The Postmodern Chelm, or The Artistic Community in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” – Part II

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Success and failure – winning and losing – define our lives and how we think of ourselves. But sometimes one blurs into the other. One of Bob Dylan’s most quoted lyrics – from his song “Love Minus Zero” – addresses the paradox of success and failure: “She knows there’s no success like failure and that failure is no success at all.” The fact of the matter is that in our culture success has an aesthetic that goes along with it: while success is deemed beautiful by our culture, failure is deemed to be ugly. Because they are poetic, these Dylan lyrics seem to give a kind of beauty to failure and brokenness. Outlining a similar paradox, but with respect to the work of Franz Kafka, the German-Jewish thinker and literary critic Walter Benjamin argued – in his essay on Kafka and in a letter to his dear friend Gershom Scholem – that the “beauty” of Kafka’s works was the “beauty of failure.” These words, to be sure, can be applied to the schlemiel: a comic character that lives under the sign of failure. The paradox of this character is that although s/he fails, his or her failure has a kind of beauty to it.   The beauty of this failure, strangely enough, gives the reader a broken kind of hope (but, at the very least, it is hope).   The schlemiel may fail in reality but in fiction he is a hero.

 

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In Sheila Heti’s postmodern Chelm, How Should a Person Be? which we discussed in the last blog entry, we can see that failure is shared by a few schlemiel-like artists and that their failure, because of its articulation in the fiction, has a certain kind of beauty.   It is appropriate that they are artists because if anyone could make failure beautiful they can.

At the outset of the novel, failure circles around the “Ugly Painting Contest.” In the last entry, I discussed Sholem’s sense of failure following his ugly painting.

Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged into despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone to the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. (14)

This failure is amplified by the uneasiness of the other visual artist, Margaux. Sheila, the narrator, shows us that this uneasiness was part and parcel of Margaux’s tormented relationship with art. In a way, she is ashamed of being an artist when she could very well be someone else and help the world in ways that an artist cannot:

Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, so worked doubly hared to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be…Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn’t trying to fix. And it embarrassed her when people remarked on her distinctive brushstrokes, or when people called her work beautiful, a word she claimed she could not understand. (17)

Sheila tells us that Margaux, though doubtful and even ashamed of being an artist, came back to the possibility that being an artist was a good thing when she talked with Eli: an artist who went through similar struggles, traveled back and forth from Toronto to LA, but who, in the end, took on art as his life purpose.   However, this didn’t last long:

But after two months, her art crush dematerialized: “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something,” she said. (17)

This kind of wavering can also be found in Misha who, though an actor, takes part in the contest. Sheila takes a walk with Misha, they talk about art, and we see that he too falls in and out of thoughts about failure. This emerges out of their conversation about Sholem and Margaux’s struggles with art and being artists. A lot of this, for Misha, has to do with taking risks and really being free instead of afraid:

“I don’t know,” he said, “But I do think Sholem has a fear of being bad, or of doing the wrong thing. …And if what you’re afraid of is to take a wrong step at any moment, in any direction, that can be limiting. It’s good for an artist to try things. It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous. Sholem should be a hippy, because with him there’s always a tremendous amount of caution.”(18)

Sheila, perhaps playing devil’s advocate, defends caution. And this pushes Misha to say that Sholem has a misconception of freedom while Margaux “understands freedom to be the freedom to take certain risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish. To not recognize that difference is a pretty bad thing”(19).

When Misha turns to himself as an example, however, his argument falls apart. He realizes that he has failed at being an actor. Reflecting on Misha’s “work life,” Sheila takes the reader into his failures by way of showing that, though he was free, there was no “structure or cohesion” to his life:

His work life was strange and I didn’t quite understand it, but neither did he, and it sometimes perplexed and saddened him. There seemed to be no structure or cohesion to it. Sometimes he taught improv class to nonactors…sometimes he hosted shows. There was no name you could give to it all. (19)

After Misha speaks, Sheila tells him her fears. And this leads him give the advice that only a Wise man from Chelm would give: “everyone should make the big mistakes” – that is, fail. And that’s good:

As we walked, I told Misha my fears. Then, after listening for a long while, he finally said: “The only thing I ever understood is that everyone should make the big mistakes.”(20)

Shiela takes his advice and adds the punch line. What she says, when she takes it, is a lot what Sendrl would say (perhaps in a broken and awkward transliteration of the Yiddish) to Benjamin the IIIrd in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s 19th century Yiddish novel: The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the IIIrd; namely, “I too” did what he did.

So I too took what he said to heart and got married. Three years later I was divorced. (20)

In other words, when one is an artist in Chelm (Toronto), one “too” should do what schlemiels do: make mistakes. But make them because that is the kind of person you should be.   Indeed, as per the title of Heti’s book (How Should a Person Be?), this is the answer to how a person – in Chelm – should be.   Perhaps this imperative, and the “big mistakes” that follow it, is a latter day (current) demonstration of the beauty of failure. Perhaps this imperative does poetic justice to the lives of people who want to be artists; people that wonder why they would want to be….artists.    It’s sad, but the way in which is it conveyed is charming….and funny

If and when I chuckle while reading Heti’s book, the only words to describe the kind of laugh I have would have to be broken laughter. This laughter shows me that the schlemiel lives on in a lady-schlemiel named Sheila Heti who belongs to a community of schlemiels – who all make “big mistakes.” And, if we want to be artists and follow our dreams, we should “too.”

But there’s one thing about Sheila that no one else knows. The question, however, is which “she,” the fictional Sheila Heti or the author Shelia Heti, knows. Bob Dylan may have the answer. But we don’t know who “she” is. One Sheila Heti may know, but the other may not:

“She knows there’s no success like failure and that failure is no success at all.”

Perhaps this double consciousness is what makes a schlemiel a schlemiel and the writer of the schlemiel…the writer. And perhaps this double consciousness is that of the Schlemiel….as Modern Artist who knows that there is no success like failure.

Failure – making “big mistakes…too” – may be no success at all. But..in all of this…where is the thing Misha talked about above.  That thing called freedom?  Isn’t being free the true way a person should be?  Isn’t that the real success of (artistic) failure?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Postmodern Chelm, or The Artistic Community in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” – Part I

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I can remember the first time I ever heard a story about the Jewish fool otherwise known as a schlemiel.   What struck me about the story, when I first heard it (when I was six or seven years old), was that the schlemiel wasn’t an independent agent. He lived amidst other schlemiels – in a town called Chelm.   And the community, I believed, had something to do with his foolishness.   Years later, I looked deeper into the issue to discover that German-Jews often associated the schlemiel with the ghetto while Eastern European Jews associated the schlemiel with the shtetl. And while the German-Jews looked down on this community and its relationship, Eastern-European writers – like I.B. Singer, who translated the fools of Chelm stories into storybooks for children – had a more positive view. But regardless of the place and perspective, we see the same thing: schlemiels are, traditionally, found in communities. And even though the ghetto is gone and the shtetl – following the Holocaust -is a thing of the past, the schlemiel still lives on.   But, in it’s North American incarnation, it doesn’t always live on in a community of schlemiels. To be sure, we can see how the schlemiel lives on – all by himself – in urban settings – as in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant or Saul Bellow’s Herzog – or in rural settings – as in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (and in most of his short stories) or Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy.

At the outset of her book, How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti does something different. She situates Sheila, a female schlemiel, amongst a small community of schlemiel-artists.   What I like most about this is that Sheila is not the only “odd one out” – something we find in the above mentioned novels (save for The Assistant, in which Frank, the main character, slowly becomes a schlemiel; but, when he does, he does so alone, in the wake of Morris Bober’s death).   Woody Allen often situates himself as the only “odd one out,” too. For instance, in the film Annie Hall (1976), he presents himself, at the very beginning of the film, as the “odd one out.”

As far as schlemiel literature, film, and art goes, this is a novel move. It gives us a sense of what Sheila, the main character, shares with other artists. As I pointed out in my first blog entry on the book, Sheila, in the Prologue, states her purpose which is to figure out “how a person should be.” What’s interesting about the first chapter is that we learn that she is not alone. And the people she could take guidance from are, by and large, on the same journey as she is.   What makes this more interesting is the fact that half of the people she mentions, in this regard, have Jewish names. This suggests that she lives in half-an-artistic kind of shtetl. And that shtetl, so to speak, is in Toronto. The schlemiel lives on, albeit in an urban postmodern setting which adds new dimensions to this comic character.

The first Jewish name we see is in the title of the first chapter: “Sholem paints.” (Instead of the Hebrew transliteration, Shalom, we have the Yiddish one; moreover, one thinks of Sholem Aleichem when one sees this name.) The first words of the chapter tell us where we can find him, Sheila, and the other community members:

We were having brunch together. It was Sunday. I got there first, then Misha and Margaux arrived, then Sholem and his boyfriend, Jon. (11)

What’s most important to the narrator is how they feel about the space (“the diner”) which, she notes, had been “repainted” from “grease-splattered beige to a thickly pastel blue and had spray painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup”(11). This new décor “ruined the place somewhat.” And this spurs the theme of the first chapter which is ugliness, art, failure, and selfhood:

I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn’t enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn’t attracted to, Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home. (12)

Since all of them are artists (one is an actor, two are painters, and Shelia is a writer), one can assume that, at some level, they have had to deal with frustration, failure, and disappointment. Heti speaks to these issues directly in her descriptions of Sholem, Misha, and Margaux.   Each of these reflections dovetails into mediations on failure and they spur the idea to have an “Ugly Painting Competition” (this frames the beginning and the end of the novel, which is separated into acts of a play that Sheila never finishes; and although the novel is completed – and we are, to be sure, reading and interpreting the finished work – the fact of the matter is that a novel is not a play; failure, therefore, is built into the clash between the novel and it’s content). The turn to ugliness – in the midst of their conversation – is fascinating since it is an inversion of what artists are supposed to create; namely, beauty.   And this inversion exposes the other side of being an artist today which has much to do with things that are very ugly. What makes this most powerful, however, is that this is delivered in a comic manner, though a community of schlemiels who come up with the idea of an “Ugly Painting Competition”:

Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don’t remember, but once I got enthusiastic suddenly we all were. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I really hoped it would happen. I was curious to see what the results would be, and secretly envied them. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. I wanted to make an ugly painting – pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. (13)

This is, to be sure, the first activity in the Chelm-like community. And the enthusiasm for it betrays a deeper sadness in all of them. When Sholem, for instance, nearly finishes his ugly painting, he gets very depressed and anxious. Like a schlemiel, he bears witness to his failure:

Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged into despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone to the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. (14)

These are the types of reflections we also hear from Bernard Malamud’s Morris Bober. But Sholem’s comments are within a larger competition and community than Bober’s utterances of self-deprecation, failure, and suffering. Sholem, Misha, Margaux, and Sheila are all, as I will show in the next entries, engaging failure.

 

To be continued….

Saying too Much, Or Not Enough: The Schlemiel, Speech, and Bad Timing in Malamud’s “The Assistant”

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More often than not, schlemiels miss opportunities. They are often too late or too early; they either speak too much or too little. Schlemiels do things that make them the odd one’s out. Andy Warhol, an unlikely candidate for the schlemiel, finds a good idiom to express this endless bungling when he points out how, “Whenever I’m interested in something, I know that timing’s off, because I’m always interested in the right thing at the wrong time.” Although it may seem as if Warhol is the odd one out, he is saying something many Americans can identify with. Although many of us don’t like to admit it, because its embarrassing or unprofessional, our timing is often off.   To be sure, relating to the other or to time itself, we often misjudge what to say and what to do. Oftentimes, this has to do with the fact that when we act we often act at the wrong time and take risks in relation to norms that are often not so clear. To be sure, failure is endemic to being human but in the schlemiel it is caricatured to an even greater extent so as to point out what we often choose not to admit about who we are and the meaning of what we actually do.   We tend to overestimate ourselves and others and the schlemiel flies in the face of this misrecognition. But for all it’s failures, the schlemiel is, as I have argued, a deeply moral and even saintly character. But this saintliness – unlike the saintliness of saints in this or that religion – is tainted with missed opportunities, bad timing, and failure.

At the end of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, a book schlemiel theory has blogged on a lot, Frank lives in the wake of Morris Bober’s death. As I pointed out before, he takes on the legacy of the schlemiel. This is emblematized in the moment when, during the funeral, he falls into Bober’s grave. He falls in because he was distracted.   But this doesn’t detract from the fact that Frank wants to do good and make amends for things he has done wrong. Now that Bober is dead, it is a lot more difficult for him to get forgiveness; since Bober didn’t fully forgive him for what he did, Frank has to make appeals to Helen and Ida, who survive Bober.

While Ida and Helen are sitting shiva (mourning), Frank gets to work and helps out:

He had used their week of mourning, when mother and daughter were confined upstairs, to get the store going. Staying open kept it breathing, but beyond that things were rocky. (233)

Lest we not forget, Helen is not on good terms with Frank because of his untimely sexual encounter with her. Ida is on the fence with him. Neither of them know that he was one of the people who robbed Bober. Regardless, Frank works diligently to gain back their trust. He cooks food, makes sandwiches, and works while they are in mourning and, later, away from the store.

Even though Helen stays away from Frank, he keeps on working until, one day, he decides that he wants to tell her that he wants to pay for her education. But the time that leads up to this is awkward since he is unsure of his timing:

He was nearing the library when he glanced up and saw her.   She was about half a block away and walking toward him. He stood there not knowing which way to go, dreading to be met by her as lovely as she looked, standing like a crippled dog as she passed him. He thought of running back the way he had come, but she saw him, turned and went in haste the other way. (238)

Since the timing is off, the situation alters her timing too. And then he “blurts” out what he wants to say: “They shivered. Giving her no time to focus her contempt, he blurted out what he had so long saved to say but could not now stand to hear himself speak”(238).

Frank knows he has, like a schlemiel, said the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Helen is moved by this awkwardness.   Even though his timing is off, she is startled by his tenacity:

Considering the conditions of his existence, she was startled by his continued abilty to surprise her, make God-knows-what-next-move. His staying power mystified and frightened her, because she felt in herself…a waning of outrage. (239)

However, she says the opposite thing of what she wanted to say. She refuses him and says she doesn’t want his help.   However, she is curious. Querying into his “virtue,” she asks him why he is so persistent.   And at this point, Frank puts his foot into his mouth by saying that everything he is doing is because “I owe something to Morris.”   When she asks “for what?” Frank goes into schlemiel consciousness and battles with himself as to whether or not he should tell the truth. And this turns into a question about timing. Is now the right time to speak?

What more could he say? To his misery, what he had done to her father rose in his mind. He had often imagined he would someday tell her, but not now.   Yet the wish to say it overwhelmed him. He tried wildly to escape it. His throat hurt, his stomach heaved. He clamped his teeth tight but the words came up in blobs, in a repulsive stream. (240)

The narrator’s nauseating metaphor for Frank’s speech as “blobs, in a repulsive stream” indicates that Frank says the very things that will lead to him being despised. When Helen learns that Frank was in on the robbery of Bober, which the book began with, she “screams” at him, calls him a criminal, and leaves. Frank’s last words to Helen are, “I confessed it to him.” But this confession doesn’t make a difference. His timing was off. But then again he spoke the truth and in telling her he suffers it.

In the wake of this, Helen realizes that Frank did change into “somebody else” and was “no longer what he had been”(243). And in realizing this she feels that “since he has changed in his heart he owes me nothing”(243). And, in effect, she releases him from his debt to Morris. She does this actively by, for the first time, thanking him and declaring his debt over (243).   He feels that now it is the right time to start all over. However, his timing is off. She refuses. But he learns to let go.

Following this event, Frank goes back to a form of timing he knows well. He becomes, like Bober, bound to the store. In the midst of his first day, after confession, he dreams of Helen and sees himself, in a moment of day dreaming, as St. Francis. He gives Helen, a “little sister” a rose.   He is a saint, but in reality he doesn’t have Helen.

And in the last paragraph of the novel, we learn that he “one day” decided to have himself circumcised. And, following it, his time is filled with the pain of circumcision and the inspiration that he is a Jew. This time, in contrast to the bad timing in the end of the novel, is not, as Warhol would say, the right thing at the wrong time. On the contrary, Malamud seems to be telling us that Jewish time – now marked on his body – will always be a mixture of pain and inspiration.   But this time may always seem wrong and may always seem off. Perhaps that is the virtue of the schlemiel: to show us how time is always right and wrong – how time may be off when it is on and vice versa – or as Hamlet would say “out of joint.”  But that can be funny sometimes…while at other times it can be really painful.

Interested in the Right Thing at the Wrong Time: On Andy Warhol’s (American) Comedic Reflections

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When reading Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), one cannot but be struck by his absent-mindedness and innocence. It is distinctly American and, at the same time, it is urban and ironic.  Andy drifts in and out of different topics in a simple and understated way. And, because of his writing’s extreme simplicity, it comes across as comical.

In the first part of the book, entitled “How Andy Puts His Warhol Pants On,” Warhol frames the discussion about “bluejeans” within a conversation between Warhol and B (two ordinary Americans) about the most ordinary things like waking up and talking about what they do once they are up. In the midst of this we see Warhol’s greatest American desire: to have a TV show:

“I wake up every morning. I open my eyes and think: here we go again.”

“I get up because I have to pee.”

“I never fall back to sleep,” I said, “It seems like a dangerous thing to do. A whole day of life is like a whole day of television. TV never goes off air once it starts for the day, and I don’t either. At the end of the day the whole day will be a movie. A movie made for TV.”

“I watch television from the minute I get up,” B said. “I look at NBC blue, then I turn the channel and look at the background in a different color…”(5)

Warhol lets B drone on and then interprets what she was saying, which is, basically, what Warhol dreams of:

B was referring to the great unfulfilled ambition of my life: my own TV show. I’m going to call it Nothing Special.

Warhol’s dream show, like much else he says, is really “nothing special.” But this, Warhol is telling us, is what people do when they have time: they fill it with chat about things they do, like to do, would like to do, and don’t want to do. They also drift into things that “believe” in.

Warhol tells B that he “believes in uniforms”(12). B says she also “believes” in them because “if there’s nothing there, clothes are certainly not going to make the man. It’s better to always wear the same thing and know that people are liking you for the real you and not the you your clothes make”(12). After making this cliché statement about the self vs. the clothes one wears, B changes the subject to where people leave their things. She finds it best to leave ONLY clothes out: “Nothing should be hidden except the things you don’t want your mother to see. That’s the only reason I’m scared of dying”(12).

She doesn’t want her mother to find “the vibrator” and her “diary.” Warhol finds this discussion to be going in the wrong direction. For this reason, he tells B that he “believes in bluejeans.”

Like an ad on TV, B says that the jeans made by Levi Strauss are “the top original bluejeans. They can’t be bought old, they have to be bought new and they have to be worn in by the person. To get that look. And they can’t be phoney bleached or pheoney anything”(13).

In response, Warhol suggest “French Bluejeans.” B rejects this and says, “No.  American are the best. Levi Strauss.” Warhol, excited by her response, whispers that he wants to die with his bluejeans on.” This so excites B that she says he should be President! Blue jeans, it seems, make the American and are more important than TV.

These reflections are, to be sure, comical by virtue of their simplicity and optimism. TV, Bluejeans, and how one lays things out in one’s room are shared as if they were self-evident truths. Warhol would have us believe that bluejeans really do make the man…and the President. He would have us believe that all Americans want their own TV show but really have nothing special to say. Americans are all simple people; Andy is an American; therefore he must like bluejeans, TV, and…things.

What interests me about this comical talk is when it turns away from things and turns toward comedy itself. In chapter seven, which is entitled “Time,” Warhol discuss timing in relation to comedy. What he admires most about comedians is their timing:

I look at professional people like comedians in night clubs, and I’m always impressed with their perfect timing, but I could never understand how they can bear to say exactly the same thing all the time. Then I realized what’s the difference, because you’re always repeating your same things all the time anyway, whether or not somebody asks you or it’s your job. You’re usually making the same mistakes. You apply your usual mistakes to every new category or field you go into. (114)

Warhol, always looking for the American common-denominator, realizes (as if in an epiphany) that we repeat ourselves constantly. Timing makes these things…interesting and funny.   However, when the timing is off, one may fall flat.

Warhol understands this intimately. Following this aphorism, Warhol notes that he, like a schlemiel of sorts, is always off in his timing. Because, whenever he is interested in something, he always seems to come too late:

Whenever I’m interested in something, I know that timing’s off, because I’m always interested in the right thing at the wrong time. I should just get interested after I’m not interested anymore, because right after I’m embarrassed to still be thinking about a certain idea, that’s when the idea is just about to make somebody a few million dollars. My same good mistakes. (114)

Like the schlemiel, Warhol’s mistakes are honest and common. The irony of this reflection is that Warhol, as we can see above, seems to be on time. After all, B says he should be President because he said he would like to “die in bluejeans.” But there is something odd about this timing. The idea of bluejeans being something someone should die in is not novel, but, at the moment, it sounded so novel that Warhol – in a brief moment – became an icon.

But, as Warhol muses elsewhere, one must do something…regardless of whether one is on time or not. And that’s the wisdom of a schlemiel who does things all the time – even though those things might be too late, at least the fool does them…And, sometimes, as Warhol knew very well…being late can be fashionable.

 

The Death of a Schlemiel, the Eulogy, and The Conversion: Facing Failure Part VII

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After the Holocaust, different scholars and journalists have debated over whether the schlemiel is dead or should live on.   Regardless of the debate, however, it is evident that the character has lived on whether in literature or film.   One need only go to the movie theater to see the film Neighbors to see this or watch episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie to gather the evidence. One can also see this character running throughout numerous novels. Nonetheless, there have been and there still are some people who would like to bury this character.

But, to be sure, this character lives on. And if one were to look in Yiddish literature, one will be hard put to find a story where a schlemiel dies, is buried, and is given a Eulogy. Even in Jewish American fiction, I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bruce Jay Friedman, Nathan Englander, and Shalom Auslander (to name only a few) don’t have stories or novels that include the death of a schlemiel character. Bernard Malamud is an exception to the rule. Near the end of his novel, The Assistant, Morris Bober, the schlemiel of the novel, dies, is buried, and is given a eulogy.

What most interests me about this fictional funeral is the eulogy dedicated to the schlemiel and the effect it has on Frank, the gentile character who, on the one hand, betrayed the schlemiel and, on the other hand, asked for his forgiveness. It is a unique moment in schlemiel literature because it discloses the schlemiel as a broken Saint of sorts while, at the same time, handing on the baton to Frank who becomes a schlemiel, literally, in the wake of Morris Bober’s death. And, in the end, converts to Judaism. This initiates a new kind of American-schlemiel-tradition.

The Rabbi’s Eulogy notes, immediately, the chief characteristic of Bober, which is the main trait of the schlemiel: “Morris Bober…was a man who couldn’t be more honest”(228). To illustrate, he recounts a story told to him by Helen, Bober’s daughter, who:

Remembers from when she was a small girl that her father ran two blocks in the snow to give back a poor Italian lady a nickel that she forgot on the counter. Who runs in winter-time without a hat or coat, without rubbers to protect his feet, two clocks in the snow to give back five cents a customer forgot….Could he wait for tomorrow? Not Morris Bober. (228)

The Rabbi goes on to explain that he did this because he “did not want the poor woman to worry”(229). He didn’t want her to suffer.

The Rabbi, near the end of the Eulogy, discusses Bober’s Jewishness and in doing so he brings out the American schlemiel’s brand of Jewishness which may not be observant but is, at the very least, full of heart:

When a Jew dies, who asks if he is a Jew? He is a Jew, we don’t ask. There are many ways to be a Jew…’Morris Bober was to me a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience, which he remembered, and with a Jewish heart.’ Maybe not to our formal tradition – for this I don’t excuse him – but he was true to the spirit of our life – to want for others that which he wants for himself…He suffered, he endur-ed, but with hope. Who told me this? I know? He asked little for himself – nothing, but he wanted for his child a better existence than he had. (230)

Following the talk, Helen reflects, in her grief, on what she heard. And in her reflection she corrects a few things that really bring out why Bober was a schlemiel:

I said Papa was honest but what was the good of such honesty if he couldn’t exist in this world? Yes, he ran after this poor woman to give back a nickel but he also trusted cheaters who took away what belonged to him….He was no saint; he was in a way weak, his only true strength in his sweet nature and his understanding. He knew, at least, what was good. (230)

She adds that he was not admired, as the Rabbi claimed, and hardly anyone knew his kindness and trust which went under the radar. And her last words give the most negative assessment of her father and explain why she ultimately saw him as responsible for his own failure:

He didn’t have the imagination to know what he was missing. He made himself into a victim. He could, with a little more courage, have been more than he was. (230)

Frank, following the ceremony, reflects on Bober’s death and what stays with him is that Bober’s Jewishness was linked to “suffering”: “Jews could make a suit of clothes out of it”(231).

As they put dirt on his coffin, Helen and Ida give their last words. Helen throws a flower into the grave. When it comes to Frank’s turn, he becomes a schlemiel and falls into the grave:

Frank, standing close to the edge of the grave, leaned forward to see where the flower fell. He lost his balance, and though flailing his arms, landed feet first on the coffin. (231)

Frank, like a schlemiel, scrambles out of the grave, “helped by the diggers”(232). And he thinks to himself how he has ruined everything and how he has failed: “I spoiled the funeral, he thought. He felt pity on the world for harboring him”(232).

In this moment, Malamud creates something of a schlemiel tradition that passes from the death of one schlemiel to the birth of another schlemiel. The irony is that Frank is not a Jew – not yet. At the very end of the novel, he becomes one. He “circumcised himself” and “the pain enraged and inspired him”:

One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between his legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew. (246)

Malamud’s narrative on Frank becoming a schlemiel and then a Jew is thought provoking.   Frank didn’t simply become a schlemiel; he became a Jew. But in doing so he had the courage, like Abraham (the first Jew), to circumcise himself. And this pain “enraged and inspired him” because he, like Abraham, went against his nature. What makes this so fascinating is that even though he goes through this he is still a schlemiel. He is a Jewish schlemiel who faces failure.

The terms Malamud uses to describe this are fascinating because the Jewish Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas uses the same terms to described the relation of the self to the other. As Levinas says many times in his book Otherwise than Being, the other “persecutes me” and “inspires me.” To be sure, this is what a Schlemiel Saint like Bober does for Frank. After all, Frank’s decision to circumcise himself and become a Jew is ultimately inspired by him.   He was inspired by what Edith Wyshcogrod would call Bober’s “saintly sample”  of  “carnal generality” – that is, if Boner’s  selflessness and suffering for the other (in general, and Frank, in particular).

 

 

 

 

Becoming Jewish – Part VI of Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud

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Unlike any author in Jewish-American or Yiddish literature, Bernard Malamud closely traces the process of a non-Jewish character’s becoming-a-Jew. But what makes Malamud’s treatment so fascinating and thought provoking is the fact that Frank, an Italian-American character who becomes a Jew, is that Frank is inspired to become Jewish by virtue of a schlemiel. His model, so to speak, is a Jewish fool. However, as Malamud shows us, although Bober, Malamud’s schlemiel character, may be a fool he is actually very wise. Moreover, he is not a caricature in the sense that people usually think when they hear the word schlemiel. His foolishness is informed by his blindness to people’s bad qualities and his trust of others who, oftentimes, betray him. But what makes this foolishness saintly is the fact that in trusting people he and those around him suffer. His failures affect others; but, at the very least, they are honest. Frank, his assistant is deeply affected by Bober when he realizes how much Bober suffers for others and how Bober takes it in stride. This prompts Frank to do things for Bober, to repent for all the times he lied and stealed from him, and to eventually ask him for forgiveness. In the process, Frank becomes more and more fascinated with Jewishness and he realizes that he may have to become Jewish if he is to atone for what he did.   He comes to this realization when Bober, after hearing from Frank that he had been lied to, decides to turn away from Frank.

In the last blog entry, I pointed out how Frank had been caught stealing from Bober. Frank did this in order to have money to meet with Helen, Bober’s daughter.   To make things worse, when he meets up with Helen he saves her from being raped from Ward; however, once he does this, he forces himself on her (albeit in a way that is less aggressive). Following this, Helen, whose last words about Frank before leaving him are “uncircumcised dog,” learns of the theft and Bober becomes very disappointed.

In the wake of this, Frank becomes deeply introspective and realizes he has done wrong and needs to make amends. Frank gets a shot at redeeming himself when, out of nowhere, he is the first to notice that Bober is in a house full of gas (the burner wasn’t turned on). He saves Bober’s life.

Bober goes to the hospital. And in the time between Bober’s admittance to the hospital and his return back home, Frank starts looking into what it means to be Jewish. One of his biggest questions is how a people that suffers so much could be called “chosen”:

He read a book about the Jews, a short history. He had many times seen this book on one of the literary shelves and had never taken it down, but one day he checked it out to satisfy his curiosity. He read the first part with interest, but after the Crusades and the Inquisition, when the Jews were having it tough, he had to force himself to keep reading. He skimmed the bloody chapters but read slowly the ones about their civilization and accomplishments.   He also read about the ghettos, where the half-starved, bearded prisoner spent their lives trying to figure out why they were the Chosen People. He tried to figure out why but couldn’t. (191)

When Morris Bober returns, Frank decides to finally confess. He does this believing, as a good Christian would, that it would do the trick. But, as I noted in the last blog entry, it doesn’t.   Although Bober is a schlemiel – and schlemiels are rarely in these kinds of situations – he makes a decision to show Frank that he is at the limit. Bober has forgiven him many times but this time, with the urging of his wife Ida, he must draw the line. He does let Frank come back to work for him, and in doing so shows compassion, but something has changed. While, in the past, he was startled when he realized that he made Frank’s efforts larger than life, now he realizes that Frank doesn’t do as much as he once imagined:

Although Morris liked the improvements Frank made in the store he saw at once that they had not made the least effect on business. Business was terrible…He thought he had seen the store at its worst but this brought him close to fainting. (200)

Now, Bober starts realizing that the store he had worked in for so many years was a total failure. And in noting it’s failure, his near death, and Frank’s lying Bober starts coming to terms with failure. He, in a Levinasian sense, faces failure by noting the suffering around him that he can not do anything about save…give up. And this suffering hurts because they are already poor. Bober is too hold to learn a new trade and so is Ida (201). The thought of more poverty kills them.   But it is real. Frank witnesses all of this, first hand, and suffers with them. And when Ida fires him, due to this economic state of affairs, Frank leaves silently. He knows that it makes sense and he can no longer protest or ask for mercy.

At this point Frank drops out of the narrative and the reader, wondering what is going on with him, is drawn into a world without Frank in it. While this is going on, we see that the thing most on Morris Bober’s mind is survival and failure.   In one fascinating moment, Bober is visited by a Jewish customer. And in this moment, we see a side of Jewishness that we haven’t seen before. One that Frank has also never seen. The man suggests that instead of falling into poverty the store can be burnt down and that Bober can collect insurance money (212). Bober turns him away, however. He would rather be poor that rip off the system (212). Strangely enough, however, Bober thinks about it and even lights a few little strips of paper just to see them burn up (not to burn the store down).   But then, like a schlemiel, the little fire he starts catches on to his clothes. And Frank emerges, from out of nowhere, to put out the flames. He utters these words: “For Christ sake,” Frank pleaded, “take me back here,” But, as the narrator notes, “the grocer ordered him out of the house”(214).

The next words, of the next chapter, tell us that “Karp’s store began to burn.” (Karp, as I noted before, is the person who told Bober about how Frank was duping him and how Bober was duped by his faith in Frank. Moreover, Karp wants Bober to marry his daughter to his son.)   Ward, one of the people who, together with Frank, robbed Bober at the outset of the novel, is the one who burns Karp’s store down (more or less out of anger and hatred of Jews).   In the wake of this, Bober sinks into mourning, something Malamud sees as a major part of being Jewish: “Pain is for poor people”(219).   He sits with Karp and has tea with him in the aftermath.

But out of nowhere, Karp says that he wants to buy Bober’s store because he likes the location (220). In response, “Morris couldn’t believe his ears. He was filled with excitement and dread that someone would tell him he had just dreamed a dream, or that Karp, fat fish, would turn into a fat bird and fly away, screeching, “Don’t you believe me,” or in some heartbreaking way change his mind”(220).

To be sure, failure and poverty are normal for Bober. So one can understand his response as being afraid that it was yet another false hope. However, this time it is real. He and Ida weap for joy as this seems to be the only real break they have had in life: real good luck (220).

But, as one can imagine, a schlemiel’s good luck doesn’t last too long.

Morris Bober, in his excitement, wakes up the next morning to see a “spring snow” falling on the ground. And instead of going outside with a jacket, boots, etc, he goes out in his regular clothes. That night, before going to bed, Bober becomes very emotional and reflective. He tells his daughter how much he loves her and, in tears, tells her how he remembers her when she was a baby and how he always wanted her to be happy (224). In response, Helen tells him how much she wants to give him and he tells her how much more he wants to give her. His last words to her, before he goes to bed are “look how it snows”(224). They both watch the snow “through the moving windows, then Morris sad good night”(224).

In his bed, alone, Morris becomes “restless, almost dejected” when he reflects on all the new changes he will have to “get used to.” Like many Jews, he worries about the future and what will be. He fears that the worst may happen to him and his family. But “what he feared most was that he would make another mistake and again settle in a prison. The possibility of this worried him intensely…His thoughts exhausted him. He could feel his poor heart running a race against the merciless future”(224). Bober remains a schlemiel because he fears he will likely make another mistake. For this reason, he sees this success as yet another possible failure.

Following this, Malamud describes how Bober becomes “drenched in hot sweat” while his “feet were freezing.” Being a good humble Jew, he worries that if he thinks to much about how sick he is and if he tells others people will suffer. He didn’t want to wake his wife or anyone else:

Gradually he accepted the thought that he had a cold- maybe a flu. He considered waking her to call a doctor but who could they call without a telephone? And if Helen got dressed and used Sam Perl’s phone, what an embarrassment that would be, waking up a whole family when he warrant their bell; also arousing a doctor. (225)

The narrator takes on a Jewish tone when he mimics Bober’s thought processes regarding the snow in April and how ironic it would be if this would lead to something bad. He reminds us that this is the state of a schlemiel: “It frustrated him hopelessly that every move he made seemed to turn into some inevitable thing”(225).

But this is not the last thought.

Malamud takes us into Bober’s last dream before dying: he dreams about his son Eprhaim, who died young. Eprhaim, to be sure, is only mentioned once in the novel. And this is, without a doubt, very important. Ephraim is Bober’s secret. He keeps his son’s death to himself and never mentions it. However, as we can see his last dream turns to him.   What Bober sees in Eprhaim is himself. He sees a man child who is poor and dies before he can live his life:

Ephraim wore a beanie cut from the crown of an old hat of Morris’s, covered with buttons and shiny pins, but the rest of him was in rags….The boy looked hungry. (226)

Bober is “shocked” by Ephraim’s hunger and he pleas with him. Bober tells him that he feeds him “three times a day.” But this statement is undergirded by Ephraim’s death: “why did you leave so soon your father?”

Bober continues to plea with him telling him that he will give him a college education and help him. But Ephraim turns away and “disappeared in a wake of laughter”(226).   Bober wakes with tears in his eyes and a feeling of regret. He “wanted to apologize” to his family and his wife for not providing enough. He even “moaned a little thinking of Frank”(226). His last thoughts are painful: “I gave away my life for nothing. It was a thunderous truth”(226).

But in the midst of this “thunderous truth,” the narrator distracts us: “Was the snow still falling?” And he tells us that Morris died in the hospital three days later. These last lines tap into what Malamud finds to be most important about being Jewish. The regret, the self-doubt, the feeling of meaninglessness, are there, they are “thunderous truth” that are belied by failure; however, in the midst of all of this there is distraction, laughter, and turning away. The pain, it seems, is too much. And though Morris Bober and the narrator acknowledge it, they both know that too much of the pain and regret will kill them. Distraction is a part of survival. But the pain is all based on suffering for the other. Bober is, in these moments, what Edith Wyschogrod would call a “sample” of the saintly. His life is committed to the other and the reader can sense Bober’s “carnal generality” through his final regrets and his realization that, with all he has done, he hasn’t done enough.   And this is the point: Malamud shows us that a schlemiel’s failures and mistakes need not be thought of as caricatures; they can teach us about what it means to be moral.

This “sample,” to be sure, has a lasting effect on Frank and prompts him to want to become a Jew and a schlemiel. Frank’s desire to become a Jew reaches its apex in the wake of Bober’s funeral.   And the process that we witness, as readers, shows us how the saintly sample can transform the life of another person and prompt them to become a Jew and a schlemiel-saint.

….to be continued…

 

 

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part V

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One of the greatest things Bernard Malamud provides the reader of The Assistant with is an acute sense of how complicated it is to become a good person.   The schlemiel in the novel, Morris Bober, is the model for goodness. His endurance of suffering, bad luck, and failure show the reader a character who, though comical, is in many ways saintly. But it is not his suffering so much that makes him a saintly-schlemiel as the fact that he trusts the other. We see this most clearly when Bober gives Frank, who becomes his assistant, a chance to do good.

As I have pointed out in the last blog entry, Frank is culpable for robbing Bober with Ward. And this may have prompted him to show up on Bober’s doorstep to help him out and become his assistant. However, as the story goes on, we see Frank struggle with being good. Even though he admits to himself that he has done wrong in the past, he still steals money from Bober. Moreover, he doesn’t speak to him and confess that he has done wrong. This lack of communication is, as I noted in the last blog, the missing link to fully doing teshuva (repentance).   His effort to become good must include being good in thought, speech, and action. As the novel shows, he is partial and until he speaks and stops stealing, his good feelings or thoughts are not enough.

After telling himself that he was a “victim” of Ward’s anti-Semitism, he decides that he wants to have a new beginning. This decision is the seed of his teshuva. After returning money to the register, Frank starts feeling good:

After ringing up the six bucks, to erase the evidence of an unlikely sale he rang up “no sale.” Frank then felt a surge of joy at what he had done and his eyes misted. In the back he drew off his shoe, got out the card, and subtracted six dollars form the total amount he owed. He figured he could pay it all up in a couple-three months, by taking out of the bank the money – about eighty bucks – that was left there, returning it bit by bit, and when that was all used up, giving back part of his weekly salary till he had the debt square. The trick was to get the money back without arousing anyone’s suspicion. (159)

In the midst of his joy of doing good, Helen, Bober’s daughter, calls him up on the phone. As I noted before, he has a crush on her and she likes him. Bober lets this slip by while Ida doesn’t. Helen, in her phone call to him, confesses that she would rather hang out with him that with Nat Perl, a Jewish boy who is likely to become a success in life. Helen’s mother, Ida, would rather she marry or hang out with Nat while Bober trusts, perhaps foolishly, that Frank would be harmless. He believed that Frank was a harmless poor person, like himself.

In this chapter of the novel, we see that Bober’s idealization of Frank is false on two counts. Thinking of when he will meet Helen, Frank realizes that he will need money for the cab to get home from the date. He then decides to steal some money from the register:

Frank had decided he didn’t like to ask Helen for any money – it wasn’t a nice thing to do with a girl you liked. He thought it was better to take a buck out of the register drawer, out of the amount he had just put back. He wished he had paid back the finve and kept himself the one-buck bill. (161)

But when he does this, Bober, for the first time, catches him in the act and decides to confront Frank: “The grocer held his breath for a painful second, then stepped inside the store”(161).   Frank lies to Bober and says there was a “mistake”(161). But Bober pushes him on this lie. Bober says flat out that “this is a lie”(161).   Bewildered, Bober, once again, asks Frank why he lied (Frank, recall, stole rolls and milk at the beginning of the novel without telling Bober, but Bober let it go on account of Frank’s poverty; now, however, Frank is no longer a homeless poor man). But Frank still can’t admit to it and insists that it was a “mistake.” Frank asks for another chance and Bober says “No.” Bober becomes sad and tells Frank to leave:

Frank stared at the gray and broken Jew and seeing, despite the tears in his eyes, that we would not yield, hung up his apron and left. (163)

Following this, Frank goes out to drink before he meets up with Helen, Bober’s daughter.   When Frank doesn’t show up on time, Helen starts to worry (165). And, out of nowhere, Ward shows up.   Ward, drunk, accosts Helen, she turns him away and, in the heat of the moment, he makes sexual advances. Helen fights back:

Struggling, kicking wildly, she caught him between the legs with her knee. He cried out and cracked her across her face… Her legs buckled and she slid to the ground. (167)

Frank emerges out of the trees and hits Ward. Ward runs off. Helen feels saved, kisses Frank, thanks him, and “holds him tightly.” But then Frank does the unseemly thing and although she tells him no, he insists that he loves her so much that he must have sex with her.   He “stopped her pleas with kisses…”(168). However, the last words are hers: “Afterward, she cried, “Dog – uncircumcised dog!”

These are the last words of the chapter. They indicate a separation of Jews and Gentiles that brings back old hatreds and ancient memories of oppression. They also show us how Frank has broken with all possibilities for goodness. He is in a low state and in need of redemption.

In the following chapter, we see Bober, his wife, and Helen mourning Frank’s departure from the store…and the possibility of goodness. They are saddened as they all, with the exception of Ida, had hope that Frank could turn things around.

Frank is deeply hurt. And at home that night the narrator tells us that Frank “cries out”(174). The narrator points out that Frank’s thoughts “stank” and “the more he smothered them the more they stank”(174). This stink is also physical. We learn that his body stank and that it was lodged in his nose. His body is repulsive: “The sight of his bare feet utterly disgusted him”(174). And his thoughts “were killing him. He couldn’t stand them.” Frank then experiences major ambivalence. He wants to leave the city, but he feels he must stay. He wants forgiveness and replays in his mind what he will tell Helen (174). In addition to this, he imagines what Helen will say and this drives him mad. He looks in the mirror and stages this dialogue. He “faces” failure:

Where have you been, he asked the one in the glass, except on the inside of a circle? What have you ever done but always the wrong thing? (174)

The narrator compounds things by noting how he also betrayed Morris and had failed to do the right thing on many occasions. Thoughts about all of these failures leaves him, so to speak, with a stink:

His thoughts would forever suffocate him. He had failed once to often. He should somewhere have stopped and changed the way he was going, his luck, himself, stopped hating the world, got a decent education, a job, a nice girl. He had lived without will, betrayed every good intention. Had he ever confessed the holdup to Morris? Hadn’t he stolen from the cash register till the minute he was canned? In a single terrible act in the park hadn’t he murdered the last of his good hopes, the love he had so long waited for – his chance at a future? His goddamn life pursued him wherever he went; he had led it nowhere….The self he had secretly considered valuable was, for all he could make of it, a dead rat. He stank. (175)

Meanwhile, Helen feels regret for having trusted Frank. The narrator, in a similar fashion, writes a paragraph full of questions about how she had been duped. This leads to her feeling a “violent self-hatred for trusting him”(176).

In the midst of all this self-loathing over mistrust and failure, yet another trauma emerges. Bober goes to sleep in his house, but since he forgot to light the gas he is exposed to noxious fumes. Frank smells the gas coming from Bober’s home and immediately springs up to save him. Frank does his best to revive him and succeeds in saving his life.

Although everyone is angry at Frank, the fact that he saved Bober’s life creates an awkwardness between them. And when he comes back the next day, we can see that Ida is agitated with his presence. But he gives her back all of the money he took and says he wants to visit Bober in the hospital. However, Ida doesn’t let him leave so easily and orders him to stay away from Helen.

When Frank finally faces Bober and confesses to him, we see a different person. To be sure, the whole novel Frank wanted to say something. But now more than ever Frank feels he can speak.   He wants to be trusted by Bober, the honest schlemiel. However, as in the Jewish tradition, Frank’s apology is not enough. It needs to be accepted:

“Morris, Frank said, at agonizing last, “I have something important to tell you. I tried to tell you before only I couldn’t work my nerve up. Morris, don’t blame me now for what I once did, because I am now a changed man, but I was one of the guys that held you up that night. I swear to God I didn’t want to once I got in here, but I couldn’t get out of it. I tried to tell you about it – that’s why I cam back here in the first place, and the first chance I got I put my share of the money back in the register – but I didn’t have the guts to say it…You can trust me now, I swear it, and that’s why I am asking you to let me stay and help you.”(198)

Morris Bober, however, is not astonished. He tells Frank that he figured it out long ago but didn’t say anything! Regardless, Frank’s pleas for forgiveness don’t stop: “But the grocer had set his heart against the assistant and would not let him stay”(200).   It seems that Frank’s efforts to do teshuva will require him to suffer more and this is something he learns from Bober who lives the life of a schlemiel where failure is an everyday reality and where trust is a premium. In effect, Bober’s refusal to accept Frank’s apology is a gift that will, in the wake of Bober’s death, prompt Frank to convert and become a Jew.   What is the meaning of this?  Is Malamud suggesting that to be forgiven and to regain trust, the criminal must become the victim?  Must Frank, in effect, not just become a Jew but…a schlemiel?

 

….to be continued

 

The Other is My Teacher: First Thoughts on Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”

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When I first started reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I was struck by the title, the first words of the novel, and their speaker, the main character, who is an amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction: her name is Sheila Heti.  Her book, published in 2012, has received great reviews by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and many other reputable publications. I need not go through what has already been said about her wonderful novel by these reviews. Rather I’d like to introduce a nuanced way of reading her novel that taps into the existential comedy of being – which is connected to the comedy of education – that runs throughout the text. The comedy we find with Sheila, to be sure, resonates very well with the schlemiel.

What intrigued me about this confluence between the title of Heti’s novel, it’s first words, and the main character, was the fact that they are all involved, in the most Talmudic way, in a series of questions, tests, and life possibilities that are aimed at learning something and being something. But this education is not a simple one; it is what I would call a schlemiel-education. This is the case because the relationship of Sheila to her experiences is based on an uncertainty as to “how a person should be.” She is a lot like Motl of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son. He leaves Europe with his family to discover America. Motl embraces and attempts to learn from each experience about how to be.   But in learning, we don’t see him commit to any one way of being or another. Motl’s education, it seems, has no end.

And in many ways the other, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would say, is the schlemiel’s teacher.   But Heti’s schlemiel is different insofar as Sheila is a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, the genre of women-schlemiels has, unfortunately, not been explored. But Heti’s book offers us what Edith Wychogrod would call a “sample” of the “general carnality of the (female) saint.” (As I pointed out in my blogs on Malamud and Levinas, the schlemiel is a secular saint of sorts. And Wychogrod offers us an exceptional model as to how we can read the schlemiel who, like the saint, takes the other as her teacher.)

Like children, we learn from others how to live our life and how to be. But for thinkers like Immanuel Kant this  type of education is immature. To learn from others how to live one’s life, as an adult, is shameful. A “mature” individual should, rather, use his or her reason as a guide for how he or she should live his or her life. Kant identified Enlightenment with the autonomy that comes by living one’s life in accordance with one’s reason. But there is more to the story. Enlightenment is not simply based on living one’s life in accordance with reason; rather, it requires that one sacrifice one’s desire to look to others for how one should live one’s life and for how someone should be.   Kant would, for this reason, associate autonomy with the sacrifice of heteronomy.

Nearly a century after Immanuel Kant, a Jewish man (who despised his Jewish identity) named Otto Weininger argued in his book Sex and Character (1903) – which was very influence by Kant – that Jews are effeminate because they are caught up in experience.   Jews are not capable of autonomy, in his view, because they look to experience for the answer to their question “How should a person be?” Writing on Weininger, Freud pointed out that the chapter that most “attracted his attention treated Jews and women with equal hostility and overwhelmed them with the same insults”(77, cited in Sander Gilman’s Freud, Race, and Gender) Arguing against Weininger, Freud calls him a “neurotic.” And, being a neurotic, “Weininger was completely under the sway of his infantile complexes; and from that standpoint what is common to Jews and women is their relation to the castration complex”(77).   According to Gilman, Weininger’s “infantile complex” is an “example of the problematic relationship of a Jew to his circumcision”(77).

What Freud misses about Weininger’s reading of the Jew is that both of them are deemed to be in a constant state of change and their education seems to be endless. For Weininger, neither is guided by reason so much as by experience. Heti’s book, to be sure, is Jewish in a double sense in that its narrator and main character is a woman schlemiel. For Weininger a Jewish woman is guided, to an even greater extent than the male, by experience and the other. To be sure, it wouldn’t be off to say that for Weininger she is the greater schlemiel. The male, in many ways, is really no different from her; but she does it better because she is truly feminine; he is an amalgamation of male-and-female.

Although I don’t agree with Weininger, I find it particularly interesting that I, as a Jewish male, am learning from the story of a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, Kant saw the novel as a kind of distraction and would likely associate it with the feminine.   Given this reading, I could say that as a Jewish male, I am being doubly distracted by her work from being autonomous. This book would, in Weininger and Kant’s view, only distract me from being autonomous and from guiding my life by reason.   However, in defiance of them, I would argue, as I have above, that this book provides us with a schlemiel education. It shows us the comical nature of having the other as a teacher. In involves us with an endless lesson.

Even though there is something laughable and even positive about this, there is also something very sad. The first words of the novel – in the prologue – show us a schlemiel-subject who is always-already in the midst of the question, which situates “the other as my teacher” and evokes questions about which ways of being one should, existentially, take on for oneself:

How should a person be?

For years and years I have asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too….But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose?  

All of these questions – and their possible answers – are at once comical and torturous. These are the questions of a woman-schlemiel named Sheila Heti who takes the other as her teacher.

(Sheila Heti is the sister of David Heti, a comedian Schlemiel Theory has written on recently.   To be sure, they have many interesting resonances as for as the schlemiel character goes.  In upcoming entries, I will dig into the details and travel with the stops, starts, pauses, false starts, and sudden turns in her novel. They all make up a “sample” of schlemiel education.)

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part IV

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One of the key features of the schlemiel, one we see brought out in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” is the fact that the schlemiel – regardless of the situation – doesn’t give up on trusting people. Even if there is reason to judge someone in a negative manner, they overlook or find an excuse to judge it favorably. Although the reader may frown upon the desire to trust the stranger, the fact of the matter is that it is one of the most noteworthy qualities of the schlemiel. And though the schlemiel comically misses the truth of the matter in this or that story, the failure of others to be honest with the schlemiel should trouble us. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” teaches us this lesson. But it does so by drawing on a character who was born in Europe (and who Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi associates with the “virtual ghetto” created by American intellectuals and writers such as Irving Howe, Leslie Feidler, Saul Bellow, and I.B. Singer) . In contrast, and as I have been showing, Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, makes the schlemiel more realistic…and American.   He also shows us how an American schlemiel can be a secular saint, instead of what we often see the schlemiel portrayed as today: as a bro, a dude, a poor loser, or a caricature.

(Indeed, Hollywood does not and should not hold the rights over the meaning and life of the American schlemiel.)

As we have seen over the last three blog entries, Bober trusts Frank. Frank has good intentions but his actions contradict them. He continues to steal although he knows it is wrong. And, to be sure, as the story goes on we learn that he was one of the people who robbed and beat up Bober. For this reason, we can see that he becomes Bober’s “assistant” because he has a conscience. He feels guilty.   And over time, he makes more and more efforts to make things right; but this doesn’t keep him from stealing.

As a schlemiel, Bober doesn’t simply see Frank as a poor stranger in need of a job. He sees him as a person who has turned himself around (in the Hebrew and Yiddish this would be called “teshuva”).   But as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Karp – one of three Jews in Bober’s neighborhood and who also happens to have a business and a daughter he wants to marry off – tells Bober that all of the things he believed about Frank and the success of the store were wrong. Moreover, he deals the crushing blow when he tells Bober that new business owners are taking over a store than will, most likely, run out of business.

Depressed and confused about Frank, Bober goes to bed, has a tormented sleep, but wakes up with many thoughts about Frank. Instead of thinking about how much a fool he was for thinking that Frank was the reason for success, Bober ends up putting Frank in a favorable light. What Malamud has done for us, in this instance, is to provide us with a means of accessing the thoughts of an American schlemiel. But, as I mentioned above, these thoughts are not those of a caricatured schlemiel or a schlemiel who is a poor loser so much as an American schlemiel who is, as Edith Wyschogrod would say, a “sample” of a saint’s “carnal generality.” In these instances, we see Bober rethink what Karp had told him:

As for what he would do with Frank, after long pondering of the situation, thinking how the clerk had acted concerning their increase in business – as if he alone had created their better times – Morris at length decided that Frank had not as he had assumed when Karp told him the news – tried to trick him into believing that he was responsible.   The grocer supposed that the clerk, like himself, was probably ignorant of the true reason of their change of luck. (156)

The narrator tops it off by telling us that “Morris felt” that Frank didn’t know and muses that perhaps he did this “because he wanted to believe that he (Frank) was their benefactor”(156). And “maybe that was why he had been too blind to see what he had seen, too deaf too hear what he had heard. It was possible”(156). In other words, the narrator is trying to figure out, by way of thinking like a schlemiel, why Morris overlooked these things about Frank. And this musing about how this was possible tells us a lot. It tells us that a schlemiel, of Bober’s saintly type and of Gimpel’s type, wants to believe in the others goodness. Moreover, they “feel” before they think; not the other way around. Here, in this moment, we have such a situation where Bober is trying to think about Frank after hearing negative things from Karp; nonetheless, we can see that even though he may see why he is blind, he continues to stay that way be judging Frank favorably.

Nonetheless, Bober is weak and realizes that the store will have to be sold now that there is new competition in the neighborhood. Following this musing, which all happens in the morning, before opening the store, Frank comes down to see that Bober is suffering and confused: “When Frank came down he at once noticed that the grocer was not himself”(157). Frank, to be sure, has his own moral problems. But the narrator tells us that what troubles him most is what Bober’s daughter, Helen, told him; namely, that he must “discipline himself”(157).

While Bober is in the dumps, Frank “makes his mind up,” based on what Helen told him about disciplining himself, that he would “return, bit by bit until all paid up, the hundred and forty-odd bucks he had filched from Morris in the months he had worked for him”(157). Frank wants to tell Bober, for the first time (!), that he stole money from him and that he was going to pay every dime of it back. But when he sees Bober’s suffering face, he “felt it was useless”(157).

Frank, for the first time, contemplates what it would be like to confess the truth to Bober, a Jew. And this troubles him, deeply. An anti-Semitic thought crosses his mind, but this turns into other thoughts that tap into his conscience:

But when he pictured himself confessing, the Jew listening with a fat ear, he could not stand the thought of it Why should he make more trouble for himself than he could now handle, and end by defeating his purpose to fix things up and have a better life? That past was the past and the hell with it. (158)

Taking this as a point of reflection, the narrator, in the most judicious manner, suggests that Frank may have been a “victim” of anti-Semitic thief who cajoled him into doing it while, at the same time, noting that he did rob Bober and must make amends. He did the deed and must pay the price, but the narrator seems to suggest that he can get away with not saying anything while…secretly paying Bober back:

He had unwittingly taken part in a holdup, but he was, like Morris, more of a victim of Ward Minogue. If alone, he wouldn’t have done it. That didn’t excuse him that he did, but at least showed his true feelings. So what was their to confess if the whole things had been sort of an accident? Let bygones be gone. He had no control over his past – could only shine it up here and there and shut up as to the rest. From now on he would keep his mind on tomorrow…He would change and live in a worthwhile way.   (158)

What’s fascinating about this reflection is the fact that, as far as Judaism goes, teshuva (repentance) requires that if a Jew does something wrong they should admit the wrong to the person wronged and ask for forgiveness. Here we see that Frank can’t do that. It is too much for him. He can pay back what he stole, but he can’t face Bober and tell the truth.

Nonetheless, Bober still trusts Frank (or rather, as the narrator suggests, wants to trust Frank) and the door is still open. The schlemiel leaves open the door for teshuva. The question is whether Frank can fully (not partially) follow through.

To be continued……

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part III

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One of the most important things about Frank is his timing. To be sure, Frank comes out of nowhere. But he does so after Bober is held-up, beaten with a gun, and hospitalized. He comes, like a Saint, to assist him. However, as a reader, one cannot help but wonder if Frank, who is described as a saintly and yet very dark person, was in someway involved in the heist.   But before we can even have this thought, Malamud shows us how generous Frank is.

To be sure, after Frank meets Morris Bober for the first time, he starts coming every morning and helping the grocer out. And, after helping every morning for a few weeks, he eventually asks him for a job (40).   And although Ida, Bober’s wife, is skeptical, Bober, being an “honest man” (and lest we not forget, a schlemiel), opens his arms Frank. Like Abraham in the Torah/Bible, Bober wants to help a stranger:

“Because somebody is a stranger don’t mean that ain’t honest,” answered the grocer. “The subject don’t interest. Interests me what you can learn here. Only one thing” – he pressed his hand to his chest – “a heartache.” (40)

Frank, in the most caring way, tells Bober that he will assist him until Bober gets better.   And things seem to be fine. However, as time passes Bober bears witnesses, to his chagrin, to the fact that Frank may really not be so honest. When, one night, Bober is closing down, he discovers Alpine is sleeping in the basement of his store. Bober asks him why he was down there and then springs a question on Frank regarding a theft: “Did you steal from me my milk and rolls?” Frank admits to stealing from Bober and said he did so because he was hungry. Bober asks Alpine why he didn’t ask him, and Frank gives an odd answer; namely, that he can take care of himself.

When Bober asks Frank why he didn’t stay with his sister, we learn that Frank lied: he doesn’t have a sister (51).   And this isn’t an insignificant detail. To be sure, Frank told Bober, when he first met him, that he was an orphan who went from home to home and eventually ran away to live the life of a homeless person.   Yet, somehow, he slipped a bit about staying with his sister to Bober. Now, he says, quite frankly: “I have no sister. That was a lie I told you. I am alone by myself”(51).   Confused, Bober asks him why and Frank tells him that he lied because he didn’t want Bober to think he “was a bum”(51). Bober, seeing Frank hungrily eat the food he stole, feels compassion for Frank’s poverty and seems to forget about the lie.

But in the midst of this conversation between Frank and Bober, Ida, Bober’s wife, comes downstairs to see what all the fuss is in the basement. As a result of her prompting, Bober tells Frank to find another job. While Bober gives Frank some slack, his wife doesn’t. She wants him out of her cellar and the store, but Bober, in defiance of Ida, lets him stay…even after he lied to him. And here we see the honest, saintly nature of the schlemiel.   Like Gimpel, in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Bober overlooks lies and deception because he, like Singer’s schlemiel, thinks that will prompt Frank to be more honest. However, as the novel goes on we see that Bober – much like Gimpel – is duped again and again.

Following this incident, Frank makes great efforts to redeem himself and this proves successful. He shaves and, so to speak, cleans up his act. Bober, excited by the change going on and, apparently, attributing the increased sales to Frank, gives Frank a raise (68). However, “Frank felt troubled about the raise because he was earning something for his labor that Ida knew nothing of, for business was a little better than she thought”(68). He is troubled because, while all of this going on, he has been stealing and giving himself money under the table (68). And, after a while, his shame disappears: “He had nothing to be ashamed of, he thought – it was practically his own dough he was taking. The grocer and his wife wouldn’t miss it because they didn’t know they had it, and they wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for his hard work”(69). The rationalization of theft is only the tip of the iceberg.

Immediately following this moment, Malamud includes a flashback to the moment when Bober was beaten up. In this flashback, we learn that Frank, along with a person named Ward Minogue, was one of the people who robbed and beat Bober. We learn that Ward, Frank’s partner in crime, is clearly anti-Semitic and that he sees nothing wrong with stealing from a Jew and beating a Jew up. He sums up his attitude with the expression, “a Jew is a Jew.” Frank, pacing nervously around the block, remembers this moment and Ward’s voice when he went in that day to rob Bober:

He remembered thinking as they went into the store, a Jew is a Jew, what difference does it make? Now he thought, I held him up because he was a Jew. What the hell are they to me so that I can give them credit for it. (70)

At the point in the narrative, everything changes. As readers, our sympathy for “the assistant” diminishes. Yet, now we can understand why he showed up at Frank’s store. He wants to make amends. The fact that Frank may admire saints may show some hope, but now we can see that anti-Semitism may have prompted him to do the deed and commit the crime. Regardless of his intention to make amends, now we see that his going back to Bober to work for him still didn’t keep him from stealing. These new insights make Alpine’s character more complicated. And show us that, of the two, Bober, the schlemiel, may be the real saint.

Adding to this, Malamud has us bear witness to Frank’s thoughts as he walks through the city streets and remembers what he did. He is tortured about what he did and what he was at the time doing. But he gets away from these thoughts by going on a search for Ward (71).   When he meets him, he asks for his gun so he can hold-up “the Jew” Karp. But Ward refuses to give him back the gun. What, one wonders, is behind this request? Does Frank really want to hold up Karp, “the Jew”? What does he want to do with the gun?

Following this encounter, as readers, we are not sure if Frank is a different man. To be sure, he stays on. When he sees Ward a second time, he asks him to hold up Karp (143). Ward says that he can’t understand why Frank would want more money. Ward tells Frank that he was “sure you’d have saved up a pile by now, stealing from the Jew(143).   Frank doesn’t own up to the fact that he had been stealing. However, now he tells Ward that he doesn’t want to do any crime. He just wants his gun. In response, Ward threatens Frank by saying that if he won’t rob Karp, he wants a bribe. If Frank doesn’t give him money, he threatens that he will tell Bober and his wife that Frank has a crush on their daughter, Helen.

To add to the tension, Malamud notes that Ida tells Helen to stay away from Frank. In contrast, Bober looks the other way when he sees Frank kissing his daughter (148). In the face of this, he just shrugs his shoulders and adds, “So what is a kiss? A kiss is nothing”(149). He trusts Frank, but in doing so he doesn’t think about what is at stake if Frank wins her heart. On top of that, Karp wants his son to go out with Helen but Bober isn’t interested in having his daughter marry a man who is destined to success. He wants, first and foremost, an honest man. And for that reason, his wife thinks he is a schlemiel. Because Frank, to her mind, is far from honest. And, more importantly for her, he’s not Jewish, can’t make a real living, and will likely leave her and never come back to the area.

Meanwhile, we learn that Ida is not the only one who suspects Frank. Karp does too. Malamud points out how Karp knew that Frank was stealing from Bober and tried to convince Bober that something was amiss with Frank. But Bober, being the trusting schlemiel, will hear none of it:

Without doubt Morris kept Frank on to make his life easier, and probably, being Bober, he had no idea what was happening behind his back. Well, Julius Karp would warn him of his daughter’s danger. Tactfully he would explain him what was what. (151)

To be sure, it is Karp that brings everything down and exposes all of the things that Bober chooses not to see or knows nothing about.   Karp starts, in a Talmudic fashion, by asking Bober how his business improved: “How is this possible? You are maybe advertising in the paper?”(153). Bober’s responses to Karp show him sinking deeper and deeper into despair. Bober realizes that his success was based on the fact that he was willing to overlook things. Karp shows him that he, like a schlemiel, misunderstood what was going on:

Morris smiled at the sad joke. Where there was no wit money couldn’t but it. “By word of mouth,” he remarked, “is the best advertising.” “This is according to what the mouth says.” “It says,” Morris answered without shame, “that I got a fine clerk who has pepped me up the business. Instead going down in the winter, every day goes up.” “Your clerk did this? Karp said, thoughtfully scratching under one buttock.” “The customers like him. A goy brings goyim.” “New customers?” “New, old.” “Something else helps you also?”(153)

Bober then goes right to it and say what he really believes about Frank: the “most important help to me is Frank.” “Astonished,” Karp tells Bober that he has been duped. The reason whey he was doing so well was because Schmitz, the German grocery store owner in the neighborhood, was sick and had cut his hours in half (154). Bober was getting his business.   And then Karp delivers the final blow; namely, that Schmitz’s business was already auctioned off to hard working Norwegians. They would end up wiping him out financially. His business would go down hill very soon. After hearing this, Bober is demolished:

Morris, with clouded eyes, died slowly. Karp, to his horror, realized he had shot at the clerk and wounded the grocer….The grocer wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Frank with a violent sense of outrage, of having been deceived. (155)

But, in the face of this calamity, we see that Frank has change of heart.   The more time Frank spends with Bober, seeing Bober suffer, the more moral he becomes. To be sure, Bober becomes, for Frank, a kind of saint or what Edith Wyschogrod would call a saintly “sample.” But this saint is more like a schlemiel-saint than a Christian-saint.

…to be continued