How Awkward! On Adam Kotsko’s Pauline Reading of Larry David

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As we move more and more into the fluid world of social networking, we see more people inside of academia make claims that are daring and attention-grabbing. One such claim is made at the end of Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness.   After discussing different kinds of awkwardness that we see in popular culture in the first few chapters of his book, Kotsko turns to what he calls “Radical Awkwardness.” While the other chapters show how TV shows like The Office or Seinfeld or films like Knocked Up – which show us how, in the face of awkwardness, people can either give in to or sociopathologically reject the social order – this chapter deals with a kind of awkwardness that one, in Heidegger’s parlance, can “dwell in.”   Kotsko’s claim, in that chapter, is that the best way to approach Larry David – who plays a Jewish character in the show – is by way of a Pauline framework that conceptually posits David as a reluctant convert to Judaism who is apprehensive about being a part of a religion (society) based on “law.”   In the end, however, David decides against conversion.   His awkwardness leads him elsewhere.

Although Kotsko’s reading is intriguing, why not read Larry David in terms of the comic tradition he emerges from; namely the Jewish tradition of the schlemiel? Why not read him by way of a Jewish framework that speaks to the awkward nature of the schlemiel vis-à-vis society? By making a Pauline reading, Kotsko is telling us more about his own interests and concerns than about how to read David’s awkwardness in terms of his predecessors and the current Jewish-American comedic scene. While I can appreciate that David’s awkwardness helps Kotsko to understand questions he has about Paul, I think it might be misleading to read David in this way. Awkwardness should not be subsumed by a Christian reading which pits law against spirit and the Jew (particularist) against the Christian (universalist).   Portraying David as a “convert” to Judaism serves not just to grab attention but to also co-opt his comedy into a paradigm that is not befitting for the schlemiel. At stake is the meaning of Jewishness which need not be read in contradistinction to the reading of Judaism as “law” (a Pauline reading).

Putting this reading aside for a moment, I want to give credit where credit is due. Kotsko’s philosophical reflections on awkwardness open up a new field for thought and humor theory. This is promising. Referring to Heidegger in his last chapter, Kotsko points out how there is a pattern that we see in all of the above-mentioned shows and films which confirms his hypothesis (which is based on Heidegger): “that awkwardness logically precedes every social order and can never be eliminated – no matter what strategy is used, it keeps coming back”(67).    The norm is created or called for as an attempt to stem the flow of awkwardness and the threat it poses to the social fabric.

Kotsko injects a utopian element to his reading of awkwardness by noting how, in the Judd Apatow universe, hope is associated with the “bonds among awkward overgrown adults.”   But why, queries Kotsko, “should we have a social order at all?”   This question is the preface to Kotsko’s reading of “radical awkwardness.”   For Kotsko, the problem with the social order is its drive to prompt this or that “disturbing foreigner” to assimilate.   As Kotsko suggests, assimilation is a social strategy that is and has been used with respect to awkwardness.   It doesn’t, in a Heideggerian sense, let awkwardness be.   He associates this strategy with the norm, and as we learn in this final chapter of his book, “the law.”

Kotsko initially justified his use of Curb Your Enthusiasm as an example of radical awkwardness through its main character, Larry David: “I have done this first of all because Larry’s travails at a New York Jew in Southern California illustrate very well the common-sense answer to the chapters question: the reason we need a cultural norm is that the situation of radical awkwardness is unbearable”(67-68).

In the show, Larry David’s wife in the show, a WASP (White Ango-Saxon Protestant) “acts as an enforcer of social norms.”   David comes in to the space of California and his marriage in a radically awkward manner. He doesn’t fit in. But, lest we not forget, this is also the case with Alvy Singer – a prototypical American schlemiel – in Annie Hall.     Kotsko foregrounds what he calls a “clash of civilizations” that is brought out by David’s inability to properly assimilate into California, upper-class white culture.   But Kotsko’s goal is not simply to show that David brings out a radical awkwardness because he fails to assimilate, so much as making “the case that Larry David has independently discovered something that St. Paul was experimenting with in the first century: how to form a community directly grounded in awkwardness”(68).

The community that Kotsko is referring to is what he later calls a “community of exiles” who “dwell” in “awkwardness.” To call it a discovery of something that St. Paul was experimenting with is interesting, but it fails to take notice that the schlemiel was and has been a key character in a Jewish diasporic narrative and community that stretches back to Yiddish folklore and literature of the 19th century. The schlemiel’s awkwardness is in relation to world of the gentiles and it is shared with a readership that distinguished itself from the machinations of the world.   One wonders what Kotsko would make of Singer’s Chelm or Aleichem’s Kasrilevke.

Kotsko makes the case – by way of Paul – that the community David appeals to is not Jewish so much as a cross-cultural and universalist. Both Jew and gentile can live, awkwardly, and in spite of, the “law,” which he associates with social norms that opt to assimilate all that is awkward and foreign.   On this note, Kotsko points out that “Larry’s stubbornness makes him slow to adapt, admittedly, but it is clear that he faces an uphill battle in adapting to a culture that is exceptionally dense with unspoken rules”(73). Kotsko turns this stubbornness toward a Pauline understanding of law and community.

In contrast, the inability of the schlemiel to adapt is a theme that Saul Bellow discusses in his reading of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl. For Bellow, the resilience of Jewishness is to be found in the schlemiel’s stubbornness and “inability to adapt.”

Kotsko uses the insider/outsider distinction to deepen his Pauline reading of Larry David. Larry David may seem like a cultural insider but he is not. Every time he tries to be a cultural insider he, like a schlemiel, spills the soup.   Insiders, such as his wife, Ted Danson, Ben Stiller, etc give him opportunities to be an insider, like they themselves, but he fails. For Kotsko, Larry David brings out the double standard: “Larry can’t do anything right, while the insiders can do nothing wrong”(74).     Larry David fails the law because “the law directly causes its own violation”(74-75).

Kotsko, making reference to Paul’s missionary program in a key chapter of his writings, points out how Paul’s “mission in life: trying to figure out a way to create communities that crossed the biggest cultural line that he was aware of, that between Jews and Gentiles, with everyone participating as equals”(75).   To this end, he introduces his reading of Paul: “I would propose the chapter in question actually refers to the struggle of a Gentile trying to become a Jew, a situation which he empathizes so strongly that he speaks in the first person on behalf of the Gentile convert”(75).     It is the “Jewish law viewed from the perspective of the convert” that Kotsko sees as essential to Paul’s reading of community. And he takes this as his cue to make a reading of Larry David:

The convert obviously admires the culture he’s trying to join, but at the same time it seems to trip him up constantly. No matter how he tries, no matter how long he is a part of the new community, he will never be able to fulfill the law’s demands as easily and fluently as someone whose been a member since birth. (77)

Based on this passage, Larry is read as the “convert”: “his awkward stubbornness stems from his frustration at being constantly corrected and forced to apologize when he’s done nothing he considers wrong”(77). For this reason, Larry, like Paul’s frustrated convert, will turn to a Christian kind of “awkward community.” Larry: “and so we can perhaps dare to say that St. Paul was speaking to Larry David’s situation as well”(77).

The answer to Larry’s frustrations can be found in Paul. Create a new awkward community. Leave the “Law” behind but keep your cultural identity:

The solution Paul proposes, then, is to stop looking for a solution. No one should be forced to conform to the arbitrary social norms of others, and at the same time, everyone should feel free to maintain their cultural identity.   (78)

In this scenario, one need not “convert” to this or that social norm. One can, as Kotsko suggests, co-exist with others who also have an awkward relationship to the law/social norms. For Kotsko, the “clearest example of a longer term community of awkwardness” is to be found in the sixth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry’s wife decides to divorce him and “the additional plot” of “Cheryl’s insistence that they take in a family of African Americans from New Orleans who have lost their home in a fictionalized version of Hurricane Katrina”(84).

Kotsko points out how the relations between Larry and “the Blacks” are continually awkward but in a way that is not frustrating so much as new and liberating. Larry develops “strong bonds” with them in the process:

Larry and the Blacks become a kind of community of exiles, bound by their shared condition of being awkwardly thrown into a social milieu where they don’t belong, feeling each other to be themselves in an otherwise constraining and judgmental environment. (85).

This bond and the fantasy that ends the season is a premonition of utopia which is “an awkward place.” Since it is a “good place and no place at all,” utopia is awkward. But that “no place,” says Kotsko, is “where we already are”(87).     But, because of the law and “social order,” we are taught to “escape” this awkwardness.

Kotsko’s appeal to the utopian is interesting and has a correlate in the schlemiel.   The schlemiel speaks to a kind of utopian community as well, but it is based on something Jewish and is particular to a Jewish diaspora.   The schlemiel is, as Ruth Wisse points out, a worldless kind of character. It brings Jews together in a kind of awkwardness that is always unsure about how, as the author Sheila Heti puts it in the title of her last novel, a person should be.   The schlemiel – like the Jew –doesn’t fit and shouldn’t adapt.  Its awkwardness is certainly a safeguard against assimilation and its hope is…for justice.

But the fact of the matter is that the American Jew is a creature of assimilation. Larry David embodies the last traces of the schlemiel and its Jewishness since he is and remains in nearly every episode the “odd one out.” There is much truth in Kotsko’s observations about Larry David and the Blacks – they do have a bond based on radical awkwardness. But that reading need not be framed within a Pauline framework.   Larry David, without a doubt, is drawing on the tradition of the schlemiel.  (Ruth Wisse, Sanford Pinsker, and Sidra Ezrahi do a fine job of explaining how this emerged in relation to the situation of Jews in the Pale of Settlement in the 19th century and their relationship to Jewishness and modernity.)   His character need not be read in terms of the reluctant convert unless, that is, one wants to reframe the discourse of the schlemiel on a Pauline foundation.

2 thoughts on “How Awkward! On Adam Kotsko’s Pauline Reading of Larry David

  1. I deeply appreciate the attention you’ve given to my book here and elsewhere. I’m flattered that you find it helpful as a tool to bounce your ideas off of. Nothing I say here should be taken in a way that detracts from any of that at all.

    Nevertheless, I think you’re fundamentally misrepresenting my views. I am offering a counter-reading of Paul as being *against* conversion. He sympathizes in Romans 7 with someone who feels compelled to convert and notes the intrinsic contradictions in such a demand. Ultimately, in my view, he offers us a view of a community that never demands conversion. Literally my entire point is to undercut the demand for conversion. I don’t think Larry should convert to being a passive-aggressive Californian, any more than Paul thinks that Gentile believers in Jesus should try to become Jews. At no point do I espouse the view that Jews should try to stop being Jews, either.

    I understand that it may seem offensive to compare Larry David to Paul given the history of Christian supercessionism — but I sincerely think that Paul did not intend to be supercessionist. I feel as though you are reacting to the sheer mention of the figure of Paul and the concept of conversion without taking account of how they actually function in my argument.

    But it is possible that I’m misreading your argument here. I hope so. And even if I’m not, I hope we can come to some kind of mutual understanding.

    • Thank you for your comments, Adam. What I do in my post is take you at your word and I am not “fundamentally misrepresenting” your views. You pose Larry David in a hypothetical position. I quote: “I would propose the chapter in question actually refers to the struggle of a Gentile trying to become a Jew, a situation which he empathizes so strongly that he speaks in the first person on behalf of the Gentile convert”(75). If I am not mistaken, that is a position of conversion. Although it is not to Christianity, it is still conversion. That’s my point.

      But there is more to my point that perhaps you have missed. The terms you use to discuss Larry David – and are derived from Paul – deal with Nomos as a designation of the Torah. That is, as many Torah scholars have noted, a mistranslation. The Torah means “the teaching” not the “law.” And there are major implications to framing Larry David in terms of nomos. That aside, I do appreciate your different reading of Paul vis-a-vis community. I like what you are suggesting and, in fact, I note it in my blog entry. By the Pauline reading I mean the use of terms suggesting conversion, law, etc. I was also playing on this when I suggested a reading more appropriate to Larry David’s character which comes from the tradition of the schlemiel. We both have different approaches to Larry David, and that’s fine. I am simply wondering aloud about the use of Paul in this context – even if it is a different reading of Paul, there are traces of his language which are to be found in your reading. I’m sure you can appreciate this.

      Once again, thank you for your response.

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