Jerry Lewis’s Animistic Comedy

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Many a schlemiel-comedian has made his or her livelihood by way of this or that physical gesture (or series of gestures).  Oftentimes, these gestures are animations of this or that physical feature.  One need only think of the assemblage (to use a word made popular by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guittari) of Groucho Marx which included raised painted eyebrows, mustache, a cigar, his odd frames, and his “Jewish” nose.  By simply raising his fake eyebrows, widening his eyes, or twitching his cigar, Marx had a punch line.

To be sure, this assemblage has been fetishized and marketed.  The animating gesture, so to speak, is missing.

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In some cases, this assemblage has become a sign of comedy.  Here, in fact, is a book cover by MIT press. The book – The Odd One In – by Alenka Zupancic (the Slovenian philosopher Slajov Zizek’s teacher) espouses a philosophy of comedy.

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The cover and the title make an allusion to the Groucho Marx joke about him not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member.  This classical schlemiel joke is also told by Woody Allen.  He, so to speak, also animates it at the beginning of his film Annie Hall (1976) by retelling it – albeit with his own physical mannerisms and gestures that play more on the charming “sexual schlemiel” stereotype.

Although we are clearly aware of how each of these comedians is comically animating their features by way of this or that gesture, what we might miss is the fact that they may also – at times – animating the spaces they are in and even time.  One comedian who animates not just himself but also the space and time he occupies is Jerry Lewis.

I was fortunate enough to have recently come across this brilliant insight into Lewis’s character when Steven Shaviro (whose work on film theory, literary criticism, social networking, and philosophy is exceptional – to say the least) apprised me of two recent essays he had written on Jerry Lewis.  The second of these two essays addresses Lewis’s relationship to space and time by way of a reading which takes the comedic theory of the Nobel Prize winning late 19th and early 20th century philosopher, Henri Bergson as a counterpoint.

I deeply appreciate Shaviro’s insights since I have also taken Bergson’s Essay on Laughter and his notion of “creative evolution” as a counterpoint to my reading of the schlemiel.  What I point out in my work is how, for Bergson (as for many members of the German-Jewish Enlightenment), comedy is purgatory.  The act of laughter is based on the act of targeting this or that comic behavior which is “mechanical.”  Laughter is a way of saying that such mechanical action must be excluded (purged) from a society which is based on “élan vital” and on a vitalism based on becoming and change.  Mechanical repetition evinces the opposite and that’s why, according to Bergson, we laugh at it.  We want to become; we don’t want to mechanically repeat.

But in my reading the schlemiel is not to be seen as a character whose behaviors must be excluded; rather, they should be emulated in the sense that they challenge society to change; not the other way around.  This is what we see in much Eastern European literature.  The “lord of dreams” that Hannah Arendt sees as an obstacle to normality is, in Eastern Europe, closer to truth that those who laugh at him.  Her repetitions, therefore, put us into question and this fundamentally challenges Bergson’s reading.

Shaviro’s reading of Jerry Lewis – by way of Henri Bergson – offers another challenge to Bergson while, at the same, opening up a new way of approaching comedy by way of paying more attention to the way a comedian’s gestures affect and animate the space and time around them.

Shaviro takes Jerry Lewis’s film The Patsy (1964) as his starting point.  He focuses mainly on the music lesson given to Jerry Lewis by Hans Conreid, the “stuffy, Germanic music teacher.”

In this clip, Lewis appeals to physical gesture by “contorting his body into various grotesque postures.”  But, more importantly for Shaviro’s thesis, his gestures affect the space around him since he “ends up either..wrecking the furniture” by touching it or “by sliding down off it and onto the floor.”  These caricatures go on and on and end up affecting time and space.

Regarding Bergson, Shaviro points out that Lewis’s gestures are “inelastic” to “an alarming degree.” Lewis is “open to any and every suggestion that reaches him.”  His body is like an “electronic transformer” which “amplifies gestures and expressions instead of electric currents.”  But, in contrast to Bergson, Shaviro says that these gestures enliven things around the comic and that instead of being outside of a life process – as Bergson suggests comic gestures are – they generate a process. This generation is “visible” and spatial.

Moreover, instead of separating objects in space, Lewis’s gestures of “reciprocal interference” bind things in the room together into a network of oscillating relations. This works, also in terms of time, since instead of crashing objects immediately, Lewis postpones the crash by holding this or that object up before it falls. This creates a “temporal delay” and an excoriating long wait for this or that explosion or crash.

The key, as Shaviro argues, has to do with reading Lewis in terms of “animism” as opposed to the “vitalism” that Bergson thinks about.  This animism gives life to dead objects by way of what Shaviro calls “contagion.”  But this kind of animism differs from that spoken of by Joseph Campbell and others since it does not “possess” the animator and efface his or her identity.  Rather, this animism works like an electric current.  And, even the delay of this energy is a part of it’s relay.  In fact, the delay of the crash in the above-mentioned scene, according to Shaviro, is an extraction from the horror genre since it works by animating dead bodies; here, objects in the room.

This kind of animation is connected to “cartooning and cinematic animation” which Lewis learned (“inherited”) from the animator Frank Tashlin.  As Shaviro notes:

Cartoon animation gives exaggerated life to imaginary and initially inanimate figures; Tashlin and Lewis apply such exaggeration to living bodies themselves, creating an “unnatural” more-than-liveness.

Here is one of Tashlin’s animations from the 1940s.  As you can see, inanimate objects like a cage and signs are given life by way of exaggeration.  And this, as Shaviro argues, brings together a kind of animism that is opposed to a Bergsonian vitalism (élan vital).

Shaviro ends his essay on Lewis by suggesting that we also look at Karl Marx’s descripion of  a table which illustrates “commodity fetishism.”  In the example brought by Marx, the product – here a table – comes to life.  Marx finds this illustration of the “magical character of commodities” to be grotesque.  Playing on Bergson and Marx’s readings, Shaviro makes up a word to illustrate the ideas he is working with; namely a “Marxist-Bergsonian” phenomena which involves the animation of dead objects in space and time by way of comedy.

This thesis is fascinating and it makes the claim that the animism we see in Lewis’s comedy articulates a historical-economic backdrop for his comic-animism.  This theory puts an interesting spin on the comedy of Groucho Marx as well since the fetishized glasses, nose, and mustache that are a sign of comedy and of being the “odd one out” have the most power not when they are on this or that person’s face but when they appear in Marx’s films.

Here, for instance, is a great scene that demonstrates how he animates time and space.

I’ll end with a clip from Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) since it illustrates how Zelig – the human animation – changes vis-à-vis whatever space he is in.  And these changes give vitality to everyone around him and create an electric circuit of sorts (much like the spinning of a record).  Perhaps this is a product of capitalism, but, as Irving Howe argues (in this very film), it can also be read as a product of assimilation. Regardless, Shaviro’s suggestion about Lewis could also be applied to Allen.   Ultimately, these animated comic gestures would be nothing without animation but, as a part of the package, Jewish identity is (as Jacques Derrida would say vis-à-vis the text and deconstruction) supplemented by animation:

 

The Transformation of Seth Rogen: From a Schlemiel into a Green Hornet

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Seth Rogen is often cast as a schlemiel in many Hollywood films.  We can see this in films like Knocked Up (2007), Superbad (2007), and Pineapple Express (2008).

But in films like Knocked Up we start seeing the transformation of Rogen’s character.  In that film, Rogen goes from a pot-smoking “lord of dreams” to a responsible father and “partner.”  By the end of the film, we can see a distinct difference between him and his schlemiel friends.  To be sure, Apatow, in this film (and in many others), defines the schlemiel in terms of someone who can’t be a “man” and as a “slacker” or “geek.”  This, unfortunately, reduces the radical potential of this character and makes him into the American “everyman.”

Moreover, it effaces any Jewishness this character may have had for nearly a century.   This act of effacement, according to Daniel Itzkovitz in an essay entitled “They are All Jews,” has been going on for a while.  It evinces a “not-so-subtle shift in U.S. popular culture regarding Jewishness.”  Itzkovtiz takes note of a few films that illustrate this “not-so-subtle shift”:

Independence Day with all the expectations it places on Jewish shoulders is just one example…The Billy Crystal vehicle City Slickers (1991) – a banal formula comedy that re-imagines Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (1974) with yuppie angst replacing giddy anarchy – was an early touchstone in this process.  Such films’ aggrandizing but flattening out of Jewishness also helps explain why critics seem to read American mass culture’s relationship to Jews in such disparate ways.  (235)

The casting of Seth Rogen gives us an excellent example of this “flattening out of Jewishness.”   As a part of this process, Rogen goes from a character who transforms from a schlemiel into a responsible adult – as in Knocked Up – or from an outright schlemiel – in films such as Pineapple Express or Superbad – to the son of a WASP whose dreams become realities by way of inherited wealth in a film like The Green Hornet (2011).

I was astonished by what I saw in this film because it took Rogen’s already post-schlemiel character of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) and brought it to an entirely different level.  In Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Rogen plays a character who has a business idea and works it with other odd-balls; but, in comparison to what is shown in Knocked Up (regarding a porn-on-the internet business), this business is actually more solid and tangible than the foolish plan sketched out in Knocked Up.  It is laughable but, ultimately, it is less laughable (as is Rogen).  The greater laugh can be found in the characters Zack and Miri find.   Moreover, in this film, Zack (Rogen) is in a start up kind of business.  He is not wealthy; he is borne out of a slacker ethos.

But in The Green Hornet, we are first introduced to Rogen by way of his character Britt Reid – a playboy; the son of a wealthy newspaper mogul.  We see him at parties with many women fooling around here and there – something we don’t see in his earlier schlemiel films.  And, upon waking with a woman he had ended up with in a party (in his mansion), we learn that he doesn’t own the mansion; he only lives in it.  Nonetheless, he is still a playboy.  And his father is a consummate WASP by the name of James Reid.

In this film, not only is the schlemiel effaced but any sign of Jewishness is as well.  (To be sure, Rogen’s characters always had some small hint of Jewishness, but this film leaves no doubt in our minds that this is no longer even on the table.)  And instead of the Jew being the genius-geek-schlemiel who works together with another minority (as we see in Independence Day by way of Jeffrey Goldblum and Will Smith), we see an inversion of the geek, genius position.

Now, an Asian and not a Jewish character plays the “geek.”  But Kato (Jay Chou) isn’t exactly a geek in the sense Goldblum was; in fact, he’s really cool.  He rides a cool motorcycle, invents things like a special espresso machine (that fires up like a jet engine),  bulletproof glass, a hidden liquer cabinet, etc.  He’s a “genius” who Britt Reid (Rogen) takes as his guide.

Now the dreams we bear witness to are not the dreams of a schlemiel and they are not the dreams of a Jeff Goldblum who, in the process of fighting with Will Smith, becomes a man.  Rather, Kato is already a man.  And Rogen, who is already a WASP yet not fully integrated into the task of making wealth (as was his father), takes on Kato as a cool kind of partner (who, in reality, takes the role of a kind of father figure or midwife for Rogen).  Through Kato, Britt becomes a superhero.

And even though we see comic blunder on and off the film, such as in his encounter with Cameron Diaz (Lenore Case) or with many others, this is overshadowed by his comicbook heroism.  And that’s the point.  In the end, he’s no schlemiel or fool; he’s a responsible hero who can fight crime.  He’s not Clark Kent; he’s the Green Hornet.  Nonetheless, the end of the film includes a few comic moments.  But, as I noted, this doesn’t overshoadow or contaminate the heroism so much as make it a little more human and mundane.

This gesture away from the schlemiel toward the hero speaks to what Hannah Arendt said in the “Jew as Pariah” regarding the “failure” of Charlie Chaplin’s Hitlerian schlemiel in his film The Great Dictator (1940).  For Arendt, it failed because people wanted Superman and not Chaplin’s schlemiel.   And, I would add, they wanted the everyday hero.  Here, Rogen isn’t simply a working class hero or a slacker hero.  He’s a hero who comes from wealth.  And what we get is a spotted hero who is a little silly and a lot like us.  The potential of the schlemiel that we see in Yiddish literature or even in I.B. Singer or Saul Bellow is left behind for a character devoid of anything Jewish or anything that challenges what Ruth Wisse – in the first pages of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero – would call the “political and philosophical status quo.”

As a final note to this blog entry, I just want to point that one of Rogen’s most recent films, Guilt Trip (2012) casts him with a very Jewish mother (Barbara Streisand).  But in this film she plays the schlemiel, not he.  In fact, he’s the responsible one.  Regardless, the schlemiel that we see, with all of its little Jewish mannerisms, shows us something flat and ineffectual.  The schlemiel we see is cast as an “older mother” who is full of life but unable to fully navigate herself through modern life.  We – as audience members – are supposed to laugh at her lack of technical expertise and her lack of decorum.

But I find nothing funny here.  In fact, I find it quite sad that, as a Jew, I have to see this kind of representation.  The schlemiel is done a disservice in such silliness and such a condescending reading (although Streisand does her utmost to play the absent-minded one, I found it to be too schmaltzy and even insulting).

That said, I hope to return to this film and others of Rogen.  This blog entry is more or less a sketch of how Rogen has been casted.  And, in many cases, since he writes many of the films he stars in, he casts himself in this way.  Perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the schlemiel would be of great use to him; but, then again, that’s not what sells these days in Hollywood.

Jerry Lewis, Comedy, and Psychoanalysis (Terminable/Interminable)

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What has always intrigued me about the schlemiel is the fact that he constantly fails and that nothing, it seems, can help him.  And one of the things that pops up in modern Jewish-American literature and film to help the schlemiel out of his embarrassing condition is psychoanalysis.  The psychoanalytic cure (aka “the talking cure”) presupposes that there is an “end” to analysis.  As I have pointed out in my readings of the schlemiel, the psychoanalyst appears from time to time in the films of Woody Allen or in Phillip Roth’s notorious schlemiel classic – Portnoy’s Complaint – to offer a cure.  In Allen’s earlier films, the cure often falls short.  But in his later films, like Hollywood Ending, we see the opposite.  In that film, a psychoanalyst holds the key which, at some point, Allen’s main character embraces.  And doing so changes his life and makes him “normal.”  His analysis is, at some point, terminated.  In truth, Allen embraced the cure and has left the schlemiel behind.  (I have written and published two essays on this topic in different Woody Allen anthologies.)

Writing on the schlemiel in Phillip Roth, Sanford Pinsker points out that Roth was very uncomfortable with the schlemiel and the effect Portnoy’s Complaint had on his career and image.   That novel, in fact, is structured on a discussion between a psychanalyst and Portnoy.  With this in mind, Pinsker argues that all of Roth’s novels following Portnoy’s Complaint are aimed at psychologically working through the schlemiel and leaving him behind (for Roth, therefore, literature offered some kind of analysis which had a clear goal in mind: becoming normal).  Although she doesn’t appeal to psychoanalysis, Hannah Arendt, in her essay “The Jew as Pariah,” also sees the schlemiel as a malady of sorts which can and should be cured.  For her, the cure is social, historical, and political normalization.  Writing during World War II, Arendt envisioned a time when the Jew would be accepted as an equal and will no longer be forced to find shelter in being “exceptional” schlemiels/pariahs.

In all of the above-mentioned cases, we see the same logic which, I would argue, has its basis in Germany and central Europe and not Eastern Europe.  In all of these cases, the schlemiel is equated with some kind of abnormality (psychic or political) which can be cured.

In my last few blog entries, I have been pointing out how, for both Ruth Wisse and Steven Shaviro, psychology, though useful, may be too reductive when dealing with either the schlemiel (Wisse) or with Jerry Lewis’s brand of masochism (Shaviro).  Nonetheless, I was very pleased to see, after I posted my blog entry on facebook, that Steven Shaviro read my piece and pointed out how he had recently written yet another two essays on Jerry Lewis.  In the first of the two essays, which are both e-published, Shaviro speaks to the issue of the psychoanalytic cure and its relation to Jerry Lewis’s comedy.  I was very pleased to see this because I have been pondering the tension between affirming the schlemiel (the Eastern European model) and rejecting him (the German model).   As I have noted above, this model has been appealed to by way of this or that use of psychoanalysis in the films and novels of many a Jewish-American writer and filmmaker.

That said, I’d like to go through a few of Shaviro’s points; since his argument, regarding Jerry Lewis’s comedy, resonated well with my own claims for the schlemiel.  He argues, in short, that Jerry Lewis’s comedy is not about affirming a cure so much as challenging the talking cure.  And instead of terminating analysis, Lewis’s comedy leads to what Freud, in one account, would call “interminable analysis.”

The first of the two essays on Lewis is entitled “Smorgasbord.”  The title of the essay is based on Lewis’s original title for his 1983 film whose final title was Cracking Up.  Shaviro starts off his reading by noting the Jewishness of this film which one can find in the emotionally riveting case of the “self-deprecating” comedian.  This act of self-deprecation is a way or strategy for warding off “humiliations imposed upon” the Jew by “others.”  And this is:

A quintessential strategy that has historically been adopted by Jews, by women, and by members of oppressed groups. (7)

Shaviro brilliantly frames this strategy in terms of another “great Jewish invention” – psychoanalysis:

We might well compare Jewish humor to another great Jewish invention that endeavors to deal with unavoidable, internalized suffering: psychoanalysis.  Like humor psychoanalysis gives relief by providing a “safety valve” through which one may give vent to otherwise unmentionable miseries.  (8)

Shaviro notes that psychoanalysis and comedy offer “insights” that are often self-deprecating.  And the “cure” (which Shaviro puts in scare quotes) “consists in recognizing and giving voice to, the most unpleasant things that one can find out about oneself”(9).  However, Shaviro notes (against popular wisdom) that both comedy and psychoanalysis do not “really provide a permanent solution.”  Rather, both are a part of an “interminable process.”  And this is what we see in Lewis’s comedy:

He struggles interminably to come to some conclusion, his well-meaning efforts instead spread chaos far and wide.  Every one of Lewis’s character’s actions seems to have limitless reverberations…Waves of destruction spread outwards, to infect or contaminate other people, and to overwhelm Lewis’s physical surroundings.  (11)

Shaviro points out, in this regard, Lewis’s failed attempts to kill himself in the movie.

Regarding this interminable failure, Shaviro points out who instead of transforming himself (as we see in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris or in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up), Jerry Lewis’s character in this film “reiterates” and repeats things.  In this film, for instance, Lewis tries to give up smoking but keeps on going over and over again through the procedure of stopping – but to no avail.  He can’t quit and is, so to speak, “confined.”

Once again, Lewis’s persona is unable to achieve freedom, even at his machinations have cascading effects beyond the limits of his confinement.  (27)

Shaviro ends his essay with a detailed description of Lewis’s encounter with a psychoanalyst.  The twist is that he is not cured so much as free from the symptoms of neurosis that he transfers to his psychoanalyst:

All of the symptoms that have been excised from Warren’s (Lewis’s) body and mind reappear insteaed in Dr. Petchick.  All of a sudden the psychiatrist has adopted all of Warren’s mannerisms and incompetentcies. He lights a cigarette and gets punched out by Dick Butkis; he flails about, running this way and that, causing cars to crash and structures to topple, spreading chaos around him. (32)

And this, for Shaviro, is the main point.  Lewis’s comedy works by way of transferring his stammerings to others.  Instead of getting rid of his malady, he gives it to others.  The great irony of this, according to Shaviro, is that Lewis, in real life, is an advocate of the laughing cure and comedic catharsis but his films teach the opposite: one cannot be cured.  Comedy, like psychoanalysis, is (ultimately) interminable and that interminability is contagious.  In other words, one cannot simply be cured.

Shaviro’s reading of Lewis – in this instance – has important implications for schlemiel theory.  Lewis’s inability to be cured serve as a reminder to us that, in the schlemiel tradition, the desire to “cure” the schlemiel of its malady was posited by Jews who wanted to leave the past behind and felt that the schlemiel represented that past.  His awkwardness and dreaminess were for Arendt, and many others, remnants of a Jewish population that was “worldless” and unaware of how to act in a society and history from which they had been excluded for centuries.  On the other hand, the Eastern European Jews saw in the schlemiel a challenge to society and to its evils. They clung to its simplicity and honesty.  The only cure – for many of them – would be the end of exile or for society to eliminate all evil from its midst.

But let’s be frank and ask what, exactly, that would consist of.  Would it consist in being accepted by others as an equal? Would in consist in having a “Jewish State”?  Or would it consist in the end of evil?  Of the three options, it is the last one which held a lot of appeal for writers like Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer – but, in truth, they knew it was a utopian hope.  This implies that the schlemiel and its failures would be interminable because evil itself are and will – most likely – be interminable.

What Shaviro suggests is that Jews like Jerry Lewis know that the cure is far off and that it is shared. The healing process will not, by any means, just happen.  And film has an ethical role in the sense that it reminds us that the basis for interminable analysis is something that just can’t go away in a few days or years or, for that matter, in two hours in this or that film.  What Lewis does is expose us to this desire for a cure, its frustration, and its endless reiteration which are all features of the schlemiel and, for that matter, Jewishness in general.

Is Jerry Lewis a Masochistic Comedian or an Unconscious Anarchist?

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All anarchists are fully conscious of their will to destroy the law.  The unconscious anarchist would not be; his anarchic “effect” would therefore be an accident. Steven Shaviro calls Jerry Lewis an “unconscious anarchist.”  But what does Lewis’s anarchism consist of?  Before we can answer that question, we need to look at the origin of this discussion; namely, the discussion of Masochism and its relation to humor.  And that brings us three questions: 1) Is the Schlemiel an “unconscious anarchist”; 2) To be an unconscious anarchist must one be a masochist; 3) Can we avoid psychologizing the schlemiel and reducing his political, social, and ethical potential?

In the beginning of yesterday’s blog entry, I pointed out how Ruth Wisse rejects – outright – the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  The reason for this is because she feels that this reading is – more or less – a reduction of the schlemiel to a psychological malady.  This reading obviously casts a negative glance at the schlemiel and it misses the point that Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer were looking to make; namely, that the schlemiel is, as she says at the beginning of her book, a challenge to the “political and philosophical status quo.”  Moreover, in the chapter where she challenges the reading of the schlemiel as a masochistic character – a reading made, primarily, by the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik – she points out that I.B. Singer’s Gimpel is a post-Holocaust character who, in the most ethical sense, looks to challenge the evil wrought by that horrific event by wandering, so to speak, after goodness.

The reason I brought up Deleuze’s reading of masochism was not to challenge Wisse by offering yet another psychological interpretation; on the contrary, I was very interested in how Deleuze reads Masochism (and Sadism) as challenges to the Law.  And by law, Deleuze does not simply imply law as such (although that is on his horizon) so much as social norms.  The point of the masochist’s humor is not to transgress the law (and the Idea of the Good) in the name of the Idea of Evil, which is what Sade’s irony does (according to Deleuze – since irony always rejects one thing in the name of something else; namely, a higher principle); rather the point of masochistic humor is to challenge the law by zealously keeping it in all its details.

I ended yesterday’s blog entry by briefly mentioning Steven Shaviro’s reading of Jerry Lewis, based in major part on the work of Gilles Deleuze, as a masochistic humorist.  I brought in Shaviro because it applies this not to a sexual masochist – as Deleuze does vis-à-vis Leopold Sacher Masoch, the author of Venus in Furs and the founder of masochism –  so much as a real humorist: Jerry Lewis.  I would like to return to Shaviro’s reading in this blog entry because he provides a valuable reading of Lewis and tests Deleuze’s claims for humor against Lewis’s comic performances.  In addition, Shaviro, like Wisse, moves away from the psychological reading and toward a more political or socially oriented reading.  Nonetheless, Shaviro takes his reading of Lewis to a place where Wisse, in her reading of the schlemiel, would not.  And he does this because Shaviro’s reading of humor is oriented according to a post-Marxist framework instead of an ethical framework (which is the basis of Wisse’s reading).

One of the most important distinctions Shaviro makes with respect to Lewis, is the fact that Lewis’s comedy may “mobilize all the affects of masochism” but “his comic personas never possess the will to twist and pervert the law that characterizes the true masochist”(110).  In other words, Lewis is only half a masochist or what Shaviro calls an “unconscious anarchist.”  And, as a critic, he looks to unmask what Lewis cannot see; namely, social and economic forces that his comedy unconsciously embodies and rejects.

Following the thread of Deleuze and applying it to Lewis, Shaviro points out that in many of Lewis’s films “Lewis’s overzealous efforts to obey orders, to mimic models of success, to act pragmatically, and otherwise to accede to the socially defined norm only end in failure and confusion”(110).

Here is an example from  Hardly Working:

What is most interesting about all this is that Lewis is “anarchist…despite his hyperconformism: he disseminates chaos in the course of earnestly trying to do exactly what bosses, psychoanalyists, media specialists…etc want him to do”(110).  This, points out Shaviro, is radically different from a “carnivelesque transgression” that you would find in the pages of Marquis de Sade.

Lewis is a failure.  Whenever he is “faced with responsibility,” he fails.  And when he does, claims Shaviro, he “experiences chaos on his own body.”  This is “disseminated in waves” to everything around him.  But this comic destruction of norms does not, according to Shaviro, issue a “judgment against norms” so much as a judgment “against himself.”  This characterization of Lewis’s failure is fascinating for schlemiel in theory because it is contrary to what we find in the schlemiel.  The schlemiel’s failures preserve some form of hope and do in fact present some kind of challenge to (or judgment against) the status quo; Lewis’s gestures, according to Shaviro, do not.  He, rather, is the sight of judgment and abjection.

Moreover, Lewis’s self-confidence is the main issue.  He is constantly at the mercy of other people who he hopes to impress.  But he fails.  Dean Martin often plays the role of this character.

This, of course, can be read as a psychological issue.  In fact, in the German reading of the Schlemiel (as opposed to Wisse’s Eastern European reading), the schlemiel is guilty of being heteronomous and not autonomous.  He, like women and children (as some Haskalah – Jewish Enlightenment – playwrights and thinkers argued), is too influenced by the other.  To be at mercy of the other is a negative trait that they believed came from the ghetto.  One of the most outspoken voices in this regard was Otto Weininger who saw in Jews (and he himself was a Jew) a masochistic aspect that needed to be addressed if Jews were to be a part of society.  This is stated explicitly in his book Sex and Character.

Although this reading seems to be the “correct” one, it’s not.  As Shaviro points out, this is a negative psychological reading which misses the point that Deleuze was trying to make.  But even Deleuze needs, in his view, to focus more on the social.  For this reason, Shaviro makes a fascinating reading of Lewis that looks into how Lewis’s body – when it breaks down under failure and the desire to please through zealous performances of social norms – is the surface upon which late-capitalism writes:

The social field of American late capitalism is directly invested by the disintegrative movements of Lewis’s physical comedy. In his most striking, intense, excessive moments, a schizophrenic dislocation of subjectivity is linked to bizarre distortions and topographical transformations of physical, corporeal, and social space. (116)

Paying close attention to Lewis’s physical comedy, Shaviro makes a powerful distinction between Lewis and Buster Keaton which characterizes the radical differences between American capitalism in the early 20th and the mid-20th century:

Whereas Keaton’s physical comedy is based on surprising external connections among discrete and solid objects, Lewis’s relies rather on a rush of delirious interpenetrations, in which separate identities of the initial components are lost.   Keaton’s body enters into combination with the wheels and lever of the train (The General) to form a new and complex machine.  (117)

Shaviro further characterizes this difference in terms of gases and solids.  While Keaton works with a “mechanics of solids,” Lewis works with a “mechanics of fluids or gases” since everything bounces and rebounds off of his body; and, as it does, his body loses its “integrity in a series of spastic lurches and twitches”(117).

And instead of reading Lewis’s “dependency” on the other as a lack of self-confidence and autonomy, Shaviro, drawing on a post-Marxist framework, points out that it “dependency” is:

The logical consequence of the Idiot’s typical position as an unskilled laborer and/or a naïve consumer in the American service economy.  

And Lewis’s failure is not a failure of “father figures” so much as “capitalist father figures.”   He can’t “grow up.”  And, since he clings to this infantilization (which we still see in many a Judd Apatow film), Shaviro tells us he offers a contrast to the “commodified form of the self, which can be recognized in the fatuous, overbearing authority figures who populate Lewis’s movies (the hotel manager in The Bellboy, the college president in the The Nutty Professor, etc”

Shaviro states Lewis’s case of remaining a child and not “growing up” (of his “continued abjection, dependency, and maladaptation) in terms of the a refusal of the commodity form: “only an adult can indulge in fantasies of plentitude and autonomy, for these fantasies are produced by the commodity form itself”(124).

Lewis is the “unconscious anarchist.”

What I find so interesting about this claim and Shaviro’s descriptions is how they relate or contrast to the descriptions and characterizations of the schlemiel.  The descriptions we have in schlemiel theory don’t look at the schlemiel’s challenges for failures within a post-Marxist framework.  Nonetheless, they do find the schlemiel’s challenge to be against the “political and philosophical status quo.”  Moreover, if we read Wisse closely and compare what she has said about the post-Holocaust schlemiel, we can see that the ethical pursuit of goodness and trust trumps all.  And it should, as the schlemiel isn’t only to be seen as a challenge the “commodity form” or to be an “unconscious anarchist.”  There is also an ethical component to this challenge and this anarchism.

And this anarchism can also be seen in terms of the “anarchic” relation to the other that Levinas describes in his book Otherwise Than Being.  Levinas places the accent on how open this relation is.  And this implies that there are or could be great surprises as well as great dangers that occur when one is exposed to the other.  And this exposure is itself ethical.  What we decide to do in relation to it, even if we fail, is ethical.  Humor brings this out.

Our awkwardness, which finds one form of articulation in the physical comedy of Jerry Lewis, comes out of our ethical relation to the other.  And although Lewis’s physical comedy indicates how his relations to “things” are more fluid, these relations don’t constitute his humanity.   Something else does, but, in truth, his humanity seems to be squashed constantly by failure.  But this would constitute, according to Shaviro, his “unconscious anarchism.”  I would argue, in addition, that there is another anarchism to this relation, the anarchism mentioned by Levinas.  And this “other” anarchism includes failure as a constant feature of being “exposed to the other.”  It is a failure that is not willed; and if there is any aspect of masochism, it is not intentional or “conscious.”

Shaviro’s exceptional post-Marxist reading of Lewis points out how he is “unconsciously challenging the law.”  What I’d like to bring out is the ethical dimension of Lewis’s comedy.  And, as I am noting above, this will involve a reading which pays close attention to the ethical meaning of Lewis’s physical comedy.  Should it be characterized as anarchic in Deleuze’s sense or in Levinas’s ethical sense?

I hope to address this more in depth in the next blog.

The Difference Between Sadism and Masochism as the Difference Between Irony and Humor

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One of the most interesting distinctions I have come across, regarding comedy, deals with the distinction made by Gilles Deleuze (a French philosopher) between humor and irony.  According to Deleuze, in his book entitled Masochism, we find irony in Sadism and humor in Masochism (I am capitalizing these words for the sake of emphasis).  As a thinker who is interested in “leaving metaphysics behind,” Deleuze makes the interesting claim that Sadism simply reinstates metaphysics even through it purports to destroy it.   In contrast, Deleuze thinks that Masochism does leave it behind.  Evidence of this distinction can be found in the irony and humor we find in the work of Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, respectively.

The reason this distinction is of such interest to me is not simply that it is unexpected; rather, it is also of interest because, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the psychologist Theodor Reik and the cultural critic Albert Goldman both “psychologize” the schlemiel by claiming that he is a masochistic character or, quite simply, a person who, in fear of reality, finds excuses and “rationalizes” inaction:

‘Psychoanalysis,’ writes Theodor Reik, ‘would characterize the schlemihl as a masochistic character who has strong unconscious will to fail and spoil his chances.’  Explaining the popularity of the schlemiel pose in modern culture, Albert Goldman calls it an excuse, an apology, and a rationalization.  (68)

To be sure, the basis of her reading of the schlemiel – in major part – is based on challenging the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  She argues against the psychoanalyst who “treats the schlemiel concept as a neurotic symptom and tries to determine the causes of a patient’s failure in actual situations.”    In contrast, while the author “may or may not be aware of the ‘masochistic need to fail’ that dominates the subconscious of his (schlemiel) character,” such “knowledge may be irrelevant to the story.”  Wisse claims that, in a story like “Gimpel the Fool,” the “irony…rests on our ability to perceive his failure as a success”(68).  And Gimpel’s “antipragmatic philosophy mocks the need for classification and rationalization of which the tendency to define Gimpel as a masochist is a good example”(68).  This mockery of psychological explanations – namely, the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character – affirms, by way of irony, goodness:

Since the schlemiel is above all a reaction against the evil surrounding him, he must reject more and more as the evil increases; Gimpel is prepared to walk into eternity in pursuit of personal goodness. (69).

Read against Wisse’s take on Masochism, Deleuze’s reading offers another way of addressing the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  I’d like to break his reading down and test Wisse’s reading against it so as to see how or whether Deleuze’s reading has any relevance to schlemiel theory.

Cutting right to the chase, Deleuze writes that “in modern thought irony and humor take on a new form: they are now directed at a subversion of the law”(86).   Both Sade and Masoch (respectively, the founders of what, today, is called Sadism and Masochism), “represent the two main attempts at subversion, at turning the law upside down.”  But the ways they went about doing this and the success in doing so differ radically.

In view of his claim, Deleuze offers definitions of irony and humor in terms of law.  Writing on irony, he states:

Irony is still in the process or movement which bypasses the law as a merely secondary power and aims at transcending it toward a higher principle. (86)

Deleuze’s reading speaks directly to the Socratic practice of irony where “Good” is a principle toward which one transcends one’s “secondary nature” in the name of one’s “primary nature.”   Through irony, one “discovers” one’s “primary nature.”   Sade, like Nietzsche after him, took the Good as their target.  And, as Deleuze notes, they used irony to “overturn” it; or rather reveal that the Good no longer exists and can no longer be used as the basis of law:

But what is the higher principle no longer exists, and if the Good can no longer provide the basis for the law or a justification of its power?  Sade’s answer is that in all its forms – natural, moral, and political – the law represents the rule of secondary nature which is always geared toward conservation; it is a usurpation of true sovereignty.  (86)

Sade sees the law as the basis of all of societies problems.  It is the basis of tyranny.  Deleuze paraphrases Sade as saying: “Tyrants are created by the law alone: they flourish by virtue of the law”(86).  Sade’s hatred of tyranny is the “essence of his thinking.”  And the heroes of his novels speak the “counter-language of tyranny.”

Sade looks to transcend the law, but not toward the Good (as Socrates would do); rather, he transcends the law toward the “direction of its opposite, the Idea of Evil, the supreme principle of wickedness, which subverts the law and turns Platonism upside down”(87).  (Note: The notion or rather language of inverting Platonism was stressed in a several aphorisms by Friedrich Nietzsche.)  By way of such a process, one will discover his or her “primary nature,” which, in Sade’s view is the opposite of tyranny.  Citing Sade, Deleuze notes that, for Sade, law is “inferior” to “anarchy”:

The law can only be transcended by virtue of a principle that subverts it and denies its power.  

This principle is, according to Deleuze, at the basis of the Sadean irony which destroys the law in order to transcend the law.  But, as Deleuze notes, we are still in the realm of metaphysics since one principle (the Idea of Evil) replaces another (the Idea of the Good).

Deleuze contrasts Sade’s ironic challenge to the law to the Masochist’s challenge, which is based, instead, on what Deleuze calls humor.  Although they both take the law as their “target,” the ironist and the humorist, like the Masochist and the Sadist, are fundamentally different.  However, this assertion may rightfully meet with a puzzled look since, to be sure, the Masochist is one who submits (and here, one would say, submits to the law). Deleuze, nonetheless, claims the opposite: a “masochist would not by contrast be regarded as gladly submitting to it (the law)”(88).

So, what is humor as opposed to irony?  And how does it relate to Masochism?

Deleuze uses a spatial metaphor to illustrate:

What we call humor –in contradistinction to the upward movement of irony toward a transcendent higher principle – is a downward movement from the law to its consequences.  (88)

This downward movement of humor is accomplished by “twisting the law by excess of zeal.”  In other words, one mocks the law by way of being “too zealous.”  And this is what Masochism-as-humor does:

By scrupulously applying the law we are able to demonstrate its absurdity and provoke the very disorder that it is intended to prevent or to conjure.  By observing the letter of the law, we refrain from questioning its ultimate or primary character; we then behave as if the supreme sovereignty of the law conferred upon it the enjoyment of all those pleasures it denies us; hence, by the closest adherence to it, and by zealously embracing it, we may hope to partake of its pleasures. (88)

This speaks directly to the Masochist since:

A close examination of masochistic fantasies or rites reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest applications of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be expected (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it).  It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity. (88)

How can we, based on this reading, address the schlemiel?  While for Reik and Goodman, Masochism vis-à-vis the schlemiel has a negative value, for Deleuze, Masochism (and its essence: humor) has a positive value: it challenges the law in ways that Sadism cannot.   By over-observing the law one makes it absurd.

A good example of this is evoked by the film theorist and critic Steve Shaviro.  In his book Cinematic Bodies, he writes on Jerry Lewis as a figure of Masochism.  By being over-zealous and through intense mimicry, Shaviro tells us, Jerry Lewis masochistically inverts the law (or the norm).

In the next blog entry, we will continue on this thread and look into how or whether this reading of Masochism and humor relates to the schlemiel.  After all, Jerry Lewis does play a schlemiel.  But this reading is focused less on the psychologizations that Ruth Wisse criticized than on a different way of understanding one’s relation to “the law.”

An Experiment: What Happens When you Substitute Humor for Poetry?

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Writing on poetry in his book Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes makes the argument that “interrupted flow of the new poetic language initiates a discontinuous Nature, which is only revealed piecemeal.”  It does this by “withdrawing” the natural functions of language.  When this “withdrawal” happens, “the relations existing in the world” are obscured.  And what happens is that now, in poetry, one is faced with the “object” or rather relations: in “it (the new poetry) nature becomes a fragmented space, made of objects solitary and terrible, because the links between them are only potential.”

Reading this, I wondered what would happen if, for “new poetic language,” I were to substitute the word “humor.”   I thought this would be an interesting experiment so as to test Roland Barthes claims.  After all, humor also plays on relations between things and it “withdraws” the natural function of language by surprising us with unexpected combinations of word, gesture, and physical presence.

But, for Barthes, poetic language is surprising in a terrifying way.  As we saw above, nature, by way of new poetry, becomes full of “solitary and terrible” objects because their relations are “only potential.”  For Barthes, nature becomes unhinged by way of the “new poetry” and nothing is projected on to these “potential” links/relations:

Nobody chooses for them a privileged meaning, or a particular use, or some service; nobody imposes a hierarchy on them, nobody reduces them to the manifestation of a mental behaviour, or of an intention, of some evidence of tenderness.

The poetic word leaves one, so to speak, speechless and powerless.   It assaults one with a world of “verticalities, of objects, suddenly standing erect, and filled with all their possibilities: one of these can be only a landmark in an unfulfilled, and thereby, terrible world.”  Moreover, “these poetic words” or rather objects “exclude men.”  They relate man “not to other men, but to the most inhuman images of Nature: heaven, hell, holiness, childhood, madness, pure matter, etc.”    And it destroys “any ethical scope.”

Can we, in all seriousness, replace what Barthes is saying about poetry with humor?  Can we say that humor “excludes” men and relates man to “hell, holiness, childhood, madness, etc”?  What does humor relate us to?  Other people?  Things human or inhuman?

What I would like to do is think relationality in terms of the comic.  Barthes, like the German philospher Martin Heidegger (in essays like “What is Metaphysics,” “Letter on Humanism,” and the “Origin of the Work of Art”) , wants to give poetry the role of making things strange and inhuman.  But why, one should ask, is comedy and laughter excluded from that space?  Are they too human and familiar?  Is comedy or laughter “too social” or “too ethical”?  After all, Henri Bergson thought its primary activity was social.  Comedy excludes that which gets in the way of natural, creative evolution: élan vital.  We laugh at that which is “mechanical” and not natural – at that which doesn’t change and become, that which repeats itself needlessly.

Charles Baudelaire had a radically different reading of humor.  In fact, for him, humor changes our relation to ourselves and others. It estranges us.   And his primary example actually involves revisiting childhood – a broken one – by way of the writer ETA Hoffman, who writes of how a little girl becomes the object of laughter by way of her losing her relations to the world.  He also cites mimes as altering these relations.

But mime is not poetry and neither is ETA Hoffman’s work; nonetheless, Baudelaire found the work mimes and Hoffman did to be invaluable to himself (a poet). Nonetheless, the serious approach to poetics, as the basis of some kind of post-humanism, by way of Heidegger, Barthes, and even Maurice Blanchot, cannot entertain the possibility that humor can make things strange.

What’s interesting with humor is the fact that the shock that may or may not be invoked by this or that joke reverberates with both anxiety and with a sense of discovery.  Moreover, the best comedians disclose a potentiality to us that plays with things we take as “natural” and it does so in a way that is not completely alienating.

I find this fact fascinating since, in a way, it is a utopian kind of language since it appeals to the people and doesn’t simply look to alienate them.  To be sure, comedy’s power is in its ability to challenge nature and accepted relations while, at the same time, evoking something different and surprising.   Barthes himself evokes a utopian language at the end of Writing Degree Zero that relates the new poetry to the Revolutionary and a “new power.”   But, for him (as for Sartre) literature or poetry must lead the way; not comedy.  For both of them, there is nothing funny about revolution or utopia.  Strangely enough, this seriousness and this piety to language and thought are more aligned with mystics than with comics.

And perhaps that’s the rub.  The comical approach to challenging our relations to all kinds of things – such as cell phones, parenting, race, politics, etc etc – are at play in comedy. And the potential of comedy is, in so many ways, more powerful than that of straight up “new poetry” (which, don’t get me wrong, I really love).  Nonetheless, I find it fascinating that someone like Barthes wouldn’t even entertain this. And I think this has a lot to do with the trends that were going on in his time.

I am very influenced by his work and the work of Continental thinkers.  However, what I realize is that the best test for their work, as far as schlemiel-in-theory goes, is comedy.  In this case, substituting comedy for poetry – for purely experimental reasons – can change the way we look at Barthes profound approach to language.  It can also offer us another way to think the comical – minus all that poetic seriousness.  And we can ask, for better or for worse, what the “potential” of comedy is, how it renders us powerless, and how it puts forth the potential for a new distribution of power.   Perhaps we can say, playing on Barthes (and even Blanchot) that comedy has the power of powerlessness behind it. But, as I noted before, comedy is all in the timing.  And this power of powerlessness must, so to speak, stand the test of time.

The Odd Couple: Kairos and Masochism

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Going through Roland Barthes lecture notes (for his lectures in Morocco in 1978), I came across an odd relationship, one I have never seen posited by any scholar; namely, the relationship between Kairos and Masochism.  Giving some thought to it this morning, it occurred to me that timing may in fact have something to do with masochism if, that is, one doesn’t try to master it.  On the other hand, I wondered what this has to do with the schlemiel or humor.  To be sure, Leopold Sacher Masoch, the father of masochism, did write a novel or two about Jews who he lived side by side with and who, some argue, taught him about the masochism.  Gilles Deleuze, in his book Masochism, posits a relationship between humor and masochism and contrasts it to the relationship of irony to mastery.  Although he discusses the relationship of masochism to contingency (something Barthes is interested in), he doesn’t discuss the relationship of masochism to time.

How does Barthes approach this topic?  And can we learn anything about the schlemiel’s relation to time by way of addressing it?

In a sub-section of his notes entitled “the Perishable,” Barthes notes that the “right moment” that informs his notion of Kairos is one that “passes” and that, in terms of the subject, it is a “perishable quality” of this passing moment is “accepted, wanted.”  But, says Barthes, desire is not an act of “resignation” – rather, it is an act of “consecration.”  But this consecration is not the creation of monument to one’s mourning of the passing moment.  It is, instead, an “acceptance” of the moment’s contingency, fragility, and perishability. And it exists, says Barthes, in the parenthesis.  In other words, it is not something that can be affirmed or denied; it is neutral.  But if this is the case, how do we understand what he means by desire or acceptance?  Isn’t that an affirmation or an act of the will?

Anticipating this question, Barthes looks to create a notion of acceptance that has nothing to do with the will.  And all of this, for Barthes, is a preface to his claim that masochism is related to Kairos.  To this end, Barthes evokes a non-western concept so as to challenge the western notion of the will which, as anyone who has studied 20th century philosophy knows, is a central concept that has met with much debate and discussion.

(To be sure, the assumption of the will is an ancient notion which finds its culmination in Nietzsches’s idea of the “will-to-power.”  The German philosopher Martin Heidegger argues that Nietzsches’ notion of the will-to-power marks the end – or the completion – of metaphysics.  Barthes, in the spirit of Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and other Continental thinkers is also putting the notion of the will and its metaphysical foundations into question.)

The non-western concept that Barthes brings to the fore is “Wou-Wei” – a concept drawn from the Tao.  He contrasts it to the “will to live,” but says that it is “not the opposite”:

It’s not the will-to-die: it’s what baffles, dodges, disorients the will to life.  It’s therefore, structurally, a Neutral: what baffles the paradigm.

Continuing on this line of reasoning, Barthes says that “wou-wei” privileges the “spontaneous” to the “detriment of” the “voluntary.”  It is something that doesn’t come from us.  But it also involves “not-doing”:

Wou-wei: not to direct, not to aim one’s strength, to leave it marking time in place.  For example the Melting of Breath (lianqi) is superior to the Control of Breath (xingqui).

This also includes not using one’s strength, intelligence, wisdom, or knowledge or “to use it to the minimum, within the limits of a pure concern for protection, for prudence.”

In the face of Wou-wei, Barthes points out that the West is baffled since it is a “subversion of all our moral values, and notably of the “progressive” ones.”  The wise person, notes Barthes does not “strive” or struggle.”  Citing a Taoist, Barthes notes that the wise man has a “tranquility in disorder.”  This, of course, goes against what Barthes calls “the moral ideology of the will,” which he defines in terms of the will to “dominate, to live, to impose one’s truth.”

In terms of temporality and time, the will is in accord with the individual who looks to dominate and shape the moment.  In contrast, Barthes notes that Wou-wei is not a moment dictated by the individual “but according to what one says of him.”  Citing Freud’s work of Leonardo DiVinci, Barthes associates this with a “feminine sensibility” which did not “abstain from the world.”  DiVinici’s gesture is non-western – it is an illustration of Wou-wei – since he exposes himself to the sensory world and judgment.

And this is where Barthes brings in the relation of time/Kairos to masochism.

Citing a passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Barthes points out a moment in the text where the main character is, so to speak, experiences his hopelessness.  This experience, because it is narrated and makes extensive reference to time, has a temporal quality.  In addition, it illustrate a state of non-action and non-striving of the will:

During his journey he, as it were, considered his life afresh and arrived at his old conclusion, restful in its hopelessness: that is was not for him to begin anything anew – – but that he must live out his life, content to do no harm, and not disturbing himself or desiring anything.

This “disenchantment,” says Barthes, has a “slightly masochistic tonality.”  I find this suggestion to be very telling as it implies that the Kairos, for Barthes, has a lot to do with acknowledging one’s hoplessness in relation to the other.  Unfortunately, Barthes spends more time thinking about the “surprise” of these moments and of accepting them and not enough time on the masochistic element.  Nonetheless, he does celebrate the fact that, in these states, one is “good for nothing.”

I find it fascinating that Barthes can see a link between Kairos and masochism.  But that the link to the other is displaced by the reflection of the self’s relation to the event while Deleuze thinks about masochism in terms of this relation but without thinking the relation to time (save for the claim that masochism exposes one to the contingency of terms and relations).

What I would like to suggest is that we address the temporality of the schlemiel in terms of a masochism that is temporal and relational.  However, as Ruth Wisse suggests at the outset of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, in the midst of this gesture there is a reversal victimization and, as I would argue, masochism.   I would like to look more into the presence of masochism in the comic but I want to juxtapose it to the irony we also see. Deleuze insists that we separate irony from humor, but as I would like to show in future entries, how they often work together in schlemiel comedy. And, more importantly, this is not simply a matter of relation; it is a matter of timing.

The schlemiel is and is not a masochistic figure and the communication of that paradox is all in the timing.  Kairos and masochism are an odd couple…like Felix and Oscar….

Perhaps that is what makes schlemiel comedy so (un)timely.