Oh, Have I Got a Deal For You! On Woody Allen’s Comedic Myth-Busting

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In comedy there are no sacred cows. And when it comes to mythology, comedy doesn’t hesitate to smash this or that myth.   Jewish comedy is well known for its iconoclasm. And perhaps this has a root in Judaism’s resistance to mythology and idolatry as well as its prohibition of images. It may also have to do with Judaism’s interest in textual interpretation which shows that this or that story poses questions or is linked to another narrative (something we often see in Midrash).   Both Franz Kafka and Woody Allen are, without a doubt, Jewish iconoclasts.  They parody myth by way of their own revisions, but they differ in terms of the insights that they offer to the reader.   While Kafka gives the reader deeper insights into faith, self-doubt, existence, and consciousness with his parodic revisions of myth, Allen gives his readers or viewers a sense of how a New Yorker has better things to do than get caught up in this or that ridiculous myth.   In these comedic revisions, Woody Allen is out to sell a way of life not prompt deep reflection.

In a piece entitled, “Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts,” Allen takes aim at several different kinds of mythological creatures, fantastic places, and myth itself. Like any joke, he starts with a serious reflection, but ends with an ironic punch line:

A wise man in India bet a magician that he could not fool him, whereupon the magician tapped the wise man on the head and changed him into a dove. The dove flew out the window to Madagascar and had his luggage forwarded.

…The magician said that in order to learn the trick one must journey to the four corners of the earth, but that one should go in the off-season, as three corners are usually booked. (178, The Insanity Defense)

In another mythological rewrite, Allen takes aim at an imaginary place called “Quelm,” (which sounds like, Chelm, a place populated by schlemiels).   It is “so distant from Earth that a man traveling the speed of light would take a million years to get there, although they are planning a new express route that will cut two hours off the trip”(178).

In each punch line, Allen looks to ground the listener in the here and now of the New York Jewish attitude toward the hardships of life and getting by:

In addition to these obstacles on Quelm, there is no oxygen to support life as we know it, and what creatures do exist find it hard to ear a living without holding down two jobs. (179)

While Allen’s iconoclasm is funny and grounds us in the here and now, it can be construed in a negative manner since it doesn’t take myth as a basis of reflection. It rejects it wholeheartedly. The problem with iconoclasm is that when it is not done with a proper sense of humility, it could possibly come across (to some) as self-serving or even dishonest. Citing Aristotle, Leo Strauss argues that “irony is a kind of dissimulation, or untruthfulness.  Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice”(51).

But, as I note elsewhere, Strauss doesn’t think that Aristotle is right:

Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth.  If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice.  Properly used, it is not a vice at all.  (51)

Strauss’s qualification of Aristotle is telling.  It suggests that irony is a neutral term and that it has a “proper” use.   Citing Aristotle against Aristotle, Strauss argues that “irony is…the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority”(51).  In other words, humility and irony do not contradict each other; in fact, they aid each other.

Reflecting on this, one can argue that even though Woody Allen isn’t using irony like Kafka (in order to tap into this or that depth while effacing a myth), he is also making a “proper” use of irony since the punch line dissimulates the superiority of myth.   His punch lines convey the humility of the New York everyman who is just trying to survive. The “speaker” in these pieces is the “ironic man” and his “noble dissimulation” conveys his only virtue which is to be a New Yorker.   But let’s not fool ourselves: each punch line is a sales pitch for a way of life which lives in the wake of myth and perhaps even philosophy. After all, both are interested in origins. (As Aristotle also notes in “The Metaphysics,” philosophy and myth start with wonder.)

I’ll leave the reader with a Woody Allen joke that takes both myth and philosophy as its target. Allen’s joke suggests that, in the world of the New Yorker, the philosopher (as much as the myth-lover) doesn’t exist:

Legend has it…that many billions of years ago the environment was not quite so horrible – or ate least no worse than Pittsburgh – and that human life existed.   These humans – resembling men in every way except for a large head of lettuce where the nose normally is – were to a man philosophers.   As philosophers they relied heavily on logic and felt that if life existed, somebody must have caused it, and they went looking for a dark-haired man with a tattoo who was wearing a Navy pea jacket.

When nothing materialized, they abandoned philosophy and went into the mail-order business, but post rates went up and they perished. (179)

 

 

 

Literature and Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Howard Jacobson’s Description of Literature

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One of the things that really prompted me to look into the schlemiel was a statement Walter Benjamin once made – in a letter to his dear friend, the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem – about Franz Kafka’s literary project. In the letter, dated June 12, 1938, Benjamin describes Kafka’s entire literary project in terms of failure:

To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its particular beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and the beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain about eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.

Scholem did not respond to Benjamin’s reading of Kafka vis-à-vis failure until November 6th, 1938. In the middle of the letter, Gershom Scholem expresses his bewilderment at Benjamin’s claim:

But I would like to understand what you take to be Kafka’s fundamental failure, which you virtually embed at the heart of your new reflections. You really seem to understand this failure as something unexpected and bewildering, whereas the simple truth is that the failure was the object of endeavors that, if they were to succeed, would be bound to fail. Surely that can’t have been what you meant. Did he express what he wanted to say?   Of course.

To be sure, Scholem doesn’t understand what this could mean. He sees Kafka’s work and his life as a success. In response to Scholem’s challenge, Benjamin changes tact. And instead of writing on failure, he writes, in a letter dated February 4th, 1939, on comedy. There he claims that Kafka was not so much a failure as a comic figure. Kafka is man “whose fate it is…is to be surrounded by clowns.”   There is something esoteric in this new claim: it suggests a link between literature, failure, and comedy. That’s the thread. It runs through Kafka’s work and Benjamin’s reading of it.

Years later (and after the Holocaust), Howard Jacobson, one of the greatest Jewish novelists today, has made similar claims in describing his own work. In a 2011 talk Jacobson gave at the New York Public Library, he makes an explicit link between literature, failure, and comedy.

During the talk, the interviewer, Paul Holdengraber, engages the discussion of failure by suggesting that Jacobson’s fiction is “wedded to the idea of failure in some way.” And Jacobson says, flat out, that he loves failure:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And you’re very interested in that, particularly in ideas that come back to haunt novel upon novel, essay upon essay, and we’ll move to that very quickly, the notion of failure. You are wedded to the idea of failure in some way.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What’s so fascinating?

HOWARD JACOBSON: I love failure.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You love failure.

Following this, Jacobson explains that we see failure everywhere. He describes it as a “crack in everything” and argues that “we are not interested in success” in this country or in his home country of England. Rather, he argues that “we” are interested in why the “world is not quite right.” In other words, we tend more towards cynicism (based on the “cracked” state of the world) rather than optimism (and success). That’s why we turn to literature.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes. It’s do with this, there’s a crack, a crack in everything. We are not interested in success. You in this country and we in our country—we think we are, and but we in this room are not—the fact that you are, that you and I are here together, and the people in this room are in this room listening to me talking to you means that they are not interested in—all right, I’ve won a prize, and you all well know. But we’re not really interested—you don’t read books if you’re interested in success, as the world knows success. You go to read a book because some way or other you feel that the world is not quite right. If the world is right for you, you become a footballer, you become David Beckham, or you become Donald Trump or something.

Following this, Jacobson adds a punch line and injects some comedy by mocking the position that thinks “I’m going to do all right in this world, I am at home in it.” He doesn’t trust this worldliness. And he says “we” don’t and that’s why we read books. And “we” don’t do this because we are all “wedded to failure.”

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yeah, fine, but there are a million ways in which, you know, you feel the world is okay, “I’m going to do all right in this world, I’m at home in it, Me and this world can enjoy whole relations, completeness. We can be complete. This world will offer me something I want and I will succeed in it.” Whereas we all don’t feel that, so you read books, and I write books, because we are wedded to failure, and we should be proud of that in the best sense, in the best sense. History is written by the winners. Literature is written by the losers.

To be sure, the Talmudic kind of punch line is that the interviewer is wrong. I am not the one who is wedded to failure; rather, you are and so are all of us in this gathering because we all like to read. Moreover, the condition of this “we” is that “we” don’t write history (“history is written by the winners”).   We write literature (“literature is written by the losers”). And, I would add, “we “do comedy. And, to be sure, the New York Public Library portrays Jacobson more as a comedian than as a writer.

What I find so fascinating about this link is that Jacobson is suggesting that we are not happy with our world and that we are no longer making history. This makes us all failures who have, as Ruth Wisse says of the schlemiel, an “ironic victory” by way of literature. This suggests that we, like writers who embrace the schlemiel (like Jacobson in nearly every novel), stand on a tightrope between cynicism and optimism.

And to be “proud” of being “wed to failure” suggests an irony that blasts in the face of a world based on success. It suggests that comedy and literature speak against the world and against power and the makers of history. It speaks from the angle of failure.

Perhaps this was the point that Benjamin understood about Kafka. He saw his literature as wed to failure and comedy. And, I would argue, he threw his lot in with Kafka and the novelists. This, it seems, was something Scholem could not stomach. The fact that Kafka wrote the fiction he wanted to write was a success, not a failure. But seen dialectically, as Benjamin was attempting to do, that success is really based on a failure. And Jacobson reminds us that this is nothing to be ashamed of; it is a badge of honor to write in response to failure and to admit, comically, that “we” are wed to failure.

Fuck You, Thank You: Speaking of Buddy Hackett

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In one of his many phases, Walter Benjamin had a moment, near the end of his life, where he was into going through “the trash of history” so as to find things that had historical potentiality.  One could argue that Benjamin saw himself as commentator who, in commenting on trash, could bring it to life and make this or that piece of history into a quasi-kind of history – the kind that lives on in his commentary.  To be sure, Benjamin read Franz Kafka as a commentator.  In a letter to Gershom Scholem, written near the end of his life, Benjamin argues that although Kafka’s work was a comic failure he did, at the very least, succeed in being a commentator.  This idea, which I am addressing in my book on the schlemiel, struck a deep cord because, in a major sense, it relates to the trash of history.   To be sure, Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin describes them, seem to be the kinds of characters you would find in the dustbin of history: they are broken, ragged, and comical.   However, these characters are, if we take Benjamin seriously, the products of commentary.  In other words, Kafakesque comic figures, which seem to have emerged from the trash, are the products of commentary.

Given this logic, I would like to suggest something that may not seem so novel but, when thought through Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, is; namely, that stand-up comedy, especially when it is trashy, has the potential to offer the greatest commentary.  However, as Benjamin wondered with regard to Kafka, what is the text it is commenting on.  When it comes to many comedians, the answer is obvious: they are commenting on society or on our attitudes toward this or that social practice or belief.  But when it comes to some comedians, the answer isn’t so simple. In addition, the position or relation the commentator to the text or comedian commented brings on an added dimension to the reception of this commentary. One comedian I have in mind – whose relation to me is odd – is Buddy Hackett (whose real, more “Jewish” sounding name, was Leonard Hacker):

Why is my relation odd? First of all, I didn’t grow up with Buddy Hackett.  My parents did.  When I look at his comedy, I feel as if I am trying to understand their generation.  Yet, at the same time, I look at him as a Jewish stand-up comedian who is a part of a line of Borsht Belt comedians that stretches back to the mid-20th century.  Not only does Hackett speak a lot of trash, he is also a comedian who emerges out of the trash of Jewish American history.

How do I read him?  And what text is this trash of comic history commenting on?

First of all, I have my own visceral reactions to his face and his gestures.  They remind me of a New York that was, of my relatives and family members from Brooklyn (where he hails from).   There is a way of speaking that is distinctly that of New York Jews.

What I love most about it is his boldness.  He throws his body, his voice, and his vulgarity out toward the audience.  Yet he does so in an endearing way since his gestures and his body (his face, ears, eyes, etc) are child-like and animated.  His body is that of a schlemiel, a man-child.   It has an innocence that is juxtaposed to his saying or gesturing naughty things.  And this creates an odd, and exciting affect since it animates (or as Benjamin might say illuminates)…trash.  His words evince what Benjamin might call a profane illumination about ourselves and the American time and space we share with Buddy. This, it seems, is the social con-text that his comic commentary illuminates.

In his book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand Up Comics, Phil Berger suggests that we read Hackett in terms of his persona on and off stage.  There is a continuum of sorts that, if we look closely, can help us to see the comic’s life.   He looks, first, at his body and ironic demeanor and this hits at what I call the schlemiel juxtaposed to the bad-boy.

Buddy Hackett was a kind of Socrates – as we seen in The Symposium – he appears one way but is another.  He was a…

…man cold sober when up to no good.   He had the bullyboy’s ease, a distinction the very look of him argued against.  The bulbed nose, the crooked mouth, the chreub’s cheeks: it was the best of comic faces – and, it seemed, a masterpiece of illusion. (297)

Hackett was innocent but his name “provoked obscenity filled denunciations, many of which had “off-the-record” tagged to them the moment after they were uttered – and by comics who otherwise stood by their words”(297).

Because of this “history,” whenever people spoke to Hackett they were on their guard.  As Berger notes, by way of citing conversations he had with Hackett’s friends, Hackett was “unpredictable” in public.  He could “say fuck you as easily as he could say thank you.”  Berger recounts a story told to him by the “columnist Joe Delaney” about Hackett’s interchanging of the words “fuck you” and “thank you.”   According to Delaney, Hackett said fuck you in an endearing, unexpected way, and tells of a story of when a fan came up to Hackett for an autograph. When he heard this, he said:

“How would you like to perform a unilateral act?  She said, “I don’t know what you mean?” He said, “How about, go fuck yourself.  Is that clear enough?” She said, {huffily} “Well!” He said, “Then give me the piece of paper and I’ll sign.”

Although this scene is vulgar and rude, it is, nonetheless, read as endearing by Delaney:

I think that if he felt that that lady to whom he said, “Go perform a unilateral act,” was truly hurt, then he would try to make amends…you know what I am saying? I don’t think he’s a hurtful man….He really, he really is a very gentle sensitive man..”

Delaney goes on to recall how, when he read a Haiku poem to Hackett, Hackett broke down crying since the poem was alluding to sudden death.  Berger goes on this note to claim that Hackett played with poetry and was a poet of sorts; but this was conveyed by irony.  He would actually play at being a poet on stage but this was a “quasi-poetic fix to make middlebrow audiences there for laughs feel culture fucked in the bargain.”

In other words, Hackett did and did not have a poetic sensibility.  He was and was not vulnerable.  This ambiguity comes through when he trashes poetry or when he utters trash or vulgarity.  It makes for a schlemiel effect that empties out the trash, so to speak, and brings about a profane illumination of sorts.  But the trick is to get past the vulgarity to the schlemiel core in every joke.  And the irony of it all is that to do that one nearly needs to be ready for the unexpected vulgarity with the understanding that in saying “fuck you” he is really saying “thank you.”  And this juxtaposition is a kind of trashy-kind-of-commentary.

The question, however, is what was the textual basis for this trashy kind of commentary?   Is it the text of a historical relationship between Buddy and the Jewish-American world, a relationship that was, as it was happening, becoming the trash of history?  How was this failure, in Benjamin and Kafka’s sense, a positive commentary?

More later….

The Wisdom and Stupidity of the Child in Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays” – Take One

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When people ask me if one can find any characters like the schlemiel in other traditions, I immediately think of Robert Walser.   Indeed, I can think of no better example of the schlemiel than in his fiction.   I can also think of no better person to write such fiction since he, too, was a schlemiel, a living schlemiel.  He dreamed big but, like a schlemiel, he was unable to keep jobs or make his literary dreams come true.  In the end, he was a bachelor schlemiel who lived his last days in a sanitarium.   To be sure, Kafka found much in common with Walser: he loved Walser’s way of writing and, like him, he died a bachelor and, in many ways, a schlemiel.

The first novel Walser wrote was entitled Fritz Kocher’s Essays.  It was published in 1904.   Daimon Searls – who translated the book for New York Review of Books press – points out that it “was a stroke of genius for Walser to launch himself at the reading public in the guise of an ‘impish schoolboy soliloquist’.”  Citing Christopher Middleton, he describes the narrator, Fritz Kocher as “a fictional fellow in an old-fashioned frame narrative, dead in his youth and leaving to posterity only a collection of schoolboy writing exercises.”   This, according to Searls, this plot “turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Walser’s unique energy, inventions, and oscillant ambiguities”(xv).

Unlike Searls, who uses a frame for reading this which is based on what Matin Heidegger would call an “equipmental” sense of the artwork, I would like to suggest that we see the Walser’s fiction not simply a vehicle for his creativity but as a performance of schlemielkeit (a way-of-being-schlemiel).  This performance brings one into a relationship with a character who resists school rules (law) – like Jerry Lewis – by being to submissive to them and, at the same time, admitting to his relation to the law.  He is and is not anti-nomian.  He doesn’t trash the law; he suspends it.  And the narrator does this by acting like a man-child, a schlemiel.  Walser does what many Yiddish writers – like Sholom Aleichem do – he plays the schlemiel in such a way that he lives in suspension between childhood and adulthood (between the world and worldlessness).

Since Walser’s book is presented as a book that has survived a child who died before he grew up, and since it is introduced by someone who has put it together and published it, we can say that, in the wake of the child’s death, this book is a fictional initiation into a literary tradition.  And the source of this tradition is a schlemiel by the name of Fritz Kocher: a child who speaks on adult things but died before he became an adult.  He is suspended in time like many of Aleichem’s schlemiels or I.B. Singer’s Gimpel who will go from village to village trusting people – in hope that one day people will stop lying to and playing tricks on him.

In the quasi introduction of Fritz Kocher’s Essays, the person who decided to save them and share them with the public tells us, immediately, that he is passing on this writing.  He tells of how difficult it was for him to get essays from Kocher’s mourning mother:

She was understandably very attached to these pages, which must have been a bittersweet reminder of her son.  Only after I promised to have the essays published unchanged, just as her little Fritz had written them, did she finally agree.  (3)

As one can see, the person who has saved the essays from oblivion is a very kind person.  And, for this reason, the reader may feel safe to “trust” him.  After telling us how the mother has agreed, he tells us about how these essays “may seem unboyish in many places, and all to boyish in others”(3).  This suggest that sometimes Fritz sounds like a boy and sometimes he sounds like a man: he oscillates between the two poles.

For this reason, we must read Kotcher’s essays with great care since, on the one hand, a “boy can speak words of great wisdom” but, on the other hand, he can also speak “words of great stupidity.”  But one cannot simply see stupidity (or childishness) in one part of the text and wisdom (or maturity) in another.  No.  Rather, they “practically” happen “at the same moment.”

This way of reading him suggests a kind of schlemiel moment – a schlemiel temporality if you will – wherein the reader doesn’t know if what s/he is seeing is wisdom or sheer stupidity.

The final words on Fritz Kocher – by the person who is publishing his work – deal with the fact that he, the “young, jolly laugher” was “destined to die young.”  Like the schlemiels of the first Yiddish novel – The Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim – who imagined they could see the world outside the Pale of Settlement but never left it’s boundaries – his eyes would never see “the wider world he so longed to reach”(3).

This is how Robert Walser introduces himself and a new tradition which has fascinating resonances with the Yiddish literary tradition of the schlemiel.

Walter Benjamin, Leon Shestov, and Heinrich Heine’s Senses of Humor

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Walter Benjamin paid very close attention to the work and life of Leon Shestov.  Shestov was a Russian émigré to Paris whose critical writings on literature and Judaism Benjamin had great respect for.  In one of his saddest (and last) letters to Gershom Scholem, written in 1939, Benjamin writes about Kafka’s legacy to his readers by focusing on Leon Shestov’s.  To be sure, Benjamin believed Shestov’s lifetime work, Athens and Jerusalem was a masterpiece.  (He often mentions this to Scholem in his letters.)  However, he didn’t know how it would fare in the future.  In his reflection on its legacy, following Shestov’s death, Benjamin notes how Shestov’s wife, deep in mourning, cannot deal with the question of what to do with his legacy.  Benjamin tells us that she lives in an apartment full of Shestov’s work (his manuscripts and unpublished essays).  He muses about how one day a housekeeper will likely see that Shestov’s widow has neglected her surroundings and, while cleaning up, will throw away all of Shestov’s writings.  To her, they are only pieces of paper.

Benjamin likens this to the fate of Kafka’s work and adds, in addition to this, that Max Brod (the keeper of this legacy) made Kafka into a fool.  To be sure, this suggests that Brod and the widow show the futility of passing tradition on.  But there is more.  What is passed on, by way of Benjamin, is a ruined yet comic kind of tradition.  These ruined traditions (of Kafka and Shestov), fails to get properly transmitted, and their fate is comical (in a bittersweet way).  In all of this, the failure of tradition is – in a way- redeemed through a comical reflection.

Since Benjamin spoke so highly of Shestov and wrote of him in a tragic-comical manner, I wondered if and how Shestov would regard the comic modality.  To this end, I decided to read through his collection of his literary essays entitled Chekhov and Other Essays (these articles were published while he was alive and were translated into English in 1916 – for a London press – and republished in 1966 by the University of Michigan Press).

Many of these literary essays are very serious – they address the work of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, but they also address different philosophers.  In these essays, Shestov reserves the comical to this or that anecdote.  (His reflections, here, seem to have more of an existential tone – one that Sartre and others took to.)  However, one essay in particular caught my eye as it addressed the comical.  This essay was entitled “Penultimate Words.”   Within this essay, the section on Heinrich Heine addresses humor.

Shestov notes, right off the bat, that the German’s misunderstood Heine’s sense of humor:

I think that if the Germans were mistaken and misunderstood Heine, hypertrophied self-love and the power of prejudice is the cause. (119)

With this in view, Shestov explains the meaning of Heine’s humor.  He notes how it moves from seriousness to sarcasm:

Heine’s usual method is to begin to speak with perfect seriousness, and to end with biting raillery. Critics and readers, who generally do not guess at the outset what awaits them in the event, have taken the unexpected laughter to their own account, and have become deeply offended.  Wounded self-love never forgives; and the Germans could  not forgive Heine for his jests. (119)

Shestov tells us that the twist is that Heine’s humor was directed at himself; it was self-deprecating.  He wasn’t looking to “attack others”:

And yet Heine but rarely attacked others: most of his mockery is directed against himself. (119)

Drawing on this observation, Shestov says that same thing happened with Gogol.  Like Heine, Gogol “confessed that he was describing himself” and was not mocking the Russian people in his fiction.  According to Shestov, Gogol wasn’t certain of himself and, for this reason, it was simply not possible for him to contrast himself – as better off – to his fellow-Russians.

On this note, he points out that Heine also had an “inconstancy of opinions”: “He changed his tastes and attachments, and did not always know for certain what he preferred at the moment”(119).   He could have “pretended to be consequent and consistent,” but he didn’t.

Rather, he played the fool and said too much:

Heine’s sincerity was really of a different order.  He told everything, or nearly everything, of himself.  And this was thought so shocking that the sworn custodians of convention and good morals considered themselves wounded in their best and loftiest feelings.  It seemed to them that it would be disastrous if Heine were to succeed in acquiring a great literary influence, and in getting a hold upon the minds of his contemporaries. (121)

Shestov points out the hypocrisy that goes with the will-to-preserve culture.  The anger of the Germans at Heine’s honesty, humor, and self-deprication was a case in point.  In talking too much, he failed publically.  But that failure was – more or less – turned into a killing of sorts.  Heine was, as the French artist and playwright Antonin Artaud might say, a man “suicided by society.”

Heine’s humor, Shestov tells us, discloses a man who is “divided.”  His words are a “mockery of himself.”  Out of some of his comic poems and writings, we can hear “Heine’s misplaced laughter”(123).  This laughter is “indecent and quite uselessly disconcerting.”  Shestov puts Heine’s “sincerity” in quotation marks because Heine was laughing and at the same time embracing the possibility of sincerity.

In addition, Heine laughs “at morality, at philosophy, and at existing religions”(126).  In a fascinating turn, Shestov says this may have to do with Heine being a modern Jew who was out-of-place (the odd one out).  To be sure, Heine was the popularizer of the schlemiel in Germany.  He saw the poet as a schlemiel.  Hannah Arendt points this out in her essay “The Jew as Pariah.”  And she situates Heine as the first schlemiel in a tradition of schlemiels.   (A tradition I am writing about in my book on the schlemiel.)

Reading Shestov and knowing that Benjamin read him lovingly, I wonder if Benjamin came across this gloss on Heinrich Heine and the comic.  It would make perfect sense since Benjamin, in one of his last letters to Gershom Scholem, wonders about the “comic aspects of Jewish theology.” There is something very Jewish and very modern in Heine’s failure.  It is the same failure that Benjamin comically apprehends in Kafka and Shestov.

And it is the failure of the schlemiel which provides the greatest insights for them as they all realized the degree to which they themselves had failed.  And, if anything, the sad laughter Benjamin had when reflecting on Shestov and Kafka was his own.  It, strangely enough, gave him hope.

A Note on Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables

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Schlemielintheory.com has hosted and posted many blog entries on Franz Kafka.  I have had a guest post by Matthue Roth on his very popular book My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs, a guest post on Walter Benjamin’s reading of Franz Kafka by Hillel Broder, and more than ten of my own posts on the work of Franz Kafka.   His work, without a doubt, is of great interest to this blog and my book project.  That said, I have recently come across an exceptional book that plays on Franz Kafka’s parables entitled Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables.  This enchanting book was co-authored by Gary Barwin, Craig Conley, and Hugh Thomas.  Gary Barwin is the author of fifteen books,  which include works of poetry, fiction, and children’s fiction (here’s his blog).  Like Barwin, Craig Conley is an eclectic writer whose books span fiction, mysticism, linguistics, pop culture, folklore, children’s fiction, and grammar.    Hugh Thomas is a Canadian poet who has published a few books of poetry.   In collaboration with each other, they have created a book that speaks to anyone who is interested not just in reading Kafka but in, so to speak, taking his work as the basis for new texts, images, and interpretations that “open” up the text to play and new meaning.   Moreover, this book speaks to people who are well versed in what is called “intertextuality.”  And by this I mean the textual practice of moving between texts which, in effect, offers new meanings (I will return to this below).

But I would argue that since Franzlations also includes images, one text doesn’t simply translate into another; it also translates a text into another image (or rather a set of images which harken back to the early 20th century).  By doing this, this book takes the work of Kafka into a wholly other sphere of meaning with an entirely different register of connotations.  And for someone like myself, who loves textual play, this is doubly exciting.  It brings us into the zone where Walter Benjamin, in his book Berlin Childhood around 1900, wanted to go; namely, to a space where the imagination can be freed by virtue of the play of images, text, and history.  In this space, one becomes like a man-child, interpreting text, images, and history while at the same time playing with them.   This touches on depths by way of traveling across different surfaces.

I’d like to take a look at the interplay between text and text and text and (historical) image to illustrate how these texts open up horizons that I have not experienced in any previous academic readings or fictional plays on Kafka’s novels, short stories, or parables (as in Phillip Roth, Paul Celan, or Aharon Appelfeld’s work– to mention only a few examples of writers who engage in intertextuality with Kafka’s work).

Although there are a number of ways to enter this text, I’d like to suggest reading it (for the first few times) in a linear manner.  Playing on the text, I would like to suggest my own “Franzlation” of this book.  Taking the text as its guide, my reading looks to play on one of the central signifiers in this text: the parable.

To be sure, the meaning of the parable is one of the main concerns of this text.  The Oxford Dictionary defines parable as “a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the Gospels.”  It comes from the Latin “parabola” which means comparison.   Working with the Latin root, I would like to suggest that Franzlations works not by way of illustrating a “moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus and the Gospels” as a textual-imagistic strategy to compare one text or image to another so as to “reinvent” Kafka’s text.  This comparison has a spatial and a textual dimension, but, instead of illustrating a lesson from the Gospels, it articulates a number of relationships with which all of us are intimately familiar.

We see this in the introduction to the book, which likens such comparison to taking a step to the left; a – so to speak – parabolic step to the edge of a cliff:

We have stepped a few paces to the left in order to reinvent them. Sometimes this means we have walked off a cliff into the empty air.

In the body of the text, the Tarot card of the “fool” illustrates this by having a sign on the edge of a cliff; that is, on the edge of an abyss:

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As you can see, the text for this image gives one a spatial coordinate for how one’s eye moves from text to image.  It is self-reflexive in the sense that it is a parable of reading in which the reader “clasps” at meaning as he/she “attempts to climb toward meaning.”  This, let me stress, is likened to the movement of the fool (reader-writer)  since it is a risk that most adult readers wouldn’t venture.

The introduction plays on the fact that when we read we move between things (the “inter” – the between – is located in a few different places).  And this explanation, itself, is a parable since it is a comparison “between” different pairs; one of which is between the reader and these writers:

This, itself, is a parable.

And so it is clear, that at its heart, Franzlations is a collaboration.  Between writers and writings.  Between words and images.  Between readers.  Between the past, the present, and the future.  For it is our belief that new writing is the imaginary future of past writing, even if that writing was never written.

The last words suggest that this book casts forth, for the reader, new, possible relations to a past that may or may not have been written by Kafka.  But I can assure you that as a reader of Kafka, they do include fragments of his aphorisms; but they also play on them and write them in configurations that never appeared in Kafka’s text.  Regardless, as they note in the introduction, “Kafka’s words have been an inspiration for us.”

The text/image demonstrates the movement “between” things, images, times, and readers; and between Kafka and their text.  This movement informs what they call the parable.  For instance, in an image of a cow and a crow, they write “A COW is a parable for a CROW.  And vice versa.  Humans are their own parables.  And this suggests that one thing (parable) can be translated by another and that humans are parables of themselves (which suggests, based on this, that they are not themselves but something other).

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While the reader might see this as a free-for-all which lacks any connection to reality, I would like to suggest taking a look at page 8.  In this image-text, the proposition that “a single poem can destroy war” is tested.  It suggests that war is the impossibility of poetry; and if the work of the between, the parabolic work, is poetry, then this suggests that this book is a challenge to war only insofar as it dwells in the parabolic.  As Emmanuel Levinas notes in his book Totality and Infinity, war dwells in absolutes.  Franzlations, on the contrary, doesn’t deal in absolutes; it deals with the parabolic. As we can see in this image of a naked-man-warrior who is sloping parabolicly with a feather (away from war).

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Another major theme in Franzlations is the movement between the serious and the comic.  This movement is of great interest to me and my own schlemiel-project.  The movement suggests that poetry moves between the two.  On page 32 we see such an image/text.  It plays on the initial parable in the book – drawn from Kafka – about hearing a train inside of oneself moving along.  Here, we see a little boy with a clown nose under a crescent moon listening to a large ear.  He is listening to a “car full of clowns inside him.”  But the text takes a serious, poetic note by referencing silence.  If one listens to the clowns, against a deep silence, one can hear “the toes of the clowns curling in their big shoes.” One can also hear the “toot of the car’s horn” as it floats up into the “funny sky.”

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The irony in this piece is that the floating away into the sky is also a melancholic image of loss.  Silence is often associated with the tragic, not the comic.  And the comic sound runs up against tragic silence.  But although the sounds disappear there in the sky, this is not tragic; it is “funny.”  This juxtaposition of the two makes for a depth and a paradox that takes this text out of the zone where textual play is the only thing on the table.

This juxtaposition returns on page 46 where we see an image of a lonesome tree in the foreground.  The text notes the “SORROW” of the forest; but what stands out is not suffering and despair so much as the “jokes of the wood” which “bring you alone, laughing among the ranks of trees.”  It muses that this “perhaps” may cause “confusion in the forest” but “you know nothing of that.  You know only your shimmering leaves.”

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This image speaks to me and my project.  It suggests that the reader is child-like (a man-child/schlemiel of sorts).  Yet, at the same time, it suggests an adult-awareness of sorrow and tragedy. This frission makes for a relation that I ponder often in schlemiel-in-theory.  Namely, the relation between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote (a relation that both Kafka and Benjamin found so much interest).  This awareness takes us into a space between the comic and the tragic which is also the space between childhood and adulthood.

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Franzlations, much like Walter Benjamin in his reflections on childhood terror, explores this zone of childhood as it relates to death.  The text-image that brings this out is on page 44.  This image and text play on this relation vis-à-vis a mystical image.  In it we see a boy who appears to be dreaming of a land from the space of his heart.  The text, however, suggests that he may be dead.  It intensifies the claim by speaking in the first person: “I asked for my body to brought to me.  They did not understand.”   The boy speaks to a Doctor about this (which would, of course, be impossible, since he is dead).  The doctor doesn’t hear him. The ensuing dialogue, we can suppose, is with himself.  He will take his body away; but he has no destination for it: “We do not need a DESTINATION.”  This implies that the body can be taken anywhere; this may be an allegory of the dead letter. On the other hand, it may just be a way of addressing death in a way that is steeped in the imagination and the “between” of life and death; dream and reality.

The theme of terrified children and the “other world” is also seen on page 48. The antiquated images that are used for this (and other texts in Franzlations) bring us back to a cultural childhood (in the early 20th and late 19th century) where, it seems, the relation of childhood to death was of interest.  It also helps us to “look back” at ourselves and our relation to death.  Here, “shadows” and “fear” are foregrounded.  When I see this image, I also think of the shadows of words and images and the fear they evoke (as it were, the fear of unknown possibilities).

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But perhaps there is nothing to fear.   The end of Franzlations offers some comfort by way of offering us – as if we the readers are children – images of a man posing like a crescent moon above him.

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These images are parabolic and remind me of the circus.  The shape of the man is compared to the moon in this image.  But the text tells us that these images emerge out of duress: “Birds shrieked. We crawled through the dust, hoping to DANCE.”

This movement itself may be comforting; like the image of a ball whose movement through space is also parabolic.

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Maybe there is hope at the end of the parabola.  Maybe there is a new morning.  Or is it just the course of the day or of a parabola?  A ritual?

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All of these questions are left open for the reader to decide on.  But, in truth, they are well posed. The images and the texts selected give me much food for thought as so much dwells in that arc between one thing and another – especially if that arc spans what is and what could be or between what was and what may be.  These are the thoughts of children…and adults.

The last image of Franzlations casts a possibility that never happened.  As any scholar of Kafka knows, Kafka wanted his best friend Max Brod to burn all his work.  But he didn’t.  Playing on its task of translation, Franzlations purposefully misreads what actually happened (the texts were not burned and served as the basis for much of Franzlations’s musings).

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Here Kafka (playing on Gregor Samsa of “The Metamorphosis”) wakes up to find Brod lighting a match.  He never did, but let’s take a moment to imagine that he did.  For if he did, we, just like these authors, would have to “invent” another Kafka.  Regardless…. they did invent or rather re-invent him!  And for that, I am very happy: because the way they chose to reinvent Kafka brings us into a space that is made especially for schlemiel-readers (see the “fool” Tarot card above) who travel back and forth between adulthood and childhood, a space that is evoked by way of moving our eyes on a page between text and image, and between the past, present, and imaginary possibilities of the future.

“Ladies and Gentlemen!” A Preface to Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains”

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As a Jew, I can assure you that Jews love to talk.  In their work on the schlemiel, Ruth Wisse and Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi see the schlemiel’s speech as a kind of “substitute” sovereignty.   Ezrahi tells us that before Israel, speech, not action, was the best defense.  And for centuries there was a historical principle at work: in the world, Jews lose; but in the world of speech, they win. For this reason, the schlemiel is, for Wisse, the “modern hero.” He is the modern hero who wins a comic victory.

But, to be sure, any fool can see that this victory is incomplete.  We all know that it is not real.  We are all reminded, by way of the schlemiel’s act of substitution, that the world is unkind.  But rather than suffer quietly and tragically, Jews speak.  And they speak (or have spoken) comically.

Listening in to the conversation of schlemiels, we can (as John Felstiner suggests with “Conversation in the Mountains”) hear the shrug.  We can also hear a voice that wants to figure things out by way of indirection: whether by text, a relation, an event, etc.  This act of (or rather attempt at) comprehension is where schlemiel comedy starts.  If that comically intent voice is shared with another schlemiel, we can see the comic ordeal that the schlemiel must go though in order to get anything (even the simplest tasks) done.

As we see with The Three Stooges, its easy for a schlemiel to talk of and promise things.  But, for the schlemiel, it seems, it’s hard to do anything :

But schlemiels do more than just fail at figuring out how to do this or that thing.  Isn’t the schlemiel keying us into the comic relationship that is created by way of conversation?  As Kafka notes in “Excursion in the Mountains,” the freest conversations happen when the “wind blows” between schlemiels.  For Kafka, this wind blowing is conversation; it is what Felstiner calls “babbling.”   But with Celan and Kafka, this babbling has a relationship that is, literally, going in some direction.

This is what Paul Celan teaches in his “Conversation in the Mountains” by way of a Jew named Klein (little):

So he went off, you could hear it, went off one evening when various things had set, went under clouds, went in the shadow, his own and not his own – because the Jew, you know, what does he have that is really his own, that is not borrowed, taken and not returned. (17)

But where is this Klein-the-schlemiel taking us? And why do we have to know where he is or where he is going?  To be sure, he’s looking to meet up with his friend, Gross (Big).  And both of them are looking for a conversation.  They’re going toward each other and, once they find each other, they move on toward something “wholly other.”

In “Conversation in the Mountains,” Paul Celan teaches us that the schlemiel is not simply involved in a “substitute sovereigny”; rather, he is always orienting him or herself with a place where he or she is or where he or she may be going.   And this orientation and speech are repetitive in their address to the other.  Paul Celan conveys this in his “Meridian Speech” by saying, over and over again, the words: “Ladies and Gentleman.”

Celan proposes a kind of comic, repetitive movement that addresses the other.  And, since this is a movement that is never final, it must be replayed in a schlemiel-like fashion.

Each movement is an address.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

It’s another way of saying: “Hello, I’m here! Where are you? I’m waiting for you to come.”  The comic effect is in the fact that we are asked where we are when we are already there before the schlemiel.  But this is a serious matter in the sense that this repetitive address suggests that the other is being called on to hear, and be here, once again.

These are the words of Celan’s Klein to Gross and these are words that he speaks to his audience in “Conversation in the Mountains.”  These words not a “substitute sovereignty” so much as a spur to comically relate Klein to Gross and me to you.  Comedy’s main mode, Celan seems to be telling us, is relational

Each comic address is meant for a rejoinder, a response, in which we come to speak.  Strangely enough, it is the voice of a schlemiel named Klein that calls us to join him/her to speak – on this comical journey toward the other.

Ladies and Gentleman: This should serve as a preface….