Drifting in the Clouds: On the Schlemiel, Affect, and Pig Pen

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When Hannah Arendt first discusses the schlemiel in her celebrated essay, “The Jew as Pariah,” she describes the schlemiel as the  “Lord of Dreams.” She takes her reading from Heinrich Heine’s poems which address the schlemiel.   To be sure, Arendt argues that, for Heine, the schlemiel is the poet.  He is the first in a line of Pariahs which stretches from Europe to American, from Heine to Chaplin.  Whether the schlemiel is Heine’s figure for the poet or for all of Charlie Chaplin’s comic characters, they are both figures of freedom.  From the perspective of society, which they both challenge, they have their heads in the clouds.   Whether it is the parvenu of the 19th century or the Anglo-American, the schlemiel is not a part of the status quo.  He is an artist and a comedian who stands aloof in the world of words and gestures.

Freud – drawing on this line of thought – likened the artist to a “day dreamer.”  The artist, in other words, is a schlemiel.   While this “lord of dreams” figure can be found in the work of many great Jewish American writers, like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Stanley Elkin, and in contemporary writers like Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, and Jonathan Safran Foer, it does always get translated into the realm of film.   Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, however, seem to have created an exception to this rule.  Seth Rogen and Ben Stiller don’t seem to fit the bill – unless you read the schlemiels in Adam Sandler’s  Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) or in Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007) – to just two of countless examples – as a figure of the contemporary artist.

What might get missed in this kind of reading of the schlemiel is the fact that I have, like Arendt, limited the schlemiel figure to the cultural realms of literature and film.  How – one must ask – does the schlemiel fare today, in the digital age?   What kind of figure can it take on?  If, as Walt Whitman suggests, everything is poetry and poet is the person who takes note and joyously catalogues all things, perhaps the lord of dreams, the poet – in this digital age – is something we have become.  But this being is not the result of being an immigrant or a Jew, perhaps it is the result of being-immersed in social media?  Perhaps we have – unbeknownst to ourselves- been (perhaps in a Heideggerian sense) thrown into the cloud, the digital cloud.  And that would mean that we have become schlemiels who are endlessly distracted and drifting through digital clouds of affect and information.  And perhaps the best figure for this is, as Kenneth Goldsmith suggests in Wasting Time on the Internet, Pigpen.

 

The theoretical backdrop for Goldsmith’s use of Pig Pen as a figure is the notion of affect, which he explains in the following manner:

Affect is the powerful but often invisible emotional temperature in any given social situation, for instance, when you walk into a room that feels so tense you could “cut it with a knife,” although there are no visible signs of that tension.  It’s similar to being afraid and noticing your palms are sweating, a palpable reaction that – with the exception of a handshake – is most invisible to others…..Affect is an inventory of shimmers, nuances, and states.   Contagious, leaping from one body to another, affect infects those nearby with microemotions and microfeelings, pulsating extensions of our bodies’ nervous systems.  Our online lives are saturated with affect, our sensations amplified and projected by the network.  Our Wi-Fi networks – carriers of affect – are invisible but ubiquitous, transmitting pulses and sensations through the air that have the potential to convert to emotions when displayed on our screens.   (38).

Affect – as it goes through the network (whether or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) – “works against narrative: it isn’t conclusive or curative; instead, its static, continual, hovering, and conditional”(40).  It’s like a digital cloud.  To illustrate what this means, Goldsmith discusses what it’s like for him to run through the city while listening to Spotify, being mapped through google, receiving and sending messages, and recording ideas he has for a new book.  He calls this “data storm” a cloud and argues that it is “similar to the Peanuts cartoon character Pig Pen, an embodiment of cloud based computing”(57).

Pig Pen – each moment he steps or shakes his head – “generates more visible dust”(57).  Even if he showers, it remains.  It follows him everywhere: “Regardless of the weather, his condition remains unaffected; even rainstorms can’t rinse him clean”(57).  Pig-Pen, as Goldsmith describes him, sounds like an artist:

Wherever Pig Pen walks, he is met with repulsion.  His critics – the entire cast of Peanuts – often accuse him of wallowing in his dirt, of taking hedonistic pleasure in his condition.  They say he’s as self-absorbed and insensitive to others as to be a bastion of filth.  But he sees it differently, claiming that he has affixed to him the “dust of countless ages.”  Deftly assuaging his critics, he turns the tables on them, forcing them to see value where they saw none.  (58)

Pig-Pen – an artistic digital-age schlemiel of sorts – is absorbed in the life of the internet:

As he moves through the world, he inscribes the contemporary into his cloud, adding the dirt of the day to his already thickly layered historical record….Like Homer, who transmitted his sagas orally, Pig Pen is the bearer of a certain historical record, told in his own specific cast.  As an outcast, he assumes the role of the trickster, a figure who, defying normative community-based behavioral standards, is the keeper of a database of deep and secret knowledge.  He is at once physical and ephemeral, omnipresent and local….His cloud is a haze, an ambience, a networked that can’t be defined by specific boundaries….a pulse, a stasis, a skein.  (59)

And when they shame him – like Singer’s Gimpel or Bellow’s Herzog – he smiles.  After all, he’s the lord of (digital) dreams – and he knows it.  Playing on Goldsmith, Pig-Pen knows he’s the digital-schlemiel-pariah and so do we.  Goldsmith suggests that the new type of artist – the new outcast or schlemiel-pariah (or as Arendt says of Chaplin, “the suspect”) – is adept at the web and is drifting through digital clouds that attend him wherever he goes.  The new figuration of the schlemiel – a living schlemiel, so to speak – is not only to be found drifting through the pages of the novel or through the images on Woody Allen or Charlie Chaplin on the movie screen.   Perhaps the new “Lord of Dreams” is obsessed with digital affect and this drifting through the “clouds” – suggests Goldsmith – goes against the “normative community-based behavioral standards.”

 

Alvy Singer’s Bachelorbod and Seth Rogen’s Dadbod: American Schlemiel Embodiments

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Woody Allen’s Zelig character showed American audiences that schlemiels come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.  The schlemiel is a chamelon.  His Jewishness – argues Daniel Itzkovitz – demonstrates the fact that the essence of the schlemiel character is non-essence.  The schlemiel is constantly adapting and changing.   And this – argues Itzkovitz, drawing on the introduction of Ruth Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero  – is a challenge to “the political status quo.”

What is overlooked in this reading is that the Zelig character, in the end of the day, is – in Allen’s version – a bachelor schlemiel.   Like Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” in the novel of the same name – perhaps the most powerful version of the American schlemiel in Jewish American literature next to another, hyper-sexual schlemiel, Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy – Allen’s Zelig is a bachelor schlemiel.  I would aver that Kafka – the grandad of both Roth and Bellow’s schlemiels – was one of the great creators and lovers of this character (think of the narrator in “Josephine the Mouse Singer”).

The Bachelor schlemiel feels great love, but is all alone.  While it is fun to change, its also a little lonely.  As we can see in this film, he yearns for his doctor (Mia Farrow) but is always existentially alone.  He is, David Biale would say, a “sexual schlemiel” whose “libido is bigger than his ego.”

Whether it is Zelig or Herzog, the bachelor schlemiel is embodied in a character who is small and thin.  Allen suggests that the schlemiel is small.   Contrast this to the embodiment of the schlemiel by Seth Rogen – who moves from a bachelor schlemiel to a family schlemiel, a dad schlemiel – and we can see a cultural difference between the two schlemiels that is of great interest to anyone trying understand not just the schlemiel but American cultural icons.

Neither Ruth Wisse nor Sanford Pinsker – who have written the most important books on the schlemiel to date – reflect on the body of the schlemiel.  It is long over due.  And since we are moving more into an age that is dominated by visual culture, the body, and shiny surfaces of social media, embodiment is always a key concern.

I have written on the “dadbod” on this blog and for Berfrois (“The Body of Jewish Comedy”).   One of the things I point out and I’d like to revisit in this reflection is that it was not Seth Rogen who made the dadbod of the schlemiel iconic.  It was Judd Apatow.  Aptow cast Rogen and other actors (like Jonah Hill) as slightly overweight schlemiels.  Before these characters are married, they have dadbods.  There is – so to speak – a continuum between having a “dadbod” as a Bachelor and carrying it over to marriage and childbearing in a film like Knocked Up (2007).

In this film, Rogen situates Harold Ramis (not Judd Apatow) as his father.  This would suggest that the bachelor schlemiel became a kind of slob (Ramis is famous for film that pit the “slobs” against the “snobs”).   This is the root of Rogen’s interest in the dadbod.   It is also a rite of passage: going from being a bachelor slob schlemiel to being a married schlemiel with a slob’s body.  Rogen’s films show us that one can create a schlemiel continuum though the body of the schlemiel.

Today the “dadbody” has been popularized.

David Tate in a recent piece for McSweeny’s – entitled: “21 Days to a Dadbod” – makes a comical “list” – playing on the 21 day diets, muscle building ads, etc) – of what is needed to attain that “dadbod.”    What makes this list novel is that it suggests an insider (schlemiel’s) account of how to attain a dadbod.  This – in effect -is the advice of a schlemiel.  And it speaks to most of us who have children and – at a certain point – just eat and forget about our bodies.  In other words, it speaks to married American men with children as the conversation of one schlemiel to another (because we are talking about “dadbods” not mombods).   The irony is that it is too late.  American men with kids don’t need to do any of the things.  The food obsessions are natural for an American schlemiel with a dadbod.

Since this is the case, one can argue that this McSweeny’s piece shows us that the schlemiel is being nourished by lots of “burritos.”  Tate’s piece, a lot like Sam Lipsky’s novel, The Ask, or Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy, is a tale about a sloppy kind of schlemiel who is located in the family; a schlemiel who, at a certain point, just caves in to giving up on having the perfect American life.  Fatherhood takes a lot out of you.  Who has time for the body.  And, after all, having kids ages you fast.  All of these schlemiels are in the middle of life.

If these books were to be turned into films, chances are the main schlemiel character whole have a dadbod.  Here’s Rogen whose body – in this episode of Naked – is juxtaposed to that of James Franco.  The dadbod is front and center.  I leave it there, naked.  It slips into the family in some families but here – and in several photo-ops by “Fat Jew” (who’s image is at the masthead of this article) the bachelor (bro) dadbod (while still being a bachelor).  It’s the body that may never go away because it deserves – as day #13 puts it in Tate’s list – a milkshake for getting up wearily with the kids.

Here is the dadbod, naked.  But with the bros, not the family.

The Entertainer and His Double: On Yasha’s Dual-Character in I.B. Singer’s “Magician of Lublin”

 

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Yasha, the main character of I.B. Singer’s, The Magician of Lublin, lives in two worlds.  When he is in front of people and in a social context he is – literally – a great performer.  He is a magician, an acrobat, and a lover.  Through all of these characters, he makes his audience happy. But Singer introduces him to the reader in midlife.  What he feels inside of himself or when alone conflicts with the face he shows to the world.  His dual character shows us that beneath all of his public appearances he is actually very anxious and worried about his life and future.

There are two very interesting parts of the novel that come one-after-another.  One – so to speak – hides the other.  Through this literary device, the reader gets an acute sense that comedy hides a darker face.  Singer suggests that this darkness prompts the main character to not only face death but to reflect on the meaning of faith.  His aging and the falling away of one world and the beginning of another prompt him to find what is ordinarily a farce or a happy scene as grotesque.  Yasha doesn’t want to be trapped by a world that only cares about him because he is entertaining.

Why does he need to be chained to an audience that feeds off of him like a parasite?  Maybe he should put his life on pause and change direction.  But what can he do if he can’t do what he did…before?  Maybe its better not to become famous, which, as I noted in my last post, is a major impetus for him to leave Lublin for Warsaw and Warsaw for Central Europe and America and become a star performer?   Maybe, the large world, the fame, the expansion outward is a trap, an illusion?

These reflections come to the surface when he is alone in a café in Warsaw:

Often during the day, when Yasha sat in the Café Lars, sipping black coffee and leafing through a magazine, he was seized by an odd premonition – a feeling that he would not perform that season.  He feared this portent and tried to banish it from his mind, to mollify it, erase it – but it kept returning.   Would he grow sick?  Was he, God forbid, due to die? Or was it something else altogether?   He placed his hands on his forehead, rubbed his scalp, his cheekbones, enveloped himself in a blind darkness.  He would himself into too many entanglements.  He had driven himself into a dilemma.   He loved and desired Emilia (who, as I pointed out in my last entry, wants him to convert to Catholicism and marry her in Warsaw)…But how could he inflict such an outrage against Esther (his wife in Lublin)?  For so many years she had shown him a rare devotion.  She had stood beside him through all his difficulties, helped in every crisis; her tolerance was the kind that the pious attribute only to God.  (407)

His dilemma is not simply the question of the betrayal of one woman for another; it also involves the possible betrayal of his faith.  Leaving Esther for Emilia has deep implications.  He also realizes that he will hurt Magda – his magical assistant who takes along with him in his tour – when he leaves her for Emilia: “Each time he returned for Emilia, Magda looked at him with mute reproach.  She almost ceased speaking to him altogether and had become withdrawn like a clam into her shell”(407).  Yasha fears that in leaving either Esther or Magda, he may cause their death.  Instead of thinking about himself and his pleasure or suffering – which has led him to this very juncture – he thinks about the suffering of the other.  And this makes him think about the world he entertains.  Is he like them? They don’t seem to care about death or suffering. Their love of life seems to be cruel.

All of these reflections emerge in the midst of the Café he is sitting in. The more he thinks, the more bitter he becomes.  The people around him start to look grotesque and strange. The hip café becomes a horrible place.  He becomes dark:

He sucked on the tip of a cigarette, sipped black coffee from a saucer, and scanned a magazine.  The smoke stung his palate; the magazine article made no sense…He threw aside the magazine…Yasha extinguished the cigarette in the coffee dregs.  All his reflections and speculations inevitably led to the one conclusion: he must get his hands on a large sum of money, if not legally, then by theft.  (408)

The more he thinks about it, the more he falls apart.  He can’t be a thief.   Yasha comes from a family of very honest people.  In the midst of his thoughts, he becomes more alienated from the world.  Yasha realizes that he is surrounded by people who sat in groups while he was the only one who is alone.  He despises them and sees them as fake.  Their joy makes him sick:

They talked, shouted, joked, and laughed.  The women fell giggling into each other’s arms.  Outside, a hearse rolled by, but those within ignored it as if death did not concern them.  What were they jabbering about with such fervor?  Yasha wondered.  Why did their eyes gleam so? (409)

Yasha knows the “odd one out.”  But he can’t put his finger on it.  Is it because he is Jewish? Or for some other reason?  The more he thinks, the more he sounds like the author of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet):

He, Yasha, was to all appearances, their equal, yet a barrier separated them.   But what was it? He never found a clear explanation.  Together with his ambition and lust for life, dwelt a sadness, a sense of the vanity of everything, a guilt that could never be repaid nor forgotten.  What was life’s purpose if one did not know why one was born nor why one died?  What sense did all the fine words about positivism, industrial reform, and progress make when it was all cancelled out in the grave?  For all his drive, he, Yasha, was constantly on the brink of melancholy.  (410)

This brings him to the realization that his whole life as a magician, as an entertainer, may be waste. And this turns him to religion:

Had he been brought into the world simply to turn a few somersaults and deceive a number of females?  On the other hand, could he, Yasha, revere a God who someone had invented?  Could he, Yasha, sit like that Jew with ashes on his head and bewail the temple which had been destroyed two thousand years ago? (410)

The waiter interrupts his melancholic reflections and asks him what “he wishes.”  Yasha responds by saying – in Joblike allusion – that he wants to pay: “His words seemed ambiguous – as if he had intended saying: To pay for my deceitful life”(410).

Following this Singer includes a play within a play which he sees with Emilia (410-415).   The play is a farce which has a lover, a wife, and a cuckold.   While the play is going on, Yasha has an internal crisis.  He realizes that he could “neither desert Esther, convert, nor suddenly turn theif on account of Emilia”(411).  While he laughs, he feels great pain:

No, no! he cried within himself.  I won’t let myself be trapped. Tomorrow, I’ll run away.  I’ll leave everything behind…I”ve been a magician long enough!  I’ve walked the tightrope too often….What if he fell and smashed his body? They would put him out on the threshold to beg and  not one of his admirers would stoop to fling a groschen into his hat. (412-413)

All of these thoughts drive him back to an imperative to repent (414).   He decides – inside himself – that he must follow through. But when, at the end of the comedy, Emilia noticed he is gaunt and asks him what is wrong he tells her that it is nothing.  And then he goes back to making her think as if he will convert and marry her.   This division discloses him as a schlemiel character.  The right decision would be to speak his mind and leave. But because he doesn’t, he gets more and more entangled in a situation that is eating up his soul.

After this rumination, the reader can see that he is two people: the entertainer and his double.  To wit, this schlemiel character doesn’t like comedy.  He wants to act, but is trapped.   He is afraid.  But because he doesn’t decide he will end up living a life he no longer wants to live and, more importantly, he will hurt Esther and Magda.  He has made too many commitments. Yasha must return to Lublin or he must leave and start a new life – this time, however, not as an entertainer.  But he doesn’t know where to start.

Yasha’s conflict makes him see the world as a cruel joke, but who can help him? If he returns to God, can God help?  Does this mean he should return to Esther?  Regardless, if he is to do the right thing, he must walk the tightrope and risk falling.  However, he is not sure who is at the end of it.   It leaves one question open which, to be sure, is a matter of faith and commitment: Who or what must the schlemiel dedicate his life to and why?
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Literary Notes: On the Jewish Reader in I.B. Singer’s “The Magician of Lublin”

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Sanford Pinsker has argued that the main character of I.B. Singer’s The Magician of Lublin is a schlemiel.    But its hard to see how this can be the case.  In comparison to I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, Malamud’s Morris Bober, or any Woody Allen schlemiel character, Yasha seems to be the anti-thesis of the schlemiel.  He is cast as a “magician” and an acrobat who is an expert in breaking through locks – like a Houdini – and walking the tightrope.  He is also a hypnotist of sorts.   But while he is well known in Lublin, he is lesser known in Warsaw.  Yasha wants fame, but to have that he must depart Poland for central Europe.

His schlemiel character is complex.  But what makes him a schlemiel are his decisions which, while being good intentioned, are actually disasterous.  At this point in the novel – the first hundred pages – the reader can see it coming.  But, I would add, this disaster would be most apparent to the Jewish reader.  And, after all, that is who the novel was originally written for – it was written in Yiddish and translated into English.
The travesty has to do with the tightrope he walks between different experiences – which, in this novel, is emblematized by different women.     Yasha is married to a woman named Esther. She is the emblem of traditional Judaism.  She is a religious woman who has fallen in love with a schlemiel-magician.   They share a home in Lublin.  He only sees her on the major religious holidays.  The rest of the year he is wandering around the country not only doing circus acts but also spending time with other women.  One woman, his circus partner, is Polish.  Her name is Magda.  He stays at her house and travels with her.  She knows of his other mistresses and is fine with this. But her brother, Bolek, is an anti-Semite and would love to literally kill Yasha.   But she stays with Yasha because she, like all the other women, believes in him.

Along the way, we meet a Jewish widower named Zeftel. She also is in love with Yasha.  He makes promises to her as well.   But she cannot leave with him.  She seems stuck.  But he comes to her in order to lift her spirits and to make love.  But at the end of the road – in Warsaw – is a woman named Emilia.   She is Catholic and she wants him to convert and marry her. But what would this imply about his marriage to Esther? What would this imply about his commitments to Judaism?  These are the questions that would arise in the Jewish reader’s mind.  It seems as if this is the tightrope that this version of the schlemiel walks.  And unlike Gimpel, who is an endearing character, Yasha’s choices are much more irritating. There seems to be an abyss between him and Malamud’s schlemiel, Morris Bober, whose humility and self-deprecation is something a Jewish reader well-recognizes.   Yasha is different.  And perhaps for this reason, his schlemiel character serves to put into question what matters most to a Jew in the modern world.

To be sure, this is evidenced in the text.  The narrator’s descriptions of Yasha’s romantic relationship with Emilia betray a kind of emptiness.  How could he sacrifice his Judaism?  How could he sacrifice Esther for this kind of beauty?

The irony is that Emelia has a “little Jewish blood in her.” But this blood patrilineal (in traditional Judaism, Jewishness is passed on through the mother and is matrilineal).  And it is also the blood of a heretic and a Sabbatean who converted to Catholicism: Elisha Shur (who was a “famous Frankist”).   By embracing her, in other words, he embraces heresy. She is half-Catholic and half Jewish heretic.  His relationship with her requires conversion out of Judaism and into Catholicism:

Now she wore a light, café-au-lait gown. She’d never seemed as beautiful as now: straight, supple, Polish beauty with high cheekbones, a Slavic nose, but with black Jewish eyes full of wit and passion.  Her hair in back was unswept and circled by a wreathlike braid…Her smile was shy, yet wanton.  They had already, in the past, confessed like lovers. She often confessed that it required her self-control to keep herself from complete surrender.  But it was her wish to marry him in church, to begin their wedded life on a pure basis.  He had already promised that, to please her, he would convert to Christianity. (392, An I.B. Singer Reader)

The narrator – raising the stakes – goes on to tell the reader of Emelia’s devotion to Catholic mysticism.  It seems to overpower Yasha’s Judaism.   But she – like Yasha – has a degree of skepticism: “the mysticism had through some strange fashion blended within Emilia with skepticism and a quiet sense of humor”(393).   She falls into this mysticism after her husband had died and she sees Yasha in his image (394).   In her mystical leaning, she believes that her dead husband had sent her “intimations” that Yasha was the one she must marry.

Yasha accepts it all and doesn’t challenge her. He only wonders about the meaning of religion and it seems that he slips into the tragic belief that this situation was “fate.” This, the narrator seems to be telling us, is the trap.  He is mesmerized by her request to convert because he literally worships her.  He is dreaming.

But the smell of coffee in the room – after he is left alone – wakes him up to this strange predicament. When he realizes that he is all alone, he experiences anxiety and doubt doubt his endeavor.  They feed his passion in some way:

The aroma permeated the drawing-room.   Yasha was left alone.  Well, everything is fate, he mumbled to himself.   He was seized by a tremor. With those few words to Emilia (“I’ve come now and we won’t be separated again!”), he had just about sealed his destiny.   But what would become of Eshter now?….Was he capable of changing his religion?  I cannot live without her! He replied to himself.  He was filled suddenly with the impatience of a convict awaiting his release, every hour an eternity.  He stood up. Though his heart was heavy, his feet felt uncommonly light. Right now I could turn not one but three somersaults on the tightrope! How could I have put this off for so long? (396)

In this altered state of resolution to converting and leaving it all behind, Yasha looks out the window and sees a romantic vision of lovers in a “dance of the sexes.” It is as if the only thing that will stave his doubt is an epiphany.

But this vision is interrupted by a memory of Jewishness: “But what was it he saw in her?  And how blue the sky was today! Pale blue like the curtain which hung in the temple during the Days of Awe”(396).  This last image creates a deep anxiety and doubt in Yasha.  However, he seems to dispel them:

Yasha felt a pang of doubt at the comparison.  Well, God was God, whether you prayed to Him in the synagogue or church. Emelia came back. He walked towards her.  (396)

What ensues after they see each other is all lightness.  And, as a reader, as a Jewish reader, one can imagine how fake the words come across.   Whenever Yasha is alone – without her – these doubts rise up.  It seems as if his schlemielkeit can be found in his acting as if Jewishness doesn’t matter at all and that beauty – her beauty – and the call to convert are really nothing at all.

The Jewish reader can see his blind-spot.  But I wonder if this would come across the same to a non-Jewish reader?  The only way it could is if she could see the tension between being a Jew and leaving it all behind.  What Singer seems to be suggesting is that morality and beauty struggle in Yasha’s breast.  His desire to “expand” and become famous includes his becoming Catholic and leaving Lublin behind.  Lublin and Eshter are associated with smallness and tradition.

It seems that the struggle – if it is to be generalized – is between contraction and expansion.  To expand would mean to leave it all behind, to wander and to betray his Jewishness, he would have to grow away rather than to grow within. To do that, however, he would have to stay with Esther, to return to her, in Lublin.  His passion for magic and fame move him away – it seems – from what is best for his Jewishness.  To be Jewish, he has to accept a kind of smallness.   He has to accept that he is a lonely and divided man and that no vision or fantasy will save him from that. Singer associates this division – this tightrope walk – with a struggle of Jewishness and the world.

Pinsker suggests that this schlemiel – to be sure – is shela (sent) m’ (from) el (God). But how is that the case?   Is there a prophetic model for the schlemiel?  And is this a modern kind of prophesy for the Jewish reader?  What is the message that Yasha is sending? Are Jews, like him, on a modern tightrope? What happens when we no longer have memories of Lublin (of the old country)? What can keep Jews…Jewish and prevent them from leaving it all behind if not a kind of memory or devotion to Esther? Is this a metaphor for the female presence of God, the shechina? Is his freedom a  travesty? And how do we read this though a feminist lens?

These are my initial speculations on this matter…at the outset of the novel.  More to come.

 

 

 

Philosophical & Comical Depreciations: On Roland Barthes’ Images of the Neutral

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Some of the greatest works of modern and postmodern literature, poetry, and visual art are obsessed with the meaning of movement and alteration.    This interest is at once temporal and special.  Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, one will find that Bloom’s consciousness moves rapidly from one idea or image to another.    There is a temporal alteration of rhythm running throughout his pages.   What is fascinating about this alteration of image and time is that it is marked by the text.   Although this text seems – in a Whitmanesque sense – to be in the epic mode of expansion, it’s focus on intricate detail is what makes the text and the image move rhythmically.   There is an alteration between the infinitesimal and the infinite; between contraction and expansion.   But the irony of this alteration is that for Joyce’s novel to give the impression of infinity it must become infinitesimal.

As I have noted in a recent post on Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of Duchamp’s concept of the “infrathin” in terms of the “digital flanuer,” contraction and smallness are aspects of what Roland Barthes calls “the Neutral.”  It is in the attention to tiny alterations between one state and another that one experiences the neutral.  What Kafka and Celan would call the “natural prayer of the soul” is the attention to these small shifts in the fabric of existence.  One could argue that this isn’t simply the act of browsing; one’s existence in the modern world – which is constantly expanding – seems to hinge on it.   Roland Barthes’s take on “minimalist art” and “minimalist ethics,” confirms this insight.  For Barthes, smallness – as espoused in modern art – is not an aesthetics.  It is – ironically – an ethics.

Through the image of deprecation or minimization, Barthes finds an articulation of “the Neutral.”     In his lectures on the Neutral, Barthes is not simply explaining what the Neutral is; he is also giving his students several images – a composite, if you will – of the Neutral.   One of the most interesting images he sets forth are those that are found in philosophy.   For this field, the “images of the Neutral are depreciative”(69, The Neutral.)   While – as he points out – they seem to give the Neutral “bad press,” a “bad image,” and a “bad adjective,” his readings cast a different light on them which sees deprecation in a positive sense.    He – more so than any of the philosophers who discuss the neutral – crafts different images for the neutral based on their words.

Barthes files these “bad images” of the neutral in philosophy under six categories: “thankless,” “shirking,” “muffled,” “limp,” “indifferent,” and “vile.”   I’d like to briefly go through them and reflect on what they – taken together – suggest about how smallness and, by extension, comedy, is the other of philosophy.   To be sure, the composite of the image of the Neutral that Barthes puts together – by way of different philosophers (and their “bad” images) – can be found in the schlemiel

Interpreting Maurice Blanchot’s claim that the Neutral does not seduce or attract, Barthes suggests the image of the “thankless” child who exists somewhere between childhood and adulthood.

Being in no way seductive = unrewarding; an unengaging child; a child who doesn’t seduce, contrary to all the rules of childhood; awkward (ingrate) age: between childhood’s seduction and that of adolescence = not lovable and seems not to love.  (69-70)

The image of the man-child – a term often used in relation to the schlemiel as a “perpetual adolescent” – grows out of these characterizations.  However, what Barthes doesn’t note is that there is – in comedy – a kind of charm to awkwardness.   We see this, today, in so many films and TV series (from Parks and Recreation and just about any Seth Rogen or Judd Apatow film to Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which all use deprecation copiously).

The second image that he evokes is “shirking.”  “Subject in the Neutral: said to flee one’s responsibilities, to flee conflict, in a word, most defamatory: to flee”(70).  The best examples Barthes comes up with this “shirking” come directly from the schlemiel who – as Hannah Arendt notes with Rahel Varnhagen or Charlie Chaplin, and can be seen in much schlemiel literature, is always on the run:

Here, exceptionally: escapes, parryings, shifts in direction: successful, light, jubilant, triumphant (cf. Marx Brothers or Chapin in a department store), as if that came to me from a reversal of the (overwhelmed, discredited, astray) Neutral into sovereign Neutral.  (70)

Barthes argues that the Netural has an “affinity for the muffled,” which is a “mixture of dullness, hypocrisy, and a taste for narrow convenience.”    Playing on different words, Barthes suggests a muted kind of emotion – a self-deprecated form of emotion that is “muffled.”  We often find this with schlemiel characters – think, for instance, of Ben Stiller’s roles in many comic films or even Gretta Gerwig’s female version of the schlemiel.   The point is that the muffling of emotion in the schlemiel as anti-hero is juxtaposed to the pathos of the heroic character.

The next two categories that Barthes explores – “limp” and “indifferent” – come from Fichte.   In his description of the skeptic – who, for Barthes, immerses him or herself in the Neutral – Fichte uses the most negative terms: “In this fake being, limp, distended, multiple, there are a crowd of antitheses, of contradictions that live peaceably side by side.”  Playing on this, Barthes argues that the notion of “the limp” is a “vitalist idea.”  If “what lives is only alive if it destroys what is around itself,” than the neutral is “limp” because it doesn’t destroy what is around itself.  It lives “side by side” with contradiction.   The image of the limp suggests that the movement of the neutral is wounded by multiplicity and contradiction.  It doesn’t negate them.  Many a schlemiel – like Jacob, who is likened to a “simple man” by the Torah/Hebrew Bible – limps because they live with indecision.  This, for Fichte, is a “bad image.”

The “indifferent,” for Fichte, associates the neutral with individualism as opposed to the collective.  This image is telling because – as we see in many schlemiel stories and jokes – the schlemiel is the odd one out.  He doesn’t fit into the collective.  The fact of the matter is that schlemiel comedy  – as Groucho says – wouldn’t belong to a club that would have it (or take it personally, “me”) as a member.  The indifference to the collective is also an indifference to war and violence which, for Fichte, are necessary for the collective to triumph over decadence.

The last category of the Neutral is “the vile.”

The term comes from Kojeve who, as Barthes argues, makes a distinction between a good and a bad silence.  (Silence is a characteristic of the Neutral since it pulls back from speech and dwells in reserve.)   The silence of Parmenides and Heraclitus is good while that of the skeptics is bad.  The difference between them is the subject of silence.  For Heraclitus and Parmenides the silence is based on the truth of either Being or Becoming; the skeptics, the silence is not over truth or the concept.  It’s deprecation has to do with doubt, indecision, etc.   As I noted in a recent essay, the epoche – the suspension of judgment –which comes with an acute attention to the alteration of states, displaces speech.

While this suspension certainly has its tragic elements, it can be argued that it is ultimately comical.  Think of all the times – for instance – that the “right” words are missed by this or that schlemiel comedian.  There is a shock or suspension of judgment that comes with this realization.  We see this all the time in Curb Your Enthusiasm.  The silence that comes in the wake of this failure is not directed at any concept.  It is directed at a failed situation or missed opportunity.

Barthes’ categories of deprecation – “thankless,” “shirking,” “muffled,” “limp,” “indifferent,” and “vile” – could all be applied to Larry David.   To be sure, David plays off of them in nearly every episode.  His character – while wealthy and recognized – is in a constant state of deprecation.   The schlemiel can give us another image of the Neutral that is – in contrast to negative images of the skeptic in philosophy – funny.     What makes this image funny is the movement from expansion to contraction where the infinitesimal displaces the infinite; where the run is displaced by the limp; and where philosophical silence is displaced by awkward silence.   In this displacement, in his movement between states, (comical) deprecation comes to the fore and makes for a viewer and a vile, indifferent, muffled, etc character who shirks and shrinks before our very eyes.

Today, as opposed to the philosopher’s of the past, we don’t see deprecation as tragic.   Becoming small – as Barthes suggests – is not merely entertaining.  Perhaps the image of deprecation doesn’t communicate an aesthetics so much as an ethics.    But while Barthes looks to Taoists who reduce their possessions and celebrate their lack of knowledge as a kind of stupidity (“It’a obviously a Tao “‘virtue’…in Tao ethics, in order not to attract attention, avoid noticeability, refrain from clinging to a good image,” 85), we have schlemiels to remind us.  But can we say that a schlemiel like Larry David can, like the Taoist,  provide us with an image of “ethical minimalism”?

 

 

 

 

Imperative or Description? On Roland Barthes’ Notion of The Neutral in Minimalist Art and Ethical Minimalism

 

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I can’t seem to get smallness out of my mind.  It’s not simply an obsession.  The Kabbalists of Safed and also Kafka knew that.  The notion of “tsimtsum” (also spelled “tzimtzum”), in particular, addresses smallness and contraction in terms of a dynamic (a movement from one state to another).  It emerges in JS Foer’s recent novel, Here I Am.  Like Jacob, the main character of the novel and also the narrator of that novel, I can’t help but notice how while things around us seem to be getting larger and larger, they are in fact getting smaller and smaller.  They are not simply infinite in number; they are also becoming infinitesimal.   They seem to be coming close and yet, at the same time, moving away.

We too seem to be shrinking on a daily basis.

Social Media – on the one hand – makes things more minute and multiple.  We can’t possibly read every post or learn from everything (clickable).

It’s overwhelming.

We are so small in comparison to this endless flow of information.  There is a kind of passion.  We can’t stop clicking.  We can’t click enough.  But each click makes us smaller.  Each little link seems to matter to us, but there are too many.   This is what I would call a description of smallness, a phenomenology – if you will.  In light of this reflection on smallness,  I have been wondering if “smallness” is an ethical imperative – the imperative to become small – or is it only an aesthetic description?  Or is smallness an experience?

Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent book, Wasting Time on the Internet, suggests that smallness may be an existential choice   The individuality of the “digital flaneur” exists.  It is a tangible.  We can “experience it.”  But it is the browsing – of the digital flanuer – which seems to be an ethical imperative.  Goldsmith associates this browsing with Roland Barthes notion of “the Neutral” which he illustrates through Marcel Duchamp’s seemingly aesthetic but purely sensory notion of “the infrathin.”

If we take Goldmith’s illustration to heart, I would argue than Duchamp’s word suggests an aesthetic figure for something that is also ethical.   There is an ethical choice – by the artist or thinker- to record the feelings or affects of different sensations that are, what he says elsewhere, “pure minimalism.”   “Browsing” as read in terms of a sense of the digital flanuer, is the act of someone who – through a choice to withdraw a certain relation to the world that doesn’t know how to browse – drifts through existence to feel and record the alteration of states: from feeling the sliding of silk on a pant leg to hearing – as Goldsmith translates it into current parlance – the sound of an email whooshing away.

Today, there are countless different experiences of alteration – of one small thing to another –  which can give us the freedom to drift.  This freedom is not simply a gift from the neutral, it is an action.  As I argued in my last essay on Goldsmith’s interest in smallness, one’s attentiveness – in the spirt of Paul Celan’s reading of Kafka and Kafka’s reading of Malebranche – is the “silent prayer of the soul.”  To know this is to know the secret –  it seems – to Goldsmith’s reading of Roland Barthes explanation of the Neutral.

I went back to a book of lecture notes that Roland Barthes created and used in his courses in Morocco – before his death – in 1976 and 1977 to see what Roland Barthes would say about two subjects that Goldsmith reads vis-a-vis the Neutral: the aesthetic and ethical smallness.   These extensive and beautiful lecture notes are in a collection entitled…The Neutral.   

I discovered something fascinating.

Barthes compares and contrasts an aesthetic and an ethical reading of “the Neutral” and argues that one form of minimalism – in modern art – is false while the other one, which he beautifully describes, is true because it is the true “style of behavior.” It is not merely a description.  Minimalism is also a way of being in the world.  It is ethics and it is an aesthetic.

What would Barthes say of Duchamp’s minimalist art?

Helen Molesworth has argued that Duchamp’s “ready-mades” articulate an “avoidance of work” in the world, that is, a kind of flaunuer whose small life drifts though existence.  The work of art – in the spirit of the flanuer – is an action against the world.  Browsing through states of the neutral, the making small of one’s attentiveness through a dedicated attention to smallness, is an avoidance of the world, which characterizes – for also Barthes and Maurice Blanchot – “the avoidance of work.”  Avoidance, in other words, is an action that participates in the neutral.  The avoidance of the world – which we find with the drifting of the Flanuer from one altered state to another –  is true because it – as I will show below – can’t even be doubted by a skeptic.

Although Duchamp would seem to work perfectly, minimal art, suggests Barthes, may present a “false image” of “the Neutral.”

False image of the Neutral as minimalist:  “Minimalist Art,” New York, 1960s: artists opposed to the overflow of the abstract expressionism of action painting; shaving off all the extra-visual connotations (literature, symbolism): the object must be presented in a plain obviousness, with the clarity of an irrefutable reality > depersonalized and even mechanized fracture > “to neutralize form and color: to banish all emotion, all anecdote > From my point of view, the assimilation of the Neutral with the minimal is a misinterpretation (1) because the Neutral doesn’t erase the affect but only  processes it, formats its “manifestations” (2) because the minimalist neutral has nothing to do with aesthetics, but only with ethics.  (The Neutral, 199)

Barthes – in this reading – indirectly suggests that there is a “minimalist neutral” that informs an ethics.  And it is his reading of the relationship between “the minimalist neutral” and “The Neutral” (with a capital “N” and a definite article “the”) that discloses a way of life that, for Barthes, provides the subject for the best and the most compelling description and imperative – that he can imagine – for the good life.  He calls it the “minimalist thought of the Neutral.”

In fact, there could be a minimalist thought of the Neutral; such a minimalism would be as follows: a style of behavior that tends to minimalize the subjects interface with the world’s arrogance…but not with the world, not with affects, with love, etc.” it that sense, there could be an ethical minimalism but in no way an aesthetic or affective one.  (200)

The “right minimalist ethic” would “help bring harmony between the maximum internal intensity (i.e. hyperconsciousness”) and the minimum external” (200).  Barthes argues that this harmonization is found in what he calls Tao minimalism.  He contrasts it to Hegel’s expansionist philosophy -which is a “process leading toward the flowering of absolute knowledge, celebration of the more – with Tao minimalism:

With Lao Tzu, the treatment of negation (in each and everything its negative) is mystical: return to the non-distinct, celebration of the less > Lao Tzu tends to the apologia of the minimal image. (200)

Barthes suggests that it spurred his interest in the meaning of epoch for the skeptic.  It is also a kind of minimalism but marks a “suspension of judgment.”   The “thought of the Neutral” must take the skeptic’s epoche to heart.   The skeptic doesn’t “put sensation or perception in doubt but only the judgment that ordinarily accompanies the feeling” (201).   His reading of smallness via the minimalist ethics of Lao Tzu is associated with the meaning of the skeptic’s relationship to “intensities.” Rupture, epoch, could in fact be a good thing that makes one “happy.”

Skepticism: not an “abdication” from intensities: “he keeps life as a guide” (beautiful formula) (2) Epoch has an ethical dimension (aims at a “happiness”, at a “rightness.” (202)

In other words, skepticism is a “suspension of judgement” and experience of “intensities” which also has “an ethical dimension.”   It seems as if he is suggestion that there can’t be an ethical and aesthetic relation to the Neutral.  The skeptical epoche relates to sensation, but this is deemed ethical.   What do we make, then, of the rendering of this relationship?  Isn’t this aesthetic and ethical?  Can the exposure to “intensities” and smallness be articulated in poetry or art?  Isn’t that what Barthes, himself, is doing?  Perhaps this is the irony.

Through Charles Baudelaire, Barthes suggests that the poet can render the experience of the Neutral in terms of becoming small.  Baudelaire “raised the problem” of the “confrontation between my intensity and external intensities (of others, of the other)” in terms of his poetic reflections on the epochal experience of radical alteration:

Many social, worldly experiences, where suddenly the subject feels himself desynchronized, “thrown off level,” “disharmonized” …derealized in relation to the others who seem to him excessive, emphatic, excited, false > reflex of retreating, of shrinking, not letting oneself be seen and not letting it be seen that one does not want to be seen: pure minimalism.  (200)

This is what Baudelaire means when he writes of the “difference between pitch and level.”  The words articulate not simply a reflex but also an act of “pure minimalism.”  This experience, he suggests, should be the subject of art because it reflects what – as he argues in relation to the “epoche of the Skeptic” – can’t be doubted.  This is marked by Barthes’ threefold reflection on the Neutral (“the thought of the Neutral”) in terms of sensation as minimalism, minimalism as ethics, and “pure minimalism” as the subject of the poet’s reflection.

For Barthes smallness can be read, as Goldsmith has, in terms of the “digital flanuer.”  In could certainly be read in these terms.  But I would suggest that in his book Wasting Time on the Internet,  Goldsmith’s reflection on the Neutral and its illustration, through Duchamp’s notion of the “infrathin,” can’t be understood as an ethical and aesthetic model of smallness without reading Barthes.   Taken together, we can see what the importance of addressing smallness is: today, it is the ultimate subject of art, ethics, and experience.

Smallness runs throughout Barthes’ notes for his courses in Morocco in the 1970s, it dots the pages of Walter Benjamin’s “illuminations” and “reflections,” and it leaps out at us in Goldsmith’s reading of the “digital flanuer.”  Reading smallness in terms of the Neutral  should give us pause.  These readings insist that the experience of shock is coextensive with truth and happiness and that the sensation of alteration is the most important subject of aesthetics and the source the “rightness” of action” and a “minimalist ethics.” This would suggest that smallness is and should be a guide for action, a thing of reflection, and the basis of all true art.  If it’s to be true, perhaps it should be any one or else all of these at the same time.  After all, the thought of smallness (of the minimal) for all of them could be called the Thought – not of Being (as Heidegger might say) but – of the Neutral.

 

 

Chronicles of Smallness, or Becoming “Infrathin” in the Digital World

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Translating Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin’s notion of the flaneur into the language of the digital world, Kenneth Goldsmith argues that the flaneur “is hardwired into the ethos of the Internet”(65, Wasting Time on the Internet).    We are, like the flanuer, constantly “browsing.” But as we do we become smaller and less noticeable.   Goldsmith, drawing on Marcel Duchamp, calls this a state of becoming “infrathin.”

Goldsmith juxtaposes the flaneur to the zombie:

Much of the web itself has been colonized by zombies that automatically churn pages, entice us to click them, sometimes phishing for passwords, other times accumulating passwords, other times accumulating page views to generate ad revenue.  At the same time, spiders – another kind of zombie –crawl the web and consume all they can, indiscriminately sucking up files.  Casting the widest net possible, they trawl data, passwords, media that are warehoused in distant servers with the hopes of salvaging something of value, ultimately to be resold by yet more zombies….Truly, our online lives – intersections of flesh and machine –are daily feasts of extreme digital consumption. (61)

The difference between them is – as I would argue – that between the dynamic of expansion and the dynamic of contraction.  While the zombie gorges itself on media, the flaneur loses weight and drifts:

Like a deriviste (the situationists also claimed the flanuer as a predecessor), he roamed the city alone, allowing himself to be pulled by the flows of crowds on the grand boulevards.     With no goal in mind, he was a spectator of the urban landscape, viewing the goings on from the shadowy sidelines.  Whereas the zombie was obsessed with consuming, the flanuer assiduously avoided it, feeling that to buy something would be too participatory….His was a stance of studied ambivalence.  (64)

This stance, argues Goldmith, “exemplifies” a position that Roland Barthes called “the neutral” wherein “one places oneself in a state of uncertainty or indecision – living in a state between states – like sleepwalkers, ghosts, vampires, androids, and androgynous persons”(64).  The flanuer has no interest in power, consumption, or expansion as does the zombie.  “Neutrality was at the heart of the flanuer’s resistance; fiercely individualistic”(64).

How does the flanuer relate to the internet?

Goldsmith – in an ironic twist – argues that the “digital flanuer” is “hardwired into the ethos of the internet.”  It allows us to “browse” as we “voyeuristically lurk from the sidelines”(64).  Like the flanuer, we have all become small, invisible:

He (the digital flanuer) is a peripatetic digital wanderer, pulled by tugs and flows of his feeds, carelessly clicking from one spectacle to the next.  Instagram is his Louvre, Youtube his Ziegeld.  (66).

Goldsmith seems to efface the radical individualism of the digital flanuer, however, when he argues that he is “infrathin.”  His reading reduces the digital flanuer to a series of small affects and a “state between states”:

He is the embodiment of Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the infrathin – a state between states. When asked to define infrathin, Duchamp claimed it couldn’t be defined, only described: “the warmth of a seat (which has just been left)” or “Velvet trousers/ their whistling sound (in walking) by/ brushing of the 2 legs is an/ infrathin separation signaled/ by sound.”  The infrathin is the lingering warmth of a piece of paper just after it emerges from the laser printer or the chiming start-up sound the computer makes, signifying its transition from death to life.  (66)

These small experiences – which are barely noticeable – that move from one state to another are, argues Goldsmith, built into our daily digital wanderings:

The whooshing sound my e-mail program makes when I hit Send or the click of the shutter my smartphone makes when I take picture are similarly displaced infrathin moments.  These noises are signifiers of an event that in some ways happened and in some other ways didn’t happen.  My mail was sent, silently and invisibly, and my photo was taken, but not in the way that I heard it.  These series of contradictory events happening simultaneously – compatible and disjunctive, logical and absurd, present and absent, real and artificial – are evidence of ways in which the infrathin permeates our lives.  (66)

When he becomes a “zombie” and clicks endlessly out of boredom to accumulate more information, this experience of the infrathin, suggests Goldsmith, leaves one feeling a “nostalgic sadness” for the loss of the “digital flanuer.”  If these are the only two states left to us today, what does this suggest? Is the feeling of smallness, of the infrathin, the last sense of existing today…in the digital world?  Aren’t these feelings of alteration the kinds of states that – as Walter Benjamin said so often – belong to the memory or experience of childhood?

As a reader of Goldsmith’s reflection, I can’t help but look at his reflections on online life (and his justifications) as both tragic and comic.  To be sure, the digital flanuer is a comical kind of character.  He is absent-minded, distracted.  But he is also tragic because he can’t live in the world.  He can only pass from state-to-state. The infrathin is a state of worldlessness.  It belongs to a dynamic of contraction.  There are – however – millions more zombies in the world. The tragic realization is that Goldmith may have lost his digital flanuer to the zombie.  He may have lost his free flowing desire to drift and browse to the desire to gorge or else the indifference of doing nothing.

I find I do less wandering than I used to. The web is now riddled with zombies and their foul culture – clickbait, spam, ads – that I need to return to the few sites I know and trust. And even when I do, say, click to site from a Facebook link, I find myself closing the window and returning to Facebook to seek another for fear that I, too, might become contaminated.  Years ago, I might’ve hung around, exploring that site…but today, the lure of social media draws me in over and over again, filling me with nostalgic sadness to witness my digital flanuer hovering on the edge of extinction.  (66)

The implication is that although it is built in to the internet, the digital browser may have been replaced with a zombie.  He isn’t so much a schlemiel because this comedy seems to be underwritten by a sad fate.  Digital death and afterlife as a norm.  After all, what are you doing online all the time?  Are you experiencing the infrathin or are you just gorging yourself, clicking away, expanding?   In the digital age, what will you write in your chronicle of smallness?  Are you a zombie, a digital flanuer, or somewhere in between? Do you treasure the infrathin? Does smallness matter to you? Why? And what kind of existence or affirmation of existence happens in smallness? Is such attention to smallness our last hope, as Goldsmith suggests, or is this a tragic reflection?

Paul Celan – as I  have noted in other places – argues that, for Kafka, “attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  It seems that for poets and writers the attention to smallness is the only hope left to humankind.   Without it, as Goldsmith seems to suggest,the zombies will take over and expand.   The dynamic of expansion will displace the dynamic of contraction.  And today, in a digital world where everyone fears that they won’t be seen, the digital flanuer does seem to have left the room.   People embrace visibility not smallness.  Such are the tragic kinds of reflection I emerged with after I read Goldsmith’s book.  And this is my chronicle of smallness.