“Unhappy Dualism” or Simplicity: On Gershom Scholem’s Readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and Hasidim

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Duplicity and complexity were of great concern to Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem. In her book on Rahel Varnhagen, Arendt takes aim at Jean-Jacques Rousseau as encouraging duplicity. She saw, in his work, a conflict between the private life and the public life. His confessions maintained this division and complexity. This came in the wake of religious decay:

With the loss of the priest and his judgment, the solitude of the would-be confessor had become boundless. The singularity of the person, the uniqueness of the individual character, stood out against a background of indefinite anonymity.   Everything was equally important and nothing forbidden. In complete isolation, shame was extinguished. The importance of emotions existed independently of possible consequences…In the course of such a ruthless confessional the individual is isolated not only from the events of public life, but also from the events of private life. (98)

Everything sinks into duplicity and what matters most are not the “facts” but the lies or the stories one tells about oneself (91).   One is defined by what is within, not without. This is how Varnhagen, according to Arendt, understood Rousseau.   Her life, to be sure, was complex. And this duplicity, for Arendt, was based on a kind of worldlessness that was forced upon German-Jews who wished to but could not – at the time – become recognized as moderns and equals with Germans.

But, to be sure, as her reflections on Rousseau indicate, this duplicity and complexity is a part of the modern condition.   Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “Fate and Character,” followed suit. He associates “complexity” with fate and myth and contrasts it to character, which he associates with freedom and comedy. Benjamin was not alone in his problems with complexity. Dostoevsky, a lover of complexity, pits character against fate in his novel, The Idiot and shows that Prince Myshkin, a simpleton, becomes “the idiot” of Russian society. This happens because he doesn’t know how to lie and hide what he thinks or feels like so many other characters in the novel.   And this makes him into an “idiot” who is, gradually, destroyed.

In an essay on the novel, Benjamin makes it clear that he saw the destruction of Prince Myshkin as the failure of the “youth movement.” He saw the “fate” of this simple character as horrific and self-destructive. He likened it to a volcano that self-implodes.   Nonetheless, Benjamin didn’t give up on comedy and character. In his “Fate and Character” essay, written two years after his essay on The Idiot, Benjamin speaks of comedy, simplicity, and character as a “beacon of hope.” Complexity and duplicity, for Benjamin as for Arendt, were a modern problem and, he believed, simplicity could be the answer.

We also find the contrast between simplicity and complexity/duplicity in Gershom Scholem’s readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and the Hasidim.   Scholem uses powerful language to describe the duplicity of living as a Marrano:

For generations the Marranos in the Iberian peninsula, the offspring of those Jews who, in their hundreds of thousands, went over to Christianity in the persecutions between 1391 and 1498, had been compelled to lead, as it were, a double life. The religion which they professed was not that in which they believed. This dualism could not but endanger, if it did not indeed destroy the unity of Jewish feeling and thinking. (309, Trends in Jewish Mysticism)

And this also touched the Marranos who, thereafter, returned to Judaism. Their Judaism, argues Schlolem, “retained something of this peculiar spiritual make-up”(309).   And when Sabbatai Zevi came on to the scene, he appealed to this complexity and what Scholem calls the “unhappy dualism of the Marranic mind”(310). The “idea of an apostate Messiah could be presented to them as the religious glorification of the very act which continued to torment their conscience.”

This internal torment, this “unhappy dualism,” is the cause of so much trouble.   It opened the door for “radical nihilism.”   Throughout a chapter entitled “Sabbatianism and Mystical Heresy,” Scholem points out, over and over again, the complexity of Sabbatianism. He focuses a primary cause of such complexity in the relationship of the followers to the “strange acts” of Sabbatai Zevi:

There was on the one hand the personality of the Messiah and its paradox, on the other hand the attitude and the individual experience of the believer. The point at which the moderate and the extreme Sabbatianism imparted was supplied by the question whether the acts of the Messiah serve as an example to the believer or not. The moderate thought not….His actions are not examples to be followed; on the contrary, it is of their nature to give offence. (314)

In contrast, “the radicals could not bear the thought of remaining content with passive belief in the paradox of the Messiah’s mission”(315). Rather, they thought of the “paradox as universal.” And “the consequences which flowed from these religious ideas were purely nihilistic, above all the conception of voluntary Marranism with the slogan: We must all descend into the realm of evil in order to vanquish it from within.”

Scholem calls the “disappearance of shame” an “awkward problem” which, for him shows duplicity and complexity at its height since, after all, shame is deeply connected to what he calls the “unity of Jewish feeling and belief.” Without morality and shame, Scholem suggests that Judaism goes from a simple religion to a complex and duplicitous religion. To be sure, we see this at its height in the Sabbatinian cult that formed around Jacob Frank. Scholem calls his “Book on the Words of the Lord” – which has “dark sayings” such as “the subversion of the Torah can become its own fulfillment” and “great is the sin committed for its own sake” – “perhaps the most remarkable ‘holy writ’ which has ever been produced.”   It is a book full of duplicity and complexity and this, Scholem argues, ultimately has its roots in the Marrano experience.

In contrast to all of this, Scholem, in the final chapter of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, argues that the Hasidim “neutralized the messianic idea.” But what many people miss is that this neutralization had a lot to do with its emphasis on simplicity.   While the leaders of the Hasidic movement had charisma, much like Zevi and Frank, they were ultimately more interested in simplicity than in complexity and this had to do with their close bond with the “life of the community”:

And yet the Hasidim did not go the way of Sabbatianism. Its leaders were far too closely connected with the life of the community to succumb to the danger of sectarianism. Opportunities were not lacking. Yet these men whose utterances not infrequently throw light on the paradoxical nature of the mystical consciousness than anything before them – supreme paradox! – the advocates of the simple and untainted belief of the common man, and this simplicity was even glorified by them as the highest religious value. (346)

He associates this paradox with Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav whose mind has a “hyper-modern sensitiveness to problems” yet who “turned all his energy to the task of defending the simplest of all beliefs”(346).

To be sure, the turn from complexity to simplicity is a key moment in Scholem’s text. And it would be amiss not to see that, between Benjamin and Scholem and despite their love of paradox, they both had a deep interest in simplicity. And, as we can see above, Arendt also had a distaste for duplicity and complexity. She was more interested in brining the public and the private together than in affirming an exterior that was contrary to one’s interior.

What we find in this thread, I aver, is that there were all interested in how Jewishness and modernity give birth to and constantly renew the tension between complexity and simplicity.   And perhaps, as Benjamin once held, simplicity which is connected to, as Scholem might say, the “life of the community,” a “beacon of hope.”   Or, it could be, for someone who – like you and I – is immersed in a world inundated with duplicity, fatalism, and lies and lives a life of “unhappy dualism.”

Gentle Irresistibility: Adorno on the Promises of Happiness and Truth in Walter Benjamin’s Work

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Religion and philosophy are both interested in some form of ultimate good that results in happiness. Aristotle is often noted for saying that all human beings desire to be happy. Much of what we do is for the sake of happiness. For Aristotle, the desire for happiness is built into human nature and is achievable. But for religion happiness is oftentimes promised. For instance, the Talmud tells us that Jews may be happy in this world but such happiness is incomplete. The greatest kind of happiness will come from God in the final redemption of the Jewish people. It is messianic. To be sure, this happiness, like much else in the Torah (and in all Monotheistic religions), is promised.

In one of his descriptions of Walter Benjamin’s work, Theodor Adorno argues that one of the greatest appeals to be found in Benjamin’s work can be found in two promises: the “promise of happiness” and the “promise of truth.” And what makes these promises so appealing, according to Adorno, is the fact that they are couched in a childlike kind of writing that is digressive:

The deliberate digressiveness of his thought is…matched by its gentile irresistibility. (Prisms, 230)

According to Adorno, this “gentile irresistibility” originates in is the “promise of happiness.”   And this is why Benjamin took so much to fairy tales:

Everything that Benjamin said or wrote sounded as if thought, instead of rejecting the promises of fairy tales and children’s books with its usual disgraceful ‘maturity’, took them so literally that real fulfillment itself was now within sight of knowledge.

There is a childishness in Benjamin’s work that is committed to this “promise of happiness” which echo what he loved so much about children’s stories whose promises, as we can see, Adorno thinks Benjamin took literally.   And this childishness and “gentle irresistibility” were infectious.   Adorno likens anyone who was drawn to Benjamin – and his work – to a child taking a peek at a Christmas tree:

Anyone who was drawn to him was bound to feel like the child who catches a glimpse of the lighted Christmas tree through a crack in the closed door.

The promise of gifts makes a child giddy; the same goes for anyone who was drawn to Benjamin and his work. However, there is more than just happiness that is promised. Adorno tells us that truth is also promised in Benjamin’s work, or, as the analogy goes, in the light of the Christmas tree seen through the crack of the door:

But the light, as one of reason, also promised truth itself, not its powerless shadow.

Adorno gives Benjamin’s thought a religious kind of quality. He calls it a “creation ex nihilo” that had the “generosity of abundance.” Like God, it “sought to make good everything, all the pleasure prohibited by adjustment and self-preservation, pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual.” In other words, “Benjamin’s thought” promised to make sensual and intellectual amends for all of the renunciations people make in order to adjust to society and preserve themselves.   These promises and this abundance, argues Adorno, are something Benjamin shared with the famous writer Marcel Proust. Both of them had a “desire for happiness” and both of them desired it by way of the experience of disillusionment. To be sure, Adorno says that the more they were disillusioned, the more they desired happiness and clung to the promise of happiness.

With this in mind, Adorno argues that Kafka’s remark, that “there is infinite hope except for us” – could have “served as the motto for Benjamin’s metaphysics”(231). This is the motto not because it suggests that Benjamin like Kafka gave in to hopelessness and rejected the “promise of happiness.” On the contrary, Adorno suggests that hopelessness only gave him more hope.   The “gentile irresistibility” of Benjamin’s work, like that of Sholem Aleichem’s fiction, is to be found in the fact that despite hopelessness and disillusionment, Benjamin, like a child (with simple faith), continues to believe in the “promise of happiness” and the “promise of truth.” They are, as in religion, always “to come.” Adorno is suggesting that the belief in these promises is fostered by way of reading Benjamin’s work.

Like Adorno, Gershom Scholem recognized, early on, that Benjamin’s work had a moral quality to it and he also saw the relationship of this moral aspect to religion. In Walter Benjamin: A Story of Friendship, Scholem writes:

For me Benjamin’s ideas had a radiant moral aura about them; to the extent that I could intellectually empathize with them, they had a morality of their own, which was bound up with their relationship to the religious sphere that at that time was quite clearly and openly the vanishing point of his thought. 

Perhaps this moral aura had something to do with the “promise of happiness” and the “promise of truth.” But these are promises that Benjamin drew not just from religion and folklore. He also drew them childhood.   And to read Benjamin, as he wished his ideal reader would, one must give in to a childlike kind of desire that believes that, somehow, despite the horrible world we live in – which is filled with deceit and murder – that happiness and truth are still possible.   In his last letters to Gershom Scholem, he calls this hope the wisdom of the fool rather than of the philosopher.   And for an adult to have such hope and to believe in such promises, is not tragic; it is comical. Adorno, it seems, understood this early on since he realized that whenever he was around Benjamin he became like a child.   In many ways, he believed in what Benjamin’s work promised to deliver.   And years later it seems that many people read him in the same way.

Kafka (Benjamin and Brecht) on Facebook: Understanding Astonishment, Discipline, and Guilt on Facebook

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Let’s be honest. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. Although we check it on and off throughout the day, we need to admit that, most of the time, it isn’t a pleasurable experience. We expect to find, each time or at least a few times a day, film clips, articles, images or status updates that are shocking or sensational.   And when we comment or put up a status update, there is always the fear that someone will say something that puts our credibility or image on the line. Sometimes we fear that we will be ignored. In short, half of the excitement of going on Facebook comes from seeing things that are shocking, but the other half comes from the apprehensive feeling that we will most likely be judged.

But why would anyone find this experience so addictive? Why would anyone want to experience shock and judgment on a daily basis and not once but several times a day?

Just yesterday I came across an article from The New Yorker that sketched the problem out for me and gave me a starting point for addressing an experience I have been troubled by since I joined Facebook. Joshua Rothman’s article, entitled “In Facebook’s Courtroom,” draws on Kafka to explain this experience. While I find his reading of Facebook by way of Kafka very interesting, I find his reflections to be preliminary (in a good sense). I would like to build on them by focusing on Kafka’s reading of astonishment and using it to take Rothman’s reading to another level. To this end, I will be drawing on the dispute between Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht over the meaning of astonishment in Kafka’s work. By outlining their differences and applying it to a reading of experience on Facebook, we can better understand our troubling addiction to Facebook shock and the experience of addiction.

Rothman articulates his description of Facebook experience at the outset of the article by describing the omnipresence of the TMZ Video of Ray Rice hitting his wife, Janay Palmer, in a Las Vegas elevator. He notes how, over time, it “grew baroque.”

In my Facebook feed, people hate-liked terrible reactions to the video. Others wrote impassioned posts addressed to supporters of Ray Rice, even if they didn’t know any supporters. Some used the video as a “teachable moment” to share facts about “#domesticviolence,” or helpfully suggested as-yet-unblamed parties who could also be criticized. (“Why is no one talking about the role of alcohol in this?”) A widespread response was meta-outrage: asking, in an outraged tone, why there weren’t an even greater number of outraged Facebook posts about Ray Rice.

Reflecting on this, Rothman notes that, of course, there is a “lot to be angry about” but “at the same time, though, there can be something unsettling about the Web’s communal rage, even when that rage is justified.” He points out how, in Web Culture, “anger is an end in itself.”   This turns into what he calls a “never ending, unpredictable justice system.”

In recent years, the Web’s continuous pageantry of outrage, judgment, and punishment has become an inescapable element of contemporary life. We all carry in our pockets a self-serious, hypercritical, omnipresent, never-ending, and unpredictable justice system.

Drawing on the words “never ending, unpredictable justice system” Rothman makes an analogy between Facebook experience and the experience of Kafka’s characters in novels like The Trial and The Castle.

But Kafka wasn’t writing about the D.M.V.; his novels and stories are actually about justice, which he saw as aloof and possibly unobtainable, and punishment, which he saw as endless and omnipresent. He described an aspect of life that the online world makes more visible and acute.

Echoing Kafka, Rothman astutely points out how, on Facebook, one is likely to come across an “unexpected discipline in progress.” This, I think, hits the nail right on the head. After all, I have not only personally seen this but I have also been the subject of such “unexpected discipline.” Rothman sums up the experience of seeing or being the subject of such experience in these words – which are the same words that can be used to describes K’s experience in The Trial where, like Facebook, “punishment is pervasive.” On Facebook, as in the Trial, we have “a mixture of guilt and innocence, fear and excitement, outrage, pity, incomprehension, revulsion, and prurient interest.”

Rothman dovetails into a brief discussion of how, in Kafka and Facebook, there is a “surreal humor.” What makes it surreal is the fact that the judgment and disciplining are often done by way of exaggeration.   Moreover, he notes that this exaggeration is mixed with “something sexy” and “something childlike.” But the most important Facebook feeling of all, for Rothman, is the feeling of guilt. With all of the judgment on Facebook, regardless of the inflections of something comical, childlike, or sexy, there is this pervasiveness of guilt (for the discipliner and the disciplined and the witness to such disciplining).

Employing an ironic and apologetic tone, which one often sees on Facebook (out of fear of being attacked) Rothman, notes that it’s not always so bad:

It’s not always so grim. Sometimes, when Facebook is in especially fine form, Kafkaesque humor emerges. As you scroll, you wonder, what’s next on the docket? Which outrages and exemplars will confront me today, and how will I react to them? On the one hand, you’re criminally uninterested in a controversy about sexism amongst hedge-fund managers; on the other, at least you’re not one of the “ten celebs who have killed people.” The social-media stream puts moral life on shuffle—and expresses the fact that, while being a good person matters perhaps more than anything, it’s also very unclear how one might go about being good. This gently comic sense of ironic, bitter, and morally exhausted desperation even has its own Kafkaesque emoticon: ¯\_()_/¯.

Rothman ends his reflections on Facebook with a set of questions that hits on the main issue. Why, if we all clearly experience and understand the omnipresence of judgment, guilt, shock, and discipline on Facebook, do we return over and over again? Wouldn’t it be more optimal to live a life without the daily experience of these troubling emotions?

Rothman’s appeal to Kafka to address Facebook is the best I have seen yet. It raises questions I have had, in my own work, about how to read Kafka in relation to our society and ourselves. In my own work, I am very interested in how Walter Benjamin reads Kafka as it informs his reading of the modern schlemiel. One of the most interesting discussions Benjamin has about Kafka’s work is with Bertolt Brecht, a playwright he deeply respected. To be sure, Benjamin struggled with Brecht’s reading of Kafka and brought it into his famous essay on Kafka. All of themes that Rothman touches on in terms of Kafka, to be sure, are touched on by Benjamin in his essay on Kafka.

Benjamin, to be sure, in the spring of 1931 spent time with Brecht in France. In a journal entry, dated June 6th 1931, Benjamin notes how, for Brecht, astonishment was the central motif of Kafka’s work:

He believes that Kafka has just one there, and that the richness of Kafka as a writer is simply the rich variety of this one theme. According to Brecht, this theme, in its most general sense, is astonishment. The astonishment of a man who feels that huge shifts are in the offing in every aspect of life, without being able to find a niche for himself in the new order of things. For this new order…is governed by the dialectical laws that dictate the life of the masses to themselves and to the individual. But the individual as such must react with astonishment tinged with panic-stricken horror to the almost incomprehensible deformations of life that are revealed by the emergence of these laws. Kafka, it seems to me, is dominated by this to the point that he is incapable of portraying any event without distortion.

Benjamin goes on to note that Brecht doesn’t like the astonishment of Kafka’s characters. Brecht found the lack of astonishment of Schweik, the main character of the Czech writer, Jaroslav Hasek’s satirical novel about war, to be better.

Brecht contrasts Kafka – and the figure of K. – with Schweik: the man who is astonished by everything with the one who is astonished by nothing.   Schweik puts to the test the monstrous nature of existence into which he has been placed by making it seem as if nothing is impossible for him.

Benjamin brings many of Brecht’s thoughts on Kafka into his essay on Kafka. In that essay, he posits a difference between two types of fools who have a different relation to astonishment. Benjamin reads astonishment as a gesture and notes that Kafka “does not grow tired of representing the gestus (of the characters in The Castle and America) in this fashion, but he invariably does so with astonishment”(137). This astonishment is the same astonishment as K. who differs from Good Soldier Schwiek: “the one is astonished at everything, the other nothing”(137).

Benjamin also brings in the notion of astonishment to a radio talk on Kafka in 1931. he notes how astonishment at law is a key feature of Kafka’s characters.   And he sees this astonishment as prophetic:

Kafka’s work is prophetic….His only reaction to the almost incomprehensible distortions of existence that betray the emergence of new laws is a sense of astonishment, mixed with elements of panic-stricken horror. Kafka is so possessed by this that he is incapable of imagining any single event that would not be distorted by the mere act of describing it…In other words, everything he describes makes statements about something other than itself”( Selected Writings 1931-1934, Volume II, 496).

Benjamin goes on to note that this is not a “purely poetic prose” but is a direct result of the rapid shift of our lives and the effort to describe it.   Astonishment, in other words, relates to the failure of man to create a new idiom for rapid shifts in one’s existence. This failure – which, without a doubt, has mystical resonance – gives one access to language as such.

To be sure, while Benjamin thought of astonishment as prophetic, Brecht found this aspect of Kafka to be most deplorable. Brecht was very harsh with Benjamin’s obsession with Kafka and thought of Kafka’s work (and Benjamin’s) as “mystery mongering,” and “nonsense”(786).   Astonishment and mystery mongering, for Brecht, go hand in hand.

As Benjamin learned, Brecht saw Kafka as a “Jewboy…a feeble, unattractive figure, a bubble on the iridescent surface of the swamp of Prague’s cultural life, and nothing more”(786).   Astonishment, for Brecht, it seems, came out of Kafka’s Jewish, poor life. For this reason, Brecht, building on his anti-Semitic view of Kafka, told Benjamin “I reject Kafka” and his “depth.” This rejection of Kafka (and Benjamin’s project) had an effect on Benjamin. He even admits that “I could not refute the criticism that it was a diary-like set of notes…I was well-aware that his writings contained a lot of debris and rubbish – a lot of real mystery mongering. But other things were crucial, and my study touched on them”(786-87). These “other things” are things that Brecht, apparently, could not understand because he could not understand the meaning of a schlemiel.

Astonishment, for Benjamin, is the key to the schlemiel and Kafka’s characters’ wakefulness: it is in a constant state of surprise because the schlemiel is always forgetting what it was and, for that matter, who or what it is. Hence, the astonishment goes hand in hand with a vigilant study. The schlemiel, as an exceptional character, is astonished at what “normal” people would consider average and nothing.   It is acutely aware of change.   Unlike Soldier Schweik, who is a cunning trickster much like Odysseus, Kafka’s schlemiels are more astonished and less cunning.

Instead of being self-present, cunning, and self-reliant, (which is what Brecht loved about Schweik) they are open to and affected by alterity. And in this Benjamin differs radically from Brecht and his privileging of reason, will, and freedom. Brecht associated this interest in questions, “depth,” and astonishment with “Jewish fascism,” while Benjamin saw astonishment as a positive, critical feature of the Kafka’s schlemiels. Astonishment, which has its mystical correlate, is pronounced in these moments in the text.

Benjamin relates this astonishment to that of the reader or viewer when seeing one’s own gestures in another medium: this is an astonishment at one’s alienation: “The invention of the film and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation from one another, of unpredictably intervening relationship which became their only ones. Experiments have proved that a man does not recognize his own walk on the screen or his own voice on the phonograph”(137).

And perhaps this is the key to our fascination with Facebook. Contrary to Brecht, we cannot help but be astonished at the surprises we find on Facebook vis-à-vis ourselves and others. Regardless of how cunning and unastonished we try to be (or present ourselves) on Facebook (and I have many academic colleagues who attempt to maintain this image), the fact of the matter is, as Rothman suggests, that – regardless of how sexy or comical it may seem – we are under constant discipline (either as the subject or the agent).  He is correct. Facebook experience is very “Kafkaesque.” And our attraction to it should trouble us. However, the reason for this doesn’t have to do with the medium alone or the age we live in. It may have to do with the fact that we like to experience astonishment. It evinces a deep and mysterious experience (one that Brecht was sickened by) of our own oscillation between power and powerlessness.

But, ultimately, this may be too much for us to handle. Why, after all, would we want to experience this?  For this reason, leaving Facebook for a while may be a good thing; it can make us feel “as if” we are in control of ourselves and outside of judgment, discipline, and guilt.  But the truth of the matter is that, in every modern situation we, like the schlemiel, may always be astonished. On or off Facebook, there will be astonishment. However, on Facebook the experience of judgment is omnipresent and often very troubling.

…..to be continued….

Joan Rivers and Holocaust Humor

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During the week of Robin Williams death, I wrote a piece on his role in Jakob the Liar. As I pointed out, Williams didn’t shy away from the challenge of bringing humor to the Holocaust. To this end, he decided to take on the role of the schlemiel, Jakob, who did his utmost to distance the Lodz ghetto from its impending doom.   He and Roberto Bengnini – who wrote and played the main role in Life is Beautiful – turned to the schlemiel and both were duly criticized for this since, “after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno and several Holocaust scholars who follow in his wake argue that humor, much like poetry, might be thought to be unethical when it comes to representing the Holocaust.   However, what makes the schlemiel interesting is, as Sidrah Ezrahi suggests, that its brand of comedy “revolts” against the world so as to preserve hope.   But that revolt is in the name of innocence.

While Bengini and Williams took to the schlemiel in the face of the Holocaust, Joan Rivers took more to a comic style that was in the spirit of Lenny Bruce (who, arguably, made a major impression on Rivers and changed her way of doing comedy).   These jokes do not preserve innocence so much as the spirit of revolt itself.   They strike at the civility that is at the core of the west.   And, as David Biale argues, Lenny Bruce created a new sense of Jewishness as a position that was not so much American as marginal, counter-cultural, and against the status quo. And because Rivers is “Jewish,” perhaps in Bruce’s sense, her Holocaust jokes take on another aspect.

The most recent joke Joan told about the Holocaust was on Fashion Police. In this joke she likens the “hotness” of Heidi Klum’s ass in a dress to the hotness of Germans “pushing Jews into the ovens” in concentration camps:

On CNN she was asked if she regretted telling the joke. She starts off by saying that it’s “just a joke,” notes that a large part of her husbands family died in the Holocaust, and finishes up by saying that her joke prompts this generation to think about the Holocaust (simply because it’s not on their minds and this will spur them to think).   After being asked again if she will apologize, she notes how her Jewishness keeps her from criticism: “Why don’t you worry about Mel Gibson? Why don’t you worry about the anti-Semites out there?” But the clincher is that the main thing is to laugh because if you can laugh “you can deal with it.”

This principle, it seems, is nearly identical to the one used by Begnini and Williams in their use of the schlemiel. It is not simply revolt for the sake of revolt. It seems that Rivers is suggesting this and the fact that it can spur people to think about the Holocaust.

In her interview with WSJ live, she says something a little different. She begins by saying the joke is on the Germans; they and not the ADL and Abe Foxman should be upset.   And she finishes off the discussion by noting what Dick Cavett said via Mark Twain: “Against the assault of humor, nothing can stand. Don’t flinch, Joan.” In other words, comedy is pure revolt.  Perhaos Cavett is suggesting the same thing as Lenny Bruce: Jewish comedy should always be in  revolt. She says it’s a brilliant comment (several times, in fact).

This year Rivers began her appearance on Jimmy Fallon (the first return to the Tonight Show for decades – since she was “banned” from the show) made a Holocaust joke about how if the German’s could successfully kill millions of Jews at least they could make cars that work. Its interesting that, in following up this joke, she told a joke about her getting vagina rings, and then she turned to a joke dealing with ethnicity and emotion. The joke is an inside/outsider joke. She asks Fallon if he is Irish. He says yes and then she says that she and Fallon get this but WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) don’t. (This initial insider/outsider joke hearkens back to Lenny Bruce’s jokes about what’s “Jewish” and “Goyish,” meaning WASPish.

Her Jewish/Goyish kind of routine with Fallon sughests that she us in the same camp as all ethnic comedians who fight to succeed in a WASP culture.  This seems to authorize her to tell jokes about anything, even the Holocaust.

But this is not the first time she has told jokes on the Holocaust.   In her book I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me (2012), Rivers tells jokes about Hitler, the Holocaust, and Anne Frank.

On Hitler:

“I hate people who say they’re ‘workaholics…There is no such thing. Hitler put in a lot of hours. Would you call him a workaholic? People who work 24/7 are not ‘addicted’ to work … they either hate their families or don’t have basic cable.”

On Anne Frank:

“They only order half a chicken, take two bites, then put it in a doggie bag to take home, where it lasts them for six months. Anne Frank didn’t hoard food like this, and that bitch was hungry.”

And in Larry King’s interview with her in 2010, King asks Rivers about Holocaust humor in 5:49.   He asks her if there is any “area you will not go to?” And she says, “No. If I think I want to talk about, it’s right to talk about.” And she goes on to say that if she were in “Auschwitz she would tell jokes just to make it ok for us.”

And she concludes, as she did three years later, that if you make something funny you can deal with it. Both statements are telling, but the first is more telling since it has resonance with the films made by Begnini and Williams. Both of them play characters who also tell jokes to help make it ok for us. But the “us” is different and so are the jokes. The humor that Robbins and Begnini use is the humor of the schlemiel. It’s purpose is to make fool younger people so as to preserve their innocence. In contrast, one can imagine that River’s humor, inside of Auschwitz, would have been much different. Instead of prompting Jews to live “as if” the good still exists (and preserving innocence), one can imagine that her jokes would be anything but innocent. However, they would work in the same way: they would make things ok for us (for fellow Jews who were suffering in the Holocaust). And this suggest that Rivers would use humor to revolt against the world. By saying no to it, things would be “ok for us.”

One may disagree with this approach – and many Holocaust scholars and the ADL have. But one needs to ask not just whether humor is tenable after Auschwitz but whether it is tenable during Auschwitz. This is what Rivers suggests to Larry King. And, unlike Williams and Bengini, she saw the Jewish humor that subscribes to vulgarity as more powerful than the humor that subscribes to the schlemiel when it comes to the Holocaust. And this difference also shows us a difference between two trends in post-Holocaust Jewish-American humor: one leaning toward Lenny Bruce and the other toward the traditional schlemiel that we see in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” In the face of Evil, Gimpel acts “as if” good exists. In contrast, Rivers, in contrast, laughs at Evil. And perhaps her revolt is the demonstration (instead of an acting “as if”) of what’s best in humanity.

And this appeal to comedy – in the face of disaster – harkens back to what Walter Benjamin once said of Franz Kafka: “the only thing Kafka was certain of is that only humor helps. The question, however, is whether it can do humanity any good.”

Courting Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel – An Essay Published in Berfrois

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I recently wrote an essay on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s readings of the schlemiel and published it on the online journal Berfrois.  This essay touches on thinkers and themes that will appear in my book on the schlemiel.  It is a foreshadowing, if you will.

Here is the link to the article: http://www.berfrois.com/2014/07/menachem-feuer-walter-benjamin-hannah-arendts-readings-of-the-schlemiel/

Enjoy!

Menachem Feuer, The Author of Schlemiel Theory

 

 

 

Little Tricks: Revising Myths and Warping Fairy Tales in Kafka’s Parables and Sheila Heti’s Postmodern Fables – Part I

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One of the major tasks of the modern Enlightenment project is to “demythologize.” As a part of this project all types of myths are challenged. They need not be changed by science, the humanities, and psychology, however. The greatest battling ground for challenging mythology may be in the medium that is used to convey myth; namely, narrative. These challenges can, so to speak, liberate the reader from certain expectations that are mythological in nature. The primary tool of these challenges is irony. But although they challenge myths, they do, still retain the relationship between narrative and reality. They don’t annihilate narrative so much as make it more uncertain of itself and open to something…other.

In his celebrated essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin argues that Kafka put “little tricks” into his revisions of Odysseus (Ulysses), the Sirens, Poseidon, Prometheus, and other mythical beings of the West. Included amongst the things Kafka revises are also Jewish figures such as Abraham and the Jewish tradition.   In Kafka’s parables, the Sirens don’t sing; they are silent:

And when Ulysses approached them the potent songstresses actually did not sing, whether because they thought this enemy could be vanquished only by their silence, or because the look of bliss on the face of Ulysses, who was thinking of nothing but his wax and his chains, made them forget their singing. (431, Kafka: The Complete Stories)

Like Ulysses, vis-à-vis myth, Abraham is represented, by Kafka, in many ways that aren’t even found in the Midrash. In one version he is represented as a dirty school boy; in another he is likened to a waiter:

I could conceive of another Abraham for myself – he certainly would never have gotten to be a patriarch or even an old-clothes dealer – who was prepared to satisfy the demand for sacrifice immediately, with the promptness of a waiter, but unable to bring it off because he could not get away, being indispensable. (Kafka: Parables and Paradoxes: 41)

Benjamin says that while mythic characters are “promised redemption by the myth….Kafka did not succumb to it’s temptation”(117). Rather, most if not all of his revised characters are failures. And when we hear song, as in Kafka’s “Josephine the Mouse Singer,” this song is a song that is sung not to promise redemption so much as to offer temporary comfort.   As Benjamin notes, Kafka’s revised parables speak to the condition of Exile.

Sheila Heti’s first book, The Middle Stories, seems to be carrying on Franz Kafka’s tradition. Although she takes fairy tales as the subject of many of her short stories in the book and although she is doing something that seems to be similar to Donald Bartheleme’s Snow White or Angela Carter’s revisions of fairy tales in several short stories, Heti is doing something different.   While Bartheleme introduces countless contemporary elements into his revision of Snow White, he keeps everything on the surface and doesn’t attempt to explore the persona’s of his characters. And while Carter rewrites fairy tales to speak to feminist concerns and issues, she doesn’t pay too much attention to the subjectivities of her characters so much as the meaning of the tale.

Heti’s work is different.

Although they often stick to the surface, Heti’s The Middle Stories includes voices that tell us less about the meaning of this or that fairy tale as give us access to the female voices that trade in simplicity and traverse the territories of the fairy tale and modern life. What interests me most is the meaning of this simplicity and this traversal. These elements, I think, speak to our own sensibilities which, though simple, move back and forth between simplicity and complexity. This traversal – which is made along the lines of simplicity – gives birth to astonishment in the reader.

One such simple story is entitled “The Miss and Sylvia and Sam.” The story starts off by introducing us to the main character: “A FRIVOLOUS YOUNG Miss, who was a little bit proper and a little bit delicate”(21). The Miss is found in a market and, as she drifts from thing to thing, she picks up several items, takes them home, and looks over them:

First there was the feather baton, then the little top hat, then the picture frame with the picture in it. (22)

She gets bored, yawns, “lifts up her arms,” and goes to sleep. In the morning she wakes up and goes to the market for more. But when she gets there, she meets up with a woman “from behind the stall” who says that she knows the Miss and that she looks “familiar to me”(22).   She goes further and claims that she knows the Miss “from another life”(22). At this point, the narrative veers off into the zone of new age mysticism (something one won’t find in a classic fairy tale).

In response to these claims, the Miss becomes apprehensive and says that this is “impossible….This is the only life I’ve had”(22). The narrator tells us that she becomes unsure of herself and doesn’t know what to say, so she tries to leave. But before she can go, the lady from behind the stall insists that she knows her and grabs her arm. She adds that she has had “dreams about her”(23).

In the next section of the story she is called by Sam who, apparently, is a love interest. We can see from her conversation with him that she is very modest. And their conversation – just like the words about it – is small, minimal. But though they speak little, there is also a sense of being bothered by something not spoken.

They said a few more words to each other and then fell to sleep, a little perturbed. (24)

In the next section, the Miss is woken up by the lady from the stalls. She tells the Miss that she is Sam’s brother. The section ends with the Miss being nervous and insisting that the lady is not Sam’s brother. The tension mounts because the words are cut short.

The next section leaps, with the utmost simplicity, to the marriage of Sam and the Miss:

THREE WEEKS LATER the whole thing was arranged. The Miss was going to marry Sam, and Sylvia, the woman from the market, was going to be the flower girl. (25)

What should strike the reader as incredibly odd is the fact that the lady, who now has a name, is now a part of the Miss’s life. But the narrator is not astonished and acts as if it is all as it should be. Everyone is smiling:

Sylvia leaned back in her chair across from them, and she was all smiles too. “I’m so happy for you both. I’m so happy.  I just know it’s going to work out.” (25)

The Miss, excitedly, says she is going to help Sylvia out “with the business” and Sylvia is so in joy that “she is really going to do it”(25).   The section ends with this odd joy. The next section, however, introduces us back into the space of panic and paranoia.

A woman comes to the stall where Sylvia and the Miss are working and demands that specific ornaments be given to her, as if her life depended on it. Sylvia tells the Miss to go in the back and that she will take care of it. But as the woman reaches into her purse a thunderbolt comes down and “shot down straight through the woman shopper’s head, striking her to the ground”(27). The Miss screams out in shock and “continues to bawl as the rain poured down, harder and faster, drenching everyone and everything”(27).

The next section of the text is the wedding. And the Miss, Sam, and Sylvia act, once again, as if everything is perfect. The reader is left wondering how the trauma and Sylvia’s dealings with the woman will be resolved but this section offers no such answers.

The following section only increases the questions because Sylvia decides, the next morning, while cleaning (?), that she is leaving for three years. And she goes. But the last lines of the section break with the proper and delicate image of the Miss by turning to the pornographic genre:

The Miss and Sam lay in bed, licking each other’s bodies. Then he turned her over and took her from behind. (28)

The last section leaves us in more confusion since we learn that they are going to Israel. What, one wonders, does Israel have to do with this mixed genre story?   However, Sam notes that “there’s just one thing I forgot to tell you, dear”(28). Could this one thing give us the key to the text? Will it explain the mystery about Sylvia? Will it clear everything up?

No. Before he could say it he forgets. Her response, however, is telling because of how it misses the mark: “What a strange and awful man, she thought. Then she checked her bag”(28). The strange and the awful are not just in the fact that he forgot; the strange and the awful don’t have to do with his forgetting. Rather, fact that the meaning of the text is withheld, the fact that things happen in too simplistic a manner, the fact that there are odd, traumatic interruptions in the text, are “strange and awful.”

But the strange and awful parts of the text, delivered with such simplicity, open up a whole realm of what is not said or can’t be said. The gaps between things are enormous. And by making these gaps and acting “as if” all is well when it’s not make for a kind of demythologizing of the fairy tale that is unique and exceptional.

To be sure, Kafka also made use of this in his parables that revised this or that myth. He did this so as to bring the reader into a wholly other relationship with the text.  This relationship prompts one to think about what’s not there as well as the striking simplicity of what is there. Together, this makes for a modern, existential, and torturous reading experience which has the virtue of grounding us in both simplicity and complexity. For Walter Benjamin (reading Franz Kafka), this is the effect of what he calls “reversal.”  Kafka and Heti’s “little tricks” accomplish this awful reversal.

….to be continued….

 

John Steinbeck, Marc Maron & Walter Benjamin on Driving, Distraction, and Reflection

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Over the years, I have driven thousands of miles across the United States. And I have always looked at these journeys – with all of those hours behind the wheel – as opportunities for me to think and reflect on all kinds of things. To be sure, some of my best thoughts have come to me while driving. I would (and have) often make it an imperative to have my tape recorder or mp3 recorder on while I drive because I don’t want to miss the thought while it happens.   I was pleasantly surprised to find – most recently – that John Steinbeck has a beautifully written passage in Travels With Charley where he writes on the topic of driving, distraction, and thought.   And between John Steinbeck and the Jewish-American comedian Marc Maron (whose autobiography, Attempting Normal, I have also been reading), I find interesting similarities and contrasts between the types of thinking one does when one is driving a car and distracted.   The differences, especially, show us how the worlds they inhabit differ in content and character. The differences between them, however, come together in the fact that the association of driving with distraction and thinking is essential.

I have written on distraction, thought, and comedy vis-à-vis Rodolph Gashe’s reflections on Immanuel Kant’s claim that “literature” is not thought but distraction and on Walter Benjamin’s words on distraction. I entitled these posts “The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading and Distraction.”   I’d like to briefly recount Benjamin’s philosophical account of distraction in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It gives us a means of addressing the autobiographical-fictional-accounts of Steinbeck and Maron on driving, distraction, and thought.

At the very end of his essay, Benjamin shares his greatest thought on the new way we have of relating to the world in the “age of mechanical reproduction.” His reading of distraction is largely positive; he associates it with “habit” and a new means of dealing with “perceptual shock”:

For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning point of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation. (240, Illuminations)

And what better form of “tactile appropriation” is there, for Americans today, than driving a car? Benjamin notes that the “distracted person (who we are, for arguments sake, calling the-person-who-drives-a-car) can form habits.”   These habits – the habits of a kind of thinking on the go – provides a “solution” to the problem of modern perception. And he goes so far as to liken this kind of distraction to the modern artists distraction while painting:

More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art provides a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. (240)

Benjamin goes on to argue that this kind of distraction can “mobilize the masses” and suggests that the best medium for this isn’t driving so much as watching films:

Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise. (240)

The last lines of Benjamin’s essay point out that what the public does, when watching a film, is not a form of contemplation. Rather, it is a form of “absent minded” examination:

The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. (241)

Taking Benjamin’s point to heart, I’d like to apply what he says to driving rather than movie going.   Steinbeck’s account of distraction and the thought it evokes, while driving, is exceptional in this regard. He goes right to the core of what Benjamin calls “habit” and “absent minded” examination. Steinbeck even coins a phrase “machine-like unconscious” to describe this state. Because it is so important, I’ll quote it at length:

If one has driven a car over many years, as I have, nearly all reactions have become automatic. One does not think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious. This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking. (94)

Steinbeck now turns to the content of these thoughts:

What do people think about when they drive? On short trips perhaps of the arrival at a destination or memory of events at the place of departure. But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for day dreaming or even, God help us, for thought. (94)

As one can see, “day dreaming,” which Freud associates with the artist, is mentioned side-by-side with thought. They are both absent-minded activities. However, Steinbeck reels it in by pointing out that most of his distracted day drams and thoughts have a practical dimension. He “plans houses” he will never build; “gardens I will never plant” and a “method for pumping the soft silt and decayed shells from the bottom of my bay up to my point of land at Sag Harbor (where he lived), of leaching out the salt, thus making a rich and productive soil”(94). He also notes how he has “created turtle traps” and “detailed letters he has never sent.”

Reflecting on these practical thoughts/day drams, he notes that he doesn’t know whether or not he will do this in reality but, at the very least, it comes to him as a possibility.   He also notes how, as the radio was going, his “memory” of “times and places, complete with characters and stage sets” was “stimulated.” In other words, the distraction moved from memory to fiction.   It also leads to him “projecting future scenes” that will “never take place.”   Steinbeck points out, many times, he would “write short stories” in his mind while he drove. He would “chuckle” at his “own humor” and be “saddened or stimulated by structure or content”(94).

In his final reflections, Steinbeck points out how he can “only suspect” that the “loveless” driver will dream of women, the “lonely” driver will dream of people, and the “childless” driver will dream of children. He then goes on to ask himself whether the driver will imagine regrets and go over what should have been done or said. In relation to this, Steinbeck says that he sees this “potential” in his “own mind” but can only “suspect it in others,” but he “will never know, for no one tells”(95). To be sure, the greatest secret is to be found in this “potential.” To be sure, even though Steinbeck, as we can see, discusses many things he thinks about while driving, he doesn’t discuss these darker things. He leaves them out of his text.   This habit (“potential”) and its content are his secret, one that his readers will have to guess at.

That said, it’s fascinating to see a contemporary comedian like Marc Maron doing what Steinbeck doesn’t do: he addresses these kinds of thoughts in his text. What Maron thinks about when he drives is an open secret. Writing about what he used to think about when he was driving between comedy gigs, Maron notes how, in his distraction, he thought about how he had failed and what he could have done differently:

I drove everywhere to do gigs anywhere: Pancho Villa’s in Leominster, Franks in Franklin, Cranston Bowl in Cranston, Rhode Island, Captain Nicks in Ogunquit, Maine…Most of the time I drove home for hours half drunk, chain-smoking in my car and reliving my set. I always felt like I had survived something, that the simple fact that I made it through the show meant I was victorious. But the war wasn’t over yet: The next battle was in the car, the war with myself. I’m not funny enough, that joke didn’t work, why can’t I stop sweating, fuck those people, I need more jokes, where the fuck am I, shit I don’t have a map. I’ll never forget the electricity of postperformance elation and self-flagellation, flying through the New England countryside at night in my VW Golf. Not romantic. (13)

Maron’s thoughts show us what a schlemiel-comedian thinks about while he drives home.   He discloses what Steinbeck would like to hide away and perhaps that makes all the difference. And it provides us with something to think about. Driving – and the distraction that goes along with us – leads us to think and reflect on ourselves, about how things are, how they were, and how they could be. This kind of thinking becomes what Benjamin would call an “absent-minded” habit. But the question Maron and Steinbeck were preoccupied with was what one should report about what happens in the car while we are driving.   Today, in a culture that does a lot of it’s thinking in cars or in distracted transit, this content has a personal urgency that is of great interest to all of us because, after all, we all do it. It’s a modern habit that is not simply superficial; it informs who we are and gives us a moment to take account of the real and possible past, present, and future. It allows us to drift into things we regret and things we would like to do to make life better (even though most of these thoughts, as Steinbeck correctly notes, will never make it to reality).   To be sure, our absent-mindedness, while driving from one place to another, makes for the best reflection.

A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

I will be giving a talk today at the New School on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel.  This talk is based on the book I am currently writing on the schlemiel.

If you are in NYC or in the vicinity, drop in.

Here’s the abstract:

Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin were both interested in the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel. We have evidence of this interest by way of essays, letters, and notes on this character. Most of their discussions happened while they were both in Paris before WWII.   Their readings of the schlemiel are antithetical and when read against each other we can see what, for them, is at stake with this character. The figure that they most differed on was Franz Kafka. Walter Benjamin’s letters to Gershom Scholem clearly demonstrate that he was at his wits end about the relationship of theology, aesthetics, and politics in Kafka’s novels, short stories, and diaries. Although Benjamin published the first part of his essay on Kafka two years after beginning his project, the other parts of the essay troubled him for over five years. Benjamin’s goal was stated in a letter to Scholem dated October 17, 1934. There, Benjamin uses the metaphor of the bow to describe why he had such difficulty “The image of the bow suggests why: I am confronted with two ends at once, the political and the mystical.” After making many attempts to maintain this tension, Benjamin simply admitted to failure (as is evident in two letters to Scholem and Adorno). Nonetheless, I would like to argue that Arendt succeeded where Benjamin failed since he gave only a mystical reading while she gave a political reading of the schlemiel. But, in the end, her reading is also marred by a failure to understand this character in an American context and it fails to understand certain aspects of the schlemiel that have an after-life. The schlemiel offers a new way of reading their work and understanding how comedy informed their understanding of politics, mysticism, and Jewishness.  

Walter Benjamin’s “Dream Kitsch”

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Like Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, from time to time, wrote in very small script.   According to the editors of the Walter Benjamin Archive, Benjamin’s “miniaturized script is reminiscent of Robert Walser’s ‘pencil system’, which he used to help him write”(50). But unlike Walser, who “learnt to ‘play and poeticize’, in the small and smallest details, attempting to unlock the open space of childish light-heartedness, so as to allow script and language to flow, for Benjamin it is a matter of ‘placing’ the script, the composition of thoughts.”   For this reason, the editors argue that Benjamin wasn’t looking, like Walser for a “childhood re-attained and imitated, but rather a product of adult reflection and concentration.” I find this reading telling because it suggests that Benjamin had no interest in becoming childlike when he wrote. For the editors, his writing experiments were not really experiments in becoming-child so much as being-an-adult.

One interesting case of this contrast is a reflection that Benjamin entitled “Dream Kitsch: a Short Consideration of Surrealists.” The editors point out that Benjamin wrote this in 1925 and had originally wanted to publish it; however, he decided against it because he thought it was “too difficult”(51). What I find so interesting about this piece of writing is the fact that Benjamin’s reflection on the nature of dreams and their power leads him into a reflection on failure. This is important insofar as the schlemiel is what Heinrich Heine and Hannah Arendt call the “lord of dreams.” Heine, according to Arendt, saw these dreams as a form of defense against the deluded nature of the parvenu. For her, the lord of dreams is successful in the sense that, as a pariah, he is free. But what she doesn’t point out is that, in reality, he fails because he can’t be in the world. To be sure, this is implied by her reading of the schlemiel in “The Jew as Pariah.”

Benjamin’s reading of dreams in “Dream Kitsch” incorporates the “Lord of Dreams” and the awareness that the dream decays and fails. The dream, like the schlemiel, also finds it’s limit in history.   After all, some dreams come true; others don’t.  However, as the piece goes on, the sense of failure and decay diminishes…and the fascination with the dream and its meaning takes over.

Benjamin begins with a sense of loss: “No one dreams any longer of the Blue Flower”(65).   But this doesn’t mean dreaming isn’t or hasn’t been powerful:

Dreaming has a share of history. The statistics on dreaming would stretch beyond the pleasures of the anecdotal landscape into the barrenness of the battlefield. Dreams have started wars, and wars….have determined the propriety and impropriety – indeed, the range – of dreams. (65)

After making this reflection on dreams and war, Benjamin returns to his dirge that dreams are no longer the same: “No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon. The dream has gone gray….Dreams are now a shortcut to banality.”

Benjamin surmises that technology and capitalism have altered our dreams. He notes that we see this even with children who no longer “clasp” things as “snatch” them.   Now “the side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.” In other words, the dreams we have are given to us by way of the kitsch of capitalism.   But Benjamin doesn’t look at how it touches adults so much as how, as we see above, children.

Benjamin turns to dream kitsch and children by way of the surrealist Max Ernst. In one piece he has “drawn four small boys”:

They turn their backs to the reader, to their teacher and his desk as well, and look out over the balustrade where a balloon hangs in the air. A giant pencil rests its point in the windowsill. The repetition of childhood experience gives us pause: when we were little, there was yet no agonized protest against the world of our parents. As children in the midst of that world, we showed ourselves superior. (65)

The repetition of the childhood in the dream should “give us pause” because there wasn’t any protest. Something has changed that the children do not want to learn. To be sure, this suggests a turning away from tradition. The theme of rebelling children is one we also find in Benjamin’s essay on Kafka.   In that essay, a problem is presented: the gap between the tradition and the “messengers.”

Benjamin’s mediation on this gap leads him to mediate on parents and the kitsch love they gave “us.”

For the sentimentality of our parents, so often distilled, is good for providing the most objective image of our feelings. The long-windedness of their speeches, bitter as gall, has the effect of reducing us to a crimpled picture puzzle…Within is heartfelt sympathy, is love, is kitsch.

In other words, within all of the kitsch is love. But this love is, as he notes, “misunderstood.” To be sure, Benjamin praises misunderstanding as something than comes from the outside, from life, into our lives:

“Misunderstanding” is here another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood. (65)

Misunderstanding, in other words, is reality breaking in. However, the misunderstood man is a failure. Regardless, for Benjamin, this puzzle, which he is working through, is all just “dream kitsch.”   This kind of “dream kitsch” reminds me of what we find in David Grossman’s See: Under Love. As I pointed out in a recent blog entry, the main character of Grossman’s novel is a boy-schlemiel who is puzzling through his misunderstanding of the Holocaust. What happens “over there” breaks into conversation that Momik overhears. And out of what he gathers from different conversations, he creates a puzzle that he tries to solve.

To be sure, Benjamin, like Momik and David Grossman, is trying to work through all of his dream kitsch. And in the end, this work of interpretation tilts more toward hope than failure. In the end, Benjamin is more inspired than pained by “dream kitsch.”

Literature and Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Howard Jacobson’s Description of Literature

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One of the things that really prompted me to look into the schlemiel was a statement Walter Benjamin once made – in a letter to his dear friend, the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem – about Franz Kafka’s literary project. In the letter, dated June 12, 1938, Benjamin describes Kafka’s entire literary project in terms of failure:

To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its particular beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and the beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain about eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.

Scholem did not respond to Benjamin’s reading of Kafka vis-à-vis failure until November 6th, 1938. In the middle of the letter, Gershom Scholem expresses his bewilderment at Benjamin’s claim:

But I would like to understand what you take to be Kafka’s fundamental failure, which you virtually embed at the heart of your new reflections. You really seem to understand this failure as something unexpected and bewildering, whereas the simple truth is that the failure was the object of endeavors that, if they were to succeed, would be bound to fail. Surely that can’t have been what you meant. Did he express what he wanted to say?   Of course.

To be sure, Scholem doesn’t understand what this could mean. He sees Kafka’s work and his life as a success. In response to Scholem’s challenge, Benjamin changes tact. And instead of writing on failure, he writes, in a letter dated February 4th, 1939, on comedy. There he claims that Kafka was not so much a failure as a comic figure. Kafka is man “whose fate it is…is to be surrounded by clowns.”   There is something esoteric in this new claim: it suggests a link between literature, failure, and comedy. That’s the thread. It runs through Kafka’s work and Benjamin’s reading of it.

Years later (and after the Holocaust), Howard Jacobson, one of the greatest Jewish novelists today, has made similar claims in describing his own work. In a 2011 talk Jacobson gave at the New York Public Library, he makes an explicit link between literature, failure, and comedy.

During the talk, the interviewer, Paul Holdengraber, engages the discussion of failure by suggesting that Jacobson’s fiction is “wedded to the idea of failure in some way.” And Jacobson says, flat out, that he loves failure:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And you’re very interested in that, particularly in ideas that come back to haunt novel upon novel, essay upon essay, and we’ll move to that very quickly, the notion of failure. You are wedded to the idea of failure in some way.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What’s so fascinating?

HOWARD JACOBSON: I love failure.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You love failure.

Following this, Jacobson explains that we see failure everywhere. He describes it as a “crack in everything” and argues that “we are not interested in success” in this country or in his home country of England. Rather, he argues that “we” are interested in why the “world is not quite right.” In other words, we tend more towards cynicism (based on the “cracked” state of the world) rather than optimism (and success). That’s why we turn to literature.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes. It’s do with this, there’s a crack, a crack in everything. We are not interested in success. You in this country and we in our country—we think we are, and but we in this room are not—the fact that you are, that you and I are here together, and the people in this room are in this room listening to me talking to you means that they are not interested in—all right, I’ve won a prize, and you all well know. But we’re not really interested—you don’t read books if you’re interested in success, as the world knows success. You go to read a book because some way or other you feel that the world is not quite right. If the world is right for you, you become a footballer, you become David Beckham, or you become Donald Trump or something.

Following this, Jacobson adds a punch line and injects some comedy by mocking the position that thinks “I’m going to do all right in this world, I am at home in it.” He doesn’t trust this worldliness. And he says “we” don’t and that’s why we read books. And “we” don’t do this because we are all “wedded to failure.”

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yeah, fine, but there are a million ways in which, you know, you feel the world is okay, “I’m going to do all right in this world, I’m at home in it, Me and this world can enjoy whole relations, completeness. We can be complete. This world will offer me something I want and I will succeed in it.” Whereas we all don’t feel that, so you read books, and I write books, because we are wedded to failure, and we should be proud of that in the best sense, in the best sense. History is written by the winners. Literature is written by the losers.

To be sure, the Talmudic kind of punch line is that the interviewer is wrong. I am not the one who is wedded to failure; rather, you are and so are all of us in this gathering because we all like to read. Moreover, the condition of this “we” is that “we” don’t write history (“history is written by the winners”).   We write literature (“literature is written by the losers”). And, I would add, “we “do comedy. And, to be sure, the New York Public Library portrays Jacobson more as a comedian than as a writer.

What I find so fascinating about this link is that Jacobson is suggesting that we are not happy with our world and that we are no longer making history. This makes us all failures who have, as Ruth Wisse says of the schlemiel, an “ironic victory” by way of literature. This suggests that we, like writers who embrace the schlemiel (like Jacobson in nearly every novel), stand on a tightrope between cynicism and optimism.

And to be “proud” of being “wed to failure” suggests an irony that blasts in the face of a world based on success. It suggests that comedy and literature speak against the world and against power and the makers of history. It speaks from the angle of failure.

Perhaps this was the point that Benjamin understood about Kafka. He saw his literature as wed to failure and comedy. And, I would argue, he threw his lot in with Kafka and the novelists. This, it seems, was something Scholem could not stomach. The fact that Kafka wrote the fiction he wanted to write was a success, not a failure. But seen dialectically, as Benjamin was attempting to do, that success is really based on a failure. And Jacobson reminds us that this is nothing to be ashamed of; it is a badge of honor to write in response to failure and to admit, comically, that “we” are wed to failure.