Tag: schlemiel

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

_w7M-Eqs

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”.

 

 

Literature and Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Howard Jacobson’s Description of Literature

images-3

One of the things that really prompted me to look into the schlemiel was a statement Walter Benjamin once made – in a letter to his dear friend, the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem – about Franz Kafka’s literary project. In the letter, dated June 12, 1938, Benjamin describes Kafka’s entire literary project in terms of failure:

To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its particular beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and the beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain about eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.

Scholem did not respond to Benjamin’s reading of Kafka vis-à-vis failure until November 6th, 1938. In the middle of the letter, Gershom Scholem expresses his bewilderment at Benjamin’s claim:

But I would like to understand what you take to be Kafka’s fundamental failure, which you virtually embed at the heart of your new reflections. You really seem to understand this failure as something unexpected and bewildering, whereas the simple truth is that the failure was the object of endeavors that, if they were to succeed, would be bound to fail. Surely that can’t have been what you meant. Did he express what he wanted to say?   Of course.

To be sure, Scholem doesn’t understand what this could mean. He sees Kafka’s work and his life as a success. In response to Scholem’s challenge, Benjamin changes tact. And instead of writing on failure, he writes, in a letter dated February 4th, 1939, on comedy. There he claims that Kafka was not so much a failure as a comic figure. Kafka is man “whose fate it is…is to be surrounded by clowns.”   There is something esoteric in this new claim: it suggests a link between literature, failure, and comedy. That’s the thread. It runs through Kafka’s work and Benjamin’s reading of it.

Years later (and after the Holocaust), Howard Jacobson, one of the greatest Jewish novelists today, has made similar claims in describing his own work. In a 2011 talk Jacobson gave at the New York Public Library, he makes an explicit link between literature, failure, and comedy.

During the talk, the interviewer, Paul Holdengraber, engages the discussion of failure by suggesting that Jacobson’s fiction is “wedded to the idea of failure in some way.” And Jacobson says, flat out, that he loves failure:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And you’re very interested in that, particularly in ideas that come back to haunt novel upon novel, essay upon essay, and we’ll move to that very quickly, the notion of failure. You are wedded to the idea of failure in some way.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What’s so fascinating?

HOWARD JACOBSON: I love failure.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You love failure.

Following this, Jacobson explains that we see failure everywhere. He describes it as a “crack in everything” and argues that “we are not interested in success” in this country or in his home country of England. Rather, he argues that “we” are interested in why the “world is not quite right.” In other words, we tend more towards cynicism (based on the “cracked” state of the world) rather than optimism (and success). That’s why we turn to literature.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes. It’s do with this, there’s a crack, a crack in everything. We are not interested in success. You in this country and we in our country—we think we are, and but we in this room are not—the fact that you are, that you and I are here together, and the people in this room are in this room listening to me talking to you means that they are not interested in—all right, I’ve won a prize, and you all well know. But we’re not really interested—you don’t read books if you’re interested in success, as the world knows success. You go to read a book because some way or other you feel that the world is not quite right. If the world is right for you, you become a footballer, you become David Beckham, or you become Donald Trump or something.

Following this, Jacobson adds a punch line and injects some comedy by mocking the position that thinks “I’m going to do all right in this world, I am at home in it.” He doesn’t trust this worldliness. And he says “we” don’t and that’s why we read books. And “we” don’t do this because we are all “wedded to failure.”

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yeah, fine, but there are a million ways in which, you know, you feel the world is okay, “I’m going to do all right in this world, I’m at home in it, Me and this world can enjoy whole relations, completeness. We can be complete. This world will offer me something I want and I will succeed in it.” Whereas we all don’t feel that, so you read books, and I write books, because we are wedded to failure, and we should be proud of that in the best sense, in the best sense. History is written by the winners. Literature is written by the losers.

To be sure, the Talmudic kind of punch line is that the interviewer is wrong. I am not the one who is wedded to failure; rather, you are and so are all of us in this gathering because we all like to read. Moreover, the condition of this “we” is that “we” don’t write history (“history is written by the winners”).   We write literature (“literature is written by the losers”). And, I would add, “we “do comedy. And, to be sure, the New York Public Library portrays Jacobson more as a comedian than as a writer.

What I find so fascinating about this link is that Jacobson is suggesting that we are not happy with our world and that we are no longer making history. This makes us all failures who have, as Ruth Wisse says of the schlemiel, an “ironic victory” by way of literature. This suggests that we, like writers who embrace the schlemiel (like Jacobson in nearly every novel), stand on a tightrope between cynicism and optimism.

And to be “proud” of being “wed to failure” suggests an irony that blasts in the face of a world based on success. It suggests that comedy and literature speak against the world and against power and the makers of history. It speaks from the angle of failure.

Perhaps this was the point that Benjamin understood about Kafka. He saw his literature as wed to failure and comedy. And, I would argue, he threw his lot in with Kafka and the novelists. This, it seems, was something Scholem could not stomach. The fact that Kafka wrote the fiction he wanted to write was a success, not a failure. But seen dialectically, as Benjamin was attempting to do, that success is really based on a failure. And Jacobson reminds us that this is nothing to be ashamed of; it is a badge of honor to write in response to failure and to admit, comically, that “we” are wed to failure.

A Schlemiel and His Mother: Reflections on Bruce Jay Friedman’s “The Good Time”

images-1

Bruce Jay Friedman has been writing fiction since the early 1960s. As a novelist, he is most well-known for Stern. But he is most famous for his plays Scuba Duba and Steambath. Both were shown Off Broadway in the early 1970s and were overnight successes. Steambath was adapted for TV in 1973. And Friedman wrote several screenplays that were turned into popular movies such as Heartbreak Kid (1973), Stir Crazy (1980). Dr. Detroit (1983), The Lonely Guy (1984), and Splash (1984), and Brazzaville Teenager (2013). (The last film is short directed by Michael Cera and Heartbreak Kid was recently redone with a starring role by Ben Stiller).

In most of his novels, short stories, and screenplays, Friedman includes at least one schlemiel character. To be sure, Friedman, like Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, and Judd Apatow, has popularized the schlemiel in American culture.   Unfortunately, very few people have properly read his schlemiels.   In the Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse characterized his novel, Stern, in negative terms. The main character, a schlemiel named Stern, “suffers from an ulcer, the localized symbol of hurt, and actual cause of his anxiety and pain. The ulcer is a kind of “heart condition”(87).   This, for Wisse, is the anti-thesis of what Saul Bellow had done with the schlemiel in his novel, Herzog (Herzog means “heart song” in Yiddish). This schlemiel’s sickness is “a lower, less poetic organ” and it is, for Wisse, “symptomatic of Friedman’s harsher, lower form of humor”(87). Wisse goes on to call Stern just “another study of the sick man as the relatively healthy man, the psychological equivalent of loser as winner, but one that exposes the full horror of this inversion”(87).

Wisse’s words are by no means charitable to Freidman and neither are the words of the famous film critic J. Hoberman who recently likened – in the most negative way – the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man (2009) to Stern. Larry Gopnik, the schlemiel of Serious Man – is like Stern:

Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher.    

To be sure, the case for the weak and sick man-child schlemiel is made in many places by Bruce Jay Friedman. But what’s sometimes missed is how this sickness relates to the other or in the case of a story called “The Good Time” the (m)other. In this story the mother’s boundless energy also makes her into a schlemiel. And while she may appear healthy and the boy sick they are, in fact, a team.

In “The Good Time,” the main character and narrator of the story is a schlemiel who is going off to war in Korea. He is in Chicago and will be leaving from there to basic training and then war. Friedman uses “coldness” as a leitmotif in the story. The main character is followed by it everywhere:

No matter what I wore, the cold got into me and down inside my clothes and made feel lonely and as though I would never relax for the rest of my life. It followed me into the hotel room in which I stayed and chased me as I drove along the Lake. (117, The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman).

It seems as if the main character is in a transitional point between childhood and manhood and that the cold chasing him around is the cold of life and adulthood which he pulls back from. Regarding sickness, he notes that the word Korea reminds him of the word “Cholera.” In the following sentence, he notes that, for the first time in his life, he is getting a pair of eyeglasses. The fact that he is astonished that when you put the glasses on you can “see everything” should alert the reader that he is naïve and childlike.

In the midst of this cold and his contemplation of what may happen to him over there, his mother decides to leave Philadelphia for Chicago so as to show him a “good time.” She “knew I was feeling bad” and wanted to “cheer me up”(117). His mother, to be sure, is fearless, loud, and brash. But when we see her in juxtaposition to her son, we see that she is also a schlemiel. But her schlemielkeit, it seems, is more in tune with a vital American culture. It is a kind of energetics that is based on fast-talk and quick-action.

When we first meet the mother (or rather “Mother,” her name throughout the story), we see that she is brimming with enthusiasm for every experience she has (as if every moment is her last). Mother brings a woman she meets on the train who travelled with her. She insists that the lady and her baby meet her son. It doesn’t make any sense, but since Mother is so excited by their spending time with each other she wants her son to meet her:

“Did you ever see such a sweet face on a girl? Look at her. That’s the type I meet everywhere I go. And good? Good as gold. Her and her baby.” (118)

Upon seeing him, Mother demands a hug: “Grab your mother around for a hug. It’s all right. It’s your mother. I came all the way from Philadelphia.” When he notes that the girl, which his mother said was so great, was ordinary, his mother says, “You’re in quite a mood.” In other words, the mother wants him to be infected by her intensity and to overlook the ordinariness of things. She wants him to live in the moment instead of being in fear of the future.

His mother yells for a cab, engages the cabbie in talk, and they are off. As they are moving, the narrator notes a juxtaposition between age and youth in his mother. And as he passes from the one to the other he warms up: “Her figure was still so young and good it embarrassed me to look at it. And I have to admit I didn’t feel quite so cold now with her near me”(119).

Once they start talking, the narrator feels he can be honest with her and speak about how he feels about going “over there.” In response, she tosses a line, rhythmically, that sounds off against the word “there” – he calls this a “pet line”: “He’s there and you’ve got to get there.” These lines irk him and make him cold because they refuse to give in to his fear. After hearing this, he remembers another one liner, which, to be sure is all about challenging the other: “You’re on your way in, I’m on my way out.”

To be sure, as the story moves on more and more of these pet lines come to the surface. They are used to get things going and keep things warm and exciting. However, they don’t leave room for any emotional bonding between them. And they don’t leave room for fear. They are given out in rapid-fire fashion, as are her bold movements.

She has no regard for the civility. When they get back to the hotel, she takes off her top and walks around in “her brassiere and skirt…it made her comfortable”(120). It doesn’t matter that she is doing this in front of her son. To be sure, he takes this as normal. But after a while, as we shall see, he lets too many things slide. And this comes back to bite him.

The story shifts into high gear as they go out.   And as they move, we hear more and more noise. But Friedman turns this noise into a kind of music that is laced with optimism. In one scene they go to a club where Tommy Dorsey is playing music. While they are getting into the music, a large group of paraplegics come into the club. Excited by the music, they all start making noises to the music. They are giving canes by the club and they tap them against the floor in rhythm to the music. The narrator’s mother hears the word “sheeeet” repeated by some of them while one of the narrator’s friends, who tags along, goes “spit-spat.”   All of this noise works to just move things forward, into the future.

Moved by this rhythm, they get into the car and speed off along the Chicago lakeshore Listening to music as they drive, they continue the rhythm from the club. They carry it on late into the evening, but the mother doesn’t want to sleep:

“If you want to sleep, sleep…It’s your privilege. But you’re crazy if you miss a minute. I have quite a day planned for you.”(124)

The next day they go off to see a musical comedy called “New Faces.” During the act, the mother has her own comedy act and interrupts people in the audience. She wants to be the center of attention and make a scene for her son. After having her laugh and causing a stir, she leaves with her son to see an old friend called “Monkey” Lucella.

Monkey is a lot like her. He is wild, but he is also very wealthy. When they first meet, Monkey pulls out a wad of bills and tells Mother, “look at this.” In response, Mother says: “The son of a bitch…The money this son of bitch must have made here in Chicago. The fortune of money”(126). All of this theater hits a fever pitch at the end of the party when Lucella, who is married (his wife is “cold” and quiet) and has a son named “Seal”, lifts Mother up on his shoulders.

The narrator breaks down when he sees his mother’s underwear:

Her skirt split open and some garment showed that I never wanted to see in my whole life. It had elaborate hooks and snaps on it and it seemed you’d have to be very old before wearing it. It was just something I never wanted to see on my mother. (128)

When he sees “more” of the undergarment, he loses control and does something “I haven’t done in perhaps fifteen to twenty years, but something I had been in the habit of doing for quite some time as a child.   Starting to cry, I put my head down, closed my eyes and rammed my head into Lucella’s groin” (128).

His mother responds by sweeping him out of the house and getting a cab. Upon leaving, the main character, feeling miserable, vents:

Was this her idea of giving me a good time? Was that the way you treated a son who was very cold and couldn’t relax and needed glasses and was going to a place that sounded like a terrible children’s disease – a disease that probably began with a rash, for all I knew, and ended by attacking your damned kidneys. (129)

Like Stern, this story ends with sickness. But what needs to be seen is that this sickness, which is steeped in fear, is spurred in many ways by the mother. Her optimism and bold embrace of the moment divorce her from her son and make him sick. Moreover, it is her sexuality that she doesn’t hide from him. Freidman seems to be suggesting that this is what drives him back into his childhood and makes him a schlemiel. His mother has gone to far and instead of cheering him up, she has only made him more bitter and scared. This comic due shows us that a schlemiel can be a kind of nebbish character (like the son) and can also be a vital character who is out of touch with reality (like the mother).

Contrary to what many critics might say, Bruce Jay Friedman was interested in the many varieties of the schlemiel. The critics only got him half right. As we can see in this story, the main character may be like Stern but his mother is not.   And I would like to suggest that it is the latter, fast-talking kind of schlemiel that is often missed in Friedman’s work. Her optimism and brashness, though foolish, is – in this story – juxtaposed to the main character’s fear, childishness, and cynicism.   It is the relation between the two that makes this story – and these schlemiels – distinctly American.

 

….to be continued….

What Happened to Our Smart Jewish Kids? A Note On Cynicism in Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”

250px-Bernardine_Dohrn

When Swede, the main character of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, finally makes contact with his daughter Merry – who, as I have pointed out in other blog entries, became a domestic terrorist – he has a few moments of reflection on what “happened to our smart Jewish kids?” Swede’s reflections are worth recounting since they show how, to his mind, cynicism directed at the middle class, assimilated Jewish life is at the core of Merry and Rita Cohen’s radicalism. This cynicism is in dire contrast to the optimism of the two previous generations of American Jews; namely, Swede and his father Lou Levov. Their optimism was based on their successes in the leather industry, sports, and American life.   All of this is trashed by Merry and the third generation of American Jews because they find the source of this optimism – and the optimism itself – to be corrupted by capitalism and inequality. The process of Swede’s coming to this realization shows us what, in part, is at stake for Jews in America.

Swede is astonished when he first sees his daughter because – after engaging in several terrorists acts, killing four people, and also being taken advantage of by people she had encountered in her flight from society – she had become a Jain. As a Jain, she wears a veil and walks barefoot in fear that she may kill an insect. Swede reads her conversion into a Jain as a sign of powerlessness and it eats him up. Thinking to himself, we learn that Swede sees her powerlessness, emblematized in her veil, as destroying the power and optimism of the entire Levov family. It is a rejection and as such has its own power which angers and weakens Swede:

Your powerlessness is power over me, goddamn it! Over your mother, over your grandmother, over everyone who loves you – wearing this veil is bullshit, Merry, complete and utter bullshit! You are the most powerful person in the world! (254)

Zuckerman, the narrator, notes that this rage against his daughter wasn’t going to make him “any less miserable.” Nonetheless, Zuckerman can’t help to spell out the audacity of her gesture: “The viciousness. The audacity. The unshatterable nerves. God alone knew where such kids came from”(254). Reflecting on this, Zuckerman goes into the paradox of Jewish American children become radicals; he can’t believe that this is possible:

They were raised by parents like him. And so many were girls, girls whose political identity was total, who were no less aggressive and militant, no less drawn to “armed action” than the boys. There is something terrifyingly pure about their violence and the thirst for self-transformation. They renounce their roots to take as their models the revolutionaries whose conviction is enacted ruthlessly…They are willing to do anything they can imagine to make history change. (254)

Swede’s father, Lou, after “foolishly watching a TV news special about the police hunt for Underground Weatherman” also chimes in. Astonished, he asks the key question: “What happened to our smart Jewish kids?” What follows his question is a series of observations about how Jewish American kids cling to oppression and seem to flee away from what his generation fled to.

What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? If, God forbid, their parents are no longer oppressed for a while, they run where they think they can find oppression. Can’t live without it. Once Jews ran away from oppression; now they run from no-oppression. Once they ran away from being poor; now they run away from being rich. It’s crazy.   They have parents they can’t hate anymore because their parents are so good to them. (255)

Reflecting on this, Zuckerman wants to get at what “drives them crazy” and he concludes that it is cynicism: “Distrust is the madness to which they have been called”(255).   Distrust led Merry to rebel so as to “bring the world into subjection” but in the end this cynicism led to the opposite. Now, as a Jain, she is “subject to the world.”

Regardless, Swede realizes that she is no longer in his power and perhaps never was (256). And, thinking this, he also becomes cynical:

She is in the power of something that does not give a shit. Something demented. We all are. The elders are not responsible for this. They are themselves not responsible for this. Something else is. (256)

The cynicism spreads to Zuckerman who reflects on how “the bodies of mutilated children and their mutilated parents everywhere” indicate that we are “all in the power of something demented. It’s just a matter of time, honky! We all are!” And, according to Zuckerman, this all comes how to Swede by way of the laughing terrorists:

He heard them laughing, the Weatherman, the Panthers, the angry ragtag army of violent Uncorrupted who called him a criminal and hated his guts because he was one of those who own and have…They were delirious with joy, delighted having destroyed his once-pampered daughter and ruined his privileged life, shepherding him at long last to t heir truth….Welcome aboard, capitalist dog! Welcome to the fucked-over-by-America human race! (257)

This laughter is a kind of satanic laughter. Perhaps it is a variant of the laughter that Charles Baudelaire discusses in his famous essay, “The Essence of Laughter.” I wonder if Slajov Zizek would call this the laughter of cynicism or the laughter of what he calls, following Peter Sloterdijk, kynicism. After all, the laughter of kynicism is a destructive – daemonic (in a Baudelairian sense) – kind of laughter. Regardless, Zuckerman is right to note that this laughter emerges, in some way, out of cynicism. To be sure, this kynical laughter is the other side of cynicism.

In the above-mentioned fictional scenario, Roth shows us the power of cynicism.  It touches everything in this novel: Swede, Merry, and the narrator. It is something that comes not from one’s ancestors, as Swede notes above, so much as from history. This novel has much relevance today. As I have noted elsewhere, cynicism seems to be making a comeback. And the laughter we are hearing is by and large destructive. This would be a good time for the schlemiel who teaches us what Ruth Wisse would call “balanced irony.” This irony maintains a tension between hope and cynicism. However, in American Pastoral, this irony is absent. And that is truly tragic.

 

 

Humor as Prosthesis: On Comic Word Play and Ironic Victories

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

rahel-varnhagen-540x540

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…to be continued….

 

 

Trust Issues: Cynicism, Post-Nationalism, and Captain America

images-3

Politics and theater go hand-in-hand. One doesn’t have to be an intellectual to know that politicians use words and gestures to gain attention, garner support, or justify this or that agenda. It’s obvious to anyone that the media, film, and the internet can affect this or that political agenda. Within a few hours, a political agenda can be ruined or bolstered. Everyone knows this and we have seen this happen and see it happen on a daily basis.

But while the greatest obstacles to accomplishing this or that political agenda may be created by the media or Hollywood, the opposite is also true.   One of the markers used by this or that politician to measure the success or failure of a project is whether the “public” is optimistic or cynical. To be sure, President Obama has been using these terms a lot in his speeches. He has been worrying that Americans are too cynical and no longer trust the government. And, to address this, he has even turned to comedy and theater to regain confidence. He has played the schlemiel (a character whose charm often acts to win the viewer over). He understands how, without optimism and trust, his administration will lose power and authority. But more is at stake than belief or disbelief in the government.

For many Americans, the greatest stakes have to do with the belief in exceptionalism. Is America unique….anymore? Or is it a nation like all others?   It has become an issue, today, because America seems to be losing it’s standing in the world. We see this issue discussed in the media, in Washington, DC, and in Hollywood.   We also see it discussed in academia. And, as an academic, I can tell you that I have many colleagues who despise American nationalism and exceptionalism. For many of them, there is a conviction that America would be better off it were a part of a larger collective that would work to eliminate racial, economic, sexual, and cultural oppression and inequality around the world. Instead of leading the effort, they would like it if America were more humble. But, to be sure, they just don’t want this to happen; rather, like good post-Marxists, many believe it is already happening and that there is nothing we can do to stop it. Justice, meaning post-nationalism, will prevail. All resistance is futile and, in their view, stupid. Nationalism and patriotism are one and the same thing for many of them. Marx believed that the nation-state would eventually “wither away” and so do many of my colleagues. It’s only a matter of time.

But what will take its place?

This is an interesting question. In a post-nationalist America, what will people turn to for hope and inspiration? There are many answers to this question. I would suggest looking at some of the biggest academic conferences out there these days for an intimation of where academics think the answers may lie. One thing I can say, from what I see within my own academic circle, is that many academics want to leave nationalism and patriotism behind for “justice” and “ethics.” To be sure, nearly all of the post-Zionist thinkers in the field of Jewish Philosophy are post-nationalist. Many envision Israel not in terms of a state but in terms of something “bi-national” where Israelis and Palestinians can co-exist, side by side with each other.   Hence, there is a lot of scholarship in my field that sees the Jewish nation-state as powerful, violent, unjust, and unethical. All resistance to the state (in academia and in the street) is deemed ethical. This, it seems, is a part of a larger political agenda – a post-nationalist one.

If I were to sum up what they are looking for in a blunt way, I would say that what is common to their readings of Judith Butler, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and Emmanuel Levinas (amongst others) is the belief that we can trust each other but don’t because of the nation state or politics (which breed distrust and violence). After all, when Hannah Arendt was accused by Gershom Scholem of not having “ahavat Yisrael” (love of Israel, the nation) in her treatment of Adolph Eichmann, she replied by saying she cannot conceive of national love. She could only understand the love of friends. That, in a nutshell, pronounces the desire of post-nationalism: to live in a world where we don’t need nations or nationalism to define who we are and what we do. All we need to do, to live a just, ethical life, is be friends and agree to coexist. That would be true justice. Nationalism and patriotism, on the other hand, are thought to be the anti-thesis of friendships and trust. Nationalism creates, for them, cynicism and war, while post-national trust creates optimism.  (Slavoj Zizek’s opposition of “kynicism” to “cynicism” provides a model for this project.)

The opposition between some kind of post-nationalist trust and nationalist distrust and cynicism has found its way into Hollywood, but, I would contend, this is by no means a mistake. To be sure, the mood in academia these days finds that American exceptionalism and nationalism have done us no good whatsoever. The latest Captain America film – Captain America: Winter Soldier – is a case in point.   And I have a feeling we will see more of these types of films.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SlILk2WMTI]

In the film, nationalism is downplayed and distrust and cynicism touches everything. The new, revived, Captain America isn’t fighting so much for America as for trust and hope. He is looking for people he can trust. Unlike Independence Day (1996), saving America is really secondary to the main theme, which is saving trust and hope.

In this film, Captain America is looking for people he can trust. The nation, as it stands, is infiltrated with cynicism and distrust. Hydra has its hand in everything.   And Hyrda is fascistic. America – that is, nationalism – is not the alternative so much as is trust in the other. And this film shows Captain America battling with people inundated with fascist nationalism, on the one hand, and other American’s who have been infected with it (which suggests that fascism and its desire for order and security is the true essence of nationalism). The war isn’t between America and Hydra; it’s a war between trust and mistrust or post-nationalism and nationalism.

The Message: in this post-nationalist world, the most important thing is to know who your friends are. In this world, America, as in the first scenes of the film, with all of its monuments, is merely the backdrop for a larger existential drama. In this film, Captain America dons the same uniform he used during WWII – when American patriotism was at an all-time-high – but it is faded (just like the glory). He is, so to speak, putting new wine (the wine of trust) into an old (nationalist) skin.

I found this movie interesting not simply because it could be read as reflecting or not reflecting the current attitude of Americans toward American exceptionalism, so much as the fact that it is structured to appeal to something post-national. It moves toward a post-national kind of trust. But what does this mean about American nationalism? What does it suggest about patriotism? Is it merely, like Washington, DC, a backdrop for an existential issue?

A Note on Goya and Sholem Aleichem’s Caricatures

images-2

Charles Baudelaire, in his essay “Some Foreign Caricatures,” distinguishes between a “historical” and an “artistic” caricaturist. Writing on Goya, who took the horrors of the Spanish Insurrection and the war with Napoleonic France, Baudelaire notes that Goya opened up the field of caricature by introducing “fantasy” into the comic. And, in contrast to the categories he set up in his famous “Essay on Laughter,” Baudelaire argues that Goya’s brand of comedy fits neither into the category of the “absolute” or the “purely significative comic.” Unlike ETA Hoffman, who is the master of the “absolute comic” (and what Paul deMan, citing Baudealire, calls the “irony of irony”), while Goya may be able to “plunge down” into the depths of grotesque and “soar up to the heights of the absolute,” the “general aspect under which he sees all things is above all the fantastic.”

When an average person, who knows nothing about history, sees Goya’s historical figures, although they may not recognize the historical aspect, he will “experience a sharp shock at the core of his brain.” His works overcome us, says Baudelaire, like “chronic dreams” that “besiege” our sleep.   He calls Goya a “true artist” because in his caricatures, which Baudelaire calls “fugitive works,” he is able to remain “firm and indomitable.”   In other words, the test of the “true artist” is to bring shock to caricature.   And he ultimately accomplishes this, claims Baudelaire, by showing us how the “monstrous” is possible and “credible.”   And this “fantastic” element, because it made so tangible, is what shocks us:

No one has ventured further than in he in the direction of the possible absurd. All those distortions, those bestial faces, those diabolic grimaces are impregnated with humanity…In a word, the line of suture, the point of junction between the real and the fantastic is impossible to grasp; it is a vague frontier.

Reading this, I wonder how would Baudelaire regard the caricatures found in Yiddish literature and Jewish American literature. How would he interpret the choice of writers like Sholem Aleichem or Howard Jacobson who have cast schlemiels as caricaturists? Do they, as Baudelaire says of Goya, “remain firm and indomitable” in their “fugitive works”? And is their goal to make the “monstrous” credible, by way of caricature, or seem less “diabolical”?

To be sure, Dan Miron argues that Motl is not a “diabolical character” and neither are his caricatures. As Miron points out, the caricatures marks a “cold” relation to the past of a desponded and ailing world that he wants to leave behind. But he does this by way of humor.   Motl, to be sure, is the agent and reporter of this distortion. Miron tells us that he doesn’t change while his world does and this sounds like what Baudelaire would say regarding the caricaturist as an artist. However, the main difference between what Miron is saying about caricature and what Baudelaire is saying is that the schlemiel’s survival has more to do with the possibility of a new life and less to do with having an epiphany of the “possibility” of the “impossible.”

Baudelaire’s interest in caricature is focused on jarring humanity by way of shock while Sholem Aleichem’s interest is in providing a figure for Jews to understand how to relate to the past and the new future, promised by America. The schlemiel’s caricatures – rather than the schlemiel as a caricature – provide the vehicle, so to speak, to travel from Europe and arrive in America.   Caricature, for Aleichem (as opposed to Baudelaire) doesn’t suspend identity so much as provide a way of forging a new identity.   And the agent of that caricature is the schlemiel-artist (and not Baudelaire’s version of the modern artist).

Comedic horror, in other words, doesn’t seem to have a role in schlemiel literature and art while for Baudelaire it has a central place.

It’s Not “All” in the Timing: Noise, Space, and Comedy

DownloadedFile

In The Parasite, Michel Serres looks to get rid of the idea of the center/periphery distinction and the idea that power “occupies” the center.  In its stead, he discusses things that fill and occupy space.  In a chapter entitled, “Energy, Information,” Serres starts from music and from there he moves to noise and the occupation and “counter-occupation” of space. The roar of motors is mixed with music to create a sense that there is no escape from sound. It fills all space:

Music has been a fundamental part of my life. I could not conceive of life without music.  But now, I’ve begun to hate it. It is everywhere nowadays, trapping me everywhere. I knew that we had entered the motor age when the noise coming from motors filled space everywhere. There was no space without a motor.  Even in the most rural country spots, the chain saws…replaced the grasshoppers.  (94)

The motor, says Serres, is an “expansive phenomenon.”   And it became a “founding fact of property.”  It works by making the “occupation of space intolerable” and thus “gets it for itself.”   And these noises are countered and “covered” (94) by others:

The grasshopper counterattacks with loudspeakers. Hi-fi, full-strength, earphones: the motor is beaten.  Music culture – that is to say, the culture of communication – has just wiped out the industrial revolution…Little packets of energy chase out the bigger ones. One parasite chases out another.   One power chases out another.  (95)

Serres sees this power as parasitic. It may be the power of speech or anything that has a voice in space.  He personifies this power:

Where are you?  I don’t know. Where are you going?  It doesn’t matter.  The grasshopper wanders every which way.   In other words, the emitters can be randomly distributed…Where are you going?  Everywhere.  All spaces bathe in its power.  The parasite is everywhere…Voice, wind, sound and noise. (96)

But, given this interpretation of space and expansion, wouldn’t it be the case that an explosion of sound (or an explosion itself) would be the greatest illustration of Serres’ understanding of sound?   To be sure, the explosion of words and sound I am thinking of take place in a comic kind of novel by another Frenchman, Louis Celine.  The first lines of his baudy tale, Guignol’s Band, are an explosion:

Boom! Zoom!…It’s the big smashup!…The whole street caving in at the water front!…It’s Orleans crumbling and thunder in the Grand Café!  A table sails by and splits in the air!…Marble bird!…spins round, shatters a window and splinters!

While this explosion is caricatured with such words as “Boom! Zoom!” it marks something very violent.  The explosion, the “big smashup,” is a total occupation of space.  The fact that it is comic is fascinating since it suggests that comedy is, by and large, about noise and jokes (and the laughter that attend them) are explosions of sorts that fill space. To be sure, they take over space.   It creates a tension or a kind of competition between the comedian who fills space and the audience which, in the wake of his voice, fills space with laughter.

And these explosions of comedy and sound, so to speak, communicate with each other. For your consideration, here’s a clip with many sound and spatial occupations.  To be sure, in this clip spaces are overtaken, emptied, filled, and covered over:

And, in a sense, the comedian needs to clear out the space of different sounds.  He needs to displace other sound-scapes and noises if he or she is to be affective. The schlemiel, in this account, is of prime importance; for, as Ruth Wisse and Sidrah Ezrahi have argued, the schlemiel lives by way of language.  Speech, they argue, is his substitute for sovereignty. But, as Serres seems to suggest, it isn’t a substitute for power; rather, it is power itself. It may not be history, but it overflows all spaces and competes with all narratives by turning to space (of the page, of the stage, etc) rather than time.  And that space explodes with meaning and possibility; but not in a tragic so much as in a comic sense.

Groucho and Chaplin show us the possibility of such explosions of movement and sound, which, to be sure, take over the space:

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

 

Progressive Schlemiels: On Dan Miron’s Reading of Sholem Aleichem’s “Motl the Cantor’s Son”

DownloadedFile-7

Dan Miron is one of the greatest living critics of Yiddish and Jewish-American literature today.   His books on these bodies of literature have won him critical claim.  What interests me most is how Miron would approach a schlemiel like Motl (the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son: Writings of an Orphan Boy.   After all, I have written several blog entries on this character and have read Motl in terms of ontological and epistemological distraction.  And in my last reflection, based on a review made by Saul Bellow, I outlined the character’s Jewishness by way of his  “refusal to adapt.”  To be sure, Bellow argues that Motl, like the Jews, had no choice but to refuse since adaptation would be tantamount to giving in to history.  And that would be a complete abdication of freedom.   Like Bellow, Miron is interested in how Motl relates to history.   According to Miron, Aleichem faced his greatest artistic task in creating a character who could properly relate to the sad and difficult history of the Jewish people in eastern Europe:

To say the truth about the crisis of eastern European Jewry in the first decade of the twentieth century that nobody else would dare to say, a truth to be reported only by someone as innocent and guileless as a child…Motl is put forward to say, in his childish way, that the demise of the traditional eastern European civilization is not only unavoidable but also welcome.  (xxviii Introduction to Tevye the Dairy Man and Motl the Cantor’s Son).

Miron’s last point stakes out a historical claim and situates his reading within a progressivist framework.  As Miron suggests, Aleichem wanted to push off from the past and embrace a new Jewish future.  Paraphrasing Aleichem, Miron writes: “it is high time for the shtetl culture to leave the historical stage for something else, no matter how primitive and crass, as long as it is alive and vital; that being an orphan is, under certain circumstances, preferable to being burdened by a moribund ancestry”(xxviii).    In other words, Miron reads the schlemiel in terms of an effort to kindly say goodbye to eastern Europe and the Shtetl and to say hello to  health, vitality, and a new future.   In other words, the schlemiel, in this historical context, embodies a progressive historical force that leaves the past, suffering, and history behind for the new.

To this end, Miron describes Motl, a schlemiel, not so much as a character than as an “attitude.”  He cites Deleuze and Guittari as his theoretical support:

As a fictional character, Motl is what Deleuze and Guittari, in their discourse on minor literature, refer to as agencement, an arrangement of traits and narrative inflections that convey an attitude rather than the reality of a specific fictionalized human being.  (xxviii)

Miron tells us that this “attitude” remains consistent throughout the story.  It is “static” against a background and changing locations that are in “constant flux.”   He is immune to the effect of time: “his character” is “immune to the process of aging and to being reconditioned by drastically changing life situations”(xxix).  In other words, the schlemiel’s blindness to the world and change is not a negative aspect of the character worthy of criticism; rather, it is a part of a kind of force that transcends change, a historical force that is vital: “nimble, energetic, bright, unencumbered by heavy clothes, never seeking the warmth of hearth and home, always Puck-like, need to walk, to run, almost to fly”(xxix).

What I find so original about this reading is that Miron, unlike any commentator on the schlemiel, describes the character as a kind of model of the “attitude” that is necessary to be vital and live on.  In other words, this schlemiel is the model for a kind of Jewish post-European vitalism-slash-historical force.  Miron likens him to a force that can be either “hot” or “cold.”

He flows with all that is vibrant: appetites, vitality, effervescence, motility, optimism, lust for life, and freedom.  On the other hand, he is a keen, unemotional, unflinching observer. (xxix)

The latter part, the cold part, is the part that watches history fade away and distances itself from the “ghettoized” aspects of his mother, brother, family, village, etc.  Miron uses this hot/cold distinction to depict this progressive attitude that looks coldly at the past yet is hot for the future and the new.   The cold part, Miron tells us, finds its best expression in the fact that Aleichem makes Motl’s new occupation, upon landing in the new world, a caricaturist.  He has a “passion for drawing cartoons that emphasize all kinds of unseemly metonymies.”  These “unseemly metonymies” are caricatures of the past.   Miron sees caricature as a “non-Jewish art” because Jews are prohibited by the Torah from making any “graven images.”  And this, for Miron, is the perfect vehicle for rebellion against tradition.  It helps him to become “detached from it” and to see it for how bad it is or has become.  And, in Miron’s words, “Motl’s inclination toward caricature contributes to Sholem Aleichem’s objective to deconstruct shtetl literature, to dismantle its components and to expose it as nonfunctional”(xxxi).

Miron’s claim suggests that schlemiel, as a caricaturist, is really not blind.  He coldly sees and rejects shtetl culture and history.  The blindness is more on the “warm” front where he chases after life in all its “flow” and “vitality.”  This is a reading of the schlemiel that has never been put forward and it is very amusing insofar as it suggests that schlemiel is not totally blind or absent-minded and that the character is the expression of a progressive “attitude.”   He is not, as Paul Celan might say, mindful of his dates.

Miron’s progressivist reading mirrors, in many ways, a Zionist reading of diasporic, European culture.  Aleichem, in his view, reads the diaspora in similar terms. But unlike German-Jews, who viewed the schlemiel as a product of the ghetto and should be abandoned, Aleichem sees Motl as a heroic figure who leaves the ghetto behind.  Miron tells us that Motl may start out as a “prospective victim” (xxxi) but he avoids this negative fate by leaving Europe behind.   He is, as Miron notes, “happy” in the midst of negative conditions since he detaches himself from these conditions and attaches himself to life and hope.  His “child rebellion” is not extinguished by the repressive apparatus of the “shtetl’s oppressive system of education.”    Motl “celebrates his independence” from this system and this “child rebellion” against the shtelt is the key to his survival.  For Miron, this is the “attitude” that left the ghetto behind for “new life.”  He is an “orphan,” a member of an “orphaned people,” which “emerges” from “historical lethargy.”  “Whipped into wakefulness” Motl, like the Jewish people, “gropes for happiness that has evaded it for so long”(xxxii).

Miron’s rhetoric suggests, more than Irving Howe, that Aleichem wasn’t simply laughing and crying over history; he was rejecting it.  This reading of the schlemiel suggests that this schlemiel, the immigrant schlemiel, is premised not so much on the rejection of the status quo (which is what Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse have suggested) as rejecting the shtetl while embracing the new.  The schlemiel must, for progressive reasons, be cold to the past (and caricature it) while being warm to every new experience.

What happens, however, to the new schlemiel. The one who arrives in America?  Will they retain hope, too?  Is the new schlemiel hot and cold?  After all, Motl is an immigrant leaving Europe behind.  What happens to the landed schlemiel?

In my latest readings of Cynthia Ozick’s  “Envy; or Yiddish in America” I pointed out that the landed schlemiel, after the death of eastern European Jewry and its cultural legacy, is not so happy.   Edelshtein is a “master of failure” and, as an older schlemiel, has a much different “attitude” than Motl.   He lives in the wake of the Holocaust, Motl doesn’t.

Miron’s suggested reading, a historicist reading, should be put in context.  Not all schlemiels are like Motl.   And his hot and cold relations may not be found in schlemiels we find in much post-Holocaust literature.  Their attitude toward history and progress is much different from his.  They are more acutely aware of failure than he.  We see this in Malamud, Ozick, and Bellow.

…to be continued….