Why Do We Find Schlemiels So Charming? The Sexual Schlemiel and Freud’s Reading of Narcissism

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Schlemiels are sometimes described as “innocent” and “charming.” Hannah Arendt used these terms to describe Charlie Chaplin. And the scholar Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi uses these terms to describe different Yiddish characters in the novels of Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, and I.B. Singer.   Ezrahi, like Dan Miron, also points out that the first schlemiels of modern Yiddish literature (not folklore) – Benjamin and Senderl of Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Adventures and Travels of Benjamin the Third, are homoerotic. In a few points in the novel, Benjamin calls Senderl his wife.   This suggests that the character has a “feminine” character.

On the other hand, Philip Roth marks a shift in the schlemiel’s sexuality. Portnoy is sexually aggressive and sees himself, unlike his Yiddish compatriots, in negative terms vis-à-vis the Sabra (native born Israeli), Naomi in Portnoy’s Complaint.  His life is filled with masturbation, self-love, and loathing of those with power.  The Sabra, Naomi un-man’s him.  He is “Im-po-tent in Is-ra-el.”  In the wake of his impotence, he calls her names.  She tells him that his schlemiel humor is not “Jewish” humor – it is, rather,the humor of the ghetto.  She calls Portnoy a schlemiel.  And of all the names she calls him, this one puts him into place: he is a sexual schlemiel (in the negative sense).  But if he is impotent, reflects Roth, at least he has comedy.  He can compensate for the loss. 

In Eros and the Jews, David Biale takes notes of the shift in sexuality that we find in Roth’s Portnoy: “the image of the sexually and militarily potent Israel.”   And, coinciding with this, we have  that the image of the “impotent American Jew,” with predates this new opposition (born after 1967). However, the origins of what Biale calls the “sexual schlemiel” have deep roots.  They go through America and, as I have briefly noted above, find their way back to Yiddish literature:

The image of the sexually and militarily potent Israeli is a projection based on its opposite: the myth of impotent American Jew. The Jew as sexual schlemiel has its roots in the Yiddish theater of the Lower East Side of New York, in comedy of the borsht belt in the Catskill Mountains, and in the anti-heroes of fin de siecle Hebrew and Yiddish literature. (205)

But what makes the schlemiel charming is not its “impotence.”   In Yiddish literature, the schlemiel is not seen as impotent. He has a certain charm. It is in America that this impotence makes its debut.   However, in the case of Woody Allen (as opposed to Roth’s Portnoy) we don’t find virility or impotence. Biale says we find a “neutralization” of the stereotype that Jews are “hypersexual” (something we find in Roth’s work).   We find Allen’s sexuality to evince a kind of sexual “awkwardness” that has, in many ways, become a norm.

But what is meant by this awkwardness? And why do we find it so charming?

I’d like to venture a possibility: perhaps the schlemiel’s sexual charm has something to do with a kind of narcissism that we renounce; but, nonetheless, after renouncing, find it attractive in other people, animals, or things? This would be more of a Freudian thesis. I don’t fully agree with it, but it is worth considering for a moment.

In his essay “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” Freud suggests that people are attracted to a narcissism; they had to renounce “part of it” in order to live in society:

It seems very evident that one person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism…the charm of the a child lies to a great extent in his narcissism, his self-sufficiency and inaccessibility, just as the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey. In literature, indeed, even the great criminal and humorist compel our interest by narcissistic self-importance with which they manage to keep at arm’s length everything which would diminish the importance of their ego.

Perhaps we see this narcissism in characters like Larry David who, in Curb Your Enthusiasm. David likes to keep “at arm’s length” everything that would “diminish the importance” of his thoughts and perceptions. His looks of disgust, to be sure, have a certain kind of charm.   And his desire to keep and defend them create a kind of childishness and awkwardness vis-à-vis those around him. Freud would argue that we like it because we want some of that narcissism…which we “partially” renounced as we matured into adults.

But perhaps Biale is right and it is better for us to understand the sexual schlemiel and his or her charm through a cultural lens.  Woody Allen’s sexual schlemiel is much different from Roth’s…or Mendel Mocher Sforim’s.   And now lady-schlemiels are just as charming, perhaps, also, for culture reasons.  But isn’t narcissism always there, regardless?

To be continued….

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