Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part I


The schlemiel is often thought of as the Jewish fool who, in the traditional joke, is paired up with a nudnik and a schlimazel. The schlemiel, as the traditional joke goes, is asked to get a bowl of soup by the schlimazel. When the schlemiel gets right near the table, and it seems as if all will go well, he spills the soup of the schlimazel’s lap. The schlimazel, who receives the bad luck, screams out. And the nudnick asks what kind of soup it is. In this scenario, the schlemiel is portrayed as a perpetual bungler who disseminates bad luck wherever he goes. (In fact, all three figures congregate around bad luck.) As the explanation goes: Jews, accustomed to bad luck throughout their history, took to this character so as to laugh at their misfortune. But, to be sure, there is obviously more to the story. The schlemiel is not the ordinary fool and shouldn’t simply be thought of as a bungler. The schlemiel is, to be sure, related to the Jewish saint. His failure has deeper roots.

In The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out how the schlemiel, in Yiddish literature, Ruth Wisse argues that “the genesis of the literary schlemiel within the context of Yiddish literature is the tale of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav entitled “A Story about a Clever Man and a Simple Man.” The story, published in 1807, anticipates Yiddish literature which will take the schlemiel as its main character. In Hebrew and Yiddish, the word “simpleton” is “Tam,” this term was often used by Hasidim to describe a righteous man. The irony, however, is that for the Hasidim, the simple man is the righteous man. He need not be a “wise man” or “clever man.” Rather, he can be a schlemiel, too. And, as Wisse notes with regard to this story by Rabbi Nachman, what makes it special is that “the instinctive response of devotion” is privileged over “the highest achievement of the mind”(17).   In the story, the simpleton’s devotion is seen as comical by the “clever man,” but in the end the simpleton’s devotion pays off.   The most important thing for Wisse is to map the movement from the simple schlemiel to the secular one in Yiddish literature. She is interested in how faith and righteousness is translated into the secular. Writing on this, Wisse argues that “in the later secular works, faith is not a matter of religious credence, but the habit of trusting optimistically in the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. It is also the dedication to living “as if” good will triumph over evil”(22).   In Yiddish literature:

The figure of the schlemiel was employed to present the case of hope over   despair, because the author retained his awareness of reality even if his character did not. The schlemiels are committed to Messianic truth, and if need be they can reinterpret, distort, or obviate immediate reality when it contradicts their ultimate ideal. Society finds them wanting, but according to the internal judgment of the story, their foolishness is redeemed. Rarely does this literary schlemiel rise to the heights achieved by the Bratzlaver’s simple man, because rarely does the modern author share the great Rabbi’s full-hearted conviction. More usually, the schlemiel remains the practical loser, winning only an ironic victory of interpretation. (23)

Wisse was referring to the Yiddish tradition of schlemiel literature. And her explanation of the schlemiel is framed in terms of the translation of Rabbi Nachman’s simpleton into Yiddish literature vis-à-vis the concept of faith and acting “as if” the good will triumph.

What I would like to suggest is that we approach the schlemiel’s relationship to religion and literature differently. Instead of looking into Yiddish literature, I would like to take up the schlemiel in post-Holocaust Jewish-American literature (namely, by way of Bernard Malamud, one of it’s greatest representatives); and instead of looking at the schlemiel by way of Wisse’s framework for faith and its translation into the secular, I would like to use a different model based on Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Levinas in terms of addressing the Saint and hagiography. The latter, as I hope to show, is a model which helps us to understand how faith is not an idea but something that is transmitted, as Wyschogrod would say, by way of “samples of ethical behavior”(277). Unlike Wyschogrod, however, I am not taking actual saints as my example so much as schlemiels who, to be sure, are really saints in disguise. The main character of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, a Jewish store owner in the post-War era named Morris Bober is a case in point. Since, today, our hagiography is fiction and our saints are the “little men” and everyday people.


Edith Wyschogrod’s Reading of Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography

Before we begin our reading of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, I’d like to briefly go over Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Emmanuel Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography.

To begin with, Wyschogrod, in an essay entitled “Exemplary Individuals: Toward a Phenomenological Ethics,” argues that her starting point for a reading of hagiography and saints must start off with what she calls “carnal generality.” She draws on this notion from the work of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas (264).   For Ponty, “generality is inscribed in the incarnate subject, an ensemble of self-transcending acts and lingual capacities. By contrast, Levinas focuses on the alterity of other persons and its impact on the self, an alterity that cannot be brought into conceptual focus by language.” Although these definitions differ, “both agree that the psycho-physiological primordium that is the incarnate subject expresses a generality of which universals and essences are derivative types”(264).

Wyschogrod argues that these generalities are “context-specific” (she calls these contexts “carnal generality”).   In the spirit of phenomenology, Wyschogrod argues that Ponty, in his “analysis of social existence,” looks, through “successive exfoliations” of the context, to get at the “essence” of the phenomena. However, Wyschogrod notes that Ponty stays away from the word “universal” and suggests that we use the word “carnal generalities” to avoid the connotations suggested by words like “essence.”   To be sure, Wyschogrod tells us that he uses the term “carnal generalties” in reference to “dialogue” and language. Drawing on this, she argues that “this generality is constituted by the power of the self to inhabit the body of the other”(265). In other words, language is the medium that brings a “carnal generality” between self and other together: “together the other and I form an ensemble of significations, a single flesh that is traversed and expresses meaning”(265).

Wyschogrod notes the difference, however, between Ponty and Levinas on this issue of language. While, for Ponty, there is a coming together of the self and other in moments of communication, for Levinas, “the breach between the self and other is unsurpassable”(266).   This difference, argues Wyschogrod, is what “”opens discourse” and makes “ethical relation possible”(266).   Regardless, for Levinas and Ponty, the “carnal generalities” remain. The question, however, is what they communicate and what we can learn from them.   For Wyschogrod, “carnal generality” conveys what she calls “exemplification” and this is best seen in hagiography.

To introduce this new idea, Wyschogrod, instead of writing about saints and their hagiography, talks about a case of “idiot savant twins” convey by the neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks. In his account of the case, Sacks recalls how the two would engage in “a singular and purely numerical conversation,” a “mathematical game in which they exceeded the competence of the most sophisticated mathematicians”(269). After watching them, Sacks concluded that “the twins did not form abstract notions of numbers but experienced them in some sensuous and immediate way”(269). As Wyschogrod explains, Sacks discovered that they learned and communicated not by way of mathematical ideas but…spatially.

Saints, argues Wyschogrod, are not much different: “they are idiot savants of the ethical, although, in contrast to the twins, they often possess considerable psychological acuity, as well as remarkable powers of political and social organization”(269). Wyschogrod argues that the entire life of the saint is devoted to the “alleviation of sorrow (psychological suffering) and pain (physical suffering) that afflict other persons without distinction of rank or group…or that afflict sentient beings, whatever the cost in pain or sorrow to him or herself”(270).

With this definition in mind, Wyschogrod argues that not all saints are mystics in the sense that they do not all experience a from of unity with the Godhead but many, the most ethical, remain painfully incarnated (270).   Her project is to preserve, for “modern and postmodern critics,: a “concept of saintliness” by “uncovering singularities,” which she associates with the “landscapes of the saintly imagination”(270).   To illustrate how this relates to hagiography, Wyschogrod cites a few passages from St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. But the last two examples she cites come from the Baal Shen Tov and Buddhism.   What she notes, in this hagiography, is how the “trace of transcendence” can be seen in them. To be sure, she notes that the bodily presence in them is an ethical figure.

In the second to last section of her essay, Wyschogrod writes of what she calls “exemplification”(277). This is the view that, “in taking the saint to be an exemplary figure, we mean that the saints’ acts are samples of ethical behavior and that the saint’s life as a whole an sample of compassion, generosity, and love”(277). Take note that Wyschogrod takes heed of Jacques Derrida’s critique of the example, which is based on the structure of the signifier and the signified (the idea – signified – has an example – a signifier) and, ultimately finds its birth in Plato’s concept of “forms” – eidos). For this reason, she uses the word “samples” (not examples) to describe what the saints provide readers:

The utility of samples lies in their enabling us to learn the character of the whole of which they are samples. Thus, in the case I am considering, one would watch the saint’s behavior in order to learn what goodness, compassion, and love are like. (277)  

Unlike Wyschogrod, who took saints as her samples, I would like to take the schlemiels of modern fiction as our samples. There is a “trace of transcendence” in them. Perhaps the reason Wyschogrod overlooked them is because she didn’t associate the comical with the ethical. And this, I believe, needs to be addressed. To be sure, as I have noted, the schlemiel, as Wisse sees it, is ultimately a religious figure. It can provide us with a sample that is closer to us since the world we inhabit is much more ironic than the world that the saints occupied. To be sure, I think that the saint’s hagiography survives by way of schlemiel fiction. And it speaks to us in an intimate manner after the Holocaust.


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