The circus – whether it is ancient, medieval, or modern – is a riotous place. And the question of how to describe and place the circus in Western theology, philosophy, literature, and art is, despite what many would think, an important question. It was of interest to such great theologians as Augustine and Petrach and writers and thinkers like Rebelais, Franz Kafka, and Ernst Bloch.
Of the above-mentioned writers and theologians, Augustine and Kafka have the most fascinating differences. Yet, at the same time, what brings them together most – namely their common understanding that the circus must be figured by theology and literature – is more fascinating. Figuring the circus has implications for life, the imagination, and religion.
In Kafka’s short story “Up in the Gallery,” the narrator, who seems to be speaking from “up in the gallery,” makes a thought experiment regarding a “frail, consumptive equestrienne in the circus.” If she were to be
urged around and around on an undulating horse for months on end without respite by a ruthless, whip-flourishing ringmaster, before an insatiable public…then perhaps, a young visitor to the gallery might race down the long stairs through all the circles, rush into the ring and yell, Stop! against all the fanfares of the orchestra still playing the appropriate music.
This “perhaps” suggests that the opposite may also happen: the “young visitor” may just let this go on in front of himself and the crowd. He will, in short, let the circus happen. And this is almost like what Kafka tells us actually takes place. The circus goes on, but with a difference. The ringmaster brings in a messianic kind of figure, a “lovely lady, pink and white” who replaces the “frail, consumptive equestrienne”:
But since this is not so; a lovely lady, pink and white, floats between the curtains, which proud lackeys open before her; the ringmaster, deferentially catching her eye, comes toward her breathing animal devotion; tenderly lifts her up on the dapple gray, as if she were his own most precious granddaughter about to start on a dangerous journey.
The ringmaster “masters himself” enough to “crack the whip” and prepare the “lovely lady, pink and white” and “the audience” for the ultimate performance. But something goes wrong and the audience doesn’t respond in the way one would expect them to do at such a spectacle:
Before the great somersault (the ringmaster) lifts up his arms and implores the orchestra to be silent; finally lifts the little one down from her trembling horse, kissed her on both cheeks, and finds that all the ovation she gets from the audience is barely sufficient.
Meanwhile, she, “right on the tips of her toes, in a cloud of dust, with outstretched arms and small head thrown back, invites the whole crowd to triumph.” But they don’t. There is, it seems, an abyss between the circus performer and the circus. And at this, the “visitor to gallery lays his face on the rail before him and, sinking into the closing march as into a heavy dream, weeps without knowing it.”
In other words, the visitor, who is a surrogate for the narrator, who is “up in the gallery,” is a witness to the demise of the circus and “weeps without knowing it.” He has a secret, unconscious sadness about its demise. His witness is also unconscious.
In Kafka’s story there are only two possibilities for the “young visitor.” He can either say “Stop!” to the original circus spectacle which pushes the “frail, consumptive equestrienne” to her utter limits: “urging” her to go in crazy circles. Or he can let the circus happen and ultimately…fail. We see the latter option unfold and we hear the description of the traumatic rupture as unconscious. Only we, as readers, we “in the gallery,” see it.
But what does Kafka look to engage in this short story/parable? It seems that, for Kafka, both options are still possible. And that the end of the circus is not something to take lightly. The question is not that the circus will end so much as how it will end. However, in order to understand this question, one must grasp the meaning of Kafka’s description of the two kinds of circus events.
The first description seems to describe a situation where “the young visitor” must face a circus that has gone out of control, at the urging of the ringmaster, and spun into wild circles. But he must face it and the audience and say “Stop!” By doing this he can, consciously, suspend the madness. This poses an interesting challenge to a kind of Nietzschean or Bataillean “yes saying.” (And it is important to note that Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals, associated the original, historical “no” of morality in the Western tradition with the Jews.) The second description, in contrast, describes the circus in a state in which the audience is separated (alienated) from the thrall of the performance. And the visitor’s cry at this failure of the circus is unconscious.
Which ending is better? What ending should we choose? Or is it too late for the circus?
(In the next blog entry we will discuss Augustine’s reading of the circus. And in the third entry to this series we will discuss the two of them, together.)
Robert Walser’s fictional child-character, Fritz Kocher begins many of his “essays” with a serious reflection. But as the essay goes on Kocher drifts into different zones of joy and terror that dissipate the original intent of his essays. Indeed, his drifting shows us that he often has little to no interest in the things that pre-occupy society. He would rather bind himself to things that spark his imagination. After all, as I pointed out in another blog entry on Walser’s Fritz Kocher’s Essays, Kocher sees himself as an “artist.” And although he is not quite sure what this means, what he does demonstrate to the reader are the ways (as opposed to a portrait) of an artist, so to speak, as a young man. These ways are the ways of an individual who passes in and out of affective states and imaginings. But what makes this passing significant, for Walser, is that before the child-artist passes in and out of these states s/he begins with a state(ment) of solidity and intent that is sanctioned by society.
In an essay entitled “Careers,” Kocher begins with the statement of serious intent regarding the meaning and purpose of finding a career. As we learn, the goal of it all is to go from being a child to being an adult:
Anyone who wants to live an upstanding life in this world needs a career. You can’t just work your way along. Work has to have a particular character and a goal it is aiming toward. To reach that goal, you choose a profession. This happens when a person leaves school, at which point that person is an adult. (21)
Although Kocher begins his essay with this serious tone and statement of intention, he ends on an entirely different note. He goes through many professions and argues that he simply can’t choose them and worries about the professions his parents would choose. In other words, he’s not sure how he wants to or whether he wants to have a career. He entertains living as an artist or musician in a big city, but, ultimately, he’d rather be nomadic; he’d rather join the circus:
Well there’s one other thing I have in my soul: It would be great to join the circus. A famous tightrope walker, sparkles on my back, the stars above me, an abyss on either side, and just a slender, delicate path before me. (22)
But, after pondering this, he thinks that he would rather be a clown: “I do feel I have some talent for joking around”(22). (I touched on this point in my blog on the essay on friendship.) However, he fears that his parents would be “hurt” if he were to become a clown. For this reason, he states, out of a kind of sadness: “I’m not worried about finding a career. There are so many of them”(22).
Kocher’s drifting toward this affective state, although differed, resurfaces in his essay on “The Fair.” In that essay, he begins by saying that the fair is “useful” and serves the purpose of gathering farmers and the community together. However, as the essay goes on he drifts into the space of joy and terror.
He finds himself in these states – which I would call, like Georges Bataille, useless – when he reflects on the puppets. But before he has this reflection, he is already adrift. He describes his experience of the carousel:
I let myself be carried up and down, and down and up. You ride the most beautiful sleighs of silver and gold, the starts in the sky dance around you, the world revolves with you. (32)
When he arrives at the “Kasperli puppet show,” his desire is already nomadic. He notes that he laughs at “every blow” of this or that puppet. However, this turns into horror: “Death leaps out incredibly fast and strikes victims down with marvelous accuracy. They are pretty violently executed”(32). The puppets executed are “generals, doctors, soldiers, and policemen” – in other words, they are the “useful” members of society.
Meanwhile, the puppet clown killer, Kasperl, gets “away with a light beating.” He is a sadistic kind of clown/puppet. What he likes about him is how “his face never changes.”
But he doesn’t focus on it too much; he drifts elsewhere to see the Freak Show. He sees a “snake lady” who stands as still as a “photograph.”
Taken all together, his drifting in and out of reality has the flavor of virtual reality. And all of this, ultimately, is wasteful and suggests that society is not of primary interest to him so much as affective states that he would like to see and even participate in. His childhood, as he sees, will keep him from a useful career and he prefers this. In other words, his end point differs radically from his starting point. He leaves his original intentions for the circus and this leads him into a world where teleology has no place. But, ultimately, in the end, he acts as if nothing has changed and he has kept to his original purpose. This, perhaps, is the trick: to be able to start and end on a point while, in essence, drifting everywhere between point a and b. This, it seems, is the drift-work of Kocher’s essay and the way of the artist who ends up in the circus.
In Yiddish literature and in many a Hasidic tale, schlemiels are often portrayed as being poor and humble. However, we don’t often see a schlemiel as a beggar. Although they are poor, they make people laugh. And their dreams and imaginings often distract them from the poverty around them. After all, schlemiels – although they may be poor or ragged – are usually figures of hope. Beggars, in contrast, are often very solemn characters who are portrayed as being devoid of hope or dreams. And when we see beggars in this or that Hasidic or Yiddish tale, the authors of these tales make sure to separate the two.
However, the last part of Meir Abehsera’s parable presents us with something different. From the narrator, we learn that the “whistler” (the schlemiel) had, in old age, become a beggar. In other words, Abehsera gives us a schlemiel which is hidden within the beggar:
An old man is walking on a deserted road. His worn out clothes are evidence that he is a beggar. The rooftops of the town toward which he is heading appear on the horizon. From a pocket, he removes an immaculate handkerchief and covers his mouth. As he walks steadfastly toward the town, his shoulders hunched, his face buried in the handkerchief, he is periodically seized with violent fits of coughing. The beggar is none other than the legendary whistler, whose age and waning strength now prevent the practice of his former craft. Instead, he has totally given himself over to the task of collecting funds for the needy. (121)
As we can see from the narrator’s description of the beggar, there are certain things – without which – one can no longer be a schlemiel; namely, his “age” and “waning strength.” A schlemiel, for the narrator, is identified with the whistler – who we encountered in the beginning of this parable. We first see the schlemiel as a character who, in the middle of the night, awakes a town with his whistling. As I have noted, this moment has a life-changing effect on the writer. Here, however, the schlemiel becomes a beggar. He lacks the energy to disrupt; but he turns himself to the same end that the whistler did: redemption.
As the narrator tells us, this is a noble – though difficult – path to travel on. And the schlemiel-become-beggar sees his new task as a “blessing” since he “paves the giver’s road”:
It’s a vexing occupation, but the old man does not complain; he actually views his present appointment as an unmitigated blessing. In begging for charity, he knows he paves the giver’s road, bestowing life upon him, both in the here and the hereafter. He saves the miser from certain death, and forces die-hard thinkers to face the deed. (121)
However, the narrator creates a situation where the schlemiel may have an opportunity to emerge from body of the beggar. This situation involves the beggar’s entrance into a circus. We are immediately reminded of the powerful noise that once blew through the schlemiel/whistler by way of the narrator’s description of the beggar’s encounter with the circus:
Inside the gate he is greeted by the explosive sounds of a fairground. Calliope music blasts from the loudspeakers mounted over the entranceways to rides and gates. There is a skeeball, a batting cage, a rifle range, and a roller coaster, whose clacking wheels can barely be heard beneath the squeals of passengers. (121)
Abehsera’s knowing very well of the Kabbalistic way of contrasting the Sitra d’Kedusha (“The Side of the Holy”) with the Sitra Achra (“the Other Side”) is playing one kind of wind against another. To be sure, the whistling the schlemiel is on the Side of Holiness and it battles with the noise of the other side. But, at this point of the parable, that is not yet explicit. In yesterday’s blog entry, I pointed out how the writer – inspired by the memory of the schlemiel – spoke out against the “bad wind” of the Maggid who looked to frighten his congregants. Here, it is more than just wind that is at stake; it is the noise that is produced by wind that is at issue. This noise has spiritual meaning.
To be sure, there is a lot at stake. The entire community – and not one individual – is the source of this noise. Included amongst the throng of people is a Rabbi, a Talmudist, many “young yeshiva students,” and the rabbis wife. The description of the scene is joyful. Everyone is having fun. And the wind that blows through them is the wind of laughter:
The beggar wends his way through the thrown. A Talmudist is tossing baseballs at kewpie dolls. The Chief of Police, bare-chested, muscles bulging, is bench-pressing barbells before dazzled young yeshiva boys. The rabbi’s wife, holding a plucked chicken high in the air, breathes fire, and in a single blast, roasts the bird whole. Every face glows red…from excessive laughter. Happiness sizzles in the early evening air like streaks of summer lightening. (123)
In the midst of all this joy and laughter, the “beggar feels uneasy. He lifts his eyes skyward in prayer.” The irony of all this is that a schlemiel would take great joy in the fact that people around him are laughing; but the twist is that he is no longer a schlemiel: he is now a beggar. And in this scene, he sees himself as having no way of gaining charity. He is, after all, a somber figure in the midst of all this joy.
In his prayer, he asks for strength and that God should “place kindness in their hearts, that they may give with an open hand, and thereby be redeemed.” The beggar’s prayers are answered and he leaves with a “heavy sack of coins.” However, he is still troubled by what he saw and heard at the circus; and we see this in his dream.
The narrator tells us that in his dream he is visited by another “old beggar” who tells him about how it has all come down to this: a circus full of noise which includes everyone, even the leaders of the Jewish community, the Rabbi, etc. In his account, we can hear the separation of “true joy” and “false joy”; “true laughter” and “false laughter.” The old beggar notes how, in the beginning, all of the poor were taken care of and of how this care for the poor was an expression of the learning that the Jewish community did. But all of that came to an abrupt end. And the wealthy no longer cared for the poor; they ignored the poor. And people didn’t talk to each other. Joy was replaced by seriousness: “seriousness became such a plague that dozens died from it every year.” The death caused by seriousness was so great that the “town council met for a special session.”
In response to all of the death caused by seriousness, the town council decided that “happiness was the answer, and that a grand amusement park would provide the cure.” They went right to work building the park and it “was an instant success.” The “plague of seriousness” ended.
But now a new problem arises. The old beggar points out that “an abominable, overpowering stench” issued from the village. The old beggar could do nothing to stop this smell and he ended up dying in the forest outside the town. After finishing this account, he hands the ball over to our old beggar and tells him what is at stake. And in doing so, he makes distinctions between true and false joy, etc. The old beggar in the dream brings together all of the pieces that were, as I pointed out in the outset of these blog entries on Meir Abehsera’s Possible Man, tied to remembrance and redemption. And out of this, our beggar learns (or rather, remembers) his original task – the task of the schlemiel:
You surely noticed how artificial was the joy of these people….With their silly behavior, they hope to demonstrate that they are in the swim, that they can outdo us. Our bursts of joy, as you know, are upsurges of remembrance. I don’t have to tell you that their false joy is the result of a deficient memory….Your mission, therefore, my dear colleague, consists of breaking these people with true laughter, until they regain their true identity…You break them with joy and you will affect the entire planet. (125)
This task shows us that, ultimately, the schlemiel concealed within the old beggar has the last word. And it also discloses Abehsera’s conviction that there is such a thing as “true laughter” and “true joy” and that this laughter and joy will help people to “regain their true identity.” This task is redemptive and affects the “entire planet.” And it cannot be done without a battle. To be sure, we hear this in the command to “break them with joy.” The ironic twist that Abehsera is communicating is that by breaking them one fixes them.
In the next two blog entries, I hope to follow out this thread to the end. The point of these close readings is to understand how central and important the schlemiel is for Abehrsera’s project. To be sure, without the schlemiel man (that is, the best man can be) – for Abehsera – is not “possible.” For Abehsera, the writer is the “relay” of the schlemiel and the “possible man.” What he relays to his readers is a joy and laughter that can break “us” out of our “false joy.” And, in effect, he asks us to also become relays and to take part in a joy that will “affect the entire planet.” But being a relay is not by any means an easy task when the world is, as Abehsera suggests, caught up in the circus….
Judd Apatow has a penchant for portraying male-schlemiel bachelors and their struggle with dating and marriage. We see this in films like The40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. The schlemiel aspect of these characters can be found in the fact that they have a hard time leaving their adolescence for adulthood. They are, as Adam Kotsko says in his book Awkwardness….“awkward.” For Kotsko, this awkwardness discloses the social-fact that male norms are faltering. In the wake of this faltering, Apatow’s characters appear “awkward” since, quite simply, they don’t know what role they should play with the opposite sex. What they are good at, however, is hanging out with their friends or acting like teens (when they are, in fact, adults). Kotsko’s reading of Apatow’s characters is a social reading of the awkwardness that comes with post 9/11 bachelorhood. However, schlemiel bachelorhood can be read in other ways.
In Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Heinz Politzer argues that Kafka saw a deep link between being a bachelor and being an artist: “The paradoxicality of Kafka’s narrative work can be traced to these basic contradictions in the nature of their central figure, the bachelor”(46). For Politzer, the “vortex” of the Kafka narrative is the bachelor: “to become a writer he had to remain a bachelor. Eventually bachelorhood was identical for him with a life spent in continuous contemplation of life’s paradoxical nature”(46). Kafka’s characters are “comic” and “tragic” in their attempts to “solve” the paradox of life. And this task, says Politzer, is where they “derive their unjustified claims and their innate dignity.” In effect, Politzer argues that only a bachelor, for Kafka, can “testify” to the “enigma” of life.
Politzer ends his chapter, entitled “Juvenilia: The Artist as Bachelor” with a diary entry from Kafka on January 19, 1922. In this entry, Kafka contrasts the happiness of a family to his own “feeling”:
The infinite, deep, warm, saving happiness of sitting beside the cradle of one’s child opposite its mother.
There is in it something of this feeling: matters no longer rest with you unless you wish it so. In contrast, the feeling of those who have no children: it perpetually rests with you, whether you will or not, every moment to the end, every nerve-racking moment, it perpetually rests with you, and without result. Sisyphus was a bachelor.
The artist, in Politzer’s view, is a bachelor. Unlike a married person, Kafka is able to “testify” to the enigma of life. But, more importantly for us, Politzer sees the comic and tragic aspect of Kafka’s work in his attempt to “solve” this paradox. For Politzer, this is impossible. But what exactly is this paradox?
What I would like to suggest is that the paradox Kafka is addressing has to do with his relationship with the other. This other can be God, the sexual other, tradition, and himself. In addressing the paradox of the other, Kafka measures the movement from adolescence to adulthood. And this movement, which is never completed, is the movement of the schlemiel bachelor. To be sure, this movement has mystical resonance for Kafka because, in everything he writes about (in his notebooks, diaries, and fiction) there is a always the question of how it relates to the truth. And he often ponders whether the mystical state requires a movement from the child to the adult or from humility to assertiveness.
For Kafka, the problem with such meditations was not to get caught up in psychology. He wanted, for this reason, to make a distinction between what he called “mirror-writing” and reading/interpretation. He associated psychology with reading/interpreting “mirror-writing.”
In his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka states it explicitly:
Psychology is the reading of mirror-writing, which means that it is laborious, and as regards the always concrete result, it is richly informative; but nothing has happened.
As we can see, Kafka enjoys such reading/interpretation; but he is more interested in mirror-writing. However, one informs the other. Writing is connected more to feeling, experience, and the event while reading is connected to “information.”
Through writing, he records his struggle with the truth, God, and the world. He records his movement from and back to bachelorhood.
In an entry dated February 23rd, in his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka realizes that the world “seduces” him into thinking that marriage is a “representative of life” with which “you are meant to come to terms.” He is not certain if he should do so since it may distract him from God, tradition, and truth. However, he realizes that there is some truth in this seduction:
For only in this way can this world seduce us, and it is in keeping with this truth. The worst thing, however, is that after the seduction has been successful we forget the guarantee and thus actually the Good has lured us into Evil, the woman’s glance into her bed.
This glance would take him out of his gaze, which we discussed in the last blog. As I noted there, the gaze is the “third thing” which notes otherness. Kafka wonders what will happen if he exchanges the gaze for the glance. Will it remove him from his relationship to God? Will it take him from his adolescence? Will marriage make him lose his schlemieldom?
Kafka’s short story, “The First Sorrow,” opens up these questions by way of posing a figure.
In the story, the main character is a trapeze artist whose home is the circus. Through the story, we learn that the artist is a bachelor and does his own act. He lives and breathes the circus and has mastered the game of being a trapeze artist. And “nothing disturbed his seclusion.”
However, there is a problem. The trapeze artist could have lived his entire life alone and practicing his art “had it not been for the inevitable journeys from place to place, which he found extremely trying.”
Within the space of the circus, the artist is fine. It is only when the artist must travel from one place to another in the world that he becomes unsettled. While traveling the artist becomes “unhappy.” And his manager does all he can to make life easier for him. But “despite so many journeys having been successfully arranged by the manager, each new one embarrassed him again, for the journeys, apart from everything else, got on the nerves of the artist a great deal.”
But on one of the journeys, the trapeze artist, “biting his lip,” asked the manager for a second trapeze artist. And his feelings shift: “At that the trapeze artist suddenly burst into tears.” In response, the manager goes to him and comforts him as if the trapeze artist were a child. He climbed up into his seat “and caressed him, cheek to cheek, so that his own face was bedabbled by the trapeze artist’s tears.”
The manager assures the trapeze artist that he will find another trapeze artist immediately and “succeeded in reassuring the trapeze artist, little by little, and was able to go back to his corner. But he himself was far form assured, with deep uneasiness he kept glancing secretly at the trapeze artist over the top of his book.”
Politzer gives a cursory reading of this story and states, simply, that the irony is that the “first sorrow” is that of the manager and not the acrobat. This insight makes sense insofar as the manager worries that the trapeze artist’s existence may be threatened by these changes.
But, in the end, it is the face of the trapeze artist that changes. With the manager, we gaze at the change that has taken place with the trapeze artist: “And indeed the manager believed he could see, during the apparently peaceful sleep which had succeeded the fit of tears, the first furrows of care engraving themselves upon the trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead.”
It is this last detail which is most important. The furrows of care on the “trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead” indicate that the artist may still be a child but, at the very least, now he cares. His face changes. And this is the truth that interests Kafka. It is the risk of marriage, the risk of a relationship that interests him.
However, what makes this story so interesting is that he wants another trapeze artist to join him. In Kafka’s real life, the seduction marks the possibility of losing his art. Here, we can see that Kafka envisions a relationship within the context of art.
He wants the trapeze artist to retain his childlike face. He wants to be a schlemiel in a relationship. But this is not without its misgivings; after all, it is the “first sorrow.” This oddly resonates with Apatow’s characters who also take their chances and enter relationships. The question, however, is whether, in taking these risks, they remain childlike and what this implies.
In Knocked Up, for instance, Seth Rogen becomes a responsible individual who leaves his adolescence behind for being a father. Adam Kotsko, in his reading of this film, thinks that this rejoinder compromises the awkwardness which discloses a historical-social rupture of the roles of men and women. In contrast to Apatow, Kotsko would like to retain the awkwardness of Rogen’s man-child character for the purposes of putting social norms into question. To be sure, Kotsko thinks that this is a “fairy tale” solution. For this reason, we can imagine Kotsko would prefer that Rogen remain a schlemiel.
We seem to have something else going on with Kafka. Although Kafka clearly feels unprepared by his tradition to confront marriage, what seems to be at stake, for Kafka, is not a social otherness so much as an otherness that is wrapped up with Kafka’s art. And that otherness includes God, himself, and tradition. For Kafka, these overshadowed the social which he sees, as we saw above, as “seductive.”
Perhaps we can say that Apatow’s schlemiels are social schlemiels while Kafka’s are religious. The difference is telling and shows us how the schlemiel’s childishness can be read in such differing ways. Regardless, for Kafka as for Apatow, every schlemiel must dwell in the space between childhood and maturity. Once they leave one for the other, they are no longer schlemiels and, as Politzer might say, they will no longer be artists (let alone bachelors).
Given this claim, Politzer, Kafka, and Kotsko seem to be saying that ruptures and paradoxes are best fit for people or characters who are caught in this or that extenuating circumstance or social position. What does this imply? Must we learn from bachelor schlemiels what we, who live “normal” lives, cannot? Are bachelor schlemiels in a better position to understand otherness than we are? And instead of going back to school, should we go back to the circus?
History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous time, empty time, but filled with presence of the now (Jetztzeit). Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate….Fashion has a flaire for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it’s a tiger’s leap into the past (Walter Benjamin, Thesis XIV of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”)
Throughout the ages, many great artists, poets, and thinkers have shown great love for the circus. They feel that there is something about the circus. It can tell us about who we really are, what we believe in, or what we hope for. Perhaps the circus, as Walter Benjamin might say about “the presence of the now” (Jetztzeit), is our common origin. Perhaps the circus is the revolution. Perhaps it is the place where, as Benjamin says of fashion, there is a “tigers leap into the past.”
The circus, like the revolution, is a space where comedy, surprise, and excitement are center stage. It is a social, an aesthetic, and a political space. On the one hand, the Roman satirist Juvenal used the words “Panem et Circenses” (Bread and Circuses) to criticize those in power noting that the circus distracted Rome’s political leaders from history. And it was used as a tool for gaining power. On the other hand, the circus has been envisioned as a space of inversion and resistance to the dominant culture. In the circus political power appears as ridiculous: it’s the only place where you will find Nobility and Clergy dressed up as or riding pigs. Mikhail Bakhtin was one of the first theorists to explore this aspect of the circus; and in his notion of the carnivalesque, cultural studies and postmodernism found a model that proved fruitful for at least a decade or two. In Rome, the circus was dominated by power; but in the middleages it was not. The circus belonged to the people.
Like Bakhtin, Ernst Bloch also found the carnival to be of great interest. In an essay entitled “Better Castles in the Sky” (from the essay collection The Utopian Function of Art and Literature) Bloch makes a confession or admission to truth. His admission reveals that his fascination with the circus is a fascination with what makes us utopian. His admission discloses the circus in what I, following Bloch, would call an “anticipatory illumination.” To be sure, I would say that the circus, for Bloch, is the ultimate anticipatory illumination of utopia: “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance. A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers. Nevertheless, there is an estrangement”(179).
By saying that the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance,” Bloch is saying something quite radical. This implies that all other artistic performances are not honest or down to earth. It also implies that Bloch values honesty and being “down-to-earth” which are basic folk virtues. To be sure, the honesty marks a kind of innocence with what makes us utopian. In fact, he repeats the word “honest” twice so as to underscore the importance of this fundamentally social and political virtue. But more importantly, these values, for Bloch, find their only vehicle in the circus and in no other artistic space. Their vehicle is comedy!
All other theatrical performances are mixed with ideology, power, and dishonesty; the circus is not. It has the quality of honesty. It is so honest that it is utopian. Bloch suggests that utopian justice, in this sense, is all about a kind of honesty that can only be prefigured in the circus.
Why is this the case? Why does the circus, for Bloch, basically articulate, unlike any other art, the utopian function? How does it articulate the “anticipatory illumination” and what he would call “genuine heritage?”
Before Bloch makes his admissions of truth for the circus and its utopian function, he discusses the roots of the circus performance. According to Bloch, “the sideshows at the fair” are uncanny and exciting because “they don’t originate here, nor does their magic, which is continually dusted off and revealed anew in the repeated performances of the sideshows”(178). The magic we see at the circus “operates as if abnormal and foreign. Yet, it is ordinary and full of swindles”(178). To be sure, it is very canny. It is plain, simple, and downright ordinary. However, it is “still more substantial than the trouble that the philistine causes for the age-old joy of young and old people.” In other words, the circus, for all its ordinariness, is more substantial than the law.
The circus is the spirit; the philistines – the ruling class – are the law.
Instead of pursuing this distinction further, Bloch takes a detour. Bloch’s detour takes us into the life of the circus and the nature of its magic: in taking this detour, Bloch avoids talking about the origin of the circus. All Bloch notes, before this point, is that they (those in the circus) “don’t originate here.” Does this mean they originate elsewhere, in another world? Where are the people of the circus from?
Bloch cuts in with quasi-historicism for an answer. Bloch suggests, as if we know, that a circus is a “boat like show”: “So these boat like shows set sail and are carried by the South Seas for the simple soul and the uncorrupted, complicated soul too.” The circus, originally a boat show, is for the simpleton (the schlemiel) and the complicated soul (the skeptic).
Moreover, the ship visits all kinds of cities; the ships have no boundaries: “The tent-boats weigh anchor for a short time in the dusty cities. They are tattooed with pale green or bloodthirsty paintings in which votive pictures projecting rescue at sea disasters are mixed with those of the harem.”
At this point, Bloch slips into the mode of allegory and allusion to illustrate why the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”
I’d like to closely follow his words so as to figure out what he is alluding to with a canny-slash-uncanny circus that originates on the sea but, in our day, finds itself on the ground.
Bloch creates a metonymy of sorts associating the “motor” of the boat with a sound that is “foreign, fatty, unhuman, breathless, sluggish”(178). And from sound Bloch moves to the figure of a “dancing wax lady screwed down next to the entrance. And she dances with sudden contortions, moves with twisted gestures of screwed down wax that turn into dance, and she throws her head back from time to time.”
The first thing that strikes me about this metonymy is that the figure moves and is nailed down; its dance embodies a dialectical tension and, for this reason, it appears comical. It reminds me of a dancing Hula doll.
Bloch writes of this figure lovingly and situates it behind the barker of the circus, who brings her to a halt. After noting this Bloch explains its “hidden meaning” by way of a juxtaposition of life and death:
Eventually she comes to a halt and trembles in this position right behind the barker, who fears nothing. The type of world extolled here has the secrets of the bridal bed and also the miscarriage at one end and the secrets of the bier on the other end. (178)
This image is mythical. Bloch passes from this image, however, to one that is full of particularities and seems to play with myth by way of plurality:
Strange human creatures and their art offer themselves to spectators in nothing but peepshows of abnormality. The sword swallower and fire eater, the man with the untearable tongue and iron skull, the snake charmer add the live aquarium. Turks, pumpkin men, fat women, they are all there.
Once Bloch realizes he has gone way out in his description, he reels it in with some analysis, noting that “fairy tale realm reappears continually and also that of the horror story.” This implies that the fair moves between innocence and horror. He calls “the fair, a colorful, peasant fantasy.” However, it is interrupted by the city (as well as by horror).
He notes the historical change from the country to the city in the movement of the fair from Europe to America:
In the large American cities it has become increasingly automated with loudspeakers and amusement centers. However, the land of the wishes from the medieval South Seas, so to speak, has remained. And it maintains itself out of the Middle ages, which go much further back, right to the fair of the higher order, in the kind of show of the Circenses without any curtain at all. (79)
What Bloch does over here is articulate what we saw in yesterday’s blog; namely, the “genuine heritage.” To be sure, Bloch sees the fair as the heritage to which he, a circus lover and a lover of honesty, must turn. His language, following upon his mention of a show of a “higher order,” a Circenses “without any curtain at all” verges on the religious and the revolutionary.
In Benjamin’s sense of the “tiger leap” backwards, Bloch sees a merging of all times in the ring of the circus. In the “ring” of the circus the Medieval, the Roman, and the tradition of the circus on the sea come together:
For, as the miracles of the sidewshows are assembled together under one roof, in a ring, and as the managerie breaks out from here, the coliseum or the circus now originates from the South Seas. (79)
However, as with history, something is lost. And what is it? The hula doll I referenced above (the wax dancer):
Of course, the feature of the wax figure cabinet cannot be present here, that suspended animation, that mechanical organ, because everything in the circus is alive. And, in contrast to the fair, which operates with concealment, with stage, showcase, and curtains, the circus is fully open. The ring brings everything with it.
But although the hula doll is gone, something new and revolutionary, something much more revolutionary than the fair or the sea circus has arrived. For Bloch the circus is the most revolutionary because it is “fully open.” It is, for this reason, the most utopian space.
To be sure, following this claim that the “circus is fully open. The ring brings everything with it,” Bloch makes his greatest claim: “The circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”
This admission of truth is his way of taking the “tigers leap” into the past.
And as Friedrich Holderlin has said (and Martin Heidegger reminds us in his famous essay on the “The Origin of the Work of Art”): “that which dwells near the origin departs.”
Or as Bloch tells us, utopia starts and will always end in the circus.