Groping for Small Things: Robert Walser’s Portrait of the Philosopher


Recently, a friend of mine who happens to be a philosophy professor and a fellow lover of Robert Walser referred me to Walser’s reflection on “the philosopher” (written in 1919).  I was struck by Walser’s portrait because it shows that he, as a writer, also identifies in some way with the thinker.  However, he does draw a line in terms of writing and the relationship to people.  But before doing so, Walser says many things that suggest that the thinker and the writer share a childlike fascination with small things.  They are both into what Theodor Adorno would call “micrology”: namely, that the only way to a bigger picture of things is through a careful attention to small things. This is something he may have learned from his mentor and friend, Walter Benjamin.

What makes Walser’s reflection on the philosopher and his obsession with smallness even more interesting is the fact, by looking at him from a perspective that identifies with him and another that criticizes him, we seem to move from a micrology to a macrology of the philosopher and his relation to the social.

The first line of Walser’s piece tells us that “the philosopher” is “constantly watching and waiting,” he “stands as still as a portrait” and “gropes for things gossamer-thin.”  And once he finds things, he “loses” them because they are “far too flimsy.” Nonetheless, to even hold these small things one must “exercise a patience verging on the stupendous.”

While these comments show some kind of deep respect, the voice of the piece suggests that the philosopher is also acerbic and bitter.  But this is because no one appreciates his obsession with smallness.  Even so, the narrator seems to side with the common person’s desire to give him a “few kicks just to scare him out of his contemplativeness.”

Taking this note to heart, he likens this obsession to a prison.  It traps him and, since it doesn’t lead to much writing, its unproductive.  Much like many of Kafka’s characters – who Walter Benjamin tells us often study too much – he makes “no progress.”

Something is a little off and comical about the way the philosopher keeps himself. The philosopher laughs and smiles but his laugh is short and his smile is “crooked.”  Nonetheless, it has a certain beauty to it.  And although his suit is threadbare, it is clean.   Like Walter Benjamin, he doesn’t like to throw anything away.  He finds a treasure in the trash.

And even though his “pacing” back and forth makes him look old, he is motivated by a “strange childishness.” But even though he is motivated by a kind of childishness, he is still very orderly.  While he “gladly putters around little objects” of thought, the narrator tells us – once again drawing on the common person’s perspective – that the philosopher would be better off as a craftsman.  The philosopher is a schlemiel of sorts because he “lollygags” in a small room while wanting to do things and “make a good use of his day.”  He’s stuck and his desire to do something – because he can only think when he is still – seems futile.

The only thing he can do – in repose to this tension – is leave the room.  Walser betrays his identification with the philosopher not only by pointing out that he is obsessed with small things but also in the fact that he takes note of how the philosopher likes to go on walks.

When the philosopher looks out the window, takes notice of the small things “out there,” like the rustling of the trees in the wind, the “cheerful smoke over the rooftops,” and the people in the street, he becomes deeply self-conscious of some kind of error.   He is only “listening,” the narrator tells us, he isn’t thinking.  But isn’t the point of the thinking to be receptive to small things? What is Walser trying to say?  Is the philosopher upset because he realizes that being receptive (“listening”) is not productive?

The final lines of the narrative demonstrate the pity of the narrator for the thinker.  He seems to take on a Marxist take on things that it is better to change the world than to think about it.  The philosopher can’t “be a part of progress” and can’t “step onto the stage.”  The worst pity of all is that because he has spent so much time thinking he has lost “so many things.”

But is that true?  And what about the writer? Isn’t he in the same boat?  Isn’t Walser, although he produced many works of writing, also not “stepping on the stage” of history and progress?  Didn’t he also struggle with the futility of sitting at a desk, writing, and reading?

Walter Benjamin believed that Kafka (and he himself) struggled with this issue.  We can see this in his journals about his meetings with Bertolt Brecht. Benjamin valued the time he spent reading and listening to Kafka’s work.  He points out that both he and Kafka know that”attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  And that silent prayer is to be found in paying close attention to words on the page.  The scholastic, the philosopher, and the modern writer seem to share this understanding.

To be sure, Karl Marx wouldn’t enjoy reading Kafka or Walser.  His favorite writer was Charles Dickens.  His writing spoke to and reflected on historical events.  He was not interested in small things.  Dickens had bigger literary fish to fry: historical fish.  Perhaps the narrator is too much on the side of Dickens and Marx.  Receptivity may have no place in the world and, as Walter Benjamin said of Kafka’s interest in the literary fool, it may “help” the individual but will it do any good for humanity?  The philosopher and the writer may get up in small things, but shouldn’t they (if they believe in higher things) be thinking about history and politics (the bigger things)? Perhaps salvation is the issue.   Perhaps the little things can help one to get by…but they may not help others or change the course of history.  But can we expect fiction or a word from a philosopher to do that, today?  It’s up to the reader to decide.

Americans, Slow Learners, Schlemiels: On Thomas Pynchon’s Comical Figurations of Slowness & Sloth


In his book 24/7, Jonathan Crary suggests that our “24/7” society of endless social networking is taking over our lives.  We are endlessly checking and updating our Facebook pages and, as things speed up, we barely get any sleep.  Strangely enough, for Crary, the only way to resist this negative insomnia is to sleep.   But there is another way to resist a society that calls for constant interaction with this or that interface.

Thomas Pynchon – years before the advent of Facebook or Twitter – suggests that the best way to resist society is through slowness and sloth.  He brings this out in his fiction – through characters, plot, language, and dialogue, – and in his non-fiction.  And in the recent film production of his book, Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix is, appropriately, cast as the lead because he is, throughout the film, slow and slothful.  It takes him a while to wake up or show up to any event.   And, as we see throughout the film, things slowly dawn on him.  Phoenix’s portrayal of Doc suggests that, for Pynchon, it’s better to let things slowly and organically happen than to attack them (as we see with the alter-ego of Doc in the film and book, Bigfoot).   Doc, in effect, is a slow learner.  And in being slow he is able to avoid the speed driven LA culture of the 70s, which links power to speed.  Slow people, as Pynchon suggests, are free.

But this is the latest appearance of slowness.  Slowness and sloth go way back with Pynchon to his first stories and his novels.  I’ll take brief note of a few sites of slowness and sloth.   These reflections will inform a larger study of this trope which is, to be sure, comical and not tragic.

In the introduction to Pynchon’s short story collection, Slow Learner, Pynchon reflects on his first short stories.  Throughout his reflections, he takes note of how slow he is to learn and get things right.  Like a schlemiel of sorts (Pynchon dubs the main character of his first novel, Benny Profane, a “schlemiel detective” who just happens to be half Jewish), Pynchon takes note of how things seem to happen to him as he goes a long and slowly learns how to become writer (but this slowness doesn’t go away, and perhaps that’s the point).

Writing in the 80s and looking back at the short stories he wrote in the 50s, Pynchon humbly admits that he dupes himself with “one of those episodes of middle-aged tranquility, in which I now pretend to have reached a level of clarity about the young writer I was back then.  I mean I can’t very well just 86 this guy from my life”(5, Slow Learner).

When he imagines what it would be like to meet himself, today, he points out how awkward that would make him feel: “If through some as yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how uncomfortable I would feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down the street to have a beer and talk over old times?”(ibid).

After noting this, Pynchon profusely apologizes to his readers for all the flaws in his writing.   When he describes his first short story, “The Small Rain” – which I recently wrote on in terms of Jewishness and fatness, two central motifs in the story – he takes note of the existential issue of facing death in the story.  He says that the characters do not “seriously” face death.  Rather, they come across as comical:

In “The Small Rain” characters are found dealing with death in pre-adult ways. They evade: they sleep late, they seek euphemisms.  When they do mention death they try to make with the jokes.  Worst of all, they hook it up with sex.  You’ll notice that toward the end of the story, some kind of sexual encounter appears to take place, though you’d never know it from the text.  (8)

These comments are telling because the same features of a comical encounter with death remain not only in his later novels but also in his last novel, Immanent Vice.  The comical aspect comes through in the belated and slothful relation to death- in the slow awareness of the characters who are usually overwhelmed by too much information and who happen to stumble upon connections (in the most happenstance manner).    “Lardass Levine,” in this story, is a slow character.  He does things in his own time and not in the time of the other GIs in the story.    And, more importantly, although he is physically a big guy, he is slow to act.  The sexual act, to be sure, doesn’t seem to happen.  He and the woman he runs into lay side-by-side in the “little rain.”  Levine is like a “little boy.”  He can’t be a man like the rest and he doesn’t want to be – although he does come across as masculine.

Later in the introduction, Pynchon notes how many people in the 80s – influenced by entrepreneurism of the Regan Era – may look like mature and powerful upwardly mobile but they are “incredible as it sounds, still small boys inside”(12). His characters, he suggests, are like this too.   Charcters may talk or act big on the outside, but we can all see that they are – through their deeds or failures – really small.   And this comes out in their change of speed.

At the end of the introduction, Pynchon suggests that he “elves must have snuck in” and “had a crack at his writing.”  He sees the small people as speaking through his novels.  He talks about his “small attachment” to his past and waves his hand, to so speak, saying that he – in the 80s – is just like (as Zappa put it), a “bunch of old guys playing rock’n’roll.”    Younger people, he fears, will pity him and even find him nostalgic. But what sticks out in this final description of himself in a different time is that he doesn’t fit in temporally; even so, readers in the 80s (and, of course, today) can humor him as an old guy pretending he is young.  What this amounts to is nothing more nor less than a schlemiel character.  Think for instance of Noah Baumbach’s casting of Ben Stiller in his film, While We’re Young.

Stiller is slow, out of rhythm, and belated, although he acts as if he’s young.  The theme of slowness and belatedness is what we find in Saul Bellow’s Herzog, as well.

In his book Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon introduces his main character “Slothrop” in the midst of things that require time to deal with.  His “desk is messy” and so is the prose that surrounds it. The eye of the narrator slowly wanders over everything she sees:

There must be cubicles like this all over the ETO: only the three dingy scuffed-cream fiberboard walls and no ceiling of its own. Tantivy shares it when an American colleague, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop.  Their desks are at right angles, so there’s no eye contact but by squeaking around some 90 degrees.   Tantivy’s desk is neat, Slothrop’s is a godawful mess. It hasn’t been cleaned own to the original wood surface since 1942. Things have fallen roughly through the layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom, mad up of millions of tiny read and brown curls of rubber eraser, pencil shavings, dried tea or coffee stains, traces of sugar and household milk, much cigarette ash, very fine black debris picked and flung form typewriter ribbons, decomposing library paste, broken aspirins ground to  powder. (18)

The attention to small detail slows the reader down.  It’s so overwhelming that the character and the reader get stuck in the mess.     Sloth and slowness, it seems, are built into the novel.  One is belated because one can sense that, through all the detail, there is simply too much to catch up with and we are, like the narrator and Slothrop, slow learners.  To be sure, he’s always catching up with this leads in the book – much like Doc in Inherent Vice or Benny Profane in V.  The schlemiel detective will always be slow collecting the leads and this may have to do with smallness on a temporal and spatial sense.

I’ll end my brief reflection on slowness in Pynchon, by taking note of a comical article he wrote for the New York Times in 1993 entitled, “The Deadly Sins/Sloth; Nearer, my Couch, to Thee.”    Pynchon starts off the article by citing the Christian Theologian Thomas Aquinas who sees sloth as a “capital sin.”  This is the sin the Pynchon, to be sure, celebrates.  All writers are guilty of sloth:

Writers of course are considered the mavens of Sloth. They are approached all the time on the subject, not only for free advice, but also to speak at Sloth Symposia, head up Sloth Task Forces, testify as expert witnesses at Sloth Hearings. The stereotype arises in part from our conspicuous presence in jobs where pay is by the word, and deadlines are tight and final — we are presumed to know from piecework and the convertibility of time and money. In addition, there is all the glamorous folklore surrounding writer’s block, an affliction known sometimes to resolve itself dramatically and without warning, much like constipation, and (hence?) finding wide sympathy among readers.

Pynchon tells us that, today, Sloth has lost its “religious reverberations” since it has become a part of our culture.  Who doesn’t waste time, he reflects, watching TV, sitting on one’s couch, flipping channels, eating food?  Pynchon ups that ante- back in the 90s by comically suggesting putting up a few more TV sets. But, he asks, is this really Sloth?

“There’s nothing I like more than sitting around with a six-pack of beer, some chips and a remote control. . . . The TV station even featured me in a town parade. They went into my house, got my couch and put it on a float. I sat on the couch in my bathrobe and rode in the parade!’ “

Sure, but is it Sloth? The fourth television set at work, the fact that twice, the Tuber in question mentions sitting and not reclining, suggest something different here. Channel-surfing and VCR-jockeying may require a more nonlinear awareness than may be entirely compatible with the venerable sin of Sloth — some inner alertness or tension, as of someone sitting in a yoga posture, or in Zen meditation. Is Sloth once more about to be, somehow, transcended? Another possibility of course is that we have not passed beyond acedia at all, but that it has only retreated from its long-familiar venue, television, and is seeking other, more shadowy environments — who knows? computer games, cult religions, obscure trading floors in faraway cities — ready to pop up again in some new form to offer us cosmic despair on the cheap.

 Unless the state of our souls becomes once more a subject of serious concern, there is little question that Sloth will continue to evolve away from its origins in the long-ago age of faith and miracle, when daily life really was the Holy Ghost visibly at work and time was a story, with a beginning, middle and end. Belief was intense, engagement deep and fatal. The Christian God was near. Felt. Sloth — defiant sorrow in the face of God’s good intentions — was a deadly sin.

Perhaps the future of Sloth will lie in sinning against what now seems increasingly to define us — technology. Persisting in Luddite sorrow, despite technology’s good intentions, there we’ll sit with our heads in virtual reality, glumly refusing to be absorbed in its idle, disposable fantasies, even those about superheroes of Sloth back in Sloth’s good old days, full of leisurely but lethal misadventures with the ruthless villains of the Acedia Squad.

In other words, Sloth is our condition and is more of a comical concern than a serious one.  It is evolving.  And the more things there are the slower we will be and the more apt we will be at wasting time.  Pynchon seems to have noticed that sloth overtakes everyone, not only the writer.  Perhaps the difference is that the writer cultivates slowness and dwells in it while the average “couch potato” and pot smoker with munchies doesn’t cultivate anything.  Sloth is sloth, Pynchon seems to be the bottom line.  And if that is the case, what is the difference?

Pynchon didn’t foresee Facebook or the burgeoning of the internet in 1993, but he does seem to think – despite the visions of his 93’ prose piece of the NYT – that the cultivation of slowness may be a hedge against the 24/7 culture.

Although the old person trying to rock out may seem comical, perhaps Pynchon is suggesting that we are all becoming schlemiels.  In the midst of all these changes, aren’t we all belated and out of joint (just like the time that Hamlet found in the wake of trauma)?   To answer the question, Pynchon would suggest finding a schlemiel detective (wink, wink).   She may be a slow learner but, who knows, maybe she can figure out what’s going on?   And who knows, maybe that detective – like Slothrop, Benny Profane, or Lardass Levine – is an American version of the schlemiel?  All of Pynchon’s arrows seem to be slowly pointing in that direction even if it is….too late.

It’s Not Just Me, Then: Fiction, Comedy and the Cl*****.

Schlemiel Theory gets honorable mention in a recent post by the blog InfiniteCoincidence. Take a look at this insightful post which covers a lot of contemporary cultural ground with a philosophical edge.

Infinite Coincidence

What I’m trying to do on this site is make links between things I haven’t seen connected together elsewhere*. Hence the links themselves are usually more important than what I have to say about them. In the last couple of days I have come across three things which I think vindicate (albeit, inevitably, in an infinitely more coherent and detailed fashion, one based on research and careful thought rather than guesswork and ‘affect’) the thoughts I’ve been trying to articulate over the past few weeks. First there is an article by Carole Cadwalldr which details the ways in which right-wing trolls have been able to infiltrate the algorithms of Google and Facebook in order to create their own reality, one which is increasingly conditioning ours:

The technology that was supposed to set us free may well have helped Trump to power, or covertly helped swing votes for Brexit. It has…

View original post 1,490 more words

Fat Jews: On Fat Jew and Thomas Pynchon’s Depiction of Nathan “Lardass” Levine


Thomas Pynchon published a short story – while an undergrad at Cornell University in the late 1950s – entitled “The Small Rain” whose main character is Nathan “Lardass” Levine.  Pynchon makes him an endearing character who is not without his faults.  Pynchon brings out his unique character by situating him within the context of military service and a mild skirmish or two with an anti-Semetic Lieutenant named “Twinkletoes” Dugan.  It’s interesting that Pynchon doesn’t represent Levine as a weak or effeminate schlemiel type of character.  He can fend for himself.   Pynchon’s description of how Levine assimilates into the non-Jewish military crowd, however, shows that he is the “odd one out” (but not in the same way a schlemiel is since Levine is more masculine).  Pynchon mixes tropes that suggest that Jews and Blacks in America share common physical and cultural ground:

Levine…was not quite ordinary.   He was one of the few men outside of those bucking for section eight who actually liked it at Ft. Roach.  He had quaintly and unobtrusively gone native: the angular edges of his Bronx accent had been dulled and softened into a modified drawl; he had found that white lightning…was in its way agreeable as scotch on the rocks; he now listened to hillbilly groups in bars in the neighboring towns as replete as he had once dug Lester Young or Gary Mulligan at Birdland. He was well over six feet and loose-jointed, but what certain coeds at City once described as a plowboy physique, rawboned, and taut-musceled, had run flab after three years of avoiding work details.  He had a fine beer belly now, in which he maintained a certain pride, and a large behind which he was not so proud of, which earned him his nickname.  (Slow Learner, 28)

When “Twinkletoes” Dugan, the anti-Semitic Lieutenant, comes in to the barracks, Pynchon situates Levine on a bed reading a trashy novel entitled Swamp Wench.  Levine slowly gets up once he hears that Dugan wants to speak to him: “Levine turned another page and started reading.  ‘Hey’, the company clerk said.  Levine smiled vaguely”(29).

Pynchon describes Dugan in a satirical manner and illustrates why he and Levine don’t get along:

There were a lot of…nice things about Dugan.  He held as self-evident truths, for example, that the NAACP was a Communist cabal dedicated to 100% intermarriage of White and Negro race, and that the Virginia gentleman was in reality the Ubermensch, come at last, prevented from fulfilling his high destiny only by the malevolent plotting of the New York Jews.  Mainly on account of the latter he and Levine did not get along well.  (29)

Pynchon valorizes Levine’s fatness and his slowness in repose to Dugan and the military context (this depiction is similar to the slowness we find with Pynchon’s stoner schlemiel character, Doc in Inherent Vice):

Levine closed the book, folded it in half, rolled over and stuck it in his back pocket.  He lay there for a minute or so within a cockroach follow some private maze across the floor.  Finally, he yawned and dragged himself off the bunk, dumped the butts and ashes onto the floor and put the helmet liner on his head, canted down his eyes. (30)

Toward the end of the story, Levine leaves the barracks to go to a bar and meet a woman. The scene – in some way – seems to allude to James Joyce’s depicition of Bloom walking through the streets of Dublin:

He started walking, hands in pockets, whistling, heading in the general direction of the bar he had been in the night before.  There were no stars and the air felt like rain.  He walked through the street lit shadows of big ugly pines, listening to the voices of girls, the purr of cars, wondering what the hell he was doing here….and wherever he went he would be wondering this.  (49)

This mediation turns into an odd reflection on being a fat American Jew without an identity:

He had a momentary, ludicrous vision of himself, Lardass Levine the Wandering Jew, debating on weekday evenings in strange nameless towns with other wandering Jews the essential problems of identity – not of the self so much as the identity of place and what right you really had to be anyplace.(49)

Even though these thoughts fall into the backdrop when he meets up with a girl in a bar, he becomes out of sorts when he is alone and naked with her in a bed.   Levine sees her response – as Kafka’s female ape in “A Report to the Academy” – as reflecting his estrangement.   They both lay in the bed – body to body –  “not touching”(50).

The next day, Levine is told that he can leave now, he’s an “extra body.”  He puts his sack on his shoulder and drives into the rain.   Pynchon makes “Lardass Levine” into a lonely figure.  In the end of the story, he is a big Jew who walks into the “small rain.”  His body – an emblem of his partially assimilated American Jewishness – sets him apart.   But the weather – and his sense of otherness – makes him small.  His body can’t mitigate the sense of otherness that is, so to speak, in the atmosphere.  Perhaps Pynchon is suggesting that the “small rain” reminds him of his Jewishness.

Reading this story, I thought a lot about the relationship of Jewishness to weight, today.  It seems a little different.  Seth Rogen Josh Ostrovsky play, aka”Fat Jew,” come to mind. They throw their weight into the public image of Jewishness.  (I have written about Rogen and Fat Jew’s use of the body before – see here and here.)

It is astonishing how Fat Jew has become over the last few years.   He has 9.2 million followers on Instagram, nearly a million likes on Facebook, and 296 thousand followers on Twitter.   When he first started rising to celebrity, The New York Times ran a 2014 essay on him and while it noted his major accomplishments, it retained a little skepticism:

Given that Mr. Ostrovsky’s main oeuvre is a social media feed for which he mostly finds funny pictures or tweets on the web and reposts them with his own captions, his abilities as a live-action entertainer are untested. It’s an obstacle he is doing little to overcome. Mr. Ostrovsky refuses to join the stand-up circuit. “Why would I do that when I can roll myself into a giant burrito, take a picture and get paid?” he said.

One year later, he sunk into a controversy in which he was accused of stealing jokes (cutting and pasting them through his own portals).  The Atlantic points out how this issue has evolved.

The debate over Twitter joke theft has escalated in recent years as people find more and more ways to monetize their feeds. Ostrovsky’s joke “curation” on Instagram (and Twitter, where he has 255,000 followers) might seem harmless, but he reportedly makes thousands of dollars anytime he endorses a product online, a smaller-scale version of the endorsement empire created by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. Simply by taking a screenshot of whatever jokes were trending any given day, Ostrovsky somehow parlayed his way into a pilot development deal with Comedy Central, although Splitsider reported that the deal has fizzled out after huge protest from other comics.

The popularity of Rogen and Ostrovsky – by way of their bodies – is not an emblem of otherness.  It is endearing.  And it has a kind of ironic smallness to it.  It is bound to make us smile.   The President seems to find it funny, too.


While, with Pynchon, fatness and Jewishness has literary resonance, with them it has none.   That aside, now even Fat Jew is getting in on storytelling (albeit in a more popular cultural sense).  It’s appeals to socially symbolic and popular figures is a little different from what we find in Pynchon. Even so, today, we know much more about Fat Jew than we know about “Fatass Levine.”   Fat Jew puts out a unique kind of male Jewish body in public space and  by doing so opens up different ways for identifying Jewish (making it “hip”).*

* What seems to be missing, however, in all these deceptions is a discussion of “Fat Jews” in terms of gender.  How do Amy Shumer and Lena Dunham – who put their voluptuous bodies in the public eye – fit? Would they find offense in being called a “Fat Jew”?  Lena Dunham doesn’t seem to find any problem with the display of the body in a manner that may offend some people. But is her display comical and affirmative in the same way that Fat Jew’s is?  Would Dunham – like Fat Jew – find her identity as a Jew in her body or is it elsewhere?  And wouldn’t the stereotypes be more in play with them?  Since so many artists, writers, and filmmakers today, play on and try to transvaluate the Jewish body, this is a question worthy of more reflection.

The Epic Schlemiel (Self Mocking, Humorous Clown) of $TWTR, @Nymag’s @jessesingal.

A good word for Schlemiel Theory from the “Wandering Poet”


WordPress blogger Menachem Feuer has a wonderful blog on Jewish humor, The Home of Schlemiel Theory.

It is my contention that Jesse Singal, fake news (self admitted!) writer for New York Mag is a Schlemiel.

What else could he be?

He admits to having taken part in the production of fake news.  Yet he was an editor at prestigious New York Magazine.

As a classical liberal opposed to censorship I think it’s Jack Dorsey that is dumb, but Jesse is ok with “Dumb Twitter.”

He is ok with a revolution, as long as he profits.  This seems somewhat anti revolutionary doesn’t it?

He’s basically Castro’s Lieutenant hoping he doesn’t get shot by firing squad.

Jesse, ostensibly a science writer, thought people NOT communicating was a great way to make change.

Basically Jesse Singal was instrumental in electing Donald Trump.  I bet he can’t figure out how though.

Is Jesse a…

View original post 81 more words

On Jews, Aryan Bikers, and a Stoner Schlemiel Detective in Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice”


Usually, I read the book before seeing the movie.  This time, things happened differently.   Although I have had Thomas Pynchon’s 2010 novel, Inherent Vice on my book shelf for a few years, I gave up and decided to just see the movie first and then read the book.   I was really curious what a Pynchon novel would look like on the screen.  Besides that, I really like Joaquin Phoenix’s acting.  He has the ability to turn every gesture or shrug into a moment for reflection about what it means to be human – at this moment – in America’s history.   How should one live today? Is it better to be aloof but aware?  Or is it better to be radical, hyper aware,  emotional and active (a demeanor we see in many films and documentaries, but satirized in Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes)?   There are characters for each of these dispositions in many Pynchon novels.  This one is no different.

While my wife wasn’t so into the film, I was transfixed by many things: the comical detective narrative, the foggy atmosphere, the odd pacing of this film, and its plot, which involved Aryans, Jews and a stoner schlemiel detective, who doesn’t have a Jewish name: “Sportello.” (Note: Pynchon uses the schlemiel detective motif in his novel, V and in The Crying of Lot 49).   He is nicknamed “Doc” (Phoenix plays Doc in the film).   It seemed as if Pynchon – in this later novel – was interested in recasting the schlemiel detective; while in V, he (Benny Profane) is half-Jewish and half-Catholic,  this time he is not.  And, strangely enough, Pynchon situates the schlemiel detective into a case that involves an arch villain who is Jewish.  His name is Micky Wolfmann and, as one informant in the film suggests, he loves things German and wants to be a Nazi:

“Westside Hochsdeutch mafia, biggest of the big, construction, savings and loans, untaxed billions stashed under an Alp someplace, technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi, becomes exercised often to the point of violence at those who forget to spell his name with two n’s.”(7)

Wolfmann surrounds himself with members of the “Aryan Brotherhood.”  And Doc gets drawn into his life and this situation because an old fling of his named Shasta drifts into his home at the outset of the novel:

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hand’t seen her for a year.  Nobody had.  Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt.  Tonight she was all flatland gear, her a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.  (1)

Shasta and the hippie motif she represents are juxtaposed to two scenes: one, the Wolfmann scene, in which, we learn, she was involved with him in an affair; the second, a “money situation” – now that Wolfmann’s wife knows about the affair, Shasta wants Doc’s help.  The take away: Shasta seems to be hooked into a bad scene which involves a “Jew” who “wants to be a Nazi” and she needs a schlemiel detective’s help to save  her from being sucked into this mess.

Shasta outlines the scene to Doc while he teases details out.  The subtext is fascinating because it deals passes through questions of Good and Evil and loyalty to arrive at the economic bottom line:

“Is, they want me in on it,” she said. “They think I’m the one who can reach him when he’s vulnerable, or as much as he ever gets.”

“Bareass and asleep.”

“I knew you’d understand.”

“You’re still trying to figure out if it’s right or wrong, Shasta?”

“Worse than that.” She drilled him with that gaze he remembered so well.  When he remembered.  “How much loyalty I owe him.”

“I hope you’re not asking me.  Beyond the usual boilerplate people own anybody they’re fucking steady –“

“Thanks, Dear Abby said about the same thing.”

“Groovy.  Emotions aside, then, let’s look at the money.  How much rent has he been picking up?”(3)

Doc may be a schlemiel detective but, as one can see from the above passage, he has very realistic views.  The only thing is that he numbs himself to their implications (perhaps because he smokes pot a lot) and, as we see throughout the book, he suddenly remembers things and usually stumbles over things he missed.  His detective method is a blend of intelligence and happenstance.

Ultimately, its not the drugs that keep him aloof.  Doc has an existential stake.  He doesn’t want to focus too much on existence.  And perhaps that gives him the blurry feel that we bear witness to not only in the book but throughout the movie.  His constant pot-smoking and odd hours of sleeping make all things hard to see and hear (for the reader and viewer).  But it also serves as a motif because he has momentary instances of clarity when things – all of a sudden  – come together.

But things aren’t so blurry in terms of the plot: the read on Wolfmann – as the main Jewish villain who pays the bills – is quite clear.  Pynchon plays on the motif of the Self-Hating and powerful Jew who wants to situate himself amongst the Aryan Brotherhood, a biker gang that protects him.  Doc is on the outside of this. He’s just trying to help Shasta out by finding Wolfmann.   In truth, Doc is really just the small guy who stumbles upon clues and somehow puts things other.   The Jewish character is – on the other hand – the symbol of power, greeed, and corruption.  He leaves his Jewishness behind for evil and power.  (An anti-Semitic theme, no doubt. And there is much to discuss here about the drive for assimilation and the desire to become the other.  I will discuss these in future posts.)

What leads Doc to Wolfmann is heroin, which, in this book, is associated with rotting teeth and what I would call eroding one’s bite on life.  Doc smokes pot, while all of Wolfmann’s clients and people (including Shasta, before she visits Doc) shoots dope.  Wolfmann is the peddler of dope and he gets everyone under his power.   Doc wants nothing to do with power.  Wolfmann takes their teeth away from them and gives them a fake bite.   Doc has all his teeth.   His bite is real.  But he only eats on the go.

To be continued…..