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


Success and failure – winning and losing – define our lives and how we think of ourselves. But sometimes one blurs into the other. One of Bob Dylan’s most quoted lyrics – from his song “Love Minus Zero” – addresses the paradox of success and failure: “She knows there’s no success like failure and that failure is no success at all.” The fact of the matter is that in our culture success has an aesthetic that goes along with it: while success is deemed beautiful by our culture, failure is deemed to be ugly. Because they are poetic, these Dylan lyrics seem to give a kind of beauty to failure and brokenness. Outlining a similar paradox, but with respect to the work of Franz Kafka, the German-Jewish thinker and literary critic Walter Benjamin argued – in his essay on Kafka and in a letter to his dear friend Gershom Scholem – that the “beauty” of Kafka’s works was the “beauty of failure.” These words, to be sure, can be applied to the schlemiel: a comic character that lives under the sign of failure. The paradox of this character is that although s/he fails, his or her failure has a kind of beauty to it.   The beauty of this failure, strangely enough, gives the reader a broken kind of hope (but, at the very least, it is hope).   The schlemiel may fail in reality but in fiction he is a hero.


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In Sheila Heti’s postmodern Chelm, How Should a Person Be? which we discussed in the last blog entry, we can see that failure is shared by a few schlemiel-like artists and that their failure, because of its articulation in the fiction, has a certain kind of beauty.   It is appropriate that they are artists because if anyone could make failure beautiful they can.

At the outset of the novel, failure circles around the “Ugly Painting Contest.” In the last entry, I discussed Sholem’s sense of failure following his ugly painting.

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)

This failure is amplified by the uneasiness of the other visual artist, Margaux. Sheila, the narrator, shows us that this uneasiness was part and parcel of Margaux’s tormented relationship with art. In a way, she is ashamed of being an artist when she could very well be someone else and help the world in ways that an artist cannot:

Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, so worked doubly hared to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be…Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn’t trying to fix. And it embarrassed her when people remarked on her distinctive brushstrokes, or when people called her work beautiful, a word she claimed she could not understand. (17)

Sheila tells us that Margaux, though doubtful and even ashamed of being an artist, came back to the possibility that being an artist was a good thing when she talked with Eli: an artist who went through similar struggles, traveled back and forth from Toronto to LA, but who, in the end, took on art as his life purpose.   However, this didn’t last long:

But after two months, her art crush dematerialized: “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something,” she said. (17)

This kind of wavering can also be found in Misha who, though an actor, takes part in the contest. Sheila takes a walk with Misha, they talk about art, and we see that he too falls in and out of thoughts about failure. This emerges out of their conversation about Sholem and Margaux’s struggles with art and being artists. A lot of this, for Misha, has to do with taking risks and really being free instead of afraid:

“I don’t know,” he said, “But I do think Sholem has a fear of being bad, or of doing the wrong thing. …And if what you’re afraid of is to take a wrong step at any moment, in any direction, that can be limiting. It’s good for an artist to try things. It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous. Sholem should be a hippy, because with him there’s always a tremendous amount of caution.”(18)

Sheila, perhaps playing devil’s advocate, defends caution. And this pushes Misha to say that Sholem has a misconception of freedom while Margaux “understands freedom to be the freedom to take certain risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish. To not recognize that difference is a pretty bad thing”(19).

When Misha turns to himself as an example, however, his argument falls apart. He realizes that he has failed at being an actor. Reflecting on Misha’s “work life,” Sheila takes the reader into his failures by way of showing that, though he was free, there was no “structure or cohesion” to his life:

His work life was strange and I didn’t quite understand it, but neither did he, and it sometimes perplexed and saddened him. There seemed to be no structure or cohesion to it. Sometimes he taught improv class to nonactors…sometimes he hosted shows. There was no name you could give to it all. (19)

After Misha speaks, Sheila tells him her fears. And this leads him give the advice that only a Wise man from Chelm would give: “everyone should make the big mistakes” – that is, fail. And that’s good:

As we walked, I told Misha my fears. Then, after listening for a long while, he finally said: “The only thing I ever understood is that everyone should make the big mistakes.”(20)

Shiela takes his advice and adds the punch line. What she says, when she takes it, is a lot what Sendrl would say (perhaps in a broken and awkward transliteration of the Yiddish) to Benjamin the IIIrd in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s 19th century Yiddish novel: The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the IIIrd; namely, “I too” did what he did.

So I too took what he said to heart and got married. Three years later I was divorced. (20)

In other words, when one is an artist in Chelm (Toronto), one “too” should do what schlemiels do: make mistakes. But make them because that is the kind of person you should be.   Indeed, as per the title of Heti’s book (How Should a Person Be?), this is the answer to how a person – in Chelm – should be.   Perhaps this imperative, and the “big mistakes” that follow it, is a latter day (current) demonstration of the beauty of failure. Perhaps this imperative does poetic justice to the lives of people who want to be artists; people that wonder why they would want to be….artists.    It’s sad, but the way in which is it conveyed is charming….and funny

If and when I chuckle while reading Heti’s book, the only words to describe the kind of laugh I have would have to be broken laughter. This laughter shows me that the schlemiel lives on in a lady-schlemiel named Sheila Heti who belongs to a community of schlemiels – who all make “big mistakes.” And, if we want to be artists and follow our dreams, we should “too.”

But there’s one thing about Sheila that no one else knows. The question, however, is which “she,” the fictional Sheila Heti or the author Shelia Heti, knows. Bob Dylan may have the answer. But we don’t know who “she” is. One Sheila Heti may know, but the other may not:

“She knows there’s no success like failure and that failure is no success at all.”

Perhaps this double consciousness is what makes a schlemiel a schlemiel and the writer of the schlemiel…the writer. And perhaps this double consciousness is that of the Schlemiel….as Modern Artist who knows that there is no success like failure.

Failure – making “big mistakes…too” – may be no success at all. all of this…where is the thing Misha talked about above.  That thing called freedom?  Isn’t being free the true way a person should be?  Isn’t that the real success of (artistic) failure?







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