Guest Post by Professor Jeffrey Bernstein: “Schlemiel, Schlemazel . . . Augenblick in-corpor-ated?”

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Lately I have been wondering about Menachem’s earlier posts regarding the prophetic (possibly messianic?) potentiality of the schlemiel.  In a post on Benjamin and Strauss, he gave a nod to the secretive ‘wink, wink’ capacity of the schlemiel’s humor which the spectator gets, but which the schlemiel may not.  Menachem writes:  “Winking is not a straightforward gesture.  It is oblique.  And it is immediate, like a blink of the eye.”  This characterization immediately strikes me; given that he juxtaposed the phrase ‘blink of an eye’ with the figure of Benjamin, I am put in the mind of the figures of the ‘augenblick’ (which means  both ‘blink/twinkling of an eye’ and ‘instant/moment’) and the ‘jetztzeit’ (‘now-time’).  I am lead to wonder:  what is the ‘time’ of the schlemiel?  And if there is a schlemielich temporality, is it well-characterized by these terms?

Just for laughs, let’s characterize the situation in which we might engage this question:  as the old saying goes, the schlemiel is the one who spills his soup and the schelmazel is the one’s who gets the soup spilled on him.   To my mind, it looks something like this:

Schlemiel:  (in cafeteria, walking with tray of soup, speaking to Schlemazel) So I says to him ‘Hey, whadda you talkin’?  As if Spinoza knew anything about the Geonim!’  I (trips)—whoa, whoa, whoops!!!!! (spills soup on Schlemazel)

Schlemazel:  Ow!  Vey iz mir!  That soup’s hot!  Look what you did!

Schlemiel:  Oy! Look what I did!

There doesn’t appear to be any prophetic aspect to this caricature—but of course, the littlest things contain the deepest truths.  Soup is hot; we make messes; we burn—such is life.  And what can we do except scratch our foreheads and say ‘Oy! Look what I did!’  This may be the adult secret contained in many of our childhood experiences.

But strangely enough, this appears not to resemble the arc of thought contained in the terms ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’.  So a brief, and somewhat circumambulatory, consideration is in order:  In the Weimar Germany of the 1920’s, in the aftermath of the massive physical, psychological, cultural, and ideological destruction of the First World War, many different thinkers (sensing a fictitious quality to the narrative of ‘Enlightenment historical progress’) tried to find a way of speaking about the perceived crisis in which Europe was then involved.  Figures such as Barth, Heidegger, Rosenzweig, Lukacs, Benjamin, Kafka, Schmitt, Adorno, Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and Bloch all (in vastly different ways and for vastly different reasons) attempted to articulate the sense that if historical change is to happen, it will do so instantaneously and non-teleologically; it will come, as it were, like a thief in the night.  In doing so, they made witting or unwitting use of the idea of kairos  as it came to be articulated in Paul.  For Paul, kairos names the eschatologically charged instant in which the encounter with God and the acknowledgment of messianic time occurs.  It is always thought in opposition to chronos—i.e, profane time.   Augustine takes up this thought in his discussion of  ‘the present’ (in Confessions) as that which grants substantiality to the past (as recollection) and the future (as anticipation) by virtue of its being a divine(-ish) capacity of the human soul; if it were not for the creaturely replication of the present as nunc stans, time would consign humans to mortal oblivion.

Centuries later, as Luther studiously worked on his vernacular translation of the New Testament, he encountered the Pauline phrase ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ (in 1 Corinthians) and translates it with ‘augenblick’.  The ‘blink/glance/twinking of an eye’ is now understood not as one moment of ‘homogeneous empty time’ (Benjamin) or interval of ‘clock time’ (Heidegger) among others—it is precisely now understood in opposition to such mechanistic conceptions of temporality.  For the Weimar bunch, it becomes synonymous with authentic lived experiential time.  And though Heidegger calls ‘off-sides’ on Kierkegaard’s punt, the latter makes an important admission when he states (in The Concept of Anxiety) that “It is only with Christianity that sensuousness, temporality, and the moment can be properly understood, because only with Christianity does eternity become essential.”  True, Aristotle had also made use of the word kairos in the Nicomachean Ethics, but there it only meant the ‘opportune moment’ for action—like providing medicine or going to war.   It wasn’t essentially different from his characterization of the present (in the Physics) as a vanishing point—a pure limit between the ‘no longer’ and the ‘not yet’.

According to Agamben (oy!), Benjamin uses the term ‘jetztzeit’ (in his Theses on the Philosophy of History) to translate Paul’s ho nyn kairos (‘the of now time’) in Romans.  In this context, one might suggest that Benjamin is taking up the Aristotelian understanding (and its example of military battle) in holding that the ‘jetztzeit’ is that revolutionary moment which ‘blasts a hole’ in the ideology of ‘homogenous, empty time’.  But in viewing the ‘now-time’ over and against the normalizing, ideological conception, Benjamin simultaneously rejects the Aristotelian topos of the ‘opportune moment’ in favor of the Pauline one.  Certainly, Heidegger critiques the Aristotelian notion along similar lines (in Basic Problems of Phenomenology):   “The instant is a primal phenomenon of original temporality, whereas the [conventionally construed] now is merely a phenomenon of derivative time.  Aristotle already saw the phenomenon of the instant, the kairos, and he defined it in the sixth book of his Nicomachean Ethics; but . . . he did it in such a way that he failed to bring the specific time character of the kairos into connection with what he otherwise knows as time.”   In drawing the connection between kairos and ‘augenblick’ in his early readings of Paul, Heidegger thus simply makes explicit (on the theological level) what he will later phenomenologically describe as the suddenness of authentic temporality—i.e., that it happens as kairos and not as chronos.

I’m not trying to simply peg the terms ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’ as Christian and thus inappropriate as descriptions of the schlemiel (well, ok, a bissel I am).  Rather, I want to suggest that—despite the Jews that adhere to these descriptors and the Christians who don’t—these terms fail to accurately describe the authentic temporality of the schlemiel.  This for two reasons:  (1) ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’ (understood as sudden and arresting) are both set over against a conception of time as homogenous, empty, identical and simply quantitative, and (2) as such, both terms are markers for a presence which the schlemiel  always seems to refuse (or, perhaps, fails to attain).  Whether it be the ‘negative presence’ of the absent, absolute and unattainable future, the ‘eternal present’ of the nunc stans, or the ‘revolutionary and shocking momentary present’ of eschatological realization, ‘augenblick/jetztseit’ is always indexed to a point of stability.  The meaning and signification of the moment/instant—be it eternal, futural, or sudden—is infused, embodied, literally in-corpor-ated (even in-carnated), in an otherwise purely quantitative and empty temporal flow.  This is why, even in the mode of anxiety or transience, the moment/instant is still (on the formal level) the source of a radiant serenity.  Put differently, ‘augenblick/jetztzeit’ bears witness to a religious tradition and context that is poetic.

Are there any resources in ‘prosaic’ religious traditions (to adopt the terminology of Yeshayahu Leibowitz) for thinking the temporality of the schlemiel?  You guessed it—the answer is yes!  So now, a much shorter consideration of this ‘other’ tradition:  Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger (in Jews and Words) note that Biblical Hebrew points to a different understanding of time than what we get in the Western conception (i.e., the qualitative moment/instant vs. the quantitative flow from past to future or vice versa).   The word kedem denotes ‘ancient times’ but its derivative kadima means “ ‘frontward’ or ‘forward’ “.  Similarly, the word lefanim means both ‘a long time ago’ and ‘in front of/to the face’.  Finally, achreinu means ‘after us’ both in the sense of ‘behind us’ and ‘in future’.  Put differently, Oz and Oz-Salzberger (following the work of Adin Steinsaltz and Shulamith Harven) hold that “When we speak Hebrew, we literally stand in flow of time with our backs to the future and our faces toward the past.  Our very posture is different from the Western view of time . . . The Hebrew speaker literally looks frontward to the past.”  Sound familiar, oh theorists of the Continent?  It recalls not only Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus (whose face is turned toward the past while he is blown uncontrollably into the future); it also bears some resemblance to Arendt’s reading of Kafka’s “He”, where ‘he’ stands in between the two antagonists (the past and the future) who are both battling him and each other.  Arendt’s interpretation is itself a struggle between the Weimar conception of moment (for Arendt, ‘he’ is the present understood as nunc stans) and the Hebrew one (‘he’ enlists the help of both the past and the future in ‘his’ battle with one another).  Insofar as it rejects the static distinction between the qualitative, lived, in-corpor-ated moment and quantitative but empty clock time, it remains in proximity to Benjamin’s Klee-interpretation.

What does it mean to look frontward to the past?  How can a prophet assume this posture and still ‘prophesy’?  Clearly, the schlemiel does not utter phrases like “And I say unto thee…”  If the schlemiel is prophetic, s/he is so retrospectively—i.e., “Oy!  Look, what I did!  Such is life!”  The schlemiel does not so much prophesy as ‘register prophetically’ what has already happened as what will always already continue to have been happening (oy, look what I did).  This retrospection, this belatedness, this reactivation of the past in the (present of the) future, has been characterized by Freud (with a little help from Rav Lacan) as nachtraeglichkeit and by Adorno (with a little help from Rebbe Said) as ‘late style’.  The schlemiel is always ‘late to the party’, always noticing things ‘after the fact’.  The signature phrase of the schlemiel’s wisdom is not ‘AHAH!’ but ‘OH . . . YEAH!’  And the schlemiel never ceases to register his/her insights too late for anything to be done about them.  Hence, as Janouch’s Kafka (as mediated through Benjamin) tells us, there’s an infinite amount of hope—just not for us schlemiels.  The moment of realization never happens by means of anticipation.  In the words of that other great theorist of the schlemiel, Carole King, ‘Its TOO LATE, baby, now its too late’.  If life were characterized by great poetry, we might at this point despairingly quote T. S. Eliot:  “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  But if life is ultimately prosaic, what else is there to do but laugh?  Incipit schlemiel!

Jeffrey Bernstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. He works in the areas of Spinoza, German philosophy and Jewish thought.

On Aggressive Comedy, Souvenirs, And Prehistoric Schlemiels

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Comedians can be very aggressive and may sometimes exude rage.  The comic rant, which we are all-to-familiar with, is an illustration of how comedy sometimes becomes indistinguishable from anger.

One need only think of the Three Stooges, Larry David, Andy Kaufmann, Lenny Bruce, or even Louis CK to see how rage plays out through comedy.

Given the history of the schlemiel in Jewish comedy, this is an interesting phenomenon.  Traditional schlemiels – of the Yiddish variety – are often very humble and are not filled with rage; but, in America, we often see a different variety of the schlemiel which is more aggressive.

This difference is noteworthy and it prompts a lot of questions about how the schlemiel, a character which, by and large, is traditionally innocent and humble, became aggressive.

The trajectory of my blogs over the last week leads us toward a way of framing and addressing these questions.

Over the last week, I have spent a lot of time thinking through Walter Benjamin and Paul deMan’s reading of Charles Bauldaire’s reading of comedy.  I have also addressed Walter Benjamin’s “s(c)h(l)ocking” discovery that he was a schlemiel.  The thread that joins all of these entries is what Walter Benjamin, following Charles Baudelaire, would call Spleen.

What is Spleen?

In his unpublished work of maxims, insights, and aphorisms entitled “Central Park,” Walter Benjamin defines Spleen (which is also part and parcel of Baudelaire’s Prose Collection – Paris Spleen) as “the feeling that corresponds to the permanent catastrophe.”

Max Pensky, in his book on Benjamin entitled Melancholy Dialectics, interprets Spleen as a “mode of melancholia in which the subject can no longer mournfully ‘observe’ the permanent catastrophe of natural history, but rather, in a quite literal sense is the catastrophe”(170).

Pensky’s reading of Spleen, at many points, sounds much like Paul deMan’s reading of the “irony of irony” which I addressed in a recent blog.  But Pensky sees it as the source of Spleen and not simply, as deMan does, as the essence of laughter.  Pensky points out the emotional tonality of Spleen: it is an “emotional complex consisting of various permutations composed of the two simple elements of profound fear and rage: primal emotions, in keeping with the power of the commodity to awaken prehistoric, savage modes of existence”(171).

Moreover, “Spleen is characterized in the first instance as ‘naked horror’; that is, the primitive, infantile fear of being swallowed up by the mass of objects, the fear of flying to pieces, disappearance in the diffraction and multiplication of selfhood.”

The very language of this description – “the fear of flying to pieces, disappearance in the diffraction and multiplication of selfhood” – echoes that of Paul deMan’s description of the effect of Baudelaire’s “irony of ironies.”

But the main point is that Spleen prompts Baudealire to write poems and allegories.  It is through them that Baudelaire exhibits a “heroic melancholy.”  It is here that, I contend, we can find the modern, aggressive schlemiel.

In the context of Benjamin’s reflections on Baudelaire’s notion of Spleen, the best model for relating Spleen to the schlemiel is by way of Benjamin’s reflection on the relationship of pre-history to history.

To be sure, the fact that Pensky says that Spleen is pre-historical reflects Benjamin’s concern with the relationship of pre-history to history. This is a concern that we see in his writings on Baudelaire and in Benjamin’s essay on Franz Kafka where, I would like to note, we see the most explicit engagement with the schlemiel.  The pre-historic nature of the schlemiel, in that essay, is associated with the innocent aspect of this character; however, I would like to argue that his comic characterization of Kafka’s characters and their innocence is Benjamin’s response, in some way, to Spleen.

Evidence of this can be found in the fact that Benjamin, in several places in that essay, discusses Kafka’s characters in relation to pre-history.

In “Central Park,” Benjamin notes that Baudelaire’s poems and prose pieces are a response to Spleen.  Benjamin calls the trace of this response, or rather, this “heroic” struggle, a souvenir.  The artwork-as-souvenir exposes us to this trace while protecting us from its shock.  Nonetheless, the heroism is not complete.

The souvenir emerges out of the “endless catastrophe of capitalism.” As we have seen from Pensky’s description, this catastrophe destroys the subject. The souvenir is the only thing that remains and, like an angel, saves the artist from Spleen, that is, from impotent rage and self-destruction.

For some strange reason, comedy is the only response to Spleen that Benjamin doesn’t address in depth.  Rather, as we saw in our reading of Benjamin’s interpretation of Baudelaire’s “Essay on Laughter,” the only thing that remains for Benjamin of comedy, the only souvenir, so to speak, is the Satanic smile that touches everything, even children.  Although this seems devastating, it is not.  In fact, the smile, for Benjamin, seems to be a “double image” which protects him from the catastrophic effects of Spleen.  (As Scholem notes, Benjamin associated the smile with “satanic serenity.”)

More importantly, I would argue that the trace of the struggle with Spleen touches Benjamin’s image of himself as a man-child. To be sure, we can say that the image of his handwriting in the Goethe Dream (found in his “Vestibule” aphorism), which is written in loud, childish letters, is a souvenir.  It retains the trace of a struggle with Spleen.  It doesn’t overcome it. And this trace of Spleen can be seen if we simply reflect on the fact that Benjamin, in the dream, is the subject of a Prank!

In other words, his self-image – in terms of his name being written/signed in childish letters – is a souvenir.

Likewise, the souvenirs that Benjamin finds in Kafka’s world are also traces of a battle with Spleen.  In that essay, he relates Kafka’s characters to a Jewish form of Spleen:  Exile.

What all of these figures of the schlemiel share is the fact that all of them are, as Benjamin says in his Kafka essay, pre-historic.

The schlemiel and all traces of the struggle with Spleen are pre-Historic because they cannot enter history.   They cannot assert the heroic and enter the historical struggle.

In fact, this was the critique leveled by Hannah Arendt and many Zionists against a Jewish people which had “degenerated” due to exile.   They level this criticism against the schlemiel which was, for them, the figure of Exile.   As Arendt had argued, the Jews were to accustomed to powerlessness and Exile to take action and enter history.  (I will return to this in a later blog entry.)

For them, the schlemiel was a figure of “impotent rage” that they believed had much to do with Exile (Diaspora).  It would fade away with the founding of a new state.  But as we have seen, the schlemiel remained in America; but what happened, in many cases, was that it more and more often started bearing the traces of Spleen.  The meaning of this agressivity has much to do with the power of art.

The American Schlemiel, seemingly, no longer embodies that sadness, that Melancholy, that Benjamin aspired to.  If anything, it has taken on Spleen.  It is full of rage and sarcasm.  Perhaps this has to do with the fact that entertainment has displaced art and the heroic artist has been defeated by the stand-up comic.

Perhaps the pre-historic has been displaced or perhaps the American schlemiel still hasn’t entered history.  Perhaps, as Benjamin feared, art cannot sustain the “endless catastrophe” of capitalism.  As a result, they only thing left for humor is “impotent rage.”

Is that what we see, so often, in Curb Your Enthusiasm?

Getting Comically Wasted: On Charles Baudelaire’s Notion of Absolute Comedy

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Baudelaire had a penchant for “intoxication” and comedy.  And what better day to discuss Baudelaire’s notion of the comic than on St. Patrick’s Day!  To be sure, Baudelaire thinks that the absolute comic, at its best, is like “intoxication.” Perhaps the “Satanic Serenity” that Walter Benjamin takes note of has a source in this; after all, Benjamin wrote about “Satanic Serenity” in his notes for his essay “Hashish in Marseille.”  As Baudelaire understands it, the state that one enters in the Absolute comic includes a sense of being “double.”   The irony of it all is that  this duality reminds one that one is “innocent” and, literally, destroyed.  And on St. Patrick’s day people usually talk about getting “wasted,” “destroyed,” and “hammered.”  All of these phrases suggest some kind of violence and, as Baudelaire suggests, some kind of innocence.

As we learned in the last blog entry, Satanic laughter is associated with a sense of superiority.  Baudelaire sees the insane (“the mad”) as the best illustration of an extreme sense of superiority.  The laughter of the insane, based on the psychotic insistence on the superiority of the laugher, brings out the essence of the “significant comic” (the comique significatif).  Mad laughter is, for Baudelaire, Satanic.  It has a total disregard for the world. It laughs at the world.  But it is deluded.  It has no innocence about it whatsoever.  It takes on a destructive daemonic aspect.

The significant comic doesn’t seem to embody what Benjamin would call “Satanic Serenity” since it is solely destructive.  The significant comic is not simply comic because she is “wasted”; no, s/he is comic because s/he wastes people with her daemonic humor and laugh.

(Mind you, for Baudelaire, children, “budding Satans,” are included in this category.)

The Absolute comic is different from, yet related to, the “significant comic.”  It is the kind of comedy that would attract Walter Benjamin who appreciated, like Baudelaire, gestural comedy (mime) and the kind of comedy that included what Baudeliare called the “law of ignorance.”

Baudelaire first introduces the Absolute comic when he discusses “laughter at the grotesque.”  To be sure, “the laughter caused by the grotesque has about it something profound, primitive, axiomatic, which is much closer to the innocent life and to absolute joy than is the laughter caused by the comic in man’s behavior”(157).

For Baudelaire, this is the superior form of comedy because it brings man “closer to the innocent life and to absolute joy.”

Baudelaire notes that the “absolute comic” has “one criterion”: “that is laughter – immediate laughter.”  However, there is one condition for comedy to be absolute, besides immediate laughter and that relates to the disclosure of what is most pathetic in humankind:  “the comic can only be absolute in relation to fallen humanity”(158).

In other words, the absolute comic must signify through falleness.  It must be – so to speak – wasted.

And it is only the best artists, Baudelaire tells us, who apprehend it. For these minds “are sufficiently open to receive absolute ideas”(158).  Baudelaire, after saying this, writes of an author who is the master of German horror and the grotesque; namely, the late  18th century German writer ETA Hoffman (158): “He always made a proper distinction between the ordinary comic and the type which he called the “innocent comic.”

What Hoffman calls “the innocent comic” is a blending of the innocent and the grotesque.  Moreover, it isn’t so “innocent” in the sense that it includes a distinct form of “violence.”  It doesn’t escape violence.

Baudelare notes that we also see such violence and innocence in the work of French mimes like Pierrot.  Regarding the mime and the clown, Baudelaire notes that Pierrot mixed the innocent and the grotesque by way of facepaint and gesture: “Upon his floured face he had stuck, crudely and without transition or gradation, two enormous patches of pure red.  A feigned prolongation of the lips, by means of two bands of carmine, brought it about that when he laughed his mouth seemed to run from ear to ear”(160).

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And although he appeared childish and innocent, he certainly was not: “As for his moral nature, it was basically the same as that of the Pierrot whom we all know – heedlessness and indifference, and consequently the gratification of every kind of greedy and rapacious whim”(161).

In other words, while he appears innocent, he is “devilish.”

The act of this rude yet innocent clown leads us to “a dizzy intoxication.” When one watches them “intoxication swims in the air; it is intoxication that fills the lung and renews the blood in the arteries”(163).  The “absolute comic” has “taken charge of each one of them.” And by each one, Baudelaire suggests that the comic and the audience are possessed.  Everyone is intoxicated.

The mime becomes possessed and seems to leave the realm of men: “Every gesture, every cry, every look seems to be saying: ‘The fairy has willed it, and our fate hurls us on – it doesn’t worry me! Come, let’s get started! Let’s get down to business!’ And then they do…which starts at this point – that is to say, on the frontier of the marvelous”(162).  In other words, the mime takes us into another realm by way of his gestures – a realm that, while laughable, brings us closer to childhood.

This can only mean that in his grotesque and childish disregard of limits, the mime’s gestures, his madness, while destructive counters the solely destuctive madness of the regular comic.   The mime is not simply mad – he is, actually; he certainly flaunts a superiority and indifference to the civilized world of adults.  But this madness, because it is childish, is also innocent.  The mime is a drunk of sorts and he spreads the feeling of intoxication through his rude and innocent gestures.

Baudelaire notes that nothing can surpass the absolute comic that we find in the mime: “But how could the pen rival the pantomime? The pantomime is the quitessence of comedy; it is the pure comic element, purged and concentrated”(162).

Nonetheless, Baudelaire ends his essay on laughter and devotes the most space to discussing this mad innocence by way of a close reading of ETA Hoffman’s story “Dacus Carota, The King of the Carrots.”

This story is exemplary because it shows us how a little girl, a “budding Satan,” loses her sense of comic superiority by way of the grotesque.  Her astonishment, her shock, brings us in touch with the “Absolute Comic.”

Baudeliare tells us that “the unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by a display of military might.”  When the girl is shown the soldiers sleeping at night, by her “magician” father, she experiences shock and vertigo.  Her exposure to the grotesque display of soldiers sleeping at night, when her father opens the “flap” of the tent, leads to what Baudelaire calls a “comic emanation, explosion, as it were, a chemical separation.”

What “emanates” from the comic explosion?

In the comic explosion we become aware of our childish part, which is unaware of itself.

This is the “law of ignorance.”  Indeed, for Baudelaire, “the most distinctive mark of the absolute comic is that it remains unaware of itself.”

This translates into a double consciousness for the viewer or reader. It indicates “the permanent dualism in the human being – that is, the power of being oneself and someone else at the same time”(165).

This experience, since it includes ignorance is double. As we saw above with the little girl who is astonished when she sees the grotesque soldiers but doesn’t know why she is astonshed: she is double.  She doesn’t know herself, but we do. Its an uncanny sense of self that the reader or viewer takes on. Baudelaire says it is superior – and, as we have seen superiority is the core of the satanic-slash-comic. It is the essence of laughter.

Perhaps this sense of duality is the cause of what Walter Benjamin’s calls a “Satanic smile.” Benjamin argues that it is based on a “Satanic Serenity” and not on destructive element of the Satanic.  But this misses one essential point made by Baudeliare: the serenity one has, which enables one to be oneself and someone else at the same time, is based on some kind of explosion.  It is based on some kind of destructive violence which, as Baudelaire, notes is inevitable when it comes to comedy.

This resonates with what we saw in Benjamin’s reading of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  There, he notes that a return to childhood, will not come without an “implosion.”

The violence that the mime and Hoffman apply leads to childhood.  This is the paradox.  With Benjamin this takes on a fascinating element because Benjamin sees himself as the butt of the joke.  He sees himself as a man and as a child: as himself and someone else.  But, and here is the point: he is both a man and a child.  He is double.

But there is one missing ingredient: the real basis for the Absolute Comic’s performance – as for the significant comic – is failure.  The secret of comedy is that it is based on what Baudelaire called Spleen – that is, rage and anger at one’s meaningless suffering in the world.  Superiority – whether of the significant or the Absolute comic variety – is ultimately a delusion.  But a necessary one as it casts out the hope that even though one is pathetic, one is innocent.  This can either bring about a Satanic Serenity or, perhaps, depression and melancholy.

Benjamin brought this double sense of himself in the Goethe aphorism and in the Shuvalkin parable. The absolute comic – and its sense of duality – is evident insofar as “the law of ignorance” pervades both: Benjamin was asked to sign but he had not idea that his name was already signed; and Shuvalkin thought he had the signatures of Potemkin but found that he was ignorant.  Shuvalkin, like Benjamin in the “Vestibule” dream, didn’t realize that the king had singed his name on each paper.  In both, the prank, though Satanic, is an emanation and explosion within which Benjamin sees himself as other: in which he sees himself as a schlemiel.. He sees himself as double: as man and child.

Perhaps we can say that every day was St. Patrick’s day for Benjamin insofar as every day he looked in the mirror he realized he was “wasted.”  Perhaps this gave him “Satanic Serenity.”  On the other hand, perhaps this made him a Sad Clown?  (As we shall see, in upcoming blog entries, this was one of Baudelaire’s double self-images.  Perhaps it was Benjamin’s too?)

(Here is one of the first animated films ever made.  This film, made in 1892, was named after the clown Pierrot that Baudelaire sees as exemplary of the Absolute Comic. Its entitled Pauvre Pierrot.  Can you spot Benjamin in this animated film (wink, wink)?)

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Georges Bataille – Childishness, Stupidity, and Salvation

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

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

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

Bataille associates “childishness” with salvation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Children should not be laughed at.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Destructive Element in Comedy (Take 1)

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Something happened in the schlemiel’s journey from Eastern Europe to America.  One of the most striking – yet unrecognized – shifts in humor is that while the Eastern European schlemiel tends to be simple, humble, innocent, and generally harmless, the American schlemiel tends – from time to time – to be much more violent, aggressive, and (self)destructive.  American Schlemiels are more physical and intense.  One need only think of The Three Stooges, Zero Mostel, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Phillip Roth, Andy Kaufmann or even Larry David to understand that sometimes the schlemiel is far from harmless.

As we see in this segment from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, two schlemiels, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, are caught up in an intense form of miscommunication.

Each move closer drives these schlemiels father apart.   Their relationship is innocent and violent.

How do we understand the kinetics between them? Is there an element of destruction and violence between them? How do we read this?

Perhaps there is a destructive element inherent in all irony and comedy.   There certainly is a kinetics in comedy; say, for instance, in slapstick comedy.   But how does this relate to the schlemiel?  Are kinetics and play necessarily destructive?  And are they intimately related to the character of the schlemiel?

The blog entries I have done on Scholem and Benjamin point me in this direction since both of them cannot avoid the question of disaster and destruction when they talk about hope.  There seems to be a subtle relationship between hope and disaster.  And the schlemiel, as a character, cannot be separated from hope and disaster.

Gershom Scholem suggested that the intense hope for redemption that we find in the Kabbalah and in the Sabbatinians was a response to disaster.   But in the Sabbatinian case, it not only came out of disater, it created it.   Scholem suggests that Benjamin, like the Sabbatinians, went down the road to disaster when he confused religion and politics.  And, as I suggested in the last blog, the schlemiels confusion of dream and reality often leads to some kind of disaster – even though the schlemiel may, in fact, be unaware that this is the case.  After all, the schlemiel is absent minded.

But there is a problem.  Although absent-mindedness can give us hope, it can also make us melancholic.   In a story like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” for instance, the constant lying to Gimpel seems to be natural to society.  It seems as if his naïve trust in others will never make headway.  Each time he trusts people, the hope of the reader or of the audience, is challenged.  And this can be disasterous.  But, as I suggested in the last blog, the fool suspends such disaster and holds it in a tension with hope.  Nonetheless, disaster is present in nearly every moment of the story.  Our laughter at Gimpel, the foolish schlemiel, is mitigated by this tension.  Its really not so funny when you really think about what’s happening to him.

In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse, much like Scholem, argued that the schlemiel grew out of historical disaster.  The schlemiel is a “modern hero” insofar as he comically responds to disaster.  His humor, in a sense, negates the fact that Jews were ruined and rendered powerless by the forces of history and Exile.   Her theory closely parallels Scholem’s reading of Kabbalah’s origins since the schlemiel, like the Kabbalah, offers the Jews hope in bad times.  However, with the schlemiel, this hope is not intense; it is tempered by a destructive element; namely, skepticism.  The Kabbalah on the other hand, once it enters history, has nothing to temper it.  And this, for Scholem, is the disaster.  It is the same disaster, he argues, which secular messianic political movements face.

The question for us is whether this reading is sufficient for us to understand aggressive schlemiels.

While Scholem and Wisse turn to history to understand the dialectic of destruction and creativity, Walter Benjamin argues that the violent elements of comedy have a deeper root.  For this reason, he, like the Romantics before him, turns to irony and the imagination for an answer.  And what he finds there, however, is not a mental capacity so much as a material one.  Like children, there is something innocent and natural about destruction which Benjamin wanted to employ in his own criticism and writing.   His understanding of the relationship of children, the imagination, and irony to disaster is very instructive.

I would like to suggest that we follow, in the next blog (or two) Walter Benjamin’s investigation into this matter.   His observations can give us a sense of what a criticism of the schlemiel would look like if it were to adhere to Benjamin’s understanding of the destructive element (in contrast to the understanding held by Wisse or Scholem regarding the dialectic of history and creativity).