Tag: comedy

Robin Williams: Energy, Comic Improv, and Mystery

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Upon hearing of Robin Williams passing, I, like millions of other fans, felt we have lost one of the best comedians of the last century. I’m not able (nor do I want to attempt) to write up an overview of his comedy career noting its highlights and main themes. However, I would like to say a few things about the energy and the mystery that ran through his improvisational kind of comedy.   Unlike many comedians who would let their mania go out of control, Williams tempered it with a charm and calm.   His comedic energy was infectious and solicited great laughter in his audiences. And his act had a kind of kinetic appeal to it that was new and surprising for many people living in America. But, in its wake, it left us with a kind of darkness or mystery. And for this reason, it touched on a kind of truth that is or may be possible through a kind of comedy that makes the audience “explode” with laughter.

In The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comedy, Phil Berger introduces Robin Williams near the end of the book.   To show how unique he was, Berger points out how different he was from other comedians who were managed by Rollins Joffe & Brezner (a talent management firm).   They managed comedians like Billy Crystal, Woody Allen, David Letterman, and Martin Short. And most of the comedians they managed had a similar shtick. Robin Williams was different, and this had much to do with his energetic style and his uses of improvisation in his act. He would efface the line between himself and the audience and go with whatever he came across:

In the case of Robin Williams, the problem was that his energy-charged act was so different from those of other comics that Los Angeles talent managers couldn’t get a fix on him. Williams lived on the improvised moment, doing takeoffs on Shakespearean plays, cracking up audiences in spur-of-the-moment iambic pentameter. Plucking a flower from a ringside vase: “….and look, a gentle rose, dying here anon…like myself.” He would plunge into the crowd, reacting to what he saw or heard. Lifting a carafe of wine from a patron’s table: “Hello, Laurence Olivier for Ripple wine.” He might even retire to a table in the audience and heckle himself: “I’ve heard all that stuff before. Your material is derivative.”

Williams’ ability to switch roles on the dime made him unique. In Williams, Brezner saw a “manic” energy that had the affect of something like a “wind tunnel”:

With Williams, the challenge was to take his nearly manic, stream of consciousness style (Brezner: “He had comedic energy that rebounded through the room. It felt like you stepped into a “wind tunnel.”) and not let it get out of hand. This meant giving the act structure – a beginning, middle, and an end – that had enough slack in it for Williams to dazzle audiences with his improvisational wit and energy. “If he just did his thing,” said Brezner, “the effect was that people laughed a lot, but they wouldn’t know who he is.”

Brezner’s last line is very interesting. It suggests that Williams, at the outset of his career, didn’t have a persona like Woody Allen. Rather, Williams was trading in a kind of energetics and play that has resonance with Woody Allen’s Zelig – a character who was likened to a chameleon.

In Zelig and Williams there is a mysteriousness that is born out of a transformational and manic energy. It is highly mimetic and performative.   The laughter he evoked, as well, had a mysterious character to it. And it may have this mysteriousness because it touches on something hidden, dark, sad, and even tragic.

Writing on laughter, Jean-Luc Nancy, argues that laughter is a “gaze brought to bear on tragedy itself, in its tragic truth…the laughter is the knowledge of this truth. But it doesn’t know this truth as the content of knowledge”(“Laughter, Presence,” 366).   For Nancy, it is in the moment of laughter and comedy that “it is known, it is in laughing that laughter is the truth.”   And this truth comes forth in energetic “bursts” or “explosions,” which, when they withdraw, leave a mysterious silence.

The one bursts with the other and from the same burst, truth withdraws into laughter, into the “dim glistening of the mystery.” That is why the laughter remains mysterious – more, it is the exposition of a mystery. The burst of laughter reveals that the structure of its truth is to be hidden. (366)

Whenever I saw Williams doing comedy, I always had a sense of this kind of darkness in the wake of his routine which came across as a series of comic explosions. It was as if he pulled back from his laughter – and the explosions – so as to expose us to a dark truth. Sometimes there would be a kind of violence to his “nearly manic” routine. We see it here, in this mime routine within a film.

We also see energetic uneasiness in his earlier routines. The laughter it evokes, like the laughter that Andy Kaufmann would evoke in many of his routines discloses how Americans survive from one rapid change (or “explosion”) to another. The movement from character to character – as Zelig does – evinces a departure from identity and a series of rapid fire changes.

Williams stand-up routine, near the end of his life, brings out a kind of comedy that uses energetics to deal with a series of shocks that are distinctly America.   His comedy reminds us of what many of us share. And it shows us how survival of these shocks, as he presents them, is an American-kind-of-thing to do.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-JUF3xHdbI

Yet, at the core of this sudden outbursts and shocks, which he comically stages for us, there is a mystery about where all of this is going. He takes us on a journey of sorts through many states, but it is really the future that is the mystery. It is not simply (or only) as Brezner believed, related to Williams’ identity. Not only do we not know who Williams is (in the wake of each of his routines), we also don’t know where we are all going. He reveals something common to us that emerges in the wake of a series of shocks that permeate out time.

Thinking back over all the comedy I saw him perform I now feel as if I understand him better than I ever did. What Williams gave me, as a child, was a way of feeling I was a part of something larger than myself and that the best way to touch that was through exaggerating experience and playing out the things that shocked me. By improvising these things, I felt as if I could touch something real and alive. But the bigger question always lingered – as it did for Zelig – who was he and who are we? And where are all of these changes taking us?

You will be missed, Robin. Thanks for making comedy real and for tapping me in to existential questions that I share with many Americans; questions that emerge out of rapid changes and the flight of history. Thanks for exposing me to the mystery of being alive, now, at this time.

 

 

 

Doofus(es) and Dork(s) in David Eggers’ “The Circle” – Take 2

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Since they sometimes overlook reality in the name of something “good” that they are a part of, optimism and hope have a comical aspect. In certain scenarios, however, overlooking such things can have negative and even tragic consequences.   The blindspots we have, if they deal with fundamental things, like the importance and meaning of privacy and freedom are a case in point.   In the enthusiasm for a utopian kind of project, which promises to transform reality or in which a transformation is actually coming out, there may be a blindness to the meaning of freedom and privacy. We see this especially, today, in our head-over-heels love for facebook, google, and social networking. We are in the midst of a major change in social life in America (and around the world) and we haven’t yet figured out the stakes with respect to freedom and secrecy. We are all to happy to give away our information and make our private life public.

In the last blog entry on David Eggers’ last novel – The Circle – I discussed the often overlooked fact that the novel has comic elements. Although these moments are few and far between, they are very special because they involve a kind of optimism and utopian hope that overlook the meaning of privacy and freedom. The author calls the two main characters out on being naïve fools in the beginning of the novel and so does an old boyfriend of one of the characters (Mae) named Mason.

As I pointed out in the last blog entry, the narrator of Eggers novel makes the comic blindness of these characters evident in the very beginning of the novel. Annie, who gets Mae into “The Circle” (a name for a company like Google), is the first to be comically profiled:

There was a time, only four years ago, when Annie was a college student who wore men’s flannel housepants to class, to dinner, on causal dates. Annie was what one of her boyfriends, and there were many, called a doofus. But she could afford to be. She came from money, generations of money, and was very cute, dimpled and long-lashed, with hair so blond it could only be real. She was known by all as effervescent, seemed incapable of letting anything bother her for more than a few moments. But she was also a doofus. She was gangly, and used her hands wildly, dangerously when she spoke, and was given to bizarre conversational tangents and strange obsessions – caves, amateur perfumery, doo-wop music. (13)

She is also described as a “scattershot” and a “ridiculous person” who carries around a “piece of her childhood blanket around with her in her pocket.” But Annie is not alone. The narrator tells us that most of the three people who founded the circle also have this aspect. He brings this out in his description of a painting of all three of them which is, more or less, a caricature that they may be blind to but the narrator is not:

The painting was awkward, the kind of thing a high school artist might produce. In it, the three men, the founders of the company, were arranged in a pyramid, each of them dressed in their best-known clothes, wearing expressions that spoke, cartoonishly, of their personalities.   Ty Gospodinov, the Circle’s boy-wonder visionary, was wearing nondescript glasses and an enormous hoodie, staring leftward and smiling; he seemed to be enjoying some moment, alone, turned into some distant frequency. People said he was borderline Asperger’s, and the picture seemed intent on underscoring the point. (19)

Ty, the narrator tells us, also sees himself as a kind of outsider, oddball: “Ty realized he was, at best, socially awkward, and at worst an utter interpersonal disaster”(20). He hired the “other two Wise Men, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton” to balance him out. Ty designs the core of the Circle’s system which is called “TruYou” which sounds a lot like Google Plus.  In this novel, the Google system is portrayed as something that streams all of one’s bills, identities, accounts, etc into one system:

One account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person. There were no more passwords, no multiple identities. Your devices knew who you were, and your one identity – the Tru you, unbendable and unmaskable. (21)

While the owner, Ty, and his partners, taken together, may look cartoonish, this system is utterly serious, powerful, and a force on its own. It takes on a kind of moral, disciplinary force: “TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year….the True You wave a was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition. It started with the commerce sites….Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less taken over the internet, were driven back into darkness”(22). The narrator makes sure to mention that TruYou “subsumed” all social media: “Facebook, Twitter, Google, and finally Alacrity, Zoopa, Jefe and Quan”(23).

This new system, TruYou, has the goal of creating total transparency. It will eliminate “identity theft” and unfair and prejudiced practices on the internet. And Ty, in his utopian awkwardness, believes this will be good for everyone and make society a place devoid of crime and malice which, to his mind, are based on hiding things from others.

Following these serious descriptions of TruYou, the narrator completes his description of the other two Wisemen in the picture. Emaon Bailey, “standing next to him (Ty) in the painting, semmed utterly at peace, joyful even”(24). He smiles a lot. His whole body seems to smile: “When he smiled, which was near-constantly, his mouth smiled, his eyes smiled, his shoulders seemed to smile. He was wry. He was funny”(24). Bailey likes to play “Dixieland trombone”(24).

The last of the Three Wisemen is Tom Stenton. Of the three, he is the most serious. He is “unabashed about being wealthy, about being single and aggressive and possibly dangerous”(23).   The law and the government don’t stand in his way: “He was unafraid of presidents. He was not daunted by the lawsuits from the European Union or threats from state-sponsored Chinese hackers”(24).

Taken together the three of them create an odd image as of “mismatched flowers” but in the end the image of them together “worked”: “The three of them, in life and in this portrait, made for a strange bouquet of mismatched flowers, but there was no doubt that it worked”(25). But, the more Mae looked at the image, “the stranger it became.” She, who is also called a fool by the narrator, at the very least notices that there is something odd about this image that may “work” but not for her. She can’t put her finger on it:

The artist had arranged it such that each of the Wise Men had placed a hand on another’s shoulder. It made no sense and defied the way arms could bend or stretch. “Bailey thinks it’s hilarious,” Annie said. “He wanted it in the main hallway, but Stenton vetoed him”(26).

As Annie leads Mae up to their secret room, she sees all kinds of comical things that are juxtaposed to things that are utterly serious. The juxtaposition gives one a sense how, behind all of these smiles and comical gestures, there is something sinister lurking, something they aren’t aware of in their absent-minded (though apparently noble) utopian idealism.

 

…..to be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doofus(es) and Dork(s) in David Eggers’ “The Circle” – Take 1

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When I first picked up David Eggers’ recent novel, The Circle, I had no idea that the novel had any comic elements. To be sure, the majority of reviews suggested that the book was dystopian from start to finish. I was expecting something very grim. But, strangely enough, Eggers includes comic elements. What has not been sought after by any review or reflection I have read is the meaning of these comic elements. I’d like to venture, in a series of blog entries, a sketch of how one can read the presence of comedy in such a novel.

The Circle is a novel that hits home. It speaks to an age that is dominated by Google, Facebook, and Social Networking. Since we are in the midst of rapid shifts in the way we think and do things by virtue of social media and incredible new technology (computers, smart phones, tablets, etc), it’s very hard for us to reflect on what is happening to us. We are changing. We don’t think in the same ways. What does all this mean and how do we reflect on this? Fiction, to my mind, is one of the best mediums that we can use to explore and address the polyvalent meanings of this shift-in-progress. We can see ourselves through characters who are not-ourselves but are strangely similar to us. This is especially prescient when the characters in this novel are in hub of the social-networking business.

Through the two main characters, Annie and Mae (who are both fresh out of college), Eggers explores the hypothetical idea that is floating around most of our heads: what would it be like if I were to get a job at Google or Facebook?   One can imagine the prestige and power that goes along with a job that puts one in a company that is virtually changing the way we look at ourselves and the world. It’s very exciting.

Eggers brings this excitement out in the fact that the two main characters, as I mentioned above, just left college. As one can imagine, they are hopeful and eager to be a part of something that has the capability of changing the world for the good. This is a serious endeavor (and adventure). It seems as if comedy has no place.

However, throughout the novel there is laughter and joking around. What Eggers does is to make that laughter uncanny. He suggests that we pay closer attention to this laughter by virtue of the fact that, at one point in the novel, when he first introduces her, he describes Annie as a “dufus.” And, by way of another character who is not immersed in the world of social networking, we hear Mae described as a “dork.”   Reading these descriptions, one wonders if they should not be applied to just these two characters but to the members of the circle and perhaps ourselves.

Of the two, it is Annie who gets Mae into “The Circle.” And it is her description which should be of great interest to us because she is the character who we would all like to be: someone who goes from college to a place like Google or Facebook and rises to the top of the command. However, the description of her is not enviable. She’s a “doofus.”

There was a time, only four years ago, when Annie was a college student who wore men’s flannel housepants to class, to dinner, on causal dates. Annie was what one of her boyfriends, and there were many, called a doofus. But she could afford to be. She came from money, generations of money, and was very cute, dimpled and long-lashed, with hair so blond it could only be real. She was known by all as effervescent, seemed incapable of letting anything bother her for more than a few moments. But she was also a doofus. She was gangly, and used her hands wildly, dangerously when she spoke, and was given to bizarre conversational tangents and strange obsessions – caves, amateur perfumery, doo-wop music. (13)

The narrator goes on to describe her as a woman-child of sorts. She is a “scattershot and ridiculous person, who still carried a piece of her childhood blanket around in her pocket”(14). He muses, confusedly, about how such a person had “risen so quickly and high through the circle? Now she was a part of forty most crucial minds of the company – the Gang of 40 – privy to its most secret plans and data. That she could push through the hiring of Mae without breaking a sweat”(14).

All of this troubles the narrator because he can’t understand how a “doofus” like Annie could rise to such heights. Something is peculiar about this and his use of a comical descriptor suggests that the reader, like the narrator, should be suspicious. What, after all, does it mean that some of our greatest secrets – circulating on the internet – are in the hands of a “doofus?”

When we meet Mae, however, we think that she is more normal and not a doofus. Mae comes from a less privileged background. Her parents are more blue-collar, her father is dying, and she has a much more realistic sense of reality.

However, something happens to her after she starts working in the company for a few weeks.   Her initiation into The Circle prompts her to become obsessed with social media in ways she never was. At work she has three screens that she has to attend to: one for incoming customer service (which she is rated on), one for messages from her supervisors, and one for social media. She must pay attention to every screen. If she neglects any messages – even the social media messages – she is disciplined in some fashion. Moreover, the companies ethos suggests that the knowledge of all things that have ever happened can be beneficial to humanity. Instead of being judged for what a person is, one is judged by the things said online, by algorithms, and comments of people.   Being obsessed with this makes her into, what she will later be called by an ex-boyfriend, a dork.

But, as Eggers suggests, there is a difference between a “doofus” and a “dork.” Regardless of the difference (which we will explore in upcoming blog entries), Eggers’ use of comical terms to describe Annie and Mae functions to give us a comical distance from the condition we are immersed in.   Where do we fit on this spectrum? What does it mean that we might be a dufus or dork by virtue of being immersed in (or desiring to be immersed in) social media?

….to be continued…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…to be continued….

 

 

Saint Angela: Philip Roth’s Comic Portrayal of Angela Davis in “American Pastoral” (Part II)

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A good writer like Philip Roth knows very well how desperate situations can bring out things about a character that, as a matter of course, are troubling. But Roth, like Shalom Auslander or the Coen Brothers (in the genre of film), sometimes injects comic elements into troubling situations.  This has an odd affect because, in many ways, this gesture is so audacious and inappropriate.   But this affect is a gift of sorts: it prompts us to think about what we take for granted and, by way of this agitation, it discloses some form of truth.

Roth addresses one of the most radical figures of contemporary American history – Angela Davis – and one of the most difficult eras of America: the radicalism and terrorism of the late 1960s anti-war, anti-imperialist, etc movements.  He does this by way of Swede, a character whose daughter, an upper middle-class white girl from Morristown, NJ, ends up blowing up a building and killing an innocent person.   As I pointed out in the the last blog entry, Swede, Merry’s father, is forced to address her radicalism if he is to find his way back to his daughter (who had, since the bombing, disappeared).

Swede first comes into contact with 60s radicalism by way of Rita Cohen (a friend of Merry and a student of the Wharton school who is researching the leather business for a dissertation project).  In his meetings with Rita Cohen, Zuckerman looks to show us how Swede responds to her rhetoric of radicalism; namely, by way of humor. Swede sees her gestures as a part of a radical chic that has no thought behind it so much as a feeling and a style that is childish and rebellious. As I noted, this humor gives him distance. This distance is challenged when Cohen meets Swede in a hotel room in an effort to seduce him. Zuckerman, the narrator, portrays her attempts at eroticism as comical.   And although this comedy gives Swede (and the reader) some distance from Cohen’s radicalism, this distance is shadowed by something serious and “tempting.”

The interesting plot twist is found in the fact that Roth decides to metonymically (and literally) link Cohen’s (and his daughter’s) radicalism to a prominent African-American figure of radicalism: Angela Davis. This link is fascinating because it links Jews and African Americans (this is something Roth has done in novels such as The Human Stain). In this novel, one needs to look into this relationship because, in it, the Jewish-American women take an African-American woman as their model. And this mimicry is, in some ways, comical. To be sure, as I mentioned above, it has the element of radical chic. And, as I noted in my last blog entry, the figure of Angela Davis’s hair ties this knot between the characters.

Cohen has a Jewfro while Davis has an Afro. But there is more to the story; and that more has to do with Swede’s fantasy about Angela Davis.

Through Swede, we see how a character, who has an aversion to radicalism and hails himself as a liberal of sorts, becomes obsessed with radicalism so as to get closer to his daughter. The fact that he sees it as a means to an end affects how the reader takes in the ideology of radicalism. To be sure, it comes across as dogmatic and Swede’s responses to it come off as comical.

When “Saint Angela” appears to him, he wants her to believe that he is a devotee. But, in the spirit of the best Jewish humor, he shows he is with her while, at the same time, telling us that he doesn’t want her to find out about a few of his reservations. After all, that would ruin the truth effect and spoil the devotion-effect. In other words, this ruins her sainthood and preserves a margin of freedom for a narrator and a character who can’t buy into it all.

As I noted in the last blog entry, the narrator humors Angela’s radical chic. Zuckerman notes how “her hair was extraordinary. She peers defiantly out of it like a porcupine. The hair says, “Do not approach if you don’t like pain”(160). Following this, the narrator notes how Swede “should” relate to Angela’s description of Merry, his daughter. In her view, Merry isn’t a terrorist, she’s a hero, a Joan of Arc of the movement”:

She praises his daughter, whom she calls “a soldier of freedom, a pioneer in the great struggle against repression.” He should take pride in her political boldness, she says. The antiwar movement is an anti-imperialist movement, and by lodging a protest int eh only way America understands, Merry, at sixteen, is in the forefront of the movement, a Joan of Arc of the movement. (160)

Saint Angela, as the narrator calls her, goes so far as to link Merry to “abolitionism” and “John Brown!” This link turns the protest movement into a liberal moment. But, clearly, the radicalism is much different. Swede, however, is told to take this as truth.

Moreover, Davis repeats, over and over again, how Swede should get it out of his head that what Merry did was a criminal act. And for a few pages Zuckerman gives us an experience of the propoganda of the radical movement (in all of its rhetorical flourishes, phrases, and repetitions.)   Swede plays the role of a devotee to the Saint.

But when, in the midst of being lectured by Davis, he hears something that relates to him and his business (which has many African-American employees) he speaks up to vindicate himself:

Obediently he listens. She tells him that imperialism is a weapon used by wealthy withies to pay black workers less for their work, and that’s when he seizes the opportunity to tell her about the black forelady, Vicky, thirty years at Newark Maid. (161)

He goes on to say how, through working for him, he was able to help her to send her kids to medial school and how Vicky stayed with him during the 67’ riots in Newark.   Moreover, he goes into detail how she helped to defer the rioters from burning the leather factory down by putting signs in the window that the business had employees that were, in bold letters, “NEGROES.”   In attempt to win her favor, Swede gives this account to “Saint Angela”(162). If anything, Roth is showing us the nature of Swede’s white guilt. He wants to allay it by saying that he is not like the other white people.

However, although Swede felt good that Governor Hughes had sent in tanks to restore order in the city, he does not tell this to Angela (162). He also doesn’t tell her that he wanted to leave Newark after the riots and take his business elsewhere for fear that it would be ruined – which is what actually happens (162). In other words, he cannot totally agree with her point of view, but he is afraid to tell her as that would create distance between them.

Swede goes along with whatever Davis says because he believes that this “Saint” will bring him to his daughter.   He has a kind of faith and, at the same time, a struggle with the dogma that is based on this faith (a struggle he cannot let show on the surface).

However, in the midst of all this, Zuckerman notes Swede’s greatest fear; namely, that Merry will, ultimately, see him as the enemy. The fact that he has African-American employees and sympathizes with them is not enough for her:

Victimizing black people and the working class and the poor solely for self-gain, out of filthy greed! (163)

This message, playing in the midst of his Angela Davis fantasy, prompts Zuckerman, the narrator to mark a disillusionment with Davis’s radical ideology. It is, in his view, yet another delusion. But…Swede has no choice but to go along with it:

In the idealistic slogans there was no reality, not a drop of it, and yet what else could he do? He could not provide his daughter with the justification for doing something crazy. So he stayed in Newark, and after the riots Merry did something crazier than crazy…The factory under siege, the daughter at large, and that took care of the future. (163)

Yet, with all of this, the narrator points out that, at this point, it seemed that nothing Swede could do would counter the affect of what had already gone down. Swede and his future – it seems – is destroyed by history in general and his daughter’s acts in particular.

But he doesn’t speak his mind as much as his father, Lou Levov, who, the narrator shows us is more sympathetic that Swede is to the plight of African Americans in Europe. Nonetheless, he is angry at the decision that they made to riot. He is angry at how the radicals, in his view, were making life for African-Americans in America more difficult. And sees this all through the downturn his business takes thereafter; workers become apathetic and unfocused and the quality gloves that used to be made with pride become shabby. Everything he has worked for goes down the drain:

A whole business is going down the drain because of that son of a bitch LeRoi Jones, that Peek-A-Boo-Boopy-Do, whatever the hell he calls himself in that goddamn hat. I built this with my hands! With my blood! They think somebody gave it to me? Who? Who gave it to me? Who gave me anything, ever? Nobody! What I have built! With work – w-o-r-k! (163)

The father says he has “conscience” since he made many efforts to help African-Americans in Newark but asks “Where is theirs?” He is astonished and believes that there must be parity. Regardless, Zuckerman tells us about the father’s pain, Swede “stubbornly defies the truth” of what his father was saying (165) because he thinks that his daughter Merry would use it against him.

Zuckerman goes on to show us how, in an effort to gain Angela Davis’s favor, Swede lies about his love of communism and the cause (166). He says “yes” to everything:

So he says yes to her yes, his daughter is a soldier of freedom, yes, he is proud, yes, everything he has heard about Communism is a lie, yes, the United States is concerned solely with making the world safe for business and keeping the have-nots from encroaching on the haves – yes, the United States is responsible for oppression everywhere. Everything is justified by her cause, Huey Newton’s cause, Bobby Seale’s cause…Merry Levov’s cause. (166)

What we find in this moment is a radical shift from radical chic to the utmost seriousness. Swede commits himself, dogmatically, to radicalism. However, Zuckerman underscores the irony of this commitment, which is forced. He even hides this “secret” commitment from his African-American worker, Vicky, because even she thinks Angela Davis is too radical. Zuckerman likens this secret commitment to a kind of religious commitment to a saint, a “secret prayer”:

Meanwhile he mentions Angela’s name to no one, certainly not to Vicky, who thinks Angela Davis is a trouble maker and who says as much to the girls at work. Alone then and in secret he prays…for Angela’s acquittal. And when it happens he is jubilant. She is free! (166)

This is no longer funny. Zuckerman portrays Swede as a devotee by virtue of his desire to see his daughter once again. We see this in the preface and his reaction to Angela Davis’s release. In it, her freedom becomes equivalent to Merry’s freedom. He becomes a devotee, protester, of sorts:

Free the Rimrock Bomber! Free my daughter! Free her, please! Cries the Swede.   “I think it’s about time,” Angela says, “for all of us to begin to teach the rulers of this country a few lessons,” and yes, cries the Swede, yes, it is about time, a socialist revolution in the United States of America! (166)

Zuckerman notes how deluded this is by pointing out how “he remains alone at his kitchen table” because he “cannot do anything that he should do or believe anything that he should believe or even know any longer what he should believe.” In other words, Swede’s devotion is comical and deluded. He is in a state of existential paralysis.

All of these reflections make the narrator angry and prompt him to wonder whether he should have “fucked” Rita Cohen: “I f he would do anything for Merry, why not that? Why did he run?”(167). Regardless of these reflections, we can see that Zuckerman doesn’t take the radical ideology put forth by Davis to be truth so much as a means to an end. He mocks it and the devotion to it; yet, in this situation, he realizes that Zuckerman may have to act “as if” it is true. And this masquerading – of taking on something that is ridiculous for the sake of seeing a lost daughter-terrorist – makes this ridiculousness tragic and debilitating.

Saint Angela and her radicalism may be comically portrayed and parodied but, in the end of the day, no amount of mockery can reduce the tragic effect they this ideology has on Swede’s life.   Comedy, in other words, seems to be ineffectual. And the distance it gives seems, for Zuckerman, impossible to maintain.

Saint Angela: Philip Roth’s Comic Portrayal of Angela Davis in “American Pastoral” (Part I)

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Many critics agree that Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is his best novel.   And there is a consensus regarding the fact that this is a tragic novel, or as Roth’s narrator Zuckerman says the “anti-American Pastoral.” The sections of the novel map this out: “Paradise Remembered,” “The Fall,” and “Paradise Lost.” However, for this reason, critics often overlook or miss the comic elements in the novel. To be sure, Roth uses comedy at very important parts of the novel so as to inject a critical perspective.   Although the novel bears witness to the rise and fall of Swede, the main character, it, at rare moments, offers a critical perspective by way of a kind of distance that is comical or ironic.

What is most interesting about these moments is that they often go from taking an ironic distance to losing it; and, in the process, Swede (or the narrator) becomes embroiled in panic. To be sure, all of the panic is around his desire to find his daughter, Merry, the “Rimrock Bomber.” After she bombs a store in New Jersey, during the Vietnam War, she disappears. And he does everything he can to find her. In the process, he tries to understand her. And this leads him to take in her radical ideology which sees the United States and Capitalism as the enemy of “the people.” Though he at first humors it, Swede starts becoming obsessed with the ideology.  He takes to it because, in his desperation, he believes that it will somehow lead him to his daughter.   But before this takes effect, Roth shows us that, at first, there is a comic distance.

We see an important example of this comical distance (which ultimately collapses) by way of two encounters: one with a Jewish girl named Rita Cohen and the other with a fantasized meeting with Angela Davis. The two encounters – one real, the other fantastic – come together in the figure of the “afro” (or Jew-fro, by way of Rita).   But it is the fantastic encounter with “Saint Angela” that gives us the best sense of how Swede turns to comedy to give himself some distance; yet, in the end, it seems this distance is not enough to keep him from losing his mind.

Before we meet Rita Cohen, Zuckerman, the narrator, provides us with several “conversations” between Swede and his daughter which show us how she, gradually, became more radicalized. He tries to appeal to her by showing that he is liberal, but this is to no avail. The end of the first section of the book, which follows these conversations, tells us what happens in their wake:

After turning Morristown High into a battlefield (from protest against the Vietnam war), she went out one day and blew up the post office, destroying right along with it Dr. Fred Conlon and the village’s general store, a small wooden building with a community bulletin board out front and a single old Sunoco pump and the metal pole on which Russ Hamlin…had raised the American flag every morning since Warren Gamaliel Harding was president of the United States. (113)

There is nothing comical about these last lines. To be sure, they mark the end of an era and the beginning of another; they mark the beginning of the end of Swede’s life.   The following section of the novel is entitled “The Fall,” begins with his meeting Rita Cohen. She comes across as a nice, American girl who attends The Wharton School. She visits Swede with an academic interest: she is interested in how the leather business works and, apparently, is looking to write a dissertation on the topic. Swede gives her a tour of the factory, discusses the ins and outs of the business (in detail), shows her how gloves are made, introduces her to the workers, and, in the end, he gives her a glove made to fit her small hands.   The gloves are finished by Vicky, an African-American worker at the glove factory (131).

At the very end of the section, we learn, by way of a whisper, that Rita is connected to Merry: “She wants her Aubrey Hepburn scrapbook”(132).   Swede drives Rita to the airport, gives her the notebook, and, for the first time, Rita shows another face to Swede. She tells him that his daughter, Merry, hates him (133). And thinks that he “ought to be shot.” Following this, Rita goes on a tirade against Swede accusing him of being a “shitty little capitalist who exploits the brown and the yellow people of the world and lives in luxury behind the nigger-proof security gates of his mansion”(133).   There is nothing funny here.

The narrator notes that “taunting him was the project she had set herself”(133). At this moment, Swede’s world is upside down. But he also starts humoring her. By way of comic jibes at Rita, Swede starts distancing himself from her:

The unreality of being in the hands of this child! This loathsome kid with a head full of fantasies about the ‘working class’! This tiny being who took up not even as much space in the car as the Levov sheepdog, pretending he was on the world stage! This utterly insignificant pebble! What was the whole sick enterprise other than angry, infantile egoism thinly disguised as identification with the oppressed? (134)

He sees her whole of Rita’s radicalism as childish and a fad of sorts. This is what Tom Wolfe would call “radical chic.” With this comical perspective in mind, Swede looks at her hair – modeled, as we will see, on the hair of Angela Davis – as evidence of radical chic:

Yes, the nonsensical hair constituted half of their revolutionary ideology, about as sound a justification for her actions as the other half – the exaggerated jargon about changing the world. (134)

He sees her acts as thoughtless and an act of self-glorification: “Thought just paled away beside their ignorance. They were omniscient without even thinking” (134).   Zuckerman includes bits and pieces of their conversation to show how full it is of “ridiculous clichés.” In response, she maintains her rhetorical exaggerations and insists that her life was all a lie and that she was the product of privilege. Rita claims that Swede and his wife were ashamed of their daughter and “colonialized her…self-image,” “hated her” and turned her into a “piece of shit.” Rita doesn’t hear a word Swede says. He can’t hear a father’s need to see his missing daughter. Rita accuses Swede of thinking of her as a “possession” and misses his plea. In Swede’s mind, she is a “child crackpot.”

He next sees Rita in a hotel and gives her money (as per her request) to see his daughter. But Rita wants more than his money. As Zuckerman relates, she wants to “fuck.” He keeps his distance from her, however. He notes how comical she looks all made up: “She looks like a third grader who ransacked her mothers room”(142). And, to entice him she starts singing a comical song by Groucho Marx: “Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, my encyclo-pid-e-a, oh Lydia, the tattooed lady”(142).

She uses eroticism and comedy to entice Swede, but it doesn’t work. He wonders: “Could this lead to Merry, this onslaught of sneering and mockery? Was she impersonating someone, acting from a script prepared beforehand?” In other words, Swede can’t take Rita’s gestures seriously.

At the very end, Rita sticks her fingers into her vagina, pulls them out, and brings them near Swede’s face to smell. He pulls back, but then Rita makes comical/erotic gestures to herself:

The hand she’s offered him she now carried slowly up to her face, making loony, comical little circles in the air as she approached her mouth. Then, one by one, she slipped each finger between her lips to cleanse it. (147)

Following these comical/erotic gestures, he “bolted the room. With all his strength.” He sees he from a comical angle, yet, he also sees that she is using a comical/erotic strategy to break him down.

In the wake of this encounter, Swede starts thinking more and more of the ideology that inspired them. And, at a certain point, he has a fantasy that Angel Davis, “a black philosophy professor of about Rita Cohen age…a Communist professor at UCLA who is against the war…tried…for kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy”(157). As one can see, Zuckerman (and Swede) make a connection between Angela Davis and Rita Cohen.   And this is brought together by Angela Davis’s hair and her radical chic:

Her hair reminds the Swede of Rita Cohen. Every time he sees that bush encircling her head he is reminded of what he should have done at the hotel. He should not have let her get away from him, no matter what. (158)

In many ways, Rita Cohen (a Jew) and Angela Davis (an African-American) are merged. And both are, to some extent humored. But, as I noted above, this humor diminishes because he becomes obsessed with them. He sees them as his way to his daughter:

Now he watches the news to see Angela Davis. He reads everything he can about her. He knows that Angela Davis can get him to his daughter. (158)

In the drawers of his daughter’s room, he finds the writings of Angela Davis (amongst other radical literature). And, in the midst of his discovery, he recalls how, in the same room, his daughter – influenced by his wife’s Catholic mother – became obsessed with Saints. He remembers how this was a passing fad. He imagines that reading Angela Davis is like reading “those tiny pamphlets” (on the Saints) and “illustrated holy cards.” But “luckily the child outgrew them”(159). Nonetheless, she would still, on occasion, pray to the Saints.   Meanwhile, “Grandma Dwyer…prayed to St. Anne to help Marry stay Catholic despite her upbringing (mind you, Swede is Jewish)”(159).

Immediately following this, Swede has an epiphany of Angela Davis. She becomes, at this moment, Saint Angela:

At the kitchen one night Angela Davis appears to Swede, as Our Lady of Fatima did to those children in Portugal, as the Blessed Virgin did down in Cape May. He thinks, Angela Davis can get me to her – and there she is. (160)

The description of Angela Davis by the narrator, however, is comical. It sets a wedge between the passion and dispassion Swede experiences in his epiphany. She looks “more beautiful than she looks on television”:

Her legs are long and she wears colorful minidresses to expose them. The hair is extraordinary. She peers definitely out of it like a porcupine. The hair says, “Do not approach if you don’t like pain.” (160)

….to be continued….in the next blog entry….

Comic Impositions: The Comedian as Imposter and Parasite

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In my last blog entry on Walter Benjamin and comedy, I pointed out how Benjamin was deeply interested in the relationship of comedy to tragedy. The figure of the rogue and the comic schemer are, for Benjamin, central figures which disclose the comic “inner lining” of tragedy which we see in the mourning play.   Comedy, in the figure of the rogue or imposter, is “linked to the representative of mourning.”  The mystery of mourning, for Benjamin, can be found in this comic figure.   And, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Benjamin marks the original relation between comedy and tragedy in the displacement of tragedy by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium. Socrates “silence” is different from the silence of the tragic figure because it is “histrionic” and it spurs dialogue.  Socratic dialogue works by way of irony.  And as Benjamin notes, at the end of The Symposium Agathon (a tragedian) sits together with Aristophanes (a comic playwright) and Socrates (who mediates between the two).  But what does this mean?  What makes the “intriguer” or the “imposter” so special in Benjamin’s mind?  Does he bring out something that we find with Socrates?

To be sure, Benjamin leaves this out, in a Socratic manner, and asks us to connect the dots.  First of all, isn’t Socrates called an “imposter” by Alciabades in The Symposium?  And isn’t their dialogue, which is prior to the final scene Benjamin discusses, historionic?  The answer to all of these questions is yes.  Benjamin leaves out the fact that Alciabades tries to expose Socrates as a fake.  He is leading young people on so as to seduce them.  Socrates, in response to the drunken reveler, argues that Alciabades is an overemotional lover and that he lies.  And, to be sure, when Alciabades comes into the room he takes over the space.   He knocks loudly at the door and when they open it he stumbles in with an entourage of flautists.  In the sense I discussed recently vis-à-vis Michel Serres’s reading of sound, space, and imposition, we can say that this gesture was comical. It, as Serres might say, “occupies” the space.  And Socrates, with his retort, comes to “counter occupy” it.   And, as Serres might say, this occupation is parasitic.  It is an imposition.

Socrates, in response, is also parasitic. He feeds, so to speak, on what Alciabades has introduced into the space.  And, in shaming him, Socrates demotes him.  He refuses to let Alciabades sit next to him and, instead, he chooses Agathon and Aristophanes.  In other words, the relationship of comedy to tragedy, established by Socrates, was created out of a cruel joke at Alciabades expense. There is something daemonic about it since Socrates sees Alciabades as an imposter when, in fact, he is.

An imposter is not simply someone who interrupts a party or space; rather, an imposter “imposes” something on this or that space. As Serres would claim, the imposter takes over the space.  Serres’s reading can certainly be used to interpret what Bejamin’s understanding of comedy as the “inner side of mourning.”  After all, in the displacement of one thing by another (for instance tragedy by comedy) there is something comical going on. But that comedy is, in some senses cruel because, in order to speak and to draw on energy, it must feed on the already existing energy in this or that space.

Serres, near the end of The Parasite, discusses the comedic in terms of Moliere’s Tartuffe.  As Serres notes, Tartuffe is described, by one of Moliere’s characters as “The swindler who was able to impose on you for so long”(201).  As Serres notes, this imposition was “usually understood as cheating, the swindler imposing himself”(201).  But this meaning misses the root of the word, which, Serres points out, would “teach us that he keeps, collects, or intercepts a tax.” The tax collector is an “imposter” of sorts because he collects money, goods, etc.  He is a “parasite” who lives off of the money of the people.  Serres notes that in Italian “tartuffe” is associated with a “mushroom” which “detours and captures.”

What Serres is most interested in is the fact that the “economic” meaning of the term has been lost.  He wants to retain it and to take it away from all its negative uses.  (On this note, I would like to point out that he overlooks the association of Jews with parasites in his reading; this omission is telling because it was used, for instance, by Nazi propagandists in many caricatures; I hope to return to this in the near future).  Serres sees the comic imposture as brining out the workings of energy and force.

Like Socrates or Alciabades, the “imposture” slash comedian “takes over the house.” And he “imposes” the ultimate dilemma of human existence, culture, and politics: “exclude or be excluded.” “he chases everyone out so that he can be the master of the house.  He imposes the following dilemma: exclude or be excluded”(202).

This is the sinister aspect of the imposture. It works by way of mimicry – and, like a chameleon, it changes – so that it can insinuate itself into different spaces so as to “feast on the table of the master”:

I am starting with the mimetic action in the sense of a chameleon, of a polar bear or a polar hare in the Artic snows, of a butterfly that becomes a flower, of a walking stick…It is an erasure of individuality and its dissolution in the environment; it is a good means of protection in both defense and attack…I am an other, a and b, once again a synthetic judgment and the birth of the joker and the white domino. (202)

But there is more to the story.  As Serres notes, comedy has a relation to religion. This is what Benjamin suggests when he sees the comic as a secularization of sorts. What counts, for Serres, is that the parasite comedian is that he “sets things right.”  He sets things in the right direction: he “straightens out sinners, sends them to heaven.”

Referring to blood and wine, two major elements of Christianity, Serres points out that in Moliere’s play, Tartuffe, the “hostess loses blood and Tartuffe gets wine.” And “between blood and wine, between wine and blood, a new process appears that tradition calls transubstantiation.” So that now “the question of Tartuffe is suddenly turned over as it has always been: what is religion doing here in the parasitic relation?  Religion is not the subject of the play; it is the problem of comedy”(205).

In a Derridian kind of turn, Serres points out that in the Moliere play the host becomes the “guest of the guest.”   And this suggests that he becomes a parasite who feeds off of the real guest.  This inversion, suggests, Serres, may have religious import.  And it turns the comedy into a tragedy.  He asks, “did you pay for the comedy or the tragedy?”  This turn is a kind of imposture.  It imposes on the audience.  But, in the end, Serres says it is a comedy if the people still remain on stage.”  And this is the final swindle.   The end of play we learn that Tartuffe isn’t a tragedy. Rather, its only a “sickness.” And the “canonic character of comedy is the sick person.”  He survives, but he is sick.

Serres notes that this wasn’t simply a jab at the clergy of France.  On the contrary, it is a near death.  The parasite-comic feeds on but doesn’t kill the host.  He wounds the target and, in the process, he becomes sick. And, in the process, he excludes and is excluded. But, as Serres suggests, he survives.  He, the comic, drinks the wine of religion. He secularizes and is truly an imposter and an imposer…but he gets away with it.  In the end, someone has to pay.   And, as I showed above, that someone, for Socrates was Alciabades.  Or, as Benjamin argues, it was tragedy.

Comedy, it seems, comes with a price.  But it doesn’t kill its host so much as drain it of some of its life-blood. Nonetheless, as Serres suggests, even in the house of religion, where the comedian is a guest, the host becomes a guest and also becomes a parasite.  For this reason, in the end, the comedian is sick because he is also fed on.   Although he takes over the house, so to speak, through comedy, the comedian is also fed on; and, in the process, he narrowly averts death.  The crowd gives him life, but it also makes him sick.

Walter Benjamin on Socrates, Histrionic Dialogue, and Comedy as the “Inner Side of Mourning”

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Walter Benjamin was fascinated with the figure of the “imposter” (or intriguer) and how it related to the Trauerspiel (Mourning Play) since it represents the meeting point of comedy and tragedy.   This meeting point, for Benjamin, finds its precursor in Socrates.  His silence, as opposed to tragic silence, is ironic. It is based on letting one, as Leo Strauss says of Maimonides, relate chapter headings.  And this act is, in itself, comical, histrionic:

The ironic silence of the philosopher, the coy, histrionic silence, is conscious.  In place of the sacrificial death of the hero, Socrates sets the example of the pedagogue.  But, in Plato’s work, the war which the rationalism of Socrates declared on tragic art is decided against tragedy with a superiority which ultimately affected the challenger more than the object challenged. (118)

The coming together of comedy and tragedy is alluded to at the end of the Symposium. As Benjamin notes, Socrates, Agathon (the tragedian), and Aristophanes (the comic playwright) face each other as “dawn breaks over the three.”  Benjamin notes that what we find in this moment is dialogue as such and he dubs it “pure dramatic language”:

The dialogue contains pure dramatic language, unfragmented by its dialectic of tragic and comic.  This purely dramatic quality restores the mystery which had gradually become secularized in the forms of Greek Drama: its language, the language of the new drama, is, in particular, the language of Trauerspiel.  (118)

This is quite a claim.  It suggests that the Trauerspiel, against what we read in most of the book, is a dialectic of the comic and the tragic. And that the “dramatic quality” of “pure dramatic language…restores the mystery.” In other words, comedy and irony have a major part to play.

Later in the book, comedy makes its first appearance when Benjamin talks about the intriguer (or, as Michel Serres will say, in relation to Moliere – a favorite comic playwright of Benjamin, the “imposter”). Benjamin associates comedy with the “inner side of mourning”:

With the intriguer comedy is introduced into the Trauerspiel.  But not as an episode. Comedy – or more precisely: the pure joke – is the essential inner side of mourning which from time to time, like the lining of a dress at the hem or lapel, makes its presence felt.  It’s representation is linked to the representative of mourning.  (126)

Its representative is an amalgamation of a prince and a buffoon (126).  It is also evinced in the relationship between the satanic (the cruel) and the comic (which Benjamin drew from Baudelaire’s essay on the “Essence of Laughter.)  This aspect of the comic, says Benjamin, has been missed by “speculative aesthetics”: “Rarely, if ever, has speculative aesthetics considered the affinity between the strict joke and the cruel.”

Noting that we have all seen the “children laugh where adults are shocked,” Benjamin ventures that the child knows best and is teaching us about the essence of the mourning play which can be found in the relation of comedy to tragedy.  The alteration between the cruel and the comic finds its figure in the “intriguer”(126).

Using philology and a genealogy of sorts, Benjamin argues that the figure of the intriguer emerges in the 14th century by way of the rogue whose scorn marks a transition.  According to Benjamin, the scorn was originally a Christian kind of scorn for “human pride,” but, over time, it took on a “devilish” aspect.   The merrymaker, says Benjamin, is not a rogue.  And the rogue circumvents salvation; he is seen to emerge out of the murder of Jesus.   And the comic aspect of the rogue, therefore, is devilish.   And by way of the “secularization” of the “passion play,” the rogue becomes the intriguer:

As in contemporary secular drama, the rogue had already, in the religious drama of the fifteenth century, taken over the role of the comic figure, and, and, as now, this role was perfectly adapted to the structure of the play and exerted a fundamental influence on the development of the (comic) action. (127)

In an odd move, Benjamin insists that the role of the intriguer is not simply an “amalgamation of heterogenous elements.” In fact, he seems to suggest something ontological about comedy:

The cruel joke is just as original as harmless mirth; originally the two are close to each other; and it is precisely through the figure of the intriguer that the…Trauerspiel derives its contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences. (127)

In other words, the cruel joke, figured in the intriguer, facilitates “contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences.”  I put the stress on wonderful because, as we saw above, Benjamin associates the comic with preserving mystery (going as far back as Socrates).

…to be continued

(In my book on the schlemiel, I am currently working on a chapter that addresses Walter Benjamin’s reading of the intriguer since it taps into Benjamin’s deep interest in the comic. This interest in the comic has, for some odd reason, been bypassed by major Benjamin scholars.   This blog, essays to be published on this topic, and my book, look to address this gap in Benjamin scholarship.)

 

Presidential Comedy: On the Meaning and Task of President Obama’s Comedic Performances

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Just yesterday, Zach Galifianakis’s comic interview of President Obama – on his show “Between the Two Ferns” – went viral.  I noticed that some of my friends on facebook were upset about the video and believed that President Obama was trivializing his Presidency by going on the show and doing a comic routine with Galifianakis.  And in a press conference yesterday, Jay Carney was asked about whether he thought it had this negative effect and if it had been discussed before the President decided to make an appearance.  Skirting the issue as to whether or not this tarnishes the image of the President, Carney pointed out that the task of the President was not to just get facetime.  Rather, he was looking to promote the “Affordable Care Act.”  There is ample evidence of this in the interview since Galifianakis gives the President a few minutes to discuss it.   And the comic interview ends with Galifianakis showing the President a bunch of spider bites on his arm.  Given the pitch, one knows the punch line: “Zach, you should look into the Affordable Care Act.  You need a doctor.”  Because, “You,” like many young Americans, “think you are invincible (not “invisible”) but you’re not.”

What has been missed in this discussion about the President’s appearance on the show is the fact that the President has done comedy before.   In fact, I wrote on his comedic performance at the Presidential Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2013.  As I noted, President Obama told a Groucho Marx joke and even played a role in a comic short written and directed by none other than Steven Speilberg.

 

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The fundamental difference between his appearance on “Between the Ferns” and his comedic performance in the film (and on the podium) at the Presidential Correspondents’ Dinner was the fact that in film and on the podium he played the role of the schlemiel.  Here, in contrast, Galifianakis plays the role of the schlemiel while President Obama appears serious.  To be sure, he isn’t doing comedy so much as humoring a schlemiel.

I find this shift in comedic roles to be telling.

The shift is tactical and, obviously, political.  And it shows us how the schlemiel can be used, politically, depending on the context and the goals.  With regard to the comedic performance at the Presidential Correspondence Dinner, President Obama was, at that time, trying to regain the confidence of the public.  As I noted in my blog entry on that performance, President Obama, at the end, tells the audience that the American public has become too cynical and had a hard time trusting him.  And this, one can see, is directly related to why he played a schlemiel of the Eastern European variety: the schlemiel is, in the Eastern European style of Jewish comedy (which has been inherited, in part, by Hollywood), a comic character who, oftentimes, gains the trust of his or her audience by way of absent-mindedness, naivite, and charm.   The schlemiel, in other words, can help to counteract cynicism.  To be sure, Ruth Wisse, in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, notes several times how the schlemiel creates a tension between hope and skepticism (or, at the extreme, cynicism).   But, here, as in many other instances of the contemporary schlemiel, that tension is effaced and gives more power to hope over cynicism.  (And as I have noted in relation to what President Obama did at this dinner, the topic of encountering cynicism finds an interesting correlate in the work of Slavoj Zizek.)

In contrast to his comedic use of the schlemiel, his appearance on “Between the Two Ferns” is serious. Zach Galifianakis plays the schlemiel.  But this performance has a different task.  Instead of gaining trust and effacing cynicism, President Obama is looking to present a serious issue: The Affordable Care Act.  To do this, he must be serious.  Now, instead of being endearing, the naivite of Zach Galifianakis (which is tainted with cynicism, no less) comes across as plain stupid.  Here the schlemiel is depicted as he was by Jews in Germany (not in Eastern Europe); this schlemiel does things that are to be laughed at because they are in need of correction.  His cynicism and lack of intelligence are an obstacle to his health and well-being.  Here, President Obama is out to correct the misguided schlemiel, Zach Galifianakis. The message: don’t be like Zach, sign up and get a doctor; you’re not invincible.  And stop being so cynical.

The fact that the President can sometimes play the schlemiel and other times mock the schlemiel shows us that he is versatile in his comic performances.  But, more importantly, it shows us that the schlemiel has a role in the crafting of his public image and his political strategy.    This is a fascinating twist because, as Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse have pointed out in their work on the schlemiel, the schlemiel is often apolitical.  If anything, it challenges politics.

For instance, take a look at the beginning of Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, and you will see several jokes that parody politics and power.   Here we see the schlemiel employed, on the contrary, for political purposes.  To be sure, there is a lot to learn from this.  The political appropriation of the schlemiel by a Presidential administration is a topic that needs attention and schlemiel theory is leading the way in opening up this new discourse.  I hope to write more on this in the near future.

Fuck You, Thank You: Speaking of Buddy Hackett

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In one of his many phases, Walter Benjamin had a moment, near the end of his life, where he was into going through “the trash of history” so as to find things that had historical potentiality.  One could argue that Benjamin saw himself as commentator who, in commenting on trash, could bring it to life and make this or that piece of history into a quasi-kind of history – the kind that lives on in his commentary.  To be sure, Benjamin read Franz Kafka as a commentator.  In a letter to Gershom Scholem, written near the end of his life, Benjamin argues that although Kafka’s work was a comic failure he did, at the very least, succeed in being a commentator.  This idea, which I am addressing in my book on the schlemiel, struck a deep cord because, in a major sense, it relates to the trash of history.   To be sure, Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin describes them, seem to be the kinds of characters you would find in the dustbin of history: they are broken, ragged, and comical.   However, these characters are, if we take Benjamin seriously, the products of commentary.  In other words, Kafakesque comic figures, which seem to have emerged from the trash, are the products of commentary.

Given this logic, I would like to suggest something that may not seem so novel but, when thought through Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, is; namely, that stand-up comedy, especially when it is trashy, has the potential to offer the greatest commentary.  However, as Benjamin wondered with regard to Kafka, what is the text it is commenting on.  When it comes to many comedians, the answer is obvious: they are commenting on society or on our attitudes toward this or that social practice or belief.  But when it comes to some comedians, the answer isn’t so simple. In addition, the position or relation the commentator to the text or comedian commented brings on an added dimension to the reception of this commentary. One comedian I have in mind – whose relation to me is odd – is Buddy Hackett (whose real, more “Jewish” sounding name, was Leonard Hacker):

Why is my relation odd? First of all, I didn’t grow up with Buddy Hackett.  My parents did.  When I look at his comedy, I feel as if I am trying to understand their generation.  Yet, at the same time, I look at him as a Jewish stand-up comedian who is a part of a line of Borsht Belt comedians that stretches back to the mid-20th century.  Not only does Hackett speak a lot of trash, he is also a comedian who emerges out of the trash of Jewish American history.

How do I read him?  And what text is this trash of comic history commenting on?

First of all, I have my own visceral reactions to his face and his gestures.  They remind me of a New York that was, of my relatives and family members from Brooklyn (where he hails from).   There is a way of speaking that is distinctly that of New York Jews.

What I love most about it is his boldness.  He throws his body, his voice, and his vulgarity out toward the audience.  Yet he does so in an endearing way since his gestures and his body (his face, ears, eyes, etc) are child-like and animated.  His body is that of a schlemiel, a man-child.   It has an innocence that is juxtaposed to his saying or gesturing naughty things.  And this creates an odd, and exciting affect since it animates (or as Benjamin might say illuminates)…trash.  His words evince what Benjamin might call a profane illumination about ourselves and the American time and space we share with Buddy. This, it seems, is the social con-text that his comic commentary illuminates.

In his book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand Up Comics, Phil Berger suggests that we read Hackett in terms of his persona on and off stage.  There is a continuum of sorts that, if we look closely, can help us to see the comic’s life.   He looks, first, at his body and ironic demeanor and this hits at what I call the schlemiel juxtaposed to the bad-boy.

Buddy Hackett was a kind of Socrates – as we seen in The Symposium – he appears one way but is another.  He was a…

…man cold sober when up to no good.   He had the bullyboy’s ease, a distinction the very look of him argued against.  The bulbed nose, the crooked mouth, the chreub’s cheeks: it was the best of comic faces – and, it seemed, a masterpiece of illusion. (297)

Hackett was innocent but his name “provoked obscenity filled denunciations, many of which had “off-the-record” tagged to them the moment after they were uttered – and by comics who otherwise stood by their words”(297).

Because of this “history,” whenever people spoke to Hackett they were on their guard.  As Berger notes, by way of citing conversations he had with Hackett’s friends, Hackett was “unpredictable” in public.  He could “say fuck you as easily as he could say thank you.”  Berger recounts a story told to him by the “columnist Joe Delaney” about Hackett’s interchanging of the words “fuck you” and “thank you.”   According to Delaney, Hackett said fuck you in an endearing, unexpected way, and tells of a story of when a fan came up to Hackett for an autograph. When he heard this, he said:

“How would you like to perform a unilateral act?  She said, “I don’t know what you mean?” He said, “How about, go fuck yourself.  Is that clear enough?” She said, {huffily} “Well!” He said, “Then give me the piece of paper and I’ll sign.”

Although this scene is vulgar and rude, it is, nonetheless, read as endearing by Delaney:

I think that if he felt that that lady to whom he said, “Go perform a unilateral act,” was truly hurt, then he would try to make amends…you know what I am saying? I don’t think he’s a hurtful man….He really, he really is a very gentle sensitive man..”

Delaney goes on to recall how, when he read a Haiku poem to Hackett, Hackett broke down crying since the poem was alluding to sudden death.  Berger goes on this note to claim that Hackett played with poetry and was a poet of sorts; but this was conveyed by irony.  He would actually play at being a poet on stage but this was a “quasi-poetic fix to make middlebrow audiences there for laughs feel culture fucked in the bargain.”

In other words, Hackett did and did not have a poetic sensibility.  He was and was not vulnerable.  This ambiguity comes through when he trashes poetry or when he utters trash or vulgarity.  It makes for a schlemiel effect that empties out the trash, so to speak, and brings about a profane illumination of sorts.  But the trick is to get past the vulgarity to the schlemiel core in every joke.  And the irony of it all is that to do that one nearly needs to be ready for the unexpected vulgarity with the understanding that in saying “fuck you” he is really saying “thank you.”  And this juxtaposition is a kind of trashy-kind-of-commentary.

The question, however, is what was the textual basis for this trashy kind of commentary?   Is it the text of a historical relationship between Buddy and the Jewish-American world, a relationship that was, as it was happening, becoming the trash of history?  How was this failure, in Benjamin and Kafka’s sense, a positive commentary?

More later….