At the Circus with Franz Kafka and Augustine – Part II

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In contrast to Kafka, Augustine, in Confessions, saw the circus in a less ambiguous manner. While Kafka made the choice between one end of the circus and another very complicated and difficult to decipher, Augustine makes it into a clear either/or decision. He associated the circus with the worst vices of society and, in his friendship with Alypius (arguably, his closest friend), we see that Augustine figured Alypius’s detachment from the circus as the first stage of conversion (which he, in fact, did together with Alypius – the image in this post is based on this group conversion). To be sure, Augustine makes it his task to wean Alypius away from the circus. But the irony of this is that Augustine had far worse vices to deal with, but if it weren’t for Alypius and their friendship, he would not be able to address them.   Regardless, the foil of his friendship with Alypius is the circus.

Augustine lived with Alypius and Nebridius when he moved to Milan. They were all friends and, as Augustine notes, they had the deepest discussions on religion, philosophy, and society. Reflecting on his friendship, Augustine records Alypius’s origins and the first time they met, in Carthage. He, like Socrates and many of his pupils, was older than Alypius. Regardless, their attraction to each other – which has much to do with virtue and character – is mutual:

Among this group (of friends) Alypius came form the same town as myself. His parents were leading citizens. He was younger than I and had attended my classes when I began to teach in our town and later in Carthage. He was much attached to me because I seemed to him good and cultured, and I was attached to him because of the solid virtue of his character, which was already apparent when he was of no great age. (VI, vii (11), 98)

However, immediately following this kind description, Augustine notes how Alypius, a young man of “solid virtue,” was, to his detriment, in love with the circus. He is “miserably” involved with the circus and his passion for it was “fatal”:

Nevertheless, the whirlpool of Carthaginian morals, with their passion for empty public shows, sucked him into the folly of the circus games. At the time when we was miserably involved in that, I was using a public lecture room as a professor of rhetoric there…I had discovered his fatal passion for the circus, and was gravely concerned because he seemed to be about to throw away or even already to have thrown away a career of high promise. (99)

When Alypius comes in to visit Augustine’s rhetoric class, Augustine rises to the occasion to save Alypius from the circus. But because Alypius is so addicted to the circus, Augustine regrets that “imposing some degree of pressure” or even his friendship was not enough.

But there was no means of warning him and recalling him by imposing some degree of pressure, either by the benevolence of friendship or by exercising the authority of the teacher. (99)

But when, one day, out of the blue, Alypius makes a surprise visit, something miraculous, in Augustine’s view, happens that enables Augustine to save Alypius from the circus:

One day I was sitting at the usual place where my pupils were present before me. He came in, greeted me, sat down, and gave his attention to the subject under discussion.   I was expounding a text which happened to be in my hands. While I was expounding it, it seemed opportune to use an illustration from the circus games which I sued to make my point clear, and to make it clearer and more agreeable I was bitingly sarcastic about those captivated by this folly. (99)

By being sarcastic about the circus, Augustine tells us that Alypius felt the words on the circus were distinctly for him. He knew Augustine cared about him and became “angry with himself.” This led Alypius to “love me more ardently.”

Augustine sees this moment as prophetic. And, citing Ezekiel, he argues that he “cured a wasting mind of high promise” by weaning him off the circus. In the wake of this, Alypius pleaded with his father to allow him to go and learn with Augustine: “His father yielded and granted his request.”

However, once they started learning, Augustine learned of another folly; namely, the “Manichee superstition” that emulated chastity. Augustine calls it “only a shadow and a simulation of virtue.” But this very simulation is what puts Augustine on edge because he, quite frankly and openly, loved women. Their main difference – within their friendship – was on this very point. And by way of it, Augustine was prompted to reflect on how, despite his desire to pursue the truth, he was still indecisive. This comes out of the fact that Augustine was tainted by experience while Alypius was too “innocent”(102).

Regardless, the message is clear. Augustine could not have taken Alypius on as a student or…as a friend without weaning him from the circus.   On that note, he seems to be telling us that even if philosophers and theologians can be friends, and live together, as Alypius and Augustine did in Milan, they can be only melancholy and perplexed. The joy and distraction that Augustine sees as “fatal” has no place in religion and philosophy which are, in his estimation, a serious and not a vulgar (that is, a common) pursuit. Virtue and the way of truth do not lead to the circus.   The circus, in other words, will lead one astray.

And by way of inspiring Alypius to hate himself and his passion for the circus, Augustine suggests that he saved a soul from self-destruction.   As Augustine notes, this salvation- from-the-circus made Alypius “love me more ardently.” And it is through this circus-free love of Augustine that Alypius comes more into dialogue with deeper questions about truth and the true way of life.   It seems as if, in Augustine’s world, God tolerates and even produces different ironies (such as Augustine’s contradictory lifestyle) but God does not tolerate humor and the circus which, to his mind, will only lead one to destroy one’s soul.

…to be continued….

At the Circus with Franz Kafka and Augustine – Part I

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The circus – whether it is ancient, medieval, or modern – is a riotous place. And the question of how to describe and place the circus in Western theology, philosophy, literature, and art is, despite what many would think, an important question.   It was of interest to such great theologians as Augustine and Petrach and writers and thinkers like Rebelais, Franz Kafka, and Ernst Bloch.

Of the above-mentioned writers and theologians, Augustine and Kafka have the most fascinating differences. Yet, at the same time, what brings them together most – namely their common understanding that the circus must be figured by theology and literature – is more fascinating. Figuring the circus has implications for life, the imagination, and religion.

In Kafka’s short story “Up in the Gallery,” the narrator, who seems to be speaking from “up in the gallery,” makes a thought experiment regarding a “frail, consumptive equestrienne in the circus.” If she were to be

urged around and around on an undulating horse for months on end without respite by a ruthless, whip-flourishing ringmaster, before an insatiable public…then perhaps, a young visitor to the gallery might race down the long stairs through all the circles, rush into the ring and yell, Stop! against all the fanfares of the orchestra still playing the appropriate music.  

This “perhaps” suggests that the opposite may also happen: the “young visitor” may just let this go on in front of himself and the crowd. He will, in short, let the circus happen. And this is almost like what Kafka tells us actually takes place. The circus goes on, but with a difference. The ringmaster brings in a messianic kind of figure, a “lovely lady, pink and white” who replaces the “frail, consumptive equestrienne”:

But since this is not so; a lovely lady, pink and white, floats between the curtains, which proud lackeys open before her; the ringmaster, deferentially catching her eye, comes toward her breathing animal devotion; tenderly lifts her up on the dapple gray, as if she were his own most precious granddaughter about to start on a dangerous journey.

The ringmaster “masters himself” enough to “crack the whip” and prepare the “lovely lady, pink and white” and “the audience” for the ultimate performance.   But something goes wrong and the audience doesn’t respond in the way one would expect them to do at such a spectacle:

Before the great somersault (the ringmaster) lifts up his arms and implores the orchestra to be silent; finally lifts the little one down from her trembling horse, kissed her on both cheeks, and finds that all the ovation she gets from the audience is barely sufficient.

Meanwhile, she, “right on the tips of her toes, in a cloud of dust, with outstretched arms and small head thrown back, invites the whole crowd to triumph.” But they don’t. There is, it seems, an abyss between the circus performer and the circus. And at this, the “visitor to gallery lays his face on the rail before him and, sinking into the closing march as into a heavy dream, weeps without knowing it.”

In other words, the visitor, who is a surrogate for the narrator, who is “up in the gallery,” is a witness to the demise of the circus and “weeps without knowing it.” He has a secret, unconscious sadness about its demise. His witness is also unconscious.

In Kafka’s story there are only two possibilities for the “young visitor.” He can either say “Stop!” to the original circus spectacle which pushes the “frail, consumptive equestrienne” to her utter limits: “urging” her to go in crazy circles. Or he can let the circus happen and ultimately…fail. We see the latter option unfold and we hear the description of the traumatic rupture as unconscious. Only we, as readers, we “in the gallery,” see it.

But what does Kafka look to engage in this short story/parable? It seems that, for Kafka, both options are still possible. And that the end of the circus is not something to take lightly. The question is not that the circus will end so much as how it will end. However, in order to understand this question, one must grasp the meaning of Kafka’s description of the two kinds of circus events.

The first description seems to describe a situation where “the young visitor” must face a circus that has gone out of control, at the urging of the ringmaster, and spun into wild circles. But he must face it and the audience and say “Stop!” By doing this he can, consciously, suspend the madness. This poses an interesting challenge to a kind of Nietzschean or Bataillean “yes saying.”  (And it is important to note that Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals, associated the original, historical “no” of morality in the Western tradition with the Jews.)  The second description, in contrast, describes the circus in a state in which the audience is separated (alienated) from the thrall of the performance. And the visitor’s cry at this failure of the circus is unconscious.

Which ending is better? What ending should we choose? Or is it too late for the circus?

(In the next blog entry we will discuss Augustine’s reading of the circus. And in the third entry to this series we will discuss the two of them, together.)

 

Too Much…Life: On Eric Santer’s “Psychotheology of Everyday Life” – Part I

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Many Continental thinkers discuss “excess.” Besides Friedrich Nietzsche, the most notable exploration of excess can be found in the writings of Georges Bataille. He loves excess and his writings exude what he calls “expenditure” and “waste,” which, to his mind, is what life is all about. His book, Inner Experience is one of the most interesting evocations of excess and it takes to it as one would take to a religious passion. He rides life, with all its ups and downs as if it is a roller coaster that he doesn’t stop riding, repetitively:

Not enough! Not enough anguish, suffering…I say it, I, child of joy, whom a wild, happy laugh – never ceased to carry…I forget – one more time: suffering, laughter, that finger. Infinite surpassing in oblivion, ecstasy, indifference, toward myself, toward this book: I see – that which discourse never managed to attain. I am open, yawning gap, to the unintelligible sky and everything in me rushed forth, is reconciled in a final irreconciliation. Rupture of all “possible,” violent kiss, abduction, loss in the entire absence of all “possible,” in opaque and dead night which is nonetheless light – no less unknowable, no less blinding than the depth of the heart. (59)

To be sure, Bataille is blinded by all of the excess. He can no longer project any “possible” things that he will actualize in a rational project. For him, life itself, in its excess, ruins the possible. And though this is the case, he still says, it’s “not enough.” He wants to be ruined he wants an excess of unknowing: “I am open, yawning gap, to the unintelligible sky.” This feeling, for him, is an admixture of suffering, destruction, and joy. He embraces it.

The only thing missing in this embrace of life, in all its excess, is…the other.

Drawing on the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and the theological ideas of Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Santer, in his book On the Psychotheology of Every Day Life (which plays on the title of Freud’s famous book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life), brings the other into this relation of the self to excess. This is an important move that has yet to be thought through, especially with respect to what interests me most as a schlemiel theorist: comedy and its relation to the life and the other.

Santer correctly sees Freud’s work on Trauma, Fantasy, and psychoanalysis and Rosenzweig’s work on the “new thinking” as challenging the “old thinking” and philosophy. The old thinking, philosophy, is based on a departure from life and excess. Nietzsche and Bataille new this, but their work looked to invert this departure by way of privileging Evil over Good or Life over thinking. This inversion, however, becomes just another form of metaphysics. As Gilles Deleuze points out with respect to Bataille and deSade, in Masochism, this is the irony at the heart of their work. The idea of Evil, which is actualized by endless transgression, is still…an idea or principle.

Santer, it seems, is acutely aware of this trap. For this reason, he is very careful to trace the path away from life and back to life by way of Freud and Rosenzweig. However, what makes Santer’s endeavor so fascinating is that he starts his book with an interpretation of two parables that illustrate the movement of a child away from life, due to shock, and toward something that will “deaden life.” Strangely enough, he chooses two parables by writers who were fascinated with children, man-children, and the schlemiel: Franz Kafka and Robert Walser.

Santer chooses Walser’s story, “The End of the World” to illustrate the movement from wonder, excess, and too much life to fantasy, philosophy, and deadening:

On and on it ran, past many sights, but took notice of the sights it passed. On and on it ran, past many people, but took no notice of anyone. On and on it ran, until nightfall, but the child took no notice of the night. It gave heed neither to day nor night, neither objects nor people, it gave no heed to the sun and none to the moon and every bit as little to the stars. Further and further it ran, neither frightened nor hungry, always with the one thought in mind, the one notion – the notion, that is, of looking for the end of the world and running till it got there.

Paraphrasing and quoting the rest of the story, Santer’s reading sounds much like Kafka’s “Before the Law.” (And, as he notes, Kafka lovingly read Walser.) In that story, the “country bumpkin” comes before the law and waits to gain entry but, in the end, remains only on the threshold. Santer’s narration of Walser’s story echoes this situation:

Exhausted from its travels, the child finally arrives at what the farmer’s wife confirms to be “the end of the world.” Upon waking from much needed sleep, the child, who we now learn is a young girl, asks if she might stay at the farm and be of service to the family. She is taken in to the home (much like Kafka’s “country bumpkin” is taken in, before the law), at first as a maid but with the promise of a future as a genuine member of the clan.

From here Santer goes on tell a Kafka parable which also illustrates a similar fleeing from life to thought and fantasy. Kafka’s story, “The Top,” tells the “story of a philosopher who sought after groups of children playing with a top, imagining that were he to seize the toy in the midst of its rotation he would discover universal truths”(12).   However, the project fails repeatedly and the philosopher enters into a “quasi-psychotic state.”

Santer justifies his citation of these two stories as an “introduction” to the “one of the central preoccupations of this book,” which is “the problem…of inhabiting the midst, the middle of life”(13).   These characters, according to Santer, can’t inhabit the midst of life, they flee it. The girl, of Walser’s story, “appears…to subscribe to the metaphysical fantasy that the world is itself a container-like something, a possible object of experience with properties like those of other objects in the world”(14). And in Kafka’s text, “the metaphysical dimension of the activity in question is explicitly marked as such: a philosopher is in search of the Universal, the General, the Concept.” They both want to occupy a space “outside of life, beyond the limits of meaningful activity” and from there to “grasp what underlies that life.” This, says Santer, is a fantasy.

The interesting thing, at this point, is that Santer could continue his book by writing about Bataille, who wants to destroy the possible and efface the fantasy of a vantage point beyond life. However, what Santer does is not simply to affirm being the midst of life but being in relation to the other.   This kind of life is not simply based on a relation to excess in general but a specific kind of excess that comes with relating to and being exposed to the other. An excess that comes from beyond oneself as well as an unconscious, even mechanical kind of excess that comes through oneself in relating to the excess of the other which one cannot master so much as expose oneself to.

(This latter excess, which comes out in relation to the other, is something that interests me deeply since it hits on something comical about conversation and the awkward acknowledgment of the other.)

….to be continued….

Kafka (Benjamin and Brecht) on Facebook: Understanding Astonishment, Discipline, and Guilt on Facebook

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Let’s be honest. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. Although we check it on and off throughout the day, we need to admit that, most of the time, it isn’t a pleasurable experience. We expect to find, each time or at least a few times a day, film clips, articles, images or status updates that are shocking or sensational.   And when we comment or put up a status update, there is always the fear that someone will say something that puts our credibility or image on the line. Sometimes we fear that we will be ignored. In short, half of the excitement of going on Facebook comes from seeing things that are shocking, but the other half comes from the apprehensive feeling that we will most likely be judged.

But why would anyone find this experience so addictive? Why would anyone want to experience shock and judgment on a daily basis and not once but several times a day?

Just yesterday I came across an article from The New Yorker that sketched the problem out for me and gave me a starting point for addressing an experience I have been troubled by since I joined Facebook. Joshua Rothman’s article, entitled “In Facebook’s Courtroom,” draws on Kafka to explain this experience. While I find his reading of Facebook by way of Kafka very interesting, I find his reflections to be preliminary (in a good sense). I would like to build on them by focusing on Kafka’s reading of astonishment and using it to take Rothman’s reading to another level. To this end, I will be drawing on the dispute between Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht over the meaning of astonishment in Kafka’s work. By outlining their differences and applying it to a reading of experience on Facebook, we can better understand our troubling addiction to Facebook shock and the experience of addiction.

Rothman articulates his description of Facebook experience at the outset of the article by describing the omnipresence of the TMZ Video of Ray Rice hitting his wife, Janay Palmer, in a Las Vegas elevator. He notes how, over time, it “grew baroque.”

In my Facebook feed, people hate-liked terrible reactions to the video. Others wrote impassioned posts addressed to supporters of Ray Rice, even if they didn’t know any supporters. Some used the video as a “teachable moment” to share facts about “#domesticviolence,” or helpfully suggested as-yet-unblamed parties who could also be criticized. (“Why is no one talking about the role of alcohol in this?”) A widespread response was meta-outrage: asking, in an outraged tone, why there weren’t an even greater number of outraged Facebook posts about Ray Rice.

Reflecting on this, Rothman notes that, of course, there is a “lot to be angry about” but “at the same time, though, there can be something unsettling about the Web’s communal rage, even when that rage is justified.” He points out how, in Web Culture, “anger is an end in itself.”   This turns into what he calls a “never ending, unpredictable justice system.”

In recent years, the Web’s continuous pageantry of outrage, judgment, and punishment has become an inescapable element of contemporary life. We all carry in our pockets a self-serious, hypercritical, omnipresent, never-ending, and unpredictable justice system.

Drawing on the words “never ending, unpredictable justice system” Rothman makes an analogy between Facebook experience and the experience of Kafka’s characters in novels like The Trial and The Castle.

But Kafka wasn’t writing about the D.M.V.; his novels and stories are actually about justice, which he saw as aloof and possibly unobtainable, and punishment, which he saw as endless and omnipresent. He described an aspect of life that the online world makes more visible and acute.

Echoing Kafka, Rothman astutely points out how, on Facebook, one is likely to come across an “unexpected discipline in progress.” This, I think, hits the nail right on the head. After all, I have not only personally seen this but I have also been the subject of such “unexpected discipline.” Rothman sums up the experience of seeing or being the subject of such experience in these words – which are the same words that can be used to describes K’s experience in The Trial where, like Facebook, “punishment is pervasive.” On Facebook, as in the Trial, we have “a mixture of guilt and innocence, fear and excitement, outrage, pity, incomprehension, revulsion, and prurient interest.”

Rothman dovetails into a brief discussion of how, in Kafka and Facebook, there is a “surreal humor.” What makes it surreal is the fact that the judgment and disciplining are often done by way of exaggeration.   Moreover, he notes that this exaggeration is mixed with “something sexy” and “something childlike.” But the most important Facebook feeling of all, for Rothman, is the feeling of guilt. With all of the judgment on Facebook, regardless of the inflections of something comical, childlike, or sexy, there is this pervasiveness of guilt (for the discipliner and the disciplined and the witness to such disciplining).

Employing an ironic and apologetic tone, which one often sees on Facebook (out of fear of being attacked) Rothman, notes that it’s not always so bad:

It’s not always so grim. Sometimes, when Facebook is in especially fine form, Kafkaesque humor emerges. As you scroll, you wonder, what’s next on the docket? Which outrages and exemplars will confront me today, and how will I react to them? On the one hand, you’re criminally uninterested in a controversy about sexism amongst hedge-fund managers; on the other, at least you’re not one of the “ten celebs who have killed people.” The social-media stream puts moral life on shuffle—and expresses the fact that, while being a good person matters perhaps more than anything, it’s also very unclear how one might go about being good. This gently comic sense of ironic, bitter, and morally exhausted desperation even has its own Kafkaesque emoticon: ¯\_()_/¯.

Rothman ends his reflections on Facebook with a set of questions that hits on the main issue. Why, if we all clearly experience and understand the omnipresence of judgment, guilt, shock, and discipline on Facebook, do we return over and over again? Wouldn’t it be more optimal to live a life without the daily experience of these troubling emotions?

Rothman’s appeal to Kafka to address Facebook is the best I have seen yet. It raises questions I have had, in my own work, about how to read Kafka in relation to our society and ourselves. In my own work, I am very interested in how Walter Benjamin reads Kafka as it informs his reading of the modern schlemiel. One of the most interesting discussions Benjamin has about Kafka’s work is with Bertolt Brecht, a playwright he deeply respected. To be sure, Benjamin struggled with Brecht’s reading of Kafka and brought it into his famous essay on Kafka. All of themes that Rothman touches on in terms of Kafka, to be sure, are touched on by Benjamin in his essay on Kafka.

Benjamin, to be sure, in the spring of 1931 spent time with Brecht in France. In a journal entry, dated June 6th 1931, Benjamin notes how, for Brecht, astonishment was the central motif of Kafka’s work:

He believes that Kafka has just one there, and that the richness of Kafka as a writer is simply the rich variety of this one theme. According to Brecht, this theme, in its most general sense, is astonishment. The astonishment of a man who feels that huge shifts are in the offing in every aspect of life, without being able to find a niche for himself in the new order of things. For this new order…is governed by the dialectical laws that dictate the life of the masses to themselves and to the individual. But the individual as such must react with astonishment tinged with panic-stricken horror to the almost incomprehensible deformations of life that are revealed by the emergence of these laws. Kafka, it seems to me, is dominated by this to the point that he is incapable of portraying any event without distortion.

Benjamin goes on to note that Brecht doesn’t like the astonishment of Kafka’s characters. Brecht found the lack of astonishment of Schweik, the main character of the Czech writer, Jaroslav Hasek’s satirical novel about war, to be better.

Brecht contrasts Kafka – and the figure of K. – with Schweik: the man who is astonished by everything with the one who is astonished by nothing.   Schweik puts to the test the monstrous nature of existence into which he has been placed by making it seem as if nothing is impossible for him.

Benjamin brings many of Brecht’s thoughts on Kafka into his essay on Kafka. In that essay, he posits a difference between two types of fools who have a different relation to astonishment. Benjamin reads astonishment as a gesture and notes that Kafka “does not grow tired of representing the gestus (of the characters in The Castle and America) in this fashion, but he invariably does so with astonishment”(137). This astonishment is the same astonishment as K. who differs from Good Soldier Schwiek: “the one is astonished at everything, the other nothing”(137).

Benjamin also brings in the notion of astonishment to a radio talk on Kafka in 1931. he notes how astonishment at law is a key feature of Kafka’s characters.   And he sees this astonishment as prophetic:

Kafka’s work is prophetic….His only reaction to the almost incomprehensible distortions of existence that betray the emergence of new laws is a sense of astonishment, mixed with elements of panic-stricken horror. Kafka is so possessed by this that he is incapable of imagining any single event that would not be distorted by the mere act of describing it…In other words, everything he describes makes statements about something other than itself”( Selected Writings 1931-1934, Volume II, 496).

Benjamin goes on to note that this is not a “purely poetic prose” but is a direct result of the rapid shift of our lives and the effort to describe it.   Astonishment, in other words, relates to the failure of man to create a new idiom for rapid shifts in one’s existence. This failure – which, without a doubt, has mystical resonance – gives one access to language as such.

To be sure, while Benjamin thought of astonishment as prophetic, Brecht found this aspect of Kafka to be most deplorable. Brecht was very harsh with Benjamin’s obsession with Kafka and thought of Kafka’s work (and Benjamin’s) as “mystery mongering,” and “nonsense”(786).   Astonishment and mystery mongering, for Brecht, go hand in hand.

As Benjamin learned, Brecht saw Kafka as a “Jewboy…a feeble, unattractive figure, a bubble on the iridescent surface of the swamp of Prague’s cultural life, and nothing more”(786).   Astonishment, for Brecht, it seems, came out of Kafka’s Jewish, poor life. For this reason, Brecht, building on his anti-Semitic view of Kafka, told Benjamin “I reject Kafka” and his “depth.” This rejection of Kafka (and Benjamin’s project) had an effect on Benjamin. He even admits that “I could not refute the criticism that it was a diary-like set of notes…I was well-aware that his writings contained a lot of debris and rubbish – a lot of real mystery mongering. But other things were crucial, and my study touched on them”(786-87). These “other things” are things that Brecht, apparently, could not understand because he could not understand the meaning of a schlemiel.

Astonishment, for Benjamin, is the key to the schlemiel and Kafka’s characters’ wakefulness: it is in a constant state of surprise because the schlemiel is always forgetting what it was and, for that matter, who or what it is. Hence, the astonishment goes hand in hand with a vigilant study. The schlemiel, as an exceptional character, is astonished at what “normal” people would consider average and nothing.   It is acutely aware of change.   Unlike Soldier Schweik, who is a cunning trickster much like Odysseus, Kafka’s schlemiels are more astonished and less cunning.

Instead of being self-present, cunning, and self-reliant, (which is what Brecht loved about Schweik) they are open to and affected by alterity. And in this Benjamin differs radically from Brecht and his privileging of reason, will, and freedom. Brecht associated this interest in questions, “depth,” and astonishment with “Jewish fascism,” while Benjamin saw astonishment as a positive, critical feature of the Kafka’s schlemiels. Astonishment, which has its mystical correlate, is pronounced in these moments in the text.

Benjamin relates this astonishment to that of the reader or viewer when seeing one’s own gestures in another medium: this is an astonishment at one’s alienation: “The invention of the film and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation from one another, of unpredictably intervening relationship which became their only ones. Experiments have proved that a man does not recognize his own walk on the screen or his own voice on the phonograph”(137).

And perhaps this is the key to our fascination with Facebook. Contrary to Brecht, we cannot help but be astonished at the surprises we find on Facebook vis-à-vis ourselves and others. Regardless of how cunning and unastonished we try to be (or present ourselves) on Facebook (and I have many academic colleagues who attempt to maintain this image), the fact of the matter is, as Rothman suggests, that – regardless of how sexy or comical it may seem – we are under constant discipline (either as the subject or the agent).  He is correct. Facebook experience is very “Kafkaesque.” And our attraction to it should trouble us. However, the reason for this doesn’t have to do with the medium alone or the age we live in. It may have to do with the fact that we like to experience astonishment. It evinces a deep and mysterious experience (one that Brecht was sickened by) of our own oscillation between power and powerlessness.

But, ultimately, this may be too much for us to handle. Why, after all, would we want to experience this?  For this reason, leaving Facebook for a while may be a good thing; it can make us feel “as if” we are in control of ourselves and outside of judgment, discipline, and guilt.  But the truth of the matter is that, in every modern situation we, like the schlemiel, may always be astonished. On or off Facebook, there will be astonishment. However, on Facebook the experience of judgment is omnipresent and often very troubling.

…..to be continued….

Joan Rivers and Holocaust Humor

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During the week of Robin Williams death, I wrote a piece on his role in Jakob the Liar. As I pointed out, Williams didn’t shy away from the challenge of bringing humor to the Holocaust. To this end, he decided to take on the role of the schlemiel, Jakob, who did his utmost to distance the Lodz ghetto from its impending doom.   He and Roberto Bengnini – who wrote and played the main role in Life is Beautiful – turned to the schlemiel and both were duly criticized for this since, “after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno and several Holocaust scholars who follow in his wake argue that humor, much like poetry, might be thought to be unethical when it comes to representing the Holocaust.   However, what makes the schlemiel interesting is, as Sidrah Ezrahi suggests, that its brand of comedy “revolts” against the world so as to preserve hope.   But that revolt is in the name of innocence.

While Bengini and Williams took to the schlemiel in the face of the Holocaust, Joan Rivers took more to a comic style that was in the spirit of Lenny Bruce (who, arguably, made a major impression on Rivers and changed her way of doing comedy).   These jokes do not preserve innocence so much as the spirit of revolt itself.   They strike at the civility that is at the core of the west.   And, as David Biale argues, Lenny Bruce created a new sense of Jewishness as a position that was not so much American as marginal, counter-cultural, and against the status quo. And because Rivers is “Jewish,” perhaps in Bruce’s sense, her Holocaust jokes take on another aspect.

The most recent joke Joan told about the Holocaust was on Fashion Police. In this joke she likens the “hotness” of Heidi Klum’s ass in a dress to the hotness of Germans “pushing Jews into the ovens” in concentration camps:

On CNN she was asked if she regretted telling the joke. She starts off by saying that it’s “just a joke,” notes that a large part of her husbands family died in the Holocaust, and finishes up by saying that her joke prompts this generation to think about the Holocaust (simply because it’s not on their minds and this will spur them to think).   After being asked again if she will apologize, she notes how her Jewishness keeps her from criticism: “Why don’t you worry about Mel Gibson? Why don’t you worry about the anti-Semites out there?” But the clincher is that the main thing is to laugh because if you can laugh “you can deal with it.”

This principle, it seems, is nearly identical to the one used by Begnini and Williams in their use of the schlemiel. It is not simply revolt for the sake of revolt. It seems that Rivers is suggesting this and the fact that it can spur people to think about the Holocaust.

In her interview with WSJ live, she says something a little different. She begins by saying the joke is on the Germans; they and not the ADL and Abe Foxman should be upset.   And she finishes off the discussion by noting what Dick Cavett said via Mark Twain: “Against the assault of humor, nothing can stand. Don’t flinch, Joan.” In other words, comedy is pure revolt.  Perhaos Cavett is suggesting the same thing as Lenny Bruce: Jewish comedy should always be in  revolt. She says it’s a brilliant comment (several times, in fact).

This year Rivers began her appearance on Jimmy Fallon (the first return to the Tonight Show for decades – since she was “banned” from the show) made a Holocaust joke about how if the German’s could successfully kill millions of Jews at least they could make cars that work. Its interesting that, in following up this joke, she told a joke about her getting vagina rings, and then she turned to a joke dealing with ethnicity and emotion. The joke is an inside/outsider joke. She asks Fallon if he is Irish. He says yes and then she says that she and Fallon get this but WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) don’t. (This initial insider/outsider joke hearkens back to Lenny Bruce’s jokes about what’s “Jewish” and “Goyish,” meaning WASPish.

Her Jewish/Goyish kind of routine with Fallon sughests that she us in the same camp as all ethnic comedians who fight to succeed in a WASP culture.  This seems to authorize her to tell jokes about anything, even the Holocaust.

But this is not the first time she has told jokes on the Holocaust.   In her book I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me (2012), Rivers tells jokes about Hitler, the Holocaust, and Anne Frank.

On Hitler:

“I hate people who say they’re ‘workaholics…There is no such thing. Hitler put in a lot of hours. Would you call him a workaholic? People who work 24/7 are not ‘addicted’ to work … they either hate their families or don’t have basic cable.”

On Anne Frank:

“They only order half a chicken, take two bites, then put it in a doggie bag to take home, where it lasts them for six months. Anne Frank didn’t hoard food like this, and that bitch was hungry.”

And in Larry King’s interview with her in 2010, King asks Rivers about Holocaust humor in 5:49.   He asks her if there is any “area you will not go to?” And she says, “No. If I think I want to talk about, it’s right to talk about.” And she goes on to say that if she were in “Auschwitz she would tell jokes just to make it ok for us.”

And she concludes, as she did three years later, that if you make something funny you can deal with it. Both statements are telling, but the first is more telling since it has resonance with the films made by Begnini and Williams. Both of them play characters who also tell jokes to help make it ok for us. But the “us” is different and so are the jokes. The humor that Robbins and Begnini use is the humor of the schlemiel. It’s purpose is to make fool younger people so as to preserve their innocence. In contrast, one can imagine that River’s humor, inside of Auschwitz, would have been much different. Instead of prompting Jews to live “as if” the good still exists (and preserving innocence), one can imagine that her jokes would be anything but innocent. However, they would work in the same way: they would make things ok for us (for fellow Jews who were suffering in the Holocaust). And this suggest that Rivers would use humor to revolt against the world. By saying no to it, things would be “ok for us.”

One may disagree with this approach – and many Holocaust scholars and the ADL have. But one needs to ask not just whether humor is tenable after Auschwitz but whether it is tenable during Auschwitz. This is what Rivers suggests to Larry King. And, unlike Williams and Bengini, she saw the Jewish humor that subscribes to vulgarity as more powerful than the humor that subscribes to the schlemiel when it comes to the Holocaust. And this difference also shows us a difference between two trends in post-Holocaust Jewish-American humor: one leaning toward Lenny Bruce and the other toward the traditional schlemiel that we see in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” In the face of Evil, Gimpel acts “as if” good exists. In contrast, Rivers, in contrast, laughs at Evil. And perhaps her revolt is the demonstration (instead of an acting “as if”) of what’s best in humanity.

And this appeal to comedy – in the face of disaster – harkens back to what Walter Benjamin once said of Franz Kafka: “the only thing Kafka was certain of is that only humor helps. The question, however, is whether it can do humanity any good.”

Little Tricks: Revising Myths and Warping Fairy Tales in Kafka’s Parables and Sheila Heti’s Postmodern Fables – Part I

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One of the major tasks of the modern Enlightenment project is to “demythologize.” As a part of this project all types of myths are challenged. They need not be changed by science, the humanities, and psychology, however. The greatest battling ground for challenging mythology may be in the medium that is used to convey myth; namely, narrative. These challenges can, so to speak, liberate the reader from certain expectations that are mythological in nature. The primary tool of these challenges is irony. But although they challenge myths, they do, still retain the relationship between narrative and reality. They don’t annihilate narrative so much as make it more uncertain of itself and open to something…other.

In his celebrated essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin argues that Kafka put “little tricks” into his revisions of Odysseus (Ulysses), the Sirens, Poseidon, Prometheus, and other mythical beings of the West. Included amongst the things Kafka revises are also Jewish figures such as Abraham and the Jewish tradition.   In Kafka’s parables, the Sirens don’t sing; they are silent:

And when Ulysses approached them the potent songstresses actually did not sing, whether because they thought this enemy could be vanquished only by their silence, or because the look of bliss on the face of Ulysses, who was thinking of nothing but his wax and his chains, made them forget their singing. (431, Kafka: The Complete Stories)

Like Ulysses, vis-à-vis myth, Abraham is represented, by Kafka, in many ways that aren’t even found in the Midrash. In one version he is represented as a dirty school boy; in another he is likened to a waiter:

I could conceive of another Abraham for myself – he certainly would never have gotten to be a patriarch or even an old-clothes dealer – who was prepared to satisfy the demand for sacrifice immediately, with the promptness of a waiter, but unable to bring it off because he could not get away, being indispensable. (Kafka: Parables and Paradoxes: 41)

Benjamin says that while mythic characters are “promised redemption by the myth….Kafka did not succumb to it’s temptation”(117). Rather, most if not all of his revised characters are failures. And when we hear song, as in Kafka’s “Josephine the Mouse Singer,” this song is a song that is sung not to promise redemption so much as to offer temporary comfort.   As Benjamin notes, Kafka’s revised parables speak to the condition of Exile.

Sheila Heti’s first book, The Middle Stories, seems to be carrying on Franz Kafka’s tradition. Although she takes fairy tales as the subject of many of her short stories in the book and although she is doing something that seems to be similar to Donald Bartheleme’s Snow White or Angela Carter’s revisions of fairy tales in several short stories, Heti is doing something different.   While Bartheleme introduces countless contemporary elements into his revision of Snow White, he keeps everything on the surface and doesn’t attempt to explore the persona’s of his characters. And while Carter rewrites fairy tales to speak to feminist concerns and issues, she doesn’t pay too much attention to the subjectivities of her characters so much as the meaning of the tale.

Heti’s work is different.

Although they often stick to the surface, Heti’s The Middle Stories includes voices that tell us less about the meaning of this or that fairy tale as give us access to the female voices that trade in simplicity and traverse the territories of the fairy tale and modern life. What interests me most is the meaning of this simplicity and this traversal. These elements, I think, speak to our own sensibilities which, though simple, move back and forth between simplicity and complexity. This traversal – which is made along the lines of simplicity – gives birth to astonishment in the reader.

One such simple story is entitled “The Miss and Sylvia and Sam.” The story starts off by introducing us to the main character: “A FRIVOLOUS YOUNG Miss, who was a little bit proper and a little bit delicate”(21). The Miss is found in a market and, as she drifts from thing to thing, she picks up several items, takes them home, and looks over them:

First there was the feather baton, then the little top hat, then the picture frame with the picture in it. (22)

She gets bored, yawns, “lifts up her arms,” and goes to sleep. In the morning she wakes up and goes to the market for more. But when she gets there, she meets up with a woman “from behind the stall” who says that she knows the Miss and that she looks “familiar to me”(22).   She goes further and claims that she knows the Miss “from another life”(22). At this point, the narrative veers off into the zone of new age mysticism (something one won’t find in a classic fairy tale).

In response to these claims, the Miss becomes apprehensive and says that this is “impossible….This is the only life I’ve had”(22). The narrator tells us that she becomes unsure of herself and doesn’t know what to say, so she tries to leave. But before she can go, the lady from behind the stall insists that she knows her and grabs her arm. She adds that she has had “dreams about her”(23).

In the next section of the story she is called by Sam who, apparently, is a love interest. We can see from her conversation with him that she is very modest. And their conversation – just like the words about it – is small, minimal. But though they speak little, there is also a sense of being bothered by something not spoken.

They said a few more words to each other and then fell to sleep, a little perturbed. (24)

In the next section, the Miss is woken up by the lady from the stalls. She tells the Miss that she is Sam’s brother. The section ends with the Miss being nervous and insisting that the lady is not Sam’s brother. The tension mounts because the words are cut short.

The next section leaps, with the utmost simplicity, to the marriage of Sam and the Miss:

THREE WEEKS LATER the whole thing was arranged. The Miss was going to marry Sam, and Sylvia, the woman from the market, was going to be the flower girl. (25)

What should strike the reader as incredibly odd is the fact that the lady, who now has a name, is now a part of the Miss’s life. But the narrator is not astonished and acts as if it is all as it should be. Everyone is smiling:

Sylvia leaned back in her chair across from them, and she was all smiles too. “I’m so happy for you both. I’m so happy.  I just know it’s going to work out.” (25)

The Miss, excitedly, says she is going to help Sylvia out “with the business” and Sylvia is so in joy that “she is really going to do it”(25).   The section ends with this odd joy. The next section, however, introduces us back into the space of panic and paranoia.

A woman comes to the stall where Sylvia and the Miss are working and demands that specific ornaments be given to her, as if her life depended on it. Sylvia tells the Miss to go in the back and that she will take care of it. But as the woman reaches into her purse a thunderbolt comes down and “shot down straight through the woman shopper’s head, striking her to the ground”(27). The Miss screams out in shock and “continues to bawl as the rain poured down, harder and faster, drenching everyone and everything”(27).

The next section of the text is the wedding. And the Miss, Sam, and Sylvia act, once again, as if everything is perfect. The reader is left wondering how the trauma and Sylvia’s dealings with the woman will be resolved but this section offers no such answers.

The following section only increases the questions because Sylvia decides, the next morning, while cleaning (?), that she is leaving for three years. And she goes. But the last lines of the section break with the proper and delicate image of the Miss by turning to the pornographic genre:

The Miss and Sam lay in bed, licking each other’s bodies. Then he turned her over and took her from behind. (28)

The last section leaves us in more confusion since we learn that they are going to Israel. What, one wonders, does Israel have to do with this mixed genre story?   However, Sam notes that “there’s just one thing I forgot to tell you, dear”(28). Could this one thing give us the key to the text? Will it explain the mystery about Sylvia? Will it clear everything up?

No. Before he could say it he forgets. Her response, however, is telling because of how it misses the mark: “What a strange and awful man, she thought. Then she checked her bag”(28). The strange and the awful are not just in the fact that he forgot; the strange and the awful don’t have to do with his forgetting. Rather, fact that the meaning of the text is withheld, the fact that things happen in too simplistic a manner, the fact that there are odd, traumatic interruptions in the text, are “strange and awful.”

But the strange and awful parts of the text, delivered with such simplicity, open up a whole realm of what is not said or can’t be said. The gaps between things are enormous. And by making these gaps and acting “as if” all is well when it’s not make for a kind of demythologizing of the fairy tale that is unique and exceptional.

To be sure, Kafka also made use of this in his parables that revised this or that myth. He did this so as to bring the reader into a wholly other relationship with the text.  This relationship prompts one to think about what’s not there as well as the striking simplicity of what is there. Together, this makes for a modern, existential, and torturous reading experience which has the virtue of grounding us in both simplicity and complexity. For Walter Benjamin (reading Franz Kafka), this is the effect of what he calls “reversal.”  Kafka and Heti’s “little tricks” accomplish this awful reversal.

….to be continued….

 

Somewhere Between Man and Animal: A Note on Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs

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One of the most fascinating things Walter Benjamin notes about Franz Kafka’s main characters is that many of them are what he calls “prehistoric.”  Several of these characters are actually animals or insects: they include apes, bugs, and mice.  They exist in a world that is not outside of history, but before it.  Taking another approach, and addressing Kafka’s animals, Gilles Deleuze (in his book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature) has argued that we must understand what it means that many of Kafka’s characters lived in an ambiguous realm between human and animal.  He believed that Kafka’s characters effaced the line between man and animal by way of language.  For, according to Deleuze, Kafka was not interested in creating a metaphor by way of this or that animal who can speak, think, etc. Rather “Kafka deliberately kills all metaphor, all symbolism, all signification, no lees than all designation(22).  Kafka was interested, instead, in “metamorphosis” and “metamorphosis is the contrary of metaphor”(22).  Based on this claim, Delezue, discussing Kafka’s animals, argues:

There is no longer man or animal, since each deterritorializes the other, in a conjunction of flux, in a continuum of reversible intensities.  Instead, it is now a question of becoming…(22)

For this reason, Deleuze suggests we read Kafka’s man-animals in terms of “the crossing of a barrier, a rising or a falling, a bending or an erecting, an accent on a word.”  He takes this to another level by saying that language barks, roams, climbs around, etc:

The “animal does not speak ‘like’ a man but pulls from language tonalities lacking signification; the words are not “like” the animals but in their own way climb about, bark and roam around being properly linguistic dogs, insects, or mice. (22)

Reading this, I wondered how should I read the descriptions of the main character of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Roy Hobbs.  As I pointed out yesterday, Hobbs, at the outset of the novel, has a kind of mythic and prehistoric kind of existence.  He comes out of nothing, but this nothing has a primitiveness to it.

Hobbs stumbles in and out of a kind of primitiveness and comes in and out of prehistoric state.  But rather than read Roy as a metaphor, perhaps we should take Deleuze’s reading as a cue and read Roy as sounding out new tonalities of a wild, American language.  But, how, I wonder, can we separate Roy’s story from this kind of language.  To be sure, his dreams, his blindness, and his absent-mindedness are connected to this language.   His pre-historic state, as Benjamin might call it, is to be found in the America he encounters as he comes face to face with the possibility of being a star. He doesn’t understand it, but he desires it.  He’s simple, as is his language.  And his encounters with physical reality,  people, and dreams bring out a simple and wild American tonality.

At the outset of the novel, before he encounters people Roy gets up bright and early to eat breakfast.  His movements into his clothes are “acrobatic” and highly physical.  Malamud’s language brings out this tactility and animality which, it seems, is ready for anything:

Roy peeled his gray sweatshirt and bunched down the white ducks he was wearing for pajamas in case there was a wreck and he didn’t have time to dress.   He acrobated into his shirt, pulled up the pants of his good suit, arching them high, but he had crammed both feet into one leg and was trapped so tight wriggling got him nowhere…Grunting, he contorted himself this way and that till he was last able to grab and pull down the cuff with a gasp.. (4)

After he is fully dressed, and steps out, Malamud reminds us of the man-animal dialectic:

Dropping on all fours, he peered under the berth of his bassoon case.

Seeing him on all fours hunting for his case, the porter, who comes by asks him, indirectly about the case: “Morning, maestro, what’s the tune today?”  Roy responds, “It ain’t a musical instrument.”  He tells him that what is in the case is something he has “made himself.”  The porter, hinting at the pre-historic and the primitive asks, “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

But in response Roy tells the porter that it is nothing natural; rather, it is “just a practical thing.”  Following this, there is a volley about what’s hidden in the case.  He gives several guesses which, in a  comical manner, mock out the meaning of “practical”: “a pogo stick,” a “foolproof lance” a “combination fishing rod, gun, and shovel.”

Instead of answering, Roy changes the subject to where they are going and how long it will take to get there.  From their discussion, we learn that Roy has only visited two places, both of them in the west: Boise and Portland, Oregon.  He hasn’t been to any major city.

When he tells him that he is going to Chicago, “where the Cubs are.”  The porter perks up and asks, sarcastically, if there are also “lions and tigers there.”  Roy, in response, says that the Cubs are a ball team.  But this is the game.  He’s playing Socrates to Roy and looks for him to say it.

For after saying it, we see the punch line; namely, that the porter asks if you “are one of them” (a ballplayer).  When Roy says yes, the porter bows and says: “My hero. Let me kiss your hand.”

This makes Roy smile but it also “annoys” him.  This foreshadows his ambivalent relation to his fans.  He does and does not want to be recognized as a star.  And this may have much to do with the fact that his relation to others, other humans who recognize him, is different from his primitive relations to things.

He may have a playful relationship with the porter, which makes him smile, but it is based on a set of conditions.  A ball player must be successful; his relations to physical reality, evinced by all of the words and tonalities brought out in his waking movements into clothing, disclose another aspect of language and a different way of life.

This relation to the porter also includes a language with its own rhythm, but this language is based on something historic not pre-historic.  It is based on the fact of recognition and the fact that Roy may make history and be a hero for others.  And this irks him.  In other words, making history is and is not of interest to him.  He is unsure. And this, I would argue, has to do with the fact that his relations to “the ball” are ambiguous. Are they the relations of an animal or pre-historic being to “the ball” or are they the relations of a hero?

The fact that the ball is called a “pill” – later in the novel -indicates that his entering history has to do with entering into a game that feeds addiction.  And, perhaps, this is an addiction to heroes and success.  This is a human and an American addiction which, nonetheless, emerges from something pre-historic.

And this is something both Franz Kafka (in his book Amerika) and Walter Benjamin understood about America.  It was a land where the pre-historic entered history in the form of the “natural theater.”  However, had they read Malamud, one wonders how they would have conceived of the relation of man to animal.  At the outset of this novel, Hobbs, “the natural.” dwells on the cusp of history and somewhere between man and animal.  In this space we can hear the new tones of a new American language that is struggling to speak.