The Schlemiel Who Tried to Get a Job – On Robert Walser’s “The Job Application”

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While writing on Franz Kafka, the Jewish-German thinker Walter Benjamin was interested in finding common ground between Jewish and non-Jewish comic characters.  We see this project in his notes and in his essay on Kafka’s work.  To be sure, the essay starts with a reflection on a Russian fool named Shuvalkin; but it also includes reflection on Jewish fools vis-à-vis the messianic.  Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin understood them, may have some relation to the Messianic in the sense that, in their foolishness, they are the unredeemed figures of Exile.  They are incomplete and are waiting, so to speak, to be redeemed from their sad state.  What brings all of these characters together – in a state of exile – is not so much their pathetic character as a kind of innocence and blindness. This naïve state, for readers like Benjamin, gives us a sense of the best humanity has to offer in bad times.  (For Benjamin, such naïve foolishness, and not the powers of reason, idealism, progress, humanism, or heroism, is what is best in man.  After all, as Benjamin said to his friend and scholar Gershom Scholem, regarding Kafka, “only a fool can help.”)  It is the small things – things that we often miss – which, for Benjamin, hold the most meaning and hope.  And, in a world dominated by reason, humanism, and progress, it is the innocent loser who lives closest to the smallest things.  It is this character who, strangely enough, is closest to redemption.

One would think that Robert Walser, a writer Kafka and Benjamin read lovingly, would appear in Walter Benjamin’s notes or on his essay on Kafka.  But he doesn’t.  I find this omission to be very odd.   Reading Walser, I find all of the qualities that Benjamin found of interest in his essay on Kafka; namely, as I mentioned above, innocence, blindness, and the importance of small things.  To be sure, Walser is the master of these elements.

Susan Sontag, in an essay and introduction to Walser, notes that Walser is “one of the most important writers of this century” and, referencing the often melancholic writer and playwright Samuel Beckett, calls him “a good humored sweet Beckett.”   But the most important aspect of his writing, for Sontag, is found in the little things:

Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small – as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.

He was, like Melville’s Bartelby, a “non-doer.”  But, as Sontag notes, for such a non-doer we wrote a lot.  But what does an “acute feeling for the interminable” and being a “non-doer” amount to?  For Sontag, it amounts to an “awareness of the creatureliness of life, of the fellowship of sadness.”

Reading this, and contrasting it to what Benjamin thought about Kafka and the messianic, I would suggest that we read what Sontag calls “an awareness of the creatureliness of life” and the “fellowship of the sadness” against the comic.  To be sure, as I mentioned above, Sontag called Walser a “good humored Beckett” and suggests such a balance of the comic and the melancholic. But she drops in the end for melancholy.  What I’d like to suggest is that Walser – from time to time – puts out characters that resonate with the Eastern European tradition of the schlemiel: they simpletons who pronounce the tension between hope and skepticism.  And by doing so, they put the possibility of the messianic into quotation marks yet without extinguishing it.  This doesn’t bring about melancholy so much as a wounded kind of hope that is invested in the simpleton.  When reading Walser, I can’t help but hear these resonances.

The “Job Application,” a wonderful short piece by Walser, gives a good sense of what I mean by my current presumption.  Walser’s story is about a young man who wants a job.  But there is a problem.  He doesn’t understand how one should “properly” write a job application. And this has much to do with his character which is humble and innocent.

In other words, he is unable to see and understand what sacrifices one must make when applying for and working in a 9 to 5 job.  We see this in the first lines:

I am a poor, young, unemployed person in the business field, my name is Wenzel, I am seeking a suitable poison, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free.

The schlemiel has been dubbed by Hannah Arendt – vis-à-vis Heinrich Heine – as a “lord of dreams.”  With this in mind, I can’t help but think of the schlemiel when I read Wenzel’s characterization of himself as “dreamy child” who wants a “small place in the shade.”  Wenzel repeats the fact that he is a simpleton – much like the schlemiel – when he states how:

Large and difficult task I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-ranging sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I don’t like to strain my intelligence overmuch.  I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp.

His simplicity is the last quality (the most meaningful one) he wants to outline in his “job application.”  And what makes this feature most interesting is the fact that after stating it he believes that the business to which he is applying will, unlike the “world in which we live,” accept him:

My mind clear but refuses to grasp things that are many, or too many by far, shunning them.  I am sincere and honest, and I am aware this signifies little in the world in which we live, so I shall be waiting…

He naively waits for them to accept him and it seems Wenzl believes that his honesty will win them over.  But as in many a schlemiel story (such as I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool or Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son), honesty and trust do not win out although the characters, to the very end, believe they will.

Here we have a clear tension between hope and skepticism, which characterizes so many schlemiel stories; and, like them, it is the simpleton who pronounces this tension.  His interest in the little things such as trust and humility are naïve, but they are, as Walter Benjamin would say, the only things that help.  Ultimately, Benjamin clung to these simple things more than he clung to Marxism or the hope for a youth revolution (which, as I pointed out before in this blog, he wrote of in his review of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot).

In the end of the day, the schlemiel tries to get a job.  But he does so for one simple reason: to show that what is at stake with the schlemiel is something the messianic.  But instead of clinging to Marxist hope, the author – like Walter Benjamin – clings to the man-child, the schlemiel.  Somehow, he believes that simplicity, honesty, and the lord of dreams – here, Wenzel – will win out in the end.   Like Wenzel, he hopes that one day the employer will “hire” the “lord of dreams” as an employee.

This is obviously a foolish (and impossible) hope.  But, finishing the line I mentioned above in reference to Walter Benjamin’s letter to Gershom Scholem, perhaps we can say that the fool may be the only one who can help; but the question is whether or not he can do humanity any good.   This kind of question is the one that would be asked by Sancho Panza of Don Quixote.  Benjamin’s letter teaches us that the same question could be asked on the eve of the Holocaust, but can we still ask it, today, after the Holocaust and countless horrors of the 20th century?  Does it still ring true?  Or are today’s readers of Walser devoid of any hope and united in what Sontag calls a “fellowship of sadness?”

“Do you Hear Me?: A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in ‘Conversation in the Mountains” – Part IV

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Klein reevaluates his life in light of his testimony that the only thing he loved was the burning down of tradition.  Lest we not forget, this testimony came through a conversation with another schlemiel, Gross.  This moment, it seems, is Klein’s breathturn (it is his Atemwende).  What he recounts, in light of this, is that he is “here” and – like a schlemiel – he sees and doesn’t see things around him.

As opposed to what Felstiner claims in Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, we can see that, regardless of his ‘serious’ testimony, he still sees himself as a windbag, that is, as a schlemiel. He shares this with his fellow Jewish schlemiel, Gross.  Who is also, still, a windbag :

And I know, I know cousin, I know I’ve met you here, and we talked, a lot…you Gross and me Klein, you, the windbag, and me, the windbag…me here and you here – (22)

In other words, what remains after the burning down of the tradition, is one schlemiel in conversation with another.   But there is more.  Although he has lost his tradition and although his love is focused on the memory of its burning down, Klein realizes that he wants to be loved by those he did not love!

Klein prays that now, after saying this, he is “accompanied by the love of those I didn’t love, me on the way to myself, up here”(22).  By saying this Klein admits that, as a schlemiel, he may be blind to many things he sees but what he hopes, most of all, is that now, somehow, he has done something that has earned the love of those he didn’t love; the love of the dead.  They are, so to speak, his tradition.

This is an impossible hope and this is what makes him a schlemiel – albeit of a different sort.  He didn’t love them.  But he hopes that somehow they, who are no longer alive, will love him.

Klein finishes by saying that he is on the way to himself; yet, from this we can see that he is not (and will not be) able to complete in his journey.  How, after all, can they be with him?  This can have only one sense for him; namely, the sense of redeeming the dead by way of remembrance.  Celan, in this sense, is following Walter Benjamin’s lead who writes in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that the historian can fan the “spark of hope” by remembering the dead and saving them from those who “win” in history.  But although the historian may save them, so to speak, they cannot love him.  That is categorically impossible and is, so to speak, wishful thinking (an “as if” – its “as if” the dead will love him not that they will).

Regardless of whether or not it is possible, Klein realizes that his journey to himself must include the love of those he didn’t love.  And this teaches us that, for Celan, his drama, the drama of the schlemiel, is about suffering, love, and conversation with the other.  To be sure, the schlemiel may be charming to the reader but what makes his charm so fascinating is the fact that, as a result of his absent-mindedness, he is not loved and his love is oftentimes misunderstood.

As in many schlemiel stories from Eastern Europe, the main character is mistreated and misunderstood by others.  For all their laughter at the schlemiel, we can see that they do not love him.  With a schlemiel like Gimpel, we can see that he, a schlemiel, does love them; he trusts them, regardless of how much they lie to him and trick him.

Nonetheless, as Ruth Wisse points out, it seems that even Gimpel knows that they are lying to him.  Nonetheless, Gimpel keeps on foolishly trying to find trust and love.  Like Klein and all the people he didn’t love, Gimpel is half asleep and half-dreaming.  The Messianic moment is annunciated in the fact that, even though he knows this, Gimpel still comes back to them.  And this is the lament we see with Klein.  He is small; that is, he is (like Gimpel and most traditional schlemiels) a simpleton.  But this humility comes out in a different way.  It comes out in the fact that, even though he is here, alive, and talking to Gross, he is still small insofar as he feels he didn’t love them when he probably did.  He, too, is a half-dreamer and is half-asleep since he thinks that they will now love him and come with him or that he didn’t truly love them.  These are half-truths.  The effect of his half-blindness and his half-dreaming is that he literally can’t look at himself as Gross (big) because he is Klein (small).

(An irony that arises from this fact is that Paul Celan told Theodor Adorno, for whom he wrote this piece, in part, that he saw Adorno as Gross; but Adorno said that he was not Jewish and that the Gross Celan was looking for was Gershom Scholem.  This would imply that Scholem was not the schlemiel; but, as we saw above, Celan ends the piece by saying that both Klein and Gross are still “windbags.”  That said, Klein still thinks of himself as Klein while we’re not sure what Gross thinks.  His response to Klein’s words is not recorded in “Conversation in the Mountains.”)

Nonetheless, Klein foolishly believes that his words will now win the love of those he did not love.  And this is where he is a schlemiel.  He hopes that they – the dead (who appear, as it were, in a dream-like vision of lying with him half-asleep/half-dreaming) – can hear him.  Like Nobody who asks “Can-you-hear-Me,” Klein asks the same question.  Gross can hear him.  But they cannot.

In the end, he is still a “windbag” – but this windbag, this schlemiel, has a big heart.  And his journey is not simply forwards it is also backwards, toward the dead.  And in this journey, he will always be “on-the-way” to himself…and the other.  His dream of love and trust is the dream of every traditional schlemiel.  And it is out of a conversation with another schlemiel that he becomes aware of it.  It is through this conversation that he has a breathturn which turns him toward Nobody, others, and another windbag named Gross.  It also turns him toward us.

Klein is a schlemiel only insofar as his heart can turn, through all of this noise, to finding or securing love.  And even if this love may be impossible to earn, it is the very thing that give Klein his humanity.  His blindness (or rather half-blindness) in pursuit of this love should give us pause.  For even if he is half blind, he can still hear Nobody say and can hear himself ask Gross the same question – a question that can lead to a rejoinder or solitude.

Do you hear me?

And, in a messianic fashion, Klein has “come” to ask this question and receive an answer which is, in effect, just another question:

Why and what for? 

These questions, though troubling, are in search of an answer. But the take-away from all this is that the schlemiel doesn’t want an answer so much as someone to speak to.  Underlying it all is the risk that the schlemiel takes when he or she speaks to the other.  This is the risk of being or not being loved, heard, and understood.  Every comedienne or comedian who takes on an audience knows this.  And, in this piece, the schlemiel’s charm is based on his vulnerability upon being exposed to this risk.  And what we, as readers, realize is that though he desires the love of those he didn’t love, and though he feels his conversation with Gross may have earned it, his feelings are, like those he “lay with,” half-dream and half-reality.  Like any schlemiel, his love is caught up in dreams.

And this is what Klein came to tell Gross and us.  We, strangely enough, share this conversation.  Like Klein and Gross, we, too, have come to speak; we have come with the shadow and our hour; we have been hit.  And we must speak.  But what we say, regardless of whether we want to admit it, is half-dream/half-reality.  And though we may not have loved them, those other half-dreamers, we hope they will love us if we speak the truth.  And perhaps this is the most foolish hope of all. But Celan suggests that we entertain it as we converse with fellow-schlemiels.

Perhaps we will be loved.  Perhaps we will not.  We just hope they will accompany us as we walk down that road – the same road Kafka walked with a bunch of nobodies.  Perhaps, on the road, someone will ask us “Why did you come?”  And we will say, like Klein, “because I had to talk, maybe, to myself or to you, talk with my mouth and tongue, not just with my stick.”

A Note on Paul Celan’s Minor Language in “Conversation in the Mountains”

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Although Celan’s “major” language was German (a language he was raised with and wrote his poetry in), Celan’s work was also influenced by “minor” languages.  The contrast between major and minor languages comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.    In the book, the proposal is made that we rethink the writing of authors who, like Kafka, live in a Milleu where more than one language is spoken.  And this background enables (and enabled) authors to “deterritorialize” and “reteritorialize” the major language (in the case of Kafka and Celan, German).  To be sure, both Kafka and Celan lived on the fringe of the German empire.  And both of them played around with different German dialects and styles in their work; this had the advantage of introducing nuance into the major language.

But there is more to the story.  Deleuze and Guitarri are not simply interested in what it means to write as a bilingual author.  They are also interested in looking at the textual alterations of Kafka (and other writers) in terms of new combinations, relations, and speeds, that these writers introduce (what they call the “machinic”).  In other words, they’re writing affects the way the major language speaks by altering textual rhythms and relations.

This is what I see and hear in Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” (although it can be heard throughout his poetry but not in such a pronounced manner as in this text).  The way this alteration is effected in that text is by way of the repetitive “babbling” and “shrugging” of the schlemiels Klein and Gross.  Their conversation introduces a speed that is alien to the German way of conversation.  But, unlike Felstiner (whose reading I discussed in my last blog entry) I would say that this alteration has a positive valance.  For Celan, it’s strange rhythm opens up a new way for Celan to relate to German, himself, the other, and Jewishness.

After the Holocaust, Celan seeks out a new relationship which takes into account what has been lost and what must survive.  But unlike many of his other texts, this one is explicitly comic and was not to be repeated again.  Its style is singular.  And for that reason it is more powerful.  Unlike other writers, performers, and actors, Celan didn’t make the style and rhythms in “Conversation in the Mountains” his “schtick.”

Nonetheless, it stands as a unique moment in his work which calls on his readers to seriously consider how this text was, for him, a milestone.   It helped him to deterritorialize and reterritorialize Mausheln (Yiddish dialect German) and German.  And he did this in a conversation between two schlemiels, on the one hand, and a minor and a major language, on the other.

I’ll end this entry with the first meeting of schlemiels (what Kakfa in “Excursion in the Mountains” called the meeting of “nobodies”) that “Conversation in the Mountains” records.  When Klein meets Gross, there is silence, but as I will show in the next entry, this doesn’t last long:

And who do you think came to meet him?  His cousin came to meet him, his first cousin, a quarter of a Jew’s life older, tall he came, came, he too, in a shadow, borrowed of course – because I ask you and ask you, how could he come with his own when God made him a Jew – came, tall, came to meet the other, Gross approached Klein, and Klein, the Jew, silenced his stick before the stick of the Jew Gross.

Who is ‘He’…Kafka or… Someone…Else? Maurice Blanchot and Paul Auster’s Childish Fascination with ‘Him’

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When I first read Paul Auster’s “Pages for Kafka,” I was struck by the fact that, although he mentioned Kafka’s name in his title, he didn’t make any reference to Kafka’s name throughout the piece.  Instead, Auster refers to “he” and “him” repeatedly.

Here is one instance, which I cited in my last blog entry:

He is never going anywhere.  And yet he is always going.  Invisible to himself, he gives himself up to the drift of his own body, as if he could follow the trail of what refuses to lead him.

And then it occurred to me that the reason Auster was obsessed with “him” had a lot to do with an author and thinker he has, without a doubt, read: the celebrated French literary critic and thinker, Maurice Blanchot.  (I say, ‘without a doubt’ because Auster translated two of Maurice Blanchot’s novellas under the title Vicious Circles and he married Lydia Davis, a writer and well-known translator of Blanchot, the same year he wrote “Pages for Kafka.”)

Blanchot has written a few significant essays on Kafka.  But of all these essays, only one came to mind when thinking about Auster’s obsessive reference to ‘him’; namely, the essay entitled “Essential Solitude” (which appears in the Lydia Davis collection on Kafka).

In Blanchot’s essay, Kafka is mentioned in relation to what Blanchot calls the “interminable, the incessant” which he relates to the word, “he”:

Writing is the interminable, the incessant. The writer, it is said, gives up saying “I.”  Kafka remarks, with surprise, with enchantment, that he has entered into literature as soon as he can substitute “He” for “I.”

In the wake of this citation, Blanchot becomes what Harold Bloom would call a “strong poet.”  He does this by slightly revising what Kafka understands by this movement from the “I” to “He.”

This is true, but the transformation is much more profound.  The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing.  He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. 

In other words, Kafka, according to Blanchot, was so to speak blinded by the light of his “surprising” discovery.  Kafka thought he was discovering himself in “Him” when, in fact, he was literally discovering something altogether impersonal.

The more Blanchot talks about “Him,” the more Kafka comes across as a dupe who believes that language can help a writer to come to him or herself by stripping him or herself of his or her “I.”

In contrast to Kafka, writing, for Blanchot, is a way of making oneself into an “echo” by letting that which “cannot cease speaking”… speak.

To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking….I bring to this incessant speech the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence.  I make perceptible, by my silent mediation, the uninterrupted affirmation, the giant murmuring upon which language opens and thus becomes image, becomes imaginary, becomes a speaking depth, an indistinct plentitude which is empty.

In lines like these, one hears Martin Heidegger’s claim, in his essays on language, that “language speaks.”  One also hears what Blanchot will later call “the infinite conversation.”  Here, the “I” doesn’t speak.  He, the other, does.  But the I, the writer doesn’t totally dissolve.  Rather, he still “keeps the cutting edge, the violent swiftness of active time, of the instant.”

In other words, the I only has the instant, the “cutting edge,” which makes room for language to speak and “become image.”  What Blanchot means by language is something very serious.  There is no discovery and there is nothing humorous here.  The experience of language, in fact, denotes more or less what Levinas would call, in his earlier essays, an exposure to the il y a (the anonymous and terrifying “there is” of existence).

When this happens, the writer becomes other; the writer becomes “him”: “the third person is myself become no one…it is his not being himself.”  In other words, he is himself and other-than-himself.

This movement reminds me of Heidegger’s experience of the “nihilation of the Nothing” in his essay “What is Metaphysics.”  After articulating the experience of such nihiliation, Heidegger notes, with an ellipsis (…) that “one feels ill at ease.”  Not me but “someone.”

Blanchot “echoes” this passage from Heidegger’s essay:

When I am alone, I am not alone, but, in the present, I am already returning to myself in the form of Someone. Someone is there, where I am alone…Someone is what is still present when there is no one.  Where I am alone, I am not there; no one is there, but the impersonal is: the outside, as that which prevents, precedes, and dissolves the possibility of any personal relation.

But this is not the Nothing, it is, for Blanchot, the il y a, the endless “there is.”  Which he calls “the outside.”  To be sure, in this moment of otherness, the outside is with “me.” And it is one’s “intimacy” with the outside that creates restlessness and what Blanchot calls “fascination.”  Although Heidegger also writes on fascination in the second chapter of Being and Time and even though, as Christopher Fynsk argues in Heidegger: Thought and Historicity that this “fascination” is with Dasein’s “originary disappropriation,” Blanchot leaves Heidegger further behind with his new reading of fascination.  But, perhaps without knowing it, Blanchot returns back to Kafka.

Blanchot notes that fascination deals, specifically, with vision.  It “seizes sight and renders it interminable.” But this makes for a kind of light that is not simply terrifying; rather, “one sinks into” a light that is “both terrifying and tantalizing.”

Strangely enough, the experience that Blanchot uses to illustrate this is “our childhood”:

If our childhood fascinates us, this happens because childhood is the moment of fascination, is itself fascinated.

Blanchot notes that “perhaps” the “maternal figure” is fascinating because “she concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment.”  But it is only “because the child is fascinated that the mother is fascinating.” And in this fascination there is a misperception: “Whoever is fascinated doesn’t see, properly speaking, what he sees. Rather, it touches him in an immediate proximity.” And what touches the child is “the immense, faceless Someone.”

Blanchot is telling us that in letting “fascination rule language,” writers are like children.  By letting fascination rule, one “stays in touch, through language, in language, with the absolute milieu where the thing becomes image again.”  Fascination itself is an opening “onto that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.”

This suggests that writers are fascinated with the same things children are fascinated.  In effect, writers are men-children.  They are, in some ways, like schlemiels in the sense that they are without a world yet…in touch with “the thing become image again.”

Auster’s reference to Kafka in his “Pages for Kafka” as “him” and “he” is an attempt to bring out this childishness.  And, although it is serious, it is laughable.  His Kafka wanders toward a Paradise but gets distracted with things he sees along the way.  He sees what is close to him.  He looks down at his feet, walks oddly, and wanders all over.  However, he is on the road.  And this road is a road to paradise.  As I noted in the previous blog, Auster recognizes that this is foolish, but he affirms it anyway.  In other words, he, like Blanchot, affirms fascination. But Auster notes its comical aspect while Blanchot gets caught up in the childlike fascination of the child which, for some reason, he doesn’t see as comical.

But is the “he” Auster refers to a schlemiel?

While writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer put forth Schlemiels who are blind to the world and are, nonetheless, in touch with “things,” we know that they are schlemiels.  True, they are laughable because they can’t relate to the world.  Yet, on the other hand, the world is at fault for being… a world in which innocence and trust have no place.  And this turns readers against the world, not the schlemiel.

Nonetheless, Motl, Menachem Mendl, and Gimpel are all, as Auster says of Kafka, on the road to Paradise.  But, for Blanchot, fascination won’t lead one to Paradise so much as toward “that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.”  But, if that is true, then what of other people?  Aren’t they a part of the world? Aren’t Gimpel, Menachem Mendl, and Motl constantly moving towards people? And even though they may miss meeting up with them in the world, they, at the very least, try.  Although the world is in conflict with the schlemiel, we the readers would ultimately like the world to one day be in tune with this comic character’s goodness.  And that is the point.  Childhood fascination and absent mindedness are not the true ends of the schlemiel tale – a shared world of goodness is.

Given this understanding, I wonder what Auster or Blanchot would say to Paul Celan’s proposal in his prose piece “Conversation in the Mountains” – a story that parallels Auster’s story of the fool on the road.   In Celan’s story, however, there are, apparently, two people are on the road, not one.  And it is the dialogue between them that Celan stages.  This back-and-forth rhythm of conversation enunciates a kind of Jewishness that is singular and unique.  In this conversation we don’t see childish characters who are simply or only interested in things.  They also speak to each other.  They seek out a relationship to the world which, no matter how absent minded it is, is real.

Without this added element, it seems as if Blanchot and Auster move “him” toward a fascinating world that is fit for a child who has no friends save in things.  This man-child, in his “essential solitude,” would only have Someone (him) as a companion.   Someone who he lets speak.   Language alone doesn’t speak.  People do.

After all, no matter how lonely Kafka seemed, he ironically noted, in his Octavio Notebooks, that Don Quixote’s biggest problem was not his imagination; it was Sancho Panza.  It was the other person.  But these are the problems that Kafka, in a Yiddish way, kvetched about but loved.  Sancho Panza, like all friends, has a proper name.

Perhaps friends are less fascinating than things.  But, at the very least, we don’t “wander” on that road alone.  We have “someone” to share the journey with (regardless of how blind).  And this is what we find in Cervantes’ Don Quixote and in the Jewish Don Quixote: Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the Third.  Schlemiels try not to travel alone.  Their otherness is shared and Someone is always ‘there’….

Kafka, Seriously: Paul Auster’s Kafka

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After reading and posting Matthue Roth’s guest post yesterday, I reflected on how seriously many writers, literary critics, and philosophers took Kafka.  I find it interesting that few can sense the irony and humor in his work. What they usually find is weight and despondency.  What I’m looking for in Kafka is much different.

I’m looking for the comical aspect of his work.  Like Walter Benjamin, I am looking where no one else looks.  And taking Kafka’s cues, I’m looking for the small things.  Its these small things that make for a nuanced schlemiel.   One need not go so deep.  One can stay on the surface.  But, strangely enough, staying on the surface is a serious endeavor.

The comic aspect of Kafka’s work may be found in the close attention to detail. One may not think this comic; but for Shalom Aleichem, Motl or Menachem Mendl’s attention to detail is the basis for their constant distraction.  The same can be said for Charlie Chaplin or any of the Three Stooges.

Like children, they forget what they are supposed to do and get caught in something else.  They don’t get caught up in the depths or with the seriousness of the sacred.  They play.

And this is what Matthue was pointing out in his post.  To be sure, his book My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs is for kids.  It is replete with accessible phrasing and illustrations to capture the imagination of children and adults (or man-children).

As I pointed out in my reading of Kafka’s “Temple” aphorism, the childish scribbles on the temple remain.  They are on the surface of the temple and reduce its depth.  Yet, at the same time, the children’s scribbles have made a serious joke out of the temple.

The trick, in Kafka, is to figure out how to retrain the tension between the serious and the comic.  By doing this, the reader will not get stumped in the seriousness of his or her solitude and despondence.

On this note, I recently read Paul Auster’s “Pages for Kafka” with great interest. The piece, written in 1974 (and published in The Art of Hunger), is an indication of how seriously one can take Kafka.  The short piece was written, like Walter Benjamin’s piece on Kafka, for the anniversary of Kafka’s death.  Due to the occasion, one would expect it, to some extent, to be serious and mournful.  Moreover, Auster is not known for writing comic novels.

On the one hand, Auster’s reading reflects an acute sense of despair that is based on a journey that never goes anywhere.  On the other hand, it has a comic ring to it since ‘he’ (that is, Kafka) is constantly getting distracted.  Even though the failures Auster enumerates in this piece seem to tilt the balance toward a serious and mournful approach to Kafka, they are ultimately based on Kafka’s ridiculous and impossible endeavor.

Auster begins his piece by describing Kafka’s main endeavor (which we find in the Octavio Notebooks or in a piece like “Before the Law”): “He wanders toward paradise.”

This wandering is endemic for Auster.  He meditates on it in the whole piece and relates it to one of his favorite themes (in many of his books): the travelogue.

Auster notes that Kafka “moves from one place to another, and dreams of stopping”(23).   But he can’t stop because this “desire to stop” haunts him. This makes no sense.  How could a desire to do something keep one from doing it?  Isn’t he haunted, rather, by the goal, paradise?  Auster explains by simply reiterating: “He wanders.  That is to say: without the slightest hope of ever going anywhere.”

If that is the case, then why is he still walking?  And what would a schlemiel be if he had no hope of going anywhere?  Gimpel, for instance, is the embodiment of hope.  That’s why he continually trusts people while being betrayed by them.   And, as we learn at the end of Singer’s tale, he keeps on wandering.

I’d like to suggest that we read Auster against Kafka (or “him”).  The narrator is making his skeptical observations of “him” – the fool on the road to paradise named Kafka.  By reading Auster this way, we can see just how comic this piece really is.

For the narrator, the central paradox can be found in Kafka’s inertia and its relationship to wandering: “He is never going anywhere.  And yet he is always going.”  The reason for this, says Auster, has to do with the fact that Kafka is “invisible to himself.”  Lest we not forget, this is one of the most important aspects of the schlemiel.  S/he doesn’t know what s/he is doing.  Although they are hopeful, his/her actions don’t fit with reality.  Auster tells us that, in being invisible  to himself, Kafka “gives himself up to the drift of his body, as if he could follow the trail of what refuses him.”

In other words, Auster is willing to concede that Kafka, like Don Quixote, is a blind wanderer.  Even though he doesn’t know where he is going and is blind to it, his “blindness…invents the road he has taken.”  This invention is not “intentional”; it is, rather, based on giving in to what Kafka, in his Octavio Notebooks, called the “indestructible.”  Because he is a skeptical narrator, Auster won’t call it faith or passion.  Rather, for Auster, it is a surrender to “the drift of his body.”    And we can have no doubt that this can be comical and even inspiring – although it is “misguided” and although we “know” he’ll never reach paradise.

Here Auster notes the “existential” nature of this “road.”  Even though it is misguided, it is “his road, his alone.”  And the further along he goes on it, the more he “doubts.”  His breaths become “fitful.”   No one “rhythm” or “pace” can be held because of this ever-increasing doubt.  The image is kind of like Chaplin’s going down a road, but with a difference.  This movement is more fitful and less graceful.

Auster adds another element to Kafka’s walk; namely, his past and his point of departure.  Auster notes, with melancholy, that he leaves it behind and thinks he has a vantage point, but he doesn’t.

His only “law” is that “he remains.” And instead of looking to the future, Auster tells us that he looks down:

All this conspires against him, so that each moment, even as he continues on his way, he feels he must turn his eyes from the distance that lies before him, like a lure, to the movement of his feet, appearing and disappearing below him (24).

In other words, the fool will look at what’s near him and get caught up in it.  That’s where he foolishly “remains.”  He’s caught up in the details and, as Auster puts it, he becomes an “intimate of all that is near.”

But unlike the playful Motl or Menachem Mendl of Shalom Aleichem, he gets too caught up in detail and this attachment weakens “him”:

Whatever he can touch, he lingers over, examines, describes with a patience that at each moment exhausts him, overwhelms him, so that even as he goes on, he calls this going into question, and questions each step he is about to take (25).

This is the Kafka-schlemiel trap.  He can’t move because he is too attached to what is near him.  He gets caught up in it and questions about where to go after he has encountered this or that detail.  Auster sums this up with an adage of sorts: “He who lives for an encounter with the unseen becomes an instrument of the seen.”  He becomes a “spokesman of its surfaces.” But that is not what “he” wants.  He wants to go to paradise but, Auster tells us, Kafka gets caught up on the way with the road.  In other words, he’s a schlemiel like Mendl Mocher Sforim’s schlemiels The Wanderings of Benjamin III who can’t arrive at their destination.

After noting “his” being stuck on the surface, Auster repeats the message: “He wanders.”  And then he states Kafka’s other law.  He doesn’t simply remain “where he is” he also has an ethos:

Whatever is given to him, he will refuse. Whatever is spread before him, he will turn his back on.  He will refuse, the better to hunger for what he has denied himself. For to enter the promised land is to despair of ever coming near it.

This is Auster’s law.  It is the law of hunger.  And it keeps him moving and not moving.  It keeps him hungering for fragments.  For, between one shadow or one fragment and another, says Auster, there is light.

What this amounts to is a serious endeavor that clings to and rejects revelation.  Yet, on the other hand, it is a comic endeavor.  But who is “he.”  Kafka? Auster?

In the end, he, whoever he is, is like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote.  The narrator’s description ends with a note of redemption in the sense that he says that between one shadow and another there is light.  But does he think this or does the narrator?

Who would take such a foolish path?  Is the author dreaming of light between this or that thing or is the he, the schlemiel, dreaming this?

A rationalist would reject such a road, but the writer doesn’t.  For Auster, the poet must trust experience even if it is, at times, deceptive.  This is what the schlemiel teaches us. Although we, the readers, may see that paradise is not to be found, the road to experience paves the way (or as Auster says, “invents” the way).  And it brings the world near to us in the most comic fashion.  As the world approaches, Paradise withdraws but the schlemiel insists that the way to paradise is through the world.  And this is the comic conceit.

He actually thinks that in this or that fragment, this or that thing, redemption is near.  While we all “know” its ridiculous, however, we still foolishly follow “him” (like children who should ‘know better’) in his journey   And so does Auster.

Seriously.  I’m not joking.

Guest Post by Author Matthue Roth: “How to Analyze Kafka (Hint: It Helps if You’re 4 yrs Old)”

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It’s either a huge compliment or a huge mistake to be invited so kindly to write a piece for this blog — and, more particularly, this series. Diving at the heart of what Kafka has to offer the universe is a noble pursuit, and the idea that I turned some of his stories into a picture book for kids either fits in perfectly or is way out of its depth.
Earlier this week, on this blog’s fabulous series of Kafka-related pieces, the Schlemiel wrote that “Kafka and Benjamin direct us to a more acute sense of the ‘how’ of their work rather than the ‘what.'” When you read Kafka, whether you’re an academic or not, and whether you’re a kid or not, it’s pretty impossible not to look for deeper themes and connections, some meaning beyond the apparent text and, well, thestory of the story. At some point in every Kafka piece, there’s a moment where you pull back* and realize that maybe there are deeper things going on than just the plot, the characters, the events in motion. Is Gregor Samsa a disgrace to his family because he’s a giant vermin, or because he’s a hopelessly single middle-manager? Are The Castle’s K. and The Trial’s Josef merely physically lost, or is there a deeper existential lost-ness?
We’ve been conditioned not to ask these questions, not because they’re obvious (although they certainly are) but because the nature of the question disspells everything we’ve been taught to believe in about stories. Stories are spells, and in them the interior and exterior are fused together, from the sublime to the ridiculous; it’s taken for granted in what we think of today as “serious” literature, but it’s no less true in popular literature. In Twilight, Bella is drawn to a dark, sulking guy because he makes his solitude and broodiness into something supernatural and magical, something she wishes it would be for herself (spoiler: it happens! She becomes a vampire too). In Dan Brown’s books, “symbologist” Robert Langdon is solving literal puzzles and infiltrating secret orders, but he’s also ostensibly engaged in a quest for self-definition, simultaneously attempting to impress whatever vaguely international love interest pops up as well as the naysayers who are, essentially, always asking, what is a symbologist?
So now that I’ve offended basically everyone who’s ever liked Kafka by comparing him to two of the most vapid, flaccid characters in modern fiction (both of which I think are reasonably good books, taken at their own merits), let me dig the knife in a little deeper by suggesting that, if we’re going to set up some sort of objective comparison, Kafka’s stories are more fundamentally poppy than both. Part of what draws us to Kafka, I think, is that there’s no distinction between signifier and signified, barely a set of cultural constructs that we need to understand, barely any references beyond the words themselves. A lot of the time, all we need to understand Kafka’s writing is a rudimentary understanding of the language.
None of which is actually true. The qualities about which he writes, loneliness and isolation and the fundamental meaninglessness, or our inability to find meaning in our lives, are the very stuff that our lives our made of. The other day someone asked me about my My First Kafka book, and, when I explained, he said, “Kafka? You mean, the philosopher?” Maybe once you pare human experience down to a labelless blob of emotions and motivations, as Kafka does, you switch from stories to philosophy. Or maybe at heart all our greatest philosophy are just stories. And that’s why, in the end, kids understand them so much better than the rest of us.
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* that is, if you’re me
(In addition to My First Kafka, Matthue Roth is the author of several works of fiction: Never Mind the Goldbergs, Yom Kippur A Go-Go, Candy in Action, Losers, and Automatic. Check out his blog for more:http://www.matthue.com/p/my-first-kafka.html)

“Don’t You Mind People Grinning in Your Face!” Son House, Kafka, and The Grin

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In preparation for a series of blog entries that I will be doing on Walter Benjamin, Kafka, and Comic Gesture, I’ve been pursuing research on humorous gestures.  In yesterday’s post, for instance, I pointed out that Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin were both fascinated (and afflicted by) “childish” and “clumsy scribblings.”   The fact is that they both write about this gesture and consider it to be of the utmost importance.  But what does it mean that they admit to these gestures and “own up” to them?  Have they taken on a tradition which starts with Don Quixote or with a tradition that starts with the end of prophesy – as I have suggested in the past?

Bearing mention of these comic gestures, Kafka and Benjamin direct us to a more acute sense of the “how” of their work rather than the “what.”  Their reading of these “childish scribblings,” their identification with them, is instructive.  Teetering between the gestures of an adult and a child, gesturing like schlemiels, they show us a wholly other side of their work and expose us to a sense of comic historicity.

But it’s not just the singular gestures – the childish and clumsy scribblings that they write of and identify with –that I’m interested in.  I’m interested in how these comic gestures relate to or spur others and how they are shared.

What kinds of relationships do schlemiels create by virtue of their gestures; that is, by virtue of their clumsy childish scribblings?

In the last blog, I suggested that these scribblings are related to the temple (the Holy) on the one hand, and the future on the other.   In other words, although they are ruinous of the holy, they, at the same time, open up a circuit in relation to the future and another kind of otherness which comes to the fore in the wake of the sacred’s departure.  And here, I would add, it opens up, additionally, a circuit with other people.

How, in fact, does a comic gesture create a relationship to the future, otherness, and others?

One of the most interesting things I find about many of my favorite comedians is that they often don’t laugh or even smile at the audience.  They may spur laughter through their gestures, but they often don’t smile or grin.  The audience does.  They see all of us laughing for the better or the worse.  This gestural relationship is intriguing as it creates a community based on ridicule and difference.

The comedian wants to spur laughter; however, they don’t want to be laughed at.  Laughter, as it were, can create relief or pain.  And the difference between the two is prepositional: the difference between laughing “with” and laughing “at.”

However, today, some comedians want to be laughed “at” and to laugh “with” others “at” themselves.  This complex form of self-ridicule can be seen in comedians like Larry David, Louis CK, Marc Maron, and Andy Kaufmann, to name only a few. What makes these comedians unique is that they laugh at those who laugh at them while at the same time laughing at themselves.  They laugh “with” others, “at” themselves, and “at” the audience. The schlemiel, to be sure, is oftentimes laughed at.  But he or she doesn’t get it or, if he or she does, just moves on.  That’s the trick.

However, in reality, no one can just be laughed at and go on unscathed.  While researching gesture, I came across this video by Son House, the legendary Blues Musician and Preacher.  In this video, he gives solace to those who have been scathed by the quintessential comic gesture: the grin.

Son House’s advice, throughout the song, is not to “mind people grinning in your face.”  The way to get through people grinning “in” (or “at”) your face, sings Son House, is to turn to keep in mind that “a true friend is hard to find.  This implies that people you thought were your friends are really not.  The gesture of their betrayal is the “grin.”    True friends won’t grin at you.

Seen from the perspective of a schlemiel like Gimpel or Motl, what does this mean?  It would imply that they have no true friends.  But that doesn’t keep them from trusting people.  The comedy of the schlemiel is inherent in the fact that they still do trust people.  It is the viewer, however, who might have the problem.  The viewer is the one who might become cynical.   Unlike Gimpel, he or she knows what its like to be laughed at.

Son House’s song speaks to them.  It is a gestural response to being ridiculed.  It is a response to the grin.  The song actually addresses the wound a comic gesture may inflict on a person.  His song, in this sense, is “universal” in scope insofar as everyone – at some time in his or her life – has been laughed at by people he or she thought were friends.

So, on the one hand we have the schlemiel, whose comedy exposes us to a ridicule that he or she cannot recognize; on the other hand, we have the viewer who does recognize this ridicule.  On the one hand we have comedy; on the other hand, we have the comic blues. Both are sides of the same coin. And on the coin we find one thing: the grin.

Kafka noted the relationship of the grin to truth his December 11th entry in the his Third Octavio Notebook:

Our art is a way of being dazzled by truth: the light of the grotesquely grimacing retreating face is true, and nothing else.

For Kafka, the truth is not simply in the grinning face.  It is in the movement of the grimacing face; it can be found in the retreat of a “grotesquely grimacing (grinning) face.”  The fact that Kafka notes the retreat rather than the approach of the grimacing face is telling.  It indicates that Kafka sees truth in the wake of ridicule.

We hear this in Son House’s song.  He sings it to those who the grin has touched.  We also hear it both Kakfa and Benjamin’s mediations on the “scribblings of children” which embody the grotesque grin.  Kafka seems to be telling us that our truth, the truth of who we are, can be found in the withdrawal of ridicule.

This implies that the comedian who sees the audience grinning back at him or her has the best view of truth.   This relationship, I would aver, is not a once in a lifetime thing.  Kafka suggests that this gesture of comic withdrawal happens repeatedly.

This gesture has a lot in common with a childish scribble; however, the only difference is that a scribble remains inscribed while the grin comes and goes.  Nonetheless, perhaps like Derrida, we can imagine the scribble as a trace which, in its iterability, is caught up in endless repetition…constantly ridiculing the totality of the text in withdrawing the text from itself.  Perhaps the text, in this sense of being childish, comes and goes?

Regardless, Kafka understood that the relationship to the truth, which he associated with God, can only be related to comically…in the withdrawal of the grin or in the wake of “childish scribbles.”

On the other hand, a Preacher named Son House advises us “don’t mind people grinning in your face.”  The purpose of this line is to give solace to the believer who, in his or her search for God and justice, will have to face ridicule.  The question, for Son House, is what to think and how to cope with this ridicule.  The question, for Kafka, deals with the meaning of ridicule as it retreats and leaves us powerless and weak.

Nonetheless, both of them see truth in the withdrawing face of laughter (in the wake of laughter).  And perhaps this is a new, comic tradition, which emerges in the wake of God’s withdrawal or, as Kafka might say, in the wake of a withdrawing grin….