Between the Chapter Headings: How to Read Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”

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In an essay on Moses Maimonides entitled “The Literary Character of The Guide to the Perplexed,” Leo Strauss suggests that we read Maimonides as we would read a good novel: we should look for textual contradictions and read into the relationship of one “chapter heading” to another.  In other words, he believed that Maimonides was communicating secrets to Joseph – Maimonides student for whom he dedicates The Guide to the Perplexed  – by way of allusions.  There is a precedent for hinting at secrets in the Talmud. It points out that secrets regarding the Maaseh Merkavah (the “Work of the Chariot,” an allusion to Ezekiel’s famous chariot) and Maaseh Bereshit (the “Work of Creation”) should neither be communicated in public nor directly.  They are private teachings and they can only be alluded to in the teaching itself.

Reading Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays,” I cannot help but think of Strauss’s reading.  To be sure, Walser’s chapter headings are well-placed and are very suggestive of a secret that Walser wishes to communicate to his readers.  The secret he wishes to communicate is deeply entrenched in the space between childhood and adulthood and it is published in the wake of death.  To be sure, this space and post-mortem situation inform the framework through which these fictional “essays” are communicated: as I pointed out in a previous blog entry, these essays are written by a boy on the cusp of manhood and it is published in the wake of his death by someone who found them worthy of sharing.   And, as I noted, this framework suggests a tradition which is being passed from person to person by way of allusion.

In this blog entry, I’d like to briefly address the first three chapter headings – together with their contents.  I find compelling evidence in them that a secret is being alluded to, a secret that is to be found between the spaces of youth and adulthood.  Within these spaces, the question of what it means to be human is addressed in an esoteric manner.  But the esoteric is cloaked by way of the comic.

The first essay written by Fritz Kocher is entitled “Man.”  In this essay, Fritz Kocher draws up what he thinks man is or rather should be.  He notes a distinction between man and animal that goes back to Aristotle and the Bible but he finds a contradiction in it:

Man should stand above his fellow creature, the animal, in all things.  But even a foolish schoolboy can see people acting like irrational animals every day.  Drunkenness is as hideous as a picture: Why do people indulge in it?…Such cowardice is fitting for a thing as imperfect as Man. We are imperfect as everything. (4)

Following this, Kocher is distracted from the highness of man to what makes man so imperfect.  In the midst of his meditation, which surely makes him feel a sense of horror, he makes a promise not to become an animal: “I promise loud and clear: I want to be a steady, upright person”(4).

Taking on a moral tone, he states that he will “imitate” only great things.  But all of this collapses when he “blurbs”:

Secretly, I love art.  But it’s not a secret anymore, not since right now, because now I’ve been careless and blabbed it.  Let me be punished for that and made an example of.  What makes a noble way of thinking not want to freely admit itself? (4)

In this moment, we can see that Kocher has a conflict between being a “man” and being an “artist.”  He sees the latter as immoral and punishable, but he doesn’t agree with this valuation.  Since he doesn’t want to deal with this conflict, he changes subject and says that the one thing he fears most is “baseness.”  But, after saying this, he goes off on tangent that contradicts this claim: he says he wants to be famous, meet beautiful women, etc and be reckless.

For saying this, he says, right in the essay, that he will likely get an F for “writing like this” in an essay.  But he is ok with this since “every word comes from the heart.”  This, he says, is the most important thing about man: “if he wants to be human, he cannot do without it.”  The intelligence of the heart is the greatness of man.  However, after stating this, his thoughts turn to his fear of getting drunk and looking base.  And from there he turns to the importance of being industrious.  But, if we read properly, we can see that these concerns and everything in his essay is ancillary to being a person who has a heart.  And the secret of this person, it seems, is that he (Fritz Kocher) is an artist.

The next chapter/essay heading – and its contents – provide evidence for this supposition.   The essay – as the author readily admits – is poorly written.  He leaps from topic to topic.  But his distractions are telling:

I like Autumn….Soon the snow will be falling.  I love snow too, even if it’s not nice to wade around in it too long with cold wet feet.  But why else are there warm felt slippers and heated rooms for later?  Only the poor children tug at my heartstrings – I know they have no warm rooms in their houses.  How horrible it must be to sit around and freeze. I wouldn’t do any homework (5)

What we find in this passage is a mind that wanders from thing to thing; however, there is a pattern.  As one can see, he ends up thinking about things that pain him and then he moves on.   And when, later, he drifts into a meditation on Autumn colors, he muses on the possibility of someday becoming an artist (which as we learned above, was his secret desire).  But this reflection is different.   In this one, he is not so much romantically inclined with being an artist as disappointed with what kind of artist he would become.  He tells the reader that he will most likely fail at being an artist.  But he stops himself short of being depressed by noting that one shouldn’t worry about “something that hasn’t happened yet.”

After saying this, Kocher drifts into description of things he sees as sounds.  He muses on this and finds it fascinating.  The feeling of mixing the two, in fact, inspires him.  But after taking it to his limit, his rational self kicks in:

Green in midsummer is a many-voiced song with all the highest notes.  Is that true?  I don’t know if it’s right.  Well, the teacher will surely be so kind as to correct it. (6)

After thinking this, he starts thinking about how he can’t do math and how he would never want to be a businessman.  Instead of counting apples, he’d rather have an apple for a grade.

Perhaps Walser is suggesting that the artist is childish, full of heart, distracted, and self-conscious.   We can find these suggestions between the chapters/essays depicting “man” and “autumn.”  In contrast to the previous two essays, the next chapter/essay, entitled “The Fire,” is deadly serious and it lacks the distraction of the previous two.  Moreover, in contrast to the other two, this essay comes with an image of a fire eating up a building.

The chapter articulates a sense of wonder before the suffering and death of others.  Kocher is also fascinated by the fact that someone could risk their lives to save them.  The one who saves them is also the opposite of an adored hero; he is a non-descript man who pops out from the street: “a thin young man in shabby clothing”(9).  When he saves them and leaves a mother and child on the sidewalk, Kocher tells us that he “disappears without a trace.”

He isn’t an anti-hero so much as a hero who is barely visible.

How does this fire and this “thin young” hero who “disappears without a trace” relate to Kocher’s desire to be an artist?  Is Kocher an artist for remembering the fire and the person who saved the innocent from death?  Is he an artist for thinking of the poor children who don’t have a home or warm slippers?

These questions are to found in-between the chapter headings. And they suggest or allude to different answers.  By reading Robert Walser like Leo Strauss would read Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, we can see that Walser thinks there is wisdom to be found in the child’s reflections.  However, they may also be reflections of a distracted mind.  The best way to find out is, in a midrashic sense, figuring the relation between one chapter heading and another or between one distraction and another.

In the next blog entry I want to address why, in the wake of this fire and its depiction, Kocher turns to the theme of friendship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who could get him to sign his name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He realizes that he doesn’t have to sign!

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

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

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

Wink, wink!