Tag: Circumcision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Final Notes on Jewishness in Gary Shtyengart’s Absurdistan – Take 1

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The image of Judaism and Jewishness that comes across to the readers of
Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is disturbing in many ways. Over the last month, I have written several blog entries on Gary Shteyngart’s representation of circumcision (by way of Misha, the main character of Absurdistan).   As I point out in many of these blog entries, the description of circumcision and his “mutilated” penis (descriptions that have much resonance with Paul and even Augustine’s most anti-Jewish words) are not, as they say, “good for the Jews.”  Although the author may not have intended this, the fact of the matter is that each of these descriptions makes Judaism into a barbaric and primitive kind of religion.  But, to be sure, this is what Misha thinks about when he thinks of Judaism.

At the outset of my readings of Absurdistan, I wrote a blog on the Prologue which notes Misha’s description of the “Mountain Jews” he meets in Absurdistan as “pre-historic.”

They are “prehistoric, premammalian even, like some clever miniature dinosaur that once schlepped across the earth, the Haimossaurus.”

As we learn in the Prologue, he doesn’t want to stay with this group of “pre-historic” Jews.  He appreciates their hospitality, but he finds it “overwhelming.”  He needs air and feels he must leave the Jews for his Latino-African-American girlfriend, in his second home, New York City:

The mountain Jews coddle and cosset me; their hospitality is overwhelming…and yet I yearn to take to the air. To soar across the globe.  To land on the corner of 173rd Street and Vyse, where she is waiting for me.  (viii)

Ultimately, Jews and his circumcision make him fill ill-at-ease.  And while at the outset of the novel he refers himself as a “secular Jew,” later on, toward the end of the novel, Misha refers to himself as a “multicultualist.”  In front of other people, he doesn’t seem to like Jews and shows no preference for his “pre-historic” roots; rather, he likes “others”:

“I am not much taken with Judaism,” I announced.  “I am a multiculturalist.”  Except there was no Russian word for “multiculturalist,” so I had to say, “I am a man who likes others.”(218)

This declaration comes at an odd time in the novel since he is, at this point, asked to get money for the Svani “cause” by way of making an appeal to the Jews for money (224).  To this end, he is appointed the “Minster of Multicultural affairs.”  The appeal to multiculturalism, he thinks will bring money.  However, Misha learns that he must appeal to Israel for money; but to do this, Misha has to act “as if” he wants to do something for the Jews when, in fact, Misha’s not interested in doing anything for them.  After all, he’s a “multiculturalist.”

This new task confuses him.  When he thinks about what to do, he is thrown into an imaginary conversation with this dead father (who, as I mentioned in other blogs, had prompted him to get his circumcision).  His father loved Jewishness and Israel and, as we can see, Misha does not.

In his imaginary conversation, Misha wants his father to see him as an independent man: “Papa! Look at me!  Look how fine I’ve grown.”  But in his memory, Misha notes that his father was too busy with work and didn’t pay attention to him.  Misha remembers how his father had, in a sense, ruined his life.  Amongst the things he recalls, we find the circumcision.

How little use he had for me.  But then why did you send for me, Papa?  Why did you interrupt my life?  Why did you have to put me through all this?  Why did you have my khui (penis) snipped?  I have a religion, too, Papa, only it celebrates the real. (235)

Misha is a man-child looking for his father’s approval.  Yet, at the same time, he tries to be independent.  For this reason, he tells his father that, like him, he wants to help a people; but not the Jewish people; rather, the Sevo people:

“I want to believe in something, too, Papa,” I said. “Just like you believed in Israel. I want to help the Sevo people.  I’m not stupid.  I know they’re no good.  But they’re better than their neighbors.” (237)

His imaginary conversation inspires him to help the Sevo people.  To this end, he drafts up a proposal so as to get money from the Israelis (which he will give to the Sevo people).  The irony is that the project is dedicated to the preservation of Jewish identity by way of an appeal to the Holocaust and Holocaust memory.

The project name is: “The Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies, aka the Museum of Sevo-Jewish Friendship.”

I’ll cite his justification for this project since it will give the reader a sense of how Misha is playing the “identity card”:

The greatest danger facing American Jewry is our people’s eventual assimilation into the welcoming American fold and our subsequent extinction as an organized community.  Due to the overabundance of presentable non-Jewish partners in the country as tantalizing diverse and half naked as America, it is becoming difficult if not impossible to convince young Jews to engage in reproductive sex with each other….It is time to turn to the most effective, time-tested, and target-specific arrow in our quiver – the Holocaust. (268)

The irony of all this is that he is not convinced by this argument for Jewish identity but, nonetheless, he makes it so as to solicit money.  He isn’t interested in perpetuating Jewish identity, but he acts “as if” he is:

Identity politics are a great boon in our quest for Continuity. Identity is born almost exclusively out of a nation’s travails.  For us…this means Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust.  The twin halves of the broken matzoh will be infused with the spirit of the New Tribalism that is captivating young people across the Western world in angry response to global homogenization.

To be sure, Misha has no interest in this “New Tribalism”; in fact, he’s running away from it.  And he would rather assimilate than hang out with the Mountain Jews.  For this reason, we can rest assured that Misha  must be chuckling when he describes the New Tribalism as a combination of Holocaust Memory and “towering videos of Jewish college boys at fraternity mixers hitting up demure Korean girls, while pretty suburban Jewish maideleh fetishize their urbanized African American counterparts at a Smith Barney softball game. Subtext: six million died and you’re twirling around a bar stool with some hazzar?”(270).

The point of all this is to show how Misha, a “multiculturalist,” sees Jewishness as pre-historic and out of tune with the tide of globalization.  However, as I will point out in the next blog entry, he is, in the end, duped by the “Sevo people.”  And on his way out, he is saved by the “Mountain Jews.”  Nonetheless, he doesn’t want to stay with them.  For, as I noted in the outset, they make him uncomfortable.

To be sure, it is Jewishness that makes Misha, the multiculturalist, uneasy.  He associates it with his father, with his circumcision, and with a people that wants to preserve itself through the Holocaust industry and guilt.  Perhaps we can argue that this is a satire and that Misha needs to get in touch with a Jewishness that he has trashed; however, I haven’t as yet seen any of these readings or heard anything from the author to this tune.

For this reason, it seems as if there is an element of truth for Shtyengart in this reaction to things Jewish.   And for those of us who think differently about Jewishness, these types of quips against it may make the character less charming and more troubling.

And the irony of it all is the fact that he is more interested in “other” people preserving their identity and less in his own people’s doing so.  And for the strange reason that one kind of preservation is better than the other because one is modern (and not Jewish) while the other is a “pre-historic” and ancient practice.  This, it seems, is his major blindspot and may, in fact, be the thing that makes him into a multicultural-schlemiel-of-sorts.

…to be continued

Jewish Emasculations: On Gary Shteyngart’s Metaphors for the Wounded “Member”

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Following Gary Shteyngart’s depiction of Misha’s (fictional) circumcision – his first “American experience” – there are two chapters that address the two people closest to him. The first person to be addressed, in a chapter entitled “Who Killed Beloved Papa?” is his father. As I pointed out in other blog entries, his father – who he has, in a schlemiel-like fashion, “too much love” for – is responsible for Misha’s decision to be circumcised. And, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, this circumcision is the source of Misha’s “uncanny” and negative relationship with Jewishness. It is his moment of emasculation. However, in this chapter he tries to mourn his father’s death. Nonetheless, he doesn’t express anger at his father regarding the circumcision so much as anger over the fact that since his father was involved in the killing of a man from Oklahoma, he will not be able to return to New York City:

If only I could believe that you are in a better place now, that “other world” you kept rambling about whenever you woke up at the kitchen table, your elbows swimming in herring juice, but clearly nothing survives after death, there’s no other world except for New York, and the Americans won’t give me a visa, Papa. I’m stuck in this horrible country (Russia) because you killed a businessman from Oklahoma, and all I can do is remember how you once were. (25)

As you can see, Misha doesn’t share the religious views of his father. As he stated in the prologue, he’s a “secular Jew.” And he sees Jews as a “prehistoric” group. He finishes this chapter with mock reflection on the Jewish process of mourning. The haste of this articulation indicates that he has yet to work through his loss but it also indicates his impatience with Jewishness:

And that, in so many words, is how I became an orphan. May I be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Amen. (26)

In contrast to this chapter, the chapter that follows – entitled “Rouenna” – is much longer and much more detailed. And in this chapter Misha reflects on his circumcision as it relates to a Latino-African-American woman he meets at bar and falls in love with. Her name is Rouenna.

Before he meets her, he talks about how alone he is in his “Wall Street loft.” His description includes a reflection on his penis which continues in the same vein as we saw in his horrific final descriptions of his circumcision:

On occasion I would wail this deep-sea arctic wail invented specifically for my exile. I cupped what remained of my khui (Russian for penis) and cried for papa five thousand miles to the east and north. How could I have abandoned the only person who had ever truly loved me? (29)

Following a few despairing descriptions of his bad-luck, Misha tells us that “one day I got lucky.” The luck has to do with meeting Rouenna. He meets her with a friend named Max – a “middle aged Jew” who had “long given up ever encountering human warmth or arousing the love of a woman”(30). The pairing of the two should alert us that the two – at this point – are “Jewish” because they are wounded sexual schlemiels. But, at the very least, one of them has a “lucky” break: Misha.

The bar, we learn, is special because the barmaids walk around in bikinis and, for money, pour drinks between their breasts and allow the customers to lick them up. When Rouenna sees Misha for the first time, she says “Whoa, daddy!” The first response it telling. It should remind us of his nickname, which we see at the outset of the novel: “Snack Daddy.” As I discussed in an earlier entry, this nickname was given to Misha in “Accidental College.” At the outset of the novel, this name and his Jewish-Black-Fatman identity are foregrounded. He identifies more with being “Snack Daddy” than he does with being a Jew. But all of that is the realm of culture and multicultural fantasy. Rouenna makes this identification a reality when she says “Whoa, daddy!”

And that’s the point.

The only thing that needs healing, however, is his circumcised penis; that is, his Jewish identity. In fact, there is a whole discussion of Jewishness when Rouenna and Misha meet for the first time:

Her breasts were ponderous. “You Jewish? She asked me…”Yes, I am a secular Jew,” I said proudly. “Knew it,” the girl said. “Totally a Jewish face.”(31)

What sticks out most in this encounter is the body. She recognizes his face as Jewish. What she doesn’t see, however, is his hidden face, the true mark of his Jewish identity. This worries Misha. He fears what she will say if she were to see his circumcised penis.

He is reminded of his penis when his tears of joy, at having met this multicultural woman (lest we not forget he majors in “multiculuralism” in “Accidental College,” apparently fall between his legs and touch his “crushed purple insect”(32).

After he reveals to Rouenna that they nicknamed him “Snack Daddy” in college, Misha and Rouenna make a line for his bedroom and “tumble upon” his bed (33). But when the moment of truth comes near, he gets scared:

I fought with my mass, but Rouenna overpowered me. My underwear ripped in two. The crushed purple insect shyly drew its head back into its neck. (34)

Following this, he, once again, makes a detailed negative description of his circumcised member. And finishes his description with a new metaphor. Instead of calling it a “crushed purple insect” now he calls his circumcised penis an “abused iguana”:

It would seem that the khui’s knob had been unscrewed from its proper position and then screwed back into place by incompetents so that now it listed at an angle of about thirty degrees to the right, while the knob and the khui proper were apparently held in place by nothing more than patches of skin and thread. Purple and red scars had a created an entire system of mountain-ridge highways running from the scrotum to the tip…I suppose the crushed insect comparison worked best when my khui was still covered with blood on the operating tale. Now my genitalia looked more like an abused iguana. (34)

As his penis moves close to her mouth, he yells at his “abused iguana” (penis): “Stop it! I told myself. You’re a disgusting creature. You don’t deserve this!” (35).

What is happening here is that Misha fears that Rouenna will reject him and withdraw in horror from him when she sees his Jewish monster. She looks at it, “turns it over,” finds the “most hideous spot on its underbelly – a vivid evocation of the Bombing of Dresden – and, for the next 389 seconds…imparted upon it a single, silent kiss”(35).

At the end of the chapter, he reflects on his “floating feeling” to his absent father. But, to be sure, his “happiness” is altered by the fact that Rouenna has her lips around “what’s left of me.” His circumcision has taken a piece out of his self. As we see above, he likens it to the Dresden bombing. He thinks of himself as mortally wounded by his Jewishness. His circumcision – the mark of his Jewishness – is the mark of his monstrosity.

However, after Rouenna’s “single, silent kiss,” things seem to change. To be sure, he seems to leave his Jewish body behind. She makes him feel like a man. However, as the novel progresses he loses her to Russian-American professor (who he was friends with in College). And though he flees from his Jewishness, it returns in the end of the novel since he finds refuge with the “Mountain Jews” of Abusrdistan (following a protracted civil war). But, as we saw in the prologue, he doesn’t want to stay with these “pre-historic” Jews. He wants to go back to New York and to win back Rouenna.

And in the end of the novel, Misha and his servant Timofey flee the “mountain Jews” and make the heroic journey back to New York and Rouenna. What I find most interesting about this flight is that it all comes down to a flight from the Jewish body and the “pre-historic” Jewish community. Rouenna holds the keys to his redemption from both. The suggestion is that by leaving both he can live a “normal” post-Jewish life. This, of course, is troubling.

The irony of all this is that his circumcised penis, which one can call a “wounded member,” is the appropriate word for Misha himself. He, like his penis, is a “wounded member” of the Jewish people. Seeing his Jewishness in this way should be troubling for a Jewish reader of the text since it looks negatively on Jewishness – seeing at as a wound and a monstrosity to oneself and others. To see one’s Jewishness in terms of how one’s body appears to others, is to prove Jean-Paul Sartre’s thesis in his book Anti-Semite and Jew: if a Jew sees himself and his body in terms of what others say about it, he will hate himself. This, of course, is not the right way to go. Even Sartre, who wasn’t Jewish, could see the pitfalls of this view of the Jewish self and Jewish body. By seeing his penis and himself as a “wounded member,” Misha affirms – unbeknownst to himself – anti-Semitism. He is ashamed of his Jewish member(ship). Rouenna’s single kiss alleviates him of this shame and allows him to feel more at ease about leaving his “pre-historic” Jewishness for something else, something in tune with history and its correlate: multiculturalism. Apparently, Jewishness and the world of “mountain Jews,” for Misha, are neither historical nor multicultural; New York and Rouenna, in contrast, are.

Misha wouldn’t belong to a club that would have him as a member. But the punch line is that this club is Jewish.

“A Crushed Purple Bug” – Jewish-American Identity Before and After Misha’s (Fictional) Circumcision (Part 2)

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For novelists and for readers of novels, one of the most complicated issues is to determine what one can learn from the fictional “experiences” and inferences of different characters.  This is of especial interest when the character in question is a schlemiel.  Since the schlemiel’s experiences are often permeated by several different blind spots, we need to figure out 1) what the blind spots are and 2) what is missing.  However, sometimes it is the case that it is the narrator who has the blind spot.  I’m very interested in how this works with Gary Shteyngart’s portrayal of Misha’s circumcision.  To be sure, Misha, the narrator of this novel, depicts his circumcision in such a way as to disclose himself as a character wounded by Jewishness.  Misha’s description, I believe, is his blindspot.   As readers, we can either identify with this disclosure or reject it.  I think it is imperative that we reject this identification of Jewishness with botched circumcision since, as I pointed out in a previous blog, this identification harbors a deeper form of resentment: reading Judaism as a form of castration.   According to his reading, which I reject, Misha is a schlemiel by virtue of allowing himself to be castrated by Jewishness.

To arrive at this rejection, we need to understand how Misha presents his “experience” of circumcision.  That way, we can understand how he presents and interprets that experience of a fictional circumcision.

To this end, I began my last blog entry with a reflection on the difference between “experience” and “thought” as brought down by Aristotle.  And from there, I discussed how this tradition was carried on into the modern era with thinkers like Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, et al.  After doing this, I looked into the challenges posed by Martin Heidegger and Sigmund Freud to this distinction.    Their challenges flip this distinction.  For both of them, experience and thought are deeply intertwined.  And it is not just experience in general that interests them; it is the  “uncanny” experience that, for both, prompts us to reflect on who we are.  However, these experiences can also do the opposite.  Anxiety about this or that thing is a sure sign that the subject is coming close to something that is at the core of his or her identity.

For the narrator of Absurdistan, that thing is Jewishness.  It is associated with a late-in-life circumcision and, as I have argued here and elsewhere, a form of castration.  Misha’s power to assimilate and enjoy the world is, in many ways, curtailed by his Jewishness.  The description of his circumcision is a substitute (prosthesis), in a Freudian sense, for this belief.   We see this in the fact that is it is uncanny.

The word for uncanny in German is un-heimlich (which means not-homely).  The German word is suggestive because it suggests that it is not totally alien (it is also something that we are familiar with).   Drawing on this, I’d like to pay close attention to the narrator’s description of the circumcision.  His familiarity with the Hasidim who circumcise him is juxtaposed to the horrific depiction of the circumcision.  This mixture of familiarity and horror is the literary correlate for the uncanny.

As I noted in the prologue, the narrator looks at Jewishness as old and “prehistoric.”  In his opening description of the Hasidic neighborhood we see this connotation return:

The cab stopped in front of an old but grand house whose bulk was noticeably sinking into its front columns the way an elderly fellow sinks into his walker. (19)

The narrator’s description of the first Hasid he sees is familiar and even endearing:

A pleasant young Hasid with an intelligent expression (I’m partial to anyone who looks half blind) welcomed me in with a handshake and, upon ascertaining I spoke neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, began to explain to me that concept of a mitzvah, meaning a “good deed.”  Apparently, I was about to perform a very important mitzvah.  (20)

Following this, Misha describes the odd but non-threatening experience  of drinking and singing that precedes the circumcision.  They want him to feel “at home” and this, apparently, fosters this feeling:

“Now do you feel at home?” the happy Hasids shouted at me as I swigged from the plastic cup and chased the drink with a sour pickle.  “A tsimis-tov, a humus tov,” they sang, the men branching their arms and kicking up their feet, their remarkably blue eyes drunkenly ablaze from behind their black getups.  (21)

All of this goes awry when Misha suggests that he pay them “seventy dollars” and that they skip the operation:

Please tell my papa I got cut already. He never look down there anymore, because now I am so fat. (21)

They didn’t “buy” his suggestion and they turn it into “their mitzvah”: “This is a mitzvah for us.”  Misha hears the words “redeeming the captive” from them (which is apparently said by them since the Hasidim see him as a “captive of the Soviet Union).  But, in truth, he now sees himself as a “captive.”  In other words, Misha represents himself, at this point, as losing control and being violently taken in by the Hasidim.  It is their mitzvah, not his.  He is their captive.  This is when the familiar aspects of Jewishness because unfamiliar and threatening.

Misha is then pushed into a hospital for the operation and is clearly angry.  He feels duped and in his drunken anger at this realization, he screams out to his father for help: “Papa, make them stop! I cried in Russian”(23).

And when he awakes from the operation, he sees, in horror, his penis and describes it as a “crushed purple bug”:

When I woke up, the men in black hats were praying over me, and I could feel nothing below the carefully tucked folds of flesh that formed my waistline.  I raised my head.  I was dressed in a green hospital gown, a round hole cut in its lower region, and there, between the soft pillows of my thighs, a crushed purple bug lay motionless, its chitinous shell oozing fluids, the skin-rendering pain of its demise held at bay by anesthesia.  (23)

Given this description and the fact that he describes this as a form of capture and imposition, the Hasidm’s blessings following the operation (“mazel tov and tsimmus tov and hey, hey, Yisroel”) are uncanny.  Following these now uncanny words, he writes:

The infection set in that night. (23)

Reading this, I cannot help but see this as an allusion to his Jewishness and not just his circumcision.  Following this operation, Misha sees his Jewishness as diseased (an anti-Semitic connotation that Sander Gilman – and many other scholars – has documented in many of his scholarly studies of 19th and 20th century depictions of Jewishness in Europe).

Although Misha’s feeling of being duped by his “co-religionists” calls for identification, I reject this call.  It’s a blindspot which, without a doubt, gives substance to Freud’s claim that circumcision is a substation for castration.  This passage makes it clear to me that Misha sees himself as a schlemiel-who-agreed-to-circumcision-out-of-a-blind-love-for-his-father.  His maturity consists in realizing that he was duped not just by this love but by Judaism.  And this comes through a description that is un-canny.

The greatness of fiction is to be found that, like much else in experience, we are free to reject the descriptions and judgments of the narrator or characters in a novel.  To simply identify with a character would be a mistake.  In this case, it would lead to reading Judaism as diseased and this, I believe, is set up by Misha’s description of the circumcision – a description that starts with familiarity and being-at-home and ends with horror.

“A Crushed Purple Bug” – Jewish-American Identity Before and After Misha’s (Fictional) Circumcision (Part 1)

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In “The Metaphysics” Aristotle distinguishes “perceptions” from “experiences.”  Men and animals share the fact that they both have perceptions (sensation plus memory).   The first thing that differentiates them from each other is “experience.”  Animals can’t have experiences because, Aristotle tells us, they cannot make inferences based on the totality of their perceptions.    We do.  We infer who we are and what we are by way of our “experiences.”  But, for Aristotle, there is a higher mode than experience and that is thinking.  When we look for the causes of things, we move beyond inferences.  Aristotle acknowledges that scientists may be thinkers but that the greatest thinker is the philosopher since the philosopher looks not for this or that cause so much as the “causes of causes” (that is, the foundation of all things: from which things emerge and return).

But Aristotle makes a concession to experience when he argues that philosophy (always) begins with wonder.  However, it ends with wisdom and knowledge.  To remain in wonder, for Aristotle, would be to remain in the painful state of ignorance.  For him, happiness coincides with leaving wonder behind for knowledge.

To be sure, Aristotle gave birth to a whole line of thinkers who privileged thought over experience (from Descartes and Spinoza to Leibnitz, Kant, and Hegel).   Given this tendency toward thought and away from experience, Immanuel Kant – in the 18th century – thought of the novel as a distraction from the “true things.”  Since the novel was focused on experience it exposed us to things we could only make inferences about.  Dwelling in experience is tantamount with dwelling in confusion, ignorance, and doubt.  It would evince – as Aristotle would say – a lower, imperfect form of existence.

In contrast to Kant, Freud argued that we can learn a lot about “who” we are from our past experience.  Unlike Kant who thought of literature as a distraction, Freud oftentimes turned to literature and novels to understand what it means to be human.  All of our deepest problems and complexes are alluded to in such experiences as we find in dreams and novels.  Nonetheless, Freud believed, liked Kant and Aristotle, that we should work our way through such dreams or literary experiences so as to arrive at knowledge.   And this knowledge would, so to speak, set one free from this or that condition that hindered our being a reality-adjusted ego.   Although the analysis of self was “interminable,” for Freud, it had a goal.

To be sure, Freud would agree that first “experiences,” usually, count for a lot: especially when it comes to one’s identity.  A person’s first experiences of a country, a religion, or a culture, especially if they are a “part of it,” can certainly color his or her a) perception of him or herself and b) one’s identifications in this or that geographical, religious, or cultural context.

Oftentimes our experiences are arbitrary; however, sometimes they are primal or “originary.”  They can become “first experiences” and may, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger might say, alter how things – and oneself – “appear-in-the-world.”   For Heidegger, anxiety was a central mood through which the world was disclosed “as a world” and through which one is disclosed to oneself “as a being-in-the-world” (or as Heidegger would say a “being-thrown,” which suggests a “first experience” of things that was is not familiar with, things one did not know or intend).

In a Freudian sense (vis-à-vis the emergence of repressed materials in dreams), the world can become “uncanny” when buried experiences come to the surface.  Freud called this “primary” or “primal” experiences or scenes.  In this sense, there can be something shocking or even traumatic about first experiences.   And it can certainly be argued that literature is a way of coming to terms with – and perhaps even knowing the “source” of – this shock.

The more schlemiel literature I read, the more I see that sometimes the schlemiel is involved with the literary elaboration of this coming-to-terms with this or that primal experience.  What interests me most –as a schlemiel theorist – is to ask what the schlemiel learns or fails to learn – on the one hand – and what we, as readers, learn – on the other.  What blindspots do we see vis-à-vis the recollection and assessment made by this or that schlemiel regarding their experiences?

To be sure, working through a character’s “first experiences” may involve bearing witness to something shocking that will make a character appear awkward and comical.   The reader may find this schlemiel to be a tragic-comic kind of character since the schlemiel may not know what causes him to err.

In a Heideggarian sense, we may see the schlemiel as a character who is thrown into a situation that he cannot overcome.  And, on this note, the schlemiel may come across as a character that is wounded by a traumatic situation that they may or may not know – a situation that he or she may not be able to overcome.

In Gary Shteyngart’s novel Absurdistan, that situation is Jewishness and it is brought out through the main character, Misha’s first “American experience.”   Strangely enough, his “first American experience” was shocking and traumatic; it was, according to the narrator, circumcision.  Apparently, his first American experience becomes his first Jewish(American) experience.  In other words, it alters his Russian-Jewish experience and his perception of Jewishness.   And although he is aware of this, he is also blind to how it drives his desire to leave “the Mountain Jews” behind for another, more “multicultural” experience that can only be found in the context and arms of his former Latino-Black lover.    This is what I will call the “other” New York; the New York not inhabited by Hasidic Jews – who circumcise him – or “mountain Jews,” who remain in Eastern Europe (in Abusrdistan).

The problem of circumcision is spurred by Misha’s “foolish” love from his father (apparently, a schlemiel/idiotic trait).  In one of my previous blog entries on the novel, I pointed out how Misha committed himself to this painful experience out of love for his father (“too much love”). According to the narrator, this love makes Misha into “the idiot” of Dostoevsky’s novel by the same name: Prince Myshkin.   We follow Misha as he “foolishly” travels to the circumcision.  What happens before, during, and after the circumcision should be duly noted as they trace his trajectory from naivite to an experience that discloses his greatest obstacle, which is branded on his body: his Jewishness.  Circumcision affects how he sees himself, America, and Jewishness.

To begin with, his trajectory is spatial and tells us about what he identifies with.  Although his first American experience is circumcision, he starts off his American journey in an African-American neighborhood.   His observations speak for themselves:

I fell in love with these people at first blush.  There was something blighted, equivocal, and downright soviet about the sight of underemployed men and women arranged along endless stretches of broken porch-front and unmowed lawn….The Oblomov inside me has always been fascinated by people who are just about ready to give up on life, and in 1990, Brooklyn was Oblomovian paradise.  (19)

The descriptions change, however, when he enters into the Jewish parts of Brooklyn and toward his circumcision.   He feels more repulsed by this neighborhood.  He doesn’t identify with it though these are his “co-religionists”:

And that (the “Spanish speaking section”) gave way to a promised land of my Jewish co-religionists – men bustling around with entire squirels’ nests on their heads…velvety coats that harbored a precious summer stink…What the hell kind of Jewish woman has six children?  (19)

This shift in location is a central motif in this novel which many critics have overlooked. This shift is marked by his circumcision, which leaves him with “his crushed purple bug.”  This physical wound is also the limit that separates him from what Hannah Arendt – in her book The Human Condition – would call his “primary birth” and his “secondary birth.”  It seems that, for Shteyngart’s Misha’s movement from his primary birth (his “first American experience”) to his secondary birth (which will, later in the novel, be his “first experience” with Rouenna, an African-Latino-American girl he meets, falls in love with, and lives with).    But this movement, I will argue, seems to be always plagued not only by his Jewishness but by his wounded penis; his “crushed purple bug.”  The proof is in the pudding: if he still thinks about his circumcision and his Jewishness as a burden or wound at the end of the novel, he has not worked through it; if he doesn’t, apparently, he has.  Also, we need to ask whether this defines Misha, at the end of the novel, as a schlemiel or a “reality adjusted ego.”  Can he leave the wound being for knowledge?  Or do we end the novel with a lack of knowledge and a blindspot?  Is he, in the end, distracted by his experiences?  Or has he found his true, post-Jewish/post-schlemiel self in the “other”?

(In the next blog entry I will give address these questions.)

Circumscribed: Circumcision as Dismemberment in Shteyngart’s Absurdistan – Part II

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In the Jewish world, circumcision has prompted many jokes that have found their way into the mainstream.  On the internet you’ll find a lot of these Jewish jokes.   Here’s one from Comedy Central’s Website; its entitled “Circumcision…At Your Age?”

Two men are sharing a hospital room.  “What are you in for?” the first man asks.  “I’m getting a circumcision,” his roommate replies. “Damn,” exclaims the first man, “I had that done when I was born and I couldn’t walk for a year.”

This joke hits on what we left off with in the last blog entry: the fact that Misha sees himself as the but of the joke because he – like Abraham, the first Jew to be circumcised – is to be circumcised at a late age: the age of eighteen.  He likens himself to Dostoevsky’s “Holy Fool” – Prince Myshkin because he feels that his great love for his father led him into bad luck; which, for him, translates into a circumcision.

Whenever I discuss Freud’s notion of “castration anxiety,” I feel very awkward.  How, I always wonder, will the class take it when I tell them that the image of a mutilated penis is constantly at the back of their minds.

To be sure, Freud, in his early work, associates circumcision with castration anxiety.  In “An Outline for Psychoanalysis” he argues that “the primeval custom of castration” is a “symbolic substitute for castration.”  And it “can only be understood as an expression to the submission to the father’s will.”

This submission to the father’s will (which we saw is a major part of Misha’s circumcision) is based on the fear that if he violates his father’s will, he will be punished.   To be sure, the image of the mutilated penis is too much to see. Freud argues, however, that the endangered eyeball can become a substitute for the penis-that—daddy-may-cut-off.   When framed in this manner, Freud’s reading of the “Sandman” story in terms of castration is literally an “eye opener” for my students.  They see how, for Freud and for those psychoanalysts who followed him, the eyeball could relate to the penis in terms of a drive to see a “scopic drive” (or “scopophilia”).  To be sure, vision is one of our greatest powers.  (Aristotle, in the Metaphysics makes it the highest of all our senses; and Plato gives it the highest honor in his dialogues.)

The threat to the eyes is, for Freud, a threat to the penis.  To illustrate, I show Un Chien Andalu, the 1929 film by Luis Bunel.

Paul, centuries before Freud, associated circumcision (and Judaism) with mutilation.  We see this in his epistle to the Philippians 3:2:

Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!  For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh.

Following this, Paul tells of how it is the case that he, as a Jew, has left “the mutilation” (his physical circumcision) behind.  He admits that he –as a Jew – must overcome his “confidence in the flesh” which he associates with circumcision.  By calling it “the mutilation,” he distances himself from it.  And this, as he moves on to something “higher” and more “spiritual” than the flesh (the circumcision) and the law (covenant) that is associated with it.

Freud may or may not have read Paul, but he did read psychologists that did associates circumcision with mutilation.   In The Jew’s Body, Sander Gilman takes the work of Paolo Mantegazza (1831-1901) as an illustration of how these views entered into the medical literature.  Mantegazza, notes Gilman, had a major influence on Freud.

Mantegazza’s words on circumcision suggest that circumcision-as-“mutilation” differentiates Jews from non-Jews and that this difference has political consequences.   To be sure, he insists that the ticket – for Jews – to equality is to stop circumcision:

Circumcision is a shame and an infamy; and I, who am not in the least anti-Semitic, who indeed have much esteem for the Israelites…shout and continue to shout at the Hebrews, until my last breath: Cease mutilating yourselves: cease imprinting upon your flesh an odious brand to distinguish you from other men; until you do this, you cannot pretend to be our equal.  (91)

What’s fascinating about this statement is that though it is said in modern times, it has been around since the Hellenistic period where –for a time period – it was against the law to be circumcised.  Moreover, it reiterates the reading of circumcision as mutilation but in a secular as opposed to a religious context.  Still, it is read as a form of violence and distinction.  It is read as a barrier to “true” equality or spirituality.

This clip from Family Guy reminds us that the association of castration, Jewishness, and mutilation is far from gone.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGUvln-oq20

All of the above is a preface to the close reading I would like to make of Misha’s circumcision in Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan.  He sees his circumcision in Freudian terms (as a concession to his father – as I pointed out in yesterday’s blog) and in terms of mutilation.  This prompts him to feel as if he has been “had” and is a Prince Myshkin (schlemiel) type.  His negative descriptions of his circumcision, which in many ways echo Paul, distance himself from Judaism and form the basis of his literary “circumscription.”  This “circumscription” will, like Paul’s powerful and negative words on Jewish circumcision, form the basis of his movement away from what he considers “prehistoric” Jewishness.    His text marks his off and situates him within a different journey: one that will bring him back to America rather than Israel.  As I will discuss, Misha’s textual journey to his other homeland emerges out of a recognition that he had become a circumcised-schlemiel.  But this recognition is conveyed to Misha (and to us, his readers) by characterizing his circumcision as a form of mutilation.

These descriptions, this “circumscription,” and his recognition that he was a fool who was “had” will be the topic of my next blog entry.

Circumscribed: Circumcision as Dismemberment in Shteyngart’s Absurdistan – Part I

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In Hebrew the word for circumcision is “brit.”  Brit is the same word used for “the covenant” between God and Man.   In fact, the first covenant between God and Man mentioned in the Torah is between Abraham and God.  When Abraham, at his late age in life, circumcises himself, God makes a covenant with him which becomes the foundation for all covenants in the Torah.  In fact, it is associated with the preservation of the Jewish people:

This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and thy descendants after thee, every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised on the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations (Genesis 17:10-12).

Like Abraham, Gary Steyngart’s main character Misha (from his second novel, Absurdistan) is also circumcised at a late age.  But while Abraham would refer back to his circumcision as the site of his greatest promise and the greatest joy, Misha looks at it as the source of his greatest suffering.  It is not his entry into the covenant so much as the sign of his mutilated masculinity (which really isn’t mutilated), his father’s mad obsession with Judaism, his hatred of Hasidim, and his membership in “pre-historic” tradition that he literally finds primitive in contrast to his more modern “multicultural” experiences.

Misha likens his circumcision to a wounded penis.  Although he fulfilled his father’s request by having a circumcision, he is very resentful. But instead of aiming this resentment at his father, he levels it on Hasidim and on Jewishness.  When he negatively describes his penis, his Jewishness is also being trashed.  It’s a world he would like to leave behind.  He’s more interested in living in New York with Rouenna, his Black-Latino lover who left him for someone else.  His love for her and New York is greater than his love of Judaism because, quite simply, he finds little to love in it (besides his father’s love for it).  The source of this problem, I am arguing, is his circumcision.

However, in an interview with Phawker.com Gary Shteyngart, when asked “Why did you decide to use the really kind of horrifying circumcision scene?” says that its not his circumcision that is the problem: it was Misha’s relationship with his father.  Misha’s father – and his “demand” that he be circumcises – is a part of what he calls his “awful” “ethnic circumstances”

The book does take a kind of skeptical attitude towards religion, Judaism, Christianity and even Islam sometimes comes in. The idea of the father wants this; the son doesn’t want this. This is the father imposing his will on the son and the results are not good. In some ways, it’s more about the relationship between the father and the son than it is about the actual act. In the scene leading up to it, is a long discussion between the father and the son about why he has to do this. In a way, a lot of the characters in this book are trapped in ethnic and religious circumstances that they didn’t call for. What’s so interesting about going around the world is that people are just trapped in these awful circumstances.

However, his relationship to these “awful” circumstances not only informs his father’s insistence on Jewishness; it also influences his negative description of the circumcision and, more importantly, his belief that he became a “holy fool” (a schlemiel) as a result of his first American experience of forced circumcision.  In other words, he had “been had” (as he says in the prologue) because he loves “too much” AND because of his “awful circumstances.”  And this makes him the holy-fool-who-agreed-to-a-circumcision.

In the second section chapter entitled “Dedications,” Misha likens himself to Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot:

Like the prince, I am something of a holy fool.  I am an innocent surrounded by schemers. I am a puppy deposited it a den of wolves…Like Prince Myshkin I am not perfect. (15)

However, when he looks more deeply into “how” he became such a holy fool, we readers learn that this cause and the life are so entirely different from Prince Myskin since Prince Myshkin wasn’t circumcized at a late age.  And while Prince Myshkin is a “holy fool,” Misha is something else:

How did I become such a holy fool? The answer lies rooted in my first American experience. (15)

His first American experience was the circumcision.  And this experience was set up by his father: he decided, in 1990, that: “his only child should study to become a normal prosperous American at Accidental College.” But before he went to the college, he would first have to get circumcised.

The description of what prefaced this decision is troubling.  And this casts a curious shadow over the circumcision.   Misha notes how, after his mother had died, he and his father were living together in a “tight, humid apartment in Lenningrad’s southern suburbs.”  And both were becoming something “other” : “neither of us could understand what the other was becoming.”

After writing this, we see what he has become: his penis or “khui.”  He tells us that “one day” when he was “masturbating furiously on the sofa, my legs splayed apart so I looked like an overweight flounder…Papa stumbled in upon me.”   His father tells him to “put it away” and has a “man-to-man” talk with him about his journey to America and the new life he will live:

“Mishka,” my papa said, “you’ll soon be in America, studying interesting subjects, sleeping with local Jewish girls, and enjoying the life of the young”(16).

After sharing a few deep moments with each other, the father asks that Misha do one thing for him.  Misha thinks he means losing weight, but it is something else, something more Jewish:

“Idiot,” Papa said…”You’ll never be an American.  You’ll always be a Jew.  How can you forget who you are?  You haven’t even left yet. Jew, Jew, Jew.”(17)

These last words have the ring of anger to them.  And they imply that his father doesn’t want his son to assimilate.  He wants his son to always think of himself as a Jew.  And to guarantee this, he gives him the “other reason” why “you’re going to America”(17):

“Once you land in New York, go to this address. Some Hasids will meet you there, and they will circumcise you”(17).

At this point, Misha flies into horrific reflections on what will happen to his penis (Khui).  In his mind, he had now developed a big penis and would no longer be picked on by his classmates who considered him a Jew-with-a-small-penis:

The pain was clouding my eyes, the pain of having the best part of me touched and handled and peeled like an orange.  Since becoming gigantic, I had gotten used to a kind of physical inviolability….No one dared touch me now.  Or wanted to touch me, for that matter.  “I’m eighteen years old,” I said.  “My khui will hurt terribly if they cut it now.  And I like my foreskin.  It flaps”(18).

But in the end, he bends to his father’s greatest desire for him.  He realizes that his father is no longer ashamed of being a Jew: he is a Baal Teshuva of sorts.  And Misha’s penis is the sacrifice, so to speak.

At the time, he forgets his terror because his love for his father is too great.  This love is wrapped up in several physical aspects of his father:

Some wags say that men spend their entire lives trying to return to their mother’s womb, but I am not one of those men.  The trickle of Papa’s deep vodka breath against my neck, the hairy obstinate arms pressing me into his carpet-thick chest, the animal smells of survival and decay – this is my womb.  (18)

In other words, when he is near his father he becomes like a child.   And this is what makes him a holy fool of sorts (almost like Abraham). The only question in his mind is “what is a Hasid?”

They are the one’s his father is giving his son over to; they are the gatekeepers of America.  Before Misha can experience America, he must have a Jewish experience: circumcision.  As I will show in the next blog, this is the experience that he must overcome if he is to be his own person.   Unlike Abraham, the circumcision is something he only does for his father and will be something he would rather leave behind.  It brings him more shame than good.   This revised – fictional -reading of circumcision is what I call “circumscription.”

To be continued….