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.)

Wink, Wink! Walter Benjamin’s Childhood Secret and His Prophetic Calling to Schlemieldom

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As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa.   A careful writer wants to be read carefully.  He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself.  Reader precedes writer.  We read before we write.  We learn to write by reading.  –Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing

When you’re in on a joke, don’t forget to wink.

When you wink, you imply that there is something that only some people can see.  Winking is not a straightforward gesture.  It is oblique.   And it is immediate, like a blink of the eye.  The wink indicates that the person you shared your secret with now knows something that only you know.

The esoteric, hidden meaning, is esoteric precisely because it signifies by way of an oblique gesture.  The conveyance of the esoteric (secret) message is gestural – like a wink.  There are esoteric writers and readers.  The esoteric writer winks at the reader.  But the reader must be looking for the wink, in advance.  To be sure, if the esoteric reader is to find a secret (or secrets, plural) she must “read between the lines.”

Throughout their work, Walter Benjamin and Leo Strauss were attentive in their readings of texts.  There eyes were either looking for the wink or winking at their readers.  And from such reading practices, they learned how to wink too.

For both, the good reader and the good writer knows how to wink and be winked at.

One winks at the reader, so to speak, through writing.  But one must be able to see the wink.  And that takes practice. One must learn to read for “allusions” – for things that are said obliquely.

But this is not simply a willed activity.  To be sure, both knew that inherent in language is the power to allude and hint at things.  This force astonished Benjamin and Strauss.   Built into language, there is a revelatory aspect. But the revelation of language is not simply a revelation of something outside language.

No.

They knew that their allusive writing style didn’t simply allude to something other than themselves.  Although they would never say it directly (since that is the point of the esoteric), they believed that their allusions referred, in some way, to themselves.

What Benjamin and Strauss desired most was to read and to write: to wink and be winked at.  They wanted to share their secrets.

Leo Strauss’s language is thick with such implication – it winks at his readers.  When he says that “a careful writer wants to be read carefully,” he is obliquely telling his readers his desire which, ultimately, comes from careful reading.  After all, as Strauss says in the epigram: “Reader precedes writer.”  When Strauss writes these words about Baruch Spinoza, he is speaking about himself and his deepest desire as a writer.  His words are autobiographical.

Strauss wants to be read well.  But this is not for his own sake.  He wants to read well so that he can write well.  Writing is not for himself; writing, for Strauss, is shared (partage, as Derrida would say); writing is for a community of careful readers and writers.  What Strauss calls “persecuted writers.”  (Derrida, in his essay on Emmanuel Levinas entitled “Violence and Metaphysics” calls it the “community of the question.”)

To get into the community, you simply need to know how to read the wink when-it-happens and how to write-slash-wink.  We can have no doubt that Benjamin saw himself as a part of such an esoteric community of readers and writers.  He knew that the wink signifies that we know something that many people don’t.   He knows that his knowledge, because it is esoteric and hidden from society, might be dangerous.  This is why Strauss would call it “persecuted”: the author cannot, under certain societal circumstances, reveal this knowledge directly.  S/he must wink.

But the wink doesn’t simply reveal a secret that may endanger society; it also tells us something about the writer that we may not know.  After all, a wink tells us one thing: you’re in on my secret.

Yesterday, in my cursory reading of the childhood section Benjamin’s book One Way Street, I pointed out how Benjamin’s sections on children are autobiographicalThe section begins with reading but ends with hiding.  I explained how Benjamin was identifying with the child and, in effect, becoming-child.  Most importantly, we must remember that this becoming happens in a world or micro-world.

One doesn’t become in a vacuum.  This means that Benjamin’s reading practices are ways of opening up and hiding in microworlds.   But he didn’t just go into these worlds for no reason.  No, as I pointed out, Benjamin was running away from terror as the child runs from a “demon.”  We can say that he was persecuted.  His words on The Idiot (and on hiding) tell us that he knows that his terror comes from childhood damage.  But this is not simply knowledge.  In writing about this terror, it is practiced: Benjamin, in the two aphorisms we read yesterday, demonstrates that he must live the life of a child if he is to be safe or as Jacques Derrida would say in his essay “Faith and Religion,” sacred, that is, removed from danger, “autoimmune.”

At the beginning of One Way Street, Benjamin prepares us for his venture into childhood and its safe havens.  We see this in an aphorism entitled “Vestibule.” Here he gives the reader his prophesy of childhood and his calling.

In the aphorism, Benjamin notes how, in a dream, he “visits” the home of the famed German writer, thinker, and poet: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  He notes that even though he was in Goethe’s house, “he didn’t see any rooms.”

Benjamin tells us how the interior of his dream space appears to him from his angle-slash-perspective: “that it was a perspective of whitewashed corridors like those in a school.”  This implies that he feels like a young student in Goethe’s house (or, rather, school of thought). In the house-slash-school, there are “two elderly English lady visitors and a curator.”  They are only “extras.”  They lead him to the secret, which, we must underscore, is to be read and written.  The curator asks that he and the two elderly ladies “sign the visitors’ book lying open on the desk at the end of the passage.”

When he opens the book to sign, he has a revelation about his name and his prophetic calling:

On reaching it, I find as I turn the pages my name already entered in big, unruly, childish characters.

He realizes that he doesn’t have to sign!

This is the prophetic calling of the schlemiel.  To be sure, his name is “already” written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  The words literally wink at him: Benjamin is in on a big joke.   This passage suggests that we all know that Benjamin was always meant to be a fool.  Moreover, it is written in the book of Goethe: the prophet, so to speak, of all German scholarship.

But this revelation, lest we not forget, comes through a dream.    This is significant since one of the ways prophesy comes to man, in Judaism, is through dreams.  In exile, it is through the oblique and indirect way – the way of the dream – that God communicates with man.  In Benjamin’s prophetic dream, he realizes that he is a man-child.  His name is, after all, written in “big, unruly childish characters.”

His name, his essence, is childish.  Yet, at the same time, Benjamin is a man hiding in Goethe’s imaginary schoolhouse.  Most importantly, he didn’t name himself a child or schlemiel.  He didn’t sign his name in a childlike manner, someone else did!

Wink, wink!

To Which Childhood Shall We Return? Walter Benjamin’s Child versus Georges Bataille’s “True Child” (Take 1)

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The schlemiel is a man-child.  The character presupposes a man who has not grown up or a child who has not matured to become a man.   The schlemiel lives in the world of people but is in his own world because he doesn’t know how to live in that world.  He lives in a world of dreams and in dreams every little ‘thing’ matters and holds deeper significance.  Everything has a secret.  This interest in little things distracts the schlemiel from “the big picture.”  It distracts him from the world.  The little things makes him absent-minded.

To be sure, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi characterizes Sholom Aleichem’s Motl in this manner.  He is a character who gets caught up with things; and, as a result, Motl can’t understand his mothers suffering, his life situation, the death of his father, the disaster unfolding around him.   Near the end of Motl, The Cantor’s Son, Motl is optimistic and excited about the fact that he is going to America and will come into contact with more things!  Ezrahi, at one point, briefly evokes Walter Benjamin and his fascination with things to illustrate.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t pursue it further.

I would like to suggest that we contrast two types of men-children which have, most recently, entered the Schlemiel Theory blog space: Georges Bataille’s child and Walter Benjamin’s.

What we have seen thus far is that Georges Bataille wanted, like Walter Benjamin (in his essay on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) to “return to childhood.”  Both thinkers noted that the return to childhood would not, by any means, be without disaster.  Since the world has rejected youth and childhood, and since the project of writers who supported the “youth movement” has failed, the return of childhood, Benjamin tells us, can only come in the aftermath of an “implosion.”

Echoing Nietzsche, Bataille envisioned a KINDERLAND to come.  He also saw it in the aftermath of a disaster.   But, based on what we have seen so far, we can say that while Benjamin didn’t describe childhood and disaster in depth, Bataille did.

More to the point, Bataille seems to have gone further than Benjamin in describing what kind of child he wanted to be and what kind of disaster this implied. Indeed, Bataille distinguished between the “true child” and the false one.  The true child, for Batialle, is a child who experiences shame, terror, and powerlessness.  The true child, in other words, is passionate; s/he knows, in the depths of her existence, that the “serious exists.”  And this knowledge is disasterous and tragic.

Even though Bataille renounced all projects, he didn’t regard his “spiritual exercise” of becoming a child or stupid as a project.  However, when and if his pursuit of becoming a child does become a project (that is, when and if it becomes too obsessed with a goal), the true child (which Bataille aspires to be) would – Bataille avers – “laugh” at his seriousness.   This laughter frees the “true child” from the serious project.  Yet, this laughter does nothing to mitigate the true child’s powerlessness, shame, and terror.  All laughter does is lighten the weight of shame and powerlessness.  But in doing so laughter embraces stupidity.  Bataille’s “true child” revels in it.   The true child is Bataille’s description of a real and an ideal child; the child he wants to be and can become only through humiliating himself.

Batialle’s model of the “true” child is far removed from the schlemiel.  By contrasting the two, we can have a better idea of what makes the schlemiel unique. 

I suggested this contrast yesterday. The schlemiel gets caught up in dreams and all the little details of life.  The schlemiel gets distracted by things.  The schlemiel isn’t passionate.  He doesn’t experience shame, terror, and powerlessness.  The schlemiel doesn’t know that seriousness exists or, if he knows, it really doesn’t matter to him or her.  He can’t laugh at his passion because, quite simply, he isn’t passionate.

You couldn’t find a greater contrast between one man-child and another than between Bataille’s “true child” and the schlemiel.

Benjamin’s child is different: his “true child” has more in common with the schlemiel than with the passionate “true child” that Bataille aspired to.

In a piece entitled “Old Forgotten Children’s Books,” which was published in 1924 in Illustrierte Zeitung, Benjamin describes the child in a different manner:

For children are fond of haunting any site where things are visibly being worked on.  They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, and carpentry.  In waste products they recognize the face that he world of things turns directly and solely from them.  In using the thing, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.  

What I would like to suggest is a little different from what I suggested at the outset with Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi.  The main thing about Benjamin’s “true child” is not his or her passion, and not his obsession with things, so much as her relationship to “waste products” and “things worked on.”   All the things that Benjamin’s true child is interested in are partial.

This child is distracted from the “world of things.” However, children “produce their own small world of things within the greater one.”  This small world was a world that Benjamin was attracted to.

What I wonder is if the child’s world of waste and the child’s miniature world are intimations of what Benjamin would call the world of childhood that lays in the future.  This world of childhood is in the aftermath of disaster.  But, if we look again, we can notice that in this world-to-come the child plays in ruins.  He doesn’t care about the disaster so much as how he can relate one fragmented thing to another.  Perhaps this is the dream of a schlemiel: to live in the garbage and to play in the garbage while not seeing the disaster around him.

In contrast to Bataille’s man-child, Benjamin’s lacks passion but doesn’t lack a love for garbage.  What this implies is that Benjamin didn’t see the path to childhood as passing through humiliation and shame, as Bataille did, he saw the path of childhood as passing through the garbage dump.  Benjamin’s schlemiel turns to broken things – not to passions. He does not know that “seriousness exists.”  And, in this, it seems there is no violence or self-destruction.

If this is the case, then how can we understand Benjamin’s Apocalyptic warnings in his essay on The Idiot?  Such warnings and premonitions puzzled Benjamin’s closest friend – the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem. He could understand Benjamin’s interest in garbage, partial things, and micro-worlds, but he couldn’t understand Benjamin’s interest in the daemonic  “destructive element.” To be sure, sometimes Benjamin would turn to the destructive child, but, as we shall see, this only happened when Benjamin, personally, had to face failure.

And when that happened, his man-child, his schlemiel, went from being a child that plays with fragments to a shameful creature.

While Bataille’s true child passionately embraced failure, stupidity, and shame, Benjamin’s did not.   His child doesn’t get those things.  When he’s at play in the ruins nothing else matters.  But when he fails, it seems as if his child becomes a shameful figure – a reminder of how ridiculous and tragic things are.

At this point, you might be wondering why such intelligent men like Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille would want to return to childhood?  What would drive them to envision the child of the future, the “true” child?  Why would they spend so much time reflecting on such things?  Did they do so because they realized that maturity was a joke and that modernity had lost what gave it life; that is, childhood?   How would living out childhood as an adult – how would becoming a man-child – be redemptive?  Why were they so desperate for childhood?

We’ll leave these questions for our next blog entry….

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.