Schlemiels Don’t Adapt: Saul Bellow on Sholem Aleichem’s Characters

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Citing the traditional joke about the schlemiel who spills the soup on the schlimazel, Ruth Wisse, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that the schlimazel “happens upon mischance” and “has a penchant for lucklessness”(14).  But “the unhappy circumstances remain outside him”(14).  In other words, the schlimazel’s comedy is situational.  The schlemiel, however, is different since his “misfortune is his character.  It is not accidental, but essential.”  After saying this, Wisse substitutes the word “existential” for the word “essential”: “the “schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving his very nature in its confrontation with reality”(15).    After writing this, Wisse inserts a footnote that explains that there is “some discussion of the derivation of this term (“existential”) and some attempt at definition” in a book by B.J. Bialostotski on Jewish humor.   In this book, Wisse makes reference to only two pages.  To be sure, dubbing the schlemiel an “existential” character needs more than two pages let alone a footnote reference.   Regardless, I applaud Wisse for making this claim.  There is a lot of truth to this observation.   However, as Wisse suggests indirectly, it needs more discussion (not just “some” discussion). I have, to be sure, dealing with existential interpretations of the schlemiel in my blog – mostly by way of Emmanuel Levinas and Walter Benjamin, amongst others.  But I have never read the schlemiel in terms of this specific distinction made by Wisse.  For this reason, I was happy to have stumbled across a 1953 book review of a Sholem Aleichem novel – The Adventures of Mottel the Cantor’s Son – by Saul Bellow entitled “Laughter in the Ghetto.”  In the review, he suggests something of an existential reading of the schlemiel.

1953 is an important year for Yiddish literature and for Bellow as it’s American translator.  Ruth Wisse points out that Irving Howe published Bellow’s translation of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” from the Yiddish in The Partisan Review in 1953.   And Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi convincingly argues that Bellow’s translation was a landmark moment in the revival of Yiddish literature in America.  She goes so far as to argue that Bellow, Howe, and Leslie Feidler, looked to create a “virtual ghetto” by way of popularizing the work of I.B. Singer, Aleichem, and others who were translated into English.

Bellow’s review, so to speak, comes right on time since it coincides with the publication of “Gimpel the Fool.”  In this review, Bellow reflects on Yiddish literature in general and Aleichem in particular.   But the real focus of the review is Mottel, the main character of Aleichem’s final novel.  And Mottel, for all intents and purposes, is a schlemiel.

Bellow begins his review by defining Yiddish literature against Hebrew literature: “Hebrew was the language of serious literature among the Jews of the Pale (of Settlement): Yiddish the secular language and the language of comedy.”  But even though Yiddish is the “language of comedy,” Bellow points out that Aleichem turned it to serious concerns thus bridging the gap between “serious literature” and a language that was essentially comic.  But, as Bellow argues, built into Yiddish is an “ironic genius”: Aleichem “was a great ironist – the Yiddish language has an ironic genius – and he was a writer in whom the profoundly sad, bitter spirit of the ghetto laughed at itself and thereby transcended itself.”

Like Bellow, Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse were very interested in the relationship of laughter to tears.   I have written several blog entries on this topic which speak directly to the existential condition.   Bellow’s reading – and the title of his piece – seem to suggest that he saw the ghetto’s laughing at itself as a form of existential self-transcendence.  To explain this better, Bellow notes how the existential condition of the Jews was itself ironic:

The Jews of the ghetto found themselves involved in an immense joke.  They were divinely designated to be great and yet they were like mice.  History was something that happened to them: they did not make it.  The nations made it, while they, the Jews, suffered.

Bellow goes on to argue that the countless references to “all times and all greatness” in Yiddish conversation and Jewish study contributed, “because of poverty and powerlessness of the Chosen, to the ghetto’s sense of the ridiculous.”  In other words, the historical reality of Jews – given their history and greatness – was ironic for Jews who lived in the Pale.  It didn’t make sense and was laughable.  And in this situation, argues Bellow, “powerlessness appears to force people to have recourse to words.”

This suggests that history forced Jews to be comical.  But this isn’t the existential part.  The existential part has to do with not giving in to the judgment of history and the refusal to adapt.

When Bellow turns to the novel he points out how Mottel, the main character of the Aleichem novel, is always happy: “almost nothing can take place which he is unable to make into a occasion of happiness: with boundless resilience he tells, after his father’s death, how quickly he learns the prayer for the dead, how well everyone treats him now that he is an orphan.”  Mottel has “an inexhaustible power of enjoyment and cannot be affected….He declines to suffer the penalties the world imposes on him.”

Bellow sees this aloofness of the schlemiel as fundamental to a Jewish condition. This comes out in his comparison of Aleichem to Gogol.  In his comparison, he notes that while “Gogol’s humor is wilder, more inventive and lavish, Aleichem’s is drier and more sad.”  But, more importantly, Aleichem’s characters have the “immediate problem of survival.”  And they “must survive, but not by adapting themselves; adaptation is forbidden and they must remain what they are.”

This, to my mind, suggests an existential condition and it also suggests an “imperative”: they must “remain what they are.”  In other words, the schlemiel must remain a schlemiel.  After all, Mottel doesn’t adapt yet, somehow, he manages to survives.   Bellow calls this a kind of balancing act: “Mottel learns early in life to perform difficult feats of equilibrium.”

Mottel’s schlemiel-performance is an existential decision.   Mottel is not a victim of circumstance; his comedy is not situational.  He is not a schlimazel.  Mottel is a schlemiel and, according to Bellow, he must be. And this is what makes him so important to Aleichem and the Jewish people.  In order to survive, the schlemiel doesn’t adapt.  He doesn’t give in to history. And that is the schlemiel’s decision and perhaps, most importantly, what makes the schlemiel a Jewish comic character.

2 thoughts on “Schlemiels Don’t Adapt: Saul Bellow on Sholem Aleichem’s Characters

  1. New Release: Death of the Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone.
    Surely Robert Stone is one of the best writers of individual scenes in all of our literature – think of the scene in A Flag for Sunrise where Tabor shoots his dogs, or in Children of Light where members of a film crew mistake the phrase “Bosch’s Garden” for “Butch’s Garden”, which they speculate is an S&M joint in Los Angeles.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2013/11/new-release-death-of-black-haired-girl.html#.Up9tfDYo6M8

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