Millennials & The Smelly End of Literature


Why do books smell like old people? These words were the Facebook title of an essay for The New Yorker by David Denby entitled “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” In this bitingly cynical piece, Denby describes – in a literary and even phenomenological manner – the most common scene today with youth:

A common sight in malls, in pizza parlors, in Starbucks, and wherever else American teens hang out: three or four kids, hooded, gathered around a table, leaning over like monks or druids, their eyes fastened to the smartphones held in front of them. The phones, converging at the center of the table, come close to touching.

After making this description, Denby turns the eye of his critical consciousness back on himself to take note of how he feels about what he sees.

The teens are making a communion of a sort. Looking at them, you can envy their happiness. You can also find yourself wishing them immersed in a different kind of happiness—in a superb book or a series of books, in the reading obsession itself! You should probably keep on wishing.

Astonished, he notes that the teens – the youth – are having a kind of communion.   He envies them “for their happiness.” But he is torn. The older, wiser part of the critic looks at them and finds something missing: “You can also find yourself wishing them immersed in a different kind of happiness.” This “different kind of happiness” happens when one is “immersed” in a “superb book or a series of books.” But it is not this or that book. No. The happiness that “comes with the reading obsession itself!” is what matters. However, in a moment of comical wakefulness, he realized that his “wish” cannot come true: “you should probably keep on wishing.”

In the rest of the essay, Denby points out that although they read more words than they ever have, teens today read in scraps. They don’t read long passages or finish books.   They get distracted by this or that thing.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Things are even worse with the teens. There is noting to envy. Denby tells us that teens are afraid of making eye contact with the other. This, says Denby has created a “loss of self” and a “peculiar boredom” that has been “produced by the act of constantly fleeing boredom.”

As the article progresses, Denby becomes more and more cynical about the prospect of youth deriving any happiness from reading a text in a deep and close manner. Reading, he says, is a chore for most of them. Millennials find the reading and books to be repulsive.

Denby recalls how he heard a student at Yale say that “books smell like old people.” And this recalls me to a passage in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.   In the novel, the main character’s girlfriend, Grace (“Eunice”), a Korean-American millennial, reflects on her older boyfriend, Lenny Abromov’s books. Like him (he is over 40), his books are old and smelly:

Anyway, what kind of freaked me out was that I saw Len reading a book. (No, it didn’t SMELL. He uses Pine-Sol on them.) And I don’t mean scanning a text like we did in Euro Classics with that Chatterhouse of Parma I mean seriously READING. He had this ruler out and he was moving it down the page very slowly and jut like whispering little things to himself, like trying to understand every part of it…..I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR, and finally he put the book down and I pretended like nothing happened….I thought Ben was really smart because I saw him streaming the Chronicles of Narnia in the café in Rome, but this Tolstoy was a thousand pages long BOOK. (143)

This perspective – parodied by Shteyngart – gives David Denby’s article some fictional flesh. Grace – like Denby’s millennial – thinks books “smell” and can’t understand how anyone can read a book for “HALF AN HOUR” or even read….a “BOOK.” While it doesn’t make sense for her, it does make sense for Denby that millennials find no joy reading literature. It seems that literature is over. Gone. Dead.

Within the article, Denby tries to find some hope, but its not easy. He can’t remain a curmudgeon. That’s not right:

You don’t want to become a crank. After all, reading technologies have changed in the past; television altered consciousness and social patterns sixty years ago, and kids survived and became adults. Literature will survive, too, somehow. Or so we would like to think. (I’m not so sure: the personal gratification provided by constant feedback doesn’t wither as one gets older.) Some of this indifference may be caused by rueful self-acknowledgment on the part of adults. Many of us are looking at screens all the time, too. Even the book lovers, carrying some tome on an airplane, or listening to an audiobook in the car, turn on their phones as soon as they can.

Even though he was witnessed a flourishing of literature and reading in his lifetime, and finds not much to hope for. He avers that his task – of making reading important –   is “awkward, square headed, emotionally difficult.”   He feels like a fool when he speaks on behalf of deeper reading.   For Denby, a teaching can do a better job. And perhaps it is the high school teachers who can influence a teen to read “at least for a few vital hours.”

Even though he ends on this positive note, the fact of the matter is that his article – like Gary Shteyngart’s portrayal of Grace’s repulsion of books – is cynical and very uncertain. One of the things he points out, which certifies this cynicism, is the fact that STEM is the new thing in Universities. And it is growing.

The only places left for literature may no longer be in “smelly books.” They may be online. Blogs and magazines like Berfrois, LitHub, The Millions, LARB, 3AM Magazine, etc etc may be the last, most popular spaces for literature and literary criticism of any depth or value which millennials can access the joys of reading.

But, yes, Denby is right. There is a loss. The loss of smell is the appropriate metaphor for this loss because, with smell, comes memory. We see this in Baudelaire, Proust, and even in some mystical books (such as the Zohar).   Freud believed the distance from smell was a sign of progress away from the material and animalic.   The movement away from materiality and reading is an interesting development because it may take us far away from remembering not only about who we were but who we are. As Freud always noted, we are who we were.   Without reading, perhaps we will forget. But no matter what we do – and as every great novelist knows – the smell of death brings reflection and oftentimes a reminder of why we write or think.   But, no matter how you look at it, the smelly death of literature hangs over our heads.



Umberto Eco’s Last Laugh: On Theology, Philosophy, and The Laughing Creature


Umberto Eco’s passing gives us a lot to think about. His explorations of language, fiction, and thought spanned post-structuralism, deconstruction, and philosophy. Umberto Eco was a philosopher, a linguist, and a semiotician. He was fascinated with the relationship of thought to writing (and textuality). But, as one can see in his most famous works of fiction – such as Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose – Eco was also very interested in the relationship of thought and language to religion.  But when he addressed this relationship, he brought in something few people would associate with religion: laughter.

In The Name of the Rose, Eco prompts the reader to think about how powerful a foe laughter is, who has the last laugh, and why laughter was, during the Middle Ages, censored by the Church.  Because Eco puts a purported work by Aristotle on laughter at the center of the novel’s murder mystery, he suggests that this censorship has a deeper source in the work of Aristotle (which was, in the Middle Ages translated from the Arabic into the Latin and had a major influence on not only Islamic Philosophy, but also Jewish Philosophy – pace Maimonides – and Christian Theology – pace St. Thomas Aquinas and many others).   By way of this query into Aristotle’s thoughts on laughter, Eco’s novel suggests an unusual nexus for philosophy and theology that is not in God or Being so much as in…comedy.   Since man may be defined in terms of reason or faith by thought or religion, the way the laugher and laughter appears in and to the world are a troubling concern for philosophy and theology. Laughter puts their foundational definitions of man into quotation marks.

Plato had a love/hate relationship with laughter. For him laughter is dangerous when it is excessive. In The Republic, he suggests that the laughter can even lead to violence.   When a citizen becomes a “buffoon,” he can affect the community and create dissent. As Barry Sanders notes in his book, Laughter as Subversive History Plato didn’t think of laughter as challenging the gods so much as challenging “public appearances”(90) that normalize the polis.   On the other hand, Plato thought that ridicule (Republic 5.4520) can be used “effectively against wrongheaded and disruptive new ideas”(90).   In other words, laughter – at its best – maintains the status quo:

We must not fear jests of wit which are directed against this sort of innovation.

But in the Laws (Book 11, 934-36), Plato gives strict fines to those who cause damage to others through laughter.   However, Sanders suggests that Socrates embodies Plato’s ambiguous attitude toward laughter since he tells “serious stories with a wry sense of humor”(93). Socrates is a “gullible, innocent, and somewhat ignorant character, who always manages to ask precisely the right disingenuous questions…Socrates engages others as a kind of disarming and ancient Israelite, whom we suspect of knowing much more that he speaks”(93). Plato characterizes Socrates as having a “pretended self-deprecation or affected ignorance”(93). And this is the basis for calling Socrates “eiron” (ironic).

The key to Socrates’ humor, and what makes it more acceptable, is that “Socrates never laughs aloud”(93).   Socrates, in other words, may “seem” like a buffoon but, in truth, he is really a wise man. He contains his laughter. And this irony leads the reader to make a distinction between outer appearance (Becoming) and inner reality (Being). This was a distinction made by Parmenides and perfected by Plato, who distinguishes, in many places, between doxa (which refers to opinion, appearance, and Becoming) and eidos (which refers to ideas, Being, which transcends appearance).  For Plato, materiality was associated with appearance and becoming.   Through this distinction, Plato was able to distinguish between a “lower” kind of humor (which keeps one trapped in the world of Becoming and materiality) and a “higher” kind of humor (which leads one toward Being and Wisdom).     The higher kind of humor really isn’t humor; it appears to be comical, but in reality it masks seriousness.

Strangely enough, however, it is not Plato whose works were primarily translated by the Muslims as they swept threw Northern Africa and parts of Europe. Rather, it was the work of Aristotle that took on greater interest to them and then to the scholastics and Jewish philosophy.   Unlike Plato, Aristotle’s views on comedy were lesser known. Umberto Eco plays on this lack and even suggests a hidden treatise on Aristotle’s work that was not translated for the masses.   Eco’s move is interesting because, as per history, he is correct: Aristotle has a greater affect on theology and philosophy in the Middle Ages than Plato.  Nonetheless, what we do have from Aristotle is very revealing and can help us to understand what Eco is doing in his book.

In The Poetics, Aristotle associates laughter with an “imitation of inferior people” and with a “species that is disgraceful.”   He also notes that the “comic mask is ugly.” Laughter, in other words, can make the human into an animal. Laughter brings humanity into greater materiality and draws them away from what makes man special: the intellect. (This notion of laughter as distortion was taken on not only by the Church but also by the famous symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire in his celebrated essay, “The Essence of Laughter.).

Nonetheless, there is an ambiguity at the heart of Aristotle’s reflections on laughter as it relates to animal life. He argues elsewhere – in his writings on biology – that a child becomes human through laughter.   Man is a “Homo Ridens,” a “creature who laughs.”   This notion, it seems, was displaced by Aristotle’s reading of man as a rational animal, a social/political animal, or an animal that uses language (a description that was of great interest to Martin Heidegger in his later work).   This Aristotelian interpretation of man as a laughing animal was, so to speak, lost in translation.

While philosophy and theology in the Middle Ages found no use for this notion of Homo Ridens, literature did. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the writer Rabelais – who, according to Milan Kundera, is the father of Modern Literature (because, for him, modern literature is founded on a kind of humor) – called man, in his novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel, the “laughing animal.”   Montaigne also took note of this when he wrote that not only is man “Homo Ridens,” he is also “Homo Risibilus”(a laughable creature): “our own specific property is to be equally laughable and able to laugh.”   Henri Bergson, in his famous essay on laughter, takes note of this as well. And, in his recent book on humor, On Humor, Simon Critchley, takes this as a central hypothesis.

What Eco does in The Name of the Rose is to suggest, through the blind old monk character, Jorge de Burgos (a play on Jorge Luis Borges), an imperative: that man should not see himself as a “laughing animal.” The main premise of the scholastic argument is put forth: if man is made in the image of the Christian God, who he imitates, then he cannot laugh. He claims that, based on Scripture, one can clearly see that “Christ did not laugh.” Laughter is beneath him. It is too physical, animalic, and sinful.

The images of men as half-animals in the illuminated manuscript discussed in this clip – which is based on the book – suggest that the lapse between man and animal affected by laughter is an open secret that the Church sought – so to speak – to murder.     Instead of becoming human though laughter, one becomes an animal. And since the separation between man and animal must be maintained, laughter is a threat to that binary. When one laughs, one appears…different.

The seriousness of philosophy and theology are compromised by laughter.   One loses one’s serious face. Moreover, as a poet like Baudelaire would suggest, knowledge of this descent into materiality shouldn’t bring one joy (laughter as joy) so much as endless torment (laughter as a reminder of “fallenness”).   It is an irony that tortures him. Baudelaire’s interest in ugliness and animality – which we also see expressed in Eco’s novel and throughout this film clip – is based on what he calls “spleen.” It is not laughable – in a good sense. The laughter is Satanic and apocalyptic.   For Eco’s Burgos, it is also apocalyptic.

For Eco, the last laugh may be God’s but in the sense that he laughs the world into materiality rather than out of it. At the end of the Name of the Rose, Eco suggests this alternate reading of Creation:

The moment God laughed seven gods were born who governed the world, the moment he burst out laughing light appeared, at his second laugh appeared water, and on the seventh day of his laughing appeared the soul. (467)

The soul is made – so to speak – in the image of laughter.   Unlike Aristotle, we have a neo-Aristotelian – so to speak – interpretation of laughter. Instead of man laughing himself into humanity (from animality), God laughs man into being. And instead of being a “laughing animal,” with this quasi-theological interpretation we have a “laughing creature.”

The main irony, however, is that this account doesn’t come from Moses; it comes from a fiction writer. But instead of making the writer into the demiurge (which is what we see in much modernist fiction), we should see the writer as engaged in a reading of Creation in terms of a comical kind of materiality.   By returning to the sources – whether to Aristotle’s laughing animal or to a more “personal” and embodied reading of the Torah/Bible (as the Jewish Theologian Michael Wyschogrod suggests) – we, along with Umberto Eco, can address what much of the Western philosophical and religious tradition has left out.

Materiality, animal life, and humor have all been relegated to an inferior status for millennia.   Eco’s audacious novel shows us that now it’s time to return to the sources and give them their due. And rather than simply see laughter only as a rebellion against the tradition (which it is), we should also see laughter as an opportunity to understand the meaning of God’s presence in the world rather than beyond it.   The text should lead us to the possibility of what the Rabbis (and Jacques Derrida) might call a “laughter to come,” which they associated with the messianic. I would suggest that this laughter is closely tied to a return to a rejected materiality and otherness that has been deemed ugly and satanic. Only by doing this can we become more aware of people rather than texts (and inter-texts).   Instead of seeking out the Logos of the text, we can seek out the face and the person who laughs and is laughable.   Most importantly, laughter alerts us to something that is pre-linguistic and shared amongst humans. In Eco’s version of Creation, laughter comes before language and it brings us closer rather than farther away from Creation.

For the author of The Name of the Rose, man is laughed into existence and his defining trait – which puts him contact with the Creator – is not reason or spirit; it is laughter. Although we are very close to animals in terms of empathy, play, and even happiness, Eco argues, in one interview, that the one thing we have (and that they do not) are “comic feelings” and a “sense” of humor. This sensibility comes to the fore in death. Since Eco suggests that humor is the “quintessential reaction to death,” humans don’t have the last word. Rather, they can have the last laugh.

But that possibility all depends on how developed one’s sense of humor is. And perhaps this also depends on the “laughing creature’s” faith in the Creator. The question, however, is whether the same Creator who laughs one’s soul into existence laughs it out of existence or whether the creature does. In other words, who has the last laugh?  When it comes to death, can only the Creator laugh?  And if that Creator – in a modernist sense – is a fiction writer, what does it mean that he finds his creations and the world he/she has created risible?


A New Article for Berfrois: “Derrida, Seinfeld, and Pop Tarts”


I recently wrote an essay for Berfrois that addresses the disparaging comments of Jacques Derrida – the  “father of deconstruction” – on Seinfeld.   Bringing together a Seinfeld joke about Pop Tarts and Derrida’s comments on things American, I show that Derrida’s problem with Seinfeld has deeper roots.   The “pop” – of Pop Tarts – may have been to “abrupt” for him…like many other American “actions.”

For the article – entitled “Derrida, Seinfeld, and Pop Tarts” – click here.



Pop-Up Judaism and Millennial Jews

A great piece. Is the “pop up”…..a figure of “post-Judaism?”

jewish philosophy place

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With a traditional pop-up book, a three dimensional figure or scene leaps off the space of the two-dimensional page. Intended to surprise and delight, the contemporary usage of the term “pop-up” more broadly refers to temporary, ad hoc, and event-particular ventures that appear in unlikely venues at which people and things are mingled into unexpected combinations. Associated with supper-clubs, “pop-up restaurants,” in particular, are a relatively new trend among the hip, young and millennial. In the same spirit, “Pop-Up Judaism” would refer to Jewish events in which informality takes pride of place. It appears where you don’t expect to find them, outside the synagogue and family table, in bars or on rooftops, Shabbat supper-clubs in an intimate living space meant to invite strangers. About pop-up, you can read more here. Pop-up Judaism is sort of “post-Jewish.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes about it here at the Forward. With a…

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A New Essay for Berfrois: “Bewildered and Bewildering: Animal Life and Jewishness in James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Shalom Auslander”


This morning Berfrois published a piece I wrote entitled

“Bewildered and Bewildering: Animal Life and Jewishness in James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Shalom Auslander”

As one can see from the article it addresses “animal life” – a term borrowed from the philosopher GWF Hegel but used by Girogio Agamben and a tradition that threads its way through Greek thought, Christian Theology, and literature) – and its relation to “consciousness,” “conscience,” and “Jewishness.”  (I put all in “scare quotes” because I look into what their definitions are premised on and put them into question.)

To see the article, click here.


Menachem Feuer




Charles Baudelaire, “My Little Melancholy Monkey”


In a journal entry in the spring of 1856, Charles Baudelaire wrote at the top of his journal page the following title: “Self-Purification and Anti-Humanity.”   Directly under this title, he writes that “in the act of love,” there is “a great resemblance to torture or a surgical operation.”   In the spirit of irony and contradiction that Baudelaire revels in, he follows up this dark and counter-intuitive claim with an erotic reflection: “Presently he asked permission to kiss her leg, and, profiting by the occasion, he kissed that beautiful limb in such a position that her figure was sharply outlined against the setting sun!”   Baudelaire translates his conflicted understanding of sexuality into a series of animal nicknames that affirms an erotic-slash-poetic sensibility:

“Pussy, kitten, catkin, my cat, my wolf, my little monkey, big monkey, great big serpent, my little melancholy monkey.”

However, after reveling in these names, Baudelaire claims that “such excessive use of animal nicknames testifies to a satanic aspect of love. Have not demons the forms of beasts? The camel of Cazotte – camel, devil, and woman.”   Since Baudelaire suggests that the use of such erotic language (a blurring of lines between man and animal) is satanic, he seems to be negating them. However, as we can see from the title of this entry, Baudelaire also suggests that these animal nicknames and their negation while suggesting “anti-humanity,” have something to do with “self-purification.”   The affirmation and negation of the animal nickname is the affirmation and negation of eroticism.

In lieu of this exercise, Baudelaire sets forth a poetic principle: “When I have inspired universal horror and disgust, I shall have conquered solitude.” In other words, he sees his reflections on the nexus of eroticism and animal life as inspiring “horror and disgust” while, at the same time, enabling him, through negation, to “conquer solitude” and become a true artist. By becoming double (by affirming and negating eroticism), he becomes a modern artist.   Even though he negates the man animals, he knows he is a man animal.   This is – apparently – the secret of Baudelaire’s poetic consciousness.  And this secret sets him apart.

Even though he has negated the nickname, he still sees himself as a “little melancholy monkey.”  His use of “horror” doesn’t make him angelic or simply “anti-human.” It doesn’t purify him either.  The animal challenges his desire to conquer solitude. By being a “little melancholy monkey,” he can only experience solitude. He can’t – like everyone else – be fully human. He can only attempt to purify himself and this is what makes him melancholic. He is, sadly, bound to the “little monkey.”   He is vulnerable (little) and cannot escape animal life (monkey). But he must hide this shameful truth by way of negation.   He knows, however, that his negation is not real.

But there is more.  And this comes out with the word “my.”  Despite his “mastery of solitude,” he is still loved by someone. He is not alone and perhaps, for that reason, he isn’t – according to his definition – a real artist. Despite his irony, he belongs – like an animal of sorts – to the other.  Most likely, it was his Haitian born mistress, Jeanne Duval, who said that he is “my little melancholy monkey.”   And it is only his bitterness about her possession of him – which he also loves – that gives him a melancholic sense of self which he cannot separate….from animal life.  His solitude and his pain…which comes with being human is…interrupted by animal life and the love that attends it.