“Unhappy Dualism” or Simplicity: On Gershom Scholem’s Readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and Hasidim

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Duplicity and complexity were of great concern to Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem. In her book on Rahel Varnhagen, Arendt takes aim at Jean-Jacques Rousseau as encouraging duplicity. She saw, in his work, a conflict between the private life and the public life. His confessions maintained this division and complexity. This came in the wake of religious decay:

With the loss of the priest and his judgment, the solitude of the would-be confessor had become boundless. The singularity of the person, the uniqueness of the individual character, stood out against a background of indefinite anonymity.   Everything was equally important and nothing forbidden. In complete isolation, shame was extinguished. The importance of emotions existed independently of possible consequences…In the course of such a ruthless confessional the individual is isolated not only from the events of public life, but also from the events of private life. (98)

Everything sinks into duplicity and what matters most are not the “facts” but the lies or the stories one tells about oneself (91).   One is defined by what is within, not without. This is how Varnhagen, according to Arendt, understood Rousseau.   Her life, to be sure, was complex. And this duplicity, for Arendt, was based on a kind of worldlessness that was forced upon German-Jews who wished to but could not – at the time – become recognized as moderns and equals with Germans.

But, to be sure, as her reflections on Rousseau indicate, this duplicity and complexity is a part of the modern condition.   Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “Fate and Character,” followed suit. He associates “complexity” with fate and myth and contrasts it to character, which he associates with freedom and comedy. Benjamin was not alone in his problems with complexity. Dostoevsky, a lover of complexity, pits character against fate in his novel, The Idiot and shows that Prince Myshkin, a simpleton, becomes “the idiot” of Russian society. This happens because he doesn’t know how to lie and hide what he thinks or feels like so many other characters in the novel.   And this makes him into an “idiot” who is, gradually, destroyed.

In an essay on the novel, Benjamin makes it clear that he saw the destruction of Prince Myshkin as the failure of the “youth movement.” He saw the “fate” of this simple character as horrific and self-destructive. He likened it to a volcano that self-implodes.   Nonetheless, Benjamin didn’t give up on comedy and character. In his “Fate and Character” essay, written two years after his essay on The Idiot, Benjamin speaks of comedy, simplicity, and character as a “beacon of hope.” Complexity and duplicity, for Benjamin as for Arendt, were a modern problem and, he believed, simplicity could be the answer.

We also find the contrast between simplicity and complexity/duplicity in Gershom Scholem’s readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and the Hasidim.   Scholem uses powerful language to describe the duplicity of living as a Marrano:

For generations the Marranos in the Iberian peninsula, the offspring of those Jews who, in their hundreds of thousands, went over to Christianity in the persecutions between 1391 and 1498, had been compelled to lead, as it were, a double life. The religion which they professed was not that in which they believed. This dualism could not but endanger, if it did not indeed destroy the unity of Jewish feeling and thinking. (309, Trends in Jewish Mysticism)

And this also touched the Marranos who, thereafter, returned to Judaism. Their Judaism, argues Schlolem, “retained something of this peculiar spiritual make-up”(309).   And when Sabbatai Zevi came on to the scene, he appealed to this complexity and what Scholem calls the “unhappy dualism of the Marranic mind”(310). The “idea of an apostate Messiah could be presented to them as the religious glorification of the very act which continued to torment their conscience.”

This internal torment, this “unhappy dualism,” is the cause of so much trouble.   It opened the door for “radical nihilism.”   Throughout a chapter entitled “Sabbatianism and Mystical Heresy,” Scholem points out, over and over again, the complexity of Sabbatianism. He focuses a primary cause of such complexity in the relationship of the followers to the “strange acts” of Sabbatai Zevi:

There was on the one hand the personality of the Messiah and its paradox, on the other hand the attitude and the individual experience of the believer. The point at which the moderate and the extreme Sabbatianism imparted was supplied by the question whether the acts of the Messiah serve as an example to the believer or not. The moderate thought not….His actions are not examples to be followed; on the contrary, it is of their nature to give offence. (314)

In contrast, “the radicals could not bear the thought of remaining content with passive belief in the paradox of the Messiah’s mission”(315). Rather, they thought of the “paradox as universal.” And “the consequences which flowed from these religious ideas were purely nihilistic, above all the conception of voluntary Marranism with the slogan: We must all descend into the realm of evil in order to vanquish it from within.”

Scholem calls the “disappearance of shame” an “awkward problem” which, for him shows duplicity and complexity at its height since, after all, shame is deeply connected to what he calls the “unity of Jewish feeling and belief.” Without morality and shame, Scholem suggests that Judaism goes from a simple religion to a complex and duplicitous religion. To be sure, we see this at its height in the Sabbatinian cult that formed around Jacob Frank. Scholem calls his “Book on the Words of the Lord” – which has “dark sayings” such as “the subversion of the Torah can become its own fulfillment” and “great is the sin committed for its own sake” – “perhaps the most remarkable ‘holy writ’ which has ever been produced.”   It is a book full of duplicity and complexity and this, Scholem argues, ultimately has its roots in the Marrano experience.

In contrast to all of this, Scholem, in the final chapter of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, argues that the Hasidim “neutralized the messianic idea.” But what many people miss is that this neutralization had a lot to do with its emphasis on simplicity.   While the leaders of the Hasidic movement had charisma, much like Zevi and Frank, they were ultimately more interested in simplicity than in complexity and this had to do with their close bond with the “life of the community”:

And yet the Hasidim did not go the way of Sabbatianism. Its leaders were far too closely connected with the life of the community to succumb to the danger of sectarianism. Opportunities were not lacking. Yet these men whose utterances not infrequently throw light on the paradoxical nature of the mystical consciousness than anything before them – supreme paradox! – the advocates of the simple and untainted belief of the common man, and this simplicity was even glorified by them as the highest religious value. (346)

He associates this paradox with Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav whose mind has a “hyper-modern sensitiveness to problems” yet who “turned all his energy to the task of defending the simplest of all beliefs”(346).

To be sure, the turn from complexity to simplicity is a key moment in Scholem’s text. And it would be amiss not to see that, between Benjamin and Scholem and despite their love of paradox, they both had a deep interest in simplicity. And, as we can see above, Arendt also had a distaste for duplicity and complexity. She was more interested in brining the public and the private together than in affirming an exterior that was contrary to one’s interior.

What we find in this thread, I aver, is that there were all interested in how Jewishness and modernity give birth to and constantly renew the tension between complexity and simplicity.   And perhaps, as Benjamin once held, simplicity which is connected to, as Scholem might say, the “life of the community,” a “beacon of hope.”   Or, it could be, for someone who – like you and I – is immersed in a world inundated with duplicity, fatalism, and lies and lives a life of “unhappy dualism.”

Why Have I Been Blogging on Agamben or How Can the “Decisive Historical Gesture” be Comic?

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As anyone who has been following my blog will notice, I have been blogging a lot on Giorgio Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture” and his “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib.”  The reason I have been pursuing these readings is because I am very interested in thinking through the meaning of comic gesture.  Agamben, following Walter Benjamin (and Aby Warburg – another Jewish-German thinker-slash-art-historian who I will address in the near future), has taken to the task of addressing the gesture-as-such.  What I want to remind everyone is that what spurred my search for the meaning of gesture was (and is) Walter Benjamin’s treatment of gesture in his essay on Franz Kafka.

To be sure, Benjamin scrutinized the gestures of Kafka’s characters and argued that by paying close attention to them we could learn something of great – even messianic – urgency.   Benjamin reads these gestures as “pre-historic,” and this is what Agamben latches onto; however, what Agamben misses is the fact that Benjamin also saw them as comical.  As I have noted elsewhere, the keynote of Benjamin’s essay on Kafka can be found in its final gestures, which belong to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Like Sancho Panza, we watch the comic gesturing of Don Quixote.  But we are not alone.  Benjamin’s most favored Kafka aphorism was the aphorism on Don Quixote.  It teaches us about a comic tradition that is passed on.  And, this, for Walter Benjamin, is relayed to us through a close attention to comic gesture.    Benjamin knew, as well, that the messianic had to be thought through a close attention to this comic gesture.

We see this in his essay on Kafka and in some of his last letters to his friend and confidant Gershom Scholem.  Benjamin was after the comic aspects of Jewish theology.  And this is a point that Giorgio Agamben misses since he uses Benjamin’s work within a different context, one which, as I have argued, is much more solemn and Christian then Benjamin’s.

The point of my blog entries on Agamben is to show how Agamben is and is not on the right track.  Following Benjamin, he is right to think about the relationship of gesture to secularization, history, infancy, and the messianic; however, Agamben’s way of thinking of gesture misses something comical that both Benjamin and Kafka were following through.

I’d suggest that “infancy” and the “decisive historical gesture” that Agamben speaks of need not be isolated to the “nativity scene.”  For Agamben, the most profound movement which should be of concern to us, today, is the movement from silence to speech.  To be sure, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Walter Benjamin addressed this in terms of the movement from tragedy to comedy.  Indeed, for Benjamin, comedy speaks from out of infancy.  And I would suggest that it constantly returns to it; hence, the preponderance of men-children and schlemiels in Jewish comedy.   I’d like to look more into this gesture of return and departure from infancy since, as far as I can see, Benjamin initiated this thread without following it through.  I would like to suggest that this gesture, and not the gesture of the crib, is “the decisive historical gesture” which brings man out of tragic silence.

To think infancy in a “serious” manner, as thinkers such Giorgio Agamben, Maurice Blanchot, and even Jean-Francois Lyotard have done, may miss the point that Benjamin was sketching out in his early work.   As these thinkers all knew (and know), their work could be aided by the Jewish tradition. But the tradition that they often turn to does not include any reflection on the comic gesture.

I would like to suggest that there is another Jewish tradition that they missed; namely, what Hannah Arendt called (in her “Jew as Pariah” essay) the “hidden tradition.” Arendt tells us that at the beginning of this tradition is the schlemiel.  Although Arendt is right in calling this a “hidden tradition,” I think her reading of it is problematic.  I will discuss this in future blog-entries (and it will appear as a fundamental point in my book).

For now I just want to suggest that, for Jews, the “decisive historical gesture” is not to be found in the “nativity crib.” For a people who was “pre-historical” for centuries, the comic gesture played a key role in linking Jews to history.  And it is the comic gesture which, for many Jews, has had messianic, historical, and secular resonance.

So, in closing, I just want to point out that my attention to Agamben’s work on gesture, infancy, and the messianic was based on laying out the question of gesture.  I may not agree with his reading of it, but, at the very least, I tip my hat to him for making it an issue and thinking through its relations.  This is a discourse which, I believe, can be fruitful for schlemiel-in-theory.  After all, comedy is not simply about ideas as about gestures.  And these gestures are, as I will argue, deeply historical.  As all comedians know, it’s “all in the timing.”

A Response to Zachary Braiterman’s “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics (Kenneth Seeskin)”

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I look forward to reading Zachary Braiterman’s posts every week on his blog Jewish Philosophy Place and I admire and respect the work he has published on Jewish Philosophy, aesthetics, and theodicy.  I have learned a lot from his work.

I was especially interested in the blog entry he posted entitled “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics” since his entry bears mention of the work I have been doing on the schlemiel.  With respect to this blog entry, Braiterman is interested in the work I have written on the schlemiel and the Messianic Idea.  In this entry, he has drawn on it to offer an insightful critique of Kenneth Seeskin’s recent book Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair.

What I find most interesting about Braiterman’s reading is his approach to the Messianic Idea as a schlemiel aesthetic that really has nothing to do with the tasks of rational Jewish philosophy.   This is an interesting wedge since it challenges the use of the Messianic idea in Jewish philosophy (or in contemporary Continental philosophy) by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Ernst Bloch, and Giorgio Agamben.

To be sure, Braiterman and Seeskin are both drawn to a Maimonidean approach to Jewish philosophy.  And this approach is suspicious of the Messianic Idea and prophetic flights of the imagination.  The Guide to the Perplexed, parts of the Mishna Torah, and the “Letter to Yemen” clearly demonstrate that Maimonides was very careful to avoid the dangers that would come by taking the Apocalyptic aspects of the Messianic idea seriously.

What Braiterman wonders about is why Seeskin would still take to the Messianic idea since, for Braiterman, it seems to be derived more from the imagination and the Midrash than from reason.  As Braiterman notes: “Messianism is rooted in the imaginary of biblical, midrashic, and liturgical source material, whereas the introduction of Kantian conceptual-moral frames struck me as off point.”

Braiterman argues that Seeskin misreads the “wilderness generation after the exodus from Egypt” and their “crying and rebellion in the desert for water.”  For Seeskin (and one could imagine, for Herman Cohen – I will return to this), they are giving up hope and are rebelling against “the belief in God and the Messianic idea.”    On this note, Braiterman sides with Emil Fackenheim who, he argues, would see their crying and despair as providing them with a “critical insight into history and the human predicament.”

In the second part of this blog entry, Braiterman addresses the question of why Seeskin would even try to reconcile Kantian ethics with the Messianic idea:

Its not clear why one might need this messiah business if all messianism constitutes is the notion that redemption depends upon human will and act, constitutional democracy, and perpetual peace.  Why do we need such an inflationary and theological word for such a flat and deflationary thing?

This is a very good question.  It’s the same question one could pose to the Jewish-German Philosopher Hermann Cohen.  After all, Cohen insisted that the Messianic Idea was a specifically Jewish contribution.  He associates it with hope.  In contrast to the Greeks, who despised hope, Cohen tells us that the Jewish tradition introduced the Messianic idea of hope:

To the earliest Greeks, hope meant no more than idle speculation.  And it is only after the Persian wars that this emotion is looked on as more than the opposite of fear, or as one of Pandora’s evils…..Nowhere in paganism does the concept of hope suggest a general enhancement of all human existence.  The widening-out into the non-personal, ethical realm, this spiritualization of a basically materialistic-personalistic emotion is the effect and indeed one of the surest marks of the idea of God’s unity or –what amounts to the same thing – of His pure spirituality.

Seeskin inherits the legacy of hope that Cohen espouses in such passages as, on the one hand, uniquely Jewish, and, on the other hand, consistent with Kantian ideas.   Nonetheless, Cohen, like Seeskin and Maimonides, has a problem which Braiterman is acutely aware: the aesthetic aspect of the Messianic idea.

As Braiterman notes “when all is said and done, the messianic idea is “just” an image, and a philosophically foolish one at that. It’s the image that rivets the eye in the prophetic literature, especially as it appears liturgically in the closed off space of the synagogue, on a Saturday night in a candle-lit Havdalah ceremony, or packed tight at the end of the Passover seder, at which point it becomes a figure sung by drunk people.”

The last words of this description of the Messianic aesthetic remind me of Walter Benjamin’s call to “win over the forces of intoxication for revolution.”  Indeed, for Braiterman, the aesthetic qualities of the messianic idea overshadow the philosophical, ethical, or political dimensions of the idea.  They are intoxicating; just like a fascinating object.  Braiterman notes the Messianic idea is “almost like a photograph, you can pick it up and consider it, and use it to this effect and to that.”

Braiterman notes that Seeskin clearly knows that the Messianic idea has “no philosophical use value, at least not in terms of determinate propositional truth contents.”  So, why, he wonders, would Seeskin even try to use it for philosophical purposes?

Musing on this, Braiterman evokes the schlemiel and my schlemiel theory blog (and book) project:

Maybe the messianic idea represents the schlemiel figure par excellence in the history of Jewish thought…How else to explain Seeskin’s book, a serious book about a serious topic written by a serious man ends with a joke.

The point of the joke, says Braiterman, is to show that, in the end, we will all realize that when “all enchantment has been removed from the world…and there is quick judgment, and arrogance are now rare,” we will no longer be enchanted by the Messianic idea.  At that point, anyone who wants to be the messiah can be.

Nonetheless, for Seeskin, it is still necessary to cast hope in the Messianic.

Braiterman avers: “Who gets to be Messiah? Any schlemiel who wants it.  That’s the punchline.”

Following this, Braiterman says that he would resist Seeskin’s claim that the “rational religion” is messianic and “reflects moral teleology.”  Moreover, Braiterman reiterates that he doesn’t accept the notion that our age is an “age of despair.”  Instead of looking toward the future, what is to come, to hope, Braiterman takes the side of the present.  In doing so, it seems that Braiterman is parting with Herman Cohen and Maimonides (who does, in fact, purport a restorative and political reading of the Messianic idea at the end of the Mishna Torah).

Braiterman finishes his piece with a basic rejection of the messianic idea as a schlemiel aesthetic: “Because maybe with this much hindsight in the history of an idea, maybe it’s easier to understand that messianism is an aesthetic, and maybe, after all is said and done, a schlemiel aesthetic at that.”

In many ways Braiterman is correct; the messianic is a schlemiel aesthetic.  To be sure, what makes it so is the fact that the schlemiel is a messianic character who is not oriented toward the present.  Rather, the schlemiel is a character which is oriented toward the future. It mixes dreams and reality and, in its simplicity, it draws its life on our hope.  Sometimes this can have negative consequences, as I have shown in blogs on the schlemiel, the Apocalyptic, and Messianic Activism.  Nonetheless, the best schlemiels, do not simply mix dreams and reality; as Ruth Wisse would say, they juxtapose hope and skepticism.

To be sure, I would argue that the Messianic idea is brought down to reality by way of Braiterman’s skepticism.  Even though he wishes to be rid of an aesthetic idea – which has nothing to do with Jewish philosophy and the concern with the present – he shows how hard it is to just let it go.   In other words, the Messianic idea, like the schlemiel, is, as Braiterman says, “infectious.”  We can’t let go of it.  And this, for Braiterman, is the irony.

Strangely enough, Hermann Cohen argues that irony has nothing to do with hope.  Greek “tragedy is predicated on fear and compassion, its comedy on the very opposite of hope, namely irony.”

Cohen finds nothing ironic about the Messianic idea, but we do.  And this irony goes hand-in-hand with the schlemiel.  The schlemiel discloses the irony of the Messianic idea by way of the juxtaposition of hope and skepticism.   In other words, a rationalist like Cohen would be befuddled by the Schlemiel.  To be sure, this character is meant to disclose a historical tension Jews have with the present and the future.

Regarding this, I wonder: if we were to reject the Messianic idea, would we also have to reject the schlemiel?

At the end of her opus, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse says something very insightful regarding this issue.  For Wisse, in a world that is wholly skeptical or wholly optimistic, the schlemiel cannot exist.  Pertaining to Zachary Breiterman’s review of Seeskin’s book, I would say the same thing.  In a world that is wholly skeptical or optimistic the Messianic idea cannot exist.  In many ways, it seems that the schlemiel and the Messianic idea go hand-in-hand.

However, what I find most interesting about Wisse’s claim about the schlemiel is that, for her, after the founding of Israel, it no longer becomes a character of interest.  She shares this claim with a few other Zionist thinkers.   However, this is another issue which I cannot address here .

Needless to say, I think Wisse and Braiterman would like to exchange the aesthetic for the political and the future for the present.   Nonetheless, I think Wisse’s previous claim remains and that simply having a state does not mean that one is wholly optimistic or wholly skeptical.  To be sure, we still waver between hope and skepticism.  And as long as our skepticism or optimism is tainted, there will be schlemiels and Messianic ideas.

Perhaps, on the other hand, what hooks us up to the Messianic idea or the schlemiel is not hope or skepticism so much as time.  As Levinas or Derrida may argue, as long as there is a future-to-come, there will always be a Messianic idea and, as i would argue, there will always be a schlemiel.

Or perhaps, as Braiterman suggests, as long as we love aesthetics we will be intrigued by Messianic ideas and schlemiels of all stripes and colors.

Perhaps, like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, we love utopia and the messianic idea like we love the circus….

But regardless of how we view the Messianic idea we can all agree that the greatest danger the Messianic idea poses is with Messianic Schlemiels (or what I call Messianic activists) who mix their utopian-slash-Apocalyptic dreams with reality.  Perhaps the greatest of all Messianic Schlemiels was named Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah.  Maimonides, Seeskin, and Braiterman would all agree that what happened with Shabbatai Zevi shows us the greatest danger of the Messianic Idea.  They would all, rightly, note that when a dream or an aesthetic becomes immanent in a utopian political gesture, we have crossed the line; and, as Gershom Scholem suggested with respect to Shabbatai Zevi, this kind of foolishness verges on nihilism and not perpetual peace.

Ernst Bloch and Tradition – Take 2

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What does Ernst Bloch mean by the “rectification” as opposed to the “reification” of heritage?  And how does he justify rectification?  And, most importantly (at least for this blog), how does this relate to the tradition of the schlemiel?

As I pointed out in my last blog entry, Bloch is in favor of a “cultural surplus” which emerges from the “utopian function.”  Such a cultural surplus would be “beyond any kind of ideology.”  According to Bloch, one creates such a surplus by creating culture.  But here’s the twist.  By creating culture, Bloch does not mean that we create something that is “new” in the sense of something that is completely “modern.”  To be sure, Bloch’s understanding of cultural creation is related to the utopian function, which is inseparable from tradition.

This creation includes actual artworks and cultural criticism.

But what makes his criticism or this or that artwork an act of “rectification” is the fact that they include what he calls an “anticipatory illumination.”  These illuminations, he insists, are not in the service of ideology.  Rather, they are the “useful information of justice.”  In other words, when criticism or art dig into tradition what they bring out, in their anticipatory illuminations, is “information” that can be used toward achieving justice.

It seems that the justification of this cultural work of rectification can be found in this end and no other.  However, some people may rightfully find this vague.  To be sure, they may accuse Bloch of embellishment.  Anticipating this claim, Bloch notes, in his essay “Art and Society,” that anticipatory illumination is not a rhetorical figure; rather, it is a “structured illumination”:

If this anticipatory illumination, as structured illumination, has nothing in common with embellishment – rather, if it is based more on the tendency and latency of the time and on the unknown essence (das Eigentliche) in which the world (not art) could attain its aim – that this is realism. (49)

Bloch’s turn toward realism is telling since it seems to echo the turn to realism made by Georg Lukacs.   But Bloch explains:

To be sure, though, this is certainly not naturalism.  It is that realism of tendency and latency (the realism that touches on both) that includes the latent frames of the powerful reality of Velasquez, Balzac, and Tolstoy, just as it made the widest reality of the powerful latency of Goethe’s Faust. (49)

Bloch’s words may confuse many a reader, but what one must realize is that he is not using realism in the typical sense nor is he is citing Velasquez et al as examples of realism. Rather, he is including their work and Goethe’s Faust as illustrating both aspects of “anticipatory illumination”: tendency and latency.

The meaning of these terms can help us to understand what Bloch means by “rectification.”   Taken together, what these works do is to create what Bloch calls the “hypothetical in the cultural heritage.”  They do this by “converting” the material of the tradition into art:

The continual and effective conversion of the material into the hypothetical in the cultural heritage, that is, in the utopian surplus as both heritage and anticipatory illumination, sublates the material in such a minimal way that it opens up its potential in the most vigorous manner and articulates its horizon. (50)

By becoming a hypothetical, by becoming a real possibility, the cultural heritage becomes relevant.  On the one hand it does not, in a Hegelian manner, become surpassed; on the other hand, by giving it attention, it doesn’t become some kind of ideal.  It is materialized:

Due to this process, material is not left idealistically or even surpassed.  Rather, it continues to enlighten, opens itself up more and more to us, to the coming foundation of consensus, to that which has yet to become, that which has still not been accomplished, but which has not been thwarted in existence, in existence as realm. (50)

At this moment in the text, Bloch concludes that now, in this stage of his argument, the difference between “tradition” and “producing the future is dissolved”:

Thus the difference between tradition and producing the future is dissolved; certainly the contrast is dissolved.  The revelation of truth in the cultural heritage is a territory with boundary lines stripped away in a wider territory of anticipatory illumination that is to be articulated in a responsible and concrete way. (50)

Bloch, using Marxist rhetoric, goes on to claim that the past, after entering such a productive process of anticipatory illumination, will no longer be alienated.  And he exclaims: “Now this would be real cultural heritage, with tradition of the future.”

But, more importantly, the production of such a cultural heritage, this tradition of the future, creates hope.  Without such work, things would be bleak.

The question is how do we do such a work in a “responsible and concrete” way?  Have we accomplished our goal of “rectification” if we have taken this or that element of the past and created an “anticipatory illumination?”   Perhaps the success or failure of such a project of recovery and rectification of the past is measured by the hope it produces?

In doing my work on the schlemiel, I wonder, given what Bloch has written, how it could produce an “anticipatory illumination” and a “cultural surplus.”  How could writing on the schlemiel – doing schlemiel criticism – rectify the Jewish tradition and offer hope?

These are all good questions to ask and consider since, of all the aspects of Jewish culture, the humorous aspect is the most referenced in the public sphere. The schlemiel has been chosen as a significant representative of Jewishness in the modern world.  This is testified by its saturation in Hollywood and on TV.   But is the schlemiel, using Bloch’s language, still alienated?  When we watch Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm or Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, do we have an “anticipatory revelation” or is this missing in their work?

If we watch these shows and we have no sense of what is and what can be (of tendency and latency), then these works have not “rectified” the schlemiel.  Bloch would suggest, given this scenario, that if they do not then the work of criticism should.  Given this suggestion, I will continue looking into the “tradition of the schlemiel” and the “Jewish tradition” in search of “anticipatory illumination.”  I say “continue” because I have, in many ways, already been doing this.  I have been looking for how the schlemiel relates to tradition, on the one hand, and the prophetic and the messianic on the other.  The question of whether or not the schlemiel – in his or her failures – offers hope is a constant question.   I have also wondered how the utopian hope’s of the schlemiel can lead to disaster.  Moreover, I have – and will continue to address – the latency of the schlemiel in work on the schlemiel and Walter Benjamin.

Looking back on what I have written on Walter Benjamin’s reading of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote – in his Kafka essay – I can clearly see that Benjamin was looking at the structure of tradition and heritage.  He was looking into how the legacy of the fool related to his future.  To be sure, it would make sense to say that his reading of Kafka by way of Don Quixote is an anticipatory illumination.  It has a tendency and a latency to it and, as we see in at least one of his letters to Gershom Scholem, it gave him hope.

But the question, in that letter, remains.  It is the same question that Bloch would ask of the figure of the fool.  It may give hope but can it “do humanity any good?”  (Although it may rectify tradition, will it rectify humanity?)  This is the utopian question of the schlemiel.  But it may also be the schlemiel hypothesis.

Apocalypse Now – When Crisis Comes, Whither Humor?

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Imagine everything coming to a grinding halt.  Imagine a moment in which all would be still.  Given our ever-increasingly hurried lives, this full stop is hard for us to imagine.  But it doesn’t keep us, by any means, from trying.  To be sure, countless films and science-fiction novels imagine this moment in endless variations.  But the cessation of time is not simply the matter of fiction and fantasy.  To be sure, real life crises interrupt everything.  Surprises are also at the core of religion.  Radicals, revolutionaries, and religious devotees all know that bringing the world to a grinding halt testifies to some kind of truth that goes beyond what we habitually perceive and practice.

On the one hand, death, murder, natural disaster, and terrorism stop everything.  On the other hand, miracles and unexpected occurrences stop everything.

In the Jewish tradition, Revelation usually stops everything. To be sure, Revelation interrupts.  We see this in simple passages when God comes out of nowhere to call on Abraham or Moses.  Moreover, many commandments are constructed, specifically, to interrupt this or that form of work or common practice.  The greatest interruption of work being the weekly Sabbath where all forms of work are forbidden.  The interruption of work reaches its climax in the Jubilee year – which falls on the fiftieth year, at the end of seven seven-year cycles – when all work is forbidden.

In terms of Revelation, the Midrash tells us that the revelation on Mt. Sinai made everyone pause.   In that moment of cessation, everyone shared a moment of prophesy. The Midrash goes so far as to say that every child in the womb partook in the vision of God.  Of greater interest is the characterization of the Messianic Era, which is, on the one hand, likened to a cessation of war.  On the other hand, it is likened to a series of miracles which will fundamentally change reality.  On the one hand, there is a type of cessation that is reasonable; on the other hand we have a cessation that is not.   The Rabbis prefer the peaceful manifestations of the Messianic; however, there are also manifestations which are riddled with crisis and disaster.  These are what Gershom Scholem would call Apocalyptic or Utopian manifestations of the “Messianic Idea.”

Regarding the most unexpected interruption, the Midrash tells us that the Messiah will come in the blink of an eye (k’heref ayin).   He will come when he is least expected.

To be sure, these interruptions are so important that nearly every Jewish holiday commemorates them.   Moreover, they many Jewish holidays anticipate interruption.  But, by and large, the interruption doesn’t destroy the law, it doesn’t “fulfill” it; rather, it keeps the law in tact. And this ‘fact’ distinguishes a Jewish interruption of the world from other disruptions whose Apocalyptic manifestations are much more severe.

Drawing on a similar mystical structure of cessation, Walter Benjamin and Slovoj Zizek have imagined a messianic moment of cessation.  Benjamin called it “dialectics at a standstill” and Neuezeit (now time).   But it can also be thought of, negatively, as a state of exception or crisis.  In this state, progress ceases and power predominates.  Zizek opts for the more Apocalyptic version and demands that we do to.   And although Zizek employs humor and ridicule in his work, there is nothing funny about this at all.  To be sure, Zizek uses ridicule to prepare us for the big thing: the Apocalyptic moment of cessation which has everything to do with making a decision that is riddled with crisis and even self-destruction.

At the end of his book First as Tragedy, then as Farce Zizek meditates on this moment of cessation.  To be sure, this is his dream.  When time comes to a standstill, there will be a revelation, that is, a profane illumination.  For Zizek, the revelation, at the time of crisis, is that we do not need a leader; “we” don’t need the Other.  Rather: We are all redeemers.

Zizek uses these terms, and many others like them, to describe who we are in the aftermath of the destruction of liberal democracy and capitalism.  They are Apocalyptic. To be sure, Zizek sounds a lot like what Gershom Scholem, in his book On Kabbalah and its Symbolism, calls a nihilistic mystic.

The nihilistic mystic descends into the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born; he passes through all the embodiments and forms that come his way, committing himself to none; and not content with rejecting and abrogating all values and laws, he tramples them underfoot and desecrates them, in order to attain the elixir of life.

One can no longer just “let being be.”  Zizek, like the nihilistic mystic, wants to bring the end on.  He wants us to act and hasten its coming.  He forgoes the Talmudic dictum that one must not hasten the end.

Scholem’s words on the Apocalyptic – in his essay “Towards an Understanding of the Messianic Idea” –  can be applied to Zizek’s final words in his book:

The apocalyptists have always cherished the pessimistic view of the world. Their optimism, their hope, is not directed to what history will bring forth, but to that which will arise in its ruin, free at last and undisguised.

The one who wishes for the end will, necessarily, destroy both progress and tradition.

Both the liberal and the conservative are one and the same for the nihilistic mystic.  In On Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Scholem says that the nihilistic mystic, in effect, destroys the language of the tradition because his mystical experience cannot use words or words from the tradition to speak.  The regular mystic, on the other hand, transforms the existing language and modifies the tradition.  In other words, language, the tradition, remain.  And with it what language transmits.  As Walter Benjamin notes, tradition is primarily about transmission and not about content.  Nonetheless, it does transmit something to the student of tradition.  With the nihilistic mystic, that is lost.  The difference between one and the other is the difference between liquidating tradition and language and preserving it.

According to John McCole in his book Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition, Benjamin has two modes: one mode is the modality of liquidation (this errs on the side of modernity and destroys tradtion) the other mode is conservative (not in the regular sense of the word; rather, it looks to conserve memory, tradition, transmission. Both matter to Benjamin.  According to McCole, this is one of the most fruitful and unexplored aspects of his work.  To be sure, Benjamin, paradoxically, wanted nothing more than to preserve the tension between conservation and liquidation of tradition.

The most essential thing to transfer is the teaching of tradition which is on the very edge of liquidation.  And as I have argued in another blog entry, the tradition of the schlemiel keeps us on the fine line between Apocalyptic liquidation and conservation.  Zizek, however, doesn’t take up this line of thinking.  He seems to be more interested in liquidation.

Zizek, strangely enough, cites Benjamin a lot in his Apocalyptic section.  To be sure, Apocalypse is all about liquidation; namely, of the law.  The law, for Zizek (and at least one strain of Benjamin; namely his piece of “Critique of Violence,” which McCole sees as only one of two aspects, as I mentioned above), is connected to the Other.  Law, for Judaism, is inseparable from tradition.  Without law, there can be no tradition.  For Zizek, this isn’t even an issue. The Benjamin Zizek is drawn to is Benjamin-the-liquidationist.  Which we find in the “Critique of Violence” and in “The Destructive Character.”  Taking a look at these, one forgets about Benjamin’s profound interest in tradition.

I will end this blog entry with an illustration of Zizek’s tendency toward liquidation. In the spirit of a nihilistic mystic, Zizek tells us that this liquidation is based on our decision. It is a “proper political act”:

This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement so as to interrupt the present predominant movement.  An act of “divine violence” would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress.  In other words, one has to learn fully to accept that there is no big Other. (149)

Zizek, a Messianic activist of sorts, cites Benjamin’s phrase in quotes (“divine violence”).  This appeal  is reminiscent of at least one strain of Benjamin’s work.  Rewriting one of  Walter Benjamin’s “Philosophical Theses,” Zizek says that he wants to “pull the emergency cord of the train of Historical progress.”  But when one does this, one must have another notion of time to substitute for progress.   Knowing this, Zizek cites Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s claim that:

If we are to confront adequately the threat of (social or environmental) catastrophe, we need to break out of the “historical” notion of temporality: we have to introduce a new notion of time.  Dupuy calls this time the “time of a project,” of a closed circuit between the past and the future: the future is causally produced by our acts in the past, wheile the way we act is determined by our anticipation of the future and our reaction to this anticipation. (150)

The anticipation of the end is, in other words, measured by our act to bring it about.  Our act of liquidation is the time of the project.  And this helps us, says Zizek, to confront the disaster:

This, then, is how Dupuy proposes to confront the disaster: we should first perceive it as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourselves into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities….upon which we then act today.  We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that it is our destiny – and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize our selves to perform the act which will change our destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past. (151)

Everything will be destroyed.  Everything will be liquidated.  Zizek insists that we must accept this fact.   And once we have accepted our doom, we can decide; we can “perform the act which will change our destiny and thereby insert a new possibility into the past.”  In the most Sartrean or even Nietzschean sense, everything is in the act (or deed).

To “perform the act that will change our destiny” is to embrace at least one sort of mysticism; a mysticism without tradition.  This transmits nothing except our decision to accept total disaster of everything as the source of revelation.  The act posits a new past, but I would suggest that this has nothing to do with tradition so much as it does with a new initiation of history.  In other words, the decision to liquidate history is the beginning of a new tradition.

In contrast to the scene Benjamin proposes with Don Quixote, Zizek’s Apocalyptic scene has no humor whatsoever.  In the end, it seems the other way around: First as Farce, then as Tragedy.  Since, in the beginning Zizek ridicules ideology, liberalism, and deconstruction, but here ridicule passes away and one is faced with ones utter annihilation.  The only thing that matters, in this scene, is that act.  Even though, Zizek praises the act that initiates a new tradition, the fact of the matter is that the accent is on the act of liquidation not tradition.  Nothing is transmitted accept the act of destruction.  History ceases to exist; it stops. But so does tradition.

In this moment, Zizek’s approach to comedy takes a nosedive.  To be sure, ridicule, in Zizek’s sense, leads us to desire the moment of liquidation in which all time will stop.  It leads us to anticipate – and embrace – a time of crisis.  In contrast, for Benjamin, the tradition of comedy, the tradition on Don Quixote and the Schlemiel was worth saving.  Unfortunately, more people see Benjamin’s “Philosophical Theses” and his words on history, there, as his final word. They overlook his desire to preserve the comic tradition which we find in his Kafka essay.  Instead of picking liquidation over conservation, we need to find a way of balancing out the antinomy between tradition and its liquidation.  And I think that the best way to do this is by way of making a close reading of Benjamin’s reading of comedy.

What we need to ask, however, is how cessation relates to the comic relation between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  This is a question which has not yet been asked.  Lest we not forget, Kafka notes that Don Quixote was constantly surprising Sancho Panza.  And on his journey, following Quixote wherever he went, Panza was, so to speak, out of work.  His eyes were not on history and neither were they on catastrophe, they were on Don Quixote.  His “act” was to follow Don Quixote.  His act was not an act of liquidation; it was an act of reverence and respect for the comic figure not the tragic one.  His act was not an act of a nihilistic mystic; it was the act of a student of tradition.

And as Benjamin says, Kafka taught us that only a fool can help.

I’ll leave it at that.

Guest Post by Professor Jeffrey Bernstein: “Schlemiel, Schlemazel . . . Augenblick in-corpor-ated?”

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Lately I have been wondering about Menachem’s earlier posts regarding the prophetic (possibly messianic?) potentiality of the schlemiel.  In a post on Benjamin and Strauss, he gave a nod to the secretive ‘wink, wink’ capacity of the schlemiel’s humor which the spectator gets, but which the schlemiel may not.  Menachem writes:  “Winking is not a straightforward gesture.  It is oblique.  And it is immediate, like a blink of the eye.”  This characterization immediately strikes me; given that he juxtaposed the phrase ‘blink of an eye’ with the figure of Benjamin, I am put in the mind of the figures of the ‘augenblick’ (which means  both ‘blink/twinkling of an eye’ and ‘instant/moment’) and the ‘jetztzeit’ (‘now-time’).  I am lead to wonder:  what is the ‘time’ of the schlemiel?  And if there is a schlemielich temporality, is it well-characterized by these terms?

Just for laughs, let’s characterize the situation in which we might engage this question:  as the old saying goes, the schlemiel is the one who spills his soup and the schelmazel is the one’s who gets the soup spilled on him.   To my mind, it looks something like this:

Schlemiel:  (in cafeteria, walking with tray of soup, speaking to Schlemazel) So I says to him ‘Hey, whadda you talkin’?  As if Spinoza knew anything about the Geonim!’  I (trips)—whoa, whoa, whoops!!!!! (spills soup on Schlemazel)

Schlemazel:  Ow!  Vey iz mir!  That soup’s hot!  Look what you did!

Schlemiel:  Oy! Look what I did!

There doesn’t appear to be any prophetic aspect to this caricature—but of course, the littlest things contain the deepest truths.  Soup is hot; we make messes; we burn—such is life.  And what can we do except scratch our foreheads and say ‘Oy! Look what I did!’  This may be the adult secret contained in many of our childhood experiences.

But strangely enough, this appears not to resemble the arc of thought contained in the terms ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’.  So a brief, and somewhat circumambulatory, consideration is in order:  In the Weimar Germany of the 1920’s, in the aftermath of the massive physical, psychological, cultural, and ideological destruction of the First World War, many different thinkers (sensing a fictitious quality to the narrative of ‘Enlightenment historical progress’) tried to find a way of speaking about the perceived crisis in which Europe was then involved.  Figures such as Barth, Heidegger, Rosenzweig, Lukacs, Benjamin, Kafka, Schmitt, Adorno, Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and Bloch all (in vastly different ways and for vastly different reasons) attempted to articulate the sense that if historical change is to happen, it will do so instantaneously and non-teleologically; it will come, as it were, like a thief in the night.  In doing so, they made witting or unwitting use of the idea of kairos  as it came to be articulated in Paul.  For Paul, kairos names the eschatologically charged instant in which the encounter with God and the acknowledgment of messianic time occurs.  It is always thought in opposition to chronos—i.e, profane time.   Augustine takes up this thought in his discussion of  ‘the present’ (in Confessions) as that which grants substantiality to the past (as recollection) and the future (as anticipation) by virtue of its being a divine(-ish) capacity of the human soul; if it were not for the creaturely replication of the present as nunc stans, time would consign humans to mortal oblivion.

Centuries later, as Luther studiously worked on his vernacular translation of the New Testament, he encountered the Pauline phrase ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ (in 1 Corinthians) and translates it with ‘augenblick’.  The ‘blink/glance/twinking of an eye’ is now understood not as one moment of ‘homogeneous empty time’ (Benjamin) or interval of ‘clock time’ (Heidegger) among others—it is precisely now understood in opposition to such mechanistic conceptions of temporality.  For the Weimar bunch, it becomes synonymous with authentic lived experiential time.  And though Heidegger calls ‘off-sides’ on Kierkegaard’s punt, the latter makes an important admission when he states (in The Concept of Anxiety) that “It is only with Christianity that sensuousness, temporality, and the moment can be properly understood, because only with Christianity does eternity become essential.”  True, Aristotle had also made use of the word kairos in the Nicomachean Ethics, but there it only meant the ‘opportune moment’ for action—like providing medicine or going to war.   It wasn’t essentially different from his characterization of the present (in the Physics) as a vanishing point—a pure limit between the ‘no longer’ and the ‘not yet’.

According to Agamben (oy!), Benjamin uses the term ‘jetztzeit’ (in his Theses on the Philosophy of History) to translate Paul’s ho nyn kairos (‘the of now time’) in Romans.  In this context, one might suggest that Benjamin is taking up the Aristotelian understanding (and its example of military battle) in holding that the ‘jetztzeit’ is that revolutionary moment which ‘blasts a hole’ in the ideology of ‘homogenous, empty time’.  But in viewing the ‘now-time’ over and against the normalizing, ideological conception, Benjamin simultaneously rejects the Aristotelian topos of the ‘opportune moment’ in favor of the Pauline one.  Certainly, Heidegger critiques the Aristotelian notion along similar lines (in Basic Problems of Phenomenology):   “The instant is a primal phenomenon of original temporality, whereas the [conventionally construed] now is merely a phenomenon of derivative time.  Aristotle already saw the phenomenon of the instant, the kairos, and he defined it in the sixth book of his Nicomachean Ethics; but . . . he did it in such a way that he failed to bring the specific time character of the kairos into connection with what he otherwise knows as time.”   In drawing the connection between kairos and ‘augenblick’ in his early readings of Paul, Heidegger thus simply makes explicit (on the theological level) what he will later phenomenologically describe as the suddenness of authentic temporality—i.e., that it happens as kairos and not as chronos.

I’m not trying to simply peg the terms ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’ as Christian and thus inappropriate as descriptions of the schlemiel (well, ok, a bissel I am).  Rather, I want to suggest that—despite the Jews that adhere to these descriptors and the Christians who don’t—these terms fail to accurately describe the authentic temporality of the schlemiel.  This for two reasons:  (1) ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’ (understood as sudden and arresting) are both set over against a conception of time as homogenous, empty, identical and simply quantitative, and (2) as such, both terms are markers for a presence which the schlemiel  always seems to refuse (or, perhaps, fails to attain).  Whether it be the ‘negative presence’ of the absent, absolute and unattainable future, the ‘eternal present’ of the nunc stans, or the ‘revolutionary and shocking momentary present’ of eschatological realization, ‘augenblick/jetztseit’ is always indexed to a point of stability.  The meaning and signification of the moment/instant—be it eternal, futural, or sudden—is infused, embodied, literally in-corpor-ated (even in-carnated), in an otherwise purely quantitative and empty temporal flow.  This is why, even in the mode of anxiety or transience, the moment/instant is still (on the formal level) the source of a radiant serenity.  Put differently, ‘augenblick/jetztzeit’ bears witness to a religious tradition and context that is poetic.

Are there any resources in ‘prosaic’ religious traditions (to adopt the terminology of Yeshayahu Leibowitz) for thinking the temporality of the schlemiel?  You guessed it—the answer is yes!  So now, a much shorter consideration of this ‘other’ tradition:  Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger (in Jews and Words) note that Biblical Hebrew points to a different understanding of time than what we get in the Western conception (i.e., the qualitative moment/instant vs. the quantitative flow from past to future or vice versa).   The word kedem denotes ‘ancient times’ but its derivative kadima means “ ‘frontward’ or ‘forward’ “.  Similarly, the word lefanim means both ‘a long time ago’ and ‘in front of/to the face’.  Finally, achreinu means ‘after us’ both in the sense of ‘behind us’ and ‘in future’.  Put differently, Oz and Oz-Salzberger (following the work of Adin Steinsaltz and Shulamith Harven) hold that “When we speak Hebrew, we literally stand in flow of time with our backs to the future and our faces toward the past.  Our very posture is different from the Western view of time . . . The Hebrew speaker literally looks frontward to the past.”  Sound familiar, oh theorists of the Continent?  It recalls not only Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus (whose face is turned toward the past while he is blown uncontrollably into the future); it also bears some resemblance to Arendt’s reading of Kafka’s “He”, where ‘he’ stands in between the two antagonists (the past and the future) who are both battling him and each other.  Arendt’s interpretation is itself a struggle between the Weimar conception of moment (for Arendt, ‘he’ is the present understood as nunc stans) and the Hebrew one (‘he’ enlists the help of both the past and the future in ‘his’ battle with one another).  Insofar as it rejects the static distinction between the qualitative, lived, in-corpor-ated moment and quantitative but empty clock time, it remains in proximity to Benjamin’s Klee-interpretation.

What does it mean to look frontward to the past?  How can a prophet assume this posture and still ‘prophesy’?  Clearly, the schlemiel does not utter phrases like “And I say unto thee…”  If the schlemiel is prophetic, s/he is so retrospectively—i.e., “Oy!  Look, what I did!  Such is life!”  The schlemiel does not so much prophesy as ‘register prophetically’ what has already happened as what will always already continue to have been happening (oy, look what I did).  This retrospection, this belatedness, this reactivation of the past in the (present of the) future, has been characterized by Freud (with a little help from Rav Lacan) as nachtraeglichkeit and by Adorno (with a little help from Rebbe Said) as ‘late style’.  The schlemiel is always ‘late to the party’, always noticing things ‘after the fact’.  The signature phrase of the schlemiel’s wisdom is not ‘AHAH!’ but ‘OH . . . YEAH!’  And the schlemiel never ceases to register his/her insights too late for anything to be done about them.  Hence, as Janouch’s Kafka (as mediated through Benjamin) tells us, there’s an infinite amount of hope—just not for us schlemiels.  The moment of realization never happens by means of anticipation.  In the words of that other great theorist of the schlemiel, Carole King, ‘Its TOO LATE, baby, now its too late’.  If life were characterized by great poetry, we might at this point despairingly quote T. S. Eliot:  “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  But if life is ultimately prosaic, what else is there to do but laugh?  Incipit schlemiel!

Jeffrey Bernstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. He works in the areas of Spinoza, German philosophy and Jewish thought.

Hide and Seek: Walter Benjamin’s Reading of Children and Childhood – Take 2

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Yesterday’s blog ended with several questions which puzzled over why Walter Benjamin or Georges Bataille would be so interested in “returning to childhood” or describing the “true child.”

Before going to sleep last night, I thought about these questions.  But instead of simply thinking about them, I thought about myself.  After all, I am as intrigued with childhood and the fool as they were.  But was I fascinated for the same reasons?

In thinking about this, I turned to a blog entry I wrote earlier this week entitled “Damaged Childhood: Fools, Self-Destruction, and Reclaming Youth,” There, I pointed out how Walter Benjamin, in his essay of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, argued that Dostoevsky’s book was a response to the “failure of the youth movement” and a “damaged childhood.”

I noted how Benjamin goes on to claim, after writing on failure, that a “return to childhood” – a return to “childlike simplicity” – promises “unlimited healing powers.”  But then it hit me: if the youth movement already failed, and if the purpose of that youth movement was to “return to childhood,” why was he insisting that we try again?

At this point, I realized that Benjamin (and Dostoevsky, as Benjamin reads him) were involved in what Freud would call a “repetition compulsion.”  According to Freud, in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the repetition compulsion is a response to trauma, that is, a response to a damaged childhood.  Benjamin is repeating the failure to return to childhood by insisting on doing it again.

Although he believes that this must be done, because a return to “childlike simplicity” has “unlimited” healing powers, he also admits, in the same essay, that it is desperate and pathetic.  We see this, Benjamin says, in the novel’s characters.

The Idiot, in effect, is not simply the illustration of a desire to return to childhood; it is a displacement of failure.

Its astonishing how Benjamin’s writing on children, in many ways, parallels that of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  It seems that, in the face of this political, secular messianist failure of the “youth movement,” Benjamin, in his own work, displaced his failure and turned to the micro-worlds of children.  In these worlds we see a “childlike simplicity.” We see micro-worlds that exist within the world of adults.  This retreat into micro-worlds may not only be seen as a response to a “damaged childhood” but it can also be seen as a response to a failed (or incomplete) political project whose goal is to “return to childhood.”

We see much evidence of this in Benjamin’s book One Way Street.    Even though Benjamin does address the political on and off throughout the piece (this is the part that many Benjamin scholars and Theodor Adorno focus on, in fact) he has an entire section on children.   It consists of several aphorisms.  The subtitles of each are the following: Child Reading, Belated Child, Pilfering Child, Child on Carousel, Untidy Child, and Child Hiding.

I would love to discuss all of them over the span of several blog entries.  For now, I just want to note a one (preliminary) thing and relate it to my own personal interest in the schlemiel and childhood.

Since I am a lover and practitioner of literary interpretation and exegesis, the first thing I did when I glanced over this section was to notice and think about the first and last entries.  The first entry is entitled “Child Reading” while the last one is entitled “Child Hiding.”

This, for me, states something meaningful about Benjamin and his response to a “damaged childhood.”  His reading, the reading of a child, is a way of hiding in a micro-world.  And, as Benjamin says at the end of that section, he is hiding from a “demon” and the places he finds to hide in are “magical.”  Reading, exploring space, and constructing micro-worlds (hiding places), are his “magical” way of avoiding terror (“the demon”).  To be sure, the entire section on childhood is prefaced by a line which gives us a clue of this response to trauma: “To be happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without fright.”

Indeed, Benjamin’s self-awareness, his awareness of his, so to speak, childhood demon, is terrifying.  But Benjamin, like the child, has found a reading strategy, a way of hiding that enables him, like a child, to becomes “happy” without fright.  Seeing himself as this child, the child in the text that he writes of, he finds a way to address trauma.   In his reading spaces he is hidden and sheltered from trauma.  To be sure, he seems to be alluding to this throughout his section on childhood.

To be sure, Benjamin, like a child, is more intrigued with his hiding spaces, his mirco-worlds, than with the world.  He goes to these places out of terror.  A schlemiel does this as well.  A man-child dwells and travels through spaces within the world, spaces that are unfamiliar to the world and its preoccupations.  Ultimately, these journeys through space that the schlemiel-slash-man-child takes are responses to something hidden, something he can’t understand.  The schlemiel, in his “childlike simplicity” just moves on.  He doesn’t notice the disaster, perhaps, because it would destroy him.

Growing up with a father who had a wild imagination, loved politics, liked to travel, tell stories, and often confused dreams and reality, I often felt like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote through space and time.  I inherited my father’s response to his own trauma, which, as I learned, is to find and create micro-worlds where one can hide.  The key, however, to such childish games is to know not simply how to read but how to tell stories.

Growing up, I felt that I had to listen to and interpret these stories. Each story, as it were, was what I would call a “traumatic imperative.”  But these stories were not simply told.   They were written over various spaces, people, and time.  My father’s micro-worlds were not in a book; they were found in this or that pocket of reality.  My (as Benjamin might say) “self-awareness” was caught up in these spaces.

When dream and reality overlap, reality becomes a book.  It comes to life.  However, its meaning, because it is confused, is unclear and, as Benjamin knew and my father always reminded me, terror seems to be waiting around each corner.  Like Benjamin, my father taught me that if you are to return to childhood, if you are going to live out your schlemiel-hood through time and space, you must know how to play hide and seek.

Its the game that every failed messiah – that is, every man-child who comes out of a damaged childhood – plays.