On Screened and Unscreened Death, Jewish Bodies, and “The Son of Saul”


Like many of his early films, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight includes countless scenes of bodies being blown to pieces. Nearly all of his plots satisfy a desire for revenge. But what I, like many others, find is that his films leave me with an empty feeling. Although some of his plots have a historical referent (such as the Holocaust – Inglorious Basterds (2009) – or slavery – Django Unchained (2012), one isn’t struck by the evil of history.   There are endless dead and wounded bodies that parade in front of the viewer but they are detached from history. We are struck by something visceral but empty.   These deaths are screened.

I found the opposite to be the case in the recent Holocaust film, The Son of Saul (2015)   In the film, the relation of the dead bodies we see on the screen with the evils of real history is prescient and unscreened. But more importantly for me, as a Jew, was the relation of these bodies to what Michael Wyschogrod would characterize as the Jewish body and its theological meaning.   For Wyschogrod, violence against the Jewish body has theological significance and in The Son of Saul violence against the Jewish body was at the forefront of the entire film.  Seeing the multiplication of dead Jewish bodies – at the beginning of the film the pace of dead bodies being created is preponderant and returns throughout the film – struck deeply at my sense of being a Jew in history and how that existence is deeply precarious and threatened.

To understand what is at stake, we need to have a deeper understanding of what the Jewish body means for Jews and for Jewish theology.   For the Jewish tradition, the Jewish body is not merely a cultural product or accident. According to the 20th century Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod – in contrast to a Medieval Jewish thinker like Moses Maimoindes who saw Judaism more in terms of beliefs and doctrine – one cannot think about God without thinking about the body of the Jewish people. The “being” of the Jewish people is not metaphysical; it is embodied:

The being of Israel is embodied being. Jewish theology can therefore never become pure self-consciousness…Only the Jewish people in its totality (as opposed to this or that individualized mystical experience of being – my note) is the essence of the Jewish people, and that includes not only its understanding segments but also the mute and heavy masses who have suffered for the covenant with a minimum of understanding….whose significance is understood very little.(26, Body of Faith)

Wyschogrod notes how some people may deride “delicatessen Jewishness,” since “there are those for whom their Jewishness means gefilte fish, bagels with lox and cream cheese, or the smell of chicken simmering in broth”(ibid). But “those who think such things with derision do not understand Jewish existence as embodied existence.”   Wyschogrod asks Jews to pay close attention to the Jewish body and Jewish mannerisms. Even though “there is no small significance of those who hate the people of Israel and hate the particular physique of the Jewish people, whose characteristics they caricature,” we should not lose sight of the embodiment of Jewishness.

Wyschogrod points out how, as a result of anti-Semitism and millennia of exile, some Jewish writers (who he calls “self-hating”) have caricatured the Jewish body making it appear weak or effeminate. He associates this kind of caricature with pathology and suggests that we go beyond it in our search for the “truth” of the Jewish body. He associates this truth with a “theology of the Jewish body”:

But caricature often points to otherwise unperceived truths and pathology is often rooted in reality, which pathology distorts but also reflects. The truth we seek is the theology of the Jewish body.   (28)

He sees the truth of the Jewish body in terms of the covenants in the Bible:

We are entitled to speak of such a theology because the divine covenant is with a biological people, the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The biological being of this people therefore comes first. Whatever truth arises out of the covenant between God and Israel it is not a disembodied truth. (ibid)

Reading this, I wonder, does Wyschogrod see the destruction of the Jewish body as a challenge to an “embodied” faith?   In the face of death, he argues that the majority of the Jewish people – historically – have chosen neither nihilism nor fantasy.   Nonetheless, the Jew is haunted by the anti-Semite’s view – which is expressed most clearly in the violence against the Jewish body – that the Jew is not loved by God and that his body is not elected:

Israel…knows that it is loved, and it is this awareness that has enabled it to survive thousands of years of persecution without internalizing the anti-Semite’s view of the Jews. Self-hatred is not absent from Jewish consciousness. No group can totally avoid some degree of internalization when it is hated for so long and so profoundly. But Jews suffer much less than other persecuted groups, with the degree of self-hatred of Jews being often proportional to the degree of alienation from the Jewish tradition. (12)

This insight speaks to what I saw in the film.

Throughout the film, the main character, Saul, was looking for a Rabbi to say Kaddish over a boy who, apparently, was his son.   In the very beginning of the film, after we see countless bodies against a recurring blurriness that goes in and out of focus (a brilliant device which evinces the struggle to see the dead Jewish body). Amidst all of the dead bodies that are gassed (a scene never disclose in Holocaust cinema until now), the body of the boy is heard, coughing. Saul sees this and notices how the body of the boy is dragged to the side and is choked to death by a Nazi doctor. Following this, Saul goes on a journey from place to place, to find a Rabbi to bless his son after he gives him a proper burial.

The twist of the film is that the Rabbi he finds isn’t really a Rabbi and he never gets to bury his son (whose body, in the latter half of the film, is in a bag, concealed). He loses the bag with his son’s body near the end of the film (while he is being chased after escaping the camp). However, in the very end, he finally smiles when he sees a boy who he takes – according to one reading – to be a sign that his “son” has been received by God.   This is a delusion. However, it shows us that Saul – despite all the madness – keeps to his tradition and wants to give the dead body the respect the Jewish tradition gives to the dead.   The body may be his “son’s” or it may be a symbol. Either way, it evokes the question of tradition as a question of embodiment.

Although one may be distraught by the fact that he didn’t respect the body of every single Jew he saw, the fact of the matter is that his preferential love for his son speaks to the tradition that Wyschogrod writes about. In The Body of Faith, Wyschogrod notes that the election of Abraham is authentic because it is preferential.   While the love of all humanity is abstract, the love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is concrete and embodied. Blaise Pascal knew this when he wrote that his god is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.   In this sense, while The Son of Saul was a horrific film which gave the viewer an unscreened experience of death and history by way of an endless display of dead Jewish bodies, it also demonstrated what Wsychogrod sees as the embodied faith of the Jewish people.   Since Saul’s passion was to clean his son’s body, find a Rabbi to say Kaddish over it, and to bury it in the earth, his love for this specific Jewish child expressed his love for the Jewish people – the people who he had to witness being killed on a daily basis.   The film isn’t redeemed by his passion to bury his son’s body in a proper, traditional manner; but it does shows us how any commitment to Judaism after the Holocaust must countenance the death of Jewish bodies. It must rethink the meaning of the Jewish body in the assault against Judaism.

While Eli Weisel figured the “death of God,” with the (texted) image hung body of the Jew in his novel Night, The Son of Saul suggests a visualization of the Jewish body that is much more visceral and compelling. It shows us that post-Holocaust Judaism is not simply a set of doctrines that must be affirmed in the wake of the Holocaust or that we should, as Emil Fackenheim suggests, commit ourselves to a 614 commandment and continue the Jewish tradition despite Hitler’s efforts to destroy Judaism. Rather, it suggests that Judaism starts and ends with the Jewish body.   It also suggests, like Michael Wyschogrod, that the “truth” of the Jewish body – though visualized on the screen – may only be discovered through a Jewish theology.

(That, at least, is how I read it. Because, I, like Wyschogrod, see Judaism as embodied and not disembodied, all of those dead bodies on the screen are not the bodies I see in this or that Tarantino film. Those bodies remind me that my history and my life are tied to the bodies of a people, my people. And I realize that the question of my faith is not tied to this or that doctrine alone; it is fundamentally tied to the Jewish body.)



Jews, Italians, New Yorkers: Abe Vigoda’s Embodiment of Jewishness, Family, and Existential Commitment


Whenever I saw Abe (“Avraham ben Moshe”) Vigoda on TV or in this or that film performance, I felt as if I was seeing a member of my family. He had something familiarly New Yorkish and….Jewish in his disposition and bearing.   And it recently struck me that what always drew me to him was the fact that he reminded me of my maternal grandfather.   He was a six foot four Jew who, like Vigoda, was born and raised in Brooklyn.   His parents, like Vigoda’s, were Jewish immigrants. And, like Vigoda, he was a hardworking mensch.   But what struck me most about Vigoda was the fact that whenever I saw him I started thinking about Jewishness in America.   Vigoda’s Jewishness – like my grandfather’s – was at times clear while others times ambiguous. But after watching Vigoda’s videos over the last few days, I have found how this cultural overlap speaks not just to something cultural but also to something existential and, for lack of a better word, Biblical.

The fact that Vigoda was casted in The Godfather as an Italian character speaks to the ambiguity of Jewish American identity.

His performance reminded (and reminds) me of the lore I heard from my grandfather and what I saw in different family members vis-à-vis the overlap of Italianess and Jewishness in New York City. It also spoke to difference. My grandfather told me that, growing up in Brooklyn, he was a part of group of Jews who played stickball and how, at times, his gang fought with Italians. The relationship, he told us, was uneasy. But I also learned that there was admiration between the groups. My relatives expressed similar types of experiences, too.  That aside, my father’s best friend and mentor (Dave Kaplan), also born and raised Brooklyn, would speak with an accent and a disposition that was a mix of Italian and Yiddish. And my father – who was born and raised in Manhattan – would imitate him as if to show me that, to be Jewish, a Jew needs to act in this ambiguous manner.   I remember how Dave Kaplan told me that this way of speaking and acting was Jewish. It was confusing for me because, since I was raised in upstate New York, I found no cultural correlate except for these two New Yorkers.   This was my first dose of the Judaism versus Jewishness thing.   And, as a kid, it gave me a lot to think about.

While my father and Dave displayed a kind of Jewishness, that was more oriented in “making the deal” or capturing the attention of listeners to this or that story (Kaplan always told us that his father was a wandering storyteller and that’s where he got the knack to tell stories all the time….about everything imaginable; he’d start nearly every conversation with the words “Get this…” and with a prophetic touch “I can see it now”), my grandfather’s version of the New York Jew was much different. It had a lot in common with what I saw in Abe Vigoda. My grandfather’s Jewishness could be found in his way of dealing with family, people, and responsibility.

When I came across the pilot of Fish, which cast Vigoda as the lead, it all made sense.   In this episode, I saw his embodiment of cultural ambiguity, family, finitude, and existential responsibility. Most importantly, his performance brings out a kind of Biblical sense of commitment that is emblematic.

In the pilot, Vigoda plays as a man who should be retired but who, because of his wife’s prompting, has agreed to take on the role of being a father to several foster children. As one can see from this clip, the responsibility is enormous. Vigoda is able to show the weariness that comes with taking it on. In a key scene with his wife, we see this weariness and the challenge he must take on if this is to work: “You made a commitment….you have to honor your commitment…You made a commitment when you joined the police force…you made a commitment when you married me”(9:23-9:40).   This commitment, to be sure, evokes the biblical theme of the covenant.   And it suggests a kind of existential responsibility that is not the kind of responsibility we find in Friedrich Nietzsche or in Jean-Paul Sartre so much as in the pages of the Bible which display individuals and a people which has a hard time with keeping commitments but, despite it all, manages to keep them.

And this is the Jewish moment. Vigoda, in his hesitancy, embodies, simultaneously, a resistance to and a deep sense of responsibility to the concept of family and taking care of strangers. It is this weariness, which he gradually works through, that is most touching. And it is touching because it is the same kind of struggle we see throughout the Bible (Torah).     He embodies this tension between cynicism (just giving up) and the joy that comes with helping orphaned or abandoned children to have a sense of trust and hope that being a part of a family can foster. This is something Vigoda shares with my grandfather; who taught me in how one must, despite all the odds, keep the family together. I realize now that this is not something that New York Jews do (it is not just a cultural practice); it also has a covenantal dimension.

In his book The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel, the Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod (who died recently) argues that the covenantal relationship that the Jewish people have with God is embodied.   The Jewish body, for Wyschogrod, is marked by this relationship (which includes the constant hesitancy, ups and downs, and weariness that are all part and parcel of this relationship).     And as Meir Soloveichik argues in an essay about Wyschogrod for First Things, the relationship that God enters into Abraham and the Jewish people is familial. In making such a claim, Wyschogrod challenges Maimonides reading of Judaism. Maimonides reads Judaism in terms of an intellectual – and non-anthropomorphic – relationship with God while Wyschogrod insists on characterizing the relationship with God by way of terms that are anthropomorphic and anthropathic.

Maimonides, Wyschogrod insists, introduced extraneous influences into Judaism, partly in an attempt to reconcile Jewish religion with Aristotelian philosophy. Wyschogrod argues that Judaism concerns not a philosophical doctrine but rather God’s unique and preferential love for the flesh-and-blood descendants of Abraham. The election of the Jewish people is the result of God’s falling in love with Abraham and founding a family with him. And, out of passionate love for Abraham, God continues to dwell among the Jewish people. Maimonides, in Wyschogrod’s account, deviated from the biblical view to accommodate Aristotle’s philosophy.

By seeing the relationship with Abraham in terms of “falling in love” and “founding a family with him,” Wyschogrod suggests a more literal and less philosophical/allegorical reading of the covenant.

Although Vigoda is ambiguously Jewish in this episode (in Barney Miller, The Godfather, etc), Wyschogrod would argue that there is still an embodiment of Jewishness in the struggle he has with commitment.   Wyschogrod’s comments are, of course controversial, but they give a lot of food for thought.   They also speak to the question I have always had about Jewish embodiment as a child.

As a child, I always wondered: who embodies Jewishness? Was it my father, David Kaplan (his mentor), my Grandfather, my soft-spoken Rabbi in upstate New York ((I haven’t mentioned him, and I should have; he was a Jew from New York who had lost his New York accent and adopted a more intellectual approach to Jewishness), or Abe Vigoda?

Now I have a clearer sense of how it may be the case that the embodied commitment to family and others – which, in my family goes back generations – may have a biblical (and not just a cultural) dimension.   The fact that several people I know (and don’t know) have said that they can’t believe that Abe Vigoda died because they thought he would “live forever” is very telling. I can’t help but read this comment in terms of a kind of eternal steadfastness to staying in there and trying to keep the wife and the kids happy. Wyschogord is correct: family life does have a Jewish theological dimension.   The question, today, with so many disaffected Jews is whether they can keep or want to keep the family together. Regardless of their decision, they must struggle with it. This is something we find in Jewish American writers like Philip Roth, Shalom Auslander, and Gary Shteyngart (amongst countless others) or in an actor like Seth Rogen.  Embodiment matters for many Jewish comedians.

Thank you Abe Vigoda for giving me a sense of my Jewishness and how it is embodied. Like my grandfather, you were a model for this Jew born in (what my dad and David Kaplan called) “the sticks” and in front of a television. I could never be a New Yorker like them, but I could, at the very least, make family commitment (in the larger sense) the existential foundation of my embodied Jewish-American existence.

A Worn Out Prophet: On Charles Baudelaire’s Vision of Apocalypse


Walter Benjamin once said of Charles Baudelaire that his “genius fed on melancholy.” The “main accent of his modernity,” according to Benjamin, can be found in Baudelaire’s “spleen” or anger at the city and humanity. Reading Baudelaire’s journals, one can get a strong sense of how angry he is.  But, to be sure, his vision of Progress and Modernity is not just bitter; it is Apocalyptic. While Baudelaire looked to create a poetry that parried the shock of the city, he did so by creating more shocks:

What can be more absurd than Progress, since man, as the event of each day proves, is forever the double and equal of man – is forever, that is to say, in the state of primitive nature!   What perils have the forest and the prairie to compare with the daily shocks and conflicts of civilization? (May 13, 1856)

Baudelaire believes that the only way to address this shock is through attacking someone or something.     After engaging – in the same entry – in an attack on the greatest literary icon of his era – Victor Hugo – Baudelaire becomes dire and apocalyptic. He attacks religion and then humanity:

This man is so little of a poet, so little spiritual, that he would disgust even a solicitor. Hugo, like a priest, always has had his head bowed – bowed so low that he can see nothing except his own navel….And what is not a prayer? To shit is a prayer according to the rabble, when they shit…Man – all mankind, that is to say – is so naturally depraved that he suffers less from universal degradation than from the establishment of reasonable hierarchy.

After noting mankind’s depravity he claims that the “world is about to end.”   For Baudelaire, the world has gone down the tube because “we will perish by that which we have believed to be our means of existence.” Progress, in his apocalyptic view, will have “atrophied in us all that is spiritual, that no dream of the utopians will be comparable to the result.”

Society, according to Baudelaire, will destroy itself. “Humanity,” like “an avenging ogre,” “will tear their last morsel from those who believe themselves to be the legitimate heirs of revolution. And even that will not be the worst.”

What is worse than this kind of revenge and self-destruction?

Baudelaire writes that there will be “universal bestiality,” “gluttonous precocity,” and a “pitiless wisdom” which condemns everything “even the crimes of the senses.” Nothing will be outside the judgment of “utter ridicule” (which recalls his claim, in his essay “Essential Laughter” that laughter is satanic).   In this society, everything will be for sale. And “that age is perhaps very near; who knows if it has not already come and if the coarseness of our perceptions is not the sole obstacles which prevents us from appreciating the atmosphere in which we breathe.”

Reflecting on what he just said and what it means for himself, Baudelaire admits that he has within himself the “absurdity of a prophet.”   He also admits that he is bitter, disillusioned, wearied and defeated by the world:

Lost in this vile world, elbowed by the crowd, I am like a worn-out man, whose eyes see, in the depths of the years behind him, only disillusionment and bitterness, ahead only a tumult in which there is nothing new, whether of enlightenment or suffering.

Baudelaire, who prides himself on being a poet who turns his perceptions into symbols, sees his vocation and elitism as meaningless. In “his days of anger,” he wonders about why art matters?

Exhilarated by his own nonchalance and dandyism, proud that he is less base than the passers by, he says to himself, as he contemplates the smoke of his cigar: What does it matter to me what becomes of these perceptions?

These thoughts are seemingly nihilistic. And, if we follow his tact, by making shocking statements about the world and himself, he redeems himself from the shocks of the city.   He must, in other words, create an Apocalypse of words in order to save himself from the Apocalypse of reality. By reducing himself to nothing and practically giving up on his vocation (by shocking himself with his self-destruction and self-abasement), he may, ironically, be saved from the abyss of modernity. Only by being bitter and attacking everything sacred or meaningful can he be saved from the destruction that is growing around him. By doing this, he feels a certain kind of freedom….a freedom that can only be won by way of negation.


The Chimp as a Metaphor for Jewishness in Shalom Auslander’s “Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp” – Part II



It goes without saying that the question of man’s relationship to apes has created major historical challenges and changes over the last three centuries. Although it is the case that the material culture must be deeply examined to understand these challenges and shifts, it is the act of imagining an ape with human features that needs the most thought. The ape-man is a staple in fiction and film. The important differences of genera that can be seen throughout different media must be noted. The most apparent difference to note is basic: that while man-apes are figured as cute and adorable, others are frightening. This difference is often pronounced and is commonplace. But the tension between which can be articulated by way of a comical figure is rare.   And this tension has, in the hands of Franz Kafka and Shalom Auslander, become a comical figuration of modern Jewish self-consciousness.   In its tension with a fictional people (in this or that ape-man fiction), this odd figure for Jewish consciousness takes on Yiddish and urban notes. Sometimes these notes are dark, other times they are light.

We see one of these figurations in Kafka’s “Report to an Academy.” Kafka’s story gives us a chimp who is at odds with himself; in his “report,” he acknowledges that he remembers how he was wounded when he was sundered from this people. Through the sexual other, he is aware of his broken existence. However, he betrays these memories and this knowledge by giving them a lower status in his report to the academy (about what he has learned in his journey to becoming an ape – adopting language, dress, custom, consciousness, reasoning, and freedom).

Kafka’s ape is aware that he is free – which is based on denial – and this is more important to him than his shame at betrayal.   As Kafka discloses at the end of his story, this shame is linked to his awareness of his sexual “other” (who serves as a mirror of his real self). He sees this otherness through his mate not at night but during the day when everything is clear. From these realizations, the reader can see that he is a divided man-ape. This consciousness mitigates the comical nature of his situation at the academy: namely, that he is an ape who knows that he is acting “as if” he is human and has escaped his past.   We all know that his existence is based on denial and that this is not a laughing matter. In fact, many of us would like that he remember and rebel against the academy. And this is, as I noted elsewhere, a metaphor for Kafka’s Jewishness which he didn’t take a stand on, but was deeply aware of – as can be seen in his journals and diaries.  Kafka had to hide this awareness in his man-animal parables. The smallness of his man-animal characters – as in “Josephine the Mouse Singer, Mouse Folk” – illustrates this very well.

In contrast to Kafka’s “Report from the Academy,” we see the figure of a Jewish ape-man’s consciousness in a more concrete, contemporary, and comical form in Shalom Auslander’s “Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp.”   While Ausladner carries over Kafka’s figure of the Jewish ape-man, he makes it more obvious and comical that he is Jewish. And by making it more obvious, he is free to create a distinct figure of modern cynical, Jewish self-consciousness and existence – one that is situated in a ridiculous American variant of the capitalist, cultural system.   More importantly, four words, for Auslander, sum up the core of this consciousness in four words: God, Death, Shame, and Guilt.

Right off the bat, Auslander focuses on the initial event of discovery at the Monkey House (the area where the public sees the monkeys, so to speak, on display).

As 9:37 in the otherwise ordinary mourning of May 25, Bobo, a small chimpanzee in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, achieved total conscious self-awareness:




Guilt. (11, Beware of God: Stories)

But instead of leaving us in shock, as Kafka does, Auslander couches this revelation in a comical language:

Each one dropped like a boulder onto his tiny primitive skull. He grabbed his head in his hands and ran shrieking around the Monkey House, overturning water bowls and tearing branches off the trees. (11)

The monkey runs after fellow monkeys in a comical manner and then experiences, for the first time, a kind of transport above his body: “It was as if he had been somehow transported to the top of the tallest tree in the forest and was looking down upon himself below”(12).   Now, like Kafka’s ape-man, he sees “a brute, a beasts, a dim, half-finished creature”(12). His “newly acquired skills” (of consciousness, shame, etc), however, are not there to built but to destroy (they are a “weapon”).

When he notices his “bright red erection,” “shame filled his soul.” Shame, asks the narrator, “That was new.” Seeing him in this state, the other monkeys start crying and screaming.   And they “point at Bobo’s hideous primitive penis.” Following this, the narrator brings in the teachers of the ape children and notes that instead of “explanation,” they give the kids a “Denial”(12).

He’s just happy, children! Tried one teacher.

“Happy, yay!” clapped the other. (12)

What is most interesting in this comic portrayal is how his consciousness is based on shame and a sense that he is at odds with not just the other monkeys but the teachers as well. He lives in a shameful truth that can’t even be noticed or discussed by the educators of the community. This shock informs Bobo’s “self-hatred.”

This mayhem is also noticed by the “Management” of the “Monkey House.” They shut down the facility clear the “innocents away” and “sedate” Bobo. The narrator of this short story notes how this internal state means nothing to the Management who cannot know it and how are too busy “restoring” the Monkey House so that more people will come and patronize them.   He jokingly notes how there is a new décor: “Chimpanzee Bay, a freshwater pool that was built to look like an ocean, complete with a Deluxe WaveMaker 3000. Judging by the crowds pressing their faces to the glass on opening day, it didn’t seem to bother anyone that chimpanzees can’t actually swim”(13).   It is the consciousness of this by the reader, the narrator, and Bobo, which creates the effect of an aggravated man-ape consciousness.   Our frustrations give us a kind of bitter cynical consciousness, that is inseparable from – as we saw in the opening of the story – God, Shame, Death, and Guilt.

Turning to a more comic note, the narrator points out how the Management gave Bobo a wide array of drugs – ranging from Viagra to Paxil – to deal with his PTSD (14). Like Kafka’s Ape-Man, Auslander’s wants “out”(14). But while Kafka’s ape sees his desire to leave (or move) in terms of a past ape memory (and thus falsely), Auslander’s ape-man does not. He knows that the Management has made him into an animal without any freedom whatsoever.

The narrator stages the mental rebellion of Bobo against the Management. He articulates Bobo’s thoughts against the humans; namely, that the Lab Technician, for instance, should acknowledge that he and humans – like the Lab Technician – share an “awareness of our own mortality and unique self-perception”(15). But this thought is not heard. Like Kafka’s bug in “The Metamorphosis,” when he speaks, his thought come out as odd noises.

They don’t care about his thoughts. This is his private shame.

Bobo :isn’t a fool.” He knows that the public wants a cute ape: a “Curious George,” “Megillah Gorilla” or a “Monchichi.” They don’t want the bitter ape, the apte-as-self-hating-artist. Perhaps in order to increase his sense of alienation and humiliation or perhaps because that’s the way “life” is, he notices that his “Judeo-Christian” sense of the words “right and wrong” sets him apart from the other apes (16).   And this prompts him to apologize to a female chimp – Esmerelda – for “objectifying” her for sexual reasons.   But, as in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, she doesn’t care and goes off for the alpha male ape, Mongo.

The guilt at this clearly puts Auslander’s Bobo in the realm of the schlemiel that Woody Allen dwelled in for half his career.   Bobo – like Allen’s schlemiel in many films – watches his sexual failure in a comical way:

Bobo watched with contempt as Mongo humped away at Esmerelda, his ridiculous testicles bouncing this way and that like terrified children on the back of a runaway camel in the African Safari Park. “Help! They screamed to shout. “Get us out of here!” Bobo knew how they felt. Look at us, Bobo thought, shaking his head sadly. A bunch of fucking monkeys. Where is our dignity? Where is our pride? Where is our pants? (18)

Following this, Bobo retreats away from the cruel world. He retreats into the world of art. After Mongo has sex with Esmerelda and “shits” next to Bobo, Bobo takes the shit and flings it against the wall making art:

By the end of the first week, he was creating sweeping tableaus which he saw as scathing attacks on chimpanzee culture and primitive mores. His Self-Portrait was a devastating attack on racism, his Unhuman Stain a poignant plea for self-respect and dignity, his Life in Monkey House a searing assault on political power and corporate gain. (19)

The observers love this shit-art, so the Management gets him real paints. His paintings start to change. They grow “darker with each passing day”(19) because he starts “wrestling with existence and the meaning of death”(19).

But, as Auslander wittingly conveys, this art can’t keep him from thinking of Esmerelda and his sexual failure.   He portrays – in his mind – Esmerelda and Mongo as “mutually….selfish.” They want to breed, but he, he wants to create art. He is, as Kafka might say, a “hunger artist.”   But this only leads him to the deepest cynicism. And the schlemiel turns into a serious, self-hating character: “you’re an angry little monkey aren’t you? Yes, you are!”

After this cynicism takes hold of him, he stops painting and becomes suicidal.   He sees everything fall apart around him. So he “stood up and walked calmly to the edge of Chimpanzee Bay.”   He just gives up on existence. He wants nothing to do with it.

Everyone watches him commit suicide but they have no idea what he is doing. And while he is dying, Mongo mounts Esmerelda: at this moment, sex and death are in a clearly figured tension. The reader gets a deep sense of this cynicism and, in effect, shares it with Bobo.

However, there seems to be hope. A chimp named “Kato” notices the death and his struck by: “God. Death. Shame. Guilt.” Auslander, using the same opening sentences as he did with Bobo (describing the awareness of these words and their meaning) jokingly suggests that the cycle will now overtake the next free monkey-man-subject, Kato:

“Look at us,” Kato thought, “a bunch of fucking monkeys”(21).   The only difference is that he pulls Bobo’s body out of the water.   Bu tit is too late. He is the only one who is “mourning.” And this fills his soul with “shame.” However, the last words of the story ironically suggest that the “new” awareness of shame.

As a cynic, we can say that this awareness is not new at all. It is not only typical of a man of conscience – which is spurred by God. Death. Shame. Guilt and the “Judeo-Christian” – but it is typical of an existence that is consistently inhumane and injustice.   To be sure, it is the disclosure that the world doesn’t care about monkeys-with-consciousness that typifies his more obvious figuration of a particular kind of Jewishness and a general sense of a world that consistently prompts cynicism.   Is it this consciousness that is, for both Kafka and Auslander, inevitable.   Regardless of how comical it is, it is the disconnect between Jewishness and the world that gives birth to a kind of cynical consciousness that Auslander is figure in this and in a book like Hope: A Tragedy. The schlemiel takes part in this endeavor but when it becomes cynical, the world seems to displace the possibility of going beyond self-hate.   And on this note, we should end with a question: between Auslander and Kafka’s figures of the man-animal, how does the figure of the schlemiel of writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer fare? And how does this pertain to the writer and the reader? While Aleichem and Singer foreground the battle between goodness and a society that can do without it, Kafka and Auslander describe the consciousness that is caught up in this realization.   They are both – as Arendt says of Kafka and Chaplin in an essay on Kafka – like “men of good will.”   But  it is their depiction which makes the difference.  One depiction – which we find in Auslander and Kafka – can prompt an increased sense of a split consciousness and cynicism while the other – which we see in Aleichem and Singer – can give hope or at least a sense of what is at stake in the tension between goodness and…The Management.








The Chimp as a Metaphor for Jewishness in Shalom Auslander’s “Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp” – Part I


Reading Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” and Shalom Auslander’s “Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp” side by side has prompted me to think more about what we can learn from a writer who uses a hybrid human-chimp as a metaphor for Jewishness. While Kafka’s attempt to do this is troubled by the times he lived in (which thought of the mixing of “races” as a form of “pollution” – and, lest we not forget, Jews were, mistakenly, thought to be members of race), Auslander’s evocation of the Jew as a chimp seems less troubling for us today because we love animals. Even so, for literature to be affective it must (for better of for worse) trouble us. The question, for today’s Jewish and non-Jewish reader of these short stories, is what exactly is troubling and why. What can the frustrations and problems of these Jewish kinds of animals teach Jews about who they are or may be? The main issue that is at stake in both Kafka and Auslander’s stories is the troubling relationship of the modern Jew to his or her Jewish community and history. While their issues differ, they both bring us back to the relationship of the individual to the community and its shared history as a fundamental point of interest for modern Jews.

Sander Gilman, in his book, Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient, argues that the discourse of mixing man and animal overlapped, in some points and places in Europe, with an anti-Semitic and racist discourse: namely, the fear that Jews would taint the racial “purity” of Germans.   Gilman claims that Kafka was quite aware of this fear and that it influenced his writing. The Jew who converts and intermarries, for the anti-Semite, will end up creating children who are “mishling” (a being who is an admixture of races).   Gilman also claims that, on the completely other end of the spectrum, there was a fear in the Jewish community that by assimilating Jewishness was threatened. Both, for their own reasons, wanted to keep Jewishness distinct.

For the anti-Semite, a Jew will always be a Jew. Nodding to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Gilman argues that “the transformation of the Jewish body” by way of either assimilation, conversion, exercise, or language acquisition, etc was “desirable but inherently impossible. The model for Kafka was that of religious conversion.” And when, in stories like “The Report to the Academy,” the “ape becomes ‘human’, that is, he acquires a human manner of seeing the world with his acquisition of language….he remains marked by a sexual passion for his ‘kind.’(13). The more Kafka’s characters try to change, says Gilman, “the more they reveal themselves as fundamentally defective.”   This, argues Gilman, “reflects both a Jewish and anti-Semitic accusations against Jewish assimilation.”

While, today, writers like Gloria Anzaldua, celebrate the “mixture of races, rather than resulting in an inferior being, provides hybrid progeny, a mutable, more malleable species for the gene pool,” or what she calls, in Spanish, the “mesitza,” the “old world Mishling” (an anti-Semitic term for a Jewish “half breed”) was despised.     What we get in Kafka and Auslander’s story is a sense of the regret and shame at having chosen or having become different from their community. But, while there is a shame or regret, it also discloses how fundamental the dialogue between being a modern person and a member of a Jewish community are for them. And while Auslander sees the community in more resentful terms, Kafka sees it in different terms which evince a desire to embrace it while “escaping” it.

In Kafka’s “The Report to the Academy,” the main character, an ape who has become “human,” speaks to an academy:

You have done me the honor of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as an ape. (Kafka: The Complete Stories, 250)

Unfortunately, he can’t “comply with your request” to the “extent you desire.” Nonetheless, he does give a revealing account. In his account, the reader can see that he wishes to please his audience by saying that he was, before “escaping,” “stubbornly set on clinging” to his “origins.” He had to “give up being stubborn” was his “supreme commandment,” to which he “submitted himself.”   He lived a “forced career” as a human but “I felt more comfortable in the world of men and fitted it better.” The world of apes, read the world of the Jewish people, made him feel very uncomfortable.   But although he feels comfort amongst humans “a strong wind that blew out after me out of my past.” Over time “it began to slacken.” Now, his (Jewish) past is only a “gentle puff of air.”   And now all he feels is a “tickling of the heels.”

He goes on to recall how he learned different human customs. But he also notes how he was hunted and shot. He recalls his “large, naked red scar,” which earned him the name “Red Peter, a horrible name, utterly inappropriate”(251).   He was also hit in the hip (251).   And, to this day, he tells the Academy, he limps.

He also recalls how he was put in a cage and subdued and yearned to be free. And although he was “hopelessly sobbing, painfully hunting for flees, apathetically licking a coconut, beating my skull against the locker” he was still “amenable to training.” In other words, he acknowledges the pain, but frames it all as a part of a positive process.

The attentive reader can see that what troubles him is that his freedom was forced. He remembers the abuse that drove him away from his people and his very body. However, he acts “as if” that doesn’t matter. He makes a distinction between the desire to escape and embracing (and understanding) freedom. The latter is superior to the former.

No, freedom was not what I wanted. Only a way out; right or left or any direction; I made no other demand; even should the way out prove to be an illusion….To get out somewhere, to get out! (254)

While this desire is deemed lower than freedom, Kafka, in countless other places, discusses the desire to move and leave. It is, in other words, primary for him.   And this desire to move is something that is not associated with society (The Academy) so much as with his past and his people. It is the last remnant of his past.

After describing how he learned to do things like a human being, he goes into a monologue of praising modernity and suggests that by changing his behavior he has grasped the true meaning of freedom:

That progress of mine! How the rays of knowledge penetrated from all sides into my awakening brain! I do not deny it: I found it exhilarating. (258)

But, immediately after saying this, he makes an small confession:

But I must confess: I did not overestimate it, not even then, much less now. With an effort which up till now has never been repeated I managed to reach the cultural level of an average European.   In itself that might be noting to speak of, but it was something insofar as it has helped me out of my cage and opened a special way out for me, the way of humanity. (258)

By saying that he didn’t “overestimate” it, he is telling the academy that his accomplishment is not as great as it seems to himself. There are traces that trouble him; but as the above cited passage shows, even after noting this he still acts “as if” he does think it to be the best thing in the world he ever experienced.

His real confession comes at the end of the text. What troubles him is his sexual partner – “a little chimpanzee” – who he comes home to every night after “performing.”   He may have sex with her at night but, “by day I cannot bear to see her; for she has the insane look of the bewildered half broken animal in her eye; no one else sees it, but I do, and I cannot bear it”(259). What he is saying – in this confession – is that he sees himself in this “bewildered half broken animal” and this makes him feel shame (against Gilman, I’d argue that this is not simply a moment that draws on the anti-Semitic fear of creating a Mischling but an existential experience of what Freud would call the uncanny; the return of the repressed, however, is a return of Jewishness as something shared).

But after saying this he suppresses his emotion and memory and acts as if nothing he said was real: “In any case, I am not appealing for any man’s verdict.”

All he is doing, he says, is “making a report” and “imparting knowledge.”

This movement is telling since it suggests that, if in looking at the “bewildered half broken animal” Kafka is giving the modern condition of Jewishness a figure, Jewishness is based on an acknowledgement and a denial that one is European, French, American, German, etc and living the life of an Enlightened (and “free”) individual. What he knows, as a Jew, is something that the academy will never know. He has this knowledge because he is a Jew who was torn away from his people. He has the wounds of this rupture and the memories that go along with it – which he must deny if he is to be ” free” – but they all come back to him when he sees one of his own kind.  He remembers that he is not truly free and, before her and the memory she evokes, he can’t move or escape.  Like many of Kafka’s characters, he wants to move but can’t.   And, if we read Kafka by way of Jewishness, it is his betrayal of Jewishness which stops him in his tracks.

The shame of this character and his memory of being torn away from his people – who appear to be “bewildered and half broken”- finds a different kind of figuration in Shalom Auslander’s story. But, even so, the shame comes in relation to the community.   The difference, as I will argue in the second part of this essay, has to do with Auslander’s explicit reference to religious ideas and a kind of shame that separates Bobo from his fellow species.  And this suggests a different kind of education, one less cultural (The Academy) and one that is more religious.


….to be continued.






The Schlemiel and Schlemiel Theory Appear in “Wordplay: The Crossword Blog of The New York Times”


On January 13th Wordplay: The Crossword Blog of the New York Times brought up the schlemiel and hyperlinked “who else might cause a spill at the cafeteria” to this blog post on Schlemiel Theory.   The article is entitled “Fire Suppressing Compound” and subtitled “Jeffrey Wechsler gets tripped up.”   The author of the article, Deb Amlen, points out how Jeffrey Wechsler, who constructed the last New York Times crossword, gave a clue that made her think of the schlemiel:

Jeffrey Wechsler returns with a set of spoonerized versions of BEATLES songs, and they are funny. I didn’t catch on at first, and tried to fit SCHLEMIEL into 18 Across, because who else might cause a spill at a cafeteria? Fortunately for us, the answer is TRAY DIPPER, reversed from “Day Tripper.”

The irony that Amlen articulates in the subtitle is that, in theory, the schlemiel is the one who “might cause a spill at a cafeteria” (based on the celebrated joke of the schlemiel who spills soup on the schlimazel).   The right word, “tray dipper,” is a “spoonerized” version of the Beatles song (“day tripper”).   But she’s really the one who “tripped up” insofar as she missed the clue.  (I would, too.)

What I love most about the subtitle is that it also suggests – at least for me – that the schlemiel should have been in the crossword. He tripped up by not having it there and is, in the end, a schlemiel!   But, ironically, the word and the link to Schlemiel Theory (on the “Essentially…Existential” schlemiel) made it into the commentary of the crossword.   I find it amusing that it ends up in the commentary. After all, the Jewish tradition loves commentary. And the schlemiel is often in the margins. Even so, when the schlemiel trips he must fall somewhere and I’m very happy to see that he fell into the New York Times “Wordplay” blog!


* On a personal note, my dad will be proud of this slip-and-fall. He’s been doing the New York Times crossword since I was in diapers.

On the Schlemiel, Max Weber’s Notion of the Ethical Effect of Religion, and the Charisma of Goodness


Goodness is an important aspect of the schlemiel’s character. In The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse argues that the schlemiel is a simpleton who clings to goodness and humility; and in the incarnation of the schlemiel we find in secular writers, such as I.B. Singer, Wisse tells us that the trace of the religious schlemiel can be found in the fact that the schlemiel, like I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, acts “as if” the good exists.     The root of the schlemiel’s secular goodness is religious since it was, according to Wisse, first found in the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. They provided the first literary treatment of the schlemiel. And according to Ruth Wisse and David Roskies, this influenced the Yiddish writers.

The religious aspect of goodness is something that was of great interest to Max Weber. In a chapter entitled “The Different Roads to Salvation,” from his book The Sociology of Religion, Max Weber argues that, in religion, the “occasional devotion induced by ritual” can be “escalated into a continuing piety.” The “effort is made, “ by the religious subject, to “incorporate this piety into everyday living.” And when it does, it “readily takes on a mystical character”(152).   But the “disposition to mysticism” is unique since it is an “individual charisma.”   What interests Weber most is how this kind of piety, which results in a “disposition to mysticism,” “ultimately leads away from rational activity”(152). We find this in “mystery cults.” We also find this, argues Weber, in Christianity.

The only religion to pursue goodness without totally fleeing from rational activity is Judaism.   The “ritual activity” of Judaism has a different “ethical effect” because it requires that “participants be specially schooled.”

The fulfillment of ritual commandments required of the laity some active ritual behavior….became so systematized into a comprehensive body of law that adequate understanding of it required special schooling….Even in antiquity, pious Jews had been led to equate persons unschooled in the law with the godless. (154)

The “social achievement” of “the works of salvation,” here learning, are “primarily social achievements” since they prompted the average Jew to be educated if he or she was to be observant.

For Weber, goodness needs to be demonstrated. Weber, turning to Judaism and Christianity, argues that a “charisma of goodness” occurs when a person’s actions of “love for one’s fellow man” is “demonstrated.” This demonstration is not possible without “ethical systemization.”   He associates the demonstration of such goodness with “a religious total personality.” It may be regarded as a “divine gift.” But it can also “be acquired through training in goodness.” And this is informed by a “rationalized, methodical direction of the their pattern of life, not an accumulation of single, unrelated actions.”

All charismatic goodness is based on a ritualistic system. Weber argues that the monotheistic system is based on the “transcendence of particular desires and emotions of raw human nature which had not hitherto been controlled by religion.” The task of the sociologist of religion is to “determine for each particular religion whether it regarded cowardice, brutality, selfishness, sensuality, or some natural drive as the one most prone to divert the individual from his charismatic character”(163).

This is what Weber calls the “ethic of the virtuosi.”   And “like magical charisma, it also needs demonstration by the virtuosi.” It is not “demonstrated” by the majority of the observant. After listing several different kinds of virtuosi – ranging from those found in the monks of Christianity, Buddhism, or in Islam – he writes the greatest novelty of demonstration: “this holds true of the legalism of the Pharasaic Jew and the aconomistic goodness of such persons as St. Frances.”

The “certainty of sanctification” is supported by the “upholding of religious and ethical standards.” And “salvation may be viewed as a distinctive gift of active ethical behavior performed in the awareness that god directs his behavior, i.e. the actor is an instrument of god”(164).

What is fascinating about this charisma of goodness, for Weber, is that it would not exist were it not for the fact that is rationalized in a ritualistic system. One wonders what he would say about the piety that is associated with the Hasidic notion of simplicity and smallness. Does the schlemiel – just like the Rebbe or righteous Jew – “demonstrate” goodness? What does it mean that the schlemiel doesn’t know if God is directing his behavior? What does it mean that, against the Pharsaic Jew that Weber talks about (who shares much in common with the Mitnagdim; meaning, “those against: the Hasidic movement,” which was thought by many Mitnagdim to be heretical in its purported rejection of halacha – Jewish law) –the Hasidic Jew does not find his primary way to god through education?

The schlemiel’s simplicity seems to go against the grain of Judaism. He would be regarded by the Mitnagdim as an “am ha’aretz” (or “idiot,” the Rabbinic figure of the unlearned person)(163). As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav well knew, the simpleton-slash- schlemiel marks a Hasidic challenge to the rationalist Rabbinic correlation of learnedness and goodness.   Nonetheless, there is still a “charisma of goodness” that attends the schlemiel. And it has a popular affect because it is so common. It also finds its way into Kafka’s fiction. As Hannah Arendt notes, there is a simplicity in his characters who are “common men” who have “good will.”   Unfortunately, the man of good will – the simpleton – cannot find a place in a world which is obsessed with functionality and the proper.

The schlemiel and its “charisma of goodness” have broken through of the boundaries set up by what Max Weber would call the “system of ritual” and “education” – which is germane to Judaism. The schlemiel has been secularized and Americanized. It has found its way into popular culture. As learning and ritual have – in large part – passed away from the daily life of the everyday Jew, we can understand how this trait of goodness, which has a Hasidic root, lives on in the secular schlemiel. Whether the schlemiel is played by Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Amy Shumer, ethical charisma lives on. However, this goodness is related more to being an American Jew than to Judaism. But, over time, the ethical goodness of the schlemiel has become more about being an American.

The only thing missing from this kind of sociological analysis is the fact that no thought is given to the possibility that goodness is not merely a sociological affect. Weber’s analysis lacks a philosophical sense of why or goodness can work – as it does with the schlemiel – despite ritual or the demonstration of a religious system. The possibility of faith or hope is made possible  for many in our socially mediated culture  by the schlemiel.  Its charisma of goodness – if that is the right word – is actually something much more comedic.

I’ll leave you with this question. Would you call Seth Rogen’s goodness charismatic? Is he inspiring people to do good? And does the trace of goodness, which we find in his work and has traveled far from its source, originate in the Hasidic schlemiel? Does it inspire something salvic? Does it prompt one to have hope? Does Seth Rogen, as Ruth Wisse might say, act “as if” good exists in a world that has become cynical?  Has Jewish comedy – by way of the schlemiel – produced what Max Weber calls a “breakthrough”(made in reference to Paul’s revision of the messianic in the name of Christianity, p259)  insofar as it has transformed  a religious kind of goodness into a secular one?  Or does a religious figure lose its charisma when it is secularized?  Either way, Rogen comes across as a somewhat endearing “bro” character whose goodness, however, is not associated with any religious system.










Becoming Smaller: Notes on Smallness in Kabbalah, Hasidic Thought, and Kafka


Small people can be found throughout the folklore, religion, and literature of the west.   But what is more interesting is not that there are small people but why or how they become small and what this becoming means. One may be made small by reality (which crushes one to a pulp), one can make oneself small, or one can be made and make oneself small.

Smallness is a persistent theme in the Torah and in the literature of Franz Kafka, Paul Celan, Shalom Aliechem, I.B. Singer, and even modern Jewish American writers like Gary Shteyngart, Shalom Auslander, Cynthia Ozick, and Dara Horn (to name just a handful of Jewish writers who span continents, time periods, and languages).   There is also a deep meditation on smallness in Hasidic, mystical thought and in the Kabbalah of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria).   Despite the fact that some scholars have addressed the mystical aspects of Celan and Kafka’s work, few, however, have looked into the relationship between the Jewish mystical tradition of becoming small and the motifs we find in their texts. Moreover, few have looked into how this relates to the smallest and most simple comic character of all (which we find in Kafka, Aleichem, Singer, Shteyngart (et al) and even Celan): the schlemiel. Since it can open up new convergences of literature, religion, mysticism, and Jewish philosophy, this is a task for schlemiel theory.     (In these notes I will take a brief look at the link between smallness – in Jewish mysticism and in Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.”)

We find a recurring meditation on becoming small with either the zaddik (righteous Jew) coming close to God or, in Hasidic thought, bringing Torah to simple folk. In Mysticism and Madness: The Religious Thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Zvi Mark lays this out in terms of three basic types of smallness which speak to being made small or making oneself small (of fate and volition):

  1. Not even a great person is able to cleave to God continuously. He must relax his intensity in order to continue to exist in the physical world. States of ‘smallness’ provide rest and renewal of strength before an impending ascent.
  2. The descent of the zaddik enables him to come close to the people (“the common man”) for the sake of their advancement and ascent. In this sense, he is obligated to descend of his own volition to a state of smallness in order to raise op the masses.
  3. The descent of the zaddik to a state of ‘smallness’ is due to his generation, whose spiritual condition affects his own spiritual world. In such an instance, the zaddik’s descent occurs against his will and not volitionally. The zaddik’s ‘smallness’ is expressed in his actions, which are like those of the normal person not being disposed to cleaving to God – i.e., engagement in everyday speech, in business and in other mundane affairs. Only at the time of his descent can the zaddik come in contact with the members of his community… (186)

Mark goes on to note how Gershom Scholem, in his essay “Deveikut,” states that the “use of concepts of ‘smallness’ and ‘greatness’ represent a completely novel redaction of the kabbalah of the Ari.” And, building on the work of the Kabblistic master, the Baal Shem Tov “transfers these concepts to the realm of the human and gives new meaning to theosophical ideas.” But, notes Scholem, the transference made by the Baal Shem Tov puts a “new emphasis on psychology instead of theosophy.”   (Also see what I have written on Scholem’s reading of simplicity and smallness with respect to Marranos, Sabbatians, and Hasidim.)

Putting Scholem’s claims to the side – which speak directly to his claim that the Hasidim have “neutralized the Messianic idea” that Sabbatai Zevi had brought into reality and turned it inward – there is much to say about how the theosophic dimension of smallness finds a place in the storytelling of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav and in the stories of Franz Kafka. What’s even more interesting is how smallness – in a theosophic sense – finds its way into these stories by way of comedy and literary figurations of childishness.

One Kafka story that delves into smallness is “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” Kafka’s title juxtaposes Josephine and the people, a distinction that has resonances in the Torah (as between Moses and the Jewish people) and in Hasidic thought (the zaddik and the common people).   This is confirmed by the fact that although Josephine is a leader and helps lift the people up by “song,” she is no bigger than any of them. And, like them, she is a mouse and is crushed and made small by reality. Despite this, she seems to somehow appeal to something big:

Our singer is called Josephine. Anyone who has not heard her does not know that power of song. There is no one but is carried away by her singing, a tribute the greater as we are not in general a music-loving race. Tranquil peace is the music we love best; our life is hard, we are no longer able, even on occasions when we have tried to shake off the cares of daily life, to rise to anything high and remote from our usual routine as music. But we do not much lament that; we do not even get so far….Josephine is the sole exception…she is the only one; when she dies, music – who knows for how long – will vanish from our lives. (360, Kafka: The Complete Stories)

After stating this praise of Josephine, the narrator of the story corrects himself and makes himself and Josephine small by noting that he doesn’t know if she or they sing so much as “pipe.” And this piping, since it isn’t an art, is just something that is common, small, and simple:

So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just a piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life. We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it, indeed without noticing it, and there are even among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. (361)

The smallness of this people – according to the narrator – comes out through the children (who can’t even pipe). While the children can only “lisp” and “chirp,” the adults feel a lament that they aren’t children. Even this piping is too much of an assertion of power for them. Nonetheless, the narrator comically laments that all the mice people can’t escape children, being childish, small minded, and foolish:

We have no schools, but from our race come pouring at the briefest intervals the innumerable swarms of our children, merely lisping or chirping so long at they cannot yet pipe, rolling and tumbling along by sheer impetus so long as they cannot run, clumsily carrying everything before them by mass weight so long as they cannot yet see, our children! And not the same children, as in those schools, no, always new children again and again without end, without break…Truly, however….we cannot give a real childhood to our children. And that has its consequences.   A kind of unexpended ineradicable childishness pervades our people; in direct opposition to what is best in us, our infallible practical common sense, we often behave with the utmost foolishness, with exactly the same foolishness as children. (369)

Becoming like a child, they are able to receive the song (or “piping”) of Josephine. Her piping isn’t that of “practical common sense.” It is, rather, the common language. But what Josephine does with it is liberating.

Piping is our people’s daily speech, only many a one pipes his whole life long and does not know it, where here piping is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while. We certainly should not want to do without these performances. (370)

And in making herself like them and trying to communicate with them in their language, she, like a zaddik (as understood by the Hasidic idea of becoming small) gives the mouse people a sense of something larger, more intimate, and liberating. But this something is common to all of them; it is shared.   And because it is small and speaks to smallness, her piping doesn’t purport to elevate itself above the childishness and schlemielkiet of the people.   The lament of the narrator at the people’s childishness is displaced when she pipes because it makes them forget and prompts them to let go of their practical and skeptical sense of their smallness.


….to be continued…..

Profiting off of American Losers: Leslie Fiedler On Power, Guilt & Failure in American and Jewish-American Literature


Near the end of his life, Leslie Fiedler, the celebrated (or is it notorious – Irving Howe – one of the greatest voices in post-WWII literary criticism – thought of Fiedler as a charlatan) Jewish-American literary critic decided to write a book that spoke to his guilt for having been complicit in power.   In What Was Literature: Class Culture and Mass Society, he makes claims about American culture, authorship, and criticism that suggest that in order to get where you are you have to throw someone under the bus.

As Fiedler explains, a whole generation of writers amassed wealth by profiting off of losers. This is not simply a fault that can be found in human nature – it has to do with the nature of American culture. And, as an American literary critic-slash-writer nearing the end of his life, he admits his guilt.   The meaning of this guilt is telling since it suggests that – in not being alone – many American writers (or filmmakers – think of Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, etc) are also profiting off of losers. But, in his estimation, he is better than most because he is willing to admit it.

The first line of his book admits to a kind of guilt, but it is displaced because, although it seems personal, it is really academic; namely, the distinction between high and low culture:

After more than forty years in the classroom talking about books, I find myself asking whether the profession I practice does not help perpetuate an unfortunate distinction, a separation of song and story into High Literature and low or as some prefer to say, into literature proper and or sub- or para-literature.

But when the reader juxtaposes this sentence to the title of the chapter “Who Was Leslie A. Fiedler,” one will see that his guilt is in question. If we are looking into who Leslie Fiedler “was” – vis-à-vis his view on the high-low literary distinction – what can we say about who he “is”?

Based on this first sentence and its relationship to the title, the obvious assumption made by the reader is that the Leslie Fiedler of the past made distinctions between high and low literature while the present Leslie Fiedler does not.

Fiedler admits that – as a literary critic and teacher of “my generation” – it is “shameful or regressive to respond similarly” to low literature as one would to high literature.   Yet, he says, that is what his “generation of literary critics and teachers of English was expected to do.” And when he started putting the two on the same level, he felt guilty. Although it sounds sincere, there is something odd about his testimony.

Fiedler argues that, initially, he was (since the age of seven) a writer not a literary critic. And instead of accepting his pieces of fiction, the people he sent material to wanted literary criticism:

I am not sure even now what prompted them to make such requests beyond a vague sense of guilt at having to say no (to his fictional pieces) over and over again to one so desperately in need of some kind of yes. But in any case, I did not pass up the chance. (14)

In other words, Fiedler was desperate. He wanted “some kind of yes” and he found that being a literary critic, which, for him, meant tossing his standards to the wayside, was fine. He didn’t mind lying about what he really felt, and he became…someone else. The new Leslie Fiedler, in other words, is a liar. But, for him, since one needs “some kind of yes”from the American public, one must become a liar

But, as Fiedler reveals, there is more to the story of duplicity in America.   It does some good. He, like many, did it for the money. And the contracts he agreed to made him into a public figure who, from time to time, appeared on TV. But these appearances were, for him, more relevant because they “return” to the “’archaic’ public lecture, the Chautauqua”(19).     This gave him a “connection” to a non-academic audience which he felt was more important than the small audience he had in this or that university English course or academic lecture.

Somehow television came closer to giving me the sense of connection with a responsive nonacademic audience that I had experienced for the first time when someone in a heterogeneous group of listeners (it was in a park, as I recall, on the South Side of Chicago) screamed, “Now you’re preachin’, brother. Go right on preachin’.”(19)

But, says Feidler, television “ran out for him” and he admits that he was a “victim of vestigial elitism.”   Nonetheless, he had not “escaped ‘show biz’ and went on a lecture circuit. While this was going on, he had, by 1963, written a “novel called The Second Stone.”   In the novel, Fiedler casts the main character as “an expatriate American loser, a writer who does not write”(20). This “American Loser” disrupts a “World Congress on Love held in Rome under American auspices” because the main character becomes the love infatuation of the “wife of a theologian-organizer.” He situates this character amidst “the deliberations of the assembled critics, poets, shrinks, and gurus are drowned out by the shouts of demonstrators, convinced by the Italian Communist Party that the whole thing is a CIA plot”(20).

Fiedler’s decision to cast himself as the “American loser” – as a “writer who does not write” – is telling because he sees this trend as disclosing a kind of American duplicity. In America, writes Fiedler, there is a belief that the public feels powerful and guilty for the death of great authors like Poe and Fitzgerald. It wasn’t booze that killed them. According to the American public, it was power. The mixture of power and guilt is a “potent emotional mix for all true Americans”(31). When he writes this line, Fiedler includes himself as a “true American.”   But the guilt he has, as a critic and a writer, is profiting off of their failure:

It is, for instance, Mark Twain’s final loneliness and melancholia (that) we prefer to dwell on, or his many failures along the way. Yet, though Twain went bankrupt as often as any other capitalist entrepreneur in the Gilded Age, at the end he was able to support a splendiferous house and a set of expensive bad habits. (31)

The irony, writer Fiedler, is that Twain’s fortune was “based on the continuing success of Huckleberry Finn, which is to say, the classic version of the American anti-success story”(31).   Twain’s life as a child was the opposite of Tom Sawyer’s. He “would not allow Tom” to “grow up,” while he, himself, did. Twain “stayed home.”   He didn’t go on a journey. In other words, Twain profited off of the American loser and in doing so he lied. This, suggests Fiedler, is the price one must pay if one is to be a popular writer or critic.

Fiedler goes even farther and suggests this was the case for a whole generation of Jewish American writers who, as American losers, a writer like Saul Bellow profited off in his book Humboldt’s Gift.   According to Fiedler, the poete maudit is “reborn this time as a failed New York intellectual – a super-articulate, self-defeating Luftmensch who has died abandoned and penniless before the action of the novel begins”(32).

Citing other critics of Bellow’s book, Fiedler notes that the model of the book was Delmore Schwartz, “who had indeed come to a shabby end”(32).   For Fiedler, Schwartz is:

The portrait not of any single individual but of a whole generation of Jewish-American losers: including, surely, Bellow’s one-time guru and lifelong friend, Isaac Rosenfeld, also dead before reaching forty, his handful of stories and essays remembered by a shrinking coterie of aging admirers; and perhaps Lenny Bruce as well, that hipster and stand-up comedian who O.D.’d in 1966. Reading Humboldt’s fate, I cannot, in any case, help thinking of all those mad, bright, young Jewish-Americans, still caught up in the obsolescent myth of the Artist as Victim, and dead before they had lived long enough to realize, like Bellow, that in prosperous America it was no longer necessary to end as a Beautiful Loser. (32)

Fiedler argues that the ultimate beneficiary of the loser in Bellow’s book is the narrator, Charlie Citrine (the “not-so-beautiful Winner”). He is the “real hero,” not Humbolt (32).   He feels a kind of power for surviving the character’s death; however, his “own survival is an occasion for guilt – the guilt we have long been trained to think of as the inevitable accompaniment of making it”(33). By writing this, Feidler suggest that he has also felt this power and guilt. He is a survivor – a “not-so-beautiful Winner” – who has taken advantage of the American loser, too.

One way of assuaging this guilt, according to Fiedler, is by believing that the loser died so that you could win. And their death leaves us with a “heritage not empty regrets but a salable story: his story once, our story now, the book we are reading”(33).

The story of the American loser can – “if properly exploited” – be made into a film or earn an author (such as Bellow) a Nobel Prize.   The survivor can pay the bills. But Fiedler’s portrayal of the survivor and winner is sad and discloses his guilt which he is trying to hide:

And if we weep a little, remembering those others whom we loved and betrayed and by whose death we profited, we can (as the old saying has it) cry all the way to the bank. (33)

All ends on this note because this is not who Fiedler (or perhaps any American literary critic) “was” so much as who he has become. In order to make it, he, like Saul Bellow or Mark Twain, had to profit on the American loser. Both American and Jewish American literature and their power – in his estimation – are guilty of this. The implication is that Jewish American – as much as American literature – needs its losers, Luftmensches, and schlemiels if it is to live on and tell the tale, but this survival is a kind of betrayal.

It’s Also a Memory Machine: On Kafka’s American Desk


Kafka is well known for his fictional machines.   Sometimes the purpose and the meaning of the machine are clearly laid out; sometimes they are vague. The most well-known is “the Harrow” in his short story “The Penal Colony.” The purpose of the machine is to slowly write the sentence on the body of “The Condemned Man.” The “traveler” – who knows nothing about the machine – asks the “officer” about it.

“Yes, the Harrow,” said the Officer. “The name fits. The needles are arranged as in a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and is, in principle, much more artistic. Anyway, you’ll understand in a moment. The condemned is laid out here on the Bed. I’ll describe the apparatus first and only then let the procedure perform on its own. That way you’ll be able to follow it better. Also a gear wheel in the Inscriber is excessively worn. It really squeaks; when it’s in motion one can hardly make oneself understood. Unfortunately replacement parts are difficult to come by in this place. So, here is the Bed, as I said. The whole thing is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool, the purpose of which you’ll find out in a moment. The condemned man is laid out on his stomach on this cotton wool—naked, of course. There are straps for the hands here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely. At the head of the Bed here, where the man, as I have mentioned, first lies face down, is this small protruding lump of felt, which can easily be adjusted so that it presses right into the man’s mouth. Its purpose is to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. Of course, the man has to let the felt in his mouth—otherwise the straps around his throat will break his neck.” 

The Harrow has the “job of carrying out the sentence.”   But when traveler wants to know what is written on the body of the Condemned Man, the officer hesitates to tell him:

“What is the sentence?” the Traveler asked. “You don’t even know that?” asked the Officer in astonishment and bit his lip. “Forgive me if my explanations are perhaps confused. I really do beg your pardon. Previously it was the Commandant’s habit to provide such explanations. But the New Commandant has excused himself from this honorable duty. However, the fact that with such an eminent visitor”—the Traveler tried to deflect the honor with both hands, but the Officer insisted on the expression—“that with such an eminent visitor he didn’t even once make him aware of the form of our sentencing is yet again something new, which.…” He had a curse on his lips, but controlled himself and said merely: “I was not informed about it. It’s not my fault. In any case, I am certainly the person best able to explain our style of sentencing, for here I am carrying”—he patted his breast pocket—“the relevant diagrams drawn by the previous Commandant.”

The only person who knows the sentence is the Condemned Man.   But he doesn’t learn what it is until it is inscribed on his body:

The Traveler wanted to raise various questions, but after looking at the Condemned Man he merely asked, “Does he know his sentence?” “No,” said the Officer. He wished to get on with his explanation right away, but the Traveler interrupted him: “He doesn’t know his own sentence?” “No,” said the Officer once more. He then paused for a moment, as if he were requesting from the Traveler a more detailed reason for his question, and said, “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences it on his own body.”

In contrast to this machine, which has prompted much discussion (especially with Foucaultians who are interested in “disciplinary mechanisms”), is the desk in Kafka’s America.   The desk is mentioned only once in the novel, but it is worthy of our consideration for a few different reasons.

First of all, there are two things that give Karl Rossmann “pleasure” when he comes to America.   His first pleasure, which his uncle says is unhealthy and unproductive, is to look off his balcony and stare at the New York City traffic. When he does he becomes fascinated with the destruction of perception and experience:

A narrow balcony ran along the full length of his room. In his native city it would surely have been the highest lookout, yet here it offered little more than the view of a single street that ran in a straight line between two rows of veritably truncated buildings and therefore seemed to flee into the distance, where the outlines of a cathedral loomed monstrously out of the great haze. In the morning and in the evening and at night in his dreams, this street was filled with constantly bustling traffic, which seen from above seemed like a continually self-replenishing mixture of distorted figures and of the roofs of all sorts of vehicles, constantly scattered by new arrivals…avidly refracted by the mass objects that made such a physical impression on one’s dazzled eye that is seemed as if a glass pane, hanging over the street and covering everything, were being smashed again and again with the utmost force

In contrast to this, his other great pleasure is in a machine: his desk.

In his room stood an America desk of the finest kind, such as his father had wanted for years and had sought to buy at a reasonable price at all kinds of auctions…Of course there was no comparison between this desk here and those supposedly American desks that made the rounds at European actions. (37)

This desk had a “hundred drawers of all sizes” and a “regulator on the side, so that by simply turning the handle one could move about and rearrange the drawers in all sorts of combinations to suit one’s every need and whim”(37).   In other words, the desk could, with one turn of the crank, be rearranged to fit the desires and fantasies of the user. But, like any device, it could also be turned into a game of sorts:

Even after a single winding, the base looked completely different, and depending on the speed at which one turned the handle, everything moved slowly or at a crazy pace. (37)

But instead of appealing to his present desires, the machine, in Karl’s hands, evokes memories of his childhood:

Though it was a most recent invention, it vividly reminded Karl of the nativity scenes at home that were shown to gaping children at the Christmas market, and Karl too had often stood before it, bundled up in his winter clothes, continually comparing the revolutions of the crank…with the unfolding of a nativity scene, the faltering progress of the three holy kings, the sudden illumination of the star, the cramped life in a nativity manger. (37-38)

Rossmann then remembers how, while he did, his mother did not pay “sufficient heed to all of the movements.” Rossmann wants to pay attention to the movements of the diorama and not the images that circulate.   Even though he “could feel her body pressing against his back,” and their bodies are close, they are separate. And this troubles Rossmann.   He remembers how, as a child, he made efforts to become one with her vis-à-vis his attention to movements and nuanced figures; however, he remembers how she stops him from talking and falls into her “prior inattentiveness.”

The narrator reflects on how the machine, with Rossmann, creates a memory affect. The fact that they he has them, however, is not uncommon in the “history of inventions”:

True, the desk had not been manufactured for the purpose of stirring such memoires, yet throughout the history of inventions people made associations that were just as indistinct as Karl’s recollections.   (38)

Karl’s uncle – who takes him in when Rossmann arrives in America – doesn’t like the affect the machine has on Karl.   So he tells him that excessive use of the machine may ruin the machine and it was “expensive to repair.”   However, the narrator tells the reader that it “wasn’t hard to see that the comments were merely excuses.”

To take his mind off the desk-machine, the uncle buys Karl a piano. The uncle’s American agenda starts to take shape. The point is to take Karl’s focus away from the destruction of experience (staring off the balcony) and lapsing into memory and gestural awareness. The uncle wants Karl to become pragmatic not absent minded.

The function of the desk-machine is to create a space within which Karl can work. And looking off the balcony distracts Karl from action. Kafka seems to be telling us that the problem, for the American, is to manage distraction. American pragmatics has no room for the misuse of the machine and vision.   If work is to be done, one cannot be locked into memories of childhood and its movements or into the astonishment that comes with the destruction of perception. Nonetheless, Kafka, throughout the novel, pays close attention to movements in and out of spaces. He shows how chance determines much of one’s life rather than calculated action.   What Karl gradually learns is how to stem the flow of these movements.

Karl Rossmann is thrown into one situation after another.   His decision to stay or leave is always the question; however, sometimes he is kicked out and forced to move. The consciousness that emerges out of this is a spatial consciousness which is concerned with differing modes of awareness and attention. Does Rossmann need to serve others and let them guide his attention or will he guide his own? Does our dawning awareness of differing kinds of attentiveness determine our sense of self? How does this desk, which has become a memory machine, remind Rossmann of how individuation is connected to his awareness that his mother doesn’t care to share his fascination with movement?   Is it that crucial?  And what does it mean that his uncle also doesn’t care and ultimately distances himself from Karl because Karl can’t act in the manner that he deems productive?

Kafka seems to be telling us that in an age of machines, attentiveness to movement is a key trait of self-hood and experience. But machines are not merely mechanical; for Kafka, they are also to be read in terms of social spaces and relationships. The relationship to machines – whether actual or social – displaces the relationship to family and (as the novel shows us) even “friends” (namely, Robinson and Delmarche).

When Rossmann stumbles upon people who seem to be potential allies, he is duped when he learns that the social machine they plugged him into was a hoax. He is also duped by another machine he hooks up with (a hotel) when he leaves them behind. (At the hotel, he operates an elevator.) When one of them (Robinson) comes back to see him, in the second half of the novel, and gets him ejected form the hotel-machine, they look to plug him into another kind of machine. That machine is a kind of sado-masochistic slavery machine that is centered around a woman named “Brunelda.”     While Robinson and Delmarche take to the Brunelda machine, because it gives them food and shelter, Rossmann – near the end of the novel – wants to leave.

What astonishes one throughout these displacements is the lack of awareness – either on his part or on the part of others – that is behind the mechanical alterations of fate that Rossmann is subject to. His only freedom is to flee these machines.   But that possibility only happens outside the novel, in a fragment of Kafka’s on the “Oklahoma Natural Theater.”

In the novel, Rossmann realizes that, in order to survive, he must work in one social group or another. But Kafka leaves open the possibility that one need not be stuck in one social-mechanism or another.   However, the fact that it – the Oklahoma Natural Theater” – didn’t make it into his novel is what needs to be thought through.   Even though the novel was unfinished and was never published, the fact that he left it a fragment suggests an attempt to think about the possibility of freedom – of a space that is not constantly threatened by violence and sado-masochism as the result of one mechanism or another being effaced. In that space, attentiveness to movement has a wholly other meaning.

….to be continued….