A Comical Alphabet of Postmodern Horror: On “Mannix” & Walter Abish’s “Ardor/Awe/Atrocity”


There was a time in graduate school when I did a lot of research into Postmodern Holocaust Literature.  One of the authors I came across was Walter AbishHow German Is It was my first introduction to his body of literary work.  What impressed me most was his cool and intelligent use of language to approach things that are terrifying and tragic.    In How German is It and in many of his short stories, Abish uses narrators and a language that continuously allude to something horrible that is either not being talked about or not being reacted to in a manner befitting of real horror.  The narrator’s approach to terrorism and the Holocaust – in How German is It – are designed to prompt the reader to feel anxious and troubled.   (We see a similar approach in the works of Aharon Appelfeld which use a retrospective view on the Holocaust. And this prompts the reader to experience radical disbelief and intense historicity.)    What makes How German is It so interesting is that, throughout the book, language and the photograph are figures of humankind’s distance from atrocity.   Language and the image, in other words, make us numb.   Drawing on this understanding, Abish’s project is to expose this in cold prose that is either cruel or comic.  While a book like How German is It takes the cold approach his book Alphabetical Africa and his story “Ardor/Awe/Atrocity” (which uses the TV show, Mannix, as a central motif) both take a more comical approach to this linguistic and aesthetic numbness.

Susan Sontag, in her book On Photography, addresses the numbness to violence incurred by the photo when she argues that the excess of media representations of horror (and she wrote this in the 1970s, imagine what she would say today) has made us all numb.  Sontag argued that artists like Dianne Arbus looked to wake us up from this stupor.  However, although she wanted to make us feel pain and wake up, Sontag finds these efforts as displaying the numbness of an American lifestyle that is nearly impossible to break out of. Since violence is always kept far away from the secure life, how can one become – as Giorgio Agamben might say – or return to “naked existence”? And what happens when we, playing on Philip Roth’s reflections in his novel, American Pastoral, naively take to violence as if it were absolutely necessary to use violence to destroy the system that hides it?

How does one address this?  Should one, rather, write novels and short stories that are filled with horror and violence?  Or should one, as Abish does, use the device of tragic irony to show how numb we are?  And, if we know, what difference does it make and what will it accomplish? Will we as a matter of course just become more bitter about everything we see or hear about atrocity?  Does it suggest a life of cynicism?  And what is the difference if that cynicism is comical or tragic?

In Alphabetical Africa, Abish takes every letter of the alphabet to address the topic of colonialism, war, conflict, and death in Africa in the 1970s.    Each chapter is based on a letter but the logic is to build on previous letters.  In the first chapter, for instance, every word in the chapter begins with the letter “a,” the second chapter adds the letter “b,” and only words starting with “a” or “b” are used.  As one can imagine, this exercise is fun and comical. But at the novel goes on, the violent and disturbing subject of the book comes more and more into focus.  However, there is a very interesting challenge that is posed to the reader in this process: when it becomes clearer to the reader that subject of the book must be taken in with a more sober sensibility, the reader needs to check in and ask herself if a) she is willing to forgo the comic aspects or b) that is even possible at this point (after all, most of the novel has been a language game that has created a series of comical and surreal images).    This ingenious literary approach should prompt the reader to ask about whether empathy is possible, today.  Is it “fake” for us to say that we care when we are more interested, as he suggests, in being entertained? The mind is more interested, it seems, in play and diversion.  And even though there is a glut of images and words about atrocity, Abish seems to be suggesting that it all just appears to us in a comical manner.  Do we just, at a certain point, shrug our shoulders and accept that we prefer to be sheltered and remain numb?  What can we really expose ourselves to?  When we get upset at this or that trauma in the public realm,  is this outrage really just an act – since, as Abish suggests, we are really to (as Heidegger might say) “tranquilized” by the world we live in?  If this is the case, then Abish is suggesting that the most intelligent outlook on what is going on today is actually the coldest and the most bitter of all.  Perhaps the most intelligent amongst us are – despite their protestations – cruel and indifferent because the glut of language, imagery, and information make that inevitable? This pessimism lingers for the reader of Abish’s work.

His short story “Awe/Ardor/Atrocity” brings this closer home to Americans (since How German is It speaks more to a German audience or an American audience which is fascinated with the German intellectual or activist’s response to atrocity).   Throughout the story, there are numbers on words that suggest endnotes or footnotes; however, there aren’t any.  Its left up to the reader to figure out why certain words rather than others have these notations (as they may relate to the central theme) – to aid the reader, I will put these notations in brackets next to the words when they come up in this essay.

(Let me preface by saying that one of the main reasons I want to discuss this story – in the context of Abish’s work – is because the main character of Mannix (a TV show on CBS that spanned from 1968-1975), Mike Connors, died today.)

In the first section of the story, Abish situates the main character of the story and suggests – in tension with the words (and footnote numbers appended to them) “Awe1/Ardor2/Atrocity3” – an erotic and sadistic plot that draws on the Film Noir but one can already hear the “knocking,” so to speak, of violence on the door of the narrative:

Her car, an old Dodge station wagon, developed engine trouble as she was driving along Route 15, traversing the bleakest and most desolate part of the Mojave Desert.  She slowed down to twenty miles an hour and listened to the knocking, the persistent knocking sound that came from the engine.  A sign she had passed a few miles back indicated that it was forty miles to the next gasoline station.  Rather than stop and wait for someone to assist her, she decided to continue at a reduced speed.  (In the Future Perfect, 42)

She, who we learn has a name, Jane, drives past a male hitchhiker who has a “sign” (a word which has an appended footnote number – 57 – to it) that says “GOING MY WAY? EL LAY.”  The sign is odd and suggests an aggressive sexual encounter.  When she passes him and he yells at her “silly cunt.”  These words “kept reverberating in her ears long after she had lost sight of him in the rearview(64) mirror.  There was no sign(57) of life in the rugged terrain to her left or right.  Lost in thought, she did not see immense billboard looming ahead until she was almost on top of it.  A freshly cut(9) half of an orange, displayed in the center of the billboard, floated against a bright dayglow yellow background. Beneath the orange the word PLEASURE(46) stood out in large red letters”(42).

As one can already sense, the allusion to violence and sex is throughout this text.  Its subtext is violence and sadism.  In the next section, ‘BUOYANT(4)/BOB(5)/BODY(6),” we bear witness to another moment of violence: “The large buoyant-looking(4) man in the red checkered shirt who had approached her in the motel dining room was taken away by the police, and so was the young man who received a deep(11) cut(9) in his arm as a result of the altercation that had taken place between the two of them.  He’ll be all right, the motel owner assured her, after the young man, blood dripping(10) from his left arm, was driven to the nearby hospital”(43).

In the D section “DRIP(10)/DEEP(11)/DELIGHT(12),” the reader is shown a sexual scene in her bedroom.  “She is lying naked on her bed.  Her heart is beating wildly.  This is absolutely ridiculous, she thinks.  There is no reason to feel nervous, uncertain, or afraid”(44). But then we learn that her head is “thrust into a the pillow” and that a man is “holding her by the waist as he thrusts(58) himself into her again and again. Both she and the man are committed to complete silence”(44). The fact that the number thrusts is 58 and the number appended to the sexually aggressive hitchhiker is 57 suggests that there is a continuity.  Even so, the silence and that she thinks there is no reason to be “nervous, uncertain, and afraid,” should trouble the reader.

Once again, Abish uses irony to make the reader uncomfortable.

And this is when Abish’s narrator slips the TV show, Mannix in.  In the next section, entitled “ERECTION(13)/EXOTIC(14)/EARTHQUAKE(15),” Abish introduces the show which Jane, who is now alone, is watching:

Jane(28)is watching a rerun of “Mannix” on the color(8) TV in her room…Intently she watches a pink-faced Mannix, gun(27) drawn, racing along the length of a red-tiled rooftop on a stylish hacienda.  Now(40) and then the camera settles briefly on the familiar Southern California(7) background of palm trees, swimming pools, exotic(14) plants, an interior filled with massive pieces of modern furniture, etc”(44).  The description of the scene depicted on TV displaces some of her worry – its architecture is meant, as it is in How German is It, to hide the violence.  But then it resurfaces while she watches and it comes out through a reflection on her car which has an “oily substance dripping(10) from the left front axle”(44).  The only “dripping(10)” mentioned so far in the book was the dripping of blood from the man who got in  a fight in the hotel.  She worries now, in relation to the car, “Each time she pulls out, she leaves a shiny black stain on the ground.  What possibly can she be afraid of?”(44).

The TV show and Jane’s life bleed, so to speak, into each other.  She thinks of the life and the world that Mannix lives in and compares her own to it.  These thoughts make her life seem more meaningful and mitigate the hidden violence.  Mannix, for Jane, manages the violence.  He doesn’t let it pain him.  But the reader can see the horror.  She lives in language and image.  Her life passes from “awe” to “atrocity” by way of “ardor.” The word in the middle, so to speak, neutralizes the awe and atrocity.  Beauty – even if it is violent – displaces the awe and atrocity.  And, even more interesting, is the fact that we, as readers (even today), are complicit in this Southern Californian fantasy.  And we, like Jane, know it.

In one section, entitled “RECOGNITION(52)/REAL(53)/REMEMBER(54), Abish doesn’t mention or relay any of these words.  There is no memory, only a world of Southern California – of “buildings, cars, and people” who “age comfortably in the sun”(52).  The final figure in this section is of smiles in a bank.   They displace any memory, recognition, or reality of horror.   In the last section of the story, the narrator tells the reader than she’s never been to Southern California.  She made it up – as one can imagine – from the TV show, Mannix.   It’s comical since this final quip suggests that the whole story was just a joke.  And even our sense of a violent subtext – even in a literary sense, and not a televisual one – is a joke.  In our age, irony isn’t what it used to be.  History and memory are even more distant.

Perhaps this is the tragic-comedy.

Our lives and even our experiences of horror are buried under language and images that stream to us on TV, film, and the internet.  We have no – punning on the filmmaker David Cronenberg’s (2005) film – awareness of the “history of violence.”  Violence has little to no historicity in our lives; unless, that is, we have experienced it ourselves, personally.   Other than that, it is a story.  And Abish believes that the only way to crack it and lift the reader out of numbness is to suggest that something sinister lies beneath the surface. The comedy hides the tragedy.  Even so, as Alphabetical Africa suggests, we may be to attached to the comedy of language and image (in the security they offer) to care when we get through the “whole” alphabet (or horror).   The message is bleak: We are more accustomed to comedy and fantasy to care about what lurks beneath.  And even if we do go beneath that surface, we can’t take it.

As Freud well knew, the psyche is a protective shield (despite the fact that there might be a death drive, Thanatos, in it).   Trauma eats away at it. But no one wants trauma.  To want that, to want horror, would be suicidal.   Perhaps it is better to be, as Abish suggests through the TV show, in manic pursuit of the meaning of a text or film?   Deconstruction certainly enjoyed that (semiotic and syntactical) adventure.  The pleasure of the text (as Roland Barthes might say), a comic pleasure, may expose us to darkness by way of allusion; but, as Abish suggests, we can’t look into that darkness directly.  We can be bitter, true.  But that bitterness is couched in comedy and, for him, it seems inevitable that we will – in this age of endless carnage and violent displacement – prefer to be tranquilized or manic than to be inundated with horror and death.   Perhaps we are caught up in a comical alphabet of postmodern horror?

On the “Aesthetic of Religious Simplicity,” Political Theology & Pre-Monarchical Israel


Up until his departure in 2003 for Bar Ilan University, James Kugel was teaching Biblical Criticism at Harvard University for two decades (where he was the Harry M. Starr Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature).   His book, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, draws on these two decades of teaching and condenses them into one large volume (numbering over 700 pages) which spans the entire Bible from Genesis to the Book of Daniel.      What makes the book special is that it reads Biblical Criticism against what Kugel (drawing on Rabbinic, Apocryphal, the New Testament, Christian interpretation, etc.) calls “ancient interpretation.”  The book brings in the insights of Biblical Criticism, archaeology, and history to offer a major challenge to how people ordinarily think about the Bible. The book is, in this sense, truly troubling for a person of faith.   Although Kugel numbers himself amongst those who are Orthodox, he steps outside of that box to present the many challenges that Biblical Criticism offers to Orthodox Judaism and Christianity.

What does his book have to do with schlemiel theory?   Since the schlemiel is often thought of and described as a simpleton, one wonders how far back the notion of the Jew as a simpleton goes. Kugel’s book offers an interesting hypothesis about simplicity that suggests that it has deeper roots in an ancient aesthetic.  And it emerges out of something at once political, theological, and topographic.

One of the most thought provoking reflections I have found in his book are on the Book of Judges and his notion of the “God of Old.”  In this section of the book, Kugel, drawing on Max Weber, discusses the notion of “charismatic leadership.”    Kugel begins this section by noting that “whatever the system of rule, one of the trickiest problems is that of succession” (388).    He shows that the question of succession speaks to a deep crisis and he links this crisis to the emergence of the charismatic leader:

Who will be the next leader?  Unless this question has a clear answer that has been accepted in advance by all members of the society, the old leader’s death can lead to a protracted power struggle, bringing with it the gravest consequences: civil war, economic collapse, or conquest by outsiders.  (388)

But what happens when there is no fixed system for “automatic replacement” (388)?  Kugel explains: “So dangerous is the chaos that might result from not having an established process of succession that, all over the world, people have been willing on principle to accept the king’s son or daughter…without proof that the new ruler will be any good for the job…. almost anything is better than chaos” (388).  This is the background for the Book of Judges: “Israel in the Book of Judges was a society without a king…. There was no successful coordination among the tribes.  Instead, they seem to have had a succession of temporary, ad hoc leaders, the “judges” (388).

They did “not come from a dominant family or rise up through the ranks.   Instead, their rise to power was created by a crisis; something occurred that required someone to take over, and the person in question suddenly emerged” (388).

This unexpected nature and the suddenness of this election, for Kugel, speaks to what Max Weber called “charismatic leadership.”

The first example Kugel uses to explain this sudden and unexpected rise to power is by way of Gideon.   He cites Judges 6:11-15.

11 Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. 12 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” 13 And Gideon said to him, “Please, my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 And the Lord[a] turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” 15 And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” 16 And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” 

Kugel’s description of this passage is telling.  He describes Gideon as a total simpleton and the scene as comical:

What is relevant in the present context is the angels’ commissioning of Gideon to lead the people.  One can hardly image a less qualified candidate.  The scene opens with Gideon so intimidated by the raiding Midianites that he has to hide his spare grains of wheat inside a winepress.   What a pathetic figure!  The angel’s opening words to him – “The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior” – seem almost a joke in view of his timorousness…Most important, the passage spells out Gideon’s political unfitness to become a leader: he comes from a not particularly powerful tribe, Manasseh, in fact, from the “poorest clan” in that tribe and he himself is “the least in my family.”  (389)

He is, in other words, a simpleton, a schlemiel-like character.  But he, like the Clark Kent character, undergoes a “divine transformation: the “spirit of the Lord” comes over him” and he, like Deborah and other judges in the Book of Judges, is “suddenly capable of great feats (Judg. 11:29; 14:6, 19, 15:14). They are the very model of charismatic leadership” (390).

The people, in Judg. 8:22-23 ask him to rule over them after they are saved from the Midianites.  However, he, like a Simpleton who doesn’t want power, says no.  He is not a total superhero of sorts; he retains his simplicity:

But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” (Judg. 8:22-23)

At the end of his chapter on Judges, Kugel argues, contrary to the Biblical account and drawing on archaeological speculation, that the people who wrote Judges and the people to whom it spoke mark the emergence of the Jewish people in Israel as a people who lived in the mountains.   Kugel speculates that the dislike of kings by many of the Judges – especially Gideon – had to do with the topography of the land in Israel:

According to archaeologists, what was later to become the distinct “Israel group” in Canaan is first attested to in little, undefended settlements on the mountaintops of the central highlands.   There is a reason why they were undefended: conquerors are generally not interested in mountaintop settlements.  In terms of real estate, mountaintops are not nearly as valuable as the fruited plain below…. To capture that land, with its relatively dense population and its other riches, is to win a prize.  By contrast, the sloping rocky terrain of the mountaintops is not particularly easy to farm and is not thickly settled…The fruited plain thrives; the mountaintop survives. (409)

In other words, the Israelites were left to themselves and the culture that they developed reflected this lifestyle.   Kugel argues that they were radically independent and this affected not just their political view but their religious views as well:

The central highlands of the land of Israel are not as high as any of these other mountain ranges (in Kurdistan, Switzerland, etc.), but they are high enough, scholars theorize, to have led to a somewhat comparable state of fierce autonomy in the twelfth or eleventh century BCE.  The people up in the mountains soon grew used to being left alone (that’s why they settled there); scholars do not imagine that they were particularly enthusiastic about any grand reamalgamation of themselves with the valley dwellers, or even with other mountaintop tribes.  (411)

This argument supports Kugel’s argument that many of the Judges dealt with a population that was turned off by Kings and didn’t desire unity with other tribes.   It shows a picture of a people that is fiercely independent and would rather have God for a king that a man.  Only the threat of war brings up the issue of having a leader.

In his chapter on “The Other Gods of Canaan,” Kugel returns to the other aspect of the Israelite people: simplicity.  In the final section of that chapter, he discusses the mountaintop settlements and takes note of their simple life.  He takes note of this in terms of their homes and even in terms of what he calls an “aesthetic of simplicity” that one also finds in the patriarchs (perhaps reflecting an “older” deity):

There was nothing elegant about these houses – in fact, the family members shared their living quarters with some of the family’s livestock, who lived on the bottom floor during at least part of the year and whose pungent odor filled the air.  (Keeping a donkey or cow or two inside the house not only gave these valuable animals safe shelter but also provided additional warmth for the family during the chilly months of winter.)  (433)

Kugel goes on to describe how all families lived together and how they were in tune with the cycles of nature: “The crops they grew and ate, like the animals they raised and bred, kept them altogether tied to the cycles of nature” (433).   Their religion reflected this simple life:

The religious practices of these people were quite in keeping with the other aspects of their life, archaeologists say; here too, simplicity reigned…. The archaeological remains suggest…. a rather uncomplicated religious regime, practiced in individual homes or village wide, in “cult rooms” and local shrines (“high places”), on in the open-air, hilltop areas like the twelfth-century “Bull site discovered in northern Samaria. (433)

Delving into the Bible, Kugel depicts much of the aesthetics in the Bible as reflecting such simplicity:

He must have somehow seemed – despite other similarities and synchretisms – different from other deities.  He did not (as we have seen to be the case with gods and goddesses in Mesopotamia) dwell inside a statue set off in a magnificent house (that is, a temple) constructed for Him.  Instead, He was worshipped at what appear to be deliberately crude installations: He might infuse or appear above a standing stone (massebah) or in a sacred grove (asherah) for a time, or else reveal Himself to a chosen servant at an oak tree or another outdoor site; then He disappeared.   His presence, in any case, was not captured by the skilled work of human hands. This practice may be said to reflect a similar aesthetics of religious simplicity, perhaps a historic descendant of the outlook of those early hilltop settlers.  Under this same rubric of simplicity one might list the blunt laws of the Ten Commandments – “Do this!” and “don’t do that” (so different from the complicated case law of Mesopotamian legal codes) …. In keeping with this same aesthetic of religious simplicity is the Bible’s commandment to build only plain, dirt altars, or, if stones were to be used, then only unhewn stones (Exod. 20:24-25).  (434)

But he doesn’t stop there.  He goes on talk about the Patriarchs and argues that “no professional clergy exists in their world…instead the Patriarchs themselves slaughter and sacrifice animals to God at their homemade altars, spontaneously turning to God in prayer and acknowledgement, wherever they may be.  God sometimes appear to them in the guise of a fellow human being, at least for a time – then they recognize the truth and fall to the ground in worship” (434).   Kugel uses the word “God of old” to describe this simple experience of astonishment.

He concludes his argument by arguing – as all Biblical Critics do – that the authors (plural) of the tales of the patriarchs and of the Judges may have come from pre-Monarchical Israel.  This hypothesis suggests that with the election of a king and the construction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, new ideas took shape that went contrary to these less elaborate views of life and religion.

Simplicity was replaced by complexity and an aesthetics that was far from simple, more ornate, and connected to a different political theology.   Nonetheless, Kugel argues that this is where monotheism got its first roots.   The God of Sinai had migrated, in his view (drawing on what is called the “Midianite Hypothesis”) from the south (on Mt. Sinai) to the mountaintops of Israel and eventually to Mount Zion.

Kugel’s read on Gideon, coupled with his read on simplicity in the context of archaeological gleanings, suggests that the simpleton (which Ruth Wisse sees as the ancestor of the schlemiel) may have deeper roots in the hilltops of Israel and in a time when monarchy was shunned in the name of a kind of a libertarian spirit.  

Who knows?  As Kugel, well understood and all Biblical critics know, this reflection is based on a hypothesis that hinges on an interpretation of archaeological evidence.  New evidence can always emerge and change things all around.  Even so, Kugel found it necessary to portray the Jewish people as a simple people whose simple roots have a topographical and political basis.

The charismatic leader he portrays in Gideon suggests a situation that we would find in many a schlemiel tale.  After all, he didn’t want to lead – it comes out of nowhere – and when they want him to – despite the fact that he wins a major battle – he abdicates power. 

Like any schlemiel, he would rather live the simple life than take on the role of the charismatic leader.  Clark Kent may love justice and saving lives but, despite this charismatic role, perhaps he, like Gideon, would rather be Clark Kent?

Spinning Tops: Eric Santer’s Treatment of Play and Fantasy in Kafka and Walser


Does attention to detail make one a thinker?  Isn’t it the attention to the whole?  Robert Walser’s portrayal of the philosopher – in his prose piece “The Philosopher” – makes him into a person who is obsessed with small things.   He is, as Walser says, like a child who is “groping for small things.”  But does this groping make him more like the artist and less like the philosopher?  Is the devil in the details or in the vision of the whole? After all, Rene Descartes, in The Meditations on First Philosophy – didn’t get caught up in the details.  At the very outset, he said that he didn’t want to doubt the details. That would take him forever.  He wanted to start with the general categories that subsumed all of those details. To wit, Walser’s philosopher is not what one would typically associate with a thinker.   The figure of the thinker who is obsessed with smallness is a pathway to another way of thinking, a creative one that is touched by humility and careful intuition.  Kafka was deeply influenced by this literary kind of thinking as was Walter Benjamin.  On the other hand, they were also very interested in – although in conflict over – the meaning of work and family.

But not everyone reads Walser and Kafka’s obsession with smallness in the same way.  At the outset of the first chapter of On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life – a title which plays on Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life – Eric Santer takes up a reading of a Robert Walser short story, “End of the World,” and, comparing it to a Kafka story, “The Top,” makes his central proposition about how the “old thinking” (as Franz Rosenzweig would say) turns us away from “life.”  To be amidst life, one must leave the old thinking behind.   To this end, Santer chooses Walser’s short fiction piece as the thread to travel toward life.  It is, for Santer, a cautionary tale.

Santer notes that the child of Walser’s story is at the “limits of the human habitation we call the world”(11).  The child in Walser’s story is an orphan and without family:

A child who had neither father nor mother nor brother and sister, was a member of no family and utterly homeless, hit on the idea of running off, all the way to the end of the world. 

The wordless child runs and runs as she looks for “the end of the world” taking no notice as she runs along.  But as the child runs, Walser tells us that she imagines the end of the world in terms of several different figures: “first as  high wall, then as a deep abyss, then as a green meadow…then as nothing at all or as something child itself could not identify”(12)

The child, exhausted from running, collapses and when she wakes she finds a farm, asks if she can stay and work, and “be of service to the family.”  After this, the child never runs off again.

Building on this plot, Santer turns to Kafka’s tale,”The Top,” which “tells the story of a philosopher who sought after groups of children playing with a top, imagining that were he to seize the toy in the midst of its rotation he would discover universal truths”(12).  Santer likens the “spinning of the top” to an “interminable repetition compulsion.”   And the “project’s repeated failures generate a quasi-psychotic state in the philosopher.”  Kafka’s story lays out the scene:

The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip.

From these two stories, Santer concludes that “the problem is that of inhabiting the midst, the middle of life”(13).  One character is in flight from it and becomes, as a result, “fundamentally fantasmatic”(13).   She sees the world as an object and, as a result, goes mad and collapses.  She imagines she can “occupy the place of an impossible gaze” while Kafka’s philosopher seeks to occupy a “position beyond life.”

What Santer overlooks – since he wants to argue that both the child in one story and the adult in the other are philosophers – is the question of smallness in Walser and Kafka’s work.  Building on Santer, I would like to suggest that one of the biggest conflicts for both Walser and Kafka, which stems from their love of language, is how an interest in smallness may take one away from a life of family and friends.   The question for them – building on Santer – is whether this obsession is a fantasy.  Is the life of the artist, obsessed with detail, the life of the daydreamer (as Freud would say)?  Or is it the life of an orphan (the life of otherness and worldlessness, minus fantasy)?

Does the obsession with small things, with art, keep one from growing up and, as the Walser story suggests, joining a family and working for its survival? Kafka worried about this as well – especially in the last years of his life.  But they weren’t asking this question from the position of the philosopher so much as the position of the writer.  At stake was a way of life; however, that way of life, the way of art, doesn’t live in the same world.  And they worried whether that life, since it was so alienated (albeit with moments of joy) was really “life.”

Over the question of whether they were in the midst of the world or in the midst of wordlessness, they were spinning tops.









A New Essay on the Schlemiel in Thomas Pynchon’s “V” for Berfrois


As one can see from different Schlemiel Theory posts over the last two months, I have been writing different motifs in the fiction of the great American writer Thomas Pynchon (on the “fat Jew,” “Lardass Levine,” in his short story, “Little Rain,” on Aryan Bikers and Stoner Schlemiels in his book Inherent Vice,  and on his treatment of sloth, slowness, and schlemiels in his Slow Learner collection).   Building on my research into Pynchon’s work, I have recently published one of two parts of an essay on the schlemiel in Thomas Pynchon’s V for Berfrois.    

Click here to take a look at the new essay.

The second installment will be in before the end of January.  I will post it here when it is published.

Despite all the stumbling blocks in my way and bananas I slip on, I will continue to research the schlemiel.   My goal has and continues to be to provide the most diverse and far reaching analysis on the schlemiel in the world.  My archive of essays, interviews, and guest posts that pertain to the schlemiel continues to grow and is the largest database on this character to date.

On a personal note, the research I have done on this character has awakened me to the fact that this character is more than a passing fad or minor character.  It’s comedy speaks to something that is widely shared and deeply human; something particular to Jewishness and something much more general and common to not just Americans but people around the world who speak in many different languages.

I hope you joy this essay and continue to support Schlemiel Theory.  Without you, none of this would be possible.


Menachem Feuer


Schlemiels Can’t Do Camp


At the end of my last blog post, I suggested the possibility of Jewish Camp.  But is that possible?  Aren’t the two mutually exclusive?  This is what Susan Sontag suggests when she argues that Jews and Homosexuals are the creators of two modern sensibilities that are at odds with each other: a moral and an aesthetic Camp sensibility.  And as I noted in my last post, Sontag thinks that one necessarily “neutralizes” the other: “Camp is solvent of morality.  It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness”(“Notes on Camp,” 290).   Camp is all aesthetics, in other words, it is interested in play not moral seriousness.

Although the clash between ethics and aesthetics is nothing new – Plato, Kierkegaard, and Emmanuel Levinas all insist on the distinction – Sontag is introducing a nuanced reading of it, here.   Sontag’s distinction between a gay Camp sensibility and a Jewish moral sensibility (in modernity) suggests that Camp takes up the threads of aristoratic taste:

Aristocracy is a position vis-a-vis culture (as well as vis-a-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is part of the history of snob taste.  But since no aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-selected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.  (290)

With this history in mind, I’d like to introduce a challenge and ask a question.

The schlemiel is a moral-aesthetic figure that, on the one hand, partakes in the moral sensibility Sontag thinks Jews used to legitimate their place in American and European culture; and, on the other hand, it also partakes in the aesthetic sensibility. But the key difference is that the schlemiel does not take its historical cure from “the history of snob taste.”  On the contrary, the schlemiel’s history is rooted in historical trauma and takes its lead – as Ruth Wisse argues – from Jewish “weakness” in the face of history.  Wise argues that it appeals to self-deprecation as a way of humoring this weakness.   It is not, by any means, aesthetic taste that one sees articulated in the schlemiel.  If anything, we see the failure and self-deprecation in the schlemiel character.  She doesn’t take on an aristocratic Camp sensibility.  It’s comedy doesn’t evince a dominant, playful sensibility.

Think, for instance, of Woody Allen or Larry David.  If anything, they deliberately put forth characters whose comedy is informed not by bad taste so much as a comedy of errors that belies a character who is, ultimately, good natured and moral.   Larry David’s portrayal of Bernie Sanders is a good example.


In the parody, the moral sensibility is mocked.  But it is central throughout.  Aesthetic play, as Sontag would say, isn’t the key feature.

That prompts the question: Can a Schlemiel do Camp?

One interesting possibility has come up recently, as I noted in my last post, with Transparent.

In an essay on the show for the Los Angeles Review of Books entitled “Transparent: A Guide to the Perplexed,” Jonathan  Freedman doesn’t mentioned camp once.  He sees it, rather, in terms of Diasporic Jewish identity which is constantly changing and morphing.

Lech lecha: you must wander, you must change. Both of these imperatives are deeply — one might even say constitutively — Jewish. The first manifests itself in the historical experience of Jews as an exilic or diasporic people. To be a bit tendentious about it, the Promised Land has long served as much as a promise as a land; at the time of Christ, the heyday of the Second Temple, for example, more Jews lived in the Nile Delta than in Biblical Palestine; and the phrase at the end of the Passover ceremony, “Next year in Jerusalem,” has resonated and continues to resonate as much in Minsk or Berlin or Los Angeles as it does in, well, Jerusalem. The diasporic heritage has been key to the cultural and economic success of Jews qua model minority — as traders or middlemen, as makers and remakers of the cultures of the lands into which we have passed: without us, could Donald Trump even have conceived of the word “schlonged”? But it also means that we diasporic Jews are really home nowhere, as reflected in the rootlessness of the Pfefferman family, where the family mansion passes from Mort to his daughter so that Tammy can redecorate it out of existence….As a wandering people, Jews have of course had to change as they moved from country to country, ghetto to citizenship, religious to assimilated, ghetto Jew to sabra, frum to modern, which raises and practically identifies the Jew with the perpetual questioning of identity that is a hallmark of modernity.

Freedman also points out how the identification of Jews with the feminine is noting new.  It has a history and even James Joyce subscribes to it:

The understanding of the male Jew as a woman — as a proto-transsexual — had radiated throughout culture. A somewhat unhinged but brilliant converted Jew, cultural critic Otto Weininger, spoke of the male Jew’s essentially female nature in 1901. In 1922, James Joyce’s Jewish half-protagonist in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, is called “a finished example of the new womanly man.” Radiating out from such figures were identifications of Jewish men as women by medical professionals, chiefly in the cutting-edge medical research in 1920s and 1930s Germany.

It seems, for him, that the main focus of the show has to do with dealing with modernity in terms of identity issues and change.  Freedman seems to be telling us that the legacy of the effeminate Jew, it seems, is a part of that identity complex.

What is missing, however, in Freedman’s masterful account of the show, is a discussion of the moral sensibility.  How does it figure in this show?  Can it not be argued that Morton (Maura) Pfefferman character is playing a schlemiel?  After all, Joyce casts Bloom as a schlemiel and, to be sure, David Biale is correct in argue that most of the schlemiels we see in film are “sexual schlemiels.”  What is the moral undercurrent?  What does it mean for a schlemiel to grapple with sexual identity?  And how is this – as in many schlemiel tales, shows, and films – situated within the context of the family, the community?

This isn’t camp. And, based on this, one can argue that a schlemiel can’t do camp.  The schlemiel exposes a different sensibility that exists between a moral and aesthetic sensibility.  But this is not Camp aesthetics, as Sontag would understand it.  There is an aesthetics, a moral-asethetics, in this show.  There is moral conflict.  How do we articulate it? And what does it tell us about forces in American culture that Sontag may not have understood?  How can a reading of the schlemiel help us to understand a third kind of sensibility one that isn’t about the “aristocracy of taste” but about a struggle with modernity that is…shared…in common.  The schlemiel’s comic approach to transgender – at least in this show – may help us to understand how modern American Jews turn more to a moral-aesthetic sensibility to deal with the conflicts of modernity than to something solely aesthetic or solely moral.


Camp is a Solvent of Morality: Addressing Susan Sontag on Jewish & Gay Sensibilities


Today, on Facebook, I noticed that many colleagues – several who are professors of philosophy (Jewish, Continental, Modern, Feminist, etc) – were having a field day with the hashtag #goldenshowers (Twitter had hundreds of thousands of Tweets today with this hashtag).   In at least two of the discussions I saw, however, there was an argument about whether or not it is ethical to shame someone and whether it was right to pass on something that was most likely a rumor or lie.  (Even if the subject is Donald Trump; he is a human being like all of us and philosophical rules apply to all; no one is exempt from respecting the other.)  In both, there was a slight pause to consider the situation.  But that didn’t last for long: the arguments dropped and people kept on telling “pee” jokes.   Philosophical consistency was thrown to the winds.  The attitude was more or less justifying it all.  After all, why can’t philosophy professors have some fun?

Drawing on Susan Sontag, I would argue that what happened today was the ascendence of a camp sensibility in the public space.  But in doing so, it had to toss the moral sensibility to the winds.  In her essay, “Notes on Camp,” written in 1964, Sontag suggests that the representatives of the camp sensibility and the moral sensibility are homosexual’s and Jews respectively.   They – “Jewish moral seriousness” and “homosexual aestheticism and irony” – are the two “pioneering forces of modern sensibility”(Against Interpretation, 290).

Since I would like to argue that the Camp sensibility was ascendent today, a brief look at her genealogy and definitions of Camp and Moral seriousness would be helpful.

Sontag argues that Camp taste  sees itself in terms of “aristocracy.” Even though aristocrats died with the Middle Ages and the birth of the Modern Era, Sontag sees an important structural relation; namely, “snob taste”:

Aristocracy is a position vis-a-vis culture (as well as vis-a-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is part of the history of snob taste.  But since no aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-selected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.  (290)

To argue her point, Sontag claims that a comparison and a distinction is in order between a Homosexual Camp Sensibility and a Jewish Moral Sensibility:

Not all liberals are Jews, but Jews have shown a peculiar affinity for liberal and reformist causes.  So, not all homosexuals have Camp taste.  But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard – and the most articulate audience – of Camp.  (290)

What she says we are certain of is that “Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture.”  What makes them special is that they are “pioneering forces.”  But they are at odds with each other.

While both use their sensibilities as a “gesture of self-legitimization,” “Camp taste…has something propagandistic about it.”  They both promote themselves.  But while “Jews have pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense,” homosexuals “have pinned their integration into society by promoting the aesthetic sense”(290).

When taken together, however, there is a problem.   One, argues Sontag, dissolves the other:

Camp is solvent of morality.  It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.   (290)

Drawing on Sontag, one could argue that the Camp sensibility, which revels in playfulness and irony, disregarded and “neutralized moral indignation” today.  It gave people permission to disregard shame and to engage in something aesthetic: adding endless ironic expressions to Facebook threads and Twitter Feeds.

Sontag’s first husband, Philp Rieff, may have encouraged her to pursue this kind of tension between the moral and the aesthetic.  (See his book: The Jew of Culture: Freud, Moses, and Modernity).

What I find most fascinating about today’s situation is that of the many philosophy professors I know – in my little circle – who were justifying the aesthetic excesses, some were professors of Jewish philosophy.   Playing on Leo Strauss, perhaps one can say that they made the Jewish moral sensibility the handmaiden of the homosexual aesthetic sensibility.

What we need is a dialogue between the two. Something like we find in a show like Transparent.  The irony of Camp has its limits.   A thinker needs to find them.  Otherwise, the snobby jokes will displace the morally serious issues that haunt us each and every day. Perhaps, there is another possibility: a Jewish kind of camp.

….to be continued

A Jewish-American Story of the Loss and Recovery of Faith in Joseph Roth’s “Job: The Story of a Simple Man”


There is a long history of films, books, and plays that depict the assimilation of Jews into America.  Many of these works include scenes that articulate the loss of faith which can lead to either a good or a bad ending.    On the one hand, think of The Jazz Singer (1927), a film that puts the heat on: the son of a cantor must make a choice between keeping his father’s traditions and going into show business.

It has a good ending.

On the other hand, think of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, a graphic novel which depicts a religious Hasidic Jew, Frimme Hersh’s loss of faith and dispute with God.   He, like Job, takes up an argument with God over not living up to his side of the “contract” (covenant) when his daughter is tragically taken away from him.   His suffering breaks him since he sees that a life of faith doesn’t give the rewards that it promises.  In anger and resentment, Frimme rejects his faith.  He is a broken man.


But his brokenness turns into a drive to sin.  Eisner depicts this as a movement from an emasculated masculinity (which he associates with the humility of faith) to male aggressivity.  America seems to bring out something from the Jew that simply didn’t exist in Europe.  He goes from being Job to being his opposite. But then, at a certain point, he experiences an emptiness.


In the end, he wants a new contract with God to fill the emptiness of his new, American life.  He’s willing to give faith a second chance.  However, before the new contract is drawn up, he dies.  He doesn’t get to live a new kind of Jewish life in America.  He dies, naked, secular, and alienated.

In my last post on Joseph Roth’s Job: The Story of a Simple Man, I briefly touched on Mendel’s loss of faith and the final miracle at the end of the book (with not only the return of his son Menuchim, but also the miracle of the photograph, which opens his eyes to his newly discovered daughter-in-law and grandchildren).

Here, I’d like to take a much closer look into what fomented Mendel’s breakdown of faith as well as his return to life by way of a miracle.  What he experiences presents a different kind of possibility for the Jewish immigrant than we see in either the Jazz Singer or Eisner’s Contract With God.   Roth suggests, on the one hand, the family and group of friends (and not just technology – I will return to this) as a saving grace, and on the other, the possibility of miracles in America.   His promise is, as Levinas might say, in the future, in fecundity.  Without that, his faith would remain broken.

Before introducing the major turn of events in Mendel’s life, Roth depicts the American scene for Mendel, his wife, and children as one of health and excitement.  Mendel wants to stay up all night and partake in its life-giving energy:  “They spoke of the theater, of society, of politics.  He listened and dozed.  When Deborah called, he opened his eyes.  ‘I wasn’t asleep,’ he would assure them.  Mac laughed, Sam smiled, Miriam and Deborah whispered together.  Mendel would stay awake a while, and then nod again”(150).

When he dreams, we see an American dream take shape which is, more or less, like a circus. But it is briefly interrupted by the memory of Mendel’s crippled son,Menuchim, who he left behind in Europe:

He dreamt of events at home, and things which he had only heard about in America: theaters, acrobats and dancers in red and gold, the President of the United States, the White House, the millionaire Vanderbilt, and ever and ever again – Menuchim.  The little cripple was mixed up with his dreams of prima donnas in red and gold.   (150)

Following the dream, the narrator sums up America in one long sentence:

Americans were healthy, their women pretty, sport was important, time was money, poverty was a crime, riches a service, virtue was half of success, and belief in oneself the whole of it, dancing was hygenic, roller-skating a duty, charity was an investment, strikers were enemies of mankind, agitators instruments of the Devil, modern machinery a gift of God, Edison world’s great genius.  (151)

America is the anti-thesis of the Europe he came from with his family.   Thinking of the future grandchild of his son Sam (Sam is the child who left Europe and brought his family to America), he experiences a new kind of hope: “The world will be very beautiful, thought Mendel.  How lucky my grandchild is! He will live through it all!” (151).  However, this hope is overshadowed. He thinks he will die before he has a grandchild.

But, at that moment, another hope comes to him: “But he had one hope left: to see Menuchim. Sam or Mac would go over to fetch him.  Perhaps Deborah would go to”(151).   In other words, he can’t live his American future – no matter how bright – without coming to terms with the past.   He defied the Rabbi by leaving Menuchim behind.  That is the secret thought in the back of his head and it may, at this moment in the novel, be his last remnant of faith.

When Mendel thinks about his wife while she is sleeping, he wonders why they are together.  He sees his desire for her as faded into the past and seems to see their relationship in practical terms.  He then turns to the Bible for vindication: “It is written, it is not good for man to be alone.  Thus we live together”(153).   He doesn’t quite understand why it is more than something practical.  It all comes to him when he loses his dearest family members one by one.

It all starts with Sam going off to fight in World War I.  Sam, convinced that “America isn’t Russia,” takes up the cause of the War and believes that he would be one of the “high officers” who would survive.  Mendel disagreed since he had already lost “one son” (Jonas)  to the war (although no one, to the very end of the novel knows if he is dead or alive).  Mendel couldn’t stop him.  As Sam leaves, Mendel reflects: “Perhaps America was a real fatherland, war a duty, cowardice shameful, and death – when one was attached to the regimental staff – out of the question”(161).    But then he thinks that he “should have said” stay because he finally had some good fortune: why experience more misfortune…if Sam were to die.

His worst fears come true.

Roth depicts the news as being transmitted in the context of a family moment at the table in the winter.  After sitting together for a while at a table – following some time while Sam was away – Mendel, being so familiar with misfortune (a Russian Jew, as Roth puts it) “knew…what was coming.”  His daughter, Miriam, was hiding a secret:

Silence reigned for a few seconds.  Miriam did not speak.   It was as though she hoped that her mother or father would free her, by a question, from announcing her news.  She stood still, and was silent.  None of the three moved. (164)

When Miriam speaks, the damn breaks loose and Deborah, her mother and Mendel’s wife, breaks down.  Her body changes.  She starts pulling her hair out.  Miriam “sank to her knees.”  Deborah’s hands “were like a pale, fleshy, five-footed animals, feeding themselves on hair”(165).  Deborah goes insane and starts singing.   She dies out of shock: “All of a sudden a suppressed scream came from Deborah’s breast.  It sounded like the rest of the melody which she had been singing, a broken bursted note.  Then she fell from her chair”(166).

Mendel speaks to his dead wife as if she was alive and his words reflect his loss of faith and total alienation. He loses his identity and much else…because of America:

“You are well off, Deborah,” he said to her.  “It is only sad that you have no son left to mourn you (as he thinks both Jonas and Menuchim are dead).  I myself must say the prayer for the dead, but I will soon die, and no one will weep for us.  Like two tiny specks of dust, we shall be scattered…I have begotten children, your womb has born them, death has taken them.  Meaningless and full of poverty was your life….You are dead and buried.  Towards me He shows no pity. For I am dead, and yet live.  If you can, pray for me, that I shall be stricken from the book of the living….I eat and drink, pray and breath.  But my blood congeals, my hands are limp, my heart is empty.  I am no longer Mendel Singer, I am but the remains of Mendel Singer. America has killed us. America is a real fatherland, indeed, but a death dealing fatherland. What was life, with us, is death here….You are buried in America, Deborah, and I, too, will be buried in America”(170-171)

Following this, we learn that Miriam has lost her mind (172).     And like Job, Mendel’s life worsens and his faith becomes thinner and thinner:

They left him. Mendel went to the window and watched them (his son’s friend Mac, and Sam’s wife, Vega) get into the car.  It seemed to him that he must bless them, as though they were children who start out on a journey which may be hard or may be very happy.  I shall never see them again, he though; then – I shall not give them my blessing, either.  My blessing might be a curse, coming from me it could only harm them.  (177)

Now he lets go of the weight that comes with faith:

He felt light, lighter than ever in all his years….He was alone – alone.  Wife and children had surrounded him and had hindered him from bearing his pain…..Now, at last, he indulged his misery in triumph!   There was only one relationship still to be broken.  He had prepared to do it. (178)

But then he does the deed.

He gathers up all of his religious objects and burns them (178).  As Eisner might say, he tears up his contract with God and becomes one with the Biblical Job character:

“It is over, all over; it is the end of Mendel Singer!” he cried, and his feet stamped in time to the tune, so that the floor-boards rumbled and the pots on the wall began to rattle.  “He has no son, he has no daughter, he has no wife, he has no country, he has no money! God said: I have punished Mendel Singer! For what has he punished him?” (179).

When his neighbors come up to see what’s going, we have a scene that we could find in Job; namely, different opinions about God and faith by his friends.

Mendel concludes, at the outset, that religion is more or less masochistic and God is sadistic: “God is cruel, and the more one obeys Him the more brutally He treats one…The weakness of man tempts His strength, and obedience awakens His scorn”(181).

And, ironically, when he is told that his case is similar to Job, he disagrees because he hasn’t seen any miracles (in the end) and doubts they will come.  No one, he says, will be resurrected and he doubts he will see either Jonas or Menuchim.  He insists (without knowing for certain) that they are dead (183).

Reflecting on Menuchim, he thinks that Menuchim was sick because “it showed that God was wroth with me.  It was the first blow, which I didn’t deserve”(183).   Even so, one of the neighbors, Menkes, argues that it is possible that a miracle can happen: maybe Menuchim is alive, Jonah is in prison, and Miriam can be cured from her madness.

He is not convinced that no miracles are possible anymore. In his rejection of God, he says that the “Devil is kinder than God”(185).  He seems to have washed his hands of God, completely.  There would be no happy ending because, to his mind, God is a sadist.  Tragedy, not comedy, is the lot of the man of faith.

As a part of his refusal, Roth shows Mendel in the midst of the month of Elul (before high holy days).  The community comes to his building and even makes a synagogue in his room.   He lets them but he doesn’t participate in the prayers.   They pray at his home on Yom Kippur.  But “Mendel Singer stood, black and silent, in his everyday clothes, in the background, near the door, unmoving. His lips were closed, and his heart was a stone.  The song of Kol-Nidre rose like a hot wind.  Mendel Singer’s lips remained closed, and his heart a stone”(192).

Silence reigns. But after the war ends, “the festive sound of a happy world” returns (196).  Roth takes up the phonograph as a technology that (partially) breaks the stone heart of Mendel.  He brings it to his home and listens every day.  He listens to all kinds of music (196).  He is astonished by the miracle of technology and this gives him some hope (197).   When he discovers a song called “Menuchim’s song,” he becomes dour yet, at the same time, he starts thinking of Menuchim and how the boy, who only spoke one word, “mama,” may get to sing and he may hear it someday.  The important thing is that the miraculous is conveyed through technology and it makes him entertain the possibility of something he has long denied as a result of his suffering and affliction – something he let go of when he deemed God a sadist and faith masochism.

The miracle happens on the night of Passover.   The influence of music is apparent when, throughout the ceremony, Mendel “sways” to the “music of others”:

And even Mendel became milder towards Heaven, which four thousand years ago had generously lavished such marvelous miracles, and it was though, because of God’s love for his whole people, Mendel cold almost be reconciled with his own fate. He still did not participate in the song, but his body swung backwards and forwards, cradled in the song of the others.  (214)

When a stranger from Russia joins them, who the narrator calls a Kossak, Mendel has the courage to start asking questions about his home, about Jonas and Menuchim.  Like Joseph in the Bible, the stranger conceals his identity, he is really Menuchim.  But Mendel doesn’t know until, at the very end, he reveals his identity.

Menuchim tells of how he was cured of his illness by a medical institute in Russia and was taken in by a doctor who took a liking to him.   We also learn that he is – like the last name of his father and his own name – a “singer.”  When he reveals that he is the singer of “Menuchim’s song,” which, as we saw earlier, enlivens Mendel to recall his missing son, everything shifts.   Mendel tells him that his wife (Menuchim’s mother) has died, but he still shies away from asking about Menuchim.  Roth portrays Mendel’s inner struggle over whether or not he should say the words.   But it is Menuchim who says the words “Menuchim is alive!”

Mendel laughs and weeps as one would expect in the pronouncement of a miracle (as one sees at the end of the Joseph episode when Jacob realizes that Joseph is still alive).    And now we see another breakdown of Mendel’s body.  Menuchim prompts it when he whispers the words of his deceased wife to Mendel so as to remind him that the words of the Rabbis are true: “Pain will make him wise, ugliness good, bitterness mild, and sickness strong!”(227).   The neighbors all witness the miracle and Menkes, “the most thoughtful of all of them,” sums up the entire journey of brokenness and faith: “We tried to comfort you, but we knew it was in vain.  Now you in the flesh experience a miracle! As we mourned with you, so we rejoice with you now.  Great are the wonders of the Eternal, today, as they were a thousand years ago! Praise His name!”(228)

Mendel repents.   His life is different now.  Menuchim takes care of him.  And he tries to come back to life although he is near death.   The circle is completed when he sees the photo.  It like the phonograph brings him closer to life.   In the photo he sees that he has not only a daughter in law but real grandchildren.  He has a future.  And this is what completes his faith.

What is so fascinating about this process is that a phonograph and a picture help him to live and return to faith.  Modern medicine does as well, since it cures Menuchim.  Faith, Roth seems to be telling us, is a process of breakdown and recovery; and, in America, in the modern world, it takes on a new form as the miraculous is a part of our everyday life.  But, more importantly, it is the community (Mendel’s larger family) that Mendel stays in proximity to, although he doesn’t share their faith.  It is the miracle of being-together during morning, Yom Kippur, and Passover that is the condition for the possibility of Mendel’s process of breakdown and recovery.   And it is the community that gives him the phonograph.  Without them and their kindness, he could no longer hear the sounds of life and the joys of world; without them these sounds of hope would not exist.   Technology is a part of this organic whole; it transmits the sensory; it facilitates healing.

Roth’s story works on many levels.  But, unlike Eisner’s Contract With God or the Jazz Singer it shows an organic process of the deterioration and renewal of faith.  These two stories – one of assimilation – and the other of broken faith lack these elements.  And while Eisner’s stops short, Roth does not.  He suggests that without community and hope, Jewish life in America (for the immigrant) is a tragedy.   The simple man, as his subtitle suggests, may be ruined but he holds on to a small thread.  His humility and his desire to not shock others may be his saving grace.  And it may, as Roth suggests, be the key to faith for a hyphenated Jew who, like Mendel Singer and Job, may – despite endless misfortune – be in for a surprise or two.  That’s a story – a comedy – that found its expression, as well, in Charlie Chaplin.  Perhaps, because of its comic turns and twists of fate and stokes of luck, Roth is telling us that were it to be a European story and not an American one the ending would be tragic not comic.  After all, he saw pogroms and the rise of Hitler and knew, like Shalom Aliechem, that life for Jews in Europe was coming to an abrupt end.

The Other Side of the Hyphen: On Joseph Roth’s Portrayal of a Jewish Family and its Passage to America in “Job: The Story of a Simple Man”


Like many American Jews, I am curious about the life of my grandparents and great grandparents.  On one side of my family, both of my grandparents were born in Europe but my father and his brothers were all born and raised in New York City.  My grandparents on the other side of my family, however, were both born in the United States (in New York and New Jersey).  I was the first child in my family to be raised in Upstate New York (which, although it is only three hours from New York City, is worlds apart).

Looking back on my upbringing, I identified more with the American side of my hyphenated identity than my Jewish side.  I had little choice because I was the only Jew in my elementary school (besides my brother) and when I was in high school (which I had to transfer to because of an anti-Semitic experience) I was only one of three in my grade.   We did have a small Hebrew School, a Jewish Community Center, and a Synagogue in Gloversville, New York.  I learned enough Hebrew to say my Haftorah at my Bar Mitzvah. But my sense of Jewishness was not solid.  My parents and my relatives gave me a vague cultural sense of Jewishness.  And when I left high school for university, I wanted to find out more about the other side of the hyphen.  Over time, I became a Jewish detective inquiring into my historical and cultural roots. And, as Freud might say, my self-analysis has become interminable.

For years, I have been reading historical accounts and novels about Jewish life in America and Europe.  The ones that touch me most deeply, however, had a lot to do with questions I have about my grandfather who was a proud Viennese (Austrian) Jew.  He died before I was born and this left me with a huge experiential and knowledge gap.   And since my father got in a spat with his family in which one side of the family basically disowned the other (my side), I was only able to meet my grandmother once (when I was sixteen years old) before she died.  I had so many questions for her but she was too busy apologizing for the lost years to tell me anything about my missing grandfather.

What do I know?  I have gathered that my grandfather was raised in Kalusz, not Vienna.  His father was a Rabbi. But when he came of age, he traveled to Vienna, developed his German to high proficiency, went to University there, joined the military, and rose in the ranks.  He was a young corporal of a platoon of Jewish-Polish soldiers during WWI.  He came to America after the war, in the 1920s, met my grandmother (who was of German and Sephardic descent), married, started a big family (my father was the youngest of four children), and created one of the largest leather companies in the world in upstate New York.     What, I wondered, was life like for him when he grew up in Europe? How did he go from being a religious boy in Eastern Europe to a businessman in America? What happened? And, most importantly, how was I to imagine this?

My attraction to the literature and philosophical works of Austrian-Jewish and German-Jewish writers and thinkers can be understood from my need to know what life was like for my grandfather.  Many of these books were helpful and gave me a sense of the high level of thinking and culture an Austrian-Jew would have.  Their work also gave me a sense of their struggles with being Jewish in a society that was more interested in their contributions as Austrians or Germans than as Jews.  But it was only recently when I came across Joseph Roth’s Job: The Story of a Simple Man that I felt that I had finally come across a novel that spoke to my desire to see the process of a man and a family that leaves a life of religious piety in Eastern Europe for America depicted in a deeply symbolic and meaningful manner.

The main character of Roth’s novel is Mendel Singer.  He is a humble man.  He, like his father and grandfather, was a Torah (Bible) teacher for children:

Many years ago there lived in Zuchnow in Russia, a man named Mendel Singer.  He was pious, God fearing, and ordinary, an entire commonplace Jew.  He practiced the simple profession of a teacher.  In his house, which was merely a roomy kitchen, he instructed children in the knowledge of the Bible.  He taught with honorable zeal and without notable success.  Hundreds and thousands before him had lived and taught as he did.  (3)

Although the main character is situated in Russia, the writer of the tale was, like my grandfather, an Austrian Jew who had made the pilgrimage from Galacia to the city and beyond.  His depictions of Mendel and his family have a lot to say about what he left behind and what he wants to leave behind; but it also shows us what he wants to hold close.

While Roth finds something endearing in his utter simplicity, he also finds something very sickly about Singer.  To be sure, Roth, like Kafka (in “The Country Doctor”) and many other Austrian writers is fascinated with health and sickness.  Many small details are painted with sickness or health throughout the novel.  Things are tight and restricted.  They don’t grow.  And it weighs him and his family down:

His body was stuck into the customary half-long Jewish caftan of the country, the skirts of which flapped when Mendel Singer hurried through the street and stuck with a regular tact like the beat of wings against the shafts of his high leather boots.(4)

The setting around Mendel’s family diminishes as he ages.  There is an acute sense of finitude:

When the students grew older they would go to other, wiser teachers.  Living became dearer from year to year.  The crops were always poorer and poorer. The carrots diminished, the eggs were hollow, the potatoes froze, the soup was watery, the carp thin, the pike short, the ducks lean…and the chickens amounted to nothing.  (5)

His wife, Deborah, however, is much stronger than he.  She wants a better life.  She is a symbol of vitality under duress:

On Friday she scrubbed the floor until it was yellow as saffron.  Her broad shoulders bobbed up and down in an even rhythm; her strong hands rubbed the length and breadth of each single board…She crept through the bare blue-whitewashed room like a broad, mighty, and moveable mountain. (5)

All of Mendel’s children, save one, are healthy. One goes off to join the military, the other leaves for America, while his daughter fools around with Cossacks.  In other words, he has failed to produce yet another generation of Bible teachers.  His last child, his last hope, is Menuchim.  We see his birth at the beginning of the novel. But unlike all the other children, he is very sick.  Roth’s depicts Menuchim as a monstrosity:

In the thirteenth month of his life he began to make faces and to groan like an animal, to breathe hastily and to gasp in an extraordinary fashion.  His great skull hung heavy as a pumpkin on his thin neck.  His broad brow was criss-crossed with folds and wrinkles like a crumpled parchment.  His legs were crooked and lifeless, like two wooden bows.  His meager little arms twitched and fidgeted.  His mouth stammered ridiculous noises.  (8)

Mendel and his wife pray for the child to be healed, but nothing changes.  When given an opportunity to send him to a Russian doctor, the father refuses for fear of them taking his baby away and raising him outside of a Jewish home and into a Russian one.  Deborah wants him to go and be cured.  Mendel refuses (10).   She then goes in search of a miracle for her son:

Deborah undertook pilgrimages to the cemetery; she called upon the bones of her ancestors to plead her cause to the Almighty.  Thus would Menuchim become well and no epilectic.  (10)

Meanwhile, “the older children grew and grew; their healthiness sounded an evil warning in the ears of the mother as though it were inimical to Menuchim.  It was as though the healthy children drew strength from the sickly one, and Deborah hated their noisiness, their  red cheeks, their straight limbs.  She pilgrimaged to the cemetery in rain and shine….She called upon the dead whose quiet comforting answer she thought she heard”(11).

Deborah goes on to a Rabbi who tells her than she must stay with Menuchin and that her love commitment to the child will eventually yield a miracle.   Throughout the novel, things get no better.  It reaches a breaking point when their son, Sam, leaves for America and becomes successful.  They must choose to go or stay behind with the child.

They decide to go.  They leave Menuchim behind with friends.  And in America things transform.  America is associated with life, health, and abundance.  Mendel is overwhelmed when he arrives.  It is a physical, sensory overload:

All the smells united in a hot vapour, together with the noise which filled his ears and threatened to split his skull.  Soon he no longer knew whether he was hearing, seeing, smelling.  He went on smiling and nodding.  America pressed down on him; America broke him; America shattered him. After a few minutes he become unconscious.  (128)

When he comes to and sees himself in a mirror, surrounded by his family, he feels embarrassed. But his son and his friend Mac – their physical presence – revives him.  It has the effect of good luck:

With difficulty he opened his lips and begged his son’s pardon.  Mac grasped his hand and shook it, as though he congratulated Mendel on a successful trick or on a bet he had won.  The iron clamp of the smile again settled around Mendel’s lips, and the unknown power again moved his head so that it seemed Mendel nodded.  (128)

What is most astonishing is the physical transformation of Mendel by virtue of being in America.   He and his wife become healthier and seem to have more luck.  The possibility of success looms large around them.  But as the health grows, so does the memory of Menuchin and his sickness.   Deborah, especially, remembers that Menuchin could only utter the word “mama” and this memory truly pains her.

Roth sets up this dialectic between America and the old country by virtue of the health motif.  They want to bring Menuchim to America and feel he can become healthy there.   When they hear, in a letter, than Menuchim said a few more words (other than “mama”), their hopes are stirred and their desire to return and bring him back is stoked.  Could a miracle have occurred?

Mendel returns to his prayerbook and now his worship becomes full of life and vigor:

From the trunk, he fetched his old prayerbook, so familiar to his hand.  He opened it immediately to the Pslams, and sang one after another.  He had experienced grace and joy.  God’s broad, wide, kindly hand arched protectingly over him, too…His heart rejoiced, and his body had to dance.  (148)

But in the chapter immediately following this, his health takes a turn for the worse.  He becomes sickly again.  He no longer “cared” about life his “beard was white; his eyes weak.  His back bent; his hands trembled”(149).   He becomes small, unrecognizable.  While he sees and acknowledges America as a land of miracles (150) he can’t stop thinking about Menuchim and the world he left behind.  His nostalgia is unhealthy.   And things get worse for him in America.

He and his wife are surrounded by others who – because of their ties to the old country – become sick while living in America.  When Menuchin comes back to visit, near the end of the novel, Mendel, like Job is to spent and warn down to enjoy the return and the fact that, miraculously, Menuchim can not only speak but has lived a good life.   But there are other problems for Mendel.  Where is Jonas? Is he alive?   And is it too late?  Isn’t Mendel on the cusp of death?  And what is he to do now that his wife has passed away?  At this moment, Roth has Mendel sink into the must profane moment of exposure and this, suggests Roth, is enlivening:

He himself, Mendel Singer, would have a good death, after many years, surrounded by grandchildren, “old and full of days,” as was written of Job.  He felt a curious and forbidden desire to lay aside his old cap of silk rep, and feel the sun upon his skull.  And for the first time in his life, Mendel Singer voluntarily uncovered his head, as he had only done in public offices, and in his bath.  The few kinky hairs upon his bald head were moved by a gentle spring wind as though they had been rare and tender plants. (236)

Then Mendel asks to see a photograph on the wall with a healthy woman walking through the spring and in the midst of a sweet wind and with children.   When he looks out the window he takes the picture up again and realizes that it is the picture of his daughter-in-law (Menuchim’s wife) and his grandchildren.   At this point he remembers how, when he was young, his wife Deborah looked, her warmth, her body.  It is the photograph which helps him to open his eyes not only to his son and his life but also to his wife who has passed away.  These are his last moments before he dies and Roth tells us this is the “greatness of a miracle.”

Mendel’s misfortune had partially blinded him.  It had affected his body.  But it is a photograph (a secular miracle) that brings him his final revelation and gives him life, not his prayer book.  It gives him back the world around him moments before he dies.

Reading this novel, I wonder if vitalism is the right frame for Jewishness.  Life in America is certainly vital for the Jew. But I am on the other side of the hyphen.  While Mendel knew a lot about what it means to be Jewish, he knew little about what it means to be American. When he found out he got his life back, albeit for a moment in time in which life and death became one.  I, on the other hand, lived a full American life and I have, for several years, decided to cross the threshold into the realm of Jewishness.  The question, for me, is where I can find a Jewish life that is vital and embodied.   Perhaps the hyphen between Jewishness and Americanness is that vitality.  It’s the threshold that I must pass.   Like Kafka’s “man from the country” in his story “Before the Law” and like Job, I am a simple man with a desire to know and experience the truth.  And like them I must pass through if I am to – as Franz Rosenzweig says – step into life (not death).