Is Jerry Lewis a Masochistic Comedian or an Unconscious Anarchist?


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.

7 thoughts on “Is Jerry Lewis a Masochistic Comedian or an Unconscious Anarchist?

  1. I think Jerry Lewis is more intelligent than that and realizes that his many characters and comedy challenges many of societies precepts, status quo and the “law” in the form of societies rules.

    Thus I reject the notion that it is unconscious in any way, shape or form. I believe it is an intentional act to challenge peoples thinking.

    This is without simply asking him, of course.

    • I hear what you are saying. Yes, he certainly knows that he is challenging this or that norm.

      But the reference to the “unconscious” part is made vis-a-vis Deleuze’s claim that a “true masochist” would be a masochist who is “willfully” anarchic. Shaviro makes this claim and it presupposes something more in line with a schleimel who does things without knowing what their real effect is. Regardless, I get your point. Yes, Lewis may be more willfully anarchistic. However, Shaviro thinks that Lewis had no idea as to how much he was challenging (from a Marxist perspective) the “commodity form” of the “inauthentic subject.” (Sorry to be so academic, but I’m simply clarifying the point in terms of how Shaviro frames it.)

  2. Reblogged this on Andy Kaufman's Kavalkade Krew ~ Featuring The Wandering Poet and commented:
    A Professor’s thoughts on Jerrry Lewis and comedy.
    My response in his comments section:
    I think Jerry Lewis is more intelligent than that and realizes that his many characters and comedy challenges many of societies precepts, status quo and the “law” in the form of societies rules.

    Thus I reject the notion that it is unconscious in any way, shape or form. I believe it is an intentional act to challenge peoples thinking.

    This is without simply asking him, of course.”

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