On Hannah Arendt’s Reading of Rahel Varnhagen and the Schlemiel – Take One


Schlemiel Theory has published several posts on Hannah Arendt and her reading of the schlemiel in her celebrated essay “The Jew as Pariah.” As I pointed out in many of my readings, Arendt believed that the schlemiel had, for a certain time during modernity, a necessity. But, as she argues (and many critics overlook), she looked to leave the schlemiel-pariah behind. She found its worldlessness to be problematic and wished, instead (as she claimed Kafka did), that she could leave worldessness (and the schlemiel, its key figure) behind so that she could live a “normal” life. (In my book, I will be outlining the reasons for the use of the word normal which, to be sure, has less to do with what we post-post-moderns think of today as “normal” as what Zionists thought of as “normal.”) The schlemiel, in her view, was worldless and exceptional. And, as I pointed out, the schlemiel would fail what I would call Arendt’s Greek identity test; namely, the one we find in The Human Condition. The criteria for passing this test is contingent on whether one has a world to “act” in or not.   And the schlemiel, for Arendt, does not. Ergo, the schlemiel is and, in Arendt’s book, always will remain a failure of sorts.

But, as I point out in several entries, being a failure before the Holocaust is one thing – since that would be a good thing for Arendt, for Heine, the beginning of her “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel, is a pariah who, in being a “lord of dreams,” rebels against society and the parvenu. Once one can be considered as an equal, for Arendt this time period is hazy, one can leave the last of the schlemiels – for Arendt, Charlie Chaplin – behind for superman (literally).

In response to a recent post by Zachary Breiterman on his blog Jewish Philosophy Place regarding Arendt’s treatment of Rahel Varnhagen – in her first published book, Rahel Varhagen: The Life of a Jewess, I would argue that Arendt’s first attempt at reading the schlemiel was based on her reading of Varnhagen in this book. This reading, unlike the reading she would make when she landed in America, is very negative. To be sure, Arendt was confused about Varnhagen. In her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” she lists Heinrich Heine as the beginning of the Schlemiel tradition. She doesn’t mention Varnhagen in that essay. However, in her essay “We Refugees,” written a year earlier than “The Jew as Pariah,” Arendt includes Varnhagen in her “hidden tradition.” There, she argues that Varhagen was a part of this “other” tradition:

Modern Jewish history, having started with court Jews and continuing with the Jewish millionaires and philanthropists, is apt to forget about this other thread of Jewish tradition – the tradition of Heine, Rahel Varnhagen, Sholem Aleichem (who isn’t in her “Jew as Pariah” essay, either), of Bernard Lazare, Franz Kafka, or even Charlie Chaplin (who she considers that end of the “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel). It is the tradition of the minority of Jews who have not wanted to become upstarts, who preferred the status of “conscious pariah.” (274, The Jewish Writings)

Compared to what she writes in her Varnhagen book, these words are very kind. I will limit myself to a few quotations to prove my point. (This blog entry, therefore, is preliminary and will be followed up with more entries. But the deeper treatment will be found in my book.)

Arendt argues that Varnhagen’s life was “bound up” with a feeling that she was “inferior” because she was Jewish and emerged out of the ghetto.   Her Jewishness was a mark of this shame. Arendt translates Varnhagen’s attitude toward her Jewishness when she writes: “Naturally one was not going to cling to Judaism – why should one, since the whole of Jewish history and tradition was now revealed to be a sordid product of the ghetto”(89).

Following this, Arendt inserts her own theory of about the world and worldless to argue that Varnhagen, as a schlemiel, had to do all she could to deny (or is it negate?) the world because the world reminded her that she was inferior (that is a Jew who had emerged out of the ghetto). For this reason, Varnhagen denies the things that Arendt values most – action, love, and the world – in the name of “thinking”:

Rahel’s life was bound by this inferiority, by her “infamous birth,” from youth on up. Everything that followed was only confirmation, “bleeding to death.” Therefore she must avoid everything that might give rise to further confirmation, must not act, not love, not become involved in the world. Given such absolute renunciation, all that seemed left was thought. (89)

Arendt argues that Varnhagen’s turn to thought was based on a delusion that it would save her.  Varnhagen, according to Arendt, misunderstood the words of Lessing who called for “self-thinking.” She made a bifurcation between thought and the world and ultimately saw herself as free in the world of thought but a Jew in reality.   Arendt tells us that Varnhagen refused to accept the reality that she was really a schlemiel; that is, the real odd one out:

Thinking amounted to an enlightened kind of magic which could substitute for, evoke and predict experience, the world, people, society. The power of reason lent posited possibilities a tinge of reality, breathed a kind of illusory life into rational desires, fended off ungraspable actuality and refused to recognize it. The twenty year old Rahel wrote: “I shall never be convinced that I am a Shlemihl and a Jewess; since all these years and after so much thinking about it, it has not dawned upon me, I shall never grasp it”(89).

Compared to Heine and Chaplin, as characterized by Arendt in her “Jew as Pariah” essay, Varnhagen is the worst kind of schlemiel. Her worldlessness is an act of denial.   Arendt says that she denies that she is a schlemiel when she really is one. Only a schlemiel, in this instance, would negate the world in the name of what Arendt calls a “foundation for cultivated ignoramuses.” Arendt snidely notes that “self-thinking” is good, but not in Varnhagen’s hands: “Self-thinking can no longer be rubbed raw with any contact with actuality…Self-thinking in this sense provides a foundation for cultivated ignoramuses”(90).

Liliane Weissberg, who edited and translated Arendt’s Varnhagen book into English, correctly notes – in her introduction – that Arendt is concerned with Varnhagen’s assimilation (50). But Weissberg doesn’t note the extent to which Arendt judges Varnhagen for this offense. To be sure, Arendt wittily compares Varnhagen, a Jewish Don Quixote of sorts, to the real Don Quixote. (Note that the first Yiddish novel with a schlemiel or rather schlemiels as its main characters – The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim – was based, in major part, on Don Quixote).   Arendt writes that there is a fundamental difference between Don Quixote and this German-Jewish schlemiel:

As long as Don Quixote continues to ride forth to conjure a possible, imagined, illusory world out of the real one, he is only the fool, and perhaps a happy fool, perhaps even a noble fool when he undertakes to conjure up within the real world a definite world.   But if without a definite ideal, without aiming at a definite imaginary revision of the world, he attempts only to transfer himself into some sort of empty possibility which he might be, he becomes merely a “foolish dreamer.” (93)

By calling Varnhagen a “foolish dreamer,” rather than a “fool” (like Don Quixote) Arendt is suggesting that the schlemiel is worse off than the fool since he has no “ideal” and does not aim at a “definite imaginary revision of the world.” This is a fascinating turn since, a few years later and in a different continent, Arendt calls Heinrich Heine a “lord of dreams.” However, that phrase, in contrast to “foolish dreamer,” has a positive valence for Arendt.

To be sure, it seems that Arendt made a distinction between good and bad schlemiels based on whether they had an “ideal” or an “imaginary revision of the world.” Unfortunately, Arendt never made this explicit in her work on the schlemiel. One can only find this, as I have, by comparing and contrasting one version of the schlemiel to the other.

…to be continued….



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