Why would anyone be interested in the schlemiel? In a moment of auto-biographical reflection, I find myself wondering about my own interest. What do I have invested in this character? After all, one takes interest in an investment. The question, however, is not whether I invest it or not (as if it were a matter of projection), but why it is invested? Why do so many American Jewish writers, filmmakers, graphic novelists, and comedians – and the culture as a whole; John Updike has written on the schlemiel and every other sitcom has a schlemiel character but it is Forest Gump which choses the character has become Americanized) – invest this character which iconic status? What can Americans learn about themselves through this character? What speculum does this character shine on us?
Coming back to oneself in a comic manner is much different from coming back to oneself in a tragic manner. We can see this not just in much Jewish folklore, but also in the Talmud and in the prophets. Judaism does see itself through a comic speculum because comedy is an openness to the countervention of fate. It is the comic surprise of Gidon, of Ezekiel, and of Jonah, that discloses justice. They are simpletons. They cannot believe that they are called. Before God, they become comical and childlike. God is portrayed – as per James Kugel – as treating Ezekiel like a “little man.” Ezekiel becomes childlike as God feeds him a scroll of honey. But it is the countervention of fate – and not just the prophets calling – that is the greatest surprise of all. This is the crux of freedom.
Since the schlemiel is invested with this comical freedom, her most surprised comical moments are really a release from the grip of fate and the tragic. Although many surprises can be shocking and even traumatic, the schlemiel suggests the possibility of a pleasant, although comical surprise. As readers, viewers, or audience goes, we bear witness to this open secret. It is this, I think, that has a draw for me. It is this interest that I draw from the investment.
Because I know that, even though human kind is ridiculous, sometimes the worse things can – for some reason – be averted. There is a release from fate. With the schlemiel we know that, somehow, we can get by with our shirts on our backs. Since the schlemiel usually stumbles across this, it is not totally of her doing. But then again, it is – since the schlemiel is, as Hannah Arendt says of Charlie Chaplin, a “suspect” who is always on the run. Her charm is that, although she is unlucky, she is free and is ultimately more lucky than her pursuants. They are the ones who aren’t free. And only we know the secret. The secret of chance is the secret of justice. And throughout it all the little man squeezes through and retains her humility unlike the hero who has pride in her deeds.
After all, do Chaplin’s characters, Singer’s Gimpel, Shalom Aleichem’s Motl, or Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, have any sense of greatness? Humility is their lot because they all know that they just squeeze by. All of their characters may see much bad luck, but they are the only characters who see a little good luck as the ticket to their freedom. They know that one moment can change everything. And that is the key to justice and the inversion of fate.