Gendered Luftmensch: Robert Walser’s Dream of Becoming Small


I am always on the look out for shrinking people and things.  Becoming small is a religious kind of theme.  It is also an obsession of secular writers (with a penchant for the mystical) like Franz Kafka and one of his favorite writers, Robert Walser.   Many of Kafka’s characters are like humans who have become smaller beings like mice and bugs.  His characters – like the Hunger Artist or the “man from the country” – shrink.   They become less recognizable as they age and change.  The man from the country – in his parable “Before the Law” – becomes hunched over at the end of the story and he can barely see.  He literally decays.  But smallness isn’t all about decay.  As Kafka’s Josephine, the mouse singer – in the story of the same name -shows us and as Robert Walser’s dreamer shows us how, when one becomes small, one can see far more than one can then if one were big.  One becomes light, like air and is able to touch things that can’t be seen or felt.

The term luftmensch – which has been used to describe the schlemiel – describes a person who lives on air (on dreams and schemes that never come to fruition).  The term luftmensch is ambiguous – in the most Derridian sense – it can mean something negative or positive.  For Walser, it has a positive meaning.   A human being becomes a luftmensch in the dream when s/he becomes small.  Walser, looking at a painting of his brother, Karl, describes the dream of smallness:

I dreamed I was a tiny, innocent, young boy, more delicate and young that a human being has ever been before, as one can be only in dark, deep, beautiful dreams. (15, Looking at Pictures)

When he shrinks, he loses his father and mother.  In his dream, he isn’t an orphan.  He doesn’t have either parents.  He is without hope or even happiness; He is a dream within a dream; a thought within a thought:

Neither father nor mother did I have, neither paternal home nor a fatherland, neither a right nor a happiness, neither an hope nor even an inkling of one.  I was like a dream within a dream, like one thought embedded within another.  (ibid)

He is sexless.  He has no yearning for the opposite sex.  He has no friends nor does he wish for one.   The dreamer realizes – in his smallness – that “all we have and possess is what we long for; all we are is what we’ve never been.”  He realizes that all we was was “less a phenomenon than a longing, only in my longing did I live, and all that I was was nothing more than longing.” Now he drifts because he is nothing and has nothing.  But this drifting is lovely because, as a small being, he finds a home to “dwell within the human breast.”

Since I cost nothing, I swam in pleasure, and since I was small, I could nicely find a place to dwell within the human breast.   It was enchanting the way I made myself at home in the soul that loved me.  And so I went along.  Was I walking, then? No, not walking.  I strolled in the empty air, requiring no ground to walk on; at most, I brushed the ground lightly with the tips of my feet, as if I were a talented dancer blessed by the gods with the gifts of the dancer’s art.  (54)

By way of a dunce cap, the narrator describes him/herself as fool but this fool is not an ordinary one; s/he is also a mystic floating through space:

On my head, I wore a dainty dunce’s cap.  My lips were red as roses, my hair a golden yellow that curled about my narrow temples in graceful ringlets. I had no body, or had one only barely.  (54)

“Innocence,” writes the narrator, who has become the dream subject, “gazes” from “my eyes.”   He cannot smile because “the smile was too delicate, so delicate I could not smile it, I could only think it, feel it.”   In other words, this smallness because so concentrated that he can only think or feel.  It can’t be expressed on his face.  His body, it seems, in drifting, has become frozen.

But, as Walser can see from the painting, the small being is not alone.  His hand has drifted into the hand of an “enormous woman”(54). She leads him “by the hand.”   His smallness allows him to enter her presence and grace:

So now, dear reader, I was so diminutive and small that I could comfortably slipped into the soft muff of my tall, dear sweet, woman.  The hand that held me as I floated.  (ibid)

In this moment of smallness, he becomes her child, her mouse, and then her husband:

Unspeakably tender, the woman gazed at me: now I was her child, now her little mouse, now her husband. And always I was everything to her.  She was the towering, powerful, large presence, and I the small one. (56)

The relationship of the small being to the large mother resonates though a Jewish American novel like Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses (a quintessential novel dedicated to the schlemiel character).    In that novel, the schlemiel is small in the presence of his larger than life mother.

The end of Walser’s story is a close reflection on how he gradually shrinks in her presence…and this shrinking – perhaps in a Heideggarian sense of the gift – gives him thought.  It gives him a question.  What is the power of woman that she can make me, a male, become so small, become a child. Is the source of that power in our dreams? In our mind? Or in, reality, in the “eyes of men”?

In this way, I was led even farther, even farther, a sort of dainty possession whose own does not hesitate to take it everywhere…All was soft and seemed lost.  Had the woman’s power shrunk me to a manikin?  The power of Woman: where, when, and how does it reign? In the eyes of men?  When we are dreaming? In thought? (56)

Smallness is the question not simply of the luftmensch.  It is the question of what guides humankind.  What power keeps it from drifting off?  Is the power of the feminine – the power to render man small – the source of Walser’s dreams, thoughts, and experiences of smallness?  Are they….ours?  And – because that is the case – will “we” always be schlemiels?

Playing on gender, I wonder, why, then, does Francis Ha (2012), a female schlemiel played by Gretta Gerwig, become small.?  What makes her shrink?  What is the source of her dreams and thoughts of smallness?  Is she a luftmensch too?  She has a dream, after all, about what she…wants in a relationship.   But her prince has not come.










Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s