Somewhere Between Trauma, Trust, and Comedy


Innocence is a key character trait of the schlemiel. And it is expressed through the pervading trust the schlemiel has for other people. The only problem, as we see in a character like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” is that Gimpel is constantly lied to and betrayed. But what makes this betrayal astonishing is the fact that it doesn’t affect the character’s trust in others.   Ruth Wisse argues that Gimpel is not a total fool, however. He knows that the world is full of lies but he, nonetheless, acts “as if” the good exists. He does this because he believes that, one day, good will triumph over evil. We find his continued trust of others astonishing; for if it were ourselves, most of us would become cynical or perhaps even traumatized.

And there is much to say about trauma and the schlemiel.   To be sure, there is a strong case to be made for the claim that the schlemiel is a character which was born out of trauma and is, in fact, a response to it.  Her trust is not a total defiance of trauma because we, as readers or viewers of the schlemiel, are astonished.   Many of us think that it is nearly impossible to defy the reality of historical trauma – especially after the Holocaust. Sidra Ezrahi and even Ruth Wisse have wondered whether the schlemiel should survive the trauma of the Holocaust. Regardless of their ethical queries, however, it has.

What makes the schlemiel so powerful is the fact that she consistently trusts the other. Her image of the other is not damaged by trauma. To be sure, this is astonishing because, after trauma, the subject has a hard time staying in any relationship. Since all relationships are based on trust and her trust was violated, things may never be the same. According to Judith Herman,

the roles she assigns to others may change suddenly, as the result of small lapses or disappointments, for no internal representation of another person is any longer secure. Again there is no room for mistakes. Over time, most people fail the survivor’s exacting tests of trustworthiness, she tends to withdraw from relationships. The isolation of the survivor thus persists even after she is free. (93)

In contrast to the survivor of trauma, the schlemiel’s vision of “another person” is secure (although it is not based on reality). The schlemiel doesn’t test the other so much as the other way around. The schlemiel withstands the test of betrayal, but we can’t. And the schlemiel seeks for relationships even after she has been shamed or lied to. The schlemiel doesn’t prefer isolation.

The contrast between the schlemiel and survivor is fascinating because it brings out what is most human in humanity. When people are put into captivity, are tortured, or abused, the goal of the persecutor is to make the subject live a life in which every relationship with the other “may change suddenly.”   In every relationship, the sense of deception is palpable for the survivor of trauma. Trust is dangerous. This is what the persecutor wants to instill in the victim. And coupled with this is a sense of servitude rather than freedom.

Real freedom, as the schlemiel suggests, doesn’t happen in isolation from others. This is also what Judith Herman says in her book Trauma and Recovery.   If the survivor is to fully recovery, she needs to feel that she can live in the public realm with others who she can trust.   Building trust can take a lifetime but it is the path that Herman, a psychiatrist, practices with her patients.

We are all very cynical. But many of us don’t know the breaches of trust that are experienced by the survivor.   What we can learn from the survivor and the schlemiel is that if there is hope and if humanity has a chance, it must be built on trusting the other.   Because the rupture of trust – which Gimpel and the survivor both have to address – should be a great concern to all of us.   Wherever there is a rupture of trust which emerges out of deception, betrayal, abuse, and violence, there is an act of inhumanity. And we need to stand on the side of hope which battles these things. For without trust, the world will become chaos.

A Schlemiel With a Russian Revolver: On the Un-Heroic Conduct of Saul Bellow’s Herzog – Part I


Ruth Wisse calls the schlemiel a “modern hero.” But the term is ironic. The schlemiel cannot be a typical modern hero who, like many a western hero, does something courageous and saves the day.   The schlemiel’s victories are ironic because they arise out of failure. Moreover, the schlemiel’s conduct is what Daniel Boyarin would call “unheroic.” At the outset of her book on the schlemiel, Ruth Wisse tells us that there are many jokes about schlemiels who are sent to the front of war. The schlemiel, as she shares in one joke, doesn’t know how to fight in war. But this doesn’t have to do with an anti-military stance, says Wisse, so much as an illustration that the schlemiel – like the Jewish people in diaspora – simply doesn’t know how to shoot a gun or go to war.

Saul Bellow’s Herzog, at a key point in his novel, illustrates this lack of knowledge or is it, rather, the inability to take part in an act of violence or heroism?   Bellow sets up Herzog’s challenge in the first half of the novel. It involves the fact that Herzog has been duped by a person he thought of as his friend. Valentine Gersbach, a radio announcer who is something of a Martin Buber hack, fools around with Herzog’s wife, prompts their divorce, and becomes the surrogate father of Herzog’s daughter.

Like many a schlemiel – as we see in Singer or Aleichem – Herzog loves children and especially his own daughter. He wants her back, but he fears that this will be impossible, legally, so he ends up taking things into his own hands. But before he does this, he stops by to see his lawyer, Simkin.

What makes Simkin so important for Herzog (and Bellow, in terms of the novel) is the fact that Simkin understands Herzog on a deep level but, in many ways, offers a different way of life for Herzog. He is what Herzog calls earlier a “reality teacher.” The schlemiel-question, however, is what does that mean in terms of action. Will Herzog act on what Simkin tells him about reality?

Bellow makes sure to present Simkin’s body and demeanor in a way that is contrary to that of the schlemiel, Herzog. But not completely.   Simkin loves art, loves family, and is sensitive, but he is also tough and he is a man of action. He manages to do everything he wants to do:

The ruddy, stout Machiavellian old bachelor lived with his mother and a widowed sister and several nephews and nieces on Central Park West….At eight or so he shaved his large cheeks with Norelco, and by nine, having left instructions for his staff, he was out, visiting galleries, attending auctions. (209)

Herzog asks Simkin for advice about how to act toward his ex-wife Madeline who has his child.   Simkin asks Herzog many questions about his relationship and takes note about how Gersbach took advantage of Herzog’s innocence.   He points out that Herzog could have acted but found a way to distract himself. This leads Herzog to look down on and berate himself:

Obviously, thought Moses, I wasn’t fit to look after my own interests, and proved my incompetence every day. A stupid prick! (211)

The ensuing dialogue between Herzog and Simkin is about Gersbach and it only serves to exacerbate the fact that Herzog was duped and taken advantage of:

“I was kind of surprised when you named him,” said Simkin.

“Why, did you know anything?”

“No, but there was something about his looks, his clothes, his loud voice, and his phony Yiddish. And such an exhibitionist! I didn’t like the way he hugged you. Even kissed you, if I recall…”

“That’s his exuberant Russian personality.” (211)

The irony of this dialogue is that Herzog, even though he has been duped, is still endeared by Gersbach. His love keeps him from feeling the need to hate him and take revenge.

After hearing all this, Simkin puts aside sentimentality and love and tells Herzog exactly what to do:

“Get a clean-cut gentile lawyer from one of the big firms. Don’t have a lot of Jews yelling in the court. Give you case dignity. Then you subpoena al the principals, Madeline, Gersbach, Mrs. Gersbach and put them on the stand under oath. Warn them of perjury…” (213)

All of this talk of putting them on trial and publically extracting the truth, makes Herzog nervous:

With his sleeve, Herzog wiped the sweat that broke out of his forehead. He was suddenly very hot. (213)

Simkin goes on to pose and frame the difficult questions about the betrayal and the framing. And this prompts Herzog to back off and consider not even doing the trial. It would be too intense an engagement with reality and to courageous. He would rather wait until Madeline died:

“I often think, if she died I’d get my daughter back. There are some times when I know I would look at Madeline’s corpse without pity.”(214)

In response, Simkin brings Herzog back to reality by reminding him that Gersbach and his former wife plotted and deceived him for years.   And, to emphasize how evil this was, Simkin says that they murdered Herzog: “They tried to murder you,” Simkin said. “In a manner of speaking, they meant to.”

Herzog immediately reacts to these words and realizes that this situation is a test of manhood. Will he or will he not take revenge?

He wants me to say that I actually feel capable of murdering them both. Well, it’s true.   I’ve tested it in my mind with a gun, a knife, and felt no horror, no guilt. None. And I could never imagine such a crime before. So perhaps I might kill them. But I’ll say no such thing to Harvey (Simkin). (214)

This moment is the first point in the novel that Herzog admits to such violent thoughts. They go on, inside of him, while he listens to Simkin. His thoughts and emotions start manifesting, physically:

Herzog listened, looking through the window with a hard gaze, and tried to master the spasms of his stomach and the twisted knotted sensations in his heart. The telephone seemed to pick up the sound of his blood, rhythmic, thin, and quick, washing within his skill. Perhaps it was a only a nervous reflex of his eardrums. The membranes appeared to shiver.   (214)

Although he keeps these bodily feelings and thoughts of murder to himself, as readers, we wonder: could a schlemiel really kill a man out of revenge?

This is the question and this is the test that Bellow puts his American schlemiel through. The dilemma is deep because he wants to save his daughter. He is confused because he loves her and wants her back, yet, at the same time, he knows that the only way he may get her back is either through an intense court case or…murder.   But if he is to act, he will no longer be a schlemiel.

This is the borderline that Saul Bellow places the American schlemiel on….which way will Herzog travel?

….to be continued

Siding With the British Writers: Irving Howe’s Sarcastic Criticism of the Beatniks


Irving Howe’s criticism is consistently compelling.  He is truly a brilliant critic and his writing is pedagogical in a deep sense. Howe writes like a Magid tells a story. Like a Socratic-Rabbinic sage of the Talmud, he ponders the questions he poses with each new sentence or thought (and there are many).

Howe lived in an era much different from our own, the post-World War two era. But as a Jew and a son of immigrants, he felt it and live through it in the shadow of the Holocaust. It was in the wake of destruction of Jewish life that his parents fled to America.   And, over time, he, like many “New York Intellectuals” (like Irving Kristol and Alfred Kazin) thought of himself as an American and committed himself to American letters.  In the 50s and 60s he was one of the most important literary and cultural critics on the American scene.

There is interesting criticism of the beatniks by Irving Howe that paints them in ways that Karl Marx would characterize the petty bourgeoisie. It is a trenchant claim against them. He compares the Beatniks to the English writers of the early 1960s and late 1950s. They are, together, at his time, “the most-discussed literary groups of the last few years.”(94 – A World More Attractive).

Howe comically notes, as if he is sharing a secret, that the English writers have “earned the scorn of a great number of American critics – notable, of course for aestheticism – who point out that it is not clear whether it is better or just a bigger share of material goods in contemporary England that these writers want”(95).

The punch line of the joke is that everything really might be economics. This is the possibility that Howe is playing around with. It is also the possibility that the consciousness of economics, in fiction, is, for Howe, the best of all. He sees this possibility at ripping up American criticism.

And what he does is to show that he, son of Jewish immigrant parents, sides with the English in this fight!

He argues the his main target is and must be the Beatnicks. In contrast to the English writers:

The young men in San Francisco seem largely a reflex of circumstances of mass society. They are suffering from psychic and social disturbance: and as far as that goes, they are right – there is much in American life to give one a pain. But they have no clear sense of why or how they are troubled, and some even of them seem opposed to a clear sense of anything. (95)

They are confused and don’t know why. They are foolish characters. Howe’s sentence say it clearly. Howe goes on to take a stand on this and say that the “angry men” of “England, even if their protests will prove to be entirely opportunistic and momentary, can say what it is that hurts”(95). But, says Howe, Kerouac can’t (96). They cannot pronounce that pain which is…social. It comes, says Howe, mass society. All pain is economic.

But American, Beatnick writers cannot say it.

Howe makes fun of them at the end of his essay “Mass Society and Post-Modern Fiction.” He does this by way of comparison to the English writers.

These (English)writers…illustrate the painful, though not inevitable, predicament of rebellion in a mass society: they are on the other side of the American hollow. In their (the Beatniks) contempt of mind, they are at one with the middle class that they scorn. In their incoherence of the feeling and statement, they mirror the incoherent society that clings to them like a mocking shadow. (95)

In other words, we should scorn and laugh at the beatniks and their “rejection of the mind” and its “social clarity.” This is why they are dialectical opposites of the English writers.

And he ends, like Voltaire, on a sarcastic note:

In their yearning to keep “cool,” they sing out an eternal fantasy of the shopkeeper. Feeling themselves lonely and estranged, they huddle together in gangs, creates a Brook Farm of Know-Nothings, and send back ecstatic reports to the squares: Having a Wonderful Time, Having Wonderful Kicks! But alas, all the while it is clear that they are terribly lost….and what is more pitiable, that they don’t even have the capacity for improvising vivid fantasies. (95).

I’ll end with that.