Aristotle starts off his most cited book, The Metaphysics, with the classic line “All men by nature desire to know.” Oedipus also desired to know, but when he found out that he killed his father and married his mother, he cursed this desire. The philosopher doesn’t seem to have a problem with knowledge, but Sophocles, who wrote the play Oedipus Rex, does.
The reason: knowledge of origins is beneficial to a philosopher; tragic for a believer in myth and religion.
I suppose that the knowledge of the schlemiel falls somewhere inbetween. First of all, its good to know, in the most academic sense, “what” the schlemiel is; on the other hand, and contrary to popular wisdom about comedy, the path to understanding the schlemiel must inevitably lead through an encounter with troubling things.
Ok, so I’m going to take a brief moment to look into my personal desire to know the schlemiel. Perhaps it is informed by the Socratic desire to “know oneself?”
Hopefully, in the end, I won’t be like Oedipus and poke my eyes out from shame when I find out why I am a schlemiel or why I desire to know the schlemiel.
I loved watching schlemiels on TV, reading about them in books, and seeing them in this or that film.
But the schlemiel was not merely something I found in books, films, or plays. It was part and parcel of my life. Like a schlemiel who has a hard time catching up with what’s going on, it took me a while to find this out. The schlemiel wasn’t far from home.
The people around me: my father, mother, my father’s best friend, and my family (the half that we could visit and know and the half that wouldn’t speak to us because of a family feud over money). My life circumstances: full of childhood trauma, my father’s madness, and an awkwardness fitting into a small town as a Jew. These realities made the schlemiel tangible; they gave this character life and vitality.
I was in the world, but not of it.
But I was not simply a “lord of dreams” (a word used by Heinrich Heine, the famous Jewish-German poet to describe the Schlemiel). I lived in the world of small-town America. When a baseball was fired in my direction, I caught it. For the son of a New York intellectual who had little to no interest in sports (save for the Yankees), I did well. I was accepted. However, there were other times I was not. And this hurt. It reminded me that something was odd.
It was in the space between being accepted and not being accepted that I started to feel like a schlemiel. I was and was not in control of myself and my world. And I knew it – but only obliquely. My father, however, didn’t. He was always a star.
I was – from time to time – the odd one out but so were people around me, only, they didn’t know it. I did and I didn’t know. Growing up, I couldn’t put my finger on it.
My existential position as an American Jew growing up in a small town with parents from New York City proved to me that an American schlemiel is not simply a “lord of dreams” or a being that is unable to control themselves or the world; furthermore, an American schlemiel is not simply a character who lives in denial of history and is obsessed with the present as the Disaporic moment of creativity and change.
The schlemiel, this schlemiel, needs to understand himself in terms of what set him off into imagining and acting in a world that was ironically out-of -joint. This schlemiel is somewhere between a man and a child, somewhere between the world and worldlessness. And this movement back and forth has taught me that the schlemiel is not simply a concept; it is a way of relating: to myself, my Jewishness, and my world.
Given that the schlemiel’s life is marred (or blessed, depending on your point of view) by some form of absent-mindedness, its fair to say that a schlemiel moment can be found either in remembering the past, almost living in the present, or falsely anticipating the future. The schlemiel, this schlemiel, is a creature of time, trauma, memory, and thought.
As I mentioned in the first blog, the schlemiel is on a growth curve.
Me, Schlemiel: man-child
Like many a schlemiel, I have inherited my father’s story.
I am Matthew Menachem Feuer: Schlemiel ben Schlemiel: Schlemiel, “the Son of a Schlemiel.” What will my fate be? Will I, like Oedipus, go mad if I find out?
Perhaps what makes a schlemiel so appealing is that she doesn’t know the whole story.
So what happens when a schlemiel does what Freud would call interminable self-analysis? Does the failure to complete this knowledge lead to me schlemiel-hood?
That said, I’ll state it flatly, so there can be no mistake:
My father’s schlemiel story is a major part of my own. I’ll share some of it in the next blog.
The past is (to some extent) prologue…