Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part II

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After explaining how the Yiddish writers (“the writers of sweetness”) came out of a world that made “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” Howe and Greenberg define the themes of Yiddish literature which correlated with this Eastern European world: “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured”(39).   Howe and Greenberg are quite cognizant that this world died in the Holocaust. However, what one might miss is the fact that, in making their case for Yiddish literature, they write about these themes as if they could be generalized and used as a counter-valence to the Western and American obsession with heroism in the post war years. The value of this counter-valence comes out in their reading of the main character in Yiddish literature: the schlemiel. Read against western literature, it comes across as the anti-hero:

A culture that has been able to resist the temptations of worldly power – or has been blocked at the threshold of those temptations – will naturally favor an image of heroism very different from the one we know in Western literature. (39)

Howe and Greenberg point out how the movement from “hybris to humility,” which we find in the “Aristotelian formula” is not “organic to Yiddish literature.” To be sure, the schlemiel character is, from start to finish, humble. There is no such movement. In a footnote to this claim, Howe and Greenberg point out how this anti-hero and its lack of progress into history and heroism is antithetical to not only Western literature and Aristotle but also to Zionism:

The prevalence of this theme may also help explain why Zionists have been tempted to look with impatience upon Yiddish literature. In the nature of their effort, the Zionists desired to retrieve – or improvise – an image of Jewish heroism; and in doing so they could not help finding large portions of Yiddish literature an impediment….Having for so long been exposed to the conditions of powerlessness, Yiddish culture could not quickly accustom itself to the climate of power. (39)

From here, Howe and Greenberg argue that the anti-heroic element can be found in the rejection of “historical aggrandizement.”   Tevye, for them, is the “embodiment of the anti-heroic Jewish hero whose sheer power of survival and comment makes the gesture of traditional heroism seem rather absurd”(40).   Not only his language but also his “ironic shrug” is symbolic of this ahistorical, anti-heroism.

Howe and Greenberg point out, however, how Aleichem had more patience with this anti-heroism while I.L. Peretz had less. Perhaps because Peretz was more fed up with anti-heroism and wanted to enter history, they put this in quotation marks, “modern.” This suggests that both Greenberg and Howe have sympathies with Aleichem’s project which, in their view, challenges the modern view of power and heroism.

The character that Zionist and more “modern” Yiddish writers want to leave behind is the little man, the “kleine mentschele”(40).   It is “he, the long-suffering, persistent, loving ironic” character whom “the Yiddish writers celebrate.” He “lives in the world” while the heroes of Western literature conquer it.

Out of the humble, little man come “a number of significant variations and offshoots.” One of these is the schlemiel, par excellence: “the wise or sainted fool who has often given up the householder’s struggle for dignity (think of Tevye) and thereby acquired the wry perspective of the man on the outside”(40).

Howe and Greenberg evoke I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” as an example of the “wise or sainted fool”(41).   Their description of Gimpel is evocative on different registers that are at once religious and secular. He has a “halo of comic sadness”:

He acquires, with the piling up of his foolishness, a halo of comic sadness, and..in the end, his foolishness innocence triumphs over the wisdom of the world”(41).

Although Howe and Greenberg note that “Gimpel is the literary grandson of Peretz’s Bontsha Schweig,” they point out how he is a different kind of schlemiel since Singer, as opposed to Peretz, was more interested in preserving the character.   Howe discusses two other examples of the holy fool, schlemiel in this section, but he ends with a meditation on the child as the ultimate heroic anti-hero.

Hand in hand with the anti-heroic Jewish hero, and more at the center of things than the sainted fool, goes the Jewish child, precocious, ingenious, deprived yet infinitely loved. (41)

What’s interesting about his characterization is that he cites Sholem Aleichem’s Motl as an example. This reading is interesting because for Saul Bellow, Ruth Wisse, and Sidra Ezrahi, Motl is not simply a child; he is a man-child, a schlemiel. Howe and Greenberg’s effort to give him a different category, as an offshoot of the humble anti-hero, suggest that there is something about Motl that is more powerful than all of the other schlemiel types. And that something is love. In contrast to how Dickens, Graham Greene, and Henry James, who have children who are “unloved and brutalized,” the children in Yiddish literature are loved. To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this love for children in Yiddish literature is part and parcel of the love of “the poor, the weak” and the “insulted” that emerges out of the Yiddish world. However, in their description, there is a moment of universalization:

For whatever the deficiencies of Yiddish culture, the power of love remains; for the child, the poor, the weak, the insulted and injured everywhere. It is the power at the heart of the Yiddish tradition. (42).

The word “everywhere” suggests that Howe and Greenberg find the love for the child, the poor, and the injured, which is particular to Yiddish culture, to be its greatest “power.” Howe and Greenberg suggest that the schlemiel – and the Yiddish culture it emerges out of – can present us with a universal that we can, today, learn from…even though the world that gave birth to it is gone. It presents a different, “sweeter” way to look at the world which, though not heroic in the western sense, is compassionate and can give hope.

But, as I noted, what happens when that world is gone? How does this universal live on if there is no world to nurture it? And doesn’t this relation to power emerge, as Hannah Arendt once said, out of worldlessness (not the world)? Instead of making “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” our world does the opposite. Unless, that is, we were to sink into a poverty and powerlessness much like the world of the Yiddish writers and, out of this, to find compassion and love rather than cynicism. It seems as if Howe envisions a world and an attitude that doesn’t emulate “crisis” and harsh realism so much as a “sweet” kind of realism that is based on love. And his examples of such a world are to be found in the aesthetics it produces. They are his guide and are the remnant of a feeling that could speak truth to power.

Lest we not forget, Howe and Greenberg wrote these words in the 1950s. How would they fare today? Are we, in our frustration with power, heroism, and Empire (as Hardt and Negri would say), looking for the schlemiel? Are we looking for the “writers of sweetness” who can give us characters that emerge out of poverty and remain anti-heroes from start to finish? Are we, today, looking for characters that evince compassion or are we looking for, as Howe would say, history, greatness, and heroism? And if Howe is with Aleichem rather than Peretz, would that suggest that his greatest enemy is…history? Are we looking for the world or for worldlessness? After all, Howe suggests that the schlemiel is not interested in heroism or making history so much as being in solidarity with those who don’t make history but are wounded by it: the poor, the injured, etc.   Or is it the case that the schlemiel is not so much a free choice so much as a choice that is made as a result of being….without history and…worldless?

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