Tag: schlemiel

Seth Rogen’s Body – A Few Thoughts on Seth Rogen’s Latest Appearance in “Neighbors”

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In one of the most urgent moments of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007), we see a desperate Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen, go to his father, played by Harold Ramis, for advice about whether to become a father and have children. Ramis tells Rogen to go for it and that he wants to have grandchildren. At this point, Stone is inspired to be a responsible father. He decides, at this very point, to go from being a schlemiel (man-child) to becoming an adult.   What interests me most about this moment is the fact that Seth Rogen is put face-to-face with Ramis and is given the ok to “bear children.” I cannot but read this as a symbolic moment when the maker of such films as Ghostbusters (1984), Meatballs (1979), Cadyshack (1980), and Animal House (1978), gives the power over to his son. It’s as if we are witnessing Moses giving everything over to Joshua, who will cross the Jordan. Moses will die, while Joshua will carry the tradition on.

We see that Rogen took this to heart in his latest role in the film Neighbors (2014).   But, to be sure, this role is something that was set up by a middle-man; namely, Judd Apatow.

With films like, Super Bad, Knocked up and This is Forty, Judd Apatow has made a decision to address, by way of comedy, the process of moving from being a man-child to an adult with children. In Superbad, a movie written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen but produced by Apatow, we see the life of two teens in their first sexual experience. There are still schlemiels, but, at the very least, they are successful.

But between Knocked Up and This is Forty (2012), there is a distinct difference: in Knocked Up (2007) Apatow casts Rogen as a schlemiel has decided to have a baby, while in This is Forty Apatow wanted to show us a couple in its forties which, for all intents and purposes, is also dealing with schlemiel-like issues.   In Neighbors(2014) we see that there is a gap between the films which Rogen addresses; that gap has to do with age and experience.

In Neighbors we have a young couple who take us to the next level after Knocked Up but to a level ten or so years before This is Forty.   The running narrative of all this, it seems, is to map out for the viewing public the life of a schlemiel from high school to having a baby, living with the baby (or babies), and attempting (as Marc Maron would say) “normal.”

This is an old/new theme. We see it in many Ramis films, too. But, in this film, we see Ramis and an Apatow type of film conjoined Animal House and This is Forty (and Knocked Up) . The question underlying the plot is: How would the two worlds interact? How will a schlemiel couple, who just had a baby, relate to the younger, single fraternity brothers?

The result of this test was, to my mind, nothing short of being (to pun on the movie by Apatow and Rogen) “super bad.”   But it was bad on too many levels. I didn’t laugh that much and neither did the theater; and when they did there were more like little chuckles. To be sure, something was missing in this film and, on the other hand, something was overdone. The plot, which involved the meeting of two worlds, seemed much too caricatured and the theme and its articulation seemed to miss the mark.

In search of this lack or excess, I found a nasty little review in Salon.com that made no form of apology in its putting the film down. It noted that the film made no mention of the economic crisis and hard times we are going through. What we saw, instead, was affluence that looked to cover up the truth. (In other words, a post-Marxist reading: Neighbors as False Consciousness.)

The final judgment of the reviewer says it all:

Under current economic conditions that are never visible in this movie, Mac and Kelly’s path of happy-family upward mobility is almost as much an illusion as Teddy’s life of all-night, drug-addled ragers. We can long for either, or dare to imagine a mystical, momentary fusion of the two. When the movie’s over, most of us are left with neither one.

While I find this reading to be interesting, I also find it to be a stretch. The “momentary fusion” of the two worlds is not what interests us. Rather, what struck me, while watching the film, was the most interesting thing for the audience; namely, the contrast between Zack Efron’s body and Seth Rogen’s body. To be sure, one of the greatest appeals of Seth Rogen’s character is his slightly overweight body (naked or not naked). We see this in his recent youtube parodies (done with James Franco) where Franco rides Rogen like Kanye West rides Kim Kardashian.

In many scenes Rogen’s body is juxtaposed with Efron’s body, his wife’s body, and the fraternity members’ bodies. What does this all mean? Toward the end of the film, Rogen’s character meets up with Efron’s character at an Abercrombe & Finch store. Efron has his shirt off; Rogen takes his off to and says “he’s always wanted to do this.” He jumps around while Efron laughs and is endeared. At this moment, Efron seems to forgive him and he validates this when he says that Rogen’s body makes “everyone feel comfortable.” Because of his body, people will feel comfortable shopping at Abercrombe and Finch.

To be sure, from the beginning of the film until the end of the film, we now know what makes it sell: Seth Rogen’s body, the schlemiel’s body, is the body that guides us. Not Zack Efron’s body and not the bodies at the Fraternity or elsewhere. I make this reading in all seriousness because, to be sure, Rogen doesn’t act in this film so much as throw his body around into different yet (often) charming configurations.

This should be taken together with the fact that Mac-slash-Rogen’s wife, Kelly, played by Rose Byrne, can hang out with him and eat pizza, stoned, in bed after beating the fraternity. In the end, the battle is a bodily one. Rogen, like Jack Black or John Candy, has an interesting bodily presence; however, in contrast to these actors, he doesn’t have to work as hard in making comic gestures. He just has to be himself.

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The plot is that the schlemiel-couple-with-one-baby win over the fraternity. In Animal House it was John Belushi with the weight; now it’s Rogen. And Rogen, as Mac Radner, has a wife and child. He’s responsible. Things have changed.

There is no question that Rogen has taken on the baton from Ramis and that Apatow has set this up for him. The question is whether this re-casting of Ramis’s work, within a context that Apatow has created, is meaningful. Who are our heroes and role models today? Is Rogen’s naked body, bouncing up and down in front of Abercrombe and Finch a sign of what is to come? For such a popular film, can we say that this is “our” comical form of hope? Are Ramis’s grandchildren…ours or somebody else’s? After all, some babies don’t survive. But with a face and body like Seth Rogen’s – reminding us that we can all just relax, get high, and eat whatever we want, whenever we want, while raising children (!) – how can we say no? After all, it seems as if this film is telling us that, ultimately, Rogen’s bodily antics make the differences between our bodies and masculinities less apparent and meaningful. His bodily presence makes us feel at home with the family, etc.

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And yet isn’t it the comedians who make us feel least at home that are the most meaningful? But…Neighbors seems to be telling us that, in the end, what we want is to have a new norm, a bodily, comic norm that, to be sure, is more in accord with who we are; namely, comfortable with hanging out with the bros, getting high, eating, and having a good time at a party.

(For something else, something different from this, check out the work of up-and-coming comedians like David Heti.  His work ends on an entirely different note.)

John Steinbeck, Marc Maron & Walter Benjamin on Driving, Distraction, and Reflection

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Over the years, I have driven thousands of miles across the United States. And I have always looked at these journeys – with all of those hours behind the wheel – as opportunities for me to think and reflect on all kinds of things. To be sure, some of my best thoughts have come to me while driving. I would (and have) often make it an imperative to have my tape recorder or mp3 recorder on while I drive because I don’t want to miss the thought while it happens.   I was pleasantly surprised to find – most recently – that John Steinbeck has a beautifully written passage in Travels With Charley where he writes on the topic of driving, distraction, and thought.   And between John Steinbeck and the Jewish-American comedian Marc Maron (whose autobiography, Attempting Normal, I have also been reading), I find interesting similarities and contrasts between the types of thinking one does when one is driving a car and distracted.   The differences, especially, show us how the worlds they inhabit differ in content and character. The differences between them, however, come together in the fact that the association of driving with distraction and thinking is essential.

I have written on distraction, thought, and comedy vis-à-vis Rodolph Gashe’s reflections on Immanuel Kant’s claim that “literature” is not thought but distraction and on Walter Benjamin’s words on distraction. I entitled these posts “The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading and Distraction.”   I’d like to briefly recount Benjamin’s philosophical account of distraction in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It gives us a means of addressing the autobiographical-fictional-accounts of Steinbeck and Maron on driving, distraction, and thought.

At the very end of his essay, Benjamin shares his greatest thought on the new way we have of relating to the world in the “age of mechanical reproduction.” His reading of distraction is largely positive; he associates it with “habit” and a new means of dealing with “perceptual shock”:

For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning point of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation. (240, Illuminations)

And what better form of “tactile appropriation” is there, for Americans today, than driving a car? Benjamin notes that the “distracted person (who we are, for arguments sake, calling the-person-who-drives-a-car) can form habits.”   These habits – the habits of a kind of thinking on the go – provides a “solution” to the problem of modern perception. And he goes so far as to liken this kind of distraction to the modern artists distraction while painting:

More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art provides a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. (240)

Benjamin goes on to argue that this kind of distraction can “mobilize the masses” and suggests that the best medium for this isn’t driving so much as watching films:

Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise. (240)

The last lines of Benjamin’s essay point out that what the public does, when watching a film, is not a form of contemplation. Rather, it is a form of “absent minded” examination:

The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. (241)

Taking Benjamin’s point to heart, I’d like to apply what he says to driving rather than movie going.   Steinbeck’s account of distraction and the thought it evokes, while driving, is exceptional in this regard. He goes right to the core of what Benjamin calls “habit” and “absent minded” examination. Steinbeck even coins a phrase “machine-like unconscious” to describe this state. Because it is so important, I’ll quote it at length:

If one has driven a car over many years, as I have, nearly all reactions have become automatic. One does not think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious. This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking. (94)

Steinbeck now turns to the content of these thoughts:

What do people think about when they drive? On short trips perhaps of the arrival at a destination or memory of events at the place of departure. But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for day dreaming or even, God help us, for thought. (94)

As one can see, “day dreaming,” which Freud associates with the artist, is mentioned side-by-side with thought. They are both absent-minded activities. However, Steinbeck reels it in by pointing out that most of his distracted day drams and thoughts have a practical dimension. He “plans houses” he will never build; “gardens I will never plant” and a “method for pumping the soft silt and decayed shells from the bottom of my bay up to my point of land at Sag Harbor (where he lived), of leaching out the salt, thus making a rich and productive soil”(94). He also notes how he has “created turtle traps” and “detailed letters he has never sent.”

Reflecting on these practical thoughts/day drams, he notes that he doesn’t know whether or not he will do this in reality but, at the very least, it comes to him as a possibility.   He also notes how, as the radio was going, his “memory” of “times and places, complete with characters and stage sets” was “stimulated.” In other words, the distraction moved from memory to fiction.   It also leads to him “projecting future scenes” that will “never take place.”   Steinbeck points out, many times, he would “write short stories” in his mind while he drove. He would “chuckle” at his “own humor” and be “saddened or stimulated by structure or content”(94).

In his final reflections, Steinbeck points out how he can “only suspect” that the “loveless” driver will dream of women, the “lonely” driver will dream of people, and the “childless” driver will dream of children. He then goes on to ask himself whether the driver will imagine regrets and go over what should have been done or said. In relation to this, Steinbeck says that he sees this “potential” in his “own mind” but can only “suspect it in others,” but he “will never know, for no one tells”(95). To be sure, the greatest secret is to be found in this “potential.” To be sure, even though Steinbeck, as we can see, discusses many things he thinks about while driving, he doesn’t discuss these darker things. He leaves them out of his text.   This habit (“potential”) and its content are his secret, one that his readers will have to guess at.

That said, it’s fascinating to see a contemporary comedian like Marc Maron doing what Steinbeck doesn’t do: he addresses these kinds of thoughts in his text. What Maron thinks about when he drives is an open secret. Writing about what he used to think about when he was driving between comedy gigs, Maron notes how, in his distraction, he thought about how he had failed and what he could have done differently:

I drove everywhere to do gigs anywhere: Pancho Villa’s in Leominster, Franks in Franklin, Cranston Bowl in Cranston, Rhode Island, Captain Nicks in Ogunquit, Maine…Most of the time I drove home for hours half drunk, chain-smoking in my car and reliving my set. I always felt like I had survived something, that the simple fact that I made it through the show meant I was victorious. But the war wasn’t over yet: The next battle was in the car, the war with myself. I’m not funny enough, that joke didn’t work, why can’t I stop sweating, fuck those people, I need more jokes, where the fuck am I, shit I don’t have a map. I’ll never forget the electricity of postperformance elation and self-flagellation, flying through the New England countryside at night in my VW Golf. Not romantic. (13)

Maron’s thoughts show us what a schlemiel-comedian thinks about while he drives home.   He discloses what Steinbeck would like to hide away and perhaps that makes all the difference. And it provides us with something to think about. Driving – and the distraction that goes along with us – leads us to think and reflect on ourselves, about how things are, how they were, and how they could be. This kind of thinking becomes what Benjamin would call an “absent-minded” habit. But the question Maron and Steinbeck were preoccupied with was what one should report about what happens in the car while we are driving.   Today, in a culture that does a lot of it’s thinking in cars or in distracted transit, this content has a personal urgency that is of great interest to all of us because, after all, we all do it. It’s a modern habit that is not simply superficial; it informs who we are and gives us a moment to take account of the real and possible past, present, and future. It allows us to drift into things we regret and things we would like to do to make life better (even though most of these thoughts, as Steinbeck correctly notes, will never make it to reality).   To be sure, our absent-mindedness, while driving from one place to another, makes for the best reflection.

Academic Schlemiels

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In Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, the main character S. Levin leaves New York City for a job teaching at a college in California. He envisions a new life for himself on the West Coast as an academic. Little does he know that the job he has applied for is not the same job he is given. When he gets to California, he realizes that the college he works for doesn’t respect the liberal arts. They don’t want what he has to offer: an English professor who gives students a deeper understanding of literature and humanity. Rather, they want professors who can teach technical writing. When he gets there, he realizes that he is one of several adjunct teachers and will remain so for an indefinite time period. And even though he realizes that he is stuck and that only a few options are open to him in a small, conservative college town in northern California, he still retains some kind of hope that his journey will enable him to start all over again and live a “new life.”

What Levin finds out is that the new life he gets is much different from the new life he expected. And this reality, amongst other things, makes him into a schlemiel. To be sure, a schlemiel’s expectations don’t match with reality. Schlemiels often dream big (Hannah Arendt, by way of Heinrich Heine, calls the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” and in Yiddish the schlemiel is often called a “luftmensch,” someone who “lives on air”). But they are in for a shock when they realize that their dreams paved the way to failure. Nonetheless, schlemiels are often fortunate enough to have the ability to distract themselves from failure and to pursue some other project or dream. Were they to fully gather the meaning of their failure, they would be tragic characters.   Hence, the innocence and absent-mindedness of the schlemiel.

S. Levin, to be sure, fails in many of his encounters at the college. Even before his first day teaching, he ends up in a fling with a girl named Laverne who he meets in town. He goes with her to a barn to have sex and has problems getting his clothes off. When he does, he is immediately interrupted with his pants down. He and Laverne, both naked, run into the street in terror.   This is his first failure.

Moreover, his first day of class doesn’t go according to protocol. He fidgets over his mistakes, while in the midst of teaching, and ends up making a comic performance:

Sweating over the error he might have made…Levin got up and demonstrated on the blackboard types of sentences, as the students, after a momentary restlessness, raptly watched his performance….Levin, with a dozen minutes left to the hour, finally dropped grammar to say what was still on his mind: namely, welcome to Cascadia College. He was himself a stranger in the West but that didn’t matter. By some miracle of movement and change…At this they laughed, though he wasn’t sure why. (85)

The narrator points out how, after saying his piece, they turned away from him yet “in his heart he thanked them, sensing he had created their welcome of him. They represented an America he had so often heard of, the fabulous friendly West”(85). Meanwhile, they are treating him rudely.   Yet he tells them that “this is the life for me”(85). In response they “broke into cheers, whistles, loud laughter”(86). Instinctively, “as if inspired,” Levin “glanced down at his fly and it was, as it must be, all the way open”(85). In other words, they weren’t giving a laugh and cheers of support so much as mockery. Like a schlemiel, he misinterpreted everything that was going on around him for the better when, in fact, it was bad.

In hope of checking out the beautiful California scenery, Levin ends up getting a car; but when he first starts driving it, he feels terror more than joy as he turns the wheel. This changes over time, but the initial experience was not what he expected. And when Levin tries to make waves in the school to get more liberal arts that also backfires. As the novel progresses, we see that he ends up in an affair with a professor’s wife who is desperate for love. This ends up on a bad note, too. He is found out by the professor and is asked, by the dean, to leave the college town. The novel ends with him leaving just as lonely as when he came, but also a little wiser.

However, all is not lost. His failure doesn’t define him. As he moves from new experience to new experience, his life seems to get better (although, in the most minute way).   He may be an existential schlemiel who, it seems, is always getting himself into trouble. But at the very least he gets a better sense of his existential failures as the novel comes to an end. His name, after all, is Levin (the root of the name Levin is “lev,” Hebrew for heart). He is better for all of his failures, he has suffered and become more human, but he is still an academic schlemiel.

Today, the majority of untenured academics who teach in universities and colleges are a lot like Levin. They sign up for a job thinking that they will be a success, achieve tenure, and will gain respect. But what they find, in a job market where non-tenured professors outnumber tenured professors 4:1, is that they were mistaken. Their efforts, it seems, were for naught. Nonetheless, many of them keep at it and endure great suffering so they can, at the very least, live a life that they love. In this sense, they are like Levin. They have great hearts, but the fact of the matter is that the world they are in could care less for them.   They live with humiliation and failure.   And, as a friend on facebook suggested today, this kind of failure has become the new normal.

In this sense, the academic – that is, the adjunct – schlemiel is becoming the norm. Like any schlemiel narrative, this reality is not just a commentary on the person who is foolish enough to pursue their dreams; rather, it is a commentary on the world they believed they knew. In this scenario, the commentary is on the academic world. The academic schlemiel is not wholly responsible for his dreams; if it weren’t for the world that puts out the possibility of success, these dreams wouldn’t exist.

We can see this relation of the world to the schlemiel in many Sholem Aleichem stories, where characters envision America as a land of freedom and success. When they get to America, they see failure all around them. But they do and don’t see it. They remain optimistic when the reader can clearly see that reality says otherwise. That optimism, the conceit of the Jewish fool, doesn’t diminish the cynicism the reader should feel when reading this. This is what Ruth Wisse would call a “balanced irony.”

Strangely enough, Wisse, at the end of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that we should leave the schlemiel and its balanced ironies behind.   In other words, such ironies are not good for Jewish character in modern day America. She wrote this in 1972. Today, however, we need these kinds of balanced ironies because academic and economic failure have become endemic. Cynicism, spurred by failure and neglect, is at the base of daily academic life. In the face of this, we need to balance the cynicism that comes with lost dreams against the hope that one will eventually succeed. To be sure, the current acadmic system should be seen within this tension: it encourages graduate students to dream while, at the same time, showing that those dreams have little reality. And for that, we need the schlemiel figure to challenge what Wisse calls the “political and philosophical status quo.” The sorry state of the academic schlemiel should be an eye-opener. Levin, a character from Malamud’s 1961 novel, is still with us in 2014.

Anyone who stays in academia will identify with Levin’s hopes, failures, and misreadings. In a sense, they have been duped and have allowed themselves to be duped while knowing full well that success, today, is not so easy to attain. Like Levin, the academic schlemiel wants a “new life.” And although they are given a new life, that life may not be the one they expected. But, at the very least, like Levin…they can move on. They can experience, as he says to his class, the “miracle of movement.” Even though, at times, it seems one is going nowhere and even though they are humiliated and disrespected, an academic schlemiel can always leave and go elsewhere. Knowing this, perhaps, is the only hope an academic schlemiel can have.

In a system that dupes graduate students and PhDs into becoming a “lord of dreams” (a dream of tenure and academic success), it seems to be the only consolation.  We see this clearly in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” after he is lied to by everybody – who he trusts time and time again believing that they can be good – he decides to leave the city for some other city. He moves on….and leaves the city, which duped him into marrying a woman with kids and lovers, for some other place where, hopefully, people will be honest.  The real “new life” is elsewhere.

“Travels With Charley: In Search of America,” or John Steinbeck, an American Don Quixote: Take 1

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When I was in high school, I realized that to discover America I would have to go off the beaten path. I never thought of my endeavor as comic so much as adventurous.  With a journey in mind, one of the first books I really took to in high school was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.   Like the narrator of the book – who was the travel companion of the character Dean Moriarity (who was, in real life, Neal Cassidy) – I had a desire to discover America. I wanted to leave my small town in Upstate New York and find out, for myself, what America had to offer. This book spurred me to travel across country with a good friend.   And as I traveled, I also came across Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Allen Ginsburg’s poems about America.   Although I was not of the Beat Generation, I was intrigued by their reflections on the USA. I found their fictional and poetic meditations on America to reflect their “serious” adventures.  The events and experiences that happened on Kerouac and Whitman’s respective journeys were fundamentally transformational.  Would I have the same kinds of transformational experience?

Between what I found and I experienced, I found that some things just didn’t match. I was looking for something else. From my angle, their journeys were too filled with pathos (“the urge to be transformed by experiences in America”) to be believable.   As an American Jew, I know now that what I was looking for was an adventure that had comical elements of failure and not so much transformation but comical astonishment. In my American adventure, I was looking for something closer to what we find in the adventures of Sholem Aleichem or Mendel Mocher Sforim, on the one hand, or the adventures of schlemiels like Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, or Shalom Auslander’s Kugel as they left the city for the countryside.  The America I discovered would have to come by way of a schlemiel.   If I were to find any correlate for this in pop culture, I would have to say that National Lampoon’s Vacation might just work.  After all, Harold Ramis was behind it and knew how to bring the schlemiel into popular American culture.

When I, just last week, came across John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America, I was recently reminded that Vacation, for me at that time, wasn’t enough.  Despite seeing this film and having a lot of laughs, I knew that there was something better.   Steinbeck’s book reminded me.

It was odd that I missed the book.  In truth, I had a few friends who told me to read the book; but I never got my hands on a copy of it. My literary studies brought me elsewhere…more into modernist European literature than American literature.   It was only recently on a trip to visit my father in Upstate New York that I stumbled across a copy of the book. I found it in a small used book store in Schenectady, New York. It was in the American fiction section. I bought the book and, to my surprise, I discovered, right off the bat, that this book, unlike Kerouac or Whitman’s books, starts off on a comic note and it takes Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a model-of-sorts.

The novel, to begin with, is supposed to be based on Steinbeck’s real experiences. But as a New York Times article (from 2011) notes this claim has been heavily-disputed. Nonetheless, I’m less interested in the “truth” of the claim so much as the form it takes, which is the form of the comic adventure, and the fact that Steinbeck wrote this at a time (the early 1960s) when he felt down on his luck and alienated: two factors that often make for good Yiddish and Jewish American comic literature.   Most importantly, the novel suggests a desire not so much to discover American as to be elsewhere, which is, to be sure, a Jewish desire. The suggestion that this is not just a Greek or Spanish motif can also be found in the fact that Steinbeck dedicated this book to a Jew named Harold Guinzburg.

At the outset of the book, the narrator recalls how, when he was young, “the urge to be someplace else as on me, I was assured that by mature people that maturity would cure this itch”(3). However, as the narrator points out, although he was in middle age, “the sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye…In other words, I didn’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum”(3).

In these words, he see that, in his own eyes and in the eyes of the community, the narrator is a “bum” and a “man-child.” But he is not an aimless wanderer. To be sure, the narrator calls himself a “practical bum.” He isn’t just wandering around America: “He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey”(3).

Even though he sees himself as a “practical bum,” the narrator associates himself with Don Quixote who didn’t seem to have a plan. We see this in the fact that, in choosing the name for his vehicle (he is driving, not hitchhiking) he selects the name of Don Quixote’s horse:

And because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I named it Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote’s horse…I was advised that the name Rocinante painted on the side of my truck in sixteenth-century Spanish script would cause curiosity and inquiry in some places. I do not know how many people recognized the name, but surely no one ever asked about it. (7)

In other words, this was the narrator’s private joke. What really brings him together with Americans, however, is not his car. It is his dog, Charley, that brings him into the world. He takes the dog with him because he had worried about traveling alone. He felt that he might be assaulted, but, ultimately, he fears the weight of desolation would kill him:

There was some genuine worry about my traveling alone, open to attack, robbery, assault. It is well known that the roads are dangerous. And here I admit I had some senseless qualms. It is some years since I have been alone, nameless, friendless without any of the safety one gets from family, friends, and accomplises. There is no reality in danger. It’s just a very lonely, helpless feeling at first – a kind of desolate feeling.(8)

And it is “for this reason” that I “took one companion on my journey – an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley. Actually his name was Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy…and trained in French”(8). To be sure, the dog only responds to French words.

I find the dog, and its European pedigree, to be an interesting American re-writing of Don Quixote. In this version, the more rational and grounded Sancho Panza is replaced by a dog. The dog helps the narrator relate to the world and pulls him out of dreams: “Charley is a born diplomat. He prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, because he is very bad at fighting”(9). He fails at fighting, but he is good at relating and negotiating with others. He is a “bond with strangers. Many conversations en route began with “What degree of a dog is that?”

It is conversation that the narrator wants because, in doing so, he doesn’t simply see American and its various landscapes; rather, he experiences American by way of talking with people from around the country. Regarding this, he notes that the dog is actually not the best conversation starter; even better is than the dog is the state of “being lost.” It’s the best way to “attract attention.”

With these last words, one wonders about what Steinbeck is doing. On the one hand, he casts himself as a “practical bum” and yet, on the other hand, he casts himself as someone who must “be lost” if he is to rediscover America. It seems to be a little of both. He seems to be, like many a schlemiel or ironic figure (think of Socrates, even) someone who can act as if he is lost while not being lost. The whole point, to be sure, is to gain new experiences by way of conversation. The only way to do that is to act as if one is lost. And in this act, which is carried on with a dog, the comic journey begins.

…to be continued….

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

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

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

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

Here’s the abstract:

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

The Schlemiel as “Essentially….Existential”

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There are many kinds of Jewish fools and the schlemiel is only one type in the tradition of Jewish humor. However, it is the most popular comic character of all. So whenever someone asks me to define a schlemiel, the easy answer – like the answer Rabbi Hillel gave when he was asked to sum up the entire Torah in one sentence – can be found in a popular joke about a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik. It goes like this: A schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnick sit down for a bowl of soup. The schlimazel asks the schlemiel to get him a bowl of soup. The schlemiel assures him that nothing will go wrong as it may have in the past. The schlimazel lets him go. But right about when he is going to give the schlimazel the soup, he trips up and spills the soup on the schlimazel’s lap.   As the schlimazel screams out, the nudnick asks him what kind of soup was spilled on his lap. In this scenario, the schlemiel is the disseminator of bad luck, the shlimazel receives the bad luck, and the nudnick amplifies the bad luck.

Regarding this joke, Ruth Wisse argues that the “schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential. Whereas comedy involving the schlimazel tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving from his very nature in it’s confrontation with reality”(14). Wisse’s reading of the joke is peculiar. Since she uses the words “essential” and “existential” (terms that are often kept apart by existentialists who follow the lead of Jean Paul Sartre) in a similar way, she is saying that the “nature” of the schlemiel’s misfortunate “encounter with reality” is “essentially existential.” In other words, bad luck is “essentially” built into the very way the schlemiel “existentially” relates to reality. It is ontological, existential, and, it is Jewish.   Wherever the schlemiel goes, he seems, by virtue of his very relations to existence, to create bad luck for others. But, at the very least, he has good intentions. Regardless, if we take this joke as a paradigm, we would have to say that the schlemiel will always, so to speak, spill soup on some schlimazel (who happens to be in his path) because that’s the way the schlemiel relates to the world.

But is this really the case? Is the schlemiel to be understood, quite simply, as a character who has good intentions yet, in the end, will always be the disseminator of bad luck? And in what way is his comedy “essentially existential”?   Does this concept tell us about Jews in general or Jews in particular?

Although Ruth Wisse explains this classic joke in this way, her argument about the schlemiel in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero gives us a different perspective. To be sure, Wisse notes that this is an American joke not a European one. Does this imply that the European schlemiel is different? Indeed, it does.   To be sure, the American schlemiel is different from it’s European predecessor in many ways. And, I would argue, the American schlemiel has many other variants that don’t fit squarely into this joke or even the European model of the schlemiel (at least, as we shall see, the German-Jewish variant). Indeed, this joke, an American joke, like Hillel’s explanation of Judaism on one leg, does shed some light on the existential nature of the comic character; but it doesn’t do the American or the European schlemiel justice. They seem to be ontologically different. Their “essential existentiality” differs.

Expanding on Wisse’s reading of the schlemiel based on this Jewish-American joke, I’d like to argue that the claim that the schlemiel is an “essentially existential” character and this joke, which evinces an American version of the schlemiel, gives us a lead as to how we can go about understanding this comic character. By looking at this character in terms of it’s existentiality and its geographical and temporal location, we can have a better understanding of what this character means or can mean to us, here, in America.

We are, by virtue of time and place, more familiar with the American schlemiel than the European one. And this joke does shed a little light on the schlemiels we know and love, the popular one’s, which range from Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Barbara Streisand to Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman. All of them, to some extent, seem to spill the soup on somebody (and themselves).   (But what about the less popular schlemiels, the literary schlemiels that fall under the radar; the schlemiels we find in I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, or Bruce Jay Friedman? Is it wise to make a distinction? Are the literary schlemiels more existential than the popular ones? And if so, how?)

Drawing on the schlemiel’s popularity for American Jews, Sidrah Ezrahi claims that in America the schlemiel is a “cultural icon.” But, more importantly, she argues that the schlemiel is at the core of something larger; namely, the Jewish-American, diasporic imagination. Using the well-worn term “diaspora,” she suggests that Jewish-American identity is in some way existentially connected to this comic character. (Strangely enough, the only scholars who have written on Booking Passage have missed this key detail.)

What makes Ezrahi’s reading so thought-provoking is that it’s existential-ontological meaning is based on a historical and geographical distinction between Israel and America. Taking Philip Roth’s Portnoy as her cue, Ezrahi argues that American Jews are essentially schlemiels while Israelis are essentially not. The basis for Israeli identity is history and land; while for American-Jews the basis of Jewish-American identity is virtual. The validity of this distinction needs to be tested and it’s meaning understood. We need not accept her reading and, to be sure, we can learn a lot from it since she is the only person in “schlemiel theory” who has defined American Jews as schlemiels by way of an interpretation that, in many ways, draws from existentialism and phenomenology. To be sure, Ezrahi takes up where Wisse leaves off with her claim that schlemiels are “essentially existential.”

A Note on Mothers, Fathers, and Schlemiels in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Fiction

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One thing I have noticed about Bruce Jay Friedman’s fictional experiments with schlemiels is the fact that a person’s parents play an important role in the schlemiel process. But in his fictional scenarios, mothers are not the sole source of this or that person becoming a schlemiel. To be sure, fathers can also play a key role. And this inclusion of the father into the schlemiel process brings to light many things about the schlemiel that we have missed.

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In films like Meet the Fockers (2004) and Guilt Trip (2012) and in novels like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, it is the mother that is held responsible, in major part, for the male character’s becoming-a-schlemiel.

I recently pointed out the relationship of the schlemiel to the a wayward mother in Bruce Jay Friedman’s “The Good Time.” In that story, the mother is so into the son having a “good time” that she creates a distance between herself and her child. He ends up withdrawing from her and becoming something of a nebbishy schlemiel who is afraid of the future, hides from the wind, and worries about his eyeglasses (amongst other things). The problem that Friedman locks on to is that the schlemiel emerges out of a gap between the children and parents (and this includes fathers and not just “overbearing” Jewish mothers).

In yesterday’s blog entry on the story “Brazzaville Teen-ager,” I pointed out how Bruce Jay Friedman’s story and Michael Cera’s translation of it into a film short outlined the gap between a father and a son. That gap, as I pointed out, is the basis for the main character’s being a schlemiel.   The son would like to speak to his father in a man-to-man way but he can’t bring himself to do it. Rather, he foolishly relies on a kind of feeling and a prank with his boss to, so to speak, practice being bold.   But it’s all in his mind. He is, as the story suggests via symbolism, stuck between two floors: childhood and manhood.

To be sure, both stories show how latter-day American parents – mothers and fathers – create schlemiels. They also show us that it is the father-son or mother-son relation (to the exclusion of both parents) that marks a fictional-schlemiel-family-scenario. But the fact that Seth Rogen (in Guilt Trip) and Michael Cera (in his Brazzaville Teenager film short) have decided to revive this theme, today, is very telling. After all, Bruce Jay Freedman wrote these two above-mentioned stories for the baby-boomer generation. But Rogen and Cera think that they also speak to our generation. The only reason I can find for this is the fact that they are pitching these films to a generation that feels that it is unable to attain what their parents have attained; but, more importantly, they feel that this generation identifies with being schlemiels who are, so to speak, stuck between floors.

In other words, these films – based mostly on a figure that Bruce Jay Freedman developed nearly forty years ago – speaks to a private family experience that, for many today, is still the source of their deepest frustrations. What I like most about Cera has done, however, is that he, unlike Judd Apatow in Knocked Up, wants to have us focus on this intermediate stage rather than seeing it worked out in the film. He’s more interested in presenting the problem than offering the solution. And this, the famous author Anton Chekhov once claimed, is the purpose of good art.

The problem of the schlemiel, today, situates us between parents and children, on the one hand, and manhood and childhood on the other. What does maturity mean today? Do we put the same value on success as our parents do? Is their an unbridgeable gap between us? And how does the schlemiel help us to pay closer attention to these issues?

Most importantly: Is there a problem or have we “progressed” out of this schlemiel family-issue, today?

On Michael Cera’s Film Short: “Brazzaville Teenager”

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Michael Cera, who played a main role in Arrested Development (2000-2013) and starred in such films as Superbad (2007), Juno (2007), Year One (2009), and This is the End (2013), recently decided he wanted to direct his own film short. Cera’s film short, Brasserville Teenager, is based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman. The story, written over thirty years ago, was re-written by Cera with Bruce Jay Friedman. And like any translation of text into film, something is lost here and something is added there. What interests me most is the portrayal of the schlemiel and humiliation in the film. To be sure, in this filmic translation the humiliation is greatly diminished and the schlemiel is displaced by the special effects which turn the film more toward a symbolic dimension (reminiscent of a David Lynch film) than toward a deeper understanding of the schlemiel’s failure and frustration.

Let’s go through the short story first and then compare notes.

The story starts out with the hope of the schlemiel, Gunther:

He had always felt that perhaps a deathbed scene would unite them; he and his father would clutch at each other in a sicklied fusion of sweetness and truth, the older man dropping his lifelong cool, finally spilling the beans, telling Gunther what it was all about. (9)

The narrator’s tone already suggests that Gunther’s hopes might be a little off. As the story goes on, we see that, in this schlemiel scenario, there is a big gap between the father and the son. The son feels that this event “would unite them.” However, as the story shows us, nothing changes in the end. But it’s the journey to that point which matters most.

The main conceit of the story is that, after Gunther leaves his father, all he can think about this how his father’s “knuckles” have enlarged and that his body has been “whittled down.” He is saddened by his reduction of his role model; following this, however, an idea comes to him which, somehow, will change everything:

The idea came to him that if he, Gunther, were to debase himself, to do something painful beyond belief, the most embarrassing act he could imagine, only then could his dad recover…The instant his plan formed, he wanted to tear it form his head. (10)

This idea is childish and presupposes some kind of magic that will occur if he does something. He becomes obsessed with this idea. His plan is to get his boss, Hartman, to sing backup vocals in a song called “Brazzerville Teen-Ager”:

It’s about a young boy whose father is a mercenary and gets sent to the Congo. The boy goes along and write this letter back to his girl from the States, talking about how great it was surfing and holding hands and now here he is in Brazzerville. (10)

Since he knows the producer, he feels he can coax him to let his boss, Mr. Hartman, sing back up vocals.

After he finishes telling Hartman what he would like to do, Hartman, bewildered, tells him “You’re still not coming through”(11). And he proceeds to ask him the logical question: “What’s the connection between all this and your father’s sickness?”   In response, Gunther tells him that “I can’t explain it…I’ve learned that if I can get you to do this thing, which of course is way out of your line…Dad will recover”(11). Hartman asked him what he means by “he’s learned” and all Gunther can say is that he just “knows it.” Gunther asks Hartman to “forget the logic part” because he really “feels” it’s true. In response, Hartman tells him to back into the office and to “forget you ever made this little speech.”

After this experience, while driving around at night, Gunther congratulates himself for speaking his mind. Although he failed to get Hartman to do it, at least he spoke. But then he gets an idea: “If I got myself to say something like that to a boss, there’s no limit to what I can do”(11).   This spurs him to drive out to Hartman’s house and speak more.

What’s so interesting about what spurs him is the fact that in his speaking to a superior, his boss, he feels as if he has done something life changing. This, no doubt, has to do with speaking the truth to his father. Apparently, he never gets to speak his mind; and this is what troubles him most about his relationship with superiors and elders.

When he arrives at Hartman’s house, he stumbles into a party of the rich and powerful. They humor him and Hartman nearly fires him there on the spot. But Hartman’s wife comes to the rescue and tells Hartman to do it because Gunther, “the poor fellow is quite upset. It will cost you very little and it might be fun”(12).

Hartman goes ahead and does the backup vocals.   He is asked to “girl it” in his “doo wahs.” And he does so. Following this humiliation-of-sorts, Gunther drives him home and sees someone flipping pancakes in a store front. He pulls over, asks Hartman to filp one, and gets the owners approval. Hartman does this, too.

The next scene we learn that the Gunther’s father is better. He helps him pack up and go. But when he starts thinking about all the things he wanted to ask him, as he did at the outset of the story, and says “Dad.” He chokes up and fails to speak. The father asks him what, but Gunther says “nothing.”

In the last section of the story, on the way from his father’s apartment Gunther stops the elevator between floors. And then he screams out, “You son of a bitch! You know what I had to go through to get you on your goddamn feet?”(14)

In Cera’s rendition of the story, much is the same except 1) the film includes a male interlocutor in a bar who speaks with Gunther; 2) the conversation with Hartman (played by Jack O’Connell) has words like “lesbian” and the expression “rock in my show”(5:28); 3) the wife says she will “wet” Hartman’s “whistle” if he goes (a sexual allusion that isn’t present in the original); 4) Gunther says, after getting Hartman onboard, “Once in a while you’ll meet a crazy person who will go along with you no matter what”; 5) the music studio scenes bear mention of having “one heart” and include scenes that aren’t in the story; 6) the recording scene is morbid, like a David Lynch film; 7) Hartman, unlike the story, is moved by the music; 8) the pancake flipping scene is deleted; 9) the scene with his father (played by Charles Grodin) is incredibly long.

What I liked about the film version of the story was the fact that it brought out the divide between emotion and masculinity. We could clearly see that doing a good deed made Hartman more kind, which is something we don’t see in the story. And we also see the divide between Gunther and his father in a clearer manner. Most importantly, I like how Cera used the timing of the film to illustrate the differences between the father and the son. It shows how they continually miss each other and how the father has become a grumpy older man while his son remains a schlemiel who cannot speak to him face-to-face.

In the end, Gunther is the schlemiel because, in his mind, his action and his feeling should be enough to heal his father and unify them; ultimately, however, he remains a person who screams “between floors.” He is caught between being a man and a child. He wants to have a “normal” relationship but can’t say the right things to make it happen. His prank on Hartman took some kind of odd-courage, but, ultimately, he can’t bring that courage to his real-life relationship with his father.   His feelings and his prank can’t do it. He has to let go of that magical connection that all children, in some way, think exists between reality and emotions. But he can’t.

Cera’s film, at the very least, is faithful to this message in Friedman’s original story. This isn’t lost in translation, however, it is amplified.

 

Walter Benjamin’s “Dream Kitsch”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adorno’s Whispers in the Dark: The Holocaust, The Child, and the Schlemiel

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As a third generation American – and as a person three times removed from the Holocaust – I was always curious about the meaning of the Holocaust. It happened, as the author David Grossman writes in his novel See: Under Love, “over there.”   What I find so intriguing about Grossman’s novel, which begins with the meditations of an Israeli child about the Holocaust, is how close it is to my own experience in so many ways. To be sure, the main character of the novel, Momik, tries to piece the Holocaust together by way of things he hears and gathers from scattered conversations and images relating the to the Holocaust.   Unlike his parents, who refuse to discuss, he can sense that something rotten is being hidden from him. And, like a detective, he tries to put it all together.

Although, as an American, my experience is much different from an Israeli’s, I can identify with the desire to put together clues. For, in truth, when it comes to the Holocaust, we are all like children. Something “whispers” to the child – regarding trauma – that the civilized adult can’t hear.

Theodor Adono points this out in his book Negative Dialectics:

Children sense some of this in the fascination that issues from the flayer’s zone, from carcasses, from the repulsively sweet odor of putrification….An unconscious knowledge whispers to the child what is repressed by civilized education; that is what matters, says the whispering voice….it kindles “what is that?and “where?”

David Grossman’s Momik is constantly hearing these kinds of whispers from people around him. And after hearing them, him repeats them and puts them together into a comic kind of narrative-slash-collage. The narrator of the novel parries this naïve search for truth and suggests that Momik believes that he is hearing a “secret language” from people who were “over there”:

Momik loved Grandma Henny very much. To this day it makes his heart ache to think of her. And all the suffering she suffered when she died too. But anyway, Grandma Henny had a special language she used when she was seventy-nine after she forgot her Polish and Yiddish and the little bit of Hebrew she learned here. When Momik came home from school he used to run in to see how she was, and she would get all excited and turn red and talk that language of hers….She had a permanent smile on her little face, a kind of faraway smile, and she talked through her smile. (34)

Henny is a living cartoon-like character for Momik. He doesn’t see her as mentally ill so much as funny or odd. Strangely enough, the language she speaks sounds a lot like Sholem Aleichem. To be sure, David Grossman was inspired to write by Aleichem and it comes through in this section.   What I’d like to suggest is that Henny’s secret language brings together Aleichem with the Holocaust. Something that, in reality, never happened. After all, Aleichem died in the early 20th century.

Henny talks about “Mendel,” an Aleichem character that leaves her and travels from Russia to America (35). This is what Momik gathers of this narrative:

How could you do such a thing and break your mother’s heart, and then she begs him, Sholem, never, never, even when he reaches America where the streets are paved with gold, to forget he’s a Jew, and to wear tefillin and pray in synagogue. (35)

The narrator tells us that she is speaking a “language no one understands” and yet “Momik understood everything. That was a fact. Because Momik has a gift, a gift for all kinds of languages no one understands, he can even understand the silent kind that people who say maybe three words in their whole life talk”(35).

Moreover, Momik can “translate nothing into something. Okay, that’s because he knows there’s no such thing as nothing, there must be something, nu, that’s exactly how it is with Grandfather Anshel” (35).

Momik hears these “whispers in the dark,” and as the novel goes on we learn that the little bits and pieces he hears are all a part of different narratives. Some of them are fictional while others are not. Regardless, all of these stories are mimicked (like his name, Momik) and translated into Momik’s narrative on the Holocaust.

I can identify with this. And I think that Momik’s queries about the Holocaust were a search for the truth and that truth was tied to the meaning of his Jewish identity. I still ask the question today, on Yom HaShoah: who am I in relationship to what happened over there? Like Adorno’s child, I ask “What is it?” and “Where is it?” It is still over there, so to speak. And with all of the media we have today, I still feel as if I am hearing a faint whisper of some secret language. The facts are incontrovertible, true; but, still, they must be put together in ways that relate to us and that is an act of the imagination.

In going through this exercise, we become like Momik, a schlemiel. We feel through the dark yet with the passion of a schlemiel, which, though misguided, is still the passion for truth. In listening closely to these whispers in the dark, to this secret language, we become like children. And a man-child is…to be sure….a schlemiel.   Here….a post-Holocaust schlemiel.