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

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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….

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