Schlemiels Can’t Do Camp

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At the end of my last blog post, I suggested the possibility of Jewish Camp.  But is that possible?  Aren’t the two mutually exclusive?  This is what Susan Sontag suggests when she argues that Jews and Homosexuals are the creators of two modern sensibilities that are at odds with each other: a moral and an aesthetic Camp sensibility.  And as I noted in my last post, Sontag thinks that one necessarily “neutralizes” the other: “Camp is solvent of morality.  It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness”(“Notes on Camp,” 290).   Camp is all aesthetics, in other words, it is interested in play not moral seriousness.

Although the clash between ethics and aesthetics is nothing new – Plato, Kierkegaard, and Emmanuel Levinas all insist on the distinction – Sontag is introducing a nuanced reading of it, here.   Sontag’s distinction between a gay Camp sensibility and a Jewish moral sensibility (in modernity) suggests that Camp takes up the threads of aristoratic taste:

Aristocracy is a position vis-a-vis culture (as well as vis-a-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is part of the history of snob taste.  But since no aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-selected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.  (290)

With this history in mind, I’d like to introduce a challenge and ask a question.

The schlemiel is a moral-aesthetic figure that, on the one hand, partakes in the moral sensibility Sontag thinks Jews used to legitimate their place in American and European culture; and, on the other hand, it also partakes in the aesthetic sensibility. But the key difference is that the schlemiel does not take its historical cure from “the history of snob taste.”  On the contrary, the schlemiel’s history is rooted in historical trauma and takes its lead – as Ruth Wisse argues – from Jewish “weakness” in the face of history.  Wise argues that it appeals to self-deprecation as a way of humoring this weakness.   It is not, by any means, aesthetic taste that one sees articulated in the schlemiel.  If anything, we see the failure and self-deprecation in the schlemiel character.  She doesn’t take on an aristocratic Camp sensibility.  It’s comedy doesn’t evince a dominant, playful sensibility.

Think, for instance, of Woody Allen or Larry David.  If anything, they deliberately put forth characters whose comedy is informed not by bad taste so much as a comedy of errors that belies a character who is, ultimately, good natured and moral.   Larry David’s portrayal of Bernie Sanders is a good example.

 

In the parody, the moral sensibility is mocked.  But it is central throughout.  Aesthetic play, as Sontag would say, isn’t the key feature.

That prompts the question: Can a Schlemiel do Camp?

One interesting possibility has come up recently, as I noted in my last post, with Transparent.

In an essay on the show for the Los Angeles Review of Books entitled “Transparent: A Guide to the Perplexed,” Jonathan  Freedman doesn’t mentioned camp once.  He sees it, rather, in terms of Diasporic Jewish identity which is constantly changing and morphing.

Lech lecha: you must wander, you must change. Both of these imperatives are deeply — one might even say constitutively — Jewish. The first manifests itself in the historical experience of Jews as an exilic or diasporic people. To be a bit tendentious about it, the Promised Land has long served as much as a promise as a land; at the time of Christ, the heyday of the Second Temple, for example, more Jews lived in the Nile Delta than in Biblical Palestine; and the phrase at the end of the Passover ceremony, “Next year in Jerusalem,” has resonated and continues to resonate as much in Minsk or Berlin or Los Angeles as it does in, well, Jerusalem. The diasporic heritage has been key to the cultural and economic success of Jews qua model minority — as traders or middlemen, as makers and remakers of the cultures of the lands into which we have passed: without us, could Donald Trump even have conceived of the word “schlonged”? But it also means that we diasporic Jews are really home nowhere, as reflected in the rootlessness of the Pfefferman family, where the family mansion passes from Mort to his daughter so that Tammy can redecorate it out of existence….As a wandering people, Jews have of course had to change as they moved from country to country, ghetto to citizenship, religious to assimilated, ghetto Jew to sabra, frum to modern, which raises and practically identifies the Jew with the perpetual questioning of identity that is a hallmark of modernity.

Freedman also points out how the identification of Jews with the feminine is noting new.  It has a history and even James Joyce subscribes to it:

The understanding of the male Jew as a woman — as a proto-transsexual — had radiated throughout culture. A somewhat unhinged but brilliant converted Jew, cultural critic Otto Weininger, spoke of the male Jew’s essentially female nature in 1901. In 1922, James Joyce’s Jewish half-protagonist in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, is called “a finished example of the new womanly man.” Radiating out from such figures were identifications of Jewish men as women by medical professionals, chiefly in the cutting-edge medical research in 1920s and 1930s Germany.

It seems, for him, that the main focus of the show has to do with dealing with modernity in terms of identity issues and change.  Freedman seems to be telling us that the legacy of the effeminate Jew, it seems, is a part of that identity complex.

What is missing, however, in Freedman’s masterful account of the show, is a discussion of the moral sensibility.  How does it figure in this show?  Can it not be argued that Morton (Maura) Pfefferman character is playing a schlemiel?  After all, Joyce casts Bloom as a schlemiel and, to be sure, David Biale is correct in argue that most of the schlemiels we see in film are “sexual schlemiels.”  What is the moral undercurrent?  What does it mean for a schlemiel to grapple with sexual identity?  And how is this – as in many schlemiel tales, shows, and films – situated within the context of the family, the community?

This isn’t camp. And, based on this, one can argue that a schlemiel can’t do camp.  The schlemiel exposes a different sensibility that exists between a moral and aesthetic sensibility.  But this is not Camp aesthetics, as Sontag would understand it.  There is an aesthetics, a moral-asethetics, in this show.  There is moral conflict.  How do we articulate it? And what does it tell us about forces in American culture that Sontag may not have understood?  How can a reading of the schlemiel help us to understand a third kind of sensibility one that isn’t about the “aristocracy of taste” but about a struggle with modernity that is…shared…in common.  The schlemiel’s comic approach to transgender – at least in this show – may help us to understand how modern American Jews turn more to a moral-aesthetic sensibility to deal with the conflicts of modernity than to something solely aesthetic or solely moral.

 

Camp is a Solvent of Morality: Addressing Susan Sontag on Jewish & Gay Sensibilities

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Today, on Facebook, I noticed that many colleagues – several who are professors of philosophy (Jewish, Continental, Modern, Feminist, etc) – were having a field day with the hashtag #goldenshowers (Twitter had hundreds of thousands of Tweets today with this hashtag).   In at least two of the discussions I saw, however, there was an argument about whether or not it is ethical to shame someone and whether it was right to pass on something that was most likely a rumor or lie.  (Even if the subject is Donald Trump; he is a human being like all of us and philosophical rules apply to all; no one is exempt from respecting the other.)  In both, there was a slight pause to consider the situation.  But that didn’t last for long: the arguments dropped and people kept on telling “pee” jokes.   Philosophical consistency was thrown to the winds.  The attitude was more or less justifying it all.  After all, why can’t philosophy professors have some fun?

Drawing on Susan Sontag, I would argue that what happened today was the ascendence of a camp sensibility in the public space.  But in doing so, it had to toss the moral sensibility to the winds.  In her essay, “Notes on Camp,” written in 1964, Sontag suggests that the representatives of the camp sensibility and the moral sensibility are homosexual’s and Jews respectively.   They – “Jewish moral seriousness” and “homosexual aestheticism and irony” – are the two “pioneering forces of modern sensibility”(Against Interpretation, 290).

Since I would like to argue that the Camp sensibility was ascendent today, a brief look at her genealogy and definitions of Camp and Moral seriousness would be helpful.

Sontag argues that Camp taste  sees itself in terms of “aristocracy.” Even though aristocrats died with the Middle Ages and the birth of the Modern Era, Sontag sees an important structural relation; namely, “snob taste”:

Aristocracy is a position vis-a-vis culture (as well as vis-a-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is part of the history of snob taste.  But since no aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-selected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.  (290)

To argue her point, Sontag claims that a comparison and a distinction is in order between a Homosexual Camp Sensibility and a Jewish Moral Sensibility:

Not all liberals are Jews, but Jews have shown a peculiar affinity for liberal and reformist causes.  So, not all homosexuals have Camp taste.  But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard – and the most articulate audience – of Camp.  (290)

What she says we are certain of is that “Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture.”  What makes them special is that they are “pioneering forces.”  But they are at odds with each other.

While both use their sensibilities as a “gesture of self-legitimization,” “Camp taste…has something propagandistic about it.”  They both promote themselves.  But while “Jews have pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense,” homosexuals “have pinned their integration into society by promoting the aesthetic sense”(290).

When taken together, however, there is a problem.   One, argues Sontag, dissolves the other:

Camp is solvent of morality.  It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.   (290)

Drawing on Sontag, one could argue that the Camp sensibility, which revels in playfulness and irony, disregarded and “neutralized moral indignation” today.  It gave people permission to disregard shame and to engage in something aesthetic: adding endless ironic expressions to Facebook threads and Twitter Feeds.

Sontag’s first husband, Philp Rieff, may have encouraged her to pursue this kind of tension between the moral and the aesthetic.  (See his book: The Jew of Culture: Freud, Moses, and Modernity).

What I find most fascinating about today’s situation is that of the many philosophy professors I know – in my little circle – who were justifying the aesthetic excesses, some were professors of Jewish philosophy.   Playing on Leo Strauss, perhaps one can say that they made the Jewish moral sensibility the handmaiden of the homosexual aesthetic sensibility.

What we need is a dialogue between the two. Something like we find in a show like Transparent.  The irony of Camp has its limits.   A thinker needs to find them.  Otherwise, the snobby jokes will displace the morally serious issues that haunt us each and every day. Perhaps, there is another possibility: a Jewish kind of camp.

….to be continued

A Jewish-American Story of the Loss and Recovery of Faith in Joseph Roth’s “Job: The Story of a Simple Man”

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There is a long history of films, books, and plays that depict the assimilation of Jews into America.  Many of these works include scenes that articulate the loss of faith which can lead to either a good or a bad ending.    On the one hand, think of The Jazz Singer (1927), a film that puts the heat on: the son of a cantor must make a choice between keeping his father’s traditions and going into show business.

It has a good ending.

On the other hand, think of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, a graphic novel which depicts a religious Hasidic Jew, Frimme Hersh’s loss of faith and dispute with God.   He, like Job, takes up an argument with God over not living up to his side of the “contract” (covenant) when his daughter is tragically taken away from him.   His suffering breaks him since he sees that a life of faith doesn’t give the rewards that it promises.  In anger and resentment, Frimme rejects his faith.  He is a broken man.

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But his brokenness turns into a drive to sin.  Eisner depicts this as a movement from an emasculated masculinity (which he associates with the humility of faith) to male aggressivity.  America seems to bring out something from the Jew that simply didn’t exist in Europe.  He goes from being Job to being his opposite. But then, at a certain point, he experiences an emptiness.

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In the end, he wants a new contract with God to fill the emptiness of his new, American life.  He’s willing to give faith a second chance.  However, before the new contract is drawn up, he dies.  He doesn’t get to live a new kind of Jewish life in America.  He dies, naked, secular, and alienated.

In my last post on Joseph Roth’s Job: The Story of a Simple Man, I briefly touched on Mendel’s loss of faith and the final miracle at the end of the book (with not only the return of his son Menuchim, but also the miracle of the photograph, which opens his eyes to his newly discovered daughter-in-law and grandchildren).

Here, I’d like to take a much closer look into what fomented Mendel’s breakdown of faith as well as his return to life by way of a miracle.  What he experiences presents a different kind of possibility for the Jewish immigrant than we see in either the Jazz Singer or Eisner’s Contract With God.   Roth suggests, on the one hand, the family and group of friends (and not just technology – I will return to this) as a saving grace, and on the other, the possibility of miracles in America.   His promise is, as Levinas might say, in the future, in fecundity.  Without that, his faith would remain broken.

Before introducing the major turn of events in Mendel’s life, Roth depicts the American scene for Mendel, his wife, and children as one of health and excitement.  Mendel wants to stay up all night and partake in its life-giving energy:  “They spoke of the theater, of society, of politics.  He listened and dozed.  When Deborah called, he opened his eyes.  ‘I wasn’t asleep,’ he would assure them.  Mac laughed, Sam smiled, Miriam and Deborah whispered together.  Mendel would stay awake a while, and then nod again”(150).

When he dreams, we see an American dream take shape which is, more or less, like a circus. But it is briefly interrupted by the memory of Mendel’s crippled son,Menuchim, who he left behind in Europe:

He dreamt of events at home, and things which he had only heard about in America: theaters, acrobats and dancers in red and gold, the President of the United States, the White House, the millionaire Vanderbilt, and ever and ever again – Menuchim.  The little cripple was mixed up with his dreams of prima donnas in red and gold.   (150)

Following the dream, the narrator sums up America in one long sentence:

Americans were healthy, their women pretty, sport was important, time was money, poverty was a crime, riches a service, virtue was half of success, and belief in oneself the whole of it, dancing was hygenic, roller-skating a duty, charity was an investment, strikers were enemies of mankind, agitators instruments of the Devil, modern machinery a gift of God, Edison world’s great genius.  (151)

America is the anti-thesis of the Europe he came from with his family.   Thinking of the future grandchild of his son Sam (Sam is the child who left Europe and brought his family to America), he experiences a new kind of hope: “The world will be very beautiful, thought Mendel.  How lucky my grandchild is! He will live through it all!” (151).  However, this hope is overshadowed. He thinks he will die before he has a grandchild.

But, at that moment, another hope comes to him: “But he had one hope left: to see Menuchim. Sam or Mac would go over to fetch him.  Perhaps Deborah would go to”(151).   In other words, he can’t live his American future – no matter how bright – without coming to terms with the past.   He defied the Rabbi by leaving Menuchim behind.  That is the secret thought in the back of his head and it may, at this moment in the novel, be his last remnant of faith.

When Mendel thinks about his wife while she is sleeping, he wonders why they are together.  He sees his desire for her as faded into the past and seems to see their relationship in practical terms.  He then turns to the Bible for vindication: “It is written, it is not good for man to be alone.  Thus we live together”(153).   He doesn’t quite understand why it is more than something practical.  It all comes to him when he loses his dearest family members one by one.

It all starts with Sam going off to fight in World War I.  Sam, convinced that “America isn’t Russia,” takes up the cause of the War and believes that he would be one of the “high officers” who would survive.  Mendel disagreed since he had already lost “one son” (Jonas)  to the war (although no one, to the very end of the novel knows if he is dead or alive).  Mendel couldn’t stop him.  As Sam leaves, Mendel reflects: “Perhaps America was a real fatherland, war a duty, cowardice shameful, and death – when one was attached to the regimental staff – out of the question”(161).    But then he thinks that he “should have said” stay because he finally had some good fortune: why experience more misfortune…if Sam were to die.

His worst fears come true.

Roth depicts the news as being transmitted in the context of a family moment at the table in the winter.  After sitting together for a while at a table – following some time while Sam was away – Mendel, being so familiar with misfortune (a Russian Jew, as Roth puts it) “knew…what was coming.”  His daughter, Miriam, was hiding a secret:

Silence reigned for a few seconds.  Miriam did not speak.   It was as though she hoped that her mother or father would free her, by a question, from announcing her news.  She stood still, and was silent.  None of the three moved. (164)

When Miriam speaks, the damn breaks loose and Deborah, her mother and Mendel’s wife, breaks down.  Her body changes.  She starts pulling her hair out.  Miriam “sank to her knees.”  Deborah’s hands “were like a pale, fleshy, five-footed animals, feeding themselves on hair”(165).  Deborah goes insane and starts singing.   She dies out of shock: “All of a sudden a suppressed scream came from Deborah’s breast.  It sounded like the rest of the melody which she had been singing, a broken bursted note.  Then she fell from her chair”(166).

Mendel speaks to his dead wife as if she was alive and his words reflect his loss of faith and total alienation. He loses his identity and much else…because of America:

“You are well off, Deborah,” he said to her.  “It is only sad that you have no son left to mourn you (as he thinks both Jonas and Menuchim are dead).  I myself must say the prayer for the dead, but I will soon die, and no one will weep for us.  Like two tiny specks of dust, we shall be scattered…I have begotten children, your womb has born them, death has taken them.  Meaningless and full of poverty was your life….You are dead and buried.  Towards me He shows no pity. For I am dead, and yet live.  If you can, pray for me, that I shall be stricken from the book of the living….I eat and drink, pray and breath.  But my blood congeals, my hands are limp, my heart is empty.  I am no longer Mendel Singer, I am but the remains of Mendel Singer. America has killed us. America is a real fatherland, indeed, but a death dealing fatherland. What was life, with us, is death here….You are buried in America, Deborah, and I, too, will be buried in America”(170-171)

Following this, we learn that Miriam has lost her mind (172).     And like Job, Mendel’s life worsens and his faith becomes thinner and thinner:

They left him. Mendel went to the window and watched them (his son’s friend Mac, and Sam’s wife, Vega) get into the car.  It seemed to him that he must bless them, as though they were children who start out on a journey which may be hard or may be very happy.  I shall never see them again, he though; then – I shall not give them my blessing, either.  My blessing might be a curse, coming from me it could only harm them.  (177)

Now he lets go of the weight that comes with faith:

He felt light, lighter than ever in all his years….He was alone – alone.  Wife and children had surrounded him and had hindered him from bearing his pain…..Now, at last, he indulged his misery in triumph!   There was only one relationship still to be broken.  He had prepared to do it. (178)

But then he does the deed.

He gathers up all of his religious objects and burns them (178).  As Eisner might say, he tears up his contract with God and becomes one with the Biblical Job character:

“It is over, all over; it is the end of Mendel Singer!” he cried, and his feet stamped in time to the tune, so that the floor-boards rumbled and the pots on the wall began to rattle.  “He has no son, he has no daughter, he has no wife, he has no country, he has no money! God said: I have punished Mendel Singer! For what has he punished him?” (179).

When his neighbors come up to see what’s going, we have a scene that we could find in Job; namely, different opinions about God and faith by his friends.

Mendel concludes, at the outset, that religion is more or less masochistic and God is sadistic: “God is cruel, and the more one obeys Him the more brutally He treats one…The weakness of man tempts His strength, and obedience awakens His scorn”(181).

And, ironically, when he is told that his case is similar to Job, he disagrees because he hasn’t seen any miracles (in the end) and doubts they will come.  No one, he says, will be resurrected and he doubts he will see either Jonas or Menuchim.  He insists (without knowing for certain) that they are dead (183).

Reflecting on Menuchim, he thinks that Menuchim was sick because “it showed that God was wroth with me.  It was the first blow, which I didn’t deserve”(183).   Even so, one of the neighbors, Menkes, argues that it is possible that a miracle can happen: maybe Menuchim is alive, Jonah is in prison, and Miriam can be cured from her madness.

He is not convinced that no miracles are possible anymore. In his rejection of God, he says that the “Devil is kinder than God”(185).  He seems to have washed his hands of God, completely.  There would be no happy ending because, to his mind, God is a sadist.  Tragedy, not comedy, is the lot of the man of faith.

As a part of his refusal, Roth shows Mendel in the midst of the month of Elul (before high holy days).  The community comes to his building and even makes a synagogue in his room.   He lets them but he doesn’t participate in the prayers.   They pray at his home on Yom Kippur.  But “Mendel Singer stood, black and silent, in his everyday clothes, in the background, near the door, unmoving. His lips were closed, and his heart was a stone.  The song of Kol-Nidre rose like a hot wind.  Mendel Singer’s lips remained closed, and his heart a stone”(192).

Silence reigns. But after the war ends, “the festive sound of a happy world” returns (196).  Roth takes up the phonograph as a technology that (partially) breaks the stone heart of Mendel.  He brings it to his home and listens every day.  He listens to all kinds of music (196).  He is astonished by the miracle of technology and this gives him some hope (197).   When he discovers a song called “Menuchim’s song,” he becomes dour yet, at the same time, he starts thinking of Menuchim and how the boy, who only spoke one word, “mama,” may get to sing and he may hear it someday.  The important thing is that the miraculous is conveyed through technology and it makes him entertain the possibility of something he has long denied as a result of his suffering and affliction – something he let go of when he deemed God a sadist and faith masochism.

The miracle happens on the night of Passover.   The influence of music is apparent when, throughout the ceremony, Mendel “sways” to the “music of others”:

And even Mendel became milder towards Heaven, which four thousand years ago had generously lavished such marvelous miracles, and it was though, because of God’s love for his whole people, Mendel cold almost be reconciled with his own fate. He still did not participate in the song, but his body swung backwards and forwards, cradled in the song of the others.  (214)

When a stranger from Russia joins them, who the narrator calls a Kossak, Mendel has the courage to start asking questions about his home, about Jonas and Menuchim.  Like Joseph in the Bible, the stranger conceals his identity, he is really Menuchim.  But Mendel doesn’t know until, at the very end, he reveals his identity.

Menuchim tells of how he was cured of his illness by a medical institute in Russia and was taken in by a doctor who took a liking to him.   We also learn that he is – like the last name of his father and his own name – a “singer.”  When he reveals that he is the singer of “Menuchim’s song,” which, as we saw earlier, enlivens Mendel to recall his missing son, everything shifts.   Mendel tells him that his wife (Menuchim’s mother) has died, but he still shies away from asking about Menuchim.  Roth portrays Mendel’s inner struggle over whether or not he should say the words.   But it is Menuchim who says the words “Menuchim is alive!”

Mendel laughs and weeps as one would expect in the pronouncement of a miracle (as one sees at the end of the Joseph episode when Jacob realizes that Joseph is still alive).    And now we see another breakdown of Mendel’s body.  Menuchim prompts it when he whispers the words of his deceased wife to Mendel so as to remind him that the words of the Rabbis are true: “Pain will make him wise, ugliness good, bitterness mild, and sickness strong!”(227).   The neighbors all witness the miracle and Menkes, “the most thoughtful of all of them,” sums up the entire journey of brokenness and faith: “We tried to comfort you, but we knew it was in vain.  Now you in the flesh experience a miracle! As we mourned with you, so we rejoice with you now.  Great are the wonders of the Eternal, today, as they were a thousand years ago! Praise His name!”(228)

Mendel repents.   His life is different now.  Menuchim takes care of him.  And he tries to come back to life although he is near death.   The circle is completed when he sees the photo.  It like the phonograph brings him closer to life.   In the photo he sees that he has not only a daughter in law but real grandchildren.  He has a future.  And this is what completes his faith.

What is so fascinating about this process is that a phonograph and a picture help him to live and return to faith.  Modern medicine does as well, since it cures Menuchim.  Faith, Roth seems to be telling us, is a process of breakdown and recovery; and, in America, in the modern world, it takes on a new form as the miraculous is a part of our everyday life.  But, more importantly, it is the community (Mendel’s larger family) that Mendel stays in proximity to, although he doesn’t share their faith.  It is the miracle of being-together during morning, Yom Kippur, and Passover that is the condition for the possibility of Mendel’s process of breakdown and recovery.   And it is the community that gives him the phonograph.  Without them and their kindness, he could no longer hear the sounds of life and the joys of world; without them these sounds of hope would not exist.   Technology is a part of this organic whole; it transmits the sensory; it facilitates healing.

Roth’s story works on many levels.  But, unlike Eisner’s Contract With God or the Jazz Singer it shows an organic process of the deterioration and renewal of faith.  These two stories – one of assimilation – and the other of broken faith lack these elements.  And while Eisner’s stops short, Roth does not.  He suggests that without community and hope, Jewish life in America (for the immigrant) is a tragedy.   The simple man, as his subtitle suggests, may be ruined but he holds on to a small thread.  His humility and his desire to not shock others may be his saving grace.  And it may, as Roth suggests, be the key to faith for a hyphenated Jew who, like Mendel Singer and Job, may – despite endless misfortune – be in for a surprise or two.  That’s a story – a comedy – that found its expression, as well, in Charlie Chaplin.  Perhaps, because of its comic turns and twists of fate and stokes of luck, Roth is telling us that were it to be a European story and not an American one the ending would be tragic not comic.  After all, he saw pogroms and the rise of Hitler and knew, like Shalom Aliechem, that life for Jews in Europe was coming to an abrupt end.

The Other Side of the Hyphen: On Joseph Roth’s Portrayal of a Jewish Family and its Passage to America in “Job: The Story of a Simple Man”

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Like many American Jews, I am curious about the life of my grandparents and great grandparents.  On one side of my family, both of my grandparents were born in Europe but my father and his brothers were all born and raised in New York City.  My grandparents on the other side of my family, however, were both born in the United States (in New York and New Jersey).  I was the first child in my family to be raised in Upstate New York (which, although it is only three hours from New York City, is worlds apart).

Looking back on my upbringing, I identified more with the American side of my hyphenated identity than my Jewish side.  I had little choice because I was the only Jew in my elementary school (besides my brother) and when I was in high school (which I had to transfer to because of an anti-Semitic experience) I was only one of three in my grade.   We did have a small Hebrew School, a Jewish Community Center, and a Synagogue in Gloversville, New York.  I learned enough Hebrew to say my Haftorah at my Bar Mitzvah. But my sense of Jewishness was not solid.  My parents and my relatives gave me a vague cultural sense of Jewishness.  And when I left high school for university, I wanted to find out more about the other side of the hyphen.  Over time, I became a Jewish detective inquiring into my historical and cultural roots. And, as Freud might say, my self-analysis has become interminable.

For years, I have been reading historical accounts and novels about Jewish life in America and Europe.  The ones that touch me most deeply, however, had a lot to do with questions I have about my grandfather who was a proud Viennese (Austrian) Jew.  He died before I was born and this left me with a huge experiential and knowledge gap.   And since my father got in a spat with his family in which one side of the family basically disowned the other (my side), I was only able to meet my grandmother once (when I was sixteen years old) before she died.  I had so many questions for her but she was too busy apologizing for the lost years to tell me anything about my missing grandfather.

What do I know?  I have gathered that my grandfather was raised in Kalusz, not Vienna.  His father was a Rabbi. But when he came of age, he traveled to Vienna, developed his German to high proficiency, went to University there, joined the military, and rose in the ranks.  He was a young corporal of a platoon of Jewish-Polish soldiers during WWI.  He came to America after the war, in the 1920s, met my grandmother (who was of German and Sephardic descent), married, started a big family (my father was the youngest of four children), and created one of the largest leather companies in the world in upstate New York.     What, I wondered, was life like for him when he grew up in Europe? How did he go from being a religious boy in Eastern Europe to a businessman in America? What happened? And, most importantly, how was I to imagine this?

My attraction to the literature and philosophical works of Austrian-Jewish and German-Jewish writers and thinkers can be understood from my need to know what life was like for my grandfather.  Many of these books were helpful and gave me a sense of the high level of thinking and culture an Austrian-Jew would have.  Their work also gave me a sense of their struggles with being Jewish in a society that was more interested in their contributions as Austrians or Germans than as Jews.  But it was only recently when I came across Joseph Roth’s Job: The Story of a Simple Man that I felt that I had finally come across a novel that spoke to my desire to see the process of a man and a family that leaves a life of religious piety in Eastern Europe for America depicted in a deeply symbolic and meaningful manner.

The main character of Roth’s novel is Mendel Singer.  He is a humble man.  He, like his father and grandfather, was a Torah (Bible) teacher for children:

Many years ago there lived in Zuchnow in Russia, a man named Mendel Singer.  He was pious, God fearing, and ordinary, an entire commonplace Jew.  He practiced the simple profession of a teacher.  In his house, which was merely a roomy kitchen, he instructed children in the knowledge of the Bible.  He taught with honorable zeal and without notable success.  Hundreds and thousands before him had lived and taught as he did.  (3)

Although the main character is situated in Russia, the writer of the tale was, like my grandfather, an Austrian Jew who had made the pilgrimage from Galacia to the city and beyond.  His depictions of Mendel and his family have a lot to say about what he left behind and what he wants to leave behind; but it also shows us what he wants to hold close.

While Roth finds something endearing in his utter simplicity, he also finds something very sickly about Singer.  To be sure, Roth, like Kafka (in “The Country Doctor”) and many other Austrian writers is fascinated with health and sickness.  Many small details are painted with sickness or health throughout the novel.  Things are tight and restricted.  They don’t grow.  And it weighs him and his family down:

His body was stuck into the customary half-long Jewish caftan of the country, the skirts of which flapped when Mendel Singer hurried through the street and stuck with a regular tact like the beat of wings against the shafts of his high leather boots.(4)

The setting around Mendel’s family diminishes as he ages.  There is an acute sense of finitude:

When the students grew older they would go to other, wiser teachers.  Living became dearer from year to year.  The crops were always poorer and poorer. The carrots diminished, the eggs were hollow, the potatoes froze, the soup was watery, the carp thin, the pike short, the ducks lean…and the chickens amounted to nothing.  (5)

His wife, Deborah, however, is much stronger than he.  She wants a better life.  She is a symbol of vitality under duress:

On Friday she scrubbed the floor until it was yellow as saffron.  Her broad shoulders bobbed up and down in an even rhythm; her strong hands rubbed the length and breadth of each single board…She crept through the bare blue-whitewashed room like a broad, mighty, and moveable mountain. (5)

All of Mendel’s children, save one, are healthy. One goes off to join the military, the other leaves for America, while his daughter fools around with Cossacks.  In other words, he has failed to produce yet another generation of Bible teachers.  His last child, his last hope, is Menuchim.  We see his birth at the beginning of the novel. But unlike all the other children, he is very sick.  Roth’s depicts Menuchim as a monstrosity:

In the thirteenth month of his life he began to make faces and to groan like an animal, to breathe hastily and to gasp in an extraordinary fashion.  His great skull hung heavy as a pumpkin on his thin neck.  His broad brow was criss-crossed with folds and wrinkles like a crumpled parchment.  His legs were crooked and lifeless, like two wooden bows.  His meager little arms twitched and fidgeted.  His mouth stammered ridiculous noises.  (8)

Mendel and his wife pray for the child to be healed, but nothing changes.  When given an opportunity to send him to a Russian doctor, the father refuses for fear of them taking his baby away and raising him outside of a Jewish home and into a Russian one.  Deborah wants him to go and be cured.  Mendel refuses (10).   She then goes in search of a miracle for her son:

Deborah undertook pilgrimages to the cemetery; she called upon the bones of her ancestors to plead her cause to the Almighty.  Thus would Menuchim become well and no epilectic.  (10)

Meanwhile, “the older children grew and grew; their healthiness sounded an evil warning in the ears of the mother as though it were inimical to Menuchim.  It was as though the healthy children drew strength from the sickly one, and Deborah hated their noisiness, their  red cheeks, their straight limbs.  She pilgrimaged to the cemetery in rain and shine….She called upon the dead whose quiet comforting answer she thought she heard”(11).

Deborah goes on to a Rabbi who tells her than she must stay with Menuchin and that her love commitment to the child will eventually yield a miracle.   Throughout the novel, things get no better.  It reaches a breaking point when their son, Sam, leaves for America and becomes successful.  They must choose to go or stay behind with the child.

They decide to go.  They leave Menuchim behind with friends.  And in America things transform.  America is associated with life, health, and abundance.  Mendel is overwhelmed when he arrives.  It is a physical, sensory overload:

All the smells united in a hot vapour, together with the noise which filled his ears and threatened to split his skull.  Soon he no longer knew whether he was hearing, seeing, smelling.  He went on smiling and nodding.  America pressed down on him; America broke him; America shattered him. After a few minutes he become unconscious.  (128)

When he comes to and sees himself in a mirror, surrounded by his family, he feels embarrassed. But his son and his friend Mac – their physical presence – revives him.  It has the effect of good luck:

With difficulty he opened his lips and begged his son’s pardon.  Mac grasped his hand and shook it, as though he congratulated Mendel on a successful trick or on a bet he had won.  The iron clamp of the smile again settled around Mendel’s lips, and the unknown power again moved his head so that it seemed Mendel nodded.  (128)

What is most astonishing is the physical transformation of Mendel by virtue of being in America.   He and his wife become healthier and seem to have more luck.  The possibility of success looms large around them.  But as the health grows, so does the memory of Menuchin and his sickness.   Deborah, especially, remembers that Menuchin could only utter the word “mama” and this memory truly pains her.

Roth sets up this dialectic between America and the old country by virtue of the health motif.  They want to bring Menuchim to America and feel he can become healthy there.   When they hear, in a letter, than Menuchim said a few more words (other than “mama”), their hopes are stirred and their desire to return and bring him back is stoked.  Could a miracle have occurred?

Mendel returns to his prayerbook and now his worship becomes full of life and vigor:

From the trunk, he fetched his old prayerbook, so familiar to his hand.  He opened it immediately to the Pslams, and sang one after another.  He had experienced grace and joy.  God’s broad, wide, kindly hand arched protectingly over him, too…His heart rejoiced, and his body had to dance.  (148)

But in the chapter immediately following this, his health takes a turn for the worse.  He becomes sickly again.  He no longer “cared” about life his “beard was white; his eyes weak.  His back bent; his hands trembled”(149).   He becomes small, unrecognizable.  While he sees and acknowledges America as a land of miracles (150) he can’t stop thinking about Menuchim and the world he left behind.  His nostalgia is unhealthy.   And things get worse for him in America.

He and his wife are surrounded by others who – because of their ties to the old country – become sick while living in America.  When Menuchin comes back to visit, near the end of the novel, Mendel, like Job is to spent and warn down to enjoy the return and the fact that, miraculously, Menuchim can not only speak but has lived a good life.   But there are other problems for Mendel.  Where is Jonas? Is he alive?   And is it too late?  Isn’t Mendel on the cusp of death?  And what is he to do now that his wife has passed away?  At this moment, Roth has Mendel sink into the must profane moment of exposure and this, suggests Roth, is enlivening:

He himself, Mendel Singer, would have a good death, after many years, surrounded by grandchildren, “old and full of days,” as was written of Job.  He felt a curious and forbidden desire to lay aside his old cap of silk rep, and feel the sun upon his skull.  And for the first time in his life, Mendel Singer voluntarily uncovered his head, as he had only done in public offices, and in his bath.  The few kinky hairs upon his bald head were moved by a gentle spring wind as though they had been rare and tender plants. (236)

Then Mendel asks to see a photograph on the wall with a healthy woman walking through the spring and in the midst of a sweet wind and with children.   When he looks out the window he takes the picture up again and realizes that it is the picture of his daughter-in-law (Menuchim’s wife) and his grandchildren.   At this point he remembers how, when he was young, his wife Deborah looked, her warmth, her body.  It is the photograph which helps him to open his eyes not only to his son and his life but also to his wife who has passed away.  These are his last moments before he dies and Roth tells us this is the “greatness of a miracle.”

Mendel’s misfortune had partially blinded him.  It had affected his body.  But it is a photograph (a secular miracle) that brings him his final revelation and gives him life, not his prayer book.  It gives him back the world around him moments before he dies.

Reading this novel, I wonder if vitalism is the right frame for Jewishness.  Life in America is certainly vital for the Jew. But I am on the other side of the hyphen.  While Mendel knew a lot about what it means to be Jewish, he knew little about what it means to be American. When he found out he got his life back, albeit for a moment in time in which life and death became one.  I, on the other hand, lived a full American life and I have, for several years, decided to cross the threshold into the realm of Jewishness.  The question, for me, is where I can find a Jewish life that is vital and embodied.   Perhaps the hyphen between Jewishness and Americanness is that vitality.  It’s the threshold that I must pass.   Like Kafka’s “man from the country” in his story “Before the Law” and like Job, I am a simple man with a desire to know and experience the truth.  And like them I must pass through if I am to – as Franz Rosenzweig says – step into life (not death).

Groping for Small Things: Robert Walser’s Portrait of the Philosopher

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Recently, a friend of mine who happens to be a philosophy professor and a fellow lover of Robert Walser referred me to Walser’s reflection on “the philosopher” (written in 1919).  I was struck by Walser’s portrait because it shows that he, as a writer, also identifies in some way with the thinker.  However, he does draw a line in terms of writing and the relationship to people.  But before doing so, Walser says many things that suggest that the thinker and the writer share a childlike fascination with small things.  They are both into what Theodor Adorno would call “micrology”: namely, that the only way to a bigger picture of things is through a careful attention to small things. This is something he may have learned from his mentor and friend, Walter Benjamin.

What makes Walser’s reflection on the philosopher and his obsession with smallness even more interesting is the fact, by looking at him from a perspective that identifies with him and another that criticizes him, we seem to move from a micrology to a macrology of the philosopher and his relation to the social.

The first line of Walser’s piece tells us that “the philosopher” is “constantly watching and waiting,” he “stands as still as a portrait” and “gropes for things gossamer-thin.”  And once he finds things, he “loses” them because they are “far too flimsy.” Nonetheless, to even hold these small things one must “exercise a patience verging on the stupendous.”

While these comments show some kind of deep respect, the voice of the piece suggests that the philosopher is also acerbic and bitter.  But this is because no one appreciates his obsession with smallness.  Even so, the narrator seems to side with the common person’s desire to give him a “few kicks just to scare him out of his contemplativeness.”

Taking this note to heart, he likens this obsession to a prison.  It traps him and, since it doesn’t lead to much writing, its unproductive.  Much like many of Kafka’s characters – who Walter Benjamin tells us often study too much – he makes “no progress.”

Something is a little off and comical about the way the philosopher keeps himself. The philosopher laughs and smiles but his laugh is short and his smile is “crooked.”  Nonetheless, it has a certain beauty to it.  And although his suit is threadbare, it is clean.   Like Walter Benjamin, he doesn’t like to throw anything away.  He finds a treasure in the trash.

And even though his “pacing” back and forth makes him look old, he is motivated by a “strange childishness.” But even though he is motivated by a kind of childishness, he is still very orderly.  While he “gladly putters around little objects” of thought, the narrator tells us – once again drawing on the common person’s perspective – that the philosopher would be better off as a craftsman.  The philosopher is a schlemiel of sorts because he “lollygags” in a small room while wanting to do things and “make a good use of his day.”  He’s stuck and his desire to do something – because he can only think when he is still – seems futile.

The only thing he can do – in repose to this tension – is leave the room.  Walser betrays his identification with the philosopher not only by pointing out that he is obsessed with small things but also in the fact that he takes note of how the philosopher likes to go on walks.

When the philosopher looks out the window, takes notice of the small things “out there,” like the rustling of the trees in the wind, the “cheerful smoke over the rooftops,” and the people in the street, he becomes deeply self-conscious of some kind of error.   He is only “listening,” the narrator tells us, he isn’t thinking.  But isn’t the point of the thinking to be receptive to small things? What is Walser trying to say?  Is the philosopher upset because he realizes that being receptive (“listening”) is not productive?

The final lines of the narrative demonstrate the pity of the narrator for the thinker.  He seems to take on a Marxist take on things that it is better to change the world than to think about it.  The philosopher can’t “be a part of progress” and can’t “step onto the stage.”  The worst pity of all is that because he has spent so much time thinking he has lost “so many things.”

But is that true?  And what about the writer? Isn’t he in the same boat?  Isn’t Walser, although he produced many works of writing, also not “stepping on the stage” of history and progress?  Didn’t he also struggle with the futility of sitting at a desk, writing, and reading?

Walter Benjamin believed that Kafka (and he himself) struggled with this issue.  We can see this in his journals about his meetings with Bertolt Brecht. Benjamin valued the time he spent reading and listening to Kafka’s work.  He points out that both he and Kafka know that”attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  And that silent prayer is to be found in paying close attention to words on the page.  The scholastic, the philosopher, and the modern writer seem to share this understanding.

To be sure, Karl Marx wouldn’t enjoy reading Kafka or Walser.  His favorite writer was Charles Dickens.  His writing spoke to and reflected on historical events.  He was not interested in small things.  Dickens had bigger literary fish to fry: historical fish.  Perhaps the narrator is too much on the side of Dickens and Marx.  Receptivity may have no place in the world and, as Walter Benjamin said of Kafka’s interest in the literary fool, it may “help” the individual but will it do any good for humanity?  The philosopher and the writer may get up in small things, but shouldn’t they (if they believe in higher things) be thinking about history and politics (the bigger things)? Perhaps salvation is the issue.   Perhaps the little things can help one to get by…but they may not help others or change the course of history.  But can we expect fiction or a word from a philosopher to do that, today?  It’s up to the reader to decide.

Americans, Slow Learners, Schlemiels: On Thomas Pynchon’s Comical Figurations of Slowness & Sloth

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In his book 24/7, Jonathan Crary suggests that our “24/7” society of endless social networking is taking over our lives.  We are endlessly checking and updating our Facebook pages and, as things speed up, we barely get any sleep.  Strangely enough, for Crary, the only way to resist this negative insomnia is to sleep.   But there is another way to resist a society that calls for constant interaction with this or that interface.

Thomas Pynchon – years before the advent of Facebook or Twitter – suggests that the best way to resist society is through slowness and sloth.  He brings this out in his fiction – through characters, plot, language, and dialogue, – and in his non-fiction.  And in the recent film production of his book, Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix is, appropriately, cast as the lead because he is, throughout the film, slow and slothful.  It takes him a while to wake up or show up to any event.   And, as we see throughout the film, things slowly dawn on him.  Phoenix’s portrayal of Doc suggests that, for Pynchon, it’s better to let things slowly and organically happen than to attack them (as we see with the alter-ego of Doc in the film and book, Bigfoot).   Doc, in effect, is a slow learner.  And in being slow he is able to avoid the speed driven LA culture of the 70s, which links power to speed.  Slow people, as Pynchon suggests, are free.

But this is the latest appearance of slowness.  Slowness and sloth go way back with Pynchon to his first stories and his novels.  I’ll take brief note of a few sites of slowness and sloth.   These reflections will inform a larger study of this trope which is, to be sure, comical and not tragic.

In the introduction to Pynchon’s short story collection, Slow Learner, Pynchon reflects on his first short stories.  Throughout his reflections, he takes note of how slow he is to learn and get things right.  Like a schlemiel of sorts (Pynchon dubs the main character of his first novel, Benny Profane, a “schlemiel detective” who just happens to be half Jewish), Pynchon takes note of how things seem to happen to him as he goes a long and slowly learns how to become writer (but this slowness doesn’t go away, and perhaps that’s the point).

Writing in the 80s and looking back at the short stories he wrote in the 50s, Pynchon humbly admits that he dupes himself with “one of those episodes of middle-aged tranquility, in which I now pretend to have reached a level of clarity about the young writer I was back then.  I mean I can’t very well just 86 this guy from my life”(5, Slow Learner).

When he imagines what it would be like to meet himself, today, he points out how awkward that would make him feel: “If through some as yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how uncomfortable I would feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down the street to have a beer and talk over old times?”(ibid).

After noting this, Pynchon profusely apologizes to his readers for all the flaws in his writing.   When he describes his first short story, “The Small Rain” – which I recently wrote on in terms of Jewishness and fatness, two central motifs in the story – he takes note of the existential issue of facing death in the story.  He says that the characters do not “seriously” face death.  Rather, they come across as comical:

In “The Small Rain” characters are found dealing with death in pre-adult ways. They evade: they sleep late, they seek euphemisms.  When they do mention death they try to make with the jokes.  Worst of all, they hook it up with sex.  You’ll notice that toward the end of the story, some kind of sexual encounter appears to take place, though you’d never know it from the text.  (8)

These comments are telling because the same features of a comical encounter with death remain not only in his later novels but also in his last novel, Immanent Vice.  The comical aspect comes through in the belated and slothful relation to death- in the slow awareness of the characters who are usually overwhelmed by too much information and who happen to stumble upon connections (in the most happenstance manner).    “Lardass Levine,” in this story, is a slow character.  He does things in his own time and not in the time of the other GIs in the story.    And, more importantly, although he is physically a big guy, he is slow to act.  The sexual act, to be sure, doesn’t seem to happen.  He and the woman he runs into lay side-by-side in the “little rain.”  Levine is like a “little boy.”  He can’t be a man like the rest and he doesn’t want to be – although he does come across as masculine.

Later in the introduction, Pynchon notes how many people in the 80s – influenced by entrepreneurism of the Regan Era – may look like mature and powerful upwardly mobile but they are “incredible as it sounds, still small boys inside”(12). His characters, he suggests, are like this too.   Charcters may talk or act big on the outside, but we can all see that they are – through their deeds or failures – really small.   And this comes out in their change of speed.

At the end of the introduction, Pynchon suggests that he “elves must have snuck in” and “had a crack at his writing.”  He sees the small people as speaking through his novels.  He talks about his “small attachment” to his past and waves his hand, to so speak, saying that he – in the 80s – is just like (as Zappa put it), a “bunch of old guys playing rock’n’roll.”    Younger people, he fears, will pity him and even find him nostalgic. But what sticks out in this final description of himself in a different time is that he doesn’t fit in temporally; even so, readers in the 80s (and, of course, today) can humor him as an old guy pretending he is young.  What this amounts to is nothing more nor less than a schlemiel character.  Think for instance of Noah Baumbach’s casting of Ben Stiller in his film, While We’re Young.

Stiller is slow, out of rhythm, and belated, although he acts as if he’s young.  The theme of slowness and belatedness is what we find in Saul Bellow’s Herzog, as well.

In his book Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon introduces his main character “Slothrop” in the midst of things that require time to deal with.  His “desk is messy” and so is the prose that surrounds it. The eye of the narrator slowly wanders over everything she sees:

There must be cubicles like this all over the ETO: only the three dingy scuffed-cream fiberboard walls and no ceiling of its own. Tantivy shares it when an American colleague, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop.  Their desks are at right angles, so there’s no eye contact but by squeaking around some 90 degrees.   Tantivy’s desk is neat, Slothrop’s is a godawful mess. It hasn’t been cleaned own to the original wood surface since 1942. Things have fallen roughly through the layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom, mad up of millions of tiny read and brown curls of rubber eraser, pencil shavings, dried tea or coffee stains, traces of sugar and household milk, much cigarette ash, very fine black debris picked and flung form typewriter ribbons, decomposing library paste, broken aspirins ground to  powder. (18)

The attention to small detail slows the reader down.  It’s so overwhelming that the character and the reader get stuck in the mess.     Sloth and slowness, it seems, are built into the novel.  One is belated because one can sense that, through all the detail, there is simply too much to catch up with and we are, like the narrator and Slothrop, slow learners.  To be sure, he’s always catching up with this leads in the book – much like Doc in Inherent Vice or Benny Profane in V.  The schlemiel detective will always be slow collecting the leads and this may have to do with smallness on a temporal and spatial sense.

I’ll end my brief reflection on slowness in Pynchon, by taking note of a comical article he wrote for the New York Times in 1993 entitled, “The Deadly Sins/Sloth; Nearer, my Couch, to Thee.”    Pynchon starts off the article by citing the Christian Theologian Thomas Aquinas who sees sloth as a “capital sin.”  This is the sin the Pynchon, to be sure, celebrates.  All writers are guilty of sloth:

Writers of course are considered the mavens of Sloth. They are approached all the time on the subject, not only for free advice, but also to speak at Sloth Symposia, head up Sloth Task Forces, testify as expert witnesses at Sloth Hearings. The stereotype arises in part from our conspicuous presence in jobs where pay is by the word, and deadlines are tight and final — we are presumed to know from piecework and the convertibility of time and money. In addition, there is all the glamorous folklore surrounding writer’s block, an affliction known sometimes to resolve itself dramatically and without warning, much like constipation, and (hence?) finding wide sympathy among readers.

Pynchon tells us that, today, Sloth has lost its “religious reverberations” since it has become a part of our culture.  Who doesn’t waste time, he reflects, watching TV, sitting on one’s couch, flipping channels, eating food?  Pynchon ups that ante- back in the 90s by comically suggesting putting up a few more TV sets. But, he asks, is this really Sloth?

“There’s nothing I like more than sitting around with a six-pack of beer, some chips and a remote control. . . . The TV station even featured me in a town parade. They went into my house, got my couch and put it on a float. I sat on the couch in my bathrobe and rode in the parade!’ “

Sure, but is it Sloth? The fourth television set at work, the fact that twice, the Tuber in question mentions sitting and not reclining, suggest something different here. Channel-surfing and VCR-jockeying may require a more nonlinear awareness than may be entirely compatible with the venerable sin of Sloth — some inner alertness or tension, as of someone sitting in a yoga posture, or in Zen meditation. Is Sloth once more about to be, somehow, transcended? Another possibility of course is that we have not passed beyond acedia at all, but that it has only retreated from its long-familiar venue, television, and is seeking other, more shadowy environments — who knows? computer games, cult religions, obscure trading floors in faraway cities — ready to pop up again in some new form to offer us cosmic despair on the cheap.

 Unless the state of our souls becomes once more a subject of serious concern, there is little question that Sloth will continue to evolve away from its origins in the long-ago age of faith and miracle, when daily life really was the Holy Ghost visibly at work and time was a story, with a beginning, middle and end. Belief was intense, engagement deep and fatal. The Christian God was near. Felt. Sloth — defiant sorrow in the face of God’s good intentions — was a deadly sin.

Perhaps the future of Sloth will lie in sinning against what now seems increasingly to define us — technology. Persisting in Luddite sorrow, despite technology’s good intentions, there we’ll sit with our heads in virtual reality, glumly refusing to be absorbed in its idle, disposable fantasies, even those about superheroes of Sloth back in Sloth’s good old days, full of leisurely but lethal misadventures with the ruthless villains of the Acedia Squad.

In other words, Sloth is our condition and is more of a comical concern than a serious one.  It is evolving.  And the more things there are the slower we will be and the more apt we will be at wasting time.  Pynchon seems to have noticed that sloth overtakes everyone, not only the writer.  Perhaps the difference is that the writer cultivates slowness and dwells in it while the average “couch potato” and pot smoker with munchies doesn’t cultivate anything.  Sloth is sloth, Pynchon seems to be the bottom line.  And if that is the case, what is the difference?

Pynchon didn’t foresee Facebook or the burgeoning of the internet in 1993, but he does seem to think – despite the visions of his 93’ prose piece of the NYT – that the cultivation of slowness may be a hedge against the 24/7 culture.

Although the old person trying to rock out may seem comical, perhaps Pynchon is suggesting that we are all becoming schlemiels.  In the midst of all these changes, aren’t we all belated and out of joint (just like the time that Hamlet found in the wake of trauma)?   To answer the question, Pynchon would suggest finding a schlemiel detective (wink, wink).   She may be a slow learner but, who knows, maybe she can figure out what’s going on?   And who knows, maybe that detective – like Slothrop, Benny Profane, or Lardass Levine – is an American version of the schlemiel?  All of Pynchon’s arrows seem to be slowly pointing in that direction even if it is….too late.

It’s Not Just Me, Then: Fiction, Comedy and the Cl*****.

Schlemiel Theory gets honorable mention in a recent post by the blog InfiniteCoincidence. Take a look at this insightful post which covers a lot of contemporary cultural ground with a philosophical edge.

Infinite Coincidence

What I’m trying to do on this site is make links between things I haven’t seen connected together elsewhere*. Hence the links themselves are usually more important than what I have to say about them. In the last couple of days I have come across three things which I think vindicate (albeit, inevitably, in an infinitely more coherent and detailed fashion, one based on research and careful thought rather than guesswork and ‘affect’) the thoughts I’ve been trying to articulate over the past few weeks. First there is an article by Carole Cadwalldr which details the ways in which right-wing trolls have been able to infiltrate the algorithms of Google and Facebook in order to create their own reality, one which is increasingly conditioning ours:

The technology that was supposed to set us free may well have helped Trump to power, or covertly helped swing votes for Brexit. It has…

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