“It’s Almost Incomprehensible!” The Circus and Kafka’s Natural Theater

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As I noted in the last blog entry, Ernst Bloch believed that “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.  A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers.  Nevertheless, there is an estrangement” (179).

The confluences between Bloch and Walter Benjamin, in this claim and in these descriptions, are fascinating.  To be sure, Benjamin was also interested in the circus.  He also thought that although the circus was honest and utopian, it was fraught with estrangement.

We see the circus, utopia, and estrangement breached in Benjamin’s Kafka essay; namely, in the final section of the essay (which was published posthumously) entitled “Sancho Panza.”  In this section, Benjamin addresses the circus by way of the “Natural Theater of Oklahoma” that we see in Kafka’s novel Amerika.

Before addressing the Natural Theater, Benjamin cites a few lines from a Kafka short story about the “strange” ways of Kafka’s students and scribes.  They are the carriers and transmitters of tradition to the next generation and he is astonished by them:

‘To him, hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing, which would have made the hammering even bolder, more determined, more real, and, if you like, more insane.’

Benjamin comments on this line that:

This is the resolute, fanatical mien which students have when they study; it is the strangest mien imaginable. The scribes, the students, are out of breath; they fairly race along.  (137)

Benjamin describes the scribes and students “as out of breath.”  They “race along” to receive and deliver the message of the tradition.  Benjamin goes to Kafka for the details.  And what we learn, from Kafka’s descriptions is that the narrator is astonished by the people who receive tradition.  Instead of seeing someone like Moses, Kafka’s narrator sees a bunch of schlemiels jumping up and down to get the message of tradition.  It is “strange…almost incomprehensible!”:

Often the official dictates in such a low voice that the scribe cannot even hear it sitting down; then he has to jump up, catch the diction, quickly sit down again and write it down, then jump up again and so forth.  How strange that is!  It is almost incomprehensible! 

Instead of explaining the meaning of tradition and this strangeness, Benjamin turns to the  Natural Theater of Oklahoma in Kafka’s Amerika:

It may be easier to understand this if one thinks of the actors in the Nature Theater.  Actors have to catch their cues in a flash, and they resemble those assiduous people in other ways as well.  Truly, for them, “hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing” – provided that it is a part of their role.  They study the role, and only a bad actor would forget a word or movement. For the members of the Oklahoma troupe, however, the role is their earlier life; hence the “nature” in this Nature Theater. (137)

The nature of the nature theater is the earlier life of these characters.  The role they study is their tradition.  In other words, their earlier life is their tradition.  They inherit their childhood and learn it, play it.   In Bloch’s language, we could say that this is the “honest” element of the circus.  They play their earlier selves and they do so openly.  There is no curtain that stands between them and the audience.

Of them, Benjamin writes:

Its actors have been redeemed.

However, someone has not been redeemed and that is the student:

…whom Karl watches silently on this balcony as he reads his book, “turning the pages, occasionally looking something up in another book which he always snatched up quick as a flash, and frequently making notes in a notebook, which he always did with his face surprisingly close to the paper.”

The careful reader will understand what Benjamin is hinting at; namely, the fact that Karl is the student.  He is taking notes and “snatches” things up “in a flash.”  He is the unredeemed schlemiel who transmits the tradition.  Echoing the title of the section, he is Sancho Panza.

And perhaps this is what is most astonishing.  The fact that the schlemiel must spend his or her days recording and transmitting a tradition he or she doesn’t understand but only receives in flashes.  When it comes, he or she must “jump” up and snatch it as it flashes.

This is something the schlemiel must do as the schlemiel is not redeemed but these actors are.  By way of the Natural Theater of Oklahoma, Benjamin is saying something different than what Ernst Bloch says about the circus.  Although Bloch says there is an honesty and an estrangement to the circus that is unparalleled, he doesn’t explain why.  Benjamin does.

The honesty of Natural Theater, of the circus, is its nature.  It is the fact that it studies its earlier life and performs it.  This involvement is redemptive for the actors. However, those who carry on the tradition do not live this life.  It is they who are estranged.

Franz Kafka’s Karl Rossmann, who the Kafka scholar Heinz Politzer calls “infantile,” is a student; as is Sancho Panza and Walter Benjamin.  They are all students of tradition.  But in being students who transmit the tradition, they are not redeemed.  Not yet.

Rather, they are comic characters whose task is unnatural and yet necessary. Their leaping around after flashes and recording them, for Kafka, may be astonishing and strange but it is “almost incomprehensible.”

In other words, it is not completely incomprehensible.  It is in these small flashes that we know that a rationalist like Sancho Panza knew that the keepers of tradition and heritage were on to something.

Bloch knew this as well.  I would like to suggest that every comedian, writer, or performer of schlemiel comedy also understands this: without tradition, there would be no comedy and there would certainly not be a schlemiel.  Perhaps this is the “only honest down-to-earth honest performance” there is?

One doesn’t have to be in the circus to be a part of the circus.  All one has to do is watch it and, for those who want to carry on its tradition, all they have to do is leap up at the “flashes,” sit down, record them, and do that again….and again.

Its “almost incomprehensible!”

Ernst Bloch’s Musings on The Circus and Utopia – Take 1

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History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous time, empty time, but filled with presence of the now (Jetztzeit).  Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.  The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate….Fashion has a flaire for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it’s a tiger’s leap into the past (Walter Benjamin, Thesis XIV of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”)

Throughout the ages, many great artists, poets, and thinkers have shown great love for the circus.  They feel that there is something about the circus.  It can tell us about who we really are, what we believe in, or what we hope for.  Perhaps the circus, as Walter Benjamin might say about “the presence of the now” (Jetztzeit), is our common origin.  Perhaps the circus is the revolution.  Perhaps it is the place where, as Benjamin says of fashion, there is a “tigers leap into the past.”

The circus, like the revolution, is a space where comedy, surprise, and excitement are center stage.  It is a social, an aesthetic, and a political space.  On the one hand, the Roman satirist Juvenal used the words “Panem et Circenses” (Bread and Circuses) to criticize those in power noting that the circus distracted Rome’s political leaders from history.  And it was used as a tool for gaining power.  On the other hand, the circus has been envisioned as a space of inversion and resistance to the dominant culture.  In the circus political power appears as ridiculous: it’s the only place where you will find Nobility and Clergy dressed up as or riding pigs.  Mikhail Bakhtin was one of the first theorists to explore this aspect of the circus; and in his notion of the carnivalesque, cultural studies and postmodernism found a model that proved fruitful for at least a decade or two.   In Rome, the circus was dominated by power; but in the middleages it was not.  The circus belonged to the people.

Like Bakhtin, Ernst Bloch also found the carnival to be of great interest.  In an essay entitled “Better Castles in the Sky” (from the essay collection The Utopian Function of Art and Literature) Bloch makes a confession or admission to truth.  His admission reveals that his fascination with the circus is a fascination with what makes us utopian.  His admission discloses the circus in what I, following Bloch, would call an “anticipatory illumination.”  To be sure, I would say that the circus, for Bloch, is the ultimate anticipatory illumination of utopia: “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.  A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers.  Nevertheless, there is an estrangement”(179).

By saying that the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance,” Bloch is saying something quite radical.  This implies that all other artistic performances are not honest or down to earth.  It also implies that Bloch values honesty and being “down-to-earth” which are basic folk virtues. To be sure, the honesty marks a kind of innocence with what makes us utopian.  In fact, he repeats the word “honest” twice so as to underscore the importance of this fundamentally social and political virtue.  But more importantly, these values, for Bloch, find their only vehicle in the circus and in no other artistic space.  Their vehicle is comedy!

All other theatrical performances are mixed with ideology, power, and dishonesty; the circus is not.  It has the quality of honesty.  It is so honest that it is utopian.  Bloch suggests that utopian justice, in this sense, is all about a kind of honesty that can only be prefigured in the circus.

Why is this the case?  Why does the circus, for Bloch, basically articulate, unlike any other art, the utopian function?  How does it articulate the “anticipatory illumination” and what he would call “genuine heritage?”

Before Bloch makes his admissions of truth for the circus and its utopian function, he discusses the roots of the circus performance.   According to Bloch, “the sideshows at the fair” are uncanny and exciting because “they don’t originate here, nor does their magic, which is continually dusted off and revealed anew in the repeated performances of the sideshows”(178).  The magic we see at the circus “operates as if abnormal and foreign.  Yet, it is ordinary and full of swindles”(178).  To be sure, it is very canny.  It is plain, simple, and downright ordinary.  However, it is “still more substantial than the trouble that the philistine causes for the age-old joy of young and old people.”  In other words, the circus, for all its ordinariness, is more substantial than the law.

The circus is the spirit; the philistines – the ruling class – are the law.

Instead of pursuing this distinction further, Bloch takes a detour.  Bloch’s detour takes us into the life of the circus and the nature of its magic: in taking this detour, Bloch avoids talking about the origin of the circus.  All Bloch notes, before this point, is that they (those in the circus) “don’t originate here.”  Does this mean they originate elsewhere, in another world?  Where are the people of the circus from?

Bloch cuts in with quasi-historicism for an answer.  Bloch suggests, as if we know,  that a circus is a “boat like show”: “So these boat like shows set sail and are carried by the South Seas for the simple soul and the uncorrupted, complicated soul too.”  The circus, originally a boat show, is for the simpleton (the schlemiel) and the complicated soul (the skeptic).

Moreover, the ship visits all kinds of cities; the ships have no boundaries: “The tent-boats weigh anchor for a short time in the dusty cities. They are tattooed with pale green or bloodthirsty paintings in which votive pictures projecting rescue at sea disasters are mixed with those of the harem.”

At this point, Bloch slips into the mode of allegory and allusion to illustrate why the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”

I’d like to closely follow his words so as to figure out what he is alluding to with a canny-slash-uncanny circus that originates on the sea but, in our day, finds itself on the ground.

Bloch creates a metonymy of sorts associating the “motor” of the boat with a sound that is “foreign, fatty, unhuman, breathless, sluggish”(178).  And from sound Bloch moves to the figure of a “dancing wax lady screwed down next to the entrance.  And she dances with sudden contortions, moves with twisted gestures of screwed down wax that turn into dance, and she throws her head back from time to time.”

The first thing that strikes me about this metonymy is that the figure moves and is nailed down; its dance embodies a dialectical tension and, for this reason, it appears comical.  It reminds me of a dancing Hula doll.

Bloch writes of this figure lovingly and situates it behind the barker of the circus, who brings her to a halt.   After noting this Bloch explains its “hidden meaning” by way of a juxtaposition of life and death:

Eventually she comes to a halt and trembles in this position right behind the barker, who fears nothing.  The type of world extolled here has the secrets of the bridal bed and also the miscarriage at one end and the secrets of the bier on the other end. (178)

This image is mythical.  Bloch passes from this image, however, to one that is full of particularities and seems to play with myth by way of plurality:

Strange human creatures and their art offer themselves to spectators in nothing but peepshows of abnormality. The sword swallower and fire eater, the man with the untearable tongue and iron skull, the snake charmer add the live aquarium.  Turks, pumpkin men, fat women, they are all there.

Once Bloch realizes he has gone way out in his description, he reels it in with some analysis, noting that “fairy tale realm reappears continually and also that of the horror story.”  This implies that the fair moves between innocence and horror.  He calls “the fair, a colorful, peasant fantasy.”  However, it is interrupted by the city (as well as by horror).

He notes the historical change from the country to the city in the movement of the fair from Europe to America:

In the large American cities it has become increasingly automated with loudspeakers and amusement centers.   However, the land of the wishes from the medieval South Seas, so to speak, has remained.  And it maintains itself out of the Middle ages, which go much further back, right to the fair of the higher order, in the kind of show of the Circenses without any curtain at all. (79)

What Bloch does over here is articulate what we saw in yesterday’s blog; namely, the “genuine heritage.”  To be sure, Bloch sees the fair as the heritage to which he, a circus lover and a lover of honesty, must turn.  His language, following upon his mention of a show of a “higher order,” a Circenses “without any curtain at all” verges on the religious and the revolutionary.

In Benjamin’s sense of the “tiger leap” backwards, Bloch sees a merging of all times in the ring of the circus.  In the “ring” of the circus the Medieval, the Roman, and the tradition of the circus on the sea come together:

For, as the miracles of the sidewshows are assembled together under one roof, in a ring, and as the managerie breaks out from here, the coliseum or the circus now originates from the South Seas. (79)

However, as with history, something is lost.  And what is it?  The hula doll I referenced above (the wax dancer):

Of course, the feature of the wax figure cabinet cannot be present here, that suspended animation, that mechanical organ, because everything in the circus is alive.  And, in contrast to the fair, which operates with concealment, with stage, showcase, and curtains, the circus is fully open.  The ring brings everything with it.

But although the hula doll is gone, something new and revolutionary, something much more revolutionary than the fair or the sea circus has arrived.  For Bloch the circus is the most revolutionary because it is “fully open.”  It is, for this reason, the most utopian space.

To be sure, following this claim that the “circus is fully open. The ring brings everything with it,” Bloch makes his greatest claim: “The circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”

This admission of truth is his way of taking the “tigers leap” into the past.

And as Friedrich Holderlin has said (and Martin Heidegger reminds us in his famous essay on the “The Origin of the Work of Art”): “that which dwells near the origin departs.”

Or as Bloch tells us, utopia starts and will always end in the circus.

 

Ernst Bloch and Tradition – Take 2

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

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

This creation includes actual artworks and cultural criticism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ernst Bloch’s Reflections on Tradition – Take One

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In the last blog entry, I contrasted Slavoj Zizek to Walter Benjamin with regard to the tension between tradition and the liquidation of tradition. Zizek follows one strain of Benjamin; namely, the liquidationist strain.  Zizek prefers Benjamin’s “Destructive Character” and Benjamin’s notion of “Divine Violence” to Benjamin’s interest in preserving the tension between tradition and its liquidation.

At the end of my last blog entry, I stated why I was interested in such a tension; namely, because Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and Don Quixote is based on preserving this tension.  And, as I have been arguing, this tension has everything to do with the tradition of the fool and the schlemiel.   To further understand what Benjamin sought to find in this tension, I would like to turn to an essay by Ernst Bloch entitled “Art and Society” (from The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, trans. and edited by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg).

Walter Benjamin was influenced by and influenced Ernst Bloch. They had a productive relationship.  They were interested in this tension as it pertained to the future – to utopia.

For Bloch and Benjamin all works that emerge from the tradition are mortified.   They are fragmented and are in need of future redemption.  However, these works are not the works of the “victors” of history.  Rather, they are the incompleted works of those who lost.  These are the works of failures.   And, for Bloch, they are ‘our’ heritage.

In his essay “Art and Society,” Bloch cites Benjamin to illustrate some of the “spiritual” things we should take from this heritage:

They (the spiritual things) are alive as confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude, and they have a retroactive effect as time moves along.  They call into question each victory of the ruling class time and time again. (46)

However, Bloch adds on to what Benjamin says and gives it shape. He does this by calling attention to the next generation; namely, to the heirs of tradition:

In addition, cultural heritage only becomes what it is when the heir does not die along with its benefactor, when he stands on the side of the future in the past, when he stands with what is indelible in the cultural heritage and not with the takeover of parasitical rulers (46).

Bloch calls for a “productive cultural heritage” and contrasts it to a “refined completion” of “the great work of culture.”  For Bloch, a “productive cultural heritage” operates “as the successive continuation of the implications in the contellations of the past gathered around us as non-past.”  In other words, we continue a tradition whose implications are present (non-past).

Bloch notes that, as Benjamin would say, the past gives one agency.  The past, in a sense, elects one and empowers one to act.  It “anticipates” him:

The genuine agent of cultural heritage reaches into the past, and in this very same act the past itself anticipates him, involves and needs him. (46)

Bloch calls heritage a chariot which “carries only that which has an order to be sealed.” To take this heritage on, Bloch says one must be strong.  One may be overwhelmed by it.  To be sure, the person is strong because s/he takes heritage and besides having the strength to continue it s/he invents (47).

Bloch contrasts himself to Martin Heidegger who, in his opinion, created a “pseudo-philology and a pseudo-interpretation” of Holderlin, Anaximander, Parmenides, Plato, and Kant.  According to Bloch, Heidegger’s relation to history was to “caricature” it.  In contrast, Bloch argues that “genuine heritage is and remains precise and progressive transformation, and to be sure, a transformation of that immanent material in the material of heritage intended for completion without ideology, with implication”(48).

Bloch imagined a “rectification of heritage” and not a “reification of heritage.”  He imagined a rectification that would not serve this or that ideology.  This could happen in a world with a “cultural surplus beyond any ideology.”  This, Bloch says, comes out of the “utopian function.”

The utopian function, however, is not based on envisioning, quite simply, the liquidation of history or heritage.  To be sure, Bloch like Benjamin wanted to create a “cultural surplus beyond any ideology.”  And the best way to accomplish this is to dig into cultural heritage.  Namely, the heritage that many people might find insignificant or trivial.

It is these failed elements that carry the charge and call for transformation.  The interesting thing to keep in mind is that Bloch and Benjamin didn’t randomly choose this or that aspect of tradition.  They were both interested in storytelling, fairytales, folk legends, and fools.

Their heritage was plural. For this reason, Walter Benjamin and Bloch often drew on many different folk traditions in their work.  I am especially interested in Benjamin’s reading of Kafka insofar as he starts his essay not with a meditation on Jewish folklore but on Russian folklore.  And he ends the essay with a meditation on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Nonetheless, Benjamin doesn’t shy away from citing Jewish folklore as well.  To be sure, he too was trying to create a cultural surplus and believed, like Bloch, in the “rectification of heritage.”  And this is more than evident in his Kafka essay where, I would argue, the schlemiel and the heritage of the schlemiel emerges.

(Please note that I will touch on this heritage in this blog.  But I will delve more deeply into it in my book. After all, I can’t reveal all my secrets.)

Like Bloch, Benjamin wasn’t interested in liquidating tradition so much as in rectifying it.  As I have already shown, Benjamin was aware of what is at stake with tradition.  The question, however, is how we are to read the cultural surplus (vis-à-vis the fool) that Benjamin left for us and what we should do with it.

Now that Benjamin’s criticism has nearly exhausted itself in terms of the obsessive reading of his work in terms of crisis and destruction, its time to dig up what has been passed over as irrelevant (the detritus of Benjamin criticism is to be found in the tension between heritage and its liquidation; it is to be found in the greatest comic failure of all and the tradition that gave birth to it: the schlemiel).

In the next few blogs, I will sketch out more of Bloch’s project vis-à-vis tradition and utopia.  The point of this exercise is to help us to understand Benjamin’s interest in Kafka, the schlemiel, and tradition.

On the Apocalyptic Tone of Comedy – Take 1

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For some writers, there’s nothing like a good death sentence.   Merely describing a death, for some writers, is ecstatic and revelatory.  In doing so these writers feel as if they are bearing witness to death while proclaiming a new beginning.  There is a sense of pathos, meaning, and liberation from the dead in such descriptions.

By speaking in an Apocalyptic Tone, one is, so to speak, transformed.  But, most importantly, this transformation is based on describing some kind of disaster to the reader.

Milan Kundera, who is internationally known for novels such as the Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, is one of these writers.  But what makes him unique is that the death sentence he pronounces or describes involves the enunciation of comedy, on the one hand, and his commitment to its legacy, on the other.

In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that comedy changed everything.  According to Kundera, comedy announces the death of tradition, certainty, and religion.   But, at the same time, it announces a new tradition which is born in the wake of death.  For Kundera, the origin of this new tradition, which bears witness to the death of the old tradition, has a proper name.

Kundera names the herald of death and the father of a new tradition: Don Quixote.

Kundera’s words echo Nietzsche’s “Madman” aphorism in the Gay Science where Nietzsche’s madman announces “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”  But as God dies, something new is born: the comic novel.

As God slowly departed from the seat whence he had directed the universe and its order of values, distinguished good from evil, and endowed each thing with meaning, Don Quixote set forth from his house into a world he could no longer recognize.  In the absence of the Supreme Judge, the world suddenly appeared in its tiresome ambiguity; the single divine Truth decomposed into a myriad of relative truths, parceled out by men.  Thus was born the world of the Modern Era, and with it the novel, the image and model of that world.

Kundera deftly moves from Don Quixote to Descartes and then Hegel to describe the new world that the novel is the “image and model.”  What does this mean?  Kundera repeats the words “to take” twice to indicate what is at stake:

To take, with Descartes, the thinking self as the basis of everything (and not God), and thus to face the universe alone, is to adopt the attitude that Hegel was right to call heroic.

To take, with Cervantes, the world as ambiguity, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters), to have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty, requires no less courage.

Let’s spell out what Kundera is saying: For the philosopher “to take” him/herself as radically alone, without God, is courageous.  And for the novel “to take the world of ambiguity” and to be “obliged” (that is, ethically charged) to “face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths” is also courageous.  Kundera pronounces this courage and he identifies with it.  It is his.

But, according to Kundera, the novel is more heroic than the philosopher because it challenges man’s moral “desire” for “a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished.”   This desire is a religious desire and a philosophical desire that is inherited from what the Enlighteners would call the ancients.  For Kundera, modernity challenges orthodoxy on this specific point regarding good and evil.  And, for Kundera, it is Don Quixote who bravely travels into the world and says no to the desire for a world “where good and evil can be clearly distinguished.”

The comic novel, in other words, is the herald of the death of God and the courageous embrace of a world in which good blends into evil and vice versa.  According to Kundera, the “inability” to distinguish between good and evil “makes the novel’s wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.”

In other words, a normal individual would rather accept the world of the Bible where good and evil are clearly distinguished than accept the novel.  For Kundera, the comic novel “courageously” says no to such a world.  It denies its existence.  In making such a claim, Kundera is basically rewriting Neitzsche’s madman aphorism in terms of the comic novel.  As I noted, Kundera insists that Don Quixote “sets forth into the world” while “God slowly departs.”

In other words, the fool arrives after the death sentence from God has been pronounced.  For Kundera, the two coincide.  The fact of the matter is that we are led into the modern world by a fool.  Furthermore, Kundera implies that the wisdom of the fool is the wisdom of the comic novel.  For Kundera, this wisdom is existential.  The fool and not the normal individual who desires a clear understanding of right and wrong  is the hero.  The fool courageously embraces ambiguity.  But this is not simply a description of an ubermesche (overman) or a modern existential ideal.  No.  For Kundera, what is more important that such courage is the tradition that is passes on.  As Kundera argues, Don Quixote lives on from generation to generation but he disguises himself.

Kundera traces a path from Don Quixote to Kafka and he spots Don Quixote in the disguise of Kafka’s Land Surveyor:

Isn’t that Don Quixotre himself, after a three-hundred-year journey, returning to the village disguised as a land surveyor?

What we have here is a comic tradition.  But things have changed.  Unlike Don Quixote, the Land Surveyor’s “adventure is imposed on him.”  He is forced to wander in ambiguity.  How can one courageously accept this?  To be sure, the latter day Don Quixote cannot freely embrace ambiguity as his predecessor did.  He is not heroic.

The new message is Apocalyptic and Kundera is describing it for us. The herald of this message is Kafka.  Now the land Surveyor lives in a world which is not simply ambiguous; it is dangerous.  The world may kill this comic character! It deprives the fool of his freedom.  Perhaps Kafka’s Land Surveyor (from The Castle) marks the death of a legacy?

After Kafka, Kundera wonders: is the novel dead?

But if Cervantes is the founder of the Modern Era, then the end of his legacy ought to signify more than a mere stage in the history of literary forms; it would herald the end of the Modern Era.  That is why the blissful smile that accompanies those obituaries of the novel strike me is frivolous.  Frivolous because I have already seen and lived thorugh the death of the novel, a violent death (inflicted by bans, censorship, and ideological pressure) in the world where I spent much of my life and which is usually called totalitarian.

In effect, Kundera is telling us, by virtue of his own personal witness, that the novel was killed by the Totalitarian world.  This world, in contrast to the novel, lives in accordance with “one single Truth.”

But this is not enough of a death sentence. Kundera says that the novel is a “cemetery of missed opportunities.”  They include four appeals: to play, to the dream, to thought, and to time.

Kundera notes authors for each appeal.  They include, respectively, Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot (appeal to play); Franz Kafka and the Surrealists (appeal to dream); Musil and Broch (the appeal to thought); and Proust (the appeal to time).

In an Apocalyptic tone, he notes that they all belong to a “cemetery of missed opportunities.”  Milan Kundera has personally witnessed their death.  He has witnessed the political death of the novel and the death of all of these appeals.  However, at this moment of description, in the face of this death, Kundera pronounces a new life for the novel. He pronounces a new purpose in the post-totalitarian era.

In a world in which everything is caught up in a “veritable whirlpool of reduection” the novel’s raison d’etre is to “keep the ‘world of life’ under a permanent light and to protect us from the ‘forgetting of being.’”

To courageously accomplish this mission, the novel must battle that which will reduce its complexity.  But there is something more important that this great task.  In a moment which challenges the modern idea of overcoming tradition, Kundera embraces one.  Kundera tells us that the “novel’s spirit is the spirit of continuity.”  In other words, although Kafka’s novel suffered the fate of history and politics, although it died, and althought the novel is a “cemetery of missed opportunities.” it is still a legacy.  And it is this legacy that was given to Kafka by Don Quixote.  Kundera, in effect, takes this legacy up. 

He does this after he announces that he is not attached to the future, God, Country, the People or the Individual.  He is, rather, attached to the “depreciated legacy of Cervantes”:

But if the future is not a value for me, than to what am I attached? To God? Country? The People? The individual?  My answer is as ridiculous as it is sincere: I am attached to nothing but the deprecated legacy of Cervantes.

What I find so astonishing about this confession is that Kundera’s move to attach himself to this legacy parallels the decision made by Walter Benjamin at the end of his essay on Kafka.  There, Benjamin mentions his favorite Kafka aphorism, which is entitled Don Quixote.  There, Benjamin likens himself to a Sancho Panza who, like Kundera, attaches himself to the legacy of Don Quixote.  Before Benjamin takes on this legacy, he begins by citing Kafka’s aphorism:

A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and thus enjoyed a great and profitable entertainment to the end of his days.

To this, Benjamin adds a new description of Sancho Panza:

Sancho Panza, a sedate fool and a clumsy assistant, sent the rider on ahead.

To be sure, Benjamin rewrites Cervantes’ Sancho Panza as a Sancho Panza in Kafka’s clothing.  And strangley enough, Benjamin notes that Sancho Panza “sent the rider ahead” which implies that Sancho Panza sent the legacy of the fool out into future generations.  In an earlier blog, I called this the schlemiel tradition.

What I would like to note here, however, is that Kundera also sees this tradition.  And, as like Benjamin before him, Kundera lovingly attaches himself to it.  However, Kundera’s attachment is made in the wake of death; namely, the death of God.  Benjamin isn’t as explicit about the Apocalyptic in his taking on the tradition.  Rather, he does so by way of allusion.

Kundera spells out what we can see in Benjamin’s words.  The assumption of this tradition is “ridiculous and sincere.”  Kundera’s words imply that he is a schlemiel author, a simpleton, who, in taking this tradition on, is “sincere” yet “ridiculous.”   This, I would argue, outweighs the ambiguity and complexity of the novel.  This sincere and ridiculous assumption of the schlemiel tradition includes all of the appeals of the novel to time, play, dream, and thought.

Most importantly, Kundera is telling us that in a world where good and evil are hard to distinguish, the most moral person of all is he who commits himself, in the most ridiculous and sincere way to the schlemiel tradition.

When God departs and Don Quixote arrives, Milan Kundera, like Sancho Panza is faced with a question and a new imperative: in the midst of God’s departure, should one follow the schlemiel and – as I suggest elsewhere, in my reading of Benjamin’s understanding of tradition – become the schlemiel?

Kundera answers yes in the most ridiculous and sincere way.  For Kundera, ridiculousness and sincerity – not cynicism and nihilism – survive by virtue of one thing: by taking on the “deprecated legacy of Cervantes.”

The question, for schlemiel theory, is how this tradition of the fool compares to the other hidden tradition of the fool which follows in the wake of prophesy.  As I point out in my earlier blog entry on the “schlemiel as prophet,” that tradition is Jewish.  But for both the fool arrives after God departs.  And for both, the fool initiates a new tradition.

(Please note that, though I said I would address the cynical schlemiel in this blog entry, I took a detour.  I hope to come back to it in tomorrow’s blog entry.)

Educating the Next Generation of Schlemiels

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“Think snow and see Boca” – Charles Bernstein

Today, the New York Times announced the publication of a new memoir in 2014 by the Jewish-American writer Gary Shteyngart.   Shteyngart is well known for his best selling novels The Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Story, all of which feature schlemiels as main characters.  The title of his new memoir is Little Failure.   Regarding his new book, Shteyngart writes:

I’ve finally written a book that isn’t a ribald satire and because it’s actually based on my life, contains almost no sex whatsoever. I’ve lived this troubled life so others don’t have to. Learn from my failure, please.

The last line of Shteyngart’s blurb is of great interest to me. It suggests that the fool is a teacher and has something to transmit to his readers.  This suggestion resonates with what I have been blogging.

In a recent blog on Walter Benjamin and Don Quixote, I paid close attention to the end of Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka where Benjamin foregrounds the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Since Panza followed Don Quixote around and, as a witness and student of the fool, learned from him, this relationship hits on the question of education.  In effect, Panza was learning from Quixote’s failure.

In a letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin notes that, for Kafka, the fool has wisdom and that the wisdom of the fool, rather than the wisdom of the philosopher, is “the only thing that can help.”  However, the question is “whether this can do humanity any good.”  This implies that the schlemiel is a teacher.  The only question for Benjamin concerns the value of such an education.

Shteyngart, in the final line of his blurb for the New York Times, suggests that he also has something to teach his readers.  He sarcastically notes that, like Christ, he has lived a troubled life “so others don’t have.”  All we have to do is “learn” from his failure.  The structure of this statement and its implication are the same as the structure that exists between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.   Moreover, Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and his appropriation of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote beckon the same questions: What can we learn from failure?   What kind of wisdom does a fool have to offer us?  Do we simply learn what not to do? Or do we learn something else?

To better understand this, I suggest that we take a look at one of Benjamin’s early reflections on education.  In a letter to Gershom Scholem dated September 1917, Benjamin responded to two lines from an essay Scholem had written on Jewish education: “All work whose goal is not to set an example is non-sense.” “If we wish to be serious:…then today, as always, the most profound way – as well as the only way – to influence the souls of future generations is: through example.”

In response to these lines, Benjamin emphatically states that “the concept of example (to say nothing of that of “influence”) should be excluded from the theory of education.”

Benjamin explains himself by pointing out that “the life of the educator does not function indirectly, by setting an example.”  What does this mean?  For Benjamin, what often happens is that “instruction” is separated from “education.”  He argues that “learning has evolved into teaching, in part gradually, but wholly from within.”  In other words, teaching is a part of a larger unfolding of tradition.

To be sure, Benjamin claims that the “concept of tradition” is more important than the “concept of the example.”  It is more important for a teacher to think of him or herself as a part of a tradition than to think of him or herself as a role model or as the illustration of an idea.

Benjamin sees tradition as the unification of learning and teaching: “I am convinced that tradition is the medium in which the person who is learning continually transforms himself into the person who is teaching, and this applies to the entire range of education.”

Assuming that there is a tradition of the fool (and that Don Quixote is a part of it), Benjamin would see Don Quixote as transmitting it to Sancho Panza.  And within this tradition, Panza would continually be transforming himself into Don Quixote (a fool).  But there is more.  Benjamin insists that “in the tradition everyone is an educator and everyone needs to be educated and everything is education.”  In other words, since Benjamin believes in tradition, he insists that all education be reconfigured within the context of tradition; otherwise, education will have no real basis and will become meaningless.

Knowledge, Benjamin avers, is not independent of tradition.  It can only be transmitted “for the person who has understood his knowledge as something that has been transmitted.”  In this sense, Benjamin believed that if one is to learn from a fool, one must live within the tradition of the fool.  To transmit the comic, one must be within the comic tradition.

Moreover, Benjamin believes that a person who situates himself within this tradition, as opposed to someone who rejects tradition (as in the case of modernity), “becomes free in an unprecedented way.”  In other words, freedom is not something that one is born with and it is not based on the rejection of tradition; rather, it is something that comes when a person submits him or herself to a tradition.

Benjamin likens tradition and the freedom it offers to the sea and a wave:

Theory is like a surging sea, but the only thing that matters to the wave (understood as a metaphor for the person) is to surrender itself to its motion in such a way that it crests and breaks.  This enormous freedom of the breaking wave is education in its actual sense: instruction – tradition becoming visible and free, tradition emerging precipitously like a wave from living substance.

After writing this, Benjamin acknowledges that the source of tradition is religion.  He acknowledges that, for this reason, it is “difficult to speak about education.”  How can there be a secular or modern notion of tradition?  Is this, by definition, impossible?  These are questions that were of great concern to Benjamin in many of his essays which look to gauge the effects of technology, media, and mass production on tradition.

Despite the threat of modernity to tradition, Benjamin insists that any form of education which looks to create future students (and this includes all modern forms of education) must find its roots in the religious notion of tradition: “our descendants come from the spirit of God (human beings); like waves, they rise up out of the movement of the spirit.”

Instruction, says Benjamin, is the “nexus of the free union of the old with the new generation.”   Instruction, in other words, must bring modernity into a relation with tradition instead of negating it.  For Benjamin, the “error” is to think that “our descendents are dependent on us in some fundamental way.”  Rather, the proper way of thinking of his or Scholem’s role in education is to think that it all depends “on God and on the language in which, for the sake of some kind of community with our children, we should immerse ourselves.”

Benjamin’s musings prompt an important question for the schlemiel theory: What is the tradition of the schlemiel and who transmitted this tradition to Benjamin?  Who was Benjamin’s Sancho Panza?  Was it Kafka?

Benjamin suggests this in his letters to Scholem and in his essay on Kafka.  Taking Benjamin to his word, we can say that by immersing himself in the tradition of the fool, Benjamin was, as he says, continuously transforming himself into a fool.  Moreover, Benjamin was also looking to transmit that tradition to his future readers.  Kafka’s work, as an extension of such a tradition, gave Benjamin freedom. It enabled him to break forward like a wave.

This insight, unfortunately, has not been ventured by anyone in Benjamin studies.  Benjamin didn’t spell it out.  Rather, like any good student of tradition, one must learn it out from the teachers hints and actions.  For me, the hints can be found in Benjamin’s obsession with the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, a relationship that also fascinated Kafka.  Moreover, we can see Benjamin’s submission to the comic tradition in his last letters to Gershom Scholem.

Can we say the same for Gary Shteyngart?  Should we take him, as Sancho Panza took Don Quixote, as a teacher?  The irony of this tradition is not simply that it is, as Arendt might say, “hidden.”  Rather the greater irony is the fact that the tradition of the fool is a modern tradition that, according to Milan Kundera (in a chapter of The Art of the Novel entitled “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”) starts with Cervantes.  It starts with the decay of one tradition and the beginning of another, modern comic tradition.  According to Kundera, the teaching of this tradition is the teaching of contingency or what I, in my last two posts, would call “empirical consciousness.”

And like any tradition, we learn most from what the teacher does. We can learn more from the teacher’s gestures and actions that we can from his or her content.  What I look to do, in my readings of Benjamin, is to pay close attention to the gestures that he has left in his work on Kafka.  For Benjamin, one must pay attention to Kafka’s gestures.  For they convey something “pre-historic.”

The comic tradition is pre-historic in the sense that it transmits powerlessness to its adherents.  All those who learn from failure will eventually fail.  Schlemiel education opens the door for that which, in the Jewish tradition, is to come.  By learning from the schlemiel’s failure, we prepare for the arrival of what is to come.  In this sense, Shteyngart’s memoir, his “little failure” is preparatory.  But it belongs to a larger tradition.  Our acute awareness of failure, our becoming failures, literally falls within this tradition.  So, if we were to see Shteyngart’s memoir (or any of his schlemiels) as an “example” of “what is possible,” we would lose what Benjamin would consider the crux of education: tradition.

But, wait, what does it mean that we are educated with the schlemiel tradition?  Is this some kind of joke?  Was Sancho Panza the greatest fool of all for taking a fool as his teacher?  Did he intentionally distract himself?  If so, Immanuel Kant would say that while Quixote was “absent-minded,” Panza was “debilitated.”  However, if we take Benjamin seriously, we would have to say that Panza looked to go from being debilitated to becoming absent-minded. To be sure, for Benjamin “tradition is the medium in which the person who is learning continually transforms himself into the person who is teaching, and this applies to the entire range of education.” This kind of transformation, for Kant, would be one of worst sins one could commit against Enlightenment.  It is, literally, going backwards – toward the distracted and absent-minded innocence of childhood.

In contrast to this regression, the Jewish tradition has made room for the fool.  I have already touched on this in my blog entry on the “Schlemiel as Prophet.”   And I will return to it again in the near future since Benjamin, without a doubt, saw something prophetic in Don Quixote’s transmission of foolish tradition to Sancho Panza and, as a matter of course, Benjamin situated himself within that tradition.  This tradition is at once Jewish (particular) and not (general).  The only question we need to ask is whether or how someone like Gary Shteygart or a blog like Schlemiel Theory is passing the tradition of the fool or the schlemiel on.  For, regardless of the decay of this or that tradition in the modern world, comic failure is something that will still be transmitted from generation to generation….