Two Bodies of Comedy: On Friedrich Nietzsche & Robert Walser’s Bodies of Comedy


Nietzsche was obsessed with the relationship of the body to thought.   And whenever he articulated his reading of the body, he always made sure to put it forth in what Peter Sloterdijk (winking at Diogenes) called a “cheeky” manner.  He looked to offend and this gesture, for Nietzsche, was healthy.    In the beginning of his book, Ecce Homo, he assesses his health in a cheeky manner. He looks to what he has taken, physiologically, from his mother and father* and what this means to his personal (“unique”) fate:

The good fortune of my existence, its uniqueness perhaps, lies in its fatality: I am, to express it in the form of a riddle, already dead as my father, while as my mother I am still living and becoming old.  The dual descent, as it were, both from the highest and the lowest rung of the ladder of life, at the same time, decadent and a beginning….I have a subtler sense of smell for the signs of ascent and decline than any other human being before me; I am the teacher par excellence for this –  I know both, I am both.  (222, Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo).

These claims to being the “teacher par excellence for this” are outrageous.  They are meant to be.  He wants to be challenged.  And he doesn’t stop on the first page to demonstrate how much he knows about the relationship of the body to thinking. Throughout Ecce Homo, Nietzsche discusses the body and its relation to thought and power (or decadence). He takes any tendency to “dialectic” as a “symptom of decadence” and cites Socrates as a sick thinker.   But he is only one enemy, the other is the moral enemy who asks us to pity or feel for the other:

The overcoming of pity I count among the noble virtues: as “Zarathustra’s temptation.” I invented a situation in which a great cry of distress reaches him, as pity tries to attack him like a final sin that would entice him away from himself.  (228)

The “proof” of his strength is to be found in a rejection not just of pity but a kind of humor that goes along with it.  This kind of humor is the anti-thesis of the humor he employs in his endless satire and cheekiness.  He sees this cheekiness as poetic.  His model for this is not just the cynic Diogenes (Nietzsche calls himself the “medical cynic”); it is also Heinrich Heine:

The highest concept of the lyrical poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine…He possessed the divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection: I estimate the value of men, of races, according to the necessity by which they cannot conceive of god apart from the satyr. (247)

Nietzsche saw the health of Heine’s poetry to be associated with his sarcasm. Heine’s strength could be “measured” by the strength of the opponents he chose to target in his satire: “The strength of those who attack can be measured in a way by the opposition they require: every growth is indicated by the search for a mighty opponent”(232).

The irony of Nietzsche’s interest in Heine is brought out in the fact that Heine was, according to Hannah Arendt, not just interested in satire.  He was also interested in the schlemiel, a comic character that Nietzsche would find to be unhealthy and weak since, through its charm, it called on the reader to laugh in a way that was not satirical.

Hannah Arendt saw Charlie Chaplin as the last in a long line of schlemiels that were first introduced into the German bloodstream by Heine.  His vulnerable and clumsy comic subjects of schlemieldom were poor and simple, not clever and cheeky in the Nietzschean sense.

Robert Walser, who had a major influence on Kafka’s fiction, was fascinated with comic characters who many would find pitiable but charming.   They present another body of comedy which, to be sure, differs significantly from Nietzsche’s body of comedy.   In his short story, “Helbling’s  Story,” Walser has the narrator, Helbling, give his view on himself and work world he has decided to enter.  He is the everyman (who Nietzsche despised) and yet he is different in a way that sets him not a height so much as on a comical plane of existence:  “The striking thing about me is that I am a very ordinary person, almost exaggeratedly so. I am one of the multitude, and that is what I find so strange”(Selected Stories, 31).    He finds it strange because he realizes that, unlike them, he is, like Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), unable to work or be like them.


He tells us that he is not cut out for work.  He’s too fragile and slow.  Like many a schlemiel, he is belated:

I constantly feel that there is about me something delectable, sensitive, fragile, which must be spared, and I consider the others as being not nearly so delectable and refined.  How can that be so?  It is just as if one were not coarse enough for this life.  It is in any case an obstacle which hinders me from distinguishing myself, for when I have a task to perform, let’s say, I always take thought for half an hour, sometimes for a whole one. (32)

His body, when he works, is comical.   Like Chaplin’s body, it can’t keep up and ends up gesticulating in all different directions:

A task always frightens me, causes me to brush my desk lid over with the flat of my hand, until I noticed that I am being scornfully observed, or I twiddle my cheeks, finger my throat, pass a hand over my eyes, rub my nose, and push the hair back from my forehead, as if my task lay in that, and not in the sheet of paper which lies before me, outspread, on the desk. 

He can’t seem to stay on task.  He seems to be constantly distracted.  And when he is called a “dreamer and a lazybones,” he refuses to accept these descriptions: 

Perhaps I have the wrong profession, and yet I confidently believe that in any profession I would be the same, do the same, and fail in the same way…People call me a dreamer and a lazybones.  What a talent people have for giving me the wrong labels.  (32)

But when he reflects, he realizes that he is a simpleton:

I do not know if I have an intellect, and I can hardly claim to believe that I have, for I have been convinced that I behave stupidly whenever I am given a task which requires understanding and acumen….I have a quantity of clever, beautiful, subtle thoughts; but as soon as I apply them, they fail and desert me, and I am left standing there like an ignorant apprentice. (33)

Unlike Nietzsche’s body of comedy, he doesn’t aim to always win and overpower.  He is, a Michel Serres would say, “inventing weakness” and is calling on us to pity him.  But when he messes up he does so with such charm that we, like millions who were adored by Charlie Chaplin, forgive him.   But Nietzsche would not.

While the body of comedy that Nietzsche favors is tough, invulnerable, rude, and on the offensive, the body of Walser’s comedy is vulnerable, weak, flexible, and self-deprecating.  It fumbles and stumbles when it has to do a task and, for that reason, is more human.  Nietzsche’s body of comedy is that of the overman who looks down at the world it came from and laughs a laugh of health and defiance.  It laughs, as Zarathustra did, from the mountaintops; not from the valley.


*Compare Nietzsche’s reading of the relationship of his father and mother legacy to his fate, to that of Gene Wilder (which, to be sure, is completely different because Wilder frames his birth in terms of the schlemiel not the healthy overman.)



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….to be continued….

“When Diogenes Pisses and Masturbates in the Marketplace” – On Peter Sloterdijk’s Greek-Jewish Kynical Hero


Many philosophers have their pre-Socratic precursors. Plato had Parmenides, Karl Marx had Democritus, Friedrich Nietzsche had Heraclitus, and Martin Heidegger had Parmenides (and Anaximander). In contrast to all of these thinkers, Peter Sloterdijk takes Diogenes as his precursor. The choice is telling and, to be sure, it flies in the face of philosophy. And that is exactly what Sloterdijk, in his book The Critique of Cynical Reason, wants to do.

Like Nietzsche, Sloterdijk wants to challenge idealism; and like Marx, he takes to materialism. However, Sloterdijk sees in Diogenes a challenge that, to his mind, is fundamentally better than Nietzsche and Marx’s challenges because Diogenes and his kynicism leaves discourse behind.   Instead of arguing with idealism, kynicism is a living, “embodied,” challenge to idealism.

Regarding what he calls “ancient kynicism,” in its “Greek origins,” Sloterdijk argues that it is in principle “cheeky” (or in German “frech,” which, in old German is associated with “productive aggressivity” and “bravery” and “boldness”). This cheekiness is found in its total disrespect for civility and emulation of “embodied” vulgarity. In the face of this, “respectable” Greek thinking doesn’t “know how to deal with it.”

To illustrate, Sloterdijk gives two examples of how the kynic relates to Socrates. When Socrates “speaks of the divine soul,” he “picks his nose.” When Socrates discusses the theory of ideas, the kynic “farts” (101).   And when Socrates speaks of Eros, as he does in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, the kynic “masturbates in public”(101).   Seen in relation to Alciabades, who stumbles in drunk to the Symposium, the kynic is much more radical. According to Sloterdijk, what makes him more radical is the fact that he, unlike someone like Alciabades, doesn’t engage in conversation with Socrates:

Socrates copes quite well with the Sophists and the theoretical materialists if he can entice them into conversation in which he, as a master of refutation, is undefeatable. (104)

The problem is that conversation itself “presupposes something like an idealist agreement”(104). For this reason, we don’t see Diogenes in a dialogue with Socrates. Nonetheless, we do bear witness to Plato’s characterization of Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad”(104) because, according to Sloterdijk, this phrase is one that gives respect and recognition to the kynical challenge.

Sloterdijk also cites an anecdote attributed to Alexander the Great to illustrate why Diogenes and kynicism are the greatest challenge to power:

An anecdote has Alexander the Great say that he would like to be Diogenes if he were not Alexander. If he were not the fool of his political ambition, he would have to play the fool in order to speak the truth to the people, and to himself. (102)

Those who rule, according to Sloterdijk, “lose their self-confidence to fools, clowns, and kynics.” In other words, cheekiness is not “discourse” (idealized discussion or debate, Socratic style) or politics (in the spirit of Alexander), which are on the side of untruth (because they are what he calls “head” theory); cheekiness is on the side of truth and the body.

Sloterdijk creates something of a metonymy to describe what this cheekiness is. It is “desperately funny,” “satirical resistance,” “uncivil enlightenment,” “material embodiment,” “low theory,” and “practical embodiment.” Sloterdijk calls the language of Diogenes the “language of the clown” which uses “pantomimic materialism” to refute the “language of the philosophers”(103).

But, to be sure, Sloterdijk argues that kynicism has two origins. The Greek kynic is not alone. One origin is Greek; the other is Jewish. Diogenes’s counterpart is David:

The prototype of the cheeky is the Jewish David, who teases Goliath, “Come here, so I can hit you better.” He shows that the head has not only ears to hear and obey but also a brow with which to menacingly defy the stronger: rebellion, affront, effrontery. (103)

Taken together, one could argue that, for Sloterdijk, the kynic is a kind of baudy (cheeky) Jewish clown whose goal it is to defeat “the stronger.”

But the clincher is to be found in what the kynic does in the public sphere. For Sloterdijk the best place to “demonstrate” the kynics argument is not a public debate so much as in a public spectacle:

The animalities are for the kynic a part of his way of presenting himself, as well as a form of argumentation…The kynic, as a dialectical materialist, has to challenge the public sphere because it is the only space in which the overcoming of idealist arrogance can be meaningfully demonstrated. Spirited materialism is not satisfied with words but proceeds to a material argumentation that rehabilitates the body. (105)

Playing on this call for public defecation and vulgarity, Sloterdijk calls for “pissing in the idealist wind”(105).   But Diogenes does more. Not only does he urinate in public; he also “masturbates” in public. And when he urinates and masturbates in public he creates what Sloterdijk calls the “model situation”(106).

In a moment of scatological humor, Sloterdijk imagines the scene of the “real wise man” who shits and masturbates in front of Alexander the Great. To his mind, Alexander would “stand in admiration.” Given this imagined admiration, it “can’t be all that bad.” And, apparently, Alexander laughs: “here begins a laughter containing philosophical truth”(106).

This laughter, claims Sloterdijk, is the very thing that Adorno denied “categorically” (106).   In the face of Adorno and the world, Sloterdijk suggests that we take the “model situation” to heart and shit, urinate, and masturbate in public for all to see. That “demonstration” of the kynical argument will evoke laughter and, as he suggest, a truth that has been stifled by idealism.

Given this way of thinking (can we even call it that?), one can understand why Slajov Zizek (who has great interest in kynicism) would take to the spectacles that were going down at Occupy Wall Street.

Although the movement went on for a while, it failed, according to many critics, because it lacked a coherent message. In other words, it failed because it couldn’t enter discourse. This, to be sure, is what Sloterdijk seems to be saying it should do. Indeed, for him kynicism’s greatest challenge is to stay out of public discourse. The problem with this is that if it doesn’t do this, it will have no political meaning. But, perhaps, that’s the point. As Sloterdijk suggests above, Alexander would laugh in the face of such public displays of vulgarity. He would give up politics and power if he were to see this. However, what we saw was the opposite. Power didn’t laugh at the spectacle. It became utterly serious and drove it out of the public sphere.

The problem, therefore, with kynicism has to do with its ends. If its only end is to be embodied, then fine. But the question is whether it will win in the long run. Sloterdijk thinks it will because, as he suggests, these public acts leak into the private realm. And he cites proof based on how the public changed its views toward sexuality. However, the ultimate laughter, the laughter of Alexander when he gives up power for truth, cannot be but a kind of utopian-slash-messianic thing.

That said, I think we should keep our eyes open for more kynicism in the future. Zizek and many intellectuals stand behind this kind of public affront and many of them believe that it is greater than public discourse and conversation. It is, as they believe, greater than the Enlightenment and it’s truth, the truth of materialism, is greater than the truth of idealism. This truth is to be found, for Sloterdijk and those like him, in public vulgarity and kynicism. This truth, for Sloterdijk, is a Greek-Jewish hybrid of Diogenes and David – it is a Greek-Jewish-Warrior-clown of sorts. And it’s “model situation” is public defecation and masturbation. The question, however, is who is going to have the last laugh.

A Note on Nietzsche’s Sarcasm: Stupid and Honest Mystics versus Dishonest and Foolish Philosophers


In the beginning of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that for Rabbi Nachman the Simpleton (that is, the schlemiel) acts “as if” good will triumph over evil.  In his story, “The Clever Man and the Simple Man,” the thinker looks down on the simpleton as an idiot for being so naïve.  The simpleton’s honesty and trust are the object of his ridicule.   In many ways, Rabbi Nachman suggests that the simpleton, like many wise men, is a mystic in disguise.  And for Rabbi Nachman, as well as for many Yiddish writers who followed in his wake, the schlemiel was a character whose simplicity and trust pose a challenge to the skepticism and deceit of a world that laughs at him.  But, in the end, it’s the schlemiel who has the last laugh.

I recently came across an aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche that contrasts philosophers to mystics.  The contrast is brief and Nietzsche spends far more time – as one can imagine – making fun of philosophers.  The resonance between Nietzsche and Rabbi Nachman, at least in this aphorism, gives food for thought.  But would Nietzsche act “as if” good would triumph over evil, or is his mystic “beyond good and evil” and beyond acting as if “good exists?”  Wouldn’t that be too….”stupid” for him?

Nietzsche starts his fifth aphorism by noting that “one regards philosophers half mistrustingly and half mockingly.” Why?  It isn’t simply because they are “innocent…fall into error and go stray, in short their childishness and childlikeness.”  Rather, it is because they “display insufficient honesty while making a mighty and virtuous noise as soon as the problem of trustfulness” is invoked.  In contrast, Nietzsche tells us that “mystics…are more honest and more stupid to them.”   In saying this, Nietzsche privileges honesty and stupidity over dishonesty and feigned intelligence.

By acting “as if” they are intelligent and high minded about truth, Nietzsche believes they make themselves laughable and dishonest.  Moreover, Nietzsche says they lack the courage to admit that they are acting.  Nonetheless, Nietzsche finds this funny.  He associates this lack of courage with “tartuffery.”   To illustrate, Nietzsche caricatures Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza’s acts of deception so as to make them laughable:

Kant…lures us along the dialectical bypaths which lead, more correctly mislead, to his ‘categorical imperative’ – this spectacle which makes us smile.

Nietzsche tells us that he smiles because he is more “noble” than Kant and can see his “tricks”: “We who are fastidious and find no little amusement in observing the subtle tricks of old moralists and moral-preachers.”

Turning to Spinoza, Nietzsche accuses the Jewish philosopher of making uses of the “hocus-pocus of mathematical form.”  Nietzsche puts Spinoza’s “love of wisdom” into scare quotes and sarcastically mimics the rhetoric that goes along with speaking “the truth.”   After exhausting this rhetoric, Nietzsche, sickened, calls out Kant and Spinoza for being sick, timid, and vulnerable:

How much personal timidity and vulnerability this masquerade of a sick recluse betrays!

In other words, Nietzsche sees their arguments in the name of morality as the product of sickness.  They act “as if” they are defending the truth and this act is, for Nietzsche, worthy of a laughter that looks to purge the sickness of the philosophy in the name of health.

But what does Nietzsche mean by health?  Is his health closer to that of the “honest” but “stupid” mystic?  Or is health equated with a kind of intelligence that refuses both the philosopher and the mystic?

To be sure, Nietzsche respects the honesty of the mystic more than the philosopher.  But he finds more of an identification with the fool than the mystic.  In her book Stupidity, Avital Ronell points out that Nietzsche “latches” on to the “buffo” (the Italian word for fool).  Writing on Paul DeMan (who, for her, seems to be a successor of Nietzsche) Ronell argues that “transcendental buffoonery rips the system; it is shown to be propelled by a truly transgressive force that is fueled no so much by a romantic abandon as by a will to rise above that which is limited…bound by law and convention”(136).  This anti-nomian kind of humor – which can certainly be said to be mystical – wears the mask of the buffo/fool which she calls the “crucial mask of ironic destruction.”

The buffo “disrupts narrative illusion.”

What I find so interesting in all of this is that, unlike the schlemiel, Nietzsche’s fool doesn’t act “as if” good exists.   He wouldn’t equate himself with a stupid but honest mystic or fool.  Rather, as we can hear in the aphorism, Nietzsche does act “as if” he is superior to all masks which posit the “as if.”

To be sure, schlemiels and mystics aren’t sarcastic.  This act, as Ronell suggests, is an intelligent act of “ironic self-destruction.”   There isn’t a relationship with the “as if” of goodness, as there is with the schlemiel.  Moreover, while the schlemiel is blind to the abyss, Nietzsche is not.  The schlemiel doesn’t laugh, Nietzsche does.  And this laughter, I would argue, is the laughter of a metaphysics which, through laughter, elevates the subject of laughter beyond the philosopher and the mystic.   It is, for Nietzsche, the most “honest” laugh of all because it is beyond good and evil.  But it isn’t stupid; it’s critical.

In contrast, the laugh that the schlemiel evokes is sad laughter.  It is not beyond good and evil so much as caught between them.  Being on the other side of history, Jews couldn’t afford to laugh in the way Nietzsche could.  And this is reflected in the schlemiel who, though committed to goodness, fails in a world that disregards the good.