Tag: Robert Walser

Walter Benjamin’s “Dream Kitsch”

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Like Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, from time to time, wrote in very small script.   According to the editors of the Walter Benjamin Archive, Benjamin’s “miniaturized script is reminiscent of Robert Walser’s ‘pencil system’, which he used to help him write”(50). But unlike Walser, who “learnt to ‘play and poeticize’, in the small and smallest details, attempting to unlock the open space of childish light-heartedness, so as to allow script and language to flow, for Benjamin it is a matter of ‘placing’ the script, the composition of thoughts.”   For this reason, the editors argue that Benjamin wasn’t looking, like Walser for a “childhood re-attained and imitated, but rather a product of adult reflection and concentration.” I find this reading telling because it suggests that Benjamin had no interest in becoming childlike when he wrote. For the editors, his writing experiments were not really experiments in becoming-child so much as being-an-adult.

One interesting case of this contrast is a reflection that Benjamin entitled “Dream Kitsch: a Short Consideration of Surrealists.” The editors point out that Benjamin wrote this in 1925 and had originally wanted to publish it; however, he decided against it because he thought it was “too difficult”(51). What I find so interesting about this piece of writing is the fact that Benjamin’s reflection on the nature of dreams and their power leads him into a reflection on failure. This is important insofar as the schlemiel is what Heinrich Heine and Hannah Arendt call the “lord of dreams.” Heine, according to Arendt, saw these dreams as a form of defense against the deluded nature of the parvenu. For her, the lord of dreams is successful in the sense that, as a pariah, he is free. But what she doesn’t point out is that, in reality, he fails because he can’t be in the world. To be sure, this is implied by her reading of the schlemiel in “The Jew as Pariah.”

Benjamin’s reading of dreams in “Dream Kitsch” incorporates the “Lord of Dreams” and the awareness that the dream decays and fails. The dream, like the schlemiel, also finds it’s limit in history.   After all, some dreams come true; others don’t.  However, as the piece goes on, the sense of failure and decay diminishes…and the fascination with the dream and its meaning takes over.

Benjamin begins with a sense of loss: “No one dreams any longer of the Blue Flower”(65).   But this doesn’t mean dreaming isn’t or hasn’t been powerful:

Dreaming has a share of history. The statistics on dreaming would stretch beyond the pleasures of the anecdotal landscape into the barrenness of the battlefield. Dreams have started wars, and wars….have determined the propriety and impropriety – indeed, the range – of dreams. (65)

After making this reflection on dreams and war, Benjamin returns to his dirge that dreams are no longer the same: “No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon. The dream has gone gray….Dreams are now a shortcut to banality.”

Benjamin surmises that technology and capitalism have altered our dreams. He notes that we see this even with children who no longer “clasp” things as “snatch” them.   Now “the side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.” In other words, the dreams we have are given to us by way of the kitsch of capitalism.   But Benjamin doesn’t look at how it touches adults so much as how, as we see above, children.

Benjamin turns to dream kitsch and children by way of the surrealist Max Ernst. In one piece he has “drawn four small boys”:

They turn their backs to the reader, to their teacher and his desk as well, and look out over the balustrade where a balloon hangs in the air. A giant pencil rests its point in the windowsill. The repetition of childhood experience gives us pause: when we were little, there was yet no agonized protest against the world of our parents. As children in the midst of that world, we showed ourselves superior. (65)

The repetition of the childhood in the dream should “give us pause” because there wasn’t any protest. Something has changed that the children do not want to learn. To be sure, this suggests a turning away from tradition. The theme of rebelling children is one we also find in Benjamin’s essay on Kafka.   In that essay, a problem is presented: the gap between the tradition and the “messengers.”

Benjamin’s mediation on this gap leads him to mediate on parents and the kitsch love they gave “us.”

For the sentimentality of our parents, so often distilled, is good for providing the most objective image of our feelings. The long-windedness of their speeches, bitter as gall, has the effect of reducing us to a crimpled picture puzzle…Within is heartfelt sympathy, is love, is kitsch.

In other words, within all of the kitsch is love. But this love is, as he notes, “misunderstood.” To be sure, Benjamin praises misunderstanding as something than comes from the outside, from life, into our lives:

“Misunderstanding” is here another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood. (65)

Misunderstanding, in other words, is reality breaking in. However, the misunderstood man is a failure. Regardless, for Benjamin, this puzzle, which he is working through, is all just “dream kitsch.”   This kind of “dream kitsch” reminds me of what we find in David Grossman’s See: Under Love. As I pointed out in a recent blog entry, the main character of Grossman’s novel is a boy-schlemiel who is puzzling through his misunderstanding of the Holocaust. What happens “over there” breaks into conversation that Momik overhears. And out of what he gathers from different conversations, he creates a puzzle that he tries to solve.

To be sure, Benjamin, like Momik and David Grossman, is trying to work through all of his dream kitsch. And in the end, this work of interpretation tilts more toward hope than failure. In the end, Benjamin is more inspired than pained by “dream kitsch.”

Nomadic Joy and Terror at Robert Walser’s Circus

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Robert Walser’s fictional child-character, Fritz Kocher begins many of his “essays” with a serious reflection.  But as the essay goes on Kocher drifts into different zones of joy and terror that dissipate the original intent of his essays.  Indeed, his drifting shows us that he often has little to no interest in the things that pre-occupy society.  He would rather bind himself to things that spark his imagination.  After all, as I pointed out in another blog entry on Walser’s Fritz Kocher’s Essays, Kocher sees himself as an “artist.”  And although he is not quite sure what this means, what he does demonstrate to the reader are the ways (as opposed to a portrait) of an artist, so to speak, as a young man.  These ways are the ways of an individual who passes in and out of affective states and imaginings. But what makes this passing significant, for Walser, is that before the child-artist passes in and out of these states s/he begins with a state(ment) of solidity and intent that is sanctioned by society.

In an essay entitled “Careers,” Kocher begins with the statement of serious intent regarding the meaning and purpose of finding a career.  As we learn, the goal of it all is to go from being a child to being an adult:

Anyone who wants to live an upstanding life in this world needs a career. You can’t just work your way along. Work has to have a particular character and a goal it is aiming toward.  To reach that goal, you choose a profession.  This happens when a person leaves school, at which point that person is an adult. (21)

Although Kocher begins his essay with this serious tone and statement of intention, he ends on an entirely different note.  He goes through many professions and argues that he simply can’t choose them and worries about the professions his parents would choose.  In other words, he’s not sure how he wants to or whether he wants to have a career.  He entertains living as an artist or musician in a big city, but, ultimately, he’d rather be nomadic; he’d rather join the circus:

Well there’s one other thing I have in my soul: It would be great to join the circus.  A famous tightrope walker, sparkles on my back, the stars above me, an abyss on either side, and just a slender, delicate path before me.  (22)

But, after pondering this, he thinks that he would rather be a clown: “I do feel I have some talent for joking around”(22).  (I touched on this point in my blog on the essay on friendship.)  However, he fears that his parents would be “hurt” if he were to become a clown.  For this reason, he states, out of a kind of sadness: “I’m not worried about finding a career. There are so many of them”(22).

Kocher’s drifting toward this affective state, although differed, resurfaces in his essay on “The Fair.”  In that essay, he begins by saying that the fair is “useful” and serves the purpose of gathering farmers and the community together.  However, as the essay goes on he drifts into the space of joy and terror.

He finds himself in these states – which I would call, like Georges Bataille, useless – when he reflects on the puppets. But before he has this reflection, he is already adrift.  He describes his experience of the carousel:

I let myself be carried up and down, and down and up.  You ride the most beautiful sleighs of silver and gold, the starts in the sky dance around you, the world revolves with you. (32)

When he arrives at the “Kasperli puppet show,” his desire is already nomadic.  He notes that he laughs at “every blow” of this or that puppet.  However, this turns into horror: “Death leaps out incredibly fast and strikes victims down with marvelous accuracy. They are pretty violently executed”(32).   The puppets executed are “generals, doctors, soldiers, and policemen” – in other words, they are the “useful” members of society.

Meanwhile, the puppet clown killer, Kasperl, gets “away with a light beating.”  He is a sadistic kind of clown/puppet.  What he likes about him is how “his face never changes.”

But he doesn’t focus on it too much; he drifts elsewhere to see the Freak Show.  He sees a “snake lady” who stands as still as a “photograph.”

Taken all together, his drifting in and out of reality has the flavor of virtual reality.   And all of this, ultimately, is wasteful and suggests that society is not of primary interest to him so much as affective states that he would like to see and even participate in.  His childhood, as he sees, will keep him from a useful career and he prefers this. In other words, his end point differs radically from his starting point.  He leaves his original intentions for the circus and this leads him into a world where teleology has no place.  But, ultimately, in the end, he acts as if nothing has changed and he has kept to his original purpose.  This, perhaps, is the trick: to be able to start and end on a point while, in essence, drifting everywhere between point a and b.   This, it seems, is the drift-work of Kocher’s essay and the way of the artist who ends up in the circus.

Vulnerability, Betrayal, Friendship: Robert Walser’s Fritz Kocher On Friendship

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Since I was a little child, the meaning of friendship has always been on my mind.  Like many people, I was vulnerable and found that by being honest, trusting, and open to strangers I also invited people to take advantage of me.  But, regardless of the negativity I experienced when I was taken advantage of, I still sought for friends I could trust.

For this reason, literature which speaks to the experience of friendship has always been of great interest to me.  On this note, what I love about the Yiddish and Jewish-American tradition of the schlemiel and the work of Robert Walser – which has so much in common with this comic tradition – is the fact that the Yiddish schlemiel and Walser’s simpleton are both trusting.  Both are in search of friendship.   And, from both, we can learn a lot about the relationship of vulnerability and trust to friendship.

For instance, one of the things that has always fascinated me about the I.B. Singer’s Gimpel (who Ruth Wisse takes for a quintessential post-Holocaust schlemiel) is the fact that, though he is constantly lied to, he never stops trusting people.  In truth, Gimpel’s comedy can be found in his desire to make everyone his friend.  Gimpel, according to Wisse, acts “as if” good exists.  That good, I aver, is the trust that comes with true friendship.   It depends on the trust of the other and not just on the desire of the schlemiel-subject.

Since I.B. Singer doesn’t present Gimpel as awkward or vulnerable in any way, the reader is left to imagine what kind of process he goes through each time he meets another person.  By not doing this, one can only assume that Gimpel is either very good at ignoring the ways of people who lie, trick, and betray him or that he is painfully aware of this but goes on “as if” nothing has happened.

Robert Walser’s Fritz Kocher, the subject of his first novel, Fritz Kocher’s Essays provides us with an account of someone who goes through both of these above-mentioned options with regard to friendship.

As I pointed out in my last blog entry on Walser’s book, the best way to read Walser is “between the chapter headings.”  To this end, I presented a reading of the first three “essays” in the novel: “Man,” “Autumn,” and “The Fire.”  I’d like to build on these readings by initially linking “The Fire” essay to the essay entitled “Friendship.”   This will serve as the basis for my reading of the “Friendship” essay, which touches on vulnerability, trust, betrayal, and friendship.

To begin with, “The Fire” essay differs from the previous two essays because it has much more gravitas.  Kocher, a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years of age, is shocked by what he sees in the fire.  He is frightened by the disaster and the suffering of a mother and her child who are on the verge of death.  But, as I noted in my blog entry, this terror is thwarted by a “thin young man in shabby clothing” who comes out of nowhere, saves the mother and her child, and disappears “without a trace.”

The child is fascinated by this kind of heroism because it evinces a kind of humility that he emulates.  It also has a melancholic sense to it since the hero disappears.  The last lines suggest that Kocher saw someone he could trust: he wanted to meet him and befriend him.

I’d like to suggest that this desire finds its way into the next essay.  The first words of his essay articulate his desire for friendship as well as his belief that it is essential to being human:

What a precious flower friendship is. Without it, even the strongest man could not live long.  The heart needs a kindred, familiar heart, like a little clearing in the forest, a place to rest and lie down and chat.  We can never value our friend highly enough, if he is a true friend, and can never run away fast enough if he betrays our friendship.  (9-10)

The end of this reflection is telling: it speaks to the relationship between trust and friendship.  As Kocher thinks about “true friendship,” he also reflects on betrayal.  And this makes him sad:

O, there are false friends, whose only goal in life is to wound, to hurt, to destroy!

These words disclose the fact that Kocher is vulnerable and has – apparently -been hurt by people he took as friends but were, in fact, “false friends.”  Following this, Kocher briefly raves about how these people (10).  But after he raves, he confesses that he doesn’t “actually know any friends like that, but I have read about them in books, and what it says about them must be true since it is written in such a clear and heartfelt way”(10).

This suggests that Kocher wanted to make it seem “as if” he knew what betrayal was.  Like Gimpel, he acts as if he has never been lied to or betrayed.  However, his next words suggest that he may be lying about friendship to make it seem as if he has “true friends”:

I have one friend, but I cannot say his name.  It is enough that I am certain of him as mine, completely mine. (10)

He tells us that this certainty makes him “calm” and “happy.”  But does he really have “certainty” about his friend?  And is he really “calm?”  The words seem a little too much.   And the words that follow suggest that his “true” and only friend may be imagined:

My friend is surely thinking of me during this hour of class, as surely as I am thinking of him and mentioning him.  In his essay (on friendship) I am playing the leading role as much as he, the good fellow, is playing the lead role in mine. (10)

What he see happening in these lines is the fantasy of reciprocity: that because I think of him, he must, in the same way, be thinking of me.  This fantasy, this certainty, brings him calm and happiness.   However, the truth of the matter is that, as Emmanuel Levinas points out, relationships are not reciprocal or symmetrical; rather, they are assymetrical.  We cannot be “certain” of the friend.

With this in mind, we can hear desperation in Kocher’s voice when he speaks of the certainty of this relationship:

Oh, such clear communication, such a firm bond, such mutual understanding! I cannot begin to understand it, but I let it happen all the more calmly since it is good and I like it.

Like Gimpel, Kocher believes that friendship is good and that the good friend will reciprocate.  He, like Gimpel, cannot imagine betrayal (even though he experiences it).  However, this edifice shakes immediately after writing this since Kocher turns to the issue of betrayal as if it is not something he simply reads about in books:

There are many varieties of friendship, just as there are many varieties of betrayal.  You should not confuse one with another.  You should think it over.  There are some who want to cheat and deceive us, but they can’t, and others who want to stay true to us for all eternity but they have to betray us, half consciously, against their will.   Still others betray us just to show us that we were deceived when we thought they were our friends. (10)

This passage shows us that he is extremely vulnerable and knows betrayal, but he doesn’t want to believe in it.  At the very least, he acknowledges that these types of people leave us with “disappointment” and this is “troubling.”  But in an act of defiance, he focuses solely on a friend one can both “love and admire.”   And he suggests that this can only work, however, if the friend admires and respects him, too.  He than repeats, a few times, how he doesn’t want to be despised.  This, it seems, is what his desire of friendship must counteract (as if it is a reality hanging over his head).    And this puts a lot of weight on friendship because, without it, he feels he may be hated.

But his last word addresses the kind of person one must be if he or she is to have friends.  And this reflection speaks to the comic aspect that he and the schlemiel (Gimpel) share:

One more thing: Funny, silly people have a hard time making friends.  People don’t trust them.  And if they mock and criticize they don’t deserve to be trusted either. (11)

These final two sentences hint at two things.  First of all, as we can see from his essays, he is a funny and silly person.  And when he speaks of them, he is really speaking of himself.  Like Gimpel, who is not trusted and is constantly betrayed, he too is mocked.  To be sure, the last sentence gives it all away: “if they mock and criticize” (read, me) “they don’t deserve to be trusted either.”

In other words, we see something different here from what we see in I.B. Singer’s Gimpel.  In Singer’s story, we don’t hear comments like this coming from Gimpel.  It is left for the reader to wonder what he really feels about being laughed at.  Here, in contrast, Kocher alludes to his emotions and suggests that this world – the world that laughs at him in his innocence, his trust, and his good humor – is not worthy of being trusted.   That would suggest the most negative reality.  However, as we can see, he, like Gimpel, still continues to trust the world even though, as he alludes to us, he has a hard time trusting those who mock him.

This trust, I would suggest, is built into our asymmetrical relation to the other.  Yet, as Levinas would be first to admit, it comes with an acute awareness of persecution, uncertainty, and suffering.    The comic relation to the other, to my mind, provides us with an exceptional figure for this double consciousness (which we see at work in Franz Kocher’s essays).    We all act “as if” good exists yet knowing that when we leave ourselves open to friendship we may receive, in return, betrayal, persecution, and mockery.  That’s the risk that Kocher knows he must take but, ultimately, he wishes he could have a “true friend” who would always be there to reciprocate in kind.

Between the Chapter Headings: How to Read Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”

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In an essay on Moses Maimonides entitled “The Literary Character of The Guide to the Perplexed,” Leo Strauss suggests that we read Maimonides as we would read a good novel: we should look for textual contradictions and read into the relationship of one “chapter heading” to another.  In other words, he believed that Maimonides was communicating secrets to Joseph – Maimonides student for whom he dedicates The Guide to the Perplexed  – by way of allusions.  There is a precedent for hinting at secrets in the Talmud. It points out that secrets regarding the Maaseh Merkavah (the “Work of the Chariot,” an allusion to Ezekiel’s famous chariot) and Maaseh Bereshit (the “Work of Creation”) should neither be communicated in public nor directly.  They are private teachings and they can only be alluded to in the teaching itself.

Reading Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays,” I cannot help but think of Strauss’s reading.  To be sure, Walser’s chapter headings are well-placed and are very suggestive of a secret that Walser wishes to communicate to his readers.  The secret he wishes to communicate is deeply entrenched in the space between childhood and adulthood and it is published in the wake of death.  To be sure, this space and post-mortem situation inform the framework through which these fictional “essays” are communicated: as I pointed out in a previous blog entry, these essays are written by a boy on the cusp of manhood and it is published in the wake of his death by someone who found them worthy of sharing.   And, as I noted, this framework suggests a tradition which is being passed from person to person by way of allusion.

In this blog entry, I’d like to briefly address the first three chapter headings – together with their contents.  I find compelling evidence in them that a secret is being alluded to, a secret that is to be found between the spaces of youth and adulthood.  Within these spaces, the question of what it means to be human is addressed in an esoteric manner.  But the esoteric is cloaked by way of the comic.

The first essay written by Fritz Kocher is entitled “Man.”  In this essay, Fritz Kocher draws up what he thinks man is or rather should be.  He notes a distinction between man and animal that goes back to Aristotle and the Bible but he finds a contradiction in it:

Man should stand above his fellow creature, the animal, in all things.  But even a foolish schoolboy can see people acting like irrational animals every day.  Drunkenness is as hideous as a picture: Why do people indulge in it?…Such cowardice is fitting for a thing as imperfect as Man. We are imperfect as everything. (4)

Following this, Kocher is distracted from the highness of man to what makes man so imperfect.  In the midst of his meditation, which surely makes him feel a sense of horror, he makes a promise not to become an animal: “I promise loud and clear: I want to be a steady, upright person”(4).

Taking on a moral tone, he states that he will “imitate” only great things.  But all of this collapses when he “blurbs”:

Secretly, I love art.  But it’s not a secret anymore, not since right now, because now I’ve been careless and blabbed it.  Let me be punished for that and made an example of.  What makes a noble way of thinking not want to freely admit itself? (4)

In this moment, we can see that Kocher has a conflict between being a “man” and being an “artist.”  He sees the latter as immoral and punishable, but he doesn’t agree with this valuation.  Since he doesn’t want to deal with this conflict, he changes subject and says that the one thing he fears most is “baseness.”  But, after saying this, he goes off on tangent that contradicts this claim: he says he wants to be famous, meet beautiful women, etc and be reckless.

For saying this, he says, right in the essay, that he will likely get an F for “writing like this” in an essay.  But he is ok with this since “every word comes from the heart.”  This, he says, is the most important thing about man: “if he wants to be human, he cannot do without it.”  The intelligence of the heart is the greatness of man.  However, after stating this, his thoughts turn to his fear of getting drunk and looking base.  And from there he turns to the importance of being industrious.  But, if we read properly, we can see that these concerns and everything in his essay is ancillary to being a person who has a heart.  And the secret of this person, it seems, is that he (Fritz Kocher) is an artist.

The next chapter/essay heading – and its contents – provide evidence for this supposition.   The essay – as the author readily admits – is poorly written.  He leaps from topic to topic.  But his distractions are telling:

I like Autumn….Soon the snow will be falling.  I love snow too, even if it’s not nice to wade around in it too long with cold wet feet.  But why else are there warm felt slippers and heated rooms for later?  Only the poor children tug at my heartstrings – I know they have no warm rooms in their houses.  How horrible it must be to sit around and freeze. I wouldn’t do any homework (5)

What we find in this passage is a mind that wanders from thing to thing; however, there is a pattern.  As one can see, he ends up thinking about things that pain him and then he moves on.   And when, later, he drifts into a meditation on Autumn colors, he muses on the possibility of someday becoming an artist (which as we learned above, was his secret desire).  But this reflection is different.   In this one, he is not so much romantically inclined with being an artist as disappointed with what kind of artist he would become.  He tells the reader that he will most likely fail at being an artist.  But he stops himself short of being depressed by noting that one shouldn’t worry about “something that hasn’t happened yet.”

After saying this, Kocher drifts into description of things he sees as sounds.  He muses on this and finds it fascinating.  The feeling of mixing the two, in fact, inspires him.  But after taking it to his limit, his rational self kicks in:

Green in midsummer is a many-voiced song with all the highest notes.  Is that true?  I don’t know if it’s right.  Well, the teacher will surely be so kind as to correct it. (6)

After thinking this, he starts thinking about how he can’t do math and how he would never want to be a businessman.  Instead of counting apples, he’d rather have an apple for a grade.

Perhaps Walser is suggesting that the artist is childish, full of heart, distracted, and self-conscious.   We can find these suggestions between the chapters/essays depicting “man” and “autumn.”  In contrast to the previous two essays, the next chapter/essay, entitled “The Fire,” is deadly serious and it lacks the distraction of the previous two.  Moreover, in contrast to the other two, this essay comes with an image of a fire eating up a building.

The chapter articulates a sense of wonder before the suffering and death of others.  Kocher is also fascinated by the fact that someone could risk their lives to save them.  The one who saves them is also the opposite of an adored hero; he is a non-descript man who pops out from the street: “a thin young man in shabby clothing”(9).  When he saves them and leaves a mother and child on the sidewalk, Kocher tells us that he “disappears without a trace.”

He isn’t an anti-hero so much as a hero who is barely visible.

How does this fire and this “thin young” hero who “disappears without a trace” relate to Kocher’s desire to be an artist?  Is Kocher an artist for remembering the fire and the person who saved the innocent from death?  Is he an artist for thinking of the poor children who don’t have a home or warm slippers?

These questions are to found in-between the chapter headings. And they suggest or allude to different answers.  By reading Robert Walser like Leo Strauss would read Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, we can see that Walser thinks there is wisdom to be found in the child’s reflections.  However, they may also be reflections of a distracted mind.  The best way to find out is, in a midrashic sense, figuring the relation between one chapter heading and another or between one distraction and another.

In the next blog entry I want to address why, in the wake of this fire and its depiction, Kocher turns to the theme of friendship.

The Wisdom and Stupidity of the Child in Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays” – Take One

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When people ask me if one can find any characters like the schlemiel in other traditions, I immediately think of Robert Walser.   Indeed, I can think of no better example of the schlemiel than in his fiction.   I can also think of no better person to write such fiction since he, too, was a schlemiel, a living schlemiel.  He dreamed big but, like a schlemiel, he was unable to keep jobs or make his literary dreams come true.  In the end, he was a bachelor schlemiel who lived his last days in a sanitarium.   To be sure, Kafka found much in common with Walser: he loved Walser’s way of writing and, like him, he died a bachelor and, in many ways, a schlemiel.

The first novel Walser wrote was entitled Fritz Kocher’s Essays.  It was published in 1904.   Daimon Searls – who translated the book for New York Review of Books press – points out that it “was a stroke of genius for Walser to launch himself at the reading public in the guise of an ‘impish schoolboy soliloquist’.”  Citing Christopher Middleton, he describes the narrator, Fritz Kocher as “a fictional fellow in an old-fashioned frame narrative, dead in his youth and leaving to posterity only a collection of schoolboy writing exercises.”   This, according to Searls, this plot “turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Walser’s unique energy, inventions, and oscillant ambiguities”(xv).

Unlike Searls, who uses a frame for reading this which is based on what Matin Heidegger would call an “equipmental” sense of the artwork, I would like to suggest that we see the Walser’s fiction not simply a vehicle for his creativity but as a performance of schlemielkeit (a way-of-being-schlemiel).  This performance brings one into a relationship with a character who resists school rules (law) – like Jerry Lewis – by being to submissive to them and, at the same time, admitting to his relation to the law.  He is and is not anti-nomian.  He doesn’t trash the law; he suspends it.  And the narrator does this by acting like a man-child, a schlemiel.  Walser does what many Yiddish writers – like Sholom Aleichem do – he plays the schlemiel in such a way that he lives in suspension between childhood and adulthood (between the world and worldlessness).

Since Walser’s book is presented as a book that has survived a child who died before he grew up, and since it is introduced by someone who has put it together and published it, we can say that, in the wake of the child’s death, this book is a fictional initiation into a literary tradition.  And the source of this tradition is a schlemiel by the name of Fritz Kocher: a child who speaks on adult things but died before he became an adult.  He is suspended in time like many of Aleichem’s schlemiels or I.B. Singer’s Gimpel who will go from village to village trusting people – in hope that one day people will stop lying to and playing tricks on him.

In the quasi introduction of Fritz Kocher’s Essays, the person who decided to save them and share them with the public tells us, immediately, that he is passing on this writing.  He tells of how difficult it was for him to get essays from Kocher’s mourning mother:

She was understandably very attached to these pages, which must have been a bittersweet reminder of her son.  Only after I promised to have the essays published unchanged, just as her little Fritz had written them, did she finally agree.  (3)

As one can see, the person who has saved the essays from oblivion is a very kind person.  And, for this reason, the reader may feel safe to “trust” him.  After telling us how the mother has agreed, he tells us about how these essays “may seem unboyish in many places, and all to boyish in others”(3).  This suggest that sometimes Fritz sounds like a boy and sometimes he sounds like a man: he oscillates between the two poles.

For this reason, we must read Kotcher’s essays with great care since, on the one hand, a “boy can speak words of great wisdom” but, on the other hand, he can also speak “words of great stupidity.”  But one cannot simply see stupidity (or childishness) in one part of the text and wisdom (or maturity) in another.  No.  Rather, they “practically” happen “at the same moment.”

This way of reading him suggests a kind of schlemiel moment – a schlemiel temporality if you will – wherein the reader doesn’t know if what s/he is seeing is wisdom or sheer stupidity.

The final words on Fritz Kocher – by the person who is publishing his work – deal with the fact that he, the “young, jolly laugher” was “destined to die young.”  Like the schlemiels of the first Yiddish novel – The Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim – who imagined they could see the world outside the Pale of Settlement but never left it’s boundaries – his eyes would never see “the wider world he so longed to reach”(3).

This is how Robert Walser introduces himself and a new tradition which has fascinating resonances with the Yiddish literary tradition of the schlemiel.

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?”