Anything Can Happen: Progress, Pessimism, and Stephane Moses on “The Time of Possibles”


I was raised in small town America. My family, my teachers, and my coaches always encouraged me to think in terms of progress. To be sure, my experience is not unique. Built in to American life is the belief that things can only get better; progress is inevitable. However, I also remember learning that in life anything is possible. Life is full of possibilities and I should believe that anything can happen for the better and for the worse. Judaism integrates both ideas. There is a movement towards a Messianic end, but it doesn’t seem to happen in a progressive sense. Gershom Scholem, in his discussion of the Messianic, points out that, for the Utopian/Apocolyptic thinkers, the Messianic moment will, necessarily, come as a surprise. It is, as he notes, an irruption into history. And by history, he means an understanding of history that puts progress at its core.

In his book, The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem, Stephane Moses looks into how three Jewish-German thinkers, between the two World Wars – Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem – made it one of their main tasks to introduce an account of Jewish, Messianic time that would challenge the Western notion of history and progress. The purpose of this conception of time – which Moses calls a “time of possibles” – is to prompt us to think differently about our existential relationship to time. By putting more emphasis on the moment, with all of its possibilities, our sense of time, selfhood, and relationship change radically.

Moses points out how all three thinkers “presented a radical critique of historical Reason and its axioms: the idea of continuity, the idea of causality, and the idea of progress”(10). He dubs the latter an “optimistic vision of history conceived as a permanent march toward the final realization of humanity”(10). Using this term, one wonders whether the three thinkers reading of time is “pessimistic.”     After all, if history is not going toward an end and if, as he argues, in their work “the absurdity of every theodicy imminent in history is proclaimed,” what is left over in the wake of their critique?

Moses points out that their thinking emerged in the “face of human suffering.”   They realized that “past suffering is not abolished even by a triumphant future, which claims to give them (these moment of suffering in history) meaning”(11). This would suggest that the remnant of this view would be a view of life as immense irredeemable suffering.

However, even though this view would expose us to such suffering and a “direct experience of historical time perceived in the qualitative difference of each instance,” it “also opens toward a multiplicity of possible futures.”   Now, from the present, “many divergent paths can lead to different futures” and this, suggests Moses, should give us hope.   However, the hope is limited because the future is unpredictable.

Although Moses notes that this reading of time “could” lead them to a “pessimistic conception of history,” Moses goes on to note how it didn’t. They all decided to bank on hope: “Yet, for Rosenzweig, as for Benjamin and Scholem, the end of belief in a meaning of history did not involve abolishing the idea of hope”(12).  This belief opens itself up to the “advent” of “utopia” at “each moment in time.”

He calls this model, which they all share, a “model of a random time” wherein the “immanent realization of the ideal becomes conceivable again.”   However, as Moses notes, the Messianic, whenever it entered into history “ended in bitterness and frustration.” In this aside, I think there is a problem that Moses overlooks: what if the “advent” of the ideal seems immanent and people grab hold of it only to find that it fails? Won’t they go from having a view of time hinged in hope to one hinged in pessimism?

Should we, rather, in the spirit of the Jewish tradition, wait for the Messianic moment rather than force it? But what does it mean that we seize on to such an advent once it, apparently, comes?

The interesting thing is that these advents come across as “ruptures” in the history of progress which, one can imagine, create crisis, fear, and pessimism not, by and large, hope in new futures and a “new time of possibles.” What interests me most, in relation to these times of possibles, is the question of how to interpret them and relate to their advent. Simply thinking about them, in the general sense suggested by Moses – by way of Rosenzweig, Scholem, and Benjamin – is not enough.

Since I am very interested in the philosophy of comedy and its relation to Jewish idea of time and timing, this Moses’ reflections take on another dimension for me. Because, as many Jewish comedians know, what happens…happens and when a comedian has a moment open up he or she needs to figure out how to work with it.

To be sure, Jews have, throughout history, maintained what Moses calls the “time of the possible.” And have always been looking for the moment when an advent would open up a new future for the Jews. However, Jews have also learned to be careful about such moments. Relating to history and its interruptions creates a complex response for Jews – it always has – the question is always whether a moment is at hand or the effacement of possibility.   Reading Moses against the grain, I’d suggest a reading of the advent in terms of a pessimistic and optimistic relation to history since the Utopian relation is something that Jews have become very careful about due to the lessons of living under Pogroms, the Holocaust, and centuries of religious hatred and anti-semitism. Jewish comedy, with its bittersweet moments, has this awareness built in.

As Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel – Motl, The Cantor’s Son – notes, after he hears of his father’s passing – a time when the future opens up to him:

Never do I remember being as special as I am now. Why am I so special? My father Peysi the cantor, as you know, died on the first day of Shevuos, and I was left an orphan.

This rupture is bittersweet. It is a day when he is “special,” more special than ever; but what makes him special is that he is an orphan.

What Happens When An Idiot Reflects on a Beheading: On Dostoevsky’s Reading of the Death Sentence and Certain Death in “The Idiot”


We can have little doubt that most Yiddish writers read The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. And it is odd that, up until now, few schlemiel theorists have looked into the parallels between Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin (“the idiot”) and the schlemiel (which we find in writers like Mendel Mocher Sforim, I.L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem).   The only schlemiel theorist to suggest a relationship between the schlemiel and anything Russian is Sanford Pinsker, in The Schlemiel as Metaphor.   However, he doesn’t mention the link vis-à-vis Russian literature so much as Russian folklore. And he does so in passing.

What I would like to do, in a preliminary manner, is read Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin against different schlemiel characters.   One odd scene in his novel, in which there are no parallels in Yiddish literature, is Prince Myshkin’s recounting of a beheading. In contrast to Sholem Aleichem’s portrayal of death, as apprehended by Motl (in his last novel Motl, the Cantor’s Son), Dostoevsky’s portrayal has more depth and pathos. Aleichem stays on the surface, Dostoevsky does not. Dostoevsky’s character has insight into death, while Aleichem’s character does not.

Although Prince Myshkin is absent minded and simple, when it comes to death something else emerges. At the outset of the book, Prince Myshkin recounts a beheading to the secretary of a General he is visiting.   He comes upon this subject when the secretary asks him about Switzerland, where the Prince (like Dostoevsky himself) had spent some time in before returning to Russia. The conversation turns toward the topic of capital punishment. The secretary notes that Russia doesn’t have capital punishment (which, the commentators note, was false and there are different ideas as to why Dostoevsky would write this).   Prince Myshkin says, however, that he witnessed capital punishment in France; namely, beheading: “In France they always cut their heads off”(22).   The secretary, astonished, asks about whether they scream and the Prince gives a description to illustrate how they don’t even have time to “scream”:

“Hardly! It’s instantaneous. The man is laid down, and a broad knife drops, it’s a special machine called a guillotine, heavy, powerful…The head bounces off before you can blink an eye. The preparations are the bad part. When they read the sentence, get everything ready, tie him up, lead him to the scaffold, then it’s terrible! People gather, even women, though they don’t like women to watch”(22).

Myshkin, who in the novel is recognized for his talent of drawing portraits, descries the face of the dying man in detail and, with acute precision, shows that he thinks of deep philosophical questions about death. He relates them all back to the commandment “do not kill” and shows us that he is truly puzzled by the act of murder by way of guillotine. It gives him a taste of fear, an experience that is, for him, alien since it is contrary to his innocence and trust. It is a discovery:

“And I tell you, believe it or not, he wept as he climbed the scaffold, white as paper. Is it possible? Isn’t it terrible? Do people weep from fear? I never thought it was possible for a man who has never wept, for a man of forty-five, not a child, to weep from fear! What happens at that moment with the soul, what convulsions is it driven to? It’s an outrage on the soul, and nothing more! It’s said, “Do not Kill.” So he killed, and then they kill him? No, that’s impossible.”

The biggest discovery, however, is that something is done that is “impossible”; namely, that a person is killed for killing.   As the prince speaks, the narrator tells us that he “grew animated” and “a slight flush came to his face.” The secretary looks now at Prince Myshkin and wonders whether the Prince is really an idiot; “perhaps he, too, was a man of imagination and an inclination to thinking”(23). This possibility suggests that the idiot and the thinker – who reflects on death and justice – are opposites.

When the secretary observes that “It’s a good thing there’s not much suffering…when the head flies off”(23), the Prince replies with a distinction between “certain” death (by the “death sentence” and guillotine) and “hope.”

“Think: if there’s torture, for instance, then there’s suffering, wounds, bodily pain, and it means that all that distracts you from inner torment, so that you only suffer from the wounds until you die. And yet the chief, the strongest pain may not be in the wounds, but in knowing for certain that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this second – your soul will fly out of your body and you’ll no longer be a man, and its’ for certain – the main thing is that it’s for certain.” (23)

Certain death is the worst kind of death since one is forced to know it; in contrast, uncertain death is better:

“To be killed by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than to be killed by robbers, stabbed at night, in the forest or however, certainly he hopes he’ll be saved til the very last minute. There have been examples when a man’s throat has already been cut, and he still hopes, or flees, or pleads.”(23)

Myshkin tells us that the “death sentence” is too much for the mind.   It drives it mad and deprives man of his humanity. But this isn’t his idea. He evokes Christ as the source of this distinction: “Christ spoke of this suffering and horror. No you can’t treat a man like that!” And this reference makes sense since Dostoevsky, in a letter to his niece, made it know that he wanted to create a comic character whose beauty was modeled on Christ.

However, in lines like these, one doesn’t find comedy so much as a seriousness that is rooted in a deep understanding of suffering. Aleichem’s Motl, in contrast, is not a portraitist; he is a caricaturist. His father’s death is distant from him. He can’t understand it. Perhaps the difference between Aleichem and Dostoevsky’s approaches to death, via the fool, is that Aleichem is more interested in maintaining an ironic relation to death while Dostoevsky is not. By doing this, Aleichem creates a comic ambivalence about the schlemiel that Dostoevsky does not with the idiot.   There is a tension between hope and skepticism in Aleichem gesture. Moreover, Irving Howe tells us – by way of Saul Bellow – that in Aleichem there the laughter we have at Aleichem’s Motl cannot displace the tears felt by Aleichem’s readership who all knew suffering intimately. Who had survived Pogroms and violence.   The relationship with suffering, via the schlemiel, is different.   Dan Miron suggests that this relationship is different because Motl is a figure of a progressive Jewishness that wants to leave a dying Europe behind for America, the land of discovery.   In America, he doesn’t discover the “death sentence” or “beheading.” And unlike Prince Myshkin who, in Russia, discovers that the fool is the target of society, Motl, in America, discovers life and hope.

The One Who Promises and The One Who Would Rather Not: On Nietzsche, Debt, and “The Dude” – Part I


Debt. We all have it. It’s overwhelming. And when we think of debt we, without a doubt, feel powerless. Countless films and TV shows have been and are casting characters who, in debt, become slackers or else criminals. There are two options: rebel against the system that creates debt – screw it over or destroy it – or just stop caring. For instance, the Dude, of the Big Lubowski, has decided to just stop caring. He is outside debt.   And he doesn’t look to make any promises. If we look at the Dude’s gestures and what “happens” to him, we can find something that speaks to being a little guy in a big system…of promises (any system: of language, society, culture, religion).   Since the Dude doesn’t really care about the past or the future, doesn’t want to make any promises, and, because he is chilling out and doesn’t invest too much in his will, he is a caricature of what Friedrich Nietzsche would call “active forgetfulness.”

To close the doors and windows of consciousness for a time; to remain undisturbed by the noise and struggle of our underworld of utility organs working with and against one another; a little quietness, a little tabula rasa of the consciousness, to make room for new things, above all for nobler functionaries, for regulation, foresight, premeditation (for our organism is an oligarchy) – that is the purpose of active forgetfulness. (57, Genealogy)

Does the Dude, “close the doors and windows of consciousness for a time” so as to make room for better things? And is he interested in making room for new things such as “regulation, foresight, and premeditation”? The Dude doesn’t have such a will and, as we can see in the film, has no interest whatsoever in “regulation, foresight, and premeditation.”

Nietzsche sees this act of “closing the windows” as a part of “active forgetfulness.” It hinging on to a “memory of the will.” The memory is active and decisive.

Now this animal which needs to be forgetful, in which forgetting represents a force, a form of robust health, has bred in itself the opposing faculty, a memory…the memory of the will.

The purpose of this “memory of the will” is to will in such a way that “strange things” can possibly happen. Nietzsche spells  this out in the most prophetic and ecstatic manner:

So that between the original “I will”, “I shall do this” and the actual discharge of the will, its act, a world of strange new things, circumstances, even acts of will may be interposed without breaking this long chain of will. But how many things this presupposes!

This is the embrace of “strange new things” that are promised, that are “presupposed,” by “active forgetfulness” and “the memory of the will.” Nietzsche thrives in this moment of simultaneous forgetfulness and memory, which, discloses what is primary: the relation of the will to diverse and strange worlds and possibilities. Since it relates to the future, it is a prophetic moment:

To ordain the future in advance in this way, man must first have learned to distinguish necessary events from chance ones, to think causally, to see and anticipate distant eventualities as if they belonged to the present, to decide with certainty what is the goal and what the means to it, and in general be able to calculate and compute. (58)

In this prophetic kind of statement, Nietzsche is describing the will as “decisive” and “certain.” It is based on seeing and anticipating “distant eventualities as if they belonged to the present.” This, it seems, is the will of science which looks to “calculate and compute” the future. Nietzsche, in embracing this kind of will, is suggesting not just a discovery of “strange worlds” but also the act of anticipating of them. Nietzsche speaks of this as one would speak of a commandment. He uses the words of necessity:

Man himself must first of all become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does! (58)

Nietzsche calls on the “one who promises,” the “individual” to stand up. The Dude doesn’t make any promises. And if he did, The Dude forgot he made them. And, whether he wills it or not, he lives in “strange worlds.” He is thrown into them. They aren’t an act of the will. Someone else’s promises landed him in one crazy situation after another. He is not the one who makes promises. He’s “The Dude.”

With the Dude, things happen.

Bored Out of My Mind: Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire’s Reflections on Boredom, Art, and Experience


The relationship of boredom to art, entertainment, and modernity is a topic of interest to great thinkers and writers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin. For all of them, boredom is something that is born out of modernity. In many ways it is something that passes on from the aristocracy to the emerging “petit bourgeoisie.”   Karl Marx, who coined the term “petit bourgeoisie,” thought of boredom in a very negative manner. Mockingly taking a jab at GWF Hegel, he argued that “insofar as abstraction comprehends itself it is seized by an infinite boredom.”   Indeed, the highest exercise of thought is, for Marx, informed by boredom. His counter-argument to Hegel, in many ways, aims to somehow eliminate it.   But he was not alone in his distaste for this modern phenomenon. He was interested in how it affected thought and the apprehension of class difference. But thinkers and writers like Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, and Benjamin were interested in how it effected experience, literature, art, and poetry. While Kierkegaard and Baudelaire had a negative attitude towards boredom and its relationship to literature, Walter Benjamin had a more positive attitude.

In his exceptional allegory, “A Heroic Death,” Charles Baudelaire pits the artist (mime) against a Prince. He is, to be sure, the court jester. Both of them are, as we learn at the beginning, “almost friends.” However, in truth, the Prince is not an entertainer, he is an artist. But the narrator calls both of them “artists.” Obviously, the reader wonders why the Prince, a consumer of art, would be called an artist by the narrator. After all, consumers don’t produce art. They consume it. However, in suggesting that the Prince’s “worst enemy is boredom,” and that he would do anything to “eliminate it,” the narrator suggests that the Prince’s art is the art of pleasure.

From the narrator, we learn that the jester involved himself, unthinkingly, in a plot to overthrow the Prince. When the Prince finds out, he doesn’t kill him…directly. Rather, the narrator suggests that in making the jester perform, the Prince is really out to end his boredom. As a result, he performs an “experiment” on the jester so as to see what will happen when he is under pressure. This experiment is much like what we find on reality TV today. However, the narrator – and Baudelaire – is shocked by this since, in the end, the Prince, in feeling that the jester has too much power because he enraptured his audience, decides to indirectly kill him. In other words, for Baudelaire, Boredom kills. And the art of ending boredom is ultimately violent and to the detriment of the artist. Boredom doesn’t produce great art; it destroys it.

Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, also expresses a disdain for Boredom.   It is the root of not just all modern evil but evil throughout history: “What wonder, then, that the world goes from bad to worse, and that its evils increase more and more, as boredom increases, and boredom is the root of all evil” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 22).

To illustrate this, Kierkegaard goes through history, starting with the Bible, and argues how nearly every major evil was caused, in some fashion, by boredom.  Kierkegaard states as his universal proposition that “all men are bores” and launches into an interesting rant on boredom which tries to fit in as many particulars as possible within this category:

It may as well indicate a man who bores others as one who bores himself.  Those who bore others are the mob, the crowd, the infinite multitude of men in general.   Those who bore themselves are the elect, the aristocracy; and it is a curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others (24).

In contrast to Baudelaire and Kierkegaard, Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Storyteller,” argues that Boredom has a positive relationship with literature and, in fact, can be drawn on as the basis for what he calls “experience.” He argues that if a writer or storyteller is going to have an effect on his or her listeners then they must appeal to the memory of the listener and this requires time and what he calls “relaxation.” Without “relaxation,” the reader won’t be able to “assimilate anything.” Boredom, he argues, is a modern equivalent of such relaxation:

This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a stage of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling of the leaves drives it away. (91, Illuminations)

Benjamin laments that “his nesting places” are “already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well.” In other words, people and cities and in the country are no longer bored, at least in the sense that Benjamin suggests. And when boredom disappears, “the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears.”

Reading this, one wonders if Benjamin and Baudelaire are talking about the same kind of boredom. To be sure, the boredom of the Prince is an allegorical figure for the boredom that would drive us to watch Reality TV, buy iPads, etc. However, Benjamin’s sense of boredom is one that goes hand in hand with patience, not speed. The bored individual, today, is anxious and wants to get rid of that feeling. Much like the Prince, they don’t have time to listen. Boredom, as Benjamin thinks of it, requires a different sense of time.

Questions for Benjamin: Why isn’t literature or a three hour movie a space that preserves boredom?   Don’t we still find time for reflection? And can’t we still have experiences? Or is our development to jagged and sporadic? Is the other kind of boredom leading us astray? Are we, as Baudelaire says, in his poem, “To the reader,” “hypocrites” because our desire for poetry or literature is based, ultimately, on boredom?  Are we so bored out of our minds that even if we think of ourselves as authentic listeners – in Benjamin’s sense – we are really….”hypocrites”?

To the Reader

Folly and error, avarice and vice,

Employ our souls and waste our bodies’ force. 

As mangey beggars incubate their lice, 

We nourish our innocuous remorse.


Our sins are stubborn, craven our repentance.

For our weak vows we ask excessive prices.

Trusting our tears will wash away the sentence,

We sneak off where the muddy road entices.


Cradled in evil, that Thrice-Great Magician,

The Devil, rocks our souls, that can’t resist;

And the rich metal of our own volition

Is vaporised by that sage alchemist.


The Devil pulls the strings by which we’re worked: 

By all revolting objects lured, we slink

Hellwards; each day down one more step we’re jerked

Feeling no horror, through the shades that stink.


Just as a lustful pauper bites and kisses

The scarred and shrivelled breast of an old whore, 

We steal, along the roadside, furtive blisses,

Squeezing them, like stale oranges, for more.


Packed tight, like hives of maggots, thickly seething

Within our brains a host of demons surges.

Deep down into our lungs at every breathing,

Death flows, an unseen river, moaning dirges.


If rape or arson, poison, or the knife 

Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff 

Of this drab canvas we accept as life —

It is because we are not bold enough!


Amongst the jackals, leopards, mongrels, apes,

Snakes, scorpions, vultures, that with hellish din, 

Squeal, roar, writhe, gambol, crawl, with monstrous shapes,

In each man’s foul menagerie of sin —


There’s one more damned than all. He never gambols,

Nor crawls, nor roars, but, from the rest withdrawn,

Gladly of this whole earth would make a shambles

And swallow up existence with a yawn…


Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams 

Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother. 

You know this dainty monster, too, it seems —

Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!


(Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

America, 80s, Self Destruction, (Beheadings, Too!), Cynical-Comedy: On the Apocalyptic Mood in “Too Many Cooks”


Today, I came across an article about a new video that has gone viral (as of now it’s near 2 million views on youtube). In the midst of infomercials, at 4am, there is a fifteen minute clip, entitled “Too Many Cooks.” It aired recently for the Adult Swim audience.

Yes, there are too many cooks: too many characters, too many repetitions, too many clichéd themes, too much TV. But when a parody of the Falcon Crest show emerges it interrupts the repetition and extends time; things change dramatically. It turns into a murderfest. Characters are murdered, one is chased down by a man with a hatchet.  She runs for her life, but her cast name follows her around, exposed her through the closet she hides it, and leads to her bloody death.

Some characters do the Clark Kent thing, spin, and become superheroes.  But they also get their heads cut off.   They die with the superheroes they became.  And, near the end, a cannibalism moment in the house where the man-with-the- machete is seen eating heads.   He is blasted away.  But the video affects, ultimately, destroy themselves, too: in the grand finale we have the self-destruction of video simualcura (words and images destroy each other).

Walter Benjamin, at the end of his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Self Production,” might see this kind of pleasure at aesthetic self-destruction as a sign that humankind has gone to its Apocalyptic end. And the proof is that it “can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

Mankind has changed.  Walter Benjamin tells us how:

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.

Too Many Cooks visualizes the process of self-alienation that Benjamin sees as leading to a pleasure in humankinds self-destruction. But, really, this is a more specific, American kind of self-destruction. And it is comical.

In Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard, we find a voice from Europe whose awareness of this comic self-destruction is astonishing. It comes from the main character, the Prince, who sounds a lot like many a Dostoevsky character in his seriousness and pathos. In this scene, he dialogues with his son and aesthetically discloses his alienation which he sees as different from the world’s, which is comic:

These noises, I said shatter everything for me. Pain and noises are the same thing, I said. Possibly, I said to my son as we reached the bottom of the gorge, these noises and this pain are no more not less than my fatal illness… “Whenever I look at people, I look at unhappy people,” the Prince said. “They are people who carry their torment into the streets and thus make the world a comedy, which is of course laughable. In this comedy they all suffer from tumors both mental and physical; they take pleasure in their fatal illness…Comedy! Every person I see and everyone I hear anything about, no matter what it is, prove to me the absolute obtuseness of this whole human race and that this whole human race and all of nature are a fraud. Comedy.

I wonder if the viewers who are making this viral are as cynical as the Prince. He has lost all hope in humanity which, in his view, is self-destructive. It’s a biter comedy without hope. And…it doesn’t seem he has hope either. After all, Bernhard shows us that he also has “too many cooks,” and they seem to be destroying him. They are noise and for him, the solitary cynic, every noise is pain. Too Many Cooks is a lot of noise…and a lot of pain. And the humankind that is destroying itself is the self-destruction of a time and all of its celebrated and familiar images.

When there are too many cooks, where there are too many characters, what happens to life? Does excess destroy itself? Is it us or is it TV that destroys itself? Too many cooks, too many questions….too much cynicism.

An Essay for Berfrois on “Israel, America, and the Schlemiel”


Today, an essay I wrote on “Israel, America, and the Schlemiel” was published at the London based journal, Berfrois.  In the essay I address two American schlemiel characters (Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy and Adam Sandler’s Zohan) and how they are portrayed, in the novel and film, respectively, in relation to Israel.  Here’s the essay:

The Ironic Moral of the Jewish-American Story: To Be a Big Success, Gary Shteyngart Must Be and Remain the “Little Failure”


Today, on his Facebook page, Gary Shteyngart announced that he is a “nebbish no more” since “The Forward puts me in its Top Five of 2014 list, where I’m the only sort-of-male listed.” The only “sort-of-male” is another name for the schlemiel, the man-child. He is, in other words, the only schlemiel on the list. The Facebook message goes on to tell his Facebook crowd to skip the words and go to the video which shows the schlemiel doing what he would rather do, act, instead of write. And, like Roth’s Portnoy, he plays the schlemiel-as-patient: “Scroll down to the video where I free-associate. Mostly about mikvahs.”

What I find most interesting about the decision of The Forward to put him on its “Top Five of 2014 List,” write a feature article on Shteyngart, and make a special video dedicated to his being a schlemiel-who-has-made-it-and-should-no-longer-be-a-schlemiel-but–still-is, is that Shteyngart has also been featured as the schlemiel by The New Yorker, which has had several articles by Shteyngart over the last year – and currently features an essay nearly every week about his “Little Failure” (memoir) Tour – and The New York Times.   It’s as if it there is a highbrow, New York consensus that Shteyngart is a literary version of Woody Allen.

In all of the above mentioned pieces, Shteyngart effaces the line between reality and fiction showing us that the schlemiel lives on.   But what makes this highly ironic and deeply satisfying the urbane reader is the fact that we are all in on the joke. This article by The Forward and the video at the bottom of the page ironically suggest – like every piece in The New Yorker and The New York Times – that Shteyngart is a “nebbish no more!” He is no longer a “little failure,” now, contrary to his literary persona, he has become a success.   But how, after all, can a schlemiel be a success.  Herein lies the irony that highbrow New York wants to consume.

The article by Adam Langer makes him into a larger than life schlemiel. The first words state the irony that has been banked on by Random House (who is behind the publicity stint with Shteyngart), The New Yorker, et al:

“What’s funny is that I’m not self-hating at all. I like myself quite a bit,” Gary Shteyngart, 42, told the Forward’s Yevgeniya Traps earlier this year. Luckily, despite the self-loathing that the author, humorist and star of book trailers (featuring his former student James Franco) affects in his comic persona, Shteyngart is not alone in that positive assessment of his worth. Writing for the Forward, Gal Beckerman — who had previously praised Shteyngart’s 2010 madcap dystopian romp “Super Sad True Love Story” as “hilarious,” “dead-on” and “Rabelaisian” — called the author’s 2014 debut memoir, “Little Failure,” his “best book yet.”

The schlemiel who isn’t supposed to be a success has, in life, really become one. Langer describes him as part schlemiel, part Bosht Belt, Philip Roth…in short everyone and everything that equals Jewish Urban Culture. And he is a “tonic” for the more serious immigrant fiction and he is also popular on “twitter.” Something about what he does, in other words, really works and earns him recognition.

Mashing up Philip Rothian introspection, Woody Allen-esque schlemielery and Jackie Mason-esque Borscht Belt delivery with a whip-smart pop cultural sensibility, Shteyngart was and continues to be a tonic for the humorless earnestness and solemn “importance” that can often hamper first-generation immigrant narrators. A late arrival to Twitter, he has also proven adept at social media; 46,000 followers track his witty gibes and japes.

But the last paragraph of the article, though seemingly serious, is, in the video, partially a joke. The joke, as you can see from the video, has to do with the fact that he will not stop playing the schlemiel character. For in doing so, he would no longer be successful:

Now that Shteyngart has conquered both fiction and nonfiction, one wonders what his work will look like when we reach the bleak future he predicted in “Super Sad True Love Story.” Television? Motion pictures? A comfortable early retirement? As long as Shteyngart’s voice remains fresh and his former students famous, there should be no end to the possibilities.

The video plays on this by foregrounding the praise for Shteyngart with a word-association game with the speaker and, in the end, returns to it. The word choices are the choices that would be made by a self-deprecating schlemiel. And, strangely enough, we seem to be going back to the old Philip Roth formula of casting the schlemiel-as-patient.

Gal Beckerman, who praised Shteyngart’s last novel for The Forward, speaks well of Shteyngart in the film short. Included in the short is a comic short video put out by Random House to promote the book. It uses comic music and awkward scenarios to cast Shteyngart as the “little failure” (the schlemiel) as one would cast a classic schlemiel comic scene with Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, or Larry David.

Against this portrayal, Beckerman suggests that this memoir is a “completion of a process” he has undergone in his novels which, to be sure, are all focused on the life and tales of different schlemiels.   This would suggest that, since he has finished this “cycle,” he can move on and stop being a “nebbish” or rather “schlemiel.” But this is the joke. It seems he will be in “interminable schlemiel analysis,” something we see in many Woody Allen’s books.

The last words of the video assure us that in his next novel there won’t be a “nebbish,” that is, a schlemiel. There will be, rather, an “attractive woman” And “now,” after the cycle is over, “we can write about attractive people.” But his presentation gives him away. He will remain a schlemiel. But, then, his last words, “let the readers of The Forwards” decides suggest that if they are buying into the schlemiel, he will continue to write on it.

And if A.O. Scott’s recent complaint about “perpetual adolescence” in American film and TV mean anything, it seems that Shteyngart will have to continue casting schlemiels if he is to be a commercial success. It seems that the readership wants more schlemiels. And if that’s what they want, than the schlemiel cycle is not over.

His schlemieldom depends on his readers. But, then again, his market goes beyond Jewish Americans. Since the schlemiel is an American icon, it seems this character and Shteyngart’s imperative to brand the schlemiel as his persona (as Sasha Baron Cohen did with Borat) has become a part of the Jewish-American literary and cultural scene. It’s a guarantee for success. If you don’t believe me, ask Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler.   They have made a career out of “little failures.” America, it seems, needs them…like a “tonic” for seriousness and, as A.O. Scott would say, adulthood.   This means one thing: to be a big American success, Gary Shteyngart must constantly portray the “little failure” in his novels, on the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times, Twitter, Youtube, and VIMEO.

Who would have believed that failure is the key to success?

Given the success of so many schlemiels in film and on the pages of literature, it’s the ironic moral to the Jewish-American story.

Notes on “The Idiot” – Part I


The interest in the holy fool or the simpleton is common to Yiddish literature and Russian literature. The secularized schlemiel that we see in both literatures, arguably, has roots in the holy fool. Ruth Wisse herself notes that we can find the roots of the schlemiel in Yiddish literature by way of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. She cites Rabbi Nachman’s “A Story about a Clever Man and a Simple Man,” written around 1805, as a pivotal text in this regard. And it is the religious simpleton character who, she argues, is the literary source, in particular, for the schlemiel.   While, in Yiddish literature, the first major secularization of the Holy Fool or Simpleton can be found in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the IIIrd, the most notable secularization of the holy fool in Russian literature can be found in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

After writing Crime and Punishment in 1866, Fyodor Dostoevsky left Russia for four years. And during that time he wrote The Idiot. Richard Pevear, in his introduction to the new translation of The Idiot, argues that when Dostoevsky first conceived of the hero of the novel he wanted to depict him as a “proud and violently passionate man, a villain, even an Iago, who is to undergo a complete regeneration and ‘finish in a divine way’”(xi).   However, four days after having this conception, he “threw it everything out and started again.” And a new concept of the hero came to him, instead of a hero who goes from being a villain to a saved man, the new hero, Prince Myshkin, “was to be a pure and innocent man from the beginning, a saintly stranger coming from elsewhere, and the drama would lie not in his own inner struggle but in his confrontation with people”(xi).

Pevear points out how Dostoevsky was looking to “portray the perfectly beautiful man.” And he cites a letter to Dostoevsky’s niece where he reflects on the task before him. Dostoevsky notes that the “task” of representing such a man is “immeasurable.” And he notes how, in Europe, it is “still far from being worked out.” But instead of the “perfectly beautiful man” being based on someone who is cultured, intelligent, and sophisticated, Dostoevsky turns to Christ: “There is only one perfectly beautiful person – Christ – so that the appearance of this immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, already a miracle.” However, Dostoevsky doesn’t model his character totally on Christ. Rather, he turns to the most beautiful character in “Christian literature” who, to his mind, his “Don Quixote.” But, reflects Dostoevsky, he “is beautiful solely because he is at the same time ridiculous.”

Dostoevsky’s realization, in this letter, is that the ridiculous, comic character is the most beautiful character in literature.   It is the closest to Christ because “compassion is shown for the beautiful that is ridiculed and does not know its own worth – and so sympathy appears in the readers. This arousing sympathy is the secret of humor.”   Since he is more familiar with characters that do not arouse compassion, Dostoevsky worried that he would fail miserably in his task.

Nonetheless, Dostoevsky wanted to partake and share the “secret of comedy” by creating Prince Myshkin, a simpleton who, as we shall see, is often misunderstood and ridiculed. In the novel, he, like Dostoevsky, returns to Russian from Basil, Switzerland for one reason: to meet good people. This simple mission, however, is misunderstood. Yet, it shows us a doubleness between the comic character and the community that ridicules him. This is something we also see in the classic schlemiel story by I.B. Singer, “Gimpel the Fool.”   In both, the simpleton’s story is not about an “inner struggle” so much his relationship with others, with people.  And, more often than not, his comedic presence not only evokes compassion but it also gives us a sense of how perverted society has become in its mistreatment and ridicule of the simpleton.  This is, of course, a modern problem since society has no patience for the simpleton (a lesson we learn from many writers we have covered in schlemiel theory such as Robert Walser and Franz Kafka).

….to be continued….

On Howard Wolowitz, The Schlemiel on “Big Bang Theory”


Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular sitcoms today. Each show draws between 15 and 20 million viewers.   The show has its share of “geeks” and “nerds.” But unlike the past, where nerds were looked down on, the show represents them as the norm. What makes the characters most interesting, however, is not just how they cope with reality and situations which, for people who are not-nerds, are simple, but also with how they cope with male-female relationships.   But to simply call them nerds or geeks would be to miss the fact that these characters are schlemiels.   However, unlike the schlemiels that we see portrayed by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Jason Biggs, or Seth Rogen, these schlemiels are more intelligent and are upwardly mobile. Their greatest fault is their awkwardness. Because of their interest in science, video games, and nerdy things, they have a hard time understanding how to relate to the other sex. Their schlemieldom has to do with this inability to know what to say or do in relation to practical issues and sexuality.   The best example of such schlemieldom can be found in Howard Holowitz (Simon Helberg).

Like many a schlemiel, he is overweaned by his mother. He lives with her. And there are many moments in the show where we see him overweaned. But unlike Philp Roth’s Portnoy, he doesn’t despise his mother for making him a schlemiel.

And, regardless, he does sometimes score points with the ladies. But regardless of how many dates he goes on and regardless of how many opportunities he has to talk with women, he can’t change.   His nerdiness prevents him (and many other characters in the show) from becoming a successful heterosexual male.

His sexuality, like many a modern schlemiel, is his weak spot. In this scene, his mother calls him a “sexual criminal.”

And in this scene, Howard gets a mechanical “hand job” that reminds one of the orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s Sleeper.

Regardless, these scenes, taken together, show us that the sexual schlemiel lives on. He is a Hollywood tradition. We see sexual schlemiels in Woody Allen’s films from Annie Hall (1976) to Anything Else (2003) and Midnight in Paris (2011), in just about every Ben Stiller film, and in nearly every Jason Biggs film. We also see him in Seth Rogen’s films. But the sexual schlemiel, here, has a basis in a larger and growing culture of nerds and geeks. More importantly, since the heterosexual norms and masculinity itself are being put into question in much new film and television, we can expect to see more sexual schlemiels. For a male, being unsure of what to do and how to do it – vis-à-vis the female other – is and will become more and more of a norm in American culture. And in a show like Big Bang Theory, awkwardness is the norm.

This awkwardness arises when a culture is so immersed in science and technology that relating to the sexual other and the world become a task that one may need help with, and the best character to communicate this awkwardness is the schlemiel. As our culture becomes more and more technologically sophisticated and virtual, expect to see the schlemiel more and more often on TV and on Netflix.

Instead of a Brave New World, as Huxley envisioned, we have an Awkward New World and Howard Wolowitz is our guide.   But not everyone is happy about this new world and some people think that we need to move on to something else.  Take, for instance A.O. Scott, who in a recently essay for The New York Times Magazine called the turn – in film, TV, and culture in general – to “perpetual adolescence” into question.  Are we witnessing what we calls the “end of adulthood?”  Will a literary, filmic, and cultural movement arise to challenge the nerds and put an end to the reign of schlemiels like Sandler, Stiller, Biggs, Rogen, and Wolowitz?  Or is the schlemiel here to stay more by default than by choice?