Blindness And Insight: From Paul and Augustine to Woody Allen’s “Anything Else” – Part I

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The movement from blindness to insight is a time honored theme. It has its roots in early Christianity and in the Enlightenment it becomes a guiding principle.   The Christian appropriation of blindness is fascinating. In Corinthians 2 (3:14-16), Paul associates blindness with the Jews and sight with the Christians:

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech – unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in their reading of the Old testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless, when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

Following these lines, Paul associates the vision of God seen by Christians with freedom:

Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image form glory to glory, just as in the Spirit of the Lord.

In other words, insight, which the Jews don’t have, is associated with “freedom.” Hence, if Jews lack insight, they are not just blind, they are servile to materiality (and not the Spirit). This bias finds its way from Paul to Augustine.

In Augustine’s Expositions on the Psalms, Augustine likens the Jews to a blind person who turns to a mirror:

The appearance of the Jews in the holy scripture which they carry is just like the face of a blind man in a mirror; he is seen by others, by himself not seen. “He hath given unto reproach those that trampled on me.”

Reading this, Jill Robbins, in her book Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Alterity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas, argues that the “reproach” of the Jews “consists (1) in their servitude, in their carrying a book they are unable to read because they fail to read figuratively…and (2) also in their self-concealment, their blindness, when they fail to recognize themselves as “the reproach” signified in the figural reading of the scriptural verse.” This suggests, jut like Paul, that the Christian has insight and freedom while the Jew is blind and servile.

The Enlightenment takes this metaphor on as well and situates the critic as a person who unmasks the truth and reveals it to the knowing rather than the faithful. This very same tradition is also taken by Karl Marx who was keen on disclosing the truths hidden by Capitalism. In his system, it would be the Proliteriate who would see the truth and lead the revolution as a result of their insight into what Capitalism had hidden from them.

The post-Enlightenment crowd, however, wasn’t too happy about the blindness/sight metaphor. For this reason, a deconstructive thinker like Paul deMan, in his essay “The Rhetoric of Blindness” argues that critics who claim to move from blindness to insight are blind to their own assumptions and in this blindness they, paradoxically, attain their greatest insight:

Critics’ moments of greatest blindness with regard to their own critical assumptions are also moments at which they achieve their greatest insight. Todorov correctly states that naïve and critical reading are in fact actual or potential forms of “ecriture” and, from the moment there is writing, the newly engendered text does not leave the original text untouched. Both texts can even enter conflict with each other. (109)

In other words, the critical text, without knowing it, doesn’t reveal the text it is examining so much as come into potential conflict with it because, as Todorov suggests, it is naïve and blind to its own assumptions.

But there is more to the story. The deconstructive critic, like a good writer, communicates a kind of blindness to his or her readers. Writing on Derrida, deMan argues that: “Lukacs, Blanchot, Poulet, and Derrida can be called “literary,” in the full sense of the term, because of their blindness, not in spite of it.”

DeMan, in distinction to Paul and Augustine, tells us that blindness is also passed on to the reader. The irony of his reading is that deMan, who is thought of by many (and for good reasons in his early work) as anti-Semitic is actually siding with the Jews that Augustine and Paul is rejecting. He, like Derrida, affirms a “literary” kind of blindness that doesn’t presume to have the “spirit” of the text. And it doesn’t presume to be free in the same way someone with insight considers him or herself to be free. The freedom of the text consists in a certain kind of blindness.

The theme of blindness and insight also makes its way into schlemiel film and literature where, oftentimes, a schlemiel is depicted as a Jewish character who fails to see what is front of him or her. And this blindness, like the blindness of Don Quixote in Western Literature, is not tragic, as it was for Augustine, so much as comical.   However, depending on your approach to blindness, it can be good or bad.

One can read oneself (as an audience member), via irony, as better than the character who cannot see. Or one can, alternatively, identify with the blindness and naivite of the schlemiel. The purpose of such an identification is to admit that there is a problem with society which is blind to the schlemiel’s goodness and not simply the blindness of the schlemiel to society. There is, in this scenario, a double blindness. This is more akin to the Eastern European reading of the schlemiel and has resonance with what deMan means by “literature.”

The German-Jewish reading of the schlemiel takes the opposite view and makes the schlemiel’s blindness into a figure that has more in common with Paul and Augustine.   Like a Christian looking at a Jewish reading of the “Old Testament,” it is something that one doesn’t want to do if one is to be “free” rather than servile to something old (or, in the case of German-Jewish schlemiels, servile to the pre-modern ways of the ghetto).

Early on in his career, Woody Allen clearly took to the schlemiel character. And in films like Annie Hall he decided to create a schlemiel character whose failures had a certain kind of charm. The theme of blindness and insight was not, to be sure, at the forefront of this or any of his films before it.   If anything, Alvy Singer’s awkwardness and failure are the main attraction.

Woody Allen’s Everything Else (2001) shows a different trend. In this film, he has a schlemiel character who explicitly moves from blindness to insight. Moreover, this movement is associated with becoming free and independent (which has echoes with Paul and Augustine) and not just the American spirit of self-reliance.

In this film, Allen plays a reformed schlemiel named David Dobel. He is a veteran comedy writer who, echoing his role in the film, happens to now be an acting teacher. Dobel’s primary role, however, is to play the teacher to Jason Biggs, who plays Jerry Falk – a young aspiring Jewish comedy writer whose biggest problem is that he’s vulnerable, too nice, and can’t say no.

While Dobel, his teacher, has insight into what’s in front of him and what not to do, Falk plays the role of the blind schlemiel who can’t see what’s in front of him and is often unable to act. Dobel’s role is to help Falk leave the schlemiel behind and become an independent agent; he does this by way of several conversations in or around Central Park. In these conversations, Dobel advises Falk. Dobel’s advice prompts the blinded, yes-saying schlemiel to say “no” and, as Allen believes, this magic word, when acted on, will transform the schlemiel into a man.

What makes Allen’s treatment of the schlemiel in this film so interesting is the fact that he shows the audience how, for us today, the schlemiel lives on. And, at the same time, he shows us why, in his opinion, this isn’t such a good thing. Biggs, not Allen, is the new schlemiel. However, Falk, the millennial schlemiel, must be taught how to not make the same mistakes as Allen’s generation of comedians; and for the Woody Allen who wrote and directed this film, one of the biggest mistakes was the adoption of the schlemiel as a model for Jewishness in America. The irony, of course, is that Allen created the problem; after all, he popularized the schlemiel in many of his films and especially in Annie Hall.   Now, in the role of teacher and in the wake of a career playing schlemiels, Allen, playing Dobel, realizes that Falk needs to be educated. He needs a comedic father-slash-teacher. And Dobel has the right to play this role since he has already gone through the process of playing the schlemiel and leaving the schlemiel behind.

His first words of advice and the last words of the film are the words of the film’s title. Instead of being blinded by astonishment (at being lied to, betrayed, or surprised) by things that seem to come out of nowhere one must simply admit that this or that shocking thing is just like “everything else”(a position Bertolt Brecht, in contrast to Walter Benjamin, believed was optimal). The meaning of these words and the attitude that go along with it inform the transformation of the schlemiel (a man-child) into an independent man. And we see this transformation slowly unfold throughout the film. Each major scene shows us how the schlemiel’s hesitations and attitude are eventually displaced by that magic word: no.

At the outset of the film, Doblin tells two jokes which situate him as Falk’s teacher and hit on what Allen understands as the key contrast between a man and a schlemiel:

You know there’s great wisdom in jokes. There’s an old joke about a prizefighter and he’s getting killed, he’s getting his brains beat out, and his mother’s in the audience, and she’s watching him getting beaten up in the ring. And there’s a priest next to her and she says, “Father…father…pray for him.” And the priest says, “I will pray for him but if he could punch it would help.” There’s more insight in that joke than in most books on philosophy.

The comparison of the joke’s wisdom to that of “books on philosophy” is by no means accidental. To be sure, Falk loves existential literature and philosophy. As Doblin understands it, most of these books make suffering, absurdity, and freedom into themes or ideas. While they are interesting, the person reading them, like the prizefighter who is loosing, could do a lot better if he knew how to punch. And this, for Doblin, hits on the problem with Falk’s version of the schlemiel: he doesn’t know how to punch and stand up for himself. Falk hides behind ideas and the book he is trying to write on existential themes. Doblin’s joke suggests that Falk takes the book (and existential ideas) so seriously that his will and autonomy suffers in the process.   To be free, one must act not think. And for this to happen, Doblin suggests that one must eliminate one’s blindness. One must recognize it and say no. We see this articulated in the second joke Doblin shares with Falk:

There is a seminal joke that Henny Youngman used to tell that is perfect…It sums it up perfectly as far as you go. Guy comes into a Doctor’s office and says, “Doc..Doc…it hurts when I do this.” (Dobel twists his hand.)   The Doctor says, “Don’t do it.” Think about that.

The irony of it all is that even though Doblin looks like a schlemiel, he portrays himself and acts like someone who knows how to punch. (He, in a sense, is, like his name, “doubling.”) He portrays himself as someone who can say no.   Falk, in his view, can do neither because, when he first meets Doblin, Falk doesn’t realize that he is blind to his condition; and for this reason, he can’t say no. And that is what, in Doblin’s eyes, makes Falk a schlemiel.

…to be continued….

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