation of “Heroic Melancholy.”  However, deMan does not.  Rather, beneath all of Baudelaire’s laughter he only sees insanity and Spleen.

What we need to ask is whether such a reading has any validity.  Is laughter or irony, in reality, an admittance to one’s radical alienation from the world and oneself?  Is laughter, in other words, self-destructive and anti-social?

And, with respect to Walter Benjamin, is his ironic return to childhood noting more than the experience and re-experience of his radical alienation from himself and others?  In other words, can we apply deMan’s reading of irony and laughter to Walter Benjamin’s humor?

Is Paul deMan right or radically wrong in his reading of irony?  To paraphrase Harold Bloom, how do we read Paul deMan’s “map of misreading” Baudelaire?  Was Baudelaire – or even Walter Benjamin- hiding something behind his laughter? Namely, his endless comic humiliation and fallenness?

Baudelaire and Benjamin: The Madness of Humility or the Madness of Humiliation?

images-3

Comedy often deals with power and powerlessness.  But as Baudelaire understands it, power usually has the upper hand.  For Baudelaire, comedy brings out the Satanic, powerful side of man, not the powerless and humble aspects.  It doesn’t return us to innocence.

Even though it has elements of “innocence” and although it is guided by the “law of ignorance,” the Absolute Comic is not a return to childhood in the full sense.  It retains the Satanic element since the Absolute Comic still nods to the superiority of the viewer\reader and man`s superiority over nature:

I would say that when Hoffmann gives birth to the absolute comic it is perfectly true that he knows what he is doing; but he also knows that the essence of this type of the comic is that it should appear unaware of itself and that it should produce in the spectator, or rather the reader, a joy in his own superiority and in the superiority of man over nature(165).

Notice that the Absolute Comic is innocent (“unaware of itself”) AND it produces a joy in the viewer’s “own superiority” and in the “superiority of man over nature.”

It retains this duality.

But, as we pointed out in our previous blog entry, this superiority is tainted.  It is a kind of madness.  In fact, as I pointed out, Baudelaire sees the insane as expressing the essence of this comic superiority.

The madness of the Absolute comic, as Baudelaire understands it, is different from what he calls the “madness of humility.”   Baudelaire associates the madness of humility with the “wise” who see the superiority of the comic as “inferior.”

Laughter is a sign of inferiority in relation to the wise, who, throughout the contemplative innocence of their minds, approach a childhood state.

It seems as if there are not only two kinds of madness but also two types of children: the humble and the satanic.  One is mad for God while the other is mad for itself and its superiority.

Which child does Baudelaire favor?  Which madness is superior? The madness of humility or the madness of the comic?  More importantly, why doesn’t Baudelaire, like Dostoevsky or Benjamin, imagine a holy fool?  After all, isn’t a holy fool humble, unconscious of himself, innocent, and funny?

How would Benjamin address these questions?   And when he talks about “Satanic Serenity” was Benjamin imagining a happy state that comes out of the Absolute Comic?  Was he siding with the madness of the comic over the madness of humility?  Could we call the “joy” that the viewers-slash-readers of the Absolute Comic feel when watching the Absolute Comic “Satanic Serenity?”  And how is this serenity different from the serenity that emerges from the madness of humility?

These questions present a problem: if Benjamin was so into the “return to childhood,” which we saw in his reading of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, wouldn’t he aim for the serenity of the wise man?  After all, wasn`t Dostoevsky leaning more toward the madness of humility in his novel?  Would he stand on the side of the wise man, who would see the smile, and especially the satanic smile (like the laugh), as “inferior?”  Or would Benjamin argue that the only way to attain happiness is, as Baudelaire might say, through the Absolute Comic?

If this is the case, then, one may only attain to partial childhood but not full. The madness of humility no longer seems to be an option for modernity.  Violence seems to be more akin.   To be sure, the Absolute Comic evinces a delight in the destruction of innocence and delights in the excesses of play: as we see in Baudelaire’s portrayals of the mime and in his reading ETA Hoffman’s story in which a girl is shocked when she realizes that her image of order and beauty are false.  In fact, the negation of her childish superiority (the superiority of her ideas and military order) is the basis, according to Baudelaire, of the audience`s joy at its superiority.  They – the audience – and not she – the comic character – are the masters of ignorance and are superior over nature.  They are mad with superiority, yet in a way that is not ignorant.

To be sure, though the madness of humility is not an option for modern man, and although Baudelaire gives the madness of the comic center stage, he does mention the “madness of humility.”  Moreover, Baudelaire notes that wise men, “throughout the contemplative innocence of their minds, approach childhood.”  He acknowledges different levels of innocence and the challenge to comedy made by the wise; nonetheless, he doesn`t pronounce either in a definitive manner.

I think Benjamin knew full well what was at stake in this comparison.  And he ventured where Baudelaire did not.  In his reflections on the Goethe Dream and on the Shuvalkin parable, Benjamin was engaging in the madness of humility and not simply in the madness of the comic.

True, he sees himself as double: as a man and a child.  But did Benjamin see himself as superior as Baudelaire suggests of every reader or viewer of the Absolute Comic? Did Benjamin feel a “Satanic Serenity” when he saw himself as a man and a child; that is, when he discovered the meaning of the Goethe dream and when he penned the Shuvalkin parable?  And wouldn`t Satanic Serenity imply an experience of comic superiority?

I would like to suggest that Benjamin didn`t feel comic superiority so much as a certain kind of powerlessness and astonishment when he looked at himself as a schlemiel.  We also hear this in Benjamin’s claim about Kafka: that “the beauty of his work was the beauty of failure.” This comment evinces a sense of inferiority not superiority.  In fact, Benjamin didn’t seem to take joy in this joke.  This is in contrast to Baudelaire, who notes that joy goes hand-in-hand with the feeling of Comic Superiority. To be sure, I can’t imagine anything close to Satanic in this reflection. The same goes for his reflection on himself in the “Vestibule” aphorism.  In fact, this destiny, to be marked as a child in Goethe’s house, is disheartening.  More disheartening is the fact that he is the subject of a prank.

I would suggest that this experience leans more toward the “madness of humility” or rather the madness of humilation.  Unless, that is, Benjamin would smile (satanically) at his misfortune.

Getting Comically Wasted: On Charles Baudelaire’s Notion of Absolute Comedy

170px-Paul_Cézanne_060

Baudelaire had a penchant for “intoxication” and comedy.  And what better day to discuss Baudelaire’s notion of the comic than on St. Patrick’s Day!  To be sure, Baudelaire thinks that the absolute comic, at its best, is like “intoxication.” Perhaps the “Satanic Serenity” that Walter Benjamin takes note of has a source in this; after all, Benjamin wrote about “Satanic Serenity” in his notes for his essay “Hashish in Marseille.”  As Baudelaire understands it, the state that one enters in the Absolute comic includes a sense of being “double.”   The irony of it all is that  this duality reminds one that one is “innocent” and, literally, destroyed.  And on St. Patrick’s day people usually talk about getting “wasted,” “destroyed,” and “hammered.”  All of these phrases suggest some kind of violence and, as Baudelaire suggests, some kind of innocence.

As we learned in the last blog entry, Satanic laughter is associated with a sense of superiority.  Baudelaire sees the insane (“the mad”) as the best illustration of an extreme sense of superiority.  The laughter of the insane, based on the psychotic insistence on the superiority of the laugher, brings out the essence of the “significant comic” (the comique significatif).  Mad laughter is, for Baudelaire, Satanic.  It has a total disregard for the world. It laughs at the world.  But it is deluded.  It has no innocence about it whatsoever.  It takes on a destructive daemonic aspect.

The significant comic doesn’t seem to embody what Benjamin would call “Satanic Serenity” since it is solely destructive.  The significant comic is not simply comic because she is “wasted”; no, s/he is comic because s/he wastes people with her daemonic humor and laugh.

(Mind you, for Baudelaire, children, “budding Satans,” are included in this category.)

The Absolute comic is different from, yet related to, the “significant comic.”  It is the kind of comedy that would attract Walter Benjamin who appreciated, like Baudelaire, gestural comedy (mime) and the kind of comedy that included what Baudeliare called the “law of ignorance.”

Baudelaire first introduces the Absolute comic when he discusses “laughter at the grotesque.”  To be sure, “the laughter caused by the grotesque has about it something profound, primitive, axiomatic, which is much closer to the innocent life and to absolute joy than is the laughter caused by the comic in man’s behavior”(157).

For Baudelaire, this is the superior form of comedy because it brings man “closer to the innocent life and to absolute joy.”

Baudelaire notes that the “absolute comic” has “one criterion”: “that is laughter – immediate laughter.”  However, there is one condition for comedy to be absolute, besides immediate laughter and that relates to the disclosure of what is most pathetic in humankind:  “the comic can only be absolute in relation to fallen humanity”(158).

In other words, the absolute comic must signify through falleness.  It must be – so to speak – wasted.

And it is only the best artists, Baudelaire tells us, who apprehend it. For these minds “are sufficiently open to receive absolute ideas”(158).  Baudelaire, after saying this, writes of an author who is the master of German horror and the grotesque; namely, the late  18th century German writer ETA Hoffman (158): “He always made a proper distinction between the ordinary comic and the type which he called the “innocent comic.”

What Hoffman calls “the innocent comic” is a blending of the innocent and the grotesque.  Moreover, it isn’t so “innocent” in the sense that it includes a distinct form of “violence.”  It doesn’t escape violence.

Baudelare notes that we also see such violence and innocence in the work of French mimes like Pierrot.  Regarding the mime and the clown, Baudelaire notes that Pierrot mixed the innocent and the grotesque by way of facepaint and gesture: “Upon his floured face he had stuck, crudely and without transition or gradation, two enormous patches of pure red.  A feigned prolongation of the lips, by means of two bands of carmine, brought it about that when he laughed his mouth seemed to run from ear to ear”(160).

170px-Léon_Hennique_-_Pierrot_sceptique

And although he appeared childish and innocent, he certainly was not: “As for his moral nature, it was basically the same as that of the Pierrot whom we all know – heedlessness and indifference, and consequently the gratification of every kind of greedy and rapacious whim”(161).

In other words, while he appears innocent, he is “devilish.”

The act of this rude yet innocent clown leads us to “a dizzy intoxication.” When one watches them “intoxication swims in the air; it is intoxication that fills the lung and renews the blood in the arteries”(163).  The “absolute comic” has “taken charge of each one of them.” And by each one, Baudelaire suggests that the comic and the audience are possessed.  Everyone is intoxicated.

The mime becomes possessed and seems to leave the realm of men: “Every gesture, every cry, every look seems to be saying: ‘The fairy has willed it, and our fate hurls us on – it doesn’t worry me! Come, let’s get started! Let’s get down to business!’ And then they do…which starts at this point – that is to say, on the frontier of the marvelous”(162).  In other words, the mime takes us into another realm by way of his gestures – a realm that, while laughable, brings us closer to childhood.

This can only mean that in his grotesque and childish disregard of limits, the mime’s gestures, his madness, while destructive counters the solely destuctive madness of the regular comic.   The mime is not simply mad – he is, actually; he certainly flaunts a superiority and indifference to the civilized world of adults.  But this madness, because it is childish, is also innocent.  The mime is a drunk of sorts and he spreads the feeling of intoxication through his rude and innocent gestures.

Baudelaire notes that nothing can surpass the absolute comic that we find in the mime: “But how could the pen rival the pantomime? The pantomime is the quitessence of comedy; it is the pure comic element, purged and concentrated”(162).

Nonetheless, Baudelaire ends his essay on laughter and devotes the most space to discussing this mad innocence by way of a close reading of ETA Hoffman’s story “Dacus Carota, The King of the Carrots.”

This story is exemplary because it shows us how a little girl, a “budding Satan,” loses her sense of comic superiority by way of the grotesque.  Her astonishment, her shock, brings us in touch with the “Absolute Comic.”

Baudeliare tells us that “the unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by a display of military might.”  When the girl is shown the soldiers sleeping at night, by her “magician” father, she experiences shock and vertigo.  Her exposure to the grotesque display of soldiers sleeping at night, when her father opens the “flap” of the tent, leads to what Baudelaire calls a “comic emanation, explosion, as it were, a chemical separation.”

What “emanates” from the comic explosion?

In the comic explosion we become aware of our childish part, which is unaware of itself.

This is the “law of ignorance.”  Indeed, for Baudelaire, “the most distinctive mark of the absolute comic is that it remains unaware of itself.”

This translates into a double consciousness for the viewer or reader. It indicates “the permanent dualism in the human being – that is, the power of being oneself and someone else at the same time”(165).

This experience, since it includes ignorance is double. As we saw above with the little girl who is astonished when she sees the grotesque soldiers but doesn’t know why she is astonshed: she is double.  She doesn’t know herself, but we do. Its an uncanny sense of self that the reader or viewer takes on. Baudelaire says it is superior – and, as we have seen superiority is the core of the satanic-slash-comic. It is the essence of laughter.

Perhaps this sense of duality is the cause of what Walter Benjamin’s calls a “Satanic smile.” Benjamin argues that it is based on a “Satanic Serenity” and not on destructive element of the Satanic.  But this misses one essential point made by Baudeliare: the serenity one has, which enables one to be oneself and someone else at the same time, is based on some kind of explosion.  It is based on some kind of destructive violence which, as Baudelaire, notes is inevitable when it comes to comedy.

This resonates with what we saw in Benjamin’s reading of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  There, he notes that a return to childhood, will not come without an “implosion.”

The violence that the mime and Hoffman apply leads to childhood.  This is the paradox.  With Benjamin this takes on a fascinating element because Benjamin sees himself as the butt of the joke.  He sees himself as a man and as a child: as himself and someone else.  But, and here is the point: he is both a man and a child.  He is double.

But there is one missing ingredient: the real basis for the Absolute Comic’s performance – as for the significant comic – is failure.  The secret of comedy is that it is based on what Baudelaire called Spleen – that is, rage and anger at one’s meaningless suffering in the world.  Superiority – whether of the significant or the Absolute comic variety – is ultimately a delusion.  But a necessary one as it casts out the hope that even though one is pathetic, one is innocent.  This can either bring about a Satanic Serenity or, perhaps, depression and melancholy.

Benjamin brought this double sense of himself in the Goethe aphorism and in the Shuvalkin parable. The absolute comic – and its sense of duality – is evident insofar as “the law of ignorance” pervades both: Benjamin was asked to sign but he had not idea that his name was already signed; and Shuvalkin thought he had the signatures of Potemkin but found that he was ignorant.  Shuvalkin, like Benjamin in the “Vestibule” dream, didn’t realize that the king had singed his name on each paper.  In both, the prank, though Satanic, is an emanation and explosion within which Benjamin sees himself as other: in which he sees himself as a schlemiel.. He sees himself as double: as man and child.

Perhaps we can say that every day was St. Patrick’s day for Benjamin insofar as every day he looked in the mirror he realized he was “wasted.”  Perhaps this gave him “Satanic Serenity.”  On the other hand, perhaps this made him a Sad Clown?  (As we shall see, in upcoming blog entries, this was one of Baudelaire’s double self-images.  Perhaps it was Benjamin’s too?)

(Here is one of the first animated films ever made.  This film, made in 1892, was named after the clown Pierrot that Baudelaire sees as exemplary of the Absolute Comic. Its entitled Pauvre Pierrot.  Can you spot Benjamin in this animated film (wink, wink)?)

Charles Baudelaire and Daemonic Laughter (Take 2)

images-2

Over several different blog entries, I pointed out how Walter Benjamin, in his reflections on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Goethe Dream (“The Vestibule”), his entries on six children in One Way Street, and in the Shuvalkin parable (in the Kafka essay), makes it quite clear that he saw himself as a man-child (that is, as a schlemiel).  But, upon reflection, we noted that Benjamin, in the “Vestibule” and in the Shuvalkin Parable, saw himself as being the subject of a prank played by the Other.  This reflection was, as I argued, Daemonic.

Who else would play this prank on him but a power that wanted to reduce him to a child or fool?   In our previous blog on the topic of the Daemonic, we were looking for the source and meaning of such a reflection.  As we noted, Gershom Scholem suggested that Walter Benjamin’s interest in the daemonic didn’t come from the Jewish tradition; it came from Charles Baudelaire.

After reading a few important passages, we saw that Benjamin read Baudelaire’s “Essence of Laughter” as saying that every physical response to comedy, even the smile, was “Satanic.”  And as I noted, Baudelaire even thought that the most innocent of creatures, children, could not escape the Satanic.  In fact, Baudelaire calls them “budding Satans.”  Nonetheless, we find that Baudelaire and Benjamin were both interested in returning to a “childlike” state.

In truth, the daemonic element of comedy complicates everything.  We are confronted with many questions about what either Benjamin or Baudelaire meant by the Satanic.  For now, we can say a few things.  First, both of them thought that laughter and even the smile was Satanic.  Second, both of them thought that even children may be touched by the daemonic.  However, unlike Baudelaire, Benjamin distinguishes between “Satanic destruction” and “Satanic Serenity.”  In his notes, which Scholem points to as a key to Benjamin’s intense interest in the daemonic, he associates his “Satanic Smile” with “Satanic Serenity” rather than with “Satanic Destruction.”  What, exactly, is the basis of this distinction?  How could something be Satanic while not being destructive?  It doesn’t make sense.

And if Benjamin speaks in his essay on The Idiot about the healing powers of childhood and innocence, and insists that Dostoevsky (and himself) repeatedly insist on a return to childhood,  what do we make of his affirmation of “Satanic Serenity?”  Is Satanic Serenity an innocent, childlike state?  What, in fact, was true happiness for Benjamin?  Was it the attainment of “Satanic serenity” or childhood innocence? Both, it seems, were sites of happiness for Benjamin.  Both, it seems, brought a smile to his face.  But what happens when that smile or any smile is, as Baudelaire says, Satanic? This is a question that puzzled Benjamin, as we saw in his piece entitled “Central Park.”

Let’s begin our query with a closer examination of Baudelaire’s notion of Satanic laughter.  From here, we will have a better idea of what Benjamin may or may not have derived from it in his own reflections on children.  Most importantly, from a close reading of Baudelaire’s notion of Satanic laughter and children we can understand the meaning of the prank that Benjamin recounts in two places: 1) the prank played on him in the Goethe dreams and 2) the prank played on Shuvalkin.  Both pranks, as we pointed out, reduce the characters to children and fools; both call attention to the basis of the prank: namely a signature written by the Other.

Let’s turn to Baudelaire’s essay on laughter for answers.

First of all, Baudelaire notes that, for physiologists of laughter (such as Thomas Hobbes), “laughter comes from superiority.” But here is the twist.   Baudelaire revises this definition by taking into account the physiologist of laughter: “I should not be surprised if, on making this discovery, the physiologist had burst out laughing himself at the though of his own superiority.  Therefore, he should have said: Laughter comes from the idea of one’s own superiority”(152).

According to Baudelaire, laughing at one’s “own superiority” is Satanic!  It is not an idea, it is profoundly personal and real.  “A Satanic idea if there ever was one! And what pride and delusion!”

But there is more to the story.  The essence of this laughter is not simply tied up with pride and delusion, it is directly related to madness: “For it is a notorious fact that all madmen in asylums have an excessively overdeveloped idea of their own superiority: I hardly know any who suffer from the madness of humility”(152).

Baudelaire’s observation is fascinating since it suggests that the “madness of humility,” which is an apt name for the madness of the schlemiel (of the fool) is not to be found in those who laugh.

Baudelaire goes on to give an example of how a humble woman went mad and “declined in her purity” once she started “falling.”  At that point, she started feeling superior and laughing: “She will be more learned from the point of view of the world; and she will laugh.”

Baudelaire diagnoses laughter as a sickness of the soul; and although it is a sign of superiority, it is, Baudelaire states, a “symptom of failing”: “I said that laughter contained a symptom of failing; and, in fact, what more striking token of debility could you demand than a nervous convulsion, an involuntary spasm comparable to a sneeze and prompted by the sight of someone’s misfortune.  This misfortune is almost always a mental failing.”

Upon watching someone fail or fall, the laugher says, in Baudelaire’s words: “Look at me! I am not falling’, he seems to say. ‘Look at me! I am walking upright. I would never be so silly at to fail to see a gap in the pavement or a cobblestone blocking the way”(152)

Delighting in someone’s suffering is Satanic and, Baudelaire claims, at the core of mad laughter.  However, Baudelaire notes the hidden secret of this madness; namely, that the person who laughs is the most pitiable creature. The one who laughs is a failure.  He laughs, ultimately, because he is a failure.  He laughs because of his rage and suffering (what Baudeliare, elsewhere, calls Spleen).  Laughter is the explosion of this rage and suffering:

“See, therefore, how he laughs; see how he laughs as he ceaseless compares himself to the catipillars of humanity, he so strong, so intelligent, he for whom the conditional laws of mankind, both physical and intellectual, no longer exist!  And this laughter is the perpetual explosion of his rage and his suffering.  It is – you must understand – the necessary resultant of his contradictory double nature, which is infinitely greater in relation to man, and infinitely vile and base in relation to absolute truth and justice”(153, my emphasis).

Baudelaire divides the world between the Satanic and the Holy.  The latter are Wise and Humble; they are not haughty. They regard themselves as nothing in comparison to “absolute truth and justice.”

But where is the innocence of contemplation that we noted in the last blog?  Where is the childlike?  As we noted in the first blog entry on this topic, the childlike is not present.  It is messianic. It is to come.  In Baudelaire’s world, it seems as if the wise man and his “innocent contemplation” which come “close to childhood” are non-existent.  For Baudelaire, rage, suffering, and the Satanic seem to touch everything – the things that we take as most innocent like children, wise men, and holy fools.

He sees no way out of it save through an art that, so to speak, laughs at the laugh.  Through a more intellectual laughter, through a reflective kind of madness, one can participate in what he calls the “Absolute Comic.” And this Absolute comic comes by way of mimes and by way of the most exemplary Absolute Comic story which, as Baudelaire argues, was written by ETA Hoffman.   As we shall see, this mime and this story, necessarily, address children and absent-mindedness.  But, the question we must ask is whether the laughter the Absolute Comic evokes takes us beyond the Satanic aspect of laughter – whether it brings us closer to what Baudelaire regarded as the wisdom that the prophets spoke of  which, ultimately, sees laughter as “inferior.”

What is the absolute comic?  And does it lead to what Walter Benjamin called “Satanic Serenity?”  Is Benjamin’s recounting of the signature-prank an example of the “Absolute Comic?”  Is the smile that the Absolute Comic evokes like the Smile of the Buddah, a wise and innocent smile, or is it the smile of “Satanic Serenity?”  Is this what Benjamin felt when he discovered his name, in the Goethe dream, written in clumsy, big childlike letters?

(We will address these questions in our next blog entry).

It all started with Menachem Kipnis, one of the first journalists to report on the Schlemiel

I’m reposting this piece, which I saw on facebook on a page called der Shtetl.  It should certainly be mentioned and reflected on in Schlemiel-in-Theory.  The  piece – cited in full below – begins by mentioning Yiddish writer Menachem Kipnis who loved to write schlemiel stories.  He ventured a daring (fictional) proposition: he wrote a series of stories ‘as if’ he were a journalist “reporting from Chelm,” telling, humorously, of its characters, their daily rhythms, and the town’s foolish happenings.

The obvious question and the comic conceit of the Kipnis’s venture is: How could a journalist remain objective in Chelm?  Isn’t it the case that a reporter’s job is to ‘cover’ reality not fiction?  But this evokes another question.  Are there “real” schlemiels who exist in reality and not Chelm?  The answer is yes.  However, the city of Chelm – although a real place and a fictional place in Poland – is ultimately fictional KINDERLAND.

The last lines of this piece hit on what I’ve been discussing in the last blog: the smile.  Remember how Walter Benjamin, drawing on Baudelaire, points out that even the smile is “Satanic.”  Can we say that about Chelm?  When we innocently contemplate such a place like Chelm, will we smile with what Benjamin calls a “Satanic Serenity?”

I would expect a Satanic smile if I said I was reporting on hell. But on Chelm?

Now, can we imagine what would happen if I, like Professor Ruth Bernuth (who also does research on the schlemiel and is mentioned below in this article and in this quote), were to tell people, today,  that “I’m working on the schlemiel?”

Professor Bernuth notes how “when I meet people, especially elderly people, and tell them I’m working on Chelm,” she said, “they smile.”

This addition “especially elderly people,” denotes the fact that they knew of Chelm and we do not – well, only some of us do.

Let’s narrow this down.  The Chelm reporter, Menachem Kipnis, taught his readers that Chelm is on the one side, and the world on the other.

But Kipnis wrote before the Holocaust.   As this article below notes, Chelm and the world tragically collide during the Holocaust. Many of the people who identified with Chelm and called themselves “Chelmers” were, as the article notes, killed in the Holocaust. If anything, this puts a horrific and Satanic-slash-historical twist to the Chelm story.

Nathan Englander, a contemporary Jewish-American author, takes this historical shift as a main focus in his short story, “The Tumblers.” But in his story, the Chelmers survive the Nazis by acting “as if” they are clowns and not Jews – they act as if they are Jews. And this is the tragic irony. But perhaps Englander is telling us that the greater tragic irony is the historical one in which Chelmers died a real death during the Holocaust.

(Here’s an essay I co-authored and published which addresses Englander and the post-Holocaust Schlemiel: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/modern_fiction_studies/v054/54.1feuer.html)

Nonetheless, there is an enigma for us to ponder.  After the end of the schlemiel in Europe, it lives on here in this blog and in Nathan Englander’s story, in Woody Allen’s films, in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in Sasha Baron Cohen, Ben Stiller, etc and has virtually become a “cultural icon,” as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi says, in America. What does this mean? Does this represent, as Ezrahi claims, a failure to mourn or does its “after-life” represent something else? Does the American schlemiel have a, so to speak, different, mission?

And can I, a latter day Menachem Kipnis, still report from Chelm? Can there still be a schlemiel reporter after the Chlemites were killed in the Holocaust?

Schlemiel-in-theory contends that there can be. It contends that Chelmers can still exist and can still be reported on.  This blog post and this writer – who shares the same first name as Menachem Kipnis, the first schlemiel reporter – take on the task of sharing the news and mourning the passing of the European Schlemiel in the Holocaust.

(Note: in Hebrew the name Menachem is associated with the comfort that is offered to those who mourn.)

313311_438283439585119_484591086_nWarsaw, 1926:
By the turn of the 20th century, what originated with a collection of German stories in 1597 had become the literary canon known as Chelm.

In the 1920s, the Yiddish writer Menachem Kipnis wrote a series of humorous articles in the Warsaw newspaper Haynt in which he identified himself as a journalist reporting from Chelm. These dispatches were so popular that a mother from the real Chelm is said to have written the paper begging it to stop printing them — she was afraid she would never be able to marry off her daughter.

This anecdote might be just another Chelm story. But von Bernuth did notice that as the stories gained in popularity people stopped referring to themselves in print as “Chelmers.” Chelm was no longer just the name of a town — it was a joke, one that somehow remained funny even after hundreds of Chelm’s real Jews were marched out of the town and shot by German troops in late 1939 and thousands of others were sent to the death camp at Sobibor.

“In addition to the already mentioned Hersh Welczer, whose widow and his orphans later escaped from Chelm to Wolyn,” reads a description of the events of 1939 in a memorial book later published by survivors, “the following popular Chelm Jews were shot during the slaughter: Dr. Oks, the photographer, Rozenblat, the three Lewensztajn brothers — rich iron merchants, Gamulke, a former lieutenant in the Polish military and Itshe Sznicer, owner of the perfumery.

“Their dead bodies were then handed over to their orphaned families by the peasants who knew them,” the account tells us, and the rest were buried together, 50 to a grave.

It became clear long before that war that the world of the Chelm stories was disappearing, and their role changed — they became less a living culture’s joke about itself than a wry love letter to an endangered species.

The stories might have survived when so much else of Yiddish culture was lost because “their absurd, humorous logic gave them a certain life,” said Yechiel Szeintuch, a Yiddish professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Though interest in Yiddish culture is increasing worldwide and new Yiddish departments are opening up in places like Lund, Sweden, Hebrew University shut its own department down in 2008. Szeintuch calls this “a modern-day Chelm story.”)

Over time, Chelm became popularly seen as one of the purest expressions of Jewish folk traditions from Europe. For German scholars before WWII, on the other hand, the Yiddish stories were derided as foreign corruptions of the original Schildburg fables.

In fact, von Bernuth said, the only way to understand Chelm is as the joint creation of different people who lived in the same place and listened to their neighbors’ stories.

“These stories are one of the most interesting examples of how German and Yiddish culture influenced one another,” she said. “It shows how intertwined they were.”

“To tell the story of Chelm, you need to know about German culture and German literature. Otherwise it’s rootless,” she said.

Von Bernuth is used to raised eyebrows from scholars who hear how she spends her time — “Some of them think I’m crazy,” she said. But there are advantages.

“When I meet people, especially elderly people, and tell them I’m working on Chelm,” she said, “they smile.”
Photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin’s, ‘Khakhme Khelm,’ Warsaw, 1926

Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, and the Daemonic (Take 1)

images-1

In an essay on Walter Benjamin entitled “Walter Benjamin and his Angel,” Gershom Scholem notes that one of the things that disturbed him most about Benjamin was his interest in the daemonic.  Scholem, in this essay, notes that Benjamin’s interest increased the more he delved into the work of the Parisian poet and cultural critic Charles Baudelaire:

The Luciferian element…entered Benjamin’s meditations…not directly from the Jewish tradition, but rather from the occupation with Baudelaire that fascinated him for so many years.  The Luciferian element of the beauty of the Satanic, stemming from this side of Benjamin’s interests, comes out often enough in his notes.  (213, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis).

Scholem goes on to provide examples of this element by noting a “Satanic phase” that Benjamin went through when he was writing on a Hashish impression of January 15, 1928.  Strangely enough, Scholem cites a passage from Benjamin that associates the Satanic with the smile:

My smile assumed Satanic features: though more the expression of Satanic knowing, Satanic contentment, Satanic Serenity than from Satanic destructive activity. (214)

Scholem latches on to Benjamin’s reading of the Satanic smile. He notes that, for Benjamin, everything is tainted by the Satanic.  Even the “’indescribable beautiful face’ of a human being can appear as ‘Satanic features – with a half-suppressed smile”(ibid).

The fact that Scholem finds Benjamin’s interest in Baudeliare to be the basis for his description of the smile as Satanic is instructive.  Although Scholem doesn’t delve deeper into this, we will.   To be sure, we can learn a lot about Benjamin’s approach to humor  by reading his reflections on Baudelaire’s reading of comedy, the smile, and laughter.   We can also learn a lot about Benjamin’s approach to comedy by simply reading Baudelaire’s reflections on the comic and, as I will point out, children (which, for Baudelaire, are related).  What we will find in both Benjamin’s reflections and in Baudelaire’s work is a keen interest in the relationship of humor to the daemonic.

In an unpublished piece called “Central Park,” written between 1938 and 1939, Benjamin devotes several reflections to Baudelaire’s prose, poetry, and critical essays.  The reflection that interests me most is Benjamin’s reflection on Baudelaire’s well-known essay “De l’essence du rire” (“The Essence of Humor”).

In this reflection, Benjamin writes:

De l’essence du rire” contains nothing other than the theory of satanic laughter.  In this essay, Baudelaire goes so far as to view even smiling from the standpoint of laughter.  Contemporaries often testified to something frightful in his own manner of laughter (182, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4)

Benjamin is correct in his claim that Baudelaire argues that all laughter is daemonic.  As Baudelaire explains:

Laughter is satanic: it is thus profoundly human.  It is the consequence in man of the idea of his own superiority.  And since laughter is essentially human, it is essentially contradictory; that is to say, it is a token of infinity grandeur and infinite misery (The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 154).

However, Baudelaire notes that there is a position that challenges this one; namely, the position of the “wise man”: “Laughter is a sign of inferiority to the wise, who, through contemplative innocence of their minds, approach a childlike state.”

This childlike state, however, seems, for Baudelaire, to be unattainable.  It is messianic: “As the comic is a sign of superiority, it is natural to hold that, before they can achieve absolute purification promised by certain mystical prophets, the nations of the world will see a multiplication of comic themes in proportion as their superiority increases”(ibid).

Baudelaire is basically saying that, as civilization advances, we will need to laugh more as we will feel more and more “superior” to nature.  This is not something to celebrate. Rather, for Baudelaire, it is something to lament.  And he hopes that one day we will become wise and transcend laughter altogether.

Benjamin is aware of this, hence, he notes that even the smile is tainted with the daemonic.

But if one reads Baudelaire’s essay on laughter, one will see that the grimace (the smile) only receives one sentence from Baudelaire while the laugh is mentioned throughout the essay: “All the miscreants of melodrama, accursed damned and fatally marked with a grin which runs from ear to ear, are in the pure orthodoxy of laughter.”

Benjamin latches on to this single sentence to argue that any bodily response which indicates humor is daemonic. To be sure, Baudelaire notes that no kind of laugh, even the laugh of a child, escapes the Satantic.  In fact, Baudelaire calls the laughter of little children the laughter of “budding Satans”(156).

Given this reading, what can we say of Benjamin’s reflections on children? As we saw in the hiding aphorism, which we addressed in an earlier blog, Benjamin argues that they “hide from the demon.”   And, as I suggested in that entry, this hiding place may be the shelter provided by a book.  Benjamin sees such hiding as an admirable strategy which, he claims, he learns from children.

The question we must ask is why Benjamin would see any response to humor is daemonic and whether he agreed, wholeheartedly, with Baudelaire’s reading of laughter and humor. This would imply that Kafka’s humor and Benjamin’s humor are or may be daemonic.  It would imply that Benjamin saw the signature-prank in his dream as wholly daemonic.  This would imply that Benjamin’s awareness of his identity – of his being a man-child – his awareness of a prank – was daemonic knowledge.  But is this knowledge, following a smile or a laugh, linked to superiority?  Did Benjamin read his calling, rather, in the opposite manner? After all, he is the butt of this joke.  As is the kingdom in the Shuvalkin parable we read and explained yesterday.

To be laughed at, to be a schlemiel, is entirely different from being the one who laughs or, as Benjamin notes, smiles.  Perhaps we can say that in the two moments where Benjamin reads himself and Shuvalkin as having been the butt of a joke, which reduced them to children, there is a challenge to the Satanic.  This would imply that masochism is redemptive.

In the end it is the same, Benjamin is not superior, he is a failure, a man-child, and a schlemiel. And perhaps, the “entire kingdom” is sunk into exile because the letters of a schlemiel named Shuvalkin hovers over its head. The implications of this reading are that Benjamin thought that he and “we” are not superior.  The joke, on the contrary, is on us.  And this bleak view suggests that if Benjamin is a schlemiel then Satan (the Other) must have written his name and Shuvalkin’s.  And if the herald who bears that message runs ahead of Kafka, as Benjamin claims, perhaps he runs ahead of us as well.  If this is so, then we are all doomed to endless failure and humiliation.   We are and will be the victims of a prank in which Satan has the last laugh and, as Benjamin seems to imply, doesn’t stop laughing.

Even so, Benjamin’s reflection on his (and our) destiny may in fact be redemptive, quite simply, because, in it, he (and we) is (are) not superior (he is not, as Baudelaire would say, Satanic); in his reflection, he sees himself as a powerless man-child.  And it is fascinating that this reflection on powerlessness stretches beyond Benjamin and finds itself in the pages of French thinkers such as Maurice Blanchot, Roland Barthes, and Gilles Deleuze.  They all seem to have taken Baudelaire and Benjamin seriously.  (We will return to this in future blogs.)

In our next blog entries, we will, hopefully, explore Baudelaire’s notion of the “absolute comic” and its relationship to the child and the mime.  This may give us another clue as to where Benjamin may have been going with his childish reflections.

Did you Say Your Name was Shuvalkin, Kafka, Walter Benjamin, or is this a Prank?

images-3

In the last two blog entries, I have been looking into Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism in which he recounts a dream where he discovers his name inscribed in Goethe’s guestbook.  To understand what this meant to Benjamin, I discussed Benjamin’s understanding of what a name is and why it is significant.  As I noted, Benjamin saw the name as revelatory.  For him, it constitutes a link between God and man.  And, as I pointed out, the name is more about relation and less about content.  But there is a twist.

Although Benjamin is asked to sign his name, he realizes it has already been signed.  In other words, a trick has been played on him

But the shock is not simply that his name was already written but that it was written “in big, unruly, childish letters.”  Benjamin is, as I said yesterday, S(c)h(l)ocked by this prank.  To be sure, Benjamin saw something very deep in this prank.  As I noted, he discovered his calling to Schlemieldom.  In a “man’s world” (literally, in Goethe’s world, his house) it seems Benjamin is a child.  He is doomed to being a man who is thought of as a child.  The ‘shape’ of his name, so to speak, indicates this.

It’s interesting to note that the Zohar, one of the greatest books of the Kabbalah, which Gershom Scholem, in part, translated into German, has many sections which analyze the shapes of letters.  From these shapes, from the way they are written, we can learn secrets.

Elliot Wolfson, in his book Aleph, Mem, Tau: Kabbalistic Musings on Time, Truth, and Death, notes the passage in the Zohar in which “each of the letters presents itself before God in an effort to be chosen as the primary instrument through which the world would be created”(159).  Wolfson delicately unpacks this passage from the Zohar so as to show that each letter deals with time, truth, and death.

Aleph says it is the first letter of the word Emet (which in Hebrew means truth), but Tav says it is the last letter of Emet (and the Hebrew alphabet) and should be granted the privilege of being the letter through which the world is created (160).  But, Wolfson notes, Tav is disqualified because it is the last letter of the word Met (death).

However, as Wolfson argues, the letters taken together are the beginning (Aleph), middle (Mem), and the End (Tav).  Together, they designate time and together (the past, present, and future) make the truth.  The word, truth contains the word death, but it also opens up to the future as the truth-to-come.  Wolfson correctly notes, resonating the Apocalyptic elements in the Kabbalah, that the first letter of the Torah is Bet not Aleph.  And this reflection opens us up to a question: if the world was created with an Aleph (of the word Emet – truth) why isn’t the first letter of the Torah an Aleph?

This is the rub: the Aleph and the truth are concealed and will be revealed in the future, in the messianic age.  Meanwhile, we live in the world of the second letter which conceals the first.  In this world, truth (or for Wolfson, the truth of time) is distorted.

Walter Benjamin was quite aware of this teaching from the Zohar.  From Scholem and his own studies, he learned how the letters of the name, their shape and arrangement, disclose a secret that can be glimpsed in the present and seen to be coming from the future.  Building on Wolfson’s work, I would call this a truth-to-come.

Knowing this, how do we interpret Benjamin’s revelation of a name (his name) that was already written in clumsly children’s letters.  Was the disclosure of this prank a revelation of the truth-to-come or, rather, a distortion of the truth-to-come?  To be sure, this was the disclosure of Benjamin as a man-child (as a schlemiel).  But what does the shape of the schlemiel’s name have to do with the truth-to-come?

In the very beginning of Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, he returns to this question.

In the beginning of the essay, entitled “Potemkin,” Benjamin recounts a story of how Grigory Potemkin, the 18th century Russian military ruler, statesman, and beloved of Catherine the Great, went into a great depression.   (As a side note, Catherine gave Potemkin the title of the Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.)

As Benjamin recounts, Potemkin’s depression “lasted form an extraordinary length of time and brought about serious difficulties; in the offices documents piled up that required Potemkin’s signature”(112, Illuminations).

Who could get him to sign his name?

Benjamin notes that “an unimportant little clerk named Shuvalkin” comes to the rescue.  In other words, a simpleton (that is, a schlemiel of sorts) comes to their aid.   He doesn’t try to reason with Potemkin; rather, he acts: “Shuvalkin stepped up to writing desk, dipped a pen and ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hands while putting the documents on his knees”(112).

Potemkin signs all of them.   And Shuvalkin walks into the anteroom, “waving the papers triumphantly,” as the councilors gather around to see.  And what happens is astounding: “Breathlessly they bent over them.  No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed.”

When Shuvalkin looked in to see what happened – to see what had “upset” them and put them into a stupor, he sees that every one of the signatures has his name signed on it: “Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin.”

Benjamin sees this story as a “herald racing two hundred years ahead of Kafka’s work.” And then he adds that “the enigma which beclouds it is Kafka’s enigma.”

Benjamin then goes on to substitute Kafka’s character K for Shuvalkin.

These rhetorical movements are very hasty and to simply go along with them, without prying into the esoteric, would be clumsy.  Benjamin is telling us that Shuvalkin is a herald who goes “ahead of Kafka’s work.”  To be sure, this implies that Shuvalkin, a schlemiel, may even be (temporally) ahead of Benjamin’s work.  Moreover, he says that it is Kafka’s enigma but, in truth, it is also his.  In fact, he and Kafka share the enigma of Shuvalkin, which is the enigma of having one’s name already signed by the Other. Signed in such a way that the shape of the letters and their arrangement indicate that the bearer of the signature is a fool.

After the last three blog entries on Benjamin and the name, I hope that by now it will become evident to the blog-readers out there that a name is taking shape.  And that name, Benjamin and Kafka’s secret name, is a name that they are signed with and that name is the name of the man-child or the schlemiel.

There are many questions which come with this enigma and with this parable.  What does it mean that Kafka and Benjamin are the subjects of a prank?  And what does it mean that the “herald” has gone on ahead of Kafka?  Is he ahead of “us” as well?  I say “us” because everyone in the community, as is evidenced by the Potemkin parable, may be affected by the prank – that is, by the signature Shuvlakin.  But to say this, as Benjamin seems to suggest, wouldn’t we be entering the realms of ontology, politics, and religion?

Given this suggestion, can we say that we all share the same childishly written (and childish) name?  And instead of the name of God, as the name we all share (or the name Emet – truth, which Wolfson ventures in his reading of the Zohar), why is the name we share a name whose letters are childishly written?  Why is “our” name the name of a man-child?  Is this, as the Kabbalah might say, the “truth” (Emet) to come?  Or is it a prank?

All of these questions have not, in the history of Benjamin studies, been posed or discussed.  They are questions that come up if you read Benjamin (or Kafka for that matter) as he wanted to be read – as one would read a parable, midrashically.  I will be developing these ideas further in my book on the Schlemiel.  Nonetheless, I have decided to share some of these childish ‘secrets’ on this blog before my book makes the light of the day.  To be sure, there are a few more secrets about Benjamin and the Schlemiel that I may tell in this blog before I pass on to other schlemiels and schlemiel-topics, but I may have to withhold them or encode them in the very near future. Wink Wink!

Remember, you heard it here first – at SchlemielTheory!  More fun-to-come!

The S(c)h(l)ock of Walter Benjamin’s Discovery

images

There is nothing like the shock of discovery.  The moment of recognition is transformational.   In Greek, the word for recognition is anagoresis.  In Greek anagnōrisis comes from the word anagnōrizein to recognize.  The root of this word comes from ana- + gnōrizein to make known.  Webster’s dictionary goes on to point out that it is akin to Greek gnōrimos, meaning, well-known and the word gignōskein to come to know.

Anagoresis happens in Greek tragedy when the main character learns who he or she really is and/or who other people really are.  Usually, this knowledge is tragic.  One need only think of Oedipus in Sophocles’ famous play Oedipus Rex who, when he discovers who he is and who his real mother and father are, has a breakdown.   This tragic knowledge culminates with Oedipus poking his eyes out.

But anagoresis doesn’t always have to be tragic.  In fact, it can be comic.

In yesterday’s blog, I located the moment of Benjamin’s self-discovery in his aphorism entitled “Vestibule.”  In this aphorism, Benjamin writes of a dream he had about being in Goethe’s house.  When he is asked by the “curator” to write his name in Goethe’s guestbook, he discovers that his name is not only already written but that it is also written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  In other words, Benjamin has a comic self-discovery.  He learns that his name, his essence, is childishly written.  And it is not he that has written it this way; someone else, some Other, has written his name in this childish manner.  To be sure, although this is comic; it is also tragic.  It’s as if, someone, some Other, has played a prank on him.

This discovery is astonishing.  But what does it mean?  Yesterday, I suggested that this is Benjamin’s discovery that he is a man-child.   More to the point, he discovers that he has been, prankishly, written into Goethe’s guest book (that is, the book of German letters) as a schlemiel (a man-child).

To be sure, Benjamin took names quite seriously.  And this discovery of his already written name, albeit in a dream, was revelatory.  In his essay “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” Benjamin makes this explicit: “In naming, the mental being of man communicates itself to God”(318, Reflections).

Naming is, for Benjamin, a direct form of communication between God and Man.  It is, without a doubt, revelatory.

Naming, in the realm of language, has as its sole purpose and its incomparably high meaning that it is the innermost nature of language itself.  Naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated, and in which language itself communicates itself absolutely. (ibid)

But does Benjamin discover the essence of language in his dream or does he discover himself?  What does he discover?  Moreover, in this dream, Benjamin does not write.  He doesn’t, in this sense, communicate with God by way of naming.  To be sure, it seems to be the other way around.

Moreover, the “Vestibule” aphorism complicates Benjamin’s claim in “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” that “Man is the namer, by this we recognize that through him pure language speaks.”

Benjamin’s mention of “pure language” is quite fascinating.  It further complicates things.  Gershom Scholem, in a chapter of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism entitled “Merkabah Mysticism and Jewish Gnosticism” helps us to clarify what is at stake with such language.

In his discussion on ancient Kabbalistic liturgy, Scholem notes that the words of these Kabbalistic prayers to God, which can be found in prayers books today, are the “pure word.”  According to Scholem, they are pure words because they don’t mean anything; they don’t have any content.  Moreover, the “ascent of the words has not yet substituted itself for the ascent of the soul and of the devotee himself.  The pure word, the as yet unbroken summons stands for itself; it signifies nothing but what it expresses.”

The pure word is a word of man to God.  For Scholem, it is purely relational and bears no content.  It has a lot in common with what Benjamin calls naming.

However, in Benjamin’s aphorism, his name is already written.  Is it “pure?”  Is Benjamin pointing out a comic relationship with God?

The irony of all this is that Benjamin, in this aphorism, is recording what was already written; namely, Benjamin’s name in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  He is not, like Adam in his essay, naming.  He is recording what is written.

This is the prophetic mode or recording and not simply the mode of naming because, as Benjamin well knew by way of his friend Gershom Scholem, the Jewish tradition says that Moses wrote the Torah down after being told, word by word, what to write.

As the Medieval Rabbi, Scholar, and Philosopher Moses Maimonides points out, Moses’ prophesy, which is law, is communicated in this way of recording.  (And it is different from other prophets insofar as they, mainly, rebuke the people or prompt them to “return” to God.  Or, as Martin Buber might say, the prophets alert the people to the “demand of the hour.”)

Benjamin seems to be giving this prophetic legacy a comic twist.  In Benjamin’s aphorism, he is recording the name he saw in a dream: his name, childishly, that is, comically written.

Benjamin is not naming so much as being named (or renamed).  But this name, which he can’t even write, although asked to do so, has been comically altered.  It suggests that Benjamin’s destiny (the law he falls under) is, so to speak, tied up with the schlemiel.  He cannot escape the joke that has been played on him: he realizes, in his moment of anagoresis, that his destiny is to accept his childishly written name.  His identity, his essence, is written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”

This is tragic and comic knowledge.  This is a tragic and a comic anagoresis.  It is the, so so speak, S(c)h(l)ock of discovery.  (Schlock means a stroke of bad luck or denotes something that is low grade and cheap; it often has a comic connotation.)  He realizes, that in Goethe’s house, in this house of the classicist, he is childish.  He is the subject of laughter.

But why is his name improper? Why is it his destiny to be a schlemiel in Goethe’s house?  Are there other reasons for this shameful recognition?  Is this or rather was this, perhaps, the destiny of all Jews (even the most modern) in Germany?  Are all of their names “childishly” written?  Are they the butt of a bad, Greek joke?  Or is it just Benjamin who suffers this fate?

Most importantly, who is the mysterious Other who wrote his name in this childish manner?  Who played the trick on Benjamin?  Was it God, a demon, or Goethe?

Regardless of the answer, Benjamin knew that his destiny, his name, was tied to the schlemiel.

But, based on his writing on the child, childhood, and the fool throughout his work, as we have seen in a few entries on this blog, it seems as if he didn’t seem to be angry or disturbed about this revelation.  He seems to have accepted it and to have made it into one of his passionate interests.

Like Woody Allen, Benjamin doesn’t seem to get angry about this revelation so much as perplexed.  He is shocked but…

(In our next blog entry, we will look, once again, at this discovery yet from the angle of another name that Benjamin discovered.)

Wink, Wink! Walter Benjamin’s Childhood Secret and His Prophetic Calling to Schlemieldom

images-1

As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa.   A careful writer wants to be read carefully.  He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself.  Reader precedes writer.  We read before we write.  We learn to write by reading.  –Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing

When you’re in on a joke, don’t forget to wink.

When you wink, you imply that there is something that only some people can see.  Winking is not a straightforward gesture.  It is oblique.   And it is immediate, like a blink of the eye.  The wink indicates that the person you shared your secret with now knows something that only you know.

The esoteric, hidden meaning, is esoteric precisely because it signifies by way of an oblique gesture.  The conveyance of the esoteric (secret) message is gestural – like a wink.  There are esoteric writers and readers.  The esoteric writer winks at the reader.  But the reader must be looking for the wink, in advance.  To be sure, if the esoteric reader is to find a secret (or secrets, plural) she must “read between the lines.”

Throughout their work, Walter Benjamin and Leo Strauss were attentive in their readings of texts.  There eyes were either looking for the wink or winking at their readers.  And from such reading practices, they learned how to wink too.

For both, the good reader and the good writer knows how to wink and be winked at.

One winks at the reader, so to speak, through writing.  But one must be able to see the wink.  And that takes practice. One must learn to read for “allusions” – for things that are said obliquely.

But this is not simply a willed activity.  To be sure, both knew that inherent in language is the power to allude and hint at things.  This force astonished Benjamin and Strauss.   Built into language, there is a revelatory aspect. But the revelation of language is not simply a revelation of something outside language.

No.

They knew that their allusive writing style didn’t simply allude to something other than themselves.  Although they would never say it directly (since that is the point of the esoteric), they believed that their allusions referred, in some way, to themselves.

What Benjamin and Strauss desired most was to read and to write: to wink and be winked at.  They wanted to share their secrets.

Leo Strauss’s language is thick with such implication – it winks at his readers.  When he says that “a careful writer wants to be read carefully,” he is obliquely telling his readers his desire which, ultimately, comes from careful reading.  After all, as Strauss says in the epigram: “Reader precedes writer.”  When Strauss writes these words about Baruch Spinoza, he is speaking about himself and his deepest desire as a writer.  His words are autobiographical.

Strauss wants to be read well.  But this is not for his own sake.  He wants to read well so that he can write well.  Writing is not for himself; writing, for Strauss, is shared (partage, as Derrida would say); writing is for a community of careful readers and writers.  What Strauss calls “persecuted writers.”  (Derrida, in his essay on Emmanuel Levinas entitled “Violence and Metaphysics” calls it the “community of the question.”)

To get into the community, you simply need to know how to read the wink when-it-happens and how to write-slash-wink.  We can have no doubt that Benjamin saw himself as a part of such an esoteric community of readers and writers.  He knew that the wink signifies that we know something that many people don’t.   He knows that his knowledge, because it is esoteric and hidden from society, might be dangerous.  This is why Strauss would call it “persecuted”: the author cannot, under certain societal circumstances, reveal this knowledge directly.  S/he must wink.

But the wink doesn’t simply reveal a secret that may endanger society; it also tells us something about the writer that we may not know.  After all, a wink tells us one thing: you’re in on my secret.

Yesterday, in my cursory reading of the childhood section Benjamin’s book One Way Street, I pointed out how Benjamin’s sections on children are autobiographicalThe section begins with reading but ends with hiding.  I explained how Benjamin was identifying with the child and, in effect, becoming-child.  Most importantly, we must remember that this becoming happens in a world or micro-world.

One doesn’t become in a vacuum.  This means that Benjamin’s reading practices are ways of opening up and hiding in microworlds.   But he didn’t just go into these worlds for no reason.  No, as I pointed out, Benjamin was running away from terror as the child runs from a “demon.”  We can say that he was persecuted.  His words on The Idiot (and on hiding) tell us that he knows that his terror comes from childhood damage.  But this is not simply knowledge.  In writing about this terror, it is practiced: Benjamin, in the two aphorisms we read yesterday, demonstrates that he must live the life of a child if he is to be safe or as Jacques Derrida would say in his essay “Faith and Religion,” sacred, that is, removed from danger, “autoimmune.”

At the beginning of One Way Street, Benjamin prepares us for his venture into childhood and its safe havens.  We see this in an aphorism entitled “Vestibule.” Here he gives the reader his prophesy of childhood and his calling.

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.

But this revelation, lest we not forget, comes through a dream.    This is significant since one of the ways prophesy comes to man, in Judaism, is through dreams.  In exile, it is through the oblique and indirect way – the way of the dream – that God communicates with man.  In Benjamin’s prophetic dream, he realizes that he is a man-child.  His name is, after all, written in “big, unruly childish characters.”

His name, his essence, is childish.  Yet, at the same time, Benjamin is a man hiding in Goethe’s imaginary schoolhouse.  Most importantly, he didn’t name himself a child or schlemiel.  He didn’t sign his name in a childlike manner, someone else did!

Wink, wink!