Tag: Kafka

Joan Rivers and Holocaust Humor

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

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

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmrabo1vHZo]

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

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

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piVCGSDP1UA]

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srtES-HebG0]

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

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

On Hitler:

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

On Anne Frank:

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

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAc6eBsrAfY]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heti’s work is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….to be continued….

 

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

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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.

The Schlemiel Who Tried to Get a Job – On Robert Walser’s “The Job Application”

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While writing on Franz Kafka, the Jewish-German thinker Walter Benjamin was interested in finding common ground between Jewish and non-Jewish comic characters.  We see this project in his notes and in his essay on Kafka’s work.  To be sure, the essay starts with a reflection on a Russian fool named Shuvalkin; but it also includes reflection on Jewish fools vis-à-vis the messianic.  Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin understood them, may have some relation to the Messianic in the sense that, in their foolishness, they are the unredeemed figures of Exile.  They are incomplete and are waiting, so to speak, to be redeemed from their sad state.  What brings all of these characters together – in a state of exile – is not so much their pathetic character as a kind of innocence and blindness. This naïve state, for readers like Benjamin, gives us a sense of the best humanity has to offer in bad times.  (For Benjamin, such naïve foolishness, and not the powers of reason, idealism, progress, humanism, or heroism, is what is best in man.  After all, as Benjamin said to his friend and scholar Gershom Scholem, regarding Kafka, “only a fool can help.”)  It is in the small things – things that we often miss – which, for Benjamin, hold the most meaning and hope.  And, in a world dominated by reason, humanism, and progress, it is the innocent loser who lives closest to the smallest things.  It is this character who, strangely enough, is closest to redemption.

One would think that Robert Walser, a writer Kafka and Benjamin read lovingly, would appear in Walter Benjamin’s notes or on his essay on Kafka.  But he doesn’t.  I find this omission to be very odd.   Reading Walser, I find all of the qualities that Benjamin found of interest in his essay on Kafka; namely, as I mentioned above, innocence, blindness, and the importance of small things.  To be sure, Walser is the master of these elements.

Susan Sontag, in an essay and introduction to Walser, notes that Walser is “one of the most important writers of this century” and, referencing the often melancholic writer and playwright Samuel Beckett, calls him “a good humored sweet Beckett.”   But the most important aspect of his writing, for Sontag, is in the little things:

Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small – as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.

He was, like Melville’s Bartelby, a “non-doer.”  But, as Sontag notes, for such a non-doer we wrote a lot.  But what does an “acute feeling for the interminable” and being a “non-doer” amount to?  For Sontag, it amounts to an “awareness of the creatureliness of life, of the fellowship of sadness.”

Reading this, and contrasting it to what Benjamin thought about Kafka and the messianic, I would suggest that we read what Sontag calls “an awareness of the creatureliness of life” and the “fellowship of the sadness” against the comic.  To be sure, as I mentioned above, Sontag called Walser a “good humored Beckett” and suggest such a balance of the comic and the melancholic. But she drops in the end for melancholy.  What I’d like to suggest is that Walser – from time to time – puts out characters that resonate with the Eastern European tradition of the schlemiel: they simpletons who pronounce the tension between hope and skepticism.  And by doing so, they put the possibility of the messianic into quotation marks yet without extinguishing it.  This doesn’t bring about melancholy so much as a wounded kind of hope that is invested in the simpleton.  When reading Walser, I can’t help but hear these resonances.

The “Job Application,” a wonderful short piece by Walser, gives a good sense of what I mean by my current presumption.  Walser’s story is about a young man who wants a job.  But there is a problem.  He doesn’t understand how one should “properly” write a job application. And this has much to do with his character which is humble and innocent.

In other words, he is unable to see and understand what sacrifices one must make when applying for and working in a 9 to 5 job.  We see this in the first lines:

I am a poor, young, unemployed person in the business field, my name is Wenzel, I am seeking a suitable poison, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free.

The schlemiel has been dubbed by Hannah Arendt – vis-à-vis Heinrich Heine – as a “lord of dreams.”  With this in mind, I can’t help but think of the schlemiel when I read Wenzel’s characterization of himself as “dreamy child” who wants a “small place in the shade.”  Wenzel repeats the fact that he is a simpleton – much like the schlemiel – when he states how:

Large and difficult task I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-ranging sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I don’t like to strain my intelligence overmuch.  I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp.

His simplicity is the last quality (the most meaningful one) he wants to outline in his “job application.”  And what makes this feature most interesting is the fact that after stating it he believes that the business to which he is applying will, unlike the “world in which we live,” accept him:

My mind clear but refuses to grasp things that are many, or too many by far, shunning them.  I am sincere and honest, and I am aware this signifies little in the world in which we live, so I shall be waiting…

He naively waits for them to accept him and it seems he believes that his honesty will win them over.  But as in many a schlemiel story (such as I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool or Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son), honest and trust do not win out although the characters, to the very end, believe it will.

Here we have a clear tension between hope and skepticism, which characterizes so many schlemiel stories; and, like them, it is the simpleton who pronounces this tension.  His interest in the little things such as trust and humility are naïve, but they are, as Walter Benjamin would say, the only things that help.  Ultimately, Benjamin clung to these simple things more than he clung to Marxism or the hope for a youth revolution (which, as I pointed out before in this blog, he wrote of in his review of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot).

In the end of the day, the schlemiel tries to get a job.  But he does so for one simple reason: to show that what is at stake with the schlemiel is something the messianic.  But instead of clinging to Marxist hope, the author – like Walter Benjamin – clings to the man-child, the schlemiel.  Somehow, he believes that simplicity, honesty, and the lord of dreams – here, Wenzel – will win out in the end.   Like Wenzel, he hopes that one day the employer will “hire” the “lord of dreams” as an employee.

This is obviously a foolish (and impossible) hope.  But, finishing the line I mentioned above in reference to Walter Benjamin’s letter to Gershom Scholem, perhaps we can say that the fool may be the only one who can help; but the question is whether or not he can do humanity any good.   This kind of question is the one that would be asked by Sancho Panza of Don Quixote.  Benjamin’s letter teaches us that the same question could be asked on the eve of the Holocaust, but can we still ask it, today, after the Holocaust and countless horrors of the 20th century?  Does it still ring true?  Or are today’s readers of Walser devoid of any hope and united in what Sontag calls a “fellowship of sadness?”

“Do you Hear Me?: A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in ‘Conversation in the Mountains” – Part IV

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Klein reevaluates his life in light of his testimony that the only thing he loved was the burning down of tradition.  Lest we not forget, this testimony came through a conversation with another schlemiel, Gross.  This moment, it seems, is Klein’s breathturn (it is his Atemwende).  What he recounts, in light of this, is that he is “here” and – like a schlemiel – he sees and doesn’t see things around him.

As opposed to what Felstiner claims in Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, we can see that, regardless of his ‘serious’ testimony, he still sees himself as a windbag, that is, as a schlemiel. He shares this with his fellow Jewish schlemiel, Gross.  Who is also, still, a windbag :

And I know, I know cousin, I know I’ve met you here, and we talked, a lot…you Gross and me Klein, you, the windbag, and me, the windbag…me here and you here – (22)

In other words, what remains after the burning down of the tradition, is one schlemiel in conversation with another.   But there is more.  Although he has lost his tradition and although his love is focused on the memory of its burning down, Klein realizes that he wants to be loved by those he did not love!

Klein prays that now, after saying this, he is “accompanied by the love of those I didn’t love, me on the way to myself, up here”(22).  By saying this Klein admits that, as a schlemiel, he may be blind to many things he sees but what he hopes, most of all, is that now, somehow, he has done something that has earned the love of those he didn’t love; the love of the dead.  They are, so to speak, his tradition.

This is an impossible hope and this is what makes him a schlemiel – albeit of a different sort.  He didn’t love them.  But he hopes that somehow they, who are no longer alive, will love him.

Klein finishes by saying that he is on the way to himself; yet, from this we can see that he is not (and will not be) able to complete in his journey.  How, after all, can they be with him?  This can have only one sense for him; namely, the sense of redeeming the dead by way of remembrance.  Celan, in this sense, is following Walter Benjamin’s lead who writes in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that the historian can fan the “spark of hope” by remembering the dead and saving them from those who “win” in history.  But although the historian may save them, so to speak, they cannot love him.  That is categorically impossible and is, so to speak, wishful thinking (an “as if” – its “as if” the dead will love him not that they will).

Regardless of whether or not it is possible, Klein realizes that his journey to himself must include the love of those he didn’t love.  And this teaches us that, for Celan, his drama, the drama of the schlemiel, is about suffering, love, and conversation with the other.  To be sure, the schlemiel may be charming to the reader but what makes his charm so fascinating is the fact that, as a result of his absent-mindedness, he is not loved and his love is oftentimes misunderstood.

As in many schlemiel stories from Eastern Europe, the main character is mistreated and misunderstood by others.  For all their laughter at the schlemiel, we can see that they do not love him.  With a schlemiel like Gimpel, we can see that he, a schlemiel, does love them; he trusts them, regardless of how much they lie to him and trick him.

Nonetheless, as Ruth Wisse points out, it seems that even Gimpel knows that they are lying to him.  Nonetheless, Gimpel keeps on foolishly trying to find trust and love.  Like Klein and all the people he didn’t love, Gimpel is half asleep and half-dreaming.  The Messianic moment is annunciated in the fact that, even though he knows this, Gimpel still comes back to them.  And this is the lament we see with Klein.  He is small; that is, he is (like Gimpel and most traditional schlemiels) a simpleton.  But this humility comes out in a different way.  It comes out in the fact that, even though he is here, alive, and talking to Gross, he is still small insofar as he feels he didn’t love them when he probably did.  He, too, is a half-dreamer and is half-asleep since he thinks that they will now love him and come with him or that he didn’t truly love them.  These are half-truths.  The effect of his half-blindness and his half-dreaming is that he literally can’t look at himself as Gross (big) because he is Klein (small).

(An irony that arises from this fact is that Paul Celan told Theodor Adorno, for whom he wrote this piece, in part, that he saw Adorno as Gross; but Adorno said that he was not Jewish and that the Gross Celan was looking for was Gershom Scholem.  This would imply that Scholem was not the schlemiel; but, as we saw above, Celan ends the piece by saying that both Klein and Gross are still “windbags.”  That said, Klein still thinks of himself as Klein while we’re not sure what Gross thinks.  His response to Klein’s words is not recorded in “Conversation in the Mountains.”)

Nonetheless, Klein foolishly believes that his words will now win the love of those he did not love.  And this is where he is a schlemiel.  He hopes that they – the dead (who appear, as it were, in a dream-like vision of lying with him half-asleep/half-dreaming) – can hear him.  Like Nobody who asks “Can-you-hear-Me,” Klein asks the same question.  Gross can hear him.  But they cannot.

In the end, he is still a “windbag” – but this windbag, this schlemiel, has a big heart.  And his journey is not simply forwards it is also backwards, toward the dead.  And in this journey, he will always be “on-the-way” to himself…and the other.  His dream of love and trust is the dream of every traditional schlemiel.  And it is out of a conversation with another schlemiel that he becomes aware of it.  It is through this conversation that he has a breathturn which turns him toward Nobody, others, and another windbag named Gross.  It also turns him toward us.

Klein is a schlemiel only insofar as his heart can turn, through all of this noise, to finding or securing love.  And even if this love may be impossible to earn, it is the very thing that give Klein his humanity.  His blindness (or rather half-blindness) in pursuit of this love should give us pause.  For even if he is half blind, he can still hear Nobody say and can hear himself ask Gross the same question – a question that can lead to a rejoinder or solitude.

Do you hear me?

And, in a messianic fashion, Klein has “come” to ask this question and receive an answer which is, in effect, just another question:

Why and what for? 

These questions, though troubling, are in search of an answer. But the take-away from all this is that the schlemiel doesn’t want an answer so much as someone to speak to.  Underlying it all is the risk that the schlemiel takes when he or she speaks to the other.  This is the risk of being or not being loved, heard, and understood.  Every comedienne or comedian who takes on an audience knows this.  And, in this piece, the schlemiel’s charm is based on his vulnerability upon being exposed to this risk.  And what we, as readers, realize is that though he desires the love of those he didn’t love, and though he feels his conversation with Gross may have earned it, his feelings are, like those he “lay with,” half-dream and half-reality.  Like any schlemiel, his love is caught up in dreams.

And this is what Klein came to tell Gross and us.  We, strangely enough, share this conversation.  Like Klein and Gross, we, too, have come to speak; we have come with the shadow and our hour; we have been hit.  And we must speak.  But what we say, regardless of whether we want to admit it, is half-dream/half-reality.  And though we may not have loved them, those other half-dreamers, we hope they will love us if we speak the truth.  And perhaps this is the most foolish hope of all. But Celan suggests that we entertain it as we converse with fellow-schlemiels.

Perhaps we will be loved.  Perhaps we will not.  We just hope they will accompany us as we walk down that road – the same road Kafka walked with a bunch of nobodies.  Perhaps, on the road, someone will ask us “Why did you come?”  And we will say, like Klein, “because I had to talk, maybe, to myself or to you, talk with my mouth and tongue, not just with my stick.”

A Note on Paul Celan’s Minor Language in “Conversation in the Mountains”

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Although Celan’s “major” language was German (a language he was raised with and wrote his poetry in), Celan’s work was also influenced by “minor” languages.  The contrast between major and minor languages comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.    In the book, the proposal is made that we rethink the writing of authors who, like Kafka, live in a Milleu where more than one language is spoken.  And this background enables (and enabled) authors to “deterritorialize” and “reteritorialize” the major language (in the case of Kafka and Celan, German).  To be sure, both Kafka and Celan lived on the fringe of the German empire.  And both of them played around with different German dialects and styles in their work; this had the advantage of introducing nuance into the major language.

But there is more to the story.  Deleuze and Guitarri are not simply interested in what it means to write as a bilingual author.  They are also interested in looking at the textual alterations of Kafka (and other writers) in terms of new combinations, relations, and speeds, that these writers introduce (what they call the “machinic”).  In other words, they’re writing affects the way the major language speaks by altering textual rhythms and relations.

This is what I see and hear in Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” (although it can be heard throughout his poetry but not in such a pronounced manner as in this text).  The way this alteration is effected in that text is by way of the repetitive “babbling” and “shrugging” of the schlemiels Klein and Gross.  Their conversation introduces a speed that is alien to the German way of conversation.  But, unlike Felstiner (whose reading I discussed in my last blog entry) I would say that this alteration has a positive valance.  For Celan, it’s strange rhythm opens up a new way for Celan to relate to German, himself, the other, and Jewishness.

After the Holocaust, Celan seeks out a new relationship which takes into account what has been lost and what must survive.  But unlike many of his other texts, this one is explicitly comic and was not to be repeated again.  Its style is singular.  And for that reason it is more powerful.  Unlike other writers, performers, and actors, Celan didn’t make the style and rhythms in “Conversation in the Mountains” his “schtick.”

Nonetheless, it stands as a unique moment in his work which calls on his readers to seriously consider how this text was, for him, a milestone.   It helped him to deterritorialize and reterritorialize Mausheln (Yiddish dialect German) and German.  And he did this in a conversation between two schlemiels, on the one hand, and a minor and a major language, on the other.

I’ll end this entry with the first meeting of schlemiels (what Kakfa in “Excursion in the Mountains” called the meeting of “nobodies”) that “Conversation in the Mountains” records.  When Klein meets Gross, there is silence, but as I will show in the next entry, this doesn’t last long:

And who do you think came to meet him?  His cousin came to meet him, his first cousin, a quarter of a Jew’s life older, tall he came, came, he too, in a shadow, borrowed of course – because I ask you and ask you, how could he come with his own when God made him a Jew – came, tall, came to meet the other, Gross approached Klein, and Klein, the Jew, silenced his stick before the stick of the Jew Gross.

Who is ‘He’…Kafka or… Someone…Else? Maurice Blanchot and Paul Auster’s Childish Fascination with ‘Him’

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When I first read Paul Auster’s “Pages for Kafka,” I was struck by the fact that, although he mentioned Kafka’s name in his title, he didn’t make any reference to Kafka’s name throughout the piece.  Instead, Auster refers to “he” and “him” repeatedly.

Here is one instance, which I cited in my last blog entry:

He is never going anywhere.  And yet he is always going.  Invisible to himself, he gives himself up to the drift of his own body, as if he could follow the trail of what refuses to lead him.

And then it occurred to me that the reason Auster was obsessed with “him” had a lot to do with an author and thinker he has, without a doubt, read: the celebrated French literary critic and thinker, Maurice Blanchot.  (I say, ‘without a doubt’ because Auster translated two of Maurice Blanchot’s novellas under the title Vicious Circles and he married Lydia Davis, a writer and well-known translator of Blanchot, the same year he wrote “Pages for Kafka.”)

Blanchot has written a few significant essays on Kafka.  But of all these essays, only one came to mind when thinking about Auster’s obsessive reference to ‘him’; namely, the essay entitled “Essential Solitude” (which appears in the Lydia Davis collection on Kafka).

In Blanchot’s essay, Kafka is mentioned in relation to what Blanchot calls the “interminable, the incessant” which he relates to the word, “he”:

Writing is the interminable, the incessant. The writer, it is said, gives up saying “I.”  Kafka remarks, with surprise, with enchantment, that he has entered into literature as soon as he can substitute “He” for “I.”

In the wake of this citation, Blanchot becomes what Harold Bloom would call a “strong poet.”  He does this by slightly revising what Kafka understands by this movement from the “I” to “He.”

This is true, but the transformation is much more profound.  The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing.  He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. 

In other words, Kafka, according to Blanchot, was so to speak blinded by the light of his “surprising” discovery.  Kafka thought he was discovering himself in “Him” when, in fact, he was literally discovering something altogether impersonal.

The more Blanchot talks about “Him,” the more Kafka comes across as a dupe who believes that language can help a writer to come to him or herself by stripping him or herself of his or her “I.”

In contrast to Kafka, writing, for Blanchot, is a way of making oneself into an “echo” by letting that which “cannot cease speaking”… speak.

To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking….I bring to this incessant speech the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence.  I make perceptible, by my silent mediation, the uninterrupted affirmation, the giant murmuring upon which language opens and thus becomes image, becomes imaginary, becomes a speaking depth, an indistinct plentitude which is empty.

In lines like these, one hears Martin Heidegger’s claim, in his essays on language, that “language speaks.”  One also hears what Blanchot will later call “the infinite conversation.”  Here, the “I” doesn’t speak.  He, the other, does.  But the I, the writer doesn’t totally dissolve.  Rather, he still “keeps the cutting edge, the violent swiftness of active time, of the instant.”

In other words, the I only has the instant, the “cutting edge,” which makes room for language to speak and “become image.”  What Blanchot means by language is something very serious.  There is no discovery and there is nothing humorous here.  The experience of language, in fact, denotes more or less what Levinas would call, in his earlier essays, an exposure to the il y a (the anonymous and terrifying “there is” of existence).

When this happens, the writer becomes other; the writer becomes “him”: “the third person is myself become no one…it is his not being himself.”  In other words, he is himself and other-than-himself.

This movement reminds me of Heidegger’s experience of the “nihilation of the Nothing” in his essay “What is Metaphysics.”  After articulating the experience of such nihiliation, Heidegger notes, with an ellipsis (…) that “one feels ill at ease.”  Not me but “someone.”

Blanchot “echoes” this passage from Heidegger’s essay:

When I am alone, I am not alone, but, in the present, I am already returning to myself in the form of Someone. Someone is there, where I am alone…Someone is what is still present when there is no one.  Where I am alone, I am not there; no one is there, but the impersonal is: the outside, as that which prevents, precedes, and dissolves the possibility of any personal relation.

But this is not the Nothing, it is, for Blanchot, the il y a, the endless “there is.”  Which he calls “the outside.”  To be sure, in this moment of otherness, the outside is with “me.” And it is one’s “intimacy” with the outside that creates restlessness and what Blanchot calls “fascination.”  Although Heidegger also writes on fascination in the second chapter of Being and Time and even though, as Christopher Fynsk argues in Heidegger: Thought and Historicity that this “fascination” is with Dasein’s “originary disappropriation,” Blanchot leaves Heidegger further behind with his new reading of fascination.  But, perhaps without knowing it, Blanchot returns back to Kafka.

Blanchot notes that fascination deals, specifically, with vision.  It “seizes sight and renders it interminable.” But this makes for a kind of light that is not simply terrifying; rather, “one sinks into” a light that is “both terrifying and tantalizing.”

Strangely enough, the experience that Blanchot uses to illustrate this is “our childhood”:

If our childhood fascinates us, this happens because childhood is the moment of fascination, is itself fascinated.

Blanchot notes that “perhaps” the “maternal figure” is fascinating because “she concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment.”  But it is only “because the child is fascinated that the mother is fascinating.” And in this fascination there is a misperception: “Whoever is fascinated doesn’t see, properly speaking, what he sees. Rather, it touches him in an immediate proximity.” And what touches the child is “the immense, faceless Someone.”

Blanchot is telling us that in letting “fascination rule language,” writers are like children.  By letting fascination rule, one “stays in touch, through language, in language, with the absolute milieu where the thing becomes image again.”  Fascination itself is an opening “onto that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.”

This suggests that writers are fascinated with the same things children are fascinated.  In effect, writers are men-children.  They are, in some ways, like schlemiels in the sense that they are without a world yet…in touch with “the thing become image again.”

Auster’s reference to Kafka in his “Pages for Kafka” as “him” and “he” is an attempt to bring out this childishness.  And, although it is serious, it is laughable.  His Kafka wanders toward a Paradise but gets distracted with things he sees along the way.  He sees what is close to him.  He looks down at his feet, walks oddly, and wanders all over.  However, he is on the road.  And this road is a road to paradise.  As I noted in the previous blog, Auster recognizes that this is foolish, but he affirms it anyway.  In other words, he, like Blanchot, affirms fascination. But Auster notes its comical aspect while Blanchot gets caught up in the childlike fascination of the child which, for some reason, he doesn’t see as comical.

But is the “he” Auster refers to a schlemiel?

While writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer put forth Schlemiels who are blind to the world and are, nonetheless, in touch with “things,” we know that they are schlemiels.  True, they are laughable because they can’t relate to the world.  Yet, on the other hand, the world is at fault for being… a world in which innocence and trust have no place.  And this turns readers against the world, not the schlemiel.

Nonetheless, Motl, Menachem Mendl, and Gimpel are all, as Auster says of Kafka, on the road to Paradise.  But, for Blanchot, fascination won’t lead one to Paradise so much as toward “that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.”  But, if that is true, then what of other people?  Aren’t they a part of the world? Aren’t Gimpel, Menachem Mendl, and Motl constantly moving towards people? And even though they may miss meeting up with them in the world, they, at the very least, try.  Although the world is in conflict with the schlemiel, we the readers would ultimately like the world to one day be in tune with this comic character’s goodness.  And that is the point.  Childhood fascination and absent mindedness are not the true ends of the schlemiel tale – a shared world of goodness is.

Given this understanding, I wonder what Auster or Blanchot would say to Paul Celan’s proposal in his prose piece “Conversation in the Mountains” – a story that parallels Auster’s story of the fool on the road.   In Celan’s story, however, there are, apparently, two people are on the road, not one.  And it is the dialogue between them that Celan stages.  This back-and-forth rhythm of conversation enunciates a kind of Jewishness that is singular and unique.  In this conversation we don’t see childish characters who are simply or only interested in things.  They also speak to each other.  They seek out a relationship to the world which, no matter how absent minded it is, is real.

Without this added element, it seems as if Blanchot and Auster move “him” toward a fascinating world that is fit for a child who has no friends save in things.  This man-child, in his “essential solitude,” would only have Someone (him) as a companion.   Someone who he lets speak.   Language alone doesn’t speak.  People do.

After all, no matter how lonely Kafka seemed, he ironically noted, in his Octavio Notebooks, that Don Quixote’s biggest problem was not his imagination; it was Sancho Panza.  It was the other person.  But these are the problems that Kafka, in a Yiddish way, kvetched about but loved.  Sancho Panza, like all friends, has a proper name.

Perhaps friends are less fascinating than things.  But, at the very least, we don’t “wander” on that road alone.  We have “someone” to share the journey with (regardless of how blind).  And this is what we find in Cervantes’ Don Quixote and in the Jewish Don Quixote: Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the Third.  Schlemiels try not to travel alone.  Their otherness is shared and Someone is always ‘there’….

Kafka, Seriously: Paul Auster’s Kafka

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After reading and posting Matthue Roth’s guest post yesterday, I reflected on how seriously many writers, literary critics, and philosophers took Kafka.  I find it interesting that few can sense the irony and humor in his work. What they usually find is weight and despondency.  What I’m looking for in Kafka is much different.

I’m looking for the comical aspect of his work.  Like Walter Benjamin, I am looking where no one else looks.  And taking Kafka’s cues, I’m looking for the small things.  Its these small things that make for a nuanced schlemiel.   One need not go so deep.  One can stay on the surface.  But, strangely enough, staying on the surface is a serious endeavor.

The comic aspect of Kafka’s work may be found in the close attention to detail. One may not think this comic; but for Shalom Aleichem, Motl or Menachem Mendl’s attention to detail is the basis for their constant distraction.  The same can be said for Charlie Chaplin or any of the Three Stooges.

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Like children, they forget what they are supposed to do and get caught in something else.  They don’t get caught up in the depths or with the seriousness of the sacred.  They play.

And this is what Matthue was pointing out in his post.  To be sure, his book My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs is for kids.  It is replete with accessible phrasing and illustrations to capture the imagination of children and adults (or man-children).

As I pointed out in my reading of Kafka’s “Temple” aphorism, the childish scribbles on the temple remain.  They are on the surface of the temple and reduce its depth.  Yet, at the same time, the children’s scribbles have made a serious joke out of the temple.

The trick, in Kafka, is to figure out how to retrain the tension between the serious and the comic.  By doing this, the reader will not get stumped in the seriousness of his or her solitude and despondence.

On this note, I recently read Paul Auster’s “Pages for Kafka” with great interest. The piece, written in 1974 (and published in The Art of Hunger), is an indication of how seriously one can take Kafka.  The short piece was written, like Walter Benjamin’s piece on Kafka, for the anniversary of Kafka’s death.  Due to the occasion, one would expect it, to some extent, to be serious and mournful.  Moreover, Auster is not known for writing comic novels.

On the one hand, Auster’s reading reflects an acute sense of despair that is based on a journey that never goes anywhere.  On the other hand, it has a comic ring to it since ‘he’ (that is, Kafka) is constantly getting distracted.  Even though the failures Auster enumerates in this piece seem to tilt the balance toward a serious and mournful approach to Kafka, they are ultimately based on Kafka’s ridiculous and impossible endeavor.

Auster begins his piece by describing Kafka’s main endeavor (which we find in the Octavio Notebooks or in a piece like “Before the Law”): “He wanders toward paradise.”

This wandering is endemic for Auster.  He meditates on it in the whole piece and relates it to one of his favorite themes (in many of his books): the travelogue.

Auster notes that Kafka “moves from one place to another, and dreams of stopping”(23).   But he can’t stop because this “desire to stop” haunts him. This makes no sense.  How could a desire to do something keep one from doing it?  Isn’t he haunted, rather, by the goal, paradise?  Auster explains by simply reiterating: “He wanders.  That is to say: without the slightest hope of ever going anywhere.”

If that is the case, then why is he still walking?  And what would a schlemiel be if he had no hope of going anywhere?  Gimpel, for instance, is the embodiment of hope.  That’s why he continually trusts people while being betrayed by them.   And, as we learn at the end of Singer’s tale, he keeps on wandering.

I’d like to suggest that we read Auster against Kafka (or “him”).  The narrator is making his skeptical observations of “him” – the fool on the road to paradise named Kafka.  By reading Auster this way, we can see just how comic this piece really is.

For the narrator, the central paradox can be found in Kafka’s inertia and its relationship to wandering: “He is never going anywhere.  And yet he is always going.”  The reason for this, says Auster, has to do with the fact that Kafka is “invisible to himself.”  Lest we not forget, this is one of the most important aspects of the schlemiel.  S/he doesn’t know what s/he is doing.  Although they are hopeful, his/her actions don’t fit with reality.  Auster tells us that, in being invisible  to himself, Kafka “gives himself up to the drift of his body, as if he could follow the trail of what refuses him.”

In other words, Auster is willing to concede that Kafka, like Don Quixote, is a blind wanderer.  Even though he doesn’t know where he is going and is blind to it, his “blindness…invents the road he has taken.”  This invention is not “intentional”; it is, rather, based on giving in to what Kafka, in his Octavio Notebooks, called the “indestructible.”  Because he is a skeptical narrator, Auster won’t call it faith or passion.  Rather, for Auster, it is a surrender to “the drift of his body.”    And we can have no doubt that this can be comical and even inspiring – although it is “misguided” and although we “know” he’ll never reach paradise.

Here Auster notes the “existential” nature of this “road.”  Even though it is misguided, it is “his road, his alone.”  And the further along he goes on it, the more he “doubts.”  His breaths become “fitful.”   No one “rhythm” or “pace” can be held because of this ever-increasing doubt.  The image is kind of like Chaplin’s going down a road, but with a difference.  This movement is more fitful and less graceful.

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Auster adds another element to Kafka’s walk; namely, his past and his point of departure.  Auster notes, with melancholy, that he leaves it behind and thinks he has a vantage point, but he doesn’t.

His only “law” is that “he remains.” And instead of looking to the future, Auster tells us that he looks down:

All this conspires against him, so that each moment, even as he continues on his way, he feels he must turn his eyes from the distance that lies before him, like a lure, to the movement of his feet, appearing and disappearing below him (24).

In other words, the fool will look at what’s near him and get caught up in it.  That’s where he foolishly “remains.”  He’s caught up in the details and, as Auster puts it, he becomes an “intimate of all that is near.”

But unlike the playful Motl or Menachem Mendl of Shalom Aleichem, he gets too caught up in detail and this attachment weakens “him”:

Whatever he can touch, he lingers over, examines, describes with a patience that at each moment exhausts him, overwhelms him, so that even as he goes on, he calls this going into question, and questions each step he is about to take (25).

This is the Kafka-schlemiel trap.  He can’t move because he is too attached to what is near him.  He gets caught up in it and questions about where to go after he has encountered this or that detail.  Auster sums this up with an adage of sorts: “He who lives for an encounter with the unseen becomes an instrument of the seen.”  He becomes a “spokesman of its surfaces.” But that is not what “he” wants.  He wants to go to paradise but, Auster tells us, Kafka gets caught up on the way with the road.  In other words, he’s a schlemiel like Mendl Mocher Sforim’s schlemiels The Wanderings of Benjamin III who can’t arrive at their destination.

After noting “his” being stuck on the surface, Auster repeats the message: “He wanders.”  And then he states Kafka’s other law.  He doesn’t simply remain “where he is” he also has an ethos:

Whatever is given to him, he will refuse. Whatever is spread before him, he will turn his back on.  He will refuse, the better to hunger for what he has denied himself. For to enter the promised land is to despair of ever coming near it.

This is Auster’s law.  It is the law of hunger.  And it keeps him moving and not moving.  It keeps him hungering for fragments.  For, between one shadow or one fragment and another, says Auster, there is light.

What this amounts to is a serious endeavor that clings to and rejects revelation.  Yet, on the other hand, it is a comic endeavor.  But who is “he.”  Kafka? Auster?

In the end, he, whoever he is, is like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote.  The narrator’s description ends with a note of redemption in the sense that he says that between one shadow and another there is light.  But does he think this or does the narrator?

Who would take such a foolish path?  Is the author dreaming of light between this or that thing or is the he, the schlemiel, dreaming this?

A rationalist would reject such a road, but the writer doesn’t.  For Auster, the poet must trust experience even if it is, at times, deceptive.  This is what the schlemiel teaches us. Although we, the readers, may see that paradise is not to be found, the road to experience paves the way (or as Auster says, “invents” the way).  And it brings the world near to us in the most comic fashion.  As the world approaches, Paradise withdraws but the schlemiel insists that the way to paradise is through the world.  And this is the comic conceit.

He actually thinks that in this or that fragment, this or that thing, redemption is near.  While we all “know” its ridiculous, however, we still foolishly follow “him” (like children who should ‘know better’) in his journey   And so does Auster.

Seriously.  I’m not joking.

Guest Post by Author Matthue Roth: “How to Analyze Kafka (Hint: It Helps if You’re 4 yrs Old)”

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It’s either a huge compliment or a huge mistake to be invited so kindly to write a piece for this blog — and, more particularly, this series. Diving at the heart of what Kafka has to offer the universe is a noble pursuit, and the idea that I turned some of his stories into a picture book for kids either fits in perfectly or is way out of its depth.
Earlier this week, on this blog’s fabulous series of Kafka-related pieces, the Schlemiel wrote that “Kafka and Benjamin direct us to a more acute sense of the ‘how’ of their work rather than the ‘what.'” When you read Kafka, whether you’re an academic or not, and whether you’re a kid or not, it’s pretty impossible not to look for deeper themes and connections, some meaning beyond the apparent text and, well, thestory of the story. At some point in every Kafka piece, there’s a moment where you pull back* and realize that maybe there are deeper things going on than just the plot, the characters, the events in motion. Is Gregor Samsa a disgrace to his family because he’s a giant vermin, or because he’s a hopelessly single middle-manager? Are The Castle’s K. and The Trial’s Josef merely physically lost, or is there a deeper existential lost-ness?
We’ve been conditioned not to ask these questions, not because they’re obvious (although they certainly are) but because the nature of the question disspells everything we’ve been taught to believe in about stories. Stories are spells, and in them the interior and exterior are fused together, from the sublime to the ridiculous; it’s taken for granted in what we think of today as “serious” literature, but it’s no less true in popular literature. In Twilight, Bella is drawn to a dark, sulking guy because he makes his solitude and broodiness into something supernatural and magical, something she wishes it would be for herself (spoiler: it happens! She becomes a vampire too). In Dan Brown’s books, “symbologist” Robert Langdon is solving literal puzzles and infiltrating secret orders, but he’s also ostensibly engaged in a quest for self-definition, simultaneously attempting to impress whatever vaguely international love interest pops up as well as the naysayers who are, essentially, always asking, what is a symbologist?
So now that I’ve offended basically everyone who’s ever liked Kafka by comparing him to two of the most vapid, flaccid characters in modern fiction (both of which I think are reasonably good books, taken at their own merits), let me dig the knife in a little deeper by suggesting that, if we’re going to set up some sort of objective comparison, Kafka’s stories are more fundamentally poppy than both. Part of what draws us to Kafka, I think, is that there’s no distinction between signifier and signified, barely a set of cultural constructs that we need to understand, barely any references beyond the words themselves. A lot of the time, all we need to understand Kafka’s writing is a rudimentary understanding of the language.
None of which is actually true. The qualities about which he writes, loneliness and isolation and the fundamental meaninglessness, or our inability to find meaning in our lives, are the very stuff that our lives our made of. The other day someone asked me about my My First Kafka book, and, when I explained, he said, “Kafka? You mean, the philosopher?” Maybe once you pare human experience down to a labelless blob of emotions and motivations, as Kafka does, you switch from stories to philosophy. Or maybe at heart all our greatest philosophy are just stories. And that’s why, in the end, kids understand them so much better than the rest of us.
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* that is, if you’re me
(In addition to My First Kafka, Matthue Roth is the author of several works of fiction: Never Mind the Goldbergs, Yom Kippur A Go-Go, Candy in Action, Losers, and Automatic. Check out his blog for more:http://www.matthue.com/p/my-first-kafka.html)

“Don’t You Mind People Grinning in Your Face!” Son House, Kafka, and The Grin

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In preparation for a series of blog entries that I will be doing on Walter Benjamin, Kafka, and Comic Gesture, I’ve been pursuing research on humorous gestures.  In yesterday’s post, for instance, I pointed out that Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin were both fascinated (and afflicted by) “childish” and “clumsy scribblings.”   The fact is that they both write about this gesture and consider it to be of the utmost importance.  But what does it mean that they admit to these gestures and “own up” to them?  Have they taken on a tradition which starts with Don Quixote or with a tradition that starts with the end of prophesy – as I have suggested in the past?

Bearing mention of these comic gestures, Kafka and Benjamin direct us to a more acute sense of the “how” of their work rather than the “what.”  Their reading of these “childish scribblings,” their identification with them, is instructive.  Teetering between the gestures of an adult and a child, gesturing like schlemiels, they show us a wholly other side of their work and expose us to a sense of comic historicity.

But it’s not just the singular gestures – the childish and clumsy scribblings that they write of and identify with –that I’m interested in.  I’m interested in how these comic gestures relate to or spur others and how they are shared.

What kinds of relationships do schlemiels create by virtue of their gestures; that is, by virtue of their clumsy childish scribblings?

In the last blog, I suggested that these scribblings are related to the temple (the Holy) on the one hand, and the future on the other.   In other words, although they are ruinous of the holy, they, at the same time, open up a circuit in relation to the future and another kind of otherness which comes to the fore in the wake of the sacred’s departure.  And here, I would add, it opens up, additionally, a circuit with other people.

How, in fact, does a comic gesture create a relationship to the future, otherness, and others?

One of the most interesting things I find about many of my favorite comedians is that they often don’t laugh or even smile at the audience.  They may spur laughter through their gestures, but they often don’t smile or grin.  The audience does.  They see all of us laughing for the better or the worse.  This gestural relationship is intriguing as it creates a community based on ridicule and difference.

The comedian wants to spur laughter; however, they don’t want to be laughed at.  Laughter, as it were, can create relief or pain.  And the difference between the two is prepositional: the difference between laughing “with” and laughing “at.”

However, today, some comedians want to be laughed “at” and to laugh “with” others “at” themselves.  This complex form of self-ridicule can be seen in comedians like Larry David, Louis CK, Marc Maron, and Andy Kaufmann, to name only a few. What makes these comedians unique is that they laugh at those who laugh at them while at the same time laughing at themselves.  They laugh “with” others, “at” themselves, and “at” the audience. The schlemiel, to be sure, is oftentimes laughed at.  But he or she doesn’t get it or, if he or she does, just moves on.  That’s the trick.

However, in reality, no one can just be laughed at and go on unscathed.  While researching gesture, I came across this video by Son House, the legendary Blues Musician and Preacher.  In this video, he gives solace to those who have been scathed by the quintessential comic gesture: the grin.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJ-TQwMhPDg]

Son House’s advice, throughout the song, is not to “mind people grinning in your face.”  The way to get through people grinning “in” (or “at”) your face, sings Son House, is to turn to keep in mind that “a true friend is hard to find.  This implies that people you thought were your friends are really not.  The gesture of their betrayal is the “grin.”    True friends won’t grin at you.

Seen from the perspective of a schlemiel like Gimpel or Motl, what does this mean?  It would imply that they have no true friends.  But that doesn’t keep them from trusting people.  The comedy of the schlemiel is inherent in the fact that they still do trust people.  It is the viewer, however, who might have the problem.  The viewer is the one who might become cynical.   Unlike Gimpel, he or she knows what its like to be laughed at.

Son House’s song speaks to them.  It is a gestural response to being ridiculed.  It is a response to the grin.  The song actually addresses the wound a comic gesture may inflict on a person.  His song, in this sense, is “universal” in scope insofar as everyone – at some time in his or her life – has been laughed at by people he or she thought were friends.

So, on the one hand we have the schlemiel, whose comedy exposes us to a ridicule that he or she cannot recognize; on the other hand, we have the viewer who does recognize this ridicule.  On the one hand we have comedy; on the other hand, we have the comic blues. Both are sides of the same coin. And on the coin we find one thing: the grin.

Kafka noted the relationship of the grin to truth his December 11th entry in the his Third Octavio Notebook:

Our art is a way of being dazzled by truth: the light of the grotesquely grimacing retreating face is true, and nothing else.

For Kafka, the truth is not simply in the grinning face.  It is in the movement of the grimacing face; it can be found in the retreat of a “grotesquely grimacing (grinning) face.”  The fact that Kafka notes the retreat rather than the approach of the grimacing face is telling.  It indicates that Kafka sees truth in the wake of ridicule.

We hear this in Son House’s song.  He sings it to those who the grin has touched.  We also hear it both Kakfa and Benjamin’s mediations on the “scribblings of children” which embody the grotesque grin.  Kafka seems to be telling us that our truth, the truth of who we are, can be found in the withdrawal of ridicule.

This implies that the comedian who sees the audience grinning back at him or her has the best view of truth.   This relationship, I would aver, is not a once in a lifetime thing.  Kafka suggests that this gesture of comic withdrawal happens repeatedly.

This gesture has a lot in common with a childish scribble; however, the only difference is that a scribble remains inscribed while the grin comes and goes.  Nonetheless, perhaps like Derrida, we can imagine the scribble as a trace which, in its iterability, is caught up in endless repetition…constantly ridiculing the totality of the text in withdrawing the text from itself.  Perhaps the text, in this sense of being childish, comes and goes?

Regardless, Kafka understood that the relationship to the truth, which he associated with God, can only be related to comically…in the withdrawal of the grin or in the wake of “childish scribbles.”

On the other hand, a Preacher named Son House advises us “don’t mind people grinning in your face.”  The purpose of this line is to give solace to the believer who, in his or her search for God and justice, will have to face ridicule.  The question, for Son House, is what to think and how to cope with this ridicule.  The question, for Kafka, deals with the meaning of ridicule as it retreats and leaves us powerless and weak.

Nonetheless, both of them see truth in the withdrawing face of laughter (in the wake of laughter).  And perhaps this is a new, comic tradition, which emerges in the wake of God’s withdrawal or, as Kafka might say, in the wake of a withdrawing grin….