Another Kind of Schlemiel: On Gene Wilder, Family, Comedy, Melancholy & Prayer


Gene Wilder’s (Jerome Silberman’s) passing has given me so much to think about.  Ever since I was a little kid, I (like millions of other children) was fascinated with Gene Wilder’s rendition of Willie Wonka.  After seeing the film, I wanted to see every film he acted in.  I felt as if he was a member of my Jewish American family and that, like a teacher, he wanted to help me – through his acting – to let go and turn my actions into a vehicle for a comical kind of transcendence or for establishing a creative and yet humble relationship with people and the world.   I would literally try out some of his gestures (with my head, my eyes, or even my posture) with my own family members and then take note of whether or not I made them smile.  In the midst of this, I would check in with myself and see how I felt.  In a way, this kind of activity gave me my first taste of how embodiment could be comical and spiritual.  It conjured up moments or events that took me out of one world and into another (which is sustained by a kind of improvisational and endearing way of being).   Wilder also gave me my first intimation of what I would call a spiritual schlemiel.

When I learned, yesterday, that he passed away I wanted to find out what it was that spoke to me in his work.  And since Wilder was always so articulate, I went online to find some interviews with him.  What I found was fascinating.  I learned that his comedy was very influenced by his mother and father and that he, from the very start, thought of himself as melancholic and felt a desire to pray.   More importantly, he realized that his comedy wasn’t simply a means to save himself; it was way of helping his mother make her way through suffering.    But most notable is the fact that he identified this task with the schlemiel.

In this 1976 interview with Bobby Wygant, Wilder is asked about the film he did at that time, The Frisco Kid (1976).

When Wygant takes note of how his character comes across as a “bumbler,” she basically articulates the description of a schlemiel and asks Wilder to respond.  She says that she “identified” with the schlemiel character/Rabbi he plays: “We have to talk about the Frisco Kid, that’s why we are in Los Angeles.  I identify with that Rabbi, the character you play, he’s a bumbler, he knows up and down, maybe, but he doesn’t know left and right and north and south and gets lost probably in his own back yard.  I identify with that guy.”

Wilder’s answer is telling.

He starts off by saying that, as an actor, his job is to make the audience emotionally identify with the hero and create a – using a psychoanalytic register – “transference.”   As a result, they are “no longer watching that character but watching themselves” (which would imply that they are seeing themselves as the schlemiel and emotionally identifying with it).   Wilder takes it further and suggests that men and women can identify with the characters he plays because what he is speaking to goes beyond gender to something spiritual which he associates with the “emotional make up” of the human being (for Wilder,this has to do with what he calls identification).

In response to this, Wygant asks the ultimate schlemiel question (which suggests that there may be no fine line between a fictional and a living schlemiel): “Is there a bit of a bumbler in Gene Wilder?”

In response, Wilder says – with a delightful gesture – “that’s a good question, I have never been asked that before…and I want to give you as deep an answer as I can.”   Wilder begins by turning to his family and stating that “there is the mother in me and the father in me.”  And through this framework he discusses the familial origin of his schlemiel characters (but with a caveat; his father was not a schlemiel in the typical sense):

The mother in me is not a bumbler at all.  The director in me and the writer is not a bumbler.  My father in me, from whom I think I derive most of the qualities that you see on the screen, not what made me want to be an actor, that was my mother, but the basic naivite, the innocence, that’s my father.  I wouldn’t call him a bumbler but I would say that he was, there was something so naïve about him…a stranger could say that he was…a klutz, a boob, a schlemiel…if they didn’t know him…because he was so innocent…but not a bumbler…but that quality is inside me, yes….and it comes out in different ways…I can go on stage and act…but I’m not a bumbler at that but…just walking down the street I can say the wrong thing, I say the wrong name….that way, yes.   

Wilder’s wording is telling.

He sees his father as the source not only of his innocence but also his bumbling.   The type of schlemiel he is referring to – who is more of an innocent simpleton than just a simple bumbler-has its source in Rabbi Nachman’s tales.  He is not alone in making such distinctions.  In an interview, the award winning novelist, Bernard Malamud, does the same thing.  They both want to give the bumbler his spiritual roots and not just get caught up in the antics.

But what sticks most in this interview are his words about the relationship of family to comedy. In a 2007 interview for PBS, Wilder goes more in depth about this relationship and also brings in two other elements melancholy and prayer.

In the (animated) interview, he takes note how, when he was eight years old, his mother had a heart attack.    He remember how the doctor, who was sweating profusely, told him to “never get angry because you might kill her….but the other thing he said was try to make her laugh…For the first time in my life I tried consciously to make someone else laugh.”   His ailing mother – who laughed at his jokes – gave him confidence to be a comedian:

When you please your mother it gives you confidence to please other people.  And that’s where the courage to make people laugh came from but I didn’t want to be a comedian, I wanted to be an actor….And that’s what got me into acting, putting on an act, because in life I wasn’t funny, on the stage on in the movies I was free…I could do whatever I wanted to.

But then he turns to a difficult time in his life.  When he was 18 he “felt the compulsion to pray….and I must have prayed for twenty minutes or so….I didn’t know what I was praying about, I was feeling guilty about something…the next day it was 30 minutes…and than an hour and two hours.”   Wilder then confesses and discloses the source of his guilt: he was too worried about his mother dying to enjoy his freedom in life.  He “didn’t think he had the right” to be happy when she was suffering.

Following this, Wilder turns to the opening scene in Willy Wonka (1971) and about how he wanted to first appear to children in the film with a cane, limping, and then do a tumble so as to show he was just acting (he really wasn’t cripple and in pain).  The director, in response, says that he doesn’t know why he’d want to “do that for,” and Wilder responds that following this tumble “from that time on no-one will know if I am lying or telling the truth.”  The animated image, following this, depicts him as a dual character (two-in-one).

But the point that is missed is that his comedy is not only fun; it is also sad.  His comic character (his schlemiel)  is innocent and has the aspect of a wounded child.  And perhaps this indicates that Wilder never really left his guilt for his suffering mother behind.  He tried to cover it up and make people laugh, but it slips through the cracks.  And perhaps this is what made Wilder so endearing.  His schlemiel character’s emotional content is foregrounded.  He isn’t simply a bumbler.   His schlemiel character prays and is wounded by the death (not his own) of the (m)other.

And as we can garner from these interviews, his seriousness as a writer and actor drew from his mother while his desire to make her laugh came from his father.  It came in response to the realization that his ability to make her laugh might help her to stay alive.  But, at the same time, he knows that this naive and innocent belief in the power of comedy, couldn’t keep him mom from suffering…and eventually dying.

Gene Wilder’s acting embodied a kind of innocence and a kind of mortal awareness in the face of death and suffering.  Bringing them together made his acting deeply moving and truthful.

That said, I want to end this essay by way of switching tenses and speaking directly to you, Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman).  The tumble you did at the opening of Willy Wonka gave us hope that we could turn the tables.  But it also showed how the basis of your comedy was not in acting but in the family.  You tumbled for your mother (and perhaps in memory of your mother) and for the crowd. Rest in peace Gene, you were family.   You made us laugh through the suffering (while having us remember that it was still there).  The world won’t be the same without you.  I’ll say a prayer for you who are…another kind of a schlemiel and  not simply…a blunderer, but a teacher.

PS: Of all the films I saw you in, I think that it was the Frisco Kid that spoke most to who you are or wanted to be.  In the schlemiel Rabbi, you seem to have brought together Gene Wilder and Jerome Silberman.   In that film the actor, the Jew, and the comedian became one.








Sausage Party & Gnostic Techno Religion

Zachary Braiterman on the new Seth Rogen film. He takes note of the gnostic tendencies. I wonder…did Rogen ever take a class in religious studies?

jewish philosophy place

Columbia Pictures’ “Sausage Party.”


It seems like there’s no way to shake off religion in popular American film, even at its most impious and irreligious. The narrative sense of a satisfactory end won’t allow for it. Sausage Party could have concluded this way or that –with what one could be sure would have been the grim, brutal work as the human gods return to Shopwell to clean up the total havoc  wrought in the wake of the great food revolt or with the realized post-coital bliss of the poly-perverse food orgy. But that’s not what happens as, instead, the unio mysitico of Gnostic religion supersedes the cruel, anthropomorphic gods of conventional religion.

After coming to true knowledge about the bitter truth that this world is an unjust and unkind veil of suffering run by demonic demi-urges only thought to be divine, the denizens of Shopwell finally reject the pious delusions about the Great Beyond taught by “the great religions.”…

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Decaying Fast: Pain, Cynicism, and Satirical Wit in “The Critique of Cynical Reason”


When I went to my first philosophy class on Plato and Aristotle – which was taught by a world class Aristotle scholar – I remember wondering about whether or not what Aristotle said about happiness was true.   Do all things – from plants and animals to humans and stars – just desire to be happy and will, without a doubt, be happy by living up to this or that unique purpose (which is built into its nature or form)?

What always stumped me was the fact that – as Freud would argue in his classic, Beyond the Pleasure Principle – some people seem to enjoy what makes other people unhappy: pain.  Could one learn more about humanity from reflecting on the condition of these people who clung to pain rather than to the majority of others who only do things that made them happy?  Does the desire for unhappiness teach us anything unique about humanity and about…ourselves?

In his book The Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk argues that this study of these people and this way of life is necessary because it is the study of our modern historicity and consciousness.  Sloterdijk calls this study – nodding to Adorno – “melancholy science.”   And he names its object of study – which is at the core of modern historicity and consciousness – cynicism.

Instead of living in happy times, we live in times where things that once were great are now decaying and dying.  Since Sloterdijk believes that reflection on cynicism can, if peppered with embodied sarcasm, cynical rudeness, and biting satire, bring us to something greater than Enlightenment (it can turn into what he call’s – following Nietzsche – “gay science,” he insists that we need to face the death and decay of culture and ideas and the consciousness that arises in its wake.

Philosophy is the first and most important decaying thing he mentions in the preface:

For a century now philosophy has been lying on its deathbed, but it cannot die because it has not fulfilled its task.  Its farewell thus has been torturously drawn out. Where it has foundered in mere administration of thoughts, it plods with its demise, it would like now to be honest and reveal its last secret.  It confesses: The great themes, they were evasions and half-truths.  Those futile, beautiful, soaring flights – God, Universe, Theory, Praxis, Subject, Object, Body, Spirit, Meaning, Nothingness – all that is nothing.  They are nouns for young people, for outsiders, clerics, sociologists.  (xxvi)

The realization and “confession” that all things that the Enlightenment stood for are false is painful.  Sloterdijk identifies with the confession and goes on to cynically lament his (or rather “our”) historical condition of decay.  He laments that there is no longer any Hegalian “spark of the uplifting flight of concepts or of the ecstasies of understanding.  We are enlightened, we are apathetic.  No one talks anymore of love of wisdom.  There is no longer any knowledge whose friend (philos) one could be”(xxvi).  We are living, in other words, in a kind of numbness.  We would prefer not to feel the pain that we are all too familiar in the wake of philosophy’s decay and demise.

We are cynical because, although we know these things, we have learned to accept that in order to survive, we must accept that “knowledge is power.”  Everything is power.   And if a concept dies, it has no power anymore.   And we all know that “new values have short lives.”  We have gone through so many failed utopian ideas and have grown weary.

Sloterdijk argues that no amount of education will guarantee that “things will improve.”  If anything, he argues, that instead of solving “tomorrow’s ‘problems’; it is almost certain rather that it causes them”(xxvii).

The cynicism that Sloterdijk is not only describing but also performing must come to terms with itself and what is at stake.  What does it mean that we have become apathetic and indifferent because so many things are falling apart and are “problematic”?

Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference.  This thread should be followed. It leads to a place where one can speak of cynicism and “cynical reason.” (xxxvi)

What is this place that Sloterdijk is talking about?  Where must the “critique” of “cynical reason” take place – if it can’t take place from an Enlightened objective position?  Sloterdijk’s answer is surprising and suggestive:

I believe that Critical Theory has found a provisional ego for critique and a ‘standpoint’ that provides it with perspectives for a truly incisive critique – a standpoint that conventional epistemology does not consider. I am inclined to call it a priori pain.  It is not the basis of elevated, distanced critique that achieves grand overviews but stance of extreme closeness – micrology.  (xxxiii)

From the place of pain and a “stance of extreme closeness,” suggests Sloterdijk, one can critique.  Does this mean that only critique that “matters” is one that feels pain and is painful to hear?  Sloterdijk insists that the only thing critique needs to do is find a language for what makes us uncomfortable:

If things become too close for comfort for us, a critique must arise to express that discomfort.  It is not a matter of proper distance but a matter of proper proximity.  The success of the word “concernedness” (Betroffenheit) grows from this soil; it is the seed of Critical Theory that germinates in new forms today.  (xxxiii)

The problem with this approach to critique is that its truth – its pain – comes into conflict with other pains.  Sloterdijk, however, doesn’t seem to catch this:

What we perceive of the world can be ordered in psychosomatic coordinates of pain and pleasure.  Critique is possible insasmuch as pain tells us what is “true” or “false.”  In holding this view, Critical Theory makes the usual ‘elitist’ assumption of an intact sensibility.   This characterizes its strength and its weakness; it establishes its truth and restricts the scope of its validity.  (xxxiv)

But what isn’t said here is that the “scope” of this or that pain’s (confession of pain, demonstration of pain, etc) validity depends on its ability to show that its pain is greater than all others.  What happens when there is a conflict or when one pain overshadows the other?  What truth is there in a world that throws one pain against another?  In the end, the bitter truth is that there must be power behind this or that pain for it be effective, worthy of critique, etc.

In its wake there will, it seems, always be cynicism or pessimism because, as Sloterdijk argues, there will always be a sense that history makes each of us unhappy.  All of us know too much and we know that in order to preserve oneself, one must still live on despite the disaster.

But, since the modern era is in the wake of the Enlightenment which rejected, as primitive, many medieval ideas about God, nature, and history, there is, also, to this a kind of elitism that develops.   It cannot, like the masses, be “dumb again.”

He draws this idea out of Gottfried Benn’s reflection on modern cynicism:

Gottfried Benn, himself one of the prominent speakers on the structure of modern cynicism, has provably provided the formulation of the century for cynicism, lucid and unabashed: “To be dumb and have a job, that’s happiness.”  But it is the converse of the sentence that reveals its full content: “to be intelligent and still perform one’s work,” that is unhappy consciousness in its modernized form, afflicted with enlightenment.  Such consciousness cannot become dumb and trust again; innocence cannot be regained.  It persists in its belief in the gravitational pull of relations to which it is bound by its instinct for self-preservation.   (7)

It gives in to the circumstances and has to live with its cynical consciousness because it has to act “as if” there is truth when they know there isn’t.  It is a kind of historical fatalism and a kind of bad faith.  It can only go beyond this kind of bad faith if it recognizes – in the wake of failed models – the danger and possibility of fascism (which Sloterdijk argues, is in tune with the pain of historical and cultural decay).    And it can only win if it does battle with it through another kind of criticism, which, though based in pain, mocks and makes fun of its dangerous opponent.

Sloterdijk believes that “ideological critique” fails because this is more than a war of ideas (which is something we get from the Enlightenment).  Only if there is a threat to one’s self-preservation, can there be an embodied sense of pain and only then can critique matter.   He calls this “kynicism” (with a k).   It takes the Diogenes and fuses it with the spirt of Nietzsche and Heine.  It makes arguments that are satirical and painful and in doing so it does something that ordinary “ideological critique” cannot do.     He calls this, in the spirit of Nietzsche, “gay science.”

Sloterdijk wrote The Critique of Cynical Reason in 1983, during the Cold War.  Even so, it has even more relevance today.  One merely look on Twitter to see how, on a daily basis, people, expressing pain, vie with each other for attention.   They are all battling with cynicism because the world – as a result of social media is changing so rapidly around us. It is “decaying fast.” So much so that it causes many of us to wonder who we are and what we can do.   We do things but…what is the true thing we can do?  Is it the battle against a fascist force which, in turning backward and toward something more universal, threatens to devour us all?  And if there are so many types of pain, which has the most value if all of them are vying for attention?

Taking Sloterdijk seriously would imply that we take historicity and decay quite seriously.  It would suggest that the comic aspects of existence only matter when they are seen against the tragic nature of modernity.  The endless circulation and evaporation of ideas, fads, cultures, things, media events, their nothingness, is the starting point for the pain and the battle which, Sloterdijk knows, is not so simple as a fight against fascism.   It is also a battle waged from countless angles and spaces.  It is not by any means unified and in the world where the battle rages there is a constant threat of implosion and disunity.  And yet, the cynicism comes when we know this but act as if nothing is going on.  It is numb but not dumb.

Strangely enough, the only way to change things, for Sloterdijk, is through a kind of painful thinking that is….satirical.   Once again, Louis CK comes to mind when thinking about how, in our world of competing forms of pain, one vies with another (and to make it more interesting, given over by a comedian who embodies the idea of “decaying fast” and painful critique):









It’s Not So Simple: Jean Amery on Wittgenstein, Jewish Self-Hatred & Simplicity


I have written a lot on the place and meaning of simplicity and smallness in both Schlemiel Theory (see here and here) and Berfrois (see here and here).  As Ruth Wisse points out in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the schlemiel character is rooted in the Hasidic take on the simpleton (as found in Rabbi Nachman’s tales).   There is, to be sure, a resonance between different folk traditions on this topic.  (Walter Benjamin explores this in his seminal essay on Kafka.)   I have, for this reason, done a lot of work (and will continue to do more) on the fiction of Robert Walser (which takes simplicity and smallness as central motifs).   But, as Jean Amery points out, simplicity is a double sided coin.  As he notes, anti-Semitism draws on the distinction between the “simple” gentile and the “clever” Jew.  And as Sander Gilman points out in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews, the German-Jewish maskilim (Jewish intellectuals, Enlighteners) found the language of the Talmud to be too intellectual and clever:

David Friedlander, one of (Moses) Mendelssohn’s staunchest supporters and the individual seen as…his successor, published a study localizing the meeting place of the corrupt language and the corrupt discourse…..Friedlander sees in the very language of the Talmud simply another form of Yiddish…Talmudic language and discourse are one; they are a sign of the corruption of the Jews of Poland”(101).  Fichte, the famous German thinker’s, solution was “not merely ban or burn books but to ‘cut off their heads on the same night in order to replace them with those containing no Jewish ideas. (101)

The Nazis and many anti-Semites also took Jewish “cleverness” and the lack of peasant simplicity (and a heightened urban sensibility) to be a problem.  And here we see how simplicity – in contrast to how it is used in schlemiel literature and in the fiction of writers like Kafka and Walser- can turn into a weapon of hatred.

In a powerful essay on Wittgenstein’s attitude toward Jewishness, Jean Amery points out how, although Ludwig Wittgenstein (who many great scholars took to be a genius) tried to rise above the vicissitudes of history and arrive at the “simple” essence of language and thought, he was taken in by anti-Semitism and “self-hatred” (since Wittgenstein, himself, was Jewish).   His ambivalence about Jewishness demonstrated that he had “never truly and wholeheartedly believed in the logic that mirrors the structure of the world”(108, Radical Humanism).   Amery’s genius is to point out that Wittgenstein exposed his inability to lift himself above historical and linguistic (anti-Semitic) bias when he wrote about Freud’s literary style.  While “Freud writes excellently and it is a pleasure to read him…he is never great in his writing”(106).

In response to this, Amery notes that while “every literary historian agrees” that Freud was the “greatest philosophical writer in the German language,” for “Wittgenstein he could not be great, since greatness is a dimension that no Jew is permitted to achieve”(106).   Wittgenstein sees Freud as too “clever.” What Wittgenstein “was searching for, after he had explored the ‘bare heights of cleverness’, was something of the “good and sound life” that doesn’t brood on itself.  He believed that it could be found in the valleys of a ‘slow wit’ that he would rather have designated as ‘simplemindedness’”(106).    (Amery points out how Wittgenstein picked this infatuation with simplicity when he was younger and decided to be a school teacher in a small town.)   But, as Amery argues, this was a mistake since Wittgenstein was a “restless wanderer” and not a simpleton at all (which is, as Amery argues, an anti-Semitic code for “Jewishness”).  Wittgenstein’s life and his work was, in other words, informed by denial and what Amery calls Jewish self-hatred.

Instead of coding simplicity in terms of Jewish or not Jewish, the schlemiel suggests a kind of simplicity that challenges its negative appropriation.  But, more importantly, the problem with the German anti-Semitic and German Jewish mindset at the time is that it didn’t understand the Jewish folkloric history of the schlemiel.  Even though, as Arendt argues, Heinrich Heine did introduce it to Germany, it didn’t seem to overshadow a kind of Self-Hatred which saw Jewishness in terms of a complexity garnered from the Talmud, Yiddish, etc.   The lesson is that simplicity can be comical, but it can also slip into a tragic kind of anti-Semitic language and metaphysics (which pits Jew against Gentile).  As Amery shows, we can clearly see this in Wittgenstein’s blind-spot.  In response to this, Amery suggests that what Wittgenstein lacked was a sense of irony.     Were he to have this, he could have a more complex understanding of simplicity rather than an understanding which took on truly metaphysical proportions (which, in his own work on logic, he tried to avoid).  Perhaps this is the greatest irony of all?


The World is Behind Me, Time is in Me: Jean Amery on Aging, World, and Time


As we get older, our understanding of time and space change.  The world is not the same.  And while time doesn’t matter as much when we are young, the older we get the more time matters and affects us in a bodily and a psychological sense.   In contrast, the world becomes less pressing.   What I love about literature and memoir is the fact that they have the capability of providing the reader with an acute sense of time passing and the world receding, on the one hand, or, on the other, a sense of eternity and a world that is alive and open.    Contrasting Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten to Jean Amery’s book-slash-memoir of aging, On Aging, has given me a lot to think about regarding the relationship of time and space to aging and youth.

While reading Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, I was astonished by how the main character, Jakob, a young man, was obsessed with the question of how or even whether to enter the world.  He equates entering the world with becoming a servant (the school he went to, the Benjamenta Institute, trained students to become servants) and getting a job.  But in the novel, his middle aged Principal has a mid-life crisis, breaks down, dismantles the school, and asks Jakob to come along with him on a Quixotic journey. But the journey, as Walser underscores, is not into “the world” but into “wilderness.”

The journey into the wilderness seems to transform both Jakob and the Principal into Sancho Panza and Don Quixote who, in their journey, don’t experience the passing of time so much as the endless movement into space.   However, Walser wants the reader to take note about how, whenever Jakob “thinks,” his movement is thwarted.  Thought, for Walser, makes one feel like one cannot work or be in the world let alone venture into it.  Thought suspends motion.   Thought only makes him feel small, like a “zero,” and incapable of living in the world.  The only alternative, posited at the very end of the novel, is to move and stop thinking.    The presumption is that the journey into the “wilderness” with the Principal will take the sting out of “time” and will displace the “world”.

Jean Amery’s book On Aging takes a much different stance on time, space, aging, and the world.  Amery would say that Jakob and the Principal are totally different beings; while one puts the world behind him, so to speak, the other has the world in front of him.  While the one has a sense of time, the other has none whatsoever:

The young say of themselves that they have time before them.  But what really lies before them is the world, which they absorb and by which they let themselves at the same time be branded.   The idea is that the old have a life behind them, but this life that is no longer actually lived is nothing but time gathered up, lived, passed away. The less time we think we have before us, since our body and statistic do not hide anything, the more time there is in us.  (14)

For the young, “time becomes an impatient expectation for what is coming to them and is properly due to them”(14).  The “world is open to him.”   In contrast, the aging person doesn’t see the world as open to him and doesn’t expect anything from the world:

The old or aging person…experiences the future daily as the negation of the spatial and thereby of what is really going on.  The future…is not time, but it is the world and space….But for those who have noting or just a little or only something inessential to expect, who climb down into  the past with its deep well, they stay quietly in their place.  (15)

In other words, Amery suggests, like Kafka and even Walser, that those who no longer look to the world, do not move.  They become time; they don’t venture into space with any expectations.  They have time in their bodies:

They sit there sunken into themselves, assume an embryonic position in bed, close their eyes in order to search themselves, in useless labors of love, for what used to be life, what once was world, was space, but not is only just time.  To be old or even just to feel oneself aging means to have time in one’s body and in what we call, for short, one’s soul.   (15)

In contrast, Amery tells us that “to be young is to throw one’s body out into a time that is no time at all, but life, world, and space”(15).  Walser and Kafka often contrast time and space in a similar manner.  Aging, as they both note, is also connected to the inability to develop.   For this reason, Kafka and Walser often have characters who are old and young; characters who desperately want to move but can’t or move so much as to disclose a kind of fear or desperation about their failure to be-in-the-world.   They are, in many ways, worldless.  As Hannah Arendt claims, the condition of worldlessness is something we often find with the schlemiel character.    But, as Arendt points out, this has much to do with the fact that the character is closer to nature than to culture and society.  For Walser, this means that he doesn’t think.  Yet, at the same time, Walser acknowledges that thought also keeps from being in the world.  Either way, the worldless character, for Amery, is different because, quite simply, he is aging and the “world is behind him.”  When one ages, one loses world…and becomes acutely aware of time.   But what happens to other people?  Aren’t they a part of the world?  Don’t they exist in space…in front of me?  Is it impossible for someone to reach the other when one is older?  Will one be trapped by time?

I’ll end with a movie trailer from a new film – Max Rose (2016) – starring Jerry Lewis and Mort Sahl. It can give us a sense of how the struggle between time and world persists…into old age.  In order to move and live on, one can’t just put the world behind them.


Going to School & Leaving It: Smallness, Education & Faith in Robert Walser’s “Jakob von Gunten”


In school we just don’t learn things.  We also grow and develop.  School is preparation for the real world.  And most children take teachers as their role models.  Students respect the boundaries that are put between them as they would respect the boundaries between parents and children.  These ideas, regarding the meaning and purpose of education, are the backdrop for Robert Walser’s novel, Jakob von Gunten (which was published in 1909).  The only difference is that school, The Benjamenta Institute, is not a typical school.  Its goal is to teach its students to become servants.   The ability of the students to become servants covers a spectrum.  Some are more inclined to service and some less.  The main character, Jakob von Gunten, is less inclined to be a servant because he has an artistic kind of sensibility.  But the fact of the matter is that he is there because he wants to be a servant.  He wants to get a job (and he also wants to be humble).

The only thing that gets in the way, it seems, is his…wandering mind and his endless self-deprecation (which he associates with “thought”).  His smallness seems to be more aesthetic and less active.  He fears that, because he is such a daydreamer,  he will never get a job. After all, as Freud duly noted, the artist is a day dreamer.  How could he keep a job? What good will training a self-deprecating daydreamer to become a servant be?

One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life.  The instruction that we enjoy consists mainly in impressing patience and obedience upon ourselves, two qualities that promise little success, or none at all.  Inward success, yes.  But what does one get from such as these?   Do inward acquisitions give one food to eat?  (23)

At the outset of the novel, we get a sense that the school looks to make the students feel small.  Independence and uniqueness are discouraged:

We are small, small all the way down to the scale of utter worthlessness.  If anyone owns a single mark in picket money, he is regarded as a privileged prince.  If anyone smokes cigarettes, as I do, he arouses concerns about the wastefulness in which he is indulging.  We wear uniforms.  Now, the wearing of uniforms simultaneously humiliates and exalts us.  We look like unfree people, and that is possibly a disgrace.  (24)

The teachers in the school are a brother and sister: Fraulein Benjamenta and Herr Benjamenta.  He sees the Fraulein in an endearing manner and laughs to himself about what he learns from her:

It is little, and we are always revising, but perhaps there is some mystery hidden behind all these nothings and laughable things.  Laughable? We boys of the Benjamenta Institute never feel like laughing. Our faces and our manners are very serious.  (25)

Laughter is seen as a sign of superiority (as Thomas Hobbes would say, it is a sign of mastery over nature).   And Jakob is often chastised by the most servile of the students, Kraus, for always being “goofy” and on the verge of laughter (he is called “Jewish” at one point by Kraus, for appearing too “goofy”).    He is confused about this very issue because, since he has an artistic sensibility, he knows that laughter is an important part of life.  Should he leave it behind?  Isn’t it better to by humble and become the perfect servant? Regardless of what he thinks, the school, apparently, doesn’t teach a servant to laugh. It’s inappropriate.

Generally, we pupils do not like to laugh, that is to say, we are hardly able to any more.  We lack the requisite jolliness and airiness. Am I wrong?  God knows, sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream.  (25)

It seems that Institute is designed to teach students to endure suffering and to give up hope. To be a servant, one must leave these things behind.  And this, in Jakob, the want-to-be-servant’s eyes (not the artist’s eyes), is the basis for becoming a man and stop being a “big child.”

Here in the Benjamenta Institute one learns to suffer and endure losses, and that is in my view a craft, an exercise without which any person will always remain a big child, a sort of crybaby, however important he may be.  We pupils have no hopes, it is even forbidden to us to nourish hopes for life in our hearts, and yet we are completely calm and happy. How can that be? (94)

When, near the end of the novel, the school starts breaking apart (because the Principal and his sister have some major breakthroughs), things change radically.  The teachers do things that, ordinarily, would be considered inappropriate.  Herr Benjamenta tells Jakob what he really feels and steps down from his esteemed position in doing so.  He becomes vulnerable:

“You’re wondering, aren’t you, Jakob, why I spend my life here in the Institute so lethargically, so absent-mindedly, as it were?  Isn’t that so?  Have you noticed it?   But the last thing I want is to lead you astray into giving outrageous answers.  I must confess something to you, Jakob.  Listen, I think you’re an intelligent and decent young person.  Now, please, be cheeky. And I feel that I must confess something else to you: I, your Principal, think well of you.  And a third confession: I have begun to feel a strange, a quite peculiar and now no longer repressible preference for you.” (96)

Jakob is startled and his whole perspective on the school and his task changes:

And now I noticed that the Principal, this gigantic man, was trembling slightly. From this moment, some common bond was between us.  I felt it, yes, I didn’t only feel it, I knew it. (96)

He realizes that he is, at this moment, no longer a pupil (96). He “had just risen to the most unpupil-like heights”(96).    This really confuses him. He wonders if he and Herr Benjamenta are friends.  But he pushes away these thoughts.  Its better to just act and not think; to accept and not to question what has just happened.

Strangely enough, immediately after going over this experience, he realizes that he still hasn’t been able to “find a job”(96).  The two are, in his mind, connected.  And Herr Benjamenta confirms this toward the end of the novel when he notes how, after the Institute is closed, everyone except for Jakob will have a job.  The reason: the Principal asks Jakob to accompany him in his Quixotic journeys.

But the Principal is not the only one to confide in Jakob.  His sister does as well:

Something incomprehensible has happened.  Perhaps it’s of no significance at all.  I’m not much inclined to let myself be overcome by mysteries.  I was sitting all alone in the schoolroom, it was almost nightfall.  Suddenly Fraulein Benjamenta was standing behind me.  I hadn’t heard her come in….She asked me what I was doing, but in a tone of voice that made an answer unnecessary.  She said, as it were, even in asking, that she already knew. Wat then happens, one naturally doesn’t answer.   She p laced her hand on my shoulder, as if she were tired and needed support.  Then I felt strongly that I belonged to her, that’s to say, or is it, that I did belong to her. Yes, simply belonged to her.  (99)

They do things silently. They walk together.  She guides him.  What follows is a kind of dream.   However, there is a scene which follows that is much more grounded in what appears to be reality:

“Jakob, quite seriously now, listen.  I must whisper something to you. Do you want to hear it or would you rather slip into your room here?” “Tell me what it is, Fraulein, I’m listening,” I said, full of anxious expectation.  Suddenly the instructress gave a great shudder. But quickly she controlled herself and said: “I must go, Jakob, I must go.  And it will go with me.  I just can’t tell you.  Perhaps another time.  Yes? Yes, perhaps tomorrow, or in a week?”  (116)

And then she breaks all boundaries and asks him:

“Tell me, Jakob, do you love me a little?  Do I mean anything to you, to your young heart?” She stood there in front of me, her lips pressed angrily together.  I quickly stooped to her hand, which unspeakably sadly down against her dress, and kissed it. I was so happy to be allowed to tell her now what I always felt for her. (118)

After she leaves him, he notes how “everything changed in this once so tyrannical Benjamenta Institute!”(118).  Now “everything is collapsing, the classes, the effort, the rules”(118).  But he is confused.  Is this good or bad?  He feels good (because of the moment of love and breaking boundaries) but he also feels bad.

Following these profound moments, two violent and sad things happen.  First of all, the Principal becomes violent with Jakob when he fears that Jakob (who is more than 20 years younger than the 40 year old principal) will leave him alone and not journey with him into the wilderness.   This shocks and confuses Jakob. But the second thing thing that happens is much more crushing: the Fraulein commits suicide (143).

How can he, after all this confusion and tragedy, go from being an artist to being a servant?  What happens when he no longer seems to have a friend and no longer has a….lover?

At this moment, Walser has Jakob encounter Kraus (who is not an artist, but a servant who…doesn’t laugh or even think of his personal feelings).  Kraus faces the death with the required respect and takes leave of the school and Jakob for work in the world as a servant.  His advice to Jakob is powerful.  He suggests that it may be impossible for an artist to be a servant; since the artist can’t stop thinking or feeling rather than doing.  Jakob may always be a man-child (schlemiel) in Kraus’s eyes:

I hope that worry and toil will take you into their hard, vice-breaking school.  Look, Kraus is saying hard words.  But perhaps I mean it better for you, Brother Funny, than people who would wish you good luck in your gaping face.  Work more, wish less, and something else: please forget all about me.  I would only be annoyed if I felt that you might have one of your shabby cast-away, dancing, here-today-and-gone-tomorrow thoughts left over me.  (146)

Now Jakob must decide.   Now that Kraus and Fraulein Benjamenta are gone, will he go with the Principal on a “journey into the wilderness”?

Jakob has a dream of a woman of beauty laying in a colorful meadow.  He feels “happy” for a “fleeting moment” when he “thought of This person”(152).   She floats away like a water vision and then “he” comes into focus.  Jakob realizes that it is the Principal.  He sees him, not it a meadow, but in a desert on a horse (looking like a cross between an “Arab” and a knight).  They travel through the desert, the horses become camels, time passes, as in a dream, imperceptibly (153).  People and space also passes in a graceful manner as they leave “culture” behind:

The customs of the people we saw delighted us.  There was something mysterious, gentle, and delicate in the movements of these countries.  Yes, it was as if they were marching along, no, flying along.  The sea extended majestically like a great blue wet world of thought.  One moment I heard the wingbeats of birds, then animals bellowing, then trees overhead. (153)

As the reader can see, Walser describes this journey as touching all the senses.  It resembles something one might find in a Cervantes novel.  They are the heroes of a journey; the Principal, so to speak, is Don Quixote and Jakob becomes Sancho Panza.  When Jakob thinks, in his dream, that this arrangement and journey is “well and good”(153), he wakes up to see that he is sleeping next to the Principal.  He wakes him up and tells him that, yes, he will go on the journey with him into the “wilderness.”   As readers who (perhaps) have jobs and work, many of us would read this as a strange (and even pedophilic) kind of fantasy.  How could Jakob do this?  Isn’t he totally renouncing the world now?

In the last paragraph, Jakob tells the reader that one must not think if one is to embark on a journey into the unknown.  He assures the reader and himself that this is right and necessary.   To do this, he must reject being just a zero.  And, for him, being a zero has a lot to do with what he calls thinking (which is, in effect, always reductive).  By thinking, he is reminded how small he is.  He wants to live and go out into the wild (not, it seems, the world). And thinking seems to get in the way.

The pupils, my friends, are scattered in all kinds of jobs.   And if I am smashed to pieces and go to ruin, what is being smashed and ruined? A zero.  The individual me may only be a zero. But now I’ll throw away my pen! Away with the life of thought! I’m going with Herr Benjamenta into the desert.  I just want to see if one can live and breathe and be in the wilderness, too, willing good things and doing them, and sleeping and dreaming at night.  (154)

But in the very last words of the novel, he realizes how hard it is not to think.  It is the struggle he must engage in if he is to depart in a joyful manner.  Walser formulates it as a kind of leap of faith:

What’s all this.  I don’t want to think of anything more now.  Not even God?  No! God will be with me.  What should I need to think of Him? God goes with thoughtless people.  So now adieu, Benjamenta Institute.  (154)

In other words, Jakob’s education doesn’t lead him to be a servant like Kraus.  He is a servant of another kind, whose service of God is found in a kind of motion that is…thoughtless.  And instead of going out into the world and getting a job, he clings to nature like the schlemiel that, as Hannah Arendt suggests, made its debut in Germany through the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine.  For Heine and, it seems, for Walser, the only way out of one’s misfortune is to go on a kind of Quixotic journey into the wild and playing a Sancho Panza to a Don Quixote.

It is well known that Franz Kafka read Walser and, as Walter Benjamin well knew, Kafka was fascinated with the relationship of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote.  Benjamin argued that “The Truth of Sancho Panza” was Kafka’s greatest parable.  Based on his reading, Benjamin ended his Kafka essay with a reflection on the parable. The main point he wished to make is that both he and Kafka were Sancho Panzas following a Don Quixotes (and that this would, as Kafka wrote, provide them with endless “entertainment and philosophical amusement” for the “duration of his days”).  While it is not quite clear who Kafka or Benjamin took as their Don Quixote, Walser suggests that it would have to be someone who broke out of an institution and turned the student into a friend; a friend who would….journey with him from the ruins of the school into the wilderness.

The question I have, however, is what this suggests.  Doesn’t this mean that one doesn’t enter the world?  And wouldn’t that suggest that, though the two are small in the worlds eyes, their not working and moving is actually something quite big?  The world doesn’t exist for Jakob and the ex-Principal.  They are worldless.   Their journey seems, like his dream, to be an endless movement through time and space.   And, as Walser suggests, that movement must leave thought behind and may actually be a movement that is…with God.

But one need not accept this and can laugh at these fools from the perspective of the world.  That’s the reader’s choice.   It’s a decision about how to leave school and where to go.  And this prompts the most important questions, which I’ll end with: What will we do when we leave?  And what is the best way to leave an institution that is falling apart?  And what is Walser suggesting about living on?   What does it suggest about the meaning of smallness, service, and faith?

On Kafka’s Sit Down Comedy


Unlike many readers who take much of Franz Kafka’s fiction as tragic or dark (think, for instance, of “The Metamorphosis,” “The Penal Colony,” or The Trial), Philip Roth thought of Kafka as a “sit down comic.”   From Max Brod we learn that Kafka used to laugh when he read his work publically, and, of course, the laughter was infectious.  But when one goes to Kafka’s work, where, one wonders does one find the comical.  There are a few locations that I have found in his stories and in his novels (like Amerika) that are comical.   But one also finds comical moments in his journals and diaries.

I recently came across a moment of sit-down comedy in his January 24, 1921 diary entry which, to my mind, is a great example of the self-deprecation one will find in Jewish stand-up comedy.  Here are a few lines which caught my eye.  Most of the jokes try to make light out of his difficult situation and his awareness that, to his mind, he really hasn’t advanced or developed beyond a certain stage of his life:

Hesitation before birth.  If there is a transmigration of souls then I am not yet on the bottom rung.  My life is hesitation before birth.

Kafka goes on to joke about his lack of development or progress.  He can’t seem to move or be satisfied with anything he does:

My development was a simple one.  While I was still contented I wanted to be discontented, and with all the means that my time and tradition gave me, plunged into discontent – and then wanted to turn back again.  Thus I have always been discontented, even with my contentment.

Kafka then goes on to blame his tendency to do and enjoy “childish” things as a reason for his inability to grow or change intellectually:

Childish games (though I was well aware that they were so) marked the beginning of my intellectual decline.  I deliberately cultivated a facial tic, for instance, or would walk across the Graben with arms crossed behind my head.  A repulsively childish but successful game.  (My writing began in the same way; only later on its development came to a halt, unfortunately.) 

And the punch line is that he can’t quite figure out where this “misfortune” – the “beginnings of his unhappiness” (which really make him happy, that is, like a child) – came from:

If it is possible to force misfortune upon oneself, it is possible to force anything upon oneself.  Much as my development seems to contradict me, and much as it contradicts my nature to thinking it, I cannot grant that the first beginnings of my unhappiness were inwardly necessitated…but not an inward one – they swarmed down on me like flies and could have been as easily driven off.

But when Kafka contemplates what life would be like “on the other shore” of development, he admits that merely thinking about it makes him unhappy.  He seems to be trapped.

Kafka sees this thought – which he jokes about – as “approaching a boundary.”  And while others would “turn back; I cannot.”  Like a good stand-up comedian, he goes to the end of the bitter joke which is…himself:

It seems as if I had not come by myself but had been pushed here as a child and then chained to this spot; the consciousness of my misfortune only gradually dawned upon me, my misfortune itself was already complete.

Like Larry David or Louis CK, Kafka can’t seem to escape his misfortunate predicament which seems to be associated with some kind of stunted development.  But this sit down comedian can’t stand up.  Kafka knew, intuitively, that he was going to die.  And that he may not be able to get out of his bed or up from his desk.  He just didn’t know when.  Meanwhile, he wanted to make light of this predicament through self-deprecation.  But that light, as one can see, is pretty dark.