Deconstructing the Deconstruction of Zionism: Gianni Vattimo’s Myth Making and Misreading of Jewishness and Jewish Humor


The “Yale School,” which included such academic personalities as Paul deMan and Harold Bloom, gave America its first taste of deconstruction. What deMan and Bloom popularized, in particular, was the rhetorical reading of texts.  The point was to find, as deMan once said, their keystone (or it’s “center”). By locating it and taking it out, so to speak, the entire text falls to pieces and is exposed.  But it was Bloom, or rather Freud (his antecedent who he draws on extensively), who came up with the greatest phrase to articulate the task of deconstruction: namely “misreading.”   Bloom taught us that every “misreading” holds a secret.  Namely, that one lies for a reason.   Nonetheless, the lie “acts” as if it is absolute truth and bears no contradictions.  And Bloom, like Freud, wished to cultivate a “hermeneutic of suspicion” so as to expose the contradiction that is at its core. Although criticism does the work of such exposure, Bloom, like Freud and many Jews before him, also understood that one of the best ways to expose contradiction is through the “witz” (through humor).   To be sure, every misreading is ironic.

The irony of Gianni Vattimo’s essay, “How I Become an Anti-Zionist,” which is his contribution to the volume he edited with Michael Marder entitled Deconstructing Zionism, is that Vattimo acts “as if” what he is saying about Jews, Zionism, and the Holocaust is the disclosure of unalloyed truth.  In a rhetorical fashion, he claims that he is not giving a misreading, but “the” reading of Zionism; it’s ugly secret which he, through a process paralleling the post-Zionist Israeli thinker Ilan Pappe, discovered over time: namely, that he had been duped.  He believed in a “myth” about Israel’s purity but now he knows and must spread the gospel of truth.  There is nothing ironic at all in this revelation.  It has the feel of truth.  And that’s the effect he’s after.

What I’d like to do is employ the hermeneutic of suspicion to his text and expose his misreadings and their affect. In addition, I want to stand back and think about what it implies that he, a notable Continental philosopher, identifies with Ahmejenidad, thinks that the threat from Iran is make believe, and that even though the destruction of Israel is desired a better word for it is “transformation.”   To not expose these misreadings would be a travesty.

But my goal is not simply to show that he is not deconstructing Zionism and creating or rephrasing the mythologies of anti-Semitism, but that he is misreading the Jewish joke to accomplish this end. And this misreading shows us how he forces the text and reality to conform to his narrative; something a deconstructionist, as a rule, shouldn’t do.

At the end of his piece, he misreads Jewish humor (as evinced by Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers). The result of that misreading is an account of Zionism that is deadly serious.  By tracing Vattimo’s rhetorical reversals and codings we can better understand his strategy to create an old/new “myth” of Zionism. And in doing so, he gives deconstruction a bad name.

To begin with, Vattimo begins by making a division between a “true” and a “false” Judaism. He argues that true Judaism has nothing to do with Israel!  Those who identify with it are, apparently, missing the true spirit of Judaism (despite the fact that the Torah speaks repeatedly of Israel and Jews have yearned for centuries for a homeland, he makes this statement).  Following this, he exposes an anti-Semitic vein when he argues, by way of citing a Jew (cloaking his opinion in a Jew’s opinion) that “Israel” is “one of the harms produced by Hitler’s politics and the Holocaust” (to this he adds “one can also list the creation of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948”).   In other words, he sees Israel as an evil created by Hitler and the Holocaust rather than as a blessing to those who sought a homeland in the wake of the Holocaust.

The mention of the Holocaust here is key because Vattimo’s goal is to use it as his keystone: like a few anti-Zionist thinkers, he argues that the “myth” of Zionist is given legitimacy by the use of the Holocaust.  And this, in his view, is one of Israel’s gravest sins.  In other words, Israel should, in his view, bear no mention of the if it’s memory cannot be publicly mentioned, as if it weren’t a part of Jewish history…

But before he gets to this clincher, he provides his personal story of self-discovery (that he is, in his essence, an “anti-Zionist”).   He argues that he, like many Italians, grew up with two myths: the anti-fascist “myth” and the “myth” of Zionism.  He argues that this myth was provided by way of film and media. And, in the process, he likens Israel’s relation to Palestians to what he saw in American Westerns (namely, “the conquering of the West by nineteenth century Yankees”):

The last “cinematographic” reference appears somewhat forced, but it comes to mind for good reason, since no viewer of Westerns, except in recent years, has ever been concerned with the fate of Native Americans exterminated by the advance of white settlers and their cowboys – in a way complete analogous to the absolute forgetting endured by Palestinians in the epic of the birth of Israel.

The analogy also suggests that the Jews exterminated the Palestians (or are trying to).  In fact, this is his point.  But, in a cloaked fashion, he says that a Jew and not a non-Jew makes the discovery of the ugly secret; namely, that Israel is no different from Nazi Germany; it is committed to genocide.   He identifies his epiphany with that of the Jew, Ilan Pappe.  And this makes it “real”:

It was precisely the discovery of the Nakba in his second year of high school – that is, of the “disaster” represented for the Palestinians by the ethnic cleansing exercised by Israel from 1948 onward (and up until today, I must add) – that pushed Ilan Pappe from his initial leftist Zionism to his current, and radical, polemical stance against Israel.

Pappe’s “addition” (or rather additions, in the plural, to Pappe) suggest that he sees everything that Israel does in relation to the Palestinians as genocidal (as if he were watching the Holocaust in the present tense).   He now switches is rhetorical position from an “I” to a “we.”  He basically is saying he is in solidarity with Pappe and other Jews who are against “genocide” and who want to “deconstruct” the myth of Israel’s purity.  But the twist is that he and Pappe are pure. In a few sentences, he gives us a hagiography of sorts when he tells us of the process he has gone through to arrive at his epiphany:

It was, and it is now for many of us, a complex process that involved the whole of our socio-political, and in the end also our ethical, religious, conceptions, such that even our long friendships are put into crisis, along with other aspects of our private lives (starting from a certain ostracism by most official and mainstream mass media).

Here’s the narrative: He has been excluded. He is the other who is banding together with other’s who have been excluded and he is banding together with them to live and die in the name of truth. To do this, one must fight against Zionist mythology which is hiding evil (the genocide of the Palestinian people). This is, if anything, a religious narrative based on “truth.” There is no irony here.

To express his passion for the truth and to provide the map of his pilgrimage, Vattimo discusses how, over history, he was duped. Over time he realized he had been duped and that, in being duped, Israel was allowed to “continue the genocide, in Gaza and elsewhere, and also to reinforce themselves militarily in every way.”

From here, Vattimo expands his rhetorical we to include and “welcome” “Ahmadinejad.” This welcome, says Vattimo, has “emblematic value and goes far beyond the particular significance of his visit” (to Brazil). This “far beyond” suggests something transcendental for Vattimo, a greater truth: “never before was it so evident (at least it seems to us) that what is up for grabs in Palestine is the destiny of oppressed peoples who try to avoid the rule of the new colonialism.” In other words, “we” saw the truth, the “destiny of oppressed peoples” in the Palestinans.  The language is, to be sure, Epic and expresses a kind of meta-narrative which, to be sure, deconstruciton…ought to deconstruct not construct.  But who needs irony when we have Ahmadiniejad as our friend and comrade?

But the irony doesn’t stop there.  To be sure, Vattimo goes out of his way to reread Ahmadinejad’s calls for the destruction of Israel.  And his rereading – or rather misreading – exposes something rotten.  First of all, he says that the threat posed by Iran to erase Israel from the map is a myth by putting the words “disappear” and “threat” in scare quotes.  After doing this, he says that “its sense may not be completely unreasonable”(!).  His rereading is that its really not the destruction of Israel that Ahmadinejad wants so much as it’s “transformation” into one state (not for Jews, of course).  He justifies this rhetorical substitution (or misreading) by way of Ilan Pappe (a Jew-said-it-not-me tactic).    He ends his rhetorical flourish by arguing that all Ahmedinejad does is express “a demand that should be more explicitly shared.”

In other words, disregard everything negative said about Ahmedinijad; he has no hatred, doesn’t support terrorism, and forget about how he treats his people.  Rename him, pace my deconstruction, and call him your friend.  “We” (radical leftists) all share his sentiments.

But the irony of deconstruction doesn’t end there. He goes on to make yet another rhetorical misreading and substitution.  He claims that Israel suffers from an “irredeemable sin” and to say this “is not so excessive.”  In fact, its appropriate, in his view, to impute this as truth. That sin, as I suggestive above, is the “utilization” of the Holocaust.  It has turned the Holocaust into a “permanent weapon” against anyone who questions them.  To begin with, this claim is ridiculous.  I don’t have the space to address how this myth has been appropriate to agitate many left-leaning radical anti-Zionists in the past (and present).  Its simply another myth.  Regardless, for Vattimo it’s a truth that, in his view, is the basis for maintaining the myth of Israel as a Jewish State. And it is an “irredeemable sin.” It cannot be atoned for. Israel is, in other words, evil.

At the end of his essay, Vattimo posits yet another analogy and rereading by claming that Heidegger and deconstruction, like the Palestinians, is being “ethnically cleansed”(!)    After making such a rhetorical association – by way of it making it a self-evident truth that Israel ethically cleanses (after all, it is the basis of his analogy!) – Vattimo let’s his anti-Semitic beast loose.

He claims that the real core of the problem is not the appropriation of the Holocaust to legitimate the myth of Zionism so much as the myth of Jewish exceptionalism.  He states that people have this “suspicion” (himself included) by virtue of Isreal’s use of power. This “mythology,” says Vattimo, includes “divine election, the Covenant, the purity of a race.”  In other words, Zionism is really about the myth of Judaism and this coming from a “scholar” who, at the outset of his essay, separated “true” Jews (who don’t identify with Israel) from false Jews (who do). The suggestion of this rhetorical strategy (the “suspicion” as he says) is that Zionism is based on the mythologies of Judaism!

Vattimo doesn’t end his essay with this misreading. Rather, he ends with a misreading of Jewish humor.  He argues that the Rabbis in Woody Allen and the Coen Brother’s films show us who, at the core of Judaism, is a power that is corrupt and power hungry. This misinterpretation, if anything, totally misses what Woody Allen and The Coen Brothers were after.   To be sure, Allen, in films like Bananas and Annie Hall includes Rabbis in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with showing corruption so much as in insider joke.  The greatest irony is that in Annie Hall, Allen has his girlfriend’s grandmother look at him as an anti-Semite would; namely, as a Hasidic Jew in disguise.

As Freud would note, every misreading discloses some kind of secret.  And that secret, for Freud, is a desire.  For Vattimo, I think it would be fair to say that he wants to see every Rabbi as a co-conspirator in the creation of genocide and the “myth” of Jewish exceptionalism.   This desire is ultimately anti-Semitic.   It’s a shame since, by doing this, he isn’t “ethnically cleansing” deconstruction so much as giving it a bad name; after all, he sees himself as an heir to deconstruction.  But, it seems, he is more an heir to anti-Semitism.  We need better heirs to its legacy. On the other hand, it would also help if Vattimo knew a little about Judaism and Jewish humor. His misreading is not funny.  It’s tragic.

Comic Impositions: The Comedian as Imposter and Parasite


In my last blog entry on Walter Benjamin and comedy, I pointed out how Benjamin was deeply interested in the relationship of comedy to tragedy. The figure of the rogue and the comic schemer are, for Benjamin, central figures which disclose the comic “inner lining” of tragedy which we see in the mourning play.   Comedy, in the figure of the rogue or imposter, is “linked to the representative of mourning.”  The mystery of mourning, for Benjamin, can be found in this comic figure.   And, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Benjamin marks the original relation between comedy and tragedy in the displacement of tragedy by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium. Socrates “silence” is different from the silence of the tragic figure because it is “histrionic” and it spurs dialogue.  Socratic dialogue works by way of irony.  And as Benjamin notes, at the end of The Symposium Agathon (a tragedian) sits together with Aristophanes (a comic playwright) and Socrates (who mediates between the two).  But what does this mean?  What makes the “intriguer” or the “imposter” so special in Benjamin’s mind?  Does he bring out something that we find with Socrates?

To be sure, Benjamin leaves this out, in a Socratic manner, and asks us to connect the dots.  First of all, isn’t Socrates called an “imposter” by Alciabades in The Symposium?  And isn’t their dialogue, which is prior to the final scene Benjamin discusses, historionic?  The answer to all of these questions is yes.  Benjamin leaves out the fact that Alciabades tries to expose Socrates as a fake.  He is leading young people on so as to seduce them.  Socrates, in response to the drunken reveler, argues that Alciabades is an overemotional lover and that he lies.  And, to be sure, when Alciabades comes into the room he takes over the space.   He knocks loudly at the door and when they open it he stumbles in with an entourage of flautists.  In the sense I discussed recently vis-à-vis Michel Serres’s reading of sound, space, and imposition, we can say that this gesture was comical. It, as Serres might say, “occupies” the space.  And Socrates, with his retort, comes to “counter occupy” it.   And, as Serres might say, this occupation is parasitic.  It is an imposition.

Socrates, in response, is also parasitic. He feeds, so to speak, on what Alciabades has introduced into the space.  And, in shaming him, Socrates demotes him.  He refuses to let Alciabades sit next to him and, instead, he chooses Agathon and Aristophanes.  In other words, the relationship of comedy to tragedy, established by Socrates, was created out of a cruel joke at Alciabades expense. There is something daemonic about it since Socrates sees Alciabades as an imposter when, in fact, he is.

An imposter is not simply someone who interrupts a party or space; rather, an imposter “imposes” something on this or that space. As Serres would claim, the imposter takes over the space.  Serres’s reading can certainly be used to interpret what Bejamin’s understanding of comedy as the “inner side of mourning.”  After all, in the displacement of one thing by another (for instance tragedy by comedy) there is something comical going on. But that comedy is, in some senses cruel because, in order to speak and to draw on energy, it must feed on the already existing energy in this or that space.

Serres, near the end of The Parasite, discusses the comedic in terms of Moliere’s Tartuffe.  As Serres notes, Tartuffe is described, by one of Moliere’s characters as “The swindler who was able to impose on you for so long”(201).  As Serres notes, this imposition was “usually understood as cheating, the swindler imposing himself”(201).  But this meaning misses the root of the word, which, Serres points out, would “teach us that he keeps, collects, or intercepts a tax.” The tax collector is an “imposter” of sorts because he collects money, goods, etc.  He is a “parasite” who lives off of the money of the people.  Serres notes that in Italian “tartuffe” is associated with a “mushroom” which “detours and captures.”

What Serres is most interested in is the fact that the “economic” meaning of the term has been lost.  He wants to retain it and to take it away from all its negative uses.  (On this note, I would like to point out that he overlooks the association of Jews with parasites in his reading; this omission is telling because it was used, for instance, by Nazi propagandists in many caricatures; I hope to return to this in the near future).  Serres sees the comic imposture as brining out the workings of energy and force.

Like Socrates or Alciabades, the “imposture” slash comedian “takes over the house.” And he “imposes” the ultimate dilemma of human existence, culture, and politics: “exclude or be excluded.” “he chases everyone out so that he can be the master of the house.  He imposes the following dilemma: exclude or be excluded”(202).

This is the sinister aspect of the imposture. It works by way of mimicry – and, like a chameleon, it changes – so that it can insinuate itself into different spaces so as to “feast on the table of the master”:

I am starting with the mimetic action in the sense of a chameleon, of a polar bear or a polar hare in the Artic snows, of a butterfly that becomes a flower, of a walking stick…It is an erasure of individuality and its dissolution in the environment; it is a good means of protection in both defense and attack…I am an other, a and b, once again a synthetic judgment and the birth of the joker and the white domino. (202)

But there is more to the story.  As Serres notes, comedy has a relation to religion. This is what Benjamin suggests when he sees the comic as a secularization of sorts. What counts, for Serres, is that the parasite comedian is that he “sets things right.”  He sets things in the right direction: he “straightens out sinners, sends them to heaven.”

Referring to blood and wine, two major elements of Christianity, Serres points out that in Moliere’s play, Tartuffe, the “hostess loses blood and Tartuffe gets wine.” And “between blood and wine, between wine and blood, a new process appears that tradition calls transubstantiation.” So that now “the question of Tartuffe is suddenly turned over as it has always been: what is religion doing here in the parasitic relation?  Religion is not the subject of the play; it is the problem of comedy”(205).

In a Derridian kind of turn, Serres points out that in the Moliere play the host becomes the “guest of the guest.”   And this suggests that he becomes a parasite who feeds off of the real guest.  This inversion, suggests, Serres, may have religious import.  And it turns the comedy into a tragedy.  He asks, “did you pay for the comedy or the tragedy?”  This turn is a kind of imposture.  It imposes on the audience.  But, in the end, Serres says it is a comedy if the people still remain on stage.”  And this is the final swindle.   The end of play we learn that Tartuffe isn’t a tragedy. Rather, its only a “sickness.” And the “canonic character of comedy is the sick person.”  He survives, but he is sick.

Serres notes that this wasn’t simply a jab at the clergy of France.  On the contrary, it is a near death.  The parasite-comic feeds on but doesn’t kill the host.  He wounds the target and, in the process, he becomes sick. And, in the process, he excludes and is excluded. But, as Serres suggests, he survives.  He, the comic, drinks the wine of religion. He secularizes and is truly an imposter and an imposer…but he gets away with it.  In the end, someone has to pay.   And, as I showed above, that someone, for Socrates was Alciabades.  Or, as Benjamin argues, it was tragedy.

Comedy, it seems, comes with a price.  But it doesn’t kill its host so much as drain it of some of its life-blood. Nonetheless, as Serres suggests, even in the house of religion, where the comedian is a guest, the host becomes a guest and also becomes a parasite.  For this reason, in the end, the comedian is sick because he is also fed on.   Although he takes over the house, so to speak, through comedy, the comedian is also fed on; and, in the process, he narrowly averts death.  The crowd gives him life, but it also makes him sick.

Walter Benjamin on Socrates, Histrionic Dialogue, and Comedy as the “Inner Side of Mourning”


Walter Benjamin was fascinated with the figure of the “imposter” (or intriguer) and how it related to the Trauerspiel (Mourning Play) since it represents the meeting point of comedy and tragedy.   This meeting point, for Benjamin, finds its precursor in Socrates.  His silence, as opposed to tragic silence, is ironic. It is based on letting one, as Leo Strauss says of Maimonides, relate chapter headings.  And this act is, in itself, comical, histrionic:

The ironic silence of the philosopher, the coy, histrionic silence, is conscious.  In place of the sacrificial death of the hero, Socrates sets the example of the pedagogue.  But, in Plato’s work, the war which the rationalism of Socrates declared on tragic art is decided against tragedy with a superiority which ultimately affected the challenger more than the object challenged. (118)

The coming together of comedy and tragedy is alluded to at the end of the Symposium. As Benjamin notes, Socrates, Agathon (the tragedian), and Aristophanes (the comic playwright) face each other as “dawn breaks over the three.”  Benjamin notes that what we find in this moment is dialogue as such and he dubs it “pure dramatic language”:

The dialogue contains pure dramatic language, unfragmented by its dialectic of tragic and comic.  This purely dramatic quality restores the mystery which had gradually become secularized in the forms of Greek Drama: its language, the language of the new drama, is, in particular, the language of Trauerspiel.  (118)

This is quite a claim.  It suggests that the Trauerspiel, against what we read in most of the book, is a dialectic of the comic and the tragic. And that the “dramatic quality” of “pure dramatic language…restores the mystery.” In other words, comedy and irony have a major part to play.

Later in the book, comedy makes its first appearance when Benjamin talks about the intriguer (or, as Michel Serres will say, in relation to Moliere – a favorite comic playwright of Benjamin, the “imposter”). Benjamin associates comedy with the “inner side of mourning”:

With the intriguer comedy is introduced into the Trauerspiel.  But not as an episode. Comedy – or more precisely: the pure joke – is the essential inner side of mourning which from time to time, like the lining of a dress at the hem or lapel, makes its presence felt.  It’s representation is linked to the representative of mourning.  (126)

Its representative is an amalgamation of a prince and a buffoon (126).  It is also evinced in the relationship between the satanic (the cruel) and the comic (which Benjamin drew from Baudelaire’s essay on the “Essence of Laughter.)  This aspect of the comic, says Benjamin, has been missed by “speculative aesthetics”: “Rarely, if ever, has speculative aesthetics considered the affinity between the strict joke and the cruel.”

Noting that we have all seen the “children laugh where adults are shocked,” Benjamin ventures that the child knows best and is teaching us about the essence of the mourning play which can be found in the relation of comedy to tragedy.  The alteration between the cruel and the comic finds its figure in the “intriguer”(126).

Using philology and a genealogy of sorts, Benjamin argues that the figure of the intriguer emerges in the 14th century by way of the rogue whose scorn marks a transition.  According to Benjamin, the scorn was originally a Christian kind of scorn for “human pride,” but, over time, it took on a “devilish” aspect.   The merrymaker, says Benjamin, is not a rogue.  And the rogue circumvents salvation; he is seen to emerge out of the murder of Jesus.   And the comic aspect of the rogue, therefore, is devilish.   And by way of the “secularization” of the “passion play,” the rogue becomes the intriguer:

As in contemporary secular drama, the rogue had already, in the religious drama of the fifteenth century, taken over the role of the comic figure, and, and, as now, this role was perfectly adapted to the structure of the play and exerted a fundamental influence on the development of the (comic) action. (127)

In an odd move, Benjamin insists that the role of the intriguer is not simply an “amalgamation of heterogenous elements.” In fact, he seems to suggest something ontological about comedy:

The cruel joke is just as original as harmless mirth; originally the two are close to each other; and it is precisely through the figure of the intriguer that the…Trauerspiel derives its contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences. (127)

In other words, the cruel joke, figured in the intriguer, facilitates “contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences.”  I put the stress on wonderful because, as we saw above, Benjamin associates the comic with preserving mystery (going as far back as Socrates).

…to be continued

(In my book on the schlemiel, I am currently working on a chapter that addresses Walter Benjamin’s reading of the intriguer since it taps into Benjamin’s deep interest in the comic. This interest in the comic has, for some odd reason, been bypassed by major Benjamin scholars.   This blog, essays to be published on this topic, and my book, look to address this gap in Benjamin scholarship.)


It’s Not “All” in the Timing: Noise, Space, and Comedy


In The Parasite, Michel Serres looks to get rid of the idea of the center/periphery distinction and the idea that power “occupies” the center.  In its stead, he discusses things that fill and occupy space.  In a chapter entitled, “Energy, Information,” Serres starts from music and from there he moves to noise and the occupation and “counter-occupation” of space. The roar of motors is mixed with music to create a sense that there is no escape from sound. It fills all space:

Music has been a fundamental part of my life. I could not conceive of life without music.  But now, I’ve begun to hate it. It is everywhere nowadays, trapping me everywhere. I knew that we had entered the motor age when the noise coming from motors filled space everywhere. There was no space without a motor.  Even in the most rural country spots, the chain saws…replaced the grasshoppers.  (94)

The motor, says Serres, is an “expansive phenomenon.”   And it became a “founding fact of property.”  It works by making the “occupation of space intolerable” and thus “gets it for itself.”   And these noises are countered and “covered” (94) by others:

The grasshopper counterattacks with loudspeakers. Hi-fi, full-strength, earphones: the motor is beaten.  Music culture – that is to say, the culture of communication – has just wiped out the industrial revolution…Little packets of energy chase out the bigger ones. One parasite chases out another.   One power chases out another.  (95)

Serres sees this power as parasitic. It may be the power of speech or anything that has a voice in space.  He personifies this power:

Where are you?  I don’t know. Where are you going?  It doesn’t matter.  The grasshopper wanders every which way.   In other words, the emitters can be randomly distributed…Where are you going?  Everywhere.  All spaces bathe in its power.  The parasite is everywhere…Voice, wind, sound and noise. (96)

But, given this interpretation of space and expansion, wouldn’t it be the case that an explosion of sound (or an explosion itself) would be the greatest illustration of Serres’ understanding of sound?   To be sure, the explosion of words and sound I am thinking of take place in a comic kind of novel by another Frenchman, Louis Celine.  The first lines of his baudy tale, Guignol’s Band, are an explosion:

Boom! Zoom!…It’s the big smashup!…The whole street caving in at the water front!…It’s Orleans crumbling and thunder in the Grand Café!  A table sails by and splits in the air!…Marble bird!…spins round, shatters a window and splinters!

While this explosion is caricatured with such words as “Boom! Zoom!” it marks something very violent.  The explosion, the “big smashup,” is a total occupation of space.  The fact that it is comic is fascinating since it suggests that comedy is, by and large, about noise and jokes (and the laughter that attend them) are explosions of sorts that fill space. To be sure, they take over space.   It creates a tension or a kind of competition between the comedian who fills space and the audience which, in the wake of his voice, fills space with laughter.

And these explosions of comedy and sound, so to speak, communicate with each other. For your consideration, here’s a clip with many sound and spatial occupations.  To be sure, in this clip spaces are overtaken, emptied, filled, and covered over:

And, in a sense, the comedian needs to clear out the space of different sounds.  He needs to displace other sound-scapes and noises if he or she is to be affective. The schlemiel, in this account, is of prime importance; for, as Ruth Wisse and Sidrah Ezrahi have argued, the schlemiel lives by way of language.  Speech, they argue, is his substitute for sovereignty. But, as Serres seems to suggest, it isn’t a substitute for power; rather, it is power itself. It may not be history, but it overflows all spaces and competes with all narratives by turning to space (of the page, of the stage, etc) rather than time.  And that space explodes with meaning and possibility; but not in a tragic so much as in a comic sense.

Groucho and Chaplin show us the possibility of such explosions of movement and sound, which, to be sure, take over the space:


Progressive Schlemiels: On Dan Miron’s Reading of Sholem Aleichem’s “Motl the Cantor’s Son”


Dan Miron is one of the greatest living critics of Yiddish and Jewish-American literature today.   His books on these bodies of literature have won him critical claim.  What interests me most is how Miron would approach a schlemiel like Motl (the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son: Writings of an Orphan Boy.   After all, I have written several blog entries on this character and have read Motl in terms of ontological and epistemological distraction.  And in my last reflection, based on a review made by Saul Bellow, I outlined the character’s Jewishness by way of his  “refusal to adapt.”  To be sure, Bellow argues that Motl, like the Jews, had no choice but to refuse since adaptation would be tantamount to giving in to history.  And that would be a complete abdication of freedom.   Like Bellow, Miron is interested in how Motl relates to history.   According to Miron, Aleichem faced his greatest artistic task in creating a character who could properly relate to the sad and difficult history of the Jewish people in eastern Europe:

To say the truth about the crisis of eastern European Jewry in the first decade of the twentieth century that nobody else would dare to say, a truth to be reported only by someone as innocent and guileless as a child…Motl is put forward to say, in his childish way, that the demise of the traditional eastern European civilization is not only unavoidable but also welcome.  (xxviii Introduction to Tevye the Dairy Man and Motl the Cantor’s Son).

Miron’s last point stakes out a historical claim and situates his reading within a progressivist framework.  As Miron suggests, Aleichem wanted to push off from the past and embrace a new Jewish future.  Paraphrasing Aleichem, Miron writes: “it is high time for the shtetl culture to leave the historical stage for something else, no matter how primitive and crass, as long as it is alive and vital; that being an orphan is, under certain circumstances, preferable to being burdened by a moribund ancestry”(xxviii).    In other words, Miron reads the schlemiel in terms of an effort to kindly say goodbye to eastern Europe and the Shtetl and to say hello to  health, vitality, and a new future.   In other words, the schlemiel, in this historical context, embodies a progressive historical force that leaves the past, suffering, and history behind for the new.

To this end, Miron describes Motl, a schlemiel, not so much as a character than as an “attitude.”  He cites Deleuze and Guittari as his theoretical support:

As a fictional character, Motl is what Deleuze and Guittari, in their discourse on minor literature, refer to as agencement, an arrangement of traits and narrative inflections that convey an attitude rather than the reality of a specific fictionalized human being.  (xxviii)

Miron tells us that this “attitude” remains consistent throughout the story.  It is “static” against a background and changing locations that are in “constant flux.”   He is immune to the effect of time: “his character” is “immune to the process of aging and to being reconditioned by drastically changing life situations”(xxix).  In other words, the schlemiel’s blindness to the world and change is not a negative aspect of the character worthy of criticism; rather, it is a part of a kind of force that transcends change, a historical force that is vital: “nimble, energetic, bright, unencumbered by heavy clothes, never seeking the warmth of hearth and home, always Puck-like, need to walk, to run, almost to fly”(xxix).

What I find so original about this reading is that Miron, unlike any commentator on the schlemiel, describes the character as a kind of model of the “attitude” that is necessary to be vital and live on.  In other words, this schlemiel is the model for a kind of Jewish post-European vitalism-slash-historical force.  Miron likens him to a force that can be either “hot” or “cold.”

He flows with all that is vibrant: appetites, vitality, effervescence, motility, optimism, lust for life, and freedom.  On the other hand, he is a keen, unemotional, unflinching observer. (xxix)

The latter part, the cold part, is the part that watches history fade away and distances itself from the “ghettoized” aspects of his mother, brother, family, village, etc.  Miron uses this hot/cold distinction to depict this progressive attitude that looks coldly at the past yet is hot for the future and the new.   The cold part, Miron tells us, finds its best expression in the fact that Aleichem makes Motl’s new occupation, upon landing in the new world, a caricaturist.  He has a “passion for drawing cartoons that emphasize all kinds of unseemly metonymies.”  These “unseemly metonymies” are caricatures of the past.   Miron sees caricature as a “non-Jewish art” because Jews are prohibited by the Torah from making any “graven images.”  And this, for Miron, is the perfect vehicle for rebellion against tradition.  It helps him to become “detached from it” and to see it for how bad it is or has become.  And, in Miron’s words, “Motl’s inclination toward caricature contributes to Sholem Aleichem’s objective to deconstruct shtetl literature, to dismantle its components and to expose it as nonfunctional”(xxxi).

Miron’s claim suggests that schlemiel, as a caricaturist, is really not blind.  He coldly sees and rejects shtetl culture and history.  The blindness is more on the “warm” front where he chases after life in all its “flow” and “vitality.”  This is a reading of the schlemiel that has never been put forward and it is very amusing insofar as it suggests that schlemiel is not totally blind or absent-minded and that the character is the expression of a progressive “attitude.”   He is not, as Paul Celan might say, mindful of his dates.

Miron’s progressivist reading mirrors, in many ways, a Zionist reading of diasporic, European culture.  Aleichem, in his view, reads the diaspora in similar terms. But unlike German-Jews, who viewed the schlemiel as a product of the ghetto and should be abandoned, Aleichem sees Motl as a heroic figure who leaves the ghetto behind.  Miron tells us that Motl may start out as a “prospective victim” (xxxi) but he avoids this negative fate by leaving Europe behind.   He is, as Miron notes, “happy” in the midst of negative conditions since he detaches himself from these conditions and attaches himself to life and hope.  His “child rebellion” is not extinguished by the repressive apparatus of the “shtetl’s oppressive system of education.”    Motl “celebrates his independence” from this system and this “child rebellion” against the shtelt is the key to his survival.  For Miron, this is the “attitude” that left the ghetto behind for “new life.”  He is an “orphan,” a member of an “orphaned people,” which “emerges” from “historical lethargy.”  “Whipped into wakefulness” Motl, like the Jewish people, “gropes for happiness that has evaded it for so long”(xxxii).

Miron’s rhetoric suggests, more than Irving Howe, that Aleichem wasn’t simply laughing and crying over history; he was rejecting it.  This reading of the schlemiel suggests that this schlemiel, the immigrant schlemiel, is premised not so much on the rejection of the status quo (which is what Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse have suggested) as rejecting the shtetl while embracing the new.  The schlemiel must, for progressive reasons, be cold to the past (and caricature it) while being warm to every new experience.

What happens, however, to the new schlemiel. The one who arrives in America?  Will they retain hope, too?  Is the new schlemiel hot and cold?  After all, Motl is an immigrant leaving Europe behind.  What happens to the landed schlemiel?

In my latest readings of Cynthia Ozick’s  “Envy; or Yiddish in America” I pointed out that the landed schlemiel, after the death of eastern European Jewry and its cultural legacy, is not so happy.   Edelshtein is a “master of failure” and, as an older schlemiel, has a much different “attitude” than Motl.   He lives in the wake of the Holocaust, Motl doesn’t.

Miron’s suggested reading, a historicist reading, should be put in context.  Not all schlemiels are like Motl.   And his hot and cold relations may not be found in schlemiels we find in much post-Holocaust literature.  Their attitude toward history and progress is much different from his.  They are more acutely aware of failure than he.  We see this in Malamud, Ozick, and Bellow.

…to be continued….

History, Freedom, and Laughter in Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America”


As Irving Howe has pointed out, the relationship of laughter to tears is a running theme in the work of Yiddish literature.   For Howe, laughter doesn’t efface the tears of historical suffering.  To be sure, for Howe, all the laughter we find in Sholem Aleichem’s stories – for instance – is marred by historical and existential suffering.  Ruth Wisse, in her epistolary dialogue with Howe, notes something similar but puts more emphasis on the freedom gained by way of such wit.    Nonetheless, Howe and Wisse are in agreement that history and suffering inform much Yiddish literature and humor.    This approach to Yiddish literature was, to be sure, carried on by Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Cynthia Ozick.   In it, they say something distinctly Jewish; moreover, they find in this relationship a hard-won freedom and self-awareness that is tenuous at best (because it is threatened with forgetfulness).  To be sure, they see Jewish wit (and the existential freedom that is at stake in such humor) in terms of Jewish history and Jewish identity.

In reading all of these Jewish-American writers, one is obliged to reflect on how they have translated the relationship of laughter and tears into English because a lot is at stake.  For all of the above writers and scholars, the meaning of Jewishness, it seems, is (or has been) wrapped up in a certain kind of Jewish humor: one that is acutely aware of history and suffering.  This requires a kind of consciousness that is fixed on the contradictions that plague Jewish life.  They must focus on difference.

From reading Howe and Wisse, one would think that Yiddish literature, literary criticism, and Jewish-American literature point out the Jewish difference which is or can be conveyed by way of the relationship of laughter to tears.  And by virtue of the emphasis they give to this relationship, they make it an imperative to pass it on.  Without this relationship, one wonders, after reading them, how Jewishness (and not Judaism), as a tradition, can survive.  How can tradition live on if this generation (and its humor) loses touch with Jewish suffering and Jewish history?  What meaning will freedom (or humor) have for a Jew if it is not won against the backdrop of history?

All of these questions are at the forefront of Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or Yiddish in America.”  As the story unfolds, we see the main character Herschel Edelshtein come into contact with laughter, tears, freedom, and history.   His failure, as I have pointed out, is juxtaposed to the success of his nemesis, Ostrover (the Chazer). The difference between the two is not just the prose; as Ozick shows, the difference between them is their position on Jewishness, suffering, and history.  In addition, Ostrover has a translator while Edelshtein does not.   And this is a fundamental point.  The translation that he looks for, from Yiddish to English and from European history to America, seems to be impossible to accomplish since Yiddish and the history of Jewish suffering in Europe has been effaced by the Holocaust.  Nonetheless, he tries, to the very end, to get a translator.  That is, strangely enough, his only hope.  And this makes him a schlemiel of sorts, a schlemiel of history.  However, when he comes to realize this impossibility, which would require him to sacrafice history, it doesn’t seem to fully hit home.

Nonetheless, he knows, throughout the text about this impossibility, he just can’t come to terms with it.  In different parts of the text, Edelshtein identifies this impossibility with the death of two figures from his youth (who are really the same person): Avrameleh and Alexei Kirilov.  The secular and the religious Jew die in Babi Yar.  Regardless of how they saw themselves, they were shot.  That history, however, is not something young Americans growing up after the Holocaust know and live through.  Ozick drives this home by way of a character named Hannah who was born after the Holocaust and knows Yiddish but finds Ostrover’s humanistic message greater than the old message of history, suffering, and Jewish particularity.  At the end of the story, she refuses to translate Edelshtein because of his affiliation with history, suffering, and Jewish particularity.  (We will return to this.)

Yet, in the midst of all this memory and suffering, there is humor and laughter.  Edelshtein is depicted as a “stand up comedian” who tells jokes about a dead language to a dying audience.  But he doesn’t laugh.   Following a talk by Ostrover at the 92nd St Y, that Edelshtein forces himself to go to (so as to witness how popular Ostrover had become),  Ostrover makes several jokes that denote his indifference to all questions asked to him. This upsets Edelshtein:

Jokes, jokes! It looked to go on for another hour. The condition of  fame, a Question Period: a man can stand up forever and dribble shallow quips and everyone admires him for it. (147, Jewish American Stories, ed. Irving Howe)

After hearing these jokes, Edelshtein leaves the lecture hall and runs into a man named Vorovsky (who, as it so happens, is the father of Hannah).  Edelshtein thinks of Vorovsky as a “madman” who, after putting 17 years of putting together a dictionary on mathematics, “one afternoon suddenly began to laugh, and continued laughing for six months, even in his sleep”(149).  Even after his wife and father died, Vorovsky doesn’t stop laughing.  Then he lost control of his bladder and whenever he would laugh he would also pee.  This happened at the talk since he laughed at Ostrover’s jokes.

In the midst of this, Edelshtein meets Hannah, Vorovsky’s niece.  When he learns that she knows Yiddish and is a writer, Edelshtein gets very excited and starts to have hope; he imagines that he, like Ostrover, will have a translator.  However, this introduction is cut short when Edelshtein and Vorovsky get in a fight which is rooted in the fact that both of them are failures.  And while Vorovsky tells Edelshtein that “translation is no equation” for success and that success for Edelshtein is impossible, he notes that he knows one thing that makes him happy: laughter.

But there is more to the story.  Vorovsky likes to drink.  Edelshtein in a comic dialogue asks Vorovsky to teach him how to be a “drunk.”  Vorovsky tells him that to do that Edelshtein must be crazy and a failure.  Edelshtein replies that he is “schooled in failure” and is a “master at failure.”  However, this doesn’t make him laugh.  Vorovsky is different since his failure and madness drive him to laughter rather than bitterness and despair.

Although Ozick – by way of Vorovsky -associates laughter with waste and failure, she adds another, more positive dimension to his laughter by associating it with the Messianic.   Near the end of the story, when Edelshtein goes to visit him, Vorovsky goes into a fit of laughter and urinating.  In addition, he starts vomiting as well.  Although Hannah is hesitant to let Edelshtein in, he pushes through the door to find Vorovksy in a mess of laughter and waste.  But, as we learn, this laughter is, in some ways, redemptive.  But it is mixed up with tears and waste:

Vorovsky laughed and said “Messiah” and sucked the pillow spitting.  His face was a flood: tears ran down into his eyes, over his forehead, saliva sprang in puddles around his ears.  He was spitting, crying, burbling, he gasped, wept, spat…like an animal filled with hope – vomit rolled up with the third swallow and he laughed between spasms, he was still laughing, stinking, a sewer. (170)

In response to all of this laughter mixed with tears and waste, Edelshtein starts talking about the Holocaust and death and insists that Vorovsky is laughing “at death, you’re no coward”(170).  But Vorovsky, in saying this, is interrupted by Hannah who says, “If you want t to talk business with my uncle come another time.”  Edelshtein responds with a roar: “Death is business?”  This question leads Edelshtein into a tirade against Hannah which pits history, suffering, and Europe against America and forgetfulness.

Hannah claims that “history is a waste” and that she wants nothing to do with the suffering and history of those who lived in Europe and before the Holocaust.  At this point, Edelshtein identifies what he does with Jewishness and history while what she does with its opposite: “You’re right about business.  I came on business.  My whole business is waste”(171).

Hannah goes on to make distinctions between herself and Edelshtein and refuses to translate him.  And this is the point.  If one stands on the side of Jewish history and the other does not, how could it be possible to translate Yiddish into English?   He realizes that Ostrover and Hannah think of Edelshtein as being “in the ghetto.” Ostrover “knows a reality beyond realism” (and history) and this makes him, for Hannah, better.  Moreover, Hannah thinks that Jews only think of themselves and suffer while Ostrover doesn’t think about Jews and doesn’t suffer.

Hearing this, Edelshtein decides that it is better to live in history and suffer than to deny it: “History is my prison”(174).  The fight becomes physical and Edelshtein, for the first time, feels like a father scolding his child.  He goes so far as to slap Hannah while reprimanding her.   But, following this, he feels guilty and sad. He becomes, like his beloved Yiddish, “little.”  He then begs her to become his translator.  And after repeatedly refusing, he gives up and leaves.

But on his way out, he turns to Vorovsky and says something witty; namely, that Aristotle “sends regards.” For, according to an obscure passage from Aristotle: “What distinguishes men from beasts is the power of the ha-ha-ha”(176).

Following this, the last page of the story has Edelshtein wittily responding to a person he calls, from a number a randomly came across. The conversation is about conversion.  And the person on the other end of the line wants to convert Edelshtein to Christianity.  Edelshtein wittily rejects all the claims made about Judaism and its subservient relation to Christianity.  The conversation, at some point, becomes avowedly anti-Semitic and serious. But Edelshtein uses wit to defend Judaism and history to argue that, quite simply, Judaism cannot be translated into Christianity.  They are fundamentally different and he has no desire to translate one into the other.  But the translation he desires most was made impossible by history the ideology of anti-Semitism which poisoned Jewish history and created death and suffering.   The last lines say it all: it is “on account of “you” (and your anti-Semitism) that I have no translator.”

In other words, Edelsthein knows, at the end of the story, that Yiddish was killed in Europe and that his failure is personal and collective; it is based on history, suffering, and death.  He, like Yiddish and Jewish history, can’t be translated.  And although he doesn’t laugh about it, he does understand how laughter, mixed with tears, vomit, and waste, have a place in being Jewish.   As a Jew, he inherits the promises of the Torah (and the Messiah) as well as the waste of history.  As the joke goes, “you chose us from amongst the peoples…why did you have to choose the Jews.”  (The former part is written in Hebrew, the language of the Torah; the latter part in Yiddish, the language of history.)  The joke bears this bittersweet legacy.

Edelshtein is a comedian, but he doesn’t laugh at his jokes.  And, yes, there is a place for laughter but that laughter makes sense when it is not petty and directed at self-congratulatory jibes, as we saw above with Ostrover, but when it comes out of real suffering and loss (as we see with Vorovsky).   This laughter is the sign of freedom in the face of death and suffering.  But, as Edelsthein reminds us, although laughter may be a kind of freedom for a Jew who truly suffers it doesn’t release Jews from living in the “prison-house of history.”

By refusing to adapt and continuing to fail, Edelshtein shows us how one can and even should become a schlemiel of history; for in doing so, one can be free and Jewish.  For, in being particular (in being Jewish), Ozick is claiming that one must willingly be the odd one out.  And if there is laughter, and that laughter is to be real, Ozick thinks it will most likely be mixed together with tears and the waste of history and suffering.  While this laughter may be more authentic, the fact of the matter (and the thought that we are left with) is that no translator can redeem Vorovsky or Edelshtein from history, suffering, and waste.   Ostrover’s translation from the Yiddish into English, therefore, is a fake and may deny what makes Jewishness…Jewish.  Because of the death of Yiddish in the Holocaust and because America is, apparently, not interested in history, suffering, or Jewish particularity,  but in what is “beyond realism,” there can be no translator.

Swimming in a Sea of Invisible Ink: A Note on Ozick’s “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America.”


One of the more interesting characteristics of the schlemiel relates to his/her timing.  The comic character is belated: s/he comes too late to the party or is out of sync with what is going on.  But what is most interesting about this belatedness is how the schlemiel relates to it: the schlemiel can either be oblivious to being belated or painfully aware of it.   However, even in the latter case, which often leads to bitterness, there is still a blindness that prevails.  And the schlemiel, it seems, is swimming in, as it were, invisible ink.  Sometimes, however, that ink can be a bitter sea.

Edelshtein, the main character of Cynthia Ozick’s, “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America,” is a case in point.  He is caught up in a dying dream of being recognized in America as a Yiddish writer.  Yiddish, as he notes, died in Europe.  But this doesn’t keep him from being enthusiastic about it.  Besides writing in Yiddish and maintaining a journal entitled A Bitterer Yam (the “Bitter Sea”) he goes from synagogue to synagogue and Jewish community center to Jewish community center to talk about Yiddish.  The narrator likens him to a “television stand-up comic” whose humor is bitter, sardonic, and falls dead (like the language he dreams in).  Nonetheless, he continues to talk about Yiddish and write in Yiddish although he knows it is dying and will not live on.  And, regardless of his humor, he lives a belated existence and continues to swim in bitterness.

However, there is hope; but, for him, it is not hope.  It comes in the form of a man named Yankel Ostrover.  He and Baumzweig, the editor of A Bitterer Yam (which Baumzweig’s wife jokingly calls Invisible Ink), can’t stand him:

Edelshtein’s friendship with Baumzweig had a ferocious secret: it was moored entitled to their agreed hatred for the man they called der chazer.  He was named Pig because of his extraordinarily white skin, like a tissue of a pale ham, and also because in the last decade he had become unbelievably famous. When they did not call him Pig they called him shed – Devil.  (133, Jewish American Stories ed. Irving Howe)

Ostrover, they complain, is not a real Yiddish writer.  Like a pig, he appears to be Kosher (pigs have split hooves on the “outside,” but they do not “chew their cud” and are not kosher in the “inside”) but is not.   His writing in the Yiddish lacks the greatness of all the famous Yiddish writers.  And his topics are, in his view, vulgar.  And, as Edelshtein learns, his popularity is largely based on his translator and is, in many ways, the function of good luck.  And that’s the point.  Edelshtein has bad luck and this kills him.  He feels he is more deserving and is pained by the fact that the youth – the next generation of Jews – love Ostrover while he can only speak to older Jews who give no hope of carrying the tradition on.  In other words, the tradition of Yiddish isn’t really be carried on, in his view, by Ostrover.  Something else is.

Edelshtein is a schlemiel of a rare type because his hope is impossible.  He cannot admit to himself that he has failed or that Yiddish in America is closer to what Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi – in Booking Passage – would call a “virtual shtetl.”  To be sure, the person, she argues, who was translated into Yiddish and became a central figure in this virtual shtetl was I.B. Singer.  His “Gimpel the Fool,” translated into English by Saul Bellow and published in the Partisan Review, marked the beginning of the new wave.

However, Edelshtein’s resentment is based on the fact that he didn’t make it and not just Yiddish.  He is the schlemiel because he believed he, himself, could actually preserve the core of Yiddish when America wanted something else, something in English that may have some link to Yiddish – one it will never know.   He comes to late, it seems; but Ostrover seems to come in on time.  The difference between the two is, as a I mentioned above, a matter of luck; but it also has to do with the fact that America wants to have a “virtual shtetl,” one, so to speak, in its own image.

And in this virtual shtetl there seems to be no room for the bitter failure and his journal A Bitterer Yam; or is it, rather, Invisible Ink?  After all, who will read him and carry on his legacy?   He comes too late and the tradition that goes on, it seems, isn’t Yiddish, it’s virtual.   Edelshtein – because he is belated and afflicted by bad luck – seems to be swimming in a bitter sea of invisible ink because no one will read him like they read Ostrover and his virtual Yiddish novels.