The Medium is the Message: Marshall McLuhan on Media, Humor, and the Media Child


Marshall McLuhan, one of the main pioneers of media studies, is most famous for his expression “the medium is the message.”   His work, to be sure, is very difficult to comprehend.  One needs to have a wide grasp of the humanities to understand him.  To be sure, his writings on media are a combination of literary criticism, philosophy, and historicism.   Through them, he attempts understand and communicate the meaning of media. The result: a new idiom for media that is literary historical, and philosophical.  Reading him may be difficult, but it is a thrill.  One can feel his excitement over the power of media (TV, newspapers, radio, advertisements, Movies, telephones, etc) to transform life as we know it.

We can see that he is struggling to create a language with new idioms that can describe the transformations we, in our “media age,” are currently going through.  This struggle for find media idioms may still speak to us today; in many ways, he anticipated a world in which people would live most of their lives through electronic media. And he was right: we do.  In many ways, McLuhan anticipated Facebook and Twitter. He would see social media and its bringing of people together as an expression of what he called a “global village” – social media, more than TV, brings out what he was getting at by many of his idioms.  To many people, these new words, descriptions, and predictions seemed, utopian or even totalitarian.    For instance, the great American author Norman Mailer.  In this debate, he keeps a great distance from McLuhan and is apprehensive of the implications for humanity.  Mailer fears that what McLuhan speaks of is something much worse, something tragic: the end of humanity and something totalitarian.

Despite his differences from Mailer; he, like Mailer, appealed to an entire generation of youth in the 1960s.  McLuhan wanted to create a buzz of sorts around his ideas about media.  So, in order to make his concepts of accessible, McLuhan worked together with Quentin Fiore to create a text juxtaposed with collaged images that anyone could pick up, read, scan, feel, and understand how the medium is the message. This book, published in 1967, is entitled The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects.   (An audio version of the book also was circulated at the time; the correlation between the two, however, is complicated.)

What I find most striking about this little book (without page numbers) is the fact that it sees the subject of this new media transformation as a kind of man-child and it finds that the best medium for educating the man-child to be humor.

McLuhan begins by noting that our “anxiety” with the new age has to do with the fact that we are approaching the changes we are going through with the “wrong tools”:

Everything is changing – you, your family, your neighborhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to “the others.” And they’re changing dramatically…Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our “Age of Anxiety” is, in part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools – with yesterday’s concepts.

However, “youth instinctively understands the present environment – the electronic drama.” They understands everything in terms of “interfaces.” They also understand that education can longer be based on the previous educational system which was too “serious.” Today, in the media age, humor must be the new basis for education:

Our time presents a unique opportunity for learning by means of humor – a perceptive or incisive joke can be more meaningful than platitudes lying between two covers.

One needs to live in the “social drama” by way of the witty response which focuses on “means or processes rather than ‘substance’.”   And instead of the “family circle” or the school being the basis of education, “character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.” This last pun, playing on Shakespeare, indicates that our new kind of education is, because of the media “buzz”…everywhere.

Juxtaposing a picture of a young boy, McLuhan writes, in a section entitled “Your Neighborhood”: “you can’t go home again.” This section suggests that the child is, so to speak, abandoned to the endless time and space of the media. What is a child to do? Wouldn’t this provoke anxiety? What role does humor or wit play vis-à-vis this child’s new anxiety and homelessness?

Anticipating these questions, McLuhuan writes about “the child” of the past and compares it to “today’s child.”

The “child” is an invention of the seventeenth century; he did not exist in, say, Shakespeare’s day. He had, up until that time, been merged in the adult world and there was nothing that could be called childhood in our sense.

Today’s child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up. Growing up – this is our new work, and it is total. Mere instruction will not suffice.

What I find so fascinating about McLuhan’s comments about “today’s child” is the fact that he is describing a “man-child” of sorts (a schlemiel). His description rings an interesting note if it is juxtaposed to A.O. Scott’s recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “The End of Adulthood.”   As I noted in a blog on Scott’s article, Scott finds it nearly impossible –with the sheer amount of films, TV shows, and young adult fiction (read my people in their 30s and 40s – for us to “grow up.”   He sees this problem pronounced in Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow’s popular films. They pronounce the “end of adulthood” and a perpetual adolescence.

If anything, the last words of Scott’s article – “get off my lawn”- show us that he has no solution.

Does McLuhan?

At the very least, he says that “growing up” is our “new work, and it is total.” But, as we saw, this “growing up” has something to do with being witty and ready for anything that comes at one in this “social drama” otherwise known as the media age. However, since he can’t appeal to old models, its not certain what he means by “our work.” It’s as if we have to put the pieces together and in improvising this we will, somehow, “grow up.”

What he suggests, as a way of becoming mature, is a kind of understand of the world we are living in. His descriptions of how we have, because of media, become “responsible for each other” suggest this. We see this in a section entitled “the others.”

The shock of recognition! In an electronic information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained – ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.

This suggests that we recognize this “fact” and do something about it. However, there are many problems with this.   Many people may see the news about this or that oppressed group in the world by way of this or that facebook feed, or even by means of humorous media such as The Daily Show or the Colbert Report (amongst others), but who takes this seriously enough to “commit” oneself or “participate.” Do we feel “compelled” to do something by virtue of a facebook feed or comedy episode? What happens when there is media indifference? When there is too much media?

Perhaps it is the case that our inability to grow up (or rather our failure to do so), which Scott accuses us all of, has to do with the fact that though we feel responsible we don’t want to do anything. We’d rather not. After all, its easier to float around the media world which, more often than not, is full of humor.

Unlike Scott, who argued that feminism has something to do with the “end of adulthood,” McLuhan suggests that the process of media is responsible for the latest displacement of adulthood.   His answer is that we should respond to the media around us which “compels” us to “commit” ourselves and “participate.” Yet, somehow, this must be done with wit which, to his mind, is more mature than childish humor.

This opens up many questions as to the distinction between the two. At the very least, he sees humor as the primary modality today for learning and action. Scott seems to see humor as incompatible. What’s the difference?

…to be continued….

A Special Article for Berfrois: “On Innocence: Robin Williams and the Comedy of the ‘Little Man’


Today, a piece I recently wrote on Robin Williams entitled “On Innocence: Robin Williams and the Comedy of the ‘Little Man'” was published in Berforis, a wonderful Arts and Culture magazine.

Here’s the link to the article.  Take a look!

Freaks Like Us: In Memory of Eric the (Midget) Actor of the Howard Stern Rat Pack


I listened to Howard Stern on and off over the last ten years. Many of my close friends were avid listeners and they always made sure to let me know of something unusual about the show on this or that day.

One of the most interesting characters on the show, who I remember hearing on several occasions, was Eric the Midget (aka Eric the Actor). He would call in to the Howard Stern quite often.   He was a part of Stern’s “rat pack.” Howard, it seemed, was obsessed with Eric’s life and asked many questions about how Eric lived his life.

In many ways, one could argue that Stern’s interest in “Freaks” expressed his interest in what it means to be human and in-common. In fact, this kind of argument was made by Leslie Fiedler in his book by that name: Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self.

At the outset of his book, written in 1978, Fiedler points out that the word “freak” has gone from being a negative name to an “honorific title by the kind of physiologically normal but dissident young people who use hallucinogenic drugs and are otherwise known as “hippies,” “longhairs” and “heads.” Such young people – in an attempt to perhaps make clear that they have chosen rather than merely endured their status as Freaks – speak of “freaking out,” and, indeed, urge others to emulate them by means of drugs, music, diet, or excitement of gathering in crowds”(14).

However, Eric was a real midget. He didn’t choose to be a “freak.” And he didn’t think of himself as a “freak,” either. Howard treated him as he would treat many people on the show. And like Leslie Fiedler, Howard may have seen something in Eric that he saw hiding in himself. He identified with him although, in many ways, he tried to retain his distance.

At the end of the introductory chapter, Fiedler recalls his feelings, when he went to the “Circus World Museum” in “Baraboo, Wisconsin.” There he saw wax effigies of Freaks from the past: “Lionel the Lion-faced Man and Jo-Jo the Dogfaced Boy,” and the “Cardiff Giant.”

Confronting them, I could feel the final horror evoked by Freaks stir to life: a kind of vertigo like that experienced by Narcissus when he beheld his image in the reflecting waters and plunged to death. In joined twins the confusion of self and other, substance and shadow, ego and other, is more terrifyingly confounded than it is when the child first perceives face to face in the mirror an image moving as he moves, though clearly in another world. In that case, at least, there are only two participants; the perceiver and the perceived….so the distinction between the audience and exhibit, we and them, normal and Freak, is revealed as an illusion, desperately, perhaps even necessarily, defended, but untenable in the end. (36)

Given his final words, we can see that Fiedler would likely find the difference between himself and Eric effaced.  He would come to terms with the other.  But now…it’s too late.  And we must mourn our loss.

Eric died today at the age of 39.

To give you a sense of who he was and how Howard related to him, I’m going to post a few clips.

And here was a recent show….

As Fiedler might say, Eric was one of us, yet, at the same time, he wasn’t. This difference and its limits were traversed by Howard Stern for well over a decade. And we have yet to go through all of the footage and to figure out what happened and what this all means. Because of Stern, Eric the Midget (Eric the Actor) was heard by millions of listeners who otherwise wouldn’t give him a second glance on the street. He was on Stern right to the very end.  And Howard, ultimately, didn’t want to exploit him.  He wanted to make his life better and gave him the stardom that Andy Warhol believed all Americans deserve.

And now he’s gone.

From the Face-to-Face to the Interface: A Moment in Jean Baudrillard’s “America”


In our socially networked world, we are over saturated with information and images. We are bombarded and, in the midst of this, we seem to cobble together something of our own virtual bubble with icon-slash-friends who we share images, information, and identifications on a daily basis.   But, before this all become normal; it was called hyperreal. To be sure, Jean Baudrillard is most well known for his notion of the “hyperreal” which was popularized by his book, Simulations. In that book, published in 1983, he writes:

Abstraction today is no longer that of a map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – PRECESSION OF SIMULCURA – it is the map that engenders the territory….The desert of the real itself. (2)

As a part of his explanation of what this means, in “reality,” Baudrillard describes Disneyland, the American hallmark, as the prime example of the hyperreal. It is an “infantilized” world:

Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: Pirates, the Frontier, Future World, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious reveling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. (24)

Five years later, Baudrillard returns to his meditation on American as the center of the simulated world. He writes a book called America. In this book, Baudrillard goes deeper into the “desert of the real” than ever so as to provide his readers with a kind of journalistic account of his dissolution into a sea of relations. Everything, it seems, is caught up in virtual relations that are repeated in different series. Relations are altered and recycled.  Our lives are animated by them:

Sex, beach, and mountains. Sex and beach, beach and mountains. Mountains and sex. A few concepts. Sex and concepts. “Just a life.” Everything is destined to reappear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, women as the sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. Things seem to exist by virtue of this strange destiny.   You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world. (32)

Baudrillard dives into the experience of relation to argue that all relation, today, is nothing more than what he calls an “interface” or “interaction” which has “replaced face-to-face contact and action”:

This is a culture which sets up specialized institutes so that people’s bodies can come together and touch, and, at the same time, invents pans in which the water does not touch the bottom of the pan, which is made of a substance so homogenous, dry, and artificial that not a single drop sticks to it, just like those bodies intertwined in ‘feeling’ and therapeutic love, which do not touch – not even a moment. This is called interface or interaction. It has replaced face-to-face contact and action. (32)

Touching the other, in his view, is “interfacing with the other.” There is a kind of “communication” in which there isn’t any real “communication.” He calls this a “code of separation.” By way of this code, all everything has become information that “wormed its way into everything, like a phobic maniacal leitmotiv.”

One wonders how this anticipates facebook and twitter: mediums that “interface” different people who exchange information but never really touch.   And it does seem as if there is a code of separation which rules over all of our relations. Baudrillard laments this and mourns the death of the “face-to-face” contact and action.

The problem with this, of course, is that it suggests that all bodily relations are “interfaced.” This suggests that Levinas is wrong and that we cannot be “persecuted” or “traumatized” by the other. In this hyperreal world, we can interface with the other and keep our distance; we need not be obligated by them. The only thing that affects us is the information that passes through us and keeps us and all things separate.

The only reason we are concerned about our bodies is because “everyone is made to concentrate” on the body, “not as a source of pleasure,” but “as an object of frantic concern, in the obsessive fear of failure or substandard performance, a sing and an anticipation of death, that death which not one can any longer give a meaning, but which everyone knows has at all times to be prevented”(35).

Our main concern, therefore, is to preserve our bodies from death and to make them properly interface with other bodies. We are “into” things because we are a part of this or that circuit within which we function.   We are constantly maintaining a circuit. Do we fit in or are we “the odd one’s out?”

The comedy, it seems, for Baudrillard is not to be found save for the fact that we are caught up in too many surfaces and interfaces. We live for the ecstasy of the network. But we fear, too often, that we have missed our cue. As Paul Celan says in one poem, we are adrift in a sea of relations.   And these relations often blur into each other making our relations more confusing.

For Baudrillard this can only go in one direction: toward a kind of Apocolypse of all history and all meaning. This is the fatalist reading. And it all starts in Disneyland where we all become infantile and, for Baudrillard, where we lose all sense of an adulthood that once was. In his world, the Levinasian face-to-face is a thing of the past. In the hyperreal, we all become children who know only interfaces and not faces.

The Flash of Comic Illumination: Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and the Witz


One of the most interesting confluences between German Romantic conceptions of humor and a certain thread of Jewish-German Philosophy is the obsession with time, immediacy, and illumination. The two seem like odd bedfellows since, after all, religion is a serious affair and humor, as a matter of course, is not.   The witz, like revelation, is a surprise. And, like a comedic audience, the religious community must be ready for the lightning delivery. Illumination is the punch line.

In an essay on the German Romantics obsession with the Witz (the joke), Jean-Luc Nancy points out, for them, the speed of the joke and its immediacy are central to its affect. According to Nancy, they shared this interest with Shakespeare:

Since Shakespeare’s famous “maxim” in Hamlet (constantly repeated by Freud), “brevity is the soul of wit,” the only “genre” or the only “form” always recognized as the property of Witz, as peculiar to all Witz, is succinctness, the swiftness of the utterance that carries the point.   The Romantics were to express it by means of the much reiterated German Witz: Witz ist ein Blitz; wit is a flash of lighting. Flash, lightning, explosion are the forms of the cogito’s double insofar as it is instantaneous. (263, The Birth of Presence)

Franz Rosenzweig, in The Star of Redemption, often talks about Revelation in terms of immediacy and suddenness. God’s command to Love Him is an act of urgency and immediacy and it gives birth to the soul. It is born out of its immediate response to its Creator which calls on man to respond to His call.

In an essay entitled, “Renaissance of Jewish Learning and Living,” Rosenzweig relates this sense of immediacy to readiness and confidence vis-à-vis any possible religious experience. To be Jewish, according to Rozenzweig, is to be ready or, as he says, “confident”:

There is one recipe alone that can make a person Jewish and hence – because he is a Jew and destined to a Jewish life – a full human being: that recipe is to have no recipe…Our fathers had a beautiful word for it that says everything: confidence.

Confidence is the word for the state of readiness that does not ask for recipes, and does not mouth perpetually, “What shall I do then?” and “How can I do that?” Confidence is not afraid of the day after tomorrow. It lives in the present, it crosses recklessly the threshold leading from today to tomorrow. Confidence knows only that which is nearest and therefore it possesses the whole…Thus the Jewish individual needs nothing but readiness. Those who would help him can give him empty forms of preparedness, which he himself and only he may fill. (223)

Martin Buber, in several of his essays on the Torah, echoes this imperative to be ready. He calls it the “demand of the hour.” And one must be ready to hear it and respond to it. In an essay entitled “Prophesy, Apocalyptic, Historical Hour,” he writes:

What is possible in a certain hour and what is impossible cannot be adequately ascertained by any foreknowledge. It goes without saying that, in the one sphere as in the other, one must start at any given time from the nature of the situation insofar as it is recognizable. But one does not learn the measure and limit of what is attainable in a desired direction otherwise than through going in this direction. (186)

Buber adds that “room must be left for such surprises….planning as though they were impossible renders them impossible. One cannot strive for immediacy, but one can hold oneself free and open for it.”

In other words, a Jew must always be ready for surprises. One must be prepared.

In an essay entitled “The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,” he delves deeply into the meaning of “the hour” with an audience that is not familiar with the relationship of Revelation, Creation, and Redemption to the Torah. To give them an idea, he takes them through a guided meditation of sorts:

The lived moment leads directly to the knowledge of revelation, and thinking about birth leads indirectly to the knowledge of creation. But in his personal life probably not one of us will taste the essence of redemption before his last hour. And yet here, too, there is an approach. It is dark and silent and cannot be indicated by any means, save by my asking you to recall your own dark and silent hours. I mean those hours in the lowest depths when our soul hovers over the frail trap door which, at the very next instant, may send us down into destruction, madness, and suicide at our own verdict. Indeed, we are astonished that it has not opened up until now. But suddenly we feel a touch as of a hand, to let us draw up out of the darkness. This is redemption.

Buber and Rosenzweig’s obsession with immediateness and being ready suggests that we be ready for a surprising Blitz-of-illumination. And in a sense the comedian, like a prophet of sorts, must also be ready to not just deliver a joke at lightening speed but for an explosion of humor. As Nancy suggests in his reading of the German Romantic concept of the Witz, there is a kind of immediacy that humor shares with mysticism. In the wake of reading Nancy, when I read these lines from Buber and Rosenzweig, I could not help but think that they want everyone to be ready for the Witz.

But there is a difference.

For them the Witz is a spiritual Blitz, not a secular one, as it is for the comedian. Perhaps comedy, for the German Romatnics, offered what Benjamin would call a profane illumination….in the Blitz of the Witz? To be sure, Benjamin, following Charles Baudeliare, would call that the “experience of shock.” Moreover, Benjamin, at the end of an essay on Surrealism spells out the relation of Revelation to time when he argues that experience today, if it is to be revolutionary, must be a like a clock whose alarm goes off every second.

The only problem with this, however, is that it leaves no time for the delivery of the joke. It may be fast but it takes time to reach the audience. Immediacy needs mediacy. The Blitz needs the Witz. And whether it’s the Jewish-German Philosophical approach to Revelation or the German Romantic approach to comedy it seems that both believe the audience needs to be ready for surprises. And, as Rosenzweig and Buber seem to have believed, that’s the crux of being Jewish.

The “Zero Point” of “Madness” and “Monstrosity” or The American Philosophical Ramblings from the 1990s – APR90s


There’s nothing like a simple sentence and a simple message.

And then again, some people love to be obtuse. When we let them, some people just don’t know when to stop. People like to yap; especially academics.

Once in a while, I dare myself to open up a book from the 1990s by this or that thinker who wanted to write like Jacques Derrida. I knew a few of them. They wanted to write and speak like him but, since they were American, they wanted to be daring and mimic him with an American accent. What would sometimes happen, however, was a language that went on and on without style – in short, American Philosophical Ramblings from the 1990s – APR90s.

Don’t get me wrong. The content is interesting and worthy of discussion, but the rhetoric destroys it all. And, the blindness of the writer to the train-wreck makes it…comical

Here’s one. To protect the innocent, I won’t say who the professor was:

I am not happy that mythmaking serves the machinations of power and money; but I know that myths challenge each other for domination and that we suffer in the present not because we tell stories about the world but because one story – the story that says capitalism and the market are the answers to all problems that matter – has enervating our storymaking and mythmaking talents.   It has, in fact, done what all myths are designed but seldom do: Convince us that it is not an intellectual totem but a testament to the essential truth and reality of things, and that what opposes this reality and truth is always the work of spin doctors and Hollywood producers hired to make us believe in “make believe.”

Here’s another sample from another author. He writes on madness, not in a mad way, but in a note-taking kind of way. He write-jots. And, after a while, this rambles. (Don’t get me wrong though, I love madness just like anyone else, but what happens when madness is communicated by way of the write-jot?

The relation of madness to reason seems one of oppositions, at least in Descartes; against the plain truth of facts, “they” persist in their follow; madness against reason. We equate madness with unreason even as reason evinces its own madness. This madness, belonging to reason, seems worlds apart from madness “itself,” though Foucault speaks of such a madness, of a madness “before” reason’s regulation: “We must try to return, in history, to that zero point in the course of madness in which madness is an undifferentiated experience, a not yet divided experience of division itself”(Madness and Civilization, p. ix). How, Derrida asks, may we confront this “zero point” of madness, madness itself? How can we think this zero as a confrontation with madness, with its monstrosity, represent our greatest achievement, however, impossibly.

Do we, in reading this write-jot, experience the “zero-point” of “madness” and “monstrosity”?

I can’t read this without smirking. It’s as if he’s saying: this is madness, this is, monstrosity, it “represents our greatest achievement.” But, as he asks, how can we think of this as “our greatest achievement?” That’s the irony. It’s ridiculous to believe that this rambling, this monstrosity, which can’t, ultimately be named, but jot-sketched, is our “greatest achievement.”

And perhaps this is the “doubleness” that Paul deMan saw at the heart of irony: the “irony of ironies” which effaces intersubjectivity and subjectivity and leaves you with “nothing” and a “consciousness of madness.”

And, as deMan well-knew, this consiousness is the conscisousness of one’s blindness to what one says. But the true point of doubleness and the irony is to the following distinction: To say and not hear what one is saying is to be comical. But to know and hear that it is a meaningless rambling is….tragic. For deMan, it is “the consciousness of madness.” It is, literally, for him, the “zero point.”

I’m not so sure these APR90s knew this. But, I may be wrong. Maybe they knew that they were rambling off monstrosity which, of course, cannot be thought. But can it be said?

The only way to know is to ramble on, and as you ramble, who knows, maybe you can experience the “Zero point” of “madness” and “monstrocity.” Now: is that funny or what?

Nu…It’s Quiz Time! Which Yiddish Word Describes Your Personality? Schlemiel?


When it comes to quizzes on facebook, I often pass them by. But I’ll have to admit that I came across a recent facebook quiz that drew my attention. While I’m not interested in what philosopher, artist, or actor I most resemble, I am interested in a kind of quiz that would let me know whether or not I’m a schlemiel. In fact, I’ve always been interested in whether I or any of my friends would be dubbed a schlemiel. I’m not alone, however, in my interest. To be sure, when I tell people that I write on the schlemiel, they often do three things: 1) they ask for a definition of the schlemiel; 2) they ask me if I’m a schlemiel; and then they ask me if 3) they are schlemiels.   In a sense, I am the one who is often asked to give a quiz on the schlemiel the minute I’m asked about what I do.

For this reason, I was happy to see this quiz which has the tagline: “Which Yiddish Word Describes Your Personality?” It’s not exactly a schlemiel quiz, but it prompted me to wonder whether or not the quiz would tell me that my Yiddish word is “schlemiel.”

When I took the quiz, I could see that there may be a pattern of answers that would lead it to dub a person a schlemiel. I saw questions that asked what kind of film I liked most, so I chose “Annie Hall.” When it gave me several options as to what Jewish comic character I identified most with (and most of the characters are from Seinfeld) I chose George, the prototypical schlemiel of the show. Moreover, I chose things that I thought a schlemiel would choose.

But in the end, to my chagrin, I learned that the word that best fit me was…mensch.

However, is it really so bad to be a mentsch? I wondered what I had done wrong, after all, I am a schlemiel theorist. What went wrong?

Before I could formulate an answer, one of my facebook friends wrote something that I found to be very insightful about me and my desire to be identified as a schlemiel:

“What kind of schlemiel wants to be a recognized as a schlemiel? A mentsch.”

The way I read this witty observation is that it says a lot for humility. In fact, that makes sense when we are talking about schlemiels in the Yiddish tradition. Most of them don’t think of themselves as schlemiels and many of them, because they are so sincere and caring, are like mentsches.

Daniel Boyarin, in his book Unheroic Conduct: The Invention of the Jewish Male, suggests that a mentsch is simply an effeminate male who cares for and often takes care of others before he or she takes care of him or herself. This sounds a lot like I.B. Singer’s proto-schlemiel, Gimpel. He trusts people and wants to help them. But he is betrayed. Perhaps the only difference between Boyarin’s ideal mentsch and Singer’s schlemiel is that Singer knew full well – in the wake of the Holocaust – that in a world filled with evil and deception, maybe the mentsch is the real schlemiel.   And the irony is that we need to change, not the schlemiel.

That said, this schlemiel-want-to-be-who-may-really-be-a-mentsch would love to find out if anyone who has read this post and taken this test has been dubbed a “schlemiel.” If so, let schlemiel theory know.

We’d like to find out, by way of trial and error, what magic combination of choices will yield a schlemiel. Please let me know! Have fun!

Here’s the link: