The Schlemiel and Allen Ginsberg’s IGNU

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Unlike Uncle Walt (Walt Whitman), Allen Ginsberg’s poetry isn’t all pathos (although it does have a great deal of that).   To be sure, there is a comic element in his poetry that many people often overlook.   Poems like “Howl” or “Kaddish” are very serious poems, but they do have comic elements in this or that part.  In fact, most of Ginsburg’s poems are peppered with comedy.

One poem which recently caught my eye was a poem entitled IGNU, which can be found in his Kaddish collection.  It is, without a doubt, a comic poem.  In this rare audio clip of Allen reciting the poem in 1973 – in a tribute to Kerouac at Salem State College – Ginsberg explains that the word IGNU was a word invented by Jack Kerouac around 1948 or 1949.

Ginsburg goes on to explain the meaning of the term by way of mysticism and comedy.  An IGNU stands for a “Gnostic ignoramus….a great bullshit artist.”  After stating this, he qualifies that by saying that an IGNU is not someone who suffers in the mystical “cloud of unknowing.”  Rather, an IGNU is someone like “Harpo Marx” or the “Three Stooges.”

Immediately after he notes these comedic examples of the IGNU, he begins his poem (written in New York in 1958):

On top of that if you know me I pronounce you an ignu

Ignu knows nothing of the world

What I find so interesting about this is that comedy, in this instance, displaces mysticism.  To be sure, the Ignu sounds like a schlemiel: he knows “nothing of the world.”  But he is not a mystic so much as a comical figure.   More importantly, the first words of Ginsberg’s poem indicate that if you know “me,” that is the voice of the poem (or Allen Ginsberg), you become a fool.  He calls you an ignu and, so to speaks, shares Ignu-ness with the other.  One becomes an Ignu by hanging out with Ignus which is exactly what we see with Harpo Marx or with The Three Stooges.  Everything they touch, everything a schlemiel touches, becomes comical.

And, for Ginsburg, the comical is the angelic.  As we see in the following lines:

Ignu has knowledge of the angel indeed ignu is angel in comical form

W.C. Fields Harpo Marx ignus Whitman an Ignu.

The punch line is that not just comedic figures but even Whitman, the poet of pathos and America, is pronounced an Ignu.

In his pronunciations of Ignu, Allen’s poem mixes mysticism, American culture, and comedy from beginning to the very end.  I’ll cite a few different lines to illustrate:

The ignu may be queer though like not kind ignu blows arch-angels for the strange thrill

Ignu lives only once and eternally knows it

He sleeps in everybody’s bed everyone’s lonesome for ignu ignu

Knew solitiude early

 

He listens to jazz as if he were a negro afflicted with jewish melancholy

And white divinity

Ignu’s a natural you can see it when he pays for cabfare

Abstracted

Pulling off the money from an impossible saintly roll

The Ignu, like the schlemiel, is a saintly and comic character and he “sought you out.”  He’s the “seeker of God and God breaks down the world for him every ten years.”  He “sees lightning flash in empty daylight when the sky is blue.”  The Ignu’s comedy, like the comedy of the schlemiel, is existential:

A comedy of personal being his grubby divinity.

And like many a schlemiel, such as many an Aleichem character, he is bound to experience juxtaposed the mystical.  Like the schlemiel, the Ignu has a foot in this world and another world.

Knowledge born of stamps words coins pricks jails seasons sweet ambition laughing gas

History with a gold halo photographs of the sea painting a

Celestial din in the bright window

One eye in a black cloud

Ginsburg ends the poem with a meditation on two diamonds that are in the Ignu’s hands (one diamond is “Poetry” and the other diamond is “Charity”).  Defying logic, he argues that these diamonds “prove” two things. Both, I would argue, disclose our relation to the schlemiel: 1) “we have dreamed” and 2) “the long sword of intelligence over which I constantly stumble like my pants at the age of six – embarrassed.”

The last line evinces the schlemiel who is a dreamer and spreads dreams and who always seems to be caught up in his youth, unable to advance.  And, much like the man-child we see in Robert Walser’s poetry, he stumbles.

Allen’s Ignu evinces, for him, some kind of new man that emerges into a new era.  He is a tainted holy fool of sorts; a “comedy of personal being” informs his “grubby divinity.”  This dirty, comic, bum Ignu finds himself stumbling though America and he pronounces you, because you happen to know him, a fellow Ignu.     But, with all his stumbling and embarrassment, I think its safe to say that he’s a melancholy comic.  His revelations are all fragmented, he is between worlds, and, as the poem seems to show, he is caught up in an endless, comic repetition.

But he is not alone.  He reads his poems to you.  And rather than cry, Ginsberg prompts us to laugh and join him in his community of Ignus: an ironic community of the mystically inclined.  Perhaps one can call this a community of the question since, ultimately, Ginsberg, like all those who listen to him, is in search of some kind of truth.

Harold Ramis: Comedy and Jewishness, American Style

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After I learned of Harold Ramis’s death, I spent some time on youtube going through clips of his work.   One of the most interesting things I stumbled upon was a talk he gave on Groundhog Day.   Ramis begins and ends his reflection on the film with a Jewish joke.

At the outset, he recalls a telephone call from one of the producers on the day of the film’s premier in California. He told Ramis that there are picketers at the film’s opening in Santa Monica.  In shock, Ramis asks what they are protesting and the producer tells him: “They aren’t protesting.  They are Hasidic Jews walking around with signs saying are you living the same day over and over again!”  While he cracks the joke, he has a big smirk on his face.

Following this, Ramis points out how a number of groups identified with the film: Buddhists, people in the Yoga community, Christians, and psychologists.   He notes that everyone obviously “projected” something on to the film.  However, he adds that “as a Jew, I kept thinking that people finding so much in this movie” and finding something new in it – every time – has much in common with the reading of the Torah:

The Torah is read every year, start at the same place, in the same day…every Jew reads the same form the same day, in the same cycle.  The Torah doesn’t change, but every year we read it we change.   And every time we read it we read something different.  So, the movie doesn’t change.

The punch line is that he denies the comparison after making it and then plays with it: “I’m not comparing Groundhog Day to the Torah; it’s more entertaining. And the Bible was not a good movie…John Huston’s movie.”  But the take away is that “there is something in it that can help people to reconsider where they are in life and to question their habitual behaviors.”

This analogy – and the joke that conveys it – is telling.  It suggests that Ramis sees the film and the Torah as something that can help us to recognize our mortality and prompt us to change who we are.  And we do this by way of reflecting on the story that we see which he suggests has a timeless element to it.  What lives on and changes – besides ourselves – is the interpretation of the story.  But the point is to make the interpretation.

Reflecting on this, I thought about how, in many ways, Ramis’s films were, for me, like the Torah.  I used to watch them over and over again.  I was especially fascinated with the juxtaposition of Bill Murray (John) to Harold Ramis (Russell Zisky) in Stripes.

Zisky plays the humble and intelligent American Jew while John plays the ironic and bold American rebel.  Zisky and John are both schlemiels.  And this is brought to bear on us by way of the fact that they come from a different America than the soldiers they join.  They are urban and intellectual; they are ironic and this gives them a vantage point.  However, as the film goes on they learn to overcome whatever distance separated them from the others in the platoon.  But this distance, though seemingly large, isn’t big.

The first scene of the film shows us this fact. Zisky is an educated man who is teaching “Basic English” to Immigrants.  We can see that the job is meaningful to him, but it is not allowing him to tap into his full potential.

John is also stumped.  Both of them are friends who want, as the Jewish-American writer Bernard Malamud put it, a “new life.”  To be sure, Malamud joined Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, and other Yiddish writers whose schlemiels all yearned for a “new life.”  The question, in all of their novels and stories, was whether such a life was possible or what that new life meant.   Moreover, would any of these schlemiels change, fundamentally? Or would they remain schlemiels, still, after the transformation?

When Zisky introduces himself to the platoon in Stripes, he comes across as a pacifist and his words fall flat.  None of the other Americans in the room, even John Candy in front of him, can understand or identify with what he is saying or his pledge that he will put himself on the line when they are in danger.

In contrast to Zisky, the American-Jew, is John.  His talk is that of a ironic, self-important-cool-populist.  The majority of the platoon laughs and smiles when he talks.  Everyone can identify with him.  He ends with an homage to the leader of the platoon.  But the leader sees this all as a lot of talk and, as the film goes out to show, he does all he can do to break John down and make him into a soldier rather than a populist comedian.

As the opening clip shows, the American-Jew and the cool, ironic American are completely different.  They are regarded differently by the platoon.  That changes over time.  But the initial moment gave me a lot to reflect on as a Jew growing up in small town America.  My father and mother were both natives of New York City.  They were oddballs in my small town.  My parents had more in common with Zisky than I did.

For this reason, looking back I can understand why I liked this film so much.  I tried to be more like John than Zisky.  But in the end, I saw that Zisky was also accepted.  But to be accepted, he had to prove that he could put himself on the line for other people in the platoon.  And John also had to change.  But that change was something that came from the leader of the platoon.  The basis for this had to do with making John more humble and respectful.

As a recent Village Voice article points out, this feat of making the American more humble was not realized in films like stripes, however.  It was realized in Groundhog Day.    According to the author of the article, Ramis established himself by making Slob vs. Snob comedies.  While the theme had its power and reflected life in the 80s, it still gave the “white American” slob too much power.  The author suggests that this is displaced in Groundhog Day because Bill Murray plays a character who is radically different from characters like John in Stripes.  Ramis and Murray, according to the author, figured out that Murray – of Stripes and Ghostbusters – is the “asshole of the age”:

At some point, Ramis and Murray and whoever else seem to have figured out that the Bill Murray of Stripes and Ghostbusters (both co-written by and co-starring Ramis) is the asshole of his age, a self-entitled boomer horndog interested in no perspective other than his own, engaged with no aspect of culture he hasn’t decided he already favors.

For this reason, they created a new Murray character in Stripes who, the author points out, now plays a “snob” rather than a “slob.”  The effect of this transformation, is that “he is rightly seen as a privileged dickhead instead of some hypocrisy-exposing hero of the people.”  The new lesson, he claims, is that Murray learns that there is more to the world than himself; the world is something you share with others.

I found this article to be interesting since it reads Groundhog Day, as Ramis suggests, by way of a different time.   It points out that the film has not changed, but we have.  Nonetheless, I wonder how Ramis rather than Murray fits into this reading.  Did his character change?  And what does this all have to do with Jewishness?  And, in all of this, what happened to the schlemiel?

The other day, I blogged on Ramis and pointed out how, in Knocked Up, he played the Jewish father to Seth Rogen.   As I noted, the scene I refer to is the scene of tradition and the idea that the son and father encounter is very Jewish.  The father is happy to have grandchildren.  He is happy to see the future embodied in a grandson.  The encounter, so to speak, shows us Zisky years later.  Unlike Bill Murray, he hasn’t gone through a fundamental transformation.  Ramis, in doing this, shows us that though the Jew may age, his or her humility and priorities remain the same.  Zisky isn’t the “asshole of the age.”  He just wants to help.

I’d like to end this blog post with a clip from the film Walk Hard where Ramis plays a Hasidic Rabbi who, in this scene, visits, Dewey, the main character, in prison.  Dewey is a parody of the American rock star who rises to fame, but ends up in hard times.  In an ironic twist, he speaks to him in Yiddish and Dewey replies in kind.

Here’s the rough translation:

Rabbi: Lean closer, I want to talk to you in mother tongue for the guards should not understand what I’m saying.

Dewey: You must be able to do something. I am not yet 21 years old. My whole life is waiting for me.

Rabbi: I think we need to do a retreat.

Dewey: How can we do that?

Rabbi:  You must go to a rehab

I recently noted that Woody Allen, in Take the Money and Run, briefly plays a Hasidic Rabbi. But that scene emerges out of a joke: it is a “side effect” of a drug he is asked to take in prison.  Here, however, we find something different.  This Rabbi is a wise man who looks to help Dewey to live “a new life” the kind of life that he can live if he goes through rehab, that is, a transformation.

The twist, I think, is that the Rabbi initiates the change; he helps Dewey to change his old habits.  He helps him to look at himself differently and gives him hope.  For me, this is the keynote that Ramis hit at in his talk on Groundhog Day.  It articulates what he thinks of the Torah and what he thought of his greatest film.  The idea is not simply (or only) that the white American guy realizes that he is an asshole and he can share the world with others, as the author of the Village Voice article suggests; it’s also that the this realization or rather transformative thought is scripted by a Jewish filmmaker and screenwriter named Harold Ramis.  He brought his Jewish wisdom to his films and, hopefully, this blog post steps in the direction of better understanding how this was so.  To be sure, Ramis’s own words – which I brought out above – suggest that we do so.

After all, the movie may not change, but we do. But the other side of this is that the movie, if read closely, can also prompt us to see who we are and to change our lives.  Herein lies the wisdom of a good script and a close reading, something Jews have, for centuries, been familiar.  What Ramis has done is to make this structure popular; he has created an offshoot of Jewishness.  And he has done it in an American style.

American Jewish Thought Looney Tunes Modern(ist) Landscape (1950)

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sid caesar heschel bugs sol

I finally decided to include something on postwar American synagogue architecture, using Susan G. Solomon’s Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture as a platform with which to juxtapose the philosophical-theological thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joseph Soloveitchik. With the recent death of Sid Caesar, I decided to throw youtube clips of him and Bugs Bunny in order to represent the comedic impulse of popular Jewish culture.

My American Jewish Studies interest in Sid Casesar and Bugs Bunny has nothing to do with historical sociology, with the assimilation of this trickster figure, “the Jew” as canny outsider, the schlemiel and the troublemaker in tension with the indigenous WASP mores represented by, let’s say Elmer Fudd.  What interests me is not the social position of Sid or Bugs, but rather the rough and ribald humor and low popular culture.

While “theologians” like Heschel and Soloveitchik speak in more elevated patois, supernatural and…

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The Schlemiel-as-Criminal? On Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run”

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While someone like Jean Genet – in books like The Miracle of the Rose or The Thief’s Journal – makes the criminal into a highly masculine larger than life (even priestly) man,  Woody Allen’s “directorial debut,” Take the Money and Run (1969), presents us with a parody of the masculine criminal and the hard-boiled crime thriller.  It is chock full of schlemiel comedy and presents us with something of the anti-thesis of violence and masculinity.

Merv Griffin, in this interview (:57) jokingly calls Allen a “sex symbol” but Allen wittily responds: “But the question is what I am a sexual symbol of…”  And even goes so far as to comically describe himself – as a child – as a “young budding pervert.”  In other words, he was a “sexual schlemiel.”  (See my recent post on Harold Ramis on this topic.)

Take the Money and Run is a parody of the life of a schlemiel-criminal who also happens to be a sexual schlemiel by the name of Virgil Starkwell.  There are several exceptional comedy skits in the film.  One celebrated scene has Virgil volunteer to take an experimental vaccine at the prison.  The punchline is that the vaccine has a “side-effect”: it turns him into a rabbi.

And in the most popular scene in the film, he slips the teller a note telling them that he has a “gub” and that they better hand the money over.  His bad handwriting (he couldn’t clearly write “gun”) is discussed by the bank workers and before he can get the money and run he has to get a few signatures at the bank.  After all, it’s the procedure.  This schlemiel displacement renders the crime and the criminal ridiculous.

Throughout the film, his Jewish parents, who wear Groucho Marx glasses and nose, discuss what happened to him showing us that he is a disappointment to his kvetching Jewish parents.

Louise Lasner plays Kay Lewis in the film and through her we learn that she was duped by Virgil Starkwell.   Toward the end of the film, we learn that she thought he was a schlemiel, but, to her chagrin, she learned that he was a criminal.  But that’s the irony of the film.  He isn’t really a criminal; he’s a schlemiel: “Everybody thought he was such a schlemiel but it turns out that he’s a criminal…”

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/224552/Take-the-Money-and-Run-Movie-Clip-Schlemiel.html

In the final scene, we see Virgil in an interview carving his soap gun.  He asks if it’s raining outside. For if it is, his gun will turn into bubbles again.  This ending marks Virgil as the schlemiel-criminal. Nobody is duped.  A schlemiel can’t be a real criminal; he’s too innocent, charming, and effeminate for that.

Wit and an Odd Kind of Charm, or Groucho Plus Harpo: Harold Ramis and The Schlemiel

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I grew up watching – and loving – many Harold Ramis films.  I recorded them on my VCR from this or that HBO showing or bought the video tapes.  Watching them, I felt as if he was hitting on something deep about being an American in the 80s and 90s.  And because I was pre-pubescent when I first saw his films, I felt as if the odd romances in films like Stripes, Ghosbusters, or Caddyshack taught me about what kinds of love, friendship, or kindness worked or didn’t work.  But, in the end, what I learned about love by way of Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, or Ramis himself was that it was a comical affair.  If it worked, it worked in an odd way.

All of his best characters are clumsy, charming, and witty.  For someone who – like millions of Americans – learned about the “birds and the bees” from TV and film, rather than his parents, they gave me an image of the kind of American male I could be: a comic male who was at once awkward, bold, and witty.

These characters, to be sure, bear aspects of the schlemiel.  Like Woody Allen, they are what David Biale – in his book Eros and the Jews – would call “sexual schlemiels.”  However, they are different: they are more charming and popular than Allen’s characters.  To be sure, Allen’s schlemiels are appealing to a more sophisticated audience while Ramis’s appeal to a more common and simple element.  In many ways, he has done more than many comedy writers in the 1980s and 90s to popularize the sexual schlemiel for a different generation (not a baby boomer generation that was more acclimated to the likes of Woody Allen and Phillip Roth).

I recently found an interesting quote by Ramis which explains the schlemiel he was looking for and the schlemiel he found in the mirror. His comic-self-image drew on the Marx Brothers but it was translated into a different comedy, one for a different time:

In my heart, I felt I was a combination of Groucho and Harpo Marx, of Groucho using his wit as a weapon against the upper classes, and of Harpo’s antic charm and the fact that he was oddly sexy — he grabs women, pulls their skirts off, and gets away with it.

As this admission suggests, Ramis saw himself in terms of both Marx Brothers.  He saw the wit of Groucho as a manifestation of the popular-will to battle against the elites (“upper classes”). The other side of Harold Ramis was his desire to be “oddly sexy.” Taken together, we have a sexual schlemiel and a schlemiel that challenges the elites.   And this is not just how Ramis painted his characters; this is how he saw himself as a comic and as a human being.

In other words, he saw himself as a living schlemiel whose actions had a social effect that could appeal to the people and perhaps even change society.  His characterization of himself has an interesting resonance with Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Charlie Chaplin (in her essay “The Jew as Pariah”) whose charm and wit appealed to immigrants and, in her words, challenged the status quo.

Harold’s wit and charm will be missed.  The legacy he left for us can be felt in this scene where he comforts Seth Rogen in Knocked Up.  Unlike the WASP mother, Ramis plays a character who is happy to have a grandchild.  His affirmation is an affirmation of life and this, as anyone who has seen the film knows, inspires Rogen to become a father.  However, the twist is that Rogen goes from being a schlemiel to being a dad.  And the only thing that remains of the schlemiel is kindness.

But that’s not the take-away.  Ramis goes against the grain in this piece because –  in explaining what is worse than having a child – he tells us something that we should be keen to; namely, that it’s worse to have a parent with alzheimers than to have a child out of wedlock.

In other words, the worst thing that can happen to us is that someone we love should forget who we are.

What Ramis has done through his charming and witty characters is to create a memory that is at once personal and American: the memory of all his schlemiels evinces both.  And even though these schlemiels may be born, so to speak, out of wedlock, they are redeemed by the reader.  This is a lesson Sholem Aleichem taught to his readers in his last novel, Motl: The Cantor’s Son.

In that novel an orphan-schlemiel – who is absent minded and who doesn’t understand death or suffering because he is distracted by life – lives on in the memory of the reading public.

Like the reading public’s memory of Motl, Ramis’s schlemiels live on in the memory of those who enjoyed and laughed at his charming and witty characters.

Thanks for reminding us of how dear the schlemiel is and how its legacy should be carried on!  You will be missed by millions of people who enjoyed your films; many, like me, who looked to them for a kind of “parental guidance” about sexuality that I couldn’t find in my home.  

Seth Rogen gets his parental guidance in this clip from Ramis, a schlemiel and a father of a schlemiel, whose advice gives Rogen hope.
 
For Ramis, the key ingredient of being a schlemiel is to be witty and “oddly sexual” but also to be a father and make your own father happy.  In other words, to give the parents “nachas” (Joy in Yiddish and Hebrew) is Ramis’s last Jewish word to Seth Rogen. It also the last word on the schlemiel.

As the schlemiel and son of a schlemiel, his job is to remember the schlemiel father through being a father…and raising a son….which, after all, emerges out of an accident: over someone getting “knocked up.”  Ramis’s encouragement of Rogen teaches us that Something good can come out of something accidental and potentially bad; and that, for Ramos, is the ultimate meaning of comedy. It is Ramis’s message to Seth Rogen and the next generation of schlemiels. It is his “parental guidance.”

The Other (American) Side of Failure: A Few Words on Delmore Schwartz

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Delmore Schwartz’s fiction and poetry – which has its fair share of schlemiels and schlemiel moments – has been of great interest to Schlemiel Theory.  His schlemiels offer a nuanced reading of this character which differs in many ways from its European cousins.  Indeed, what I find in Schwartz’s schlemiel is an American variety of this character which, unlike many of its counterparts, has a more explicit struggle with failure and success.

Schlemiel Theory was recently cited by Zachary Braiterman’s Jewish Philosophy Place in a blogpost on Delmore Schwartz.  It is entitled “Delmore Schwartz (Monstrous Children & Dreary Children).”   Braiterman notes that I, “better than most,” understand that Schwartz’s characters “are schlemiel figures.  Oddballs and failures, they don’t belong to the world.”   Braiterman adds, however, that what “so many of Schwartz’s admirers trend to neglect is his characters are mean, and if they are not mean to themselves, then they are hapless, surrounded by bitter people who are mean to each other.”

What I find so compelling about Braiterman’s claim is the fact that he brings a much neglected element to schlemiel theory: anger.   To be sure, the schlemiels we see in classical Yiddish or Jewish American literature such as Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin III, I.L. Peretz’s Bontshe Shvayg, Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, or I.B. Singer’s Gimpel don’t seem to have any aspect of meanness.  They are all kind, yet worldless characters.  Do we see something fundamentally different with Schwartz’s characters?  After all, they are, as Braiterman argues, “mean.”

Braiterman argues that the reason why they are so mean has to do with the fact that there is a gap between their “ambitious self-regard” and their “actual mediocre talents” :

Schwartz’s characters are not just mean because of the depression and “not just because of the native Protestant anti-Semitism, but because these people, the characters who fill Schwartz’s short stories, really are impossible people, human beings whose ambitious self-regard streaks light years beyond their actual mediocre talents.

They are “impossible people” because their hopes don’t match with reality.  To be sure, the bifurcation between reality and the dreams of this or that character is a major part of what makes a schlemiel a schlemiel (say Aleichem’s Motl or Sofer’s Benjamin III).  They are luftmensches (they “live on air”).  But they are not mean.

Schwartz’s characters are.

I think something else is at work and that is the American experience.  Failure in America, for educated people like Schwartz and later Bernard Malamud, is much different from failure in Eastern Europe.  And this is something that Schwartz and Malamud understand better than a writer like I.B. Singer (who Irving Howe and the Partisan Review also published).   To be sure, the meanness that leaks through Schwartz’s schlemiels has to do with failure, American style.

What makes Schwartz (of Malamud) such great writers is the fact that they are able to translate the experience of high American hopes and great American failures into various schlemiel characters.  And, yes, there is something mean about this because, in the end, failure in America is mean.  Schwartz, to be sure, had a hard time balancing out hope and skepticism in the face of his failures.  He couldn’t do what Aleichem did. But is that a fault?

The worldlessness of his characters, his schlemiels, brings out a different use of the character.  It brings out the darker side of the schlemiel, the side that Yiddish writers didn’t want to see.  This may have to do with the fact that they saw it too much.  Schwartz’s America is different.  It isn’t the Pale of Settelment. And unlike his brothers in Eastern Europe, he had many more opportunities.  For this reason, his experience of failure was fundamentally different.

In mid to early 20th century America, a different schlemiel was called for.  Hence the schlemiels we see coming out of Bellow and Malamud all grapple with hope and failure.  However, Moses Herzog or Henry Levin don’t experience failure in the same intense way as Schwartz’s schlemiels.  Nonetheless, one will notice that failure is always haunting them in ways that are different from the missed encounters we see with failure in the novels or stories of the Yiddish writers.   While many schlemiels are blind to it, these characters (and their authors) are not.

Jewish American writers are not just on the “other side of the pond,” they are also on the “other side of failure.”  I thank Zachary Braiterman (and his Jewish Philosophy Place) for reminding me that Schwartz’s bitterness was, in many ways, a thread that finds its way through so many American schlemiels.

(Not) Beyond Good and Evil: Will Herberg on Utopianism, Cynicism, and the Jewish Ethic

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Will Herberg is a Jewish-American Theologian who is most noted for his book, published in 1955,  Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology.   His characterizations of American religious pluralism may be a little dated, but it is still discussed by scholars today.  But his first book, Judaism and Modern Man: An Interpretation of Jewish Religion, is lesser known and certainly deserves more attention than it has already received.  At first, I thought the book was rehearsing many of the ideas we find in the work of Julius Guttman and Leo Strauss on what makes Judaism…Jewish (in contrast to being Greek, Mythological, etc).  To be sure, although he doesn’t cite Guttman, Rosenzweig, Buber, and Strauss (which is a major drawback), we can hear many resonances.  I am interested in how he reinterprets their theological readings of Judaism.

But what interests me most is how his readings may or may not pertain to the schlemiel’s pursuit of goodness.  To be sure, one of Herberg’s major focuses in his book is what he calls the “Jewish ethic.”  What I find so interesting about his reading is the fact that he provides Ruth Wisse’s reading of the schlemiel (made in the early 70s) with a theological reflection.  In her reading of the schlemiel she claims that the schlemiel can only exist in a world that is neither fully optimistic (or utopian) nor fully skeptical (or cynical).  The schlemiel’s Jewishness, in her estimation, has to do with creating a tension between hope and skepticism.  This idea is what Herberg associates with a Jewish ethic.  Unlike Nietzsche’s call to go “beyond good and evil,” this ethic looks to preserve good and evil yet in a way that underscores the tenuous and complicated nature of good and evil in our society.  This, as a matter of course, says to Nietzsche: not so fast.  And this not so fast, so to speak, is at the core of the Jewish ethic and it seems to be at the core of what Ruth Wisse is getting at in her interpretation of the traditional schlemiel character.  The only difference, as I hope to show, is that Herberg’s theology is utterly serious and his discourse is far from comic; whereas the schlemiel works by way of comedy and indirection.   Both are reflections on Jewishness, but one is secular while the other is religious.

In a section entitled, “The Divine Imperative: The Absolute and the Relative,” Herberg looks into the meaning of Jewish ethics vis-à-vis the relation of the absolute to the relative.  Does Judaism have absolutes?  Can they be known and acted upon?

Writing for a Jewish-American audience, and recognizing the degree of influence of Christian ideas on the Jewish mind, Herberg begins the section with a discussion of the relationship of love to law.  For Herberg, law and justice are the “foundation of social existence”(106).  And love comes in to the picture by way of pointing out that the law must be kept but in a merciful manner.  He calls the appeal to mercy within the law as the “transcendence of law in love.”  Jews must go “beyond the letter of the law” not by rejecting it but by applying in the right manner.

Herberg rejects the antinomian claim that the law should be rejected in the name of love:

No responsible thinker will venture to foresee human conditions within history in which faith will be so perfectly realized in love that law can be dispensed with and all action take rise in spontaneous freedom.  (107)

But immediately following this, he redefines the “transcendence of law in love” in terms of an existential imperative:

The transcendence of law in love is the divine imperative that confronts every man in his relations with his fellow men but it is an imperative that only the most sentimental utopianism can identify with the realities of social life at any stage of history. (107)

As we can see from this quote, Herberg inserts a critique of utopianism in his definition of the “transcendence of law in love.”  He does this because he can see that utopianism, in its zeal, has an antinomian spirit.  To this end, he critiques not just utopianism but also its evil twin, cynicism.  For Herberg, all action is “contaminated.”  But this is no reason for total cynicism:

Activity of men in history, even in the pursuit of best ends, carries with it not only the promotion but also the violation of the highest imperatives of moral life. (109)

No one is pure: “Even the saint in his humility, does he not exalt himself in the pride of his humility?”(109).  These thoughts may give rise to cynicism which Herberg defines as such:

Cynicism denies that ideal imperatives, since they are impossible of actual enactment in life, can have any meaning or relevance to human existence. (110)

In response to this, he calls for a “realistic ethic” which must “know how to relate the ideal to reality without deceiving itself as to the actual distance between them.  It must know how to choose from among the evils without obliterating the distinction between good and evil”(110).

After making this claim, Herberg resorts to a kind of quasi-Kantian regulative ideal:

The absolute imperatives calling to perfection acquire their potency precisely through the fact that they transcend every actuality of existence.  They are regulative, not constitutive, principles of moral life; they cannot themselves be embodied in action but they operate as the dynamic power within it.  (110)

And these regulative ideals serve “as principles of criticism of existing conditions.  And they serve, next, as principles of guidance in the struggle for better conditions”(110).

Although this sounds quite familiar – vis-à-vis a kind of Marxist critique – however, Herberg draws the line when he says that we have to be very careful with our interpretation and application of these “principles.”   And, in the process, challenges the “utopian” view which invests too much in its critiques and aspirations.  The Jewish ethic is more skeptical than the utopian view but it is not cynical.  One must act, but how?

Herberg argues that the Jewish ethic gets deeply involved with the “relativities” of life. And it does so with a view to action based on quasi-principles.  Nonetheless, they “constitute transcendent principles of aspiration, criticism, and judgment”(112).   In other words, criticism and judgment are always on the horizon as is aspiration for getting it write (even in the face of possible failure).

However, at the very end of the chapter Herberg decides that it is more important to end with the existential note than the pragmatic one (which is not to say that he rejects pragmatism but that he is most interested in the “aspirational” aspect of the Jewish ethic).

He notes that at the core of all of this reflection on right, ethical action is a paradox and an existential dilemma and the only solution is a call to God for help:

The resolution of the heart-rending, existence shattering conflict between what we know we ought to do and that which in fact we do do is possible only on the religious level, on the level of repentance, grace, and forgiveness.  At this point, ethics transcends itself and returns to its religious source and origin.  (113)

Herberg ends with a prayer from the Jewish prayer book which basically points out that, at the end of the day, we should hold no certainties about how good we are:

Not because of our righteous acts do we lay our supplications before thee but because of thine abundant mercies. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness?

In the end, Herberg thinks that the preservation of the tension between the utopian and the cynic will bring Jews to another form of humility and sense of limitation that is religious.   On the other hand, the schlemiel also brings us to a similar sense of limitation, to the dilemma itself.  However, it brings us there by way of bitter-sweet comedy.

One can go on and will go on dealing with moral relativities, one will walk toward the good.  The Jewish sensibility, the moral sensibility, knows it must go on and perhaps, as Beckett says, fail better. But, still, it must go on and sketch out the limits of utopia and cynicism.  The ethic is, without a doubt, (not) beyond good and evil.