Ruth Wisse argues that the schlemiel character is situated between hope and skepticism. Since Wisse is a scholar of Yiddish folklore and literature and not a philosophy scholar, I have taken it upon myself to look into this distinction from a philosophical perspective. To this end, one of my current research interests is in how to philosophically address this tension between hope and skepticism in terms of a tension between the saint and the cynic (cynicism rather than skepticism, it seems, might be the better term for what Wisse is teasing out in her research into the schlemiel character). And because the schlemiel is a Jewish character, I have taken great interest in how Jewish philosophy or scholars interested in Jewishness approach this tension. The work I have done on the tension between a Nietzschean kind of comedy and that which one finds in a writer like Robert Walser – who, according to Walter Benjamin, had perhaps the greatest influence on Kafka’s fiction – speaks to this tension as well. The difference between them – drawing on that between the Saint and the Cynic – is between two different senses of humor (one self-deprecating and open to suffering, the other aggressive and satirical).
I recently published an essay in The Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy (Volume 24, No. 3) that addresses the tension between the Saint and the Cynic by way of three significant Continental Thinkers: Jean Amery, Peter Sloterdijk, and Edith Wyschogrod. It is entitled “The Saint and the Cynic: Resentment and Jewishness in Amery, Sloterdijk, and Wyschogrod.” You can access the abstract here and the essay here – since this peer reviewed journal is “open access.” (Also take a look at this incredible issue which is dedicated to the work of Jean Amery. It includes a group of exceptional essays by top scholars in the field of Jewish philosophy.)
This essay gives an in-depth exploration of this important topic and suggests different theoretical tensions and underpinnings that inform my philosophical reading of the schlemiel character. The schlemiel should not be seen as some arbitrary character. In this character, a lot is at stake. To make that explicit, I suggest that we make use of a rigorous philosophical and theological approach to humor, Jewishness, and the Jewish body. And, as per my research, I can say that this approach must address the tension between the Saint and Cynic.