Did you Say Your Name was Shuvalkin, Kafka, Walter Benjamin, or is this a Prank?

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In the last two blog entries, I have been looking into Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism in which he recounts a dream where he discovers his name inscribed in Goethe’s guestbook.  To understand what this meant to Benjamin, I discussed Benjamin’s understanding of what a name is and why it is significant.  As I noted, Benjamin saw the name as revelatory.  For him, it constitutes a link between God and man.  And, as I pointed out, the name is more about relation and less about content.  But there is a twist.

Although Benjamin is asked to sign his name, he realizes it has already been signed.  In other words, a trick has been played on him

But the shock is not simply that his name was already written but that it was written “in big, unruly, childish letters.”  Benjamin is, as I said yesterday, S(c)h(l)ocked by this prank.  To be sure, Benjamin saw something very deep in this prank.  As I noted, he discovered his calling to Schlemieldom.  In a “man’s world” (literally, in Goethe’s world, his house) it seems Benjamin is a child.  He is doomed to being a man who is thought of as a child.  The ‘shape’ of his name, so to speak, indicates this.

It’s interesting to note that the Zohar, one of the greatest books of the Kabbalah, which Gershom Scholem, in part, translated into German, has many sections which analyze the shapes of letters.  From these shapes, from the way they are written, we can learn secrets.

Elliot Wolfson, in his book Aleph, Mem, Tau: Kabbalistic Musings on Time, Truth, and Death, notes the passage in the Zohar in which “each of the letters presents itself before God in an effort to be chosen as the primary instrument through which the world would be created”(159).  Wolfson delicately unpacks this passage from the Zohar so as to show that each letter deals with time, truth, and death.

Aleph says it is the first letter of the word Emet (which in Hebrew means truth), but Tav says it is the last letter of Emet (and the Hebrew alphabet) and should be granted the privilege of being the letter through which the world is created (160).  But, Wolfson notes, Tav is disqualified because it is the last letter of the word Met (death).

However, as Wolfson argues, the letters taken together are the beginning (Aleph), middle (Mem), and the End (Tav).  Together, they designate time and together (the past, present, and future) make the truth.  The word, truth contains the word death, but it also opens up to the future as the truth-to-come.  Wolfson correctly notes, resonating the Apocalyptic elements in the Kabbalah, that the first letter of the Torah is Bet not Aleph.  And this reflection opens us up to a question: if the world was created with an Aleph (of the word Emet – truth) why isn’t the first letter of the Torah an Aleph?

This is the rub: the Aleph and the truth are concealed and will be revealed in the future, in the messianic age.  Meanwhile, we live in the world of the second letter which conceals the first.  In this world, truth (or for Wolfson, the truth of time) is distorted.

Walter Benjamin was quite aware of this teaching from the Zohar.  From Scholem and his own studies, he learned how the letters of the name, their shape and arrangement, disclose a secret that can be glimpsed in the present and seen to be coming from the future.  Building on Wolfson’s work, I would call this a truth-to-come.

Knowing this, how do we interpret Benjamin’s revelation of a name (his name) that was already written in clumsly children’s letters.  Was the disclosure of this prank a revelation of the truth-to-come or, rather, a distortion of the truth-to-come?  To be sure, this was the disclosure of Benjamin as a man-child (as a schlemiel).  But what does the shape of the schlemiel’s name have to do with the truth-to-come?

In the very beginning of Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, he returns to this question.

In the beginning of the essay, entitled “Potemkin,” Benjamin recounts a story of how Grigory Potemkin, the 18th century Russian military ruler, statesman, and beloved of Catherine the Great, went into a great depression.   (As a side note, Catherine gave Potemkin the title of the Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.)

As Benjamin recounts, Potemkin’s depression “lasted form an extraordinary length of time and brought about serious difficulties; in the offices documents piled up that required Potemkin’s signature”(112, Illuminations).

Who could get him to sign his name?

Benjamin notes that “an unimportant little clerk named Shuvalkin” comes to the rescue.  In other words, a simpleton (that is, a schlemiel of sorts) comes to their aid.   He doesn’t try to reason with Potemkin; rather, he acts: “Shuvalkin stepped up to writing desk, dipped a pen and ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hands while putting the documents on his knees”(112).

Potemkin signs all of them.   And Shuvalkin walks into the anteroom, “waving the papers triumphantly,” as the councilors gather around to see.  And what happens is astounding: “Breathlessly they bent over them.  No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed.”

When Shuvalkin looked in to see what happened – to see what had “upset” them and put them into a stupor, he sees that every one of the signatures has his name signed on it: “Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin.”

Benjamin sees this story as a “herald racing two hundred years ahead of Kafka’s work.” And then he adds that “the enigma which beclouds it is Kafka’s enigma.”

Benjamin then goes on to substitute Kafka’s character K for Shuvalkin.

These rhetorical movements are very hasty and to simply go along with them, without prying into the esoteric, would be clumsy.  Benjamin is telling us that Shuvalkin is a herald who goes “ahead of Kafka’s work.”  To be sure, this implies that Shuvalkin, a schlemiel, may even be (temporally) ahead of Benjamin’s work.  Moreover, he says that it is Kafka’s enigma but, in truth, it is also his.  In fact, he and Kafka share the enigma of Shuvalkin, which is the enigma of having one’s name already signed by the Other. Signed in such a way that the shape of the letters and their arrangement indicate that the bearer of the signature is a fool.

After the last three blog entries on Benjamin and the name, I hope that by now it will become evident to the blog-readers out there that a name is taking shape.  And that name, Benjamin and Kafka’s secret name, is a name that they are signed with and that name is the name of the man-child or the schlemiel.

There are many questions which come with this enigma and with this parable.  What does it mean that Kafka and Benjamin are the subjects of a prank?  And what does it mean that the “herald” has gone on ahead of Kafka?  Is he ahead of “us” as well?  I say “us” because everyone in the community, as is evidenced by the Potemkin parable, may be affected by the prank – that is, by the signature Shuvlakin.  But to say this, as Benjamin seems to suggest, wouldn’t we be entering the realms of ontology, politics, and religion?

Given this suggestion, can we say that we all share the same childishly written (and childish) name?  And instead of the name of God, as the name we all share (or the name Emet – truth, which Wolfson ventures in his reading of the Zohar), why is the name we share a name whose letters are childishly written?  Why is “our” name the name of a man-child?  Is this, as the Kabbalah might say, the “truth” (Emet) to come?  Or is it a prank?

All of these questions have not, in the history of Benjamin studies, been posed or discussed.  They are questions that come up if you read Benjamin (or Kafka for that matter) as he wanted to be read – as one would read a parable, midrashically.  I will be developing these ideas further in my book on the Schlemiel.  Nonetheless, I have decided to share some of these childish ‘secrets’ on this blog before my book makes the light of the day.  To be sure, there are a few more secrets about Benjamin and the Schlemiel that I may tell in this blog before I pass on to other schlemiels and schlemiel-topics, but I may have to withhold them or encode them in the very near future. Wink Wink!

Remember, you heard it here first – at SchlemielTheory!  More fun-to-come!

The S(c)h(l)ock of Walter Benjamin’s Discovery

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There is nothing like the shock of discovery.  The moment of recognition is transformational.   In Greek, the word for recognition is anagoresis.  In Greek anagnōrisis comes from the word anagnōrizein to recognize.  The root of this word comes from ana- + gnōrizein to make known.  Webster’s dictionary goes on to point out that it is akin to Greek gnōrimos, meaning, well-known and the word gignōskein to come to know.

Anagoresis happens in Greek tragedy when the main character learns who he or she really is and/or who other people really are.  Usually, this knowledge is tragic.  One need only think of Oedipus in Sophocles’ famous play Oedipus Rex who, when he discovers who he is and who his real mother and father are, has a breakdown.   This tragic knowledge culminates with Oedipus poking his eyes out.

But anagoresis doesn’t always have to be tragic.  In fact, it can be comic.

In yesterday’s blog, I located the moment of Benjamin’s self-discovery in his aphorism entitled “Vestibule.”  In this aphorism, Benjamin writes of a dream he had about being in Goethe’s house.  When he is asked by the “curator” to write his name in Goethe’s guestbook, he discovers that his name is not only already written but that it is also written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  In other words, Benjamin has a comic self-discovery.  He learns that his name, his essence, is childishly written.  And it is not he that has written it this way; someone else, some Other, has written his name in this childish manner.  To be sure, although this is comic; it is also tragic.  It’s as if, someone, some Other, has played a prank on him.

This discovery is astonishing.  But what does it mean?  Yesterday, I suggested that this is Benjamin’s discovery that he is a man-child.   More to the point, he discovers that he has been, prankishly, written into Goethe’s guest book (that is, the book of German letters) as a schlemiel (a man-child).

To be sure, Benjamin took names quite seriously.  And this discovery of his already written name, albeit in a dream, was revelatory.  In his essay “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” Benjamin makes this explicit: “In naming, the mental being of man communicates itself to God”(318, Reflections).

Naming is, for Benjamin, a direct form of communication between God and Man.  It is, without a doubt, revelatory.

Naming, in the realm of language, has as its sole purpose and its incomparably high meaning that it is the innermost nature of language itself.  Naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated, and in which language itself communicates itself absolutely. (ibid)

But does Benjamin discover the essence of language in his dream or does he discover himself?  What does he discover?  Moreover, in this dream, Benjamin does not write.  He doesn’t, in this sense, communicate with God by way of naming.  To be sure, it seems to be the other way around.

Moreover, the “Vestibule” aphorism complicates Benjamin’s claim in “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” that “Man is the namer, by this we recognize that through him pure language speaks.”

Benjamin’s mention of “pure language” is quite fascinating.  It further complicates things.  Gershom Scholem, in a chapter of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism entitled “Merkabah Mysticism and Jewish Gnosticism” helps us to clarify what is at stake with such language.

In his discussion on ancient Kabbalistic liturgy, Scholem notes that the words of these Kabbalistic prayers to God, which can be found in prayers books today, are the “pure word.”  According to Scholem, they are pure words because they don’t mean anything; they don’t have any content.  Moreover, the “ascent of the words has not yet substituted itself for the ascent of the soul and of the devotee himself.  The pure word, the as yet unbroken summons stands for itself; it signifies nothing but what it expresses.”

The pure word is a word of man to God.  For Scholem, it is purely relational and bears no content.  It has a lot in common with what Benjamin calls naming.

However, in Benjamin’s aphorism, his name is already written.  Is it “pure?”  Is Benjamin pointing out a comic relationship with God?

The irony of all this is that Benjamin, in this aphorism, is recording what was already written; namely, Benjamin’s name in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  He is not, like Adam in his essay, naming.  He is recording what is written.

This is the prophetic mode or recording and not simply the mode of naming because, as Benjamin well knew by way of his friend Gershom Scholem, the Jewish tradition says that Moses wrote the Torah down after being told, word by word, what to write.

As the Medieval Rabbi, Scholar, and Philosopher Moses Maimonides points out, Moses’ prophesy, which is law, is communicated in this way of recording.  (And it is different from other prophets insofar as they, mainly, rebuke the people or prompt them to “return” to God.  Or, as Martin Buber might say, the prophets alert the people to the “demand of the hour.”)

Benjamin seems to be giving this prophetic legacy a comic twist.  In Benjamin’s aphorism, he is recording the name he saw in a dream: his name, childishly, that is, comically written.

Benjamin is not naming so much as being named (or renamed).  But this name, which he can’t even write, although asked to do so, has been comically altered.  It suggests that Benjamin’s destiny (the law he falls under) is, so to speak, tied up with the schlemiel.  He cannot escape the joke that has been played on him: he realizes, in his moment of anagoresis, that his destiny is to accept his childishly written name.  His identity, his essence, is written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”

This is tragic and comic knowledge.  This is a tragic and a comic anagoresis.  It is the, so so speak, S(c)h(l)ock of discovery.  (Schlock means a stroke of bad luck or denotes something that is low grade and cheap; it often has a comic connotation.)  He realizes, that in Goethe’s house, in this house of the classicist, he is childish.  He is the subject of laughter.

But why is his name improper? Why is it his destiny to be a schlemiel in Goethe’s house?  Are there other reasons for this shameful recognition?  Is this or rather was this, perhaps, the destiny of all Jews (even the most modern) in Germany?  Are all of their names “childishly” written?  Are they the butt of a bad, Greek joke?  Or is it just Benjamin who suffers this fate?

Most importantly, who is the mysterious Other who wrote his name in this childish manner?  Who played the trick on Benjamin?  Was it God, a demon, or Goethe?

Regardless of the answer, Benjamin knew that his destiny, his name, was tied to the schlemiel.

But, based on his writing on the child, childhood, and the fool throughout his work, as we have seen in a few entries on this blog, it seems as if he didn’t seem to be angry or disturbed about this revelation.  He seems to have accepted it and to have made it into one of his passionate interests.

Like Woody Allen, Benjamin doesn’t seem to get angry about this revelation so much as perplexed.  He is shocked but…

(In our next blog entry, we will look, once again, at this discovery yet from the angle of another name that Benjamin discovered.)

Wink, Wink! Walter Benjamin’s Childhood Secret and His Prophetic Calling to Schlemieldom

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As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa.   A careful writer wants to be read carefully.  He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself.  Reader precedes writer.  We read before we write.  We learn to write by reading.  –Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing

When you’re in on a joke, don’t forget to wink.

When you wink, you imply that there is something that only some people can see.  Winking is not a straightforward gesture.  It is oblique.   And it is immediate, like a blink of the eye.  The wink indicates that the person you shared your secret with now knows something that only you know.

The esoteric, hidden meaning, is esoteric precisely because it signifies by way of an oblique gesture.  The conveyance of the esoteric (secret) message is gestural – like a wink.  There are esoteric writers and readers.  The esoteric writer winks at the reader.  But the reader must be looking for the wink, in advance.  To be sure, if the esoteric reader is to find a secret (or secrets, plural) she must “read between the lines.”

Throughout their work, Walter Benjamin and Leo Strauss were attentive in their readings of texts.  There eyes were either looking for the wink or winking at their readers.  And from such reading practices, they learned how to wink too.

For both, the good reader and the good writer knows how to wink and be winked at.

One winks at the reader, so to speak, through writing.  But one must be able to see the wink.  And that takes practice. One must learn to read for “allusions” – for things that are said obliquely.

But this is not simply a willed activity.  To be sure, both knew that inherent in language is the power to allude and hint at things.  This force astonished Benjamin and Strauss.   Built into language, there is a revelatory aspect. But the revelation of language is not simply a revelation of something outside language.

No.

They knew that their allusive writing style didn’t simply allude to something other than themselves.  Although they would never say it directly (since that is the point of the esoteric), they believed that their allusions referred, in some way, to themselves.

What Benjamin and Strauss desired most was to read and to write: to wink and be winked at.  They wanted to share their secrets.

Leo Strauss’s language is thick with such implication – it winks at his readers.  When he says that “a careful writer wants to be read carefully,” he is obliquely telling his readers his desire which, ultimately, comes from careful reading.  After all, as Strauss says in the epigram: “Reader precedes writer.”  When Strauss writes these words about Baruch Spinoza, he is speaking about himself and his deepest desire as a writer.  His words are autobiographical.

Strauss wants to be read well.  But this is not for his own sake.  He wants to read well so that he can write well.  Writing is not for himself; writing, for Strauss, is shared (partage, as Derrida would say); writing is for a community of careful readers and writers.  What Strauss calls “persecuted writers.”  (Derrida, in his essay on Emmanuel Levinas entitled “Violence and Metaphysics” calls it the “community of the question.”)

To get into the community, you simply need to know how to read the wink when-it-happens and how to write-slash-wink.  We can have no doubt that Benjamin saw himself as a part of such an esoteric community of readers and writers.  He knew that the wink signifies that we know something that many people don’t.   He knows that his knowledge, because it is esoteric and hidden from society, might be dangerous.  This is why Strauss would call it “persecuted”: the author cannot, under certain societal circumstances, reveal this knowledge directly.  S/he must wink.

But the wink doesn’t simply reveal a secret that may endanger society; it also tells us something about the writer that we may not know.  After all, a wink tells us one thing: you’re in on my secret.

Yesterday, in my cursory reading of the childhood section Benjamin’s book One Way Street, I pointed out how Benjamin’s sections on children are autobiographicalThe section begins with reading but ends with hiding.  I explained how Benjamin was identifying with the child and, in effect, becoming-child.  Most importantly, we must remember that this becoming happens in a world or micro-world.

One doesn’t become in a vacuum.  This means that Benjamin’s reading practices are ways of opening up and hiding in microworlds.   But he didn’t just go into these worlds for no reason.  No, as I pointed out, Benjamin was running away from terror as the child runs from a “demon.”  We can say that he was persecuted.  His words on The Idiot (and on hiding) tell us that he knows that his terror comes from childhood damage.  But this is not simply knowledge.  In writing about this terror, it is practiced: Benjamin, in the two aphorisms we read yesterday, demonstrates that he must live the life of a child if he is to be safe or as Jacques Derrida would say in his essay “Faith and Religion,” sacred, that is, removed from danger, “autoimmune.”

At the beginning of One Way Street, Benjamin prepares us for his venture into childhood and its safe havens.  We see this in an aphorism entitled “Vestibule.” Here he gives the reader his prophesy of childhood and his calling.

In the aphorism, Benjamin notes how, in a dream, he “visits” the home of the famed German writer, thinker, and poet: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  He notes that even though he was in Goethe’s house, “he didn’t see any rooms.”

Benjamin tells us how the interior of his dream space appears to him from his angle-slash-perspective: “that it was a perspective of whitewashed corridors like those in a school.”  This implies that he feels like a young student in Goethe’s house (or, rather, school of thought). In the house-slash-school, there are “two elderly English lady visitors and a curator.”  They are only “extras.”  They lead him to the secret, which, we must underscore, is to be read and written.  The curator asks that he and the two elderly ladies “sign the visitors’ book lying open on the desk at the end of the passage.”

When he opens the book to sign, he has a revelation about his name and his prophetic calling:

On reaching it, I find as I turn the pages my name already entered in big, unruly, childish characters.

He realizes that he doesn’t have to sign!

This is the prophetic calling of the schlemiel.  To be sure, his name is “already” written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  The words literally wink at him: Benjamin is in on a big joke.   This passage suggests that we all know that Benjamin was always meant to be a fool.  Moreover, it is written in the book of Goethe: the prophet, so to speak, of all German scholarship.

But this revelation, lest we not forget, comes through a dream.    This is significant since one of the ways prophesy comes to man, in Judaism, is through dreams.  In exile, it is through the oblique and indirect way – the way of the dream – that God communicates with man.  In Benjamin’s prophetic dream, he realizes that he is a man-child.  His name is, after all, written in “big, unruly childish characters.”

His name, his essence, is childish.  Yet, at the same time, Benjamin is a man hiding in Goethe’s imaginary schoolhouse.  Most importantly, he didn’t name himself a child or schlemiel.  He didn’t sign his name in a childlike manner, someone else did!

Wink, wink!

Hide and Seek: Walter Benjamin’s Reading of Children and Childhood – Take 2

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Yesterday’s blog ended with several questions which puzzled over why Walter Benjamin or Georges Bataille would be so interested in “returning to childhood” or describing the “true child.”

Before going to sleep last night, I thought about these questions.  But instead of simply thinking about them, I thought about myself.  After all, I am as intrigued with childhood and the fool as they were.  But was I fascinated for the same reasons?

In thinking about this, I turned to a blog entry I wrote earlier this week entitled “Damaged Childhood: Fools, Self-Destruction, and Reclaming Youth,” There, I pointed out how Walter Benjamin, in his essay of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, argued that Dostoevsky’s book was a response to the “failure of the youth movement” and a “damaged childhood.”

I noted how Benjamin goes on to claim, after writing on failure, that a “return to childhood” – a return to “childlike simplicity” – promises “unlimited healing powers.”  But then it hit me: if the youth movement already failed, and if the purpose of that youth movement was to “return to childhood,” why was he insisting that we try again?

At this point, I realized that Benjamin (and Dostoevsky, as Benjamin reads him) were involved in what Freud would call a “repetition compulsion.”  According to Freud, in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the repetition compulsion is a response to trauma, that is, a response to a damaged childhood.  Benjamin is repeating the failure to return to childhood by insisting on doing it again.

Although he believes that this must be done, because a return to “childlike simplicity” has “unlimited” healing powers, he also admits, in the same essay, that it is desperate and pathetic.  We see this, Benjamin says, in the novel’s characters.

The Idiot, in effect, is not simply the illustration of a desire to return to childhood; it is a displacement of failure.

Its astonishing how Benjamin’s writing on children, in many ways, parallels that of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  It seems that, in the face of this political, secular messianist failure of the “youth movement,” Benjamin, in his own work, displaced his failure and turned to the micro-worlds of children.  In these worlds we see a “childlike simplicity.” We see micro-worlds that exist within the world of adults.  This retreat into micro-worlds may not only be seen as a response to a “damaged childhood” but it can also be seen as a response to a failed (or incomplete) political project whose goal is to “return to childhood.”

We see much evidence of this in Benjamin’s book One Way Street.    Even though Benjamin does address the political on and off throughout the piece (this is the part that many Benjamin scholars and Theodor Adorno focus on, in fact) he has an entire section on children.   It consists of several aphorisms.  The subtitles of each are the following: Child Reading, Belated Child, Pilfering Child, Child on Carousel, Untidy Child, and Child Hiding.

I would love to discuss all of them over the span of several blog entries.  For now, I just want to note a one (preliminary) thing and relate it to my own personal interest in the schlemiel and childhood.

Since I am a lover and practitioner of literary interpretation and exegesis, the first thing I did when I glanced over this section was to notice and think about the first and last entries.  The first entry is entitled “Child Reading” while the last one is entitled “Child Hiding.”

This, for me, states something meaningful about Benjamin and his response to a “damaged childhood.”  His reading, the reading of a child, is a way of hiding in a micro-world.  And, as Benjamin says at the end of that section, he is hiding from a “demon” and the places he finds to hide in are “magical.”  Reading, exploring space, and constructing micro-worlds (hiding places), are his “magical” way of avoiding terror (“the demon”).  To be sure, the entire section on childhood is prefaced by a line which gives us a clue of this response to trauma: “To be happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without fright.”

Indeed, Benjamin’s self-awareness, his awareness of his, so to speak, childhood demon, is terrifying.  But Benjamin, like the child, has found a reading strategy, a way of hiding that enables him, like a child, to becomes “happy” without fright.  Seeing himself as this child, the child in the text that he writes of, he finds a way to address trauma.   In his reading spaces he is hidden and sheltered from trauma.  To be sure, he seems to be alluding to this throughout his section on childhood.

To be sure, Benjamin, like a child, is more intrigued with his hiding spaces, his mirco-worlds, than with the world.  He goes to these places out of terror.  A schlemiel does this as well.  A man-child dwells and travels through spaces within the world, spaces that are unfamiliar to the world and its preoccupations.  Ultimately, these journeys through space that the schlemiel-slash-man-child takes are responses to something hidden, something he can’t understand.  The schlemiel, in his “childlike simplicity” just moves on.  He doesn’t notice the disaster, perhaps, because it would destroy him.

Growing up with a father who had a wild imagination, loved politics, liked to travel, tell stories, and often confused dreams and reality, I often felt like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote through space and time.  I inherited my father’s response to his own trauma, which, as I learned, is to find and create micro-worlds where one can hide.  The key, however, to such childish games is to know not simply how to read but how to tell stories.

Growing up, I felt that I had to listen to and interpret these stories. Each story, as it were, was what I would call a “traumatic imperative.”  But these stories were not simply told.   They were written over various spaces, people, and time.  My father’s micro-worlds were not in a book; they were found in this or that pocket of reality.  My (as Benjamin might say) “self-awareness” was caught up in these spaces.

When dream and reality overlap, reality becomes a book.  It comes to life.  However, its meaning, because it is confused, is unclear and, as Benjamin knew and my father always reminded me, terror seems to be waiting around each corner.  Like Benjamin, my father taught me that if you are to return to childhood, if you are going to live out your schlemiel-hood through time and space, you must know how to play hide and seek.

Its the game that every failed messiah – that is, every man-child who comes out of a damaged childhood – plays.

To Which Childhood Shall We Return? Walter Benjamin’s Child versus Georges Bataille’s “True Child” (Take 1)

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The schlemiel is a man-child.  The character presupposes a man who has not grown up or a child who has not matured to become a man.   The schlemiel lives in the world of people but is in his own world because he doesn’t know how to live in that world.  He lives in a world of dreams and in dreams every little ‘thing’ matters and holds deeper significance.  Everything has a secret.  This interest in little things distracts the schlemiel from “the big picture.”  It distracts him from the world.  The little things makes him absent-minded.

To be sure, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi characterizes Sholom Aleichem’s Motl in this manner.  He is a character who gets caught up with things; and, as a result, Motl can’t understand his mothers suffering, his life situation, the death of his father, the disaster unfolding around him.   Near the end of Motl, The Cantor’s Son, Motl is optimistic and excited about the fact that he is going to America and will come into contact with more things!  Ezrahi, at one point, briefly evokes Walter Benjamin and his fascination with things to illustrate.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t pursue it further.

I would like to suggest that we contrast two types of men-children which have, most recently, entered the Schlemiel Theory blog space: Georges Bataille’s child and Walter Benjamin’s.

What we have seen thus far is that Georges Bataille wanted, like Walter Benjamin (in his essay on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) to “return to childhood.”  Both thinkers noted that the return to childhood would not, by any means, be without disaster.  Since the world has rejected youth and childhood, and since the project of writers who supported the “youth movement” has failed, the return of childhood, Benjamin tells us, can only come in the aftermath of an “implosion.”

Echoing Nietzsche, Bataille envisioned a KINDERLAND to come.  He also saw it in the aftermath of a disaster.   But, based on what we have seen so far, we can say that while Benjamin didn’t describe childhood and disaster in depth, Bataille did.

More to the point, Bataille seems to have gone further than Benjamin in describing what kind of child he wanted to be and what kind of disaster this implied. Indeed, Bataille distinguished between the “true child” and the false one.  The true child, for Batialle, is a child who experiences shame, terror, and powerlessness.  The true child, in other words, is passionate; s/he knows, in the depths of her existence, that the “serious exists.”  And this knowledge is disasterous and tragic.

Even though Bataille renounced all projects, he didn’t regard his “spiritual exercise” of becoming a child or stupid as a project.  However, when and if his pursuit of becoming a child does become a project (that is, when and if it becomes too obsessed with a goal), the true child (which Bataille aspires to be) would – Bataille avers – “laugh” at his seriousness.   This laughter frees the “true child” from the serious project.  Yet, this laughter does nothing to mitigate the true child’s powerlessness, shame, and terror.  All laughter does is lighten the weight of shame and powerlessness.  But in doing so laughter embraces stupidity.  Bataille’s “true child” revels in it.   The true child is Bataille’s description of a real and an ideal child; the child he wants to be and can become only through humiliating himself.

Batialle’s model of the “true” child is far removed from the schlemiel.  By contrasting the two, we can have a better idea of what makes the schlemiel unique. 

I suggested this contrast yesterday. The schlemiel gets caught up in dreams and all the little details of life.  The schlemiel gets distracted by things.  The schlemiel isn’t passionate.  He doesn’t experience shame, terror, and powerlessness.  The schlemiel doesn’t know that seriousness exists or, if he knows, it really doesn’t matter to him or her.  He can’t laugh at his passion because, quite simply, he isn’t passionate.

You couldn’t find a greater contrast between one man-child and another than between Bataille’s “true child” and the schlemiel.

Benjamin’s child is different: his “true child” has more in common with the schlemiel than with the passionate “true child” that Bataille aspired to.

In a piece entitled “Old Forgotten Children’s Books,” which was published in 1924 in Illustrierte Zeitung, Benjamin describes the child in a different manner:

For children are fond of haunting any site where things are visibly being worked on.  They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, and carpentry.  In waste products they recognize the face that he world of things turns directly and solely from them.  In using the thing, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.  

What I would like to suggest is a little different from what I suggested at the outset with Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi.  The main thing about Benjamin’s “true child” is not his or her passion, and not his obsession with things, so much as her relationship to “waste products” and “things worked on.”   All the things that Benjamin’s true child is interested in are partial.

This child is distracted from the “world of things.” However, children “produce their own small world of things within the greater one.”  This small world was a world that Benjamin was attracted to.

What I wonder is if the child’s world of waste and the child’s miniature world are intimations of what Benjamin would call the world of childhood that lays in the future.  This world of childhood is in the aftermath of disaster.  But, if we look again, we can notice that in this world-to-come the child plays in ruins.  He doesn’t care about the disaster so much as how he can relate one fragmented thing to another.  Perhaps this is the dream of a schlemiel: to live in the garbage and to play in the garbage while not seeing the disaster around him.

In contrast to Bataille’s man-child, Benjamin’s lacks passion but doesn’t lack a love for garbage.  What this implies is that Benjamin didn’t see the path to childhood as passing through humiliation and shame, as Bataille did, he saw the path of childhood as passing through the garbage dump.  Benjamin’s schlemiel turns to broken things – not to passions. He does not know that “seriousness exists.”  And, in this, it seems there is no violence or self-destruction.

If this is the case, then how can we understand Benjamin’s Apocalyptic warnings in his essay on The Idiot?  Such warnings and premonitions puzzled Benjamin’s closest friend – the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem. He could understand Benjamin’s interest in garbage, partial things, and micro-worlds, but he couldn’t understand Benjamin’s interest in the daemonic  “destructive element.” To be sure, sometimes Benjamin would turn to the destructive child, but, as we shall see, this only happened when Benjamin, personally, had to face failure.

And when that happened, his man-child, his schlemiel, went from being a child that plays with fragments to a shameful creature.

While Bataille’s true child passionately embraced failure, stupidity, and shame, Benjamin’s did not.   His child doesn’t get those things.  When he’s at play in the ruins nothing else matters.  But when he fails, it seems as if his child becomes a shameful figure – a reminder of how ridiculous and tragic things are.

At this point, you might be wondering why such intelligent men like Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille would want to return to childhood?  What would drive them to envision the child of the future, the “true” child?  Why would they spend so much time reflecting on such things?  Did they do so because they realized that maturity was a joke and that modernity had lost what gave it life; that is, childhood?   How would living out childhood as an adult – how would becoming a man-child – be redemptive?  Why were they so desperate for childhood?

We’ll leave these questions for our next blog entry….

On Georges Bataille – Childishness, Stupidity, and Salvation

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What does it mean to make “a fool out of oneself” or to act “childish?”  Both terms suggest that imitating a child or acting like a fool is shameful.  Now, imagine that the very thing that society despises most is designated as a spiritual practice.

In our last blog entry, we pointed out that Georges Bataille took Nietzsche’s notion of KINDERLAND and identified it with the future.  As we pointed out, one would have to destroy oneself if one were to get there.  The paradox is that by going backwards to childhood, one can go forwards, to the future, to KINDERLAND.

But, as with many spiritual practices, one needs to know what to do if one is to reach this sacred land of childhood.    Bataille was interested in describing these practices.  As one can imagine, Bataille relished the idea that acting like a child or becoming a fool was hated by civil society. In his book Inner Experience, he not only provides spiritual exercies of childishness, he also describes childishness and foolishness in great depth.

Bataille associates “childishness” with salvation.

The only challenge to becoming childish is not to turn it into a “project,” which would give it a meaning within a coherent totality.  Nonetheless, he insists that becoming a “true child” is the way to “deliverance.”  This path is, necessarily, shameful and self-destructive.  The task for Bataille, was to, so to speak, enact it, without turning it into a project.   The spiritual experience of the movement of the adult to childishness and shame, he believed, would be sufficient to destroy “the project.”  And open us up to a messianic “taste,” so to speak, of the promised land: KINDERLAND.

In Part II of his book, in a section entitled “Torment,” Bataille provides his reader-slash-disciple with intimate (yet intellectual) experiences of childhood and self-destruction.  By refusing to grow up and by returning to childhood, he, in effect, is not entering into the project.  In literary form, he describes or rather “dramatizes” his childhood and his struggle with maturity.

To be sure, Bataille, at the beginning of his book, notes that dramatization is a spiritual exercise: “If we did not know how to dramatize, we wouldn’t be able to leave ourselves…From this way of dramatizing – often forced – emerges an element of comedy, of foolishness which turns into laughter”(11).

Dramatization, for Bataille, distances us from tradition and reduces us to powerlessness. It is another name for acting out ones renunciation of maturity; that is, the project.

Dramatization brings one to an awareness of his or her childishness.

I will cite several lines which describe Bataille’s coming to consciousness that he is a child and the realization that he is, ultimately, “stupid.”  In grand mythic style, Bataille tells us that to return to childhood is to return to one’s origins.  The problem is that “grown ups” don’t get it:

To grasp the extent of knowledge, I go back to the source. First a small child, in every way similar to the madmen (the absent ones) I play with today.  The miniature “absent ones” are not in contact with the world, if not through the channel of grown-ups: the result of an intervention on the part of grown-ups is childishness, a fabrication.  Grown ups clearly reduce being coming into the world, which we are at first, to the level of trinkets.  This seems to me to be important: that the passage to the state of nature (from birth) to our state of reason should necessarily take place through the route of childishness.   It is strange on our part to attribute to the child itself the responsibility for childishness, which would be the character proper to children.  Childishness is the state which we put naïve being….When we laugh at infantile absurdity, laughter disguises shame, seeing to what we reduce life emerging from Nothingness. (42)

Bataille’s lesson to adults, who become children, is the following:

1) Children need to divest themselves from their parents: “The error of children: to derive truth from grown-ups.”

2) Children should not be laughed at.

Laughing at childish behavior is a “grown up” activity which, in his view, belongs to a project.  Rather than laugh at them, we should – seriously – imitate them.  But, Batialle goes beyond such advice.

In the midst of becoming childish, Bataille describes how he, and one who becomes childish, will feel shame and powerlessness.

To be sure, Bataille, craftily, alternates his reflections on childishness with reflections on shame, self-destruction, and salvation.  And this juxtaposition creates the breakdown he desires: “the idea of salvation comes, I believe, from one whom suffering breaks apart.  He who masters it, on the contrary, needs to be broken, to proceed on the path towards rapture.”

Besides being a “spiritual practice” and an “inner experience,” this alternation clearly suggests a link between childishness, self-destruction, and salvation.

Bataille dramatizes this link by shamefully confessing his passion of childishness. But, in doing so, he realizes that taking this childishness seriously may present an obstacle:

Childishness, knowing itself to be such, is deliverance, but taking itself seriously, it is enmired.”  And this “taking itself seriously” is an obstacle to “deliverance.”  To eliminate this obstacle, to dramatize it, one must laugh at it: “The search for the extreme limit can in its turn become a habit, dependent of childishness: one must laugh at it, unless, by chance, one has a heavy heart: then ecstasy and madness are within reach. (44)

As we saw above, Bataille says that one should not laugh at childishness.  But if one takes it too seriously, then Batialle tells us that one must laugh at it!  Because seriousness is too mature and is part and parcel of “the project.”  But isn’t a spiritual exercise too serious?  Should Bataille think it to be ridiculous?

Batialle avoids this reflection.  Instead, he creates a rule, because he sees an opportunity in this kind of laughter: if childishness becomes a “habit,” laugh at it so one can, through despair (a heavy heart), “reach” ecstasy and madness.

Ok, so let’s sum it up.  There are two possibilities for one to be saved from the project and “grown ups”- two, so to speak, KINDERLAND possibilities: 1) salvation through childishness or 2) salvation through the rejection of a “serious” and “habitual” childishness.

After describing these possibilities, Bataille, strangely enough, argues that to be a child one must “know” that “seriousness exists” and if one doesn’t one isn’t a “true child” : “The most serious seem to me to be children, who don’t know they are children: they separate me from true children who know it and laugh at being. But to be a child, one must know that the serious exists…if not, the child could no longer laugh nor know anguish”(44, my emphasis).

This conclusion brings us to the schlemiel and helps us to distinguish Bataille’s man-child the “true child” – from the false one, which, given what we know about this character, is the schlemiel.

“True” children are not schlemiels, since they “know” they are children.  They can “laugh” at being.  To be a child, one must “know” that “the serious exists.”  If they know this, children can laugh and know anguish.   Children cannot laugh or know anguish if they don’t know that the “serious exists.”

This implies that a schlemiel, who doesn’t understand seriousness, is not a “true” child.  A true child suffers and laughs.

But, then again, Bataille turns this around when he writes about stupidity.  Children may know that the serious exists, but they cannot be saved if they don’t “perceive a greater stupidity.”

“My privilege is to be humiliated by my profound stupidity and, no doubt, through others, I perceive greater stupidity.”

The more stupidity, the better.  We see this early on in his book as well: “The great derision: a multitude of little contradicting “everythings,” intelligence surpassing itself, culminating in multivocal, discordant, indiscrete idiocy”(25).

Bataille’s passion is for childhood and stupidity.  His desire is to be the “true child” who knows seriousness, suffers, and laughs.

To become the true child, Bataille confesses that he must dramatize the descent into idiocy.   This will return him to childhood. And it will save him.

But this is not a total loss of the mind.  As he says, the man who becomes a child “knows” as a child does that “the serious exists.”  This is a tragic vision of childhood or becoming-a-child.  He is aware of his stupidity as much as he is aware of seriousness.  He is also aware of what a “true” as opposed to a “false” child is.

Compared to the childishness of I.B. Singer’s Gimpel or Sholom Aleichem’s Motl’s childishness, Bataille’s dramatization of childishness is focused on the spiritual practice of self-destruction as revelation. The schlemiel is absent minded, but Bataille’s child is not.

And the tension between good and evil, between hope and skepticism, which the schlemiel looks to preserve, is effaced by Bataille’s “spiritual exercise” in which life, mad life, childish and idiotic life, ultimately triumphs and laughs at itself in its utter shameful Dionysian stupidity.

The way to KINDERLAND is through becoming a suffering-powerless-idiot-child.  This act of the will greatly contrasts to the simplicity of the schlemiel – the man-child – that we often see in Yiddish or Jewish American literature.  There is no passion of the schlemiel, but for Bataille there is a passion of the man-child.  The schlemiel can’t save himself, Bataille’s man-child can.

And perhaps this is the key: Judaism puts salvation outside of man’s efforts.  In Judaism, man cannot redeem or save himself.  Redemption is in the future.  The schlemiel stands, unredeemed, in relation to the future.  He can’t redeem himself through his foolishness.  (At the end of “Gimpel the Fool,” he simply moves on.  Gimpel has not changed; he is still an unredeemed schlemiel in, and this is the point, an unredeemed world.) Bataille, however, believes that through this “spiritual exercise” he (and perhaps his childish community) can be “delivered” to the KINDERLAND of the future.   A place where we can all make fools of ourselves all the time…a place where we can know, finally, that we are, shamefully, “true children!”

And this is only possible because we know, in the midst of shame and humiliation, that “the serious exists.”

So, here’s my question, is it worth passionately becoming fools and childish if we are to come to this conclusion and the consciousness that we are “true children”?  Or is this, quite simply, stupid?  Is this the point of, as Bataille might say, the “useless” exercise-slash-dramatization of “true” childhood?

Would Bataille regard this scene from John Water’s Pink Flamingos (1972) to be a spiritual exercise in becoming a child?  And does John Waters, who put the film together, know what “true children” are and that “seriousness exists?”  What do we make of these “dramatizations” of childishness?  Are they…and we saved? After all, the daughter who is quelling her mother-in-the-crib is named Divine. Is this where we are going? Is John Waters giving us a prophetic glimpse at the future? A glimpse of KINDERLAND?

KINDERLAND or Chelm?

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Chelm is a real place in Poland that some say has existed since the 9th century.  It is also a mythological place where, legend has it, all the Jews are schlemiels.

From the YIVO encyclopedia, we learn that Chelm-like stories have existed, in print, since 1597.  But the legend itself may go back further.  And as the encyclopedia points out, many Yiddish writers either cited these stories, retold them, or modeled their own mythic schlemiel cities on Chelm.

In America, the most well-known Chelm stories, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, come to us by way of I.B. Singer.  When I was a child, my Rabbi – who presided in a conservative synagogue in a small town in the Adirondacks named Knesseth Israel – used to read them to us every Saturday so as to inspire us before we had the “children’s minyan.”  (He would gather the children around him and either read these stories or a variety of fun Hasidic stories.  I liked these best, however; we all did.  I can remember giggling with my friends as he told them.  Imagine that, I used to think, a town of fools and led by fools!)

I mention the fools of Chelm in this blog entry because this land of Schlemiels relates, however obliquely, to what Benjamin and Dostoevsky (apparently wanted): namely, a KINDERLAND (a land of children) which I discussed in yesterday’s blog.

The term KINDERLAND actually comes from Nietzsche but it became a key word for Georges Bataille, a good friend of Walter Benjamin.

It is well-known that Benjamin and Georges Bataille were friends.  To be sure, Benjamin’s archival material, much of which we have today, was left with Bataille.  (As J.M. Coetzee notes in his 2001 essay on Benjamin for The New York Review of Books,  Bataille hid and preserved the Arcades Project manuscript.)

The two may have spoken of this vision of a land of children.  But we can have no doubt that they discussed their utopian visions as the Nazi spectre hung over Europe and crisis loomed on the horizon.

Bataille takes to the word KINDERLAND in a piece entitled the “Nietzschian Chronicle.” There, he writes (in capital letters) of a Nietzschean KINDERLAND which challenges “every man’s VATERLAND.”

According to Bataille, this KINDERLAND was something of a prophesy which was expressed by none other than DIONYSOS:

The very first sentences come from ‘realms of dream and intoxication’.   The entire message is expressed in one name: DIONYSOS.  When Nietzsche made DIONYSOS (in other words, the destructive exuberance of life) the symbol of the will to power, he expressed in that way a resolution to deny to a faddish and debilitating romanticism the force that must be held sacred.

This prophesy, says Bataille, is wrapped up in the future.  And it bespeaks the renewal of life.  And, like Benjamin, he notes that KINDERLAND will only come about through destruction and “decomposition.”

Elsewhere, in an essay entitled “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Bataille notes that “action alone proposes to transform the world, make it similar to dreams.”  This language of dreams, youth, and action is familiar to this blog.

As I noted in an earlier blog entry, Schlemiels and “Messianic activists” share the same problem: they confuse dreams with reality.  Here, Bataille insists, in the name of Nietzsche and his prophet DIONYSOS, that action will transform the world into a KINDERLAND.

In his “Nietzschian Chronicle” he suggests that this Land would be “without a head.”  This has striking resonance when one thinks about the “Wise Fools of Chelm” who lead the land.  Their judgments are foolish and childlike in nature.  They lead “without a head.”  (But, in I.B. Singer’s version, this is laughable.  Its not real.  And, more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything destructive about this.)

When I was a kid, the fools of Chelm used to make me laugh aloud.  But I could never imagine a KINDERLAND in reality.  And perhaps this is the trick.

Although I would dream of such a land as a child, I’m not so sure I would do so as an adult.  This land of children they envision couldn’t be Chelm.  Or could it?  Would there be any fools in the KINDERLAND?

What exactly did Benjamin and Batialle mean when they (and apparently Dostoevsky) imagined a land of children?  Did they share the same vision of this KINDERLAND or differing visions?

We can hear their call for life, which resonates with the tones of vitalism, but can we imagine the land?  What, after all, would a KINDERLAND look like? If we can’t imagine a KINDERLAND in reality, perhaps we can say that KINDERLAND is a text?  Is it the Derridian text where everything is play or in play?  Is this a land without a head?  A land without a center?  Or is it….Chelm?

And must we destroy the land (and ourselves) to redeem the land, as Bataille and Benjamin suggest we should when the land is lacking “youth”?  Is this the only way to the future KINDERLAND?

(I’ll leave this post, as Paul Celan says with respect to the Other, an ‘open question.’  Celan says that the poem is going toward the other, toward the future, but does this mean we are going towards Chelm, KINDERLAND, or “?”)

But….perhaps the interchange between Dwayne and Alvy Singer bears a clue of where we’re going?