The Day of Judgment: Reflections on Sholem Aleichem’s “A Yom Kippur Scandal”


On Erev Yom Kippur (the Eve of Yom Kippur), it makes sense – at least for me – to ask how Sholem Aleichem, perhaps the most well-known and celebrated of all writers on the schlemiel – approaches Yom Kippur by way of fiction.  With this in mind, I thought of one piece that has Yom Kippur in its title, a piece which the literary critic Irving Howe believed illustrated the darker side of Aleichem’s work: “A Yom Kippur Scandal.”

Aleichem’s story begins with a “man with round eyes, like an ox” who, “sitting in a corner” of a synagogue, “overhears stories about thefts.”  In response to hearing them, he screams out “That’s nothing!”

He has a story that will top their stories, one which will astonish them.

The storyteller begins by pointing out that in Kasrilevka (Aleichem’s Chelm – his imaginary town where schlemiels come and go) there is no thievery. And that is because, quite simply, no one has any money.  But, in truth, he says, a “Jew is not a thief by nature.”  Jews don’t break into houses brandishing knives or guns.  If they steal, and they don’t often do so, they do in an indirect, clandestine manner: “He will divert, pervert, and subvert and contravert as a matter of course; but he won’t pull anything out of your pocket.”  (This, of course, plays on the difference, stated in the Talmud and familiar to Jews of Aleichem’s time, between the Ganev (thief who steals openly) and the Gozlan (the thief who steals indirectly).

However, he tells us, he witnessed one case that was unusual; and that case happened on Yom Kippur.  He tells us that a wealthy man came from out of town and, upon coming to the synagogue, he generously gave charity to the poor in the synagogue.  Following this, the community makes room for the charitable guest at the front of the synagogue for the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.

The guest takes his seat, prays deeply, “standing on his feet all day,” and, right after the final shofar blasts of Yom Kippur, he screams out that his money has been stolen:

Help! Help! Help!

He looses consciousness and falls on the floor.  When he comes to, he tells the congregants that a large sum of money had been stolen from him while he was praying.  First of all, in traditional Judaism, it is well-known that on Yom Kippur (the “Sabbath of all Sabbaths”) one doesn’t carry money.  And this man, who appeared very pious, was violating this prohibition on the very day one would be careful not to carry money.  Nonetheless, this is not addressed.  Rather, the theft is.

The man tells us that the stolen money wasn’t even his own.  He was a clerk, a poor man with a lot of children.  He couldn’t face them know and he openly ponders ending his life.  In response, the “crowd stood petrified.”  And the Rabbi, observing the scene, orders the doors to be locked.

Following this, he addresses what just happened and communicates his awe as to how, on a day like Yom Kippur, someone could stoop so low as to steal (and in a synagogue)!

I cannot believe it is possible.  It simply cannot be.  But perhaps – who knows?  Man is greedy, and the temptation – especially with a sum like this… is great enough.  So if one of us was tempted, if he were fated to commit this evil on a day like this, we must probe the matter thoroughly, strike at the root of this whole affair.

He orders everyone to empty their pockets.

Everyone does so except for a gentleman named Lazer Yossel, “who turned all colors and began to argue that, in the first place, the stranger was a swindler…No one had stolen any money from him. Couldn’t they all see that it was all a falsehood and a lie?”  At this point, the “man with round eyes” (the story teller) tells us that the congregation, upon hearing this, became very suspicious of Lazer.  The crowd orders that he be searched.

Lazer pleas desperately with them:  “He begged them not to search him.  He swore by all that was holy that he was innocent.”  After saying this, storyteller notes how he was a young and learned man (he even calls him “our prodigy”) but, in lieu of the story, he notes that, nonetheless, there was reason to be suspicious of him.  To be sure, the reasons he brings up are odd (they aren’t really reasons so much as rumors) and they show how, in a given situation, one can dig up anything to make a good man look evil.

The man is thrown on the ground by the crowd and searched.  But what they find is not what they expected: instead of finding money, they find “a couple of well-gnawed chicken bones and a few dozen plum pits still moist from chewing.”

The story ends in shame and disillusion.  And the money, the “man with the round eyes of an ox” says, was never found.  The last words of the story say that it was “gone forever.”   But before saying these words, we learn that the narrator turns to the widow “unconcerned” and “resumed smoking.”   He is indifferent.

Reflecting on this story, I think that Irving Howe, to some extant, is right: this story exposes us to something dark about Jewishness.  But what is it?

What struck me most is the presence in this story of judgment and the fact that it all happens on the day of judgment.  What Aleichem wants us to consider is how we judge each other and how we are judged. To be sure, the storyteller wants us to understand how we look at people and judge them based on who we think they are.  Moreover, he shows how, given this or that rumor, our judgment of them may always turn sour.  We saw this with the scholar, and, as readers, we thought that his words incriminated him.

But what we thought he was guilty of was incorrect.  Yes, he was guilty, but we had no idea he would be guilty of eating on Yom Kippur instead of fasting.  Regardless, we are astonished and, by the end of the story, the difference between appearance and reality is put into the foreground.  We are left with a sense that those who we think are pious may not be and that, at the same time, we are also guilty of falsely judging them.  In this story, everyone is guilty of something.  And, of all days to see this, it is on Yom Kippur.  It seems as if everyone is keeping it, but concealed in their pockets are things that are forbidden on that day: such as money (which may or may not have been stolen) and food (which was eaten).

And perhaps that is the point.  We all seem to be hiding things and the veneer of holiness may only serve to conceal sin.  This thought is very cynical,  And the last words of the story “gone forever” seem to amplify this cynicism.  They seem to hint at something, besides money, which is “gone forever.”  Given the cynical tone of the story, what seems to be gone forever is not the money but true piousness and trust.   And this, I believe, is what bothers critics like Irving Howe.

But is honesty really gone forever?

This, I think, is the question or rather the challenge that Aleichem wants to leave us with.  The last words – and the story – can be a judgment upon humankind, that is, if we let it be.   On Yom Kippur, the tradition is that one wears a white kittle (garment) the reason being that, on Yom Kippur man aspires to be close to the angels.  I just want to underscore the word “aspires.”  If it is to be honest, the cynicism in this piece brings out what is at stake and helps us to realize how easy it is to falsely judge the other and, at the same time, how what we take for good may not be.  Nonetheless, the possibility of goodness doesn’t thereby disappear; rather, it is complicated.

And this is where the schlemiel comes in.  As Aleichem knew, the schlemiel was often subject to the negative judgment of the community for no other reason than that he is good or hopeful in a time that lacks hope or goodness.  Nonetheless, he exists.  And he exists in the face of the crowd which, more often than not, lives on rumors and lies.   But as “A Yom Kippur Scandal” suggests even the most pious may be hiding something from sight.

These pious people, in this story, were.  But they aren’t schlemiels.  And even if a schlemiel, like everyone else stands in judgment on Yom Kippur, we need to ask whether or not he is hiding anything.  Doesn’t he wear everything on his face?

Regardless, as we know from the stories I have discussed on this blog, no one – not even the schlemiel – escapes judgment (even if he is hiding nothing).

An Interview with the Stand-Up Comedian David Heti

DownloadedFile-3 had the opportunity to recently interview the stand-up comedian David Heti.  Samples of his work – which include videos, podcasts, and blog entries – can be found on his website/blog:

I ran into David recently when he did a show with a group of comedians in Toronto. We talked after the show and agreed to have an interview by way of the email.  Here is the interview.  (Do note that I will be posting a blog or two on his comedic work over the next week as a follow up to this interview.)


SIT: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by the Schlemiel-in-Theory Blog!  I am very excited to be interviewing you since you are the first comedian Schlemiel-in-theory – a blog that is only 6 months old – has interviewed.  In the near future, we hope to interview more.  The point of these interviews is to understand how you, the comedian, understand yourself and what you do best.  (You can reply if you wish.)

DH: I could use help in understanding how I understand myself. Thank you. Thank you very much for this opportunity. As a comedian schlemiel-in-fact, perhaps—at least, that’s the subtext here, no? (It’s ok, I’m ok with it)—it’s nice to have found maybe somewhat something of a home. Indeed, I first came to your blog when in need of some comedy theory succor, and now here we are. So it’s a beautiful thing.

SIT: One of the interesting things about comedy that can be learned from the Talmud is that a Rabbi should open with a joke before teaching a lesson.  The reason for this is because it “opens up the senses” and makes it easier for one to learn something that can deeply affect them.  That said, what joke would you like to tell?

DH: But that whole first paragraph was a joke. Come on, what do you mean? No, but really, I think that’s a fascinating, entirely humbling tradition. I’m no Rabbi, but…

If you ask yourself whether life’s worth living…and…if you think about it…and, I mean, really think about it…like…all the time…like…if that’s all you ever do…like if that’s all you ever do…then…it really isn’t.

SIT: Why did you choose that joke?

DH: There are many reasons. First, it’s my joke. It is one, though, that I can recall telling only a handful of times, most presumably on account of it having never really worked. (Accordingly, the wording may not be quite right, as it’s yet to have come into any ostensible final form.)

Second, I feel like it’s a joke that attempts to speak to universal themes with respect to both life and comedy, not to mention—keeping in mind both the interview and blog—the schlemiel and rabbinic traditions. What is life? What is comedy? Why is life a comedy? Is life a comedy? Necessarily? For whom? Etc.

I also like how the joke isn’t—at least in my opinion—so expressly funny. Most especially with respect to a joke about life itself, the fact that a joke may not be funny can in fact contribute to its comedic merit. Sometimes a joke may simply set the stage for other jokes or whatever else is to follow.

Also, one time after telling this joke, a comic whom I’d never met before came up to me and said, somewhat curiously somberly, that he really appreciated it. And it’s making these little in fact not so insignificant connections—with comics in particular—that makes telling jokes—if at least only apparently so—feel so possibly meaningful or important.

SIT: Tell me about yourself.  Where do you come from? What kind of family did you grow up in?  And why did you decide to become a comedian?

DH: I come from an upper-middle class Jewish-Hungarian background, though I was born and raised in Toronto. My parents are professionals, both working in the sciences, whereas my one sibling—an older sister—like, more or less, myself, is in the arts. (Her name is Sheila Heti and she’s a wonderful writer.)

My family was very small, without too many extended relatives or at least very few whom we ever saw. There was pretty much absolutely no religious feeling in the home, though we did go to my grandmother’s for the holidays, though it was very much really about family only, not religion. I’d say my sister and I were quite free to speak our minds and question whatever we liked.

I’m not sure why I decided to become a comedian. I mean, there’s not that very much in the world that holds my interest or seems worthwhile (i.e., for me or perhaps even ultimately), so in one way it’s a sort of default response. (I’d imagine that if most things didn’t appear so ridiculous to comics, then there’d be no comedy. Comedy most certainly addresses what is, but by way of an immediate evading. Comedy, for me, is a ceaseless cutting down and exposing.) Divorce.

SIT: In your pantheon of comedians, who are the most important and why?

DH: My reply to this question has pretty much always been Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield. As a child, through my father’s love of his films, I was exposed to an inordinate amount of Woody Allen. So it’s perhaps somewhat just an accident of history. He was in effect my Walt Disney.

It’s hard to say whether I would’ve taken to these comedians later in life had I not been exposed to them so early on. That is, it’s possible that they were, quite literally, my formative comedic influences. I would say, though, that most likely a sense of humor is secondary, in that it must come after and in response to a more foundational sentiment of life. Woody Allen speaks to my sense of the absurd and ridiculous. Also, it’s always heartening to listen to recordings of his stand-up and recognize that intelligent comedy can succeed, find an audience and be amazing.

Rodney Dangerfield is just such an artist or craftsman. His stand-up comedy is so unbelievably simple and immediately accessible. He gets away with telling the simplest, silliest, dumbest and cleverest jokes, but in a way which makes you think that he’s the greatest genius you’ve ever seen. To be able—through the presentation of yourself as a buffoon—to command the highest respect, is such a hilarious, magical, innocent trick.

Aside from stand-up comics, Monty Python played a huge role too. I seem to recall singing their dirtier songs around the house (e.g. sit on my face and tell me that you love me) before even knowing what they lyrics meant. Maybe I just knew.

SIT: What makes your stand-up comedy unique and different from other comedians?

DH: I believe that I’m much happier than most other comics to leave the audience feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps most especially on account of our greater and general, traditionally post-modern disillusionment with ideas of truth, sincerity, objectivity, simplicity, etc., there’s something now intrinsically, sometimes painfully unfunny about somebody’s standing before you with the intention I’m going to go make you laugh, and then going and making you laugh. What could possibly be unfunnier than that? What could possibly more satisfy an audience’s expectations as to what the world ought or is supposed to be, which is precisely a non-comedic experience?

I’m not trying to make audience members feel terrible about themselves or that they’ve wasted their time, but in a very real way, if you’re not fucking with the audience or you’re not fucking with the form of stand-up comedy itself, then I’m not really sure what you’re doing. It’s ever-evolving and inward-turning—as what comedy is changes as what comedy is changes (or vice-versa)—but if comedy is to be in any way meaningful and more than just simple joke-making or entertainment, then it must be critical, which means self-critical. I believe that comedy—properly and at its best—is entirely, infinitely destabilizing.

And in a way I feel like an idiot because I really don’t want to suggest that I don’t respect or take pleasure from comics I see who don’t attempt anything like this. It’s just for me, at least at this time, I’ve little to no interest in putting out into the world any other kind of comedic performance.

SIT: Do you like telling jokes that may offend people?  And what’s the worst response you have received from a joke?  What happened?

DH: I’m not sure that I ever really want to offend. First, I just don’t think that’s a very nice thing to do. Second, I’m not sure what’s gained by an audience’s feeling only, mainly or even just very much offence; I’m not sure what that engenders. To confuse or create self-questioning or self-doubt in an audience member (e.g., as to whether they ought to feel offended) is wonderful, but that’s different than to cause offence, which to me suggests something far simpler.

I’ve had, I would imagine, my fair share of angry outbursts from the audience, but I’d say that the worst response I ever received from a joke was when a man with whom I was sort of friends just sort of silently walked out of the room, in what I can only imagine was incredible anger and hurt. At the time, I’d been telling jokes for about only a couple of months.

What happened was that I had one really nice joke about the telling a joke about the rape and murder of this woman…which the man in the audience loved. It turned out that his wife or mother (I can’t remember which) had in fact been raped and murdered, and he really, genuinely appreciated the joke. I remember him speaking to me after a set and we had a really lovely conversation about art, comedy and performance.

Bolstered, I suppose, by this incredible response to what was obviously a dangerous subject-matter, I then wrote a joke about my telling that joke. It just ended up being incredibly contrived, unartful and uninspired, and I suppose somewhat incredibly exploitative of my then newfound friend’s goodwill, pain and openness. It was just a dishonest process and intention.

I don’t believe that I’ve ever hurt someone more with a joke. I don’t think anyone’s ever had as much reason to be upset with a joke of mine.

SIT: When I heard you do a little stand-up, I noticed a few Jewish jokes.  You also mentioned that some people may consider you a “self-hating Jew.”  Do you consider yourself a Jewish comic?  And what do you think of those people who may think you are self-hating?  Do you have a message for them?

DH: Hmm…I’m not sure, but I think that the joke you’re referring to has me asking myself whether I think I’m a self-hating Jew. It’s not about others’ perceptions.

I most certainly consider myself a Jewish comic, but then what does that mean? I don’t think that there’s such thing as a universal comic or joke or comedic sensibility. Every joke assumes particular epistemic, linguistic, cultural, moral, etc. understandings and assumptions. I am Jewish, and Jewish feeling, history and values inform everything that I do and all the jokes that I tell, even if the jokes themselves may not be expressly about Jews or Jewishness. I suppose, though, ultimately, I would say that I have a fairly traditional Jewish comedic sensibility, yes.

As for the last part of your question, to those who may think I’m self-hating, I might say that hate is a very strong word. Certainly, I have self-doubt, but then I suppose that’s my value, but then I suppose that’s because that’s who I am. Am I supposed to disconfirm these people’s suspicions? Really, others can think what they like, about both me and self-hating.

SIT: What, to your mind, is the relationship of comedy to depression and suffering?

DH: I don’t think that one needs to suffer or be depressed to create or appreciate comedy. Perhaps in a perfect world there would be no possibility or place for comedy, but depression and suffering to me suggest terrible extremes. An appreciation of the comedic requires not only the intellect to understand, but the emotions to feel. For instance, can one identify something as funny without experiencing it as such? Can I think something objectively funny if I don’t find it subjectively so?

I think that contentment doesn’t necessarily lead to comedy, but then neither does the inability to feel happiness. Really, though, it’s been my experience that most comics aren’t the happiest people, or so it seems. Of course, the world of comedy itself is tough, but I think it attracts those who feel a kind of ultimate discomfort.

SIT: What “culture” do you most identify with and how does this culture come into your work?

DH: If I’ve understood the question correctly, I probably most identify with what I understand to be Mediterranean culture. Maybe I’ve a completely incorrect, romanticized idea of what that is, but their values, truths and aspirations appear to be very honest and undeniable. There’s sun, sand, simple food and half-naked bodies. This may come into my work by way of affecting a bluntness or directness or simplicity. There’s also an acknowledgment of the finitude of life, in addition to the utter poverty of any metaphysical basis for whatever notions of good or right.

SIT: In one of our conversations, you mentioned that you saw a blog post I had on Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner.  And what struck us both as most interesting was the fact that Gene Wilder said he didn’t always find his jokes so funny?  What kind of jokes make you laugh?  And do you laugh at your own jokes?  And do you think it is a comedians job to make people laugh? Or feel better through humor?

DH: I like jokes that reveal to me an absurdity which I’d never before thought of or recognized. Also, I like just sublimely ridiculous jokes. Sometimes I laugh at my own jokes. If it’s a new joke, I may laugh on stage, but then I can also laugh when listening to recordings of older sets.

Whether it’s a comedian’s job to make people laugh…this is a tough one. This is a tough one no less because of what I like to try to achieve with my own stand-up. I think that what belongs to a comedian’s art is humour. But humor isn’t synonymous with laughter. Laughter is only one kind of response to humour. (Though if we’re talking about the comedian’s job, then, yes, it is about laughter, but then beer and ticket sales too.)

This is also a very hard question, but, no, I don’t believe that belongs to a comedian to make people feel better through humor. I think that, more often than not, audiences feeling better is a byproduct of what a good comedian normally does, but that’s not the essence of comedy. For instance, if you look at the old Soviet era jokes, they were unimaginably bleak. What they ended up doing was revealing even deeper injustices and absurdities than the listener may have been aware of. In communicating to the listener I understand what you’re going through and we see the world similarly, you will almost invariably make them feel better, but then you can do this while at the same time revealing that the world is shit. This is a very complicated question.

SIT: From our discussions, I have learned that you were a philosophy major in University and then you went on to law school and actually practiced law.  Does philosophy or even legal practice or legal issues ever enter into your comedy routines or jokes?

DH: I wouldn’t say that I have jokes about philosophy or law per se, but certainly my comedy is informed by a philosophical disposition and way of understanding the world through the philosophical and legal. I enjoy playing with ambiguity, especially with respect to questions of morals and propriety. What’s potentially most comedic is that which speaks to what’s gravest or most sacred. What’s gravest or most sacred are notions of truth and morality, etc.

SIT: Sarah Silverman has said that it is, so to speak, healthy for a comedian to be offensive and travel the edge of racism, sexism, etc.  She says that by doing this, she is working through things that we all have in us whether we admit to it or not.  Do you agree with her?  And do you have anything to add to this?

DH: I agree with her more or less. Again, perhaps to offend is just one element. Certainly, though, it’s healthy to provoke self-questioning.

SIT: In the Sarah Silverman show, Sarah had a controversial episode where she sleeps with “God” and the next day tells him to leave. Here’s the clip:  What do you think of this joke?  What does it accomplish?

DH: I think it’s a funny premise and a cute sketch. I’m not sure if I’m missing some subtext or something, but this was controversial somehow? To whom? It doesn’t deal in or with reality. What it accomplishes is a nice little break in my day. (And I really like Sarah Silverman! But this sketch to me isn’t so representative of what makes her great.)

SIT: Last question: The classical American schlemiel joke has three players in it: the schlemiel, the shlimazel, and the nudnik.  Here’s a slightly modified version of it: All three of them go into a restaurant to eat a meal.  The waitress is nowhere to be found so the shlimazel asks the schlemiel to get him a bowl of soup.  The schlemiel gets the soup and brings it to the table, hoping not to screw up.  But when s/he gets to the table s/he drops the soup in the shlimazel’s lap.  The shlimazel gets up, screams at the schlemiel, and laments his ever asking the schlemiel to do anything.  In the midst of this, the nudnik gets up and says, “Ah that’s too bad…What kind of soup was it?” Of the three comic characters, who do you most identify with and why?  (If you wish, you can pick more than one.)

DH: Can I be the soup?

(I’m not sure why the schlimazel has to yell at the schlemiel after the soup is dropped, but I do like how he says that we don’t have to be without food just because the waitress isn’t around. Perhaps I identify most with the schlimazel’s irreverence.)

SIT: Thanks for this interview; its been a great pleasure and a learning experience (?)  Do you have anything you’d like to say before you “close shop?”

DH: Just thank you very much for the opportunity and very thoughtful questioning. These were some difficult questions I had to ask myself. I hope you continue with these interviews.






Becoming-Dog: The Old Beggar, the Miser, and the Return of the Schlemiel as a Dog


In stories like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son, or I.L. Peretz’s “Bontshe Shvayg,” we don’t always see the positive effect the schlemiel has on people around him.  Or, if we do, that effect is usually minimal. And that is the point: the fact that people don’t change spurs the reader to be disappointed with the society that laughs at the schlemiel.  On the other hand, Peretz’s schlemiel spurs people to realize that they must change their priorities.  Regardless, we don’t often see the effect of the schlemiels magic in Yiddish literature.  However, in Hasidic literature we, from time to time, do.   I would include Meir Abehsera’s parable of the schlemiel in this kind of literature.  However, I would call it, instead, a “neo-Hasidic” kind of literature since it reflects not just on the schlemiel’s impact on people but it reflects on it within the text.  To be sure, the inclusion of philosophical reflection in the midst of the text is a modern practice.  We see it in all of the great modern and postmodern writers such as Lawrence Stern, Hermann Broch, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, etc.  Abehsera includes such reflection to foreground the relationship of the writer to the schlemiel.  And at the end of his parable, he points out what real-life experience spurred him to create and reflect on this relationship.  Abehsera adds the “old beggar” to this relationship.   To be sure, at the end of the parable the beggar – in many senses – stands between the writer and the schlemiel.  Abehsera shows how, of the two, the schlemiel is greater.  The schlemiel can transform others around him in ways that the beggar cannot.   And, in the end, the schlemiel aids the beggar and, in effect, helps the poor and the needy.   He does this by way of transforming himself and becoming-animal.

In the last blog entry, I pointed out how the schlemiel lay dormant in the old beggar and  how the old beggar is reminded of this by way of a dream.  The dream is spurred by the old beggar’s experience of a circus as he begged for money.  As I noted in the last entry, the old beggar meets another old beggar in the dream who tells him about history of the circus and reminds him of the power of joy and laughter – which is at the schlemiel’s core.    The main point of this reminder was to inspire the beggar to go into the world and transform it not so much as a beggar than as a schlemiel.  To do this, he not only has to encounter one kind of joy with another; he also has to sweeten bitterness with joy.   And this last task is the hardest task of all for the schlemiel.

In the last part of the parable, the old beggar awakes from his dream and goes into the world.  But instead of going into the circus, he emerges into a world of angry and solemn people.  If they give anything to him, they “throw” it at him.  The narrator, who seems to have merged with the old beggar, takes on a weary tone and muses on the nature of judgment.  He points out that these people don’t “smell” good.  As I pointed out earlier, the Jewish tradition associates smell with judgment.  And it is the Messiah who it is said, will have the power to smell someone and judge them.  Abehsera plays on this and notes that though the beggar is not the Messiah he, nonetheless, knows what the smell of anger and bitterness is from his own life and experiences.

Using his sense of smell, so to speak, the beggar is able to determine how much a person should give if he/she is to be redeemed.  The implementation of this judgment apparently does wonder.  The narrator notes how “astonishing” it is “how a mere monetary transaction can acquaint the contributor with the reality of redemption.”

The narrator tells us that the old beggar does extremely well and brings home a lot of change.  He helps people to narrowly “avert death” by way of charity and this inspires him to take on the toughest challenge; namely, a miser who never gives money to anyone.

The encounter between the miser and old beggar is telling.  To be sure, the old beggar can do nothing to prompt the miser to give.  The miser is so bothered by the old beggar that he accuses him of “stealing” all of the money he has acquired through begging.   He then proceeds to kick him out of his home.

The old beggar’s response to the miser, strangely enough, transforms him into a schlemiel or rather a playful dog:

As the man lets loose a stream of obscenities, the beggar steps back and begins mimicking his mad behavior, trembling wildly, then falling on all fours, yelping and growling and circling the man who thinks he is having delusions upon seeing the beggar transform into a dog!  The dog barks, and the man panics and kicks it in the head; but the animal grabs the man’s bathrobe and pulls so hard that the miser tumbles, head over heels, crashing to the ground.  (130)

This transformation of the beggar into a dog-schlemiel is fascinating and, as far as I know, has no precedent in schlemiel literature.  Abehsera has the miser and the schlemiel-dog tumble around with each other and, in the end, he “breaks” the miser with laughter:

Man and animal thrash about, knocking over the table, causing plates and dishes to shatter on the gazebo’s marble floor.  The man gropes pitiably among the fragments of glass and porcelain and the remains of his meal.  He reaches for a large bone and flings it across the lawn, beyond the pines.  ‘Go get it!’ he shouts to the dog who, good naturedly, goes scampering after the bone…The latter is delighted. (131)

As all of this goes on, the miser becomes childlike and throws the bone out again.  As he does so, he notices that he is being watched by the community. They cheer and laugh in joy as they watch him and he waves back of them in acknowledgment.  In effect, the schlemiel has won.  By becoming a dog he has endeared the miser and prompted him to give.

But this isn’t the end of the tale.

Abehsera has the schlemiel/dog transform back into the old beggar.  And, strangely enough, the two get into a fight.  The “townspeople stop laughing.” And “absolute silence is interrupted by scattered remarks directed at both the beggar and the rich man.”  Some protest the beating and some encourage it.  But, at some point, the miser let’s himself be beaten up and then it occurs to the audience that they really aren’t fighting: they are play fighting:

The kicks are not truly kicks and the screams are not screams either. It is an unrehearsed drama between two men who, moments before, were antagonists, but through the chemistry of their encounter are about to engender a love so deep as to render it contagious.  (132)

In the end, the miser starts to laugh and the townspeople are dumbfounded.   But it is this dumfoundedness which transforms the community-as-circus into a community that is returned to itself.   Abehsera notes that his parable is drawn from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov since he, like the Baal Shem Tov, writes of a character who acts with foolishness to bring the dead back to life.

And this, says Abehsera, is the wisdom of the fool.  The schlemiel shares this wisdom with the writer and it becomes the “paradigm of a new type of intellect”(133).

What I find so interesting about this “new type of intellect” (and the parable that is used to communicate it) is not simply that it is “relayed” to the writer by the schlemiel; but that it is also relayed by the schlemiel through becoming an animal that makes the bitter sweet and the man into a child.

To be continued….

Seeking Alms at the Circus: The Schlemiel and the Old Beggar


In Yiddish literature and in many a Hasidic tale, schlemiels are often portrayed as being poor and humble.  However, we don’t often see a schlemiel as a beggar.  Although they are poor, they make people laugh.  And their dreams and imaginings often distract them from the poverty around them.  After all, schlemiels – although they may be poor or ragged – are usually figures of hope.   Beggars, in contrast, are often very solemn characters who are portrayed as being devoid of hope or dreams.   And when we see beggars in this or that Hasidic or Yiddish tale, the authors of these tales make sure to separate the two.

However, the last part of Meir Abehsera’s parable presents us with something different.  From the narrator, we learn that the “whistler” (the schlemiel) had, in old age, become a beggar.  In other words, Abehsera gives us a schlemiel which is hidden within the beggar:

An old man is walking on a deserted road.  His worn out clothes are evidence that he is a beggar.  The rooftops of the town toward which he is heading appear on the horizon.  From a pocket, he removes an immaculate handkerchief and covers his mouth. As he walks steadfastly toward the town, his shoulders hunched, his face buried in the handkerchief, he is periodically seized with violent fits of coughing.  The beggar is none other than the legendary whistler, whose age and waning strength now prevent the practice of his former craft.  Instead, he has totally given himself over to the task of collecting funds for the needy.  (121)

As we can see from the narrator’s description of the beggar, there are certain things – without which – one can no longer be a schlemiel; namely, his “age” and “waning strength.”  A schlemiel, for the narrator, is identified with the whistler – who we encountered in the beginning of this parable.  We first see the schlemiel as a character who, in the middle of the night, awakes a town with his whistling.  As I have noted, this moment has a life-changing effect on the writer.  Here, however, the schlemiel becomes a beggar.  He lacks the energy to disrupt; but he turns himself to the same end that the whistler did: redemption.

As the narrator tells us, this is a noble – though difficult – path to travel on. And the schlemiel-become-beggar sees his new task as a “blessing” since he “paves the giver’s road”:

It’s a vexing occupation, but the old man does not complain; he actually views his present appointment as an unmitigated blessing.  In begging for charity, he knows he paves the giver’s road, bestowing life upon him, both in the here and the hereafter.   He saves the miser from certain death, and forces die-hard thinkers to face the deed.  (121)

However, the narrator creates a situation where the schlemiel may have an opportunity to emerge from body of the beggar.  This situation involves the beggar’s entrance into a circus.  We are immediately reminded of the powerful noise that once blew through the schlemiel/whistler by way of the narrator’s description of the beggar’s encounter with the circus:

Inside the gate he is greeted by the explosive sounds of a fairground.  Calliope music blasts from the loudspeakers mounted over the entranceways to rides and gates.  There is a skeeball, a batting cage, a rifle range, and a roller coaster, whose clacking wheels can barely be heard beneath the squeals of passengers. (121)

Abehsera’s knowing very well of the Kabbalistic way of contrasting the Sitra d’Kedusha (“The Side of the Holy”) with the Sitra Achra (“the Other Side”) is playing one kind of wind against another.  To be sure, the whistling the schlemiel is on the Side of Holiness and it battles with the noise of the other side.  But, at this point of the parable, that is not yet explicit.  In yesterday’s blog entry, I pointed out how the writer – inspired by the memory of the schlemiel – spoke out against the “bad wind” of the Maggid who looked to frighten his congregants.  Here, it is more than just wind that is at stake; it is the noise that is produced by wind that is at issue.  This noise has spiritual meaning.

To be sure, there is a lot at stake.  The entire community – and not one individual – is the source of this noise.  Included amongst the throng of people is a Rabbi, a Talmudist, many “young yeshiva students,” and the rabbis wife. The description of the scene is joyful.  Everyone is having fun. And the wind that blows through them is the wind of laughter:

The beggar wends his way through the thrown. A Talmudist is tossing baseballs at kewpie dolls. The Chief of Police, bare-chested, muscles bulging, is bench-pressing barbells before dazzled young yeshiva boys.   The rabbi’s wife, holding a plucked chicken high in the air, breathes fire, and in a single blast, roasts the bird whole.  Every face glows red…from excessive laughter.  Happiness sizzles in the early evening air like streaks of summer lightening.  (123)

In the midst of all this joy and laughter, the “beggar feels uneasy.  He lifts his eyes skyward in prayer.”  The irony of all this is that a schlemiel would take great joy in the fact that people around him are laughing; but the twist is that he is no longer a schlemiel: he is now a beggar.  And in this scene, he sees himself as having no way of gaining charity.  He is, after all, a somber figure in the midst of all this joy.

In his prayer, he asks for strength and that God should “place kindness in their hearts, that they may give with an open hand, and thereby be redeemed.”  The beggar’s prayers are answered and he leaves with a “heavy sack of coins.”  However, he is still troubled by what he saw and heard at the circus; and we see this in his dream.

The narrator tells us that in his dream he is visited by another “old beggar” who tells him about how it has all come down to this: a circus full of noise which includes everyone, even the leaders of the Jewish community, the Rabbi, etc.  In his account, we can hear the separation of “true joy” and “false joy”; “true laughter” and “false laughter.”  The old beggar notes how, in the beginning, all of the poor were taken care of and of how this care for the poor was an expression of the learning that the Jewish community did.  But all of that came to an abrupt end.  And the wealthy no longer cared for the poor; they ignored the poor.  And people didn’t talk to each other.  Joy was replaced by seriousness: “seriousness became such a plague that dozens died from it every year.”  The death caused by seriousness was so great that the “town council met for a special session.”

In response to all of the death caused by seriousness, the town council decided that “happiness was the answer, and that a grand amusement park would provide the cure.”  They went right to work building the park and it “was an instant success.”  The “plague of seriousness” ended.

But now a new problem arises. The old beggar points out that “an abominable, overpowering stench” issued from the village.  The old beggar could do nothing to stop this smell and he ended up dying in the forest outside the town.  After finishing this account, he hands the ball over to our old beggar and tells him what is at stake. And in doing so, he makes distinctions between true and false joy, etc.  The old beggar in the dream brings together all of the pieces that were, as I pointed out in the outset of these blog entries on Meir Abehsera’s Possible Man, tied to remembrance and redemption. And out of this, our beggar learns (or rather, remembers) his original task – the task of the schlemiel:

You surely noticed how artificial was the joy of these people….With their silly behavior, they hope to demonstrate that they are in the swim, that they can outdo us.  Our bursts of joy, as you know, are upsurges of remembrance.  I don’t have to tell you that their false joy is the result of a deficient memory….Your mission, therefore, my dear colleague, consists of breaking these people with true laughter, until they regain their true identity…You break them with joy and you will affect the entire planet. (125)

This task shows us that, ultimately, the schlemiel concealed within the old beggar has the last word.  And it also discloses Abehsera’s conviction that there is such a thing as “true laughter” and “true joy” and that this laughter and joy will help people to “regain their true identity.”  This task is redemptive and affects the “entire planet.”  And it cannot be done without a battle.  To be sure, we hear this in the command to “break them with joy.” The ironic twist that Abehsera is communicating is that by breaking them one fixes them.

In the next two blog entries, I hope to follow out this thread to the end.  The point of these close readings is to understand how central and important the schlemiel is for Abehrsera’s project.  To be sure, without the schlemiel man (that is, the best man can be) – for Abehsera – is not “possible.”  For Abehsera, the writer is the “relay” of the schlemiel and the “possible man.”  What he relays to his readers is a joy and laughter that can break “us” out of our “false joy.”  And, in effect, he asks us to also become relays and to take part in a joy that will “affect the entire planet.”   But being a relay is not by any means an easy task when the world is, as Abehsera suggests, caught up in the circus….

The Whistle and the Gaze of the Holy Fool – Take 2


How can an encounter with a schlemiel have an affect on one’s writing?  And does it matter if this encounter is fictional? Will our reading change as a result? And what do the figures of the “gaze” and the “whistle” have to do with these changes?

These are the questions that Meir Abehsera’s narrator prompts in the reader.  To be sure, in the last blog entry we saw how the writer leaves his town and the old librarian – who defends his task as a writer (which is to “teach the world”) – to follow the idiot/schlemiel.  The writer is prompted to leave with him since he is singled out by the fool and “gazed” at.  This gaze is the response to the librarians point which is that what is right and wrong for the idiot may not be right and wrong for others (namely, the writer and the people he wishes to teach).  For this reason, we can see that the gaze has an esoteric quality.   It is an assurance that what the schlemiel teaches is not a relative kind of truth about good and evil.  To be sure, we are introduced to the schlemiel by way of a “whistling” that is supposed to ward away evil. And the advice of the schlemiel to the town is to fight and run away from evil.  His whistling is a way of running from evil or fighting against it. And that evil, as he states, is merely an illusion.  Whistling will, apparently, challenge it.

I ended the last blog entry with the thought that the schlemiel helps us to get a sense of the shape of evil – regardless of whether that schlemiel is secular or religious. This schlemiel is a Holy Fool; so its absent mindedness is based on a certain tact: namely to challenge evil.

With this in mind, I would like to take us into the next phase of Abehsera’s parable.  In this phase, we learn, right off the bat, that:

The writer has had a difficult time since his encounter with the idiot.  He has not lifted his pen in years.  He even finds it hard to a write a letter to his family. (116)

In this phase of the story, the writer cannot write.  The only thing he has is the experience of the schlemiel’s gaze.  This gaze has, so to speak, suspended his writing (as well as his sense of himself as a writer with an appointed task of teaching humanity).   All he can think about is the gaze:

From time to time, he is tempted to offer people some peace of mind by tossing them some factual news, but he restrains himself because, you see, on that fateful day, as the idiot look at him with his piercing eyes, he completely lost contact with his work. Or rather, it all became meaningless to him. (116)

Since he is left with his encounter with the schlemiel he wonders about why it means so much to him and this thought leads him to a reflection on his new task.   The question that haunts him is whether he himself is a schlemiel or is he, rather, a writer?

The most amazing thing he had yet to discover was that the persona of the idiot happened to mysteriously cohere with an undefined, yet consistent, recurring thought that had accompanied him in his youth.  This was precisely the same pounding thought that had him start to write in the first place; but he had lost it…A few days went by before he could finally figure out that he knew the idiot from deep inside himself, not in the sense that they were one and the same person, but that he had become the idiot’s relay.   (117)

This new formulation is very telling and it sheds some light on what I have been working on with Walter Benjamin and Kafka; namely, the relationship of Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.  This question of what this relationship was and how it relates to the writer and thinker was of interest to both Benjamin and Kafka.  For Abehsera the relationship is defined in terms of the writer (Sancho Panza) being the “relay” for the idiot/schlemiel (Don Quixote). But this is more than a relay of foolishness. For Abehsera, it’s a relay of spirituality and wisdom.  (Benjamin, I would argue, also saw this kind of relay.)

Abehsera notes that his “wisdom grew at a remarkable pace” once he realized how, now, whenever he tries to speak his words would be overwhelmed by a “rush of ruminations.”  And when he tried to speak, he would utter “sheer nonsense.”  Now, this “infirmity” prompts him to “search for other modes of communication.” And one of these modes includes whistling. But it also includes theater and play; basically, anything that can make people laugh.

The writer now notes one of these practices.  However, he relates this practice to reading scripture.  Now, whenever he reads even a little bit of it, thoughts rush to his head. And when he fell into a “trance” he would “offset the undesired effect by standing on his head.” One would think that this clownish activity effaces his seriousness; but, as he puts it, it does something else:

He would feel rather silly doing it, but it was the only way he knew to keep his soul from taking off.  Ever since this began to happen, he would only study alone, from fear he would have to perform public headstands when his head threatened to explode.  (118)

After stating this, the writer reflects on an encounter he had with a Maggid (a story teller and a Rabbi). The point of the story is to illustrate the new task of the writer.  As the writer tells it, the Maggid starts his lesson off with humor (as it is a Talmudic tradition to start every lesson with a joke).  And this had the “audience roaring with laughter.”  All of this was “woven” into a talk the Maggid gave on the Torah.  Unfortunately, the lesson of the story went to the other extreme and slighted the audience with being sinners who, if they did not repent, would be punished.   In response to this, the writer notes:

He had the entire congregation in the palm of his hand.  But then, all faces had turned white from extreme fear.  A bad smell began to ooze out from an unknown source, but only the writer noticed it. (119)

This smell, which we will turn to in a second, prompted the writer to feel a rush of energy and it spurred a memory of the schlemiel – his “teacher” – and his words to “run from evil and do good.”   And this memory spurred words to emerge:

He screamed loud, deep within himself, to break the walls of darkness which were entrapping him.  He heard the din of galloping horses in his head. Soon, an avalanche of words began to roll out of his mouth. Every word was blasted out by a powerful combustion that was fueled by an utter abhorrence of evil. (120)

The effect of these words was to undo the “damage that the manic maggid had inflicted upon the congregants.”  According to the narrator, the “smell” that the writer sensed cam from a “low grade type of fear.”  In contrast to this low grade type of fear and the smell it emits, the fear of the righteous emits a smell is pleasant.

What is the deal with “smell” and what does it have to do with the schlemiel?

Abehsera is dealing with a tradition that emerges out of the prophets. In reference to the Messiah, it is written that he can judge by the way of smell.  Citing Isaiah 11:3, which says that the Messiah will judge good and evil by way of smell, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) writes:

Bar Koziva ruled for two and a half years, and then said to the rabbis, “I am the Messiah.” They answered, “It is written that the Messiah can judge by smell (based on Isaiah 11:3); let us see whether he [Bar Koziva] can do so.” When they saw that he could not judge by smell, they killed him.

Writing on this power of smell, which the schlemiel in this parable possesses, Abehsera writes of how smells will emerge from the memory of the “transgressions of his youth.”  And, “against” these odors from the past, the writer “measures other people’s sins by the nuances of smell.”  The Messiah, “however, like his saintly predecessors whose lives are untainted by sin, will be spared the noxious smell of other’s indiscretions.  Since he will lack first-hand experience (like the schlemiel or the writer), Heaven will have to grant him the power to judge at least the spirit, if not the substance of sin.”

This sense of smell is something that the writer apparently learns from the schlemiel. And, as mentioned above, since the writer is a “relay” for the schlemiel, this sense will also be relayed.  This suggests that the schlemiel not only teaches one how to whistle and find other ways of communication to “run from evil” but also a sense of smell which can detect it.  This sense, as I have indicated above, is connected – in some way –to the messianic.  It gives the schlemiel and the writer some form of judgment vis-à-vis evil.

In the next blog entry, we will return to this sense of smell which recurs; this time, however, in the form of a beggar.  Since the schlemiel, in the third part of the parable becomes the beggar.

The Whistle and the Gaze of the Holy Fool – Take 1


We all know what its like to be a stranger in a crowd.   The fact of the matter is that in big cities people are thrown into a situation where they are anonymous and alone.  We get used to it and some even crave being alone.   We hide away as we walk through urban streets and ride through the caverns of the city on subways.  And, like many who hide away, we like to look and not be looked at.  We are voyeurs and this isolated state leaves us without a world.  And, as Hannah Arendt has noted, a person is “worldless” if he or she is not seen.   Unfortunately, many of us would prefer to be worldless voyeurs.  And what we fear most is being caught.

But there is more to the story.  When we are confronted by a stranger, this experience may, at one and the same time, be a shock and a challenge.   This is the sense one has when one reads Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd.”  In that story, the main character sees someone very unique. Someone who sticks out in the crowd:

With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepid old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age)-a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression. Any thing even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before. I well remember that my first thought, upon beholding it, was that Retszch, had he viewed it, would have greatly preferred it to his own pictural incarnations of the fiend. As I endeavored, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense-of supreme despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. “How wild a history,” I said to myself, “is written within that bosom!” Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view-to know more of him. Hurriedly putting on all overcoat, and seizing my hat and cane, I made my way into the street, and pushed through the crowd in the direction which I had seen him take; for he had already disappeared. With some little difficulty I at length came within sight of him, approached, and followed him closely, yet cautiously, so as not to attract his attention.

What we find in Poe’s story is the voyeur who passionately follows the “man of the crowd” in hope of not being discovered.   Now, imagine that instead of seeing the man in the crowd, one first hears him.  And instead of him being someone who only inspires horror and fascination, he also inspires joy and even prompts redemption and transformation.  And also imagine that one is found out and seen by the man in the crowd.  One is gazed at by the person one hides from.

This is the situation of the Holy Fool in Meir Abehsera’s parable.   And this is what gives the schlemiel, in Abehsera’s parable, a symbolist aspect.

The symbolic aspect – which can be found in Edgar Allen Poe and his French translator, Charles Baudelaire – is put at the beginning of the parable by way of reference to a “dream adventure” in which the schlemiel appears in the “middle of the night”:

In one of those dream-adventures, he appears in the central square of a small town, in the middle of the night.

But “he” is different from the “man in the crowd.”  He makes himself known and disturbs the entire town.  He is not an anonymous figure in a crowd that the writer/philosopher follows.  And his disruption is not his appearance; it is a sound. To be sure, a noise:

He whistles loudly. Everyone is awakened.  Then, with a second whistle, he shatters plaster moldings and chandeliers, bringing mirrors and paintings crashing to the floor.   Landlords and tenants pour into the square.  They run toward the sound of the whistling and find the idiot standing by the fountain.  (111)

In response to the idiot’s disruption of the town, he is singled out and accused of “destroying property.”  The idiot/schlemiel – like many schlemiels in the Jewish tradition – has no idea that he has done something wrong:

He looks around in bewilderment, his hands resting on his hips. 

In the midst of all this, a “man in his later thirties,” a writer, “shakes a crumpled sheaf of papers in front of the idiot’s face.  ‘This was all that is left of a manuscript which was to teach the world!”

The narrator that tells us that, as they were about to “lynch him” the idiot surprised them and said that he didn’t want to destroy their property; he just wanted something to eat.  But, while looking for food, he noticed something odd. And he had to whistle. He whistled because he saw “dark hosts gathering in the sky, preparing your annihilation.”  His whistling, he believed, would scare them away.

One of the people in the crowd confronts the idiot-slash-Holy-Fool by calling him out on his mission.

“If I understand his words correctly…this imbecile claims to have been sent to save us.  And to the idiot: “Answer me this, then: If you are really the rescuer you portray yourself to be, where does that power come from anyway?  From a holy place, or somewhere else?”

In response to this, the idiot’s face “lights up” and he says that his power is not really his and that “what has happened here is not done by own will or calculation. I do as I am told.”

In other words, the idiot literally interprets himself as a schlemiel which can be read as Shelach (sent) m (from) el (God).  He has no will.  His will is the will of the master.  And his master, it seems, wants him to whistle and disturb the entire town.

The idiot goes on to explain to the crowd that he, in fact, was at one time a mystic and wealthy (“I had everything: wealth, glory, and wisdom.  I could read minds and predict events”).  But he met a sage and lost all his powers.  And was told that he should devote his time to people.  This, says the idiot, was a revelation that caused him great joy:

What a relief that was!  He cleared my head.  I went out of there as a free man. I danced in the streets.  I howled.  And I whistled.  I whistled so much that my mind became an empty chamber.  Within that emptiness, which was devoid of all my intellectual acrobatics, I suddenly made an extraordinary and sublime contact with the sage, my Rebbe.  For just an instant, I ceased to be a separate self. (113)

After saying this, he throws water on his face from a nearby fountain and says he must leave.  But as he leaves he calls on the people to stop fighting with him and to, instead:

“Fight the enemy! But now how to do it.  For he is…illusion.  This is why he appears so overwhelming.   So take my advice.  Have no pity.  Use your breath.  Whistle as I do.  With the breath of pleasure we have sinned, and through the breath we shall be redeemed!”

But after stating this message, he “whirls around and peers through the crowd, scanning the faces as though expecting to find someone.”  And, lo and behold, who does he find but the writer:

The idiot points a trembling finger in his direction…The writer’s face, now in full view, turns green.

Like the philosopher/writer who is following the “man of the crowd” and who fears to be seen, the writer is found out and publicly accused.  This is a moment of surprise and shock which will, ultimately, prompt a transformation:

“And you! the idiot says.  “Be sure to despise evil with every fiber of your being.  You’ll see that it will make you a better writer.   As you run from evil, you will acquire rhythm, through which your soul will speak more freely.”

What is so emblematic about this scene is that the writer, like Sancho Panza, is taking his directives from a Don Quixote figure (the idiot/schlemiel).  The problem is for the writer to accept this mission.  And this mission, in contrast to the secular mission of the writer, is religious.

In response to this, a woman in the crowd speaks out, an “old librarian,” and says that she has “groomed this gentleman from youth.  And I have seen him blossom into the finest writer of his time.  Now you come, carrying on with crazed grandiloquence about clouds and evil forces, to lure the very spiritual genius from our midst!” After saying this, she notes that what the idiot sees as right and wrong is not the same for what others would deem right or wrong.

The idiot doesn’t speak; rather, he gazes at the writer.  The writer, shocked by this gaze, feels as if he has seen him before:

But where? Was it in dreams?  No, it was in his life. Where then? 

In this midst of this confusion and in the face of the “old librarian’s” defense of his work and life, the writer makes his decision with his feet and follows the idiot.

They disappear from the place. The townspeople return to their homes.

This ending echoes and resists Poe’s “Man of the Crowd.”  He is fascinated with the idiot; and like the writer/philosopher of Poe’s story he feels “as if” he knows him from somewhere.  But unlike Poe’s story, he is broken out of his space and follows him out of the town.  He is singled out; he is no longer anonymous.  And this singling out, which was initiated first by whistling, privileges the breath.  Abehsera is suggesting that the writer draw his life from this idiot and his revelation and not the librarian.  He suggests that writing should find its basis in disrupting evil and not fighting the town.

This is a religious path spurred by a religious schlemiel.  In the next blog entries, I will look into where the idiot takes the writer and where this parable takes you, the reader. I would like to suggest that what we have here, in this parable, is a sketch of a schlemiel, his mission, and its meaning.   This meaning is not the same as the secular schlemiel, but, ultimately, the secular schlemiel is also interested in fighting evil.  What is at stake, it seems, is the writers estimation of what evil is.  And the schlemiel’s form and mission – as well as the writer’s – will take shape in light of this estimation of evil.

And it all starts with a whistle and a gaze which singles out the writer and fool in the crowd….

Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part II


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.


Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part I


At the beginning of the summer, I had an interesting talk with the Kabbalah scholar Elliot Wolfson about Holy Fools.  The subject that I wanted to discuss with him, which pertains to the Holy Fool, is something he was familiar with in his studies of Habad (Lubavitch) Hasiduth and Mysticism; namely, something called Ruah Shtut D’kedusha (“the Holy Spirit of Foolishness”).  What spurred our conversation was a challenge that I posed to his reading of “negative theology.”  I suggested that we pay closer attention to the “madness” that this negative theology suggests and to think about how it may or may not relate to what Paul deMan – the literary theorist – would call, following the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire and the German Romantics – the “irony of ironies.”  As I have suggested in other blog entries, deMan’s reading of madness, which is spurred by the “irony of ironies,” leans toward the Daemonic.  What I wondered was whether the “madness of the Holy” differed from this type of madness prescribed by deMan.  To be sure, The Zohar, one of the most important books in Jewish mysticism, often makes distinctions between what’s called the Sitra d’Kedusha (the side of the Holy) and the Sitra Achra (the other side).  Where did the madness of the Holy fit?  Elliot was very intrigued by this question and has, since, exchanged some emails with me about it.

But the point I ended our conversation with was, to my mind, the most important. I suggested that Elliot take a look at Meir Abehsera’s book The Possible Man: Life in the Shadow of the Just.   For me, this book took the Holy Fool not so much as a concept than as a Midrash and an account of someone very close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, someone who, in my view and perhaps his own, plays and played the Holy Fool.  During his years with the Rebbe, he lived out the “Holy Spirit of Foolishness” and, fortunately, he gave it to the next generation of Jews by way of parables in his book.  It can be found in the chapter entitled “The High Road.”

Before I discuss this wonderful work or writing, I just want to say a few words about Meir Abehsera.  I have great respect, love, and admiration for Abehsera.  Before becoming the Rebbe’s “whistler” (a name I will explain over the next few blog entries), Abehsera was a writer, artist, and poet in Paris. He was also one of the major people who was instrumental in bringing Macrobiotics (a way of life, eating, and community) to America.  After touring through the United States in the 1960s, he settled in Binghamton, New York, created something of a community, and influenced countless people there.  Two of those people are very close to me today.  (One of them is my uncle.)  In many ways, I find Abehsera to be one of the most important Jews in my life.  He is, in many ways, a schlemiel-rebbe for me.  His Jewishness is all-embracing, kind, joyful, and inspiring.  He wants to people to dance, sing, and talk with each other.  His gatherings at his home, whether in New York, Los Angeles, or in Israel, were gatherings unlike any I have ever been to.  I am not a child of the 60s, but in many ways I feel as if what he did is the closest thing I will ever come to a Jewish “be-in.”

That said, I’d like to summarize and unpack his wonderful parable.  I think it would be appropriate for Schlemiel-in-Theory to start the Jewish New Year with a spiritual reflection on the schlemiel (or at least one, important, variety of the schlemiel: the holy fool and the “holy spirit of foolishness”).

Here it goes:

Before talking about the Holy Fool, Abehsera begins his “High Road” chapter with a reflection on Memory, Imagination, and Redemption.   The serve as a central motifs in his chapter and they are the preface to his words on the Holy Fool, the Writer, and the Beggar.

Speaking of himself in terms of his inadequate memory, Abehsera writes that “unlike the Just – who are the true repository of memory… – I am a broken vessel, who must resort to circuitousness to find my own way around.  My memory is that of an archeologist by comparison.  Each fragment that I unearth calls for the next, until I finally face the complete form”(94).    What kind of memory do the Just have and how can we tap into it?  How is it possible?

Following this reflection on memory, Abehsera turns immediately to something that concerned The Baal Shem Tov and his grandson Rabbi Nachman of Breslav; namely, the rift that grew in Europe between educated Jews and simple Jews.  To be sure, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, this rift gave birth to the first “literary schlemiels” in Rabbi Nachman’s stories.  The schlemiel, in these stories, challenges the Jewish intellectual who sees himself as closer to God as a result of his greater intelligence and skepticism.  The simplicity and naivite of the simpleton are, for the intellectual, negative traits.

Abhesera points out the Baal Shem Tov came around to address this rift:

He proceeded to transmit to common folk, in their own terms, what had been previously reserved for a select few.  His rationale was clear: the same Father in heaven who gives clever people the capacity to understand, also creates the feeble mind, and grants it no less right to share in the divine feast. (96)

Echoing the Baal Shem Tov, Abehsera lauds the simpleton. They, who live in the “now,” are closest to what Martin Buber would call “root experiences” (such as the giving of the Torah, Splitting of the Sea, etc) and they are the one’s who are closest to the Messianic.  And reflecting on what he says about memory, Abehsera describes this relationship to the “now” of the messianic the “memory of the future as well as of the past”:

Simple people were ideal chariots to transport the sacred, with never a self-conscious thought, for they did not suffer from the vanity with which the gifted are apt to be plagued. They could travel in an instant through time to Sinai, and fall to their faces, trebling as if they had just received the Law….The messiah was not a fable for these good people, or a possible dream of times to come; for them, redemption was now.   Cunning minds might contend that they were merely naïve.  I would say, rather, that they bore the mark of wisdom: a good memory of the future as well as of the past. (97)

The point of the imagination – and the point of the Baal Shem Tov’s famous expression “memory is redemption” – is to “bind past events with those that must inevitably come, to fuse the two extremes of the time and bring them to peace with the present.”  In other words, what Abehsera learns out of the Baal Shem Tov is that the imagination has a messianic and temporal task.  Imagination is equated with memory.  And for Abehsera memory/imagination is an “agent of healing” and spurs the “process of reawakening.”

Nonetheless, memory is challenged by the forces of trauma and destruction.  Memory “slips away.” And, for Abehsera, this is where the Baal Shem Tov and he himself comes in: his work (echoing that of the Baal Shem Tov) is the work of memory and its task is to heal the wounds that Jews have endured by exile and the Holocaust.

After pointing this out, Abehsera notes what he is up against; namely the fact that, in the times of the Baal Shem Tov, people were much more imaginative and hopeful.  Today, in contrast, the imagination is “less obsessive.”  We are – by and large – skeptics and rationalists who live in a disenchanted world.  And “yesterday’s dreamer is an extinct breed.”  So, in this world, we have to “smuggle” light in.  And this is done by way of metaphor.  Regarding this, Abehsera writes: “A metaphor is a transfer that can only be carried out by flesh and blood.” And it is human beings – and not angels – who have to use metaphor to transfer/smuggle light.   In other words, the way to truth, for Abehsera, is by way of the oblique.  We must hint at things but this is done by way of parable.

The trick is to keep this parable simple enough so as to speak to the hearts of people and not to an intellectual elite. And this is certainly something that is on his mind.

What I like most is how Abehsera situates himself within this framework and how, in his parables, he brings in the Holy Fool.  To be sure, it is the Holy Fool who smuggles in the light but, and here is the twist, this is conveyed by way of writing.  For this reason, Abehsera gives a parable that involves the relationship between the “writer” and the “idiot” (Holy Fool) so as to illustrate what is at stake.

In the next blog entry, I hope to discuss the dream that inspired this parable. Since this dream offers a, so to speak, allegorical key to the parable it deserves its own entry and must be laid out.  As I will demonstrate, it gives us a new way of understanding the schlemiel, one which shows how deeply personal and spiritually meaningful this comic character can be.

Living Schlemiels – Stranger than Fiction


One of the things I have never discussed on this blog is the topic of the “living schlemiel.”  To be sure, the most well-known books on the schlemiel – Ruth Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero and Sanford Pinsker’s The Schlemiel as Metaphor – do not address this topic.  Their concern is the schlemiel in literature, folklore, and, for Pinsker (only with regards to Woody Allen), cinema.  The first time I saw the expression “living schlemiel” was in Sander Gilman’s book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews.  To be sure, Gilman used this title for a section on his third chapter which includes German-Jewish writers and thinkers of the 18th and 19th century such as Ludwig Borne and Heinrich Heine.  For Gilman, Heine’s poetry, which dubbed the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” (the poet), bled into his life.  And Ludwig Borne’s life also, for Gilman, bore the stamp of the schlemiel.  Although Heine, according to Hannah Arendt, embraced the title of the “schlemiel” and “lord of dreams,” Gilman’s reading suggests that he and Borne did all they could to avoid it.  And that’s the point: Gilman calls them both schlemiels because no matter how much they did to fit into German society – and this included Heine’s baptism and both Heine and Borne’s attempts to satirize their Jewish origins to be accepted as equals – they remained the odd one’s out.

In judging their lives in this fashion, Gilman is teaching us that he, like many German Jews, uses the term in a critical/judgmental sense.  To live the life of the schlemiel, he suggests, is to live a life that is blind to the fact that it is excluded.  It “believes” it and fits into the world when it doesn’t. And this fits well into Gilman’s definition of the schlemiel vis-à-vis literature and theater. Schlemiels are  “fools who believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.”  This is what Gilman is saying about Heine and Borne: they think they were in control of their world and could cajole it to accept them, but it refused their gestures.  In effect, Gilman suggests that they were odd in two senses: as a result of their satire they were excluded from their Jewish communities; and, despite their efforts, they were not accepted into the “world.”

Taking this definition into account, I wondered about how it could be applied to people I knew and not just to this or that intellectual.  And should it be modified?

Thinking about this, I would say that it should be modified to include the fact that, with a living schlemiel, there is a blindness over the reality that he or she is not fitting in; yet, despite it all, they keep on trying.  And here’s the twist: unlike Gilman who would suggest that the “living schlemiel” comes to a bad end, I would suggest that sometimes their foolishness can bear fruit.

I’ll offer a story about people who, I think, may be living schlemiels or at least analogous to living schlemiels.   This may serve as an illustration of how the schlemiel may be alive and living amongst us.  The question, I think, is how to judge them.

I was raised in Upstate New York by parents who were both raised in New York City.  I was one of a small handful of Jews and, in many ways, my parents skill set and education didn’t match up that well with the rural community that they made their new home.  Growing up, I often felt like I was the “odd one out.”

But, after years of travel, higher education, and exposure to the urban way of life, I realized that many people in my town, from an urban perspective, would be considered the odd one’s out.  I’m somewhere in the middle.   Describing my borderline state, my father jokingly calls me a “cosmopolitan hick.”  I think this title is apt and see read it in terms of what advantages it gives me over people who are either fully urban or are down-and-out country bumpkins.  The greatest advantage I have, to my mind, is the fact that I can participate in both groups and for this reason I am better able than many of my friends to comprehend or judge things that are said by one group about another.  I see it from the inside of both, widely different, cultures.  So when someone is said to be the “odd one out” by one group on another, my ears perk up.  However, there are times when no one says anything and I am the sole witness of an event that is of the schlemiel variety.  Let’s call it a schlemiel situation.

I recently went out for an evening with a group of friends to a bar on the Sacandaga Lake, a lake I spent a lot of my youth enjoying.   (To preserve my friend’s identity, I will change their names while noting what happened.)   In this group of friends, the words and deeds of at least two of my friends spurred a schlemiel-situation in which I bore witness to a schlemiel or two and was prompted to make a schlemiel-judgment call.

They traveled over to the bar by way of the boat.  I came in by car and met them there.  When I got to the bar, I heard that they were still on the lake on the way to the bar.  When I got word that they arrived, I went down to the lake to discover that one of my friends was playing guitar the entire way.  What’s unusual about this?  My friend, let’s call him Bob, is full of energy. He passionately gets into everything he does.  However, sometimes this can be grating because he subjects everyone he knows to his learning experience.  He does have experience as a lead singer in a band and he plays guitar, but he doesn’t take well to criticism.

That said, he was very excited to show me that he had learned how to play rhythm in a rockabilly kind of style.  I listened but, like the night before, he still needed to be much more gentle with his strumming if he was to get it right.  His erratic strumming coupled with his singing, which didn’t match up, his innocence, and his intense personality made me think of Bob as a “living schlemiel.”   To be sure, people tell him that his playing is off, but he goes on.  Its funny.  And so is he.  He is the odd one out, but he manages to slip through the cracks. But, as I found out, this has its limits.

Before going into the bar, Bob started talking with some people in a boat coming in to the bar’s dock.  Using a megaphone, he brought them in (acting as if he was an air-traffic control). This made the whole boat laugh and they were, instantly, endeared with him.  This gave him a big boost.

When he came up to the bar, he started working his foolish magic.  And this is when things started getting odd: reality and dream started clashing.  In the bar, Bob met up with a man in his seventies.  He got this gentleman going and he started dancing wildly to the music.  To have fun, I egged Bob on to increase the madness. But, to my chagrin, I bore witness to some mixed feelings in the bar.  The older gentleman started going off and people around the bar looked at him as if he was crazy.  I felt an odd identification and repulsion with the old man who was dancing wildly.  He was the odd one out and though people were giving him dirty looks, I couldn’t help but think them wrong.  He was having a good time and, yes, he appeared to be a schlemiel of sorts.  He believed he was enthralling the audience by going over the top, but he enthralled no one save Bob.

Together, they were whooping it and each encouraged the other.  I pulled back and noticed, immediately, that my friend Bob was eager to sing with the band.  In Upstate New York, it does often happen that people from the audience go on stage and sing.  But there are tell-tale signs when and when not to do this.  Moreover, it’s always good to have a friend in the band you’re joining.  In this situation there were neither signs nor friends. And my friend, Bob, went into it without any concern hoping his joy and charm would win the day.

But what happened was far from what he imagined. The drummer of the band told him to get off stage and the lead singer gave him dirty looks.   And the older man dancing around the bar started turning off a few of the audience members.  Things looked as if they would get ugly.

But they didn’t.  My friend did all he could to mend things.  It worked, but it didn’t get him on stage so much as in their favor.  What gets me, however, is that my friend kept at it as if there never was a negative moment.  And this blindness, though comic, gives him the title of a living schlemiel.

Following this, I went back to his boat and talked with another friend who keyed me into another kind of living schlemiel: one who has God on his mind and odd ways of relating to Him.   We were looking up at the stars when he said to me that he talks with God.  I asked how and he told me that he would ask questions while looking up at the stars. And for each question, God would answer with a shooting star.  I found this innocent and endearing, but coming from an adult this did seem odd. But isn’t faith a strange thing, too.  And, to be sure, Ruth Wisse notes that the first major literary schlemiel was, in fact, a schlemiel of faith.  That schlemiel comes out of the work of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.  He is the simpleton who, with simple faith, believes in God.  His simplicity is scoffed at by the educated Jewish world, which, at that time, privileged the Jew who learns over the simple Jew.  The former, they believed, was closer to God. But the Baal Shem Tov – and his grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – thought the contrary.  Their stories bear witness to the spiritual doings of the simpleton.  My friend’s story about his communication with God reminded me of this; to be sure, the model for the literary schlemiel is a real one.  This is something Wisse doesn’t discuss as much.  But in this moment, I felt there is a need for more of this kind of reflection on “living schlemiels.”

If I weren’t a “cosmopolitan hick,” I’m not so sure I would look upon what I was seeing in the ways I do.  To be sure, I feel like Sancho Panza did when he followed Don Quixote.  He felt he could learn something from the fool, and so do I.

Some of my friends teach me about the living schlemiel.  But, to be sure, I can also see this from Chad Derrick’s documentary on (a segment of) my life: Shlemiel.  Every time I screen the film to audiences, I see that this is what the filmmaker – who is also my friend – was trying to accomplish.  And, every time I give the Question and Answer session following the film, I am asked if I am a schlemiel (a living schlemiel).  Perhaps I am.

But I am aware of many of the things I am blind too while my friends may not be.   However, then again, I am not.  We may see things that others don’t see, but we are often blind to ourselves.  You may not know this, but you too may be a schlemiel.  And, if we cared, we would be surprised how many living schlemiels are in our midst.   The question is how to judge them and ourselves.  Do we have anything we can learn from “living schlemiels”?

My friends and the older man I saw the other night reminded me that, though people may laugh or scoff at a schlemiel (of the Jewish or non-Jewish variety), there is something about this character – in fiction and in reality – that is good and worthy of our thought and reflection.   This goodness is something that many German-Jews missed (in their rush to judge the schlemiel as an idiot who should, like all things from the ghetto, be left behind).  But it was recognized by the Hasidim, by many of the Yiddish writers, and by some Jewish-American novelists, filmmakers, and artists.  Now that the times have changed, we need to ask ourselves where this goodness can be found and how it can be found.  These are questions not only for schlemiel-in-theory but for the schlemiel-in-reality.  The living schlemiel…..

Is this the End? Physical Comedy, Style, and the Body


In a review of This is the End (2013), written and directed (in part) by the often-schlemiel-playing-comedian Seth Rogen, Richard Brody of The New Yorker makes a compelling argument as to the place of physical comedy in this film.  Before addressing the film, he looks into the history and fate of physical comedy, today.

Brody begins by making reference to an article by Max Winter entitled Slapstick Last: Why a Modern Day Harold Lloyd is Unthinkable.  The first words of Winter’s article say it all: “there are no great physical comedians any more.”  However, he makes a distinction: he points out that while physical comedy may be lacking, “physical presence” on stage (with comedians like Louis CK) is not.  Now, today, more people put out something of a “verbal” or cerebral comedy.

The subject of the article, the master of physical comedy, is Harold Lloyd.  He is deemed that king of silent-film slapstick.  His work, unlike the comedians today, says Winter, appeals directly to our bodies and skips over this or that cultural code or popular reference.  Out laughter at his work, says Winter, is “more pure” (that is, bodily) that our laughter today:

The kind of laughing you do during this film, and in fact the laughing you do during most comic films of the silent era, is more pure and often more whole-hearted than the kind of laughing you might do during contemporary comedies. This is because there’s nothing between you and the laugh. Lloyd does a physical stunt, a prank, or a funny face, and you laugh at it: it’s that simple. The humor here is free of pop culture references, or irony, or any of the other triggers we have come to accept as “funny.” It’s almost as if you’re laughing with another part of your brain.

Lloyd’s physical comedy uses the whole body, not just the head or face.  His slapstick relied on bodily gesture:

From his neck up, Lloyd could be a modern comic, with an ever-changing set of expressions that could be seen on TV or in a film today; from his neck down, he belongs to an earlier era, when people waved their legs around, made silly gestures, punched each other in the forehead, and swung their arms wide when they walked. His facial expressions transform this story from a rags-to-riches tale cum love story cum fable of the foibles of industry into a travelogue of a journey through a psychological minefield. In one scene, he’s nervous about knocking on a general manager’s office door; the way he expresses his agitation, with his arched cheekbones, his twitching mouth, and his jumping eyebrows, shows every stage of his thought process, from start to finish. Here, as elsewhere, he caps off his facial gyrations with slapstick: marching up to the door, starting to knock, stopping, starting, stopping, and so on.

Winter’s articulation of how the comedy of the lower body (in one of Lloyd’s scenes) contrasts with the comedy of the upper body (namely his face) brings out a comic/horrific tension that so much of today’s comic does by more intellectual and less physical means.

His swinging legs and arms seem to be telling you to laugh, while his face reminds you just enough of what your own expression might be in such a situation to make you… well… scared. 

Commenting on Winter’s article and physical comedy, Brody argues that today a return to physical comedy would be impossible since today’s American audiences are, in contrast to audiences of the earlier 20th century, morally appalled by the presence of physical danger in comedy.  In his words, “physical comedy…has been moralized out of existence”:

Here goes: a new Harold Lloyd is unthinkable because physical comedy depends on the proximity and possibility of death, which no longer seems acceptable to viewers who are completely aware of the prevalence of stunt doubles and digital effects, and who are repelled by the idea that a performer would actually face death for what is, after all, only a movie. In other words, physical comedy—the kind that made silent comedies famous—has been moralized out of existence.

Brody cites Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis to point out the proximity of their comedy to physical suffering and possible damage.  Lewis, says Brody, built his career as a comedian on his falls, trips, and physical acrobatics.

In contrast to them, Brody lists the great “anti-physical” comedians; namely, “Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and Woody Allen.”  He calls the “great comic cowards” who did all they could to avoid physical comedy.  They are rooted in “stand up” comedy rather than “fall down”(slapstick) comedy.   Nonetheless, Brody adds, with a bit of astonishment, that today, in films like This is the End, physical comedy seems to be making a comeback.

The film, argues Brody, may be filled with lots of slapstick and fall down comedy, but “it’s almost completely unfunny.”  And the physical comedy we see, apparently, is not even done by them.  It is done by stunt doubles.

This isn’t funny because Hollywood has made changes that apparently reflect an audience’s changed “endurance” of suffering:

The world has changed; just as classic-era Hollywood, with its unchallenged prejudices on matters of ethnicity and gender, reflected the dominant presumptions and exclusions of the time, so the endurance of suffering during a rough-and-tumble period when many more Americans did physically hard and dangerous work found its reflection in a comedy of danger.

And This is the End, for Brody is a “superb example of how comedy and comic violence have become subordinated to a conspicuous ethical order.”

What I like most about Winter and Brody’s reflections is the fact that they both point out how the meaning of the body in comedy has altered considerably.  Brody suggests that it has, in fact, been censored for “moral” reasons.  Nonetheless, he doesn’t think a return to physical comedy is possible or necessary.   Winter suggests that we pay more attention to what happened in early physical comedy; namely, a laughter that was “more pure” because it appealed directly to the body.  This, I would argue, could form the basis of a more nuanced ethical argument on behalf of physical comedy that could challenge the new attitude toward physical comedy that Brody makes reference.

To this end, I’d like to end this blog entry with a suggestion.  Roland Barthes’ reading of style in his book Writing Degree Zero suggests that we think of style (and here I would suggest comic style) in terms of the body.  For Barthes, the “imagery, delivery, and vocabulary” of style “spring from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become the reflexes of his art.”   For this reason, style has something “crude” about it since it is the “product of thrust, not an intention”; its “frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical.”  Moreover, style is a challenge to society: “indifferent to society and transparent to it, a closed personal process, it is in no way the product of choice or of a reflection…it is the decorative voice of hidden, secret flesh.”

Style is a “germinative phenomenon, the transmutation of a humour” and has a “carnal structure.”

All of these reflections on style bring us back to a reflection of the body.  Based on them, one can argue that what appeals most to people who have enjoyed physical comedy in the past was its style. The style of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd is not simply rooted in their routines; it actually gives us a deeper sense of their “hidden, secret flesh.”  Barthes sees the mystery of the body – in all its opacity – in style and I suggest we see such style in bodily comedy.

It may be the case that Jerry Lewis’ style of physical comedy has been, to some extent, displaced by Woody Allen’s style of comedy; but, still, it is not entirely cerebral.  This is not the “end” of physical comedy so much as one kind of “physicality.”

We still see a body on stage “standing up” (rather than “falling down”) before us.  We see this, as Winter notes, in Louis CK’s bearish body pacing the stage and, I would add, in his comic style and delivery. The comic body remains.

To be sure, in the film, This is the End (2013), Seth Rogen’s physical gestures and styles convey his comical, bodily way of being.  The question we need to ask is what kind of bodily secrets Rogen conveys as opposed to what kind of secrets Sasha Baron Cohen or Charlie Chaplin.  How do we contrast their styles if, as Barthes says, they come from an opaque place? Are we given, so to speak, “flashes” of (bodily) wisdom when we watch their differing comic styles? Can we use Barthes, so to speak, to better understand how we bear witness to the mystery of physical comedy?  Is there an ethical relation to the body that Barthes was trying to uncover by way of his reading of style?  And would it be worth our while to pursue what Winters alludes to when he says that the laughter of physical comedy was “more pure?”  Was Barthes also seeking for this “purity,” which touched on the origins of not just comedy in particular but also style in general?