Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 2


By way of a comic narrator, Kafka’s readings of Abraham and his creation of “other Abrahams” are educational: they teach us how the other Abrahams are.  I would suggest that, for Kafka, his Abrahams are schlemiels who, while acknowledging Kierkegaard’s Passionate Knight of Faith, also offer a challenge to it.  Instead of passion and concentration they also offer us inertia and absent-mindedness.  Kafka’s close descriptions of Abraham and these “other Abrahams” offer us something like a phenomenology of the schlemiel-as-prophet.  After all, Abraham is a prophet just as much as Moses is; however, as Maimonides notes, his prophesy is weaker because it is oftentimes mediated by the imagination.

In the first of his “other Abrahams,” Kafka sets the tone for his entire piece.  His  descriptions of him offer us foolish wisdom:

Abraham’s spiritual poverty and the inertia of this poverty are an asset, they make concentration easier for him, or, even more, they are concentration already.

Attention, as Benjamin says regarding Kafka, is the “silent prayer of the soul.”  So is humility, which Kafka took as the greatest means to peace (as we pointed out in another blog entry).  Spiritual poverty goes hand-in-hand with humility and, for Kafka, it leads to a kind of slowness (what he calls “inertia”).  And, apparently, humility and slowness are not things one can use to concentrate better; they are concentration.  In other words, Abraham’s humility, his spiritual poverty, is concentration.  To make such a claim is to affirm some kind of pathos.  But, immediately after stating this, Kafka decides to offset this pathos and inserts a joke (which every critic I have read has, unfortunately, missed):

By this, however, he loses the advantage of applying the powers of concentration.

The punch line is that he, the narrator, and not Abraham can’t concentrate or understand the value of being concentration instead of using it.  The voice of this piece, the narrator, is a schlemiel. Kafka seems to be telling us that the schlemiel’s job is to acknowledge pathos and inertia but, at the same time, not recognize it.   Pathos is tainted by distraction – something the schlemiel knows well.

The schlemiel is the “other Abraham” while Abraham is the “knight of faith.”

Its not that the narrator is an anti-hero so much as an almost-hero.  To be sure, this absent-minded joke about Abraham and his “spiritual poverty” resonate throughout Kafka’s Abrahams.

The next Abraham addresses Abraham’s relationship to the world.  The narrator criticizes him by saying that this Abraham falls prey to “the illusion” of not seeing the world as something uniform.  By calling it an illusion, Kafka is being highly ironic.  For Kafka, on the contrary, this is not an illusion.  Yet, for the other Abraham it is.  This is obviously ridiculous.  And that is what a schlemiel is or does: he makes ridiculous claims.  They are ridiculous in relation to Kierkegaard’s Abraham, the knight of faith, who, of course, is sickened by the uniformity of the world.  Kierkegaard is preponderant in this regard; the Knight of Faith is obsessed with “the individual” and being “singled out.”  And Abraham, for Kierkegaard, is the penultimate example of uniquesness.  But the voice in this piece says something ridiculous which misinterprets this, once again.  Or, rather, it doesn’t recognize pathos.

Regarding the next Abraham, the narrator notes that the “real Abraham” had “everything” and yet “was to be raised still higher.”  He was raised, since childhood, for the deed.  The narrator notes, here, that this Abraham did not, as Kierkegaard would say, take a leap; rather, “this (his sacrifice) would be logical.”

The narrator contrasts this “real Abraham” to some of the Abrahams who may not even have a child to sacrifice.  For them, the commandment was impossible.  In response to this “impossible” commandment, the narrator told us Sarah Laughed: “These are impossibilities and Sarah had a right to laugh.”  Lest we not forget, Sarah laughs at what would naturally seem impossible: giving birth to a child in her old age.  However, here, the laughter is something specific that happened after Isaac’s birth.  The point being that the narrator mistakes Sarah’s laugh for a general laugh: the laugh at the impossible commandment.

This reading is fascinating because what she is laughing at is the schlemiels situation which is essentially impossible; however, what the schlemiel usually does is to act “as if” the impossible can still be done. This, of course, is ridiculous.  But this is the condition of at least one of the “other Abrahams” who may not have a son to sacrifice.  And it is to this part of the parable that Jill Robbins most closely illustrates her reading.  Kafka, for her, is that “other Abraham.”   Regardless of whether or not we read this parable, like Robbins, as an allegorical autobiography, the point remains: the narrator mis-reads Abraham’s specific, unique commandment by generalizing it.  And this has the effect of challenging its pathos.  This doesn’t detract from that Kafka, elsewhere, sees himself as commanded.  The commandment remains but, as he points out there, it is hard to understand.  His prayer, so to speak, is addressed toward understanding the commandment.  To be sure, Kafka associates his commandment with prayer and humility.

And this brings us to the last of the Other Abrahams who is too humble.   In yesterday’s blog entry, we ended with this “other Abraham.”  This Abraham is so humble that he can’t imagine why he, an old man, and his son – a “dirty” child – could have been called upon by God:

True faith is not lacking in him, he has this faith; he would make the sacrifice in the right spirit if only he could believe he was the one meant.  He is afraid that after starting out as Abraham with his son he would soon change on the way into Don Quixote.  The world would have been enraged at Abraham could it have beheld him at this time, but this one is afraid that the world would laugh itself to death at the sight of him.  However, it is not the ridiculousness as such that he is afraid of – that he is, of course, afraid of that too and, above all, of his joining in the laughter – but in the main he is afraid that this ridiculousness will make him even older and uglier, his son even dirtier, even more unworthy of being called.

This Abraham is already ridiculous; he fears becoming older the more ridiculous he becomes.  This is telling.  Here, Kafka, like Baudelaire and his imagining of an old clown in the circus, imagines what life would be like for someone like this Abraham, this schlemiel.

What would it be like to always be a schlemiel?  What would it be like to always be the object of ridicule?  In the end, Kafka’s parable suggests that being a humble-laughing- stock is not easy.  It’s hard to be a clown, and this life of ridicule deeply affects the body of the schlemiel prophet.  The other-Abraham’s fear – the fear of a humble schlemiel – is that the more one is the pit of laughter, the more one will not be “worthy” of being called.  This fear demonstrates the utter simplicity and humility of this Abraham.   This other Abraham mis-recognizes the calling because he is caught up in the reality of being a schlemiel.

Echoing the first joke, which was based on a mis-recognition of passion, these Abrahams are humble and absent-minded.  They challenge Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith since they misrecognize passion, don’t see themselves as worthy, and do not passionately relate to God (but this has nothing to do with their lack of faith; perhaps it has to do with the “inertia” of their spiritual poverty).

Unlike Kierkegaard, this Abraham doesn’t want to laugh with everyone.  He is afraid of what will happen.  And this makes sense.  It reminds me of Andy Kaufmann’s reticence – near the end of his career – when facing a laughing audience.  He can’t join in as he has lived with too much ridicule.  What happens is that when one laughs, one becomes like a god in this moment of laughing with the gods.  This Abraham can’t even entertain that.  Its not that it’s ridiculous; rather, it is embarrassing.  Ridicule exposes the schlemiel prophet and wears him down.

In the end, the schlemiel doesn’t opt for pathos.  He can’t.  The Knight of Faith can.  Perhaps that’s why the schlemiel’s best defense is absent-mindedness?

Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 1


Franz Kafka was an avid reader of Kierkegaard.  We can see from his letters, diaries, and his Octavio Notebooks that Kierkegaard was on his mind.  What interested Kafka most about Kierkegaard was his inquiry into faith.  Although Kierkegaard wrote much on irony, a topic which Kafka was very interested in, Kafka didn’t write as much on this aspect of Kierkegaard.

The biggest point of difference between Kafka and Kierkegaard can be found in their reading of Abraham.   And yet, what brings them together is the claim that what Abraham did was “foolish.”  The meaning of this, however, differs greatly.   The meaning of foolish passion, for Kierkegaard, is something Nietzsche and Bataille inherited (although they employed it in radically different ways).  The meaning of Abraham’s foolishness for Kafka, on the other hand,  is more in line with the tradition of the schlemiel.

To begin with, Jill Robbins in her book Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Alterity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas, cites a letter to Max Brod which shows that Kafka found Kierkegaard’s Abraham to be “monstrous.”  He is not an “ordinary man.”

In at letter to Max Brod, Kafka remarks of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: “He doesn’t see the ordinary man…and paints this monstrous Abraham in the clouds.”

According to Robbins, the reason Kafka thinks this is because he believes that Kierkegaard, like Augustine, likens Abraham to Cain.  She cites Kafka’s letter to Brod as proof:

In the moment he is about to sacrifice Isaac, the ethical expression for what he is doing is: he hates Isaac.  But if he actually hates Isaac, he can rest assured that God does not demand this of him, for Cain and Abraham are not identical. He must love Isaac with all his soul.

Robbins notes, however, that Kafka is wrong: “But Kierkegaard does not say: Cain.  He speaks instead of Abraham”(91).  Citing Kafka’s parable (or rather parables) of Abraham, Robbins goes on to argue that Kafka, like Kierkegaard, is not reading the Torah so much as “thinking” another Abraham:

Like Kierkegaard, Kafka is involved in the project of thinking Abraham (or Abrahams).  Kafka thinks another Abraham, who is so capable, so much in the finite, that he is incapable of leaving the house.

Robbins is referring to Kafka’s parable, which notes his “ordinariness.”  I’ll cite the relevant parts as I go along so as to see the continuity between his letter to Brod and his parable which Robbins is examining:

I could conceive of another Abraham for myself – he certainly would have never gotten to be a patriarch or even an old-clothes dealer – who was prepared to satisfy the demand for a sacrifice immediately, with the promptness of a waiter, but was unable to bring it off because he could not get away being indispensable; the household needed him, there was perpetually something or other to put in order, the house was never ready

As one can see, this Abraham is a simpleton (a Tam in Yiddish and Hebrew).  He is not a knight; he’s a schlemiel.  Robbins stresses the differences between Kierkegaard and Kafka based on this criterion of “ordinariness” posited by Kafka himself: “This is not “the monstrous Abraham in the clouds”; it is an Abraham whose ordinariness is stressed”(92).   However, in an interesting turn, Robbins argues that Kafka is wrong; Kierkegaard also likened Abraham to an ordinary person:

The knight of faith has, externally, “a striking resemblance to bourgeois philistinism”; he expresses the “sublime in the pedestrian”; “his gait is as stead as a postman’s.”  But there is something else going on here.  Kafka has another bone to pick with Kierkegaard. According to Robbins, the key can be found in a letter Kafka wrote to Robert Klopstock in 1921.  In the letter, which includes parts of this parable to Abraham, Kafka writes:

It is different for the above cites Abrahams, who stood in houses they were building and suddenly were supposed to go up Mount Moriah; possibly they don’t yet have a son, and are supposed to sacrifice him already.

For Robbins, this indicates this “hypothesis” is a “devastating one” because “for Kierkegaard it was a fact”; namely, that Fear and Trembling was an “autobiographical allegory of Kierkegaard’s broken engagement. This autobiographical allegory is based on an analogy: As Abraham sacrificed Isaac, so Kierkegaard sacrificed Regina”(92).

Robbins extends this to Kafka who, like Kierkegaard was also childless and not married.  Citing Jean Wahl, who argues that Kafka “substitutes the proper name of Abraham for Kierkegaard,” Robbins inserts her claim: “Could we not also say that Kafka substitutes the proper name of Abraham for Kafka?  Perhaps Kafka’s autobiography – the one he never wrote – is also the Abraham story?”

Following this presumption, Robbins follows through with a reading of Kafka’s Abraham as autobiographical.  She goes back and forth between letters and the text to demonstrate it.  Citing a letter to his fiancé, Felice, Robbins notes that Kafka says that Kafka is held back by, in his words, “what is almost a command from heaven” not to marry her.  This, for Kafka, is the ridiculous nature of the command.  Regardless, the point Robbins is trying to make is that Kafka’s Abraham is a Kafka who cannot fulfill the commandment of sacrificing a son because he is neither married nor a father.

To be sure, Robbins reading finds an interesting resonance in the claim, pondered by Kafka and Kierkegaard, that the artist is a bachelor.  This is a claim which I have written on recently.   However, as I argue over there, the autobiographical reading may miss the fact that Kafka saw himself as a schlemiel.  His failure at marriage and having children is only a part of his self-understanding.  Kafka’s midrashic understanding draws on the schlemiel, on a different kind of knight; namely, Don Quixote.

As Kafka notes in his parable, at least one of his Abrahams has much in common with Quixote.  The other Abraham is called upon to make the sacrafice, but he cannot believe that he, an “old man” with an “ugly child” would be called upon.   And this humility, this ordinariness, is what makes him into a schlemiel:

True faith is not lacking in him, he has this faith; he would make the sacrifice in the right spirit if only he could believe he was the one meant.  He is afraid that after starting out as Abraham with his son he would soon change on the way into Don Quixote.  The world would have been enraged at Abraham could it have beheld him at this time, but this one is afraid that the world would laugh itself to death at the sight of him.  However, it is not the ridiculousness as such that he is afraid of – that he is, of course, afraid of that too and, above all, of his joining in the laughter – but in the main he is afraid that this ridiculousness will make him even older and uglier, his son even dirtier, even more unworthy of being called.

(I will return to this in my next blog entry.)







Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 2)


In the end of The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments,” Kierkegaard argues that the “ironist is always on the watch” for contradictions and verbal malapropisms.  This vigilance is radical.  For Kierkegaard, the true principled ironist will laugh at everyone, equally.  S/he will even laugh at those who die for an opinion.  No stone will go unturned by the ironist.  The point Kierkegaard wants to make is that dying for a claim or idea (in the name of “freedom,” “justice,” etc) is ridiculous because it will always be ironic:

To the extent the gentleman may be right in asserting that he has that opinion with all his vital force he persuades himself he has, he may do everything for it in the quality of a talebearer, he may risk his life for it, in very troubled times he may carry the thing so far as to lose his life for this opinion…and yet there may be living contemporaneously with him an ironist who, even in the hour when the unfortunate gentleman is executed, cannot resist laughing, because he knows by the circumstantial evidence he has gathered that the man had never been clear about the thing himself. (257)

The ironist, so to speak, laughs at the beheading; it is ironic.  But the ironist Kierkegaard is talking about, the vigilant ironist, is not secular; s/he is religious. S/he is not saved by laughter and the gods; s/he is saved by God:

Laughable it is…for he who with quiet introspection is honest before God and concerned for himself, the Deity saves from being in error, though he be never so simple; him the Deity leads by the suffering of the inwardness of truth.  (258)

In other words, for Kierkegaard, God has the last laugh.  For him, people who believe that their words and ideas will save them will always fail. Their martyrdom is (or will be) tainted by this or that irony.

To illustrate, Kierkegaard tells the story of a thief who dons a wig and robs an innocent bystander.  But after committing the crime, the criminal takes off his wig and runs away.  A “poor man” comes along and puts the wig on and he, unfortunately, becomes the scapegoat. Since man who is robbed sees the wig, and not the man, he makes an oath that the poor man – that is, the innocent man – is the criminal.

The irony is that when the man who steals happens upon the court case, puts the wig on, and says he is the real criminal, the oath taker realizes he has made an error; but he can do nothing since he already swore that the poor man with the wig (the wrong man) was the criminal.

The lesson is obvious.  Kierkegaard sees all public oaths and all statements – statements one is willing to stake everything on – to be laughable.  The oath is ironic; it is not a truthful commitment.  In addition, it is the poor and innocent man – who happens to be walking by – who is the victim of irony (and not just the victim of the theft who made the wrong oath).

The final lesson that Kierkegaard wants to teach us is that people who are more concerned with the “what” (the “hat”) rather than the “how” (inner passion and conviction) will always be deceived.

The only thing that can save us from the absurdity of irony (the “error”), says Kierkegaard, is faith.  Faith, “the how,” is greater than “the what” (the public proclamation of truth).  The inner oath, so to speak, is greater than the outer oath.  Apparently, the inner oath cannot be ironic while the outer oath can.

Therefore, laughter, for Kierkegaard, leads to faith since one will realize that truth cannot exist in exterior reality.  All public acts – even the most noble – will lead to error and irony.  Faith may not.  It is a “possibility” or risk that Kierkegaard would like to take.

For Kierkegaard, the internal absence of irony makes faith better than laughter since irony may lead to faith or skepticism.  Kierkegaard chooses the latter.  Laughter may be the gift of the gods, but for the Kierkegaard of The Postscript, the greater gift is the gift of God: the gift of faith.

However, there is a problem.  Kierkegaard’s description of Abraham in Fear and Trembling insists that the inner “secret” of Abraham’s faith-slash-wisdom is not a faith untainted by foolishness but…foolishness:

But Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself.

To say that the “secret” of Abraham’s wisdom is foolishness implies his faith is ironic.  A secret implies something hidden from view; what Kierkegaard would call the “inner” or “subjectivity.”  Given what we have learned from The Postscript above, we can understand that this public commitment can be called ridiculous, but his inner commitment (his inner “oath” of faith) should not.

To say that this is a secret invites the question: can anything, even something so serious as faith, escape laughter?  If the secret of faith is irony, then everything is touched with laughter – even the state of “fear and trembling” that Abraham goes through when he “decides” to act.   But can this really be the case?  If faith, an internal oath, is better than the external oath, shouldn’t it be unblemished by irony?  Is irony, still, a saving grace for Kierkegaard?  Is it the secret of faith?  Is Kierkegaard taking the side of the holy fool?

And how does this fare with the schlemiel?  Is Kierkegaard’s notion of irony consistent with a Jewish concept of irony?  Does the schlemiel have a secret, too?  And is this secret foolishness?

The answers to many of these questions come from Kafka.  For him, Abraham was a schlemiel of sorts.   Kafka’s comic rendering of Abraham and his situation makes Abraham into a simpleton and not so much a passionate knight of faith.

To play on Kierkegaard, I’d say that the issue, for Kafka, is not so much whether faith puts an end to laughter as who laughs and how one laughs in relation to “the commandment.”

(I will turn to Kafka’s Abraham in the next blog.)

Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 1)


For Kierkegaard, the kata-strophe recurs over and over.   It rotates.  And if we look into the kata-strophe literally, we see that one strophe or verse runs into another.  One group of words counters or negates the truth of another and this, for Kierkegaard, is a kata-strophe.   Strangely enough, for Kierkegaard, this kata-strophe is not simply tragic.  It is laughable.  But this laughter is accompanied by an inner, religious, silence.

In my last blog entry on Kierkegaard laughter, boredom, and the rotating kata-strophe, I noted Kierkegaard’s ultimate wish in his book Either/Or.    The opportunity to make this wish was given to him by the gods.  It was given to him, unexpectedly, when we was in depths of despair:

Something wonderful happened to me.  I was carried up into the seventh heaven. There all the gods sat assembled.  By special grace I was granted the favor of a wish.  “Will you,” said Mercury, “have youth, or beauty, or power, or a long life, or the most beautiful maiden, or any of the other glories we have in the chest?  Choose, but only one thing.”  For a moment, I was at a loss.  The I addressed myself to the gods as follows: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose this one thing, that I may always have the laugh on my side.” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 36)

Kierkegaard chooses laughter.  This implies that his choice of laughter over all else will be with him to the very end.  More fascinating is the fact that he is given this opportunity by the gods and not by God.  Given that the gods give him this opportunity and laugh their immortal laughter in assent, makes it explicitly clear that this is a Greek and not a Biblical opportunity.

Kierkegaard knows this and is acutely aware that the comic salvation of the Greek gods may not be consistent with the salvation of Biblical God.  With this awareness, Kierkegaard does something that was never done before in the history of philosophy: he tries to reconcile Greek irony with faith.

We see this attempt in The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments,” which was published in 1846.   What most thinkers find most significant about this publication is the fact that it introduces Kierkegaard’s thesis that “truth is subjectivity.”  What many fail to notice, however, is that Kierkegaard makes great efforts to apply his ideas of irony to religion and reconcile his view of laughter, which will always be at his side, with faith.  More importantly, for us, Kierkegaard’s comic-faith model can be read against the schlemiel-as-prophet.

Does Kierkegaard’s reading have anything in common with a Jewish reading of comedy and laughter or does it posit a nuanced Christian reading of the relationship of faith to comedy?

In The Post-Script, Kierkegaard returns to the dialectic of remembrance and forgetfulness that we saw in Either/Or.   Here, he notes that absent-mindedness in relation to one’s existence, which has everything to do with this dialectic, is comic:

Either he can do his utmost to forget that he is an existing individual, by which he becomes a comic figure, since existence has a remarkable trait of compelling an existing individual to exist whether he wills it or not…Or he can concentrate his entire energy upon the fact that he is an existing individual…The existing individual who forgets that he is an existing individual will become more and more absent-minded. (203, Anthology)

Kierkegaard goes on to argue that Hegel’s philosophy is absent-minded and distracted.  It forgets that “those to whom the philosopher addresses himself are human beings” and not concepts.  When the philosopher “confuses himself with humanity at large,” he will come to learn that the “royal ‘we’” no longer has power: “When one discovers that every street urchin can say ‘we’, one perceives that it means a little more, after all, to be a particular individual”(206).   Kierkegaard finds the philosopher and the “basement dweller,” who also “plays the game of being humanity,” to be equally “ridiculous.”

So, if the average man and the philosopher are both absent-minded, who is left?  It seems both of them are caught up in forgetfulness?  Where is memory and remembrance? On the side of existence?

Kierkegaard, in a bold move, turns to religion as the place of remembrance:

Say, rather, which you will always remember; for this expression connects itself more closely with the subject of our conversation, namely, that we ought always to bear in mind that a man can do nothing of himself. (239)

However, Kierkegaard is not satisfied with this because of the language that is used.  He puts the word “always” into italics.  He is, in other words, suspicious of such verbal oaths.   He is more interested in the religious as such which strikes one “dumb” (242) and puts one at a loss for the “right word.”  The relationship to God in prayer, for Kierkegaard, discloses one to one’s powerlessness.  And what happens, in the faith experience, is that the subject realizes that they cannot “bring” God together with “accidental finitude.”  They are left to suffer with this contradiction.  And this is not a laughing matter. Kierkegaard, on the contrary, seems to find no room for irony in this unhappy consciousness which is unable to speak.  To be sure, Kierkegaard notes that faith is equivalent to the “repulsion of the absurd” (which is another way of saying a repulsion of the ironic and the ridiculous).

But faith doesn’t have the last word.  At the end of The Postscript, Kierkegaard turns back to his ally: laughter.  And in this last section, Kierkegaard attempts to reconcile the gift of the Greek gods with the God of monotheism.

The question remains: Do we ever stop laughing?

(We will return to this in the next blog entry – Part 2.)

Boredom, Laughter, and Kierkegaard’s Rotating Kata-Strophe (Take 2)


Kierkegaard sees himself in terms of his method of “rotation.”  By turning things over, as one turns over the soil to “cultivate” crops, he feels he can avoid being trapped by Boredom:

My method…resembles the true rotation method in changing the crop and the mode of cultivation.  Here we have at once the principle of limitation, the only saving principle in the world.  The more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in invention…The more resourceful in changing the mode of cultivation one can be, the better (26).

For Kierkegaard, constantly rotating from one thing to another, if done by way of “limitation,” is beneficial.  It is inventive, creative, and productive and not simply passive and consumptive (rotating from pleasure to pleasure, if you will).  However, Kierkegaard notes that the inventions can only fall under two categories: remembering and forgetting:

But every particular change will come under the general categories of remembering and forgetting  Life in its entirety moves in these two currents, and hence it is essential to have them under control (26).

To be sure, these are things that Kierkegaard wants to rotate around.  It is between the two that irony operates.  But there is a paradox: when irony remembers it forgets and when it forgets it still remembers.  The irony is that one cannot negate the other.  Between the two there is a kata-strophe – a movement – which, apparently, effaces Boredom.  But, as Baudelaire notes, Boredom may not be vanquished by art.  It seems that the question for Baudelaire and Kierkegaard is whether or not irony can displace the power of Boredom rather than negate it.

We see this in the following section which is entitled DIAPSALMATA (which translates, from the Greek, as a “musical interlude”).  In this section, Kierkegaard takes on the modality of an aesthete and boldly disassociates himself from his previous problematic by embracing passion rather than boredom.

Let others complain that the age is wicked; my complaint is that it is wretched, for it lacks passion (33).

Given what Kierkegaard has said, I would like to suggest that we read this disavowal of Boredom as ironic.  It is a performance of irony, rather.  It alludes to his effort to “forget” Boredom in the name of remembering Passion.  What we find, however, in his turn to Passion, are stanzas (strophes) that clash; we find a kata-strophe.  The music between these stanzas is telling.  It is manic-depressive.

In one stanza, Kierkegaard is extremely depressed. While in the other, he is overjoyed and manic.  He calls out, on many occasions, to be saved by the grace of the gods and suddenly, in an unexpected moment (or, as the Romantics might say, an “occasion”), he starts seeing everything bathed in wonder:

The apothecary pounds his mortar, the kitchen maid scours her kettle, the groom curries the horse and strikes the comb against the flagstones; these tones appeal to me alone, they beckon only me.  O! accept my thanks, whoever you are! My soul is rich, so sound, so joy-intoxicated!”

Immediately following this, we learn that he has, suddenly, become melancholic:

My grief is my castle…From it I fly down to reality to seize my pray…I live there as one dead.

What appeals most to the aesthete is the consciousness of this “rotation.”  Kierkegaard notes that the “essence of pleasure does not lie in the thing enjoyed, but in the accompanying consciousness.”  In feeling powerless or in feeling overjoyed, Kierkegaard experiences the essence of pleasure as consciousness.

However, as we can see the greatest consciousness for Kierkegaard is not melancholy; it is the feeling of salvation: the movement from depression to joy is of great interest to him. In the last two stanzas, this comes out. This is most explicit when Kierkegaard falls into disarray about love and youth:

Then I think of my youth and my first love – when the longing of desire was strong.  Now I long only for my first longing. What is youth?  A dream.  What is love?  The substance of a dream (36).

Out of this doubt and confusion, out of this irony, Kierkegaard is saved. To be sure, he is saved by laughter:

Something wonderful happened to me.  I was carried up into the seventh heaven. There all the gods sat assembled.  By special grace I was granted the favor of a wish.  “Will you,” said Mercury, “have youth, or beauty, or power, or a long life, or the most beautiful maiden, or any of the other glories we have in the chest?  Choose, but only one thing.”  For a moment, I was at a loss.  The I addressed myself to the gods as follows: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose this one thing, that I may always have the laugh on my side.” (36)

All of the gods demonstrate their approval of his choice by way of laughter.  From this passage, it seems that the grace of laughter has vanquished Boredom and all of life’s pleasures in the name of laughter.  It seems as if Kierkegaard will no longer have to rotate if he has “laughter” on his side.  He has moved and, by way of laughter, he can apparently be saved.  But is this the end?  Will he stop “rotating” now that he has laughter at his side?  Or is irony a stumbling block?

(In the next blog entry, I will take up the final note of the kata-strophe and relate it to the schlemiel.)

Boredom, Laughter, and Kierkegaard’s Rotating Kata-Strophe (Take 1)


Soren Kierkegaard’s interest in irony is well-known.  His book The Concept of Irony addresses irony and, throughout his work, one can find many passing references to it.  Moreover, Kierkegaard’s concept of irony has been written on by many different scholars.  I am not a Kierkegaard scholar, nor do I aspire to be one; nonetheless, as a schlemiel theorist, I am very interested in his work on irony.   To be sure, anyone who takes an interest in philosophy and comedy can benefit from a study of Kierkegaard’s “ironic” project.  In addition, I would suggest that anyone interested in Kafka’s work and its relation to irony should also look into Kierkegaard as Kafka read much of Kierkegaard’s work.  There are many instances where their ideas of faith, truth, and irony resonate.

I am particularly interested in the two opening sections of Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or which alternate with each other in a musical way.  These sections also give us an acute sense of how important the dialectic between melancholy and laughter was for Kierkegaard.

In The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard notes that “as philosophy begins with doubt, so also that life which may be called worthy of man begins with irony.”  In this passage, Kierkegaard is suggesting that both philosophy and the “life…which may be called worthy of man” both begin with a crisis that is spurred by wonder.  Irony and doubt are at the beginning of the crisis.  But, as Aristotle notes, the goal of philosophy is to leave the state of perplexity and ignorance that initiate the philosopher’s quest for knowledge.

The point, for Aristotle, is to end the crisis.  Wonder, and the doubt that ensues, makes one unhappy and is certainly not the optimal state of man.

Irony, however, may not be the same.  Would Kierkegaard see irony as an obstacle to wisdom?  Or is irony an end in itself?  Wouldn’t irony preserve this crisis?

However, Gilles Deleuze argues in his book Masochism that irony may not simply be the beginning of philosophy; it may also be the end.    Deleuze argues that irony, in contrast to what he calls humor, looks to affirm a principle by way of negation.  Deleuze reads the ironies of Socrates (and even Marquis de Sade) in this manner.  Humor, in contrast, affirms contingency and relation.  Deleuze sees such humor in the masterpiece of Masochism: Venus in Furs.

I would like to suggest that Kierkegaard sees irony as clarifying a fundamental crisis.  It doesn’t affirm a principle so much as an alteration between possibilities and states.  We see this in the two opening sections of Either/Or which interest me.  What we find in these sections is a catastrophe.  And instead of simply looking into what the catastrophe is, we will also look into how it is.  This “how” will lead us to a more sophisticated understanding of Kierkegaard’s choice to affirm laughter above all else.

The word “catastrophe” has its roots in the word strephein which, in Greek, signifies a movement or turn from one chorus to another.   In music and in poetry, a strophe indicates a movement from one verse (or segment) to another.   The word Kata, in Greek, is prepositional.  It indicates movement and location: along, according to, toward, or against.  Taken together, a catastrophe could be read as a movement of one chorus or verse turning toward, along, against another.

Taken literally, a catastrophe suggests several movements: the movement of a verse in a collision course with another verse, a parallel course, a magnetic course, or…a “rotational” course.

To be sure, Kierkegaard suggests this in the first section of Either/Or which is entitled “The Rotation Method.”    He starts the section with a citation from Aristophanes’ comedy Plutus.   The passage, which takes place between two characters named Karion and Chremylos, rotates around many things that one gets “too much” of; they include: love, bread, music, honor, courage, ambition, etc.  The point is not the what one rotates around; that’s arbitrary. It’s the how of rotation that concerns Kierkegaard.  He’s interested in the rhythm, so to speak, of the catastrophe.

But what sets the rhythm off?

Kierkegaard, like Baudelaire, sees the biggest problem of all, which causes all of this rotation, to be excessive Boredom.  I have written on this topic with regard to Baudelaire’s prose piece “A Heroic Death.”  There, I point out how, for the main character (the Prince) Boredom is his greatest enemy and spurs him to do the most unethical things to ward against its power.  In that prose piece, the fool, unfortunately, becomes his target.  And, in some way, the death of the fool (who performs for the Prince) has much to do with the drive to kill Boredom.  But, as I point out there, the real issue is the Prince’s jealousy of the fool-slash-artist who is able to entrance an audience and rob him of his power.  For Baudealire, there is a war between art and entertainment and art and political power; his parable speaks to this conflict.

Like Baudelaire, Kierkegaard is aware of the tension between Boredom and art.  Boredom seeks out entertainment and distraction; art, however, offers a scathing critique of such distraction.  Kierkegaard offers his critique of Boredom as that which spurs endless rotation.  And he slights it for all of our evils:

“What wonder, then, that the world goes from bad to worse, and that its evils increase more and more, as boredom increases, and boredom is the root of all evil” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 22).

To illustrate this, Kierkegaard goes through history, starting with the Bible, and argues how nearly every major evil was caused, in some fashion, by boredom.  Kierkegaard states as his universal proposition that “all men are bores” and launches into an interesting rant on boredom which tries to fit in as many particulars as possible within this category:

It may as well indicate a man who bores others as one who bores himself.  Those who bore others are the mob, the crowd, the infinite multitude of men in general.   Those who bore themselves are the elect, the aristocracy; and it is a curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others (24).

So, where does Kierkegaard place himself in this spectrum or does he try to extricate himself, like Baudelaire, from the world of Boredom?


Are all Schlemiels Humble or Just Ridiculous? Kafka on Humility, the Language of Prayer, and Striving


We all love the simpleton.  Her ways are awkward, yet graceful. For all their simplicity, they are the ways of goodness.   But they come to us, as Avital Ronell says in her book Stupidity, by way of the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which is not innate and must be “publicly exposed.”  Perhaps Hollywood inherited the simpleton and its exposure from Yiddish literature.  Or as Paul Buhle might say, perhaps the schlemiel came from the Lower East Side and ended up in Hollywood as the simpleton.  The exemplary American simpleton, Dorothy, of The Wizard of Oz, lives in Kansas with several other simpletons who, like her, love to dream.  She lives on the American frontier and Toto is her companion.  In this American moment, the public exposure of simplicity goes hand-in-hand with friendship and hope.

In Yiddish literature, the schlemiel is often called a simpleton (a tam).  And, like Dorothy, the schlemiel is hopeful and sometimes has animals as friends.  (For instance, Motl, of Shalom Aleichem’s Motl: The Cantor’s Son spends a lot of time with a cow named Pesi.)  In his simplicity, the schlemiel finds a friend in anyone or with anything s/he encounters.  The schlemiel may be absent minded, but his or her way, though often ridiculous and absent-minded, is the way of simplicity and peace.  Although the schlemiel is often more ridiculous than Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, his simplicity is not in any way diminished.

According to many commentaries, Midrashim, and anecdotes of the Jewish tradition, simplicity is not a laughing matter.  It is the most Jewish of all traits.   Simplicity is equated with humility. 

The ultimate source for humility as a principle trait is not in the commentaries; it is in the Torah.  In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described as “a very humble man” the “most humble man on earth.”  And since Moses Maimonides sees Moses as the greatest of all Prophets, he finds his way of being in relation to God and man to be exemplary. And that way of being is the way of humility.

In contrast to Aristotle, who thinks the extreme humility is a negative character trait, which must be countered with pride and even anger, Maimonidies argues that extreme humility is a noble trait.  Using this contrast, David Shatz argues, in an essay entitled “Maimonides’ Moral Theory,” that pride is a Greek ideal while extreme humility is a Jewish one.

This Jewish ideal was commonplace for Jews in the Middle Ages and in Eastern Europe right up to the beginning of the 20th century. Using diaries, Haggadoth, and various letters, Daniel Boyarin shows, in his book Unheroic Conduct, that humility was, during those times, the ideal.

Marking these dates, Boyarin goes out of his way to show how humility became “unheroic” in the modern period.  Besides Daniel Boyarin, people like Marc H. Ellis (in Judaism Doesn’t Equal Israel) and Rich Cohen (in Israel is Real), have made the claim that pride and power displace humility after the Holocaust.  Each of their projects, to some extent, is an effort to recover this character trait which they believe is Jewish and not Greek.  But this effort at recovery, unfortunately, is wrapped up in a political agenda.  They forge a dichotomy between Jews in America, who are humble, and Zionist Jews in Israel, who are prideful.  They would say that, in losing humility, Israelis have become militant.  But is this the right way to approach humility? Has it become too politicized and are things as black and white as these thinkers paint them?

We need not think of humility in this way.  We should certainly take the Torah and Maimonides seriously when they say that one must, like Moses, be humble in relation to man and to God.  But we need not think of humility by way of a political agenda.

Another route to take with humility is by way of Franz Kafka who teaches us that humility has a mystical and ethical resonance.   Kafka calls humility the “language of prayer” which is always shared with others.  More importantly, for Kafka, humility can give one the spiritual strength to “strive” with oneself.

For Kafka, humility is the way; while the self is the obstacle.  The self is deluded and seductive.  And, like Jacob, who wrestled with his angel, Kafka knows he must struggle with himself.  Through such a struggle, Jacob became Israel.  Kafka also, it seems, has this vision.  But, more important for Kafka, is the strength he gains from being humble.   It is his anchor.

He records these thoughts about humility, the language of prayer, strength, and striving in his Blue Octavio Notebooks.

After Franz Kafka’s death, Max Brod – Kafka’s best friend – published several quotes from Kafka’s Blue Octavio Notebooks.  He entitled the book Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way.    According to Brod, Kafka extracted these quotes from his notebooks and numbered them: “the text here follows the fair copy made by the author himself.”   Brod included aphorisms that were crossed out as well (noting them with asterisks).    Although there is much wisdom to be gained by reading the compilation of aphorisms and anecdotes on “sin, suffering, hope and the true way,” I would suggest that we read Kafka’s quotes in their original context; namely, the Blue Octavio Notebooks.  They teach us about the relationship of humility to peace, on the one hand, and striving, on the other.  Taken together, they bring us within arms length of the schlemiel.

The quote that interests me – and which is cited in Brod’s compilation – is found in the Fourth Notebook. It was written on February 24th:

Humility provides everyone, even him who despairs in solitude, with the strongest relationship to his fellow man, and this immediately, though, of course, only in the case of complete and permanent humility.  It can do this because it is the true language of prayer, at once adoration and the firmest of unions. The relationship with one’s fellow man is the relationship of prayer, the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; it is from prayer that one draws the strength for one’s striving.

After writing this, Kafka changes his tone:

Can you know anything other than deception?   If ever the deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.

The dialectical tension between these two aphorisms is worthy of interest.  To be sure, it illustrates what Kafka means by “the relationship of striving.”  In the first aphorism, Kafka goes so far as to say that humility provides humankind with the “strongest relationship to his fellow man.”  Moreover, humility is “the true language of prayer.”

It is on account of this “language of prayer,” that one can “strive” with oneself. Kafka’s striving, which is supported by humility, is illustrated in the second aphorism.

Kafka strives with himself and asks: “Can you know anything other than deception?”

In response to this scathing question, the self is silent.  In the face of this silence, Kafka gives advice with a Biblical Ring: “If ever deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.”

To be sure, Kafka is not simply striving with himself; he is trying to turn himself around.   He is trying to convert himself to humility by way of preaching to himself.  He is pleading with the self to learn something other than “deception”: namely, the truth (which can only be accessed through humility).

When thought of in relation to the schlemiel, the implications of these lines are quite interesting.  A schlemiel like Gimpel is a Tam; he is humble.  Yet, everyone deceives him.  He is unaffected by these deceptions insofar as he remains humble and continues to trust others.  And this is the comic conceit.

Using Kafka’s language, we could say that Gimpel’s life speaks the “language of prayer.”  However, it is us, the viewers, who must strive with deception in the sense that we are the ones who deceive.  We are complicit in laughing at simplicity and publicly ridiculing it for its naivite and stupidity.   This is the message that I.B. Singer was trying to convey in his famous story “Gimpel the Fool.”

Thought of in these terms, Kafka identifies with the schlemiel.  But at the same time he realizes that he is complicit, in his deluded high mindedness and competitiveness, with squashing simplicity.   Kafka realizes that he needs to “strive” with that aspect of himself which destroys the humility he has acquired by means of his relationships with others.

To be sure, Kafka’s struggle is the struggle of tradition.  It is the struggle of Jacob (who is called an Ish Tam – a simple man) with his angel.  It is the struggle that earns Jacob the name Israel.  His strength, which he draws on to wrestle with the angel, is the strength of prayer.

Let’s take this a step further and be a little presumptuous.

Perhaps humility is the “language of prayer” that Sancho Panza learns from Don Quixote? And perhaps humility is the language that Walter Benjamin learns from Kafka?  Humility is the language of the schlemiel and it is the language of Don Quixote.  But it can also be heard as one, among many other voices, in Hollywood.  The language of the Hollywood simpleton is the language of a man-child.

Like The Wizard of Oz, Chaplin’s 1921 film, The Kid speaks this language, too.  After all, humility has its childish and foolish ways.  A humble hobo like “the Kid” can also raise an orphan (albeit it in a strange way).  In each, there is an old/new tradition that is transmitting humility and childishness and perhaps, the language of prayer to those who will “strive” with the self.  Ultimately, however, Ronell is right.  Kafka’s humility would not be possible without the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which aims to publicly expose “humility.”  And in this comic exposure, we bear witness to the “language of prayer.”  Given the world we live in, this language appears to us as ridiculous but, for all that, it is still the best we’ve got.

Kafka’s Bachelorhood, his “First Sorrow,” and the Circus


Judd Apatow has a penchant for portraying male-schlemiel bachelors and their struggle with dating and marriage. We see this in films like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.  The schlemiel aspect of these characters can be found in the fact that they have a hard time leaving their adolescence for adulthood.  They are, as Adam Kotsko says in his book Awkwardness….“awkward.”   For Kotsko, this awkwardness discloses the social-fact that male norms are faltering.  In the wake of this faltering, Apatow’s characters appear “awkward” since, quite simply, they don’t know what role they should play with the opposite sex.  What they are good at, however, is hanging out with their friends or acting like teens (when they are, in fact, adults).  Kotsko’s reading of Apatow’s characters is a social reading of the awkwardness that comes with post 9/11 bachelorhood.  However, schlemiel bachelorhood can be read in other ways.

In Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Heinz Politzer argues that Kafka saw a deep link between being a bachelor and being an artist: “The paradoxicality of Kafka’s narrative work can be traced to these basic contradictions in the nature of their central figure, the bachelor”(46).  For Politzer, the “vortex” of the Kafka narrative is the bachelor: “to become a writer he had to remain a bachelor.  Eventually bachelorhood was identical for him with a life spent in continuous contemplation of life’s paradoxical nature”(46).   Kafka’s characters are “comic” and “tragic” in their attempts to “solve” the paradox of life.  And this task, says Politzer, is where they “derive their unjustified claims and their innate dignity.”   In effect, Politzer argues that only a bachelor, for Kafka, can “testify” to the “enigma” of life.

Politzer ends his chapter, entitled “Juvenilia: The Artist as Bachelor” with a diary entry from Kafka on January 19, 1922.  In this entry, Kafka contrasts the happiness of a family to his own “feeling”:

The infinite, deep, warm, saving happiness of sitting beside the cradle of one’s child opposite its mother.

There is in it something of this feeling: matters no longer rest with you unless you wish it so.  In contrast, the feeling of those who have no children: it perpetually rests with you, whether you will or not, every moment to the end, every nerve-racking moment, it perpetually rests with you, and without result.  Sisyphus was a bachelor.

The artist, in Politzer’s view, is a bachelor.  Unlike a married person, Kafka is able to “testify” to the enigma of life.  But, more importantly for us, Politzer sees the comic and tragic aspect of Kafka’s work in his attempt to “solve” this paradox.  For Politzer, this is impossible.   But what exactly is this paradox?

What I would like to suggest is that the paradox Kafka is addressing has to do with his relationship with the other.  This other can be God, the sexual other, tradition, and himself.  In addressing the paradox of the other, Kafka measures the movement from adolescence to adulthood.   And this movement, which is never completed, is the movement of the schlemiel bachelor.   To be sure, this movement has mystical resonance for Kafka because, in everything he writes about (in his notebooks, diaries, and fiction) there is a always the question of how it relates to the truth.  And he often ponders whether the mystical state requires a movement from the child to the adult or from humility to assertiveness.

For Kafka, the problem with such meditations was not to get caught up in psychology.  He wanted, for this reason, to make a distinction between what he called “mirror-writing” and reading/interpretation.  He associated psychology with reading/interpreting “mirror-writing.”

In his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka states it explicitly:

Psychology is the reading of mirror-writing, which means that it is laborious, and as regards the always concrete result, it is richly informative; but nothing has happened.

As we can see, Kafka enjoys such reading/interpretation; but he is more interested in mirror-writing.  However, one informs the other.  Writing is connected more to feeling, experience, and the event while reading is connected to “information.”

Through writing, he records his struggle with the truth, God, and the world.  He records his movement from and back to bachelorhood.

In an entry dated February 23rd, in his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka realizes that the world “seduces” him into thinking that marriage is a “representative of life” with which “you are meant to come to terms.”  He is not certain if he should do so since it may distract him from God, tradition, and truth.  However, he realizes that there is some truth in this seduction:

For only in this way can this world seduce us, and it is in keeping with this truth. The worst thing, however, is that after the seduction has been successful we forget the guarantee and thus actually the Good has lured us into Evil, the woman’s glance into her bed.

This glance would take him out of his gaze, which we discussed in the last blog.  As I noted there, the gaze is the “third thing” which notes otherness.  Kafka wonders what will happen if he exchanges the gaze for the glance.  Will it remove him from his relationship to God?  Will it take him from his adolescence?  Will marriage make him lose his schlemieldom?

Kafka’s short story, “The First Sorrow,” opens up these questions by way of posing a figure.

In the story, the main character is a trapeze artist whose home is the circus.  Through the story, we learn that the artist is a bachelor and does his own act.   He lives and breathes the circus and has mastered the game of being a trapeze artist.  And “nothing disturbed his seclusion.”

However, there is a problem.  The trapeze artist could have lived his entire life alone and practicing his art “had it not been for the inevitable journeys from place to place, which he found extremely trying.”

Within the space of the circus, the artist is fine.  It is only when the artist must travel from one place to another in the world that he becomes unsettled.  While traveling the artist becomes “unhappy.”  And his manager does all he can to make life easier for him.  But “despite so many journeys having been successfully arranged by the manager, each new one embarrassed him again, for the journeys, apart from everything else, got on the nerves of the artist a great deal.”

But on one of the journeys, the trapeze artist, “biting his lip,” asked the manager for a second trapeze artist.  And his feelings shift: “At that the trapeze artist suddenly burst into tears.”  In response, the manager goes to him and comforts him as if the trapeze artist were a child.  He climbed up into his seat “and caressed him, cheek to cheek, so that his own face was bedabbled by the trapeze artist’s tears.”

The manager assures the trapeze artist that he will find another trapeze artist immediately and “succeeded in reassuring the trapeze artist, little by little, and was able to go back to his corner.  But he himself was far form assured, with deep uneasiness he kept glancing secretly at the trapeze artist over the top of his book.”

Politzer gives a cursory reading of this story and states, simply, that the irony is that the “first sorrow” is that of the manager and not the acrobat.  This insight makes sense insofar as the manager worries that the trapeze artist’s existence may be threatened by these changes.

But, in the end, it is the face of the trapeze artist that changes. With the manager, we gaze at the change that has taken place with the trapeze artist: “And indeed the manager believed he could see, during the apparently peaceful sleep which had succeeded the fit of tears, the first furrows of care engraving themselves upon the trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead.”

It is this last detail which is most important.  The furrows of care on the “trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead” indicate that the artist may still be a child but, at the very least, now he cares.  His face changes.  And this is the truth that interests Kafka.  It is the risk of marriage, the risk of a relationship that interests him.

However, what makes this story so interesting is that he wants another trapeze artist to join him.  In Kafka’s real life, the seduction marks the possibility of losing his art. Here, we can see that Kafka envisions a relationship within the context of art.

He wants the trapeze artist to retain his childlike face.  He wants to be a schlemiel in a relationship.  But this is not without its misgivings; after all, it is the “first sorrow.”  This oddly resonates with Apatow’s characters who also take their chances and enter relationships.  The question, however, is whether, in taking these risks, they remain childlike and what this implies.

In Knocked Up, for instance, Seth Rogen becomes a responsible individual who leaves his adolescence behind for being a father.   Adam Kotsko, in his reading of this film, thinks that this rejoinder compromises the awkwardness which discloses a historical-social rupture of the roles of men and women.  In contrast to Apatow, Kotsko would like to retain the awkwardness of Rogen’s man-child character for the purposes of putting social norms into question.   To be sure, Kotsko thinks that this is a “fairy tale” solution.  For this reason, we can imagine Kotsko would prefer that Rogen remain a schlemiel.

We seem to have something else going on with Kafka.  Although Kafka clearly feels unprepared by his tradition to confront marriage, what seems to be at stake, for Kafka, is not a social otherness so much as an otherness that is wrapped up with Kafka’s art.  And that otherness includes God, himself, and tradition.  For Kafka, these overshadowed the social which he sees, as we saw above, as “seductive.”

Perhaps we can say that Apatow’s schlemiels are social schlemiels while Kafka’s are religious.  The difference is telling and shows us how the schlemiel’s childishness can be read in such differing ways.  Regardless, for Kafka as for Apatow, every schlemiel must dwell in the space between childhood and maturity.  Once they leave one for the other, they are no longer schlemiels and, as Politzer might say, they will no longer be artists (let alone bachelors).

Given this claim, Politzer, Kafka, and Kotsko seem to be saying that ruptures and paradoxes are best fit for people or characters who are caught in this or that extenuating circumstance or social position.  What does this imply?  Must we learn from bachelor schlemiels what we, who live “normal” lives, cannot?  Are bachelor schlemiels in a better position to understand otherness than we are?  And instead of going back to school, should we go back to the circus?

Kafka’s Commandment – Take 2


In the first blog I did on “Kafka’s Commandment,” I noted how Kafka believed he heard a commandment coming to him but was puzzled as to whether that commandment came from himself or outside of himself.  Kafka cannot rule out either possibility.  In the end of his entry, he points out that the commandment comes upon him “as in a dream.” And he cannot turn away from its request, which is to communicate it and transmit the commandment to others.  However, to his chagrin, it is “not intelligible.”  Hence, his difficult task is to make the unintelligible intelligible to others and this transmission, to be sure, is the nature of tradition.

In my blog on Walter Benjamin, education, and the schlemiel tradition, I pointed out that Walter Benjamin defined tradition in terms of transmission.   When reading Kafka, in particular, Benjamin took tradition seriously.  In an important letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin argued that Kafka’s tradition is a comic one.  Moreover, for Benjamin, it parallels the tradition that starts with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

But there is more to the story.  And Benjamin knew this.  Kafka’s tradition is not simply comic; it is religious.   To be sure, Kafka feels commanded to communicate.  And although he is not sure of the source of that commandment, the fact of the matter is that it singles him out.  And Kafka feels compelled to respond to this commandment.

Moreover, Kafka, in several entries in the Blue Octavio Notebooks, in his diaries, and in a few of his parables, shows an affinity not just with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza but with Abraham.  Some of his most interesting aphorisms were on Abraham and deal, specifically, with the nature of the commandment.

To be sure, Kafka doesn’t think that the commandment happened once in history.  It was not something that occurred only in relation to Abraham or the Jewish people.  Kafka notes (like the Midrash and the Medieval Torah commentator, Rashi) that the commandment is “continual,” but, states Kafka, “I only hear it occasionally.”  And when it is heard or even when it isn’t, it presents a challenge to “the voice bidding me to do the other thing”:

From the fact that I hear it, as it were, even when I do not hear it, in such a way that, although it is not audible itself, it muffles or embitters the voice bidding me to do the other thing; that is to say, the voice that makes me ill at ease with eternity.

This interference is interesting because it shows us that Kafka’s struggle to translate and transmit the commandment was based, primarily, on first hearing it.  Kafka’s reflection on his own state and about what state to be in so as to better receive the commandment show us a person who has, in effect, become dumb.

These descriptions, made in the Third Octavio Notebook, are powerful.  They demonstrate a mystical-slash-prophetic vocation for the schlemiel.

The first of these entries appears in an entry dated December 2nd.   In this section, Kafka starts mid-sentence with a situation in which “they” are presented with a choice by God.  “They” have to choose between being “kings or kings messengers.”

They were given a choice of becoming kings or the king’s messengers.  As is the way with children, they all wanted to be messengers.  That is why there are only messengers, racing through the world and, since there are no kings, calling out to each other the messages that have now become meaningless.  They would gladly put an end to their miserable life, but they do not dare to do so because of their oath to loyalty (28).

Who are “they?”  I would suggest that they are schlemiels.  They act like “children” and, like schlemiels they deliver a message whose meaning they are blind to.  To be sure, one way of understanding what the schlemiel is (or rather, does) is by way of the Hebrew: Shelach (sent) m’ (from) el (God).

Parsing Kafka, we can say that the most interesting thing about them, these schlemiel messengers, is that they are bound by “an oath of loyalty” to tradition.  They must transmit it.  However, as simpletons who think like children, they keep to their word and obey the commandment that is embodied in the oath of the tradition-slash-transmission.  But they cannot be kings.  They are messengers.  In the Jewish tradition, the only king is the Messiah.  And many of the prophets did not simply exhort the Jews to return to God (teshuva in Hebrew).  As messengers, they communicated the coming of the Messiah to the people.

Immediately following Kakfa’s reflection on them, he speaks directly of the king-to-come: “The Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary…he will not come on the last day, but on the last day of all.”

This “message” or rather “transmission” that Kafka is relaying about the Messiah is the message of a schlemiel.  The message doesn’t make any sense, yet it, like the Jewish tradition, promises redemption.

Two days later, Kafka describes his method for apprehending such messages:

Three different things.  Looking at oneself as alien, forgetting the sight, remembering the gaze.

This description of the prophetic process amounts to seeing oneself as other, forgetting the content of this otherness, but keeping the gaze that initiated this process.  In other words, Kafka is ultimately interested in the gaze that makes things other but not in the content of that otherness.  The gaze of the schlemiel, so to speak, is glazed over.  It forgets its contents, but by way of gazing, by way of the gesture, it communicates the tradition which is, ultimately, a messianic transmission without any content.

The next day, Kafka describes what is at stake in these meditations.

Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, though both the indestructible element and the trust may remain permanently hidden within him. One of the ways in which his hiddenness can express itself is through faith in a personal god.

In other words, what keeps Kafka going on is a “faith in a personal god”; that is, a god that commands and communicates with man.  Following this, Kafka describes this “indestructible” element as dumb:

Heaven is dumb, echoing only to the dumb.

This implies that the personal God relates “only” to the schlemiel (the dumb).   And it is this simplicity and stupidity that Kafka sees as man’s goodness. He notes this in the last line of this entry:

The mediation by the serpent was necessary: Evil can seduce man, but cannot become man.

For Kafka, man may be “seduced” by evil, but is ultimately good.  He cannot become evil.  It is ontologically impossible for Kafka. This is precisely what we see portrayed by way of the schlemiel.  A schlemiel like Gimpel or Motl cannot become evil; in their stupidity and trust they are good.  And in their aloofness they act as if they were committed to an oath.  And “they” are the messengers.  They are not kings.  They are too humble and simple for that.

What I find astonishing about Kafka’s entries is the fact that Walter Benjamin had never read them. They were published after Benjamin’s death.  Nonetheless, Walter Benjamin’s reading of Kafka resonates with these ideas.  Unfortunately, Benjamin never fully articulated them.  And this is why his essay on Kafka was a work-in-progress that he carried with him to his grave.   He noted the tradition of the schlemiel indirectly.

In my work on the schlemiel in this blog and in my book (which delves deeper into these insights), I look to carry this tradition on.  To be sure, Kafka wrote these lines feeling as if he were about to die.  For him, the commandment and its transmission were of the utmost urgency.  But, like Benjamin, he had a hard time communicating it.  As a result, no one was able to hear it properly and pass it on.

I suggest we listen closely to the commandment (which speaks continually) and the tradition of the schlemiel.   This is a task which, like Kafka’s messengers, runs ahead of us.  Yet, if we listen hard it will, like Kafka’s commandment, overtake us like a dream and stupefy us.  This will disclose the “indestructible element” and, as Kafka suggests, it will remind those of us who believe in a personal god that “heaven is dumb, echoing only the dumb.”    For Kafka, it seems, only a schlemiel can obey and transmit “the commandment.”  After all, a schlemiel is shelach m’el (sent ‘from’ God – literally into exile and literally as a messenger).    But, lest we not forget, this commandment is not simply apprehended by an empty gaze.  It also communicates a message about the Messiah, a message which may not mean anything anymore but must be told.  And, for Kafka, this is not a simple message; it must be translated.  But, in the end, it is not tragic.  It is comic.  The message is not simply given to the people who transmit it to yet other people; it is extolled by a dumb messenger to a dumb heaven.

Walter Benjamin’s Struggle With Adulthood and The Youth Movement (Schlemiel Precursors – Take 1)


To better understand Walter Benjamin’s approach to the schlemiel, I have, in previous blogs, looked into his relationship with the youth movement in Germany.  There is a strong link between the two since the schlemiel falls between being a man and a child.  And Walter Benjamin’s appeal to youth and his struggle with adulthood situate him in this very tension.  However, as he was later to learn, his religious devotion to the Spirit and the autonomy of the Youth movement were a dead end.  Moreover, the reading of the Messianic that comes out of this moment in his life also poses a problem for the reading of the schlemiel.

I started my inquiry into this tension with Benjamin’s review of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  This review followed in the wake of his falling out with the youth movement.  As I argued, Benjamin’s comments on Dostoevsky reflected his disillusion with the youth movement which had, in his view, failed not just in Germany but in Russia as well.  Before blogging on this topic, I had argued that Benjamin’s turn to the “Destructive Character,” crisis, and the Apocalyptic, is prefigured in this review.  This view may have also been influenced by his work on Baudelaire, who had a penchant for the daemonic that Benjamin was acutely aware.

What I would like to do in this blog and in the next two blogs is to take a closer look at Benjamin’s parting with the youth movement and how this parting led him to change his perspective on the tension between innocence and adulthood.  It also led him into a new understanding of the Utopian and Messianic elements of youth and its eventual triumph adulthood.

In his book Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition, John McCole has done an exceptional job of researching and describing Benjamin’s passion for the ideas of Gustav Wynekin, the leader of the Youth Movement, and his falling out with him.   The main thrust of Wynekin’s appeal was his emphasis on youth and education.  As McCole notes, Wynekin called for youth to commit themselves, body and soul, to the objective Geist (spirit).   For only an “undivided devotion to Geist could guarantee the autonomy of youth culture”(47).

Parsing Benjamin’s essays for Wynekin’s journal Der Anfang, McCole notes that Benjamin believed in Wynekin because he believed that the university should not be committed to utilitarian or vocational goals, which corrupted the Geist, but must aim at shaping the “totality of the learner and inculcate a kind of universality.  This would redound to the benefit of learning as well, by restoring the totality of a metaphysical orientation to an academic culture that had been fragmented by narrow specialization; philosophy would be returned to its rightful place as the queen of disciplines”(47).

Beside affirming this project, Benjamin used this commitment to the Youth Movement to criticize other youth movements between the World Wars that were based on vitalism and confused ideas about youth (many of which were subservient to this or that instrumental or State project).  For Benjamin, Wynekin represented the best of the youth spirit and, for this reason, youth should devote themselves to it.  As Benjamin argued, for youth only an “unconditional pursuit of Geist could produce ‘the deepest bond between profession and life – to be sure, a deeper life”(49).

Benjamin was looking for something he could religiously commit himself to.  But he didn’t see this commandment as distinctly Jewish – although he thought Judaism could be seen through the “lens” of the Youth movement.

The problem with Geist, according to McCole, is that it left the gap between “Geist and convention”(51) unreconciled.   Benjamin, to be sure, insisted on this distinction which showed his hostility towards “the official institutions of the German empire”(51) and their utilitarian project.  McCole notes that this opposition, for Benjamin, was connected to a “quasi-religious will to decision as the fulcrum to establishing new values”(51).

McCole hones in on this “quasi-religious will to decision” in an essay written by Benjamin in 1914 entitled “The Religious Position of the New Youth.”    In this essay, Benjamin takes his commitment to Geist into a register that has resonances of Kierkegaard and Schmitt.  For Benjamin, as for them, what matters most is “the decision”:

Youth has always had to choose, but the objects of its choice were determined for it.  The new youth stands before the chaos in which the objects of choice (holy objects) are vanishing…it desires nothing more urgently than the choice, the possibility of choice, the holy decision.

McCole argues, however, that it is Nietzsche not Kierkegaard or Schmitt who has resonance here.  In this midst of chaos, one must will. However, this will is connected to the ideal: “in effect, Benjamin’s notion of religiosity was a variation of his idea of youth: religiosity meant ‘to submit oneself to a principle to permeate oneself with the idea’”(52).  And this, argues McCole, is connected to the utopian/messianic aspect since such submission was in “fervent expectation of the immanent irruption of a new era”(53).  As Benjamin himself notes: “Youth that professes itself to itself means religion, which as yet is not”(53).  In other words, this new utopian era of youth is “to come.”

To this, Benjamin notes there is a horror since this autonomy is really the autonomy of the Geist and not of the youth (which would be free to do whatever it wanted).  This autonomy is premised on “prostituting” oneself to the Geist (53).  By way of such prostitution, the Youth would be able to take up the necessary task of the future (whatever that is).  For Benjamin, what is to come is not freedom so much as a law to come: “the unfree will always be able to show us the cannon of their laws.  But we will not yet be able to name the law under which we stand”(54).  As McCole notes, this implies that Benjamin was ready to submit to whatever the Youth movement required so as to be ready (prepared) to take this law on when it would messianically irrupt.

The religion that Benjamin appealed to is a religion to come and it is based on a blind religious commitment to the Youth Movement.   When the war approached, however, Benjamin fell out with Wynekin.  He realized that the Youth Movement had failed to challenge the State and could do nothing in the face of War.  To be sure, McCole notes that Benjamin, near the end, saw Wynekin as claiming that the Spirit of the movement may even use the state.  Benjamin found this repulsive as he thought the “idea” of Youth was greater than the state.  More importantly, two of Benjamin’s close friends who participated in the movement committed suicide as the war approached.  For Benjamin, this marked a point of no return.

McCole notes that Benjamin took on a radically different approach to the Messianic after this rupture.  He argued that it would not come out of a movement but would irrupt at any point.   Moreover, Benjamin turned to critique rather than to politics as the horizon of such an irruption.  McCole argues that Benjamin’s interest in Kabbalah also began at this point of no return.

McCole’s analaysis of these shifts are very important and help Benjamin scholars to look for deeper roots to Benjamin’s interest in the Messianic.  Following McColes lead, I would like to take up where he left off and take a closer look into what happened in the wake of this fallout.   Did Benjamin let go of his religious ideas about youth? How did he renegotiate his ideas?

To be sure, Benjamin, in his letters and in his essays during WWI, did not let go of his ideas of youth; rather, he reworked them.  In youth, Benjamin saw a tension between innocence and adulthood which speaks directly to the schlemiel.  Moreover, it shows how Benjamin saw this tension as fundamental to the Messianic.  His blind commitment to the ideal seems to remain, but now it is turned more toward solitude.  We see this in his meditations on innocence and guilt.

We see indications of this shift in a letter to Carla Seligson written on August 4th 1913.  This meditation opens up a point of view that can help us in our approach to the schlemiel as it pits innocence against guilt and community against solitude.

In the letter, Benjamin talks about the dialectic between community and solitude, on the one hand, and the dialectic between innocence and guilt on the other.  Both meditations indicate that Benjamin was seeking for a way to mediate the religious by way of a new meditation on youth:

The most profound form of loneliness is that of the ideal person in relation to the idea, which destroys what is human about him.  And we can only expect this loneliness, the more profound type, from a perfect community (50).

Benjamin believes only an elite can have such a community. However, he believes that the “conditions of loneliness” have “yet to be created for the people.”  In the presence of the idea we will all become “lonely.”  This appeal to loneliness is an appeal to a certain kind of otherness that goes against the grain of youth movements which call for a vital Volkish kind of oneness.

After stating this, Benjamin levels a criticism against Der Anfang “for the first time.”   According to Benjamin, the Youth Movement takes away the “innocence” of youth only because they have an incorrect understanding of innocence:

But youth is beyond good and evil, and this condition, which is permissible for animals, always leads a person into sin.  This may be the greatest obstacle that the youth of today must overcome: the assessment of them as animal i.e. as unrepentant innocent, as that which is instinctually good.  For people, however, this kind of unaware youth…matures into an indolent manhood.  It is true that youth must lose its innocence (animal like innocence) in order to become guilty.  Knowledge, the self-awareness of a calling, is always guilt.  It can only be expiated by the most active, most fervent, and blind fulfillment of duty….All knowledge is guilt, at least knowledge of good and evil – the Bible says the same thing – but all action is innocence…The innocent person cannot do good, and the guilty one must (50).

What I find most interesting in this reading is that Benjamin is struggling with the meaning of innocence, which, to be sure, is one of the key elements of the schlemiel.  The schlemiel is innocent while the world is generally guilty.  But over here Benjamin would say that the schlemiel’s innocence indicates that this character, in fact, can’t do any good.  We can.  But there is a major difference here.

Unlike the German-Jewish Enlightenment, which would say that one should not be like a schlemiel and become independent and autonomous, Benjamin is saying the opposite.  By acting blindly, in the name of this “calling” to the idea of a youth to come, we become schlemiels.  We become innocent.  This action expiates the “guilt” of knowledge.

Action is innocence.  But it is also foolish as it doesn’t act in accord with Kantian ideals.  Rather, it awaits its law.  Its innocence is in its relationship to this law to come.  Not acting in accordance with it would imply some kind of bad conscience.  Acting in accordance, with the law is innocence.  But, as Benjamin notes, this will be looked upon by “the people” as odd and one will be “lonely” in this vocation.

Benjamin confers in Seligson because this idea was at odds with Wynekin in one important way: Benjamin believed that Wynekin, at this point, was committing himself to the ends of the state rather than this law to come.  In addition, Benjamin wanted to import a religious framework to understanding Wynekin’s call to the youth movement.

What I find most interesting about Benjamin’s decision for the law to come is that it echoes, in many ways, the work of Jacques Derrida who speaks of the Messianic in terms of the “to come.”  However, this move, as Benjamin understands it, is religious.  It is a “religion without religion” which is closer to Nietzsche and Georges Bataille than it is to Derrida. To be sure,  it is a blind commitment to something like a KINDERLAND which appealed to Friedrich Nietzsche and Georges Bataille.  Since it commits itself to a law to come and something beyond reason, this kind of commitment is utopian and it necessarily will leave behind anything that gets in the way of such an action.  This direction is like that of a schlemiel but with one exception: the schlemiel doesn’t feel guilt and his innocence is based on a lack of knowledge.  And if the audience feels guilt, it is only because they realize that goodness, in our world, is laughable.  The point is not to become like a schlemiel or to blindly commit ourselves to this or that ideal of youth but to be critical of ourselves.  The Yiddish writers were keen enough to know that the stakes of utopia are too high to risk blind adoration and commitment.  The experience of Shabbatai Zevi and his blind commitment to the Messianic, in reality, tore worlds open.  The point of the schlemiel is to create a balance between guilt and innocence and not to act believing that one’s action will eventuate the law-of-youth to come and the Messianic irruption.  It is also linked to the idea of tradition which Benjamin, at least over here, leaves behind.

To be sure, the total Apocalyptic rejection of the adult world, portrayed as an act of expiation, has major consequences that Benjamin was to more carefully consider as he grew older (although, to be sure, he was still tempted by its allure).

In the next blog entries, I will take a closer look into Benjamin’s religious musings on innocence and guilt, youth and adulthood, so as to show how his messianic idea remained but in an altered form.  The point being that the schlemiel takes on more of a role the more Benjamin reconsiders the messianic in terms of the mystical and the traditional.