The Flash of Comic Illumination: Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and the Witz


One of the most interesting confluences between German Romantic conceptions of humor and a certain thread of Jewish-German Philosophy is the obsession with time, immediacy, and illumination. The two seem like odd bedfellows since, after all, religion is a serious affair and humor, as a matter of course, is not.   The witz, like revelation, is a surprise. And, like a comedic audience, the religious community must be ready for the lightning delivery. Illumination is the punch line.

In an essay on the German Romantics obsession with the Witz (the joke), Jean-Luc Nancy points out, for them, the speed of the joke and its immediacy are central to its affect. According to Nancy, they shared this interest with Shakespeare:

Since Shakespeare’s famous “maxim” in Hamlet (constantly repeated by Freud), “brevity is the soul of wit,” the only “genre” or the only “form” always recognized as the property of Witz, as peculiar to all Witz, is succinctness, the swiftness of the utterance that carries the point.   The Romantics were to express it by means of the much reiterated German Witz: Witz ist ein Blitz; wit is a flash of lighting. Flash, lightning, explosion are the forms of the cogito’s double insofar as it is instantaneous. (263, The Birth of Presence)

Franz Rosenzweig, in The Star of Redemption, often talks about Revelation in terms of immediacy and suddenness. God’s command to Love Him is an act of urgency and immediacy and it gives birth to the soul. It is born out of its immediate response to its Creator which calls on man to respond to His call.

In an essay entitled, “Renaissance of Jewish Learning and Living,” Rosenzweig relates this sense of immediacy to readiness and confidence vis-à-vis any possible religious experience. To be Jewish, according to Rozenzweig, is to be ready or, as he says, “confident”:

There is one recipe alone that can make a person Jewish and hence – because he is a Jew and destined to a Jewish life – a full human being: that recipe is to have no recipe…Our fathers had a beautiful word for it that says everything: confidence.

Confidence is the word for the state of readiness that does not ask for recipes, and does not mouth perpetually, “What shall I do then?” and “How can I do that?” Confidence is not afraid of the day after tomorrow. It lives in the present, it crosses recklessly the threshold leading from today to tomorrow. Confidence knows only that which is nearest and therefore it possesses the whole…Thus the Jewish individual needs nothing but readiness. Those who would help him can give him empty forms of preparedness, which he himself and only he may fill. (223)

Martin Buber, in several of his essays on the Torah, echoes this imperative to be ready. He calls it the “demand of the hour.” And one must be ready to hear it and respond to it. In an essay entitled “Prophesy, Apocalyptic, Historical Hour,” he writes:

What is possible in a certain hour and what is impossible cannot be adequately ascertained by any foreknowledge. It goes without saying that, in the one sphere as in the other, one must start at any given time from the nature of the situation insofar as it is recognizable. But one does not learn the measure and limit of what is attainable in a desired direction otherwise than through going in this direction. (186)

Buber adds that “room must be left for such surprises….planning as though they were impossible renders them impossible. One cannot strive for immediacy, but one can hold oneself free and open for it.”

In other words, a Jew must always be ready for surprises. One must be prepared.

In an essay entitled “The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,” he delves deeply into the meaning of “the hour” with an audience that is not familiar with the relationship of Revelation, Creation, and Redemption to the Torah. To give them an idea, he takes them through a guided meditation of sorts:

The lived moment leads directly to the knowledge of revelation, and thinking about birth leads indirectly to the knowledge of creation. But in his personal life probably not one of us will taste the essence of redemption before his last hour. And yet here, too, there is an approach. It is dark and silent and cannot be indicated by any means, save by my asking you to recall your own dark and silent hours. I mean those hours in the lowest depths when our soul hovers over the frail trap door which, at the very next instant, may send us down into destruction, madness, and suicide at our own verdict. Indeed, we are astonished that it has not opened up until now. But suddenly we feel a touch as of a hand, to let us draw up out of the darkness. This is redemption.

Buber and Rosenzweig’s obsession with immediateness and being ready suggests that we be ready for a surprising Blitz-of-illumination. And in a sense the comedian, like a prophet of sorts, must also be ready to not just deliver a joke at lightening speed but for an explosion of humor. As Nancy suggests in his reading of the German Romantic concept of the Witz, there is a kind of immediacy that humor shares with mysticism. In the wake of reading Nancy, when I read these lines from Buber and Rosenzweig, I could not help but think that they want everyone to be ready for the Witz.

But there is a difference.

For them the Witz is a spiritual Blitz, not a secular one, as it is for the comedian. Perhaps comedy, for the German Romatnics, offered what Benjamin would call a profane illumination….in the Blitz of the Witz? To be sure, Benjamin, following Charles Baudeliare, would call that the “experience of shock.” Moreover, Benjamin, at the end of an essay on Surrealism spells out the relation of Revelation to time when he argues that experience today, if it is to be revolutionary, must be a like a clock whose alarm goes off every second.

The only problem with this, however, is that it leaves no time for the delivery of the joke. It may be fast but it takes time to reach the audience. Immediacy needs mediacy. The Blitz needs the Witz. And whether it’s the Jewish-German Philosophical approach to Revelation or the German Romantic approach to comedy it seems that both believe the audience needs to be ready for surprises. And, as Rosenzweig and Buber seem to have believed, that’s the crux of being Jewish.

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