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


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.


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.

Comic Impositions: The Comedian as Imposter and Parasite


In my last blog entry on Walter Benjamin and comedy, I pointed out how Benjamin was deeply interested in the relationship of comedy to tragedy. The figure of the rogue and the comic schemer are, for Benjamin, central figures which disclose the comic “inner lining” of tragedy which we see in the mourning play.   Comedy, in the figure of the rogue or imposter, is “linked to the representative of mourning.”  The mystery of mourning, for Benjamin, can be found in this comic figure.   And, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Benjamin marks the original relation between comedy and tragedy in the displacement of tragedy by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium. Socrates “silence” is different from the silence of the tragic figure because it is “histrionic” and it spurs dialogue.  Socratic dialogue works by way of irony.  And as Benjamin notes, at the end of The Symposium Agathon (a tragedian) sits together with Aristophanes (a comic playwright) and Socrates (who mediates between the two).  But what does this mean?  What makes the “intriguer” or the “imposter” so special in Benjamin’s mind?  Does he bring out something that we find with Socrates?

To be sure, Benjamin leaves this out, in a Socratic manner, and asks us to connect the dots.  First of all, isn’t Socrates called an “imposter” by Alciabades in The Symposium?  And isn’t their dialogue, which is prior to the final scene Benjamin discusses, historionic?  The answer to all of these questions is yes.  Benjamin leaves out the fact that Alciabades tries to expose Socrates as a fake.  He is leading young people on so as to seduce them.  Socrates, in response to the drunken reveler, argues that Alciabades is an overemotional lover and that he lies.  And, to be sure, when Alciabades comes into the room he takes over the space.   He knocks loudly at the door and when they open it he stumbles in with an entourage of flautists.  In the sense I discussed recently vis-à-vis Michel Serres’s reading of sound, space, and imposition, we can say that this gesture was comical. It, as Serres might say, “occupies” the space.  And Socrates, with his retort, comes to “counter occupy” it.   And, as Serres might say, this occupation is parasitic.  It is an imposition.

Socrates, in response, is also parasitic. He feeds, so to speak, on what Alciabades has introduced into the space.  And, in shaming him, Socrates demotes him.  He refuses to let Alciabades sit next to him and, instead, he chooses Agathon and Aristophanes.  In other words, the relationship of comedy to tragedy, established by Socrates, was created out of a cruel joke at Alciabades expense. There is something daemonic about it since Socrates sees Alciabades as an imposter when, in fact, he is.

An imposter is not simply someone who interrupts a party or space; rather, an imposter “imposes” something on this or that space. As Serres would claim, the imposter takes over the space.  Serres’s reading can certainly be used to interpret what Bejamin’s understanding of comedy as the “inner side of mourning.”  After all, in the displacement of one thing by another (for instance tragedy by comedy) there is something comical going on. But that comedy is, in some senses cruel because, in order to speak and to draw on energy, it must feed on the already existing energy in this or that space.

Serres, near the end of The Parasite, discusses the comedic in terms of Moliere’s Tartuffe.  As Serres notes, Tartuffe is described, by one of Moliere’s characters as “The swindler who was able to impose on you for so long”(201).  As Serres notes, this imposition was “usually understood as cheating, the swindler imposing himself”(201).  But this meaning misses the root of the word, which, Serres points out, would “teach us that he keeps, collects, or intercepts a tax.” The tax collector is an “imposter” of sorts because he collects money, goods, etc.  He is a “parasite” who lives off of the money of the people.  Serres notes that in Italian “tartuffe” is associated with a “mushroom” which “detours and captures.”

What Serres is most interested in is the fact that the “economic” meaning of the term has been lost.  He wants to retain it and to take it away from all its negative uses.  (On this note, I would like to point out that he overlooks the association of Jews with parasites in his reading; this omission is telling because it was used, for instance, by Nazi propagandists in many caricatures; I hope to return to this in the near future).  Serres sees the comic imposture as brining out the workings of energy and force.

Like Socrates or Alciabades, the “imposture” slash comedian “takes over the house.” And he “imposes” the ultimate dilemma of human existence, culture, and politics: “exclude or be excluded.” “he chases everyone out so that he can be the master of the house.  He imposes the following dilemma: exclude or be excluded”(202).

This is the sinister aspect of the imposture. It works by way of mimicry – and, like a chameleon, it changes – so that it can insinuate itself into different spaces so as to “feast on the table of the master”:

I am starting with the mimetic action in the sense of a chameleon, of a polar bear or a polar hare in the Artic snows, of a butterfly that becomes a flower, of a walking stick…It is an erasure of individuality and its dissolution in the environment; it is a good means of protection in both defense and attack…I am an other, a and b, once again a synthetic judgment and the birth of the joker and the white domino. (202)

But there is more to the story.  As Serres notes, comedy has a relation to religion. This is what Benjamin suggests when he sees the comic as a secularization of sorts. What counts, for Serres, is that the parasite comedian is that he “sets things right.”  He sets things in the right direction: he “straightens out sinners, sends them to heaven.”

Referring to blood and wine, two major elements of Christianity, Serres points out that in Moliere’s play, Tartuffe, the “hostess loses blood and Tartuffe gets wine.” And “between blood and wine, between wine and blood, a new process appears that tradition calls transubstantiation.” So that now “the question of Tartuffe is suddenly turned over as it has always been: what is religion doing here in the parasitic relation?  Religion is not the subject of the play; it is the problem of comedy”(205).

In a Derridian kind of turn, Serres points out that in the Moliere play the host becomes the “guest of the guest.”   And this suggests that he becomes a parasite who feeds off of the real guest.  This inversion, suggests, Serres, may have religious import.  And it turns the comedy into a tragedy.  He asks, “did you pay for the comedy or the tragedy?”  This turn is a kind of imposture.  It imposes on the audience.  But, in the end, Serres says it is a comedy if the people still remain on stage.”  And this is the final swindle.   The end of play we learn that Tartuffe isn’t a tragedy. Rather, its only a “sickness.” And the “canonic character of comedy is the sick person.”  He survives, but he is sick.

Serres notes that this wasn’t simply a jab at the clergy of France.  On the contrary, it is a near death.  The parasite-comic feeds on but doesn’t kill the host.  He wounds the target and, in the process, he becomes sick. And, in the process, he excludes and is excluded. But, as Serres suggests, he survives.  He, the comic, drinks the wine of religion. He secularizes and is truly an imposter and an imposer…but he gets away with it.  In the end, someone has to pay.   And, as I showed above, that someone, for Socrates was Alciabades.  Or, as Benjamin argues, it was tragedy.

Comedy, it seems, comes with a price.  But it doesn’t kill its host so much as drain it of some of its life-blood. Nonetheless, as Serres suggests, even in the house of religion, where the comedian is a guest, the host becomes a guest and also becomes a parasite.  For this reason, in the end, the comedian is sick because he is also fed on.   Although he takes over the house, so to speak, through comedy, the comedian is also fed on; and, in the process, he narrowly averts death.  The crowd gives him life, but it also makes him sick.

Walter Benjamin on Socrates, Histrionic Dialogue, and Comedy as the “Inner Side of Mourning”


Walter Benjamin was fascinated with the figure of the “imposter” (or intriguer) and how it related to the Trauerspiel (Mourning Play) since it represents the meeting point of comedy and tragedy.   This meeting point, for Benjamin, finds its precursor in Socrates.  His silence, as opposed to tragic silence, is ironic. It is based on letting one, as Leo Strauss says of Maimonides, relate chapter headings.  And this act is, in itself, comical, histrionic:

The ironic silence of the philosopher, the coy, histrionic silence, is conscious.  In place of the sacrificial death of the hero, Socrates sets the example of the pedagogue.  But, in Plato’s work, the war which the rationalism of Socrates declared on tragic art is decided against tragedy with a superiority which ultimately affected the challenger more than the object challenged. (118)

The coming together of comedy and tragedy is alluded to at the end of the Symposium. As Benjamin notes, Socrates, Agathon (the tragedian), and Aristophanes (the comic playwright) face each other as “dawn breaks over the three.”  Benjamin notes that what we find in this moment is dialogue as such and he dubs it “pure dramatic language”:

The dialogue contains pure dramatic language, unfragmented by its dialectic of tragic and comic.  This purely dramatic quality restores the mystery which had gradually become secularized in the forms of Greek Drama: its language, the language of the new drama, is, in particular, the language of Trauerspiel.  (118)

This is quite a claim.  It suggests that the Trauerspiel, against what we read in most of the book, is a dialectic of the comic and the tragic. And that the “dramatic quality” of “pure dramatic language…restores the mystery.” In other words, comedy and irony have a major part to play.

Later in the book, comedy makes its first appearance when Benjamin talks about the intriguer (or, as Michel Serres will say, in relation to Moliere – a favorite comic playwright of Benjamin, the “imposter”). Benjamin associates comedy with the “inner side of mourning”:

With the intriguer comedy is introduced into the Trauerspiel.  But not as an episode. Comedy – or more precisely: the pure joke – is the essential inner side of mourning which from time to time, like the lining of a dress at the hem or lapel, makes its presence felt.  It’s representation is linked to the representative of mourning.  (126)

Its representative is an amalgamation of a prince and a buffoon (126).  It is also evinced in the relationship between the satanic (the cruel) and the comic (which Benjamin drew from Baudelaire’s essay on the “Essence of Laughter.)  This aspect of the comic, says Benjamin, has been missed by “speculative aesthetics”: “Rarely, if ever, has speculative aesthetics considered the affinity between the strict joke and the cruel.”

Noting that we have all seen the “children laugh where adults are shocked,” Benjamin ventures that the child knows best and is teaching us about the essence of the mourning play which can be found in the relation of comedy to tragedy.  The alteration between the cruel and the comic finds its figure in the “intriguer”(126).

Using philology and a genealogy of sorts, Benjamin argues that the figure of the intriguer emerges in the 14th century by way of the rogue whose scorn marks a transition.  According to Benjamin, the scorn was originally a Christian kind of scorn for “human pride,” but, over time, it took on a “devilish” aspect.   The merrymaker, says Benjamin, is not a rogue.  And the rogue circumvents salvation; he is seen to emerge out of the murder of Jesus.   And the comic aspect of the rogue, therefore, is devilish.   And by way of the “secularization” of the “passion play,” the rogue becomes the intriguer:

As in contemporary secular drama, the rogue had already, in the religious drama of the fifteenth century, taken over the role of the comic figure, and, and, as now, this role was perfectly adapted to the structure of the play and exerted a fundamental influence on the development of the (comic) action. (127)

In an odd move, Benjamin insists that the role of the intriguer is not simply an “amalgamation of heterogenous elements.” In fact, he seems to suggest something ontological about comedy:

The cruel joke is just as original as harmless mirth; originally the two are close to each other; and it is precisely through the figure of the intriguer that the…Trauerspiel derives its contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences. (127)

In other words, the cruel joke, figured in the intriguer, facilitates “contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences.”  I put the stress on wonderful because, as we saw above, Benjamin associates the comic with preserving mystery (going as far back as Socrates).

…to be continued

(In my book on the schlemiel, I am currently working on a chapter that addresses Walter Benjamin’s reading of the intriguer since it taps into Benjamin’s deep interest in the comic. This interest in the comic has, for some odd reason, been bypassed by major Benjamin scholars.   This blog, essays to be published on this topic, and my book, look to address this gap in Benjamin scholarship.)


I Want to Start Again: The Schlemiel, Bad Luck, and the Desire for a New Life (Starring Walter Benjamin)


The desire for change and a new life is fundamentally human.  And oftentimes the desire to start a new life is based on the fact that one is beset by bad luck.  To be sure, this is a theme which many Jews are familiar.  Bad luck seems to follow Jews around.  And, as a result, Jews have been forced – for centuries – to move from town to town or country to country.  But, despite this negative reality, the Talmud tells us that if one changes one’s place one changes one’s mazel (luck).

Schlemiels are often beset with bad luck.  And most of them go on journeys in search of a new land and a new life.  To get out of their predicament, they often dream of starting anew.   We see this in the classics of Yiddish literature such as The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim, Mendel the Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem, and I.B. Singer’s Gimpel stories.  We see the schlemiel’s journey for a new life in Kafka’s Amerika.  And we also it in Jewish American literature, such as A New Life by Bernard Malamud, Stern by Bruce Jay Freidman, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and every novel by Gary Shteyngart.

We also see the schlemiel’s desire for change in movies like Annie Hall, where Woody Allen ventures to California (albeit with great skepticism), Whatever Works, where Larry David consents to live with a young woman, or Greenberg – where Ben Stiller plays a schlemiel character who goes to California in search of a new life.

In just about all of the above-mentioned stories and movies, the schlemiel’s hopes for a new life are shown to be deluded or misguided.   And as we observe the process of their fictional journey, we experience the juxtaposition of hope and failure.  The affect, especially in Freidman and Auslander’s novels, can be unsettling.  But the process can also suggest some kind of balance between being naïve and being realistic.

The question, for all of these novelists and filmmakers, is fundamentally human and particularly Jewish: how do we realistically address bad luck and our desire for change?  Can we simply believe that our desire for a new life is realistic?  Will moving to another place change our luck or is that a misguided hope?  Is it better to just be reminded of how bad things are by virtue of a character who is out-of-touch or naïve about reality?

We see a fascinating analogue of this in the real life experiences of a living schlemiel named Walter Benjamin.  Near the end of his life Walter Benjamin met up with Hannah Arendt in Paris.  Both of them fled Germany but in leaving they looked for a new life.  But, of the two, Benjamin was the schlemiel.  Regardless of the fact that he looked to live a new life (and he was offered to leave Europe for America or for Israel by good friends of his), he still had bad luck.  And he knew it.  His life, in other words, didn’t change much: it seemed to be one bad thing after another.

Hannah Arendt, in her introductory essay to his work, entitled the first section “The Hunchback.”  She recalls that Benjamin failed to become successful in his lifetime.  He always had failure at his back.  Since he was a child, the “hunchback,” a figure of bad luck, was with him: “The hunchback was an early acquaintance of his, who had first met him when, still a child, he found the poem in a children’s book, and he never forgot”(6, Illuminations).   Arendt quotes the poem:

When I go down to the cellar

There to draw some wine,

A little hunchback is there

Grabs that jug of mine

When I go into the kitchen,

There my soup to make,

A little hunchback who’s in there

My little pot did break.

Arendt goes on to argue that Benjamin was obsessed with childhood figures that threatened failure and death: “His mother, like millions of other mothers in Germany, used to say, ‘Mr. Bungle sends his regards’ whenever one of the countless little catastrophes of childhood had taken place.”

According to Arendt, the “child knew of course what this strange bungling was about.”  It was about falling and failure:

It was he who had tripped you up when you fell and knocked the thing out of your hand when it went to pieces.  And after the child came the grown-up man who knew what the children was ignorant of, namely, that it was not he who had provoked the “little one” by looking at him…but the hunchback who looked at him and that bungling was a misfortune.  (6)

Arendt is right regarding the constant misfortune that Benjamin experienced.  But while her reading is telling, Arendt misses something fundamental; namely,  Benjamin didn’t simply have bad luck (“the hunchback looked at him”); rather, he was a schlemiel.  He “bungled” and discovered, as a man, that his bungling – which was with him since he was a child -was congenital.  It was a part of his existential makeup.  He was a man-child.  So, regardless of his desire for a new life, Benjamin knew, in the back of his head, that he would likely “bungle.”

Regardless, near the end of his life he looked at this foolishness as his only salvation.  For, as Kafka knew, “only the fool can help.”  So, even if the fool is misguided in thinking that a change of place will foster a new life, in the end it gives him, as Irving Howe might say, a “margin of hope.”   Commentary, Benjamin also argued, redeemed Kafka from total failure, but not completely; since the text he was commenting on was “unknown.”   In reality, both foolishness and commentary (another foolish endeavor, if it isn’t based on a real text) gave Benjamin a very small margin since all he did was tainted, in some way, by failure.  It seems he wanted to believe, like a schlemiel, in the good, but what he couldn’t forget was failure.  His foolish desire for a new life, in other words, was tainted by the memory of failure.

Fuck You, Thank You: Speaking of Buddy Hackett


In one of his many phases, Walter Benjamin had a moment, near the end of his life, where he was into going through “the trash of history” so as to find things that had historical potentiality.  One could argue that Benjamin saw himself as commentator who, in commenting on trash, could bring it to life and make this or that piece of history into a quasi-kind of history – the kind that lives on in his commentary.  To be sure, Benjamin read Franz Kafka as a commentator.  In a letter to Gershom Scholem, written near the end of his life, Benjamin argues that although Kafka’s work was a comic failure he did, at the very least, succeed in being a commentator.  This idea, which I am addressing in my book on the schlemiel, struck a deep cord because, in a major sense, it relates to the trash of history.   To be sure, Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin describes them, seem to be the kinds of characters you would find in the dustbin of history: they are broken, ragged, and comical.   However, these characters are, if we take Benjamin seriously, the products of commentary.  In other words, Kafakesque comic figures, which seem to have emerged from the trash, are the products of commentary.

Given this logic, I would like to suggest something that may not seem so novel but, when thought through Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, is; namely, that stand-up comedy, especially when it is trashy, has the potential to offer the greatest commentary.  However, as Benjamin wondered with regard to Kafka, what is the text it is commenting on.  When it comes to many comedians, the answer is obvious: they are commenting on society or on our attitudes toward this or that social practice or belief.  But when it comes to some comedians, the answer isn’t so simple. In addition, the position or relation the commentator to the text or comedian commented brings on an added dimension to the reception of this commentary. One comedian I have in mind – whose relation to me is odd – is Buddy Hackett (whose real, more “Jewish” sounding name, was Leonard Hacker):

Why is my relation odd? First of all, I didn’t grow up with Buddy Hackett.  My parents did.  When I look at his comedy, I feel as if I am trying to understand their generation.  Yet, at the same time, I look at him as a Jewish stand-up comedian who is a part of a line of Borsht Belt comedians that stretches back to the mid-20th century.  Not only does Hackett speak a lot of trash, he is also a comedian who emerges out of the trash of Jewish American history.

How do I read him?  And what text is this trash of comic history commenting on?

First of all, I have my own visceral reactions to his face and his gestures.  They remind me of a New York that was, of my relatives and family members from Brooklyn (where he hails from).   There is a way of speaking that is distinctly that of New York Jews.

What I love most about it is his boldness.  He throws his body, his voice, and his vulgarity out toward the audience.  Yet he does so in an endearing way since his gestures and his body (his face, ears, eyes, etc) are child-like and animated.  His body is that of a schlemiel, a man-child.   It has an innocence that is juxtaposed to his saying or gesturing naughty things.  And this creates an odd, and exciting affect since it animates (or as Benjamin might say illuminates)…trash.  His words evince what Benjamin might call a profane illumination about ourselves and the American time and space we share with Buddy. This, it seems, is the social con-text that his comic commentary illuminates.

In his book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand Up Comics, Phil Berger suggests that we read Hackett in terms of his persona on and off stage.  There is a continuum of sorts that, if we look closely, can help us to see the comic’s life.   He looks, first, at his body and ironic demeanor and this hits at what I call the schlemiel juxtaposed to the bad-boy.

Buddy Hackett was a kind of Socrates – as we seen in The Symposium – he appears one way but is another.  He was a…

…man cold sober when up to no good.   He had the bullyboy’s ease, a distinction the very look of him argued against.  The bulbed nose, the crooked mouth, the chreub’s cheeks: it was the best of comic faces – and, it seemed, a masterpiece of illusion. (297)

Hackett was innocent but his name “provoked obscenity filled denunciations, many of which had “off-the-record” tagged to them the moment after they were uttered – and by comics who otherwise stood by their words”(297).

Because of this “history,” whenever people spoke to Hackett they were on their guard.  As Berger notes, by way of citing conversations he had with Hackett’s friends, Hackett was “unpredictable” in public.  He could “say fuck you as easily as he could say thank you.”  Berger recounts a story told to him by the “columnist Joe Delaney” about Hackett’s interchanging of the words “fuck you” and “thank you.”   According to Delaney, Hackett said fuck you in an endearing, unexpected way, and tells of a story of when a fan came up to Hackett for an autograph. When he heard this, he said:

“How would you like to perform a unilateral act?  She said, “I don’t know what you mean?” He said, “How about, go fuck yourself.  Is that clear enough?” She said, {huffily} “Well!” He said, “Then give me the piece of paper and I’ll sign.”

Although this scene is vulgar and rude, it is, nonetheless, read as endearing by Delaney:

I think that if he felt that that lady to whom he said, “Go perform a unilateral act,” was truly hurt, then he would try to make amends…you know what I am saying? I don’t think he’s a hurtful man….He really, he really is a very gentle sensitive man..”

Delaney goes on to recall how, when he read a Haiku poem to Hackett, Hackett broke down crying since the poem was alluding to sudden death.  Berger goes on this note to claim that Hackett played with poetry and was a poet of sorts; but this was conveyed by irony.  He would actually play at being a poet on stage but this was a “quasi-poetic fix to make middlebrow audiences there for laughs feel culture fucked in the bargain.”

In other words, Hackett did and did not have a poetic sensibility.  He was and was not vulnerable.  This ambiguity comes through when he trashes poetry or when he utters trash or vulgarity.  It makes for a schlemiel effect that empties out the trash, so to speak, and brings about a profane illumination of sorts.  But the trick is to get past the vulgarity to the schlemiel core in every joke.  And the irony of it all is that to do that one nearly needs to be ready for the unexpected vulgarity with the understanding that in saying “fuck you” he is really saying “thank you.”  And this juxtaposition is a kind of trashy-kind-of-commentary.

The question, however, is what was the textual basis for this trashy kind of commentary?   Is it the text of a historical relationship between Buddy and the Jewish-American world, a relationship that was, as it was happening, becoming the trash of history?  How was this failure, in Benjamin and Kafka’s sense, a positive commentary?

More later….

Somewhere Between Man and Animal: A Note on Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs


One of the most fascinating things Walter Benjamin notes about Franz Kafka’s main characters is that many of them are what he calls “prehistoric.”  Several of these characters are actually animals or insects: they include apes, bugs, and mice.  They exist in a world that is not outside of history, but before it.  Taking another approach, and addressing Kafka’s animals, Gilles Deleuze (in his book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature) has argued that we must understand what it means that many of Kafka’s characters lived in an ambiguous realm between human and animal.  He believed that Kafka’s characters effaced the line between man and animal by way of language.  For, according to Deleuze, Kafka was not interested in creating a metaphor by way of this or that animal who can speak, think, etc. Rather “Kafka deliberately kills all metaphor, all symbolism, all signification, no lees than all designation(22).  Kafka was interested, instead, in “metamorphosis” and “metamorphosis is the contrary of metaphor”(22).  Based on this claim, Delezue, discussing Kafka’s animals, argues:

There is no longer man or animal, since each deterritorializes the other, in a conjunction of flux, in a continuum of reversible intensities.  Instead, it is now a question of becoming…(22)

For this reason, Deleuze suggests we read Kafka’s man-animals in terms of “the crossing of a barrier, a rising or a falling, a bending or an erecting, an accent on a word.”  He takes this to another level by saying that language barks, roams, climbs around, etc:

The “animal does not speak ‘like’ a man but pulls from language tonalities lacking signification; the words are not “like” the animals but in their own way climb about, bark and roam around being properly linguistic dogs, insects, or mice. (22)

Reading this, I wondered how should I read the descriptions of the main character of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Roy Hobbs.  As I pointed out yesterday, Hobbs, at the outset of the novel, has a kind of mythic and prehistoric kind of existence.  He comes out of nothing, but this nothing has a primitiveness to it.

Hobbs stumbles in and out of a kind of primitiveness and comes in and out of prehistoric state.  But rather than read Roy as a metaphor, perhaps we should take Deleuze’s reading as a cue and read Roy as sounding out new tonalities of a wild, American language.  But, how, I wonder, can we separate Roy’s story from this kind of language.  To be sure, his dreams, his blindness, and his absent-mindedness are connected to this language.   His pre-historic state, as Benjamin might call it, is to be found in the America he encounters as he comes face to face with the possibility of being a star. He doesn’t understand it, but he desires it.  He’s simple, as is his language.  And his encounters with physical reality,  people, and dreams bring out a simple and wild American tonality.

At the outset of the novel, before he encounters people Roy gets up bright and early to eat breakfast.  His movements into his clothes are “acrobatic” and highly physical.  Malamud’s language brings out this tactility and animality which, it seems, is ready for anything:

Roy peeled his gray sweatshirt and bunched down the white ducks he was wearing for pajamas in case there was a wreck and he didn’t have time to dress.   He acrobated into his shirt, pulled up the pants of his good suit, arching them high, but he had crammed both feet into one leg and was trapped so tight wriggling got him nowhere…Grunting, he contorted himself this way and that till he was last able to grab and pull down the cuff with a gasp.. (4)

After he is fully dressed, and steps out, Malamud reminds us of the man-animal dialectic:

Dropping on all fours, he peered under the berth of his bassoon case.

Seeing him on all fours hunting for his case, the porter, who comes by asks him, indirectly about the case: “Morning, maestro, what’s the tune today?”  Roy responds, “It ain’t a musical instrument.”  He tells him that what is in the case is something he has “made himself.”  The porter, hinting at the pre-historic and the primitive asks, “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

But in response Roy tells the porter that it is nothing natural; rather, it is “just a practical thing.”  Following this, there is a volley about what’s hidden in the case.  He gives several guesses which, in a  comical manner, mock out the meaning of “practical”: “a pogo stick,” a “foolproof lance” a “combination fishing rod, gun, and shovel.”

Instead of answering, Roy changes the subject to where they are going and how long it will take to get there.  From their discussion, we learn that Roy has only visited two places, both of them in the west: Boise and Portland, Oregon.  He hasn’t been to any major city.

When he tells him that he is going to Chicago, “where the Cubs are.”  The porter perks up and asks, sarcastically, if there are also “lions and tigers there.”  Roy, in response, says that the Cubs are a ball team.  But this is the game.  He’s playing Socrates to Roy and looks for him to say it.

For after saying it, we see the punch line; namely, that the porter asks if you “are one of them” (a ballplayer).  When Roy says yes, the porter bows and says: “My hero. Let me kiss your hand.”

This makes Roy smile but it also “annoys” him.  This foreshadows his ambivalent relation to his fans.  He does and does not want to be recognized as a star.  And this may have much to do with the fact that his relation to others, other humans who recognize him, is different from his primitive relations to things.

He may have a playful relationship with the porter, which makes him smile, but it is based on a set of conditions.  A ball player must be successful; his relations to physical reality, evinced by all of the words and tonalities brought out in his waking movements into clothing, disclose another aspect of language and a different way of life.

This relation to the porter also includes a language with its own rhythm, but this language is based on something historic not pre-historic.  It is based on the fact of recognition and the fact that Roy may make history and be a hero for others.  And this irks him.  In other words, making history is and is not of interest to him.  He is unsure. And this, I would argue, has to do with the fact that his relations to “the ball” are ambiguous. Are they the relations of an animal or pre-historic being to “the ball” or are they the relations of a hero?

The fact that the ball is called a “pill” – later in the novel -indicates that his entering history has to do with entering into a game that feeds addiction.  And, perhaps, this is an addiction to heroes and success.  This is a human and an American addiction which, nonetheless, emerges from something pre-historic.

And this is something both Franz Kafka (in his book Amerika) and Walter Benjamin understood about America.  It was a land where the pre-historic entered history in the form of the “natural theater.”  However, had they read Malamud, one wonders how they would have conceived of the relation of man to animal.  At the outset of this novel, Hobbs, “the natural.” dwells on the cusp of history and somewhere between man and animal.  In this space we can hear the new tones of a new American language that is struggling to speak.

Tendencies: A Note on Walter Benjamin, Immanent Critique, Magical Observation, and the Schlemiel


As anyone who reads my blog knows, I love (literary, film, and art) criticism.  And, in many ways, I feel as if, through criticism, I am disclosing something about this or that story that has never be touched on before.  And this thing that I am bringing out marks a direction or a tendency toward something transformational. Moreover, when I do critique I feel as if I take on the very tendency that I uncover in this or that book, story, film, etc. It’s not an act of indifference for me.   This implies that my schlemiel theory project takes on a tendencies that I feel have been overlooked in this or that reading of the schlemiel.  And not only is this a public, historical endeavor, it is also personal.  A major inspiration for this approach to the schlemiel comes from Walter Benjamin and his notion of “immanent critique.”

Unlike any Walter Benjamin scholar, John McCole, in his exceptional book Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition, looks into how Walter Benjamin understands tradition.  As a part of his investigation, McCole looks into Walter Benjamin’s reception of German Romanticism.  To this end, he provides the reader with a historical context to understand what German Romanticism looked to effectuate and what Benjamin drew from this movement.  But what makes McCole’s reflection so incisive is the fact that he suggests that, for Benjamin, the Romantic Movement had a lot in common with the Youth Movement.  Benjamin, as Gershom Scholem points out (and as we can see from Benjamin’s letters, essays, and notes from that period), was committed to this German Youth Movement.  But as Benjamin himself points out in his essay on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, this movement failed.  And this filled Benjamin with regret.  However, he managed, like Dostoevsky, to draw something out of the historical failure of the movement.  As I have noted in another blog entry, what he came out with was the wisdom of foolishness and a sense of how utopia can become self-destructive.   McCole points out that Benjamin referred to the Romantic Movement as a Youth Movement.  And like the movement, he saw it as a failure.   He saw this by way of criticism.

But this criticism was not merely a subjective reaction to failure.  McCole tells us that Benjamin’s notion of criticism draws more on Kant than on the German Romantics and that this orientation put “inherited standards of orientation” into question:

Criticism meant objective reflection on the universal characteristics of the cognizing subject, not license to pass arbitrary judgments from an unexamined standpoint.  Criticism did begin, however, by placing all inherited standards of orientation in question, rejecting dogmatic prescription of givens and absolutes whatsoever.  (85-86)

Benjamin well-knew that the German Romantic movement took its inspiration, in major part, from the French Revolution.  According to McCole, they “regarded the French Revolution as only the prelude…to a catastrophe that would bring an all-engulfing cultural transformation.” And “this expectation made them unable to accept any given, already perfected cannon of orientation”(86).  For this reason, they put “Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister alongside the French Revolution as the ‘greatest tendencies of the age’”(86).

McCole focuses in on the notion of a “tendency” since “the romantics stressed that they by no means offered perfected ideals but only pointers to the imperative of creating new norms and values.”  To be sure, he argues that not just the Romantics but Benjamin himself was interested in “tendencies” (or “pointers”) to this imperative.

To be sure, McCole suggests that Benjamin saw himself as drawing a “tendency” out of this failed movement.  He rescued this tendency from oblivion. And this rescue feeds into the reading of critique as something “positive.”  Critique created “real historical change”: “critique for the early romantics, was the indespensible counterpart to real historical change, not an alternative to it”(87).    In addition, critique looked to disclose the “metaphysical structure” found in the finite forms.  Hence, for Novalis, to “romanticize” means “to extrapolate from the particular, finite form, until its absolute, metaphysical structure revealed itself.”   One can argue that this what is meant by a tendency.  In contrast to an ideal, it is a metaphysical structure that lay dormant in things, a structre than can be used to initiate historical change and transformation.

McCole shows how Benjamin’s notion of “immanent critique” is aimed at finding such tendencies.  But these tendencies are not found in this or that historical period so much as in the artwork itself: “immanent criticism heeds the primacy of the aesthetics object’s own characteristics and properties”(89).  The artwork – if read critically – can show us a tendency that can, in fact, lead the way to historical change since the artwork’s “immanent structure” provides a “corrective of all subjectivity”(90).  And this implies that it “refracts and reforms all extrinsic forms that pass through it.”

As McCole points out, “immanent criticism” is productive and positive since, in pointing out these tendencies, it produces a new set of possibilities for the artwork that are latent in it.   This suggests that, for Benjamin, the artwork is always incomplete:

Immanent criticism regards the artwork as essentially incomplete; it unfolds the work by making its potential qualities actual, its implicit features explicit.  The result is to “reflect” the work, in the sense that criticism rises the object to a higher level of clarity and explicitness. (90).

In Benjamin’s words, the “reflection is awakened.”  This is an act of romanticization since it transforms the tendency into a quasi-absolute that is, in itself, productive.  This act, necessarily, is based on finding things in the decayed and forgotten artwork which can, of themselves (once awakened), alter history. This, perhaps, is the work of art which is “awakened” by criticism.  In other words, Benjamin looks to awaken these “tendencies” in the work of art which “point to” the imperative of change.

Benjamin calls the observation of this awakening – caused by immanent criticism – “magic observation.” And, as McCole notes, this experience of observation is “interactive” – and, in addition to raising the critics consciousness, the observation can also be “incorporated” into the critic’s self.  This was much like Novalis for whom, “the true experimenter” is one who nature “reveals itself more perfectly” if and only if he harmonizes himself with what he observes through criticism.   In other words, through the critic who becomes one with his “magical observation” (prompted by immanent criticism), one can experience the tendency toward revolution.

This model works well with schlemiel theory.  Following Benjamin’s lead, I think “immanent criticism” is of great use since the schlemiel is a character which seems to have decayed.  Yet, as Benjamin knew, comic characters show us a tendency toward revolution.  By employing an immanent criticism to the schlemiel – in this or that novel, short story, play, or film – the critic can have a “magical observation” of sorts that can be witnessed by readers.

Perhaps this is saying too much, but there is a lot of truth to it.  A schlemiel theorist should show us a tendency to change.  But this can only be found by way of rescuing the schlemiel from oblivion.  And this is a major part of my project otherwise know as schlemiel theory.  I do believe that this rescue can have a positive historical effect.  But that all depends on how my project is witnessed by others and whether it taps into a historical possibility (or possibilities) that has (or have) been overlooked.   As one can imagine, I have hope, as did Benjamin, that the trash that I have found (in this case, schlemiel trash) may indicate a possibility or tendency that has been overlooked.  And like Benjamin, I understand that this “magical observation” is based on “awakening” this tendency by way of “immanent criticism.”

This “magical observation” of the schlemiel’s awakening is my risk; and it is the risk of schlemiel theory.

Walter Benjamin, Leon Shestov, and Heinrich Heine’s Senses of Humor


Walter Benjamin paid very close attention to the work and life of Leon Shestov.  Shestov was a Russian émigré to Paris whose critical writings on literature and Judaism Benjamin had great respect for.  In one of his saddest (and last) letters to Gershom Scholem, written in 1939, Benjamin writes about Kafka’s legacy to his readers by focusing on Leon Shestov’s.  To be sure, Benjamin believed Shestov’s lifetime work, Athens and Jerusalem was a masterpiece.  (He often mentions this to Scholem in his letters.)  However, he didn’t know how it would fare in the future.  In his reflection on its legacy, following Shestov’s death, Benjamin notes how Shestov’s wife, deep in mourning, cannot deal with the question of what to do with his legacy.  Benjamin tells us that she lives in an apartment full of Shestov’s work (his manuscripts and unpublished essays).  He muses about how one day a housekeeper will likely see that Shestov’s widow has neglected her surroundings and, while cleaning up, will throw away all of Shestov’s writings.  To her, they are only pieces of paper.

Benjamin likens this to the fate of Kafka’s work and adds, in addition to this, that Max Brod (the keeper of this legacy) made Kafka into a fool.  To be sure, this suggests that Brod and the widow show the futility of passing tradition on.  But there is more.  What is passed on, by way of Benjamin, is a ruined yet comic kind of tradition.  These ruined traditions (of Kafka and Shestov), fails to get properly transmitted, and their fate is comical (in a bittersweet way).  In all of this, the failure of tradition is – in a way- redeemed through a comical reflection.

Since Benjamin spoke so highly of Shestov and wrote of him in a tragic-comical manner, I wondered if and how Shestov would regard the comic modality.  To this end, I decided to read through his collection of his literary essays entitled Chekhov and Other Essays (these articles were published while he was alive and were translated into English in 1916 – for a London press – and republished in 1966 by the University of Michigan Press).

Many of these literary essays are very serious – they address the work of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, but they also address different philosophers.  In these essays, Shestov reserves the comical to this or that anecdote.  (His reflections, here, seem to have more of an existential tone – one that Sartre and others took to.)  However, one essay in particular caught my eye as it addressed the comical.  This essay was entitled “Penultimate Words.”   Within this essay, the section on Heinrich Heine addresses humor.

Shestov notes, right off the bat, that the German’s misunderstood Heine’s sense of humor:

I think that if the Germans were mistaken and misunderstood Heine, hypertrophied self-love and the power of prejudice is the cause. (119)

With this in view, Shestov explains the meaning of Heine’s humor.  He notes how it moves from seriousness to sarcasm:

Heine’s usual method is to begin to speak with perfect seriousness, and to end with biting raillery. Critics and readers, who generally do not guess at the outset what awaits them in the event, have taken the unexpected laughter to their own account, and have become deeply offended.  Wounded self-love never forgives; and the Germans could  not forgive Heine for his jests. (119)

Shestov tells us that the twist is that Heine’s humor was directed at himself; it was self-deprecating.  He wasn’t looking to “attack others”:

And yet Heine but rarely attacked others: most of his mockery is directed against himself. (119)

Drawing on this observation, Shestov says that same thing happened with Gogol.  Like Heine, Gogol “confessed that he was describing himself” and was not mocking the Russian people in his fiction.  According to Shestov, Gogol wasn’t certain of himself and, for this reason, it was simply not possible for him to contrast himself – as better off – to his fellow-Russians.

On this note, he points out that Heine also had an “inconstancy of opinions”: “He changed his tastes and attachments, and did not always know for certain what he preferred at the moment”(119).   He could have “pretended to be consequent and consistent,” but he didn’t.

Rather, he played the fool and said too much:

Heine’s sincerity was really of a different order.  He told everything, or nearly everything, of himself.  And this was thought so shocking that the sworn custodians of convention and good morals considered themselves wounded in their best and loftiest feelings.  It seemed to them that it would be disastrous if Heine were to succeed in acquiring a great literary influence, and in getting a hold upon the minds of his contemporaries. (121)

Shestov points out the hypocrisy that goes with the will-to-preserve culture.  The anger of the Germans at Heine’s honesty, humor, and self-deprication was a case in point.  In talking too much, he failed publically.  But that failure was – more or less – turned into a killing of sorts.  Heine was, as the French artist and playwright Antonin Artaud might say, a man “suicided by society.”

Heine’s humor, Shestov tells us, discloses a man who is “divided.”  His words are a “mockery of himself.”  Out of some of his comic poems and writings, we can hear “Heine’s misplaced laughter”(123).  This laughter is “indecent and quite uselessly disconcerting.”  Shestov puts Heine’s “sincerity” in quotation marks because Heine was laughing and at the same time embracing the possibility of sincerity.

In addition, Heine laughs “at morality, at philosophy, and at existing religions”(126).  In a fascinating turn, Shestov says this may have to do with Heine being a modern Jew who was out-of-place (the odd one out).  To be sure, Heine was the popularizer of the schlemiel in Germany.  He saw the poet as a schlemiel.  Hannah Arendt points this out in her essay “The Jew as Pariah.”  And she situates Heine as the first schlemiel in a tradition of schlemiels.   (A tradition I am writing about in my book on the schlemiel.)

Reading Shestov and knowing that Benjamin read him lovingly, I wonder if Benjamin came across this gloss on Heinrich Heine and the comic.  It would make perfect sense since Benjamin, in one of his last letters to Gershom Scholem, wonders about the “comic aspects of Jewish theology.” There is something very Jewish and very modern in Heine’s failure.  It is the same failure that Benjamin comically apprehends in Kafka and Shestov.

And it is the failure of the schlemiel which provides the greatest insights for them as they all realized the degree to which they themselves had failed.  And, if anything, the sad laughter Benjamin had when reflecting on Shestov and Kafka was his own.  It, strangely enough, gave him hope.

On an Aesthetic of Redemption or The Problem With Historicizing Walter Benjamin (Take 1)


I’m not an intellectual historian.  And while I enjoy reading intellectual history, I always worry about the problem of periodization.   Like any historicization, the risk is to say that on this or that date everything changed with this or that thinker.  The problem with such claims is that – in a Derridian sense – something always remains.  Many intellectual historians, in an effort to make a coherent historical narrative, often leave things out or argue that this or that element of said thinker’s thought took a turn.  While much of this may find support in this or that prooftext, oftentimes one can find counter-texts (and counter-memories, as Michel Foucault might say) to challenge this or that genealogy.   For me, the case in point is the intellectual history of Walter Benjamin.

What makes him such an interesting figure for intellectual history is the fact that he, himself, was an intellectual historian of sorts.  But his history was oftentimes focused on the intellectual history of different mediums (although they would focus on the shift as found in this or that writer, poet, or filmmaker).  In many essays, such as “The Storyteller,” “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” or “Some Motifs of Baudelaire” or in his book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin clearly demarcates the shift from one era to another which can be found in different mediums (the novel, storytelling, film, and poetry).    But although Benjamin made rigorous demarcations, these demarcations were not absolute.  One can see overlap.  For instance, although Benjamin announces the end of the aura in one essay, he still notes that it lives on in others.  And when he argues that storytelling has been displaced by the newspaper, this doesn’t keep him from reflecting on it and bringing out it’s modern proponents (such as Kafka, Walser, or Proust).

To be sure, Benjamin, who read much Freud and incorporated his work into his own, believed that we are haunted by the past. In addition, there are many examples in his work where the past permeates the present and serves as an index of the future.   We see this in his Arcades Project, The Berlin Childhood, One Way Street, his essays on Baudelaire and Proust, his Kafka essay, and his essays that address the Messianic.

Moreover, in his personal reflections he also takes note of what remains.

And although there is room to argue that he was noting his own personal-historical shifts (as we saw in yesterday’s blog entry), he still sees these moments as lingering in the present.    Nonetheless, some intellectual historians choose not to take this into consideration.  One such intellectual historian is Peter Osborne, who argues that Benjamin, after writing his essay on Kafka, turned wholeheartedly to the political and turned away from the aesthetic.  Were one to read Benajmin’s letters to his dear friend Gershom Scholem, however, one would find another narrative.  In that narrative, Benjamin’s interest in the aesthetic and Kafka remain right up until his untimely death.

Richard Wolin’s intellectual history also chooses to leave a few things out, but, at the very least, he does what Osborne doesn’t: he shows how certain elements of Benjamin’s work cling –from the beginning to the end – to the “aesthetic of redemption.”  Wolin’s focus is commendable and merits closer reading.  I would like to point out, however, where he draws the line and what this implies.  (I will be commenting on his book on and off in this blog, so this reading is based on the beginning of his book where he addresses Benjamin’s “origins.”)

In the first chapter of Wolin’s book, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, he makes a reading of Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900.   This reading reflects, on the one hand, an acute sense of how Benjamin looked to “redeem” his past via the aesthetic; on the other hand, it looks to periodize this work and leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that Benjamin had left this behind.

One of the things that caught my mind was Wolin’s selection of texts to illustrate Benjamin’s vision of himself in the past and how it relates to the present:

He speaks of the unclear vision of intellectuals which results from an innate tendency toward flight from reality; a tendency he claimed to have detected in himself at an extremely early age which in his eyes manifested itself in his staunch refusal to form with others in a united front…”My habit of seeming slower, more maladroit, more stupid than I am, had its origins in such walks (through the city), and has the great attendant danger of making me think myself quicker, more dexterous, and shrewder than I am.”(3)

Commenting on this, Wolin argues that Benjamin “turned to the theme of childhood memories in a time when all possibilities seemed to be blocked”(3).  In other words, Wolin historicizes this line (and the whole book) to argue that if Benjamin wrote about the past, so as to find something hopeful (or even helpful) in it, he did so because his life (when he wrote it, in the 1930s) was bleak.   But, given that reading, we could argue that everything he wrote was prompted by the fact that he saw himself as a loser and was looking, as Wolin suggests, for reasons as to why he produced such bad luck.  In other words, he was looking for how he had become such a schlemiel.    To be sure, in this passage, Benjamin is trying to explain why he appeared so belated and slow (seemingly more stupid than he was): the very characteristics of many a schlemiel who is often too late or too early for this or that thing and who, like Gimpel the Fool, appears stupid when he is not.

Although this seems negative, Wolin, at the very least, notes that Benjmain derived something meaningful from his childhood experience (but, for Wolin, this has nothing to do with the fact that he has many comic and child-like aspects to himself):

What he attempted to capture in these reflections was, above all, a capacity for lived experience associated with an upbringing in Berlin at this time, whose last vestiges were in the process of being extinguished by the world-historical march of the forces of disenchantment. (4)

In other words, the only thing that Benjamin was interested in saving from the past was his “capacity for experience.” The experiences themselves, however, are left behind forever. As Wolin notes, “Berlin existed once upon a time, as it will never appear again.”   This implies not only that this book was a commemoration of a city that is no longer, but that Benjamin cannot go back.  His book was, more or less, a movement away from the childhood and toward maturity and adulthood.  The only thing worth salvaging is something that would always be there: the “capacity for experience.”

While I find the notion of such a “capacity,” interesting, I find it elides too much.  This capacity may be something gleaned from youth but it is ultimately abstract and seems to transcend history like Aristotle’s notion of capacity and potentiality.  Rather than make this move, I’d like to suggest – as I have throughout this blog –that Benjamin was acutely aware of how all of his capacities were haunted by failure.  This historical aspect isn’t redeemed; it is a remnant from his past which pops up in most of his work in the 1930s and in his letters to Scholem.  But this failure has a comic rather than a tragic note.

The problem with intellectual history is that it might find this element to be in competition with the narrative of maturity.  And it is right for thinking this because it is; and Benjamin knew this well.  It remained with him to the end.  And even Hannah Arendt, in her introductory essay to his work (to an American audience), noted the specter that remained with him to the end: she gave it a figure, the “hunchback.”  This figure –the figure of bad luck –haunted his maturation process and it should haunt any intellectual history of his work.  It reminds us that no matter how much there is evidence of evolving thought, something, in Benjamin’s work, remains.  But for Arendt, this has more to do with bad luck as such.  To be sure, in her view Benjamin is more of a shlimazl than a schlemiel (a topic that I will be addressing in my book and in forthcoming essays).

Walter Benjamin’s Messianic Butterflies


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

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

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

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

Rubens, garden of idleness watered by oblivion,

Where the quick flesh pillows the impotence of dreams,

Where life’s affluence writhes in eddying abandon.

Like air in the air, or water on streams.

The stanza on Watteau invokes butterflies:

Watteau, carnival where many a distinguished soul

Flutters like a butterfly, lost in the brilliance

Of chandeliers shedding frivolity on the cool,

Clear decors enclosing the changes in the dance.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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