Groping for Small Things: Robert Walser’s Portrait of the Philosopher

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Recently, a friend of mine who happens to be a philosophy professor and a fellow lover of Robert Walser referred me to Walser’s reflection on “the philosopher” (written in 1919).  I was struck by Walser’s portrait because it shows that he, as a writer, also identifies in some way with the thinker.  However, he does draw a line in terms of writing and the relationship to people.  But before doing so, Walser says many things that suggest that the thinker and the writer share a childlike fascination with small things.  They are both into what Theodor Adorno would call “micrology”: namely, that the only way to a bigger picture of things is through a careful attention to small things. This is something he may have learned from his mentor and friend, Walter Benjamin.

What makes Walser’s reflection on the philosopher and his obsession with smallness even more interesting is the fact, by looking at him from a perspective that identifies with him and another that criticizes him, we seem to move from a micrology to a macrology of the philosopher and his relation to the social.

The first line of Walser’s piece tells us that “the philosopher” is “constantly watching and waiting,” he “stands as still as a portrait” and “gropes for things gossamer-thin.”  And once he finds things, he “loses” them because they are “far too flimsy.” Nonetheless, to even hold these small things one must “exercise a patience verging on the stupendous.”

While these comments show some kind of deep respect, the voice of the piece suggests that the philosopher is also acerbic and bitter.  But this is because no one appreciates his obsession with smallness.  Even so, the narrator seems to side with the common person’s desire to give him a “few kicks just to scare him out of his contemplativeness.”

Taking this note to heart, he likens this obsession to a prison.  It traps him and, since it doesn’t lead to much writing, its unproductive.  Much like many of Kafka’s characters – who Walter Benjamin tells us often study too much – he makes “no progress.”

Something is a little off and comical about the way the philosopher keeps himself. The philosopher laughs and smiles but his laugh is short and his smile is “crooked.”  Nonetheless, it has a certain beauty to it.  And although his suit is threadbare, it is clean.   Like Walter Benjamin, he doesn’t like to throw anything away.  He finds a treasure in the trash.

And even though his “pacing” back and forth makes him look old, he is motivated by a “strange childishness.” But even though he is motivated by a kind of childishness, he is still very orderly.  While he “gladly putters around little objects” of thought, the narrator tells us – once again drawing on the common person’s perspective – that the philosopher would be better off as a craftsman.  The philosopher is a schlemiel of sorts because he “lollygags” in a small room while wanting to do things and “make a good use of his day.”  He’s stuck and his desire to do something – because he can only think when he is still – seems futile.

The only thing he can do – in repose to this tension – is leave the room.  Walser betrays his identification with the philosopher not only by pointing out that he is obsessed with small things but also in the fact that he takes note of how the philosopher likes to go on walks.

When the philosopher looks out the window, takes notice of the small things “out there,” like the rustling of the trees in the wind, the “cheerful smoke over the rooftops,” and the people in the street, he becomes deeply self-conscious of some kind of error.   He is only “listening,” the narrator tells us, he isn’t thinking.  But isn’t the point of the thinking to be receptive to small things? What is Walser trying to say?  Is the philosopher upset because he realizes that being receptive (“listening”) is not productive?

The final lines of the narrative demonstrate the pity of the narrator for the thinker.  He seems to take on a Marxist take on things that it is better to change the world than to think about it.  The philosopher can’t “be a part of progress” and can’t “step onto the stage.”  The worst pity of all is that because he has spent so much time thinking he has lost “so many things.”

But is that true?  And what about the writer? Isn’t he in the same boat?  Isn’t Walser, although he produced many works of writing, also not “stepping on the stage” of history and progress?  Didn’t he also struggle with the futility of sitting at a desk, writing, and reading?

Walter Benjamin believed that Kafka (and he himself) struggled with this issue.  We can see this in his journals about his meetings with Bertolt Brecht. Benjamin valued the time he spent reading and listening to Kafka’s work.  He points out that both he and Kafka know that”attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  And that silent prayer is to be found in paying close attention to words on the page.  The scholastic, the philosopher, and the modern writer seem to share this understanding.

To be sure, Karl Marx wouldn’t enjoy reading Kafka or Walser.  His favorite writer was Charles Dickens.  His writing spoke to and reflected on historical events.  He was not interested in small things.  Dickens had bigger literary fish to fry: historical fish.  Perhaps the narrator is too much on the side of Dickens and Marx.  Receptivity may have no place in the world and, as Walter Benjamin said of Kafka’s interest in the literary fool, it may “help” the individual but will it do any good for humanity?  The philosopher and the writer may get up in small things, but shouldn’t they (if they believe in higher things) be thinking about history and politics (the bigger things)? Perhaps salvation is the issue.   Perhaps the little things can help one to get by…but they may not help others or change the course of history.  But can we expect fiction or a word from a philosopher to do that, today?  It’s up to the reader to decide.

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