Today, I was incredibly delighted to see a post by the Jewish arts and culture website Tablet on my facebook page with the following tagline and question:
Art historian Miriam Katz thinks of comedians as spiritual guides, and she wants to bring stand-up into the serious world of galleries and museums:
What do you think — can comedy be intellectualized?
As I scanned the tagline, the question, the image, and the post, I was overwhelmed. I was really excited to see that something I am deeply concerned with in my blog is being echoed “out there” in the virtual sphere and “in reality.”
The “schlemiel as prophet,” as a “spiritual guide,” seems to be catching on.
But it’s confusing. What does this mean? I could see that the question after the tagline and the responses to it in the facebook thread bore confusion over this question.
What the thread opined on was whether or not a comic could be a spiritual guide. As one can imagine, some thought this idea to be absurd while others did not. The general response, however, was that this is a question that has yet to be thought through in a thoroughgoing manner.
The image, propped between the tagline and question, also evokes questions as to what the comedian can communicate to us. To be honest, I found the Louis CK image to be more telling than the question.
What astonishes me about the Louis CK image and the caption is that, taken together, they suggest that the face is linked to comic-spiritual guidance. This suggestion or allusion hits at something deep: it hits at the relationship of prophesy to comedy and the face.
For me, this is profound because Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher I esteem above nearly all the philosophers of the 20th century, argued that the face is prophetic. And this prophesy pertains to suffering. The face, for Levinas, traumatizes and inspires “me” to be-for-the-other. It takes me outside of myself before I can even think about whether or not I want to help the other.
For Levinas, one is always-already and yet-to-be for the other. The face tells me, in a prophetic manner, “Thou shalt not Kill.” Levinas calls my relationship to the other the one-for-the-other. Which means, I am for the other before I am for myself. And this is magnified by the other’s suffering which “I” struggle with only because I am always-already affected by it.
Perhaps this struggle bespeaks the bittersweet comedy of being-for-the-other?
The subtitle of the piece bespeaks this in an oblique way: “choose the face that best describes your pain.”
The irony of this image is that none of them describe my pain; rather, they strike me with the pain of the other. They concern me and I cannot simply choose one over the other. They all beckon me to ethical concern. My choice is, so to speak, too late.
After looking at this image and thinking these things, I thought immediately of Andy Kaufmann.
To my surprise, I clicked on the Tablet link associated with the image and found this article by Jessica Weisberg on the art curator Miriam Katz entitled “Andy Kaufmann Isn’t Funny.” At this point, you can only imagine, I was besides myself. Astonished.
I decided, nearly two years ago, that I would write the final chapter of my book (a work in progress) on him. To my mind, he is one of the best illustrations of the schlemiel-as-prophet.
There is a demand in his comedy; namely, the demand of the other. His pain on stage, while funny to many, solicits the viewer. As Levinas might say, it traumatizes and inspires her to think about her laughter and about what to do in response to the schlemiel. (In my book and in a later blog, I will return to this scene on the David Letterman show.):
Notice how the audience doesn’t know whether he is joking or really suffering. This ambiguity is the basis of the prophetic-comic demand that he makes to the audience. He does this, quite simply, through his face and his gestures.
I am overjoyed to see that I am not the only one who has been struck by the prophetic demand of Kaufmann’s comedy. And I applaud Miriam Katz for the work she has done on Andy Kaufmann.
Here’s is a brief overview of the scene she is a part of in NYC. This article comes from The Village Voice.
In my next blog entry, I hope to further address this article and the merits of her artistic project, which, like mine, is to show the world “out there” that there’s more to the schlemiel than entertainment value.