Before presenting his parable on the Holy Fool, the Writer, and the Beggar, Meir Abehsera tells us about a dream that he had as a young man. Playing on the theme of “memory as redemption” – which we discussed in the last blog entry – Abehsera recalls a dream he had as a child and how that dream, which was vague, now comes back to him but with more clarity. This dream offers us an allegorical key to understand what exactly is at stake with the schlemiel as Holy Fool.
Writing on his apprehension of the dream as a child, Abehsera writes metaphorically of how his dream:
…was like the hoarse, insistent pounding of the sea that exhorts young dreamers to set sail, and as mysterious as an unknown song begging to be aired. (106)
Abehsera goes on to liken this dream to a “song” that he, as a writer, wanted to pen. He didn’t write it, apparently, because he didn’t think he was ready. And, “at a certain point I decided that it would take me until old age before I would be prepared to do it justice.” In such lines, one can hear a persona that is humble, perhaps too humble and afraid to take the leap into writing. It foreshadows something. Indeed, I think Abehesera is asking the reader to pay close attention to this persona since, through his parable, we see that the writer goes through a transformation. And this transformation is brought about by witnessing the schlemiel face-to-face.
But before we get there, we learn of a person who is touched by a dream but who, as a matter of course, must let us know that he may not be prepared to write its song. Echoing what he stated earlier, his problem is a memory-slash-imagination problem:
I might have kept my resolve to let go of the dream, had it not been for the rapid deterioration of memory that I perceived in the people around me. It is true that I am uneven. I am half raw and half burnt. I had to come out….Can a crudely fashioned man such as myself succeed in singing the song whole?
In this passage, I want not only to point out his low estimation of himself and the world around him but also the fact that something has changed: instead of simply writing the song, he now says that his task is to sing it. And he fears that he can’t. Moreover, he can only sing a fragment of it.
Looking down on himself and parodying the kind of song it will sound like, Abehsera jokingly plays out a narrative in which his performance is judged from the “ancient sages.”
The ancient sages look down on me from their heavenly portals. They are amused, but perturbed at my insolence. One of them says: “Who gave that clown permission to speak?” “Sounds like a barking dog,” says another. “But look how his audience howls.” A third stage, though engrossed in an enormous book, has overheard the conversation. He lifts his head for a moment and peers down at me. “is there such a shortage of teachers that we’re forced to put up with this?”(106)
This moment of slapstick put down’s be the sages is brought together by something they can all agree on; namely, that Abehsera is a schlemiel:
“We all agree,” says the first, “that he is an empty-headed fool.”
But Abehsera is not alone; it seems his generation gives birth to schlemiels. This is what one of the sages says:
“But consider the generation in which he lives…and read what it says here.” He thrusts a thick volume across the table and quotes: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”
This prompts the question that is of great concern to schlemiel theory: must the schlemiel stop being a man-child and become a man? Is that the issue? Will Abehsera’s singing of this song redeem him from being a schlemiel? Or is it the case that the song itself is a comic one and leaves the schlemiel a schlemiel. Is the schlemiel, in other words, the “Possible Man” that Abehsera mentions in the title? Or will he always be a possible, half man, at least, until the Messiah arrives?
Following this reflection, we witness Abehsera trying to rally himself up to sing this song. The effect is, in many ways, quite comical. Yet, at the same time, it puts forth a spirit of revolt which is, to be sure, Abehsera’s response to the sages’ put-downs.
I had no choice but to go ahead with my original intent to speak with a spirit of revolt in my heart. I figured that at that stage, my immaturity would prove more productive..
He must act, even if his actions appear crude. He, in effect, is the barking dog the sages were talking about; but he transforms the barking dog into something redemptive. It foreshadows a key, transformative, moment in the parable (which I will discuss in the next entries).
At the end of this moment of inspiration and revolt, he turns to the metaphor of dance and claims that his writing is with his feet and not his hands:
For a melancholy bystander (namely himself, as writer), I write page after page of holy texts with my feet, not stopping until the blood reds my cheeks. He takes a liking to my dance, and asks for more than I can afford to give.
But something happens, the “melancholy bystander” takes charge of his dance:
Now I am his puppet. He maneuvers me like a bouncing ball. I am about to collapse from exhaustion, yet here I am building up speed, trapped by own will to please. (109)
But something has happened. It appears as if this melancholy bystander has become a fool of sorts and he loses himself in the dance:
He comes near me, clapping hands and jerking to the beat of my unconventional interpretation of scriptural verse. His lack of rhythm throws me so off balance that I have to constantly change my pace to cover for his awkwardness. A sudden surge of joy brims over his pathetic countenance, revealing a hint of dementia. I grasp his hands, and together we compose holy patterns that swallow his affliction, until he begins to look like himself again.
What Abehsera seems to be illustrating in this moment is his spiritual vocation. His dance is the dance of the schlemiel and its goal is to heal – at least temporarily – the pain of exile. Indeed, this happiness, says Abehsera, will be enough to “last him for one exile.”
However, after going through this Holy Madness, Abehsera comes back into his body and his weariness. But this is redeemed by his new friend – who gives the weak comfort and then takes the lead in this dance:
But my lungs are burning and my knees are weak. He senses my weariness, pulls my head to rest against his shoulder, and we twirl, so fast that we form one body. I am only mind; my feet no longer touch the ground. And the music grows louder as we play that old Jewish game of being caught and freed at the same time. (110)
Out of this moment of shared joy and transformation, Abehsera gathers his wits and calls for the schlemiel to take to the streets. And this is where the Messianic tone starts ringing out:
In the meantime, intelligence won’t be wasted. On the contrary, it will only gain by going out into the streets. It will wear street clothes. It will come dressed as a harlequin to prepare people for the coming festivity.
The Holy Fool he announces, who will prepare everyone for the “coming festivity,” is full of color and life. He likens him to the major figure of commedia dell’arte – Harlequin.
The schlemiel and his wildly colored outfit and dance will “entertain the wrecked sensibilities of the perplexed. It will amuse them with bright flags before flipping them over to reveal the basic black and white of unequivocal truth.”
Abehsera tells us that, in his dreams, he constantly thinks of the schlemiel. The schlemiel is, in his words, his “alter ego.” He, the writer, has the schlemiel as his muse. And, to be sure, it seems that, at times, the writer transforms into the schlemiel. He is a prophet of sorts who heals those “wrecked sensibilities of the perplexed” and who “prepares people for the coming festivity.”
Perhaps this is what Marc Chagall – an artist who well-understood the place and meaning of the schlemeil to the Jews of Eastern Europe – had in mind when he made his lithograph “Harlequin with Flowers.” The schlemiel makes us happy. He brings us flowers and hope. But for Abeshera, he does more that just entertain: he discloses, by way of his theatrics and indirection, some kind of hidden, “unequivocal truth.”
All of this is prologue to the parable of the Idiot, the Writer, and the Beggar. In the next few blog entries we will address it and assess this messianic mission that Abehsera has given over to the schlemiel.