Shlemiel, the Day After: Post-Screening Reflections

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Last night the screening of Shlemiel at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center went very well.  What I love most about sharing the film are the Q & A sessions that follow the screening.  This time I was fortunate to be showing the film to a group of artists and art critics whose insights into the film were insightful and novel.  These emerged out of questions pertaining to where I am now and where I am going.

Every time I see the film, I see myself going through a process and I can’t help but smirk to see how my dreams, like a schlemiel, didn’t match up with reality.  I dreamed big and the film maker did a fine job of showing how my father also did.  From the very start, I could see that I was casting my net out and believed that my band, Men With Babies, would be successful.  What the film shows is how it failed to make it to the NXNE (North by North East Music) Festival.  Nonetheless, after the film was made, it screened at NXNE and my band was invited to play. (And the band’s future – albeit in a new incarnation – is still yet to be determined.)  The film also shows how I dreamed big about religious experience and how that also faltered.   This had to do with the fact that I came to Judaism through a Hasidic group that had major Messianic aspirations.  Moreover, my father also had the Messianic on his mind (as a part of his psychosis).  And, as I pointed out in my last post, I opened myself up to his insights and they bled into my own search for what it meant to be an American Jew.

To be sure, I thought of the Messianic in terms of my own music.  But I didn’t cast all my chips down with the Hasidic vision of the Messianic.  The film shows that part; but it doesn’t show how I was influenced by the Messianic aspirations of avant-garde art and poetry.  I was interested in breaking boundaries like Antonin Artaud, the Living Theater, or Jerzy Growtowski.

To my mind, these movements, words, and gestures looked to break open boundaries and expose us to something we have never seen, something to come, something Messianic.

I also saw this in the mad writing that came out of Thomas Pynchon and other experimental writers.  I heard this madness in much of Paul Celan’s later poetry.  And as a person who has studied philosophy and teaches philosophy, I found a philosophical root for this in the Messianic as understood by the philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida.  All of this amounted to an avant-garde type of secular messianism (or as John Caputo might say – in the name of Derrida – a “messianism without messianism”) and a revolutionary kind of practice.

When I was a teenager, I foolishly looked to art as Nietzsche, in the preface of The Gay Science), did: I thought I could – by my own efforts – transform my bodily and psychological pain and trauma into joy. But, unlike Nietzsche, I learned when I was an undergraduate that if this were to possibly happen, I could not do this alone.   I truly believed, like Emmanuel Levinas, that it depended on the other.

The “schlemiel-problem” in all of this doesn’t lie with this insight; it inheres in the word “believe.”  To be sure, I believed too much in the interaction of myself and the audience and this led to a crash course.  But, at the very least, I learned that if I were to crash it would be before the other and not by myself.

The questions from the audience prompted me to think about how much my dreams didn’t fit with reality.  I now realize that I couldn’t, like the avant-garde artists I loved, go at it alone.  I still believe that a secular messianic happens and can happen between the actor, writer, artist and the audience – it happens between people.  And that I, of course, must initiate an encounter or respond to an encounter.  I know that, because the actor, writer, and artists must take risks that they are, and have to be, to some extent hopeful and, yes, foolish.  Artists, like schlemiels, must dream.  And those dreams – if they are to be affective – must be shared.  And this, one must admit, is foolish because it is uncertain.  Nonetheless, one must take one’s (foolish) chances.

The schlemiel fails best because he or she still goes on and is, in many ways, blind to failure and to the scope of his or her dreams or perceptions.

I can testify to that as can many a schlemiel-artist.   I am a schlemiel who is aware of his propensity to dream big; but that won’t stop me from being a schlemiel.  Unlike others, I don’t think the schlemiel is something that can or even should be eliminated through a conscious rejection of ‘dreams’ in favor of ‘reality’ or the ‘world’ or the feminine for the masculine, or humor for seriousness.  No.  One can and must dream and take risks and this is a part of the human condition.  No matter how hard a Jew tries not to be comic and to shoot far over their mark and avoid the blind spots, one will always miss something.  And this makes sense.

This doesn’t simply mean that we should, as Beckett said, “fail better.”  It means that we should always try to make for a fit between ourselves and the world but with a comic awareness that that fit will always, comically, be off.

And this speaks to my own Jewishness.  I may have tried to reject one part of it, but I have at the same time embraced another part.  I am not afraid to say that me relationship to the world, as a Jew, is still mediated by the schlemiel.  My relationship to Jewishness also bears its mark.

I thank the artists and art critics at the Isabella Freedman Artists Retreat for helping me to rethink where I have, as Paul Celan might say, come from and where I am going to.  In the end, this schlemiel has come out of a mess and is now going (awkwardly) towards you, the other, but with different eyes.  And yet, I know, that even with these new eyes there will always be a blind spot which may keep me from seeing what or who is in front of me.

Who is that in the mirror?  It’s me and its not me….

2 thoughts on “Shlemiel, the Day After: Post-Screening Reflections

  1. Thank you for this candid post. Your comments call to mind Hannah Arendt’s notion of “creatureliness” and how an awareness of what we share with all creatures is necessary in forming human communities.

    • I’m glad you liked it! I didn’t think of the Arendt link, but, yes, it does resonate. I’d love to think her concept of “naked life” in relation to comedy.

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