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

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

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

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

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

Schlemiel:  Oy! Look what I did!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Aggressive Comedy, Souvenirs, And Prehistoric Schlemiels

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Spleen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baudelaire and Benjamin: The Madness of Humility or the Madness of Humiliation?

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Comedy often deals with power and powerlessness.  But as Baudelaire understands it, power usually has the upper hand.  For Baudelaire, comedy brings out the Satanic, powerful side of man, not the powerless and humble aspects.  It doesn’t return us to innocence.

Even though it has elements of “innocence” and although it is guided by the “law of ignorance,” the Absolute Comic is not a return to childhood in the full sense.  It retains the Satanic element since the Absolute Comic still nods to the superiority of the viewer\reader and man`s superiority over nature:

I would say that when Hoffmann gives birth to the absolute comic it is perfectly true that he knows what he is doing; but he also knows that the essence of this type of the comic is that it should appear unaware of itself and that it should produce in the spectator, or rather the reader, a joy in his own superiority and in the superiority of man over nature(165).

Notice that the Absolute Comic is innocent (“unaware of itself”) AND it produces a joy in the viewer’s “own superiority” and in the “superiority of man over nature.”

It retains this duality.

But, as we pointed out in our previous blog entry, this superiority is tainted.  It is a kind of madness.  In fact, as I pointed out, Baudelaire sees the insane as expressing the essence of this comic superiority.

The madness of the Absolute comic, as Baudelaire understands it, is different from what he calls the “madness of humility.”   Baudelaire associates the madness of humility with the “wise” who see the superiority of the comic as “inferior.”

Laughter is a sign of inferiority in relation to the wise, who, throughout the contemplative innocence of their minds, approach a childhood state.

It seems as if there are not only two kinds of madness but also two types of children: the humble and the satanic.  One is mad for God while the other is mad for itself and its superiority.

Which child does Baudelaire favor?  Which madness is superior? The madness of humility or the madness of the comic?  More importantly, why doesn’t Baudelaire, like Dostoevsky or Benjamin, imagine a holy fool?  After all, isn’t a holy fool humble, unconscious of himself, innocent, and funny?

How would Benjamin address these questions?   And when he talks about “Satanic Serenity” was Benjamin imagining a happy state that comes out of the Absolute Comic?  Was he siding with the madness of the comic over the madness of humility?  Could we call the “joy” that the viewers-slash-readers of the Absolute Comic feel when watching the Absolute Comic “Satanic Serenity?”  And how is this serenity different from the serenity that emerges from the madness of humility?

These questions present a problem: if Benjamin was so into the “return to childhood,” which we saw in his reading of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, wouldn’t he aim for the serenity of the wise man?  After all, wasn`t Dostoevsky leaning more toward the madness of humility in his novel?  Would he stand on the side of the wise man, who would see the smile, and especially the satanic smile (like the laugh), as “inferior?”  Or would Benjamin argue that the only way to attain happiness is, as Baudelaire might say, through the Absolute Comic?

If this is the case, then, one may only attain to partial childhood but not full. The madness of humility no longer seems to be an option for modernity.  Violence seems to be more akin.   To be sure, the Absolute Comic evinces a delight in the destruction of innocence and delights in the excesses of play: as we see in Baudelaire’s portrayals of the mime and in his reading ETA Hoffman’s story in which a girl is shocked when she realizes that her image of order and beauty are false.  In fact, the negation of her childish superiority (the superiority of her ideas and military order) is the basis, according to Baudelaire, of the audience`s joy at its superiority.  They – the audience – and not she – the comic character – are the masters of ignorance and are superior over nature.  They are mad with superiority, yet in a way that is not ignorant.

To be sure, though the madness of humility is not an option for modern man, and although Baudelaire gives the madness of the comic center stage, he does mention the “madness of humility.”  Moreover, Baudelaire notes that wise men, “throughout the contemplative innocence of their minds, approach childhood.”  He acknowledges different levels of innocence and the challenge to comedy made by the wise; nonetheless, he doesn`t pronounce either in a definitive manner.

I think Benjamin knew full well what was at stake in this comparison.  And he ventured where Baudelaire did not.  In his reflections on the Goethe Dream and on the Shuvalkin parable, Benjamin was engaging in the madness of humility and not simply in the madness of the comic.

True, he sees himself as double: as a man and a child.  But did Benjamin see himself as superior as Baudelaire suggests of every reader or viewer of the Absolute Comic? Did Benjamin feel a “Satanic Serenity” when he saw himself as a man and a child; that is, when he discovered the meaning of the Goethe dream and when he penned the Shuvalkin parable?  And wouldn`t Satanic Serenity imply an experience of comic superiority?

I would like to suggest that Benjamin didn`t feel comic superiority so much as a certain kind of powerlessness and astonishment when he looked at himself as a schlemiel.  We also hear this in Benjamin’s claim about Kafka: that “the beauty of his work was the beauty of failure.” This comment evinces a sense of inferiority not superiority.  In fact, Benjamin didn’t seem to take joy in this joke.  This is in contrast to Baudelaire, who notes that joy goes hand-in-hand with the feeling of Comic Superiority. To be sure, I can’t imagine anything close to Satanic in this reflection. The same goes for his reflection on himself in the “Vestibule” aphorism.  In fact, this destiny, to be marked as a child in Goethe’s house, is disheartening.  More disheartening is the fact that he is the subject of a prank.

I would suggest that this experience leans more toward the “madness of humility” or rather the madness of humilation.  Unless, that is, Benjamin would smile (satanically) at his misfortune.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What “emanates” from the comic explosion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all started with Menachem Kipnis, one of the first journalists to report on the Schlemiel

I’m reposting this piece, which I saw on facebook on a page called der Shtetl.  It should certainly be mentioned and reflected on in Schlemiel-in-Theory.  The  piece – cited in full below – begins by mentioning Yiddish writer Menachem Kipnis who loved to write schlemiel stories.  He ventured a daring (fictional) proposition: he wrote a series of stories ‘as if’ he were a journalist “reporting from Chelm,” telling, humorously, of its characters, their daily rhythms, and the town’s foolish happenings.

The obvious question and the comic conceit of the Kipnis’s venture is: How could a journalist remain objective in Chelm?  Isn’t it the case that a reporter’s job is to ‘cover’ reality not fiction?  But this evokes another question.  Are there “real” schlemiels who exist in reality and not Chelm?  The answer is yes.  However, the city of Chelm – although a real place and a fictional place in Poland – is ultimately fictional KINDERLAND.

The last lines of this piece hit on what I’ve been discussing in the last blog: the smile.  Remember how Walter Benjamin, drawing on Baudelaire, points out that even the smile is “Satanic.”  Can we say that about Chelm?  When we innocently contemplate such a place like Chelm, will we smile with what Benjamin calls a “Satanic Serenity?”

I would expect a Satanic smile if I said I was reporting on hell. But on Chelm?

Now, can we imagine what would happen if I, like Professor Ruth Bernuth (who also does research on the schlemiel and is mentioned below in this article and in this quote), were to tell people, today,  that “I’m working on the schlemiel?”

Professor Bernuth notes how “when I meet people, especially elderly people, and tell them I’m working on Chelm,” she said, “they smile.”

This addition “especially elderly people,” denotes the fact that they knew of Chelm and we do not – well, only some of us do.

Let’s narrow this down.  The Chelm reporter, Menachem Kipnis, taught his readers that Chelm is on the one side, and the world on the other.

But Kipnis wrote before the Holocaust.   As this article below notes, Chelm and the world tragically collide during the Holocaust. Many of the people who identified with Chelm and called themselves “Chelmers” were, as the article notes, killed in the Holocaust. If anything, this puts a horrific and Satanic-slash-historical twist to the Chelm story.

Nathan Englander, a contemporary Jewish-American author, takes this historical shift as a main focus in his short story, “The Tumblers.” But in his story, the Chelmers survive the Nazis by acting “as if” they are clowns and not Jews – they act as if they are Jews. And this is the tragic irony. But perhaps Englander is telling us that the greater tragic irony is the historical one in which Chelmers died a real death during the Holocaust.

(Here’s an essay I co-authored and published which addresses Englander and the post-Holocaust Schlemiel: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/modern_fiction_studies/v054/54.1feuer.html)

Nonetheless, there is an enigma for us to ponder.  After the end of the schlemiel in Europe, it lives on here in this blog and in Nathan Englander’s story, in Woody Allen’s films, in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in Sasha Baron Cohen, Ben Stiller, etc and has virtually become a “cultural icon,” as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi says, in America. What does this mean? Does this represent, as Ezrahi claims, a failure to mourn or does its “after-life” represent something else? Does the American schlemiel have a, so to speak, different, mission?

And can I, a latter day Menachem Kipnis, still report from Chelm? Can there still be a schlemiel reporter after the Chlemites were killed in the Holocaust?

Schlemiel-in-theory contends that there can be. It contends that Chelmers can still exist and can still be reported on.  This blog post and this writer – who shares the same first name as Menachem Kipnis, the first schlemiel reporter – take on the task of sharing the news and mourning the passing of the European Schlemiel in the Holocaust.

(Note: in Hebrew the name Menachem is associated with the comfort that is offered to those who mourn.)

313311_438283439585119_484591086_nWarsaw, 1926:
By the turn of the 20th century, what originated with a collection of German stories in 1597 had become the literary canon known as Chelm.

In the 1920s, the Yiddish writer Menachem Kipnis wrote a series of humorous articles in the Warsaw newspaper Haynt in which he identified himself as a journalist reporting from Chelm. These dispatches were so popular that a mother from the real Chelm is said to have written the paper begging it to stop printing them — she was afraid she would never be able to marry off her daughter.

This anecdote might be just another Chelm story. But von Bernuth did notice that as the stories gained in popularity people stopped referring to themselves in print as “Chelmers.” Chelm was no longer just the name of a town — it was a joke, one that somehow remained funny even after hundreds of Chelm’s real Jews were marched out of the town and shot by German troops in late 1939 and thousands of others were sent to the death camp at Sobibor.

“In addition to the already mentioned Hersh Welczer, whose widow and his orphans later escaped from Chelm to Wolyn,” reads a description of the events of 1939 in a memorial book later published by survivors, “the following popular Chelm Jews were shot during the slaughter: Dr. Oks, the photographer, Rozenblat, the three Lewensztajn brothers — rich iron merchants, Gamulke, a former lieutenant in the Polish military and Itshe Sznicer, owner of the perfumery.

“Their dead bodies were then handed over to their orphaned families by the peasants who knew them,” the account tells us, and the rest were buried together, 50 to a grave.

It became clear long before that war that the world of the Chelm stories was disappearing, and their role changed — they became less a living culture’s joke about itself than a wry love letter to an endangered species.

The stories might have survived when so much else of Yiddish culture was lost because “their absurd, humorous logic gave them a certain life,” said Yechiel Szeintuch, a Yiddish professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Though interest in Yiddish culture is increasing worldwide and new Yiddish departments are opening up in places like Lund, Sweden, Hebrew University shut its own department down in 2008. Szeintuch calls this “a modern-day Chelm story.”)

Over time, Chelm became popularly seen as one of the purest expressions of Jewish folk traditions from Europe. For German scholars before WWII, on the other hand, the Yiddish stories were derided as foreign corruptions of the original Schildburg fables.

In fact, von Bernuth said, the only way to understand Chelm is as the joint creation of different people who lived in the same place and listened to their neighbors’ stories.

“These stories are one of the most interesting examples of how German and Yiddish culture influenced one another,” she said. “It shows how intertwined they were.”

“To tell the story of Chelm, you need to know about German culture and German literature. Otherwise it’s rootless,” she said.

Von Bernuth is used to raised eyebrows from scholars who hear how she spends her time — “Some of them think I’m crazy,” she said. But there are advantages.

“When I meet people, especially elderly people, and tell them I’m working on Chelm,” she said, “they smile.”
Photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin’s, ‘Khakhme Khelm,’ Warsaw, 1926

The S(c)h(l)ock of Walter Benjamin’s Discovery

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There is nothing like the shock of discovery.  The moment of recognition is transformational.   In Greek, the word for recognition is anagoresis.  In Greek anagnōrisis comes from the word anagnōrizein to recognize.  The root of this word comes from ana- + gnōrizein to make known.  Webster’s dictionary goes on to point out that it is akin to Greek gnōrimos, meaning, well-known and the word gignōskein to come to know.

Anagoresis happens in Greek tragedy when the main character learns who he or she really is and/or who other people really are.  Usually, this knowledge is tragic.  One need only think of Oedipus in Sophocles’ famous play Oedipus Rex who, when he discovers who he is and who his real mother and father are, has a breakdown.   This tragic knowledge culminates with Oedipus poking his eyes out.

But anagoresis doesn’t always have to be tragic.  In fact, it can be comic.

In yesterday’s blog, I located the moment of Benjamin’s self-discovery in his aphorism entitled “Vestibule.”  In this aphorism, Benjamin writes of a dream he had about being in Goethe’s house.  When he is asked by the “curator” to write his name in Goethe’s guestbook, he discovers that his name is not only already written but that it is also written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  In other words, Benjamin has a comic self-discovery.  He learns that his name, his essence, is childishly written.  And it is not he that has written it this way; someone else, some Other, has written his name in this childish manner.  To be sure, although this is comic; it is also tragic.  It’s as if, someone, some Other, has played a prank on him.

This discovery is astonishing.  But what does it mean?  Yesterday, I suggested that this is Benjamin’s discovery that he is a man-child.   More to the point, he discovers that he has been, prankishly, written into Goethe’s guest book (that is, the book of German letters) as a schlemiel (a man-child).

To be sure, Benjamin took names quite seriously.  And this discovery of his already written name, albeit in a dream, was revelatory.  In his essay “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” Benjamin makes this explicit: “In naming, the mental being of man communicates itself to God”(318, Reflections).

Naming is, for Benjamin, a direct form of communication between God and Man.  It is, without a doubt, revelatory.

Naming, in the realm of language, has as its sole purpose and its incomparably high meaning that it is the innermost nature of language itself.  Naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated, and in which language itself communicates itself absolutely. (ibid)

But does Benjamin discover the essence of language in his dream or does he discover himself?  What does he discover?  Moreover, in this dream, Benjamin does not write.  He doesn’t, in this sense, communicate with God by way of naming.  To be sure, it seems to be the other way around.

Moreover, the “Vestibule” aphorism complicates Benjamin’s claim in “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” that “Man is the namer, by this we recognize that through him pure language speaks.”

Benjamin’s mention of “pure language” is quite fascinating.  It further complicates things.  Gershom Scholem, in a chapter of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism entitled “Merkabah Mysticism and Jewish Gnosticism” helps us to clarify what is at stake with such language.

In his discussion on ancient Kabbalistic liturgy, Scholem notes that the words of these Kabbalistic prayers to God, which can be found in prayers books today, are the “pure word.”  According to Scholem, they are pure words because they don’t mean anything; they don’t have any content.  Moreover, the “ascent of the words has not yet substituted itself for the ascent of the soul and of the devotee himself.  The pure word, the as yet unbroken summons stands for itself; it signifies nothing but what it expresses.”

The pure word is a word of man to God.  For Scholem, it is purely relational and bears no content.  It has a lot in common with what Benjamin calls naming.

However, in Benjamin’s aphorism, his name is already written.  Is it “pure?”  Is Benjamin pointing out a comic relationship with God?

The irony of all this is that Benjamin, in this aphorism, is recording what was already written; namely, Benjamin’s name in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  He is not, like Adam in his essay, naming.  He is recording what is written.

This is the prophetic mode or recording and not simply the mode of naming because, as Benjamin well knew by way of his friend Gershom Scholem, the Jewish tradition says that Moses wrote the Torah down after being told, word by word, what to write.

As the Medieval Rabbi, Scholar, and Philosopher Moses Maimonides points out, Moses’ prophesy, which is law, is communicated in this way of recording.  (And it is different from other prophets insofar as they, mainly, rebuke the people or prompt them to “return” to God.  Or, as Martin Buber might say, the prophets alert the people to the “demand of the hour.”)

Benjamin seems to be giving this prophetic legacy a comic twist.  In Benjamin’s aphorism, he is recording the name he saw in a dream: his name, childishly, that is, comically written.

Benjamin is not naming so much as being named (or renamed).  But this name, which he can’t even write, although asked to do so, has been comically altered.  It suggests that Benjamin’s destiny (the law he falls under) is, so to speak, tied up with the schlemiel.  He cannot escape the joke that has been played on him: he realizes, in his moment of anagoresis, that his destiny is to accept his childishly written name.  His identity, his essence, is written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”

This is tragic and comic knowledge.  This is a tragic and a comic anagoresis.  It is the, so so speak, S(c)h(l)ock of discovery.  (Schlock means a stroke of bad luck or denotes something that is low grade and cheap; it often has a comic connotation.)  He realizes, that in Goethe’s house, in this house of the classicist, he is childish.  He is the subject of laughter.

But why is his name improper? Why is it his destiny to be a schlemiel in Goethe’s house?  Are there other reasons for this shameful recognition?  Is this or rather was this, perhaps, the destiny of all Jews (even the most modern) in Germany?  Are all of their names “childishly” written?  Are they the butt of a bad, Greek joke?  Or is it just Benjamin who suffers this fate?

Most importantly, who is the mysterious Other who wrote his name in this childish manner?  Who played the trick on Benjamin?  Was it God, a demon, or Goethe?

Regardless of the answer, Benjamin knew that his destiny, his name, was tied to the schlemiel.

But, based on his writing on the child, childhood, and the fool throughout his work, as we have seen in a few entries on this blog, it seems as if he didn’t seem to be angry or disturbed about this revelation.  He seems to have accepted it and to have made it into one of his passionate interests.

Like Woody Allen, Benjamin doesn’t seem to get angry about this revelation so much as perplexed.  He is shocked but…

(In our next blog entry, we will look, once again, at this discovery yet from the angle of another name that Benjamin discovered.)

KINDERLAND or Chelm?

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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?

The Destructive Element in Comedy (Take 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messianic Schlemiels and Messianic Activism: Bound to Failure

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In Yiddish literature, schlemiels are usually harmless.  The dreams that these Jewish fools live by spur them to be absent-minded. And, though they do collide with reality from time to time, these absent-minded dreams don’t harm it.  Rather, reality often harms the schlemiel.

The term Luftmensch, which means a person who “lives on air,” on dreams, is often associated with the schlemiel.  With her big ideas about how s/he is going to make a living, the schlemiel lives on air.  They often fail to realize their dreams in reality, but this doesn’t stop them from dreaming again.  Regardless, these types of schlemiels are characterized by their dreams and their failures.

But what happens when a schlemiel’s dreams collide with reality and force reality to conform to these dreams?

In an essay entitled “Toward an Understanding of a Messianic Idea,” Gershom Scholem argues that those who “press for the End” are bound to fail.

His wording is striking as it contrasts the “man of faith” to the Kabbalistic “activist.”  To understand his contrast, I’d like to suggest a distinction that is based on a standard understanding of the schlemiel.

In many of his stories, the Hasidic Rabbi, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, considers the man of faith to be simpleton and a schlemiel.  In his simple faith, he waits and prays for redemption.  He doesn’t push for the end.  His foolishness is a matter of perspective.  For the person who relies on his intellect and deeds to get him through life, the “man of faith” is a schlemiel.  But, for the reader of these Hasidic tales, it’s the other way around.  The real fool is the man who relies on his intellect and will power.

Gershom Scholem tells us that, for the “man of faith,” there is an “essential lack of relation between human history and the redemption.”  But, Scholem argues, this attitude was “again and again in danger of being overrun by the apocalyptic certainty that the End had begun and all that was still required was the call to ingathering.”

This “call,” so to speak, is read by Scholem as a call to action.  He calls it “messianic activism.”

“Even and again the revolutionary opinion that this attitude deserves to be overrun breaks through in the Messianic actions of individuals or entire movements.”

This “enticement to action…is inherent in this projection of the best in man upon his future.”

It would seem that this utopian and revolutionary action is contrary to the schlemiel.  But Scholem notes that “the enticement to Messianic action” is an “enticement that is bound to fail because no one is capable of such action.”

Scholem goes so far as to say that such action is so impossible “it must be done by magic, and it must fail for just this reason.”

To be sure, even though the Messianic activist has little interest in the schlemiel (that is, the man of faith), Scholem characterizes him, to be sure, as a luftmensch who will always fail “because no one is capable of such action.”

In other words, Scholem sees all secular humanists with utopian aspirations as schlemiels.  He sees their Utopian Kabbalist precursors, some who resorted to magic, also as schlemiels.

The actions of these dreamers, he notes, are dangerous. Once they fail, they can lead to nihilism on a large scale.

What can we learn about the schlemiel from Scholem’s characterizations of “messianic activism”?  If the schlemiel’s actions remain within the shtetl or within the space of fiction, they are harmless, but if they enter history, then the schlemiel’s actions are dangerous.

Even though Scholem never uses the word schlemiel to characterize the “messianic activist,” it should be clear, based on what we have said, that he would.

Entering history with a utopian dream, thinking that one can redeem it through their actions, will, for Scholem, always lead to failure.

The action, Scholem says, is impossible.  Nonetheless, it has been done not just by Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah who Scholem has written on extensively, it has also been done by political utopians (whether on the left of right such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and many many others whose messianic activism has, as Scholem might say, torn a hole in reality).

Scholem sees the origin of Modernity in this Messianic kind of activism, but this doesn’t mean he looks upon it in a positive way.  From his rhetoric, we can surmise that he might agree that there are schlemiels that dream of the messianic age and don’t do anything to bring it (the “men of faith” – schlemiel’s who don’t act) and there are schlemiel who act on their Messianic dreams and aspirations.

As we saw above, there is, for the man of faith, an “essential lack of relation between human history and redemption.”  While for the Messianic activist, there is.

And, lest we not forget, Scholem is speaking about Jews entering history.  He understood this movement to be dangerous as it was saturated with the aspirations of utopian schlemiel activists.

One wonders if Scholem would call the Israelis who took Israel in 1948 schlemiels. For on that day, they entered history and did, what he would think, is impossible.  But, as we see now, things are far from redeemed.  And, unfortunately, some damage has been done.  And nihilism is on the horizon.

This is wholly ironic because, as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi argues in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination, which we mentioned in our blog on Purim (https://schlemielintheory.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/here-in-america-everyday-is-purim/), Israeli’s have had little to no interest in the schlemiel.  “Israel is Real, “says Ezrahi; its not a dream (like America).  Nonetheless, the act that brought it into reality was utopian; it was the act of a schlemiel.

It was impossible.  Nonetheless, this should give us a lot to think about.  In America, in Europe, and around the world the “messianic activism” of at least one variety of schlemiel lives on.  And if we were to follow Scholem, we would see the danger that looms around their actions is the danger of nihilism.

Perhaps Scholem wanted to fare somewhere in the middle.  Somewhere between one schlemiel and another; for, as the main character Stephen Daedelus says in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”

Perhaps history is the dream, and all of the messianic activists on the stage of history are really schlemiels?  But, unlike Stephen Daedelus, the schlemiel usually doesn’t know she is dreaming.   And if you don’t know you’re dreaming, how can you awake from your dreams?

Ask the Great Dictator:

Reflecting on Comedy: Miriam Katz’s Comic-Art Project (Take 2)

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Miriam Katz is an art curator who has taken on the task of bringing comedy into the serious and overly academic artworld.  On March 19th 2011, she was the curator of a “showcase of experimental comedy” at MOMA P.S. 1.  As Martha Schwender of the The Village Voice points out in an article entitled “Have you Heard the One About the Art Scene Embracing Comedians?” Katz included comic performers such as Jon Glaser, David Hill, Jenny Slate, Reggie Watts, Maeve Higgins, and Rory Scovel in her art show.

Echoing Miriam Katz, Martha Schwender demurs on what happens when “comedians are being presented as artists?”  Will there be a collision?

What I found interesting about her article’s presentation of Katz’s project was its insistence on the link between trauma, comedy, and thoughtful reflection.

Schwender, citing Katz, notes that “comedy is much less safe than art.”  Literally and figuratively.  Apparently, there are more starving comedians than starving artists. Art has become too smug with itself and now “comedy is a model for artists who feel art has become to academic or safe.”  The world of comedy is a dangerous space and those who live in it take more risks that are typical of those who dwell in the artworld.

But here is the problem.   Comedy is unreflective and forgetful.  Citing Katz, Schwender writes: “Laugher obliterates the memory of what took place, so people don’t sit down and write a response, aside from ‘Check it out, its so awesome!”

This, Katz argues, is problematic.  Comedians are “hungry for critical feedback.”

In other words, comedians want us to think about comedy and share our thoughts with them.

At the end of this piece, Schwender, echoing Katz, gives her own reflection on comedy.  She notes that when comedians do well on stage they say that they “kill.”  This, I would add, is similar to the Borscht Belt expression of ‘knocking them dead.”  Or “blowing them away.”

What do they mean by such language?  Does the comedian have a violent and antagonistic relationship with her audience?

Schwender doesn’t give a direct answer.  Instead, she demonstrates that comedy is not all lightness and fun; death and mortality are themes in contemporary comedy: “(Andy) Kaufman talked about faking his own death…Zadie Smith..uses her own hapless father as an example of comedy triumphing over mortality: Her father “missed his own death” because he died in mid-sentence, “joking with his nurse.”

But does comedy really triumph over reality?  Is comedy redemptive?  Schwender seems to suggest as much here.  It takes us through the darkness and leads us to light.

Schwender ends the piece with a suggestion of hope; namely, a new era of art.  What Dada was to WWII, Katz’s new efforts will be to our current post-traumatic situation: “Our own art-comedy moment feels rooted in a similarly apocalyptic soil: wars, natural disasters, and nasty elections.  Four years ago, skulls were the leitmotifs in art, clustered in paintings or crushed with diamonds.  Now, laughter is taking over.”

But what does this mean?  Is Miriam Katz awakening us to a messianic-kind of Dadaist comic-epoch which has found its birth in 2011, in Manhattan?   And how do we “reflect” on this post-traumatic comic moment?  Do we find redemption in it? Does comedy, dark comedy of the Andy Kaufmann variety, offer redemption or catharsis?

In search of an answer, I went to hear from Katz herself.  I found an interview with Katz in BOMBLOG.  The interview took place recently and focuses on her new podcast project.  Since her exhibition, Katz created a website with monthly podcasts of comedians reflecting on their work: http://www.breakdownshow.com/about/

The website is called Breakdowns.  The name is apropos as it hints at an emotional breakdown and a reflective breakdown of the (comic) breakdown.  But, and here is the question, is reflection on comedic-slash-traumatic comedy redemptive?  Must all comedy, worth anything, be thought of in this way?

In her interview with Sam Korman in BOMBLOG, we get a better picture of her understanding of the relationship of comedy-slash-trauma and reflection.

http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/7063

Blogging on February 15th, Korman leads the way to the question of comedy and redemption when he associates Katz’s art project (and his own interview) with going into the depths of darkness by way of the comedian but, in the end, finding “our way back…redeemed.”  He suggests that his interview and her comic-art project are a mythic type of journey into and out of darkness.

When first asked why “comedy is so important,” Katz gives an answer that speaks to trauma and reflection.  She notes that comedy gives people relief, is critical and fun, and allows for “difficult truths to emerge.”

Her challenge to the artworld is to be critical “in a joyous way” instead of being too serious and academic.  And comedy makes this joyous type of criticism possible (which sounds much like what Friedrich Nietzsche called “Gay Science”).

But, toward the middle and end of the interview, Katz shifts and gives us a picture of comedy that is not redemptive.  First of all, she notes the position of the comedian to the audience is not a mutual catharsis.   Rather, “structurally we (the audience) are arbitrary.  The comic just wants the sounds coming from our bodies.”  All she wants is the audience to have a “bit more agency or influence.”  The little freedom she wants for “us” inheres in our “critical” response to comedy.  The act itself, however, harbors no agency.  Its just bodies responding in space to humor.

Korman is not satisfied with this kind of answer, so, later in the interview, he tries to bring in another philosophical angle.   He demurs that when one laughs at oneself, one becomes a listener.  This relation would be redemptive.

In response, Katz notes that this would be equivalent to standing outside of oneself and looking at oneself from a birds-eye-view: “That’s so weird and cool: making yourself laugh.  It forces you to ask, who’s that?”

For Katz, this seems to be a moment of ambivalence and self-alienation; not a moment of self-recognition.  It is traumatic.

What’s of more interest to her, it seems, is the relationship between the audience and the comedian: not what it means, but what happens.

(As Walter Benjamin once wrote in his Kafka essay, “attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  This attention, I would add, is to what happens-as-it-happens.)

Katz ends the interview with a paradoxical reflection.  When you laugh there is relief (and I would add that this is cathartic and redemptive); however, she contradicts this when she says: “there’s also no escape.  It forces you to admit things about your limitations and about what you really want.”

The fact that we cannot “escape” ourselves and that we are forced to admit things about ourselves and our desires is a shameful moment.  On the contrary, there is no relief.

Comedy, in other words, forces us to be uncomfortable.  It exposes us to our mortality and our desires (whether frustrated, failed, sick, or what have you).

But this isn’t the comedy we see on The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, or Saturday Night Live; no, it’s the disturbing kind of comedy we find in comedians like Andy Kaufmann and Lenny Bruce.  The comedy she is talking about is the variety that makes us chuckle while feeling uneasy in our skins.

And this is what we see in this Andy Kaufmann video, which I posted in yesterday’s blog:

Bringing a critical understanding of comedy can help us to understand what comedy does to us, but it can’t redeem us.  Nonetheless, it can spur us to act.  The schlemiel faces us, in a Levinasian sense (which I mentioned in the previous blog entry) with the “demand of the hour.”  Our choice to act, to decide, follows in the wake of our comic exposure to ourselves, the other, and to the hour (our situation).

This, I would argue, is the agency that Miriam Katz is trying to find for her comic audience.  Our freedom follows the comic breakdown.

Freedom and critical reflection are in the wake of the schlemiel’s oblique prophesy.