While writing on Franz Kafka, the Jewish-German thinker Walter Benjamin was interested in finding common ground between Jewish and non-Jewish comic characters. We see this project in his notes and in his essay on Kafka’s work. To be sure, the essay starts with a reflection on a Russian fool named Shuvalkin; but it also includes reflection on Jewish fools vis-à-vis the messianic. Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin understood them, may have some relation to the Messianic in the sense that, in their foolishness, they are the unredeemed figures of Exile. They are incomplete and are waiting, so to speak, to be redeemed from their sad state. What brings all of these characters together – in a state of exile – is not so much their pathetic character as a kind of innocence and blindness. This naïve state, for readers like Benjamin, gives us a sense of the best humanity has to offer in bad times. (For Benjamin, such naïve foolishness, and not the powers of reason, idealism, progress, humanism, or heroism, is what is best in man. After all, as Benjamin said to his friend and scholar Gershom Scholem, regarding Kafka, “only a fool can help.”) It is the small things – things that we often miss – which, for Benjamin, hold the most meaning and hope. And, in a world dominated by reason, humanism, and progress, it is the innocent loser who lives closest to the smallest things. It is this character who, strangely enough, is closest to redemption.
One would think that Robert Walser, a writer Kafka and Benjamin read lovingly, would appear in Walter Benjamin’s notes or on his essay on Kafka. But he doesn’t. I find this omission to be very odd. Reading Walser, I find all of the qualities that Benjamin found of interest in his essay on Kafka; namely, as I mentioned above, innocence, blindness, and the importance of small things. To be sure, Walser is the master of these elements.
Susan Sontag, in an essay and introduction to Walser, notes that Walser is “one of the most important writers of this century” and, referencing the often melancholic writer and playwright Samuel Beckett, calls him “a good humored sweet Beckett.” But the most important aspect of his writing, for Sontag, is found in the little things:
Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small – as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.
He was, like Melville’s Bartelby, a “non-doer.” But, as Sontag notes, for such a non-doer we wrote a lot. But what does an “acute feeling for the interminable” and being a “non-doer” amount to? For Sontag, it amounts to an “awareness of the creatureliness of life, of the fellowship of sadness.”
Reading this, and contrasting it to what Benjamin thought about Kafka and the messianic, I would suggest that we read what Sontag calls “an awareness of the creatureliness of life” and the “fellowship of the sadness” against the comic. To be sure, as I mentioned above, Sontag called Walser a “good humored Beckett” and suggests such a balance of the comic and the melancholic. But she drops in the end for melancholy. What I’d like to suggest is that Walser – from time to time – puts out characters that resonate with the Eastern European tradition of the schlemiel: they simpletons who pronounce the tension between hope and skepticism. And by doing so, they put the possibility of the messianic into quotation marks yet without extinguishing it. This doesn’t bring about melancholy so much as a wounded kind of hope that is invested in the simpleton. When reading Walser, I can’t help but hear these resonances.
The “Job Application,” a wonderful short piece by Walser, gives a good sense of what I mean by my current presumption. Walser’s story is about a young man who wants a job. But there is a problem. He doesn’t understand how one should “properly” write a job application. And this has much to do with his character which is humble and innocent.
In other words, he is unable to see and understand what sacrifices one must make when applying for and working in a 9 to 5 job. We see this in the first lines:
I am a poor, young, unemployed person in the business field, my name is Wenzel, I am seeking a suitable poison, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free.
The schlemiel has been dubbed by Hannah Arendt – vis-à-vis Heinrich Heine – as a “lord of dreams.” With this in mind, I can’t help but think of the schlemiel when I read Wenzel’s characterization of himself as “dreamy child” who wants a “small place in the shade.” Wenzel repeats the fact that he is a simpleton – much like the schlemiel – when he states how:
Large and difficult task I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-ranging sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I don’t like to strain my intelligence overmuch. I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp.
His simplicity is the last quality (the most meaningful one) he wants to outline in his “job application.” And what makes this feature most interesting is the fact that after stating it he believes that the business to which he is applying will, unlike the “world in which we live,” accept him:
My mind clear but refuses to grasp things that are many, or too many by far, shunning them. I am sincere and honest, and I am aware this signifies little in the world in which we live, so I shall be waiting…
He naively waits for them to accept him and it seems Wenzl believes that his honesty will win them over. But as in many a schlemiel story (such as I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool or Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son), honesty and trust do not win out although the characters, to the very end, believe they will.
Here we have a clear tension between hope and skepticism, which characterizes so many schlemiel stories; and, like them, it is the simpleton who pronounces this tension. His interest in the little things such as trust and humility are naïve, but they are, as Walter Benjamin would say, the only things that help. Ultimately, Benjamin clung to these simple things more than he clung to Marxism or the hope for a youth revolution (which, as I pointed out before in this blog, he wrote of in his review of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot).
In the end of the day, the schlemiel tries to get a job. But he does so for one simple reason: to show that what is at stake with the schlemiel is something the messianic. But instead of clinging to Marxist hope, the author – like Walter Benjamin – clings to the man-child, the schlemiel. Somehow, he believes that simplicity, honesty, and the lord of dreams – here, Wenzel – will win out in the end. Like Wenzel, he hopes that one day the employer will “hire” the “lord of dreams” as an employee.
This is obviously a foolish (and impossible) hope. But, finishing the line I mentioned above in reference to Walter Benjamin’s letter to Gershom Scholem, perhaps we can say that the fool may be the only one who can help; but the question is whether or not he can do humanity any good. This kind of question is the one that would be asked by Sancho Panza of Don Quixote. Benjamin’s letter teaches us that the same question could be asked on the eve of the Holocaust, but can we still ask it, today, after the Holocaust and countless horrors of the 20th century? Does it still ring true? Or are today’s readers of Walser devoid of any hope and united in what Sontag calls a “fellowship of sadness?”