In Memoriam: Aharon Appelfeld’s Schlemiel/Schlimazl Characters and the Power of Memory

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It was with great sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of Aharon Appelfeld. He is one of my favorite Israeli novelists and some of his novels have, literally, changed the way I think about the novel and its relationship to history.  It also changed the way I looked at the schlemiel character.   Strangely enough, however, I couldn’t find words to articulate what he had done with the character vis-a-vis the Holocaust.   What Appelfeld does, better than the majority of Jewish American writers, is to illustrate the power of the retrospective gaze.   It is easier to understand Nathan Englander’s short story, “The Tummlers,” and the story’s main goal, which was to illustrate that I.B. Singer’s Chelm characters don’t fit into the world of the Holocaust but are at odds with it.   It’s message is clear (which is not to say it is correct).  The parody is obvious.   But when it comes to Appelfeld’s characters, those who are schlemiels are harder to place.    Appelfeld’s schlemiel characters have a depth that is lacking in most of I.B. Singer’s characters or Englander’s, for that matter.

In today’s New York Times obituary,  Joseph Berger hits the nail on the head when he describes Appelfeld’s characters in terms of a kind of childish naiveté that bears marked contrast to the harsh realities taught to him by the Holocaust:

As someone whose mother was killed at the beginning of World War II, and who escaped a labor camp to hide among hostile peasants, Mr. Appelfeld made the Holocaust his great subject. Yet he told his stories from a seemingly naïve eye, a baffled child’s eye, working by indirection and intimation. The horrors, as critics pointed out, happened offstage; his novels rarely identified the threat explicitly as storm troopers with whips or concentration camps with poison-gas showers.

This ironic contrast brings the tragic into a tension with the comic and, for this reason, shows us how the schlemiel character – strangely enough – can give us an insight into the depth of evil.    Berger notes that Appelfeld saw himself and his most “ingenious” characters – writers, for instance, like the main character of The Age of Wonders, who was a lover of Kafka – as “schlimazels.”

“The ingenuous person is always a shlimazl, a clownish victim of misfortune, never hearing the danger signals in time, getting mixed up, tangled up and finally falling in the trap,” Mr. Appelfeld told Philip Roth in a conversation published in The New York Times Book Review in 1988. “Those weaknesses charmed me. I fell in love with them. The myth that the Jews run the world with their machinations turned out to be somewhat exaggerated.”

The oddity of Appelfeld’s statement, however, is that he mistakes the “shlimazl” (as per the New York times transliteration) for the schlemiel.   The schlemiel is not – like the shlimazel – solely a victim of circumstance.  He makes decisions.  And these decisions – in Appelfeld’s case,  not to heed the warnings that the German and Austrian people didn’t care for Jews or that the Holocaust was coming – have enormous consequences.  They are – in part – to blame for “falling into the trap” (as Appelfeld says).

All schlemiels have blindspots – which is something that Englander and Singer well know – but the blindspots of Appelfeld’s characters are much more powerful because of 1) the depth of their assimilation (which is something many Jews, who live in what is called the “post-assimilation” era know well); and 2) their misunderstanding of what is to come.

Appelfeld was “charmed” – like Arendt was “charmed” (she uses the same word in relation to the schlemiel in her celebrated “Jew as Pariah” essay) – by the “weaknesses” of these schlemiel characters.  He “fell in love with them” – in much the same way millions have fallen in love with Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, Amy Shumer, Charlie Chaplin, Sholom Aleichem, etc etc’s characters.

As he suggests, the schlemiel character – with all his and her blindspots – effaces the myth that “the Jews run the world with their machinations.”  The schlemiel character, as Sander Gilman notes, can’t control his or her world.  She misses much of it.    While Englander suggests that the schlemiel died in the Shoah, Appelfeld suggests something else.   It is true that most of the schlemiel characters that Appelfeld represents do end up going to Auschwitz (whether in Badenheim 1939 or The Age of Wonder, etc), but what remains most touching for him is their humanity (their weaknesses and blindspots).

Memory is a key motif in Appelfeld’s work.  He wants us to remember the schlemiel.   Yet, on the other hand, he wants us to be shocked by his or her blindspots.  Does that mean – as some people would interpret his books – that this kind of naiveté must be negated at every turn by post-Holocaust Jewry?  Or does it mean that there is something worth salvaging about Jewishness – its weakness and charm is that which is figured in the schlemiel?  Both questions exist side by side.

While some – like Englander and many Israeli writers (see Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s Booking Passage – want to pronounce the death sentence of the schlemiel, the character lives on not only in film and TV today (as this blog details, in depth) but in the post-Holocaust memory.   Like Marcel Proust, Appelfeld was charmed by his memory and drawn to it.  And the memory he cherishes most can be found in his memory of real-life schlemiels who live on…in his fiction.  These things are past, but schlemiels are still worthy of our love and memory.  What – after all – would humanity be without its blindspots?  Ask Alexi or Google?  They have that answer.  In fact, they are that answer.

May Aharon Appelfeld’s memory be for a blessing and may we turn to his novels to understand the shock and meaning of the Holocaust as seen – in retrospect – through the schlemiel character.

Chaplin’s Fork Dance: Modernity, Disenchantment, and Re-enchatment Through Smallness

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The schlemiel character often stumbles over the smallest things.  While most of us would never pay attention to or miss such little things, they are the cause of his or her bad luck. The response to these little things is what gives the schlemiel its childlike, small character. These little stammer-ings and stumbl-ings are what make the many schlemiels played by Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Gretta Gerwig, or Amy Schumer so – as Arendt said of Chaplin’s schlemiel – “charming.” These little stammering and stumblings – because they are so absent minded – redeem the schlemiel character.

Recently I saw a Chaplin clip that, to my mind, gave a comic figuration that illustrates the aesthetic redemption smallness. In Goldrush (1925), and in so many of his films. He turned small stumblings and stammerings into a dance – a fork dance.

His comedy redeems more than something personal; however.

As Aubrey Glazer, notes, in his recent book on Leonard Cohen, Tangle of Matter and Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-secular Songbook Mysticism(s) Jewish and Beyond: if spirituality is to matter any more it must address the disenchantment of modernity. He cites the philosopher Charles Taylor – the foremost thinker of “post-secularism” to explain what is at stake with modern disenchantment:

In “Disenchantment- Reenchantment,” Taylor draws out the distinctions between existence in the enchanted world that precedes modernity and the disenchanted world that lies at the core of modernity and how it has indelibly shaped the modern mind….Yet amid all of the remarkable discoveries and insights that mark modernity, it is still accurate to claim that the demarcating line “between personal agency and impersonal force” has led to the complete elimination of the unimagiable depths of the cosmos? Perhaps not.

…What appears to be emerging from the depths of secularism is what Taylor sees as a rapproachement, albiet somewhat unconscious at this juncture, between the religious and the materialist. (208-209)

How is this possible? What prompts this rapprochement? Glazer sites a passage from that essay that suggests smallness is the way of rapprochement. I’ll site a part of the Taylor passage to illustrate:

The new cosmic imaginary adds a further dimension to (this buffered identity). Having coming to sense how vast the universe in time and space, how deep the micro-constitution goes into the infinitesimal, and feel ing thus both our insignificance and fragility, we also see what a remarkable thing it is that out of this immense purposeless machine, life and then feeling and thought emerge. (209)

Glazer reads this passage in terms of an awe that emerges through marking the “difference between personal agency and impersonal force” which is at the “precipice of the infintesmial”(201). Glazer reads this difference in relation to Leonard Cohen, prophesy, and poetry.

One of the main tasks of Glazer’s book is to suggest that the “bard” (the poet) has replaced the prophet. According to Glazer, we see this illustrated in Cohen’s poems: especially his song/poems: “Story of Issac.”

And the “Window.” Both songs/poems traverse Judaism and Chrisiantiy through a “syncretism” of Jewish and Christian elements. They bring the individual up and then down into matter and a collective fallen community of “post secular” fallen angels – in a “new Jerusalem” (up there) and an “runied one” (down here). Its a reversal of directions into a spiritual kind of dialectical materiality :

This reading of the difference that is prompted by the infintesimal focuses more on poetry as redemptive by pronouncing the awesome divide between individual freedom and spiritual transcendence and collective ruin in Jerusalem. The meaning of this collective Jerusalem needs to be understood as an imaginal figuration of spirituality in the post-secular age. This is a brilliant reading of Leonard Cohen and it is a reading that Glazer suggests – like Elliot Wolfson and James Diamond – a subject of Jewish philosophy.

What I’d like to do – building on Glazer and Charles Taylor’s reading of re-enchantment – is to suggest that smallness is a figure for Jewish philosophy. It prompts not just the “bard” but the comedian and the comic figuration of the schlemiel. The schlemiel turns us to the imaginal space of small things that are redemptive. Chaplin shows us that the schlemiel can turn the small things into a fork dance.

Chaplin brought us closer not so much to these little machines, than the schlemiel’s response to them. They animate smallness; they become smallness.

As we jettison into the future, things are getting even smaller. And so are we.

The more apps we have, the more questions we have answered by google (“hello google”), we are going to feel the need for comedy and Chaplin’s “dance of the forks.” Without it, what spirit is left? To be sure, smallness seems to have the key. The imaginal figure of the schlemiel may be the last thing that can bring us down to earth with its stammerings and stumblings. Who knows? The schlemiel knows. He’s dancing with forks to make you smile about smallness.

American Schlemiels: On Gomer Pyle and Forrest Gump

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After learning that Jim Nabors died yesterday, a flood of impressions I held within me – from many years watching re-runs of The Andy Griffith Show – washed over me. Like many Americans, I used to come home and watch reruns of shows that had comic figures – ranging from Leave it to Beaver, Little Rascals and The Three Stooges to Gilligan’s Island and…The Andy Griffith Show (11Alive – the New York station that came to me in my small Upstate New York town – filled my after-school-afternoons with these re-runs). With all of these shows – save for Gilligan’s Island – I felt as if I were living in a different post-WWII America. I loved the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges more than any show. To be sure, I felt something very similar to my own life. After all, it had a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik in every show and that, to be sure, comes not only out of Jewish humor but also out of Jewish life. My family had this trio of bad luck and comic antics, as did the families of many of my Jewish friends. However, it was shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show that made me think more about the meaning of American humor. What, I wondered, is the difference between the schlemiel character and the American variety of the fool? Are there any similarities? Was the innocence or the comic antics of the American fool different?

Daniel Itzkovitz – in an essay entitled “They All Are Jews” – argued that with films like Forrest Gump (1994), the schlemiel character was Americanized. It became a part of the American mainstream and, at that point, the schlemiel became the American everyman. It was no longer unique to Woody Allen or Philip Roth, etc. However, last night, after watching several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, it struck me that, long before Forrest Gump, Jim Nabors was already Americanizing the schlemiel through his Gomer Pyle character.

I looked through several videos, but this one – entitled “Gomer the House Guest” – really struck me as a good case for the Americanization of the schlemiel character. What I love about this episode is the fact that it’s comical plot is based on the hypothetical question: What happens when a homeless schlemiel becomes a house guest? The answer to this question is obvious for anyone familiar with the character: the house will become a mess and everything will be thrown off kilter. And that is exactly what happens. But what makes it comical is the fact that the schlemiel character – he played by Gomer Pyle – can’t see how what he is doing is wrong. He has good intentions. But he is worldless and doesn’t understand how “normal” people live.

Gomer – in one scene after another – is too loud, stays up too late, and has no sense of what Andy Griffith feels. What is interesting about this version of the schlemiel is that, Nabors plays a man-child who is given a lesson. Andy lets him know that although he has good intentions, Gomer’s actions are disturbing the host. But this doesn’t stop it from happening. It goes on. Griffith and the viewer find his innocence and stupidity charming because Gomer – at his core- is happy with his lot – much like Rabbi Nachman of Breslau’s simpleton (who Ruth Wisse and David Roskies call a schlemiel character). Gomer – also like Rabbi Nachman’s schlemiel character – is always happy and seldom down.

But what differentiates the schlemiel from Gomer’s character may be this. Ruth Wisse argues that the eponymous simpleton in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” knows that people are taking advantage of him but he gives them a second chance to prove their humanity. They never do. But the point is not so much for Gimpel as for us. The fact that he knows he is being duped is not the central point; it is the fact that society doesn’t become any better. In the Andy Griffith Show, Gomer doesn’t seem to ever know that he is being duped or that he is a dupe. Even so, Andy Griffith, unlike any of I.B. Singer’s characters in his story, does the opposite. He opens his home and his life to Gomer. And in doing so, we see American society as friendly and kind to the innocent.

Singer’s goal was to show – in the wake of the Holocaust – the cruelty of humanity. And he did this through the schlemiel character, Gimpel. The Andy Griffith show conceives of a different kind of schlemiel character. The community embraces him. He is one of the family despite the fact that he can’t function in society. In fact, his innocence gives him a kind of freedom that he lacks because the Griffith character is – after all – the sheriff in town. He needs to maintain law and order. Griffith needs to be the adult. But he is the kind of adult who doesn’t scold the man-child. He gives him a chance and makes a space for absent-mindedness and what a film critic like A.O. Scott would call something uniquely American: “perpetual adolescence” and the “end of adulthood.”

Today’s schlemiel characters – ranging from Seth Rogen to Lil Dicky – are caught up in this perpetual adolescence, it seems. But at its root is a kind of faith and love for the Gomer Pyle/Forrest Gump kind of character which may have its origins in American folklore or Mark Twain. In this character, there is a rejection of English formality and adulthood. It’s not just that stupidity is a challenge; it is also an affirmation of something distinctly American. However, that affirmation – in this show at least – would be null if it weren’t for the relationship between Gomer Pyle and Andy Griffith. The relationship is oddly reminiscent of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote since one character is more in the world than the other. But what is most important is their relationship. In America the message is that the Americanized schlemiel has a seat at the family table; despite how much he upsets the house he stays. And in this there is something similar to the original schlemiel character who – despite his absent-mindedness – will always be a part of the (Jewish) family.

Rest in Peace – Jim Nabors. Your character, Gomer Pyle, prompted me to think about what comedy and national identity. It demonstrated that in America the schlemiel character – or a variant of it, rather – though homeless, as Gomer in this episode, has a home.

Theodor Adorno’s Force Fields and Camille Paglia’s Killing Fields

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The majority of people don’t go around every day thinking about what art is. Few think about why the definition of art may change not only the way we think but also the way we act in the world.   Today, I was surprised to hear, in a discussion between two very controversial voices in contemporary North American culture – Camille Paglia and Jordon Peterson – that what “post-modernists” and “post-structuralists” have done is destroy the meaning of art by turning it into “text” or dissecting it (9:37).  The “true” meaning of art, says Paglia, has been distorted by the academy because it is populist, not elitist. 

For Paglia, not only post-modern artists but also academics (who she calls “academe” – suggesting something snobby and elitist), who go “hand in hand” with the artists – are a “fraud” because they believe that opposition to history and culture (via the avant garde) is alive when it is – post-Warhol – dead.  They act “as if” they are like these avant garde heroes, but they are really “infantile.”  Paglia suggests that the real art and left politics is populist and – together with Peterson – attacks the postmodern academy.  All of this name calling, note, is done over the meaning of art and leftism.  Art is not, rages Paglia, superior to the people.  It’s the other way around.  Postmodern art, which for Paglia also implies the academy, is the problem.  Paglia suggests, in her rhetoric, that it must be exposed as a fraud by the voices of the people (such as Paglia, herself, and Jordan Peterson):

It’s madness…teaching that everything is mediated by language…even gender….it’s absolute madness.  I am teaching people whose majors are ceramics, are dance…who understand the world in terms of the body…sensory activation…Everything about Andy Warhol was ‘wow’ it was about admiration.  What happened immediately after that, in the 70s was a collapse into a snide sort of postmodernism….this happened in the art world…there was an  utter misunderstanding of culture in the art world…Oppositional art in my view is dead.   What postmodernism is…is a pathetic attempt to continue the heroism of the avant garde.  The avant garde was genuinely heroic…Pop art killed the avant garde…It (the postmodern art world) feels it must attack, attack, attack the simplistic beliefs of the hoi polloi.  From the moment Andy Warhol….embraced the popular media – instead of having the opposition to it, which the serious arts had – that was the end of oppositional art….So we have been going on like this for 50 years….Postmodernism and academe going hand in hand with the stupidity and infantilism that masquerades as important art in galleries everywhere….With this idea that the art world has a superior view on reality. Authentic leftism is populist.  It is based in working class style, working class language, working class direct emotion…in an openness and brusqueness of speech.  Ok.  Not this fancy contorted jargon of this leftism of academe who are frauds.

 When Paglia takes aim at postmodernism, it seems like she is also taking aim at the 20th century European thinker, Theodor Adorno’s reading of art and culture.  After all, he sees art as going against the grain of history and culture. It is different and, for him, better because it is a form of critique (albeit momentary) when it doesn’t proclaim itself as art but something other.

In his book Aesthetic Theory, Adorno argues that “art is no fixed set of boundaries but rather a momentary and fragile balance, comparable to the dynamic balance between the ego and the id in the psychological sphere.  But artworks become bad only because they objectively raise the claim of being art”(300).    According to Adorno, surrealism had potential but it failed because it was rejected by “an anti-art deportment that never achieved its goal of becoming a political force.”  He suggests that the rejection of surrealism by this anti-art deportment was a mistake because it, itself, failed to become a political force.

The “force field” – created by art – is something to be reckoned with. The immanence of art, its totality, creates a force-field.:

All the same, origin is not radically external to the work.  It is an implicit part of the artworks that they are artifacts.  The configurations sedimented in each address the context from which it is issued.    In each its likeness to its origins is thrown into relief by what it became.  The antithetic is essential to its content.  Its immanent dynamic crystallizes the dynamo external to it and indeed dow so by virtue of its aporetic character.  Regardless of their individual endowments and contrary to them, if artworks are unable to achieve their monadological unity, they succumb to real historical pressure; it becomes the force that inwardly dislocates them.  This is not the least of the reasons why an artwork is adequately perceived as a process. If however the individual artwork is a force field, a dynamic configuration of its elements, this holds no less for art itself as a whole.  Therefore art cannot be understood all at once, but only in terms of elements, in a mediated fashion.   One of these elements is that by which artworks contrast with what is not art; the attitude toward objectivity changes.  (301)

The force field is inherent in this “dynamic configuration of its elements,” and this dynamic is what contrasts with what is not art.   If, on the other hand, it “succumbs to real historical pressure,” than the force of history “inwardly dislocates it.”  In other words, the force of history can destroy the force field of art.

And perhaps that is what distinguishes Adorno from Paglia.  He would argue that it is only through the opposition to history that art can be a force field – that is, a true force, with a dynamic of it own.  But the anti-art movement, which fails to become political, suggests that the killing field wants to destroy the force field.   The people – history – can and, as Paglia suggests, should dislodge it.  Because art – and by implication – academia have become a negative force that goes against the grain of true leftist history, which is populist, it must be derided and destroyed.

What Paglia suggests is that since postmodern art is not from the people but from the elite, it must be exposed as a fraud.   Only true art, in other words, comes from the people not from academics or artists. But will the people produce a force field that goes against the grain of history or will history (synonymous with the people) – embodied in, as Paglia says, in the “working class style, working class language, working class direct emotion…in an openness and brusqueness of speech” – destroy “art”?  Will the killing fields destroy the force fields?

Questions: Food for Thought

Has art – as Adorno understood – now become impossible after Warhol?  Is it really dead?  Are we living in an age when it must be killed because it is taking us from who we “really” are, as Paglia suggests?  Why is this struggle of forces over the meaning of art, as the meaning of the academy, so important today?  Will the academy be forced to address these claims made by Peterson and Paglia simply because they are so popular (this video, itself, has nearly 700,000 views and Peterson has recently scared the University of Toronto by suggesting that a website be built which designates which classes are “postmodern,” which means, as we see here, contrary to the people)?  Is this the contrast – the dynamic – that Adorno was looking for or is it something he wouldn’t expect?

 

 

 

 

Larry David, the Schlemiel, and Holocaust Humor

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Larry David’s opening monologue for SNL – which included a joke about picking up girls in Concentration Camps – was contested by many on Twitter and elsewhere.  The harshest criticism came from Thane Rosenbaum in his piece for the Los Angeles Journal entitled “Larry David Goes One Cringe Too Far.”   Reading some of these articles I wondered about what kinds of distinctions were being made with respect to the schlemiel character.  To be sure, when it comes to the schlemiel, it’s hard to classify Larry David and his humor.   His skits on Bernie Sanders were in the classic schlemiel mold, but other things he has done point to something else.

(If you are in Canada clicking this video, go here.)

Ruth Wisse, in her last book on comedy, No Joke, argues that Larry David’s schlemiel is different form anything we have ever seen in the Jewish tradition:

He is now the Jew with influence, thoughtlessly rich.  The transformation of this character from harmless to hurtful demonstrates the adjustment of Jewish humor to altered conditions of power and prosperity.  Puncturing political correctness in liberal democracies is hardly as dangerous as defying Hitlerism and Stalinism in Europe, which may be why American Jewish comic heroes and no longer (like Charlie Chaplin, many Sholem Aleichem, or I.B. Singer schlemiel characters) necessarily winsome or charming.  The man who drives the slickest car on the road can’t claim the naiveté of an eastern European Jew in his wagon, and the owner of the biggest house on the block can’t garner the affection reserved for Molly Goldberg yoo-hooing out of her cramped apartment window (238-39).

In an article entitled “Larry David’s SNL Jokes Moved Jews Haters to Laughter and Holocaust Survivors to Tears,” Varda Spiegel draws on Ruth Wisse’s kind of language and argues that Larry David is different from the traditional schlemiel and fails to hit the mark:

Perhaps, Larry, you were going for a classically Jewish, Chaplinesque, and self-deprecating laugh through tears. If so, I appreciate the shout-out to Woody Allen and Hershele Ostopolyer. But I expected better of you, Larry, and better of SNL, than moving tweeters to tweet, anti-Semites to laugh, and Holocaust survivors to cry.

Spiegel argues – like Ruth Wisse, Irving Howe, and Saul Bellow – that what makes the schlemiel such a great character is that it prompts laughter through tears.    What we get here, instead, is laughter for the anti-Semites and tears for the survivors.   This suggests that what David is doing is actually anti-thetical to the traditional schlemiel.

Thane Rosenbaum, in his essay for the Jewish Journal, substitutes the word “nebbish” for schlemiel when characterizing Larry David (perhaps in an effort to save the schlemiel from being contaminated by David’s Holocaust humor):

Appalling, but perhaps not surprising.  David has been flirting with the Holocaust for many years.  And he keeps coming back, not taking no for an answer, a nebbish with a libido for bad taste.  Except the Holocaust is not a love interest.  It is an unsightly atrocity, incapable of attraction of any kind, and on any human scale.

This is the same man who conceived a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry was making out with a girl during a screening of Schindler’s List.  And another in which a disagreeable fast-food proprietor was renamed “The Soup Nazi.”  An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm riffed on the Reality TV show, The Survivor, in which a winning contestant squared off at a dinner party with an actual survivor of a death camp, comparing their relative suffering.  In still yet another, a man with numbers tattooed on his forearm turns out not to be a Holocaust survivor, but rather just someone who temporarily inks his lotto ticket number each week so as not to forget.

So much for Never Again.

Rosenbaum’s wording is interesting because David Biale, in his book Eros and the Jews, characterizes Woody Allen’s schlemiels as “sexual schlemiels” and says that they have a “small ego and a big libido.”

Rosenbaum finds words to describe what David had done with not only his own schlemiel character, but with George Constanza:

Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption.  George Costanza, David’s doppelganger, was an enduring fool of humiliation, placed in recurring, squirming situations.  David took the Borsht Belt and twisted it into a straightjacket of Jewish self-loathing.  

The new schlemiel is one who is “disgraced beyond redemption,” or an “enduring fool of humiliation.”   In other words, he is different from the traditional schlemiel which is a redemptive character.    While it is true that Larry David – in his very SNL dialogue – sees himself as the master of self-deprecation, there are many questions left about this comedy act in particular and how it relates to the schlemiel in general.

Larry David touched on the worst aspects of the sexual schlemiel – which can be read, as they were by Mark Oppenheimer – as a pervert. We see this in Roth’s Alexander Portnoy character and in many of Roth’s later novels.   Unfortunately, this stereotype did get new life in the skit.  He tried to deflate it but there was no “laughter through tears.”    Perhaps we can better understand this through the fact that, few Yiddish writers wanted to cast a sexual schlemiel character.  This is certainly an American creation.  But what is the best way to address this without failing to hit the mark and effacing the schlemiel character?

And if Ruth Wisse thought that I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool was the most fitting character for post-Holocaust literature (also see Nathan Englander’s “The Tummlers”), this suggests that the sexual schlemiel  is not the best character to use when approaching the Holocaust.   Their take on the character in relation to the Holocaust, makes us pause and think about the meaning of humanity.  This joke didn’t do that.   It did something else.  Perhaps it did separate laughter and tears.

Since we are witnessing so much judgment these days, I’m going to with-hold my judgment with this word perhaps.  I’ll let you decide.  All I can say is that Larry David is more like a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik – altogether, at the same time.  And that’s simultaneously funny, sad, and offensive.

 

 

 

 

“The Alpha-Pussy” – On Marc Maron’s Reframing of the American Schlemiel

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The events of last week with Harvey Weinstein have prompted many powerful articles (good, in terms of prompting awareness of violent sexual actions that were an “open secret” in Hollywood, and really bad, in terms of prompting anti-Semitic remarks and insane conspiracy theories).   After reading Mark Oppenheimer’s controversial Op-Ed piece for Tablet, entitled “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein,” I was shocked to see that Oppenheimer – an editor at Tablet and the person beyond the (Un)orthodox Podcast – threw Philip Roth’s main schlemiel character, Alexander Portnoy into a toxic relationship with Harvey Weinstein.

Oppenheimer not only suggested a seamless relationship between Roth’s fictional caricature and a real pervert, he also suggested that these two are representative figures of baby-boomer Jewish-American urban life.  Little did Oppenheimer know (and he later apologized for it), but this association gave fuel to the anti-Semitic fire which associates Jews with perversion.

(To be sure, the Nazis drew a lot of their anti-Semetic ire out of this horrible stereotype of the male Jew as a threat to “their” women.  Hitler incorporated this fear into his Nuremberg Laws which forbid young German women from working under Jewish men.  Sadly, Oppenheimer’s article was praised and retweeted by the alt-right ideologue Richard Spenser as a “powerful essay”.)

This association has leveled a devastating blow against what David Biale – in his book, Eros and the Jews – would call the “sexual schlemiel.”   It also levels a devastating blow against the schlemiel’s anti-thesis, embodied in the comedy of Lenny Bruce.   As Biale argues, the “sexual schlemiel” is a character with a “big libido and a small ego.”   What is most interesting, however, is that although Biale mentions Roth at the outset (as the anti-thesis of the Sabra, who acts on his or her sexual desires and is powerful), he spends most of his time discussing Woody Allen.

Allen’s schlemiel chraacters, in comparison to Roth’s Portnoy, are tame.  Portnoy is a sexually aggressive schlemiel.  He has violent fantasies that – while comical – suggest that he is going to take “revenge” on the goyim. This idea overshadows the comedy of Portnoy’s powerlessness.  He could never accomplish this. But the thought that comes out –  in the wake of Roth’s other books and his own words – is that Roth leaves the schlemiel character for the characters who act on their fantasies (as in his novel Sabbath’s Theater).

In the wake of the link made by Oppenheimer, the sexual schlemiel has been challenged. Now fantasy about sex with “goyim” has been transformed into violence.   Although there was historically a divide between Jews and non-Jews that was sexualized by Jewish American writers and comedians in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, any mention of sexual desire for “shiksas” (which is something Lenny Bruce also explicitly talked about), is now taboo because it is food for the anti-Semitic fire and, in the wake of Weinstein, is shown to be misogynist.

Even so, the fact of the matter is that what we often see with the  schlemiel who doesn’t get to consummate his desire is that someone else does.  He is often the “cuckold.”  To be sure, the viewer or reader – whether of this or that Lil Dicky video, Seth Rogen film, or Woody Allen film – can’t imagine these characters becoming alpha-males and acting on their desires.  Moreover, they aren’t anywhere as “perverted” or vindictive as Roth’s character.  It would now – in the wake of this – be a mistake to put them into the same category. For this reason, it would be optimal to revise Biale’s category and differentiate between an aggressive and a passive sexual schlemiel.   For instance, compare Roth’s Portnoy to Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern character (of the same era).  Both are sexual schlemiels, but one is much more aggressive and perverted than the other.

Thinking about this issue, I came across a line from a recent Netflix special by the stand-up comedian Marc Maron (famous for his WTF podcast).   In truth, Maron often casts himself as a schlemiel character.    What is unique about his recent special is that he seems to have reframed the discussion of the “sexual schlemiel” by calling himself an “alpha pussy” (see 20 seconds in to this trailer).

“I’m not the most courageous guy.  I’m an alpha pussy.  There’s the classic alpha male, meat head, rage filled…Raahhhh.  And then there is the alpha pussy who makes fun of that guy.”      As Ruth Wisse once noted, the schlemiel character always wins an “ironic victory.”  And s/he does so through the power of her words, through language.  The “alpha pussy” displaces the sexual schlemiel by returning this power to language because – in Maron’s formulation of the character and in the context of his show – he is making fun of unintelligent Trump supporters and alpha males in general.  This gives the schlemiel a resentful political role and de-emphasizes the sexual fantasy aspect of the character.

Maron’s failure to be an alpha male is turned into a kind of power.  By calling himself an “alpha pussy” he gives the schlemiel a kind of linguistic or intellectual power (defined by wit). The irony is that Roth’s Portnoy is also a kind of “alpha pussy” who is constantly using language to take revenge on the alpha males and females.   The difference, however, is that Maron’s stand-up character is not a misogynist while Roth’s Portnoy is.  He tries – at the end of the novel – to defeat a Sabra woman and make her sleep with him and fails.  But this kind of situation is not to be found in Maron’s comedy.   If anything, what we find in this special called “Too Real” is an endless reflection on how he is aging, forgetting things, etc and is one step closer to death every day.  His schlemiel comedy is that of self-deprecation.

While Roth’s schlemiel character is called self-depricating by the Sabra in his novel Portnoy’s Complaint, Maron’s schlemiel character is much more self-deprecating.   Because he constantly reflects on his aging and on his distaste for alpha-males, Maron’s “alpha pussy” shows us that he is not obsessed with sex.  He is far from perverted.  He is too old for that.   To be sure, we will likely be seeing less of the sexual schlemiel of the Portnoy variety.  Maron’s “pussy schlemiel” or else the Cuckold schlemiel we find in Rogen, Lil Dicky, and Ben Stiller, in contrast, will live on.  This – most likely – has to do with the rise of feminism in American society which sees any form of male sexual fantasy (big libidos and small egos) as a possible prompt to real violence.

Sexual failure, however, in the sexual schlemiel variety we see in Louis CK  (which is coupled with middle age, heavy self-loathing, and powerlessness) presents a borderline case.   Louis CK doesn’t hide his perversions.   But in this scenario, it seems really too late and pathetic for any sexual fantasy he presents to come true or affect anyone in real life.   Only time will tell.   Between Marc Maron’s aging schlemiel and Louis CK’s, which schlemiel will survive?  Will sexual schlemiels become a thing of the past or will they only become more pathetic and self-deprecating (as we see in Louis CK) or passive (as we see in Seth Rogen or Lil Dicky)?  Or will female schlemiels – like Gretta Gerwig or Amy Shumer (because they are not male or misogynist and take sexual failure as a central motif) – become the new sexual schlemiels?

A Priest and a Schlemiel Get on the Slowpoke Express: On Sholem Aleichem’s “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah”

A post on the archive which winks at today’s Jewish holiday –

Schlemiel Theory

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In the United States and Europe, the advent of the train and long distance travel prompted many artists, storytellers, and thinkers to turn the train into a metaphor.   Sometimes the images are exciting and feed utopian visions and cause happiness, other times they feed sadness at the loss of what was and cynicism. Think for instance of Freud who, in Civilization and its Discontents, writes the following:

If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing the mortality of children, when it is precisely this reduction which imposes the greatest moderation on us in begetting…

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