Tag: Adorno

Robin Williams and The Post-Holocaust Schlemiel in “Jacob the Liar”

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Both Roberto Benigni and Robin Williams are popular, internationally acclaimed comedic actors. Their work does a lot to open up the possibilities of comedy and expand its scope. Perhaps in an effort to test the limits of comedy, they took on one of the most difficult tasks imaginable for a comedic actor in the 20th century: addressing the Holocaust. After Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1997) and Jacob the Liar (1999), starring Robin Williams as Jacob, made their debuts, there was a major debate over whether or not, as Sander Gilman puts it, the “Shoah can be funny.” While Gilman finds these films to have “aesthetic” merits, the answer to his own question is an emphatic no.

Since both Benigni and Williams both played the innocent and naïve Jewish fool otherwise known as the schlemiel, another question comes up which Gilman does not address. Speaking to this issue and hitting on a deeper problem, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in an essay entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?” argues that “what is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter ‘nach Auschwitz’, after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as a building block of a post-Shoah universe”(Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, 2001, p287).

In other words, the question isn’t about whether Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni can accomplish the feat of using comedy, nach Auschwitz, to relate to the Holocaust so much as whether the schlemiel character that they draw on – which is one of the most important stock characters in the Jewish tradition – can or even should exist after the Holocaust.

This question is important to many scholars of the Holocaust and should be important to authors, poets, artists, and filmmakers who address the Holocaust in their work. The task of judging the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s projects – vis-a-vis literature, philosophy, and politics – ‘nach Auschwitz’ was launched by Theodor Adorno in essays and in sections of his books. Adorno is most well known for his claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. He was directing his words toward the poet Paul Celan. However, while some, like George Steiner, took Adorno literally (and making a categorical claim), others, like Lawrence Langer did not. And Langer is correct. Adorno was looking for a new kind of poetics “after Auschwitz.”

Here, the issue is comedy.

Adorno also has a little known essay about comedy and historical disaster entitled “Is Art Lighthearted?” In this essay, Adorno suggests that the lighthearted nature of comedy, after Auschwitz, must be challenged. As in his claim regarding poetry after Auschwitz, here Adorno finds an exception to the rule in Samuel Beckett’s kind of comedy:

In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectivity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)

Adorno’s approach to Beckett suggests that it is possible for comedy to exist after the Holocaust. But this is only because Beckett’s kind of comedy goes beyond the typical dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. And in doing so it creates a “laughter about the absurdity of laughter” and a “laughter about despair.” It is a “laugh that laughs at the laugh.”

Can we apply Adorno’s approach to Beckett’s humor to the schlemiel, which Robin Williams plays in Jacob the Liar? Can (or should) the schlemiel, like comedy in general, live on after the Holocaust? And, with that in mind, can we say that Williams’ portrayal of the Holocaust schlemiel was unethical, amoral, or ethical?

Prior to the Holocaust, the schlemiel was a “building block” for generations of Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement (in the 19th century), left for Europe, and landed in America. The schlemiel gave millions of Jews a way to understand themselves and survive the many defeats of history (which included pogroms). It’s humor gave them a sense of dignity when they were powerless.

In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that although the Jews suffered multiple defeats in history they could still turn to the schlemiel who won an “ironic victory.”

The traditional Western protagonist is heroic insofar as he attempts to change reality. The schlemiel becomes hero when real action is impossible and reaction remains the only way a man can define himself. As long as he moves among choices, the schlemiel is derided for his failures to choose wisely. Once the environment is seen as unalterable – and evil – his stance must be accepted as a stand or the possibilities of “heroism” are lost to him altogether. (39)

The schlemiel comically responds to historical disaster. Through word play, plot, and humor in this or that story or novel by Yiddish writers such as Mendel Mocher Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, Jewish readers could, as David Roskies says, “laugh off the traumas of history.” Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi illustrates this in a book entitled Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination where she includes a dialogue between Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel (Motl, the Cantors Son) to illustrate. He is so innocent and naïve that he can’t grasp the nature of a pogrom and the concept of evil:

I ask him what is a pogrom? All the emigrants keep talking about “pogroms” but I don’t know what they are/ Kopl says, “Don’t you know what a pogrom is? Then you’re just a baby! A pogrom is something that you find everywhere nowadays. It starts out of nothing, and one it starts it lasts for three days.”
“Is it like a fair?” “A fair? Some fair! They break windows, they bust up furniture, rip pillows, feathers fly like snow…And they beat and kill and murder.” “Whom?” “What do you mean, whom? The Jews!” “What for?” “What a question! It’s a pogrom, isn’t it?” “And so it’s a pogrom. What’s that?” “Go away, you’re a fool. It’s like talking to a calf.”

Motl, like many Yiddish schlemiel characters, is innocent. And Ezrahi argues that the idea of preserving Jews from historical trauma was not just a modern practice; it was used in relation to the attempted genocide against the Jews in Purim which is remembered on Purim. As a part of the holiday, Jews celebrate the “aborted catastrophe” and turn “defeat into triumph.” The Jewish world is “turned topsy-turvy (nahofokh-hu) for one day each year and saints and villains become interchangeable.” (“Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” are exchanged in a day of celebration where the Rabbis suggest that the Jewish people should drink so much as to not know the difference between them.) Ezrahi suggests that this carnivalesque and comical act spares Jews of having to get caught up in the trauma of history; it distances them from the disaster.

But can this act be done after Auschwitz?

Like the Purim story, Ezrahi argues that the schlemiel was a modern, Yiddish version of the comedic rewriting of history. Jacob the Liar, however, falls after the Pogroms that Aleichem included in his novel from the early 20th century and after the Holocuast.

Writing on the film (and book), Ezrahi notes that it is a “self-declared counter-narrative” to the Holocaust. It effaces the historical dimension of the ghetto and the Holocaust:

The mise-en-scene has been identified by readers as the Lodz ghetto, where Jurek Becker (the author of the novel) himself was incarcerated as a child. But like the other ghettos and camps in the fictions under consideration, the ghetto is never named, and takes on a generic quality.

Ezrahi argues that this generic quality is the “baseline” for the novel. It looks to return everything back to normal and we see this in the central theme of Jacob and his lies which look to desperately turn the clock back:

The lie that Jakob fabricates, his possession of a radio that broadcasts good news to the ghetto, is simply an editorial projection of the normal onto the abnormal. The recipients of the lie are the inhabitants of the ghetto (or all its gullible inhabitants) but its primary target is a young girl, Lina, whom Jakob adopts when her parents are deported.  (Note that Ezrahi uses the original Jakob while the American film changes it to Jacob.)

Ezrahi focuses in on the fact that Jacob’s heroic efforts “are aimed at preserving the innocence of her childhood world at all costs.” To be sure, in saying this, Ezrahi is hitting on something we find not just with the Yiddish schlemiel but also with Charlie Chaplin. Williams, much like Charlie Chaplin, plays the schlemiel and uses comedy to preserve the innocence of different characters (including himself).

Ezrahi makes a daring move and suggests that the issue of using comedy (and denying history) goes deep: it hits at theological issues. In the wake of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres argues that laughter is “a priori…hostile to the world it depicts.” While tragedy “quiets us with awe…laughter revolts” against the world.

Ezrahi suggests that the basis of this revolt – with respect to the schlemiel – is not simply a rejection of history because it can’t live in it. Rather, it evinces a messianic kind of hope that is implicit in the Jewish tradition: the hope for a better world and return to a world and a history without evil. This wish is at the core of Jewish eschatology and a utopian dream wish for a better world which smashes history.

What’s most interesting is that the audience “colludes” with the schlemiel. And this suggests that we have been very influenced by this belief in a better world so much so that we are willing to go along with this or that lie to save “innocence.”  And, in the wake of disaster, the schlemiel is the vehicle for such collusion.  Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he – like other authors of the schlemiel and actors who played the schlemiel – wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part II

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I ended the last blog entry by drawing a limit or threshold between Kafka’s conversation and Nietzsche’s singing.   To be sure, Kafka, at the end of his piece, wonders why his group of nobodies isn’t singing.  Their conversation in the mountains is “free” like the winds but it doesn’t break into song, while Nietzsche’s speech fuses with the “wind” and becomes song.  It is joyous song and approximates Zarathustra’s laughter in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – a laughter that laughs at – and elevates itself beyond – all suffering and tragedy “real or imagined.”

Kafka, however, sticks close to conversation and can’t take the leap because, as I suggested, Kafka’s comedy, the comedy of the schlemiel evinces a sad kind of laugther.  And, unlike Nietzsche, whose lover and companion is the wind, Kafka envisions several “nobodies” (several schlemiels) as companions.

The interesting thing about Kafka’s excursion in the mountains is that the speaker “envisions” his meeting with these schlemiels.  He doesn’t actually have such a meeting.  Taking on, so to speak, the schlemiel tradition from Kafka, Paul Celan – who translated Kafka’s “Excursion into the Mountains” into Romanian – has this conversation in his prose piece “Conversation in the Mountains.”

John Felstiner, in his book Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, suggests that Paul Celan may have been inspired by Kafka’s piece.  But he also suggests a few other “influences.”  I’d like to follow up all of his suggestions because, of them, Felstener follows only one thread which deals solely with the type of language used in this conversation.   And it is this reading which is in need of critique.

For Felstener, the way the Jews speak in Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” is thought of as evincing a kind of falleness and shame which eschews the comic in the name of the tragic.   While it is important to mention the possibility that Celan thought of a certain way of speaking as “fallen” and shameful, the fact of that matter is that this displaces the comic aspect of the conversation and misses the schlemiel that is at the core of it.

Before I address this reading, I’d like to lay out the influences brought together by Felstiner.  They are suggestive and can help us to understand his reading.

To begin with, Celan dedicated the text to a missed encounter with the thinker Theodor Adorno.  After reading Adorno’s Notes on Literature, Celan wanted to meet him.  But, as Felstener notes, Celan thought he was addressing Adorno as a Jew in the story (by the name of “Gross” – big – while Celan played the other Jew, “Klein” – small.  Upon hearing this, Adorno noted he was not Jewish; he had changed his name from his father’s Jewish name to his mother’s name.  And he was raised as a Catholic, not as a Jew.  Instead, Adorno suggested the Jew Celan was looking for was Gershom Scholem.   The point made by Felstener, which is his basic theme, is that Celan, when he originally wrote the piece, believed that since Adonro was a Jew, he would understand the character’s way of talking; namely, the Yiddish dialect.  (We will return to this below.)

Another influence may have been the bastardization of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (overman) by the Nazis.  He correctly notes that Celan wrote “Conversation in the Mountains” in Sils Maria where Nietzsche wrote must of his work (including the poem I cited in the last blog entry).  As evidence, he points out that Celan inscribed a copy of his story: “In memory of Sils Maria and Friedrich Nietzsche, who – as you know – wanted to have anti-Semites shot”(140)  Although he points this out, he takes it no further.

But was Celan looking to redeem the overman, as Felstiner suggests?  Do we see an overman in “Conversation in the Mountains?”  To the contrary, following the contrast I put forth above and in the last blog entry, I would argue that there is nothing resembling the overman in not just Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” but in Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” as well.   In fact, while Celan may respect Nietzsche’s anti anti-Semitism, he didn’t respect his overman.  The schlemiels he features in “Conversation in the Mountains” are the anti-thesis of the overman.  They are humble, comic, and their talk is not that of song.  Without a doubt, their speech doesn’t transcend suffering and tragedy as the laugh of Zarathustra does.  As I noted above and as I will note with Celan, it is speech that they share, not song.  Speech is the limit.

Another influence comes from Georg Buchner (1813-37).  Namely, his novella entitled Lenz.  According to Felstiner, the line that grabs Celan is “On the 20th of January Lenz went walking through the mountains.”  He gathers this from Celan’s “Meridian” speech where Celan notes that Lenz and his own “’little story’ with its ‘roundabout paths form thou to thou…paths on which language gets a voice, these are encounters.’”(140).

Building on the “thou” that he cites above, Felstiner brings in Martin Buber as another possible influence: “Above all, “Gesprach im Gebrig” owes to Martin Buber, whose philosophical writings and retellings of Hasidic tales Celan was reading during the late 1950s.”  Buber actually wrote a piece with a similar title: “Buber’s “Gesprach in den Bergen” (“Conversation in the Mountains,” 1913) expounds the I-thou encounter that concerned Celan”(140).

Felstiner goes on to say that the  “principles that underpin” Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” can be found in two lines he wrote on Buber’s I-Thou relation:

On his birthday in 1959, Celan bought a book about Buber and underscored his speech philosophy: “Creatures stand within the secret of Creation, of Speech…We can say thou, because thou is said to us.” And this: “Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou”(140).

The final influence Felstener names is the poet Osip Mandelshtam.  He notes that in Mandelshtam’s essay “On the Interlocutor,” Celan found the notion that poetry is the “search for an other and oneself”(141).  Citing, once again, the “Meridian” speech Felstener argues that Celan took Mandelshtam seriously since Celan says that, through language, he was “on the way” to himself.

The point of all of Felstiner’s notes on what may or may not have influenced Celan’s can be found in this last influence; namely, that Celan was looking to go through language “on the way” to himself.  And this is the point.  The language Celan wanted to go through, according to Felstiner, is Mausheln (the German Yiddish dialect that was thought, by cultured Germans and German Jews, to be shameful and, as the German word suggests, Mouselike).

In other words, by speaking in this manner, Celan was looking to leave it behind for real lanaguage.  To be sure, Felstiner likens the talk of the two main characters in “Conversation in the Mountains” to “babble” and says it is a “comedown’.  Citing Heidegger and Walter Benjamin’s words on pure language and inauthentic language (“everyday talk” as Heidegger says in Being and Time) Felstiner argues that Celan saw the two main characters as speaking inauthentically and in a “fallen” language (144-145):

The “babbling” of Celan’s Jews is a comedown – via the cataclysm that ruined Benjamin – from God Given speech.  This talk of theirs, its halting double back, dividing and divided against itself, like the self it speaks…Sometimes in the dialogue you catch the shrug behind it, elusive yet vital.  Celan said the “Gesprach” was “actually a Mauscheln” between him and Adorno – that is, a sort of jabber that Germans overhear between Jews, Mauscheln being an old slur coined from Moishe, Moses.

This elusive “shrug,” I would suggest, is the shrug of the schlemiel. For Felstiner, it has a negative valance.  To be sure, in the footnote to this passage Felstiner cites the work of Sander Gilman; namely, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews.  In this book, as in his book on Franz Kafka (Franz Kafka, The Jewish Patient), Gilman points out how Jews were ashamed of themselves and internalized hatred because of what the Germans regarded as their “secret language” (Yiddish).  The Yiddish dialect was, for many German Jews, a source of shame.  Taking this reading to heart, Felstiner argues that Celan was no different from many assimilated Jews who looked to eliminate all traces of Mausheln from their speech.  Therefore, for Felstiner, “Conversation in the Mountains,” is an attempt to move through Mausheln – a fallen language – to a pure language.

By making this reading, Felstiner gives Celan’s comic dialogue between two schlemiels a negative valence.  What I would like to suggest is that we read the comic dialogue in a less negative manner.  In fact, Celan, like Kafka, deeply identifies with this conversation not in the sense that he wants to leave it behind but in the sense that it is a way of relating to alterity.  Without this language, without this comic relationship between schlemiels, Jews would not know the limit (threshold) between conversation and song.

Why, after all, would Yiddish writers continually return to the schlemiel and his comic way of conversing? Did they do this because they despised Mausheln? What I would like to suggest is that, in a piece like “Conversation in the Mountains,” Celan didn’t despise his Yiddish roots as much as Felstiner would have us believe.

Fesltiner is correct to note that German was the preferred language in Romania.  And that it was Celan’s “mother tongue.”   However, Felstiner also notes that Celan knew Yiddish, Yiddish folklore, and humor as a child.  And notes that at one time he even defended Yiddish to classmates when they made fun of it saying that the classics were translated into Yiddish.  But, ultimately, Felstiner goes with the historical and cultural reading of the relationship of the German Jew to the Ostjude (Eastern European Jew) as informing the dialect play in Conversation.

Contrary to this, I’d suggest, as Julian Semilan and Sanda Agalidi do in the introduction to their translation to Paul Celan’s Romanian Poems that Celan looked to alter German with a “minor” language (for them his translation work in Romanian).  This, they claim, had some influence on his nuanced treatment of German.  And, most importantly, we should note that Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” was written after his stay in Romania following the Holocaust.

We can see from “Conversation in the Mountains,” that he respected and understood the foolish and wise ways of Yiddish folklore and that he used them to introduce a Jewish element into the German.  This comic play had a positive valance and puts an emphasis on Jewish particularity.  He had a sense of Yiddish ways of speaking and in “Conversation in the Mountains,” he spoke through them.  But he spoke not in order to transcend these ways but to, on the contrary, retain the limit between speech and song.  This limit is something that the schlemiel’s ways of speaking and gesturing marked.  The fact that speak and don’t sing, as in Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains,” marks this Jewish particularity which is acutely aware of suffering, history, and difference.

It is this kind of speech that lives on for Celan after the Holocaust.  It survives on the way to himself and the other.  It is not totally destroyed.  His way to himself and to the other, at least in “Conversation in the Mountains,” is by way of these two schlemiels: Klein and Gross.   In other words, the schlemiel and his ways of conversation are not things Celan wants to leave behind.  The schlemiel remains…speaking…of this…and of that….with a shrug that is, as Felstiner correctly notes “elusive and vital.”  But unlike Felstiner, I’d like to say that this “elusive and vital” shrug, this gesture, has a positive valence and works as much to preserve something Jewish while, at the same time, altering the German language.

(In the next blog entry, I will be making a close reading of Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” so as to show how it is a conversation of schlemiels – a conversation that carries on what Kafka had originally initiated in his “Excursion in the Mountains.”)