Leslie Fiedler on Little People and Jews


When I first came across Robert Crumb’s depiction of Jewish grandparents in the first issue of his Snoid Comics project, I was surprised by the juxtaposition he posed between the big grand-daughter and the small Jewish grand-parents.  It didn’t seem possible that such a big Jewish American woman could come from such small grand parents.  Are Jews from the “old country” small and American Jews (their granddaughter is born in America, apparently) big?   After seeing this comic strip, I wanted to look more into the association of Jews with smallness.  (I have been researching big and small in several different entries which look to philosophy, comedy, literature, theology, and film for answers.)


Ultimately, the association of Jews with smallness is nothing new.   Many Yiddish stories (from Mendel Mocher Sforim, to I.L. Peretz and Shalom Aleichem) cast Jews as a small people.  One of Kafka’s greatest short stories, “Josephine the Mouse Singer,” in an obvious allusion to Jews, makes the main character and her “people” into mice.  Everything they say or do is small.   Even her singing – which affects an entire people – is depicted as “piping.”  The narrator of the story, a mouse, laments this smallness, and argues that they are and remain small in the sense that they are “childish” and yet “old.”   There seems to be no way for him and his people to escape smallness.  It is, as it were, biological.  After all, no matter what they do they are and remain mice.     But what does this mean?  What is the meaning of the relationship of Jews to smallness?  And, in contrast to Kafka, what does Crumb mean when he juxtaposes small “old country” Jews to their big American grand daughter?  Does America make Jews (biologically, psychically, culturally, etc) bigger?  Or is Crumb wrong?  Do all Jews (American Jews included) or should Jews be depicted in terms of smallness?   Or is that an insult?

In his book Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, the literary and cultural critic, Leslie Fiedler (who was not without his critics) suggests that we think about Jewishness in terms of small people.   In his chapter “Dwarfs: Changing the Image,” Fiedler notes that the “even in the most grotesque paintings of Dwarfs and dogs, it is the Dwarf who has the last laugh, since the beast almost always remains anonymous, while his companion is known”(82).   In other words, small people can lose their anonymity and gain fame.  Fiedler names several different books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias which mention particular dwarfs as if they were legends of history.  He picks out one book which stands above the others: “surely no other category of anomalous humans is well documented enough to make possible such a tour de force of cataloguing as Walter de la Mare brings out in his Memoirs of a Midget”(82).   Fiedler points out how de la Mare names sixteen famous small people that appear written on the main character’s birthday cake.  The list starts with “Lady Morgan” and ends with “Mrs. Anne Gibson.”     What Fiedler finds problematic about this list is that there are no Jews on it.  For this reason, he adds a Jewish small person to this list, Lia Graf:

Finally, taking advantage of the more than half a century that has passed since the publication of Memoirs of a Midget in 1922, I am nominating to fill the last blank on the cake Lia Graf, originally called Schwartz, who was in June 1933 “a plump, well-proportioned brunette” twenty-seven inches tall.  (84)

Lia Graf’s moment of fame came in 1933 when she was put on the “lap of J.P. Morgan while he was testifying before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee”(85).    Before that, she appeared at the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.


Fiedler takes note of how short her career was.   Although this appearance made her famous, she had “for whatever the reason, left the United States in 1935, despite the fact that Hitler was by then in control of her native land and she was half Jewish.  Not only as a Jew but as a Dwarf, Lia Graff was doomed.  In 1937, after all Freak shows were banned in Germany, she was arrested as a useless person”(86).  And she was tragically “transported to Auschwitz” in 1944 (86).


Reflecting on her existence and her tragic story, Fiedler finds something unique and generalizable about the life of small people:

Yet the fact that an event like Lia’s death could occur even once casts new light on the situation of Dwarfs everywhere and always: the vulnerability implicit in their special status and high visibility.   (86)

He can understand, based on this state of being, why they would want to “normalize” themselves “to escape sterotyping which (at least in the minds of the most sensitive among them) has distorted their lives, predetermining their behavior in the actual world as well as their image in the eyes of normal”(86).    Citing Irving Goffman’s book, Stigma, Fiedler takes note of how Goffman uses the dwarf as an example of how, regardless of one’s education, experience, and wisdom, one will always be stigmatized by smallness and be associated with “fools ever since the royal courts of the Middle Ages”(87).

Small people, for this reason, sought for a much wider cultural recognition as an “oppressed minority”(87) and not be treated as “less than human.”   But there is a problem.  As Fiedler points out, in the late 70s, when he wrote this book, he found that “old terrors die hard, particularly when they are disguised as fables and jokes; and it seems improbable that anything can be radically altered until new myths have been created to replace the old”(87).    He points out how new organizations have developed such as Little People of America (LPA) to address this issue and normalize smallness.

Why has it taken so long to gain recognition?

Fiedler sees this lack of recognition as quite significant and contrasts this failure to the successes of other minority groups:

I detect a certain note of defeatism in the most ebullient press releases of the much-longer-established LPA….Individual Dwarfs may have been highly visible in the bad old days of their oppression, but as an organized group they fade into invisibility beside other stigmatized minorities like blacks, Indians, and Jews, or afflicted ones like heart disease victims, cancer cases, and sufferers of muscular dystrophy. (88)

As a result, they are thrown back into themselves and are hyper-self-conscious: “Dwarfs fall, in fact, in their own self-consciousness, somewhere between two categories; since despite a literary tradition which regards them as an “ancient people” exiled among aliens, they tend to see themselves as patients needing help from chemotherapy or hormones”(88).     Who would have heard this small group, Fiedler asks rhetorically, “above the voices of millions of students demanding peace and parity, more millions of blacks clamoring for political power, or the cries of the largest oppressed group of all, women”?(89)

At the very least, argues Fiedler, “little people will always be remembered as the first Freaks who attempted to demythologize themselves – or rather to re-mythologize themselves as an oppressed and stigmatized minority rather than collection of deviants from an desirable norm”(89).   And this, for Fiedler, sounds a lot like the Jewish people who “after millennia of ghettoization…have dared to dream of forging themselves into the ‘most cohesive class of people since the unification of Jews’”(89).

Fiedler declares his revelation of how small people and Jews have so much in common: “Jew and Dwarf!  How often that conjunction has occurred to me as I, a Jewish non-Dwarf, have pursed their history”(89).   He tells the ironic story of how Josef Boruwlaski, a small person and a gentile, saw Jews in Eastern Poland, and called them “poor people” who lived in “sorry villages.”  And, “despite the disconcerting anecdote,” Fiedler thinks it is apt for the Jews to be described by a small person in this way:

Looking back over their five thousand years of recorded history, it seems to me that the Dwarfs are, in a real sense, the Jews of the Freaks: the most favored, the most successful, the most conspicuous and articulate; but buy the same token, the most feared and reviled, not only in gossip and popular press, but in enduring works of art, the Great Books and Great paintings of the West.  They have been, in short, a “Chosen People,” which is to say, a people with no choice; but they have begun, like the Children of Israel, to choose at least to choose. (90)

The final twist, however, is the shared movement from Europe to America.  Fiedler notes that, in the passage, things have changed for both groups who “have prospered in show business in America” and who “take the lead now in organizing for mutual defense, consciousness raising, and social action”(90).  And although, in America, Jews may, like Dwarfs, no longer be seen as “monsters” they “will still be Dwarfs.”   In other words, Fiedler thinks that they will remain small  yet…without the stigma.   He seems to be saying the same for Jews; but, strangely enough, he is not happy with the drive of many small people to call on medical science in order to look like everyone else:

But it is a protest which I really have no right to make – I who have stumbled through a world built to an alien scale only in my earliest childhood and in occasional adult nightmares, from which I awake with the coming of dawn.  (90)

One wonders, when reading these words, what Fiedler is suggesting about Jewish assimilation and not just little people.  He doesn’t want them to change their smallness, it seems.

Although smallness is something he only really knew when he was a child, he also suggests that his Jewishness has an intimate sense of smallness.    He doesn’t know, in other words, if he is really big.  Is Fiedler more like the American woman in Crumb comic – who is much larger than her Eastern European grandparents distance herslef or does she identify more with the European (grand)parents?  Either way, Crumb depicts both as caricatures.   And perhaps that’s the point.  Regardless of how big or small a Jew is in America, s/he will always fail to fit in; but this need not be seen as stigmatizing.  In fact, Crumb seems –throughout his career – to be creating a space for smallness and Freakiness in America.     He is, as Fiedler would say, re-mythologizing smallness and…Jewishness.


It’s a Family Affair: Caring Mothers, Radical Children, and…an Anxious Schlemiel Husband in Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes”


Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes has prompted me to think a lot about a time that I have not lived through; but, like many Americans, have inherited.   His short series has also made it clear to me that Allen is giving the schlemiel a new and important role in the important task of addressing and assessing radicalism in a time when it is coming back with a new kind of force and vigor.   By way of using the comedic antics of the schlemiel to re-imagine the time period, Allen’s series helps us to gain some distance from our own troubled times and reflect on them in a more nuanced and intelligent manner.

Like many Americans born to parents who were baby boomers, I was always fascinated with the meaning of 60s radicalism.  My parents were not, by any means, radicals.  However, I did have at least one family member who left New York City for the West Coast, joined a commune, and essentially “dropped out and tuned in.”  On occasion we talked about his experiences in the grand 60s.   He suggested music for me to listen to and when I asked him about what books to read, he turned me on to Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, and Tom Wolfe.  I kept these writers close to my chest and, reading them, I started becoming more rebellious against my more conservative leaning father (my mother was more liberal than he).   Although I was difficult, it wasn’t until I went to university that I got my first taste of radicalism and became a real contrarian.  I expanded my reading list and started reading Karl Marx, Franz Fanon, and a host of post-Colonial writers.    I remember coming home and arguing with my father who, because he went to Columbia University as an undergrad, was familiar with all the clichés that radicals would toss around in the sixties.  Although we often clashed and I did a lot of my studies in spite of him, I learned, that he was, in many ways, right to challenge my radical fire.

On campus and off campus, I experienced radicalism that sometimes bled into anti-Semitism.  (I also experienced this during and after my graduate studies – as a student and as a professor.)   I was shocked at how a number of intellectuals claimed that Jews were behind the slave trade, were taking revenge on Blacks and Palestinians, or that Israel was essentially a terrorist nation that was only concerned with “ethnic cleansing” and using every available opportunity to use “self-defense” as a shield for killing as many Palestinians as possible.  I was astonished at how resentful, vindictive, and angry radicalism had become so as to insist that, if I were to be a radical, that I would have to hate and suspect my own people and Israel itself as evil incarnate.    As a result of these extremely negative experiences, I was prompted to take a more critical look into what radicalism is and was.  I was looking not only for a critical discourse that addresses these excesses but for a kind of literature or aesthetics that put this kind of radicalism into question.

When I came across Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, I was astonished by how Roth situated 60s radicalism in the context of a Jewish American family that stretched back two generations.  (It spoke to my own life situation since the main character and the previous generations were in the leather business.)  Through his novel, I was able to see how each generation strayed farther from its Jewish roots and deeper into the American dream.  The third generation was epitomized by the main character’s daughter, Merry.   We see her go through the process of becoming an American radical and eventually a terrorist.  We see her opposition to the war and desire for social justice lead her to reading radical authors such as Franz Fanon and Mao and her emulation of a character much like Angela Davis.  Merry’s readings, education, and experiences in and of radical politics translate into a kind of radicalism which finds no qualms with using violence to accomplish its goals.

Roth’s depiction of Merry is quite tragic.   The whole family unravels around her descent into violence that leads to the death of innocent people.  For Roth, radicalism basically turns the American pastoral into an American tragedy.   It also suggests – as Michel Houllebecq also does in his book Elementary Particles – that the only way to address the 60s is through a tragic lens.   As a liberal American Jew, Roth, it seems, wants to distinguish himself from radicalism.

Because it also addresses 60s radicalism in a critical manner, Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes has much in common with Roth’s novel.  But it does something that Philip Roth’s American Pastoral could not do: it uses comedy to address the relationship of a Jewish family to 60s radicalism.

In the series, there is a rich family of characters.  There is a smart, impressionable, and compassionate wife, a kind, anxious, and distracted schlemiel husband and two – so to speak – adopted children: a naïve radical daughter and a son who falls in love with her and her “radical chic” (Tom Wolfe’s phrase to describe the aesthetic appeal of radicalism in the 60s).     In the first episode of the six-part series, we are introduced to Alan Brockman who lives in the Muntzinger house.  He is a naïve young man with liberal leanings.  His life is laid out in front of him and is on the way to getting married; and, yet, as the series goes on, we can see that he is not crazy about living this kind of life and looks for a way out.  He also wants – like his liberal fiancé and Mrs. Muntzinger and her schlemiel husband – to stop the war in Vietnam and end the mistreatment of Blacks in America.  When he meets Lennie for the first time – played my Miley Cyrus – he is taken by her beauty and her radicalism.

He’s not alone.  Mrs. Muntzinger, Kay, is also taken in and also gets her reading group to join in.   Everyone gets taken in, except for Sidney Muntzinger.  But, since he is a schlemiel, he can’t dissuade any of them from getting caught up in her radicalism.  They don’t listen to him. They humor him.

The contrast between Lennie and Sidney Muntzinger (the schlemiel father/husband) bears much food for thought.   Lennie shows herself to be an angry kind of child.  In fact, as we learn, her mother died when she was young and her father, a blacklisted actor, drank himself to death.  She basically raised herself.  We also learn that Kay is indebted to Lennie’s family because they took care of her after her mother died.    For this reason, when she sees that Lennie has broken in to their house, in episode two, she takes her in while Sidney complains.   Lennie gets her way and, as a part of the comical plot, takes on the vindictive daughter role casting Sid as the ultimate capitalist (which he surely isn’t; he is not an aggressive capitalist, he’s a schlemiel whose failures outdo his successes; the accusation and vindictiveness shows her reactionary sensibility).

When she first makes her case to Sidney and his wife, once can see that although she may have some kind of vocabulary and understanding of radicalism, she is ultimately a middle class girl who is naively jumping into radicalism: “This country doesn’t care for the unfortunate.  They have pay toilets…you have it right there; you have to go to the bathroom, you have to pay!”

Sid’s slow realization that she is a criminal is comical – like everything he does – but his wife pays no heed: “I get it, I get it, we should turn her in to go on our Caribbean vacation…. She’s a fugitive.”  In response, Lennie throws out her view of herself and her violence: “one man’s fugitive, is another man’s freedom fighter.”  She sees all of her activities, no matter how murderous or violent, as justified.  Sidney notes this injustice: “You blew up a draft board.”  In response she says that she is justified in killing them because “our armed forces are dropping napalm on Asian children.”  She sees herself as guilt free and active and Sidney as guilt ridden and passive: “I’m not a criminal; I’m an activist.  I don’t shoot anyone, I return fire.  Policy is made on the streets. Government is doing the criminal act.”  She pledges her allegiance to the “Constitutional Army.”   And repetitively points out how Sidney is old, senile, and dispensable while she is young, active, and indispensable.

But in this household, his wife has all the power.  This schlemiel is powerless.  He can complain, but he can’t keep his wife from taking Lennie in.   Sidney’s wife, Kay, admires Lennie for going “against the status quo” while Sidney, echoing Macbeth and the Hebrew Bible, reminds her that “she’s got blood on her hands” that she can’t just wash off.  She “can’t erase her sins.”  When his wife retorts that “we have challenges with inequality, racism, etc. she asks “what do we do?” And he argues that we “vote.”  But she then reminds him – adding the punch line – that he has voted in the last six elections.      At the very least, he can see that there is a problem.  His issue, however, is the radicalism that insists that violence is the only way to change things.  And this issue remains to the very end of the series.

Sidney is always worried in this six-part series.  Most of all, he’s afraid of being arrested.  His wife, however, doesn’t care and, as the series, goes on, becomes more and more involved.  All of this tension is diffused by the family situation in which we see Sidney fighting with Lennie about how much food she is eating.  He grumps about not having any sturgeon to eat because she has eaten it all.   She makes fun of his obsession with food (while hypocritically eating it all): “While kids are starving, you’re making waffles.”  Sidney responds, “While you make bombs.”   The bantering hits its height when, during one kitchen scene, she tells Morty, in the spirit of Nietzsche, “You’re a stooge with herd mentality.”  He screams at her to leave.  But it is ineffectual because his wife won’t kick Lennie out.

Alan Brockman is Lennie’s student.  She gets him to read books by Fanon, Marx, and others.  And in one important conversation she tells him that “real change comes at the barrel of a gun” not in a voting booth.    She asks him if it bothers him that “this country is ruled by oligarchy” and lays down her bottom line, as she does continuously, that “violence is the source of all values.”   “Violence,” she says in another conversation in which she cites Franz Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth, “is man recreating himself.”

After stating this position, Brockman tries making a case for the schlemiel, for Morty, and she argues that “he suffers from the bullshit big questions like…the meaning of life and mortality.  I think he’s a passive imbecile.”  She calls him a “limousine liberal” and, convinced of this, Brockman responds that the point is not to “know the world but to change it.” And the only way to do that is through radical action.  In this scenario, the “bullshit big questions” that Sidney finds so interesting (think of his aspirations to be a writer like Salinger or his reflection on Job that happens in the first episode) are negated.   Allen, it seems, sees the schlemiel as a means of maintaining a tension between the two much like what Bernard Malamud tried to do in his book The Tenants where a Jewish and an African American writer –who both live in an abandoned building – articulate two radically different understandings of literature and its task (one more political, the other more existential).

In a conversation with Bortman, we learn that Lennie was majorly influenced – in Berkeley – by two men: A Jewish radical thinker (his last name is Cohen) and a Black Panther kind of intellectual.  She fell in love with them and what they represented. They were her teachers and she accepted their cruelty.    Allen provides such background because he wants to show the romance that she has with radicalism.  And she is not alone, Brockman falls in love with her and her radicalism and so does Morty’s wife and her reading group. The only person who is not affected by this “radical chic” is the schlemiel, Sidney Muntzinger.

In one of their last major arguments, Lena goes ballistic when, once again, Sidney refuses to give in to her radicalism. And this time she shows that she would have no qualms with seeing him dead: “You’re the kind of guy they’re going to put up to the wall and shoot…you little fascist…You’re the guy who plays the sniveling coward in all those films.”     While Cyrus plays an endearing character and seems like a daughter who is simply angry, the viewer can see that she is being a little extreme.  The fact that no one seems to care is telling.  It shows that the charm and comedy of the whole thing makes one overlook the little tantrums she has in which she threatens the schlemiel with death.

Brockman and Morty’s wife join forces with Lennie in spreading ideas, building bombs (Morty’s bomb, comically, explodes while he is making it and he walks away with bandages and a failed, schlemiel’s attempt at making a bomb), and delivering packages.  The last two episodes delve into these scenes in which Sidney is thrown into a delivery and, like a schlemiel, screws it up. That aside, what Allen wants to show is all the excitement around the clandestine affairs of radical activism.  His wife – before and after a some chase scenes – speaks about how exhilarating it is to be on the run.  Allen seems to be telling us that this kind of excitement is part of the radical chic and what makes it so appealing.

In the last episode, Allen has everything come to its culmination under the roof of one house. The whole family, so to speak, comes together: his wife’s patients, the reading club, friends of the family, maintenance men, and African American radicals.  It’s a comic scene that goes out of control with an energy that articulates the confusion and excitement of all these things coming together.  The chaos – coupled with the prospect of Lennie really leaving for Cuba and leaving the house – prompts Sidney to volunteer to take her to a secret location where she will go to and leave from in her trek to Cuba.

What ensues is telling.

Sidney – speeding somewhere in the backroads of Upstate New York – is pulled over by a policeman.  The tension mounts when Sidney can’t seem to find his driver’s license or registration.  Then the policeman asks him to open his trunk (where Lennie is hidden).  But before he fully opens the trunk, the policeman has a moment of recognition and says that he knows Sidney Muntzinger; he’s read his books!  But then, as he keeps on talking, the viewer can see that the officer has mistaken Sidney for Salinger.   Sidney goes along with this and the irony of the affair is that we all know that he’s just a schlemiel writer.  He is the small (unrecognized) man.  Meanwhile, Lennie slips out of the trunk and runs into the woods never to be seen again.  They are different people and have different paths.  The charming radical doesn’t negate the absent-minded schlemiel.

He doesn’t stop the series at the point at which she escapes.  The schlemiel remains.  But the schlemiel almost gets the last word.

In bed that night, he reflects with his wife about what happened and he says the words that spell out the role of his liberal schlemiel: “Beware of fanatics no matter how just their cause seems.”  His wife asks who said that and he claims himself – mocking chairman Mao Tse Tung, who his wife quotes throughout the series – “That was Chairman Muntzinger.”

His very last words express the dreams of a schlemiel writer: “Do you think it’s in me to write a great novel like Catcher in the Rye?”  His wife – in response – gives the last word: “You’re an amusing and I always said, you can be another Salinger.”   What I find so endearing is that it is the women in this film that encourage others to believe and not give up hope.   But there is a difference.   In this series, we see that there are mothers of invention and there are mothers of violence.    This ending, as opposed to Philip Roth’s’ in American Pastoral, is not tragic.  Its comic.  It shows how comedy can address radicalism in a way that is balanced.  In both, it is the literary imagination that intervenes and draws a fine line between a liberal attitude toward history and a radical one.  In both, the best strategy is to be found by thinking about radicalism in relation to a family.

In the family, we find a microcosm of America and the possibility that if this or that modern “crisis” is to be addressed in six scenes or in a novel, perhaps, if it is to be more human and affective, it should be addressed through the family rather than in isolation from it.   This is an important lesson; one that I can personally testify to.  When it comes to addressing the most violent and dangerous aspects of radicalism, Allen seems to be arguing that comedy is better than tragedy.  Rather than allowing one side from another, Allen suggests that comedy works best when it keeps the American family together rather than tearing it apart.  As Sly Stone once said, “it’s a family affair.”

A Note on the First Episode of Woody Allen’s “A Crisis in Six Scenes”


After reading an extremely negative review of Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes” in the Daily Beast, I decided that it is necessary for me to set the record straight.  In the review, the author, Amy Zimmerman, completely misunderstands the role of the schlemiel that Allen plays: Sidney Muntzinger.   Moreover, she projects a negative judgment against Allen’s plot because she wants to see a different main character in a series dealing with the upheavals in the 60s: a politically active heroic character.  The problem, in other words, is not with the series so much as with the reviewer’s ideological overreach.  I’ll cite a few of her critical words to illustrate her misreading and her intense dislike of Allen’s schlemiel character.    After doing this, I’d like to give a more nuanced reading of the first episode.

Zimmerman correctly points how Allen situates Sidney Mutzinger in the midst of political upheaval but she mischaracterizes his schlemiel character:

The war in Vietnam is raging, reefer madness is spreading, and the [insert movement here] is dominating college campuses across the country. Amidst all this upheaval, we’re introduced to Sidney Muntzinger, Allen’s off-brand J.D. Salinger avatar. This abrupt tonal shift to the seated curmudgeon, absorbed in a conversation about himself—his favorite topic—is the first joke of the series. Muntzinger is so deep in a decades-long tailspin of neurotic narcissism, he’s just about the last person to realize that the world is blowing up around him. This juxtaposition—between a timeless, self-involved Woody Allen id and the political chaos lapping at his consciousness—is at the heart of the series.

As one can see, her opinion about the character is – at the very outset – jaded.  Allen doesn’t cast Muntzinger as an avatar of JD Salinger.  In the first scene, the barber jokes with him about how his writing falls far short of Salinger.  Muntzinger – to be sure – is a schlemiel author.  His fiction is not popular and he makes a living off of making commercials.  He is like many Woody Allen characters who are schlemiel-writer types.   We see this kind of character in films like Hollywood Ending (2002) and Midnight in Paris (2011).   In these films, Allen uses the schlemiel writer to address the question of success and failure.  He is often reluctant to throw in the towel for the hero and this speaks to an ethos that is diasporic and Jewish since it doesn’t give in to the cult of heroism, success, and power.  Failure and comical misfortune create a fence against the fanaticism that comes with politics, history, and utopianism.   (The tension between two different novels – one that balances between the human and the historical and the other which sees literature as a means to a political end is artfully depicted in Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants.)

To call Allen’s character ahistorical and to have spite for him, rather than find him endearing or even teaching us about the fate of the schlemiel in American history (or in at least one period; in relation to this, we should keep in mind that Allen’s schlemiel’s thrived during the Vietnam War era; think, for instance, of Bananas(1971)), shows us more about the author of this article than about Allen’s character.

Allen situates the schlemiel in times of radical upheaval so as to have us understand the contrast between being a “man” (“active”) and falling short and appearing “effeminate” or an anti-hero.   It creates a tension that puts comedy to the test.   To be sure, all of Allen’s schlemiel characters give us a vantage point that more pathos ridden films do not.  To not see this is not to understand Woody Allen.

When Zimmerman calls Allen’s series “lazy” and expresses frustration with the character’s “endless hand wringing,” it becomes obvious that she wants a hero not an anti-hero.  With this criterion in mind, she casts Muntzinger as a nostalgic schlemiel who can’t live in the present.   And this angers Zimmerman.   Muntzinger continues to fumble through his own series, stumbling through a series of increasingly high stakes hijinks in a futile quest to return to the way things were.  She wants a more political character that she can identify with, not a schlemiel who “fumbles” and “stumbles.”

She likens the series to a “mediocre Madmen” and writes it off in one fell swoop:

What it is, really, is mediocre Mad Men. Sidney Muntzinger, who freelances as an ad writer, is criticized by Lennie as a symbol of the mindless American capitalism machine. But unlike Don Draper, everyone’s favorite self-destructive ad man, Muntzinger has none of the empty hunger that Dale so un-subtly accuses him of. Draper’s depth as a seller and a consumer stems from his insatiability. His damaged psyche drives him towards sex, drugs, drink, love, and self-annihilation. Draper is desperate for any experience that drags him outside of himself, which makes him a perfect guide through culture and counter-culture. Allen’s Muntzinger is the complete opposite—an insular homebody whose only appetite is for the sturgeon that Lennie steals from his fridge.

Zimmerman spells out her ideological biases in the final paragraphs:

Crisis in Six Scenes is proof that Allen can, and will, create in the face of his own ignorance and even apathy. Allen doesn’t seem to have given the politics behind Lennie’s character any more thought than Muntzinger has given his fictional Neanderthals. The joke—that Muntzinger assumes that human beings are basically the same, anywhere and at any time—is evident in Allen’s ahistorical approach. Obvious name drops and dates aside, Muntzinger is a character outside of time. His co-stars, despite their valiant attempts to give this show its time-specific color, don’t have enough space or depth to really do the ’60s justice.

The problem is that she feels that there is nothing to learn from Muntzinger. He is a “fictional neanderthal,” he’s not political enough for her tastes.  Allen is “ignorant” and “apathetic” when it comes to history and politics.  Based on this framing of Allen and the schlemiel, Zimmerman shows us that she has no desire to learn anything from the schlemiel narrative.

Rather than call the film names and turn it into a mirror of the reviewer and her political views, Allen’s schlemiel should be read in relation to the relationship of comedy to historical and political upheaval.  Unlike Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which doesn’t cast a schlemiel in relation to the upheavals of the 60s, Allen does.  And we need to think this in a different frame, one that is more literary and even theological.   To not do so is to trash the power of the comic literary imagination to address history.   The one needs to be read in relation to the other.

The fact that Zimmerman dismisses these aspects is troubling because it deems a whole genre irrelevant to a new framework which sees everything – even comedy – in terms of political power and action.   The vulnerability and comical fallibility of the schlemiel is deemed irrelevant to this agenda because schlemiels are usually powerless characters.

Now I want to turn to the first episode.

In the first scene, Allen situates the failed author and who he has failed to be: heroic.   He wants to have a haircut like James Dean (but obviously can’t) and the barber reminds him that he is no “J.D. Salinger.”  And that he likely won’t succeed in being a wealthy and successful novelist.  Mutzinger is not a hero and not a monetary success.   The barber suggests that he write what makes everyone happy (in the wake of this review, this is ironic).   But he can’t seem to do that.  He’s always off.   Allen casts the schlemiel in a more theological plot.

Reflecting on himself, Muntzinger says he’s a “lucky man” (he has a good wife, great grandchildren, a nice home, etc) and that he is “blessed,” but the barber says, in response to this, that “so was Job and…1,2,3 God fucked him over.”  This motif, which Zimmerman completely overlooks, is central.  Throughout the episode, the question of who is lucky and who is not – themes we find in much schlemiel fiction and film – is central.

The scene following this one is of his wife – a therapist – and a troubled couple.   She asks them “what marital problems bring you here today.”  The first response  – made by the wife – is that “we argue.”   But the husband responds, “We don’t argue about material things.”  Hearing this, one wonders what spiritual things do they argue about.  And this links to the Job theme.  However, this is displaced when the wife says that “he wants to live in the city and I want to live in the country; he doesn’t want me to work, I work, etc.”    The differences go on for a minute or two but when asked if “there is anything they agree upon” they say tell Mutzinger’s wife that they both agree that “neither one of us likes guacamole.”   The punch line is delivered by the therapist: “Ok that’s a beginning…its clear that you two love each other….and we can build on guacamole.”  The irony is that you can’t; it’s not solid.   And this adds to the central plot.   Is the basis for a relationship between man and God, between husband and wife solid, or between humankind and history based on anything solid?  Or is it all determined by chance? Is misfortune always a possibility?

Muntzinger comes home and wonders about how he appears to his wife: “who do I look like?” Instead of telling him that he looks like Jimmy Dean with his new haircut, she names several schlemiel-like B actors.   She sees him as an effeminate kind of schlemiel not as a heroic male figure.    He then asks about what’s happening in the world and we hear about war and chaos.  He is comforted when he hears that the TV is fixed, however.   This obviously gives Zimmerman’s claims some teeth but what she misses is the more metaphysical theme of appearance and reality.   He knows he doesn’t look like a hero and is far to old for that.  He lives off of this irony but makes the failure laughable.

The next scene deepens the Job theme and shows us the literary thread that runs through the series.  It is of a women’s reading group that discusses Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the main character of “The Metamorphosis.”     It’s obvious that Allen – like Philip Roth – identifies with Kafka but no one seems to get Kafka just like they don’t seem to get Muntzinger.   However, the observations they make about guilt, Kafka’s relationship to his father, and so forth do give the viewer a key for understanding Mutzinger.

The following scene shows Muntzinger in a “manly” situation – cooking stakes for a gathering – that he has never engaged in before.  He expresses frustration in not being able to get the bbq going.    His wife comes into the scene and tells the guests that “he is a brilliant writer but he can’t change a fuse.”  She justifies the writer-schlemiel and shows that, despite his failures as a “real man” in the house, she still loves him.  She then speaks proudly of an ad he did, but when he explains it the viewer can see how ridiculous his script for the commercial is.

This scene is followed by others in which we see a juxtaposition of the men who go to war or the people who protest and Muntzinger who is not physically fit to go to war.   He is afraid to die and doesn’t want to leave home.  He wants to stay put.  The contrast between the schlemiel anti-hero and the male hero is foregrounded.  As we have seen, Zimmerman is angry that the schlemiel is not a protestor.  She sees no room for comedy in this historical context.

But the final scene of the first episode posits the larger question for Allen, which deals with the relationship of fortune and misfortune to God and theodicy.  Before going to bed, Allen gives thanks for his good fortune saying that he ended up with the “right wife.”  She responds, “We are lucky people.”  He may be a schlemiel and not be the most successful person, but he is loved.  And that matters most.  Like many a schlemiel who finds something redeeming in the end,  he is “lucky” to have found her.

Following this, Allen asks if “should I say my prayers in the event that there is a God and I have been wrong over all these years?”  And his wife asks, “Do you think we should have gone to Washington to demonstrate?”   He shirks the question and she says the prayer, “God bless the Muntzinger household.”   And Muntzinger carries on with a serious plea and a joke: “if You’re listening that goes double for me.  But if you have found any tax loopholes that my accountant hasn’t thought of, slip it into my dream tonight.”

Following this, Muntzinger, before turning the light out, tells his wife that, of all people, his barber likened him to the Biblical character, Job.  And this is the foreshadowing of the last moment of the episode.  Muntzinger forgets to lock his doors and we see a burglar has broken in.    The episode ends on this note of misfortune and shows us how a comic, schlemiel figure, can go from a character of minor misfortunes to a tragic, Kafka like character, in the blink of an eye.

What Allen is trying to address by way of the schlemiel and the question of God in relation to one’s luck is deeply theological.  It also deals with the question of what one is to do in time of historical and political upheaval if he or she is closer to death than to life.  What matters most to a schlemiel who is near the end?  This explains why Job and theodicy comes up throughout the episode.

But Zimmerman, the Daily Beast reviewer, isn’t interested.  In the series, the role of the schlemiel and questions pertaining to God and fortune are besides the point.  Her review sees Muntzinger in a negative light because politics – rather than any other element in the series – should predominate.  She sees his schlemiel as abdicating and too self-absorbed to act in or even think about history.  She doesn’t see what Allen is trying to do with a character who is nearing his death while the country burns.  What she misses is that the Muntzinger character that Allen is grappling with speaks to larger issues that, because they deal with the schlemiel and figures like Job, reach back deeper into Jewish history and existentiality.   How does this balance out with what is happening in American history?

Rather than throwing Allen’s series to the dustheap of history and along with it the schlemiel (as Zimmerman has done), I would like to carefully consider what he is doing in this series by closely reading each episode.   Calling it “lazy” shows us more about the elevated and condescending character of the reviewer and less about the series.  The criterion for judging it is not solely political.  And perhaps what Allen is trying to show us has more to do with the question of not just whether or not but how the schlemiel can live in the wake of historical and political upheaval.  Perhaps it’s place has a lot to do with the meaning and promise of comedy to the future.

Sholem Aleichem, who wrote during the times of pogroms and mass dispersion, taught hundreds of thousands of admiring readers that the schlemiel matters, especially in time of historical chaos.  The question of how this is the case is something that Allen grapples with in this series.  The intellectual vantage point he offers speaks to the heart (as Bellow’s Moses Herzog does in the novel Herzog) and not to an ideology that sees the schlemiel as an enemy of history and political action.   Calling the language of the heart narcissistic and “neanderthal” because it is not political and active enough is to misunderstand the importance of the schlemiel and to affirm something more heartless and cold as a criterion for truth.

Withdrawal as Communication: On Jean Luc Nancy, Awkwardness, and Smallness


These days one cannot watch a comedian or see a comic show or film without coming across a punch line that doesn’t include an awkward reply or gesture.  Many a comedian seems to be telling us that in most of our encounters there is an awkwardness that we find both endearing and terrifying.  The fact that we slip up or that we are in the wrong situation – in which we are, suddenly, as it were, called on to speak – seems to endlessly slap us in the face.   In this awkward moment, we become smaller.  We withdraw into smallness.

For the longest time, I have been interested in the philosophical meaning of the awkward experience of smallness and why it is so compelling.   I have turned to philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Emmanuel Levinas, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt and writers such as Kafka and Robert Walser to understand the meaning of smallness.   Jean-Luc Nancy’s work has also been a great draw for me because he oftentimes works on and elaborates many of Levinas’s points vis-à-vis the relationship to the other that touch upon a state of reduction.    One point that interests me most is his reading of communication in terms of withdrawal, tragedy, and comedy.  What he misses, however, is the fact that what he is describing is a kind of tragic-comical awkwardness.  It goes hand-in-hand with smallness.

In a Jean Luc Nancy interview with Ann Smock, Smock, winking at Levinas, starts off the interview by arguing that when we face another person we are “under an obligation to respond to him, answering the demand, which his nearness is, that you should hear him – hear him and thus let him speak; make it so he can; let him come up close and be there, speaking”(310, The Birth of Presence).    Smock focuses in on the fact that, in conversation, everything is surprising.   The demand, so to speak, comes out of nowhere:

In this situation there is nothing to start from, nothing to base anything on.    You have to answer to an utterance (an entreaty, a question, a command, who know?) that you have never heard and that you won’t have heard until you’ve answered.  For if you have to answer (“Il faut parler”), it’s so that what, or rather whom, you are obliged to answer may be heard.  (311)

The manner in which Smock describes this situation is troubling.  One must, more or less, undergo and endure a shock if one is to let the other speak.  Its not so simple.  She suggests that, in this situation, when the other comes close to me and I feel the demand upon me, “the other withdraws.”  He becomes a “friend” and is “way beyond you and way beyond anything or anyone you could ever be with.” But the other is not the only person to withdraw.   I do too.  And this leads to a kind of failure which can be read as either tragic or comic.

Smock provides an example of a meeting between the feminine and the (implied) male subject in terms of a kind of failure.  The more he worries about what to say or do, the smaller and more confused the subject becomes.  Its as if he’s not sure who is his friend when she approaches.  He seems frightened:

She comes when and where it’s perfectly clear she’s not….How to receive her visit?  How to acknowledge her?  Who else would be so true as to say “I am not with you; I haven’t come?” It’s she! The she is once again and as she always was, undeniably herself.  Yet this is to deny exactly what it is so like her to convey…and not to hear, or welcome her. (313)

Smock imagines her rejection: “How to recognize her voice when she says You do not hear me?”(313).

In response to this argument and scenario created by Smock, Nancy wittily suggests that Smock’s depiction of communication may be a joke.  He cites the joke structure by citing Freud to explain:

This may look like a joke, indeed, like the famous Jewish joke reported by Freud: “Why do you tell me you are going to Cracow, to make me believe you are going to Warsaw?” I could say, “Why do you call me ‘you’, to make me believe that you know me, when you know neither me nor what ‘you’ mean?”  (314)

But then Nancy shifts gears and admits that this is no joke: “Communication is always disappointing, because no subject of the utterance comes in touch with another subject.  The is no subjectivity here; in this sense there is no self-recognizing of the utterance.   It always speaks before it becomes self-present”(314).  In other words, one will always trip over one’s words.  One will always be embarrassed by them and be disappointed.

Building on this point and suggesting something more positive, Nancy argues that “speaking comes by surprise.  Or by chance, as a chance”(315).  In a “loose conversation” anything can happen; “nobody knows what he or she will say before he or she has said it”(315).   But although there seems like a chance that one can “succeed” when he or she takes a chance in speaking, Nancy suggests, by way of Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, that “communication take place as the communication of a disappointment, of a nonpossibility, of a withdrawal of communication itself”(315).  This seems tragic.  But Nancy argues that it is and is not:

On the one hand, this is tragedy.  It is the tragedy of a world, a mankind, where there is no longer a substance,  a subject giving the matter and the way of “communicating.”  That is, giving the element, the body of a “communion.”  Or at least, of real encounter, where there is a partaking of the same sense….This tragedy implies a comedy.  Every attempt to communicate, to make present the link, the real linkage and exchange between two, is comedy: the words of lovers, but also “love making” itself, and philosophical dialectics, and religious sacrifice.   (315)

Nancy’s take on the comic aspect of communication is fascinating because it suggests that the presentation of  the exchange between people as an exchange (whether in philosophy, conversation, or even “religious sacrifice”) is comical and tragic.  The relationship is there but nothing is being communicated.  Disappointment at the failure of relation is tragic and comic.  He calls this – ironically – communication:  “Communication communicates this withdrawal – communicates it, and through it, and as it”(315).

Let’s put this together.

The demand to speak and the act of letting the other speak is a part of what Nancy calls communication and it necessarily leads to a tragic and comic situation in which one is surprised by the other and the words that pass or fail to pass between oneself and the other.

What is left out of the Nancy’s account is an exploration into the meaning of what he calls “communication.”    To better understand the meaning of this withdrawal, we need to see it for what it is: an awkward comical encounter in which one party or the other feels awkward and small in this or that failure of communication.   Nancy also fails to clearly point out what is at stake.

If, in most if not all of our conversations, we gauge the success or failure of a conversation based on whether we feel or see the other interested or happy, we need to ask ourselves what it would imply to think of every conversation as a kind of failure in which neither party truly communicates with the other?

Is it the case that, regardless of how the other responds, there will always be awkward moments in conversation?  Perhaps what we need to do, building on Nancy, is to rethink the relationship of surprise, smallness, and awkwardness in relation to each and every conversation we have and what it implies that we can become small.

It may be the case that many of us laugh at awkwardness and smallness in this or that comedian because, as Thomas Hobbes or Henri Bergson might say, we are not the ones who are awkward or who have failed to get this or that cue: the comedian is and has failed, not us. Perhaps that is why they are laughable.

Perhaps this is the test: to realize that what makes these comic characters laughable is also what makes them endearing.  Like us, they are always surprised by things that they didn’t expect in this or that conversation.   Like us, they are awkward and become small and withdraw – regardless of how well guarded they appear to be.  This is the comedy and tragedy of communication: withdrawal as (awkward) communication and smallness.

 Everything has Become Smaller! On Nietzsche’s Microaggressions


Nietzsche’s Zarathustra has a big problem with little people.  You could say that he literally has a microaggression.  After he has a profound revelation of who he is “Before Sunrise” while he gazes into the deep sky and “trembles with divine desires,” Zarathustra comes down from the heights to the valley below to learn if “man” has “become bigger or smaller.”    The contrast between Zarathustra who, as a result of his ecstatic visionary experience, has become very big and the little people is metaphysical.  Zarathustra’s disparaging comments about smallness are aggressive.   This aggressivity against small things has a root in his attitude toward “Judea” and “the slave revolt in morals.”     And through Zarathustra this aggressivity is figured in terms of what I’ll call a mircoagression against smallness and small people.  This microagression informs his satire as well. Through satire, Nietzsche looks to constantly belittle his enemies.  And  through Zarathustra’s repulsion, through which he takes measure of the smallness of the small people of the valley, Nietzsche creates a metaphorical figuration of this microagression.

In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche says that the opposition between “Rome and Judea” is necessary: “Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome – there has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction.  Rome felt the Jew to be something like anti-nature itself, its antipodal monstrosity as it were”(34).  He insists that Rome must despise the Judeans if nature and the body is to be affirmed against the decadent betrayal of the body.  The Judeans are, in the view of “Master Morality,” in the view of “Rome,” small.  Judea is Rome’s “monstrosity” and challenges its ideal of beauty which is “beyond good and evil” (good and evil being what makes the Judeans a “monstrosity”).   Nietzsche uses an aggressive kind of cynicism to associate them with “slave morality,” “weakness,” “degeneration,” and “sickness.”  He despises pity and emulates cruelty.

The problem and the ultimate question has to do with the meaning of pain. The small people internalize pain; the big inflict it (whether in words or in actions). Cruelty is necessary for Master Morality, for Rome, if it is to rise above the small people.  He needs to point out that man is like a “domesticated animal” because he has lost the capability of being cruel:

It seems to me that the delicacy and even more the tartuffery of tame domestic animals (which is to say modern men, which is to say us) resists a really vivid comprehension of the degree to which cruelty constituted the great festival pleasure of more primitive men and was indeed an ingredient of almost every one of their pleasures.  (66)

Nietzsche’s reflection on the relationship of “primitive people” to their cruelty waxes poetic and is a little disturbing.  He says Yes(!) to it:

And how naively, how innocently their thirst for cruelty manifested itself, how, as a matter of principle, they posited “disinterested malice” (or in Spinoza’s words, sympathia melevolens) as a normal quality of man – and thus as something to which the conscience says Yes! (66)

Nietzsche sees the “deification” or cruelty in the “entire history of higher culture”(66).    At the end of a litany of cruelties, Nietzsche points out how “no noble household was without creatures upon whom one could heedlessly vent one’s malice and jokes”(66).  Nietzsche’s words suggest that every “noble” household was involved with a kind of mircroaggression.  It would have a “creature” that it could belittle with “malice” and “jokes.”    To illustrate, Nietzsche then cites the Court of the Duchess scene in Cervantes’ Don Quixote where Quixote is cruelly laughed at, tricked, and humiliated.

Nietzsche affirms satire and cruelty in the same breath when he argues that inflicting and seeing people in pain is good. It informs the “mighty, human, all too human principle.”

To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle to which even the apes might subscribe; for it has been said that in devising bizarre cruelties they anticipate man and are, as it were, his “prelude.” Without cruelty there is no festival.  (67)

These last lines suggest that the “mighty” (the “big”) know that true joy goes hand-in-hand with cruelty: “Without cruelty there is no festival.”

When Zarathustra has his visionary experience, he, like his friend, the “sky,” realizes that he is big, free, and beyond good and evil.  He says Yes to this:

O SKY above me! O pure, deep sky! You abyss of light! Gazing into you, I tremble with divine desires….We have been friends from the beginning…We do not speak to one another, because we know to much….we smile our knowledge one to the another…..Together we learned everything; together we learned to mount above ourselves to ourselves and to smile uncloudedly…And what have I hated more than the passing clouds and that defiles you?…They take from you what he have in common – the vast and boundless declaration of Yes and Amen….For all thing are baptized at the fount of eternity and beyond good and evil…I set this freedom and cheerfulness above all things.  (186, Thus Spake Zarathustra)

But what he seems to hide, because there are no people where he has his vision, is that it is only in being cruel to others that one can be truly happy.   His “Yes saying” – which he discovers “before sunrise” – is made concrete through the cruelty down below.

When Zarathustra comes down below, after this epiphany of greatness, we learn that he wanted to “learn what had happened to men while he had been away: whether they were bigger or smaller”(187).     The first thing he sees is a “row of new houses” and finds them worthy of ridicule.  These houses are likened to bodies, and their makers to small, “childish,” souls.  He belittles these houses and their makers: “Did a silly child perhaps take them out of its toy-box? If only another child would put them back into its box!”(187).

His microagressions grow after seeing this first monstrous sight.  He doesn’t like to stoop down when he goes into them (187).   The bodily metaphor suggests that to live amongst the small people, to visit their houses, he has to reduce his greatness.  And he longs to leave these spaces which distort his “natural” power and physiognomy:

“Oh When shall I return to my home, where I shall no longer have to stoop- shall no longer have to stoop before small men!”  And Zarathustra signed and gazed into the distance.  (187)

What makes these people small?  Virtue, answers Zarathrustra.

Apparently, he tolerates them and liens them to tiny bothersome animals: “Here I am like a cockerel in a strange farmyard, who is pecked at even by the hens; but…I am polite toward them, as towards every small vexation”(188).   They bother him by trying to draw him into virtue and the “small happiness” that comes with being good: “I go among this people and keep my eyes open: they have become smaller and are becoming even smaller: and their doctrine of happiness and virtue is their cause”(189).  Everything they do, including virtue, is modest.  And this contrasts to the greatness that Zarathustra finds in saying Yes.

He notes that “some of them will” but most of them are “willed.”  What makes the people small can be found in their creedo: “I serve, you serve, we serve’(189).  Their honesty in striving to be servants, for Zarathustra, is a sign of weakness and smallness.  They are “frank, honest, and kind to one another, as grains of sand are frank, honest, and kind to grains of sand”(189).   This happiness in service is, for Zarathustra, “cowardice”(190). They turn man into a “domestic animal”(190).  And as we saw above, this is the figuration that Nietzsche uses to describe the person who negates cruelty.   The small man forgets what the animal taught him when he is “frank, honest, and kind.” By taking to the ethos of service he leaves the possibility of bigness and his primal roots in wild animality and joy behind.

When Zarathustra addresses the small people, he declares that what makes him fundamentally different from them is that he embraces and declares his rejection of God: “Yes! I am Zarathursta the Godless!”   He then proceeds to let loose his final microagressions and tells them that he would “crack them” (destroy them) if he weren’t so disgusted by their way of life: “These teachers of submission! Wherever there is anything small and sick and scabby, there they crawl like lice; and only my disgust stops me from cracking them”(190).   Nietzsche then warns them that he need not do anything and makes a veiled threat of violence.  By pursuing goodness, by the life of service, they will become so small that they will disappear from the earth:

You will become smaller and smaller, you small people! You will crumble away, you comfortable people! You will perish- through your many small virtues, through your many small omissions, through your many small submissions. (191)

His final microagression is a prophesy that “their hour is coming.”  When it strikes, the strong will overcome the weak; Rome will overcome Judea; cruelty will overcome kindness.  Both Zarathustra and his author, Nietzsche, exalt in this moment when the small will disappear from the earth.  When that happens, he will exalt in his cruel laughter.  But before that happens, Nietzsche suggests we can bring the messianic age of cruelty on by way of crushing the small and mocking them without end.

What Neitzsche neglects to think through, however, is the fact that, in the face of this microagression and power, another body of comedy exists.    And instead of prompting the disappearance of the small it promotes the growth of comic smallness.  But that didn’t happen in Germany, it took root in America, grew, and spread throughout Europe.   It was another kind of comedy that, as the German Jewish film critic Siegfried Kracauer would call the comedy of chance and contingency in contrast to the  comedy of fate and myth.  It was, as he points out, the comedy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (who the Nazis called the “little yid”).    They are, as Hannah Arendt said of the schlemiel, “the suspect” (who we all know is innocent) on the run.   He escapes on the seat of his pants.

Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) – who he portays as a small guy who acts like he is big – is endearing in its celebration of everydayness and frankness; it flies in the face of Zarathustra and his microagressions.  The irony is that smallness, in America, can be pretty big.  And when we realize that “everything has become smaller” we don’t shirk like Zarathustra; we smile.  In these comedies cruelty does not trump love.  We realize, unlike Nietzsche, that we don’t need “cruelty” to have a “festival.”




Cynicism, the “Highest Achievement on Earth” – Nietzsche on What Makes a Great Book


Since he was so cheeky and loved to upset his German readers, Nietzsche always loved to reflect on how wonderful he was.   He did this because he wanted to create a space in which his voice, despite its being despised, could weigh in on any subject he wished to discuss.  It was, in his view, his satirical cynicism that put him in a position to battle with anyone he deemed a “worthy opponent.” In a section of Ecce Homo entitled “Why I Write Such Great Books,” Nietzsche reflects on what makes a good book.

Before he gives us his final word, however, he lets us know how frustrated his critics are with him and how, in turn, how disappointed he is with books that other, esteemed Germans, write:

I have some notion of my privileges as a writer; in a few instances I have been told, too, how getting used to my writings “spoils” one’s taste.  One simply can no longer endure other books, least of all philosophical works. (Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, 263)

In the most daring and arrogant manner, Nietzsche tells the German reader that the world that he is speaking from is higher than theirs.  It is a “distinction” to enter it:

It is a distinction without equal to enter this noble and delicate world – one must not by any means be a German; it is after all a distinction one must have earned.  But whoever is related to me in the height of his aspirations will experience veritable ecstasies of learning; for I come from the heights that no bird ever reached in its flight, I know abysses into which no foot ever strayed.  I have been told that it is impossible to put down one of my books – that I even disturb nightly rest.  (263)

After noting how incredible his writing is he tells us why it is so lofty; namely, because it achieves the heights of cynicism:

Altogether, there is no prouder and at the same time subtler type of book: here and there they achieve the highest achievement on earth, cynicism; they have to be conquered with the most delicate fingers as well as the bravest fists.  (264)

Nietzsche goes on to describe, metaphorically, the physiognomy that one must need to be a great writer.  One needs a “cheerful digestion”(264).  The irony of this claim is that Nietzsche, in his cheeky cynicism, seems more bitter than cheerful.  However, he suggests that his bitterness is cheerful because, when he angers his opponents and makes them cynical about their own world, he is happy.   His hatred of his critics is cheerful in the sense that he finds all of their criticisms and comments about his work laughable.

I have one question:

After all his ranting is over and after he has spread more cynicism in the world and crowned himself the solar king (which Michel Serres associates with madness) what is left after the book (and the author) that destroys all other books?

Two Bodies of Comedy: On Friedrich Nietzsche & Robert Walser’s Bodies of Comedy


Nietzsche was obsessed with the relationship of the body to thought.   And whenever he articulated his reading of the body, he always made sure to put it forth in what Peter Sloterdijk (winking at Diogenes) called a “cheeky” manner.  He looked to offend and this gesture, for Nietzsche, was healthy.    In the beginning of his book, Ecce Homo, he assesses his health in a cheeky manner. He looks to what he has taken, physiologically, from his mother and father* and what this means to his personal (“unique”) fate:

The good fortune of my existence, its uniqueness perhaps, lies in its fatality: I am, to express it in the form of a riddle, already dead as my father, while as my mother I am still living and becoming old.  The dual descent, as it were, both from the highest and the lowest rung of the ladder of life, at the same time, decadent and a beginning….I have a subtler sense of smell for the signs of ascent and decline than any other human being before me; I am the teacher par excellence for this –  I know both, I am both.  (222, Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo).

These claims to being the “teacher par excellence for this” are outrageous.  They are meant to be.  He wants to be challenged.  And he doesn’t stop on the first page to demonstrate how much he knows about the relationship of the body to thinking. Throughout Ecce Homo, Nietzsche discusses the body and its relation to thought and power (or decadence). He takes any tendency to “dialectic” as a “symptom of decadence” and cites Socrates as a sick thinker.   But he is only one enemy, the other is the moral enemy who asks us to pity or feel for the other:

The overcoming of pity I count among the noble virtues: as “Zarathustra’s temptation.” I invented a situation in which a great cry of distress reaches him, as pity tries to attack him like a final sin that would entice him away from himself.  (228)

The “proof” of his strength is to be found in a rejection not just of pity but a kind of humor that goes along with it.  This kind of humor is the anti-thesis of the humor he employs in his endless satire and cheekiness.  He sees this cheekiness as poetic.  His model for this is not just the cynic Diogenes (Nietzsche calls himself the “medical cynic”); it is also Heinrich Heine:

The highest concept of the lyrical poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine…He possessed the divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection: I estimate the value of men, of races, according to the necessity by which they cannot conceive of god apart from the satyr. (247)

Nietzsche saw the health of Heine’s poetry to be associated with his sarcasm. Heine’s strength could be “measured” by the strength of the opponents he chose to target in his satire: “The strength of those who attack can be measured in a way by the opposition they require: every growth is indicated by the search for a mighty opponent”(232).

The irony of Nietzsche’s interest in Heine is brought out in the fact that Heine was, according to Hannah Arendt, not just interested in satire.  He was also interested in the schlemiel, a comic character that Nietzsche would find to be unhealthy and weak since, through its charm, it called on the reader to laugh in a way that was not satirical.

Hannah Arendt saw Charlie Chaplin as the last in a long line of schlemiels that were first introduced into the German bloodstream by Heine.  His vulnerable and clumsy comic subjects of schlemieldom were poor and simple, not clever and cheeky in the Nietzschean sense.

Robert Walser, who had a major influence on Kafka’s fiction, was fascinated with comic characters who many would find pitiable but charming.   They present another body of comedy which, to be sure, differs significantly from Nietzsche’s body of comedy.   In his short story, “Helbling’s  Story,” Walser has the narrator, Helbling, give his view on himself and work world he has decided to enter.  He is the everyman (who Nietzsche despised) and yet he is different in a way that sets him not a height so much as on a comical plane of existence:  “The striking thing about me is that I am a very ordinary person, almost exaggeratedly so. I am one of the multitude, and that is what I find so strange”(Selected Stories, 31).    He finds it strange because he realizes that, unlike them, he is, like Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), unable to work or be like them.


He tells us that he is not cut out for work.  He’s too fragile and slow.  Like many a schlemiel, he is belated:

I constantly feel that there is about me something delectable, sensitive, fragile, which must be spared, and I consider the others as being not nearly so delectable and refined.  How can that be so?  It is just as if one were not coarse enough for this life.  It is in any case an obstacle which hinders me from distinguishing myself, for when I have a task to perform, let’s say, I always take thought for half an hour, sometimes for a whole one. (32)

His body, when he works, is comical.   Like Chaplin’s body, it can’t keep up and ends up gesticulating in all different directions:

A task always frightens me, causes me to brush my desk lid over with the flat of my hand, until I noticed that I am being scornfully observed, or I twiddle my cheeks, finger my throat, pass a hand over my eyes, rub my nose, and push the hair back from my forehead, as if my task lay in that, and not in the sheet of paper which lies before me, outspread, on the desk. 

He can’t seem to stay on task.  He seems to be constantly distracted.  And when he is called a “dreamer and a lazybones,” he refuses to accept these descriptions: 

Perhaps I have the wrong profession, and yet I confidently believe that in any profession I would be the same, do the same, and fail in the same way…People call me a dreamer and a lazybones.  What a talent people have for giving me the wrong labels.  (32)

But when he reflects, he realizes that he is a simpleton:

I do not know if I have an intellect, and I can hardly claim to believe that I have, for I have been convinced that I behave stupidly whenever I am given a task which requires understanding and acumen….I have a quantity of clever, beautiful, subtle thoughts; but as soon as I apply them, they fail and desert me, and I am left standing there like an ignorant apprentice. (33)

Unlike Nietzsche’s body of comedy, he doesn’t aim to always win and overpower.  He is, a Michel Serres would say, “inventing weakness” and is calling on us to pity him.  But when he messes up he does so with such charm that we, like millions who were adored by Charlie Chaplin, forgive him.   But Nietzsche would not.

While the body of comedy that Nietzsche favors is tough, invulnerable, rude, and on the offensive, the body of Walser’s comedy is vulnerable, weak, flexible, and self-deprecating.  It fumbles and stumbles when it has to do a task and, for that reason, is more human.  Nietzsche’s body of comedy is that of the overman who looks down at the world it came from and laughs a laugh of health and defiance.  It laughs, as Zarathustra did, from the mountaintops; not from the valley.


*Compare Nietzsche’s reading of the relationship of his father and mother legacy to his fate, to that of Gene Wilder (which, to be sure, is completely different because Wilder frames his birth in terms of the schlemiel not the healthy overman.)