Walter Benjamin’s Messianic Butterflies


In his introductory essay to Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900 entitled “Hope in the Past,” Peter Szondi argues that, in his belief that the past held the secret of the future, Benjamin became a schlemiel of sorts.  To illustrate, Szondi cites one of the passages in which Benjamin remembers his childhood experience of a party, when the rooms of his home were filled with “something…impalpable, slippery, and ready at any instant to strangle those around whom it played.”  Commenting on this passage, Szondi says that Benjamin’s metaphors bring together “the present and the future, the premonitions of the child and the knowledge of the grown man.”  As I have pointed out many times, often in relation to Walter Benjamin, a schlemiel is half-man/half-child; the schlemiel passes between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  What Szondi adds to my reflections on Benjamin is the claim that in going back to the past, in becoming a child, Benjamin was able to bring together the “present and the future.”   In other words, by becoming a child – and recording these reflections – Benjamin was not simply trying to understand himself; rather, he was trying to relate to his future and, to be sure, a messianic future shared by all.

Szondi suggests that Benjamin is close to Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire on this note because, in his search for “time past,” he is looking for the “disappearance of time.”  I would add, however, that this is not simply a search.  Drawing on Gershom Scholem’s reading of the Apocalyptic and Utopian elements of “The Messianic Idea,”  I would argue that Benjamin was looking for something that would “smash” history (as Scholem puts it) and expose him to something free of time.  For Scholem, what is free of time is…anarchic freedom.

And what better figure for freedom is there than a Butterfly?

Butterflies wander freely around space.  They move from thing to thing and aren’t touched by time or history.  To be sure, Benjamin was without a doubt familiar with Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Les Phares” (“Beacons”).  The poem begins by invoking a symbolist kind of garden.  And in each stanza, Baudelaire evokes several great artists such as Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrant, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix:

Rubens, garden of idleness watered by oblivion,

Where the quick flesh pillows the impotence of dreams,

Where life’s affluence writhes in eddying abandon.

Like air in the air, or water on streams.

The stanza on Watteau invokes butterflies:

Watteau, carnival where many a distinguished soul

Flutters like a butterfly, lost in the brilliance

Of chandeliers shedding frivolity on the cool,

Clear decors enclosing the changes in the dance.

Watteau, in this stanza, is associated with the carnival where “many a distinguished soul flutters like a butterfly, lost in brilliance.”   Besides acrobats, jugglers, and side show performers, we often find the clown.  And one of Watteau’s most famous series of paintings takes Commedia del Arte as their subject. One of the most famous of these, is his painting of Pierrot.   What I find so interesting about this painting is that the subject – a man-child – is separated from the others.  And his body, dress, and gaze are off.  Baudelaire, no doubt, was aware of this work, and wrote about it in his famous essay “The Painter of Modern Life.”


What I find of interest is the fact that – for Baudelaire – people become like butterflies around this comic figure, lose their sense of time, and wander through space.  With this in mind, I read Walter Benjamin’s reflection on Butterflies, hoping to find what Szondi calls “omens of the future in the past” by way of becoming childlike (and, to some extent, like a clown).

Benjamin’s reflection on butterflies, in The Berlin Childhood around 1900, is entitled “Butterfly Hunt.”  Benjamin starts off his reflection by remembering “the beginnings of his butterfly collection.”  He goes on to provide a detailed description of some of these butterflies.  Following this, Benjamin remembers his movements which, to be sure, merge the present and the past and provide an opening on to the future.  And the main crux of these reflections points back to his own activity: to capture that which is fleeting from the past in the present so that it can be a sign for the future.  The butterflies take on the figure of this ephemera and, in a way, mark something almost “pre” and “post” historic”:

They would flutter toward a blossom, hover over it.  My butterfly net upraised, I stood waiting only for the spell that the flowers seemed to cast on the pair of wings to have finished its work, when all of a sudden the delicate body would glide off sideways with a gentle buffeting of the air, to cast its shadow – motionless as before – over another flower, which just as suddenly it would leave without touching.  (51)

As he follows the Butterfly move from flower to flower, Benjamin loses his sense of time.   He experiences freedom…a kind of experience that is like that of a dandy (moving from thing to thing and from space to space effortlessly).  But, as this happens, it seems he has forgotten to capture it.  But then he remembers his task to “capture” the butterfly and feels “as if” the Butterfly has made a “fool of me through its hesitations, vacillations, and delays.”  In response, Benjamin becomes a hunter by virtue of losing his identity as a man.  He becomes-a-butterfly in order to capture the butterfly. But this is not a simple act of hunting a butterfly; as Benjamin describes it, this act of becoming breaches the limits of the human:

Between us, now, the old law of the hunt took hold: the more I strove to conform, in all the fibers of my being, to the animal – the more butterfly-like I became in my heart and soul – the more this butterfly itself, in everything it did took on the color of human volition; and in the end, it was as if its capture was the price I had to pay to regain my human existence. (51)

What follows this capture, more or less, is a recording of how Benjamin became a “man” who had subdued his prey and gained new knowledge:  “His lust for blood had diminished and his confidence was grown all the greater”(52).

Instead of seeing this as the narrative of his movement toward maturity, I would like to suggest that Benjamin took the moment of following the butterfly and becoming the butterfly – while fearing that he may not come back to humanity – as the messianic moment in the text.  In this moment, Benjamin frees himself of the human while, at the same time, reflecting on it.  He has, in a sense, captured this moment of oscillation between the human and the non-human which, as Giorgio Agamben has argued in The Open (and elsewhere), has messianic resonance.

That said, how does this all connect to the fool, the butterfly, Watteau, and Baudelaire’s poem?  I would like to suggest that Benjamin was aware of Baudelaire’s “butterfly’ and understood how it was likened to the people who were amused at the circus.  These people get lost in what they say and move from thing to thing.  Of the things that fascinate them most, we find the clown or man-child. What he does is similar to what Benjamin does, he reflects back to them their deepest desire which is a desire to be free of Time and history.

Although Scholem associated this messianic moment with smashing history, Benjamin (at least during one point of his reflections) believed that, in becoming-a-butterfly (by becoming a child), one could, for a brief moment, gracefully touch upon this messianic moment.  However, as Benjamin notes, it also paved the way for his manhood.  The risk of capturing the butterfly is that, as Benjamin notes, a “price” must be paid. For him, the price of knowledge and manhood is the experience of timelessness and the sense that, in becoming a messianic butterfly, one may not come back to humanity.

When we watch the fool or schlemiel lose himself (as Sholem Aleichem’s Motl does with nature, Singer’s Gimpel with trust, etc) do we also experience that moment which is suspended between childhood and adulthood as well as between the human and the inhuman?  Is our “post-historical” hope (our future) locked up in this “pre-historic” past?

Agamben on The Historical as Opposed to the Magical Redemption of Man, Animal, and Nature


What is redemption?  And how would redemption, as understood by Giorgio Agamben, differ from the redemption we hear of in the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran?  These are big questions that I don’t think can be addressed in one blog entry.  Nonetheless, they should be of great concern for anyone who reads Agamben’s revision of the Messianic which he, oftentimes, uses scripture to articulate.

In the essay I have been focusing on in the last few blog entries, Agamben has, as I have pointed out already, claimed that the “nativity crib” is the “decisive…historical gesture.”  For Agamben, the crib takes us out of the fable and enchantment.  It is a gesture of secularization. But, as I pointed out in the last entry, Agamben also regards it as messianic.  The question I posed was whether Kafka and Benjamin will be at that redemption.  Perhaps they are the sleepers in the nativity scene since they are caught up in the pre-historic rather than the historic (redemption).  Even thought Agamben doesn’t mention Benjamin in the key moment when he talks about the pre-historic it is clear that he is making reference to Benjamin’s essay on Kafka.  Regarding this essay, Benjamin told both Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem that he wanted to retain the tension between the mystical and the political (he likened this tension to the tension of a bow).  However, as he admitted to them, he had failed to maintain it.  In his own view, he had slipped into the mystical and missed the political aspect of Kafka’s work.  Agamben would read this as an admission that Benjamin had got caught up in Kafka’s pre-historical world.

Hence, Agamben’s reading looks to go where Benjamin failed to go in his Kafka essay: toward the historical.  This has its problems as it suggests that Jews like Kafka and Benjamin couldn’t make it into history.  Scholars like Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt, Yosef Yerushalmi, and Emmanuel Levinas (amongst many others) note the different relationship Jews have to time (albeit it in different ways: negative and positive).   But Agamben’s reading, drawing on Christianity, suggests that those who are stuck in the pre-historic are stuck in the world of myth, fable, and magic.  As I noted, however, this is far from the truth.  Jews have been involved in secularization for a while.  And Agamben, at the very least, notes this elsewhere (for instance, in the first chapter of his book Nudities he notes that prophesy, when it ended, was supplemented by interpretation).  But in this essay we find something else.

The problem has to do with his reading of the historical as it pertains to the Messianic.

Agamben, at the end of his essay, notes that the secularizing, historical gesture is with the Church and with Italian Renaissance artists.  They bring us toward as secular, historical messianism in which man, plant, and animal are redeemed (or so it seems).

After naming several Italian artists (who took their cue from the “nativity crib,” Agamben

notes that “the magical link between figures has been completely resolved in a historical link. Each fiture in the crib is certainly whole in itself, not united with others by any plastic or spatial tie simply set momentarily beside them” (144).  In other words, what they did is more than a matter of a secular aesthetic gesture.  In fact, its messianic:

All the figures, without exception, are welded into a single structure by the invisible adhesive of participation in the messianic event of redemption. (145)

Their “unity” is not just (!) Messianic says Agamben, is “historical.”  In other words, there is nothing magical about this messianic.  It is fully secular and historical.  He therefore uses the terms historical and messianic together so as to efface any belief that the messianic will be miraculous.  Strangely enough, however, he doesn’t state this explicitly.  And this makes his gesture esoteric not exoteric.

Taking a messianic tone on at the end of his essay, Agamben notes how all distinctions between secular and profane will be “bridged” in “history.”  History, however, is not, says Agamben, to be equated with “progress.”  This is an odd gesture, given that Agamben, throughout the essay, uses the structure of progress, evolution, and supercession to explain the crib.

All he adds, on this “historical” note, is that everything, all the “minutiae of history,” will be “immediately and historically complete.”   Here, he draws on Walter Benjamin but without mentioning him even once.  But the truth of the matter is that Benjamin’s words need much explaining.  To accept them as self-evident would be uncritical.  Nonetheless, Agamben acts as if they are.  In addition to this, the notion of immediate redemption (a notion discussed in the Midrash and Kabbalah – k’heref ayin – redemption in the ‘blink of an eye”) is a thoroughly miraculous and mystical notion.  But Agamben writes of it as if it is secular and historical.  How exactly would that be the case?

He doesn’t tell us, but we should, somehow, accept that it is.

With this in mind, how do we read Agamben’s final moments in his essay which deal with a thoroughly ambiguous and telling aesthetic figure.  Agamben writes of “the work of the anonymous survivors” of “Spaccanapoli.”   This work makes an

Infinite discrepancy between the figuring of man – whose lineaments are as if blurred in a dream, whose gestures are torpid and imprecise – and the delirious, loving impulse that shapes displays of tomatoes, auberigines, cabbages, pumpkins, carrots, mullet, crayfish….on the market stalls among baskets, scales..(146)

Here, once again, we have a secular gathering of things in the market.  Are these “things” which include (but pale, man) on the brink of messianic, historical redemption?

To this, Agamben notes something that seems to go against everything he has said before.  He ponders the possibility that this may be the “sign that nature is once more about to enter the fairy tale, that once more it asks history for speech.”  This would suggest that the messianic moment may be calling for the messianic and the miraculous.  In the midst of this moment, says Agamben, man will be “bewitched by a history which, for him, again assumes the dark outline of destiny.”  Perhaps man will, once again, enter the fable and be “struck dumb by a spell.”

After noting this, Agamben casts his own spell by saying his own secular messianic phrase:

Until one night, in the shadow-light where a new crib will light up the figures and colors unknown, nature will once again be immured in its silent language, the fable will awaken in history, and man will emerge, with his lips unsealed, from mystery to speech (146).

What I find most interesting about this gesture is the fact that, though it builds on what Benjamin says about myth, silence, and speech in his work (especially Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic DramaUrsprung des deutschen Trauerspiel) it goes unmentioned.  More interesting is the fact that, for Benjamin, the movement from tragic, mystical silence to speech was first evinced by comedy (namely in the figure of Socrates and his irony).  Nonetheless, I find nothing comic about this movement to speech.  For Agamben, this moment is historical and serious and, because it lacks this comic element, it seems as if it is also a magical gesturing of sorts (but of the rhetorical variety).

Although Agamben opens up many doors for thinking the secular, historical aspect of the Messianic, sometimes his work , as in this essay, focuses too much on figures (such as the crib and “speech”) that have nothing ironic whatsoever about them.  Redemption is a serious affair, but is it possible to conceive it comically?  This, I would submit, is something Benjamin did consider (in his letters to the Kabblah scholar and is friend Gershom Scholem and in his work on Kafka), but it is not something Agamben would consider.

The comic may be a gesture of secularization for him, but it’s not the key.  The fruits, vegetables, market wares, and man await a serious form of historical redemption and a “new crib” for its new infancy.  But wouldn’t that imply that man doesn’t simply speak but that he is a man-child?  And isn’t that comic? Or is that too offensive for anyone who seriously ponders the new “nativity crib” to come?  Man is, after all, a creature.  Agamben knows that very well.  But is man a comic creature or a historical creature?  Both?

And what figure best approximates this?  A nativity crib to come or something other?  As a Jew who loves the schlemiel and sees it as a messianic figure of sorts, how can I accept this “nativity crib to come?”    Can the “decisive..historical gesture” be comic?

“Do you Hear Me?: A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in ‘Conversation in the Mountains” – Part II


In the midst of a difficult situation, when pressed hard, we speak truly.  We speak from the heart.  And when I say “we,” I am not excluding anyone.  Schlemiels like Klein and Gross (who the narrator of “Conversation in the Mountains” calls “windbags”) are included.  What Celan wants to tell us is that the schlemiel, as he understands him, is not simply a “babbling” fool.  He has some wisdom to offer. But Celan teaches us that to get to this wisdom, we must carefully listen to all of their repetitions and noise for the right moment – what I have called, in previous blog entries, a messianic moment.  This moment is the moment where we come face to face with the possibility of revelation.  And at this moment, when Klein says “I have come,” the schlemiel doesn’t babble; he speaks.  These words, I would argue, are preparatory and they prompt us to ask the messianic question: Why have you come?   

Celan doesn’t want to eliminate the schlemiel’s “noise,” which is the preface to the announcement of his “coming.” Rather, Celan wants Klein and Gross to speak through the noise (which we hear throughout their repetitions and stuttering).  Through this noise we hear a distinct voice; the voice of Klein (the small one) which resounds that of Gross (the big one).   The theme of speaking through noise, which is a comical affair, echoes what we learned from the Meridian Speech

As I noted, in that speech the announcement of truth is prompted and made by the Barker of a Circus.  He looks for your hearing which implies that we – the readers/listeners – are, so to speak, watching a circus when we listen for true speech.   Hence, in addressing “you” the barker includes us in the joke.  And as in any joke, there is an element of truth that the listeners are privy.

In “Conversation in the Mountains,” it is Klein who is the first to speak in the imperative.  Like the Barker of the Meridian Speech, Klein is addressing “you” (and not simply Gross).  Like Celan in the Meridian Speech, Klein is looking for the breathturn (the atemwende).  He begs, repeatedly, to be heard.  And this “desperate” conversation, lest we not forget, is inspired not only by the muteness of nature; it is also inspired by God.  Klein calls him Nobody.  And he claims that Nobody speaks to him through His silence.  And this speech evinces a desperate conversation between Klein and Nobody.  (This, I would add, as Celan does, is a Jewish conversation.) 

Klein takes this desperate conversation into himself and translates it into his conversation with Gross.  This is done not only by describing what Nobody says but also by addressing this question (“Do you hear me?) to Gross.  This question is spoken through all the noise.  And it emerges out of the Messianic moment when Klein announces that he has “come”:

‘Do you hear me: he says – I know, cousin, I know… Do you hear me, he says, I’m here. I am here, I’ve come.  I’ve come with my stick, me and no other, me and not him, me with my hour, my undeserved hour, me who have been hit, who have not been hit, me with my memory, with my lack of memory, me, me, me’(20).

This translation extends messianic moment.  It explains what it means to come or arrive: God has come and so has Klein.  God has summoned him with his “do you hear me.”  (As Abraham, Moses, etc are summoned by God to listen, so is Klein.)  But Klein, in turn, summons Gross (and the reader).  He, that is Klein, “comes” with all of his suffering.  He is like a leper Messiah who has “come.”  But this Schlemiel Messiah hasn’t come to redeem so much as testify.

He has come with his “hour,” his “undeserved hour.”  Klein also comes with his wounds and testifies that he has “been hit.” But, at the same time, he says he has not been hit (as if he is afraid of admitting to his trauma for fear of being punished).  Klein also says he comes with his “memory” and with his “lack of memory.”  This confusion, of coming and not coming with this or that thing, is the noise through which he, as a Schlemiel Messiah, speaks.  And through this noise, we hear the testimony of who he has come, in this moment in time, to speak to: Gross and you, the reader/listener.  Speaking is testifying to the other.  And, in a sense, it is Messianic.

His last words, spoken to himself, are given to Gross and the reader.  We bear witness to his suffering and his attempt to understand “how” he has come and what he has to say to us, now.  Here we have a person who has been hit and who hits himself.  The word that delimits his trauma and his mission is the word “me.”  The repetition of this word puts the accent on the present and it is not selfish; it is relational: “me, me, me.”

Each “me” indicates the singularity of the schlemiel’s pain and his Jewishness.  But it also indicates that he doesn’t know what to do with his, so to speak, election.  He is deeply affected by this “hit,” this election, which comes from Nobody.  But he translates it differently: Nobody wants to be heard and so does Klein! But both, it seems, are afraid that they may not be heard and that they will not be loved.

This is frustrating.  It makes Klein react.  We see this in the fact that, in a rebellious act of sorts, Klein tells Gross that “Do-you-hear-me” is “one with the glaciers.”  This call to be heard by Nobody is one with all things that are silent and opaque. This declaration, in the face of Nobody’s opaque calling, forces Klein to turns back on himself.  And all Klein can note is what he has said from the beginning: he is here with his shadow – his and not his own.  In other words, all he can note is that he is Jewish. 

But this is not all.  For the first time in the text, Klein gives an account that draws on memory and, to be sure, this is clearest reflection his own condition in the entire piece.  It is, so to speak, a prophetic kind of reflection.   In addition to being “here,” speaking to Gross, we now learn that Klein “was” with “many” people who were “different yet like me.”  Like schlemiels, these people “dream and don’t dream,” “sleep and don’t sleep.”  But here’s the point: Klein notes that, though he “lay with them,” he did not “love them” because he did not think they could love him.   In other words, the most important thing for him is their love. 

The only thing he “loved” was the burning down of “his candle.”  This candle was special because 1) it was “his” and 2) it was the same candle “he” gave to “our mother’s father.”  In other words, Klein recalls the tradition that was given from “him” (that is, God) to “our mother’s father” (who, if we are to take Klein as Paul Celan, was as Felstiner tells us, a Hasid).  To clarify what this candle is, Klein notes that it was the Sabbath Candle that was given on the seventh day. 

After describing the tradition in such a loving way, Klein admits that he “didn’t love it”: “I did not love it, I loved its burning down and, you know, I haven’t loved anything since” (21).  And this is where the schlemiel bespeaks his lament, which was hidden throughout the piece.  He repeats the fact that he loved nothing since the candle burned down.  And this implies that he loves the end of this tradition, which he seemingly hasn’t taken on (since there is no longer a candle).   What he loves most, now, is his memory of the end of tradition, not tradition itself (which, apparently, is gone).

Do you Hear Me? A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in “Conversation in the Mountains” – Part I


The great thing about conversation is that, from time to time, we stumble across things that are transformational.  In the midst of all our babbling, something comes through.  The point is to listen closely for these moments.  And to find the moment we need to, so to speak, follow the movement.

In my last blog entry, I traced these movements which are, in Celan’s prose piece, repetitive.  In a Talmudic sense, all things must be repeated so as to understand where the lacunae (gaps) are in this or that phrase or expression.  For in looking at it again, we can see something or hear something we may have missed “at first glance.”  And, as I noted with respect to Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains,” these repetitions are situated in conversation.

Between Klein and Gross, between the narrator and you, and between he and them, we hear many different voices.  Of the voices, the most important was the voice that distinguished the Jew from nature.  This voice points out a heterogeneity between them.  It also points out a difference between the Jew and the mystic who yearns for communion.  Celan is acutely aware of the fact that the mystic destroys language to arrive at some form of communion.  Celan, however, puts a limit on this by way of the stuttering between Klein and Gross.  And, nodding toward Jewishness, Celan points out when a Jew meets another Jew they can’t keep “quiet for long.”

After pointing out their acute relation to time as it relates to Klein and Gross’s alienation from nature (“have been and still are, even today, even here”), the narrator describes how things are simply next-to- each-other.  This description, itself, is repetitive and shows us a lack of one-ness between them and nature.  And this teaches us that the narrator errs on the side of Jewishness:

So there they are, the cousins.  ON the left, the turk’s-cap lily blooms, blooms wild, blooms, like nowhere else.  And on the right, corn-salad, and dianthus superbus, the maiden-pink, not far off.  But, they, those cousins, have no eyes, alas.  Or, more exactly: they have, even they have eyes, but with a veil hanging in front of them, no, not in front, behind them, a moveable veil.  (18)

But, more importantly, the narrator notes their blindness, which is a key feature of the schlemiel.  Everything they see is mediated by “the veil”; it spins “itself around the image and begets a child, half image, half veil.”  In other words, everything they see and say is childish (“half image, half veil”).

The narrator gives us a sense of how the reader may look at these schlemiels.  He likens them to these oddly named flowers: “poor lily, poor corn salad”(19).  He then goes on to note their language as, in some way, lacking:

No word has come to an end and no phrase, it is nothing but a pause, an empty space between words, a blank – you see the syllables stand around, waiting.  They are all tongue and mouth…(19)

It seems as if the narrator has a very negative reading of the way schlemiels “babble.”  He exclaims: “The windbags!  Even now, when their tongues scramble dumbly against their teeth.”  However, he notes that “they have something to say to each other.”  In other words, in the midst of all their babble, these schlemiels can show us or direct us toward something meaningful.  And that “something” is messianic.

The first words we hear from them work on two levels.  On the one hand, they are what we would expect of two Jews meeting in the mountains; on the other hand, it hints at something messianic:

‘You’ve come a long way, have come all the way here….’  

‘I have. I’ve come, like you.’

‘I know’

They have both come, in a messianic sense.  As is well known, the Messianic begins with the announcement of the Messiahs’s arrival.  It is announced by Eliyahu the Prophet.  The language used to describe the Messianic include much mention of his “coming” and “arrival.” Read in this sense, Celan seems to telling us that these are Schlemiels who announce themselves as Messiahs. But, in a veiled manner, they don’t quite understand what their “arrival” means.

What Celan does with this arrival is fascinating.  As I pointed out in the last blog, the conversation between Klein and Gross is characterized as repetitive in a Talmudic manner.  This is exactly what we see here.  Klein recounts to Gross what he sees of the earth and where he and Gross are at this moment and concludes that the earth is not for either he or Gross (it speaks an “alien” language) ; rather, they are for each other:

You know.  You know and see. The earth folded up here, folded once and twice and three times, and opened in the middle, and in the middle there is water, and the water is green…that this is the language that counts here…a language not for you or me – because, I ask you, for whom is it meant, the earth, not for you, I say, it meant, and not for me – a language, well, without I and without You, nothing but He, nothing but It, you understand…(20).

After saying this, something has been acknowledged and now the next step can be taken – a step toward the messianic coming (yet, within the context of alienated language and nature).  And, like many Jewish things, this comes in the form of a question:

‘I understand, I do.  After all, I’ve come a long way, I’ve come like you.’

‘I know.’

“You know and want to ask: And even so you’ve come all the way, come here, even so – why, and what for?’

To be sure, this question and its answer can and do serve as a marker distinguishing between Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Atheists.   But, for Celan, it distinguishes a Jewish poet; it is the mark of the schlemiel.

Why, and what for…Because I had to talk, maybe, to myself or to you, talk with my mouth and tongue, not just with my stick. Because to whom does it talk, my stick?  It talks to the stones, and the stones – to whom do they talk? (20).

The stones talk to “no-one” (niemand).  And this is a language that the Jewish poet doesn’t speak.  The schlemiel must speak with the other. This is the crux of the matter.  And this speech must recur over and over gain.  And the reason it must speak is because it gives the schlemiel a sense of who he or she is, what he or she is doing, and who she is speaking to.  Though seemingly simple, this gesture shows the deeply ethical and relational aspect of the schlemiel.  And this comes out in Klein’s words about God and hearing.

As we learn, the stick talks to “nobody and Nobody.” The latter Nobody troubles Klein the former (nature) does not.  He, that is Nobody, says: “Do you hear me?”  As a schlemiel, Klein responds to this voice and takes it on as his own.  And this brings us to the messianic moment, repeated and nuanced:

‘Do you hear me: he says – I know, cousin, I know… Do you hear me, he says, I’m here. I am here, I’ve come.  I’ve come with my stick, me and no other, me and not him, me with my hour, my undeserved hour, me who have been hit, who have not been hit, me with my memory, with my lack of memory, me, me, me’(20).

These lines are the testimony of a schlemiel who has come, but who can only say that he has come; and like Him, the schlemiel wants to be heard.  He echoes the “Do you hear me?” and he communicates it to Gross.

And this is the point.  He bears witness to the Gross (big) Other (with a big “O”), and to the (Klien) other (with the little “o”).  And he’s trying to figure out his relations to these others by way of repetition.  In this form, Celan gives a dignity to the schlemiel that the narrator notes, in the middle of the piece, is lacking.  He shows that the schlemiel is situated in an encounter with the other; and by putting the schlemiel in relation to the other, he, so to speak, revises the Messianic moment and the schlemiel.

In the next blog entry, I will look into Gross’s response to this testimony, this echo.  It repeats the messianic moment of coming which, for Celan, must be elaborated and re-elaborated.  And, here, this re-elaboration is unique for many reasons: it is not in poetry, it is tinged with the comic, and it is between schlemiels.

“Do you hear me?”