Tag: Judaism

(Un)Happy Endings: Existential Reflections on “It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti”

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David Heti is an (un)timely comedian. His comedy speaks to a time that is becoming more and more unhappy with itself. (And I mean this in a good way since I believe that such unhappiness will prompt us to come out of our dogmatic slumber…and think.) Unlike many comedians whose jokes are purely scatological and childish, Heti’s jokes are thoughtful and deeply probing. He respects the intelligence of his audience and his comedy plays with our most deeply held beliefs which span our attitudes about families, sexuality, religion, and the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, Heti’s jokes hit at the fact that while, in the most philosophical sense, we all want to be happy (an insight that Aristotle saw fundamental to being-human), the fact of the matter is that our desire for happiness originates in (and returns to) a state of existential unhappiness.   And today – perhaps because of the internet, globalization, and withering economies – we are becoming more aware of this state of (unhappy) being. Heti’s comedy acknowledges it while, at the same time, giving us some comic relief.

(To be sure, Heti’s challenge is akin to the challenge posed by Judaism to Greek philosophy and culture.   Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, argues that philosophy starts with wonder (which Aristotle associates with unhappiness; wonder is attended by the feeling of “ignorance”) but ends with knowledge (happiness). Aristotle believes that our desire for knowledge will overcome this ignorance once we know the causes of things. In other words, knowledge makes us happy; ignorance makes us unhappy.   In contrast, Judaism puts a greater emphasis on the limits of knowledge. And instead of focusing solely on happiness and knowledge as the answer, it often focuses on time, suffering, and injustice. Centuries after Aristotle, GWF Hegel went so far as to call the Jews an “unhappy people.”   For Hegel, This unhappiness had to do with the fact that Jews live with uncertainty and many unanswered questions. The English critic Matthew Arnold argued that civilization is based on the tension between Jews and Greeks. I would go further and say this tension is between happiness (rational self-certainty) and unhappiness (existential un-certainty). While the Greek part of our society wants to deny this tension, the Jewish part brings it to our attention. And this is (un)timely because it challenges the notion of progress and truth, which, in the West, are both premised on Greek ideals. In modern society we are supposed to be living better than we did in the past and we are supposed to be smarter – and all of this should make us happy – but are we?)

Heti’s jokes are Jewish in this sense. The punch lines of his jokes may start on a happy, Greek note, but they all have a kind of unhappy, Jewish ending. And this is a good thing because they trick us into experiencing the profound contradictions that underlie our experiences of sex, family, culture, and religion (the buttresses of Western, North American Society). The trick is to have us think differently. His humor hits at our desire for happiness and self-certainty. And, to be sure, Heti’s act has taught me that comedy can do a more affective job than post-Enlightenment philosophy to critique our beliefs and self-understandings.

I have seen Heti doing stand-up comedy and have also had a few private conversations with him about comedy, philosophy, culture, and religion. I have also interviewed Heti and have been intrigued with his brand of comedy. I had an intuition that he was doing something (un)timely in his comedy act. But it wasn’t until recently, when I saw his recent comedy film, It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti, that I was convinced that he had something incredibly urgent and important to offer our troubled times by way of comedy.

I’d like to share a few clips and touch on a few of his jokes to illustrate how (un)timely his jokes are.   I would go so far as to suggest that the movement from unhappiness to happiness we find in them suggests a kind of practice that is instructive on how, today, we can – and should – have a comical awareness of the tension between happiness and unhappiness. It informs, to speak, our comical (rather than our tragic) sense of existence. To be sure, the tragic awareness of existence is just as Greek as the emphasis on happiness. But his humor offers us a tension between the two that is, by all means, necessary. Without it, we will to serious (and tragic) or too deluded (and happy).  (I’d also like to note, before I begin, that Heti’s timing and gesture are the important elements that animate these jokes.  This can be seen in the clips I have included.)

[youtube=http://youtu.be/PJqRfFGy80g]

Heti begins his performance with a philosophical joke that plays on the first words of a comic performance:

I know that it’s  convention to be, like, “oh, it’s good to be here.” But the fact of the matter is that I “am” here, you “are” here.  Why ask ourselves how we feel about it?  Let’s just move on.

The underpinning of this joke is clearly existential. Why should we describe our existence as “good” or “bad”? Existence just is….the way it is. Like the title of Heti’s film, we can imagine him responding to the question “How was your performance?” with the existentially neutral: “It was Ok.” Its not great and its not bad. It, like existence, is…not tragic…or wonderful….it’s “ok.”

Following this joke, Heti continues on his philosophical vein by telling his audience to hold back their laughter until the end of the performance. This request is followed by philosophical reasoning. Although each joke “exists unto itself its own particularity,” and can be laughed at, ultimately there is “another, deeper level” which comes at the end where one can laugh at the performance “as a whole.” The joke is not simply on the audience; it’s also on philosophy.   The idea of withholding laugher in the name of a greater laugh – at the end – sounds like a good joke to level at a philosopher like Hegel or Karl Marx who see the “end of history” as the most meaningful moment of all.

But the punch line isn’t here. It’s in the existential insight: “I’m sorry.  I know you come to a comedy show expecting to laugh, and enjoy yourselves…but life isn’t fair.”

Besides playing on existence-as-such, Heti plays on the contemporary philosophical notion – found in Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Martin Heidegger – that the most important thing about existence is relationality.   Heti introduces this idea by pointing out how “I’m here” and you are “over there” and we are “unable to relate” (on the same level). The punch line is that when he was out there, where the audience is, he would think about how he could “do a better job than this fuck!” This comic disclosure brings comedy into an otherwise bland, basic (and oftentimes for Heidegger, a tragic) insight into “relationality.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt5ysAx3RGg&feature=youtu.be]

On another note, which is equally existential, Heti’s jokes about his family follow along a tradition of many Jewish comedians. But they differ in the fact that they are more reflective on the divide between happiness and unhappiness. In one joke about his mother, Heti says that she and I have a “very strained relationship.”

She says all she’s ever wanted is for me to be happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved and respected. It’s a real stalemate.

Following this, he notes how he recently went home to see that his mother had remodeled his room “into a place where a kid would have been happy growing up.”   He adds a joke about his father that brings out the tension between happiness and unhappiness more explicitly. It also shows a schlemiel-ish aspect to Heti’s relationship with his mother (something we find in the writings and film of Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Bruce Jay Friedman, et al):

It wasn’t easy.  My father was a little…violent. I remember….I recall as a kid, telling my mom, “one day, when I grow big enough, he’s going to beat the shit…out of only you.

The schlemiel character is in effect here because Heti’s character isn’t going to “stand up” to his father when he grows up. He’s just going to leave and his mother will receive the violence of his father. (Note to reader: do not confuse this joke with reality; to be sure, Heti, like many great comedians, loves exaggeration.)

Although Heti tells jokes about his family, his main jokes, to be sure, turn around philosophical and theological topics. As the performance moves on, these jokes are most prominent.   And all of them hinge on the tension between happiness and unhappiness.

One joke which shows how averse Heti is to happiness deals with a scenario he discusses about how he did a comic performance at a music festival. On his way back, he tells of how he rode in a car with musicians for thirteen hours. During this trip they had “an esoteric/philosophical conversation about the nature of art.” Heti, here, points out why he tells jokes, and, in the process he discloses his own way of comic-being:

Basically, we are only here to be happy, really. And so, for me, what’s funniest is when we’re not happy. And it just so happens to be the case that, just, intuitionally, I tend to subvert, for myself, any happy moment which begins. You know, I see what’s terrible in it. And even for the stage, now doing stand-up, I look for what’s awful in every moment, so my life is a series of unhappy instances and that’s why jokes; that’s why I’m a comic.

But this isn’t the punch line. It comes with his response to the musicians answer to the question of what the nature of art is:

And then so…I asked the musician, I was, like, “Why music? Like, why music?” And, he was like, “well. He said, “when I’m actively listening to music or, like, writing or playing it…like, that’s when I’m closest to the universal;  that’s when I’m one with the universe.” And I was like, “ohhhhhhh…You can go fuck yourself! Like FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOUUUUU….!”

Heti’s answer-slash-punch-line (his FUCK YOU! x3) demonstrates, to my mind, a differentiation between a Greek mind, which emphasizes “unity” with the universe, and a Jewish view which emphasizes existential difference and fragmentation.   I would argue that this difference is by no means arbitrary. To be sure, Heti tells several jokes that speak to Jewish identity, history, and religion. These jokes disclose Heti’s comedy as fragmented on many fronts.

Heti’s jokes on circumcision start off with an interesting paradox. Namely, God is thought of as “unknowable and unthinkable” yet with all of this “we can see that He likes circumcised pensises.” Heti goes on to have the audience imagine God with many dicks in his mouth. And this does a great job of exaggerating anthropomorphisms that Jewish theology would obviously reject.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/5P9Db4gqEKQ]

Heti also tells jokes that deal with the Holocaust. He prefaces this part of the show by noting how “there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.” And that he is “unsure of where” he stands on the “issue of genocide.”

Because, on the one hand, undeniable tragic.  But on the other hand, undeniably funny. I guess it’s just one of those things where you really had to be there.

This joke hits at the existential dimension of genocide (of “being there” for the reality…and the “joke”). But it also speaks to something very interesting; namely, the negative sublime of the Nazis who did the killing. Many, in fact, did laugh at genocide. And for this reason, it hits on a deeply troubling issue which needs to be addressed, an issue that deeply complicates our understanding of humanity and evil.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/7DYmNh7q3M0]

The most complicated joke on the Holocaust is about his grandfather’s relationship to the Holocaust. The very context of the joke brings the audience into a very focused state and into an awareness of how good it is that he has survived it; but the punch line brings us back to the unhappy state of Jews-slaughtered-in-history:

My grandfather was actually one of the few, lucky members of his generation to  grow up Jewish in Europe and avoid the horrors of the Holocaust. Thankfully, several months before the war broke out, he was beaten to death, in a pogrom.

Near the end of his performance, Heti moves from the particularity of Jewish experience to a more general experience of God.   And this joke hits directly at the existential condition and the question of faith:

But what I find most – what I can’t understand most is these people with these extreme physical disabilities…who are nonetheless capable of maintaining religious faith. ‘Cause you’re like – you’d think that…  given what, they are already forced to put up with in this world, God would have at least spared their minds.

This last joke bespeaks the existential state of having a mind that is conscious of suffering. (Indeed, most existentialists find that existential consciousness is afflicted and tortured; especially Sartre and Levinas.) The joke poses the greatest challenge to Aristotle (and Spinoza), on the one hand, who believed that knowledge would create true happiness and on the other to religion which posits faith as an answer.   Heti is perplexed by why God would give these disabled people consciousness. It doesn’t make sense. This is at once a Jewish question and a question that should provoke anyone trying to understand faith in general.

Taken together, Heti shows us – by way of comedy – that true thinking isn’t based on the elimination of perplexity and its attendant unhappiness (which is what Aristotle believed) so much as in dwelling in perplexity. The specificity of Heti’s jokes perform the (un)timely service of reminding us of the existential state of perplexity we inhabit. We need this reminder because we are, so often, distracted by happiness from the true questions of existence that plague us all. Here it is the comedian and not the philosopher or the theologian who can help us to address our greatest questions. And this all happens when Heti delivers the punch line. At that moment, we experience the movement from happiness to unhappiness. And in that moment, we come face to face with our (un)timely comical existence.   And today, more than ever, we need to be reminded. False happiness will only sink us deeper into oblivion. Heti reminds us that comedy can awaken us (as Immanuel Kant once said of David Hume) from our “dogmatic slumbers.”

Go check out David Heti’s website – which has video, tour information, and media – and his new video “It was ok”.

 

 

Another Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

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For the longest time, the claim that someone is a “Self-Hating Jew” has given vent to a lot of attacks on comedians, filmmakers, writers, etc.  It often comes up when something is said by this or that Jew which isn’t, as the saying goes, “good for the Jews.”  And it is often used against people who are radical critics of Israel.  Instead of calling people who claim that this or that person is a self-hating Jew a name, I just want to point out that, although many people may deplore it, it comes from a place of concern.  And that concern 1) emerges out of centuries of oppression and anti-Semitism against Jews (which culminates in the Holocaust) and 2) with the sense that Jews have of themselves as a people which, in spite of all the negativity against them, are proud of their Jewishness.

It would be amiss to think that Jews alone have such a concept and make such accusations.  For instance, the African-American community also has a notion of selling out one’s relation to “blackness.”   A person who leaves it behind is described and defined, most recently, by the MSNBC host, Toure and Eric Dyson, an sociology professor at Georgetown University Michael Eric Dyson in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to be Black Now.  (To be sure there are countless books on this topic.)    By mentioning this, I don’t wish to excuse the act of accusing this or that person of being a Self-Hating Jew so much as to show its relation to suffering, history, and ethnicity.

In Sander Gilman’s book, the Jews who he includes under the title of (possible) Self-Hating Jews include figures such as Karl Marx, Ludwig Borne, and Heinrich Heine who had a (or some) negative attitude toward their Jewishness (or Jewishness in General) and saw it as a barrier to their assimilation or to progress.  However, most recently Paul Reitter has written a book entitled On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred which traces the origin and genesis of the concept of Jewish Self-Hatred.  He argues that it didn’t begin after the Enlightenment so much as after WWI.  Reitter argues that Anton Kuh and Theodor Lessing popularized the term but did so as to actually work through Jewish self-loathing.  However, though this book changes the perspective we may have on the meaning of Jewish Self-Hatred, it also creates a whole new problem for understanding the meaning of the term as used by Sander Gilman and others.  I suggest looking Amos Bitzan’s exceptional review of the book, which explains this problem in more detail.

Reitter and Gilman’s take on Jewish Self-Hatred can help us to better understand what is at stake in understanding Sarah Silverman’s edginess with respect to the claim that she might be a self-hating Jew.  I began and ended my last note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness with a discussion of the Jewish “trait” as it relates to what Sander Gilman and others have called “Jewish Self-Hatred.”  The point I was trying to make is that Silverman is playing with the notion.  And this makes her work, as it pertains to Jews, edgy.  I am certainly not accusing her of being a self-hating Jew.  Rather, I’m pointing out how she evokes herself as a possible target of such an accusation while, at the same time, allaying such suspicions.   Let’s call this moving back and forth from target to non-target her comic strategy.   And her act of employing it may work to diffuse or expose this complex phenomenon.

We see this in the chapter entitled “Jew,” from her quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter.  As I noted in the last entry on this topic,  Silverman begins the chapter by acting ‘as if’ (hence the irony) the editor’s call to have her write on her Jewishness was an embarrassment.  She then goes on to note how she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  Here, she plays on the trait.  However, later in the chapter, she confesses that she cannot not think of herself as Jew; her traits betray her Jewishness:

Growing up, the only way I really sensed I was a Jew was by dint of the fact that everyone around me was not.  My dark features and name both scream “Jew” like an air-raid siren.   Most people in New Hampshire have names like Lisa Bedard (pronounced Beh-daahhd) or Cheryl Dubois (Boo-boyz).  I was the only one with hairy arms and “gorilla legs.” (220).

She then goes on to note that when she was in Third Grade, one boy, Matt Italia, threw “pennies and nickels at her feet” as she “stepped on to the bus.”  In jest Silverman notes that it “wasn’t as bad as it sounds” since she made “52 cents!”  But she doesn’t see Matt’s affront as anti-Semitic; rather, she thinks that Matt and others “were just trying to wrap their heads around the differences between people.  Matt didn’t hate me when he threw change at my feet any more than he loved me when we were boyfriend and girlfriend”(220).

Some people may read this and argue that, in this serious reflection (minus any irony), Silverman doesn’t want to call anti-Semitism by its real name. Regardless, Silverman does admit that she cannot escape her Jewishness.  But it is not the object of hatred so much as a childish confusion over what it means to be different.

In the next section, entitled “Seriously, Though, New Hampshire was not Especially Jewish,” Silverman goes on to talk about yet another way she had a sense that she was Jewish; namely, her difference from Christians.  She notes that she went to Church with her friends on Sundays after “Saturday-night sleepovers” and that sometimes her friends would come to temple.  But, regarding the temple and the church, she notes:

Both places of worship seemed to be these bizarre forums where authority figures told fucked-up ghost stories between spurts of loving encouragement. (221)

Her assessment of religion indicates that, for her, Jewishness (her traits, differences, etc) means more to her than Judaism.  To this end, she notes that, when she was sent to a “local convent” – while her mother went to school to get a degree – she was treated differently than she was in her Jewish home.  There, Silverman learned that she would be punished if she didn’t finish her PBJ sandwich; at home, there was no such pressure. That difference, for her, constitutes some sense of her Jewishness.

The following section, entitled “Unlike Jesus Christ, I am Embraced, Rather Than Murdered, by Jews, for Flapping my Yapper,” employs her strategy of flipping back and forth between making herself a target of Jewish Self-Hatred and effacing it.  The very title bespeaks the claim; namely, that Jews killed Jesus.  This is a claim she plays with in her Jesus is Magic (2005) film.

Silverman turns from Jews and Jesus to speaking explicitly about her Jewishness. She validates it by noting that her sister Susan – who visited Israel, went to seminary, and became a Rabbi – loves Judaism.  And Silverman jokingly notes that the proof of her sister’s love can be found in the fact that her sister added an extra Jewish name (her husband’s) to her own. She became Susan Silverman Abramowitz.

After noting her sister’s turn to Judaism, Silverman notes that she hasn’t pursued Judaism but “the faith has sort of pursued me”(224). But I wouldn’t say Judaism has pursued her so much as Jewisness. She notes that she has now “been deemed ‘good for the Jews’ and from that there seems to be no going back; the Jews have spoken”(224).  By stating this, Silverman is making it clear that she doesn’t think there is any reason why she should be called “self-hating” – after all, she has been “deemed ‘good for the Jews.’”

But here’s the punch line.  Immediately after saying this, she states (ironically):

I could do anything now and I’ll still be considered good for them.  I could, for example, accept Jesus as my lord and savior.  I could deny the Holocaust.  I mean, when you think about it, the proof isn’t exactly overwhelming – what, a couple of trendy arm tattoos and some survivor testimonials filmed by Steven Spielberg?  Um, Steven Speilberg? The guy who made E.T.?

Here, she works out her strategy which is to play around with the Jewish Self-Hatred card.  The punch line, in this statement, is that Silverman uses her charm (she knows about E.T. after all) to get the joke past the gates of Jewish Self-Hatred.

All of these seemingly self-hating jokes, Silverman tells us, are similar to those told by fat people to put people around them at ease about their “differentness”:

The smart fat kid will be the first to make a fat joke as a protection from whatever insults the other kids might hurl at him, and, as a smart Jew, I did likewise.  Joking about my differentness seemed to put the people around me at ease.  Even though I actually knew almost nothing about being a Jew other than that I was one.  (226)

This claim casts another light on her strategy.  Silverman jokes about Jews appeal to allaying fears of others (regarding her “differentness”) and to playing with the claims of Jewish Self-Hatred.

I’ll close with the last section of her “Jew” chapter since this section ends on the note of the trait, which reminds us that Silverman’s Jewishness is still caught up in allying the possible negativity her name, physical traits, etc may evoke. The essence of that negativity would be her Jewishness.

In this section, Silverman turns to the Jewish name change and notes that Winona Ryder changed her name from Winona Horowitz.   She says that the name change was a “sneaky Jewish move” and adds, perhaps pridefully, that she didn’t change her name (231).   Silverman admits that her name may create some “limitations” on the work she would get in Hollywood, New York, etc.  And she can see that there is some bias.

However, Silverman then turns it all around and shows us that the thought she had about not changing her name had nothing to do with pride; rather, she kept her name because the name Silverman sounds less “ethnic and more graceful than Horowitz.”   Following this, she says that she can’t imagine Jon Stewart as Jon Leibowitz. Why?  Because it sounds “too Jewish.”

These statements, of course, may evoke the claim of Jewish Self-Hatred. And she knows it. For this reason, she employs her comic strategy in the last paragraph of the section to allay it all. But the punch line returns us to the Jewish trait and the problem of Jewish Self-Hatred:

Whether I like it or not, I am, at least from the world’s point of view, Jewish.  And yes, I admit I draw on my Jewishness when comically advantageous, though nothing I have even done, or plan to do, will be about advancing any kind of Jewish agenda….Because I have accepted being identified as Jewish, I’ll also have to accept the responsibilities, limitations, and consequences.  If I ever want to get away from that, it’ll be an uphill battle that will require, among other things, a larynx transplant and some major hair removal.  (232)

In the end, it is the physical ethnic trait that identifies Silverman as “Jewish.”  That seems to be the punch line.  Her Jewishness, perhaps to the chagrin of those who make accusations of her being a self-hating Jew, doesn’t seem to be based on pride so much as difference.  And her comic strategy, it seems, plays on these accusations as well as her sense of Jewish difference.  Silverman knows she is targeted, and like many comedians she evokes and plays with this comic targeting in several of her (Jewishly oriented) routines.