Do I Know You? I Can’t Remember: Zizek on Autism, Alzheimers, Psychosis and Post-Traumatic Birth


What can we learn from madness? And what does it imply when thinkers, writers, or artists suggest that we go mad or look to the mad for truth or insight? Many Continental writers, artists, and thinkers have found madness a source of thought and reflecting. Think of Antonin Artaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, or George Bataille. Think of Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, Gilles Deleuze’s schizo-analysis, or Maurice Blanchot’s essays on madness.   Slavoj Zizek has also ventured into this territory. In his book, The Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept, Zizek suggests that we pay close attention to the “birth” that emerges in the wake of psychosis, autism, and alzheimers.   This birth, in the wake of mental destruction or trauma, is an example of what he calls “the event.”

Using Lacanian language, Zizek turns to psychosis as giving the subject “passage” from the Real to the Symbolic:

The true point of “madness” is thus not the pure excess of the “night of the world,” but the madness of the passage to the Symbolic itself, of imposing a symbolic order on to the chaos of the Real. (Freud, in his analysis of the paranoiac judge Daniel Paul Schreber, points out how the paranoiac ‘system’ is not madness, but a desperate attempt to escape madness – the disintegration of the symbolic universe – through an ersatz universe of meaning.) If madness is constituative, than every system of meaning is minimally paranoiac, ‘mad.’….What is the madness caused by the loss of reason when compared to the madness of reason itself? (85)

Building on this, Zizek argues that we are daily beset by trauma:

First, there is external physical violence: terror attacks like 9/11, the U.S. ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Iraq, street violence, rapes, etc, but also natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, etc (85)

He also lists diseases and brain tumors such as Alzehimers, organic cerebral lesions, etc side by side with “social-symbolic violence through social exclusion.” All of these forms of trauma give birth to the post-traumatic subject who, as he argues (in a Hegelian manner), survives its death.

A post-traumatic subject is…a victim who, as it were, survives its own death: all different forms of traumatic encounters, independent of their specific nature (social, natural, biological, symbolic), lead to the same result: a new subject emerges which survives death (erasure) of its symbolic identity. There is no continuity between this new post-traumatic subject (the victim of Alzheimer’s, say) and its old identity: after the shock, a new subject emerges. (86)

Zizek describes this subject as Zombie-like:

It features a lack of emotional engagement, profound indifference and detachment; it is a subject who is no longer ‘in-the-world’ in the Heideggerian sense of engaged embodied existence. The subject lives death as a form of life. (86)

While this post-traumatic zombie may seem monstrous for many a reader, Zizek celebrates the post-traumatic subject as a “new birth” and as “living proof” that a “subject cannot be identified” with the “stories it is telling itself about itself.” The subject of Alzheimer’s is what Zizek is alluding to here as the clearest example of this new birth. What remains, according to Zizek, is the “pure subject.” And it is the “erasure of content,” especially in a living person with autism or Alzheimers – that for Zizek is terrifying for “us” since we see a “living-dead” subject.   When we look at an autistic person or someone suffering from Alzheimers, says Zizek, we have a sense that “nobody is home.”   And this feeling exposes us to a process that is far away from the world which bases itself on maintaining stories about itself and identity.

But what do we learn from this “new birth”? Zizek indirectly suggests that by exposing ourselves to this worldless post-traumatic subject that our “frameworks”(based on technology, culture, ideology, etc) will rupture and that we too may go through this journey.   The problem, however, is that in doing so our “memory” will be erased. To be born anew, means that the previous narrative we lived by must be destroyed. We must feel a vertigo of sorts, but this must be at the expense of history.

And this is troubling.

What would Zizek say about people or groups that develop narratives from out of the past? Even though a narrative may challenge a dominant narrative, will it completely or should it completely erase that past narrative? And isn’t a new narrative being created? Will that new narrative – regardless of what subaltern space it emerges from – also need to be destroyed if it is to become “pure subjectivity?” More importantly, how can people relate to each other if they are without a narrative or if they have lost all memory?  They would look at each other, scratch their heads, and wonder: Do I know you? I Can’t remember.

Gastronomic Blasphemy: Yom Kippur on Broad City and Yidlife Crisis


It’s hard to know what to make of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s latest video-clip on Yom Kippur.   On the one hand, I am somewhat-astonished that they would portray themselves as even keeping Yom Kippur. (Somewhat because…nothing on the show is really meant to astonish anyone. The comedy is centered around their half conscious indifference toward just about everything. And their petty first-world-problems in New York City, which they take as meaningful, make me – and many others – feel cynical.) On the other hand, the fact that they even try to do Yom Kippur – because it is “Jewish” – is not astonishing at all and hits on a transgressive theme we find in some Jewish comedy.

The sacrifice they make in this episode is – of course – ironic. For one day, they won’t simply fast; rather, they won’t eat their bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches which are, throughout the clip, within the viewers frame and are within their reach.

Both Ilana and Abbi are endearing.  When they recount their bad deeds (Ilana calls that act a “Jewish” thing) we can see that they are comically naive.  They are, like children, a little naughty.  (Think of the tradition popularized by Mark Twain of the good little bad-boy.)  The “worst” thing done – at least for the moment – is Ilana’s trick on Abbi. While Ilana distracts her by asking Abbi about her Oprah poster, she sneaks a bite from a granola bar.

The conversation turns toward a discussion of blow jobs because Abbi said she “wishes she had something in her mouth.” Ilana distracts her a second time and takes a shot of whip-cream in her mouth. Abbi catches her.

But it’s too much, says Ilana. She’s dying. She can’t fast any more, so she and Abbi come up with a comical “loop hole” of sorts. If they don’t eat their ham-and-cheese sandwiches, they may be doing something deeply wrong. To kill the guilt and fear they just concocted, they quckly eat their sandwiches.

They feel good after doing it. And that’s really what its all about on Broad City: feeling good about what you do, whatever that is, even though that feeling is, like all else on the show, a passing amusement.

Rather than read this as simple blasphemy – what, after all, is worse than eating on Yom Kippur? – we can read in their gestures as indicative of a kind of Jewishness that is based on something American: always doing what one wants. After all, American Jews are free and…not just Jewish. This theme is nothing new.   Yid Life Crisis plays with the theme of eating on Yom Kippur in its first episode.

The difference – it seems – is Jewish literacy. While Abbi plays a foil to Ilana, in the end she gives in. And they share in the “deed.” In Yid Life crisis, the same thing happens. But, at the very least, they are speaking Yiddish. Either way you roll it, the jokes “edginess” is based on a kind of blasphemy. But one is more indifferent and illiterate than the other.

The kind of Jewishness that has the upper hand is “gastronomic.”  On this note, Ted Merwin, a scholar who just published a book entitled Pastrami on Rye: an Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, thinks that the “gastronomic” type of Jewishness is having its last gasps.     Jewishness, he thinks, needs to turn elsewhere if it is to survive.

What’s fascinating about both of these clips is the fact that instead of eating Jewish food, all the characters eat treif.   But can the celebration of treif and the transgression of Yom Kippur spell out the survival of Jewishness? Can turning transgression of food taboos, ironically, give life to a new kind of “edgy” and comical Jewishness?   And what does it imply that the survival of Jewishness must be at the expense of Judaism which it should continuously mock?

The practice of mocking Judaism is nothing new. The indifference to things that are Jewish by American Jews, however, is.   And while Yid Life crisis pitches all of its shows to Jews with a strong sense of Jewishness, Broad City has a wider audience. And its Yom Kippur episode is a drop in the American bucket.   In the end, it seems more and more obvious that happiness is greater for many American Jews than Yiddishkeit. (The millennial generation, which is appealed to by Broad Street, is after all the audience.)  With this in mind, I can, in fact, say that I am surprised by that Broad Street would even stage this Yom Kippur transgression.  Perhaps there is still hope.

If people still keep something Jewish, then there can be a punch line. If they don’t, I wouldn’t expect Broad City, Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, et al to tell any Jewish jokes in the near future.   One wonders, like Noah Baumbach, whether many millennials even care.

Wrestling, the Spectacle, Politics, and the Desire for Justice


Nearly every day, one can find an article discussing Donald Trump as a political spectacle. This morning, I saw a tweet by likening the appeal of his political campaign to “Reality TV.” And just yesterday, I saw an article that evoked Roland Barthes celebrated reading of wrestling – in his book Mythologies – as a way of understanding Donald Trump’s political appeal. The reading, by Judd Legum, hit on some important points made my Barthes that do, in many ways, explain why Trump is so popular. He does this, especially, by noting Barthes distinction between the Boxer and the Wrestler.  I’d like to make a more detailed reading.

The key to the distinction between the Boxer and the Wrestler deals with the effacement of narrative and narrative time by the spectacle. Since what matters for the public is not “what it thinks but what is sees,” the public wants to leap over narrative. It wants the immediacy of the embodied spectacle. It is something which everyone understands. It appeals, so to speak, to “common sense.”

This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result. (18)

The passion and immediacy, notes Barthes, comes out of what Charles Baudelaire calls the “grandiloquence of gesture.” The focus is not on narrative and not on intellectual content; it is on the body. Barthes points out that the body of the wrestler signifies immediately.   He describes the body of “the salaud, the bastard,” which appears repugnant.

Not only is ugliness used here to signify baseness, but in addition ugliness is wholly gathered into a particularly repulsive quality of matter: the palid collapse of dead flesh. (17)

The physique of the wrestler is, as Barthes notes, “preemptive.” It makes people shout out for something to be done to the body. The body is not about quality; it is about intensity and quantity. And the gestures of the wrestler are, as Barthes suggests, “diacritical.”

Wrestling is like diacritic writing: above the fundamental meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments which are episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of the fight by means of gestures, attitudes, and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious. (18)

Barthes is fascinated with this obviousness because it brings out things that are otherwise complicated, like evil, and makes them available to all viewers. And wrestling does so in an excessive manner:

What is displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel (an arm-lock, a twisted leg) offers an excessive portrayal of suffering. (19)

Moreover, Barthes argues that the wrestler shows the audience the “conditions of suffering,” which, were they to be articulated in a narrative, would be more obscure.   More importantly, these conditions are displayed on a body. And when they are shown, they do not appear as a “conventional sign” so much as a “duration”(21). And in being a duration, Barthes tells us that the hits inflicted on the body call for “justice.”

But that justice differs in France and in America.

According to Barthes, the fight is more “ethical” in France, while being “political” in America. In America there is a “sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a quasi-political nature, the ‘bad’ wrestler always being supposed to be Red). The process of creating heroes in French wrestling is very different, being based on ethics not politics”(23). In other words, the blows dealt to the “bastard’s body ” differ based on the location of the wrestling match and the country’s interests.

But whether it is America or France, Barthes suggests that the appeal to justice is an appeal to common sense:

In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively.   Leaving nothing in the shade, each action discards all parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like Nature. This grandiloquence is nothing but the age-old image of the perfect intelligibility of reality. (25)

In this sense, religion is like myth since everything: good and evil, right and wrong, is visible to the viewer. When wrestling comes into the ring of politics, we have what Walter Benjamin would call the “aestheticization of politics.”   This common sense, so to speak, is focused on the body and the theater is measured or quantified by blows and gestures.

On this note, it is a fascinating to see how the blows to the body are also made into a major theme by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me (one can read a major part of the book here). But in his book as opposed to wrestling as  portrayed by Barthes, the black body doesn’t receive justice; it just gets beaten.  For Coates, the “dream” (read, the myth) obscures the fact that the black body has not received justice.  He wants his son – and the reader – to see that the match is rigged.   This is common sense to “me” (to an African American  named Te-Nehisi Coates) but it is not common sense to what Coates calls “the (white) world.” This shows that what may be common sense for some, may not be for others. Regardless, it is the body which is the focus and the image of justice that is desired.

But it is the complicated nature of Evil and justice which is not seen in all its true cruelty. And that, suggests Coates, has to do with the fact that America cannot let go of its “divine narrative” and “innocence.” Wrestling, it seems, wants to preserve it and so, it seems, does a certain variant of politics that we are seeing these days. After all, we would all love good and evil to be given immediate form and to know what is what and which is which. Without this desire, what meaning would the spectacle have for Americans?

Cynical, Middle-Aged, Oversexed, and Alone After the Sexual Revolution: On Michel Houellebecq’s “The Elementary Particles” – Part I


Many cultural critics and artists have taken to the subject of what has happened to American culture (and Western culture) in the wake of the sexual and feminist revolution of the 1960s.   One of the most interesting – and recent – encounters with this topic can be found in a piece by A.O. Scott for The New York Times Magazine entitled the “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.”   In that essay, Scott suggests that, with the sexual and feminist revolution of the sixties, American men have, over time, lost a sense of how to engage in a mature relationship with women.  While women have become more powerful and have many role models, male sexuality has been diminished.  Male ideals and norms have been effaced, as evidenced by shows like Madmen, The Sopranos, and even, as Scott argues, Breaking Bad.   In the wake of this destruction of masculinity, there is a new phenomenon which Scott calls “perpetual adolescence.” Scott finds abundant evidence. Why, after all, are films by and starring Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler so popular today? Why are a large majority of people who read Harry Potter readers between the ages of 30 and 50? Scott sees the ascendance of what I would call a schlemiel as an “unintended consequence” of the sexual and feminist revolution.  With this in mind, Scott ends his essay in a cynical manner; namely, be calling for an end to this kind of culture that perpetuates childhood rather than calling for a new kind of maturity. He cynically tells the perpetual adolescents to “get off his lawn.”

While Scott may appear cynical, he is not by any means as despondent as Michel Houellebecq, in his novel The Elementary Particles.  Written in 2000, this novel is deeply interested in what has happened in the wake of the sexual and feminist revolution.   One could argue that Houellebecq’s novel is a kind of antidote to all of the Apatow and Rogen films we see year after year. However, the pill Houellebecq is asking his readers to swallow may be too bitter for the American reader.   It may prompt the reader to think about the “other” unintended consequences which will, inevitably, give birth to an increased sense of cynicism.

There are two primary characters in Houellebecq’s novel. They are brothers from the same mother but a different father.   Both are completely different from each other, too.   Their mother is a product of the sexual revolution. She is a good looking woman who decides to leave her children behind and run off to California to join the revolution.   She eventually returns but as a middle aged woman. One of her sons, Michel, is a microbiologist. He is good looking and has sexual opportunities as a child, but he turns them down. He is more interested in science and less interested in emotions. Michel’s interest in the body is more scientific that sexual. In contrast, Bruno is not good looking, has not had a healthy experience with sexuality, and is obsessed with sex.

Although we see Bruno age and change over time, we see that he, too, is a kind of (to use A.O. Scott’s term) “perpetual adolescent.” But of all the ages we could focus on, Houellebecq chooses to focus on Bruno in his 40s. And he does this for good reason: he portrays Bruno as middle aged, cynical, and oversexed so as to give us a negative sense of what has happened in the wake of the sexual revolution.    But he does this within the context of a retreat center which has taken the values of the 60s and capitalized on them.

One of the longest chapters in the book situates Bruno at Lieu du Changment, a resort for New Agers and people interested in exploring the body, spirituality, and sexuality.   As a cynic, Bruno sticks out in this new age establishment. He doesn’t go for spiritual reasons; he goes there because he is alone and sexually desperate.

Houellebecq, using a cynical and sharp narrator, points out how Lieu du Changement went from being a hippie kind of commune to a money making operation in order to survive in the 90s. It, like Bruno, “ran into the problem of aging.”

There were theater workshops and message therapy, but it was basically a campsite; the accommodations and facilities were not up to resort standards. Apart from that the anarchic spirit of the place made it difficult to control access and collect payments; its finances, which were precarious, became even more problematic. (85)

For this reason, they have a “business meeting” and decide that it was a business and a part of the “leisure industry.”

Why not invest that experience (of Zen meditation, Gestalt Therapy, TM, yoga, etc) in developing a series of residential courses aimed at businesses? After fierce debate, the proposal was adopted….The founders organized an extensive mailing list, targeting human resources directors at multinational companies. Some of the more left wing founders found this transition difficult to accept. (86)

Bruno decides to visit the new and corporately improved Lieu du Changement. Because of his sexual drive, age, and cynicism, he doesn’t fit in:

Bruno woke up with a crippling headache and no illusions. He had heard about the place from a secretary who had been on a “Personal Development – Positive Thinking” course at five thousand francs a day….Friendly, open-minded, liberal; he got the picture. But one statistic at the bottom of the page (of a brochure he saw) attracted his attention: in July-August of the previous year, sixty-three percent of the visitors to the Lieu du Changement were female.   That was almost two women to every man. (86)

He decides to go, fantasizing that he, a middle aged man, will find a young woman and have sex. But he is too cynical to completely buy in to this fantasy; but, in the end, he does: “Of course, he could guess what sort of women went there: deranged old lefties who were probably HIV-positive. But still, with two women to every man, he stood a chance; if he worked it properly, he might even bag two”(86).

The narration that ensues is pretty gross and pornographic, but it gets across the point that Bruno loves to masturbate and fantasize about women he will never talk to or address. He has all the makings of a pervert:

He lifted himself on his elbow and poured himself his first whiskey. The copy of Swing was still open at the same page. A guy who kept his socks on – his name was Herve – was thrusting his cock toward the camera with visible effort.   Not my thing, thought Bruno, not at all. He put on a pair of boxer shorts and walked toward the shower block….Bruno had always liked jerking off between a girl’s tits, but whores didn’t really go for it. Was it the fact that you came in their faces and that turned them off?….He arrived at the shower block, Body Space 8. He had more or less resigned himself to the women being old and decrepit and was taken aback to see teenagers. (87)

Nothing happens in this encounter save for him, in the end, feeling old and sexually despondent. The narrator reflects on the world which has resulted in the wake of the sexual revolution – twenty years later; it has no fantasies about sex at any age; it emulates youth while despising aging. For the middle-aged men and women at the retreat, one can expect only cynical things:

Dedicated exclusively to sexual liberation and the expression of desire, the Lieu du Changement naturally became a place of depression and bitterness. Farewell to limbs entwined in a clearly under the full moon! Farewell to the quasi-Dionysian spectacle of oiled bodies glistening under the midday sun. That, at least, is what the forty-somethings muttered as they regarded their flaccid pricks and rolls of fat. (90)

The closest American correlate to Bruno’s kind of character and his cynical predicament can be found in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance – as Allan – in Happiness (1998).  I’ll end on this cynical, sexual note.   To be continued…..

Is this a Joke? On Mary McCarthy’s Afterword to Jean-Francois Revel’s Radical Book/Pamphlet, “Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution”


I always felt like I was born a generation too late. My reception of 60s and 70s radicalism was, if anything, belated. It was the legacy of my parent’s and uncle’s generation. My generation was certainly affected by it but it didn’t “transform” us as it did them. To be sure, as an American growing up in the 80s and 90s, I always wished I had such an opportunity. Instead, I lived in the Regan and Clinton Era. Things were rather stable and status quo. And for me, books with radical content always made me wonder if there was any trace of that transformation left. I wondered if, by reading this or that book, I would get it.   But oftentimes instead of getting “it,” I got something else that I didn’t expect. And that’s great because I love surprises.

For this reason, I love stumbling across rare or out of print books which, years ago, moved the hearts and minds of another generation. As I turned (and turn) the pages of these books, I try (and have tried) to imagine what went through the heads of people who first read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or set their eyes on an experimental novel like Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. On one of my digressive excursions into the bowels of my favorite used bookstore in Saratoga, New York, I ran across a “radical” book published in 1971.   It’s title struck my eye, immediately: Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution.   The book was authored by Jean-Francois Revel – a popular writer in France. He was well known for being a socialist and a radical journalist. Curious about the book and its contents, I bought it and brought it back home with me.

The book was translated from the French into the English. However, one can imagine that he wanted it to be translated since, on the one hand, it is meant to 1) shock Frenchmen and women out of their anti-Americanism and 2) suggest that the Marxism that they adopted and drew from Stalin and Mao was way off in its predictions about where “the revolution” would begin. Instead of taking a foothold in the Third World or in Europe, it would begin in America.   This is a shock for them, but it would, I imagine, be a thrill for those American youth at the time (the early 70s) who were eager for a “revolution.”

I was surprised to see how Mary McCarthy, the celebrated writer for The New Yorker (who was close with Hannah Arendt) characterized the book in the first pages of her Afterword. She imagines how an intelligent American at that time would receive the book. Her style and tone bespeaks a certain kind of way of being an American which is skeptical about things European and, at the same time, it suggests how shocking this book is to the French:

Listen to the first sentence. “The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States.” Pow!!! The French reader is already seeing stars when the second sentence hits him. “It can take place nowhere else.” Americans may feel bewildered, skeptical, glad or sorry to hear the news, curious to know more. But you have to be French to get the full impact, the “visceral reaction.” Every since you could count up to ten or spell c-h-a-t, you have been secure in the thought that the U.S. is the citadel of imperialism, racism, vulgarity, conformism, and now a Frenchmen returns from a voyage of discovery to say it is a hotbed of revolution. (212)

McCarthy asks you, the reader, “Is it joke?” Can Americans take this book seriously?

No and yes. It may have started out as a hardy quip or demolishing retort, and somewhere behind these pages Jean-Francois is still suppressing an inadvertent smile. We, his readers, not required to school our features, laugh out loud in delight. (212)

The delight we take in this book is comical.   Americans laugh, says McCarthy, because we can imagine the reaction it will have on the French who are being “shaken, jostled, disarrayed, like a matron in some old slapstick”(212). But he’s not the only person we will laugh at. We will also laugh at the author:

That expressionless comedian, swinging from a precipice, teetering on a tightrope. We laugh at his imperturbability in the presence of immanent danger, at his reckless aplomb in courting ridicule – the reverse of sympathetic chuckles. He is serious, he protests: “Why are you laughing? (212)

McCarthy goes on to call his books “cliff hangers” and “heresies.” She caricatures him and imagines the French culture and its Catholicism which gave birth to his desire to break the rules.   “His anti-clerical nostrils are quick to detect the slightest smell of incense, and misfortune – or good luck…he has passed most of his life among the devout”(213). And now he wants to write things in rebellion against them.

Should we join him in his rebellion? This is a question which McCarthy seriously entertains. She notes that he is, without a doubt, biased. But “there is something wonderfully disinterested about Revel’s biases, a joy in the bias itself as an artistic form, embracing hyperbole and conducing, finally, to laughter”(213-214, my emphasis).

This moment in her afterword is fascinating. It suggests that a bias can be “disinterested,” enjoyable, and hilarious in its cruelty.   In addition, she thinks that – even though it may be personal and not be rationally justified – it is still…justified:

If he has a personal grievance, it is a long-standing, deeply nurtured one against the immovable forces of entrenched beliefs that insult his sense of the self-evident. (214)

This observation or rather hypothetical syllogism is the basis of McCarthy’s vindication of the book. There is a “dizzying” joy to going against the status quo and if it is personal and biased it is all the more revolutionary and just. As an American, McCarthy suggests that this “pamphlet” – like those of the French Revolution – is a work of agit prop. It includes “provocation, surprise attack, deftness, rapidity, polemical sparkle” but it is not a premonition of a real revolution in America (or as McCarthy says, “a Second Coming…materializing in the California desert”).   Rather, the book should be read as a satire (223).   He posits revolution in America only because it has failed in France. In other words, he wrote this book in order to cajole them.

He addresses serious things no less which are, by no means, a laughing matter. For instance, there are discussions in the book about the necessity of violence in a revolution.   And against many of those who look to violence as a means (such as Georges Sorel and his book Reflections on Violence), he, at one point, suggests that the insistence on the relationship of revolution to violence is an “error”(103).   He notes, however, that the lines between violence and non-violence are not clear:

Real revolutionary activity consists in transforming reality, in making reality conform more closely to one’s ideal, one’s point of view. That transformation can be achieved only through revolutionary means. Sometimes, that means is violence; sometimes, it is not. In any case, violence, as a means, does not signify the same thing. (104)

The question of violence, to be sure, is hard to satirize. And, in reading McCarthy’s Afterword against these reflections, it dawned on me that many people who picked up his translated book in the United States may have had a different reaction. Perhaps they didn’t take it as a satire but as a handbook of sorts. But that may be the twist: McCarthy was worried that people would take the most violent aspects of a new “American” revolution seriously.   Perhaps she agreed with the Europeans who, as Revel notes often (when writing about “anti-Americanism”), regarded American’s as “idiots.”

Regardless, it is interesting to see that McCarthy allows for these rants and sees them justified but, ultimately, sees the advantage of seeing them from a detached comic perspective. She, herself, may understand it but she doesn’t want to participate in it. She lets it happen but prefers to take on the comic perspective. It was, for her, in the early 1970s, the best route. For if she didn’t, she, too, would be taken in by what she considers a great work of “agit-prop.”

Reflecting on this book, today, in September 2015, I wonder, how would I react? Would I side with McCarthy’s comic reading or would I, like many American youth of the early 70s, be eager for something more serious? The fact of the matter is that in hard times, when violence is raging and tension is high, people are less interested in humor than in something more political and serious. Perhaps these times are with us today. But instead of using satire or comedy to get some distance, I realize, today, that comedy can and has been used for agit prop.   Satire can and has been used to spur people to become more serious about political issues: take a look at your Twitter feed or your Facebook feed for evidence of that.   What McCarthy does is to show how polemics can be exciting by way of being personal and even biased but what she leaves out of her reflections is the other side of humor, the violent one.

I’ll end on that note.

“Don Quixote in Schlemieland” – A Guest Post by Ilan Stavans


My first intent was to call this blog post “Schlemiel the First,” since it strikes me that Don Quixote, the mythical character created by Miguel de Cervantes (the second, and concluding, part of the novel was published in 1615, exactly four hundred years ago), is the source, the ur-text from which all subsequent schlemiels come from. But I immediately realized this, in and of itself, is a myth, by which I mean, in this case, a false premise. The Merriam-Webster definition of schlemiel is “an unlucky bungler.” Much might be said about Don Quixote, including that he is a schemer, an impostor, even a fraud. In the long and tortured—maybe “torturous”—narrative, he goes through all sorts of ordeals through which he puts his fanciful ideals to test. But one thing is certain: he is never unlucky.

In my yidishe kop I’ve always thought (call it pensée irrationnel) that “Quijotismo” in Spanish is the condition of being a schlemiel. In other words, either Don Quixote is’t a schlemiel or Merriam-Webster is wrong, or both. In my Yiddish-speaking childhood home in Mexico there were heated discussions attempting to differentiate between a schlemiel and a schlimazel. The former was seen as a fool, and Don Quixote is certainly one, whereas the latter as understood to a person prone for misfortune, which is also a description of Don Quixote. He is a mix of both, then. In the discussions, someone would frequently say that you can’t be a fool without being unlucky, although the opposite, you can’t be unlucky without being a fool, doesn’t hold true.

This conundrum—that the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance bring these two qualities together—is untenable in my eyes. To explain why I need to comment on various elements of Cervantes’s book.

It is considered the first modern novel. It is, in my estimation, the one that, almost singlehandedly, invented modernity. Cervantes was a cautious proponent of the Enlightenment in Spain. Don Quixote is courageous in idealizing the power of dreams but it doesn’t take the Holy Inquisition head on, nor does it intend to. It distills some of the ideas of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s In Praise of Folly, although, again, it isn’t critical of the Catholic Church as an institution, at least not directly. What the narrative does—illustriously, no doubt—is question the concept of truth.

Should it be written with a capital “T,” that is, might it ever be seen as absolute? Cervantes’s answer is a rotund no: as Schopenhauer and Bishop Berkley would argue later, everything we are exposed to, reality as a whole, exists only in our mind; it is subjective, meaning relative, biased, and partial. We are the architects of the world, for the only way to register it, the only way to represent it is through our independent perspective. One could call this approach a road to foolish, for, after all, if the stimulation we receive from the outside is invariably filtered by our own misconceptions, truth and falsehood are easily interchangeable.

Yet Don Quixote of La Mancha is wiser; it doesn’t fall for this easy, Manichean dichotomy. Its basic premise is that reality and our imagination are intrinsically connected and, perhaps more importantly, that reason and foolishness aren’t antonyms. This is why I love Cervantes’s novel: because it proposes to see reason also not as absolute. A fool might be quite intelligent, even reasonable. And reasonable people is often foolish.

The reader delves into the adventures of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho with the intuition that they are a study in contrasts: one is rich and the other poor, one is thin and the other fat; one is an idealist and the other a pragmatist; and one is learned and the other illiterate. More importantly, the reader enters the novel with the conviction that one is a fool and the other is not.

The narrative quickly brings down these expectations. In fact, it fulminates them. It takes almost no time to realize that Cervantes is presenting different types of knowledge: the learned man, for instance, is often impractical. Furthermore, as the episodes accumulate the reader witnesses an extraordinary feast: Don Quixote is “Sanchified” and Sancho Panza is “Quixotified”; that is, elements from one suddenly appear in the other and vice versa. That, after all, is what true friendship is about.

All this is done through laughter. The novel is a parody: it makes fun of chivalry literature; it also makes fun of itself and it even makes fun of humor. It thrives on the wretched, the ridiculous, and the pathetic, an aspect, needless to say, constant in depictions of schlemiels: we laugh at and with them.

In any case, the knight isn’t a bungler. He doesn’t habitually bungle things. He isn’t an amateur either. He is impish, clumsy, certainly inelegant, but he even often gets from people what he wants. Sancho also isn’t unlucky. Actually, as recompense he is promised, early on in the plot, the governorship of an island, which will be a way for him to be paid and, along the way, cease being poor, and toward the end of the Second Part he does get it, sort of: it is called Barataria, and after a brief tenure at its helm he realizes it is better for him not to get involved in politics. So no: the fellow is rewarded and he learns from experience not to want to be outside his own class.

Still, Don Quixote, more than Sancho, does strike me as a schlemiel, maybe even the proto-schlemiel: the fool of fools, a wise man whose façade confounds those around him. And he is a schlimazel in that, in his quest to right all wrongs, he is regularly hit by misfortune. By the way, being hit by misfortune isn’t the same as being unlucky. They are dramatically different things.

In fact, my impression is that Don Quixote of La Mancha inaugurates a space—call it “Schlemieland—wherein the state of being a fool in constant misfortune becomes a feature of life in general. It is the space where dreams are attempted but fail to materialize, the dimension where everything we try ends up in failure. Cervantes’s character is a success in failure. Everything he attempts ends up in collapse yet his effort becomes a model, even a form of sustenance for others who, when, toward the end of the novel, he renounces his dreams and is ready to die as the hidalgo he once was, beg him—nah, they implore him—to remain the fool he always was.

There is a longstanding tradition in Jewish literature of celebrating, even emulating Don Quixote, discreetly or otherwise. Mendele Mokher Sforim’s Masoes Beniamin Hashlishi (Travels of Benjamin the Third) is the most obvious example. There are Quixotic elements in Tevye, in Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories, in Philip Roth, in Woody Allen, all of whom, to some degree, inhabit that liminal space invoked by Cervantes I’ve called Schlemieland.

The word “schlemiel” came about in the Pale of Settlement. Its birth is probably in the 17th century, although there is no data to prove it. Either way, I’m aware it is an anachronism to describe Don Quixote as a schlemiel and, furthermore, to image La Mancha and beyond, the universe in which he moves, as Schlemieland. Still, our language—any language—is made of a hefty dose of anachronisms. This is because every time a new concept emerges, people apply it not only to address the present but, unequivocally, to refer to the past. Not to go too far, think of the word “Quixotic,” which is taken to mean a dreamer, a person who is unrealistic. Not long ago, I came across a scholarly portrayal of Moses, the biblical patriarch, as Quixotic. Talk about applying the tools of one era to understand another.

Why not? If Moses is Quixotic then Don Quixote is Schlemiel the First.


Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is Quixote: The Novel and the World, just out from Norton. He wrote the introduction to the 400th anniversary edition of Don Quixote of La Mancha (Restless Books).

How Can Tevye Forgive Menachem Mendl? On Betrayal, Theft, and Forgiveness in Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In”


There is nothing worse than betrayal. But there are different degrees of betrayal. Some forms are worse than others. The worst violation of trust occurs when the person who is the betrayer is a close friend or a relative.   The stakes are especially high when the entrusted party is approached by a family member or friend who puts his livelihood, wife, and children on the line. Such a betrayal can destroy a person’s outlook on life and make him or her cynical and bitter.   In betraying trust, one destroys or seriously damages hope…and humanity.

Judaism, to be sure, is based in large part on the notion – germane to “covenantal theology” – that the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d (the covenant between them) is based on trust that neither party will ever betray the other. There is a trust, built into Judaism, that G-d promises and delivers. What makes the Torah so special is the fact that, from start to finish, there are trust issues between the Jewish people and God. As Moses Maimonides and other Rabbinic scholars have noted many times, God is constantly, throughout history, testing the trust of the Jewish people.  But there is a twist. Even though trust may be damaged or even destroyed in the relationship between man and God – which we see throughout the Torah, as in the story of Yosef – forgiveness is possible, trust can be re-established, and promises can be renewed. This works with God and man. But when it comes to betrayal and forgiveness between human beings, it’s a more complex matter.

In Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In,” which is a part of Tevye the Dairyman, we see the playing out of trust, betrayal, and forgiveness between Tevye and Menachem-Mendl.   As many people know from Fiddler on the Roof or from a cursory reading of Aliechem’s most famous book, Tevye is the epitome of the honest, poor, and simple everyday Jew. He is a G-d fearing man who, in his kindness, gives every man and woman a chance.   However, there is a very important chapter (short story) in Tevye the Dairyman which shows Tevye in the most uncharacteristic way – as a cynic.

The story starts off in the wake of a betrayal by his “relative, Menachem-Mendl…a fly-by-night, a who knows what, a wheeler-dealer, a manipulator, may he never find a resting place”(23).   Menachem-Mendl’s betrayal shifts Tevye’s view of life.  Aleichem, by way of these characters, takes his readers through his betrayal of Tevye and leaves us to judge whether or not the conclusion of the tale – and Tevye’s decision – is just.

Tevye starts off his tale on a bitter note. He points out how poor he was and how he had to sell everything he had in order to support his family but…it’s simply not enough. He is in a dire situation and he imagines – as he usually does – what good he would do if he actually had money:

Having sold everything and thrown some hay to my horse, I decided to take a stroll around town. As it is said, Man is but dust – a man is only human. I wanted to see a bit of the world, breathe the air, and look at the find good that Yehupetz displays in its shopwindows….Standing just like that at a large shop window with a pocketful of cons and ruble notes, I thought, God in heaven! If I had a tenth of what I see here, I would never complain to God again. I’d make a match for my eldest daughter and give her a good dowry….I’d see to it that the house of study had a metal roof, not a roof about to collapse any minute. I’d open a religious school in town and hospital and a shelter…so poor people wouldn’t have to lie around on the bare floor of a house of study. (24)

In the midst of his dreaming of the good he will do for his people, he is startled – or rather awakened – by a voice:

Sholem Aleichem, Reb Tevye!” I heard someone call from behind me. “How are you?” (24)

The voice is of his “second cousin once removed,” Menachem-Mendl. After doing their Jewish geography, Tevye embraces him as he would any family member (with love and concern).   Tevye notices that Menachem-Mendl looks poor and ragged and he becomes sympathetic. He tells Menachem-Mendel that a “Jew must have hope” and “faith” that things will get better:

I stole a glance at his shabby clothes, patched in many places, the shoes almost worn through. “You can be sure that God will help you and things will get better. As it says in the Bible, All is vanity. Money,” I said, “is round, one day it rolls this way, another day it rolls away, so long as you live. The most important thing is faith. A Jew must have hope. (24)

Tevye sees that Yehupetz has not been good to Menachem-Mendl and offers him his home to come back to and heal:

“Listen to me, Menachem-Mendl,” I said, “come to my place for a day, and you can at least rest your bones. You’ll be my guest,” I said, “a welcome one too. My wife will be happy to have you”(25).

Menachem-Mendl agrees, goes home with Tevye, and brings “nachas”(joy) to him since there is nothing more pleasurable for Tevye than having a guest. And what is better than a guest who is family? The trust that circulates between them is a given.

We drove home together, and everyone was delighted to see him – a guest! Here was our own second cousin, no small matter. As they say, “One’s own are not strangers.” Golde’s (Tevye’s wife) grilling began: How are thigns in Kasrilevka? How is Uncle Boruch-Hersh?…Who got divorced? Who has given birth and who is expecting?” (25)

Tevye feeds and treats Menachem-Mendl like a Prince. Menachem-Mendl praises and thanks Tevye and his wife for the food and hospitality.   He swears that he has never experienced such kindness.

After they finish eating, Menachem-Mendl starts talking about what happened to him. He tells Tevye how he became rich and lost his money.   Tevye is impressed with Menachem-Mendl’s grasp of how the market works (26). As Menachem-Mendl manically goes on and on about his business dealings and the ways of the world, Tevye starts dreaming about money. The next morning, Menachem-Mendl props him up and makes Tevye an offer he can’t refuse. If he “partners up” with and gives Menachem-Mendl money, Menachem-Mendl assures Tevye that he will become a rich man.   But Menahcem-Mendl goes farther than that and appeals to Tevy’s desire for the good by telling Tevye that by doing so, Tevye will “save his life” and bring him “back from the dead.”

“You now have the chance, Reb Tevye, to make quite a few groschens and also save my life, literally bring me back from the dead.”(26).

Although Tevye tells him he doesn’t have much money, Menachem-Mendl pushes him to give more money than he can afford to give and to trust him fully on this “investment.”

“Really now,” he said, “are you telling me you can’t find a mere hundred, Reb Tevye, with your business, and your reputation, kayn eyen horeh?” (27)

All of the talking overwhelms Tevye, and he entrusts Menachem-Mendl. He starts having hope and convinces himself that Menachem-Mendl couldn’t be a liar. Menachem-Mendl could be a “heaven sent messenger” who could help Tevye live the rest of his life as a “respectable man.”

To make a long story short – why should I carry on? – I developed a yearning, and it was no laughing matter. Who could tell? I asked myself. Maybe he was a heaven-sent messenger…He didn’t strike me as a liar, making up tall tales out of his head. And what if things did turn around as he had said, and Tevye could become a bit of a mensch in his old age? How long could a person struggle and slave day after day, again and again the horse and wagon, again cheese and butter? (28)

Menachem-Mendl seals the deal by invoking God. He tells Tevye that God should “punish him” if he cheats Tevye:

“You can believe me, Reb Tevye,” he said. “I swear to you, let God punish me if I cheat you. I will honestly share everything with you.”(29)

After Menachem-Mendl gets the money and departs, Tevye starts dreaming of all the money he will have and how well the family will live:

We parted like the best of friends and kissed affectionately, as in usual between relatives. Standing by myself after he left, lively thoughts and daydreams entered my head, such sweet dreams that I wanted them never to end, to go on forever. (29)

Menachem-Mendl’s assurances and promises, which feed Tevye’s dreams of a better life are a prelude to the major betrayal.  Tevye’s wife starts worrying and, in the end, she is right. Everything falls to pieces.

Menachem-Mendl disappears and stops communicating with his “partner,” Tevye. Tevye starts realizing that he has been duped and starts, understandably, “going out of his mind.” This passage, of Tevye’s realization, are sad and shocking. They are very unique in Aleichem’s corpus of fiction, which is usually more upbeat and hopeful.

In short, a week passed, and two and three – no letter from my partner! I was going out of my mind, walking about in a daze, not knowing what to think. He could have just forgotten to write, I thought. He knew very well that we were waiting to hear from him. Then I began to wonder what I could do to him if he were to skim off the cream and tell me hadn’t earned anything. Would I call him a liar? I told myself it couldn’t be, it wasn’t possible. I treated the man like one of my own, been ready to take on his troubles. How could he play a trick like that on me?!…. A cold chill ran through my body. Old fool! I said to myself.   You made your bed, now lie in it, you ass! (30)

Following these disturbing revelations, Tevye’s wife prompts him to go to Yehupetz and find out what is going on. As he travels there, he starts imagining what may have happened. Since Tevye loves to only think good thought and would rather not dwell on the worst case scenario, he imagines the best case scenario and imagines what he will say when he confronts him (31-32).

He goes through the city in search of Menachem-Mendl. He doesn’t find him and nearly gives up.   But when he stops to look into one of the store windows he notices, in the reflection of the shop window, is the image of Menachem-Mendl!

My heart hurt when I saw him, so sorry did I feel for him! If ever I had an enemy, and if ever you had an enemy, may we hope to see them in the same state as Menachem-Mendl. His coat, his boots, were in terrible shape. (33)

When they turn to each other, we have an enigmatic scene and many questions that, as readers, we must think through. What will they say to each other? Will Tevye curse him or forgive him?   The representation of Menachem-Mendle as ragged and impoverished suggests an answer.

Menachem-Mendl, we learn, was “abashed to see me, we both stood as if frozen, unable to speak, just looking into each other’s eyes like tow roosters, as if to say, We’re both miserable and cleaned out. We might as well take tin cups and go from house to house! (33)

Menachem-Mendl appeals to Tevye’s emotions by making himself into a total schlimazel who is on the verge of suicide: “Reb Tevye! Without luck, a man shouldn’t have been born! Rather than living, it is better to hang!”(33).   But Tevye, against what one would expect, tells him that he is right: Menachem-Mendl is a disgrace and should be publically whipped. Tevye reminds Menachem-Mendl of how he didn’t just destroy him but his whole family!

“You took a household full of living souls, poor creatures, innocent as lambs, and slit their throats without a knife! God in heaven,” I said, “how can I face my wife and children? Go on, tell me, you slaughterer, swindler, thief!”(33, my emphasis)

Menachem-Mendl agrees that he is a thief, a slaughterer, and swindler.   He says that he deserves Gehennam (hell). Tevye says that Gehennam is “too good for you, fool”(33).   After saying this, Menachem-Mendl “lowers his head” and suggests that he may commit suicide.

But instead of walking away and letting him go, Tevye says he hears “every sigh and groan” he makes. “My heart went out to him”(33).

Tevye ends his tale by saying that he forgave him. He says that, if you think about it, “You aren’t entirely to blame.” Tevye can’t conceive of Menahcem Mendl as a swindler and thief! He also puts himself out there as a guilty party! “To say you did it on purpose would be foolish because we were equal partners, fifty-fifty”(34). After excusing him, Tevye offers to have a drink with him: “Come, my friend, let’s have some brandy!”

Looking back, Tevye notes how “that…is how the roof fell in, and with it all my dreams”(34). In other words, Tevye may have forgiven Menachem-Mendl but there was a price to pay: he can no longer, like a schlemiel, dream of something better. But there is more at stake, here. With the loss of dreams and hope, what happens to the Jew? Hasn’t Menachem-Mendl destroyed the fabric of Judaism? And was Tevye wrong for forgiving him? Tevye muses about the meaning of this experience and differentiates himself from the reader:

And what of hope and faith? On the contrary, the more troubles you have, the more faith you must have, and the poorer you are, the more hope you must have. Do you want any more proof?

But I think I’ve gone on too long today. It’s time to go and tend to my business. As you’ll no doubt say, “All men are false.” Every man has his burden. Be well and have a good life! (35)

These words – the last of the chapter, story – suggest that the reader can leave the story with a sense of cynicism at the betrayal perpetrated by Menachem-Mendl, a relative of Tevye, or let that it go.   Either way “every man has his burden,” and this burden – the burden of betrayal – is perhaps the biggest of all for humans.  Sholem Aleichem shows us how the greatest deeds of kindness of trust can be trounced by the people one would think one can trust. And this, for Aleichem, is not just the greatest challenge to Jewishness but the greatest challenge to humanity. The meaning of justice is at stake in this story. The reader may not agree with Tevye’s choice and would rather leave Menachem-Mendl to die, alone for the evil he had done.   Either way that is the “burden” of the reader or for anyone who has been betrayed by someone they trust.   While God may forgive man, man may not forgive someone who has destroyed his or her life and dreams. That type of forgiveness is a different matter.

And I’ll leave it there…..for you to decide. Would you forgive Menachem-Mendl?

Failure, Theft, Schlemiels, and Millennials: On Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America”


Noah Baumbach has a penchant for contrasting the young and the old, the naïve and the shrewd, the ethical person and the thief.   Many of his characters are immature and, at an older age, seem caught up in a life that they haven’t grown out of. They are dreamers and schlemiels. For instance, in a film like Greenberg (2010) – which bases the main character, Roger Greenberg, on Saul Bellow’s Herzog – the main character, played by Ben Stiller, is older and seems to be in worse shape than Florence (who is played by Gretta Gerwig).   In this film, there is a contrast based on age. But in the end, both of them are in bad shape.   They are not sure about how to have and sustain a relationship and are both awkward around each other. They live in their own little universes and, because they can’t be successful in “normal” jobs they take on jobs (such as babysitting, dogwalking, etc) that are for people who – Baumbach suggests – just aren’t made for this fast paced capitalist world.   (Greenberg and Gertig meet because they are taking care of odds and ends for Phillip Greenberg.)   Richard Brody, of The New Yorker, found the film to be sickening and was repulsed by Stiller’s depressing character.

However, both he and Ian Packer –also of The New Yorker – were impressed with Frances Ha (2012). What they both liked about the film was the fact that it was more a film by and about Gretta Gerwig and her positive (“happy”) vision of life, and less about Noah Baumbach’s more somber and dark view of humanity (as we can see in a film like Greenberg).

Packer’s insightful contrasts between Gertig and Baumbach are noteworthy in the sense that they can help us to better understand where the dark and the light come into each Gerwig-Baumbach production.

On this note, While We’re Young (2015) and Mistress America (2015) have some similarities but a few key differences.   I have written on While We’re Young.   What I liked about that film is the fact that, in it, we can see the contrast between the older schlemiel (Ben Stiller) and the younger and shrewder millennials (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).

The contrast outlines the ethical nature of the schlemiel and how he is duped by the millennials.   They are portrayed as thieves who only look to get ahead while he is portrayed as a filmmaker who, like Greenberg, is not successful but has a desire to do good in the world.

Likewise, Mistress America has an older character (in her early 30s), played by Gretta Gerwig. Her name is Brooke. Her younger to-be-step-sister (which never really happens) is named Tracey. She is played by Lola Kirke. She is an 18 year old girl who majors in English at Barnard.   Just like While We’re Young, we have a plot twist in which the younger (millennial) seems to have a great interest in a failed, older schlemiel character (Brooke) but, in the end, we learn that she spent time with her so as to turn her comedic life into a short story for a campus literary journal.

While Gerwig’s character continues to fail and remains honest and ethical until the very end (side note: we learn that Brooke’s old friend had stolen her ideas; in fact, she is a schlemiel-dreamer who doesn’t know how to fully capitalize on her ideas), Kirke’s character, Tracey, steals throughout the film and, in the end, is successful: her article is printed up in the literary journal and she is “accepted.”   Brooke, on the other hand, remains a failure. As Brooke herself notes in the film, the older you get the less opportunities there are for success. Brooke sees herself as an old maid (at 30) who is dragging around a dead body with her wherever she goes. This depressing vision most likely emerges from Baumbach since Gertig goes from being a schlemiel to being a very tragic kind of character.

In the end, Baumbach, once again, lays down his judgment on the schlemiel: that in the age of millennials, the ethical schlemiel doesn’t have a chance; this era lives under the sign of theft in the name of success. This dower judgment is that of a filmmaker who has lost hope in the possibility of ethical art. For Baumbach – and perhaps now for Gertig – its dead. The hedge funder from Goldman Sacks – who says he will bail Brooke out (since they are old friends) – seems to have the last word: don’t do anything wholesome or ethical if it’s going to drain your time and money.   In other words, it’s better to be practical than to be a schlemiel-dreamer (a luftmensch).  This dovetails with Tracey’s theft.   The main goal in America is to be successful. The name of the film gives it away. Instead of being a Miss America one should be a “mistress America.” The message is dour: do things that are unethical if they will get you ahead.  For Baumbach and perhaps Gertig, the schlemiel is sacrificed on the alter of millennial success and theft-as-a-means-to-success.

Too Distracted, Almost Jewish, Not Sure, Keep Talking: On The Experience of Reading Joshua Cohen’s “Witz”


With all of the movement from post to post or tweet to tweet, we have developed habits that are simply not beneficial to sustained and meaningful reading. And what’s worse is that many people don’t care.   Let’s be honest. People don’t read anymore; they scan. But, what’s worse, is when one can see the affect of distraction and habitual scanning affecting an author. When that happens, literature suffers and the possibility of literature disappears into a fog of words and disjointed phrases.

When I started reading Joshua Cohen’s Witz, this thought came immediately to mind.   Don’t get me wrong – I am as distracted as the next person. But when I read literature, I have different habits. I have – over the years – learned how to read closely. This book, however, has done a lot to challenge my reading habits. I have had a difficult time reading it for more than five or ten minutes at a time.   But…perhaps that’s Cohen’s intent. Perhaps he is illustrating the exhaustion of literature and something else: the witz (which suggests Jewish humor and maybe even Jewishness).

At the outset of the novel we are introduced to “them.” And they could be Jewish because the first words are Biblical: “IN THE BEGINNING, THEY ARE LATE.” The title of the chapter, however, is one of misdirection: “Over There, Then.” The words breathe exhaustion and frustration. I think: if you are going to do something or put something somewhere, don’t do it over here; do it… over there. And when I read about how late “they” are, I think that “they” might be Jews: the Jewish “I” (the I of the novel) has been impatiently waiting for them, and, guess what…they aren’t on time. They may be schlemiels.  After all, they are almost always late. The author may also be Jewish; like many Jews, he’s frustrated with “them,” those other Jews.

In truth, the voice seems Jewish; but it is, like everyone in the world, constantly distracted.   But at least we have some certainty: he or she – who m ay be Jewish – is speaking from the space of an empty synagogue:

Now it stands empty, a void.

Darkness about to deepen the far fire outside.

A synagogue, not yet destroyed.   A survivor. Who isn’t? (13)

The language is repetitive. It sounds like it is nagging:

A stomach, a shell, a last train station after the last train left to the last border of the last country on the last night of the last world: a hull, a husk, a synagogue, a shul. (13)

The Jewish language use (“Nu”) continues but where is it, like the train mentioned above, going?

Nu, it’s been like this ever since he was born, and those long hard years have all been yesterdays’ tool: the bridge crossing, the bottomless price of a boat full of holes, an aeroplane cast down from heaven, betrayed of its wings. And it’s not as if he hasn’t crawled to the end of the bargain: wriggling ever forward from garden to grave, he’s trying, just ask him. (13)

As it moves along, the text distracts itself and gets lost in time and movement:

Hours later when hours were still hours…stardeadline, falling, falling, the tickers of arrival and departure and arrival, diurinal again – the clock centerpieces upon our timetables that not only remind us when to partake but are, simultaneously, the only sustenance left. (14)

The novel develops into one distraction after the other: topics are displaced by names, places, things, that are all strung together. The listener gets lost and, most likely, will lose interest unless one cultivates a taste for distracted reading. In the midst of this flow, Jewishness ebbs away and then pops up in this or that list. But it is not a sustained meditation.   It is exhausted. And perhaps that is the message.

From the outset of the novel, one can see that Jewishness is a rhythm that is lost in so many different temporal flows of movement. One forgets where (or when) one is in the novel or where it is going – perhaps like Jewishness in our hyper-networked age, we are moving along too many trajectories. But if we are, we won’t know where it all started or where it is going. However, Cohen suggests that, at the very least, we should keep talking. Who knows where that will lead…..