Chaplin’s Fork Dance: Modernity, Disenchantment, and Re-enchatment Through Smallness


The schlemiel character often stumbles over the smallest things.  While most of us would never pay attention to or miss such little things, they are the cause of his or her bad luck. The response to these little things is what gives the schlemiel its childlike, small character. These little stammer-ings and stumbl-ings are what make the many schlemiels played by Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Gretta Gerwig, or Amy Schumer so – as Arendt said of Chaplin’s schlemiel – “charming.” These little stammering and stumblings – because they are so absent minded – redeem the schlemiel character.

Recently I saw a Chaplin clip that, to my mind, gave a comic figuration that illustrates the aesthetic redemption smallness. In Goldrush (1925), and in so many of his films. He turned small stumblings and stammerings into a dance – a fork dance.

His comedy redeems more than something personal; however.

As Aubrey Glazer, notes, in his recent book on Leonard Cohen, Tangle of Matter and Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-secular Songbook Mysticism(s) Jewish and Beyond: if spirituality is to matter any more it must address the disenchantment of modernity. He cites the philosopher Charles Taylor – the foremost thinker of “post-secularism” to explain what is at stake with modern disenchantment:

In “Disenchantment- Reenchantment,” Taylor draws out the distinctions between existence in the enchanted world that precedes modernity and the disenchanted world that lies at the core of modernity and how it has indelibly shaped the modern mind….Yet amid all of the remarkable discoveries and insights that mark modernity, it is still accurate to claim that the demarcating line “between personal agency and impersonal force” has led to the complete elimination of the unimagiable depths of the cosmos? Perhaps not.

…What appears to be emerging from the depths of secularism is what Taylor sees as a rapproachement, albiet somewhat unconscious at this juncture, between the religious and the materialist. (208-209)

How is this possible? What prompts this rapprochement? Glazer sites a passage from that essay that suggests smallness is the way of rapprochement. I’ll site a part of the Taylor passage to illustrate:

The new cosmic imaginary adds a further dimension to (this buffered identity). Having coming to sense how vast the universe in time and space, how deep the micro-constitution goes into the infinitesimal, and feel ing thus both our insignificance and fragility, we also see what a remarkable thing it is that out of this immense purposeless machine, life and then feeling and thought emerge. (209)

Glazer reads this passage in terms of an awe that emerges through marking the “difference between personal agency and impersonal force” which is at the “precipice of the infintesmial”(201). Glazer reads this difference in relation to Leonard Cohen, prophesy, and poetry.

One of the main tasks of Glazer’s book is to suggest that the “bard” (the poet) has replaced the prophet. According to Glazer, we see this illustrated in Cohen’s poems: especially his song/poems: “Story of Issac.”

And the “Window.” Both songs/poems traverse Judaism and Chrisiantiy through a “syncretism” of Jewish and Christian elements. They bring the individual up and then down into matter and a collective fallen community of “post secular” fallen angels – in a “new Jerusalem” (up there) and an “runied one” (down here). Its a reversal of directions into a spiritual kind of dialectical materiality :

This reading of the difference that is prompted by the infintesimal focuses more on poetry as redemptive by pronouncing the awesome divide between individual freedom and spiritual transcendence and collective ruin in Jerusalem. The meaning of this collective Jerusalem needs to be understood as an imaginal figuration of spirituality in the post-secular age. This is a brilliant reading of Leonard Cohen and it is a reading that Glazer suggests – like Elliot Wolfson and James Diamond – a subject of Jewish philosophy.

What I’d like to do – building on Glazer and Charles Taylor’s reading of re-enchantment – is to suggest that smallness is a figure for Jewish philosophy. It prompts not just the “bard” but the comedian and the comic figuration of the schlemiel. The schlemiel turns us to the imaginal space of small things that are redemptive. Chaplin shows us that the schlemiel can turn the small things into a fork dance.

Chaplin brought us closer not so much to these little machines, than the schlemiel’s response to them. They animate smallness; they become smallness.

As we jettison into the future, things are getting even smaller. And so are we.

The more apps we have, the more questions we have answered by google (“hello google”), we are going to feel the need for comedy and Chaplin’s “dance of the forks.” Without it, what spirit is left? To be sure, smallness seems to have the key. The imaginal figure of the schlemiel may be the last thing that can bring us down to earth with its stammerings and stumblings. Who knows? The schlemiel knows. He’s dancing with forks to make you smile about smallness.

American Schlemiels: On Gomer Pyle and Forrest Gump


After learning that Jim Nabors died yesterday, a flood of impressions I held within me – from many years watching re-runs of The Andy Griffith Show – washed over me. Like many Americans, I used to come home and watch reruns of shows that had comic figures – ranging from Leave it to Beaver, Little Rascals and The Three Stooges to Gilligan’s Island and…The Andy Griffith Show (11Alive – the New York station that came to me in my small Upstate New York town – filled my after-school-afternoons with these re-runs). With all of these shows – save for Gilligan’s Island – I felt as if I were living in a different post-WWII America. I loved the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges more than any show. To be sure, I felt something very similar to my own life. After all, it had a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik in every show and that, to be sure, comes not only out of Jewish humor but also out of Jewish life. My family had this trio of bad luck and comic antics, as did the families of many of my Jewish friends. However, it was shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show that made me think more about the meaning of American humor. What, I wondered, is the difference between the schlemiel character and the American variety of the fool? Are there any similarities? Was the innocence or the comic antics of the American fool different?

Daniel Itzkovitz – in an essay entitled “They All Are Jews” – argued that with films like Forrest Gump (1994), the schlemiel character was Americanized. It became a part of the American mainstream and, at that point, the schlemiel became the American everyman. It was no longer unique to Woody Allen or Philip Roth, etc. However, last night, after watching several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, it struck me that, long before Forrest Gump, Jim Nabors was already Americanizing the schlemiel through his Gomer Pyle character.

I looked through several videos, but this one – entitled “Gomer the House Guest” – really struck me as a good case for the Americanization of the schlemiel character. What I love about this episode is the fact that it’s comical plot is based on the hypothetical question: What happens when a homeless schlemiel becomes a house guest? The answer to this question is obvious for anyone familiar with the character: the house will become a mess and everything will be thrown off kilter. And that is exactly what happens. But what makes it comical is the fact that the schlemiel character – he played by Gomer Pyle – can’t see how what he is doing is wrong. He has good intentions. But he is worldless and doesn’t understand how “normal” people live.

Gomer – in one scene after another – is too loud, stays up too late, and has no sense of what Andy Griffith feels. What is interesting about this version of the schlemiel is that, Nabors plays a man-child who is given a lesson. Andy lets him know that although he has good intentions, Gomer’s actions are disturbing the host. But this doesn’t stop it from happening. It goes on. Griffith and the viewer find his innocence and stupidity charming because Gomer – at his core- is happy with his lot – much like Rabbi Nachman of Breslau’s simpleton (who Ruth Wisse and David Roskies call a schlemiel character). Gomer – also like Rabbi Nachman’s schlemiel character – is always happy and seldom down.

But what differentiates the schlemiel from Gomer’s character may be this. Ruth Wisse argues that the eponymous simpleton in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” knows that people are taking advantage of him but he gives them a second chance to prove their humanity. They never do. But the point is not so much for Gimpel as for us. The fact that he knows he is being duped is not the central point; it is the fact that society doesn’t become any better. In the Andy Griffith Show, Gomer doesn’t seem to ever know that he is being duped or that he is a dupe. Even so, Andy Griffith, unlike any of I.B. Singer’s characters in his story, does the opposite. He opens his home and his life to Gomer. And in doing so, we see American society as friendly and kind to the innocent.

Singer’s goal was to show – in the wake of the Holocaust – the cruelty of humanity. And he did this through the schlemiel character, Gimpel. The Andy Griffith show conceives of a different kind of schlemiel character. The community embraces him. He is one of the family despite the fact that he can’t function in society. In fact, his innocence gives him a kind of freedom that he lacks because the Griffith character is – after all – the sheriff in town. He needs to maintain law and order. Griffith needs to be the adult. But he is the kind of adult who doesn’t scold the man-child. He gives him a chance and makes a space for absent-mindedness and what a film critic like A.O. Scott would call something uniquely American: “perpetual adolescence” and the “end of adulthood.”

Today’s schlemiel characters – ranging from Seth Rogen to Lil Dicky – are caught up in this perpetual adolescence, it seems. But at its root is a kind of faith and love for the Gomer Pyle/Forrest Gump kind of character which may have its origins in American folklore or Mark Twain. In this character, there is a rejection of English formality and adulthood. It’s not just that stupidity is a challenge; it is also an affirmation of something distinctly American. However, that affirmation – in this show at least – would be null if it weren’t for the relationship between Gomer Pyle and Andy Griffith. The relationship is oddly reminiscent of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote since one character is more in the world than the other. But what is most important is their relationship. In America the message is that the Americanized schlemiel has a seat at the family table; despite how much he upsets the house he stays. And in this there is something similar to the original schlemiel character who – despite his absent-mindedness – will always be a part of the (Jewish) family.

Rest in Peace – Jim Nabors. Your character, Gomer Pyle, prompted me to think about what comedy and national identity. It demonstrated that in America the schlemiel character – or a variant of it, rather – though homeless, as Gomer in this episode, has a home.