Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Walser, Blanchot, and the End

It’s been six years since the book came out, but I’m still recovering from the opening of Eric Santner’s On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (U of Chicago P, 2001), as well as the orientation of the whole—as I remember now on re-encountering some passages of Blanchot that seem to reply to it. Santner recounts Robert Walser’s story “The End of the World” (1917), about a friendless child who runs tirelessly “looking for the end of the world.” Santner’s synopsis:

As we might expect, the project doesn’t go well. But after much searching, the child comes upon a farmer who, knowing that a farmhouse nearby is called “End of the World,” informs the child that its goal lies only a half-hour’s walk away. Exhausted from its travels, the child finally arrives at what the farmer’s wife confirms to be “the end of the world.” Upon awaking from much needed sleep, the child, who we now learn is a young girl, asks if she might stay at the farm and be of service to the family. She is taken into the home of the farmer’s family, at first as a maid but with the promise of a future as a genuine member of the clan: “It set heartily about its chores and went diligently to work, and so was soon liked by everyone and never did the child run off again, for it felt at home.” (Santner 12)

Santner interprets the child’s running as a philosophical practice, an obsessive and “fundamentally fantasmatic” metaphysical impulse (13). Her incorporation into the farm prefigures the main narrative of his book, Franz Rosenzweig’s conversion from philosophy to the virtues of everyday life in the Frankfurt Jewish community. “Rosenzweig clearly began to experience the entire academic enterprise as a kind of defense against the exigencies of being in the midst of life, the forms of answerability he was coming to associate with it” (15). In his “new rootedness” he is able to love “the nerve-wracking, picayune, and at the same time very necessary struggles with people and conditions, [that] have now become the real core” of his life of “service to human beings” (Santner 17).

Though Eric Santner is an extremely nice guy, I’m honestly still horrified by this. First of all, as a matter of literary interpretation, Robert Walser is no author of happy endings: his writings are full of characters who earnestly declare their devotion to mediocrity and class slavery, and are interpreted as depicting a world so unfree that this kind of dubious enthusiasm literally knows no bounds. Thus the need to exceed the bounds of the world. (I heard this unnerving Walserian mediocrity analyzed beautifully in a paper by Rebecca Schuman, "So ein recht vernichtender Schlag: Linguistic Self-Annihilation, ‘Pure Means’ and Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten," Comparative Literature Graduate Conference, UC Irvine, April 7, 2007.) Santner acknowledges any such qualification “in the case of Walser’s young girl” only parenthetically: “we witness something on the order of a flight from the middle (in her case of course, this middle is a radically impoverished one)” (13). Another clue to the disaster of the whole thing is that the child turns into a girl when she asks if she might be of service, and that it is the wife who attests that yes, there’s nothing more than this. And yes, we’re liked and become genuine members of the clan when we set diligently to work and become “answerable” to its every least concern—and only then.

Walser reminds everyone of Kafka, including Kafka himself. Blanchot writes of Kafka’s Castle that it is the story of “an avid and dissatisfied will that always exceeds the goal”:

Is this, then, his error, a romantic passion for the absolute? In one sense, yes; but, in another sense, not at all. If K. chooses the impossible, it is because he was excluded from everything possible as the result of an initial decision. If he cannot make his way in the world, or employ, as he would like, the normal means of life in society, it is because he has been banished from the world, from his world, condemned to the absence of world, doomed to exile in which there is no real dwelling place. To wander, this is his law. His dissatisfaction is the very movement of this error, it is its expression, its reflection; it is itself thus essentially false; yet, nonetheless, always to move further in the direction of error is the only hope that is left him, the only truth that he must not betray and to which he remains faithful with a perseverance that makes him thus the hero of inflexible obstinacy. ("Kafka and Brod," in Friendship [1971], trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg [Stanford UP, 1997] 247)

I’m not sure what to do with Blanchot’s association to the wandering Jew, but I know that it makes the situation still more disturbing. The association seems available in Walser’s story as well and is not mentioned in Santner’s interpretation, with its focus on a Jewish community that is determinedly “rooted” and binds Rosenzweig in its rootedness: when we recall the history of European Judaism, wouldn’t its rootedness have to be understood in relation to an endless imposed exile, in which the farmhouse that is called “The End of the World” only substitutes for the end to the world in which people who are not like everybody else are exiled?

Blanchot is judgmental, too, if sympathetic: he assumes that the wandering Jew was “excluded from everything possible as the result of an initial decision”: further, that this decision was an "error"--in other words, he imposes the standard Christian interpretation of the Jewish "refusal" to convert, even as he identifies with his fantasy of that refusal. In a different and more general register, he also assumes that everybody “would like the normal means of life in society” and has hope for nothing else but inclusion in that life. Other traditions, from the utopian strain of critical theory to queer theory (Walser had no partners--think again about the child's turning into a girl), provide the means for a different interpretation of Walser’s story, in which any world in which the events of the story are possible both ought to be brought to an end and can be.

Image 1: Northern lights, Bossekop, Alta, Finnmark, 1838-39; cf. La Recherche Expedition, 1838-1840

Image 2: Robert Walser's death, December 25, 1956, in the snow of the mental institution where he lived...

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