How can an encounter with a schlemiel have an affect on one’s writing? And does it matter if this encounter is fictional? Will our reading change as a result? And what do the figures of the “gaze” and the “whistle” have to do with these changes?
These are the questions that Meir Abehsera’s narrator prompts in the reader. To be sure, in the last blog entry we saw how the writer leaves his town and the old librarian – who defends his task as a writer (which is to “teach the world”) – to follow the idiot/schlemiel. The writer is prompted to leave with him since he is singled out by the fool and “gazed” at. This gaze is the response to the librarians point which is that what is right and wrong for the idiot may not be right and wrong for others (namely, the writer and the people he wishes to teach). For this reason, we can see that the gaze has an esoteric quality. It is an assurance that what the schlemiel teaches is not a relative kind of truth about good and evil. To be sure, we are introduced to the schlemiel by way of a “whistling” that is supposed to ward away evil. And the advice of the schlemiel to the town is to fight and run away from evil. His whistling is a way of running from evil or fighting against it. And that evil, as he states, is merely an illusion. Whistling will, apparently, challenge it.
I ended the last blog entry with the thought that the schlemiel helps us to get a sense of the shape of evil – regardless of whether that schlemiel is secular or religious. This schlemiel is a Holy Fool; so its absent mindedness is based on a certain tact: namely to challenge evil.
With this in mind, I would like to take us into the next phase of Abehsera’s parable. In this phase, we learn, right off the bat, that:
The writer has had a difficult time since his encounter with the idiot. He has not lifted his pen in years. He even finds it hard to a write a letter to his family. (116)
In this phase of the story, the writer cannot write. The only thing he has is the experience of the schlemiel’s gaze. This gaze has, so to speak, suspended his writing (as well as his sense of himself as a writer with an appointed task of teaching humanity). All he can think about is the gaze:
From time to time, he is tempted to offer people some peace of mind by tossing them some factual news, but he restrains himself because, you see, on that fateful day, as the idiot look at him with his piercing eyes, he completely lost contact with his work. Or rather, it all became meaningless to him. (116)
Since he is left with his encounter with the schlemiel he wonders about why it means so much to him and this thought leads him to a reflection on his new task. The question that haunts him is whether he himself is a schlemiel or is he, rather, a writer?
The most amazing thing he had yet to discover was that the persona of the idiot happened to mysteriously cohere with an undefined, yet consistent, recurring thought that had accompanied him in his youth. This was precisely the same pounding thought that had him start to write in the first place; but he had lost it…A few days went by before he could finally figure out that he knew the idiot from deep inside himself, not in the sense that they were one and the same person, but that he had become the idiot’s relay. (117)
This new formulation is very telling and it sheds some light on what I have been working on with Walter Benjamin and Kafka; namely, the relationship of Sancho Panza to Don Quixote. This question of what this relationship was and how it relates to the writer and thinker was of interest to both Benjamin and Kafka. For Abehsera the relationship is defined in terms of the writer (Sancho Panza) being the “relay” for the idiot/schlemiel (Don Quixote). But this is more than a relay of foolishness. For Abehsera, it’s a relay of spirituality and wisdom. (Benjamin, I would argue, also saw this kind of relay.)
Abehsera notes that his “wisdom grew at a remarkable pace” once he realized how, now, whenever he tries to speak his words would be overwhelmed by a “rush of ruminations.” And when he tried to speak, he would utter “sheer nonsense.” Now, this “infirmity” prompts him to “search for other modes of communication.” And one of these modes includes whistling. But it also includes theater and play; basically, anything that can make people laugh.
The writer now notes one of these practices. However, he relates this practice to reading scripture. Now, whenever he reads even a little bit of it, thoughts rush to his head. And when he fell into a “trance” he would “offset the undesired effect by standing on his head.” One would think that this clownish activity effaces his seriousness; but, as he puts it, it does something else:
He would feel rather silly doing it, but it was the only way he knew to keep his soul from taking off. Ever since this began to happen, he would only study alone, from fear he would have to perform public headstands when his head threatened to explode. (118)
After stating this, the writer reflects on an encounter he had with a Maggid (a story teller and a Rabbi). The point of the story is to illustrate the new task of the writer. As the writer tells it, the Maggid starts his lesson off with humor (as it is a Talmudic tradition to start every lesson with a joke). And this had the “audience roaring with laughter.” All of this was “woven” into a talk the Maggid gave on the Torah. Unfortunately, the lesson of the story went to the other extreme and slighted the audience with being sinners who, if they did not repent, would be punished. In response to this, the writer notes:
He had the entire congregation in the palm of his hand. But then, all faces had turned white from extreme fear. A bad smell began to ooze out from an unknown source, but only the writer noticed it. (119)
This smell, which we will turn to in a second, prompted the writer to feel a rush of energy and it spurred a memory of the schlemiel – his “teacher” – and his words to “run from evil and do good.” And this memory spurred words to emerge:
He screamed loud, deep within himself, to break the walls of darkness which were entrapping him. He heard the din of galloping horses in his head. Soon, an avalanche of words began to roll out of his mouth. Every word was blasted out by a powerful combustion that was fueled by an utter abhorrence of evil. (120)
The effect of these words was to undo the “damage that the manic maggid had inflicted upon the congregants.” According to the narrator, the “smell” that the writer sensed cam from a “low grade type of fear.” In contrast to this low grade type of fear and the smell it emits, the fear of the righteous emits a smell is pleasant.
What is the deal with “smell” and what does it have to do with the schlemiel?
Abehsera is dealing with a tradition that emerges out of the prophets. In reference to the Messiah, it is written that he can judge by the way of smell. Citing Isaiah 11:3, which says that the Messiah will judge good and evil by way of smell, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) writes:
Bar Koziva ruled for two and a half years, and then said to the rabbis, “I am the Messiah.” They answered, “It is written that the Messiah can judge by smell (based on Isaiah 11:3); let us see whether he [Bar Koziva] can do so.” When they saw that he could not judge by smell, they killed him.
Writing on this power of smell, which the schlemiel in this parable possesses, Abehsera writes of how smells will emerge from the memory of the “transgressions of his youth.” And, “against” these odors from the past, the writer “measures other people’s sins by the nuances of smell.” The Messiah, “however, like his saintly predecessors whose lives are untainted by sin, will be spared the noxious smell of other’s indiscretions. Since he will lack first-hand experience (like the schlemiel or the writer), Heaven will have to grant him the power to judge at least the spirit, if not the substance of sin.”
This sense of smell is something that the writer apparently learns from the schlemiel. And, as mentioned above, since the writer is a “relay” for the schlemiel, this sense will also be relayed. This suggests that the schlemiel not only teaches one how to whistle and find other ways of communication to “run from evil” but also a sense of smell which can detect it. This sense, as I have indicated above, is connected – in some way –to the messianic. It gives the schlemiel and the writer some form of judgment vis-à-vis evil.
In the next blog entry, we will return to this sense of smell which recurs; this time, however, in the form of a beggar. Since the schlemiel, in the third part of the parable becomes the beggar.