Last night, before I went to sleep, I noticed that Sarah Silverman had Tweeted something that had schlemiel written all over it.
In Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Jew as Pariah: The Hidden Tradition,” Arendt argues that Heinrich Heine’s schlemiel initiates the “hidden tradition” of the Pariah. Heinrich Heine, argues Arendt, was the first notable Modern German-Jewish poet to popularize the schlemiel in Germany. According to Arendt, this happens in his Hebrew Melodies poems where we learn of the “lord of dreams” which is another name for the poet who is attached to nature and the world of dreams (which it fosters) but not fully to the world (not to “life life”).
Strangely enough, Arendt sees the model for this in Heine’s description of the Jewish Sabbbath and – in particular – in relation to the song “lecha dodi.” Through the song, sung to welcome the Sabbath, the Jews are transformed:
In his poem, Princess Sabbath, the first of his Hebrew Melodies, Heinrich Heine depicts for us the national background from which he sprang and which inspired his verses. He portrays his people as a fairy prince turned by witchcraft into a dog. A figure of ridicule throughout the week, every Friday night he suddenly regains his mortal shape, and freed from the preoccupations of his canine existence (von huendischen Gedanken), goes forth like a prince to welcome the sabbath bride and to greet her with the traditional hymeneal, Lecha Dodi.
Arendt tells us that this is the only “positive” aspect of Judaism that Heine can find and, to be sure, he uses it for poetic purposes:
This poem, we are informed by Heine, was especially composed for the purpose by the people’s poet-the poet who, by a stroke of fortune, escapes the grueling weekly transformation of his people and who continually leads the sabbath-like existence which is to Heine the only positive mark of Jewish life.
Out of this figure, Heine creates the schemiel (spelled shlemihl in the German). The transformation of the Jew from a dog to a prince foreshadows the task of the “lord of dreams” since the transformation is a way of telling the world to go to hell. And for Heine, this is accomplished by the schlemiel poet.
As Arendt notes, by way of her schlemiel genealogy, the schlemiel has no “heroic deeds” to boast of; rather, his greatest trait is his “noble heart.” To explain what this means, Arendt notes the schlemiel-poet’s “innocence.” And, in her translation, the secret of the schlemiel’s innocence is not Phoebus Apollo but Rabbi Faibusch (the last name is a comic play on the Greek Phoebus):
Innocence is the hall-mark of the schlemihl. But it is of such innocence that a people’s poets-its “lords of dreams”-are born. No heroes they and no stalwarts, they are content to seek their protection in the special tutelage of an ancient Greek deity. For did not Apollo, that “inerrable godhead of delight,” proclaim himself once for all the lord of schlemihls on the day when-as the legend has it-he pursued the beauteous Daphne only to receive for his pains a crown of laurels? To be sure, times have changed since then, and the transformation of the ancient Olympian has been described by Heine himself in his poem The God Apollo. This tells of a nun who falls in love with that great divinity and gives herself up to the search for him who can play the lyre so beautifully and charm hearts so wondrously. In the end, however, after wandering far and wide, she discovers that the Apollo of her dreams exists in the world of reality as Rabbi Faibusch (a Yiddish distortion of Phoebus), cantor in a synagogue at Amsterdam, holder of the humblest office among the humblest of peoples.
The schlemiel, Arendt tells us, is “the peoples poet”; he is not the poet of the nouveau rich and the parvenu. On the contrary, he, like the people, are outsiders in a fake society ruled by lies and posturing. Moreover, the schlemiel stands with the people and with nature, not with culture:
It is but natural that the pariah, who receives so little from the world of men that even fame (which the world has been known to bestow on even the most abandoned of her children) is accounted to him a mere sign of schlemihldom, should look with an air of innocent amusement, and smile to himself at the spectacle of human beings trying to compete with the divine realities of nature. The bare fact that the sun shines on all alike affords him daily proof that all men are essentially equal. In the presence of such universal things as the sun, music, trees, and children-things which Rahel Varnhagen called “the true realities” just because they are cherished most by those who have no place in the political and social world-the petty dispensations of men which create and maintain inequality must needs appear ridiculous.
Arendt’s rhetoric makes it clear that the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams” stands on the side of the “true realities” because they are politically excluded. In other words, they have no choice but to dream because they have no place in the world which, with all of its inequalities, appears “ridiculous.”
Can we say the same of Sarah Silverman? In her tweet, she says that she is “crazy busy with dream life.” That’s where her real work is: in the dream world and in producing dreams. She has “very little time for life life.” She seems to be telling us that she is the old/new Lord of Dreams.
But here’s the catch. Arendt believed the Schlemiel would no longer be necessary once the Jews were allowed to live in a world as equals. At the point, Jews would no longer have to dream. And Sidra Ezrahi, in Booking Passage, has argued that, while in exile, the schlemiel was appealing because it provided Jews (who were the losers of history) with a “substitute sovereignty.” But now, after the establishment of Israel, that no longer seems necessary as real sovereignty is within reach. However, Ezrahi notes that, though things have changed, American artists and writers still insist on what she calls the “trope of diaspora.” In lieu of this, she sees America as fertile soil since it is the “land of dreams.” And in this virtual world, which comes straight out of Hollywood, the Lords, so to speak, are the “Lords of Dreams.”
What can we take out from this?
Perhaps Sarah Silverman gives evidence that supports Ezrahi’s argument about America and schlemiels. If that is the case, what does it imply? Isn’t it the case that the Lord of Dreams passes back and forth between the world of dreams and the world of reality? Isn’t the schlemiel, the poet of the people who, like the schlemiel, feel like they are in the middle?
If this is the case, perhaps we can say that Arendt was wrong when she said that Superman replaced Charlie Chaplin (the last in her line of schlemiel-pariahs in the “hidden tradition”). In my book and here, on this blog, I am venturing this possibility.
But we need to ask ourselves, whether or not Sarah Silverman is the schlemiel-poet-of-the-people and whether we can still say that she, like Heine’s Lord of Dreams, speaks from the angle of nature and the people. Perhaps she speaks from a land of dreams that has no relation to the political or to a utopian dream that nature and culture merge. Perhaps her work is to dream and nothing more nor less than that.
Perhaps she is just a woman-child, who lives somewhere in-between dreams and reality: