The Whistle and the Gaze of the Holy Fool – Take 2


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.

Exposure, Failure, and Rhythm: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes


Roland Barthes, the famous French thinker and essayist, is best known for S/Z, Mythologies, A Lover’s Discourse, Camera Lucida, Writing Degree Zero, Empire of Signs, and The Pleasure of the Text.  For many years, these books have had a great impact on critical theory, philosophy, comparative literature, anthropology, sociology, and even the academic studies of photography and cinema.  Although I enjoy these books and have learned a lot from them, my two favorite texts of his are his lecture notes for a course he gave in Morocco in 1978 (entitled The Neutral) and his autobiography Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.

What interests me most about these two books are his reflections on weariness, the neutral, failure, rhythm, gesture, and himself.  Taken together, they disclose something that I also find in Walter Benjamin: an awareness of failure juxtaposed with an aesthetic sensibility that craves intoxication.  As in my readings of Benjamin, I have been reading Barthes with a desire to find his weak point; namely, his sense of vulnerability, innocence, and shame.  I have found this sensibility in a few of Barthes’ passages.  And it is in these passages where Barthes becomes small, humble, and most revealing.

In this blog entry, I will not be focusing on the lecture course; rather, I want to look at a few of Barthes autobiographical reflections which disclose exposure, failure, and a desire for protection, distraction, and aesthetic relief.  Like any good writer with a taste for the esoteric, Barthes leaves it to the reader to connect the dots, so to speak, between one reflection and another.  I would suggest that Barthes wants us to pay close attention to the rhythmic alteration between one reflection and another.  It is in the lacunae between one reflection and another that we can interpret and glean some type of wisdom.

The reflection entitled “Le retentissement – Repercussion” caught my eye.  In this passage, Barthes (who calls himself “him” rather than “I” so as to denote otherness and the fact that he sees his autobiography, as his epigram states, in terms of being a novel of sorts: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”) fears the “repercussion” his words and the words of others about him or his words will or may have:

Every word which concerns him echoes within him to an extreme degree, and it is this repercussion which he dreads, to the pint of timidly avoiding any discourse that might be offered about him.   The language of others, complimentary or not, is tainted at its source by the repercussion it might have…The link to the world is thus always conquered starting from a  certain fear (156).

Barthes’ fear of repercussion is a fear of exposure.  He knows that his words expose him to possible ridicule and rejection.  His words, in the mouths of others, have repercussions -meaning that they are sounded again but by another and in a way that is other.  Needless to say, the re-percussion (in the sense of a sounding or beating-again) makes him fearful and timid.  Such a confession implies that he, a well-known and highly respected writer in Europe, is exposed and vulnerable.  He is not self-possessed.  Apparently, nothing can secure him from this fear since he has no control over the repercussions of his words.  He has no control over how they will echo back to him.  Barthes language implies that, most likely, the recounting of his words will have negative repercussions – that is, they will expose him to possible damage.  He feels that the repercussions of his words will make him vulnerable and powerless.

Immediately following this reflection is yet another which deals with fear and vulnerability.  It is entitled Reussi/rate – Success/failure.  Barthes, here, reflects on Barthes “re-reading” himself. The effect of this re-reading is, yet again, a kind of exposure. This time it is an exposure to failure:

Rereading himself, he discerns in the very texture of each piece of writing a singular cleavage: that of success/failure: in gusts, felicities of expression, good patches, then bad ones, swamps and deserts which he has even begun to inventory.  Then no book is successful throughout? – Perhaps the book on Japan.

In the midst of his reflection on failure, he turns to success as a balm. And what he finds is a discourse that does not doubt itself and does not fear that its words fall flat. Rather, he finds “the continuous, effusive, jubilant happiness of the writing: in what he writes, each protects his own sexuality.”  But, given what he has just written, we have reason to be suspicious of these lines.  They are literally a distraction. The italics don’t change a thing. To be sure, his “sexuality” cannot be protected by his “continuous, effusive, jubilant” happiness of writing.  After all, didn’t Barthes say that he fears the repercussions of his words? And when he reads himself, he sees discontinuity and failure?  Is Barthes saying that writing, in differentiation to reading, is absent minded?  Is he suggesting that writing is distracted while reading is not?

Frustrated with this thought, Barthes turns to a third option, but even this option cannot lift him from being shamed and exposed.  And he, ironically, notes this:

A third category is possible: neither success nor failure: disgrace: marked, branded with the imaginary.

To be sure, his disgrace, his exposure to failure, is “branded” by the “imaginary.”  In other words, writing does not simply distract him from shame, it marks his shame, brands it.  This implies that the imaginary, that is, writing, is not a balm.  Rather, his personal disgrace is in a violent relationship with writing; it is as if writing, which is still a distraction from exposure, has forced itself upon his disgrace.

Writing tries to brand or mark shame. And this suggests ownership.  But can one’s exposure to failure ever escape writing and the distraction it offers?  Given what we have been saying about Benjamin and his interest in distraction, this is a legitimate question to ask.

Interestingly enough, the two reflections that follow are superficial and imaginary. They displace the negative affect of these two reflections by way of distraction.  The first reflection is entitled “Du choix d’un vetement – Choosing Clothes” and the second reflection is entitled “Le rhythme – Rhythm.”  Both of these reflections are, so to speak, escape routes.

In “Choosing Clothes,” Barthes likens the books one chooses to the clothes one wears.  He reads this in terms of “preparing himself to sustain…the discourse of truth starting from an economy which is that of his own body.”  In other words, these books clothe the body and protect it from negative repercussions that will inevitable ensue in “the discourse of truth.”

The reflection entitled “Rhythm” turns to another way of relating to exposure.  Barthes notes that he (that is Barthes) “always put his faith in that Greek rhythm, the succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”   In his 1978 lecture, Barthes also relates Ascesis to the “succession of paroxystic and opposite states: many collective celebrations, but between each of these festivals a period of retention, abstention, sobriety”(84).  In other words, there is a “rhythm” between one extreme state and the other in the “succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”  He contrasts this rhythm to the “banal rhythm of modernity” which alternates between work and leisure.  This rhythm is different.  Barthes refers to a “Slavic or Balkan” custom in which one “shuts oneself up for three days of festivity.”  He then suggests that one go back and forth between this kind of festivity and sobriety.   Or, I would suggest, a rhythm between exposure (reading) and distraction (writing).

The rhythm he speaks of is built into his text.  The reflection that follows this one, in fact, is all about exposure.  It is entitled “Que ca se sache – Let that be known.”  In this reflection, Barthes admits that “every utterance of a writer (even the fiercest, the wildest) includes a secret operator, an unexpressed word, something like the silent morpheme of a category as primitive as negation or interrogation, whose meaning is: “And let that be known!

In other words, Barthes realizes that in everything he writes, even with words written with great conviction (words that are fierce and wild), there is a snag.  There is something that will expose one to judgment.  By noting this, Barthes is, in effect, arguing that no matter how wild or angry he is – no matter how courageous, powerful, or self-possessed he may sound on paper– there will be something in his words – something undetected – that will render him powerless.

But does powerlessness have the upper hand in these reflections?

From what we have seen, Barthes insistence on rhythm and on protection suggests that powerlessness is, at times, sovereign.  In other words, at times one is made to be a fool.  At moments when one feels at the top of ones game, there will always be repercussions.  But, and this is Barthes point, one must know that one is always exposed to failure, judgment, and repercussions, while, at the same time, operating according to a rhythm.  Barthes suggests that style, writing, and sexuality are attempts to pull away from shame and exposure.  They distract us. However, as we saw above, imagination brands shame.  In other words, writing looks to mark exposure with its power.  But, the fact of the matter is that even though shame is marked by the imagination, shame remains.  Nonetheless, it is branded and, so to speak, re-markable.

And this is where the art meets ethics.  The exposure one has to failure, the timidity that comes with writing to others and re-reading oneself, is ethical, but this exposure is always branded by the imagination which looks to protect the body and vulnerability from too much exposure.    Or as Barthes suggests, the terror of reading oneself is tempered by the distraction of writing oneself.

What I find so interesting about Barthes’ suggestions is that they speak directly to the schlemiel and the reader of the American schlemiel.  Even though Barthes often fails to be comical (since he’s much too serious about himself), he does provide a structure which is best exemplified in the comedy of the American Schlemiel.

An American schlemiel, like Phillip Roth’s Portnoy or Larry David, is humiliated and exposed in what they say and in what they do.  But because their words are couched in the imagination, witty gesture, and style, they are innocent and, to some extent, are protected from extreme damage.  But, in the end, these schlemiels are still exposed. They are the subject of ridicule.  Their victories are, by all means, temporary.   As Barthes might say, the American Schlemiel is caught up in a rhythm of distraction and exposure.

To be sure, we love this rhythm; otherwise, we wouldn’t watch Woody Allen’s films, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Andy Kaufmann’s embarrassing comic routines (to take only three examples). These shows invite us to witness how shame, in rhythmic variation, is “branded” by the imagination.   It shows us how distraction and exposure alternate.

Here’s Andy Kaufmann with a few rhythms of his own: