The Postmodern Chelm, or The Artistic Community in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” – Part I

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I can remember the first time I ever heard a story about the Jewish fool otherwise known as a schlemiel.   What struck me about the story, when I first heard it (when I was six or seven years old), was that the schlemiel wasn’t an independent agent. He lived amidst other schlemiels – in a town called Chelm.   And the community, I believed, had something to do with his foolishness.   Years later, I looked deeper into the issue to discover that German-Jews often associated the schlemiel with the ghetto while Eastern European Jews associated the schlemiel with the shtetl. And while the German-Jews looked down on this community and its relationship, Eastern-European writers – like I.B. Singer, who translated the fools of Chelm stories into storybooks for children – had a more positive view. But regardless of the place and perspective, we see the same thing: schlemiels are, traditionally, found in communities. And even though the ghetto is gone and the shtetl – following the Holocaust -is a thing of the past, the schlemiel still lives on.   But, in it’s North American incarnation, it doesn’t always live on in a community of schlemiels. To be sure, we can see how the schlemiel lives on – all by himself – in urban settings – as in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant or Saul Bellow’s Herzog – or in rural settings – as in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (and in most of his short stories) or Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy.

At the outset of her book, How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti does something different. She situates Sheila, a female schlemiel, amongst a small community of schlemiel-artists.   What I like most about this is that Sheila is not the only “odd one out” – something we find in the above mentioned novels (save for The Assistant, in which Frank, the main character, slowly becomes a schlemiel; but, when he does, he does so alone, in the wake of Morris Bober’s death).   Woody Allen often situates himself as the only “odd one out,” too. For instance, in the film Annie Hall (1976), he presents himself, at the very beginning of the film, as the “odd one out.”

As far as schlemiel literature, film, and art goes, this is a novel move. It gives us a sense of what Sheila, the main character, shares with other artists. As I pointed out in my first blog entry on the book, Sheila, in the Prologue, states her purpose which is to figure out “how a person should be.” What’s interesting about the first chapter is that we learn that she is not alone. And the people she could take guidance from are, by and large, on the same journey as she is.   What makes this more interesting is the fact that half of the people she mentions, in this regard, have Jewish names. This suggests that she lives in half-an-artistic kind of shtetl. And that shtetl, so to speak, is in Toronto. The schlemiel lives on, albeit in an urban postmodern setting which adds new dimensions to this comic character.

The first Jewish name we see is in the title of the first chapter: “Sholem paints.” (Instead of the Hebrew transliteration, Shalom, we have the Yiddish one; moreover, one thinks of Sholem Aleichem when one sees this name.) The first words of the chapter tell us where we can find him, Sheila, and the other community members:

We were having brunch together. It was Sunday. I got there first, then Misha and Margaux arrived, then Sholem and his boyfriend, Jon. (11)

What’s most important to the narrator is how they feel about the space (“the diner”) which, she notes, had been “repainted” from “grease-splattered beige to a thickly pastel blue and had spray painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup”(11). This new décor “ruined the place somewhat.” And this spurs the theme of the first chapter which is ugliness, art, failure, and selfhood:

I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn’t enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn’t attracted to, Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home. (12)

Since all of them are artists (one is an actor, two are painters, and Shelia is a writer), one can assume that, at some level, they have had to deal with frustration, failure, and disappointment. Heti speaks to these issues directly in her descriptions of Sholem, Misha, and Margaux.   Each of these reflections dovetails into mediations on failure and they spur the idea to have an “Ugly Painting Competition” (this frames the beginning and the end of the novel, which is separated into acts of a play that Sheila never finishes; and although the novel is completed – and we are, to be sure, reading and interpreting the finished work – the fact of the matter is that a novel is not a play; failure, therefore, is built into the clash between the novel and it’s content). The turn to ugliness – in the midst of their conversation – is fascinating since it is an inversion of what artists are supposed to create; namely, beauty.   And this inversion exposes the other side of being an artist today which has much to do with things that are very ugly. What makes this most powerful, however, is that this is delivered in a comic manner, though a community of schlemiels who come up with the idea of an “Ugly Painting Competition”:

Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don’t remember, but once I got enthusiastic suddenly we all were. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I really hoped it would happen. I was curious to see what the results would be, and secretly envied them. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. I wanted to make an ugly painting – pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. (13)

This is, to be sure, the first activity in the Chelm-like community. And the enthusiasm for it betrays a deeper sadness in all of them. When Sholem, for instance, nearly finishes his ugly painting, he gets very depressed and anxious. Like a schlemiel, he bears witness to his failure:

Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged into despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone to the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. (14)

These are the types of reflections we also hear from Bernard Malamud’s Morris Bober. But Sholem’s comments are within a larger competition and community than Bober’s utterances of self-deprecation, failure, and suffering. Sholem, Misha, Margaux, and Sheila are all, as I will show in the next entries, engaging failure.

 

To be continued….

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