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


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.”

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


In the midst of a difficult situation, when pressed hard, we speak truly.  We speak from the heart.  And when I say “we,” I am not excluding anyone.  Schlemiels like Klein and Gross (who the narrator of “Conversation in the Mountains” calls “windbags”) are included.  What Celan wants to tell us is that the schlemiel, as he understands him, is not simply a “babbling” fool.  He has some wisdom to offer. But Celan teaches us that to get to this wisdom, we must carefully listen to all of their repetitions and noise for the right moment – what I have called, in previous blog entries, a messianic moment.  This moment is the moment where we come face to face with the possibility of revelation.  And at this moment, when Klein says “I have come,” the schlemiel doesn’t babble; he speaks.  These words, I would argue, are preparatory and they prompt us to ask the messianic question: Why have you come?   

Celan doesn’t want to eliminate the schlemiel’s “noise,” which is the preface to the announcement of his “coming.” Rather, Celan wants Klein and Gross to speak through the noise (which we hear throughout their repetitions and stuttering).  Through this noise we hear a distinct voice; the voice of Klein (the small one) which resounds that of Gross (the big one).   The theme of speaking through noise, which is a comical affair, echoes what we learned from the Meridian Speech

As I noted, in that speech the announcement of truth is prompted and made by the Barker of a Circus.  He looks for your hearing which implies that we – the readers/listeners – are, so to speak, watching a circus when we listen for true speech.   Hence, in addressing “you” the barker includes us in the joke.  And as in any joke, there is an element of truth that the listeners are privy.

In “Conversation in the Mountains,” it is Klein who is the first to speak in the imperative.  Like the Barker of the Meridian Speech, Klein is addressing “you” (and not simply Gross).  Like Celan in the Meridian Speech, Klein is looking for the breathturn (the atemwende).  He begs, repeatedly, to be heard.  And this “desperate” conversation, lest we not forget, is inspired not only by the muteness of nature; it is also inspired by God.  Klein calls him Nobody.  And he claims that Nobody speaks to him through His silence.  And this speech evinces a desperate conversation between Klein and Nobody.  (This, I would add, as Celan does, is a Jewish conversation.) 

Klein takes this desperate conversation into himself and translates it into his conversation with Gross.  This is done not only by describing what Nobody says but also by addressing this question (“Do you hear me?) to Gross.  This question is spoken through all the noise.  And it emerges out of the Messianic moment when Klein announces that he has “come”:

‘Do you hear me: he says – I know, cousin, I know… Do you hear me, he says, I’m here. I am here, I’ve come.  I’ve come with my stick, me and no other, me and not him, me with my hour, my undeserved hour, me who have been hit, who have not been hit, me with my memory, with my lack of memory, me, me, me’(20).

This translation extends messianic moment.  It explains what it means to come or arrive: God has come and so has Klein.  God has summoned him with his “do you hear me.”  (As Abraham, Moses, etc are summoned by God to listen, so is Klein.)  But Klein, in turn, summons Gross (and the reader).  He, that is Klein, “comes” with all of his suffering.  He is like a leper Messiah who has “come.”  But this Schlemiel Messiah hasn’t come to redeem so much as testify.

He has come with his “hour,” his “undeserved hour.”  Klein also comes with his wounds and testifies that he has “been hit.” But, at the same time, he says he has not been hit (as if he is afraid of admitting to his trauma for fear of being punished).  Klein also says he comes with his “memory” and with his “lack of memory.”  This confusion, of coming and not coming with this or that thing, is the noise through which he, as a Schlemiel Messiah, speaks.  And through this noise, we hear the testimony of who he has come, in this moment in time, to speak to: Gross and you, the reader/listener.  Speaking is testifying to the other.  And, in a sense, it is Messianic.

His last words, spoken to himself, are given to Gross and the reader.  We bear witness to his suffering and his attempt to understand “how” he has come and what he has to say to us, now.  Here we have a person who has been hit and who hits himself.  The word that delimits his trauma and his mission is the word “me.”  The repetition of this word puts the accent on the present and it is not selfish; it is relational: “me, me, me.”

Each “me” indicates the singularity of the schlemiel’s pain and his Jewishness.  But it also indicates that he doesn’t know what to do with his, so to speak, election.  He is deeply affected by this “hit,” this election, which comes from Nobody.  But he translates it differently: Nobody wants to be heard and so does Klein! But both, it seems, are afraid that they may not be heard and that they will not be loved.

This is frustrating.  It makes Klein react.  We see this in the fact that, in a rebellious act of sorts, Klein tells Gross that “Do-you-hear-me” is “one with the glaciers.”  This call to be heard by Nobody is one with all things that are silent and opaque. This declaration, in the face of Nobody’s opaque calling, forces Klein to turns back on himself.  And all Klein can note is what he has said from the beginning: he is here with his shadow – his and not his own.  In other words, all he can note is that he is Jewish. 

But this is not all.  For the first time in the text, Klein gives an account that draws on memory and, to be sure, this is clearest reflection his own condition in the entire piece.  It is, so to speak, a prophetic kind of reflection.   In addition to being “here,” speaking to Gross, we now learn that Klein “was” with “many” people who were “different yet like me.”  Like schlemiels, these people “dream and don’t dream,” “sleep and don’t sleep.”  But here’s the point: Klein notes that, though he “lay with them,” he did not “love them” because he did not think they could love him.   In other words, the most important thing for him is their love. 

The only thing he “loved” was the burning down of “his candle.”  This candle was special because 1) it was “his” and 2) it was the same candle “he” gave to “our mother’s father.”  In other words, Klein recalls the tradition that was given from “him” (that is, God) to “our mother’s father” (who, if we are to take Klein as Paul Celan, was as Felstiner tells us, a Hasid).  To clarify what this candle is, Klein notes that it was the Sabbath Candle that was given on the seventh day. 

After describing the tradition in such a loving way, Klein admits that he “didn’t love it”: “I did not love it, I loved its burning down and, you know, I haven’t loved anything since” (21).  And this is where the schlemiel bespeaks his lament, which was hidden throughout the piece.  He repeats the fact that he loved nothing since the candle burned down.  And this implies that he loves the end of this tradition, which he seemingly hasn’t taken on (since there is no longer a candle).   What he loves most, now, is his memory of the end of tradition, not tradition itself (which, apparently, is gone).