Tag: Gary Shteyngart

Almost Communicating, or What Happens When a Middle-Age Schlemiel Falls in Love With a Korean Girl – Part I

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Over the last decade, we have seen countless films about “middling” or aging schlemiels. Think of Ben Stiller’s roles in Meet the Fockers (2004), Greenberg (2010), or The Heartbreak Kid (2007), Seth Rogen’s Neighbors (2014) or Guilt Trip (2012), or of Judd Apatow’s 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), or This is 40 (2012).  Apatow, more than any filmmaker, has made something of a cottage industry based on middle age schlemiels.

Also think of Sarah Silverman’s latest work for her youtube channel, Jash, where she is constantly looking into what her character, a 40 plus year old woman, goes through as she ages. The task of documenting the aging schlemiel is nothing new, however. One need look no father than the popularization of this in Woody Allen’s films – especially Annie Hall (1977).   

While the filmic exploration of the aging schlemiel is widespread and noticeable – to such an extent that the middling schlemiel is becoming something of an American cultural icon – the literary equivalent is less noticed by the everyday American. To be sure, books like Stern, by Bruce Jay Freedman, Herzog, by Saul Bellow, A New Life, by Bernard Malamud, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti – to name only a handful examples which span over four decades – take the aging schlemiel as their theme.

What’s most interesting about these literary treatments of the middling/aging schlemiel is that they give us an acute sense of how the schlemiel – and we ourselves – are becoming more and more out of sync with the times we are living in. After repeated failure, the schlemiel eagerly tries to carve out a “new life.” But as s/he ages s/he comes to realize that she hasn’t succeeded and that now, with age, things are more difficult than before. This creates a desperate situation and character whose new failures are much worse than before. Yet, with all of this failure and repeated failure, there is a kind of charm that comes through in this or that missed encounter, missed social cue, or belated response. Most charming is the middling schlemiel’s failure to communicate when love is on the table and cultural differences are front-row-center. The conceit of the narrative is to be found in how the middling schlemiel navigates these gaps.

We see an exceptional illustration of this middling schlemiel’s attempt at bridging the gaps between youth and middle age as well as between Korean and Jewish in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.   The fascinating thing is that one gap challenges another in his novel. The middling main character Lenny Abramov – a Russian-American-Jewish son of immigrants – stumbles across Eunice Park, falls in love with her, and does his most to deal with this gap and win her over. But his failures show the desperation of this gesture; nonetheless, she also fails. And the way she fails – with her family’s expectations and her own expectations – transforms her into a character who, though Korean, shares much in common with the schlemiel. Regardless, the communication gap, the age gap, and the cultural gap challenge this commonality and make for a fascinating read on the middling schlemiel which solicits culture, love, and communication as relevant to being (and understanding) a schlemiel.

For now, I just want to touch on the communication gap when they first meet. It becomes the foundation for the ensuing struggle to bridge it. When he leaves with her, after a party that he and she occasion in Rome, Italy, he feels she left with him because she really likes him and that, in some way, he is her hero. In his mind, he has saved her from another middling man – a physically intimidating sculptor – who, aggressively, challenges Lenny when he tries to talk with Eunice, his Korean love interest. He is snubbed by the sculptor but, in the end, he wins a kind of indirect victory when she leaves with him not the sculptor.

Notice the comedic rhetoric that is used to describe his movements in relation to hers. He thinks of himself as a hero, but comes across as an anti-hero:

Eunice Park and I marched ahead. She marched, I hopped, unable to cover up the joy of having escaped the party with her by my side. I wanted Eunice to thank me for saving her from the sculptor and his stench of death. I wanted her to get to know me and then to repudiate all the terrible things he said about my person, my supposed greed, my boundless ambition, my lack of talent…I wanted to tell her that I myself was in danger….all because I had slept with one middle-aged Italian woman. (21)

But telling her wouldn’t matter. Eunice could care less about the situation Lenny was going through.

Feeling young and hip – although he is middling – he tells her of a cool “Nigerian” restaurant in Rome to go to following the party: “I stressed “Nigerian” to underline my openmindedness. Lenny Abramov, friend to all”(21). But this doesn’t get through to her.

She calls him a nerd and throws several three letter abbreviations – hip in youth culture – at him to show the gap between them. And this “hurts” him:

“You’re such a nerd.” She laughed cruelly at me.

“What?” I said. “I’m sorry.” I laughed to, just in case it was a joke, but right away I felt hurt.

“LPT,” she said, “TIMATOV. ROFLAARP, PRGV, Totally PRGV.”

The youth and their abbreviations. I pretended like I knew what she was talking about. “Right,” I said, “IMF. PLO. ESL.”

His abbreviations emerge out of a different era and show what things that were of interest to him, then: ESL (fitting in to American culture), PLO (being a Jew whose Russian parents were very concerned with Israel’s future), and IMF (which shows he may have had interest in activism against globalization, when it first started emerging)

The gap is pronounced and the pain that comes with the missed encounter and communication lag show us the life of a middling schlemiel who desperately tries to overcome what, in fact, may not be possible to overcome. After all, age is existential. So is culture….

Charm…that’s another issue…. Can it bridge the gap?

….to be continued…

 

 

Introducing Larry Abramov, Your Humble Diarist in “Super Sad True Love Story”

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Thomas Mann, near the beginning of his book Death in Venice, presents a figure of a man on a boat who, though old, is dressed as if he is young. Mann uses the most grotesque terms to describe him. The narrator tells us that Aschenbach, the main character, is appalled by the juxtaposition of youth and old age. And this evokes an experience of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger might call an experience of angst or what Freud would call the uncanny. At first, he sees a man in a “bright yellow summer suit of ultra-fashionable cut, with a red necktie, and a rakishly tilted Panama, surpassed all the others in his crowing good humor.” But when he looks closer the “good humor” and gay-candor become terrifying:

But as soon as Aschenbach looked at him more carefully, he discovered with a kind of horror that the youth was a cheat. He was old, that was unquestionable. There were wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The faint crimson of the cheeks was paint, the hair under his brilliantly decorated straw hat was a wig; his neck was hollow and stringy, his turned-up mustache and imperial on his chin were dyed; the full set of yellow teeth which he displayed when he laughed, a cheap artificial plate…Fascinated with loathing, Aschenbach watched him intercourse with his friends….He felt as thought everything were not quite the same as usual, as though some dreamlike estrangement, some peculiar distortion of the world were beginning to take possession of him.

What I love about Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story is the fact that, unlike Mann’s Aschenbach, we are given an opportunity to chuckle about the juxtaposition of age and youth (that is middle-age and youth). Instead of pulling back in horror and anxiety, Shteyngart gives a kind of sad-charm to the juxtaposition.  

At the outset of the novel, entitled “Do not go Gentle,” we read a diary entry by the main character, Larry Abramov. He is a middle aged man who tells us that he has made a “major decision: I am never going to die.”   His description of how he is going to live on beyond his body is comical. He tells us, with a faux confidence, that “others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain.”

In pop-cultural confidence, Abramov tells himself (after all, it’s his diary) to stop “them” from telling us that “life’s a journey” where you end up somewhere. He assures himself that they are going nowhere, while he is going somewhere:

When I beg the pilot of the rickety UnitedContinentalDeltamerican plane currently trembling its way across the Atlantic to turn around and head straight back to Rome and into Eunice Park’s fickle arms, that’s a journey.(3)

But he won’t beg him. He’s a schlemiel. And this is his fictional attempt at romantic heroism.  Yes, he will return to the woman he is in love with: Eunice Park. But how?  After writing this, he can’t keep his mind on the romantic mission.  He’s a distracted anti-hero.  He changes the subject in what  seems a sudden revelation. And that revelation is not about returning to her on a romantic journey, but the meaning of a line in a popular Whitney Houston song.  It speaks to his obsession with “living on.”

But wait. There’s more, isn’t there? There’s our legacy. We don’t die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of the DNA, Mama’s corkscrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip, au buh-lieve thuh chil’ren ah our future. I’m quoting here from “The Greatest Love All,” by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP. Utter nonsense. The children are our future only in the most narrow, transitive sense. They are our future until they too perish. The song’s next line, “Teach them well and let them lead the way,” encourages adult’s relinquishing of selfhood in favor of future generations. (4)

He thinks this self-negation (for the children and their future) is foolish. But when he reflects on the meaning of Whitney Houston’s line about “ah chil’ren” this brings him to reflect, once again, on Eunice Park.  And in this reflection, we see why he charmed by her: she is young and innocent.  The two, taken together, bring out a comical juxtaposition of youth and middle age:

Lovely and fresh in their youth; blind to mortality; rolling around, Eunice Park-like, in the tall grass with their alabaster legs; fawns, sweet fawns, all of them, gleaming in their plasticisty; at one with the simple nature of their world. (4)

As one can see, he is drawn in by Eunice Park who is “blind to mortality” while he, apparently, is not. He sees her as an “innocent” schlemiel. And he seems to want that for himself because he is thinking about death and immortality. But, and this is the catch, he is also a schlemiel because he dreams of escaping mortality by way of technology. He has been swayed by what Dostoevsky would call the “miracle” of science. 

But unlike Thomas Mann’s narrator, we don’t see a character who is horrified of this juxtaposition of youth and age. This covering over of death evokes a different mood and has a charm that is missing in Mann’s novel.

….to be continued….

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

I Don’t Have to Grow Up, I’m an American Kid: Gary Shteyngart’s Parody (?) of American Dreams

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Near the end of Gary Shteyngart’s second novel – Absurdistan – Misha, the main character, reflects on what he learned about America from “Accidental College.”  What we find in this account is a description of America as a place where the fine line between childhood and adulthood “has been eroding.”  At Accidental College, dreams are greater than all and dreams, for Misha, are the substance of childhood:

At Accidental College, we were taught that our dreams and our beliefs were all that mattered, that the world would eventually sway to our will, fall in step with our goodness, swoon right into our delicate white arms.  (230)

The classes Misha took at Accidental College reflect a curriculum that is not so much about preparing one for the adult world as returning one to the state of dreams and childhood.  He sees this as a symptom of something larger happening in America in which the fine lines between childhood and adulthood, on the one hand, and the personal and the fantastic, on the other, are effaced:

All over America, the membrane between adulthood and childhood had been eroding, the fantastic and the personal melding into one, adult worries receding into a pink childhood haze. (230)

As support for this claim, Misha notes that he was gone to parties in Brooklyn “where men and women in their mid-thirties would passionately discuss the fine points of the Little Mermaid or the travails of their favorite superhero.  Deep inside, we all wished to have communion with that tiny red-haired underwater bitch.  We all wanted to soar high above the city…and champion the rights of somebody, anybody”(230).

Misha finishes his meditation on America by likening democracy to “the best Disney cartoon ever made.”

Although Misha often comes across as an out-of-touch fool, this meditation on America, like much else he says, has an element of truth.  To be sure, Shteyngart, in much of his work, celebrates the effacement of the fine line between childhood and adulthood.  The fact that his parodies of this effacement are mild and silly doesn’t do much to reinstate this line.  In fact, I’d say that that’s not what he wants to do.  Rather, it seems as if he sees this as a new, ironic norm, which, in many ways, comes to accept the childish aspects of American reality as a fact.

Reading his account, one wonders how much of this description resonates with the author of the new memoir Little Failure.  To be sure, Shteyngart no longer goes through characters such as Misha or Vladmir to explore his relationship to America; he goes by way of a reflection on himself.  And many of these reflections, as we can see from interviews and excerpts from his memoir, cast him as a man-child.

His “little failure” (as well as the picture for the book) give another shade to the America that Misha saw by way of his education at Accidental College and his experiences in Brooklyn.  They may be ironic, but the fact of the matter is that unlike much irony, which looks to wound or destroy its target, this irony is the irony of a kind of acceptance which, ultimately, is ridiculous.

In this irony, America, the land of dreams, becomes literalized.  This works well with Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi’s reflections on America in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination.   In her view, America remains a land that is perfect for the diasporic schlemiel.  Shteyngart adds to this by showing that its not just a land of dreams it’s a land of perpetual childhood where the line between being an adult and a child is, for all intents and purposes, effaced.

We don’t have to accept these generalizations or descriptions.  To be sure, they belong to a certain project.  To be sure, the schlemiel need not be seen as a man-child.  S/he shuttles back and forth.  And her failure is not something silly or childish.  This is what great Jewish American novelists like Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow want to show us.

One that fine line between childhood and adulthood is effaced, however, failure itself will become “little” and silly.  When it comes to the schlemiel, we have to take this risk seriously.  The problem with characters like Misha is that they seem to have no problem with this, and we see this in his portrayal of American and his American education.

I suggest that the line between the two remain porous, but not effaced.  The question of what it means to become mature is at the basis of the question of failure.  We need to learn how to articulate this question by way of the schlemiel who is a comic failure.  His failures may be comic but let’s hope they don’t become so small as to become childish and silly.

When that happens, the meaning and power of this comic character will be lost.

When is too much…too much? The Exhaustion of Failure in Shteyngart’s Little-Failure-Ad-Campaign

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Ok.  Its good to know what someone is doing, but when is too much…too much?  And what happens when what he or she is saying is not particularly that insightful?

When it comes to the schlemiel, there is a limit.   Every good writer knows that.  Overkill doesn’t do the schlemiel well.  This is what I fail to see in the Gary Shteyngart’s ad campaign to promote his work.  The content of this endless series of faux pas – inside of interviews, a film trailer, the pages of memoir that he sent to the New York Times, endless praise in this or that newspaper, where we see the ironic little immigrant failure foregrounded – is too obvious and cliche.  It is overplayed and it actually reduces the schlemiel character to the endless repetition of bad jokes.   To be sure, I turn to literature so I don’t have to see all the schlemiel characters that Will Farell, Seth Rogen, and Ben Stiller do so well.  I don’t want to find Hollywood in a schlemiel novel (or a schlemiel memoir).  And I don’t want to hear the a self-congratulatory and slightly snarky tone that I so often find on the pages of New York Magazine.

When I see all of this, I realize what I don’t like.  What I want to see is a schlemiel that is far from New York Hipsterdom and Hollywood comedy.   And I have recently found this in the pages of Bernard Malamud’s novel A New Life.  What I discovered is that, not too long ago, the American schlemiel was a character who, though comic, was trying to seriously start a “new life.”  Shteyngart mimes this process in much of his work.

The life that his characters live or end off with in nearly every novel is, as I pointed out elsewhere “normal” or else lived in yearning of returning to New York.  The end is lacking believability because the characters are either too normal or too ridiculous in their life.

In Malamud’s A New Life, the main character Levin is much more believable.  His schlemiel character touches deep on the life of the male American Jew.   The failures of Levin are not too caricatured.   They feel like real failures.

In taking himself as his subject, Shteyngart’s failures are caricatured.   They are truly silly.  Though animated, they are about as interesting as the next article on your facebook feed.

A recent cartoon interview with Shtyengart is a case in point.

http://bookriot.com/2014/01/12/comic-interview-gary-shteyngart/

The ironic line that gives it all away happens when Shteyngart jokingly tells us that:

Inside the little clown was an angry kid trying to get out.  Had I been bigger I would have been some kind of bully. 

And the punch line:

Thank God for my tiny frame.

What we are left with is a Jew whose body limits his inner anger.  He doesn’t have the frame to be a man.  The joke is obvious and it makes the Jewish body into a pathetic site of failure.

What’s lost in all this is Levin, Malamud’s schlemiel.  When I think of Levin, I don’t think of his body.  I think in terms of his desire for something better than what he has experienced in his life.  He is a schlemiel because the life he ends up with is new but not in the way he expected.  He often makes the wrong choices, but not always.  He is not a pathetic failure, nor does he endlessly play on failure.  Levin seems to be on, but he’s  just a little off.   Nonetheless, he does have some minor triumphs.  And these are meaningful.  The treatment of failure in American life (for a Jew) is much more believable, humbling, and meaningful.  Malamud’s schlemiel is someone who I can identify with: his failures, real enough, hit on something common to many American Jews – even I, who was born from a different generation than Malamud, find something more resonant in his schlemiels (something that really is about being a Jew and being a failure).

Shteyngart is my age.  We come from the same time, but we come from different countries.  And, more importantly, we have a different understanding of the schlemiel.

Though I have spent a lot of time writing on his work, I always felt that this treatment of the Jewish-American schlemiel was missing something.  I couldn’t identify with his schlemiels as I could with Roth, Bellow, or Malamud’s.   In Levin, Herzog, and Portnoy there is a serious engagement with the link between an American, a Jew, and a schlemiel. Their schlemiels have given me insight into how Jewish schlemiels are locked into different identity-crises: one’s that matter.

The fact that the Jews survives this crisis while at the same time failing gives a deeper shade to the meaning of failure.  Shteyngart’s interviews and ads do the opposite.  In fact, watching them, I feel as if the schlemiel becomes more and more clichéd and empty.  Failure loses all of its content.

When did we ever settle for this?  What does it mean that Random House thinks that we can no longer live through the schlemiel like we used to?  When did they decide that the schlemiel was utterly meaningless by way of infinite repetition and non-variation?

So, when is too much, too much?  When is the praise of the “Little Failure” too much?

Answer: right now.

What we have with this repetition of a certain kind of  schlemiel….is the exhaustion of failure….

A Brief Note on Varieties of Schlemiel Experience: Coen Brothers, Gary Shteyngart, and Judd Apatow

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As far as schlemiel theory goes, I’ve been writing on a variety of the schlemiels this week.  The differences between them are suggestive.  But, more importantly, I’m seeing that I identify more with one variety rather than another.  And the reasons I have for this identification speak most to what I find, today, most important about this character.    I hope that my identification resonates with other people since, to my mind, we now have a rare opportunity to understand how important the schlemiel can be – at this historical  moment -for prompting thought about what it means to be an American.  This thought, as I will argue, engages us in existential questions that are of great urgency.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post on a trailer that Random House posted on Gary Shteyngart.  The point of the blog entry was to address a reading of the trailer made by Slate.   The author of the article claimed that the trailer failed miserably in attempting to make a gay joke vis-à-vis Shteyngart’s performance as a gay author with two husbands (played by James Franco and Jonathan Franzen).  I felt the repeated characterization of this trailer as the product of “lazy” thinking was a red herring.  Instead of presenting an argument it presents that author’s preference for gay jokes told about a James Franco who, in his mind, authentically attempted to embody gayness in a recent celebrity roast.   This aside, I felt that the real issue was the characterization of Shteyngart as a schlemiel (a “little failure”) in this trailer for his book by the same name.

To this end, I looked at how the trailer – by way of the schlemiel -offers a critique of success and masculinity.  This is what I call the “meaning of failure.”  However, the truth of the matter is that the critique is mild.    I wouldn’t exactly call it the product of “lazy thinking” so much as a similar concession to a market that filmmakers like Judd Apatow have taken full advantage.

To be sure, Judd Apatow’s schlemiels – in films like Forty Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Super Bad – may be failures but they are all, ultimately, commercial successes.  And, in contrast to the schlemiel we see played by Gary Shteyngart, his schlemiels end up, at the end of the film, winning.  Regardless, both varieties of schlemiels in Shteyngart’s tailer and Apatow’s films are charming.  Their failure doesn’t hit home to hard.  It isn’t what I’d call existential.  And, ultimately, there is little we can gain from it save for a kind of snarky, comic titillation.   This brand of schlemiel comedy can be seen in shows like Big Bang Theory and in nearly every Will Farell film.   There is little that can be said about this save for the fact that it simply maintains a status quo and instead of prompting change it creates a new norm in which schlemiels-are-one-of-us.  They may not be the likes of James Franco or Jonathan Franzen – “real men” who seek out “truth” and live out the “erotic” – but they are, like all of us, a little deluded by their hopes.  Nothing too disturbing is at work, here.  No.  In the end, all of this schlemiel comedy is feel-good-comedy.  Americans can laugh a little at their schlemiel-keit and still feel good about their misperceptions.  We can face the day without any anxiety or sadness.

In contrast to these varieties of schlemiel, I was fortunate to have seen the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis this week.  In this film, we see another variety of schlemiel that, to my mind, deserves more elaboration.   As I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, J. Hoberman decided to read the film – and all other Coen Brother’s films – in terms of the schlemiel.   His reading of the schlemiel sees this character as the subject of his own demise since he is blind to the things he does and brings on his own bad luck.  However, as Hoberman also notes, he is also is the subject of bad luck that is not of his own making.   To be sure, one might think he is a shlimazel (the subject of bad luck) since he is hit with so much bad luck (indeed, one of my friends tweeted me that he thought Hoberman was wrong: Llewyn Davis wasn’t a schlemiel, he was a shlimazel.)

The reason I identify more with the Coen Brothers film is because the schlemiel they show us is not of the feel-good type.  Davis’s misperceptions, false-hopes, and failures are not laughable in the same way they are with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen et al.  Rather, they are painful to watch.  And, as I noted, yesterday, what makes him a schlemiel is not so much his charm or this or that redeeming quality so much as the possibility that, at the end of the film, he may have hope.  But more to the point, he is a schlemiel because he persists – despite the fact that the odds are against him.  But this persistence is permeated with weariness and failure.

The range of identifications we have with Davis is much more complex than any of the feel-good schlemiel films.  To be sure, I left the film thinking about myself: my false hopes, failures, my family, and the America that helped to foster my dreams.  I didn’t leave any Judd Apatow film with these thoughts.  On the contrary, I could go home feeling good about myself.

One of the great insights I left the film with was that we need to look into what is outside Llewyn Davis (outside the schlemiel) so as to understand what is inside him.  The Coen Brothers cast him in relation to failed artists, his decaying family, outsiders, and a long-journey from New York City to Chicago and back again.  His schlemiel character is defined against this outside which exudes hopelessness, hardness, and decay.  His false hopes, in many ways, are a response to this outside.  They protect him from being destroyed by this outside.  However, this protection is thinned out as the film goes on.

The more weary he grows, the more he realizes that the hopes he had set up for himself were out of tune with what was possible.  However, we see that it is not simply his fault.  The fact that he actually does make an album shows us that his hopes were nurtured by an industry.  But, as we see, this industry could care less about him.  And when he arrives in Chicago this hits home.  To be sure, his long journey there reminds me of what happens to the main character of James Joyce’s classic story “Araby”: the time the character has to wait before arriving at his destination wears away at his passion so much so that when he arrives he realizes that he was running on false hope.

To be sure, during the trip to and back from Chicago Llewyn shows us a schlemiel who realizes that he has failed on many levels. But the twist is that, though this is the case, he still goes on hoping and being a schlemiel (albeit with reduced hopes).

J. Hoberman, in his review of the film, thinks that this film has resonance with Bruce Jay Friedman’s novel, Stern.  But, after seeing the film,  I think the better reference is to Bernard Malamud.  Ruth Wisse points out that Malamud’s schlemiel’s also fail but they go through an existential process of coming to terms with these failures.  Yet, like this film, they still remain schlemiels.

Wisse tells us that Malamud’s “interest” in the schlemiel has “not been sociologically determined.   Alone among American writers he has fixed on the Jews as representative man – and on the schlemiel as the representative Jew.  His Jewish Everyman is an isolated, displaced loner, American in Italy, Eastern in the West, German refugee in America, bird among bipeds”(110).  And there is a challenge to the status quo in his work:  “Malamud sees the schlemiel condition as the clearest alternative to the still-dominant religion of success”(111).   But the alternative is based on becoming cognizant of one’s failure and delusions: “The character courageous enough to accept his ignomity without being crushed by it is the true hero of Malamud’s opus, while the man playing the Western hero without admitting to his real identity – Jewish, fearful, suffering, loving, un-heroic – is the absolute loser”(111).

Wisse’s final distinction can be applied to the Coen Brother’s Llewyn Davis.  Everything he touches “turns to shit,” he is a good musician, but he is not the hero of folk music.  By the end of the film he “admits” to this.  And we see this in the scene where, after leaving the venue where Bob Dylan is playing (for the first time), he is beat up by the husband of a woman-musician he lashed out at when he – for a moment – threw all his dreams away.

Sitting on the sidewalk and watching the cab drive away, with Dylan playing in the background, Davis, for the first time in the film, smiles.  And by doing so, he accepts his “real identity” as a ‘fearful and suffering man” who has no right to take away the dreams of others.

I want to add to this by pointing out that this, in contrast to the possibility of becoming successful with Bob Dylan, is what makes him a schlemiel.  He is a schlemiel because he fails, grows bitter, and accepts it.  At this moment, what is outside Llweyn Davis goes inside.   Still, it is up to us to decide whether or not all of his bad luck is redeemed by the possibility of Dylan.

To be sure, this decision is based on our historical situation and the place of hope and cynicism in our society, today.  The brief moment at the end of the film may, for us, be outweighed by the rest of the film and, in that case, Davis may come across as yet another American casualty.   On the other hand, this brief moment may come across as a moment of hope. This all depends on how we see ourselves in history.  Malamud, it seems, finds the power of freedom – the power to accept one’s bad luck – as the definitive moment.   And this, it seems, would be in defiance of history.  On the other hand, what might matter most is how we, and not the characters, in this historical moment, have to say about hope and cynicism.

Regardless of how you look at it, the fact of the matter is that this variety of the schlemiel – as opposed to the other varieties I have mentioned above – prompts these questions.  To be sure, we need more schlemiels of the Coen Brothers and Bernard Malamud type today.  These other schlemiels simply make us feel good about ourselves; in contrast, their schlemiels prompt us to think, become anxious about who we are, and to seriously address the meaning of hope and cynicism in America. The “land of dreams” gives birth to schlemiels, but it also destroys them and enables them to destroy themselves.  It also gives them an opportunity to ask questions about existence that, in other countries, are simply not possible.

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.