Tendencies: A Note on Walter Benjamin, Immanent Critique, Magical Observation, and the Schlemiel


As anyone who reads my blog knows, I love (literary, film, and art) criticism.  And, in many ways, I feel as if, through criticism, I am disclosing something about this or that story that has never be touched on before.  And this thing that I am bringing out marks a direction or a tendency toward something transformational. Moreover, when I do critique I feel as if I take on the very tendency that I uncover in this or that book, story, film, etc. It’s not an act of indifference for me.   This implies that my schlemiel theory project takes on a tendencies that I feel have been overlooked in this or that reading of the schlemiel.  And not only is this a public, historical endeavor, it is also personal.  A major inspiration for this approach to the schlemiel comes from Walter Benjamin and his notion of “immanent critique.”

Unlike any Walter Benjamin scholar, John McCole, in his exceptional book Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition, looks into how Walter Benjamin understands tradition.  As a part of his investigation, McCole looks into Walter Benjamin’s reception of German Romanticism.  To this end, he provides the reader with a historical context to understand what German Romanticism looked to effectuate and what Benjamin drew from this movement.  But what makes McCole’s reflection so incisive is the fact that he suggests that, for Benjamin, the Romantic Movement had a lot in common with the Youth Movement.  Benjamin, as Gershom Scholem points out (and as we can see from Benjamin’s letters, essays, and notes from that period), was committed to this German Youth Movement.  But as Benjamin himself points out in his essay on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, this movement failed.  And this filled Benjamin with regret.  However, he managed, like Dostoevsky, to draw something out of the historical failure of the movement.  As I have noted in another blog entry, what he came out with was the wisdom of foolishness and a sense of how utopia can become self-destructive.   McCole points out that Benjamin referred to the Romantic Movement as a Youth Movement.  And like the movement, he saw it as a failure.   He saw this by way of criticism.

But this criticism was not merely a subjective reaction to failure.  McCole tells us that Benjamin’s notion of criticism draws more on Kant than on the German Romantics and that this orientation put “inherited standards of orientation” into question:

Criticism meant objective reflection on the universal characteristics of the cognizing subject, not license to pass arbitrary judgments from an unexamined standpoint.  Criticism did begin, however, by placing all inherited standards of orientation in question, rejecting dogmatic prescription of givens and absolutes whatsoever.  (85-86)

Benjamin well-knew that the German Romantic movement took its inspiration, in major part, from the French Revolution.  According to McCole, they “regarded the French Revolution as only the prelude…to a catastrophe that would bring an all-engulfing cultural transformation.” And “this expectation made them unable to accept any given, already perfected cannon of orientation”(86).  For this reason, they put “Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister alongside the French Revolution as the ‘greatest tendencies of the age’”(86).

McCole focuses in on the notion of a “tendency” since “the romantics stressed that they by no means offered perfected ideals but only pointers to the imperative of creating new norms and values.”  To be sure, he argues that not just the Romantics but Benjamin himself was interested in “tendencies” (or “pointers”) to this imperative.

To be sure, McCole suggests that Benjamin saw himself as drawing a “tendency” out of this failed movement.  He rescued this tendency from oblivion. And this rescue feeds into the reading of critique as something “positive.”  Critique created “real historical change”: “critique for the early romantics, was the indespensible counterpart to real historical change, not an alternative to it”(87).    In addition, critique looked to disclose the “metaphysical structure” found in the finite forms.  Hence, for Novalis, to “romanticize” means “to extrapolate from the particular, finite form, until its absolute, metaphysical structure revealed itself.”   One can argue that this what is meant by a tendency.  In contrast to an ideal, it is a metaphysical structure that lay dormant in things, a structre than can be used to initiate historical change and transformation.

McCole shows how Benjamin’s notion of “immanent critique” is aimed at finding such tendencies.  But these tendencies are not found in this or that historical period so much as in the artwork itself: “immanent criticism heeds the primacy of the aesthetics object’s own characteristics and properties”(89).  The artwork – if read critically – can show us a tendency that can, in fact, lead the way to historical change since the artwork’s “immanent structure” provides a “corrective of all subjectivity”(90).  And this implies that it “refracts and reforms all extrinsic forms that pass through it.”

As McCole points out, “immanent criticism” is productive and positive since, in pointing out these tendencies, it produces a new set of possibilities for the artwork that are latent in it.   This suggests that, for Benjamin, the artwork is always incomplete:

Immanent criticism regards the artwork as essentially incomplete; it unfolds the work by making its potential qualities actual, its implicit features explicit.  The result is to “reflect” the work, in the sense that criticism rises the object to a higher level of clarity and explicitness. (90).

In Benjamin’s words, the “reflection is awakened.”  This is an act of romanticization since it transforms the tendency into a quasi-absolute that is, in itself, productive.  This act, necessarily, is based on finding things in the decayed and forgotten artwork which can, of themselves (once awakened), alter history. This, perhaps, is the work of art which is “awakened” by criticism.  In other words, Benjamin looks to awaken these “tendencies” in the work of art which “point to” the imperative of change.

Benjamin calls the observation of this awakening – caused by immanent criticism – “magic observation.” And, as McCole notes, this experience of observation is “interactive” – and, in addition to raising the critics consciousness, the observation can also be “incorporated” into the critic’s self.  This was much like Novalis for whom, “the true experimenter” is one who nature “reveals itself more perfectly” if and only if he harmonizes himself with what he observes through criticism.   In other words, through the critic who becomes one with his “magical observation” (prompted by immanent criticism), one can experience the tendency toward revolution.

This model works well with schlemiel theory.  Following Benjamin’s lead, I think “immanent criticism” is of great use since the schlemiel is a character which seems to have decayed.  Yet, as Benjamin knew, comic characters show us a tendency toward revolution.  By employing an immanent criticism to the schlemiel – in this or that novel, short story, play, or film – the critic can have a “magical observation” of sorts that can be witnessed by readers.

Perhaps this is saying too much, but there is a lot of truth to it.  A schlemiel theorist should show us a tendency to change.  But this can only be found by way of rescuing the schlemiel from oblivion.  And this is a major part of my project otherwise know as schlemiel theory.  I do believe that this rescue can have a positive historical effect.  But that all depends on how my project is witnessed by others and whether it taps into a historical possibility (or possibilities) that has (or have) been overlooked.   As one can imagine, I have hope, as did Benjamin, that the trash that I have found (in this case, schlemiel trash) may indicate a possibility or tendency that has been overlooked.  And like Benjamin, I understand that this “magical observation” is based on “awakening” this tendency by way of “immanent criticism.”

This “magical observation” of the schlemiel’s awakening is my risk; and it is the risk of schlemiel theory.

Vulnerability, Betrayal, Friendship: Robert Walser’s Fritz Kocher On Friendship


Since I was a little child, the meaning of friendship has always been on my mind.  Like many people, I was vulnerable and found that by being honest, trusting, and open to strangers I also invited people to take advantage of me.  But, regardless of the negativity I experienced when I was taken advantage of, I still sought for friends I could trust.

For this reason, literature which speaks to the experience of friendship has always been of great interest to me.  On this note, what I love about the Yiddish and Jewish-American tradition of the schlemiel and the work of Robert Walser – which has so much in common with this comic tradition – is the fact that the Yiddish schlemiel and Walser’s simpleton are both trusting.  Both are in search of friendship.   And, from both, we can learn a lot about the relationship of vulnerability and trust to friendship.

For instance, one of the things that has always fascinated me about the I.B. Singer’s Gimpel (who Ruth Wisse takes for a quintessential post-Holocaust schlemiel) is the fact that, though he is constantly lied to, he never stops trusting people.  In truth, Gimpel’s comedy can be found in his desire to make everyone his friend.  Gimpel, according to Wisse, acts “as if” good exists.  That good, I aver, is the trust that comes with true friendship.   It depends on the trust of the other and not just on the desire of the schlemiel-subject.

Since I.B. Singer doesn’t present Gimpel as awkward or vulnerable in any way, the reader is left to imagine what kind of process he goes through each time he meets another person.  By not doing this, one can only assume that Gimpel is either very good at ignoring the ways of people who lie, trick, and betray him or that he is painfully aware of this but goes on “as if” nothing has happened.

Robert Walser’s Fritz Kocher, the subject of his first novel, Fritz Kocher’s Essays provides us with an account of someone who goes through both of these above-mentioned options with regard to friendship.

As I pointed out in my last blog entry on Walser’s book, the best way to read Walser is “between the chapter headings.”  To this end, I presented a reading of the first three “essays” in the novel: “Man,” “Autumn,” and “The Fire.”  I’d like to build on these readings by initially linking “The Fire” essay to the essay entitled “Friendship.”   This will serve as the basis for my reading of the “Friendship” essay, which touches on vulnerability, trust, betrayal, and friendship.

To begin with, “The Fire” essay differs from the previous two essays because it has much more gravitas.  Kocher, a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years of age, is shocked by what he sees in the fire.  He is frightened by the disaster and the suffering of a mother and her child who are on the verge of death.  But, as I noted in my blog entry, this terror is thwarted by a “thin young man in shabby clothing” who comes out of nowhere, saves the mother and her child, and disappears “without a trace.”

The child is fascinated by this kind of heroism because it evinces a kind of humility that he emulates.  It also has a melancholic sense to it since the hero disappears.  The last lines suggest that Kocher saw someone he could trust: he wanted to meet him and befriend him.

I’d like to suggest that this desire finds its way into the next essay.  The first words of his essay articulate his desire for friendship as well as his belief that it is essential to being human:

What a precious flower friendship is. Without it, even the strongest man could not live long.  The heart needs a kindred, familiar heart, like a little clearing in the forest, a place to rest and lie down and chat.  We can never value our friend highly enough, if he is a true friend, and can never run away fast enough if he betrays our friendship.  (9-10)

The end of this reflection is telling: it speaks to the relationship between trust and friendship.  As Kocher thinks about “true friendship,” he also reflects on betrayal.  And this makes him sad:

O, there are false friends, whose only goal in life is to wound, to hurt, to destroy!

These words disclose the fact that Kocher is vulnerable and has – apparently -been hurt by people he took as friends but were, in fact, “false friends.”  Following this, Kocher briefly raves about how these people (10).  But after he raves, he confesses that he doesn’t “actually know any friends like that, but I have read about them in books, and what it says about them must be true since it is written in such a clear and heartfelt way”(10).

This suggests that Kocher wanted to make it seem “as if” he knew what betrayal was.  Like Gimpel, he acts as if he has never been lied to or betrayed.  However, his next words suggest that he may be lying about friendship to make it seem as if he has “true friends”:

I have one friend, but I cannot say his name.  It is enough that I am certain of him as mine, completely mine. (10)

He tells us that this certainty makes him “calm” and “happy.”  But does he really have “certainty” about his friend?  And is he really “calm?”  The words seem a little too much.   And the words that follow suggest that his “true” and only friend may be imagined:

My friend is surely thinking of me during this hour of class, as surely as I am thinking of him and mentioning him.  In his essay (on friendship) I am playing the leading role as much as he, the good fellow, is playing the lead role in mine. (10)

What he see happening in these lines is the fantasy of reciprocity: that because I think of him, he must, in the same way, be thinking of me.  This fantasy, this certainty, brings him calm and happiness.   However, the truth of the matter is that, as Emmanuel Levinas points out, relationships are not reciprocal or symmetrical; rather, they are assymetrical.  We cannot be “certain” of the friend.

With this in mind, we can hear desperation in Kocher’s voice when he speaks of the certainty of this relationship:

Oh, such clear communication, such a firm bond, such mutual understanding! I cannot begin to understand it, but I let it happen all the more calmly since it is good and I like it.

Like Gimpel, Kocher believes that friendship is good and that the good friend will reciprocate.  He, like Gimpel, cannot imagine betrayal (even though he experiences it).  However, this edifice shakes immediately after writing this since Kocher turns to the issue of betrayal as if it is not something he simply reads about in books:

There are many varieties of friendship, just as there are many varieties of betrayal.  You should not confuse one with another.  You should think it over.  There are some who want to cheat and deceive us, but they can’t, and others who want to stay true to us for all eternity but they have to betray us, half consciously, against their will.   Still others betray us just to show us that we were deceived when we thought they were our friends. (10)

This passage shows us that he is extremely vulnerable and knows betrayal, but he doesn’t want to believe in it.  At the very least, he acknowledges that these types of people leave us with “disappointment” and this is “troubling.”  But in an act of defiance, he focuses solely on a friend one can both “love and admire.”   And he suggests that this can only work, however, if the friend admires and respects him, too.  He than repeats, a few times, how he doesn’t want to be despised.  This, it seems, is what his desire of friendship must counteract (as if it is a reality hanging over his head).    And this puts a lot of weight on friendship because, without it, he feels he may be hated.

But his last word addresses the kind of person one must be if he or she is to have friends.  And this reflection speaks to the comic aspect that he and the schlemiel (Gimpel) share:

One more thing: Funny, silly people have a hard time making friends.  People don’t trust them.  And if they mock and criticize they don’t deserve to be trusted either. (11)

These final two sentences hint at two things.  First of all, as we can see from his essays, he is a funny and silly person.  And when he speaks of them, he is really speaking of himself.  Like Gimpel, who is not trusted and is constantly betrayed, he too is mocked.  To be sure, the last sentence gives it all away: “if they mock and criticize” (read, me) “they don’t deserve to be trusted either.”

In other words, we see something different here from what we see in I.B. Singer’s Gimpel.  In Singer’s story, we don’t hear comments like this coming from Gimpel.  It is left for the reader to wonder what he really feels about being laughed at.  Here, in contrast, Kocher alludes to his emotions and suggests that this world – the world that laughs at him in his innocence, his trust, and his good humor – is not worthy of being trusted.   That would suggest the most negative reality.  However, as we can see, he, like Gimpel, still continues to trust the world even though, as he alludes to us, he has a hard time trusting those who mock him.

This trust, I would suggest, is built into our asymmetrical relation to the other.  Yet, as Levinas would be first to admit, it comes with an acute awareness of persecution, uncertainty, and suffering.    The comic relation to the other, to my mind, provides us with an exceptional figure for this double consciousness (which we see at work in Franz Kocher’s essays).    We all act “as if” good exists yet knowing that when we leave ourselves open to friendship we may receive, in return, betrayal, persecution, and mockery.  That’s the risk that Kocher knows he must take but, ultimately, he wishes he could have a “true friend” who would always be there to reciprocate in kind.

A Note on Bernard Malamud’s Novel, A New Life


Since I am a hyphenated American-Jew, whenever I come across a Jewish-American novel – new or old –  I always wonder whether or not I will identify with the experiences of the characters.  What I have found – and as anyone who reads my blog can see – is that I identify with the schlemiel character.  But this is a general identification.  I often find that I am interested in some schlemiels more than others.   Some, for instance the schlemiels in the novels of Gary Shteyngart or Philip Roth, do not resonate as much as schlemiels in other novels.

The reasons for my attraction or repulsion do not have to do with the fact that I do or do not share traits or problems with the given character.  To be sure, I think I have found a standard that many people would likely agree with: schlemiels that are excessively caricatured are less meaningful than schlemiels that are less caricatured.  Indeed, the sign of a good-writer-on-the-schlemiel can be found in how they balance humor with seriousness in his or her stories or novels.     After all, schlemiels fail and failure is…a serious thing.   The art part comes in with regard to how one address failure.  If one does it right, the reader can come to the text with a sense that what they are reading is simultaneously comic, utterly serious, and worthy of his or her concern.  Unlike many writers who address the schlemiel, I am now finding that Bernard Malamud stands out in his treatment.  His work, though written for another era, speaks to me, even today.

I recently came across a used, 1961 edition of Bernard Malamud’s novel, A New Life.  On the back cover, I read something that I have never seen on any back cover: the mention of the word schlemiel.

In a New Life, Bernard Malamud has written a novel that is at once devastating satire on academia, a ribald comedy, an ironic commentary on East Coast Experience and West Coast innocence – and above all, a profoundly moving fable of redemption and rebirth, a Pilgrim’s Progress of an unforgettable holy schlemiel.

Like many blurbs on the backs of books, this one promises a lot of interesting contents.  Reading this for the first time, I wondered, most of all, how this book would be a “Pilgrim’s Progress of an unforgettable holy schlemiel.”  What made S. Levin, the main character of A New Life, a “holy schlemiel?”   How does one define a “holy schlemiel?”  Does he or she do things that are religious or is he or she an expression of holiness (yet in secular trappings)?    I also wanted to know how this holy schlemiel was “redeemed” and “reborn”?  Does that ever happen with a schlemiel if, as Ruth Wisse says, the schlemiel is more like an “existential condition” and less “situational?”

Another thing that concerned me was the question of how “ribald” a comedy it was.  Was S. Levin a caricature?   How much comedy did Malamud inject into the creation of the schlemiel?

With these questions in mind, I picked up the book and started reading.

The first thing I noticed, when I opened the book for the first time, was the epigram – a citation from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Lo, Levin leaping lightens in eyeblink Ireland’s western welkin!”

How, I wondered, would S. Levin “leap” and “lighten” – in an “eyeblink” – America’s (not Ireland’s) “western welkin”?  Welkin is Old English for sky or heavens.   The irony here is that in Malamud’s revision Levin is a Jew who, in migrating West from New York City, will somehow bring light to the dark American sky.  How could this be?  Would he do something redemptive?  Hopefully, by the end of the novel, I thought, I can answer this question.  After all, the notion that a schlemiel is redemptive is of great interest to me.   What is Malamud after?

In contrast to a redemptive figure, the narrator’s first words of the novel describe S. Levin in the most fallen manner:

S. Levin, formerly a drunkard, after a long and tiring transcontinental journey, got off the train at Marathon, Cascadia, toward evening of the last Sunday in August, 1950.  Bearded, fatigued lonely, Levin set down a valise and suitcase and looked around in a strange land for welcome. (7)

Levin is a schlemiel who wants to stop living a life of failure. To this end, he takes the Jewish wisdom of changing your place changes your “mazel” (luck) seriously.  He leaves for California (“a strange land”) to start a “new life.”  There, he will take up a job as a college professor of composition.

But there is a problem: although you can take a schlemiel out of New York, can you take the New York out of the schlemiel?  Can a schlemiel, by leaving New York for a new life, also leave the schlemiel behind?  Is it associated not just with a way of life but  also with a city where Jews lived en masse?

When he arrives, he is greeted by two characters who play a role in his fate: a teacher and his wife:

They stared at Levin – the man almost in alarm, the woman more mildly – and he gazed at them.  (7)

This initial gaze is telling since the gaze is not so much at the Jew (which is cloaked by the narrator) as at the stranger who is about to come into their life.  Malamud tells us that the man, who is “almost in alarm,” is energetic and has a “rich head of red hair.” Reading this, I cannot help but think of the Biblical figure of Esau – the brother of Jacob.   According to the Midrash, he has red hair all over his body. The Midrash suggests that this matches his essence: he is a hunter and more athletic than his intellectual and humble brother, Jacob.

What I love about this initial encounter is the fact that Malamud suggests that we think of the struggle between the schlemiel and a possible Esau as a struggle of epic, biblical proportions.  This gives the schlemiel a context with more gravitas and weight.

Nonetheless, as one can see from the first lines, S. Levin is a schlemiel be virtue of the fact that he has failure written into his very existence.  This failure receives some comic reflection but is still quite serious.  S. Levin, after all, really wants to live a “new life.”

How does Malamud balance out the weight and the comic lightness of the schlemiel?

…to be continued…..

Between the Chapter Headings: How to Read Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”


In an essay on Moses Maimonides entitled “The Literary Character of The Guide to the Perplexed,” Leo Strauss suggests that we read Maimonides as we would read a good novel: we should look for textual contradictions and read into the relationship of one “chapter heading” to another.  In other words, he believed that Maimonides was communicating secrets to Joseph – Maimonides student for whom he dedicates The Guide to the Perplexed  – by way of allusions.  There is a precedent for hinting at secrets in the Talmud. It points out that secrets regarding the Maaseh Merkavah (the “Work of the Chariot,” an allusion to Ezekiel’s famous chariot) and Maaseh Bereshit (the “Work of Creation”) should neither be communicated in public nor directly.  They are private teachings and they can only be alluded to in the teaching itself.

Reading Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays,” I cannot help but think of Strauss’s reading.  To be sure, Walser’s chapter headings are well-placed and are very suggestive of a secret that Walser wishes to communicate to his readers.  The secret he wishes to communicate is deeply entrenched in the space between childhood and adulthood and it is published in the wake of death.  To be sure, this space and post-mortem situation inform the framework through which these fictional “essays” are communicated: as I pointed out in a previous blog entry, these essays are written by a boy on the cusp of manhood and it is published in the wake of his death by someone who found them worthy of sharing.   And, as I noted, this framework suggests a tradition which is being passed from person to person by way of allusion.

In this blog entry, I’d like to briefly address the first three chapter headings – together with their contents.  I find compelling evidence in them that a secret is being alluded to, a secret that is to be found between the spaces of youth and adulthood.  Within these spaces, the question of what it means to be human is addressed in an esoteric manner.  But the esoteric is cloaked by way of the comic.

The first essay written by Fritz Kocher is entitled “Man.”  In this essay, Fritz Kocher draws up what he thinks man is or rather should be.  He notes a distinction between man and animal that goes back to Aristotle and the Bible but he finds a contradiction in it:

Man should stand above his fellow creature, the animal, in all things.  But even a foolish schoolboy can see people acting like irrational animals every day.  Drunkenness is as hideous as a picture: Why do people indulge in it?…Such cowardice is fitting for a thing as imperfect as Man. We are imperfect as everything. (4)

Following this, Kocher is distracted from the highness of man to what makes man so imperfect.  In the midst of his meditation, which surely makes him feel a sense of horror, he makes a promise not to become an animal: “I promise loud and clear: I want to be a steady, upright person”(4).

Taking on a moral tone, he states that he will “imitate” only great things.  But all of this collapses when he “blurbs”:

Secretly, I love art.  But it’s not a secret anymore, not since right now, because now I’ve been careless and blabbed it.  Let me be punished for that and made an example of.  What makes a noble way of thinking not want to freely admit itself? (4)

In this moment, we can see that Kocher has a conflict between being a “man” and being an “artist.”  He sees the latter as immoral and punishable, but he doesn’t agree with this valuation.  Since he doesn’t want to deal with this conflict, he changes subject and says that the one thing he fears most is “baseness.”  But, after saying this, he goes off on tangent that contradicts this claim: he says he wants to be famous, meet beautiful women, etc and be reckless.

For saying this, he says, right in the essay, that he will likely get an F for “writing like this” in an essay.  But he is ok with this since “every word comes from the heart.”  This, he says, is the most important thing about man: “if he wants to be human, he cannot do without it.”  The intelligence of the heart is the greatness of man.  However, after stating this, his thoughts turn to his fear of getting drunk and looking base.  And from there he turns to the importance of being industrious.  But, if we read properly, we can see that these concerns and everything in his essay is ancillary to being a person who has a heart.  And the secret of this person, it seems, is that he (Fritz Kocher) is an artist.

The next chapter/essay heading – and its contents – provide evidence for this supposition.   The essay – as the author readily admits – is poorly written.  He leaps from topic to topic.  But his distractions are telling:

I like Autumn….Soon the snow will be falling.  I love snow too, even if it’s not nice to wade around in it too long with cold wet feet.  But why else are there warm felt slippers and heated rooms for later?  Only the poor children tug at my heartstrings – I know they have no warm rooms in their houses.  How horrible it must be to sit around and freeze. I wouldn’t do any homework (5)

What we find in this passage is a mind that wanders from thing to thing; however, there is a pattern.  As one can see, he ends up thinking about things that pain him and then he moves on.   And when, later, he drifts into a meditation on Autumn colors, he muses on the possibility of someday becoming an artist (which as we learned above, was his secret desire).  But this reflection is different.   In this one, he is not so much romantically inclined with being an artist as disappointed with what kind of artist he would become.  He tells the reader that he will most likely fail at being an artist.  But he stops himself short of being depressed by noting that one shouldn’t worry about “something that hasn’t happened yet.”

After saying this, Kocher drifts into description of things he sees as sounds.  He muses on this and finds it fascinating.  The feeling of mixing the two, in fact, inspires him.  But after taking it to his limit, his rational self kicks in:

Green in midsummer is a many-voiced song with all the highest notes.  Is that true?  I don’t know if it’s right.  Well, the teacher will surely be so kind as to correct it. (6)

After thinking this, he starts thinking about how he can’t do math and how he would never want to be a businessman.  Instead of counting apples, he’d rather have an apple for a grade.

Perhaps Walser is suggesting that the artist is childish, full of heart, distracted, and self-conscious.   We can find these suggestions between the chapters/essays depicting “man” and “autumn.”  In contrast to the previous two essays, the next chapter/essay, entitled “The Fire,” is deadly serious and it lacks the distraction of the previous two.  Moreover, in contrast to the other two, this essay comes with an image of a fire eating up a building.

The chapter articulates a sense of wonder before the suffering and death of others.  Kocher is also fascinated by the fact that someone could risk their lives to save them.  The one who saves them is also the opposite of an adored hero; he is a non-descript man who pops out from the street: “a thin young man in shabby clothing”(9).  When he saves them and leaves a mother and child on the sidewalk, Kocher tells us that he “disappears without a trace.”

He isn’t an anti-hero so much as a hero who is barely visible.

How does this fire and this “thin young” hero who “disappears without a trace” relate to Kocher’s desire to be an artist?  Is Kocher an artist for remembering the fire and the person who saved the innocent from death?  Is he an artist for thinking of the poor children who don’t have a home or warm slippers?

These questions are to found in-between the chapter headings. And they suggest or allude to different answers.  By reading Robert Walser like Leo Strauss would read Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, we can see that Walser thinks there is wisdom to be found in the child’s reflections.  However, they may also be reflections of a distracted mind.  The best way to find out is, in a midrashic sense, figuring the relation between one chapter heading and another or between one distraction and another.

In the next blog entry I want to address why, in the wake of this fire and its depiction, Kocher turns to the theme of friendship.

Another Look at Georges Bataille’s Obsession With Childishness


After speaking about pride, power, and “striving to be the best,” George Bataille – in his book Inner Experience – basically gives up and surrenders to childishness.  As I have pointed out before, Bataille goes against the grain – as he usually does – and praises childhood as a form of redemption or “deliverance” from the game of being a “man”:

Childishness, knowing itself to be such, is deliverance.  (44)

However, here, Bataille tells us that if one takes childishness “seriously,” one will be “enmired.”   If one takes childhood seriously, one will turn it into one other habit: “dependent on childishness.”  Rather, the right attitude to take with childishness, which, lest we not forget “is deliverance,” is to “laugh at it.”  But if one has a “heavy heart,” one cannot.  And if one is able to laugh at it, “then ecstasy and madness are within reach.”

But isn’t such laughter a laughter of superiority; that is, the laughter of an adult who looks down at and laughs at childishness?

Anticipating this, Bataille argues that “childishness recognized as such” is the “glory, not the shame of man.”  In other words, even though one laughs at, Bataille suggests that such laughter is respectful!

However, Bataille wants to entertain another view on laughter; namely, the view of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who claims that “laughter degrades.”  If one takes this view, and Bataille doesn’t reject it, then “one reaches the depths of degradation.”  To be sure, Batialle also enjoys this shameful state.  And he argues that “nothing is more childish” since it discloses a kind of blindness to the “glory” of man found in childishness.  However, it seems as if Bataille embraces both: the glory of childishness and the blindness to that glory which is mired in degradation.  He wants both, or so it seems.

Bataille takes his final turn toward childishness by thinking of its limit: death.

How, wonders Bataille, do we see the human being in his last moments of life?  (This question is one that Leo Shestov entertains in his essay “Penultimate Words.” And, like Bataille, Shestov is interested in an approach that doesn’t take death with utmost seriousness as well as a position that does.).  To be sure, Bataille sees him or her as a child.

The most serious seem to me to be children, who don’t know they are children: they separate me from true children who know it and who laugh at being. (44)

In other words, the most serious at death are children who don’t know they are children (they have a blind spot).  And these people “separate me from true children who know it and who laugh at being.”  This claim is ironic because Bataille would have us believe that he can’t be one with “true children” who know and laugh in the face of death because there are people out there who don’t know they are children (when they are facing death)!

A child must know, he says, that the “serious exists.” This knowledge is the basis for true child’s laughter which is, as Bataille says, at the “extreme limit.” It is a knowing laughter, a laughter in the face of the “knowledge” that the “serious exists.”

Bataille’s exercise in meditating on childhood is fascinating because by telling himself that those who don’t know cut him off from “true children,” he is suggesting that their blindness prevents him from laughing while knowing that the serious exists.  In other words, the very thing that limits him most is the blindness people have in the face of death – the knowledge of this blindness, which is the blindness to their own childishness, is what irks him most and keeps him from completing his own exercise of laughing and becoming childish in the face of death.  It is his knowledge of the other’s blindness that keeps him from what he desires most deeply.  And, apparently, he can’t seem to get rid of it.  No matter how beautiful his formulation of childishness is, it cannot be enacted because these kinds of people and this kind of blindness exists.

What I find most striking about this formulation is the fact that Bataille is ultimately saying that his childish project is a failure because of the other who separates him from “true childishness.”  Because of the other’s blindness-to-childishness-in-the-face-of-death, his childish project fails.   Deliverance by way of childishness…fails.

How humiliating! It seems that Bataille will never be delivered from the process of becoming a man and perhaps that makes him, in some way, a schlemiel.

The Wisdom and Stupidity of the Child in Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays” – Take One


When people ask me if one can find any characters like the schlemiel in other traditions, I immediately think of Robert Walser.   Indeed, I can think of no better example of the schlemiel than in his fiction.   I can also think of no better person to write such fiction since he, too, was a schlemiel, a living schlemiel.  He dreamed big but, like a schlemiel, he was unable to keep jobs or make his literary dreams come true.  In the end, he was a bachelor schlemiel who lived his last days in a sanitarium.   To be sure, Kafka found much in common with Walser: he loved Walser’s way of writing and, like him, he died a bachelor and, in many ways, a schlemiel.

The first novel Walser wrote was entitled Fritz Kocher’s Essays.  It was published in 1904.   Daimon Searls – who translated the book for New York Review of Books press – points out that it “was a stroke of genius for Walser to launch himself at the reading public in the guise of an ‘impish schoolboy soliloquist’.”  Citing Christopher Middleton, he describes the narrator, Fritz Kocher as “a fictional fellow in an old-fashioned frame narrative, dead in his youth and leaving to posterity only a collection of schoolboy writing exercises.”   This, according to Searls, this plot “turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Walser’s unique energy, inventions, and oscillant ambiguities”(xv).

Unlike Searls, who uses a frame for reading this which is based on what Matin Heidegger would call an “equipmental” sense of the artwork, I would like to suggest that we see the Walser’s fiction not simply a vehicle for his creativity but as a performance of schlemielkeit (a way-of-being-schlemiel).  This performance brings one into a relationship with a character who resists school rules (law) – like Jerry Lewis – by being to submissive to them and, at the same time, admitting to his relation to the law.  He is and is not anti-nomian.  He doesn’t trash the law; he suspends it.  And the narrator does this by acting like a man-child, a schlemiel.  Walser does what many Yiddish writers – like Sholom Aleichem do – he plays the schlemiel in such a way that he lives in suspension between childhood and adulthood (between the world and worldlessness).

Since Walser’s book is presented as a book that has survived a child who died before he grew up, and since it is introduced by someone who has put it together and published it, we can say that, in the wake of the child’s death, this book is a fictional initiation into a literary tradition.  And the source of this tradition is a schlemiel by the name of Fritz Kocher: a child who speaks on adult things but died before he became an adult.  He is suspended in time like many of Aleichem’s schlemiels or I.B. Singer’s Gimpel who will go from village to village trusting people – in hope that one day people will stop lying to and playing tricks on him.

In the quasi introduction of Fritz Kocher’s Essays, the person who decided to save them and share them with the public tells us, immediately, that he is passing on this writing.  He tells of how difficult it was for him to get essays from Kocher’s mourning mother:

She was understandably very attached to these pages, which must have been a bittersweet reminder of her son.  Only after I promised to have the essays published unchanged, just as her little Fritz had written them, did she finally agree.  (3)

As one can see, the person who has saved the essays from oblivion is a very kind person.  And, for this reason, the reader may feel safe to “trust” him.  After telling us how the mother has agreed, he tells us about how these essays “may seem unboyish in many places, and all to boyish in others”(3).  This suggest that sometimes Fritz sounds like a boy and sometimes he sounds like a man: he oscillates between the two poles.

For this reason, we must read Kotcher’s essays with great care since, on the one hand, a “boy can speak words of great wisdom” but, on the other hand, he can also speak “words of great stupidity.”  But one cannot simply see stupidity (or childishness) in one part of the text and wisdom (or maturity) in another.  No.  Rather, they “practically” happen “at the same moment.”

This way of reading him suggests a kind of schlemiel moment – a schlemiel temporality if you will – wherein the reader doesn’t know if what s/he is seeing is wisdom or sheer stupidity.

The final words on Fritz Kocher – by the person who is publishing his work – deal with the fact that he, the “young, jolly laugher” was “destined to die young.”  Like the schlemiels of the first Yiddish novel – The Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim – who imagined they could see the world outside the Pale of Settlement but never left it’s boundaries – his eyes would never see “the wider world he so longed to reach”(3).

This is how Robert Walser introduces himself and a new tradition which has fascinating resonances with the Yiddish literary tradition of the schlemiel.

Last Words or Last Laughs? Leon Shestov on Death, Philosophy, and Sarcasm


Before death, what will our last words be?  This is a timeless question which many of the greatest minds have, throughout the centuries, pondered.   Plato is often cited for his meditation on death in his dialogue entitled “The Phaedo.”  Before his impending death, Socrates tells his followers that he is not afraid because he has renounced his body in the name of his immortal soul (nous).  He comes to this renunciation by way of knowledge and suggests that his knowledge (or intimation) of eternal things (ideas) proves his point; namely, that only an eternal thing (his soul) could know eternal things (ideas).   His love for these eternal things inspires him to renounce his body, which he associates with fear.   Socrates goes so far as to liken his last words to a swan song.  His death will release from his body and it brings him joy to know he will be reunited with the source of all wisdom.

Writing on Ibsen, Turganiev, Socrates, Spinoza, and Schopenhauer’s last words on death, Shestov calls their swan songs “senilia.”  And by doing so, he suggests that their last words are warped:

Ibsen and Turgeniev serve the same God as the swans, according to the Greek belief, the bright God of songs, Apollo.  And their last songs, their senilia, were better than all that had gone before.  In them is a bottomless depth awful to the eye, but how wonderful! There all things are different from what they are with us on the surface….There is a way of escape: there is a word which will destroy the enchantment.  I have already uttered it: senilia.  (108, Chekhov and Other Essays)

In yesterday’s blog entry, I noted that Nietzsche thought of Spinoza and Kant as dishonest and misleading by virtue of the fact that they want us to believe in ideas that are antithetical to life.   Nietzsche goes so far as to call their philosophy “hocus-pocus” and argues that it is unhealthy.  Laughing at them, Nietzsche frees himself up for life.

By sarcastically calling the last words of these philosophers “senilia,” Shestov seems to be saying the same thing as Nietzsche:

Turganev wished to call his Prose Poems by this name (senilia) – manifestations of sickness, infirmity, of old age. These are terrible; one must run away from these! (108)

Adding to this, Shestov says that “all men mistrust old age.”   But then he takes a turn that Nietzsche does not: “But what if all are mistaken?  What if senilia bring us nearer to the truth?  Perhaps the soothsaying birds of Apollo grieve in unearthly anguish for another existence; perhaps their fear is not of death but of life”(109).

This possibility haunts Shestov, but it doesn’t surrender himself to it wholly.  In other words, he wishes to entertain both Nietzsche and Socrates; both senilia and its sarcastic rejection.

But this is not his last word. Taking an interesting tactic, Shestov turns to the distinction between the ordinary man and the philosopher and notes something very interesting.   Philosophers, of course, often go against the grain of society which for them, doesn’t think.  After all, philosophy – for Plato – doesn’t happen in the cave of society; it happens outside the cave, in solitude.

Nonetheless, Shestov argues that while Plato and Spinoza were consistent in aligning their lives with their philosophies, there is a more interesting case to be made for the lives of the philosophers which differ from what is in their books.  He takes Schopenhauer as a case in point: “in life, like many another clever, independent man, he was guided by the most diverse considerations”(111).  Shestov, like Nietzsche, finds he has more in common with Schopenhauer than with Plato or Spinoza.  He is more interested in “freedom than in necessity.”

But for Shestov the “principles” of a philosopher are no greater than that of a the everyday man because “the room of the world is infinite, and will not only contain all those who lived once and those who are yet to be born, but will give to each one of them all that he can desire”(112).  Since there are a “plurality of worlds” and a “plurality of men” amongst these “vast spaces of the vast universe.”   This suggests a kind of relativism.

However, Shestov can’t settle for this.  To be sure, he thinks that, when all the chips are down, he can understand why a philosopher – like Spinoza – would turn to creating the perfect philosophical system.  Shestov calls such philosophizing “art for arts sake.”  He notes that even Naploeon turned to philosophy in his last hours.   What matters is the fact that he came to “philosophy with demands and would not rest until he had received satisfaction.”   In the end, this brings together what interests Shestov most: the relationship of self-renunciation to megalomania.  Napoleon’s turn to philosophy at the end of this life brings the two together.

Even so, Shestov finds the case of Heinrich Heine to be more interesting than Napoleon.  As I noted the other day, Shestov finds great insight in the fact that the German’s misunderstood Heine’s self-deprecating humor.  To be sure, Heine’s last words were not senilia; they didn’t bow down to philosophy when the chips were down.

Shestov tells us that his words, for the Germans, didn’t have the ring of “conviction.”  As proof, he brings a line from one of his poems which, it seems, has no interest in the soul:

I seek the body, the body, the young and tender body.  The soul you may bury deep in the ground – I myself have soul enough.  (128)

Commenting on this Shestov argues that “in it, as in all Heine’s daring and provocative poems, may be heard a sharp and nervous laugh, which must be understood as the expression of the divided soul, as a mockery of himself.”(123).  Heine, Shestov argues, was different from the King David whose psalms show us a man who, “when he believed, did not doubt.”    For this reason, they couldn’t understand this new kind of Jew whose piety was tainted by doubt.

Turning to Heine on his death bed, Shestov notes that, even then, Heine was sarcastic (his words didn’t, like Spinoza or Plato’s, become senilia): “His sarcasms every day became more ruthless, more poisonous, more refined”(125).  And “his thoughts of God, his attitude to God, were so original that serious people of the outer world could only shrug their shoulders. No one every spoke thus to God, either aloud or to himself”(125).

Instead of feeling fear and admiration before the thought of death, “Heine has neither prayer nor praise.  His poems are permeated with a charming and a gracious cynicism, peculiar and proper to himself alone”(125). And, according to Shestov, Heine, because of his sarcasm, “”remains as he was in youth.”  He doesn’t want bliss or heaven; rather, he just wants “God to give him back his health.”  This is the novelty.

Shestov paraphrases Heine’s words at death which sound like the words of a stand-up comedian: “He laughs at morality, at philosophy, at existing religions.  The wise men thing so, the wise men want to live in their own way; let them think, let them live.  But who gave them the right to demand obedience from me?  Can they have the power to compel me to obedience (to necessity)?”(127)

To be sure, Shestov’s reflections on Heine can also be applied to Nietzsche’s approach to death.  They laugh at the formulations made by philosophy and religion and sarcastically face their death; they don’t renounce themselves.   But even so, Shestov still entertains the possibility that Heine is wrong:

I am tempted to think that the metaphysical theories which preach self-renunciation, are by no means empty and idle…In them lies a deep, mystical meaning: in them is  hidden a great truth.  Their only mistake is to pretend to be absolute.  For some reason or other men have decided empirical truths are many but that metaphysical truth is one.  Metaphysical truths are also many, but them does not in the least prevent them from living in harmony one with another.  (128)

Given this reading, he doesn’t think the Germans should be annoyed with Heine.  His “sarcasms will not keep them from their lofty aspirations.”  His last words are comical but that’s the point – they are his.  He – and no one else – lives with them and will die with them.

Sarcasm, in other words, is not merely a matter of entertainment; for Shestov it is an existential decision.

A Note on Nietzsche’s Sarcasm: Stupid and Honest Mystics versus Dishonest and Foolish Philosophers


In the beginning of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that for Rabbi Nachman the Simpleton (that is, the schlemiel) acts “as if” good will triumph over evil.  In his story, “The Clever Man and the Simple Man,” the thinker looks down on the simpleton as an idiot for being so naïve.  The simpleton’s honesty and trust are the object of his ridicule.   In many ways, Rabbi Nachman suggests that the simpleton, like many wise men, is a mystic in disguise.  And for Rabbi Nachman, as well as for many Yiddish writers who followed in his wake, the schlemiel was a character whose simplicity and trust pose a challenge to the skepticism and deceit of a world that laughs at him.  But, in the end, it’s the schlemiel who has the last laugh.

I recently came across an aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche that contrasts philosophers to mystics.  The contrast is brief and Nietzsche spends far more time – as one can imagine – making fun of philosophers.  The resonance between Nietzsche and Rabbi Nachman, at least in this aphorism, gives food for thought.  But would Nietzsche act “as if” good would triumph over evil, or is his mystic “beyond good and evil” and beyond acting as if “good exists?”  Wouldn’t that be too….”stupid” for him?

Nietzsche starts his fifth aphorism by noting that “one regards philosophers half mistrustingly and half mockingly.” Why?  It isn’t simply because they are “innocent…fall into error and go stray, in short their childishness and childlikeness.”  Rather, it is because they “display insufficient honesty while making a mighty and virtuous noise as soon as the problem of trustfulness” is invoked.  In contrast, Nietzsche tells us that “mystics…are more honest and more stupid to them.”   In saying this, Nietzsche privileges honesty and stupidity over dishonesty and feigned intelligence.

By acting “as if” they are intelligent and high minded about truth, Nietzsche believes they make themselves laughable and dishonest.  Moreover, Nietzsche says they lack the courage to admit that they are acting.  Nonetheless, Nietzsche finds this funny.  He associates this lack of courage with “tartuffery.”   To illustrate, Nietzsche caricatures Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza’s acts of deception so as to make them laughable:

Kant…lures us along the dialectical bypaths which lead, more correctly mislead, to his ‘categorical imperative’ – this spectacle which makes us smile.

Nietzsche tells us that he smiles because he is more “noble” than Kant and can see his “tricks”: “We who are fastidious and find no little amusement in observing the subtle tricks of old moralists and moral-preachers.”

Turning to Spinoza, Nietzsche accuses the Jewish philosopher of making uses of the “hocus-pocus of mathematical form.”  Nietzsche puts Spinoza’s “love of wisdom” into scare quotes and sarcastically mimics the rhetoric that goes along with speaking “the truth.”   After exhausting this rhetoric, Nietzsche, sickened, calls out Kant and Spinoza for being sick, timid, and vulnerable:

How much personal timidity and vulnerability this masquerade of a sick recluse betrays!

In other words, Nietzsche sees their arguments in the name of morality as the product of sickness.  They act “as if” they are defending the truth and this act is, for Nietzsche, worthy of a laughter that looks to purge the sickness of the philosophy in the name of health.

But what does Nietzsche mean by health?  Is his health closer to that of the “honest” but “stupid” mystic?  Or is health equated with a kind of intelligence that refuses both the philosopher and the mystic?

To be sure, Nietzsche respects the honesty of the mystic more than the philosopher.  But he finds more of an identification with the fool than the mystic.  In her book Stupidity, Avital Ronell points out that Nietzsche “latches” on to the “buffo” (the Italian word for fool).  Writing on Paul DeMan (who, for her, seems to be a successor of Nietzsche) Ronell argues that “transcendental buffoonery rips the system; it is shown to be propelled by a truly transgressive force that is fueled no so much by a romantic abandon as by a will to rise above that which is limited…bound by law and convention”(136).  This anti-nomian kind of humor – which can certainly be said to be mystical – wears the mask of the buffo/fool which she calls the “crucial mask of ironic destruction.”

The buffo “disrupts narrative illusion.”

What I find so interesting in all of this is that, unlike the schlemiel, Nietzsche’s fool doesn’t act “as if” good exists.   He wouldn’t equate himself with a stupid but honest mystic or fool.  Rather, as we can hear in the aphorism, Nietzsche does act “as if” he is superior to all masks which posit the “as if.”

To be sure, schlemiels and mystics aren’t sarcastic.  This act, as Ronell suggests, is an intelligent act of “ironic self-destruction.”   There isn’t a relationship with the “as if” of goodness, as there is with the schlemiel.  Moreover, while the schlemiel is blind to the abyss, Nietzsche is not.  The schlemiel doesn’t laugh, Nietzsche does.  And this laughter, I would argue, is the laughter of a metaphysics which, through laughter, elevates the subject of laughter beyond the philosopher and the mystic.   It is, for Nietzsche, the most “honest” laugh of all because it is beyond good and evil.  But it isn’t stupid; it’s critical.

In contrast, the laugh that the schlemiel evokes is sad laughter.  It is not beyond good and evil so much as caught between them.  Being on the other side of history, Jews couldn’t afford to laugh in the way Nietzsche could.  And this is reflected in the schlemiel who, though committed to goodness, fails in a world that disregards the good.





The Schlemiel of Wall Street: A Review of Martin Scorsese’s Latest Film


When I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), I knew there would be comic elements.  But I had no idea that Martin Scorsese would draw on and reinterpret the schlemiel by way of the plot and main characters of this film.   To be sure, all of the critics of the film thus far have noted that this film is a quasi-critique of capitalism.  And, in the end, the tragic overshadows the comic.  That’s obvious.  But what’s more interesting is how Scorsese pulls it off; namely, by way of drawing the viewer in through a large doses of schlemiel comedy.  (And, let’s be clear here.  Scorcese is not recognized for the comic element in his films; on the contrary, his use of humor is rarely foregrounded as it is in this film.)

Indeed, it seems Scorsese has done his homework on the schlemiel and schlemiel comedy.  Perhaps he has done this through viewing the films of Woody Allen and Judd Apatow.   (Before I go into detail about how the schlemiel works in this film, I’d like to foreground the links to Woody Allen.)

Woody Allen, to be sure, is one of the greatest popularizers of the schlemiel in American film.  Films such as Bananas, Take the Money and Run, or Annie Hall – to name just a few – are prime examples.  Although their work differs in so many ways – and you would be hard put to find a schlemiel in a Scorsese film – Martin Scorsese’s interest in Woody Allen’s work is not a secret.

They directed the film New York Stories together and have known of each others work for decades. But they differ in many ways.  In this film, for instance, there are a few.  Here is a clip of Allen and Scorsese talking about their differing views of New York in New York Stories (Scorsese differentiates his view on New York, through the films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, to Allen’s, in Manhattan.)

In a telling interview-slash-hosted-discussion by The New York Times in 1997 entitled “The Two Hollywoods,” Lynn Hirshberg begins by noting that they “hardly know each other” but are “contemporaries.”  Her interview is great because it shows the dynamic between the two and, at least in the beginning, shows us their shared interest in comedy.

Near the end of the discussion, Allen and Scorsese reflect on the failed (schlemiel) moments in their comedy.  Scorsese notes that The King of Comedy, his big attempt at working through the comic genre, was adored by the critics but, at the same time, it was one of his biggest failures.  Allen, in contrast, notes that he would rather not pay attention to the success or failure of his films.  He notes that he diminishes his sense of failure by way of throwing himself into the film.

The theme and responses to failure in this discussion are interesting because Allen and Scorsese address the core of the schlemiel character and schlemiel comedy by way of their perspectives as filmmakers: failure.

But one of the most interesting moments in the discussion deals with the question of whether or not they like watching their films after they are made.  Scorsese says he cannot see his films ever again after they are made because he will get overly emotional while Allen says he has a hard time seeing his films because he will always think of them as not good enough and in need of improvement.

What I find so interesting about this reflection on past films is the fact that though Scorsese may not look at his films again he obviously thinks about how to improve upon his past film ventures.  On this note, I think his comment on The King of Comedy is telling.   As he notes, the film critics may have liked it (and this pleases him) but it failed at the box office.  This is where The Wolf of Wall Street comes to the fore.  To be sure, this film is the only other major film since The King of Comedy that utilizes the comic element in such a major way.

Now let’s turn to The Wolf of Wall Street and its uses of the schlemiel.

I’d like to start by way of definition.  Hannah Arendt, in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” notes, right off the bat, that “innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel.”  And that it is out of “such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born”(278, The Jewish Writings).    The schlemiel, for Arendt, is an outsider who, in his or her innocence, doesn’t fit into society.  They are simpletons who aren’t cultured, yet these simpletons speak to the people.  Their comedy inheres in the fact that they are blind to certain cultural norms and live in their dreams.

In her line of schlemiels, Arendt includes the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the characters of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Rahel Varnhagen, the awkward host of a German Salon in the 19th century, and Charlie Chaplin (who she calls “the little Yid”).    Some are “living schlemiels” (as Sander Gilman might say) others are fictional.  Regardless, Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse see the schlemiel as posting a challenge to either the “political and philosophical status quo” (Ruth Wisse) or to the “political status quo” (Hannah Arendt).   The schlemiel, as the innocent lord of dreams, is also a guard against the realization that, in this or that dominant society, one (historically, the Jew) is a loser.  As the wisdom goes, it’s better to live in dreams and innocence than in a horrible situation.

What I found so fascinating about Scorsese’s film is that he turns this on its head since the schlemiels in this film – which include Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and Jordon’s group of friends (I didn’t include Jordan Bellfort – played by Leonard DiCaprio – because he goes in and out of being a schlemiel throughout the film). What makes them all schlemiels is not simply the fact that they are innocent dreamers but the fact that they all deal drugs, do drugs, and are outsiders in the 80s and 90s.    They don’t know how to make a normal living and live a normal life. In Hannah Arendt’s sense, they are pariahs.

However, the twist is that even after they make money and become successes, they still remain schlemiels.  This is a twist because, often times, when a schlemiel becomes a success (say, in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, too name only two of many films where Allen employs this formula), they become a “man.”  Indeed, in The Wolf on Wall Street, drugs and endless parties celebrating the accumulation of exorbitant wealth illustrate a new way of viewing the schlemiel – one, to be sure, I (a schlemiel theorist who runs a blog on the schlemiel and publishes on this character) have never seen.

To be sure, Scorsese is using the schlemiel to show how innocence can go wrong when it is combined with drugs and wealth.  Indeed, the first time we see Jonah Hill, who plays the schlemiel in the majority of the films he stars in, he and DiCaprio have a comic-schlemiel-like dialogue which ends behind the restaurant, smoking crack.

Although the combination of drugs and the schlemiel can be seen in many films today – such as Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and Super Bad – these moments are divorced from anything consequential.

The innocent drug use of marijuana by Apatow’s characters is laughable.  But it is not disturbing as it is in Scorsese’s film because, as we all know from recent history, which is alluded to throughout the film, the drug use (of qualudes, crack, and cocaine) of Scorcese’s schlemiels enables them or is based on the exploitation of people and manipulating the market.

Throughout the film, I noticed many people laughing (myself included) yet the laughter was mixed up with moments of disgust.  What I like about Scorsese’s tact, here, is that he draws viewers in; but once they are in, he teaches them a lesson and subjects us to an emotional rollercoaster.

Watching this film, I felt as if he was offering a corrective to all of Apatow’s films – on the one hand – and making a nod to Allen’s recent Blue Jasmine – on the other.   But what Scorsese does here is something Allen didn’t do in Blue Jasmine; namely, use schlemiels to bring us to the same conclusion about our era and its overly corrupt relationship with wealth.

I find it ironic that Scorsese and not Allen did this; after all, Allen has made use of the schlemiel throughout his career.  Nonetheless, what I find in Scorsese is a new way of viewing this character, one which makes it relevant in ways that Judd Apatow or even Woody Allen cannot (or doesn’t want to do; as I argue in two recent book essays about Allen).   In lieu of this, I would say that the name of the film is wholly ironic.  I wouldn’t say he is a “wolf” on Wall Street so much as a schlemiel in wolf’s clothing.  In the end, however, we see the schlemiel turn into a wolf when the drugs and the wealth are taken away.  But, by then, it’s too late.

Walter Benjamin, Leon Shestov, and Heinrich Heine’s Senses of Humor


Walter Benjamin paid very close attention to the work and life of Leon Shestov.  Shestov was a Russian émigré to Paris whose critical writings on literature and Judaism Benjamin had great respect for.  In one of his saddest (and last) letters to Gershom Scholem, written in 1939, Benjamin writes about Kafka’s legacy to his readers by focusing on Leon Shestov’s.  To be sure, Benjamin believed Shestov’s lifetime work, Athens and Jerusalem was a masterpiece.  (He often mentions this to Scholem in his letters.)  However, he didn’t know how it would fare in the future.  In his reflection on its legacy, following Shestov’s death, Benjamin notes how Shestov’s wife, deep in mourning, cannot deal with the question of what to do with his legacy.  Benjamin tells us that she lives in an apartment full of Shestov’s work (his manuscripts and unpublished essays).  He muses about how one day a housekeeper will likely see that Shestov’s widow has neglected her surroundings and, while cleaning up, will throw away all of Shestov’s writings.  To her, they are only pieces of paper.

Benjamin likens this to the fate of Kafka’s work and adds, in addition to this, that Max Brod (the keeper of this legacy) made Kafka into a fool.  To be sure, this suggests that Brod and the widow show the futility of passing tradition on.  But there is more.  What is passed on, by way of Benjamin, is a ruined yet comic kind of tradition.  These ruined traditions (of Kafka and Shestov), fails to get properly transmitted, and their fate is comical (in a bittersweet way).  In all of this, the failure of tradition is – in a way- redeemed through a comical reflection.

Since Benjamin spoke so highly of Shestov and wrote of him in a tragic-comical manner, I wondered if and how Shestov would regard the comic modality.  To this end, I decided to read through his collection of his literary essays entitled Chekhov and Other Essays (these articles were published while he was alive and were translated into English in 1916 – for a London press – and republished in 1966 by the University of Michigan Press).

Many of these literary essays are very serious – they address the work of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, but they also address different philosophers.  In these essays, Shestov reserves the comical to this or that anecdote.  (His reflections, here, seem to have more of an existential tone – one that Sartre and others took to.)  However, one essay in particular caught my eye as it addressed the comical.  This essay was entitled “Penultimate Words.”   Within this essay, the section on Heinrich Heine addresses humor.

Shestov notes, right off the bat, that the German’s misunderstood Heine’s sense of humor:

I think that if the Germans were mistaken and misunderstood Heine, hypertrophied self-love and the power of prejudice is the cause. (119)

With this in view, Shestov explains the meaning of Heine’s humor.  He notes how it moves from seriousness to sarcasm:

Heine’s usual method is to begin to speak with perfect seriousness, and to end with biting raillery. Critics and readers, who generally do not guess at the outset what awaits them in the event, have taken the unexpected laughter to their own account, and have become deeply offended.  Wounded self-love never forgives; and the Germans could  not forgive Heine for his jests. (119)

Shestov tells us that the twist is that Heine’s humor was directed at himself; it was self-deprecating.  He wasn’t looking to “attack others”:

And yet Heine but rarely attacked others: most of his mockery is directed against himself. (119)

Drawing on this observation, Shestov says that same thing happened with Gogol.  Like Heine, Gogol “confessed that he was describing himself” and was not mocking the Russian people in his fiction.  According to Shestov, Gogol wasn’t certain of himself and, for this reason, it was simply not possible for him to contrast himself – as better off – to his fellow-Russians.

On this note, he points out that Heine also had an “inconstancy of opinions”: “He changed his tastes and attachments, and did not always know for certain what he preferred at the moment”(119).   He could have “pretended to be consequent and consistent,” but he didn’t.

Rather, he played the fool and said too much:

Heine’s sincerity was really of a different order.  He told everything, or nearly everything, of himself.  And this was thought so shocking that the sworn custodians of convention and good morals considered themselves wounded in their best and loftiest feelings.  It seemed to them that it would be disastrous if Heine were to succeed in acquiring a great literary influence, and in getting a hold upon the minds of his contemporaries. (121)

Shestov points out the hypocrisy that goes with the will-to-preserve culture.  The anger of the Germans at Heine’s honesty, humor, and self-deprication was a case in point.  In talking too much, he failed publically.  But that failure was – more or less – turned into a killing of sorts.  Heine was, as the French artist and playwright Antonin Artaud might say, a man “suicided by society.”

Heine’s humor, Shestov tells us, discloses a man who is “divided.”  His words are a “mockery of himself.”  Out of some of his comic poems and writings, we can hear “Heine’s misplaced laughter”(123).  This laughter is “indecent and quite uselessly disconcerting.”  Shestov puts Heine’s “sincerity” in quotation marks because Heine was laughing and at the same time embracing the possibility of sincerity.

In addition, Heine laughs “at morality, at philosophy, and at existing religions”(126).  In a fascinating turn, Shestov says this may have to do with Heine being a modern Jew who was out-of-place (the odd one out).  To be sure, Heine was the popularizer of the schlemiel in Germany.  He saw the poet as a schlemiel.  Hannah Arendt points this out in her essay “The Jew as Pariah.”  And she situates Heine as the first schlemiel in a tradition of schlemiels.   (A tradition I am writing about in my book on the schlemiel.)

Reading Shestov and knowing that Benjamin read him lovingly, I wonder if Benjamin came across this gloss on Heinrich Heine and the comic.  It would make perfect sense since Benjamin, in one of his last letters to Gershom Scholem, wonders about the “comic aspects of Jewish theology.” There is something very Jewish and very modern in Heine’s failure.  It is the same failure that Benjamin comically apprehends in Kafka and Shestov.

And it is the failure of the schlemiel which provides the greatest insights for them as they all realized the degree to which they themselves had failed.  And, if anything, the sad laughter Benjamin had when reflecting on Shestov and Kafka was his own.  It, strangely enough, gave him hope.