The Other is My Teacher: First Thoughts on Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”

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When I first started reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I was struck by the title, the first words of the novel, and their speaker, the main character, who is an amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction: her name is Sheila Heti.  Her book, published in 2012, has received great reviews by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and many other reputable publications. I need not go through what has already been said about her wonderful novel by these reviews. Rather I’d like to introduce a nuanced way of reading her novel that taps into the existential comedy of being – which is connected to the comedy of education – that runs throughout the text. The comedy we find with Sheila, to be sure, resonates very well with the schlemiel.

What intrigued me about this confluence between the title of Heti’s novel, it’s first words, and the main character, was the fact that they are all involved, in the most Talmudic way, in a series of questions, tests, and life possibilities that are aimed at learning something and being something. But this education is not a simple one; it is what I would call a schlemiel-education. This is the case because the relationship of Sheila to her experiences is based on an uncertainty as to “how a person should be.” She is a lot like Motl of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son. He leaves Europe with his family to discover America. Motl embraces and attempts to learn from each experience about how to be.   But in learning, we don’t see him commit to any one way of being or another. Motl’s education, it seems, has no end.

And in many ways the other, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would say, is the schlemiel’s teacher.   But Heti’s schlemiel is different insofar as Sheila is a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, the genre of women-schlemiels has, unfortunately, not been explored. But Heti’s book offers us what Edith Wychogrod would call a “sample” of the “general carnality of the (female) saint.” (As I pointed out in my blogs on Malamud and Levinas, the schlemiel is a secular saint of sorts. And Wychogrod offers us an exceptional model as to how we can read the schlemiel who, like the saint, takes the other as her teacher.)

Like children, we learn from others how to live our life and how to be. But for thinkers like Immanuel Kant this  type of education is immature. To learn from others how to live one’s life, as an adult, is shameful. A “mature” individual should, rather, use his or her reason as a guide for how he or she should live his or her life. Kant identified Enlightenment with the autonomy that comes by living one’s life in accordance with one’s reason. But there is more to the story. Enlightenment is not simply based on living one’s life in accordance with reason; rather, it requires that one sacrifice one’s desire to look to others for how one should live one’s life and for how someone should be.   Kant would, for this reason, associate autonomy with the sacrifice of heteronomy.

Nearly a century after Immanuel Kant, a Jewish man (who despised his Jewish identity) named Otto Weininger argued in his book Sex and Character (1903) – which was very influence by Kant – that Jews are effeminate because they are caught up in experience.   Jews are not capable of autonomy, in his view, because they look to experience for the answer to their question “How should a person be?” Writing on Weininger, Freud pointed out that the chapter that most “attracted his attention treated Jews and women with equal hostility and overwhelmed them with the same insults”(77, cited in Sander Gilman’s Freud, Race, and Gender) Arguing against Weininger, Freud calls him a “neurotic.” And, being a neurotic, “Weininger was completely under the sway of his infantile complexes; and from that standpoint what is common to Jews and women is their relation to the castration complex”(77).   According to Gilman, Weininger’s “infantile complex” is an “example of the problematic relationship of a Jew to his circumcision”(77).

What Freud misses about Weininger’s reading of the Jew is that both of them are deemed to be in a constant state of change and their education seems to be endless. For Weininger, neither is guided by reason so much as by experience. Heti’s book, to be sure, is Jewish in a double sense in that its narrator and main character is a woman schlemiel. For Weininger a Jewish woman is guided, to an even greater extent than the male, by experience and the other. To be sure, it wouldn’t be off to say that for Weininger she is the greater schlemiel. The male, in many ways, is really no different from her; but she does it better because she is truly feminine; he is an amalgamation of male-and-female.

Although I don’t agree with Weininger, I find it particularly interesting that I, as a Jewish male, am learning from the story of a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, Kant saw the novel as a kind of distraction and would likely associate it with the feminine.   Given this reading, I could say that as a Jewish male, I am being doubly distracted by her work from being autonomous. This book would, in Weininger and Kant’s view, only distract me from being autonomous and from guiding my life by reason.   However, in defiance of them, I would argue, as I have above, that this book provides us with a schlemiel education. It shows us the comical nature of having the other as a teacher. In involves us with an endless lesson.

Even though there is something laughable and even positive about this, there is also something very sad. The first words of the novel – in the prologue – show us a schlemiel-subject who is always-already in the midst of the question, which situates “the other as my teacher” and evokes questions about which ways of being one should, existentially, take on for oneself:

How should a person be?

For years and years I have asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too….But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose?  

All of these questions – and their possible answers – are at once comical and torturous. These are the questions of a woman-schlemiel named Sheila Heti who takes the other as her teacher.

(Sheila Heti is the sister of David Heti, a comedian Schlemiel Theory has written on recently.   To be sure, they have many interesting resonances as for as the schlemiel character goes.  In upcoming entries, I will dig into the details and travel with the stops, starts, pauses, false starts, and sudden turns in her novel. They all make up a “sample” of schlemiel education.)

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