Nostalgia is Irrefutable: A Note on Mark Lilla’s “The Shipwrecked Mind”


Whenever I reflect on the celebrated modern writer, Marcel Proust the thought always comes to me – seemingly out of nowhere – that his appeal to childhood memory, to his bed, is sheer nostalgia.  He is telling us that the past is always better than the present.  And if we put this in a temporal perspective, we can see that it suggests that the past is also better than the future and that nostalgia is an even greater force than hope! How could this be? What kind of world could give birth to such a passionate form of nostalgia?

Mark Lilla’s Query


In The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, Mark Lilla tells us, at the very outset, that he is bewildered by the fact that proper “theories about reaction” – as opposed to theories of revolution, that are covered in every which way – are lacking:

We have theories about why revolution happens, what makes it succeed, and why, eventually, it consumes the young.  We have no such theories about reaction, just the self-satisfied condition that it is rooted in ignorance and intransigence, if not darker motives.  This is bewildering.  (ix)

He is bewildered because he can’t see why anyone misses the fact that reaction may in fact be more powerful than revolution. He thinks that it’s “spirit…may have died out.”   And it is reaction that “rose to meet it” and “has survived and is proving to be as potent a historical force.”  After all, says Lilla, it is currently on the rise in the “Middle East” and “Middle America.”   He calls those who refuse to see this, smug, because they regard this irony (since one would or even should – as Lilla suggests may be behind this blindspot – think it is the other way around) with another irony:

It arouses a kind of smug outrage that then gives way to despair.  (x)

And with that despair comes a striking realization in a era when all “others” are embraced:

The reactionary is the last remaining “other” consigned to the margins of respectable intellectual inquiry.  We do not know him.  (x)

Lilla’s task is to introduce “him” to us and to make it respectable if not imperative to think about reaction.  He defends this proposition.  To this end, he starts by giving us  a genealogy of the use of “reaction” and “reactionary” after the French Revolution. And, as we can see, it has a very “negate moral connotation” which “still retains today”(xi).

After saying this, Lilla says something that – because of this negative moral connotation –  doesn’t fit within “our” frame of reference:

Reactionaries are not conservatives.   This is the first thing that should be understood about them.  They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings.  Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of a new dark age haunt the reactionary.  (xii)

To see something and be deeply affected by time and history, is to be, as Lilla puts it, “shipwrecked.”  He dedicates this book to understanding the “shipwrecked mind.”

The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary see the debris of paradise driving past his eyes. (xiii)

Reading this, I immediately think of Walter Benjamin and Albrecht Durer’s interest in the figure of Melancholy who is surrounded by the ruins of history.


And, as a result of being shipwrecked, the reactionary mind turns to the past:

The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified  (xiii)

The nostalgia of the reactionary can be “militant ” and this is what makes him a “distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one”(xiii).   Lilla delves into the conditions for the possibility of such a passion for the past, for nostalgia.  He argues- by way of Marx – that it has to do with the experience of constant revolution and change, when “all that is solid melts into air.”  This creates an “anxiety” and it this anxiety is by and large greater than we could ever have imagined: it is “universal.”

It is so strong that Lilla claims that reactionaries – of our time – have discovered that nostalgia may “perhaps” be “more powerful (a more powerful motivator) than hope.”   And this leads him to the conclusion that: “Hopes can be disappointed.  Nostalgia is irrefutable.”

These last lines not only make me think about Walter Benjamin’s struggle against the tide.  It also reminds me of his favorite writer, who he wrote an essay on which took him nearly ten years to complete.  He noted that all of Kafka’s characters like to go backwards. They seem to be primordial as they turn against the flow of time we know as progress and development.

One story which puts this into perspective is Kafka’s “A Report to the Academy.”  At the end of the story, the ape, who is the first person narrator of the story, reflects on all he has gone through to become more civilized and…human.  Although he seems inspired and hopeful, he is actually really quite bored.  And when he thinks about the “half-trained little chimpanzee” he comes “home to late at night,” who he takes “comfort from” as “most apes do,” he recalls how he “can’t bare to see her”(259, Kafka: Collected Stories).


When he sees her he takes notice of her “insane look of the bewildered half broken animal in her eye.”  In other words, he sees himself.  He is a reactionary and, as Lilla would say, his mind is “shipwrecked.”

Strangely enough, after mentioning this, he covers up the fact that he sees the marks of his past life on his ape’s face….and acts “as if” everything is all right (and human), as he finishes his “report to the academy.”

In any case, I am not appealing to any man’s verdict, I am only imparting knowledge, I am only making a report.  (259)

The question we need to ask about this report is the same one Lilla poses.  What does it mean that the knowledge he is imparting is the knowledge of a  shipwrecked mind which acts as if it is not?  Who are we?  Are we in denial?  Are we trying to hide the fact that we are shipwrecked on the shores of time and that nostalgia might be greater…than hope?

You Got a Friend in Me: On Randy Newman’s Little Americans, Sailing Away & Friendship


Words that touch the heart and sounds that make us tap our feet guide many Americans through life.  They give us hope to carry on.  This is especially the case in American religion and popular culture. Both bring liturgy and melody together in a way that it becomes one with experience and infuses it with a kind of magic that is, for lack of a better word, common.  Artists such as Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, and Ella Fitzgerald – to name only a few, there are many, many more – were able to bring gospel into the secular realm.   They smuggled it in and gave American music a spiritual charge and a sense of liberation that changed the direction of music not just in America but around the world.

I can personally attest to this.  Listening to their music I always felt a kind of non-denominational, popular spirit or what Harold Bloom might call an expression of “American religion.”   One of my favorite American composers – who always manages to evoke a popular spiritual message while retaining touches of melancholy – is Randy Newman.    His voice has echoes of Ray Charles and Van Morrison.  And his lyrics suggest something that every American can identify with since they touch on what makes Americans American – vis-à-vis individualism, simplicity, and the animal joys that come with having ample food to eat, a family, and a strong sense of security.

Randy Newman has been writing music since the early sixties for TV shows – such as the Carol Burnett Show, Sesame Street, the Muppet Show, and Saturday Night Live – and for major films such as Toy Story (1999) and Monsters INC (2001).  He has also written some wonderful songs – some of which were hits.  Many of these songs speak to something endearing and sweet that all Americans share.  But there are other songs that present more of an ambiguity (albeit with a sugar coating).

Of all the songs from my youth, the one that stuck most was Randy Newman’s “Short People.”  It stuck because I was astonished that a song could be so unabashedly cruel and loving at the same time.  Unlike a song by Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson, it presented a challenge each time I listened to it.  Dancing to the song wasn’t so easy.  I always recall the lyric that, “short people have no reason to live.”  How could the melody be so charming and cheerful? There was something about this song that showed me a part of America that was deeply familiar and unfamiliar to me.  I couldn’t figure out what it means, and that’s why it stayed with me.

Reflecting on the song, recently, I went on Youtube and gave it my full attention.  What is it all about? Was Newman singing a song at the expense of “short people”?

After listening to the song several times, I discovered that, as a kid, I chose to only listen to part of the tune.  I only heard the voice of a bully; I missed the chorus which turned the voice inside out.

Short people got no reason

Short people got no reason

Short people got no reason to live…


They got little hands

And little eyes

And they walk around

Tellin’ great big lies

They got little noses

And tiny little teeth

They wear platform shoes

On their nasty little feet

Well, I don’t want no short people

Don’t want no short people

Don’t want no short people

Round here

The song is about the dialectic about a bully and the voice of conscience.   In the second part of the song we see that the singer realizes that the “short people have nobody to love” because so many people are hated so much.  He slowly realizes that short people are “just like you.” This comes out in the chorus.

Short people are just the same

As you and I

(A fool such as I)

All men are brothers

Until the day they die

(It’s a wonderful world)

Short people got nobody

Short people got nobody

Short people got nobody

To love


They got little baby legs

And they stand so low

You got to pick ’em up

Just to say hello

They got little cars

That go beep, beep, beep

They got little voices

Goin’ peep, peep, peep

They got grubby little fingers

And dirty little minds

They’re gonna get you every time

Well, I don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

‘Round here

The message: Americans are all one: E Plurbus Unim.  The twist is that we may all be small people, but we have a hard time coming to terms with it. And this divides us.  There is always someone who thinks s/he is taller (in terms of money, power, identity, intelligence, education, etc) than someone else – and, to be sure, Newman tells us that “short people are just the same as you and I.”  We are all culpable, to some extent.  No American escapes unless they are, literally, small people:

Short people are just the same

As you and I

(A fool such as I)

All men are brothers

Until the day they die

(It’s a wonderful world)

The message, restated: America is small people and I, the singer of this song who doesn’t want “small people down here,” admit that I am a fool and that small people are “the same as you and I.”   The “wonderful world” – as Disney would say – is a small world…after all.

Randy Newman’s genius is to sing a song that really hits on what makes us special as Americans.  We are divided and united not just by and through small people, but also, and perhaps more importantly, by a kind of sarcasm that transforms into empathy and love.  We are, as Newman suggests, a family.  And although any family will fight and make fun of each other, in the end, we are all a part of the same family.  And that realization – which comes through realizing I’m a fool – is translated into a joyful sense that the world is “wonderful.”  Through becoming small, wonder makes its debut.

His song “Sail Away” tells a different story.   He hits on the basic, simple common denominator at the beginning of the song.  “Here in America, we got food to eat.”  We live in a land of  plenty.

In America you’ll get food to eat

Won’t have to run through the jungle

And scuff up your feet

You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day

It’s great to be an American


Like in a Disney film, we are all happy animals.


Ain’t no lions or tigers

Ain’t no mamba snake

Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake

Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be

Climb aboard, little wog

Sail away with me

Our joy, however, because of the way he sings the song and his use of an American horn section, tells us that our satiety leads us to “sail away.”  In the most proud American sense, we are sailing through the Charleston (North Carolina) bay.  But we aren’t really sailing “across the ocean.”  Rather, there is a sense of home and homecoming.   This is our chorus.

Sail away

Sail away

We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

Sail away

Sail away

We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

But, as Newman notes, we come back to are American animal happiness.  We are as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree.

In America every man is free

To take care of his home and his family

You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree

You’re all gonna be an American

But there is trouble in paradise because our journey is really not from sea to sea but across the Charleston Bay. We can’t see it, however.  Because we are so blinded by being…at home and happy.

Our journey seems to be at end, suggests Newman.  Although he last musical line on the piano is a beautiful American March and suggests a redemptive theme, it is really suggesting that we Americans – in our ship of fools – are really going nowhere…just drifting and dreaming (“across the Charleston Bay”).  Sailing away may suggest that we are sailing away from the world and are deciding that it’s time to relax and be happy.

But in a recent video by Newman – released in September – he talks about how, in Europe, he experienced an anti-Americanism that really bothered him.  After saying this he shares a new song he wrote about what makes America special and different entitled “A Few Words in Defense of our Country.”


Newman talks about how America – in comparison to the rest of the world – isn’t so bad.  And that Americans shouldn’t cower down to these criticism and think of themselves as horrible people.

But, as the song goes on, while we learn about what Americans want from the rest of the world, we also hear what Newman thinks has befallen America:

We don’t want their love

Respect, at this point, is kinda outa the question

In times like these, we sure could use a friend.

 Hitler, Stalin, Men who need no introduction,

King Leopold of Belgium

Everyone thinks he’s so great

He went down to the Congo

He took the diamonds, he took the gold

You know what he left them with



You know a President once said,

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid.

It’s Patriotic in fact.

It’s color coated.

What are we supposed to be afraid of?

Why…being afraid.

That’s what terror means.

That’s what it used to mean.


 The end of an Empire is messy at best

And this Empire’s ending, like all the rest.

Like the Spanish Armada, adrift at sea.

We’re drifting home of the Brave and land of the Free.

Good bye…Good bye….Good bye.

In other words, Newman is telling us, right now, that we are truly adrift at sea and that his America – the spiritual one – has drifted away and has lost its anchor in the Land of the Free.   Nonetheless, as he tells his little listeners in Toy Story, he’s not going away: “You got a friend in me.”  And that’s where it all begins and, if we’re lucky, this will bring the ship back from being adrift at Sea.  Short people have nobody to love….but that’s a challenge…not a statement of fact.  But here’s the rejoinder (which is, more or less, an assurance).  Let’s hope it has the last word:




Election Night at the Comedy Store


On election night, the Comedy Store hosted several comedians – such as Bill Burr, Russell Peters, Fat Jew, Morgan Murphy, and Sarah Tiana – who sat (in front of an LA audience) through the entire election night from the beginning to the very end.  The jokes they tell – to while away the four hours – represent a diversity of comedic perspectives that, since they are popular comedians, are expressed in such a way as to speak to large parts of the population.  Each of them – after all – have large audiences and taken together they entertain millions of people.      What is most fascinating is how – when the results come in from the election – their jokes start changing and things start becoming more serious.  But, in the end, they seem to be telling us that, since things are so crazy in the country, it’s better to just change the subject.

In the beginning of the evening, they play on the panic around how the evening will go. Doug Standhope reads fake texts by Joe Rogan about how he is worried about the evening but then…as he reads…the text changes and says something along the lines of “it doesn’t matter…at least I’ll smoke some joints, have some drinks, and tell some jokes.”  While they tell jokes about abortions and Trump putting an end to them if he gets elected, they joke about “the end of the world.”  But what’s worse than this, says one comedian, is the boring CNN coverage.   One comedian says it’s “an election that doesn’t matter” while another says “it’s not good.”  Joe Rogan – the organizer of the evening – takes note of how things are different now than they were: “When Obama went to school…here’s a guy who could form full sentences…we were happy with this guy who was intelligent and reasonable.”  This joke is displaced by things that have nothing to do with politics.  In fact, whenever anyone gets too deep, they displace it.   “If the President reflects your true life, you made poor choices.”  They discuss Donald Trump and Jon Stewart’s Twitter exchange.  They make fun of it while at the same time enjoying Trump’s comedic antics, which, as their routine shows, go in the face of political correctness in its appeal to raw emotion and stupidity.  This is best epitomized by Bill Burr (9min in) who portrays Trump in the middle of the night Tweeting while the people around him telling to stop: “I’ll grab him (Stewart) by the pussy.”  This prompts a lot of laughs from the audience.

Joe Rogan tries to sober the audience by saying that “if he gets in there” he’s going to “talk shit” in the White House.   “It’s going to get really fucking weird…it shows you how fragile this group is…this group we call America. We’re about to elect a douchebag.”  Fat Jew interjects: “The upside is that we will see an assassination.” This produces some laughter and some confusion – Burr tries to hush it a little while laughing – but the comedians manage to distract the comment by looking at Burr’s iPad screen and the election results.

Later in the evening, when it becomes more clear that Trump is likely to win, the comedians’ dispositions change, but they don’t stop telling jokes. Nonetheless, many different things start coming up about America.  Discussion of condom legislation, Porn Industry, and masculinity in California.  The disputes between Morgan Murphy, Burr, Sarah Tiana, Rogan, and Standhope indicate some of the sore spots (see 3 hours in) around the relationship of comedy to political correctness.

An even more interesting moment happens after Russell Peters comes in and it becomes more obvious that Trump is winning.  Burr defends Scott Baio while Morgan Murphy tries to explain why Trump may win based on racism, sexism, etc (see 3:05).  She mentions anti-Semitism as a factor but then Fat Jew says, no, it has to do with “returning to the 50s.”   Morgan gets upset when other comedians try to shut her down and insists on explaining things.  But this brings up more issues.  To remedy things, some of the comedians get in some sexist jokes while praising her (so as to slip past political correctness).   Murphy retorts by making fun of the age of one of the comedians – who took a barb at her – Doug Standhope.  She continues talking about racism.

At the end of the evening – when it is almost final – Joe Rogan says “it’s really interesting…what the fuck have we got ourselves into?”  This spins into cynicism about politics in general.  Fat Jew adds “let Sara get her opinions (about abortion) in while she can…once Trump becomes President. they’ll zip that shut.”  Burr then (3:37) argues that there is a geographical issue here.  He argues that Murphy – who resides in LA – lives in a bubble and doesn’t understand the rest of America (during the evening, it should be noted, Burr says that he didn’t vote Trump – in fact, no one says they did).  Burr says the polls are garbage.  Fat Jew says agrees and says that people don’t want to say anything (about what they really feel) for fear of getting in an argument “around the water cooler.”

When they, apparently, get the word about Trump’s victory they sing: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” But then they realize it’s not called.  Burr plays on the final results and then says “that a Reality TV star is now the leader of the most powerful country in the world….It looks like Trump kicked her ass.”  Looking at the audience, Rogan says, “You guys are disappointed. I can see that. Right?”  “I voted for Johnson,” says Rogan, “Hillary sucks.” Burr says, “Yes, indeed it (the world) is unraveling.” And then Rogen adds, rhetorically: “Doesn’t this reflect the world we are living in, collectively unraveling?”

But Burr – the most popular of this group of comedians – has the last word.  He starts talking about cars and TV shows in the nineties and everyone gets in there to tell jokes about this topic.  “This is America.  You start talking about cars.”  Humor can’t dwell on the new reality for too long, it seems.  It’s really not that funny.  Let’s talk about something else, something “we” Americans all like.

Mortality, Jewishness & Leonard Cohen’s Comedic Moments


In the wake of Leonard Cohen’s passing, I reached for a book of his poetry that I have – from time to time – taken up and slowly read: The Book of Longing (2006).  Each of the poems in this book is dense with mortality and a distinct Jewish sensibility that, to my mind, begs for interpretation.  Cohen, like a Kabbalist of sorts, writes very symbolic poetry that is based on a longing for G-d’s presence (Cohen spells “God” as would a religious person who wants to preserve the mystery of God’s name, as “G-d”).

While his poetry is deadly serious, one will also find an unexpected comical element in it as well. But this is harder to find and when I recently came across a video – shared with me by a friend – of Cohen doing stand-up comedy (in the late 60s), I felt it necessary to write something brief – but respectful – about how a comic and a deeply mortal sense of his Jewishness can be found in his work.  To this end, I will juxtapose some of his poems with a documentary on Cohen (by the National Film Board of Canada) that ironically casts him as a stand-up comedian so as to show the tragic-comic thread that runs through some of his work.

In the first poem, “The Book of Longing,” Cohen immediately notes a Biblical distance between himself and G-d while at the same time bearing his brokenness.  Art seems to mediate this relationship and state of being:

I can’t make the hills

The system is shot

I’m living on pills

For which I thank G-d


I followed the course

From chaos to art

Desire the horse

Depression the cart


I sailed like a swan

I sank like a rock

But time is long gone

Past my laughing stock

In the right corner of the page is the image of a naked woman – in profile – with most of her back to the viewer.  She may be a symbol of the divine feminine presence that his “Book of Longing” is dedicated to.  He depicts her, at the end of the poem, in terms of a mystical moment that he desires and believes will come:

She’ll step on the path

She’ll see what I mean

My will cut in half

And freedom between


For less than a second

Our lives will collide

The endless suspended

The door open wide


Then she will be born

To someone like you

What no has done

She will continue to do


I know she is coming

I know she will look

And that is the longing

And this is the book

Later in the book, Cohen meditates on faith.   He ironically relates to it fun – because faith makes him long and suffer – and suggests something comical:


It is so much fun

To believe in G-d

You must try it sometime

Try it now

and find out whether

or not

G-d wants you

to believe in Him.

Notice that “You” and “Him” are capitalized.  He is daring the reader to take up faith in an ironic manner.  The voice of the poem asks that you search and find out whether G-d wants your belief.  It’s a challenge.

Cohen’s belief is at once comical and deeply mortal.  In a poem called “Thing,” he sees himself as a creature, a thing that “needs to sing” to her (his beloved in the flesh and the feminine presence of G-d), to G-d, and to what he calls – with an obvious sexual allusion –  “my baby’s lower fur”:

I am this thing that needs to sing

I love to sing

To my beloved’s other thing

And to my own dear sweet G-d

I love to sing to Him and her

And to my baby’s lower fur

Which is so holy

That I want to crawl on my knees…


I am this thing

that wants to sing

when I am up against the spit

and scorn of judges

O G-D I want to sing

I Am


Cohen’s eroticization of God brings the physical and the spiritual together.   It seems to be full of joy and desire.  But when he reflects on something more particular, like his Jewishness, his voice takes on a note of ironic courage about his Jewish particularity.  In a poem entitled “NOT A JEW,” Cohen faces his readers and tells them that – against a Sartrean position about Jewishness in his famous book Anti-Semite and Jew –  the other person doesn’t define his Jewishness and that those who do aren’t really Jewish:

Anyone who says

I’m not a Jew

is not a Jew

I’m very sorry

but this decision

Is final 

The mark of his Jewishness is – as Cohen notes – in his flesh.

Cohen’s final poem in the collection has a name and a date at the end: “Sinai, 1973.” It suggests that Cohen’s place is with the Jews and with tradition on a day that was marked by war and victory over forces that wanted to exile the Jews from their homeland (once again).  It has a Biblical title, “THE FLOOD” and bears a picture of a dove on a branch.  It is a poem of mortality, hope, and comedy:

The flood is gathering

Soon it will move

Across every valley

Against every roof

The body will drown

And the soul will break loose

I write this down

But I don’t have the proof

The comedic element is the final stroke of the poem because it suggests that this isn’t really a testimony that can be scientifically or historically verified; it is a poem. What he writes isn’t proof.  It is like faith since the crux of the poem is that the soul will “break loose” once the body drowns.  It is, for this reason, profoundly religious but not empirical.  He ends on this note.  He longs for it to be true as he longs for the feminine presence of G-d, for G-d, for her, and for flight. His Jewishness is certainly not ancillary to his poetry.  His testimony to Jewishness may be mixed but it is also very straightforward and finds a special place in his poetry.

His comedy suggests something different: his unique sense of otherness.

Using the trope of mental illness, Cohen, at the outset of his routine, casts himself as a possible mental patient in a mental institution.   To be sure, his opening jokes – some drawing on mystical symbolism – play on this possibility and prompt the crowd to laugh nervously.   Is he visitor or a mental patient?

In the next sequence, we hear a serious monologue by Cohen as we see him walk through the streets of Montreal. He says he is not just a stand-up comic but a serious writer.  He wants to take on – it seems – more than one identity.   The poetry we hear in the documentary is very serious and mortal.  Many of the poems deal with the topic of being exile in general and in particular (in Montreal).

The viewer of this film has to wait seven minutes into the film to get the first mention of anything comic (post the initial scene) and this has to do with his body and how he shows it (7:36). The narrator describes him as having the “stoop of an aged crop picker and the face of a curious little boy.”  Is this man-child element – the schlemiel element – found in this description a matter of the body?  The segment shows him walking around with a big smirk on his face.  Is he a bodily schlemiel of sorts?

What does Cohen say about this?

He seems to agree.  And apparently, he sees his path – which is going to know defined place and without direction – as a “very good path with someone who moves as funny as he does.”

In the following segment, where he and Irving Layton (a famous Canadian poet who is very serious in his bearing and poetry) is interviewed by a CBC commentator, he swerves questions (much like the young Bob Dylan) with witty remarks that turn the questions back on the interviewer.  But, after his quips, he notes that his “real concern is to know whether or not he is in a state of grace.”   It is a kind of “balance” one feels in “riding the chaos.”  His answer confuses the interviewer and Layton tries to save him by saying that Cohen is concerned with “preserving the self.” Cohen doesn’t agree or disagree.  He doesn’t care.

His comedy, it seems, is to be found in the fact that he, like a schlemiel, can’t give the answers and fit into the discourse people call for; he would rather remain other in his search for “balance” between comedy and serious poetry.  His way of speaking and walking are juxtaposed to his passion for grace.

One line that struck me was, when he was referring to a lover that, “I dread the moment when your mouth calls me hunter.” This line made me think about the juxtaposition of Jacob and Esau. The former was a “man of the tents” and a “simple man” while the latter was a “hunter” and a man of the field.  The latter is associated with Rome, with Edom, while the former is associated with Israel and the Jewish people.  Here I could hear his fear that he would lose his Jewishness in these trysts.  He doesn’t want to become a hunter, which he associates with no longer surfing chaos or being comical and self-deprecating.    He wants to remain aloof and to keep up the search for grace.  And there is in this a kind of understated schlemielkeit.  It may not make us laugh, but it does show us a comical disposition that is not satisfied with this world (as Esau was).

Twenty-seven minutes in to the documentary we see this clarified.  When Cohen is captured in a discussion about comedy, we see a reflection on the different standards of humor. Cohen suggests that there are other ways of being comical that aren’t simply to be found in the social situation.    And he discloses that he can’t stand academic scenes that are pretentious.   He doesn’t want to be the big man on campus.  He doesn’t want the power.

In the last section of the documentary, we finally get to see some real attempts at stand-up comedy.  But – ultimately – the last note is serious and the final joke overdubs are mixed with tragic reflections on Jewishness.   The comedy is tainted.     And for this reason, the desire for a better world, for a way out, remains.  His comedy exposes the holes and the imperfections in reality.  He brings his Jewishness into his poetry and shows an uncomfortable relation to the world.  The schlemiel we hear in these lines can be found in his reserve of goodness and in his trust that he will somehow find it.

Cohen’s music and life have left a deep imprint on us all. And for me, personally, I can say that his movement back and forth between faith, doubt, comedy, mortality, and Jewishness is exemplary of how a Jew can be an artist and live in world.  And that life can be mediated through a kind of poetry and an embodiment that remains aloof and doesn’t give in to power but wrestles with it and comes close to it as Jacob wrestled – according to one Midrash – with the angel of Esau.

Rest in peace, dear soul.  Your soul – although I have no proof of this – has broken loose.  Now…”this thing needs to sing.”

Crazy Town, 1931: On Animating Animals, Things, and Spaces


When one reads a fairy tale, one doesn’t simply identify with the main character.  One identifies with all things touched by animation.  In many of Grimm’s Tales, the inanimate becomes animate in a way that is at once endearing and uncanny (because it is both familiar and unfamiliar).  And in this sense, animation is liberating.  It effaces the fine line between man and animal and between the inanimate and the inanimate.  It makes the space of the world into a fantastic realm where virtually anything can happen and where anything can be transformed into something else.   The unexpected is expected.  But this isn’t always tragic.  Oftentimes, the animations of the fairy tale are meant to be comical.

Regardless of the outcomes, one feels a kind of comical freedom when one reads about how a sausage, a mouse, and a bird live together in a house or about how a kettle will cook food if one tells it to cook but, at the same time, seems to have a mind of its own.  Although both stories plunge into disaster or near disaster, the endless transformation of things through animation is comical.   This has a lot to do with the fact that – in terms of scale – most of the figures in Grimm’s Tales oscillate between being big and small.  And, as Gustave Flaubert suggests in his final novel (published after his death) – a novelistic study of comedy and its history – Bouvard and Pecuchet, comedy hinges on this kind of oscillation.    This spatialization of comedy – moving, at the drop of a hat, between the big and the small – is something we often find in the fairy tale.

The thinker, Michel Serres takes fairy tales seriously and even writes his own.   He suggests that the fairy tale brings us closer to our quintessential relationality with many small things.  It’s the connectivity of animated animals and things that fascinates the voice of his book, Parasite.  In his fairy tale, the animals create “small, simple” machines for the parasite (the smallest of all beings) so that she can fly high into the sky. They give her an opportunity to see a world from a vantage point she has never seen. But when the parasite loses her grip, by opening her mouth to speak, she falls to her death in the multitude:

With a few pieces of wood and some rushes or strands of hemp, small, simple machines can be constructive that have an exquisite relation to the business at hand.  A tortoise, awkward and slow like any tortoise of its size and carrying his house around on his back, tires of traveling back roads and wants to see the country.  Two ducks like the project and create a flying machine to carry the pilgrim. They put a piece of wood sideways in his mouth, and each grabs one end of the stick.  Hold tight, they say: take off.  The formal plan, seen from here, is described at three thousand feet: the twin birds and the parasite, whose teeth are hooked ono the middle of the stick.  A miracle! Cry gawkers; relations and diagrams, flies way above our heads.  Above our heads, you fools, answers the passenger, who, letting go of the stick to chatter, falls and dies at the feet of the passers-by.  (61)

Serres doesn’t take the parasite trivially.  He wonders who this comical parasite is.  Serres suggests a hypothesis about the possibility that “man” may be the parasite in this and in every fairy tale.  Man is more than man:

If the parasite is a man, he is all that, tortoise or hawk, lion without rivals or grown old; if he is man, he is the whole animal kingdom, through his fabulous metamorphoses.  If you do not recognize the parasite, it is precisely because he goes through the whole fable and the whole system and that he is transformed as if by magic…He is sometimes a horde of rats making noise in the attic, sometimes the king’s court, and the kind in the palaces where people bow to him. Pumpkin and carriage, char-girl and princess.  Only the fable says that.  Only the fable and its metempsychosis allow me to see the same third man in the nest, in the cave, at my table, and on the throne. (63)

The fable, in other words, allows me to constantly “see” what Serres calls the “third man” or “the neutral.”  The fact that man is nothing – for Serres – means that he is everything.   His smallness is the condition for the possibility of the fairy tale.   And through the animations of the fairy tale we can “see” our animated neutrality.

If we are to take this one step further, it can be argued that the “miracle” Serres is speaking of is best displayed and seen through animation and not print.  It is visualized in the animation.  When thinking about such a visualization, one animation that comes to mind: Max Fleisher’s 1931 animation, Crazy Town.  Man is not just this or that animation. Rather, man dwells in the space that is, for lack of a better word, crazy because it is animated.  Man’s neutrality is spatial as well as relational.

What makes Fleisher’s American version of the fairy tale so compelling is that in this world fish fly, cats swim, and rhinos meow.  In Crazy Town, people can take off their heads and replace them with other heads.  Like rubber, they can stretch and shrink.

When a man with a boot for a hat, takes it off his head, shrinks and disappears, Bimbo (Betty Boop’s man-animal cohort) notices a large mooing elephant behind him.   As one can see from the animation, all things are in a constant stream of what Serres would call metempsychosis.  The third man is everywhere. And he is animated in the most unexpected ways.  In Crazy Town, the mouse can roar and the lion can crow like a rooster.   But animals and things don’t have the last word.

In the end, Betty Boop steals the show.  She’s the most charming animation of all. When she embraces the crazy – near the end of the video – it’s a moment of celebration: instead of being afraid of all these crazy surprises (as we often see in many a fairy tale), she loves them.  She  also wants to lose her identity, so she starts dancing around with Bimbo.  In loving all of the crazy beings through a song and dance routine, she doesn’t simply allow us to “see” the “third man,” she allows us to happily be the third man in a way that is more comical than tragic and more mobile than sedentary.  She – along with all of the uncanny comic beings of Crazy Town – animates space and smallness when she moves. Betty shows us how, through animation, one can let go into a space that was once reserved for fables. In this virtual space, anything can happen.   Here, small things animate….out of the inkwell for even the ink, as Fleisher’s first major animation shows, is animated.

Little People in a Big World: On Wendy Gag’s Version of the Brothers Grimm Tale, “The Seven Swabians”


“The Seven Swabians” is a funny Brothers Grimm tale about how a bunch of cowards pretending to be tough manage to avoid possible monsters that are really, since they are created out of fear, of their own making.  But that’s not the point.  The highlight is the fact that – despite their ridiculous encounters – their comical community still believes it is on an adventure even after it has realized that it was fooled by its own imaginings.  Their charm is to be found in the their wandering stupidity.  Two ironic moments stand out: one by the largest and first of the Swabians and one by last and smallest.    The reader gets the last twist when she realizes that she has been thinking that they were big people who were going out into the world but they are really smaller than Rabbits who they comically mistake for monsters.

Once seven Swabians were together. The first was Herr Schulz, the second Jackli, the third Marli, the fourth Jergli, the fifth Michal, the sixth Hans, and the seventh Veitli.

 All seven had decided to travel throughout the world seeking adventure and performing great deeds. In order to arm themselves and assure their safety, they thought it would be a good thing to have a single, but very strong and very long spear made for them. Together all seven of them took hold of this spear. The bravest and most manly of them was in front, and that had to be Herr Schulz. The others followed in order, with Veitli bringing up the rear.

When Master Shultz, the leader, sees something that may be dangerous, we see that he can’t manage the courage and just throws himself into destruction. And they all surrender, immediately, with him:

Now one day in the month of July, when they had walked a long way but still had a good piece to go before reaching the village where they were going to spend the night, it happened that they were in a meadow just as it was getting dark, and a large beetle or hornet flew by them from behind a bush, buzzing in a threatening manner.

Herr Schulz was so frightened that he almost let go of the spear, and a cold sweat broke out over his whole body. “Listen, listen,” he shouted to his comrades. “Good heaven, I hear a drum!”

Jackli, who was holding the spear behind him, and who had just smelled, I don’t know what, said, “Something is here for sure. I can smell the powder and the fuses.”

Hearing these words, Herr Schulz began to run away, and he quickly jumped over a fence, landing right on the teeth of a rake that had been left lying there from haymaking. The handle hit him in the face with a tremendous blow.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” screamed Master Schulz. “Take me prisoner! I surrender! I surrender!” 

The other six all jumped toward him, one over the other, screaming, “If you surrender, I surrender too. If you surrender, I surrender too.”

But no enemy was there to bind them and take them away, so they finally saw that they had been deceived. To keep the story from getting out and causing them to look foolish and to be ridiculed, they all swore to one another that they would say nothing about it until one of them should open his mouth by mistake.

But it is the smallest one who starts a chain of reaction to the next danger they encounter, which may or may not be real:

The second danger that they experienced cannot be compared to the first one. A few days later their path led them across an unplowed field where a hare was sitting asleep in the sun. Its ears were standing straight up, and its large glassy eyes were wide open.

All of them were frightened at the sight of this terrible wild beast, and they discussed with one another what would be the least dangerous thing to do. If they were to run away, they feared that the monster would pursue them and devour them all, even their skin and hair.

So they said, “We will have to fight a great and dangerous battle. Well begun is half done!”

Then all seven took hold of the spear, Herr Schulz in front and Veitli at the rear. Herr Schulz was always trying to hold the spear back, but at the rear Veitli had become quite brave, and wanted to break loose. He shouted:

Strike out, in every Swabian’s name,

 Or else I wish that you be lame.

They all follow suit with poetic articulations of their last words before they charge, but the last words go to the leader.  He must charge first.

But he falls apart and can’t do it.  At that moment, the monster wakes up, its just a Rabbit:

Then Herrr Schulz took courage, and said:

Boldly then, we go to war.

Then all will know how brave we are.

Then all together they attacked the dragon. Herr Schulz crossed himself and prayed to God for assistance, but none of this helped, so, approaching the enemy, he screamed in great fear, “Oh, oh, oh, oh!”

This awakened the hare, and the frightened animal darted swiftly away. When Herr Schulz saw it thus fleeing from the battlefield, he shouted out joyfully:

Quick, Veitli, look there,

The monster is a hare.”

It was all an illusion.  And the reader realizes that they are all really just small people who mistakenly see rabbits as monsters.

But they move on…as if the journey through the “big” world is still on.  Wanda Gag’s translation of the story* leaves out the negative ending (in which they all drown as they cross a river on the back of a frog) and finishes on a positive Quixotic note and with a secret that is shared with the reader:

And the seven warriors wandered on, well pleased with themselves. No doubt that had other exciting perilous adventures, but they never told anyone about them, no one told me – and so, of course, I can’t tell you.

This reminds me of the “Fools of Chelm” but with a significant difference: when the Seven Swabians are leaving their small town (which is, to play on the schlemiel-Chelm analogy, like a Shtetl) to go out into the world, they all holding onto a weapon, a spear, to protect themselves from anything that may come to kill them. Schlemiels, in contrast, don’t carry any weapons and usually aren’t terrified of the world.  (Although the schlemiels of the Woody Allen variety are a little neurotic,they aren’t terrified of the world.)

What I love about this tale is that it is not just the tale of these small people who go through world.  It is also a secret that is (in the most present tense) shared with the reader. The secret that the author tells us is apparently embarrassing.  But why? Is it  the case that the secret that we may be embarrassed to admit is that we are – like the Seven Swabians –  little people on a journey through a big world and that half the things we fear aren’t real?  

To tell this secret might be both awkward and embarrassing.  This fear may imply that the world we see is actually smaller and less frightening than we are willing to admit or it may imply that we are smaller than the world.  And herein lies the question in which the comedy of smallness is suspended.

*Side note: See this nice survey of Wendy Gag’s illustrations (which is in the company of a few exceptionally great illustrators of children’s stories and fairy tales).

Tragedy Plus Time Almost Equals Comedy: A Note on Holocaust Humor & “The Last Laugh”


Critics argue that Woody Allen’s Crime and Misdemeanors (1989) is his best film, in part, because it addresses the Holocaust in many different ways that have nothing to do with humor.  It is one of his most serious films.  However, in one scene Alan Alda, who plays Lester – a successful filmmaker that Woody Allen’s character, Cliff Stern despises –  explains that “comedy is tragedy plus time.”   It prompts a very important question, which is one of the main subjects of Ferne Pearlstein’s new documentary on Holocaust Humor, The Last Laugh (2016): when can one tell jokes about the Holocaust?

What makes the documentary so special is the fact that it juxtaposes the views of comedians and comic writers – such as Mel Brooks, Gilbert Gottfried, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Sarah Silverman, Etgar Keret, Sussie Essman, Larry Charles, David Cross, and Shalom Auslander   (amongst many others) – with the touching and tragic life story and contemporary outlook of Renee Firestone (a Holocaust survivor).    Also included in this juxtaposition is Abe Foxman – the former director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) – and the reactions (in one important scene of a gathering in Las Vegas) – of many different survivors.    The juxtaposition helps the viewer to properly think through whether or not now (or any time) is right for Holocaust humor.  Is there an amount of time that gives one enough distance to joke about one of the most tragic events in history?

Of the comedians and writers who spoke to this issue, I found that Mel Brooks made the most compelling observations about the limits of Holocaust humor.  And he has every right to do so since his film, The Producers (1967), broke a lot of taboos about Holocaust representation. But his main subject was not Jews who survived the Holocaust or the Holocaust itself so much as the Nazis.  Holocaust jokes were never front and center.  Brooks points out how – before he made the film – he used to tell Holocaust jokes in the back rooms of Borsht Belt hotels.  In the documentary, Carl Reiner recalls the joke nearly word-for-word.  Pearlstein juxtaposes the two recountings so as to give the viewer a sense of how unique and taboo the joke was.  Brooks draws the line with Holocaust humor.  He worries about it.

As many of the comedians in the documentary point out, comedians like Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK, have all made jokes about the Holocaust.   The reactions to these jokes varied.  Mel Brooks said that though he loved Sara Silverman, he found some of her Holocaust jokes problematic.  He also found Joan Rivers’ Holocaust humor to be offensive.  Sussie Essman – of Curb Your Enthusiasm – also found them to be offensive.  Other comedians did not. While their opinions may or may not sway us, when Perlstein shows us Renee Firestone’s reaction, we pause.

Firestone wasn’t crazy about some of these jokes.   While she chuckles at the comical depection of Nazis, she doesn’t like all the Holocaust jokes she hears.  You can see it her face and not in her words.  The subtlety of her gestures strikes the viewer, bodily.  While the audience, where I saw the film, laughed throughout the film, there were many parts where they were deathly silent: these were the moments when Firestone winced.   The silence in the theater was palpable.

What I found most interesting about this audience was the fact that since it was screened in Toronto, it was highly likely that the audience (which was, on average, between 50 and 80 years of age) may have consisted of Holocaust survivors or children of survivors.  (Toronto has one of the largest Holocaust survivor populations in the world.)  One wonders how a younger audience – which has grown up with Louis CK, Sara Silverman, et al – would react to these scenes.

In an essay entitled, “Is Life Beautiful? Can the Shoah Be Funny?” Sander Gilman argues that a film like Life is Beautiful (1998) is inappropriate because it doesn’t balance comedy with tragedy.  It erases it by over-emphasizing comedy. It focuses – predominantly – on the comedic antics of the actor, Roberto Begnini, not the Shoah: “Throughout the film, indeed up to the very end, Roberto Begnini’s physical comedy underlines the childlike nature of the actor and the necessity of representing the image of innocence” (p. 81, Jewish Frontiers).  In contrast to this, Jurek Becker’s book made film, Jacob the Liar (1999) – starring Robin Williams – does something different: it maintains the tension between the comic and the tragic (91).  Citing an interview with Robin Williams, Gilman points out how the actor was fully aware of how comedy needs to be kept in check (“trapped” as Williams says) if it is not to efface the event.   Unlike Silverman and Rivers (may she rest in peace), Williams shows how Holocaust humor cannot be unbridled.

But in this documentary it is ultimately Renee Firestone – and not this or that comedian or commentator – who marks this limit (strangely enough, Foxman actually thought Life is Beautiful was a good film and that its humor was appropriate).     But when she – like so many survivors – passes away we need to remember that even though time + tragedy = comedy, the meaning of that equation needs to be carefully thought through.  When will the event, through comedy, be erased and when will it be kept…in tension? That formula would look more like this: tragedy + time almost equals comedy.  And that prompts the question that lingers in the title and throughout the film, a question that deals with time and comedy: Who will have the last laugh?