Freedom, Comedy, and the Inversion of Fate: Passing Reflections on the Schlemiel


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 –  John Updike, for instance, has written on the schlemiel, every other sitcom has a schlemiel character, and Forest Gump has gone so far as to Americanize it) – invest this character which iconic status?   What can Americans learn about themselves through the schlemiel? 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, 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.   Despite 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.

2 thoughts on “Freedom, Comedy, and the Inversion of Fate: Passing Reflections on the Schlemiel

  1. A two-part comment on this wonderful reflection:
    1) René Girard says that tragedy and comedy are in reality, secretly one. He frames Romeo and Juliet as a comedy, and The Merchant of Venice as a tragedy (with Antonio, not Shylock, as the tragic hero, to be clear). So it seemed to me at first glance that the comedy you are referring to is not simply opposite to or complementary to the tragic, but is of a completely different order, a completely different understanding of time, human potential, value, etc. And of course it seemed to me that this could be framed as the difference between the Judaic and the Greek understanding.
    2) However, with a little bit of further thinking, it occurred to me that the Greco-Roman tragicomic spectrum is, in reality, secretly one with the Judaic comic-messianic. The tragic affirmation of fate, for those who knew, was always a passionate refusal to accept its verdict, an insistence something else could have happened, if only we had discovered the true nature of this hubris (which is NOT the “sin” of one individual, but a pattern of relations in the community).
    Kurt Cobain, a true modern tragedian of the Greco-Roman type, sang, “He’s the one, who likes all our pretty songs and he likes to sing along, but he don’t know what it means.” On one level (as per (1) above) this is ‘typically tragic’ – what the song REALLY means is already an anticipation of Cobain’s suicidal fate. But on a deeper level, Cobain’s will to COMMUNICATE his inner experience implicitly, secretly speaks to an abrogation of fate, that “everybody knows” is possible, in spite of what “the future” holds (referring to Leonard Cohen).

    • Thanks, Colin. Yes, I wonder if this is the case in #1. The scholar I am thinking of – for part of the piece – was interested with Leo Strauss’s distinction between Jerusalem and Athens. And he took a position against not only the Greeks but rationalist philosophy when he turns to the prophets. He also does this with Kabbalah (which he contrasts with Maimonides, et al). Please tell me more about one re: the oneness with the Judaism comic-messianic. I have found a trend in Buber, Scholem, and Benjamin that seems to be in tension with the Apocalyptic aspect of prophesy. They want the the other aspect since the Apocalyptic aspect is linked to fate.

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