Looking Awry: On Frans Hals’ Representations of Rene Descartes, Fools, and Child Musicians

Happy birthday to Rene Descartes!

Schlemiel Theory


Frans Hals was a Dutch painter from the 17th century.  Many art historians group him together with the school of Mannerism, which developed in the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century.  Hals was a part of what is called the “Northern Renaissance.”  Some mannerist works of art are not simply realistic; many of them are symbolic and allegorical.    And, as many art historians note, Mannerism was transformed into Baroque art.  One of the elements that remains in this transformation is the allegorical.

Hals’s work is often Realistic, but it often errs on the side of the allegorical.  This allegorical dimension, however, is subtle.  It’s not obvious.  In fact, Hals work demands the viewer to pay close attention to subtle gestures, gazes, and movements within the frame (which oftentimes gesture to something hidden and obscure outside of the frame).  The allusions they make suggest multiple meanings.

Hals is well…

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“The Forgotten Gem – William Wyler’s Counsellor at Law” – a Guest Post by Marat Grinberg


Counsellor at Law is a fantastic and unjustly forgotten film. Curious and rich, it should be appreciated as one of the most original in the history of American Jewish cinema.

Produced in 1933, right on the eve of the adaptation of the “decency code” at Hollywood, Counsellor at Law was the product of collaboration between two central Jewish figures in American theater and movie industry of the era – William Wyler (not to be confused with Billy Wilder) and Elmer Rice.

While still thought of as a great director, Wyler’s work has undoubtedly suffered neglect. With his grandiose epics and melodramas, his movies are a hard sell for the audience’s current post-modern tastes. A German-born Jew, Wyler came to Hollywood in 1920s, where his uncle, Carl Laemmle, was a founder and head of Universal Studios. Thus, unlike other German Jews who ended up in Hollywood after being driven from their homeland by Hitler, Wyler had no reason to think of America as the place of exile. In copious literature on the master, his Jewishness is hardly mentioned at all. The two well-known and thematically explicit Jewish films in his body of work are Ben-Hur and Funny Girl. According to Bill Krohn, “Samson and Delilah, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, three of the biggest blockbusters of the post-war era, are all allegories of the Shoah.” Perhaps. Yet is should be kept in mind that Ben-Hur is a clear example of Christian apologetics. Counsellor at Law, Wyler’s first major sound picture, reveals him to be a far more daring director who was supremely concerned with the issues and dilemmas of Jewish diasporic condition. In fact, the only times when Wyler himself openly addresses Jewishness are when he speaks of Counsellor at Law.

Elmer Rice, whose work has long been relegated to the dustbin of history, wrote the film’s script at the height of his fame. Born Elmer Reizenstein in New York, he worked first as a lawyer before turning to writing drama. Many of his plays are thematically Jewish; a few were some of the very first to confront Nazism already in the early 30s. In 1929, Rice became the first Jew to win a Pulitzer price for drama. He wrote Counsellor at Law in 1931, the year it was also first successfully staged on Broadway.

Despite the famous or infamous preponderance of Jews in Hollywood, between The Jazz Singer, produced in 1927, and World War II, there were few films that dealt openly with Jewish themes. The same is true of theater. Counsellor at Law was a rarity in both media. It is thus extraordinary that at the heart of it is the most fundamental question of American Jewish experience, if not modern Jewish history as a whole – that of assimilation. Wyler and Rice’s commentary on assimilation significantly differs from the model resolutions of it in the corpus of American Jewish writing and cinema. Hardly advocating a return to the physical ghetto, the film ultimately celebrates the Jew as an autonomous figure who has no choice but to remain who he is, even after shedding the traditional garb. This condition, the film suggests, must be enjoyed, appreciated and perpetuated.

As one scholar described the situation of the 30s, “Performing oneself as a Jew-without-a-beard is, after all, the first requisite step towards performing oneself as no-Jew-at-all. Indeed, this new type of Jewish body signaled the beginning of an era where ethnic visibility in general and Jewish visibility in particular were no longer desirable. In its place came invisibility, as Jewish characters became less frequently seen on major American stages.” Indeed, an argument can be made that Jewishness is invisible in Counsellor at Law as well – tellingly the word Jewish is mentioned only once in parenthesis in the film’s synopsis which appears on its DVD release – yet to do so would be to crucially misapprehend its very artistic structure and intent. The sense and sensibility of Jewishness and Yiddishkeit act as an organizing principle in the film, permeating its every nook and cranny. I am not speaking so much of the obvious Jewish signs in it: a Yiddish phrase, an occasional Jewish accent, but something that runs much deeper and speaks to its very idea of Jewishness.

The movie’s entire action takes place in a law firm run by the main character, George Simon. Its space, separated from the rest of New York by the majestic looking elevators reminiscent of the sets in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – the link is hardly accidental considering Wyler’s artistic roots – functions as an independent Jewish kingdom, where everything, from Jews to gentiles to objects, is infused with the Jewish spirit. Unquestionably, Counsellor at Law envisions Jewishness in essentialist, rather than specific religious or cultural terms, which one may justifiably find uncomfortable. Yet its presentation of Jewishness is neither contrived nor self-conscious, but unsentimental and at the same time intoxicating. It stands not as an addendum to the story, as would happen so often in later American films, but as its very reason for being.


This ostensibly light and comedic film is a tragedy, whose catharsis results not in punishment, but in the hero’s reclamation of his fundamental nature, in other words Jewishness. This hero – George Simon – is an unusual tragic character. Originally, he was played on Broadway by the famous Paul Muni, a pseudonym of Muni Weisenfreund, whose beginning as an actor was on the Yiddish stage. Rice particularly liked his performance. When Muni declined to be cast in Wyler’s film, the role went to John Barrymore. The legendary film critic Pauline Kael, herself also Jewish, pointed out that his performance in the film was “one of the few screen roles that reveal his measure as an actor. His “presence” is apparent in every scene; so are his restraint, his humor, and his zest.” Wyler’s own later comments on Berrymore’s performance reveal the complexities of his approach to Jewishness. He says in an interview recorded in 1979:

Well, of course that was a very exciting time, because this is when I was at Universal. When they gave me this assignment, I felt, “Jeez, working with Berrymore!”… [Barrymore] said, “Yes, you’ll be able to help me a lot, I need some help. You’ll be able to help me with this part.” And then I realized… I didn’t realize until we started shooting, you know, what he meant. He played the part of this Jewish lawyer, and lots of people thought he was miscast because he didn’t look like a Jew. Well, what does a Jew look like? Some look Jewish and some don’t. So he probably felt he had to do something. Well, the part of the lawyer in this was a man of the world, highly educated, highly articulate. So the first day he plays a scene, he’s supposed to come in, pick up the phone, and talk, that’s all. And he did some peculiar gestures, and here I had to criticize John Berrymore… I thought, “But what he’s trying to do is be Jewish.” I said, “The way you picked up the phone…” He said, “You didn’t’ like that?” I said, “Well, frankly no.”… Well, he was constantly trying, and finally I said… there was a scene in the play when his mother comes to visit him and that’s where you see… that’s when he was to talk to his mother and he’s got some Jewish gestures and a few Jewish expressions, and that’s where the ghetto comes… And that’s the only time, nowhere else. I mean, you see where he was from, the Jewish East Side, but the rest of the time he was a very sophisticated man of the world. He mustn’t act like a Jew from the East Side… Well, I finally got him to cut it out, I wouldn’t stand for it.

What this fascinating recollection exposes is that for Wyler, Jewishness is most definitely not a stereotype, but it is also much more than a place of origin. It is a locus of incredible artistic energy. For, first and foremost, George Simon is an artist at what he does – an artist and, like the clever biblical Jacob, a Jewish trickster. In this is both his moral effrontery and strength.

Counsellor at Law is a supremely socially conscious film. In one scene, Simon speaks to a young Jewish leftist radical, who’s been arrested for participating in a demonstration. He berates him for his behavior and tells to accept a guilt plea at the trial. The young man retorts, “If the Cossacks want to beat me up, let them do it.” Simon is confused, “This is America, not Russia,” he exclaims. “It’s worse than Russia ever was under the Czar” is the reply. In the actual text of the play, the man’s outcry is even more personal – “If the Cossacks want to beat me up, let them do it. They killed my grandfather and my uncle and the only way they can keep me quiet is to kill me, too.”


Apart from being a testament to the political moods of the time, this exchange directly links the social and the Jewish. The young radical thinks solely in the context of Jewish history – for him, it constitutes one continuous opposition between Jews and the rest of the world. Thus, he misplaces countries and eras. Simon, who’s been trying to turn a deaf ear to this Jewish logic with his attempt at shedding his Jewish skin, fails first to grasp his point. How he ultimately gets what the young guy meant is what the film is all about. Wyler mentions in an interview about Counsellor at Law, “I think that was the fist time in a picture where anti-Semitism was touched on a little bit… But it was just gently. You wouldn’t dare say the word, but it was touched upon.” Indeed, it was touched upon gently, as befits a nuanced work of art, but profoundly. What makes Counsellor at Law beautiful is that, despite its very sober eye on assimilation and the Jews’ place among others, it is neither about fear nor martyrdom. It is about survival and doing so with gusto and love. This is what makes it as relevant in 2015 as it was in the ill-fated year of 1933.


Marat Grinberg is an associate professor of Russian and Humanities, and chair of the Department of Russian, at Reed College.

Lena Dunham’s Old/New Schlemiel Humor and the Caricature of the Jewish Male


Since being published last week, Lena Dunham’s recent “Jewish boyfriend or dog” joke for The New Yorker has received enormous attention and most of it has been negative. The first major hit was an article that came out three days ago by Kveller – a site that is written by Jewish women and is acutely aware of things Jewish.   The title of this article, written by Jordanna Horn, bore the judgment: “Lena Dunham Equated Jews to Dog’s and That’s Not Ok.”   And the first sentence drove in the nail by stating, outright, that the joke is “anti-Semitic.”   (And the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) called out the “anti-Semitic” nature of the joke immediately.) The article goes through and briefly explains several stereotypes which pop up in Dunham’s piece.   The target of Dunham’s joke is not the Jew so much as the Jewish male: it portrays him as a “weak and winy whimp.”

In response to a slew of negative articles and the ADL’s charge against Dunham, David Remnick of The New Yorker asks that we situate Dunham’s humor within the context of Jewish humor which draws on stereotypes vis-à-vis self mockery. He wrote, via Twitter:

The Jewish-comic tradition is rich with the mockery of, and playing with, stereotypes. Anyone who has ever heard Lenny Bruce or Larry David or Sarah Silverman or who has read ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ knows that. Lena Dunham, who is Jewish and hugely talented, is a comic voice working in that vein. Richard Pryor and Chris Rock do the same about black stereotypes; Amy Schumer does it with women and gender. I don’t mind if one reader or another didn’t find the piece funny. People can differ on that. But considering all the real hatred and tragedy in the world, the people getting exercised about the so-called anti-Semitism of this comic piece, like those who railed at Philip Roth a generation or two ago, are, with respect, howling in the wrong direction.

Remnick is correct to situate Dunham’s joke within the context of Jewish humor.   Of all the people mentioned in his Tweet, Philip Roth is the most relevant. His portrayal of the Jewish male as a schlemiel was criticized by many literary and cultural critics including Irving Howe who, in the 1950s wrote a positive and encouraging review of Roth’s Goodbye Columbus. But he changed his mind about Roth when he read Portnoy’s Complaint.  Howe didn’t think this novel was anti-Semitic so much as vulgar. In his 1972 essay for Commentary entitled “Philip Roth Reconsidered,” Howe wrote:

The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice. An assemblage of gags strung onto the outcry of an analytic patient, the book thrives best on casual responses; it demands little more from the reader than a nightclub performer demands: a rapid exchange of laugh for punch-line, a breath or two of rest, some variations on the first response, and a quick exit. Such might be the most generous way of discussing Portnoy’s Complaint were it not for the solemn ecstasies the book has elicited, in line with Roth’s own feeling that it constitutes a liberating act for himself, his generation, and maybe the whole culture.

Howe slights Roth for his stereotypes and what he calls a “claustrophobic” view of Jewishness and argues that the denigration of the Jewish male we find in Roth’s book is “vulgar.” And though he would affirm the vulgarity of someone like Lenny Bruce, he draws the line with Roth because Roth doesn’t seem to be drawing on Jewish life at all so much as drawing on a life-already-caricatured:

It is very hard, I will admit, to be explicit about the concept of vulgarity: people either know what one is referring to, as part of the tacit knowledge that goes to make up a coherent culture, or the effort to explain is probably doomed in advance. Nevertheless, let me try. By vulgarity in a work of literature I am not here talking about the presence of certain kinds of words or the rendering of certain kinds of actions. I have in mind, rather, the impulse to submit the rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification; the urge to assault the validity of sustained gradings and discriminations of value, so that in some extreme instances the concept of vulgarity is dismissed as up-tight or a mere mask for repressiveness; the wish to pull down the reader in common with the characters of the work, so that he will not be tempted to suppose that any inclinations he has toward the good, the beautiful, or the ideal merit anything more than a Bronx cheer; and finally, a refusal of that disinterestedness of spirit in the depiction and judgment of other people which seems to me the writer’s ultimate resource.

As Howe also notes, this kind of caricature and vulgarity are a part of a larger context. Unfortunately, Howe spends more time discussing literary and not cultural context. To be sure, Roth’s novel was reflecting cultural trends that had been, for years, active in American popular culture. And it can be argued that Dunham’s humor also be placed in this context. Perhaps it is a symptom rather than an aberration.

In an essay that looks specifically at the emasculation of the Jewish male in Jewish humor in general and schlemiel humor in particular, Maurice Berger argues that Jewish men, for nearly five decades after the advent of TV, have “seen their identities disguised, their mannerisms mocked, and their masculinity voiced as the quiet peeps of a mouse.” Until the early 90s, Jewish men were represented – by way of bodies that were weak – as “mice” rather than “men.” They were “assigned” a negative identity that, he argues, drew on anti-Semitic stereotypes of the male Jewish body.

These stereotypes of the Jewish body were “cynically designed” to “undermine the authority of the Jewish subject”:

Some of the stereotypes that marked Jewish masculinity in nineteenth and early twentieth-century culture and science were also appropriated for TV, and they too fit into distinct categories – the exotic or vulgar ethnic, the subordinated or passive schlemiel, the validated Jew, the neurotic, the inferred Jew, and the feminized Jew – cynically designed to undermine and ameliorate Jewish manhood. (94, Too Jewish)

The passive, “subordinated” schlemiel is intimately related to the feminization of the Jew. And when Jews cross dress on TV, this, according to Berger, perpetuates “longstanding stereotypes” that “feminize” the Jewish body. The Odd Couple, The Jack Benny Program, and The Mary Tyler Moor Show all illustrate the comic “stereotype of the unmanly, powerless Jew.” According to Berger, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Brooklyn Bridge stand out in this regard: “Continually henpecked by the Jewish female, the Jewish father is shy, quiet, and usually unopinionated; he is often berated by his wife and children, who overrule him and undermine his authority.”

He calls this a “stereotype of social obedience – in which minority men must make themselves less threatening in order to assuage the fears of the dominant culture.” The networks didn’t want characters to be “too Jewish”:

These character relationships exploit two stereotypes simultaneously: the undesirability of Jewish women and the need for wimpy schlemiels to be validated by shiksas. The validated Jewish male (that is, the schlemiel) is usually shy, self-deprecating, and generally attractive and sweet –the quintessentially nice Jewish boy. His love interest in most often cool and critical; she demands respect and often makes her partner beg for her affection.

David Biale reads Woody Allen’s earlier schlemiels – which he calls “sexual schlemiels” – in a similar manner. He notes how they neutralize what were originally anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews. These characteristics, with Woody Allen’s films (like Annie Hall) become “charming.” And Biale (and a few other scholars who follow his lead) argue that these characteristic become part and parcel of American comedy. And instead of challenging the status quo, which is what Ruth Wisse said the Yiddish schlemiel did, the American schlemiel is the status quo. The American schlemiel’s self-deprecating non-masculine body becomes an American body.

Whether it is Seth Rogen or Gary Shteyngart, Biale and Berger would read their schlemiel bodies in terms of a new kind of emasculated status quo.   Daniel Itzkovitz calls this kind of schlemiel the “new schlemiel.” And in this status quo, it seems as if the bro and the emasculated Jewish body has become the norm.

Lena Dunham’s “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend” should be seen in this context since it reinforces these kinds of distinctions. The portrait she draws of her “Jewish boyfriend” is that of the nebbish-schlemiel.   He is, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy, Bruce Jay Friedman’s characters (see his novel Stern and A Mother’s Kisses), and countless other schlemiels that we have seen on TV and film, lavished with too much love from his Jewish mother. What Dunham says is merely a reflection of a widely circulated stereotype:

This is because he comes from a culture in which mothers focus every ounce of their attention on their offspring and don’t acknowledge their own need for independence as women. They are sucked dry by their children, who ultimately leave them as soon as they find suitable mates.

Kveller is correct, Dunham  portrays the Jewish male as a “weak and winy whimp.” But this is nothing new in American culture. It is a symptom and not an aberration. Dunham’s is the portrayal of the Jewish male as a schlemiel of the worst sort. Please note that schlemiel theory – this blog – and my own work ventures positive and negative readings of the schlemiel and this is not the one that interests us most.   The schlemiel tradition of humor – and its portrayals of the Jewish male – which we see in writers like Sholom Aleichem, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and I.B. Singer – amongst many others – is much more positive and it has a deeper relationship with what Irving Howe finds most relevant and compelling about being a Jew. These books may include elements of “self-mockery,” which is a key element of Jewish humor, but they do so with a deep sense of what’s important and needs to be remembered. This is much different from the reduction of the Jew to mannerisms and what Cynthia Ozick calls the sociological Jew.

In closing, I just want to note how James Joyce (who was not Jewish like Dunham, Roth et al), in his portrayal of Leopold Bloom, makes a positive relationship between the schlemiel and the feminine. And instead of a dog, he puts the Jewish male in relation to a cat. It is through her eyes that Bloom, at the outset of the novel, sees himself. However, this doesn’t make him into a caricature so much as a character with, as one Joyce commentator notes, a person who is deeply concerned with the other.   That is his comedy and associating his masculinity with a cat poses deeper questions about the comedy of relation.

What’s even more of interest is what happens when a woman is portrayed as a schlemiel. We see this in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? where the main character, Sheila Heti, in an act of self-mockery portrays herself with all the failings of a male schlemiel. But her representations are endearing and insightful. The mockery has a silver lining. And the biggest irony of all is that Lena Dunham’s name can be found on the front cover of Heti’s book. Dunham characterizes Heti’s book as “a really amazing metafiction-meets-nonfiction-book.”   But what really sticks out most in Heti’s novel is not simply the metafictional and nonfictional element so much as the use of comedy and self-mockery to bring about reflection on the comedy of relation. In Dunham’s piece, we don’t see that. We see the mockery of the other and the other’s failure to meet the standards of a Jewish woman because he is…a schlemiel.    But..so is she.

“If I’m out of my mind, it’s alright with me” – Revisiting Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog


In an essay for The New Yorker on Noah Baumbach’s films, Ian Parker informs us that Baumbach read Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint before writing the screenplay for Greenberg.   Of the two schlemiels we find in Bellow and Roth’s popular novels, however, Greenberg has more in common with Bellow’s Moses Herzog than with Roth’s Portnoy. After seeing the film and reading the review, I decided to revisit Bellow’s novel.   And what I discovered is that a lot was lost in translation. Baumbach’s Greenberg and Bellow’s Herzog have some things in common, not a lot. But instead of showing what Greenberg lacks, I’d like to look into the qualities that Bellow ascribes to the schlemiel. In many ways, his novel set an American precedent for the schlemiel and, prior to its translation into film, gave the schlemiel its proper literary treatment. After all, schlemiel folklore and literature predated the schlemiel in film. Nonetheless, Bellow creates an image of this character which begs for filmic translation. Given what the novel tells us about Herzog, how would he look on camera? Certainly not like Ben Stiller in Greenberg. I aver, as a schlemiel theorist, that every detail of Bellow’s portrayal of Moses Herzog be studied carefully so as to better understand what is at stake when it comes to translation.

Saul Bellow had a distinctive notion of Jewish comedy.   Irving Howe was very taken by his reading because he saw it in relation to the meaning of Jewish identity.   He included it in his preface to his collection Jewish American Stories:

In Jewish stories laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation of the two. At times laughter seems to restore the equilibrium of sanity; at times the figures of the story or parable, appear to invite or encourage trembling with the secret aim of overcoming it by means of laughter.

For Howe, the oscillation between the two spoke to Jewish intellectuals such as himself since he felt he – in contrast to Jews who had passed as American – was constantly beset by the question of who he was. He was enveloped in “self-scrutiny”:

They (Jews) had achieved ‘a normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself? To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.

And in this taste he has much in common not just with Saul Bellow but with Bellow’s character Moses Herzog. He suffers from too much self-scrutiny. And he also teeters between “laughter and trembling” and seems to be on the edge of insanity. But a kind of comic levity seems to save him.

The first few sentences of Bellow’s book –which take the reader to the moment that we return to at the end of the novel (when he is recluse in the Berkshires) – make this abundantly clear:

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong.

But what gives him his comic cheer is writing letters that, ultimately, he never sends:

He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the son. He was so stirred by the letters that from the end of June he moved from place to place with a valise full of papers…Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead. (1)

These letters, like Herzog himself, fail to reach their destination. He tries to relate to the world like he, at the very least, writes these letters; but he can’t send them or create strong bonds.   And he is painfully aware of this failure but not fully. At the end of the novel, which we get a taste of in the beginning, we see that “the corner of his mind remained open to the world” and although he “looked keenly at everything…he felt half blind”(2). His life is comic and tragic.

Following this foreshadowing of the end, Bellow gives us a sense of a person who falls short of the world in so many ways. Yet, he wants to go over the reasons for this failure, so as to understand. His crutch, so to speak, is his intense intellect which wants to address the meaning of failure:

Late in spring Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends. (2)

But this spring optimism is met with shocking realizations about how entrenched he is in failure. He is an academic who had possibilities when he first started in academia but he didn’t take advantage of them. And now, teaching “adult-education lectures” at “New York night school,” he has become reflective on his failure. And his students can’t help but see his absent-mindedness:

Professor Herzog had the unconscious frankness of a man deeply preoccupied. And toward the end of the term there were long pauses in his lectures. He would stop, muttering, “Excuse me,” reaching inside his coat for his pen. The table creaking, he wrote on scraps of paper with a great pressure of eagerness in his hand; he was absorbed, his eyes darkly circled…He was reasoning, arguing, he was suffering, he had thought of a brilliant alternative – he was wide-open, he was narrow; his eyes, his mouth made everything silently clear – longing, bigotry, bitter anger. One could see it all. (2)

As one can see from this passage, it is open that his self-scrutiny may be harmful. It is comic but it is also painful.

The narrator goes from this moment back to the moment where he is lying on the couch in the Berkshires thinking about how much of a failure he is. However, in the midst of his painful reflections, we find something endearing; namely, his choice to be a dreamer rather than a cunning man:

Considering his entire life, he realized that he had mismanaged everything – everything. His life was, as the phrase goes, ruined. But since it had not been much to begin with, there was not much to grieve about…He went on taking stock, lying face down on the sofa. Was he a clever man or an idiot? Well, he could not at this time claim to be clever. He might once have had the markings of a clever character, but he had chosen to be dreamy instead, and the sharpies cleaned him out. (3)

This choice is that of the schlemiel who, out of humility, opts out of being clever and aggressive. Like Moses himself – the Torah calls him the “most humble man on earth” – Moses Herzog shrugs his shoulders at his failures and renounces cunning. He complains and engages in constant self-mockery, but he realizes that although his character is negative, there are people worse off that he is.  And after coming to this conclusion, he shrugs:

What more? He was losing his hair. He read the ads of the Thomas Scalp Specialists, with the exaggerated skepticism of a man whose craving to believe was deep, desperate.   Scalp Experts! So…he was a formerly handsome man.   His face revealed what a beating he had taken. But he had asked to be beaten too, and had lent his attackers strength. That brought him to consider his character. What kind of character was it? Well, in the modern vocabulary, it was narcissistic; it was masochistic; it was anachronistic. His clinical picture was depressive – not the severest type; not a manic depressive. There were worse cripples around. (4)

The narrator, further on, reminds the reader that Herzog is not an aggressive or cunning man (29). He is a “confused high minded” person who was seen as a “grieving childish man”(29). But when he is around people, he has a positive affect on them. To be sure, Bellow tells us that his lawyer friend, Simkin, becomes humble and meek around Herzog. He changes Simkin’s ways and seems to be reminded of something better or more meaningful in life.

The comic twist, however, is that Herzog’s life, the comical, is, as Bellow would say, “mixed” with an intense consciousness of failure. The edge cuts both ways. But it is this self-scrutiny and failure – coupled with something endearing, comical, and anachronistic – that intrigued not just Saul Bellow but Irving Howe as well. Running through all the belatedness and failure is a deep sense of honesty and humility as well as a desire to believe that things can be better even though they are currently horrible. In these juxtapositions and in such intense and painful self-scrutiny, Howe found something distinctly Jewish.

In contrast to Baumbach’s Greenberg, who also writes letters with fervor, Herzog evinces hope in the midst of failure. Greenberg, according to Ian Parker of The New Yorker evinces the opposite. He is what Walter Benjamin would call a “scarecrow of determinism.” What was lost in translation is the sad and yet comic nature of Herzog’s choice to be a dreamer rather than a cunning and aggressive man.

Herzog finds his emblem in…a shoulder shrug which, in translation, says: “If I’m out of my mind, it’s alright with me.”

On Cynthia Ozick’s Denunciation of Henry Bech: John Updike’s Literary Portrayal of the Jew as Schlemiel


In 1970, John Updike, the celebrated American author, decided to initiate a series of novels dedicated to a Jewish character named Henry Bech.   These novels include Bech: A Book (1970), Bech is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998).   The first words of Bech: A Book – which come out of a letter by Bech to John Updike – make it clear that Bech presents himself as a schlemiel:


Well if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me than about you. Except, reading along in these, I wonder if it is me, enough me, purely me. At first blush, for example, in Bulgaria (eclectic sexuality, bravura narcissism, thinning curly hair) I sound like some gentlemanly Norman Mailer; than that London glimpse of silver hair glints more of a gallant, glamorous Bellow, the King of the Leprechauns, than of stolid old homely yours truly. My childhood seems out of Alex Portnoy and my ancestral past out of I.B. Singer. I get a whiff of Malamud in your city breezes, and am I paranoid to feel my “block” an ignoble version of the more or less noble renunciations of H. Roth, D. Fuchs, and J. Salinger?

However, as one can see from the first words of this passage (and the book), this isn’t just about Bech; it’s also about Updike. The words following the above-mentioned passage make this clear:

Withal, something Waspish, theological, sacred, and insulatingly ironic that derives, my wild surmise is, from you.

Cynthia Ozick, in her review essay of the book (entitled “Bech, Passing”), tunes into this tension between the Jewish character and the non-Jewish “waspish” author.   And in response to it, she argues that Bech isn’t so much a Jew as a caricature of a Jew, a “neutral Jew” or, as she puningly puts it, playing on the character’s name, an empty “becher” (a becher is Yiddish for a cup). She calls Bech “theologically hollow” and her reasons for choosing such a term and making such a trenchant criticism of Updike’s attempt to represent a Jew are noteworthy. They give us a sense of how Ozick – and others – might criticize many of the schlemiels we see in literature and film today. It also gives us a glimpse of her criterion for what makes for a plausible Jewish character in Jewish American fiction.

Ozick begins her review by pointing out how Updike’s fiction – though, of course, secular – is lined with “salvationism” and glow with a “eucharistic radiance.” He is the “Origen of the novel.” In contrast, we have his attempt to portray a Jew, Bech: “Here is Henry Bech, Jew, rising, like Shylock and Bloom, out of a Christian brain” (114, Art and Ardor).

And in this novel, the “theologian” tires to “pass” as a Jew:

The original Marranos, in Spain, were probably the first group in history to attempt large-scale passing. As everyone knows (except possibly Bech), they ended at the stake. So much for Jews posing. What, then, of a Christian posing as Jew? What would he have to take on, much less shuck off? (115)

This last question is what intrigues Ozick. What Updike “takes on,” according to Ozick, is a caricature of the Jew, a kind of mechanism: “an Appropriate Reference Machine.”   Updike “reminds himself that he is obligated to produce a sociological symptom: crank, gnash, and out flies an inverted sentence.” The first words of the novel, for instance, “all a parody: ironically humorous novelist Bech addresses ironically humorist novelist Updike and coolly kids him about putting Bech together out of Mailer, Bellow, Singer, Malamud, Fuchs, Singer, the two Roths”(115). The “laugh is at the expense of the citation.”

Ozick goes so far as to dedicate an entire page to a mock-outline of Updike’s “Appropriate Reference Machine.” It includes six categories: Vocabulary, Family, Historical References, Nose, Hair, and Sex. The effect is to show that he is, as Walter Benjamin might say, a “scarecrow of determinism.” Nonetheless, Ozick argues that this portrayal is not so off if you count Beck amongst the “most disaffected de-Judaicized Jewish novelists of his generation” which Updike uses as his “sociological” basis.

Ozick’s gloss on these “de-Judaicized Jewish novelists” foreshadows her rant on what is missing not just in Bech but in most Jewish writing today: knowledge of Jewish history.   But this omission is not done out of neglect so much as what Ozick calls “autolobotomy.” Wondering at this caricature of the Jew, Ozick suggests we think about how this would sound if this kind of portrayal were done with respect to real African-Americans:

So much for the American Jewish novelist as sociological source. As a subject for social parody, it is fairly on par with a comic novel about how slavery cretinized the black man. All those illiterate darkies! Beck as cretin is even funnier: they didn’t bring him in chains, he did it to himself under the illusion of getting civilized. (117)

Ozick notes how Updike’s comic portrayal of Bech leaves out the other aspect of comedy which is entrenched in reality:

Comedy springs from the ludicrous; but the ludicrous is stuck in the muck of reality, resolutely hostile to what is impossible. (118)

And what is impossible is the fact that Updike creates a character who actually little to do with American Jews and more to do with “literary Jews.” He fits better in Berlin than in America. Nonetheless, Ozick says that Beck is a “stupid Jewish intellectual. I know him well.”   Ozick sees it as her responsibility to address Bech’s Jewishness, not Updike’s: “I am not asking Updike to be critical of Bech – it is not his responsibility. It is mine and Bech’s”(118).

Updike, argues Ozick, loves Bech most when he is “thoroughly de-Beched” – when “Bech is most openly, most shrewdly, most strategically, most lyrically Updike”(119). And this happens when the “Appropriate Reference Machine” (ARM from here on) breaks down. At these moments of failure, Updike the theologian takes over.

And in these moments, when the ARM breaks, there is a brief exposure to a Christeological kind of epiphany.   However, this doesn’t transform Beck. Rather he returns to a kind of state that is…comical.

“He (Beck) had become a character of Henry Bech.” Which is to say, a folk character out of Jewish vaudeville, not quite Groucho Marx, not yet Gimpel the Fool. Nevertheless, unsaved….Bech’s grail is cut in half, like his name, which is half a kiddish cup: becher. Over the broken brim the Jews in Bech spills out: Updike, an uncircumcised Bashevis Singer (as Mark Twain was the Gentile Sholem Aleichem), is heard in the wings, laughing imp-laughter. (120).

This, argues Ozick, has a “whiff of Christian hell.”   But, ultimately, this reflects Updike more than Jewishness. In a bold move, Ozick tells us that Updike may “theologize” Bech but he “does not theologize the Jew in Bech”(121).   Updike’s Bech is mere chatter that has nothing to do with Jewishness it has to do with ARM:

But wherever the Jew obtrudes there is clatter, clutter, a silliness sans comedy. Bech makes empty data. It is not that Updike has fallen into any large scale gaucherie or perilous failures-of-tone. It is not that Updike’s American Jew is false. It is not false enough. (121)

Ozick’s paradoxical comments about falseness are the preface to her discussion of what true Jewishness is. Bech, as “Jew,” is false because he is all sociology, all manners:

As Jew he is all sociology, which is to say all manners (acquired exilic manners); as a Jews he is pathetically truncated, like his name. So Updike finds Beck as so he leaves him. Updike comes and goes as anthropologist, transmitting nothing. (122).

What makes for Jewishness, then?

Being a Jew is something more than being an alienated marginalized sensibility with kinky hair. Simply: To be a Jew is to be covenanted; or if not committed so far, to be at least aware of the possibility of being covenanted; or at a the minimum, to be aware of the Covenant itself. (123)

And today:

It is no trick, it is nothing at all, to do a genial novel about an unconvenanted barely nostalgic secular/neuter: Bech himself, in all his multiple avatars…writes novels about Bech every day. It is besides the point for Updike and Bech together to proclaim Bech’s sociological there-ness. Of course Bech is, in that sense, there. But what is there is nothing. (123)

What interests Ozick more, however, is not what “Bech-as-he-is” as what “Bech-as-he-might-become.” To focus only on the former to the exclusion of the latter, Ozick argues, is “critically unjustifiable”(123).

Along these lines, Ozick argues that there is no use “objecting that Updike” and Jewish-American writers in their portrayals of Jews don’t “aim for the deepest point” of Jewishness. But there is a point in taking note of how the “deepest point” is “implicated when it is most omitted”(123). And that is what she is doing as a literary critic…and a Jew.

Musing on this omission, Ozick suggests that this may have been Updike’s point: “to attempt a novel about non-values, about a neuter man. To find the archetypal neuter man separated from culture, Updike as theologian reverts to Origen and Ambrose, to centuries of Christian doctrine, and in such ancient terms defines his Jew”(124).   But, more to the point, Ozick suggests that this may be the case because, for Updike, Bech, “the Jew as neuter man,” is “in the majority, or most typical…the most real”(124).

Updike sees the Jew from the outside.

But, seen from the “perspective of Jewish vision, or call it Jewish immanence (and what other perspective shall we apply to a Jew?)”:

The Jewish Bech has not reality at all, especially not to himself: he is a false Jew, a poured-out becher, one who has departed from Jewish presence.(124)

Ozick’s words suggest that she is taking on the position, in contrast to Updike, of the Jewish theologian and from Jewish immanence. Her reading suggests a theological kind of reading of at least one variety of the schlemiel and of a sociological kind of Jewishness that she rejects and finds to be “false.”   Given this reading of Updike (and the Jewish-American writers she suggests but decides not to name in her essay), we can only imagine what she would say about the schlemiels we see in film and on TV.

Literary Critics at War: On Irving Howe’s Takedown of Leslie Fiedler


A.O. Scott’s New York Times Magazine article on the current state of American culture (as evidenced by film and TV), “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” has been widely circulated and discussed.   In the article, he laments that America is devolving and entering into a state of “perpetual adolescence.” It has yet to go through adulthood and the reason for this is to be found deep in the roots of American culture. Its history and novels show it to be a culture that was born out of resistance and a desire to leave civilization behind. It is also caught up in a kind of innocence. For this reason, it is more interested in “good bad boys” like Huck Finn than in tragic characters that we find in the pages of many European novels. The intellectual underpinning of his article – and these above mentioned claims – is Leslie Fiedler. His book Love and Death in the American Novel, is cited throughout Scott’s article.   Like Fiedler, Scott thinks American literature and film, to date, are “sophomoric.” American culture needs to go through “adulthood” if it is to be more mature; but, laments Scott, this may be too late. Since there is a crisis in authority that has been caused by the end of patriarachy that we see in many TV shows and films (where the father or male figure is debunked), the result is: more films by Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Ben Stiller, the enormous popularity of books that become films like Harry Potter, etc., and a growing readership between the ages of 30 and 45.

Like many readers of Scott’s article, I was troubled and wondered if his claims were valid. Looking into the issue, I came across a review of Fiedler’s book by one of the most celebrated American literary critics of the 20th century, Irving Howe. To be sure, Howe is incredibly harsh.   And his reading suggests that Feidler is, as he says, a “crank” and that his literary criticism must be exposed. His review, entitled “Literature on the Couch,” is one of the most intense takedowns of a literary critic I have ever read. It, in short, claims that Fiedler’s literary criticism is without conscience and fraudulent because it pretends to be all-knowing:

In American literary life, the crank is by now a familiar figure. He is a man who believes he has found a total and thereby solacing explanation for the chaos and multiplicity of existence…There has been a similar development in literary criticism….What can one say about such books except that they are sincere, often ingenious, and quite batty? (Irving Howe: Celebrations and Attacks, p.150)

The last part of the sentence sticks.   Howe’s review takes on a tone that speaks to his rhetorical question. Feidler, writes Howe, has “composed another of those fascinating catastrophes with our literary scholarship is strewn.   Love and Death in the American Novel seems to me destined to become a classic instance of sophisticated crankiness”(150).

Howe, like Scott, notes the main point Fiedler makes throughout his book on the American novel. “Most American fiction, suggests Fiedler,” does not, “allow a confrontation with the needs of maturity”(151). Even thought there “might be some truth in this,” says Howe, the Fiedler’s insistence overlooks so many facets of American fiction:

When pressed with Fiedler’s monomania, this approach requires us to ignore and – what is worse – to dissolve Melville’s feelings about American society, the metaphysical concerns he inherited from Calvinism, the quasi-anarchist revulsion from civilized life which dominates some of his books. (151).

Fiedler’s obsession with a psychological-archetypal reading troubles Howe, deeply:

What Fiedler discards meanwhile is awesome. Literature is removed from any fluid relation to the development of ideas; it becomes an eternally recurrent psychodrama, dissociated from history, in which bloodless and abstracted Presences (the Dark Lady, the Good Good Girl, Good Bad Girl, the Handsome Sailor, the Great Mother, the Avenging Seducer) monotonously rehearse a charade of frustration; it has nothing to do with, and does not even credit the reality of socio-economic problems…and its apparent concern with moral problems can usually be exposed as evasion or disguise. Like a mass-culture imitation of a psychoanalyst, Fiedler refuses on principle to honor the “surface” events, characters, statements, and meanings, of the novel. He will never allow himself to be deluded by what an author says, he invariably knows better. (152)

Howe, as one can see, has become sarcastic and vindictive toward Fiedler.   In Fiedler he sees the dangers of bringing in a psychological reading of literature to bear on a culture. The greatest danger of all is the threat it poses to the notion of the critic:

For him the manifest content of a work signifies only insofar as he can penetrate it, and the plunge into the depths of the latent content. Otherwise, he seems to feel, what use would there be for a critic? (152)

As we can see, Howe thinks of Fiedler as arrogant. Fiedler “speaks with the assurance of maturity” while authors like Twain and Hawthorne do not.   Moreover, Howe lists half a page of Fiedler’s statements and notes who all of them are “inaccurate, absurd, and sensational.” They have “little to do with literature and even less with that scrupulous loyalty to a work of art that is the critic’s primary obligation.” With these words, Howe makes it clear that he thinks that Fiedler is unethical; he is not longer “loyal” to the “primary obligation” of the critic.

But Howe ends his review essay with an even bigger claim against Fiedler. Not only has he betrayed the obligation of the critic, he has also revealed a serious character flaw!

Mr. Fiedler lacks the one gift – I think it is gift of character – which is essential to the critic: the willingness to subordinate his schemes and preconceptions of the actualities of a particular novel or poem. (154)

In Howe’s view, a critic must never bend a work to his “personal or ideological needs.” To do this is to lack a “conscience”(154).

Reading Howe’s trenchant criticism of Fiedler and his literary criticism, one wonders about the claims Scott makes in his essay, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Are these claims, in drawing mainly on Fiedler, to be read as a continuation of Fiedler’s monomania or are they to be read otherwise?   Is adulthood over in America and are we stuck in perpetual adolescence? Or is this scheme of maturity and immaturity yet another archetype?

In the wake of Howe’s reading of Fiedler, perhaps we need to rethink whether or not this is the right way to read not just American film but American literature as well.

Robert Walser and Karl Marx Walk Into a Library: Toward an Ethics of Reading and Reflection


Before we speak, we listen. Or, at least, we should. In a book entitled Difficult Freedom, Emmanuel Levinas writes of how, when we listen to the other in this or that conversation, we experience peace.   This may be thought of as ironic since, after all, communication or dialogue is thought by many to be the road to peace. Nonetheless, communication is meaningless if one party isn’t listening to the other. One of the best places to experience or rather practice listening is by way of reading. To be a good reader, one must listen for nuance in the text and be able to hear and distinguish one kind of voice from another.

One must be attentive.

And it’s wonderful when this kind of attention links us to other texts and people. For instance, the poet, Paul Celan quoted these lines from Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka: “attention is the natural prayer of the soul.” But Walter Benjamin didn’t find them in Kafka; he found them in Malbranche.   Nonetheless, he found that these words speak well to Kafka’s fiction.

These words are nuanced since they suggest that we need to pay heed to our attentiveness. We must be, in a sense, vigilant. But, strangely enough, it isn’t the adult who we can best learn vigilance from – it’s the distracted child and the adult who hasn’t quite grown up or fit into a society.  It is from them that one can learn an ethics of reading and reflection.

Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka drew a lot from the work of Robert Walser who, to be sure, was very interested in how children think.   Many of Walser’s narrator’s are either children themselves or adults who think like children.

In a short story entitled “Reading,” the narrator tells us about the relationship between reading and ethics:

When I read, I am a harmless, nice and quiet person and I don’t do anything stupid. Ardent readers are a breed of people with great inner peace as it were. The reader has his noble, deep, and long-lasting pleasure without being in anyone else’s way or bothering anyone….Anyone who reads is far from hatching evil schemes. An appealing and entertaining thing to read has the good quality of making us forget for a time the nasty, quarrelsome people who cannot leave each other in peace.

Like Maurice Blanchot, who, in The Writing of the Disaster, reads distraction – rather than vigilance – as ethical the narrator tells us that “books often sidetrack us from useful and productive actions.”   Nonethelesss, readings keeps us from “our violent craving for belongings” and our “reckless thirst for action.”

The book binds us and “holds us spellbound.” It “exerts power over us.” And we are “happy to let such a tyranny occur, for it is a blessing.” It keeps us from “gossip about his dear fellow man.” Even reading a newspaper is a way to peace:

A newspaper reader is not cursing, swearing, and blustering, and for that reason alone reading newspapers is a true benediction.

Nonetheless, the narrator tells us that “we need to know how to clearly separate reading from life.” But after saying this he, like so many Walser narrators, gets distracted, loses his thread, and goes on to tell a story. But this story about a writer called “Gottfried Keller,” shows another side of the relationship between reading and life that the narrator, apparently, didn’t even know.

He points out how the reader of Keller’s books “felt like hanging her little head in a disappointed sulk. She was almost angry at and resentful of human life, because it was not like the life in Keller’s works.”

But she too made a separation and decided that it’s not “worth bearing a grudge against everyday reality.”   Rather, shrug your shoulders and walk away, humbled. She, the reader, should “laugh at herself.”

Reading is peaceful but Walser’s narrator tells the reader that it shouldn’t prompt her to change reality for that would imply that reading leads to agitation and perhaps even violence against everyday reality.

Many of today’s readers might differ with Walser and argue that the right path would be to go from the novel to reality and to change it. One can hear Karl Marx grumbling: the point is not to read about reality but to change it:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

But what about the writers? Are they no different from the philosophers or are they political? As we can see from Walser, he wasn’t interested in politics so much as peace. But, as with all great modernist fiction, one need not agree with the narrator. What we need to do is ask ourselves whether the humility he speaks of, which comes from reading, has a place in our political world which is vigilant over this or that political issue. What is the ethics of reading? Should we, rather, cultivate peace through reading more and talking less? Shouldn’t we practice listening? Or is the time for listening over and the time for projection upon us?

To be sure, Karl Marx’s favorite author was Charles Dickens. In his fiction we see social problems that need to be addressed. Its purpose is to go from the book to reality….so as to change it. That is the ethical nature of the novel or short story. Walser, in contrast, had a different idea as to what makes literature ethical. It keeps us from the vita activa (the life of action) which, he believed, does more

The Stupidity of Stupidity: Raymond Queneau’s Reflections on Gustav Flaubert’s “Bouvard and Pecuchet”


Before Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Beckett’s Vladmir and Estragon or Paul Celan’s Gross and Klein, there was Bouvard and Pecuchet, two comic characters created by Gustave Flaubert in the mid 19th century.   Gustave Flaubert originally titled his unfinished comic novel, Bouvard and Peruchet, The Story of Two Nobodies. In the introduction to his translation, Mark Polizzotti, cites several letters to show that Flaubert originally intended to write this novel as a critique of culture’s stupidity. The evidence stands for itself. In one letter, Flaubert writes “I’m contemplating something in which I’ll vent all my anger. Yes, at least I shall rid myself of what is stifling me.” In another letter to George Sand, he writes that “stupidity and injustice make me roar.” And in a letter to Turgenev, “Never have things of the mind counted for less…and the execration of literature been so unspoken.” And in yet another letter, Flaubert states that “human stupidity is a bottomless abyss, and the ocean I can see from my window seems to me quite small in comparison.”

The extraordinary French New Novelist, Raymond Queneau, knew, quite well, that the Flaubert’s last novel was motivated by his distaste for stupidity. However, Queneau doesn’t find this to be what we find in the book. It is not just a scathing attack on stupidity:

Just as Cervantes at first presents Don Quixote as a ridiculous madman and then, in Chapter 11, has him utter a beautiful tirade that expresses Cervantes’s own thoughts..thus Flaubert’s opinion of his two “bonshommes,” (fellows, characters) and even the import of the book in general, changed as it developed.

Flaubert’s attitude these characters is “ambivalent.” They aren’t, simply, stupid.   Queneau doesn’t simply see Bouvard and Peruchet as an Abbot and Costello. Rather, they take part in a “pantheonic” and “encylopediac” novel. Together, they create their own “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas.” They do and address many modern ideas and trends and think they are capable of handling each in stride. But they can’t.   And they repeat each attempt and failure with everything they approach; yet, after things are a mess, they move on not learning their lesson.

Strangely enough, Queneau finds passages which show that in writing the novel Flaubert, himself, became stupid and actually enjoyed it:

Bouvard and Pecuchet have filled me up to such a point that I have become them! Their stupidity is my own and I am bursting with it….I live as much as I can in my two fellows…the stupidity of my two characters has invaded me.

Queneau reads this repetition of failure as a kind of comic skepticism. He argues that Flaubert equates, via comedy, science and skepticism.

Flaubert is in favor of science exactly to the degree that it is skeptical, reserved, methodical, prudent, and humane.   He has a horror of dogmatists, metaphysicians, philosophers.  

He calls their work “stupidity.”   And the stupidity we see in the novel is a kind of stupidity of stupidity. Queneau calls this a “kind of pragmatism” since it criticizes their “desire for the absolute” which leads them to attempt to master all things.

Stupidity, writes Flaubert, is about “wanting to conclude.” And each failure of Flaubert’s comic duo shows us how flawed this desire is. Each thing they do puts them back to where they started. Like Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot or Mendele’s Jewish Don Quixotes in the Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the III, they learn nothing but they trace a skeptical turn away from the absolute toward the stupidity. They go nowhere. This comic, circular, and repetitive trajectory shows us the limit of progress and the limit to our Faustian obsession with knowledge and mastery.   By going through the foibles of his comic characters, Flaubert may have freed himself from stupidity. This is what Queneau seems to be suggesting.   In an age of stupidity, we need a literature of stupidity a …stupidity of stupidity….if you will.