Consciousness of the Endless Loss of Small Things: Elias Canetti’s Portrait of the Happy Loser

The relationship with things and the loss of those things is something that fascinated great thinkers and writers from Walter Benjamin and Freud to Franz Kafka and Elias Canetti. What is the meaning of loss and how does it relates to the character of the person that constantly loses things as opposed to losing things once in a while?

Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for literature “for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.” The Nobel Foundation situates him with the great writers, Thomas Mann and Herman Brock:

“His foremost purely fictional achievement is the great novel, Die Blendung, (Auto da Fé ) published in 1935 and praised then by Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch. But it can be said to have attained its full effect during the last decades: against the background of national socialism’s brutal power politics, resulting in a world conflagration, the novel acquires a deepened perspective.”

In 1979, he published a collection entitled Der Ohrenzeuge: Funfzig Charaktere (Earwitness: Fifty Characters). These short sketches of fifty characters demonstrate his acute sense of gesture and its relationship to character. He is – to so speak – more interested in what he hears than what he sees. The difference between hearing and seeing, to be sure, is a key difference between thought and experience. Hearing gives us access to the esoteric while sight gives us access to the exoteric. Emmanuel Levinas and Leo Strauss delve into these topics in their essays. However, the difference between the Rational Oral Tradition in Judaism and the Mystical Tradition in Judaism is marked between hearing (come and hear = “ta’shma”) in the Talmud and sight (come and see – “ta’chazee”) in the Zohar.

For Schlemiel Theory, Canetti’s character sketch of the loser is of great interest. The schlemiel is often called a “loser” but that doesn’t always have negative connotation. Canetti is a case in point since, for his “ear,” he hears something else, a kind of happiness that the successful human being doesn’t experience. Like many a schlemiel, he loves little things and children are enchanted by him. He doesn’t look after “things” like we do. When he loses them, he doesn’t look for them. And yet, he is surrounded by them:

He succeeds in losing everything. He starts with little things. He has a lot to lose. There are so many places where you can do a good job of losing.

The pockets he has specially made. The children who run after him on the street shout “Mister” here, “Mister” there. He smiles delightedly, and never bends over. He refused to find anything, not on your life. No number of people can make him bend over. He has lost what he has lost, and why did he take it along in the first place? But how can so many things still remain with him? Don’t they run out? Are they inexhaustible? They are, but no one understands. He seems to be in an enormous house full of tiny objects, and it seems impossible to get rid of them all.

The small things are all around him. This makes me think of Robert Walser and Franz Kafka. They see, in these small things, other worlds and entry points into infinite space and the meaning of being human. The secret is in the small. They see wonder through the smallness of things and their relationship to the small.

The loser doesn’t care about things. Canetti says that “he doesn’t experience wonder” at losing things, as if loss of things is the precursor to the philosophical and religious experience of wonder (a deep thought, to be sure).

Perhaps he doesn’t know what happens while he is gone (from his home). He doesn’t trouble himself about it, it doesn’t interest him; if there were nothing left to lose, he would certainly gape in wonder. But he never found himself in such a situation, a man of uninterrupted losses, a happy man.

As opposed to Job, who loses it all in one fell swoop and wonders about G-d and justice, the loser doesn’t wonder as he is always losing.

He notices smallness; he is conscious of himself as losing:

Happy, for he always notices it. One would think he doesn’t notice at all, one would think he’s sleepwalking and does not realize he is walking and losing, it happens by itself, uninterruptedly, all the time, but no, that is not the way he is, he really has to sense it, he sees every little thing otherwise there is no fun, he has to know he has losses, he has to know constantly.

One can say the same for the schlemiel. Although Gimpel appears like he’s sleepwalking through life, Ruth Wisse in the Schlemiel as Modern Hero argues that he is actually conscious of being lied to and losing.

She goes so far as to argue that “the schlemiel is neither saintly nor pure, but only weak.”  Like Canetti’s loser, the schlemiel has no power. His consciousness is of endless loss. But this doesn’t make him sad. Like Gimpel, Canetti’s loser is happy. Perhaps the key to this happiness is his/her disinterest in possessing things and not caring about whether or not they are lost. He can’t mourn their loss since this is a constant state of loss.

The schlemiel and Job seem to be on opposite sides. With this in mind, I wonder: Can there be a theology of the loser?

Paul Celan @ 100yrs – Schlemiels & Microtexts

Today is the 100th year anniversary of Paul Celan’s birth. Celan was very fond of memory and its meaning. He was obsessed with dates. He understood how we all live through these dates and relive them in language. The Holocaust is a date that lives on and through his poetry. Language, he says, in the Meridian Speech, lived through it and lives on. In a sense, language has a schlemiel-like aspect to it in that it, much like Samuel Beckett’s characters or IB Singer’s Gimpel, doesn’t stop moving, even after they have been lied to and mocked. The schlemiel lives on and in small things. As in “Conversation in the Mountains,” Gross and Klein (the main character) are wandering in search of a refuge.

The schlemiel is rootless, like Abraham in the Torah/Bible, ordered to leave his home in search of another place. Abraham isn’t promised immortality, he is promised a place and future through future generations. He lives on through them and they likewise wander through exiles and Holocausts. Their world and destination is physical, not spiritual. It is relational.

Reading the schlemiel through Celan’s poem, “Die Teuflischen” and IB Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” in the worlds eyes, the schlemiel is the subject of “devilish toungjokes of night” but those jokes break the way open through the physical world. The schlemiel may be “lord of dreams”(Arendt / Heine) but Celan shows him – just like IB Singer shows him – to be bound to the earth. The world barks us at “us” – at the reader and the character of this poem and of many poems; we are the schlemiels. Just like Klein and Gross in “Conversation in the Mountains,” we are klein (small) and gross (big). We are an odd couple that, with the voice of poem, must move on.

Let’s listen in to our conversation:


tonguejokes of night

lignify in your ear,

what the glances

beamed back,

jumps forward,

the wasted

bridgetolls, harped,

chisel through

the chalkravine

before us,

the sea-ish lightswamp

barks up at us –

at you,



(Die Teuflischen, p104,

Fadensonnen, trans Pierre Joris)

Schlemiel Theory has taken a special interest in his work because the characters and voices in prose pieces like, “Conversation in the Mountains” and in many of his poems that address smallness are those of the schlemiel.

One of the great tasks of Schlemiel Theory is to examine and discuss not only the literary or filmic schlemiel, but, even more importantly, the poetic schlemiel. The schlemiel in poetry or the schlemiel as poetry. After all, all poems are “klein” and “gross.”

Here are some of the essays that Menachem Feuer, the author of Schlemiel Theory has written. These have been gathered together in a book chapter of a forthcoming book on the Schlemiel and Jewish Philosophy:

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part I

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part II

A Note on Paul Celan’s Minor Language in “Conversation in the Mountains”

“Ladies and Gentlemen!” A Preface to Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains”

‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 1)

‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 2)

Do you Hear Me? A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in “Conversation in the Mountains” – Part I

“Do you Hear Me?: A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in ‘Conversation in the Mountains” – Part II

“Speak, You Also” – Remembering Paul Celan’s Birth

Menashe Skulnik – The “Pure Schlemiel” of Yiddish America

Image by Drew Friedman

There is yet to be a genealogy of the schlemiel in America. Schlemiel Theory has – over the years – been hard at work gathering the threads. An account of the schlemiel in America would be incomplete without mentioning Menashe Skulnik. He was one of the great comedic stars of Yiddish theater in the early and mid 20th century. Skulnik appeared in films and on the radio as well as on TV, in the Goldbergs (short lived show in the post-WWWII era). He was likened by the New York Evening Journal to Charlie Chaplin. Strangely enough, while Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and others saw Chaplin as a schlemiel character, Skulnik did not. Like a schlemiel contrarian, he argued that Chaplin wasn’t the real schlemiel – the “pure” one – he was!

In an interview, he said, “I play a schlemiel, a dope. Sometimes they call me the Yiddish Charlie Chaplin, and I don’t like this. Chaplin’s dope is a little bit of a wiseguy. He’s got a little larceny in him. I am a pure schlemiel, with no string attached.”

Skulnik was dubbed the “East Side’s Chaplin” by the New York Evening Journal in 1935.

Like many an American Jewish artist, he transitioned from Yiddish to Yinglish.

The legacy of the schlemiel is something that needs to be gauged since the schlemiel – over the span of the 20th century – became one of Hollywood and Television’s most popular characters. Its amazing how its Yiddish origins got lost in translation but that’s what happens in America where this Yiddish comic character (Skulnik’s demonstration of the “pure schlemiel,” not Chaplin’s imitation of it) became an American one. Whether via the avatars of Woody Allen, Larry David, or Seth Rogen the character has lived on but has, over time, lost its Yiddish accent and….purity.