Tag: Hannah Arendt

Courting Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel – An Essay Published in Berfrois

Jewishness, the Holocaust, and History: Irving Howe on the Holocaust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflections sur la question juive

DownloadedFile-4

At the beginning of a chapter to his “intellectual autobiography” entitled “Jewish Quandaries,” Irving Howe begins with questions “from young friends” about the Holocaust: “When did you first become aware of the gas chambers? How did you respond to the reports from Europe that the Nazis were systematically exterminating Jews?”   Howe points out that “for some years now” these questions are also his questions (247). And when he thinks of them now, reflecting on how he first responded to them, he has a “recurrent clamor of confused memories.”   He says he cannot answer them with “clear thoughts and eloquent emotions.” Howe counts himself as one of the people who, when faced with “great cataclysms…blink and stumble…retreat into old opinions….turn away in fear”(247). Howe isn’t happy with this situation and describes his moral quandary and his failure.

Howe points out that facts and information were “pouring out after the war” but he didn’t grasp the meaning of the event until the early fifties. He personifies his awakening to this as something belated and shameful. In this trial by memory, he is guilty. And according to his conscience, he is accused of not being moral enough.

Memory points a figure: “You were slow, you were dull in responding to the Holocaust.” I plead guilty, but would add mildly that now, when incessant talk about the Holocaust risks becoming a media vulgarity, we may value silence a bit more than anyone could have supposed in the earlier years. Conscience scoffs: “Come, you’re not really trying to say you were silent because your feelings overwhelmed you? Wasn’t it more likely that your feelings were rather skimpy?” (248)

In not being able to “grapple with the Holocaust,” Howe believes he had lost his humanity. To not have thought or language to address crisis is, for Howe, tantamount to losing one’s humanity. And this failure hurts him.

Howe admits that he was not alone in this failure: “No one knew what to say, no one could decide whether to cry out to the heavens or mourn in silence. We had no language.”

Howe notes how when he first heard of this, when he was in Alaska, he “felt an uncanny sort of fear.” This feeling came when he saw pictures he saw of the “GIs, ordinary American boys” looking at the “death camps piled high with corpses.” In these pictures, he noticed that they “registered a stunned horror.” In Alaska, he had no one to talk to.

When he came back to New York from Alaska, Howe slowly realized that his Marxist framework would be inadequate to address the Holocaust:

Some of us continued to think more or less in Marxist categories – loosened and liberalized, but Marxist still. I would not go so far as to say that a Marxist framework foreclosed the possibility of grasping the Holocaust in its moral terribleness and historical novelty. The more terribleness we recognized as well as anyone else; the historical novelty we did not. Writing about Nazism in the thirties, when its full criminality was visible, Trotsky had foreseen it would end as “barbarism.” But that was only a word, though an accurate one, which neither we nor anyone else could yet have filled out with a sufficiently ghastly content. (249)

This thought prompts Howe to reflect on the creation of new categories for confronting a “new historical phenomenon.” And this is where he comes to terms with the limits of Marxism for understanding everything:

Marxism could tell us a good deal about reactionary societies, but what could it say about the roots of evil, the gratuitous et systematic sadism of the SS? I don’t know that any other structure of thought told us much about that sadism either, but at least it would not try to reduce everything to a “social base” or the “death agony of capitalism.” (250)

In many ways, this failure prompted Howe to rethink his Jewishness:

In the years before the war people like me tended to subordinate our sense of Jewishness to cosmopolitan culture and socialist politics. We did not think well or deeply on the matter of Jewishness – you might say we avoided thinking about it. Jewishness was inherited, a given to be acknowledged, like being born white or poor. (251)

Following the war and the Holocaust, the thought of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and Jewishness starts become a concern for Howe. He points out how, in 1945, he came across a few lines in an article by Dwight Macdonald (in his essay “The Responsibility of Peoples”) that sparked thought about the meaning of such uniqueness. The article wasn’t the best but it didn’t create a quandary for Howe:

Unsystematic as these remarks were, they had the virtue of insisting upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust – an event without precedent yet prepared for by the anti-Semitism of the West. (253)

Howe muses that Macdonald was “probably influenced by Hannah Arendt, who a few months earlier had published a brilliant essay, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” in the Jewish Frontier”(253). How saw this essay as a “step forward in the effort to “understand,” precisely because it called into question the very relevance or possibility of understanding.”

But these essays didn’t reach Howe when he was in Alaska. He read them after they were published.   The only essays he came across, which appeared serially in Partisan Review and Commentary in 1946 and 1947 were essays that belonged to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflexiouns sur la question juive (translated as Anti-Semite and Jew).

Howe points out, immediately before he even starts commenting on Sartre’s book, that even flawed books can prompt insight. And this foreshadows his commentary on Sartre which, if anything, prompted him to think on a much deeper level not just about the meaning of the Holocaust but about the meaning of Jewishness:

There are times when a flawed piece of writing is more valuable than a “correct” one – honest confusions, incomplete strivings can stimulate others to think better. So it was with Sartre’s little book. Decades later it is easy enough to spot its errors, but at the tie time the book came out, it was tremendously stimulating. (254)

Howe begins his commentary by going straight to Sartre’s definition of a Jew, a definition that Howe will take as the main point of his criticism:

“The Jew” – an abstraction he could not avoid – is defined by Sartre by his “situation.” This “situation” is an ensemble of conditions and environments signifying both the relentless pressures of the anti-Semite and the tepid defenses of the democrat who is prepared to defend the Jew but not as a Jew, only as abstract “man.” A Jew, writes Sartre, “is anyone who for any reason calls himself such or is called such in any community whose practices take note of the distinction.” Yet, despite the persistence of this “distinction” Sartre comes to the odd conclusion that the Jews “have no history. What creates the Jew so to speak, and enables his twisted precarious survival, is the all-but-universal enmity he incurs. (254)

What bother’s Howe most in Sartre’s claim that Jews don’t have a history. By saying that a Jew is a Jew by virtue of this or that “situation” is, for Howe, a bad reading that must be exposed.   Sartre’s book suffers from “an extreme ahistoricity. It reduced both the Jew and the anti-Semite to bloodless, timeless essences, and failed to ask what might be the origin of anti-Semitism or, still more important, the reasons for its persistence”(255).

And this failure to grasp the Jew and to reduce the Jew to something ahistorical is something that Howe associates with a Marxist framework: “Sartre’s conclusion, so lame after his analytic fireworks, came to little more than a version of the Marxist notion that anti-Semtisim is the consequence, or index, of the social wrongs of capitalist society, and that with socialism this blight would wither away”(255).

Howe takes Sartre’s logic to its Marxist conclusion by suggesting that, in Sartre’s view, since Jews had no “history” or “community of interest,” and once they were “n longer plagued by pathological enemies,” they would then “freely dissolve themselves into the encasing classless society”(255). Howe sarcastically notes that Sartre can’t imagine the possibility of “Frenchmen becoming Jews”(255). This would turn Sartre’s scenario “upside down.”

What Sartre failed to see, according to Howe, is the fact that one “could locate” the “situation” of the Jews in a “traditional essence.” Sartre saw the Jews as merely an effect of a situation and a people without history or freedom: “He did not see it sufficiently as a persistent choosing of identity, a heroic self-assertion”(255).

This failure is what prompts Howe to undertake his query into the relationship of Jewish identity to history, tradition, and agency.

 

…to be continued….

 

Irving Howe’s Recollections of Hannah Arendt

DownloadedFile-2

Irving Howe and Hannah Arendt both published important essays in The Partisan Review.   Howe published and edited the important 1953 issue of The Partisan Review where he included Saul Bellow’s monumental translation of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” and an important introduction on Jewishness. Arendt published essays at The Partisan Review on philosophy, literature, and politics such as “Franz Kafka, a Reevaluation,” (1944), “What is Existenz philosophy?” (1946), “The Concentration Camps”(1948), and “The Cold War and the West”(1962).

Howe first met Arendt when she was the editor of Schocken Books.   Howe’s recollection of their meeting and his description of Arendt in his wonderful book, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography, are worth recounting as they give us something of an intellectual portrait and show us that Howe was impressed by her presence. Howe situates her in a chapter entitled “Jewish Quandries.” What’s most interesting about this placement is the fact that he discusses his literary project in Yiddish literature side-by-side with his meetings and encounters with Arendt. In her, he saw something of a secular Jewishness that he felt had died in Europe. He calls it an “idea” that he loved but, in reality, couldn’t make real because such Jewish secularism (attempted, he believed, by the movement of Yiddish theater and literature in the lower east side) was “decaying.”

Howe tells us that when he first met her, Arendt was looking for someone to do “literary chores (copy for book jackets, cleaning up translations, and so forth), and for the handy sum of $150 a month”(270).   Howe was her man. And he notes that though the pay was low, it “came with the privilege of visiting Hannah at her office every week”(270). At the time, she was not well-known because she hadn’t published On Totalitarianism, but “everyone in the intellectual world respected her and some feared her”(270).

With a little dismay, Howe notes that even though Arendt “loved to ‘adopt’ people,” he was not one of the chosen”(270). He muses that he wasn’t “perhaps because I was deaf to philosophy, or had been contaminated by Marxism, or was visibly intent upon resisting her intellectual lures”(270).

But Howe notes that there was one thing she would love to discuss with him “Kafka and Brecht,” on the one hand, and “Yiddish folk tales and American politics” on the other. The confluence of the two is telling because they touch on things that meant a lot to Howe in his work on the schlemiel, Yiddish literature, modernist literature, and politics.

Howe’s description of Arendt is, in many ways, literary.  Arendt had, for him, a kind of theatrical quality.

He notes that, although she was “far from ‘good looking’ in any commonplace way,” she was a “remarkably attractive person, with her razored gestures, imperial eye, dangling cigarette. ‘Szee here,’ she would declare with a smile meant both to subdue and to solace, and then she’d race off into one of her improvisations”(270).

“Mere Americans,” says Howe, were “dazzled by the immensities of German philosophy” she knew. But Howe notes that what really dazzled them was not her “thought” so much as the “style of her thinking”(270). His description of her style is worth noting, at length, because he’s trying to translate it into literature. She fills the rooms she dwells in with the “largeness of her will” and is “larger than her setting.”

She brissled with intellectual charm, as if to reduce everyone to an alert discipleship. Her voice would shift register abruptly, now stern and admonitory, now slyly tender with gossip. Whatever room she was in Hannah filled through the largeness of her will; indeed, she always seemed larger than her setting. Rarely have I met a writer with so acute an awareness of the power to overwhelm. (270)

But something was missing in this performance. He couldn’t quite grasp its “substance”:

Even while appreciating her performance, I often failed to grasp its substance.

Howe, nonetheless, tells his reader that he did learn something from his discussion with her about politics: “that politics has to be scrutinized in its own right and not just as an index of social conflict”(271).

But while she had command over thought and politics and a style that he emulated, Howe noticed that when it came to Jewishness Arendt’s attitudes were “hopelessly mixed.” And this had to do with her “hostility toward established Jewish institutions, especially Zionist ones.”

Hannah’s attitudes toward modern Jewish life, her feelings toward the Jews as they actually lived in all their frailty and imperfection, were hopelessly mixed. (271)

Howe notes how the book on Eichmann and all the attendant criticism deeply affected her. And in his reflections on her book, Howe takes the side of Norman Podhoretz who “saw Arendt’s book – rightly, I think – as an instance of that deep impulse among some Jews, especially intellectual ones, to make ‘inordinate demands…that the Jews be better than other people…braver, wiser, nobler, more dignified….But the truth is – must be – that Jews under Hitler acted as men will act when they are set upon by murderers”(275).

He notes that “such controversies will never be settled” and describes, in a sad manner, his last encounter with Arendt. At a party they shook hands, and she sharply took it away as she “turned on her heel and walked off.” The gesture was like a “wound” that remained with him:

It was the most skillful cut I have ever seen or received, and I was wounded quite as keenly as she wanted me to be. (275)

Arendt left him with a wound. And perhaps this marked his wounded sense of Jewishness as the chapter goes on to articulate.

…to be continued….

 

 

A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

I will be giving a talk today at the New School on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel.  This talk is based on the book I am currently writing on the schlemiel.

If you are in NYC or in the vicinity, drop in.

Here’s the abstract:

Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin were both interested in the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel. We have evidence of this interest by way of essays, letters, and notes on this character. Most of their discussions happened while they were both in Paris before WWII.   Their readings of the schlemiel are antithetical and when read against each other we can see what, for them, is at stake with this character. The figure that they most differed on was Franz Kafka. Walter Benjamin’s letters to Gershom Scholem clearly demonstrate that he was at his wits end about the relationship of theology, aesthetics, and politics in Kafka’s novels, short stories, and diaries. Although Benjamin published the first part of his essay on Kafka two years after beginning his project, the other parts of the essay troubled him for over five years. Benjamin’s goal was stated in a letter to Scholem dated October 17, 1934. There, Benjamin uses the metaphor of the bow to describe why he had such difficulty “The image of the bow suggests why: I am confronted with two ends at once, the political and the mystical.” After making many attempts to maintain this tension, Benjamin simply admitted to failure (as is evident in two letters to Scholem and Adorno). Nonetheless, I would like to argue that Arendt succeeded where Benjamin failed since he gave only a mystical reading while she gave a political reading of the schlemiel. But, in the end, her reading is also marred by a failure to understand this character in an American context and it fails to understand certain aspects of the schlemiel that have an after-life. The schlemiel offers a new way of reading their work and understanding how comedy informed their understanding of politics, mysticism, and Jewishness.  

Walter Benjamin’s “Dream Kitsch”

images

Like Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, from time to time, wrote in very small script.   According to the editors of the Walter Benjamin Archive, Benjamin’s “miniaturized script is reminiscent of Robert Walser’s ‘pencil system’, which he used to help him write”(50). But unlike Walser, who “learnt to ‘play and poeticize’, in the small and smallest details, attempting to unlock the open space of childish light-heartedness, so as to allow script and language to flow, for Benjamin it is a matter of ‘placing’ the script, the composition of thoughts.”   For this reason, the editors argue that Benjamin wasn’t looking, like Walser for a “childhood re-attained and imitated, but rather a product of adult reflection and concentration.” I find this reading telling because it suggests that Benjamin had no interest in becoming childlike when he wrote. For the editors, his writing experiments were not really experiments in becoming-child so much as being-an-adult.

One interesting case of this contrast is a reflection that Benjamin entitled “Dream Kitsch: a Short Consideration of Surrealists.” The editors point out that Benjamin wrote this in 1925 and had originally wanted to publish it; however, he decided against it because he thought it was “too difficult”(51). What I find so interesting about this piece of writing is the fact that Benjamin’s reflection on the nature of dreams and their power leads him into a reflection on failure. This is important insofar as the schlemiel is what Heinrich Heine and Hannah Arendt call the “lord of dreams.” Heine, according to Arendt, saw these dreams as a form of defense against the deluded nature of the parvenu. For her, the lord of dreams is successful in the sense that, as a pariah, he is free. But what she doesn’t point out is that, in reality, he fails because he can’t be in the world. To be sure, this is implied by her reading of the schlemiel in “The Jew as Pariah.”

Benjamin’s reading of dreams in “Dream Kitsch” incorporates the “Lord of Dreams” and the awareness that the dream decays and fails. The dream, like the schlemiel, also finds it’s limit in history.   After all, some dreams come true; others don’t.  However, as the piece goes on, the sense of failure and decay diminishes…and the fascination with the dream and its meaning takes over.

Benjamin begins with a sense of loss: “No one dreams any longer of the Blue Flower”(65).   But this doesn’t mean dreaming isn’t or hasn’t been powerful:

Dreaming has a share of history. The statistics on dreaming would stretch beyond the pleasures of the anecdotal landscape into the barrenness of the battlefield. Dreams have started wars, and wars….have determined the propriety and impropriety – indeed, the range – of dreams. (65)

After making this reflection on dreams and war, Benjamin returns to his dirge that dreams are no longer the same: “No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon. The dream has gone gray….Dreams are now a shortcut to banality.”

Benjamin surmises that technology and capitalism have altered our dreams. He notes that we see this even with children who no longer “clasp” things as “snatch” them.   Now “the side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.” In other words, the dreams we have are given to us by way of the kitsch of capitalism.   But Benjamin doesn’t look at how it touches adults so much as how, as we see above, children.

Benjamin turns to dream kitsch and children by way of the surrealist Max Ernst. In one piece he has “drawn four small boys”:

They turn their backs to the reader, to their teacher and his desk as well, and look out over the balustrade where a balloon hangs in the air. A giant pencil rests its point in the windowsill. The repetition of childhood experience gives us pause: when we were little, there was yet no agonized protest against the world of our parents. As children in the midst of that world, we showed ourselves superior. (65)

The repetition of the childhood in the dream should “give us pause” because there wasn’t any protest. Something has changed that the children do not want to learn. To be sure, this suggests a turning away from tradition. The theme of rebelling children is one we also find in Benjamin’s essay on Kafka.   In that essay, a problem is presented: the gap between the tradition and the “messengers.”

Benjamin’s mediation on this gap leads him to mediate on parents and the kitsch love they gave “us.”

For the sentimentality of our parents, so often distilled, is good for providing the most objective image of our feelings. The long-windedness of their speeches, bitter as gall, has the effect of reducing us to a crimpled picture puzzle…Within is heartfelt sympathy, is love, is kitsch.

In other words, within all of the kitsch is love. But this love is, as he notes, “misunderstood.” To be sure, Benjamin praises misunderstanding as something than comes from the outside, from life, into our lives:

“Misunderstanding” is here another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood. (65)

Misunderstanding, in other words, is reality breaking in. However, the misunderstood man is a failure. Regardless, for Benjamin, this puzzle, which he is working through, is all just “dream kitsch.”   This kind of “dream kitsch” reminds me of what we find in David Grossman’s See: Under Love. As I pointed out in a recent blog entry, the main character of Grossman’s novel is a boy-schlemiel who is puzzling through his misunderstanding of the Holocaust. What happens “over there” breaks into conversation that Momik overhears. And out of what he gathers from different conversations, he creates a puzzle that he tries to solve.

To be sure, Benjamin, like Momik and David Grossman, is trying to work through all of his dream kitsch. And in the end, this work of interpretation tilts more toward hope than failure. In the end, Benjamin is more inspired than pained by “dream kitsch.”

On Hannah Arendt’s Reading of Rahel Varnhagen and the Schlemiel – Take One

rahel-varnhagen-540x540

Schlemiel Theory has published several posts on Hannah Arendt and her reading of the schlemiel in her celebrated essay “The Jew as Pariah.” As I pointed out in many of my readings, Arendt believed that the schlemiel had, for a certain time during modernity, a necessity. But, as she argues (and many critics overlook), she looked to leave the schlemiel-pariah behind. She found its worldlessness to be problematic and wished, instead (as she claimed Kafka did), that she could leave worldessness (and the schlemiel, its key figure) behind so that she could live a “normal” life. (In my book, I will be outlining the reasons for the use of the word normal which, to be sure, has less to do with what we post-post-moderns think of today as “normal” as what Zionists thought of as “normal.”) The schlemiel, in her view, was worldless and exceptional. And, as I pointed out, the schlemiel would fail what I would call Arendt’s Greek identity test; namely, the one we find in The Human Condition. The criteria for passing this test is contingent on whether one has a world to “act” in or not.   And the schlemiel, for Arendt, does not. Ergo, the schlemiel is and, in Arendt’s book, always will remain a failure of sorts.

But, as I point out in several entries, being a failure before the Holocaust is one thing – since that would be a good thing for Arendt, for Heine, the beginning of her “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel, is a pariah who, in being a “lord of dreams,” rebels against society and the parvenu. Once one can be considered as an equal, for Arendt this time period is hazy, one can leave the last of the schlemiels – for Arendt, Charlie Chaplin – behind for superman (literally).

In response to a recent post by Zachary Breiterman on his blog Jewish Philosophy Place regarding Arendt’s treatment of Rahel Varnhagen – in her first published book, Rahel Varhagen: The Life of a Jewess, I would argue that Arendt’s first attempt at reading the schlemiel was based on her reading of Varnhagen in this book. This reading, unlike the reading she would make when she landed in America, is very negative. To be sure, Arendt was confused about Varnhagen. In her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” she lists Heinrich Heine as the beginning of the Schlemiel tradition. She doesn’t mention Varnhagen in that essay. However, in her essay “We Refugees,” written a year earlier than “The Jew as Pariah,” Arendt includes Varnhagen in her “hidden tradition.” There, she argues that Varhagen was a part of this “other” tradition:

Modern Jewish history, having started with court Jews and continuing with the Jewish millionaires and philanthropists, is apt to forget about this other thread of Jewish tradition – the tradition of Heine, Rahel Varnhagen, Sholem Aleichem (who isn’t in her “Jew as Pariah” essay, either), of Bernard Lazare, Franz Kafka, or even Charlie Chaplin (who she considers that end of the “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel). It is the tradition of the minority of Jews who have not wanted to become upstarts, who preferred the status of “conscious pariah.” (274, The Jewish Writings)

Compared to what she writes in her Varnhagen book, these words are very kind. I will limit myself to a few quotations to prove my point. (This blog entry, therefore, is preliminary and will be followed up with more entries. But the deeper treatment will be found in my book.)

Arendt argues that Varnhagen’s life was “bound up” with a feeling that she was “inferior” because she was Jewish and emerged out of the ghetto.   Her Jewishness was a mark of this shame. Arendt translates Varnhagen’s attitude toward her Jewishness when she writes: “Naturally one was not going to cling to Judaism – why should one, since the whole of Jewish history and tradition was now revealed to be a sordid product of the ghetto”(89).

Following this, Arendt inserts her own theory of about the world and worldless to argue that Varnhagen, as a schlemiel, had to do all she could to deny (or is it negate?) the world because the world reminded her that she was inferior (that is a Jew who had emerged out of the ghetto). For this reason, Varnhagen denies the things that Arendt values most – action, love, and the world – in the name of “thinking”:

Rahel’s life was bound by this inferiority, by her “infamous birth,” from youth on up. Everything that followed was only confirmation, “bleeding to death.” Therefore she must avoid everything that might give rise to further confirmation, must not act, not love, not become involved in the world. Given such absolute renunciation, all that seemed left was thought. (89)

Arendt argues that Varnhagen’s turn to thought was based on a delusion that it would save her.  Varnhagen, according to Arendt, misunderstood the words of Lessing who called for “self-thinking.” She made a bifurcation between thought and the world and ultimately saw herself as free in the world of thought but a Jew in reality.   Arendt tells us that Varnhagen refused to accept the reality that she was really a schlemiel; that is, the real odd one out:

Thinking amounted to an enlightened kind of magic which could substitute for, evoke and predict experience, the world, people, society. The power of reason lent posited possibilities a tinge of reality, breathed a kind of illusory life into rational desires, fended off ungraspable actuality and refused to recognize it. The twenty year old Rahel wrote: “I shall never be convinced that I am a Shlemihl and a Jewess; since all these years and after so much thinking about it, it has not dawned upon me, I shall never grasp it”(89).

Compared to Heine and Chaplin, as characterized by Arendt in her “Jew as Pariah” essay, Varnhagen is the worst kind of schlemiel. Her worldlessness is an act of denial.   Arendt says that she denies that she is a schlemiel when she really is one. Only a schlemiel, in this instance, would negate the world in the name of what Arendt calls a “foundation for cultivated ignoramuses.” Arendt snidely notes that “self-thinking” is good, but not in Varnhagen’s hands: “Self-thinking can no longer be rubbed raw with any contact with actuality…Self-thinking in this sense provides a foundation for cultivated ignoramuses”(90).

Liliane Weissberg, who edited and translated Arendt’s Varnhagen book into English, correctly notes – in her introduction – that Arendt is concerned with Varnhagen’s assimilation (50). But Weissberg doesn’t note the extent to which Arendt judges Varnhagen for this offense. To be sure, Arendt wittily compares Varnhagen, a Jewish Don Quixote of sorts, to the real Don Quixote. (Note that the first Yiddish novel with a schlemiel or rather schlemiels as its main characters – The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim – was based, in major part, on Don Quixote).   Arendt writes that there is a fundamental difference between Don Quixote and this German-Jewish schlemiel:

As long as Don Quixote continues to ride forth to conjure a possible, imagined, illusory world out of the real one, he is only the fool, and perhaps a happy fool, perhaps even a noble fool when he undertakes to conjure up within the real world a definite world.   But if without a definite ideal, without aiming at a definite imaginary revision of the world, he attempts only to transfer himself into some sort of empty possibility which he might be, he becomes merely a “foolish dreamer.” (93)

By calling Varnhagen a “foolish dreamer,” rather than a “fool” (like Don Quixote) Arendt is suggesting that the schlemiel is worse off than the fool since he has no “ideal” and does not aim at a “definite imaginary revision of the world.” This is a fascinating turn since, a few years later and in a different continent, Arendt calls Heinrich Heine a “lord of dreams.” However, that phrase, in contrast to “foolish dreamer,” has a positive valence for Arendt.

To be sure, it seems that Arendt made a distinction between good and bad schlemiels based on whether they had an “ideal” or an “imaginary revision of the world.” Unfortunately, Arendt never made this explicit in her work on the schlemiel. One can only find this, as I have, by comparing and contrasting one version of the schlemiel to the other.

…to be continued….

 

 

I Want to Start Again: The Schlemiel, Bad Luck, and the Desire for a New Life (Starring Walter Benjamin)

images-6

The desire for change and a new life is fundamentally human.  And oftentimes the desire to start a new life is based on the fact that one is beset by bad luck.  To be sure, this is a theme which many Jews are familiar.  Bad luck seems to follow Jews around.  And, as a result, Jews have been forced – for centuries – to move from town to town or country to country.  But, despite this negative reality, the Talmud tells us that if one changes one’s place one changes one’s mazel (luck).

Schlemiels are often beset with bad luck.  And most of them go on journeys in search of a new land and a new life.  To get out of their predicament, they often dream of starting anew.   We see this in the classics of Yiddish literature such as The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim, Mendel the Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem, and I.B. Singer’s Gimpel stories.  We see the schlemiel’s journey for a new life in Kafka’s Amerika.  And we also it in Jewish American literature, such as A New Life by Bernard Malamud, Stern by Bruce Jay Freidman, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and every novel by Gary Shteyngart.

We also see the schlemiel’s desire for change in movies like Annie Hall, where Woody Allen ventures to California (albeit with great skepticism), Whatever Works, where Larry David consents to live with a young woman, or Greenberg – where Ben Stiller plays a schlemiel character who goes to California in search of a new life.

In just about all of the above-mentioned stories and movies, the schlemiel’s hopes for a new life are shown to be deluded or misguided.   And as we observe the process of their fictional journey, we experience the juxtaposition of hope and failure.  The affect, especially in Freidman and Auslander’s novels, can be unsettling.  But the process can also suggest some kind of balance between being naïve and being realistic.

The question, for all of these novelists and filmmakers, is fundamentally human and particularly Jewish: how do we realistically address bad luck and our desire for change?  Can we simply believe that our desire for a new life is realistic?  Will moving to another place change our luck or is that a misguided hope?  Is it better to just be reminded of how bad things are by virtue of a character who is out-of-touch or naïve about reality?

We see a fascinating analogue of this in the real life experiences of a living schlemiel named Walter Benjamin.  Near the end of his life Walter Benjamin met up with Hannah Arendt in Paris.  Both of them fled Germany but in leaving they looked for a new life.  But, of the two, Benjamin was the schlemiel.  Regardless of the fact that he looked to live a new life (and he was offered to leave Europe for America or for Israel by good friends of his), he still had bad luck.  And he knew it.  His life, in other words, didn’t change much: it seemed to be one bad thing after another.

Hannah Arendt, in her introductory essay to his work, entitled the first section “The Hunchback.”  She recalls that Benjamin failed to become successful in his lifetime.  He always had failure at his back.  Since he was a child, the “hunchback,” a figure of bad luck, was with him: “The hunchback was an early acquaintance of his, who had first met him when, still a child, he found the poem in a children’s book, and he never forgot”(6, Illuminations).   Arendt quotes the poem:

When I go down to the cellar

There to draw some wine,

A little hunchback is there

Grabs that jug of mine

When I go into the kitchen,

There my soup to make,

A little hunchback who’s in there

My little pot did break.

Arendt goes on to argue that Benjamin was obsessed with childhood figures that threatened failure and death: “His mother, like millions of other mothers in Germany, used to say, ‘Mr. Bungle sends his regards’ whenever one of the countless little catastrophes of childhood had taken place.”

According to Arendt, the “child knew of course what this strange bungling was about.”  It was about falling and failure:

It was he who had tripped you up when you fell and knocked the thing out of your hand when it went to pieces.  And after the child came the grown-up man who knew what the children was ignorant of, namely, that it was not he who had provoked the “little one” by looking at him…but the hunchback who looked at him and that bungling was a misfortune.  (6)

Arendt is right regarding the constant misfortune that Benjamin experienced.  But while her reading is telling, Arendt misses something fundamental; namely,  Benjamin didn’t simply have bad luck (“the hunchback looked at him”); rather, he was a schlemiel.  He “bungled” and discovered, as a man, that his bungling – which was with him since he was a child -was congenital.  It was a part of his existential makeup.  He was a man-child.  So, regardless of his desire for a new life, Benjamin knew, in the back of his head, that he would likely “bungle.”

Regardless, near the end of his life he looked at this foolishness as his only salvation.  For, as Kafka knew, “only the fool can help.”  So, even if the fool is misguided in thinking that a change of place will foster a new life, in the end it gives him, as Irving Howe might say, a “margin of hope.”   Commentary, Benjamin also argued, redeemed Kafka from total failure, but not completely; since the text he was commenting on was “unknown.”   In reality, both foolishness and commentary (another foolish endeavor, if it isn’t based on a real text) gave Benjamin a very small margin since all he did was tainted, in some way, by failure.  It seems he wanted to believe, like a schlemiel, in the good, but what he couldn’t forget was failure.  His foolish desire for a new life, in other words, was tainted by the memory of failure.

An American-Post-Holocaust Schlemiel: Another Note on Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake”

amudDavidLeesCorbis476

Woody Allen’s Zelig traces the path of a character (of the same name) that, Irving Howe suggests (in one segment of Allen’s film), is based on the passionate drive of American Jews in the early 20th century to assimilate into American society.  Zelig, to be sure, is a schlemiel. But he is what I would call a post-historical-American schlemiel.  His Jewishness or his past is not his primary feature; his drive to assimilate is.  To assimilate, Jews – like many immigrant groups fresh to America – would act “as if” they were not Jews.  Instead, many Jews would act as if they were Americans. The act of hiding Jewishness and “passing” is nothing new.  Sander Gilman and Steven Aschheim, amongst other scholars, have drawn up historical documents from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries to show how prevalent this was in Europe.   In a book entitled Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Gilman dedicates a chapter to Jews who acted as if they were German but who ultimately failed to be accepted.  He entitled this chapter “Living Schlemiels.”  Indeed, for Gilman, a “living schlemiel” is a person who tries his utmost to be accepted but in reality cannot.  In Allen’s film, Zelig is accepted wherever he goes, but, in contrast, many of the “living schlemiels” that Gilman discusses were not.   They learned the hard way.  Even though Woody Allen’s Zelig suggests that assimilation is something all American’s celebrate and that it doesn’t matter whether Zelig is Jewish since, ultimately, he is the everyman (a man, literally, of all occasions), Bernard Malamud suggests that a Jew can still try to pass and fail.

But there is more to the story.  In the “Lady of the Lake,” Bernard Malamud, shows us that what will (or perhaps should) trip a Jew up when he or she tries to pass is history.  To be sure, it is the memory of the Holocaust.  This is a lesson that Allen doesn’t take into consideration in Zelig since, quite simply, Zelig seems to have no history.  He just happens to live in the Jazz Era.  Malamud, in contrast, suggests we situate the schlemiel after the Holocaust. For Malamud, the post-Holocaust-American-schlemiel learns a lesson about what it means to be Jewish.

In the last blog entry, I introduced and discussed the basic plot of Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake.”  As I noted, Henry Levin changes his name (and identity) to Henry R. Freeman.  After receiving in an inheritance, he leaves for Europe in pursuit of Romance. As a New York Jew, Romance is a European and a non-Jewish experience since Romance is not a central trope of Judaism. (In fact, as Daniel Boyarin points out in his book Unheroic Conduct, humility, hard work, and diligent study are the greatest traits, not pride, power, and masculinity, which go hand-in-hand with Romance and what he calls, following a medieval tradition, “Goyim Naches”).

When he arrives in Europe, he experiences beauty and mystery.  He is taken into what the theologian Will Herberg, in his book Judaism and Modern Man, thinks is antithetical to a tradition that eschews mystical fusion and forgetfulness.  When he meets a mysterious woman named Isabella, he does his utmost to win her over. But, as I pointed out in the last blog, she seems to see through his ruse when she asks him, immediately upon meeting him, if he is Jewish.

He denies his Jewishness and hides his secret.  But right when he is about to kiss her, he is accosted by a tour guide who likes like a “sad clown” and carries a “rapier.”  This is a key interruption since he hits Freeman in the crotch and says that what he is doing is a “transgression.” To be sure, what makes the story meaningful are these interruptions since they, apparently, disclose a tension between the Jew and the non-Jew.  To be truly free, Freeman believes that he must eliminate the tension.  He cannot stand being a “stranger” any longer.  And this incident “embarrasses” him.

This prompts Freeman to think about how different her history is from his:

And she was different too….Not only in her looks and background, but of course different as regards past…Her past he could see boiling in her all the way back to knights of old, and then some; his own history was something else again, but men were malleable, and he wasn’t afraid of attempting to create daring combinations: Isabella and Henry Freedman. (102)

As one can see from this passage, he respects her history and tradition and sees it “boiling in her all the way back to knights of old.”  It is a stable history that lives on and, apparently, doesn’t change too much.  As for his own history, he sees it as something that is “malleable.”  He doesn’t wish to keep it so much as change it and make a new, “daring combination.”  This is his main thought.  He will conceal his Jewishness to accomplish this experiment of sorts.

After sending a letter requesting to see her again, he is ecstatic to see that she wishes the same.  But before he goes, he is told that her family is known for “trickery.”  Following this, the theme of concealment and trickery comes more and more to the fore.

To be sure, Freeman, though exuberant and confident that he will trick her, sees more and more signs that something is amiss.  When he arrives on the island where she lives, she tells him that all of the paintings that he sees on the walls are copies (109) and this “slightly depresses him.”  This suggests that he wants something original and sees himself as a “copy” of sorts; after all, he is trying to copy a gentile.

Immediately after feeling this disappointment, he notices an image of a leper that catches his attention.  Freeman asks why the leper “deserved his fate?” Isabella’s answer hits at the main theme: “He falsely said he could fly”(110).  In response, Freeman asks, quizzically, “And for that you go to hell?”  She, however, doesn’t reply.  To be sure, she leaves him to ruminate on the lie.  Did Freeman also claim he could fly when, in fact, he couldn’t?  In other words, was Freeman really free?

What follows is a series of scenes that show Freeman on the edge wondering whether or not he should tell her the truth; that he is a Jew.  His excitement about her is interrupted by the lie he has kept to himself about his identity.  All of this annunciated by one word: “no”:

If Isabella loved him, as he now felt she did or would before long; with the strength of this love they would conquer problems as they arose….No, the worry that troubled him most was the lie he had told her, that he wasn’t a Jew.  He could, of course, confess, say she knew Levin, not Freeman, man of adventure, but that might ruin all, since it was quite clear she wanted nothing to do with a Jew, or why, at first sight, had she asked so searching a question? (112)

This worry and his interpretation of her earlier question stay with him to the very end of the story.  But it all begins to break down when, traveling into the alps, she asks Freeman whether the peaks “those seven – look like a Menorah?”

Hearing this, he thinks that she has called his bluff.  He is in shock, but he tries his utmost to cover it up, thinking he will pass a test:

“Like a what?” Freeman politely inquired. He had a sudden frightening remembrance of her seeing him naked as he came out of the lake and felt constrained to tell her that circumcision was de rigueur in stateside hospitals; but he didn’t’ dare.  She may not have noticed.  (115)

Following this, he narrowly averts questions regarding Jewishness. However, at this point, she reveals to him that she has tricked him: she is not nobility, she doesn’t come from a noble line; rather, she is the daughter of a caretaker.  The island that Freeman went to was not owned by her family.

After saying this, she was hoping he too would confess to some kind of trick.  However, Freeman still insists on being quiet about his Jewish identity:

“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. He wanted to say more but warned himself not to.”

In response she says, “That’s what I was afraid of.”  Her reply is odd; however, he doesn’t notice, all he can think about is how Italian she looks: “She was a natural-born queen, whether by del Dongo or any other name. So she lied to him, but so had he to her”(116).  However, he is avoiding the one fact: he didn’t tell her the truth.

To be sure, he only sees her as an Italian he can have a romance and a “future” with. When, near the end of the story, he sees her all in white, he imagines her as his bride.  He fails to notice, however, that she is now more hesitant toward him than ever.

In the final scene he kisses her, but she “whispers Goodbye” to him.  In response he says, “To whom goodbye?…I have come to marry you”(117).  Upon hearing this, she asks, once again, the question that pains him the most: “Are you a Jew?”

Although his mind tells him not to lie, he overcomes this and says: “How many no’s make never?  Why do you persist with such foolish questions?”

Her reply discloses the fact that Freeman’s denial of Jewishness – in order to experience romance and start a “new life” – was his downfall:

“Because I hoped you were.”

Malamud then brings the clincher. When she opens up her top, he sees, written on her breasts, “a bluish line of distorted numbers.”  In other words, she is a survivor of the concentration camps who had been marked by the Nazis for extermination.  She cannot deny her Jewish identity and, in fact, was looking to marry a Jew and thought that Freeman was, in fact, a Levin:

“I can’t marry you. We are Jews.  My past is meaningful to me.  I treasure what I suffered for.”

As she goes away, he says that he is really Jewish and grasps at her breasts.  She disappears and he feels as if he is grasping at a “moonlit stone” (a “lady of the lake”).  In other words, he was duped.  He is a schlemiel, in this scenario, because he lets his freedom get the best of him.  Malamud’s lesson is that Levin brought his bad luck on through his masquerade.  At the end of the story, we learn that Levin is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel like Zelig.

To be sure, Malamud would like to let his readers know that there is no reward for the Zelig-like denial of history and Jewish identity.  The Jew, for him, is not a freeman.  The post-Holocaust-American Jew is bound by history, suffering, and memory.  But, as the story notes, the European Jew has a better understanding of this while the American Jew doesn’t.  For Malamud the American-Jew is a schlemiel who is more interested in an improvised, free, and new life than a historical one.   He is, as Hannah Arendt would say, the “lord of dreams.”  But these dreams, in this story, are the dreams of someone who cares more for freedom and romance than history and Jewish identity.

Walking Like Charlie Chaplin and His Orphan Sister: On Delmore Schwartz’s Poem “Time’s Dedication”

DownloadedFile

The poet Charles Baudelaire has written several poems in which the poetic voice or the narrator (of many prose pieces from Paris Spleen) wages a battle with TIME.  He wages his fight in the name of Timelessness and intoxication; however, many of those battles ring out with the sound of despair.  To be sure, Baudelaire was very pained by the fact that he had to constantly battle with time.  And, more importantly, he was all alone in this fight against Time.

Delmore Schwartz, no doubt, read Baudelaire.  And in many ways, he also struggled with Time.  However, he didn’t do it all alone.  In his poem “Time’s Dedication,” he calls on “you” the implied reader or some other to join him in this battle.  And, unlike Baudelaire, the battle doesn’t end in despair or tragedy.  Rather, it has a comic ending which includes a key reference to Charlie Chaplin (who, lest we not forget, Hannah Arendt saw as the last schlemiel of what she calls the ‘hidden tradition’).  Schwartz’s comic ending does what Baudelaire can’t: it redeems time by way of taking it away from the trajectory of death and realigns it with what Emmanuel Levinas would call the “time of the other.”  And what makes this so novel is that the poem is “time’s dedication” – not his.

“Time’s Dedication” starts off with a meditation on the self and its bout with the Time:

My heart beating, my blood running

The light brimming,

My mind moving, the ground turning,

My eyes blinking, the air flowing,

The clock’s quick-ticking

Time moving, time dying,

Time perpetually perishing!

Time is farewell! Time is farewell!

To be sure, the last words of this stanza bespeak the relation of time to death: Time will kill the poet.  However, the next stanza asks that an implied “you” stay with the voice of the poem and “stand still”:

Abide with me: do not go away,

But not as the dead who do not walk…

Quit the dance from which is flowing

Your blood and beauty: stand with me. 

But then the voice of the first stanza returns and insists that “we cannot stand still” because “time is dying” and “we are dying.”  This all translates into the same last words of the first stanza: “Time is farewell!”

In the face of this voice, the last stanza counters and insists that the voice obsessed with death and time to “wait for me”:

Stay then, stay! Wait now for me,

Deliberately, with care and circumspection,

Deliberately

Stop. 

This countering voice suggests that what “we” need to focus on, with deliberation, is “walking together.”  And this walking should be in a comic manner “like Chaplin and his orphan sister”:

Walking together,

Controlling our pace before we get old,

Walking together on the receding road,

Like Chaplin and his orphan sister,

Moving together through time to all good.

The last stanza suggests that “walking together” like “Chaplin and his orphan sister” – with their odd walk – is a manner of  “moving together through time to all good.”  Moving toward the good together is something we find in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III.  We also see it in Gimpel the fool who, it seems, is always walking toward the good even though it doesn’t seem to be in sight.  These characters, it seems, are not affected by a fatalistic approach to death.  They avoid it by way of trusting the other and the good.

The idea that one is moving toward the good, as the future, appears in Emmanuel Levinas’s work.  To be sure, he ends his book Totality and Infinity with a section entitled “Being as Goodness – The I – Pluralism – Peace.”

Goodness does not radiate over the anonymity of a collectivity presenting itself panoramically, to be absorbed into it.  It concerns a being which is revealed in a face, but thus it does not have eternity without commencement.  (305)

The word “commencement” is interesting as it suggest a meeting and a movement of two people.  Levinas goes on to describe goodness as an “absolute adventure” which is “transcendence itself.”  But this is the not the transcendence of an isolated “I.”  Rather, “transcendence or goodness is produced as pluralism” and it “proceeds” from me to you.   Elsewhere, Levinas calls this relation of goodness the “time of the other.”

What I like about Schwartz’s poem is the fact that it is “time’s dedication.”  The poem is dedicated to the poet by the time of the other.  And it ends with that time rather than dedicating it to the time of the self and death.  Most importantly, this dedication is translated into a comedic kind of walking down the road.  It isn’t exactly “heroic” in the Heideggarian sense of being-toward-death; rather, it is innocent and naïve.

This poem suggests that Schwartz would rather you “wait” for the poet than rush off to death.  And once you arrive, we can walk off together “like Chaplin and his orphan sister through time…toward the good.”

The Schlemiel of Wall Street: A Review of Martin Scorsese’s Latest Film

images-1

When I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), I knew there would be comic elements.  But I had no idea that Martin Scorsese would draw on and reinterpret the schlemiel by way of the plot and main characters of this film.   To be sure, all of the critics of the film thus far have noted that this film is a quasi-critique of capitalism.  And, in the end, the tragic overshadows the comic.  That’s obvious.  But what’s more interesting is how Scorsese pulls it off; namely, by way of drawing the viewer in through a large doses of schlemiel comedy.  (And, let’s be clear here.  Scorcese is not recognized for the comic element in his films; on the contrary, his use of humor is rarely foregrounded as it is in this film.)

Indeed, it seems Scorsese has done his homework on the schlemiel and schlemiel comedy.  Perhaps he has done this through viewing the films of Woody Allen and Judd Apatow.   (Before I go into detail about how the schlemiel works in this film, I’d like to foreground the links to Woody Allen.)

Woody Allen, to be sure, is one of the greatest popularizers of the schlemiel in American film.  Films such as Bananas, Take the Money and Run, or Annie Hall – to name just a few – are prime examples.  Although their work differs in so many ways – and you would be hard put to find a schlemiel in a Scorsese film – Martin Scorsese’s interest in Woody Allen’s work is not a secret.

They directed the film New York Stories together and have known of each others work for decades. But they differ in many ways.  In this film, for instance, there are a few.  Here is a clip of Allen and Scorsese talking about their differing views of New York in New York Stories (Scorsese differentiates his view on New York, through the films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, to Allen’s, in Manhattan.)

In a telling interview-slash-hosted-discussion by The New York Times in 1997 entitled “The Two Hollywoods,” Lynn Hirshberg begins by noting that they “hardly know each other” but are “contemporaries.”  Her interview is great because it shows the dynamic between the two and, at least in the beginning, shows us their shared interest in comedy.

Near the end of the discussion, Allen and Scorsese reflect on the failed (schlemiel) moments in their comedy.  Scorsese notes that The King of Comedy, his big attempt at working through the comic genre, was adored by the critics but, at the same time, it was one of his biggest failures.  Allen, in contrast, notes that he would rather not pay attention to the success or failure of his films.  He notes that he diminishes his sense of failure by way of throwing himself into the film.

The theme and responses to failure in this discussion are interesting because Allen and Scorsese address the core of the schlemiel character and schlemiel comedy by way of their perspectives as filmmakers: failure.

But one of the most interesting moments in the discussion deals with the question of whether or not they like watching their films after they are made.  Scorsese says he cannot see his films ever again after they are made because he will get overly emotional while Allen says he has a hard time seeing his films because he will always think of them as not good enough and in need of improvement.

What I find so interesting about this reflection on past films is the fact that though Scorsese may not look at his films again he obviously thinks about how to improve upon his past film ventures.  On this note, I think his comment on The King of Comedy is telling.   As he notes, the film critics may have liked it (and this pleases him) but it failed at the box office.  This is where The Wolf of Wall Street comes to the fore.  To be sure, this film is the only other major film since The King of Comedy that utilizes the comic element in such a major way.

Now let’s turn to The Wolf of Wall Street and its uses of the schlemiel.

I’d like to start by way of definition.  Hannah Arendt, in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” notes, right off the bat, that “innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel.”  And that it is out of “such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born”(278, The Jewish Writings).    The schlemiel, for Arendt, is an outsider who, in his or her innocence, doesn’t fit into society.  They are simpletons who aren’t cultured, yet these simpletons speak to the people.  Their comedy inheres in the fact that they are blind to certain cultural norms and live in their dreams.

In her line of schlemiels, Arendt includes the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the characters of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Rahel Varnhagen, the awkward host of a German Salon in the 19th century, and Charlie Chaplin (who she calls “the little Yid”).    Some are “living schlemiels” (as Sander Gilman might say) others are fictional.  Regardless, Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse see the schlemiel as posting a challenge to either the “political and philosophical status quo” (Ruth Wisse) or to the “political status quo” (Hannah Arendt).   The schlemiel, as the innocent lord of dreams, is also a guard against the realization that, in this or that dominant society, one (historically, the Jew) is a loser.  As the wisdom goes, it’s better to live in dreams and innocence than in a horrible situation.

What I found so fascinating about Scorsese’s film is that he turns this on its head since the schlemiels in this film – which include Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and Jordon’s group of friends (I didn’t include Jordan Bellfort – played by Leonard DiCaprio – because he goes in and out of being a schlemiel throughout the film). What makes them all schlemiels is not simply the fact that they are innocent dreamers but the fact that they all deal drugs, do drugs, and are outsiders in the 80s and 90s.    They don’t know how to make a normal living and live a normal life. In Hannah Arendt’s sense, they are pariahs.

However, the twist is that even after they make money and become successes, they still remain schlemiels.  This is a twist because, often times, when a schlemiel becomes a success (say, in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, too name only two of many films where Allen employs this formula), they become a “man.”  Indeed, in The Wolf on Wall Street, drugs and endless parties celebrating the accumulation of exorbitant wealth illustrate a new way of viewing the schlemiel – one, to be sure, I (a schlemiel theorist who runs a blog on the schlemiel and publishes on this character) have never seen.

To be sure, Scorsese is using the schlemiel to show how innocence can go wrong when it is combined with drugs and wealth.  Indeed, the first time we see Jonah Hill, who plays the schlemiel in the majority of the films he stars in, he and DiCaprio have a comic-schlemiel-like dialogue which ends behind the restaurant, smoking crack.

Although the combination of drugs and the schlemiel can be seen in many films today – such as Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and Super Bad – these moments are divorced from anything consequential.

The innocent drug use of marijuana by Apatow’s characters is laughable.  But it is not disturbing as it is in Scorsese’s film because, as we all know from recent history, which is alluded to throughout the film, the drug use (of qualudes, crack, and cocaine) of Scorcese’s schlemiels enables them or is based on the exploitation of people and manipulating the market.

Throughout the film, I noticed many people laughing (myself included) yet the laughter was mixed up with moments of disgust.  What I like about Scorsese’s tact, here, is that he draws viewers in; but once they are in, he teaches them a lesson and subjects us to an emotional rollercoaster.

Watching this film, I felt as if he was offering a corrective to all of Apatow’s films – on the one hand – and making a nod to Allen’s recent Blue Jasmine – on the other.   But what Scorsese does here is something Allen didn’t do in Blue Jasmine; namely, use schlemiels to bring us to the same conclusion about our era and its overly corrupt relationship with wealth.

I find it ironic that Scorsese and not Allen did this; after all, Allen has made use of the schlemiel throughout his career.  Nonetheless, what I find in Scorsese is a new way of viewing this character, one which makes it relevant in ways that Judd Apatow or even Woody Allen cannot (or doesn’t want to do; as I argue in two recent book essays about Allen).   In lieu of this, I would say that the name of the film is wholly ironic.  I wouldn’t say he is a “wolf” on Wall Street so much as a schlemiel in wolf’s clothing.  In the end, however, we see the schlemiel turn into a wolf when the drugs and the wealth are taken away.  But, by then, it’s too late.