By Way of Bodily Introduction: The Jewish-Body in Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan – Take 1

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In an essay called “The Mouse than Never Roars: Jewish Masculinity in American Television,” Maurice Berger uses Jack Benny as one of a few illustrations of how the Jewish body appeared in the American public eye.  Calling him a schlemiel, Berger notes that Benny’s body and gestures appear effeminate and that Jews, initially, played on these stereotypes of the Jewish body to gain public attention.  However, as Berger notes, this changes over time as we see more and more masculine Jewish men on TV in the 60s and 70s.   The images Berger uses to illustrate these changes show us, on the one hand, a thin Jack Benny; and, on the other, more muscular and weighty characters in a variety of shows right up to the 1990s.  But this visual-genealogy of Jewish body images is by no means linear or definitive.  The Jewish body – in all its shapes and sizes – remains.

To be sure, we see many Jewish bodies in film and TV – over the last few decades – that are not masculine; such as the bodies of Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, and Larry David (to name only a few Jews who have less-masculine kinds of Jewish bodies in film).  And most of these bodies are thin.  They are not overweight. And if we look back, we can also find heavy schlemiel characters that differ greatly from the thin Jack Benny; for instance, schlemiels portrayed by Zero Mostel.

And lately we have seen something of a physical turn with characters like John Goodman, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill.  These characters show us that schlemiels need not be thin; they can also be overweight or heavy.   To be sure, their weight makes them more charming.  And, as we see with many schlemiels (whether in literature, film, or television), his/her charm has to do with the schlemiel’s body, its gestures, and its demeanor.

As a side note, I find many of the Cartoonish images of Robert Crumb employ this bodily charm.  Indeed, Crumb is fascinated with shapely people.  And while many of these images have erotic connotation, many others have a comic and sometimes a Jewish connotation.  One could plausibly argue that this weight often denotes, for Crumb, a shapely schlemiel as in this piece from his comic, The Snoid.

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In designing the main character for Absurdistan, it seems Shteyngart was acutely aware of this charm.  We see this in the opening lines of the first chapter where Misha, the main character, introduces himself:

I am Misha Borisovich Vainberg, age thirty, a grossly overweight man with small, deeply blue set eyes, a pretty, a pretty Jewish beak that brings to mind the most distinguished breed of parrot, and lips so delicate you would want to wipe them with the naked back of your hand. (3)

Here we see the Jewish body foregrounded.  We also see it in Shteyngart’s first novel.  But over there the focus is more on the main character’s “Jewish” hips and his Jewish “walk” (both pointed out by the main character’s Russian mother).  Here it is the nose (the “Jewish beak”); but in addition to this Misha also sees himself in terms of his weight.  To be sure, his weight is a topic of interest throughout the novel and, in Misha’s eyes, it (and not simply his Jewish features) makes him “the odd one out.”

But there is more to the story. His weight should also be read against the background of his affluence.  To be sure, Misha comes from a very wealthy family and his weight may be an expression of his wealth.  And how we view this wealth, his approach to himself, and to the world he lives – which could be unduly harsh – should be counterbalanced by his weight.  Indeed, his weight – and not his nose – brings out the schlemiel’s charm; and because of this, his weight (and his attitude toward it) becomes one of the main signs of his schlemielkeit. Reading the text against his body can yield some interesting insights.

First of all, in yesterday’s blog entry I pointed out how Misha – in the Prologue – sees Absurdistan as a book about “too much love” and about “being had.”  Read against his representations of his body – in the first chapter – these passages become more endearing.  He is a person who, we can imagine, may be self-conscious by virtue of his weight; given this supposition, his love and bad luck take on another shade. In addition, because Misha’s Jewishness is an issue in the Prologue, we can now see that his Jewishness is also altered by virtue of his weight.

To be sure, there are many folkloric images of heavy people.  They are at the core of this or that folk culture: they often signify joviality and life itself. In the prologue, he notes how he is “writing from” the land of “Mountain Jews” and he conjures up folk images by saying that the community is “pre-historic” (he even likens the community to a dinosaur – a large creature – and calls it, playing on the Jewish name, Haim and the word Heim in Yiddish (which means home), a Haimosaurus).

In a folkloric sense, this village full of diverse kinds of people who surround him and look to help him.  In fact, in a folkloric sense, he comically notes that they are “too hospitable.”  And when we realize that he is a heavy person (from the beginning of the first chapter) who is in need of help, which we see at the outset of the novel (the prologue), Misha’s schlemiel character takes on folkloric proportions. However, the first chapter (as opposed to the Prologue) is not located in a folkloric space; it’s located in the post-modern, post-communist, and globalized space of St. Petersburg.  And after making his “bodily” introduction, we are introduced to this post-city (which has nothing pre-historic or folkloric about it at all):

By the year 2001, our St. Lennisburg has taken on the appearance of a phantasmagoric third-world city, our neoclassical buildings sinking into the crap-choked canals, bizarre peasant huts fashioned out of corrugated metal and…worst of all, our intelligent, depressive citizenry has been replaced by a new race of mutants dressed in studied imitation of the West, young women in Lycra…men in fake black Calvin Klein jeans hanging limply around their caved-in asses. (3)

As you can see, this is not the world of folklore that Misha is describing.  And his way of speaking demonstrates – in contrast to much of the prologue – that he is an intelligent, observant person.  However, as the introduction goes on, we notice that his intelligence is also tainted by affluence and the very culture he can’t stand:

The good news is that when you’re an incorrigible fatso like me – 325 points at last count – and the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia – all of St. Lenninsburg rushes to service you….You are blessed with the rarest treasure to be found in this mineral-rich land.  You are blessed with respect. (3)

In other words, he has a love/hate relationship with the city he was raised in.  He is spoiled by it and his schlemielkeit may also have to do with his affluence.  By being served like a prince and gaining weight, he becomes foolish.  However, at the same time, we see from the Prologue that his weight also has a folklorish aspect (which can be situated in an odd, Jewish context).    The contrast between these two spaces is brought about by way of how his body is situated.    His body seems to fit into both spaces, but, as I have shown, its meaning differs considerably. As I continue reflecting on the novel, I will –from time to time – come back to his (Jewish) body and its relation to his schlemielkeit.   The novelty of this reflection is that it looks to show how important the body and its odd relationship to the world are to schlemiel comedy in general and to this novel in particular.

The Prologue to Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

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Schlemiels come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.  Rather than simply generalize about the schlemiel – which I, like Ruth Wisse, Sander Gilman, Hannah Arendt, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, and a few other schlemiel theorists often do – I’d also like to take a closer look at all the different kinds of schlemiel so as to expand the horizon of schlemiel theory.  I’m especially interested in how different writers from different time periods articulate this character.  To be sure, the way they convey the schlemiel and his/her ways teaches us about how they approach the schlemiel.   And the differences between these articulations – as well as the general trends – teach us a lot about this character and how it takes on different shades: sometimes s/he is adorable, other times s/he is irritating; sometimes s/he is an utter failure, other times s/he’s a partial failure; sometimes s/he’s redemptive, sometimes s/he’s not.  But, to be sure, one can always say that the schlemiel is the odd one out.  His/her oddity is manifested in an awkwardness that arises out of misjudging the norm or in misjudging this or that situation.  On the other hand, the schlemiel’s oddity may not be manifested in awkwardness: he or she may be odd with out even knowing it.  But how odd is s/he? What makes him/her odd?  These questions inform the decisions that many writers, filmmakers, poets, and comedians make when portraying the schlemiel.  And the decisions they make can and often do change the way we look at this character in this or that historical period.

One writer who provides something of a new schlemiel – who evinces a complex form of oddity – is Gary Shteyngart.  In this blog, I have written extensively on Vladmir Girshkin – the schlemiel of his first novel: The Russian Debutante’s Notebook.   I initially found what I call Shteyngart’s “immigrant-becoming-American-schlemiel” to be quite a novelty.  This new articulation of the schlemiel challenged the literary critic Irving Howe’s claim that, with the end of the waves of post-pogrom Jewish-European immigration to the USA, Jewish fiction would have little to draw on.  To be sure, Howe, saw great creativity in the struggle Jews had with assimilation.  Their liminal state prompted many Jewish writers to create fiction which often had a modernist flavor.  Now that we are in a “post-assimilation” era, he thought that was a thing of the past.  However, Shteyngart shows that its not.  His characters are Russian Jews who have come over to the United States in the post-Communist Era.  And, because they are somewhere between worlds and have a hard time succeeding, they provide us with a new articulation of the schlemiel.

However, what I found disappointing about Shteyngart’s first novel is that it actually traced a story arc that differs considerably from the story arcs we find in much literature on the schlemiel (from Sholem Aleichem to Saul Bellow).  This starts with what I called a “partial transformation.”   And when he flees America for Eastern Europe, this transformation takes on more of a reality (as he becomes more masculine).   At the end of the arc (the epilogue), the main character, Vladmir, decides to live a normal life.   Since he becomes a dad, and because I find the gradual displacement of the schlemiel in this novel to be disappointing, I call this a “dad ending.”   After assessing the novel, I turned toward a generalization about the schlemiel and its arc, which can be found in the work of Hannah Arendt.    In my view, Arendt and Shteyngart (at least in this novel) were situating the schlemiel on a path that I did not agree with since I find nothing wrong with the schlemiel being an “exceptional” (as opposed to a “normal”) character.

With this reading in mind, I have decided to give Gary Shteyngart another chance. To this end, I have chosen to make a series of close readings of his second, follow up, novel: Absurdistan.

Like any reading, I’d like to start at the beginning, which Shteyngart makes a prologue rather than a first chapter.  It’s entitled “Where I’m Calling From”.   Perhaps because I have read too much Freud or have a penchant for history, I can’t help but think of the expression the “the past is prologue” whenever I see a prologue.  Regardless, I think it is a good intuition to take this thought to heart when reading this prologue.  And in this novel it “pays” to do so since the main character – Misha Borisovich Vainberg – is a narrator who is interested in telling the reader how he screwed up.   And this, to be sure, is one of the schlemiel keys to this novel.   But the question that interests me is whether such reflection means he is, so to speak, beyond his schlemiel character and situation.  Will he, like Vladmir in The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, undergo a transformation from a schlemiel (a man-child) into a man in the Epilogue?

As I read this novel, this question lingers.

But at the beginning there is no question: Misha is a schlemiel.  His description of this book tells us that this book is, on the one hand, a book “about love…too much love” and, on the other hand, a “book about being had.”  His love, so to speak, produces bad luck: it allows him “to be had.”   But, like many an innocent schlemiel, he is not to blame; they are:

I’ve been had.  They used me.  Took advantage of me. Sized me up. Knew right away they had their man.  If “man” is the right word.  (vii)

Indeed, is “man” the right word or is schlemiel the right word?

Reflecting on how he came to being a man-child of sorts who has taken advantage of, Misha demurs: “Maybe this whole being-had deal is genetic.”  Along this line of thinking, he first turns to his grandmother who was “an ardent Stalinist and faithful contributor to Lenningrad Pravda.”   But his point isn’t that she was had by the Communists she supported.   To be sure, in his flurry to explain himself, he seems to have lost his point regarding the “being-had deal” as “genetic.”   However, he does remember himself in a picture with his grandmother “as an infant…I’m drooling on her. She’s drooling on me.”

This logic, of course, is off.  But that’s the point.  He’s less concerned with the “genetic” origins of his condition then with his present, sad state.  Now, apparently, he is “missing teeth” and has a “dented lower stomach.”  His heart is “bruised” and there is a “kilogram of fat hanging off” his “breastbone.”

Although he reflects on his present state, he doesn’t loose his thought regarding his genetics.  It resurfaces, it seems, in a thought about “where he is writing from” (the title of the prologue).   This place may have something to do with the origin of his schlemiel-condition.  Misha is writing from the “former Soviet republic of Absurdsvani.”  And this place is a “small village populated by the so-called Mountain Jews.”   These Jews are “isolated” and have a “single minded devotion to clan and Yahweh.”  In contrast to the Jews he has grown up with, they are “prehistoric, premammalian even, like some clever miniature dinosaur that once schlepped across the earth, the Haimossaurus.”

This village of Jews – his people -are an odd bunch:

The villagers gathered around me, the dried-out senior citizens, the oily teenagers, the heavy local gangsters…even the confused one-eyed octogenarian rabbi who is now crying on my shoulders, whispering in his bad Russian about what an honor it is to have an important Jew like me in the village. (viii)

Although he is astonished by this odd village of “mountain Jews” and feels touched by their kindness, he tells the reader that he is a “deeply secular Jew” who misses New York City and his old girlfriend Rouenna:

The mountain Jews coddle and cosset me; their hospitality is overwhelming…and yet I yearn to take to the air. To soar across the globe.  To land on the corner of 173rd Street and Vyse, where she is waiting for me.  (viii)

So…where he is writing from (a place of Jews where he feels comfortable with – an important point, as I hope to show, since he has problems with some kinds of Jews; namely, Hasidim) is not where he wants to be. He wants to be somewhere else far from these “pre-historic” origins (which he is not totally at odds with, but cannot settle with).

The prologue ends with him meditating on his “love” in New York City.  And he restates his claim that this book – Absurdistan – is a “book about love.”  But he adds to this one new thought: “it’s also about geography….I am Here.  I am here next to the woman I love.  The city rushes out to locate and affirm me.”

One can end the prologue here, but that would be a mistake.  After all, he’s not there. He’s in a Village of Mountain Jews.  And, in addition to that, he says that this is a novel about love AND about “being-had.”   These last two elements, in contrast to his emphasis on love as the underlying meaning of the book, teach us that this is much more than a novel about love: its also a novel about Jewishness and the schlemiel-who-is-had.

This combination makes for a nuanced schlemiel character.  What I like about this prologue is the suggestion that we read Misha – and the schlemiel character – in terms of a tension between a consciousness of being-had, Jewishness, love, and New York City’s tension with Absurdistan.  This makes for yet another Immigrant-Become-American-Schlemiel story arc.  However, the question is whether or not it ends with the schlemiel it starts off with in the prologue: a schlemiel-in-love, a schlemiel-who-has-been-had, and a schlemiel-in-search-of-home.

On an Aesthetic of Redemption or The Problem With Historicizing Walter Benjamin (Take 1)

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I’m not an intellectual historian.  And while I enjoy reading intellectual history, I always worry about the problem of periodization.   Like any historicization, the risk is to say that on this or that date everything changed with this or that thinker.  The problem with such claims is that – in a Derridian sense – something always remains.  Many intellectual historians, in an effort to make a coherent historical narrative, often leave things out or argue that this or that element of said thinker’s thought took a turn.  While much of this may find support in this or that prooftext, oftentimes one can find counter-texts (and counter-memories, as Michel Foucault might say) to challenge this or that genealogy.   For me, the case in point is the intellectual history of Walter Benjamin.

What makes him such an interesting figure for intellectual history is the fact that he, himself, was an intellectual historian of sorts.  But his history was oftentimes focused on the intellectual history of different mediums (although they would focus on the shift as found in this or that writer, poet, or filmmaker).  In many essays, such as “The Storyteller,” “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” or “Some Motifs of Baudelaire” or in his book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin clearly demarcates the shift from one era to another which can be found in different mediums (the novel, storytelling, film, and poetry).    But although Benjamin made rigorous demarcations, these demarcations were not absolute.  One can see overlap.  For instance, although Benjamin announces the end of the aura in one essay, he still notes that it lives on in others.  And when he argues that storytelling has been displaced by the newspaper, this doesn’t keep him from reflecting on it and bringing out it’s modern proponents (such as Kafka, Walser, or Proust).

To be sure, Benjamin, who read much Freud and incorporated his work into his own, believed that we are haunted by the past. In addition, there are many examples in his work where the past permeates the present and serves as an index of the future.   We see this in his Arcades Project, The Berlin Childhood, One Way Street, his essays on Baudelaire and Proust, his Kafka essay, and his essays that address the Messianic.

Moreover, in his personal reflections he also takes note of what remains.

And although there is room to argue that he was noting his own personal-historical shifts (as we saw in yesterday’s blog entry), he still sees these moments as lingering in the present.    Nonetheless, some intellectual historians choose not to take this into consideration.  One such intellectual historian is Peter Osborne, who argues that Benjamin, after writing his essay on Kafka, turned wholeheartedly to the political and turned away from the aesthetic.  Were one to read Benajmin’s letters to his dear friend Gershom Scholem, however, one would find another narrative.  In that narrative, Benjamin’s interest in the aesthetic and Kafka remain right up until his untimely death.

Richard Wolin’s intellectual history also chooses to leave a few things out, but, at the very least, he does what Osborne doesn’t: he shows how certain elements of Benjamin’s work cling –from the beginning to the end – to the “aesthetic of redemption.”  Wolin’s focus is commendable and merits closer reading.  I would like to point out, however, where he draws the line and what this implies.  (I will be commenting on his book on and off in this blog, so this reading is based on the beginning of his book where he addresses Benjamin’s “origins.”)

In the first chapter of Wolin’s book, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, he makes a reading of Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900.   This reading reflects, on the one hand, an acute sense of how Benjamin looked to “redeem” his past via the aesthetic; on the other hand, it looks to periodize this work and leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that Benjamin had left this behind.

One of the things that caught my mind was Wolin’s selection of texts to illustrate Benjamin’s vision of himself in the past and how it relates to the present:

He speaks of the unclear vision of intellectuals which results from an innate tendency toward flight from reality; a tendency he claimed to have detected in himself at an extremely early age which in his eyes manifested itself in his staunch refusal to form with others in a united front…”My habit of seeming slower, more maladroit, more stupid than I am, had its origins in such walks (through the city), and has the great attendant danger of making me think myself quicker, more dexterous, and shrewder than I am.”(3)

Commenting on this, Wolin argues that Benjamin “turned to the theme of childhood memories in a time when all possibilities seemed to be blocked”(3).  In other words, Wolin historicizes this line (and the whole book) to argue that if Benjamin wrote about the past, so as to find something hopeful (or even helpful) in it, he did so because his life (when he wrote it, in the 1930s) was bleak.   But, given that reading, we could argue that everything he wrote was prompted by the fact that he saw himself as a loser and was looking, as Wolin suggests, for reasons as to why he produced such bad luck.  In other words, he was looking for how he had become such a schlemiel.    To be sure, in this passage, Benjamin is trying to explain why he appeared so belated and slow (seemingly more stupid than he was): the very characteristics of many a schlemiel who is often too late or too early for this or that thing and who, like Gimpel the Fool, appears stupid when he is not.

Although this seems negative, Wolin, at the very least, notes that Benjmain derived something meaningful from his childhood experience (but, for Wolin, this has nothing to do with the fact that he has many comic and child-like aspects to himself):

What he attempted to capture in these reflections was, above all, a capacity for lived experience associated with an upbringing in Berlin at this time, whose last vestiges were in the process of being extinguished by the world-historical march of the forces of disenchantment. (4)

In other words, the only thing that Benjamin was interested in saving from the past was his “capacity for experience.” The experiences themselves, however, are left behind forever. As Wolin notes, “Berlin existed once upon a time, as it will never appear again.”   This implies not only that this book was a commemoration of a city that is no longer, but that Benjamin cannot go back.  His book was, more or less, a movement away from the childhood and toward maturity and adulthood.  The only thing worth salvaging is something that would always be there: the “capacity for experience.”

While I find the notion of such a “capacity,” interesting, I find it elides too much.  This capacity may be something gleaned from youth but it is ultimately abstract and seems to transcend history like Aristotle’s notion of capacity and potentiality.  Rather than make this move, I’d like to suggest – as I have throughout this blog –that Benjamin was acutely aware of how all of his capacities were haunted by failure.  This historical aspect isn’t redeemed; it is a remnant from his past which pops up in most of his work in the 1930s and in his letters to Scholem.  But this failure has a comic rather than a tragic note.

The problem with intellectual history is that it might find this element to be in competition with the narrative of maturity.  And it is right for thinking this because it is; and Benjamin knew this well.  It remained with him to the end.  And even Hannah Arendt, in her introductory essay to his work (to an American audience), noted the specter that remained with him to the end: she gave it a figure, the “hunchback.”  This figure –the figure of bad luck –haunted his maturation process and it should haunt any intellectual history of his work.  It reminds us that no matter how much there is evidence of evolving thought, something, in Benjamin’s work, remains.  But for Arendt, this has more to do with bad luck as such.  To be sure, in her view Benjamin is more of a shlimazl than a schlemiel (a topic that I will be addressing in my book and in forthcoming essays).

Walter Benjamin’s Messianic Butterflies

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In his introductory essay to Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900 entitled “Hope in the Past,” Peter Szondi argues that, in his belief that the past held the secret of the future, Benjamin became a schlemiel of sorts.  To illustrate, Szondi cites one of the passages in which Benjamin remembers his childhood experience of a party, when the rooms of his home were filled with “something…impalpable, slippery, and ready at any instant to strangle those around whom it played.”  Commenting on this passage, Szondi says that Benjamin’s metaphors bring together “the present and the future, the premonitions of the child and the knowledge of the grown man.”  As I have pointed out many times, often in relation to Walter Benjamin, a schlemiel is half-man/half-child; the schlemiel passes between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  What Szondi adds to my reflections on Benjamin is the claim that in going back to the past, in becoming a child, Benjamin was able to bring together the “present and the future.”   In other words, by becoming a child – and recording these reflections – Benjamin was not simply trying to understand himself; rather, he was trying to relate to his future and, to be sure, a messianic future shared by all.

Szondi suggests that Benjamin is close to Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire on this note because, in his search for “time past,” he is looking for the “disappearance of time.”  I would add, however, that this is not simply a search.  Drawing on Gershom Scholem’s reading of the Apocalyptic and Utopian elements of “The Messianic Idea,”  I would argue that Benjamin was looking for something that would “smash” history (as Scholem puts it) and expose him to something free of time.  For Scholem, what is free of time is…anarchic freedom.

And what better figure for freedom is there than a Butterfly?

Butterflies wander freely around space.  They move from thing to thing and aren’t touched by time or history.  To be sure, Benjamin was without a doubt familiar with Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Les Phares” (“Beacons”).  The poem begins by invoking a symbolist kind of garden.  And in each stanza, Baudelaire evokes several great artists such as Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrant, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix:

Rubens, garden of idleness watered by oblivion,

Where the quick flesh pillows the impotence of dreams,

Where life’s affluence writhes in eddying abandon.

Like air in the air, or water on streams.

The stanza on Watteau invokes butterflies:

Watteau, carnival where many a distinguished soul

Flutters like a butterfly, lost in the brilliance

Of chandeliers shedding frivolity on the cool,

Clear decors enclosing the changes in the dance.

Watteau, in this stanza, is associated with the carnival where “many a distinguished soul flutters like a butterfly, lost in brilliance.”   Besides acrobats, jugglers, and side show performers, we often find the clown.  And one of Watteau’s most famous series of paintings takes Commedia del Arte as their subject. One of the most famous of these, is his painting of Pierrot.   What I find so interesting about this painting is that the subject – a man-child – is separated from the others.  And his body, dress, and gaze are off.  Baudelaire, no doubt, was aware of this work, and wrote about it in his famous essay “The Painter of Modern Life.”

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What I find of interest is the fact that – for Baudelaire – people become like butterflies around this comic figure, lose their sense of time, and wander through space.  With this in mind, I read Walter Benjamin’s reflection on Butterflies, hoping to find what Szondi calls “omens of the future in the past” by way of becoming childlike (and, to some extent, like a clown).

Benjamin’s reflection on butterflies, in The Berlin Childhood around 1900, is entitled “Butterfly Hunt.”  Benjamin starts off his reflection by remembering “the beginnings of his butterfly collection.”  He goes on to provide a detailed description of some of these butterflies.  Following this, Benjamin remembers his movements which, to be sure, merge the present and the past and provide an opening on to the future.  And the main crux of these reflections points back to his own activity: to capture that which is fleeting from the past in the present so that it can be a sign for the future.  The butterflies take on the figure of this ephemera and, in a way, mark something almost “pre” and “post” historic”:

They would flutter toward a blossom, hover over it.  My butterfly net upraised, I stood waiting only for the spell that the flowers seemed to cast on the pair of wings to have finished its work, when all of a sudden the delicate body would glide off sideways with a gentle buffeting of the air, to cast its shadow – motionless as before – over another flower, which just as suddenly it would leave without touching.  (51)

As he follows the Butterfly move from flower to flower, Benjamin loses his sense of time.   He experiences freedom…a kind of experience that is like that of a dandy (moving from thing to thing and from space to space effortlessly).  But, as this happens, it seems he has forgotten to capture it.  But then he remembers his task to “capture” the butterfly and feels “as if” the Butterfly has made a “fool of me through its hesitations, vacillations, and delays.”  In response, Benjamin becomes a hunter by virtue of losing his identity as a man.  He becomes-a-butterfly in order to capture the butterfly. But this is not a simple act of hunting a butterfly; as Benjamin describes it, this act of becoming breaches the limits of the human:

Between us, now, the old law of the hunt took hold: the more I strove to conform, in all the fibers of my being, to the animal – the more butterfly-like I became in my heart and soul – the more this butterfly itself, in everything it did took on the color of human volition; and in the end, it was as if its capture was the price I had to pay to regain my human existence. (51)

What follows this capture, more or less, is a recording of how Benjamin became a “man” who had subdued his prey and gained new knowledge:  “His lust for blood had diminished and his confidence was grown all the greater”(52).

Instead of seeing this as the narrative of his movement toward maturity, I would like to suggest that Benjamin took the moment of following the butterfly and becoming the butterfly – while fearing that he may not come back to humanity – as the messianic moment in the text.  In this moment, Benjamin frees himself of the human while, at the same time, reflecting on it.  He has, in a sense, captured this moment of oscillation between the human and the non-human which, as Giorgio Agamben has argued in The Open (and elsewhere), has messianic resonance.

That said, how does this all connect to the fool, the butterfly, Watteau, and Baudelaire’s poem?  I would like to suggest that Benjamin was aware of Baudelaire’s “butterfly’ and understood how it was likened to the people who were amused at the circus.  These people get lost in what they say and move from thing to thing.  Of the things that fascinate them most, we find the clown or man-child. What he does is similar to what Benjamin does, he reflects back to them their deepest desire which is a desire to be free of Time and history.

Although Scholem associated this messianic moment with smashing history, Benjamin (at least during one point of his reflections) believed that, in becoming-a-butterfly (by becoming a child), one could, for a brief moment, gracefully touch upon this messianic moment.  However, as Benjamin notes, it also paved the way for his manhood.  The risk of capturing the butterfly is that, as Benjamin notes, a “price” must be paid. For him, the price of knowledge and manhood is the experience of timelessness and the sense that, in becoming a messianic butterfly, one may not come back to humanity.

When we watch the fool or schlemiel lose himself (as Sholem Aleichem’s Motl does with nature, Singer’s Gimpel with trust, etc) do we also experience that moment which is suspended between childhood and adulthood as well as between the human and the inhuman?  Is our “post-historical” hope (our future) locked up in this “pre-historic” past?

A Note on the Poet, the Philosopher, and the Simpleton in William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson”

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I didn’t grow up in the generation of the Beat Poets, but I was always interested in them.   One of the poets who had a great influence on Beat Poets like Allan Ginsburg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti was William Carlos Williams.  One of the first books of poetry I read of his was “Paterson.”  I recently ran across the text and I was drawn in by the poetry of Book One Section II.  I found something very American, poetic, and comical in that section.  What I found so amazing is that Williams manages to keep each of these voices distinct.  The difference between a few styles of writing produces this comedic effect and this has much resonance with the schlemiel (who is a simpleton, a “tam”).

In the opening stanza, we hear a voice that is confused, a voice that is concerned with the “how” (not the “what”).  This voice is “more than a how,” says the poetic voice; it is a voice that Howls:

There is no direction. Whither? I

Cannot say. I cannot say

More than how.  The how (the howl) only

Is at my disposal (proposal): watching –

Colder than stone –

In a modernist sense, Williams is suggesting that we pay close attention to “how” he speaks and even more so to his “howl.”   This will help us to understand his poem.

The following stanza evokes an image of a “bud forever green.” But this bud has fallen on the pavement.  It is “divorced.”  From what?

Playing on this divorce, Williams evokes a public (and not a poetic) American voice which is mixed with a philosophical one:

Divorce is

The sign of knowledge in our time,

Divorce! Divorce!

These words direct our attention (by way of indirection) to the many ways things in this poem that are divorced from each other.   The next stanza evokes the “roar” of Paterson’s main waterfall.  It induces “sleep and silence…the roar of eternal sleep.”   The roar looks to “divorce” us from “wakefulness.”  It “challenges” us to stay awake.

Given the how we saw in the outset, we should ask a question: How – in the midst of this roaring – does one keep oneself awake?

The poem, at this point, presents “two halfgrown girls hallowing hallowed Easter.”  They are “weaving about themselves.”  But they are “disparate” among the roaring waters.  The theme of separation and divorce are once again pronounced.

“Beauty” comes to the rescue.  To be sure, Immanuel Kant and other philosophers associate beauty with harmony.  And in this scenario, perhaps beauty can bring the divorced elements together.  The poet, speaking from a poetic and a philosophical angle, provides a reflection on the girls mentioned above.  He says they are wrapped up in ribbons, bows, and twigs.  There is even reference to fur.  Their beauty, it seems,  harmonizes culture and nature.  But, in the midst of this poetic solution to a philosophical crisis, we hear an American voice interrupt the image:

Ain’t they beautiful!

The voice of the slang is divorced from the poetic voice, but, in its simplicity, it brings the poem to a different place:

Certainly I am not a robin or erudite,

No Erasmus nor bird that returns to the same

Ground year by year….

The ground has undergone a subtle transformation, its identity altered.

The poet, who also seems to be a philosopher, loses his identity, the “ground” he speaks from (which could be a philosophical or poetic ground) is altered; and, as a result, he becomes a simpleton and child-like.  But this transformation is not complete: the poet and philosopher return after this shift.  And they are both overwhelmed by all of the details of existence.  They stay “awake” out of some kind of existential terror.  But the simpleton does not seem to be affected.  Is he sleeping?  Has the roar of the waterfall put him to sleep?

This contrast – between the poet, the philosopher, and the simpleton – makes me think of the schlemiel.  The schlemiel travels around existence, explores it, yet without any philosophical quandaries about beauty, the divorce between the cultural and the natural, and so forth.  He is free of that, but the poet is not.  And this creates a kind of relationship – like the one between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote: the fool and the rationalist.

But, and this is the point, they (like the voices in this poem) stick together.  And Sancho Panza learns from Quixote.  Here, the poet and the philosopher learn from the ways of the simple American who is “not a robin or erudite” and he doesn’t return to the “same ground.” For the Simpleton, everything seems different (but in the way of wonder not angst, which sees everything as divorced).   And, unlike the philosopher or the poet, he doesn’t have a ground.  But, for the simpleton,  that’s nothing to panic over.  They panic, while he wanders, distracted, through the American landscape.

World(less) Jews: A Note on Hannah Arendt’s Descriptions of The World, Worldlessness, and Jewishness

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Reading through a 1964 interview between Hannah Arendt and Gunter Gaus, I was struck by Arendt’s responses to Gaus regarding the question as to whether or not Jews were apolitical and worldless.  Gaus was prompted to ask these questions because of Arendt’s comments on her relationship to the “Jewish people.”  With this in mind, Gaus (who is Jewish) asks Arendt the following question regarding politics and the “commitment to a group”:

As a politically active being, doesn’t man need commitment to a group, a commitment that can then to a certain extent be called love? 

In response to this, Arendt notes that belonging to a group is a “natural condition.” And as I pointed out in my last blog entry on Arendt, the “second birth” is (for her) greater than the first birth (or what she calls here a “natural condition” – namely, the fact that she was born Jewish).   By “second birth” Arendt means an “act” in which we “insert ourselves into the world” and become a “who” rather than a “what.”

On this note, Arendt says that the “act” of “joining or forming” a group is “something completely different” from the “natural condition.”  And in doing this, one enters the world: “The kind of organizations (one forms or joins) has to do with a relation to the world.”   But in contrast to this, both love and friendship are not worldly.  They are more natural, and, by her clock, less important.  She notes the worldlenssness of love in The Human Condition when she writes of the Christian “political principle” which is a “bond of charity between people”(53).  This founds a “public realm of its own” but is “worldless” because it is based on love. Arendt goes so far, over there, to say that this “bond” “is admirably fit to carry a group of essentially worldless people through the world, a group of saints or a group of criminals, provided it is understood that the world itself is doomed” and that every act is provisional.  As she points out there, this is antithetical to the Greek (pre-Platonic) understanding of action and it’s relationship with the world.

Hearing Arendt’s reading of the worldless apolitical nature of love and community, Gaus pushes her to further explain what she means.  In response, Arendt describes the Jewish people in the same way as she describes the Christian community’s worldlessness (which we cited above):

I admit that the Jewish people are a classic example of a worldless people maintaining themselves through thousands of years.  (17)

In response, Gaus asks if by “world” Arendt means her “terminology for the space of politics.”  Arendt agrees to this formulation but Gaus pushes her to explicitly say that the Jewish people were “an apolitical people”(17).   But she won’t.  To be sure, she revises her original formulation of the Jewish people as worldless and shows that her reading of the “Jew as Pariah” has limits and conditions:

I shouldn’t say that exactly, for the communities were, to a certain extent, also political.  The Jewish religion is a national religion. But the concept of the political was valid only with great reservations.  The worldlessness which the Jewish people suffered in being dispersed, and which – as with all people who are pariahs – generated a special warmth among those who belonged, changed when the State of Israel was founded. (16)

Hearing this, Gaus makes a smart move and asks her what was “lost” in this transition from (for lack of a better word) “partial worldlessness” to political worldliness (with the founding of the Jewish State).    This, to be sure, is a sharp question because, as I have pointed out in the last blog entry (and above), Arendt prefers political worldliness to apolitical worldlessness in The Human Condition.  In fact, we find no such lamentation of loss there.

But at this moment of the interview Arendt does lament the loss of some kind of Jewishness:

Yes, one pays dearly for freedom.  The specifically Jewish humanity signified by their worldlessness was something very beautiful.  You are too young to have ever experienced that.  But it was something very beautiful, this standing outside all social connections, the complete open-mindedness and absence of prejudice that I experienced, especially with my mother, who also exercises it in relation to the whole Jewish community.  (17)     

What I find so striking about her reflection is that she speaks as if she has a strong grasp of what Jewish “worldlessness” – before the founding of Israel – felt like.  And instead of citing the pariahs and schlemiels she brought together in her famous “Jew as Pariah” essay, she talks about her mother and takes on a romantic kind of reflection on worldlessness: where everyone was “standing outside all social connections” and where there was a “complete open-mindedness and absence of prejudice.”

Read against this talk in the 1960s, her thoughts on schlemiels and Jewish ahistoricity takes on another dimension.   In an earlier essay entitled “The Enlightenment and the Jewish Question,” Arendt doesn’t lament the lost world.  She deplores it.  She notes that Jews, such as Moses Mendelssohn, had no grasp of history and the world.  For him “all reality – the world around us, our fellow men, history – lacks the legitimation of reason. The elimination of reality is closely bound up with the factual position of the Jews in the world.  The world mattered so little to him that it became the epitome of what was unalterable.”  He was “indifferent” to the “historical world.”

And in her essay on the “Jew as Pariah” – as well as on her work on Rahel Varnhagen – Arendt notes that Rahel, like other schlemiels, clung to “such universal things as the sun, music, trees, and children.” In other words, they clung to nature (to their primary birth) but not to history and politics (a second birth they couldn’t experience).

Although Arendt’s words on Varnhagen, Heinrich Heine, and Charlie Chaplin (amongst others) seem to be charming, they are ultimately for the dustbin of history.  She doesn’t want to go back.  She may find the worldlessness of Jews and Christian communities to have their charm, but their loss is what she ultimately calls the “price for freedom.”  And, for her, that price is paid with the founding of Israel as a Jewish State.

Regardless of what she says, however, I think that Arendt is missing something.  In her formulation, all worldlessness must be sacrificed in the name of the world and politics.  But can worldlessness ever be sacrificed?  Is the worldlessness of the Jews – which she thinks of as a thing of the past – gone?  If that is the case, why do we find so many Jewish-American writers, filmmakers, and comedians – after the founding of Israel – drawing on it in their schlemiel routines?  Are Arendt’s formulations of Jewish worldlessness and the end of such worldlessness too extreme and intolerant of any possibility of being both worldless and worldly at the same time?  Or is (political) history the ultimate judge?  And is the price unmistakable?

Does Hannah Arendt’s Reading of “The Human Condition” Pass or Fail the Schlemiel Test?

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Who we are, in many ways, has to do with how we appear to others.  The interpretation of our actions by other people may determine how we think of ourselves and how we will be regarded by what Hannah Arendt – the Jewish-German philosopher- calls “the world.”   Furthermore, for Arendt, “who” we are – as opposed to “what” we are – is to be found in the space of appearance (how we disclose or are disclosed to others).  And that space is the space of the world.    And this appearance and its interpretation are all based on action – what Arendt – citing the Latin – calls Vita Activa (the “life of action”).

While I find all of these philosophical readings of identity interesting, I wonder how (or whether) Arendt’s readings of identity, appearance, world, and action would pass what I call the schlemiel test.     But before we subject her readings to the “schlemiel test,” let’s briefly introduce them.

In the opening of chapter five of her book (aptly titled “Action”), The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt introduces “human plurality” as the condition for the possibility of “both action and speech.”  Writing on plurality, Arendt argues that it has the “twofold character of equality and distinction.”  On the one hand, if “men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them.”  On the other hand, we have distinction: “if men were not distinct,” they would “need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.”

Of the two elements, Arendt is most interested in what makes us all distinct.  And what makes one distinct, as we can see above, is speech and action:

A life without speech and action…is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men.  (176)

Arendt gives such weight to speech and action that she associates it with a “second birth.”  For Arendt, this second birth is perhaps the most important aspect of the human condition:

With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance.  (176)

This second birth evinces the power of freedom since our “insertion” of ourselves into the “world” is a free act.  Arendt says that it “responds” to our “first birth” by “beginning something new of our own initiative”(177).   This leads Arendt to her theory of identity which basically posits that “who” we are is determined by this “initiative” to “insert” ourselves into the world.  Our “distinct” character – our “who” – comes out by way of action.

Action, argues Arendt, has a revelatory power if and only if it is accompanied by speech:

Without the accompaniment of speech…action would not only lose its revelatory character, but, and by the same token, it would lose its subject.  (178)

Arendt calls people who perform without speech “performing robots”(178).   Their “speechless action” will be perceived as “brute physical appearance.”   For Arendt, there is nothing unique about this since nothing unique is “disclosed.”  Hence, Arendt’s principle:

In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.  (179)

Speech – together with action – is a “disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is”(179).    But there is a lot at stake: this who can become a what.   As Arendt says, one must “be willing to risk” the disclosure (180).  The risk is that one’s appearance to the world may be rejected; and one may not find a place in the world of plurality as a “who” but as a “what.”  Regardless, without speech action loses its “revelatory character”(178).  And once one speaks, one risks one’s identity and puts it before the world (as the court of judgment).

We are now ready for the schlemiel test.

Arendt had a love/hate relationship with the schlemiel (I have been pointing this out in this blog and I will be writing more on this in my book and in forthcoming essays on the topic).  What I glean from a book like The Human Condition is not so much the identity of the schlemiel as the anti-thesis of the schlemiel.  To be sure, I wonder if Arendt’s criteria for being “distinct” could be applied to the schlemiel.

First of all, the schlemiel, as Arendt points out in other works (which I will be discussing in my book), does not live in the world.  Arendt points out that the Jewish people didn’t have the privilege of being-in-the-world since they were excluded from the world and history.  The schlemiel is – more or less – a move in the direction of the world and history, but it falls short.   The schlemiel – as pariah – has meaning in its opposition to the world.  But, as I have pointed out in an earlier blog entry, Arendt (and she also claims Kafka) dreamt of a world where Jews could be “normal.”    But, that’s the point, it didn’t have that world only because the world couldn’t take the words and actions of Jews seriously.

In other words, I suggest we read the schlemiel against Arendt’s Greek model for the world (which I discussed above; to be sure, there is no mention of the schlemiel or the Pariah in The Human Condition; it is a Greek kind of text and openly takes a lot from the ancient Greeks and their passion for the world, politics, and action).   If we do this, we will see that the schlemiel falls short of her model for identity.

Taking this suggestion to heart, we should take a close look at the schlemiel’s character vis-à-vis Arendt’s criteria for being-in-the-world.  To begin with the schlemiel doesn’t understand the meaning of the risks he or she takes with this or that word which compliments this or that action.  This implies that their actions really aren’t risks.  If we look at a schlemiel like Gimpel, for instance, we see that his act of trusting everyone is a risk.  Although everyone lies to him and laughs at him for trusting them, it is still a risk.  But it’s not conscious.  He naturally trust people, it seems; otherwise, there is something in him that drives him to trust others.  But what we see is that the world is at fault.  The world that Arendt so  prizes is the very world which rejects the trust that a Jew like Gimpel has for it’s plurality.

In addition, the schlemiel’s actions and – as Arendt might say – the words that “reveal” the “who” are always – from the perspective of the world – wrong.  This would imply that the schlemiel will not be regarded as a “who” so much as a “what.”   He is defined by his failure to speak and act in a proper manner.

In other words, the schlemiel fails Arendt’s identity test.

But, on the other hand, her reading of speech, action, and identity fail the schlemiel test.  They do so because the schlemiel is someone who speaks by way of indirection.  The schlemiel is in the world but not of the world.  And this difference is a challenge to the Greek model that Arendt so lovingly quotes.  The irony of it all is that Arendt herself – like the schlemiel (who stands between the Jewish and the Greek) is a Greek-Jew.  She, however, identified more with the heroic model of the Greeks.  But that model can only work if one’s speech and actions are heard; if they are not, then one will, in her view, just be a robot: whose physical actions appear and are seen but are ultimately just “brute facts” of one’s physical existence.  The fact that they are not backed up by speech (the kind of speech uttered by the hero) means that these actions have lost their “revelatory character.”   The schlemiel is not a “who” – he is a “what” (that is, he is defined as a fool who lacks power and agency).

The schlemiel, in this view, evinces a brute, robotic (read mechanical, in the sense meant by the philosopher Henri Bergson) kind of existence.  But this is far from the case.  His existence is more revelatory of injustice – which challenges the world – than heroic words and deeds.  The schlemiel – an outsider/insider – has an important place in the world.  And this place is based on the fact that it’s challenges are neither heroic nor conscious.  As Ruth Wisse says, he’s an “unlikely hero.”  He is the kind of hero that we won’t find in the pages of The Human Condition.   And that’s the rub: he fails one test (the one posed by Arendt), but wins another.