Walter Benjamin’s Messianic Butterflies


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.”


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”


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


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?


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.

A Schlemiel or Two in the Cartoon Lagoon – Part II


Like the German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin and like Sigmund Freud, I’m one of those people who loves searching through the trash for treasures.  For both Benjamin and Freud, the trash that they searched through is the trash of history and the past.  Their work in philosophy, literary criticism, and psychology was to look through the past so as to find things that would transform how we look at ourselves and the world we live in. While Freud was interested in the trash people bury in the their personal histories (and, at times, with a nation: as in his book Moses and Monotheism),  Benjamin was also interested in the material that is buried in cultural history.  To be sure, these things, upon discovery and re-interpretation, can teach us about who we are; after all, who “we” are as North Americans, or as people who have grown up on media, cartoons, films, TV, etc is who we were.  Therefore, the more we know about or reflect on who we were, the more we can understand who we are or rather who we might be.   Strangely enough, however, this requires us to look, as Benjamin understood it, through things that we may consider retro-trash.  This trash, for him, wasn’t trash so much as a treasure: it helped him to tap into a collective sort of historical self-awareness.

That said, I think we can learn something from cartoons.  Like many people, I have grown up with cartoons.   I lived in Upstate New York, but I would often see cartoons – after school – by way of my favorite channel (which hailed from New York City): 11 Alive.  I also saw cartoons on the weekend.  But, in addition to cartoons, I also watched the Three Stooges after school.  To be sure, I really loved watching these episodes more than any comedy show on the boob-tube.  Unlike many, I actually liked reruns of their performances.

So, when I saw the latter half of the Cartoon Lagoon Episode entitled “Game Over!” (which I blogged on last week), I was surprised on a few different levels.

First of all, as I noted in my blog entry, the crew (which consists of Captain Cornelius, Wet Willy Jones, and Axel Rod Magee) runs into a cartoon that is floating around the cartoon lagoon.  (To be sure, this is a major part of the plot of every show.)  When they run into the cartoon, they go down into a screening room to watch the cartoon and comment on it.  The cartoon they view, to my surprise, was a cartoon of the Three Stooges entitled “Dentist the Menace.”  What I found so interesting about this selection is that it has a “meta” quality: not only are we watching the characters from the cartoon watch another cartoon and comment on it; we are also, watching a cartoon that is based on the Three Stooges show.

There is an additional surprise to this since, while watching it, I am prompted to wonder whether there a) was another episode that this was based on (or if it is something new) or b) the gestures that are depicted in this cartoon “properly” depict the characters gestures from the show.  In other words, the constant question in my mind, which the comments of the three comic characters watching the cartoon remind me of, is what to make of this interpretation which was made, most likely, in the 1970s or early 80s?  How do we interpret this piece of cartoon trash (which may really be a treasure) that is floating around the Cartoon Lagoon.  Like many things from the past, the submarine, so to speak, stumbles upon it.  But, as with any dream or figment from the (cultural) past, we need to ask whether it is meaningful or just a piece of trash.

The first thing that strikes me, even before I hear the cartoon characters’ comments, is the fact that the speed of this cartoon, in contrast to the Cartoon Lagoon segment in the beginning, is much slower.  There is already a lapse.  And this may indicate that our sense of timing, today, is different.

In fact, the first comments focus on the represented space and on the time gap between the two: “I miss furniture tassels.”  And when Curly says his “teeth are killing him,” one of the cartoon characters says that this “cartoon is killing me.”  Already, he is agitated (perhaps by its slow delivery).

We are then reminded of the 90s (and a scandal which changed history) when, upon hearing Moe say “shut your trap and close your mouth,” one of the characters says: “That’s Bill Clinton’s motto.”  This hits on the historical-political dimension.

Following this, the Cartoon Lagoon characters poke fun at the timing, design, and gestures of the cartoon Stooges.  After Moe opens the door to attach Curly’s tooth, he makes an odd gesture with his leg.  Upon seeing this, one of them asks: “Is he peeing on an invisible fire hydrant?”  Following this gesture, Curly flies into the door. We see half of his body, the back half, twitching in the door.  Seeing this, one of Cartoon Lagoon characters makes a reference to the present moment (namely, Miley Cyrus’s “twerking” on MTV moment): “Oh no…he’s twerking?”  In contrast, the next comment focuses on the past (namely, on Vaudeville): “We didn’t save our money from Vaudeville.”  Following this we hear a vulgar slapstick idiom which marks the time: “Hey, he’s talking out of his ass!”  At this point, the commentary is interrupted.  And we notice there is a technical difficulty – most likely in response to the vulgar commentary.  But the Cartoon Lagoon doesn’t end with a reflection on the past.  It ends with an ad for Squish Cereal.  And this break, juxtaposed with the previous dated comments and scenes, suggests a way of thinking the past against the present cartoon moment.

To be sure, the attention to gesture (dated and not dated) that we see in this clip is an attention to the fine points of the past and its cultural translation into the present.  What we need to ask is: What is translated and what is not?  This question, necessarily, is a meta-commentary on cartoons.  And I think this question is prompted by the fact that, by virtue of the plot, the characters and their submarine are bound to run into old cartoons and the fact that when they comment on them they often reference historical moments.

This implies that the cartoons as well as the commentary they use are historically embedded.  And this calls for us to carefully read the translation into the present.  We are, in effect, asked to consider whether the Cartoon Lagoon has discovered Cartoon Treasures or….trash that comes from the depths of cartoon history to the surface of our comic historical consciousness.

This exercise, I believe, is important since, in a postmodern age where, as Fredric Jameson argues, history itself is in the dustbin.   And any form of historical consciousness, especially when articulated through the cultural imagination, is timely.  What interests me most about this gesture is that at least two people of the Cartoon Lagoon commenting on these cartoons are schlemiels.  This suggests that at least one variety of the schlemiel is caught up in reflections on the culture past.  And this suggestion, to my mind, is right on the money.  To be sure, Walter Benjamin would subscribe to this whole-heartedly.  Indeed, one of the things that worried him most about his thinking is that the more he remembered the past, the more addicted he would become to its translation.  For Benjamin, this was a good thing and a bad thing.  The good thing is that it provided a relation to the cultural past (as in his reflection on the telephone, which I have blogged on).  Yet, on the other hand, it is bad because too much reflection on the past may keep one from politically acting in the present.  But, as Benjamin later realized, reflection on cultural artifacts (even if they are cartoons – which have never been of interest to philosophers but were of great interest to Benjamin) in itself had a redemptive and revolutionary act built into it.  For as Jews have known for centuries, interpretation of the past has its benefits and can be the basis for a shared world.

Cartoon Lagoon steps along a similar path to Walter Benjamin and should provide us – just like the characters of Cartoon Lagoon – with lots of things from our animated-cartoon past to translate into the present.  In a way, being addicted to the past makes schlemiels out of all of us; but in translating it into the present, we realize that, after all is said and done (and to play on the title of the Cartoon Lagoon episode), the game is far from over.  Analysis is, as Freud once said, interminable…and so are the cartoons hidden and waiting for discovery in the cartoon lagoon!

“You Don’t Hate A Race When You are Laughing at It.”


These are the words of Jack Benny – whose real name was Benjamin Kubelsky.  And they are – more or less – an affirmation of ethnic humor.  He thought of such humor as – in the words of Lawrence Epstein – “socially redemptive.”  They were spoken in relation to racist and anti-Semitic claims made against Jews and African-Americans during the depression; and the characters that Benny found “socially redeemed” ethnic humor were Mr. Kitzel (a character who “Jewish” mannerisms) and Rochester an African-American character. The two, in fact, shared many skits.  Lawrence Epstein points this out by way of Benny’s own words – in retrospect – on these characters: “I never felt and I do not feel today that Rochester and Mr. Kitzel were socially harmful.  You don’t hate a race when you are laughing at it.”

Given the fact that many an anti-Semite laughed at Jews, this is an astonishing claim.  One of the major anti-Semitic claims made against Jews is that all Jews are weak. Sander Gilman, in The Jew’s Body, points out how Jewish men were often depicted as effeminate.   This, to be sure, is ethnic humor (of a very negative, biased sort).


When Jews were represented, their bodies are pictured in relaxed, comic, and effeminate postures.  The comic strips were used, in these pieces, to laugh at Jews and ridicule them for being outsiders whose bodies were not “normal” and “graceful” like their fellow German citizens.

Ethnic humor was used to invoke hatred of Jews in Germany from the Enlightenment to the Holocaust.  Caricaturing Jews as power hungry, overweight, scheming, cheap, and weak had a horrific and a comic edge (aimed at exclusion):


But this, Epstein claims, was reversed on American soil. As Jews learned, the best place to challenge the representations of the Jewish body was on the American stage where weakness could become a Jewish trait that was not so much deplorable as worthy of compassion.  And this compassion served, in some sense, to create a way for Jews to be accepted into an American society that had become, with the depression, hostile toward the Jews.   This observation, it seems, finds much resonance in David Biale’s definition of the schlemiel as “charming.” It also echoes Hannah Arendt’s descriptions of Charlie Chaplin and Heinrich Heine’s “lord of dream” – exemplary schlemiels in the “hidden tradition.”

Lawrence Epstein makes a case for this in The Haunted Smile.  He finds the inversion of an anti-Semitic characterization of Jews as weak – which we see above in the negative ethnic humor and caricature – by way of the weakness in Jack Benny’s comic performance.   Benny, argues Epstein, found a way of countering anti-Semitism by way of two routines that actually adopted anti-Semitic stereotypes and inverted them.

The claim that Jack Benny’s comic act inverts American culture was first made by Susan J. Douglas: “Douglas reads the character as an attack on both masculinity and upper-class pretensions.”  (For more on the topic of masculinity, comedy, and inversion see my blog entry on Daniel Boyarin’s reading of the father of the Hasidim: the Baal Shem Tov.)  Epstein agrees with her that “the Benny character subtly attacked the leaders without ever being political.”  And, in the process, he affected audiences without their even knowing it.  He spoke to the public’s anger at being duped by their leaders who worked in cahoots with the stock market to create the Great Depression.  But this anger was misdirected at the Jews of the time.

Benny did address and invert this anger by adopting and playing on stereotypes; and did this, specifically, through the schlemiel:

Benny mocked his own prowess with a violin, a musical instrument widely identified with Jews, and the Benny program produced two Jewish ethnic stereotypes as characters, Mr. Kitzel and Schlepperman.

Interestingly, Epstein says many people in the American audience didn’t even know he was Jewish. Rather, he played with images that had some kind of, as the postmodern sociologist Pierre Bourdieu might say, symbolic power. And, in relation to them, he gave Jewish stereotypes a more positive valence. That said, the expressions he came up with went viral and this had a good effect of, in Epstien’s view, defusing anti-Semitism.

For instance, when Mr. Kitzel cried out, “with a pickle in the middle,” such diffusion was at work.  The expressions of Mr. Kitzel – the expressions of a schlemiel- did this cultural work. Audacious, odd phrases, in a Lyotardian sense, created a new “idiom” which, when repeated, gave Jewishness a new currency that it never had before (even though much of the American audience may not have picked up that it was a “Jewish” dialect that was being displaced).

To be sure, it is Mr. Kitzel’s absent-mindedness, which he is blind to, that is most charming.  The audience’s response, Epstein says, is “empathetic” as opposed to “being antipathetic.”  And this small element of empathy, argues Epstein, was enough to sway an American audience to accept not necessarily Jews as Jewishness (which, he claims, they may not have even consciously noticed) as something non-threatening.

The key to this charm was the identification with Jack Benny, the man-child schlemiel.  The lesson we learn is that the schlemiel’s charm can be used as a way of fostering a kind of American populism that is based on an openness to weakness.  We see this in Benny and we see it in the latter part of the 20th century in Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen (amongst many).  The strategy of weakness is the strategy of assimilation and a way of deflecting anti-Semitism, or so it seems.  However, this appears to miss the fact that, today, Jewish comic traits of weakness are no longer Jewish.  You can find them everywhere.  And this can come out in a turn of phrase, a gesture, or a situation.  Take, for instance, Napoleon Dynamite or the Dude from the Cohen Brothers film The Big Lubowski:

Their way is the way of the peaceful, inept, yet (unconscious) charming warrior.  While the association of ethnicity with weakness seems to have fallen away in America,  weakness (as such) remains.  I’ll leave it at that….

Hasid or Hipster? A Word or Two on Nextbook’s Golem Animation


No.  This blog entry is not on the Hasid or Hipster tumblr site, which, believe me, I really enjoy as does Jimmy Kimmel and a variety of people who regard themselves as “hipster Jews.”   Rather, its on an animation by Nextbook called the Golem which pits a group of Hasids against a group of Hipsters.   Playing on some kind of possible tension, which may or may not exist (after all, a lot hipsters live in Williamsburg which is home to Satmar Hasidim) this short animation does a lot to diffuse it.    And it does it by way of showing that, in the end, the Hasid, the Hipster, and the Golem are all schlemiels who, instead of putting up a fight, would rather just hang out and chill.

As you can see from the opening credits, Golem graphic, and music, this animation (set against the background of a city) seems to promise something ominous.  After all, a Golem is a creature which, the Talmud tells us, is made out of clay and given life by virtue of a magic spell.  The famous words that are associated with the Golem in the Talmud are “Rava Bara Gavra.”  Although they sound like a spell, they simply mean that Rava, an esteemed Rabbi from the third century, created (Bara) a man (Gavra).  Apparently, as Midrashic legend tells us, he may have also made a lamb that would be killed for a Sabbath meal.  Years hence, in the times of the Maharal of Prague, the story re-emerges of a Golem that was solicited to protect the Jews from attacks by mobs of anti-Semites.  (At the time, Jews in Germany were often accused of what’s called “blood libel”: the hateful and totally false claim that Jews would kill Gentile babies and use their blood for Matzoh on Passover.)

The opening of this animation draws the story.  But this wasn’t simply a legend amongst the Jews.  The Golem story found wild expression in the German Expressionist film from the 1920s.  In this film, the Golem is associated with the something very grim and Gothic.  He appears to be a monster of sorts.

In the animation, this is displaced 11 seconds in to the clip.  Not only is the dark imagery supplanted, so is the music.  Now, we see a lighter background and odd techno-retro-ish music against the subtitle “Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

We are then introduced to three Hasidim who are gathered in the apartment of a Hasid who lives above a Hipster Bar.  He asks the other two Hasidim if it’s “Simchas Torah” (a Jewish holiday that celebrates the Torah) downstairs.  This comment is effaced when, downstairs, one of two hipsters in the bar asks: “What is that pounding…is it Simchas Torah already?”

One of the Hasidim gets the idea that the Hasidim should boycott their establishments so that the Hipsters will leave.  But this plan falls flat because, as he says, “none of them have jobs.”  The same Hasid suggest that they take graver measures.  And by this he means the creation of a “monster” who will “do our bidding” (a Golem).  While he says, this we hear chilling music.

One of the Hasidim says that “the secret of the Golem has been lost for generations” while the narrator says “until now.”  At this point, the animation shows us a Wikipedia page which shares the Golem’s secret.  (The joke, in this instance, targets a Messianic kind of valuation our society gives to Wikipedia.)  .  And the comic blunders that follow accumulate and bring out sheer schlemielkeit.  After all, what kind of Golem would Hasidim reading a Wikipedia page on the Golem produce?

The Golem they produce – first of all – speaks (which goes against the legend; the Golem, as a rule, can’t speak).  But, more to the comic point, when it speaks he comes across more as a Nebish-schlemiel than as a monster.  His back hurts.  He needs to go lie down.  And he’s worried that, since he may have been made of clay he may have allergy problems.  When told that he will have to scare the Hipsters away (or, rather, “destroy them”), he comically points out how ridiculous this would be: “I mean..have you seen my body?  What do you want me to do? File their taxes to death?”

These comical rhetorical questions tell us that this Golem is a schlemiel.  He would rather have peace than war.  As the Golem says, “Go destroy them yourselves.  I’m no fighter.”  (I discussed this trait of the schlemiel in my blog entry on the Political Schlemiel and in my entry on the schlemiel and weakness.)

After feeling a little Jewish guilt because of his “creators” kvetching, he goes downstairs.

But before he does, we bear witness to a hipster conversation which is, as in the earlier parts of the animation, looking to be cool and disaffected.  In the midst of this conversation, the Golem breaks through the wall to scare them.   In response, the hipster asks for his iphone.  Upon hearing this, the Golem acts “as if” he is angry, calls them fools, and tells them that the “police won’t help them.” But the hipster doesn’t want the phone to call the police.  Rather, he wants to “tweet a photo” of the Golem and put it on facebook.

This works to disarm the Golem and his act.  Following this, they all start chatting and the Golem sets into his true identity: like them, he’s a hipster.  When asked about the word on his head – what one of the hipsters calls a “head tattoo” (the word is Emet – Truth – which in the Golem story stays on his head to keep him alive; when the Aleph of Emet is taken away, he dies), he says it means truth but adds in indifferent hipster parlance: “Uh…I mean…but what is truth anyhow?”

Continuing the comedy, the Golem’s arm falls off and he asks the female hipster to put it back.  She tells him not to worry: she’s dated Golems before.

In this world, all is banal.  In a Warholian fashion, nothing shocks, not even a Golem.  But that’s hip.

In characteristic fashion, the Golem makes it into the news, becomes popular, and attracts a group of ‘sports-bar’ types to the Williamsburg bar.  At that point the hipsters, rather than the Hasidim, say: there goes the neighborhood.  The last words they utter suggest that they go, instead, to Crown Heights, were there is a “Manticore” DJ (who is apparently half human/half scorpion).  The Golem stays there, in the back of the bar, as they walk away.  This suggests that the Golem is passé and that there are many other hybridic half human beings out there.  But they are no longer scary monsters; they’re cool.

And the last scene we see of the Golem become a jock while the Rabbis complain of assimilation. Like Woody Allen’s chameleon-Schlemiel, Zelig, the Golem changes with every person he is around.  But he is left back, while they move on.  And we are left with a few questions: Should the Golem have gone off with the hipsters?  Is his assimilation, now, giving in to jocks rather than hipsters?

Ending on this note of assimilation is telling because the Golem, like the schlemiel he has become, has been transformed by the American cultural imagination.  This transformation of the Golem into schlemiel suggests that what lasts, in America, after all is said and done, is the schlemiel.  American Jews, who may align themselves with  the comic aspects of Jewish identity, feel more akin to the schlemiel than to the Golem.  Of all characters, the American-Golem-Schlemiel – whose greatest asset is his coolness and indifference to fighting – remains.

Contrast this to Israel and its historical consciousness and you will find that their reading of the Golem is much different; for many, the schlemiel represented something Jews were not: a figure of power who could protect the community from enemies.  Israelis deemed, in the wake of figures like the Golem, to protect themselves.

But in this animation, where Hipsters are seemingly pit against Hasidim, protection isn’t the issue: comedy is.  In this battle, comedy displaces the Golem legend and transforms the Golem from a monster-of-sorts to a schlemiel.  In this piece, the Golem-Schlemiel is the “unlikely hero.”   And instead of Hasid or Hipster we have the schlemiel.

A Schlemiel or Two in the Cartoon Lagoon – Part I


In the late 1960s Susan Sontag made many statements and wrote essays which demonstrated that she was interested in effacing the fine line between high and low culture.  In one of her most interesting essays (“The Imagination of Disaster”), she makes an in-depth reading of science fiction films and B-films.  To be sure, like her, I’ve been wanting to explore popular culture with a critical eye.  And lately I’ve been looking to find comic material on the schlemiel in popular culture as I believe that one can find some schlemiels worthy of interest there.  To this end, I have been thinking about animations.

Scrolling through my ipad facebook page yesterday, my eye caught on an interesting looking cartoon animation called Cartoon Lagoon.  The episode I found is entitled “Game Over.” When I saw the Cartoon Lagoon image and the title, I was curious.  Very…curious since the person who posted it, Jeff Newelt, works in and knows the field of comic animation and cartooning from the inside-out.  Newelt is the comics editor of Heeb Magazine, the editor of the Harvey Pekar’s Pekar Project, and of Pekar’s Book Cleveland.  Knowing this, I was excited to see what the Cartoon Lagoon was all about. “Who knows,” I thought, “maybe I’d find a schlemiel or two?”

And I did!  Here’s the trailer for the first season of Cartoon Lagoon:

As you can see from the trailer, the mission of this Submarine (“The Mantaray”) is to go out in search of the “best and the worst cartoons…ever made.”  And on this mission they must -as the captain says – “retrieve cartoons.”  The stars of the show are “Captain Cornelius Cartoon”(the adventurer), Wet Willy Jones” (the schlemiel), “Axel Rod Magee” (the shlimazl – who the captain believes he can “cheer up” by discovering a new cartoon), and “Franky Planky.”

The clip I discovered on Jeff Newelt’s facebook page is, as I mentioned above, entitled “Game Over.”  It starts off with Axel Rod Magee – a shlimazl – banging on a table repeating, several times and with a schlemiel’s insistence, “It’s Game Over!”  The character, it seems, is really down on his luck.  Like many a shlimazl, he is weakened by his situation.  And this is in contrast to the schlemiel.  To be sure, Ruth Wisse sees the comedy of the shlimazl as situational while she sees the comedy of the schlemiel as existential.  The schlemiel is – so to speak – the purveyor of bad luck.  Bad things don’t happen to him; rather, they happen to others who are in his path.  (As the American-schlemiel joke goes, the schlemiel spills the soup while the shlimazel is the one who gets spilled on.)   Regardless, both the schlemiel and the shlimazl are tied together by virtue of luck.

The schlemiel is less affected by bad luck than the shlimazl.  It’s a matter of degree.

Now…where were we…?

Yes…after freaking out about how it is all “Game Over” (and that they are all going to die in the Cartoon Lagoon), we learn that it is Axel’s birthday.  And for his birthday, he is given something that communicates good and bad luck to the user….a “nine ball.”

The fact that it is a nine-ball – rather than an eightball – is already comic; but, more importantly, this is a retro-eightball, the one popular in the eighties.


It is used as the leitmotif in this part of the episode.  The ball – so to speak – communicates things that involve winning or loosing.  Inside the popular eightball from the 80s is a pyramid floating in blue liquid; it has different “responses” on each side.  When the person shakes it up, they are given a message (as if the message spoke the “truth” or some “secret” – something common to the ouji board phenomena).

The 9 ball brings the schlemiel-shlimazel routine together and, through its answers, we learn about the comic nature of every character. After telling the shlimazl that “these things never lie,” the captain shakes it up.  He asks “are we going to watch another cartoon today?” The answer: “All signs point to yes!” The captain is ecstatic, but the shlimazl is not convinced.  The schlemiel then takes the ball and asks “Where are my car keys?”  The ball breaks with the normal answer that one might find on the cube (like the one received by the captain) and says they are “Behind your comic book collection under your dirty laundry next to your rubiks cube and your “Where’s the Beef” Lunchbox.”

This 9 ball seems to provide only good answers. Perhaps it will bring good luck?  Inspired with some small bit of hope, when the skeptical shlimazl gets it, he asks questions that have much more existential depth: “Am I going to have a long life?” The response differs radically from the other two: “Reply Hazy: Ask again Later!”  Frustrated, the shlimazl asks yet another deep, existential question: “Is this going to be my last birthday?”  And, in comic repetitive form, it replies: “Reply Hazy: Ask again Later!”  But the shlimazl doesn’t give up and asks for a third time; this question, however, hits at the core of his character: “Is something bad going to happen to me?” And it replies, in the most mocking fashion: “Dude let it go!”  At that moment, something bad seems to happen: the ship hits something. But that’s a ruse.  They’ve hit a cartoon.  The captain tells them to go to the theater to watch the cartoon discovery.

What I love about this routine is that it shows the shlimazl to be a schlemiel.  He doesn’t simply have bad luck; he seems to constantly bring it on.  His condition is existential and it is situational.  That’s the trick of being the disseminator and the target of bad luck. But unlike the other schlemiel,  “Wet Wily Jones,” Axel is struck with bad luck, sometimes bringing it on, and he knows it.  Just look at those eyes and hear his voice; bad luck and anxiety have left their mark on his body. But at the very least he gets to survive and watch yet another cartoon from the past at the end of each episode. His life isn’t that bad…

I’ll stop on this note and return – in the next blog entry on this topic – to their commentary on the Three Stooges clip (one that they discover, or rather run into, in the Cartoon Lagoon).

Guest Post by Davis Schneiderman: “On Groucho, Plagiarism, and the Camps”


1. My family came from old Europe. We were like that mouse from An American Tail, Fievel. And when we came to the Ellis Island the immigration people changed our species from “mouse” to “human.”

2. I often see Groucho Marx in my dreams.

The grease-painted mustache is of the same general variety to me as those worn Little Richard and John Waters, and yet the extremity of his facial features—and here I think of Digital Underground rapper Shock G’s “Humpty Hump” character (“Doowutchyalike” and “The Humpty Dance”)—and the caricature of the costume struck me as strangely mellifluous with Groucho’s character.

The most cerebral and silver-tongued of the brothers, Groucho could express to me, as I watched his movies on television in my youth (at 6, 7, 8?), along with the always less-interesting Abbot and Costello films, the knowing wink of persona, or performance, and of Jewishness used as both weapon and costume.

3. The old man takes a cruise for the first time, late in life, but he doesn’t want to go. His children do, and they ultimately arrive in New York City to embark for a week’s cruise—the ridiculous activities, the canned stage shows, the sunsets straight out of central casting.

At dinner, the old man is astounded at the bounty of the food, the endless buffet. He sits down at the table, not sure what to make of it all, and is surprised to hear a voice speaking German.

It turns out that the young waiter is part of the international staff, and is indeed from Germany. Over the course of the week the old man begins to speak with him in German, a few words one night, a few more the next. By the end of the week they’ve spoken of many things involving the food, the boat, the working conditions.

On the last evening, at the last dinner, the waiter says to the man: “Where did you learn to speak such excellent German?”

The old man looks directly at the waiter and says “Auschwitz.”

4. Underneath—and it took me a while to recognize that the Marx Brothers were Vaudevillians, in costume (and actual brothers, unlike the Doobies)—I imagined that the performers were absent, not present, that if you lifted the glasses and mustache and eyebrows off Groucho you would find the non-present frame of the invisible man.

I had Groucho very much in mind when writing [SIC], [MU1] my new and plagiarized novel. The work takes it’s title from the Latin abbreviation for “as written,” includes public domain works, like “Caedmon’s Hymn,” Sherlock Holmes, and the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, and features Wikipedia pages, intellectual property law, genetic codes, and other untoward appropriations. The text also pivots on Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” taking its publication history through a replicated series of Google auto-translations.

Andi Olsen’s photos of me—a pathogen in Paris, France—in a Lycra suit, illustrate the text, which contains an introduction from Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker, and sampling-based tracks, already created for other projects, from Illegal Art label acts Yea Big, Oh Astro, Steinski, and Girl Talk.

The fine-art edition ($24,998.98) comes with a biological pathogen, which the reader may choose to deploy over the text. In this way, [SIC] will make the reader sick—sick about copyright. The book is timed to the release of 25 free, full-text e-books—including The Red-Headed League and Young Goodman Brown, now bearing my “signature.”



(Picture by Andi Olsen)

5. When I entered Hebrew School in 5th grade, I could name exactly one Jewish holiday with ease—the ever-present anti-Christmas called Hannukah—although Passover might come to me if I thought hard enough, complete with the frozen Chinese turkey my mother complete with a brackish sweet sauce attached to the edges of the meat (yes, edges!).

Only in my late 20s did I discover Elijah, Biblical wonder-worker, is a separate entity from the Angel of Death. I assumed, perhaps not so strangely, that the angel would slaughter the firstborn child of those with doors unmarked by lamb’s blood, yet for the families of the chosen people, us, the only ones on the block, the old boy, in Elijah guise, would rush in for a quick drink.

6. The appropriations of [SIC], the second part of my DEAD/BOOKS [MU2] trilogy from Jaded Ibis Productions (after BLANK[MU3] ), are not specifically inflected as “Jewish” and my writing is not particularly identified as ethnic in any particular way. And yet to copy, to cover, to hide in plain sight, these are to some extent the lessons I absorbed as a collage artist.



(Picture by Andi Olsen)

7.  The entire congregation of the Hebrew School, from the well-meaning cantor with the baritone voice to the old Rabbi, whose name escapes me but who I picture as somewhere between the second and third Rabbi in the movie A Serious Man, to the volunteer teachers accredited to the subjects primarily by their willingness to volunteer, implicitly, for this anti-Nazi activity of 1980s Jewish race preservation, laid down this narrative with repeated gravity whenever possible: You, a Jew, are eternal victim.

At the school, the matronly Hebrew History teacher explained the assignment, and I quickly understood that the reports would have to be completed in the only way possible before the internet: from the massive World Book Encyclopedia that had been my father’s and which lined the spaces of our bookshelf not far from the cartoon of Judah P. Benjamin (speaking to me, always, in the voice of Looney Toons’ Foghorn Leghorn). From 1954, the volume remained always for me, with its thousands of pages and the crinkle of its onionskin, as the source for all information of the world entire, eternal, unmoving even 30 years after its advent.

The Hebrew History teacher had me choose from the hat full of names on small sheets of paper:

My name? The name I chose: Josef Mengele.

8. My name? The name I choose: Groucho Marx.

9. My name?  The name I choose in [SIC]: Davis Schneiderman.




Davis Schneiderman works include the novel Drain (TriQuarterly/Northwestern); the DEAD/BOOKS trilogy (Jaded Ibis), including the blank novel, Blank: a novel , with audio from Dj Spooky, and the forthcoming [SIC](Fall 2013)with intro by Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker, images from Andi Olsen and audio from Illegal Arts acts Oh Astro, Steinski, Yea Big, and Girl Talk.

His Multifesto: A Henri d’Mescan  (Remix Edition), contains remixes from Matt Bell, Roxane Gay, Alissa Nutting, and others. He is editor of The &NOW AWARDS: The Best Innovative Writing (vols. 1 and 2).

Schneiderman’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Fiction International,, The Chicago Tribune, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, and Exquisite Corpse; he blogs for The Huffington Post and is a Contributing Editor for The Nervous Breakdown .

He is the Associate Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Center for Chicago Programs at Lake Forest College. He also Directs Lake Forest College Press/&NOW Books.

(The photograph was taken by


Ruth Wisse’s Political Schlemiel


A few months ago – when Edward Snowden was leaking information and his story was in the headlines nearly every day for a few weeks – someone went through my blog and wrote an article in which Snowden was characterized as a “political schlemiel.”  The article – authored by John Grant – was written for the well-known left-leaning website Counterpunch.  It was entitled “Whistleblowers as Modern Tricksters.”  In the article, John Grant also cites Ruth Wisse and her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero:

According to Ruth R. Wisse in The Schlemiel As Modern Hero, the schlemiel was a quite resilient character who suffered “vicious, unrelenting harassment” but “whose continuing ability to experience frustration without yielding to desperation or defeatism may be reason enough for winning our interest.”

Further drawing on Wisse, Grant cites the distinction between the schlemiel and schlimazl, associates the schlimazl with the New York Times, and the schlemiel with Bradley Manning (and Edward Snowden):

Jewish tradition, according to Wisse, contains an amazing assortment of mythic and literary fools. Two of them are often used in comparison. The schlemiel is distinguished from the schlimazl this way: “the former spills the soup, the latter is the one into whose lap it falls.” Thus, we might see Bradley Manning as the schlemiel and The New York Times as the schlimazl. The schlemiel/trickster is an active force “in confrontation with reality” notorious for the disruption of authority. As such s/he is a cleansing and positive force vis-a-vis abusive and overweening authority.

Although this example of the “political schlemiel” is a possible application, I think it is worth our time to look deeper into the issue by taking a closer look at Ruth Wisse’s reading of the “political schlemiel.”

To be sure, the first section of the first chapter of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero is entitled “The Political Schlemiel.”  Wisse begins this chapter with a joke:

Sometime during World War I, a Jew lost his way along the Austro-Hungarian frontier.  Wandering through the woods late at night, he was suddenly arrested by the challenge of a border guard: “Halt, or I’ll shoot!” The Jew blinked into the beam of the searchlight and said:

“What’s the matter with you? Are you crazy?  Can’t you see that this is a human being?”

Wisse interprets the joke in the following way:

Outrageous and absurd as his innocence may be by the normal guidelines of political reality, the Jew is simply rational within the context of ideal humanism.  He is a fool, seriously – maybe even fatally – out of step with the actual march of events.  Yet the impulse of the joke, and of schlemiel literature in general, is to use the comical stance as a stage from which to challenge the political and philosophical status quo.

In other words, the schlemiel is political simply by virtue of his being a humanist who doesn’t understand the “normal guidelines of political reality.”  He is “out of step with the actual march of events” (that is, history).  This argument sounds much like the argument that Hannah Arendt makes in her essay “The Jew as Pariah” since she would also see all of the schlemiels as historical pariahs who challenge the “political and philosophical status quo.”   And, if one will read Arendt’s essay closely, there is a point when the Jew will no longer be in this historical position – a point at which the schlemiel’s challenge to society will no longer be necessary.

What many people miss – in their readings of Wisse and Arendt (vis-à-vis the political nature of the schlemiel) is the most important question: do schlemiels challenge the “political and philosophical status quo” because they want to or because they are reflecting the historical fact that Jews did not know how to live in a world of politics and history?  Arendt and Wisse, I think, tend to see these challenges as produced by history and an ill-fit between Jews in the world.   After all, the schlemiel emerges for Arendt, Wisse, and Gilman on the cusp of Emancipation and Enlightenment; a period when Jews were, for the first time, even considered as “citizens.”   When this happens, the relationship of the Jew to the “world,” “history,” and “politics” becomes an issue. Before this time, Jews lived in their own autonomous communities and were always considered second class citizens.

After Wisse tells yet another war joke, she points out that the schlemiels in these types of jokes are not “anti-military” types so much as a “non-military” types of schlemiels (4).  To clarify, Wisse writes: “The responses (of the schlemiels in these military jokes) are not in the spirit of conscious rebellion, but the naïve, wholly spontaneous questions of a different culture.”

Wisse points out, as she did in her introduction to the schlemiel, that there were different ways of looking at this “weakness.”  On the one hand, weakness registers as a form of cultural opposition:

The schlemiel is also used as the symbol of an entire people in its encounter with surrounding cultures and its oppositions to their opposition.  (4)

On the other hand (mostly in central Europe and less so in Eastern Europe), this weakness was seen as a thing to be eliminated.  And what better weakness is there to eliminate – for Jews who wanted to fit into military societies like Germany and Austria – than military weakness?

Wisse sides with the former and notes that the schlemiel was a “model of endurance” in which “his innocence was a shield against corruption, his absolute defenselessness the only guaranteed defense against the brutalizing potential of might”(5)

However, as she notes, with Enlightenment there is “God’s view” of the Jew and “Voltaire’s.”  This may lead to a form of “self-hatred” (5) in which Jews hate their Jewishness (which they associate with weakness).  But it doesn’t, says Wisse, because the schlemiel “does not submit to self-hatred, and stands proudly on his record” (that is, his religious history which is based on serving God and being subject to God and not man’s judgment). This, one might say, is the balance.

Wisse calls this the “inevitable dialectic” and the proof of this dialectic’s effectiveness is “survival”(5).  In other words, by not fully surrendering Jewish history to Voltaire, the Jew makes a “political” gesture.    Building on this claim, Wisse says that “the schlemiel is the Jew as he is defined by the anti-Semite, but reinterpreted by God’s appointee”(6).

What I find so interesting about Wisse’s reading is that on the one hand she says that the political gesture of the schlemiel is “non-military” rather than “anti-military.”  That is not so much conscious, yet, over here she seems to be saying that it is.  More is at stake, it seems, for Wisse.  And what is at stake is the preservation of the Jewish people.

This works with Wisse’s shift to politics later in life; since, as she stated in a talk to West Point Jewish students at their graduation, the schlemiel may no longer be necessary when Jews can fight for themselves.  In other words, once Jews are integrated, and are no longer “weak,” the schlemiel will no longer be necessary.

But is this really the case?  After all, the schlemiel does live on. And is it, from time to time political, as Gordon seems to be arguing?  If it can’t be anti-military and it can only be non-military, how does that work out?  Isn’t Snowden an “anti-military” type?  How could he be a schlemiel?