Apocalypse Now – When Crisis Comes, Whither Humor?


Imagine everything coming to a grinding halt.  Imagine a moment in which all would be still.  Given our ever-increasingly hurried lives, this full stop is hard for us to imagine.  But it doesn’t keep us, by any means, from trying.  To be sure, countless films and science-fiction novels imagine this moment in endless variations.  But the cessation of time is not simply the matter of fiction and fantasy.  To be sure, real life crises interrupt everything.  Surprises are also at the core of religion.  Radicals, revolutionaries, and religious devotees all know that bringing the world to a grinding halt testifies to some kind of truth that goes beyond what we habitually perceive and practice.

On the one hand, death, murder, natural disaster, and terrorism stop everything.  On the other hand, miracles and unexpected occurrences stop everything.

In the Jewish tradition, Revelation usually stops everything. To be sure, Revelation interrupts.  We see this in simple passages when God comes out of nowhere to call on Abraham or Moses.  Moreover, many commandments are constructed, specifically, to interrupt this or that form of work or common practice.  The greatest interruption of work being the weekly Sabbath where all forms of work are forbidden.  The interruption of work reaches its climax in the Jubilee year – which falls on the fiftieth year, at the end of seven seven-year cycles – when all work is forbidden.

In terms of Revelation, the Midrash tells us that the revelation on Mt. Sinai made everyone pause.   In that moment of cessation, everyone shared a moment of prophesy. The Midrash goes so far as to say that every child in the womb partook in the vision of God.  Of greater interest is the characterization of the Messianic Era, which is, on the one hand, likened to a cessation of war.  On the other hand, it is likened to a series of miracles which will fundamentally change reality.  On the one hand, there is a type of cessation that is reasonable; on the other hand we have a cessation that is not.   The Rabbis prefer the peaceful manifestations of the Messianic; however, there are also manifestations which are riddled with crisis and disaster.  These are what Gershom Scholem would call Apocalyptic or Utopian manifestations of the “Messianic Idea.”

Regarding the most unexpected interruption, the Midrash tells us that the Messiah will come in the blink of an eye (k’heref ayin).   He will come when he is least expected.

To be sure, these interruptions are so important that nearly every Jewish holiday commemorates them.   Moreover, they many Jewish holidays anticipate interruption.  But, by and large, the interruption doesn’t destroy the law, it doesn’t “fulfill” it; rather, it keeps the law in tact. And this ‘fact’ distinguishes a Jewish interruption of the world from other disruptions whose Apocalyptic manifestations are much more severe.

Drawing on a similar mystical structure of cessation, Walter Benjamin and Slovoj Zizek have imagined a messianic moment of cessation.  Benjamin called it “dialectics at a standstill” and Neuezeit (now time).   But it can also be thought of, negatively, as a state of exception or crisis.  In this state, progress ceases and power predominates.  Zizek opts for the more Apocalyptic version and demands that we do to.   And although Zizek employs humor and ridicule in his work, there is nothing funny about this at all.  To be sure, Zizek uses ridicule to prepare us for the big thing: the Apocalyptic moment of cessation which has everything to do with making a decision that is riddled with crisis and even self-destruction.

At the end of his book First as Tragedy, then as Farce Zizek meditates on this moment of cessation.  To be sure, this is his dream.  When time comes to a standstill, there will be a revelation, that is, a profane illumination.  For Zizek, the revelation, at the time of crisis, is that we do not need a leader; “we” don’t need the Other.  Rather: We are all redeemers.

Zizek uses these terms, and many others like them, to describe who we are in the aftermath of the destruction of liberal democracy and capitalism.  They are Apocalyptic. To be sure, Zizek sounds a lot like what Gershom Scholem, in his book On Kabbalah and its Symbolism, calls a nihilistic mystic.

The nihilistic mystic descends into the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born; he passes through all the embodiments and forms that come his way, committing himself to none; and not content with rejecting and abrogating all values and laws, he tramples them underfoot and desecrates them, in order to attain the elixir of life.

One can no longer just “let being be.”  Zizek, like the nihilistic mystic, wants to bring the end on.  He wants us to act and hasten its coming.  He forgoes the Talmudic dictum that one must not hasten the end.

Scholem’s words on the Apocalyptic – in his essay “Towards an Understanding of the Messianic Idea” –  can be applied to Zizek’s final words in his book:

The apocalyptists have always cherished the pessimistic view of the world. Their optimism, their hope, is not directed to what history will bring forth, but to that which will arise in its ruin, free at last and undisguised.

The one who wishes for the end will, necessarily, destroy both progress and tradition.

Both the liberal and the conservative are one and the same for the nihilistic mystic.  In On Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Scholem says that the nihilistic mystic, in effect, destroys the language of the tradition because his mystical experience cannot use words or words from the tradition to speak.  The regular mystic, on the other hand, transforms the existing language and modifies the tradition.  In other words, language, the tradition, remain.  And with it what language transmits.  As Walter Benjamin notes, tradition is primarily about transmission and not about content.  Nonetheless, it does transmit something to the student of tradition.  With the nihilistic mystic, that is lost.  The difference between one and the other is the difference between liquidating tradition and language and preserving it.

According to John McCole in his book Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition, Benjamin has two modes: one mode is the modality of liquidation (this errs on the side of modernity and destroys tradtion) the other mode is conservative (not in the regular sense of the word; rather, it looks to conserve memory, tradition, transmission. Both matter to Benjamin.  According to McCole, this is one of the most fruitful and unexplored aspects of his work.  To be sure, Benjamin, paradoxically, wanted nothing more than to preserve the tension between conservation and liquidation of tradition.

The most essential thing to transfer is the teaching of tradition which is on the very edge of liquidation.  And as I have argued in another blog entry, the tradition of the schlemiel keeps us on the fine line between Apocalyptic liquidation and conservation.  Zizek, however, doesn’t take up this line of thinking.  He seems to be more interested in liquidation.

Zizek, strangely enough, cites Benjamin a lot in his Apocalyptic section.  To be sure, Apocalypse is all about liquidation; namely, of the law.  The law, for Zizek (and at least one strain of Benjamin; namely his piece of “Critique of Violence,” which McCole sees as only one of two aspects, as I mentioned above), is connected to the Other.  Law, for Judaism, is inseparable from tradition.  Without law, there can be no tradition.  For Zizek, this isn’t even an issue. The Benjamin Zizek is drawn to is Benjamin-the-liquidationist.  Which we find in the “Critique of Violence” and in “The Destructive Character.”  Taking a look at these, one forgets about Benjamin’s profound interest in tradition.

I will end this blog entry with an illustration of Zizek’s tendency toward liquidation. In the spirit of a nihilistic mystic, Zizek tells us that this liquidation is based on our decision. It is a “proper political act”:

This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement so as to interrupt the present predominant movement.  An act of “divine violence” would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress.  In other words, one has to learn fully to accept that there is no big Other. (149)

Zizek, a Messianic activist of sorts, cites Benjamin’s phrase in quotes (“divine violence”).  This appeal  is reminiscent of at least one strain of Benjamin’s work.  Rewriting one of  Walter Benjamin’s “Philosophical Theses,” Zizek says that he wants to “pull the emergency cord of the train of Historical progress.”  But when one does this, one must have another notion of time to substitute for progress.   Knowing this, Zizek cites Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s claim that:

If we are to confront adequately the threat of (social or environmental) catastrophe, we need to break out of the “historical” notion of temporality: we have to introduce a new notion of time.  Dupuy calls this time the “time of a project,” of a closed circuit between the past and the future: the future is causally produced by our acts in the past, wheile the way we act is determined by our anticipation of the future and our reaction to this anticipation. (150)

The anticipation of the end is, in other words, measured by our act to bring it about.  Our act of liquidation is the time of the project.  And this helps us, says Zizek, to confront the disaster:

This, then, is how Dupuy proposes to confront the disaster: we should first perceive it as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourselves into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities….upon which we then act today.  We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that it is our destiny – and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize our selves to perform the act which will change our destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past. (151)

Everything will be destroyed.  Everything will be liquidated.  Zizek insists that we must accept this fact.   And once we have accepted our doom, we can decide; we can “perform the act which will change our destiny and thereby insert a new possibility into the past.”  In the most Sartrean or even Nietzschean sense, everything is in the act (or deed).

To “perform the act that will change our destiny” is to embrace at least one sort of mysticism; a mysticism without tradition.  This transmits nothing except our decision to accept total disaster of everything as the source of revelation.  The act posits a new past, but I would suggest that this has nothing to do with tradition so much as it does with a new initiation of history.  In other words, the decision to liquidate history is the beginning of a new tradition.

In contrast to the scene Benjamin proposes with Don Quixote, Zizek’s Apocalyptic scene has no humor whatsoever.  In the end, it seems the other way around: First as Farce, then as Tragedy.  Since, in the beginning Zizek ridicules ideology, liberalism, and deconstruction, but here ridicule passes away and one is faced with ones utter annihilation.  The only thing that matters, in this scene, is that act.  Even though, Zizek praises the act that initiates a new tradition, the fact of the matter is that the accent is on the act of liquidation not tradition.  Nothing is transmitted accept the act of destruction.  History ceases to exist; it stops. But so does tradition.

In this moment, Zizek’s approach to comedy takes a nosedive.  To be sure, ridicule, in Zizek’s sense, leads us to desire the moment of liquidation in which all time will stop.  It leads us to anticipate – and embrace – a time of crisis.  In contrast, for Benjamin, the tradition of comedy, the tradition on Don Quixote and the Schlemiel was worth saving.  Unfortunately, more people see Benjamin’s “Philosophical Theses” and his words on history, there, as his final word. They overlook his desire to preserve the comic tradition which we find in his Kafka essay.  Instead of picking liquidation over conservation, we need to find a way of balancing out the antinomy between tradition and its liquidation.  And I think that the best way to do this is by way of making a close reading of Benjamin’s reading of comedy.

What we need to ask, however, is how cessation relates to the comic relation between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  This is a question which has not yet been asked.  Lest we not forget, Kafka notes that Don Quixote was constantly surprising Sancho Panza.  And on his journey, following Quixote wherever he went, Panza was, so to speak, out of work.  His eyes were not on history and neither were they on catastrophe, they were on Don Quixote.  His “act” was to follow Don Quixote.  His act was not an act of liquidation; it was an act of reverence and respect for the comic figure not the tragic one.  His act was not an act of a nihilistic mystic; it was the act of a student of tradition.

And as Benjamin says, Kafka taught us that only a fool can help.

I’ll leave it at that.

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