The poet Charles Baudelaire has written several poems in which the poetic voice or the narrator (of many prose pieces from Paris Spleen) wages a battle with TIME. He wages his fight in the name of Timelessness and intoxication; however, many of those battles ring out with the sound of despair. To be sure, Baudelaire was very pained by the fact that he had to constantly battle with time. And, more importantly, he was all alone in this fight against Time.
Delmore Schwartz, no doubt, read Baudelaire. And in many ways, he also struggled with Time. However, he didn’t do it all alone. In his poem “Time’s Dedication,” he calls on “you” the implied reader or some other to join him in this battle. And, unlike Baudelaire, the battle doesn’t end in despair or tragedy. Rather, it has a comic ending which includes a key reference to Charlie Chaplin (who, lest we not forget, Hannah Arendt saw as the last schlemiel of what she calls the ‘hidden tradition’). Schwartz’s comic ending does what Baudelaire can’t: it redeems time by way of taking it away from the trajectory of death and realigns it with what Emmanuel Levinas would call the “time of the other.” And what makes this so novel is that the poem is “time’s dedication” – not his.
“Time’s Dedication” starts off with a meditation on the self and its bout with the Time:
My heart beating, my blood running
The light brimming,
My mind moving, the ground turning,
My eyes blinking, the air flowing,
The clock’s quick-ticking
Time moving, time dying,
Time perpetually perishing!
Time is farewell! Time is farewell!
To be sure, the last words of this stanza bespeak the relation of time to death: Time will kill the poet. However, the next stanza asks that an implied “you” stay with the voice of the poem and “stand still”:
Abide with me: do not go away,
But not as the dead who do not walk…
Quit the dance from which is flowing
Your blood and beauty: stand with me.
But then the voice of the first stanza returns and insists that “we cannot stand still” because “time is dying” and “we are dying.” This all translates into the same last words of the first stanza: “Time is farewell!”
In the face of this voice, the last stanza counters and insists that the voice obsessed with death and time to “wait for me”:
Stay then, stay! Wait now for me,
Deliberately, with care and circumspection,
This countering voice suggests that what “we” need to focus on, with deliberation, is “walking together.” And this walking should be in a comic manner “like Chaplin and his orphan sister”:
Controlling our pace before we get old,
Walking together on the receding road,
Like Chaplin and his orphan sister,
Moving together through time to all good.
The last stanza suggests that “walking together” like “Chaplin and his orphan sister” – with their odd walk – is a manner of “moving together through time to all good.” Moving toward the good together is something we find in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III. We also see it in Gimpel the fool who, it seems, is always walking toward the good even though it doesn’t seem to be in sight. These characters, it seems, are not affected by a fatalistic approach to death. They avoid it by way of trusting the other and the good.
The idea that one is moving toward the good, as the future, appears in Emmanuel Levinas’s work. To be sure, he ends his book Totality and Infinity with a section entitled “Being as Goodness – The I – Pluralism – Peace.”
Goodness does not radiate over the anonymity of a collectivity presenting itself panoramically, to be absorbed into it. It concerns a being which is revealed in a face, but thus it does not have eternity without commencement. (305)
The word “commencement” is interesting as it suggest a meeting and a movement of two people. Levinas goes on to describe goodness as an “absolute adventure” which is “transcendence itself.” But this is the not the transcendence of an isolated “I.” Rather, “transcendence or goodness is produced as pluralism” and it “proceeds” from me to you. Elsewhere, Levinas calls this relation of goodness the “time of the other.”
What I like about Schwartz’s poem is the fact that it is “time’s dedication.” The poem is dedicated to the poet by the time of the other. And it ends with that time rather than dedicating it to the time of the self and death. Most importantly, this dedication is translated into a comedic kind of walking down the road. It isn’t exactly “heroic” in the Heideggarian sense of being-toward-death; rather, it is innocent and naïve.
This poem suggests that Schwartz would rather you “wait” for the poet than rush off to death. And once you arrive, we can walk off together “like Chaplin and his orphan sister through time…toward the good.”
We all love the simpleton. Her ways are awkward, yet graceful. For all their simplicity, they are the ways of goodness. But they come to us, as Avital Ronell says in her book Stupidity, by way of the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which is not innate and must be “publicly exposed.” Perhaps Hollywood inherited the simpleton and its exposure from Yiddish literature. Or as Paul Buhle might say, perhaps the schlemiel came from the Lower East Side and ended up in Hollywood as the simpleton. The exemplary American simpleton, Dorothy, of The Wizard of Oz, lives in Kansas with several other simpletons who, like her, love to dream. She lives on the American frontier and Toto is her companion. In this American moment, the public exposure of simplicity goes hand-in-hand with friendship and hope.
In Yiddish literature, the schlemiel is often called a simpleton (a tam). And, like Dorothy, the schlemiel is hopeful and sometimes has animals as friends. (For instance, Motl, of Shalom Aleichem’s Motl: The Cantor’s Son spends a lot of time with a cow named Pesi.) In his simplicity, the schlemiel finds a friend in anyone or with anything s/he encounters. The schlemiel may be absent minded, but his or her way, though often ridiculous and absent-minded, is the way of simplicity and peace. Although the schlemiel is often more ridiculous than Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, his simplicity is not in any way diminished.
According to many commentaries, Midrashim, and anecdotes of the Jewish tradition, simplicity is not a laughing matter. It is the most Jewish of all traits. Simplicity is equated with humility.
The ultimate source for humility as a principle trait is not in the commentaries; it is in the Torah. In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described as “a very humble man” the “most humble man on earth.” And since Moses Maimonides sees Moses as the greatest of all Prophets, he finds his way of being in relation to God and man to be exemplary. And that way of being is the way of humility.
In contrast to Aristotle, who thinks the extreme humility is a negative character trait, which must be countered with pride and even anger, Maimonidies argues that extreme humility is a noble trait. Using this contrast, David Shatz argues, in an essay entitled “Maimonides’ Moral Theory,” that pride is a Greek ideal while extreme humility is a Jewish one.
This Jewish ideal was commonplace for Jews in the Middle Ages and in Eastern Europe right up to the beginning of the 20th century. Using diaries, Haggadoth, and various letters, Daniel Boyarin shows, in his book Unheroic Conduct, that humility was, during those times, the ideal.
Marking these dates, Boyarin goes out of his way to show how humility became “unheroic” in the modern period. Besides Daniel Boyarin, people like Marc H. Ellis (in Judaism Doesn’t Equal Israel) and Rich Cohen (in Israel is Real), have made the claim that pride and power displace humility after the Holocaust. Each of their projects, to some extent, is an effort to recover this character trait which they believe is Jewish and not Greek. But this effort at recovery, unfortunately, is wrapped up in a political agenda. They forge a dichotomy between Jews in America, who are humble, and Zionist Jews in Israel, who are prideful. They would say that, in losing humility, Israelis have become militant. But is this the right way to approach humility? Has it become too politicized and are things as black and white as these thinkers paint them?
We need not think of humility in this way. We should certainly take the Torah and Maimonides seriously when they say that one must, like Moses, be humble in relation to man and to God. But we need not think of humility by way of a political agenda.
Another route to take with humility is by way of Franz Kafka who teaches us that humility has a mystical and ethical resonance. Kafka calls humility the “language of prayer” which is always shared with others. More importantly, for Kafka, humility can give one the spiritual strength to “strive” with oneself.
For Kafka, humility is the way; while the self is the obstacle. The self is deluded and seductive. And, like Jacob, who wrestled with his angel, Kafka knows he must struggle with himself. Through such a struggle, Jacob became Israel. Kafka also, it seems, has this vision. But, more important for Kafka, is the strength he gains from being humble. It is his anchor.
He records these thoughts about humility, the language of prayer, strength, and striving in his Blue Octavio Notebooks.
After Franz Kafka’s death, Max Brod – Kafka’s best friend – published several quotes from Kafka’s Blue Octavio Notebooks. He entitled the book Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way. According to Brod, Kafka extracted these quotes from his notebooks and numbered them: “the text here follows the fair copy made by the author himself.” Brod included aphorisms that were crossed out as well (noting them with asterisks). Although there is much wisdom to be gained by reading the compilation of aphorisms and anecdotes on “sin, suffering, hope and the true way,” I would suggest that we read Kafka’s quotes in their original context; namely, the Blue Octavio Notebooks. They teach us about the relationship of humility to peace, on the one hand, and striving, on the other. Taken together, they bring us within arms length of the schlemiel.
The quote that interests me – and which is cited in Brod’s compilation – is found in the Fourth Notebook. It was written on February 24th:
Humility provides everyone, even him who despairs in solitude, with the strongest relationship to his fellow man, and this immediately, though, of course, only in the case of complete and permanent humility. It can do this because it is the true language of prayer, at once adoration and the firmest of unions. The relationship with one’s fellow man is the relationship of prayer, the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; it is from prayer that one draws the strength for one’s striving.
After writing this, Kafka changes his tone:
Can you know anything other than deception? If ever the deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.
The dialectical tension between these two aphorisms is worthy of interest. To be sure, it illustrates what Kafka means by “the relationship of striving.” In the first aphorism, Kafka goes so far as to say that humility provides humankind with the “strongest relationship to his fellow man.” Moreover, humility is “the true language of prayer.”
It is on account of this “language of prayer,” that one can “strive” with oneself. Kafka’s striving, which is supported by humility, is illustrated in the second aphorism.
Kafka strives with himself and asks: “Can you know anything other than deception?”
In response to this scathing question, the self is silent. In the face of this silence, Kafka gives advice with a Biblical Ring: “If ever deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.”
To be sure, Kafka is not simply striving with himself; he is trying to turn himself around. He is trying to convert himself to humility by way of preaching to himself. He is pleading with the self to learn something other than “deception”: namely, the truth (which can only be accessed through humility).
When thought of in relation to the schlemiel, the implications of these lines are quite interesting. A schlemiel like Gimpel is a Tam; he is humble. Yet, everyone deceives him. He is unaffected by these deceptions insofar as he remains humble and continues to trust others. And this is the comic conceit.
Using Kafka’s language, we could say that Gimpel’s life speaks the “language of prayer.” However, it is us, the viewers, who must strive with deception in the sense that we are the ones who deceive. We are complicit in laughing at simplicity and publicly ridiculing it for its naivite and stupidity. This is the message that I.B. Singer was trying to convey in his famous story “Gimpel the Fool.”
Thought of in these terms, Kafka identifies with the schlemiel. But at the same time he realizes that he is complicit, in his deluded high mindedness and competitiveness, with squashing simplicity. Kafka realizes that he needs to “strive” with that aspect of himself which destroys the humility he has acquired by means of his relationships with others.
To be sure, Kafka’s struggle is the struggle of tradition. It is the struggle of Jacob (who is called an Ish Tam – a simple man) with his angel. It is the struggle that earns Jacob the name Israel. His strength, which he draws on to wrestle with the angel, is the strength of prayer.
Let’s take this a step further and be a little presumptuous.
Perhaps humility is the “language of prayer” that Sancho Panza learns from Don Quixote? And perhaps humility is the language that Walter Benjamin learns from Kafka? Humility is the language of the schlemiel and it is the language of Don Quixote. But it can also be heard as one, among many other voices, in Hollywood. The language of the Hollywood simpleton is the language of a man-child.
Like The Wizard of Oz, Chaplin’s 1921 film, The Kid speaks this language, too. After all, humility has its childish and foolish ways. A humble hobo like “the Kid” can also raise an orphan (albeit it in a strange way). In each, there is an old/new tradition that is transmitting humility and childishness and perhaps, the language of prayer to those who will “strive” with the self. Ultimately, however, Ronell is right. Kafka’s humility would not be possible without the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which aims to publicly expose “humility.” And in this comic exposure, we bear witness to the “language of prayer.” Given the world we live in, this language appears to us as ridiculous but, for all that, it is still the best we’ve got.
In yesterday’s post, I made a brief reading of the recent 44 minute video of Woody Allen “stammering” over the span of his career. The picture I used as a thumbnail for the blog post came from the beginning of Woody Allen’s film Bananas. The reason I chose this image was because it nicely illustrated the mechanistic-slash-comic aspect of the video; in addition, it also illustrated what Henri Bergson believed was the essence of the comic: mechanical repetition. For Bergson, we laugh at the Jack-in-the-Box, or any mechanical repitition, because it is a caricature of life and freedom or what he called élan vital. Like many in his time, Bergson’s theory is based on an organicist model or what the German’s called Lebensphilosophie (life philosophy). The greatest challenges to life philosophy can be found in meaningless, mechanical habits. For thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche or Georges Bataille, the source of these mechanical habits was the growing mechanization of society – a society in which everything meaningful or progressive had “utility.” For this reason, both Nietzsche and Bataille pursued a “vitalism” which looked to act without any meaningful end. Life, as they understood it, was excessive. For us to put a determined end on existence, by way of work, mechanism, and habits was, in effect, to say “no” to life. Saying “yes” to life would be to affirm what Maurice Blanchot would call “un-working.” Saying yes to life, for Bergson, would be equivalent to saying yes to elan vital and no to the mechanical gesture. To be sure, filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, who lived in and around the time Nietzsche, Bergson, and Bataille lived and wrote on vitalism, knew that the greatest threat to vitalism and élan vital was posed by technology. America, with its concept of the assembly line and mechanical mass production, became the focal point for many Europeans (including Nietzsche, Batialle, Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, and many others) of what is to come; namely, an existence in which the individual is lost in (and to) the machine. And this is the point: life was at stake – life embodied in the individual (the subject) and his/or her freedom. We see this tension between life and the machine comically elaborated in both Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) and in Woody Allen’s repetition of key scenes of this film (with, of course, some variation) in Bananas (1971): Here is Chaplin’s film: As you can see, Chaplin is the subject of the machine. However, his comic gesturing (and the absurd nature of the machine – a toy of sorts – he is subject to) make him distinct from the machine. Both his gestures and the absurd nature of the machine give him some kind of agency. Here’s Allen’s film, Bananas: This film does something nearly identical to Modern Times. The machine and Allen’s gestural responses to it give Allen agency. As one can see, Allen believes that such responses are still affective and meaningful. Although 35 years and major advances in technology and history separate them, both of these clips communicate the same message about comedy and its challenge to mechanization. For both, one mechanism seems to be defeating another and élan vital triumphs (comically). It must be noted that, for many thinkers and film critics of the early 20th century, the source of this scenario (of comedy versus the mechanical), which Allen repeats, is Charlie Chaplin. In his book Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars, Tyrus Miller notes that Andre Bazin, the famous French Film critic, wrote a seminal essay in 1948 about Chaplin claiming that Chaplin’s comedy was a means of ‘brushing aside danger’. Miller goes on to note that Bazin sees Chaplin’s power as the power of “mimicry” which acts by “reabsorbing time and space”(51). What he means by this is that Chaplin’s comedy wins time and space back for organic humanity and beats the machine at its own game. Bazin bases his advancement of mimicry on the work of the surrealist Roger Caillois who claimed that insects, like humans, imitate the environment in order to protect themselves from being killed. Miller reads this in terms of the medium of film: Supplementing Bazin’s claim that time reabsorbs space, then, we might say that Chaplin’s organic body becomes a mimetic extension of cinematic technology, which breaks down movement into constitutive fragments, discarding some while isolating others. Having incorporated the technical principle of montage into his physical movements, Chaplin is able to mirror it back to the camera in embodied form. (52). Sounding much like Walter Benjamin, Miller argues that Chaplin becomes the “very allegory of cinema in its inaugural phase and the changes in experience it will precipitate”(52). The self survives as a “minimal self: as much technical as organic, and held together by the stiffening bonds of laughter”(52). This presupposes that there is a community between the comedian and the audience and that if we don’t have comedians who can mimic the damage wrought by technology – that is, if we don’t have comedy to laugh at, our agency and selfhood will be diminished to such an extent that instead of a minimal self, there will be no self. It’s fascinating to note that Theodor Adorno also suggests this call for comedy and the minimal self in his book Minima Moralia. Three decades following Adorno’s plea for the minimal self, comedy and the minimal self are evoked by Jean-Luc Nancy in an essay on Baudelaire in his book The Birth of Presence. But, as I will show in future blogs, Nancy likens laughter to an explosion. But the question is this: what does it explode? Does post-modern laughter – for lack of a better word – explode the machine or the person? If the latter, then we can surmise that Nancy thinks we can no longer protect ourselves from the machine and might as well celebrate nihilism. Regardless of Nancy’s take on laughter, Allen seems to be more on the side of Chaplin. He has an optimistic view of comedy and sees it as a “defense” against technology and empty, mechanical repetition. In yesterdays video, however, I wondered about the meaning of the mechanically reproduced stammering which has become a micro-stammering of sorts (concentrated into 44 minutes). Did that video testifiy to the obliteration of the self and absorption into the medium or something else? How, in fact, do we understand ourselves and one of our greatest defenses (comedy) by way of being looped, re-looped and morphed by new technology? Has Allen’s stammer exploded and been emptied of all its human (organic) content? Does such a video evince a subject who is powerless and “defenseless” against the ever expanding field of technology (with all its information and audio and video “flows” and “feeds”)? How does comedy and how do “we” – who are “in the network,” who come after Chaplin and Allen’s comic parody of technology and who now come after the “YouTube-loop” of Woody Allen…stammering – “live on?”