The Whistle and the Gaze of the Holy Fool – Take 2


How can an encounter with a schlemiel have an affect on one’s writing?  And does it matter if this encounter is fictional? Will our reading change as a result? And what do the figures of the “gaze” and the “whistle” have to do with these changes?

These are the questions that Meir Abehsera’s narrator prompts in the reader.  To be sure, in the last blog entry we saw how the writer leaves his town and the old librarian – who defends his task as a writer (which is to “teach the world”) – to follow the idiot/schlemiel.  The writer is prompted to leave with him since he is singled out by the fool and “gazed” at.  This gaze is the response to the librarians point which is that what is right and wrong for the idiot may not be right and wrong for others (namely, the writer and the people he wishes to teach).  For this reason, we can see that the gaze has an esoteric quality.   It is an assurance that what the schlemiel teaches is not a relative kind of truth about good and evil.  To be sure, we are introduced to the schlemiel by way of a “whistling” that is supposed to ward away evil. And the advice of the schlemiel to the town is to fight and run away from evil.  His whistling is a way of running from evil or fighting against it. And that evil, as he states, is merely an illusion.  Whistling will, apparently, challenge it.

I ended the last blog entry with the thought that the schlemiel helps us to get a sense of the shape of evil – regardless of whether that schlemiel is secular or religious. This schlemiel is a Holy Fool; so its absent mindedness is based on a certain tact: namely to challenge evil.

With this in mind, I would like to take us into the next phase of Abehsera’s parable.  In this phase, we learn, right off the bat, that:

The writer has had a difficult time since his encounter with the idiot.  He has not lifted his pen in years.  He even finds it hard to a write a letter to his family. (116)

In this phase of the story, the writer cannot write.  The only thing he has is the experience of the schlemiel’s gaze.  This gaze has, so to speak, suspended his writing (as well as his sense of himself as a writer with an appointed task of teaching humanity).   All he can think about is the gaze:

From time to time, he is tempted to offer people some peace of mind by tossing them some factual news, but he restrains himself because, you see, on that fateful day, as the idiot look at him with his piercing eyes, he completely lost contact with his work. Or rather, it all became meaningless to him. (116)

Since he is left with his encounter with the schlemiel he wonders about why it means so much to him and this thought leads him to a reflection on his new task.   The question that haunts him is whether he himself is a schlemiel or is he, rather, a writer?

The most amazing thing he had yet to discover was that the persona of the idiot happened to mysteriously cohere with an undefined, yet consistent, recurring thought that had accompanied him in his youth.  This was precisely the same pounding thought that had him start to write in the first place; but he had lost it…A few days went by before he could finally figure out that he knew the idiot from deep inside himself, not in the sense that they were one and the same person, but that he had become the idiot’s relay.   (117)

This new formulation is very telling and it sheds some light on what I have been working on with Walter Benjamin and Kafka; namely, the relationship of Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.  This question of what this relationship was and how it relates to the writer and thinker was of interest to both Benjamin and Kafka.  For Abehsera the relationship is defined in terms of the writer (Sancho Panza) being the “relay” for the idiot/schlemiel (Don Quixote). But this is more than a relay of foolishness. For Abehsera, it’s a relay of spirituality and wisdom.  (Benjamin, I would argue, also saw this kind of relay.)

Abehsera notes that his “wisdom grew at a remarkable pace” once he realized how, now, whenever he tries to speak his words would be overwhelmed by a “rush of ruminations.”  And when he tried to speak, he would utter “sheer nonsense.”  Now, this “infirmity” prompts him to “search for other modes of communication.” And one of these modes includes whistling. But it also includes theater and play; basically, anything that can make people laugh.

The writer now notes one of these practices.  However, he relates this practice to reading scripture.  Now, whenever he reads even a little bit of it, thoughts rush to his head. And when he fell into a “trance” he would “offset the undesired effect by standing on his head.” One would think that this clownish activity effaces his seriousness; but, as he puts it, it does something else:

He would feel rather silly doing it, but it was the only way he knew to keep his soul from taking off.  Ever since this began to happen, he would only study alone, from fear he would have to perform public headstands when his head threatened to explode.  (118)

After stating this, the writer reflects on an encounter he had with a Maggid (a story teller and a Rabbi). The point of the story is to illustrate the new task of the writer.  As the writer tells it, the Maggid starts his lesson off with humor (as it is a Talmudic tradition to start every lesson with a joke).  And this had the “audience roaring with laughter.”  All of this was “woven” into a talk the Maggid gave on the Torah.  Unfortunately, the lesson of the story went to the other extreme and slighted the audience with being sinners who, if they did not repent, would be punished.   In response to this, the writer notes:

He had the entire congregation in the palm of his hand.  But then, all faces had turned white from extreme fear.  A bad smell began to ooze out from an unknown source, but only the writer noticed it. (119)

This smell, which we will turn to in a second, prompted the writer to feel a rush of energy and it spurred a memory of the schlemiel – his “teacher” – and his words to “run from evil and do good.”   And this memory spurred words to emerge:

He screamed loud, deep within himself, to break the walls of darkness which were entrapping him.  He heard the din of galloping horses in his head. Soon, an avalanche of words began to roll out of his mouth. Every word was blasted out by a powerful combustion that was fueled by an utter abhorrence of evil. (120)

The effect of these words was to undo the “damage that the manic maggid had inflicted upon the congregants.”  According to the narrator, the “smell” that the writer sensed cam from a “low grade type of fear.”  In contrast to this low grade type of fear and the smell it emits, the fear of the righteous emits a smell is pleasant.

What is the deal with “smell” and what does it have to do with the schlemiel?

Abehsera is dealing with a tradition that emerges out of the prophets. In reference to the Messiah, it is written that he can judge by the way of smell.  Citing Isaiah 11:3, which says that the Messiah will judge good and evil by way of smell, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) writes:

Bar Koziva ruled for two and a half years, and then said to the rabbis, “I am the Messiah.” They answered, “It is written that the Messiah can judge by smell (based on Isaiah 11:3); let us see whether he [Bar Koziva] can do so.” When they saw that he could not judge by smell, they killed him.

Writing on this power of smell, which the schlemiel in this parable possesses, Abehsera writes of how smells will emerge from the memory of the “transgressions of his youth.”  And, “against” these odors from the past, the writer “measures other people’s sins by the nuances of smell.”  The Messiah, “however, like his saintly predecessors whose lives are untainted by sin, will be spared the noxious smell of other’s indiscretions.  Since he will lack first-hand experience (like the schlemiel or the writer), Heaven will have to grant him the power to judge at least the spirit, if not the substance of sin.”

This sense of smell is something that the writer apparently learns from the schlemiel. And, as mentioned above, since the writer is a “relay” for the schlemiel, this sense will also be relayed.  This suggests that the schlemiel not only teaches one how to whistle and find other ways of communication to “run from evil” but also a sense of smell which can detect it.  This sense, as I have indicated above, is connected – in some way –to the messianic.  It gives the schlemiel and the writer some form of judgment vis-à-vis evil.

In the next blog entry, we will return to this sense of smell which recurs; this time, however, in the form of a beggar.  Since the schlemiel, in the third part of the parable becomes the beggar.

Kafka’s Commandment – Take 2


In the first blog I did on “Kafka’s Commandment,” I noted how Kafka believed he heard a commandment coming to him but was puzzled as to whether that commandment came from himself or outside of himself.  Kafka cannot rule out either possibility.  In the end of his entry, he points out that the commandment comes upon him “as in a dream.” And he cannot turn away from its request, which is to communicate it and transmit the commandment to others.  However, to his chagrin, it is “not intelligible.”  Hence, his difficult task is to make the unintelligible intelligible to others and this transmission, to be sure, is the nature of tradition.

In my blog on Walter Benjamin, education, and the schlemiel tradition, I pointed out that Walter Benjamin defined tradition in terms of transmission.   When reading Kafka, in particular, Benjamin took tradition seriously.  In an important letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin argued that Kafka’s tradition is a comic one.  Moreover, for Benjamin, it parallels the tradition that starts with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

But there is more to the story.  And Benjamin knew this.  Kafka’s tradition is not simply comic; it is religious.   To be sure, Kafka feels commanded to communicate.  And although he is not sure of the source of that commandment, the fact of the matter is that it singles him out.  And Kafka feels compelled to respond to this commandment.

Moreover, Kafka, in several entries in the Blue Octavio Notebooks, in his diaries, and in a few of his parables, shows an affinity not just with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza but with Abraham.  Some of his most interesting aphorisms were on Abraham and deal, specifically, with the nature of the commandment.

To be sure, Kafka doesn’t think that the commandment happened once in history.  It was not something that occurred only in relation to Abraham or the Jewish people.  Kafka notes (like the Midrash and the Medieval Torah commentator, Rashi) that the commandment is “continual,” but, states Kafka, “I only hear it occasionally.”  And when it is heard or even when it isn’t, it presents a challenge to “the voice bidding me to do the other thing”:

From the fact that I hear it, as it were, even when I do not hear it, in such a way that, although it is not audible itself, it muffles or embitters the voice bidding me to do the other thing; that is to say, the voice that makes me ill at ease with eternity.

This interference is interesting because it shows us that Kafka’s struggle to translate and transmit the commandment was based, primarily, on first hearing it.  Kafka’s reflection on his own state and about what state to be in so as to better receive the commandment show us a person who has, in effect, become dumb.

These descriptions, made in the Third Octavio Notebook, are powerful.  They demonstrate a mystical-slash-prophetic vocation for the schlemiel.

The first of these entries appears in an entry dated December 2nd.   In this section, Kafka starts mid-sentence with a situation in which “they” are presented with a choice by God.  “They” have to choose between being “kings or kings messengers.”

They were given a choice of becoming kings or the king’s messengers.  As is the way with children, they all wanted to be messengers.  That is why there are only messengers, racing through the world and, since there are no kings, calling out to each other the messages that have now become meaningless.  They would gladly put an end to their miserable life, but they do not dare to do so because of their oath to loyalty (28).

Who are “they?”  I would suggest that they are schlemiels.  They act like “children” and, like schlemiels they deliver a message whose meaning they are blind to.  To be sure, one way of understanding what the schlemiel is (or rather, does) is by way of the Hebrew: Shelach (sent) m’ (from) el (God).

Parsing Kafka, we can say that the most interesting thing about them, these schlemiel messengers, is that they are bound by “an oath of loyalty” to tradition.  They must transmit it.  However, as simpletons who think like children, they keep to their word and obey the commandment that is embodied in the oath of the tradition-slash-transmission.  But they cannot be kings.  They are messengers.  In the Jewish tradition, the only king is the Messiah.  And many of the prophets did not simply exhort the Jews to return to God (teshuva in Hebrew).  As messengers, they communicated the coming of the Messiah to the people.

Immediately following Kakfa’s reflection on them, he speaks directly of the king-to-come: “The Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary…he will not come on the last day, but on the last day of all.”

This “message” or rather “transmission” that Kafka is relaying about the Messiah is the message of a schlemiel.  The message doesn’t make any sense, yet it, like the Jewish tradition, promises redemption.

Two days later, Kafka describes his method for apprehending such messages:

Three different things.  Looking at oneself as alien, forgetting the sight, remembering the gaze.

This description of the prophetic process amounts to seeing oneself as other, forgetting the content of this otherness, but keeping the gaze that initiated this process.  In other words, Kafka is ultimately interested in the gaze that makes things other but not in the content of that otherness.  The gaze of the schlemiel, so to speak, is glazed over.  It forgets its contents, but by way of gazing, by way of the gesture, it communicates the tradition which is, ultimately, a messianic transmission without any content.

The next day, Kafka describes what is at stake in these meditations.

Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, though both the indestructible element and the trust may remain permanently hidden within him. One of the ways in which his hiddenness can express itself is through faith in a personal god.

In other words, what keeps Kafka going on is a “faith in a personal god”; that is, a god that commands and communicates with man.  Following this, Kafka describes this “indestructible” element as dumb:

Heaven is dumb, echoing only to the dumb.

This implies that the personal God relates “only” to the schlemiel (the dumb).   And it is this simplicity and stupidity that Kafka sees as man’s goodness. He notes this in the last line of this entry:

The mediation by the serpent was necessary: Evil can seduce man, but cannot become man.

For Kafka, man may be “seduced” by evil, but is ultimately good.  He cannot become evil.  It is ontologically impossible for Kafka. This is precisely what we see portrayed by way of the schlemiel.  A schlemiel like Gimpel or Motl cannot become evil; in their stupidity and trust they are good.  And in their aloofness they act as if they were committed to an oath.  And “they” are the messengers.  They are not kings.  They are too humble and simple for that.

What I find astonishing about Kafka’s entries is the fact that Walter Benjamin had never read them. They were published after Benjamin’s death.  Nonetheless, Walter Benjamin’s reading of Kafka resonates with these ideas.  Unfortunately, Benjamin never fully articulated them.  And this is why his essay on Kafka was a work-in-progress that he carried with him to his grave.   He noted the tradition of the schlemiel indirectly.

In my work on the schlemiel in this blog and in my book (which delves deeper into these insights), I look to carry this tradition on.  To be sure, Kafka wrote these lines feeling as if he were about to die.  For him, the commandment and its transmission were of the utmost urgency.  But, like Benjamin, he had a hard time communicating it.  As a result, no one was able to hear it properly and pass it on.

I suggest we listen closely to the commandment (which speaks continually) and the tradition of the schlemiel.   This is a task which, like Kafka’s messengers, runs ahead of us.  Yet, if we listen hard it will, like Kafka’s commandment, overtake us like a dream and stupefy us.  This will disclose the “indestructible element” and, as Kafka suggests, it will remind those of us who believe in a personal god that “heaven is dumb, echoing only the dumb.”    For Kafka, it seems, only a schlemiel can obey and transmit “the commandment.”  After all, a schlemiel is shelach m’el (sent ‘from’ God – literally into exile and literally as a messenger).    But, lest we not forget, this commandment is not simply apprehended by an empty gaze.  It also communicates a message about the Messiah, a message which may not mean anything anymore but must be told.  And, for Kafka, this is not a simple message; it must be translated.  But, in the end, it is not tragic.  It is comic.  The message is not simply given to the people who transmit it to yet other people; it is extolled by a dumb messenger to a dumb heaven.