Dostoevsky’s Two Idiots: The Charming, Naïve, and Friendly Idiot and…the Deep, Mystical, and Epileptic One (Part I)


When it came to the fool Fyodor Dostoevsky, it seems, was of two minds.  After fleeing from Russia and the outpouring of his first novel, Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky set out for Basil, Switzerland.   Dostoeveky decided that, after writing a novel that was full of depth, complexity, bleakness, and evil, he wanted to write a comic novel that, as he wrote to his niece, would be even more comic than Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

But Don Quixote is no common fool. As Dostoevsky also said to his niece, he thought that the true model for Cervantes, and by implication, his own fool was Jesus. For Dostoevsky, he is the true model for his novel, the Idiot. Dostoevsky tells his niece that Christ is “beautiful” because he is “already a miracle”:

There is only one perfectly beautiful person – Christ – so that the appearance of this immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, already a miracle.

However, as I noted in another blog entry, Dostoevsky doesn’t model his character totally on Christ. Rather, he turns to the most beautiful character in what he calls “Christian literature”: “Don Quixote.” But, reflects Dostoevsky, he “is beautiful solely because he is at the same time ridiculous.”

For Dostoevsky, what makes the fool Christlike is her ability to gain our sympathy. That, he claims, is the “secret of humor”:

Compassion is shown for the beautiful that is ridiculed and does not know its own worth – and so sympathy appears in the readers. This arousing sympathy is the secret of humor.  

When beauty is ridiculed we don’t simply laugh; we also feel sympathy. In other words, there is something painful that is tied to “beauty” in this world. In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin is not simply ridiculed in each of his encounters. In fact, the first part of the book show how he, in his simplicity, was loved by children and befriended most of strangers. Myshkin is light, not deep. His comedy is to be found in his naïve trust of others and his optimistic way of greeting the future. He lives on the surface and it seems he has no depth or complexity.

He obviously doesn’t fit into Russian high society. But it is the men who he really doesn’t fit in with. He connects with the women and children more than the men. It is the jealousy of men and their murderous nature that one can see slightly foreshadowed in the first section. The leitmotif of this section is foolish trust and hope. As Dostoevsky would claim, we should sympathize with Prince Myshkin because, though he is a kind of holy fool, he is ultimately thought of as an outsider.   But he doesn’t feel like or even care about whether he is.   Although Prince Myshkin isn’t a fervent worshipper, his life, like Christ’s, is what Edith Wyshchogrod, drawing on saintly narrative (hagiography) would call a “saintly sample.” Myshkin is a folkloric kind of holy fool because he trusts people and only wants them to be happy.

However, this “sample” of the Holy Fool has another dimension.

There are moments when he is mesmerized with the image of evil. And I say image because Prince Myshkin loved to see and draw faces. The moments when he faces death suggest that the Prince may have depth and is grazed by evil. We see this in his witnessing of a beheading.   We also see this in his confrontation, later in the novel with Rogozhin who, out of jealousy, follows him and attempts to kill him. The limit between one kind of fool and the other – the buffer zone Dostoevsky puts between them – can be found in the experience of “epilepsy.” Dostoevsky sees the experience, which Prince Myshkin undergoes in the midst of his flight from Rogozhin, as mystical.

As far as experiences go, it is much different from his foolish relations to others since it is not social and external but deeply internal and complex. Dostoevsky’s writing, in this section, differs from the writing we find throughout the book which is mostly interested in Prince Myshkin’s social relations. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the other idiot, the epileptic one (please note that Dostoevsky tests the meaning of the name “idiot” as it works on a medical register, a social register, and a mystical register).

When the Prince leaves an intense face-to-face encounter with Rogozhin, who is desperate, angry, and jealous and blames the Prince for taking away his fiancé, Kolya, (which simply isn’t true), he goes to the station to take a train. He feels radically alone and in pain. Because he is from Moscow and not St. Petersburg, he is unfamiliar with the city and what ensues resonates a lot with Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”:

He was little acquainted with the city. He stopped occasionally at street corners in front of some houses, on the squares, on the bridges; once he stopped at a pastry shop to rest…He was tormentingly tense and uneasy, and at the same time felt an extraordinary need for solitude. He wanted to be alone and give himself over to all of this suffering tension completely passively, without looking for the least way out. He was loath to resolve the questions that overflowed his soul and heart. “What, then, am I to blame for it all?” He murmured to himself, almost unaware of his words. (223-224)

As time passes, the Prince gets more and more anxious and dissociates himself from reality as he is occasioned by a series of unexpected feelings and occurrences. He loses track of time and has a hard time locating things (and himself) in space:

He suddenly forced to catch himself consciously doing something that had been going on for a long time but which he had not noticed till that minute….he had begun now and then suddenly searching fro something around him. And he would forget about it, even for a long time, half an hour, and then suddenly turn again uneasily and search for something. (224)

In the midst of this confusion, the Prince starts having recollections about his location in time and space:

He recalled that at the moment when he had noticed that he kept searching around for something, he was standing on the sidewalk outside a shop window and looking with great curiosity at the goods displayed in the window. He now wanted to make absolutely sure: had he really been standing in front of that shopwindow just now, perhaps only five minutes ago, had he not imagined it or confused something? Did that shop and these goods really exist? (224)

As one can see, Dostoevsky has the Prince wax philosophical in this passage. To be sure, Dostoevesky, unlike anywhere in the novel, shows how the Prince has depth and is complex. In these moments, the Prince goes from being an ordinary “idiot” to a philosophical, or rather, a mystical-slash-epileptic “idiot.”   Like a mystic, he becomes “extraordinarily absentminded,” grows “morbid” and “anxious,” and confuses “objects and persons”(225).   These states of dissociation increase as a realizes that he can’t know for certain that things are what there are and where they are; in addition, as we can see above, he loses track of when or even if he experienced a sensation, memory, or thought in relation to them.

When he actually “discovers” the shop, he “laughs hysterically.” But then he is reminded of Rogozhin’s “eyes fixed on him” and he sinks back into anxiety.   At that moment he realizes that “something absolutely real had happened to him, which was absolutely connected with all his earlier uneasiness”(225). This real experience, which Rogozhin’s anger, jealousy, and intimated threats, is a kind of wake up call. (Since, after all, the idiot in Cervantes’ sense is caught up in the ideal, not the real, this is a wake up call.)

Although this is a pressing thought which pits one idiot (the deep, real, solitary, and complex one) against the other (which is superficial, charming, and friendly), the narrator tells us that the Prince focuses more on his “epileptic condition.” He realizes that what he was experiencing is the “stage just before the fit itself….when suddenly, amidst the sadness, the darkness of the soul, the pressure, his brain would momentarily catch fire, as it were, and all his life’s forces would be strained at once in an extraordinary impulse”(225).

The terms used to describe this state, however, are not physical; they are, rather, drawn from the register of mysticism.   The narrator points out that in these moments of the fit there is a sublime “flash” like “lightening” when everything is illuminated and becomes one. Through this state, he feels joy and hope and, like a mystic, perceives the “ultimate cause”:

His mind, his heart were lit up with an extraordinary light; all his agitation, all his doubts, all his worries were as if placated at once, resolved in a sort of sublime tranquility, filled with serene, harmonious joy, and hope, filled with reason and ultimate cause. (225-226)

Dostoevsky backs up, however, and points out that the moment before this great revelation is a “second moment” which is “unbearable.” When he reflects on this second moment, from a healthy state after the fit, he realizes that perhaps the “highest being” were “nothing but an illness, a violation of a normal state.” And that the “highest state…should be counted as the very lowest.” Faced with this dilemma about how to read the relationship of the two moments, the Prince comes to what the narrator calls the “paradoxical conclusion”:

“So what if it is an illness?” he finally decided. “Who cares that it’s an abnormal strain, if the result itself, if the moment of the sensation, remembered and examined in a healthy state, turns out to be the highest degree of harmony, beauty, gives a hitherto unheard-of and unknown feeling of fullness, measure, reconciliation, and an ecstatic, prayerful merging with the highest synthesis of life?”

These words, without a doubt, don’t disclose a simpleton-slash-idiot so much as a deep thinker who is seeking a serious mystical experience. Although the narrator calls these “vague expressions,” they demonstrate a kind of certainty that we seldom find in fool.   Moreover, the experience is deeply solitary and asocial. In this kind of reflection and experience, we see a fine line being drawn between one idiot and another.

….to be continued….

“Travels With Charley: In Search of America,” or John Steinbeck, an American Don Quixote: Take 1


When I was in high school, I realized that to discover America I would have to go off the beaten path. I never thought of my endeavor as comic so much as adventurous.  With a journey in mind, one of the first books I really took to in high school was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.   Like the narrator of the book – who was the travel companion of the character Dean Moriarity (who was, in real life, Neal Cassidy) – I had a desire to discover America. I wanted to leave my small town in Upstate New York and find out, for myself, what America had to offer. This book spurred me to travel across country with a good friend.   And as I traveled, I also came across Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Allen Ginsburg’s poems about America.   Although I was not of the Beat Generation, I was intrigued by their reflections on the USA. I found their fictional and poetic meditations on America to reflect their “serious” adventures.  The events and experiences that happened on Kerouac and Whitman’s respective journeys were fundamentally transformational.  Would I have the same kinds of transformational experience?

Between what I found and I experienced, I found that some things just didn’t match. I was looking for something else. From my angle, their journeys were too filled with pathos (“the urge to be transformed by experiences in America”) to be believable.   As an American Jew, I know now that what I was looking for was an adventure that had comical elements of failure and not so much transformation but comical astonishment. In my American adventure, I was looking for something closer to what we find in the adventures of Sholem Aleichem or Mendel Mocher Sforim, on the one hand, or the adventures of schlemiels like Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, or Shalom Auslander’s Kugel as they left the city for the countryside.  The America I discovered would have to come by way of a schlemiel.   If I were to find any correlate for this in pop culture, I would have to say that National Lampoon’s Vacation might just work.  After all, Harold Ramis was behind it and knew how to bring the schlemiel into popular American culture.

When I, just last week, came across John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America, I was recently reminded that Vacation, for me at that time, wasn’t enough.  Despite seeing this film and having a lot of laughs, I knew that there was something better.   Steinbeck’s book reminded me.

It was odd that I missed the book.  In truth, I had a few friends who told me to read the book; but I never got my hands on a copy of it. My literary studies brought me elsewhere…more into modernist European literature than American literature.   It was only recently on a trip to visit my father in Upstate New York that I stumbled across a copy of the book. I found it in a small used book store in Schenectady, New York. It was in the American fiction section. I bought the book and, to my surprise, I discovered, right off the bat, that this book, unlike Kerouac or Whitman’s books, starts off on a comic note and it takes Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a model-of-sorts.

The novel, to begin with, is supposed to be based on Steinbeck’s real experiences. But as a New York Times article (from 2011) notes this claim has been heavily-disputed. Nonetheless, I’m less interested in the “truth” of the claim so much as the form it takes, which is the form of the comic adventure, and the fact that Steinbeck wrote this at a time (the early 1960s) when he felt down on his luck and alienated: two factors that often make for good Yiddish and Jewish American comic literature.   Most importantly, the novel suggests a desire not so much to discover American as to be elsewhere, which is, to be sure, a Jewish desire. The suggestion that this is not just a Greek or Spanish motif can also be found in the fact that Steinbeck dedicated this book to a Jew named Harold Guinzburg.

At the outset of the book, the narrator recalls how, when he was young, “the urge to be someplace else as on me, I was assured that by mature people that maturity would cure this itch”(3). However, as the narrator points out, although he was in middle age, “the sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye…In other words, I didn’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum”(3).

In these words, he see that, in his own eyes and in the eyes of the community, the narrator is a “bum” and a “man-child.” But he is not an aimless wanderer. To be sure, the narrator calls himself a “practical bum.” He isn’t just wandering around America: “He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey”(3).

Even though he sees himself as a “practical bum,” the narrator associates himself with Don Quixote who didn’t seem to have a plan. We see this in the fact that, in choosing the name for his vehicle (he is driving, not hitchhiking) he selects the name of Don Quixote’s horse:

And because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I named it Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote’s horse…I was advised that the name Rocinante painted on the side of my truck in sixteenth-century Spanish script would cause curiosity and inquiry in some places. I do not know how many people recognized the name, but surely no one ever asked about it. (7)

In other words, this was the narrator’s private joke. What really brings him together with Americans, however, is not his car. It is his dog, Charley, that brings him into the world. He takes the dog with him because he had worried about traveling alone. He felt that he might be assaulted, but, ultimately, he fears the weight of desolation would kill him:

There was some genuine worry about my traveling alone, open to attack, robbery, assault. It is well known that the roads are dangerous. And here I admit I had some senseless qualms. It is some years since I have been alone, nameless, friendless without any of the safety one gets from family, friends, and accomplises. There is no reality in danger. It’s just a very lonely, helpless feeling at first – a kind of desolate feeling.(8)

And it is “for this reason” that I “took one companion on my journey – an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley. Actually his name was Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy…and trained in French”(8). To be sure, the dog only responds to French words.

I find the dog, and its European pedigree, to be an interesting American re-writing of Don Quixote. In this version, the more rational and grounded Sancho Panza is replaced by a dog. The dog helps the narrator relate to the world and pulls him out of dreams: “Charley is a born diplomat. He prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, because he is very bad at fighting”(9). He fails at fighting, but he is good at relating and negotiating with others. He is a “bond with strangers. Many conversations en route began with “What degree of a dog is that?”

It is conversation that the narrator wants because, in doing so, he doesn’t simply see American and its various landscapes; rather, he experiences American by way of talking with people from around the country. Regarding this, he notes that the dog is actually not the best conversation starter; even better is than the dog is the state of “being lost.” It’s the best way to “attract attention.”

With these last words, one wonders about what Steinbeck is doing. On the one hand, he casts himself as a “practical bum” and yet, on the other hand, he casts himself as someone who must “be lost” if he is to rediscover America. It seems to be a little of both. He seems to be, like many a schlemiel or ironic figure (think of Socrates, even) someone who can act as if he is lost while not being lost. The whole point, to be sure, is to gain new experiences by way of conversation. The only way to do that is to act as if one is lost. And in this act, which is carried on with a dog, the comic journey begins.

…to be continued….

Living Schlemiels – Stranger than Fiction


One of the things I have never discussed on this blog is the topic of the “living schlemiel.”  To be sure, the most well-known books on the schlemiel – Ruth Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero and Sanford Pinsker’s The Schlemiel as Metaphor – do not address this topic.  Their concern is the schlemiel in literature, folklore, and, for Pinsker (only with regards to Woody Allen), cinema.  The first time I saw the expression “living schlemiel” was in Sander Gilman’s book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews.  To be sure, Gilman used this title for a section on his third chapter which includes German-Jewish writers and thinkers of the 18th and 19th century such as Ludwig Borne and Heinrich Heine.  For Gilman, Heine’s poetry, which dubbed the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” (the poet), bled into his life.  And Ludwig Borne’s life also, for Gilman, bore the stamp of the schlemiel.  Although Heine, according to Hannah Arendt, embraced the title of the “schlemiel” and “lord of dreams,” Gilman’s reading suggests that he and Borne did all they could to avoid it.  And that’s the point: Gilman calls them both schlemiels because no matter how much they did to fit into German society – and this included Heine’s baptism and both Heine and Borne’s attempts to satirize their Jewish origins to be accepted as equals – they remained the odd one’s out.

In judging their lives in this fashion, Gilman is teaching us that he, like many German Jews, uses the term in a critical/judgmental sense.  To live the life of the schlemiel, he suggests, is to live a life that is blind to the fact that it is excluded.  It “believes” it and fits into the world when it doesn’t. And this fits well into Gilman’s definition of the schlemiel vis-à-vis literature and theater. Schlemiels are  “fools who believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.”  This is what Gilman is saying about Heine and Borne: they think they were in control of their world and could cajole it to accept them, but it refused their gestures.  In effect, Gilman suggests that they were odd in two senses: as a result of their satire they were excluded from their Jewish communities; and, despite their efforts, they were not accepted into the “world.”

Taking this definition into account, I wondered about how it could be applied to people I knew and not just to this or that intellectual.  And should it be modified?

Thinking about this, I would say that it should be modified to include the fact that, with a living schlemiel, there is a blindness over the reality that he or she is not fitting in; yet, despite it all, they keep on trying.  And here’s the twist: unlike Gilman who would suggest that the “living schlemiel” comes to a bad end, I would suggest that sometimes their foolishness can bear fruit.

I’ll offer a story about people who, I think, may be living schlemiels or at least analogous to living schlemiels.   This may serve as an illustration of how the schlemiel may be alive and living amongst us.  The question, I think, is how to judge them.

I was raised in Upstate New York by parents who were both raised in New York City.  I was one of a small handful of Jews and, in many ways, my parents skill set and education didn’t match up that well with the rural community that they made their new home.  Growing up, I often felt like I was the “odd one out.”

But, after years of travel, higher education, and exposure to the urban way of life, I realized that many people in my town, from an urban perspective, would be considered the odd one’s out.  I’m somewhere in the middle.   Describing my borderline state, my father jokingly calls me a “cosmopolitan hick.”  I think this title is apt and see read it in terms of what advantages it gives me over people who are either fully urban or are down-and-out country bumpkins.  The greatest advantage I have, to my mind, is the fact that I can participate in both groups and for this reason I am better able than many of my friends to comprehend or judge things that are said by one group about another.  I see it from the inside of both, widely different, cultures.  So when someone is said to be the “odd one out” by one group on another, my ears perk up.  However, there are times when no one says anything and I am the sole witness of an event that is of the schlemiel variety.  Let’s call it a schlemiel situation.

I recently went out for an evening with a group of friends to a bar on the Sacandaga Lake, a lake I spent a lot of my youth enjoying.   (To preserve my friend’s identity, I will change their names while noting what happened.)   In this group of friends, the words and deeds of at least two of my friends spurred a schlemiel-situation in which I bore witness to a schlemiel or two and was prompted to make a schlemiel-judgment call.

They traveled over to the bar by way of the boat.  I came in by car and met them there.  When I got to the bar, I heard that they were still on the lake on the way to the bar.  When I got word that they arrived, I went down to the lake to discover that one of my friends was playing guitar the entire way.  What’s unusual about this?  My friend, let’s call him Bob, is full of energy. He passionately gets into everything he does.  However, sometimes this can be grating because he subjects everyone he knows to his learning experience.  He does have experience as a lead singer in a band and he plays guitar, but he doesn’t take well to criticism.

That said, he was very excited to show me that he had learned how to play rhythm in a rockabilly kind of style.  I listened but, like the night before, he still needed to be much more gentle with his strumming if he was to get it right.  His erratic strumming coupled with his singing, which didn’t match up, his innocence, and his intense personality made me think of Bob as a “living schlemiel.”   To be sure, people tell him that his playing is off, but he goes on.  Its funny.  And so is he.  He is the odd one out, but he manages to slip through the cracks. But, as I found out, this has its limits.

Before going into the bar, Bob started talking with some people in a boat coming in to the bar’s dock.  Using a megaphone, he brought them in (acting as if he was an air-traffic control). This made the whole boat laugh and they were, instantly, endeared with him.  This gave him a big boost.

When he came up to the bar, he started working his foolish magic.  And this is when things started getting odd: reality and dream started clashing.  In the bar, Bob met up with a man in his seventies.  He got this gentleman going and he started dancing wildly to the music.  To have fun, I egged Bob on to increase the madness. But, to my chagrin, I bore witness to some mixed feelings in the bar.  The older gentleman started going off and people around the bar looked at him as if he was crazy.  I felt an odd identification and repulsion with the old man who was dancing wildly.  He was the odd one out and though people were giving him dirty looks, I couldn’t help but think them wrong.  He was having a good time and, yes, he appeared to be a schlemiel of sorts.  He believed he was enthralling the audience by going over the top, but he enthralled no one save Bob.

Together, they were whooping it and each encouraged the other.  I pulled back and noticed, immediately, that my friend Bob was eager to sing with the band.  In Upstate New York, it does often happen that people from the audience go on stage and sing.  But there are tell-tale signs when and when not to do this.  Moreover, it’s always good to have a friend in the band you’re joining.  In this situation there were neither signs nor friends. And my friend, Bob, went into it without any concern hoping his joy and charm would win the day.

But what happened was far from what he imagined. The drummer of the band told him to get off stage and the lead singer gave him dirty looks.   And the older man dancing around the bar started turning off a few of the audience members.  Things looked as if they would get ugly.

But they didn’t.  My friend did all he could to mend things.  It worked, but it didn’t get him on stage so much as in their favor.  What gets me, however, is that my friend kept at it as if there never was a negative moment.  And this blindness, though comic, gives him the title of a living schlemiel.

Following this, I went back to his boat and talked with another friend who keyed me into another kind of living schlemiel: one who has God on his mind and odd ways of relating to Him.   We were looking up at the stars when he said to me that he talks with God.  I asked how and he told me that he would ask questions while looking up at the stars. And for each question, God would answer with a shooting star.  I found this innocent and endearing, but coming from an adult this did seem odd. But isn’t faith a strange thing, too.  And, to be sure, Ruth Wisse notes that the first major literary schlemiel was, in fact, a schlemiel of faith.  That schlemiel comes out of the work of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.  He is the simpleton who, with simple faith, believes in God.  His simplicity is scoffed at by the educated Jewish world, which, at that time, privileged the Jew who learns over the simple Jew.  The former, they believed, was closer to God. But the Baal Shem Tov – and his grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – thought the contrary.  Their stories bear witness to the spiritual doings of the simpleton.  My friend’s story about his communication with God reminded me of this; to be sure, the model for the literary schlemiel is a real one.  This is something Wisse doesn’t discuss as much.  But in this moment, I felt there is a need for more of this kind of reflection on “living schlemiels.”

If I weren’t a “cosmopolitan hick,” I’m not so sure I would look upon what I was seeing in the ways I do.  To be sure, I feel like Sancho Panza did when he followed Don Quixote.  He felt he could learn something from the fool, and so do I.

Some of my friends teach me about the living schlemiel.  But, to be sure, I can also see this from Chad Derrick’s documentary on (a segment of) my life: Shlemiel.  Every time I screen the film to audiences, I see that this is what the filmmaker – who is also my friend – was trying to accomplish.  And, every time I give the Question and Answer session following the film, I am asked if I am a schlemiel (a living schlemiel).  Perhaps I am.

But I am aware of many of the things I am blind too while my friends may not be.   However, then again, I am not.  We may see things that others don’t see, but we are often blind to ourselves.  You may not know this, but you too may be a schlemiel.  And, if we cared, we would be surprised how many living schlemiels are in our midst.   The question is how to judge them and ourselves.  Do we have anything we can learn from “living schlemiels”?

My friends and the older man I saw the other night reminded me that, though people may laugh or scoff at a schlemiel (of the Jewish or non-Jewish variety), there is something about this character – in fiction and in reality – that is good and worthy of our thought and reflection.   This goodness is something that many German-Jews missed (in their rush to judge the schlemiel as an idiot who should, like all things from the ghetto, be left behind).  But it was recognized by the Hasidim, by many of the Yiddish writers, and by some Jewish-American novelists, filmmakers, and artists.  Now that the times have changed, we need to ask ourselves where this goodness can be found and how it can be found.  These are questions not only for schlemiel-in-theory but for the schlemiel-in-reality.  The living schlemiel…..

Emmanuel Levinas, Don Quixote, and the Hunger of the Other Man


Like many Jews over the centuries, I am fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Now that I’m in middle of the fast, I’m having a hard time distracting myself from my hunger.  In the midst of being enthralled with my hunger, an academic memory came to my rescue.   I remember how the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in apposition to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, argued that it’s not about my death and suffering (as Heidegger would say (in translation) my “being-towards-death”), it’s about the death and the suffering of the other.  Echoing this, I thought: perhaps Levinas is right, it’s not about my hunger; it’s about the hunger of the other.

Strangely enough, Levinas writes about the “hunger of the other man” in relation to Don Quixote (a comic figure which has appeared quite often in Schlemiel in Theory).  In 1975 and 1976, Levinas gave a course at the Sorbonne. His course notes are included in the book God, Death, and Time (translated by Bettina Bergo).   On his February 13th 1976 lecture, Levinas addresses Don Quixote and the “hunger of the other man.”  This talk, to my mind, gives us at least one angle to understand Levinas’s approach to humor.

Let me sketch it out.

Before making his reading of Don Quixote, Levinas prefaces with a meditation on the relation of thought to the world. He writes: “thought contains the world or is correlative with it”(167).  He notes that by “correlative” he means that it comes “prior to” the world.  In this spirit, Levinas argues that thought “disqualifies” anything that would be “disproportionate to the world.”  He provides two adjectives to describe things that would be disqualified: “all thought said to be ‘romantic’ or ‘theological’ in its inception.”

“Disqualified” thought, argues Levinas, is not equated with the world (which thought contains); it is equated with what is to come.  It is, for this reason, equated with “a question” and “hope.”  Levinas goes on to say that “God” is also included as something which is “disproportionate” with thought and the world.   To be sure, God, hope, and the question are deemed to be “outside” thought and, for that reason, outside the world.

Writing of this, Levinas wonders how much we can be “affected by what is not equal to the world, how one can affected by what can be neither apprehended nor comprehended”(167).  In other words, how much can we be affected by that which is disqualified by thought?

Following this question, Levinas launches into a discussion about the disenchantment of the world.  He addresses this, like Martin Heidegger or the sociologist Max Weber, from the angle of technology.  Unlike them, Levinas sees the disenchantment fostered by technology as good.  Here, however, he notes that although it is good, technology “does not shelter us from all mystification”(168).  Now “there remains the obsession with ideology, by which men delude each other and are deluded.”  And, says Levinas, even “sober knowledge…is not exempt from ideology.”

Everything, even knowledge, is still threatened by mystification.  Levinas finds the source in what he calls “amphibology”: “technology cannot shelter us from the amphibology that lies within all appearing, that is, from the possible appearance coiled at the bottom of all the appearing being.”

Benjamin Hutchens explains that amphibology is the “confusion between what something is and the concept that enables what it is to be known.”  This, says Hutchens, leads to a “kind of ambiguity.”  John Llewelyn cites Martin Heidegger’s notion of Being – in his claim that “language is the house of Being” – as an example of “amphibology.”  Being is ambiguous and this ambiguity troubles Levinas as he sees it as the source of what he calls “bewitchment.”  And, as Llewlyn suggests, this ambiguity goes along with the ambiguity of language.  Perhaps this implies (and may even be a jab at deconstruction) that one can easily become enchanted with the play of words and language and this may distract us from the other.

What Levinas seems to be saying here is that what threatens the project of demystification most is the embrace of ambiguity as such and this kind of ambiguity is associated with how things show themselves or appear.  Levinas notes that the basis of “man’s persistent fear of allowing himself to be bewitched” is “amphibology.”

And, strangely enough, the writer who best illustrates amphibology and the attending fear of being “bewitched” (and “allowing” oneself to be bewitched) is Cervantes in his book Don Quixote.  In fact, Levinas says that “bewitchment” is the book’s “principle theme.”  Levinas finds this to be most pronounced in chapter 46.  Hinting at his own phenomenology of the face, Levinas calls Don Quixote the “Knight with a Sad Face” and points out that “he lets himself be bewitched, loses his understanding, and assures everyone that the world and he himself are the victims of bewitchment.”

Bewitchment, it seems, is another word for foolishness.  And Don Quixote, the “Knight of the Sad Face,” lets himself become a fool.  Levinas hints as such when he cites Don Quixote’s urgent claim to his side-kick Sancho Panza: “’Sancho my son,’ he said, ‘now you realized the truth of what I have many a time told you, that everything in this castle is done by means of enchantment.”    Levinas stresses the point that Sancho Panza is clear minded and is “stronger” that Don Quixote for this very reason: “Sancho alone maintains a lucidity and appears stronger than his master.”

In other words, the person who watches the schlemiel or the fool is more “lucid” and “stronger” than him/her.  To give this reading more textual support, Levinas cites a passage in which Sancho Panza is astonished by the “gullibility” of Don Quixote.  Yet, at the same time, he can see the “shapes” that Don Quixote conjures up.  Levinas notes that “these ‘distinguished shapes’ that Sancho doubts are a priest, a barber, and a whole group that had decided to take Don Quixote back to his country, where he could be cured.”

After noting this, Levinas concludes: “thus the adventure of Don Quixote is the passion of the bewitchment of the world as the passion of the Knight himself.”  At this point, Levinas knew he had to relate his reading of Don Quixote to the beginning of his lecture: to thought, the outside, amphibology, and bewitchment.

To this end, Levinas goes right to work and claims that “we must understand that the whole of Descartes’s Evil Genius is present in these pages.” To be sure, Levinas is asking us to read philosophy by way of Don Quixote!  Continuing on this thread, and indirectly explaining amphibology, Levinas argues that in this passage from Don Quixote “enchantment functions in the form of an imprisonment within a labyrinth of uncertainties, lacking any connection between faces, which are only masks or appearances.”

Playing on Descartes notion of the cogito (mind), Levinas argues that, in the midst of his bewitched experiences, Don Quixote “experiences, in a way, the cogito on which a certitude is founded.”(169).  Citing Don Quixote, Levinas allows for Don Quixote to merge with Rene Descartes: “I know and feel that I am enchanted, and that is not enough to ease my conscience…I allowed myself to lie in this cage, defrauding multitudes of the aid I might offer of those in need and distress…”

The last line of this passage from Don Quixote is crucial for Levinas.  It separates Don Quixote from the Rene Descartes we hear in the opening lines, and this line brings the reader face-to-face with what Levinas calls the “hunger of the other man.”   To be sure, we can see from these lines that Don Quixote is ashamed.  He sees himself as allowing “to lie in this cage, defrauding multitudes of the aid I might offer to those in need and distress.”

I put the stress on the word “allowing” only because Levinas does.  But one doesn’t simply choose to be or not to be bewitched.  Levinas believes that this passage could not be written if Don Quixote was not, in some way, disenchanted by the “hunger of the other man.”  Levinas calls this interruption of bewitchment “transcendence.”  It comes from “outside” thought and disturbs it.   And he calls the process of disturbing this bewitchment “secularization.”

To be sure, Levinas is suggesting that the only thing that can truly “secularize” or “demythologize” reality and clear away the bewitchment of ideology (which is the project of the Enlightenment) is the “hunger of the other man.” This hunger is what, Levinas claims, awoke Don Quixote from his “bewitched” slumber.

What interests me most, as a schlemiel theorist, is what this kind of reading implies for the schlemiel.   How does it fit?  After all, Mendel Mocher Sforim, the father of Yiddish literature, wrote Benjamin III with Don Quixote in mind.  In that book, we have schlemiels who are, like Don Quixote, caught up in dreams. But can we say that these schlemiels are caught up in the same problems?  And if we take Levinas’s position are we taking the position of the clear-thinking Sancho Panza toward Don Quixote?  In other words, would Levinas think of the schlemiel in the same way he would think of Don Quixote? Does humor put the accent on the bifurcation between being “bewitched” and being “responsible” for the hunger of the “other man?”

I don’t know about you but I’m hungry for an answer!

(To be continued….)

On the Apocalyptic Tone of Comedy – Take 1


For some writers, there’s nothing like a good death sentence.   Merely describing a death, for some writers, is ecstatic and revelatory.  In doing so these writers feel as if they are bearing witness to death while proclaiming a new beginning.  There is a sense of pathos, meaning, and liberation from the dead in such descriptions.

By speaking in an Apocalyptic Tone, one is, so to speak, transformed.  But, most importantly, this transformation is based on describing some kind of disaster to the reader.

Milan Kundera, who is internationally known for novels such as the Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, is one of these writers.  But what makes him unique is that the death sentence he pronounces or describes involves the enunciation of comedy, on the one hand, and his commitment to its legacy, on the other.

In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that comedy changed everything.  According to Kundera, comedy announces the death of tradition, certainty, and religion.   But, at the same time, it announces a new tradition which is born in the wake of death.  For Kundera, the origin of this new tradition, which bears witness to the death of the old tradition, has a proper name.

Kundera names the herald of death and the father of a new tradition: Don Quixote.

Kundera’s words echo Nietzsche’s “Madman” aphorism in the Gay Science where Nietzsche’s madman announces “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”  But as God dies, something new is born: the comic novel.

As God slowly departed from the seat whence he had directed the universe and its order of values, distinguished good from evil, and endowed each thing with meaning, Don Quixote set forth from his house into a world he could no longer recognize.  In the absence of the Supreme Judge, the world suddenly appeared in its tiresome ambiguity; the single divine Truth decomposed into a myriad of relative truths, parceled out by men.  Thus was born the world of the Modern Era, and with it the novel, the image and model of that world.

Kundera deftly moves from Don Quixote to Descartes and then Hegel to describe the new world that the novel is the “image and model.”  What does this mean?  Kundera repeats the words “to take” twice to indicate what is at stake:

To take, with Descartes, the thinking self as the basis of everything (and not God), and thus to face the universe alone, is to adopt the attitude that Hegel was right to call heroic.

To take, with Cervantes, the world as ambiguity, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters), to have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty, requires no less courage.

Let’s spell out what Kundera is saying: For the philosopher “to take” him/herself as radically alone, without God, is courageous.  And for the novel “to take the world of ambiguity” and to be “obliged” (that is, ethically charged) to “face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths” is also courageous.  Kundera pronounces this courage and he identifies with it.  It is his.

But, according to Kundera, the novel is more heroic than the philosopher because it challenges man’s moral “desire” for “a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished.”   This desire is a religious desire and a philosophical desire that is inherited from what the Enlighteners would call the ancients.  For Kundera, modernity challenges orthodoxy on this specific point regarding good and evil.  And, for Kundera, it is Don Quixote who bravely travels into the world and says no to the desire for a world “where good and evil can be clearly distinguished.”

The comic novel, in other words, is the herald of the death of God and the courageous embrace of a world in which good blends into evil and vice versa.  According to Kundera, the “inability” to distinguish between good and evil “makes the novel’s wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.”

In other words, a normal individual would rather accept the world of the Bible where good and evil are clearly distinguished than accept the novel.  For Kundera, the comic novel “courageously” says no to such a world.  It denies its existence.  In making such a claim, Kundera is basically rewriting Neitzsche’s madman aphorism in terms of the comic novel.  As I noted, Kundera insists that Don Quixote “sets forth into the world” while “God slowly departs.”

In other words, the fool arrives after the death sentence from God has been pronounced.  For Kundera, the two coincide.  The fact of the matter is that we are led into the modern world by a fool.  Furthermore, Kundera implies that the wisdom of the fool is the wisdom of the comic novel.  For Kundera, this wisdom is existential.  The fool and not the normal individual who desires a clear understanding of right and wrong  is the hero.  The fool courageously embraces ambiguity.  But this is not simply a description of an ubermesche (overman) or a modern existential ideal.  No.  For Kundera, what is more important that such courage is the tradition that is passes on.  As Kundera argues, Don Quixote lives on from generation to generation but he disguises himself.

Kundera traces a path from Don Quixote to Kafka and he spots Don Quixote in the disguise of Kafka’s Land Surveyor:

Isn’t that Don Quixotre himself, after a three-hundred-year journey, returning to the village disguised as a land surveyor?

What we have here is a comic tradition.  But things have changed.  Unlike Don Quixote, the Land Surveyor’s “adventure is imposed on him.”  He is forced to wander in ambiguity.  How can one courageously accept this?  To be sure, the latter day Don Quixote cannot freely embrace ambiguity as his predecessor did.  He is not heroic.

The new message is Apocalyptic and Kundera is describing it for us. The herald of this message is Kafka.  Now the land Surveyor lives in a world which is not simply ambiguous; it is dangerous.  The world may kill this comic character! It deprives the fool of his freedom.  Perhaps Kafka’s Land Surveyor (from The Castle) marks the death of a legacy?

After Kafka, Kundera wonders: is the novel dead?

But if Cervantes is the founder of the Modern Era, then the end of his legacy ought to signify more than a mere stage in the history of literary forms; it would herald the end of the Modern Era.  That is why the blissful smile that accompanies those obituaries of the novel strike me is frivolous.  Frivolous because I have already seen and lived thorugh the death of the novel, a violent death (inflicted by bans, censorship, and ideological pressure) in the world where I spent much of my life and which is usually called totalitarian.

In effect, Kundera is telling us, by virtue of his own personal witness, that the novel was killed by the Totalitarian world.  This world, in contrast to the novel, lives in accordance with “one single Truth.”

But this is not enough of a death sentence. Kundera says that the novel is a “cemetery of missed opportunities.”  They include four appeals: to play, to the dream, to thought, and to time.

Kundera notes authors for each appeal.  They include, respectively, Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot (appeal to play); Franz Kafka and the Surrealists (appeal to dream); Musil and Broch (the appeal to thought); and Proust (the appeal to time).

In an Apocalyptic tone, he notes that they all belong to a “cemetery of missed opportunities.”  Milan Kundera has personally witnessed their death.  He has witnessed the political death of the novel and the death of all of these appeals.  However, at this moment of description, in the face of this death, Kundera pronounces a new life for the novel. He pronounces a new purpose in the post-totalitarian era.

In a world in which everything is caught up in a “veritable whirlpool of reduection” the novel’s raison d’etre is to “keep the ‘world of life’ under a permanent light and to protect us from the ‘forgetting of being.’”

To courageously accomplish this mission, the novel must battle that which will reduce its complexity.  But there is something more important that this great task.  In a moment which challenges the modern idea of overcoming tradition, Kundera embraces one.  Kundera tells us that the “novel’s spirit is the spirit of continuity.”  In other words, although Kafka’s novel suffered the fate of history and politics, although it died, and althought the novel is a “cemetery of missed opportunities.” it is still a legacy.  And it is this legacy that was given to Kafka by Don Quixote.  Kundera, in effect, takes this legacy up. 

He does this after he announces that he is not attached to the future, God, Country, the People or the Individual.  He is, rather, attached to the “depreciated legacy of Cervantes”:

But if the future is not a value for me, than to what am I attached? To God? Country? The People? The individual?  My answer is as ridiculous as it is sincere: I am attached to nothing but the deprecated legacy of Cervantes.

What I find so astonishing about this confession is that Kundera’s move to attach himself to this legacy parallels the decision made by Walter Benjamin at the end of his essay on Kafka.  There, Benjamin mentions his favorite Kafka aphorism, which is entitled Don Quixote.  There, Benjamin likens himself to a Sancho Panza who, like Kundera, attaches himself to the legacy of Don Quixote.  Before Benjamin takes on this legacy, he begins by citing Kafka’s aphorism:

A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and thus enjoyed a great and profitable entertainment to the end of his days.

To this, Benjamin adds a new description of Sancho Panza:

Sancho Panza, a sedate fool and a clumsy assistant, sent the rider on ahead.

To be sure, Benjamin rewrites Cervantes’ Sancho Panza as a Sancho Panza in Kafka’s clothing.  And strangley enough, Benjamin notes that Sancho Panza “sent the rider ahead” which implies that Sancho Panza sent the legacy of the fool out into future generations.  In an earlier blog, I called this the schlemiel tradition.

What I would like to note here, however, is that Kundera also sees this tradition.  And, as like Benjamin before him, Kundera lovingly attaches himself to it.  However, Kundera’s attachment is made in the wake of death; namely, the death of God.  Benjamin isn’t as explicit about the Apocalyptic in his taking on the tradition.  Rather, he does so by way of allusion.

Kundera spells out what we can see in Benjamin’s words.  The assumption of this tradition is “ridiculous and sincere.”  Kundera’s words imply that he is a schlemiel author, a simpleton, who, in taking this tradition on, is “sincere” yet “ridiculous.”   This, I would argue, outweighs the ambiguity and complexity of the novel.  This sincere and ridiculous assumption of the schlemiel tradition includes all of the appeals of the novel to time, play, dream, and thought.

Most importantly, Kundera is telling us that in a world where good and evil are hard to distinguish, the most moral person of all is he who commits himself, in the most ridiculous and sincere way to the schlemiel tradition.

When God departs and Don Quixote arrives, Milan Kundera, like Sancho Panza is faced with a question and a new imperative: in the midst of God’s departure, should one follow the schlemiel and – as I suggest elsewhere, in my reading of Benjamin’s understanding of tradition – become the schlemiel?

Kundera answers yes in the most ridiculous and sincere way.  For Kundera, ridiculousness and sincerity – not cynicism and nihilism – survive by virtue of one thing: by taking on the “deprecated legacy of Cervantes.”

The question, for schlemiel theory, is how this tradition of the fool compares to the other hidden tradition of the fool which follows in the wake of prophesy.  As I point out in my earlier blog entry on the “schlemiel as prophet,” that tradition is Jewish.  But for both the fool arrives after God departs.  And for both, the fool initiates a new tradition.

(Please note that, though I said I would address the cynical schlemiel in this blog entry, I took a detour.  I hope to come back to it in tomorrow’s blog entry.)

Educating the Next Generation of Schlemiels


“Think snow and see Boca” – Charles Bernstein

Today, the New York Times announced the publication of a new memoir in 2014 by the Jewish-American writer Gary Shteyngart.   Shteyngart is well known for his best selling novels The Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Story, all of which feature schlemiels as main characters.  The title of his new memoir is Little Failure.   Regarding his new book, Shteyngart writes:

I’ve finally written a book that isn’t a ribald satire and because it’s actually based on my life, contains almost no sex whatsoever. I’ve lived this troubled life so others don’t have to. Learn from my failure, please.

The last line of Shteyngart’s blurb is of great interest to me. It suggests that the fool is a teacher and has something to transmit to his readers.  This suggestion resonates with what I have been blogging.

In a recent blog on Walter Benjamin and Don Quixote, I paid close attention to the end of Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka where Benjamin foregrounds the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Since Panza followed Don Quixote around and, as a witness and student of the fool, learned from him, this relationship hits on the question of education.  In effect, Panza was learning from Quixote’s failure.

In a letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin notes that, for Kafka, the fool has wisdom and that the wisdom of the fool, rather than the wisdom of the philosopher, is “the only thing that can help.”  However, the question is “whether this can do humanity any good.”  This implies that the schlemiel is a teacher.  The only question for Benjamin concerns the value of such an education.

Shteyngart, in the final line of his blurb for the New York Times, suggests that he also has something to teach his readers.  He sarcastically notes that, like Christ, he has lived a troubled life “so others don’t have.”  All we have to do is “learn” from his failure.  The structure of this statement and its implication are the same as the structure that exists between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.   Moreover, Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and his appropriation of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote beckon the same questions: What can we learn from failure?   What kind of wisdom does a fool have to offer us?  Do we simply learn what not to do? Or do we learn something else?

To better understand this, I suggest that we take a look at one of Benjamin’s early reflections on education.  In a letter to Gershom Scholem dated September 1917, Benjamin responded to two lines from an essay Scholem had written on Jewish education: “All work whose goal is not to set an example is non-sense.” “If we wish to be serious:…then today, as always, the most profound way – as well as the only way – to influence the souls of future generations is: through example.”

In response to these lines, Benjamin emphatically states that “the concept of example (to say nothing of that of “influence”) should be excluded from the theory of education.”

Benjamin explains himself by pointing out that “the life of the educator does not function indirectly, by setting an example.”  What does this mean?  For Benjamin, what often happens is that “instruction” is separated from “education.”  He argues that “learning has evolved into teaching, in part gradually, but wholly from within.”  In other words, teaching is a part of a larger unfolding of tradition.

To be sure, Benjamin claims that the “concept of tradition” is more important than the “concept of the example.”  It is more important for a teacher to think of him or herself as a part of a tradition than to think of him or herself as a role model or as the illustration of an idea.

Benjamin sees tradition as the unification of learning and teaching: “I am convinced that tradition is the medium in which the person who is learning continually transforms himself into the person who is teaching, and this applies to the entire range of education.”

Assuming that there is a tradition of the fool (and that Don Quixote is a part of it), Benjamin would see Don Quixote as transmitting it to Sancho Panza.  And within this tradition, Panza would continually be transforming himself into Don Quixote (a fool).  But there is more.  Benjamin insists that “in the tradition everyone is an educator and everyone needs to be educated and everything is education.”  In other words, since Benjamin believes in tradition, he insists that all education be reconfigured within the context of tradition; otherwise, education will have no real basis and will become meaningless.

Knowledge, Benjamin avers, is not independent of tradition.  It can only be transmitted “for the person who has understood his knowledge as something that has been transmitted.”  In this sense, Benjamin believed that if one is to learn from a fool, one must live within the tradition of the fool.  To transmit the comic, one must be within the comic tradition.

Moreover, Benjamin believes that a person who situates himself within this tradition, as opposed to someone who rejects tradition (as in the case of modernity), “becomes free in an unprecedented way.”  In other words, freedom is not something that one is born with and it is not based on the rejection of tradition; rather, it is something that comes when a person submits him or herself to a tradition.

Benjamin likens tradition and the freedom it offers to the sea and a wave:

Theory is like a surging sea, but the only thing that matters to the wave (understood as a metaphor for the person) is to surrender itself to its motion in such a way that it crests and breaks.  This enormous freedom of the breaking wave is education in its actual sense: instruction – tradition becoming visible and free, tradition emerging precipitously like a wave from living substance.

After writing this, Benjamin acknowledges that the source of tradition is religion.  He acknowledges that, for this reason, it is “difficult to speak about education.”  How can there be a secular or modern notion of tradition?  Is this, by definition, impossible?  These are questions that were of great concern to Benjamin in many of his essays which look to gauge the effects of technology, media, and mass production on tradition.

Despite the threat of modernity to tradition, Benjamin insists that any form of education which looks to create future students (and this includes all modern forms of education) must find its roots in the religious notion of tradition: “our descendants come from the spirit of God (human beings); like waves, they rise up out of the movement of the spirit.”

Instruction, says Benjamin, is the “nexus of the free union of the old with the new generation.”   Instruction, in other words, must bring modernity into a relation with tradition instead of negating it.  For Benjamin, the “error” is to think that “our descendents are dependent on us in some fundamental way.”  Rather, the proper way of thinking of his or Scholem’s role in education is to think that it all depends “on God and on the language in which, for the sake of some kind of community with our children, we should immerse ourselves.”

Benjamin’s musings prompt an important question for the schlemiel theory: What is the tradition of the schlemiel and who transmitted this tradition to Benjamin?  Who was Benjamin’s Sancho Panza?  Was it Kafka?

Benjamin suggests this in his letters to Scholem and in his essay on Kafka.  Taking Benjamin to his word, we can say that by immersing himself in the tradition of the fool, Benjamin was, as he says, continuously transforming himself into a fool.  Moreover, Benjamin was also looking to transmit that tradition to his future readers.  Kafka’s work, as an extension of such a tradition, gave Benjamin freedom. It enabled him to break forward like a wave.

This insight, unfortunately, has not been ventured by anyone in Benjamin studies.  Benjamin didn’t spell it out.  Rather, like any good student of tradition, one must learn it out from the teachers hints and actions.  For me, the hints can be found in Benjamin’s obsession with the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, a relationship that also fascinated Kafka.  Moreover, we can see Benjamin’s submission to the comic tradition in his last letters to Gershom Scholem.

Can we say the same for Gary Shteyngart?  Should we take him, as Sancho Panza took Don Quixote, as a teacher?  The irony of this tradition is not simply that it is, as Arendt might say, “hidden.”  Rather the greater irony is the fact that the tradition of the fool is a modern tradition that, according to Milan Kundera (in a chapter of The Art of the Novel entitled “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”) starts with Cervantes.  It starts with the decay of one tradition and the beginning of another, modern comic tradition.  According to Kundera, the teaching of this tradition is the teaching of contingency or what I, in my last two posts, would call “empirical consciousness.”

And like any tradition, we learn most from what the teacher does. We can learn more from the teacher’s gestures and actions that we can from his or her content.  What I look to do, in my readings of Benjamin, is to pay close attention to the gestures that he has left in his work on Kafka.  For Benjamin, one must pay attention to Kafka’s gestures.  For they convey something “pre-historic.”

The comic tradition is pre-historic in the sense that it transmits powerlessness to its adherents.  All those who learn from failure will eventually fail.  Schlemiel education opens the door for that which, in the Jewish tradition, is to come.  By learning from the schlemiel’s failure, we prepare for the arrival of what is to come.  In this sense, Shteyngart’s memoir, his “little failure” is preparatory.  But it belongs to a larger tradition.  Our acute awareness of failure, our becoming failures, literally falls within this tradition.  So, if we were to see Shteyngart’s memoir (or any of his schlemiels) as an “example” of “what is possible,” we would lose what Benjamin would consider the crux of education: tradition.

But, wait, what does it mean that we are educated with the schlemiel tradition?  Is this some kind of joke?  Was Sancho Panza the greatest fool of all for taking a fool as his teacher?  Did he intentionally distract himself?  If so, Immanuel Kant would say that while Quixote was “absent-minded,” Panza was “debilitated.”  However, if we take Benjamin seriously, we would have to say that Panza looked to go from being debilitated to becoming absent-minded. To be sure, for Benjamin “tradition is the medium in which the person who is learning continually transforms himself into the person who is teaching, and this applies to the entire range of education.” This kind of transformation, for Kant, would be one of worst sins one could commit against Enlightenment.  It is, literally, going backwards – toward the distracted and absent-minded innocence of childhood.

In contrast to this regression, the Jewish tradition has made room for the fool.  I have already touched on this in my blog entry on the “Schlemiel as Prophet.”   And I will return to it again in the near future since Benjamin, without a doubt, saw something prophetic in Don Quixote’s transmission of foolish tradition to Sancho Panza and, as a matter of course, Benjamin situated himself within that tradition.  This tradition is at once Jewish (particular) and not (general).  The only question we need to ask is whether or how someone like Gary Shteygart or a blog like Schlemiel Theory is passing the tradition of the fool or the schlemiel on.  For, regardless of the decay of this or that tradition in the modern world, comic failure is something that will still be transmitted from generation to generation….