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

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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.

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