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

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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.

 

 

Theater and It’s Double or The Schlemiel as Modern Artist

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Dan Miron, one of the greatest living scholars of Yiddish literature, has argued that Yiddish literature took on a project that was consistent with Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment), on the one hand, and the modernist concept of the artist on the other. In his book A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century, Miron convincingly argues that Mendel Mocher Sforim should in fact be regarded as the real origin of Modern Yiddish fiction and that Sholem Aleichem followed Sforim’s lead.

Miron’s brilliant argument starts off with pointing out the main problem for the Eastern European Haskalah; namely, that Yiddish, as a language, was not “beautiful.” It is, in the view of the German Haskalah, an ugly “caliban” language. It is inferior to Hebrew. But if the Haskalah wanted to reach the Jewish masses, so as to educate and improve them, then it would be ridiculous to use Hebrew; after all, Yiddish, not Hebrew, was the language they were most familiar with. That said, many Haskalah writers turned to Yiddish but none succeeded because they didn’t find a way of, in Miron’s words, “dramatizing” Yiddish.

For Miron, Mendel Mocher Sfroim, whose real name was S.Y. Abromovitsch, succeeded because he saw himself as a clown of sorts. He took on an ironic, schlemiel-like narrator who spoke directly to his audience. The irony is not that he is a clown but that he is an actor and can take on any personality. He is and is not one of the people; Abromovitsch is not Mendel Mocher Sforim but he acts as if he is. Sholem Aleichem does the same. And this brings out a kind of irony about everything is said.

By being a comic narrator, Yiddish fiction becomes modern. To be sure, comedy and the presence of the comic artist in the text, for Miron, make Sforim and Aleichem’s fiction modern. And, as a modern critic, Miron points this out for his modern readers. We must, in effect, be aware of the irony behind this; namely, that the artist is “tricking” us.

Citing Y.L. Berdichevski, Miron argues that the modern Yiddish writer needs to be a circus performer of sorts. He is a “mimetic genius” who is able to convey his views while, at the same time, appearing to be one of the people:

First, he is a dedicated artist. To achieve his goal, he must absorb himself in his work, “lose whatever he possesses in it.” Second, he is a mimetic genius. He evokes comparisons from one distinct area, that of theater or even the circus. One may compare him to a tightrope dancer who skillfully keeps his perilous balance between the historical bias of the language toward the exclusive mentality of the “the Jew” and his own intellectual bias toward “foreign” ideas and concepts. One may even compare him to a ventriloquist who is able to assume a voice or voices distinctly different from his own master and with mimetic subtlety, with such accuracy of nuance, as to make them express his own “ideas” without letting his audience become aware of his trick.   (84)

In other words, the schlemiel – like its author – is double. The schlemiel appears naïve and absent minded but in reality is not.   Schlemiels are and are not alienated from the community. They are a part of it and yet they are the odd ones out. In other words, the schlemiel, like the author, walk a tightrope and this provides them with a form of aesthetic freedom in a community that would, otherwise, not accept their “foreign” views.

By walking the tightrope, common Yiddish readers are indirectly exposed to a kind of theatricality. And it is this theatricality that, according to Miron, has an educational and an aesthetic purpose. Comedy, in effect, allows the artist to be an insider and an outsider to his own culture. And this duplicity is something that the artist ultimately would like to inculcate in his readers.   In mimicking characters in the ghetto, one gains a distance yet, at the same time, this mimicry is endearing. It shows that the author wants to be a part of his people and by accepted by them; yet, by way of a dramatic form of comedy (theatricality) the author is free from them. The vehicle of this comic closeness and distance is the schlemiel. His mimetic genius is that of the author. Moreover, for Aleichem and Abromovitsch, who both had a version of the Haskalah project, humor was the best means for teaching “mimetic genius” as a means of becoming…modern.

Given the emphasis on Enlightenment values and thinking, we often don’t see or hear anything about comedy or theatrical mimesis as a key ingredient. Miron is novel in this claim. His claim is interesting when read against Leo Strauss who has argued, in the introduction to Philosophy and Law, that the Enlightenment’s main weapon is mockery. The difference between the two is that the narrators and schlemiels of Sforim and Aleichem’s books don’t mock their characters directly. Their art is the art of indirect caricature. It is the work of the “mimetic genius” who can speak like all of us but who, ultimately, is caricaturing what we all take for granted. It is, as Antonin Artaud might say, a “theater and it’s double.”   The schlemiel’s comedy is his mask.

 

 

 

Humor as Prosthesis: On Comic Word Play and Ironic Victories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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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….

 

 

Schlemiel & Society (Rahel Varnhagen Unhappy Jewess)

Originally posted on jewish philosophy place:

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Finishing up preparations for a talk on Mendelssohn, I turned to Hannah Arendt’s Rahel Varnhagen: Life of a Jewish Woman). I think it was Lilliana Weissberg who pointed out the original subtitle was Life of A Jewess, but I may be getting this detail wrong. Varnhagen’s story represents the effort of a German Jewess to escape from Judaism into society, the struggle for recognition as an individual, the effort to secure a little happiness in the bourgeois world, and the ultimate collapse of the German Jewish salon society around 1813 as German Jewish assimilation bangs up against the hard real social world.

Writing in 1933 and republished in 1957, Arendt can be read as presenting in Varnhagen and German-Jewish assimilation an opposition between “the human condition” and “the Jewish condition.” In complete opposition to the world of Enlightenment, figured here by Moses Mendelssohn, Rahel Varnhagen reads like a negative…

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The Anti-American Pastoral: The Representation of Franz Fanon’s Words on Violence and Radicalism in Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”

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Philip Roth’s American Pastoral takes American radicalism and terrorism as one of its main topics. Zuckerman, the narrator, explores the life of “the Swede” (or “Swede”) whose daughter, Merry, becomes a radical and ends up blowing up a few buildings and killing a few people in the process. In flight from her first terrorist act, she leaves home and her father. In despair, Swede imagines that if he becomes radicalized (or shows himself to her as radicalized) she will come home. Parodying his attempts to understand and become radical, Zuckerman imagines Swede as having a fantasy that Angela Davis appears in his house. I have dedicated two blogs to Zuckerman’s portrayal of Angela Davis (“Saint Angela”) which, to be sure, has its comic elements. As I noted in my entries, Zuckerman shows how Swede wants his daughter back so bad that he does all he can to “hide” some of his differences with Davis regarding her radicalism.

Zuckerman, at many different points in the novel, mocks radicalism and associates it with a kind of fanatical, religious form of worship. (I have pointed this out in his reflections on Angela Davis and Swede’s emulations of her as a “saint” who he prays to for help.) Later in the novel, Zuckerman recounts how Merry, in flight from the FBI, becomes paranoid. She recalls this moment to her father when, towards the end of the novel, the two come back together:

Merry told her father, she noticed a youngish black bum, new to the park (where she was hiding out in Miami), watching her tutoring boys (English). She knew immediately what that meant. A thousand times before she’d thought it was the FBI and a thousand times she’d been wrong – in Oregon, in Idaho, in Kentucky, in Maryland, the FBI watching her at stores where she clerked; watching in the diners and the cafeterias where she washed dishes; watching on the shabby streets where she lived; watching in the libraries where she hid out to read the newspapers and study the revolutionary thinkers (260)

Zuckerman tells us that in these libraries she would read so as to “master” the work of “Marx, Marcuse, Malcom X, and Franz Fanon”(261). Of the three thinkers, Zuckerman gives the most space to Franz Fanon. Writing on him, Zuckerman notes that Fanon was a “French theorist whose sentences” were “litanized” by Merry “at bedtime like a supplication”(261). He goes on to note that for Merry, Fanon’s work had “sustained her in much the same way as a ritual sacrament”(261). To bring out the ritualistic nature of the text, so to speak, Zuckerman quotes him at length:

It must constantly be borne in mind that the committed Algerian woman learns both her role as “a woman alone in the street” and her revolutionary mission instinctively. The Algerian woman is not a secret agent. It is without apprenticeship, without briefing, without fuss, that she goes out into the street with three grenades in her handbag. She does not have the sensation of playing a role. There is no character to imitate. On the contrary, there is an intense dramatization, a continuity between the woman and the revolutionary. The Algerian woman rises directly to the level of tragedy. (261)

Immediately after this passage, Zuckerman takes us into Swede’s mind. What does Swede think about this passage from Fanon which his daughter recites as if it were a holy text?

Thinking: And the New Jersey girl descends to the level of idiocy. The New Jersey girl we sent to Montessori school because she was so bright, the New Jersey girl who at Morristown High got only A’s and B’s – the New Jersey girl rises directly to the level of disgraceful playacting. The New Jersey Girl rises to the level of psychosis. (261)

As one can see, he thinks of this text and its recitation as evincing a “level of disgraceful playacting” and the “level of psychosis.” In his mind, this text affirms the unthinkable. These words evince the anti-American pastoral.

Edward Said, however, doesn’t deem this psychotic or playacting. He takes it seriously and argues that violence makes perfect sense. In his book Culture and Imperialism, Said turns to Fanon’s work as a move toward post-nationalism (which, in effect, is the anti-American pastoral). Said notes that Fanon turned to violence as a way of going beyond nationalism:

If I have so often cited Fanon, it is because more dramatically and decisively than anyone, I believe, he expresses the immense cultural shift from the terrain of nationalist independence to the theoretical domain of liberation. (268)

But, to be sure, one doesn’t arrive at the “theoretical domain of liberation” without violence. In fact, Said says it is necessary for the transformation of the national into a “trans-personal” and “trans-national force”(269). Fanon’s “entire work” is “set into motion, so to speak, by the native’s violence, a force intended to bridge the gap between white and non-white”(270). Violence (and not peace) is the great uniter of humankind. Said calls it a new kind of “humanism” and calls violence (drawing on a Hegalian language used by Fanon) a “synthesis”:

For Fanon violence…is the synthesis that overcomes the reification of white man as subject, Black man as object. (270).

To add academic legitimacy (or is it, rather, the “legitimacy effect”?) to this, Said cites the respected Marxist thinker Georg Lukacs who, he claims, Fanon was reading while he wrote these words about violence as “synthesis.”

My conjecture is that while he was writing the work Fanon read Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness, which had just appeared in Paris in French translation in 1960. Lukacs shows that the effects of capitalism are fragmentation and reification: in such a dispensation, every human being becomes an object, or commodity, the product of human work is alienated from its maker, the image of whole or community disappears entirely. (270)

Although Lukacs doesn’t call for violence, Said paraphrases him to say that he calls for an “act of mental will, by which the lonely mind could join another by imagining the common bond between them, breaking the enforced rigidity that kept human beings as slaves to tyrannical outside forces. Hence reconciliation and synthesis between subject and object”(270). In other words, Said interprets “act of mental will” as violence. But in the following paragraph he calls it an “act of the will.” There is, of course, a difference between a mental and a physical “act of the will,” but Said elides the difference in one fell swoop of the pen.

Regardless, Said’s reflections of Fanon – by way of Lukacs – have one goal; namely, the legitimacy of violence. Said goes on to call violence, citing Fanon, a “cleansing force”(271), cites another passage where Fanon says that the “native’s work is to imagine all possible methods for destroying the settler,” and also a passage where Fanon states that, for the native, “life can only spring up from the rotting corpse of the settler”(271).

What is astonishing is the fact that all of this passes through the gates of reason and that Edward Said makes us think that violence makes perfect sense; in fact, for Said (and for Merry of American Pastoral) it makes the most sense. What would Zuckerman or Swede think of this legitimization of violence by Fanon and Said? Given what we have seen above, we can see that they think that Merry is psychotic and childish to repeat Fanon in a religious manner. But what happens when Fanon’s advocation of violence-as-an-answer is articulated by an academic and granted legitimacy? Should we also call him psychotic and childish or something else?

If Said and Fanon make sense, then post-nationalism, the kind arrived at through violence (real and mental), also makes sense.   And this should give us pause….This is no laughing matter….

 

 

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

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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.

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?