Saving Money, Finding Smallness: On “Downsizing” (2017)


Marshall McLuhan was the first person to announce how through TV – and its displacement of the book (and the solitude and individualism it proffered for centuries) – we are becoming a part of a “global village.” He had no idea of what was to come. Today, with the internet, social media (such as Facebook and Twitter), and media like YouTube, the world has become much much smaller. Things that were once far away are now in our daily feeds. For instance, some of the most watched videos that circulate on Facebook these days come from NAS – an Arab-Israeli who is traveling around the world with a camera crew and a close friend to show us things most of us have never seen. Things that can prompt us to think differently about the world.

NAS is a humble/small person who has a vision that is growing in each new adventure he takes. He takes the Global Village concept and turns it into something full of discovery and wonder. NAS puts a positive spin on it. And in many of his videos, he shows how – in different places around the world – little things (that we may usually overlook) matter. To be sure, all little people – in his little videos – are stars. While smallness made many modernist artists feel alienated, today, smallness seems to be taking a different turn.

Whether we like it or not, we are all becoming smaller as the vastness of the world and its inhabitants becomes more and more present. What we need to ask – something that has been asked by different religious and secular spiritual traditions (from Judaism to Zen Buddhism) – is what is the meaning of smallness.

How can one – through becoming small or experiencing smallness (the infintesimal) – bear witness to the infinite? Alternatively, what can be learned about morality and living-together, globally (or locally) through the figure of smallness (whether in literature, film, or music)? Smallness has a message for all of us, in general, and for each individual, in particular. (Hence, my love for the schlemiel character and its relationship to smallness.)

What is most brilliant about Downsizing (2017) – a film written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor – is how it brings us through an American understanding of downsizing (to save money and live better) to an existential and geo-political understanding of smallness.

The films opening premise is clearly American. The main character Paul (played by Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) are not fully living the American dream. Paul is a humble American from a small state (Nebraska). He doesn’t need much. But his Audrey wants a bigger house. The problem is that they simply can’t afford it. When they learn about how a Norwegian scientist has discovered how to shrink people – so as to help the planet save its resources – they read it not in terms of its moral goal but in terms of how much money “downsizing” (as the process is called in the film) will save them. Through downsizing, they can live in a big home and live like wealthy people (but instead of a big house, their house will be the size of a doll house, their car, the size of a Matchbox Car, etc).

The twist happens when – after Paul goes through the process – Audrey chickens out. He remains small and must now live a life without her. He is forced to find a new way of life. She divorces him and he embarks on a path of self-discovery (which is, in this film, the path toward discovering the meaning of smallness).

What happens -as a result of the divorce – is that he can no longer afford his (small) luxury home. He downsizes, moves into a small apartment, and takes on a telemarketing job that takes up most of his time. The life he lives in “Leisureland” is nearly the same as the life he lived in Omaha, Nebraska.

Paul is back to square one.

In the midst of his new downsizing and becoming small (without his wife around), he meets a neighbor who has friends from all around the globe who hang out at his place to party and have a good time. Paul feels he is on the cusp of a new world, but he feels small. He doesn’t know how to speak or act in relation to these people from other countries. After the party, in its aftermath, he runs into a Vietnamese woman, named Ngoc – a dissident – who “downsized” in order to escape her tyrannical government. She had to have her leg amputated because she lacked proper medical help after being wounded. (Paul had heard of her in the news – before meeting her.)

Ngoc introduces Paul to another community that lives outside of Leisureland – to be sure – outside its walls. In the global economic scene, they are the third world, they are the smallest. They are the workers in Leisureland. Through them, he learns a different meaning of smallness that is shared (by way of poverty, lack of resources, etc).

The long and short of it is that the life Paul discovers is a “truly” small life. It is a life of humility that is shared with Ngoc who dedicates her life to helping the needy. She thinks little of herself and Paul learns that he, too, has the potential to be small (in terms of being selfless, humble, and loving). The movie suggests that an average American, like Paul, can only learn this if he goes outside the boundaries of his large American life or beyond Leisureland.

This movie suggests that smallness means seeing oneself in terms of a global, post-national community that needs one’s help. Each and every individual – as the movie suggests – can be cared for if and only if one downsizes one’s ego or one’s American-ness. The implications are – obviously – far reaching. It suggests that this film is a critique of American greatness and a moral call for becoming small.

This film is not a tragedy; it is a comedy. Smallness is not demeaning unless, that is, one lives outside the walls of Leisureville and its first world economy. Smallness is – as the film’s writers and directors suggest – an imperative and an antidote to the other kind of smallness. As we the world gets larger and we get smaller, smallness will become (more and more) a theme in our lives. This movie suggests that we make thought about smallness central to not only understanding the world but ourselves. In this scenario, saving money (downsizing) can lead to finding smallness (and saving ourselves).

Shocking Larry David: A Jew from the Bronx Can’t be Complex


In the wake of rapid changes in technology, media, industry, communications, and transportation, many modernist thinkers and artists – from Freud to the Futurists – were obsessed with the meaning of shock. They were afraid of the consequences. What – they wondered – will be lost that needs to be saved?

This is still with us.

Reflection on shock lingers on in the thought of Susan Sontag – for instance – who argues (in her famous book on photography) that we are so numbed by shock that when real trauma and disaster befalls us, we lack the awareness to properly feel or respond to it. What is most interesting – today – is how artists (especially comedians) use shock to reach their audiences. But in doing so, what can we say about the meaning of shock in art and performance? What does (or can) shock do? What will it save?

In one of his essays on Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin suggests that – in our time – we are shocked into forgetting who we are or what makes us human. Shock sets the wheels of forgetfulness in order – as Freud would say – because the psyche needs to protect itself from shock. This is done – according to Freud – so as to maintain homeostasis. What we have lost – in the process – or what has been destroyed is what Walter Benjamin calls “experience.” For Benjamin, experience has a lot to do with memory and self-consciousness. Benjamin – in one essay on Baudelair (“Motifs”) argues that the average human being in the modern era – because of the shocks of modernity – can no longer “form an image of himself.” If one can do that, however, it may only happen by chance. And that chance is – by and large for Benjamin – provided by way of art and the gift of reflection and experience it may or may not offer.

According to Proust, it is a matter of chance whether an individual forms an image of himself, whether he can take hold of his experience. It is by no means inevitable to be dependent on chance in this matter. Man’s inner concerns do not have their issueless private character by nature. They do so only when he is increasingly unable to assimilate the data of the world around him by way of experiences. Newspapers constitute one of the many evidences of such an inability. (158)

According to Benjamin, art, poetry, and literature (and reflection on it – via thought, criticism etc) attempts to redeem all those little shocks in such a way that one may regain the capacity to “take hold of experience.” Otherwise, the possibility of experience passes us by. Charles Baudelaire figures this in terms of a sword fighter (as the allegorical figure of the modern artist/hero) who, if he loses, will die. He can only live when, according to Benjamin, he or she recovers lost time and history for the sake of saving experience from shock:

Where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past. (159)

Certain “rituals” – argues Benjamin – trigger “recollection at certain times and remained handles of memory for a lifetime”(159). In today’s world, where we lack rituals while possessing an over-abundance of shock, one can have a “poetic experience” if and only if one “accepts shocks”:

The acceptance of shocks is facilitated by training in coping with stimuli and, if need be, dreams as well as recollection may be enlisted….that the shock is thus cushioned, parried by consciousness, would lend the incident that occasions it the character of having been lived in the strict sense. If it were incorporated directly into the registry of conscious memory it would sterilize this incident for poetic experience. (162)

It is very important to redeem these moments. By not doing so, Benjamin suggests that we become endless victims to shock who -as a result – have no capacity to have – at the very least – what he calls a “poetic experience” (or what Agamben calls the “experience of language”). Language or poetry – in other words – can give us some kind of transcendence and consciousness.

We have – already and to begin with – a vulnerability to shock. But it is only art that can make this vulnerability into an experience and give it a kind of margin against the power of shock. Art can – in waging this battle – make us tough and weak (at the same time).

As children, we have time to play. We are vulnerable to shock but remain exposed to and interested in the world. As adults, we numb ourselves to it. Proust suggests in Swann’s Way, that we need to redeem time through reflection if we are to be free or human (and to be human is, for Benjamin, to have the capability of possessing an experience). This presupposes the necessity of poetic reflection for agency and life. Without that, we are victims to modern technology and the shock it brings with every radical change in our daily retinue. Art could – if properly read or accepted – give us a transcendence over shock and endless victimization. It can give us back time. It can also redeem lost time. The irony is that by “accepting shock” – via poetic chance and reflection – we may be given the capacity to experience (once again, which was lost from youth).

Reading Baudelaire, one would think that reflections on the dark, tragic, cynical and the shocking demonstrate what Benjamin means by the redemption of shock in terms of consciousness or poetic experience. But what many people miss with Baudelaire is that many of his works take an interest in comedy. Many of his prose and poetry pieces put forth a kind of dark comedy that sees laughter in terms of falleness. For Baudelaire, when we laugh, there is a moment of shock that he associates with the satanic because it robs one of childish naivite. This satanic kind of laughter – at seeing someone fall or lose innocence – for Baudelaire, seems to have a redemptive quality. But this suggests a disavowal of the past (of childhood naiveté), not its redemption. Baudelaire’s use of shock in his writing creates a dark poetic experience because it is associated with destruction and violence.

Baudelaire’s work presumes that only dark comedy can prompt us to reflect or think. Is that true?

Benjamin – as is evident in some of his notes and essays (including the Baudelaire essays) – was interested in redeeming what has been lost….or broken through not only the medium of poetic and literary reflection, but also light comedy (and not simply dark comedy). (As I have noted elsewhere, Benjamin had great interest in the meaning of comedy and its relationship to reflection.) Does comedy – in retrieving experience and, as Benjamin would say, “accepting shock” – reveal something universal or particular to this or that part of humanity? Since Benjamin sees the redemption of experience in terms of recovering life, does accepting shock, by way of comedy, situate experience as something powerful or (since it is acceptance of shock) something vulnerable? Both?

Watching a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, these questions came to mind. His comedy – unlike Baudelaire’s – may be “dark” but not in the same way. It is dark and light. It is a different kind of parrying shock – somewhere between Chaplin and Baudelaire.

Let’s revise Benjamin and not call what is redeemed “poetic experience” so much as “comic experience” – it is the capacity to see oneself through comedy. For me, however, this capacity is particular to a specific kind of Jewishness that I know very well (since both of my parents and three generations of my family are New York Jews). While there is a general sense that art, literature, etc can redeem shock; comedy shows like Curb show us how particular that redemption from shock is. (I want to note that by the word redemption Benjamin implies a sense of memory and reflection.) “We” don’t – as Benjamin suggests – have the same self-image. America is a large country. Memory and experience differ from culture to culture or group to group. Larry David’s schlemiel – in particular – appeals to a sense of Jewish American experience and memory; it is both tough and weak (in a general sense) in its encounter with shock, which, as David shows us, is necessarily shocking.

Episode six of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 9) prompted this question when Susie Essman (playing Susie Greene) volleys with Larry about why she wants Jeff Garlin (Jeff Greene) to go with her to the the airport.

Does she want to take Jeff to airport because she – according to Larry David – wants to cause her husband pain? In response, Susie says that she is complex and that Larry is incapable of understanding her mind because it is complex. Larry – in other words- is misreading her motivations. To this Larry asks, “Who are you?” (and then laughs openly as if to say she is easy to read: she is a simple, single minded sadistic wife.

“You are a Jew from the Bronx” is a shocking revelation because Susie doesn’t want to be seen as single minded and sadistic. But she is, when it comes to Larry, however, not Jeff. She reminds us that Larry is a schlemiel – in the most negative sense. Larry can’t see when he is wrong, has said the wrong thing, or has done the right thing. He’s blind. As Walter Benjamin well-knew, shock induces a kind of blindness which is, at the same time, when read ironically or comically, a capacity to see oneself.

The schlemiel is always creating shocking revelations about not what we are but who we are.

The revelation is always social.

As always, Larry David acts as if he knows who he is, but he forgets what to do. There is a disconnect between him and the world. In this selfsame episode he doesn’t properly honor a military veteran. One might think that this blindness is an affront to the veteran. However, at the same time it elevates him because the schlemiel character takes the fall.

But there is a greater social lesson to learn.

Larry David’s schlemiel doesn’t know how to say thank anyone for service – whether this service comes from a waiter or a soldier. He doesn’t know how to thank the other. Is this – in contrast to a Jew from the Bronx – the way a Jew from Manhattan acts? In the context of these scenes, and because Larry is a Jew from New York, this particular question arises in this episode.

However, the greatest shock of all – according to this episode – is not simply the difference between a New York Jew and a gentile who serves in the American military – the intra-ethnic difference between him and Susie matters most because it creates a comic experience that evokes – in Benjamin’s sense – Jewish memory and history. The shock – between them – means something.

In the end, as it is with Baudelaire’s modern artist – it is a question of who wins. Who is tougher? Who is more shocking? I would argue that Larry is the winner and the loser of this comical battle of toughness. Is this – to return to the original insight, above – a reflection (as Benjamin said via Proust, a “self image”) of Jewish American-ness in 2018?

Peter Breines in his book, Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry argues that there have two predominant myths or stereotypes or – alternatively – self-images that have been at the core of Jewish American life: gentleness and toughness. Breins asks several important questions. When American Jews look at themselves, do they see themselves as really tough or really weak? Weren’t Jews always victims and averse to warfare and toughness? And wasn’t this meekness and pacifism what made Jews – post-exile – Jewish? This final question is shared by Breines and Daniel Boyarin (in his work Unheroic Conduct and on his essays on Diaspora).

While we find the gentle schlemiel in America in the post-WWII era with I.B. Singer, etc. Breines claims that his presence radically changed in 1967 when Israel beat back the attack of several Arab nations. At this point, he argues, the tough Jew – as the self-image of American Jewry – displaced the self-image of the schlemiel. It was the beginning – as he says – of the “post-schlemiel era.” There was – as Benjamin might say – a forgetfulness of the past and, without that, there can be no recovery of “experience.”

But to say that the displacement was total – as Breins does – is incorrect. What we find in this Curb episode – in 2018, over fifty years after 1967 – is an American Jewish comic reflection that blends both the tough and the gentle Jew self-image. The schlemiel, the schlimazel, and the nudnik (always seen together in Jewish American comedy) come together in these spats between Larry David and Sussie Essman. They produce a memory – in Proust’s sense – of who we were and who we are (a double image, playing on Benjamin). The capacity of Jewish experience – so to speak – can emerge out of comedy in terms of this memory – evoked here, in the present, in this shocking comedy routine.

The real irony of this mixed self-image is that Jews from the Bronx – like Susie – are known to be “tough” while Manhattan Jews – as Woody Allen was want to show – are more “gentle” and self-deprectating. Larry David fuses them all together in these scenes where toughness meets gentleness.

The spat between them, while shocking, is, to be sure, charming.

Moreover, as Richard Lewis illustrates in the end of first scene above, their spats are particular to Jews. They illustrate this family quarrel as the self-image of American Jewry. And they illustrate it though an endless series of shocks that are – so to speak – accepted by each comedian and by us (the viewers) who may or may not see ourselves in terms of this conflict. (As Benjamin notes with Proust, reflection or artistic evocation of memory is not indefinite; it is a matter of chance not necessity.)

In contrast to Benjamin’s reflections on art as redemptive of shock, we can say – as Benjamin says of Charlie Chaplin’s gestures, in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” – that comical gestures (seen via Chaplin’s movements on film) are redemptive. They redeem not only memory and history but the body and a modality that is gentle while – at the same time – being tough.

When we laugh at these scenes in Larry David, the laughter suggests the possibility that American Jews can redeem gentleness, strangely enough, through a comedy that is tough and endlessly shocking. Given the history that Breins suggests in his book Tough Jews, redeemed time would be the redeemed time of the “post-schlemiel era” that, according to him, has been sublated into the “tough Jew era.” Perhaps Larry David is redeeming – in these moments – the post-schlemiel era for American Jews. If the greatest shock, for Benjamin (and even Breins), is the loss of this time, this would make perfect sense.

Does Curb reclaim Jewish American experience for us in a time when experience – as a result of assimilation – seems to have been destroyed or displaced by (tough) American experience? Only by distinguishing the Jew in the Bronx (a woman) from a Jew from Manhattan, can we see that both – today – are really part of one Jewish self-image or experience that is both gentle and tough, male and female, complex and really simple, Jewish and American. This is another way of saying that what may first seem shocking – in comedy – is actually redemptive. In comedy, the viewer can see him or herself and in this episode, in particular, Jewish American’s can see themselves and regain the capacity to experience Jewishness which, in the day to day world, may be lost.

In Memoriam: Aharon Appelfeld’s Schlemiel/Schlimazl Characters and the Power of Memory


It was with great sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of Aharon Appelfeld. He is one of my favorite Israeli novelists and some of his novels have, literally, changed the way I think about the novel and its relationship to history.  It also changed the way I looked at the schlemiel character.   Strangely enough, however, I couldn’t find words to articulate what he had done with the character vis-a-vis the Holocaust.   What Appelfeld does, better than the majority of Jewish American writers, is to illustrate the power of the retrospective gaze.   It is easier to understand Nathan Englander’s short story, “The Tummlers,” and the story’s main goal, which was to illustrate that I.B. Singer’s Chelm characters don’t fit into the world of the Holocaust but are at odds with it.   It’s message is clear (which is not to say it is correct).  The parody is obvious.   But when it comes to Appelfeld’s characters, those who are schlemiels are harder to place.    Appelfeld’s schlemiel characters have a depth that is lacking in most of I.B. Singer’s characters or Englander’s, for that matter.

In today’s New York Times obituary,  Joseph Berger hits the nail on the head when he describes Appelfeld’s characters in terms of a kind of childish naiveté that bears marked contrast to the harsh realities taught to him by the Holocaust:

As someone whose mother was killed at the beginning of World War II, and who escaped a labor camp to hide among hostile peasants, Mr. Appelfeld made the Holocaust his great subject. Yet he told his stories from a seemingly naïve eye, a baffled child’s eye, working by indirection and intimation. The horrors, as critics pointed out, happened offstage; his novels rarely identified the threat explicitly as storm troopers with whips or concentration camps with poison-gas showers.

This ironic contrast brings the tragic into a tension with the comic and, for this reason, shows us how the schlemiel character – strangely enough – can give us an insight into the depth of evil.    Berger notes that Appelfeld saw himself and his most “ingenious” characters – writers, for instance, like the main character of The Age of Wonders, who was a lover of Kafka – as “schlimazels.”

“The ingenuous person is always a shlimazl, a clownish victim of misfortune, never hearing the danger signals in time, getting mixed up, tangled up and finally falling in the trap,” Mr. Appelfeld told Philip Roth in a conversation published in The New York Times Book Review in 1988. “Those weaknesses charmed me. I fell in love with them. The myth that the Jews run the world with their machinations turned out to be somewhat exaggerated.”

The oddity of Appelfeld’s statement, however, is that he mistakes the “shlimazl” (as per the New York times transliteration) for the schlemiel.   The schlemiel is not – like the shlimazel – solely a victim of circumstance.  He makes decisions.  And these decisions – in Appelfeld’s case,  not to heed the warnings that the German and Austrian people didn’t care for Jews or that the Holocaust was coming – have enormous consequences.  They are – in part – to blame for “falling into the trap” (as Appelfeld says).

All schlemiels have blindspots – which is something that Englander and Singer well know – but the blindspots of Appelfeld’s characters are much more powerful because of 1) the depth of their assimilation (which is something many Jews, who live in what is called the “post-assimilation” era know well); and 2) their misunderstanding of what is to come.

Appelfeld was “charmed” – like Arendt was “charmed” (she uses the same word in relation to the schlemiel in her celebrated “Jew as Pariah” essay) – by the “weaknesses” of these schlemiel characters.  He “fell in love with them” – in much the same way millions have fallen in love with Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, Amy Shumer, Charlie Chaplin, Sholom Aleichem, etc etc’s characters.

As he suggests, the schlemiel character – with all his and her blindspots – effaces the myth that “the Jews run the world with their machinations.”  The schlemiel character, as Sander Gilman notes, can’t control his or her world.  She misses much of it.    While Englander suggests that the schlemiel died in the Shoah, Appelfeld suggests something else.   It is true that most of the schlemiel characters that Appelfeld represents do end up going to Auschwitz (whether in Badenheim 1939 or The Age of Wonder, etc), but what remains most touching for him is their humanity (their weaknesses and blindspots).

Memory is a key motif in Appelfeld’s work.  He wants us to remember the schlemiel.   Yet, on the other hand, he wants us to be shocked by his or her blindspots.  Does that mean – as some people would interpret his books – that this kind of naiveté must be negated at every turn by post-Holocaust Jewry?  Or does it mean that there is something worth salvaging about Jewishness – its weakness and charm is that which is figured in the schlemiel?  Both questions exist side by side.

While some – like Englander and many Israeli writers (see Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s Booking Passage – want to pronounce the death sentence of the schlemiel, the character lives on not only in film and TV today (as this blog details, in depth) but in the post-Holocaust memory.   Like Marcel Proust, Appelfeld was charmed by his memory and drawn to it.  And the memory he cherishes most can be found in his memory of real-life schlemiels who live on…in his fiction.  These things are past, but schlemiels are still worthy of our love and memory.  What – after all – would humanity be without its blindspots?  Ask Alexi or Google?  They have that answer.  In fact, they are that answer.

May Aharon Appelfeld’s memory be for a blessing and may we turn to his novels to understand the shock and meaning of the Holocaust as seen – in retrospect – through the schlemiel character.