Tag: America

From the Face-to-Face to the Interface: A Moment in Jean Baudrillard’s “America”

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In our socially networked world, we are over saturated with information and images. We are bombarded and, in the midst of this, we seem to cobble together something of our own virtual bubble with icon-slash-friends who we share images, information, and identifications on a daily basis.   But, before this all become normal; it was called hyperreal. To be sure, Jean Baudrillard is most well known for his notion of the “hyperreal” which was popularized by his book, Simulations. In that book, published in 1983, he writes:

Abstraction today is no longer that of a map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – PRECESSION OF SIMULCURA – it is the map that engenders the territory….The desert of the real itself. (2)

As a part of his explanation of what this means, in “reality,” Baudrillard describes Disneyland, the American hallmark, as the prime example of the hyperreal. It is an “infantilized” world:

Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: Pirates, the Frontier, Future World, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious reveling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. (24)

Five years later, Baudrillard returns to his meditation on American as the center of the simulated world. He writes a book called America. In this book, Baudrillard goes deeper into the “desert of the real” than ever so as to provide his readers with a kind of journalistic account of his dissolution into a sea of relations. Everything, it seems, is caught up in virtual relations that are repeated in different series. Relations are altered and recycled.  Our lives are animated by them:

Sex, beach, and mountains. Sex and beach, beach and mountains. Mountains and sex. A few concepts. Sex and concepts. “Just a life.” Everything is destined to reappear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, women as the sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. Things seem to exist by virtue of this strange destiny.   You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world. (32)

Baudrillard dives into the experience of relation to argue that all relation, today, is nothing more than what he calls an “interface” or “interaction” which has “replaced face-to-face contact and action”:

This is a culture which sets up specialized institutes so that people’s bodies can come together and touch, and, at the same time, invents pans in which the water does not touch the bottom of the pan, which is made of a substance so homogenous, dry, and artificial that not a single drop sticks to it, just like those bodies intertwined in ‘feeling’ and therapeutic love, which do not touch – not even a moment. This is called interface or interaction. It has replaced face-to-face contact and action. (32)

Touching the other, in his view, is “interfacing with the other.” There is a kind of “communication” in which there isn’t any real “communication.” He calls this a “code of separation.” By way of this code, all everything has become information that “wormed its way into everything, like a phobic maniacal leitmotiv.”

One wonders how this anticipates facebook and twitter: mediums that “interface” different people who exchange information but never really touch.   And it does seem as if there is a code of separation which rules over all of our relations. Baudrillard laments this and mourns the death of the “face-to-face” contact and action.

The problem with this, of course, is that it suggests that all bodily relations are “interfaced.” This suggests that Levinas is wrong and that we cannot be “persecuted” or “traumatized” by the other. In this hyperreal world, we can interface with the other and keep our distance; we need not be obligated by them. The only thing that affects us is the information that passes through us and keeps us and all things separate.

The only reason we are concerned about our bodies is because “everyone is made to concentrate” on the body, “not as a source of pleasure,” but “as an object of frantic concern, in the obsessive fear of failure or substandard performance, a sing and an anticipation of death, that death which not one can any longer give a meaning, but which everyone knows has at all times to be prevented”(35).

Our main concern, therefore, is to preserve our bodies from death and to make them properly interface with other bodies. We are “into” things because we are a part of this or that circuit within which we function.   We are constantly maintaining a circuit. Do we fit in or are we “the odd one’s out?”

The comedy, it seems, for Baudrillard is not to be found save for the fact that we are caught up in too many surfaces and interfaces. We live for the ecstasy of the network. But we fear, too often, that we have missed our cue. As Paul Celan says in one poem, we are adrift in a sea of relations.   And these relations often blur into each other making our relations more confusing.

For Baudrillard this can only go in one direction: toward a kind of Apocolypse of all history and all meaning. This is the fatalist reading. And it all starts in Disneyland where we all become infantile and, for Baudrillard, where we lose all sense of an adulthood that once was. In his world, the Levinasian face-to-face is a thing of the past. In the hyperreal, we all become children who know only interfaces and not faces.

The Restless Ones and Uneasy Permanence: Steinbeck on America, Mobile Homes, and Rootlessness

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On his travels with his dog Charley across America, John Steinbeck has a few moments in his journey when he is truly astonished by things he discovers for the first time. The wonder he has, which he records in Travels With Charley, prompts him to ask questions and look deeper into what he has found. More importantly, the questions he asks help him to reflect on what American is or has become. Like a Socrates of the road, Steinbeck learns about himself and his country by way of speaking to different people and “speculating.”   One of the things he discovers, which prompts him to reflection deeply on the nature of America and himself, is the mobile home.

Steinbeck discovers his first mobile homes when he is traveling on “roads out of manufacturing centers”(95). These mobile homes “comprise one of my generalities” about America. Steinbeck notes his first encounters with these mobile homes:

Early in my travels I had become aware of these new things under the sun, of their great numbers, and since they occur in increasing numbers all over the nation, observation of them and perhaps some speculation is in order. (95)

Steinbeck is prompted by the sheer mass of spaces to speculate further. He sees in the mobile home park a kind of paradox of rootlessness and their “uneasy permanence.” To understand it better, he “talks to the managers and the dwellers in this new kind of housing”(95).

But before he does, he discusses the meaning of “uneasy permanence.” He points out that “the fact that the homes can be moved does not mean that they move”(96).   He is astonished at this new way of life:

Sometimes their owners stay for years in one place, plant gardens, build little walls on cinder blocks, put out awnings and garden furniture. It is a whole way of life that is new to me. (96)

He tries to find words for what he calls a mobile home “revolution”:

It seemed to me a revolution in living and on rapid increase. Why did a family choose to live in a home? Well, it was comfortable, compact, easy to clean, easy to heat”(97).

Steinbeck zeroes in on the new feature of these homes: privacy. It solves problems to leave the spaces one grew up in for any place in America:

Each family has a privacy it never had before. The old folks are not irritated by crying babies. The mother-in-law problem is abated because the new daughter has a privacy she never had and a place of her own in which to build the structure of the family. When they move away, and nearly all Americans move away, or want to, they do not leave unused and therefore useless rooms. Relations between the generations are greatly improved. (99)

But in one of his recorded conversations with mobile home owners, Steinbeck notes that the biggest challenge to these good things is…rootlessness. He is astonished at their indifference to rootlessness and pushes them to discuss it. While drinking with them, he drops the question about this topic:

Sipping a highball after dinner, hearing the rushing water in the electric dishwasher in the kitchen, I brought up a question that had puzzled me. There were good, thoughtful, intelligent people. I said, “One of our most treasured feelings concerns roots, growing up rooted in some soil or some community.” How did they feel about raising their children without roots? Was it good or bad? Would they miss it or not? (100)

The response to this question, by a husband and wife, shows Steinbeck that they don’t mind being rootless. The husband, whose father was an immigrant from Italy, notes that his father “cut his roots away and came to America” and migrated from place to place and job to job. His wife is also the daughter of immigrant parents; Irish immigrants.

Steinbeck asks her if she misses “some kind of permanence?” Her response is telling since it tells the story of America, a country that is always on the move:

“Who’s got permanence? Factory closes down, you move on. Good times and things opening up, you move where it’s better. You got roots you sit and starve. You take the pioneers in the history books. They were movers. Take up land, sell it, move on…How many kids in America stay in the place where they were born, if they can get out?”(101)

After leaving them, he reflects on what they told him and he learns about himself and a lesson or two about America:

Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the resltless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency? And the fact is we have. But that’s the short view. What are roots and how long do we have them? (103)

Steinbeck concludes his musing with two speculations that begin with “maybe” and “perhaps.” These speculations suggest that the Americans tap into a primal need to be “elsewhere”:

Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else. (104)

He tells us that “Charley,” his dog, has no answer. And this suggests that Steinbeck has to live on with the mystery of American rootlessness and the desire to move and be “elsewhere.” It is a part of himself and he sees this need in his conversations with mobile home owners.

One wonders what he would make of terms like “trailer trash” and a comedic show like Trailer Park Boys.   Would Steinbeck see something less profound and amusing? Would he find an “uneasy permanence” dwelling in this show or something else?  Are they living out their desire to live elsewhere?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDT5lARUSU4

 

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 Other (American) Side of Failure: A Few Words on Delmore Schwartz

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Delmore Schwartz’s fiction and poetry – which has its fair share of schlemiels and schlemiel moments – has been of great interest to Schlemiel Theory.  His schlemiels offer a nuanced reading of this character which differs in many ways from its European cousins.  Indeed, what I find in Schwartz’s schlemiel is an American variety of this character which, unlike many of its counterparts, has a more explicit struggle with failure and success.

Schlemiel Theory was recently cited by Zachary Braiterman’s Jewish Philosophy Place in a blogpost on Delmore Schwartz.  It is entitled “Delmore Schwartz (Monstrous Children & Dreary Children).”   Braiterman notes that I, “better than most,” understand that Schwartz’s characters “are schlemiel figures.  Oddballs and failures, they don’t belong to the world.”   Braiterman adds, however, that what “so many of Schwartz’s admirers trend to neglect is his characters are mean, and if they are not mean to themselves, then they are hapless, surrounded by bitter people who are mean to each other.”

What I find so compelling about Braiterman’s claim is the fact that he brings a much neglected element to schlemiel theory: anger.   To be sure, the schlemiels we see in classical Yiddish or Jewish American literature such as Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin III, I.L. Peretz’s Bontshe Shvayg, Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, or I.B. Singer’s Gimpel don’t seem to have any aspect of meanness.  They are all kind, yet worldless characters.  Do we see something fundamentally different with Schwartz’s characters?  After all, they are, as Braiterman argues, “mean.”

Braiterman argues that the reason why they are so mean has to do with the fact that there is a gap between their “ambitious self-regard” and their “actual mediocre talents” :

Schwartz’s characters are not just mean because of the depression and “not just because of the native Protestant anti-Semitism, but because these people, the characters who fill Schwartz’s short stories, really are impossible people, human beings whose ambitious self-regard streaks light years beyond their actual mediocre talents.

They are “impossible people” because their hopes don’t match with reality.  To be sure, the bifurcation between reality and the dreams of this or that character is a major part of what makes a schlemiel a schlemiel (say Aleichem’s Motl or Sofer’s Benjamin III).  They are luftmensches (they “live on air”).  But they are not mean.

Schwartz’s characters are.

I think something else is at work and that is the American experience.  Failure in America, for educated people like Schwartz and later Bernard Malamud, is much different from failure in Eastern Europe.  And this is something that Schwartz and Malamud understand better than a writer like I.B. Singer (who Irving Howe and the Partisan Review also published).   To be sure, the meanness that leaks through Schwartz’s schlemiels has to do with failure, American style.

What makes Schwartz (of Malamud) such great writers is the fact that they are able to translate the experience of high American hopes and great American failures into various schlemiel characters.  And, yes, there is something mean about this because, in the end, failure in America is mean.  Schwartz, to be sure, had a hard time balancing out hope and skepticism in the face of his failures.  He couldn’t do what Aleichem did. But is that a fault?

The worldlessness of his characters, his schlemiels, brings out a different use of the character.  It brings out the darker side of the schlemiel, the side that Yiddish writers didn’t want to see.  This may have to do with the fact that they saw it too much.  Schwartz’s America is different.  It isn’t the Pale of Settelment. And unlike his brothers in Eastern Europe, he had many more opportunities.  For this reason, his experience of failure was fundamentally different.

In mid to early 20th century America, a different schlemiel was called for.  Hence the schlemiels we see coming out of Bellow and Malamud all grapple with hope and failure.  However, Moses Herzog or Henry Levin don’t experience failure in the same intense way as Schwartz’s schlemiels.  Nonetheless, one will notice that failure is always haunting them in ways that are different from the missed encounters we see with failure in the novels or stories of the Yiddish writers.   While many schlemiels are blind to it, these characters (and their authors) are not.

Jewish American writers are not just on the “other side of the pond,” they are also on the “other side of failure.”  I thank Zachary Braiterman (and his Jewish Philosophy Place) for reminding me that Schwartz’s bitterness was, in many ways, a thread that finds its way through so many American schlemiels.

Hail Caesar the Popular-Mystic-Comic – A Few Thoughts on Sid Caesar

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On February 12, 2014, we lost one of the greatest comedians in the Jewish-American tradition: Sid Caesar.  On Twitter, his long time friend and colleague, Carl Reiner wrote:

“We’ve lost the greatest, monologist, pantomimic, sketch comedian TV has ever known! Word GENIUS is oft misused but not so here. HAIL CAESAR”

Although I am from an entirely different generation – my parents and grandparents grew up with and watched Sid Caesar on TV, I didn’t – I grew up hearing his name mentioned from time to time by my relatives and their friends.  I can understand, after watching so much footage and hearing so much praise of him, why Carl Reiner would say this.   But, still, my understanding is not the same.

For a person like myself, who hasn’t grown up with Caesar, I am in a different position.  And as a person who identifies with and situates himself within the history of Jewish-American comedy, I am very interested in what makes Caesar’s comedy “Jewish” or unique.  After all, Reiner says in his Tweet that Caesar was the “greatest monologist, pantomimic, sketch comedian TV has ever known.”   But as a schlemiel theorist what I want to know is whether or how any of what he performs relates to, adds on to, or revises the schlemiel tradition.

I obviously won’t be able to answer this question in one blog entry or even two.  It will take me time to really work through these questions.  However, what I can say is that what strikes me about his comedy sketches is the fact that in his parodies of this or that figure he deeply engages the audience.  And, in drawing them in, he, like a mystic, opens up a new space where one’s ways of thinking are, as it were, born for the first time.  The awkwardness this creates makes for something revelatory and it does so by way of exposing the audience to a person who wants desperately to relate to them.

One piece I am really interested in –because I am an academic – is a piece on “Professor Von Fossil,” the absent-minded archeologist from Austria.  He is introduced by none other than Carl Reiner.

Reiner is dressed up formally and takes on the serious tone of journalist who is looking to learn and share something with the audience.  Right off the bat, the professor – who looks like a hobo – breaks with the norm by way of his greeting: he shakes Reiner’s hand twice, looks him straight in the eye, and says, with what appears to be great sincerity, that he is so happy to actually meet someone.  In other words: he is truly grateful to make an appeal to the other.  This solicits some laughter in the audience when he coldly turns and says “that’s enough.” The reaction is odd because on the one hand he draws the audience in – by way of his friendly and happy demeanor – yet, on the other hand, he pushes them away.

When asked about the pyramids and their “architecture,” Caesar begins his answer in an academic way with the head down thinking and gestures.  But the answer doesn’t seem to be coming.  But then he breaks the rules by saying “look at the pyramids” – gesturing to the audience – repeatedly.  This breaks the ice.  The audience laughs because this is breaking with the role of professor.  He is playing with language, gesture, and social mores.  He is foregrounding language; and this is comical.

He then goes off on a tangent about animals building things, and goes way off topic and even changes accents and speaks more in a person-to-person manner about animals and their ways.  This also foregrounds the medium.

Following this, he talks about a hole that was found in Persia.  But this is “a hole within a hole within a hole.”  This, to my mind, alludes to the emptiness of his comic gestures which dig holes in this or that discourse, which, in a mystical-comical manner, he plunges his audience.  (As in a comic trance…)

This goes to the next level when he mimes out what a translator had communicated to him regarding the writing on the walls around the big hole.  Drawing his finger back and forth and using a dialect that seems middle eastern, Caesar takes us through an absurd translation (replete with a gaze, gestures, and odd tones). The effect is mystical and fresh as it goes beyond the limit: where after all will this go?  We don’t know when the translation-slash-movement will end.  It has an animated character that goes against all academic decorum.

But then he gets to translation into English, which is the punch line: “No handball playing against the wall.”

In other words, we were duped.  He is not talking about some ancient artifact; he seems to be talking about something contemporary.   This punch line evokes the greatest laughter.  The joke is on academia, really.  For after Reiner asks him a very academic question, Caesar mocks him on the side as if his academic question is…too academic.

This appeals to the audience which now sees the Professor as a jokester and a simpleton.  He’s not really a stuffy academic.  The last three jokes – especially his book with the matriarchs in Cincinatti – also show us that he is really not so academic as a hobo of sorts.

And the last line of the routine contrasts with the first: instead of embracing him he tells Reiner to “get out of here.”  But the audience knows he can’t be serious; after all, the professor doesn’t mean anything he says.

He is the everyman; the simpleton.  His anger really isn’t anger and his seriousness is really not serious.  That’s what makes him so funny.

And that’s what makes him a Caesar of sorts.  The schlemiel teaches not to take ourselves so seriously; but, while in Europe the schlemiel is a luftmensch, in a tele-visual America, in a country guided by entertainment, he can be a leader.  Herein lies the secret of popular, comic, mysticism….

Thank you, Sid, for sharing it…

A Note on the Poet, the Philosopher, and the Simpleton in William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson”

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I didn’t grow up in the generation of the Beat Poets, but I was always interested in them.   One of the poets who had a great influence on Beat Poets like Allan Ginsburg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti was William Carlos Williams.  One of the first books of poetry I read of his was “Paterson.”  I recently ran across the text and I was drawn in by the poetry of Book One Section II.  I found something very American, poetic, and comical in that section.  What I found so amazing is that Williams manages to keep each of these voices distinct.  The difference between a few styles of writing produces this comedic effect and this has much resonance with the schlemiel (who is a simpleton, a “tam”).

In the opening stanza, we hear a voice that is confused, a voice that is concerned with the “how” (not the “what”).  This voice is “more than a how,” says the poetic voice; it is a voice that Howls:

There is no direction. Whither? I

Cannot say. I cannot say

More than how.  The how (the howl) only

Is at my disposal (proposal): watching –

Colder than stone –

In a modernist sense, Williams is suggesting that we pay close attention to “how” he speaks and even more so to his “howl.”   This will help us to understand his poem.

The following stanza evokes an image of a “bud forever green.” But this bud has fallen on the pavement.  It is “divorced.”  From what?

Playing on this divorce, Williams evokes a public (and not a poetic) American voice which is mixed with a philosophical one:

Divorce is

The sign of knowledge in our time,

Divorce! Divorce!

These words direct our attention (by way of indirection) to the many ways things in this poem that are divorced from each other.   The next stanza evokes the “roar” of Paterson’s main waterfall.  It induces “sleep and silence…the roar of eternal sleep.”   The roar looks to “divorce” us from “wakefulness.”  It “challenges” us to stay awake.

Given the how we saw in the outset, we should ask a question: How – in the midst of this roaring – does one keep oneself awake?

The poem, at this point, presents “two halfgrown girls hallowing hallowed Easter.”  They are “weaving about themselves.”  But they are “disparate” among the roaring waters.  The theme of separation and divorce are once again pronounced.

“Beauty” comes to the rescue.  To be sure, Immanuel Kant and other philosophers associate beauty with harmony.  And in this scenario, perhaps beauty can bring the divorced elements together.  The poet, speaking from a poetic and a philosophical angle, provides a reflection on the girls mentioned above.  He says they are wrapped up in ribbons, bows, and twigs.  There is even reference to fur.  Their beauty, it seems,  harmonizes culture and nature.  But, in the midst of this poetic solution to a philosophical crisis, we hear an American voice interrupt the image:

Ain’t they beautiful!

The voice of the slang is divorced from the poetic voice, but, in its simplicity, it brings the poem to a different place:

Certainly I am not a robin or erudite,

No Erasmus nor bird that returns to the same

Ground year by year….

The ground has undergone a subtle transformation, its identity altered.

The poet, who also seems to be a philosopher, loses his identity, the “ground” he speaks from (which could be a philosophical or poetic ground) is altered; and, as a result, he becomes a simpleton and child-like.  But this transformation is not complete: the poet and philosopher return after this shift.  And they are both overwhelmed by all of the details of existence.  They stay “awake” out of some kind of existential terror.  But the simpleton does not seem to be affected.  Is he sleeping?  Has the roar of the waterfall put him to sleep?

This contrast – between the poet, the philosopher, and the simpleton – makes me think of the schlemiel.  The schlemiel travels around existence, explores it, yet without any philosophical quandaries about beauty, the divorce between the cultural and the natural, and so forth.  He is free of that, but the poet is not.  And this creates a kind of relationship – like the one between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote: the fool and the rationalist.

But, and this is the point, they (like the voices in this poem) stick together.  And Sancho Panza learns from Quixote.  Here, the poet and the philosopher learn from the ways of the simple American who is “not a robin or erudite” and he doesn’t return to the “same ground.” For the Simpleton, everything seems different (but in the way of wonder not angst, which sees everything as divorced).   And, unlike the philosopher or the poet, he doesn’t have a ground.  But, for the simpleton,  that’s nothing to panic over.  They panic, while he wanders, distracted, through the American landscape.

Not Quite Jewish….Almost American: From Portnoy to Admiral General Alladin

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Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a long discourse-slash-novel that begins and ends on the couch of a psychiatrist.  But the novel is not simply a discourse on the psyche of the schlemiel.  Rather, it gives us a sense of how his identity crisis tarries between sexual identity and national identity.    Is Portnoy a Jew or an American?  Neither?  Does he reject one identity while failing to embrace another?

In a moment of revelation, Portnoy dramatizes his failure to be an American.  Something is getting in the way.  And this something makes him angry:

And its true, is it not? – incredible, but apparently true – there are people in life who feel at ease, the self-assurance, the simple and essential affiliation with what is going on, that I used to feel as the center fielder for the Seabees?  Because it wasn’t, you see, that one was the best center fielder imaginable, only that one knew exactly, and done the smallest particular, how a center fielder should conduct himself.  And there are people like that walking the streets of the U.S. of A.?  I ask you, why can’t I be one!”(71).

Unlike Americans, Portnoy cannot “feel at ease” and have “self-assurance.”  Unlike Americans, he cannot “affiliate” himself with “what is going on.”  Here, we have the basis of a post-WWII schlemiel: He is ashamed of the fact that he is ill at ease, unsure of himself, and is unable to bravely “affiliate” himself with “what is going on” in America.  He has failed to be an self-possessed American male.

Immediately following this, Portnoy says that he is not simply a failure; he is a Jew:

But I am something more, or so they tell me.  A Jew.  No! No! An atheist, I cry.  I am a nothing where religion is concerned, and I will not pretend to be anything that I am not!…And I don’t care how close we came to sitting shiva for my mother either – actually, I wonder if the now if maybe the whole hysterectomy has not been dramatized into C-A and out of it again solely for the sake of scaring the S-H out of me!  Solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy. (71)

Being a Jew, for Portnoy, is not an essence; it is, rather, about being molded by one’s parents “to be” Jewish.  And Portnoy states emphatically that “I” will not “pretend to be anything that I am not!”  His Jewish guilt – or rather resentment – is based on his education and his birth.  To be sure, Portnoy is “told” that he is a Jew, which implies that he was told what to say and what to do.  He had no will of his own.  His whole education had a purpose.   Portnoy flatly states that it was dedicated “solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy.”

In other words, Judaism didn’t help Portnoy to become a man.  He has never been properly raised to live in the world and be independent and self-present.  In other words, he was never taught how to be autonomous.  As a result of his upbringing, as a Jew, he has become a “helpless little boy.”   He has become heternomous and dependent on his mother.   This tension, in fact, has deeper roots in the struggle between heteronomy and autonomy.  This struggle, for the post-WWII Jewish-American schlemiel is a struggle that Jews also had in Germany.  In Germany, the schlemiel was a shameful character.  As Sander Gilman argues in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Jews, in the Enlightenment period (the Jewish-German Haskalah) made plays that satirically target the schlemiel.  His traits – which included being effeminate, over emotional, confused, unable to speak properly (mangling German), and being heteronomous – were to be laughed off the stage.

Like the schlemiels in these German-Jewish comedies, Portnoy is almost a man.

Portnoy’s only way of asserting his manhood is through anger; namely, through being sarcastic about the bad hand he was dealt.  And this is a new tactic, since in German-Jewish theater, the schlemiel is laughed at since he or she is unaware of his or her ‘folly’.  Here, it is different.  Here, the schlemiel “knows” what the source of his problem is.  And what ensues is a kind of impotent rage which is new to the schlemiel.  It is not a trait one would find in Yiddish literature.

As a part of his comic ranting, Portnoy turns on his mother.  She is responsible for making him a “helpless little boy.”

BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO FUCKING MUCH TO BEAR!

Portnoy is in effect revolting against her and humiliating her as a way of “freeing himself” of his Jewish guilt.   He wants to be a man and reverse that education and go from being a child to a man on his own.  In other words, he wants to give birth to himself.  His path from heteronomy to autonomy is based on ridicule.  By destroying his mother, he believes he will be autonomous.  For Portnoy, this is synonymous with becoming an American.

But this is not enough.  He may successfully ridicule his mother and feel free.  However, in reality, he cannot be an American because he is not successful in the sex department.  His failure is measured by a skill.  To be sure, he believes that what he’s good at, and what helps him to give birth to himself as independent, is masturbation: both literal and literary masturbation.  His words ejaculate on the page.  Portnoy takes deep pride in this but he knows, ultimately, that this doesn’t make him an American of the sort we saw above.  Rather, it makes him an American-Schlemiel.

Half the length of the tunnel it takes me to unzip my zipper silently – and there it is again, up it pops again, as always swollen, bursting with demands, like some idiot macrocephallic making his parents’ life a misery with his simpleton’s insatiable needs.  “Jerk me off, “ I am told by the silk monster.  “Here? Now? Of course here and now. When would you expect an opportunity like this to present itself a second time?”(126)

He believes that he must masturbate.  He must be ‘bad’ if he going to PUT THE ID BACK INTO THE YID. But to be a Jewish-American man – living in the shadow of the Jewish State – he must pass the ultimate test: he must have sex with a Sabra.  This leads us to Portnoy’s Final complaint, his final failure.

Since he can’t be an American, what is the model for a self-confident, autonomous Jewish male who can “affiliate himself” with what is going on?  Portnoy realizes that this model would be a Sabra.   But he rejects this model thinking that if he can match her, sexually, that he will finally win.  But what happens is that when it comes to the moment of sex with Naomi, a Sabra, he fails miserably.  As I noted in a previous post on Roth, Portnoy comes to the realization that he can’t be a self-confident Jewish man, that is, an Israeli.  And this is his final complaint.

But this failure and the following verbal compensation for failure (by his calling her names) gives birth to the new Jewish-American Schlemiel.   Although he, like many past schlemiels, is not quite a man and not quite a child, he is, a man-child with a big mouth and a passion for masturbation.

He’s an American schlemiel: he is neither an American nor a Jew.  He’s somewhere inbetween.

But since Portnoy, things have changed. His method of transformation is comic and literal masturbation.  But, when Roth wrote this, it was not considered to be American.  In Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, however, masturbation is a rite of passage for Admiral General Alladin, the Dictator.  Through masturbation, he can become an American.  He can fit in with the others in the Brooklyn Co-op.

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From Portnoy to Alladin of Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, we have a comic-sexual lineage of Jewish-American stand-up – or sit-down comedy.   The measure of being an American Schlemiel, his power, for Portnoy was his masturbatory rant.  What Sasha Baron Cohen does is yet another parody of the masturbatory rant.  But in his rant masturbation is no longer “bad” – in fact, it becomes the rite of passage to America.  A rite that Cohen’s character – the Dictator – picks up in the back room of a Brooklyn Health Food Co-op.

Perhaps Sasha Baron Cohen is telling us, in an awry way, that in that space and at this time, the Schlemiel is literally a Modern American Hero.  In other words, Portnoy may no longer have to complain since being a man and autonomous may no longer be a concern for the postmodern American Jew.  It may no longer be a thing that Jews are ashamed of since more and more Americans – at least in big American cities like New York (where the Dictator takes place) – are leaning toward a kind of metrosexuality.

Regardless of what may be the case, we must not forget that at the end of a film like The Dictator, Alladin is almost an American.  And this “almost” is what, still, makes a Schlemiel a schlemiel.   But the game has changed.  The test for the Schlemiel, at least in the Dictator is not sexual, it is political.  The test is democracy not masculinity.  And it seems as if, in the end, by becoming an advocate of democracy, the schlemiel becomes an American or…almost American.

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Here, in America Everyday is Purim!

In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, Sidrah Dekoven Ezrahi begins a section entitled “America is for Children” with the following claim: “Purim is for children, so is America.”

This claim can be found in Ezrahi’s commentary on Sholom Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantors Son.  To be sure, her text is inspired by the following words of the main character (and schlemiel of the hour) – Motl:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.  He earns money every single day.  “Columbus, who can compare with you!

What does Aleichem mean when he has Motl, a schlemiel say that Purim in America is only one day in Europe but everyday in America?  And how does that relate to the next line: “he earns money every single day?”   What does making money have to do with Purim being everyday in America?  Lastly, what does it mean that Motl turns to an American holiday and says: “Columbus, who can compare with you!”

Ezrahi’s answers are worthy of discussion, especially here, in a blog dedicated to the schlemiel.  They broach a discussion on how the American and European schlemiel differ.  It also spurs a discussion of the difference between Israeli and American Jewishness. Ezrahi says, basically, that the American schlemiel leaves the European one behind – in the dust so to speak.  The American supercedes the European schlemiel.  In America, Purim is everyday.  It is the land of dreams.  In Israel if you will it, as Herzl says, its not a dream.

In this interpretative contrast between Israel and America, knowledge of the interpreter’s place makes s difference: Ezrahi is an American ex-patriot.  She has been living in Israel and teaching in Hebrew University for some time now.  Her latest work, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, pivots on the tension between Israel and America, Homecoming and Diaspora.  She writes, literally, from Israel. And this makes a difference insofar as America, to an Israeli like Ezrahi, looks like a foolish, amnesiac land.

Israel is intimately tied to the history of the Jewish people.  In Israel, Ezrahi says, memory and history is “recovered.”  While in America, reality, the present moment, experience itself is being “rediscovered.”   In America, there is endless forgetfulness.

While the land of Israel (ha’aretz) is the basis for Israeli literature, history, archeology, and politics is the land of Israel, the diasporic Jewish literature of America has no basis in history or a land.

For Ezahi, Israeli literature is consequential.  It is about a real land and real people.  Jewish-American literature is not.  Its based on the schlemiel and swims in virtual reality.

For American Jews, “the text (and not Israel) is, as George Steiner once wrote, “the homeland.”  It is, as Ezrahi says, a “substitute” for the land.  It is a “fictional sovereignty.”  In this land, the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams,” (as Heinrich Heine would say) is the king.  In this land, the land of the free, Purim is every day.

But things have changed.  After the land of Israel was established “fictional sovereignty” becomes a “diasporic privilege.”  It is, in other words, not a necessity.  Life in America – inside and outside of fiction – is the disaporic privilege of the few who ignore the land and the “recovery” of Judaism.  The schlemiel is a diasporic privilege. Israelis don’t have time for it.  They are in reality, not dreams (like us).

To be sure, the life of the postmodern American Jew is dwelling in the pages of fiction.  The key character and the author of these texts is the schlemiel.

But there is more to the story.  This is high culture of diasporic privilege, the low culture also celebrates the Schlemiel.  Diasporic privilege – that is the privilege of the schlemiel – is all around America.

According to Ezrahi, the schlemiel is an American “cultural icon.”

But how did he become a cultural icon?  How did this all happen?  And what does it mean?

Ezrahi’s interpretation of Aleichem’s Motl says it all.  To be sure, we can learn everything we need to know about why America is different from Israel by understanding Aleichem’s words on Purim.

According to Ezahi, the main task of the schlemiel in its  Yiddish-European model incarnation was to “turn things over” (ha’hefuch).  To revise the past – turn it over – through language.  Words.  One creates one’s own Diasporic homeland.

The power of the schlemiel is the power of language.  It is the “substitute” for power and for a homeland.

She calls the schlemiel’s wordcraft “the alechemy of words.”

According to Ezrahi, Aleichem’s schlemiel Motl revises history!  His father dies (which she reads as Europe dying) and he refuses mourning by way of speaking to much.  But more importantly, by going to America and substituting America for Europe.

For Aleichem, as for Modernist writers, language becomes everything.  For Ezrahi, his obsession with words is a denial of history and past trauma.  And this is Motl.  The schlemiel loves playing with language.  But, there is more, you don’t have to be a fictional character or author to play with language and create a “substitute sovereigny”(to substitute for one’s lack of a land and real power).  All you have to be is an American and you’re a schlemiel.  (Presto!)

In America Purim is everyday:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.

And why?

Ezrahi argues that the next line tells us: “He (Motl, the schlemiel) earns money every single day!”

For Ezrahi, this means that Purim is everyday.  Because, in America, one can remain a child (like Motl) and just work a simple job, or, as we hear all the time, the American schlemiel can live the dream.

Even though one is a child, at the very least, every day one can (in America) move from thing to thing.  The American-Jew (and the American, in general) does need any grounding in a land or history.  Living the dream is equivalent to Purim every day.  Moving from thing to thing.  Endless discovery, opportunity, and hope are the name of the American-schlemiel-game.

“Though Motl doesn’t grow, he moves, ultimately acting out his capacious dreams in New York’s streets…The child as a site of a Purim sensibility and as a miniature shlemiel…But no less significant, though seldom remarked, is that it is followed by its antithesis: the embrace of an alternative reality, of America as a space of unlimited possibility.”

Motl, in this American moment, “renounces” what Erazhi calls the “Purim privilege as superfluous.”  And he, the new American schlemiel, embraces “virtual reality.”

For Ezrahi, America is Purim.  Continuous optimism is provided by an endless procession of “simulcura.”  Where does it all come from?  It comes from out of the heartland (and producer) of dreams: Hollywood.

One can be American-Schlemiel if one makes a sacrifice. (Or perhaps this sacrifice has already been made to establish a new (yet virtual) diasporic foundation?)  This, according to Ezrahi, is Motl’s teaching.

In the moment of his ‘yes-saying’ to everything, to America, there is an exchange, that is, a sacrifice: “We can trace the process by which the world of the Shtetl is replaced by the world for America: “Vashti” is exchanged for “Harry” and Purim for Columbus, the coinage of Russian poverty for American capitalism and Yiddish for English.”

This portrayal of Motl as the archetype of the American schlemiel is thought-provoking.  Is Ezrahi right?  Is America caught in the grip of schlemiel dreams?  And should American’s come to terms with their “diasporic privilege?”  If Purim is everyday in America, how is this possible?

What few scholars who have read and commented on about Ezrahi’s book note is that she is portraying Exile (embodied in America) in a negative light.  Even though Purim is everyday in America, it is based on a denial of mourning.  America is, for Ezrahi, amnesia.

The schlemiel is too busy having fun, discovering America, to mourn.  And this is, for Ezrahi, the problem.

As one can guess, Ezrahi says that Israel, on the other hand, has mourned the Holocaust.  It’s fiction and its Jewish life is not based on an alternate reality; Israel is based on the land and on real history not on dreams.  As Ezrahi writes: Israel “is real.”

This would imply that my Purim is emblematized in Motl’s sacrifice and optimism.  My Purim is everyday!

And, worst of all, if I were to agree with Ezarhi’s reading, I would have to say that my life is based on forgetfulness and ahistorical. In my American, schlemiel optimism, I live on dreams.  I don’t live on the land.

Is this something I can accept as an American Jew?

I don’t agree with Ezrahi’s claim that the schlemiel’s optimism is based on the inability of American’s Jews to remember a Europe that they have made “virtual” (Ezrahi calls I.B. Singer’s work, Fiddler on the Roof, etc “the virtual ghetto”).

But I do agree , to some extent, with her argument that the schlemiel is an American “child” (of sorts) who is “moving through space and things.”  But what exactly does it mean to “move through space and things?”

Is the American schlemiel (or the schlemiel in general) a phenomenologist?  As Husserl (and Wiliam Carlos Williams) said, is he going “to the things themselves.”

http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/prt/en4405872.htm

Ezrahi cites Walter Benjamin to claim that in America the schlemiel is dazzled by things in space.  For Ezrahi, this fascination with things seems to be a distraction from the real thing; the thing that matters for Jews: the land (ha’aretz).

But is this right?  We are far from the prophetic schlemiel.  There are no “demands of the hour” in Ezrahi’s America.  There are no “demands of the hour” on Purim, either.   Only someone who can hear real – not simulated – demands to their Jewishness, is consequential.  For Ezrahi, ha’aretz issues these demands on Jewish identity.  They are the demands of history and the hour.

Without a land, the American schlemiel is, for Ezrahi, inconsequential.  Israelis have a real sovereignty – American Jews do not.  Their sovereignty is imaginary.  Just like Jewish-American identity, which is constantly trying on new Purim clothes.  Changing in and out of ‘things.’

All American Jews are schlemiels who are dancing the Chameleon with Woody Allen’s Zelig: Zelig, the schlemiel with a million faces.  He has no real land.  Zelig sovereignty is inconsequential.  His, like the  optimism of any American Jew, is based on not mourning Europe.

But is this description or, rather, this Zelig challenge right?

I am not ashamed.  I don’t think I have a “diasporic privilege’.  True, I don’t have to worry about ha’aretz every day because I don’t live there. But this doesn’t mean I don’t care and that I have simply left my Jewish identity (tied to ha’aretz) un-recovered.  

Moreover, I don’t think that my Jewish-American existence, my American dreaming, is based on my inability to mourn or my optimism.  

I love America, where every day its Purim!  In America, we’re all children!

My advice to this suggestion: ha’hafook – do what we all can do on Purim: “turn it over!”  Turn over the notion that American is a substitute for Israel.  Turn over the notion that all American’s are schlemiels because they – and not Israelis – are caught up in virtual-Jewish-reality.

One need not worry if, by turning it over, they are being unethical and not mourning or remembering Jewish history and trauma.  Turning over these ideas can help us to understand what is at stake at this hour.  The oblique prophet, the Schlemiel, especially on Purim,shows the way.

Happy Purim!  Don’t renounce your Purim privilege!  There are still things to “turn over.”   After all, its the “demand of the hour!”  Literally!