A Note on Jake Marmer’s Poem “Bathhouse of Dreams”

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Jake Marmer’s poem, “Bathhouse of Dreams,” is an improvised poem which is based – in part – on a Mishnah from the tractate Avoda Zarah 3:4:

Proklos, son of Plosphos asked Rabban Gamliel a question in Akko, where he was washing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He said to [Rabban Gamliel], “Isn’t it written in your Torah (Deut. 13:18), ‘do not allow any banned items [from idol worshippers] to stick to your hand’? How then do you bathe in Aphrodite’s bathhouse?” He replied, “One does not respond [to religious questions] in the bath.” Once he exited, [Rabban Gamliel] said to him, “I did not enter her domain, but she entered mine. [Further], people don’t say, ‘let’s make a bath as a decoration for Aphrodite.’ Rather, they say, ‘let’s make a statue of Aphrodite as a decoration for our bath.’” Another reason: Even if someone paid you lots of money, you wouldn’t commence your idol worship if you were naked or sticky*, nor would you urinate before [your sacred object]. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands over the sewer and everyone urinates before it. The verse “these are your gods” (Exod. 32:4) is not said about this case. If a [statue] is treated as a god, then it is forbidden, but if it is not treated as a god, then it is permitted [to be in its presence].

How does this Mishnah relate to the title of Marmer’s poem and the poem itself which addresses a dream-like revision of the Mishnah?   Before we address Marmer’s poem, I’d like to preface my reading with a brief summary of the “Rabbinical” approach to dreams and follow it up with a sketch of Freud’s reading of the dream.  This will help us to understand what is at stake in Marmer’s re-imagining of this Mishnaic scene.

Poets have, for centuries, been interested in dreams.  And dreams, to be sure, have their root in prophesy and religion.  “Pagan” religion and monotheism pay much heed to dreams. As far as Judaism goes, there is an ambivalent attitude toward dreams.  Many of the first prophets in the Jewish tradition communicated with God by way of the dream.  But, according to Moses Maimonides, these prophets are lesser than Moses who communicated with God (so to speak) “face to face.”  Maimonides, in the vein of Ancient Greek and rationalist Islamic philosophy, makes it quite clear in his Guide to the Perplexed that imagination is a deficient mode vis-à-vis the intellect.  And in his view, Moses is the “greatest of all prophets” because, unlike the other prophets who communicated with God via the imagination, his intellect was perfected and his imagination was purified.  And, as Leo Strauss points out in his reading of Maimonides, the imagination, for Moses, had only one purpose at that point and that purpose is political; namely, to communicate to the masses.  Since the majority of people relate better to the imagination than to the intellect, it is the best medium to use for political purposes; however, it is not the highest man can achieve.  Although Baruch Spinoza disagreed with Maimonides on many different points, he agreed with him on the clear distinction between intellect and the imagination.  And Spinoza even found Moses at fault for, in his view, a minimal appeal to the imagination.

Nonetheless, as Sarah Stroumsa points out in her book on Maimonides, Maimoindes didn’t always have a rationalist position on the imagination and dreams.  As she argues, when he was younger he wanted to write a book interpreting images and the imagination which had more resonances with Kabbalah than with the Rationalists.  However, his position changed over time.  Maimonides understood the importance of imagery, the imagination, and dreams in Judaism.  But, as we can see from The Guide to the Perplexed, he ultimately settled with the rationalist reading of dreams and imagery.

On the other hand, poets and Kabbalists give greater weight to dreams. To be sure, exile itself is likened to a dream.  We see this in Psalm 126:

A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song. (126:1-2)

This psalm gives weight to the dreams of exile.  And no amount of rationalism can (or even should) be appealed to so as to eliminate these dreams.  To be sure, the poet understands that dreams are or can be related to perception and desire.  The question, for the Jewish poet and the Rabbi who are concerned with dreams, is how do we interpret the dreams of exile.

Rav Kook reads this Psalm in terms of the “dreams of redemption” which, one day, will disappear.   In his view, this did happen in some way with the founding of the State of Israel.  However, the exile lives on since the “full redemption” has not arrived.   For an American Jew who lives after the founding of the Jewish State, however, the dream seems to live on.

And, as Jake Marmer’s poem on the Mishnah implies, imagining Rabbi Gamliel’s “Bathhouse Dreams” is of great interest to the poet.  The imagination, for the Jewish poet, must be active; it doesn’t simply foster desire for redemption; it also sharpens our vision of the present and relation to the past.  And, in Marmer’s poem, it does so in a comic manner.   This makes it even more appealing to us, today, since one of the most important ways American-Jews have to relate to their Jewishness is by way of humor (as a recent Pew Poll shows).

I’d like to briefly turn to Freud’s theory of the dream to show how this appeal to the dream works on many levels.

If anyone takes the time to understand Freud’s theory of dreams, one will notice that something happens between The Interpretation of Dreams and Beyond the Pleasure Principle.   In the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud looks at dreams through the lens of the “pleasure principle.”  According to this theory, the psyche will go to great lengths to discharge all energy by any means necessary because the buildup of energy within the psyche is “painful.”  And the pleasure principle is, more or less, the principle to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  For this reason, Freud, working on his system of the id, ego, and superego, argues that consciousness censors things that are, according to the superego, detrimental to the health of consciousness.  One such thing would be sexual taboos.  These, Freud argued, must be discharged. And since the conscious mind won’t let it come to the surface, taboos are buried in the unconscious only to be resurrected and discharged in dreams.

But since there is also a “censor” in dreams, these feelings must be hidden in some way. For instance, instead of seeing your sister in your dream (who you may have an incestual desire for) you see a “substitute” who doesn’t look like your sister but feels like her.

This theory of dreams is based on an economy of discharging energy so as to maintain the pleasure principle: in the most Greek sense, happiness/pleasure is the goal.   This theory of dreams changes later on in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Before he wrote this book, he witnessed the dreams of men who were terrorized by experiences they had on the battlefield during WWI.  Their traumatic dreams would repeat over and over again (he calls this a “repetition compulsion”).  And the unconscious seemed to be deriving pleasure from this pain.  And this, for Freud, was troubling; it violated the “pleasure principle.”   His theory didn’t make room for trauma and, as he understood, it had to now; in the wake of his discoveries on the battle field medical tent.

I’d like to posit that Freud’s theory of the pleasure principle has Greek resonances while his later approach to dreams has more of a Jewish resonance.  In the latter theory, the pain of history, the trauma of history, is incorporated into the dream.  It is noted and happiness is not the goal so much as memory.

What I love about Jake Marmer’s poem “Bathhouse of Dreams” is the fact that it draws on Freud’s latter theory, reread the above mentioned Mishnah from Avodah Zarah, and adds a comic dimension to memory that Freud didn’t bring out in his post-pleasure principle theory.

In Marmer’s poem (and its performance), there is an angry (yet comic) tone that the poet takes on as he identifies with Rabbi Gamliel when he responds to the Hellenists’ query as to why he is in the Bathhouse of Aprhodite.     (The “Bathhouse of Dreams” poem starts at 3:55 in the video below.)

The poem starts off with a slightly modified citation from the Mishnah.  But it goes on to put in what is not there; namely, a retort which brings out the insider/outsider status of the Jew in Hellenistic culture: his double consciousness.  And this status is communicated by way of the dream/beard. The music in the piece brings out a dragnet style of sound to the presentation of the Rabbi’s words interspersed by a sequence that seems to be fighting with itself for speech. (Here’s the soundcloud link: https://soundcloud.com/lawrencebush):

Rabbi, why are you here to wash?

The Beard of my double consciousness answered Rabbi Gamliel….Yeah, my beard of double consciousness answered Galmliel…Every morning I wake up to find another split in my beard, and find another hole in my beard, and find another nest in my beard…

After this interlude, the music becomes more erratic to match the dream/ravings of Gamliel.  The increase in speed has the effect of becoming more and more comic as the jazz piece moves on.  At the end, Galmliel makes a pledge to remain a “perpetual dreamboy.” But this is punctuated by the music dropping out.  In this gap, Marmer inserts the words: “in a locked suitcase.”

The music then returns to the dragnet style melody .

I find this modulation and the last words to be telling.  What we find in these movements and words is an awareness of the “double consciousness” of the Jew which is communicated by way of the imaginary personification of the words Gamliel never said.  These words end with a pledge to become a “perpetual dreamboy” (in other words, a poet-schleimel; a “lord of dreams”) in response to the question (read as an insult) made by the Hellenist.  The response punctuates a series of angry retorts that struggle to the poets mouth (this is conveyed by the music).  But in the end, the position is one of withdrawal, a pledge that is, ultimately, to be found in a “locked suitcase.”  This sounds like a pandora box of sorts. But if it were opened up, what we would have is not war or violence so much as rage, comedy, and dreams.

This closing irony, which is the end of a build up of rage, is Jake Marmer’s way of relating to the past vis-à-vis the Mishnah and the present vis-à-vis his retelling and revising it.

The accent on the present brings out the power of the dream to mark the traumatic affect of double consciousness while, at the same time, showing how humor can be used to modulate this consciousness and rage.   Marmer is teaching us how, for American-Jews today, comedy and rage can go hand in hand with memory and poetic speech(that is, if one is willing to own up to one’s past struggles with society rather than forget about it). Indeed, comedy and rage can be employed in our relating to the Jewish past and the Jewish present (that is, if the relation of Jewish to non-Jewish identity is to remain an issue; if “double consciousness” is to remain an issue as it is for this poet who personifies Rabbi Gamliel).

At the end of the poem, I can feel the power of the dream is not to affect a kind of happiness, as Freud would say in his early work: that the day-dream or dream accomplish happiness in spite of things that cause the psyche pain.  Rather, the power of the dream-poem is to effect a sense of how something has not been worked through; comedy doesn’t eliminate rage or double consciousness.  Rather, comedy shows our weakness and our strength.

This is not a dream realized, as Kook would call for.  And this dream is not something that can be rationalized away. Rather, this poet’s dream imaginatively taps into the past from the angle of the present so as to disclose the difficult place of “double consciousness” that Jews speak from in our post-modern age.

Like Marmer, I understand his position very well.  It is the position of the schlemiel. And, for the poet and audience, it is double.  It is the angle of the Jewish Sancho Panza (the poet and audience) who pays close attention to the dreaming Don Quixote (Rabbi Gamliel and the poet), but with a twist: namely, the twist of historical fate which has and continues to make the Jew aware of his/her double consciousness.

The schlemiel, after all, is the lord of dreams.  And we, the readers of the schlemiel, are not.  Yet, when we see or hear the schlemiel, we can’t help but realize that his consciousness is ours.  We are in and out of reality and history.  We are double.  This is a bitter-sweet comedy of Jewishness. But it remains and will remain as long as the dream of exile remains a reality.

But can the fool(ish) text do Humanity any Good? Maimonides, Derrida, and Gasche (Part I)

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In his book Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation, Rodolphe Gasche notes, in one of his readings of Jacques Derrida, that a text, like a person, can have a manner.

A manner is a way of acting or bearing.  A manner can also be read as a style.

What is the meaning of Gasche’s description?

This description of the text as a manner has religious resonance.  The reader, in an exegetical manner, must figure out his or her bearing in relation to the text and its bearing.  How does the text appear to the reader and how, in turn, does the reader present him or herself to the text?  Can the text teach us about how to bear ourselves or is it devoid of any such prescriptions for action?

Gasche suggests that the relation to the text is not by way of knowledge so much as by a relation to its way of being (its manner).  Textual relation bears two questions: How do we relate to the text and how does it relate to us?  Does the text turn away from us, as God turns away from Moses in the moment of revelation?

I can’t help but hear Maimonides reading of Prophetic Revelation in Gasche’s claim. In Part I, Chapter 54 of The Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides discusses how, when Moses requests to see God’s essence, he sees, instead, God’s actions.  In other words, Moses , according to Maimonides, was only allowed to see God’s manner of being:

When Moses asked for knowledge of the attributes and asked for forgiveness for the nation, he was given a favorable answer with regard to their being forgiven.  Then he asked for the apprehension of His essence, may He be exalted.  This is what he means when he says, “Show me, I pray You, Your glory” (Ex. 33:18), whereupon he received a (favorable) answer with regard to what he had asked for first – namely, “Show me Your ways.”

Although Moses didn’t learn of God’s essence, he was shown God’s “ways” so that he could teach and practice them.  He was given what Gasche would call – in his essay on Derrida – a “reflection without penetration.” Nonetheless, he is given a manner that can make life better for himself and for the Jewish people.  To be sure, for Maimonides, the prophet is a political leader and a philosopher.  Most importantly, Moses, “the greatest of all prophets,” is the only prophet who is a lawgiver.  All three are related, in some way, to God’s ways or manners, which Moses practices.  Practice, it seems, trumps reflection into the essence of things.  The manner of God, God’s ways, bear themselves to Moses.  Not God’s essence.

Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and the later Martin Heidegger, have taught us, with respect to language, that if it doesn’t have an essence that can be known (like God cannot be known), then all one can know of language is not what language is but what language does.  We can only know or describe how language does things.

Maimonides notes how Moses can perfect himself and be the best leader and prophet if, and only if, he imitates what God does – which can only be found by following God’s ways.  Maimonides sees Moses’ practical knowledge as being based on divine contemplation of God’s ways.  Such contemplation can foster love and fear and, most importantly, prompts imitation that promotes ethical and political well being.

The imitation of these manners or ways would do humanity good.  Maimonides tells us that such imitation will help man to perfect himself; moreover, without imitaiton, society cannot perfect itself.  Without a teacher of God’s ways, without a leader who pursues the ways of justice, society will degenerate.

Can we say the same for language?  Can or does language as such – language and its ways -do humanity any good?  Can language help?

Heidegger, near the end of his life, focused solely on “listening” to language.  And Benjamin wrote several essays and notes on language.   Derrida and Giorgio Agamben, amongst others, also call on us to pay close attention to language.

For them, its an imperative to pay close attention to the ways of language.  But do they do this because they believe that following the ways of language will do humanity any good?  Are they miming religion, so to speak, while emptying it of its content?  Instead of the manner and ways of God, do we study and practice, instead, the ways of language?  Are these, as Derrida might say, the way one would practice a “religion without religion?”

To answer these questions, let’s play a game.  I’ll imagine what would be implied if we read the relation of the reader to the text as we would read the relationship of Moses to God.  To know what to do, to act or imitate the ways of the text, we would have to know what a text is doing and how it is doing it:

What is the manner of the text?

Can we learn justice from the ways of language? Or do we just learn its ways?  Are we in the position to imitate its ways or is this a ridiculous question reserved only for religion and theology not language as such?

Reading Gasche, we should like to know if we are going to imitate the text so as to perfect ourselves and society; otherwise, Gasche’s language suggests that we reflect on a manner that is devoid of any ethical or political content.  Does the act of reflection suffice?  Does it help humanity?

If ethics is based on actions and not on knowledge, as Levinas points out in a reading he makes of Maimonides (in one of his essays on Judaism), for language to be ethical, it would have to be prescriptive in some way.   Otherwise, its “manner” would have no ethical content.

If we take Jacques Derrida seriously, we would have to say that a text has the manner of the schlemiel.  It does not know what it is doing.   And language likes to dream and get distracted.  A text can be absent-minded.  But can a text, like a schlemiel, fail?

How would it fail?  In what manner would the text, as schlemiel, fail?

Roldophe Gasche gives us a clue.  In his book, Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation, Gashe writes of Derrida’s notion of mimesis.  He reads mimesis through Derrida’s essay on Mallarme entitled “The Double Session.”  There, Gasche looks into the relationship between the text and reflection.  He argues that Derrida’s notion of textual mimesis shows has the manner of a mystical and absentminded kind of consciousness: a “reflection without penetration.”

Gasche’s notion of a “reflection without penetration” is really another name for what is commonly called “absent-mindedness.”

How, according to Gasche, does one, along with the text, become absent-minded?

Is the text, as Derrida might say, always-already absent minded?  And is our manner of reading, always already, absentminded? Through Gasche’s reading of Derrida, I would like to briefly touch on these questions.

To be continued, in tomorrow’s blog…..

Did you Say Your Name was Shuvalkin, Kafka, Walter Benjamin, or is this a Prank?

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In the last two blog entries, I have been looking into Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism in which he recounts a dream where he discovers his name inscribed in Goethe’s guestbook.  To understand what this meant to Benjamin, I discussed Benjamin’s understanding of what a name is and why it is significant.  As I noted, Benjamin saw the name as revelatory.  For him, it constitutes a link between God and man.  And, as I pointed out, the name is more about relation and less about content.  But there is a twist.

Although Benjamin is asked to sign his name, he realizes it has already been signed.  In other words, a trick has been played on him

But the shock is not simply that his name was already written but that it was written “in big, unruly, childish letters.”  Benjamin is, as I said yesterday, S(c)h(l)ocked by this prank.  To be sure, Benjamin saw something very deep in this prank.  As I noted, he discovered his calling to Schlemieldom.  In a “man’s world” (literally, in Goethe’s world, his house) it seems Benjamin is a child.  He is doomed to being a man who is thought of as a child.  The ‘shape’ of his name, so to speak, indicates this.

It’s interesting to note that the Zohar, one of the greatest books of the Kabbalah, which Gershom Scholem, in part, translated into German, has many sections which analyze the shapes of letters.  From these shapes, from the way they are written, we can learn secrets.

Elliot Wolfson, in his book Aleph, Mem, Tau: Kabbalistic Musings on Time, Truth, and Death, notes the passage in the Zohar in which “each of the letters presents itself before God in an effort to be chosen as the primary instrument through which the world would be created”(159).  Wolfson delicately unpacks this passage from the Zohar so as to show that each letter deals with time, truth, and death.

Aleph says it is the first letter of the word Emet (which in Hebrew means truth), but Tav says it is the last letter of Emet (and the Hebrew alphabet) and should be granted the privilege of being the letter through which the world is created (160).  But, Wolfson notes, Tav is disqualified because it is the last letter of the word Met (death).

However, as Wolfson argues, the letters taken together are the beginning (Aleph), middle (Mem), and the End (Tav).  Together, they designate time and together (the past, present, and future) make the truth.  The word, truth contains the word death, but it also opens up to the future as the truth-to-come.  Wolfson correctly notes, resonating the Apocalyptic elements in the Kabbalah, that the first letter of the Torah is Bet not Aleph.  And this reflection opens us up to a question: if the world was created with an Aleph (of the word Emet – truth) why isn’t the first letter of the Torah an Aleph?

This is the rub: the Aleph and the truth are concealed and will be revealed in the future, in the messianic age.  Meanwhile, we live in the world of the second letter which conceals the first.  In this world, truth (or for Wolfson, the truth of time) is distorted.

Walter Benjamin was quite aware of this teaching from the Zohar.  From Scholem and his own studies, he learned how the letters of the name, their shape and arrangement, disclose a secret that can be glimpsed in the present and seen to be coming from the future.  Building on Wolfson’s work, I would call this a truth-to-come.

Knowing this, how do we interpret Benjamin’s revelation of a name (his name) that was already written in clumsly children’s letters.  Was the disclosure of this prank a revelation of the truth-to-come or, rather, a distortion of the truth-to-come?  To be sure, this was the disclosure of Benjamin as a man-child (as a schlemiel).  But what does the shape of the schlemiel’s name have to do with the truth-to-come?

In the very beginning of Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, he returns to this question.

In the beginning of the essay, entitled “Potemkin,” Benjamin recounts a story of how Grigory Potemkin, the 18th century Russian military ruler, statesman, and beloved of Catherine the Great, went into a great depression.   (As a side note, Catherine gave Potemkin the title of the Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.)

As Benjamin recounts, Potemkin’s depression “lasted form an extraordinary length of time and brought about serious difficulties; in the offices documents piled up that required Potemkin’s signature”(112, Illuminations).

Who could get him to sign his name?

Benjamin notes that “an unimportant little clerk named Shuvalkin” comes to the rescue.  In other words, a simpleton (that is, a schlemiel of sorts) comes to their aid.   He doesn’t try to reason with Potemkin; rather, he acts: “Shuvalkin stepped up to writing desk, dipped a pen and ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hands while putting the documents on his knees”(112).

Potemkin signs all of them.   And Shuvalkin walks into the anteroom, “waving the papers triumphantly,” as the councilors gather around to see.  And what happens is astounding: “Breathlessly they bent over them.  No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed.”

When Shuvalkin looked in to see what happened – to see what had “upset” them and put them into a stupor, he sees that every one of the signatures has his name signed on it: “Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin.”

Benjamin sees this story as a “herald racing two hundred years ahead of Kafka’s work.” And then he adds that “the enigma which beclouds it is Kafka’s enigma.”

Benjamin then goes on to substitute Kafka’s character K for Shuvalkin.

These rhetorical movements are very hasty and to simply go along with them, without prying into the esoteric, would be clumsy.  Benjamin is telling us that Shuvalkin is a herald who goes “ahead of Kafka’s work.”  To be sure, this implies that Shuvalkin, a schlemiel, may even be (temporally) ahead of Benjamin’s work.  Moreover, he says that it is Kafka’s enigma but, in truth, it is also his.  In fact, he and Kafka share the enigma of Shuvalkin, which is the enigma of having one’s name already signed by the Other. Signed in such a way that the shape of the letters and their arrangement indicate that the bearer of the signature is a fool.

After the last three blog entries on Benjamin and the name, I hope that by now it will become evident to the blog-readers out there that a name is taking shape.  And that name, Benjamin and Kafka’s secret name, is a name that they are signed with and that name is the name of the man-child or the schlemiel.

There are many questions which come with this enigma and with this parable.  What does it mean that Kafka and Benjamin are the subjects of a prank?  And what does it mean that the “herald” has gone on ahead of Kafka?  Is he ahead of “us” as well?  I say “us” because everyone in the community, as is evidenced by the Potemkin parable, may be affected by the prank – that is, by the signature Shuvlakin.  But to say this, as Benjamin seems to suggest, wouldn’t we be entering the realms of ontology, politics, and religion?

Given this suggestion, can we say that we all share the same childishly written (and childish) name?  And instead of the name of God, as the name we all share (or the name Emet – truth, which Wolfson ventures in his reading of the Zohar), why is the name we share a name whose letters are childishly written?  Why is “our” name the name of a man-child?  Is this, as the Kabbalah might say, the “truth” (Emet) to come?  Or is it a prank?

All of these questions have not, in the history of Benjamin studies, been posed or discussed.  They are questions that come up if you read Benjamin (or Kafka for that matter) as he wanted to be read – as one would read a parable, midrashically.  I will be developing these ideas further in my book on the Schlemiel.  Nonetheless, I have decided to share some of these childish ‘secrets’ on this blog before my book makes the light of the day.  To be sure, there are a few more secrets about Benjamin and the Schlemiel that I may tell in this blog before I pass on to other schlemiels and schlemiel-topics, but I may have to withhold them or encode them in the very near future. Wink Wink!

Remember, you heard it here first – at SchlemielTheory!  More fun-to-come!

The S(c)h(l)ock of Walter Benjamin’s Discovery

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There is nothing like the shock of discovery.  The moment of recognition is transformational.   In Greek, the word for recognition is anagoresis.  In Greek anagnōrisis comes from the word anagnōrizein to recognize.  The root of this word comes from ana- + gnōrizein to make known.  Webster’s dictionary goes on to point out that it is akin to Greek gnōrimos, meaning, well-known and the word gignōskein to come to know.

Anagoresis happens in Greek tragedy when the main character learns who he or she really is and/or who other people really are.  Usually, this knowledge is tragic.  One need only think of Oedipus in Sophocles’ famous play Oedipus Rex who, when he discovers who he is and who his real mother and father are, has a breakdown.   This tragic knowledge culminates with Oedipus poking his eyes out.

But anagoresis doesn’t always have to be tragic.  In fact, it can be comic.

In yesterday’s blog, I located the moment of Benjamin’s self-discovery in his aphorism entitled “Vestibule.”  In this aphorism, Benjamin writes of a dream he had about being in Goethe’s house.  When he is asked by the “curator” to write his name in Goethe’s guestbook, he discovers that his name is not only already written but that it is also written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  In other words, Benjamin has a comic self-discovery.  He learns that his name, his essence, is childishly written.  And it is not he that has written it this way; someone else, some Other, has written his name in this childish manner.  To be sure, although this is comic; it is also tragic.  It’s as if, someone, some Other, has played a prank on him.

This discovery is astonishing.  But what does it mean?  Yesterday, I suggested that this is Benjamin’s discovery that he is a man-child.   More to the point, he discovers that he has been, prankishly, written into Goethe’s guest book (that is, the book of German letters) as a schlemiel (a man-child).

To be sure, Benjamin took names quite seriously.  And this discovery of his already written name, albeit in a dream, was revelatory.  In his essay “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” Benjamin makes this explicit: “In naming, the mental being of man communicates itself to God”(318, Reflections).

Naming is, for Benjamin, a direct form of communication between God and Man.  It is, without a doubt, revelatory.

Naming, in the realm of language, has as its sole purpose and its incomparably high meaning that it is the innermost nature of language itself.  Naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated, and in which language itself communicates itself absolutely. (ibid)

But does Benjamin discover the essence of language in his dream or does he discover himself?  What does he discover?  Moreover, in this dream, Benjamin does not write.  He doesn’t, in this sense, communicate with God by way of naming.  To be sure, it seems to be the other way around.

Moreover, the “Vestibule” aphorism complicates Benjamin’s claim in “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” that “Man is the namer, by this we recognize that through him pure language speaks.”

Benjamin’s mention of “pure language” is quite fascinating.  It further complicates things.  Gershom Scholem, in a chapter of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism entitled “Merkabah Mysticism and Jewish Gnosticism” helps us to clarify what is at stake with such language.

In his discussion on ancient Kabbalistic liturgy, Scholem notes that the words of these Kabbalistic prayers to God, which can be found in prayers books today, are the “pure word.”  According to Scholem, they are pure words because they don’t mean anything; they don’t have any content.  Moreover, the “ascent of the words has not yet substituted itself for the ascent of the soul and of the devotee himself.  The pure word, the as yet unbroken summons stands for itself; it signifies nothing but what it expresses.”

The pure word is a word of man to God.  For Scholem, it is purely relational and bears no content.  It has a lot in common with what Benjamin calls naming.

However, in Benjamin’s aphorism, his name is already written.  Is it “pure?”  Is Benjamin pointing out a comic relationship with God?

The irony of all this is that Benjamin, in this aphorism, is recording what was already written; namely, Benjamin’s name in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  He is not, like Adam in his essay, naming.  He is recording what is written.

This is the prophetic mode or recording and not simply the mode of naming because, as Benjamin well knew by way of his friend Gershom Scholem, the Jewish tradition says that Moses wrote the Torah down after being told, word by word, what to write.

As the Medieval Rabbi, Scholar, and Philosopher Moses Maimonides points out, Moses’ prophesy, which is law, is communicated in this way of recording.  (And it is different from other prophets insofar as they, mainly, rebuke the people or prompt them to “return” to God.  Or, as Martin Buber might say, the prophets alert the people to the “demand of the hour.”)

Benjamin seems to be giving this prophetic legacy a comic twist.  In Benjamin’s aphorism, he is recording the name he saw in a dream: his name, childishly, that is, comically written.

Benjamin is not naming so much as being named (or renamed).  But this name, which he can’t even write, although asked to do so, has been comically altered.  It suggests that Benjamin’s destiny (the law he falls under) is, so to speak, tied up with the schlemiel.  He cannot escape the joke that has been played on him: he realizes, in his moment of anagoresis, that his destiny is to accept his childishly written name.  His identity, his essence, is written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”

This is tragic and comic knowledge.  This is a tragic and a comic anagoresis.  It is the, so so speak, S(c)h(l)ock of discovery.  (Schlock means a stroke of bad luck or denotes something that is low grade and cheap; it often has a comic connotation.)  He realizes, that in Goethe’s house, in this house of the classicist, he is childish.  He is the subject of laughter.

But why is his name improper? Why is it his destiny to be a schlemiel in Goethe’s house?  Are there other reasons for this shameful recognition?  Is this or rather was this, perhaps, the destiny of all Jews (even the most modern) in Germany?  Are all of their names “childishly” written?  Are they the butt of a bad, Greek joke?  Or is it just Benjamin who suffers this fate?

Most importantly, who is the mysterious Other who wrote his name in this childish manner?  Who played the trick on Benjamin?  Was it God, a demon, or Goethe?

Regardless of the answer, Benjamin knew that his destiny, his name, was tied to the schlemiel.

But, based on his writing on the child, childhood, and the fool throughout his work, as we have seen in a few entries on this blog, it seems as if he didn’t seem to be angry or disturbed about this revelation.  He seems to have accepted it and to have made it into one of his passionate interests.

Like Woody Allen, Benjamin doesn’t seem to get angry about this revelation so much as perplexed.  He is shocked but…

(In our next blog entry, we will look, once again, at this discovery yet from the angle of another name that Benjamin discovered.)

Wink, Wink! Walter Benjamin’s Childhood Secret and His Prophetic Calling to Schlemieldom

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As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa.   A careful writer wants to be read carefully.  He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself.  Reader precedes writer.  We read before we write.  We learn to write by reading.  –Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing

When you’re in on a joke, don’t forget to wink.

When you wink, you imply that there is something that only some people can see.  Winking is not a straightforward gesture.  It is oblique.   And it is immediate, like a blink of the eye.  The wink indicates that the person you shared your secret with now knows something that only you know.

The esoteric, hidden meaning, is esoteric precisely because it signifies by way of an oblique gesture.  The conveyance of the esoteric (secret) message is gestural – like a wink.  There are esoteric writers and readers.  The esoteric writer winks at the reader.  But the reader must be looking for the wink, in advance.  To be sure, if the esoteric reader is to find a secret (or secrets, plural) she must “read between the lines.”

Throughout their work, Walter Benjamin and Leo Strauss were attentive in their readings of texts.  There eyes were either looking for the wink or winking at their readers.  And from such reading practices, they learned how to wink too.

For both, the good reader and the good writer knows how to wink and be winked at.

One winks at the reader, so to speak, through writing.  But one must be able to see the wink.  And that takes practice. One must learn to read for “allusions” – for things that are said obliquely.

But this is not simply a willed activity.  To be sure, both knew that inherent in language is the power to allude and hint at things.  This force astonished Benjamin and Strauss.   Built into language, there is a revelatory aspect. But the revelation of language is not simply a revelation of something outside language.

No.

They knew that their allusive writing style didn’t simply allude to something other than themselves.  Although they would never say it directly (since that is the point of the esoteric), they believed that their allusions referred, in some way, to themselves.

What Benjamin and Strauss desired most was to read and to write: to wink and be winked at.  They wanted to share their secrets.

Leo Strauss’s language is thick with such implication – it winks at his readers.  When he says that “a careful writer wants to be read carefully,” he is obliquely telling his readers his desire which, ultimately, comes from careful reading.  After all, as Strauss says in the epigram: “Reader precedes writer.”  When Strauss writes these words about Baruch Spinoza, he is speaking about himself and his deepest desire as a writer.  His words are autobiographical.

Strauss wants to be read well.  But this is not for his own sake.  He wants to read well so that he can write well.  Writing is not for himself; writing, for Strauss, is shared (partage, as Derrida would say); writing is for a community of careful readers and writers.  What Strauss calls “persecuted writers.”  (Derrida, in his essay on Emmanuel Levinas entitled “Violence and Metaphysics” calls it the “community of the question.”)

To get into the community, you simply need to know how to read the wink when-it-happens and how to write-slash-wink.  We can have no doubt that Benjamin saw himself as a part of such an esoteric community of readers and writers.  He knew that the wink signifies that we know something that many people don’t.   He knows that his knowledge, because it is esoteric and hidden from society, might be dangerous.  This is why Strauss would call it “persecuted”: the author cannot, under certain societal circumstances, reveal this knowledge directly.  S/he must wink.

But the wink doesn’t simply reveal a secret that may endanger society; it also tells us something about the writer that we may not know.  After all, a wink tells us one thing: you’re in on my secret.

Yesterday, in my cursory reading of the childhood section Benjamin’s book One Way Street, I pointed out how Benjamin’s sections on children are autobiographicalThe section begins with reading but ends with hiding.  I explained how Benjamin was identifying with the child and, in effect, becoming-child.  Most importantly, we must remember that this becoming happens in a world or micro-world.

One doesn’t become in a vacuum.  This means that Benjamin’s reading practices are ways of opening up and hiding in microworlds.   But he didn’t just go into these worlds for no reason.  No, as I pointed out, Benjamin was running away from terror as the child runs from a “demon.”  We can say that he was persecuted.  His words on The Idiot (and on hiding) tell us that he knows that his terror comes from childhood damage.  But this is not simply knowledge.  In writing about this terror, it is practiced: Benjamin, in the two aphorisms we read yesterday, demonstrates that he must live the life of a child if he is to be safe or as Jacques Derrida would say in his essay “Faith and Religion,” sacred, that is, removed from danger, “autoimmune.”

At the beginning of One Way Street, Benjamin prepares us for his venture into childhood and its safe havens.  We see this in an aphorism entitled “Vestibule.” Here he gives the reader his prophesy of childhood and his calling.

In the aphorism, Benjamin notes how, in a dream, he “visits” the home of the famed German writer, thinker, and poet: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  He notes that even though he was in Goethe’s house, “he didn’t see any rooms.”

Benjamin tells us how the interior of his dream space appears to him from his angle-slash-perspective: “that it was a perspective of whitewashed corridors like those in a school.”  This implies that he feels like a young student in Goethe’s house (or, rather, school of thought). In the house-slash-school, there are “two elderly English lady visitors and a curator.”  They are only “extras.”  They lead him to the secret, which, we must underscore, is to be read and written.  The curator asks that he and the two elderly ladies “sign the visitors’ book lying open on the desk at the end of the passage.”

When he opens the book to sign, he has a revelation about his name and his prophetic calling:

On reaching it, I find as I turn the pages my name already entered in big, unruly, childish characters.

He realizes that he doesn’t have to sign!

This is the prophetic calling of the schlemiel.  To be sure, his name is “already” written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  The words literally wink at him: Benjamin is in on a big joke.   This passage suggests that we all know that Benjamin was always meant to be a fool.  Moreover, it is written in the book of Goethe: the prophet, so to speak, of all German scholarship.

But this revelation, lest we not forget, comes through a dream.    This is significant since one of the ways prophesy comes to man, in Judaism, is through dreams.  In exile, it is through the oblique and indirect way – the way of the dream – that God communicates with man.  In Benjamin’s prophetic dream, he realizes that he is a man-child.  His name is, after all, written in “big, unruly childish characters.”

His name, his essence, is childish.  Yet, at the same time, Benjamin is a man hiding in Goethe’s imaginary schoolhouse.  Most importantly, he didn’t name himself a child or schlemiel.  He didn’t sign his name in a childlike manner, someone else did!

Wink, wink!

Messianic Schlemiels and Messianic Activism: Bound to Failure

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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:

What do Louis CK, Andy Kaufmann, Emmanuel Levinas, and The Miriam Katz Project have in Common?

Today, I was incredibly delighted to see a post by the Jewish arts and culture website Tablet on my facebook page with the following tagline and question:

Art historian Miriam Katz thinks of comedians as spiritual guides, and she wants to bring stand-up into the serious world of galleries and museums:

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What do you think — can comedy be intellectualized?

As I scanned the tagline, the question, the image, and the post, I was overwhelmed.  I was really excited to see that something I am deeply concerned with in my blog is being echoed “out there” in the virtual sphere and “in reality.”

The “schlemiel as prophet,” as a “spiritual guide,” seems to be catching on.

But it’s confusing. What does this mean?  I could see that the question after the tagline and the responses to it in the facebook thread bore confusion over this question.

What the thread opined on was whether or not a comic could be a spiritual guide. As one can imagine, some thought this idea to be absurd while others did not.  The general response, however, was that this is a question that has yet to be thought through in a thoroughgoing manner.

The image, propped between the tagline and question, also evokes questions as to what the comedian can communicate to us.  To be honest, I found the Louis CK image to be more telling than the question.

What astonishes me about the Louis CK image and the caption is that, taken together, they suggest that the face is linked to comic-spiritual guidance.  This suggestion or allusion hits at something deep: it hits at the relationship of prophesy to comedy and the face.

For me, this is profound because Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher I esteem above nearly all the philosophers of the 20th century, argued that the face is prophetic.  And this prophesy pertains to suffering.    The face, for Levinas, traumatizes and inspires “me” to be-for-the-other.  It takes me outside of myself before I can even think about whether or not I want to help the other.

For Levinas, one is always-already and yet-to-be for the other.  The face tells me, in a prophetic manner, “Thou shalt not Kill.”  Levinas calls my relationship to the other the one-for-the-other.  Which means, I am for the other before I am for myself.  And this is magnified by the other’s suffering which “I” struggle with only because I am always-already affected by it.

Perhaps this struggle bespeaks the bittersweet comedy of being-for-the-other?

The subtitle of the piece bespeaks this in an oblique way: “choose the face that best describes your pain.”

The irony of this image is that none of them describe my pain; rather, they strike me with the pain of the other.  They concern me and I cannot simply choose one over the other.  They all beckon me to ethical concern.   My choice is, so to speak, too late.

After looking at this image and thinking these things, I thought immediately of Andy Kaufmann.

To my surprise, I clicked on the Tablet link associated with the image and found this article by Jessica Weisberg on the art curator Miriam Katz entitled “Andy Kaufmann Isn’t Funny.”  At this point, you can only imagine, I was besides myself.  Astonished.

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/theater-and-dance/125181/andy-kaufman-isnt-funny#

I decided, nearly two years ago, that I would write the final chapter of my book (a work in progress) on him.  To my mind, he is one of the best illustrations of the schlemiel-as-prophet.

There is a demand in his comedy; namely, the demand of the other.  His pain on stage, while funny to many, solicits the viewer.  As Levinas might say, it traumatizes and inspires her to think about her laughter and about what to do in response to the schlemiel.  (In my book and in a later blog, I will return to this scene on the David Letterman show.):

Notice how the audience doesn’t know whether he is joking or really suffering.  This ambiguity is the basis of the prophetic-comic demand that he makes to the audience.   He does this, quite simply, through his face and his gestures.

I am overjoyed to see that I am not the only one who has been struck by the prophetic demand of Kaufmann’s comedy.  And I applaud Miriam Katz for the work she has done on Andy Kaufmann.

Here’s is a brief overview of the scene she is a part of in NYC. This article comes from The Village Voice.

http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-03-16/art/have-you-heard-the-one-about-the-art-scene-embracing-comedians/

In my next blog entry, I hope to further address this article and the merits of her artistic project, which, like mine, is to show the world “out there” that there’s more to the schlemiel than entertainment value.