On the Readings of Astonishment in Augustine’s “Confessions”


One of the most often quoted lines from Aristotle comes from “The Metaphysics” where he writes: “for it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and first began to philosophize.” In the same section, Aristotle tells us that mythology and religion also start with wonder. The only difference is that while philosophy starts with wonder it ends with knowledge not…more wonder.   In contrast to Aristotle, latter day religious thinkers (Jewish and Christian), like Rudolf Otto and A.J. Heschel, as well as philosophers like Martin Heidegger and John Sallis (whose work is very influenced by Heidegger) have argued that wonder needs to be preserved.   What makes their call for more wonder so relevant is that by doing so, they take wonder out of the box it has been put in by philosophy and expose it to art, poetry, literature, and folklore which are filled with stories of wonder and astonishment.

What literature and art, in contrast to philosophy and even theology, can give us are detailed explorations of astonishment. By doing so, they open our eyes to the many different kinds of astonishment out there, kinds that can prompt us to think more deeply about the meaning and place of astonishment in our lives.

What makes Augustine’s Confessions so fascinating is that they detail his journey toward religion in terms of one astonishment after another. To be sure, the varieties of astonishment that Augustine comes across prompt him to think in a more deeper manner about himself, his predicament, and his meaning vis-à-vis friendship, culture, language, time, and God.   I will briefly touch on a few kinds of astonishment so as to illustrate. They are temporal, moral, and sexual.

After describing his friendship with Alypius, who traveled with him to Milan and lived with him, Augustine turns to himself and finds that, in the wake of passing time he is astonished at how he was still in the “same mire,” still “indecisive,” and still obsessed with “fugitive delights”:

I was exceedingly astonished as a I anxiously reflected how long a time had elapsed since the nineteenth year of my life, when I began to burn with a zeal for wisdom, planning that when I had found it I would abandon all the empty hopes and lying follies of hollow ambitions.   And here I was already thirty, and still mucking about in the same mire in a state of indecision, avid to enjoy present fugitive delights which were dispersing my concentration. (104)

But what astonishes him more about this is that he does all this while he is hopeful that “tomorrow” he shall see the truth and change. In other words, he is astonished at how ironic and self-contradictory he still is. His thoughts and his will are disconnected. And he realizes that this is the case because he has lost his innocence. And this is linked to the second kind of astonishment which he shares, in asymmetrical ways, with his close friend Alypius. The astonishment is marked by the difference between innocence and experience, in general, and chastity and the desire for sex, in particular.

After Augustine tells us of how he was “fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness.” He “dragged the chain” but was “afraid to be free of it.” Alypius is astonished by Augustine’s words and desires (which Augusine articulated in terms of words, which he calls “snares,” that he used to “entrap” Alypius’ “honest and unfettered feet”):

He was astonished that I, for whom he had so deep a regard, should be stuck in the glue of this pleasure. Whenever we argued on this subject among ourselves, I used to assert that it was out of my power to live a celibate life. I defended myself when I saw his amazement, and used to say that there was a vast difference between his hurried and furtive experience… and the delights of my own regular habit. (106)

And his mind “being free of that chain was astonished at my bondage, and from amazement he passed into desire to experience it.” In other words, Alypius wants to experience and know the bondage to pleasure and sex that Augustine experiences after being astonished by it. Alipius was not, according to Augustine, fascinated with sex so much as fascinated with death; he wanted to fall into it, and make a pact with it (106).

Although Augustine lacks the same astonishment as Alypius, later in The Confessions we learn that what really astonishes Augustine are words that seem to be spoken to him by God by way of this or that book or person. Augustine, in the presence of Alypius, has an emotional breakdown that leads to an encounter with a voice that astonishes and saves him from a kind of self-destruction that emerges out of intense struggle with himself and “self-examination”:

The debate in my heart was a struggle of myself against myself. Alypius stood quite sill at my side, and waited in silence for the outcome of my unprecedented state of agitation.

From a hidden depth a profound self-examination had dredged up a heap of all my misery and set it ‘in sight of my heart’ (Ps. 18:15). That precipitated a vast storm bearing a massive downpour of tears. To pour it all out with the accompanying groans, I got up from beside Alypius (solitude seemed to me more appropriate for the business of weeping), and I moved further away to ensure that even his presence put no inhibition in me. (152)

And this is when he is surprised by the voice of a child:

As I was saying this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from a nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl…saying and repeating over and over again ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.’ At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant was used. But I could not remember having heard of one….I interpreted it solely as a divine command to open the book and read the first chapter I might find. (153)

Instead of this astonishment leading him to knowledge, as Aristotle would suggest, it leads him to the Bible. And the first words he reads, tell him of what he must do. He takes the Bible from Alypius and reads the words of Paul. He is astonished by them because they seem to be meant specifically for him:

“Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ (Rom. 13; 13-14)

This is Augusine’s conversion moment and marks a movement from doubt, anxiety, perplexity and amazement to certainty and faith:

I neither wished nor need to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows were dispelled. (153)

Alypius, who bears witness to all this, is also transformed. They both, so to speak, “mature” together. The interesting trope to take note of (and lest we not forget, Augustine was a teacher of rhetoric) is that of the movement from childhood to maturity. Astonishment is what children have and remain in. But it is also where philosophers, for Aristotle, begin. Overhearing the children’s song he hears a directive to read the book and be converted or “turned” away from darkness to light.

In the end, Augustine sees astonishment as having its place but he doesn’t think one should remain in it as it will only lead, later in life, to anxiety and self-doubt. To be sure, his first astonishment, regarding his age and state of being indecisive and unclear, was positive (in the sense that it prompted him to see himself in a sad state) but it was ultimately a negative astonishment because he realizes that he hasn’t changed. The second kind of astonishment, on behalf of Alypius, was also positive but mostly negative. Because Alypius was so innocent, he couldn’t understand Augustine’s voracious appetite for sex.   But Augustine took advantage of this astonishment to ensnare Alypius. And, apparently, it worked.

What I find so fascinating about this astonishment is that it is read in an Arisotelian manner. It may have different manifestations but they all point to leaving astonishnent behind. In contrast, the schlemiel is a character whose astonishment is a virtue. And it remains as much as does his state of goodness or trust. In the end, the question that writers, philosophers, and theologians share is what to make of astonishment which, as Aristotle knew, was one of the most powerful engines of religion, myth, and philosophy.   But while Aristotle employed it for philosophical ends, Augustine employed in the name of Christian faith and the certainty that, he believed, goes along with it.

The Ecstasy or Anxiety of Influence: On Jonathan Lethem’s Recent Non-Fiction Collection


One would expect that literary voices, especially those who also write for magazines or newspapers like The Village Voice, The New Yorker, or The New York Times, are likely to have a unique and vital voice. Reading Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence, I hear a voice that doesn’t pretend to be unique and, as for vitality, it is almost or rather occasionally excited.   And while Lethem’s Preface to his book suggests something vital in the book, it also suggests something less than exciting.   He sees this as a kind of honesty, but is it really a kind of self-conscious indifference or confusion about what he’s trying to do when he is autobiographical? Regardless, he is aware of a different kind of reader who doesn’t want to hear bravado and high linguistic performance so much as something more popular and…normal.   Since the average person doesn’t like to write, why should Lethem?   To be sure, this idea does affect his text. But it competes with the idea of a cultural critic being someone who is excited or “ecstatic” about this or that cultural phenomenon.

But in this book it’s really more about him that about culture. And he’s not so sure about what image he wants to project. He is very self-conscious about power and being accepted by people around him. He is anxious. In the preface, he tells us that he’s not so crazy about the connotations of power that go with his name. He is aware of it, but he doesn’t want to be deluded by the ecstasy that goes along with it:

The book in your hands wouldn’t be published if I offered it under my Believenik name, Harris Conklin. “Jonathan Lethem,” at least for this tiny blip in literary eternity, gets a cookie. I may seem, in places, herein, exasperated with how the power of the novelist in the twenty-first century is circumscribed, but I do grant that it does consist in power. Vonnegut wasn’t feeling powerful when he made his bitter remark about being in print, but his ability to enshrine the remark in hardcovers and keep in circulation shows me was wrong. (The pretense-of-no-power is a symptom I want to examine, not exhibit.)

The brackets tell us that he doesn’t want such pretense. He just wants to deconstruct the power that comes along with literary fame and just be…one of us:

All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, or the manipulation of symbols rather than the “opening of a window onto life”… We writers aren’t sculpting in DNA, or even clay or mud, but words, sentences, paragraphs, syntax, voice.

Writing well or expressing oneself – being a master of words – is not his goal. He sees his task as “making the giant octopus in my mind’s eye visible to yours…That’s because another name for the giant octopus I have in mind is negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves – the permanent trouble of being alive. (xix)

Hence, his “self-consciousness” is based on the fact that he may fail to negotiate it amongst other people. In other words, he may be getting his audience wrong.   For this reason, near the end of his preface, he warns the reader to skip over much of what he has written since not all of it provides one with an acute sense of “the contemporary intellectual situation for fiction’s writers and readers” or with “kinds of public thinking and talking.”

He is worried that some of his written pieces may get in the way of his “negotiation” of selfhood. He even admits that he wrote some of them when he was annoyed or in a hurry to do other things. To be sure, he makes excuses to the very end. The anxiety and self-consciousness over possible failure are at the core of this work. One way for Lethem to allay his anxiety is to write about himself and his family in an indifferent way, in a way that is averse to power. This, he thinks, might be appealing. For this reason, he presents himself, in the first chapter, as an ordinary guy from an ordinary family; not as a child prodigy who is born to famous (or perfect) parents.

He is closer to failure and powerlessness than he is to power:

I came from dropping out; the only think I knew at the start was to quit before they could fire me.   My mother left college in favor of counterculture. In the legend of Judith Lethem it was a brilliant move with no regrets…My father…threw over a tenure-track gig for work as a cabinetmaker, and commercial Manhattan galleries for cooperative Brooklyn ones. You ran away to make a world. Vanished into a garret and emerged with pages Prometheanly aflame. Thumbed to San Francisco….Your parents are the first memo to come across at your desk, on a page so large you can’t see past it’s edges.

Lethem, like his parents, doesn’t work within the system. But the “system was invisible to me until it was too late. After all, didn’t every novelist work as a clerk in a bookstore until they published their first book?” Lethem’s next piece in the book is entitled “The Used Bookshop Stories.” In all of them, the voice is weary and indifferent. Its ecstasies at meeting interesting or famous people – by way of credit cards or accident – in this or that bookstore in New York or Berkeley are brief.   We can see his love for books in his used bookshop stories but the narration of this love is…almost ecstatic.

The end of the story is about him turning the lights out at a Berkeley bookstore and turning a Dylan song on in order to spur a homeless man to leave the bookstore instead of being locked in. The words of the song bespeak his attitude; namely, that he, like the homeless man, is a man on the run who, like everyone else, better grab whatever little ecstasy he can get before he dies. But, as we have seen, he has to leave things behind and not get caught up in the system. This is the voice that speaks to him in Dylan’s song:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.  But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.

What Lethem knows is that Dylan’s song speaks to many people and can help him to gain popular support. He turns to it not simply out of practical necessity but out of anxiety rather than an “ecstasy of influence.”   He doesn’t want to be taken into the system as Vonnegut did but he also knows, like Vonnegut did, that this is inevitable. Nonetheless, his only way of creating a margin is, strangely enough,by being less than ecstatic and by…as we saw in the preface…by making excused. His humility, so to speak, which he sees as inherited by his family, is based on his fear of becoming liked to much and too popular. But…he already is. Otherwise, why would Vintage publish him?

Perhaps, if one is a known writer, it’s better to be publicly anxious about one’s identity. That way, perhaps, he can counter one of America’s greatest addictions: the ecstasy of influence….fame.   But unlike Harold Bloom, who sees America’s greatest writers as having an “anxiety of influence” that is based on a desire for power and individuation, Lethem seems to be rubbing up against the American grain.

The Inter-View: Images of Seth-Stalin-Rogen and James-Lenin-Franco


Don’t you love those moments when you can’t tell if something is serious or a joke? I had one of them yesterday and it created a delicious ambiguity around how the schlemiel may get lost in translation.

While walking through Manhattan yesterday, I stumbled across a poster that caught my eye.   On the front of the poster, I saw an image of Seth Rogen and James Franco which portrayed them as one would portray Lenin and Stalin (or “the people”) in a Socialist Realist image.


As in Soviet and Chinese Social Realist images, we see Franco and Rogen in profile gazing fearlessly, like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or the workers of Russia, at the future. Like these leaders (and like the people) as portrayed in classical propaganda posters, I thought of Rogen and Franco as self-possessed and confident about the future.


But then I thought, no, that’s not possible. These two, in a film like Pineapple Express (2008) or in last year’s parody of a Kanye West’s “Bound 2” video are schlemiels.

To be sure, their “Bound 3” parody video, which I have written on (here and here) takes the cake. In both the film and in this short clip, they don’t portray self-possession so much as parody it.

What, I wondered, was going on with this poster. I saw the Chinese characters (ideograms) beneath their names, coupled with the words “The Interview” below; and, immediately, I was convinced that there must have been an interview with Rogen and Franco in China or Korea.   But, more important to me, was how Rogen and Franco’s images were represented for an Asian audience.   Do the poster makers, and the culture itself, misunderstand how to portray the image of two comedians? Something seemed awry here. It didn’t make sense. How could there be such a misunderstanding of the schlemiel? Is the culture so serious as to not understand comedy.

It bothered me all day.

When I got home, I did some research and discovered that this was an advertising ploy to get me to think about Rogen and Franco’s representation. It was, in fact, a teaser-poster for their soon-to-be-released film entitled: The Interview.   It will be released on December 25th.

Looking over the trailer I wondered if this was Rogen and Franco’s attempt to one-up Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator. And if it was, it failed to even come close.

Six days ago, The Guardian noted that the film has caused a little controversy in North Korea since Rogen associated it with Kim Jung Un’s recent disappearance:

Seth Rogen has joked that the recent disappearance of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un was mounted as a marketing ploy for the actor’s new comedy, The Interview.

In comments reported by the Press Association, Rogen said the autocrat’s missing 40 days could not have come at a better time to promote the new film, which riffs on an attempt by a US talk show host and producer to assassinate Kim Jong-un live on TV with help from the CIA.

“It’s all a marketing ploy,” said the actor and film-maker, who stars in the comedy alongside James Franco and Lizzy Caplan. “We’ve hid him somewhere, and he’ll be released one week before the movie.

He continued: “It is amazing. It’s almost as if we gave [Kim] a list of, ‘Here’s what you can do that would help promote our film.’ And he’s doing pretty much all of it.”

Since the movie is not so much about an “interview” as an assassination attempt on Kim by two characters who one would think are schlemiels, it has stirred controversy in the North Korean side. To be sure, The Guardian, in another article, notes how North Korea “blasted” Rogen for the film. One of North Korea’s self-described “unofficial spokesman” said the film tells us more about American desperation than about North Korea and it’s supreme leader:

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Kim Myong-chol dismissed The Interview’s lampooning of Kim Jong-un out of hand and said American film-makers should look to their country’s own history. “There is a special irony in this storyline as it shows the desperation of the US government and American society,” he said. “A film about the assassination of a foreign leader mirrors what the US has done in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. And let us not forget who killed [President John F] Kennedy – Americans.

“In fact, President [Barack] Obama should be careful in case the US military wants to kill him as well,” added the spokesman for good measure

After reading these reports, seeing the trailer, and giving it a little thought, I wonder, like Charles Baudelaire once did in his prose piece “A Heroic Death,” what happens when fools get involved in death plots. As the narrator of “A Heroic Death” points out, they fail. But the punch line, for Baudelaire, is that they fail miserably and their comedic plot turns bad.

Although I was drawn in to the premise by way of the poster, I wonder if this will turn out bad. This kind of plot may be a dead end for the American schlemiel. And perhaps, after the success of a film like Neighbors, Rogen has hit a dead end.

After all, social realism, like the movie poster, is not comedy. It is its antithesis.

Let’s wait…and see if there is something to laugh about.

At the Circus with Franz Kafka and Augustine – Part II


In contrast to Kafka, Augustine, in Confessions, saw the circus in a less ambiguous manner. While Kafka made the choice between one end of the circus and another very complicated and difficult to decipher, Augustine makes it into a clear either/or decision. He associated the circus with the worst vices of society and, in his friendship with Alypius (arguably, his closest friend), we see that Augustine figured Alypius’s detachment from the circus as the first stage of conversion (which he, in fact, did together with Alypius – the image in this post is based on this group conversion). To be sure, Augustine makes it his task to wean Alypius away from the circus. But the irony of this is that Augustine had far worse vices to deal with, but if it weren’t for Alypius and their friendship, he would not be able to address them.   Regardless, the foil of his friendship with Alypius is the circus.

Augustine lived with Alypius and Nebridius when he moved to Milan. They were all friends and, as Augustine notes, they had the deepest discussions on religion, philosophy, and society. Reflecting on his friendship, Augustine records Alypius’s origins and the first time they met, in Carthage. He, like Socrates and many of his pupils, was older than Alypius. Regardless, their attraction to each other – which has much to do with virtue and character – is mutual:

Among this group (of friends) Alypius came form the same town as myself. His parents were leading citizens. He was younger than I and had attended my classes when I began to teach in our town and later in Carthage. He was much attached to me because I seemed to him good and cultured, and I was attached to him because of the solid virtue of his character, which was already apparent when he was of no great age. (VI, vii (11), 98)

However, immediately following this kind description, Augustine notes how Alypius, a young man of “solid virtue,” was, to his detriment, in love with the circus. He is “miserably” involved with the circus and his passion for it was “fatal”:

Nevertheless, the whirlpool of Carthaginian morals, with their passion for empty public shows, sucked him into the folly of the circus games. At the time when we was miserably involved in that, I was using a public lecture room as a professor of rhetoric there…I had discovered his fatal passion for the circus, and was gravely concerned because he seemed to be about to throw away or even already to have thrown away a career of high promise. (99)

When Alypius comes in to visit Augustine’s rhetoric class, Augustine rises to the occasion to save Alypius from the circus. But because Alypius is so addicted to the circus, Augustine regrets that “imposing some degree of pressure” or even his friendship was not enough.

But there was no means of warning him and recalling him by imposing some degree of pressure, either by the benevolence of friendship or by exercising the authority of the teacher. (99)

But when, one day, out of the blue, Alypius makes a surprise visit, something miraculous, in Augustine’s view, happens that enables Augustine to save Alypius from the circus:

One day I was sitting at the usual place where my pupils were present before me. He came in, greeted me, sat down, and gave his attention to the subject under discussion.   I was expounding a text which happened to be in my hands. While I was expounding it, it seemed opportune to use an illustration from the circus games which I sued to make my point clear, and to make it clearer and more agreeable I was bitingly sarcastic about those captivated by this folly. (99)

By being sarcastic about the circus, Augustine tells us that Alypius felt the words on the circus were distinctly for him. He knew Augustine cared about him and became “angry with himself.” This led Alypius to “love me more ardently.”

Augustine sees this moment as prophetic. And, citing Ezekiel, he argues that he “cured a wasting mind of high promise” by weaning him off the circus. In the wake of this, Alypius pleaded with his father to allow him to go and learn with Augustine: “His father yielded and granted his request.”

However, once they started learning, Augustine learned of another folly; namely, the “Manichee superstition” that emulated chastity. Augustine calls it “only a shadow and a simulation of virtue.” But this very simulation is what puts Augustine on edge because he, quite frankly and openly, loved women. Their main difference – within their friendship – was on this very point. And by way of it, Augustine was prompted to reflect on how, despite his desire to pursue the truth, he was still indecisive. This comes out of the fact that Augustine was tainted by experience while Alypius was too “innocent”(102).

Regardless, the message is clear. Augustine could not have taken Alypius on as a student or…as a friend without weaning him from the circus.   On that note, he seems to be telling us that even if philosophers and theologians can be friends, and live together, as Alypius and Augustine did in Milan, they can be only melancholy and perplexed. The joy and distraction that Augustine sees as “fatal” has no place in religion and philosophy which are, in his estimation, a serious and not a vulgar (that is, a common) pursuit. Virtue and the way of truth do not lead to the circus.   The circus, in other words, will lead one astray.

And by way of inspiring Alypius to hate himself and his passion for the circus, Augustine suggests that he saved a soul from self-destruction.   As Augustine notes, this salvation- from-the-circus made Alypius “love me more ardently.” And it is through this circus-free love of Augustine that Alypius comes more into dialogue with deeper questions about truth and the true way of life.   It seems as if, in Augustine’s world, God tolerates and even produces different ironies (such as Augustine’s contradictory lifestyle) but God does not tolerate humor and the circus which, to his mind, will only lead one to destroy one’s soul.

…to be continued….

At the Circus with Franz Kafka and Augustine – Part I


The circus – whether it is ancient, medieval, or modern – is a riotous place. And the question of how to describe and place the circus in Western theology, philosophy, literature, and art is, despite what many would think, an important question.   It was of interest to such great theologians as Augustine and Petrach and writers and thinkers like Rebelais, Franz Kafka, and Ernst Bloch.

Of the above-mentioned writers and theologians, Augustine and Kafka have the most fascinating differences. Yet, at the same time, what brings them together most – namely their common understanding that the circus must be figured by theology and literature – is more fascinating. Figuring the circus has implications for life, the imagination, and religion.

In Kafka’s short story “Up in the Gallery,” the narrator, who seems to be speaking from “up in the gallery,” makes a thought experiment regarding a “frail, consumptive equestrienne in the circus.” If she were to be

urged around and around on an undulating horse for months on end without respite by a ruthless, whip-flourishing ringmaster, before an insatiable public…then perhaps, a young visitor to the gallery might race down the long stairs through all the circles, rush into the ring and yell, Stop! against all the fanfares of the orchestra still playing the appropriate music.  

This “perhaps” suggests that the opposite may also happen: the “young visitor” may just let this go on in front of himself and the crowd. He will, in short, let the circus happen. And this is almost like what Kafka tells us actually takes place. The circus goes on, but with a difference. The ringmaster brings in a messianic kind of figure, a “lovely lady, pink and white” who replaces the “frail, consumptive equestrienne”:

But since this is not so; a lovely lady, pink and white, floats between the curtains, which proud lackeys open before her; the ringmaster, deferentially catching her eye, comes toward her breathing animal devotion; tenderly lifts her up on the dapple gray, as if she were his own most precious granddaughter about to start on a dangerous journey.

The ringmaster “masters himself” enough to “crack the whip” and prepare the “lovely lady, pink and white” and “the audience” for the ultimate performance.   But something goes wrong and the audience doesn’t respond in the way one would expect them to do at such a spectacle:

Before the great somersault (the ringmaster) lifts up his arms and implores the orchestra to be silent; finally lifts the little one down from her trembling horse, kissed her on both cheeks, and finds that all the ovation she gets from the audience is barely sufficient.

Meanwhile, she, “right on the tips of her toes, in a cloud of dust, with outstretched arms and small head thrown back, invites the whole crowd to triumph.” But they don’t. There is, it seems, an abyss between the circus performer and the circus. And at this, the “visitor to gallery lays his face on the rail before him and, sinking into the closing march as into a heavy dream, weeps without knowing it.”

In other words, the visitor, who is a surrogate for the narrator, who is “up in the gallery,” is a witness to the demise of the circus and “weeps without knowing it.” He has a secret, unconscious sadness about its demise. His witness is also unconscious.

In Kafka’s story there are only two possibilities for the “young visitor.” He can either say “Stop!” to the original circus spectacle which pushes the “frail, consumptive equestrienne” to her utter limits: “urging” her to go in crazy circles. Or he can let the circus happen and ultimately…fail. We see the latter option unfold and we hear the description of the traumatic rupture as unconscious. Only we, as readers, we “in the gallery,” see it.

But what does Kafka look to engage in this short story/parable? It seems that, for Kafka, both options are still possible. And that the end of the circus is not something to take lightly. The question is not that the circus will end so much as how it will end. However, in order to understand this question, one must grasp the meaning of Kafka’s description of the two kinds of circus events.

The first description seems to describe a situation where “the young visitor” must face a circus that has gone out of control, at the urging of the ringmaster, and spun into wild circles. But he must face it and the audience and say “Stop!” By doing this he can, consciously, suspend the madness. This poses an interesting challenge to a kind of Nietzschean or Bataillean “yes saying.”  (And it is important to note that Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals, associated the original, historical “no” of morality in the Western tradition with the Jews.)  The second description, in contrast, describes the circus in a state in which the audience is separated (alienated) from the thrall of the performance. And the visitor’s cry at this failure of the circus is unconscious.

Which ending is better? What ending should we choose? Or is it too late for the circus?

(In the next blog entry we will discuss Augustine’s reading of the circus. And in the third entry to this series we will discuss the two of them, together.)


Too Much…Life: On Eric Santer’s “Psychotheology of Everyday Life” – Part I


Many Continental thinkers discuss “excess.” Besides Friedrich Nietzsche, the most notable exploration of excess can be found in the writings of Georges Bataille. He loves excess and his writings exude what he calls “expenditure” and “waste,” which, to his mind, is what life is all about. His book, Inner Experience is one of the most interesting evocations of excess and it takes to it as one would take to a religious passion. He rides life, with all its ups and downs as if it is a roller coaster that he doesn’t stop riding, repetitively:

Not enough! Not enough anguish, suffering…I say it, I, child of joy, whom a wild, happy laugh – never ceased to carry…I forget – one more time: suffering, laughter, that finger. Infinite surpassing in oblivion, ecstasy, indifference, toward myself, toward this book: I see – that which discourse never managed to attain. I am open, yawning gap, to the unintelligible sky and everything in me rushed forth, is reconciled in a final irreconciliation. Rupture of all “possible,” violent kiss, abduction, loss in the entire absence of all “possible,” in opaque and dead night which is nonetheless light – no less unknowable, no less blinding than the depth of the heart. (59)

To be sure, Bataille is blinded by all of the excess. He can no longer project any “possible” things that he will actualize in a rational project. For him, life itself, in its excess, ruins the possible. And though this is the case, he still says, it’s “not enough.” He wants to be ruined he wants an excess of unknowing: “I am open, yawning gap, to the unintelligible sky.” This feeling, for him, is an admixture of suffering, destruction, and joy. He embraces it.

The only thing missing in this embrace of life, in all its excess, is…the other.

Drawing on the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and the theological ideas of Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Santer, in his book On the Psychotheology of Every Day Life (which plays on the title of Freud’s famous book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life), brings the other into this relation of the self to excess. This is an important move that has yet to be thought through, especially with respect to what interests me most as a schlemiel theorist: comedy and its relation to the life and the other.

Santer correctly sees Freud’s work on Trauma, Fantasy, and psychoanalysis and Rosenzweig’s work on the “new thinking” as challenging the “old thinking” and philosophy. The old thinking, philosophy, is based on a departure from life and excess. Nietzsche and Bataille new this, but their work looked to invert this departure by way of privileging Evil over Good or Life over thinking. This inversion, however, becomes just another form of metaphysics. As Gilles Deleuze points out with respect to Bataille and deSade, in Masochism, this is the irony at the heart of their work. The idea of Evil, which is actualized by endless transgression, is still…an idea or principle.

Santer, it seems, is acutely aware of this trap. For this reason, he is very careful to trace the path away from life and back to life by way of Freud and Rosenzweig. However, what makes Santer’s endeavor so fascinating is that he starts his book with an interpretation of two parables that illustrate the movement of a child away from life, due to shock, and toward something that will “deaden life.” Strangely enough, he chooses two parables by writers who were fascinated with children, man-children, and the schlemiel: Franz Kafka and Robert Walser.

Santer chooses Walser’s story, “The End of the World” to illustrate the movement from wonder, excess, and too much life to fantasy, philosophy, and deadening:

On and on it ran, past many sights, but took notice of the sights it passed. On and on it ran, past many people, but took no notice of anyone. On and on it ran, until nightfall, but the child took no notice of the night. It gave heed neither to day nor night, neither objects nor people, it gave no heed to the sun and none to the moon and every bit as little to the stars. Further and further it ran, neither frightened nor hungry, always with the one thought in mind, the one notion – the notion, that is, of looking for the end of the world and running till it got there.

Paraphrasing and quoting the rest of the story, Santer’s reading sounds much like Kafka’s “Before the Law.” (And, as he notes, Kafka lovingly read Walser.) In that story, the “country bumpkin” comes before the law and waits to gain entry but, in the end, remains only on the threshold. Santer’s narration of Walser’s story echoes this situation:

Exhausted from its travels, the child finally arrives at what the farmer’s wife confirms to be “the end of the world.” Upon waking from much needed sleep, the child, who we now learn is a young girl, asks if she might stay at the farm and be of service to the family. She is taken in to the home (much like Kafka’s “country bumpkin” is taken in, before the law), at first as a maid but with the promise of a future as a genuine member of the clan.

From here Santer goes on tell a Kafka parable which also illustrates a similar fleeing from life to thought and fantasy. Kafka’s story, “The Top,” tells the “story of a philosopher who sought after groups of children playing with a top, imagining that were he to seize the toy in the midst of its rotation he would discover universal truths”(12).   However, the project fails repeatedly and the philosopher enters into a “quasi-psychotic state.”

Santer justifies his citation of these two stories as an “introduction” to the “one of the central preoccupations of this book,” which is “the problem…of inhabiting the midst, the middle of life”(13).   These characters, according to Santer, can’t inhabit the midst of life, they flee it. The girl, of Walser’s story, “appears…to subscribe to the metaphysical fantasy that the world is itself a container-like something, a possible object of experience with properties like those of other objects in the world”(14). And in Kafka’s text, “the metaphysical dimension of the activity in question is explicitly marked as such: a philosopher is in search of the Universal, the General, the Concept.” They both want to occupy a space “outside of life, beyond the limits of meaningful activity” and from there to “grasp what underlies that life.” This, says Santer, is a fantasy.

The interesting thing, at this point, is that Santer could continue his book by writing about Bataille, who wants to destroy the possible and efface the fantasy of a vantage point beyond life. However, what Santer does is not simply to affirm being the midst of life but being in relation to the other.   This kind of life is not simply based on a relation to excess in general but a specific kind of excess that comes with relating to and being exposed to the other. An excess that comes from beyond oneself as well as an unconscious, even mechanical kind of excess that comes through oneself in relating to the excess of the other which one cannot master so much as expose oneself to.

(This latter excess, which comes out in relation to the other, is something that interests me deeply since it hits on something comical about conversation and the awkward acknowledgment of the other.)

….to be continued….

Maurice Blanchot: Reading….Writing, Nothing to Laugh About


Maurice Blanchot is an odd figure in Continental Philosophy and literary criticism. He regarded his writing as meaningless; nonetheless, he was honored as the source of an entire generation of philosophy and literary criticism. Michel Foucalt, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean-Luc Nancy have all written essays on him and clearly acknowledge their debts. Nonetheless, in her introduction to The Space of Literature, Anne Smock reminds us that, in America, literary critics like Geoffrey Hartman stated that “Blanchot’s work offers no point of approach whatsoever”; and even in France, George Poulet said that Blanchot is an even greater waste of time than Proust.” Nonetheless, Smock praises Blanchot for making criticism a lot like what she defines as literature. His work, like much of literature, is “wasted time”:

It presents the literary work as that which permits no approach other than wasted steps; it uninterruptedly expresses the incomparable passion which literature commands.

Her reading suggests, much like Blanchot, that proper readings of literature should admit that they are really “wasted steps” and that all literary criticism is, at bottom, a lie if it doesn’t admit to this experience. This is hard for me – as an American-Jew who loves to read and make sense of things – to believe. Literature is not a waste. I actually see it as a treasure trove of meaning.  Yes, the text, in a Midrashic sense, is inexaustable, but meaningful interpretations can and should be made.  The Rabbis don’t experience dread when they read, they experience joy.

I’ll be honest with you. I admit that I spent several years reading Blanchot and taking on his texts as Derrida or Foucault suggested I or anyone who read their reading of him would. But, in the end, I realized that I had been duped. The reason why I felt this way was because I realized that although his writing may be filled with irony, it lacks a sense of humor.   And in short: there is nothing to laugh at in his work. And that has to do with the excess of dread, failure, and powerlessness that his texts obsess over, at length.

Dread ruins everything: but, most importantly for himself – a reader and writer of literature – it ruins reading and writing. As Martin Heidegger says in his essay “What is Metaphysics,” “The Nothing nihilates” everything. And this is disclosed via Dread/Angst. It ruins the world; in The Step/Not Beyond (Le Pas Au-Dela), Blanchot tells us it ruins reading and writing:

Dread makes reading forbidden (the words separated, something arid and devastating about them; no more texts, every word useless or else foundering in something I do not know, attracting me to it with resistance, understanding as an injustice). To write, then, the effect of a negative hallucination, given nothing to read, nothing to understand. (63)

What gets me is the ban that he insists on. If I am forbidden to write or read by virtue of Dread that means, I am powerless to derive any meaning from writing or reading. But Blanchot goes on to say that “dread forbids dread.” Does this mean that dread can’t even be experienced?

When dread forbids dread, preventing my being abandoned to it in order to better hold on to me. “You will not transgress me.” – “I will not sanctify you.” The unsureness of certain dread. (63)

Does this mean that, in a Kierkegaardian sense, because of Dread I may be confused as to whether I have something to resist or obey?

Blancot uses a literary type of reflection to illustrate (is that the right word) this non-experience of dread:

It is like a figure that he doesn’t see, that is missing because it is there, having all the traits of a figure that would not figure itself and with which the incessant lack of relation, without presence, without absence, is a sign of a common solitude. He names it, although he knows that it has no name, even in his language, this beating of a hesitant heart. Neither of them lives, life passes between them leaving them on the edge of space.

Wordless in the midst of words.

As one can see, there is nothing to laugh about in Blanchot or, for that matter, literature. But is that literary experience? Would Blanchot say the same for a comedic line from…let’s say Samuel Beckett? What would he say about what Beckett would call the “laugh that laughs at the laugh?”

One wonders. Oh well.

Here is a line from Beckett that is humorous and a little dreadful.

But suddenly I was descending down a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set afoot in my lifetime. But soon realizing I was going downhill I turned about and set off in another direction. For I was afraid if I went downhill of returning to the sea where I had sworn never to return.   When I say I turned I mean I wheeled around in a wide semi-circle without slowing down, for I was afraid if I stopped of not being able to start again, yes, I was afraid of that too. (“The Calmative”)

This fear, this neurosis, makes fun of dread. So does Woody Allen in his short story “My Philosophy.” In the last section, entitled “Aphorisms” he speaks to the theme of dread in Continental Philosophy and laughs it off the page:

It is impossible to experience one’s own death objectively and still carry a tune.

Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you’re dressed for it. 

Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.

And some people say reading Woody Allen is a “waste of time.”   We report, you decide. (That is, if you are not, at-this-moment, (non)experiencing Dread. If you are, well, that’s …nothing to laugh about.)

When in doubt, always ask Groucho: