Ernst Bloch’s Reflections on Tradition – Take One


In the last blog entry, I contrasted Slavoj Zizek to Walter Benjamin with regard to the tension between tradition and the liquidation of tradition. Zizek follows one strain of Benjamin; namely, the liquidationist strain.  Zizek prefers Benjamin’s “Destructive Character” and Benjamin’s notion of “Divine Violence” to Benjamin’s interest in preserving the tension between tradition and its liquidation.

At the end of my last blog entry, I stated why I was interested in such a tension; namely, because Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and Don Quixote is based on preserving this tension.  And, as I have been arguing, this tension has everything to do with the tradition of the fool and the schlemiel.   To further understand what Benjamin sought to find in this tension, I would like to turn to an essay by Ernst Bloch entitled “Art and Society” (from The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, trans. and edited by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg).

Walter Benjamin was influenced by and influenced Ernst Bloch. They had a productive relationship.  They were interested in this tension as it pertained to the future – to utopia.

For Bloch and Benjamin all works that emerge from the tradition are mortified.   They are fragmented and are in need of future redemption.  However, these works are not the works of the “victors” of history.  Rather, they are the incompleted works of those who lost.  These are the works of failures.   And, for Bloch, they are ‘our’ heritage.

In his essay “Art and Society,” Bloch cites Benjamin to illustrate some of the “spiritual” things we should take from this heritage:

They (the spiritual things) are alive as confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude, and they have a retroactive effect as time moves along.  They call into question each victory of the ruling class time and time again. (46)

However, Bloch adds on to what Benjamin says and gives it shape. He does this by calling attention to the next generation; namely, to the heirs of tradition:

In addition, cultural heritage only becomes what it is when the heir does not die along with its benefactor, when he stands on the side of the future in the past, when he stands with what is indelible in the cultural heritage and not with the takeover of parasitical rulers (46).

Bloch calls for a “productive cultural heritage” and contrasts it to a “refined completion” of “the great work of culture.”  For Bloch, a “productive cultural heritage” operates “as the successive continuation of the implications in the contellations of the past gathered around us as non-past.”  In other words, we continue a tradition whose implications are present (non-past).

Bloch notes that, as Benjamin would say, the past gives one agency.  The past, in a sense, elects one and empowers one to act.  It “anticipates” him:

The genuine agent of cultural heritage reaches into the past, and in this very same act the past itself anticipates him, involves and needs him. (46)

Bloch calls heritage a chariot which “carries only that which has an order to be sealed.” To take this heritage on, Bloch says one must be strong.  One may be overwhelmed by it.  To be sure, the person is strong because s/he takes heritage and besides having the strength to continue it s/he invents (47).

Bloch contrasts himself to Martin Heidegger who, in his opinion, created a “pseudo-philology and a pseudo-interpretation” of Holderlin, Anaximander, Parmenides, Plato, and Kant.  According to Bloch, Heidegger’s relation to history was to “caricature” it.  In contrast, Bloch argues that “genuine heritage is and remains precise and progressive transformation, and to be sure, a transformation of that immanent material in the material of heritage intended for completion without ideology, with implication”(48).

Bloch imagined a “rectification of heritage” and not a “reification of heritage.”  He imagined a rectification that would not serve this or that ideology.  This could happen in a world with a “cultural surplus beyond any ideology.”  This, Bloch says, comes out of the “utopian function.”

The utopian function, however, is not based on envisioning, quite simply, the liquidation of history or heritage.  To be sure, Bloch like Benjamin wanted to create a “cultural surplus beyond any ideology.”  And the best way to accomplish this is to dig into cultural heritage.  Namely, the heritage that many people might find insignificant or trivial.

It is these failed elements that carry the charge and call for transformation.  The interesting thing to keep in mind is that Bloch and Benjamin didn’t randomly choose this or that aspect of tradition.  They were both interested in storytelling, fairytales, folk legends, and fools.

Their heritage was plural. For this reason, Walter Benjamin and Bloch often drew on many different folk traditions in their work.  I am especially interested in Benjamin’s reading of Kafka insofar as he starts his essay not with a meditation on Jewish folklore but on Russian folklore.  And he ends the essay with a meditation on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Nonetheless, Benjamin doesn’t shy away from citing Jewish folklore as well.  To be sure, he too was trying to create a cultural surplus and believed, like Bloch, in the “rectification of heritage.”  And this is more than evident in his Kafka essay where, I would argue, the schlemiel and the heritage of the schlemiel emerges.

(Please note that I will touch on this heritage in this blog.  But I will delve more deeply into it in my book. After all, I can’t reveal all my secrets.)

Like Bloch, Benjamin wasn’t interested in liquidating tradition so much as in rectifying it.  As I have already shown, Benjamin was aware of what is at stake with tradition.  The question, however, is how we are to read the cultural surplus (vis-à-vis the fool) that Benjamin left for us and what we should do with it.

Now that Benjamin’s criticism has nearly exhausted itself in terms of the obsessive reading of his work in terms of crisis and destruction, its time to dig up what has been passed over as irrelevant (the detritus of Benjamin criticism is to be found in the tension between heritage and its liquidation; it is to be found in the greatest comic failure of all and the tradition that gave birth to it: the schlemiel).

In the next few blogs, I will sketch out more of Bloch’s project vis-à-vis tradition and utopia.  The point of this exercise is to help us to understand Benjamin’s interest in Kafka, the schlemiel, and tradition.

On the Apocalyptic Tone of Comedy – Take 2


Slovoj Zizek and Milan Kundera come from the same part of Europe, both experienced communism, and both have a penchant for comedy.  But they differ on two things: their readings of comedy and their identification with Communism.

As I pointed out in my last blog entry, what makes Milan Kundera’s view of the comic so interesting is that he feigns an Apocalyptic tone, brings us to the brink of cynicism, and then confesses his commitment to the tradition of the fool.  He, like Walter Benjamin (and perhaps Franz Kafka), plays the Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.  He, like Benjamin, believes that the “fool can help.”  But what we might forget is that, given this tradition, he becomes Don Quixote and we become Sancho Panza.   His message parallels Benjamin’s; namely, in a world where man is dwarfed by the mass media, technology, speed, and politics, it is through the tradition of the fool that we can be free.

But to come to this conclusion, Kundera realized that Don Quixote was nearly killed by Totalitarianism. And by this he means Communism, which he experienced first hand and has written on in nearly half of his novels.  In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera contrasts the circle of Communism and its joy to the solitude that comes with his suspicion of this circle.  To be sure, his accounts of Communist joy are tainted.  And, reading them, one can certainly hear an Apocalyptic tone. To be sure, in the midst of all this joy, he finds something duplicitous and deadly.  The “lightness” of the Communist circle which dances above the ground has something frightening about it.  And he knows what this is; he lived through it.  And it seems he never wants to go back to it again.

Rather, Kundera opts for movement of a lonestar, Don Quixote.  But his decision to follow him is in the wake of the Apocalyptic.   As I noted, it begins with the passing of God and then with it returns with the purges of Communism.  But on both occasions, disaster is displaced by the arrival of Don Quixote.  To be sure, Kundera concludes that one can always count on the arrival of Don Quixote. He is like the gift that doesn’t stop giving.   In the end, Kundera says that, despite it all, his commitment to the fool is “ridiculous” and “sincere.” Don Quixote rides away from the disaster; he doesn’t ride into it.

In contrast, Slavoj Zizek maintains an Apocalyptic Tone of comedy from the beginning to the very end of his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.   The reason for this has a lot to do with the fact that, even though he takes on the legacy of comedy, it is really the legacy of a comedy that is associated with Marx’s bearing witness to the demise of capitalism and liberal democracy.  To be sure, this comic element which is associated with witnessing the demise of liberal democracy and capitalism is gleeful.

But, as Zizek notes, this is not by any means a passive affair.  Comedy is not, by any means, an end-in-itself.  It should encourage “us” to act.  But this isn’t any ordinary kind of action.  No. It is an act which doesn’t simply go against history; it looks to bring it to a grinding stop.  And, for Zizek, this act of cessation (this “pure act”) is the partisan act of committing oneself to Communism.  And, since it is partisan it leaves Quixote’s form of comedy for the political tones of ridicule and mockery that takes not just the ruling power into account but the left that has affirmed liberal democracy.  In his partisan affirmation of Communism, he accuses them of “blackmailing” the left.  At that point, Zizek leaves the legacy of Cervantes behind for the legacy of radical Communism.  There is nothing funny about this at all.

I would like to touch on a few of these elements in this blog entry and return to them in the near future.

Zizek introduces his book by citing a passage from Karl Marx’s “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right.”   What Zizek cites has to do with coming to an awareness that history doesn’t simply repeat itself.  It first occurs as a tragedy, and then it returns, in yet another manifestation, as a farce.  Marx teaches us the lesson:

It is instructive for [the modern nations] to see the ancien regime, which in the countries has experienced its tragedy, play its comic role as a German phantom.  Its history was tragic as long as it was the pre-existing power in the world and freedom a personal whim – in a word, as long as it believed, and had to believe, in its own privileges.

What happens, in effect, is that there is a difference between one belief and another.  The first crisis in belief is real, it is tragic because the ancien regime really was a “pre-existing power in the world” and “it believed, and had to believe in its own privileges.”  But what happens to Germany in the 19th century – at the moment of Marx’s writing this passage – is a failure of such belief since, as Marx argued, it had no historical reason to believe.  Rather, it made-believe that it was like an ancien regime.  In other words, it acted “as if” it was based on a long history and believed in its principles. And this is the farce:

The present German regime, on the other hand – an anachronism, a flagrant contradiction of universally accepted axioms, the futility of the ancien regime displayed for all the world to see – only imagines that it still believes in itself and asks the world to share in its fantasy.

What one may not notice is that Marx is, in effect, mocking the regime and accusing it of “imagining” itself to “still believe in itself.”  Marx sees this delusion; they do not.  He, so to speak, laughs at it.  And this is the legacy which, I would argue, Zizek must address.  Will he, like Marx, laugh at the delusion of the ruling power?  Does Zizek’s laughter take on an Apocalyptic tone when it mocks liberal democracy and capitalism?

Commenting on this fantasy of belief, Zizek speculates that “during the same period, Kierkegaard deployed the idea that we humans cannot ever be sure that we believe: ultimately, we only ‘believe that we believe’. The formula of a regime which only ‘imagines that it believes in itself’ nicely captures the cancellation of the performative power…of the ruling ideology: it no longer effectively functions as the fundamental structure of the social bond.”

In other words, for Zizek there is a crisis in belief.  He notices this in terms of the economic and social crisis that has been ensuing over the last decade.  But he inverts his reading of this crisis.  Instead of reading it like Marx, he shows that today differs from the 19th century because we know we don’t believe and yet we act as if we do anyway.  This is the same formula Zizek used back in 1989 (in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology) to describe cynicism.  In a blog from earlier in the week, I described Zizek’s challenge to Marx by way of his description of cynicism (gleaned from Peter Sloterdijk).  Here it is in yet another form:

It would be more appropriate to describe contemporary cynicism as representing an exact inversion of Marx’s formula: today, we only imagine that we don’t “really believe” in our ideology – in spite of this imaginary distance, we continue to practice it.

In other words, we know we don’t believe in liberal democracy, yet we believe in it anyway.   And this, for Zizek, is ridiculous. What Zizek looks to do is to show how capitalism has created a world in which wealthy people praise liberal ideals while, at the same time, have noting in common with poor people.  The fact that we know this and yet “go on believing” (or act “as if” we still believe in a system which is corrupt) is, for Zizek, the new farce.

Although the new farce that Zizek notes differs from the old one that Marx describes, the situation is parallel: both Marx and Zizek are watching the farce from a partisan vantage point.  For Marx, they have no idea about their delusion; while for Zizek they do but they sill go on believing.  For both, it’s a comedy that is ultimately tragic and Apocalyptic.

But this is not simply about watching and laughing at the liberal world as it destroys itself.  No.  Zizek, as I pointed out in an earlier blog entry, is kynical.  He not only watches the destruction, he gleefully engages in it by refusing to play the games of the Enlightenment.  As I pointed out earlier, he notes, explicitly, that he takes the road of the ad hominem.  In other words, Zizek, in being kynical, insists on being a partial and partisan.  He spells it out in the introduction to his book:

What the book offers is not a neutral analysis but an engaged and extremely “partial” one – for truth is partial, accessible only when one takes sides, and is no less universal for this reason.  The side taken here is, of course, communism.

As a partisan, Zizek takes sides with Communism against the liberal left.  He mocks deconstruction and liberal ideals because they didn’t go far enough:

Among the contemporary names for ever-so-slightly smearing those in power, we could list ‘deconstruction’, or the ‘protection of individual freedoms’.

He sees both names as indications of failure.  He mocks both by way of a dirty joke told by dissidents in which a peasant’s wife is raped by a “Mongol Warrior.” As a part of the raping, the Mongol Warrior asks the peasant to lift his testicles from the ground while he rapes the peasant’s wife. Since the ground is dusty, the Mongol Warrior doesn’t want to get his testicles dirty while he rapes the peasant.  Strangely enough, the peasant leaps in joy after the Mogol Warrior leaves the rape scene because, in his deluded mind, he has one a victory: “But I got him! His balls are covered with dust!”

The lesson is obvious.  The left, for Zizek, merely criticizes and leaves dust on the testicles of the ruling power that “rapes” the people.  Zizek argues that the “real point is to castrate them.”  Nothing short of totally depriving those in power of power is Zizek’s goal.  This is certainly not a joke.

Zizek teaches us that the first step in doing this is to divide oneself from liberals by openly declaring that which is not permitted. In the wake of Stalin, Mao, the fall of the Berlin wall, and millions of people who were murdered by Stalin, Mao, and others he affirms communism.

Today, our message should be the same: it is permitted to know and to fully engage in communism, to again act in full fidelity to the communist Idea.

Knowing full well that someone could read this and say that Zizek just wants to be obscene and “get off” on being a rebel, Zizek comments that “the very fascination with the obscenity we are allowed to observe prevents us from knowing what it is that we see.”  In other words, he asks us to look past the obscenity to something deeper.  And that something is Zizek’s commitment to Communism is unrepentant. It is proud and demands the other side, that is, the liberals to repent: “our side no longer has to go on apologizing; while the other side had better start soon.”

As a part of his public conversion, Zizek turns on those he had, for years, aligned himself with and literally accuses them of “blackmailing” him.  He demands their apology for taking him hostage to their false belief that they were really challenging the powers-that-be.  How dare they expect him to believe that he was doing something by, so to speak, lightly dusting the testicles of the ruling-elite-rapist!?

To be sure, this is not funny. Zizek is angry and he is engaging in ridicule.   Zizek is, so to speak, manning up in the name of Communism.  He is calling for a fight and insisting that he must castrate power and ridicule “liberal-democratic-moralists.”

Unlike Milan Kundera who aligns himself sincerely and in a ridiculous manner with Don Quixote, Zizek moves from self-ridicule to ridicule. Kundera’s apprehension with regard to Communism must be dismissed and, by way of implication, we would have to say that Zizek would accuse Kundera of blackmailing him.  Kundera is not simply a dupe he is a hostage taker.   The legacy of Don Quixote is not of interest to Zizek; the legacy of Marx and radical communism is.  Humor has one use only: to ridicule those who don’t stand on the side of Communism.

And this is where the Apocoplytic tone can be heard.  Zizek, in effect, is sounding the death knoll by demanding an apology.  He is saying that “we” are taking over.  Let me paraphrase a bit (and please note that I don’t include myself in this ‘we’; I’m just describing it): We are not cynical like you liberal democrats because we know that progress and history are a sham while Communism is the truth (of a variety that is not based on history but goes against history, as I will show in the next blog). We are not cynical; we are kynical.

As I will show in the next blog, the kynical communist is one who rages against history and insists that it stops.  It looks to make an Apocalyptic cessation.  And the first step in that direction is to become a partisan who rejects the farce and embraces what he will call “pure action.”

Here, the Apocalyptic tone of comedy is exchanged for the Apocalyptic tone of the partisan.  The way of kynicsm is the way of the insult and the demand.  As the title of the first chapter of his book rudely exclaims: “Its Ideology, Stupid!”

Here, the tradition is resumed, a tradition which failed.  But this is not by any means the tradition of the fool; it is the tradition of communist partisanship.  And, as such, it is a tradition which is based on ridicule not humility.  It is a tradition that Kundera does not want to uphold.  Kunera’s legacy is that of Don Quixote while Zizek’s legacy is that of Karl Marx.   The difference between them, I would argue, concerns the meaning and tone of comedy.  For Zizek, comedy must serve Communism not vice versa.  To have us believe – or rather go-along-with – that comedy simply challenges power, as deconstruction claims, is to lightly dust the testicle of a rapist.  This belief in comedy is, from the partisan perspective of Communism, a farce.

Hence, for Zizek, Kundera or anyone who believes in the power of comedy to go against the grain, is truly a fool. Zizek, on the contrary is not a fool, comedy, for him, shouldn’t challenge power; rather, it should separate believers in Communism from non-believers and should destroy power not challenge it.

For Zizek, if comedy is to be meaningful in a communist sense, it must take on an Apocalyptic tone.  It must herald the end in which believers will be separated from non-believers.


On the Apocalyptic Tone of Comedy – Take 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Kafka, Kundera wonders: is the novel dead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educating the Next Generation of Schlemiels


“Think snow and see Boca” – Charles Bernstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Schlemiel and the Sabra or Portnoy’s Final Complaint


In The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and Jewish American Literature, Sanford Pinsker devotes an entire chapter to the work of Phillip Roth.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  Although the chapter is dedicated to Phillip Roth, the majority of the chapter is on Roth’s most popular and controversial novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.  For Pinsker, the other two novels that are mentioned in the last part of the chapter –  The Ghost Writer and Counterlife – do not so much illustrate the schlemiel as put forth a new type of postmodern novel that emerged after Portnoy’s Complaint.  Pinsker suggests that these novels were not so much about the schlemiel as an attempt to leave the schlemiel behind for the novel within the novel and writing as such.

One of the most interesting elements of Pinsker’s treatment of Portnoy’s Complaint is the evidence he marshals to prove that Portnoy is a schlemiel.  Pinsker stages his argument by pointing out Portnoy’s favorite pastimes: masturbation and mouthing off.    To be sure, Portnoy violates all decorum by speaking in detail about his masturbation and mentioning all the places he has left his semen.  Ruth Wisse and Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi would argue that this “mouthing off” is an important trait of the schlemiel. Portnoy’s words give him, as Wisse would say, an “ironic victory.”  But, for Pinsker, this isn’t the only thing that makes Portnoy a schlemiel.

Rather, the key trait of the schlemiel can be found in Portnoy’s memory of failure: “What he remembers most, however, about these masturbatory binges are his darkly comic failures.  In this regard, none is more spectacular that his disastrous episode with Bubbles Girardi.”

As Pinsker recounts, Bubbles made a deal with Portnoy’s friend Smolka to “jerk off one of his friends.”  However, there are two conditions:  1) the individual will have to leave his pants on and 2) she will “count fifty strokes” and no more.  Portnoy is elected to receive the “prize” but “the result is comic schlemiel hood of the first water”(149).

What Pinsker finds comic is that Portnoy is brought right to climax, but Bubbles stops at 50 strokes.  Portnoy cries out:


Portnoy reflects on his failure and decides that he’ll have to finish the job whereupon he cums in his eye: “I reach down and grab it, and POW!  Only right in my eye.”

The greatest insights in Pinsker’s book on the schlemiel – and in his chapter on Roth – follow upon this passage.

Pinsker notes that “Portnoy’s sexual antics are the stuff of which Borsht Belt stand-up is made, but as he keeps on insisting, this is no Jewish joke, no shpritz (machine gun spray of comic material”(150).

And this is the ironic denial that makes him a schlemiel.  Roth is doing Schlemiel Stand Up.  Unlike Lawrence or Joyce, Pinsker tells us that Roth doesn’t take his failures with a “high seriousness”(150). Rather, Roth is a tumbler (an acrobat of sorts): “Roth reduces to the anxious flip.  The cunning of history is to blame here; when Portnoy shouts “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN THE YID! The effect dovetails a domesticated Freudianism into the jazzy stuff of popular culture”(150).

What does Pinsker mean by this “jazzy stuff of popular culture?”  Pinsker notes that what Roth has popularized and made comic is the stuff of tragedy: guilt.  And who else but Franz Kafka is the teacher of how to make guilt a comic affair.  To be sure, Roth said this in his book Reading Myself and Others (1975).  There, he notes that he got his stand-up routine from a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka: “I was strongly influenced by a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka and a very funny bit he does called ‘The Metamorphosis’… Not until I got hold of guilt, you see, as a comic idea, did I begin to feel myself lifting free and clear of my last book (Portnoy’s Complaint) and my old concerns”(150).

Pinsker uses this line as evidence that Roth may have come from Kafka and he may practice the schlemiel, but he wants to lift himself “free and clear” of this character.  For Pinsker, all of Roth’s future books were more mature while Portnoy’s Complaint was all about “enjoying being bad.”  Portnoy’s kvetch, his complaint, and his enjoyment of being bad differ, Pinsker tells us, from Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” since Portnoy is not the man in the sense that Whitman portrayed himself to be.  He is afflicted by his own misfortunes and guilt.  Whitman is guilt free, Roth is not.  Here, Pinsker suggests that Portnoy’s mouthing off doesn’t change his reality.  He is still caught up in his masturbatory dreams and his guilt, which he can’t seem to escape.  His stand-up comedy doesn’t make a difference.  It seems, more or less, like impotent rage.

What Pinsker overlooks, however, is the fact that Portnoy’s greatest humiliation – his greatest and final complaint – comes at the end of the book with Naomi, the Sabra (native Israeli).   This time, he gets to sleep with a woman.  But before he does, he comes to realize that he is no match for her.  This dialogue brings out the crux of the new Jewish-American schlemiel who lives in the shadow of the Sabra.

Naomi deftly describes the difference in her characterization of Portnoy’s stand-up routine in which self-ridicule is the most prominent feature:

You seem to take some pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own peculiar sense of humor.  I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life.  Everything this somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’  All day long the same thing.  In some little way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating. (264)

After Naomi goes on to discuss how powerlessness got Jews nowhere, Portnoy says, flat out: “Wonderful.  Now let’s fuck.”

In response, Naomi calls him “disgusting” and then they engage in a name-calling match in which Naomi puts the nail in the coffin by calling him a schlemiel.  Notice that in the following, “Schlemiel!” (in italics) is the final word:

“Right! You’re beginning to get the point, gallant Sabra!  You go be righteous in the mountains, okay? You go be a model for mankind!  Fucking Hebrew saint!” “Mr. Portnoy, “ she said…”You are nothing but a self-hating Jew.” “Ah, but Naomi, maybe that’s the best kind.” “Coward!” “Tomboy.” “Schlemiel!” (265)

Portnoy, cursing under his breath says, “I’ll show her who’s the schlemiel!”  But he fails, sexually. He’s impotent.

As you can see from these lines, Naomi has the last word. And that word is schlemiel. She is strong and he, a man, is weak. What we have here with Naomi is the new, Israeli Jew (which scholars like Daniel Boyarin, David Biale, and others discuss at length).  In the face of Naomi, the Sabra, all Portnoy has for power is his wittiness and vulgarity.  But the irony is obvious.  Roth is showing that Portnoy’s words are no substitute for her physical power.  Rather, his wittiness differs and competes with her power.  And, like any schlemiel it loses in the end.  What remains in the aftermath of all his verbal acrobatics is his failure.  (The acrobatics metaphor which I mentioned in my last blog on Beckett and Federman fits well here.)

Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi interprets the meaning of Portnoy’s failure in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination.  Ezrahi notes that Portnoy explicitly confesses to his loss when he sings a self-depricating song, which he has created for this specific situation of failure: “Im-po-tent in Israel, da, da, da”(226).  Ezrahi’s interpretation of this moment of failure is telling.

On the one hand, Ezrahi says that the novel demarcates the “very moment when the schlemiel as cultural hero is superceded by what the critics of Zionism call the “tough Jew,” when “images of Jewish wimps and nerds are being supplanted by those of the hardy, bronzed kibbitznik, the Israeli paratrooper, and the Mossad agent.”   On the other hand, she notes that in Roth’s later novel Operation Shylock the schlemiel becomes a competitor: “What has happened to turn powerlessness into a competing cultural claim and Diaspora into the most authentic and secure form of Jewish existence?”(226).

The lines that follow this question, however, demonstrate that Ezrahi doesn’t believe Roth’s project has left the schlemiel behind. The claims he makes in Operation Shylock are still based on powerlessness:  “Once again Roth’s hero is defeated in Israel, but this time in a battle, fought with weapons – the pen and the sword – no less phallic but more consequential.  Israel has become the place where Reality writ large has the same affect on the psyche as Naomi did on the libido”(226-7).

In other words, Roth’s characters are still schlemiels but now Exile, “redefined as “Diaspora,” is no longer limited to the realm of therapy (as it was for Portnoy) but extends to the much larger realm of fiction.”

Fiction and not the libido becomes the resevoir of the dream and fantasy while Isreal becomes Reality (Israel IS-REAL) or the reality principle.  This contrast shows that, for Ezrahi, the schlemiel’s battle is not simply psychological as it was with Naomi.  Portnoy’s problem may be psychological, but the narrator and main character of Operation Shylock – whose names all happen to be Phillip Roth – have a problem with Israel.  In other words, their Jewish identity is ruptured by its very existence.

But, to be sure, we also see that this problem exists in Portnoy as well.  His problem is not merely psychological.  After all, he tries to call Naomi names so as to show he is more powerful, but it is to no effect.  Reading Ezrahi’s take on Roth, one cannot help but think that Roth is fully aware that he is on the side of the dream; and the side of the dream, as even Roth suggests, will always be the side of guilt and failure.

If Roth takes his task from Kafka, as Pinsker tells us, Ezrahi’s observation is very telling.  Roth admits that he saw Kafka as a “sit-down” comedian who took the tragic notes out of guilt by making guilt comical.  As Pinsker argued, Roth believed that by writing he would eventually be done with guilt and the schlemiel. But as Ezrahi argues, this project, inevitably failed.  Why?

For Ezrahi, this project to leave schlemiel-hood can never be completed since there is a competing claim; namely, the claim of reality (the claim of Israel). And this claim demonstrates that the real basis for the schlemiel, for Ezrahi, is the difference between dreams and reality (or as she puts it, Exile and Homecoming).  For her, language, without a land, provides (and has, traditionally, provided) nourishment for the exiled Jew.  The schlemiel’s words, as Wisse would argue, give people a sense of dignity in the face of failure.  But, as Ezrahi suggests, fiction, like the schlemiel, can’t stop dreaming.  Given these premises, I would suggest that Ezrahi can argue that Roth is not simply a schlemiel in the sense that he doesn’t know what is going on in reality.  No.  He is a guilty schlemiel.  We see this above, in the citations from Portnoy’s Complaint.  He, so to speak, enjoys his symptom.

Ezrahi suggests that in Operation Shylock Roth makes it explicit that he may fight with Israel but, ultimately, he will always be a comic failure.  His identity, as a Jewish-American writer will be ruptured.  He knows that his homeland is in a text while being cognizant that Israel is now a reality.  Ezrahi suggests that he knows that he has refused history in the name of fiction.   But do Jewish-American writers share this awareness?  Are they, like Kafka and other pre-Israel schlemiels, not able to properly enter history? To be sure, as a result of this failure, which they were not fully responsible for, Ezrahi tells us that they had to live in a “substitute” land with a “substitute” sovereignty. Today, Ezrahi argues, one no longer has to do this. A Jew can go home and “recover” their history.   But writers like Roth consciously opt not to.  And this opting-not-to constitutes their comical identity.   So, today, the schlemiel and its comic relationship with guilt remains but now it has a different basis.

What amazes me most about all of this is that what Roth and Ezrahi both seem to be saying is that to be an American Jew –and to resort to a constructed identity, fiction, and dreams – is to be a schlemiel.  Ezrahi calls this a “diasporic privilege.”  Based on this logic, one can say that living an ironic, schlemiel-like existence is a “guilty” pleasure that is had at the expense of returning to the land.  American Jews, as schlemiels, enjoy their symptom.   Now, being a schlemiel has a price; but before Israel was Real (for many before 1967), being a schlemiel was, as Ruth Wisse argues, necessary for Jewish survival.

For Ezrahi, Jews are forced to answer a question: What side are you on?  On the side of Portnoy or Naomi the Sabra?   One can brazenly be a schlemiel and deny any guilt, but at what price?  This, I think, is one of the main questions Ezrahi wants American-Jews to ponder.  Unfortunately, no scholar I have met who has read Ezrahi has figured it out.  For some strange reason, they miss this question and, instead, think Ezrahi is praising Diaspora.  This misreading, though unfortunate, is telling.

I won’t make this misreading.  I’m here to ask this question and to reflect on what it means.  Should I read Roth as she does – in terms of his comic acknowledgment of a guilt that is based on saying no to Israel?  Or should I consider myself to be a “New Jew” (see David Shneer and Caryn Aviv’s book New Jews: The End of Diaspora, who, according to these authors, is not bound by the distinction of Diaspora and Homecoming)?

What better time to pose this question than today on the 65th Anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1948?  Ezrahi has every right to ask us to ponder such guilt since she lives in  Israel and knows full well that there is a difference between being Jewish in Israel and being Jewish in America.  I do not see it from her perspective.

I read and write about the schlemiel, but with a difference.  As an American-Jew, I understand that with Israel’s existence, my enjoyment of the schlemiel can be thought of as a guilty pleasure.  And I clearly understand that her reading hinges on Jewish history.  If an American Jew thinks he or she is beyond the dream of having a land of his or her own, he or she is thinking ahistorically.  Though this is possible, and happens often enough (since, unlike Phillip Roth, many Jews lack an acute sense of what is at stake with Israel or how they are a part of a long history of Exile), one needs to ask oneself what is at stake if we totally lose our “Jewish guilt” which, today, is not tied to anything primordial but, quite simply, to Israel.  Can a Jew simply leave the schlemiel behind, which, for Ezrahi, would suggest that one leaves Israel and history behind?  Or are Jewish American novelists – like Shalom Auslander or Nathan Englander (to name only two) – willing to embrace this character and its ironic relationship with the Isreal?  Will the schlemiel remain, regardless of what we do, since Israel and America will most likely remain the two primary places where Jews live and dream?

These questions should trouble American Jews and be so troubling as to make us complain a little and realize the situation we are faced with.  Perhaps, for American Jews -in general – and Jewish-American writers – in particular -Israel is or will be the Final Complaint (as it was for Portnoy and for the author of Operation Shylock)?

Students and Teachers of The Schlemiel Legacy: From Sancho Panza to Walter Benjamin


(Enter Walter Benjamin)

To be distracted and become absent minded, is so to speak the condition of the possibility of the schlemiel. Walter Benjamin knew this lesson very well.  He learned if from Kafka, who learned it from Sancho Panza and Don Quixote.

At the end of his Kafka essay, Benjamin notes that he is like a Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.   To be sure, at the end of his Kafka essay he cites his favorite Kafka parable, the parable on Sancho Panza and Don Quixote which ends: “A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and thus enjoyed a great and profitable entertainment to the end of his days.”

In other words, Benjamin, like Sancho Panza, literally spent the “end of his days” following around a schlemiel named Franz Kafka.  And in this, he became very distracted and absent-minded himself.  After all, a reflection without penetration is the manner of the schlemiel.  And in response to it, one will either die laughing or “come laughing.”  Benjamin, near the end of his life, imitated the ways of Sancho Panza who imitated the ways of Don Quixote (a fool).

With Benjamin, we know that he took the modern Don Quixote, Franz Kafka, as his last teacher.  Gazing upon Kafka’s text, Benjamin knew, as he said in one of his last letters to Gershom Scholem, written on June 12, 1938, that Kafka was correct about two things: “first, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second; only a fool’s help is real help.”  However, as Benjamin mused:  “the only uncertain thing (the only question) is whether the fools help will do humanity any good.”

Indeed, that is the ethical question of the schlemiel.  And this is the question I have been asking in the last two blog entries.

Benjamin was the first to reflect on it.   And while Derrida is on to the tragic or comic manner of the schlemiel, unlike Benjamin, he does not pose this ethical question (at least not in his language phase).  Benjamin does.  Benjamin wonders whether the attention given to learning the wisdom of the fool, the manner of the schlemiel, can do humanity any good.   The same question applies to the ways of deconstruction and to learning the manner of the foolish (schlemiel) text.

If such a way of reading of the text doesn’t do humanity any good, will it be rejected?  And in the name of what?  The politician?  The philosopher?  How, Benjamin queries to Gershom Scholem, could they help?  The only one who “can help is the fool.” As Benjamin says in the same letter to Scholem, perhaps the only wisdom “is the wisdom of the fool.”  But, perhaps, as Kafka suggests, Benjamin was wrong.   Perhaps it isn’t wisdom that Sancho Panza gleans from the fool so much as entertainment (which Sancho Panza, a philosopher of sorts, enjoys until he dies…laughing). But, then again, Kafka muses that he may have followed him out of a sense of responsibility. This would imply that following the schlemiel is an ethical act of sorts. So…which is it? Ethics or entertainment? Both?

Let’s ask again: Will the wisdom of the fool, of Don Quixote, the schlemiel, do humanity any good? 

On this blog, it is imperative that we pronounce this question in different ways.   It’s inescapable.  This question emerges out of an endless reflection on the “reflection without penetration.” It emerges out of paying very close attention to the “manner” of the schlemiel. Paraphrasing Paul Celan, who paraphrases Walter Benjamin, who paraphrases Malbranche: attention (to the schlemiel) is the silent prayer of the soul.

Two questions may emerge from the attention of the reader to the schlemiel; that is, the attention of Sancho Panza for Don Quixote:

1) Can the attention that Sancho Panza (Walter Benjamin or Jacques Derrida) gives to Don Quixote (Franz Kafka or the Foolish Text) and his foolish ways do humanity any good?

2) What can we learn from the examples of Sancho Panza and Walter Benjamin? Did they seriously imitate their schlemiel teachers or did they laugh at them and themselves for imitating them?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who could get him to sign his name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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