“If I’m out of my mind, it’s alright with me” – Revisiting Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog


In an essay for The New Yorker on Noah Baumbach’s films, Ian Parker informs us that Baumbach read Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint before writing the screenplay for Greenberg.   Of the two schlemiels we find in Bellow and Roth’s popular novels, however, Greenberg has more in common with Bellow’s Moses Herzog than with Roth’s Portnoy. After seeing the film and reading the review, I decided to revisit Bellow’s novel.   And what I discovered is that a lot was lost in translation. Baumbach’s Greenberg and Bellow’s Herzog have some things in common, not a lot. But instead of showing what Greenberg lacks, I’d like to look into the qualities that Bellow ascribes to the schlemiel. In many ways, his novel set an American precedent for the schlemiel and, prior to its translation into film, gave the schlemiel its proper literary treatment. After all, schlemiel folklore and literature predated the schlemiel in film. Nonetheless, Bellow creates an image of this character which begs for filmic translation. Given what the novel tells us about Herzog, how would he look on camera? Certainly not like Ben Stiller in Greenberg. I aver, as a schlemiel theorist, that every detail of Bellow’s portrayal of Moses Herzog be studied carefully so as to better understand what is at stake when it comes to translation.

Saul Bellow had a distinctive notion of Jewish comedy.   Irving Howe was very taken by his reading because he saw it in relation to the meaning of Jewish identity.   He included it in his preface to his collection Jewish American Stories:

In Jewish stories laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation of the two. At times laughter seems to restore the equilibrium of sanity; at times the figures of the story or parable, appear to invite or encourage trembling with the secret aim of overcoming it by means of laughter.

For Howe, the oscillation between the two spoke to Jewish intellectuals such as himself since he felt he – in contrast to Jews who had passed as American – was constantly beset by the question of who he was. He was enveloped in “self-scrutiny”:

They (Jews) had achieved ‘a normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself? To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.

And in this taste he has much in common not just with Saul Bellow but with Bellow’s character Moses Herzog. He suffers from too much self-scrutiny. And he also teeters between “laughter and trembling” and seems to be on the edge of insanity. But a kind of comic levity seems to save him.

The first few sentences of Bellow’s book –which take the reader to the moment that we return to at the end of the novel (when he is recluse in the Berkshires) – make this abundantly clear:

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong.

But what gives him his comic cheer is writing letters that, ultimately, he never sends:

He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the son. He was so stirred by the letters that from the end of June he moved from place to place with a valise full of papers…Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead. (1)

These letters, like Herzog himself, fail to reach their destination. He tries to relate to the world like he, at the very least, writes these letters; but he can’t send them or create strong bonds.   And he is painfully aware of this failure but not fully. At the end of the novel, which we get a taste of in the beginning, we see that “the corner of his mind remained open to the world” and although he “looked keenly at everything…he felt half blind”(2). His life is comic and tragic.

Following this foreshadowing of the end, Bellow gives us a sense of a person who falls short of the world in so many ways. Yet, he wants to go over the reasons for this failure, so as to understand. His crutch, so to speak, is his intense intellect which wants to address the meaning of failure:

Late in spring Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends. (2)

But this spring optimism is met with shocking realizations about how entrenched he is in failure. He is an academic who had possibilities when he first started in academia but he didn’t take advantage of them. And now, teaching “adult-education lectures” at “New York night school,” he has become reflective on his failure. And his students can’t help but see his absent-mindedness:

Professor Herzog had the unconscious frankness of a man deeply preoccupied. And toward the end of the term there were long pauses in his lectures. He would stop, muttering, “Excuse me,” reaching inside his coat for his pen. The table creaking, he wrote on scraps of paper with a great pressure of eagerness in his hand; he was absorbed, his eyes darkly circled…He was reasoning, arguing, he was suffering, he had thought of a brilliant alternative – he was wide-open, he was narrow; his eyes, his mouth made everything silently clear – longing, bigotry, bitter anger. One could see it all. (2)

As one can see from this passage, it is open that his self-scrutiny may be harmful. It is comic but it is also painful.

The narrator goes from this moment back to the moment where he is lying on the couch in the Berkshires thinking about how much of a failure he is. However, in the midst of his painful reflections, we find something endearing; namely, his choice to be a dreamer rather than a cunning man:

Considering his entire life, he realized that he had mismanaged everything – everything. His life was, as the phrase goes, ruined. But since it had not been much to begin with, there was not much to grieve about…He went on taking stock, lying face down on the sofa. Was he a clever man or an idiot? Well, he could not at this time claim to be clever. He might once have had the markings of a clever character, but he had chosen to be dreamy instead, and the sharpies cleaned him out. (3)

This choice is that of the schlemiel who, out of humility, opts out of being clever and aggressive. Like Moses himself – the Torah calls him the “most humble man on earth” – Moses Herzog shrugs his shoulders at his failures and renounces cunning. He complains and engages in constant self-mockery, but he realizes that although his character is negative, there are people worse off that he is.  And after coming to this conclusion, he shrugs:

What more? He was losing his hair. He read the ads of the Thomas Scalp Specialists, with the exaggerated skepticism of a man whose craving to believe was deep, desperate.   Scalp Experts! So…he was a formerly handsome man.   His face revealed what a beating he had taken. But he had asked to be beaten too, and had lent his attackers strength. That brought him to consider his character. What kind of character was it? Well, in the modern vocabulary, it was narcissistic; it was masochistic; it was anachronistic. His clinical picture was depressive – not the severest type; not a manic depressive. There were worse cripples around. (4)

The narrator, further on, reminds the reader that Herzog is not an aggressive or cunning man (29). He is a “confused high minded” person who was seen as a “grieving childish man”(29). But when he is around people, he has a positive affect on them. To be sure, Bellow tells us that his lawyer friend, Simkin, becomes humble and meek around Herzog. He changes Simkin’s ways and seems to be reminded of something better or more meaningful in life.

The comic twist, however, is that Herzog’s life, the comical, is, as Bellow would say, “mixed” with an intense consciousness of failure. The edge cuts both ways. But it is this self-scrutiny and failure – coupled with something endearing, comical, and anachronistic – that intrigued not just Saul Bellow but Irving Howe as well. Running through all the belatedness and failure is a deep sense of honesty and humility as well as a desire to believe that things can be better even though they are currently horrible. In these juxtapositions and in such intense and painful self-scrutiny, Howe found something distinctly Jewish.

In contrast to Baumbach’s Greenberg, who also writes letters with fervor, Herzog evinces hope in the midst of failure. Greenberg, according to Ian Parker of The New Yorker evinces the opposite. He is what Walter Benjamin would call a “scarecrow of determinism.” What was lost in translation is the sad and yet comic nature of Herzog’s choice to be a dreamer rather than a cunning and aggressive man.

Herzog finds his emblem in…a shoulder shrug which, in translation, says: “If I’m out of my mind, it’s alright with me.”

On Cynthia Ozick’s Denunciation of Henry Bech: John Updike’s Literary Portrayal of the Jew as Schlemiel


In 1970, John Updike, the celebrated American author, decided to initiate a series of novels dedicated to a Jewish character named Henry Bech.   These novels include Bech: A Book (1970), Bech is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998).   The first words of Bech: A Book – which come out of a letter by Bech to John Updike – make it clear that Bech presents himself as a schlemiel:


Well if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me than about you. Except, reading along in these, I wonder if it is me, enough me, purely me. At first blush, for example, in Bulgaria (eclectic sexuality, bravura narcissism, thinning curly hair) I sound like some gentlemanly Norman Mailer; than that London glimpse of silver hair glints more of a gallant, glamorous Bellow, the King of the Leprechauns, than of stolid old homely yours truly. My childhood seems out of Alex Portnoy and my ancestral past out of I.B. Singer. I get a whiff of Malamud in your city breezes, and am I paranoid to feel my “block” an ignoble version of the more or less noble renunciations of H. Roth, D. Fuchs, and J. Salinger?

However, as one can see from the first words of this passage (and the book), this isn’t just about Bech; it’s also about Updike. The words following the above-mentioned passage make this clear:

Withal, something Waspish, theological, sacred, and insulatingly ironic that derives, my wild surmise is, from you.

Cynthia Ozick, in her review essay of the book (entitled “Bech, Passing”), tunes into this tension between the Jewish character and the non-Jewish “waspish” author.   And in response to it, she argues that Bech isn’t so much a Jew as a caricature of a Jew, a “neutral Jew” or, as she puningly puts it, playing on the character’s name, an empty “becher” (a becher is Yiddish for a cup). She calls Bech “theologically hollow” and her reasons for choosing such a term and making such a trenchant criticism of Updike’s attempt to represent a Jew are noteworthy. They give us a sense of how Ozick – and others – might criticize many of the schlemiels we see in literature and film today. It also gives us a glimpse of her criterion for what makes for a plausible Jewish character in Jewish American fiction.

Ozick begins her review by pointing out how Updike’s fiction – though, of course, secular – is lined with “salvationism” and glow with a “eucharistic radiance.” He is the “Origen of the novel.” In contrast, we have his attempt to portray a Jew, Bech: “Here is Henry Bech, Jew, rising, like Shylock and Bloom, out of a Christian brain” (114, Art and Ardor).

And in this novel, the “theologian” tires to “pass” as a Jew:

The original Marranos, in Spain, were probably the first group in history to attempt large-scale passing. As everyone knows (except possibly Bech), they ended at the stake. So much for Jews posing. What, then, of a Christian posing as Jew? What would he have to take on, much less shuck off? (115)

This last question is what intrigues Ozick. What Updike “takes on,” according to Ozick, is a caricature of the Jew, a kind of mechanism: “an Appropriate Reference Machine.”   Updike “reminds himself that he is obligated to produce a sociological symptom: crank, gnash, and out flies an inverted sentence.” The first words of the novel, for instance, “all a parody: ironically humorous novelist Bech addresses ironically humorist novelist Updike and coolly kids him about putting Bech together out of Mailer, Bellow, Singer, Malamud, Fuchs, Singer, the two Roths”(115). The “laugh is at the expense of the citation.”

Ozick goes so far as to dedicate an entire page to a mock-outline of Updike’s “Appropriate Reference Machine.” It includes six categories: Vocabulary, Family, Historical References, Nose, Hair, and Sex. The effect is to show that he is, as Walter Benjamin might say, a “scarecrow of determinism.” Nonetheless, Ozick argues that this portrayal is not so off if you count Beck amongst the “most disaffected de-Judaicized Jewish novelists of his generation” which Updike uses as his “sociological” basis.

Ozick’s gloss on these “de-Judaicized Jewish novelists” foreshadows her rant on what is missing not just in Bech but in most Jewish writing today: knowledge of Jewish history.   But this omission is not done out of neglect so much as what Ozick calls “autolobotomy.” Wondering at this caricature of the Jew, Ozick suggests we think about how this would sound if this kind of portrayal were done with respect to real African-Americans:

So much for the American Jewish novelist as sociological source. As a subject for social parody, it is fairly on par with a comic novel about how slavery cretinized the black man. All those illiterate darkies! Beck as cretin is even funnier: they didn’t bring him in chains, he did it to himself under the illusion of getting civilized. (117)

Ozick notes how Updike’s comic portrayal of Bech leaves out the other aspect of comedy which is entrenched in reality:

Comedy springs from the ludicrous; but the ludicrous is stuck in the muck of reality, resolutely hostile to what is impossible. (118)

And what is impossible is the fact that Updike creates a character who actually little to do with American Jews and more to do with “literary Jews.” He fits better in Berlin than in America. Nonetheless, Ozick says that Beck is a “stupid Jewish intellectual. I know him well.”   Ozick sees it as her responsibility to address Bech’s Jewishness, not Updike’s: “I am not asking Updike to be critical of Bech – it is not his responsibility. It is mine and Bech’s”(118).

Updike, argues Ozick, loves Bech most when he is “thoroughly de-Beched” – when “Bech is most openly, most shrewdly, most strategically, most lyrically Updike”(119). And this happens when the “Appropriate Reference Machine” (ARM from here on) breaks down. At these moments of failure, Updike the theologian takes over.

And in these moments, when the ARM breaks, there is a brief exposure to a Christeological kind of epiphany.   However, this doesn’t transform Beck. Rather he returns to a kind of state that is…comical.

“He (Beck) had become a character of Henry Bech.” Which is to say, a folk character out of Jewish vaudeville, not quite Groucho Marx, not yet Gimpel the Fool. Nevertheless, unsaved….Bech’s grail is cut in half, like his name, which is half a kiddish cup: becher. Over the broken brim the Jews in Bech spills out: Updike, an uncircumcised Bashevis Singer (as Mark Twain was the Gentile Sholem Aleichem), is heard in the wings, laughing imp-laughter. (120).

This, argues Ozick, has a “whiff of Christian hell.”   But, ultimately, this reflects Updike more than Jewishness. In a bold move, Ozick tells us that Updike may “theologize” Bech but he “does not theologize the Jew in Bech”(121).   Updike’s Bech is mere chatter that has nothing to do with Jewishness it has to do with ARM:

But wherever the Jew obtrudes there is clatter, clutter, a silliness sans comedy. Bech makes empty data. It is not that Updike has fallen into any large scale gaucherie or perilous failures-of-tone. It is not that Updike’s American Jew is false. It is not false enough. (121)

Ozick’s paradoxical comments about falseness are the preface to her discussion of what true Jewishness is. Bech, as “Jew,” is false because he is all sociology, all manners:

As Jew he is all sociology, which is to say all manners (acquired exilic manners); as a Jews he is pathetically truncated, like his name. So Updike finds Beck as so he leaves him. Updike comes and goes as anthropologist, transmitting nothing. (122).

What makes for Jewishness, then?

Being a Jew is something more than being an alienated marginalized sensibility with kinky hair. Simply: To be a Jew is to be covenanted; or if not committed so far, to be at least aware of the possibility of being covenanted; or at a the minimum, to be aware of the Covenant itself. (123)

And today:

It is no trick, it is nothing at all, to do a genial novel about an unconvenanted barely nostalgic secular/neuter: Bech himself, in all his multiple avatars…writes novels about Bech every day. It is besides the point for Updike and Bech together to proclaim Bech’s sociological there-ness. Of course Bech is, in that sense, there. But what is there is nothing. (123)

What interests Ozick more, however, is not what “Bech-as-he-is” as what “Bech-as-he-might-become.” To focus only on the former to the exclusion of the latter, Ozick argues, is “critically unjustifiable”(123).

Along these lines, Ozick argues that there is no use “objecting that Updike” and Jewish-American writers in their portrayals of Jews don’t “aim for the deepest point” of Jewishness. But there is a point in taking note of how the “deepest point” is “implicated when it is most omitted”(123). And that is what she is doing as a literary critic…and a Jew.

Musing on this omission, Ozick suggests that this may have been Updike’s point: “to attempt a novel about non-values, about a neuter man. To find the archetypal neuter man separated from culture, Updike as theologian reverts to Origen and Ambrose, to centuries of Christian doctrine, and in such ancient terms defines his Jew”(124).   But, more to the point, Ozick suggests that this may be the case because, for Updike, Bech, “the Jew as neuter man,” is “in the majority, or most typical…the most real”(124).

Updike sees the Jew from the outside.

But, seen from the “perspective of Jewish vision, or call it Jewish immanence (and what other perspective shall we apply to a Jew?)”:

The Jewish Bech has not reality at all, especially not to himself: he is a false Jew, a poured-out becher, one who has departed from Jewish presence.(124)

Ozick’s words suggest that she is taking on the position, in contrast to Updike, of the Jewish theologian and from Jewish immanence. Her reading suggests a theological kind of reading of at least one variety of the schlemiel and of a sociological kind of Jewishness that she rejects and finds to be “false.”   Given this reading of Updike (and the Jewish-American writers she suggests but decides not to name in her essay), we can only imagine what she would say about the schlemiels we see in film and on TV.

Literary Critics at War: On Irving Howe’s Takedown of Leslie Fiedler


A.O. Scott’s New York Times Magazine article on the current state of American culture (as evidenced by film and TV), “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” has been widely circulated and discussed.   In the article, he laments that America is devolving and entering into a state of “perpetual adolescence.” It has yet to go through adulthood and the reason for this is to be found deep in the roots of American culture. Its history and novels show it to be a culture that was born out of resistance and a desire to leave civilization behind. It is also caught up in a kind of innocence. For this reason, it is more interested in “good bad boys” like Huck Finn than in tragic characters that we find in the pages of many European novels. The intellectual underpinning of his article – and these above mentioned claims – is Leslie Fiedler. His book Love and Death in the American Novel, is cited throughout Scott’s article.   Like Fiedler, Scott thinks American literature and film, to date, are “sophomoric.” American culture needs to go through “adulthood” if it is to be more mature; but, laments Scott, this may be too late. Since there is a crisis in authority that has been caused by the end of patriarachy that we see in many TV shows and films (where the father or male figure is debunked), the result is: more films by Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Ben Stiller, the enormous popularity of books that become films like Harry Potter, etc., and a growing readership between the ages of 30 and 45.

Like many readers of Scott’s article, I was troubled and wondered if his claims were valid. Looking into the issue, I came across a review of Fiedler’s book by one of the most celebrated American literary critics of the 20th century, Irving Howe. To be sure, Howe is incredibly harsh.   And his reading suggests that Feidler is, as he says, a “crank” and that his literary criticism must be exposed. His review, entitled “Literature on the Couch,” is one of the most intense takedowns of a literary critic I have ever read. It, in short, claims that Fiedler’s literary criticism is without conscience and fraudulent because it pretends to be all-knowing:

In American literary life, the crank is by now a familiar figure. He is a man who believes he has found a total and thereby solacing explanation for the chaos and multiplicity of existence…There has been a similar development in literary criticism….What can one say about such books except that they are sincere, often ingenious, and quite batty? (Irving Howe: Celebrations and Attacks, p.150)

The last part of the sentence sticks.   Howe’s review takes on a tone that speaks to his rhetorical question. Feidler, writes Howe, has “composed another of those fascinating catastrophes with our literary scholarship is strewn.   Love and Death in the American Novel seems to me destined to become a classic instance of sophisticated crankiness”(150).

Howe, like Scott, notes the main point Fiedler makes throughout his book on the American novel. “Most American fiction, suggests Fiedler,” does not, “allow a confrontation with the needs of maturity”(151). Even thought there “might be some truth in this,” says Howe, the Fiedler’s insistence overlooks so many facets of American fiction:

When pressed with Fiedler’s monomania, this approach requires us to ignore and – what is worse – to dissolve Melville’s feelings about American society, the metaphysical concerns he inherited from Calvinism, the quasi-anarchist revulsion from civilized life which dominates some of his books. (151).

Fiedler’s obsession with a psychological-archetypal reading troubles Howe, deeply:

What Fiedler discards meanwhile is awesome. Literature is removed from any fluid relation to the development of ideas; it becomes an eternally recurrent psychodrama, dissociated from history, in which bloodless and abstracted Presences (the Dark Lady, the Good Good Girl, Good Bad Girl, the Handsome Sailor, the Great Mother, the Avenging Seducer) monotonously rehearse a charade of frustration; it has nothing to do with, and does not even credit the reality of socio-economic problems…and its apparent concern with moral problems can usually be exposed as evasion or disguise. Like a mass-culture imitation of a psychoanalyst, Fiedler refuses on principle to honor the “surface” events, characters, statements, and meanings, of the novel. He will never allow himself to be deluded by what an author says, he invariably knows better. (152)

Howe, as one can see, has become sarcastic and vindictive toward Fiedler.   In Fiedler he sees the dangers of bringing in a psychological reading of literature to bear on a culture. The greatest danger of all is the threat it poses to the notion of the critic:

For him the manifest content of a work signifies only insofar as he can penetrate it, and the plunge into the depths of the latent content. Otherwise, he seems to feel, what use would there be for a critic? (152)

As we can see, Howe thinks of Fiedler as arrogant. Fiedler “speaks with the assurance of maturity” while authors like Twain and Hawthorne do not.   Moreover, Howe lists half a page of Fiedler’s statements and notes who all of them are “inaccurate, absurd, and sensational.” They have “little to do with literature and even less with that scrupulous loyalty to a work of art that is the critic’s primary obligation.” With these words, Howe makes it clear that he thinks that Fiedler is unethical; he is not longer “loyal” to the “primary obligation” of the critic.

But Howe ends his review essay with an even bigger claim against Fiedler. Not only has he betrayed the obligation of the critic, he has also revealed a serious character flaw!

Mr. Fiedler lacks the one gift – I think it is gift of character – which is essential to the critic: the willingness to subordinate his schemes and preconceptions of the actualities of a particular novel or poem. (154)

In Howe’s view, a critic must never bend a work to his “personal or ideological needs.” To do this is to lack a “conscience”(154).

Reading Howe’s trenchant criticism of Fiedler and his literary criticism, one wonders about the claims Scott makes in his essay, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Are these claims, in drawing mainly on Fiedler, to be read as a continuation of Fiedler’s monomania or are they to be read otherwise?   Is adulthood over in America and are we stuck in perpetual adolescence? Or is this scheme of maturity and immaturity yet another archetype?

In the wake of Howe’s reading of Fiedler, perhaps we need to rethink whether or not this is the right way to read not just American film but American literature as well.

Robert Walser and Karl Marx Walk Into a Library: Toward an Ethics of Reading and Reflection


Before we speak, we listen. Or, at least, we should. In a book entitled Difficult Freedom, Emmanuel Levinas writes of how, when we listen to the other in this or that conversation, we experience peace.   This may be thought of as ironic since, after all, communication or dialogue is thought by many to be the road to peace. Nonetheless, communication is meaningless if one party isn’t listening to the other. One of the best places to experience or rather practice listening is by way of reading. To be a good reader, one must listen for nuance in the text and be able to hear and distinguish one kind of voice from another.

One must be attentive.

And it’s wonderful when this kind of attention links us to other texts and people. For instance, the poet, Paul Celan quoted these lines from Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka: “attention is the natural prayer of the soul.” But Walter Benjamin didn’t find them in Kafka; he found them in Malbranche.   Nonetheless, he found that these words speak well to Kafka’s fiction.

These words are nuanced since they suggest that we need to pay heed to our attentiveness. We must be, in a sense, vigilant. But, strangely enough, it isn’t the adult who we can best learn vigilance from – it’s the distracted child and the adult who hasn’t quite grown up or fit into a society.  It is from them that one can learn an ethics of reading and reflection.

Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka drew a lot from the work of Robert Walser who, to be sure, was very interested in how children think.   Many of Walser’s narrator’s are either children themselves or adults who think like children.

In a short story entitled “Reading,” the narrator tells us about the relationship between reading and ethics:

When I read, I am a harmless, nice and quiet person and I don’t do anything stupid. Ardent readers are a breed of people with great inner peace as it were. The reader has his noble, deep, and long-lasting pleasure without being in anyone else’s way or bothering anyone….Anyone who reads is far from hatching evil schemes. An appealing and entertaining thing to read has the good quality of making us forget for a time the nasty, quarrelsome people who cannot leave each other in peace.

Like Maurice Blanchot, who, in The Writing of the Disaster, reads distraction – rather than vigilance – as ethical the narrator tells us that “books often sidetrack us from useful and productive actions.”   Nonethelesss, readings keeps us from “our violent craving for belongings” and our “reckless thirst for action.”

The book binds us and “holds us spellbound.” It “exerts power over us.” And we are “happy to let such a tyranny occur, for it is a blessing.” It keeps us from “gossip about his dear fellow man.” Even reading a newspaper is a way to peace:

A newspaper reader is not cursing, swearing, and blustering, and for that reason alone reading newspapers is a true benediction.

Nonetheless, the narrator tells us that “we need to know how to clearly separate reading from life.” But after saying this he, like so many Walser narrators, gets distracted, loses his thread, and goes on to tell a story. But this story about a writer called “Gottfried Keller,” shows another side of the relationship between reading and life that the narrator, apparently, didn’t even know.

He points out how the reader of Keller’s books “felt like hanging her little head in a disappointed sulk. She was almost angry at and resentful of human life, because it was not like the life in Keller’s works.”

But she too made a separation and decided that it’s not “worth bearing a grudge against everyday reality.”   Rather, shrug your shoulders and walk away, humbled. She, the reader, should “laugh at herself.”

Reading is peaceful but Walser’s narrator tells the reader that it shouldn’t prompt her to change reality for that would imply that reading leads to agitation and perhaps even violence against everyday reality.

Many of today’s readers might differ with Walser and argue that the right path would be to go from the novel to reality and to change it. One can hear Karl Marx grumbling: the point is not to read about reality but to change it:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

But what about the writers? Are they no different from the philosophers or are they political? As we can see from Walser, he wasn’t interested in politics so much as peace. But, as with all great modernist fiction, one need not agree with the narrator. What we need to do is ask ourselves whether the humility he speaks of, which comes from reading, has a place in our political world which is vigilant over this or that political issue. What is the ethics of reading? Should we, rather, cultivate peace through reading more and talking less? Shouldn’t we practice listening? Or is the time for listening over and the time for projection upon us?

To be sure, Karl Marx’s favorite author was Charles Dickens. In his fiction we see social problems that need to be addressed. Its purpose is to go from the book to reality….so as to change it. That is the ethical nature of the novel or short story. Walser, in contrast, had a different idea as to what makes literature ethical. It keeps us from the vita activa (the life of action) which, he believed, does more

The Stupidity of Stupidity: Raymond Queneau’s Reflections on Gustav Flaubert’s “Bouvard and Pecuchet”


Before Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Beckett’s Vladmir and Estragon or Paul Celan’s Gross and Klein, there was Bouvard and Pecuchet, two comic characters created by Gustave Flaubert in the mid 19th century.   Gustave Flaubert originally titled his unfinished comic novel, Bouvard and Peruchet, The Story of Two Nobodies. In the introduction to his translation, Mark Polizzotti, cites several letters to show that Flaubert originally intended to write this novel as a critique of culture’s stupidity. The evidence stands for itself. In one letter, Flaubert writes “I’m contemplating something in which I’ll vent all my anger. Yes, at least I shall rid myself of what is stifling me.” In another letter to George Sand, he writes that “stupidity and injustice make me roar.” And in a letter to Turgenev, “Never have things of the mind counted for less…and the execration of literature been so unspoken.” And in yet another letter, Flaubert states that “human stupidity is a bottomless abyss, and the ocean I can see from my window seems to me quite small in comparison.”

The extraordinary French New Novelist, Raymond Queneau, knew, quite well, that the Flaubert’s last novel was motivated by his distaste for stupidity. However, Queneau doesn’t find this to be what we find in the book. It is not just a scathing attack on stupidity:

Just as Cervantes at first presents Don Quixote as a ridiculous madman and then, in Chapter 11, has him utter a beautiful tirade that expresses Cervantes’s own thoughts..thus Flaubert’s opinion of his two “bonshommes,” (fellows, characters) and even the import of the book in general, changed as it developed.

Flaubert’s attitude these characters is “ambivalent.” They aren’t, simply, stupid.   Queneau doesn’t simply see Bouvard and Peruchet as an Abbot and Costello. Rather, they take part in a “pantheonic” and “encylopediac” novel. Together, they create their own “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas.” They do and address many modern ideas and trends and think they are capable of handling each in stride. But they can’t.   And they repeat each attempt and failure with everything they approach; yet, after things are a mess, they move on not learning their lesson.

Strangely enough, Queneau finds passages which show that in writing the novel Flaubert, himself, became stupid and actually enjoyed it:

Bouvard and Pecuchet have filled me up to such a point that I have become them! Their stupidity is my own and I am bursting with it….I live as much as I can in my two fellows…the stupidity of my two characters has invaded me.

Queneau reads this repetition of failure as a kind of comic skepticism. He argues that Flaubert equates, via comedy, science and skepticism.

Flaubert is in favor of science exactly to the degree that it is skeptical, reserved, methodical, prudent, and humane.   He has a horror of dogmatists, metaphysicians, philosophers.  

He calls their work “stupidity.”   And the stupidity we see in the novel is a kind of stupidity of stupidity. Queneau calls this a “kind of pragmatism” since it criticizes their “desire for the absolute” which leads them to attempt to master all things.

Stupidity, writes Flaubert, is about “wanting to conclude.” And each failure of Flaubert’s comic duo shows us how flawed this desire is. Each thing they do puts them back to where they started. Like Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot or Mendele’s Jewish Don Quixotes in the Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the III, they learn nothing but they trace a skeptical turn away from the absolute toward the stupidity. They go nowhere. This comic, circular, and repetitive trajectory shows us the limit of progress and the limit to our Faustian obsession with knowledge and mastery.   By going through the foibles of his comic characters, Flaubert may have freed himself from stupidity. This is what Queneau seems to be suggesting.   In an age of stupidity, we need a literature of stupidity a …stupidity of stupidity….if you will.

“Unhappy Dualism” or Simplicity: On Gershom Scholem’s Readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and Hasidim


Duplicity and complexity were of great concern to Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem. In her book on Rahel Varnhagen, Arendt takes aim at Jean-Jacques Rousseau as encouraging duplicity. She saw, in his work, a conflict between the private life and the public life. His confessions maintained this division and complexity. This came in the wake of religious decay:

With the loss of the priest and his judgment, the solitude of the would-be confessor had become boundless. The singularity of the person, the uniqueness of the individual character, stood out against a background of indefinite anonymity.   Everything was equally important and nothing forbidden. In complete isolation, shame was extinguishes. The importance of emotions existed independently of possible consequences…In the course of such a ruthless confessional the individual is isolated not only from the events of public life, but also from the events of private life. (98)

Everything sinks into duplicity and what matters most are not the “facts” but the lies or the stories one tells about oneself (91).   One is defined by what is within, not without. This is how Varnhagen, according to Arendt, understood Rousseau.   Her life, to be sure, was complex. And this duplicity, for Arendt, was based on a kind of worldlessness that was forced upon German-Jews who wished to but could not – at the time – become recognized as moderns and equals with Germans.

But, to be sure, as her reflections on Rousseau indicate, this duplicity and complexity is a part of the modern condition.   Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “Fate and Character,” followed suit. He associates “complexity” with fate and myth and contrasts it to character, which he associates with freedom and comedy. Benjamin was not alone in his problems with complexity. Dostoevsky, a lover of complexity, pits character against fate in his novel, The Idiot and shows that Prince Myshkin, a simpleton, becomes “the idiot” of Russian society. This happens because he doesn’t know how to lie and hide what he thinks or feels like so many other characters in the novel.   And this makes him into an “idiot” who is, gradually, destroyed.

In an essay on the novel, Benjamin makes it clear that he saw the destruction of Prince Myshkin as the failure of the “youth movement.” He saw the “fate” of this simple character as horrific and self-destructive. He likened it to a volcano that self-implodes.   Nonetheless, Benjamin didn’t give up on comedy and character. In his “Fate and Character” essay, written two years after his essay on The Idiot, Benjamin speaks of comedy, simplicity, and character as a “beacon of hope.” Complexity and duplicity, for Benjamin as for Arendt, were a modern problem and, he believed, simplicity could be the answer.

We also find the contrast between simplicity and complexity/duplicity in Gershom Scholem’s readings of Marranos, Sabbatians, and the Hasidim.   Scholem uses powerful language to describe the duplicity of living as a Marrano:

For generations the Marranos in the Iberian peninsula, the offspring of those Jews who, in their hundreds of thousands, went over to Christianity in the persecutions between 1391 and 1498, had been compelled to lead, as it were, a double life. The religion which they professed was not that in which they believed. This dualism could not but endanger, if it did not indeed destroy the unity of Jewish feeling and thinking. (309, Trends in Jewish Mysticism)

And this also touched the Marranos who, thereafter, returned to Judaism. Their Judaism, argues Schlolem, “retained something of this peculiar spiritual make-up”(309).   And when Sabbatai Zevi came on to the scene, he appealed to this complexity and what Scholem calls the “unhappy dualism of the Marranic mind”(310). The “idea of an apostate Messiah could be presented to them as the religious glorification of the very act which continued to torment their conscience.”

This internal torment, this “unhappy dualism,” is the cause of so much trouble.   It opened the door for “radical nihilism.”   Throughout a chapter entitled “Sabbatianism and Mystical Heresy,” Scholem points out, over and over again, the complexity of Sabbatianism. He focuses a primary cause of such complexity in the relationship of the followers to the “strange acts” of Sabbatai Zevi:

There was on the one hand the personality of the Messiah and its paradox, on the other hand the attitude and the individual experience of the believer. The point at which the moderate and the extreme Sabbatianism imparted was supplied by the question whether the acts of the Messiah serve as an example to the believer or not. The moderate thought not….His actions are not examples to be followed; on the contrary, it is of their nature to give offence. (314)

In contrast, “the radicals could not bear the thought of remaining content with passive belief in the paradox of the Messiah’s mission”(315). Rather, they thought of the “paradox as universal.” And “the consequences which flowed from these religious ideas were purely nihilistic, above all the conception of voluntary Marranism with the slogan: We must all descend into the realm of evil in order to vanquish it from within.”

Scholem calls the “disappearance of shame” an “awkward problem” which, for him shows duplicity and complexity at its height since, after all, shame is deeply connected to what he calls the “unity of Jewish feeling and belief.” Without morality and shame, Scholem suggests that Judaism goes from a simple religion to a complex and duplicitous religion. To be sure, we see this at its height in the Sabbatinian cult that formed around Jacob Frank. Scholem calls his “Book on the Words of the Lord” – which has “dark sayings” such as “the subversion of the Torah can become its own fulfillment” and “great is the sin committed for its own sake” – “perhaps the most remarkable ‘holy writ’ which has ever been produced.”   It is a book full of duplicity and complexity and this, Scholem argues, ultimately has its roots in the Marrano experience.

In contrast to all of this, Scholem, in the final chapter of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, argues that the Hasidim “neutralized the messianic idea.” But what many people miss is that this neutralization had a lot to do with its emphasis on simplicity.   While the leaders of the Hasidic movement had charisma, much like Zevi and Frank, they were ultimately more interested in simplicity than in complexity and this had to do with their close bond with the “life of the community”:

And yet the Hasidim did not go the way of Sabbatianism. Its leaders were far too closely connected with the life of the community to succumb to the danger of sectarianism. Opportunities were not lacking. Yet these men whose utterances not infrequently throw light on the paradoxical nature of the mystical consciousness than anything before them – supreme paradox! – the advocates of the simple and untainted belief of the common man, and this simplicity was even glorified by them as the highest religious value. (346)

He associates this paradox with Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav whose mind has a “hyper-modern sensitiveness to problems” yet who “turned all his energy to the task of defending the simplest of all beliefs”(346).

To be sure, the turn from complexity to simplicity is a key moment in Scholem’s text. And it would be amiss not to see that, between Benjamin and Scholem and despite their love of paradox, they both had a deep interest in simplicity. And, as we can see above, Arendt also had a distaste for duplicity and complexity. She was more interested in brining the public and the private together than in affirming an exterior that was contrary to one’s interior.

What we find in this thread, I aver, is that there were all interested in how Jewishness and modernity give birth to and constantly renew the tension between complexity and simplicity.   And perhaps, as Benjamin once held, simplicity which is connected to, as Scholem might say, the “life of the community,” a “beacon of hope.”   Or, it could be, for someone who – like you and I – is immersed in a world inundated with duplicity, fatalism, and lies and lives a life of “unhappy dualism.”

Antonin Artaud: “Authentic Madmen,” Exclusion, and Spiritual Waste


Antonin Artaud, a Parisian actor, poet, and author of the celebrated “The Theater and Its Double” – the creator of the “Theater of Cruelty” – scaled the edge of madness in his work and eventually ended up in the madhouse. Speaking to his affliction, in 1947, Antonin Artaud wrote a literary-performance kind of piece entitled “Van Gough, the Man Suicided by Society.” It isn’t simply about Van Gough, it’s about Artaud and the artists who he loved and admired. He saw most of them as “authentic madmen” who were “suicided by society.” Artaud, impassioned, mad, and raving, writes…to “you,” society:

You dismiss as delirious a consciousness that is active even as you strangle it with your vile sexuality. And this is precisely the level on which poor van Gogh was chaste,

            Chaste as a seraph or a maiden cannot be, because it was they

Who fomented

And nourished in the beginning the vast machinery of sin….

Artaud goes on to claim that van Gogh was “untouched by sin” and “madness.” He also claims that there are “authentic madmen” who “guard themselves against sin”:

The body of van Gogh was untouched by any sin, was also untouched by madness which, indeed, sin alone can bring. And I do not believe in Catholic sin, but I do believe in the erotic crime which in fact all the geniuses of earth, the authentic madmen of the asylums, have guarded themselves against, or if not, it was because they were not (authentically) mad.

Artaud describes the “authentic madman” in the following terms:

It is a man who preferred to become mad, in the socially accepted sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honor.

What is this “certain superior idea of human honor?”

The cruelty against the madman shows us what it is by way of negation:

For a madman is also a man whom society did not want to hear and whom it wanted to prevent from uttering certain intolerable truths.

Society kills truth, in other words, by way of silence. And, ultimately, truth, for Artaud, is persecuted and driven mad.   For Artaud, madness is deeply tied to exclusion.

Near the end of his life, Artaud thrived in waste, which is excluded from the body. His poem, “Here Lies” spells out his wasted, abject life as spiritual. A final vision of madness (minus the authenticity), a cosmic vision of waste:

I, Antonin Artaud, am my son, my father, my mother, and myself

Leveler of the idiotic periplus on which procreation is impaled,

The periplus of papa-mama

And child,

Soot of my grandma’s ass,

Much more than of father mother’s…


To make us a little more disgusted with ourselves,

Being the unusable body,

Made out of meat and crazy sperm,

The body hung, from before the lice,

Sweating on the impossible table

Of heaven

Its callous odor of atoms,

Its alcoholic smell of abject