Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Enlightenment Goes East by Ruth Von Bernuth


Let me begin with a Chelm story I heard from the eminent scholar of Old Yiddish Chava Turniansky. She tells of visiting Communist Poland in 1984 with a number of other Israeli scholars. Their route took them through Chelm, a city of around sixty thousand today. Chelm lies in the far eastern part of the modern Polish State, near the Ukrainian border. The Israeli scholars, like so many other Jews intimately familiar with tales of the “wise men” of Chelm, were excited to find themselves in a place of such Jewish cultural renown. When they spotted a kiosk open for business and selling this and that, they all rushed over to it, hoping to find something identifiably local to bring home.

No sooner had the Israelis lined up in front of the little store than growing numbers of Chelmites began converging on the spot, lining up behind the visitors, certain that some rarely available commodity had become available. This was logical enough, because that is what a long line always means in the Eastern Bloc. The discovery that the visitors were queuing up for nothing more useful than random local objects was likely not just disappointing but bewildering, since in non-Jewish Polish culture, Chelm as a town of fools is unknown. The “wise men” have yet to be celebrated of exploited in postwar Chelm.

This incident symbolizes the vey different meaning that Chelm has for Poles and for Jews. Among Catholic Poles, Chelm is known as a Marian pilgrimage site, while among Jews, it has played the role of the foolish shtetl par excellence since the end of the nineteenth century. The tales of its so-called wise men, a sprawling repertoire of stories about the intellectual limitations of the perennially foolish residents of this venerable Jewish town, have come to constitute the best-known folktale tradition of eastern European Jewry.

What accounts for the singular Jewish association of Chelm with folly? The question has been asked before, and answered this way: When God created the world, he sent out an angel with a bag of foolish souls and orders to distribute them evenly all over the world – one fool per town. But the bag tore, and all the foolish souls spilled out on the same spot. These souls built a settlement where they landed, and that settlement became the town known as Chelm.

This version of events may have an age-old appearance, but it is not to be found before 1917. Moreover, there is no documented association between the Jews of Chelm, and foolishness before Ayzik Metyer Dik’s  1972 Yiddish novel  Di orkhim fun Duratshesok (‘The Visitors in Foolstown’). Nor is there any mention of the “Fools of Chelm” before 1873. When that phrase does make its debut it is not in a Jewish source but in Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander’s dictionary of German expressions. However, the culturally and linguistically convoluted roots of the Chelm Yiddish folktale repertoire stretch back far past the nineteenth century to, at least, the late Middle Ages.  Most importantly, the core stories of Chelm are not original to Chelm. They derive from an early modern German source, the famous Schildburgerbuch of 1598. . . .

This book analyzes the connections between the German and Yiddish traditions and, in doing so, challenges previous assumptions that the tales were simply transferred from the German via an Old Yiddish translation to Modern Yiddish. It demonstrates the long process of exchange between German and Yiddish literatures, from late medieval popular novels through Enlightenment texts down to ethnographic  writings of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century It shows  early modern literature exerting a lasting effect on later modern literary production.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

In 1789, the German man of letters Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813) published in his influential literary journal Der Tetsche Merker (The German Mercury) an article containing his contribution to the endlessly discussed question of the moment, “What is  Enlightenment?” According to him, the answer “is known to everyone who, having eyes to see, has learned to recognize the difference between light and dark, day and night.”

Wieland goes on to explain that light is a metaphor for the light of reason, which helps distinguish between “true and false, good and evil.” Thus, the author warns of “anyone who wants to give us black for white, or wants to pay with counterfeit money, or wants to conjure up ghosts, or (though this is very innocent in itself) whoever likes to follow whims, build castles in the air, or takes trips to the land of Cockaigne or the Happy Islands.” His parenthetical concession, that irrationality “is very innocent itself,” contradicts everything else he says here and offers a broad hint of subversive intent. That his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” is meant as a parody of the simplistic and hackneyed answers of the period becomes clear from one word that he uses in his title, or rather from one word that he does not use but decorously represents with an ellipsis ; Ein paar Goldkorner aus-Makulatur oder Sechs Antworten auf sechs Fragen” ( A couple of gold nuggets from the . . . paper, or six answers to six questions). .  . the contents of this article came to him when he spotted ‘six questions about the Enlightenment” on a piece of printer’s waste, a print shop’s discarded wastes or remainders, often repurposed as toilet paper- which his  faux scruples prevent him spelling out. It is as if he were saying, in the roundabout manner of the day, that the outhouse is where many of the far too many pamphlets on the nature of Enlightenment belong. It is also as if he were saying that the thoughts he is about to express on the subject might well belong there as well.

The fiction with which Wieland frames his book does not mean that he is entirely opposed to the Enlightenment. On the contrary, he is among the leading figures of the movement, to which he made a, substantial contributions as author, translator, and editor of a leading journal. But Wieland is a self-critical thinker who, by setting the action of “A couple of Gold Nuggets” in a restroom, transforms it into an ambiguous essay in which the Enlightenment is simultaneously celebrated and criticized. Given this sensibility, it is not surprising that Wieland, like many other writers of the Enlightenment, was interested in the German Schildburgerbuch, another book that is full of ambiguity vis-à-vis wisdom and folly, reason and unreason, seriousness and laughter.

[Folly can only exist in relation to its opposite, or, as Foucault concluded, folly and reason enter a “perpetually reversible relationship which implies that all madness- folie – has its own reason by which it is judged and mastered, and reason has its madness in which it finds its own derisory truth.”]

The German Enlightenment made considerable use of  the Schildburgerbuch. Wieland’s own History of the Abderites  can be understood as a reworked Schildburgerbuch. ‘Abderite’ is a synonym for fool. Abdera was a real place, a city in ancient Thrace, whose inhabitants are single out in some classical Greek and Latin sources for their folly. . .

The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites share a similar concept of folly. In both, foolishness is a matter of faulty reasoning leading to wrong conclusions as to how to solve problems. “The Abderites never lacked ideas.” Wieland says, “but rarely were their ideas suited to the situation to which they were applied, a fact that did not occur to them until the occasion was past.” The Schildburgers are the same: if they do finally see sense, it will be too late – although “too late” is a concept they have trouble grasping, as evident in the story of townsfolk who fell some trees on a hill and cart them down in wagons. Told that it would have been easier to roll the logs downhill, they cart them back up the hill so they can properly roll them down.

In addition, the Schildburgers and Wieland’s Abderites share the fallacy that performing well in one field predicts excellent performance in another. Thus, the Schildburgers elect the swineherd as mayor because he, or his wife, can keep a rhyme going longer than any of the other candidates. Almost identically, the Abderites elect the best singer in town as their Nomophylax (guardian of the laws).

The narrators of both the Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites are “unreliable narrators”, providing readers with conflicting information, deceiving them, and sometimes addressing them as if they had a long-standing acquaintance. All this is done with a disorientating effect, so the reader is frequently forced to wonder which parts of the text are meant as true and which as false, which are meant to make sense and which nonsense, who is wise and who foolish.

Both authors also use the narrator to create confusion about their sources. The narrator of the Schildburgerbuch first claims that he is transmitting an oral account, then complains about the wormholes in the manuscript source, while Wieland’s narrator apologizes for being unable to provide all the details of the controversy over Democritus’s disputed insanity “because the records of the entire case were long ago devoured by mice.”

The History of the Abderites not only parallels the account in the Schildburgerbuch of the decline and fall of the city. It also exactly parallels the consequence of the fall of the city  as described in the Schildburgerbuch, with the departure and dispersal of the town’s foolish inhabitants and the resulting spread of folly throughout the world. The Schildburgerbuch ends with the warning that folly can be transmitted by heredity or contagion. Wieland’s “Key to the History of the Abderites” concludes by asserting that “the History of the Abderites  can . . justly be regarded as one of the truest and most reliable mirrors, and, just for that reason, a faithful one, in which moderns can look at their countenance and, if they only wish to be honest with themselves, can discover in what respect they resemble their ancestors” ( i.e., the Abderites)

The mirror, which lets people see who they are, as a first step towards wisdom, is a metaphor that Sebastian Brant famously used in his Ship of Fools, a book that he referred o as a Narrenspiegel, a fool’s mirror. The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites both see folly as a part of human nature. And they see wisdom, therefore, as something “unnatural”,  something to be achieved and something requiring continuous attention to maintain. This sentiment is summed up in the quotation from Horace that concludes the “Key to the History of the Abderites: Sapienta prima est stultitia caruissee, the beginning of wisdom is to have eschewed folly.

The mirror is one of the principal symbols used in the texts and images of early modern foolish culture. It is found, for example, on the façade of the town hall in Nordlingen, held up to the observers in the sculpture of a fool, which bears the caption, “That makes two of us”. As Brant and the author of the Schildburgerbuch and Wieland believe, the boundaries between Schildburghers or Abderites and the inhabitants of “normal “ towns, and between the fools in the text and the reader of the books, is fuzzy.

The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites agree that wisdom is a treasure that needs careful preservation. Wieland modernizes the discourse on folly, and he also introduces a new type of person in his narrative: the exceptional individual who seems to possess just the right degree of self-awareness, for example, Democritus and Hippocrates. They are characterized as authentic ages, or “cosmopolitans” as Wieland calls them, creating with the History of the Abderites a new concept of cosmopolitanism in European discourse. The cosmopolitans belong to an ancient order to which Wieland devotes an entire chapter in the second book of the History of the Abderites. This invisible society is so secretive that hardly anything is known about it except that, though its members have neither a constitution, nor symbols, nor solemn rites, they maintain a stronger solidarity among themselves than any other order or fraternity in the world. Cosmopolitans are citizens of the world who recognize one another regardless of differing ethnic or religious backgrounds. Their main aim is to promote “the perfection of the whole.” This idea of the cosmopolitan surrounded by a foolish world proves so appealing to the aficionados of the Jewish Enlightenment that they identify with it strongly and adopt Abdera as their model foolish society that, as we shall see, finally evolves into Chelm.

Wieland’s book was read in Germany as a parody of the mentality of small-town Germany in general, but it was widely believed, too, to be a parody of one or another town in particular, despite the author’s denial. The maskilim, however, found it all too easy to identify with the persecuted philosopher Democritus and to identify  the persecuting Abderites  with the narrow-minded small-town Jewish communities of eastern Europe: the dogmatic community rabbis, irrational Hasidic rebbes and their credulous followers, and even differently enlightened maskilic rivals. This is the background against which the first tales of the wise men of Chelm emerge.

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