The Destructive Element in Comedy (Take 1)

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Something happened in the schlemiel’s journey from Eastern Europe to America.  One of the most striking – yet unrecognized – shifts in humor is that while the Eastern European schlemiel tends to be simple, humble, innocent, and generally harmless, the American schlemiel tends – from time to time – to be much more violent, aggressive, and (self)destructive.  American Schlemiels are more physical and intense.  One need only think of The Three Stooges, Zero Mostel, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Phillip Roth, Andy Kaufmann or even Larry David to understand that sometimes the schlemiel is far from harmless.

As we see in this segment from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, two schlemiels, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, are caught up in an intense form of miscommunication.

Each move closer drives these schlemiels father apart.   Their relationship is innocent and violent.

How do we understand the kinetics between them? Is there an element of destruction and violence between them? How do we read this?

Perhaps there is a destructive element inherent in all irony and comedy.   There certainly is a kinetics in comedy; say, for instance, in slapstick comedy.   But how does this relate to the schlemiel?  Are kinetics and play necessarily destructive?  And are they intimately related to the character of the schlemiel?

The blog entries I have done on Scholem and Benjamin point me in this direction since both of them cannot avoid the question of disaster and destruction when they talk about hope.  There seems to be a subtle relationship between hope and disaster.  And the schlemiel, as a character, cannot be separated from hope and disaster.

Gershom Scholem suggested that the intense hope for redemption that we find in the Kabbalah and in the Sabbatinians was a response to disaster.   But in the Sabbatinian case, it not only came out of disater, it created it.   Scholem suggests that Benjamin, like the Sabbatinians, went down the road to disaster when he confused religion and politics.  And, as I suggested in the last blog, the schlemiels confusion of dream and reality often leads to some kind of disaster – even though the schlemiel may, in fact, be unaware that this is the case.  After all, the schlemiel is absent minded.

But there is a problem.  Although absent-mindedness can give us hope, it can also make us melancholic.   In a story like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” for instance, the constant lying to Gimpel seems to be natural to society.  It seems as if his naïve trust in others will never make headway.  Each time he trusts people, the hope of the reader or of the audience, is challenged.  And this can be disasterous.  But, as I suggested in the last blog, the fool suspends such disaster and holds it in a tension with hope.  Nonetheless, disaster is present in nearly every moment of the story.  Our laughter at Gimpel, the foolish schlemiel, is mitigated by this tension.  Its really not so funny when you really think about what’s happening to him.

In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse, much like Scholem, argued that the schlemiel grew out of historical disaster.  The schlemiel is a “modern hero” insofar as he comically responds to disaster.  His humor, in a sense, negates the fact that Jews were ruined and rendered powerless by the forces of history and Exile.   Her theory closely parallels Scholem’s reading of Kabbalah’s origins since the schlemiel, like the Kabbalah, offers the Jews hope in bad times.  However, with the schlemiel, this hope is not intense; it is tempered by a destructive element; namely, skepticism.  The Kabbalah on the other hand, once it enters history, has nothing to temper it.  And this, for Scholem, is the disaster.  It is the same disaster, he argues, which secular messianic political movements face.

The question for us is whether this reading is sufficient for us to understand aggressive schlemiels.

While Scholem and Wisse turn to history to understand the dialectic of destruction and creativity, Walter Benjamin argues that the violent elements of comedy have a deeper root.  For this reason, he, like the Romantics before him, turns to irony and the imagination for an answer.  And what he finds there, however, is not a mental capacity so much as a material one.  Like children, there is something innocent and natural about destruction which Benjamin wanted to employ in his own criticism and writing.   His understanding of the relationship of children, the imagination, and irony to disaster is very instructive.

I would like to suggest that we follow, in the next blog (or two) Walter Benjamin’s investigation into this matter.   His observations can give us a sense of what a criticism of the schlemiel would look like if it were to adhere to Benjamin’s understanding of the destructive element (in contrast to the understanding held by Wisse or Scholem regarding the dialectic of history and creativity).

One thought on “The Destructive Element in Comedy (Take 1)

  1. Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    For more thoughts on Benjamin, Scholem, the confusion of religion and politics, and the collision between dreams and violence, hope and disaster, recent posts at The Home of Schlemiel Theory are a must, must read.

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