What Goes Up Must Come Down: Kafka, Writing, and the Apocalyptic


Apocalyptic disaster is and has been a preoccupation with many great writers and artists. Apocalypse is also a grave concern for prophets and prophesies that span Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern Religions. Oftentimes the apocalyptic is described as something that is not only revelatory and miraculous but also destructive. As I have pointed out elsewhere, a French Avant Garde playwright, actor, and poet like Antonin Artaud, was deeply interested in how the release of destructive energies was not simply a tragic affair. In fact, he argues that the Marx Brothers – in their first film, a comedy, Animal Crackers (1930)– released destructive energies.   Comedy, if it is relevant, is ultimately apocalyptic.   In the wake of destruction, Artaud claims that we can see our bodies and movements in new and vital ways. Although this operation “destroys the mind,” Artaud claims that a new kind of intelligence emerges which is musical and poetic.    He is enthralled with it and finds such a comic-slash-apocalyptic moment in the Marx Brothers to be mystical and inspiring.

Artaud was not alone in his artistic interest in the apocalyptic. In a diary entry from January 27, 1922, we learn that Kafka felt a “strange, mysterious, perhaps dangerous, perhaps saving comfort…in writing.”   But in a letter to Max Brod on July 5, 1922, the “dangerous” element of the element overshadows the “saving comfort of writing.”   Instead of lifting him up, writing plunges him down.

Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child’s lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in these nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one’s stories in the sunshine….at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only of this kind. And the diabolic element in it seems very clear to me.

Kafka’s reflections on writing bear a fascinating resemblance to what Gershom Scholem calls the messianic idea. In his essay on the “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” Gershom Scholem discusses two aspects of the Messianic Idea: one is restorative while the other is apocalyptic.   It is the latter aspect which, according to Scholem, was suppressed by the Rabbis for millennia. And in the Middle Ages, Maimonides leaves it out of his famous account of the messianic (in the Mishna Torah).

Scholem sees the Apocalyptic idea as holding a destructive “anarchic element.” He describes it in terms of its threat to Jewish law (halakhah) since, as a part of this idea, there is a notion of a “new Torah” that will emerge. Although the Rabbis interpret this as meaning that new secrets will be revealed, they do not think, in any way, that the mitzvoth (commandments) or halakhah will be altered.

Playing on this, Scholem plays the devils advocate and images what kinds of thoughts might go through someone’s head who entertains the apocalyptic idea of a new Torah:

A positive commandment or a prohibition could scarcely still be the same when it no longer had for its object the separation of good and evil to which man was called, but rather arose from the Messianic spontaneity of human freedom purely flowing forth. Since by its nature this freedom realizes only the good, it has no need for all those “fences” (on Rabbinic law) and restrictions with which the Halakhah was surrounded in order to secure it from temptations of evil. At this point there arises the possibility of a turning from the restorative conception of the final re-establishment of the reigning of law to a utopian view in which restrictive traits will no longer be determinative and decisive, but be replaced by certain as yet totally unpredictable traits which will reveal entirely new aspects of free fulfillment. Thus an anarchic element enters Messianic utopianism. (20-21).

Scholem claims that the allure of the apocalyptic element is not only to be understood in terms of the freedom it will release, it should also be seen for its power: it will, in his words, “destroy history.” And by history, he means something that is thought to be made by and for humans. (In terms of Judaism this looms large because the “winners,” as Scholem’s good friend Walter Benjamin notes, write history. Jews were, for millennia, excluded from history. Hence, the appeal to destroy it.) The miraculous element – equated with God’s power to decide – will bring humanity and its self-image to its knees and vindicate the Jewish people. Scholem – echoing the person who revels in the apocalyptic – finds this to be very exciting.

The person who took the Apocalyptic to its limit and caused generations to push it away with both hands was the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi.   Writing on him in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Scholem describes what he elsewhere calls Zevi’s “messianic activism.” This had a major influence on those who followed in his wake such as Jacob Frank. He created a kind of nihilistic imperative the called for a descent into evil for all Jews.

The radicals could not bear the thought of remaining content with the passive belief in the paradox of the Messiah’s mission. Rather did they hold that as the end draws nearer this paradox necessarily becomes universal. The action of the Messiah sets an example and to follow it is a duty. The consequences that flowed from these religious ideas were purely nihilistic, above all the conception of a voluntary Marrranism with the slogan: We must all descend into the realm of evil in order to vanquish it from within.   IN varying theoretical guises the apostles of nihilism preached the doctrine of the existence o spheres in which the process of Tikkun can no longer be advanced by pious acts: Evil must be fought with evil…..I am referring to the fatal, yet at the same time deeply fascinating doctrine of the holiness of sin….That in the religious nihilism of Sabbatianism, which during the eighteenth century proved so dangerous to the most precious possession of Judaism, its moral substance. (315)

As Scholem notes above, the descent into evil is “dangerous” because it threatens the “moral substance” which informs Judaism.   Although radical energies may be released in this descent, the sacrifice is too great. Kafka, it seems, was aware of this. Through the descent into evil – which he equates with writing “at night” – Kafka feared the worst.

Scholem poses the Sabbatinian obsession with the Apocalyptic as a nihilistic commandment of sorts. Strangely enough, Kafka also felt as if there was a commandment to write. But when he writes of this commandment he doesn’t quite understand it because he was confused about what writing actually meant. (We also see this, above, in his January 27, 1922 diary entry.)  But in his letter to Brod it seems that he knows what it accomplishes. He can’t seem to decide on its Apocalyptic meaning.  Like Kierkegaard’s depiction of Abraham, Kafka doesn’t know if writing rises him up or brings him down. Is the commandment to write coming from Satan or God?  Will his writing release demons or will it, as Walter Benjamin said of Kafka, help?

It all depends on how one sees the stakes. If, as Scholem suggests, the release of these energies implies the destruction of the “moral substance” of Judaism and the destruction of the law, perhaps one should think again. Will aesthetics – if it is apocalyptic – always come into conflict with ethics? Or is this – since it is “diabolical” – a conflict with faith? Kafka and Scholem were fascinated with these questions since, as Jews and Jewish thinkers who were fascinated with the mystical,  they both knew that Judaism’s concern for law and morality are at stake.   Why, after all, would the Rabbis tread so carefully around the apocalyptic imaginings of the prophets?

Bodily Discoveries: On the Marx Brothers & Antonin Artaud’s Redefinition of Humor


Antonin Artaud was a French actor, playwright, and poet who was (and is) most well known for his book The Theater and its Double – written in the 1930s – and the concept of the “Theater of Cruelty.”   The play was widely read and amply discussed in Europe and the United States by people interested in new forms of Avant Garde theater.   (Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and many other European thinkers have written many brilliant essays on his work.) What I – like many others – find so striking about his work is its intense awareness of the physical body.   Theater, for Artaud, emerges more out of the body than out of the mind. The mind’s acute awareness of the body is necessary if what he called the “theater of cruelty” is to be affective.   Strangely enough, this turn to the element of cruelty (bodily pain, which he calls “metaphysical”) has its roots in comedy.

One of the main inspirations for Artaud’s theater project (and for his awareness of physicality) was the Marx Brothers. He discusses this influence in a few different places in The Theater and its Double:

In one of the Marx Brother’s films, a man who thinks he is about to embrace a woman puts his arms around a cow, which moos. And through a conjunction of circumstances which would take too long to relate, this moo, at this moment, takes on an intellectual dignity equal to that of any woman’s cry.

A situation of this kind, which is possible in the cinema, is no less possible in the theater as it is today. One would not have to do much – for example, replace the cow with an animated puppet monster endowed with speech, or with a man dressed as an animal – to rediscover the secret of an objective poetry based on humor which the theater renounced and abandoned to the Music Hall, and which Cinema later adopted. (236, Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings)

In a section devoted solely to the Marx Brothers, Artaud claims that Animal Crackers (1930) – one of the first films by the Marx Brothers – “liberated” a “special magic which the customary relationships between images do not usually reveal, and if there is a distinct poetic level of the mind that can be called Surrealism, Animal Crackers belongs to it”(240).

To explain this magic, Artaud muses that the “poetic quality of a film like Animal Crackers might correspond to the definition of humor, if this word had not long since lost its meaning of total liberation, of the destruction of the reality of the mind”(240). By “total liberation” and the “destruction of the mind,” Artaud is suggesting that humor – of the Marx Brothers’ variety – is the liberation of the body which Artaud sees as enslaved by the mind.   He is also suggesting – with the use of the words “destruction of the mind” – that humor is violent. This kind of violence – paralleling the film – is utterly “unique.”

In order to understand the powerful, total, definitive, absolute originality…of a film like Animal Crackers, and at times a film like Monkey Business, one would have to add to the notion of humor the notion of something disturbing and tragic, a fatality (neither fortunate or unfortunate, but difficult to express) which slips behind it, like the revelation of a dreadful illness on a profile of absolute beauty. (240)

Even though Artaud sees a kind of violent humor in the Marx Brother’s films, he doesn’t see the destruction of the mind as total. Their films allow for a “kind of intellectual freedom” and for a kind of movement that is “poetic.”

In Animal Crackers when a woman suddenly falls over backward on a sofa with her legs in the air and for a split second shows us everything we might want to see, when a man suddenly grabs a woman in a drawing room, does a few dance steps with her, and slaps her on the behind in time with the music, a kind of intellectual freedom is exercised in which the unconscious of each character, repressed by customs and conventions, avenges itself and our unconscious at the same time.   But in Monkey Business when a man wanted by the police grabs a beautiful woman and dancers with her, poetically, with a kind of serious pursuit of charm and grace of attitude, here the claim made on our sensibility seems double, and demonstrates all that is poetic and perhaps even revolutionary in the jokes of the Marx Brothers. (241)

Although this comic playfulness seems light, Artaud illustrates the violent side of this film when he argues that the “music of deliverance” we find in the films “sufficiently indicates the dangerous side of all these funny jokes, and shows that when the poetic spirit is exercised, it always moves toward a kind of seething anarchy, a total breakdown of reality by poetry”(241). The “music” or “poetry” of their humor is meant to breakdown the mind and reality and release suppressed energies. And this, for Artaud, is what makes it a template for the “Theater of Cruelty.” It is double: seemingly light and innocent but ultimately dangerous. But he revels in this. To be sure, he finds the anarchic element of their films to be vitalizing and enervating. Their films – through what he calls “vibrations” – physically awaken Artaud’s mind.

The triumph of all this is in the kind of exaltation, both visual and auditory, that all these events acquire in the half light, in the degree of vibration they achieve and in the kind of powerful disturbance that their total effect ultimately produces on the mind. (242)

This “total effect,” which is destructive and liberating, belongs to what Artaud would call humor.   In many ways the doubling that Artaud discusses has a nihilistic aspect since the liberation it suggests – while “poetic” and “musical” – must destroy not just the mind but also the world if the energy he speaks of is to “escape.”  What makes the Marx Brothers very interesting is that the world that they destroy is still in tact. Correcting Artaud, I’d say that the world is not annihilated but – as Heidegger might say – nihilated. It is not the same world from before. It is different but it is not as tragic as Artaud would have us believe. Shaking up the world is another way of waking everyone up. And that is what the Marx Brothers did.   But this has the effect of – and on this point Artaud is correct – enlivening it. The point – as Artaud well knew – is to pay close attention to what kinds of life are being circulated and how. The humor of the Marx Brothers – with its fast movements and unexpected transitions – gives us a sense of how powerful wit can be in a world that has become too customary and familiar.

Wit helps to take the world out of its thoughts and to throw it back into its body. And this thrown-ness back into the world elicits a kind of surprise or what I would call a bodily discovery.    Through the films of the Marx Brothers, Artaud – and the world he lived in – was able to make some bodily discoveries.   The question, however, is whether this discovery was of our “cinematic body” of our actual bodies.  Where, after all, does our world begin or end.  Perhaps the two have become contiguous.   Either way, if you are surprised by their humor, you’ll literally (bodily) feel it. And on that point, Artaud is spot on.



Attention Anti-Semitic Trolls: As a Jew, I Have a Right and Responsibility to Address Jewishness and Comedy!


I have written several blog posts on the comedian Louis CK that look into his Jewish jokes, his relationship to things Jewish, and his attitude toward Jewishness. In response to my first query into his Jewishness (July 11, 2013), I recently (just this morning) received a comment by an anti-Semitic troll:

Who cares what Jews think in the first place? They make up less then a percent of the American population. Louis C.K. Does not need them to like him to win over the people.

It’s not the first comment I have received from angry people who don’t like me discussing Louis CK’s Jewish jokes or his Jewishness. I don’t regret or rescind anything I have written. Each of my queries into things that are Jewish is based on legitimate concerns and questions. The only thing I will change about what I have said is to acknowledge that his father is Jewish and is Orthodox.    Nonetheless, the disturbing nature of some of his Jewish jokes remains.

What interests me most is not whether he is a “self-hating” Jew or if he – in dissociation from Jewishness – has become sick of Jews. He is too intelligent for that kind of garbage. As a comedian he takes a lot of risks and many of them pay off.

However, some of these jokes appeal to an audience that is anti-Semitic. And when I see people dropping comments about how my reading of these jokes –as a Jewish cultural and literary critic – is invalid because Jews make up a small fraction of the population, then it becomes apparent that these jokes do create and have created an anti-Semitic problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problems with Jews telling jokes about Jews that are biting. See, for instance, what I have written on Shalom Auslander, Philip Roth., or Bruce Jay Friedman. Jewish comedy pokes fun at Jews and Jewishness in order to make Jewishness more self-critical and flexible.   Jews need to laugh at themselves. And this kind of laughter is an antidote to the tragic seriousness that comes with suffering anti-Semitism for centuries.   As Ruth Wisse and others have argued, Jewish humor helps Jews to survive the travails of history.

Lawrence Epstein notes in his book, The Haunted Smile, how American Jews used comedy in order to not just address these travails but to also find a place in America. Through laughter, a whole generation of Jews carved a space in American culture and were able to gain acceptance.   The idea was to, as Epstein says, “avert anger.”

The problem with some of Louis CK’s Jewish jokes is that while they play with the place of Jewishness and the American understanding of Jewishness that playfulness sometimes triggers people – like the anti-Semitic troll I mentioned above- to think of Jews in a perverted manner (which only affirms stereotypes that they already have). When Jewish humor allows for this kind of thing to happen (which is another way of saying that a form of anti-Semitism might be warranted – those damn Jews are sick, etc) then as a Jewish American literary and cultural critic, it is my responsibility to speak up.

The fact of the matter is that this troll – like so many others – can’t accept the power of critique. It speaks to anyone who has a mind and a conscience. In America, whether this troll likes it or not, more and more people are interested in minority cultures. America is made up of minority cultures. And each minority culture can and should speak about how it depicts itself and is depicted by others.   The worse thing that can happen to a minority is that the majority culture won’t listen to its views and forsakes them. Fortunately, that’s not happening. And if an anti-Semitic troll doesn’t like that, that’s too bad. His comical hero – who to his mind is trashing the Jews and giving his anti-Semitism a basis – is fallible. Sometimes his jokes are problematic.

And if anyone is the master of acknowledging and openly presenting the ridiculousness of being human, that is Louis CK. He speaks his mind and doesn’t hide his misery, anxiety, and finitude. He would be the first person to call himself an asshole – and he does so on a regular basis. The problem is that this troll and many like him can’t do the same. They lack the honesty and courage to do so. And that’s a damn shame.   Insisting on one’s power is the anti-thesis of comedy.

My favorite kind of Jewish comedy is the kind that deflates and makes things small that are thought to be larger than life. And to take a sacred cow as a target.  It’s humbling while being at the same time offensive and even sad.    Self-deprecation is something Louis CK does very well. But sometimes he targets people and ideas while leaving self-deprecation behind and when that target is Jewish, I’m there to gauge the damage.  It is my right and responsibly to do so!



The Possibility of Laughter: Animals, Laughing Creatures, and Fecundity in Dara Horn’s “In the Image” – Part II


Let’s face it. Many of us would like to believe that potential is something one either has or doesn’t have within oneself. One is given, so to speak, the potential to use one’s capabilities to be a success or failure. One can use one’s mind, one’s experiences, one’s imagination, etc to get ahead. Although this idea is as ancient as the hills (and has a Greek source – think of Aristotle’s notion of capability), there is another idea that also deals with potentiality that has been given short shrift; namely the notion that potentiality is not something internal but something shared.     And unlike the seriousness associated with potentiality, sometimes potentiality – when it is shared – has its comic aspects.   Moreover, it is the fact that a meeting (an event) – since it is oftentimes a surprise or an irruption into the world of otherwise atomistic individuals – is comical that we see this potentiality released.

As I recently pointed out, the power of potentiality (as something that is based in an event or relation) is something that Levinas and Derrida suggest in their reflections on fecundity and laughter. But, as I have noted, the two reflections need to be brought together and they can be brought together by way of a reflection on Dara Horn’s first book, In the Image. Although Dara Horn paints her Jewish main characters as inheriting a tragic reality and history from their ancestors who came over from Eastern Europe, she gives them a kind of comic potentiality which is able to change this tragic reality, perhaps, for the better.

In a journalistic assignment, which is related to questions about Jewishness, God, chance, and the past of a stranger named Bill Landsman (who is older than her, an immigrant, and a survivor) who irrupted into her life, the main character, Leora, stumbles across a Spinoza scholar named Jake in Amsterdam.   But this meeting is the result of many “coincidences.”

Leora was doing a perfunctory fact-check on an article at her magazine that mentioned, in an off-the-cuff kind of way, the philosopher Benedict Spinoza. He job consisted of looking up Spinoza in an online biographical encyclopedia to make sure his name was spelled correctly. (115)

In her search for information about Spinoza, she starts thinking about his understanding of God.

Spinoza believed in God, but the God he believed in resembled the God of the Hebrews only in passing. He deduced that the entire universe was formed from one type of matter, which one could call God….and that the whole world was an extension of God. This meant that God couldn’t interact with creations…since God and the world were one and the same. (116)

She finds Spinoza’s God to be a “magic potion” and wonders at the implications:

The world remained alive, inhabited, pulsing and breathing, yet there were no loose ends anymore. If people got killed crossing the street, or if they took their lives, or if cats turned into lions, you could still believe in God, but you didn’t have to blame God for anything. Everything was simply one, the hems of the world stitched complete. (116)

For Horn, Spinoza, in effect, poses a novelistic question. Do all of the happenstance events in her book – as well as the suicides, deaths, and betrayals – prove or challenge Spinoza’s claims? Is the world “stitched complete” or is the narrative weave – so to speak – torn? How do memory, history, and emotion tear the garment? Can one, quite simply, leave God out of the “picture.” Is God, as title of her book suggests, “in the image”? (It should be noted, here, that Spinoza, like Descartes, rejected the image and the imagination as befuddling the intellect. The image, for him, was an obstacle to proper reasoning and geometric logic.)

When Leora sees a poster at Columbia University about a lecture in Amsterdam, she decides that something (God, the universe, her Jewishness, etc) is telling her to go to Amsterdam:

Leora stared at the poster and found herself seized by a certain passion that she hadn’t experienced since she moved to New York. The word “Amsterdam,” italicized near the bottom of the page, seemed to waver back and forth, like a swaying finger beckoning her, asking her, If not now, when? (117)

Unlike Spinoza, Leora follows a “passion” which emerges when she is “seized” by seeing a word.   The passion taps into something inside her, perhaps a question about what it means to be a Jew who emerges out of the past, perhaps a question about Bill Landsman, perhaps the fact that who she is has to do with who she is. There are many possibilities that this passion taps into and these possibilities are things that Spinoza would find misleading.

When Leora arrives in Amsterdam, she goes to the lecture and sees that Jake, a professor from Columbia University who specializes in a historical approach to Spinoza and his excommunication from the Amsterdam community, is giving the lecture.   He was different from the other lecturers who had a “faith in the importance of Spinoza the way Leora’s nighttime addicts had faith in drugs”(120). They were too self-assured. He was different because he was more interested in Spinoza in a historical context. He was, in other words, more simple in his openness to possibilities while these other scholars had taken to what Spinoza would call necessity.   He is more interested in history and memory which dwell in the realm of possibility.

After asking around about what to do, Leora goes to the Rijksmuseum. (This a place where – as Horn shows in a very long section – Bill (Wilhelm) Landsman went one day before the Holocaust when his father (who suffered from PTSD) hit him and sent him into flight from the home. He left without his coat with a Jewish symbol on it. “Jews and dogs” where not allowed in public places. But since Wilhelm was without this coat he wanted to see if it was possible for him to go to the museum and act “as if” he was a non-Jew. It worked and he saw works of art he had never seen before.)   While there she notices that the professor from Columbia is also there. His name is “Jake.”. She approaches him and they talk. This is the beginning of a long relationship which eventually leads to a wedding engagement.

The single most important moment of their relationship is comical and leads to a kind of knowing that prompts them to experience a shared potentiality.

In this moment, Horn depicts Jake in a comical manner so as to set the tone for this comical event. The original joke hints directly at the theme of history, memory, and potentiality:

Before he met her, Jake used to feel like the butt of that old joke describing a Rhodes Scholar: a bright young man with a brilliant future behind him. Ha ha. She was the first person in years who didn’t see him that way. (214)

Even though she sees his future ahead of him, Horn still depicts a comic scene that is replete with animality and Jewishness (animals are, as I have argued elsewhere, can be used as comical figures for Jewishness).   Although Leora keeps the Sabbath, she has a ritual of watching movies on Friday not after her Sabbath meal. The movie that evening is The Planet of the Apes.   That evening, the movie was a prelude to possible sexual encounter. But it fails:

After aping the apes, along with the human among them lost on his own planet, they took off their clothes, but not all of them. Jake asked her once more, but Leora couldn’t help him. (214)

Leora, it seems, is not interested in sex. Jake is comically frustrated. And this leads to a comical dialogue: “Oh, so I’m the kind of boy you don’t sleep with.” “Yes, that’s right,” Leora answered. “You’re very Leorable, you know.” He said “after a moment of trying to decide whether or not to say what was on his mind.” He explains that Leorable is the “opposite of adorable,” she throws a pillow at him and she “cowered in the corner of the bed, aping the human captured by the apes, until they started communicating in ape noises again. Growling the words in her nearly incomprehensible ape voice, she grunted, “Would you put my pajamas on for me, and then I’ll send you home?”(214)

The experience, though comical, is humbling: “Fighting his own fire with all his might, he turned back around to where she was sitting half-naked on the bed…He made a face like a crazed alien ape and put the pajama pants over her head”(215). The fact that the moment of self-defeat is not tragic but comic is telling. It suggests an interesting reading of Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik’s reading of man’s “self-defeat” as, on the one hand, an articulation of “tragic reality,” and on the other an “image of God.”   (It is highly likely that Horn may have read his work The Lonely Man of Faith where he articulates this idea.)

Jake’s comical self-defeat as animalic and yet very human and even “in the image” of God. It suggests what Rabbi Joseph Solveichik would call tzim-tzum (withdrawal). But this withdrawal is comical and suggests a new possibility that is announced by laughter.   Horn notes this:

Leora started laughing from inside the pants, so hard that he had to pull them back off her head so that she wouldn’t suffocate. But when the elastic waist stretched around the crown of her head….she looked at him with a gaping smile he had never seen before. (215)

Leora’s laugh is of a laughing creature. And this smile is – so to speak – revelatory. It is “in the image” of God. And Jake notices it:

Jake saw that smile and knew, as if he had seen her face projected in a giant image on a bare wall with a voice in the background reading a caption, exactly what she was thinking.   That thought made him forget about feeling insulted for flattered, made him forget about how much he wanted her, because he suddenly understood that she was going to be his. (215)

This moment of revelation – beyond desire and self-consciousness – is a comical event that is the prelude to marriage and what Levinas would call fecundity.

Someday, he heard a voice reciting the thought written across her beautiful forehead, you’ll be taking our daughter into bed, and you’ll put her pajama pants over her head and make her laugh so loud, and I’ll be standing before the doorway waiting tor you to drink in my smile, unable to believe how lucky I am. (215)

What Jake experiences is something Spinoza would regard as arbitrary. But for Levinas and Horn it is central: it is a moment of potentiality and freedom. It is a future that pardons that past and makes room for the other. It is a source of joy and hope and it is central to Jewishness. Being in the image, for Horn, has to do with a shared sense of purpose that is linked to children and the future. Fecundity is, as Levinas says, pardon. It is also, as Derrida briefly suggests with respect to Sara, an irruption of the possible. But, most importantly, this possibility is announced in a laugh and a smile. And it can be articulated in fiction which is able to show – by way of its lacunae – how the threads of the past can find a knot in the potentiality of a future which takes the past into account. It suggests that reality need not be tragic (as Rabbi Soloveichik suggests) and that humility (self-defeat) may have a comic rejoinder. But that rejoinder can only be made in view of the possibility of new life. And it can only be made by a “laughing creature” whose laughter is “in the image.”


The Possibility of Laughter: Laughing Creatures and Fecundity in Levinas, Derrida, and Dara Horn’s “In the Image” – Part I


Laughter is an ambiguous thing. It can either exclude one or include the other. And, in relation to time, one might think it relates solely to the present moment. Laughter is all about the new. Henri Bergson associated it with progress and “Creative Evolution.” And Leo Strauss argued that laughter was the key element of modernity since it was able to advocate the notion of progress by mocking tradition. For Strauss, mockery seems to be the means by which the present triumphs over the past. But this need not be the case. Laughter can create a bridge between the past and the future.

From the Torah, we learn that the matriarch, Sara, laughed when she was told that – at her late age – she would have a child. It didn’t seem possible. The link between laughter and the possibility of having a child  suggested by the Torah is not by any means arbitrary.  It speaks to something phenomenological, temporal, and existential.

Emmanuel Levinas, in his book Totality and Infinity, uses the word “fecundity” to describe the relationship between the child and possibility.

Citing Isaiah 49, Levinas notes that:

My child is a stranger, but a stranger who is not only mine, for he is me.   He is me a stranger to myself….No anticipation represents him nor, as is said today, projects him….the encounter with the Other as feminine is required in order that the future of the child come to pass from beyond the possible, beyond projects. (267)

Fecundity is about what is to come and Levinas writes about it with great joy. It has a kind of messianic element to it. Fecundity opens one up to the possible since what is fecund is what he calls “entirely pardoned” and free. It is beyond aging and triumphs over time and history.  (As Hannah Arendt also points out forgiveness is able to change the past.  Likewise, she also sees birth in terms of a “new beginning” which can change history.)  The “pardon” that fecundity offers – the pardoning of the past by way of the possibility of the future – is given to me through my child:

The discontinuous time of fecundity makes possible an absolute youth and recommencement…and in a free interpretation and free choice, in an existence that is entirely pardoned. The recommencement of the instant, this triumph of the time of fecundity over the becoming of mortal and aging being, is a pardon, the very work of time.   Pardon in its immediate sense is connected with the moral phenomenon of fault. (282-283)

Sara’s laugh goes from incredulous to miraculous when Isaac (which means “he will laugh” in Hebrew) is born. It is his birth that makes her laugh a kind of laughter that is born out of the “time of fecundity.”

In a session on hospitality on January 8, 1997, Jacques Derrida takes not that he has spent a lot of time – in the last session – talking about the relationship of mourning to hospitality. And one would think that, given his lecture, hospitality had more to do with tears and less to do with their opposite, laughter:

We have not yet encountered this strange possibility, regarding hospitality, the possibility of laughter.     We have encountered tears (those, for example, of the women who, during Tupinamba ceremonies of hospitality and ‘when they receive friends who go visit them,’ they begin to cry as a sign of welcome…). We have spoken of mourning, of hospitality as mourning….But we have not evoked laughter. (358, Acts of Religion)

For Derrida, laughter relates to “what awaits us” since the “question of hospitality is also the question of waiting, of the time of waiting and of waiting beyond time.”    Derrida tells us that the host is waiting for and welcomes the “unexpected guest.” This, to be sure, was Abraham’s greatest hope. He wanted to be surprised by a strange guest.

Speaking of Abraham, Derrida points out how, in the wake of childlessness, G-d visits Abraham. And he does this by way of noting the “apparition” of the stranger: “This unexpected apparition by an uninvited visitor who makes himself seen, who shows himself, who comes (“shows up”), the non-awaited irruption is, in itself, already a visitation”(372).

The only problem with Derrida’s readings is that although he suggest that he will talk about the laughter in terms of the unexpected, he keeps on returning to a kind of irruption that is closer to tears and mourning than to laughter. It’s as if he can’t laugh.

And although he suggests that the unexpected child is related to Sara’s laughter, he sees laughter as a challenge to the notion of pardon and fecundity to what we saw above:

Yes, laughter denies. It is mad, this demented laughter, and it denies lying.   This laughter is, like every laughter, a kind of degeneration of lying which lies still while denying lying or while avowing lying. (396)

Laughter is synonymous to saying “something else than what I want to say, through my body, my history, the economy of my existence, of my life or of my relation to death. And here is another lie to be forgiven”(396).   Laughter, it seems, has nothing to do with pardon. And if it needs to be forgiven, how could it have anything to do with what is to come?

Derrida doesn’t answer this question. He suggests that it may have something to do with what is to come. But what he misses is that the laughter at the “non-awaited irruption” is a comical visitation. Laughter can open one up to the other – whether that other is a child or another person. Laughter can say yes to what is to come. While Derrida doesn’t note this here, he does articulate this – elsewhere – in relation to the yes-saying in Joyce’s Ulysses. Yes laughter has an “eschatological tone” since it is “of a gift without debt, light affirmation, almost amnesic, of a gift or abandoned event”(Acts of Literature, 294).     Derrida refers to “Elijah” (who in Judaism is seen often as a prophet or angel disguised as a stranger and is also the harbinger of the Messiah) in relation to the eschatological aspect of laughter.     Does this suggest a laughter about what is to come?

In the essay on Ulysses, Derrida finishes by telling the reader that there are two kinds of laughter that emerge out of the “yes” (307): one is, as we have seen above, “amnesic” and negating while the other affirms the other and memory.

I would like to suggest that this discussion – which his strangely missing from Derrida’s texts – has to do with a kind of laughter that is in relation to fecundity. It establishes a link between the past and the future (which in the form of the child, is other, is pardoned, etc).

Dara Horn, in a key chapter in her novel, In the Image, shows how the yes of laughter has to do with fecundity. It not only brings together male and female, it also brings together man and animal, as well as the past and the possible future.   And, as Dara Horn also shows, laughter has to do with the trust that comes with sharing a life with the other who one watches over. The apparitions of laughter – as Derrida would call them – are “in the image.” And, since the laughter Horn is talking about is shared, it prompts us to take a risk in relation to what is to come for…us.

If laughter is – as Derrida says – to be seen in terms of irruption, vision, and time, laughter  requires us to look at what appears in its wake.   But, as Horn would say, we need not look to closely at the dazzling presence of the other. The laughter of fecundity prompts a kind of look that accepts imperfection and shared contingency.  And it is a look that is shared with the other vis-a-vis the future possibly of….children.  Of a stranger coming into one’s life….who, unlike us, is pardoned.   The possibility of laughter hinges on irruption.   But the question is…what kind of rupture are we talking about.  After all, Derrida had a problem with abrupt humor and the laughter it evoked.


To be continued…..



Object Anti-Semitism (BDS & More Steven Salaita)

What’s wrong with Sasha Baron Cohen?! Props to Jewish Philosophy Place for this piece!

jewish philosophy place


More from the department of BDS and anti-Zionism. Yes, the Dictator was and remains dumb and offensive, and yes, a racist movie. But why dredge it up now as if it’s “the latest” thing that we need to be talking about? What has Baron-Cohen done lately to pull this kind of animus.

The timing and the key to this rant by Steven Salaita, which you can read here,  is how Salaita is posing the question, “What is Baron Cohen?” The “descriptors” include “potty-mouthed prankster, a religious zealot, a white male,” a “Zionist,” and finally, at the end, “an apparatchik of Hollywood.”

Alongside the caricature of a caricaturist,  its’ the question that sticks. Not a who, but a what is Baron Cohen. The very form of the question indicates the way movement-BDS leaders like Salaita “dehumanize” “the enemy.” The actor is not a subject or a person, but a “what” or an…

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