Tag: Woody Allen

Almost Communicating, or What Happens When a Middle-Age Schlemiel Falls in Love With a Korean Girl – Part I

images

Over the last decade, we have seen countless films about “middling” or aging schlemiels. Think of Ben Stiller’s roles in Meet the Fockers (2004), Greenberg (2010), or The Heartbreak Kid (2007), Seth Rogen’s Neighbors (2014) or Guilt Trip (2012), or of Judd Apatow’s 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), or This is 40 (2012).  Apatow, more than any filmmaker, has made something of a cottage industry based on middle age schlemiels.

Also think of Sarah Silverman’s latest work for her youtube channel, Jash, where she is constantly looking into what her character, a 40 plus year old woman, goes through as she ages. The task of documenting the aging schlemiel is nothing new, however. One need look no father than the popularization of this in Woody Allen’s films – especially Annie Hall (1977).   

While the filmic exploration of the aging schlemiel is widespread and noticeable – to such an extent that the middling schlemiel is becoming something of an American cultural icon – the literary equivalent is less noticed by the everyday American. To be sure, books like Stern, by Bruce Jay Freedman, Herzog, by Saul Bellow, A New Life, by Bernard Malamud, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti – to name only a handful examples which span over four decades – take the aging schlemiel as their theme.

What’s most interesting about these literary treatments of the middling/aging schlemiel is that they give us an acute sense of how the schlemiel – and we ourselves – are becoming more and more out of sync with the times we are living in. After repeated failure, the schlemiel eagerly tries to carve out a “new life.” But as s/he ages s/he comes to realize that she hasn’t succeeded and that now, with age, things are more difficult than before. This creates a desperate situation and character whose new failures are much worse than before. Yet, with all of this failure and repeated failure, there is a kind of charm that comes through in this or that missed encounter, missed social cue, or belated response. Most charming is the middling schlemiel’s failure to communicate when love is on the table and cultural differences are front-row-center. The conceit of the narrative is to be found in how the middling schlemiel navigates these gaps.

We see an exceptional illustration of this middling schlemiel’s attempt at bridging the gaps between youth and middle age as well as between Korean and Jewish in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.   The fascinating thing is that one gap challenges another in his novel. The middling main character Lenny Abramov – a Russian-American-Jewish son of immigrants – stumbles across Eunice Park, falls in love with her, and does his most to deal with this gap and win her over. But his failures show the desperation of this gesture; nonetheless, she also fails. And the way she fails – with her family’s expectations and her own expectations – transforms her into a character who, though Korean, shares much in common with the schlemiel. Regardless, the communication gap, the age gap, and the cultural gap challenge this commonality and make for a fascinating read on the middling schlemiel which solicits culture, love, and communication as relevant to being (and understanding) a schlemiel.

For now, I just want to touch on the communication gap when they first meet. It becomes the foundation for the ensuing struggle to bridge it. When he leaves with her, after a party that he and she occasion in Rome, Italy, he feels she left with him because she really likes him and that, in some way, he is her hero. In his mind, he has saved her from another middling man – a physically intimidating sculptor – who, aggressively, challenges Lenny when he tries to talk with Eunice, his Korean love interest. He is snubbed by the sculptor but, in the end, he wins a kind of indirect victory when she leaves with him not the sculptor.

Notice the comedic rhetoric that is used to describe his movements in relation to hers. He thinks of himself as a hero, but comes across as an anti-hero:

Eunice Park and I marched ahead. She marched, I hopped, unable to cover up the joy of having escaped the party with her by my side. I wanted Eunice to thank me for saving her from the sculptor and his stench of death. I wanted her to get to know me and then to repudiate all the terrible things he said about my person, my supposed greed, my boundless ambition, my lack of talent…I wanted to tell her that I myself was in danger….all because I had slept with one middle-aged Italian woman. (21)

But telling her wouldn’t matter. Eunice could care less about the situation Lenny was going through.

Feeling young and hip – although he is middling – he tells her of a cool “Nigerian” restaurant in Rome to go to following the party: “I stressed “Nigerian” to underline my openmindedness. Lenny Abramov, friend to all”(21). But this doesn’t get through to her.

She calls him a nerd and throws several three letter abbreviations – hip in youth culture – at him to show the gap between them. And this “hurts” him:

“You’re such a nerd.” She laughed cruelly at me.

“What?” I said. “I’m sorry.” I laughed to, just in case it was a joke, but right away I felt hurt.

“LPT,” she said, “TIMATOV. ROFLAARP, PRGV, Totally PRGV.”

The youth and their abbreviations. I pretended like I knew what she was talking about. “Right,” I said, “IMF. PLO. ESL.”

His abbreviations emerge out of a different era and show what things that were of interest to him, then: ESL (fitting in to American culture), PLO (being a Jew whose Russian parents were very concerned with Israel’s future), and IMF (which shows he may have had interest in activism against globalization, when it first started emerging)

The gap is pronounced and the pain that comes with the missed encounter and communication lag show us the life of a middling schlemiel who desperately tries to overcome what, in fact, may not be possible to overcome. After all, age is existential. So is culture….

Charm…that’s another issue…. Can it bridge the gap?

….to be continued…

 

 

The Postmodern Chelm, or The Artistic Community in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” – Part I

DownloadedFile-5

I can remember the first time I ever heard a story about the Jewish fool otherwise known as a schlemiel.   What struck me about the story, when I first heard it (when I was six or seven years old), was that the schlemiel wasn’t an independent agent. He lived amidst other schlemiels – in a town called Chelm.   And the community, I believed, had something to do with his foolishness.   Years later, I looked deeper into the issue to discover that German-Jews often associated the schlemiel with the ghetto while Eastern European Jews associated the schlemiel with the shtetl. And while the German-Jews looked down on this community and its relationship, Eastern-European writers – like I.B. Singer, who translated the fools of Chelm stories into storybooks for children – had a more positive view. But regardless of the place and perspective, we see the same thing: schlemiels are, traditionally, found in communities. And even though the ghetto is gone and the shtetl – following the Holocaust -is a thing of the past, the schlemiel still lives on.   But, in it’s North American incarnation, it doesn’t always live on in a community of schlemiels. To be sure, we can see how the schlemiel lives on – all by himself – in urban settings – as in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant or Saul Bellow’s Herzog – or in rural settings – as in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (and in most of his short stories) or Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy.

At the outset of her book, How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti does something different. She situates Sheila, a female schlemiel, amongst a small community of schlemiel-artists.   What I like most about this is that Sheila is not the only “odd one out” – something we find in the above mentioned novels (save for The Assistant, in which Frank, the main character, slowly becomes a schlemiel; but, when he does, he does so alone, in the wake of Morris Bober’s death).   Woody Allen often situates himself as the only “odd one out,” too. For instance, in the film Annie Hall (1976), he presents himself, at the very beginning of the film, as the “odd one out.”

As far as schlemiel literature, film, and art goes, this is a novel move. It gives us a sense of what Sheila, the main character, shares with other artists. As I pointed out in my first blog entry on the book, Sheila, in the Prologue, states her purpose which is to figure out “how a person should be.” What’s interesting about the first chapter is that we learn that she is not alone. And the people she could take guidance from are, by and large, on the same journey as she is.   What makes this more interesting is the fact that half of the people she mentions, in this regard, have Jewish names. This suggests that she lives in half-an-artistic kind of shtetl. And that shtetl, so to speak, is in Toronto. The schlemiel lives on, albeit in an urban postmodern setting which adds new dimensions to this comic character.

The first Jewish name we see is in the title of the first chapter: “Sholem paints.” (Instead of the Hebrew transliteration, Shalom, we have the Yiddish one; moreover, one thinks of Sholem Aleichem when one sees this name.) The first words of the chapter tell us where we can find him, Sheila, and the other community members:

We were having brunch together. It was Sunday. I got there first, then Misha and Margaux arrived, then Sholem and his boyfriend, Jon. (11)

What’s most important to the narrator is how they feel about the space (“the diner”) which, she notes, had been “repainted” from “grease-splattered beige to a thickly pastel blue and had spray painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup”(11). This new décor “ruined the place somewhat.” And this spurs the theme of the first chapter which is ugliness, art, failure, and selfhood:

I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn’t enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn’t attracted to, Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home. (12)

Since all of them are artists (one is an actor, two are painters, and Shelia is a writer), one can assume that, at some level, they have had to deal with frustration, failure, and disappointment. Heti speaks to these issues directly in her descriptions of Sholem, Misha, and Margaux.   Each of these reflections dovetails into mediations on failure and they spur the idea to have an “Ugly Painting Competition” (this frames the beginning and the end of the novel, which is separated into acts of a play that Sheila never finishes; and although the novel is completed – and we are, to be sure, reading and interpreting the finished work – the fact of the matter is that a novel is not a play; failure, therefore, is built into the clash between the novel and it’s content). The turn to ugliness – in the midst of their conversation – is fascinating since it is an inversion of what artists are supposed to create; namely, beauty.   And this inversion exposes the other side of being an artist today which has much to do with things that are very ugly. What makes this most powerful, however, is that this is delivered in a comic manner, though a community of schlemiels who come up with the idea of an “Ugly Painting Competition”:

Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don’t remember, but once I got enthusiastic suddenly we all were. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I really hoped it would happen. I was curious to see what the results would be, and secretly envied them. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. I wanted to make an ugly painting – pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. (13)

This is, to be sure, the first activity in the Chelm-like community. And the enthusiasm for it betrays a deeper sadness in all of them. When Sholem, for instance, nearly finishes his ugly painting, he gets very depressed and anxious. Like a schlemiel, he bears witness to his failure:

Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged into despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone to the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. (14)

These are the types of reflections we also hear from Bernard Malamud’s Morris Bober. But Sholem’s comments are within a larger competition and community than Bober’s utterances of self-deprecation, failure, and suffering. Sholem, Misha, Margaux, and Sheila are all, as I will show in the next entries, engaging failure.

 

To be continued….

Deconstructing the Deconstruction of Zionism: Gianni Vattimo’s Myth Making and Misreading of Jewishness and Jewish Humor

images-1

The “Yale School,” which included such academic personalities as Paul deMan and Harold Bloom, gave America its first taste of deconstruction. What deMan and Bloom popularized, in particular, was the rhetorical reading of texts.  The point was to find, as deMan once said, their keystone (or it’s “center”). By locating it and taking it out, so to speak, the entire text falls to pieces and is exposed.  But it was Bloom, or rather Freud (his antecedent who he draws on extensively), who came up with the greatest phrase to articulate the task of deconstruction: namely “misreading.”   Bloom taught us that every “misreading” holds a secret.  Namely, that one lies for a reason.   Nonetheless, the lie “acts” as if it is absolute truth and bears no contradictions.  And Bloom, like Freud, wished to cultivate a “hermeneutic of suspicion” so as to expose the contradiction that is at its core. Although criticism does the work of such exposure, Bloom, like Freud and many Jews before him, also understood that one of the best ways to expose contradiction is through the “witz” (through humor).   To be sure, every misreading is ironic.

The irony of Gianni Vattimo’s essay, “How I Become an Anti-Zionist,” which is his contribution to the volume he edited with Michael Marder entitled Deconstructing Zionism, is that Vattimo acts “as if” what he is saying about Jews, Zionism, and the Holocaust is the disclosure of unalloyed truth.  In a rhetorical fashion, he claims that he is not giving a misreading, but “the” reading of Zionism; it’s ugly secret which he, through a process paralleling the post-Zionist Israeli thinker Ilan Pappe, discovered over time: namely, that he had been duped.  He believed in a “myth” about Israel’s purity but now he knows and must spread the gospel of truth.  There is nothing ironic at all in this revelation.  It has the feel of truth.  And that’s the effect he’s after.

What I’d like to do is employ the hermeneutic of suspicion to his text and expose his misreadings and their affect. In addition, I want to stand back and think about what it implies that he, a notable Continental philosopher, identifies with Ahmejenidad, thinks that the threat from Iran is make believe, and that even though the destruction of Israel is desired a better word for it is “transformation.”   To not expose these misreadings would be a travesty.

But my goal is not simply to show that he is not deconstructing Zionism and creating or rephrasing the mythologies of anti-Semitism, but that he is misreading the Jewish joke to accomplish this end. And this misreading shows us how he forces the text and reality to conform to his narrative; something a deconstructionist, as a rule, shouldn’t do.

At the end of his piece, he misreads Jewish humor (as evinced by Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers). The result of that misreading is an account of Zionism that is deadly serious.  By tracing Vattimo’s rhetorical reversals and codings we can better understand his strategy to create an old/new “myth” of Zionism. And in doing so, he gives deconstruction a bad name.

To begin with, Vattimo begins by making a division between a “true” and a “false” Judaism. He argues that true Judaism has nothing to do with Israel!  Those who identify with it are, apparently, missing the true spirit of Judaism (despite the fact that the Torah speaks repeatedly of Israel and Jews have yearned for centuries for a homeland, he makes this statement).  Following this, he exposes an anti-Semitic vein when he argues, by way of citing a Jew (cloaking his opinion in a Jew’s opinion) that “Israel” is “one of the harms produced by Hitler’s politics and the Holocaust” (to this he adds “one can also list the creation of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948”).   In other words, he sees Israel as an evil created by Hitler and the Holocaust rather than as a blessing to those who sought a homeland in the wake of the Holocaust.

The mention of the Holocaust here is key because Vattimo’s goal is to use it as his keystone: like a few anti-Zionist thinkers, he argues that the “myth” of Zionist is given legitimacy by the use of the Holocaust.  And this, in his view, is one of Israel’s gravest sins.  In other words, Israel should, in his view, bear no mention of the Holocaust..as if it’s memory cannot be publicly mentioned, as if it weren’t a part of Jewish history…

But before he gets to this clincher, he provides his personal story of self-discovery (that he is, in his essence, an “anti-Zionist”).   He argues that he, like many Italians, grew up with two myths: the anti-fascist “myth” and the “myth” of Zionism.  He argues that this myth was provided by way of film and media. And, in the process, he likens Israel’s relation to Palestians to what he saw in American Westerns (namely, “the conquering of the West by nineteenth century Yankees”):

The last “cinematographic” reference appears somewhat forced, but it comes to mind for good reason, since no viewer of Westerns, except in recent years, has ever been concerned with the fate of Native Americans exterminated by the advance of white settlers and their cowboys – in a way complete analogous to the absolute forgetting endured by Palestinians in the epic of the birth of Israel.

The analogy also suggests that the Jews exterminated the Palestians (or are trying to).  In fact, this is his point.  But, in a cloaked fashion, he says that a Jew and not a non-Jew makes the discovery of the ugly secret; namely, that Israel is no different from Nazi Germany; it is committed to genocide.   He identifies his epiphany with that of the Jew, Ilan Pappe.  And this makes it “real”:

It was precisely the discovery of the Nakba in his second year of high school – that is, of the “disaster” represented for the Palestinians by the ethnic cleansing exercised by Israel from 1948 onward (and up until today, I must add) – that pushed Ilan Pappe from his initial leftist Zionism to his current, and radical, polemical stance against Israel.

Pappe’s “addition” (or rather additions, in the plural, to Pappe) suggest that he sees everything that Israel does in relation to the Palestinians as genocidal (as if he were watching the Holocaust in the present tense).   He now switches is rhetorical position from an “I” to a “we.”  He basically is saying he is in solidarity with Pappe and other Jews who are against “genocide” and who want to “deconstruct” the myth of Israel’s purity.  But the twist is that he and Pappe are pure. In a few sentences, he gives us a hagiography of sorts when he tells us of the process he has gone through to arrive at his epiphany:

It was, and it is now for many of us, a complex process that involved the whole of our socio-political, and in the end also our ethical, religious, conceptions, such that even our long friendships are put into crisis, along with other aspects of our private lives (starting from a certain ostracism by most official and mainstream mass media).

Here’s the narrative: He has been excluded. He is the other who is banding together with other’s who have been excluded and he is banding together with them to live and die in the name of truth. To do this, one must fight against Zionist mythology which is hiding evil (the genocide of the Palestinian people). This is, if anything, a religious narrative based on “truth.” There is no irony here.

To express his passion for the truth and to provide the map of his pilgrimage, Vattimo discusses how, over history, he was duped. Over time he realized he had been duped and that, in being duped, Israel was allowed to “continue the genocide, in Gaza and elsewhere, and also to reinforce themselves militarily in every way.”

From here, Vattimo expands his rhetorical we to include and “welcome” “Ahmadinejad.” This welcome, says Vattimo, has “emblematic value and goes far beyond the particular significance of his visit” (to Brazil). This “far beyond” suggests something transcendental for Vattimo, a greater truth: “never before was it so evident (at least it seems to us) that what is up for grabs in Palestine is the destiny of oppressed peoples who try to avoid the rule of the new colonialism.” In other words, “we” saw the truth, the “destiny of oppressed peoples” in the Palestinans.  The language is, to be sure, Epic and expresses a kind of meta-narrative which, to be sure, deconstruciton…ought to deconstruct not construct.  But who needs irony when we have Ahmadiniejad as our friend and comrade?

But the irony doesn’t stop there.  To be sure, Vattimo goes out of his way to reread Ahmadinejad’s calls for the destruction of Israel.  And his rereading – or rather misreading – exposes something rotten.  First of all, he says that the threat posed by Iran to erase Israel from the map is a myth by putting the words “disappear” and “threat” in scare quotes.  After doing this, he says that “its sense may not be completely unreasonable”(!).  His rereading is that its really not the destruction of Israel that Ahmadinejad wants so much as it’s “transformation” into one state (not for Jews, of course).  He justifies this rhetorical substitution (or misreading) by way of Ilan Pappe (a Jew-said-it-not-me tactic).    He ends his rhetorical flourish by arguing that all Ahmedinejad does is express “a demand that should be more explicitly shared.”

In other words, disregard everything negative said about Ahmedinijad; he has no hatred, doesn’t support terrorism, and forget about how he treats his people.  Rename him, pace my deconstruction, and call him your friend.  “We” (radical leftists) all share his sentiments.

But the irony of deconstruction doesn’t end there. He goes on to make yet another rhetorical misreading and substitution.  He claims that Israel suffers from an “irredeemable sin” and to say this “is not so excessive.”  In fact, its appropriate, in his view, to impute this as truth. That sin, as I suggestive above, is the “utilization” of the Holocaust.  It has turned the Holocaust into a “permanent weapon” against anyone who questions them.  To begin with, this claim is ridiculous.  I don’t have the space to address how this myth has been appropriate to agitate many left-leaning radical anti-Zionists in the past (and present).  Its simply another myth.  Regardless, for Vattimo it’s a truth that, in his view, is the basis for maintaining the myth of Israel as a Jewish State. And it is an “irredeemable sin.” It cannot be atoned for. Israel is, in other words, evil.

At the end of his essay, Vattimo posits yet another analogy and rereading by claming that Heidegger and deconstruction, like the Palestinians, is being “ethnically cleansed”(!)    After making such a rhetorical association – by way of it making it a self-evident truth that Israel ethically cleanses (after all, it is the basis of his analogy!) – Vattimo let’s his anti-Semitic beast loose.

He claims that the real core of the problem is not the appropriation of the Holocaust to legitimate the myth of Zionism so much as the myth of Jewish exceptionalism.  He states that people have this “suspicion” (himself included) by virtue of Isreal’s use of power. This “mythology,” says Vattimo, includes “divine election, the Covenant, the purity of a race.”  In other words, Zionism is really about the myth of Judaism and this coming from a “scholar” who, at the outset of his essay, separated “true” Jews (who don’t identify with Israel) from false Jews (who do). The suggestion of this rhetorical strategy (the “suspicion” as he says) is that Zionism is based on the mythologies of Judaism!

Vattimo doesn’t end his essay with this misreading. Rather, he ends with a misreading of Jewish humor.  He argues that the Rabbis in Woody Allen and the Coen Brother’s films show us who, at the core of Judaism, is a power that is corrupt and power hungry. This misinterpretation, if anything, totally misses what Woody Allen and The Coen Brothers were after.   To be sure, Allen, in films like Bananas and Annie Hall includes Rabbis in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with showing corruption so much as in insider joke.  The greatest irony is that in Annie Hall, Allen has his girlfriend’s grandmother look at him as an anti-Semite would; namely, as a Hasidic Jew in disguise.

As Freud would note, every misreading discloses some kind of secret.  And that secret, for Freud, is a desire.  For Vattimo, I think it would be fair to say that he wants to see every Rabbi as a co-conspirator in the creation of genocide and the “myth” of Jewish exceptionalism.   This desire is ultimately anti-Semitic.   It’s a shame since, by doing this, he isn’t “ethnically cleansing” deconstruction so much as giving it a bad name; after all, he sees himself as an heir to deconstruction.  But, it seems, he is more an heir to anti-Semitism.  We need better heirs to its legacy. On the other hand, it would also help if Vattimo knew a little about Judaism and Jewish humor. His misreading is not funny.  It’s tragic.

The Schlemiel-as-Criminal? On Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run”

DownloadedFile-5

While someone like Jean Genet – in books like The Miracle of the Rose or The Thief’s Journal – makes the criminal into a highly masculine larger than life (even priestly) man,  Woody Allen’s “directorial debut,” Take the Money and Run (1969), presents us with a parody of the masculine criminal and the hard-boiled crime thriller.  It is chock full of schlemiel comedy and presents us with something of the anti-thesis of violence and masculinity.

Merv Griffin, in this interview (:57) jokingly calls Allen a “sex symbol” but Allen wittily responds: “But the question is what I am a sexual symbol of…”  And even goes so far as to comically describe himself – as a child – as a “young budding pervert.”  In other words, he was a “sexual schlemiel.”  (See my recent post on Harold Ramis on this topic.)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwq8cfaUqu8]

Take the Money and Run is a parody of the life of a schlemiel-criminal who also happens to be a sexual schlemiel by the name of Virgil Starkwell.  There are several exceptional comedy skits in the film.  One celebrated scene has Virgil volunteer to take an experimental vaccine at the prison.  The punchline is that the vaccine has a “side-effect”: it turns him into a rabbi.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F54nR67PZPY]

And in the most popular scene in the film, he slips the teller a note telling them that he has a “gub” and that they better hand the money over.  His bad handwriting (he couldn’t clearly write “gun”) is discussed by the bank workers and before he can get the money and run he has to get a few signatures at the bank.  After all, it’s the procedure.  This schlemiel displacement renders the crime and the criminal ridiculous.

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

Throughout the film, his Jewish parents, who wear Groucho Marx glasses and nose, discuss what happened to him showing us that he is a disappointment to his kvetching Jewish parents.

Louise Lasner plays Kay Lewis in the film and through her we learn that she was duped by Virgil Starkwell.   Toward the end of the film, we learn that she thought he was a schlemiel, but, to her chagrin, she learned that he was a criminal.  But that’s the irony of the film.  He isn’t really a criminal; he’s a schlemiel: “Everybody thought he was such a schlemiel but it turns out that he’s a criminal…”

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/224552/Take-the-Money-and-Run-Movie-Clip-Schlemiel.html

In the final scene, we see Virgil in an interview carving his soap gun.  He asks if it’s raining outside. For if it is, his gun will turn into bubbles again.  This ending marks Virgil as the schlemiel-criminal. Nobody is duped.  A schlemiel can’t be a real criminal; he’s too innocent, charming, and effeminate for that.

An American-Post-Holocaust Schlemiel: Another Note on Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake”

amudDavidLeesCorbis476

Woody Allen’s Zelig traces the path of a character (of the same name) that, Irving Howe suggests (in one segment of Allen’s film), is based on the passionate drive of American Jews in the early 20th century to assimilate into American society.  Zelig, to be sure, is a schlemiel. But he is what I would call a post-historical-American schlemiel.  His Jewishness or his past is not his primary feature; his drive to assimilate is.  To assimilate, Jews – like many immigrant groups fresh to America – would act “as if” they were not Jews.  Instead, many Jews would act as if they were Americans. The act of hiding Jewishness and “passing” is nothing new.  Sander Gilman and Steven Aschheim, amongst other scholars, have drawn up historical documents from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries to show how prevalent this was in Europe.   In a book entitled Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Gilman dedicates a chapter to Jews who acted as if they were German but who ultimately failed to be accepted.  He entitled this chapter “Living Schlemiels.”  Indeed, for Gilman, a “living schlemiel” is a person who tries his utmost to be accepted but in reality cannot.  In Allen’s film, Zelig is accepted wherever he goes, but, in contrast, many of the “living schlemiels” that Gilman discusses were not.   They learned the hard way.  Even though Woody Allen’s Zelig suggests that assimilation is something all American’s celebrate and that it doesn’t matter whether Zelig is Jewish since, ultimately, he is the everyman (a man, literally, of all occasions), Bernard Malamud suggests that a Jew can still try to pass and fail.

But there is more to the story.  In the “Lady of the Lake,” Bernard Malamud, shows us that what will (or perhaps should) trip a Jew up when he or she tries to pass is history.  To be sure, it is the memory of the Holocaust.  This is a lesson that Allen doesn’t take into consideration in Zelig since, quite simply, Zelig seems to have no history.  He just happens to live in the Jazz Era.  Malamud, in contrast, suggests we situate the schlemiel after the Holocaust. For Malamud, the post-Holocaust-American-schlemiel learns a lesson about what it means to be Jewish.

In the last blog entry, I introduced and discussed the basic plot of Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake.”  As I noted, Henry Levin changes his name (and identity) to Henry R. Freeman.  After receiving in an inheritance, he leaves for Europe in pursuit of Romance. As a New York Jew, Romance is a European and a non-Jewish experience since Romance is not a central trope of Judaism. (In fact, as Daniel Boyarin points out in his book Unheroic Conduct, humility, hard work, and diligent study are the greatest traits, not pride, power, and masculinity, which go hand-in-hand with Romance and what he calls, following a medieval tradition, “Goyim Naches”).

When he arrives in Europe, he experiences beauty and mystery.  He is taken into what the theologian Will Herberg, in his book Judaism and Modern Man, thinks is antithetical to a tradition that eschews mystical fusion and forgetfulness.  When he meets a mysterious woman named Isabella, he does his utmost to win her over. But, as I pointed out in the last blog, she seems to see through his ruse when she asks him, immediately upon meeting him, if he is Jewish.

He denies his Jewishness and hides his secret.  But right when he is about to kiss her, he is accosted by a tour guide who likes like a “sad clown” and carries a “rapier.”  This is a key interruption since he hits Freeman in the crotch and says that what he is doing is a “transgression.” To be sure, what makes the story meaningful are these interruptions since they, apparently, disclose a tension between the Jew and the non-Jew.  To be truly free, Freeman believes that he must eliminate the tension.  He cannot stand being a “stranger” any longer.  And this incident “embarrasses” him.

This prompts Freeman to think about how different her history is from his:

And she was different too….Not only in her looks and background, but of course different as regards past…Her past he could see boiling in her all the way back to knights of old, and then some; his own history was something else again, but men were malleable, and he wasn’t afraid of attempting to create daring combinations: Isabella and Henry Freedman. (102)

As one can see from this passage, he respects her history and tradition and sees it “boiling in her all the way back to knights of old.”  It is a stable history that lives on and, apparently, doesn’t change too much.  As for his own history, he sees it as something that is “malleable.”  He doesn’t wish to keep it so much as change it and make a new, “daring combination.”  This is his main thought.  He will conceal his Jewishness to accomplish this experiment of sorts.

After sending a letter requesting to see her again, he is ecstatic to see that she wishes the same.  But before he goes, he is told that her family is known for “trickery.”  Following this, the theme of concealment and trickery comes more and more to the fore.

To be sure, Freeman, though exuberant and confident that he will trick her, sees more and more signs that something is amiss.  When he arrives on the island where she lives, she tells him that all of the paintings that he sees on the walls are copies (109) and this “slightly depresses him.”  This suggests that he wants something original and sees himself as a “copy” of sorts; after all, he is trying to copy a gentile.

Immediately after feeling this disappointment, he notices an image of a leper that catches his attention.  Freeman asks why the leper “deserved his fate?” Isabella’s answer hits at the main theme: “He falsely said he could fly”(110).  In response, Freeman asks, quizzically, “And for that you go to hell?”  She, however, doesn’t reply.  To be sure, she leaves him to ruminate on the lie.  Did Freeman also claim he could fly when, in fact, he couldn’t?  In other words, was Freeman really free?

What follows is a series of scenes that show Freeman on the edge wondering whether or not he should tell her the truth; that he is a Jew.  His excitement about her is interrupted by the lie he has kept to himself about his identity.  All of this annunciated by one word: “no”:

If Isabella loved him, as he now felt she did or would before long; with the strength of this love they would conquer problems as they arose….No, the worry that troubled him most was the lie he had told her, that he wasn’t a Jew.  He could, of course, confess, say she knew Levin, not Freeman, man of adventure, but that might ruin all, since it was quite clear she wanted nothing to do with a Jew, or why, at first sight, had she asked so searching a question? (112)

This worry and his interpretation of her earlier question stay with him to the very end of the story.  But it all begins to break down when, traveling into the alps, she asks Freeman whether the peaks “those seven – look like a Menorah?”

Hearing this, he thinks that she has called his bluff.  He is in shock, but he tries his utmost to cover it up, thinking he will pass a test:

“Like a what?” Freeman politely inquired. He had a sudden frightening remembrance of her seeing him naked as he came out of the lake and felt constrained to tell her that circumcision was de rigueur in stateside hospitals; but he didn’t’ dare.  She may not have noticed.  (115)

Following this, he narrowly averts questions regarding Jewishness. However, at this point, she reveals to him that she has tricked him: she is not nobility, she doesn’t come from a noble line; rather, she is the daughter of a caretaker.  The island that Freeman went to was not owned by her family.

After saying this, she was hoping he too would confess to some kind of trick.  However, Freeman still insists on being quiet about his Jewish identity:

“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. He wanted to say more but warned himself not to.”

In response she says, “That’s what I was afraid of.”  Her reply is odd; however, he doesn’t notice, all he can think about is how Italian she looks: “She was a natural-born queen, whether by del Dongo or any other name. So she lied to him, but so had he to her”(116).  However, he is avoiding the one fact: he didn’t tell her the truth.

To be sure, he only sees her as an Italian he can have a romance and a “future” with. When, near the end of the story, he sees her all in white, he imagines her as his bride.  He fails to notice, however, that she is now more hesitant toward him than ever.

In the final scene he kisses her, but she “whispers Goodbye” to him.  In response he says, “To whom goodbye?…I have come to marry you”(117).  Upon hearing this, she asks, once again, the question that pains him the most: “Are you a Jew?”

Although his mind tells him not to lie, he overcomes this and says: “How many no’s make never?  Why do you persist with such foolish questions?”

Her reply discloses the fact that Freeman’s denial of Jewishness – in order to experience romance and start a “new life” – was his downfall:

“Because I hoped you were.”

Malamud then brings the clincher. When she opens up her top, he sees, written on her breasts, “a bluish line of distorted numbers.”  In other words, she is a survivor of the concentration camps who had been marked by the Nazis for extermination.  She cannot deny her Jewish identity and, in fact, was looking to marry a Jew and thought that Freeman was, in fact, a Levin:

“I can’t marry you. We are Jews.  My past is meaningful to me.  I treasure what I suffered for.”

As she goes away, he says that he is really Jewish and grasps at her breasts.  She disappears and he feels as if he is grasping at a “moonlit stone” (a “lady of the lake”).  In other words, he was duped.  He is a schlemiel, in this scenario, because he lets his freedom get the best of him.  Malamud’s lesson is that Levin brought his bad luck on through his masquerade.  At the end of the story, we learn that Levin is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel like Zelig.

To be sure, Malamud would like to let his readers know that there is no reward for the Zelig-like denial of history and Jewish identity.  The Jew, for him, is not a freeman.  The post-Holocaust-American Jew is bound by history, suffering, and memory.  But, as the story notes, the European Jew has a better understanding of this while the American Jew doesn’t.  For Malamud the American-Jew is a schlemiel who is more interested in an improvised, free, and new life than a historical one.   He is, as Hannah Arendt would say, the “lord of dreams.”  But these dreams, in this story, are the dreams of someone who cares more for freedom and romance than history and Jewish identity.

The Schlemiel of Wall Street: A Review of Martin Scorsese’s Latest Film

images-1

When I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), I knew there would be comic elements.  But I had no idea that Martin Scorsese would draw on and reinterpret the schlemiel by way of the plot and main characters of this film.   To be sure, all of the critics of the film thus far have noted that this film is a quasi-critique of capitalism.  And, in the end, the tragic overshadows the comic.  That’s obvious.  But what’s more interesting is how Scorsese pulls it off; namely, by way of drawing the viewer in through a large doses of schlemiel comedy.  (And, let’s be clear here.  Scorcese is not recognized for the comic element in his films; on the contrary, his use of humor is rarely foregrounded as it is in this film.)

Indeed, it seems Scorsese has done his homework on the schlemiel and schlemiel comedy.  Perhaps he has done this through viewing the films of Woody Allen and Judd Apatow.   (Before I go into detail about how the schlemiel works in this film, I’d like to foreground the links to Woody Allen.)

Woody Allen, to be sure, is one of the greatest popularizers of the schlemiel in American film.  Films such as Bananas, Take the Money and Run, or Annie Hall – to name just a few – are prime examples.  Although their work differs in so many ways – and you would be hard put to find a schlemiel in a Scorsese film – Martin Scorsese’s interest in Woody Allen’s work is not a secret.

They directed the film New York Stories together and have known of each others work for decades. But they differ in many ways.  In this film, for instance, there are a few.  Here is a clip of Allen and Scorsese talking about their differing views of New York in New York Stories (Scorsese differentiates his view on New York, through the films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, to Allen’s, in Manhattan.)

In a telling interview-slash-hosted-discussion by The New York Times in 1997 entitled “The Two Hollywoods,” Lynn Hirshberg begins by noting that they “hardly know each other” but are “contemporaries.”  Her interview is great because it shows the dynamic between the two and, at least in the beginning, shows us their shared interest in comedy.

Near the end of the discussion, Allen and Scorsese reflect on the failed (schlemiel) moments in their comedy.  Scorsese notes that The King of Comedy, his big attempt at working through the comic genre, was adored by the critics but, at the same time, it was one of his biggest failures.  Allen, in contrast, notes that he would rather not pay attention to the success or failure of his films.  He notes that he diminishes his sense of failure by way of throwing himself into the film.

The theme and responses to failure in this discussion are interesting because Allen and Scorsese address the core of the schlemiel character and schlemiel comedy by way of their perspectives as filmmakers: failure.

But one of the most interesting moments in the discussion deals with the question of whether or not they like watching their films after they are made.  Scorsese says he cannot see his films ever again after they are made because he will get overly emotional while Allen says he has a hard time seeing his films because he will always think of them as not good enough and in need of improvement.

What I find so interesting about this reflection on past films is the fact that though Scorsese may not look at his films again he obviously thinks about how to improve upon his past film ventures.  On this note, I think his comment on The King of Comedy is telling.   As he notes, the film critics may have liked it (and this pleases him) but it failed at the box office.  This is where The Wolf of Wall Street comes to the fore.  To be sure, this film is the only other major film since The King of Comedy that utilizes the comic element in such a major way.

Now let’s turn to The Wolf of Wall Street and its uses of the schlemiel.

I’d like to start by way of definition.  Hannah Arendt, in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” notes, right off the bat, that “innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel.”  And that it is out of “such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born”(278, The Jewish Writings).    The schlemiel, for Arendt, is an outsider who, in his or her innocence, doesn’t fit into society.  They are simpletons who aren’t cultured, yet these simpletons speak to the people.  Their comedy inheres in the fact that they are blind to certain cultural norms and live in their dreams.

In her line of schlemiels, Arendt includes the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the characters of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Rahel Varnhagen, the awkward host of a German Salon in the 19th century, and Charlie Chaplin (who she calls “the little Yid”).    Some are “living schlemiels” (as Sander Gilman might say) others are fictional.  Regardless, Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse see the schlemiel as posting a challenge to either the “political and philosophical status quo” (Ruth Wisse) or to the “political status quo” (Hannah Arendt).   The schlemiel, as the innocent lord of dreams, is also a guard against the realization that, in this or that dominant society, one (historically, the Jew) is a loser.  As the wisdom goes, it’s better to live in dreams and innocence than in a horrible situation.

What I found so fascinating about Scorsese’s film is that he turns this on its head since the schlemiels in this film – which include Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and Jordon’s group of friends (I didn’t include Jordan Bellfort – played by Leonard DiCaprio – because he goes in and out of being a schlemiel throughout the film). What makes them all schlemiels is not simply the fact that they are innocent dreamers but the fact that they all deal drugs, do drugs, and are outsiders in the 80s and 90s.    They don’t know how to make a normal living and live a normal life. In Hannah Arendt’s sense, they are pariahs.

However, the twist is that even after they make money and become successes, they still remain schlemiels.  This is a twist because, often times, when a schlemiel becomes a success (say, in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, too name only two of many films where Allen employs this formula), they become a “man.”  Indeed, in The Wolf on Wall Street, drugs and endless parties celebrating the accumulation of exorbitant wealth illustrate a new way of viewing the schlemiel – one, to be sure, I (a schlemiel theorist who runs a blog on the schlemiel and publishes on this character) have never seen.

To be sure, Scorsese is using the schlemiel to show how innocence can go wrong when it is combined with drugs and wealth.  Indeed, the first time we see Jonah Hill, who plays the schlemiel in the majority of the films he stars in, he and DiCaprio have a comic-schlemiel-like dialogue which ends behind the restaurant, smoking crack.

Although the combination of drugs and the schlemiel can be seen in many films today – such as Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and Super Bad – these moments are divorced from anything consequential.

The innocent drug use of marijuana by Apatow’s characters is laughable.  But it is not disturbing as it is in Scorsese’s film because, as we all know from recent history, which is alluded to throughout the film, the drug use (of qualudes, crack, and cocaine) of Scorcese’s schlemiels enables them or is based on the exploitation of people and manipulating the market.

Throughout the film, I noticed many people laughing (myself included) yet the laughter was mixed up with moments of disgust.  What I like about Scorsese’s tact, here, is that he draws viewers in; but once they are in, he teaches them a lesson and subjects us to an emotional rollercoaster.

Watching this film, I felt as if he was offering a corrective to all of Apatow’s films – on the one hand – and making a nod to Allen’s recent Blue Jasmine – on the other.   But what Scorsese does here is something Allen didn’t do in Blue Jasmine; namely, use schlemiels to bring us to the same conclusion about our era and its overly corrupt relationship with wealth.

I find it ironic that Scorsese and not Allen did this; after all, Allen has made use of the schlemiel throughout his career.  Nonetheless, what I find in Scorsese is a new way of viewing this character, one which makes it relevant in ways that Judd Apatow or even Woody Allen cannot (or doesn’t want to do; as I argue in two recent book essays about Allen).   In lieu of this, I would say that the name of the film is wholly ironic.  I wouldn’t say he is a “wolf” on Wall Street so much as a schlemiel in wolf’s clothing.  In the end, however, we see the schlemiel turn into a wolf when the drugs and the wealth are taken away.  But, by then, it’s too late.

Dancing Fools – Take 1

images-6

Whenever I see pop singers who dance in tandem with choreographed dancers, I often cringe.  Synchronized dancing is “serious.”  Even though it is “fun,” it often lacks the comic touch.  To be sure, the only kind of dancing I like to watch, if it is to be worth my viewing time, must be comic.   Although this is my present view, I didn’t arrive at it overnight.

When I was growing up, I loved to dance.  And my brother and I would often dance in front of the TV to Michael Jackson, Soul Train, and, yes, John Travolta.  I loved Grease and Saturday Night Fever.

I also liked MAD magazine.  So when I first saw the issue parodying John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever, I was introduced to a new type of dancer: the dancing fool.   Alfred E. Newman as John Travolta.   This parody of a serious dance film also caught on at Sesame Street.

images-7

Although this blipped on the screen of my youth, the shock didn’t settle in until I was in Junior High.  When I first heard Frank Zappa’s “Dancing Fool,” it struck me how powerful a parody of serious disco could be.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p_Yw2T3YUI

This song altered how I looked at music and dance.   I moved my body differently.  And this made me rethink the Disco Genre that I so loved as a child.  I wanted to alter it and I changed my moves to something more “funky.”   One of the things I  noticed, in dancing in a “funky” and comical way, was that I was happier and my friends around me were happier when I danced in a comic fashion.   I felt some kind of liberation form main-stream culture in this kind of musical parody.

In university, I had a group of friends that loved to play with movement and we would have dance parties.  Many of my friends were from NYC and they introduced me to a new movement that was brewing. They showed me a new way of parodying disco culture that  had a Jewish and urban flavor.   Out of this urban cultural movement emerged projects like Heeb Magazine, Jewcy, and Reboot.  It produced books like Bar-Mitzvah Disco, Cool Jew, and projects like MODIYA at NYU (which looked to chronicle it).  These magazines, books, and websites were looking for a new way of making Jewishness “cool” and ironic.

The “unlikely hero” of this endeavor is the dancing fool.

This, for me, had a lot of resonance because the dancing fool is not simply a figure that is novel to this new movement; it is also found in the secular culture and even in Hasidic culture.  There is something deeply spiritual and deeply secular about dancing like a fool – yet, in such a way as to open up new ways of moving.

We see this at work in Woody Allen’s Zelig where a schlemiel named Zelig spurs a new movement based on his ability to change at the drop of a dime.  The song which expresses this: “The Chamelon.”

I want to end this blog entry with a clip from Betty Boop entitled “Betty Boop and the Dancing Fool.”  This, I think, is one of the main sources that Allen draws on.  It epitomizes a time of great change in America in the early 20th century, and it brings out how some of this frenetic and revolutionary energy was wrapped up with a new medium: animation and film.   There was an animism at work that had something comical, so to speak, built in to it.  Perhaps what made it so comical was the fact that movement – which has no norm or else breaks with the norm – is comical.  And this kind of energy moves like a foolish electric current that plays with and transforms different cultural trends.

Through this kind of animation a new kind of dance and a new kind of dancer emerged.   And although much of this had to do with a medium, we cannot ignore the fact that that medium was created and advanced by many Jews.  In this medium, many things can be parodied, but what remains throughout is movement, animation. This came to the fore for me when I met my first dancing fool through MAD magazine.  He had the body of John Travolta but the face of Alfred E. Newman. The comic face displaces the serious body yet, in the end, what remains?

…the dancing fool..

To be continued….

Jewish Comedy and Theft

DownloadedFile-2

Many postmodern writers incorporate the texts of other writers within their own texts, and oftentimes they don’t cite them.  This practice has been called pla(y)giarism by Lance Olsen, Kathy Acker, and others.    These writers take great honor in the fact that they “steal” and retool texts.  One of my favorite theft-texts is Kathy Acker’s Don QuixoteIf anyone were to read this text, one would see that she is not telling the same story as Cervantes.  In fact, the novel she writes plays more or less on the structure of Cervantes’ novel (namely the relationship between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote).  But in her novel, the characters accompany each other in transgressive sexual exploits.  The exploits bring Acker’s Don Quixote to the edge of madness as they go outside of the sexual “norm” into uncharted territory.  That said, Acker, in this novel and in many others, pla(y)giarises and oftentimes has characters who, as in many a Jean Genet novel, steal, murder, and rape.

Although I have given thought to novelists or fictional characters who “steal,” in a fictional or authorial sense, I never gave much thought to authors who were actually thieves and how such thievery could aid their work as novelists.  I recently came across this idea in Lawrence Epstein’s book, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America.   But Epstein uses theft vis-à-vis Jewish comedians, not writers.    He provides evidence that many Jewish comedians were thieves (or had aspects of thievery) and suggests that this had influenced their comedy in some way.  What makes his suggestion interesting is what it brings out about the American dream from an immigrant’s perspective.

Epstein notes that in the Lower East Side, Jews saw an abundance of goods and foods in the streets: a reality that had not experienced in Eastern Europe:

Deprived for so long of the certainty that there would be food for the next meal, Jews embraced the abundance of food in the Golden Land.  Mothers, especially, urged their children to eat.  Food was a living symbol of the Jewish drive for survival.  The aroma of a Shabbes meal sustained many with its rich assurances and its heady promises of even greater success. (13)

But in the midst of all this abundance, there was a lot of poverty.   And although there was such poverty, Jews knew that, in the last resort, they could always find food or a loan.  Espstein calls this “family in a broader sense.”   Nonetheless, Epstein tells us that many Jews would still steal.  And many of them became comedians:

Many of the young immigrants were young thieves.  George Burns always claimed that he took his name from the Burns Brothers coal yard.  He and his brother would steal the coal, and the neighbors would shout: “There go the Burns brothers.”…. He also claimed that he had gone to the Automat with a sister’s hairpin, stood by the stew, and after someone bought the stew, Burns slipped in the hairpin, preventing the door from closing. (16)

And the list goes on:

Phil Silvers stole gum from pushcarts and sold stolen pipe.   Fanny Brice stole gum from her mother’s store and then began shoplifting until she was caught.  Eddie Cantor stole from pushcarts.  At thirteen, he stole a purse.  Burt Lahr stole form local stores and resold the goods at an open market on Saturday mornings. (16)

Epstein notes that “Groucho Marx didn’t exactly steal,” but his mother knew that Marx took the change when he got bread for her.  She let this happen, says Epstein, because “she thought it showed initiative.”  He notes that although they stopped stealing at an early age, it “had an effect.”  According to Epstein “the antiauthoritarian nature of such thievery helped to make them feel apart not only from the rules of society but also from their own Jewish culture and sometimes, even, their Jewish families”(16).

Besides setting them apart from society, Epstein claims that we can find “a sort of assertion” and “transgression” in these acts, which “would in subtle ways influence the Jewish comic voice.”   Following this, Epstein also notes how – when they were children – many Jewish comedians would also skip school.

Epstein is basically claiming that the audacity of Jewish comedians is drawn – in some way – from their “deviant” past.  This is an interesting thesis, but as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Epstein also suggests that the audacity to question also has a “theological” basis since Jews are taught to question (from the Torah and the Talmud).    In addition to this, Epstein also suggests that the Yiddish language has many rude and audacious expressions.

Regardless of the reasons Epstein brings to explain the audacity of Jewish comedy, I find the fact that he saw thievery as a major factor worthy of more thought.  But I do so not simply in the genetic sense (that comedians are audacious because they were once thieves).  I think it is thought-worthy because the relationship of theft to comedy can be read in a number of different ways.

I’ll cite just one.  One interesting way of looking into theft is in terms of smuggling things that are illegal and then brandishing these things.  In Jewish comedy, we often find that a joke is a way of smuggling in views and perspectives.  The very structure of the joke is based on this.  The first part often says something authoritative, while the second part of the joke smuggles something that defuses the authoritative nature of the first part of the joke.  In a sense, it steals the authority away from the first part of the joke and brandishes this theft in plain view.

What’s left in the wake of this is, more or less, an empty shell: something is stolen.  We see this, for instance, in this joke by Woody Allen: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.”

What this joke does is more or less secularize the theological by juxtaposing it with the historical.  In a way, this is a theft.  And although Allen wasn’t a thief when he was a child, at the very least he was exposed to a theft effected by history and radical change.

In relation to this note, Epstein is correct in noting that Jewish humor was not the main staple of religious Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement.  Rather, it was the product of  a theft, so to speak, the theft of the religious life that was affected by the wave of secularism, violence, and massive migration to America.  By way of all these factors, the Jews lost something.  Yet, at the same time, they also gained something: humor.  To be sure, humor helps to deal with this loss and it also presents something in its wake.  And, more importantly, as Allen shows and as Epstein suggests, humor is best when it “steals the rug” from underneath things that have too much authority.   (However, Ruth Wisse rightly associates this kind of humor with the tension between hope and skepticism as it suspends the authority without completely negating it.  However, in her view, sarcasm – extreme irony – makes a total theft and destroys its “target.”)   In the wake of such a theft we may realize that “the emperor has no clothes.”

Insecure Immigrants, Americans, and Jewish Comedians

DownloadedFile

Is there a unique relationship between America and Jewish comedy?  And is the immigrant experience the only source of Jewish culture, comedy, and literature?  Irving Howe held that the immigrant experience was the high point of Jewish culture and literature.  And he feared that as the Jewish immigrant experience faded into the past and Jews assimilated, the basis for Jewish fiction, humor, culture, and identity would also disappear.

But as I have pointed out in my blog entries on Gary Shteyngart, this is an issue that concerns us today.  What I found in Gary Shteyngart is something that Lawrence Epstein – in his book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America – also finds in the Immigrant experience; namely, the “insecure immigrant” who lives within the uncomfortable place between being an outsider and wanting to be an insider.

What interests me most about Epstein’s argument is 1) his description of this insecurity and 2) the proof he brings to the fore when he argues that Jewish immigrants to America, who happened to become famous comedians, managed this anxiety.  According to Epstein, Jews drew on their own history, language, and optimism to make a unique contribution to American culture and, in the process, created a new kind of Jewish identity that could only have been devised by Eastern European Jews who were turning to comedy rather than religion for security.  But this identity didn’t come out of a vacuum: Jewish humor evokes, as the title of his book suggests, a “haunted smile.”   Insecure immigrants-who-became-comedians were not just fighting with the insecurity of being an immigrant or with a religion that no longer seemed to grant security; they were fleeing a horrible and impoverished life.  And America motivated them, in Epstein’s view, to address all of these anxieties and create something new.

At the outset of this book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, Lawrence Epstein cites the New York Times columnist Frank Rich who states that the “very basis of American history was that insecure immigrants came to settle that land.”  Adding to this, Epstein notes that the Jews were the “most insecure” and could “serve as a symbol for Americans as they could for no other people.”

Epstein marks out why, historically, Jews were unique.  Epstein thinks that the great generation of Jewish comics emerged from the immigration at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  During that time, the largest number of immigrants came from Eastern Europe (at that time the majority of the world Jewry lived in Eastern Europe and Russia; but that changed with immigration and history):

In 1880, there were 80,000 Jews living in New York. By 1910, that number swelled to 1,250,000.   By one estimate, a typical block consisted of 2,781 people – and no bathtubs. (11)

This wave of immigration emerged out of an insecurity that developed out of thwarted hopes and the horrors of history.  Jews had, since the 18th century, been forced to live in the Pale of Settlement.  Jews were often at odds with the Russians.  And although the Haskalah movement (The Jewish Enlightenment) made its way from central Europe to Eastern Europe and gave Enlightened Jews hope that Russia would one day become a democracy, the laws against Jews and forced conscriptions flattened the optimism of many.  But during the time of Czar Alexander II of Russia, there was a small window of hope (of a few decades in the middle of the 19th century) when Jews were allowed to leave the Pale of Settlement for Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Jews were allowed to enter universities and take on typical professions.  This prompted many Enlightened Jews to imagine that they had finally become equals.

But this was short lived.   Alexander II was assassinated and Jews were blamed and this led to Pogroms and violence against the Jews.  His plan was to solve Russia’s “Jewish problem”:

One third would emigrate, one third would be converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and one third would starve to death. (6)

Following this, Jews were killed in mass during several different pogroms and were forced to give their children over for military conscription.  In the midst of this horror, America offered some form of hope.   Epstein describes the trip across the Atlantic in detail so as to show how difficult it was and how Jewish immigrants were willing to go through all of these difficulties in order to live a better life.

This desire met with an America that was looking for a way to deal with “changes in American society itself.”  Epstein makes the case that Jews used their ingenuity to address American anxieties about these changes:

Searching for a way to deal with the emerging anxieties of the modern age, America turned to the Jews, the masters of handling history’s troubles.  Jewish humor, so useful in helping generations of anxious Jews, was called to action to serve the similar needs of the wider American community.   An immigrant generation found in the Jews a people repeatedly practiced in starting over again in a new place while feeling marginal and scared.  (xii)

Epstein’s reading suggests that Americans and Jews were, at this time of history, a good fit since both were “insecure.”  And what Jews had to offer to a fledgling America (which lacked the history of Europe and its internal coping mechanisms) was a humorous means of dealing with modernity and radical historical change.

Epstein’s account of what Jews bring to this situation – vis-à-vis their history – is worth noting.  He points out that “they drew on their heritage in ways they didn’t always understand”(xiii).  And this act was transformational: “As they used that heritage to find ways to express truths about America, they transformed American culture, making Jews and Jewishness acceptable, even enviable”(xiii).

The greatest feature that Jews can draw from their history is their sense of anxiety that is the product of living on the margins of history: “Jewish comedians could sense majority anxieties early and transform them into humor, giving these anxieties a shape and a name as well as a way to cope”(xiii).

In this situation, Epstein argues that the schlemiel fit perfectly: “One of the most famous Jewish comic types is the schlemiel, a clumsy, maladjusted, hard-luck loser”(xv).  The schlemiel addresses these majority anxieties.  But instead of citing the immigrant comedians of the early 20th century as an example, Epstein turns to Woody Allen:

Sometimes, as in the classical schlemiels created by Woody Allen, this poor character is profoundly neurotic,  His one liners reflect negative emotions (When we played softball, I’d steal second, then feel guilty and go back”) or a sense of being trapped by unfeeling institutions (“I went to a school for emotional disturbed teachers”). (xv)

Epstein says that his body and demeanor were a “standing sight gag” and that his “distinctive New York voice added the effect as he told his audience the story.”  The story he cites is the “moose joke.”

Following this, Epstein turns to the Marx Brothers and describes each of them in detail.  He contrasts them to Allen by noting that they – together – “created a different comic type, the free soul who doesn’t so much criticize all social mores as mock and ignore them.”   Epstein names a few other “types” (that range from the “fool” (Ed Wynn and Rodney Dangerfield), the “observer” (Jerry Seinfeld), and the Social Critic (Lenny Bruce), but ends on the note that all of these types emerge out of a history and culture that is “extraordinarily verbal”:

Words form the center of study, of prayer, and of entertainment. The emphasis of language and on the argumentative patterns of Talmudic reasoning provided Jews with a style of thinking.  (xviii)

And he even goes so far as to say Jewish comedy also emerges out of a “theology” in which Jews were “permitted, even encouraged to question.”  This includes the challenges made to God we find in the Torah, the Talmud, and the Hasidic tradition.  This challenge to authority is the “hallmark of Jewish humor.”  And “Jewish comedians were notable in their willingness to test their audiences’ sense of which subjects and words were acceptable”(xviii).

Taken together, Epstein argues that these aspects of Jewish history were of great interest to the insecure American majority of the post-Civil War and rapidly industrializing America of the early 20th century.  Jewish comedians, who emerged out of the uncomfortable space of immigration, were of interest as they gave Americans new ways of dealing with radical historical change.  And this way became the basis for Jewish-American identity.

Epstein goes so far as to say that Jewish-American comedy offered a new kind of secular Jewish identity that displaced the security offered by religion.  In America, Jews could be secure with their insecurity and use it as a basis of identity.  As a recent Pew Poll shows, Jewish comedy is still a major basis for Jewish identity.

But after pondering Epstein’s thesis which he makes at the outset of his book, I wonder how, historically, it is the case that the comic American-immigrant fiction of Gary Shteyngart is so popular.   Is it because America is and will always remain a country that can learn from “insecure immigrants”?  Will America always be insecure and in need of new ways of coping with crisis?  And will comedy always be in great demand for this very reason?  Epstein seems to suggest that this is so…

If that is the case, the major question for schlemiel-in-theory is to figure out what the every changing basis for “insecurity” is and how comedy comes to address it.   But is it the case that, as Daniel Itzkovitz in his essay “They are All Jews” (in You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern Culture) claims, that Jewish comedy has become so common that it is indistinguishable from American comedy?  And what might this imply about the Jewish contribution to American comedy?  Insecurity may remain in America, but are Jews still really insecure about being Jews in America?  Are comic Jewish-Immigrant writers like Gary Shteyngart an exception?  And is Larry David’s comedy a product of his New York Jewishness which is out of place in Hollywood?  Is he an inter-American immigrant like Woody Allen was in Annie Hall (1976) when he went off for Hollywood at the end of the film and went back with his tail between his legs?

A Curious Arc: On the “Partial” Transformation of Gary Shteyngart’s Vladmir – Part II

images-2

In the beginning of an extraordinary piece of fiction entitled “A Heroic Death,” the 19th century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire noted that fools have a curious way of getting themselves in trouble.  For Baudelaire, the reason for this has to do with the fact that fools don’t often think about the consequences of their actions.  They are most likely more interested in a feeling, dream, or imagining that goes hand-in-hand with an intriguing action.  Baudelaire’s observation resonates well with what happens to Vladmir in The Russian Debutante’s Notebook.   Like Baudelaire’s fool, Vladmir dreams a lot about and his situation and, as a result of these dreams, he gets thrown into a crisis.  But unlike many fools who go on in their foolishness despite what happens to them, Vladmir goes through what I call a “partial transformation.”

In yesterday’s blog entry, I cited the passage where the narrator describes the changing dreams of Vladmir.  All of them, taken together, form a “curious arc”:

All in all, Vladmir’s American dreams formed a curious arc.  During adolescence he dreamed of acceptance. In his brief days at college, he dreamed of love.  After college, he dreamed a rather improbable dialectic of love and acceptance.  And now, with love and acceptance finally in the bag, he dreamed of money. What fresh tortures would await him next? (116)

As one can see, Vladmir’s newest dream about money is what gets him in trouble.  This is foreshadowed by the question at the end of the passage: “What fresh tortures would await him next?”

This passage is the preface to Vladmir’s meeting with Rybakov, his Serbian Bodyguard, and the criminal underlings of Rybakov’s son (“The Groundhog”).  After receiving “gifts” from the “groundhog” (which includes “fifty cartons of Dunhill cigarettes” and a “Rolex”) and some money from Rybakov, Vladmir’s wants more.  And, as I noted in yesterday’s blog, he goes to Baobab.

The narrator provides a sketch of Baobab which gives the reader the impression that he doesn’t properly think through things; he’s a schlemiel.  Nonetheless, Vladmir, in his desperation for money, which he can use to pay off his credit card debt and the rent he owes to his ex-girlfriend Challah, he takes Baobab’s tip.

The tip requires Vladmir to go down to Miami and pose as the son of a man named Jordi.  The masquerade is meant to fool a college admissions officer into granting Jordi’s son admission into the college; apparently, the son’s grades and intelligence are the problem and Vladmir is the solution.  When Vladmir expresses worry that he may get caught, Baobab assures him:

“The place is so gargantuan the interviewer will never see the kid again.  Trust me, it’s foolproof, and I don’t even think it’s terribly illegal.  Impersonating a high school kid: not exactly the crime of the century, just a lame thing to do.  But for twenty thousand…”(139)

When Vladmir arrives in Florida, he is picked up by Jordi who is driving a “peach Caddy.”  When we first meet Jordi, we see a man of Spanish (Catalan) descent who “neither sounded nor resembled the drug dealer out of central casting, which Vladmir was expecting with some dread”(141).  To be sure, Vladmir feels relieved by this appearance and trusts Jordy who looks like a “middle-aged Jew with a textile business.”  In other words, Vladmir feels “as if” Jordy is a fellow Jew although he is not.   This imagining takes on greater power the more time he spends with Jordi.

Strangely enough, Vladmir finds nothing peculiar when Jordi tells him that plans have changed:  “My secretary screwed up our reservations, the cow,” he said. “Would you mind splitting the room with me”(144).  Jokingly, Jordi says that it will be like a “slumber party.”  In the innocent and trusting manner of a schlemiel, Vladmir gets excited about the “slumber party.”

Following this, Jordi and Vladmir start drinking.  Jordi asks Vladmir to shave off his goatee and to go outside and get a tan (so as to look more like his son).  Vladmir does so and starts seeing himself as other (namely, as a man-child).  While he is out tanning, he remembers his mother and his childhood.  He starts crying.  At this point, he is at the height of vulnerability.  After his crying, tanning, and drinking, he returns to the hotel room to find Jordi sprawled out on the bed “watching a show about a modeling agency, grunting along as the feeble bon mots flew and negligees slithered on the ground”(148).

This scene becomes more and more sexualized and Vladmir, in his innocence, doesn’t “get it.”  After a day of heavy drinking, Vladmir starts feeling the alcohol:

The sun had long since disappeared when Vladmir felt the full giddy nausea of champagne drunkenness and ordered himself to stop.  He sat down hard on his bed near the balcony and felt it sway a little in all directions.  Something was askew, and it wasn’t just the physical universe reeling from booze. (150)

He can’t quite put his finger on it.  But Jordi helps him out when he says, flat out:

“Hey, correct me if I am wrong,” Jordi said, swinging his feet between the two beds, his trunks tight with the outline of his shaft, twisted and constrained by the elastic, “but you fooled around with Baobab before, right?  I mean, you’ve been with other boys.”(151)

The narrator’s description of Vladmir’s vision and astonishment is akin to a primal scene of horror.  This scene, I aver, marks a major turning point in the novel and in Vladmir’s life.  From this point, Vladmir takes a leap and transforms from a schlemiel into a (partial) “man” on the run.

Vladmir followed the single horrific spot of wetness along the inseam of Jordi’s trunks.  “Who, us? He said, Jumping off the bed, so unsure of the fact that he had spoken the he repeated himself. “Who, us?” (151)

The modulation of “Who, us” – repetitively -works on several levels and evinces a loss of identity and meaning.  Following this moment of loss, Vladmir insists that he is not interested; and when Jordi approaches him and grabs him, he punches him in the face.  This punch transforms him and is the very thing that will send him out of the country and back to Eastern Europe.  Before reflecting on it, the narrator recalls a memory Vladmir has of Fran, about how she was going “to make him into a human being, an indigenous citizen of the world”(152).  This reflection prior to his reflection on the punch makes it explicit that the narrator equates this punch with becoming a “human being” a “citizen of the world.”  The irony, however, is that one doesn’t become a “human being” by virtue of being a gentle cosmopolitan so much as by way of being a “man” who defends himself when being raped:

He had never hit a person before in his life, or heard the crunch of knuckle bone ramming cartilage…Vladmir ran. (153)

To emphasize the shift from the life of a schlemiel to the life of a man on the run, the narrator gives detailed descriptions of Vladmir’s passionate flight from Jordi, the drug dealer.  The “fear gland” kicks in and takes over.   And the story starts shifting into the masculine mode.  To enunciate this change and make it explicit, the following chapter (chapter 16) is entitled “Getting in Wrong” and the first words, “Everything had changed,” mark the transformation I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry.

To bring this into relief, the narrator makes something of a reading of the schlemiel equating Vladmir-as-Schlemiel with Vladmir-as-Victim:

Everything had changed. His body had been handled by a man whose intent was to hurt….How meager the insults of his childhood by comparison to what had just happened.  All the miserable years of adolescence, the daily drubbing at the hands of parents and peers, had been no more than a dress rehearsal; all those years, it turned out, young Vladmir had been preparing himself for victimhood.  (155)

Although this seems to be a death-toll for the schlemiel and the beginning of something new, I would like to suggest that what happens here is the shedding of one aspect of this character.  It is, as I will show in the next few blogs, a partial transformation.

What I find so interesting about Shteygart’s project is the fact that, for him, the schlemiel’s masculinity is one of his main concerns.  On the one hand, he finds the passivity and masochistic “victimhood” of the character to be deplorable; yet, on the other hand, and as I will show, he doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Shteyngart is looking to strike a balance between the masculine and the feminine and the basis for making such a balance is contingent on how we interpret the comings and goings of Immigrant-Becoming-American-Schlemiel.  As a part of this becoming, Shteyngart decided that Vladmir should have a shocking experience that challenges the schlemiel’s more effeminate and dreamy nature.  The question is whether becoming an American – for Shteygart -implies becoming more masculine.

Strangely enough, however, he doesn’t become masculine in America.  The process starts in America, but it takes full form in Eastern Europe.  I hope to bring out the irony of this process and to show how the transformation out of the schlemiel into something more masculine may seem full but is actually partial.

And, more importantly, this transformation is spurred by the fact that Vladmir, a schlemiel, ends up getting himself into trouble by virtue of the “curious arc” of his dreams.  This trouble spurs his transformation and, because his life changes as a result, he shares less with the traditional schlemiel and more with Woody Allen’s most recent schlemiels.  But he differs from them too, for his transformation is ultimately partial.

….to be continued…..