He Says I Look Like a Jew: Anti-Semitism, Misfortune, and Crypto-Jewishness in Robert Walser’s “Jakob Von Gunten”



What I love about a great novelist is his or her ability to surprise the reader.  However, sometimes the surprise throws everything the reader thought about the writer into question.  This is especially prescient when the main character of his or her novels is often someone we find charming, pitiable, and yet insightful.  What happens when that character says or does something surprising that puts our identification with the character (and the novelist) into question? More to the point, what happens when that surprise has anti-Semitic content?  How does it alter the way we read a writer?  And how does a reader go beyond the surface to figure out the meaning or point of this or that anti-Semitic content? All of these questions came to the surface when I came across some anti-Semitic content in Robert Walser’s 1908 novel, Jakob Von Gunten.  Reading it, I wondered if Walser, a  very subtle writer, was affirming it, rejecting it, and trying to go beyond what Karl Marx and others called the “Jewish Question,” or actually identifying with the “misfortune” of Jewishness.

Robert Walser’s characters are often pitiable and yet endearing.  In a recent essay I wrote on Robert Walser’s novel, The Tanners (written the year before, in 1907), I address an important moment in the text when Simon (the main character of the novel, who I associate with the folkloric character, Simple Simon), in a drunken state, tells a table of strangers to say cheers to misfortune.   He is a torn man.  Strangely enough, he wants to celebrate this.

Misfortune is educational, that’s why I’m asking you to raise your glasses with the glittering wine to drink a toast to it.  And again! There.  I thank you.  Let me tell you, I’m a friend of misfortune, a very intimate friend, for misfortune merits feelings of closeness and friendship.  It makes us better – that’s doing us quite a good turn…No, it’s destiny – misfortune – that’s beautiful.  It’s also good, for it contains fortune its opposite.  (259)

Reading this one feels great pity for the main character who, gradually, seems to destroy himself.  His self-hatred and torn character, which is based on the fact that he feels responsible for not being able to keep a job, cannot reconcile itself with the fact that he would rather walk or wander the world and let go of the demand of society…to work:

That I’d have to withdraw into apathy, antipathy, and bitterness.  No, things stand quite differently, they stand brilliantly, they couldn’t stand anymore brilliantly for a person just becoming a man: It is I –I – who have insulted the world.  The world stands before me like an infuriated, offended mother: that face I’m so in love with: the face of Mother Earth, demanding atonement! I tally up everything I’ve neglected, dreamed away, overlooked and transgressed. (349)

He is miraculously saved by a waitress in a restaurant he wanders into.  Unlike Simple Simon at the fair, she gives him a free taste of pie and listens to his story (with all its misfortunes).  She tells him to “stop.”

You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully.  You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly.  Do you know what it is you need?  You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate.  (350)

These last lines are profound.  And the journey I went through, as a reader, showed me how powerful Walser’s tragic-comic message is.   Walser, in the novel, suggests that Simon’s brother, Kaspar, a visual artist, is the perfect humble servant.  Kaspar isn’t a torn servant.  Simon is.  This makes recognition him feel imperfect and like a failure.   This leads him to self-deprecate to a level which, as we see above, is nearly suicidal.  Walser’s tragic moral lesson is that when a person is going down that path he or she cannot save him or herself through writing or, as Walser puts it, “daydreaming.”  You or I need the other because nothing, save for her words, can make us stop and save us from the self-torment that comes with failure and self-sabotage.

The other – like the woman who, as Walser’s passage suggests above, teaches Simon to whisper – teaches us to whisper when speaking to her rather than scream at ourselves.

Although I was inspired by this final message in his novel, I knew full well that Walser’s characters, like Simon, are hard to read.  Their self-doubt and bitterness is lacerating, but the insights we read, and the wonderfully creative writing style, from page to page, sometimes redeems it and makes us forget about how tormented he is. Either way, these light, comic moments come in spurts.  They are, like the character, small. And the reader, for taking the reprieve they offer, becomes small and naïve.  After all, who wants to be bitter.  It’s better to dream.  Who needs misfortune?

But most recently my reading of Walser has been altered.

When I came across an anti-Semitic comment in Robert Walser’s Jakob Von Gunten, I was shocked.  Speaking of his friends Kraus, who is also at the Benjamina Institute (which teaches people how to be servants), the main character, Jakob, writes of a Kraus’s reaction to a photographic portrait of himself.  Jakob, before saying this, is a character who is quite similar to Simon of The Tanners. But this changes the portrait of Walser’s Simpleton:

The portrait, a really good one, shows me looking out very very energetically into the world.  Kraus tries to annoy me and says that I look like a Jew.  At last, at least he laughs a bit.  “Kraus,” I say, “please realize, even Jews are people.”  We quarrel about the worth and worthlessness of the Jews and it is splendid entertainment.   I wonder what good opinions he has: “The Jews have all the money,” he thinks.   I nod, I agree, and say: “It’s the money that makes people Jews.  A poor Jew isn’t a Jew, and rich Christians, they’re dreadful, they’re the worst Jews of all.”  He nods.  At last, at last I have found the person’s approval.  (57)

As one can see, Jakob tries to change Kraus’s perspective about Jews by trying to break Jews up into two groups: Jews who are wealthy and Jews who are poor.  And he expands the definition of Jew to be anybody who is rich (such as “Rich Christians”).  Even so, Jew remains a derogatory term (Karl Marx in his essay, “On the Jewish Question,” does much the same by associating capitalism with Judaism).   It is anti-Semitic.  Walser’s Jakob basically sees goodness in terms of a generic kind of poverty, and not as “Jewish.”

Kraus responds by saying that Jews and Christians really “don’t exist” there are only “mean people and good ones.  That’s all”(57).   He asks Jakob what he thinks about this idea which reduces everyone to humanity rather than to faith.   The two have a “really long discussion.”   But we don’t hear the conclusion.  It disappears.  And what happens, in stead, is Jakov’s paen to the truly humble servant: Kraus.  In contrast to Kraus, his life is meaningless and truly small:

The good, fine soul.  Only he doesn’t want to admit it….Kraus has character: how clearly one feels that.  Of course, I’ve written the account of my life, but I tore it up.  Fraulein Benjamenta warned me yesterday to be more attentive and obedient.  I have the loveliest ideas about obedience and attentiveness, and it’s strange: they escape me. (57)

I find this detour fascinating because the appeal to charm comes into conflict with the anti-Semetic thread (that he also tried to redeem by calling all rich people Jews).   He portrays himself as a hopeless daydreamer who is really innocent.  He can’t be a perfect servant, like Kraus, because his mind (like our minds) likes to wander. This is charming.

He associates morality with daydreaming:

I am virtuous in my imagination, but when it comes to practicing virtue?  What then? You see, then it’s quite another matter, then one fails, than one is reluctant.  Also I am impolite.   I long very much to be courtly and polite, but when it’s a question of speeding ahead of the inductress and opening the door for her respectfully, who’s that scoundrel there, sitting at the table?  Who springs up like a gale to show his manners? Aha, it’s Kraus.  Kraus is a knight from head to toe.  (58)

In his analogy, he is the one who sits down.  He’s belated. Kraus’s service is on time.  While Kraus is the “knight” who “belongs in the middle ages,” Jakob is an ethical failure.  Like a schlemiel, his intentions don’t match his actions.  (He is good in his imagination but fails to act…on cue.)

Kraus is the perfect model to his comical failure: “Kraus only wants what is right and good.  That is no exaggeration at all.  He never has bad intentions.  His eyes are frighteningly kind….When one looks at Kraus, one can’t help feeling how hopelessly lost in the world modesty is.  (58)

As a reader, I wonder, can Kraus redeem anti-Semitism? Has his reduction of Jew to humanity saved the day?  And can I forgive Jakob for his attempt to re-define Jewishness (albeit in a way that retains traces of anti-Semitism)?

In the end of the section, before the reader is presented with Jakob’s autobiographical essay, which he tore up, Walser’s narrator, Jakob appeals to the compassion of the reader.  The words he chooses are echoed in the work of Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, and even Paul Celan:

I like listening for something that doesn’t make a sound.  I pay attention, and that makes life more beautiful, for if we don’t have to pay attention there really is no life. (59)

Walter Benjamin notes something like this in his Kafka essay when he writes – reflection on what makes Kafka’s fiction so unique – that “attention is the silent prayer of the soul”(Illuminations, 134).

What’s astonishing is that this whole reflection – which ends off reflecting on the beauty of listening and attention – starts off with Kraus’s “comic” anti-Semitic insult that Jakob looked “like a Jew” in a photo.    And, strangely enough, the very last words point out why he might “look like a Jew.”  In contrast to Kraus, Jakob is too urban and distracted by the “promises’ and “turmoil” of the city:

Kraus…has an education that is as simple as it is purely human.   The turmoil of the big city with all its many foolish, glittering promises leaves him completely cold.  What an upright, tender, solid human soul!  (57)

The city makes him look tormented and pushes him to dream not act.  He is not simple.  Like the other, better, Jew, he is poor.  And his poverty is urban; it has to do with the “turmoil of the city.”  The Jew is associated with the city but also with poverty and wealth.   Only Kraus seems to be fully human.  He is a faithful servant.  Jakob is a distracted dreamer whose life is a misfortune.

I’ll end off with the first two stanzas from a well-known Heinrich Heine poem – written in the 19th century – which Walser may have heard second hand or read. The sad fact of the matter is that the author of this poem was a famous German Jew who many would call “self-hating.”  The poem speaks for itself.


“The New Jewish Hospital in Hamburg”


A Hospital for Jews who are sick and needy,

For those unhappy threefold sons of sorrow,

Afflicted by the three most dire misfortunes

Of poverty, disease, and Judaism


The worst by far of all three the last is,

That family misfortune, thousand years old,

The plague which had its birth in Nile’s far valley….

Addressing this “misfortune,” Heine ponders whether time will “e’er extinguish, this glowing ill.”  But then he turns to but doesn’t name Jesus directly, as the “man of deeds” and “the heart” who offers some kind of solace:

Yet in the meantime let us

Extol the heart which lovingly and wisely

Sought to alleviate pain as far as may be,

Into the wounds a timely balsam pouring.




A man of deeds, he did his very utmost,

Devoted to good works his hard earned savings,

In his life’s evening, kindly and humanely,

Recruiting from his toils by acts of mercy.


Heine’s “man of deeds” sounds a lot like Jakob’s characterization of Kraus.  But the last line of Heine’s poem tells us that “the man of deeds” is different from the Jews who can’t seem to end their misfortune.  It is incurable: He “wept deploring,/ his brethren’s great, incurable misfortune.”

Reading Walser, I wonder if and whether the irony, in the spirit of Heine, is that Jakob’s worst misfortune is not that he isn’t Kraus but that he is really….Jewish.  But as Hannah Arendt suggests in her reading of the schlemiel, this misfortune can be read in a comical sense.  Perhaps Jakob – because he can’t seem to leave misfortune behind but, at the same time, also seems to be the only one who is truly free in a world where simplicity is warped by elitism and phoniness – might be what Heine would call a schlemiel.  Like Heine’s schlemiel, Jakob could be read in terms of what Arendt would call a “lord of dreams.”

When Kraus tells him that he “looks like a Jew,” perhaps he meant it in a comical and not an anti-Semitic sense?  Either way, the fact of the matter it that the question of anti-Semitism circles around this Robert Walser character and its possible relationship to Heine’s reading of the Jew and even the schlemiel is thought-provoking (to say the least). My discovery of these pages has given me and should give anyone interested in the schlemiel or in the fiction of Robert Walser a lot to think about.




2 thoughts on “He Says I Look Like a Jew: Anti-Semitism, Misfortune, and Crypto-Jewishness in Robert Walser’s “Jakob Von Gunten”

  1. I think you are misreading the reference to Jews in Jakob von Guten. He repeatedly describes Kraus as being a bit stupid. Kraus’ comment was stupid and Jakob toys w Kraus by intentionalky using false logic to comically poke fun of his comment. Walser’s protagonists are bright simpletons surrounded by stupidity with no way out. Their odes to beauty and turning the grotesque beautiful, simple, comical is their defence and keeps them intact. Anti Jewish sentiment was prevalent at the time in Berlin, it would be normal for the author to mention this through at least one character and incident. If anything the protagonist identifies with being Jewish more than being part of the careless masses. This was how I interpreted the passage.

    • Hi, George. Thank you for your well-thought through comment. I agree with much of what you write here. Yes, if seen contextually, we can read these anti-Semitic references as a product of the times. As I noted in the essay, however, this was my first response. Its not often that I come across anti-Semitic references in a well-respected modernist author (some, like Eliot, Pound, and Celine, have been thoroughly exposed and discussed in the critical world). While I cannot excuse the time, I find Jakob’s treatment of it to be telling. While Kraus may be stupid, Jakob deeply respects him and takes him for a model of the perfect, humble servant. He respects his simplicity. And although you say he is, in Jakob’s eyes, stupid, its not so clear. I agree that the protagonist does identify more with Jewishness but that comes more from us – as readers – than him (that is, if we define Jewishness in terms of the “effeminate” and in terms of heteronomy, etc and assume that this is what Walser was thinking; and that may in fact be the case, but we have know way of knowing; we can only infer). I really like your favorable reading of Walser but sometimes, as Ben Lerner suggests, he does let things slip by. I will dial back on accusing Walser of partaking in anti-Semitism but I will not dial back on the fact that he doesn’t denounce it in the novel. Yes, he humors it. But that’s all. That aside, there is, I think much to discuss regarding the comment that Jakob looks like a Jew. While we know what it means for Kraus and we see how Jakob deals with it, what does it mean for Walser and his readers. Is there an allusion to the possibility that Jakob is a crypto Jew? That his actions – which are not fully dedicated to service and are often absent-minded and highly self-conscious – “Jewish”? That’s worthy of discussion.

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