Doofus(es) and Dork(s) in David Eggers’ “The Circle” – Take 1

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When I first picked up David Eggers’ recent novel, The Circle, I had no idea that the novel had any comic elements. To be sure, the majority of reviews suggested that the book was dystopian from start to finish. I was expecting something very grim. But, strangely enough, Eggers includes comic elements. What has not been sought after by any review or reflection I have read is the meaning of these comic elements. I’d like to venture, in a series of blog entries, a sketch of how one can read the presence of comedy in such a novel.

The Circle is a novel that hits home. It speaks to an age that is dominated by Google, Facebook, and Social Networking. Since we are in the midst of rapid shifts in the way we think and do things by virtue of social media and incredible new technology (computers, smart phones, tablets, etc), it’s very hard for us to reflect on what is happening to us. We are changing. We don’t think in the same ways. What does all this mean and how do we reflect on this? Fiction, to my mind, is one of the best mediums that we can use to explore and address the polyvalent meanings of this shift-in-progress. We can see ourselves through characters who are not-ourselves but are strangely similar to us. This is especially prescient when the characters in this novel are in hub of the social-networking business.

Through the two main characters, Annie and Mae (who are both fresh out of college), Eggers explores the hypothetical idea that is floating around most of our heads: what would it be like if I were to get a job at Google or Facebook?   One can imagine the prestige and power that goes along with a job that puts one in a company that is virtually changing the way we look at ourselves and the world. It’s very exciting.

Eggers brings this excitement out in the fact that the two main characters, as I mentioned above, just left college. As one can imagine, they are hopeful and eager to be a part of something that has the capability of changing the world for the good. This is a serious endeavor (and adventure). It seems as if comedy has no place.

However, throughout the novel there is laughter and joking around. What Eggers does is to make that laughter uncanny. He suggests that we pay closer attention to this laughter by virtue of the fact that, at one point in the novel, when he first introduces her, he describes Annie as a “dufus.” And, by way of another character who is not immersed in the world of social networking, we hear Mae described as a “dork.”   Reading these descriptions, one wonders if they should not be applied to just these two characters but to the members of the circle and perhaps ourselves.

Of the two, it is Annie who gets Mae into “The Circle.” And it is her description which should be of great interest to us because she is the character who we would all like to be: someone who goes from college to a place like Google or Facebook and rises to the top of the command. However, the description of her is not enviable. She’s a “doofus.”

There was a time, only four years ago, when Annie was a college student who wore men’s flannel housepants to class, to dinner, on causal dates. Annie was what one of her boyfriends, and there were many, called a doofus. But she could afford to be. She came from money, generations of money, and was very cute, dimpled and long-lashed, with hair so blond it could only be real. She was known by all as effervescent, seemed incapable of letting anything bother her for more than a few moments. But she was also a doofus. She was gangly, and used her hands wildly, dangerously when she spoke, and was given to bizarre conversational tangents and strange obsessions – caves, amateur perfumery, doo-wop music. (13)

The narrator goes on to describe her as a woman-child of sorts. She is a “scattershot and ridiculous person, who still carried a piece of her childhood blanket around in her pocket”(14). He muses, confusedly, about how such a person had “risen so quickly and high through the circle? Now she was a part of forty most crucial minds of the company – the Gang of 40 – privy to its most secret plans and data. That she could push through the hiring of Mae without breaking a sweat”(14).

All of this troubles the narrator because he can’t understand how a “doofus” like Annie could rise to such heights. Something is peculiar about this and his use of a comical descriptor suggests that the reader, like the narrator, should be suspicious. What, after all, does it mean that some of our greatest secrets – circulating on the internet – are in the hands of a “doofus?”

When we meet Mae, however, we think that she is more normal and not a doofus. Mae comes from a less privileged background. Her parents are more blue-collar, her father is dying, and she has a much more realistic sense of reality.

However, something happens to her after she starts working in the company for a few weeks.   Her initiation into The Circle prompts her to become obsessed with social media in ways she never was. At work she has three screens that she has to attend to: one for incoming customer service (which she is rated on), one for messages from her supervisors, and one for social media. She must pay attention to every screen. If she neglects any messages – even the social media messages – she is disciplined in some fashion. Moreover, the companies ethos suggests that the knowledge of all things that have ever happened can be beneficial to humanity. Instead of being judged for what a person is, one is judged by the things said online, by algorithms, and comments of people.   Being obsessed with this makes her into, what she will later be called by an ex-boyfriend, a dork.

But, as Eggers suggests, there is a difference between a “doofus” and a “dork.” Regardless of the difference (which we will explore in upcoming blog entries), Eggers’ use of comical terms to describe Annie and Mae functions to give us a comical distance from the condition we are immersed in.   Where do we fit on this spectrum? What does it mean that we might be a dufus or dork by virtue of being immersed in (or desiring to be immersed in) social media?

….to be continued…..

Marriage, Fate, and a Bathroom Epiphany in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”

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Irony often plays on the gap between expectation and reality. The gap between is a commonplace in much schlemiel fiction.   Playing on the main motif of How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti, the main character and author of the novel, casts the other as her teacher. She looks for ethical and artistic models of personhood outside her self. Following this model, Heti notes how, several months before her wedding, she saw a beautiful wedding (the perfect model of how a wedding “should” be):

Several months before our wedding, my fiancé and I were strolling together in an elegant park when off in the distance we noticed a bride and a groom standing before a congregation, tall and upright like two figures on a cake…The vows were being exchanged, and the minister was speaking quietly. Then I saw and heard the lovely bride grow choked up with emotion as she repeated the words for richer or for poorer. A tear ran down her cheek, and she had to stop and collect herself before she finished what she was saying. (23)

When she comes to the same moment, years later, Sheila did the same things but “felt none of it.” She felt it was canned and she felt as if “she was not there at all”:

Then something happened. As I said the words for richer or for power, that bride came up in me. Tears welled in my eyes, just as they had welled up in hers. My voice cracked with the same emotion that had cracked her voice, but I felt none of it. It was a copy, a possession, canned. That bride inhabited me at the exact moment I should have been more present. It was like was not there at all – it was not me. (23)

Compounding the feeling of alienation and bad luck, Heti recalls a painful event with her last boyfriend before she got married. She and her boyfriend used to have desks in the same room. Both of them would sit at their desks and write plays (24). But one day, after hearing her on the phone talking about a crush she had a on a photographer, he got angry, stole her computer where she was sleeping and returned it to her desk with a play he wrote about her. The play had plotted out her entire life leaving nothing to freedom or chance. The plot casts her as a kind of existential schlemiel (in the worst sense):

When I go up the next morning, I found, there on the screen, an outline for a play about my life – how it would unfold, decade by decade. Reading it compulsively as the sun came up in the window behind me, I grew incredibly scared. Tears ran down my cheeks as a I absorbed the horrible picture he had painted of my life: vivid and vile and filled with everything his heart and mind knew would hurt me best. (24)

The play culminates with Sheila in a pornographic encounter with a Nazi. She kneels in a dumpster and gives a Nazi a blowjob (25). When she asks the Nazi, in her “last bubble of hope,” “Are you mine?” he says “Sure, baby,” and “cruelly stuck my nose in his hairy ass and shat. The end”(25).

Heti is disturbed by the play and tries but cannot stop thinking about it. She thought, in some way, that it could come true! She felt she could not escape this theatrical fate:

It lodged inside me like seed that I was already watching take root and grow into my life. The conviction in every line haunted me. I was determined to act in such a way as to erase the fate of the play, to bury far from my heart the rotting seed he had discovered – or planted – there. (25)

In these lines we see that Heti’s schlemiel is struggling with fictional fate. She wants freedom. But how will she get it if she is constantly making big mistakes. It seems as if there is no way out. It’s as if she was fated to be a slave, a schlemiel-slave-of-fate.  Marriage seems to promise a way out of fate, but it only seems to reiterate eternal repetition.

In the beginning of their marriage, they have “two years” of parties. At the end of the second year, she wonders “Why are we having these parties?(26). Imagining she was someone from the future looking back she says, winking at the Jews building pyramids: “That could only have built by slaves.”

While in the bathroom, Sheila thinks of a dream she had about writing and shitting: “Sitting there, I recalled a dream from the night before, in which I was taking pills that made me shit a lot. In my dream, I decided I would only write what I thought about as I shit – since I was now spending all my time shitting”(27). Her dream parallels shit and writing and touches on the main theme of making Big Mistakes (as noted in another blog entry, Heti points out that all artists must make “Big Mistakes” – a motif shared with schlemiels). It seems she is reconsidering not just her marriage but also her art.

Right after she leaves the toilet she meets someone who takes part in the Ugly Painting Contest: Margaux. The backstory of her relationship with Margaux gives us a sense of how artists, like schlemiels, have dreams about art but are awakened, like Sheila, to the fact that their project (writing, painting, acting) might be meaningless.   (The metaphor Sheila will use, which we have already seen above, has to do with waste: either having one’s face put in someone’s ass or defecating.) But the lesson is never final. The schlemiel, like all of these artists, seems to repeat the cycle. To be sure, the postmodern schlemiel goes through this process, returns to her original naivite, and starts again.

As Heti’s metaphor suggests, being an artist-schlemiel and making art is like returning to the bathroom, repeatedly.   And if one model fails, the schlemiel – at least in Heti’s version – will always move on to another. Once that fails, one goes to the bathroom and then returns to start again. In other words, as a result of repeated failure, the schlemiel’s models will always be tainted or will become tainted (at some point).   Yet the schlemiel doesn’t give up hope that he or she will, one day, know “how a person should be.”

The Schlemiel, Zionism, and Self-Criticism: On Joseph Hayyim Brenner’s “Self-Criticism”

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Before Israel became a state, Zionist thinkers did their utmost to win the minds of Eastern and Western European Jews. As I had pointed out in my last blog entry, the Schlemiel Journal was dedicated to using the schlemiel in this Zionist project. The point I wished to make – by way of Michael Brenner’s insightful chapter on the journal – was that the editors of the journal, in its first year, struggled with how to present the schlemiel. One reading was influenced by an Eastern European reading of the schlemiel (one which had a more positive view of the schlemiel and blended well with Ahad Ha’am’s form of “cultural Zionism”) while the other was influenced more by the German-Jewish Haskalah’s reading of the schlemiel (which was much more negative than it’s Eastern European counterpart).   Although this distinction, by and large, holds, sometimes we find that Zionist writers from Eastern Europe may blend both views. One such case can be found in the work of Joseph Hayyim Brenner.

Brenner was an original Zionist thinker who was deeply influenced by the fiction of Mendle Mocher Sforim (a Yiddish writer who had written several stories that cast schlemiels as main characters).   Sforim is aptly called, by Sholem Aleichem, the “zayde” (grandfather) of Yiddish literature. His book, The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III, was a foundational text for Yiddish literature. The text shows us the travels of Benjamin and Senderl, two schlemiels who dream big of leaving the Pale of Settlement to discover a “new world,” but go nowhere except…within the Pale of Settlement. Yet, they imagine they have gone somewhere. While the characters are endearing, the fact of the matter is that it depicts a bad state of affairs for the Jews and it portrays the Jews through these two schlemiels. They live in dreams, not reality. This, to be sure, is a major Zionist thought about Jews who need to leave their abnormal conditions, find independence, and make, as Theodor Herzl once said, their dream a reality.

In a piece written in Hebrew, in 1914, entitled “Self-Criticism,” Joseph Hayyim Brenner cites and uses some of the comical rhetorical techniques that we find Mendle Mocher Sforim’s work in order to further the Zionist idea. He does this by reflecting on the meaning of survival and asking whether the schlemiel’s way of survival is the right path:

The skeptics and rebels who have just recently appeared in literature say: What? The Jews have survived? Yes, it is true they have survived. But, my friends, survival alone is not yet a virtue. Certainly, it is better for any man, any people, any organism to be than not to be….but existence in itself is no evidence of an estimable character. (307, The Zionist Idea)

This survival, he suggests, doesn’t come from a willingness so much as…luck or groveling. He uses the schlemiel as the model for the old, Diasporic, form of survival and he cites Sforim’s (Mendele’s) schlemiel in this regard. The word he uses for schlemiel, in this context, is luftmensch (a person who lives on air):

The Jews are one of the peoples of antiquity who have survived and remained. How does Mendele put it? “Caravans come and caravans go – but the Luftmenschen of Kislon and Kabtziel go on forever.”

But, says Brenner, “this proves nothing.” He says that it is a “mystery” as to how these schlemiels survive (“it is beyond our ken”). However, Brenner tells us that survival is not how Jews should understand themselves rather; they should look at their “mode of living.” And that mode is that of poverty and subservience.

Brenner sees the Rabbinic traditions that are “transmitted” to the next generation were “better never handed down to us” because they have done nothing to change this condition of subservience. Now, says Brenner, Jews exist as a “mass” and their existence is merely “biological.” “Yes, we may exist as a mass of gypsies, peddlers, traveling salesmen, and bank clerks; in this guise we may survive biologically for years”(308).  We survive, Brenner argues, like “ants” and “dogs.”

This biological type of survival is not enough, argues Brenner. Jews need to work to settle Israel. But to do that Jews need “real national strength.” Instead, Jews have the legacy of schlemiels, of dreamers, not a national legacy:

We have no…workers, no laborers; all we have are pipe dreams of speculation worthy of the heirs of Reb Leib the Melamed (the hero of a Sforim story entitled “The Stampede”).  

Brenner goes farther to argue that the Jews have nothing of their own; everything – their language, creativity, customs, etc – is borrowed (309). And wherever Jews went they did this in order to survive. But like Benjamin and Senderl of Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd, Jews may survive; but they aren’t going anywhere. The reminder of the “impasse” that Jews experience, according to Brenner, can be found in Mendele’s schlemiels. And this reminder prompts us to what he calls “true self-criticism”:

We are at an impasse, but the pen is still in hand. Our literature lives with Mendele and with all who have succeeded him, and it continues that way, with true self-criticism for a guide. (311)

Brenner drives this point home when he argues that “literature since Mendele” (meaning his own literature) says: “Our function now is to recognize and admit our meanness since the beginning of history to the present day, all the faults of our character, and then to rise and start all over again”(312).

The reading of the schlemiel that comes out of Brenner suggests that this character should prompt us to confess our faults and move on. The irony of it all is that Brenner misses the fact that schlemiel, though a dreamer, is a saint of sorts for this very reason. It isn’t the schlemiel who is the problem; it is reality.   Sforim shows us that their dreams meet with harsh reality; but that doesn’t mean that they simply need to sober up. It should prompt us to change that reality. But does it mean, as Brenner suggests, that we should leave the schlemiel behind as a representation of all the “meanness” and the “faults of our character”?

This reading of the schlemiel suggests a more German reading of the schlemiel, one than finds no redeeming qualities in this character so much as a rendering of what Jews should leave behind.  “Self-Criticism” was a part of the Zionist project which saw the schlemiel as an obstacle yet knew it had to work through this character which had captured the hearts of so many Jews in the Pale. The “new literature” that Brenner speaks of must leave it behind if the Jews are to have their own state and be a “real people.”   This is the crux of Brenner’s brand of “self-criticism.”

Zionists and Schlemiels: On the Difference Between Cultural and Political Zionists at “Der Schlemiel” Journal

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Very few scholars have addressed the appropriation of the schlemiel by Zionist thinkers and critics. Daniel Boyarin has suggested the contrast between the less masculine, Medieval model for the Jew (which, to be sure, is a humble simpleton who bears many of the more feminine qualities that are associated with the schlemiel) and the more masculine Zionist model for the ideal Jew. Although his study suggests such contrasts, he doesn’t use the schlemiel or discuss how this comic figure was situated within the tension between the Diaspora Jew and the Zionist. Moreover, he doesn’t look at the differing cultural representations of Jews by Cultural Zionists (who aligned with Ahad Ha’am and included people like Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and others) and Political Zionists in his study.  In his book Unheroic Conduct, he is more interested in the representations of the Political Zionists.

Building and extending Boyarin’s work to the subject of the schlemiel, David Brenner, in his book German-Jewish Popular Culture Before the Holocaust: Kafka’s Kitsch, dedicates a chapter to the schlemiel as a “proto-post-colonial subject.”   He takes the 1903 pro-Zionist journal Der Schlemiel: Illustriertes judisches Witzblatt [The Schlemiel: An Illustrated Journal of Jewish Humor] as the basis for his reading of the schlemiel in these terms.   What makes Brenner’s chapter on the schlemiel so important for schlemiel theory and scholars interested in Zionism is the fact that he historicizes the journals shift from a position that was informed by Cultural Zionism to one that was informed by Theodor Herzl’s version of Political Zionism.

Brenner points out that, in its first issue (and following issues) of Der Schlemiel, the German based journal looked to appeal to Eastern European Jews who had a great love for Jewish culture and Jewish humor. The first subject of the journal was the failed attempt of Theodor Herzl to make Uganda the homeland of the Jews. The Zionist congress, in this first issue, becomes a “congress of schlemiels” and Herzl is presented as parodying his thinking of such a possibility as schlemiel-ish.

But what interests Brenner most is the representation of the Jew who goes to Uganda and mixes Jewishness and African culture. The cross between the Jew and the African that is seen in some of the caricatures, according to Brenner, has a positive valence. The main character of one of the parodies is called Mbwapwa Jumbo. As Brenner notes, “Jumbo converts to Orthodox Judaism and Mizrahi Judaism.” And, “with time, he becomes an Eastern (African) Jew, speaking a German admixed with (and some English) syntax and vocabulary”(30). He argues that this caricature looked to create a kind of “cultural Judaism” (in the spirit of Ahad Ha’am).   This schlemiel is a proto-post-colonial schlemiel because it is a hybrid which inverts the degradation of Eastern European Jews and Africans by German and Austrian Jews who, like most Europeans, were bent on a colonial project.

To support his argument that the journal began with a bent toward Cultural Zionism, Brenner argues that Leo Wintz, a Ukranian Jew, founded the journal. He saw the schlemiel as a vehicle and as a “weapon against both anti-Semitism and assimilaton”(34). However, Brenner argues that Herzl wasn’t happy with the journal’s parody of his Political Zionistic move to leave for Uganda; and by the end of the year he suggested that they change editors.

When the Political Zionists take over, the schlemiel becomes, as Brenner argues, a “colonial subject.” It is more feminized and takes on a negative valence; now the mixture of the African and the Eastern European Jew takes on a more negative valence (36). The tough African takes on Eastern European customs (including Yiddish) and in doing so becomes weak. He leaves for Israel, is forced to emigrate to Galveston, Texas and falls victim to a pogrom (36).

Jumbo becomes the pit of a joke and is seen, a German-Jewish sense, as the schlemiel one doesn’t want to be.   According to Brenner, the new editors “stereotyped Africans and Jews in order to promote – but also to deconstruct – identity politics and other essentialisms”(38). However, this “should come as no great revelation: stereotypes were a time-tested effective means of attracting Jewish audiences in Western Europe to Jewish nationalism”(39). Jews learned what to be, in other words, by learning what not to be.

Brenner is on to something here because the German Schlemiel, as characterized by Sander Gilman in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews, defines schlemiels as a comic characters who “believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.” But according to Gilman, this character did not emerge out of Jewish folklore so much as out of the Enlightenment: “Schlemiels are the creation of the Enlightenment. It is the Jewish enlightener’s attempt to use satire to cajole the reader into not being a fool.”

In contrast, Ruth Wisse argues that the Eastern European schlemiel had more of a positive valence. Although it had negative features, it also had positive features such as humility, trust, and optimism. It translates the religious aspect of this character: “In the later secular works, faith is not a matter of religious credence, but the habit of trusting optimistically in the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. It is also the dedication to living as if good will triumph over evil and right over wrong.”

The difference between the German and the Yiddish schlemiel is clear. While Gilman argues that the schlemiel was used by the Jewish-German enlightenment as a foil to show German Jews what not to be; in Eastern Europe, the schlemiel’s comic failures had a more positive aspect. In other words, the German enlightenment courted the meaning of failure differently from their Eastern European brethren.

Brenner adds to Wisse’s reading of the Eastern European (Yiddish) schlemiel by suggesting that Cultural Zionists read the character in terms of being a kind of Jewishness that was open to otherness; a post-colonial Jewishness that found hybridity funny, yet in a positive manner.   The non-militaristic and non-athletic aspects of the Jumbo character, according to Brenner, didn’t have a negative effect on the Eastern European readers of the journal.

Nonetheless, as Brenner points out, the schlemiel still trades in stereotypes. But that is the case with any stock character which conveys Jewishness to large audiences. The difference, however, is what these stereotypes convey. He looks into what features we identify with and why. And in the context of Political and Cultural Zionism, we can see that the representation of the schlemiel in Der Schlemiel differed along the lines of how they thought of how Jews were and…should be. In the schlemiel, in other words, we can see a criticism of Jewishness and a new vision. One is open to hybridity and the effeminate aspects of the character while the other trades, according to Brenner, in a kind of “nationalistic essentialism.” The schlemiel can help us to look at ourselves. The question, however, is what we see and what decide to identify with and what to reject. The Political Zionists leaned toward a German Jewish reading of the schlemiel; while the Cultural Zionists, who first started the journal, took on a more Eastern European reading.

 

 

 

The Schlemiel’s Trust Issues in Sheli Heti’s Comic Novel “How Should a Person Be?”

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Sheila Heti – the author, narrator, and main character of the comic novel How Should a Person Be? – has fears that if she trusts someone, she may hurt someone and hurt herself. But, as we learn from the prologue, she has to if she is to learn how a person should be. She doesn’t look inside herself; she looks to others. This conflict, at the core of her being, makes her experience of herself and the world more fragmented.

To bring out the fragmentation, Heti introduces emails to her narrative and, in addition, she does something odd and irritating with them: she breaks the emails into numbered lines that have no explicit reason for being numbered save for the order.   These emails punctuate the text and complicate the narrative with information which may or may not be relevant. Here is a small snippet of the first email from Margaux, which, however, does have relevance since it shows a tension between actions and expectations that Heti has of others. It also shows major distrust and insecurity:

1. i have always admired a lack of social obligation, in fact, i aspire to it. the number of birthday parties i attend is too many, apart from that, i assumed you weren’t coming to my party and you did not.

2. at my party, you husband, probably being noting but sweet and drunk and feeling generous, and probably having nothing to do with your sentiments, said, “hell, you and Sheila should spend more time together.”

3. and i laughed and thought nothing about it.

4. but then when i saw you in the street yesterday, i was very annoyed and probably annoying. my annoyance was unfair and a little silly.

The email ends with a kind of apology which recurs throughout the text in a certain manner; especially between Margaux and Sheia. Both make “mistakes,” feel ashamed, and apologize (especially Sheila). (Apology, to be sure, is a major part of Toronto culture, the milieu of this novel; wherein the average citizen says “I’m sorry” often in day-to-day life.)

Immediately following this email, Sheila says she is “thrown off” (in other words, the email astonishes her; and, as I have noted above, astonishment is a key feature of the schlemiel).   To be sure, the email makes Sheila feel special. Her excitement and astonishment becomes disturbed. This is evinced by the fact that as she wanders through the neighborhood she “zipped and unzipped my jacket as my body went from hot to cold”(31). She muses that this it is a curse and a blessing to “have a woman,” and she launches into her inability to understand women (herself being one) and their relationships with each other: “I supposed I didn’t trust them. What was a woman for? Two women was an alchemy I didn’t understand….It would have been too easy to count the ways I had been betrayed by girls, all the ways I had been hurt by them. And if I wanted, I could have easily made a list of all the girls to whom I had caused pain”(32)

The schlemiel, to be sure, has trust issues. But usually they are usually the other way around. The schlemiel trusts others and is betrayed. Here, the schlemiel is wary of trust because she has been burned so many times before. Sheila, this schlemiel, is more reflective on the meaning of trust than the character; and, in a postmodern sense, she does what the reader would do vis-a-vis what we find in a story like “Gimpel the Fool”:

Trust has to be won from zero at every encounter. That’s the reason you always see women being so effusive with each other – crying out shrilly upon recognizing each other in the street. Women have to confirm with each other, even after so many years: We are still all right….A woman can’t find rest or take up home in the heart of another woman – not permanently. It’s just not a safe place to land. I knew the heart of a woman could be a landing ground for a ma, but for a woman to land in another woman’s heart? That would be like landing on something wobbly, without form, like trying to stand on Jell-O. Why would I want to stand tall in Jell-O? (33)

In other words, Sheila, at this moment, is thinking about how much a failure and waste of time it would be if she tried to gain Margaux’s trust. However, in an odd follow up to this reflection, Sheila talks about her “first day at typing school”(33). Although the scene is odd, the theme of the text gives us a cue as to how this is connected to the reflection on women. While noting that she smiles at everyone, Sheila says that she regards all of the other people in the class as “liars” but she “wants them on her side.” She wants to be their “hero”(34). She “prayed” that she wouldn’t “create any enemies”(34). However, like a schlemiel, she fails, and realizes that she can’t use “wit” (as many schlemiels do) to win: “By the end of the first afternoon, they were laughing at me….I saw I wasn’t going to outwit them. Those people didn’t deal with wit”(34).

As in Woody Allen’s Anything Else -when Jason Biggs tells Allen that he and Allen can outwit two bullies by wit and Allen retorts that this won’t do – she realizes that she can’t win through wit because she belongs with the “liars and the weaklings”(34); the “jocks” have a different “interior” and have an “integrity that springs from the very center of the earth itself”(34).

This distinction is at the core of the latter day schlemiel. And though, as we can see above, she is wary of having a relationship with Margaux because of what she envisions will happen, she receives two more emails from Margaux that suggest to her that Margaux is a lot like her: she seems to be absent-minded and has a different interior that the jocks; she is a weakling of sorts, too. But, more importantly, Sheila can see that Margaux, in one of the emails, really wants to be her friend. It seems as if she can trust Margaux from email lines like this which Sheila all numbers “1”:

  1. i am surprised at how much i miss you, like a real teenage girl.
  1. hello. I was wondering, if you have red bike lights, could i borrow them tomorrow night?
  1. i’m going to paint your portrait a hundred times and never mention it to anyone – articulately.
  1. yes, I would like to see you. i have all the time in the world. (37)

Following this, Sheila becomes childlike and remembers a poem she used to read in Hebrew school:

Love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

 

Love is like a magic penny!

Hold on tight and you won’t have any!

Lend it, spend it, you’ll have so many,

They’ll roll over the floor, oh!

However, when she reflects on the poem, she becomes perplexed about what it means to give. The central metaphor of the poem distracts her from it’s content:

This seemed impossible to me, just crazy! If you give it away you’ll end up having more? It was the only poem I knew and my favorite one, for it baffled me. I recited it over and over to myself, as if there was something I could learn from it. In my head, in rooms in homes, zillions of pennies rolled over the floors, thick and encompassing like waves. (38)

She thinks these thoughts while “overcome with wonder” and drifts into thinking about something arbitrary: Margaux’s “grade-six graduation ceremony” in Texas (where she lived). She imagines her dressed like a schlemiel, with clothes too big for her. But there is a difference. Though she is laughed at by the audience, Margaux’s “dignity” is “in tact”(38) while, as we can see from her humiliating experience in the typing class above, the laughter at Sheila makes her vulnerable and affects her sense of self.

The dialectical back and forth between taking risks or opting out of them is at the crux of these types of reflections. The end of chapter three drives this home since he see that she, like a schlemiel, lets optimism overtake her cynicism: “For so long I had been looking hard into every person I met, hoping I might discover in them all the thoughts and feelings I hoped life would give me, but hadn’t”(38). She muses on how people have told her, however, that looking to others for hope is a dead end; and that it is better to “find such things in yourself, that you cannot count on anyone to supply even the smallest crumb that your life lacks”(39). This thought, nonetheless, doesn’t keep her from deciding that it is worth taking risks with Margaux, hoping that she would learn something how a person should be: “Although I knew this might be true, it didn’t prevent me from looking anyway. Who cares what people say? What people say has no effect on your heart”(38). The last words are the most telling since these are the words that can only be said by a schlemiel who trusts his heart over his head. This kind of logic is the logic of the schlemiel and one can assume that it will lead only to disappointment or some mistake.   Although trust is the basis of religion and society, the virtue of the schlemiel is to show us the other, more existential side of trust wherein the one who trusts often fails. For Heti, trust is a risk; but one that must be ventured.

The Restless Ones and Uneasy Permanence: Steinbeck on America, Mobile Homes, and Rootlessness

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On his travels with his dog Charley across America, John Steinbeck has a few moments in his journey when he is truly astonished by things he discovers for the first time. The wonder he has, which he records in Travels With Charley, prompts him to ask questions and look deeper into what he has found. More importantly, the questions he asks help him to reflect on what American is or has become. Like a Socrates of the road, Steinbeck learns about himself and his country by way of speaking to different people and “speculating.”   One of the things he discovers, which prompts him to reflection deeply on the nature of America and himself, is the mobile home.

Steinbeck discovers his first mobile homes when he is traveling on “roads out of manufacturing centers”(95). These mobile homes “comprise one of my generalities” about America. Steinbeck notes his first encounters with these mobile homes:

Early in my travels I had become aware of these new things under the sun, of their great numbers, and since they occur in increasing numbers all over the nation, observation of them and perhaps some speculation is in order. (95)

Steinbeck is prompted by the sheer mass of spaces to speculate further. He sees in the mobile home park a kind of paradox of rootlessness and their “uneasy permanence.” To understand it better, he “talks to the managers and the dwellers in this new kind of housing”(95).

But before he does, he discusses the meaning of “uneasy permanence.” He points out that “the fact that the homes can be moved does not mean that they move”(96).   He is astonished at this new way of life:

Sometimes their owners stay for years in one place, plant gardens, build little walls on cinder blocks, put out awnings and garden furniture. It is a whole way of life that is new to me. (96)

He tries to find words for what he calls a mobile home “revolution”:

It seemed to me a revolution in living and on rapid increase. Why did a family choose to live in a home? Well, it was comfortable, compact, easy to clean, easy to heat”(97).

Steinbeck zeroes in on the new feature of these homes: privacy. It solves problems to leave the spaces one grew up in for any place in America:

Each family has a privacy it never had before. The old folks are not irritated by crying babies. The mother-in-law problem is abated because the new daughter has a privacy she never had and a place of her own in which to build the structure of the family. When they move away, and nearly all Americans move away, or want to, they do not leave unused and therefore useless rooms. Relations between the generations are greatly improved. (99)

But in one of his recorded conversations with mobile home owners, Steinbeck notes that the biggest challenge to these good things is…rootlessness. He is astonished at their indifference to rootlessness and pushes them to discuss it. While drinking with them, he drops the question about this topic:

Sipping a highball after dinner, hearing the rushing water in the electric dishwasher in the kitchen, I brought up a question that had puzzled me. There were good, thoughtful, intelligent people. I said, “One of our most treasured feelings concerns roots, growing up rooted in some soil or some community.” How did they feel about raising their children without roots? Was it good or bad? Would they miss it or not? (100)

The response to this question, by a husband and wife, shows Steinbeck that they don’t mind being rootless. The husband, whose father was an immigrant from Italy, notes that his father “cut his roots away and came to America” and migrated from place to place and job to job. His wife is also the daughter of immigrant parents; Irish immigrants.

Steinbeck asks her if she misses “some kind of permanence?” Her response is telling since it tells the story of America, a country that is always on the move:

“Who’s got permanence? Factory closes down, you move on. Good times and things opening up, you move where it’s better. You got roots you sit and starve. You take the pioneers in the history books. They were movers. Take up land, sell it, move on…How many kids in America stay in the place where they were born, if they can get out?”(101)

After leaving them, he reflects on what they told him and he learns about himself and a lesson or two about America:

Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the resltless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency? And the fact is we have. But that’s the short view. What are roots and how long do we have them? (103)

Steinbeck concludes his musing with two speculations that begin with “maybe” and “perhaps.” These speculations suggest that the Americans tap into a primal need to be “elsewhere”:

Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else. (104)

He tells us that “Charley,” his dog, has no answer. And this suggests that Steinbeck has to live on with the mystery of American rootlessness and the desire to move and be “elsewhere.” It is a part of himself and he sees this need in his conversations with mobile home owners.

One wonders what he would make of terms like “trailer trash” and a comedic show like Trailer Park Boys.   Would Steinbeck see something less profound and amusing? Would he find an “uneasy permanence” dwelling in this show or something else?  Are they living out their desire to live elsewhere?

 

Little Tricks: Revising Myths and Warping Fairy Tales in Kafka’s Parables and Sheila Heti’s Postmodern Fables – Part I

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One of the major tasks of the modern Enlightenment project is to “demythologize.” As a part of this project all types of myths are challenged. They need not be changed by science, the humanities, and psychology, however. The greatest battling ground for challenging mythology may be in the medium that is used to convey myth; namely, narrative. These challenges can, so to speak, liberate the reader from certain expectations that are mythological in nature. The primary tool of these challenges is irony. But although they challenge myths, they do, still retain the relationship between narrative and reality. They don’t annihilate narrative so much as make it more uncertain of itself and open to something…other.

In his celebrated essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin argues that Kafka put “little tricks” into his revisions of Odysseus (Ulysses), the Sirens, Poseidon, Prometheus, and other mythical beings of the West. Included amongst the things Kafka revises are also Jewish figures such as Abraham and the Jewish tradition.   In Kafka’s parables, the Sirens don’t sing; they are silent:

And when Ulysses approached them the potent songstresses actually did not sing, whether because they thought this enemy could be vanquished only by their silence, or because the look of bliss on the face of Ulysses, who was thinking of nothing but his wax and his chains, made them forget their singing. (431, Kafka: The Complete Stories)

Like Ulysses, vis-à-vis myth, Abraham is represented, by Kafka, in many ways that aren’t even found in the Midrash. In one version he is represented as a dirty school boy; in another he is likened to a waiter:

I could conceive of another Abraham for myself – he certainly would never have gotten to be a patriarch or even an old-clothes dealer – who was prepared to satisfy the demand for sacrifice immediately, with the promptness of a waiter, but unable to bring it off because he could not get away, being indispensable. (Kafka: Parables and Paradoxes: 41)

Benjamin says that while mythic characters are “promised redemption by the myth….Kafka did not succumb to it’s temptation”(117). Rather, most if not all of his revised characters are failures. And when we hear song, as in Kafka’s “Josephine the Mouse Singer,” this song is a song that is sung not to promise redemption so much as to offer temporary comfort.   As Benjamin notes, Kafka’s revised parables speak to the condition of Exile.

Sheila Heti’s first book, The Middle Stories, seems to be carrying on Franz Kafka’s tradition. Although she takes fairy tales as the subject of many of her short stories in the book and although she is doing something that seems to be similar to Donald Bartheleme’s Snow White or Angela Carter’s revisions of fairy tales in several short stories, Heti is doing something different.   While Bartheleme introduces countless contemporary elements into his revision of Snow White, he keeps everything on the surface and doesn’t attempt to explore the persona’s of his characters. And while Carter rewrites fairy tales to speak to feminist concerns and issues, she doesn’t pay too much attention to the subjectivities of her characters so much as the meaning of the tale.

Heti’s work is different.

Although they often stick to the surface, Heti’s The Middle Stories includes voices that tell us less about the meaning of this or that fairy tale as give us access to the female voices that trade in simplicity and traverse the territories of the fairy tale and modern life. What interests me most is the meaning of this simplicity and this traversal. These elements, I think, speak to our own sensibilities which, though simple, move back and forth between simplicity and complexity. This traversal – which is made along the lines of simplicity – gives birth to astonishment in the reader.

One such simple story is entitled “The Miss and Sylvia and Sam.” The story starts off by introducing us to the main character: “A FRIVOLOUS YOUNG Miss, who was a little bit proper and a little bit delicate”(21). The Miss is found in a market and, as she drifts from thing to thing, she picks up several items, takes them home, and looks over them:

First there was the feather baton, then the little top hat, then the picture frame with the picture in it. (22)

She gets bored, yawns, “lifts up her arms,” and goes to sleep. In the morning she wakes up and goes to the market for more. But when she gets there, she meets up with a woman “from behind the stall” who says that she knows the Miss and that she looks “familiar to me”(22).   She goes further and claims that she knows the Miss “from another life”(22). At this point, the narrative veers off into the zone of new age mysticism (something one won’t find in a classic fairy tale).

In response to these claims, the Miss becomes apprehensive and says that this is “impossible….This is the only life I’ve had”(22). The narrator tells us that she becomes unsure of herself and doesn’t know what to say, so she tries to leave. But before she can go, the lady from behind the stall insists that she knows her and grabs her arm. She adds that she has had “dreams about her”(23).

In the next section of the story she is called by Sam who, apparently, is a love interest. We can see from her conversation with him that she is very modest. And their conversation – just like the words about it – is small, minimal. But though they speak little, there is also a sense of being bothered by something not spoken.

They said a few more words to each other and then fell to sleep, a little perturbed. (24)

In the next section, the Miss is woken up by the lady from the stalls. She tells the Miss that she is Sam’s brother. The section ends with the Miss being nervous and insisting that the lady is not Sam’s brother. The tension mounts because the words are cut short.

The next section leaps, with the utmost simplicity, to the marriage of Sam and the Miss:

THREE WEEKS LATER the whole thing was arranged. The Miss was going to marry Sam, and Sylvia, the woman from the market, was going to be the flower girl. (25)

What should strike the reader as incredibly odd is the fact that the lady, who now has a name, is now a part of the Miss’s life. But the narrator is not astonished and acts as if it is all as it should be. Everyone is smiling:

Sylvia leaned back in her chair across from them, and she was all smiles too. “I’m so happy for you both. I’m so happy.  I just know it’s going to work out.” (25)

The Miss, excitedly, says she is going to help Sylvia out “with the business” and Sylvia is so in joy that “she is really going to do it”(25).   The section ends with this odd joy. The next section, however, introduces us back into the space of panic and paranoia.

A woman comes to the stall where Sylvia and the Miss are working and demands that specific ornaments be given to her, as if her life depended on it. Sylvia tells the Miss to go in the back and that she will take care of it. But as the woman reaches into her purse a thunderbolt comes down and “shot down straight through the woman shopper’s head, striking her to the ground”(27). The Miss screams out in shock and “continues to bawl as the rain poured down, harder and faster, drenching everyone and everything”(27).

The next section of the text is the wedding. And the Miss, Sam, and Sylvia act, once again, as if everything is perfect. The reader is left wondering how the trauma and Sylvia’s dealings with the woman will be resolved but this section offers no such answers.

The following section only increases the questions because Sylvia decides, the next morning, while cleaning (?), that she is leaving for three years. And she goes. But the last lines of the section break with the proper and delicate image of the Miss by turning to the pornographic genre:

The Miss and Sam lay in bed, licking each other’s bodies. Then he turned her over and took her from behind. (28)

The last section leaves us in more confusion since we learn that they are going to Israel. What, one wonders, does Israel have to do with this mixed genre story?   However, Sam notes that “there’s just one thing I forgot to tell you, dear”(28). Could this one thing give us the key to the text? Will it explain the mystery about Sylvia? Will it clear everything up?

No. Before he could say it he forgets. Her response, however, is telling because of how it misses the mark: “What a strange and awful man, she thought. Then she checked her bag”(28). The strange and the awful are not just in the fact that he forgot; the strange and the awful don’t have to do with his forgetting. Rather, fact that the meaning of the text is withheld, the fact that things happen in too simplistic a manner, the fact that there are odd, traumatic interruptions in the text, are “strange and awful.”

But the strange and awful parts of the text, delivered with such simplicity, open up a whole realm of what is not said or can’t be said. The gaps between things are enormous. And by making these gaps and acting “as if” all is well when it’s not make for a kind of demythologizing of the fairy tale that is unique and exceptional.

To be sure, Kafka also made use of this in his parables that revised this or that myth. He did this so as to bring the reader into a wholly other relationship with the text.  This relationship prompts one to think about what’s not there as well as the striking simplicity of what is there. Together, this makes for a modern, existential, and torturous reading experience which has the virtue of grounding us in both simplicity and complexity. For Walter Benjamin (reading Franz Kafka), this is the effect of what he calls “reversal.”  Kafka and Heti’s “little tricks” accomplish this awful reversal.

….to be continued….