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?

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