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

images-3

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.

2 thoughts on “Jerry Lewis, Comedy, and Psychoanalysis (Terminable/Interminable)

  1. This is quite something. I have never given a lot of thought to Jerry Lewis before, and this and your previous post, on anarchism, gives me a lot of ponder. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s