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.

Kafka’s Commandment – Take 1


From 1917 until June 1919, Kafka stopped writing entries in his diaries and decided, instead, to write eight notebooks (or what Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend, called the “Blue Octavio Notebooks”).  In these notebooks, Kafka describes and performs his relationship to commandments and being commanded.   The question for Kafka concerns who is giving the commandment: me or the other?

The fourth of Kafka’s Eight Notebooks immediately begins with this pressing question:

By imposing too great a responsibility, or rather, all responsibility, on yourself, you crush yourself.   The first worship of idols was certainly fear (angst) of the things of the world, but, connected with this, fear (angst) of the necessity of things.  So tremendous did the responsibility appear that people did not even dare to impose it upon one single extra entity, for even the mediation of one being would not have sufficiently lightened human responsibility, and that is why each thing was given responsibility for itself, more indeed, these things were given a degree of responsibility for man. 

Who is the “you” Kafka is speaking to?  Is it himself?  It is as if Kafka is talking to his soul, educating it.  He tells his soul of how the fear of things, terror of the world, leads to idol worship.  And Kafka acknowledges that in apposition to this is another kind of terror: the terror of responsibility!

As Kafka notes, it is “so tremendous” that they “did not even dare to impose it upon one single entity.”  But why?  Kafka tells us because “even the mediation of one being would not have sufficiently lightened human responsibility.”  In other words, the knowledge that nothing can take away this “tremendous” responsibility is equavalent to knowing that one cannot get rid of it.  Howeover, Kafka takes an interesting turn by noting that man is not alone in his responsibility.  In fact, everything “was given responsibility for itself.”

But, more than being alone, Kafka believes his soul should know that these things are not simply responsible for themselves: “they were given a degree of responsibility for man.”

Let’s recap the movement in this piece: first, he acknowledges the terror of responsibility; then he passes into realizing that everything is responsible; and then he comes to the realization that “these things were given responsibility for man.”  In other words, the final realization is that man is infinitely responsible and that all things “are responsible for man.”  Man may be terrified in his responsibility, but he is not alone – and he is respected.

This sounds like a terrifying and a beautiful lesson about responsibility.  But that’s not the end of it.  To be sure, in Kafka’s final movement of his first fragment of the Fourth Notebook, he names this “world” of responsibility naïve yet the “most complicated” of all worlds:

Man could not do enough for his own satisfaction in the creation of counterweights; the naïve world was the most complicated that ever existed; its naivite worked out, in life, exclusively in the brutal logical consequence.

To be sure, this complicated yet naïve world sounds like the world of the schlemiel. In I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” on in Shalom Aleichem’s Motl: The Cantors Son, for instance,  Gimpel and Motl are naïve and trustworthy.  Their responsibility to others is illustrated by how much they trust others and all things.   But it is complicated by the fact that they are being lied to or the fact that everyone suffers while they, caught up in goodness, can’t notice.  For the schlemiel, its all good; for us, we can see its not so easy.

Kafka hits on this theme. But what is most interesting is that, from his perspective, the schlemiel must also grappled with responsibility. To be sure, this is what he illustrates.  He grapples with the question of who gives him responsibility and, after this, he grapples with what he calls “commandments.”

Following the first entry, Kafka writes:

If all responsibility is imposed on you, then you may want to exploit the moment and want to be overwhelmed by responsibility; yet if you try, you will notice that nothing was imposed on you, but that you are yourself this responsibility.

This is a settling thought for Kafka.  It is heroic.  And, to be sure, he ends the entry with an image of a hero who runs “before a cart” because he is harkening after the responsibility that he is.

However, his heroism doesn’t last long.  A few entries after this first entry, Kafka, on February 7th, has a fight with himself (or rather a fight with his soul) over the “inner commandment”:

Why do you compare the inner commandment to a dream? Does it seem senseless as in a dream, incoherent, inevitable, making you happy or frightening you equally without cause, not wholly communicable, but demanding to be communicated?

What is most fascinating in this questioning is the fact that, through these questions, Kafka is describing the “inner commandment.”  The most important features being that it is “not wholly communicable, but demanding to be communicated.”

The “inner commandment” wants to become a tradition; and, as Walter Benjamin notes, tradition is all about “transmission.”  But, most importantly, the commandment is like a dream.  In making such a comparison, Kafka is making a schlemiel analogy.  If the commandment is like a dream, then the one who is commanded is a dreamer.

Therefore, the one who must communicate the “inner commandment” (which is not wholly communicable) is a schlemiel.  The one who lives in accordance with tradition is a dreamer.

Kafka, however, struggles with the obeisant schlemiel dreamer:

All that is senseless; for only if I do not obey it can I maintain myself here; incoherent, for I don’t know whose command it is and what he is aiming at; inevitable, for it finds me unprepared, descending upon me as surprisingly as dreams descend upon the sleeper, who, after all, since he lay down to sleep, must have been prepared for dream.

As you can see, Kafka contemplates not keeping the commandment but then realizes that its too late: it has surprised him and he has been overtaken by a dream.

I’ll end on this note.  But I will return to it in my next blog.  To be sure, Kafka’s struggle with the “inner commandment” is a kind of kvetch.  He must obey it, but he thinks its impossible to obey.  He does so anyway.

As a schlemiel, Kafka must struggle with his dream-slash-commandment.

To be continued….

Note: I decided to write on this topic today because it is Shavuot: the Jewish festival which commemorates God’s “giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai.”   

And, as the Rabbis teach, the Torah, the teaching is the commandments.  It is on this day that the Talmud says that the Jews were given the responsibility of taking on the Torah and its commandments.  And what better time to discuss the Kafka’s notion of the schlemiel and his “inner (dream) commandment” than today.  The Jewish people, like Kafka, were surprised by the commandments.  The surprise goes hand in hand with the commandment…And for Kafka the commandment surprises him and overcomes him as a dream overcomes a sleeper…. 

A Response to Zachary Braiterman’s “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics (Kenneth Seeskin)”


I look forward to reading Zachary Braiterman’s posts every week on his blog Jewish Philosophy Place and I admire and respect the work he has published on Jewish Philosophy, aesthetics, and theodicy.  I have learned a lot from his work.

I was especially interested in the blog entry he posted entitled “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics” since his entry bears mention of the work I have been doing on the schlemiel.  With respect to this blog entry, Braiterman is interested in the work I have written on the schlemiel and the Messianic Idea.  In this entry, he has drawn on it to offer an insightful critique of Kenneth Seeskin’s recent book Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair.

What I find most interesting about Braiterman’s reading is his approach to the Messianic Idea as a schlemiel aesthetic that really has nothing to do with the tasks of rational Jewish philosophy.   This is an interesting wedge since it challenges the use of the Messianic idea in Jewish philosophy (or in contemporary Continental philosophy) by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Ernst Bloch, and Giorgio Agamben.

To be sure, Braiterman and Seeskin are both drawn to a Maimonidean approach to Jewish philosophy.  And this approach is suspicious of the Messianic Idea and prophetic flights of the imagination.  The Guide to the Perplexed, parts of the Mishna Torah, and the “Letter to Yemen” clearly demonstrate that Maimonides was very careful to avoid the dangers that would come by taking the Apocalyptic aspects of the Messianic idea seriously.

What Braiterman wonders about is why Seeskin would still take to the Messianic idea since, for Braiterman, it seems to be derived more from the imagination and the Midrash than from reason.  As Braiterman notes: “Messianism is rooted in the imaginary of biblical, midrashic, and liturgical source material, whereas the introduction of Kantian conceptual-moral frames struck me as off point.”

Braiterman argues that Seeskin misreads the “wilderness generation after the exodus from Egypt” and their “crying and rebellion in the desert for water.”  For Seeskin (and one could imagine, for Herman Cohen – I will return to this), they are giving up hope and are rebelling against “the belief in God and the Messianic idea.”    On this note, Braiterman sides with Emil Fackenheim who, he argues, would see their crying and despair as providing them with a “critical insight into history and the human predicament.”

In the second part of this blog entry, Braiterman addresses the question of why Seeskin would even try to reconcile Kantian ethics with the Messianic idea:

Its not clear why one might need this messiah business if all messianism constitutes is the notion that redemption depends upon human will and act, constitutional democracy, and perpetual peace.  Why do we need such an inflationary and theological word for such a flat and deflationary thing?

This is a very good question.  It’s the same question one could pose to the Jewish-German Philosopher Hermann Cohen.  After all, Cohen insisted that the Messianic Idea was a specifically Jewish contribution.  He associates it with hope.  In contrast to the Greeks, who despised hope, Cohen tells us that the Jewish tradition introduced the Messianic idea of hope:

To the earliest Greeks, hope meant no more than idle speculation.  And it is only after the Persian wars that this emotion is looked on as more than the opposite of fear, or as one of Pandora’s evils…..Nowhere in paganism does the concept of hope suggest a general enhancement of all human existence.  The widening-out into the non-personal, ethical realm, this spiritualization of a basically materialistic-personalistic emotion is the effect and indeed one of the surest marks of the idea of God’s unity or –what amounts to the same thing – of His pure spirituality.

Seeskin inherits the legacy of hope that Cohen espouses in such passages as, on the one hand, uniquely Jewish, and, on the other hand, consistent with Kantian ideas.   Nonetheless, Cohen, like Seeskin and Maimonides, has a problem which Braiterman is acutely aware: the aesthetic aspect of the Messianic idea.

As Braiterman notes “when all is said and done, the messianic idea is “just” an image, and a philosophically foolish one at that. It’s the image that rivets the eye in the prophetic literature, especially as it appears liturgically in the closed off space of the synagogue, on a Saturday night in a candle-lit Havdalah ceremony, or packed tight at the end of the Passover seder, at which point it becomes a figure sung by drunk people.”

The last words of this description of the Messianic aesthetic remind me of Walter Benjamin’s call to “win over the forces of intoxication for revolution.”  Indeed, for Braiterman, the aesthetic qualities of the messianic idea overshadow the philosophical, ethical, or political dimensions of the idea.  They are intoxicating; just like a fascinating object.  Braiterman notes the Messianic idea is “almost like a photograph, you can pick it up and consider it, and use it to this effect and to that.”

Braiterman notes that Seeskin clearly knows that the Messianic idea has “no philosophical use value, at least not in terms of determinate propositional truth contents.”  So, why, he wonders, would Seeskin even try to use it for philosophical purposes?

Musing on this, Braiterman evokes the schlemiel and my schlemiel theory blog (and book) project:

Maybe the messianic idea represents the schlemiel figure par excellence in the history of Jewish thought…How else to explain Seeskin’s book, a serious book about a serious topic written by a serious man ends with a joke.

The point of the joke, says Braiterman, is to show that, in the end, we will all realize that when “all enchantment has been removed from the world…and there is quick judgment, and arrogance are now rare,” we will no longer be enchanted by the Messianic idea.  At that point, anyone who wants to be the messiah can be.

Nonetheless, for Seeskin, it is still necessary to cast hope in the Messianic.

Braiterman avers: “Who gets to be Messiah? Any schlemiel who wants it.  That’s the punchline.”

Following this, Braiterman says that he would resist Seeskin’s claim that the “rational religion” is messianic and “reflects moral teleology.”  Moreover, Braiterman reiterates that he doesn’t accept the notion that our age is an “age of despair.”  Instead of looking toward the future, what is to come, to hope, Braiterman takes the side of the present.  In doing so, it seems that Braiterman is parting with Herman Cohen and Maimonides (who does, in fact, purport a restorative and political reading of the Messianic idea at the end of the Mishna Torah).

Braiterman finishes his piece with a basic rejection of the messianic idea as a schlemiel aesthetic: “Because maybe with this much hindsight in the history of an idea, maybe it’s easier to understand that messianism is an aesthetic, and maybe, after all is said and done, a schlemiel aesthetic at that.”

In many ways Braiterman is correct; the messianic is a schlemiel aesthetic.  To be sure, what makes it so is the fact that the schlemiel is a messianic character who is not oriented toward the present.  Rather, the schlemiel is a character which is oriented toward the future. It mixes dreams and reality and, in its simplicity, it draws its life on our hope.  Sometimes this can have negative consequences, as I have shown in blogs on the schlemiel, the Apocalyptic, and Messianic Activism.  Nonetheless, the best schlemiels, do not simply mix dreams and reality; as Ruth Wisse would say, they juxtapose hope and skepticism.

To be sure, I would argue that the Messianic idea is brought down to reality by way of Braiterman’s skepticism.  Even though he wishes to be rid of an aesthetic idea – which has nothing to do with Jewish philosophy and the concern with the present – he shows how hard it is to just let it go.   In other words, the Messianic idea, like the schlemiel, is, as Braiterman says, “infectious.”  We can’t let go of it.  And this, for Braiterman, is the irony.

Strangely enough, Hermann Cohen argues that irony has nothing to do with hope.  Greek “tragedy is predicated on fear and compassion, its comedy on the very opposite of hope, namely irony.”

Cohen finds nothing ironic about the Messianic idea, but we do.  And this irony goes hand-in-hand with the schlemiel.  The schlemiel discloses the irony of the Messianic idea by way of the juxtaposition of hope and skepticism.   In other words, a rationalist like Cohen would be befuddled by the Schlemiel.  To be sure, this character is meant to disclose a historical tension Jews have with the present and the future.

Regarding this, I wonder: if we were to reject the Messianic idea, would we also have to reject the schlemiel?

At the end of her opus, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse says something very insightful regarding this issue.  For Wisse, in a world that is wholly skeptical or wholly optimistic, the schlemiel cannot exist.  Pertaining to Zachary Breiterman’s review of Seeskin’s book, I would say the same thing.  In a world that is wholly skeptical or optimistic the Messianic idea cannot exist.  In many ways, it seems that the schlemiel and the Messianic idea go hand-in-hand.

However, what I find most interesting about Wisse’s claim about the schlemiel is that, for her, after the founding of Israel, it no longer becomes a character of interest.  She shares this claim with a few other Zionist thinkers.   However, this is another issue which I cannot address here .

Needless to say, I think Wisse and Braiterman would like to exchange the aesthetic for the political and the future for the present.   Nonetheless, I think Wisse’s previous claim remains and that simply having a state does not mean that one is wholly optimistic or wholly skeptical.  To be sure, we still waver between hope and skepticism.  And as long as our skepticism or optimism is tainted, there will be schlemiels and Messianic ideas.

Perhaps, on the other hand, what hooks us up to the Messianic idea or the schlemiel is not hope or skepticism so much as time.  As Levinas or Derrida may argue, as long as there is a future-to-come, there will always be a Messianic idea and, as i would argue, there will always be a schlemiel.

Or perhaps, as Braiterman suggests, as long as we love aesthetics we will be intrigued by Messianic ideas and schlemiels of all stripes and colors.

Perhaps, like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, we love utopia and the messianic idea like we love the circus….

But regardless of how we view the Messianic idea we can all agree that the greatest danger the Messianic idea poses is with Messianic Schlemiels (or what I call Messianic activists) who mix their utopian-slash-Apocalyptic dreams with reality.  Perhaps the greatest of all Messianic Schlemiels was named Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah.  Maimonides, Seeskin, and Braiterman would all agree that what happened with Shabbatai Zevi shows us the greatest danger of the Messianic Idea.  They would all, rightly, note that when a dream or an aesthetic becomes immanent in a utopian political gesture, we have crossed the line; and, as Gershom Scholem suggested with respect to Shabbatai Zevi, this kind of foolishness verges on nihilism and not perpetual peace.

“It’s Almost Incomprehensible!” The Circus and Kafka’s Natural Theater


As I noted in the last blog entry, Ernst Bloch believed that “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.  A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers.  Nevertheless, there is an estrangement” (179).

The confluences between Bloch and Walter Benjamin, in this claim and in these descriptions, are fascinating.  To be sure, Benjamin was also interested in the circus.  He also thought that although the circus was honest and utopian, it was fraught with estrangement.

We see the circus, utopia, and estrangement breached in Benjamin’s Kafka essay; namely, in the final section of the essay (which was published posthumously) entitled “Sancho Panza.”  In this section, Benjamin addresses the circus by way of the “Natural Theater of Oklahoma” that we see in Kafka’s novel Amerika.

Before addressing the Natural Theater, Benjamin cites a few lines from a Kafka short story about the “strange” ways of Kafka’s students and scribes.  They are the carriers and transmitters of tradition to the next generation and he is astonished by them:

‘To him, hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing, which would have made the hammering even bolder, more determined, more real, and, if you like, more insane.’

Benjamin comments on this line that:

This is the resolute, fanatical mien which students have when they study; it is the strangest mien imaginable. The scribes, the students, are out of breath; they fairly race along.  (137)

Benjamin describes the scribes and students “as out of breath.”  They “race along” to receive and deliver the message of the tradition.  Benjamin goes to Kafka for the details.  And what we learn, from Kafka’s descriptions is that the narrator is astonished by the people who receive tradition.  Instead of seeing someone like Moses, Kafka’s narrator sees a bunch of schlemiels jumping up and down to get the message of tradition.  It is “strange…almost incomprehensible!”:

Often the official dictates in such a low voice that the scribe cannot even hear it sitting down; then he has to jump up, catch the diction, quickly sit down again and write it down, then jump up again and so forth.  How strange that is!  It is almost incomprehensible! 

Instead of explaining the meaning of tradition and this strangeness, Benjamin turns to the  Natural Theater of Oklahoma in Kafka’s Amerika:

It may be easier to understand this if one thinks of the actors in the Nature Theater.  Actors have to catch their cues in a flash, and they resemble those assiduous people in other ways as well.  Truly, for them, “hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing” – provided that it is a part of their role.  They study the role, and only a bad actor would forget a word or movement. For the members of the Oklahoma troupe, however, the role is their earlier life; hence the “nature” in this Nature Theater. (137)

The nature of the nature theater is the earlier life of these characters.  The role they study is their tradition.  In other words, their earlier life is their tradition.  They inherit their childhood and learn it, play it.   In Bloch’s language, we could say that this is the “honest” element of the circus.  They play their earlier selves and they do so openly.  There is no curtain that stands between them and the audience.

Of them, Benjamin writes:

Its actors have been redeemed.

However, someone has not been redeemed and that is the student:

…whom Karl watches silently on this balcony as he reads his book, “turning the pages, occasionally looking something up in another book which he always snatched up quick as a flash, and frequently making notes in a notebook, which he always did with his face surprisingly close to the paper.”

The careful reader will understand what Benjamin is hinting at; namely, the fact that Karl is the student.  He is taking notes and “snatches” things up “in a flash.”  He is the unredeemed schlemiel who transmits the tradition.  Echoing the title of the section, he is Sancho Panza.

And perhaps this is what is most astonishing.  The fact that the schlemiel must spend his or her days recording and transmitting a tradition he or she doesn’t understand but only receives in flashes.  When it comes, he or she must “jump” up and snatch it as it flashes.

This is something the schlemiel must do as the schlemiel is not redeemed but these actors are.  By way of the Natural Theater of Oklahoma, Benjamin is saying something different than what Ernst Bloch says about the circus.  Although Bloch says there is an honesty and an estrangement to the circus that is unparalleled, he doesn’t explain why.  Benjamin does.

The honesty of Natural Theater, of the circus, is its nature.  It is the fact that it studies its earlier life and performs it.  This involvement is redemptive for the actors. However, those who carry on the tradition do not live this life.  It is they who are estranged.

Franz Kafka’s Karl Rossmann, who the Kafka scholar Heinz Politzer calls “infantile,” is a student; as is Sancho Panza and Walter Benjamin.  They are all students of tradition.  But in being students who transmit the tradition, they are not redeemed.  Not yet.

Rather, they are comic characters whose task is unnatural and yet necessary. Their leaping around after flashes and recording them, for Kafka, may be astonishing and strange but it is “almost incomprehensible.”

In other words, it is not completely incomprehensible.  It is in these small flashes that we know that a rationalist like Sancho Panza knew that the keepers of tradition and heritage were on to something.

Bloch knew this as well.  I would like to suggest that every comedian, writer, or performer of schlemiel comedy also understands this: without tradition, there would be no comedy and there would certainly not be a schlemiel.  Perhaps this is the “only honest down-to-earth honest performance” there is?

One doesn’t have to be in the circus to be a part of the circus.  All one has to do is watch it and, for those who want to carry on its tradition, all they have to do is leap up at the “flashes,” sit down, record them, and do that again….and again.

Its “almost incomprehensible!”

Ernst Bloch’s Musings on The Circus and Utopia – Take 1


History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous time, empty time, but filled with presence of the now (Jetztzeit).  Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.  The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate….Fashion has a flaire for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it’s a tiger’s leap into the past (Walter Benjamin, Thesis XIV of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”)

Throughout the ages, many great artists, poets, and thinkers have shown great love for the circus.  They feel that there is something about the circus.  It can tell us about who we really are, what we believe in, or what we hope for.  Perhaps the circus, as Walter Benjamin might say about “the presence of the now” (Jetztzeit), is our common origin.  Perhaps the circus is the revolution.  Perhaps it is the place where, as Benjamin says of fashion, there is a “tigers leap into the past.”

The circus, like the revolution, is a space where comedy, surprise, and excitement are center stage.  It is a social, an aesthetic, and a political space.  On the one hand, the Roman satirist Juvenal used the words “Panem et Circenses” (Bread and Circuses) to criticize those in power noting that the circus distracted Rome’s political leaders from history.  And it was used as a tool for gaining power.  On the other hand, the circus has been envisioned as a space of inversion and resistance to the dominant culture.  In the circus political power appears as ridiculous: it’s the only place where you will find Nobility and Clergy dressed up as or riding pigs.  Mikhail Bakhtin was one of the first theorists to explore this aspect of the circus; and in his notion of the carnivalesque, cultural studies and postmodernism found a model that proved fruitful for at least a decade or two.   In Rome, the circus was dominated by power; but in the middleages it was not.  The circus belonged to the people.

Like Bakhtin, Ernst Bloch also found the carnival to be of great interest.  In an essay entitled “Better Castles in the Sky” (from the essay collection The Utopian Function of Art and Literature) Bloch makes a confession or admission to truth.  His admission reveals that his fascination with the circus is a fascination with what makes us utopian.  His admission discloses the circus in what I, following Bloch, would call an “anticipatory illumination.”  To be sure, I would say that the circus, for Bloch, is the ultimate anticipatory illumination of utopia: “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.  A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers.  Nevertheless, there is an estrangement”(179).

By saying that the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance,” Bloch is saying something quite radical.  This implies that all other artistic performances are not honest or down to earth.  It also implies that Bloch values honesty and being “down-to-earth” which are basic folk virtues. To be sure, the honesty marks a kind of innocence with what makes us utopian.  In fact, he repeats the word “honest” twice so as to underscore the importance of this fundamentally social and political virtue.  But more importantly, these values, for Bloch, find their only vehicle in the circus and in no other artistic space.  Their vehicle is comedy!

All other theatrical performances are mixed with ideology, power, and dishonesty; the circus is not.  It has the quality of honesty.  It is so honest that it is utopian.  Bloch suggests that utopian justice, in this sense, is all about a kind of honesty that can only be prefigured in the circus.

Why is this the case?  Why does the circus, for Bloch, basically articulate, unlike any other art, the utopian function?  How does it articulate the “anticipatory illumination” and what he would call “genuine heritage?”

Before Bloch makes his admissions of truth for the circus and its utopian function, he discusses the roots of the circus performance.   According to Bloch, “the sideshows at the fair” are uncanny and exciting because “they don’t originate here, nor does their magic, which is continually dusted off and revealed anew in the repeated performances of the sideshows”(178).  The magic we see at the circus “operates as if abnormal and foreign.  Yet, it is ordinary and full of swindles”(178).  To be sure, it is very canny.  It is plain, simple, and downright ordinary.  However, it is “still more substantial than the trouble that the philistine causes for the age-old joy of young and old people.”  In other words, the circus, for all its ordinariness, is more substantial than the law.

The circus is the spirit; the philistines – the ruling class – are the law.

Instead of pursuing this distinction further, Bloch takes a detour.  Bloch’s detour takes us into the life of the circus and the nature of its magic: in taking this detour, Bloch avoids talking about the origin of the circus.  All Bloch notes, before this point, is that they (those in the circus) “don’t originate here.”  Does this mean they originate elsewhere, in another world?  Where are the people of the circus from?

Bloch cuts in with quasi-historicism for an answer.  Bloch suggests, as if we know,  that a circus is a “boat like show”: “So these boat like shows set sail and are carried by the South Seas for the simple soul and the uncorrupted, complicated soul too.”  The circus, originally a boat show, is for the simpleton (the schlemiel) and the complicated soul (the skeptic).

Moreover, the ship visits all kinds of cities; the ships have no boundaries: “The tent-boats weigh anchor for a short time in the dusty cities. They are tattooed with pale green or bloodthirsty paintings in which votive pictures projecting rescue at sea disasters are mixed with those of the harem.”

At this point, Bloch slips into the mode of allegory and allusion to illustrate why the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”

I’d like to closely follow his words so as to figure out what he is alluding to with a canny-slash-uncanny circus that originates on the sea but, in our day, finds itself on the ground.

Bloch creates a metonymy of sorts associating the “motor” of the boat with a sound that is “foreign, fatty, unhuman, breathless, sluggish”(178).  And from sound Bloch moves to the figure of a “dancing wax lady screwed down next to the entrance.  And she dances with sudden contortions, moves with twisted gestures of screwed down wax that turn into dance, and she throws her head back from time to time.”

The first thing that strikes me about this metonymy is that the figure moves and is nailed down; its dance embodies a dialectical tension and, for this reason, it appears comical.  It reminds me of a dancing Hula doll.

Bloch writes of this figure lovingly and situates it behind the barker of the circus, who brings her to a halt.   After noting this Bloch explains its “hidden meaning” by way of a juxtaposition of life and death:

Eventually she comes to a halt and trembles in this position right behind the barker, who fears nothing.  The type of world extolled here has the secrets of the bridal bed and also the miscarriage at one end and the secrets of the bier on the other end. (178)

This image is mythical.  Bloch passes from this image, however, to one that is full of particularities and seems to play with myth by way of plurality:

Strange human creatures and their art offer themselves to spectators in nothing but peepshows of abnormality. The sword swallower and fire eater, the man with the untearable tongue and iron skull, the snake charmer add the live aquarium.  Turks, pumpkin men, fat women, they are all there.

Once Bloch realizes he has gone way out in his description, he reels it in with some analysis, noting that “fairy tale realm reappears continually and also that of the horror story.”  This implies that the fair moves between innocence and horror.  He calls “the fair, a colorful, peasant fantasy.”  However, it is interrupted by the city (as well as by horror).

He notes the historical change from the country to the city in the movement of the fair from Europe to America:

In the large American cities it has become increasingly automated with loudspeakers and amusement centers.   However, the land of the wishes from the medieval South Seas, so to speak, has remained.  And it maintains itself out of the Middle ages, which go much further back, right to the fair of the higher order, in the kind of show of the Circenses without any curtain at all. (79)

What Bloch does over here is articulate what we saw in yesterday’s blog; namely, the “genuine heritage.”  To be sure, Bloch sees the fair as the heritage to which he, a circus lover and a lover of honesty, must turn.  His language, following upon his mention of a show of a “higher order,” a Circenses “without any curtain at all” verges on the religious and the revolutionary.

In Benjamin’s sense of the “tiger leap” backwards, Bloch sees a merging of all times in the ring of the circus.  In the “ring” of the circus the Medieval, the Roman, and the tradition of the circus on the sea come together:

For, as the miracles of the sidewshows are assembled together under one roof, in a ring, and as the managerie breaks out from here, the coliseum or the circus now originates from the South Seas. (79)

However, as with history, something is lost.  And what is it?  The hula doll I referenced above (the wax dancer):

Of course, the feature of the wax figure cabinet cannot be present here, that suspended animation, that mechanical organ, because everything in the circus is alive.  And, in contrast to the fair, which operates with concealment, with stage, showcase, and curtains, the circus is fully open.  The ring brings everything with it.

But although the hula doll is gone, something new and revolutionary, something much more revolutionary than the fair or the sea circus has arrived.  For Bloch the circus is the most revolutionary because it is “fully open.”  It is, for this reason, the most utopian space.

To be sure, following this claim that the “circus is fully open. The ring brings everything with it,” Bloch makes his greatest claim: “The circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”

This admission of truth is his way of taking the “tigers leap” into the past.

And as Friedrich Holderlin has said (and Martin Heidegger reminds us in his famous essay on the “The Origin of the Work of Art”): “that which dwells near the origin departs.”

Or as Bloch tells us, utopia starts and will always end in the circus.