Hide and Seek: Walter Benjamin’s Reading of Children and Childhood – Take 2

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Yesterday’s blog ended with several questions which puzzled over why Walter Benjamin or Georges Bataille would be so interested in “returning to childhood” or describing the “true child.”

Before going to sleep last night, I thought about these questions.  But instead of simply thinking about them, I thought about myself.  After all, I am as intrigued with childhood and the fool as they were.  But was I fascinated for the same reasons?

In thinking about this, I turned to a blog entry I wrote earlier this week entitled “Damaged Childhood: Fools, Self-Destruction, and Reclaming Youth,” There, I pointed out how Walter Benjamin, in his essay of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, argued that Dostoevsky’s book was a response to the “failure of the youth movement” and a “damaged childhood.”

I noted how Benjamin goes on to claim, after writing on failure, that a “return to childhood” – a return to “childlike simplicity” – promises “unlimited healing powers.”  But then it hit me: if the youth movement already failed, and if the purpose of that youth movement was to “return to childhood,” why was he insisting that we try again?

At this point, I realized that Benjamin (and Dostoevsky, as Benjamin reads him) were involved in what Freud would call a “repetition compulsion.”  According to Freud, in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the repetition compulsion is a response to trauma, that is, a response to a damaged childhood.  Benjamin is repeating the failure to return to childhood by insisting on doing it again.

Although he believes that this must be done, because a return to “childlike simplicity” has “unlimited” healing powers, he also admits, in the same essay, that it is desperate and pathetic.  We see this, Benjamin says, in the novel’s characters.

The Idiot, in effect, is not simply the illustration of a desire to return to childhood; it is a displacement of failure.

Its astonishing how Benjamin’s writing on children, in many ways, parallels that of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  It seems that, in the face of this political, secular messianist failure of the “youth movement,” Benjamin, in his own work, displaced his failure and turned to the micro-worlds of children.  In these worlds we see a “childlike simplicity.” We see micro-worlds that exist within the world of adults.  This retreat into micro-worlds may not only be seen as a response to a “damaged childhood” but it can also be seen as a response to a failed (or incomplete) political project whose goal is to “return to childhood.”

We see much evidence of this in Benjamin’s book One Way Street.    Even though Benjamin does address the political on and off throughout the piece (this is the part that many Benjamin scholars and Theodor Adorno focus on, in fact) he has an entire section on children.   It consists of several aphorisms.  The subtitles of each are the following: Child Reading, Belated Child, Pilfering Child, Child on Carousel, Untidy Child, and Child Hiding.

I would love to discuss all of them over the span of several blog entries.  For now, I just want to note a one (preliminary) thing and relate it to my own personal interest in the schlemiel and childhood.

Since I am a lover and practitioner of literary interpretation and exegesis, the first thing I did when I glanced over this section was to notice and think about the first and last entries.  The first entry is entitled “Child Reading” while the last one is entitled “Child Hiding.”

This, for me, states something meaningful about Benjamin and his response to a “damaged childhood.”  His reading, the reading of a child, is a way of hiding in a micro-world.  And, as Benjamin says at the end of that section, he is hiding from a “demon” and the places he finds to hide in are “magical.”  Reading, exploring space, and constructing micro-worlds (hiding places), are his “magical” way of avoiding terror (“the demon”).  To be sure, the entire section on childhood is prefaced by a line which gives us a clue of this response to trauma: “To be happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without fright.”

Indeed, Benjamin’s self-awareness, his awareness of his, so to speak, childhood demon, is terrifying.  But Benjamin, like the child, has found a reading strategy, a way of hiding that enables him, like a child, to becomes “happy” without fright.  Seeing himself as this child, the child in the text that he writes of, he finds a way to address trauma.   In his reading spaces he is hidden and sheltered from trauma.  To be sure, he seems to be alluding to this throughout his section on childhood.

To be sure, Benjamin, like a child, is more intrigued with his hiding spaces, his mirco-worlds, than with the world.  He goes to these places out of terror.  A schlemiel does this as well.  A man-child dwells and travels through spaces within the world, spaces that are unfamiliar to the world and its preoccupations.  Ultimately, these journeys through space that the schlemiel-slash-man-child takes are responses to something hidden, something he can’t understand.  The schlemiel, in his “childlike simplicity” just moves on.  He doesn’t notice the disaster, perhaps, because it would destroy him.

Growing up with a father who had a wild imagination, loved politics, liked to travel, tell stories, and often confused dreams and reality, I often felt like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote through space and time.  I inherited my father’s response to his own trauma, which, as I learned, is to find and create micro-worlds where one can hide.  The key, however, to such childish games is to know not simply how to read but how to tell stories.

Growing up, I felt that I had to listen to and interpret these stories. Each story, as it were, was what I would call a “traumatic imperative.”  But these stories were not simply told.   They were written over various spaces, people, and time.  My father’s micro-worlds were not in a book; they were found in this or that pocket of reality.  My (as Benjamin might say) “self-awareness” was caught up in these spaces.

When dream and reality overlap, reality becomes a book.  It comes to life.  However, its meaning, because it is confused, is unclear and, as Benjamin knew and my father always reminded me, terror seems to be waiting around each corner.  Like Benjamin, my father taught me that if you are to return to childhood, if you are going to live out your schlemiel-hood through time and space, you must know how to play hide and seek.

Its the game that every failed messiah – that is, every man-child who comes out of a damaged childhood – plays.

Reflecting on Comedy: Miriam Katz’s Comic-Art Project (Take 2)

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Miriam Katz is an art curator who has taken on the task of bringing comedy into the serious and overly academic artworld.  On March 19th 2011, she was the curator of a “showcase of experimental comedy” at MOMA P.S. 1.  As Martha Schwender of the The Village Voice points out in an article entitled “Have you Heard the One About the Art Scene Embracing Comedians?” Katz included comic performers such as Jon Glaser, David Hill, Jenny Slate, Reggie Watts, Maeve Higgins, and Rory Scovel in her art show.

Echoing Miriam Katz, Martha Schwender demurs on what happens when “comedians are being presented as artists?”  Will there be a collision?

What I found interesting about her article’s presentation of Katz’s project was its insistence on the link between trauma, comedy, and thoughtful reflection.

Schwender, citing Katz, notes that “comedy is much less safe than art.”  Literally and figuratively.  Apparently, there are more starving comedians than starving artists. Art has become too smug with itself and now “comedy is a model for artists who feel art has become to academic or safe.”  The world of comedy is a dangerous space and those who live in it take more risks that are typical of those who dwell in the artworld.

But here is the problem.   Comedy is unreflective and forgetful.  Citing Katz, Schwender writes: “Laugher obliterates the memory of what took place, so people don’t sit down and write a response, aside from ‘Check it out, its so awesome!”

This, Katz argues, is problematic.  Comedians are “hungry for critical feedback.”

In other words, comedians want us to think about comedy and share our thoughts with them.

At the end of this piece, Schwender, echoing Katz, gives her own reflection on comedy.  She notes that when comedians do well on stage they say that they “kill.”  This, I would add, is similar to the Borscht Belt expression of ‘knocking them dead.”  Or “blowing them away.”

What do they mean by such language?  Does the comedian have a violent and antagonistic relationship with her audience?

Schwender doesn’t give a direct answer.  Instead, she demonstrates that comedy is not all lightness and fun; death and mortality are themes in contemporary comedy: “(Andy) Kaufman talked about faking his own death…Zadie Smith..uses her own hapless father as an example of comedy triumphing over mortality: Her father “missed his own death” because he died in mid-sentence, “joking with his nurse.”

But does comedy really triumph over reality?  Is comedy redemptive?  Schwender seems to suggest as much here.  It takes us through the darkness and leads us to light.

Schwender ends the piece with a suggestion of hope; namely, a new era of art.  What Dada was to WWII, Katz’s new efforts will be to our current post-traumatic situation: “Our own art-comedy moment feels rooted in a similarly apocalyptic soil: wars, natural disasters, and nasty elections.  Four years ago, skulls were the leitmotifs in art, clustered in paintings or crushed with diamonds.  Now, laughter is taking over.”

But what does this mean?  Is Miriam Katz awakening us to a messianic-kind of Dadaist comic-epoch which has found its birth in 2011, in Manhattan?   And how do we “reflect” on this post-traumatic comic moment?  Do we find redemption in it? Does comedy, dark comedy of the Andy Kaufmann variety, offer redemption or catharsis?

In search of an answer, I went to hear from Katz herself.  I found an interview with Katz in BOMBLOG.  The interview took place recently and focuses on her new podcast project.  Since her exhibition, Katz created a website with monthly podcasts of comedians reflecting on their work: http://www.breakdownshow.com/about/

The website is called Breakdowns.  The name is apropos as it hints at an emotional breakdown and a reflective breakdown of the (comic) breakdown.  But, and here is the question, is reflection on comedic-slash-traumatic comedy redemptive?  Must all comedy, worth anything, be thought of in this way?

In her interview with Sam Korman in BOMBLOG, we get a better picture of her understanding of the relationship of comedy-slash-trauma and reflection.

http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/7063

Blogging on February 15th, Korman leads the way to the question of comedy and redemption when he associates Katz’s art project (and his own interview) with going into the depths of darkness by way of the comedian but, in the end, finding “our way back…redeemed.”  He suggests that his interview and her comic-art project are a mythic type of journey into and out of darkness.

When first asked why “comedy is so important,” Katz gives an answer that speaks to trauma and reflection.  She notes that comedy gives people relief, is critical and fun, and allows for “difficult truths to emerge.”

Her challenge to the artworld is to be critical “in a joyous way” instead of being too serious and academic.  And comedy makes this joyous type of criticism possible (which sounds much like what Friedrich Nietzsche called “Gay Science”).

But, toward the middle and end of the interview, Katz shifts and gives us a picture of comedy that is not redemptive.  First of all, she notes the position of the comedian to the audience is not a mutual catharsis.   Rather, “structurally we (the audience) are arbitrary.  The comic just wants the sounds coming from our bodies.”  All she wants is the audience to have a “bit more agency or influence.”  The little freedom she wants for “us” inheres in our “critical” response to comedy.  The act itself, however, harbors no agency.  Its just bodies responding in space to humor.

Korman is not satisfied with this kind of answer, so, later in the interview, he tries to bring in another philosophical angle.   He demurs that when one laughs at oneself, one becomes a listener.  This relation would be redemptive.

In response, Katz notes that this would be equivalent to standing outside of oneself and looking at oneself from a birds-eye-view: “That’s so weird and cool: making yourself laugh.  It forces you to ask, who’s that?”

For Katz, this seems to be a moment of ambivalence and self-alienation; not a moment of self-recognition.  It is traumatic.

What’s of more interest to her, it seems, is the relationship between the audience and the comedian: not what it means, but what happens.

(As Walter Benjamin once wrote in his Kafka essay, “attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  This attention, I would add, is to what happens-as-it-happens.)

Katz ends the interview with a paradoxical reflection.  When you laugh there is relief (and I would add that this is cathartic and redemptive); however, she contradicts this when she says: “there’s also no escape.  It forces you to admit things about your limitations and about what you really want.”

The fact that we cannot “escape” ourselves and that we are forced to admit things about ourselves and our desires is a shameful moment.  On the contrary, there is no relief.

Comedy, in other words, forces us to be uncomfortable.  It exposes us to our mortality and our desires (whether frustrated, failed, sick, or what have you).

But this isn’t the comedy we see on The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, or Saturday Night Live; no, it’s the disturbing kind of comedy we find in comedians like Andy Kaufmann and Lenny Bruce.  The comedy she is talking about is the variety that makes us chuckle while feeling uneasy in our skins.

And this is what we see in this Andy Kaufmann video, which I posted in yesterday’s blog:

Bringing a critical understanding of comedy can help us to understand what comedy does to us, but it can’t redeem us.  Nonetheless, it can spur us to act.  The schlemiel faces us, in a Levinasian sense (which I mentioned in the previous blog entry) with the “demand of the hour.”  Our choice to act, to decide, follows in the wake of our comic exposure to ourselves, the other, and to the hour (our situation).

This, I would argue, is the agency that Miriam Katz is trying to find for her comic audience.  Our freedom follows the comic breakdown.

Freedom and critical reflection are in the wake of the schlemiel’s oblique prophesy.