Academic Schlemiels

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In Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, the main character S. Levin leaves New York City for a job teaching at a college in California. He envisions a new life for himself on the West Coast as an academic. Little does he know that the job he has applied for is not the same job he is given. When he gets to California, he realizes that the college he works for doesn’t respect the liberal arts. They don’t want what he has to offer: an English professor who gives students a deeper understanding of literature and humanity. Rather, they want professors who can teach technical writing. When he gets there, he realizes that he is one of several adjunct teachers and will remain so for an indefinite time period. And even though he realizes that he is stuck and that only a few options are open to him in a small, conservative college town in northern California, he still retains some kind of hope that his journey will enable him to start all over again and live a “new life.”

What Levin finds out is that the new life he gets is much different from the new life he expected. And this reality, amongst other things, makes him into a schlemiel. To be sure, a schlemiel’s expectations don’t match with reality. Schlemiels often dream big (Hannah Arendt, by way of Heinrich Heine, calls the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” and in Yiddish the schlemiel is often called a “luftmensch,” someone who “lives on air”). But they are in for a shock when they realize that their dreams paved the way to failure. Nonetheless, schlemiels are often fortunate enough to have the ability to distract themselves from failure and to pursue some other project or dream. Were they to fully gather the meaning of their failure, they would be tragic characters.   Hence, the innocence and absent-mindedness of the schlemiel.

S. Levin, to be sure, fails in many of his encounters at the college. Even before his first day teaching, he ends up in a fling with a girl named Laverne who he meets in town. He goes with her to a barn to have sex and has problems getting his clothes off. When he does, he is immediately interrupted with his pants down. He and Laverne, both naked, run into the street in terror.   This is his first failure.

Moreover, his first day of class doesn’t go according to protocol. He fidgets over his mistakes, while in the midst of teaching, and ends up making a comic performance:

Sweating over the error he might have made…Levin got up and demonstrated on the blackboard types of sentences, as the students, after a momentary restlessness, raptly watched his performance….Levin, with a dozen minutes left to the hour, finally dropped grammar to say what was still on his mind: namely, welcome to Cascadia College. He was himself a stranger in the West but that didn’t matter. By some miracle of movement and change…At this they laughed, though he wasn’t sure why. (85)

The narrator points out how, after saying his piece, they turned away from him yet “in his heart he thanked them, sensing he had created their welcome of him. They represented an America he had so often heard of, the fabulous friendly West”(85). Meanwhile, they are treating him rudely.   Yet he tells them that “this is the life for me”(85). In response they “broke into cheers, whistles, loud laughter”(86). Instinctively, “as if inspired,” Levin “glanced down at his fly and it was, as it must be, all the way open”(85). In other words, they weren’t giving a laugh and cheers of support so much as mockery. Like a schlemiel, he misinterpreted everything that was going on around him for the better when, in fact, it was bad.

In hope of checking out the beautiful California scenery, Levin ends up getting a car; but when he first starts driving it, he feels terror more than joy as he turns the wheel. This changes over time, but the initial experience was not what he expected. And when Levin tries to make waves in the school to get more liberal arts that also backfires. As the novel progresses, we see that he ends up in an affair with a professor’s wife who is desperate for love. This ends up on a bad note, too. He is found out by the professor and is asked, by the dean, to leave the college town. The novel ends with him leaving just as lonely as when he came, but also a little wiser.

However, all is not lost. His failure doesn’t define him. As he moves from new experience to new experience, his life seems to get better (although, in the most minute way).   He may be an existential schlemiel who, it seems, is always getting himself into trouble. But at the very least he gets a better sense of his existential failures as the novel comes to an end. His name, after all, is Levin (the root of the name Levin is “lev,” Hebrew for heart). He is better for all of his failures, he has suffered and become more human, but he is still an academic schlemiel.

Today, the majority of untenured academics who teach in universities and colleges are a lot like Levin. They sign up for a job thinking that they will be a success, achieve tenure, and will gain respect. But what they find, in a job market where non-tenured professors outnumber tenured professors 4:1, is that they were mistaken. Their efforts, it seems, were for naught. Nonetheless, many of them keep at it and endure great suffering so they can, at the very least, live a life that they love. In this sense, they are like Levin. They have great hearts, but the fact of the matter is that the world they are in could care less for them.   They live with humiliation and failure.   And, as a friend on facebook suggested today, this kind of failure has become the new normal.

In this sense, the academic – that is, the adjunct – schlemiel is becoming the norm. Like any schlemiel narrative, this reality is not just a commentary on the person who is foolish enough to pursue their dreams; rather, it is a commentary on the world they believed they knew. In this scenario, the commentary is on the academic world. The academic schlemiel is not wholly responsible for his dreams; if it weren’t for the world that puts out the possibility of success, these dreams wouldn’t exist.

We can see this relation of the world to the schlemiel in many Sholem Aleichem stories, where characters envision America as a land of freedom and success. When they get to America, they see failure all around them. But they do and don’t see it. They remain optimistic when the reader can clearly see that reality says otherwise. That optimism, the conceit of the Jewish fool, doesn’t diminish the cynicism the reader should feel when reading this. This is what Ruth Wisse would call a “balanced irony.”

Strangely enough, Wisse, at the end of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that we should leave the schlemiel and its balanced ironies behind.   In other words, such ironies are not good for Jewish character in modern day America. She wrote this in 1972. Today, however, we need these kinds of balanced ironies because academic and economic failure have become endemic. Cynicism, spurred by failure and neglect, is at the base of daily academic life. In the face of this, we need to balance the cynicism that comes with lost dreams against the hope that one will eventually succeed. To be sure, the current acadmic system should be seen within this tension: it encourages graduate students to dream while, at the same time, showing that those dreams have little reality. And for that, we need the schlemiel figure to challenge what Wisse calls the “political and philosophical status quo.” The sorry state of the academic schlemiel should be an eye-opener. Levin, a character from Malamud’s 1961 novel, is still with us in 2014.

Anyone who stays in academia will identify with Levin’s hopes, failures, and misreadings. In a sense, they have been duped and have allowed themselves to be duped while knowing full well that success, today, is not so easy to attain. Like Levin, the academic schlemiel wants a “new life.” And although they are given a new life, that life may not be the one they expected. But, at the very least, like Levin…they can move on. They can experience, as he says to his class, the “miracle of movement.” Even though, at times, it seems one is going nowhere and even though they are humiliated and disrespected, an academic schlemiel can always leave and go elsewhere. Knowing this, perhaps, is the only hope an academic schlemiel can have.

In a system that dupes graduate students and PhDs into becoming a “lord of dreams” (a dream of tenure and academic success), it seems to be the only consolation.  We see this clearly in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” after he is lied to by everybody – who he trusts time and time again believing that they can be good – he decides to leave the city for some other city. He moves on….and leaves the city, which duped him into marrying a woman with kids and lovers, for some other place where, hopefully, people will be honest.  The real “new life” is elsewhere.

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