In yesterday’s post, I made a brief reading of the recent 44 minute video of Woody Allen “stammering” over the span of his career. The picture I used as a thumbnail for the blog post came from the beginning of Woody Allen’s film Bananas. The reason I chose this image was because it nicely illustrated the mechanistic-slash-comic aspect of the video; in addition, it also illustrated what Henri Bergson believed was the essence of the comic: mechanical repetition. For Bergson, we laugh at the Jack-in-the-Box, or any mechanical repitition, because it is a caricature of life and freedom or what he called élan vital. Like many in his time, Bergson’s theory is based on an organicist model or what the German’s called Lebensphilosophie (life philosophy). The greatest challenges to life philosophy can be found in meaningless, mechanical habits. For thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche or Georges Bataille, the source of these mechanical habits was the growing mechanization of society – a society in which everything meaningful or progressive had “utility.” For this reason, both Nietzsche and Bataille pursued a “vitalism” which looked to act without any meaningful end. Life, as they understood it, was excessive. For us to put a determined end on existence, by way of work, mechanism, and habits was, in effect, to say “no” to life. Saying “yes” to life would be to affirm what Maurice Blanchot would call “un-working.” Saying yes to life, for Bergson, would be equivalent to saying yes to elan vital and no to the mechanical gesture. To be sure, filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, who lived in and around the time Nietzsche, Bergson, and Bataille lived and wrote on vitalism, knew that the greatest threat to vitalism and élan vital was posed by technology. America, with its concept of the assembly line and mechanical mass production, became the focal point for many Europeans (including Nietzsche, Batialle, Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, and many others) of what is to come; namely, an existence in which the individual is lost in (and to) the machine. And this is the point: life was at stake – life embodied in the individual (the subject) and his/or her freedom. We see this tension between life and the machine comically elaborated in both Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) and in Woody Allen’s repetition of key scenes of this film (with, of course, some variation) in Bananas (1971): Here is Chaplin’s film: As you can see, Chaplin is the subject of the machine. However, his comic gesturing (and the absurd nature of the machine – a toy of sorts – he is subject to) make him distinct from the machine. Both his gestures and the absurd nature of the machine give him some kind of agency. Here’s Allen’s film, Bananas: This film does something nearly identical to Modern Times. The machine and Allen’s gestural responses to it give Allen agency. As one can see, Allen believes that such responses are still affective and meaningful. Although 35 years and major advances in technology and history separate them, both of these clips communicate the same message about comedy and its challenge to mechanization. For both, one mechanism seems to be defeating another and élan vital triumphs (comically). It must be noted that, for many thinkers and film critics of the early 20th century, the source of this scenario (of comedy versus the mechanical), which Allen repeats, is Charlie Chaplin. In his book Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars, Tyrus Miller notes that Andre Bazin, the famous French Film critic, wrote a seminal essay in 1948 about Chaplin claiming that Chaplin’s comedy was a means of ‘brushing aside danger’. Miller goes on to note that Bazin sees Chaplin’s power as the power of “mimicry” which acts by “reabsorbing time and space”(51). What he means by this is that Chaplin’s comedy wins time and space back for organic humanity and beats the machine at its own game. Bazin bases his advancement of mimicry on the work of the surrealist Roger Caillois who claimed that insects, like humans, imitate the environment in order to protect themselves from being killed. Miller reads this in terms of the medium of film: Supplementing Bazin’s claim that time reabsorbs space, then, we might say that Chaplin’s organic body becomes a mimetic extension of cinematic technology, which breaks down movement into constitutive fragments, discarding some while isolating others. Having incorporated the technical principle of montage into his physical movements, Chaplin is able to mirror it back to the camera in embodied form. (52). Sounding much like Walter Benjamin, Miller argues that Chaplin becomes the “very allegory of cinema in its inaugural phase and the changes in experience it will precipitate”(52). The self survives as a “minimal self: as much technical as organic, and held together by the stiffening bonds of laughter”(52). This presupposes that there is a community between the comedian and the audience and that if we don’t have comedians who can mimic the damage wrought by technology – that is, if we don’t have comedy to laugh at, our agency and selfhood will be diminished to such an extent that instead of a minimal self, there will be no self. It’s fascinating to note that Theodor Adorno also suggests this call for comedy and the minimal self in his book Minima Moralia. Three decades following Adorno’s plea for the minimal self, comedy and the minimal self are evoked by Jean-Luc Nancy in an essay on Baudelaire in his book The Birth of Presence. But, as I will show in future blogs, Nancy likens laughter to an explosion. But the question is this: what does it explode? Does post-modern laughter – for lack of a better word – explode the machine or the person? If the latter, then we can surmise that Nancy thinks we can no longer protect ourselves from the machine and might as well celebrate nihilism. Regardless of Nancy’s take on laughter, Allen seems to be more on the side of Chaplin. He has an optimistic view of comedy and sees it as a “defense” against technology and empty, mechanical repetition. In yesterdays video, however, I wondered about the meaning of the mechanically reproduced stammering which has become a micro-stammering of sorts (concentrated into 44 minutes). Did that video testifiy to the obliteration of the self and absorption into the medium or something else? How, in fact, do we understand ourselves and one of our greatest defenses (comedy) by way of being looped, re-looped and morphed by new technology? Has Allen’s stammer exploded and been emptied of all its human (organic) content? Does such a video evince a subject who is powerless and “defenseless” against the ever expanding field of technology (with all its information and audio and video “flows” and “feeds”)? How does comedy and how do “we” – who are “in the network,” who come after Chaplin and Allen’s comic parody of technology and who now come after the “YouTube-loop” of Woody Allen…stammering – “live on?”
Yesterday’s blog ended with several questions which puzzled over why Walter Benjamin or Georges Bataille would be so interested in “returning to childhood” or describing the “true child.”
Before going to sleep last night, I thought about these questions. But instead of simply thinking about them, I thought about myself. After all, I am as intrigued with childhood and the fool as they were. But was I fascinated for the same reasons?
In thinking about this, I turned to a blog entry I wrote earlier this week entitled “Damaged Childhood: Fools, Self-Destruction, and Reclaming Youth,” There, I pointed out how Walter Benjamin, in his essay of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, argued that Dostoevsky’s book was a response to the “failure of the youth movement” and a “damaged childhood.”
I noted how Benjamin goes on to claim, after writing on failure, that a “return to childhood” – a return to “childlike simplicity” – promises “unlimited healing powers.” But then it hit me: if the youth movement already failed, and if the purpose of that youth movement was to “return to childhood,” why was he insisting that we try again?
At this point, I realized that Benjamin (and Dostoevsky, as Benjamin reads him) were involved in what Freud would call a “repetition compulsion.” According to Freud, in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the repetition compulsion is a response to trauma, that is, a response to a damaged childhood. Benjamin is repeating the failure to return to childhood by insisting on doing it again.
Although he believes that this must be done, because a return to “childlike simplicity” has “unlimited” healing powers, he also admits, in the same essay, that it is desperate and pathetic. We see this, Benjamin says, in the novel’s characters.
The Idiot, in effect, is not simply the illustration of a desire to return to childhood; it is a displacement of failure.
Its astonishing how Benjamin’s writing on children, in many ways, parallels that of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. It seems that, in the face of this political, secular messianist failure of the “youth movement,” Benjamin, in his own work, displaced his failure and turned to the micro-worlds of children. In these worlds we see a “childlike simplicity.” We see micro-worlds that exist within the world of adults. This retreat into micro-worlds may not only be seen as a response to a “damaged childhood” but it can also be seen as a response to a failed (or incomplete) political project whose goal is to “return to childhood.”
We see much evidence of this in Benjamin’s book One Way Street. Even though Benjamin does address the political on and off throughout the piece (this is the part that many Benjamin scholars and Theodor Adorno focus on, in fact) he has an entire section on children. It consists of several aphorisms. The subtitles of each are the following: Child Reading, Belated Child, Pilfering Child, Child on Carousel, Untidy Child, and Child Hiding.
I would love to discuss all of them over the span of several blog entries. For now, I just want to note a one (preliminary) thing and relate it to my own personal interest in the schlemiel and childhood.
Since I am a lover and practitioner of literary interpretation and exegesis, the first thing I did when I glanced over this section was to notice and think about the first and last entries. The first entry is entitled “Child Reading” while the last one is entitled “Child Hiding.”
This, for me, states something meaningful about Benjamin and his response to a “damaged childhood.” His reading, the reading of a child, is a way of hiding in a micro-world. And, as Benjamin says at the end of that section, he is hiding from a “demon” and the places he finds to hide in are “magical.” Reading, exploring space, and constructing micro-worlds (hiding places), are his “magical” way of avoiding terror (“the demon”). To be sure, the entire section on childhood is prefaced by a line which gives us a clue of this response to trauma: “To be happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without fright.”
Indeed, Benjamin’s self-awareness, his awareness of his, so to speak, childhood demon, is terrifying. But Benjamin, like the child, has found a reading strategy, a way of hiding that enables him, like a child, to becomes “happy” without fright. Seeing himself as this child, the child in the text that he writes of, he finds a way to address trauma. In his reading spaces he is hidden and sheltered from trauma. To be sure, he seems to be alluding to this throughout his section on childhood.
To be sure, Benjamin, like a child, is more intrigued with his hiding spaces, his mirco-worlds, than with the world. He goes to these places out of terror. A schlemiel does this as well. A man-child dwells and travels through spaces within the world, spaces that are unfamiliar to the world and its preoccupations. Ultimately, these journeys through space that the schlemiel-slash-man-child takes are responses to something hidden, something he can’t understand. The schlemiel, in his “childlike simplicity” just moves on. He doesn’t notice the disaster, perhaps, because it would destroy him.
Growing up with a father who had a wild imagination, loved politics, liked to travel, tell stories, and often confused dreams and reality, I often felt like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote through space and time. I inherited my father’s response to his own trauma, which, as I learned, is to find and create micro-worlds where one can hide. The key, however, to such childish games is to know not simply how to read but how to tell stories.
Growing up, I felt that I had to listen to and interpret these stories. Each story, as it were, was what I would call a “traumatic imperative.” But these stories were not simply told. They were written over various spaces, people, and time. My father’s micro-worlds were not in a book; they were found in this or that pocket of reality. My (as Benjamin might say) “self-awareness” was caught up in these spaces.
When dream and reality overlap, reality becomes a book. It comes to life. However, its meaning, because it is confused, is unclear and, as Benjamin knew and my father always reminded me, terror seems to be waiting around each corner. Like Benjamin, my father taught me that if you are to return to childhood, if you are going to live out your schlemiel-hood through time and space, you must know how to play hide and seek.
Its the game that every failed messiah – that is, every man-child who comes out of a damaged childhood – plays.
The schlemiel is a man-child. The character presupposes a man who has not grown up or a child who has not matured to become a man. The schlemiel lives in the world of people but is in his own world because he doesn’t know how to live in that world. He lives in a world of dreams and in dreams every little ‘thing’ matters and holds deeper significance. Everything has a secret. This interest in little things distracts the schlemiel from “the big picture.” It distracts him from the world. The little things makes him absent-minded.
To be sure, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi characterizes Sholom Aleichem’s Motl in this manner. He is a character who gets caught up with things; and, as a result, Motl can’t understand his mothers suffering, his life situation, the death of his father, the disaster unfolding around him. Near the end of Motl, The Cantor’s Son, Motl is optimistic and excited about the fact that he is going to America and will come into contact with more things! Ezrahi, at one point, briefly evokes Walter Benjamin and his fascination with things to illustrate. Unfortunately, she doesn’t pursue it further.
I would like to suggest that we contrast two types of men-children which have, most recently, entered the Schlemiel Theory blog space: Georges Bataille’s child and Walter Benjamin’s.
What we have seen thus far is that Georges Bataille wanted, like Walter Benjamin (in his essay on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) to “return to childhood.” Both thinkers noted that the return to childhood would not, by any means, be without disaster. Since the world has rejected youth and childhood, and since the project of writers who supported the “youth movement” has failed, the return of childhood, Benjamin tells us, can only come in the aftermath of an “implosion.”
Echoing Nietzsche, Bataille envisioned a KINDERLAND to come. He also saw it in the aftermath of a disaster. But, based on what we have seen so far, we can say that while Benjamin didn’t describe childhood and disaster in depth, Bataille did.
More to the point, Bataille seems to have gone further than Benjamin in describing what kind of child he wanted to be and what kind of disaster this implied. Indeed, Bataille distinguished between the “true child” and the false one. The true child, for Batialle, is a child who experiences shame, terror, and powerlessness. The true child, in other words, is passionate; s/he knows, in the depths of her existence, that the “serious exists.” And this knowledge is disasterous and tragic.
Even though Bataille renounced all projects, he didn’t regard his “spiritual exercise” of becoming a child or stupid as a project. However, when and if his pursuit of becoming a child does become a project (that is, when and if it becomes too obsessed with a goal), the true child (which Bataille aspires to be) would – Bataille avers – “laugh” at his seriousness. This laughter frees the “true child” from the serious project. Yet, this laughter does nothing to mitigate the true child’s powerlessness, shame, and terror. All laughter does is lighten the weight of shame and powerlessness. But in doing so laughter embraces stupidity. Bataille’s “true child” revels in it. The true child is Bataille’s description of a real and an ideal child; the child he wants to be and can become only through humiliating himself.
Batialle’s model of the “true” child is far removed from the schlemiel. By contrasting the two, we can have a better idea of what makes the schlemiel unique.
I suggested this contrast yesterday. The schlemiel gets caught up in dreams and all the little details of life. The schlemiel gets distracted by things. The schlemiel isn’t passionate. He doesn’t experience shame, terror, and powerlessness. The schlemiel doesn’t know that seriousness exists or, if he knows, it really doesn’t matter to him or her. He can’t laugh at his passion because, quite simply, he isn’t passionate.
You couldn’t find a greater contrast between one man-child and another than between Bataille’s “true child” and the schlemiel.
Benjamin’s child is different: his “true child” has more in common with the schlemiel than with the passionate “true child” that Bataille aspired to.
In a piece entitled “Old Forgotten Children’s Books,” which was published in 1924 in Illustrierte Zeitung, Benjamin describes the child in a different manner:
For children are fond of haunting any site where things are visibly being worked on. They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, and carpentry. In waste products they recognize the face that he world of things turns directly and solely from them. In using the thing, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.
What I would like to suggest is a little different from what I suggested at the outset with Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi. The main thing about Benjamin’s “true child” is not his or her passion, and not his obsession with things, so much as her relationship to “waste products” and “things worked on.” All the things that Benjamin’s true child is interested in are partial.
This child is distracted from the “world of things.” However, children “produce their own small world of things within the greater one.” This small world was a world that Benjamin was attracted to.
What I wonder is if the child’s world of waste and the child’s miniature world are intimations of what Benjamin would call the world of childhood that lays in the future. This world of childhood is in the aftermath of disaster. But, if we look again, we can notice that in this world-to-come the child plays in ruins. He doesn’t care about the disaster so much as how he can relate one fragmented thing to another. Perhaps this is the dream of a schlemiel: to live in the garbage and to play in the garbage while not seeing the disaster around him.
In contrast to Bataille’s man-child, Benjamin’s lacks passion but doesn’t lack a love for garbage. What this implies is that Benjamin didn’t see the path to childhood as passing through humiliation and shame, as Bataille did, he saw the path of childhood as passing through the garbage dump. Benjamin’s schlemiel turns to broken things – not to passions. He does not know that “seriousness exists.” And, in this, it seems there is no violence or self-destruction.
If this is the case, then how can we understand Benjamin’s Apocalyptic warnings in his essay on The Idiot? Such warnings and premonitions puzzled Benjamin’s closest friend – the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem. He could understand Benjamin’s interest in garbage, partial things, and micro-worlds, but he couldn’t understand Benjamin’s interest in the daemonic “destructive element.” To be sure, sometimes Benjamin would turn to the destructive child, but, as we shall see, this only happened when Benjamin, personally, had to face failure.
And when that happened, his man-child, his schlemiel, went from being a child that plays with fragments to a shameful creature.
While Bataille’s true child passionately embraced failure, stupidity, and shame, Benjamin’s did not. His child doesn’t get those things. When he’s at play in the ruins nothing else matters. But when he fails, it seems as if his child becomes a shameful figure – a reminder of how ridiculous and tragic things are.
At this point, you might be wondering why such intelligent men like Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille would want to return to childhood? What would drive them to envision the child of the future, the “true” child? Why would they spend so much time reflecting on such things? Did they do so because they realized that maturity was a joke and that modernity had lost what gave it life; that is, childhood? How would living out childhood as an adult – how would becoming a man-child – be redemptive? Why were they so desperate for childhood?
We’ll leave these questions for our next blog entry….
What does it mean to make “a fool out of oneself” or to act “childish?” Both terms suggest that imitating a child or acting like a fool is shameful. Now, imagine that the very thing that society despises most is designated as a spiritual practice.
In our last blog entry, we pointed out that Georges Bataille took Nietzsche’s notion of KINDERLAND and identified it with the future. As we pointed out, one would have to destroy oneself if one were to get there. The paradox is that by going backwards to childhood, one can go forwards, to the future, to KINDERLAND.
But, as with many spiritual practices, one needs to know what to do if one is to reach this sacred land of childhood. Bataille was interested in describing these practices. As one can imagine, Bataille relished the idea that acting like a child or becoming a fool was hated by civil society. In his book Inner Experience, he not only provides spiritual exercies of childishness, he also describes childishness and foolishness in great depth.
Bataille associates “childishness” with salvation.
The only challenge to becoming childish is not to turn it into a “project,” which would give it a meaning within a coherent totality. Nonetheless, he insists that becoming a “true child” is the way to “deliverance.” This path is, necessarily, shameful and self-destructive. The task for Bataille, was to, so to speak, enact it, without turning it into a project. The spiritual experience of the movement of the adult to childishness and shame, he believed, would be sufficient to destroy “the project.” And open us up to a messianic “taste,” so to speak, of the promised land: KINDERLAND.
In Part II of his book, in a section entitled “Torment,” Bataille provides his reader-slash-disciple with intimate (yet intellectual) experiences of childhood and self-destruction. By refusing to grow up and by returning to childhood, he, in effect, is not entering into the project. In literary form, he describes or rather “dramatizes” his childhood and his struggle with maturity.
To be sure, Bataille, at the beginning of his book, notes that dramatization is a spiritual exercise: “If we did not know how to dramatize, we wouldn’t be able to leave ourselves…From this way of dramatizing – often forced – emerges an element of comedy, of foolishness which turns into laughter”(11).
Dramatization, for Bataille, distances us from tradition and reduces us to powerlessness. It is another name for acting out ones renunciation of maturity; that is, the project.
Dramatization brings one to an awareness of his or her childishness.
I will cite several lines which describe Bataille’s coming to consciousness that he is a child and the realization that he is, ultimately, “stupid.” In grand mythic style, Bataille tells us that to return to childhood is to return to one’s origins. The problem is that “grown ups” don’t get it:
To grasp the extent of knowledge, I go back to the source. First a small child, in every way similar to the madmen (the absent ones) I play with today. The miniature “absent ones” are not in contact with the world, if not through the channel of grown-ups: the result of an intervention on the part of grown-ups is childishness, a fabrication. Grown ups clearly reduce being coming into the world, which we are at first, to the level of trinkets. This seems to me to be important: that the passage to the state of nature (from birth) to our state of reason should necessarily take place through the route of childishness. It is strange on our part to attribute to the child itself the responsibility for childishness, which would be the character proper to children. Childishness is the state which we put naïve being….When we laugh at infantile absurdity, laughter disguises shame, seeing to what we reduce life emerging from Nothingness. (42)
Bataille’s lesson to adults, who become children, is the following:
1) Children need to divest themselves from their parents: “The error of children: to derive truth from grown-ups.”
2) Children should not be laughed at.
Laughing at childish behavior is a “grown up” activity which, in his view, belongs to a project. Rather than laugh at them, we should – seriously – imitate them. But, Batialle goes beyond such advice.
In the midst of becoming childish, Bataille describes how he, and one who becomes childish, will feel shame and powerlessness.
To be sure, Bataille, craftily, alternates his reflections on childishness with reflections on shame, self-destruction, and salvation. And this juxtaposition creates the breakdown he desires: “the idea of salvation comes, I believe, from one whom suffering breaks apart. He who masters it, on the contrary, needs to be broken, to proceed on the path towards rapture.”
Besides being a “spiritual practice” and an “inner experience,” this alternation clearly suggests a link between childishness, self-destruction, and salvation.
Bataille dramatizes this link by shamefully confessing his passion of childishness. But, in doing so, he realizes that taking this childishness seriously may present an obstacle:
Childishness, knowing itself to be such, is deliverance, but taking itself seriously, it is enmired.” And this “taking itself seriously” is an obstacle to “deliverance.” To eliminate this obstacle, to dramatize it, one must laugh at it: “The search for the extreme limit can in its turn become a habit, dependent of childishness: one must laugh at it, unless, by chance, one has a heavy heart: then ecstasy and madness are within reach. (44)
As we saw above, Bataille says that one should not laugh at childishness. But if one takes it too seriously, then Batialle tells us that one must laugh at it! Because seriousness is too mature and is part and parcel of “the project.” But isn’t a spiritual exercise too serious? Should Bataille think it to be ridiculous?
Batialle avoids this reflection. Instead, he creates a rule, because he sees an opportunity in this kind of laughter: if childishness becomes a “habit,” laugh at it so one can, through despair (a heavy heart), “reach” ecstasy and madness.
Ok, so let’s sum it up. There are two possibilities for one to be saved from the project and “grown ups”- two, so to speak, KINDERLAND possibilities: 1) salvation through childishness or 2) salvation through the rejection of a “serious” and “habitual” childishness.
After describing these possibilities, Bataille, strangely enough, argues that to be a child one must “know” that “seriousness exists” and if one doesn’t one isn’t a “true child” : “The most serious seem to me to be children, who don’t know they are children: they separate me from true children who know it and laugh at being. But to be a child, one must know that the serious exists…if not, the child could no longer laugh nor know anguish”(44, my emphasis).
This conclusion brings us to the schlemiel and helps us to distinguish Bataille’s man-child the “true child” – from the false one, which, given what we know about this character, is the schlemiel.
“True” children are not schlemiels, since they “know” they are children. They can “laugh” at being. To be a child, one must “know” that “the serious exists.” If they know this, children can laugh and know anguish. Children cannot laugh or know anguish if they don’t know that the “serious exists.”
This implies that a schlemiel, who doesn’t understand seriousness, is not a “true” child. A true child suffers and laughs.
But, then again, Bataille turns this around when he writes about stupidity. Children may know that the serious exists, but they cannot be saved if they don’t “perceive a greater stupidity.”
“My privilege is to be humiliated by my profound stupidity and, no doubt, through others, I perceive greater stupidity.”
The more stupidity, the better. We see this early on in his book as well: “The great derision: a multitude of little contradicting “everythings,” intelligence surpassing itself, culminating in multivocal, discordant, indiscrete idiocy”(25).
Bataille’s passion is for childhood and stupidity. His desire is to be the “true child” who knows seriousness, suffers, and laughs.
To become the true child, Bataille confesses that he must dramatize the descent into idiocy. This will return him to childhood. And it will save him.
But this is not a total loss of the mind. As he says, the man who becomes a child “knows” as a child does that “the serious exists.” This is a tragic vision of childhood or becoming-a-child. He is aware of his stupidity as much as he is aware of seriousness. He is also aware of what a “true” as opposed to a “false” child is.
Compared to the childishness of I.B. Singer’s Gimpel or Sholom Aleichem’s Motl’s childishness, Bataille’s dramatization of childishness is focused on the spiritual practice of self-destruction as revelation. The schlemiel is absent minded, but Bataille’s child is not.
And the tension between good and evil, between hope and skepticism, which the schlemiel looks to preserve, is effaced by Bataille’s “spiritual exercise” in which life, mad life, childish and idiotic life, ultimately triumphs and laughs at itself in its utter shameful Dionysian stupidity.
The way to KINDERLAND is through becoming a suffering-powerless-idiot-child. This act of the will greatly contrasts to the simplicity of the schlemiel – the man-child – that we often see in Yiddish or Jewish American literature. There is no passion of the schlemiel, but for Bataille there is a passion of the man-child. The schlemiel can’t save himself, Bataille’s man-child can.
And perhaps this is the key: Judaism puts salvation outside of man’s efforts. In Judaism, man cannot redeem or save himself. Redemption is in the future. The schlemiel stands, unredeemed, in relation to the future. He can’t redeem himself through his foolishness. (At the end of “Gimpel the Fool,” he simply moves on. Gimpel has not changed; he is still an unredeemed schlemiel in, and this is the point, an unredeemed world.) Bataille, however, believes that through this “spiritual exercise” he (and perhaps his childish community) can be “delivered” to the KINDERLAND of the future. A place where we can all make fools of ourselves all the time…a place where we can know, finally, that we are, shamefully, “true children!”
And this is only possible because we know, in the midst of shame and humiliation, that “the serious exists.”
So, here’s my question, is it worth passionately becoming fools and childish if we are to come to this conclusion and the consciousness that we are “true children”? Or is this, quite simply, stupid? Is this the point of, as Bataille might say, the “useless” exercise-slash-dramatization of “true” childhood?
Would Bataille regard this scene from John Water’s Pink Flamingos (1972) to be a spiritual exercise in becoming a child? And does John Waters, who put the film together, know what “true children” are and that “seriousness exists?” What do we make of these “dramatizations” of childishness? Are they…and we saved? After all, the daughter who is quelling her mother-in-the-crib is named Divine. Is this where we are going? Is John Waters giving us a prophetic glimpse at the future? A glimpse of KINDERLAND?
Chelm is a real place in Poland that some say has existed since the 9th century. It is also a mythological place where, legend has it, all the Jews are schlemiels.
From the YIVO encyclopedia, we learn that Chelm-like stories have existed, in print, since 1597. But the legend itself may go back further. And as the encyclopedia points out, many Yiddish writers either cited these stories, retold them, or modeled their own mythic schlemiel cities on Chelm.
In America, the most well-known Chelm stories, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, come to us by way of I.B. Singer. When I was a child, my Rabbi – who presided in a conservative synagogue in a small town in the Adirondacks named Knesseth Israel – used to read them to us every Saturday so as to inspire us before we had the “children’s minyan.” (He would gather the children around him and either read these stories or a variety of fun Hasidic stories. I liked these best, however; we all did. I can remember giggling with my friends as he told them. Imagine that, I used to think, a town of fools and led by fools!)
I mention the fools of Chelm in this blog entry because this land of Schlemiels relates, however obliquely, to what Benjamin and Dostoevsky (apparently wanted): namely, a KINDERLAND (a land of children) which I discussed in yesterday’s blog.
The term KINDERLAND actually comes from Nietzsche but it became a key word for Georges Bataille, a good friend of Walter Benjamin.
It is well-known that Benjamin and Georges Bataille were friends. To be sure, Benjamin’s archival material, much of which we have today, was left with Bataille. (As J.M. Coetzee notes in his 2001 essay on Benjamin for The New York Review of Books, Bataille hid and preserved the Arcades Project manuscript.)
The two may have spoken of this vision of a land of children. But we can have no doubt that they discussed their utopian visions as the Nazi spectre hung over Europe and crisis loomed on the horizon.
Bataille takes to the word KINDERLAND in a piece entitled the “Nietzschian Chronicle.” There, he writes (in capital letters) of a Nietzschean KINDERLAND which challenges “every man’s VATERLAND.”
According to Bataille, this KINDERLAND was something of a prophesy which was expressed by none other than DIONYSOS:
The very first sentences come from ‘realms of dream and intoxication’. The entire message is expressed in one name: DIONYSOS. When Nietzsche made DIONYSOS (in other words, the destructive exuberance of life) the symbol of the will to power, he expressed in that way a resolution to deny to a faddish and debilitating romanticism the force that must be held sacred.
This prophesy, says Bataille, is wrapped up in the future. And it bespeaks the renewal of life. And, like Benjamin, he notes that KINDERLAND will only come about through destruction and “decomposition.”
Elsewhere, in an essay entitled “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Bataille notes that “action alone proposes to transform the world, make it similar to dreams.” This language of dreams, youth, and action is familiar to this blog.
As I noted in an earlier blog entry, Schlemiels and “Messianic activists” share the same problem: they confuse dreams with reality. Here, Bataille insists, in the name of Nietzsche and his prophet DIONYSOS, that action will transform the world into a KINDERLAND.
In his “Nietzschian Chronicle” he suggests that this Land would be “without a head.” This has striking resonance when one thinks about the “Wise Fools of Chelm” who lead the land. Their judgments are foolish and childlike in nature. They lead “without a head.” (But, in I.B. Singer’s version, this is laughable. Its not real. And, more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything destructive about this.)
When I was a kid, the fools of Chelm used to make me laugh aloud. But I could never imagine a KINDERLAND in reality. And perhaps this is the trick.
Although I would dream of such a land as a child, I’m not so sure I would do so as an adult. This land of children they envision couldn’t be Chelm. Or could it? Would there be any fools in the KINDERLAND?
What exactly did Benjamin and Batialle mean when they (and apparently Dostoevsky) imagined a land of children? Did they share the same vision of this KINDERLAND or differing visions?
We can hear their call for life, which resonates with the tones of vitalism, but can we imagine the land? What, after all, would a KINDERLAND look like? If we can’t imagine a KINDERLAND in reality, perhaps we can say that KINDERLAND is a text? Is it the Derridian text where everything is play or in play? Is this a land without a head? A land without a center? Or is it….Chelm?
And must we destroy the land (and ourselves) to redeem the land, as Bataille and Benjamin suggest we should when the land is lacking “youth”? Is this the only way to the future KINDERLAND?
(I’ll leave this post, as Paul Celan says with respect to the Other, an ‘open question.’ Celan says that the poem is going toward the other, toward the future, but does this mean we are going towards Chelm, KINDERLAND, or “?”)
But….perhaps the interchange between Dwayne and Alvy Singer bears a clue of where we’re going?