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

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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  Benjamin tells us that she lives in an apartment full of Shestov’s work (his manuscripts and unpublished essays).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.

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