A Note on Paul Celan’s Minor Language in “Conversation in the Mountains”


Although Celan’s “major” language was German (a language he was raised with and wrote his poetry in), Celan’s work was also influenced by “minor” languages.  The contrast between major and minor languages comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.    In the book, the proposal is made that we rethink the writing of authors who, like Kafka, live in a Milleu where more than one language is spoken.  And this background enables (and enabled) authors to “deterritorialize” and “reteritorialize” the major language (in the case of Kafka and Celan, German).  To be sure, both Kafka and Celan lived on the fringe of the German empire.  And both of them played around with different German dialects and styles in their work; this had the advantage of introducing nuance into the major language.

But there is more to the story.  Deleuze and Guitarri are not simply interested in what it means to write as a bilingual author.  They are also interested in looking at the textual alterations of Kafka (and other writers) in terms of new combinations, relations, and speeds, that these writers introduce (what they call the “machinic”).  In other words, they’re writing affects the way the major language speaks by altering textual rhythms and relations.

This is what I see and hear in Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” (although it can be heard throughout his poetry but not in such a pronounced manner as in this text).  The way this alteration is effected in that text is by way of the repetitive “babbling” and “shrugging” of the schlemiels Klein and Gross.  Their conversation introduces a speed that is alien to the German way of conversation.  But, unlike Felstiner (whose reading I discussed in my last blog entry) I would say that this alteration has a positive valance.  For Celan, it’s strange rhythm opens up a new way for Celan to relate to German, himself, the other, and Jewishness.

After the Holocaust, Celan seeks out a new relationship which takes into account what has been lost and what must survive.  But unlike many of his other texts, this one is explicitly comic and was not to be repeated again.  Its style is singular.  And for that reason it is more powerful.  Unlike other writers, performers, and actors, Celan didn’t make the style and rhythms in “Conversation in the Mountains” his “schtick.”

Nonetheless, it stands as a unique moment in his work which calls on his readers to seriously consider how this text was, for him, a milestone.   It helped him to deterritorialize and reterritorialize Mausheln (Yiddish dialect German) and German.  And he did this in a conversation between two schlemiels, on the one hand, and a minor and a major language, on the other.

I’ll end this entry with the first meeting of schlemiels (what Kakfa in “Excursion in the Mountains” called the meeting of “nobodies”) that “Conversation in the Mountains” records.  When Klein meets Gross, there is silence, but as I will show in the next entry, this doesn’t last long:

And who do you think came to meet him?  His cousin came to meet him, his first cousin, a quarter of a Jew’s life older, tall he came, came, he too, in a shadow, borrowed of course – because I ask you and ask you, how could he come with his own when God made him a Jew – came, tall, came to meet the other, Gross approached Klein, and Klein, the Jew, silenced his stick before the stick of the Jew Gross.

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part II


I ended the last blog entry by drawing a limit or threshold between Kafka’s conversation and Nietzsche’s singing.   To be sure, Kafka, at the end of his piece, wonders why his group of nobodies isn’t singing.  Their conversation in the mountains is “free” like the winds but it doesn’t break into song, while Nietzsche’s speech fuses with the “wind” and becomes song.  It is joyous song and approximates Zarathustra’s laughter in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – a laughter that laughs at – and elevates itself beyond – all suffering and tragedy “real or imagined.”

Kafka, however, sticks close to conversation and can’t take the leap because, as I suggested, Kafka’s comedy, the comedy of the schlemiel evinces a sad kind of laugther.  And, unlike Nietzsche, whose lover and companion is the wind, Kafka envisions several “nobodies” (several schlemiels) as companions.

The interesting thing about Kafka’s excursion in the mountains is that the speaker “envisions” his meeting with these schlemiels.  He doesn’t actually have such a meeting.  Taking on, so to speak, the schlemiel tradition from Kafka, Paul Celan – who translated Kafka’s “Excursion into the Mountains” into Romanian – has this conversation in his prose piece “Conversation in the Mountains.”

John Felstiner, in his book Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, suggests that Paul Celan may have been inspired by Kafka’s piece.  But he also suggests a few other “influences.”  I’d like to follow up all of his suggestions because, of them, Felstener follows only one thread which deals solely with the type of language used in this conversation.   And it is this reading which is in need of critique.

For Felstener, the way the Jews speak in Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” is thought of as evincing a kind of falleness and shame which eschews the comic in the name of the tragic.   While it is important to mention the possibility that Celan thought of a certain way of speaking as “fallen” and shameful, the fact of that matter is that this displaces the comic aspect of the conversation and misses the schlemiel that is at the core of it.

Before I address this reading, I’d like to lay out the influences brought together by Felstiner.  They are suggestive and can help us to understand his reading.

To begin with, Celan dedicated the text to a missed encounter with the thinker Theodor Adorno.  After reading Adorno’s Notes on Literature, Celan wanted to meet him.  But, as Felstener notes, Celan thought he was addressing Adorno as a Jew in the story (by the name of “Gross” – big – while Celan played the other Jew, “Klein” – small.  Upon hearing this, Adorno noted he was not Jewish; he had changed his name from his father’s Jewish name to his mother’s name.  And he was raised as a Catholic, not as a Jew.  Instead, Adorno suggested the Jew Celan was looking for was Gershom Scholem.   The point made by Felstener, which is his basic theme, is that Celan, when he originally wrote the piece, believed that since Adonro was a Jew, he would understand the character’s way of talking; namely, the Yiddish dialect.  (We will return to this below.)

Another influence may have been the bastardization of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (overman) by the Nazis.  He correctly notes that Celan wrote “Conversation in the Mountains” in Sils Maria where Nietzsche wrote must of his work (including the poem I cited in the last blog entry).  As evidence, he points out that Celan inscribed a copy of his story: “In memory of Sils Maria and Friedrich Nietzsche, who – as you know – wanted to have anti-Semites shot”(140)  Although he points this out, he takes it no further.

But was Celan looking to redeem the overman, as Felstiner suggests?  Do we see an overman in “Conversation in the Mountains?”  To the contrary, following the contrast I put forth above and in the last blog entry, I would argue that there is nothing resembling the overman in not just Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” but in Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” as well.   In fact, while Celan may respect Nietzsche’s anti anti-Semitism, he didn’t respect his overman.  The schlemiels he features in “Conversation in the Mountains” are the anti-thesis of the overman.  They are humble, comic, and their talk is not that of song.  Without a doubt, their speech doesn’t transcend suffering and tragedy as the laugh of Zarathustra does.  As I noted above and as I will note with Celan, it is speech that they share, not song.  Speech is the limit.

Another influence comes from Georg Buchner (1813-37).  Namely, his novella entitled Lenz.  According to Felstiner, the line that grabs Celan is “On the 20th of January Lenz went walking through the mountains.”  He gathers this from Celan’s “Meridian” speech where Celan notes that Lenz and his own “’little story’ with its ‘roundabout paths form thou to thou…paths on which language gets a voice, these are encounters.’”(140).

Building on the “thou” that he cites above, Felstiner brings in Martin Buber as another possible influence: “Above all, “Gesprach im Gebrig” owes to Martin Buber, whose philosophical writings and retellings of Hasidic tales Celan was reading during the late 1950s.”  Buber actually wrote a piece with a similar title: “Buber’s “Gesprach in den Bergen” (“Conversation in the Mountains,” 1913) expounds the I-thou encounter that concerned Celan”(140).

Felstiner goes on to say that the  “principles that underpin” Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” can be found in two lines he wrote on Buber’s I-Thou relation:

On his birthday in 1959, Celan bought a book about Buber and underscored his speech philosophy: “Creatures stand within the secret of Creation, of Speech…We can say thou, because thou is said to us.” And this: “Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou”(140).

The final influence Felstener names is the poet Osip Mandelshtam.  He notes that in Mandelshtam’s essay “On the Interlocutor,” Celan found the notion that poetry is the “search for an other and oneself”(141).  Citing, once again, the “Meridian” speech Felstener argues that Celan took Mandelshtam seriously since Celan says that, through language, he was “on the way” to himself.

The point of all of Felstiner’s notes on what may or may not have influenced Celan’s can be found in this last influence; namely, that Celan was looking to go through language “on the way” to himself.  And this is the point.  The language Celan wanted to go through, according to Felstiner, is Mausheln (the German Yiddish dialect that was thought, by cultured Germans and German Jews, to be shameful and, as the German word suggests, Mouselike).

In other words, by speaking in this manner, Celan was looking to leave it behind for real lanaguage.  To be sure, Felstiner likens the talk of the two main characters in “Conversation in the Mountains” to “babble” and says it is a “comedown’.  Citing Heidegger and Walter Benjamin’s words on pure language and inauthentic language (“everyday talk” as Heidegger says in Being and Time) Felstiner argues that Celan saw the two main characters as speaking inauthentically and in a “fallen” language (144-145):

The “babbling” of Celan’s Jews is a comedown – via the cataclysm that ruined Benjamin – from God Given speech.  This talk of theirs, its halting double back, dividing and divided against itself, like the self it speaks…Sometimes in the dialogue you catch the shrug behind it, elusive yet vital.  Celan said the “Gesprach” was “actually a Mauscheln” between him and Adorno – that is, a sort of jabber that Germans overhear between Jews, Mauscheln being an old slur coined from Moishe, Moses.

This elusive “shrug,” I would suggest, is the shrug of the schlemiel. For Felstiner, it has a negative valance.  To be sure, in the footnote to this passage Felstiner cites the work of Sander Gilman; namely, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews.  In this book, as in his book on Franz Kafka (Franz Kafka, The Jewish Patient), Gilman points out how Jews were ashamed of themselves and internalized hatred because of what the Germans regarded as their “secret language” (Yiddish).  The Yiddish dialect was, for many German Jews, a source of shame.  Taking this reading to heart, Felstiner argues that Celan was no different from many assimilated Jews who looked to eliminate all traces of Mausheln from their speech.  Therefore, for Felstiner, “Conversation in the Mountains,” is an attempt to move through Mausheln – a fallen language – to a pure language.

By making this reading, Felstiner gives Celan’s comic dialogue between two schlemiels a negative valence.  What I would like to suggest is that we read the comic dialogue in a less negative manner.  In fact, Celan, like Kafka, deeply identifies with this conversation not in the sense that he wants to leave it behind but in the sense that it is a way of relating to alterity.  Without this language, without this comic relationship between schlemiels, Jews would not know the limit (threshold) between conversation and song.

Why, after all, would Yiddish writers continually return to the schlemiel and his comic way of conversing? Did they do this because they despised Mausheln? What I would like to suggest is that, in a piece like “Conversation in the Mountains,” Celan didn’t despise his Yiddish roots as much as Felstiner would have us believe.

Fesltiner is correct to note that German was the preferred language in Romania.  And that it was Celan’s “mother tongue.”   However, Felstiner also notes that Celan knew Yiddish, Yiddish folklore, and humor as a child.  And notes that at one time he even defended Yiddish to classmates when they made fun of it saying that the classics were translated into Yiddish.  But, ultimately, Felstiner goes with the historical and cultural reading of the relationship of the German Jew to the Ostjude (Eastern European Jew) as informing the dialect play in Conversation.

Contrary to this, I’d suggest, as Julian Semilan and Sanda Agalidi do in the introduction to their translation to Paul Celan’s Romanian Poems that Celan looked to alter German with a “minor” language (for them his translation work in Romanian).  This, they claim, had some influence on his nuanced treatment of German.  And, most importantly, we should note that Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” was written after his stay in Romania following the Holocaust.

We can see from “Conversation in the Mountains,” that he respected and understood the foolish and wise ways of Yiddish folklore and that he used them to introduce a Jewish element into the German.  This comic play had a positive valance and puts an emphasis on Jewish particularity.  He had a sense of Yiddish ways of speaking and in “Conversation in the Mountains,” he spoke through them.  But he spoke not in order to transcend these ways but to, on the contrary, retain the limit between speech and song.  This limit is something that the schlemiel’s ways of speaking and gesturing marked.  The fact that speak and don’t sing, as in Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains,” marks this Jewish particularity which is acutely aware of suffering, history, and difference.

It is this kind of speech that lives on for Celan after the Holocaust.  It survives on the way to himself and the other.  It is not totally destroyed.  His way to himself and to the other, at least in “Conversation in the Mountains,” is by way of these two schlemiels: Klein and Gross.   In other words, the schlemiel and his ways of conversation are not things Celan wants to leave behind.  The schlemiel remains…speaking…of this…and of that….with a shrug that is, as Felstiner correctly notes “elusive and vital.”  But unlike Felstiner, I’d like to say that this “elusive and vital” shrug, this gesture, has a positive valence and works as much to preserve something Jewish while, at the same time, altering the German language.

(In the next blog entry, I will be making a close reading of Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” so as to show how it is a conversation of schlemiels – a conversation that carries on what Kafka had originally initiated in his “Excursion in the Mountains.”)

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part I


For Friedrich Nietzsche, the place to clear out one’s mind and find oneself or one’s calling (so to speak) is in the mountains.   In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the main figure, Zarathustra, goes into the mountains and has his epiphany.  In the mountains, Zarathustra takes on the serious task of becoming himself.  However, he also learns how to laugh.   And this laughter evinces a kind of superiority over all suffering.  As Nietzsche notes, “he who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”

Franz Kafka and Paul Celan have written of monologues and conversations in the mountains which, in contrast to Nietzsche, do not evince any form of superior laughter.  On the contrary, what we find in Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” (which Paul Celan translated into Romanian after the Holocaust) and in Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” (which echoes Kafka’s piece) is a comic experience that evokes a laughter that is by no means beyond “all tragedies, real or imaginary.”  To be sure, Kafka and Celan give us schlemiels in the mountains, not Nietzschean overmen.  And, unlike Nietzsche, they have a hard time being alone.  They call for or are with the other in ways that do not stand above suffering but in ways that share suffering and bear it, ever so slightly, by way of humor.

Franz Kafka’s short piece begins with the a self-deprecating voice screaming out for the other:

‘I DON’T KNOW,” I cried without being heard, “I don’t know.  If nobody comes, then nobody comes.  I’ve done nobody any harm, nobody’s done me any harm, but nobody will help me.”

After saying this, the voice utters something odd about a “pack of nobodies.”  He notes that he’d rather go on an “excursion in the mountains” with a bunch of “nobodies” (that is, a bunch of fools) than by himself (with Nobody):

A pack of nobodies. Yet that isn’t all true.  Only, that nobody helps me – a pack of nobodies would be rather fine, on the other hand, I’d love to go on an excursion – why not? – with a pack of nobodies.  Into the mountains, of course, where else? How these nobodies jostle each other, all these arms linked together, these numberless feet treading so close!

The voice wants to laugh with other nobodies.  His laughter is shared.  Kafka goes on to emphasize the comic nature of this endeavor by noting that “they are all in dress suits.”  In other words, the nobodies in the mountain are defying their context and they don’t care.  At this point, the voice of the piece decides that he is no longer separate from these nobodies.  He is one of them. He announces this by pronouncing the “we”:

We go so gaily, the wind blows through us and the gaps in our company. Our throats swell and are free in the mountains!  It’s a wonder that we don’t bust into song!

Reflecting on this, I can’t help but hear the desperation and suffering in this voice which imagines this shared excursion with fellow “nobodies.”  Nonetheless, just like any schlemiel, the voice is invisible or blind to itself.  It is the reader who can see this blind spot; nonetheless, the reader will also recognize that this absurd vision is fun.

Where it cracks the surface is with the last words; they indicate a distinction between speaking and singing.  The wind that “blows through us and the gaps in our company” is the wind of free conversation.  It’s not the tragic-comic kind of “idiot wind” that Bob Dylan makes reference to in the song of the same title.  Rather, it’s a wind that cannot elevate itself to song.

To be sure, this is an important element. Song would signify an elevation above suffering.  It would signify joy.  For the voice, it is “wonder we don’t burst into song!”  But, given the structure of the piece and given that the voice is that of a schlemiel, for the reader it should not be a wonder.

It isn’t a wonder because Kafka is sharing a joke with his readers in which the voice imagines he is together with a bunch of nobodies in the mountains who, after having free conversation blow (like wind) between them, will sing.  But we know better.

I would suggest that Kafka’s fools are Jewish fools.  And Jewish fools (more often than not) don’t sing; they talk.   The movement from conversation to song is barred from Jew insofar as that would suggest a movement beyond suffering, history, and uncertainty.

Contrary to this, Nietzsche has no problem moving from wind to song in the mountains.  In contrast to Kafka, the wind makes the song possible.  We see this at the culmination of his book, The Gay Science in a poem entitled “To the Mistral: A Dancing Song”

In Nietzsche’s poem, the poet embraces the “mistral wind”: “Mistral wind…how I love you when you roar! Were we two not generated/ in one womb, predestinated/ for one lot for evermore?”

At the end of the song, Nietzsche refers to himself and the wind as “free spirits” and exalts in their meeting: “Since I met you/ like a tempest roars my joy.”  And he wants to attest to this joy “forever.”

Kafka’s voice doesn’t do this.  Moreover, there isn’t any pathos in Kafka’s voice.  Its deflated by the solitude and his clearly framed imagining of himself and other nobodies.  Nietzsche, in contrast, can laugh but not at himself.  That would signify a kind of deplorable weakness.

To be sure, Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” denotes how, in the mountains, the “winds blow” between them and the nobodies freely converse.  This is the limit or threshold that a schlemiel cannot cross.  It is a limit that Nietzsche could not understand since, as I mentioned above, Zarathustra thought that joy and laughter could lift themselves above any tragedy “real or imagined.”  The (sad) laughter of the schlemiel, however, challenges this by hitting the limit between speech and song.

In the next blog entry, I will address how this limit finds its way into Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains.”

Who is ‘He’…Kafka or… Someone…Else? Maurice Blanchot and Paul Auster’s Childish Fascination with ‘Him’


When I first read Paul Auster’s “Pages for Kafka,” I was struck by the fact that, although he mentioned Kafka’s name in his title, he didn’t make any reference to Kafka’s name throughout the piece.  Instead, Auster refers to “he” and “him” repeatedly.

Here is one instance, which I cited in my last blog entry:

He is never going anywhere.  And yet he is always going.  Invisible to himself, he gives himself up to the drift of his own body, as if he could follow the trail of what refuses to lead him.

And then it occurred to me that the reason Auster was obsessed with “him” had a lot to do with an author and thinker he has, without a doubt, read: the celebrated French literary critic and thinker, Maurice Blanchot.  (I say, ‘without a doubt’ because Auster translated two of Maurice Blanchot’s novellas under the title Vicious Circles and he married Lydia Davis, a writer and well-known translator of Blanchot, the same year he wrote “Pages for Kafka.”)

Blanchot has written a few significant essays on Kafka.  But of all these essays, only one came to mind when thinking about Auster’s obsessive reference to ‘him’; namely, the essay entitled “Essential Solitude” (which appears in the Lydia Davis collection on Kafka).

In Blanchot’s essay, Kafka is mentioned in relation to what Blanchot calls the “interminable, the incessant” which he relates to the word, “he”:

Writing is the interminable, the incessant. The writer, it is said, gives up saying “I.”  Kafka remarks, with surprise, with enchantment, that he has entered into literature as soon as he can substitute “He” for “I.”

In the wake of this citation, Blanchot becomes what Harold Bloom would call a “strong poet.”  He does this by slightly revising what Kafka understands by this movement from the “I” to “He.”

This is true, but the transformation is much more profound.  The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing.  He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. 

In other words, Kafka, according to Blanchot, was so to speak blinded by the light of his “surprising” discovery.  Kafka thought he was discovering himself in “Him” when, in fact, he was literally discovering something altogether impersonal.

The more Blanchot talks about “Him,” the more Kafka comes across as a dupe who believes that language can help a writer to come to him or herself by stripping him or herself of his or her “I.”

In contrast to Kafka, writing, for Blanchot, is a way of making oneself into an “echo” by letting that which “cannot cease speaking”… speak.

To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking….I bring to this incessant speech the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence.  I make perceptible, by my silent mediation, the uninterrupted affirmation, the giant murmuring upon which language opens and thus becomes image, becomes imaginary, becomes a speaking depth, an indistinct plentitude which is empty.

In lines like these, one hears Martin Heidegger’s claim, in his essays on language, that “language speaks.”  One also hears what Blanchot will later call “the infinite conversation.”  Here, the “I” doesn’t speak.  He, the other, does.  But the I, the writer doesn’t totally dissolve.  Rather, he still “keeps the cutting edge, the violent swiftness of active time, of the instant.”

In other words, the I only has the instant, the “cutting edge,” which makes room for language to speak and “become image.”  What Blanchot means by language is something very serious.  There is no discovery and there is nothing humorous here.  The experience of language, in fact, denotes more or less what Levinas would call, in his earlier essays, an exposure to the il y a (the anonymous and terrifying “there is” of existence).

When this happens, the writer becomes other; the writer becomes “him”: “the third person is myself become no one…it is his not being himself.”  In other words, he is himself and other-than-himself.

This movement reminds me of Heidegger’s experience of the “nihilation of the Nothing” in his essay “What is Metaphysics.”  After articulating the experience of such nihiliation, Heidegger notes, with an ellipsis (…) that “one feels ill at ease.”  Not me but “someone.”

Blanchot “echoes” this passage from Heidegger’s essay:

When I am alone, I am not alone, but, in the present, I am already returning to myself in the form of Someone. Someone is there, where I am alone…Someone is what is still present when there is no one.  Where I am alone, I am not there; no one is there, but the impersonal is: the outside, as that which prevents, precedes, and dissolves the possibility of any personal relation.

But this is not the Nothing, it is, for Blanchot, the il y a, the endless “there is.”  Which he calls “the outside.”  To be sure, in this moment of otherness, the outside is with “me.” And it is one’s “intimacy” with the outside that creates restlessness and what Blanchot calls “fascination.”  Although Heidegger also writes on fascination in the second chapter of Being and Time and even though, as Christopher Fynsk argues in Heidegger: Thought and Historicity that this “fascination” is with Dasein’s “originary disappropriation,” Blanchot leaves Heidegger further behind with his new reading of fascination.  But, perhaps without knowing it, Blanchot returns back to Kafka.

Blanchot notes that fascination deals, specifically, with vision.  It “seizes sight and renders it interminable.” But this makes for a kind of light that is not simply terrifying; rather, “one sinks into” a light that is “both terrifying and tantalizing.”

Strangely enough, the experience that Blanchot uses to illustrate this is “our childhood”:

If our childhood fascinates us, this happens because childhood is the moment of fascination, is itself fascinated.

Blanchot notes that “perhaps” the “maternal figure” is fascinating because “she concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment.”  But it is only “because the child is fascinated that the mother is fascinating.” And in this fascination there is a misperception: “Whoever is fascinated doesn’t see, properly speaking, what he sees. Rather, it touches him in an immediate proximity.” And what touches the child is “the immense, faceless Someone.”

Blanchot is telling us that in letting “fascination rule language,” writers are like children.  By letting fascination rule, one “stays in touch, through language, in language, with the absolute milieu where the thing becomes image again.”  Fascination itself is an opening “onto that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.”

This suggests that writers are fascinated with the same things children are fascinated.  In effect, writers are men-children.  They are, in some ways, like schlemiels in the sense that they are without a world yet…in touch with “the thing become image again.”

Auster’s reference to Kafka in his “Pages for Kafka” as “him” and “he” is an attempt to bring out this childishness.  And, although it is serious, it is laughable.  His Kafka wanders toward a Paradise but gets distracted with things he sees along the way.  He sees what is close to him.  He looks down at his feet, walks oddly, and wanders all over.  However, he is on the road.  And this road is a road to paradise.  As I noted in the previous blog, Auster recognizes that this is foolish, but he affirms it anyway.  In other words, he, like Blanchot, affirms fascination. But Auster notes its comical aspect while Blanchot gets caught up in the childlike fascination of the child which, for some reason, he doesn’t see as comical.

But is the “he” Auster refers to a schlemiel?

While writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer put forth Schlemiels who are blind to the world and are, nonetheless, in touch with “things,” we know that they are schlemiels.  True, they are laughable because they can’t relate to the world.  Yet, on the other hand, the world is at fault for being… a world in which innocence and trust have no place.  And this turns readers against the world, not the schlemiel.

Nonetheless, Motl, Menachem Mendl, and Gimpel are all, as Auster says of Kafka, on the road to Paradise.  But, for Blanchot, fascination won’t lead one to Paradise so much as toward “that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.”  But, if that is true, then what of other people?  Aren’t they a part of the world? Aren’t Gimpel, Menachem Mendl, and Motl constantly moving towards people? And even though they may miss meeting up with them in the world, they, at the very least, try.  Although the world is in conflict with the schlemiel, we the readers would ultimately like the world to one day be in tune with this comic character’s goodness.  And that is the point.  Childhood fascination and absent mindedness are not the true ends of the schlemiel tale – a shared world of goodness is.

Given this understanding, I wonder what Auster or Blanchot would say to Paul Celan’s proposal in his prose piece “Conversation in the Mountains” – a story that parallels Auster’s story of the fool on the road.   In Celan’s story, however, there are, apparently, two people are on the road, not one.  And it is the dialogue between them that Celan stages.  This back-and-forth rhythm of conversation enunciates a kind of Jewishness that is singular and unique.  In this conversation we don’t see childish characters who are simply or only interested in things.  They also speak to each other.  They seek out a relationship to the world which, no matter how absent minded it is, is real.

Without this added element, it seems as if Blanchot and Auster move “him” toward a fascinating world that is fit for a child who has no friends save in things.  This man-child, in his “essential solitude,” would only have Someone (him) as a companion.   Someone who he lets speak.   Language alone doesn’t speak.  People do.

After all, no matter how lonely Kafka seemed, he ironically noted, in his Octavio Notebooks, that Don Quixote’s biggest problem was not his imagination; it was Sancho Panza.  It was the other person.  But these are the problems that Kafka, in a Yiddish way, kvetched about but loved.  Sancho Panza, like all friends, has a proper name.

Perhaps friends are less fascinating than things.  But, at the very least, we don’t “wander” on that road alone.  We have “someone” to share the journey with (regardless of how blind).  And this is what we find in Cervantes’ Don Quixote and in the Jewish Don Quixote: Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the Third.  Schlemiels try not to travel alone.  Their otherness is shared and Someone is always ‘there’….

Kafka, Seriously: Paul Auster’s Kafka


After reading and posting Matthue Roth’s guest post yesterday, I reflected on how seriously many writers, literary critics, and philosophers took Kafka.  I find it interesting that few can sense the irony and humor in his work. What they usually find is weight and despondency.  What I’m looking for in Kafka is much different.

I’m looking for the comical aspect of his work.  Like Walter Benjamin, I am looking where no one else looks.  And taking Kafka’s cues, I’m looking for the small things.  Its these small things that make for a nuanced schlemiel.   One need not go so deep.  One can stay on the surface.  But, strangely enough, staying on the surface is a serious endeavor.

The comic aspect of Kafka’s work may be found in the close attention to detail. One may not think this comic; but for Shalom Aleichem, Motl or Menachem Mendl’s attention to detail is the basis for their constant distraction.  The same can be said for Charlie Chaplin or any of the Three Stooges.

Like children, they forget what they are supposed to do and get caught in something else.  They don’t get caught up in the depths or with the seriousness of the sacred.  They play.

And this is what Matthue was pointing out in his post.  To be sure, his book My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs is for kids.  It is replete with accessible phrasing and illustrations to capture the imagination of children and adults (or man-children).

As I pointed out in my reading of Kafka’s “Temple” aphorism, the childish scribbles on the temple remain.  They are on the surface of the temple and reduce its depth.  Yet, at the same time, the children’s scribbles have made a serious joke out of the temple.

The trick, in Kafka, is to figure out how to retrain the tension between the serious and the comic.  By doing this, the reader will not get stumped in the seriousness of his or her solitude and despondence.

On this note, I recently read Paul Auster’s “Pages for Kafka” with great interest. The piece, written in 1974 (and published in The Art of Hunger), is an indication of how seriously one can take Kafka.  The short piece was written, like Walter Benjamin’s piece on Kafka, for the anniversary of Kafka’s death.  Due to the occasion, one would expect it, to some extent, to be serious and mournful.  Moreover, Auster is not known for writing comic novels.

On the one hand, Auster’s reading reflects an acute sense of despair that is based on a journey that never goes anywhere.  On the other hand, it has a comic ring to it since ‘he’ (that is, Kafka) is constantly getting distracted.  Even though the failures Auster enumerates in this piece seem to tilt the balance toward a serious and mournful approach to Kafka, they are ultimately based on Kafka’s ridiculous and impossible endeavor.

Auster begins his piece by describing Kafka’s main endeavor (which we find in the Octavio Notebooks or in a piece like “Before the Law”): “He wanders toward paradise.”

This wandering is endemic for Auster.  He meditates on it in the whole piece and relates it to one of his favorite themes (in many of his books): the travelogue.

Auster notes that Kafka “moves from one place to another, and dreams of stopping”(23).   But he can’t stop because this “desire to stop” haunts him. This makes no sense.  How could a desire to do something keep one from doing it?  Isn’t he haunted, rather, by the goal, paradise?  Auster explains by simply reiterating: “He wanders.  That is to say: without the slightest hope of ever going anywhere.”

If that is the case, then why is he still walking?  And what would a schlemiel be if he had no hope of going anywhere?  Gimpel, for instance, is the embodiment of hope.  That’s why he continually trusts people while being betrayed by them.   And, as we learn at the end of Singer’s tale, he keeps on wandering.

I’d like to suggest that we read Auster against Kafka (or “him”).  The narrator is making his skeptical observations of “him” – the fool on the road to paradise named Kafka.  By reading Auster this way, we can see just how comic this piece really is.

For the narrator, the central paradox can be found in Kafka’s inertia and its relationship to wandering: “He is never going anywhere.  And yet he is always going.”  The reason for this, says Auster, has to do with the fact that Kafka is “invisible to himself.”  Lest we not forget, this is one of the most important aspects of the schlemiel.  S/he doesn’t know what s/he is doing.  Although they are hopeful, his/her actions don’t fit with reality.  Auster tells us that, in being invisible  to himself, Kafka “gives himself up to the drift of his body, as if he could follow the trail of what refuses him.”

In other words, Auster is willing to concede that Kafka, like Don Quixote, is a blind wanderer.  Even though he doesn’t know where he is going and is blind to it, his “blindness…invents the road he has taken.”  This invention is not “intentional”; it is, rather, based on giving in to what Kafka, in his Octavio Notebooks, called the “indestructible.”  Because he is a skeptical narrator, Auster won’t call it faith or passion.  Rather, for Auster, it is a surrender to “the drift of his body.”    And we can have no doubt that this can be comical and even inspiring – although it is “misguided” and although we “know” he’ll never reach paradise.

Here Auster notes the “existential” nature of this “road.”  Even though it is misguided, it is “his road, his alone.”  And the further along he goes on it, the more he “doubts.”  His breaths become “fitful.”   No one “rhythm” or “pace” can be held because of this ever-increasing doubt.  The image is kind of like Chaplin’s going down a road, but with a difference.  This movement is more fitful and less graceful.

Auster adds another element to Kafka’s walk; namely, his past and his point of departure.  Auster notes, with melancholy, that he leaves it behind and thinks he has a vantage point, but he doesn’t.

His only “law” is that “he remains.” And instead of looking to the future, Auster tells us that he looks down:

All this conspires against him, so that each moment, even as he continues on his way, he feels he must turn his eyes from the distance that lies before him, like a lure, to the movement of his feet, appearing and disappearing below him (24).

In other words, the fool will look at what’s near him and get caught up in it.  That’s where he foolishly “remains.”  He’s caught up in the details and, as Auster puts it, he becomes an “intimate of all that is near.”

But unlike the playful Motl or Menachem Mendl of Shalom Aleichem, he gets too caught up in detail and this attachment weakens “him”:

Whatever he can touch, he lingers over, examines, describes with a patience that at each moment exhausts him, overwhelms him, so that even as he goes on, he calls this going into question, and questions each step he is about to take (25).

This is the Kafka-schlemiel trap.  He can’t move because he is too attached to what is near him.  He gets caught up in it and questions about where to go after he has encountered this or that detail.  Auster sums this up with an adage of sorts: “He who lives for an encounter with the unseen becomes an instrument of the seen.”  He becomes a “spokesman of its surfaces.” But that is not what “he” wants.  He wants to go to paradise but, Auster tells us, Kafka gets caught up on the way with the road.  In other words, he’s a schlemiel like Mendl Mocher Sforim’s schlemiels The Wanderings of Benjamin III who can’t arrive at their destination.

After noting “his” being stuck on the surface, Auster repeats the message: “He wanders.”  And then he states Kafka’s other law.  He doesn’t simply remain “where he is” he also has an ethos:

Whatever is given to him, he will refuse. Whatever is spread before him, he will turn his back on.  He will refuse, the better to hunger for what he has denied himself. For to enter the promised land is to despair of ever coming near it.

This is Auster’s law.  It is the law of hunger.  And it keeps him moving and not moving.  It keeps him hungering for fragments.  For, between one shadow or one fragment and another, says Auster, there is light.

What this amounts to is a serious endeavor that clings to and rejects revelation.  Yet, on the other hand, it is a comic endeavor.  But who is “he.”  Kafka? Auster?

In the end, he, whoever he is, is like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote.  The narrator’s description ends with a note of redemption in the sense that he says that between one shadow and another there is light.  But does he think this or does the narrator?

Who would take such a foolish path?  Is the author dreaming of light between this or that thing or is the he, the schlemiel, dreaming this?

A rationalist would reject such a road, but the writer doesn’t.  For Auster, the poet must trust experience even if it is, at times, deceptive.  This is what the schlemiel teaches us. Although we, the readers, may see that paradise is not to be found, the road to experience paves the way (or as Auster says, “invents” the way).  And it brings the world near to us in the most comic fashion.  As the world approaches, Paradise withdraws but the schlemiel insists that the way to paradise is through the world.  And this is the comic conceit.

He actually thinks that in this or that fragment, this or that thing, redemption is near.  While we all “know” its ridiculous, however, we still foolishly follow “him” (like children who should ‘know better’) in his journey   And so does Auster.

Seriously.  I’m not joking.

Guest Post by Author Matthue Roth: “How to Analyze Kafka (Hint: It Helps if You’re 4 yrs Old)”

It’s either a huge compliment or a huge mistake to be invited so kindly to write a piece for this blog — and, more particularly, this series. Diving at the heart of what Kafka has to offer the universe is a noble pursuit, and the idea that I turned some of his stories into a picture book for kids either fits in perfectly or is way out of its depth.
Earlier this week, on this blog’s fabulous series of Kafka-related pieces, the Schlemiel wrote that “Kafka and Benjamin direct us to a more acute sense of the ‘how’ of their work rather than the ‘what.'” When you read Kafka, whether you’re an academic or not, and whether you’re a kid or not, it’s pretty impossible not to look for deeper themes and connections, some meaning beyond the apparent text and, well, thestory of the story. At some point in every Kafka piece, there’s a moment where you pull back* and realize that maybe there are deeper things going on than just the plot, the characters, the events in motion. Is Gregor Samsa a disgrace to his family because he’s a giant vermin, or because he’s a hopelessly single middle-manager? Are The Castle’s K. and The Trial’s Josef merely physically lost, or is there a deeper existential lost-ness?
We’ve been conditioned not to ask these questions, not because they’re obvious (although they certainly are) but because the nature of the question disspells everything we’ve been taught to believe in about stories. Stories are spells, and in them the interior and exterior are fused together, from the sublime to the ridiculous; it’s taken for granted in what we think of today as “serious” literature, but it’s no less true in popular literature. In Twilight, Bella is drawn to a dark, sulking guy because he makes his solitude and broodiness into something supernatural and magical, something she wishes it would be for herself (spoiler: it happens! She becomes a vampire too). In Dan Brown’s books, “symbologist” Robert Langdon is solving literal puzzles and infiltrating secret orders, but he’s also ostensibly engaged in a quest for self-definition, simultaneously attempting to impress whatever vaguely international love interest pops up as well as the naysayers who are, essentially, always asking, what is a symbologist?
So now that I’ve offended basically everyone who’s ever liked Kafka by comparing him to two of the most vapid, flaccid characters in modern fiction (both of which I think are reasonably good books, taken at their own merits), let me dig the knife in a little deeper by suggesting that, if we’re going to set up some sort of objective comparison, Kafka’s stories are more fundamentally poppy than both. Part of what draws us to Kafka, I think, is that there’s no distinction between signifier and signified, barely a set of cultural constructs that we need to understand, barely any references beyond the words themselves. A lot of the time, all we need to understand Kafka’s writing is a rudimentary understanding of the language.
None of which is actually true. The qualities about which he writes, loneliness and isolation and the fundamental meaninglessness, or our inability to find meaning in our lives, are the very stuff that our lives our made of. The other day someone asked me about my My First Kafka book, and, when I explained, he said, “Kafka? You mean, the philosopher?” Maybe once you pare human experience down to a labelless blob of emotions and motivations, as Kafka does, you switch from stories to philosophy. Or maybe at heart all our greatest philosophy are just stories. And that’s why, in the end, kids understand them so much better than the rest of us.
* that is, if you’re me
(In addition to My First Kafka, Matthue Roth is the author of several works of fiction: Never Mind the Goldbergs, Yom Kippur A Go-Go, Candy in Action, Losers, and Automatic. Check out his blog for more:http://www.matthue.com/p/my-first-kafka.html)

“Don’t You Mind People Grinning in Your Face!” Son House, Kafka, and The Grin


In preparation for a series of blog entries that I will be doing on Walter Benjamin, Kafka, and Comic Gesture, I’ve been pursuing research on humorous gestures.  In yesterday’s post, for instance, I pointed out that Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin were both fascinated (and afflicted by) “childish” and “clumsy scribblings.”   The fact is that they both write about this gesture and consider it to be of the utmost importance.  But what does it mean that they admit to these gestures and “own up” to them?  Have they taken on a tradition which starts with Don Quixote or with a tradition that starts with the end of prophesy – as I have suggested in the past?

Bearing mention of these comic gestures, Kafka and Benjamin direct us to a more acute sense of the “how” of their work rather than the “what.”  Their reading of these “childish scribblings,” their identification with them, is instructive.  Teetering between the gestures of an adult and a child, gesturing like schlemiels, they show us a wholly other side of their work and expose us to a sense of comic historicity.

But it’s not just the singular gestures – the childish and clumsy scribblings that they write of and identify with –that I’m interested in.  I’m interested in how these comic gestures relate to or spur others and how they are shared.

What kinds of relationships do schlemiels create by virtue of their gestures; that is, by virtue of their clumsy childish scribblings?

In the last blog, I suggested that these scribblings are related to the temple (the Holy) on the one hand, and the future on the other.   In other words, although they are ruinous of the holy, they, at the same time, open up a circuit in relation to the future and another kind of otherness which comes to the fore in the wake of the sacred’s departure.  And here, I would add, it opens up, additionally, a circuit with other people.

How, in fact, does a comic gesture create a relationship to the future, otherness, and others?

One of the most interesting things I find about many of my favorite comedians is that they often don’t laugh or even smile at the audience.  They may spur laughter through their gestures, but they often don’t smile or grin.  The audience does.  They see all of us laughing for the better or the worse.  This gestural relationship is intriguing as it creates a community based on ridicule and difference.

The comedian wants to spur laughter; however, they don’t want to be laughed at.  Laughter, as it were, can create relief or pain.  And the difference between the two is prepositional: the difference between laughing “with” and laughing “at.”

However, today, some comedians want to be laughed “at” and to laugh “with” others “at” themselves.  This complex form of self-ridicule can be seen in comedians like Larry David, Louis CK, Marc Maron, and Andy Kaufmann, to name only a few. What makes these comedians unique is that they laugh at those who laugh at them while at the same time laughing at themselves.  They laugh “with” others, “at” themselves, and “at” the audience. The schlemiel, to be sure, is oftentimes laughed at.  But he or she doesn’t get it or, if he or she does, just moves on.  That’s the trick.

However, in reality, no one can just be laughed at and go on unscathed.  While researching gesture, I came across this video by Son House, the legendary Blues Musician and Preacher.  In this video, he gives solace to those who have been scathed by the quintessential comic gesture: the grin.

Son House’s advice, throughout the song, is not to “mind people grinning in your face.”  The way to get through people grinning “in” (or “at”) your face, sings Son House, is to turn to keep in mind that “a true friend is hard to find.  This implies that people you thought were your friends are really not.  The gesture of their betrayal is the “grin.”    True friends won’t grin at you.

Seen from the perspective of a schlemiel like Gimpel or Motl, what does this mean?  It would imply that they have no true friends.  But that doesn’t keep them from trusting people.  The comedy of the schlemiel is inherent in the fact that they still do trust people.  It is the viewer, however, who might have the problem.  The viewer is the one who might become cynical.   Unlike Gimpel, he or she knows what its like to be laughed at.

Son House’s song speaks to them.  It is a gestural response to being ridiculed.  It is a response to the grin.  The song actually addresses the wound a comic gesture may inflict on a person.  His song, in this sense, is “universal” in scope insofar as everyone – at some time in his or her life – has been laughed at by people he or she thought were friends.

So, on the one hand we have the schlemiel, whose comedy exposes us to a ridicule that he or she cannot recognize; on the other hand, we have the viewer who does recognize this ridicule.  On the one hand we have comedy; on the other hand, we have the comic blues. Both are sides of the same coin. And on the coin we find one thing: the grin.

Kafka noted the relationship of the grin to truth his December 11th entry in the his Third Octavio Notebook:

Our art is a way of being dazzled by truth: the light of the grotesquely grimacing retreating face is true, and nothing else.

For Kafka, the truth is not simply in the grinning face.  It is in the movement of the grimacing face; it can be found in the retreat of a “grotesquely grimacing (grinning) face.”  The fact that Kafka notes the retreat rather than the approach of the grimacing face is telling.  It indicates that Kafka sees truth in the wake of ridicule.

We hear this in Son House’s song.  He sings it to those who the grin has touched.  We also hear it both Kakfa and Benjamin’s mediations on the “scribblings of children” which embody the grotesque grin.  Kafka seems to be telling us that our truth, the truth of who we are, can be found in the withdrawal of ridicule.

This implies that the comedian who sees the audience grinning back at him or her has the best view of truth.   This relationship, I would aver, is not a once in a lifetime thing.  Kafka suggests that this gesture of comic withdrawal happens repeatedly.

This gesture has a lot in common with a childish scribble; however, the only difference is that a scribble remains inscribed while the grin comes and goes.  Nonetheless, perhaps like Derrida, we can imagine the scribble as a trace which, in its iterability, is caught up in endless repetition…constantly ridiculing the totality of the text in withdrawing the text from itself.  Perhaps the text, in this sense of being childish, comes and goes?

Regardless, Kafka understood that the relationship to the truth, which he associated with God, can only be related to comically…in the withdrawal of the grin or in the wake of “childish scribbles.”

On the other hand, a Preacher named Son House advises us “don’t mind people grinning in your face.”  The purpose of this line is to give solace to the believer who, in his or her search for God and justice, will have to face ridicule.  The question, for Son House, is what to think and how to cope with this ridicule.  The question, for Kafka, deals with the meaning of ridicule as it retreats and leaves us powerless and weak.

Nonetheless, both of them see truth in the withdrawing face of laughter (in the wake of laughter).  And perhaps this is a new, comic tradition, which emerges in the wake of God’s withdrawal or, as Kafka might say, in the wake of a withdrawing grin….

‘Clumsy Scribblings of Senseless Children’s Hands’: On Heidegger and Kafka’s Temples


One of the most “Greek” moments of Martin Heidegger’s celebrated essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” can be found in his description of the “temple work.”  Heidegger depicts the temple as “giving things their look” and “men their outlook.”  The temple “lets the god himself be present and thus is the god himself.”

The temple gathers everything together into itself and creates a “holy precinct”:

It is the temple work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. 

Besides being the ground for the “shape of destiny for human being,” Heidegger says that the temple is the condition for the possibility of a nation’s “return to itself” and the only basis for the “fulfillment of its vocation.”

The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people.  Only from and in this expanse does the nation first return to itself for the fulfillment of its vocation.

Through the temple, the earth becomes the earth, the sky the sky, the gods the gods, and, most importantly for Heidegger, a nation a nation.  Because it does all of this, the temple is the ultimate work of art.  It delineates, as Heidegger says, the holy from the unholy.

Kafka, in contrast to Heidegger, has a different story to tell about the temple.  In a parable entitled “The Building of the Temple,” Kafka depicts a temple whose holiness is tainted (or rather marked) by the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands.”  Before we look into the meaning of this kind of marking, we need to make a close reading of how Kafka depicts the temple as such.

Kafka begins his parable by talking about the builder of the Temple – the artist – who he depicts as a kind of magician.  The world literally goes to him as if it were waiting all its life to be “put to work” in the name of holiness.

Everything came to his aid during the construction work.  Foreign workers brought the marble blocks, trimmed and fitted to one another.  The stones rose and placed themselves according to the gauging motions of his fingers.  No building ever came into being as easily as did this temple – or rather, this temple came into being the way a temple should.

By saying that it came into being “the way a temple should,” Kafka’s narrator implies that temples should, in a Heideggarian sense, “come together” in the “temple work” and preserve the “truth.”  Heidegger would not disagree with this; although his description differs, he would agree with the spirit of Kafka’s initial description of the temple work.

Knowing full well that this description of the temple is too Greek and too Holy, Kafka ruins it by way of introducing “instruments…magnificent sharpness” and their “senseless scribblings.”

Except that, to wreak a spite or to desecrate or destroy it completely, instruments obviously of a magnificent sharpness had been used to scratch on every stone…for an eternity outlasting the temple, the clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands, or rather the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers.

Heidegger notes that sometimes the god’s leave the temple for historical reasons and what remains behind, quite simply, are ruins.  No holiness or unholiness remains.  But, for Kafka, what remains are the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands.”  The desecration of the temple by such scribblings remains.

But there are many questions that arise out of this parable which have yet to be answered.  Who used these instruments and why should their mark outlast the temple? Does this survival make the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands” more significant?

The fact of the matter is that, for Kafka, the only thing that remains of the temple are “childish” gestures – what he calls scribblings (which make us think of hands). And, as Walter Benjamin notes of Kafka, we should read his work by was of a close attention gesture.

Regarding gesture, we notice that in the first part of the parable the gesture of “his fingers” (their slight movement) is in harmony with the act of building the perfect temple.  These are gestures of a mature and responsible adult who is passionately committed to the holy.  One can imagine that such an artist would arduously be at work building Heidegger’s temple.

Thinking by way of gesture, Kafka understood that the greatest offense to the adult nature of the holy is the gesture of a child.  As he notes, the gesture of the child is “clumsy” and “senseless.”  To add to the contrast, Kafka notes that this gesture comes from their hands as opposed to “his” fingers.

The gesture of children’s clumsy hands finds an echo in Walter Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism which I have written many blogs on.  As I noted in these entries, Benjamin saw the image of himself in Goethe’s house (and it wouldn’t be off to call it a temple) ruined by childish writing.  He didn’t write his name; someone else did.  He didn’t bring his ruin on; someone else did.  Nonethless, he is marked by this “childish scribbling.”

To be sure, it is a child’s scribblings which, for both Benjamin and Kafka, ruins holiness.  For Benjamin, his discovery of this scribbling is the discovery of himself as a schlemiel.  His destiny is bound to this childish kind of writing and he is well aware of the fact that it clashes with the holiness of Goethe’s temple.  Kafka is also aware that this writing marks the temple and ruins it; he is aware that he is the one who must relay this message to us. Even though he is not the one who perpetrated the writing, he reports on it.  It is, so to speak, his awareness of the schlemiel and his ways that he reports.   The schlemiel – regardless of his good intent – has a way of ruining perfection.  The schlemiel’s actions (gestures) are clumsy and senseless scribblings.  And, in many novels and in Hasidic stories, perfection is ruined in the name of something to come.  Ruining the temple, the Greek one, is not simply an act of rebellion or ridicule.  It is preparatory and it opens up the most foolish thing of all: hope.

Citing Kafka’s aphorism, Maurice Blanchot – in his essay “Kafka and Literature” – ends his essay with the claim that “art is like the temple of which the Aphorisms speaks.”  Blanchot explains the meaning of this claim by likening art to a place of where opposites dwell together:

Art is the place of anxiety and complacency, of dissatisfaction and security.  It has a name: self-destruction, infinite disintegration.  And another name: happiness, eternity.    

The problem with Blanchot’s reading of the parable is that, like Heinz Politzer, it leaves out the comic aspect of this parable and prefers, instead, a generalization about opposites dwelling in the same place.  He prefers the paradox as such.

Rather than simply see the paradox, which is of course relevant, I’d suggest we see the children’s senseless scribbling as something that both Benjamin and Kafka thought of as standing in the way between themselves and holiness.  They both desire the holy, but, unlike Heidegger, they both understand that no matter what they do they will always slip into the childish gestures of the schlemiel.  They see themselves by way of this predicament and know that it will be an endless embarrassment.  Yet, as I mentioned above, they saw such ruination as opening to something other, something to come.

Heidegger, on the other hand, seems to believe that perfect temples could still be made and that the destiny of nations could be predicated by such a free-standing structure.   For Kafka and Benjamin, one can’t think of the temple without thinking of the schlemiel and his childish, senseless scribbling.

The schlemiel’s writing is written on the temple wall.  Kafka could see it.  Too bad Martin Heidegger and Albert Speer couldn’t….

Losing Time and One’s Way… but Finding Laughter: On Kafka’s “Give it Up!”


At the outset of his book Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Heinz Politzer cites a Kafka manuscript piece which Max Brod, in 1936, published under the title “Give it Up!”  Politzer points out that Kafka didn’t give it this title; Brod did.  In fact, Kafka called it “A Commentary.”    Politzer uses this parable as the best illustration of his claims that Kafka’s parables are paradoxical.   Politzer’s reading is very insightful.  It brings up aspects of the parable that touch on the ridiculous and simple character of the “I “(who he calls a “wanderer”).  This character, to be sure, approximates the schlemiel.

Although Politzer notes the “wanderer’s” ridiculous character, he moves on to entertain other possibilities.  I would like to suggest that instead of ranking this as one amongst many possibilities, it be marked as one of the most important: since the ridiculous nature of this character accentuates the central role of the foolish simpleton in Kafka’s work.   And this is something that has oftentimes been overlooked whether in the name of Maurice Blanchot’s reading of Kafka or Politzer’s (which focus on much more “serious” topics such as “paradox,” “the incessant,” and the “works demand”).  They would regard such elements as, to use Poltizer’s term, “juvenile.”   Seeking deeper meaning or a meaning that stresses ambiguity as such, they leave aside the simple, comic elements that inform many of Kafka’s parables.  But, at the very least, Politzer’s notes them.

Here’s the Kafka parable that Politzer addresses:

It was very early in the morning, the streets were clean and deserted, I was on my way to the railroad station.  As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was already much later that I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I was not very well acquainted with the town as yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way.  He smiled and said: ‘From me you want to learn the way? ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘since I cannot find it myself.’ ‘Give it up, give up,’ said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

Immediately after translating the parable from the German, Politzer notes several multivalent aspects.  First, he points out that this parable is a narrative and it states a “negative truth”: “It’s a narrative and a statement of truth, although a negative one.”  In addition, it provides “lyrical impressions” and “dramatic dialogue” which, in the end, are resolved by a “silent gesture” in the end.

Politzer, at this point, withholds the “negative truth” and, as for the gesture, what does it mean that Kafka, on the contrary, doesn’t associate it with silence so much as “someone who wants to be alone with his laughter?”

We’ll turn back to the “negative truth” in a moment; but before we do, I’d like to figure out why or how Kafka can conclude his parable with this gesture of turning away and laughter.  Strangely enough, although it is not his intention, Politzer’s description of the “wanderer” gives some clues.

Politzer notes that the character is “shy” and that his words are “monosyllabic.”  They are closer to English than they are to German.  In other words, Kafka is appealing to the talk of someone who is a country bumpkin of sorts, a simpleton.

Politzer points out that wanderer is ridiculed by the Shutzman (the policeman).  His role, according to Politzer, is to be two-faced and scandalous.  His role is to “protect the man from whom he seems to be waiting.”  And his smile takes on an “ominous” meaning “by the words which the policeman adds to it”; the smile is “false or ambiguous”(5).  If this is the case, then the information he gives him (even the command) is clearly deceptive.   Writing about the reader’s response, Politzer notes that

The discomfort that the change intends to convey arises in the reader only gradually.  Some time is needed to realize the strangeness of this information giver who answers a question with a counter-question: ‘From me you want to learn the way?’ (5)

Moreover, Politzer tells us that we can’t miss the “undertone of arrogance and indignation in the worlds of the policeman who puts himself first in his question.”

Politzer cites the German that is used to address the wanderer as proof that the policeman is scoffing at the wanderer.  He talks to him like a child: “He talks to him as one talks to an infant”(7).   In other words, he regards the wanderer as a man-child (a schlemiel).

And the basis of this, Politzer hints, is a negative attitude toward religion.  Noting the condescension of the policeman, Politzer translates the “it” of the words “Give it up!” in terms of the main characters “wanderings,” and his “haste.”  However, the policeman doesn’t speak from the position of patience since, Politzer tells us, he doesn’t invite the wanderer to take his time and “linger” in the city.

Politzer argues that “Give it up!” can be translated as a commandment for the wanderer to give up on the journey towards God:  “The policeman seems to be saying, ‘let all hope go, abandon the way and the desire to find it, give up your quest and your yearning, your very existence – yourself!’” (7).

Although the reader will catch on to this arrogant command which “infantilizes” the wanderer’s religious quest, Politzer argues that the reader will most likely take the side of the policeman: “The wanderer appears ludicrous to the reader, the official petty, pompous, and awe inspiring”(8).   However, Kafka doesn’t take sides.  He “doesn’t decide for any one of the conflicting points of view.  Instead he forces the reader to change continuously from one to another”(8).

Instead of hearing “Give it up!” as a command, Politzer suggests that we also hear it as a question.  He calls this ambiguity Kafka’s “evasiveness.”   Unfortunately, Politzer doesn’t look into the meaning of wandering between the two positions which would essentially mean moving between the schlemiel, who has lost his sense of time and endlessly wanders in search of the truth, as opposed to the policeman who sees such a search, with all of its religious overtones as “infantile” in a negative way.

Kafka is interested in both.  Is Kafka the wanderer, then?  Politzer argues that we may be “tempted” to say that he is; however, “the man in our story may be an image rather than a more or less true likeness of the author”(17).  He may only be a “code cipher” conveying “indecipherable messages.”

Regardless of such an esoteric reading, which eschews the biographical reading, both are possible.  In fact, Politzer argues that there is even more possible “background” to this story and even suggests that we take Eric Auerbach’s claim, in his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Liteature, seriously; namely, that there are two “styles” of writing: one Greek (founded in Homer) and the other the Jewish (Elohist of the Bible).  The latter makes all clear while the latter states details but leaves countless gaps or lacunae.  Kafka, he argues, is certainly influenced by the Elohist as his parables are “fraught with background” and lacunae.

However, the Jewish influence is not the only one; in fact, says, Polizer, it is in a tension with the view that finds no certainty in faith.  To be sure, Abraham was faithful but “Kafka’s man,” on the other hand,” consists of a darkness symbolizing the complete absence of such certainty”(19).

Given all of these paradoxes, Politzer notes that Kafka won’t say he rejects faith or affirms the opposite.  And that’s the point for Politzer.  The crux of the matter is that Kafka states problems.  And unlike the Biblical model, Politzer claims that Kafka gives “so many interpretations” that they “defy any and all.”  In other words, Kafka’s parables present and then efface the possible meaning of a paradox.  Its as if Politzer says that Kafka over-interpreted so as to destroy the meaning of interpretation.

I think that Politzer is on to something here that echoes what deconstruction would say twenty years after he wrote his book on Kafka.  But the problem with all this is that Politzer’s reading is too generalized.

In the process of making this claim, we miss the central problem which, in this parable, is not effaced by too many possible meanings. Rather, I’d suggest that the position of the ridiculed simpleton who is looking for truth is something very close to Kafka.  Politzer is correct in saying that we move back and forth between the positions but Kafka did this because he saw something deeply important about the schlemiel and his relationship with this character.

The interesting thing is that, as in much schlemiel literature, Kafka’s piece points out the bifurcation between the fool from the country who trusts everyone (even the police) and those who lie or scoff at him (like the policeman).  His laugh, at the end of the story, is a negative one.  Note that he laughs alone.  And to do this, he turns away.  He, so to speak, preaches a conversion (a turn) of sorts away from hope and wandering.  What we are left with is the option provided by modern society which comes across as ridicule.   In a negative sense, don’t be a schlemiel.  On other hand, Kafka is advising us that the schlemiel is not in the wrong.  When the schlemiel loses his sense of time and fears he may miss his encounter (perhaps with God or truth), these fears disclose something Kafka though of with regard to Abraham.

As with all of Kafka’s Abrahams, there is always something missing which keeps them from being, so to speak, “on time.”  Yet, at the same time, Kafka wonders: why would anyone want to be on time for a command that may, in fact, be misapprehended.  Why would anyone want to wander around for that?  Yet, and this is the point, people still do.

And this brings us back to Walter Benjamin’s insight that only a fool can help; however, his help may not do humanity any good.  Both thoughts illustrate how a reader may identify with the foolish wanderer, but, in the end, may think of him to be wasting his time.   Benjamin, like Kafka, simply pondered the point.  And he took on both positions.  He also had a hard time deciding. But he didn’t have too many interpretations.  Benjamin, before he died, understood that, in the midst of crisis, there were only two possibilities before him.

He wasn’t ready to play the role of Kafka’s policeman.  Not yet. Walter Benjamin couldn’t completely ridicule the fool.  And that is telling….

Post-mortem Schlemielkeit – American Style (A Personal Aside)


I missed my friend’s funeral.  But I did have time to meet up with my friends after the funeral at two different bars in my hometown in Upstate New York.  After teaching my summer course in Existentialism, Art, and Culture, I traveled in from Toronto.  As I drove down, I reflected on how my friend Aaron was a larger than life person; he was a cross between Chewbacca and an upstate New Yorker who liked to hunt, fish, drink, and play football.  His laugh was unique and unmistakable.  And his warm, large, and humble presence was unmistakably delightful to be around.  He was, as we say in Yiddish, a mensch who would always lend a helping hand.

His death was untimely; it took us all by surprise.  Being taken by surprise, we were all left absent minded.  In fact, one of things I couldn’t help but noticing is how we had, as Adam Kotsko says in his book Awkwardness, no norm that could help us to deal with his passing.

So, in the absence of any publicly known practice of mourning, what did we do?  What happens when religion is not a common bond?

Before leaving Toronto, I noticed that one of my friends, who was in attendance of the funeral I missed, declared on facebook that he was avowedly an atheist.  When I arrived at the after-party, I was surprised to hear that the father of my friend who died talked at great length to this person and at least fifty others (who didn’t have a strong religious orientation) about God.  He declared, openly, that we was “born again” and that they should be too.  He chastised them for being sinners.  Apparently, from what I was told, he said nothing about his son and everything about sin, Jesus, and his rebirth.  He did this for at least forty minutes.  And, following him, there were two Evangelicals who did much the same.  Shouting Jesus and salvation at everyone.

My friend who posted his atheism on facebook apparently had enough and, at the point of bursting, he confronted the father.  But before anything could break out, another friend intervened, took the microphone from the father, and spoke about our common friend.

When I arrived at the party, I heard all of this.  I spoke with many friends and, strangely enough, while I was talking at length with one of my friends, I wasn’t aware that the others had gone on to another bar to continue the after-party.  Once I noticed that everyone was gone, I looked up and saw that me, the friend I was talking with, and my friend’s father were the only people left at the bar (besides the bartender and a few locals).

When we got up to go, the father asked us to help him put the food from the funeral after-party into his car.  Although he claimed he hadn’t been drinking, he seemed to be very drunk.  I asked my friend if he was ok, and he told me that “that’s just the way the father is.”  I was astonished by his sheer absent-mindedness.  I felt as if he was performing a comedy routine or some kind of performance for all of us.  He would shuffle back and forth to the refrigerator, scream at it, ask us to get things, and then go back to his car which was blaring with Christian music.  He repeated this routine although we insisted everything was in his car.  Its as if he had to prolong some kind of performance for us.

I felt very awkward carrying food which he cooked but no one ate.  To be sure, he had cooked large pots of macaroni that were untouched.  Another friend of mine made sauce, but he missed the funeral and the after-party.  It was ‘as if’ the missed encounters found their emblem in a large amount of wasted food.

Everybody seemed to be missing their cues.  Since he was acting so much, I decided to play around with this situation. I wanted to test it out.  So I would say, in a loud voice, that this item was his and this wasn’t; the haggling over items lasted a while.  But I didn’t want to continue this game which seemed would go on ad infinitum.  I managed to slip out with my friend to the other bar.

At the bar, I was pulled to the side and asked by a friend if I have anything comparable in the Jewish tradition to being born again.  Then he told me that my friend’s father was more “crazy” than my own.  In truth, my father was known to have done some odd things in my small town.  News travels fast; and as a child I remember how these things caused me great pain and embarrassment.  Mentioning them reminded me of how I would feel estranged about my father’s “ridiculous” behavior.  It all came back now with these comments, but my other friend told me that this guy, basically, was a bigger schlemiel.  All of this took me by surprise.  Was I supposed to feel better about my father and my life and to think that I must be fine now that I know someone else is a bigger fool than my father was?

I didn’t know what to say.  Although he tried to make me feel better by thinking that this guy is worse, I felt great sympathy for my friend’s father when I saw, all of a sudden, the father show up at the bar.   He literally showed up in the midst of our conversation.

I watched the father go in the bar, I talked to him about Aaron, and he produced a few gestures that his son would make about a calendar, which he took out of us car to show us.  He told me that he wanted to give his son this calendar with scantily clad women in front of sports cars.  I couldn’t understand why or even how this would be on the mind of a father who has lost a son.  It didn’t make sense.  But, at the very least, it made him happy to think of what his son’s reaction to the calendar would be.

In the midst of my astonishment at these absent-minded comments, I was asked by a friend to go on stage and perform a tune with him.  My friend was familiar with a few tunes I have written and thought it would be a proper tribute to our friend.

After tuning up and readying myself to play, I announced that every song I was singing was dedicated to my friend.  While saying this, I thought to myself how transitory and arbitrary this tribute is.  But I cast aside this thought.  It had to be done.   I had no ritual to participate in save…doing what I enjoy doing in the name of a friend who has passed away in such an untimely manner.

The father sat and watched as I played, but I’m not sure if it reached him.  And I’m not sure what difference I made.

I felt as if I was in a bar with a bunch of people who had some connection to our friend who had died, but the eulogy, the party, and all else seemed to be ad hoc.  We had no norms to guide us.  We had no religion.  And though the father did, it was disconnected from us.  Something was profoundly wrong.

Regardless of this, my friend told me that our dead friend would be happy knowing that I played a tune for him at a bar.  That is what he would want.  A party not  a Eulogy about being born-again.

After hearing this, I looked around and it struck me that my whole town was taken surprise by a world that was stripped away from us by a bad economy.  The city I played in, Gloversville, New York, has the highest unemployment rate in New York State (25 %).  It used to be a great hub for the production and distribution of gloves and leather.  When I was growing up, I could smell leather in the streets.   Money was abundant; people were at work.  And as they say, the bars were packed after work.  There was happy hour every day.

But, before we knew it, that disappeared.  We were hit, taken by surprise.  We had no norm to guide is post-mortem and could not mourn our loss.

All of this was awkward.  And this after-party, the father, my song, all of it happened in the midst of a time and space that was awry.  It was a distinctly American awkwardness that followed in the wake of a lost American dream.  It infected everything in the town with questions upon questions such as:  What happened? What can we do now? How do we act?  How can we live in this world?  But these questions were all beneath the surface and, from to time, came up in conversation.

The problem, last night, was that any decisions made out of this awkwardness seemed, to my mind, to make no difference for things in general.  But, ultimately, my schlemielkeit (my public performance) meant something to a small group of friends while the schlemielkiet of others spun off into nothingness.  And that’s what I saw with the father.

As he drove off, alone, from the bar, I felt so sad knowing that his awkwardness was translated into something that made people ridicule him.  He drove off alone into the American night.  But he was not born-again.  It seems, from what I had seen and heard, that he was doing the same thing he always did.

In the end, after this death, we became living schlemiels and we all went home alone in an awkward absent-minded manner.  Even though we tried, there seemed to be no way to dispel this and become conscious.  In the face of his untimely passing, we had no norm.

However, after leaving the bar, I went to a friends house were me and a few friends played music, sang, and debriefed.  And, fortunately, I entered into a conversation where someone was asking the same questions I was.  And together we acknowledged that we were all schlemiels and we talked until the dawn about what this means for the future.  How would this effect our children?  What can we give them if we have no common norms?

And then it struck me.  Where did our parents go?  Where did my friend’s father go?  Off into the American night… And now, when I look around at myself and my friends, it strikes me that we all seem to be post-mortem schlemiels.  But, as Beckett might say, “I can’t go on, I must go on.”