Fat Jews: On Fat Jew and Thomas Pynchon’s Depiction of Nathan “Lardass” Levine

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Thomas Pynchon published a short story – while an undergrad at Cornell University in the late 1950s – entitled “The Small Rain” whose main character is Nathan “Lardass” Levine.  Pynchon makes him an endearing character who is not without his faults.  Pynchon brings out his unique character by situating him within the context of military service and a mild skirmish or two with an anti-Semetic Lieutenant named “Twinkletoes” Dugan.  It’s interesting that Pynchon doesn’t represent Levine as a weak or effeminate schlemiel type of character.  He can fend for himself.   Pynchon’s description of how Levine assimilates into the non-Jewish military crowd, however, shows that he is the “odd one out” (but not in the same way a schlemiel is since Levine is more masculine).  Pynchon mixes tropes that suggest that Jews and Blacks in America share common physical and cultural ground:

Levine…was not quite ordinary.   He was one of the few men outside of those bucking for section eight who actually liked it at Ft. Roach.  He had quaintly and unobtrusively gone native: the angular edges of his Bronx accent had been dulled and softened into a modified drawl; he had found that white lightning…was in its way agreeable as scotch on the rocks; he now listened to hillbilly groups in bars in the neighboring towns as replete as he had once dug Lester Young or Gary Mulligan at Birdland. He was well over six feet and loose-jointed, but what certain coeds at City once described as a plowboy physique, rawboned, and taut-musceled, had run flab after three years of avoiding work details.  He had a fine beer belly now, in which he maintained a certain pride, and a large behind which he was not so proud of, which earned him his nickname.  (Slow Learner, 28)

When “Twinkletoes” Dugan, the anti-Semitic Lieutenant, comes in to the barracks, Pynchon situates Levine on a bed reading a trashy novel entitled Swamp Wench.  Levine slowly gets up once he hears that Dugan wants to speak to him: “Levine turned another page and started reading.  ‘Hey’, the company clerk said.  Levine smiled vaguely”(29).

Pynchon describes Dugan in a satirical manner and illustrates why he and Levine don’t get along:

There were a lot of…nice things about Dugan.  He held as self-evident truths, for example, that the NAACP was a Communist cabal dedicated to 100% intermarriage of White and Negro race, and that the Virginia gentleman was in reality the Ubermensch, come at last, prevented from fulfilling his high destiny only by the malevolent plotting of the New York Jews.  Mainly on account of the latter he and Levine did not get along well.  (29)

Pynchon valorizes Levine’s fatness and his slowness in repose to Dugan and the military context (this depiction is similar to the slowness we find with Pynchon’s stoner schlemiel character, Doc in Inherent Vice):

Levine closed the book, folded it in half, rolled over and stuck it in his back pocket.  He lay there for a minute or so within a cockroach follow some private maze across the floor.  Finally, he yawned and dragged himself off the bunk, dumped the butts and ashes onto the floor and put the helmet liner on his head, canted down his eyes. (30)

Toward the end of the story, Levine leaves the barracks to go to a bar and meet a woman. The scene – in some way – seems to allude to James Joyce’s depicition of Bloom walking through the streets of Dublin:

He started walking, hands in pockets, whistling, heading in the general direction of the bar he had been in the night before.  There were no stars and the air felt like rain.  He walked through the street lit shadows of big ugly pines, listening to the voices of girls, the purr of cars, wondering what the hell he was doing here….and wherever he went he would be wondering this.  (49)

This mediation turns into an odd reflection on being a fat American Jew without an identity:

He had a momentary, ludicrous vision of himself, Lardass Levine the Wandering Jew, debating on weekday evenings in strange nameless towns with other wandering Jews the essential problems of identity – not of the self so much as the identity of place and what right you really had to be anyplace.(49)

Even though these thoughts fall into the backdrop when he meets up with a girl in a bar, he becomes out of sorts when he is alone and naked with her in a bed.   Levine sees her response – as Kafka’s female ape in “A Report to the Academy” – as reflecting his estrangement.   They both lay in the bed – body to body –  “not touching”(50).

The next day, Levine is told that he can leave now, he’s an “extra body.”  He puts his sack on his shoulder and drives into the rain.   Pynchon makes “Lardass Levine” into a lonely figure.  In the end of the story, he is a big Jew who walks into the “small rain.”  His body – an emblem of his partially assimilated American Jewishness – sets him apart.   But the weather – and his sense of otherness – makes him small.  His body can’t mitigate the sense of otherness that is, so to speak, in the atmosphere.  Perhaps Pynchon is suggesting that the “small rain” reminds him of his Jewishness.

Reading this story, I thought a lot about the relationship of Jewishness to weight, today.  It seems a little different.  Seth Rogen Josh Ostrovsky play, aka”Fat Jew,” come to mind. They throw their weight into the public image of Jewishness.  (I have written about Rogen and Fat Jew’s use of the body before – see here and here.)

It is astonishing how Fat Jew has become over the last few years.   He has 9.2 million followers on Instagram, nearly a million likes on Facebook, and 296 thousand followers on Twitter.   When he first started rising to celebrity, The New York Times ran a 2014 essay on him and while it noted his major accomplishments, it retained a little skepticism:

Given that Mr. Ostrovsky’s main oeuvre is a social media feed for which he mostly finds funny pictures or tweets on the web and reposts them with his own captions, his abilities as a live-action entertainer are untested. It’s an obstacle he is doing little to overcome. Mr. Ostrovsky refuses to join the stand-up circuit. “Why would I do that when I can roll myself into a giant burrito, take a picture and get paid?” he said.

One year later, he sunk into a controversy in which he was accused of stealing jokes (cutting and pasting them through his own portals).  The Atlantic points out how this issue has evolved.

The debate over Twitter joke theft has escalated in recent years as people find more and more ways to monetize their feeds. Ostrovsky’s joke “curation” on Instagram (and Twitter, where he has 255,000 followers) might seem harmless, but he reportedly makes thousands of dollars anytime he endorses a product online, a smaller-scale version of the endorsement empire created by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. Simply by taking a screenshot of whatever jokes were trending any given day, Ostrovsky somehow parlayed his way into a pilot development deal with Comedy Central, although Splitsider reported that the deal has fizzled out after huge protest from other comics.

The popularity of Rogen and Ostrovsky – by way of their bodies – is not an emblem of otherness.  It is endearing.  And it has a kind of ironic smallness to it.  It is bound to make us smile.   The President seems to find it funny, too.

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While, with Pynchon, fatness and Jewishness has literary resonance, with them it has none.   That aside, now even Fat Jew is getting in on storytelling (albeit in a more popular cultural sense).  It’s appeals to socially symbolic and popular figures is a little different from what we find in Pynchon. Even so, today, we know much more about Fat Jew than we know about “Fatass Levine.”   Fat Jew puts out a unique kind of male Jewish body in public space and  by doing so opens up different ways for identifying Jewish (making it “hip”).*


* What seems to be missing, however, in all these deceptions is a discussion of “Fat Jews” in terms of gender.  How do Amy Shumer and Lena Dunham – who put their voluptuous bodies in the public eye – fit? Would they find offense in being called a “Fat Jew”?  Lena Dunham doesn’t seem to find any problem with the display of the body in a manner that may offend some people. But is her display comical and affirmative in the same way that Fat Jew’s is?  Would Dunham – like Fat Jew – find her identity as a Jew in her body or is it elsewhere?  And wouldn’t the stereotypes be more in play with them?  Since so many artists, writers, and filmmakers today, play on and try to transvaluate the Jewish body, this is a question worthy of more reflection.

The Epic Schlemiel (Self Mocking, Humorous Clown) of $TWTR, @Nymag’s @jessesingal.

A good word for Schlemiel Theory from the “Wandering Poet”

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WordPress blogger Menachem Feuer has a wonderful blog on Jewish humor, The Home of Schlemiel Theory.

It is my contention that Jesse Singal, fake news (self admitted!) writer for New York Mag is a Schlemiel.

What else could he be?

He admits to having taken part in the production of fake news.  Yet he was an editor at prestigious New York Magazine.

As a classical liberal opposed to censorship I think it’s Jack Dorsey that is dumb, but Jesse is ok with “Dumb Twitter.”

He is ok with a revolution, as long as he profits.  This seems somewhat anti revolutionary doesn’t it?

He’s basically Castro’s Lieutenant hoping he doesn’t get shot by firing squad.

Jesse, ostensibly a science writer, thought people NOT communicating was a great way to make change.

Basically Jesse Singal was instrumental in electing Donald Trump.  I bet he can’t figure out how though.

Is Jesse a…

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On Jews, Aryan Bikers, and a Stoner Schlemiel Detective in Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice”

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Usually, I read the book before seeing the movie.  This time, things happened differently.   Although I have had Thomas Pynchon’s 2010 novel, Inherent Vice on my book shelf for a few years, I gave up and decided to just see the movie first and then read the book.   I was really curious what a Pynchon novel would look like on the screen.  Besides that, I really like Joaquin Phoenix’s acting.  He has the ability to turn every gesture or shrug into a moment for reflection about what it means to be human – at this moment – in America’s history.   How should one live today? Is it better to be aloof but aware?  Or is it better to be radical, hyper aware,  emotional and active (a demeanor we see in many films and documentaries, but satirized in Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes)?   There are characters for each of these dispositions in many Pynchon novels.  This one is no different.

While my wife wasn’t so into the film, I was transfixed by many things: the comical detective narrative, the foggy atmosphere, the odd pacing of this film, and its plot, which involved Aryans, Jews and a stoner schlemiel detective, who doesn’t have a Jewish name: “Sportello.” (Note: Pynchon uses the schlemiel detective motif in his novel, V and in The Crying of Lot 49).   He is nicknamed “Doc” (Phoenix plays Doc in the film).   It seemed as if Pynchon – in this later novel – was interested in recasting the schlemiel detective; while in V, he (Benny Profane) is half-Jewish and half-Catholic,  this time he is not.  And, strangely enough, Pynchon situates the schlemiel detective into a case that involves an arch villain who is Jewish.  His name is Micky Wolfmann and, as one informant in the film suggests, he loves things German and wants to be a Nazi:

“Westside Hochsdeutch mafia, biggest of the big, construction, savings and loans, untaxed billions stashed under an Alp someplace, technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi, becomes exercised often to the point of violence at those who forget to spell his name with two n’s.”(7)

Wolfmann surrounds himself with members of the “Aryan Brotherhood.”  And Doc gets drawn into his life and this situation because an old fling of his named Shasta drifts into his home at the outset of the novel:

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hand’t seen her for a year.  Nobody had.  Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt.  Tonight she was all flatland gear, her a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.  (1)

Shasta and the hippie motif she represents are juxtaposed to two scenes: one, the Wolfmann scene, in which, we learn, she was involved with him in an affair; the second, a “money situation” – now that Wolfmann’s wife knows about the affair, Shasta wants Doc’s help.  The take away: Shasta seems to be hooked into a bad scene which involves a “Jew” who “wants to be a Nazi” and she needs a schlemiel detective’s help to save  her from being sucked into this mess.

Shasta outlines the scene to Doc while he teases details out.  The subtext is fascinating because it deals passes through questions of Good and Evil and loyalty to arrive at the economic bottom line:

“Is, they want me in on it,” she said. “They think I’m the one who can reach him when he’s vulnerable, or as much as he ever gets.”

“Bareass and asleep.”

“I knew you’d understand.”

“You’re still trying to figure out if it’s right or wrong, Shasta?”

“Worse than that.” She drilled him with that gaze he remembered so well.  When he remembered.  “How much loyalty I owe him.”

“I hope you’re not asking me.  Beyond the usual boilerplate people own anybody they’re fucking steady –“

“Thanks, Dear Abby said about the same thing.”

“Groovy.  Emotions aside, then, let’s look at the money.  How much rent has he been picking up?”(3)

Doc may be a schlemiel detective but, as one can see from the above passage, he has very realistic views.  The only thing is that he numbs himself to their implications (perhaps because he smokes pot a lot) and, as we see throughout the book, he suddenly remembers things and usually stumbles over things he missed.  His detective method is a blend of intelligence and happenstance.

Ultimately, its not the drugs that keep him aloof.  Doc has an existential stake.  He doesn’t want to focus too much on existence.  And perhaps that gives him the blurry feel that we bear witness to not only in the book but throughout the movie.  His constant pot-smoking and odd hours of sleeping make all things hard to see and hear (for the reader and viewer).  But it also serves as a motif because he has momentary instances of clarity when things – all of a sudden  – come together.

But things aren’t so blurry in terms of the plot: the read on Wolfmann – as the main Jewish villain who pays the bills – is quite clear.  Pynchon plays on the motif of the Self-Hating and powerful Jew who wants to situate himself amongst the Aryan Brotherhood, a biker gang that protects him.  Doc is on the outside of this. He’s just trying to help Shasta out by finding Wolfmann.   In truth, Doc is really just the small guy who stumbles upon clues and somehow puts things other.   The Jewish character is – on the other hand – the symbol of power, greeed, and corruption.  He leaves his Jewishness behind for evil and power.  (An anti-Semitic theme, no doubt. And there is much to discuss here about the drive for assimilation and the desire to become the other.  I will discuss these in future posts.)

What leads Doc to Wolfmann is heroin, which, in this book, is associated with rotting teeth and what I would call eroding one’s bite on life.  Doc smokes pot, while all of Wolfmann’s clients and people (including Shasta, before she visits Doc) shoots dope.  Wolfmann is the peddler of dope and he gets everyone under his power.   Doc wants nothing to do with power.  Wolfmann takes their teeth away from them and gives them a fake bite.   Doc has all his teeth.   His bite is real.  But he only eats on the go.

To be continued…..

Nostalgia is Irrefutable: A Note on Mark Lilla’s “The Shipwrecked Mind”

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Whenever I reflect on the celebrated modern writer, Marcel Proust the thought always comes to me – seemingly out of nowhere – that his appeal to childhood memory, to his bed, is sheer nostalgia.  He is telling us that the past is always better than the present.  And if we put this in a temporal perspective, we can see that it suggests that the past is also better than the future and that nostalgia is an even greater force than hope! How could this be? What kind of world could give birth to such a passionate form of nostalgia?

Mark Lilla’s Query

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In The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, Mark Lilla tells us, at the very outset, that he is bewildered by the fact that proper “theories about reaction” – as opposed to theories of revolution, that are covered in every which way – are lacking:

We have theories about why revolution happens, what makes it succeed, and why, eventually, it consumes the young.  We have no such theories about reaction, just the self-satisfied condition that it is rooted in ignorance and intransigence, if not darker motives.  This is bewildering.  (ix)

He is bewildered because he can’t see why anyone misses the fact that reaction may in fact be more powerful than revolution. He thinks that it’s “spirit…may have died out.”   And it is reaction that “rose to meet it” and “has survived and is proving to be as potent a historical force.”  After all, says Lilla, it is currently on the rise in the “Middle East” and “Middle America.”   He calls those who refuse to see this, smug, because they regard this irony (since one would or even should – as Lilla suggests may be behind this blindspot – think it is the other way around) with another irony:

It arouses a kind of smug outrage that then gives way to despair.  (x)

And with that despair comes a striking realization in a era when all “others” are embraced:

The reactionary is the last remaining “other” consigned to the margins of respectable intellectual inquiry.  We do not know him.  (x)

Lilla’s task is to introduce “him” to us and to make it respectable if not imperative to think about reaction.  He defends this proposition.  To this end, he starts by giving us  a genealogy of the use of “reaction” and “reactionary” after the French Revolution. And, as we can see, it has a very “negate moral connotation” which “still retains today”(xi).

After saying this, Lilla says something that – because of this negative moral connotation –  doesn’t fit within “our” frame of reference:

Reactionaries are not conservatives.   This is the first thing that should be understood about them.  They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings.  Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of a new dark age haunt the reactionary.  (xii)

To see something and be deeply affected by time and history, is to be, as Lilla puts it, “shipwrecked.”  He dedicates this book to understanding the “shipwrecked mind.”

The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary see the debris of paradise driving past his eyes. (xiii)

Reading this, I immediately think of Walter Benjamin and Albrecht Durer’s interest in the figure of Melancholy who is surrounded by the ruins of history.

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And, as a result of being shipwrecked, the reactionary mind turns to the past:

The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified  (xiii)

The nostalgia of the reactionary can be “militant ” and this is what makes him a “distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one”(xiii).   Lilla delves into the conditions for the possibility of such a passion for the past, for nostalgia.  He argues- by way of Marx – that it has to do with the experience of constant revolution and change, when “all that is solid melts into air.”  This creates an “anxiety” and it this anxiety is by and large greater than we could ever have imagined: it is “universal.”

It is so strong that Lilla claims that reactionaries – of our time – have discovered that nostalgia may “perhaps” be “more powerful (a more powerful motivator) than hope.”   And this leads him to the conclusion that: “Hopes can be disappointed.  Nostalgia is irrefutable.”

These last lines not only make me think about Walter Benjamin’s struggle against the tide.  It also reminds me of his favorite writer, who he wrote an essay on which took him nearly ten years to complete.  He noted that all of Kafka’s characters like to go backwards. They seem to be primordial as they turn against the flow of time we know as progress and development.

One story which puts this into perspective is Kafka’s “A Report to the Academy.”  At the end of the story, the ape, who is the first person narrator of the story, reflects on all he has gone through to become more civilized and…human.  Although he seems inspired and hopeful, he is actually really quite bored.  And when he thinks about the “half-trained little chimpanzee” he comes “home to late at night,” who he takes “comfort from” as “most apes do,” he recalls how he “can’t bare to see her”(259, Kafka: Collected Stories).

Why?

When he sees her he takes notice of her “insane look of the bewildered half broken animal in her eye.”  In other words, he sees himself.  He is a reactionary and, as Lilla would say, his mind is “shipwrecked.”

Strangely enough, after mentioning this, he covers up the fact that he sees the marks of his past life on his ape’s face….and acts “as if” everything is all right (and human), as he finishes his “report to the academy.”

In any case, I am not appealing to any man’s verdict, I am only imparting knowledge, I am only making a report.  (259)

The question we need to ask about this report is the same one Lilla poses.  What does it mean that the knowledge he is imparting is the knowledge of a  shipwrecked mind which acts as if it is not?  Who are we?  Are we in denial?  Are we trying to hide the fact that we are shipwrecked on the shores of time and that nostalgia might be greater…than hope?

You Got a Friend in Me: On Randy Newman’s Little Americans, Sailing Away & Friendship

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Words that touch the heart and sounds that make us tap our feet guide many Americans through life.  They give us hope to carry on.  This is especially the case in American religion and popular culture. Both bring liturgy and melody together in a way that it becomes one with experience and infuses it with a kind of magic that is, for lack of a better word, common.  Artists such as Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, and Ella Fitzgerald – to name only a few, there are many, many more – were able to bring gospel into the secular realm.   They smuggled it in and gave American music a spiritual charge and a sense of liberation that changed the direction of music not just in America but around the world.

I can personally attest to this.  Listening to their music I always felt a kind of non-denominational, popular spirit or what Harold Bloom might call an expression of “American religion.”   One of my favorite American composers – who always manages to evoke a popular spiritual message while retaining touches of melancholy – is Randy Newman.    His voice has echoes of Ray Charles and Van Morrison.  And his lyrics suggest something that every American can identify with since they touch on what makes Americans American – vis-à-vis individualism, simplicity, and the animal joys that come with having ample food to eat, a family, and a strong sense of security.

Randy Newman has been writing music since the early sixties for TV shows – such as the Carol Burnett Show, Sesame Street, the Muppet Show, and Saturday Night Live – and for major films such as Toy Story (1999) and Monsters INC (2001).  He has also written some wonderful songs – some of which were hits.  Many of these songs speak to something endearing and sweet that all Americans share.  But there are other songs that present more of an ambiguity (albeit with a sugar coating).

Of all the songs from my youth, the one that stuck most was Randy Newman’s “Short People.”  It stuck because I was astonished that a song could be so unabashedly cruel and loving at the same time.  Unlike a song by Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson, it presented a challenge each time I listened to it.  Dancing to the song wasn’t so easy.  I always recall the lyric that, “short people have no reason to live.”  How could the melody be so charming and cheerful? There was something about this song that showed me a part of America that was deeply familiar and unfamiliar to me.  I couldn’t figure out what it means, and that’s why it stayed with me.

Reflecting on the song, recently, I went on Youtube and gave it my full attention.  What is it all about? Was Newman singing a song at the expense of “short people”?

After listening to the song several times, I discovered that, as a kid, I chose to only listen to part of the tune.  I only heard the voice of a bully; I missed the chorus which turned the voice inside out.

Short people got no reason

Short people got no reason

Short people got no reason to live…

 

They got little hands

And little eyes

And they walk around

Tellin’ great big lies

They got little noses

And tiny little teeth

They wear platform shoes

On their nasty little feet

Well, I don’t want no short people

Don’t want no short people

Don’t want no short people

Round here

The song is about the dialectic about a bully and the voice of conscience.   In the second part of the song we see that the singer realizes that the “short people have nobody to love” because so many people are hated so much.  He slowly realizes that short people are “just like you.” This comes out in the chorus.

Short people are just the same

As you and I

(A fool such as I)

All men are brothers

Until the day they die

(It’s a wonderful world)

Short people got nobody

Short people got nobody

Short people got nobody

To love

 

They got little baby legs

And they stand so low

You got to pick ’em up

Just to say hello

They got little cars

That go beep, beep, beep

They got little voices

Goin’ peep, peep, peep

They got grubby little fingers

And dirty little minds

They’re gonna get you every time

Well, I don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

‘Round here

The message: Americans are all one: E Plurbus Unim.  The twist is that we may all be small people, but we have a hard time coming to terms with it. And this divides us.  There is always someone who thinks s/he is taller (in terms of money, power, identity, intelligence, education, etc) than someone else – and, to be sure, Newman tells us that “short people are just the same as you and I.”  We are all culpable, to some extent.  No American escapes unless they are, literally, small people:

Short people are just the same

As you and I

(A fool such as I)

All men are brothers

Until the day they die

(It’s a wonderful world)

The message, restated: America is small people and I, the singer of this song who doesn’t want “small people down here,” admit that I am a fool and that small people are “the same as you and I.”   The “wonderful world” – as Disney would say – is a small world…after all.

Randy Newman’s genius is to sing a song that really hits on what makes us special as Americans.  We are divided and united not just by and through small people, but also, and perhaps more importantly, by a kind of sarcasm that transforms into empathy and love.  We are, as Newman suggests, a family.  And although any family will fight and make fun of each other, in the end, we are all a part of the same family.  And that realization – which comes through realizing I’m a fool – is translated into a joyful sense that the world is “wonderful.”  Through becoming small, wonder makes its debut.

His song “Sail Away” tells a different story.   He hits on the basic, simple common denominator at the beginning of the song.  “Here in America, we got food to eat.”  We live in a land of  plenty.

In America you’ll get food to eat

Won’t have to run through the jungle

And scuff up your feet

You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day

It’s great to be an American

 

Like in a Disney film, we are all happy animals.

 

Ain’t no lions or tigers

Ain’t no mamba snake

Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake

Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be

Climb aboard, little wog

Sail away with me

Our joy, however, because of the way he sings the song and his use of an American horn section, tells us that our satiety leads us to “sail away.”  In the most proud American sense, we are sailing through the Charleston (North Carolina) bay.  But we aren’t really sailing “across the ocean.”  Rather, there is a sense of home and homecoming.   This is our chorus.

Sail away

Sail away

We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

Sail away

Sail away

We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

But, as Newman notes, we come back to are American animal happiness.  We are as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree.

In America every man is free

To take care of his home and his family

You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree

You’re all gonna be an American

But there is trouble in paradise because our journey is really not from sea to sea but across the Charleston Bay. We can’t see it, however.  Because we are so blinded by being…at home and happy.

Our journey seems to be at end, suggests Newman.  Although he last musical line on the piano is a beautiful American March and suggests a redemptive theme, it is really suggesting that we Americans – in our ship of fools – are really going nowhere…just drifting and dreaming (“across the Charleston Bay”).  Sailing away may suggest that we are sailing away from the world and are deciding that it’s time to relax and be happy.

But in a recent video by Newman – released in September – he talks about how, in Europe, he experienced an anti-Americanism that really bothered him.  After saying this he shares a new song he wrote about what makes America special and different entitled “A Few Words in Defense of our Country.”

 

Newman talks about how America – in comparison to the rest of the world – isn’t so bad.  And that Americans shouldn’t cower down to these criticism and think of themselves as horrible people.

But, as the song goes on, while we learn about what Americans want from the rest of the world, we also hear what Newman thinks has befallen America:

We don’t want their love

Respect, at this point, is kinda outa the question

In times like these, we sure could use a friend.

 Hitler, Stalin, Men who need no introduction,

King Leopold of Belgium

Everyone thinks he’s so great

He went down to the Congo

He took the diamonds, he took the gold

You know what he left them with

Malaria

 

You know a President once said,

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid.

It’s Patriotic in fact.

It’s color coated.

What are we supposed to be afraid of?

Why…being afraid.

That’s what terror means.

That’s what it used to mean.

 …..

 The end of an Empire is messy at best

And this Empire’s ending, like all the rest.

Like the Spanish Armada, adrift at sea.

We’re drifting home of the Brave and land of the Free.

Good bye…Good bye….Good bye.

In other words, Newman is telling us, right now, that we are truly adrift at sea and that his America – the spiritual one – has drifted away and has lost its anchor in the Land of the Free.   Nonetheless, as he tells his little listeners in Toy Story, he’s not going away: “You got a friend in me.”  And that’s where it all begins and, if we’re lucky, this will bring the ship back from being adrift at Sea.  Short people have nobody to love….but that’s a challenge…not a statement of fact.  But here’s the rejoinder (which is, more or less, an assurance).  Let’s hope it has the last word:

 

 

 

Election Night at the Comedy Store

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On election night, the Comedy Store hosted several comedians – such as Bill Burr, Russell Peters, Fat Jew, Morgan Murphy, and Sarah Tiana – who sat (in front of an LA audience) through the entire election night from the beginning to the very end.  The jokes they tell – to while away the four hours – represent a diversity of comedic perspectives that, since they are popular comedians, are expressed in such a way as to speak to large parts of the population.  Each of them – after all – have large audiences and taken together they entertain millions of people.      What is most fascinating is how – when the results come in from the election – their jokes start changing and things start becoming more serious.  But, in the end, they seem to be telling us that, since things are so crazy in the country, it’s better to just change the subject.

In the beginning of the evening, they play on the panic around how the evening will go. Doug Standhope reads fake texts by Joe Rogan about how he is worried about the evening but then…as he reads…the text changes and says something along the lines of “it doesn’t matter…at least I’ll smoke some joints, have some drinks, and tell some jokes.”  While they tell jokes about abortions and Trump putting an end to them if he gets elected, they joke about “the end of the world.”  But what’s worse than this, says one comedian, is the boring CNN coverage.   One comedian says it’s “an election that doesn’t matter” while another says “it’s not good.”  Joe Rogan – the organizer of the evening – takes note of how things are different now than they were: “When Obama went to school…here’s a guy who could form full sentences…we were happy with this guy who was intelligent and reasonable.”  This joke is displaced by things that have nothing to do with politics.  In fact, whenever anyone gets too deep, they displace it.   “If the President reflects your true life, you made poor choices.”  They discuss Donald Trump and Jon Stewart’s Twitter exchange.  They make fun of it while at the same time enjoying Trump’s comedic antics, which, as their routine shows, go in the face of political correctness in its appeal to raw emotion and stupidity.  This is best epitomized by Bill Burr (9min in) who portrays Trump in the middle of the night Tweeting while the people around him telling to stop: “I’ll grab him (Stewart) by the pussy.”  This prompts a lot of laughs from the audience.

Joe Rogan tries to sober the audience by saying that “if he gets in there” he’s going to “talk shit” in the White House.   “It’s going to get really fucking weird…it shows you how fragile this group is…this group we call America. We’re about to elect a douchebag.”  Fat Jew interjects: “The upside is that we will see an assassination.” This produces some laughter and some confusion – Burr tries to hush it a little while laughing – but the comedians manage to distract the comment by looking at Burr’s iPad screen and the election results.

Later in the evening, when it becomes more clear that Trump is likely to win, the comedians’ dispositions change, but they don’t stop telling jokes. Nonetheless, many different things start coming up about America.  Discussion of condom legislation, Porn Industry, and masculinity in California.  The disputes between Morgan Murphy, Burr, Sarah Tiana, Rogan, and Standhope indicate some of the sore spots (see 3 hours in) around the relationship of comedy to political correctness.

An even more interesting moment happens after Russell Peters comes in and it becomes more obvious that Trump is winning.  Burr defends Scott Baio while Morgan Murphy tries to explain why Trump may win based on racism, sexism, etc (see 3:05).  She mentions anti-Semitism as a factor but then Fat Jew says, no, it has to do with “returning to the 50s.”   Morgan gets upset when other comedians try to shut her down and insists on explaining things.  But this brings up more issues.  To remedy things, some of the comedians get in some sexist jokes while praising her (so as to slip past political correctness).   Murphy retorts by making fun of the age of one of the comedians – who took a barb at her – Doug Standhope.  She continues talking about racism.

At the end of the evening – when it is almost final – Joe Rogan says “it’s really interesting…what the fuck have we got ourselves into?”  This spins into cynicism about politics in general.  Fat Jew adds “let Sara get her opinions (about abortion) in while she can…once Trump becomes President. they’ll zip that shut.”  Burr then (3:37) argues that there is a geographical issue here.  He argues that Murphy – who resides in LA – lives in a bubble and doesn’t understand the rest of America (during the evening, it should be noted, Burr says that he didn’t vote Trump – in fact, no one says they did).  Burr says the polls are garbage.  Fat Jew says agrees and says that people don’t want to say anything (about what they really feel) for fear of getting in an argument “around the water cooler.”

When they, apparently, get the word about Trump’s victory they sing: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” But then they realize it’s not called.  Burr plays on the final results and then says “that a Reality TV star is now the leader of the most powerful country in the world….It looks like Trump kicked her ass.”  Looking at the audience, Rogan says, “You guys are disappointed. I can see that. Right?”  “I voted for Johnson,” says Rogan, “Hillary sucks.” Burr says, “Yes, indeed it (the world) is unraveling.” And then Rogen adds, rhetorically: “Doesn’t this reflect the world we are living in, collectively unraveling?”

But Burr – the most popular of this group of comedians – has the last word.  He starts talking about cars and TV shows in the nineties and everyone gets in there to tell jokes about this topic.  “This is America.  You start talking about cars.”  Humor can’t dwell on the new reality for too long, it seems.  It’s really not that funny.  Let’s talk about something else, something “we” Americans all like.

Mortality, Jewishness & Leonard Cohen’s Comedic Moments

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In the wake of Leonard Cohen’s passing, I reached for a book of his poetry that I have – from time to time – taken up and slowly read: The Book of Longing (2006).  Each of the poems in this book is dense with mortality and a distinct Jewish sensibility that, to my mind, begs for interpretation.  Cohen, like a Kabbalist of sorts, writes very symbolic poetry that is based on a longing for G-d’s presence (Cohen spells “God” as would a religious person who wants to preserve the mystery of God’s name, as “G-d”).

While his poetry is deadly serious, one will also find an unexpected comical element in it as well. But this is harder to find and when I recently came across a video – shared with me by a friend – of Cohen doing stand-up comedy (in the late 60s), I felt it necessary to write something brief – but respectful – about how a comic and a deeply mortal sense of his Jewishness can be found in his work.  To this end, I will juxtapose some of his poems with a documentary on Cohen (by the National Film Board of Canada) that ironically casts him as a stand-up comedian so as to show the tragic-comic thread that runs through some of his work.

In the first poem, “The Book of Longing,” Cohen immediately notes a Biblical distance between himself and G-d while at the same time bearing his brokenness.  Art seems to mediate this relationship and state of being:

I can’t make the hills

The system is shot

I’m living on pills

For which I thank G-d

 

I followed the course

From chaos to art

Desire the horse

Depression the cart

 

I sailed like a swan

I sank like a rock

But time is long gone

Past my laughing stock

In the right corner of the page is the image of a naked woman – in profile – with most of her back to the viewer.  She may be a symbol of the divine feminine presence that his “Book of Longing” is dedicated to.  He depicts her, at the end of the poem, in terms of a mystical moment that he desires and believes will come:

She’ll step on the path

She’ll see what I mean

My will cut in half

And freedom between

 

For less than a second

Our lives will collide

The endless suspended

The door open wide

 

Then she will be born

To someone like you

What no has done

She will continue to do

 

I know she is coming

I know she will look

And that is the longing

And this is the book

Later in the book, Cohen meditates on faith.   He ironically relates to it fun – because faith makes him long and suffer – and suggests something comical:

FUN 

It is so much fun

To believe in G-d

You must try it sometime

Try it now

and find out whether

or not

G-d wants you

to believe in Him.

Notice that “You” and “Him” are capitalized.  He is daring the reader to take up faith in an ironic manner.  The voice of the poem asks that you search and find out whether G-d wants your belief.  It’s a challenge.

Cohen’s belief is at once comical and deeply mortal.  In a poem called “Thing,” he sees himself as a creature, a thing that “needs to sing” to her (his beloved in the flesh and the feminine presence of G-d), to G-d, and to what he calls – with an obvious sexual allusion –  “my baby’s lower fur”:

I am this thing that needs to sing

I love to sing

To my beloved’s other thing

And to my own dear sweet G-d

I love to sing to Him and her

And to my baby’s lower fur

Which is so holy

That I want to crawl on my knees…

                                

I am this thing

that wants to sing

when I am up against the spit

and scorn of judges

O G-D I want to sing

I Am

THIS THING THAT NEEDS TO SING

Cohen’s eroticization of God brings the physical and the spiritual together.   It seems to be full of joy and desire.  But when he reflects on something more particular, like his Jewishness, his voice takes on a note of ironic courage about his Jewish particularity.  In a poem entitled “NOT A JEW,” Cohen faces his readers and tells them that – against a Sartrean position about Jewishness in his famous book Anti-Semite and Jew –  the other person doesn’t define his Jewishness and that those who do aren’t really Jewish:

Anyone who says

I’m not a Jew

is not a Jew

I’m very sorry

but this decision

Is final 

The mark of his Jewishness is – as Cohen notes – in his flesh.

Cohen’s final poem in the collection has a name and a date at the end: “Sinai, 1973.” It suggests that Cohen’s place is with the Jews and with tradition on a day that was marked by war and victory over forces that wanted to exile the Jews from their homeland (once again).  It has a Biblical title, “THE FLOOD” and bears a picture of a dove on a branch.  It is a poem of mortality, hope, and comedy:

The flood is gathering

Soon it will move

Across every valley

Against every roof

The body will drown

And the soul will break loose

I write this down

But I don’t have the proof

The comedic element is the final stroke of the poem because it suggests that this isn’t really a testimony that can be scientifically or historically verified; it is a poem. What he writes isn’t proof.  It is like faith since the crux of the poem is that the soul will “break loose” once the body drowns.  It is, for this reason, profoundly religious but not empirical.  He ends on this note.  He longs for it to be true as he longs for the feminine presence of G-d, for G-d, for her, and for flight. His Jewishness is certainly not ancillary to his poetry.  His testimony to Jewishness may be mixed but it is also very straightforward and finds a special place in his poetry.

His comedy suggests something different: his unique sense of otherness.

Using the trope of mental illness, Cohen, at the outset of his routine, casts himself as a possible mental patient in a mental institution.   To be sure, his opening jokes – some drawing on mystical symbolism – play on this possibility and prompt the crowd to laugh nervously.   Is he visitor or a mental patient?

In the next sequence, we hear a serious monologue by Cohen as we see him walk through the streets of Montreal. He says he is not just a stand-up comic but a serious writer.  He wants to take on – it seems – more than one identity.   The poetry we hear in the documentary is very serious and mortal.  Many of the poems deal with the topic of being exile in general and in particular (in Montreal).

The viewer of this film has to wait seven minutes into the film to get the first mention of anything comic (post the initial scene) and this has to do with his body and how he shows it (7:36). The narrator describes him as having the “stoop of an aged crop picker and the face of a curious little boy.”  Is this man-child element – the schlemiel element – found in this description a matter of the body?  The segment shows him walking around with a big smirk on his face.  Is he a bodily schlemiel of sorts?

What does Cohen say about this?

He seems to agree.  And apparently, he sees his path – which is going to know defined place and without direction – as a “very good path with someone who moves as funny as he does.”

In the following segment, where he and Irving Layton (a famous Canadian poet who is very serious in his bearing and poetry) is interviewed by a CBC commentator, he swerves questions (much like the young Bob Dylan) with witty remarks that turn the questions back on the interviewer.  But, after his quips, he notes that his “real concern is to know whether or not he is in a state of grace.”   It is a kind of “balance” one feels in “riding the chaos.”  His answer confuses the interviewer and Layton tries to save him by saying that Cohen is concerned with “preserving the self.” Cohen doesn’t agree or disagree.  He doesn’t care.

His comedy, it seems, is to be found in the fact that he, like a schlemiel, can’t give the answers and fit into the discourse people call for; he would rather remain other in his search for “balance” between comedy and serious poetry.  His way of speaking and walking are juxtaposed to his passion for grace.

One line that struck me was, when he was referring to a lover that, “I dread the moment when your mouth calls me hunter.” This line made me think about the juxtaposition of Jacob and Esau. The former was a “man of the tents” and a “simple man” while the latter was a “hunter” and a man of the field.  The latter is associated with Rome, with Edom, while the former is associated with Israel and the Jewish people.  Here I could hear his fear that he would lose his Jewishness in these trysts.  He doesn’t want to become a hunter, which he associates with no longer surfing chaos or being comical and self-deprecating.    He wants to remain aloof and to keep up the search for grace.  And there is in this a kind of understated schlemielkeit.  It may not make us laugh, but it does show us a comical disposition that is not satisfied with this world (as Esau was).

Twenty-seven minutes in to the documentary we see this clarified.  When Cohen is captured in a discussion about comedy, we see a reflection on the different standards of humor. Cohen suggests that there are other ways of being comical that aren’t simply to be found in the social situation.    And he discloses that he can’t stand academic scenes that are pretentious.   He doesn’t want to be the big man on campus.  He doesn’t want the power.

In the last section of the documentary, we finally get to see some real attempts at stand-up comedy.  But – ultimately – the last note is serious and the final joke overdubs are mixed with tragic reflections on Jewishness.   The comedy is tainted.     And for this reason, the desire for a better world, for a way out, remains.  His comedy exposes the holes and the imperfections in reality.  He brings his Jewishness into his poetry and shows an uncomfortable relation to the world.  The schlemiel we hear in these lines can be found in his reserve of goodness and in his trust that he will somehow find it.

Cohen’s music and life have left a deep imprint on us all. And for me, personally, I can say that his movement back and forth between faith, doubt, comedy, mortality, and Jewishness is exemplary of how a Jew can be an artist and live in world.  And that life can be mediated through a kind of poetry and an embodiment that remains aloof and doesn’t give in to power but wrestles with it and comes close to it as Jacob wrestled – according to one Midrash – with the angel of Esau.

Rest in peace, dear soul.  Your soul – although I have no proof of this – has broken loose.  Now…”this thing needs to sing.”