Apocalypse Now – When Crisis Comes, Whither Humor?


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.

After the “YouTubeLoop,” What is the Comic Legacy of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen?


In yesterday’s post, I made a brief reading of the recent 44 minute video of Woody Allen “stammering” over the span of his career.   The picture I used as a thumbnail for the blog post came from the beginning of Woody Allen’s film Bananas. The reason I chose this image was because it nicely illustrated the mechanistic-slash-comic aspect of the video; in addition, it also illustrated what Henri Bergson believed was the essence of the comic: mechanical repetition. For Bergson, we laugh at the Jack-in-the-Box, or any mechanical repitition, because it is a caricature of life and freedom or what he called élan vital.  Like many in his time, Bergson’s theory is based on an organicist model or what the German’s called Lebensphilosophie (life philosophy). The greatest challenges to life philosophy can be found in meaningless, mechanical habits.  For thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche or Georges Bataille, the source of these mechanical habits was the growing mechanization of society – a society in which everything meaningful or progressive had “utility.”  For this reason, both Nietzsche and Bataille pursued a “vitalism” which looked to act without any meaningful end.  Life, as they understood it, was excessive.  For us to put a determined end on existence, by way of work, mechanism, and habits was, in effect, to say “no” to life.  Saying “yes” to life would be to affirm what Maurice Blanchot would call “un-working.”  Saying yes to life, for Bergson, would be equivalent to saying yes to elan vital and no to the mechanical gesture. To be sure, filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, who lived in and around the time Nietzsche, Bergson, and Bataille lived and wrote on vitalism, knew that the greatest threat to vitalism and élan vital was posed by technology.    America, with its concept of the assembly line and mechanical mass production, became the focal point for many Europeans (including Nietzsche, Batialle, Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, and many others) of what is to come; namely, an existence in which the individual is lost in (and to) the machine. And this is the point: life was at stake – life embodied in the individual (the subject) and his/or her freedom. We see this tension between life and the machine comically elaborated in both Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) and in Woody Allen’s repetition of key scenes of this film (with, of course, some variation) in Bananas (1971): Here is Chaplin’s film: As you can see, Chaplin is the subject of the machine.  However, his comic gesturing (and the absurd nature of the machine – a toy of sorts – he is subject to) make him distinct from the machine.  Both his gestures and the absurd nature of the machine give him some kind of agency. Here’s Allen’s film, Bananas: This film does something nearly identical to Modern Times.  The machine and Allen’s gestural responses to it give Allen agency.   As one can see, Allen believes that such responses are still affective and meaningful. Although 35 years and major advances in technology and history separate them, both of these clips communicate the same message about comedy and its challenge to mechanization.  For both, one mechanism seems to be defeating another and élan vital triumphs (comically). It must be noted that, for many thinkers and film critics of the early 20th century, the source of this scenario (of comedy versus the mechanical), which Allen repeats, is Charlie Chaplin. In his book Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars, Tyrus Miller notes that Andre Bazin, the famous French Film critic, wrote a seminal essay in 1948 about Chaplin claiming that Chaplin’s comedy was a means of ‘brushing aside danger’.  Miller goes on to note that Bazin sees Chaplin’s power as the power of “mimicry” which acts by “reabsorbing time and space”(51).  What he means by this is that Chaplin’s comedy wins time and space back for organic humanity and beats the machine at its own game.  Bazin bases his advancement of mimicry on the work of the surrealist Roger Caillois who claimed that insects, like humans, imitate the environment in order to protect themselves from being killed. Miller reads this in terms of the medium of film: Supplementing Bazin’s claim that time reabsorbs space, then, we might say that Chaplin’s organic body becomes a mimetic extension of cinematic technology, which breaks down movement into constitutive fragments, discarding some while isolating others.  Having incorporated the technical principle of montage into his physical movements, Chaplin is able to mirror it back to the camera in embodied form. (52). Sounding much like Walter Benjamin, Miller argues that Chaplin becomes the “very allegory of cinema in its inaugural phase and the changes in experience it will precipitate”(52). The self survives as a “minimal self: as much technical as organic, and held together by the stiffening bonds of laughter”(52). This presupposes that there is a community between the comedian and the audience and that if we don’t have comedians who can mimic the damage wrought by technology – that is, if we don’t have comedy to laugh at, our agency and selfhood will be diminished to such an extent that instead of a minimal self, there will be no self. It’s fascinating to note that Theodor Adorno also suggests this call for comedy and the minimal self in his book Minima Moralia.   Three decades following Adorno’s plea for the minimal self, comedy and the minimal self are evoked by Jean-Luc Nancy in an essay on Baudelaire in his book The Birth of Presence.  But, as I will show in future blogs, Nancy likens laughter to an explosion.  But the question is this: what does it explode?  Does post-modern laughter – for lack of a better word – explode the machine or the person?  If the latter, then we can surmise that Nancy thinks we can no longer protect ourselves from the machine and might as well celebrate nihilism. Regardless of Nancy’s take on laughter, Allen seems to be more on the side of Chaplin.  He has an optimistic view of comedy and sees it as a “defense” against technology and empty, mechanical repetition. In yesterdays video, however, I wondered about the meaning of the mechanically reproduced stammering which has become a micro-stammering of sorts (concentrated into 44 minutes). Did that video testifiy to the obliteration of the self and absorption into the medium or something else?  How, in fact, do we understand ourselves and one of our greatest defenses (comedy) by way of being looped, re-looped and morphed by new technology?  Has Allen’s stammer exploded and been emptied of all its human (organic) content?  Does such a video evince a subject who is powerless and “defenseless” against the ever expanding field of technology (with all its information and audio and video “flows” and “feeds”)? How does comedy and how do “we” – who are “in the network,” who come after Chaplin and Allen’s comic parody of technology and who now come after the “YouTube-loop” of Woody Allen…stammering – “live on?”  

Baudelaire, Children, and Horror (Take 1)


As can be seen from many of my previous posts, I have been addressing the work of Charles Baudelaire on laughter and the comic. The reason I have spent so much time on this is because I have been attempting to understand Walter Benjamin’s reading of (and identification with) the comic (in general) and the schlemiel (in particular). To be sure, Benjamin had great interest in Baudelaire’s approach to the comic and, something we have not yet explored, children. Moreover, he was also interested in the comic as it appeared in Franz Kafka’s work.

Jeffrey Mehlman, in his book Walter Benjamin for Children, correctly notes that Baudelaire and Kafka were “nodal” points for Benjamin. This insight can be drawn from Gershom Scholem’s reflections on Benjamin which clearly show that Benjamin was preoccupied with two projects: one with Kafka and the other with Baudelaire and the Arcades Project. Mehlman claims that a close reading of Benjamin’s radio plays for children, which were written between 1929 and 1933 in Germany, can bridge the gap between the Kafka and Baudelaire projects.

Mehlman uses an approach influenced by psychoanalysis to do this. While Mehlman deserves much credit for his bringing these radio plays to the attention of English speaking critics and for his attempt to relate this work to Benjamin’s academic work, his reflections are preliminary. His book has a total of 97 pages and this makes sense since he moves from idea to idea at a very quick pace. Nonetheless, his work is valuable and it provides many entry points for this blog’s (and my book’s) investigation into Benjamin’s preoccupation with the man-child (the schlemiel).

Mehlman addresses the daemonic in his book in relation to Benjamin but not in relation to Baudelaire.  To be sure, it was from Baudelaire that Benjamin became intensely interested in the daemonic.  Mehlman’s reading of the daemonic in Benjamin is worth consideration – and we will do so in another post – but it still overlooks a few key links in Baudelaire.   In addition, Mehlman doesn’t mention any of Baudelaire’s reflections on children or on toys. These gaps need to be addressed before Mehlman or anyone tries to bridge the gap between Kafka and Baudelaire (Benjamin’s two final projects).

I have been dealing with this issue by giving an in-depth reading of the Daemonic in Baudelaire and its relationship to laughter. Furthermore, I have shown how it works into Benjamin’s reflections on himself and also Kafka (by way of the Shuvalkin Parable – which Mehlman reads psychoanalytically).

I’d like to continue along this thread. By doing so, we can better understand Benjamin’s conflict with childhood in general and his own childhood in particular. In addition, I think it is imperative for us to approach Benjamin’s reading of Kafka in light of these reflections. Since Benjamin’s readings of Kafka either draw on or reject Baudelaire’s approaches to humor and children.

To this end, I’d like to begin with a quote from Baudealire’s journals about art and horror and relate these reflections to his reflection on children and laughter.

Baudelaire was very interested in horror. To be sure, he imported the work of the master of horror, Edgar Allen Poe, into France by way of translation. Moreover, he introduced Poe to a French audience in his celebrated essay “Edgar Allen Poe: His Life and Works.”

In the essay, Baudelaire shows his utter fascination with Poe’s work. Baudelaire gives a detailed description of the terror and excitement the writer and the reader upon writing and reading horror:

The very fervor with which he hurls himself into the grotesque for love of the grotesque and the horrible for love the horrible I regard as proofs of the sincerity of his work and the intimate accord between the man and the poet. I have already noticed in several men that such a fervor is often the result of a vast store of unused vital energy…The supernatural rapture which man can feel at the sight of his own blood flowing, those sudden, needless spasms of movement, those piercing cries uttered without the mind’s having issued any orders to the throat…As he breathes the attenuated ether of this world the reader may feel that vague distress of the mind, that fear on the brink of tears, that anguish of the heart which dwell in strange immensities. But admiration is the dominant emotion, and moreover the writer’s art is great! (The Painter of Modern Life, 90-91)

In a journal entry dated May 13, 1856, Baudelaire writes a shocking passage which echoes these sentiments:

A man goes pistol-shooting, accompanied by his wife. He sets up a doll and says to his wife: “I shall imagine that this is you” He closes his eyes and shatters the doll. Then he says, as he kisses his companion’s hand, “Dear angel, let me thank you for my skill!”

Immediately following this passage, Baudelaire discovers his task as an artist: “When I have inspired universal horror and disgust, I shall have conquered solitude.”

Who inspires this tendency to horror? Baudeliare, in the same entry, describes his style in terms of Poe:

STYLE: The eternal touch, eternal and cosmopolite. Chateaubriand, Alph. Rabbe, Edgar Poe.

The last pair, Rabbe and Poe, is telling when juxtaposed the other two pairs, since Alphonse Rabbe is most well known for his Album d’un Pessimiste which pays homage to pessimism and nihilism. The other two pairs pay homage to culture, philosophy, and religion. The last pair, however, speak to the task of art which is, for Baudelaire, to “conquer solitude” by way of inspiring “universal horror and disgust.”

These reflections on Poe and horror shed an interesting light on Badeliare’s prose pieces on children, toys, and laughter.

To take one example, and I will provide others in our next blogs, Baudelaire when writing on the “Absolute comic,” claims that the European Edgar Allen Poe – namely, ETA Hoffmann – is the best illustration of the Absolute Comic. And the exemplary Hoffmann story that Baudelaire chooses to cite and discuss deals with the horror of a child.

I will end this blog entry with Baudelaire’s intricate description of the story in his “Essay on Laughter.” Notice how Baudelaire’s tone changes when he tells the story: he becomes a storyteller telling stories to children:

In the story entitled Daucus Carota, the King of the Carrots…no sight could be more beautiful than the arrival of the great company of the Carrots in the farmyard of the betrothed maiden’s home. Look at all those scarlet figures, like a regiment of English soldiers, with enormous green plumes on their heads, like carriage footmen, going through a series of marvelous tricks and capers on their little horses! The whole thing is carried out with astonishing agility. The adroitness and ease with which the fall on their heads is assisted by their heads being bigger and heavier than the rest of their bodies, like toy soldiers…The unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by this display of military might. But an army on parade is one thing; how different an army in barracks, refurbishing its harms, polishing its equipment, or worse, still, ignobally snoring on its dirty, stinking camp-beds! That is the reverse of the medal; the rest was but a magic trick, an apparatuses of seduction. (163)

The horror comes when her father, “a wise man versed in sorcery,” lifts the flap of the tent to shock her: “Then it is the that the poor dreaming girl sees all this mass of red and green soldiery in its appalling undress, wallowing and snoring…In its night-cap all that military magnificence is nothing more than a putrid swamp”(ibid)

Notice that Baudelaire moves from the childish and the innocent to the horrific and associates this shift with the “Absolute comic.” This shift marks two principle poles for Baudelaire which he travels between.  To be sure, the biggest shocks and the greatest comic revelations – for Baudelaire and for Benjamin – involve some kind of childhood damage.

In the next few entries I will look into this relationship of children and toys to horror and terror. These reflections on childhood and horror will help shed light on Benjamin’s vision of himself as a schlemiel and his vision of Kafka.

A Map of Misreading: Paul deMan’s (Mis)reading of Madness in Baudelaire’s “Essay on Laughter.”


One can tell a lot about an author by virtue of things that he or she mentions and highlights in his or her writings.  Charles Baudelaire, a poet and an incredibly talented prose writer, was fully aware of what is at stake in an essay.  And he knew full well that the final “notes” of any essay should hit on the main point.

To be sure, Baudelaire’s essay on laughter ends on a positive note.  There, he points out that the Absolute Comic, which is best illustrated in the work of ETA Hoffman, evinces man’s superiority over nature.  And that all laughter, all comedy, is inter-subjective and shared by human beings.  Baudelaire’s reading of laughter is amplified and given exquisite detail by the philosopher Henri Bergson, who, like Baudelaire, sees an intersubjective element of comedy which is based on the superiority of élan vital over the mechanical.  Laughter, for Bergson, is equated with life and becoming (not stasis and empty repetition).  And like Baudelaire, Bergson emphasizes the progressive aspects of comedy.

However, Baudelaire doesn’t arrive at such a view without a few misgivings.  It must be noted that, earlier in the essay, Baudelaire points out that the significant comic and the laughter that attends it do in fact manifest a kind of (Satanic) madness of superiority.  And, as I pointed out in my last blog entry, he also notes that comic madness is diametrically opposed to the madness of humility.  Nonetheless, he argues that, in the end, man’s sense of himself as different from nature may manifest madness, but, ultimately, this madness is mitigated by the Absolute comic.

To be sure, Baudelaire says that since the madness of humility is no longer an option for modern society, all nations must become pure by way of a madness that asserts superiority over nature.  And comedy is the means to achieving such an intersubjective “purification.”

In other words, comedy, for Baudelaire, is a “good” thing.  As Baudelaire notes in his description of mimes like Pierrot, the laughter evoked by the Absolute Comic is intoxicating.  It enlivens the crowd and produces joy.

There is one problem.

As I mentioned above, Baudelaire notes, early on, that the comic is Satanic.  He points out that it is a manifestation of fallen-ness.  But by the time he finishes the essay, this is no longer the main issue.  Baudelaire decided that it was more important to emphasize man’s inter-subjective superiority over nature than to emphasize fallen-ness, madness, and the Satanic.

Paul deMan, in his essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” was not satisfied with Baudelaire’s conclusion.  He ignores Baudelaire’s final note and, instead, focuses in on madness and the hidden meaning of man’s superiority over nature.  In deMan’s hands, “superiority” has a very negative and alienating note.  In addition, Baudelaire’s insistence that comedy is shared and inter-subjective is rejected.

Right off the bat, deMan notes:

In the first place, the accent falls on the notion of dedoublemant (duality) as the characteristic that sets apart reflective activity, such as that of the philosopher, from the activity of the ordinary self caught in everyday activities.  Hidden away at first in side-remarks such as this one, or masked behind a vocabulary of superiority and inferiority…the notion of self-duplication or self-multiplication emerges at the end of the essay as the key concept of the article, the concept for the sake of which the essay had in fact been written (212).

In this gesture, deMan shifts the focus from superiority and doubling to “self-duplication or self-multiplication.”  DeMan goes on to argue that “superiority” is not in relation to others – which is what Baudelaire and also Henri Bergson note.  Rather, superiority “merely designates the distance constituitive of all acts of reflection.”

In deMan’s reading, Baudelaire is really telling us that the effect of laughter is extreme alienation from the world and oneself.  Instead of attaining self-knowledge by way of laughter, deMan tells us that the laughing subject experiences the abyss.  His madness is not based on superiority so much as on a radical and debilitating loss of his center.

For Baudelaire…the movement of the ironic consciousness is anything but reassuring. The moment the innocence or authenticity of our sense of being in the world is put into question, a far from harmless process gets underway.  It may start as a casual bit of play with a stray loose end of fabric, but before long the entire texture of the self is unraveled and comes apart.  The whole process happens at an unsettling speed. (214)

DeMan’s rhetoric, as Jacques Derrida might say, “supplements” Baudelaire and rewrites his text.  In deMan’s hands, Baudelaire affirms madness and eschews all forms of inter-subjectivity.

Irony is unrelieved vertige, dizziness to the point of madness.  Sanity can exist only because we are willing to function within the conventions of duplicity and dissimulation, just as social language dissimulates the inherent violence of the actual relationships between human beings (216).

By writing in this way, DeMan is, so to speak, going backwards.  He is unraveling Baudelaire’s text to show that at the root of his comedy is what Baudelaire would call Spleen: the physical and symbolic organ associated with rage, anger, and melancholy.

Walter Benjamin saw Baudelaire’s allegorical prose and poetry as a response to Spleen – or what Max Pensky calls “impotent rage against the world.” Benjamin saw such aesthetic responses as a manifestation of “Heroic Melancholy.”  However, deMan does not.  Rather, beneath all of Baudelaire’s laughter he only sees insanity and Spleen.

What we need to ask is whether such a reading has any validity.  Is laughter or irony, in reality, an admittance to one’s radical alienation from the world and oneself?  Is laughter, in other words, self-destructive and anti-social?

And, with respect to Walter Benjamin, is his ironic return to childhood noting more than the experience and re-experience of his radical alienation from himself and others?  In other words, can we apply deMan’s reading of irony and laughter to Walter Benjamin’s humor?

Is Paul deMan right or radically wrong in his reading of irony?  To paraphrase Harold Bloom, how do we read Paul deMan’s “map of misreading” Baudelaire?  Was Baudelaire – or even Walter Benjamin- hiding something behind his laughter? Namely, his endless comic humiliation and fallenness?

The Destructive Element in Comedy (Take 1)


Something happened in the schlemiel’s journey from Eastern Europe to America.  One of the most striking – yet unrecognized – shifts in humor is that while the Eastern European schlemiel tends to be simple, humble, innocent, and generally harmless, the American schlemiel tends – from time to time – to be much more violent, aggressive, and (self)destructive.  American Schlemiels are more physical and intense.  One need only think of The Three Stooges, Zero Mostel, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Phillip Roth, Andy Kaufmann or even Larry David to understand that sometimes the schlemiel is far from harmless.

As we see in this segment from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, two schlemiels, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, are caught up in an intense form of miscommunication.

Each move closer drives these schlemiels father apart.   Their relationship is innocent and violent.

How do we understand the kinetics between them? Is there an element of destruction and violence between them? How do we read this?

Perhaps there is a destructive element inherent in all irony and comedy.   There certainly is a kinetics in comedy; say, for instance, in slapstick comedy.   But how does this relate to the schlemiel?  Are kinetics and play necessarily destructive?  And are they intimately related to the character of the schlemiel?

The blog entries I have done on Scholem and Benjamin point me in this direction since both of them cannot avoid the question of disaster and destruction when they talk about hope.  There seems to be a subtle relationship between hope and disaster.  And the schlemiel, as a character, cannot be separated from hope and disaster.

Gershom Scholem suggested that the intense hope for redemption that we find in the Kabbalah and in the Sabbatinians was a response to disaster.   But in the Sabbatinian case, it not only came out of disater, it created it.   Scholem suggests that Benjamin, like the Sabbatinians, went down the road to disaster when he confused religion and politics.  And, as I suggested in the last blog, the schlemiels confusion of dream and reality often leads to some kind of disaster – even though the schlemiel may, in fact, be unaware that this is the case.  After all, the schlemiel is absent minded.

But there is a problem.  Although absent-mindedness can give us hope, it can also make us melancholic.   In a story like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” for instance, the constant lying to Gimpel seems to be natural to society.  It seems as if his naïve trust in others will never make headway.  Each time he trusts people, the hope of the reader or of the audience, is challenged.  And this can be disasterous.  But, as I suggested in the last blog, the fool suspends such disaster and holds it in a tension with hope.  Nonetheless, disaster is present in nearly every moment of the story.  Our laughter at Gimpel, the foolish schlemiel, is mitigated by this tension.  Its really not so funny when you really think about what’s happening to him.

In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse, much like Scholem, argued that the schlemiel grew out of historical disaster.  The schlemiel is a “modern hero” insofar as he comically responds to disaster.  His humor, in a sense, negates the fact that Jews were ruined and rendered powerless by the forces of history and Exile.   Her theory closely parallels Scholem’s reading of Kabbalah’s origins since the schlemiel, like the Kabbalah, offers the Jews hope in bad times.  However, with the schlemiel, this hope is not intense; it is tempered by a destructive element; namely, skepticism.  The Kabbalah on the other hand, once it enters history, has nothing to temper it.  And this, for Scholem, is the disaster.  It is the same disaster, he argues, which secular messianic political movements face.

The question for us is whether this reading is sufficient for us to understand aggressive schlemiels.

While Scholem and Wisse turn to history to understand the dialectic of destruction and creativity, Walter Benjamin argues that the violent elements of comedy have a deeper root.  For this reason, he, like the Romantics before him, turns to irony and the imagination for an answer.  And what he finds there, however, is not a mental capacity so much as a material one.  Like children, there is something innocent and natural about destruction which Benjamin wanted to employ in his own criticism and writing.   His understanding of the relationship of children, the imagination, and irony to disaster is very instructive.

I would like to suggest that we follow, in the next blog (or two) Walter Benjamin’s investigation into this matter.   His observations can give us a sense of what a criticism of the schlemiel would look like if it were to adhere to Benjamin’s understanding of the destructive element (in contrast to the understanding held by Wisse or Scholem regarding the dialectic of history and creativity).

Messianic Schlemiels and Messianic Activism: Bound to Failure


In Yiddish literature, schlemiels are usually harmless.  The dreams that these Jewish fools live by spur them to be absent-minded. And, though they do collide with reality from time to time, these absent-minded dreams don’t harm it.  Rather, reality often harms the schlemiel.

The term Luftmensch, which means a person who “lives on air,” on dreams, is often associated with the schlemiel.  With her big ideas about how s/he is going to make a living, the schlemiel lives on air.  They often fail to realize their dreams in reality, but this doesn’t stop them from dreaming again.  Regardless, these types of schlemiels are characterized by their dreams and their failures.

But what happens when a schlemiel’s dreams collide with reality and force reality to conform to these dreams?

In an essay entitled “Toward an Understanding of a Messianic Idea,” Gershom Scholem argues that those who “press for the End” are bound to fail.

His wording is striking as it contrasts the “man of faith” to the Kabbalistic “activist.”  To understand his contrast, I’d like to suggest a distinction that is based on a standard understanding of the schlemiel.

In many of his stories, the Hasidic Rabbi, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, considers the man of faith to be simpleton and a schlemiel.  In his simple faith, he waits and prays for redemption.  He doesn’t push for the end.  His foolishness is a matter of perspective.  For the person who relies on his intellect and deeds to get him through life, the “man of faith” is a schlemiel.  But, for the reader of these Hasidic tales, it’s the other way around.  The real fool is the man who relies on his intellect and will power.

Gershom Scholem tells us that, for the “man of faith,” there is an “essential lack of relation between human history and the redemption.”  But, Scholem argues, this attitude was “again and again in danger of being overrun by the apocalyptic certainty that the End had begun and all that was still required was the call to ingathering.”

This “call,” so to speak, is read by Scholem as a call to action.  He calls it “messianic activism.”

“Even and again the revolutionary opinion that this attitude deserves to be overrun breaks through in the Messianic actions of individuals or entire movements.”

This “enticement to action…is inherent in this projection of the best in man upon his future.”

It would seem that this utopian and revolutionary action is contrary to the schlemiel.  But Scholem notes that “the enticement to Messianic action” is an “enticement that is bound to fail because no one is capable of such action.”

Scholem goes so far as to say that such action is so impossible “it must be done by magic, and it must fail for just this reason.”

To be sure, even though the Messianic activist has little interest in the schlemiel (that is, the man of faith), Scholem characterizes him, to be sure, as a luftmensch who will always fail “because no one is capable of such action.”

In other words, Scholem sees all secular humanists with utopian aspirations as schlemiels.  He sees their Utopian Kabbalist precursors, some who resorted to magic, also as schlemiels.

The actions of these dreamers, he notes, are dangerous. Once they fail, they can lead to nihilism on a large scale.

What can we learn about the schlemiel from Scholem’s characterizations of “messianic activism”?  If the schlemiel’s actions remain within the shtetl or within the space of fiction, they are harmless, but if they enter history, then the schlemiel’s actions are dangerous.

Even though Scholem never uses the word schlemiel to characterize the “messianic activist,” it should be clear, based on what we have said, that he would.

Entering history with a utopian dream, thinking that one can redeem it through their actions, will, for Scholem, always lead to failure.

The action, Scholem says, is impossible.  Nonetheless, it has been done not just by Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah who Scholem has written on extensively, it has also been done by political utopians (whether on the left of right such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and many many others whose messianic activism has, as Scholem might say, torn a hole in reality).

Scholem sees the origin of Modernity in this Messianic kind of activism, but this doesn’t mean he looks upon it in a positive way.  From his rhetoric, we can surmise that he might agree that there are schlemiels that dream of the messianic age and don’t do anything to bring it (the “men of faith” – schlemiel’s who don’t act) and there are schlemiel who act on their Messianic dreams and aspirations.

As we saw above, there is, for the man of faith, an “essential lack of relation between human history and redemption.”  While for the Messianic activist, there is.

And, lest we not forget, Scholem is speaking about Jews entering history.  He understood this movement to be dangerous as it was saturated with the aspirations of utopian schlemiel activists.

One wonders if Scholem would call the Israelis who took Israel in 1948 schlemiels. For on that day, they entered history and did, what he would think, is impossible.  But, as we see now, things are far from redeemed.  And, unfortunately, some damage has been done.  And nihilism is on the horizon.

This is wholly ironic because, as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi argues in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination, which we mentioned in our blog on Purim (https://schlemielintheory.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/here-in-america-everyday-is-purim/), Israeli’s have had little to no interest in the schlemiel.  “Israel is Real, “says Ezrahi; its not a dream (like America).  Nonetheless, the act that brought it into reality was utopian; it was the act of a schlemiel.

It was impossible.  Nonetheless, this should give us a lot to think about.  In America, in Europe, and around the world the “messianic activism” of at least one variety of schlemiel lives on.  And if we were to follow Scholem, we would see the danger that looms around their actions is the danger of nihilism.

Perhaps Scholem wanted to fare somewhere in the middle.  Somewhere between one schlemiel and another; for, as the main character Stephen Daedelus says in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”

Perhaps history is the dream, and all of the messianic activists on the stage of history are really schlemiels?  But, unlike Stephen Daedelus, the schlemiel usually doesn’t know she is dreaming.   And if you don’t know you’re dreaming, how can you awake from your dreams?

Ask the Great Dictator: