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

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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.

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