“Unhappy Dualism” or Simplicity: On Gershom Scholem’s Readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and Hasidim


Duplicity and complexity were of great concern to Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem. In her book on Rahel Varnhagen, Arendt takes aim at Jean-Jacques Rousseau as encouraging duplicity. She saw, in his work, a conflict between the private life and the public life. His confessions maintained this division and complexity. This came in the wake of religious decay:

With the loss of the priest and his judgment, the solitude of the would-be confessor had become boundless. The singularity of the person, the uniqueness of the individual character, stood out against a background of indefinite anonymity.   Everything was equally important and nothing forbidden. In complete isolation, shame was extinguished. The importance of emotions existed independently of possible consequences…In the course of such a ruthless confessional the individual is isolated not only from the events of public life, but also from the events of private life. (98)

Everything sinks into duplicity and what matters most are not the “facts” but the lies or the stories one tells about oneself (91).   One is defined by what is within, not without. This is how Varnhagen, according to Arendt, understood Rousseau.   Her life, to be sure, was complex. And this duplicity, for Arendt, was based on a kind of worldlessness that was forced upon German-Jews who wished to but could not – at the time – become recognized as moderns and equals with Germans.

But, to be sure, as her reflections on Rousseau indicate, this duplicity and complexity is a part of the modern condition.   Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “Fate and Character,” followed suit. He associates “complexity” with fate and myth and contrasts it to character, which he associates with freedom and comedy. Benjamin was not alone in his problems with complexity. Dostoevsky, a lover of complexity, pits character against fate in his novel, The Idiot and shows that Prince Myshkin, a simpleton, becomes “the idiot” of Russian society. This happens because he doesn’t know how to lie and hide what he thinks or feels like so many other characters in the novel.   And this makes him into an “idiot” who is, gradually, destroyed.

In an essay on the novel, Benjamin makes it clear that he saw the destruction of Prince Myshkin as the failure of the “youth movement.” He saw the “fate” of this simple character as horrific and self-destructive. He likened it to a volcano that self-implodes.   Nonetheless, Benjamin didn’t give up on comedy and character. In his “Fate and Character” essay, written two years after his essay on The Idiot, Benjamin speaks of comedy, simplicity, and character as a “beacon of hope.” Complexity and duplicity, for Benjamin as for Arendt, were a modern problem and, he believed, simplicity could be the answer.

We also find the contrast between simplicity and complexity/duplicity in Gershom Scholem’s readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and the Hasidim.   Scholem uses powerful language to describe the duplicity of living as a Marrano:

For generations the Marranos in the Iberian peninsula, the offspring of those Jews who, in their hundreds of thousands, went over to Christianity in the persecutions between 1391 and 1498, had been compelled to lead, as it were, a double life. The religion which they professed was not that in which they believed. This dualism could not but endanger, if it did not indeed destroy the unity of Jewish feeling and thinking. (309, Trends in Jewish Mysticism)

And this also touched the Marranos who, thereafter, returned to Judaism. Their Judaism, argues Schlolem, “retained something of this peculiar spiritual make-up”(309).   And when Sabbatai Zevi came on to the scene, he appealed to this complexity and what Scholem calls the “unhappy dualism of the Marranic mind”(310). The “idea of an apostate Messiah could be presented to them as the religious glorification of the very act which continued to torment their conscience.”

This internal torment, this “unhappy dualism,” is the cause of so much trouble.   It opened the door for “radical nihilism.”   Throughout a chapter entitled “Sabbatianism and Mystical Heresy,” Scholem points out, over and over again, the complexity of Sabbatianism. He focuses a primary cause of such complexity in the relationship of the followers to the “strange acts” of Sabbatai Zevi:

There was on the one hand the personality of the Messiah and its paradox, on the other hand the attitude and the individual experience of the believer. The point at which the moderate and the extreme Sabbatianism imparted was supplied by the question whether the acts of the Messiah serve as an example to the believer or not. The moderate thought not….His actions are not examples to be followed; on the contrary, it is of their nature to give offence. (314)

In contrast, “the radicals could not bear the thought of remaining content with passive belief in the paradox of the Messiah’s mission”(315). Rather, they thought of the “paradox as universal.” And “the consequences which flowed from these religious ideas were purely nihilistic, above all the conception of voluntary Marranism with the slogan: We must all descend into the realm of evil in order to vanquish it from within.”

Scholem calls the “disappearance of shame” an “awkward problem” which, for him shows duplicity and complexity at its height since, after all, shame is deeply connected to what he calls the “unity of Jewish feeling and belief.” Without morality and shame, Scholem suggests that Judaism goes from a simple religion to a complex and duplicitous religion. To be sure, we see this at its height in the Sabbatinian cult that formed around Jacob Frank. Scholem calls his “Book on the Words of the Lord” – which has “dark sayings” such as “the subversion of the Torah can become its own fulfillment” and “great is the sin committed for its own sake” – “perhaps the most remarkable ‘holy writ’ which has ever been produced.”   It is a book full of duplicity and complexity and this, Scholem argues, ultimately has its roots in the Marrano experience.

In contrast to all of this, Scholem, in the final chapter of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, argues that the Hasidim “neutralized the messianic idea.” But what many people miss is that this neutralization had a lot to do with its emphasis on simplicity.   While the leaders of the Hasidic movement had charisma, much like Zevi and Frank, they were ultimately more interested in simplicity than in complexity and this had to do with their close bond with the “life of the community”:

And yet the Hasidim did not go the way of Sabbatianism. Its leaders were far too closely connected with the life of the community to succumb to the danger of sectarianism. Opportunities were not lacking. Yet these men whose utterances not infrequently throw light on the paradoxical nature of the mystical consciousness than anything before them – supreme paradox! – the advocates of the simple and untainted belief of the common man, and this simplicity was even glorified by them as the highest religious value. (346)

He associates this paradox with Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav whose mind has a “hyper-modern sensitiveness to problems” yet who “turned all his energy to the task of defending the simplest of all beliefs”(346).

To be sure, the turn from complexity to simplicity is a key moment in Scholem’s text. And it would be amiss not to see that, between Benjamin and Scholem and despite their love of paradox, they both had a deep interest in simplicity. And, as we can see above, Arendt also had a distaste for duplicity and complexity. She was more interested in brining the public and the private together than in affirming an exterior that was contrary to one’s interior.

What we find in this thread, I aver, is that there were all interested in how Jewishness and modernity give birth to and constantly renew the tension between complexity and simplicity.   And perhaps, as Benjamin once held, simplicity which is connected to, as Scholem might say, the “life of the community,” a “beacon of hope.”   Or, it could be, for someone who – like you and I – is immersed in a world inundated with duplicity, fatalism, and lies and lives a life of “unhappy dualism.”

Courting Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel – An Essay Published in Berfrois


I recently wrote an essay on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s readings of the schlemiel and published it on the online journal Berfrois.  This essay touches on thinkers and themes that will appear in my book on the schlemiel.  It is a foreshadowing, if you will.

Here is the link to the article: http://www.berfrois.com/2014/07/menachem-feuer-walter-benjamin-hannah-arendts-readings-of-the-schlemiel/


Menachem Feuer, The Author of Schlemiel Theory




Jewishness, the Holocaust, and History: Irving Howe on the Holocaust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflections sur la question juive


At the beginning of a chapter to his “intellectual autobiography” entitled “Jewish Quandaries,” Irving Howe begins with questions “from young friends” about the Holocaust: “When did you first become aware of the gas chambers? How did you respond to the reports from Europe that the Nazis were systematically exterminating Jews?”   Howe points out that “for some years now” these questions are also his questions (247). And when he thinks of them now, reflecting on how he first responded to them, he has a “recurrent clamor of confused memories.”   He says he cannot answer them with “clear thoughts and eloquent emotions.” Howe counts himself as one of the people who, when faced with “great cataclysms…blink and stumble…retreat into old opinions….turn away in fear”(247). Howe isn’t happy with this situation and describes his moral quandary and his failure.

Howe points out that facts and information were “pouring out after the war” but he didn’t grasp the meaning of the event until the early fifties. He personifies his awakening to this as something belated and shameful. In this trial by memory, he is guilty. And according to his conscience, he is accused of not being moral enough.

Memory points a figure: “You were slow, you were dull in responding to the Holocaust.” I plead guilty, but would add mildly that now, when incessant talk about the Holocaust risks becoming a media vulgarity, we may value silence a bit more than anyone could have supposed in the earlier years. Conscience scoffs: “Come, you’re not really trying to say you were silent because your feelings overwhelmed you? Wasn’t it more likely that your feelings were rather skimpy?” (248)

In not being able to “grapple with the Holocaust,” Howe believes he had lost his humanity. To not have thought or language to address crisis is, for Howe, tantamount to losing one’s humanity. And this failure hurts him.

Howe admits that he was not alone in this failure: “No one knew what to say, no one could decide whether to cry out to the heavens or mourn in silence. We had no language.”

Howe notes how when he first heard of this, when he was in Alaska, he “felt an uncanny sort of fear.” This feeling came when he saw pictures he saw of the “GIs, ordinary American boys” looking at the “death camps piled high with corpses.” In these pictures, he noticed that they “registered a stunned horror.” In Alaska, he had no one to talk to.

When he came back to New York from Alaska, Howe slowly realized that his Marxist framework would be inadequate to address the Holocaust:

Some of us continued to think more or less in Marxist categories – loosened and liberalized, but Marxist still. I would not go so far as to say that a Marxist framework foreclosed the possibility of grasping the Holocaust in its moral terribleness and historical novelty. The more terribleness we recognized as well as anyone else; the historical novelty we did not. Writing about Nazism in the thirties, when its full criminality was visible, Trotsky had foreseen it would end as “barbarism.” But that was only a word, though an accurate one, which neither we nor anyone else could yet have filled out with a sufficiently ghastly content. (249)

This thought prompts Howe to reflect on the creation of new categories for confronting a “new historical phenomenon.” And this is where he comes to terms with the limits of Marxism for understanding everything:

Marxism could tell us a good deal about reactionary societies, but what could it say about the roots of evil, the gratuitous et systematic sadism of the SS? I don’t know that any other structure of thought told us much about that sadism either, but at least it would not try to reduce everything to a “social base” or the “death agony of capitalism.” (250)

In many ways, this failure prompted Howe to rethink his Jewishness:

In the years before the war people like me tended to subordinate our sense of Jewishness to cosmopolitan culture and socialist politics. We did not think well or deeply on the matter of Jewishness – you might say we avoided thinking about it. Jewishness was inherited, a given to be acknowledged, like being born white or poor. (251)

Following the war and the Holocaust, the thought of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and Jewishness starts become a concern for Howe. He points out how, in 1945, he came across a few lines in an article by Dwight Macdonald (in his essay “The Responsibility of Peoples”) that sparked thought about the meaning of such uniqueness. The article wasn’t the best but it didn’t create a quandary for Howe:

Unsystematic as these remarks were, they had the virtue of insisting upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust – an event without precedent yet prepared for by the anti-Semitism of the West. (253)

Howe muses that Macdonald was “probably influenced by Hannah Arendt, who a few months earlier had published a brilliant essay, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” in the Jewish Frontier”(253). How saw this essay as a “step forward in the effort to “understand,” precisely because it called into question the very relevance or possibility of understanding.”

But these essays didn’t reach Howe when he was in Alaska. He read them after they were published.   The only essays he came across, which appeared serially in Partisan Review and Commentary in 1946 and 1947 were essays that belonged to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflexiouns sur la question juive (translated as Anti-Semite and Jew).

Howe points out, immediately before he even starts commenting on Sartre’s book, that even flawed books can prompt insight. And this foreshadows his commentary on Sartre which, if anything, prompted him to think on a much deeper level not just about the meaning of the Holocaust but about the meaning of Jewishness:

There are times when a flawed piece of writing is more valuable than a “correct” one – honest confusions, incomplete strivings can stimulate others to think better. So it was with Sartre’s little book. Decades later it is easy enough to spot its errors, but at the tie time the book came out, it was tremendously stimulating. (254)

Howe begins his commentary by going straight to Sartre’s definition of a Jew, a definition that Howe will take as the main point of his criticism:

“The Jew” – an abstraction he could not avoid – is defined by Sartre by his “situation.” This “situation” is an ensemble of conditions and environments signifying both the relentless pressures of the anti-Semite and the tepid defenses of the democrat who is prepared to defend the Jew but not as a Jew, only as abstract “man.” A Jew, writes Sartre, “is anyone who for any reason calls himself such or is called such in any community whose practices take note of the distinction.” Yet, despite the persistence of this “distinction” Sartre comes to the odd conclusion that the Jews “have no history. What creates the Jew so to speak, and enables his twisted precarious survival, is the all-but-universal enmity he incurs. (254)

What bother’s Howe most in Sartre’s claim that Jews don’t have a history. By saying that a Jew is a Jew by virtue of this or that “situation” is, for Howe, a bad reading that must be exposed.   Sartre’s book suffers from “an extreme ahistoricity. It reduced both the Jew and the anti-Semite to bloodless, timeless essences, and failed to ask what might be the origin of anti-Semitism or, still more important, the reasons for its persistence”(255).

And this failure to grasp the Jew and to reduce the Jew to something ahistorical is something that Howe associates with a Marxist framework: “Sartre’s conclusion, so lame after his analytic fireworks, came to little more than a version of the Marxist notion that anti-Semtisim is the consequence, or index, of the social wrongs of capitalist society, and that with socialism this blight would wither away”(255).

Howe takes Sartre’s logic to its Marxist conclusion by suggesting that, in Sartre’s view, since Jews had no “history” or “community of interest,” and once they were “n longer plagued by pathological enemies,” they would then “freely dissolve themselves into the encasing classless society”(255). Howe sarcastically notes that Sartre can’t imagine the possibility of “Frenchmen becoming Jews”(255). This would turn Sartre’s scenario “upside down.”

What Sartre failed to see, according to Howe, is the fact that one “could locate” the “situation” of the Jews in a “traditional essence.” Sartre saw the Jews as merely an effect of a situation and a people without history or freedom: “He did not see it sufficiently as a persistent choosing of identity, a heroic self-assertion”(255).

This failure is what prompts Howe to undertake his query into the relationship of Jewish identity to history, tradition, and agency.


…to be continued….


Irving Howe’s Recollections of Hannah Arendt


Irving Howe and Hannah Arendt both published important essays in The Partisan Review.   Howe published and edited the important 1953 issue of The Partisan Review where he included Saul Bellow’s monumental translation of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” and an important introduction on Jewishness. Arendt published essays at The Partisan Review on philosophy, literature, and politics such as “Franz Kafka, a Reevaluation,” (1944), “What is Existenz philosophy?” (1946), “The Concentration Camps”(1948), and “The Cold War and the West”(1962).

Howe first met Arendt when she was the editor of Schocken Books.   Howe’s recollection of their meeting and his description of Arendt in his wonderful book, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography, are worth recounting as they give us something of an intellectual portrait and show us that Howe was impressed by her presence. Howe situates her in a chapter entitled “Jewish Quandries.” What’s most interesting about this placement is the fact that he discusses his literary project in Yiddish literature side-by-side with his meetings and encounters with Arendt. In her, he saw something of a secular Jewishness that he felt had died in Europe. He calls it an “idea” that he loved but, in reality, couldn’t make real because such Jewish secularism (attempted, he believed, by the movement of Yiddish theater and literature in the lower east side) was “decaying.”

Howe tells us that when he first met her, Arendt was looking for someone to do “literary chores (copy for book jackets, cleaning up translations, and so forth), and for the handy sum of $150 a month”(270).   Howe was her man. And he notes that though the pay was low, it “came with the privilege of visiting Hannah at her office every week”(270). At the time, she was not well-known because she hadn’t published On Totalitarianism, but “everyone in the intellectual world respected her and some feared her”(270).

With a little dismay, Howe notes that even though Arendt “loved to ‘adopt’ people,” he was not one of the chosen”(270). He muses that he wasn’t “perhaps because I was deaf to philosophy, or had been contaminated by Marxism, or was visibly intent upon resisting her intellectual lures”(270).

But Howe notes that there was one thing she would love to discuss with him “Kafka and Brecht,” on the one hand, and “Yiddish folk tales and American politics” on the other. The confluence of the two is telling because they touch on things that meant a lot to Howe in his work on the schlemiel, Yiddish literature, modernist literature, and politics.

Howe’s description of Arendt is, in many ways, literary.  Arendt had, for him, a kind of theatrical quality.

He notes that, although she was “far from ‘good looking’ in any commonplace way,” she was a “remarkably attractive person, with her razored gestures, imperial eye, dangling cigarette. ‘Szee here,’ she would declare with a smile meant both to subdue and to solace, and then she’d race off into one of her improvisations”(270).

“Mere Americans,” says Howe, were “dazzled by the immensities of German philosophy” she knew. But Howe notes that what really dazzled them was not her “thought” so much as the “style of her thinking”(270). His description of her style is worth noting, at length, because he’s trying to translate it into literature. She fills the rooms she dwells in with the “largeness of her will” and is “larger than her setting.”

She brissled with intellectual charm, as if to reduce everyone to an alert discipleship. Her voice would shift register abruptly, now stern and admonitory, now slyly tender with gossip. Whatever room she was in Hannah filled through the largeness of her will; indeed, she always seemed larger than her setting. Rarely have I met a writer with so acute an awareness of the power to overwhelm. (270)

But something was missing in this performance. He couldn’t quite grasp its “substance”:

Even while appreciating her performance, I often failed to grasp its substance.

Howe, nonetheless, tells his reader that he did learn something from his discussion with her about politics: “that politics has to be scrutinized in its own right and not just as an index of social conflict”(271).

But while she had command over thought and politics and a style that he emulated, Howe noticed that when it came to Jewishness Arendt’s attitudes were “hopelessly mixed.” And this had to do with her “hostility toward established Jewish institutions, especially Zionist ones.”

Hannah’s attitudes toward modern Jewish life, her feelings toward the Jews as they actually lived in all their frailty and imperfection, were hopelessly mixed. (271)

Howe notes how the book on Eichmann and all the attendant criticism deeply affected her. And in his reflections on her book, Howe takes the side of Norman Podhoretz who “saw Arendt’s book – rightly, I think – as an instance of that deep impulse among some Jews, especially intellectual ones, to make ‘inordinate demands…that the Jews be better than other people…braver, wiser, nobler, more dignified….But the truth is – must be – that Jews under Hitler acted as men will act when they are set upon by murderers”(275).

He notes that “such controversies will never be settled” and describes, in a sad manner, his last encounter with Arendt. At a party they shook hands, and she sharply took it away as she “turned on her heel and walked off.” The gesture was like a “wound” that remained with him:

It was the most skillful cut I have ever seen or received, and I was wounded quite as keenly as she wanted me to be. (275)

Arendt left him with a wound. And perhaps this marked his wounded sense of Jewishness as the chapter goes on to articulate.

…to be continued….



A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

I will be giving a talk today at the New School on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel.  This talk is based on the book I am currently writing on the schlemiel.

If you are in NYC or in the vicinity, drop in.

Here’s the abstract:

Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin were both interested in the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel. We have evidence of this interest by way of essays, letters, and notes on this character. Most of their discussions happened while they were both in Paris before WWII.   Their readings of the schlemiel are antithetical and when read against each other we can see what, for them, is at stake with this character. The figure that they most differed on was Franz Kafka. Walter Benjamin’s letters to Gershom Scholem clearly demonstrate that he was at his wits end about the relationship of theology, aesthetics, and politics in Kafka’s novels, short stories, and diaries. Although Benjamin published the first part of his essay on Kafka two years after beginning his project, the other parts of the essay troubled him for over five years. Benjamin’s goal was stated in a letter to Scholem dated October 17, 1934. There, Benjamin uses the metaphor of the bow to describe why he had such difficulty “The image of the bow suggests why: I am confronted with two ends at once, the political and the mystical.” After making many attempts to maintain this tension, Benjamin simply admitted to failure (as is evident in two letters to Scholem and Adorno). Nonetheless, I would like to argue that Arendt succeeded where Benjamin failed since he gave only a mystical reading while she gave a political reading of the schlemiel. But, in the end, her reading is also marred by a failure to understand this character in an American context and it fails to understand certain aspects of the schlemiel that have an after-life. The schlemiel offers a new way of reading their work and understanding how comedy informed their understanding of politics, mysticism, and Jewishness.  

Walter Benjamin’s “Dream Kitsch”


Like Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, from time to time, wrote in very small script.   According to the editors of the Walter Benjamin Archive, Benjamin’s “miniaturized script is reminiscent of Robert Walser’s ‘pencil system’, which he used to help him write”(50). But unlike Walser, who “learnt to ‘play and poeticize’, in the small and smallest details, attempting to unlock the open space of childish light-heartedness, so as to allow script and language to flow, for Benjamin it is a matter of ‘placing’ the script, the composition of thoughts.”   For this reason, the editors argue that Benjamin wasn’t looking, like Walser for a “childhood re-attained and imitated, but rather a product of adult reflection and concentration.” I find this reading telling because it suggests that Benjamin had no interest in becoming childlike when he wrote. For the editors, his writing experiments were not really experiments in becoming-child so much as being-an-adult.

One interesting case of this contrast is a reflection that Benjamin entitled “Dream Kitsch: a Short Consideration of Surrealists.” The editors point out that Benjamin wrote this in 1925 and had originally wanted to publish it; however, he decided against it because he thought it was “too difficult”(51). What I find so interesting about this piece of writing is the fact that Benjamin’s reflection on the nature of dreams and their power leads him into a reflection on failure. This is important insofar as the schlemiel is what Heinrich Heine and Hannah Arendt call the “lord of dreams.” Heine, according to Arendt, saw these dreams as a form of defense against the deluded nature of the parvenu. For her, the lord of dreams is successful in the sense that, as a pariah, he is free. But what she doesn’t point out is that, in reality, he fails because he can’t be in the world. To be sure, this is implied by her reading of the schlemiel in “The Jew as Pariah.”

Benjamin’s reading of dreams in “Dream Kitsch” incorporates the “Lord of Dreams” and the awareness that the dream decays and fails. The dream, like the schlemiel, also finds it’s limit in history.   After all, some dreams come true; others don’t.  However, as the piece goes on, the sense of failure and decay diminishes…and the fascination with the dream and its meaning takes over.

Benjamin begins with a sense of loss: “No one dreams any longer of the Blue Flower”(65).   But this doesn’t mean dreaming isn’t or hasn’t been powerful:

Dreaming has a share of history. The statistics on dreaming would stretch beyond the pleasures of the anecdotal landscape into the barrenness of the battlefield. Dreams have started wars, and wars….have determined the propriety and impropriety – indeed, the range – of dreams. (65)

After making this reflection on dreams and war, Benjamin returns to his dirge that dreams are no longer the same: “No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon. The dream has gone gray….Dreams are now a shortcut to banality.”

Benjamin surmises that technology and capitalism have altered our dreams. He notes that we see this even with children who no longer “clasp” things as “snatch” them.   Now “the side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.” In other words, the dreams we have are given to us by way of the kitsch of capitalism.   But Benjamin doesn’t look at how it touches adults so much as how, as we see above, children.

Benjamin turns to dream kitsch and children by way of the surrealist Max Ernst. In one piece he has “drawn four small boys”:

They turn their backs to the reader, to their teacher and his desk as well, and look out over the balustrade where a balloon hangs in the air. A giant pencil rests its point in the windowsill. The repetition of childhood experience gives us pause: when we were little, there was yet no agonized protest against the world of our parents. As children in the midst of that world, we showed ourselves superior. (65)

The repetition of the childhood in the dream should “give us pause” because there wasn’t any protest. Something has changed that the children do not want to learn. To be sure, this suggests a turning away from tradition. The theme of rebelling children is one we also find in Benjamin’s essay on Kafka.   In that essay, a problem is presented: the gap between the tradition and the “messengers.”

Benjamin’s mediation on this gap leads him to mediate on parents and the kitsch love they gave “us.”

For the sentimentality of our parents, so often distilled, is good for providing the most objective image of our feelings. The long-windedness of their speeches, bitter as gall, has the effect of reducing us to a crimpled picture puzzle…Within is heartfelt sympathy, is love, is kitsch.

In other words, within all of the kitsch is love. But this love is, as he notes, “misunderstood.” To be sure, Benjamin praises misunderstanding as something than comes from the outside, from life, into our lives:

“Misunderstanding” is here another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood. (65)

Misunderstanding, in other words, is reality breaking in. However, the misunderstood man is a failure. Regardless, for Benjamin, this puzzle, which he is working through, is all just “dream kitsch.”   This kind of “dream kitsch” reminds me of what we find in David Grossman’s See: Under Love. As I pointed out in a recent blog entry, the main character of Grossman’s novel is a boy-schlemiel who is puzzling through his misunderstanding of the Holocaust. What happens “over there” breaks into conversation that Momik overhears. And out of what he gathers from different conversations, he creates a puzzle that he tries to solve.

To be sure, Benjamin, like Momik and David Grossman, is trying to work through all of his dream kitsch. And in the end, this work of interpretation tilts more toward hope than failure. In the end, Benjamin is more inspired than pained by “dream kitsch.”

On Hannah Arendt’s Reading of Rahel Varnhagen and the Schlemiel – Take One


Schlemiel Theory has published several posts on Hannah Arendt and her reading of the schlemiel in her celebrated essay “The Jew as Pariah.” As I pointed out in many of my readings, Arendt believed that the schlemiel had, for a certain time during modernity, a necessity. But, as she argues (and many critics overlook), she looked to leave the schlemiel-pariah behind. She found its worldlessness to be problematic and wished, instead (as she claimed Kafka did), that she could leave worldessness (and the schlemiel, its key figure) behind so that she could live a “normal” life. (In my book, I will be outlining the reasons for the use of the word normal which, to be sure, has less to do with what we post-post-moderns think of today as “normal” as what Zionists thought of as “normal.”) The schlemiel, in her view, was worldless and exceptional. And, as I pointed out, the schlemiel would fail what I would call Arendt’s Greek identity test; namely, the one we find in The Human Condition. The criteria for passing this test is contingent on whether one has a world to “act” in or not.   And the schlemiel, for Arendt, does not. Ergo, the schlemiel is and, in Arendt’s book, always will remain a failure of sorts.

But, as I point out in several entries, being a failure before the Holocaust is one thing – since that would be a good thing for Arendt, for Heine, the beginning of her “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel, is a pariah who, in being a “lord of dreams,” rebels against society and the parvenu. Once one can be considered as an equal, for Arendt this time period is hazy, one can leave the last of the schlemiels – for Arendt, Charlie Chaplin – behind for superman (literally).

In response to a recent post by Zachary Breiterman on his blog Jewish Philosophy Place regarding Arendt’s treatment of Rahel Varnhagen – in her first published book, Rahel Varhagen: The Life of a Jewess, I would argue that Arendt’s first attempt at reading the schlemiel was based on her reading of Varnhagen in this book. This reading, unlike the reading she would make when she landed in America, is very negative. To be sure, Arendt was confused about Varnhagen. In her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” she lists Heinrich Heine as the beginning of the Schlemiel tradition. She doesn’t mention Varnhagen in that essay. However, in her essay “We Refugees,” written a year earlier than “The Jew as Pariah,” Arendt includes Varnhagen in her “hidden tradition.” There, she argues that Varhagen was a part of this “other” tradition:

Modern Jewish history, having started with court Jews and continuing with the Jewish millionaires and philanthropists, is apt to forget about this other thread of Jewish tradition – the tradition of Heine, Rahel Varnhagen, Sholem Aleichem (who isn’t in her “Jew as Pariah” essay, either), of Bernard Lazare, Franz Kafka, or even Charlie Chaplin (who she considers that end of the “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel). It is the tradition of the minority of Jews who have not wanted to become upstarts, who preferred the status of “conscious pariah.” (274, The Jewish Writings)

Compared to what she writes in her Varnhagen book, these words are very kind. I will limit myself to a few quotations to prove my point. (This blog entry, therefore, is preliminary and will be followed up with more entries. But the deeper treatment will be found in my book.)

Arendt argues that Varnhagen’s life was “bound up” with a feeling that she was “inferior” because she was Jewish and emerged out of the ghetto.   Her Jewishness was a mark of this shame. Arendt translates Varnhagen’s attitude toward her Jewishness when she writes: “Naturally one was not going to cling to Judaism – why should one, since the whole of Jewish history and tradition was now revealed to be a sordid product of the ghetto”(89).

Following this, Arendt inserts her own theory of about the world and worldless to argue that Varnhagen, as a schlemiel, had to do all she could to deny (or is it negate?) the world because the world reminded her that she was inferior (that is a Jew who had emerged out of the ghetto). For this reason, Varnhagen denies the things that Arendt values most – action, love, and the world – in the name of “thinking”:

Rahel’s life was bound by this inferiority, by her “infamous birth,” from youth on up. Everything that followed was only confirmation, “bleeding to death.” Therefore she must avoid everything that might give rise to further confirmation, must not act, not love, not become involved in the world. Given such absolute renunciation, all that seemed left was thought. (89)

Arendt argues that Varnhagen’s turn to thought was based on a delusion that it would save her.  Varnhagen, according to Arendt, misunderstood the words of Lessing who called for “self-thinking.” She made a bifurcation between thought and the world and ultimately saw herself as free in the world of thought but a Jew in reality.   Arendt tells us that Varnhagen refused to accept the reality that she was really a schlemiel; that is, the real odd one out:

Thinking amounted to an enlightened kind of magic which could substitute for, evoke and predict experience, the world, people, society. The power of reason lent posited possibilities a tinge of reality, breathed a kind of illusory life into rational desires, fended off ungraspable actuality and refused to recognize it. The twenty year old Rahel wrote: “I shall never be convinced that I am a Shlemihl and a Jewess; since all these years and after so much thinking about it, it has not dawned upon me, I shall never grasp it”(89).

Compared to Heine and Chaplin, as characterized by Arendt in her “Jew as Pariah” essay, Varnhagen is the worst kind of schlemiel. Her worldlessness is an act of denial.   Arendt says that she denies that she is a schlemiel when she really is one. Only a schlemiel, in this instance, would negate the world in the name of what Arendt calls a “foundation for cultivated ignoramuses.” Arendt snidely notes that “self-thinking” is good, but not in Varnhagen’s hands: “Self-thinking can no longer be rubbed raw with any contact with actuality…Self-thinking in this sense provides a foundation for cultivated ignoramuses”(90).

Liliane Weissberg, who edited and translated Arendt’s Varnhagen book into English, correctly notes – in her introduction – that Arendt is concerned with Varnhagen’s assimilation (50). But Weissberg doesn’t note the extent to which Arendt judges Varnhagen for this offense. To be sure, Arendt wittily compares Varnhagen, a Jewish Don Quixote of sorts, to the real Don Quixote. (Note that the first Yiddish novel with a schlemiel or rather schlemiels as its main characters – The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim – was based, in major part, on Don Quixote).   Arendt writes that there is a fundamental difference between Don Quixote and this German-Jewish schlemiel:

As long as Don Quixote continues to ride forth to conjure a possible, imagined, illusory world out of the real one, he is only the fool, and perhaps a happy fool, perhaps even a noble fool when he undertakes to conjure up within the real world a definite world.   But if without a definite ideal, without aiming at a definite imaginary revision of the world, he attempts only to transfer himself into some sort of empty possibility which he might be, he becomes merely a “foolish dreamer.” (93)

By calling Varnhagen a “foolish dreamer,” rather than a “fool” (like Don Quixote) Arendt is suggesting that the schlemiel is worse off than the fool since he has no “ideal” and does not aim at a “definite imaginary revision of the world.” This is a fascinating turn since, a few years later and in a different continent, Arendt calls Heinrich Heine a “lord of dreams.” However, that phrase, in contrast to “foolish dreamer,” has a positive valence for Arendt.

To be sure, it seems that Arendt made a distinction between good and bad schlemiels based on whether they had an “ideal” or an “imaginary revision of the world.” Unfortunately, Arendt never made this explicit in her work on the schlemiel. One can only find this, as I have, by comparing and contrasting one version of the schlemiel to the other.

…to be continued….