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

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Writing on Bernard Malamud, Sanford Pinsker argues that with his work we have something fundamentally different from what we find in I.B. Singer. As Pinsker notes, I.B. Singer “had to face the agonizing problem of re-creating a ghetto experience that had been too short lived”(77, The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction).   Singer has this responsibility because he was a Yiddish writer who came to America. For this reason, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi argues that Singer created a “virtual shtetl” in America. His most popular schlemiel, Gimpel, is a remnant from the world that had died in Europe after the Holocaust.   The real translation of Gimpel into English is not “Gimpel the Fool” so much as “Gimpel the Simpleton.” He is, without a doubt, conveying a Jewish “sample” of the ethical to post-Holocaust American writers.

 

However, Bernard Malamud has a different American context than Singer. According to Pinsker, “Malamud and a host of other postwar American Jewish writers had to discover the boundaries of a heritage that, for them, had hardly lived at all”(77). What emerges out of Malamud’s struggle is a different kind of Jew. Citing Theodore Solotaroff, Pinsker writes that “Jews in his fiction emerged as a ‘type of metaphor…both for the tragic dimension of anyone’s life and for a code of personal morality’”(77).

 

Pinsker builds on this to argue that the morality of Malamud’s fictional Jews can be found in the fact that Malamud’s Jews are “so filled with suffering that one imagines they have just changed clothes after a four thousand year trek across the desert”(78).   And in Malamud’s hands, this morality had a specific target. According to Pinsker, the schlemiel helped Malamud to deal with post-Holocaust anxieties that hadn’t been addressed immediately after WWII: “For American Jewish writers, the figure of the schlemiel became a way of dealing with the more troubling aspects of this condition, a way of talking about moral transcendence rather than economic advancement”(79).

Morris Bober, whose name sounds a lot like the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, is the main character of Malamud’s second novel, The Assistant.  He provides us with an exceptional “sample” of how this “moral transcendence” is communicated through a schlemiel.   To begin with, the main character’s body is an excellent index of what Wyschogrod calls “general carnality.” When we first meet Bober, a man in his sixties who has a failing convenience store and deli, he is dragging “heavy boxes to the door, panting”(31).   We see him in his daily routine which is bleak and weary. His first encounter with another character is, to be sure, an act of charity. When a little girl comes in asking for food for her mother, who has a running bill she can’t pay, he tells the girl “no more trust.” She burst into tears, and Morris – feeling great compassion – gives her food, takes note of the bill and his growing debt, and moves on. This doesn’t bother him. He’s used to losing money and, as the novel shows, puts morality over money. And this, in many ways, makes him a poor schlemiel.

When, a few pages later, the narrator provides a more detailed description of Bober we can see that he is an existential schlemiel of sorts. He seems to be stuck in a store that doesn’t become successful. He is one of three Jews living in a predominantly non-Jewish area in New York City. His other two neighbors have succeeded in making successful businesses, but he has not. Everything seems to be failing around him. The narrator’s description gives us a vantage point to understand his bodily state and “carnal generality.” He is constantly facing failure:

The grocer…had never altered his fortune, unless by degrees of poverty meant altercation, for luck and he were, if not natural enemies, not good friends. He labored long hours, was the soul of honesty, it was bedrock; to cheat would cause an explosion in him, yet he trusted cheaters – coveted nobody’s nothing and always got poorer. The harder he worked – his toil was a form of time devouring time – the less he seemed to have. He was Morris Bober and could be nobody more fortunate. With that name you had no sure sense of property, as if it were in your blood and history not to possess, or if by some miracle to own something, to do so on the verge of loss. (17)

Morris Bober, like Gimpel the Tam (simpleton), trusts everyone. He is the “soul of honesty.” And this marks the foolishness of the secular (schlemiel) saint. He lives in poverty and his happy with his lot and his name (his, so to speak, essence or “generality” is marked by being a “little man” or simpleton).

In the story that follows, we see that Bober is faced with failure to such an extent that he wonders whether or not it is worth it to keep his store. Karp, his neighbor, ends up selling a storefront to a person who would compete with Bober and, to his mind, would likely run him into deeper poverty and force him to close. Bober’s wife urges him to sell the store, but, like a schlemiel, he argues that he “came to late” and lost his opportunity to sell it when it would have been smart. Now, he would get nothing.

In the midst of this crisis, Karp sees him one morning and tips him off that that there is a strange car in the area and that they may hold-up his store. He suggests that Bober close his store down: “Telephone the police,” cried Karp. “The car is parked across the street.” “What car?” “The holdupniks.”   After Karp leaves and Bober motions to call the police, “the store door opened and he hurried inside”(25). Bober is accosted by two crooks who take his money, call him a “Jew liar” for not telling him where the “money is” (and he really doesn’t have any more; he’s near broke), and then proceed to beat him up.

When the blow descends on Morris, he sees all of his frustration and failure pass before him. He “felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, the years gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in American and got little…He fell without a cry….It was his luck, others had better”(27). These last lines are telling because, even though he sees his whole life as a series of failures, he still ends off thinking, like a simpleton, that this was his “luck.” In other words, he accepts suffering, failure, and loss with a shoulder shrug.

Following this event, it seems as if Bober’s life and store are over. He can’t carry on. At this moment, an Italian man named “Frank Alpine” (I will refer to him, as does the novel, as “Frank”) shows up. When we first meet him, we learn that he has been hanging around in the area looking for a job. The narrator calls him “the stranger”(30).   He is unkempt, has a beard, and comes from the West. He seems like a fly-by-night kind of person.  His face, seemingly like his character, is “unbalanced.”

He was young, dark-bearded, wore an old brown stained hat, cracked leather patent shoes and a long black overcoat that looked as if it had been lived in. He was tall and not bad looking, except for his nose that had been broken and badly set, unbalancing his face. (29)

And, following this description, the narrator notes that “he looked bleary, unhappy, his beard hard”(30) when he shows up for the first time in the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, he has something mysterious and even saint-like about him.

Sam, who had a candy store in the neighborhood, speaks with Frank. Before speaking with him, however, he sees that Frank is looking off at a picture of a monk. The narrator describes the picture:

The picture was of a thin-faced, dark-bearded monk in a course brown garment, standing barefooted on a sunny country road. His skinny, hairy arms were raised to a flock of birds that dipped over his head. In the background was a grove of leafy trees; and in the far distance a church in sunlight. (30)

Sam, seeing Frank’s interest in the image, asks him if it is “some kind of priest.” In response, Alpine notes that it is a saint: “No, it’s St. Frances of Assisi. You can tell from the brown robe he’s wearing and all those birds in the air”(30).   Following this, Frank further explains that what made him special was the fact that “gave everything away”:

He gave everything away that he owned, every cent, all the clothes off his back. He enjoyed to be poor. He said poverty was a queen and he loved her like she was a beautiful woman. (31)

To be sure, Franks words about the saint indicate that we has been moved by his hagiography. He has, as Wyshchogrod would say, a “sample” of “ethical transcendence.”

When Frank first meets with Bober, he carries his milk bottles in for him. And Frank “willingly accepted when Morris, who knew a poor man when he saw one, invited him in for coffee”(34). Bober, in many ways, is like St. Francis of Assisi. But Bober is Jewish. Frank and Morris engage in conversation and we see this difference come to the surface when Frank explains how he is Italian. Regardless, Bober puts that to the side as he talks to him in a fatherly manner (36). Frank conveys his story to Bober and the story. Like Bober’s story, it is sad. His father leaves him at young age and Frank is raised in an orphanage.   In response to this story, “the grocer was moved.” And both of them bond on the fact that have both experienced poverty and failure throughout their lives.   They both understand the same things that are the substance of what Wyschogrod would call saintly.   However, as we shall see, the schlemiel, Bober, is the bigger saint. He suffers more than Frank and Frank takes advantage of him. Nonetheless, this changes as the novel progresses.

 

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

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The schlemiel is often thought of as the Jewish fool who, in the traditional joke, is paired up with a nudnik and a schlimazel. The schlemiel, as the traditional joke goes, is asked to get a bowl of soup by the schlimazel. When the schlemiel gets right near the table, and it seems as if all will go well, he spills the soup of the schlimazel’s lap. The schlimazel, who receives the bad luck, screams out. And the nudnick asks what kind of soup it is. In this scenario, the schlemiel is portrayed as a perpetual bungler who disseminates bad luck wherever he goes. (In fact, all three figures congregate around bad luck.) As the explanation goes: Jews, accustomed to bad luck throughout their history, took to this character so as to laugh at their misfortune. But, to be sure, there is obviously more to the story. The schlemiel is not the ordinary fool and shouldn’t simply be thought of as a bungler. The schlemiel is, to be sure, related to the Jewish saint. His failure has deeper roots.

In The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out how the schlemiel, in Yiddish literature, Ruth Wisse argues that “the genesis of the literary schlemiel within the context of Yiddish literature is the tale of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav entitled “A Story about a Clever Man and a Simple Man.” The story, published in 1807, anticipates Yiddish literature which will take the schlemiel as its main character. In Hebrew and Yiddish, the word “simpleton” is “Tam,” this term was often used by Hasidim to describe a righteous man. The irony, however, is that for the Hasidim, the simple man is the righteous man. He need not be a “wise man” or “clever man.” Rather, he can be a schlemiel, too. And, as Wisse notes with regard to this story by Rabbi Nachman, what makes it special is that “the instinctive response of devotion” is privileged over “the highest achievement of the mind”(17).   In the story, the simpleton’s devotion is seen as comical by the “clever man,” but in the end the simpleton’s devotion pays off.   The most important thing for Wisse is to map the movement from the simple schlemiel to the secular one in Yiddish literature. She is interested in how faith and righteousness is translated into the secular. Writing on this, Wisse argues that “in the later secular works, faith is not a matter of religious credence, but the habit of trusting optimistically in the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. It is also the dedication to living “as if” good will triumph over evil”(22).   In Yiddish literature:

The figure of the schlemiel was employed to present the case of hope over   despair, because the author retained his awareness of reality even if his character did not. The schlemiels are committed to Messianic truth, and if need be they can reinterpret, distort, or obviate immediate reality when it contradicts their ultimate ideal. Society finds them wanting, but according to the internal judgment of the story, their foolishness is redeemed. Rarely does this literary schlemiel rise to the heights achieved by the Bratzlaver’s simple man, because rarely does the modern author share the great Rabbi’s full-hearted conviction. More usually, the schlemiel remains the practical loser, winning only an ironic victory of interpretation. (23)

Wisse was referring to the Yiddish tradition of schlemiel literature. And her explanation of the schlemiel is framed in terms of the translation of Rabbi Nachman’s simpleton into Yiddish literature vis-à-vis the concept of faith and acting “as if” the good will triumph.

What I would like to suggest is that we approach the schlemiel’s relationship to religion and literature differently. Instead of looking into Yiddish literature, I would like to take up the schlemiel in post-Holocaust Jewish-American literature (namely, by way of Bernard Malamud, one of it’s greatest representatives); and instead of looking at the schlemiel by way of Wisse’s framework for faith and its translation into the secular, I would like to use a different model based on Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Levinas in terms of addressing the Saint and hagiography. The latter, as I hope to show, is a model which helps us to understand how faith is not an idea but something that is transmitted, as Wyschogrod would say, by way of “samples of ethical behavior”(277). Unlike Wyschogrod, however, I am not taking actual saints as my example so much as schlemiels who, to be sure, are really saints in disguise. The main character of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, a Jewish store owner in the post-War era named Morris Bober is a case in point. Since, today, our hagiography is fiction and our saints are the “little men” and everyday people.

 

Edith Wyschogrod’s Reading of Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography

Before we begin our reading of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, I’d like to briefly go over Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Emmanuel Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography.

To begin with, Wyschogrod, in an essay entitled “Exemplary Individuals: Toward a Phenomenological Ethics,” argues that her starting point for a reading of hagiography and saints must start off with what she calls “carnal generality.” She draws on this notion from the work of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas (264).   For Ponty, “generality is inscribed in the incarnate subject, an ensemble of self-transcending acts and lingual capacities. By contrast, Levinas focuses on the alterity of other persons and its impact on the self, an alterity that cannot be brought into conceptual focus by language.” Although these definitions differ, “both agree that the psycho-physiological primordium that is the incarnate subject expresses a generality of which universals and essences are derivative types”(264).

Wyschogrod argues that these generalities are “context-specific” (she calls these contexts “carnal generality”).   In the spirit of phenomenology, Wyschogrod argues that Ponty, in his “analysis of social existence,” looks, through “successive exfoliations” of the context, to get at the “essence” of the phenomena. However, Wyschogrod notes that Ponty stays away from the word “universal” and suggests that we use the word “carnal generalities” to avoid the connotations suggested by words like “essence.”   To be sure, Wyschogrod tells us that he uses the term “carnal generalties” in reference to “dialogue” and language. Drawing on this, she argues that “this generality is constituted by the power of the self to inhabit the body of the other”(265). In other words, language is the medium that brings a “carnal generality” between self and other together: “together the other and I form an ensemble of significations, a single flesh that is traversed and expresses meaning”(265).

Wyschogrod notes the difference, however, between Ponty and Levinas on this issue of language. While, for Ponty, there is a coming together of the self and other in moments of communication, for Levinas, “the breach between the self and other is unsurpassable”(266).   This difference, argues Wyschogrod, is what “”opens discourse” and makes “ethical relation possible”(266).   Regardless, for Levinas and Ponty, the “carnal generalities” remain. The question, however, is what they communicate and what we can learn from them.   For Wyschogrod, “carnal generality” conveys what she calls “exemplification” and this is best seen in hagiography.

To introduce this new idea, Wyschogrod, instead of writing about saints and their hagiography, talks about a case of “idiot savant twins” convey by the neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks. In his account of the case, Sacks recalls how the two would engage in “a singular and purely numerical conversation,” a “mathematical game in which they exceeded the competence of the most sophisticated mathematicians”(269). After watching them, Sacks concluded that “the twins did not form abstract notions of numbers but experienced them in some sensuous and immediate way”(269). As Wyschogrod explains, Sacks discovered that they learned and communicated not by way of mathematical ideas but…spatially.

Saints, argues Wyschogrod, are not much different: “they are idiot savants of the ethical, although, in contrast to the twins, they often possess considerable psychological acuity, as well as remarkable powers of political and social organization”(269). Wyschogrod argues that the entire life of the saint is devoted to the “alleviation of sorrow (psychological suffering) and pain (physical suffering) that afflict other persons without distinction of rank or group…or that afflict sentient beings, whatever the cost in pain or sorrow to him or herself”(270).

With this definition in mind, Wyschogrod argues that not all saints are mystics in the sense that they do not all experience a from of unity with the Godhead but many, the most ethical, remain painfully incarnated (270).   Her project is to preserve, for “modern and postmodern critics,: a “concept of saintliness” by “uncovering singularities,” which she associates with the “landscapes of the saintly imagination”(270).   To illustrate how this relates to hagiography, Wyschogrod cites a few passages from St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. But the last two examples she cites come from the Baal Shen Tov and Buddhism.   What she notes, in this hagiography, is how the “trace of transcendence” can be seen in them. To be sure, she notes that the bodily presence in them is an ethical figure.

In the second to last section of her essay, Wyschogrod writes of what she calls “exemplification”(277). This is the view that, “in taking the saint to be an exemplary figure, we mean that the saints’ acts are samples of ethical behavior and that the saint’s life as a whole an sample of compassion, generosity, and love”(277). Take note that Wyschogrod takes heed of Jacques Derrida’s critique of the example, which is based on the structure of the signifier and the signified (the idea – signified – has an example – a signifier) and, ultimately finds its birth in Plato’s concept of “forms” – eidos). For this reason, she uses the word “samples” (not examples) to describe what the saints provide readers:

The utility of samples lies in their enabling us to learn the character of the whole of which they are samples. Thus, in the case I am considering, one would watch the saint’s behavior in order to learn what goodness, compassion, and love are like. (277)  

Unlike Wyschogrod, who took saints as her samples, I would like to take the schlemiels of modern fiction as our samples. There is a “trace of transcendence” in them. Perhaps the reason Wyschogrod overlooked them is because she didn’t associate the comical with the ethical. And this, I believe, needs to be addressed. To be sure, as I have noted, the schlemiel, as Wisse sees it, is ultimately a religious figure. It can provide us with a sample that is closer to us since the world we inhabit is much more ironic than the world that the saints occupied. To be sure, I think that the saint’s hagiography survives by way of schlemiel fiction. And it speaks to us in an intimate manner after the Holocaust.

 

Charles Bernstein: Writing “On Theatricality” and Doing Poetic Stand-Up

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I was recently looking through Charles Bernstein’s essay collection Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Side by side in the collection, I found two pieces that really caught my interest: one is an essay entitled “On Theatricality” and the other is a poetry piece entitled “G-/”. The difference between the two pieces really struck me because they reminded me that, at a certain time, writers on theatricality associated it with language and play. However, for some strange reason, they didn’t associate it with comedy. I think of Derrida’s work, for instance, on Artaud. His essays on Artaud are more concerned with emptying language of content via performing texts.  For Derrida, it seems, it’s all about metaphoricity and textuality.   Nothing in them gives an indication of comedy.

The “difference” that I’m referring to, above, is that Bernstein’s poetry piece “G-/”, which is next to “On Theatricality,” is comical.  It differs.   To be sure, when I read it, against the essay on language and theatricality, I felt it would be wrong to read it in terms of Bernstein’s theoretical reflections. Rather, it called for a comic sensibility.

Let me explain.

In the essay “On Theatricality,” Bernstein writes of the actor Joseph Chaiken’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing and How It Is (200).   According to Bernstein, Chaiken has provided him with “one of the most satisfying performances of Beckett I have ever heard”(200). Bernstein explains why in a language that is clearly garnered from the a theoretical reading of theatricality and textuality:

Chaiken’s reading situates the address of the text not to a listener but to itself, as reverie, the self – or more properly the writing – talking to itself, proceeding, stopping, questioning, circling back: a textual practice organized by internal compositional necessities and not by the sound of a speaking voice.   By performing the text as a musician might play a score, rather than enacting a persona, Chaiken was able to realize the textual dimension of Becket’s work (200).

To accomplish this in poetry, Bernstein suggests that poets make a “sharp break” form “shamanistic incantation of neoritualistic sound poetry” and from “the presentation of personality as a projected coherent force”(200). All of this prevents language from being merely, as Heidegger would say of art, a form of equipment or a tool of expression. Rather, it lets language resonate as language.

While I know this reading very well, I find that it is missing the comical spirit of language that we find, oftentimes, in Bernstein’s poetry (especially his later work). The poem following this, to be sure, draws directly on the comedic.

Here are a few lines that will give a sense of how Bernstein does a kind of stand-up performance of poetry. It has the quality of what I call schlemiel-poetics. (And one should note that Chaiken did work with Yiddish theater and the schlemiel.). Notice how, in the midst of his meditation on possible failure (or his sense of failure, which is a key trait of the Jewish fool) he laughs:

I had this liberating thought the other night      imagine that nothing that I write or thought was good       it was all crummy   and the fact of crumminess would somehow free me up from this burden That I feel to express       to say something   meaningful     because I couldnt   and I an I started to laugh       it seemed a joyous kind of concept   and then this thinking lead me I mean sometimes I feel depressed I feel a little bit that way in the morning

These lines from the poem remind me of Woody Allen or Marc Maron’s self-deprecation. To be sure, stand-up poetics, playing the schlemiel on the stage or in a poem, is a way of doing more than theory says it does. The running joke and the act of self-deprecation in language do more to loosen up language and make it playful than any abstraction. Playing with failure is a way of playing with pathos.

I’ll end with this clip of RD Laing and Joseph Chaiken doing some very comical mirroring exercises. What you find in them is a play on bodily gesture by way of the face, something that actors portraying schlemiel have done since Yiddish theater got its start in Eastern Europe. Bernstein, it seems, is influenced by this kind of theater which is all about “facing” the audience as a stand-up comedian would. This isn’t simply language play…its comedy.   Comedians, after all, make faces.  They make the body comically signify.

 

Psychotic Man-Child Fathers – Schlemiel Children: Marc Maron’s “Attempting Normal” (Part I)

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When I watch comedy, I’m always curious as to what kind of life this or that comedian lived while growing up. Like many theorists of comedy, I do think there is some plausibility to the claim that comedy, in some way, is born out of and addresses some kind of trauma or loss.   Ruth Wisse, in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, claims that schlemiel humor is a response to failure and weakness. After all, Jews were often excluded from history and often related to the countries they lived in from a position of weakness. Given this situation, Wisse argues that the schlemiel and it’s brand of Jewish comedy are a “theoretical reversal” of history and creates what she calls an “ironic victory.” However, the victory is ironic because the memory of trauma, loss, and failure persist. Jews are acutely aware of this. But, at the very least, comedy mitigates the power they have over Jewish life and gives the comedian some kind of freedom. The victory is, at best, minimal.   But, at the very least, such humor provides, as Irving Howe might say, a margin of hope. The comedian, to be sure, gives the audience not something to laugh at so much as a way to address suffering and loss that is not a negation of it so much as a way of facing it with some kind of intelligence which, in turn, bears on our freedom.

When I first started reading Marc Maron’s book Attempting Normal, I was astonished to learn that he grew up in a house with a psychotic father.   Like the comedian Marc Maron, I also grew up in a household with a brilliant psychotic father. And like him, I also felt like, because of my life growing up, I was also “attempting normal.” Reading this book for the first time, I was so excited to learn how he, through humor, addressed the suffering he went through by virtue of being the child of a psychotic. Like Maron, I became very interested in humor. And when I started reading his book, I knew he would approach it in ways that would make perfect sense to me. Through humor he found a way into a way of life he had, since youth, never known.   And although he would never “be” normal, at the very least he could “attempt” it. This very thought is one I know intimately. To be sure, I feel that I “attempt” it in nearly everything I do. And there is something comical and something very sad about that fact.

To be sure, as a result of my experience, I have spent most of my life trying to put the pieces together. Along the way, it occurred to me that, as a result of my odd and brilliant father, and the psychotic experiences I had been a part of, I had, like Maron, become a schlemiel. In one of my first blog entries I called myself a schlemiel and a son of a schlemiel. It stuck me that this is appropriate because, from what little experience I have of psychotic individuals (I was raised by one) I can say that they are, by and large, schlemiels. They dream big and often reinterpret reality to fit into the their psychotic narrative (in which they are the winners and they control the show). However, unlike the schlemiel, the psychotic is far from a nebbish. He or she goes out of her way to make reality conform to his or her vision. The psychotic is not simply living in an imaginary world; they actually change reality.   And this often gets them in trouble. To be sure, my father was arrested several times and was thrown into many mental institutions because of his psychotic actions (and by psychotic I don’t mean violent but…unusual).   In the film Shlemiel (2011), by Chad Derrick, I recount some of these experiences. And, as a filmmaker, Derrick was interested in why I turned to this comic character and how I, like Maron, attempted normal.

Maron’s retelling of his father’s psychosis has a comic element that touches me and inspires me to write my own account. For this reason, I’d like to briefly discuss some of Maron’s stories and bring together what makes them not only a lesson for me but for anyone who wants to understand who humor relates to madness and suffering. Being the children of psychotic parents, and not being psychotic ourselves, we can laugh at the stories and gain some kind of understanding of our parents and ourselves.

Maron begins his account of his father’s psychosis and its relationship to his life by noting the saddest pat of his father’s madness; namely, the times his father had a psychotic episode:

The most peculiar, sad, and entertaining part of living with a manic-depressive is the timing of erratic emotional behavior, whether it is up or down. My father has had some really impressive mood events. (39)

The first event Maron recounts – vis-à-vis his father’s timing – is his graduation from university. He notes how his father – just like mine – was the Valedictorian of his high school class. He also notes how his father was deemed “the center” and the “wunderkind” of the family.   He was, as Maron says, “mythic in the family. The doctor, the genius, the golden one.” I find this description so close to my own, because my father was also regarded in this way. And, to be sure, he regarded himself as a legend as well. (He was a Valedictorian, also, at Columbia University, went on to receive the prestigious NASA fellowship, and went on to a promising career.)

However, Maron, strangely like myself, had to live with his father’s high estimation of himself, his mind, and is capabilities. Like Maron’s father, my father was also highly selfish and erratic. And like Maron’s father, mine could also be abusive. But what I like most about Maron’s account is how he addresses it; he wonders if his father was consciously manipulating things. I wondered the same about my father:

I had lived with my father’s erratic, selfish, sometimes abusive behavior all my life it was always about him. A midlife diagnosis of bipolarity seemed to be his way of taking an easy way out, at least to my mind.   Initially I didn’t buy the diagnosis. Even now, sometimes I don’t know. It’s very hard to determine the validity of a mood disorder when someone is as plain old narcissistic as my dad. I thought he was just a man-child who refused self-awareness and defied wisdom even as his life fell apart around him. When necessary he would blame the “illness.” (39)

His father, in his eyes, was a man-child, a schlemiel. And he sees him as simply refusing self-awareness. This is a fascinating claim because I also thought of myself as more rational than my father and saw him opting out as things went down the tubes.   But although the son of the schlemiel may be the rational one, in the end, he is still deeply affected by the erratic nature of his father’s actions. Nonetheless, by recounting it, in this way, Maron gives the background for the comical events his father would spur on him – namely, in moments that would require the greatest seriousness.

In these moments, the inappropriate things his father does are comical; but seen against the background of his life and upbringing, we see the humor as bordering on sadness.

…to be continued….

 

 

My Vicarious Role in a Journalist’s Missed Encounter With Seth Rogen…in Las Vegas

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About a month ago, I was contacted by Louie Lazar, a journalist who told me that he was given an assignment by Tablet: to determine whether or not Seth Rogen was the future of Jewish comedy. Pondering this question, Lazar came across several article/blog posts I had written on Seth Rogen for this blog. After going through them, he contacted me by way of email and told me he wanted to talk on the phone. Since he was hoping to interview Rogen, who was at a three-day-special-event hosted by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) that had Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and a few other stars in attendance, he told me he would call me from Las Vegas. I was excited to talk to him. I thought to myself, in dream-like fashion, here was an opportune moment.

Anticipating of the phone-call, I spent a few hours thinking about Rogen, what I had written on him, and what I could now say about him. I even posted a query on facebook to gather what people were thinking about Rogen.

When the journalist called, we ended up talking for over an hour about Rogen. One of the things I discussed with him was how Rogen was a “new schlemiel.” He was, as Daniel Itzkovitz might say about Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller, an example of the schlemiel as “everyman.” This, of course, goes against the grain of the older model of the schlemiel who, as Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse argued, looks to challenge the “philosophical and political status quo.” His failure, so to speak, is an “ironic victory.” Rogen, I argued, is the status quo. Meaning: he is not an elitist; rather, he is “one of us.” The journalist agreed and noted that he was a “bro.” He has the body and demeanor of a bro – he likes to smoke pot and party – and that makes him “one of us.” To be sure, the motif of being a “bro” is central to his latest film Neighbors.

Before the conversation ended, Lazar asked me what questions I would ask Rogen if I were to interview him. In a rush of excitement, I gave the journalist several questions. (And even after the conversation ended, I sent him several more.)   After hanging up, I imagined – in schlemiel-like fashion – what answers Rogen would give. In a sense, I felt as if the journalist was a messenger; though him it was “as if” I was meeting Seth Rogen himself (who, just today, was dubbed by TIME magazine to be the “Stoner King of Comedy”). (An interesting side note, the word schlemiel seems to have a bit of Hebrew in it: Shelach (send) m’ (from) el (God) – in other words, he is a holy messenger of sorts or else…exiled from God and redemption; sent away.)

So…one can imagine how I felt when, just today, the journalist emailed me and told me that he published his feature piece on Rogen just yesterday.   I read his essay with great interest hoping to see how the interview worked out. I was so excited. I felt as if my schlemiel-like-dreams were going to come true. However, what I found was the most disappointing thing imaginable; namely, that the journalist wasn’t able to meet Rogen and converse with him. I felt as if, in the end, Lazar and I were the real schlemiels.   He hoped to have an encounter, we both dreamed about it, but in the end…it just didn’t happen.

To be sure, the difference between Rogen and Lazar is that while Lazar sought to find, meet, and interview Rogen, Rogen, as I told him on the phone, doesn’t really act in many films; he just “shows up.” To be sure, Lazar, uses this expression in the title of his piece: “Seth Rogen Exemplifies the Jewish Journey from Chosen People to Just Showing Up.”

Reading the piece, I felt an intimate sense of being duped because I was a part of Lazar’s search. What makes this failure so enjoyable, however, is the fact that it was written in the style of Gozo journalism that I love and have loved since high school. This was appropriate since the journalist, comically modeling himself on Hunter S. Thomson’s journey in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was asked to interview Rogen in….Las Vegas. The subtitle of the piece, “Beer and Loafing in Las Vegas, on the heels of the everyman start of the new stoner man-child comedy” says it all.   He is on the heels of a schlemiel and in following him, he also becomes a schlemiel of sorts. Together with the title, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was suggesting something that was in the midst of our conversation; namely, that Rogen is a “new schlemiel,” an everyman stoner who just “shows up” in this or that film or talk-show appearance. As I noted, half of Rogen’s comedy is just showing up.

And this is the sense that Lazar communicates in his piece. However, there is a big problem. Even though Rogen “shows up,” the problem, for the journalist, is that he can’t speak to him. I can hear Lazar asking himself, as the article moves on, “But…if he was really like one of us, why can’t I speak to him?”

But there is more to the story. Reading the piece, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was astounded at how odd the whole scene, along with Rogen’s popularity, was. And this, to my mind, is exceptional: it prompts us to wonder, with him, what all this means. What is the meaning of a comic character’s everydayness when it is presented within a hyper-capitalist milieu of a conference dedicated to stars in Las Vegas?

At the outset, we can hear the juxtaposition in his sarcastic tone:

I’m drinking scotch in the VIP section of the Garden of the Gods, waiting for the God of the Gods, Seth Rogen, Any minute now, he should be walking past the 50-foot-high Corinthian columns flanked by statues of Julius Caesar mounted on war horses and into the private area between the Neptune Pool and Temple Pool, in which I’m standing, comfortably besides a heat lamp.

He, the everyman, is framed as a “God of the Gods.” And this is odd.

Lazar presents himself as a schlemiel in the process. He is, like Rogen, wearing a Grey suit and has stubble. (Grey being the color of mediocrity; the color that is the color of everydayness, showing up, etc.) And like a schlemiel, he “cuts himself shaving.” This motif comes back at the end of the piece when he thinks he will, finally, meet with Rogen.   But his worry is for naught.

One of the things that follows this introduction of sorts is a great sketch of how Rogen came across the everyman. To be sure, Lazar nails it when he points out that:

In 2009, in what they’ve described as their best work, Rogen and Goldberg wrote a Simpson’s episode about an overweight nerd (played by Homer) who becomes a superhero by channeling the powers of other comic book heroes. His name: “Everyman.”

In addition to this, Lazar points out that Rogen recently called himself a schlemiel, that is, a “self-medicated man-child” (he did so in his recent appearance before a U.S. Senate hearing on Alzheimer’s disease, which, to be sure, came right before his Las Vegas appearance!).

Following this, Lazar turns to himself, reflectively, and notes how he believed, against all the odds (Vegas style), that he would get to interview Rogen. But, as I noted above, this is thwarted several times. At one point, he notes how he drank too much and ended up missing Rogen; he was “too late.” While other journalists shout things out, he can’t say anything; he is tongue-tied. On another occasion, he ended up “locking eyes” with Rogen, but “before I could act” Rogen “snapped out of whatever mental state he was in…and walked off.” In other words, Rogen wasn’t really looking at him and, like a schlemiel, Lazar missed yet another possible encounter. He leaves in frustration; but, with the hope of a schlemiel, he is determined to try yet again.

And in a moment when he comes very close, he says that “I felt a surge of hope; here was my shot at redemption.” He blends in with a group of people and waits. But no one comes. It seems like yet another failure.

In one of his last attempts, he meets up with a “hippie” named “John.” The name and his description reminded me of an everyman like the dude. Near the end of the article, he notes how John, out of nowhere, tells him that “I just talked to him inside.” Wondering what he said and desperate for an encounter, Lazar screams out: “What!” When he asks John what they spoke about John, in a casual manner, says, “I dunno, we talked for a few minutes…He’s a great guy. Real normal-like.” Lazar, not satisfied with this simple reply, asks again “What did you talk about?” (After all, Lazar and I discussed so many questions that we were dying to get answers for, but, to no avail.)

The last lines of piece are written to me:

In my research, I’d spoken with a philosopher, Menachem Feuer, who’s written extensively about Rogen and who teaches a Jewish Studies course at York University in Toronto.* His students, a geographically and ethnically diverse mix, “know Rogen and identify with him.” What is that I asked. “It might have to do with him being an ordinary guy, the guy that just shows up,” he said. “He’s just like us.”

What I love about these last lines is that they hit on the central irony of his piece. If Rogen is so much like us, if he’s such an everyman, why can’t I speak with him? To be sure, the juxtapositions that Lazar runs through in his piece show us that he is and is not like us. He is made into a God of sorts, and, as I noted above, TIME calls him the “Stoner King of Comedy.” Lazar found out the hard way.

And so did I. Like Lazar, I imagined that there would be an interview and that all of my questions would be answered. And, in many ways, I felt as if, through Lazar, I would be meeting a god of sorts. I felt as if I too would be redeemed.   This is, without a doubt, the conceit of a schlemiel.   And, like any schlemiel, we end up failing and with dreams that were…just dreams.

The irony is that Rogen also casts himself as a schlemiel. He’s “just like us.” He just shows up. But, in the end, the schlemiel, the traditional one at least, doesn’t just show up. Like Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd, he goes on a journey. He does things. And for this, I thank Louie Lazar. I feel as if he has shown me, in a kind of private joke, that he is an old schlemiel while Rogen, the everyman, is a new one.

In many ways, I prefer the old schlemiel to the new one. But now that Rogen’s film has become yet another blockbuster and now that he is the new “stoner king of comedy,” I may have to accept the fact that the new schlemiel is now the God of comedic gods.   And what we are left with today – it seems – is “beer and loafing.”

——————

*I teach several courses at York University, actually.

 

Body Talk: On Seth Rogen’s Comical-Erotic Descriptions of Zac Efron’s Body

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When Seth Rogen recently went on Conan to promote his latest film, Neighbors, Conan’s first comment went right to the relationship of Seth Rogen to Zac Efron’s body: “Your costar Zac Efron, in this film, I…I didn’t know this but apparently…he’s in ridiculous shape.”

In response, Rogen says, shaking his head up and down, as if obsessed with Efron’s body: “Yes..It’s Insane. It’s freakish! The first time I saw him without his shirt on I thought there was something wrong with him…honestly…because he has so many bump sticking out of his body.”

Rogen then compares the “bumps” all over Efron’s body to his own body, which, “like is just one big bump.”   To be sure, Rogen is telling us that his body, in relation to Efron’s body, is the punch line.  

In the next joke about Efron’s body (in relation to his own), Rogen recalls a description he makes in the movie: “It’s like his whole body is an arrow…that points to his dick.” Rogen goes on to talk about how Efron is “without shirt in many scenes.”

(As I pointed out in my last blog entry, this is a key figure for Rogen in the movie. When, at the end of the film, Rogen (Mac) takes off his shirt and joins Efron (Teddy), they become “bros” again after, for much of the movie, being turned against each other. Their topless bodies, radically different from each other, in public are the basis for their renewed friendship. In the end, even though Rogen is a husband and father, he is now a bro.)

Playing on the topless-Efron-figure, Rogen discusses how the Efron would work out between one shot and another. This, for Rogen, is “psychotic.” Rogen points out if he were to work out between sets he would be knocked out for the day.

Rogen tops if all off by saying that every time he looks at Efron’s body he just wants to touch it (as he gestures outward toward the audience). But he adds that he sees his body in a psychotic manner, “as if it were a mirage.” But, in a moment of liberation, he passes from illusion to reality (“coming out of the closet,” so to speak) when he declares, in defiance of public standards, that Efron “is the sexiest mother fucker alive!” Since this is a comic-erotic revelation, which the crowd laughs loudly at, Rogen pulls back and laughs to himself.   In comic shame, Rogen comes back and says, with a shrug, “I’m sorry…he brings it out in me.”   This sets him up for the final joke of the evening on Conan.

Rogen goes for it when he claims that Efron’s body doesn’t just “bring it (the craziest-most-erotic-things) out” of himself; it brings “it” out in everyone. Rogen calls “it” a “sound” that comes out of women’s bodies (without their volition) when they see Efron. Then he moves on to describe how men’s bodies, when they see Efron on screen, also makes this “sound.” The punch line is that this sound, because it is automatic, must come from one’s penis. In other words, the sound people make when they see Efron is a kind of “mouth orgasm.”

What Rogen does here is speak what I call “body talk.” By making his body the foil of Efron’s body he engages in body talk.

While people – Rogen included – metaphorically ejaculate when they see Efron, they do chuckle when they see Rogen. The conceit is that, even though at the end of the film Rogen and Efron become bros-with-their-tops-off, this clip shows us that it is Efron that is the real basis of Rogen’s passion. Even though Rogen is caricaturing his sexual reactions to Efron’s body, the point of the routine is to leave the audience member with a sense that this may really not be a joke. There is, so to speak, a comic suspense of disbelief.

Rogen, it seems, gets very excited when he describes Efron’s body. Efron’s body is “insane,” “psychotic,” and a “mirage” that Rogen wants to touch. Efron is the “sexiest motherfucker in the world.” All of these expletives give the effect of a person who is erotically-and-yet-comically aroused by Efron. And in his comical passion, Rogen insists that men and women in the audience who see Efron on screen (or live) are just as obsessed as he is.   Although we don’t make this “noise” over Efron’s body, Rogen’s insistence that we do is the insistence of a sexual schlemiel. It works like a charm because Rogen’s body – and not Efron’s body – is the punch line. That bodily and erotic difference makes Rogen’s….“body talk.”

But in a different setting, namely an interview with Movie Maniacs, the interviewer asks Rogen and Efron about their “bro moments” in the film and if, in real life, they have these moments.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPK6kWi6eqE]

In response to whether they have anything as “intimate” as the film suggests, Rogen speaks first and says “I don’t think we’ve had anything that intimate.” Efron says they “haven’t hooked up lately.”  And Rogen adds “not since the movie.”  But, in truth, they have no such interest.

Efron compliments Rogen and says (2:24) that he “really defines comedy for our generation in an honest and cool way…and in a way I’d like to do it someday and I’m learning now…Seth is a mentor.”  In these moments, we see that Rogen, in real life, is Efron’s mentor.  And to say that he “really defines comedy for our generation in a cool and honest way” is to give Rogen the greatest honors.

This, it seems, is what is behind all the body talk.  In reality, all of this comical body talk and standing shirtless with Efron is about “defining comedy for the next generation in an honest way.”

But, ultimately, the irony of all this is that really Seth Rogen’s body is “defining comedy for the next generation in an honest way.”  It’s the “other” body (which is closer to “our” bodies), not Efron’s body, which is the punch line that can possibly be said to “define comedy etc.”

I want to underscore the word “possibly” because this is quite a claim to make.  It’s validity would have to be proven on the basis of Rogen’s body talk and its popularity.  Can it really define “comedy for the next generation in an honest way”?

Seth Rogen’s Body – A Few Thoughts on Seth Rogen’s Latest Appearance in “Neighbors”

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In one of the most urgent moments of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007), we see a desperate Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen, go to his father, played by Harold Ramis, for advice about whether to become a father and have children. Ramis tells Rogen to go for it and that he wants to have grandchildren. At this point, Stone is inspired to be a responsible father. He decides, at this very point, to go from being a schlemiel (man-child) to becoming an adult.   What interests me most about this moment is the fact that Seth Rogen is put face-to-face with Ramis and is given the ok to “bear children.” I cannot but read this as a symbolic moment when the maker of such films as Ghostbusters (1984), Meatballs (1979), Cadyshack (1980), and Animal House (1978), gives the power over to his son. It’s as if we are witnessing Moses giving everything over to Joshua, who will cross the Jordan. Moses will die, while Joshua will carry the tradition on.

We see that Rogen took this to heart in his latest role in the film Neighbors (2014).   But, to be sure, this role is something that was set up by a middle-man; namely, Judd Apatow.

With films like, Super Bad, Knocked up and This is Forty, Judd Apatow has made a decision to address, by way of comedy, the process of moving from being a man-child to an adult with children. In Superbad, a movie written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen but produced by Apatow, we see the life of two teens in their first sexual experience. There are still schlemiels, but, at the very least, they are successful.

But between Knocked Up and This is Forty (2012), there is a distinct difference: in Knocked Up (2007) Apatow casts Rogen as a schlemiel has decided to have a baby, while in This is Forty Apatow wanted to show us a couple in its forties which, for all intents and purposes, is also dealing with schlemiel-like issues.   In Neighbors(2014) we see that there is a gap between the films which Rogen addresses; that gap has to do with age and experience.

In Neighbors we have a young couple who take us to the next level after Knocked Up but to a level ten or so years before This is Forty.   The running narrative of all this, it seems, is to map out for the viewing public the life of a schlemiel from high school to having a baby, living with the baby (or babies), and attempting (as Marc Maron would say) “normal.”

This is an old/new theme. We see it in many Ramis films, too. But, in this film, we see Ramis and an Apatow type of film conjoined Animal House and This is Forty (and Knocked Up) . The question underlying the plot is: How would the two worlds interact? How will a schlemiel couple, who just had a baby, relate to the younger, single fraternity brothers?

The result of this test was, to my mind, nothing short of being (to pun on the movie by Apatow and Rogen) “super bad.”   But it was bad on too many levels. I didn’t laugh that much and neither did the theater; and when they did there were more like little chuckles. To be sure, something was missing in this film and, on the other hand, something was overdone. The plot, which involved the meeting of two worlds, seemed much too caricatured and the theme and its articulation seemed to miss the mark.

In search of this lack or excess, I found a nasty little review in Salon.com that made no form of apology in its putting the film down. It noted that the film made no mention of the economic crisis and hard times we are going through. What we saw, instead, was affluence that looked to cover up the truth. (In other words, a post-Marxist reading: Neighbors as False Consciousness.)

The final judgment of the reviewer says it all:

Under current economic conditions that are never visible in this movie, Mac and Kelly’s path of happy-family upward mobility is almost as much an illusion as Teddy’s life of all-night, drug-addled ragers. We can long for either, or dare to imagine a mystical, momentary fusion of the two. When the movie’s over, most of us are left with neither one.

While I find this reading to be interesting, I also find it to be a stretch. The “momentary fusion” of the two worlds is not what interests us. Rather, what struck me, while watching the film, was the most interesting thing for the audience; namely, the contrast between Zack Efron’s body and Seth Rogen’s body. To be sure, one of the greatest appeals of Seth Rogen’s character is his slightly overweight body (naked or not naked). We see this in his recent youtube parodies (done with James Franco) where Franco rides Rogen like Kanye West rides Kim Kardashian.

In many scenes Rogen’s body is juxtaposed with Efron’s body, his wife’s body, and the fraternity members’ bodies. What does this all mean? Toward the end of the film, Rogen’s character meets up with Efron’s character at an Abercrombe & Finch store. Efron has his shirt off; Rogen takes his off to and says “he’s always wanted to do this.” He jumps around while Efron laughs and is endeared. At this moment, Efron seems to forgive him and he validates this when he says that Rogen’s body makes “everyone feel comfortable.” Because of his body, people will feel comfortable shopping at Abercrombe and Finch.

To be sure, from the beginning of the film until the end of the film, we now know what makes it sell: Seth Rogen’s body, the schlemiel’s body, is the body that guides us. Not Zack Efron’s body and not the bodies at the Fraternity or elsewhere. I make this reading in all seriousness because, to be sure, Rogen doesn’t act in this film so much as throw his body around into different yet (often) charming configurations.

This should be taken together with the fact that Mac-slash-Rogen’s wife, Kelly, played by Rose Byrne, can hang out with him and eat pizza, stoned, in bed after beating the fraternity. In the end, the battle is a bodily one. Rogen, like Jack Black or John Candy, has an interesting bodily presence; however, in contrast to these actors, he doesn’t have to work as hard in making comic gestures. He just has to be himself.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdDJ1_ZUyLs]

The plot is that the schlemiel-couple-with-one-baby win over the fraternity. In Animal House it was John Belushi with the weight; now it’s Rogen. And Rogen, as Mac Radner, has a wife and child. He’s responsible. Things have changed.

There is no question that Rogen has taken on the baton from Ramis and that Apatow has set this up for him. The question is whether this re-casting of Ramis’s work, within a context that Apatow has created, is meaningful. Who are our heroes and role models today? Is Rogen’s naked body, bouncing up and down in front of Abercrombe and Finch a sign of what is to come? For such a popular film, can we say that this is “our” comical form of hope? Are Ramis’s grandchildren…ours or somebody else’s? After all, some babies don’t survive. But with a face and body like Seth Rogen’s – reminding us that we can all just relax, get high, and eat whatever we want, whenever we want, while raising children (!) – how can we say no? After all, it seems as if this film is telling us that, ultimately, Rogen’s bodily antics make the differences between our bodies and masculinities less apparent and meaningful. His bodily presence makes us feel at home with the family, etc.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjwRWzDBqFY]

And yet isn’t it the comedians who make us feel least at home that are the most meaningful? But…Neighbors seems to be telling us that, in the end, what we want is to have a new norm, a bodily, comic norm that, to be sure, is more in accord with who we are; namely, comfortable with hanging out with the bros, getting high, eating, and having a good time at a party.

(For something else, something different from this, check out the work of up-and-coming comedians like David Heti.  His work ends on an entirely different note.)

John Steinbeck, Marc Maron & Walter Benjamin on Driving, Distraction, and Reflection

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Over the years, I have driven thousands of miles across the United States. And I have always looked at these journeys – with all of those hours behind the wheel – as opportunities for me to think and reflect on all kinds of things. To be sure, some of my best thoughts have come to me while driving. I would (and have) often make it an imperative to have my tape recorder or mp3 recorder on while I drive because I don’t want to miss the thought while it happens.   I was pleasantly surprised to find – most recently – that John Steinbeck has a beautifully written passage in Travels With Charley where he writes on the topic of driving, distraction, and thought.   And between John Steinbeck and the Jewish-American comedian Marc Maron (whose autobiography, Attempting Normal, I have also been reading), I find interesting similarities and contrasts between the types of thinking one does when one is driving a car and distracted.   The differences, especially, show us how the worlds they inhabit differ in content and character. The differences between them, however, come together in the fact that the association of driving with distraction and thinking is essential.

I have written on distraction, thought, and comedy vis-à-vis Rodolph Gashe’s reflections on Immanuel Kant’s claim that “literature” is not thought but distraction and on Walter Benjamin’s words on distraction. I entitled these posts “The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading and Distraction.”   I’d like to briefly recount Benjamin’s philosophical account of distraction in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It gives us a means of addressing the autobiographical-fictional-accounts of Steinbeck and Maron on driving, distraction, and thought.

At the very end of his essay, Benjamin shares his greatest thought on the new way we have of relating to the world in the “age of mechanical reproduction.” His reading of distraction is largely positive; he associates it with “habit” and a new means of dealing with “perceptual shock”:

For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning point of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation. (240, Illuminations)

And what better form of “tactile appropriation” is there, for Americans today, than driving a car? Benjamin notes that the “distracted person (who we are, for arguments sake, calling the-person-who-drives-a-car) can form habits.”   These habits – the habits of a kind of thinking on the go – provides a “solution” to the problem of modern perception. And he goes so far as to liken this kind of distraction to the modern artists distraction while painting:

More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art provides a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. (240)

Benjamin goes on to argue that this kind of distraction can “mobilize the masses” and suggests that the best medium for this isn’t driving so much as watching films:

Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise. (240)

The last lines of Benjamin’s essay point out that what the public does, when watching a film, is not a form of contemplation. Rather, it is a form of “absent minded” examination:

The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. (241)

Taking Benjamin’s point to heart, I’d like to apply what he says to driving rather than movie going.   Steinbeck’s account of distraction and the thought it evokes, while driving, is exceptional in this regard. He goes right to the core of what Benjamin calls “habit” and “absent minded” examination. Steinbeck even coins a phrase “machine-like unconscious” to describe this state. Because it is so important, I’ll quote it at length:

If one has driven a car over many years, as I have, nearly all reactions have become automatic. One does not think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious. This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking. (94)

Steinbeck now turns to the content of these thoughts:

What do people think about when they drive? On short trips perhaps of the arrival at a destination or memory of events at the place of departure. But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for day dreaming or even, God help us, for thought. (94)

As one can see, “day dreaming,” which Freud associates with the artist, is mentioned side-by-side with thought. They are both absent-minded activities. However, Steinbeck reels it in by pointing out that most of his distracted day drams and thoughts have a practical dimension. He “plans houses” he will never build; “gardens I will never plant” and a “method for pumping the soft silt and decayed shells from the bottom of my bay up to my point of land at Sag Harbor (where he lived), of leaching out the salt, thus making a rich and productive soil”(94). He also notes how he has “created turtle traps” and “detailed letters he has never sent.”

Reflecting on these practical thoughts/day drams, he notes that he doesn’t know whether or not he will do this in reality but, at the very least, it comes to him as a possibility.   He also notes how, as the radio was going, his “memory” of “times and places, complete with characters and stage sets” was “stimulated.” In other words, the distraction moved from memory to fiction.   It also leads to him “projecting future scenes” that will “never take place.”   Steinbeck points out, many times, he would “write short stories” in his mind while he drove. He would “chuckle” at his “own humor” and be “saddened or stimulated by structure or content”(94).

In his final reflections, Steinbeck points out how he can “only suspect” that the “loveless” driver will dream of women, the “lonely” driver will dream of people, and the “childless” driver will dream of children. He then goes on to ask himself whether the driver will imagine regrets and go over what should have been done or said. In relation to this, Steinbeck says that he sees this “potential” in his “own mind” but can only “suspect it in others,” but he “will never know, for no one tells”(95). To be sure, the greatest secret is to be found in this “potential.” To be sure, even though Steinbeck, as we can see, discusses many things he thinks about while driving, he doesn’t discuss these darker things. He leaves them out of his text.   This habit (“potential”) and its content are his secret, one that his readers will have to guess at.

That said, it’s fascinating to see a contemporary comedian like Marc Maron doing what Steinbeck doesn’t do: he addresses these kinds of thoughts in his text. What Maron thinks about when he drives is an open secret. Writing about what he used to think about when he was driving between comedy gigs, Maron notes how, in his distraction, he thought about how he had failed and what he could have done differently:

I drove everywhere to do gigs anywhere: Pancho Villa’s in Leominster, Franks in Franklin, Cranston Bowl in Cranston, Rhode Island, Captain Nicks in Ogunquit, Maine…Most of the time I drove home for hours half drunk, chain-smoking in my car and reliving my set. I always felt like I had survived something, that the simple fact that I made it through the show meant I was victorious. But the war wasn’t over yet: The next battle was in the car, the war with myself. I’m not funny enough, that joke didn’t work, why can’t I stop sweating, fuck those people, I need more jokes, where the fuck am I, shit I don’t have a map. I’ll never forget the electricity of postperformance elation and self-flagellation, flying through the New England countryside at night in my VW Golf. Not romantic. (13)

Maron’s thoughts show us what a schlemiel-comedian thinks about while he drives home.   He discloses what Steinbeck would like to hide away and perhaps that makes all the difference. And it provides us with something to think about. Driving – and the distraction that goes along with us – leads us to think and reflect on ourselves, about how things are, how they were, and how they could be. This kind of thinking becomes what Benjamin would call an “absent-minded” habit. But the question Maron and Steinbeck were preoccupied with was what one should report about what happens in the car while we are driving.   Today, in a culture that does a lot of it’s thinking in cars or in distracted transit, this content has a personal urgency that is of great interest to all of us because, after all, we all do it. It’s a modern habit that is not simply superficial; it informs who we are and gives us a moment to take account of the real and possible past, present, and future. It allows us to drift into things we regret and things we would like to do to make life better (even though most of these thoughts, as Steinbeck correctly notes, will never make it to reality).   To be sure, our absent-mindedness, while driving from one place to another, makes for the best reflection.