The Schlemiel and Horror, or Zero Mostel on the Muppet Show


Zero Mostel z”l (1915-1977), in this brilliant segment from a 1977 episode of the Muppet Show, laughs at the Horror genre (or I would argue, getting spooked by crisis theory). What better example do we have of the laugh that laughs at the (satanic) laugh (or smile)?

This is, as my father’s friend David Kaplan z’l, used to say: “Top notch!”

Zero Mostel was one of the greatest stars in the history of Yiddish theater and performance!  He moved hundreds of thousands of people to laughter and tears.  Mostel was certainly a (perhaps ‘the’?) King of Comedy.   He was a real schlemiel whose performances show us how impassioned physical comedy – though caught up in schlemiel dreams – can trump fantasies of terror and catastrophe.  The fantasies he plays with are the fantasies of fear, terror, and transgression; the fantasies that Baudelaire and Poe found so titillating.

By performing 1,001 terrors, filtered through all his “wide eyed” gestures, Mostel caricatures horror, fear, and spirit possession in a matter of minutes.

Instead of tricking us into being horrified, as Baudelaire believed the “Absolute Comic” should, Mostel tricks horror into being ridiculous.  And he does it in the best place one can to placate horror with comedy: The Muppet Show.

Horror is equivalent to formless Muppet dolls attacking Zero Mostel and driving him Mad.

Does Zero Mostel tear us from fear? Does he defeat it?  Or do Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire have the last word?

The Trick is on the Trickster or Comic Self-Destruction: Traumatized Children and A Ruined Old Clown named Charles Baudelaire


Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin knew very well of the trickster.  To be sure, they saw themselves as tricksters who, in doing their comic tricks, looked to destroy something and find something else (something new) in the midst of ruin.  By way of shock, they both believed they could arrive at some kind of “hidden” knowledge.  What happens, however, when the trickster is tricked?  What happens when the trickser is the butt of the joke?

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog, Charles Baudelaire, in his “Essay on Laughter” turned to the horrific moment of a child’s shock at the loss of her innocence.  In the ETA Hoffman short story “Daucus Carota, the King of the Carrots Baudealire found this moment to be an illustration of the Absolute Comic.   Before he gets to this shocking moment, he intentionally takes on the role of a children’s storyteller.

Look at all those scarlet figures, like a regiment of English soldiers, with enormous green plumes on their heads, like carriage footmen, going through a series of marvelous tricks and capers on their little horses!  The whole thing is carried out with astonishing agility.  The adroitness and ease with which the fall on their heads is assisted by their heads being bigger and heavier than the rest of their bodies, like toy soldiers…(163)

This delightful narration shifts and becomes dark.  Baudelaire’s voice changes.

The unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by this display of military might. But an army on parade is one thing; how different an army in barracks, refurbishing its harms, polishing its equipment, or worse, still, ignobally snoring on its dirty, stinking camp-beds!  That is the reverse of the medal; the rest was but a magic trick, an apparatuses of seduction.

Baudelaire notes that the girl’s father, a magician (“a man well-versed in sorcery”), tricks his daughter and robs her of her childish innocence.

Then it is the that the poor dreaming girl sees all this mass of red and green soldiery in its appalling undress, wallowing and snoring…In its night-cap all that military magnificence is nothing more than a putrid swamp.

Baudelaire, no doubt, sees himself as a Satanic magician, much like the father in the story.   He delights in tricking his reader (his child) into thinking they get one side of the coin and then he flips it.  This trick, for Baudelaire, is at the core of the Absolute Comic.

As I pointed out, Baudelaire in his May 13, 1856 journal noted that he will have “conquered solitude” when he has inspired “universal horror and disgust.”  To be sure, this is the job of the magician-slash-writer who can flip the coin and shock his readers.  In other words, Baudelaire saw his task as destructive and magical.

As we noted yesterday, Baudelaire identified with Poe’s destructive spirit insofar as he saw in Poe’s destructive drive a vitality that was repressed by civility.  Baudelaire turned this destructive drive on his view of children and fools.  Moreover, I would like to suggest that this was done in an experimental manner and, as I noted in a previous entry, this act of Spleen was aimed at producing a souvenir.  In other words, the magic of Baudeliare was to destroy something yet to cling to what remains.

Notice that for Baudelaire, the “coin” is still there.  It is just turned over.  Baudelaire doesn’t destroy the coin (that is, the child).  She remains but as a damaged child.  And this shock, according to Baudelaire, illustrated the essence of laughter.

The poet, in other words, is a Satanic kind of trickster.  He fools the reader into seeing something he or she does not want to see.  Yet, the revelation of what he or she doesn’t want to see gives the reader some kind of secret knowledge that can only be garnered through destruction.

In my readings of Benjamin, we have seen that this art can also be turned against oneself.     Indeed, Benjamin, in seeing himself as a schlemiel, as duped, traveled down the same road as Baudelaire.  For Benjamin, the trickster is tricked.

Baudelaire understood this lesson very well.  It marks the dark side of the magician who is not simply to be seen as a Satanic devilish poet who lives on vitality.  Indeed, that vitality is often weak.   And the solitude that Baudelaire wished to “conquer” is, to be sure, solitary and pathetic.

Destruction has a negative effect that, for some strange reason, Baudelaire and Benjamin were attracted to as artists.  Solitude has its price.  And in the modern world, the comic – though found everywhere – has no place.

Baudelaire’s prose pieces finely illustrate this.  Today, I will look at “The Old Clown.”

This prose piece, in Paris Spleen, is autobiographical and it teaches us a lesson about the Satanic comedian who is, in essence, a clown.

Underlying the piece is a question: what would it mean to spend one’s life as a clown?  What would happen if, instead of producing vitality, the clown produced nothing?  This is the dark side of Baudelaire’s venture and we see it in this prose piece.  Perhaps the “old clown” has “conquered solitude” by, in his very existence, inspiring “universal horror.”

To emphasize vitality and the end of vitality, Baudelaire starts off the piece with a major emphasis on the life of the carnival:

Holiday crowds swarmed, sprawled, and frolicked everywhere.  It was one of those gala days that all the clowns, jugglers, animal trainers, and ambulant hucksters count on, long in advance, to make up for the lean seasons of the year (25).

Baudelaire tells us that on these days people “forget everything” and they “become like children.”

Baudelaire then goes on to give a fantastic and exciting description of the carnival: “There was a mixture of cries, crashing brass, and exploding fireworks…and dancers, as lovely as fairies or princesses, leaped and pirouetted with the lantern light sparkling their skirts….There was nothing but light, dust, shouts, tumult”(25).

But then, in a Poe-like or Hoffman-like moment, the narrator sees the “old clown” and the shock it sends throughout him was uncanny:

Everywhere joy, money-making, debauchery; everywhere the assurance of tomorrow’s daily bread; everywhere frenetic outbursts of vitality.  Here absolute misery, and a misery made all the more horrible by being tricked out in comic rags, whose motely contrast was due more to necessity than to art.  He was not laughing, the poor wretch!…He was mute and motionaless.  He had given up, he had abdicated.  His fate was sealed. (26)

The narrator then describes his own breakdown at the sight of the clown.  He, the recipient of the sad joke or “trick” of reality, doesn’t know what to do:

I felt the terrible hand of hysteria grip my throat, I felt rebellious tears that would not fall, blurring my sight.  What was I to do?

Instead of talking to him or asking him questions, he decides to leave some charity.  He felt that compassion would redeem him.  However, before he can do this “a sudden surge of the crowd, caused by I know not what disturbance, swept me away from him.”

It is the crowd that robs him of his opportunity to give charity.  But now, as he looks back at the old clown, he can reflect on himself.  He sees an emblem of himself in the clown; he sees (or rather creates) what Walter Benjamin would call a souvenir:

I have just seen the prototype of the old writer who has been the brilliant entertainer of the generation he has outlived; the old poet without friends, without family, without children, degraded by poverty and the ingratitude of the public, and to whose booth the fickle world no longer cares to come! (27)

It’s fascinating how for Baudelaire the destruction of innocence and joy is “magical.”  To be sure, he was fascinated with his own failure and with the destruction of happiness in children.  This piece, though tragic to us, fits into what Baudelaire calls the Absolute Comic.  But here he is the butt of the joke.  He, the writer, is a joke.  He is an “old clown.”   He, the entertainer of children, the child who never grew up, is a joke.

We can have no doubt that Walter Benjamin was very moved by Baudelaire’s “souvenir.”  It is echoed in his own vision of himself as a Schlemiel.  In his own s(c)h(l)ocking discovery, Benjamin, like Baudelaire, was able to retain a souvenir out of his own comic, self-destruction.

Baudelaire, Children, and Horror (Take 1)


As can be seen from many of my previous posts, I have been addressing the work of Charles Baudelaire on laughter and the comic. The reason I have spent so much time on this is because I have been attempting to understand Walter Benjamin’s reading of (and identification with) the comic (in general) and the schlemiel (in particular). To be sure, Benjamin had great interest in Baudelaire’s approach to the comic and, something we have not yet explored, children. Moreover, he was also interested in the comic as it appeared in Franz Kafka’s work.

Jeffrey Mehlman, in his book Walter Benjamin for Children, correctly notes that Baudelaire and Kafka were “nodal” points for Benjamin. This insight can be drawn from Gershom Scholem’s reflections on Benjamin which clearly show that Benjamin was preoccupied with two projects: one with Kafka and the other with Baudelaire and the Arcades Project. Mehlman claims that a close reading of Benjamin’s radio plays for children, which were written between 1929 and 1933 in Germany, can bridge the gap between the Kafka and Baudelaire projects.

Mehlman uses an approach influenced by psychoanalysis to do this. While Mehlman deserves much credit for his bringing these radio plays to the attention of English speaking critics and for his attempt to relate this work to Benjamin’s academic work, his reflections are preliminary. His book has a total of 97 pages and this makes sense since he moves from idea to idea at a very quick pace. Nonetheless, his work is valuable and it provides many entry points for this blog’s (and my book’s) investigation into Benjamin’s preoccupation with the man-child (the schlemiel).

Mehlman addresses the daemonic in his book in relation to Benjamin but not in relation to Baudelaire.  To be sure, it was from Baudelaire that Benjamin became intensely interested in the daemonic.  Mehlman’s reading of the daemonic in Benjamin is worth consideration – and we will do so in another post – but it still overlooks a few key links in Baudelaire.   In addition, Mehlman doesn’t mention any of Baudelaire’s reflections on children or on toys. These gaps need to be addressed before Mehlman or anyone tries to bridge the gap between Kafka and Baudelaire (Benjamin’s two final projects).

I have been dealing with this issue by giving an in-depth reading of the Daemonic in Baudelaire and its relationship to laughter. Furthermore, I have shown how it works into Benjamin’s reflections on himself and also Kafka (by way of the Shuvalkin Parable – which Mehlman reads psychoanalytically).

I’d like to continue along this thread. By doing so, we can better understand Benjamin’s conflict with childhood in general and his own childhood in particular. In addition, I think it is imperative for us to approach Benjamin’s reading of Kafka in light of these reflections. Since Benjamin’s readings of Kafka either draw on or reject Baudelaire’s approaches to humor and children.

To this end, I’d like to begin with a quote from Baudealire’s journals about art and horror and relate these reflections to his reflection on children and laughter.

Baudelaire was very interested in horror. To be sure, he imported the work of the master of horror, Edgar Allen Poe, into France by way of translation. Moreover, he introduced Poe to a French audience in his celebrated essay “Edgar Allen Poe: His Life and Works.”

In the essay, Baudelaire shows his utter fascination with Poe’s work. Baudelaire gives a detailed description of the terror and excitement the writer and the reader upon writing and reading horror:

The very fervor with which he hurls himself into the grotesque for love of the grotesque and the horrible for love the horrible I regard as proofs of the sincerity of his work and the intimate accord between the man and the poet. I have already noticed in several men that such a fervor is often the result of a vast store of unused vital energy…The supernatural rapture which man can feel at the sight of his own blood flowing, those sudden, needless spasms of movement, those piercing cries uttered without the mind’s having issued any orders to the throat…As he breathes the attenuated ether of this world the reader may feel that vague distress of the mind, that fear on the brink of tears, that anguish of the heart which dwell in strange immensities. But admiration is the dominant emotion, and moreover the writer’s art is great! (The Painter of Modern Life, 90-91)

In a journal entry dated May 13, 1856, Baudelaire writes a shocking passage which echoes these sentiments:

A man goes pistol-shooting, accompanied by his wife. He sets up a doll and says to his wife: “I shall imagine that this is you” He closes his eyes and shatters the doll. Then he says, as he kisses his companion’s hand, “Dear angel, let me thank you for my skill!”

Immediately following this passage, Baudelaire discovers his task as an artist: “When I have inspired universal horror and disgust, I shall have conquered solitude.”

Who inspires this tendency to horror? Baudeliare, in the same entry, describes his style in terms of Poe:

STYLE: The eternal touch, eternal and cosmopolite. Chateaubriand, Alph. Rabbe, Edgar Poe.

The last pair, Rabbe and Poe, is telling when juxtaposed the other two pairs, since Alphonse Rabbe is most well known for his Album d’un Pessimiste which pays homage to pessimism and nihilism. The other two pairs pay homage to culture, philosophy, and religion. The last pair, however, speak to the task of art which is, for Baudelaire, to “conquer solitude” by way of inspiring “universal horror and disgust.”

These reflections on Poe and horror shed an interesting light on Badeliare’s prose pieces on children, toys, and laughter.

To take one example, and I will provide others in our next blogs, Baudelaire when writing on the “Absolute comic,” claims that the European Edgar Allen Poe – namely, ETA Hoffmann – is the best illustration of the Absolute Comic. And the exemplary Hoffmann story that Baudelaire chooses to cite and discuss deals with the horror of a child.

I will end this blog entry with Baudelaire’s intricate description of the story in his “Essay on Laughter.” Notice how Baudelaire’s tone changes when he tells the story: he becomes a storyteller telling stories to children:

In the story entitled Daucus Carota, the King of the Carrots…no sight could be more beautiful than the arrival of the great company of the Carrots in the farmyard of the betrothed maiden’s home. Look at all those scarlet figures, like a regiment of English soldiers, with enormous green plumes on their heads, like carriage footmen, going through a series of marvelous tricks and capers on their little horses! The whole thing is carried out with astonishing agility. The adroitness and ease with which the fall on their heads is assisted by their heads being bigger and heavier than the rest of their bodies, like toy soldiers…The unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by this display of military might. But an army on parade is one thing; how different an army in barracks, refurbishing its harms, polishing its equipment, or worse, still, ignobally snoring on its dirty, stinking camp-beds! That is the reverse of the medal; the rest was but a magic trick, an apparatuses of seduction. (163)

The horror comes when her father, “a wise man versed in sorcery,” lifts the flap of the tent to shock her: “Then it is the that the poor dreaming girl sees all this mass of red and green soldiery in its appalling undress, wallowing and snoring…In its night-cap all that military magnificence is nothing more than a putrid swamp”(ibid)

Notice that Baudelaire moves from the childish and the innocent to the horrific and associates this shift with the “Absolute comic.” This shift marks two principle poles for Baudelaire which he travels between.  To be sure, the biggest shocks and the greatest comic revelations – for Baudelaire and for Benjamin – involve some kind of childhood damage.

In the next few entries I will look into this relationship of children and toys to horror and terror. These reflections on childhood and horror will help shed light on Benjamin’s vision of himself as a schlemiel and his vision of Kafka.

Guest Post by Hillel Broder: Attend the Gesture, Await Nothing: “On Playful Non-Action in Benjamin’s Kafka Essay”


What is particularly playful about Kafka’s texts, Walter Benjamin notes in his foundational and lengthy textual memorial to Kafka (1934), is that they foreground the expressionist, dramatic, or gestural element that underlies human behavior and textual representation. What emerges, Benjamin and Kafka seem to suggest, is a playfulness that generates–and is in turn generated by–both a redemptive patience and attentiveness.

This gestural “law of the theater”, as Benjamin terms it, is tucked away in the central conceit of Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” in which an ape reports his transformation into an intelligent and articulate being: “I imitated people because I was looking for a way out, and for no other reason”. Acknowledging that humans might also be as imprisoned by their learned behavior, Benjamin then offers a brief gloss of the end sequence of Kafka’s book-length work, The Trial:

Before the end of his trial, K. seems to have an intimation of things. He

suddenly turns to the two gentlemen wearing top hats who have come for him and asks them: “ ‘What theater are you playing at?’ ‘Theater?’ asked one, the corners of his mouth twitching as he looked for advice to the other, who acted as if he were a mute struggling to overcome a stubborn disability.” The men do not answer the question, but there is much to indicate that it has hit home.

Indeed, Benjamin is rightly aware that Kafka acknowledged—through a subtle but brilliant literary feat—the theatricality of his own characters by allowing them, as it were,brief insight into their own artifice as fictive play-actors.

While disturbing, such self-illumination of character construction also allows for a certain release—or, even, redemption. While explicating the gesture in Kafka, Benjamin first traces repeated uselessness as experienced by characters in Kafka’s texts, and then relates such purposelessness to what he calls a Taoist usefulness that somehow transcends the binary of useful/useless, finally relating this to what Kafka was “after” in describing the desire to simultaneously “hammer a table together” and “do nothing” at all:

Perhaps these studies had amounted to nothing. But they are very close to that nothing which alone makes it possible for something to be useful–that is, to the Tao. This is what Kafka was after with his desire to “hammer a table together with painstaking craftsmanship and, at the same time, to do nothing–not in such a way that someone could say ‘Hammering is nothing to him,’ but ‘To him,hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing,’ which would have made the hammering even bolder, more determined, more real, and, if you like,
more insane.” (813)

While in the essay’s context Benjamin is, in fact, citing Franz Rozensweig on the Tao, Benjamin himself uses the general term “Tao”, which appears both in the title of Lao-Tzu’s foundational philosophical work and in the work’s first teaching:
“The tao that can be told / is not the eternal Tao. / The name that can be named / is not the eternal Name.” (Trans. Stephen Mitchell), as a gesture that is both full and empty, something and nothing. Those familiar with Taoist philosophy will note that he is actually unknowingly referencing the particular Taoist tenet “wu-wei”, generally translated as “action-non-action”—that is, an action that is active despite its in-action.

While a full treatment and exploration of this Taoist tenet, Kafka’s awareness and employment of Taoism, and its usefulness in exploring the modernist aesthetic of theatrical gestures replete in Kafka’s work is well beyond the scope of this post (it was the subject of my M.A thesis), I do think it important to note the playfulness that underlies such an insight in Kafka’s writings. Whether it is the “childish” relation to the law that Derrida highlights in his reading of Kafka’s great parable “Before the Law” or the childlike “stratagems” of wax and chains that Kafka’s Odysseus employs to mimic silencing an imagined siren scream that was, in Kafka’s reading of the myth, truly silent, dancing about the abyss of signification’s impenetrability was far more critical than striving to reach it. For Kafka, what was at stake was nothing less than a primary Fall—and exile from Paradise:

There are two main human sins from which all the others derive: impatience and indolence. It was because of impatience that they were expelled from Paradise; it is because of indolence that they do not return. Yet perhaps there is only one major sin: impatience. Because of impatience they were expelled, because of impatience they do not return. (87)

-Franz Kafka, Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way

Patience, as seen in the above aphorism excerpted from a series of re-readings of Genesis, is the realization of return: for, paradoxically, impatience to return is the very same affect that generates exile—it is the lack of presence—the absenting from presence—that is the very source of exile. Being present and being in-active—doing something while doing nothing at all—would be the very reversal of such a Fall.

Drawing attention to the gestural, to the surface of both text and character, to the simply expression, is both deeply disorienting, but such attentiveness generates a patience for what is, as opposed to what should, could, or might be. In Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, it is this very attentiveness that will be the slight shift from a pre-messianic to a messianic consciousness:

In Walter Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, the gesture is the “distortion”—it is the center of a parable that resists interpretation, but cultivates an attentiveness that is its very “purpose”. The prototype of such an aesthetic in Kafka’s fiction, according to Benjamin, is  Odradek, the distorted and forgotten wooden creature in his “Cares of the Family Man” that enacts the “form which things assume in oblivion”. Yet, awareness of such distortions, or as Benjamin sees in Kafka, “hunchbacks” is a child’s work. The child’s prayer, Benjamin suggests–

When I kneel upon my stool

And I want to pray,

A hunchbacked man is in the room

And he starts to say:

My dear child, I beg of you,

Pray for the little hunchback too

–demonstrates a child’s uncanny awareness: precisely at the moment that he engages in prayer, the child is surprised by another’s presence lurking in his own quarters: the little hunchback. Yet the hunchback entreats the child, at the moment of the child’s prayer, to “pray for the little hunchback too”—to consider the hunchback in his prayers as well.

Benjamin continues:

So ends the folksong. In his depths, Kafka touches ground which neither “mythical divination” nor “existential theology” supplied him with. It is the ground of folk tradition, German as well as Jewish. Even if Kafka did not pray— and this we do not know—he still possessed in the highest degree what Malebranche called “the natural prayer of the soul”: attentiveness. And in this attentiveness he included all creatures, as saints include them in their prayers.

Regardless of Kafka’s actual prayer practices, his inclusion of those distorted figures lost to oblivion in his writing, his preoccupation towards a total awareness of the “hunched backs” in his texts, be they actual figural distortions in his characters or literary lacunae in his texts—that is, the gestures that, are, also, what Benjamin terms opaque “cloudy spots”—is unmatched by ordinary men. This quality of attentiveness to the problematic loci that Kafka brings to his writing and reveals in his characters is akin to “the natural prayer of the soul”, which is, in profound simplicity, the contemplative exercise of noticing things in their entirety.

For Benjamin, only a child can be attentive in such a critical manner; for Kafka, reading for and writing as gesture can generate such attentiveness, from which, in turn, might emerge a certain critical patience that might, in turn, might allow for even more playfulness in reading:

There is no need to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you. (98)

Of course, knowingly or unknowingly, Kafka echoes the Tao Te Ching here:

Therefore the Master / acts without doing anything / and teaches without saying

anything. / Things arise and she lets them come; / things disappear and she lets

them go. / She has but doesn’t possess, / acts but doesn’t expect. / When her work is done, she forgets it. / That is why it lasts forever. (Trans. Stephen Mitchell, 2)

Hillel Broder is a Graduate Student in the English Program at the CUNY Graduate Center 

Who of the Four Sons is the Schlemiel?


I.B. Singer and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav both refer to the schlemiel as a “Tam,” which is Hebrew for a simpleton.  Tam also means a person who is “complete.” But this doesn’t make sense. How could a simpleton be complete?  Isn’t the simpleton lacking intelligence, wit, and independence?  How could these “lacks” constitute the simpleton’s – that is, the schlemiel’s – completeness?  Isn’t the wise man or the independent individual the ‘complete one’?  After all, the simpleton is a “schlemiel.”

This question is given visual form in the Passover Haggadah (namely, the story telling portion of the Haggadah which is called Magid).

In his book, Unheroic Conduct, Daniel Boyarin takes a look at a few Medieval Haggadot to point out the difference between “the simpleton” and the “evil son” (the Rasha).  For Boyarin, the point of this comparison is to show that the dominant Jewish male ideal in the Middle Ages was embodied in the character of the simpleton.  Extreme humility is his/her trait.  In contrast to the simpleton is the Rasha.  Boyarin points out that the Rasha is the epitome of what, in Yiddish, is called “goyishe nachas” (the joy of gentiles).  According to Boyarin, the Rasha embodies the non-Jewish “male ideal,” which is much more masculine (prideful, angry, overly physical, militant, etc) than the Jewish ideal.

Boyarin’s reading of the Jewish ideal is consistent, in many ways, with Moses Maimonides’ (RAMBAM’s) understanding of the ethical ideal.  As David Shatz points out in his essay “Maimonides’ Moral Theory,” Maimonides, like Aristotle, strived to live in accordance with a golden mean.  However, when it came to humility and pride, he was in stark contrast to Aristotle. While Aristotle thought extreme humility was a vice, Maimonides believed it was a virtue.  And while Aristotle thought it was necessary to be angry and prideful in the face of one’s pride being denigrated, Maimonides taught that such an extreme was a vice not a virtue.  Maimonides goes so far as to give an example of extreme humility by way of a story in which a man traveling on a ship is urinated on by an arrogant fellow-passenger.   This man, who Maimonides calls a Hasid (since he goes “beyond the letter of the law”) is so humble that he does nothing.  He, like Moses, the “most humble man of the land,” doesn’t waste his time with the Rasha.  More important for the Hasid, Maimonides tells us, is the honor of God.  And this requires extreme non-action in the face of arrogance and violence.  Wasting one’s time with pride and anger, making oneself equal to it, is “goyishe nachas.” Extreme humility, a vice for Aristotle, is “Yiddish nachas”(Jewish joy).

Boyarin’s project is to show that the Jewish ideal of the extreme humility was operative throughout the Middle Ages and existed in the Eastern Europe up the early 20th century – before the Holocaust – however, as Jews became accepted into Modern society, this ideal was displaced by a more Aristotelian type of masculine ideal.  Boyarin goes so far as to suggest that Zionism was deeply influenced by the ideals of strength and power rather than humility and powerlessness.  He cites Max Nordau – the Vice President of the Zionist Congress’ –  concept of the “muscle Jew” as the new ideal.  In addition, he cites Herzl, Freud, and others who espouse this new ideal which despises the Eastern European ideal of extreme humility – deeming it too feminine and heteronomos.

Strangely enough, in all of Boyarin’s discourse, he doesn’t note that how the simpleton was, for many of the early Zionists, the schlemiel.  The simpleton was equated with the powerless Diaspora Jew.  To be sure, a pro-Zionist journal by that name was founded with the purpose of criticizing the Diasporic Jew and affirming a ‘new Jew’.   The Jewish Renaissance, as Martin Buber put it, looked to reach deep into the roots of a Jewishness that was lost (or as Max Nordau would say, “degenerated”) in the Diaspora.  Although Buber didn’t openly degrade the simpleton (after all, he translated Rabbi Nachman’s stories and praised the Simpelton), he, like many Zionists, sought for a “New Jew.”

The question – is the schlemiel a character marred by Exile, a character that was produced by degeneration and powerlessness or was the schlemiel an ideal?

Boyarin’s book prompts these questions and poses them to Jews living outside of Israel.  Must we, in North America, contrast ourselves to Israelis?  Are we the ‘real Jews’?  And is their a real difference between us regarding whether or not we take on or reject an Aristotelian ideal?

Boyarin’s work certainly implies this.  His reading of the Haggadot implies that the Rasha, the evil son, is excluding himself from the Jewish community. Which community would that be?  Is this the American Jewish community or the community of Modern-Orthodox Jews that Boyarin identifies with?

I would add that Boyarin’s reading of the simpleton as an ideal may also include “the one who doesn’t know how to ask” in the Haggadah.  To be sure, the tradition represents both of them in terms of Boyarin’s ideal.

For instance, in a Medieval Illuminated Manuscript from 14th century Prato, Spain, we see Boyarin’s distinction between the Rasha and the Simpleton:


Here, the Rasha is represented as a Warrior of sorts.  While the simpleton and the son who doesn’t know how to ask are both represented as small – half his height – and humble:


In fact, they are both very gentle, childlike, and peaceful in their demeanor and in their gesturing.

Boyarin compares Medieval Haggadot to Zionist imagery to suggest that the Medieval Ideal has been abandoned.  Moreover, he suggests, by way of his own example as a “feminist-modern-Orthodox-Jew” that we return to this ideal.  As I noted above this would imply that Jews take on the schlemiel ideal.

But the ideal is not simply about humility – for the Rabbis, this humility which is based on faith in God’s power to redeem the Jewish people and in God’s place in history.  We see this in the two questions and in the answers to them.

The Simple Son asks:  “What is this celebration about?”

You shall say to him: “We are commemorating the fact that with a strong hand Gd took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Exodus 13:14).

As for The One Who Knows Not How To Ask—you must open up [the conversation] for him.

As it is written: You shall tell your child on that day: “It is because of this that Gd acted for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

So, ultimately, the masculine ideal that Boyarin wants to return to is or at least was based on the Schlemiel’s – that is, the Tam’s – simple faith.

To be sure, the simpleton is complete for this reason, but in the eyes of the world faith is ridiculous and the schlemiel lacks intelligence.   That is, at the very least, the perspective of the Rabbis and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.   Boyarin, however, redefines this to state that the completeness of the Tam can be found in the fact that he doesn’t enjoy “goyishe nachas” and prefers powerlessness over a masculine kind of power that, for him, corrupts.  This is not a matter of faith so much as a matter of whether or not Jews take on a masculine or a masculine-feminine ideal.

This is what I would call “Boyarin’s schlemiel ideal.”

The question for us – the so to speak fifth question of the four questions – is why is the night of Passover different from other nights?

Is it the night that we realize that “we” are all schlemiels?  And what would this imply? That we are faithful or that we embody a less masculine Jewish ideal?

(Based on what we have learned from Boyarin, this is a good question to ask.  But there are still other questions we can ask – at the Seder table, with the Jewish community – of his old/new ideal and its political import: 1) Is Boyarin right to reinstate a dualism that the early Zionists insisted on in the early 20th century?  2) Can there be schlemiel-Zionists?  Or only schlemiel post-Zionists? 3) Can one be a “simpleton” in Israel?  4) Is the new Jew an old Jew – that is a schlemiel? Or is the new Jew a Rasha?  Or is the new Jew something else besides these two options?   In other words, where does the schlemiel figure, today?)

Regardless of the answers one comes up with, Schlemiel-in-Theory wishes all Jews – on whatever side of the spectrum – a Happy Passover!

Guest Post by Professor Jeffrey Bernstein: “Schlemiel, Schlemazel . . . Augenblick in-corpor-ated?”


Lately I have been wondering about Menachem’s earlier posts regarding the prophetic (possibly messianic?) potentiality of the schlemiel.  In a post on Benjamin and Strauss, he gave a nod to the secretive ‘wink, wink’ capacity of the schlemiel’s humor which the spectator gets, but which the schlemiel may not.  Menachem writes:  “Winking is not a straightforward gesture.  It is oblique.  And it is immediate, like a blink of the eye.”  This characterization immediately strikes me; given that he juxtaposed the phrase ‘blink of an eye’ with the figure of Benjamin, I am put in the mind of the figures of the ‘augenblick’ (which means  both ‘blink/twinkling of an eye’ and ‘instant/moment’) and the ‘jetztzeit’ (‘now-time’).  I am lead to wonder:  what is the ‘time’ of the schlemiel?  And if there is a schlemielich temporality, is it well-characterized by these terms?

Just for laughs, let’s characterize the situation in which we might engage this question:  as the old saying goes, the schlemiel is the one who spills his soup and the schelmazel is the one’s who gets the soup spilled on him.   To my mind, it looks something like this:

Schlemiel:  (in cafeteria, walking with tray of soup, speaking to Schlemazel) So I says to him ‘Hey, whadda you talkin’?  As if Spinoza knew anything about the Geonim!’  I (trips)—whoa, whoa, whoops!!!!! (spills soup on Schlemazel)

Schlemazel:  Ow!  Vey iz mir!  That soup’s hot!  Look what you did!

Schlemiel:  Oy! Look what I did!

There doesn’t appear to be any prophetic aspect to this caricature—but of course, the littlest things contain the deepest truths.  Soup is hot; we make messes; we burn—such is life.  And what can we do except scratch our foreheads and say ‘Oy! Look what I did!’  This may be the adult secret contained in many of our childhood experiences.

But strangely enough, this appears not to resemble the arc of thought contained in the terms ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’.  So a brief, and somewhat circumambulatory, consideration is in order:  In the Weimar Germany of the 1920’s, in the aftermath of the massive physical, psychological, cultural, and ideological destruction of the First World War, many different thinkers (sensing a fictitious quality to the narrative of ‘Enlightenment historical progress’) tried to find a way of speaking about the perceived crisis in which Europe was then involved.  Figures such as Barth, Heidegger, Rosenzweig, Lukacs, Benjamin, Kafka, Schmitt, Adorno, Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and Bloch all (in vastly different ways and for vastly different reasons) attempted to articulate the sense that if historical change is to happen, it will do so instantaneously and non-teleologically; it will come, as it were, like a thief in the night.  In doing so, they made witting or unwitting use of the idea of kairos  as it came to be articulated in Paul.  For Paul, kairos names the eschatologically charged instant in which the encounter with God and the acknowledgment of messianic time occurs.  It is always thought in opposition to chronos—i.e, profane time.   Augustine takes up this thought in his discussion of  ‘the present’ (in Confessions) as that which grants substantiality to the past (as recollection) and the future (as anticipation) by virtue of its being a divine(-ish) capacity of the human soul; if it were not for the creaturely replication of the present as nunc stans, time would consign humans to mortal oblivion.

Centuries later, as Luther studiously worked on his vernacular translation of the New Testament, he encountered the Pauline phrase ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ (in 1 Corinthians) and translates it with ‘augenblick’.  The ‘blink/glance/twinking of an eye’ is now understood not as one moment of ‘homogeneous empty time’ (Benjamin) or interval of ‘clock time’ (Heidegger) among others—it is precisely now understood in opposition to such mechanistic conceptions of temporality.  For the Weimar bunch, it becomes synonymous with authentic lived experiential time.  And though Heidegger calls ‘off-sides’ on Kierkegaard’s punt, the latter makes an important admission when he states (in The Concept of Anxiety) that “It is only with Christianity that sensuousness, temporality, and the moment can be properly understood, because only with Christianity does eternity become essential.”  True, Aristotle had also made use of the word kairos in the Nicomachean Ethics, but there it only meant the ‘opportune moment’ for action—like providing medicine or going to war.   It wasn’t essentially different from his characterization of the present (in the Physics) as a vanishing point—a pure limit between the ‘no longer’ and the ‘not yet’.

According to Agamben (oy!), Benjamin uses the term ‘jetztzeit’ (in his Theses on the Philosophy of History) to translate Paul’s ho nyn kairos (‘the of now time’) in Romans.  In this context, one might suggest that Benjamin is taking up the Aristotelian understanding (and its example of military battle) in holding that the ‘jetztzeit’ is that revolutionary moment which ‘blasts a hole’ in the ideology of ‘homogenous, empty time’.  But in viewing the ‘now-time’ over and against the normalizing, ideological conception, Benjamin simultaneously rejects the Aristotelian topos of the ‘opportune moment’ in favor of the Pauline one.  Certainly, Heidegger critiques the Aristotelian notion along similar lines (in Basic Problems of Phenomenology):   “The instant is a primal phenomenon of original temporality, whereas the [conventionally construed] now is merely a phenomenon of derivative time.  Aristotle already saw the phenomenon of the instant, the kairos, and he defined it in the sixth book of his Nicomachean Ethics; but . . . he did it in such a way that he failed to bring the specific time character of the kairos into connection with what he otherwise knows as time.”   In drawing the connection between kairos and ‘augenblick’ in his early readings of Paul, Heidegger thus simply makes explicit (on the theological level) what he will later phenomenologically describe as the suddenness of authentic temporality—i.e., that it happens as kairos and not as chronos.

I’m not trying to simply peg the terms ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’ as Christian and thus inappropriate as descriptions of the schlemiel (well, ok, a bissel I am).  Rather, I want to suggest that—despite the Jews that adhere to these descriptors and the Christians who don’t—these terms fail to accurately describe the authentic temporality of the schlemiel.  This for two reasons:  (1) ‘augenblick’ and ‘jetztzeit’ (understood as sudden and arresting) are both set over against a conception of time as homogenous, empty, identical and simply quantitative, and (2) as such, both terms are markers for a presence which the schlemiel  always seems to refuse (or, perhaps, fails to attain).  Whether it be the ‘negative presence’ of the absent, absolute and unattainable future, the ‘eternal present’ of the nunc stans, or the ‘revolutionary and shocking momentary present’ of eschatological realization, ‘augenblick/jetztseit’ is always indexed to a point of stability.  The meaning and signification of the moment/instant—be it eternal, futural, or sudden—is infused, embodied, literally in-corpor-ated (even in-carnated), in an otherwise purely quantitative and empty temporal flow.  This is why, even in the mode of anxiety or transience, the moment/instant is still (on the formal level) the source of a radiant serenity.  Put differently, ‘augenblick/jetztzeit’ bears witness to a religious tradition and context that is poetic.

Are there any resources in ‘prosaic’ religious traditions (to adopt the terminology of Yeshayahu Leibowitz) for thinking the temporality of the schlemiel?  You guessed it—the answer is yes!  So now, a much shorter consideration of this ‘other’ tradition:  Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger (in Jews and Words) note that Biblical Hebrew points to a different understanding of time than what we get in the Western conception (i.e., the qualitative moment/instant vs. the quantitative flow from past to future or vice versa).   The word kedem denotes ‘ancient times’ but its derivative kadima means “ ‘frontward’ or ‘forward’ “.  Similarly, the word lefanim means both ‘a long time ago’ and ‘in front of/to the face’.  Finally, achreinu means ‘after us’ both in the sense of ‘behind us’ and ‘in future’.  Put differently, Oz and Oz-Salzberger (following the work of Adin Steinsaltz and Shulamith Harven) hold that “When we speak Hebrew, we literally stand in flow of time with our backs to the future and our faces toward the past.  Our very posture is different from the Western view of time . . . The Hebrew speaker literally looks frontward to the past.”  Sound familiar, oh theorists of the Continent?  It recalls not only Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus (whose face is turned toward the past while he is blown uncontrollably into the future); it also bears some resemblance to Arendt’s reading of Kafka’s “He”, where ‘he’ stands in between the two antagonists (the past and the future) who are both battling him and each other.  Arendt’s interpretation is itself a struggle between the Weimar conception of moment (for Arendt, ‘he’ is the present understood as nunc stans) and the Hebrew one (‘he’ enlists the help of both the past and the future in ‘his’ battle with one another).  Insofar as it rejects the static distinction between the qualitative, lived, in-corpor-ated moment and quantitative but empty clock time, it remains in proximity to Benjamin’s Klee-interpretation.

What does it mean to look frontward to the past?  How can a prophet assume this posture and still ‘prophesy’?  Clearly, the schlemiel does not utter phrases like “And I say unto thee…”  If the schlemiel is prophetic, s/he is so retrospectively—i.e., “Oy!  Look, what I did!  Such is life!”  The schlemiel does not so much prophesy as ‘register prophetically’ what has already happened as what will always already continue to have been happening (oy, look what I did).  This retrospection, this belatedness, this reactivation of the past in the (present of the) future, has been characterized by Freud (with a little help from Rav Lacan) as nachtraeglichkeit and by Adorno (with a little help from Rebbe Said) as ‘late style’.  The schlemiel is always ‘late to the party’, always noticing things ‘after the fact’.  The signature phrase of the schlemiel’s wisdom is not ‘AHAH!’ but ‘OH . . . YEAH!’  And the schlemiel never ceases to register his/her insights too late for anything to be done about them.  Hence, as Janouch’s Kafka (as mediated through Benjamin) tells us, there’s an infinite amount of hope—just not for us schlemiels.  The moment of realization never happens by means of anticipation.  In the words of that other great theorist of the schlemiel, Carole King, ‘Its TOO LATE, baby, now its too late’.  If life were characterized by great poetry, we might at this point despairingly quote T. S. Eliot:  “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  But if life is ultimately prosaic, what else is there to do but laugh?  Incipit schlemiel!

Jeffrey Bernstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. He works in the areas of Spinoza, German philosophy and Jewish thought.




This announcement is a “heads up” for you, the reader, regarding “guest posts” that will appear in Schlemiel-in-Theory. Although comedy in general (and the schlemiel in particular) is full of surprises, I just wanted to warn you that you may be surprised by a guest post now and then.   In other words, I don’t want you to be too surprised (that is, shocked).

From time to time, Schlemiel-in-Theory will host a guest post from academics, comedians, poets, Rabbis, political satirists, and, quite simply, all people who enjoy reflecting on or doing comedy (in whatever medium).   Although I encourage reflection on comedy on this blog (and if you haven’t noticed, I do that on nearly every post), I have decided to keep the boundary between theory and practice porous so as to include as many new voices as possible.


Signed –

Your Humble Host and Founder of Schlemiel-in-Theory, The Man Who Loves to Blog on the Schlemiel, The Man-with-Two-Names:

Menachem-Matthew Feuer