Not Quite Jewish….Almost American: From Portnoy to Admiral General Alladin

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Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a long discourse-slash-novel that begins and ends on the couch of a psychiatrist.  But the novel is not simply a discourse on the psyche of the schlemiel.  Rather, it gives us a sense of how his identity crisis tarries between sexual identity and national identity.    Is Portnoy a Jew or an American?  Neither?  Does he reject one identity while failing to embrace another?

In a moment of revelation, Portnoy dramatizes his failure to be an American.  Something is getting in the way.  And this something makes him angry:

And its true, is it not? – incredible, but apparently true – there are people in life who feel at ease, the self-assurance, the simple and essential affiliation with what is going on, that I used to feel as the center fielder for the Seabees?  Because it wasn’t, you see, that one was the best center fielder imaginable, only that one knew exactly, and done the smallest particular, how a center fielder should conduct himself.  And there are people like that walking the streets of the U.S. of A.?  I ask you, why can’t I be one!”(71).

Unlike Americans, Portnoy cannot “feel at ease” and have “self-assurance.”  Unlike Americans, he cannot “affiliate” himself with “what is going on.”  Here, we have the basis of a post-WWII schlemiel: He is ashamed of the fact that he is ill at ease, unsure of himself, and is unable to bravely “affiliate” himself with “what is going on” in America.  He has failed to be an self-possessed American male.

Immediately following this, Portnoy says that he is not simply a failure; he is a Jew:

But I am something more, or so they tell me.  A Jew.  No! No! An atheist, I cry.  I am a nothing where religion is concerned, and I will not pretend to be anything that I am not!…And I don’t care how close we came to sitting shiva for my mother either – actually, I wonder if the now if maybe the whole hysterectomy has not been dramatized into C-A and out of it again solely for the sake of scaring the S-H out of me!  Solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy. (71)

Being a Jew, for Portnoy, is not an essence; it is, rather, about being molded by one’s parents “to be” Jewish.  And Portnoy states emphatically that “I” will not “pretend to be anything that I am not!”  His Jewish guilt – or rather resentment – is based on his education and his birth.  To be sure, Portnoy is “told” that he is a Jew, which implies that he was told what to say and what to do.  He had no will of his own.  His whole education had a purpose.   Portnoy flatly states that it was dedicated “solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy.”

In other words, Judaism didn’t help Portnoy to become a man.  He has never been properly raised to live in the world and be independent and self-present.  In other words, he was never taught how to be autonomous.  As a result of his upbringing, as a Jew, he has become a “helpless little boy.”   He has become heternomous and dependent on his mother.   This tension, in fact, has deeper roots in the struggle between heteronomy and autonomy.  This struggle, for the post-WWII Jewish-American schlemiel is a struggle that Jews also had in Germany.  In Germany, the schlemiel was a shameful character.  As Sander Gilman argues in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Jews, in the Enlightenment period (the Jewish-German Haskalah) made plays that satirically target the schlemiel.  His traits – which included being effeminate, over emotional, confused, unable to speak properly (mangling German), and being heteronomous – were to be laughed off the stage.

Like the schlemiels in these German-Jewish comedies, Portnoy is almost a man.

Portnoy’s only way of asserting his manhood is through anger; namely, through being sarcastic about the bad hand he was dealt.  And this is a new tactic, since in German-Jewish theater, the schlemiel is laughed at since he or she is unaware of his or her ‘folly’.  Here, it is different.  Here, the schlemiel “knows” what the source of his problem is.  And what ensues is a kind of impotent rage which is new to the schlemiel.  It is not a trait one would find in Yiddish literature.

As a part of his comic ranting, Portnoy turns on his mother.  She is responsible for making him a “helpless little boy.”

BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO FUCKING MUCH TO BEAR!

Portnoy is in effect revolting against her and humiliating her as a way of “freeing himself” of his Jewish guilt.   He wants to be a man and reverse that education and go from being a child to a man on his own.  In other words, he wants to give birth to himself.  His path from heteronomy to autonomy is based on ridicule.  By destroying his mother, he believes he will be autonomous.  For Portnoy, this is synonymous with becoming an American.

But this is not enough.  He may successfully ridicule his mother and feel free.  However, in reality, he cannot be an American because he is not successful in the sex department.  His failure is measured by a skill.  To be sure, he believes that what he’s good at, and what helps him to give birth to himself as independent, is masturbation: both literal and literary masturbation.  His words ejaculate on the page.  Portnoy takes deep pride in this but he knows, ultimately, that this doesn’t make him an American of the sort we saw above.  Rather, it makes him an American-Schlemiel.

Half the length of the tunnel it takes me to unzip my zipper silently – and there it is again, up it pops again, as always swollen, bursting with demands, like some idiot macrocephallic making his parents’ life a misery with his simpleton’s insatiable needs.  “Jerk me off, “ I am told by the silk monster.  “Here? Now? Of course here and now. When would you expect an opportunity like this to present itself a second time?”(126)

He believes that he must masturbate.  He must be ‘bad’ if he going to PUT THE ID BACK INTO THE YID. But to be a Jewish-American man – living in the shadow of the Jewish State – he must pass the ultimate test: he must have sex with a Sabra.  This leads us to Portnoy’s Final complaint, his final failure.

Since he can’t be an American, what is the model for a self-confident, autonomous Jewish male who can “affiliate himself” with what is going on?  Portnoy realizes that this model would be a Sabra.   But he rejects this model thinking that if he can match her, sexually, that he will finally win.  But what happens is that when it comes to the moment of sex with Naomi, a Sabra, he fails miserably.  As I noted in a previous post on Roth, Portnoy comes to the realization that he can’t be a self-confident Jewish man, that is, an Israeli.  And this is his final complaint.

But this failure and the following verbal compensation for failure (by his calling her names) gives birth to the new Jewish-American Schlemiel.   Although he, like many past schlemiels, is not quite a man and not quite a child, he is, a man-child with a big mouth and a passion for masturbation.

He’s an American schlemiel: he is neither an American nor a Jew.  He’s somewhere inbetween.

But since Portnoy, things have changed. His method of transformation is comic and literal masturbation.  But, when Roth wrote this, it was not considered to be American.  In Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, however, masturbation is a rite of passage for Admiral General Alladin, the Dictator.  Through masturbation, he can become an American.  He can fit in with the others in the Brooklyn Co-op.

From Portnoy to Alladin of Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, we have a comic-sexual lineage of Jewish-American stand-up – or sit-down comedy.   The measure of being an American Schlemiel, his power, for Portnoy was his masturbatory rant.  What Sasha Baron Cohen does is yet another parody of the masturbatory rant.  But in his rant masturbation is no longer “bad” – in fact, it becomes the rite of passage to America.  A rite that Cohen’s character – the Dictator – picks up in the back room of a Brooklyn Health Food Co-op.

Perhaps Sasha Baron Cohen is telling us, in an awry way, that in that space and at this time, the Schlemiel is literally a Modern American Hero.  In other words, Portnoy may no longer have to complain since being a man and autonomous may no longer be a concern for the postmodern American Jew.  It may no longer be a thing that Jews are ashamed of since more and more Americans – at least in big American cities like New York (where the Dictator takes place) – are leaning toward a kind of metrosexuality.

Regardless of what may be the case, we must not forget that at the end of a film like The Dictator, Alladin is almost an American.  And this “almost” is what, still, makes a Schlemiel a schlemiel.   But the game has changed.  The test for the Schlemiel, at least in the Dictator is not sexual, it is political.  The test is democracy not masculinity.  And it seems as if, in the end, by becoming an advocate of democracy, the schlemiel becomes an American or…almost American.

Looking Awry: On Frans Hals’ Representations of Rene Descartes, Fools, and Child Musicians

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Frans Hals was a Dutch painter from the 17th century.  Many art historians group him together with the school of Mannerism, which developed in the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century.  Hals was a part of what is called the “Northern Renaissance.”  Some mannerist works of art are not simply realistic; many of them are symbolic and allegorical.    And, as many art historians note, Mannerism was transformed into Baroque art.  One of the elements that remains in this transformation is the allegorical.

Hals’s work is often Realistic, but it often errs on the side of the allegorical.  This allegorical dimension, however, is subtle.  It’s not obvious.  In fact, Hals work demands the viewer to pay close attention to subtle gestures, gazes, and movements within the frame (which oftentimes gesture to something hidden and obscure outside of the frame).  The allusions they make suggest multiple meanings.

Hals is well known for his portraits of doctors, aristocrats, and leaders, but he is less known for his portraits of children, fools, and musicians.  Going through many of these paintings, I found that Hals was more fascinated with the gestures of simple people than with aristocrats.  Their gestures are the most suggestive and allegorical; these representations suggest a way of seeing that is based on allusion and movement.

To illustrate the contrast between his representations of aristocrats and simple folk, I’d like to first take a look at his most famous portrait; namely, of Rene Descartes.  After doing this, I’d like to contrast this portrait to the portraits of a fool, a child, and a two child musicians.

In the portraits of many aristocrats and leaders, Hals portrays his subjects in the most serious ways.  Their gestures are simple, their bodies are rigid, and their gazes are focused.  They are in “possession of themselves.”  They are men whose bodies are subject to their reasoning and to civility.  Like those portraits, this portrait of Rene Descartes is of a man who is self-possessed.  The subject looks directly at the viewer with a knowing look. However, the most interesting aspect of this painting is Descartes mouth.  We are not sure if he is smiling or if he is indifferent.  This ambiguous gesture of the father of Modern Philosophy is rich in implication.  It suggests that he is friendly and a part of humanity; on the other hand, it suggests that he is indifferent to – and perhaps even fed up with – humanity.  Perhaps he would rather be thinking than sitting in front of Frans Hals.  After all, Descartes regarded the imagination as inferior to the intellect and associated it with the body and not the mind.

In contrast to this painting of Descartes, the gestural representations of fools, children, and children musicians are much more subtle and suggestive.  I will take a look at a few to bring out this contrast.

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When I was looking for a photo to append to my blog post on Charles Baudelaire’s “A Heroic Death” (which pits a fool against the Prince), I chose Frans Hals painting which the Louvre website calls a “Buffoon With a Lute.”  I found that it nicely illustrated the allure of the fool (and his gambol with death) to which the narrator of the Baudelaire prose piece was drawn.

The Louvre, which owns this painting, estimates that it was made somewhere between 1623 and 1625.

I am struck by look and gesture of the Buffoon.  His head is tilted to the side and he is looking askance at something we can’t see.   His smile is also tilted.   To add to the contrasts, one will notice that his hair is longer on one side and shorter on the other.  The tilting of all these features complicates our reading of the Buffoon.  To be sure, its hard to tell whether he is happy or wary of what he is doing and who he is playing for.  I see this, specifically, in his smile.  The fact that it is pulled up on the edge suggests that something is odd.  In fact, I couldn’t help but sense that in the midst of his apparent joy there may be a feeling of terror.  It seems as if the Buffoon is about to be killed or punished; but to mitigate the threat, he plays on and smiles toward the person (or people) outside the frame.   He is tactful.

This gesture is complicated by the fact that this is not simply an absent-minded fool who lacks any sense of the world outside of him.  He is innocent, a boy, and yet, he is a man facing something we can’t see, something outside the frame.  His smile is cunning and responds to something real; unlike Descartes smile which seems to detest the real or only to deal with it as a matter of course.   Since it deals with possible terror and is riddled with anxiety, this painting is more existential than the Descartes portrait, which is more about an intellectual attitude toward the world.

The buffoon’s face connotes subtlety, but his hands and the instrument connote neutrality.  They are –so to speak – doing their own thing.  It is as if his body, in a Cartesian sense, is on auto-pilot while his soul is caught between fear and joy.

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In this portrait of a child, the child is smiling, happy, and innocent.  He is present to the painter.  Unlike the portraits of Descartes and the Buffoon, the child is not judging the world or dealing with it in a tactful manner.

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In contrast to this portrait is the painting of a “child playing the violin.”  In this portrait, the subject is not present to the painter or viewer.   He is absent-minded.  His head is tilted, but his eyes look heavenward as he plays the violin.  This contrasts greatly to the Buffoon whose eyes look to the side and smile is twisted.  It also contrasts to the Descartes portrait since he, at the very least, is giving some attention to the painter (though perhaps against his ‘real’ interests).

This portrait is haunting in the sense that it seems as if he is about to put down the fiddle and ascend to heaven.  The music, perhaps, is detaching him from the world.  Perhaps he, unlike the Bufoon with the Lute, is the true fool.  His gestures denote a total disregard for the eye looking upon him.  Perhaps he is truly free of the gaze and the world.

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The portrait of the “boy holding the flute” is very odd.  Like the other paintings of musicians, he is also tilting his head and smiling.  But in this portrait, he is looking directly at the viewer.  Juxtaposed to the other paintings, the viewer is no longer thinking about who he or she is looking at or what the subject may be thinking as he plays music.

In this painting, the musician has stopped playing.  He looks directly at you.   There is something odd about this gaze.  It acknowledges the gaze but responds to it in a way that is awkward.  Its as if he has missed a social cue or two.  Moreover, the flute he holds interrupts his smile.  And this creates a kind of confusion in the viewer.   To be sure, his smile is not perfect.  It, too, is a bit askance.  And the fact that he is a child doesn’t mitigate the sense of madness that this portrait conveys by way of subtle gestures.

What interests me most in these portraits is how Hals articulates the subtlety of gesture and its relationship to the world.  As we have seen, from Descartes to the boy with the flute, Hals was interested in the different ways his subjects regarded the world.  The difference between the Philosopher and the Bufoon, the child, and child musicians is telling.  The question I have is what value do these gestures have for Hals.  Did he have more respect for his aristocratic subjects or for his folkish and childish subjects?  Did he value the theoretical bearing of Descartes more than the tactical bearing of the Bufoon or vice-versa?

These questions are relevant since I will be looking into the meaning of gesture in Walter Benjamin in forthcoming blog entries.  For a painter like Hals and for a thinker like Benjamin, the gesture and its performance tell us a lot of things about the nature of what it means to have a relationship with the world.  Benjamin, in his readings of Kafka, was interested in characters who (as schlemiels) had an odd relationship with the world.   He focused on their gestures so as to convey (or even teach) this attentiveness to his readers.  Like Hals, Benjamin does not evaluate these gestures so much as pay attention to them so as to understand their relationality.

So, to be sure, I’d like you to consider this blog entry a ‘warm up’ to the reading of gesture that I will be pursuing in the near future.

The Schlemiel and the Sabra or Portnoy’s Final Complaint

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In The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and Jewish American Literature, Sanford Pinsker devotes an entire chapter to the work of Phillip Roth.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  Although the chapter is dedicated to Phillip Roth, the majority of the chapter is on Roth’s most popular and controversial novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.  For Pinsker, the other two novels that are mentioned in the last part of the chapter –  The Ghost Writer and Counterlife – do not so much illustrate the schlemiel as put forth a new type of postmodern novel that emerged after Portnoy’s Complaint.  Pinsker suggests that these novels were not so much about the schlemiel as an attempt to leave the schlemiel behind for the novel within the novel and writing as such.

One of the most interesting elements of Pinsker’s treatment of Portnoy’s Complaint is the evidence he marshals to prove that Portnoy is a schlemiel.  Pinsker stages his argument by pointing out Portnoy’s favorite pastimes: masturbation and mouthing off.    To be sure, Portnoy violates all decorum by speaking in detail about his masturbation and mentioning all the places he has left his semen.  Ruth Wisse and Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi would argue that this “mouthing off” is an important trait of the schlemiel. Portnoy’s words give him, as Wisse would say, an “ironic victory.”  But, for Pinsker, this isn’t the only thing that makes Portnoy a schlemiel.

Rather, the key trait of the schlemiel can be found in Portnoy’s memory of failure: “What he remembers most, however, about these masturbatory binges are his darkly comic failures.  In this regard, none is more spectacular that his disastrous episode with Bubbles Girardi.”

As Pinsker recounts, Bubbles made a deal with Portnoy’s friend Smolka to “jerk off one of his friends.”  However, there are two conditions:  1) the individual will have to leave his pants on and 2) she will “count fifty strokes” and no more.  Portnoy is elected to receive the “prize” but “the result is comic schlemiel hood of the first water”(149).

What Pinsker finds comic is that Portnoy is brought right to climax, but Bubbles stops at 50 strokes.  Portnoy cries out:

JUST ONE MORE! I BEG OF YOU! TWO MORE! PLEASE! N-O!”

Portnoy reflects on his failure and decides that he’ll have to finish the job whereupon he cums in his eye: “I reach down and grab it, and POW!  Only right in my eye.”

The greatest insights in Pinsker’s book on the schlemiel – and in his chapter on Roth – follow upon this passage.

Pinsker notes that “Portnoy’s sexual antics are the stuff of which Borsht Belt stand-up is made, but as he keeps on insisting, this is no Jewish joke, no shpritz (machine gun spray of comic material”(150).

And this is the ironic denial that makes him a schlemiel.  Roth is doing Schlemiel Stand Up.  Unlike Lawrence or Joyce, Pinsker tells us that Roth doesn’t take his failures with a “high seriousness”(150). Rather, Roth is a tumbler (an acrobat of sorts): “Roth reduces to the anxious flip.  The cunning of history is to blame here; when Portnoy shouts “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN THE YID! The effect dovetails a domesticated Freudianism into the jazzy stuff of popular culture”(150).

What does Pinsker mean by this “jazzy stuff of popular culture?”  Pinsker notes that what Roth has popularized and made comic is the stuff of tragedy: guilt.  And who else but Franz Kafka is the teacher of how to make guilt a comic affair.  To be sure, Roth said this in his book Reading Myself and Others (1975).  There, he notes that he got his stand-up routine from a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka: “I was strongly influenced by a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka and a very funny bit he does called ‘The Metamorphosis’… Not until I got hold of guilt, you see, as a comic idea, did I begin to feel myself lifting free and clear of my last book (Portnoy’s Complaint) and my old concerns”(150).

Pinsker uses this line as evidence that Roth may have come from Kafka and he may practice the schlemiel, but he wants to lift himself “free and clear” of this character.  For Pinsker, all of Roth’s future books were more mature while Portnoy’s Complaint was all about “enjoying being bad.”  Portnoy’s kvetch, his complaint, and his enjoyment of being bad differ, Pinsker tells us, from Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” since Portnoy is not the man in the sense that Whitman portrayed himself to be.  He is afflicted by his own misfortunes and guilt.  Whitman is guilt free, Roth is not.  Here, Pinsker suggests that Portnoy’s mouthing off doesn’t change his reality.  He is still caught up in his masturbatory dreams and his guilt, which he can’t seem to escape.  His stand-up comedy doesn’t make a difference.  It seems, more or less, like impotent rage.

What Pinsker overlooks, however, is the fact that Portnoy’s greatest humiliation – his greatest and final complaint – comes at the end of the book with Naomi, the Sabra (native Israeli).   This time, he gets to sleep with a woman.  But before he does, he comes to realize that he is no match for her.  This dialogue brings out the crux of the new Jewish-American schlemiel who lives in the shadow of the Sabra.

Naomi deftly describes the difference in her characterization of Portnoy’s stand-up routine in which self-ridicule is the most prominent feature:

You seem to take some pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own peculiar sense of humor.  I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life.  Everything this somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’  All day long the same thing.  In some little way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating. (264)

After Naomi goes on to discuss how powerlessness got Jews nowhere, Portnoy says, flat out: “Wonderful.  Now let’s fuck.”

In response, Naomi calls him “disgusting” and then they engage in a name-calling match in which Naomi puts the nail in the coffin by calling him a schlemiel.  Notice that in the following, “Schlemiel!” (in italics) is the final word:

“Right! You’re beginning to get the point, gallant Sabra!  You go be righteous in the mountains, okay? You go be a model for mankind!  Fucking Hebrew saint!” “Mr. Portnoy, “ she said…”You are nothing but a self-hating Jew.” “Ah, but Naomi, maybe that’s the best kind.” “Coward!” “Tomboy.” “Schlemiel!” (265)

Portnoy, cursing under his breath says, “I’ll show her who’s the schlemiel!”  But he fails, sexually. He’s impotent.

As you can see from these lines, Naomi has the last word. And that word is schlemiel. She is strong and he, a man, is weak. What we have here with Naomi is the new, Israeli Jew (which scholars like Daniel Boyarin, David Biale, and others discuss at length).  In the face of Naomi, the Sabra, all Portnoy has for power is his wittiness and vulgarity.  But the irony is obvious.  Roth is showing that Portnoy’s words are no substitute for her physical power.  Rather, his wittiness differs and competes with her power.  And, like any schlemiel it loses in the end.  What remains in the aftermath of all his verbal acrobatics is his failure.  (The acrobatics metaphor which I mentioned in my last blog on Beckett and Federman fits well here.)

Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi interprets the meaning of Portnoy’s failure in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination.  Ezrahi notes that Portnoy explicitly confesses to his loss when he sings a self-depricating song, which he has created for this specific situation of failure: “Im-po-tent in Israel, da, da, da”(226).  Ezrahi’s interpretation of this moment of failure is telling.

On the one hand, Ezrahi says that the novel demarcates the “very moment when the schlemiel as cultural hero is superceded by what the critics of Zionism call the “tough Jew,” when “images of Jewish wimps and nerds are being supplanted by those of the hardy, bronzed kibbitznik, the Israeli paratrooper, and the Mossad agent.”   On the other hand, she notes that in Roth’s later novel Operation Shylock the schlemiel becomes a competitor: “What has happened to turn powerlessness into a competing cultural claim and Diaspora into the most authentic and secure form of Jewish existence?”(226).

The lines that follow this question, however, demonstrate that Ezrahi doesn’t believe Roth’s project has left the schlemiel behind. The claims he makes in Operation Shylock are still based on powerlessness:  “Once again Roth’s hero is defeated in Israel, but this time in a battle, fought with weapons – the pen and the sword – no less phallic but more consequential.  Israel has become the place where Reality writ large has the same affect on the psyche as Naomi did on the libido”(226-7).

In other words, Roth’s characters are still schlemiels but now Exile, “redefined as “Diaspora,” is no longer limited to the realm of therapy (as it was for Portnoy) but extends to the much larger realm of fiction.”

Fiction and not the libido becomes the resevoir of the dream and fantasy while Isreal becomes Reality (Israel IS-REAL) or the reality principle.  This contrast shows that, for Ezrahi, the schlemiel’s battle is not simply psychological as it was with Naomi.  Portnoy’s problem may be psychological, but the narrator and main character of Operation Shylock – whose names all happen to be Phillip Roth – have a problem with Israel.  In other words, their Jewish identity is ruptured by its very existence.

But, to be sure, we also see that this problem exists in Portnoy as well.  His problem is not merely psychological.  After all, he tries to call Naomi names so as to show he is more powerful, but it is to no effect.  Reading Ezrahi’s take on Roth, one cannot help but think that Roth is fully aware that he is on the side of the dream; and the side of the dream, as even Roth suggests, will always be the side of guilt and failure.

If Roth takes his task from Kafka, as Pinsker tells us, Ezrahi’s observation is very telling.  Roth admits that he saw Kafka as a “sit-down” comedian who took the tragic notes out of guilt by making guilt comical.  As Pinsker argued, Roth believed that by writing he would eventually be done with guilt and the schlemiel. But as Ezrahi argues, this project, inevitably failed.  Why?

For Ezrahi, this project to leave schlemiel-hood can never be completed since there is a competing claim; namely, the claim of reality (the claim of Israel). And this claim demonstrates that the real basis for the schlemiel, for Ezrahi, is the difference between dreams and reality (or as she puts it, Exile and Homecoming).  For her, language, without a land, provides (and has, traditionally, provided) nourishment for the exiled Jew.  The schlemiel’s words, as Wisse would argue, give people a sense of dignity in the face of failure.  But, as Ezrahi suggests, fiction, like the schlemiel, can’t stop dreaming.  Given these premises, I would suggest that Ezrahi can argue that Roth is not simply a schlemiel in the sense that he doesn’t know what is going on in reality.  No.  He is a guilty schlemiel.  We see this above, in the citations from Portnoy’s Complaint.  He, so to speak, enjoys his symptom.

Ezrahi suggests that in Operation Shylock Roth makes it explicit that he may fight with Israel but, ultimately, he will always be a comic failure.  His identity, as a Jewish-American writer will be ruptured.  He knows that his homeland is in a text while being cognizant that Israel is now a reality.  Ezrahi suggests that he knows that he has refused history in the name of fiction.   But do Jewish-American writers share this awareness?  Are they, like Kafka and other pre-Israel schlemiels, not able to properly enter history? To be sure, as a result of this failure, which they were not fully responsible for, Ezrahi tells us that they had to live in a “substitute” land with a “substitute” sovereignty. Today, Ezrahi argues, one no longer has to do this. A Jew can go home and “recover” their history.   But writers like Roth consciously opt not to.  And this opting-not-to constitutes their comical identity.   So, today, the schlemiel and its comic relationship with guilt remains but now it has a different basis.

What amazes me most about all of this is that what Roth and Ezrahi both seem to be saying is that to be an American Jew –and to resort to a constructed identity, fiction, and dreams – is to be a schlemiel.  Ezrahi calls this a “diasporic privilege.”  Based on this logic, one can say that living an ironic, schlemiel-like existence is a “guilty” pleasure that is had at the expense of returning to the land.  American Jews, as schlemiels, enjoy their symptom.   Now, being a schlemiel has a price; but before Israel was Real (for many before 1967), being a schlemiel was, as Ruth Wisse argues, necessary for Jewish survival.

For Ezrahi, Jews are forced to answer a question: What side are you on?  On the side of Portnoy or Naomi the Sabra?   One can brazenly be a schlemiel and deny any guilt, but at what price?  This, I think, is one of the main questions Ezrahi wants American-Jews to ponder.  Unfortunately, no scholar I have met who has read Ezrahi has figured it out.  For some strange reason, they miss this question and, instead, think Ezrahi is praising Diaspora.  This misreading, though unfortunate, is telling.

I won’t make this misreading.  I’m here to ask this question and to reflect on what it means.  Should I read Roth as she does – in terms of his comic acknowledgment of a guilt that is based on saying no to Israel?  Or should I consider myself to be a “New Jew” (see David Shneer and Caryn Aviv’s book New Jews: The End of Diaspora, who, according to these authors, is not bound by the distinction of Diaspora and Homecoming)?

What better time to pose this question than today on the 65th Anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1948?  Ezrahi has every right to ask us to ponder such guilt since she lives in  Israel and knows full well that there is a difference between being Jewish in Israel and being Jewish in America.  I do not see it from her perspective.

I read and write about the schlemiel, but with a difference.  As an American-Jew, I understand that with Israel’s existence, my enjoyment of the schlemiel can be thought of as a guilty pleasure.  And I clearly understand that her reading hinges on Jewish history.  If an American Jew thinks he or she is beyond the dream of having a land of his or her own, he or she is thinking ahistorically.  Though this is possible, and happens often enough (since, unlike Phillip Roth, many Jews lack an acute sense of what is at stake with Israel or how they are a part of a long history of Exile), one needs to ask oneself what is at stake if we totally lose our “Jewish guilt” which, today, is not tied to anything primordial but, quite simply, to Israel.  Can a Jew simply leave the schlemiel behind, which, for Ezrahi, would suggest that one leaves Israel and history behind?  Or are Jewish American novelists – like Shalom Auslander or Nathan Englander (to name only two) – willing to embrace this character and its ironic relationship with the Isreal?  Will the schlemiel remain, regardless of what we do, since Israel and America will most likely remain the two primary places where Jews live and dream?

These questions should trouble American Jews and be so troubling as to make us complain a little and realize the situation we are faced with.  Perhaps, for American Jews -in general – and Jewish-American writers – in particular -Israel is or will be the Final Complaint (as it was for Portnoy and for the author of Operation Shylock)?

In Memoriam of Samuel Beckett (and Raymond Federman): The Laugh that Laughs at the Laugh

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In case you may not have noticed, the subtitle of Schlemiel-in-Theory is the “The Place Where the Laugh Laughs at the Laugh.”    The notion of a laugh that laughs at a laugh comes from Samuel Beckett; namely, from his novel entitled Watt.  There, we read:

The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.

In this passage, we see three types of laughter.  The first and second kind of laughter can be seen in the work of Henri Bergson.  In his famous “Essay on Laughter,” Bergson argues that laughter is on the side of élan vital.  The laugh looks to reject mechanical, asocial behaviors from the social sphere.  Laughter, in other words, negates the mechanical while affirming life and change (becoming).  Bergson notes, explicitly, that all laughter is intellectual in the sense that, for life, becoming is true while the mechanical is false.  The same goes for Immanuel Kant who identified, in The Critique of Judgment, humor with incongruity:

In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.

Beckett proposes a laugh that is neither ethical (in the Bergsonian sense) nor intellectual (in either Bergson or Kant’s sense).  Rather, his laugh, the “risus purus” is directed “at the laugh.”  It laughs, as he says, at “that which is unhappy.”

What does this mean?

First of all, I would submit that while the laugh that Kant and Bergson (and even Baudelaire) discuss enjoins one to power and superiority over the thing laughed at, the laugh that laughs at “that which is unhappy” is a laugh of powerlessness.

Theodor Adorno, in an essay entitled “Is Art Lighthearted,” ponders the “laugh that laughs at the laugh” along these lines:

In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo.  They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy.  Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectiveity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential.  A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter.  Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes.  Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair.  This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining.  This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)

Adorno suggests, here, that the laugh that laughs at the laugh bears with it a minimal self.  It is, so to speak, so exhausted and laughs only for the sake of surviving the disaster.  It realizes that laughter can’t do any good and neither can tragedy.  The laugh that laughs at the laugh, therefore, can be seen as a mourning of both tragedy and comedy.

The risus purus, so to speak, is in the shadow of the disaster.

I also noticed this in an interview between the poet Charles Bernstein and the late Raymond Federman (who I was fortunate enough to have befriended and written several essays on).  Federman is best known for his post-Holocaust postmodern literature.  He, himself, survived the Holocaust and witnessed, while hiding in a closet, his parents taken away by the French authorities.  This disaster remained with him throughout his life.  And it is reflected in many of his novels, stories, and poems.

Strangely enough, when Federman left Europe, after the War, for America, he took on a doctoral project at Columbia University on Samuel Beckett.  His scholarship has gained much recognition in field of literary studies.  But his main love wasn’t literary criticism; it was writing fiction.  And, one cannot help but notice, in reading this fiction, that although its topic is horrific and unthinkable, Federman still maintains some kind of sense of humor.

In the interview with Bernstein, Bernstein hits directly on this issue:

But you’re very funny about it (the facts of history) as opposed to terribly solemn and serious memorials that we are perhaps more accustomed to.  Your work seems to mock not only the possibility of accurate representation but also the idea that mourning should be a solemn affair.  Should mourning be funny?

Federman’s reply to Bernstein hits directly on what Adorno reads in Beckett’s laugh at the laugh, yet, he adds another note with regard to laughter and the joy of survival:

And my answer is simple: I am a survivor.  That I survived this is a very happy occasion.  I am still alive.  That is an occasion for, well, if not great laughter, at least some kind of joy…I hope you can hear … the laughter and the nonseriousness of what I do.

Bernstein nudges Federman with regards to this response and says:

But I can hear the sadness and great seriousness, too.

Bernstein then goes on to note that Federman’s humor is certainly not “black humor.” So, what is it?   To explain what it is, Federman cites Beckett:

I…learned it from my great mentor Beckett the same kind of sadness and joy and laughter you find in Beckett.

This is what Federman, in his book Aunt Rachel’s Fur, calls “sad laughter.”

However, this still doesn’t satisfy Bernstein, who pushes him still further by saying that Federman is completely unlike Beckett:

Yes, but unlike Beckett, you are actually more sort of hysterical and more histrionic.

But instead of agreeing with him, and leaving Beckett behind, Federman cites his “mentor” and notes that in Beckett’s Molloy we see a major kind of histrionics and not simply a melancholy laugh.    Federman notes how, in that novel, there is a “Beckettian acrobat who does a beautiful set of somersaults and then falls back on his feet and everything is erased.”  However, Federman distinguishes himself from Beckett, his mentor, when he puts himself in the acrobat’s position:

I am the acrobat who falls down on his face, and so you don’t remember the somersault.   You remember the failure of the guy that falls on his face.  And that’s where you laugh – when the acrobat or the clown does that, that’s where the laughter is.  That’s the kind of laughter I’m trying to achieve.

In other words, Federman sees himself as an acrobatic schlemiel.  The schlemiel has us remember the fall not the somersalt.  Reading this line, I was struck by how oddly resonant it was with Nathan Englander’s post-Holocaust story “The Tumblers.”  As I pointed out in a blog entry I devoted to that story, the characters survive by virtue of being clumsy acrobats. No one knows that they are Jews and yet the irony is that the Nazis officials in the audience say that the klutz acrobats who fall on their faces act “like” Jews.

In retrospect, I can say that Beckett and Federman may both laugh at the laugh, they remind us that now our laughter is after the disaster; however, Federman’s laugh at the laugh puts a personal and a post-Holocaust Jewish accent on survival.  In the end, although his laughter is sad, it is also histrionic, happy, and contagious.   Like many Jews throughout history who know what its like to have survived numerous disasters and exiles, Federman knows what it’s like to survive disaster.  More importantly, Federman, like the creators of the schlemiel, knew how important it was to balance out sadness with the joy of humor.  Everyone who knew Federman personally knew that he wanted us to laugh with him.  He wanted us to laugh at the laugh and, like acrobats, to retain the tension between a skeptical laugh and an optimistic laugh.  His laugh, the laugh of a post-Holocaust schlemiel, does exactly that.  More importantly, the laughter of the post-Holocaust schlemiel is not based on some hidden logos or kernel of meaning; it is based on a kind of acrobatics or movement, the kind that, as Federman tells us, ultimately falls on its face.  Nonetheless, it survives.

The subtitle of this blog (and this blog entry) is in Memoriam of Samuel Beckett.  But it is also in Memoriam of Raymond Federman, who taught us how a Jew named Raymond Federman carried on Samuel Beckett’s legacy and gave it a post-Holocaust nuance.

After the Holocaust, after the disaster, Schlemiel-in-Theory is the place where the laugh (can still) laugh at the laugh.

 

 

Who has the Last Word? Power or Comedy? On Baudelaire’s “A Heroic Death”

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In our culture, comedians are cultural icons and, from time to time, they even come to influence public opinion.  Most recently, for instance, Jon Stewart’s parody of Egyptian President Mursi and the jailing of a comedian reached Mursi and caused a stir.  Sara Silverman, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert have also looked to use comedy to influence politics.  This trend, in fact, goes back to the Enlightenment where Satire was used quite often to influence public opinion and shape political debate.

As Leo Strauss, Peter Gay, and others have pointed out, satire (of the Enlightenment variety) errs on the side of the secular.  It has nothing holy about it.  Charles Baudelaire, however, had a different understanding of comedy and its relation to power.  Rather than put Satire into a conflictual relationship with power, he put the fool in such a relationship.

We see this best in his prose piece, “A Heroic Death.” In his prose piece, Baudelaire puts the fool in a battle with power.  To say that this battle is cosmic would not be an understatement.  To be sure, if one were to take the time to read his journals in tandem with his poetry and prose, one would see that Baudelaire was always looking to evoke and think through the conflict between the sacred and the profane.   More importantly, Baudelaire saw this conflict best pronounced in the fool and by way of irony.

“A Heroic Death” shows us that the tension between art (and for Baudeliare, as for Kierkegaard and Schlegel, comedy was the quintessence of art) and power was one of his greatest preoccupations.  We would be amiss if we were to think that Walter Benjamin, in his studies of Baudelaire, had simply missed this.  To be sure, the tension between comedy and power is something that Benjamin thought about – particularly, in his work on Kafka – right up to his untimely death.

By way of a close reading of Baudelaire’s prose piece, I hope to show what is at stake in the tension between comedy (art) and power.  Moreover, I hope to show how Baudelaire took this tension and its outcome personally.  I’d like to suggest that we also take it personally since, as the prose piece shows, it hits directly on the modern condition that we are all-to-familiar with, a condition that Baudelaire constantly addressed.

Baudelaire begins his prose piece by noting that Fancioulle, “an admirable buffoon and almost like one of the Prince’s friends,” got involved with a “conspiracy” with “certain discontented nobles in the court” to overthrow the Prince.  The narrator, waxing philosophical, observes that “for men whose profession is to be funny, serious things have a fatal attraction.”  In other words, the narrator believes that comedy may likelly lead the fool to politics and thus fatality.  This observation, and the opening plot of the story, suggest that politics and comedy are strange bedfellows.  When they collide, there will be a life and death battle.  “A Heroic Death” illustrates this.

The narrator tells us that once the Prince discovers the plot, “all of them faced certain death.”

But after saying this, the narrator pauses to consider the Prince and his reaction to learning that Fancioulle was a part of the plot.  In this pause, we learn about what kind of person the Prince is.

According to the narrator, the Prince was a lover of entertainment.  In fact, his desire for entertainment has no bounds: “having an excessive sensibility he was in general far more cruel than his fellows.”

To be sure, the Prince was so cruel in his pursuit of pleasure that he was “indifferent enough in regard to men and morals.”  Setting up the battle that will ensue between the Prince and the fool, the narrator calls the Prince “a real artist.”  This suggests that the consumer of art, who will bypass morality and humanity to be entertained, is a “real artist.”  This ironic statement should be disturbing.  First of all, the Prince doesn’t produce art he consumes it.  How, then, could he be called an artist (a person who “makes things” – a technes in Greek)? More importantly, the narrator tells us that a “real artist” is deemed to be someone who disregards morality and humanity.  This means that the “real artist” has no interest in helping or in inspiring humanity to pursue justice. This artist is not interested in art for art’s sake so much as consumption for the sake of ending or at least differing Boredom.

When the narrator points out that the Prince’s most “dreaded” enemy is Boredom, the reader may realize that he or she has a lot in common with the Prince.  In fact, like us, the Prince would go “to extravagant efforts to vanquish or outwit this tyrant of the world.”  These efforts would win the prince the “epithet of ‘monster’” if, in fact, anyone in the Kingdom were allowed to write what they really thought about him and his ways.

The narrator, in a sarcastic manner, notes that the “misfortune of the Prince was in not having a stage vast enough for his own genius.”   This genius is, obviously, Satanic.  And a vaster stage would mean the world.  This discloses the desire of the Prince: to turn the world into a reality TV show of sorts – a laboratory for his perpetual amusement.

The narrator spells this out when he reflects on how the Prince decided to let Fancioulle live and perform for him.  This clemency, the narrator muses, was not simply because the fool was the Prince’s friend.   The narrator said it would be “nice” to believe this; however, he notes:

It was infinitely more probable that the Prince wanted to test the value of the histrionic talent of a man condemned to die.  He wanted to profit by this occasion to make a physiological experiment of a capital interest, to find out to what extent an artist’s faculties might be challenged or modified as extraordinary as this.

The narrator muses to himself as to whether or not the Prince had a “more or less definite idea of mercy”; this, he says, “is a point that has never been clarified.”  This musing hits on the question of good and evil.  With the Prince, this remains a question.  However, the fool, for the narrator, is different.

The fool bespeaks the best in humanity.  And he does this by way of his art.  And this is where the battle ensues; namely, over the question “who is the real artist – the Prince or the Fool?”

The narrator makes this question explicit when he differentiates between a “good actor” and the exceptional actor:

When people say of the actor: ‘What a good actor,’ they are using an expression which implies that beneath the character they can still distinguish the actor, that is to say, art, effort, volition.  But if an actor should succeed in being, in relation to the part he played, what the best statues of antiquity, if miraculously animated they lived, walked and saw, would be in relation to the confused idea of beauty, that would indeed by a singular case and altogether unheard of.

The narrator then tells us that “Fancioulle was that night just such a perfect idealization, so that one could not help believing in the impersonation as alive, possible and real.”

In other words, Fancioulle is the epitome of the “real artist.”  He effaces the line between the real and the ideal.  He is laughter, beauty, comedy, and tragedy in the flesh.  He is holy and the narrator tells us that he, unlike anyone else, can see that the fool has an aura:

The buffoon came and went, laughed and wept, and lashed into fury, with always about his head an imperishable aureole, invisible to all, but visible to me, that blended in a strange amalgam the beams of Art and the glory of Martyrdom.

The narrator further testifies to this revelation when he notes how, in recording this experience, his pen “trembles and tears of an emotion that has never left him.”  In watching the fool, he has found certainty and faith. He realizes that art is greater than death:

Fancioulle proved to me in the most preemptory, the most irrefutable way, that the intoxication of Art is more apt than any other to veil the terrors of the eternal abyss.

But here is the twist.

The Prince notices that the whole audience, like the narrator, is intoxicated.  More importantly, he realizes that he has lost his power over his subjects.  The narrator notes this change when he remembers how the Prince’s face changes: “a new palor spread like snow falling upon snow.”

The narrator notices, in the midst of this, how the Prince whispers to one of his pages and, within a few moments, a “shrill prolonged hiss” is heard.  Upon hearing this hiss, the fool is awakened from his dream, shocked, and his performance ends, literally, with his death.

The end of the prose piece is fascinating because the narrator, instead of lamenting what he saw, poses several questions about whether the Prince knew the hiss would kill the fool.  He wonders whether or not he did it as a prank and whether the Prince regretted what he did: “It is sweet and legitimate to hope so.”

However, the narrator and the attentive reader will realize that regardless of this “sweet” thought, the fool lost the battle and the Real Artist is the Prince.

Baudelaire’s mediation on art is melancholic and autobiographical.  This prose piece is, in many ways, an Oracle of sorts.  It teaches us that he believed that if comedy is put in a battle with Power and politics, power and Entertainment will win.  Reflecting on ourselves, can we say that reality television and its cruel battle with boredom have displaced the art of the “Real Artist”? Each and every one of us, it seems, is the Prince.  And, like him, we will go to any lengths to be entertained and destroy our worst enemy, Boredom.  And, as Reality Television makes clearly evident, all of humanity, the world , is our laboratory.

Nonetheless, the merit of the fool is to give the narrator “evidence” that comedy can be revelatory.   He witnessed this possibility, but he also witnessed its end.   Will we ever see a fool like Fancioulle?  Can we hope for a religious and revelatory kind of comedy?  Can we say that the schlemiel is such a holy fool or is there a distinct difference between Baudelaire’s fool and the Jewish fool?   Did Baudelaire’s holy fool die “a heroic death” or was he murdered for the sake of Amusement (or jealousy)?

Perhaps Baudelaire was saying that the holy fool (not Satire) should steer clear of the political, for if it does not it will find a similar fate.  Like Fancioulle, entertainment and power will win and the holy fool (artist) will lose. The narrator’s sad tone, implies that boredom and the will-to-entertainment are too powerful.  They cannot be defeated.  Or so it seems.  After all, he did have the evidence of the Holy Fool.  But he also saw that Holy Fool murdered.  Nonetheless, he says, it would be “sweet” to think that the Prince was merciful on the fool.  Indeed, it would be “sweet” but its not.   In the end, the real and the ideal remain separate.  And why?

Because the Prince, who loves nothing more than to kill Boredom, killed the Fool. He killed someone who, as the narrator says in the beginning, may have been his friend.

Students and Teachers of The Schlemiel Legacy: From Sancho Panza to Walter Benjamin

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(Enter Walter Benjamin)

To be distracted and become absent minded, is so to speak the condition of the possibility of the schlemiel. Walter Benjamin knew this lesson very well.  He learned if from Kafka, who learned it from Sancho Panza and Don Quixote.

At the end of his Kafka essay, Benjamin notes that he is like a Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.   To be sure, at the end of his Kafka essay he cites his favorite Kafka parable, the parable on Sancho Panza and Don Quixote which ends: “A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and thus enjoyed a great and profitable entertainment to the end of his days.”

In other words, Benjamin, like Sancho Panza, literally spent the “end of his days” following around a schlemiel named Franz Kafka.  And in this, he became very distracted and absent-minded himself.  After all, a reflection without penetration is the manner of the schlemiel.  And in response to it, one will either die laughing or “come laughing.”  Benjamin, near the end of his life, imitated the ways of Sancho Panza who imitated the ways of Don Quixote (a fool).

With Benjamin, we know that he took the modern Don Quixote, Franz Kafka, as his last teacher.  Gazing upon Kafka’s text, Benjamin knew, as he said in one of his last letters to Gershom Scholem, written on June 12, 1938, that Kafka was correct about two things: “first, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second; only a fool’s help is real help.”  However, as Benjamin mused:  “the only uncertain thing (the only question) is whether the fools help will do humanity any good.”

Indeed, that is the ethical question of the schlemiel.  And this is the question I have been asking in the last two blog entries.

Benjamin was the first to reflect on it.   And while Derrida is on to the tragic or comic manner of the schlemiel, unlike Benjamin, he does not pose this ethical question (at least not in his language phase).  Benjamin does.  Benjamin wonders whether the attention given to learning the wisdom of the fool, the manner of the schlemiel, can do humanity any good.   The same question applies to the ways of deconstruction and to learning the manner of the foolish (schlemiel) text.

If such a way of reading of the text doesn’t do humanity any good, will it be rejected?  And in the name of what?  The politician?  The philosopher?  How, Benjamin queries to Gershom Scholem, could they help?  The only one who “can help is the fool.” As Benjamin says in the same letter to Scholem, perhaps the only wisdom “is the wisdom of the fool.”  But, perhaps, as Kafka suggests, Benjamin was wrong.   Perhaps it isn’t wisdom that Sancho Panza gleans from the fool so much as entertainment (which Sancho Panza, a philosopher of sorts, enjoys until he dies…laughing). But, then again, Kafka muses that he may have followed him out of a sense of responsibility. This would imply that following the schlemiel is an ethical act of sorts. So…which is it? Ethics or entertainment? Both?

Let’s ask again: Will the wisdom of the fool, of Don Quixote, the schlemiel, do humanity any good? 

On this blog, it is imperative that we pronounce this question in different ways.   It’s inescapable.  This question emerges out of an endless reflection on the “reflection without penetration.” It emerges out of paying very close attention to the “manner” of the schlemiel. Paraphrasing Paul Celan, who paraphrases Walter Benjamin, who paraphrases Malbranche: attention (to the schlemiel) is the silent prayer of the soul.

Two questions may emerge from the attention of the reader to the schlemiel; that is, the attention of Sancho Panza for Don Quixote:

1) Can the attention that Sancho Panza (Walter Benjamin or Jacques Derrida) gives to Don Quixote (Franz Kafka or the Foolish Text) and his foolish ways do humanity any good?

2) What can we learn from the examples of Sancho Panza and Walter Benjamin? Did they seriously imitate their schlemiel teachers or did they laugh at them and themselves for imitating them?

But can the fool(ish) text do Humanity any Good? Maimonides, Derrida, and Gasche (Part II)

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Echoing Jacques Derrida’s reading of Stephen Mallarme’s “Mimique,” Gasche writes that:

If the mime of “Mimique” only imitates imitation, if he copies only copying, all he produces is a copy of a copy.  In the same manner, the hymen that comes to illustrate the theatrical space reduplicates nothing but the miming of the mime.  Miming only reference, but not a particular reference, Mallarme keeps the Platonic differential structure of mimesis intact while radically displacing it.  Instead of imitating, of referring to a referent within the horizon of truth, the mime mimes only other signs and their referring function.

Derrida, Gasche tells us, calls this miming of other signs re-marking.

Gasche notes that this remarking has the “structure of the hymen.”  But instead of focusing on a static structure, Gasche looks to depict its dynamic nature.  For this reason, Gasche focuses on “the manner” in which “the double structure of the hymen relates to itself.”

He calls this “manner” a “reflection without penetration.”

In other words, Gasche sees the mime and the reader as taking on a manner of reflection without penetration.  Gasche derives the evidence for this “manner” from a line in Derrida’s essay that depicts the double structure of the hymen in terms of a “violence without blows.” But what Gasche misses is that Derrida links this dynamic structure, which manifests a “violence without blows, or a blow without marks,” to a person who is “made to die or come laughing.”

In fact, for Derrida, remarking is an event.  The manner of reflection without penetration happens when there is a “violence without blows, or a blow without marks.”  When this happens, one “is made to die or come laughing.”   And this laughter is exemplary of what is, so to speak, remarkable.

With all the undecidability of its meaning, the hymen only takes place when it doesn’t take place, when nothing really happens, when there is an all-consuming consummation without violence, or a violence without blows, or a blow without marks…when the veil is without being, torn, for example, when one is made to die or come laughing (232)

Gasche fails to underscore that, for Derrida, the “manner” of the double movement is comic and perhaps tragic (as one is made to either “die” laughing or made to “come laughing”).   Derrida is denoting how the event of  “a reflection without penetration” is the event of laughter.

Perhaps this is because language, unlike God, does not show us, in a prescriptive manner, ethical or political ways of being; rather, the text shows us its absent-minded ways.  In fact, if the text prescribes anything, it prescribes the manner of absent-mindedness.  Or, as Derrida says in his essays in on the poet Edmond Jabes (in Writing and Difference), the text prescribes the detour and the ellipsis.

In the same essay on Jabes, Derrida notes how the text prescribes exile from God. Unlike Maimonides, Derrida would say that the text does not prescribe any ethical or political ways of being.  The text doesn’t perfect man.   While Maimonides would say that Moses was exiled from knowing God and having a “penetrating reflection,” he would not say that God only prescribed exile for Moses.  In fact, as Maimonides argues, God prescribed His ways to Moses for emulation, imitation, and practice.

In contrast, if we reread Gasche by way of Derrida’s own remarks, we can say that the manner of the reader and the text is the manner of a schlemiel.  This manner is prescribed.  Unlike the text (which is unaware of itself), the attentive reader is aware of its absent-mindedness.  If one reflects on the text’s schlemiel-ish “reflection without penetration,” the attentive reader will be conscious or become conscious.  And this, Derrida might say, would happen when one laughs.

But are we who laugh at the foolish text, for this reason, better (or superior)?  As I have shown in other blog entries, this is exactly what Baudelaire proposes at the end of his essay on laughter.   However, this is a conclusion which, as I also have shown, Paul deMan disagreed with.   In fact, if anything, the consciousness that comes out of this, for deMan, leads to madness and self-destruction not superiority.

Would Derrida agree with deMan?  Does the absent-minded schlemiel text, and the reader’s attendant “reflection without penetration,” lead to vertigo, madness, and self-destruction?  Should we read Derrida’s comment that one may “die of laughter” in lieu of deMan?

By virtue of its inability to know itself, by virtue of its being a “reflection without penetration,” the text presents itself as absent-minded.  Recognizing what the text doesn’t see, Derrida seems to be suggesting that the reader will either “die” of laughter or “come to” laughter.  Why?  Because he or she realizes that the only thing he or she can follow is an opaque and aleatory text which, in its absentmindedness, dynamically flows, warps, and weaves in different directions, one will either die of laughter or come to laugh.

Regardless, one laughs at the text’s absent-mindedness.  Perhaps one also laughs at the fact that one’s “reflection without penetration” on the text is also risible.  But in knowing that language doesn’t have a meaning or know of any, are we, in a deManian sense, mad?

Derrida’s text implies that, upon reading the hymen, we are either made to die or “come laughing.”  Derrida seems to be suggesting that we either affirm this “reflection without penetration” with a yes, and laugh or we don’t.  This, in fact, is a suggestion he makes on his essay “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce.”  Without such a suggestion, it would seem that deMan and Derrida would be in agreement: the manner of the text would be a manner of madness and self-destruction.  In other words, the person who reflects on what deMan calls the “irony of ironies” would die laughing or go mad.

Derrida, in that essay (which I will return to in an upcoming blog entry) suggests that we should describe and affirm the reflection without penetration; and, in doing so, say yes to it.  This affirmation, this yes-saying, in a Nietzschean and Joycean spirit, is a prescription of sorts.   Like Sancho Panza who follows Don Quixote on his Journeys, the postmodern saint says yes to following the aberrant and absent-minded ways of the text.  Instead of Moses following the ways of God, we have a much more secular (and risible) model of observance.

So, here’s the question: Do we – like Sancho Panza – learn and repeat the schlemiel’s manner?  Is this, according to Derrida, our postmodern prescription and destiny?  Is this our postmodern ethic?  And will the foolish text do humanity any good?

Since the text has the structure of the hymen, Gasche would say that the repetition of the text (and the “reflection without penetration”) is inescapable.  The text repeats itself and we repeat the text repeating itself.  That’s it.  Nothing more nor less.

But what is the point of the text or our lives if they always remain caught up in an endless textual ellipsis?  Again: What good will this do for humanity?

The structure of the schlemiel, its manner, for Gasche and Derrida, would be an endless reflection on the surface.  It would be a manner of moving across an endless surface or as Deleuze might say, a thousand plateaus.  And in response to it we will, as Derrida –that is, Rabbi Derissa – de (of) the risus (laughter) – claims, either die laughing or come laughing.

(Enter laughter)