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Academic Schlemiels

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In Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, the main character S. Levin leaves New York City for a job teaching at a college in California. He envisions a new life for himself on the West Coast as an academic. Little does he know that the job he has applied for is not the same job he is given. When he gets to California, he realizes that the college he works for doesn’t respect the liberal arts. They don’t want what he has to offer: an English professor who gives students a deeper understanding of literature and humanity. Rather, they want professors who can teach technical writing. When he gets there, he realizes that he is one of several adjunct teachers and will remain so for an indefinite time period. And even though he realizes that he is stuck and that only a few options are open to him in a small, conservative college town in northern California, he still retains some kind of hope that his journey will enable him to start all over again and live a “new life.”

What Levin finds out is that the new life he gets is much different from the new life he expected. And this reality, amongst other things, makes him into a schlemiel. To be sure, a schlemiel’s expectations don’t match with reality. Schlemiels often dream big (Hannah Arendt, by way of Heinrich Heine, calls the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” and in Yiddish the schlemiel is often called a “luftmensch,” someone who “lives on air”). But they are in for a shock when they realize that their dreams paved the way to failure. Nonetheless, schlemiels are often fortunate enough to have the ability to distract themselves from failure and to pursue some other project or dream. Were they to fully gather the meaning of their failure, they would be tragic characters.   Hence, the innocence and absent-mindedness of the schlemiel.

S. Levin, to be sure, fails in many of his encounters at the college. Even before his first day teaching, he ends up in a fling with a girl named Laverne who he meets in town. He goes with her to a barn to have sex and has problems getting his clothes off. When he does, he is immediately interrupted with his pants down. He and Laverne, both naked, run into the street in terror.   This is his first failure.

Moreover, his first day of class doesn’t go according to protocol. He fidgets over his mistakes, while in the midst of teaching, and ends up making a comic performance:

Sweating over the error he might have made…Levin got up and demonstrated on the blackboard types of sentences, as the students, after a momentary restlessness, raptly watched his performance….Levin, with a dozen minutes left to the hour, finally dropped grammar to say what was still on his mind: namely, welcome to Cascadia College. He was himself a stranger in the West but that didn’t matter. By some miracle of movement and change…At this they laughed, though he wasn’t sure why. (85)

The narrator points out how, after saying his piece, they turned away from him yet “in his heart he thanked them, sensing he had created their welcome of him. They represented an America he had so often heard of, the fabulous friendly West”(85). Meanwhile, they are treating him rudely.   Yet he tells them that “this is the life for me”(85). In response they “broke into cheers, whistles, loud laughter”(86). Instinctively, “as if inspired,” Levin “glanced down at his fly and it was, as it must be, all the way open”(85). In other words, they weren’t giving a laugh and cheers of support so much as mockery. Like a schlemiel, he misinterpreted everything that was going on around him for the better when, in fact, it was bad.

In hope of checking out the beautiful California scenery, Levin ends up getting a car; but when he first starts driving it, he feels terror more than joy as he turns the wheel. This changes over time, but the initial experience was not what he expected. And when Levin tries to make waves in the school to get more liberal arts that also backfires. As the novel progresses, we see that he ends up in an affair with a professor’s wife who is desperate for love. This ends up on a bad note, too. He is found out by the professor and is asked, by the dean, to leave the college town. The novel ends with him leaving just as lonely as when he came, but also a little wiser.

However, all is not lost. His failure doesn’t define him. As he moves from new experience to new experience, his life seems to get better (although, in the most minute way).   He may be an existential schlemiel who, it seems, is always getting himself into trouble. But at the very least he gets a better sense of his existential failures as the novel comes to an end. His name, after all, is Levin (the root of the name Levin is “lev,” Hebrew for heart). He is better for all of his failures, he has suffered and become more human, but he is still an academic schlemiel.

Today, the majority of untenured academics who teach in universities and colleges are a lot like Levin. They sign up for a job thinking that they will be a success, achieve tenure, and will gain respect. But what they find, in a job market where non-tenured professors outnumber tenured professors 4:1, is that they were mistaken. Their efforts, it seems, were for naught. Nonetheless, many of them keep at it and endure great suffering so they can, at the very least, live a life that they love. In this sense, they are like Levin. They have great hearts, but the fact of the matter is that the world they are in could care less for them.   They live with humiliation and failure.   And, as a friend on facebook suggested today, this kind of failure has become the new normal.

In this sense, the academic – that is, the adjunct – schlemiel is becoming the norm. Like any schlemiel narrative, this reality is not just a commentary on the person who is foolish enough to pursue their dreams; rather, it is a commentary on the world they believed they knew. In this scenario, the commentary is on the academic world. The academic schlemiel is not wholly responsible for his dreams; if it weren’t for the world that puts out the possibility of success, these dreams wouldn’t exist.

We can see this relation of the world to the schlemiel in many Sholem Aleichem stories, where characters envision America as a land of freedom and success. When they get to America, they see failure all around them. But they do and don’t see it. They remain optimistic when the reader can clearly see that reality says otherwise. That optimism, the conceit of the Jewish fool, doesn’t diminish the cynicism the reader should feel when reading this. This is what Ruth Wisse would call a “balanced irony.”

Strangely enough, Wisse, at the end of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that we should leave the schlemiel and its balanced ironies behind.   In other words, such ironies are not good for Jewish character in modern day America. She wrote this in 1972. Today, however, we need these kinds of balanced ironies because academic and economic failure have become endemic. Cynicism, spurred by failure and neglect, is at the base of daily academic life. In the face of this, we need to balance the cynicism that comes with lost dreams against the hope that one will eventually succeed. To be sure, the current acadmic system should be seen within this tension: it encourages graduate students to dream while, at the same time, showing that those dreams have little reality. And for that, we need the schlemiel figure to challenge what Wisse calls the “political and philosophical status quo.” The sorry state of the academic schlemiel should be an eye-opener. Levin, a character from Malamud’s 1961 novel, is still with us in 2014.

Anyone who stays in academia will identify with Levin’s hopes, failures, and misreadings. In a sense, they have been duped and have allowed themselves to be duped while knowing full well that success, today, is not so easy to attain. Like Levin, the academic schlemiel wants a “new life.” And although they are given a new life, that life may not be the one they expected. But, at the very least, like Levin…they can move on. They can experience, as he says to his class, the “miracle of movement.” Even though, at times, it seems one is going nowhere and even though they are humiliated and disrespected, an academic schlemiel can always leave and go elsewhere. Knowing this, perhaps, is the only hope an academic schlemiel can have.

In a system that dupes graduate students and PhDs into becoming a “lord of dreams” (a dream of tenure and academic success), it seems to be the only consolation.  We see this clearly in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” after he is lied to by everybody – who he trusts time and time again believing that they can be good – he decides to leave the city for some other city. He moves on….and leaves the city, which duped him into marrying a woman with kids and lovers, for some other place where, hopefully, people will be honest.  The real “new life” is elsewhere.

“Travels With Charley: In Search of America,” or John Steinbeck, an American Don Quixote: Take 1

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When I was in high school, I realized that to discover America I would have to go off the beaten path. I never thought of my endeavor as comic so much as adventurous.  With a journey in mind, one of the first books I really took to in high school was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.   Like the narrator of the book – who was the travel companion of the character Dean Moriarity (who was, in real life, Neal Cassidy) – I had a desire to discover America. I wanted to leave my small town in Upstate New York and find out, for myself, what America had to offer. This book spurred me to travel across country with a good friend.   And as I traveled, I also came across Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Allen Ginsburg’s poems about America.   Although I was not of the Beat Generation, I was intrigued by their reflections on the USA. I found their fictional and poetic meditations on America to reflect their “serious” adventures.  The events and experiences that happened on Kerouac and Whitman’s respective journeys were fundamentally transformational.  Would I have the same kinds of transformational experience?

Between what I found and I experienced, I found that some things just didn’t match. I was looking for something else. From my angle, their journeys were too filled with pathos (“the urge to be transformed by experiences in America”) to be believable.   As an American Jew, I know now that what I was looking for was an adventure that had comical elements of failure and not so much transformation but comical astonishment. In my American adventure, I was looking for something closer to what we find in the adventures of Sholem Aleichem or Mendel Mocher Sforim, on the one hand, or the adventures of schlemiels like Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, or Shalom Auslander’s Kugel as they left the city for the countryside.  The America I discovered would have to come by way of a schlemiel.   If I were to find any correlate for this in pop culture, I would have to say that National Lampoon’s Vacation might just work.  After all, Harold Ramis was behind it and knew how to bring the schlemiel into popular American culture.

When I, just last week, came across John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America, I was recently reminded that Vacation, for me at that time, wasn’t enough.  Despite seeing this film and having a lot of laughs, I knew that there was something better.   Steinbeck’s book reminded me.

It was odd that I missed the book.  In truth, I had a few friends who told me to read the book; but I never got my hands on a copy of it. My literary studies brought me elsewhere…more into modernist European literature than American literature.   It was only recently on a trip to visit my father in Upstate New York that I stumbled across a copy of the book. I found it in a small used book store in Schenectady, New York. It was in the American fiction section. I bought the book and, to my surprise, I discovered, right off the bat, that this book, unlike Kerouac or Whitman’s books, starts off on a comic note and it takes Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a model-of-sorts.

The novel, to begin with, is supposed to be based on Steinbeck’s real experiences. But as a New York Times article (from 2011) notes this claim has been heavily-disputed. Nonetheless, I’m less interested in the “truth” of the claim so much as the form it takes, which is the form of the comic adventure, and the fact that Steinbeck wrote this at a time (the early 1960s) when he felt down on his luck and alienated: two factors that often make for good Yiddish and Jewish American comic literature.   Most importantly, the novel suggests a desire not so much to discover American as to be elsewhere, which is, to be sure, a Jewish desire. The suggestion that this is not just a Greek or Spanish motif can also be found in the fact that Steinbeck dedicated this book to a Jew named Harold Guinzburg.

At the outset of the book, the narrator recalls how, when he was young, “the urge to be someplace else as on me, I was assured that by mature people that maturity would cure this itch”(3). However, as the narrator points out, although he was in middle age, “the sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye…In other words, I didn’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum”(3).

In these words, he see that, in his own eyes and in the eyes of the community, the narrator is a “bum” and a “man-child.” But he is not an aimless wanderer. To be sure, the narrator calls himself a “practical bum.” He isn’t just wandering around America: “He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey”(3).

Even though he sees himself as a “practical bum,” the narrator associates himself with Don Quixote who didn’t seem to have a plan. We see this in the fact that, in choosing the name for his vehicle (he is driving, not hitchhiking) he selects the name of Don Quixote’s horse:

And because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I named it Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote’s horse…I was advised that the name Rocinante painted on the side of my truck in sixteenth-century Spanish script would cause curiosity and inquiry in some places. I do not know how many people recognized the name, but surely no one ever asked about it. (7)

In other words, this was the narrator’s private joke. What really brings him together with Americans, however, is not his car. It is his dog, Charley, that brings him into the world. He takes the dog with him because he had worried about traveling alone. He felt that he might be assaulted, but, ultimately, he fears the weight of desolation would kill him:

There was some genuine worry about my traveling alone, open to attack, robbery, assault. It is well known that the roads are dangerous. And here I admit I had some senseless qualms. It is some years since I have been alone, nameless, friendless without any of the safety one gets from family, friends, and accomplises. There is no reality in danger. It’s just a very lonely, helpless feeling at first – a kind of desolate feeling.(8)

And it is “for this reason” that I “took one companion on my journey – an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley. Actually his name was Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy…and trained in French”(8). To be sure, the dog only responds to French words.

I find the dog, and its European pedigree, to be an interesting American re-writing of Don Quixote. In this version, the more rational and grounded Sancho Panza is replaced by a dog. The dog helps the narrator relate to the world and pulls him out of dreams: “Charley is a born diplomat. He prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, because he is very bad at fighting”(9). He fails at fighting, but he is good at relating and negotiating with others. He is a “bond with strangers. Many conversations en route began with “What degree of a dog is that?”

It is conversation that the narrator wants because, in doing so, he doesn’t simply see American and its various landscapes; rather, he experiences American by way of talking with people from around the country. Regarding this, he notes that the dog is actually not the best conversation starter; even better is than the dog is the state of “being lost.” It’s the best way to “attract attention.”

With these last words, one wonders about what Steinbeck is doing. On the one hand, he casts himself as a “practical bum” and yet, on the other hand, he casts himself as someone who must “be lost” if he is to rediscover America. It seems to be a little of both. He seems to be, like many a schlemiel or ironic figure (think of Socrates, even) someone who can act as if he is lost while not being lost. The whole point, to be sure, is to gain new experiences by way of conversation. The only way to do that is to act as if one is lost. And in this act, which is carried on with a dog, the comic journey begins.

…to be continued….

A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

I will be giving a talk today at the New School on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel.  This talk is based on the book I am currently writing on the schlemiel.

If you are in NYC or in the vicinity, drop in.

Here’s the abstract:

Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin were both interested in the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel. We have evidence of this interest by way of essays, letters, and notes on this character. Most of their discussions happened while they were both in Paris before WWII.   Their readings of the schlemiel are antithetical and when read against each other we can see what, for them, is at stake with this character. The figure that they most differed on was Franz Kafka. Walter Benjamin’s letters to Gershom Scholem clearly demonstrate that he was at his wits end about the relationship of theology, aesthetics, and politics in Kafka’s novels, short stories, and diaries. Although Benjamin published the first part of his essay on Kafka two years after beginning his project, the other parts of the essay troubled him for over five years. Benjamin’s goal was stated in a letter to Scholem dated October 17, 1934. There, Benjamin uses the metaphor of the bow to describe why he had such difficulty “The image of the bow suggests why: I am confronted with two ends at once, the political and the mystical.” After making many attempts to maintain this tension, Benjamin simply admitted to failure (as is evident in two letters to Scholem and Adorno). Nonetheless, I would like to argue that Arendt succeeded where Benjamin failed since he gave only a mystical reading while she gave a political reading of the schlemiel. But, in the end, her reading is also marred by a failure to understand this character in an American context and it fails to understand certain aspects of the schlemiel that have an after-life. The schlemiel offers a new way of reading their work and understanding how comedy informed their understanding of politics, mysticism, and Jewishness.  

The Schlemiel as “Essentially….Existential”

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There are many kinds of Jewish fools and the schlemiel is only one type in the tradition of Jewish humor. However, it is the most popular comic character of all. So whenever someone asks me to define a schlemiel, the easy answer – like the answer Rabbi Hillel gave when he was asked to sum up the entire Torah in one sentence – can be found in a popular joke about a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik. It goes like this: A schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnick sit down for a bowl of soup. The schlimazel asks the schlemiel to get him a bowl of soup. The schlemiel assures him that nothing will go wrong as it may have in the past. The schlimazel lets him go. But right about when he is going to give the schlimazel the soup, he trips up and spills the soup on the schlimazel’s lap.   As the schlimazel screams out, the nudnick asks him what kind of soup was spilled on his lap. In this scenario, the schlemiel is the disseminator of bad luck, the shlimazel receives the bad luck, and the nudnick amplifies the bad luck.

Regarding this joke, Ruth Wisse argues that the “schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential. Whereas comedy involving the schlimazel tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving from his very nature in it’s confrontation with reality”(14). Wisse’s reading of the joke is peculiar. Since she uses the words “essential” and “existential” (terms that are often kept apart by existentialists who follow the lead of Jean Paul Sartre) in a similar way, she is saying that the “nature” of the schlemiel’s misfortunate “encounter with reality” is “essentially existential.” In other words, bad luck is “essentially” built into the very way the schlemiel “existentially” relates to reality. It is ontological, existential, and, it is Jewish.   Wherever the schlemiel goes, he seems, by virtue of his very relations to existence, to create bad luck for others. But, at the very least, he has good intentions. Regardless, if we take this joke as a paradigm, we would have to say that the schlemiel will always, so to speak, spill soup on some schlimazel (who happens to be in his path) because that’s the way the schlemiel relates to the world.

But is this really the case? Is the schlemiel to be understood, quite simply, as a character who has good intentions yet, in the end, will always be the disseminator of bad luck? And in what way is his comedy “essentially existential”?   Does this concept tell us about Jews in general or Jews in particular?

Although Ruth Wisse explains this classic joke in this way, her argument about the schlemiel in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero gives us a different perspective. To be sure, Wisse notes that this is an American joke not a European one. Does this imply that the European schlemiel is different? Indeed, it does.   To be sure, the American schlemiel is different from it’s European predecessor in many ways. And, I would argue, the American schlemiel has many other variants that don’t fit squarely into this joke or even the European model of the schlemiel (at least, as we shall see, the German-Jewish variant). Indeed, this joke, an American joke, like Hillel’s explanation of Judaism on one leg, does shed some light on the existential nature of the comic character; but it doesn’t do the American or the European schlemiel justice. They seem to be ontologically different. Their “essential existentiality” differs.

Expanding on Wisse’s reading of the schlemiel based on this Jewish-American joke, I’d like to argue that the claim that the schlemiel is an “essentially existential” character and this joke, which evinces an American version of the schlemiel, gives us a lead as to how we can go about understanding this comic character. By looking at this character in terms of it’s existentiality and its geographical and temporal location, we can have a better understanding of what this character means or can mean to us, here, in America.

We are, by virtue of time and place, more familiar with the American schlemiel than the European one. And this joke does shed a little light on the schlemiels we know and love, the popular one’s, which range from Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Barbara Streisand to Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman. All of them, to some extent, seem to spill the soup on somebody (and themselves).   (But what about the less popular schlemiels, the literary schlemiels that fall under the radar; the schlemiels we find in I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, or Bruce Jay Friedman? Is it wise to make a distinction? Are the literary schlemiels more existential than the popular ones? And if so, how?)

Drawing on the schlemiel’s popularity for American Jews, Sidrah Ezrahi claims that in America the schlemiel is a “cultural icon.” But, more importantly, she argues that the schlemiel is at the core of something larger; namely, the Jewish-American, diasporic imagination. Using the well-worn term “diaspora,” she suggests that Jewish-American identity is in some way existentially connected to this comic character. (Strangely enough, the only scholars who have written on Booking Passage have missed this key detail.)

What makes Ezrahi’s reading so thought-provoking is that it’s existential-ontological meaning is based on a historical and geographical distinction between Israel and America. Taking Philip Roth’s Portnoy as her cue, Ezrahi argues that American Jews are essentially schlemiels while Israelis are essentially not. The basis for Israeli identity is history and land; while for American-Jews the basis of Jewish-American identity is virtual. The validity of this distinction needs to be tested and it’s meaning understood. We need not accept her reading and, to be sure, we can learn a lot from it since she is the only person in “schlemiel theory” who has defined American Jews as schlemiels by way of an interpretation that, in many ways, draws from existentialism and phenomenology. To be sure, Ezrahi takes up where Wisse leaves off with her claim that schlemiels are “essentially existential.”

A Note on Mothers, Fathers, and Schlemiels in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Fiction

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One thing I have noticed about Bruce Jay Friedman’s fictional experiments with schlemiels is the fact that a person’s parents play an important role in the schlemiel process. But in his fictional scenarios, mothers are not the sole source of this or that person becoming a schlemiel. To be sure, fathers can also play a key role. And this inclusion of the father into the schlemiel process brings to light many things about the schlemiel that we have missed.

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In films like Meet the Fockers (2004) and Guilt Trip (2012) and in novels like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, it is the mother that is held responsible, in major part, for the male character’s becoming-a-schlemiel.

I recently pointed out the relationship of the schlemiel to the a wayward mother in Bruce Jay Friedman’s “The Good Time.” In that story, the mother is so into the son having a “good time” that she creates a distance between herself and her child. He ends up withdrawing from her and becoming something of a nebbishy schlemiel who is afraid of the future, hides from the wind, and worries about his eyeglasses (amongst other things). The problem that Friedman locks on to is that the schlemiel emerges out of a gap between the children and parents (and this includes fathers and not just “overbearing” Jewish mothers).

In yesterday’s blog entry on the story “Brazzaville Teen-ager,” I pointed out how Bruce Jay Friedman’s story and Michael Cera’s translation of it into a film short outlined the gap between a father and a son. That gap, as I pointed out, is the basis for the main character’s being a schlemiel.   The son would like to speak to his father in a man-to-man way but he can’t bring himself to do it. Rather, he foolishly relies on a kind of feeling and a prank with his boss to, so to speak, practice being bold.   But it’s all in his mind. He is, as the story suggests via symbolism, stuck between two floors: childhood and manhood.

To be sure, both stories show how latter-day American parents – mothers and fathers – create schlemiels. They also show us that it is the father-son or mother-son relation (to the exclusion of both parents) that marks a fictional-schlemiel-family-scenario. But the fact that Seth Rogen (in Guilt Trip) and Michael Cera (in his Brazzaville Teenager film short) have decided to revive this theme, today, is very telling. After all, Bruce Jay Freedman wrote these two above-mentioned stories for the baby-boomer generation. But Rogen and Cera think that they also speak to our generation. The only reason I can find for this is the fact that they are pitching these films to a generation that feels that it is unable to attain what their parents have attained; but, more importantly, they feel that this generation identifies with being schlemiels who are, so to speak, stuck between floors.

In other words, these films – based mostly on a figure that Bruce Jay Freedman developed nearly forty years ago – speaks to a private family experience that, for many today, is still the source of their deepest frustrations. What I like most about Cera has done, however, is that he, unlike Judd Apatow in Knocked Up, wants to have us focus on this intermediate stage rather than seeing it worked out in the film. He’s more interested in presenting the problem than offering the solution. And this, the famous author Anton Chekhov once claimed, is the purpose of good art.

The problem of the schlemiel, today, situates us between parents and children, on the one hand, and manhood and childhood on the other. What does maturity mean today? Do we put the same value on success as our parents do? Is their an unbridgeable gap between us? And how does the schlemiel help us to pay closer attention to these issues?

Most importantly: Is there a problem or have we “progressed” out of this schlemiel family-issue, today?

On Michael Cera’s Film Short: “Brazzaville Teenager”

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Michael Cera, who played a main role in Arrested Development (2000-2013) and starred in such films as Superbad (2007), Juno (2007), Year One (2009), and This is the End (2013), recently decided he wanted to direct his own film short. Cera’s film short, Brasserville Teenager, is based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman. The story, written over thirty years ago, was re-written by Cera with Bruce Jay Friedman. And like any translation of text into film, something is lost here and something is added there. What interests me most is the portrayal of the schlemiel and humiliation in the film. To be sure, in this filmic translation the humiliation is greatly diminished and the schlemiel is displaced by the special effects which turn the film more toward a symbolic dimension (reminiscent of a David Lynch film) than toward a deeper understanding of the schlemiel’s failure and frustration.

Let’s go through the short story first and then compare notes.

The story starts out with the hope of the schlemiel, Gunther:

He had always felt that perhaps a deathbed scene would unite them; he and his father would clutch at each other in a sicklied fusion of sweetness and truth, the older man dropping his lifelong cool, finally spilling the beans, telling Gunther what it was all about. (9)

The narrator’s tone already suggests that Gunther’s hopes might be a little off. As the story goes on, we see that, in this schlemiel scenario, there is a big gap between the father and the son. The son feels that this event “would unite them.” However, as the story shows us, nothing changes in the end. But it’s the journey to that point which matters most.

The main conceit of the story is that, after Gunther leaves his father, all he can think about this how his father’s “knuckles” have enlarged and that his body has been “whittled down.” He is saddened by his reduction of his role model; following this, however, an idea comes to him which, somehow, will change everything:

The idea came to him that if he, Gunther, were to debase himself, to do something painful beyond belief, the most embarrassing act he could imagine, only then could his dad recover…The instant his plan formed, he wanted to tear it form his head. (10)

This idea is childish and presupposes some kind of magic that will occur if he does something. He becomes obsessed with this idea. His plan is to get his boss, Hartman, to sing backup vocals in a song called “Brazzerville Teen-Ager”:

It’s about a young boy whose father is a mercenary and gets sent to the Congo. The boy goes along and write this letter back to his girl from the States, talking about how great it was surfing and holding hands and now here he is in Brazzerville. (10)

Since he knows the producer, he feels he can coax him to let his boss, Mr. Hartman, sing back up vocals.

After he finishes telling Hartman what he would like to do, Hartman, bewildered, tells him “You’re still not coming through”(11). And he proceeds to ask him the logical question: “What’s the connection between all this and your father’s sickness?”   In response, Gunther tells him that “I can’t explain it…I’ve learned that if I can get you to do this thing, which of course is way out of your line…Dad will recover”(11). Hartman asked him what he means by “he’s learned” and all Gunther can say is that he just “knows it.” Gunther asks Hartman to “forget the logic part” because he really “feels” it’s true. In response, Hartman tells him to back into the office and to “forget you ever made this little speech.”

After this experience, while driving around at night, Gunther congratulates himself for speaking his mind. Although he failed to get Hartman to do it, at least he spoke. But then he gets an idea: “If I got myself to say something like that to a boss, there’s no limit to what I can do”(11).   This spurs him to drive out to Hartman’s house and speak more.

What’s so interesting about what spurs him is the fact that in his speaking to a superior, his boss, he feels as if he has done something life changing. This, no doubt, has to do with speaking the truth to his father. Apparently, he never gets to speak his mind; and this is what troubles him most about his relationship with superiors and elders.

When he arrives at Hartman’s house, he stumbles into a party of the rich and powerful. They humor him and Hartman nearly fires him there on the spot. But Hartman’s wife comes to the rescue and tells Hartman to do it because Gunther, “the poor fellow is quite upset. It will cost you very little and it might be fun”(12).

Hartman goes ahead and does the backup vocals.   He is asked to “girl it” in his “doo wahs.” And he does so. Following this humiliation-of-sorts, Gunther drives him home and sees someone flipping pancakes in a store front. He pulls over, asks Hartman to filp one, and gets the owners approval. Hartman does this, too.

The next scene we learn that the Gunther’s father is better. He helps him pack up and go. But when he starts thinking about all the things he wanted to ask him, as he did at the outset of the story, and says “Dad.” He chokes up and fails to speak. The father asks him what, but Gunther says “nothing.”

In the last section of the story, on the way from his father’s apartment Gunther stops the elevator between floors. And then he screams out, “You son of a bitch! You know what I had to go through to get you on your goddamn feet?”(14)

In Cera’s rendition of the story, much is the same except 1) the film includes a male interlocutor in a bar who speaks with Gunther; 2) the conversation with Hartman (played by Jack O’Connell) has words like “lesbian” and the expression “rock in my show”(5:28); 3) the wife says she will “wet” Hartman’s “whistle” if he goes (a sexual allusion that isn’t present in the original); 4) Gunther says, after getting Hartman onboard, “Once in a while you’ll meet a crazy person who will go along with you no matter what”; 5) the music studio scenes bear mention of having “one heart” and include scenes that aren’t in the story; 6) the recording scene is morbid, like a David Lynch film; 7) Hartman, unlike the story, is moved by the music; 8) the pancake flipping scene is deleted; 9) the scene with his father (played by Charles Grodin) is incredibly long.

What I liked about the film version of the story was the fact that it brought out the divide between emotion and masculinity. We could clearly see that doing a good deed made Hartman more kind, which is something we don’t see in the story. And we also see the divide between Gunther and his father in a clearer manner. Most importantly, I like how Cera used the timing of the film to illustrate the differences between the father and the son. It shows how they continually miss each other and how the father has become a grumpy older man while his son remains a schlemiel who cannot speak to him face-to-face.

In the end, Gunther is the schlemiel because, in his mind, his action and his feeling should be enough to heal his father and unify them; ultimately, however, he remains a person who screams “between floors.” He is caught between being a man and a child. He wants to have a “normal” relationship but can’t say the right things to make it happen. His prank on Hartman took some kind of odd-courage, but, ultimately, he can’t bring that courage to his real-life relationship with his father.   His feelings and his prank can’t do it. He has to let go of that magical connection that all children, in some way, think exists between reality and emotions. But he can’t.

Cera’s film, at the very least, is faithful to this message in Friedman’s original story. This isn’t lost in translation, however, it is amplified.

 

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.”

“When Diogenes Pisses and Masturbates in the Marketplace” – On Peter Sloterdijk’s Greek-Jewish Kynical Hero

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Many philosophers have their pre-Socratic precursors. Plato had Parmenides, Karl Marx had Democritus, Friedrich Nietzsche had Heraclitus, and Martin Heidegger had Parmenides (and Anaximander). In contrast to all of these thinkers, Peter Sloterdijk takes Diogenes as his precursor. The choice is telling and, to be sure, it flies in the face of philosophy. And that is exactly what Sloterdijk, in his book The Critique of Cynical Reason, wants to do.

Like Nietzsche, Sloterdijk wants to challenge idealism; and like Marx, he takes to materialism. However, Sloterdijk sees in Diogenes a challenge that, to his mind, is fundamentally better than Nietzsche and Marx’s challenges because Diogenes and his kynicism leaves discourse behind.   Instead of arguing with idealism, kynicism is a living, “embodied,” challenge to idealism.

Regarding what he calls “ancient kynicism,” in its “Greek origins,” Sloterdijk argues that it is in principle “cheeky” (or in German “frech,” which, in old German is associated with “productive aggressivity” and “bravery” and “boldness”). This cheekiness is found in its total disrespect for civility and emulation of “embodied” vulgarity. In the face of this, “respectable” Greek thinking doesn’t “know how to deal with it.”

To illustrate, Sloterdijk gives two examples of how the kynic relates to Socrates. When Socrates “speaks of the divine soul,” he “picks his nose.” When Socrates discusses the theory of ideas, the kynic “farts” (101).   And when Socrates speaks of Eros, as he does in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, the kynic “masturbates in public”(101).   Seen in relation to Alciabades, who stumbles in drunk to the Symposium, the kynic is much more radical. According to Sloterdijk, what makes him more radical is the fact that he, unlike someone like Alciabades, doesn’t engage in conversation with Socrates:

Socrates copes quite well with the Sophists and the theoretical materialists if he can entice them into conversation in which he, as a master of refutation, is undefeatable. (104)

The problem is that conversation itself “presupposes something like an idealist agreement”(104). For this reason, we don’t see Diogenes in a dialogue with Socrates. Nonetheless, we do bear witness to Plato’s characterization of Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad”(104) because, according to Sloterdijk, this phrase is one that gives respect and recognition to the kynical challenge.

Sloterdijk also cites an anecdote attributed to Alexander the Great to illustrate why Diogenes and kynicism are the greatest challenge to power:

An anecdote has Alexander the Great say that he would like to be Diogenes if he were not Alexander. If he were not the fool of his political ambition, he would have to play the fool in order to speak the truth to the people, and to himself. (102)

Those who rule, according to Sloterdijk, “lose their self-confidence to fools, clowns, and kynics.” In other words, cheekiness is not “discourse” (idealized discussion or debate, Socratic style) or politics (in the spirit of Alexander), which are on the side of untruth (because they are what he calls “head” theory); cheekiness is on the side of truth and the body.

Sloterdijk creates something of a metonymy to describe what this cheekiness is. It is “desperately funny,” “satirical resistance,” “uncivil enlightenment,” “material embodiment,” “low theory,” and “practical embodiment.” Sloterdijk calls the language of Diogenes the “language of the clown” which uses “pantomimic materialism” to refute the “language of the philosophers”(103).

But, to be sure, Sloterdijk argues that kynicism has two origins. The Greek kynic is not alone. One origin is Greek; the other is Jewish. Diogenes’s counterpart is David:

The prototype of the cheeky is the Jewish David, who teases Goliath, “Come here, so I can hit you better.” He shows that the head has not only ears to hear and obey but also a brow with which to menacingly defy the stronger: rebellion, affront, effrontery. (103)

Taken together, one could argue that, for Sloterdijk, the kynic is a kind of baudy (cheeky) Jewish clown whose goal it is to defeat “the stronger.”

But the clincher is to be found in what the kynic does in the public sphere. For Sloterdijk the best place to “demonstrate” the kynics argument is not a public debate so much as in a public spectacle:

The animalities are for the kynic a part of his way of presenting himself, as well as a form of argumentation…The kynic, as a dialectical materialist, has to challenge the public sphere because it is the only space in which the overcoming of idealist arrogance can be meaningfully demonstrated. Spirited materialism is not satisfied with words but proceeds to a material argumentation that rehabilitates the body. (105)

Playing on this call for public defecation and vulgarity, Sloterdijk calls for “pissing in the idealist wind”(105).   But Diogenes does more. Not only does he urinate in public; he also “masturbates” in public. And when he urinates and masturbates in public he creates what Sloterdijk calls the “model situation”(106).

In a moment of scatological humor, Sloterdijk imagines the scene of the “real wise man” who shits and masturbates in front of Alexander the Great. To his mind, Alexander would “stand in admiration.” Given this imagined admiration, it “can’t be all that bad.” And, apparently, Alexander laughs: “here begins a laughter containing philosophical truth”(106).

This laughter, claims Sloterdijk, is the very thing that Adorno denied “categorically” (106).   In the face of Adorno and the world, Sloterdijk suggests that we take the “model situation” to heart and shit, urinate, and masturbate in public for all to see. That “demonstration” of the kynical argument will evoke laughter and, as he suggest, a truth that has been stifled by idealism.

Given this way of thinking (can we even call it that?), one can understand why Slajov Zizek (who has great interest in kynicism) would take to the spectacles that were going down at Occupy Wall Street.

Although the movement went on for a while, it failed, according to many critics, because it lacked a coherent message. In other words, it failed because it couldn’t enter discourse. This, to be sure, is what Sloterdijk seems to be saying it should do. Indeed, for him kynicism’s greatest challenge is to stay out of public discourse. The problem with this is that if it doesn’t do this, it will have no political meaning. But, perhaps, that’s the point. As Sloterdijk suggests above, Alexander would laugh in the face of such public displays of vulgarity. He would give up politics and power if he were to see this. However, what we saw was the opposite. Power didn’t laugh at the spectacle. It became utterly serious and drove it out of the public sphere.

The problem, therefore, with kynicism has to do with its ends. If its only end is to be embodied, then fine. But the question is whether it will win in the long run. Sloterdijk thinks it will because, as he suggests, these public acts leak into the private realm. And he cites proof based on how the public changed its views toward sexuality. However, the ultimate laughter, the laughter of Alexander when he gives up power for truth, cannot be but a kind of utopian-slash-messianic thing.

That said, I think we should keep our eyes open for more kynicism in the future. Zizek and many intellectuals stand behind this kind of public affront and many of them believe that it is greater than public discourse and conversation. It is, as they believe, greater than the Enlightenment and it’s truth, the truth of materialism, is greater than the truth of idealism. This truth is to be found, for Sloterdijk and those like him, in public vulgarity and kynicism. This truth, for Sloterdijk, is a Greek-Jewish hybrid of Diogenes and David – it is a Greek-Jewish-Warrior-clown of sorts. And it’s “model situation” is public defecation and masturbation. The question, however, is who is going to have the last laugh.

Adorno’s Whispers in the Dark: The Holocaust, The Child, and the Schlemiel

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As a third generation American – and as a person three times removed from the Holocaust – I was always curious about the meaning of the Holocaust. It happened, as the author David Grossman writes in his novel See: Under Love, “over there.”   What I find so intriguing about Grossman’s novel, which begins with the meditations of an Israeli child about the Holocaust, is how close it is to my own experience in so many ways. To be sure, the main character of the novel, Momik, tries to piece the Holocaust together by way of things he hears and gathers from scattered conversations and images relating the to the Holocaust.   Unlike his parents, who refuse to discuss, he can sense that something rotten is being hidden from him. And, like a detective, he tries to put it all together.

Although, as an American, my experience is much different from an Israeli’s, I can identify with the desire to put together clues. For, in truth, when it comes to the Holocaust, we are all like children. Something “whispers” to the child – regarding trauma – that the civilized adult can’t hear.

Theodor Adono points this out in his book Negative Dialectics:

Children sense some of this in the fascination that issues from the flayer’s zone, from carcasses, from the repulsively sweet odor of putrification….An unconscious knowledge whispers to the child what is repressed by civilized education; that is what matters, says the whispering voice….it kindles “what is that?and “where?”

David Grossman’s Momik is constantly hearing these kinds of whispers from people around him. And after hearing them, him repeats them and puts them together into a comic kind of narrative-slash-collage. The narrator of the novel parries this naïve search for truth and suggests that Momik believes that he is hearing a “secret language” from people who were “over there”:

Momik loved Grandma Henny very much. To this day it makes his heart ache to think of her. And all the suffering she suffered when she died too. But anyway, Grandma Henny had a special language she used when she was seventy-nine after she forgot her Polish and Yiddish and the little bit of Hebrew she learned here. When Momik came home from school he used to run in to see how she was, and she would get all excited and turn red and talk that language of hers….She had a permanent smile on her little face, a kind of faraway smile, and she talked through her smile. (34)

Henny is a living cartoon-like character for Momik. He doesn’t see her as mentally ill so much as funny or odd. Strangely enough, the language she speaks sounds a lot like Sholem Aleichem. To be sure, David Grossman was inspired to write by Aleichem and it comes through in this section.   What I’d like to suggest is that Henny’s secret language brings together Aleichem with the Holocaust. Something that, in reality, never happened. After all, Aleichem died in the early 20th century.

Henny talks about “Mendel,” an Aleichem character that leaves her and travels from Russia to America (35). This is what Momik gathers of this narrative:

How could you do such a thing and break your mother’s heart, and then she begs him, Sholem, never, never, even when he reaches America where the streets are paved with gold, to forget he’s a Jew, and to wear tefillin and pray in synagogue. (35)

The narrator tells us that she is speaking a “language no one understands” and yet “Momik understood everything. That was a fact. Because Momik has a gift, a gift for all kinds of languages no one understands, he can even understand the silent kind that people who say maybe three words in their whole life talk”(35).

Moreover, Momik can “translate nothing into something. Okay, that’s because he knows there’s no such thing as nothing, there must be something, nu, that’s exactly how it is with Grandfather Anshel” (35).

Momik hears these “whispers in the dark,” and as the novel goes on we learn that the little bits and pieces he hears are all a part of different narratives. Some of them are fictional while others are not. Regardless, all of these stories are mimicked (like his name, Momik) and translated into Momik’s narrative on the Holocaust.

I can identify with this. And I think that Momik’s queries about the Holocaust were a search for the truth and that truth was tied to the meaning of his Jewish identity. I still ask the question today, on Yom HaShoah: who am I in relationship to what happened over there? Like Adorno’s child, I ask “What is it?” and “Where is it?” It is still over there, so to speak. And with all of the media we have today, I still feel as if I am hearing a faint whisper of some secret language. The facts are incontrovertible, true; but, still, they must be put together in ways that relate to us and that is an act of the imagination.

In going through this exercise, we become like Momik, a schlemiel. We feel through the dark yet with the passion of a schlemiel, which, though misguided, is still the passion for truth. In listening closely to these whispers in the dark, to this secret language, we become like children. And a man-child is…to be sure….a schlemiel.   Here….a post-Holocaust schlemiel.

 

 

(Un)Happy Endings: Existential Reflections on “It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti”

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David Heti is an (un)timely comedian. His comedy speaks to a time that is becoming more and more unhappy with itself. (And I mean this in a good way since I believe that such unhappiness will prompt us to come out of our dogmatic slumber…and think.) Unlike many comedians whose jokes are purely scatological and childish, Heti’s jokes are thoughtful and deeply probing. He respects the intelligence of his audience and his comedy plays with our most deeply held beliefs which span our attitudes about families, sexuality, religion, and the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, Heti’s jokes hit at the fact that while, in the most philosophical sense, we all want to be happy (an insight that Aristotle saw fundamental to being-human), the fact of the matter is that our desire for happiness originates in (and returns to) a state of existential unhappiness.   And today – perhaps because of the internet, globalization, and withering economies – we are becoming more aware of this state of (unhappy) being. Heti’s comedy acknowledges it while, at the same time, giving us some comic relief.

(To be sure, Heti’s challenge is akin to the challenge posed by Judaism to Greek philosophy and culture.   Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, argues that philosophy starts with wonder (which Aristotle associates with unhappiness; wonder is attended by the feeling of “ignorance”) but ends with knowledge (happiness). Aristotle believes that our desire for knowledge will overcome this ignorance once we know the causes of things. In other words, knowledge makes us happy; ignorance makes us unhappy.   In contrast, Judaism puts a greater emphasis on the limits of knowledge. And instead of focusing solely on happiness and knowledge as the answer, it often focuses on time, suffering, and injustice. Centuries after Aristotle, GWF Hegel went so far as to call the Jews an “unhappy people.”   For Hegel, This unhappiness had to do with the fact that Jews live with uncertainty and many unanswered questions. The English critic Matthew Arnold argued that civilization is based on the tension between Jews and Greeks. I would go further and say this tension is between happiness (rational self-certainty) and unhappiness (existential un-certainty). While the Greek part of our society wants to deny this tension, the Jewish part brings it to our attention. And this is (un)timely because it challenges the notion of progress and truth, which, in the West, are both premised on Greek ideals. In modern society we are supposed to be living better than we did in the past and we are supposed to be smarter – and all of this should make us happy – but are we?)

Heti’s jokes are Jewish in this sense. The punch lines of his jokes may start on a happy, Greek note, but they all have a kind of unhappy, Jewish ending. And this is a good thing because they trick us into experiencing the profound contradictions that underlie our experiences of sex, family, culture, and religion (the buttresses of Western, North American Society). The trick is to have us think differently. His humor hits at our desire for happiness and self-certainty. And, to be sure, Heti’s act has taught me that comedy can do a more affective job than post-Enlightenment philosophy to critique our beliefs and self-understandings.

I have seen Heti doing stand-up comedy and have also had a few private conversations with him about comedy, philosophy, culture, and religion. I have also interviewed Heti and have been intrigued with his brand of comedy. I had an intuition that he was doing something (un)timely in his comedy act. But it wasn’t until recently, when I saw his recent comedy film, It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti, that I was convinced that he had something incredibly urgent and important to offer our troubled times by way of comedy.

I’d like to share a few clips and touch on a few of his jokes to illustrate how (un)timely his jokes are.   I would go so far as to suggest that the movement from unhappiness to happiness we find in them suggests a kind of practice that is instructive on how, today, we can – and should – have a comical awareness of the tension between happiness and unhappiness. It informs, to speak, our comical (rather than our tragic) sense of existence. To be sure, the tragic awareness of existence is just as Greek as the emphasis on happiness. But his humor offers us a tension between the two that is, by all means, necessary. Without it, we will to serious (and tragic) or too deluded (and happy).  (I’d also like to note, before I begin, that Heti’s timing and gesture are the important elements that animate these jokes.  This can be seen in the clips I have included.)

[youtube=http://youtu.be/PJqRfFGy80g]

Heti begins his performance with a philosophical joke that plays on the first words of a comic performance:

I know that it’s  convention to be, like, “oh, it’s good to be here.” But the fact of the matter is that I “am” here, you “are” here.  Why ask ourselves how we feel about it?  Let’s just move on.

The underpinning of this joke is clearly existential. Why should we describe our existence as “good” or “bad”? Existence just is….the way it is. Like the title of Heti’s film, we can imagine him responding to the question “How was your performance?” with the existentially neutral: “It was Ok.” Its not great and its not bad. It, like existence, is…not tragic…or wonderful….it’s “ok.”

Following this joke, Heti continues on his philosophical vein by telling his audience to hold back their laughter until the end of the performance. This request is followed by philosophical reasoning. Although each joke “exists unto itself its own particularity,” and can be laughed at, ultimately there is “another, deeper level” which comes at the end where one can laugh at the performance “as a whole.” The joke is not simply on the audience; it’s also on philosophy.   The idea of withholding laugher in the name of a greater laugh – at the end – sounds like a good joke to level at a philosopher like Hegel or Karl Marx who see the “end of history” as the most meaningful moment of all.

But the punch line isn’t here. It’s in the existential insight: “I’m sorry.  I know you come to a comedy show expecting to laugh, and enjoy yourselves…but life isn’t fair.”

Besides playing on existence-as-such, Heti plays on the contemporary philosophical notion – found in Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Martin Heidegger – that the most important thing about existence is relationality.   Heti introduces this idea by pointing out how “I’m here” and you are “over there” and we are “unable to relate” (on the same level). The punch line is that when he was out there, where the audience is, he would think about how he could “do a better job than this fuck!” This comic disclosure brings comedy into an otherwise bland, basic (and oftentimes for Heidegger, a tragic) insight into “relationality.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt5ysAx3RGg&feature=youtu.be]

On another note, which is equally existential, Heti’s jokes about his family follow along a tradition of many Jewish comedians. But they differ in the fact that they are more reflective on the divide between happiness and unhappiness. In one joke about his mother, Heti says that she and I have a “very strained relationship.”

She says all she’s ever wanted is for me to be happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved and respected. It’s a real stalemate.

Following this, he notes how he recently went home to see that his mother had remodeled his room “into a place where a kid would have been happy growing up.”   He adds a joke about his father that brings out the tension between happiness and unhappiness more explicitly. It also shows a schlemiel-ish aspect to Heti’s relationship with his mother (something we find in the writings and film of Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Bruce Jay Friedman, et al):

It wasn’t easy.  My father was a little…violent. I remember….I recall as a kid, telling my mom, “one day, when I grow big enough, he’s going to beat the shit…out of only you.

The schlemiel character is in effect here because Heti’s character isn’t going to “stand up” to his father when he grows up. He’s just going to leave and his mother will receive the violence of his father. (Note to reader: do not confuse this joke with reality; to be sure, Heti, like many great comedians, loves exaggeration.)

Although Heti tells jokes about his family, his main jokes, to be sure, turn around philosophical and theological topics. As the performance moves on, these jokes are most prominent.   And all of them hinge on the tension between happiness and unhappiness.

One joke which shows how averse Heti is to happiness deals with a scenario he discusses about how he did a comic performance at a music festival. On his way back, he tells of how he rode in a car with musicians for thirteen hours. During this trip they had “an esoteric/philosophical conversation about the nature of art.” Heti, here, points out why he tells jokes, and, in the process he discloses his own way of comic-being:

Basically, we are only here to be happy, really. And so, for me, what’s funniest is when we’re not happy. And it just so happens to be the case that, just, intuitionally, I tend to subvert, for myself, any happy moment which begins. You know, I see what’s terrible in it. And even for the stage, now doing stand-up, I look for what’s awful in every moment, so my life is a series of unhappy instances and that’s why jokes; that’s why I’m a comic.

But this isn’t the punch line. It comes with his response to the musicians answer to the question of what the nature of art is:

And then so…I asked the musician, I was, like, “Why music? Like, why music?” And, he was like, “well. He said, “when I’m actively listening to music or, like, writing or playing it…like, that’s when I’m closest to the universal;  that’s when I’m one with the universe.” And I was like, “ohhhhhhh…You can go fuck yourself! Like FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOUUUUU….!”

Heti’s answer-slash-punch-line (his FUCK YOU! x3) demonstrates, to my mind, a differentiation between a Greek mind, which emphasizes “unity” with the universe, and a Jewish view which emphasizes existential difference and fragmentation.   I would argue that this difference is by no means arbitrary. To be sure, Heti tells several jokes that speak to Jewish identity, history, and religion. These jokes disclose Heti’s comedy as fragmented on many fronts.

Heti’s jokes on circumcision start off with an interesting paradox. Namely, God is thought of as “unknowable and unthinkable” yet with all of this “we can see that He likes circumcised pensises.” Heti goes on to have the audience imagine God with many dicks in his mouth. And this does a great job of exaggerating anthropomorphisms that Jewish theology would obviously reject.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/5P9Db4gqEKQ]

Heti also tells jokes that deal with the Holocaust. He prefaces this part of the show by noting how “there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.” And that he is “unsure of where” he stands on the “issue of genocide.”

Because, on the one hand, undeniable tragic.  But on the other hand, undeniably funny. I guess it’s just one of those things where you really had to be there.

This joke hits at the existential dimension of genocide (of “being there” for the reality…and the “joke”). But it also speaks to something very interesting; namely, the negative sublime of the Nazis who did the killing. Many, in fact, did laugh at genocide. And for this reason, it hits on a deeply troubling issue which needs to be addressed, an issue that deeply complicates our understanding of humanity and evil.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/7DYmNh7q3M0]

The most complicated joke on the Holocaust is about his grandfather’s relationship to the Holocaust. The very context of the joke brings the audience into a very focused state and into an awareness of how good it is that he has survived it; but the punch line brings us back to the unhappy state of Jews-slaughtered-in-history:

My grandfather was actually one of the few, lucky members of his generation to  grow up Jewish in Europe and avoid the horrors of the Holocaust. Thankfully, several months before the war broke out, he was beaten to death, in a pogrom.

Near the end of his performance, Heti moves from the particularity of Jewish experience to a more general experience of God.   And this joke hits directly at the existential condition and the question of faith:

But what I find most – what I can’t understand most is these people with these extreme physical disabilities…who are nonetheless capable of maintaining religious faith. ‘Cause you’re like – you’d think that…  given what, they are already forced to put up with in this world, God would have at least spared their minds.

This last joke bespeaks the existential state of having a mind that is conscious of suffering. (Indeed, most existentialists find that existential consciousness is afflicted and tortured; especially Sartre and Levinas.) The joke poses the greatest challenge to Aristotle (and Spinoza), on the one hand, who believed that knowledge would create true happiness and on the other to religion which posits faith as an answer.   Heti is perplexed by why God would give these disabled people consciousness. It doesn’t make sense. This is at once a Jewish question and a question that should provoke anyone trying to understand faith in general.

Taken together, Heti shows us – by way of comedy – that true thinking isn’t based on the elimination of perplexity and its attendant unhappiness (which is what Aristotle believed) so much as in dwelling in perplexity. The specificity of Heti’s jokes perform the (un)timely service of reminding us of the existential state of perplexity we inhabit. We need this reminder because we are, so often, distracted by happiness from the true questions of existence that plague us all. Here it is the comedian and not the philosopher or the theologian who can help us to address our greatest questions. And this all happens when Heti delivers the punch line. At that moment, we experience the movement from happiness to unhappiness. And in that moment, we come face to face with our (un)timely comical existence.   And today, more than ever, we need to be reminded. False happiness will only sink us deeper into oblivion. Heti reminds us that comedy can awaken us (as Immanuel Kant once said of David Hume) from our “dogmatic slumbers.”

Go check out David Heti’s website – which has video, tour information, and media – and his new video “It was ok”.