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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….to be continued…

 

 

Introducing Larry Abramov, Your Humble Diarist in “Super Sad True Love Story”

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Thomas Mann, near the beginning of his book Death in Venice, presents a figure of a man on a boat who, though old, is dressed as if he is young. Mann uses the most grotesque terms to describe him. The narrator tells us that Aschenbach, the main character, is appalled by the juxtaposition of youth and old age. And this evokes an experience of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger might call an experience of angst or what Freud would call the uncanny. At first, he sees a man in a “bright yellow summer suit of ultra-fashionable cut, with a red necktie, and a rakishly tilted Panama, surpassed all the others in his crowing good humor.” But when he looks closer the “good humor” and gay-candor become terrifying:

But as soon as Aschenbach looked at him more carefully, he discovered with a kind of horror that the youth was a cheat. He was old, that was unquestionable. There were wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The faint crimson of the cheeks was paint, the hair under his brilliantly decorated straw hat was a wig; his neck was hollow and stringy, his turned-up mustache and imperial on his chin were dyed; the full set of yellow teeth which he displayed when he laughed, a cheap artificial plate…Fascinated with loathing, Aschenbach watched him intercourse with his friends….He felt as thought everything were not quite the same as usual, as though some dreamlike estrangement, some peculiar distortion of the world were beginning to take possession of him.

What I love about Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story is the fact that, unlike Mann’s Aschenbach, we are given an opportunity to chuckle about the juxtaposition of age and youth (that is middle-age and youth). Instead of pulling back in horror and anxiety, Shteyngart gives a kind of sad-charm to the juxtaposition.  

At the outset of the novel, entitled “Do not go Gentle,” we read a diary entry by the main character, Larry Abramov. He is a middle aged man who tells us that he has made a “major decision: I am never going to die.”   His description of how he is going to live on beyond his body is comical. He tells us, with a faux confidence, that “others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain.”

In pop-cultural confidence, Abramov tells himself (after all, it’s his diary) to stop “them” from telling us that “life’s a journey” where you end up somewhere. He assures himself that they are going nowhere, while he is going somewhere:

When I beg the pilot of the rickety UnitedContinentalDeltamerican plane currently trembling its way across the Atlantic to turn around and head straight back to Rome and into Eunice Park’s fickle arms, that’s a journey.(3)

But he won’t beg him. He’s a schlemiel. And this is his fictional attempt at romantic heroism.  Yes, he will return to the woman he is in love with: Eunice Park. But how?  After writing this, he can’t keep his mind on the romantic mission.  He’s a distracted anti-hero.  He changes the subject in what  seems a sudden revelation. And that revelation is not about returning to her on a romantic journey, but the meaning of a line in a popular Whitney Houston song.  It speaks to his obsession with “living on.”

But wait. There’s more, isn’t there? There’s our legacy. We don’t die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of the DNA, Mama’s corkscrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip, au buh-lieve thuh chil’ren ah our future. I’m quoting here from “The Greatest Love All,” by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP. Utter nonsense. The children are our future only in the most narrow, transitive sense. They are our future until they too perish. The song’s next line, “Teach them well and let them lead the way,” encourages adult’s relinquishing of selfhood in favor of future generations. (4)

He thinks this self-negation (for the children and their future) is foolish. But when he reflects on the meaning of Whitney Houston’s line about “ah chil’ren” this brings him to reflect, once again, on Eunice Park.  And in this reflection, we see why he charmed by her: she is young and innocent.  The two, taken together, bring out a comical juxtaposition of youth and middle age:

Lovely and fresh in their youth; blind to mortality; rolling around, Eunice Park-like, in the tall grass with their alabaster legs; fawns, sweet fawns, all of them, gleaming in their plasticisty; at one with the simple nature of their world. (4)

As one can see, he is drawn in by Eunice Park who is “blind to mortality” while he, apparently, is not. He sees her as an “innocent” schlemiel. And he seems to want that for himself because he is thinking about death and immortality. But, and this is the catch, he is also a schlemiel because he dreams of escaping mortality by way of technology. He has been swayed by what Dostoevsky would call the “miracle” of science. 

But unlike Thomas Mann’s narrator, we don’t see a character who is horrified of this juxtaposition of youth and age. This covering over of death evokes a different mood and has a charm that is missing in Mann’s novel.

….to be continued….

Why Do We Find Schlemiels So Charming? The Sexual Schlemiel and Freud’s Reading of Narcissism

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Schlemiels are sometimes described as “innocent” and “charming.” Hannah Arendt used these terms to describe Charlie Chaplin. And the scholar Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi uses these terms to describe different Yiddish characters in the novels of Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, and I.B. Singer.   Ezrahi, like Dan Miron, also points out that the first schlemiels of modern Yiddish literature (not folklore) – Benjamin and Senderl of Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Adventures and Travels of Benjamin the Third, are homoerotic. In a few points in the novel, Benjamin calls Senderl his wife.   This suggests that the character has a “feminine” character.

On the other hand, Philip Roth marks a shift in the schlemiel’s sexuality. Portnoy is sexually aggressive and sees himself, unlike his Yiddish compatriots, in negative terms vis-à-vis the Sabra (native born Israeli), Naomi in Portnoy’s Complaint.  His life is filled with masturbation, self-love, and loathing of those with power.  The Sabra, Naomi un-man’s him.  He is “Im-po-tent in Is-ra-el.”  In the wake of his impotence, he calls her names.  She tells him that his schlemiel humor is not “Jewish” humor – it is, rather,the humor of the ghetto.  She calls Portnoy a schlemiel.  And of all the names she calls him, this one puts him into place: he is a sexual schlemiel (in the negative sense).  But if he is impotent, reflects Roth, at least he has comedy.  He can compensate for the loss. 

In Eros and the Jews, David Biale takes notes of the shift in sexuality that we find in Roth’s Portnoy: “the image of the sexually and militarily potent Israel.”   And, coinciding with this, we have  that the image of the “impotent American Jew,” with predates this new opposition (born after 1967). However, the origins of what Biale calls the “sexual schlemiel” have deep roots.  They go through America and, as I have briefly noted above, find their way back to Yiddish literature:

The image of the sexually and militarily potent Israeli is a projection based on its opposite: the myth of impotent American Jew. The Jew as sexual schlemiel has its roots in the Yiddish theater of the Lower East Side of New York, in comedy of the borsht belt in the Catskill Mountains, and in the anti-heroes of fin de siecle Hebrew and Yiddish literature. (205)

But what makes the schlemiel charming is not its “impotence.”   In Yiddish literature, the schlemiel is not seen as impotent. He has a certain charm. It is in America that this impotence makes its debut.   However, in the case of Woody Allen (as opposed to Roth’s Portnoy) we don’t find virility or impotence. Biale says we find a “neutralization” of the stereotype that Jews are “hypersexual” (something we find in Roth’s work).   We find Allen’s sexuality to evince a kind of sexual “awkwardness” that has, in many ways, become a norm.

But what is meant by this awkwardness? And why do we find it so charming?

I’d like to venture a possibility: perhaps the schlemiel’s sexual charm has something to do with a kind of narcissism that we renounce; but, nonetheless, after renouncing, find it attractive in other people, animals, or things? This would be more of a Freudian thesis. I don’t fully agree with it, but it is worth considering for a moment.

In his essay “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” Freud suggests that people are attracted to a narcissism; they had to renounce “part of it” in order to live in society:

It seems very evident that one person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism…the charm of the a child lies to a great extent in his narcissism, his self-sufficiency and inaccessibility, just as the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey. In literature, indeed, even the great criminal and humorist compel our interest by narcissistic self-importance with which they manage to keep at arm’s length everything which would diminish the importance of their ego.

Perhaps we see this narcissism in characters like Larry David who, in Curb Your Enthusiasm. David likes to keep “at arm’s length” everything that would “diminish the importance” of his thoughts and perceptions. His looks of disgust, to be sure, have a certain kind of charm.   And his desire to keep and defend them create a kind of childishness and awkwardness vis-à-vis those around him. Freud would argue that we like it because we want some of that narcissism…which we “partially” renounced as we matured into adults.

But perhaps Biale is right and it is better for us to understand the sexual schlemiel and his or her charm through a cultural lens.  Woody Allen’s sexual schlemiel is much different from Roth’s…or Mendel Mocher Sforim’s.   And now lady-schlemiels are just as charming, perhaps, also, for culture reasons.  But isn’t narcissism always there, regardless?

To be continued….

Robin Williams and The Post-Holocaust Schlemiel in “Jacob the Liar”

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Both Roberto Benigni and Robin Williams are popular, internationally acclaimed comedic actors. Their work does a lot to open up the possibilities of comedy and expand its scope. Perhaps in an effort to test the limits of comedy, they took on one of the most difficult tasks imaginable for a comedic actor in the 20th century: addressing the Holocaust. After Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1997) and Jacob the Liar (1999), starring Robin Williams as Jacob, made their debuts, there was a major debate over whether or not, as Sander Gilman puts it, the “Shoah can be funny.” While Gilman finds these films to have “aesthetic” merits, the answer to his own question is an emphatic no.

Since both Benigni and Williams both played the innocent and naïve Jewish fool otherwise known as the schlemiel, another question comes up which Gilman does not address. Speaking to this issue and hitting on a deeper problem, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in an essay entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?” argues that “what is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter ‘nach Auschwitz’, after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as a building block of a post-Shoah universe”(Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, 2001, p287).

In other words, the question isn’t about whether Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni can accomplish the feat of using comedy, nach Auschwitz, to relate to the Holocaust so much as whether the schlemiel character that they draw on – which is one of the most important stock characters in the Jewish tradition – can or even should exist after the Holocaust.

This question is important to many scholars of the Holocaust and should be important to authors, poets, artists, and filmmakers who address the Holocaust in their work. The task of judging the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s projects – vis-a-vis literature, philosophy, and politics – ‘nach Auschwitz’ was launched by Theodor Adorno in essays and in sections of his books. Adorno is most well known for his claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. He was directing his words toward the poet Paul Celan. However, while some, like George Steiner, took Adorno literally (and making a categorical claim), others, like Lawrence Langer did not. And Langer is correct. Adorno was looking for a new kind of poetics “after Auschwitz.”

Here, the issue is comedy.

Adorno also has a little known essay about comedy and historical disaster entitled “Is Art Lighthearted?” In this essay, Adorno suggests that the lighthearted nature of comedy, after Auschwitz, must be challenged. As in his claim regarding poetry after Auschwitz, here Adorno finds an exception to the rule in Samuel Beckett’s kind of comedy:

In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectivity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)

Adorno’s approach to Beckett suggests that it is possible for comedy to exist after the Holocaust. But this is only because Beckett’s kind of comedy goes beyond the typical dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. And in doing so it creates a “laughter about the absurdity of laughter” and a “laughter about despair.” It is a “laugh that laughs at the laugh.”

Can we apply Adorno’s approach to Beckett’s humor to the schlemiel, which Robin Williams plays in Jacob the Liar? Can (or should) the schlemiel, like comedy in general, live on after the Holocaust? And, with that in mind, can we say that Williams’ portrayal of the Holocaust schlemiel was unethical, amoral, or ethical?

Prior to the Holocaust, the schlemiel was a “building block” for generations of Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement (in the 19th century), left for Europe, and landed in America. The schlemiel gave millions of Jews a way to understand themselves and survive the many defeats of history (which included pogroms). It’s humor gave them a sense of dignity when they were powerless.

In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that although the Jews suffered multiple defeats in history they could still turn to the schlemiel who won an “ironic victory.”

The traditional Western protagonist is heroic insofar as he attempts to change reality. The schlemiel becomes hero when real action is impossible and reaction remains the only way a man can define himself. As long as he moves among choices, the schlemiel is derided for his failures to choose wisely. Once the environment is seen as unalterable – and evil – his stance must be accepted as a stand or the possibilities of “heroism” are lost to him altogether. (39)

The schlemiel comically responds to historical disaster. Through word play, plot, and humor in this or that story or novel by Yiddish writers such as Mendel Mocher Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, Jewish readers could, as David Roskies says, “laugh off the traumas of history.” Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi illustrates this in a book entitled Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination where she includes a dialogue between Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel (Motl, the Cantors Son) to illustrate. He is so innocent and naïve that he can’t grasp the nature of a pogrom and the concept of evil:

I ask him what is a pogrom? All the emigrants keep talking about “pogroms” but I don’t know what they are/ Kopl says, “Don’t you know what a pogrom is? Then you’re just a baby! A pogrom is something that you find everywhere nowadays. It starts out of nothing, and one it starts it lasts for three days.”
“Is it like a fair?” “A fair? Some fair! They break windows, they bust up furniture, rip pillows, feathers fly like snow…And they beat and kill and murder.” “Whom?” “What do you mean, whom? The Jews!” “What for?” “What a question! It’s a pogrom, isn’t it?” “And so it’s a pogrom. What’s that?” “Go away, you’re a fool. It’s like talking to a calf.”

Motl, like many Yiddish schlemiel characters, is innocent. And Ezrahi argues that the idea of preserving Jews from historical trauma was not just a modern practice; it was used in relation to the attempted genocide against the Jews in Purim which is remembered on Purim. As a part of the holiday, Jews celebrate the “aborted catastrophe” and turn “defeat into triumph.” The Jewish world is “turned topsy-turvy (nahofokh-hu) for one day each year and saints and villains become interchangeable.” (“Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” are exchanged in a day of celebration where the Rabbis suggest that the Jewish people should drink so much as to not know the difference between them.) Ezrahi suggests that this carnivalesque and comical act spares Jews of having to get caught up in the trauma of history; it distances them from the disaster.

But can this act be done after Auschwitz?

Like the Purim story, Ezrahi argues that the schlemiel was a modern, Yiddish version of the comedic rewriting of history. Jacob the Liar, however, falls after the Pogroms that Aleichem included in his novel from the early 20th century and after the Holocuast.

Writing on the film (and book), Ezrahi notes that it is a “self-declared counter-narrative” to the Holocaust. It effaces the historical dimension of the ghetto and the Holocaust:

The mise-en-scene has been identified by readers as the Lodz ghetto, where Jurek Becker (the author of the novel) himself was incarcerated as a child. But like the other ghettos and camps in the fictions under consideration, the ghetto is never named, and takes on a generic quality.

Ezrahi argues that this generic quality is the “baseline” for the novel. It looks to return everything back to normal and we see this in the central theme of Jacob and his lies which look to desperately turn the clock back:

The lie that Jakob fabricates, his possession of a radio that broadcasts good news to the ghetto, is simply an editorial projection of the normal onto the abnormal. The recipients of the lie are the inhabitants of the ghetto (or all its gullible inhabitants) but its primary target is a young girl, Lina, whom Jakob adopts when her parents are deported.  (Note that Ezrahi uses the original Jakob while the American film changes it to Jacob.)

Ezrahi focuses in on the fact that Jacob’s heroic efforts “are aimed at preserving the innocence of her childhood world at all costs.” To be sure, in saying this, Ezrahi is hitting on something we find not just with the Yiddish schlemiel but also with Charlie Chaplin. Williams, much like Charlie Chaplin, plays the schlemiel and uses comedy to preserve the innocence of different characters (including himself).

Ezrahi makes a daring move and suggests that the issue of using comedy (and denying history) goes deep: it hits at theological issues. In the wake of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres argues that laughter is “a priori…hostile to the world it depicts.” While tragedy “quiets us with awe…laughter revolts” against the world.

Ezrahi suggests that the basis of this revolt – with respect to the schlemiel – is not simply a rejection of history because it can’t live in it. Rather, it evinces a messianic kind of hope that is implicit in the Jewish tradition: the hope for a better world and return to a world and a history without evil. This wish is at the core of Jewish eschatology and a utopian dream wish for a better world which smashes history.

What’s most interesting is that the audience “colludes” with the schlemiel. And this suggests that we have been very influenced by this belief in a better world so much so that we are willing to go along with this or that lie to save “innocence.”  And, in the wake of disaster, the schlemiel is the vehicle for such collusion.  Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he – like other authors of the schlemiel and actors who played the schlemiel – wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.

Robin Williams: Energy, Comic Improv, and Mystery

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Upon hearing of Robin Williams passing, I, like millions of other fans, felt we have lost one of the best comedians of the last century. I’m not able (nor do I want to attempt) to write up an overview of his comedy career noting its highlights and main themes. However, I would like to say a few things about the energy and the mystery that ran through his improvisational kind of comedy.   Unlike many comedians who would let their mania go out of control, Williams tempered it with a charm and calm.   His comedic energy was infectious and solicited great laughter in his audiences. And his act had a kind of kinetic appeal to it that was new and surprising for many people living in America. But, in its wake, it left us with a kind of darkness or mystery. And for this reason, it touched on a kind of truth that is or may be possible through a kind of comedy that makes the audience “explode” with laughter.

In The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comedy, Phil Berger introduces Robin Williams near the end of the book.   To show how unique he was, Berger points out how different he was from other comedians who were managed by Rollins Joffe & Brezner (a talent management firm).   They managed comedians like Billy Crystal, Woody Allen, David Letterman, and Martin Short. And most of the comedians they managed had a similar shtick. Robin Williams was different, and this had much to do with his energetic style and his uses of improvisation in his act. He would efface the line between himself and the audience and go with whatever he came across:

In the case of Robin Williams, the problem was that his energy-charged act was so different from those of other comics that Los Angeles talent managers couldn’t get a fix on him. Williams lived on the improvised moment, doing takeoffs on Shakespearean plays, cracking up audiences in spur-of-the-moment iambic pentameter. Plucking a flower from a ringside vase: “….and look, a gentle rose, dying here anon…like myself.” He would plunge into the crowd, reacting to what he saw or heard. Lifting a carafe of wine from a patron’s table: “Hello, Laurence Olivier for Ripple wine.” He might even retire to a table in the audience and heckle himself: “I’ve heard all that stuff before. Your material is derivative.”

Williams’ ability to switch roles on the dime made him unique. In Williams, Brezner saw a “manic” energy that had the affect of something like a “wind tunnel”:

With Williams, the challenge was to take his nearly manic, stream of consciousness style (Brezner: “He had comedic energy that rebounded through the room. It felt like you stepped into a “wind tunnel.”) and not let it get out of hand. This meant giving the act structure – a beginning, middle, and an end – that had enough slack in it for Williams to dazzle audiences with his improvisational wit and energy. “If he just did his thing,” said Brezner, “the effect was that people laughed a lot, but they wouldn’t know who he is.”

Brezner’s last line is very interesting. It suggests that Williams, at the outset of his career, didn’t have a persona like Woody Allen. Rather, Williams was trading in a kind of energetics and play that has resonance with Woody Allen’s Zelig – a character who was likened to a chameleon.

In Zelig and Williams there is a mysteriousness that is born out of a transformational and manic energy. It is highly mimetic and performative.   The laughter he evoked, as well, had a mysterious character to it. And it may have this mysteriousness because it touches on something hidden, dark, sad, and even tragic.

Writing on laughter, Jean-Luc Nancy, argues that laughter is a “gaze brought to bear on tragedy itself, in its tragic truth…the laughter is the knowledge of this truth. But it doesn’t know this truth as the content of knowledge”(“Laughter, Presence,” 366).   For Nancy, it is in the moment of laughter and comedy that “it is known, it is in laughing that laughter is the truth.”   And this truth comes forth in energetic “bursts” or “explosions,” which, when they withdraw, leave a mysterious silence.

The one bursts with the other and from the same burst, truth withdraws into laughter, into the “dim glistening of the mystery.” That is why the laughter remains mysterious – more, it is the exposition of a mystery. The burst of laughter reveals that the structure of its truth is to be hidden. (366)

Whenever I saw Williams doing comedy, I always had a sense of this kind of darkness in the wake of his routine which came across as a series of comic explosions. It was as if he pulled back from his laughter – and the explosions – so as to expose us to a dark truth. Sometimes there would be a kind of violence to his “nearly manic” routine. We see it here, in this mime routine within a film.

We also see energetic uneasiness in his earlier routines. The laughter it evokes, like the laughter that Andy Kaufmann would evoke in many of his routines discloses how Americans survive from one rapid change (or “explosion”) to another. The movement from character to character – as Zelig does – evinces a departure from identity and a series of rapid fire changes.

Williams stand-up routine, near the end of his life, brings out a kind of comedy that uses energetics to deal with a series of shocks that are distinctly America.   His comedy reminds us of what many of us share. And it shows us how survival of these shocks, as he presents them, is an American-kind-of-thing to do.

Yet, at the core of this sudden outbursts and shocks, which he comically stages for us, there is a mystery about where all of this is going. He takes us on a journey of sorts through many states, but it is really the future that is the mystery. It is not simply (or only) as Brezner believed, related to Williams’ identity. Not only do we not know who Williams is (in the wake of each of his routines), we also don’t know where we are all going. He reveals something common to us that emerges in the wake of a series of shocks that permeate out time.

Thinking back over all the comedy I saw him perform I now feel as if I understand him better than I ever did. What Williams gave me, as a child, was a way of feeling I was a part of something larger than myself and that the best way to touch that was through exaggerating experience and playing out the things that shocked me. By improvising these things, I felt as if I could touch something real and alive. But the bigger question always lingered – as it did for Zelig – who was he and who are we? And where are all of these changes taking us?

You will be missed, Robin. Thanks for making comedy real and for tapping me in to existential questions that I share with many Americans; questions that emerge out of rapid changes and the flight of history. Thanks for exposing me to the mystery of being alive, now, at this time.

 

 

 

Doofus(es) and Dork(s) in David Eggers’ “The Circle” – Take 2

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Since they sometimes overlook reality in the name of something “good” that they are a part of, optimism and hope have a comical aspect. In certain scenarios, however, overlooking such things can have negative and even tragic consequences.   The blindspots we have, if they deal with fundamental things, like the importance and meaning of privacy and freedom are a case in point.   In the enthusiasm for a utopian kind of project, which promises to transform reality or in which a transformation is actually coming out, there may be a blindness to the meaning of freedom and privacy. We see this especially, today, in our head-over-heels love for facebook, google, and social networking. We are in the midst of a major change in social life in America (and around the world) and we haven’t yet figured out the stakes with respect to freedom and secrecy. We are all to happy to give away our information and make our private life public.

In the last blog entry on David Eggers’ last novel – The Circle – I discussed the often overlooked fact that the novel has comic elements. Although these moments are few and far between, they are very special because they involve a kind of optimism and utopian hope that overlook the meaning of privacy and freedom. The author calls the two main characters out on being naïve fools in the beginning of the novel and so does an old boyfriend of one of the characters (Mae) named Mason.

As I pointed out in the last blog entry, the narrator of Eggers novel makes the comic blindness of these characters evident in the very beginning of the novel. Annie, who gets Mae into “The Circle” (a name for a company like Google), is the first to be comically profiled:

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

She is also described as a “scattershot” and a “ridiculous person” who carries around a “piece of her childhood blanket around with her in her pocket.” But Annie is not alone. The narrator tells us that most of the three people who founded the circle also have this aspect. He brings this out in his description of a painting of all three of them which is, more or less, a caricature that they may be blind to but the narrator is not:

The painting was awkward, the kind of thing a high school artist might produce. In it, the three men, the founders of the company, were arranged in a pyramid, each of them dressed in their best-known clothes, wearing expressions that spoke, cartoonishly, of their personalities.   Ty Gospodinov, the Circle’s boy-wonder visionary, was wearing nondescript glasses and an enormous hoodie, staring leftward and smiling; he seemed to be enjoying some moment, alone, turned into some distant frequency. People said he was borderline Asperger’s, and the picture seemed intent on underscoring the point. (19)

Ty, the narrator tells us, also sees himself as a kind of outsider, oddball: “Ty realized he was, at best, socially awkward, and at worst an utter interpersonal disaster”(20). He hired the “other two Wise Men, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton” to balance him out. Ty designs the core of the Circle’s system which is called “TruYou” which sounds a lot like Google Plus.  In this novel, the Google system is portrayed as something that streams all of one’s bills, identities, accounts, etc into one system:

One account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person. There were no more passwords, no multiple identities. Your devices knew who you were, and your one identity – the Tru you, unbendable and unmaskable. (21)

While the owner, Ty, and his partners, taken together, may look cartoonish, this system is utterly serious, powerful, and a force on its own. It takes on a kind of moral, disciplinary force: “TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year….the True You wave a was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition. It started with the commerce sites….Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less taken over the internet, were driven back into darkness”(22). The narrator makes sure to mention that TruYou “subsumed” all social media: “Facebook, Twitter, Google, and finally Alacrity, Zoopa, Jefe and Quan”(23).

This new system, TruYou, has the goal of creating total transparency. It will eliminate “identity theft” and unfair and prejudiced practices on the internet. And Ty, in his utopian awkwardness, believes this will be good for everyone and make society a place devoid of crime and malice which, to his mind, are based on hiding things from others.

Following these serious descriptions of TruYou, the narrator completes his description of the other two Wisemen in the picture. Emaon Bailey, “standing next to him (Ty) in the painting, semmed utterly at peace, joyful even”(24). He smiles a lot. His whole body seems to smile: “When he smiled, which was near-constantly, his mouth smiled, his eyes smiled, his shoulders seemed to smile. He was wry. He was funny”(24). Bailey likes to play “Dixieland trombone”(24).

The last of the Three Wisemen is Tom Stenton. Of the three, he is the most serious. He is “unabashed about being wealthy, about being single and aggressive and possibly dangerous”(23).   The law and the government don’t stand in his way: “He was unafraid of presidents. He was not daunted by the lawsuits from the European Union or threats from state-sponsored Chinese hackers”(24).

Taken together the three of them create an odd image as of “mismatched flowers” but in the end the image of them together “worked”: “The three of them, in life and in this portrait, made for a strange bouquet of mismatched flowers, but there was no doubt that it worked”(25). But, the more Mae looked at the image, “the stranger it became.” She, who is also called a fool by the narrator, at the very least notices that there is something odd about this image that may “work” but not for her. She can’t put her finger on it:

The artist had arranged it such that each of the Wise Men had placed a hand on another’s shoulder. It made no sense and defied the way arms could bend or stretch. “Bailey thinks it’s hilarious,” Annie said. “He wanted it in the main hallway, but Stenton vetoed him”(26).

As Annie leads Mae up to their secret room, she sees all kinds of comical things that are juxtaposed to things that are utterly serious. The juxtaposition gives one a sense how, behind all of these smiles and comical gestures, there is something sinister lurking, something they aren’t aware of in their absent-minded (though apparently noble) utopian idealism.

 

…..to be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Courting Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel – An Essay Published in Berfrois

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I recently wrote an essay on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s readings of the schlemiel and published it on the online journal Berfrois.  This essay touches on thinkers and themes that will appear in my book on the schlemiel.  It is a foreshadowing, if you will.

Here is the link to the article: http://www.berfrois.com/2014/07/menachem-feuer-walter-benjamin-hannah-arendts-readings-of-the-schlemiel/

Enjoy!

Menachem Feuer, The Author of Schlemiel Theory