Woody Allen and his Jack-in-the-Box-Stammer (x1000)

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Last week, The Huffington Post ran a 44 minute clip of Woody Allen stammering.  The clip puts together stammers that span Allen’s career.

When I saw it, the first thing that came to my mind was the Jewish-French philosopher Henri Bergson’s essay on laughter and, in particular, his words on the Jack-in-the-Box:

As children we have played with the little man who springs out of his box. You squeeze him flat, he jumps up again.  Push him lower, and he shoots up still higher.  Crush him beneath the lid, and often he will send everything flying….Now let us think of a spring that is rather of a moral type, an idea that is first expressed, then repressed, and the expressed again; a stream of words that bursts forth, is check, and keeps starting afresh.  Once more we have the vision of one stubborn force, counteracted by another, equally pertinacious (35).

For Bergson, a recurring force is comic because it is mechanical and repeats itself – unlike real life (élan vital).  Real people don’t “naturally” stammer like Woody Allen:

The truth is that a really living life should never repeat itself.  Whenver there is repetition or complete similarity, we always suspect a mechanism at work behind the living…The deflection of life towards the mechanical is here the real cause of laughter (17)

So, what we have here is not simply a stammer but a concentrated one.  But is this mechanical repetition of a mechanical repetition laughable?  Does the clip take the “surprise” out of humor?  Is Woody Allen’s stammer like a “jack-in-the-box” or does this video destroy the toy-slash-stammer?

That, my dear Watson, is the question.

The Schlemiel and Horror, or Zero Mostel on the Muppet Show

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Zero Mostel z”l (1915-1977), in this brilliant segment from a 1977 episode of the Muppet Show, laughs at the Horror genre (or I would argue, getting spooked by crisis theory). What better example do we have of the laugh that laughs at the (satanic) laugh (or smile)?

This is, as my father’s friend David Kaplan z’l, used to say: “Top notch!”

Zero Mostel was one of the greatest stars in the history of Yiddish theater and performance!  He moved hundreds of thousands of people to laughter and tears.  Mostel was certainly a (perhaps ‘the’?) King of Comedy.   He was a real schlemiel whose performances show us how impassioned physical comedy – though caught up in schlemiel dreams – can trump fantasies of terror and catastrophe.  The fantasies he plays with are the fantasies of fear, terror, and transgression; the fantasies that Baudelaire and Poe found so titillating.

By performing 1,001 terrors, filtered through all his “wide eyed” gestures, Mostel caricatures horror, fear, and spirit possession in a matter of minutes.

Instead of tricking us into being horrified, as Baudelaire believed the “Absolute Comic” should, Mostel tricks horror into being ridiculous.  And he does it in the best place one can to placate horror with comedy: The Muppet Show.

Horror is equivalent to formless Muppet dolls attacking Zero Mostel and driving him Mad.

Does Zero Mostel tear us from fear? Does he defeat it?  Or do Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire have the last word?

Who of the Four Sons is the Schlemiel?

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I.B. Singer and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav both refer to the schlemiel as a “Tam,” which is Hebrew for a simpleton.  Tam also means a person who is “complete.” But this doesn’t make sense. How could a simpleton be complete?  Isn’t the simpleton lacking intelligence, wit, and independence?  How could these “lacks” constitute the simpleton’s – that is, the schlemiel’s – completeness?  Isn’t the wise man or the independent individual the ‘complete one’?  After all, the simpleton is a “schlemiel.”

This question is given visual form in the Passover Haggadah (namely, the story telling portion of the Haggadah which is called Magid).

In his book, Unheroic Conduct, Daniel Boyarin takes a look at a few Medieval Haggadot to point out the difference between “the simpleton” and the “evil son” (the Rasha).  For Boyarin, the point of this comparison is to show that the dominant Jewish male ideal in the Middle Ages was embodied in the character of the simpleton.  Extreme humility is his/her trait.  In contrast to the simpleton is the Rasha.  Boyarin points out that the Rasha is the epitome of what, in Yiddish, is called “goyishe nachas” (the joy of gentiles).  According to Boyarin, the Rasha embodies the non-Jewish “male ideal,” which is much more masculine (prideful, angry, overly physical, militant, etc) than the Jewish ideal.

Boyarin’s reading of the Jewish ideal is consistent, in many ways, with Moses Maimonides’ (RAMBAM’s) understanding of the ethical ideal.  As David Shatz points out in his essay “Maimonides’ Moral Theory,” Maimonides, like Aristotle, strived to live in accordance with a golden mean.  However, when it came to humility and pride, he was in stark contrast to Aristotle. While Aristotle thought extreme humility was a vice, Maimonides believed it was a virtue.  And while Aristotle thought it was necessary to be angry and prideful in the face of one’s pride being denigrated, Maimonides taught that such an extreme was a vice not a virtue.  Maimonides goes so far as to give an example of extreme humility by way of a story in which a man traveling on a ship is urinated on by an arrogant fellow-passenger.   This man, who Maimonides calls a Hasid (since he goes “beyond the letter of the law”) is so humble that he does nothing.  He, like Moses, the “most humble man of the land,” doesn’t waste his time with the Rasha.  More important for the Hasid, Maimonides tells us, is the honor of God.  And this requires extreme non-action in the face of arrogance and violence.  Wasting one’s time with pride and anger, making oneself equal to it, is “goyishe nachas.” Extreme humility, a vice for Aristotle, is “Yiddish nachas”(Jewish joy).

Boyarin’s project is to show that the Jewish ideal of the extreme humility was operative throughout the Middle Ages and existed in the Eastern Europe up the early 20th century – before the Holocaust – however, as Jews became accepted into Modern society, this ideal was displaced by a more Aristotelian type of masculine ideal.  Boyarin goes so far as to suggest that Zionism was deeply influenced by the ideals of strength and power rather than humility and powerlessness.  He cites Max Nordau – the Vice President of the Zionist Congress’ –  concept of the “muscle Jew” as the new ideal.  In addition, he cites Herzl, Freud, and others who espouse this new ideal which despises the Eastern European ideal of extreme humility – deeming it too feminine and heteronomos.

Strangely enough, in all of Boyarin’s discourse, he doesn’t note that how the simpleton was, for many of the early Zionists, the schlemiel.  The simpleton was equated with the powerless Diaspora Jew.  To be sure, a pro-Zionist journal by that name was founded with the purpose of criticizing the Diasporic Jew and affirming a ‘new Jew’.   The Jewish Renaissance, as Martin Buber put it, looked to reach deep into the roots of a Jewishness that was lost (or as Max Nordau would say, “degenerated”) in the Diaspora.  Although Buber didn’t openly degrade the simpleton (after all, he translated Rabbi Nachman’s stories and praised the Simpelton), he, like many Zionists, sought for a “New Jew.”

The question – is the schlemiel a character marred by Exile, a character that was produced by degeneration and powerlessness or was the schlemiel an ideal?

Boyarin’s book prompts these questions and poses them to Jews living outside of Israel.  Must we, in North America, contrast ourselves to Israelis?  Are we the ‘real Jews’?  And is their a real difference between us regarding whether or not we take on or reject an Aristotelian ideal?

Boyarin’s work certainly implies this.  His reading of the Haggadot implies that the Rasha, the evil son, is excluding himself from the Jewish community. Which community would that be?  Is this the American Jewish community or the community of Modern-Orthodox Jews that Boyarin identifies with?

I would add that Boyarin’s reading of the simpleton as an ideal may also include “the one who doesn’t know how to ask” in the Haggadah.  To be sure, the tradition represents both of them in terms of Boyarin’s ideal.

For instance, in a Medieval Illuminated Manuscript from 14th century Prato, Spain, we see Boyarin’s distinction between the Rasha and the Simpleton:

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Here, the Rasha is represented as a Warrior of sorts.  While the simpleton and the son who doesn’t know how to ask are both represented as small – half his height – and humble:

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In fact, they are both very gentle, childlike, and peaceful in their demeanor and in their gesturing.

Boyarin compares Medieval Haggadot to Zionist imagery to suggest that the Medieval Ideal has been abandoned.  Moreover, he suggests, by way of his own example as a “feminist-modern-Orthodox-Jew” that we return to this ideal.  As I noted above this would imply that Jews take on the schlemiel ideal.

But the ideal is not simply about humility – for the Rabbis, this humility which is based on faith in God’s power to redeem the Jewish people and in God’s place in history.  We see this in the two questions and in the answers to them.

The Simple Son asks:  “What is this celebration about?”

You shall say to him: “We are commemorating the fact that with a strong hand Gd took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Exodus 13:14).

As for The One Who Knows Not How To Ask—you must open up [the conversation] for him.

As it is written: You shall tell your child on that day: “It is because of this that Gd acted for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

So, ultimately, the masculine ideal that Boyarin wants to return to is or at least was based on the Schlemiel’s – that is, the Tam’s – simple faith.

To be sure, the simpleton is complete for this reason, but in the eyes of the world faith is ridiculous and the schlemiel lacks intelligence.   That is, at the very least, the perspective of the Rabbis and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.   Boyarin, however, redefines this to state that the completeness of the Tam can be found in the fact that he doesn’t enjoy “goyishe nachas” and prefers powerlessness over a masculine kind of power that, for him, corrupts.  This is not a matter of faith so much as a matter of whether or not Jews take on a masculine or a masculine-feminine ideal.

This is what I would call “Boyarin’s schlemiel ideal.”

The question for us – the so to speak fifth question of the four questions – is why is the night of Passover different from other nights?

Is it the night that we realize that “we” are all schlemiels?  And what would this imply? That we are faithful or that we embody a less masculine Jewish ideal?

(Based on what we have learned from Boyarin, this is a good question to ask.  But there are still other questions we can ask – at the Seder table, with the Jewish community – of his old/new ideal and its political import: 1) Is Boyarin right to reinstate a dualism that the early Zionists insisted on in the early 20th century?  2) Can there be schlemiel-Zionists?  Or only schlemiel post-Zionists? 3) Can one be a “simpleton” in Israel?  4) Is the new Jew an old Jew – that is a schlemiel? Or is the new Jew a Rasha?  Or is the new Jew something else besides these two options?   In other words, where does the schlemiel figure, today?)

Regardless of the answers one comes up with, Schlemiel-in-Theory wishes all Jews – on whatever side of the spectrum – a Happy Passover!

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)?)