Don’t Be a Nebbish-Hipster, Vote for Me: Naftali Bennett’s Recent Political-Promo Video

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The nebbish and the schlemiel, unfortunately, often get confused.   For instance, although Gary Shteyngart clearly plays a schlemiel in many of his novels (including the last one), Random House, his publisher, has decided to run a nebbish campaign. They have made a “trailer” that casts Shtyengart – the “little failure” – as a nebbish; and in a recent interview they call him a “hot nebbish.” What saddens me about this move is that Shteyngart’s concession to Random House suggests that he is selling the schlemiel out in the name of advertising his book, more profits, and gaining popularity.   This obviously does a disservice to the comic character that this blog is dedicated to. That said, the nebbish can not only be used for capital gains, as Random House, with Shtyengart’s blessing, has done; it can also be used for political reasons as a recent video promoting the Israeli politician Naftali Bennett demonstrates.

What’s most interesting about the video is that it begins by turning the schlimazel into a nebbish. Instead of the schlemiel spilling the soup on the schlimazel, which is the crux of the popular schlemiel joke, a waitress – who is clearly not a schlemiel – spills coffee on what appears to be an Israeli who looks like a transplanted New York Hipster.   A schlimazel would get upset about the spillage, but the Hipster-nebbish apologizes. One of the most interesting scenes, which echoes a key scene from Woody Allen’s film Anything Else, involves apologizing for getting hit by another car.

In Allen’s film, the apology is not the last word; it leads to Allen, in an uncharacteristic move in his films, taking revenge. In this moment in film history, Allen goes from being a nebbish to a “man.”

In contrast, the Israeli-hipster in Bennett’s caricature never stops apologizing; it is the crux of the joke. The punch line, which comes at the end, is to that the hipster-nebbish is really Bennet. He takes off the mask of the nebbish Hipster (the alien character of the diaspora) and “stops apologizing.”   In effect, he becomes, like Allen in Anything Else, a man (that is, an Israeli).   The message is old and new; it’s built into a Zionist ideology that contrasts diaspora (powerlessness, apologetics, impotence) with homeland (power, responsibility, autonomy).

Following the analogy, Bennett is suggesting that Israelis, who want to take their “country back,” need to stay away from New York hipsterdom and Ha’aretz which is, in this video, associated with appeasement and powerlessness . The connotation is obvious: those who side with left-leaning Jewishness belong in the New York (the Diaspora) and, for all their apologetics, are nebbishes.   In a world where power exerts itself on a daily basis, they are the impotent losers.

To better understand what is at stake in this political use of the nebbish, we need to clearly define the nebbish character.

I recently organized a panel entitled “New Perspectives on the Schnorrer, the Nebbish, and the Schlemiel” for the 2014 Association of Jewish Studies Annual Conference.   The paper on the nebbish, by the scholar Jenny Caplan, made a careful distinction between the schlemiel and the nebbish. I will recount some of what Caplan said so as to show that the hipster-nebbish fits very well into a Zionist framework of Diaspora (powerlessness) and Homecoming (power).

Caplan began her talk by drawing on Leo Rosten’s definition of the nebbish – from his book The Joys of Yiddish – as “an innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless unfortunate. A sad sack. A loser.” Caplan notes that the nebbish, in contrast to the schlemiel, has to “constantly pick up what the schlemiel knocks over.”   While the schlemiel is existential and spills this or that by virtue of his own miscalculations, the nebbish is left walking after the schlemiel picking up the mess.   As Caplan points out, the schlemiel knocks things over while the nebbish picks them up. The “nebbish is subservient to the relationship.”

But there is more to the story and that has to do with the nebbish’s masculinity. As Caplan notes, the nebbish may have emerged out of the “overall stereotyping of European Jewish masculinity.”   But how did it end up re-emerging in America? To better understand the historical origins, Caplan cites Rachel Shukert who, in an article for Tablet, makes a claim for the nebbish’s historical precedent and creates a typology of the nebbish, which includes the hipster and even some schlemiels as nebbishes.

According to Shukert, the origins of powerlessness in America have to do with the feeling of helplessness that came out of a “single minded focus on Aushwitz.” This, claims Shukert crated a new generation of Jews who thought of themselves as hopeless victims.   Caplan disagrees with Shukert and argues for what she calls the “nebbish-as-alter-ego-effect” or the “Clark Kent Effect.”

For Caplan, it is the contrast between powerful and powerlessness that is at the heart of the nebbish stereotype. As Caplan notes with respect to Superman, there can only be something pitiable about Clark Kent (who is a Nebbish) because of Superman.   In other words, without the presentation of power (Superman), his (Clark Kent’s) powerlessness would have no meaning.   We can see what she calls the “Clark Kent Effect” in Bennett’s clip. It works well with contrasts between Israelis (as Supermen) and New York Hipster-Nebbishes (as Clark Kents). Moreover, Bennett does a Clark Kent move by taking off his hipster mask at the end of the clip. The Israeli, in this sense, is Superman and this hipster is the poor loser.

We may pity the hipster nebbish in this short clip, but this pity is ineffectual, politically.   As one variant of Zionist ideology would suggest, Jews need to leave the “impotence” of the nebbish behind and take responsibility for ourselves.   Constant apology, in this ideological sense, is a sign of powerlessness and weakness.   And while Random House can sell more books by way of making Shteyngart into a nebbish (“a little failure”), Bennett can make himself more politically viable by using the hipster-nebbish as a foil to the Israeli superman.   The nebbish sells books and can be used to win votes.

To be sure, this promotional video is a revival of age-old stereotypes that were once used by early Zionists. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the German Zionists (as opposed to the Eastern European ones) conflated the schlemiel with the nebbish. And they did this because they wanted to leave the schlemiel behind. Bennett does this because he wants to leave the nebbish behind. Like the schlemiel for German-Jews, the Nebbish doesn’t belong in Israel.   The nebbish is not the “new Jew.” It is the old Jew, the ghetto bound, diasporic Jew who must always appease the powerful. But the nebbish lives on after the establishment of a Jewish State. And, as this video suggests, it has taken the form of the hipster who lives, as this caricature suggests, by virtue of apology. The nebbish, like a man-child, can’t stand up for himself; and, in Israel, this is the foil for a political ideology that is based on the idea that one cannot appease the bully: one must stand up to them and this is something that hipster-nebbish is incapable of doing.   This is, as Jenny Caplan might say, the “Clark Kent Effect.”   And, as we can see from this video, it can work well in Israel since it appeals to a group of possible voters who see appeasement and apology as a legacy of the diaspora (emblematized and caricatured as the New York Styled hipster) or else the “wrong way” to deal with internal and external foes.  In other words, the nebbish-hipster belongs in New York, not Tel Aviv.  It is this idea that fueled a lot of early Zionism and it looks like its back but this time it has changed its clothes and reads Ha’aretz.

Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part II

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After explaining how the Yiddish writers (“the writers of sweetness”) came out of a world that made “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” Howe and Greenberg define the themes of Yiddish literature which correlated with this Eastern European world: “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured”(39).   Howe and Greenberg are quite cognizant that this world died in the Holocaust. However, what one might miss is the fact that, in making their case for Yiddish literature, they write about these themes as if they could be generalized and used as a counter-valence to the Western and American obsession with heroism in the post war years. The value of this counter-valence comes out in their reading of the main character in Yiddish literature: the schlemiel. Read against western literature, it comes across as the anti-hero:

A culture that has been able to resist the temptations of worldly power – or has been blocked at the threshold of those temptations – will naturally favor an image of heroism very different from the one we know in Western literature. (39)

Howe and Greenberg point out how the movement from “hybris to humility,” which we find in the “Aristotelian formula” is not “organic to Yiddish literature.” To be sure, the schlemiel character is, from start to finish, humble. There is no such movement. In a footnote to this claim, Howe and Greenberg point out how this anti-hero and its lack of progress into history and heroism is antithetical to not only Western literature and Aristotle but also to Zionism:

The prevalence of this theme may also help explain why Zionists have been tempted to look with impatience upon Yiddish literature. In the nature of their effort, the Zionists desired to retrieve – or improvise – an image of Jewish heroism; and in doing so they could not help finding large portions of Yiddish literature an impediment….Having for so long been exposed to the conditions of powerlessness, Yiddish culture could not quickly accustom itself to the climate of power. (39)

From here, Howe and Greenberg argue that the anti-heroic element can be found in the rejection of “historical aggrandizement.”   Tevye, for them, is the “embodiment of the anti-heroic Jewish hero whose sheer power of survival and comment makes the gesture of traditional heroism seem rather absurd”(40).   Not only his language but also his “ironic shrug” is symbolic of this ahistorical, anti-heroism.

Howe and Greenberg point out, however, how Aleichem had more patience with this anti-heroism while I.L. Peretz had less. Perhaps because Peretz was more fed up with anti-heroism and wanted to enter history, they put this in quotation marks, “modern.” This suggests that both Greenberg and Howe have sympathies with Aleichem’s project which, in their view, challenges the modern view of power and heroism.

The character that Zionist and more “modern” Yiddish writers want to leave behind is the little man, the “kleine mentschele”(40).   It is “he, the long-suffering, persistent, loving ironic” character whom “the Yiddish writers celebrate.” He “lives in the world” while the heroes of Western literature conquer it.

Out of the humble, little man come “a number of significant variations and offshoots.” One of these is the schlemiel, par excellence: “the wise or sainted fool who has often given up the householder’s struggle for dignity (think of Tevye) and thereby acquired the wry perspective of the man on the outside”(40).

Howe and Greenberg evoke I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” as an example of the “wise or sainted fool”(41).   Their description of Gimpel is evocative on different registers that are at once religious and secular. He has a “halo of comic sadness”:

He acquires, with the piling up of his foolishness, a halo of comic sadness, and..in the end, his foolishness innocence triumphs over the wisdom of the world”(41).

Although Howe and Greenberg note that “Gimpel is the literary grandson of Peretz’s Bontsha Schweig,” they point out how he is a different kind of schlemiel since Singer, as opposed to Peretz, was more interested in preserving the character.   Howe discusses two other examples of the holy fool, schlemiel in this section, but he ends with a meditation on the child as the ultimate heroic anti-hero.

Hand in hand with the anti-heroic Jewish hero, and more at the center of things than the sainted fool, goes the Jewish child, precocious, ingenious, deprived yet infinitely loved. (41)

What’s interesting about his characterization is that he cites Sholem Aleichem’s Motl as an example. This reading is interesting because for Saul Bellow, Ruth Wisse, and Sidra Ezrahi, Motl is not simply a child; he is a man-child, a schlemiel. Howe and Greenberg’s effort to give him a different category, as an offshoot of the humble anti-hero, suggest that there is something about Motl that is more powerful than all of the other schlemiel types. And that something is love. In contrast to how Dickens, Graham Greene, and Henry James, who have children who are “unloved and brutalized,” the children in Yiddish literature are loved. To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this love for children in Yiddish literature is part and parcel of the love of “the poor, the weak” and the “insulted” that emerges out of the Yiddish world. However, in their description, there is a moment of universalization:

For whatever the deficiencies of Yiddish culture, the power of love remains; for the child, the poor, the weak, the insulted and injured everywhere. It is the power at the heart of the Yiddish tradition. (42).

The word “everywhere” suggests that Howe and Greenberg find the love for the child, the poor, and the injured, which is particular to Yiddish culture, to be its greatest “power.” Howe and Greenberg suggest that the schlemiel – and the Yiddish culture it emerges out of – can present us with a universal that we can, today, learn from…even though the world that gave birth to it is gone. It presents a different, “sweeter” way to look at the world which, though not heroic in the western sense, is compassionate and can give hope.

But, as I noted, what happens when that world is gone? How does this universal live on if there is no world to nurture it? And doesn’t this relation to power emerge, as Hannah Arendt once said, out of worldlessness (not the world)? Instead of making “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” our world does the opposite. Unless, that is, we were to sink into a poverty and powerlessness much like the world of the Yiddish writers and, out of this, to find compassion and love rather than cynicism. It seems as if Howe envisions a world and an attitude that doesn’t emulate “crisis” and harsh realism so much as a “sweet” kind of realism that is based on love. And his examples of such a world are to be found in the aesthetics it produces. They are his guide and are the remnant of a feeling that could speak truth to power.

Lest we not forget, Howe and Greenberg wrote these words in the 1950s. How would they fare today? Are we, in our frustration with power, heroism, and Empire (as Hardt and Negri would say), looking for the schlemiel? Are we looking for the “writers of sweetness” who can give us characters that emerge out of poverty and remain anti-heroes from start to finish? Are we, today, looking for characters that evince compassion or are we looking for, as Howe would say, history, greatness, and heroism? And if Howe is with Aleichem rather than Peretz, would that suggest that his greatest enemy is…history? Are we looking for the world or for worldlessness? After all, Howe suggests that the schlemiel is not interested in heroism or making history so much as being in solidarity with those who don’t make history but are wounded by it: the poor, the injured, etc.   Or is it the case that the schlemiel is not so much a free choice so much as a choice that is made as a result of being….without history and…worldless?

Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part I

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In the 1950s, Irving Howe took it as one of his tasks to introduce Yiddish literature to an American audience. This involved not just a translation project, which he engaged in with Eliezer Greenberg, Saul Bellow, and others, but it also involved writing different introductions to collections and books on Yiddish literature. In the middle of their introduction to A Treasury of Jewish Stories, Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe make the case for Yiddish literature. But unlike the other introductions Howe did, this introduction, written in the 1950s, is special since it argues for Yiddish literature against the then prevailing demand for “intense” literature:

We live in a time when the literature most likely to be valued by serious people is intense, recalcitrant, and extreme; when the novel is periodically combed for images of catastrophe; and the possibilities of life seem available only through ultimates, prophecies, and final judgments. (37)

We are more interested in the true “voice of crisis” since we are “creatures of crisis.” However, Howe and Greenberg suggest that “it would be good if we could also celebrate another kind of literature: the kind that does not confront every moment the harsh finalities of experience, or strip act to its bare motive, or flood us with anguish over the irrevocability of death”(37). This literature, which comes from the “writers of sweetness,” who value those “milder emotions,” is Yiddish literature.

Howe’s characterization of Yiddish writing, against the literature of crisis, is fascinating. It suggests that against the cynicism that comes with modern literature and its obsession with crisis, Yiddish literature offers hope. The “writers of sweetness…do not assume evil to be the last word about man.” And they do not “suppose heroism to be incompatible with humbleness”(37).

These words about heroism and humbleness are the preface to Howe and Greenberg’s introduction not just of Yiddish literature but also of the schlemiel to an American audience. To do this, they make the case for sweetness, which they see as synonymous with the compatibility of heroism and humbleness:

Sweetness is a quality our age suspects. Not many of us are sweet or care to be; and those few who are seem almost ashamed of their gift. (37)

According to Howe and Greenberg, the sweetness they refer to finds its origin in worldlessness:

The East European Jews could be as greedy as anyone else, and as unscrupulous in their pursuit of livelihood; but they were cut off from the world at an all too visible point; they knew that the fleshpots, tempting as they might be, were not for them. Who in the shtetl world was not finally a luftmensch, a trader who deal in air, exchanging nothing for nothing and living off the profits? (38)

Howe and Greenberg characterized this “precarious position” of sweet worldlessness in terms of a “symbolic national gesture” – namely, “the ironic shrug.” Moreover, this precarious position is political; it made a “feeling of fraternity with the poor.”

To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this worldlessness was a virtue since it challenged the status quo and resisted power: “the world of the East European Jews made impossible the power-hunger, the pretensions of aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life”(38).

To emphasize this, they put the following sentence in italics to describe the greatest moral power of Yiddish literature:

The virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured – these, finally, are the great themes of Yiddish literature. (38)

Appealing to a rhetoric of identification and commitment, Howe and Greenberg argue that the “writers of sweetness” “wrote from a firm sense of identification, an identification that was simultaneously inheritance and choice; and this was the source of their moral security”(39).   Their identification and commitment was to the “power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, etc.” This identification, claims Howe and Greenberg, has nothing to do with “shtetl nostalgia” and it is not “uniquely Jewish.” However, it is “only that the Jews – with God’s help – have had more occasion than most peoples to look into the matter.”

Howe’s appeal to the particular and the universal are, in this instance, very interesting. His reading of the “writers of sweetness” suggests that Yiddish writers have something to teach an age that has become to cynical and obsessed with heroism. But, at the same time, he suggests that more people can write in these ways and have solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the injured. Anyone can look into the matter and become a “writer of sweetness.” However, the Jews have an advantage since their history, their worldlessness, has forced them to reflect on their state. The “ironic shrug” and the schlemiel are two figures that emerge out of this reflection.

….to be continued…

Anything Can Happen: Progress, Pessimism, and Stephane Moses on “The Time of Possibles”

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I was raised in small town America. My family, my teachers, and my coaches always encouraged me to think in terms of progress. To be sure, my experience is not unique. Built in to American life is the belief that things can only get better; progress is inevitable. However, I also remember learning that in life anything is possible. Life is full of possibilities and I should believe that anything can happen for the better and for the worse. Judaism integrates both ideas. There is a movement towards a Messianic end, but it doesn’t seem to happen in a progressive sense. Gershom Scholem, in his discussion of the Messianic, points out that, for the Utopian/Apocolyptic thinkers, the Messianic moment will, necessarily, come as a surprise. It is, as he notes, an irruption into history. And by history, he means an understanding of history that puts progress at its core.

In his book, The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem, Stephane Moses looks into how three Jewish-German thinkers, between the two World Wars – Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem – made it one of their main tasks to introduce an account of Jewish, Messianic time that would challenge the Western notion of history and progress. The purpose of this conception of time – which Moses calls a “time of possibles” – is to prompt us to think differently about our existential relationship to time. By putting more emphasis on the moment, with all of its possibilities, our sense of time, selfhood, and relationship change radically.

Moses points out how all three thinkers “presented a radical critique of historical Reason and its axioms: the idea of continuity, the idea of causality, and the idea of progress”(10). He dubs the latter an “optimistic vision of history conceived as a permanent march toward the final realization of humanity”(10). Using this term, one wonders whether the three thinkers reading of time is “pessimistic.”     After all, if history is not going toward an end and if, as he argues, in their work “the absurdity of every theodicy imminent in history is proclaimed,” what is left over in the wake of their critique?

Moses points out that their thinking emerged in the “face of human suffering.”   They realized that “past suffering is not abolished even by a triumphant future, which claims to give them (these moment of suffering in history) meaning”(11). This would suggest that the remnant of this view would be a view of life as immense irredeemable suffering.

However, even though this view would expose us to such suffering and a “direct experience of historical time perceived in the qualitative difference of each instance,” it “also opens toward a multiplicity of possible futures.”   Now, from the present, “many divergent paths can lead to different futures” and this, suggests Moses, should give us hope.   However, the hope is limited because the future is unpredictable.

Although Moses notes that this reading of time “could” lead them to a “pessimistic conception of history,” Moses goes on to note how it didn’t. They all decided to bank on hope: “Yet, for Rosenzweig, as for Benjamin and Scholem, the end of belief in a meaning of history did not involve abolishing the idea of hope”(12).  This belief opens itself up to the “advent” of “utopia” at “each moment in time.”

He calls this model, which they all share, a “model of a random time” wherein the “immanent realization of the ideal becomes conceivable again.”   However, as Moses notes, the Messianic, whenever it entered into history “ended in bitterness and frustration.” In this aside, I think there is a problem that Moses overlooks: what if the “advent” of the ideal seems immanent and people grab hold of it only to find that it fails? Won’t they go from having a view of time hinged in hope to one hinged in pessimism?

Should we, rather, in the spirit of the Jewish tradition, wait for the Messianic moment rather than force it? But what does it mean that we seize on to such an advent once it, apparently, comes?

The interesting thing is that these advents come across as “ruptures” in the history of progress which, one can imagine, create crisis, fear, and pessimism not, by and large, hope in new futures and a “new time of possibles.” What interests me most, in relation to these times of possibles, is the question of how to interpret them and relate to their advent. Simply thinking about them, in the general sense suggested by Moses – by way of Rosenzweig, Scholem, and Benjamin – is not enough.

Since I am very interested in the philosophy of comedy and its relation to Jewish idea of time and timing, this Moses’ reflections take on another dimension for me. Because, as many Jewish comedians know, what happens…happens and when a comedian has a moment open up he or she needs to figure out how to work with it.

To be sure, Jews have, throughout history, maintained what Moses calls the “time of the possible.” And have always been looking for the moment when an advent would open up a new future for the Jews. However, Jews have also learned to be careful about such moments. Relating to history and its interruptions creates a complex response for Jews – it always has – the question is always whether a moment is at hand or the effacement of possibility.   Reading Moses against the grain, I’d suggest a reading of the advent in terms of a pessimistic and optimistic relation to history since the Utopian relation is something that Jews have become very careful about due to the lessons of living under Pogroms, the Holocaust, and centuries of religious hatred and anti-semitism. Jewish comedy, with its bittersweet moments, has this awareness built in.

As Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel – Motl, The Cantor’s Son – notes, after he hears of his father’s passing – a time when the future opens up to him:

Never do I remember being as special as I am now. Why am I so special? My father Peysi the cantor, as you know, died on the first day of Shevuos, and I was left an orphan.

This rupture is bittersweet. It is a day when he is “special,” more special than ever; but what makes him special is that he is an orphan.

What Happens When An Idiot Reflects on a Beheading: On Dostoevsky’s Reading of the Death Sentence and Certain Death in “The Idiot”

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We can have little doubt that most Yiddish writers read The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. And it is odd that, up until now, few schlemiel theorists have looked into the parallels between Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin (“the idiot”) and the schlemiel (which we find in writers like Mendel Mocher Sforim, I.L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem).   The only schlemiel theorist to suggest a relationship between the schlemiel and anything Russian is Sanford Pinsker, in The Schlemiel as Metaphor.   However, he doesn’t mention the link vis-à-vis Russian literature so much as Russian folklore. And he does so in passing.

What I would like to do, in a preliminary manner, is read Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin against different schlemiel characters.   One odd scene in his novel, in which there are no parallels in Yiddish literature, is Prince Myshkin’s recounting of a beheading. In contrast to Sholem Aleichem’s portrayal of death, as apprehended by Motl (in his last novel Motl, the Cantor’s Son), Dostoevsky’s portrayal has more depth and pathos. Aleichem stays on the surface, Dostoevsky does not. Dostoevsky’s character has insight into death, while Aleichem’s character does not.

Although Prince Myshkin is absent minded and simple, when it comes to death something else emerges. At the outset of the book, Prince Myshkin recounts a beheading to the secretary of a General he is visiting.   He comes upon this subject when the secretary asks him about Switzerland, where the Prince (like Dostoevsky himself) had spent some time in before returning to Russia. The conversation turns toward the topic of capital punishment. The secretary notes that Russia doesn’t have capital punishment (which, the commentators note, was false and there are different ideas as to why Dostoevsky would write this).   Prince Myshkin says, however, that he witnessed capital punishment in France; namely, beheading: “In France they always cut their heads off”(22).   The secretary, astonished, asks about whether they scream and the Prince gives a description to illustrate how they don’t even have time to “scream”:

“Hardly! It’s instantaneous. The man is laid down, and a broad knife drops, it’s a special machine called a guillotine, heavy, powerful…The head bounces off before you can blink an eye. The preparations are the bad part. When they read the sentence, get everything ready, tie him up, lead him to the scaffold, then it’s terrible! People gather, even women, though they don’t like women to watch”(22).

Myshkin, who in the novel is recognized for his talent of drawing portraits, descries the face of the dying man in detail and, with acute precision, shows that he thinks of deep philosophical questions about death. He relates them all back to the commandment “do not kill” and shows us that he is truly puzzled by the act of murder by way of guillotine. It gives him a taste of fear, an experience that is, for him, alien since it is contrary to his innocence and trust. It is a discovery:

“And I tell you, believe it or not, he wept as he climbed the scaffold, white as paper. Is it possible? Isn’t it terrible? Do people weep from fear? I never thought it was possible for a man who has never wept, for a man of forty-five, not a child, to weep from fear! What happens at that moment with the soul, what convulsions is it driven to? It’s an outrage on the soul, and nothing more! It’s said, “Do not Kill.” So he killed, and then they kill him? No, that’s impossible.”

The biggest discovery, however, is that something is done that is “impossible”; namely, that a person is killed for killing.   As the prince speaks, the narrator tells us that he “grew animated” and “a slight flush came to his face.” The secretary looks now at Prince Myshkin and wonders whether the Prince is really an idiot; “perhaps he, too, was a man of imagination and an inclination to thinking”(23). This possibility suggests that the idiot and the thinker – who reflects on death and justice – are opposites.

When the secretary observes that “It’s a good thing there’s not much suffering…when the head flies off”(23), the Prince replies with a distinction between “certain” death (by the “death sentence” and guillotine) and “hope.”

“Think: if there’s torture, for instance, then there’s suffering, wounds, bodily pain, and it means that all that distracts you from inner torment, so that you only suffer from the wounds until you die. And yet the chief, the strongest pain may not be in the wounds, but in knowing for certain that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this second – your soul will fly out of your body and you’ll no longer be a man, and its’ for certain – the main thing is that it’s for certain.” (23)

Certain death is the worst kind of death since one is forced to know it; in contrast, uncertain death is better:

“To be killed by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than to be killed by robbers, stabbed at night, in the forest or however, certainly he hopes he’ll be saved til the very last minute. There have been examples when a man’s throat has already been cut, and he still hopes, or flees, or pleads.”(23)

Myshkin tells us that the “death sentence” is too much for the mind.   It drives it mad and deprives man of his humanity. But this isn’t his idea. He evokes Christ as the source of this distinction: “Christ spoke of this suffering and horror. No you can’t treat a man like that!” And this reference makes sense since Dostoevsky, in a letter to his niece, made it know that he wanted to create a comic character whose beauty was modeled on Christ.

However, in lines like these, one doesn’t find comedy so much as a seriousness that is rooted in a deep understanding of suffering. Aleichem’s Motl, in contrast, is not a portraitist; he is a caricaturist. His father’s death is distant from him. He can’t understand it. Perhaps the difference between Aleichem and Dostoevsky’s approaches to death, via the fool, is that Aleichem is more interested in maintaining an ironic relation to death while Dostoevsky is not. By doing this, Aleichem creates a comic ambivalence about the schlemiel that Dostoevsky does not with the idiot.   There is a tension between hope and skepticism in Aleichem gesture. Moreover, Irving Howe tells us – by way of Saul Bellow – that in Aleichem there the laughter we have at Aleichem’s Motl cannot displace the tears felt by Aleichem’s readership who all knew suffering intimately. Who had survived Pogroms and violence.   The relationship with suffering, via the schlemiel, is different.   Dan Miron suggests that this relationship is different because Motl is a figure of a progressive Jewishness that wants to leave a dying Europe behind for America, the land of discovery.   In America, he doesn’t discover the “death sentence” or “beheading.” And unlike Prince Myshkin who, in Russia, discovers that the fool is the target of society, Motl, in America, discovers life and hope.

The One Who Promises and The One Who Would Rather Not: On Nietzsche, Debt, and “The Dude” – Part I

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Debt. We all have it. It’s overwhelming. And when we think of debt we, without a doubt, feel powerless. Countless films and TV shows have been and are casting characters who, in debt, become slackers or else criminals. There are two options: rebel against the system that creates debt – screw it over or destroy it – or just stop caring. For instance, the Dude, of the Big Lubowski, has decided to just stop caring. He is outside debt.   And he doesn’t look to make any promises. If we look at the Dude’s gestures and what “happens” to him, we can find something that speaks to being a little guy in a big system…of promises (any system: of language, society, culture, religion).   Since the Dude doesn’t really care about the past or the future, doesn’t want to make any promises, and, because he is chilling out and doesn’t invest too much in his will, he is a caricature of what Friedrich Nietzsche would call “active forgetfulness.”

To close the doors and windows of consciousness for a time; to remain undisturbed by the noise and struggle of our underworld of utility organs working with and against one another; a little quietness, a little tabula rasa of the consciousness, to make room for new things, above all for nobler functionaries, for regulation, foresight, premeditation (for our organism is an oligarchy) – that is the purpose of active forgetfulness. (57, Genealogy)

Does the Dude, “close the doors and windows of consciousness for a time” so as to make room for better things? And is he interested in making room for new things such as “regulation, foresight, and premeditation”? The Dude doesn’t have such a will and, as we can see in the film, has no interest whatsoever in “regulation, foresight, and premeditation.”

Nietzsche sees this act of “closing the windows” as a part of “active forgetfulness.” It hinging on to a “memory of the will.” The memory is active and decisive.

Now this animal which needs to be forgetful, in which forgetting represents a force, a form of robust health, has bred in itself the opposing faculty, a memory…the memory of the will.

The purpose of this “memory of the will” is to will in such a way that “strange things” can possibly happen. Nietzsche spells  this out in the most prophetic and ecstatic manner:

So that between the original “I will”, “I shall do this” and the actual discharge of the will, its act, a world of strange new things, circumstances, even acts of will may be interposed without breaking this long chain of will. But how many things this presupposes!

This is the embrace of “strange new things” that are promised, that are “presupposed,” by “active forgetfulness” and “the memory of the will.” Nietzsche thrives in this moment of simultaneous forgetfulness and memory, which, discloses what is primary: the relation of the will to diverse and strange worlds and possibilities. Since it relates to the future, it is a prophetic moment:

To ordain the future in advance in this way, man must first have learned to distinguish necessary events from chance ones, to think causally, to see and anticipate distant eventualities as if they belonged to the present, to decide with certainty what is the goal and what the means to it, and in general be able to calculate and compute. (58)

In this prophetic kind of statement, Nietzsche is describing the will as “decisive” and “certain.” It is based on seeing and anticipating “distant eventualities as if they belonged to the present.” This, it seems, is the will of science which looks to “calculate and compute” the future. Nietzsche, in embracing this kind of will, is suggesting not just a discovery of “strange worlds” but also the act of anticipating of them. Nietzsche speaks of this as one would speak of a commandment. He uses the words of necessity:

Man himself must first of all become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does! (58)

Nietzsche calls on the “one who promises,” the “individual” to stand up. The Dude doesn’t make any promises. And if he did, The Dude forgot he made them. And, whether he wills it or not, he lives in “strange worlds.” He is thrown into them. They aren’t an act of the will. Someone else’s promises landed him in one crazy situation after another. He is not the one who makes promises. He’s “The Dude.”

With the Dude, things happen.

Bored Out of My Mind: Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire’s Reflections on Boredom, Art, and Experience

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The relationship of boredom to art, entertainment, and modernity is a topic of interest to great thinkers and writers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin. For all of them, boredom is something that is born out of modernity. In many ways it is something that passes on from the aristocracy to the emerging “petit bourgeoisie.”   Karl Marx, who coined the term “petit bourgeoisie,” thought of boredom in a very negative manner. Mockingly taking a jab at GWF Hegel, he argued that “insofar as abstraction comprehends itself it is seized by an infinite boredom.”   Indeed, the highest exercise of thought is, for Marx, informed by boredom. His counter-argument to Hegel, in many ways, aims to somehow eliminate it.   But he was not alone in his distaste for this modern phenomenon. He was interested in how it affected thought and the apprehension of class difference. But thinkers and writers like Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, and Benjamin were interested in how it effected experience, literature, art, and poetry. While Kierkegaard and Baudelaire had a negative attitude towards boredom and its relationship to literature, Walter Benjamin had a more positive attitude.

In his exceptional allegory, “A Heroic Death,” Charles Baudelaire pits the artist (mime) against a Prince. He is, to be sure, the court jester. Both of them are, as we learn at the beginning, “almost friends.” However, in truth, the Prince is not an entertainer, he is an artist. But the narrator calls both of them “artists.” Obviously, the reader wonders why the Prince, a consumer of art, would be called an artist by the narrator. After all, consumers don’t produce art. They consume it. However, in suggesting that the Prince’s “worst enemy is boredom,” and that he would do anything to “eliminate it,” the narrator suggests that the Prince’s art is the art of pleasure.

From the narrator, we learn that the jester involved himself, unthinkingly, in a plot to overthrow the Prince. When the Prince finds out, he doesn’t kill him…directly. Rather, the narrator suggests that in making the jester perform, the Prince is really out to end his boredom. As a result, he performs an “experiment” on the jester so as to see what will happen when he is under pressure. This experiment is much like what we find on reality TV today. However, the narrator – and Baudelaire – is shocked by this since, in the end, the Prince, in feeling that the jester has too much power because he enraptured his audience, decides to indirectly kill him. In other words, for Baudelaire, Boredom kills. And the art of ending boredom is ultimately violent and to the detriment of the artist. Boredom doesn’t produce great art; it destroys it.

Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, also expresses a disdain for Boredom.   It is the root of not just all modern evil but evil throughout history: “What wonder, then, that the world goes from bad to worse, and that its evils increase more and more, as boredom increases, and boredom is the root of all evil” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 22).

To illustrate this, Kierkegaard goes through history, starting with the Bible, and argues how nearly every major evil was caused, in some fashion, by boredom.  Kierkegaard states as his universal proposition that “all men are bores” and launches into an interesting rant on boredom which tries to fit in as many particulars as possible within this category:

It may as well indicate a man who bores others as one who bores himself.  Those who bore others are the mob, the crowd, the infinite multitude of men in general.   Those who bore themselves are the elect, the aristocracy; and it is a curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others (24).

In contrast to Baudelaire and Kierkegaard, Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Storyteller,” argues that Boredom has a positive relationship with literature and, in fact, can be drawn on as the basis for what he calls “experience.” He argues that if a writer or storyteller is going to have an effect on his or her listeners then they must appeal to the memory of the listener and this requires time and what he calls “relaxation.” Without “relaxation,” the reader won’t be able to “assimilate anything.” Boredom, he argues, is a modern equivalent of such relaxation:

This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a stage of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling of the leaves drives it away. (91, Illuminations)

Benjamin laments that “his nesting places” are “already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well.” In other words, people and cities and in the country are no longer bored, at least in the sense that Benjamin suggests. And when boredom disappears, “the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears.”

Reading this, one wonders if Benjamin and Baudelaire are talking about the same kind of boredom. To be sure, the boredom of the Prince is an allegorical figure for the boredom that would drive us to watch Reality TV, buy iPads, etc. However, Benjamin’s sense of boredom is one that goes hand in hand with patience, not speed. The bored individual, today, is anxious and wants to get rid of that feeling. Much like the Prince, they don’t have time to listen. Boredom, as Benjamin thinks of it, requires a different sense of time.

Questions for Benjamin: Why isn’t literature or a three hour movie a space that preserves boredom?   Don’t we still find time for reflection? And can’t we still have experiences? Or is our development to jagged and sporadic? Is the other kind of boredom leading us astray? Are we, as Baudelaire says, in his poem, “To the reader,” “hypocrites” because our desire for poetry or literature is based, ultimately, on boredom?  Are we so bored out of our minds that even if we think of ourselves as authentic listeners – in Benjamin’s sense – we are really….”hypocrites”?

To the Reader

Folly and error, avarice and vice,

Employ our souls and waste our bodies’ force. 


As mangey beggars incubate their lice, 


We nourish our innocuous remorse.

 

Our sins are stubborn, craven our repentance.

For our weak vows we ask excessive prices.

Trusting our tears will wash away the sentence,

We sneak off where the muddy road entices.

 

Cradled in evil, that Thrice-Great Magician,

The Devil, rocks our souls, that can’t resist;

And the rich metal of our own volition

Is vaporised by that sage alchemist.

 

The Devil pulls the strings by which we’re worked: 


By all revolting objects lured, we slink

Hellwards; each day down one more step we’re jerked

Feeling no horror, through the shades that stink.

 

Just as a lustful pauper bites and kisses

The scarred and shrivelled breast of an old whore, 


We steal, along the roadside, furtive blisses,

Squeezing them, like stale oranges, for more.

 

Packed tight, like hives of maggots, thickly seething


Within our brains a host of demons surges.

Deep down into our lungs at every breathing,

Death flows, an unseen river, moaning dirges.

 

If rape or arson, poison, or the knife 


Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff 


Of this drab canvas we accept as life —

It is because we are not bold enough!

 

Amongst the jackals, leopards, mongrels, apes,

Snakes, scorpions, vultures, that with hellish din, 


Squeal, roar, writhe, gambol, crawl, with monstrous shapes,

In each man’s foul menagerie of sin —

 

There’s one more damned than all. He never gambols,


Nor crawls, nor roars, but, from the rest withdrawn,


Gladly of this whole earth would make a shambles


And swallow up existence with a yawn…

 

Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams 


Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother. 


You know this dainty monster, too, it seems —

Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!

 

(Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)