For novelists and for readers of novels, one of the most complicated issues is to determine what one can learn from the fictional “experiences” and inferences of different characters. This is of especial interest when the character in question is a schlemiel. Since the schlemiel’s experiences are often permeated by several different blind spots, we need to figure out 1) what the blind spots are and 2) what is missing. However, sometimes it is the case that it is the narrator who has the blind spot. I’m very interested in how this works with Gary Shteyngart’s portrayal of Misha’s circumcision. To be sure, Misha, the narrator of this novel, depicts his circumcision in such a way as to disclose himself as a character wounded by Jewishness. Misha’s description, I believe, is his blindspot. As readers, we can either identify with this disclosure or reject it. I think it is imperative that we reject this identification of Jewishness with botched circumcision since, as I pointed out in a previous blog, this identification harbors a deeper form of resentment: reading Judaism as a form of castration. According to his reading, which I reject, Misha is a schlemiel by virtue of allowing himself to be castrated by Jewishness.
To arrive at this rejection, we need to understand how Misha presents his “experience” of circumcision. That way, we can understand how he presents and interprets that experience of a fictional circumcision.
To this end, I began my last blog entry with a reflection on the difference between “experience” and “thought” as brought down by Aristotle. And from there, I discussed how this tradition was carried on into the modern era with thinkers like Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, et al. After doing this, I looked into the challenges posed by Martin Heidegger and Sigmund Freud to this distinction. Their challenges flip this distinction. For both of them, experience and thought are deeply intertwined. And it is not just experience in general that interests them; it is the “uncanny” experience that, for both, prompts us to reflect on who we are. However, these experiences can also do the opposite. Anxiety about this or that thing is a sure sign that the subject is coming close to something that is at the core of his or her identity.
For the narrator of Absurdistan, that thing is Jewishness. It is associated with a late-in-life circumcision and, as I have argued here and elsewhere, a form of castration. Misha’s power to assimilate and enjoy the world is, in many ways, curtailed by his Jewishness. The description of his circumcision is a substitute (prosthesis), in a Freudian sense, for this belief. We see this in the fact that is it is uncanny.
The word for uncanny in German is un-heimlich (which means not-homely). The German word is suggestive because it suggests that it is not totally alien (it is also something that we are familiar with). Drawing on this, I’d like to pay close attention to the narrator’s description of the circumcision. His familiarity with the Hasidim who circumcise him is juxtaposed to the horrific depiction of the circumcision. This mixture of familiarity and horror is the literary correlate for the uncanny.
As I noted in the prologue, the narrator looks at Jewishness as old and “prehistoric.” In his opening description of the Hasidic neighborhood we see this connotation return:
The cab stopped in front of an old but grand house whose bulk was noticeably sinking into its front columns the way an elderly fellow sinks into his walker. (19)
The narrator’s description of the first Hasid he sees is familiar and even endearing:
A pleasant young Hasid with an intelligent expression (I’m partial to anyone who looks half blind) welcomed me in with a handshake and, upon ascertaining I spoke neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, began to explain to me that concept of a mitzvah, meaning a “good deed.” Apparently, I was about to perform a very important mitzvah. (20)
Following this, Misha describes the odd but non-threatening experience of drinking and singing that precedes the circumcision. They want him to feel “at home” and this, apparently, fosters this feeling:
“Now do you feel at home?” the happy Hasids shouted at me as I swigged from the plastic cup and chased the drink with a sour pickle. “A tsimis-tov, a humus tov,” they sang, the men branching their arms and kicking up their feet, their remarkably blue eyes drunkenly ablaze from behind their black getups. (21)
All of this goes awry when Misha suggests that he pay them “seventy dollars” and that they skip the operation:
Please tell my papa I got cut already. He never look down there anymore, because now I am so fat. (21)
They didn’t “buy” his suggestion and they turn it into “their mitzvah”: “This is a mitzvah for us.” Misha hears the words “redeeming the captive” from them (which is apparently said by them since the Hasidim see him as a “captive of the Soviet Union). But, in truth, he now sees himself as a “captive.” In other words, Misha represents himself, at this point, as losing control and being violently taken in by the Hasidim. It is their mitzvah, not his. He is their captive. This is when the familiar aspects of Jewishness because unfamiliar and threatening.
Misha is then pushed into a hospital for the operation and is clearly angry. He feels duped and in his drunken anger at this realization, he screams out to his father for help: “Papa, make them stop! I cried in Russian”(23).
And when he awakes from the operation, he sees, in horror, his penis and describes it as a “crushed purple bug”:
When I woke up, the men in black hats were praying over me, and I could feel nothing below the carefully tucked folds of flesh that formed my waistline. I raised my head. I was dressed in a green hospital gown, a round hole cut in its lower region, and there, between the soft pillows of my thighs, a crushed purple bug lay motionless, its chitinous shell oozing fluids, the skin-rendering pain of its demise held at bay by anesthesia. (23)
Given this description and the fact that he describes this as a form of capture and imposition, the Hasidm’s blessings following the operation (“mazel tov and tsimmus tov and hey, hey, Yisroel”) are uncanny. Following these now uncanny words, he writes:
The infection set in that night. (23)
Reading this, I cannot help but see this as an allusion to his Jewishness and not just his circumcision. Following this operation, Misha sees his Jewishness as diseased (an anti-Semitic connotation that Sander Gilman – and many other scholars – has documented in many of his scholarly studies of 19th and 20th century depictions of Jewishness in Europe).
Although Misha’s feeling of being duped by his “co-religionists” calls for identification, I reject this call. It’s a blindspot which, without a doubt, gives substance to Freud’s claim that circumcision is a substation for castration. This passage makes it clear to me that Misha sees himself as a schlemiel-who-agreed-to-circumcision-out-of-a-blind-love-for-his-father. His maturity consists in realizing that he was duped not just by this love but by Judaism. And this comes through a description that is un-canny.
The greatness of fiction is to be found that, like much else in experience, we are free to reject the descriptions and judgments of the narrator or characters in a novel. To simply identify with a character would be a mistake. In this case, it would lead to reading Judaism as diseased and this, I believe, is set up by Misha’s description of the circumcision – a description that starts with familiarity and being-at-home and ends with horror.