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.

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