Walter Benjamin’s “Dream Kitsch”

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Like Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, from time to time, wrote in very small script.   According to the editors of the Walter Benjamin Archive, Benjamin’s “miniaturized script is reminiscent of Robert Walser’s ‘pencil system’, which he used to help him write”(50). But unlike Walser, who “learnt to ‘play and poeticize’, in the small and smallest details, attempting to unlock the open space of childish light-heartedness, so as to allow script and language to flow, for Benjamin it is a matter of ‘placing’ the script, the composition of thoughts.”   For this reason, the editors argue that Benjamin wasn’t looking, like Walser for a “childhood re-attained and imitated, but rather a product of adult reflection and concentration.” I find this reading telling because it suggests that Benjamin had no interest in becoming childlike when he wrote. For the editors, his writing experiments were not really experiments in becoming-child so much as being-an-adult.

One interesting case of this contrast is a reflection that Benjamin entitled “Dream Kitsch: a Short Consideration of Surrealists.” The editors point out that Benjamin wrote this in 1925 and had originally wanted to publish it; however, he decided against it because he thought it was “too difficult”(51). What I find so interesting about this piece of writing is the fact that Benjamin’s reflection on the nature of dreams and their power leads him into a reflection on failure. This is important insofar as the schlemiel is what Heinrich Heine and Hannah Arendt call the “lord of dreams.” Heine, according to Arendt, saw these dreams as a form of defense against the deluded nature of the parvenu. For her, the lord of dreams is successful in the sense that, as a pariah, he is free. But what she doesn’t point out is that, in reality, he fails because he can’t be in the world. To be sure, this is implied by her reading of the schlemiel in “The Jew as Pariah.”

Benjamin’s reading of dreams in “Dream Kitsch” incorporates the “Lord of Dreams” and the awareness that the dream decays and fails. The dream, like the schlemiel, also finds it’s limit in history.   After all, some dreams come true; others don’t.  However, as the piece goes on, the sense of failure and decay diminishes…and the fascination with the dream and its meaning takes over.

Benjamin begins with a sense of loss: “No one dreams any longer of the Blue Flower”(65).   But this doesn’t mean dreaming isn’t or hasn’t been powerful:

Dreaming has a share of history. The statistics on dreaming would stretch beyond the pleasures of the anecdotal landscape into the barrenness of the battlefield. Dreams have started wars, and wars….have determined the propriety and impropriety – indeed, the range – of dreams. (65)

After making this reflection on dreams and war, Benjamin returns to his dirge that dreams are no longer the same: “No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon. The dream has gone gray….Dreams are now a shortcut to banality.”

Benjamin surmises that technology and capitalism have altered our dreams. He notes that we see this even with children who no longer “clasp” things as “snatch” them.   Now “the side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.” In other words, the dreams we have are given to us by way of the kitsch of capitalism.   But Benjamin doesn’t look at how it touches adults so much as how, as we see above, children.

Benjamin turns to dream kitsch and children by way of the surrealist Max Ernst. In one piece he has “drawn four small boys”:

They turn their backs to the reader, to their teacher and his desk as well, and look out over the balustrade where a balloon hangs in the air. A giant pencil rests its point in the windowsill. The repetition of childhood experience gives us pause: when we were little, there was yet no agonized protest against the world of our parents. As children in the midst of that world, we showed ourselves superior. (65)

The repetition of the childhood in the dream should “give us pause” because there wasn’t any protest. Something has changed that the children do not want to learn. To be sure, this suggests a turning away from tradition. The theme of rebelling children is one we also find in Benjamin’s essay on Kafka.   In that essay, a problem is presented: the gap between the tradition and the “messengers.”

Benjamin’s mediation on this gap leads him to mediate on parents and the kitsch love they gave “us.”

For the sentimentality of our parents, so often distilled, is good for providing the most objective image of our feelings. The long-windedness of their speeches, bitter as gall, has the effect of reducing us to a crimpled picture puzzle…Within is heartfelt sympathy, is love, is kitsch.

In other words, within all of the kitsch is love. But this love is, as he notes, “misunderstood.” To be sure, Benjamin praises misunderstanding as something than comes from the outside, from life, into our lives:

“Misunderstanding” is here another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood. (65)

Misunderstanding, in other words, is reality breaking in. However, the misunderstood man is a failure. Regardless, for Benjamin, this puzzle, which he is working through, is all just “dream kitsch.”   This kind of “dream kitsch” reminds me of what we find in David Grossman’s See: Under Love. As I pointed out in a recent blog entry, the main character of Grossman’s novel is a boy-schlemiel who is puzzling through his misunderstanding of the Holocaust. What happens “over there” breaks into conversation that Momik overhears. And out of what he gathers from different conversations, he creates a puzzle that he tries to solve.

To be sure, Benjamin, like Momik and David Grossman, is trying to work through all of his dream kitsch. And in the end, this work of interpretation tilts more toward hope than failure. In the end, Benjamin is more inspired than pained by “dream kitsch.”

“When Diogenes Pisses and Masturbates in the Marketplace” – On Peter Sloterdijk’s Greek-Jewish Kynical Hero

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Many philosophers have their pre-Socratic precursors. Plato had Parmenides, Karl Marx had Democritus, Friedrich Nietzsche had Heraclitus, and Martin Heidegger had Parmenides (and Anaximander). In contrast to all of these thinkers, Peter Sloterdijk takes Diogenes as his precursor. The choice is telling and, to be sure, it flies in the face of philosophy. And that is exactly what Sloterdijk, in his book The Critique of Cynical Reason, wants to do.

Like Nietzsche, Sloterdijk wants to challenge idealism; and like Marx, he takes to materialism. However, Sloterdijk sees in Diogenes a challenge that, to his mind, is fundamentally better than Nietzsche and Marx’s challenges because Diogenes and his kynicism leaves discourse behind.   Instead of arguing with idealism, kynicism is a living, “embodied,” challenge to idealism.

Regarding what he calls “ancient kynicism,” in its “Greek origins,” Sloterdijk argues that it is in principle “cheeky” (or in German “frech,” which, in old German is associated with “productive aggressivity” and “bravery” and “boldness”). This cheekiness is found in its total disrespect for civility and emulation of “embodied” vulgarity. In the face of this, “respectable” Greek thinking doesn’t “know how to deal with it.”

To illustrate, Sloterdijk gives two examples of how the kynic relates to Socrates. When Socrates “speaks of the divine soul,” he “picks his nose.” When Socrates discusses the theory of ideas, the kynic “farts” (101).   And when Socrates speaks of Eros, as he does in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, the kynic “masturbates in public”(101).   Seen in relation to Alciabades, who stumbles in drunk to the Symposium, the kynic is much more radical. According to Sloterdijk, what makes him more radical is the fact that he, unlike someone like Alciabades, doesn’t engage in conversation with Socrates:

Socrates copes quite well with the Sophists and the theoretical materialists if he can entice them into conversation in which he, as a master of refutation, is undefeatable. (104)

The problem is that conversation itself “presupposes something like an idealist agreement”(104). For this reason, we don’t see Diogenes in a dialogue with Socrates. Nonetheless, we do bear witness to Plato’s characterization of Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad”(104) because, according to Sloterdijk, this phrase is one that gives respect and recognition to the kynical challenge.

Sloterdijk also cites an anecdote attributed to Alexander the Great to illustrate why Diogenes and kynicism are the greatest challenge to power:

An anecdote has Alexander the Great say that he would like to be Diogenes if he were not Alexander. If he were not the fool of his political ambition, he would have to play the fool in order to speak the truth to the people, and to himself. (102)

Those who rule, according to Sloterdijk, “lose their self-confidence to fools, clowns, and kynics.” In other words, cheekiness is not “discourse” (idealized discussion or debate, Socratic style) or politics (in the spirit of Alexander), which are on the side of untruth (because they are what he calls “head” theory); cheekiness is on the side of truth and the body.

Sloterdijk creates something of a metonymy to describe what this cheekiness is. It is “desperately funny,” “satirical resistance,” “uncivil enlightenment,” “material embodiment,” “low theory,” and “practical embodiment.” Sloterdijk calls the language of Diogenes the “language of the clown” which uses “pantomimic materialism” to refute the “language of the philosophers”(103).

But, to be sure, Sloterdijk argues that kynicism has two origins. The Greek kynic is not alone. One origin is Greek; the other is Jewish. Diogenes’s counterpart is David:

The prototype of the cheeky is the Jewish David, who teases Goliath, “Come here, so I can hit you better.” He shows that the head has not only ears to hear and obey but also a brow with which to menacingly defy the stronger: rebellion, affront, effrontery. (103)

Taken together, one could argue that, for Sloterdijk, the kynic is a kind of baudy (cheeky) Jewish clown whose goal it is to defeat “the stronger.”

But the clincher is to be found in what the kynic does in the public sphere. For Sloterdijk the best place to “demonstrate” the kynics argument is not a public debate so much as in a public spectacle:

The animalities are for the kynic a part of his way of presenting himself, as well as a form of argumentation…The kynic, as a dialectical materialist, has to challenge the public sphere because it is the only space in which the overcoming of idealist arrogance can be meaningfully demonstrated. Spirited materialism is not satisfied with words but proceeds to a material argumentation that rehabilitates the body. (105)

Playing on this call for public defecation and vulgarity, Sloterdijk calls for “pissing in the idealist wind”(105).   But Diogenes does more. Not only does he urinate in public; he also “masturbates” in public. And when he urinates and masturbates in public he creates what Sloterdijk calls the “model situation”(106).

In a moment of scatological humor, Sloterdijk imagines the scene of the “real wise man” who shits and masturbates in front of Alexander the Great. To his mind, Alexander would “stand in admiration.” Given this imagined admiration, it “can’t be all that bad.” And, apparently, Alexander laughs: “here begins a laughter containing philosophical truth”(106).

This laughter, claims Sloterdijk, is the very thing that Adorno denied “categorically” (106).   In the face of Adorno and the world, Sloterdijk suggests that we take the “model situation” to heart and shit, urinate, and masturbate in public for all to see. That “demonstration” of the kynical argument will evoke laughter and, as he suggest, a truth that has been stifled by idealism.

Given this way of thinking (can we even call it that?), one can understand why Slajov Zizek (who has great interest in kynicism) would take to the spectacles that were going down at Occupy Wall Street.

Although the movement went on for a while, it failed, according to many critics, because it lacked a coherent message. In other words, it failed because it couldn’t enter discourse. This, to be sure, is what Sloterdijk seems to be saying it should do. Indeed, for him kynicism’s greatest challenge is to stay out of public discourse. The problem with this is that if it doesn’t do this, it will have no political meaning. But, perhaps, that’s the point. As Sloterdijk suggests above, Alexander would laugh in the face of such public displays of vulgarity. He would give up politics and power if he were to see this. However, what we saw was the opposite. Power didn’t laugh at the spectacle. It became utterly serious and drove it out of the public sphere.

The problem, therefore, with kynicism has to do with its ends. If its only end is to be embodied, then fine. But the question is whether it will win in the long run. Sloterdijk thinks it will because, as he suggests, these public acts leak into the private realm. And he cites proof based on how the public changed its views toward sexuality. However, the ultimate laughter, the laughter of Alexander when he gives up power for truth, cannot be but a kind of utopian-slash-messianic thing.

That said, I think we should keep our eyes open for more kynicism in the future. Zizek and many intellectuals stand behind this kind of public affront and many of them believe that it is greater than public discourse and conversation. It is, as they believe, greater than the Enlightenment and it’s truth, the truth of materialism, is greater than the truth of idealism. This truth is to be found, for Sloterdijk and those like him, in public vulgarity and kynicism. This truth, for Sloterdijk, is a Greek-Jewish hybrid of Diogenes and David – it is a Greek-Jewish-Warrior-clown of sorts. And it’s “model situation” is public defecation and masturbation. The question, however, is who is going to have the last laugh.

Adorno’s Whispers in the Dark: The Holocaust, The Child, and the Schlemiel

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As a third generation American – and as a person three times removed from the Holocaust – I was always curious about the meaning of the Holocaust. It happened, as the author David Grossman writes in his novel See: Under Love, “over there.”   What I find so intriguing about Grossman’s novel, which begins with the meditations of an Israeli child about the Holocaust, is how close it is to my own experience in so many ways. To be sure, the main character of the novel, Momik, tries to piece the Holocaust together by way of things he hears and gathers from scattered conversations and images relating the to the Holocaust.   Unlike his parents, who refuse to discuss, he can sense that something rotten is being hidden from him. And, like a detective, he tries to put it all together.

Although, as an American, my experience is much different from an Israeli’s, I can identify with the desire to put together clues. For, in truth, when it comes to the Holocaust, we are all like children. Something “whispers” to the child – regarding trauma – that the civilized adult can’t hear.

Theodor Adono points this out in his book Negative Dialectics:

Children sense some of this in the fascination that issues from the flayer’s zone, from carcasses, from the repulsively sweet odor of putrification….An unconscious knowledge whispers to the child what is repressed by civilized education; that is what matters, says the whispering voice….it kindles “what is that?and “where?”

David Grossman’s Momik is constantly hearing these kinds of whispers from people around him. And after hearing them, him repeats them and puts them together into a comic kind of narrative-slash-collage. The narrator of the novel parries this naïve search for truth and suggests that Momik believes that he is hearing a “secret language” from people who were “over there”:

Momik loved Grandma Henny very much. To this day it makes his heart ache to think of her. And all the suffering she suffered when she died too. But anyway, Grandma Henny had a special language she used when she was seventy-nine after she forgot her Polish and Yiddish and the little bit of Hebrew she learned here. When Momik came home from school he used to run in to see how she was, and she would get all excited and turn red and talk that language of hers….She had a permanent smile on her little face, a kind of faraway smile, and she talked through her smile. (34)

Henny is a living cartoon-like character for Momik. He doesn’t see her as mentally ill so much as funny or odd. Strangely enough, the language she speaks sounds a lot like Sholem Aleichem. To be sure, David Grossman was inspired to write by Aleichem and it comes through in this section.   What I’d like to suggest is that Henny’s secret language brings together Aleichem with the Holocaust. Something that, in reality, never happened. After all, Aleichem died in the early 20th century.

Henny talks about “Mendel,” an Aleichem character that leaves her and travels from Russia to America (35). This is what Momik gathers of this narrative:

How could you do such a thing and break your mother’s heart, and then she begs him, Sholem, never, never, even when he reaches America where the streets are paved with gold, to forget he’s a Jew, and to wear tefillin and pray in synagogue. (35)

The narrator tells us that she is speaking a “language no one understands” and yet “Momik understood everything. That was a fact. Because Momik has a gift, a gift for all kinds of languages no one understands, he can even understand the silent kind that people who say maybe three words in their whole life talk”(35).

Moreover, Momik can “translate nothing into something. Okay, that’s because he knows there’s no such thing as nothing, there must be something, nu, that’s exactly how it is with Grandfather Anshel” (35).

Momik hears these “whispers in the dark,” and as the novel goes on we learn that the little bits and pieces he hears are all a part of different narratives. Some of them are fictional while others are not. Regardless, all of these stories are mimicked (like his name, Momik) and translated into Momik’s narrative on the Holocaust.

I can identify with this. And I think that Momik’s queries about the Holocaust were a search for the truth and that truth was tied to the meaning of his Jewish identity. I still ask the question today, on Yom HaShoah: who am I in relationship to what happened over there? Like Adorno’s child, I ask “What is it?” and “Where is it?” It is still over there, so to speak. And with all of the media we have today, I still feel as if I am hearing a faint whisper of some secret language. The facts are incontrovertible, true; but, still, they must be put together in ways that relate to us and that is an act of the imagination.

In going through this exercise, we become like Momik, a schlemiel. We feel through the dark yet with the passion of a schlemiel, which, though misguided, is still the passion for truth. In listening closely to these whispers in the dark, to this secret language, we become like children. And a man-child is…to be sure….a schlemiel.   Here….a post-Holocaust schlemiel.

 

 

(Un)Happy Endings: Existential Reflections on “It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti”

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David Heti is an (un)timely comedian. His comedy speaks to a time that is becoming more and more unhappy with itself. (And I mean this in a good way since I believe that such unhappiness will prompt us to come out of our dogmatic slumber…and think.) Unlike many comedians whose jokes are purely scatological and childish, Heti’s jokes are thoughtful and deeply probing. He respects the intelligence of his audience and his comedy plays with our most deeply held beliefs which span our attitudes about families, sexuality, religion, and the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, Heti’s jokes hit at the fact that while, in the most philosophical sense, we all want to be happy (an insight that Aristotle saw fundamental to being-human), the fact of the matter is that our desire for happiness originates in (and returns to) a state of existential unhappiness.   And today – perhaps because of the internet, globalization, and withering economies – we are becoming more aware of this state of (unhappy) being. Heti’s comedy acknowledges it while, at the same time, giving us some comic relief.

(To be sure, Heti’s challenge is akin to the challenge posed by Judaism to Greek philosophy and culture.   Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, argues that philosophy starts with wonder (which Aristotle associates with unhappiness; wonder is attended by the feeling of “ignorance”) but ends with knowledge (happiness). Aristotle believes that our desire for knowledge will overcome this ignorance once we know the causes of things. In other words, knowledge makes us happy; ignorance makes us unhappy.   In contrast, Judaism puts a greater emphasis on the limits of knowledge. And instead of focusing solely on happiness and knowledge as the answer, it often focuses on time, suffering, and injustice. Centuries after Aristotle, GWF Hegel went so far as to call the Jews an “unhappy people.”   For Hegel, This unhappiness had to do with the fact that Jews live with uncertainty and many unanswered questions. The English critic Matthew Arnold argued that civilization is based on the tension between Jews and Greeks. I would go further and say this tension is between happiness (rational self-certainty) and unhappiness (existential un-certainty). While the Greek part of our society wants to deny this tension, the Jewish part brings it to our attention. And this is (un)timely because it challenges the notion of progress and truth, which, in the West, are both premised on Greek ideals. In modern society we are supposed to be living better than we did in the past and we are supposed to be smarter – and all of this should make us happy – but are we?)

Heti’s jokes are Jewish in this sense. The punch lines of his jokes may start on a happy, Greek note, but they all have a kind of unhappy, Jewish ending. And this is a good thing because they trick us into experiencing the profound contradictions that underlie our experiences of sex, family, culture, and religion (the buttresses of Western, North American Society). The trick is to have us think differently. His humor hits at our desire for happiness and self-certainty. And, to be sure, Heti’s act has taught me that comedy can do a more affective job than post-Enlightenment philosophy to critique our beliefs and self-understandings.

I have seen Heti doing stand-up comedy and have also had a few private conversations with him about comedy, philosophy, culture, and religion. I have also interviewed Heti and have been intrigued with his brand of comedy. I had an intuition that he was doing something (un)timely in his comedy act. But it wasn’t until recently, when I saw his recent comedy film, It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti, that I was convinced that he had something incredibly urgent and important to offer our troubled times by way of comedy.

I’d like to share a few clips and touch on a few of his jokes to illustrate how (un)timely his jokes are.   I would go so far as to suggest that the movement from unhappiness to happiness we find in them suggests a kind of practice that is instructive on how, today, we can – and should – have a comical awareness of the tension between happiness and unhappiness. It informs, to speak, our comical (rather than our tragic) sense of existence. To be sure, the tragic awareness of existence is just as Greek as the emphasis on happiness. But his humor offers us a tension between the two that is, by all means, necessary. Without it, we will to serious (and tragic) or too deluded (and happy).  (I’d also like to note, before I begin, that Heti’s timing and gesture are the important elements that animate these jokes.  This can be seen in the clips I have included.)

Heti begins his performance with a philosophical joke that plays on the first words of a comic performance:

I know that it’s  convention to be, like, “oh, it’s good to be here.” But the fact of the matter is that I “am” here, you “are” here.  Why ask ourselves how we feel about it?  Let’s just move on.

The underpinning of this joke is clearly existential. Why should we describe our existence as “good” or “bad”? Existence just is….the way it is. Like the title of Heti’s film, we can imagine him responding to the question “How was your performance?” with the existentially neutral: “It was Ok.” Its not great and its not bad. It, like existence, is…not tragic…or wonderful….it’s “ok.”

Following this joke, Heti continues on his philosophical vein by telling his audience to hold back their laughter until the end of the performance. This request is followed by philosophical reasoning. Although each joke “exists unto itself its own particularity,” and can be laughed at, ultimately there is “another, deeper level” which comes at the end where one can laugh at the performance “as a whole.” The joke is not simply on the audience; it’s also on philosophy.   The idea of withholding laugher in the name of a greater laugh – at the end – sounds like a good joke to level at a philosopher like Hegel or Karl Marx who see the “end of history” as the most meaningful moment of all.

But the punch line isn’t here. It’s in the existential insight: “I’m sorry.  I know you come to a comedy show expecting to laugh, and enjoy yourselves…but life isn’t fair.”

Besides playing on existence-as-such, Heti plays on the contemporary philosophical notion – found in Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Martin Heidegger – that the most important thing about existence is relationality.   Heti introduces this idea by pointing out how “I’m here” and you are “over there” and we are “unable to relate” (on the same level). The punch line is that when he was out there, where the audience is, he would think about how he could “do a better job than this fuck!” This comic disclosure brings comedy into an otherwise bland, basic (and oftentimes for Heidegger, a tragic) insight into “relationality.”

On another note, which is equally existential, Heti’s jokes about his family follow along a tradition of many Jewish comedians. But they differ in the fact that they are more reflective on the divide between happiness and unhappiness. In one joke about his mother, Heti says that she and I have a “very strained relationship.”

She says all she’s ever wanted is for me to be happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved and respected. It’s a real stalemate.

Following this, he notes how he recently went home to see that his mother had remodeled his room “into a place where a kid would have been happy growing up.”   He adds a joke about his father that brings out the tension between happiness and unhappiness more explicitly. It also shows a schlemiel-ish aspect to Heti’s relationship with his mother (something we find in the writings and film of Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Bruce Jay Friedman, et al):

It wasn’t easy.  My father was a little…violent. I remember….I recall as a kid, telling my mom, “one day, when I grow big enough, he’s going to beat the shit…out of only you.

The schlemiel character is in effect here because Heti’s character isn’t going to “stand up” to his father when he grows up. He’s just going to leave and his mother will receive the violence of his father. (Note to reader: do not confuse this joke with reality; to be sure, Heti, like many great comedians, loves exaggeration.)

Although Heti tells jokes about his family, his main jokes, to be sure, turn around philosophical and theological topics. As the performance moves on, these jokes are most prominent.   And all of them hinge on the tension between happiness and unhappiness.

One joke which shows how averse Heti is to happiness deals with a scenario he discusses about how he did a comic performance at a music festival. On his way back, he tells of how he rode in a car with musicians for thirteen hours. During this trip they had “an esoteric/philosophical conversation about the nature of art.” Heti, here, points out why he tells jokes, and, in the process he discloses his own way of comic-being:

Basically, we are only here to be happy, really. And so, for me, what’s funniest is when we’re not happy. And it just so happens to be the case that, just, intuitionally, I tend to subvert, for myself, any happy moment which begins. You know, I see what’s terrible in it. And even for the stage, now doing stand-up, I look for what’s awful in every moment, so my life is a series of unhappy instances and that’s why jokes; that’s why I’m a comic.

But this isn’t the punch line. It comes with his response to the musicians answer to the question of what the nature of art is:

And then so…I asked the musician, I was, like, “Why music? Like, why music?” And, he was like, “well. He said, “when I’m actively listening to music or, like, writing or playing it…like, that’s when I’m closest to the universal;  that’s when I’m one with the universe.” And I was like, “ohhhhhhh…You can go fuck yourself! Like FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOUUUUU….!”

Heti’s answer-slash-punch-line (his FUCK YOU! x3) demonstrates, to my mind, a differentiation between a Greek mind, which emphasizes “unity” with the universe, and a Jewish view which emphasizes existential difference and fragmentation.   I would argue that this difference is by no means arbitrary. To be sure, Heti tells several jokes that speak to Jewish identity, history, and religion. These jokes disclose Heti’s comedy as fragmented on many fronts.

Heti’s jokes on circumcision start off with an interesting paradox. Namely, God is thought of as “unknowable and unthinkable” yet with all of this “we can see that He likes circumcised pensises.” Heti goes on to have the audience imagine God with many dicks in his mouth. And this does a great job of exaggerating anthropomorphisms that Jewish theology would obviously reject.

Heti also tells jokes that deal with the Holocaust. He prefaces this part of the show by noting how “there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.” And that he is “unsure of where” he stands on the “issue of genocide.”

Because, on the one hand, undeniable tragic.  But on the other hand, undeniably funny. I guess it’s just one of those things where you really had to be there.

This joke hits at the existential dimension of genocide (of “being there” for the reality…and the “joke”). But it also speaks to something very interesting; namely, the negative sublime of the Nazis who did the killing. Many, in fact, did laugh at genocide. And for this reason, it hits on a deeply troubling issue which needs to be addressed, an issue that deeply complicates our understanding of humanity and evil.

The most complicated joke on the Holocaust is about his grandfather’s relationship to the Holocaust. The very context of the joke brings the audience into a very focused state and into an awareness of how good it is that he has survived it; but the punch line brings us back to the unhappy state of Jews-slaughtered-in-history:

My grandfather was actually one of the few, lucky members of his generation to  grow up Jewish in Europe and avoid the horrors of the Holocaust. Thankfully, several months before the war broke out, he was beaten to death, in a pogrom.

Near the end of his performance, Heti moves from the particularity of Jewish experience to a more general experience of God.   And this joke hits directly at the existential condition and the question of faith:

But what I find most – what I can’t understand most is these people with these extreme physical disabilities…who are nonetheless capable of maintaining religious faith. ‘Cause you’re like – you’d think that…  given what, they are already forced to put up with in this world, God would have at least spared their minds.

This last joke bespeaks the existential state of having a mind that is conscious of suffering. (Indeed, most existentialists find that existential consciousness is afflicted and tortured; especially Sartre and Levinas.) The joke poses the greatest challenge to Aristotle (and Spinoza), on the one hand, who believed that knowledge would create true happiness and on the other to religion which posits faith as an answer.   Heti is perplexed by why God would give these disabled people consciousness. It doesn’t make sense. This is at once a Jewish question and a question that should provoke anyone trying to understand faith in general.

Taken together, Heti shows us – by way of comedy – that true thinking isn’t based on the elimination of perplexity and its attendant unhappiness (which is what Aristotle believed) so much as in dwelling in perplexity. The specificity of Heti’s jokes perform the (un)timely service of reminding us of the existential state of perplexity we inhabit. We need this reminder because we are, so often, distracted by happiness from the true questions of existence that plague us all. Here it is the comedian and not the philosopher or the theologian who can help us to address our greatest questions. And this all happens when Heti delivers the punch line. At that moment, we experience the movement from happiness to unhappiness. And in that moment, we come face to face with our (un)timely comical existence.   And today, more than ever, we need to be reminded. False happiness will only sink us deeper into oblivion. Heti reminds us that comedy can awaken us (as Immanuel Kant once said of David Hume) from our “dogmatic slumbers.”

Go check out David Heti’s website – which has video, tour information, and media – and his new video “It was ok”.

 

 

Literature and Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Howard Jacobson’s Description of Literature

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One of the things that really prompted me to look into the schlemiel was a statement Walter Benjamin once made – in a letter to his dear friend, the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem – about Franz Kafka’s literary project. In the letter, dated June 12, 1938, Benjamin describes Kafka’s entire literary project in terms of failure:

To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its particular beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and the beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain about eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.

Scholem did not respond to Benjamin’s reading of Kafka vis-à-vis failure until November 6th, 1938. In the middle of the letter, Gershom Scholem expresses his bewilderment at Benjamin’s claim:

But I would like to understand what you take to be Kafka’s fundamental failure, which you virtually embed at the heart of your new reflections. You really seem to understand this failure as something unexpected and bewildering, whereas the simple truth is that the failure was the object of endeavors that, if they were to succeed, would be bound to fail. Surely that can’t have been what you meant. Did he express what he wanted to say?   Of course.

To be sure, Scholem doesn’t understand what this could mean. He sees Kafka’s work and his life as a success. In response to Scholem’s challenge, Benjamin changes tact. And instead of writing on failure, he writes, in a letter dated February 4th, 1939, on comedy. There he claims that Kafka was not so much a failure as a comic figure. Kafka is man “whose fate it is…is to be surrounded by clowns.”   There is something esoteric in this new claim: it suggests a link between literature, failure, and comedy. That’s the thread. It runs through Kafka’s work and Benjamin’s reading of it.

Years later (and after the Holocaust), Howard Jacobson, one of the greatest Jewish novelists today, has made similar claims in describing his own work. In a 2011 talk Jacobson gave at the New York Public Library, he makes an explicit link between literature, failure, and comedy.

During the talk, the interviewer, Paul Holdengraber, engages the discussion of failure by suggesting that Jacobson’s fiction is “wedded to the idea of failure in some way.” And Jacobson says, flat out, that he loves failure:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And you’re very interested in that, particularly in ideas that come back to haunt novel upon novel, essay upon essay, and we’ll move to that very quickly, the notion of failure. You are wedded to the idea of failure in some way.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What’s so fascinating?

HOWARD JACOBSON: I love failure.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You love failure.

Following this, Jacobson explains that we see failure everywhere. He describes it as a “crack in everything” and argues that “we are not interested in success” in this country or in his home country of England. Rather, he argues that “we” are interested in why the “world is not quite right.” In other words, we tend more towards cynicism (based on the “cracked” state of the world) rather than optimism (and success). That’s why we turn to literature.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes. It’s do with this, there’s a crack, a crack in everything. We are not interested in success. You in this country and we in our country—we think we are, and but we in this room are not—the fact that you are, that you and I are here together, and the people in this room are in this room listening to me talking to you means that they are not interested in—all right, I’ve won a prize, and you all well know. But we’re not really interested—you don’t read books if you’re interested in success, as the world knows success. You go to read a book because some way or other you feel that the world is not quite right. If the world is right for you, you become a footballer, you become David Beckham, or you become Donald Trump or something.

Following this, Jacobson adds a punch line and injects some comedy by mocking the position that thinks “I’m going to do all right in this world, I am at home in it.” He doesn’t trust this worldliness. And he says “we” don’t and that’s why we read books. And “we” don’t do this because we are all “wedded to failure.”

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yeah, fine, but there are a million ways in which, you know, you feel the world is okay, “I’m going to do all right in this world, I’m at home in it, Me and this world can enjoy whole relations, completeness. We can be complete. This world will offer me something I want and I will succeed in it.” Whereas we all don’t feel that, so you read books, and I write books, because we are wedded to failure, and we should be proud of that in the best sense, in the best sense. History is written by the winners. Literature is written by the losers.

To be sure, the Talmudic kind of punch line is that the interviewer is wrong. I am not the one who is wedded to failure; rather, you are and so are all of us in this gathering because we all like to read. Moreover, the condition of this “we” is that “we” don’t write history (“history is written by the winners”).   We write literature (“literature is written by the losers”). And, I would add, “we “do comedy. And, to be sure, the New York Public Library portrays Jacobson more as a comedian than as a writer.

What I find so fascinating about this link is that Jacobson is suggesting that we are not happy with our world and that we are no longer making history. This makes us all failures who have, as Ruth Wisse says of the schlemiel, an “ironic victory” by way of literature. This suggests that we, like writers who embrace the schlemiel (like Jacobson in nearly every novel), stand on a tightrope between cynicism and optimism.

And to be “proud” of being “wed to failure” suggests an irony that blasts in the face of a world based on success. It suggests that comedy and literature speak against the world and against power and the makers of history. It speaks from the angle of failure.

Perhaps this was the point that Benjamin understood about Kafka. He saw his literature as wed to failure and comedy. And, I would argue, he threw his lot in with Kafka and the novelists. This, it seems, was something Scholem could not stomach. The fact that Kafka wrote the fiction he wanted to write was a success, not a failure. But seen dialectically, as Benjamin was attempting to do, that success is really based on a failure. And Jacobson reminds us that this is nothing to be ashamed of; it is a badge of honor to write in response to failure and to admit, comically, that “we” are wed to failure.

A Schlemiel and His Mother: Reflections on Bruce Jay Friedman’s “The Good Time”

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Bruce Jay Friedman has been writing fiction since the early 1960s. As a novelist, he is most well-known for Stern. But he is most famous for his plays Scuba Duba and Steambath. Both were shown Off Broadway in the early 1970s and were overnight successes. Steambath was adapted for TV in 1973. And Friedman wrote several screenplays that were turned into popular movies such as Heartbreak Kid (1973), Stir Crazy (1980). Dr. Detroit (1983), The Lonely Guy (1984), and Splash (1984), and Brazzaville Teenager (2013). (The last film is short directed by Michael Cera and Heartbreak Kid was recently redone with a starring role by Ben Stiller).

In most of his novels, short stories, and screenplays, Friedman includes at least one schlemiel character. To be sure, Friedman, like Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, and Judd Apatow, has popularized the schlemiel in American culture.   Unfortunately, very few people have properly read his schlemiels.   In the Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse characterized his novel, Stern, in negative terms. The main character, a schlemiel named Stern, “suffers from an ulcer, the localized symbol of hurt, and actual cause of his anxiety and pain. The ulcer is a kind of “heart condition”(87).   This, for Wisse, is the anti-thesis of what Saul Bellow had done with the schlemiel in his novel, Herzog (Herzog means “heart song” in Yiddish). This schlemiel’s sickness is “a lower, less poetic organ” and it is, for Wisse, “symptomatic of Friedman’s harsher, lower form of humor”(87). Wisse goes on to call Stern just “another study of the sick man as the relatively healthy man, the psychological equivalent of loser as winner, but one that exposes the full horror of this inversion”(87).

Wisse’s words are by no means charitable to Freidman and neither are the words of the famous film critic J. Hoberman who recently likened – in the most negative way – the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man (2009) to Stern. Larry Gopnik, the schlemiel of Serious Man – is like Stern:

Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher.    

To be sure, the case for the weak and sick man-child schlemiel is made in many places by Bruce Jay Friedman. But what’s sometimes missed is how this sickness relates to the other or in the case of a story called “The Good Time” the (m)other. In this story the mother’s boundless energy also makes her into a schlemiel. And while she may appear healthy and the boy sick they are, in fact, a team.

In “The Good Time,” the main character and narrator of the story is a schlemiel who is going off to war in Korea. He is in Chicago and will be leaving from there to basic training and then war. Friedman uses “coldness” as a leitmotif in the story. The main character is followed by it everywhere:

No matter what I wore, the cold got into me and down inside my clothes and made feel lonely and as though I would never relax for the rest of my life. It followed me into the hotel room in which I stayed and chased me as I drove along the Lake. (117, The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman).

It seems as if the main character is in a transitional point between childhood and manhood and that the cold chasing him around is the cold of life and adulthood which he pulls back from. Regarding sickness, he notes that the word Korea reminds him of the word “Cholera.” In the following sentence, he notes that, for the first time in his life, he is getting a pair of eyeglasses. The fact that he is astonished that when you put the glasses on you can “see everything” should alert the reader that he is naïve and childlike.

In the midst of this cold and his contemplation of what may happen to him over there, his mother decides to leave Philadelphia for Chicago so as to show him a “good time.” She “knew I was feeling bad” and wanted to “cheer me up”(117). His mother, to be sure, is fearless, loud, and brash. But when we see her in juxtaposition to her son, we see that she is also a schlemiel. But her schlemielkeit, it seems, is more in tune with a vital American culture. It is a kind of energetics that is based on fast-talk and quick-action.

When we first meet the mother (or rather “Mother,” her name throughout the story), we see that she is brimming with enthusiasm for every experience she has (as if every moment is her last). Mother brings a woman she meets on the train who travelled with her. She insists that the lady and her baby meet her son. It doesn’t make any sense, but since Mother is so excited by their spending time with each other she wants her son to meet her:

“Did you ever see such a sweet face on a girl? Look at her. That’s the type I meet everywhere I go. And good? Good as gold. Her and her baby.” (118)

Upon seeing him, Mother demands a hug: “Grab your mother around for a hug. It’s all right. It’s your mother. I came all the way from Philadelphia.” When he notes that the girl, which his mother said was so great, was ordinary, his mother says, “You’re in quite a mood.” In other words, the mother wants him to be infected by her intensity and to overlook the ordinariness of things. She wants him to live in the moment instead of being in fear of the future.

His mother yells for a cab, engages the cabbie in talk, and they are off. As they are moving, the narrator notes a juxtaposition between age and youth in his mother. And as he passes from the one to the other he warms up: “Her figure was still so young and good it embarrassed me to look at it. And I have to admit I didn’t feel quite so cold now with her near me”(119).

Once they start talking, the narrator feels he can be honest with her and speak about how he feels about going “over there.” In response, she tosses a line, rhythmically, that sounds off against the word “there” – he calls this a “pet line”: “He’s there and you’ve got to get there.” These lines irk him and make him cold because they refuse to give in to his fear. After hearing this, he remembers another one liner, which, to be sure is all about challenging the other: “You’re on your way in, I’m on my way out.”

To be sure, as the story moves on more and more of these pet lines come to the surface. They are used to get things going and keep things warm and exciting. However, they don’t leave room for any emotional bonding between them. And they don’t leave room for fear. They are given out in rapid-fire fashion, as are her bold movements.

She has no regard for the civility. When they get back to the hotel, she takes off her top and walks around in “her brassiere and skirt…it made her comfortable”(120). It doesn’t matter that she is doing this in front of her son. To be sure, he takes this as normal. But after a while, as we shall see, he lets too many things slide. And this comes back to bite him.

The story shifts into high gear as they go out.   And as they move, we hear more and more noise. But Friedman turns this noise into a kind of music that is laced with optimism. In one scene they go to a club where Tommy Dorsey is playing music. While they are getting into the music, a large group of paraplegics come into the club. Excited by the music, they all start making noises to the music. They are giving canes by the club and they tap them against the floor in rhythm to the music. The narrator’s mother hears the word “sheeeet” repeated by some of them while one of the narrator’s friends, who tags along, goes “spit-spat.”   All of this noise works to just move things forward, into the future.

Moved by this rhythm, they get into the car and speed off along the Chicago lakeshore Listening to music as they drive, they continue the rhythm from the club. They carry it on late into the evening, but the mother doesn’t want to sleep:

“If you want to sleep, sleep…It’s your privilege. But you’re crazy if you miss a minute. I have quite a day planned for you.”(124)

The next day they go off to see a musical comedy called “New Faces.” During the act, the mother has her own comedy act and interrupts people in the audience. She wants to be the center of attention and make a scene for her son. After having her laugh and causing a stir, she leaves with her son to see an old friend called “Monkey” Lucella.

Monkey is a lot like her. He is wild, but he is also very wealthy. When they first meet, Monkey pulls out a wad of bills and tells Mother, “look at this.” In response, Mother says: “The son of a bitch…The money this son of bitch must have made here in Chicago. The fortune of money”(126). All of this theater hits a fever pitch at the end of the party when Lucella, who is married (his wife is “cold” and quiet) and has a son named “Seal”, lifts Mother up on his shoulders.

The narrator breaks down when he sees his mother’s underwear:

Her skirt split open and some garment showed that I never wanted to see in my whole life. It had elaborate hooks and snaps on it and it seemed you’d have to be very old before wearing it. It was just something I never wanted to see on my mother. (128)

When he sees “more” of the undergarment, he loses control and does something “I haven’t done in perhaps fifteen to twenty years, but something I had been in the habit of doing for quite some time as a child.   Starting to cry, I put my head down, closed my eyes and rammed my head into Lucella’s groin” (128).

His mother responds by sweeping him out of the house and getting a cab. Upon leaving, the main character, feeling miserable, vents:

Was this her idea of giving me a good time? Was that the way you treated a son who was very cold and couldn’t relax and needed glasses and was going to a place that sounded like a terrible children’s disease – a disease that probably began with a rash, for all I knew, and ended by attacking your damned kidneys. (129)

Like Stern, this story ends with sickness. But what needs to be seen is that this sickness, which is steeped in fear, is spurred in many ways by the mother. Her optimism and bold embrace of the moment divorce her from her son and make him sick. Moreover, it is her sexuality that she doesn’t hide from him. Freidman seems to be suggesting that this is what drives him back into his childhood and makes him a schlemiel. His mother has gone to far and instead of cheering him up, she has only made him more bitter and scared. This comic due shows us that a schlemiel can be a kind of nebbish character (like the son) and can also be a vital character who is out of touch with reality (like the mother).

Contrary to what many critics might say, Bruce Jay Friedman was interested in the many varieties of the schlemiel. The critics only got him half right. As we can see in this story, the main character may be like Stern but his mother is not.   And I would like to suggest that it is the latter, fast-talking kind of schlemiel that is often missed in Friedman’s work. Her optimism and brashness, though foolish, is – in this story – juxtaposed to the main character’s fear, childishness, and cynicism.   It is the relation between the two that makes this story – and these schlemiels – distinctly American.

 

….to be continued….

What Happened to Our Smart Jewish Kids? A Note On Cynicism in Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”

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When Swede, the main character of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, finally makes contact with his daughter Merry – who, as I have pointed out in other blog entries, became a domestic terrorist – he has a few moments of reflection on what “happened to our smart Jewish kids?” Swede’s reflections are worth recounting since they show how, to his mind, cynicism directed at the middle class, assimilated Jewish life is at the core of Merry and Rita Cohen’s radicalism. This cynicism is in dire contrast to the optimism of the two previous generations of American Jews; namely, Swede and his father Lou Levov. Their optimism was based on their successes in the leather industry, sports, and American life.   All of this is trashed by Merry and the third generation of American Jews because they find the source of this optimism – and the optimism itself – to be corrupted by capitalism and inequality. The process of Swede’s coming to this realization shows us what, in part, is at stake for Jews in America.

Swede is astonished when he first sees his daughter because – after engaging in several terrorists acts, killing four people, and also being taken advantage of by people she had encountered in her flight from society – she had become a Jain. As a Jain, she wears a veil and walks barefoot in fear that she may kill an insect. Swede reads her conversion into a Jain as a sign of powerlessness and it eats him up. Thinking to himself, we learn that Swede sees her powerlessness, emblematized in her veil, as destroying the power and optimism of the entire Levov family. It is a rejection and as such has its own power which angers and weakens Swede:

Your powerlessness is power over me, goddamn it! Over your mother, over your grandmother, over everyone who loves you – wearing this veil is bullshit, Merry, complete and utter bullshit! You are the most powerful person in the world! (254)

Zuckerman, the narrator, notes that this rage against his daughter wasn’t going to make him “any less miserable.” Nonetheless, Zuckerman can’t help to spell out the audacity of her gesture: “The viciousness. The audacity. The unshatterable nerves. God alone knew where such kids came from”(254). Reflecting on this, Zuckerman goes into the paradox of Jewish American children become radicals; he can’t believe that this is possible:

They were raised by parents like him. And so many were girls, girls whose political identity was total, who were no less aggressive and militant, no less drawn to “armed action” than the boys. There is something terrifyingly pure about their violence and the thirst for self-transformation. They renounce their roots to take as their models the revolutionaries whose conviction is enacted ruthlessly…They are willing to do anything they can imagine to make history change. (254)

Swede’s father, Lou, after “foolishly watching a TV news special about the police hunt for Underground Weatherman” also chimes in. Astonished, he asks the key question: “What happened to our smart Jewish kids?” What follows his question is a series of observations about how Jewish American kids cling to oppression and seem to flee away from what his generation fled to.

What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? If, God forbid, their parents are no longer oppressed for a while, they run where they think they can find oppression. Can’t live without it. Once Jews ran away from oppression; now they run from no-oppression. Once they ran away from being poor; now they run away from being rich. It’s crazy.   They have parents they can’t hate anymore because their parents are so good to them. (255)

Reflecting on this, Zuckerman wants to get at what “drives them crazy” and he concludes that it is cynicism: “Distrust is the madness to which they have been called”(255).   Distrust led Merry to rebel so as to “bring the world into subjection” but in the end this cynicism led to the opposite. Now, as a Jain, she is “subject to the world.”

Regardless, Swede realizes that she is no longer in his power and perhaps never was (256). And, thinking this, he also becomes cynical:

She is in the power of something that does not give a shit. Something demented. We all are. The elders are not responsible for this. They are themselves not responsible for this. Something else is. (256)

The cynicism spreads to Zuckerman who reflects on how “the bodies of mutilated children and their mutilated parents everywhere” indicate that we are “all in the power of something demented. It’s just a matter of time, honky! We all are!” And, according to Zuckerman, this all comes how to Swede by way of the laughing terrorists:

He heard them laughing, the Weatherman, the Panthers, the angry ragtag army of violent Uncorrupted who called him a criminal and hated his guts because he was one of those who own and have…They were delirious with joy, delighted having destroyed his once-pampered daughter and ruined his privileged life, shepherding him at long last to t heir truth….Welcome aboard, capitalist dog! Welcome to the fucked-over-by-America human race! (257)

This laughter is a kind of satanic laughter. Perhaps it is a variant of the laughter that Charles Baudelaire discusses in his famous essay, “The Essence of Laughter.” I wonder if Slajov Zizek would call this the laughter of cynicism or the laughter of what he calls, following Peter Sloterdijk, kynicism. After all, the laughter of kynicism is a destructive – daemonic (in a Baudelairian sense) – kind of laughter. Regardless, Zuckerman is right to note that this laughter emerges, in some way, out of cynicism. To be sure, this kynical laughter is the other side of cynicism.

In the above-mentioned fictional scenario, Roth shows us the power of cynicism.  It touches everything in this novel: Swede, Merry, and the narrator. It is something that comes not from one’s ancestors, as Swede notes above, so much as from history. This novel has much relevance today. As I have noted elsewhere, cynicism seems to be making a comeback. And the laughter we are hearing is by and large destructive. This would be a good time for the schlemiel who teaches us what Ruth Wisse would call “balanced irony.” This irony maintains a tension between hope and cynicism. However, in American Pastoral, this irony is absent. And that is truly tragic.