Dad Endings: On the Transformation of Vladmir Girshkin from Schlemiel to Bad-Man to Dad-Man – Part II

images-1

Power corrupts. And it corrupts not only those who hold it; it can also corrupt those who are its victims since the victim can become the victimizer.   This is a theme that intrigues Gary Shteyngart whose main character, a Russian-Jewish-Immigrant to America becomes a victim who is given an opportunity to. so to speak, turn the tables.   We see this at work in the middle of The Russian Debutante’s Notebook where the main character, Vladmir, ends up despising young Americans who come to Eastern Europe to “rebel against their parents.”   He initially takes them as the targets of his “ponzi scheme.”

However, at a certain point, he is smart enough to realize that his negative reading of Americans is a misreading.  And the person who brings him to this realization prompts him to go from being an exceptional bad-man to a normal “dad-man.”   This transformation, in many ways, bears an interesting light on Hannah Arendt’s claim that the schlemiel is left behind for the normal man.  The problem with her reading is that there are too many gaps.  Shteyngart, in an odd way, fills many of these gaps in since Vladmir goes from being a schlemiel to a bad-man; and from a bad-man to a normal dad-man.

As I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, Vladmir’s first “victim” is a writer named Perry Cohen.  In the style of a “bad-man,” Vladmir tries to mock – to himself – the juvenile writer he meets in a bar.   But, in the midst of this mockery, there are moments of tenderness when he remembers the poem he wrote on his mother when he was an undergraduate.  But this memory fades in and out – it, like the memory of the feminine, trades places with his new masculine approach to things (wherein he must con people and follow through to his criminal promises to “the Groundhog).

When Vladmir first sees him, he calls Perry the “young Hemmingway across the room.” His first reflections on Perry show us that Vladmir sees himself as “other” than Perry the American-Jew from the Midwest:

Vladmir imagined a background of worried parents, angry transatlantic phone calls, pouches full of law-school applications being dragged through the streets of Prava by exhausted Stolovan postmen. (216)

But, in a few telling moments, we see that Vladmir has a soft spot for this wayward American-Jew who is in conflict with his upbringing.  Vladmir, as we have seen, also has some difficulties (although his are much different).  Regardless, they bond:

And so Cohen told Vladmir of the story of his father.  The two men had known each other for two minutes now; a pen had been transferred from one to the other; ethnic backgrounds had been established; a few sallies had been launched.   What that all it took – the equivalent of two dogs sniffing out each other’s rears – to get the writer Cohen to tell the story of his father?  (217)

But this is short-lived since Vladmir becomes competitive and finds Cohen’s experience of assimilation to be insignificant when compared to his own. This is where the beast comes out:

What do you know of assimilation, spoiled American pig?  Why, I’ll show you…I’ll show you all!  Oh, and the way Cohen had told the story.  Lowering his voice during the bit about the Gipper, trying to sound hurt but brave when recalling his father’s transgressions.  Crocodile tears, my suburban friend.  Your father could be a deforester of forests and a murderer of Hutus, but in the end what determines your fate is the size of your trust fund, the slope of your nose, the quality of your accept. At least his daddy wasn’t accusing him of walking like a Jew.  God damn it! Vladmir could just kill this Cohen! (219)

This pattern of warming up to his more privileged American compatriots and pulling away from them (attraction and repulsion) informs his Jewish-American-Russian identity.  And this comes to the fore when he is in Eastern Europe, not in the USA.  It comes to the fore when he is given an opportunity to make these young Americans into a victim of his “ponzi scheme.”  Its fascinating how Shteyngart evokes and works through Vladmir’s crisis.

By way of Cohen, Vladmir meets several other Americans in Prava who are also “rebelling against their parents” and upbringing.  He is intrigued by the members of the group, and is drawn in by the American girls, their bodies, and their American-ness. But he is also repulsed by it.  By way of parties, drinks, and schmoozing, Vladmir suggest that they all work together to create a literary journal in Prava – Cohen will be the editor.

Meanwhile, Vladmir briefs “The Groundhog” on the progress of his PravaInvest scheme.  But, as the novel goes on, we see that there is a snag.  In relation to Cohen and many other handsome and fit Americans, he feels his body is out of place.  He is vulnerable.  And this vulnerability is foreshadowed when, in his room alone, he remembers his childhood; and, when he rises up from his memory in his Prava apartment, he ties to walk like a “man” rather than as a “Jew.” But he fails:

Vladmir got up from his bed.  He tried walking the way Mother had shown him a few months ago in Westchester.  He straightened his posture until his back hurt. He put his feet together gentile-style…But in the end he found the whole exercise pointless.   If he could survive Soviet kindergarten hobbling Jewishly from humiliation to humiliation to humiliation, then he could surly survive the scrutiny of some Midwestern clown. (246).

When he meets a girl named Morgan, however, this all changes.  In her, he sees someone like himself; someone who is simple and awkward and whose body and appearance are…different.  He can pick on her, but it is not out of spite and jealousy (as it is for Cohen and his ground):

Vladmir had but one thought: Why was her hair past shoulder length, given the present-day urban conventions that demanded shortness, brevity?  Was she, perhaps, a stranger to hipness?  Questions, questions. (265)

As we learn later, what makes Morgan so special is the fact that, unlike her fellow Americans, she is not exceptional nor does she look to be.  She is normal.  And this, at first, troubles Vladmir who the narrator sees, at the outset of the novel, as a cross between P.T. Barnum and V.I. Lenin.

When Morgan says that she “likes him” because he is a “good person,” Valdmir is troubled by this as it challenges his whole revenge project of going from victim to victimizer.  The narrator, to be sure, doesn’t think Vladmir is “good”:

Was Vladmir a good person? No.  But he mistreated others only because the world had mistreated him.  Modern justice for the postmorality set. (308)

But Vladmir, in a schlemiel moment, remembers how he used to be good…before he met Rybakov.  He used to be good when he is was a schlemiel:

Why couldn’t she make this easy for him?  Weren’t his lies and evasions valid enough?  And yet, here she was, Morgan Jenson, a tender but unsettling project, reminding Vladmir of someone he used to be before Mr. Rybakov stumbled into his life…A soft and unsurefooted Vladmir…Mother’s Little Failure.  The man on the run.  (310)

But there is more to the story.  Instead of going back to being a schlemiel, Morgan is simply going to prompt him towards the normal life.  Part VI of the book, entitled “The Trouble With Morgan” goes right to this theme immediately.

By way of Morgan, Vladmir is able to reflect on himself as a Jewish-Russian-American immigrant.  He gets down on himself to a great degree and sees his body against hers while thinking that her body is more “plausible than his, the body of a woman who approached the earth on equal terms”(316).  In contrast, Vladmir sees himself as abnormal: he can’t relate to the “earth on equal terms.”  Rather, like “Fran, Challah, Mohter, Dr. Girshkin, Mr Rybakov,” he had “invested into building a refuge from the world”(316).  In contrast, Morgan has “nothing in particular to run from.”  She has a world; he doesn’t.

These above-mentioned descriptions are uncanny because sound so-much like Arendt’s – regarding the Pariah/schlemiel’s relation to the world.  Like Arendt, Vladmir (and the narrator) take on the project of becoming normal.  The narrator makes this theme explicit:

Normalcy. What they were doing was inherently normal and right.  The tent (which they were sharing one day) was a special zone in which desire existed as a normal urge…This idea, as clear as the lake glistening outside their tent, cared Vladmir almost to the point of impotence.  (317)

The tendency toward “normality” that Vladmir is feeling by way of Morgan will prompt him to go from being a “bad-man” to being normal.  And in the Epilogue, it will prompt him to go through the final phase: from being a bad-man to a dad-man.

In the next blog entry, I will take a look into this “final transformation” and into the implications of this “dad-ending.”  This ending – and the process that leads up to it – gives us a fresh vantage point that can be used in our reading of Hannah Arendt’s periodization of the schlemiel.   When one turns to normality, as she and Vladmir do, is Jewishness (and not just the schlemiel) lost in the process?

Dad Endings: On the Transformation of Vladmir Girshkin from Schlemiel to Bad-Man to Dad-Man – Part I

images-3

What many scholars of Hannah Arendt miss (perhaps because they don’t want to see it) is the fact that “The Jew as Pariah” ends on the note of normality.  Although Arendt devotes much of the essay to discussing the schlemiel (as Pariah), she ends her essay with a discussion of Kafka.  Unlike Heinrich Heine and Charlie Chaplin, who both were committed to the schlemiel, Arendt claims that Kafka was not.  In fact, unlike her readings of Heine and Chaplin, she makes a biographical reading of Kafka’s work and claims that the secret of all of Kafka’s novels (with the exception of Amerika) is the desire for normality.  In other words, at the end of the day Arendt thinks that Kafka, like herself, rejected the schlemiel in the name of normality.  To be sure, she saw the “exceptional” status of the schlemiel (and its constant challenge to the status quo) to ultimately be a problem and normality to be the solution.  With a historical view prominent in her mind – a view that has much resonance with Zionism – Arendt believed that the schlemiel served a historical purpose but it was not the goal so much as a means to a different end.

Since it moves from the schlemiel to, at the end very end, becoming “normal,” the latter half of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, echoes Arendt’s reading of the schlemiel.   To get there, however, Shteyngart adds an extra stage in which the schlemiel becomes a bad-man before he becomes a “dad-man” (that is, a normal American).  I find that the trajectory mapped out by Shtyengart’s novel sheds light on Arendt’s map of the schlemiel’s transformation.  And the light it shines on her model discloses what I have thought all along about it; namely, that her reading of the schlemiel is a bad ending to what she calls a “hidden tradition.”  For in losing the schlemiel, Jews also may lose what is distinctive and “exceptional” about Jewishness.  At the end of Shteyngart’s novel, the loss, however, is not so much about the loss of Jewishness as the beginning of a new, normal life in America as an American father and husband; not as a Russian-American and not as a Jewish-American.  And this, I hold, is a “dad ending.”

But before we can get to this “dad ending” and to the normal life, Shteyngart shows us that Vladmir, the main character, must go through the experience of being “exceptional” (in the powerful and “bad” sense).  To this end, Shteyngart begins the process of transformation by way of an exceptional event: namely, the attempted rape by a powerful drug dealer in Miami named Jordi.  As I pointed out in the last blog-entry, this event prompted Vladmir to become more masculine.  In the midst of his flight, the narrator and the character reflect how Vladmir will no longer be a victim.  He realizes that all of his life, before that point, was about making him a victim:

Everything had changed. His body had been handled by a man whose intent was to hurt….How meager the insults of his childhood by comparison to what had just happened.  All the miserable years of adolescence, the daily drubbing at the hands of parents and peers, had been no more than a dress rehearsal; all those years, it turned out, young Vladmir had been preparing himself for victimhood.  (155)

As I pointed out, he, like the Israeli cab driver who speeds him out of harms way, would associate the schlemiel with the victim.  In the wake of this, he decides to take Rybakov’s advice and flee to Prava in Eastern Europe.  There, Vladmir would meet up with Rybakov’s son “the Groundhog.”  There, Vladmir would become the victimizer rather than the victim.  There, Vladmir will become an exceptional leader (a P.T. Barnum and a V.I. Lenin – the two characters that the narrator associates with Vladmir at the very outset of the novel).

When he arrives in Prava, Vladmir is greeted by an entourage:

Small-arms fire exploded outside.

A dozen car alarms engaged.

A detachment of men, each with a small Kalashnikov at hip level, swiftly parted the Americans into two screaming herds.

The requisite red carpet was rolled out between them.

A convoy of BMWs and armor-plated Range Rovers was assembled in protective formation. 

A crepe banner bearing the curious legend PRAVNAINVEST #1 FINANCIAL CONCERN WELCOME THE GIRSHKIN was unfurled. (188)

Following this grand welcome, Vladmir is introduced to his “new benefactor” (“The Groundhog”).   Although there are many comic moments in this display of power, the comedy is based on the feeling and expression of power. And even the narrator’s descriptions try to make light of it all by paying close attention to the aesthetic aspects of this display in honor of Vladmir:

In an impressive piece of postmodern choreography, twelve car doors were opened simultaneously by twelve lanky Stolovians….Inside, the sober German interiors were violated beyond comprehension with Jersey-style zebra-striped seats and wooly cupholders. (190).

As Valdmir takes this all in, he realizes the opportunity he has to do something he never has done: become a leader.  However, here, he would be the leader of a crime ring (with, of course, the oversight of his benefactor: The Groundhog).  Vladmir takes all of this on when he is asked to speak at the “Biznesmenski” lunch.

At this lunch, Vladmir takes on the role of leading The Groundhog and all of his underlings to greater economic success:

I propose that I single-handedly infiltrate the American community in Prava. Despite my fluent Russian and my tolerance of drink, I can easily double as a first-rate American.  My credentials are impeccable.  I have attended one of the premier liberal-minded colleges in the States and have a profound appreciation for the dress, manners, and outlook of the disaffected young American set.  (201)

They all applaud his plan to rip-off young “disaffected” Americans who come to post-Communist Eastern Europe (in general, and Prava in particular) as a way of rebelling against their parents and wealthy upbringing.  When asked what he needs to accomplish this, he tells them he needs a “certain amount of money per week for drinks, drugs, taxis, whatever it takes to ingratiate myself in the community”(201).  He estimates this will amount to an initial $6000 and, following this,  $2000 a week.  They agree and, floating on this success (a success that we saw at the end of his “curious arc of dreams” – but with a major difference), he gets to work.

To get things underway, Vladmir goes to the area where Americans hang out and there he stumbles across a poet by the name of Perry Cohen.  He introduces himself to Perry as a “novelist-poet-investor.”  And, as he in the midst of talking to Perry, he concocts his scheme to get money from them and to run.

In the next blog entry, I will discuss Vladmir’s relationship with the American community in Prava and how, once he gets to know them, it takes a turn.  Following this, I will 1) show how close Arendt and Shteyngart are in their reading of the schlemiel and its “end”and 2) look into the meaning of Shteyngart’s “dad ending” and how it compares to Arendt’s ending.    

 

Fleeing America for Eastern Europe and the Schlemiel for Masculinity

images-2

Historically, one will find that one of the founding ideas behind this or that revolution or political movement is the idea that a nation, people, or sex, etc needs to rise up and assert that it will no longer be a victim or slave to this or that system, ideology, or people.  When this movement of “liberation” happens, certain traits that are deemed to have caused this victimhood will be targeted for elimination.  For many of the first Zionists who wanted a new state and for many Jews of Germany who wanted to be accepted as equals, the traits that they found most problematic, the traits that kept them from the state or acceptance could be found in the schlemiel.  For many Jews, the schlemiel represented the parts of the Jewish people that they wanted to leave behind: these parts were, in their view, too “feminine” and too open to victimhood.  Jews, they believed, needed to stand up and reject these traits.  Independence and equality were contingent on rejecting them.  And the “new Jew” or the assimilated German-Jew would be more independent and masculine than the “old Jew” or the “ghetto Jew,” which found its caricature in the schlemiel.  This reading, I would like to stress, differed considerably from the Eastern European reading of the schlemiel.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, the reading of the schlemiel as a victim re-emerges in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Notebook.  Vladmir, throughout the beginning of the novel plays the schlemiel.  But never once does he or the narrator refer to Vladmir as a “victim.”  And, as readers, we enjoy the dreamy meditations and happenings that we see Vladmir drift in and out of throughout the novel.  His foolishness is charming.  However, the dreams at the end of his story arc, the dreams of money, lead him into a near rape experience.  And this shifts his perspective on himself; the narrator is the one who notes this change:

Everything had changed. His body had been handled by a man whose intent was to hurt….How meager the insults of his childhood by comparison to what had just happened.  All the miserable years of adolescence, the daily drubbing at the hands of parents and peers, had been no more than a dress rehearsal; all those years, it turned out, young Vladmir had been preparing himself for victimhood.  (155)

This implies that the whole novel up to this point is about a character who was “preparing himself for victimhood.”  But now, in the wake of this near-rape experience, Vladmir punches his pursuant (Jordi) and flees the hotel.  And this flight, I aver, is a flight from the feminine to the masculine.  It is also a flight from America to Eastern Europe where Vladmir will now lead a life of crime with a group of other men.  But, as I noted before, his flight, at a certain point, ends; and his transformation is partial.

The tone, writing style, and content of the novel change dramatically as he flees the hotel.  When he leaves, he flags down a taxi that is driven by an Israeli named Ben-Ari (which in Hebrew means “son of a lion”).  Shteyngart’s decision to have a masculine Israeli named Ari pick Ivan up is not by any means arbitrary.  To be sure, it fits into the anti-victimhood theme that he is playing on (after all, as I mentioned above, the concept of the “new Jew” emerged out of the Zionist idea and was embodied, to some extent, in the Sabra ideal).

Ari’s introduction underscores this masculine theme:

The cabdriver, some kind of Middle Eastern pituitary giant…asked if Vladmir’s girlfriend had kicked his ass.  His nameplate read Ben-Ari, or Son of a Lion…(156)

In response to Ben-Ari’s question, Vladmir acts as if he is masculine, enjoys it when he says the word “bitch,” and “commands” Ben-Ari to flee to the airport:

“And I’m leaving the bitch for good,” Vladmir said (given the events of the last hour, it was oddly comforting to appropriate that word – “bitch”).  “To the Fort Lauderdale airport!” he commanded. (156)

As the drive goes on, Vladmir gets a crash course in masculinity by the Israeli cab driver who challenges him to pay the price he has specified or drop him off while compelling him to tell the truth about this or that crime Vladmir may have committed to drive him into this desperate situation.  At a certain point, Vladmir realizes that Jordi, a drug dealer, may be one step ahead of him and will be waiting for him at the airport. This is confirmed when he sees the cab surrounded by the Peach Caddys that, he assumes, are Jordis.  Seeing this, he orders Ben-Ari to change course and go to New York.

This bold move is costly and Ben-Ari makes him pay top dollar for it.  The narrator emphasizes Ben-Ari’s masculine reaction to hearing the news that he must change course:

“Damn!” the Lion shouted.  He hit the wheel in masculine fashion. “Damn, whore, fuck,” he said. (162)

When deciding what to do, we also see “the lion’s” masculinity.  Vladmir gives him the Rolex that Rybakov gave him plus $5,900 dollars.  In other words, all the money he had acquired in “gifts” from Rybakov and the underlings of “The Groundhog” were handed over to Ben-Ari.  His dream of accumulating more money has been smashed.

When they arrive in New York City, his dream is further smashed.  Vladmir ordered Ben-Ari to drop him off at Fran’s house thinking it would be safe.  But when he gets within view of the front door of their apartment building, he notices that Jordi is there waiting. Before Vladmir flees, we see him patting Fran’s father on the back.  At this point, Vladmir makes the snap decision that he must leave the USA for Eastern Europe.  He must join Rybakov’s son “The Groundhog” and his crime ring in Prava.  He wants to leave his victimhood behind and in Prava he looks to be a leader.

When he comes to these realizations, he reflects on how he was an victimized schlemiel and how, unlike the past (and unlike the schlemiel), he has learned from his failures.  He is ready to leave and ready for a change into someone more masculine:

He had failed once again, but this time he had come away all the wiser.  The boundaries, the contours of victimization at the hands of Mother, Girlfriend, and this dough-bellied adopted land of his, were all to clear. He would never suffer like that again.  In fact, he would never be an immigrant agin, nevermore a man who couldn’t measure up to the natives.  From this day forward, he was Vladmir the Expatriate, a title that signified luxury, choice, decadence, frou-frou colonialism.  Or, rather, Vladmir the Repatriate, in his case signifying a homecoming, a foreknowledge, a making amends with history. (179)

There, in Prava, he would be “at home.”  And there he would reclaim some kind of masculinity which he had lost when he left Russia to become an American.  He leaves the immigrant-becoming-American schlemiel experience, which, in his view, made him a victim and a failure.

Faced with this realization, Vladmir flees American for Eastern Europe and the schlemiel for masculinity.  But, as I have suggested before, this flight and its attendant transformation may be incomplete.  Will he be able to leave the schlemiel behind? Can we trust the narrator and subscribe to the same kind of narrative that German Jews and the first Zionists subscribed to when they wished to leave the schlemiel behind by calling the schlemiel a victim?  Can we challenge the narrator and see the schlemiel as something or someone other than a victim?

The answers to these questions, as well as the “curious arc” of Vladmir’s flight and dreams, show us a new kind of schlemiel; one that speaks to our times in a complex and nuanced manner.

…..to be continued….

A Curious Arc: On the “Partial” Transformation of Gary Shteyngart’s Vladmir – Part II

images-2

In the beginning of an extraordinary piece of fiction entitled “A Heroic Death,” the 19th century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire noted that fools have a curious way of getting themselves in trouble.  For Baudelaire, the reason for this has to do with the fact that fools don’t often think about the consequences of their actions.  They are most likely more interested in a feeling, dream, or imagining that goes hand-in-hand with an intriguing action.  Baudelaire’s observation resonates well with what happens to Vladmir in The Russian Debutante’s Notebook.   Like Baudelaire’s fool, Vladmir dreams a lot about and his situation and, as a result of these dreams, he gets thrown into a crisis.  But unlike many fools who go on in their foolishness despite what happens to them, Vladmir goes through what I call a “partial transformation.”

In yesterday’s blog entry, I cited the passage where the narrator describes the changing dreams of Vladmir.  All of them, taken together, form a “curious arc”:

All in all, Vladmir’s American dreams formed a curious arc.  During adolescence he dreamed of acceptance. In his brief days at college, he dreamed of love.  After college, he dreamed a rather improbable dialectic of love and acceptance.  And now, with love and acceptance finally in the bag, he dreamed of money. What fresh tortures would await him next? (116)

As one can see, Vladmir’s newest dream about money is what gets him in trouble.  This is foreshadowed by the question at the end of the passage: “What fresh tortures would await him next?”

This passage is the preface to Vladmir’s meeting with Rybakov, his Serbian Bodyguard, and the criminal underlings of Rybakov’s son (“The Groundhog”).  After receiving “gifts” from the “groundhog” (which includes “fifty cartons of Dunhill cigarettes” and a “Rolex”) and some money from Rybakov, Vladmir’s wants more.  And, as I noted in yesterday’s blog, he goes to Baobab.

The narrator provides a sketch of Baobab which gives the reader the impression that he doesn’t properly think through things; he’s a schlemiel.  Nonetheless, Vladmir, in his desperation for money, which he can use to pay off his credit card debt and the rent he owes to his ex-girlfriend Challah, he takes Baobab’s tip.

The tip requires Vladmir to go down to Miami and pose as the son of a man named Jordi.  The masquerade is meant to fool a college admissions officer into granting Jordi’s son admission into the college; apparently, the son’s grades and intelligence are the problem and Vladmir is the solution.  When Vladmir expresses worry that he may get caught, Baobab assures him:

“The place is so gargantuan the interviewer will never see the kid again.  Trust me, it’s foolproof, and I don’t even think it’s terribly illegal.  Impersonating a high school kid: not exactly the crime of the century, just a lame thing to do.  But for twenty thousand…”(139)

When Vladmir arrives in Florida, he is picked up by Jordi who is driving a “peach Caddy.”  When we first meet Jordi, we see a man of Spanish (Catalan) descent who “neither sounded nor resembled the drug dealer out of central casting, which Vladmir was expecting with some dread”(141).  To be sure, Vladmir feels relieved by this appearance and trusts Jordy who looks like a “middle-aged Jew with a textile business.”  In other words, Vladmir feels “as if” Jordy is a fellow Jew although he is not.   This imagining takes on greater power the more time he spends with Jordi.

Strangely enough, Vladmir finds nothing peculiar when Jordi tells him that plans have changed:  “My secretary screwed up our reservations, the cow,” he said. “Would you mind splitting the room with me”(144).  Jokingly, Jordi says that it will be like a “slumber party.”  In the innocent and trusting manner of a schlemiel, Vladmir gets excited about the “slumber party.”

Following this, Jordi and Vladmir start drinking.  Jordi asks Vladmir to shave off his goatee and to go outside and get a tan (so as to look more like his son).  Vladmir does so and starts seeing himself as other (namely, as a man-child).  While he is out tanning, he remembers his mother and his childhood.  He starts crying.  At this point, he is at the height of vulnerability.  After his crying, tanning, and drinking, he returns to the hotel room to find Jordi sprawled out on the bed “watching a show about a modeling agency, grunting along as the feeble bon mots flew and negligees slithered on the ground”(148).

This scene becomes more and more sexualized and Vladmir, in his innocence, doesn’t “get it.”  After a day of heavy drinking, Vladmir starts feeling the alcohol:

The sun had long since disappeared when Vladmir felt the full giddy nausea of champagne drunkenness and ordered himself to stop.  He sat down hard on his bed near the balcony and felt it sway a little in all directions.  Something was askew, and it wasn’t just the physical universe reeling from booze. (150)

He can’t quite put his finger on it.  But Jordi helps him out when he says, flat out:

“Hey, correct me if I am wrong,” Jordi said, swinging his feet between the two beds, his trunks tight with the outline of his shaft, twisted and constrained by the elastic, “but you fooled around with Baobab before, right?  I mean, you’ve been with other boys.”(151)

The narrator’s description of Vladmir’s vision and astonishment is akin to a primal scene of horror.  This scene, I aver, marks a major turning point in the novel and in Vladmir’s life.  From this point, Vladmir takes a leap and transforms from a schlemiel into a (partial) “man” on the run.

Vladmir followed the single horrific spot of wetness along the inseam of Jordi’s trunks.  “Who, us? He said, Jumping off the bed, so unsure of the fact that he had spoken the he repeated himself. “Who, us?” (151)

The modulation of “Who, us” – repetitively -works on several levels and evinces a loss of identity and meaning.  Following this moment of loss, Vladmir insists that he is not interested; and when Jordi approaches him and grabs him, he punches him in the face.  This punch transforms him and is the very thing that will send him out of the country and back to Eastern Europe.  Before reflecting on it, the narrator recalls a memory Vladmir has of Fran, about how she was going “to make him into a human being, an indigenous citizen of the world”(152).  This reflection prior to his reflection on the punch makes it explicit that the narrator equates this punch with becoming a “human being” a “citizen of the world.”  The irony, however, is that one doesn’t become a “human being” by virtue of being a gentle cosmopolitan so much as by way of being a “man” who defends himself when being raped:

He had never hit a person before in his life, or heard the crunch of knuckle bone ramming cartilage…Vladmir ran. (153)

To emphasize the shift from the life of a schlemiel to the life of a man on the run, the narrator gives detailed descriptions of Vladmir’s passionate flight from Jordi, the drug dealer.  The “fear gland” kicks in and takes over.   And the story starts shifting into the masculine mode.  To enunciate this change and make it explicit, the following chapter (chapter 16) is entitled “Getting in Wrong” and the first words, “Everything had changed,” mark the transformation I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry.

To bring this into relief, the narrator makes something of a reading of the schlemiel equating Vladmir-as-Schlemiel with Vladmir-as-Victim:

Everything had changed. His body had been handled by a man whose intent was to hurt….How meager the insults of his childhood by comparison to what had just happened.  All the miserable years of adolescence, the daily drubbing at the hands of parents and peers, had been no more than a dress rehearsal; all those years, it turned out, young Vladmir had been preparing himself for victimhood.  (155)

Although this seems to be a death-toll for the schlemiel and the beginning of something new, I would like to suggest that what happens here is the shedding of one aspect of this character.  It is, as I will show in the next few blogs, a partial transformation.

What I find so interesting about Shteygart’s project is the fact that, for him, the schlemiel’s masculinity is one of his main concerns.  On the one hand, he finds the passivity and masochistic “victimhood” of the character to be deplorable; yet, on the other hand, and as I will show, he doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Shteyngart is looking to strike a balance between the masculine and the feminine and the basis for making such a balance is contingent on how we interpret the comings and goings of Immigrant-Becoming-American-Schlemiel.  As a part of this becoming, Shteyngart decided that Vladmir should have a shocking experience that challenges the schlemiel’s more effeminate and dreamy nature.  The question is whether becoming an American – for Shteygart -implies becoming more masculine.

Strangely enough, however, he doesn’t become masculine in America.  The process starts in America, but it takes full form in Eastern Europe.  I hope to bring out the irony of this process and to show how the transformation out of the schlemiel into something more masculine may seem full but is actually partial.

And, more importantly, this transformation is spurred by the fact that Vladmir, a schlemiel, ends up getting himself into trouble by virtue of the “curious arc” of his dreams.  This trouble spurs his transformation and, because his life changes as a result, he shares less with the traditional schlemiel and more with Woody Allen’s most recent schlemiels.  But he differs from them too, for his transformation is ultimately partial.

….to be continued…..

A Curious Arc: On the “Partial” Transformation of Gary Shteyngart’s Vladmir – Part I

DownloadedFile

Sometimes schlemiels can go through transformations in the self-same novel, movie, short-story, or comic strip.  We see this, for instance, in several Woody Allen films such as Anything Else (2003), Hollywood Ending (2002), Whatever Works (2009) and Midnight in Paris (2011); we also see this in Judd Apatow’s films Knocked Up (2007) and Super Bad (2007).  However, sometimes a schlemiel may seem to go through a transformation.  In such a scenario, this or that trait of the schlemiel may remain buried only to resurface as a tic, habit, gesture, or memory.   We see this with the main character of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.   The schlemiel who goes through something of a transformation is Vladmir Girshkin, the main character.  But this transition – what I, playing on Shteyngart, call a “curious arc” –  is riddled with remnants of his old-schlemiel-self which bubble up to the surface.

I have written a few blog entries on Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.  In these blog entries, I read Vladmir as the “immigrant-becoming-American schlemiel,” as a partner in a comic duo with another character called Rybakov, and as the son of a Jewish mother.    All of these entries address the question as to why we readers might call Vladmir a schlemiel.  But there are a few other instances I’d like to include before showing how Vladmir moves from being a schlemiel to a schemer of sorts.

Already in the novel, one can see that Vladmir is not a typical schlemiel in the sense that he is very successful with women.  He leaves his Jewish girlfriend “Challah” (as in the bread Jews eat on the Sabbath) for a “high-class” gentile named Fran.  She goes to Columbia University, loves things Russian (read exotic), is a hipster, lives the easy life of a New Yorker who has money to spend on “organic toothbrushes” and vegan cuisine, and has parents who are both professors at CUNY.  Her life is easy and when Vladmir enters it he sees an American life he was never familiar with.  In this, to be sure, we see something of a foreshadowing of his transition in his “upward mobility.”  But this movement is fraught with elements of schlemiel-keit.

To begin with, the group of individuals that Fran hangs out with – as well as her parents – are living in a dream bubble of affluence.  Her father has embarked on a “humor studies” project (we see, after his transformation, that Vladmir finds this to be ridiculous), her mother (unlike his) lives a life that has no economic worries whatsoever, and Fran’s friends have leisure time to spend lots of money on food, drinks, and travel. They also have a taste for Russian things, and, for them, Vladmir is the “real thing.”

Vladmir soaks all of this in and feels as if he has “made it.”  But this is an illusion.  Although he moves in with Fran’s family and doesn’t have to pay for room and board, he still works in the Emma Lazurus Society Immigrant Absorption Agency.  And, more importantly, he runs up a huge bill on his credit card because he takes his new found friends for food and drinks on a daily basis.

When he wakes up to this economic crisis, he scrambles to figure out how he can get money so as to pay off his bills and maintain the image of affluence.  This prompts him to do two things that – unbeknownst to him – will lead to his transition from a schlemiel to a schemer of sorts.

First of all, he contacts Rybakov (“the fan man”) who, earlier in the novel, is shown to be a criminal with a sense of humor. And, as I pointed out in one of my blog posts on the novel, Rybakov wants to become an American citizen and has already made offers to bribe Vladmir for it.  Although Vladmir remembers his parents’ admonitions to stay away from criminals, he caves in as a result of his economic crisis.  Vladmir proceeds to call Rybakov and accepts an invitation to join him on a boat ride (on the SS Breshnev) through the harbor.

On the trip, he meets Rybakov’s Serbian bodyguard, Vladko, who carries guns and is dead serious about everything:

A hatch opened, and from the lower deck there emerged, a preternaturally tall, round chested, pink-eyed, near-naked young man, as substantial as anything Serbian myth ever produced. (114)

Together, they travel through the harbor and meet up with a boat of international criminals.  Before they meet up, the narrator reflects on how Vladmir’s American dreams have changed over time:

All in all, Vladmir’s American dreams formed a curious arc.  During adolescence he dreamed of acceptance. In his brief days at college, he dreamed of love.  After college, he dreamed a rather improbable dialectic of love and acceptance.  And now, with love and acceptance finally in the bag, he dreamed of money. What fresh tortures would await him next? (116)

This “curious arc” leads him into trouble and it sends him out of his schlemiel-dreams into harsh reality.   Before meeting up with a sketchy group of criminals in the harbor (a meeting arranged by Rybakov), Vladmir starts feeling his “fear gland” kick in.  (He starts realizing, for the first time, that fear and money go together.)  Not knowing what is ahead of him, he is besides-himself when he hears Vladko ask, indifferently, “What gun do I bring?”

Although Rybakov couches everything in comedy, the fact of the matter is that the undercurrent of his comedy is fear.  And this hits Vladmir who “pretends to play along.”  When he meets the criminals, one of things we notice (as we also see with Vladko) is that their bodies, in contrast to Vladmir’s schlemiel-ish body (his mother says he has hips and walks like a Jew, etc), are intimidating (119).  This contrast, I believe, outlines a distinction which is at the forefront of the novel; namely between the more feminine schlemiel character that Vladmir plays, and the more aggressive male character played by these criminals and others.  Vladmir, as the novel goes on, becomes more masculine.

These criminals give Vladmir a gift from Rybakov’s son “Groudhog”:  “fifty cartons of Dunhill cigarettes” and a “Rolex watch.”   After receiving this gift (which has strings attached; strings that Vladmir doesn’t see), he calculates how much money he can get from all these stolen goods in hope that he can pay off his credit card and the rent money he owes to his previous girlfriend, Challah.  The narrator articulates Vladmir’s naivite:

Bravo! Yes, Vladmir was ready to learn from these people. Maybe he could even introduce them to Fran.  He did a little bow again.  How can I repay your kindness? Indeed.  (121)

Following this, Rybakov has all of the criminals say their “favorite” things about Rybakov.  What ensues is comical, but, as I noted above, it’s undercurrent is fear.  But Vladmir doesn’t get it:  “He had been delighted to just listen to them”(124).

Rybakov also gives him money.

Following this, Vladmir goes back to work and learns that Rybakov has been awarded citizenship.  Inspired by this winning streak, Vladmir starts to dream about getting more money.  He ends up calling his friend Baobab and, knowing that Baobab has his ways of getting money, asks him for a favor.  (Baobab, it must be noted is also a schlemiel; he is the “odd one out” who dresses oddly, follows obscure bands, and often fails with women.)   Baobab tells Valadmir that he has enrolled at CUNY to learn Humor studies with Fran’s father.  Vladmir notes he isn’t funny, but Baobab retorts:

“Real humor is not supposed to be funny,” Baobab said, “It’s supposed to be tragic like the Marx Brothers.  And I’ve found a great professor, Joseph Ruocco. Have you heard of him?  He’s going to be my advisor.  He’s both funny and sad…No, I’m sticking with this Ruocco guy. I’m sticking with reality.”(138)

As we can see from his retort, Baobab doesn’t know that he’s being a schlemiel: he misunderstands the Marx Brothers while truly thinking he is “sticking with reality” vis-à-vis his new career choice.   Regardless, Baobab gives Vladmir a tip which, when followed up, transforms Vladmir from a schlemiel into a schemer and sends him from America to post-Communist Eastern Europe.

I will continue this blog-entry in tomorrow’s blog….

Foolishly Re-turning to Dreams and Places of My Birth

Profile for Academia.edu

A birthday is an event, a happening that unfolds in time.  And today is my birthday.  But instead of dwelling on the day or on time, one of the things I always like to do for my birthday is to get in my car and travel to places in the United States where I went through some kind of transformation or rebirth.  (And one of these places is where I was born and raised, for real: Gloversville, New York. Some authors, like Saul Bellow and Ben Katchor, envision it as a “wild” place.)  But there are so many and these places are scattered all over this country.  So I can’t possibly go to all of them; for this reason, I usually stick to driving to different places in New York State (a state where I grew up and where I received my “higher” education).  I foolishly return to these places hoping that some memory or experience of the transformations that went down in this or that area will – once again – come to life.  By simply walking through the streets, breathing the air, hearing sounds, or smelling this or that thing, I imagine that I will be transported, so to speak, back in time.

But, more often than not, nothing happens. And I end up spending a day in this or that “place of (re)birth” aimlessly drifting around.  Instead of a new beginning, I seem to be caught up in a series of movements out into American spaces that are changing at a rapid pace.   But I’m not disappointed.  Like a schlemiel, I just shrug my shoulders and move on.   My expectations don’t meet with reality, and that’s familiar enough.  But that won’t keep me from imagining things that may or may not happen at this or that place.  Even though I may check myself and say myself that “wherever you go, nothing will happen; don’t imagine too much, you will be disappointed,” I still foolishly like to dream that I am going somewhere that something might happen.  After all, something is bound to happen and perhaps I will learn or experience something transformational in this or that place.

Dreaming about places is something I’m good at.   But, in truth, it’s something a lot of Jews are good at, too.  There is something about dreaming about places that is very Jewish; after all, Jews have (and still do) dream of the end of Exile and the Return to Jerusalem (“next year in Jerusalem”) or Israel.   But, on the other hand, Jews in America are good at dreaming about their past, present, and future experiences.  This dreaminess may come out when Jews speak about their experiences.  And this is where the fictional enterprise becomes larger than life and even place.

In truth, when I really think about it, what I care about more than this or that place is this or that story.  In places where I went to, what was most transformational for me was not the place; rather, it was the fact that I bore witness to this or that great story or I myself crafted a great story (or performance) in this or that place.  This or that story – told with the most unexpected nuances – are what kept the dream alive.  The place, oftentimes, was arbitrary.

I grew up with a storyteller.  On a daily basis, my father would tell stories either to me or to his best friend (David Kaplan z’l) about this or that person, place, thing, or event in time.  But, as I realized at an early age, my father didn’t simply animate the thing or experience and make me want to eat, visit, see, hear, or feel this or that thing he talked about; he also made me acutely aware of the language, gesture, and tone he used to animate these things.   His dreams resided in his performances; and I was often his sole audience.  A smile or a look of astonishment from me or those around him was the key to making his dreams come to life.  These were the places he visited.  And though we traveled around the USA, what I remember most is not the place so much as what my father said in this or that place.

And in this, I aver, he was a schlemiel.  The schlemiel animates the place not vice versa.  And he does this by virtue of his dream-like performances of language and gestures.

In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi begins her reflections on the schlemiel by way of a reading of Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the III.  Although the plot is based on a journey that the two protagonists are going to make outside of their small village, we learn that they don’t make it to any fantastic places outside the Pale of Settlement.  They stay within its boundaries.  And what they take in, more than anything, are their experiences. They shine in the telling and retelling.  Indeed, the novel is more about speech and storytelling than in actually going on.  Ruth Wisse and Sidrah Ezrahi agree on this point: language is, during the Exile, a Jews surrogate for power and sovereignty.   Paraphrasing George Steiner, they would say that speech (the text) is the schlemiel’s homeland.

Ezrahi sees this text as the birth of a schlemiel who would, in his travels, end up in America where s/he would do the same thing: live on experiences, things, and stories about them.  In the retelling, everything would be perpetually rediscovered and renewed.  In contrast to this, Ezrahi puts the “desire for place” (homecoming) which is based on a desire to return to Israel.   As I noted above, this desire is very “Jewish” and has lasted for centuries.  It can be argued that it existed prior to the Exile from Jerusalem; in fact, the Torah/Bible tells that story which beings with the promise God makes to Abraham regarding “the land” (ha’aretz).

Ezrahi argues that, with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, this all changes.  Now, the dream is a reality.  (Theodor Herzl once said, in this regard, “will it and it’s not a dream.”)  Israel, says Ezrahi, Is-Real.  She insists that the dream of Israel continue but in terms of re-imagining the relation of the Jewish people to the Land which, with all the things going on right now, is in flux.   The sensibility that does this, by and large, is physically rooted in the land of Israel.

In contrast to this, we have the sensibility of Exile; and the dreamers of Exile are in America.  She calls this country – in the spirit of Hollywood – the “land of dreams.”  And, as I noted above with my father, these dreams are all about finding new experiences and talking about them.  These are the speech (or gestural) “events” that concern American Jews.

On my birthday, I can’t help but reflect on this powerful thesis.  I lived through this allure of experience.  When I think about one of my greatest American experiences, I remember my travels across country: the experiences, the conversations, and the happenings.  And the stories that followed in their wake were the very thing that gave me a sense of life and vitality.  Ezrahi would say that these experiences (and my recounting of them) are an illustration of “Diasporic privilege.”

Until I read her book, I never thought of the enthrallment for experience and its retelling that my father bequeathed to me (as an inheritance of sorts) as a “diasporic privilege.”  Nonetheless, I feel no shame over the fact that I draw life from experience and its retelling.  I don’t derive it from this or that physical place, so much as this or that place in this or that conversation or performance.  This is my world and perhaps this is a world of exile.  Regardless, I think that these are my birthplaces (in the plural).  There is truly something to idea that one can reinvent or rediscover oneself in the telling of this or that experience; and this can only happen when we tell this to someone.  It has a personal dimension.

But the important thing to keep in mind is that there is no guarantee that something may happen; its contingent on many factors.  Nonetheless, one of the important things about the schlemiel can be found in the fact the schlemiel dreams big about the happening.  He hopes that something may happen in time; but when nothing happens, he just moves on to another place.

That’s what Gimpel does at the end of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.”  He constantly puts himself in a situation where people are given the opportunity to be honest to him, but they all lie. And after he exhausts all of the possibilities for trust, he leaves.  He dreams of another place where this will happen.  He goes toward it.  So do I.

And when I find it, that will be my birthplace.  But, ultimately, its not my final birthplace.  As an exiled American-Jew, my birthplace, like my dreams will constantly be in flux.  And, perhaps, as Ezrahi suggests, that would all change if I were to return to my historical roots in Israel and dream of that “real” place.  Perhaps. But, for now, I’m just a visitor.  (And I have been on a few visits.)  Her thesis can only be demonstrated by living there.  But, right now, I’m living here…in the “land of dreams.”

This is where I had my first birthday and this is the place where I have had all my birthdays….This is the place where I dreamed (and dream) of all the places I was born… But in the end, these birth-places that I dream about can only happen between me and you.    Only between you and I can there be an event…that unfolds in time…a birth-day…But, perhaps, nothing will happen…This is the risk I take when I speak or perform before any of you….

As the comedians say, it’s ALL in the timing….

…my last words, regardless of what I say on my birthday, will always risk not being on time…I hope they will arrive, but these are the hopes of a schlemiel who hungers for relationships and birthdays…

THE END

(Applause, Astonishment, or Silence?)

A Note on Jake Marmer’s Poem “Bathhouse of Dreams”

DownloadedFile-8

Jake Marmer’s poem, “Bathhouse of Dreams,” is an improvised poem which is based – in part – on a Mishnah from the tractate Avoda Zarah 3:4:

Proklos, son of Plosphos asked Rabban Gamliel a question in Akko, where he was washing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He said to [Rabban Gamliel], “Isn’t it written in your Torah (Deut. 13:18), ‘do not allow any banned items [from idol worshippers] to stick to your hand’? How then do you bathe in Aphrodite’s bathhouse?” He replied, “One does not respond [to religious questions] in the bath.” Once he exited, [Rabban Gamliel] said to him, “I did not enter her domain, but she entered mine. [Further], people don’t say, ‘let’s make a bath as a decoration for Aphrodite.’ Rather, they say, ‘let’s make a statue of Aphrodite as a decoration for our bath.’” Another reason: Even if someone paid you lots of money, you wouldn’t commence your idol worship if you were naked or sticky*, nor would you urinate before [your sacred object]. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands over the sewer and everyone urinates before it. The verse “these are your gods” (Exod. 32:4) is not said about this case. If a [statue] is treated as a god, then it is forbidden, but if it is not treated as a god, then it is permitted [to be in its presence].

How does this Mishnah relate to the title of Marmer’s poem and the poem itself which addresses a dream-like revision of the Mishnah?   Before we address Marmer’s poem, I’d like to preface my reading with a brief summary of the “Rabbinical” approach to dreams and follow it up with a sketch of Freud’s reading of the dream.  This will help us to understand what is at stake in Marmer’s re-imagining of this Mishnaic scene.

Poets have, for centuries, been interested in dreams.  And dreams, to be sure, have their root in prophesy and religion.  “Pagan” religion and monotheism pay much heed to dreams. As far as Judaism goes, there is an ambivalent attitude toward dreams.  Many of the first prophets in the Jewish tradition communicated with God by way of the dream.  But, according to Moses Maimonides, these prophets are lesser than Moses who communicated with God (so to speak) “face to face.”  Maimonides, in the vein of Ancient Greek and rationalist Islamic philosophy, makes it quite clear in his Guide to the Perplexed that imagination is a deficient mode vis-à-vis the intellect.  And in his view, Moses is the “greatest of all prophets” because, unlike the other prophets who communicated with God via the imagination, his intellect was perfected and his imagination was purified.  And, as Leo Strauss points out in his reading of Maimonides, the imagination, for Moses, had only one purpose at that point and that purpose is political; namely, to communicate to the masses.  Since the majority of people relate better to the imagination than to the intellect, it is the best medium to use for political purposes; however, it is not the highest man can achieve.  Although Baruch Spinoza disagreed with Maimonides on many different points, he agreed with him on the clear distinction between intellect and the imagination.  And Spinoza even found Moses at fault for, in his view, a minimal appeal to the imagination.

Nonetheless, as Sarah Stroumsa points out in her book on Maimonides, Maimoindes didn’t always have a rationalist position on the imagination and dreams.  As she argues, when he was younger he wanted to write a book interpreting images and the imagination which had more resonances with Kabbalah than with the Rationalists.  However, his position changed over time.  Maimonides understood the importance of imagery, the imagination, and dreams in Judaism.  But, as we can see from The Guide to the Perplexed, he ultimately settled with the rationalist reading of dreams and imagery.

On the other hand, poets and Kabbalists give greater weight to dreams. To be sure, exile itself is likened to a dream.  We see this in Psalm 126:

A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song. (126:1-2)

This psalm gives weight to the dreams of exile.  And no amount of rationalism can (or even should) be appealed to so as to eliminate these dreams.  To be sure, the poet understands that dreams are or can be related to perception and desire.  The question, for the Jewish poet and the Rabbi who are concerned with dreams, is how do we interpret the dreams of exile.

Rav Kook reads this Psalm in terms of the “dreams of redemption” which, one day, will disappear.   In his view, this did happen in some way with the founding of the State of Israel.  However, the exile lives on since the “full redemption” has not arrived.   For an American Jew who lives after the founding of the Jewish State, however, the dream seems to live on.

And, as Jake Marmer’s poem on the Mishnah implies, imagining Rabbi Gamliel’s “Bathhouse Dreams” is of great interest to the poet.  The imagination, for the Jewish poet, must be active; it doesn’t simply foster desire for redemption; it also sharpens our vision of the present and relation to the past.  And, in Marmer’s poem, it does so in a comic manner.   This makes it even more appealing to us, today, since one of the most important ways American-Jews have to relate to their Jewishness is by way of humor (as a recent Pew Poll shows).

I’d like to briefly turn to Freud’s theory of the dream to show how this appeal to the dream works on many levels.

If anyone takes the time to understand Freud’s theory of dreams, one will notice that something happens between The Interpretation of Dreams and Beyond the Pleasure Principle.   In the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud looks at dreams through the lens of the “pleasure principle.”  According to this theory, the psyche will go to great lengths to discharge all energy by any means necessary because the buildup of energy within the psyche is “painful.”  And the pleasure principle is, more or less, the principle to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  For this reason, Freud, working on his system of the id, ego, and superego, argues that consciousness censors things that are, according to the superego, detrimental to the health of consciousness.  One such thing would be sexual taboos.  These, Freud argued, must be discharged. And since the conscious mind won’t let it come to the surface, taboos are buried in the unconscious only to be resurrected and discharged in dreams.

But since there is also a “censor” in dreams, these feelings must be hidden in some way. For instance, instead of seeing your sister in your dream (who you may have an incestual desire for) you see a “substitute” who doesn’t look like your sister but feels like her.

This theory of dreams is based on an economy of discharging energy so as to maintain the pleasure principle: in the most Greek sense, happiness/pleasure is the goal.   This theory of dreams changes later on in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Before he wrote this book, he witnessed the dreams of men who were terrorized by experiences they had on the battlefield during WWI.  Their traumatic dreams would repeat over and over again (he calls this a “repetition compulsion”).  And the unconscious seemed to be deriving pleasure from this pain.  And this, for Freud, was troubling; it violated the “pleasure principle.”   His theory didn’t make room for trauma and, as he understood, it had to now; in the wake of his discoveries on the battle field medical tent.

I’d like to posit that Freud’s theory of the pleasure principle has Greek resonances while his later approach to dreams has more of a Jewish resonance.  In the latter theory, the pain of history, the trauma of history, is incorporated into the dream.  It is noted and happiness is not the goal so much as memory.

What I love about Jake Marmer’s poem “Bathhouse of Dreams” is the fact that it draws on Freud’s latter theory, reread the above mentioned Mishnah from Avodah Zarah, and adds a comic dimension to memory that Freud didn’t bring out in his post-pleasure principle theory.

In Marmer’s poem (and its performance), there is an angry (yet comic) tone that the poet takes on as he identifies with Rabbi Gamliel when he responds to the Hellenists’ query as to why he is in the Bathhouse of Aprhodite.     (The “Bathhouse of Dreams” poem starts at 3:55 in the video below.)

The poem starts off with a slightly modified citation from the Mishnah.  But it goes on to put in what is not there; namely, a retort which brings out the insider/outsider status of the Jew in Hellenistic culture: his double consciousness.  And this status is communicated by way of the dream/beard. The music in the piece brings out a dragnet style of sound to the presentation of the Rabbi’s words interspersed by a sequence that seems to be fighting with itself for speech. (Here’s the soundcloud link: https://soundcloud.com/lawrencebush):

Rabbi, why are you here to wash?

The Beard of my double consciousness answered Rabbi Gamliel….Yeah, my beard of double consciousness answered Galmliel…Every morning I wake up to find another split in my beard, and find another hole in my beard, and find another nest in my beard…

After this interlude, the music becomes more erratic to match the dream/ravings of Gamliel.  The increase in speed has the effect of becoming more and more comic as the jazz piece moves on.  At the end, Galmliel makes a pledge to remain a “perpetual dreamboy.” But this is punctuated by the music dropping out.  In this gap, Marmer inserts the words: “in a locked suitcase.”

The music then returns to the dragnet style melody .

I find this modulation and the last words to be telling.  What we find in these movements and words is an awareness of the “double consciousness” of the Jew which is communicated by way of the imaginary personification of the words Gamliel never said.  These words end with a pledge to become a “perpetual dreamboy” (in other words, a poet-schleimel; a “lord of dreams”) in response to the question (read as an insult) made by the Hellenist.  The response punctuates a series of angry retorts that struggle to the poets mouth (this is conveyed by the music).  But in the end, the position is one of withdrawal, a pledge that is, ultimately, to be found in a “locked suitcase.”  This sounds like a pandora box of sorts. But if it were opened up, what we would have is not war or violence so much as rage, comedy, and dreams.

This closing irony, which is the end of a build up of rage, is Jake Marmer’s way of relating to the past vis-à-vis the Mishnah and the present vis-à-vis his retelling and revising it.

The accent on the present brings out the power of the dream to mark the traumatic affect of double consciousness while, at the same time, showing how humor can be used to modulate this consciousness and rage.   Marmer is teaching us how, for American-Jews today, comedy and rage can go hand in hand with memory and poetic speech(that is, if one is willing to own up to one’s past struggles with society rather than forget about it). Indeed, comedy and rage can be employed in our relating to the Jewish past and the Jewish present (that is, if the relation of Jewish to non-Jewish identity is to remain an issue; if “double consciousness” is to remain an issue as it is for this poet who personifies Rabbi Gamliel).

At the end of the poem, I can feel the power of the dream is not to affect a kind of happiness, as Freud would say in his early work: that the day-dream or dream accomplish happiness in spite of things that cause the psyche pain.  Rather, the power of the dream-poem is to effect a sense of how something has not been worked through; comedy doesn’t eliminate rage or double consciousness.  Rather, comedy shows our weakness and our strength.

This is not a dream realized, as Kook would call for.  And this dream is not something that can be rationalized away. Rather, this poet’s dream imaginatively taps into the past from the angle of the present so as to disclose the difficult place of “double consciousness” that Jews speak from in our post-modern age.

Like Marmer, I understand his position very well.  It is the position of the schlemiel. And, for the poet and audience, it is double.  It is the angle of the Jewish Sancho Panza (the poet and audience) who pays close attention to the dreaming Don Quixote (Rabbi Gamliel and the poet), but with a twist: namely, the twist of historical fate which has and continues to make the Jew aware of his/her double consciousness.

The schlemiel, after all, is the lord of dreams.  And we, the readers of the schlemiel, are not.  Yet, when we see or hear the schlemiel, we can’t help but realize that his consciousness is ours.  We are in and out of reality and history.  We are double.  This is a bitter-sweet comedy of Jewishness. But it remains and will remain as long as the dream of exile remains a reality.