Out of Place: On the Schlemiel and Paul Celan’s Poem: WHERE I Forgot Myself in You

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the schlemiel character is usually located on the edge of the world.  Her place is something people overlook.   S/he stands at the limit.  Whether it is Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Sendrl, Sholem Aleichem’s Motl or Menachem Mendel, I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Shalom Auslander’s Kugel, the schlemiel’s location is always a part of his or her character.   This character is often on the run or found in a place that he or she doesn’t recognize.   For instance, in Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, the main character goes to places – such as a summer camp or a college – that he doesn’t understand of fit into.  His attempt to adapt to these spaces is comical on some levels, tragic on others.   The same goes for Freidman’s character, Stern or Auslander’s Kugel.  Both move from the city to the country.    What is significant about these moves is that they are the condition for the possibility of schlemiel comedy.  They seem not only to be off in terms of their timing or delivery, but also in terms of their spatial location.    Displacement for the schlemiel may happen in space, but it is ultimately brought across in relation to the other.

I recently came across a Paul Celan poem that made me pause and think more deeply about this issue.  The poem is called “WHERE (WO ICH) I forgot myself in you.”  It is found in one of his last books of poetry, LIGHTDURESS (LICHTZWANG):

WHERE I forgot myself in you,

you became thought.

 

Something rushes through us both:

the first of the

world’s last

wings.

 

the hide

overgrows

my storm-riddled

mouth,

 

you

come not

to

you.

The only capitalized word in this poem is WHERE.  The place facilitates the memory of forgetfulness.   The schlemiel – to be sure – is a character who often trusts the other and experience so much that s/he too forgets him/herself in the other.   Celan gives us a deeper reflection on this forgetfulness and suggest that “you” (the other”) become “thought” in this moment and in this place.  The beginning of thought, in other words, is in that place….WHERE I forgot myself in you.   Thought – as Celan suggests –  is not connected to this or that Platonic form or a priori – it is connected to forgetting oneself in the other – in the place where she is.    In this forgetfulness, the other becomes thought – meaning that (as in much schlemiel comedy) there is a split between the other in reality and the other in thought.   One is blinded – so to speak – by the thought of the other.  And this thought happens in a place – WHERE one forgets oneself

The question now is if the “I” of the poem is also “thought.”  After all, they are both in the same place: where I forget myself…in you.  The description – in the next stanza – suggests that the “I” is still able to describe what is happening (even if the “I” has forgotten himself in you).   The I may be able to – so to speak – save the day by bringing you back (here) through a tender (poetic) observation:

Something rushes through us both:

the first of the

world’s last

wings.

The final flight of the world (“the first of the/ world’s last/ wings”), apparently, has gone through me and you.  We are an open space for the passing of the worlds flight.  This is a profound and touching thought.  But will it work?

The next stanza suggests that the voice of the poem – in a schlemiel-like fashion – cannot speak once the world has passed through them or that…these words have failed.  He doesn’t know what to say to you.  And this results in the failure of “you coming to you.”

the hide

overgrows

my storm-riddled

mouth,

 

you

come not

to

you.

What I am suggesting is that there is a wish – perhaps even a mystical one – that may be buried in every schlemiel which this poem touches on in a very deep manner.  The wish is to be WHERE one has forgotten oneself in the other and to recover the other.  But the schlemiel realizes that – as we see in many a Woody Allen movie or Bruce Jay Freidman novel that takes the schlemiel as their focus – although an experience (of the flight of the world) may be shared or described in a touching manner, it may be too late to speak and reach the other.  There is a tragic-comic missed opportunity.   The thought and the person don’t coincide in the place….WHERE I forgot myself in you.

Love isn’t consummated.

The place is marked.

And so is the memory.

It makes me think of the end of Annie Hall (1976) where the places are remembered but the words never spoken.   In the end of Allen’s film, you come not to you.  Here (as Celan might say).  Only the memory of place – and the flight of the world on its “last wings” – remains.   The schlemiel – in other words – leaves us out of place but only after having led us through space.

The schlemiel has a hard time fitting into space and that also means relationships – whether it is a new home, a shared home, or a possible home, the schlemiel can’t seem to say the right thing – as Celan suggests – or, better, the right thing at the right time in the right place.  S/he is a belated wanderer in an awkward space.  But – let us not be mistaken – s/he is always looking for you (whether that you is an intimate other or God).   S/he wants you to come to you – not as thought (alone) or as a recovered memory, but as a presence.      Here.  (Only here can “you come into you.”)  The schlemiel is on the edge of the world, or barely in it.  But s/he remembers where s/he forgot him/herself…in you.  S/he remembers when you became thought.  And because of that s/he didn’t know what to say to you because…you were no longer there.  The schlemiel’s thought sometimes doesn’t match reality and the schlemiel has lost you; just like Alvy Singer looses Annie.

 

 

 

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