Tag: humor

Joan Rivers and Holocaust Humor

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During the week of Robin Williams death, I wrote a piece on his role in Jakob the Liar. As I pointed out, Williams didn’t shy away from the challenge of bringing humor to the Holocaust. To this end, he decided to take on the role of the schlemiel, Jakob, who did his utmost to distance the Lodz ghetto from its impending doom.   He and Roberto Bengnini – who wrote and played the main role in Life is Beautiful – turned to the schlemiel and both were duly criticized for this since, “after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno and several Holocaust scholars who follow in his wake argue that humor, much like poetry, might be thought to be unethical when it comes to representing the Holocaust.   However, what makes the schlemiel interesting is, as Sidrah Ezrahi suggests, that its brand of comedy “revolts” against the world so as to preserve hope.   But that revolt is in the name of innocence.

While Bengini and Williams took to the schlemiel in the face of the Holocaust, Joan Rivers took more to a comic style that was in the spirit of Lenny Bruce (who, arguably, made a major impression on Rivers and changed her way of doing comedy).   These jokes do not preserve innocence so much as the spirit of revolt itself.   They strike at the civility that is at the core of the west.   And, as David Biale argues, Lenny Bruce created a new sense of Jewishness as a position that was not so much American as marginal, counter-cultural, and against the status quo. And because Rivers is “Jewish,” perhaps in Bruce’s sense, her Holocaust jokes take on another aspect.

The most recent joke Joan told about the Holocaust was on Fashion Police. In this joke she likens the “hotness” of Heidi Klum’s ass in a dress to the hotness of Germans “pushing Jews into the ovens” in concentration camps:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmrabo1vHZo]

On CNN she was asked if she regretted telling the joke. She starts off by saying that it’s “just a joke,” notes that a large part of her husbands family died in the Holocaust, and finishes up by saying that her joke prompts this generation to think about the Holocaust (simply because it’s not on their minds and this will spur them to think).   After being asked again if she will apologize, she notes how her Jewishness keeps her from criticism: “Why don’t you worry about Mel Gibson? Why don’t you worry about the anti-Semites out there?” But the clincher is that the main thing is to laugh because if you can laugh “you can deal with it.”

This principle, it seems, is nearly identical to the one used by Begnini and Williams in their use of the schlemiel. It is not simply revolt for the sake of revolt. It seems that Rivers is suggesting this and the fact that it can spur people to think about the Holocaust.

In her interview with WSJ live, she says something a little different. She begins by saying the joke is on the Germans; they and not the ADL and Abe Foxman should be upset.   And she finishes off the discussion by noting what Dick Cavett said via Mark Twain: “Against the assault of humor, nothing can stand. Don’t flinch, Joan.” In other words, comedy is pure revolt.  Perhaos Cavett is suggesting the same thing as Lenny Bruce: Jewish comedy should always be in  revolt. She says it’s a brilliant comment (several times, in fact).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piVCGSDP1UA]

This year Rivers began her appearance on Jimmy Fallon (the first return to the Tonight Show for decades – since she was “banned” from the show) made a Holocaust joke about how if the German’s could successfully kill millions of Jews at least they could make cars that work. Its interesting that, in following up this joke, she told a joke about her getting vagina rings, and then she turned to a joke dealing with ethnicity and emotion. The joke is an inside/outsider joke. She asks Fallon if he is Irish. He says yes and then she says that she and Fallon get this but WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) don’t. (This initial insider/outsider joke hearkens back to Lenny Bruce’s jokes about what’s “Jewish” and “Goyish,” meaning WASPish. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srtES-HebG0]

Her Jewish/Goyish kind of routine with Fallon sughests that she us in the same camp as all ethnic comedians who fight to succeed in a WASP culture.  This seems to authorize her to tell jokes about anything, even the Holocaust.

But this is not the first time she has told jokes on the Holocaust.   In her book I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me (2012), Rivers tells jokes about Hitler, the Holocaust, and Anne Frank.

On Hitler:

“I hate people who say they’re ‘workaholics…There is no such thing. Hitler put in a lot of hours. Would you call him a workaholic? People who work 24/7 are not ‘addicted’ to work … they either hate their families or don’t have basic cable.”

On Anne Frank:

“They only order half a chicken, take two bites, then put it in a doggie bag to take home, where it lasts them for six months. Anne Frank didn’t hoard food like this, and that bitch was hungry.”

And in Larry King’s interview with her in 2010, King asks Rivers about Holocaust humor in 5:49.   He asks her if there is any “area you will not go to?” And she says, “No. If I think I want to talk about, it’s right to talk about.” And she goes on to say that if she were in “Auschwitz she would tell jokes just to make it ok for us.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAc6eBsrAfY]

And she concludes, as she did three years later, that if you make something funny you can deal with it. Both statements are telling, but the first is more telling since it has resonance with the films made by Begnini and Williams. Both of them play characters who also tell jokes to help make it ok for us. But the “us” is different and so are the jokes. The humor that Robbins and Begnini use is the humor of the schlemiel. It’s purpose is to make fool younger people so as to preserve their innocence. In contrast, one can imagine that River’s humor, inside of Auschwitz, would have been much different. Instead of prompting Jews to live “as if” the good still exists (and preserving innocence), one can imagine that her jokes would be anything but innocent. However, they would work in the same way: they would make things ok for us (for fellow Jews who were suffering in the Holocaust). And this suggest that Rivers would use humor to revolt against the world. By saying no to it, things would be “ok for us.”

One may disagree with this approach – and many Holocaust scholars and the ADL have. But one needs to ask not just whether humor is tenable after Auschwitz but whether it is tenable during Auschwitz. This is what Rivers suggests to Larry King. And, unlike Williams and Bengini, she saw the Jewish humor that subscribes to vulgarity as more powerful than the humor that subscribes to the schlemiel when it comes to the Holocaust. And this difference also shows us a difference between two trends in post-Holocaust Jewish-American humor: one leaning toward Lenny Bruce and the other toward the traditional schlemiel that we see in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” In the face of Evil, Gimpel acts “as if” good exists. In contrast, Rivers, in contrast, laughs at Evil. And perhaps her revolt is the demonstration (instead of an acting “as if”) of what’s best in humanity. 

And this appeal to comedy – in the face of disaster – harkens back to what Walter Benjamin once said of Franz Kafka: “the only thing Kafka was certain of is that only humor helps. The question, however, is whether it can do humanity any good.”

Humor as Prosthesis: On Comic Word Play and Ironic Victories

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Some schlemiel theorists like Ruth Wisse and Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi read comedy as a kind of compensation for failure and powerlessness. Comedic language, in this scenario, is a kind of prosthesis.   The feverish pace of comedy is, in this scenario, structured to give the writer, joke-teller, and audience a false – read fictional – sense of control.

Reflecting on the excessive use of language in Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiel-comedy, Ruth Wisse writes:

Sholem Aleichem generally employs the technique of monologue, of which the epistolary form is but a variation, to convey the rhythms and nuances of character, and to underscore the extent to which language itself is the schlemiel’s manipulative tool. Through language the schlemiel reinterprets events to conform to his own vision, and thereby controls them, much as the child learns to control the environment by naming it. One need only read Menachem Mendl’s joyous, and incomprehensible, explanation of the stock market to appreciate how proficient handling of language can become a substitute for proficient commerce. Moreover, the richness of language in some way compensates for the poverty it describes. There is in the style an overabundance of nouns, saying, explanations, and apposition….The exuberant self-indulgence of…description takes the sting out of failure itself….Maurice Samuel called…it “theoretical reversal.” (54)

In this scenario, all comic language is ironic as is the laughter that goes along with it since, in this view, everyone goes along with the joke. Nonetheless, we know what the schlemiel is doing. He is, as it were, not fully absent minded. And, as Wisse suggests, the schlemiel uses language like a “manipulative tool” so as to reinterpret events and things that they cannot master so that they can “conform to his own vision.”

Writing on the telephone as a prosthesis, Avital Ronell argues that it is “capable of surviving the body which it in part replaces” and it “acts as a commemorative monument to the dissolution of the mortal coil”(88, The Telephone Book). Playing on Freud, Ronell goes on to call the prosthesis a “godlike annexation of a constitutively fragile organ.” It performs a “restitutional service” by going right to where the trauma touches the body.

Ronell argues that Freud anticipates Marshall McLuhan who argues that if the body fails the prosthesis succeeds. However, for McLuhan, the prosthesis is not simply a substitute for a weak or “fragile organ.” It is an extention of our existing organs. Citing McLuhan, Ronell notes that for him the prosthesis will no longer be a buffer between the body and the world. It will directly relate to it. In other words, it is no longer a substitute and it no longer is false. And now when it is shocked or traumatized there is an “auto-amputation of the self.”

Ronell contrasts this new understanding of trauma mediated by a prosthesis which now becomes “real” to Freud who argues that the enjoyment of this false limb amounts to a “cheap thrill.”

Bringing all this together, I’d like to test out the prosthetic theory of humor posited by Wisse, above. If humor is a prosthesis, than wouldn’t our enjoyment of it be, in Freud’s words, cheap? Perhaps this suggests that the schlemiel is understood as a prosthesis and that our “ironic victory” is…ironic. Without that understanding, our laughter would in fact be cheap.

On the other hand, if we read prosthetic humor along the lines of McLuhan there is no false limb. It is not a tool so much as an extention of our bodies. If that is the case, humor – as an extention of our bodies – exposes us to existence. It doesn’t protect us and it can potentially harm the schlemiel. This insight, to my mind, bears some interesting fruit. We see the effects of this more in stand-up comedy than in Yiddish literature. While Sholem Aleichem’s Motl or Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin seem to be immune to existence – by way of their humor – stand-up comedians and some contemporary schlemiel characters, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy or Shalom Auslander’s Kugel are not. Sometimes language can provide us with an ironic victory othertimes the same words can signify, for a schlemiel, defeat.

It all depends on how you read the prosthesis for sometimes the substitution afforded by comedy doesn’t compensate for lack so much as expose us to excess.

I’ll leave you with a clip from Andy Kaufmann since his comic words and his gestures seem to expose him rather than protect him from failure.

 

 

Animating the Text: Jake Marmer’s Talmudic Jazz-Poetics

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When it comes to art and poetry, I am very demanding.  And the reason for this has to do with who I am, where I come from, and what I dream about.   But, ultimately, I’m not so unique.  I feel as if there are many Jewish people out there who, like me, are yearning for a poetry that merges music, performance, and comedy with something that speaks to being Jewish, being American, and being close to something indescribable that seems to be coming at us from different directions.  On my search for this kind of poetry, I have come across the work of few poets who, at one time in my life, spoke to my being Jewish, being American, and so forth.   These poets – my poetic Rabbis, so to speak – are Allen Ginsburg, Charles Bernstein, and Jerome Rothenberg.   What I like about all of them is the fact that they all, in some way, bring their Jewishness to bear on a poetry that is performative, musical, and, at times, comical.   But, as I said, their work appealed to me at one time.  Today, I need something different and this is only because I have changed and so have the times we live in.   Unlike the past, I feel now, more than ever, that I – and others of my generation who wish to make Jewishness more relevant and exciting – need to find a new way to animate the Jewish text.  I believe that it can be animated by a new Jewish poetics and culture which can live in the present, draw on the past, and, using the best means it has at its disposal, open itself to a new future.  By opening the text (as the Zohar says in a different context), the new Jewish poet can lead the way into an exciting new form of Jewish life that is comic, poetic, musical, and performative.  And we can, so to speak, dance to this new Jewish tune.

On this (musical) note, I think I have found a new Jewish poet who I can listen to and join with in the project of creating a new Jewish culture.  His performance-poetry speaks to my comic Jewish –American sensibility in the most innovative and inspiring ways.  His name is Jake Marmer.   His first work of poetry is entitled Jazz Talmud.  It was published in 2011 by Sheepmeadow Press.    And, most recently, he has put together a CD entitled Hermeneutic Stomp which takes the poems from his book and brings them to life by way of Jazz. His CD will be released in New York City on October 14th .

For now, I’d like to go through one of these poems so as to point out how he, drawing on the tradition of the poets I have mentioned above (and a Jewish tradition called the Talmud), animates the text in a comic manner.  Fortunately, we have a video from Youtube that shows Marmer at work with his Jazz group.   Seeing this, after I have discussed the poem, can help to give you (my dear reader) an idea of how the performance of his poetry adds another dimension to his work.

At the end of an essay Marmer wrote for Shema: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, entitled Improvised Poetry: Palimpest of Drafts,  Marmer cites a poem from Jazz Talmud (a poem which also appears in his Hermeneutic Stomp CD) and notes to the reader that his poetry plays on the relationship of the Mishnah to the Gemara.  Here is the poem. It’s entitled the “Mishnah of Loneliness”:

Mishnah of Loneliness

There’re three types of loneliness in the world:

green, red, and purple. So says the house of

Hillel. In the house of Shammai, they say: loneliness

is either black or white; all other types

don’t exist and require a sacrifice of a young

goat: your internal goat.

Says Rava: in all of my years, I have not

known loneliness. All day I’m at the yeshiva

with you nudniks, then I come home to groveling

domestic tractates. One day, I stepped

outside and screamed: Master, I want you

in silence, in absence, in wordless music of

our solitude! Right then I saw a great ladder,

reaching to the Throne up high. The Throne
— was empty — but up and down the steps,

there went lost sounds, scales of unused and

discarded words, slip-ups, swallowed hallucinations,

choked on ecstasies — a whole decontextualized

orchestra racing like goats through

the fog.

The voice said: this, Rava, is the room of my

absence, music of our solitude. You like it? Go

home! Stuff your ears with pages of sophistry; eat,

make a bad pun, for that is the meaning of peace.

Writing on this poem, Marmer points out that there is room in what he writes for improvisation and animation:

While the opening and middle sections of the poem are fairly set, the storytelling segment has room to let loose. As I recite it, I’m looking for openings, ideas, associated images, and commentary that I did not think of when I was working on the original draft.

This structure gives him the opportunity to change his poetry (or his way of saying it) while he is in the moment of performance.  And this gives the poetry more life since it is, so to speak, full of gaps and opportunities for play and interaction (with the text, the musicians, and the audience).  Adding to this reflection on the improvisational nature of his poetry, Marmer notes the Jewish dimension by pointing out how he is playing with “Talmudic form”:

In this particular piece, I’m also playing with the historical talmudic form, which combined memorization/repetition (“mishnah”)with discourse/discussion/riffing/tangents (“gemarah”).

Building on his reference to the Talmud to his work, I would suggest that we read the interplay of voices and opinions – in this particular poem – as comical.  To be sure, what I find so interesting about this poem in particular is the fact that it has a very pronounced comic dimension to it which works by way of indirection.  It gives loneliness three colors (none of which are blue). And in the jazz performance, each color also has a different sound.   Playing on the endless Talmudic disputes between two Talmudic schools (Shammai and Hillel), he attributes this reading to the “house of Hillel” (which is usually associated with more lenient and compassionate readings of the law and is associated with the saying that the whole Torah is to “love your brother as yourself”).  In contrast to Hillel’s colorful interpretation of loneliness, he presents Shammai’s reading which is that loneliness can either be one color or another; it can’t be three colors.  And if you appeal to these, a sacrifice will have to be made: “your internal goat.”

This dichotomy between the two Rabbis – and the whole focus on loneliness – is challenged by Rava who says he has never known loneliness.  And the punch line is that he has not known it because he has always been “surrounded by nudnicks” (a nudnick is an irritating person – a person who nags) at Yeshiva.  At this point, the humor really kicks in since Rava prays to God to be left alone.  He can’t take the nudnicks.

He then has a “vision.”  But what he sees is something that the exiled poet, musician, and Rabbi share: words, sounds, and visions that are incomplete.  Marmer animates the words by describing them in a diverse and comic manner: “lost sounds, scales of unused and discarded words, slip-ups, swallowed hallucinations.”

After hearing this, God, sounding much like Woody Allen’s God in he speech to Abraham in “The Scrolls,” asks Rava if he likes the “whole decontextualized orchestra” (which he calls the “room of my absence, music of our solitude”):  “You like it? Go home! Stuff your ears with pages of sophistry, eat, make a bad pun for that is the meaning of peace.”

The last words of the poem suggest that God is spurring Rava to leave this serious room “of my absence” and to turn to comedy: to “stuff his ears with sophistry, eat, make a bad pun.”

This is telling and, ultimately, sounds a comic note.

Here is a video of this poem when it is performed.

What I love about the CD is the fact that what you hear on it is different from what you see and hear in this video.  What makes this so appealing to me is the fact that the structure of the piece gives him another opportunity to say it and find new ways of accenting this comic-Talmudic narrative.

More importantly, this poem (and its performance) speaks to me because it outlines what’s Jewish about his poetry: it looks to challenge the loneliness that goes hand-in-hand with so much poetry. It reminds me of the contrast between the style James Joyce uses to describe Leopold Bloom (the Jew) and Stephen Dedalus (the Gentile). The former style is more animated and comic.  And, as any reader of Ulysses knows, Bloom never seems to be lonely since he’s always relating to something.  He seems to be in a constant conversation with memories, people, things around him, and even animals.

When Marmer recites poetry and his band responds to each of his words with this or that note or sequence of notes, the “Mishnah of Loneliness” becomes the Mishnah of peace.  It tells the tale of how we, as Jews, can speak to each other.  And the fellowship that comes out of this comic-musical-poetic conversation is not what Susan Sontag calls the “fellowship of suffering” so much as a “fellowship of comedy, music, and words.”  This poem is a part of a renewed oral tradition which, as I have pointed out, is comic in nature.  And this tradition, I aver, is the other side of the “fellowship of suffering.”  Rather than surrender to sadness, Jews know how to balance it out (and not laugh it away) with a sense of humor. This shines through in Marmer’s poetry.

This poem and all of Marmer’s poems speak to me – especially when they are accompanied by the music of musicians who respond.  They speak to me in a Talmudic sense and in a Jewish sense.  I love that the music responds to each of Marmer’s notes. That, for me, is what animation is all about.  Moreover, such response is also the basis for peace since peace, as any poet knows, is based on some form of conversation.

As an American and as a Jew, as a person who lives in the present but is related to an ancient past and an uncertain future, I think these parts of myself, which I share with my fellow American Jews, need to engage in more dialogue.  And I think Marmer has found a great way of starting this conversation.  Although Marmer is aware that we have had a Talmud for centuries which has shown us how to live our lives, he knows that today what we need more than ever is a Jazz Talmud. That is a step in the right direction.  A Jazz Talmud can start a new conversation, one that speaks to me and to many of my generation who want to reconcile the differing opinions about what’s Jewish, what’s American, and how the two can converse with each other.

Onward ho!

Check out Marmer’s work on his blog: Jake Marmer’s Bop Apocalypse: Poetry, Philosophy, Existential Rants.   Also check out his new CD and, if you’d like, join him at the CD release party on October 14th at the Cornelia Street Café at 8:30pm. 

 

The Difference Between Sadism and Masochism as the Difference Between Irony and Humor

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One of the most interesting distinctions I have come across, regarding comedy, deals with the distinction made by Gilles Deleuze (a French philosopher) between humor and irony.  According to Deleuze, in his book entitled Masochism, we find irony in Sadism and humor in Masochism (I am capitalizing these words for the sake of emphasis).  As a thinker who is interested in “leaving metaphysics behind,” Deleuze makes the interesting claim that Sadism simply reinstates metaphysics even through it purports to destroy it.   In contrast, Deleuze thinks that Masochism does leave it behind.  Evidence of this distinction can be found in the irony and humor we find in the work of Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, respectively.

The reason this distinction is of such interest to me is not simply that it is unexpected; rather, it is also of interest because, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the psychologist Theodor Reik and the cultural critic Albert Goldman both “psychologize” the schlemiel by claiming that he is a masochistic character or, quite simply, a person who, in fear of reality, finds excuses and “rationalizes” inaction:

‘Psychoanalysis,’ writes Theodor Reik, ‘would characterize the schlemihl as a masochistic character who has strong unconscious will to fail and spoil his chances.’  Explaining the popularity of the schlemiel pose in modern culture, Albert Goldman calls it an excuse, an apology, and a rationalization.  (68)

To be sure, the basis of her reading of the schlemiel – in major part – is based on challenging the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  She argues against the psychoanalyst who “treats the schlemiel concept as a neurotic symptom and tries to determine the causes of a patient’s failure in actual situations.”    In contrast, while the author “may or may not be aware of the ‘masochistic need to fail’ that dominates the subconscious of his (schlemiel) character,” such “knowledge may be irrelevant to the story.”  Wisse claims that, in a story like “Gimpel the Fool,” the “irony…rests on our ability to perceive his failure as a success”(68).  And Gimpel’s “antipragmatic philosophy mocks the need for classification and rationalization of which the tendency to define Gimpel as a masochist is a good example”(68).  This mockery of psychological explanations – namely, the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character – affirms, by way of irony, goodness:

Since the schlemiel is above all a reaction against the evil surrounding him, he must reject more and more as the evil increases; Gimpel is prepared to walk into eternity in pursuit of personal goodness. (69).

Read against Wisse’s take on Masochism, Deleuze’s reading offers another way of addressing the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  I’d like to break his reading down and test Wisse’s reading against it so as to see how or whether Deleuze’s reading has any relevance to schlemiel theory.

Cutting right to the chase, Deleuze writes that “in modern thought irony and humor take on a new form: they are now directed at a subversion of the law”(86).   Both Sade and Masoch (respectively, the founders of what, today, is called Sadism and Masochism), “represent the two main attempts at subversion, at turning the law upside down.”  But the ways they went about doing this and the success in doing so differ radically.

In view of his claim, Deleuze offers definitions of irony and humor in terms of law.  Writing on irony, he states:

Irony is still in the process or movement which bypasses the law as a merely secondary power and aims at transcending it toward a higher principle. (86)

Deleuze’s reading speaks directly to the Socratic practice of irony where “Good” is a principle toward which one transcends one’s “secondary nature” in the name of one’s “primary nature.”   Through irony, one “discovers” one’s “primary nature.”   Sade, like Nietzsche after him, took the Good as their target.  And, as Deleuze notes, they used irony to “overturn” it; or rather reveal that the Good no longer exists and can no longer be used as the basis of law:

But what is the higher principle no longer exists, and if the Good can no longer provide the basis for the law or a justification of its power?  Sade’s answer is that in all its forms – natural, moral, and political – the law represents the rule of secondary nature which is always geared toward conservation; it is a usurpation of true sovereignty.  (86)

Sade sees the law as the basis of all of societies problems.  It is the basis of tyranny.  Deleuze paraphrases Sade as saying: “Tyrants are created by the law alone: they flourish by virtue of the law”(86).  Sade’s hatred of tyranny is the “essence of his thinking.”  And the heroes of his novels speak the “counter-language of tyranny.”

Sade looks to transcend the law, but not toward the Good (as Socrates would do); rather, he transcends the law toward the “direction of its opposite, the Idea of Evil, the supreme principle of wickedness, which subverts the law and turns Platonism upside down”(87).  (Note: The notion or rather language of inverting Platonism was stressed in a several aphorisms by Friedrich Nietzsche.)  By way of such a process, one will discover his or her “primary nature,” which, in Sade’s view is the opposite of tyranny.  Citing Sade, Deleuze notes that, for Sade, law is “inferior” to “anarchy”:

The law can only be transcended by virtue of a principle that subverts it and denies its power.  

This principle is, according to Deleuze, at the basis of the Sadean irony which destroys the law in order to transcend the law.  But, as Deleuze notes, we are still in the realm of metaphysics since one principle (the Idea of Evil) replaces another (the Idea of the Good).

Deleuze contrasts Sade’s ironic challenge to the law to the Masochist’s challenge, which is based, instead, on what Deleuze calls humor.  Although they both take the law as their “target,” the ironist and the humorist, like the Masochist and the Sadist, are fundamentally different.  However, this assertion may rightfully meet with a puzzled look since, to be sure, the Masochist is one who submits (and here, one would say, submits to the law). Deleuze, nonetheless, claims the opposite: a “masochist would not by contrast be regarded as gladly submitting to it (the law)”(88).

So, what is humor as opposed to irony?  And how does it relate to Masochism?

Deleuze uses a spatial metaphor to illustrate:

What we call humor –in contradistinction to the upward movement of irony toward a transcendent higher principle – is a downward movement from the law to its consequences.  (88)

This downward movement of humor is accomplished by “twisting the law by excess of zeal.”  In other words, one mocks the law by way of being “too zealous.”  And this is what Masochism-as-humor does:

By scrupulously applying the law we are able to demonstrate its absurdity and provoke the very disorder that it is intended to prevent or to conjure.  By observing the letter of the law, we refrain from questioning its ultimate or primary character; we then behave as if the supreme sovereignty of the law conferred upon it the enjoyment of all those pleasures it denies us; hence, by the closest adherence to it, and by zealously embracing it, we may hope to partake of its pleasures. (88)

This speaks directly to the Masochist since:

A close examination of masochistic fantasies or rites reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest applications of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be expected (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it).  It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity. (88)

How can we, based on this reading, address the schlemiel?  While for Reik and Goodman, Masochism vis-à-vis the schlemiel has a negative value, for Deleuze, Masochism (and its essence: humor) has a positive value: it challenges the law in ways that Sadism cannot.   By over-observing the law one makes it absurd.

A good example of this is evoked by the film theorist and critic Steve Shaviro.  In his book Cinematic Bodies, he writes on Jerry Lewis as a figure of Masochism.  By being over-zealous and through intense mimicry, Shaviro tells us, Jerry Lewis masochistically inverts the law (or the norm).

In the next blog entry, we will continue on this thread and look into how or whether this reading of Masochism and humor relates to the schlemiel.  After all, Jerry Lewis does play a schlemiel.  But this reading is focused less on the psychologizations that Ruth Wisse criticized than on a different way of understanding one’s relation to “the law.”

An Experiment: What Happens When you Substitute Humor for Poetry?

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Writing on poetry in his book Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes makes the argument that “interrupted flow of the new poetic language initiates a discontinuous Nature, which is only revealed piecemeal.”  It does this by “withdrawing” the natural functions of language.  When this “withdrawal” happens, “the relations existing in the world” are obscured.  And what happens is that now, in poetry, one is faced with the “object” or rather relations: in “it (the new poetry) nature becomes a fragmented space, made of objects solitary and terrible, because the links between them are only potential.”

Reading this, I wondered what would happen if, for “new poetic language,” I were to substitute the word “humor.”   I thought this would be an interesting experiment so as to test Roland Barthes claims.  After all, humor also plays on relations between things and it “withdraws” the natural function of language by surprising us with unexpected combinations of word, gesture, and physical presence.

But, for Barthes, poetic language is surprising in a terrifying way.  As we saw above, nature, by way of new poetry, becomes full of “solitary and terrible” objects because their relations are “only potential.”  For Barthes, nature becomes unhinged by way of the “new poetry” and nothing is projected on to these “potential” links/relations:

Nobody chooses for them a privileged meaning, or a particular use, or some service; nobody imposes a hierarchy on them, nobody reduces them to the manifestation of a mental behaviour, or of an intention, of some evidence of tenderness.

The poetic word leaves one, so to speak, speechless and powerless.   It assaults one with a world of “verticalities, of objects, suddenly standing erect, and filled with all their possibilities: one of these can be only a landmark in an unfulfilled, and thereby, terrible world.”  Moreover, “these poetic words” or rather objects “exclude men.”  They relate man “not to other men, but to the most inhuman images of Nature: heaven, hell, holiness, childhood, madness, pure matter, etc.”    And it destroys “any ethical scope.”

Can we, in all seriousness, replace what Barthes is saying about poetry with humor?  Can we say that humor “excludes” men and relates man to “hell, holiness, childhood, madness, etc”?  What does humor relate us to?  Other people?  Things human or inhuman?

What I would like to do is think relationality in terms of the comic.  Barthes, like the German philospher Martin Heidegger (in essays like “What is Metaphysics,” “Letter on Humanism,” and the “Origin of the Work of Art”) , wants to give poetry the role of making things strange and inhuman.  But why, one should ask, is comedy and laughter excluded from that space?  Are they too human and familiar?  Is comedy or laughter “too social” or “too ethical”?  After all, Henri Bergson thought its primary activity was social.  Comedy excludes that which gets in the way of natural, creative evolution: élan vital.  We laugh at that which is “mechanical” and not natural – at that which doesn’t change and become, that which repeats itself needlessly.

Charles Baudelaire had a radically different reading of humor.  In fact, for him, humor changes our relation to ourselves and others. It estranges us.   And his primary example actually involves revisiting childhood – a broken one – by way of the writer ETA Hoffman, who writes of how a little girl becomes the object of laughter by way of her losing her relations to the world.  He also cites mimes as altering these relations.

But mime is not poetry and neither is ETA Hoffman’s work; nonetheless, Baudelaire found the work mimes and Hoffman did to be invaluable to himself (a poet). Nonetheless, the serious approach to poetics, as the basis of some kind of post-humanism, by way of Heidegger, Barthes, and even Maurice Blanchot, cannot entertain the possibility that humor can make things strange.

What’s interesting with humor is the fact that the shock that may or may not be invoked by this or that joke reverberates with both anxiety and with a sense of discovery.  Moreover, the best comedians disclose a potentiality to us that plays with things we take as “natural” and it does so in a way that is not completely alienating.

I find this fact fascinating since, in a way, it is a utopian kind of language since it appeals to the people and doesn’t simply look to alienate them.  To be sure, comedy’s power is in its ability to challenge nature and accepted relations while, at the same time, evoking something different and surprising.   Barthes himself evokes a utopian language at the end of Writing Degree Zero that relates the new poetry to the Revolutionary and a “new power.”   But, for him (as for Sartre) literature or poetry must lead the way; not comedy.  For both of them, there is nothing funny about revolution or utopia.  Strangely enough, this seriousness and this piety to language and thought are more aligned with mystics than with comics.

And perhaps that’s the rub.  The comical approach to challenging our relations to all kinds of things – such as cell phones, parenting, race, politics, etc etc – are at play in comedy. And the potential of comedy is, in so many ways, more powerful than that of straight up “new poetry” (which, don’t get me wrong, I really love).  Nonetheless, I find it fascinating that someone like Barthes wouldn’t even entertain this. And I think this has a lot to do with the trends that were going on in his time.

I am very influenced by his work and the work of Continental thinkers.  However, what I realize is that the best test for their work, as far as schlemiel-in-theory goes, is comedy.  In this case, substituting comedy for poetry – for purely experimental reasons – can change the way we look at Barthes profound approach to language.  It can also offer us another way to think the comical – minus all that poetic seriousness.  And we can ask, for better or for worse, what the “potential” of comedy is, how it renders us powerless, and how it puts forth the potential for a new distribution of power.   Perhaps we can say, playing on Barthes (and even Blanchot) that comedy has the power of powerlessness behind it. But, as I noted before, comedy is all in the timing.  And this power of powerlessness must, so to speak, stand the test of time.

Cynicism and Hope: On Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”

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Last night I had the opportunity of seeing Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine.  Since I have great interest in the work of Woody Allen and two of the characters he has cast in the film (Andrew Dice Clay and Louis CK), I took an immediate interest in the film and was eager to see it.  I have blogged and written on all of them and I was curious to see how or whether any comic elements could be found in the film that was, as many reviewers pointed out, not comical at all.

Much has been written on this film already.   Reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post (amongst many others) already dot the landscape.

Regarding these reviews, nearly all of them note how Allen, in the making of this film, was very influenced by Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  And they all noted the obvious relation to the Bernie Madoff fallout.  Regarding the reviews, I will briefly defer to the words of the critic David Denby who, in my view, does a fine job laying the plot and themes of the film out.  What interests me most, in his review, is how he reads the comical element.  Denby notes that Jasmine, played by Kate Blanchett,

is a snob and a liar, and, at times, delusional (she talks to herself), but, like Blanche DuBois, she’s mesmerizing. You can’t get enough of her, and Cate Blanchett, who played Blanche on Broadway only a few years ago, gives the most complicated and demanding performance of her movie career. The actress, like her character, is out on a limb much of the time, but there’s humor in Blanchett’s work, and a touch of self-mockery as well as an eloquent sadness. When she drops her voice to its smoky lower register, we know that she’s teasing the tragic mode. That edge of self-parody keeps us close to her, and we need that closeness, because we’re in for a rough ride.

Without this comic element of self-parody, we would despise her.  But, as Denby points out, the harsh element is constant throughout.  This, Denby avers, has much to do with Allen’s outlook on life, as reflected in this film:

Allen, who’s now seventy-seven, has become flintier as he has got older. His men and women tell one another off; the social clashes among people from different ways of life can be harsh and unforgiving.

In other words, with age Allen wants to knit a closer relationship between comedy and suffering.  In effect, Allen’s film shows us how, in his view, class-difference, in our era, taints comedy:

Allen, in his own way, is commenting on our increasingly unequal society: the formerly rich woman and the working-class characters don’t begin to get one another’s jokes and references; they don’t understand one another’s needs—they don’t even see them.

Nonetheless, Denby wants to point out how the comic element survives, albeit in a way that is admixed with the tragic.   Allen now uses the comic element to produce a “miraculous” identification between the audience and Jasmine.

The miracle is that we feel for Jasmine—or, at least, our responses to her are divided between laughter and sympathy. When she takes a job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, and the patients can’t decide when to schedule their next appointment, her irritation at their fumbling is both funny and recognizable.

What I like about Denby’s reading of the film is how he phrases our odd identification with Jasmine.  Our laughter at her way of handling her new work and life take off the edge. And we, for a few moments, see her as something other than a snob.  We can understand how ridiculous her situation is and we identify with her through laughter and tears, which keep each other in check.

Unlike Denby, I would say that, though I identified with Jasmine in this “miraculous” fashion, this identification was momentary and was often overshadowed by the other element which taints all of our identifications in the film; namely, the effect and dynamic of dishonesty and cynicism.

I was very troubled by this overwhelming presence as I stand behind the comic task of the schlemiel which is to maintain the tension between skepticism and hope.  The schlemiel, though foolish, stands on the side of trust and honesty. We see this in many classical schlemiels: from Rabbi Nachman of Breslav and Sholem Aleichem’s simpletons to I.B. Singer’s Gimpels and Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer types.  Although these characters are weathered by reality and lies, the element of trust remains.  It doesn’t triumph so much as remain in the balance.  When this tension collapses, we are in trouble.  It implies that what is best in humanity has been effaced.

At the end of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that in an era in which there is too much optimism or too much skepticism, the schlemiel cannot exist.

Allen’s film illustrates this principle-of-sorts.  To be sure, his film speaks to the cynicism that has grown post-Madoff.  And this overshadows much of the trust and hope we see in the film.  However, the fact of the matter is that although Andrew Dice Clay’s character is ruined by the games of the rich, his ex-wife (Jasmine’s sister, Ginger – played by Sally Hawkins) manages to start a new life.

She plays something of an innocent and hopeful schlemiel character.   Although Blanchett is obviously the focus of the entire film, it is Ginger who, at the very end of the film, retains some element of hope and trust.  She wants nothing to do with the cynicism that goes along with big-money and corruption.

Nonetheless, the best illustration of what is at stake in this film (and with the schlemiel) can be found in Blanchett’s relationship with Ginger’s children.  Although they openly disclose what they have heard from their parents about Jasmine and her husband’s lies and corruption, they don’t understand it.  In a key scene where Jasmine tells it all, they look back at her in astonishment not knowing what she is actually saying.   Her language is not theirs.

In truth, all of the adult characters are tainted by cynicism.  The children are, too.  But they don’t know it.  And, at the very least, I think it is important to note this.  The comic element survives best in them.  They retain the element of a schlemiel in a society which has become inundated with post-Madoff cynicism.

Though the film ends with Blanchett walking the streets alone, homeless, and delirious, this still leaves us with a horrible feeling we cannot forget that while most of us have been ruined by cynicism there are some who aren’t.  Children, in this film, are the schlemiels.  We need to ask ourselves what this implies.

The more we lie to each other, the more our humanity is lost.  Cynicism is the greatest threat to the schlemiel and to our humanity.  I applaud Woody Allen for bringing this out in Blue Jasmine.

He illustrates what Irving Howe, citing Saul Bellow, saw about Sholem Aleichem’s comedy; namely, that what makes Jewish humor relevant is the fact that it oscillates between laughter and tears.  And, as I have pointed out, this oscillation is based on the violation of trust.  Without trust, we can only cry.

Paraphrasing Denby, I would say that the miracle is not simply our feeling for Blanchett; it is the fact that the children don’t totally understand how dishonest people can be.  It’s the last remnant we have.  And, as I would argue, their lack of understanding, like that of any schlemiel, may give us time….time to change our ways and learn to trust one another once again.   Perhaps this is a foolish hope, but, in truth, it is the hope of a schlemiel.

It is our last remnant of humanity in a post-Madoff age.

A Note on Witold Gombrowicz and Simone Weil

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I have been reading parts of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s diary.  I read him and include him in Schlemiel-in-Theory because I think his comic novels (Ferdydurke being my favorite) and many of his comic reflections on himself have schlemiel-like resonances.   He is an exceptional writer who has been recognized by Susan Sontag and others.

For now, I only want to note a few diary entries which caught my eye.  The first is dated 1956. The place it was written in – Mar de Plata (a city in Argentina; since he left Poland for Argentina before WWII – is also noted.

In his “Thursday” entry, he reflects on Simone Weil’s La pesanteur et la grace.   To preface his thoughts, he points out how his generation can’t stomach the metaphyics of Kant or the Theologians. The issue, here, being God:

We, the grandchildren of Kierkegaard, can no longer digest the reasoned God of Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, or Kant.  My generation’s relationship with abstraction is completely in ruins, or, rather, has coarsened because we evidence a completely peasant distrust of it. (212)

After noting this, Gombrowicz reflects on himself.  But this time he notes how he is pushed toward metaphysics although he is disheartened by it:

Life in its very monstrousness pushes me in the direction of metaphysics.  Wind, noise, house, all of this has stopped being “natural” because I myself am no longer nature but something gradually cast beyond its limits.  It is not I myself, but that which is coming to an end in  me that clamors for God, this need or necessity is not in my, but my predicament.

Following this reflection, Gombrowicz brings up Simone Weil’s approach to God and shows how he cannot accept her conclusions about God:

I look at her with amazement and saw: how, by means of what magic, has this woman been able to arrange herself so internally so that she is able to cope with what devastates me? 

He can’t turn to metaphysics even though he wants to, so where does he go with his religious desires?  Gombrowicz takes a comic turn.  He comically notes that he is “amazed” that people lives their lives based on principles that differ from his own.  And then he launches into a meditation on how small he is.  This meditation, it seems, suggests that for Gombrowicz the best response to monstrosity is not to take the religious leap suggested by Weil so much as a comic leap into humility and the accidental nature of arriving at this or that insight in his fiction:

I know no, absolutely no greatness.  I am a petit bourgeois promenader, who has wandered into the Alps or Himalayas.  My pen touches mighty and ultimate issues all the time, but if I have reached them, it was done while playing…As a boy I climbed up iont them and wandered around them frivolously.

Comparing himself to Weil, he points out that she is heroic while he is a coward: “whereas I constantly elude life, she takes it on fully, elle s’engage, she is the antithesis of my desertion.  Simone Weil and I are the sharpest contrast that one can imagine, two mutually exclusive interpretations.”  But, lest we not be fooled here, he is taking Weil and himself as comic targets of this and his following reflections.

The next day Gombrowicz takes an interesting detour which, to my mind, echoes this entry.  The next day he is on the beach and starts off with a meditation on what he sees:

Bodies, bodies, bodies…Today on the beaches sheltered from the southern gale, where the sun warms and roasts, a multitude of bodies, the great sensuality of beaches, yet as always, undercut, defeated.

As you can see, the final note is that he sees himself as a schlemiel or sorts – the “odd one out.”  He can’t fit into this beach scene.  And he can’t assert himself heroically on the page, as Weil does, or at the beach with the multitude of bodies in the resplendent sun.  Rather, sounding much like Portnoy at the end of Portnoy’s Complaint (but with a more tragic tone) he says, “Impotence overwhelms the beach, beauty, grace, charm. They are unimportant: they are not possessive, they neither wound nor engage….This impotence debilitated even me and I returned home without the least spark, powerless.”

He leaves the beach to go home and face the novel he is writing and he sarcastically notes that “I will have to exert myself to inject a little ‘brilliance’ into a scene that is like wet powder and wont’ ignite.”

The next day, the impotent artist turns to Simone Weil and says, quite frankly, that the words of religious passion sound “stupid” on his lips.  He feels like a fool who is trying to be holy.   But then he asks himself if Weil was really beyond the impotence of modernity and he notes, by way of Gustave Thibone’s criticism of Weil, that she wrote of religious passion because she was bored.

(This reading of Boredom and modernity, I’d like to note, sounds much like that of Charles Baudelaire’s which I have been blogging on.)

He also calls her a hermit who didn’t know how to deal with the monstrous world, and in this view he also sees himself or anyone who may turn to the holy out of desperation: “A hysterical woman, tormenting and boring, an egotist, whose swollen and aggressive personality is incapable of noticing others – a know of tensions, torments, hallucinations, and manias…”

Gombrowicz is attracted and repulsed by his own outburst about Weil.  After pointing this out, he writes to himself “calm down.”  The fact that he is excited and angry about Weil show us that he, in his own eyes, falls into a similar trap, a modern trap; but unlike Weil, he doesn’t believe in his profundities.  Instead, he sees himself as a failure who happens to run across things like a child at play.

And in this gesture, which is based on comically targeting a belief that human beings can be heroic (religiously or artistically) he avoids metaphysics.  This turn to childishness is fascinating as it can be found in several modern writers and thinkers – like Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Woody Allen, and Ernst Bloch (to name a few) – that schlemiel-in-theory addresses from time to time.

Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufman and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part II)

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The reflection on and implementation of comic targeting has a long history which stretches back to the origins of Greek philosophy.   The reflection on the target is of utmost importance for thinkers who wish to establish this or that kind of hierarchy or agonistics between appearance and reality, the mind and the body, being and becoming, and other topics germane to Western philosophy.

For Socrates, the role of irony was to create a sense that things are not always as they seem: he looked to separate appearance from reality, being from becoming, and truth from untruth in his ironies.  We see a good example of this in the Symposium where Alicabades, fully intoxicated, bursts into the Symposium and accuses Socrates of being a seducer.  In his drunkenness, Alciabades publicly accuses Socrates of lying about his quest for truth.  For Alciabades, Socrates acted ‘as if’ he thought physical was inferior to the love of wisdom.  It was a front that he used to seduce young men.  The irony is that Socrates “seems” to be into the former and is seducing young boys, but in actuality he is brining them closer to the truth.  His irony is that of a philosophical trickster. In the end, Alciabades claims that Socrates wears that mask of Silenius, the cohort of Dionysus.  He seems to be a seducer but, ultimately, he’s not.  He is committed to truth and being. And the target of his ironies is always what seems to be true: becoming.

In his book On Masochism, Gilles Deleuze argues that Socrates destroys this or that target in the name of this or that principle.  Irony has a philosophical use: it makes one distinguish and judge the difference between appearance and reality.  In contrast to irony, Deleuze, citing Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs, posits humor; for Deleuze humor doesn’t aim at destroying a target and establishing a principle so much as elaborating what he calls a contract which reduces absolutes to finite terms and relations.   In Delueze’s model, there isn’t a hierarchy so much as a lateral tension between beings which is not ironic so much as humorous.

In The Poetics (5:14) and The Rhetoric, Aristotle saw humor as introducing the “incongruous.”  The joke surprises the listener by offering something he or she did not expect in this or that series.  This laughter or surprise is another way of saying that what is laughed at is not beautiful or harmonious.  Humor is a distortion of proper mimesis and is, for this reason, a target.  Aristotle notes this in the poetics, Chapter 4:

Comedy, as I said, a mimesis of people worse than are found in the world – ‘worse’ in the particular sense of ‘uglier’, as the ridiculous is a species of ugliness; for what we find funny is a blunder that does no serious damage or an ugliness that does not imply pain, the funny face, for instance, being one that is ugly and distorted…

For Thomas Hobbes, the author of the classic on political philosophy, Leviathan, humor was wedded to power.  As Sander Gilman points out in an essay on post-Holocaust humor, for Hobbes humor was either aimed at people who had less or more than oneself.  And when one laughs, Hobbes tells us that one feels “superiority” and “sudden glory.”  It is this feeling that one strives for as it makes one feel “as if” one is a god and beyond it all.  One sees the other stumble and laughs by virtue of their not falling.  This feeling cannot be attained without the destruction or decline of this or that target.  One, so to speak, becomes free from the target once one wounds it.    Hobbes states it plainly in his opus, Leviathan:

Men experience the passion of a sudden glory by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves (33)

For Immanuel Kant, comedy is also surprising.  And like Aristotle, he thinks it has a critical function. But for Kant laughter also has an ameliorative function.   Its target, like that of Aristotle, is that which causes tension and perplexity.

Simon Critchley, in his book, On Humor, notes that in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Kant sees humor as offering “comic relief” to this or that tension.  Here’s Kant’s joke which, as Critchley notes, has racist overtones:

An Englishman at an Indian’s table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement. – Well, what’s so amazing in that? asked the Englishman. – Oh, but I’m not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in. – This makes us laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure. This is not because, say, we think we are smarter than this ignorant man, nor are we laughing at anything else here that it is our liking and that we noticed through our understanding. It is rather that we had a tense expectation that suddenly vanished…

In this joke, the comic relief corresponds not simply to the structural tension presented by the joke but ethnic relations and tensions.   Regardless, what we find is that perplexity is the target and it is perplexity which creates the tension.  The surprise (that is the punch line) here is much like the surprise discussed by Hobbes: it grants one a sense of superiority which, ultimately, is based on realizing that what we thought was perplexing or worthy of serious concern really isn’t.

Comic relief happens when the target is eliminated; strangely enough, this happens when one learns that the target (the perplexity) is not a target (or perplexing).   It only “appeared” to be so.  Comedy, like perplexity, may make one fell uneasy, but in the end it is supplanted by knowledge.  To be sure, this process of experiencing wonder/perplexity (and unease) and the displacement of it is rooted in Aristotle’s approach to wonder and philosophy in The Metaphysics.   Indeed, Aristotle saw happiness in terms of relieving the tension one feels in the face of wonder (that is, not knowing).  In the wake of perplexity, knowledge is relief; just as in the joke, as Kant understands it, the knowledge that the perplexity was a ruse also grants relief.

One can be assured, that there is no tension.  It was just a joke. And in learning this, one feels superior rather than subordinate to this or that perplexity.

Even for the Romantics, comedy has a target. Irony looks to play with and destroy things.  It is violent.  Wit is, as Novalis says, a Menstruum Universale,  a chemical substance.  It targets thinks and breaks them down.  And what we laugh at, like children, is the fragmentary remains (or the process of this breakdown).  Wit demonstrates one’s ability to break things down and, in the process, one elevates oneself (one’s tactical, practical sensibility) over these things.  Instead of the reign of reason, as with Kant, we have the reign of play and tact.  Regardless, there is a kind of superiority – either of play, humanism, or reason – at work which is based on overcoming this or that target.

As I have pointed out in various blog entries, Kierkegaard saw irony as a challenge to the world and all our mental machinations. Irony can make one into a god of sorts.  As Kierkegaard points out in his book Either/Or, humor seems to come out of nowhere to rescue one from despair.  In a section of the book entitled “Rotations,” Kierkegaard sees humor in relation to what he calls rotation.  In the aesthetic (as opposed to the religious or the ethical) one moves from one thing to another – from melancholy to comedy. Although humor “saves,” it does so by taking the world as its target.  It rotates from being brought down by the world to lifting oneself above it, like a god.  But, ultimately, Kierkegaard sees humor as subservient to faith.  Irony divests oneself of the mind, world, etc.  But it is fear and trembling which, for him, supercedes humor.  Regardless, the theme is, still, about targeting and elevation.

Like Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson, in his “Essay on Laughter,” also has a distinct target.  He argues that laughter takes the mechanical gesture as its target.  For Bergson, it targets the mechanical because laughter is connected to becoming, change, and life – to what he calls élan vital – while the mechanical is connected to stasis.  Laughter is a part of what he calls “creative evolution.”  To illustrate this, Bergson talks about different toys that children find funny: like the Jack-in-the-Box, a toy that mechanically repeats the same “surprising” mechanical gesture.  The same goes for mimes or clowns who repetitively repeat this or that action.  We laugh at it because we want to identify with and yet exclude this behavior from society as society. For Bergson, humor is based on “creative evolution” and becoming not repetition.     We laugh because we want to grow and that requires that we target that which keeps us from being free and becoming.

The surprise we feel is, for Bergson, connected to the fact that what we see is repetitive.  It is ultimately transcended by the desire for change which is surprised by that which can change but does not.  It finds these things that repeat over and over again surprising as they go against becoming which Bergson finds germane to humanity.  Here, the surprise is not wonder so much as an articulation of the superiority of élan vital which cannot tolerate the mechanical, which is below life.

In the next blog entry I will discuss Paul deMan’s targeting as the culmination of all of these targeting theories and, from there, I will relate this to Emmanuel Levinas, Phillip Roth, and Andy Kaufman who either extend or challenge this reflection on targeting.  The point of all this reflection on targeting is to show how deeply entrenched this tradition is and to think about whether or not Levinas, Roth, and Kaufman present an alternate route.

“Let’s Have the Music” – Reflections on Sholem Aleichem’s Inside Kasrilevke – Take 1

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In a “Five Books” interview, the Jewish-American writer Allegra Goodman was asked what five books in Jewish fiction she would suggest people read.  Each book, for Goodman, would provide readers with one sense of the Jewish experience.  One of the books she chose was Sholem Aleichem’s Inside Kasrilevke (the contents of which are the stories of this fictional town (Kasrilevke) which is, arguably, Sholem Aleichem’s version of Chelm).  Like Irving Howe, she notes that the Broadway version of Fiddler on the Roof is a “cartoon version of his work.”  What she finds so important about Inside Kasrilevke is that it is “very funny, laugh out loud funny.”  Goodman likens the stories to “comedy routines” and notes that this book is her “comic ideal.”

Taking Allegra Goodman’s suggestion to heart, I think it makes a lot of sense to focus on these comic routines. But in doing so, I’m interested not so much in a comic ideal as in how the narrator of this collection of stories relates to schlemiels and other stock comic characters in the stories.   In this and in other blog entries on Inside Kasrilevke, I will be making a series of different readings which look into comic relationships and comic rhythms so as to understand how Aleichem, in this collection of stories, presents the schlemiel.

Right off the bat, Aleichem, the “author,” explains why he is writing this book in the “Author’s Foreword.” The picture he presents gives us a sense of someone is an insider and an outsider of the town.  For this reason he, like Sancho Panza to Don Quixote, can report on what happens in the town.

Like a writer of his times (and not, as Howe would say, a folkish “oral story teller”), he notes that “of recent years” many people have been writing books “about cities and lands.”  Playing on a Jewish stereotype (and echoing something we see years late played on in Woody Allen’s film Zelig) he “says to himself”: “We imitate other peoples in everything: they print newspapers – so do we; they have Christmas trees – so do we; they celebrate New Year’s – so do we.” So, just like they publish “guides” to big cities, he asks (with a shrug of sorts): “why shouldn’t we get out “A Guide to Kasrilevke?”

After pointing out how he has much in common writers in pursuing such a project, Aleichem notes how much he owes to this town of fools.  He tells us that he is a native who has left and has recently returned to honor the dead; namely, to visit his parents grave.  While he was visiting their graves, it occurred to him how much he wants to show his “gratitude” for the “hospitality” of his “friends” in Kasrilevke By writing this book, he felt he would be doing this.  I want to underscore this element, here, because Aleichem is noting, in the very beginning, that his book is a response to hospitality.  This implies that his representations, no matter how comic or even negative, are kind-hearted and articulate a way of returning kindness for kindness.

What is so fascinating about the final paragraph of the “Author’s Foreword,” is that it works by way of what Ruth Wisse would call “indirection.”  After stating his personal gratitude and the personal cause of this book, the narrator states that he, “of course” doesn’t have “personal motives” for the book. Rather, he writes it in response to “considerations of public service” meaning that he wrote the book in order to “guide strangers visiting Kasrilekve.”  This, he tells us, will help them to know where to get a train, where to go, eat, and have fun.  But at the end of the paragraph he states something that would contradict his present project, what Irving Howe would see as “troubling.”  He notes that “Kasrilevke is no longer the town it used to be.  The great progress of the world has made inroads into Kasrilevke and turned it topsy-turvy.  It has become a different-place.”

This final, sour note gives us a sense of how, in Aleichem, the comic is as Irving Howe would say, citing Saul Bellow: “laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation between the two.” But, in relation to Howe’s claim, I would also like to emphasize, as does Howe and Sidrah Dekoven Ezrahi, how important place is for Aleichem and how place relates to comedy. After all, the book is all about this place, perhaps the changing place of Jews in Eastern Europe.  Through fiction, Aleichem gives honor to the place and the people.  This, he claims, is not simply personal; it is a “public service.”

Even though Aleichem ends on this somber note of how “it has become a different place,” he changes rhythm and words by “indirection.”  And I want to underscore rhythm because there is a comical music going on at the outset and how this comic music is connected to place.  It addresses what the place has become (which is sad) by way of comedy.  (Laughter and tears, in other words, are intimately related to and emerge out of a place, a world.)

As a comic rejoinder to this sad meditation on place in the “Author’s Foreword,” the narrator points out how, immediately on arrival, he is accosted by a bunch of hotel porters and a sea of yellow: “At the station I was set upon by a horde of yellow porters with yellow whiskers, yellow coats, and bits of yellow tin stuck on their yellow, threadbare caps.”

The cacophony of yellow, so to speak, is coupled by a cacophony of voices calling on the narrator to come to his hotel/place: “Mister! Grand Hotel!” “Hotel Francia, mister!” “Hey, mister, Portugalia” “Mister! Turkalia!”  He tries to avoid this cacophony by moving to another place, but there too he is once again occasioned by a mob.

They are not “civil” and take his bag away from him just to get him to their hotel.  He fights with one to get back what is most important to him: his manuscripts.  Right after he seizes his back, he rushes for the “tramway.”  But when he gets there, he occasions more cacophony this time between passengers, the rider, and the manager.  All of the “noise” is comic and sheer slapstick.  And once it does move, it gets in an accident.

The movements in this text teach us that, for Aleichem, the schlemiel is not simply in the character as in a comic exchange and rhythm: that occur in terms of an erratic movement from place to place, stopping and starting, while comically gesticulating. All the while, there is a blindness and a timing in each movement.  Each thing collides, changes direction, moves no, stops, and repeats this process.  Each event prompts one to move, so to speak, from one vehicle or hotel to another.

But each of these movements, while erratic, is endearing.  In the midst of all this, the narrator is scrambling.  In fact, by the time he gets to the hotel, he has a hard time retaining his cool.  When the hotel manager tells him that he can either be in a room that is infested by bed bugs or a room penetrated by the music of a cantor practicing for the Sabbath or a bunch of Yiddish actors, the narrator is startled.

And for good reason… Given what we have learned from the “author’s forward” we don’t see evidence of hospitality so much as rudeness, he don’t see civility so much as chaos.  More importantly, since we know that he was a native of the town and is now on a visit, we see that he may be lying or have forgotten what really goes on in this town.  Its as if he led us on.

Its confusing for the reader and its confusing for the author, it seems, to know how to relate what is happening to him on the tram and the hotel to what he has said before.

He is startled (and we are startled) by a city that is full of many erratic rhythms.  And, it seems, the narrator is the shlimazel while the town, and all its rhythms, is the schlemiel.  This comes out when, after being told about choosing between music and bedbugs in another room (without music) the narrator chooses the music:

“If that’s the case,” I said, “let’s have the music.”

Indeed, in Karilevke, in a town full of schlemiels and permeated by schlemiel rhythms, that seems to be the only option.   And perhaps Aleichem is telling us that to understand the schlemiel, we must first relate to its comic musicality.

Perhaps we hear a similar in Woody Allen’s Zelig but in Allen’s film there isn’t an ambivalent sense of place; there is constant movement and change which echoes what we said in the beginning of this entry; namely, that Jews do what others do and become what they become.  For Allen, as opposed to Aleichem, this music of change, which happens in America, is purely comic. While there are tears, laughter, and music for Aleichem over Kasrilevke, there are no tears for Allen; in relation to America, there is only laughter and music.  Here you can dance the Zelig-dance (“The Chameleon”) without any remorse:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dt4wsmAdEk8]

Emmanuel Levinas, Don Quixote, and the Hunger of the Other Man

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Like many Jews over the centuries, I am fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Now that I’m in middle of the fast, I’m having a hard time distracting myself from my hunger.  In the midst of being enthralled with my hunger, an academic memory came to my rescue.   I remember how the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in apposition to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, argued that it’s not about my death and suffering (as Heidegger would say (in translation) my “being-towards-death”), it’s about the death and the suffering of the other.  Echoing this, I thought: perhaps Levinas is right, it’s not about my hunger; it’s about the hunger of the other.

Strangely enough, Levinas writes about the “hunger of the other man” in relation to Don Quixote (a comic figure which has appeared quite often in Schlemiel in Theory).  In 1975 and 1976, Levinas gave a course at the Sorbonne. His course notes are included in the book God, Death, and Time (translated by Bettina Bergo).   On his February 13th 1976 lecture, Levinas addresses Don Quixote and the “hunger of the other man.”  This talk, to my mind, gives us at least one angle to understand Levinas’s approach to humor.

Let me sketch it out.

Before making his reading of Don Quixote, Levinas prefaces with a meditation on the relation of thought to the world. He writes: “thought contains the world or is correlative with it”(167).  He notes that by “correlative” he means that it comes “prior to” the world.  In this spirit, Levinas argues that thought “disqualifies” anything that would be “disproportionate to the world.”  He provides two adjectives to describe things that would be disqualified: “all thought said to be ‘romantic’ or ‘theological’ in its inception.”

“Disqualified” thought, argues Levinas, is not equated with the world (which thought contains); it is equated with what is to come.  It is, for this reason, equated with “a question” and “hope.”  Levinas goes on to say that “God” is also included as something which is “disproportionate” with thought and the world.   To be sure, God, hope, and the question are deemed to be “outside” thought and, for that reason, outside the world.

Writing of this, Levinas wonders how much we can be “affected by what is not equal to the world, how one can affected by what can be neither apprehended nor comprehended”(167).  In other words, how much can we be affected by that which is disqualified by thought?

Following this question, Levinas launches into a discussion about the disenchantment of the world.  He addresses this, like Martin Heidegger or the sociologist Max Weber, from the angle of technology.  Unlike them, Levinas sees the disenchantment fostered by technology as good.  Here, however, he notes that although it is good, technology “does not shelter us from all mystification”(168).  Now “there remains the obsession with ideology, by which men delude each other and are deluded.”  And, says Levinas, even “sober knowledge…is not exempt from ideology.”

Everything, even knowledge, is still threatened by mystification.  Levinas finds the source in what he calls “amphibology”: “technology cannot shelter us from the amphibology that lies within all appearing, that is, from the possible appearance coiled at the bottom of all the appearing being.”

Benjamin Hutchens explains that amphibology is the “confusion between what something is and the concept that enables what it is to be known.”  This, says Hutchens, leads to a “kind of ambiguity.”  John Llewelyn cites Martin Heidegger’s notion of Being – in his claim that “language is the house of Being” – as an example of “amphibology.”  Being is ambiguous and this ambiguity troubles Levinas as he sees it as the source of what he calls “bewitchment.”  And, as Llewlyn suggests, this ambiguity goes along with the ambiguity of language.  Perhaps this implies (and may even be a jab at deconstruction) that one can easily become enchanted with the play of words and language and this may distract us from the other.

What Levinas seems to be saying here is that what threatens the project of demystification most is the embrace of ambiguity as such and this kind of ambiguity is associated with how things show themselves or appear.  Levinas notes that the basis of “man’s persistent fear of allowing himself to be bewitched” is “amphibology.”

And, strangely enough, the writer who best illustrates amphibology and the attending fear of being “bewitched” (and “allowing” oneself to be bewitched) is Cervantes in his book Don Quixote.  In fact, Levinas says that “bewitchment” is the book’s “principle theme.”  Levinas finds this to be most pronounced in chapter 46.  Hinting at his own phenomenology of the face, Levinas calls Don Quixote the “Knight with a Sad Face” and points out that “he lets himself be bewitched, loses his understanding, and assures everyone that the world and he himself are the victims of bewitchment.”

Bewitchment, it seems, is another word for foolishness.  And Don Quixote, the “Knight of the Sad Face,” lets himself become a fool.  Levinas hints as such when he cites Don Quixote’s urgent claim to his side-kick Sancho Panza: “’Sancho my son,’ he said, ‘now you realized the truth of what I have many a time told you, that everything in this castle is done by means of enchantment.”    Levinas stresses the point that Sancho Panza is clear minded and is “stronger” that Don Quixote for this very reason: “Sancho alone maintains a lucidity and appears stronger than his master.”

In other words, the person who watches the schlemiel or the fool is more “lucid” and “stronger” than him/her.  To give this reading more textual support, Levinas cites a passage in which Sancho Panza is astonished by the “gullibility” of Don Quixote.  Yet, at the same time, he can see the “shapes” that Don Quixote conjures up.  Levinas notes that “these ‘distinguished shapes’ that Sancho doubts are a priest, a barber, and a whole group that had decided to take Don Quixote back to his country, where he could be cured.”

After noting this, Levinas concludes: “thus the adventure of Don Quixote is the passion of the bewitchment of the world as the passion of the Knight himself.”  At this point, Levinas knew he had to relate his reading of Don Quixote to the beginning of his lecture: to thought, the outside, amphibology, and bewitchment.

To this end, Levinas goes right to work and claims that “we must understand that the whole of Descartes’s Evil Genius is present in these pages.” To be sure, Levinas is asking us to read philosophy by way of Don Quixote!  Continuing on this thread, and indirectly explaining amphibology, Levinas argues that in this passage from Don Quixote “enchantment functions in the form of an imprisonment within a labyrinth of uncertainties, lacking any connection between faces, which are only masks or appearances.”

Playing on Descartes notion of the cogito (mind), Levinas argues that, in the midst of his bewitched experiences, Don Quixote “experiences, in a way, the cogito on which a certitude is founded.”(169).  Citing Don Quixote, Levinas allows for Don Quixote to merge with Rene Descartes: “I know and feel that I am enchanted, and that is not enough to ease my conscience…I allowed myself to lie in this cage, defrauding multitudes of the aid I might offer of those in need and distress…”

The last line of this passage from Don Quixote is crucial for Levinas.  It separates Don Quixote from the Rene Descartes we hear in the opening lines, and this line brings the reader face-to-face with what Levinas calls the “hunger of the other man.”   To be sure, we can see from these lines that Don Quixote is ashamed.  He sees himself as allowing “to lie in this cage, defrauding multitudes of the aid I might offer to those in need and distress.”

I put the stress on the word “allowing” only because Levinas does.  But one doesn’t simply choose to be or not to be bewitched.  Levinas believes that this passage could not be written if Don Quixote was not, in some way, disenchanted by the “hunger of the other man.”  Levinas calls this interruption of bewitchment “transcendence.”  It comes from “outside” thought and disturbs it.   And he calls the process of disturbing this bewitchment “secularization.”

To be sure, Levinas is suggesting that the only thing that can truly “secularize” or “demythologize” reality and clear away the bewitchment of ideology (which is the project of the Enlightenment) is the “hunger of the other man.” This hunger is what, Levinas claims, awoke Don Quixote from his “bewitched” slumber.

What interests me most, as a schlemiel theorist, is what this kind of reading implies for the schlemiel.   How does it fit?  After all, Mendel Mocher Sforim, the father of Yiddish literature, wrote Benjamin III with Don Quixote in mind.  In that book, we have schlemiels who are, like Don Quixote, caught up in dreams. But can we say that these schlemiels are caught up in the same problems?  And if we take Levinas’s position are we taking the position of the clear-thinking Sancho Panza toward Don Quixote?  In other words, would Levinas think of the schlemiel in the same way he would think of Don Quixote? Does humor put the accent on the bifurcation between being “bewitched” and being “responsible” for the hunger of the “other man?”

I don’t know about you but I’m hungry for an answer!

(To be continued….)