“Do you Hear Me?: A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in ‘Conversation in the Mountains” – Part IV


Klein reevaluates his life in light of his testimony that the only thing he loved was the burning down of tradition.  Lest we not forget, this testimony came through a conversation with another schlemiel, Gross.  This moment, it seems, is Klein’s breathturn (it is his Atemwende).  What he recounts, in light of this, is that he is “here” and – like a schlemiel – he sees and doesn’t see things around him.

As opposed to what Felstiner claims in Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, we can see that, regardless of his ‘serious’ testimony, he still sees himself as a windbag, that is, as a schlemiel. He shares this with his fellow Jewish schlemiel, Gross.  Who is also, still, a windbag :

And I know, I know cousin, I know I’ve met you here, and we talked, a lot…you Gross and me Klein, you, the windbag, and me, the windbag…me here and you here – (22)

In other words, what remains after the burning down of the tradition, is one schlemiel in conversation with another.   But there is more.  Although he has lost his tradition and although his love is focused on the memory of its burning down, Klein realizes that he wants to be loved by those he did not love!

Klein prays that now, after saying this, he is “accompanied by the love of those I didn’t love, me on the way to myself, up here”(22).  By saying this Klein admits that, as a schlemiel, he may be blind to many things he sees but what he hopes, most of all, is that now, somehow, he has done something that has earned the love of those he didn’t love; the love of the dead.  They are, so to speak, his tradition.

This is an impossible hope and this is what makes him a schlemiel – albeit of a different sort.  He didn’t love them.  But he hopes that somehow they, who are no longer alive, will love him.

Klein finishes by saying that he is on the way to himself; yet, from this we can see that he is not (and will not be) able to complete in his journey.  How, after all, can they be with him?  This can have only one sense for him; namely, the sense of redeeming the dead by way of remembrance.  Celan, in this sense, is following Walter Benjamin’s lead who writes in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that the historian can fan the “spark of hope” by remembering the dead and saving them from those who “win” in history.  But although the historian may save them, so to speak, they cannot love him.  That is categorically impossible and is, so to speak, wishful thinking (an “as if” – its “as if” the dead will love him not that they will).

Regardless of whether or not it is possible, Klein realizes that his journey to himself must include the love of those he didn’t love.  And this teaches us that, for Celan, his drama, the drama of the schlemiel, is about suffering, love, and conversation with the other.  To be sure, the schlemiel may be charming to the reader but what makes his charm so fascinating is the fact that, as a result of his absent-mindedness, he is not loved and his love is oftentimes misunderstood.

As in many schlemiel stories from Eastern Europe, the main character is mistreated and misunderstood by others.  For all their laughter at the schlemiel, we can see that they do not love him.  With a schlemiel like Gimpel, we can see that he, a schlemiel, does love them; he trusts them, regardless of how much they lie to him and trick him.

Nonetheless, as Ruth Wisse points out, it seems that even Gimpel knows that they are lying to him.  Nonetheless, Gimpel keeps on foolishly trying to find trust and love.  Like Klein and all the people he didn’t love, Gimpel is half asleep and half-dreaming.  The Messianic moment is annunciated in the fact that, even though he knows this, Gimpel still comes back to them.  And this is the lament we see with Klein.  He is small; that is, he is (like Gimpel and most traditional schlemiels) a simpleton.  But this humility comes out in a different way.  It comes out in the fact that, even though he is here, alive, and talking to Gross, he is still small insofar as he feels he didn’t love them when he probably did.  He, too, is a half-dreamer and is half-asleep since he thinks that they will now love him and come with him or that he didn’t truly love them.  These are half-truths.  The effect of his half-blindness and his half-dreaming is that he literally can’t look at himself as Gross (big) because he is Klein (small).

(An irony that arises from this fact is that Paul Celan told Theodor Adorno, for whom he wrote this piece, in part, that he saw Adorno as Gross; but Adorno said that he was not Jewish and that the Gross Celan was looking for was Gershom Scholem.  This would imply that Scholem was not the schlemiel; but, as we saw above, Celan ends the piece by saying that both Klein and Gross are still “windbags.”  That said, Klein still thinks of himself as Klein while we’re not sure what Gross thinks.  His response to Klein’s words is not recorded in “Conversation in the Mountains.”)

Nonetheless, Klein foolishly believes that his words will now win the love of those he did not love.  And this is where he is a schlemiel.  He hopes that they – the dead (who appear, as it were, in a dream-like vision of lying with him half-asleep/half-dreaming) – can hear him.  Like Nobody who asks “Can-you-hear-Me,” Klein asks the same question.  Gross can hear him.  But they cannot.

In the end, he is still a “windbag” – but this windbag, this schlemiel, has a big heart.  And his journey is not simply forwards it is also backwards, toward the dead.  And in this journey, he will always be “on-the-way” to himself…and the other.  His dream of love and trust is the dream of every traditional schlemiel.  And it is out of a conversation with another schlemiel that he becomes aware of it.  It is through this conversation that he has a breathturn which turns him toward Nobody, others, and another windbag named Gross.  It also turns him toward us.

Klein is a schlemiel only insofar as his heart can turn, through all of this noise, to finding or securing love.  And even if this love may be impossible to earn, it is the very thing that give Klein his humanity.  His blindness (or rather half-blindness) in pursuit of this love should give us pause.  For even if he is half blind, he can still hear Nobody say and can hear himself ask Gross the same question – a question that can lead to a rejoinder or solitude.

Do you hear me?

And, in a messianic fashion, Klein has “come” to ask this question and receive an answer which is, in effect, just another question:

Why and what for? 

These questions, though troubling, are in search of an answer. But the take-away from all this is that the schlemiel doesn’t want an answer so much as someone to speak to.  Underlying it all is the risk that the schlemiel takes when he or she speaks to the other.  This is the risk of being or not being loved, heard, and understood.  Every comedienne or comedian who takes on an audience knows this.  And, in this piece, the schlemiel’s charm is based on his vulnerability upon being exposed to this risk.  And what we, as readers, realize is that though he desires the love of those he didn’t love, and though he feels his conversation with Gross may have earned it, his feelings are, like those he “lay with,” half-dream and half-reality.  Like any schlemiel, his love is caught up in dreams.

And this is what Klein came to tell Gross and us.  We, strangely enough, share this conversation.  Like Klein and Gross, we, too, have come to speak; we have come with the shadow and our hour; we have been hit.  And we must speak.  But what we say, regardless of whether we want to admit it, is half-dream/half-reality.  And though we may not have loved them, those other half-dreamers, we hope they will love us if we speak the truth.  And perhaps this is the most foolish hope of all. But Celan suggests that we entertain it as we converse with fellow-schlemiels.

Perhaps we will be loved.  Perhaps we will not.  We just hope they will accompany us as we walk down that road – the same road Kafka walked with a bunch of nobodies.  Perhaps, on the road, someone will ask us “Why did you come?”  And we will say, like Klein, “because I had to talk, maybe, to myself or to you, talk with my mouth and tongue, not just with my stick.”

“Do you Hear Me?: A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in ‘Conversation in the Mountains” – Part II


In the midst of a difficult situation, when pressed hard, we speak truly.  We speak from the heart.  And when I say “we,” I am not excluding anyone.  Schlemiels like Klein and Gross (who the narrator of “Conversation in the Mountains” calls “windbags”) are included.  What Celan wants to tell us is that the schlemiel, as he understands him, is not simply a “babbling” fool.  He has some wisdom to offer. But Celan teaches us that to get to this wisdom, we must carefully listen to all of their repetitions and noise for the right moment – what I have called, in previous blog entries, a messianic moment.  This moment is the moment where we come face to face with the possibility of revelation.  And at this moment, when Klein says “I have come,” the schlemiel doesn’t babble; he speaks.  These words, I would argue, are preparatory and they prompt us to ask the messianic question: Why have you come?   

Celan doesn’t want to eliminate the schlemiel’s “noise,” which is the preface to the announcement of his “coming.” Rather, Celan wants Klein and Gross to speak through the noise (which we hear throughout their repetitions and stuttering).  Through this noise we hear a distinct voice; the voice of Klein (the small one) which resounds that of Gross (the big one).   The theme of speaking through noise, which is a comical affair, echoes what we learned from the Meridian Speech

As I noted, in that speech the announcement of truth is prompted and made by the Barker of a Circus.  He looks for your hearing which implies that we – the readers/listeners – are, so to speak, watching a circus when we listen for true speech.   Hence, in addressing “you” the barker includes us in the joke.  And as in any joke, there is an element of truth that the listeners are privy.

In “Conversation in the Mountains,” it is Klein who is the first to speak in the imperative.  Like the Barker of the Meridian Speech, Klein is addressing “you” (and not simply Gross).  Like Celan in the Meridian Speech, Klein is looking for the breathturn (the atemwende).  He begs, repeatedly, to be heard.  And this “desperate” conversation, lest we not forget, is inspired not only by the muteness of nature; it is also inspired by God.  Klein calls him Nobody.  And he claims that Nobody speaks to him through His silence.  And this speech evinces a desperate conversation between Klein and Nobody.  (This, I would add, as Celan does, is a Jewish conversation.) 

Klein takes this desperate conversation into himself and translates it into his conversation with Gross.  This is done not only by describing what Nobody says but also by addressing this question (“Do you hear me?) to Gross.  This question is spoken through all the noise.  And it emerges out of the Messianic moment when Klein announces that he has “come”:

‘Do you hear me: he says – I know, cousin, I know… Do you hear me, he says, I’m here. I am here, I’ve come.  I’ve come with my stick, me and no other, me and not him, me with my hour, my undeserved hour, me who have been hit, who have not been hit, me with my memory, with my lack of memory, me, me, me’(20).

This translation extends messianic moment.  It explains what it means to come or arrive: God has come and so has Klein.  God has summoned him with his “do you hear me.”  (As Abraham, Moses, etc are summoned by God to listen, so is Klein.)  But Klein, in turn, summons Gross (and the reader).  He, that is Klein, “comes” with all of his suffering.  He is like a leper Messiah who has “come.”  But this Schlemiel Messiah hasn’t come to redeem so much as testify.

He has come with his “hour,” his “undeserved hour.”  Klein also comes with his wounds and testifies that he has “been hit.” But, at the same time, he says he has not been hit (as if he is afraid of admitting to his trauma for fear of being punished).  Klein also says he comes with his “memory” and with his “lack of memory.”  This confusion, of coming and not coming with this or that thing, is the noise through which he, as a Schlemiel Messiah, speaks.  And through this noise, we hear the testimony of who he has come, in this moment in time, to speak to: Gross and you, the reader/listener.  Speaking is testifying to the other.  And, in a sense, it is Messianic.

His last words, spoken to himself, are given to Gross and the reader.  We bear witness to his suffering and his attempt to understand “how” he has come and what he has to say to us, now.  Here we have a person who has been hit and who hits himself.  The word that delimits his trauma and his mission is the word “me.”  The repetition of this word puts the accent on the present and it is not selfish; it is relational: “me, me, me.”

Each “me” indicates the singularity of the schlemiel’s pain and his Jewishness.  But it also indicates that he doesn’t know what to do with his, so to speak, election.  He is deeply affected by this “hit,” this election, which comes from Nobody.  But he translates it differently: Nobody wants to be heard and so does Klein! But both, it seems, are afraid that they may not be heard and that they will not be loved.

This is frustrating.  It makes Klein react.  We see this in the fact that, in a rebellious act of sorts, Klein tells Gross that “Do-you-hear-me” is “one with the glaciers.”  This call to be heard by Nobody is one with all things that are silent and opaque. This declaration, in the face of Nobody’s opaque calling, forces Klein to turns back on himself.  And all Klein can note is what he has said from the beginning: he is here with his shadow – his and not his own.  In other words, all he can note is that he is Jewish. 

But this is not all.  For the first time in the text, Klein gives an account that draws on memory and, to be sure, this is clearest reflection his own condition in the entire piece.  It is, so to speak, a prophetic kind of reflection.   In addition to being “here,” speaking to Gross, we now learn that Klein “was” with “many” people who were “different yet like me.”  Like schlemiels, these people “dream and don’t dream,” “sleep and don’t sleep.”  But here’s the point: Klein notes that, though he “lay with them,” he did not “love them” because he did not think they could love him.   In other words, the most important thing for him is their love. 

The only thing he “loved” was the burning down of “his candle.”  This candle was special because 1) it was “his” and 2) it was the same candle “he” gave to “our mother’s father.”  In other words, Klein recalls the tradition that was given from “him” (that is, God) to “our mother’s father” (who, if we are to take Klein as Paul Celan, was as Felstiner tells us, a Hasid).  To clarify what this candle is, Klein notes that it was the Sabbath Candle that was given on the seventh day. 

After describing the tradition in such a loving way, Klein admits that he “didn’t love it”: “I did not love it, I loved its burning down and, you know, I haven’t loved anything since” (21).  And this is where the schlemiel bespeaks his lament, which was hidden throughout the piece.  He repeats the fact that he loved nothing since the candle burned down.  And this implies that he loves the end of this tradition, which he seemingly hasn’t taken on (since there is no longer a candle).   What he loves most, now, is his memory of the end of tradition, not tradition itself (which, apparently, is gone).

Guest Post/Book Review: Kafka for Kids: Matthue Roth’s My First Kafka and Challenges of Representation


“Kafka for Kids: Matthue Roth’s My First Kafka and Challenges of Representation” by Hillel Broder

Matthue Roth’s fancifully illustrated and elegant, poetic adaptation of three of Kafka’s short works , My First Kafka, was released this month, and to a series of high-profile and sweepingly positive reviews, receptions, and readings. Most recently, bits from Roth’s work were read on the BBC the morning of June 25, 2013 as part of a feature piece on the disturbing and uncanny elements generic to children’s literature. Likewise, The New Yorker’s book blog Page Turner offered a brief but flattering review on June 19, 2013; in it, Kelsey Osgood employed Roth’s work as a site to similarly interrogate the dark complexity of children’s literature in general and the comfort with which children negotiate the uncanny elements of their early lives a la Freud and Sendak. While characterizing Roth’s adaptation as paradigmatic of the genre, Osgood distinguishes  Roth’s pithy verse as “smooth”, “naturally eerie and imaginative”, and even Seussian; he sees the work’s accompanying black-and-white illustrations (by the very talented Rohan Daniel Eason) as a “cross between Edward Gorey and a dichromatic ‘Yellow Submarine’”.

As a father of young children, high school teacher of literature, and doctoral student of literary modernism, I wondered, too, about Kafka’s relevance to and reception by younger minds. Having read Roth’s book myself this past spring to both my own four-year-old son as part of his bedtime routine and to my sixteen-year-old students as part of their unit on Kafka’s original work, I was surprised by the various receptions and responses. Child and adolescent alike took great pleasure in the absurd premise of the work, as they were likewise sympathetic for Gregor Samsa’s alienating plight and bothered by Gregor’s father’s cruelty.

What’s most interesting, however, were the different registers in reading—the sorts of questions related to representation and even morality that children come to expect when reading, more generally, but which are foiled—or at least complicated—by Kafka’s work.

I’ll start with the following, perhaps disputable assertion. Kafka’s work is quite accessible to even the most challenged readers and critical thinkers, and here’s why: first and foremost, it is a work that demands to be taken literally, and so superficially, it is a simple tale that is tragic, comic, and direct in its telling. For a four-year old who believes, instinctively, in the magic of fairy tales, this isn’t much of a mental hurdle. But for students who have been taught, year after year, to read fiction for its symbolic richness, figurative language character development, plot conflict, and various other familiar forms, The Metamorphosis can be off-putting.

In fact, Kafka’s work is most challenging in the figurative register because it, on no uncertain terms, literalizes what students have been trained to recognize as a metaphor. Generally speaking, high school students’ first reactions to the work—either following a first read or having heard of the work from others—immediately move to the symbolic realm: the “monstrous vermin” into which Gregor Samsa has transformed seems to carry with it a tremendous amount of cultural baggage (and indeed, the German ungezeifer was later used by Hitler to depict the verminous Jew)—and so such a transformation must be a dream, a self-image, a self-inflicted punishment, or some other symbolic means to depict the abject (perhaps the Czech, the Jew, the newly Secular). And ethically speaking, to a certain degree this is a kind and compassionate reading—students have been taught to recognize and redeem, to the best of their ability, the downtrodden.

And yet, Kafka’s work plays on the surface, as it were: it demands that we read a tale, from the very start, about an already-transformed Gregor, his alienation within his own home, his general neglect by his own family, and his final demise through festering wounds triggered by miscommunications and reactions of violence. It is a fantasy made reality of an industrious worker who is at once enslaved by providing for his family but retains his family’s disabled state through their complacent irrelevance. In turn, through his abjection, the family transforms into an industrious and productive unit. Indeed, the true transformation (Kafka’s German title Die Verwandlung is closer to “transformation” than  “metamorphosis”) is enjoyed by Gregor’s family as they flourish in his absence.

In this regard, Roth’s telling of the story does a fantastic job retaining Kafka’s rich literality, while amplifying some of the empathic elements that might be most evocative to children. Roth’s first stanza incorporates the nonchalant shock of Kafka’s original—“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature”, but with a slight preface:

“Gregor Samsa always had bad dreams. /One morning he awoke to find / He’d become a giant bug”.

Here, Roth allows the child to know—and the adult to recognize—that Gregor’s disturbance precedes his transformation; that we should pity Gregor, too, goes unsaid, but is very much a significant sentiment in Roth’s iteration of the character that extends through Gregor’s final moments in part three in which he euphemistically passes as “his head sank down /and he watched the dawn.”

A distinguished slam poet, memoirist, and fiction writer  in his own right, Roth’s precise use of line break and stanza break and deep sensitivity to metered verse informs the pacing of such a reading as much as it influences the reader’s organization of meaning. The first line cited above is neatly trochaic, almost Poe-like; the final two aforementioned perform as elegant Iambs.

And yet. Despite the work’s literal ease—and the way in which such an aesthetic is enhanced by Roth’s elegant lines and Eason’s illustrations–Kafka himself demanded, in a  1916 letter to the Kurt Wolff Publishing Company, that his literalized metaphor never be illustrated on the book’s cover or otherwise: “…The insect itself cannot be drawn. It cannot even be shown at a distance.” Perhaps there’s some insistence here of the sacrosanct Word—from a post-structuralist point of view, it would be heretical to depict a signifier as anything other than other signifiers; from a theological perspective, making an image of the holy Word would be to make a fixed fetish out of the dynamic Becoming of God.

Regardless, here’s where the really complicated twist lies: while Kafka’s work demands to be read literally and nearly without a moral—almost as a sequence of events, without fully developed characters, and without a clear conflict and climax—it also resists the clarity that might accompany such literality. This is manifest in both the linguistic and visual registers.

Visually, not only must the vermin never be illustrated, for Kafka, but it is clear that the vermin is not obviously classified. The word itself—Ungeziefer—translates colloquially as vermin, bug, or insect, but means in formal German “unfit for sacrifice”. While many render Gregor’s creature-self as an ambiguously roach-like figure (R. Crumb’s visual rendition of Gregor in his Introducing Kafka approximates that of a giant roach; Peter Kuper’s surreal and complete graphic novel The Metamorphosis likewise maintains a human head, though on a roach’s body), Nabokov famously rejected such a possibility given the creature’s capacity to turn its head and its short legs. Instead, he suggests, on zoological grounds, that Gregor approximates a beetle. For the experimental reader but textual purist, the Metamorphosis Ipad app, illustrated and designed by Joel Golombeck of Rocket Chair Media, retains the dynamic movement of Kafka’s text through focused, paneled reading, even as it offers an abstract, watercolor illustrations, which illuminate, but not depict, the text and its characters. In Roth’s edition, however, Eason’s illustrations of Gregor attempt a balance that is at once psychedelic and concrete: elaborate designs that seem to shift over the course of the work and mimic butterfly wings, peacock feathers, and what seems like Rorschach Ink blots adorn Gregor’s definitive beetle shell. Such designs constellate new faces on Gregor’s creaturely body and seem to suggest the opacity of Gregor’s undefinable image—or at least as one that contains the possibility for many.

Textually, Roth’s writing reads easily to a four year old, but Roth retains Kafka’s ambivalent and indeterminate narrating voice. It is in the narrating voice in Kafka’s text, I suggest, through which the reader of this masterwork apprehends his or her own uncertainty about the “moral of the story” or a proper empathic reaction to the characters’ tragedies. On the one hand, both Kafka’s and Roth’s narrating voice seems to possess a privileged perspective into Gregor’s mind alone; we learn, for example, that “Gregor realized that nobody understood him” and that when “he could no longer move / at all”, “it was a nice feeling.” On the other hand, this third person narrator retains a certain distance that forbids the reader certain guidance regarding how he/she could—or should—react. Kafka does this magnificently well, and Roth retains this distance in his pithy prose poem. Take, as a lucid example, three of the six final stanzas of the work:

In the morning / they discovered / that Gregor could not move.

“Look how thin he was,” / said Gregor’s sister./ “He hadn’t eaten / in so long.”

The three of them / left the house together / (something they hadn’t done / for months)

Here, what goes unsaid breathes between the lines of Roth’s careful verse. Gregor’s immobility displaces the non-event of his passing, and Gregor’s family is content to literally sweep his dead carcass under the rug, with only a single but casual query of what seems an unconcerned sister. The final stanza depicting their subsequent departure screams of injustice as they celebrate their triad (threes, in Kafka’s work, are everywhere—and seem to indicate an impenetrable structure to which Gregor is the abject fourth).

Walter Benjamin famously wrote that Kafka “could grasp some things always only in gesture. And this gesture, which he did not understand, forms the cloudy spot of his parables.” Here, the gesture is that which, within Kafka’s parabolic language, resists an easy movement of meaning making. Put even better, Werner Hamacher writes the following about Benjamin’s reading of Kafka:

In the text of the parable, the cloudy spot about which Benjamin speaks is the

dark moment that remains opaque to doctrine. The cloud does not present doctrine but rather conceals it. At best, it distorts doctrine and disavows the task of exemplary, instructive narrative: to make one aware of its moral without delay and without obfuscation.

Thus, the challenge of reading, teaching, translating and adapting Kafka (even for children) is retaining both its parabolic sense—its sense that it demands a symbolic or even moralistic reading—and its resistance to being read in any other way but literally. In turn, a literal rendition of Kafka’s work must retain this very opacity—this cloudy spot or gesture—that continues to keep Kafka’s work alive through its very impenetrability. Roth’s work, in this regard, is a welcome addition to the long tradition of retelling Kafka’s Metamorphosis: it is elegant and accessible in its understated and literal tone, and it challenges the reader with the very same textual and visual impasses evoked by Kafka’s original. What Roth knows is that children luxuriate in the literal—in all of its complexity and irrationality, and the sensibility of the Schliemel, too (as has been explored in these very pages), retains this tension of the relationally textual—and playful—surface.

Hillel Broder is a doctoral student of English at the CUNY Graduate Center–where he specializes in twentieth-century modernism and cognitive cultural studies–and a high school teacher of English at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY.  This is his second guest post for Schlemiel-in-Theory.  His first was on Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka and Gesture.

Do you Hear Me? A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in “Conversation in the Mountains” – Part I


The great thing about conversation is that, from time to time, we stumble across things that are transformational.  In the midst of all our babbling, something comes through.  The point is to listen closely for these moments.  And to find the moment we need to, so to speak, follow the movement.

In my last blog entry, I traced these movements which are, in Celan’s prose piece, repetitive.  In a Talmudic sense, all things must be repeated so as to understand where the lacunae (gaps) are in this or that phrase or expression.  For in looking at it again, we can see something or hear something we may have missed “at first glance.”  And, as I noted with respect to Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains,” these repetitions are situated in conversation.

Between Klein and Gross, between the narrator and you, and between he and them, we hear many different voices.  Of the voices, the most important was the voice that distinguished the Jew from nature.  This voice points out a heterogeneity between them.  It also points out a difference between the Jew and the mystic who yearns for communion.  Celan is acutely aware of the fact that the mystic destroys language to arrive at some form of communion.  Celan, however, puts a limit on this by way of the stuttering between Klein and Gross.  And, nodding toward Jewishness, Celan points out when a Jew meets another Jew they can’t keep “quiet for long.”

After pointing out their acute relation to time as it relates to Klein and Gross’s alienation from nature (“have been and still are, even today, even here”), the narrator describes how things are simply next-to- each-other.  This description, itself, is repetitive and shows us a lack of one-ness between them and nature.  And this teaches us that the narrator errs on the side of Jewishness:

So there they are, the cousins.  ON the left, the turk’s-cap lily blooms, blooms wild, blooms, like nowhere else.  And on the right, corn-salad, and dianthus superbus, the maiden-pink, not far off.  But, they, those cousins, have no eyes, alas.  Or, more exactly: they have, even they have eyes, but with a veil hanging in front of them, no, not in front, behind them, a moveable veil.  (18)

But, more importantly, the narrator notes their blindness, which is a key feature of the schlemiel.  Everything they see is mediated by “the veil”; it spins “itself around the image and begets a child, half image, half veil.”  In other words, everything they see and say is childish (“half image, half veil”).

The narrator gives us a sense of how the reader may look at these schlemiels.  He likens them to these oddly named flowers: “poor lily, poor corn salad”(19).  He then goes on to note their language as, in some way, lacking:

No word has come to an end and no phrase, it is nothing but a pause, an empty space between words, a blank – you see the syllables stand around, waiting.  They are all tongue and mouth…(19)

It seems as if the narrator has a very negative reading of the way schlemiels “babble.”  He exclaims: “The windbags!  Even now, when their tongues scramble dumbly against their teeth.”  However, he notes that “they have something to say to each other.”  In other words, in the midst of all their babble, these schlemiels can show us or direct us toward something meaningful.  And that “something” is messianic.

The first words we hear from them work on two levels.  On the one hand, they are what we would expect of two Jews meeting in the mountains; on the other hand, it hints at something messianic:

‘You’ve come a long way, have come all the way here….’  

‘I have. I’ve come, like you.’

‘I know’

They have both come, in a messianic sense.  As is well known, the Messianic begins with the announcement of the Messiahs’s arrival.  It is announced by Eliyahu the Prophet.  The language used to describe the Messianic include much mention of his “coming” and “arrival.” Read in this sense, Celan seems to telling us that these are Schlemiels who announce themselves as Messiahs. But, in a veiled manner, they don’t quite understand what their “arrival” means.

What Celan does with this arrival is fascinating.  As I pointed out in the last blog, the conversation between Klein and Gross is characterized as repetitive in a Talmudic manner.  This is exactly what we see here.  Klein recounts to Gross what he sees of the earth and where he and Gross are at this moment and concludes that the earth is not for either he or Gross (it speaks an “alien” language) ; rather, they are for each other:

You know.  You know and see. The earth folded up here, folded once and twice and three times, and opened in the middle, and in the middle there is water, and the water is green…that this is the language that counts here…a language not for you or me – because, I ask you, for whom is it meant, the earth, not for you, I say, it meant, and not for me – a language, well, without I and without You, nothing but He, nothing but It, you understand…(20).

After saying this, something has been acknowledged and now the next step can be taken – a step toward the messianic coming (yet, within the context of alienated language and nature).  And, like many Jewish things, this comes in the form of a question:

‘I understand, I do.  After all, I’ve come a long way, I’ve come like you.’

‘I know.’

“You know and want to ask: And even so you’ve come all the way, come here, even so – why, and what for?’

To be sure, this question and its answer can and do serve as a marker distinguishing between Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Atheists.   But, for Celan, it distinguishes a Jewish poet; it is the mark of the schlemiel.

Why, and what for…Because I had to talk, maybe, to myself or to you, talk with my mouth and tongue, not just with my stick. Because to whom does it talk, my stick?  It talks to the stones, and the stones – to whom do they talk? (20).

The stones talk to “no-one” (niemand).  And this is a language that the Jewish poet doesn’t speak.  The schlemiel must speak with the other. This is the crux of the matter.  And this speech must recur over and over gain.  And the reason it must speak is because it gives the schlemiel a sense of who he or she is, what he or she is doing, and who she is speaking to.  Though seemingly simple, this gesture shows the deeply ethical and relational aspect of the schlemiel.  And this comes out in Klein’s words about God and hearing.

As we learn, the stick talks to “nobody and Nobody.” The latter Nobody troubles Klein the former (nature) does not.  He, that is Nobody, says: “Do you hear me?”  As a schlemiel, Klein responds to this voice and takes it on as his own.  And this brings us to the messianic moment, repeated and nuanced:

‘Do you hear me: he says – I know, cousin, I know… Do you hear me, he says, I’m here. I am here, I’ve come.  I’ve come with my stick, me and no other, me and not him, me with my hour, my undeserved hour, me who have been hit, who have not been hit, me with my memory, with my lack of memory, me, me, me’(20).

These lines are the testimony of a schlemiel who has come, but who can only say that he has come; and like Him, the schlemiel wants to be heard.  He echoes the “Do you hear me?” and he communicates it to Gross.

And this is the point.  He bears witness to the Gross (big) Other (with a big “O”), and to the (Klien) other (with the little “o”).  And he’s trying to figure out his relations to these others by way of repetition.  In this form, Celan gives a dignity to the schlemiel that the narrator notes, in the middle of the piece, is lacking.  He shows that the schlemiel is situated in an encounter with the other; and by putting the schlemiel in relation to the other, he, so to speak, revises the Messianic moment and the schlemiel.

In the next blog entry, I will look into Gross’s response to this testimony, this echo.  It repeats the messianic moment of coming which, for Celan, must be elaborated and re-elaborated.  And, here, this re-elaboration is unique for many reasons: it is not in poetry, it is tinged with the comic, and it is between schlemiels.

“Do you hear me?”

‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 2)


We like to repeat ourselves.  And oftentimes we forget what we said before and are reminded by our friends that “we already said that.” Nonetheless, people being people, we forget and do it again.  The people most susceptible to this blindness are older people.  However, sometimes repetitions – which are seemingly absent-minded – are full of implication and meaning.  And one of the advantages of conversation is that these meanings can be teased out; given that the person you are conversing with is compelling enough to do so.

As a child, I was privy to such conversations.  My father and his best friend, David Kaplan (a Jew who went from the streets of Brooklyn to the leather mills of Gloversville New York), used to have such conversations.  They were very repetitive but they were filled with meaning and implication.  David told us that he came from a line of magidim (story-tellers) and this is how they would speak.  After David died, it hit me that his style of speaking, which my father picked up on and practiced daily with him, was not just the style of the story-teller.  It was also a Talmudic style.  His way of speaking was steeped in an ongoing conversation.  And it included moments of skepticism, play, and wit.

So when I read Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” for the first time, I had tears in my eyes and a smile on face.  Since David had passed, my father stopped speaking this way.  He had no one to talk to in such a manner.  After David’s death, it seemed like such ways of speaking were now a thing of the past, a memory.  So when I read Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains,” it hit me that this kind of conversation could and in fact should find its way into the work of one of my favorite poets.  It should find its way into the work of a poet whose work was often full of mourning and loss not comedy.

One of the things I loved about each of David’s stories is that they always included an element of vision.  He would always preface his stories with the words of a street-smart visionary: “I can see it now! Get this….”  These repetitions made us all smile.  And my father would push him to tell more and to tell it better.  And David would always prompt my father to challenge him to do so and add to his story.

The key element of their conversations was the repetition and variation of this or that fragment of information that they claimed to have heard or witnessed.  And in the midst of this, David would often remind us that he had heard this or saw this, so as to assure us of the revelatory aspect of his words.  This way of speaking is something we can see at the outset of “Conversation in the Mountains.”

One evening, when the sun had set and not only the sun, the Jew – Jew and son of a Jew – went off, left his house and went off, and with him his name, his unpronounceable name, went and came, trotting along, made himself heard, came with a stick, came over stones, do you hear me, you do, it’s me, me, me and whom you hear, whom you think you hear, me and the other.

Notice that the Jew, for the speaker, is “a Jew and son of a Jew.”  This is not arbitrary.  There is a tradition of saying that one is ‘A the son of B’ (for me Menachem ben Mattityahu Zev).  And this traditional way of speaking has repetition built into it. Tradition requires that Jews speak of themselves or others in this way if they are being honored or remembered. And in this world, the Latinized world, it sounds comic; Especially to American ears which like to hear shortened names (like Matt, Greg, Bill, Bob, Jr. etc).

The thing about this name, and about being Jewish, is that it implies the speaker.  These Jewish names “come and go” and come “trotting along.”  They come and go, as it were, in ways that are beyond “our” control.  What I think Celan is saying is that the other Jew reminds me that I am a “Jew and son of a Jew” – just as much as he or she is a Jew with a name, so am I.   In response to this dialogical relation, the speaker says: “its me, me, me.”  But following this he notes: “whom you hear, whom you think you hear, me and the other.”  These lines remind the reader that he, the speaker, is not alone in saying me.  Me, so to speak, is not his conclusion.  His woes about being a Jew are shared with the other (Jew).

In Celan’s conversation there are four positions that are returned to constantly: him, me, you (the reader), and the other.  In the above passage, the I breaks through to the listener but then folds back into talking about him:

So he went off, you could hear it, went off one evening when various things had set, went under clouds, went under shadow, his own and not his own – because the Jew, you know, what does he have that is really his own, that is not borrowed, taken and not returned –

For anyone versed in German literature, this line about “him” and his “shadow” appear to be a reference to Peter Shlemihl; the influential and widely read novel of Adelbert von Chamisso’s which was published in 1814.  In the novel the main character ends up in a battle for his soul which originates over a deal with the devil to sell his shadow.  The schlemiel is, from time to time, associated with this novel.  But this is a mistake and, to be sure, this novel makes no mention of Jews let alone an association of the Jews with Peter Shlemihl.

In effect, Celan is bringing the schlemiel back to its source: in a Jewish-styled conversation.  This is where the schlemiel’s “shadow” belongs.  It is situated in relation to that conversation.  The shadow is something that is his and not his; like all things that a Jew “has.”  And this includes what a Jew says. And this is what might be missed.  “His” words, though repeated, are shared with the other.  And we are alerted of this when “he” meets “Gross”(large).

In fact, when “he” meets “Gross,” he becomes “Klein” (small).   And, as I have often pointed out in this blog, the schlemiel is oftentimes humble; that is, small.  And the less one “has” the “smaller” one is.  Nonetheless, Celan’s lesson is not about what the Jew has so much as what the Jew does: the Jew speaks with another Jew.  The Jew speaks repetitively in an effort to speak the truth or rather go toward the truth.  And going towards it, he becomes smaller and smaller.  But, on the other hand, Celan suggests that when he is in conversation, Gross comes along the way with Klein.  And together they go along the road towards the truth…and each other.

I say “go towards” since he, that is Klein, is on the road.  And on the road he meets up with Gross. And once they meet they walk and talk. Before that, “he” is not Klein (he has a shadow, a name, and he walks; but he can’t talk; when he meets Gross he can).

But when they first meet each other, there is a silence.  But, as Celan nicely points out, silence is not the way of the Jew.  Silence, as he well knew, is closer to the traditions of Christian mystics who see language and law as obstacles to communion.

The stones, too, were silent. And it was quiet in the mountains where they walked, one and the other.  So it was quiet, quiet up there in the mountains.  But it was not quiet for long, because when a Jew comes along and meets another, silence, cannot last, even in the mountains.

Celan pronounces silence in this passage, but he undoes it in the repetition.  After making this repetition and undoing silence, the speaker notes that the reason why Jews break silence is because the Jew and nature are not one:

Because the Jew and nature are strangers to each other, have always been and still are, even today, even here.

Besides pronouncing alterity and difference, this passage performs it by putting an accent on time and space when he notes that they are strangers: “have always been and still are, even today, even here.”  This accent, which is enhanced by repetition, brings us into the moment of the telling.  It also gives us an acute sense of the speaker’s words.  We hang on to his words and they open us up to a future that is beyond our grasp.  What will he say next?

In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot associates repetition with the fragment and the “destruction of the present.” What he implies by this destruction needs to be elaborated since it can help us to better understand what is at stake in this text’s emphasis on repetition, time, and space:

There cannot be a successful, a satisfactory fragment, or one indicating the end at last, the cessation of error, and this would be the case if for no other reason than that every fragment, though unique, repeats, and is undone by repetition.  Let us remember.  Repetition: nonreligious repetition….the ultimate over and over, general collapse, destruction of the present. (42)

Although Blanchot is correct in saying that repetition destroys the present, he gives it a negative valence that Celan does not.  By the destruction of the present, I would note that Emmanuel Levinas (a close friend of Blanchot) in his book Time and the Other has the right idea.  It is a destruction of the past-present and the future present and, for Levinas, this implies that a future beyond by control, which is not “present” opens up to me.

The “ultimate over and over” that Celan brings into the “conversation” opens us up, as we shall see in the next blog entry, to something messianic (and not messianic).  Blanchot’s notion of a “nonreligious repetition” finds an interesting counterpoint in Celan because Celan doesn’t open up to a mystical experience that eschews humor. He doesn’t mourn the loss of communion as Blanchot does.  To be sure, as I have been showing, this moment would have to happen within the structure of this conversation – a comic conversation. With all of its repetitions and clumsiness, Celan’s conversation is not only destructive.  It also opens us up to the future; to what is to come.

And this is what I would often hear when my father and David conversed.  In each of their conversations, with all of their repetitions and witty rejoinders, they pushed each other to enunciate the moment in which and the spatial angle from which they were speaking to each other.  And, though it was comic, each of them always enunciated the fact that they were speaking to each other here, in this space, and in this manner.  And in doing so, they enunciated that the words were their own words, yet, at the same time, they were not.  They were shared and replayed to each other.  And that’s were their words were also not their own.  This fact made their words and themselves vulnerable and oftentimes blind.  And this is was what made them schlemiels.  This is what made David and my father, for me, Klein and Gross.  After all, what does a Jew own that is really his own?

“Wow, Can I Get Your Autograph?” On My Odd Encounter with James Gandolfini


Like many people, I’ve spotted or spoke to different movie or TV stars.  Sometimes I actually got to say hello and exchanged a few words.  And sometimes my words, spoken in astonishment, were the wrong ones.

One of the first stars I met was Lynda Carter who played Wonder Woman.  And one of the people she was with, to my astonishment, was a character on The Six Million Dollar Man.  I loved both shows but I was so young that, from what I remember, I was deeply confused as to why they were together and why they were in “reality” and not on TV.    Since they were a part of a charity tennis event in Miami where my grandmother had a condominium, my grandmother got me in to see them.  She snapped a picture of the stars who look back at the camera with big smiles.  I suppose I was too astonished to even get in the photo and maybe their smiles reflect this.  I’m not sure.

I also spotted and even spoke to stars in Manhattan.

When I was a little boy I remember spotting Dianne Keaton as she called for a taxi.  And I met Vincent Price in the Ritz Carlton.  I was confused.  I didn’t know whether I should talk about his horror films (I had only seen clips of them and had seen him as a host for reruns of Horror Theater) or about his work with Michael Jackson.  Not knowing what to say, I opted for Michael Jackson and said I loved his voice over for the “Thriller” video.  I liked his work but I wasn’t so besides myself that I couldn’t speak.  Nonetheless, I was trembling with joy.

Of all my experiences, the longest conversation I have ever been privy to was with Dan Rather.  When I was 17, I was eating at the Hilton in Washington, DC with my father.  The minute my father saw Dan Rather, he loudly said “Dan!”  The famous news reporter turned to us, said hello, and then my father went into high gear.  I was astonished and at first embarrassed by how my father just leapt in to a conversation with Rather.  But, strangely enough, Rather sat down with us as my father discussed the world’s problems and his solutions.  Rather was intrigued and listened intently to my father for at least ten minutes.  The more he listened and replied to my father, the more he appeared to be “normal.”

After this, I never thought I would be star-struck again.  After this experience, I felt that I clearly understood that stars are normal people and that there was no reason to go gaga over them.  My father taught me to be calm around “the stars.”

But a few years ago, I was proven wrong.

Driving between New York City and Upstate New York, I ran into James Gandolfini in the oddest of places, a bathroom off of the New York State Thruway.  As it happens, I was at a urinal when Gandolfini pulled up to the urinal next to me.  Since I loved the Sopranos, I was besides myself.  And I had a schlemiel moment (or rather, encounter) which was an admixture of astonishment and the uncanny.

At that moment I thought it would be too odd to say anything, so I devised a plan to act normal and wait for him to leave.  After he left the bathroom, I would say hello and ask him for his autograph.  After he finished at the stall, I couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t “shake” at the end of going to the bathroom like most people do.  Instead, he moved his body up and down in front of the urinal.  It looked like a dance move.  As I tried to reconcile this methodology with my childhood training and observations of others growing up (as to how one should “shake” at a urinal) I noticed him leaving.

I ran up to him as he left the bathroom and blurted: “Wow! James Gandolfini, Can I have your autograph?  I’m the guy who peed next to you!”  Although he gets asked for autographs quite often, this request was different.  I could tell by the look he gave me that I had said something or done something in such a way that was inappropriate.  But the look itself was worth it.  I felt no shame.  And although, in retrospect, I know that I had momentarily become-a-schlemiel by not recognizing how absent-minded my request was, I loved his gaze.  It effaced the line between reality and The Sopranos.

This was my schlemiel-encounter with James Gandolfini may he rest in peace.

(Note: I recently came across another TV star, but my reaction was much cooler.  I was visiting friends in Ithaca, New York and went for coffee at one of the local establishments.  I was delighted to see that I was in line with David Boreanaz. He took a lead role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and had his own show Angel.   Our conversation was mundane and, fortunately, I didn’t catch him as he left the bathroom.)

‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 1)


At the very least, John Felstiner – in Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew – acknowledges that Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” has a comic aspect to it:

“Conversation in the Mountains,” brief yet gabby, humorous yet fateful, reflects on selfhood, language, perception, God, and nature by way of a journey into the mountains.  What Celan wrote resembles, if anything, a cross between Ingmar Bergman and Samuel Beckett (14).

However, as I have been pointing out in a few of my previous blog entries, John Felstiner doesn’t look at Celan by way of Beckett; instead, he interprets the comic, repetitive way of speaking in this piece as Mausheln (a German term for an odd sounding German dialect; the speech of mice, little people).  He then goes on to argue that Celan was looking to leave this way of speaking behind.   In contrast, I have been calling for reading this comic mode of speaking as a way of relating to the other.

Paul Celan’s poetry teaches the reader that he or she should listen closely.  Given that the voice in many of his poems and prose pieces is very serious, when he writes in a comic mode our ears should perk up.  Something special is being conveyed through this manner of speaking.

To be sure, in Paul Celan’s body of work, “Conversation in the Mountains” is unique for this very reason.  Besides his “Meridian Speech,” given in honor of his receiving the Georg Buchner Prize in October 22, 1960, it is the only prose piece that employs a comic mode of address.  (However, as I will show in another blog entry, some of his poetry also employs comical modalities.)  This comic mode discloses two schlemiels who are involved in a serious encounter with the other.  These schlemiels, in conversation, are on their way toward the other.  Each step of their comic conversation, repetitions and all, gives them a sense that they are “here” – at the moment – and are going “toward” the other.

The best way to read the comic mode in “Conversation in the Mountains” is by way of his comic reflections on poetry, conversation, and the other in the “Meridian Speech.” To be sure, it is unique in its comic mode and what better way to read the comic in Celan than by way of his own directives and performances of the comic.

I would like to suggest, as I did in my last blog entry on Paul Celan’s “Meridian” speech, that Celan explicitly draws on the comic mode via a circus barker in Buchner’s play Danton’s Death.   The circus barker presents art.

Here, in very different times, art comes presented by a carnival barker and has no longer, as in that conversation, anything to do with ‘glowing’, ‘roaring’, ‘radiant’ creation, but is put next to the ‘creature as God made it’ and the ‘nothing’ this creature is ‘wearing’.  This time, art comes in the shape of a monkey.  But it is art all right. We recognize it by its ‘coat and trousers’. (38)

In other words, art comes as a monkey-man-clown: in the “shape of a monkey” who is wearing its “coat and trousers.”   Celan notes that the circus barker returns in Buchner’s third play Leonce and Lena.   There, Celan points out that “we” are “fleeing towards paradise,” to a place where ‘all clocks and calendars” will be “forbidden.”  Just before this Messianic moment, however, we see two “world-famous automatons” and a circus barker:

A man who claims to be the ‘third and perhaps strangest of the two’ invites us, ‘with a rattling voice’, to admire what we see: “Nothing but art and mechanics, nothing but cardboard and springs.”(38)

Celan reminds us that Valerio, who presents this comedy of art before one enters into the messianic, “is only another name for the barker.”  Immediately following this, Celan, himself, takes on the comic mode of the barker by repetitively calling out to the “Ladies and Gentleman” of the audience to pay attention to something they have never seen before.

This comic mode puts the audience into the position of circus goers and who expect some kind of unimaginable feat.  Namely, art.  The comic conceit in “The Meridian” speech is that the feat is quite simple.  Instead of presenting art in the traditional sense or as an automaton of sorts, Celan, like Lucille in Danton’s Death, says his own “Long Live the King” before she gets her head chopped off.  Celan calls Lucile’s words on the platform of the guillotine a “word against the grain.”

The “long live the king” is not an homage to monarchy, says Celan.  It is an “homage to the majesty of the absurd that bespeaks the presence of human beings”(40).  But this description of homage is not enough.

Celan, later in his talk, calls this counter word a “breathturn” (atemwende).   And this breathturn “turns” toward the other.  And this turn is transformative; taking the turn, or the “step” (as Celan) says, will estrange the “I” and “set if free” as it goes toward the other. This turn, says Celan, is given to us by Lenz by way of a comic request:

Can we perhaps now locate the stangeness, the place where the person was able to set himself free as an – estranged – I? Can we locate this place, this step?  ‘…only, it sometimes bothered him that he could not walk on his head.’  This is Lenz. This is, I believe, his ‘Long live the king.’(46)

In a Talmudic manner, Celan repeats this expression and in the line following explains how, like the examples mentioned above, relate the comic to estrangement:

“…only, it sometimes bothered him that he could not walk on his head.  A man who walks on his head, ladies and gentlemen, a man who walks on his head sees the sky below, as an abyss. (46)

Celan, as the circus barker, addresses you (“ladies and gentleman”) with two comic performances or “breathruns”: the first comes by way of Lucille who says “Long live the King!” and the second comes by way Lenz who wants to walk on his head.  Both of these evince the way of poetry.  But this is not the end of it.

This comic breathturn prompts us to go toward the other.  Celan notes that the breathrun has a critical function, too: it is a way (or manner) of “sorting the strange from the strange.”  Musing on this, Celan wonders what has been “set free” in this gesture: “Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free.”  By putting the words “here” and “in this manner” in italics, Celan is calling attention to the comic as a modality that one must notice as it happens.

The other thing that is “freed” – here, in this moment – is the other.  The poem, says Celan, speaks to what is “wholly other.”  It is a “conversation” which is often “desparate”(50).  And the poem not only keeps track of this conversation; it also is mindful of its “dates.”  It goes over things and is, for this reason, often repetitive.

Although one may find it comic to repeat things over and over before saying something new, this is actually a procedure used a lot in Jewish humor and it may derive from the Talmud.  Like a Talmudist who has a keen eye for the peculiar and the comic, Celan notes that, perhaps, if we listen “not without fear” and with “rabbit’s ears,” we can see a “smile through invisible quotation marks.”

Celan ends this thought, and his Meridian Speech, with a meditation on the origin of it all.  What would spur him to listen for such a smile?  Celan answers by noting his childish way of looking:

I am looking for all this with my imprecise, but nervous finger on a map – a child’s map, I must admit.  None of these places can be found. They do not exist.  But I know where they ought to exist especially now, and…I find something else. (54)

What he finds on his “child’s map” is that which connects him to the other: the Meridian (55).  And this is the point. The place of origin – on his child’s map (the map of a man-child, a schlemiel) – is that which relates one to the other (the Meridian).  Most importantly, one finds the Meridian by way of comic repetitions, a comic address (or the circus barker), and a comic breathturn (Lucile’s counter-word and Lenz’s walking on his head).  All of these comic modalities relate to what Celan calls a “desperate conversation.”

And by noting these comic aspects in his “Meridian Speech,” we now have a framework for understanding the conversation that goes on in “Conversation in the Mountains.”  As we shall see in the next blog entry, this conversation has its fair share of comic addresses, repetitions, and breath-turns.  And all of these comic modalities are for the sake of having a conversation with the other which can be brought to bear on us.  And, like the Meridian, it seems as if we are watching a circus act when we see its two main characters – Klein and Gross – speak.

JAPS, Schlemiels, and Princesses: Long Island


The post-WWII American schlemiel takes many forms that  more often than not go along gender lines.  Yes, there are male schlemiels who, in the 60s and 70s, are represented by Bruce Jay Friedman, Phillip Roth, or Woody Allen as Portnoy’s or nebbishes. Think of Friedman’s Stern, Roth’s Potnoy’s Complaint, or any of Allen’s movies from the period.   These schlemiels, often young men or bachelors, are as David Biale would say “sexual schlemiels.”  And sometimes, as in the case of Woody Allen’s schlemiels, they are charming.  We also are fortunate to have many Jewish women who play schlemiels.  Fanny Brice was a schlemiel but not as much of a sexual schlemiel as Barbara Streisand who played her in Funny Girl.  The stand-up comedienne Joan Rivers is also a sexual schlemiel, but she traverses all kinds of sexual territory. And, unlike Brice or Streisand in Funny Girl, she can also be very irritating.  She was and still is far from shy; but, like any schlemiel, she is absent-minded.  With her comedy, we see an alteration of charm and irritation.

In the 80s the feminine-schlemiel-landscape changes.  We see something new that the female schlemiel must contend with; namely, the Jewish American Princess.  She also has sexual problems and, like the schlemiel, seems out of touch with the world.  But her biggest problem is that she is portrayed as someone who is spoiled, expects a lot out of men, and is aggressive.  But when a schlemiel like Gilda Radner portrays the JAP; the character is aggressive but not too aggressive.

In this clip, she is playing the Long Island Jew who happens to have a group: “Rhonda and the Rhondettes.”  She is tinkering with the stereotype by playing the schlemiel.  She goes way over the top with it, to such an extent that the JAP appears ridiculous while she appears charming.

To be honest, after Gilda Radner died I didn’t think I would see another JAP being parodied again.  I was wrong.

Believe it or not there is a new reality show on Bravo that is all about Jewish American Princesses. Its called Princesses: Long Island.  It’s not often that you see a comedy routine, a TV Episode, or even a film clip of or about a group of unmarried Jewish American Princess (JAP).   They are, without a doubt, almost a mirror image of the Judd Apatow bachelors in films like 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, or Super Bad.

All of these girls are having a hard time hooking up, they are getting older, and they are in a bind.  They love home and are attached to their parents. (And their parents are attached to them.) They want too much.  And this creates major (potentially comic) difficulties.

The reality TV show stars and their locations in Long Island are:

Here’s the trailer:

As you can see, the show emphasizes their “Jewishness” and equates it with their awkwardness.  What we find here is a recurrence of the JAP but with a few differences.  More interesting is the fact that they are presented as being real embodiments of JAP schlemiels.

Take a look at episode number one:

Although they may be, at some level “irritating,” they are nonetheless charming schlemiels.  But not all JAPs are schlemiels.  In an effort to deflate the JAP stereotype, Anna Sequoia, in The Official JAP Handbook (published in 1982) notes that JAPs are good, charming, and intelligent. But she associates them with mothers and not their unmarried daughters:

Jewish American Princesses are warm, coddling, funny, smart and achieving.  They are wonderful, dedicated mothers.

Later in her book, however, we see the bachelorette.  Namely in a section entitled “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.”   But what we find are more or less warnings about how a JAP mother should worry about her JAP daughter.  After all, she doesn’t want her daughter to get involved with the wrong guy.  Hopefully, she can inculcate the right JAP values in her daughter:

Maybe secretly…little Marsha Lynn feels insecure and has to “sleep up,” or “sleep down,” or maybe its just part of growing up, gaining the experience of love, and life will one day, one hopes, lead them toward the right people for them (114).

This motherly concern hovers all over Princesses: Long Island.   These mothers are concerned because their daughters are at an awkward age and are still living with them.  Their JAP daughters internalize this concern. And, in a way, they share too much with their scared Jewish mothers, like Anna Sequoia, the author of The Official JAP Handbook.

Their awkwardness, while silly, has its charm. At the same time, these girls irritate us.  The frission is enticing and may propel the show to a second season.  On the other hand, it may not.  I have a “feeling” about this.  Maybe I’m wrong.  But after Gilda Radner modeled Jewwess Jeans on SNL, I knew that it would be really hard for any comedienne to fill her designer schlemiel jeans.

Idiocy Imagination Mysticism (Elliot Wolfson, A Dream Interpreted Within a Dream)

A special thanks to Zachary Breiterman and Jewish Philosophy Place for thinking of Schlemiel-in-Theory! I’m very interested in Elliot’s new turn to mysticism and madness (or as CHABAD Lubavitch would say ruah shtuth d’kedushah – “the spirit of holy foolishness”). Schlemiel-in-Theory will, in the very near future, be blogging on Elliot Wolfson’s work.

jewish philosophy place


An interesting and maybe surprising moment in Elliot Wolfson’s recent A Dream Interpreted Within A Dream, it’s story related by Menachem Mendel Schneerson about a group of hasidim talking about the nullification (annihilation) (Hebrew: biytul) of self. A Russian officer calls out kto idyot, which in Russian means “Who goes?” But in Yiddish, idyot means what it means in English, namely idiot. The hasidim reply, “biytul idyot,” which can be taken to mean “nobody, idiot.”

So okay, maybe not the funniest joke ever. But I can’t recall offhand Elliot ever making a joke in print, and I’m sharing this particular piece because I thought Menachem Feuer at Home of Schlemiel Theory would like it for his archive. Elliot’s takeaway has to do with how in mysticism, how in what perhaps we can now call it dream-mysticism, “the stripping away of physicality is…an embodiment that…

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“Ladies and Gentlemen!” A Preface to Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains”


As a Jew, I can assure you that Jews love to talk.  In their work on the schlemiel, Ruth Wisse and Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi see the schlemiel’s speech as a kind of “substitute” sovereignty.   Ezrahi tells us that before Israel, speech, not action, was the best defense.  And for centuries there was a historical principle at work: in the world, Jews lose; but in the world of speech, they win. For this reason, the schlemiel is, for Wisse, the “modern hero.” He is the modern hero who wins a comic victory.

But, to be sure, any fool can see that this victory is incomplete.  We all know that it is not real.  We are all reminded, by way of the schlemiel’s act of substitution, that the world is unkind.  But rather than suffer quietly and tragically, Jews speak.  And they speak (or have spoken) comically.

Listening in to the conversation of schlemiels, we can (as John Felstiner suggests with “Conversation in the Mountains”) hear the shrug.  We can also hear a voice that wants to figure things out by way of indirection: whether by text, a relation, an event, etc.  This act of (or rather attempt at) comprehension is where schlemiel comedy starts.  If that comically intent voice is shared with another schlemiel, we can see the comic ordeal that the schlemiel must go though in order to get anything (even the simplest tasks) done.

As we see with The Three Stooges, its easy for a schlemiel to talk of and promise things.  But, for the schlemiel, it seems, it’s hard to do anything :

But schlemiels do more than just fail at figuring out how to do this or that thing.  Isn’t the schlemiel keying us into the comic relationship that is created by way of conversation?  As Kafka notes in “Excursion in the Mountains,” the freest conversations happen when the “wind blows” between schlemiels.  For Kafka, this wind blowing is conversation; it is what Felstiner calls “babbling.”   But with Celan and Kafka, this babbling has a relationship that is, literally, going in some direction.

This is what Paul Celan teaches in his “Conversation in the Mountains” by way of a Jew named Klein (little):

So he went off, you could hear it, went off one evening when various things had set, went under clouds, went in the shadow, his own and not his own – because the Jew, you know, what does he have that is really his own, that is not borrowed, taken and not returned. (17)

But where is this Klein-the-schlemiel taking us? And why do we have to know where he is or where he is going?  To be sure, he’s looking to meet up with his friend, Gross (Big).  And both of them are looking for a conversation.  They’re going toward each other and, once they find each other, they move on toward something “wholly other.”

In “Conversation in the Mountains,” Paul Celan teaches us that the schlemiel is not simply involved in a “substitute sovereigny”; rather, he is always orienting him or herself with a place where he or she is or where he or she may be going.   And this orientation and speech are repetitive in their address to the other.  Paul Celan conveys this in his “Meridian Speech” by saying, over and over again, the words: “Ladies and Gentleman.”

Celan proposes a kind of comic, repetitive movement that addresses the other.  And, since this is a movement that is never final, it must be replayed in a schlemiel-like fashion.

Each movement is an address.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

It’s another way of saying: “Hello, I’m here! Where are you? I’m waiting for you to come.”  The comic effect is in the fact that we are asked where we are when we are already there before the schlemiel.  But this is a serious matter in the sense that this repetitive address suggests that the other is being called on to hear, and be here, once again.

These are the words of Celan’s Klein to Gross and these are words that he speaks to his audience in “Conversation in the Mountains.”  These words not a “substitute sovereignty” so much as a spur to comically relate Klein to Gross and me to you.  Comedy’s main mode, Celan seems to be telling us, is relational

Each comic address is meant for a rejoinder, a response, in which we come to speak.  Strangely enough, it is the voice of a schlemiel named Klein that calls us to join him/her to speak – on this comical journey toward the other.

Ladies and Gentleman: This should serve as a preface….