Tag: Kafka

‘Clumsy Scribblings of Senseless Children’s Hands’: On Heidegger and Kafka’s Temples


One of the most “Greek” moments of Martin Heidegger’s celebrated essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” can be found in his description of the “temple work.”  Heidegger depicts the temple as “giving things their look” and “men their outlook.”  The temple “lets the god himself be present and thus is the god himself.”

The temple gathers everything together into itself and creates a “holy precinct”:

It is the temple work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. 

Besides being the ground for the “shape of destiny for human being,” Heidegger says that the temple is the condition for the possibility of a nation’s “return to itself” and the only basis for the “fulfillment of its vocation.”

The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people.  Only from and in this expanse does the nation first return to itself for the fulfillment of its vocation.

Through the temple, the earth becomes the earth, the sky the sky, the gods the gods, and, most importantly for Heidegger, a nation a nation.  Because it does all of this, the temple is the ultimate work of art.  It delineates, as Heidegger says, the holy from the unholy.

Kafka, in contrast to Heidegger, has a different story to tell about the temple.  In a parable entitled “The Building of the Temple,” Kafka depicts a temple whose holiness is tainted (or rather marked) by the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands.”  Before we look into the meaning of this kind of marking, we need to make a close reading of how Kafka depicts the temple as such.

Kafka begins his parable by talking about the builder of the Temple – the artist – who he depicts as a kind of magician.  The world literally goes to him as if it were waiting all its life to be “put to work” in the name of holiness.

Everything came to his aid during the construction work.  Foreign workers brought the marble blocks, trimmed and fitted to one another.  The stones rose and placed themselves according to the gauging motions of his fingers.  No building ever came into being as easily as did this temple – or rather, this temple came into being the way a temple should.

By saying that it came into being “the way a temple should,” Kafka’s narrator implies that temples should, in a Heideggarian sense, “come together” in the “temple work” and preserve the “truth.”  Heidegger would not disagree with this; although his description differs, he would agree with the spirit of Kafka’s initial description of the temple work.

Knowing full well that this description of the temple is too Greek and too Holy, Kafka ruins it by way of introducing “instruments…magnificent sharpness” and their “senseless scribblings.”

Except that, to wreak a spite or to desecrate or destroy it completely, instruments obviously of a magnificent sharpness had been used to scratch on every stone…for an eternity outlasting the temple, the clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands, or rather the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers.

Heidegger notes that sometimes the god’s leave the temple for historical reasons and what remains behind, quite simply, are ruins.  No holiness or unholiness remains.  But, for Kafka, what remains are the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands.”  The desecration of the temple by such scribblings remains.

But there are many questions that arise out of this parable which have yet to be answered.  Who used these instruments and why should their mark outlast the temple? Does this survival make the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands” more significant?

The fact of the matter is that, for Kafka, the only thing that remains of the temple are “childish” gestures – what he calls scribblings (which make us think of hands). And, as Walter Benjamin notes of Kafka, we should read his work by was of a close attention gesture.

Regarding gesture, we notice that in the first part of the parable the gesture of “his fingers” (their slight movement) is in harmony with the act of building the perfect temple.  These are gestures of a mature and responsible adult who is passionately committed to the holy.  One can imagine that such an artist would arduously be at work building Heidegger’s temple.

Thinking by way of gesture, Kafka understood that the greatest offense to the adult nature of the holy is the gesture of a child.  As he notes, the gesture of the child is “clumsy” and “senseless.”  To add to the contrast, Kafka notes that this gesture comes from their hands as opposed to “his” fingers.

The gesture of children’s clumsy hands finds an echo in Walter Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism which I have written many blogs on.  As I noted in these entries, Benjamin saw the image of himself in Goethe’s house (and it wouldn’t be off to call it a temple) ruined by childish writing.  He didn’t write his name; someone else did.  He didn’t bring his ruin on; someone else did.  Nonethless, he is marked by this “childish scribbling.”

To be sure, it is a child’s scribblings which, for both Benjamin and Kafka, ruins holiness.  For Benjamin, his discovery of this scribbling is the discovery of himself as a schlemiel.  His destiny is bound to this childish kind of writing and he is well aware of the fact that it clashes with the holiness of Goethe’s temple.  Kafka is also aware that this writing marks the temple and ruins it; he is aware that he is the one who must relay this message to us. Even though he is not the one who perpetrated the writing, he reports on it.  It is, so to speak, his awareness of the schlemiel and his ways that he reports.   The schlemiel – regardless of his good intent – has a way of ruining perfection.  The schlemiel’s actions (gestures) are clumsy and senseless scribblings.  And, in many novels and in Hasidic stories, perfection is ruined in the name of something to come.  Ruining the temple, the Greek one, is not simply an act of rebellion or ridicule.  It is preparatory and it opens up the most foolish thing of all: hope.

Citing Kafka’s aphorism, Maurice Blanchot – in his essay “Kafka and Literature” – ends his essay with the claim that “art is like the temple of which the Aphorisms speaks.”  Blanchot explains the meaning of this claim by likening art to a place of where opposites dwell together:

Art is the place of anxiety and complacency, of dissatisfaction and security.  It has a name: self-destruction, infinite disintegration.  And another name: happiness, eternity.    

The problem with Blanchot’s reading of the parable is that, like Heinz Politzer, it leaves out the comic aspect of this parable and prefers, instead, a generalization about opposites dwelling in the same place.  He prefers the paradox as such.

Rather than simply see the paradox, which is of course relevant, I’d suggest we see the children’s senseless scribbling as something that both Benjamin and Kafka thought of as standing in the way between themselves and holiness.  They both desire the holy, but, unlike Heidegger, they both understand that no matter what they do they will always slip into the childish gestures of the schlemiel.  They see themselves by way of this predicament and know that it will be an endless embarrassment.  Yet, as I mentioned above, they saw such ruination as opening to something other, something to come.

Heidegger, on the other hand, seems to believe that perfect temples could still be made and that the destiny of nations could be predicated by such a free-standing structure.   For Kafka and Benjamin, one can’t think of the temple without thinking of the schlemiel and his childish, senseless scribbling.

The schlemiel’s writing is written on the temple wall.  Kafka could see it.  Too bad Martin Heidegger and Albert Speer couldn’t….

Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 2


By way of a comic narrator, Kafka’s readings of Abraham and his creation of “other Abrahams” are educational: they teach us how the other Abrahams are.  I would suggest that, for Kafka, his Abrahams are schlemiels who, while acknowledging Kierkegaard’s Passionate Knight of Faith, also offer a challenge to it.  Instead of passion and concentration they also offer us inertia and absent-mindedness.  Kafka’s close descriptions of Abraham and these “other Abrahams” offer us something like a phenomenology of the schlemiel-as-prophet.  After all, Abraham is a prophet just as much as Moses is; however, as Maimonides notes, his prophesy is weaker because it is oftentimes mediated by the imagination.

In the first of his “other Abrahams,” Kafka sets the tone for his entire piece.  His  descriptions of him offer us foolish wisdom:

Abraham’s spiritual poverty and the inertia of this poverty are an asset, they make concentration easier for him, or, even more, they are concentration already.

Attention, as Benjamin says regarding Kafka, is the “silent prayer of the soul.”  So is humility, which Kafka took as the greatest means to peace (as we pointed out in another blog entry).  Spiritual poverty goes hand-in-hand with humility and, for Kafka, it leads to a kind of slowness (what he calls “inertia”).  And, apparently, humility and slowness are not things one can use to concentrate better; they are concentration.  In other words, Abraham’s humility, his spiritual poverty, is concentration.  To make such a claim is to affirm some kind of pathos.  But, immediately after stating this, Kafka decides to offset this pathos and inserts a joke (which every critic I have read has, unfortunately, missed):

By this, however, he loses the advantage of applying the powers of concentration.

The punch line is that he, the narrator, and not Abraham can’t concentrate or understand the value of being concentration instead of using it.  The voice of this piece, the narrator, is a schlemiel. Kafka seems to be telling us that the schlemiel’s job is to acknowledge pathos and inertia but, at the same time, not recognize it.   Pathos is tainted by distraction – something the schlemiel knows well.

The schlemiel is the “other Abraham” while Abraham is the “knight of faith.”

Its not that the narrator is an anti-hero so much as an almost-hero.  To be sure, this absent-minded joke about Abraham and his “spiritual poverty” resonate throughout Kafka’s Abrahams.

The next Abraham addresses Abraham’s relationship to the world.  The narrator criticizes him by saying that this Abraham falls prey to “the illusion” of not seeing the world as something uniform.  By calling it an illusion, Kafka is being highly ironic.  For Kafka, on the contrary, this is not an illusion.  Yet, for the other Abraham it is.  This is obviously ridiculous.  And that is what a schlemiel is or does: he makes ridiculous claims.  They are ridiculous in relation to Kierkegaard’s Abraham, the knight of faith, who, of course, is sickened by the uniformity of the world.  Kierkegaard is preponderant in this regard; the Knight of Faith is obsessed with “the individual” and being “singled out.”  And Abraham, for Kierkegaard, is the penultimate example of uniquesness.  But the voice in this piece says something ridiculous which misinterprets this, once again.  Or, rather, it doesn’t recognize pathos.

Regarding the next Abraham, the narrator notes that the “real Abraham” had “everything” and yet “was to be raised still higher.”  He was raised, since childhood, for the deed.  The narrator notes, here, that this Abraham did not, as Kierkegaard would say, take a leap; rather, “this (his sacrifice) would be logical.”

The narrator contrasts this “real Abraham” to some of the Abrahams who may not even have a child to sacrifice.  For them, the commandment was impossible.  In response to this “impossible” commandment, the narrator told us Sarah Laughed: “These are impossibilities and Sarah had a right to laugh.”  Lest we not forget, Sarah laughs at what would naturally seem impossible: giving birth to a child in her old age.  However, here, the laughter is something specific that happened after Isaac’s birth.  The point being that the narrator mistakes Sarah’s laugh for a general laugh: the laugh at the impossible commandment.

This reading is fascinating because what she is laughing at is the schlemiels situation which is essentially impossible; however, what the schlemiel usually does is to act “as if” the impossible can still be done. This, of course, is ridiculous.  But this is the condition of at least one of the “other Abrahams” who may not have a son to sacrifice.  And it is to this part of the parable that Jill Robbins most closely illustrates her reading.  Kafka, for her, is that “other Abraham.”   Regardless of whether or not we read this parable, like Robbins, as an allegorical autobiography, the point remains: the narrator mis-reads Abraham’s specific, unique commandment by generalizing it.  And this has the effect of challenging its pathos.  This doesn’t detract from that Kafka, elsewhere, sees himself as commanded.  The commandment remains but, as he points out there, it is hard to understand.  His prayer, so to speak, is addressed toward understanding the commandment.  To be sure, Kafka associates his commandment with prayer and humility.

And this brings us to the last of the Other Abrahams who is too humble.   In yesterday’s blog entry, we ended with this “other Abraham.”  This Abraham is so humble that he can’t imagine why he, an old man, and his son – a “dirty” child – could have been called upon by God:

True faith is not lacking in him, he has this faith; he would make the sacrifice in the right spirit if only he could believe he was the one meant.  He is afraid that after starting out as Abraham with his son he would soon change on the way into Don Quixote.  The world would have been enraged at Abraham could it have beheld him at this time, but this one is afraid that the world would laugh itself to death at the sight of him.  However, it is not the ridiculousness as such that he is afraid of – that he is, of course, afraid of that too and, above all, of his joining in the laughter – but in the main he is afraid that this ridiculousness will make him even older and uglier, his son even dirtier, even more unworthy of being called.

This Abraham is already ridiculous; he fears becoming older the more ridiculous he becomes.  This is telling.  Here, Kafka, like Baudelaire and his imagining of an old clown in the circus, imagines what life would be like for someone like this Abraham, this schlemiel.

What would it be like to always be a schlemiel?  What would it be like to always be the object of ridicule?  In the end, Kafka’s parable suggests that being a humble-laughing- stock is not easy.  It’s hard to be a clown, and this life of ridicule deeply affects the body of the schlemiel prophet.  The other-Abraham’s fear – the fear of a humble schlemiel – is that the more one is the pit of laughter, the more one will not be “worthy” of being called.  This fear demonstrates the utter simplicity and humility of this Abraham.   This other Abraham mis-recognizes the calling because he is caught up in the reality of being a schlemiel.

Echoing the first joke, which was based on a mis-recognition of passion, these Abrahams are humble and absent-minded.  They challenge Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith since they misrecognize passion, don’t see themselves as worthy, and do not passionately relate to God (but this has nothing to do with their lack of faith; perhaps it has to do with the “inertia” of their spiritual poverty).

Unlike Kierkegaard, this Abraham doesn’t want to laugh with everyone.  He is afraid of what will happen.  And this makes sense.  It reminds me of Andy Kaufmann’s reticence – near the end of his career – when facing a laughing audience.  He can’t join in as he has lived with too much ridicule.  What happens is that when one laughs, one becomes like a god in this moment of laughing with the gods.  This Abraham can’t even entertain that.  Its not that it’s ridiculous; rather, it is embarrassing.  Ridicule exposes the schlemiel prophet and wears him down.

In the end, the schlemiel doesn’t opt for pathos.  He can’t.  The Knight of Faith can.  Perhaps that’s why the schlemiel’s best defense is absent-mindedness?


Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 2)


In the end of The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments,” Kierkegaard argues that the “ironist is always on the watch” for contradictions and verbal malapropisms.  This vigilance is radical.  For Kierkegaard, the true principled ironist will laugh at everyone, equally.  S/he will even laugh at those who die for an opinion.  No stone will go unturned by the ironist.  The point Kierkegaard wants to make is that dying for a claim or idea (in the name of “freedom,” “justice,” etc) is ridiculous because it will always be ironic:

To the extent the gentleman may be right in asserting that he has that opinion with all his vital force he persuades himself he has, he may do everything for it in the quality of a talebearer, he may risk his life for it, in very troubled times he may carry the thing so far as to lose his life for this opinion…and yet there may be living contemporaneously with him an ironist who, even in the hour when the unfortunate gentleman is executed, cannot resist laughing, because he knows by the circumstantial evidence he has gathered that the man had never been clear about the thing himself. (257)

The ironist, so to speak, laughs at the beheading; it is ironic.  But the ironist Kierkegaard is talking about, the vigilant ironist, is not secular; s/he is religious. S/he is not saved by laughter and the gods; s/he is saved by God:

Laughable it is…for he who with quiet introspection is honest before God and concerned for himself, the Deity saves from being in error, though he be never so simple; him the Deity leads by the suffering of the inwardness of truth.  (258)

In other words, for Kierkegaard, God has the last laugh.  For him, people who believe that their words and ideas will save them will always fail. Their martyrdom is (or will be) tainted by this or that irony.

To illustrate, Kierkegaard tells the story of a thief who dons a wig and robs an innocent bystander.  But after committing the crime, the criminal takes off his wig and runs away.  A “poor man” comes along and puts the wig on and he, unfortunately, becomes the scapegoat. Since man who is robbed sees the wig, and not the man, he makes an oath that the poor man – that is, the innocent man – is the criminal.

The irony is that when the man who steals happens upon the court case, puts the wig on, and says he is the real criminal, the oath taker realizes he has made an error; but he can do nothing since he already swore that the poor man with the wig (the wrong man) was the criminal.

The lesson is obvious.  Kierkegaard sees all public oaths and all statements – statements one is willing to stake everything on – to be laughable.  The oath is ironic; it is not a truthful commitment.  In addition, it is the poor and innocent man – who happens to be walking by – who is the victim of irony (and not just the victim of the theft who made the wrong oath).

The final lesson that Kierkegaard wants to teach us is that people who are more concerned with the “what” (the “hat”) rather than the “how” (inner passion and conviction) will always be deceived.

The only thing that can save us from the absurdity of irony (the “error”), says Kierkegaard, is faith.  Faith, “the how,” is greater than “the what” (the public proclamation of truth).  The inner oath, so to speak, is greater than the outer oath.  Apparently, the inner oath cannot be ironic while the outer oath can.

Therefore, laughter, for Kierkegaard, leads to faith since one will realize that truth cannot exist in exterior reality.  All public acts – even the most noble – will lead to error and irony.  Faith may not.  It is a “possibility” or risk that Kierkegaard would like to take.

For Kierkegaard, the internal absence of irony makes faith better than laughter since irony may lead to faith or skepticism.  Kierkegaard chooses the latter.  Laughter may be the gift of the gods, but for the Kierkegaard of The Postscript, the greater gift is the gift of God: the gift of faith.

However, there is a problem.  Kierkegaard’s description of Abraham in Fear and Trembling insists that the inner “secret” of Abraham’s faith-slash-wisdom is not a faith untainted by foolishness but…foolishness:

But Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself.

To say that the “secret” of Abraham’s wisdom is foolishness implies his faith is ironic.  A secret implies something hidden from view; what Kierkegaard would call the “inner” or “subjectivity.”  Given what we have learned from The Postscript above, we can understand that this public commitment can be called ridiculous, but his inner commitment (his inner “oath” of faith) should not.

To say that this is a secret invites the question: can anything, even something so serious as faith, escape laughter?  If the secret of faith is irony, then everything is touched with laughter – even the state of “fear and trembling” that Abraham goes through when he “decides” to act.   But can this really be the case?  If faith, an internal oath, is better than the external oath, shouldn’t it be unblemished by irony?  Is irony, still, a saving grace for Kierkegaard?  Is it the secret of faith?  Is Kierkegaard taking the side of the holy fool?

And how does this fare with the schlemiel?  Is Kierkegaard’s notion of irony consistent with a Jewish concept of irony?  Does the schlemiel have a secret, too?  And is this secret foolishness?

The answers to many of these questions come from Kafka.  For him, Abraham was a schlemiel of sorts.   Kafka’s comic rendering of Abraham and his situation makes Abraham into a simpleton and not so much a passionate knight of faith.

To play on Kierkegaard, I’d say that the issue, for Kafka, is not so much whether faith puts an end to laughter as who laughs and how one laughs in relation to “the commandment.”

(I will turn to Kafka’s Abraham in the next blog.)

Boredom, Laughter, and Kierkegaard’s Rotating Kata-Strophe (Take 1)


Soren Kierkegaard’s interest in irony is well-known.  His book The Concept of Irony addresses irony and, throughout his work, one can find many passing references to it.  Moreover, Kierkegaard’s concept of irony has been written on by many different scholars.  I am not a Kierkegaard scholar, nor do I aspire to be one; nonetheless, as a schlemiel theorist, I am very interested in his work on irony.   To be sure, anyone who takes an interest in philosophy and comedy can benefit from a study of Kierkegaard’s “ironic” project.  In addition, I would suggest that anyone interested in Kafka’s work and its relation to irony should also look into Kierkegaard as Kafka read much of Kierkegaard’s work.  There are many instances where their ideas of faith, truth, and irony resonate.

I am particularly interested in the two opening sections of Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or which alternate with each other in a musical way.  These sections also give us an acute sense of how important the dialectic between melancholy and laughter was for Kierkegaard.

In The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard notes that “as philosophy begins with doubt, so also that life which may be called worthy of man begins with irony.”  In this passage, Kierkegaard is suggesting that both philosophy and the “life…which may be called worthy of man” both begin with a crisis that is spurred by wonder.  Irony and doubt are at the beginning of the crisis.  But, as Aristotle notes, the goal of philosophy is to leave the state of perplexity and ignorance that initiate the philosopher’s quest for knowledge.

The point, for Aristotle, is to end the crisis.  Wonder, and the doubt that ensues, makes one unhappy and is certainly not the optimal state of man.

Irony, however, may not be the same.  Would Kierkegaard see irony as an obstacle to wisdom?  Or is irony an end in itself?  Wouldn’t irony preserve this crisis?

However, Gilles Deleuze argues in his book Masochism that irony may not simply be the beginning of philosophy; it may also be the end.    Deleuze argues that irony, in contrast to what he calls humor, looks to affirm a principle by way of negation.  Deleuze reads the ironies of Socrates (and even Marquis de Sade) in this manner.  Humor, in contrast, affirms contingency and relation.  Deleuze sees such humor in the masterpiece of Masochism: Venus in Furs.

I would like to suggest that Kierkegaard sees irony as clarifying a fundamental crisis.  It doesn’t affirm a principle so much as an alteration between possibilities and states.  We see this in the two opening sections of Either/Or which interest me.  What we find in these sections is a catastrophe.  And instead of simply looking into what the catastrophe is, we will also look into how it is.  This “how” will lead us to a more sophisticated understanding of Kierkegaard’s choice to affirm laughter above all else.

The word “catastrophe” has its roots in the word strephein which, in Greek, signifies a movement or turn from one chorus to another.   In music and in poetry, a strophe indicates a movement from one verse (or segment) to another.   The word Kata, in Greek, is prepositional.  It indicates movement and location: along, according to, toward, or against.  Taken together, a catastrophe could be read as a movement of one chorus or verse turning toward, along, against another.

Taken literally, a catastrophe suggests several movements: the movement of a verse in a collision course with another verse, a parallel course, a magnetic course, or…a “rotational” course.

To be sure, Kierkegaard suggests this in the first section of Either/Or which is entitled “The Rotation Method.”    He starts the section with a citation from Aristophanes’ comedy Plutus.   The passage, which takes place between two characters named Karion and Chremylos, rotates around many things that one gets “too much” of; they include: love, bread, music, honor, courage, ambition, etc.  The point is not the what one rotates around; that’s arbitrary. It’s the how of rotation that concerns Kierkegaard.  He’s interested in the rhythm, so to speak, of the catastrophe.

But what sets the rhythm off?

Kierkegaard, like Baudelaire, sees the biggest problem of all, which causes all of this rotation, to be excessive Boredom.  I have written on this topic with regard to Baudelaire’s prose piece “A Heroic Death.”  There, I point out how, for the main character (the Prince) Boredom is his greatest enemy and spurs him to do the most unethical things to ward against its power.  In that prose piece, the fool, unfortunately, becomes his target.  And, in some way, the death of the fool (who performs for the Prince) has much to do with the drive to kill Boredom.  But, as I point out there, the real issue is the Prince’s jealousy of the fool-slash-artist who is able to entrance an audience and rob him of his power.  For Baudealire, there is a war between art and entertainment and art and political power; his parable speaks to this conflict.

Like Baudelaire, Kierkegaard is aware of the tension between Boredom and art.  Boredom seeks out entertainment and distraction; art, however, offers a scathing critique of such distraction.  Kierkegaard offers his critique of Boredom as that which spurs endless rotation.  And he slights it for all of our evils:

“What wonder, then, that the world goes from bad to worse, and that its evils increase more and more, as boredom increases, and boredom is the root of all evil” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 22).

To illustrate this, Kierkegaard goes through history, starting with the Bible, and argues how nearly every major evil was caused, in some fashion, by boredom.  Kierkegaard states as his universal proposition that “all men are bores” and launches into an interesting rant on boredom which tries to fit in as many particulars as possible within this category:

It may as well indicate a man who bores others as one who bores himself.  Those who bore others are the mob, the crowd, the infinite multitude of men in general.   Those who bore themselves are the elect, the aristocracy; and it is a curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others (24).

So, where does Kierkegaard place himself in this spectrum or does he try to extricate himself, like Baudelaire, from the world of Boredom?


Are all Schlemiels Humble or Just Ridiculous? Kafka on Humility, the Language of Prayer, and Striving


We all love the simpleton.  Her ways are awkward, yet graceful. For all their simplicity, they are the ways of goodness.   But they come to us, as Avital Ronell says in her book Stupidity, by way of the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which is not innate and must be “publicly exposed.”  Perhaps Hollywood inherited the simpleton and its exposure from Yiddish literature.  Or as Paul Buhle might say, perhaps the schlemiel came from the Lower East Side and ended up in Hollywood as the simpleton.  The exemplary American simpleton, Dorothy, of The Wizard of Oz, lives in Kansas with several other simpletons who, like her, love to dream.  She lives on the American frontier and Toto is her companion.  In this American moment, the public exposure of simplicity goes hand-in-hand with friendship and hope.


In Yiddish literature, the schlemiel is often called a simpleton (a tam).  And, like Dorothy, the schlemiel is hopeful and sometimes has animals as friends.  (For instance, Motl, of Shalom Aleichem’s Motl: The Cantor’s Son spends a lot of time with a cow named Pesi.)  In his simplicity, the schlemiel finds a friend in anyone or with anything s/he encounters.  The schlemiel may be absent minded, but his or her way, though often ridiculous and absent-minded, is the way of simplicity and peace.  Although the schlemiel is often more ridiculous than Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, his simplicity is not in any way diminished.

According to many commentaries, Midrashim, and anecdotes of the Jewish tradition, simplicity is not a laughing matter.  It is the most Jewish of all traits.   Simplicity is equated with humility. 

The ultimate source for humility as a principle trait is not in the commentaries; it is in the Torah.  In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described as “a very humble man” the “most humble man on earth.”  And since Moses Maimonides sees Moses as the greatest of all Prophets, he finds his way of being in relation to God and man to be exemplary. And that way of being is the way of humility.

In contrast to Aristotle, who thinks the extreme humility is a negative character trait, which must be countered with pride and even anger, Maimonidies argues that extreme humility is a noble trait.  Using this contrast, David Shatz argues, in an essay entitled “Maimonides’ Moral Theory,” that pride is a Greek ideal while extreme humility is a Jewish one.

This Jewish ideal was commonplace for Jews in the Middle Ages and in Eastern Europe right up to the beginning of the 20th century. Using diaries, Haggadoth, and various letters, Daniel Boyarin shows, in his book Unheroic Conduct, that humility was, during those times, the ideal.

Marking these dates, Boyarin goes out of his way to show how humility became “unheroic” in the modern period.  Besides Daniel Boyarin, people like Marc H. Ellis (in Judaism Doesn’t Equal Israel) and Rich Cohen (in Israel is Real), have made the claim that pride and power displace humility after the Holocaust.  Each of their projects, to some extent, is an effort to recover this character trait which they believe is Jewish and not Greek.  But this effort at recovery, unfortunately, is wrapped up in a political agenda.  They forge a dichotomy between Jews in America, who are humble, and Zionist Jews in Israel, who are prideful.  They would say that, in losing humility, Israelis have become militant.  But is this the right way to approach humility? Has it become too politicized and are things as black and white as these thinkers paint them?

We need not think of humility in this way.  We should certainly take the Torah and Maimonides seriously when they say that one must, like Moses, be humble in relation to man and to God.  But we need not think of humility by way of a political agenda.

Another route to take with humility is by way of Franz Kafka who teaches us that humility has a mystical and ethical resonance.   Kafka calls humility the “language of prayer” which is always shared with others.  More importantly, for Kafka, humility can give one the spiritual strength to “strive” with oneself.

For Kafka, humility is the way; while the self is the obstacle.  The self is deluded and seductive.  And, like Jacob, who wrestled with his angel, Kafka knows he must struggle with himself.  Through such a struggle, Jacob became Israel.  Kafka also, it seems, has this vision.  But, more important for Kafka, is the strength he gains from being humble.   It is his anchor.

He records these thoughts about humility, the language of prayer, strength, and striving in his Blue Octavio Notebooks.

After Franz Kafka’s death, Max Brod – Kafka’s best friend – published several quotes from Kafka’s Blue Octavio Notebooks.  He entitled the book Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way.    According to Brod, Kafka extracted these quotes from his notebooks and numbered them: “the text here follows the fair copy made by the author himself.”   Brod included aphorisms that were crossed out as well (noting them with asterisks).    Although there is much wisdom to be gained by reading the compilation of aphorisms and anecdotes on “sin, suffering, hope and the true way,” I would suggest that we read Kafka’s quotes in their original context; namely, the Blue Octavio Notebooks.  They teach us about the relationship of humility to peace, on the one hand, and striving, on the other.  Taken together, they bring us within arms length of the schlemiel.

The quote that interests me – and which is cited in Brod’s compilation – is found in the Fourth Notebook. It was written on February 24th:

Humility provides everyone, even him who despairs in solitude, with the strongest relationship to his fellow man, and this immediately, though, of course, only in the case of complete and permanent humility.  It can do this because it is the true language of prayer, at once adoration and the firmest of unions. The relationship with one’s fellow man is the relationship of prayer, the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; it is from prayer that one draws the strength for one’s striving.

After writing this, Kafka changes his tone:

Can you know anything other than deception?   If ever the deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.

The dialectical tension between these two aphorisms is worthy of interest.  To be sure, it illustrates what Kafka means by “the relationship of striving.”  In the first aphorism, Kafka goes so far as to say that humility provides humankind with the “strongest relationship to his fellow man.”  Moreover, humility is “the true language of prayer.”

It is on account of this “language of prayer,” that one can “strive” with oneself. Kafka’s striving, which is supported by humility, is illustrated in the second aphorism.

Kafka strives with himself and asks: “Can you know anything other than deception?”

In response to this scathing question, the self is silent.  In the face of this silence, Kafka gives advice with a Biblical Ring: “If ever deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.”

To be sure, Kafka is not simply striving with himself; he is trying to turn himself around.   He is trying to convert himself to humility by way of preaching to himself.  He is pleading with the self to learn something other than “deception”: namely, the truth (which can only be accessed through humility).

When thought of in relation to the schlemiel, the implications of these lines are quite interesting.  A schlemiel like Gimpel is a Tam; he is humble.  Yet, everyone deceives him.  He is unaffected by these deceptions insofar as he remains humble and continues to trust others.  And this is the comic conceit.

Using Kafka’s language, we could say that Gimpel’s life speaks the “language of prayer.”  However, it is us, the viewers, who must strive with deception in the sense that we are the ones who deceive.  We are complicit in laughing at simplicity and publicly ridiculing it for its naivite and stupidity.   This is the message that I.B. Singer was trying to convey in his famous story “Gimpel the Fool.”

Thought of in these terms, Kafka identifies with the schlemiel.  But at the same time he realizes that he is complicit, in his deluded high mindedness and competitiveness, with squashing simplicity.   Kafka realizes that he needs to “strive” with that aspect of himself which destroys the humility he has acquired by means of his relationships with others.

To be sure, Kafka’s struggle is the struggle of tradition.  It is the struggle of Jacob (who is called an Ish Tam – a simple man) with his angel.  It is the struggle that earns Jacob the name Israel.  His strength, which he draws on to wrestle with the angel, is the strength of prayer.

Let’s take this a step further and be a little presumptuous.

Perhaps humility is the “language of prayer” that Sancho Panza learns from Don Quixote? And perhaps humility is the language that Walter Benjamin learns from Kafka?  Humility is the language of the schlemiel and it is the language of Don Quixote.  But it can also be heard as one, among many other voices, in Hollywood.  The language of the Hollywood simpleton is the language of a man-child.

Like The Wizard of Oz, Chaplin’s 1921 film, The Kid speaks this language, too.  After all, humility has its childish and foolish ways.  A humble hobo like “the Kid” can also raise an orphan (albeit it in a strange way).  In each, there is an old/new tradition that is transmitting humility and childishness and perhaps, the language of prayer to those who will “strive” with the self.  Ultimately, however, Ronell is right.  Kafka’s humility would not be possible without the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which aims to publicly expose “humility.”  And in this comic exposure, we bear witness to the “language of prayer.”  Given the world we live in, this language appears to us as ridiculous but, for all that, it is still the best we’ve got.


Kafka’s Bachelorhood, his “First Sorrow,” and the Circus


Judd Apatow has a penchant for portraying male-schlemiel bachelors and their struggle with dating and marriage. We see this in films like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.  The schlemiel aspect of these characters can be found in the fact that they have a hard time leaving their adolescence for adulthood.  They are, as Adam Kotsko says in his book Awkwardness….“awkward.”   For Kotsko, this awkwardness discloses the social-fact that male norms are faltering.  In the wake of this faltering, Apatow’s characters appear “awkward” since, quite simply, they don’t know what role they should play with the opposite sex.  What they are good at, however, is hanging out with their friends or acting like teens (when they are, in fact, adults).  Kotsko’s reading of Apatow’s characters is a social reading of the awkwardness that comes with post 9/11 bachelorhood.  However, schlemiel bachelorhood can be read in other ways.


In Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Heinz Politzer argues that Kafka saw a deep link between being a bachelor and being an artist: “The paradoxicality of Kafka’s narrative work can be traced to these basic contradictions in the nature of their central figure, the bachelor”(46).  For Politzer, the “vortex” of the Kafka narrative is the bachelor: “to become a writer he had to remain a bachelor.  Eventually bachelorhood was identical for him with a life spent in continuous contemplation of life’s paradoxical nature”(46).   Kafka’s characters are “comic” and “tragic” in their attempts to “solve” the paradox of life.  And this task, says Politzer, is where they “derive their unjustified claims and their innate dignity.”   In effect, Politzer argues that only a bachelor, for Kafka, can “testify” to the “enigma” of life.

Politzer ends his chapter, entitled “Juvenilia: The Artist as Bachelor” with a diary entry from Kafka on January 19, 1922.  In this entry, Kafka contrasts the happiness of a family to his own “feeling”:

The infinite, deep, warm, saving happiness of sitting beside the cradle of one’s child opposite its mother.

There is in it something of this feeling: matters no longer rest with you unless you wish it so.  In contrast, the feeling of those who have no children: it perpetually rests with you, whether you will or not, every moment to the end, every nerve-racking moment, it perpetually rests with you, and without result.  Sisyphus was a bachelor.

The artist, in Politzer’s view, is a bachelor.  Unlike a married person, Kafka is able to “testify” to the enigma of life.  But, more importantly for us, Politzer sees the comic and tragic aspect of Kafka’s work in his attempt to “solve” this paradox.  For Politzer, this is impossible.   But what exactly is this paradox?

What I would like to suggest is that the paradox Kafka is addressing has to do with his relationship with the other.  This other can be God, the sexual other, tradition, and himself.  In addressing the paradox of the other, Kafka measures the movement from adolescence to adulthood.   And this movement, which is never completed, is the movement of the schlemiel bachelor.   To be sure, this movement has mystical resonance for Kafka because, in everything he writes about (in his notebooks, diaries, and fiction) there is a always the question of how it relates to the truth.  And he often ponders whether the mystical state requires a movement from the child to the adult or from humility to assertiveness.

For Kafka, the problem with such meditations was not to get caught up in psychology.  He wanted, for this reason, to make a distinction between what he called “mirror-writing” and reading/interpretation.  He associated psychology with reading/interpreting “mirror-writing.”

In his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka states it explicitly:

Psychology is the reading of mirror-writing, which means that it is laborious, and as regards the always concrete result, it is richly informative; but nothing has happened.

As we can see, Kafka enjoys such reading/interpretation; but he is more interested in mirror-writing.  However, one informs the other.  Writing is connected more to feeling, experience, and the event while reading is connected to “information.”

Through writing, he records his struggle with the truth, God, and the world.  He records his movement from and back to bachelorhood.

In an entry dated February 23rd, in his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka realizes that the world “seduces” him into thinking that marriage is a “representative of life” with which “you are meant to come to terms.”  He is not certain if he should do so since it may distract him from God, tradition, and truth.  However, he realizes that there is some truth in this seduction:

For only in this way can this world seduce us, and it is in keeping with this truth. The worst thing, however, is that after the seduction has been successful we forget the guarantee and thus actually the Good has lured us into Evil, the woman’s glance into her bed.

This glance would take him out of his gaze, which we discussed in the last blog.  As I noted there, the gaze is the “third thing” which notes otherness.  Kafka wonders what will happen if he exchanges the gaze for the glance.  Will it remove him from his relationship to God?  Will it take him from his adolescence?  Will marriage make him lose his schlemieldom?

Kafka’s short story, “The First Sorrow,” opens up these questions by way of posing a figure.

In the story, the main character is a trapeze artist whose home is the circus.  Through the story, we learn that the artist is a bachelor and does his own act.   He lives and breathes the circus and has mastered the game of being a trapeze artist.  And “nothing disturbed his seclusion.”

However, there is a problem.  The trapeze artist could have lived his entire life alone and practicing his art “had it not been for the inevitable journeys from place to place, which he found extremely trying.”

Within the space of the circus, the artist is fine.  It is only when the artist must travel from one place to another in the world that he becomes unsettled.  While traveling the artist becomes “unhappy.”  And his manager does all he can to make life easier for him.  But “despite so many journeys having been successfully arranged by the manager, each new one embarrassed him again, for the journeys, apart from everything else, got on the nerves of the artist a great deal.”

But on one of the journeys, the trapeze artist, “biting his lip,” asked the manager for a second trapeze artist.  And his feelings shift: “At that the trapeze artist suddenly burst into tears.”  In response, the manager goes to him and comforts him as if the trapeze artist were a child.  He climbed up into his seat “and caressed him, cheek to cheek, so that his own face was bedabbled by the trapeze artist’s tears.”

The manager assures the trapeze artist that he will find another trapeze artist immediately and “succeeded in reassuring the trapeze artist, little by little, and was able to go back to his corner.  But he himself was far form assured, with deep uneasiness he kept glancing secretly at the trapeze artist over the top of his book.”

Politzer gives a cursory reading of this story and states, simply, that the irony is that the “first sorrow” is that of the manager and not the acrobat.  This insight makes sense insofar as the manager worries that the trapeze artist’s existence may be threatened by these changes.

But, in the end, it is the face of the trapeze artist that changes. With the manager, we gaze at the change that has taken place with the trapeze artist: “And indeed the manager believed he could see, during the apparently peaceful sleep which had succeeded the fit of tears, the first furrows of care engraving themselves upon the trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead.”

It is this last detail which is most important.  The furrows of care on the “trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead” indicate that the artist may still be a child but, at the very least, now he cares.  His face changes.  And this is the truth that interests Kafka.  It is the risk of marriage, the risk of a relationship that interests him.

However, what makes this story so interesting is that he wants another trapeze artist to join him.  In Kafka’s real life, the seduction marks the possibility of losing his art. Here, we can see that Kafka envisions a relationship within the context of art.

He wants the trapeze artist to retain his childlike face.  He wants to be a schlemiel in a relationship.  But this is not without its misgivings; after all, it is the “first sorrow.”  This oddly resonates with Apatow’s characters who also take their chances and enter relationships.  The question, however, is whether, in taking these risks, they remain childlike and what this implies.

In Knocked Up, for instance, Seth Rogen becomes a responsible individual who leaves his adolescence behind for being a father.   Adam Kotsko, in his reading of this film, thinks that this rejoinder compromises the awkwardness which discloses a historical-social rupture of the roles of men and women.  In contrast to Apatow, Kotsko would like to retain the awkwardness of Rogen’s man-child character for the purposes of putting social norms into question.   To be sure, Kotsko thinks that this is a “fairy tale” solution.  For this reason, we can imagine Kotsko would prefer that Rogen remain a schlemiel.


We seem to have something else going on with Kafka.  Although Kafka clearly feels unprepared by his tradition to confront marriage, what seems to be at stake, for Kafka, is not a social otherness so much as an otherness that is wrapped up with Kafka’s art.  And that otherness includes God, himself, and tradition.  For Kafka, these overshadowed the social which he sees, as we saw above, as “seductive.”

Perhaps we can say that Apatow’s schlemiels are social schlemiels while Kafka’s are religious.  The difference is telling and shows us how the schlemiel’s childishness can be read in such differing ways.  Regardless, for Kafka as for Apatow, every schlemiel must dwell in the space between childhood and maturity.  Once they leave one for the other, they are no longer schlemiels and, as Politzer might say, they will no longer be artists (let alone bachelors).

Given this claim, Politzer, Kafka, and Kotsko seem to be saying that ruptures and paradoxes are best fit for people or characters who are caught in this or that extenuating circumstance or social position.  What does this imply?  Must we learn from bachelor schlemiels what we, who live “normal” lives, cannot?  Are bachelor schlemiels in a better position to understand otherness than we are?  And instead of going back to school, should we go back to the circus?

Kafka’s Commandment – Take 2


In the first blog I did on “Kafka’s Commandment,” I noted how Kafka believed he heard a commandment coming to him but was puzzled as to whether that commandment came from himself or outside of himself.  Kafka cannot rule out either possibility.  In the end of his entry, he points out that the commandment comes upon him “as in a dream.” And he cannot turn away from its request, which is to communicate it and transmit the commandment to others.  However, to his chagrin, it is “not intelligible.”  Hence, his difficult task is to make the unintelligible intelligible to others and this transmission, to be sure, is the nature of tradition.

In my blog on Walter Benjamin, education, and the schlemiel tradition, I pointed out that Walter Benjamin defined tradition in terms of transmission.   When reading Kafka, in particular, Benjamin took tradition seriously.  In an important letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin argued that Kafka’s tradition is a comic one.  Moreover, for Benjamin, it parallels the tradition that starts with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

But there is more to the story.  And Benjamin knew this.  Kafka’s tradition is not simply comic; it is religious.   To be sure, Kafka feels commanded to communicate.  And although he is not sure of the source of that commandment, the fact of the matter is that it singles him out.  And Kafka feels compelled to respond to this commandment.

Moreover, Kafka, in several entries in the Blue Octavio Notebooks, in his diaries, and in a few of his parables, shows an affinity not just with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza but with Abraham.  Some of his most interesting aphorisms were on Abraham and deal, specifically, with the nature of the commandment.

To be sure, Kafka doesn’t think that the commandment happened once in history.  It was not something that occurred only in relation to Abraham or the Jewish people.  Kafka notes (like the Midrash and the Medieval Torah commentator, Rashi) that the commandment is “continual,” but, states Kafka, “I only hear it occasionally.”  And when it is heard or even when it isn’t, it presents a challenge to “the voice bidding me to do the other thing”:

From the fact that I hear it, as it were, even when I do not hear it, in such a way that, although it is not audible itself, it muffles or embitters the voice bidding me to do the other thing; that is to say, the voice that makes me ill at ease with eternity.

This interference is interesting because it shows us that Kafka’s struggle to translate and transmit the commandment was based, primarily, on first hearing it.  Kafka’s reflection on his own state and about what state to be in so as to better receive the commandment show us a person who has, in effect, become dumb.

These descriptions, made in the Third Octavio Notebook, are powerful.  They demonstrate a mystical-slash-prophetic vocation for the schlemiel.

The first of these entries appears in an entry dated December 2nd.   In this section, Kafka starts mid-sentence with a situation in which “they” are presented with a choice by God.  “They” have to choose between being “kings or kings messengers.”

They were given a choice of becoming kings or the king’s messengers.  As is the way with children, they all wanted to be messengers.  That is why there are only messengers, racing through the world and, since there are no kings, calling out to each other the messages that have now become meaningless.  They would gladly put an end to their miserable life, but they do not dare to do so because of their oath to loyalty (28).

Who are “they?”  I would suggest that they are schlemiels.  They act like “children” and, like schlemiels they deliver a message whose meaning they are blind to.  To be sure, one way of understanding what the schlemiel is (or rather, does) is by way of the Hebrew: Shelach (sent) m’ (from) el (God).

Parsing Kafka, we can say that the most interesting thing about them, these schlemiel messengers, is that they are bound by “an oath of loyalty” to tradition.  They must transmit it.  However, as simpletons who think like children, they keep to their word and obey the commandment that is embodied in the oath of the tradition-slash-transmission.  But they cannot be kings.  They are messengers.  In the Jewish tradition, the only king is the Messiah.  And many of the prophets did not simply exhort the Jews to return to God (teshuva in Hebrew).  As messengers, they communicated the coming of the Messiah to the people.

Immediately following Kakfa’s reflection on them, he speaks directly of the king-to-come: “The Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary…he will not come on the last day, but on the last day of all.”

This “message” or rather “transmission” that Kafka is relaying about the Messiah is the message of a schlemiel.  The message doesn’t make any sense, yet it, like the Jewish tradition, promises redemption.

Two days later, Kafka describes his method for apprehending such messages:

Three different things.  Looking at oneself as alien, forgetting the sight, remembering the gaze.

This description of the prophetic process amounts to seeing oneself as other, forgetting the content of this otherness, but keeping the gaze that initiated this process.  In other words, Kafka is ultimately interested in the gaze that makes things other but not in the content of that otherness.  The gaze of the schlemiel, so to speak, is glazed over.  It forgets its contents, but by way of gazing, by way of the gesture, it communicates the tradition which is, ultimately, a messianic transmission without any content.

The next day, Kafka describes what is at stake in these meditations.

Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, though both the indestructible element and the trust may remain permanently hidden within him. One of the ways in which his hiddenness can express itself is through faith in a personal god.

In other words, what keeps Kafka going on is a “faith in a personal god”; that is, a god that commands and communicates with man.  Following this, Kafka describes this “indestructible” element as dumb:

Heaven is dumb, echoing only to the dumb.

This implies that the personal God relates “only” to the schlemiel (the dumb).   And it is this simplicity and stupidity that Kafka sees as man’s goodness. He notes this in the last line of this entry:

The mediation by the serpent was necessary: Evil can seduce man, but cannot become man.

For Kafka, man may be “seduced” by evil, but is ultimately good.  He cannot become evil.  It is ontologically impossible for Kafka. This is precisely what we see portrayed by way of the schlemiel.  A schlemiel like Gimpel or Motl cannot become evil; in their stupidity and trust they are good.  And in their aloofness they act as if they were committed to an oath.  And “they” are the messengers.  They are not kings.  They are too humble and simple for that.

What I find astonishing about Kafka’s entries is the fact that Walter Benjamin had never read them. They were published after Benjamin’s death.  Nonetheless, Walter Benjamin’s reading of Kafka resonates with these ideas.  Unfortunately, Benjamin never fully articulated them.  And this is why his essay on Kafka was a work-in-progress that he carried with him to his grave.   He noted the tradition of the schlemiel indirectly.

In my work on the schlemiel in this blog and in my book (which delves deeper into these insights), I look to carry this tradition on.  To be sure, Kafka wrote these lines feeling as if he were about to die.  For him, the commandment and its transmission were of the utmost urgency.  But, like Benjamin, he had a hard time communicating it.  As a result, no one was able to hear it properly and pass it on.

I suggest we listen closely to the commandment (which speaks continually) and the tradition of the schlemiel.   This is a task which, like Kafka’s messengers, runs ahead of us.  Yet, if we listen hard it will, like Kafka’s commandment, overtake us like a dream and stupefy us.  This will disclose the “indestructible element” and, as Kafka suggests, it will remind those of us who believe in a personal god that “heaven is dumb, echoing only the dumb.”    For Kafka, it seems, only a schlemiel can obey and transmit “the commandment.”  After all, a schlemiel is shelach m’el (sent ‘from’ God – literally into exile and literally as a messenger).    But, lest we not forget, this commandment is not simply apprehended by an empty gaze.  It also communicates a message about the Messiah, a message which may not mean anything anymore but must be told.  And, for Kafka, this is not a simple message; it must be translated.  But, in the end, it is not tragic.  It is comic.  The message is not simply given to the people who transmit it to yet other people; it is extolled by a dumb messenger to a dumb heaven.

“It’s Almost Incomprehensible!” The Circus and Kafka’s Natural Theater


As I noted in the last blog entry, Ernst Bloch believed that “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.  A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers.  Nevertheless, there is an estrangement” (179).

The confluences between Bloch and Walter Benjamin, in this claim and in these descriptions, are fascinating.  To be sure, Benjamin was also interested in the circus.  He also thought that although the circus was honest and utopian, it was fraught with estrangement.

We see the circus, utopia, and estrangement breached in Benjamin’s Kafka essay; namely, in the final section of the essay (which was published posthumously) entitled “Sancho Panza.”  In this section, Benjamin addresses the circus by way of the “Natural Theater of Oklahoma” that we see in Kafka’s novel Amerika.

Before addressing the Natural Theater, Benjamin cites a few lines from a Kafka short story about the “strange” ways of Kafka’s students and scribes.  They are the carriers and transmitters of tradition to the next generation and he is astonished by them:

‘To him, hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing, which would have made the hammering even bolder, more determined, more real, and, if you like, more insane.’

Benjamin comments on this line that:

This is the resolute, fanatical mien which students have when they study; it is the strangest mien imaginable. The scribes, the students, are out of breath; they fairly race along.  (137)

Benjamin describes the scribes and students “as out of breath.”  They “race along” to receive and deliver the message of the tradition.  Benjamin goes to Kafka for the details.  And what we learn, from Kafka’s descriptions is that the narrator is astonished by the people who receive tradition.  Instead of seeing someone like Moses, Kafka’s narrator sees a bunch of schlemiels jumping up and down to get the message of tradition.  It is “strange…almost incomprehensible!”:

Often the official dictates in such a low voice that the scribe cannot even hear it sitting down; then he has to jump up, catch the diction, quickly sit down again and write it down, then jump up again and so forth.  How strange that is!  It is almost incomprehensible! 

Instead of explaining the meaning of tradition and this strangeness, Benjamin turns to the  Natural Theater of Oklahoma in Kafka’s Amerika:

It may be easier to understand this if one thinks of the actors in the Nature Theater.  Actors have to catch their cues in a flash, and they resemble those assiduous people in other ways as well.  Truly, for them, “hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing” – provided that it is a part of their role.  They study the role, and only a bad actor would forget a word or movement. For the members of the Oklahoma troupe, however, the role is their earlier life; hence the “nature” in this Nature Theater. (137)

The nature of the nature theater is the earlier life of these characters.  The role they study is their tradition.  In other words, their earlier life is their tradition.  They inherit their childhood and learn it, play it.   In Bloch’s language, we could say that this is the “honest” element of the circus.  They play their earlier selves and they do so openly.  There is no curtain that stands between them and the audience.

Of them, Benjamin writes:

Its actors have been redeemed.

However, someone has not been redeemed and that is the student:

…whom Karl watches silently on this balcony as he reads his book, “turning the pages, occasionally looking something up in another book which he always snatched up quick as a flash, and frequently making notes in a notebook, which he always did with his face surprisingly close to the paper.”

The careful reader will understand what Benjamin is hinting at; namely, the fact that Karl is the student.  He is taking notes and “snatches” things up “in a flash.”  He is the unredeemed schlemiel who transmits the tradition.  Echoing the title of the section, he is Sancho Panza.

And perhaps this is what is most astonishing.  The fact that the schlemiel must spend his or her days recording and transmitting a tradition he or she doesn’t understand but only receives in flashes.  When it comes, he or she must “jump” up and snatch it as it flashes.

This is something the schlemiel must do as the schlemiel is not redeemed but these actors are.  By way of the Natural Theater of Oklahoma, Benjamin is saying something different than what Ernst Bloch says about the circus.  Although Bloch says there is an honesty and an estrangement to the circus that is unparalleled, he doesn’t explain why.  Benjamin does.

The honesty of Natural Theater, of the circus, is its nature.  It is the fact that it studies its earlier life and performs it.  This involvement is redemptive for the actors. However, those who carry on the tradition do not live this life.  It is they who are estranged.

Franz Kafka’s Karl Rossmann, who the Kafka scholar Heinz Politzer calls “infantile,” is a student; as is Sancho Panza and Walter Benjamin.  They are all students of tradition.  But in being students who transmit the tradition, they are not redeemed.  Not yet.

Rather, they are comic characters whose task is unnatural and yet necessary. Their leaping around after flashes and recording them, for Kafka, may be astonishing and strange but it is “almost incomprehensible.”

In other words, it is not completely incomprehensible.  It is in these small flashes that we know that a rationalist like Sancho Panza knew that the keepers of tradition and heritage were on to something.

Bloch knew this as well.  I would like to suggest that every comedian, writer, or performer of schlemiel comedy also understands this: without tradition, there would be no comedy and there would certainly not be a schlemiel.  Perhaps this is the “only honest down-to-earth honest performance” there is?

One doesn’t have to be in the circus to be a part of the circus.  All one has to do is watch it and, for those who want to carry on its tradition, all they have to do is leap up at the “flashes,” sit down, record them, and do that again….and again.

Its “almost incomprehensible!”