Courting Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel



by Menachem Feuer

As human beings we have to “court” failure. This term suggests two things: on the one hand, it suggests dating and becoming intimate with someone in a formal, old-fashioned way; on the other hand, it suggests that we just don’t experience something, we judge it. Taken together, we can say that in courting failure, one gets to know it in an intimate way and will have to, in the end, judge it. When we judge failure, when we court it, we ascribe meaning to it. But, to be sure, there is a kind of danger to such courting. Courting failure can impair judgment and could lead to problems. But, then again, courting failure could also lead to a teaching moment and help us to understand ourselves, the world, and, for some existential theologians, the meaning of faith.

Failure can be tragic, but it can also be comic. The difference between the two types of failure could be understood through tragedy and comedy. In the former, the tragic hero is blind to his tragic flaw; and because he or she does nothing to change it, this tragic character has a bad (“tragic”) end.

It contrast, the comic character has a flaw that he or she either corrects or lives with. The end of such characters, however, isn’t tragic; it is a happier (or a better) ending of sorts. But sometimes this ending, because it is deprived of what we honor most, is sad. However, comedy – and the failure it courts – can also give us hope.

Sometimes these two theatrical modes find a correlate in life. And sometimes scholars will use comedy to better understand their own lives and the world they live in. We find such a correlate in the work of Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin that pertains to the schlemiel. As Jews who were exiled from Germany, who experienced the failure of liberalism and humanism in Germany, and witnessed the rise of rabid anti-Semitism, they courted failure. Their lives were uncertain. But of the two, Benjamin’s life was more uncertain. And for the two of them, the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel was of great interest. It spoke to Jewishness, failure, exile and hope.

Who is the schlemiel? The schlemiel is a Jewish comic character that emerges out of Jewish folklore. Sander Gilman, in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews, defines schlemiels as a comic characters who “believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.” But according to Gilman, this character did not emerge out of Jewish folklore so much as out of the Enlightenment: “Schlemiels are the creation of the Enlightenment. It is the Jewish enlightener’s attempt to use satire to cajole the reader into not being a fool.”

In contrast, Ruth Wisse, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that the schlemiel we see in Yiddish literature – for her, the real focus of schlemiel theory -emerged out of Jewish folklore (in general) and the stories of the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (in particular): “The genesis of the literary schlemiel within the context of Yiddish literature is the tale of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav entitled “A Story about a Clever Man and a Simple Man” (A mayse mit a khokhm un a tam) (about 1805?).” Writing on Rabbi Nachman’s character, she notes that “the simple man, not limited by his intelligence, has never even sought to make a distinction between fact and illusion. When realities are insufficient, he turns to illusions, and when he receives an unanticipated call, he answers without questioning its legitimacy. His trusting nature permits him to live joyously, without unnecessary defenses.”

The Yiddish schlemiel is a secularized version of this character. It modifies the religious aspect: “In the later secular works, faith is not a matter of religious credence, but the habit of trusting optimistically in the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. It is also the dedication to living as if good will triumph over evil and right over wrong.” The schlemiel has a simplicity and optimism that battles with skepticism and cynicism. Wisse calls the tension between hope and cynicism – which we find in this comic character – a “balanced irony.”

The difference between the German and the Yiddish schlemiel is clear. While Gilman argues that the schlemiel was used by the Jewish-German enlightenment as a foil to show German Jews what not to be; in Eastern Europe, the schlemiel’s comic failures had a more positive aspect. In other words, the German enlightenment courted the meaning of failure differently from their Eastern European brethren.

Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt – who he met in Paris for the first time in 1938 – both took an active interest in this comic character. However, in their reflections on the schlemiel (and on comedy) we see distinct differences between them (which resonate with the differences between Eastern European and German readings of the schlemiel). These differences show us that they both court failure and its meaning in different ways.

Benjamin’s Schlemiel

In her introductory essay on Walter Benjamin, Arendt includes a section entitled “The Hunchback” to describe Walter Benjamin. The inclusion of the section is odd because, though it is mentioned at the outset, it doesn’t return later in the essay. It’s as if Arendt wanted to note it without going too in depth. And this, I believe, has to do with their different approach to the schlemiel.

Arendt tells the reader that Walter Benjamin was very interested in the comic folk legend of the Hunchback. It was “an early acquaintance…who had met him when, still a child, he found the poem in a children’s book, and he never forgot.”

For context, she cites the poem:

When I go down to the cellar
There to draw some wine,
A little hunchback who’s in there
Grabs that jug of mine.

When I go into my kitchen,
There my soup to make,
A little hunchback who’s in there
My little pot did break.

According to Arendt, Benjamin identified with this character because he saw himself as afflicted by bad luck. Strangely enough, Arendt tells us that Benjamin saw himself as a comic bungler – afflicted by the hunchback – because his mother who would always call him a bungler and – in some way – influenced him to mess things up and trip over himself: “His mother, like millions of other mothers in Germany, used to say, “Mr. Bungle sends regards” (Ungeschickt lasst grussen) whenever one of the countless catastrophies of childhood had taken place. And the child of course knew what all of this bungling was about.”

This is an interesting observation by Arendt. And we find evidence for this in Benjamin’s descriptions of the walks he took with his mother in Berlin in his “Berlin Chronicle of 1932.” Like Philip Roth’s Portnoy, a modern schlemiel, Benjamin blames his Jewish mother for his dreaminess and bungling:

On her I lay blame for my inability even today to make a cup of coffee; to her propensity for turning the most insignificant items of conduct into tests of my aptitude for practical life I own the dreamy recalcitrance with which I accompanied her as we walked through the streets…My habit of seeming slower, more maladroit, more stupid than I am had its origin in such walks, and has the great attendant danger of making me think of myself quicker, more dexterous, and shrewder than I am.

Benjamin clearly links his comic disposition to his mother. Regardless of whether or not this came from his mother, we can see – through Benjamin’s work – that he was fascinated with childhood and children. He often saw himself through children and childhood. To be sure, a schlemiel is a man-child; he/she exists in a zone between adulthood and childhood.

Benjamin’s reflections on his childhood have such an affect. Take, for instance, his recollection of his “Butterfly Hunt” which can be found in his book Berlin Childhood around 1900:

They would flutter toward a blossom, hover over it. My butterfly net upraised, I stood waiting only for the spell that the flowers seemed to cast on the pair of wings to have finished its work, when all of a sudden the delicate body would glide off sideways with a gentle buffeting of the air, to cast its shadow – motionless as before – over another flower, which just as suddenly it would leave without touching. (51)

As he follows the Butterfly move from flower to flower, Benjamin loses his sense of time. He experiences freedom – a kind of experience like that of a dandy (moving from thing to thing and from space to space effortlessly). But, as this happens, it seems he has forgotten to capture it. But then he remembers his task to “capture” the butterfly and feels “as if” the Butterfly has made a “fool of me through its hesitations, vacillations, and delays.” In response, Benjamin becomes a hunter by virtue of losing his identity as a man. He becomes-a-butterfly in order to capture the butterfly. But this is not a simple act of hunting a butterfly; as Benjamin describes it, this act becoming breaches the limits of the human:

Between us, now, the old law of the hunt took hold: the more I strove to conform, in all the fibers of my being, to the animal – the more butterfly-like I became in my heart and soul – the more this butterfly itself, in everything it did took on the color of human volition; and in the end, it was as if its capture was the price I had to pay to regain my human existence.

What follows this capture, more or less, is a recording of how Benjamin became a “man” who had subdued his prey and gained new knowledge: “His lust for blood had diminished and his confidence was grown all the greater.”

Benjamin identifies wonder and astonishment with childhood. The figure of the butterfly is a figure of beauty and wonder. He loses himself in trying to catch it, but in capturing it he apparently became a man and his “confidence was grown all the greater.” But this is a half-truth. Although he succeeded in capturing the butterfly, what interests Benjamin most is the moment of astonishment and alienation. In that flash, he becomes other to himself.

Wonder, after all, is very important to Benjamin. He associates it, in his essays on the Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire, with shock and what he calls “profane illumination.” And shock marks nothing less than a failure to anticipate what will happen in this or that situation. Wonder dislodges one’s understanding and control of the world. A schlemiel, to be sure, is often surprised by such happenings that take him or her by surprise.

Benjamin was interested in Charlie Chaplin and thought of him as a schlemiel (most notably in his “Ibiza Sequence”) because Charlie stumbled, fell on himself, and failed quite often; but he did so in a graceful manner. When shocked, Chaplin would make the best of the situation and his failure. There is a kind of beauty to his failure and Benjamin courted failure by way of Chaplin.

But Walter Benjamin’s interest in comic failure comes out most in his readings of Franz Kafka. In his essay on Kafka, Benjamin notes the comical nature of Kafka’s characters throughout the text. He argues, in his letters, notes, and essay that there is a “beauty to their failure.”

In a letter to a scholar and close friend of his, Gershom Scholem, Benjamin argues that this failure was not simply in Kafka’s fiction; it was also bound in Kafka’s life. Benjamin argued that Kafka was to his best friend, Max Brod, as Laurel was to Hardy. In other words, Kafka’s life, like many of his characters, was comic. Kafka comically courted failure.

However, as Benjamin suggests in another letter to Scholem, Kafka didn’t reject the schlemiel. According to Benjamin, the only thing Kafka “knew with certainty,” was that “only a fool can help.” The question, however, is whether this help could do “humanity any good.” This finds an odd corollary in Benjamin’s essay on Kafka because the condition of the comic characters he describes is the condition of “Exile.” If anything, they are – in some sense – a painful reminder of the condition. But, Benjamin adds, by way of different kinds of folklore, these characters are not without hope; like Rabbi Nachman’s simpleton, they are utter failures and – as Benjamin suggests in the essay – wait for the Messiah. More importantly, Benjamin hits at the meaning of the schlemiel (not the German one so much as the Eastern European and Hasidic one but by way of German folklore) when he says that the Hunchback beckons us, the readers, to pray for help. In other words, the comic character helps us – the readers – to court failure.

Benjamin was preoccupied with this thought right up to his untimely death. He saw some beauty and hope in this character’s comic failure. This was one of Benjamin’s many secrets.

Arendt’s Schlemiel

In contrast to Benjamin, Arendt saw the schlemiel and failure differently. Instead of seeing the schlemiel’s failure as beautiful, she saw it, in her early work on Rahel Varnhagen, as disgraceful. But in her later work, she saw it as tactical and as the direct result of being worldless.

Arendt’s concept of worldlessness is crucial to understanding her treatment of the schlemiel. To be sure, Arendt saw wordlessness as a natural condition and inferior to the act of choosing one’s world. Arendt says that the “act” of “joining or forming” a group is “something completely different” from the “natural condition.” And in doing this, one enters the world: “The kind of organizations has to do with a relation to the world.” But, in contrast to this, both love and friendship are not worldly. They are more natural, and, by her clock, less important. She notes the worldlessness of love in The Human Condition when she writes of the Christian “political principle” which is a “bond of charity between people.” This founds a “public realm of its own” but is “worldless” because it is based on love.

Arendt goes so far, over there, to say that this “bond” “is admirably fit to carry a group of essentially worldless people through the world, a group of saints or a group of criminals, provided it is understood that the world itself it doomed” and that every act is provisional. As she points out there, this is antithetical to the Greek (pre-Platonic) understanding of action and its relationship with the world.

Jews, for Arendt, are a worldless people. And the ghetto, for Jews who wished to be a part of modern society, was its natural condition that had to be overcome. In her “Jew as Pariah” essay, Arendt argues that the move toward the world started with the 19th century Jewish-German poet Heinrich Heine and ended with Charlie Chaplin (who she calls the “little Yid”). They are a part of what she calls a “hidden tradition” of the pariah.

Arendt calls Henrich Heine a schlemiel and a “lord of dreams” in this essay. He is a schlemiel “poet of the people” who courts failure by turning it against the Parvenu (the Jew who imagines he can leave Jewishness behind for being German in an era that didn’t see Jews as equals). Heine shares much with classical schlemiels: “Innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel. But it is of such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born.” It uses this innocence – born of worldlessness – as a weapon. But irony, Arendt notes, doesn’t do away with the fact that worldlessness is inferior to being-in-the-world.

While Arendt situates Heine at the beginning of the “hidden tradition,” she puts Chaplin at the end. His schlemiel is what she calls “the suspect” and is always deemed so by the elite. According to Arendt, he used comedy to rally a worldless people of immigrants against the political and philosophical status quo. With him, the schlemiel changes:

The impudence of Chaplin’s suspect is of the same kind as charms us so much in Heine’s schlemiel; but no longer is it carefree and unperturbed, no longer the divine effrontery of the poet who consorts with heavenly things and can therefore afford to thumb noses at earthly society.

However, Arendt believed that people stopped laughing at Chaplin after “unemployment” came. And Chaplin was replaced with a worldly character – Superman. People got fed up with the figure of failure and chose, instead, a figure of justice, strength, and hope. Arendt’s reading of Heine, Chaplin, and worldlessness was, to be sure, greatly influenced by her passionate interest in Zionism. It’s project – like hers -was to leave the schlemiel behind as a remnant of the ghetto. The schlemiel, like the Jew – in her view – needs to live a normal life not an exceptional one. She courts the schlemiel’s failure and, ultimately, gives a negative verdict.

The difference between these two readings of comedy and the schlemiel is telling. We can learn a lot about how one can look to comedy for hope and vision. Arendt and Benjamin courted failure and the schlemiel but for entirely different ends; one was messianic while the other was humanistic; one is existential while the other is political and historical. Benjamin thought that worldlessness was more important to reflect on: it held a kind of comical truth which related to an existential condition and perhaps something religious.

Arendt rejected Benjamin’s little hunchback and his mother was not hers; she didn’t’ see herself as a bungler as he did. Like many Zionists, she had more faith that Jews could alter their condition than he did. In this sense, Benjamin’s courting of failure was dangerous and may have had a debilitating effect on his judgment. Although she saw it as useful, Arendt rejected failure and the schlemiel in the name of world while Benjamin thought that worldlessness and failure were part and parcel of the inescapable existential condition. And perhaps one can argue that this condition does debilitate judgment and makes fools of us all.

About the Author:


Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction Studies, Shofar, MELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in Philosophy, Comparative Literature and Culture,Ctheory, and Cinemaction.

Feuer is the author of the Schlemielintheory ( a blog dedicated to the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel. In addition to having guest posts by well-known writers, poets, comedians, and academics, Feuer regularly writes posts on the schlemiel. He is currently working on a book length treatment of the schlemiel.  The book will address the diverse expressions of the schlemiel in contemporary literature, poetry, film, stand-up comedy and culture from the angle of Continental and Jewish philosophy. Besides doing work on the schlemiel, Feuer is also the subject of a 2011 documentary entitled Shlemiel by Toronto film director Chad Derrick.