Tag: How Should A Person Be?

Marriage, Fate, and a Bathroom Epiphany in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”

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Irony often plays on the gap between expectation and reality. The gap between is a commonplace in much schlemiel fiction.   Playing on the main motif of How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti, the main character and author of the novel, casts the other as her teacher. She looks for ethical and artistic models of personhood outside her self. Following this model, Heti notes how, several months before her wedding, she saw a beautiful wedding (the perfect model of how a wedding “should” be):

Several months before our wedding, my fiancé and I were strolling together in an elegant park when off in the distance we noticed a bride and a groom standing before a congregation, tall and upright like two figures on a cake…The vows were being exchanged, and the minister was speaking quietly. Then I saw and heard the lovely bride grow choked up with emotion as she repeated the words for richer or for poorer. A tear ran down her cheek, and she had to stop and collect herself before she finished what she was saying. (23)

When she comes to the same moment, years later, Sheila did the same things but “felt none of it.” She felt it was canned and she felt as if “she was not there at all”:

Then something happened. As I said the words for richer or for power, that bride came up in me. Tears welled in my eyes, just as they had welled up in hers. My voice cracked with the same emotion that had cracked her voice, but I felt none of it. It was a copy, a possession, canned. That bride inhabited me at the exact moment I should have been more present. It was like was not there at all – it was not me. (23)

Compounding the feeling of alienation and bad luck, Heti recalls a painful event with her last boyfriend before she got married. She and her boyfriend used to have desks in the same room. Both of them would sit at their desks and write plays (24). But one day, after hearing her on the phone talking about a crush she had a on a photographer, he got angry, stole her computer where she was sleeping and returned it to her desk with a play he wrote about her. The play had plotted out her entire life leaving nothing to freedom or chance. The plot casts her as a kind of existential schlemiel (in the worst sense):

When I go up the next morning, I found, there on the screen, an outline for a play about my life – how it would unfold, decade by decade. Reading it compulsively as the sun came up in the window behind me, I grew incredibly scared. Tears ran down my cheeks as a I absorbed the horrible picture he had painted of my life: vivid and vile and filled with everything his heart and mind knew would hurt me best. (24)

The play culminates with Sheila in a pornographic encounter with a Nazi. She kneels in a dumpster and gives a Nazi a blowjob (25). When she asks the Nazi, in her “last bubble of hope,” “Are you mine?” he says “Sure, baby,” and “cruelly stuck my nose in his hairy ass and shat. The end”(25).

Heti is disturbed by the play and tries but cannot stop thinking about it. She thought, in some way, that it could come true! She felt she could not escape this theatrical fate:

It lodged inside me like seed that I was already watching take root and grow into my life. The conviction in every line haunted me. I was determined to act in such a way as to erase the fate of the play, to bury far from my heart the rotting seed he had discovered – or planted – there. (25)

In these lines we see that Heti’s schlemiel is struggling with fictional fate. She wants freedom. But how will she get it if she is constantly making big mistakes. It seems as if there is no way out. It’s as if she was fated to be a slave, a schlemiel-slave-of-fate.  Marriage seems to promise a way out of fate, but it only seems to reiterate eternal repetition.

In the beginning of their marriage, they have “two years” of parties. At the end of the second year, she wonders “Why are we having these parties?(26). Imagining she was someone from the future looking back she says, winking at the Jews building pyramids: “That could only have built by slaves.”

While in the bathroom, Sheila thinks of a dream she had about writing and shitting: “Sitting there, I recalled a dream from the night before, in which I was taking pills that made me shit a lot. In my dream, I decided I would only write what I thought about as I shit – since I was now spending all my time shitting”(27). Her dream parallels shit and writing and touches on the main theme of making Big Mistakes (as noted in another blog entry, Heti points out that all artists must make “Big Mistakes” – a motif shared with schlemiels). It seems she is reconsidering not just her marriage but also her art.

Right after she leaves the toilet she meets someone who takes part in the Ugly Painting Contest: Margaux. The backstory of her relationship with Margaux gives us a sense of how artists, like schlemiels, have dreams about art but are awakened, like Sheila, to the fact that their project (writing, painting, acting) might be meaningless.   (The metaphor Sheila will use, which we have already seen above, has to do with waste: either having one’s face put in someone’s ass or defecating.) But the lesson is never final. The schlemiel, like all of these artists, seems to repeat the cycle. To be sure, the postmodern schlemiel goes through this process, returns to her original naivite, and starts again.

As Heti’s metaphor suggests, being an artist-schlemiel and making art is like returning to the bathroom, repeatedly.   And if one model fails, the schlemiel – at least in Heti’s version – will always move on to another. Once that fails, one goes to the bathroom and then returns to start again. In other words, as a result of repeated failure, the schlemiel’s models will always be tainted or will become tainted (at some point).   Yet the schlemiel doesn’t give up hope that he or she will, one day, know “how a person should be.”

The Schlemiel’s Trust Issues in Sheli Heti’s Comic Novel “How Should a Person Be?”

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Sheila Heti – the author, narrator, and main character of the comic novel How Should a Person Be? – has fears that if she trusts someone, she may hurt someone and hurt herself. But, as we learn from the prologue, she has to if she is to learn how a person should be. She doesn’t look inside herself; she looks to others. This conflict, at the core of her being, makes her experience of herself and the world more fragmented.

To bring out the fragmentation, Heti introduces emails to her narrative and, in addition, she does something odd and irritating with them: she breaks the emails into numbered lines that have no explicit reason for being numbered save for the order.   These emails punctuate the text and complicate the narrative with information which may or may not be relevant. Here is a small snippet of the first email from Margaux, which, however, does have relevance since it shows a tension between actions and expectations that Heti has of others. It also shows major distrust and insecurity:

1. i have always admired a lack of social obligation, in fact, i aspire to it. the number of birthday parties i attend is too many, apart from that, i assumed you weren’t coming to my party and you did not.

2. at my party, you husband, probably being noting but sweet and drunk and feeling generous, and probably having nothing to do with your sentiments, said, “hell, you and Sheila should spend more time together.”

3. and i laughed and thought nothing about it.

4. but then when i saw you in the street yesterday, i was very annoyed and probably annoying. my annoyance was unfair and a little silly.

The email ends with a kind of apology which recurs throughout the text in a certain manner; especially between Margaux and Sheia. Both make “mistakes,” feel ashamed, and apologize (especially Sheila). (Apology, to be sure, is a major part of Toronto culture, the milieu of this novel; wherein the average citizen says “I’m sorry” often in day-to-day life.)

Immediately following this email, Sheila says she is “thrown off” (in other words, the email astonishes her; and, as I have noted above, astonishment is a key feature of the schlemiel).   To be sure, the email makes Sheila feel special. Her excitement and astonishment becomes disturbed. This is evinced by the fact that as she wanders through the neighborhood she “zipped and unzipped my jacket as my body went from hot to cold”(31). She muses that this it is a curse and a blessing to “have a woman,” and she launches into her inability to understand women (herself being one) and their relationships with each other: “I supposed I didn’t trust them. What was a woman for? Two women was an alchemy I didn’t understand….It would have been too easy to count the ways I had been betrayed by girls, all the ways I had been hurt by them. And if I wanted, I could have easily made a list of all the girls to whom I had caused pain”(32)

The schlemiel, to be sure, has trust issues. But usually they are usually the other way around. The schlemiel trusts others and is betrayed. Here, the schlemiel is wary of trust because she has been burned so many times before. Sheila, this schlemiel, is more reflective on the meaning of trust than the character; and, in a postmodern sense, she does what the reader would do vis-a-vis what we find in a story like “Gimpel the Fool”:

Trust has to be won from zero at every encounter. That’s the reason you always see women being so effusive with each other – crying out shrilly upon recognizing each other in the street. Women have to confirm with each other, even after so many years: We are still all right….A woman can’t find rest or take up home in the heart of another woman – not permanently. It’s just not a safe place to land. I knew the heart of a woman could be a landing ground for a ma, but for a woman to land in another woman’s heart? That would be like landing on something wobbly, without form, like trying to stand on Jell-O. Why would I want to stand tall in Jell-O? (33)

In other words, Sheila, at this moment, is thinking about how much a failure and waste of time it would be if she tried to gain Margaux’s trust. However, in an odd follow up to this reflection, Sheila talks about her “first day at typing school”(33). Although the scene is odd, the theme of the text gives us a cue as to how this is connected to the reflection on women. While noting that she smiles at everyone, Sheila says that she regards all of the other people in the class as “liars” but she “wants them on her side.” She wants to be their “hero”(34). She “prayed” that she wouldn’t “create any enemies”(34). However, like a schlemiel, she fails, and realizes that she can’t use “wit” (as many schlemiels do) to win: “By the end of the first afternoon, they were laughing at me….I saw I wasn’t going to outwit them. Those people didn’t deal with wit”(34).

As in Woody Allen’s Anything Else -when Jason Biggs tells Allen that he and Allen can outwit two bullies by wit and Allen retorts that this won’t do – she realizes that she can’t win through wit because she belongs with the “liars and the weaklings”(34); the “jocks” have a different “interior” and have an “integrity that springs from the very center of the earth itself”(34).

This distinction is at the core of the latter day schlemiel. And though, as we can see above, she is wary of having a relationship with Margaux because of what she envisions will happen, she receives two more emails from Margaux that suggest to her that Margaux is a lot like her: she seems to be absent-minded and has a different interior that the jocks; she is a weakling of sorts, too. But, more importantly, Sheila can see that Margaux, in one of the emails, really wants to be her friend. It seems as if she can trust Margaux from email lines like this which Sheila all numbers “1”:

  1. i am surprised at how much i miss you, like a real teenage girl.
  1. hello. I was wondering, if you have red bike lights, could i borrow them tomorrow night?
  1. i’m going to paint your portrait a hundred times and never mention it to anyone – articulately.
  1. yes, I would like to see you. i have all the time in the world. (37)

Following this, Sheila becomes childlike and remembers a poem she used to read in Hebrew school:

Love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

 

Love is like a magic penny!

Hold on tight and you won’t have any!

Lend it, spend it, you’ll have so many,

They’ll roll over the floor, oh!

However, when she reflects on the poem, she becomes perplexed about what it means to give. The central metaphor of the poem distracts her from it’s content:

This seemed impossible to me, just crazy! If you give it away you’ll end up having more? It was the only poem I knew and my favorite one, for it baffled me. I recited it over and over to myself, as if there was something I could learn from it. In my head, in rooms in homes, zillions of pennies rolled over the floors, thick and encompassing like waves. (38)

She thinks these thoughts while “overcome with wonder” and drifts into thinking about something arbitrary: Margaux’s “grade-six graduation ceremony” in Texas (where she lived). She imagines her dressed like a schlemiel, with clothes too big for her. But there is a difference. Though she is laughed at by the audience, Margaux’s “dignity” is “in tact”(38) while, as we can see from her humiliating experience in the typing class above, the laughter at Sheila makes her vulnerable and affects her sense of self.

The dialectical back and forth between taking risks or opting out of them is at the crux of these types of reflections. The end of chapter three drives this home since he see that she, like a schlemiel, lets optimism overtake her cynicism: “For so long I had been looking hard into every person I met, hoping I might discover in them all the thoughts and feelings I hoped life would give me, but hadn’t”(38). She muses on how people have told her, however, that looking to others for hope is a dead end; and that it is better to “find such things in yourself, that you cannot count on anyone to supply even the smallest crumb that your life lacks”(39). This thought, nonetheless, doesn’t keep her from deciding that it is worth taking risks with Margaux, hoping that she would learn something how a person should be: “Although I knew this might be true, it didn’t prevent me from looking anyway. Who cares what people say? What people say has no effect on your heart”(38). The last words are the most telling since these are the words that can only be said by a schlemiel who trusts his heart over his head. This kind of logic is the logic of the schlemiel and one can assume that it will lead only to disappointment or some mistake.   Although trust is the basis of religion and society, the virtue of the schlemiel is to show us the other, more existential side of trust wherein the one who trusts often fails. For Heti, trust is a risk; but one that must be ventured.

The Other is My Teacher: First Thoughts on Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”

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When I first started reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I was struck by the title, the first words of the novel, and their speaker, the main character, who is an amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction: her name is Sheila Heti.  Her book, published in 2012, has received great reviews by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and many other reputable publications. I need not go through what has already been said about her wonderful novel by these reviews. Rather I’d like to introduce a nuanced way of reading her novel that taps into the existential comedy of being – which is connected to the comedy of education – that runs throughout the text. The comedy we find with Sheila, to be sure, resonates very well with the schlemiel.

What intrigued me about this confluence between the title of Heti’s novel, it’s first words, and the main character, was the fact that they are all involved, in the most Talmudic way, in a series of questions, tests, and life possibilities that are aimed at learning something and being something. But this education is not a simple one; it is what I would call a schlemiel-education. This is the case because the relationship of Sheila to her experiences is based on an uncertainty as to “how a person should be.” She is a lot like Motl of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son. He leaves Europe with his family to discover America. Motl embraces and attempts to learn from each experience about how to be.   But in learning, we don’t see him commit to any one way of being or another. Motl’s education, it seems, has no end.

And in many ways the other, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would say, is the schlemiel’s teacher.   But Heti’s schlemiel is different insofar as Sheila is a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, the genre of women-schlemiels has, unfortunately, not been explored. But Heti’s book offers us what Edith Wychogrod would call a “sample” of the “general carnality of the (female) saint.” (As I pointed out in my blogs on Malamud and Levinas, the schlemiel is a secular saint of sorts. And Wychogrod offers us an exceptional model as to how we can read the schlemiel who, like the saint, takes the other as her teacher.)

Like children, we learn from others how to live our life and how to be. But for thinkers like Immanuel Kant this  type of education is immature. To learn from others how to live one’s life, as an adult, is shameful. A “mature” individual should, rather, use his or her reason as a guide for how he or she should live his or her life. Kant identified Enlightenment with the autonomy that comes by living one’s life in accordance with one’s reason. But there is more to the story. Enlightenment is not simply based on living one’s life in accordance with reason; rather, it requires that one sacrifice one’s desire to look to others for how one should live one’s life and for how someone should be.   Kant would, for this reason, associate autonomy with the sacrifice of heteronomy.

Nearly a century after Immanuel Kant, a Jewish man (who despised his Jewish identity) named Otto Weininger argued in his book Sex and Character (1903) – which was very influence by Kant – that Jews are effeminate because they are caught up in experience.   Jews are not capable of autonomy, in his view, because they look to experience for the answer to their question “How should a person be?” Writing on Weininger, Freud pointed out that the chapter that most “attracted his attention treated Jews and women with equal hostility and overwhelmed them with the same insults”(77, cited in Sander Gilman’s Freud, Race, and Gender) Arguing against Weininger, Freud calls him a “neurotic.” And, being a neurotic, “Weininger was completely under the sway of his infantile complexes; and from that standpoint what is common to Jews and women is their relation to the castration complex”(77).   According to Gilman, Weininger’s “infantile complex” is an “example of the problematic relationship of a Jew to his circumcision”(77).

What Freud misses about Weininger’s reading of the Jew is that both of them are deemed to be in a constant state of change and their education seems to be endless. For Weininger, neither is guided by reason so much as by experience. Heti’s book, to be sure, is Jewish in a double sense in that its narrator and main character is a woman schlemiel. For Weininger a Jewish woman is guided, to an even greater extent than the male, by experience and the other. To be sure, it wouldn’t be off to say that for Weininger she is the greater schlemiel. The male, in many ways, is really no different from her; but she does it better because she is truly feminine; he is an amalgamation of male-and-female.

Although I don’t agree with Weininger, I find it particularly interesting that I, as a Jewish male, am learning from the story of a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, Kant saw the novel as a kind of distraction and would likely associate it with the feminine.   Given this reading, I could say that as a Jewish male, I am being doubly distracted by her work from being autonomous. This book would, in Weininger and Kant’s view, only distract me from being autonomous and from guiding my life by reason.   However, in defiance of them, I would argue, as I have above, that this book provides us with a schlemiel education. It shows us the comical nature of having the other as a teacher. In involves us with an endless lesson.

Even though there is something laughable and even positive about this, there is also something very sad. The first words of the novel – in the prologue – show us a schlemiel-subject who is always-already in the midst of the question, which situates “the other as my teacher” and evokes questions about which ways of being one should, existentially, take on for oneself:

How should a person be?

For years and years I have asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too….But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose?  

All of these questions – and their possible answers – are at once comical and torturous. These are the questions of a woman-schlemiel named Sheila Heti who takes the other as her teacher.

(Sheila Heti is the sister of David Heti, a comedian Schlemiel Theory has written on recently.   To be sure, they have many interesting resonances as for as the schlemiel character goes.  In upcoming entries, I will dig into the details and travel with the stops, starts, pauses, false starts, and sudden turns in her novel. They all make up a “sample” of schlemiel education.)