Wit, Jewishness, Alchemy: Joshua Cohen & Jean-Luc Nancy on “the Witz” (Part I)

What is “the witz”? Freud and his friend (and subject) Theodor Reik wrote books on wit(z). For Freud, one can learn about how the unconscious and dreams work (Freud cited many Jewish jokes in his book on this subject) through humor; while Theodor Reik saw the witz as the key to understanding not just masochism, but also Jewishness. Namely, through its most celebrated comic character: the schlemiel.

When he wrote the book, The Witz, Joshua Cohen was no doubt tapping into the relationship between Jewish humor and Jewish identity. Through an endless stream of Jewish humor (witz), this novel suggests the reader can experience the lebenswelt of Jewishness through an immersion in a kind of humor that turns Judaism (itself) into a source of insight and comedic transformation.

In the epigram of Joshua Cohen’s novel, Witz, the author suggests a definition of Witz that can be read in terms of Yiddish humor and in terms of something that comes out of being Jewish, or comes after the last (and the first) Jewish name:


being, in Yiddish, a joke;

and, as the ending of certain names,

also meaning son of:

e.b. Abramowitz,

meaning son-of-Abram

The first lines of his novel suggest coming too late, being belated, something we find with many a schlemiel. But this time it seems as if it’s not only the Creation story that is followed by the Witz, it’s also the Creator:

IN THE BEGINNING THEY ARE LATE. Now it stands empty, a void. Darkness about to deepen the far fire outside. A synagogue, not yet destroyed. A survivor. Who isn’t? Now, it’s empty, a shell, a last train station after the last train left to the last border of the last country on the last night of the last world; a hull, a husk – a synagogue, a shul. (13)

The narrator, sounding like a New York Jew (sounding like a Woody Allen character), makes it clear that the subject of this joke is not Judaism, God, or the Creation; it’s himself/herself. The Witz follows the Jew, the narrator around, and the space of Jewish life, the synagogue, is empty. Like schlemiels in Chelm, Jews aren’t on time for the minyan. And now the house is empty. When the witz follows the name, it makes the named into the joke. Judaism, in a sense, or being Jewish, makes him into a joke. This self-deprecation goes on throughout Cohen’s long (817 pages) book.

The book ends with the polyvalent Schlemiel monologue that strings one joke after another – in the form of a conversation with another Jew (perhaps himself) – that shows the witz as a way of life and an insight into Jewish life (or what was Jewish life, after all “they are late”). Like much of the book, it makes grammar into a joke; it is without punctuation:

I don’t understand says the man if I’m broke I can’t eat strudel tell me then when I am supposed to eat strudel you call this living this you call living what do you know from living no sometimes we switch aha what’s it to you if it doesn’t whistle I just put that in there to confuse you nu so it doesn’t sing two out of three ain’t bad you’re going to lose your hundred because I ain’t gonna dream of paying you back until the Day of Judgment we have three days to learn to live underwater schmuck I”m drowning nu so its like a fountain welcome to America Shaun Ferguson he lived at home until he was thrirtythree he went into his father’s business and his mother thought he was God I know that one too hey Yossi print one less doctor gave him another six months he just puts a sign on the door that says Closed for Business the Holidays sh don’t make trouble it could’ve happened to me but the suspicion remains what’s a bracha don’t disturb the Rabbi on a night like this better one of them should die than one of us Bernie great news your sister died the dead girl is one of us you’re Joseph Cohen I didn’t recognize you funny you don’ look who thinks he’s a nothing also a Cohen it’s like this: my father was Cohen and his father was Cohen and his father before that was a Cohen its steady work. (817)

It ends with a joke on the real author. It ends with self-deprecation and acceptance of the Jewish past, the narrator’s Jewish past, through humor. Like Abramowitz, this is a Cohen-witz. Cohen suggests that witz is the glue that keeps Jewishness together.

Jean-Luc Nancy‘s essay, “Menstrum Universale” suggests that the Witz – although given some treatment by the German Romantics and Freud (amongst others) – was a neglected area of study vis-a-vis its real centrality:

Witz is barely, or only tangentially, a part of literature: it is neither a genre nor style; nor even a figure of rhetoric. It doesn’t below to philosophy, being neither concept, judgment, nor argument. It could nonetheless play all these roles but in a derisive manner. (248, The Birth of Presence)

Be that at is may, Nancy tells us that “the founders of German Romanticism – the Schlegels, Novalis, Bernhardi, along with Jean Paul and later Solger – made Witz a dominant motif, indeed made it the principle of a theory that claimed to be aesthetic, literary, metaphysical, even social and political, all at the same time. Finally, Freud’s first work devoted to aesthetics was on Witz and established what would remain to the very end of his work his definition of aesthetic pleasure”(249).

The Witz is – like Derrida’s notion of differance – in the margins of language and theory: “It does not constitute, or barely constitutes, a system; it does not constitute, or it barely constitutes, a school; it somehow avoids becoming a work as it avoids becoming thought. Its constructions are as stunning as they are unstable”(249).

Nancy calls it an “element” which is “indispensable to the psychoanalytic apparatus as well as an equally indispensable element of literature that claims to be modern (always at least in part inseparable from a Joycean ‘tradition’ where in the European nouveau roman, in Faulkner, in Burroughs, or even in Borges, to limit the references arbitrarily). Such recognition verges on the religious”(250).

To explain the dynamic power of the Witz, Nancy cites Novalis at the opening of this essay – in the epigram: “Witz as a principle of affinities is at the same time the menstrum universale.” Based on this reading, Nancy suggests that Novalis is making a claim about the power of humor to dissolve and transform things (as in alchemy, transforming base metals into gold):

If Novalis…could call Witz the menstrum universale, meaning “universal solvent” in the vocabulary of alchemy, that i is the in the end…dissolution itself, in Witz and of Witz itself, with which we have to deal. (250)

There is something about the Witz that brings together multiple things and transforms them. Perhaps we can read Cohen’s long Witz novel in terms of a kind of Jewish comedic alchemy, as a series of elements (jokes) that transform Jewishness. Maybe the Witz is the life of Jewishness and the schlemiel narrator is the alchemist?

As Nancy argues, the witz (thought of as literature) is a challenge to philosophy. Perhaps this is another variety of the Jerusalem / Athens dialectic since, as Nancy suggests, the Witz is a challenge to Greek (Cartesian and German idealist) philosophy. If, as Nancy argues, the witz is a key “element” of modern literature and psychoanalysis, the challenge of the witz goes beyond the Jewish tradition to take part in a bigger battle in modernity which parodies philosophy and “essentialism.” This is what Diogenes, the father of cynicism, who was called the ‘mad socrates” does. It should be noted that Peter Sloterdjjk – in The Critique of Cynical Reason – likens the cynic to a Jewish joke teller.

….to be continued

The End of (a) Generation: A Brief Note on Jean-Luc Nancy’s Passing

Today, Jean-Luc Nancy passed from our midst.

To be sure, he had a lot to say about death, sickness, the body, faith, touch, presence, and nothingness. He also had a lot to say about language and being. He was a master of phenomenological descriptions. Jean-Luc Nancy brought in a kind of poetics into phenomenology. His readings of Maurice Blanchot, Martin Heidegger, and Geroges Battaile set him apart from our generation, which didn’t grow up reading these thinkers and breaking new ground with insight into the paths of Continental Thought.

Many of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, the founders of deconstruction, feminist theory, postmodernism, etc such as Jacques Derrida, JF Lyotard, Alain Badiou, Avital Ronell, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, and many more thinkers (who are involved in the expansion of Critical Theory and Continental Philosophy into academia) were influenced and conversant in his work. Many of his ideas started trends in academia that, to this day, are still resonating.

He was also a major force behind the European Graduate School and one of its original founders.

There is much work to be done by Schlemiel Theory on his readings of wit and comedy as well as on his readings of smallness and faith.

Here is a piece on that very topic from our archive.

Menachem Feuer, the author of Schlemiel Theory has learned with and been mentored by Christopher Fynsk (who currently teaches at EGS and is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Aberdeen). Fynsk was very close to Jean-Luc Nancy. In many ways, these teachings of Nancy came through Fynsk’s readings of Derrida, Heidegger, Celan and others. For that reason, the power of Nancy’s thought, in some “small” way, touches Schlemiel Theory.

The important thing is to think carefully, to read slowly, to listen to the ripples of language and to experience wonder. After all, as Aristotle and Plato noted, philosophy starts with the experience of wonder, but it doesn’t end with knowledge. Nancy wanted us to experience that wonder and translate it into words that others could see, hear, and touch.

In a way, with Nancy’s passing, it is the end of a generation of thought that came out of Heidegger, Blanchot, et al (via Derrida, Kristeva, Lyotard). But it is also the end of generation; of all the thoughts, discourse, and communities that were generated out of his living presence.

But, then again, as Walter Benjamin once said, the work has an “after life” and will keep on generating things after its death. Language lives on. Although he has passed and will no longer generate any new books or ideas, his discourse will. His words will live on in those who he (metaphorically) touched.

Rest in peace, Jean-Luc Nancy.

Not Mom, Not Dad: A Schlemiel’s Reflection on his Parents

In classic Yiddish literature, we don’t often learn much about the parents of the schlemiel character (whether in the Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third, “Bontshe Shvayg,” or I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”. Shalom Aliechem comes close when he tells us that his Motl character (Motl, the Cantor’s Son) was an orphan and that his father was a religious man. One of his schlemiel characters, Menachem Mendl, is a relative of Tevye. We don’t know much about his parents. In The Travels of Menachem Mendl, we learn more about his journey and his relationship with his wife, to whom he writes letters. The relationship of the schlemiel to his parents, however, is a modern, more post-Freudian development.

Jewish mothers seem to play a more prominent role in the portrayals of the schlemiel by Philip Roth – in Portnoy’s Complaint, where his mother plays a central role in his schlemiel genealogy – and in Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses. The schlemiel family also surfaces on TV in the 70s like Mary Tyler Moore and the Odd Couple.

Woody Allen has a genealogical moment in his films which gives a window into understanding his schlemiel character, as well:

Schlemiel parents also resurface in movies like Guilt Trip, with Seth Rogen (starring Barbara Streisand as the mother) and in Ben Stiller’s Meet the Parents (2000) and Meet the Fockers (2004).

In both of these films we get to contrast the “normal” family (led by Robert DeNiro) and the abnormal schlemiel family (led by Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand). These films, like the books and TV shows mentioned above, give us an opportunity to understand how a schlemiel can emerge out of unusual parents. It gives us a sense of the schlemiel’s psychology, in a Freudian sense.

To be sure, there are other examples that can be discussed and shows like Arrested Development, Community, Transparent, or Dave demonstrate how the psychology of the schlemiel family context is a central motif in streaming venues like Prime, Netflix, or Hulu.

But what we find is that most of them emerged after psychology became a central motif in American culture. Before that, however, the first major psychological exploration of the schlemiel in a family context can be found in a modernist European novel (and not in Yiddish literature): Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno.

Zeno, the narrator of Confessions, spends some time, on and off, talking about his parents in the first two chapters of the novel. Since the novel is framed by his own attempt at self-analysis, Zeno’s reflections on his mother and father should raise flags for the reader (who has to take on the position of the psychoanalyst).

As I noted in the last entry, the psychoanalytic reading of masochism by Theodor Reik gives us a means of understanding Zeno’s schlemiel-condition. His primal scene with his father, in which he steals cigars and smokes them, while his mother (apparently) knows he did it, while his father does not, shows his schlemielkeit is situated between his parents. In his mind, he shares a secret with his mother and hides it from his father. His secret informs his masochistic enjoyment of smoking and trying to quit. His constant attempt and failure to do so is part and parcel of his schlemiel-slash-masochist condition.

In the following chapter, entitled “The Death of My Father,” the reader is given an intimate portrayal of his relationship with his parents and more clues into the familial nature of his schlemiel identity. The gap between he and his father is wide. But it is only when his father is dying that he grows closer to him. He sees a part of his illness (note: his “illness” and his search for a cure to being a schlemiel is a premise of this novel) in this distance and inability to connect to his father. His father’s perceived “lack of confidence” in him informs his masochistic condition:

We had never been so much together, nor for so long, as when I was mourning for his death. If only I had been nicer to him and mourned for him less, I should not have been so ill. It was so difficult for us to be together, because intellectually we had so little in common. We both looked at each other with a rather pitying smile, which in him had a certain bitterness because of his anxiety about my future. Mine, on the contrary, was all indulgence; I regarded his little weaknesses as of no importance because I attributed them chiefly to age. It was he who first expressed doubts about my strength of will – too soon, I think. I cannot help suspecting…that he lacked confidence in me just because I was his child; which, in itself was quite enough…to diminish my confidence in him. (50)

While he sees his father as someone who sees nothing wrong with himself and sees no reason to change, his whole life is informed by “a strong impulse to become better; this is perhaps my greatest misfortune”(51). His anxiety is wrapped up with this impulse since he afflicts himself for not becoming better and not changing. His father has a different attitude about himself: “He was perfectly satisfied with himself as he was, and I doubt if he ever made any effort to improve himself. He smoked all day long and, after my mother’s death, all night too when he could not sleep”(51).

His father seems to make it worse by saying, outright, that Zeno makes him anxious: “We had so little in common that he confessed to me that I was one of the human beings who have him most cause for anxiety”(51). What is so fascinating about this difference is that it has to do with Zeno’s obsession with health and the body (much like Kafka or Nietzsche, he is in fear of bodily degeneration, which he sees in his father): “He, on the other hand, had succeeded in banishing from his memory all thoughts of that terrible machine. As far as he was concerned the heart did not beat, and he had no need to remind himself of valves and veins and metabolism to explain why he was alive”(51). His obsession with health and the body are a part of his schlemiel-condition only because of his resistance to what he sees in his father.

The other things that bother his father are his son’s “absent-mindedness,” a key feature of the day-dreaming schlemiel character, and Zeno’s tendency to “laugh about serious things”:

He reproached me for two other things – my absent-mindedness and my tendency to laugh at serious things. As regards absent-mindedness, the only difference between us was that he kept a notebook in which he put down everything that he wanted to remember, and looked at it several times during the day. This made him feel that he had conquered his weakness and he was no longer worried by it….As for my supposed contempt for serious things, I think his fault was to take too many things in the world seriously. (52)

Zeno recounts an incident with his father that illustrates this; namely, a conversation he had with his father about going back to a university major he dropped. His father said. “good-naturedly,” that “it is quite clear to me that you are mad”(52). While Zeno claims to know it was said in jest, thus comment really hurts him when, after he gets his certification from a doctor that he really isn’t mad he “carried it off in triumph to my father…I could not even win a smile. In an agonized voice and actually with tears in his eyes, he exclaimed, ‘Ah, then you really are mad!'”(52).

Zeno is upset, thinking that he proved himself to his father (while his father was speaking in jest). He recalls, with anger: “This was all the thanks I got for my exhausting but innocent little comedy. He never forgave me for it, and therefore he would never laugh at it. Go to a doctor as a joke! Have a certificate stamped on purpose, just as a joke? Sheer madness!”(52).

His father takes this with him to the grave, and Zeno holds his sense of shame close to his heart. It is a tragic-comic moment when the son takes the father seriously, is berated, and is seen as playing a prank. Like many a schlemiel, he is innocent. He had no intent of causing his father harm or making him mad, but he does unbeknownst of himself.

Perhaps, after all, being a schlemiel – whether in Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or in this or that Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen film etc – is…or has become a family affair.

Who is the Master? Who is the Slave? The Schlemiel as Masochist in Italo Svevo’s “Confessions of Zeno”

Theodor Reik was one of the founders of psychoanalysis in America and, in Europe, was one of Sigmund Freud’s closest confidants. He argued, in his book on Jewish Wit, that the schlemiel is a masochistic character. In Masochism and Modern Man, Reik goes beyond the Jewish context of this character and says, at the end of his introduction that “Man is a masochistic animal!” The schlemiel is a “kind” of masochistic character. Reik thinks of masochism as the inversion of sadism; it is ironic, in and of itself because its act of submissiveness is actually an act of rebellion.

The description of the masochistic character as weak, dependent, easily influenced, helpless, continues to amaze us. All these features serve the purpose of concealing the utmost determination and stubbornness. What the masochist has to say to the existent ruling forces sounds like slavish submissiveness. It is, however, a scornful “No” to the world of appearances that has become dominant. He submits – in order never to yield. He remains in opposition, especially where he is servilely devoted.

For Reik, the masochist experiences a kind of freedom that those who laugh at him or her don’t: “Under the mask of the constant “yes man,” he remains the spirit of eternal negation. By fully submitting he remains independent. Humiliated a thousand times, he is inflexible. Defeated again and again, he stands his rights.”

Theodor Reik (1888-1969)

Under the mask of the constant “yes man,” he remains the spirit of eternal negation. By fully submitting he remains independent. Humiliated a thousand times, he is inflexible. Defeated again and again, he stands his rights.

This is more or less a literary interpretation of the masochist and has great value insofar as it shows how masochism is, in itself, ironic. Be that as it may, Reik goes out of his way to argue that the masochistic character be read through a psychological lens. Like Freud, he sees it in terms of something that starts in childhood with respect to the father-child relationship. The child has a confused relationship with the father that oscillates between love and aggression. The child is not conscious of this aggressivity or of what he calls the “negative idea.” It comes out – like all energy comes out, without him knowing it – through some ironic activity. For Reik, that ironic activity would be found in masochistic self-punishing, self-sabatoging activity.

This is what we find in the schlemiel character. Ruth Wisse has addressed Reik’s reading of the schlemiel through the psychological lens and finds it wanting. Nonetheless, she would agree with his reading of the character in terms of its success in defeat, in terms of what she would call its “ironic victory.” The only way to get this is if you get the joke or if, in reading literature, the attentive reader sees through the weaknesses, powerlessness, and failures of the character to something more defiant and powerful. Irony is a mode of awareness but it requires a keen eye to notice the, so to speak, code.

Zeno, the schlemiel character in Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, is a submissive character. As I noted in the last blog post, he punishes himself for his need to smoke cigarettes. He recalls his primal schlemiel scene, with the trickery of his father, his dirty little secret, in which he steals one of his father’s cigars. When one day the father thinks he’s going mad, because the cigars he has left on the edges of chairs are disappearing, Zeno hears it all, but says nothing. He experiences a moment of joy thinking that his mother, with a smile, indicates her joy at causing pain to the father (knowing that her son is the one stealing the cigars). But this is all in the mind of Zeno, so to speak, since the mother never confides the meaning of her smile with him.

It gives Zeno hours and hours of pain, regret, and shame (and, as Reik would note, pleasure; since, for a masochist, pain is twinned with pleasure) to think that he is doing something at the expense of his father. But it also, as the reader can see, gives him some pleasure (vis-a-vis the smile from the mother, who he identifies with, as Reik says masochists always identify with the feminine).

Reik would see this irony as a kind of distancing from Zeno’s own addiction. While still practicing it, he knows how bad it is for him, since he gives himself a “resolution” to stop smoking. He dreams of the “last cigarette” as he falls prey to smoking another one after briefly abstaining. He fails the ideal and his pleasure is to be found in inability to stop.

Zeno recalls a conversation he had with a “great fat man,” who exerts great will power to realize his ideal of losing weight:

He was a great fat man, and I knew that he was very energetically undergoing treatment for getting thin. In very short time his success was such that people made a point of walking besides him on the street, in order to enjoy the contrast between their own robustness and his emaciation. I envied him his strength of will, and so long as his cure lasted I was going to see him. (37)

Zeno lacks the will power to stop smoking and when he sees his friend shows anger and jealousy and not having the will to stop his addiction. His “fat friend” – note he calls him this out of spite, now, since his friend is thin – advises Zeno to stop punishing himself and give up his resolution to stop smoking! This, in itself, is ironic since he is described as “emaciated,” that is weak. Be that as it may, Zeno knows he is powerful because he willed this transformation. The friend, strangely enough, sounds a lot like Theodor Reik in pointing out a kind of dialectic between two parts of Zeno: one that is a master and the other that is a slave. The solution to the problem seems like a solution to the problem of masochism:

My fat friend, now so much reduced, was silent for a while. He was a man of method and first he had to think it all out…he explained that I was really suffering from my resolutions much more than from cigarettes. I ought to try to and curve myself without making any resolutions. According to him my personality in the course of years had become divided in two, one of which gave orders while the other was only a slave which…disobeyed the master’s orders out of sheer love of liberty. So that what I ought to do was to give it absolute freedom and at the same time look my vice in the face as if it was something new and I were meeting it for the first time. I must not fight it, I must first forget it and treat it with complete indifference, turning my back on it as if it were not worthy to keep my company. Simple, wasn’t it? (38)

The idea, here, is to become conscious of it and indifferent to it, seeing it as not oneself. But, as Zeno notes, it wasn’t so simple. When he returns back to a kind of “infant state,” the desire recurs. He fell back into his habit; something like the repetition of the original defiance of his father, stealing cigars and smoking them. He is, to paraphrase Freud, caught in a repetition compulsion and remains a “slave,” as it were:

I managed to refrain from smoking for several hours. But when my mouth was cleansed from the taste of smoke i t had an innocent feeling like that of a new-born baby, and I felt a longing for a cigarette. Directly I smoked it and I felt remorse and again began making the very resolution I had tried to suppress. The way was longer, but the end was the same. (38)

Following this return to his addiction, Zeno recalls how, after this, Olivi, the person who looked after the estate for his father (and overlooked Zeno to make sure he was taken care of) makes a bet with him “in order to strengthen” Zeno’s “resolution”(38). The ironies, as we shall see, deal with a Master/Slave relationship. Although Zeno, resentfully, calls him a “wretch” and notes that he is their “servant,” Olivi is the master. The inversion gets at the heart of what Reik called masochism. Olivi is solid, while Zeno sees himself as weak and constantly in flux:

I think that Olivi must always have looked exactly the same as he does now. I always see him like this – rather bent, but solidly built; and to me he always looks just as old as he does today, when he is eighty. He always worked for me, and he still does; but I don’t really like him, for I always think he has prevented my doing the work he has done himself. (38)

He is resentful of “the wretch,” Olivi just like he is resentful of his “fat friend” because, unlike them, he has no resolve and cannot improve himself and change. They have realized their ideals, Zeno has fallen short of them and continues to do so. The failed “bet” he makes with Olivi illustrates the difference between them as a difference between Master and Slave, Father Surrogate and Son:

We made a bet: the first who smoked was to pay and then we should both be released from all obligation. In this way my agent, who was appointed to oversee my father’s fortune, was doing his best to diminish my mother’s, over which I had complete control!

That bet proved excessively damaging to me. I was no longer alternately master and slave, but only slave, and to Olivi, whom I hated. I immediately began to smoke. then I thought I could cheat him by going on smoking in secret. But in that case why have I made a bet at all?…But I continued to rebel, and smoked so much that I got into a state of acute mental agony. In order to shake off the burden, I went to Olivi and confessed.

The old man smiled as he pocketed his money, then immediately drew from his pocket a huge cigar which he lit and smoked with immense enjoyment. It never occurred to me for an instant that he might possibly be cheating too. Evidently I am made quite differently from other people.(38-39)

Based on what we have learned from Reik, we can read this passage in terms of Olivi being a surrogate of the father. Instead of Zeno taking things out on his father, he blames his failure on the father’s surrogate. He claims he is protecting his mother’s fortune from the surrogate (read father). But the hard thing for us to see, since he is a masochist, is that he actually enjoys failure. But is his failure, framed in these accounts, an ironic victory? Is his confession to Olivi a part of the game he has created and endlessly repeats or is it we, the reader, who experiences the transcendence of the schlemiel?

The schlemiel is “made quite differently from other people,” but as Reich suggests, he’s not so abnormal. He is actually a representative of, as he argues, “modern man.” That is the case if, we, like Zeno, enjoy failure and using failure as a weapon against the representatives of authority. The only problem, as I pointed out in the last blog (through Zeno’s words) is that this failure repeats, endlessly.

The “last cigarette” is always being deferred because each resolution or bet he makes with himself fails to end his condition:

In order to make it (his idea of the last cigarette) seem less foolish I tried to give a philosophical content to the malady of ‘the last cigarette’. You strike a noble attitude and say: ‘Never again!’ But what becomes of the attitude if you keep the word? You can only preserve it if you keep on renewing your resolution. And then Time, for me, is not that unimaginable thing that never stops. For me, but only for me, it comes up again. (34)

Comical Addictions: Schlemiels and Cigarettes in Italo Svevo’s “Confessions of Zeno”

Whether it’s Jean-Genet’s fiction, classic Hollywood cinema, or the Marlboro Man, cigarettes have often been associated with masculinity and autonomy. Smoking was portrayed as making one more handsome, graceful, or rebellious.

But when a schlemiel is smoking a cigarette, that image is turned upside down. The schlemiel doesn’t know how to smoke a cigarette or has a problem with cigarettes.

One of the most interesting and in-depth portrayals of the smoking schlemiel can be found in the first chapter of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno. The book is broken down into six chapters. Each of them deals with another aspect of the schlemiel’s life crisis:

  • The Last Cigarette
  • The Death of My Father
  • The Story of My Marriage
  • Wife and Mistress
  • A Business Partnership
  • Psychoanalysis

In the last blog post, we addressed the clinical situation around which the book is framed, namely the schlemiel’s apparent sickness, which is introduced by his psychoanalyst.

The novelty of this order is that, instead of starting with a primary trauma for the Male subject of psychoanalysis (namely the death of the father), Svevo starts with the schlemiel’s anxiety over cigarettes.

Zeno goes back to his first major experience of guilt and anxiety over cigarettes. He recounts his primal experience with them vis-a-vis a memory of his father and his coat, which, apparently, is the basis for his smoking habit:

Now I remember that my father surprised me one day while I was holding his waistcoat in my hand. With a brazinness which I should never have now and which horrifies me even so long (perhaps this feeling of disgust is going to be very important in my cure), I told him I had suddenly felt a great curiosity to count the buttons. My father laughed at my mathematical or sartoiral bent and never noticed that I had my fingers in his waistcoat pocket. To my credit be it said, his laughing at me like that for being so innocent when I knew I was guilty was quite enough to prevent me ever stealing again. At least, I did steal afterwards, but without realizing it. My father used to leave half-smoked Virginia cigars lying on the edge of a table or a chest of drawers. I though it was his way of getting rid of them and i really believe that our old servant Catina used to throw them away. I began smoking them in secret. The very fact of hiding them sent a kind of shudder through me, for Ik now how sick they would make me. Then I would smoke them till cold drops of perspiration stood on my forehead and I felt horribly bad inside. (30).

It’s interesting because he associates his father’s laughter at him with his duality: appearing innocent while being guilty of hiding his thievery (which he justifies as him picking up something meant for the garbage).

When the father speaks with the mother about missing cigars (as he pretends to be asleep, after stealing a cigar), Zeno recalls a scene where he hears it and says nothing:

My father began contemplating in a low voice:

“I really think I must be going mad. I am almost sure I left half a cigar lying on that chest half an hour ago, and now I can’t find it. I must be ill. I can’t remember anything.”

Only my mother’s fear of waking me prevented me from laughing. She answered in the same low tone of voice:

“But no one has been into this room since luncheon.”

I half opened my eyes and look at my mother. She had settled down again to her work, and she still had a smile on her face. She would surely not have smiled like that at my father’s fears if she believed he was really going mad. Her smile made such a deep impression on me that I immediately recognized it when I saw it one day long afterwards on my wife’s lips.

It’s as if the smile on his mother’s lips marked a secret that involved fooling the father (a Biblical theme, as well, with Rachel and Yitzchak, when Ya’akov poses as his brother). The laugh marks the guilty secret, the smile marks a joyful secret (a shared endeavor of tricking the father figure/authority).

Following this, his guilty pleasure takes on great proportions:

I smoked continually, hidden in all sorts of secret places. I particularly remember one half-hour spent in a dark cellar, because I was terribly unwell afterwards. I was with two other boys…we had a great many cigarettes and we wanted to see who could smoke most in the shortest time. I won….I had to shut my eyes or I should have fainted on the spot. By degrees I recovered and boasted of my victory. (31)

Now that he is in his 50s, he looks back at the many years of compulsive smoking and wonders what this addiction suggests. Maybe his cigarette addiction prompted him to be a schlemiel:

While I sit here analyzing myself a sudden doubt assails me: did I really love cigarettes so much because I was able to throw all the responsibility for my own incompetence on them? Who knows whether, if I had given up smoking, I should really have become the strong perfect man I imagined? Perhaps it was this very doubt that bound me to my vice, because life is much pleasanter if one is able to believe in one’s own latent greatness. I only put forward as a possible explanation of my youthful weakness, but without any great conviction. (33)

He becomes very philosophical about what he calls “the last cigarette”(TLC). But that philosophy, itself, is flawed since it, like Zeno’s paradox, is endlessly repeating. He will always have the opportunity to quit, but he never can. It’s the paradox, if you will, of the schlemiel who will always have an opportunity not to fail but will…fail again:

In order to make it (his idea of the last cigarette) seem less foolish I tried to give a philosophical content to the malady of ‘the last cigarette’. You strike a noble attitude and say: ‘Never again!’ But what becomes of the attitude if you keep the word? You can only preserve it if you keep on renewing your resolution. And then Time, for me, is not that unimaginable thing that never stops. For me, but only for me, it comes up again. (34)

He recalls tricking a doctor about his sickness and points out that he is and has always been obsessed with being sick (34-35). He tricks the doctor by hiding his sickness and, as a result, is treated for the wrong thing (33-34). But then he comes out with his secret to discover that the doctor’s diagnosis isn’t affected by cigarette smoking:

I went to the doctor because I had been told that he cured nervous diseases by electricity. I thought that might derive from electricity the strength to give up smoking…When I saw that he would never discover the nicotine in my blood himself, I though I would help him, and suggested that my ill-health was probably due to that. He shrugged his shoulders wearily:

“Peristaltic action – acid. It has noting to do with nicotine!”

He gave me seventy electric treatments, and I should be having them still if I had not decided I had had enough. I did not hasten to my appointments because I expected miraculous results, as because I hoped to persuade the doctor to order me to give up smoking. (35)

Unlike the autonomous subject, he needs the other to persuade him to stop. He can’t do so on his own. Jean-Paul Sartre would call this bad faith and inauthentic. The burden of knowing he has a bad habit and acting to change his habits is too much. This need-for-the-other to cure him makes his addiction into a key feature of his schlemielkeit.

Years later we see this in a show like Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. To be sure, every schlemiel has a bad habit that he or she can’t kick. Svevo is one of the first modern novelists to articulate this as a key to understanding the schlemiel, a character who touches us all because we also have a hard time kicking habits and play all kinds of games to keep from doing so. Perhaps our weakness for them is our greatest secret?

Sketches of Schlemiel-Consciousness: On Italo Svevo’s “Confessions of Zeno”

Most of Woody Allen’s schlemiels are anxious, intellectual, and highly self conscious. But not all schlemiel’s are intellectual or hyper-self-conscious. Take, for instance, schlemiels in Shalom Aleichem, IB Singer, or Bernard Malamud’s stories and novels, or schlemiels played by Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler.

While they may miss a beat or a social cue, their comedy is not primarily intellectual or hyper-self-conscious. It is more focused, as Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse note, on the schlemiel’s “worldlessness,” society’s mistreatment of the schlemiel and the lack of power, and the schlemiel’s innocent moral charm and religious sensiblity.

The precursor to Woody Allen’s intellectual schlemiel, or to what I will call an examination of schlemiel consciousness can be found not only in James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom character, in Ulysses, but also, and primarily, in Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno (1923) upon which, as the story goes, James Joyce took his model for Bloom.

What makes Zeno a prototype or model for schlemiel consciousness and why is this consciousness considered to be exemplary of a modern consciousness?

While there are countless studies on Bloom’s consciousness and its meaning for literary modernism, there are literally no studies on Bloom as a schlemiel character or, for that matter, Zeno as a schlemiel character.

What I’d like to do in this post is to start down the road of understanding what schlemiel consciousness is for Svevo. From there we can better understand what Joyce is doing or how his model differs from or is similar to what we see in Confessions of Zeno.

As Joyce and Svevo both knew, in the age of psychoanalysis – when Freud was in the air of Europe – the question of consciousness had three components for the subject: 1) the relationship of the subject with his or her mother and father; 2) the subjects relationship to significant others; 3) sickness and health.

It has not simply to do with the wandering mind, it is a mind that is situated in an uncertain body and world. It also has to do with what Freud called “interminable self-analysis.” The anxiety of the subject is caught up in this endless autobiographical exercise in consciousness.

On that note, the preface of Svevo’s novel is written by his doctor/psychoanalyst. His words suggest that he made a mistake in asking Zeno to write about himself and his experiences:

I am the doctor who is sometimes spoken of in rather unflattering terms in this novel. Anyone familiar with psychoanalysis will know what he should attribute to the patient’s hostility.

About psychoanalysis I shall here say nothing, for there is quite enough in this book. I must apologize for having persuaded my patient to write his autobiography. Students of psychoanalysis will turn up their noses at such an unorthodox proceeding. But he was old and I hoped that in the effort of recalling his past he would bring it to life again, and that the writing of his autobiography would be a good preparation for the treatment. And I still think my idea was a good one…if the patient had not thrown up his cure just at the most interesting point, thus cheating me of the fruits of my long and patient analysis of these memoirs.

I take my revenge in publishing them, and I hope he will be duly annoyed….He seemed to feel intense curiosity about himself. But he little knows what surprises lie in wait for him, if someone were to set about analysing the mass of truths and falsehoods collected here.

This book was, in other words, a failed preface to psychoanalysis. Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint finds an antecedent in this book since, like this book, Roth’s novel, written by a schlemiel character, is addressed to a psychoanalyst. Both Zeno and Portnoy are sick, incurable schlemiels. They defy authority, in a sense. But they are also, in doing so, deeply troubled and divided. They are tragic-comic characters who are hyper-self-conscious and are deeply disappointed with themselves and the world they inhabit. This confession is a parody of the one’s we hear from Augustine and Rousseau, and perhaps that is the point.

Modernity makes us into hyper-self-conscious tragic-comic figures who have a deep awareness of how we have little control over our world or ourselves.

The introduction to Zeno’s autobiography starts with a question: “See my childhood?”(27)

The question is a response to another question, one we don’t see: When you look back at your childhood, what do you see?

The distance in time – think of Zeno’s paradoxes – and its relationship to blurred vision, is foregrounded at the outset:

Now that I am separated from it by over fifty years, my presbyopic eyes might perhaps reach to it if the light were not obscured by so many obstacles. The years like impassible mountains rise between me and it, my past years and few brief hours in my life. (27)

For this reason, he turns to what is closest to him in time (unlike Proust whose Remembrance of Things Past, starts in a child’s bed). But he gets stuck in front of the blank page and can’t seem to recollect anything:

All the lines have disappeared from my forehead as I sit here completely relaxed. I seem to be able to see my thoughts as something quite apart from myself. I can see them rising, falling, their only form of activity. I seize my pencil in order to remind myself that it is the duty of thought to manifest itself. At once the wrinkles collect on my brow as I think of the letters that make up every word. The present surges up and dominates me, the past is blotted out. (27)

He comes face to face with consciousness. Not of any memory but of his consciousness of his inability to remember. His past is displaced by his present moment.

I’ll end my sketch on Svevo’s schlemiel here, but will return to this in upcoming posts since the point is to begin and all beginnings are difficult, especially when that beginning is the beginning of schlemiel consciousness.

Alfred Kazin: a Jew, an American, and a NYC Walker

I come from a few generations of New York Jews.

My father went to Brooklyn Tech and Columbia University. He was born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan. My mothers parents moved from the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, to Queens, and then to Long Island.

But we were the first in the family to move to Upstate New York. As a child – born and raised in the Adirondacks (my father was in the leather business, which was started by my grandfather who used to commute from Manhattan) – I was always fascinated with Jews in New York City (NYC).

I would travel back and forth with my parents to visit my grandparents and relatives. Every time I went, I became more and more fascinated. I had, if you will, a romantic relationship with New York City and with the migration of Jews to Long Beach and Long Island (my grandparents had a summer home in Long Beach and both my parents and my grandparents met at the Lido Beach Club in Long Beach. It was a place where Jewish entertainers and comedians came regularly to perform).

New York Jews gave birth to the American Schlemiel and sent it to Hollywood. Sholem Aleichem wrote his last book, Motl the Cantors Son, while he was living in NYC. The book, published after his death, told of the story of the European Schlemiel’s journey to New York City and discovering America (a continuation of the earlier book, The Further Adventures of Menachem-Mendl: New York, Warsaw, Vienna, Yehupetz). Aleichem’s migrating schlemiels were romantics, dreamers, who imagined a new and exciting life in America. Schlemiel characters popped up in Broadway, made a run in the Borsht Belt, and went west to Hollywood to become an American icon.

What I find interesting about post-WWII Jewish American writers from New York City, such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, is that they tended to imagine where I came from in the Adirondacks as a wild place, a place where Jews go wild and abandon their Jewishness. Philip Roth based his main character in American Pastoral, Swede, on David Shmukler, a Jewish Football Player who went to my high school.

Swede was not like other Jews, especially Jews from NYC. For Roth, he doesn’t even seem Jewish or even care about what it means to be Jewish. Swede is a Jew who was fully assimilated. His own offspring end up hating America and see it as a place to hate rather than as a place where dreams (of his immigrant father, who entered the leather business and became a success) come true.

I saw things from a different angle.

Unlike Bellow, Roth, or my parents, I was not a baby boomer. I was living far from my immigrant roots and I didn’t end up like the wild characters they imagined would be born in the Adirondacks. I wanted to know more about Jewishness, not less. I experienced what it was like to live in the American wild, but I didn’t want it.

This brought me to revisit the New York (Jewish) Intellectuals who were the children of immigrants. I have read and continue to think about and study people like Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin because I am curious about their relationship, as New York Jews, with their Jewishness. They lived between two worlds: between Europe (via their immigrant parents and the immigrant millieu they grew up in) and America.

Each of the paths Howe and Kazin chose is telling and gives much food for thought because their attempt to bridge their dreams and hopes with their origins is a struggle which, to my chagrin, has been lost to many Jewish Americans today. Some of my favorite Jewish American authors, today, do grapple with it, such as Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Shalom Auslander. It is my belief that if we go back to these original struggles of Howe and Kazin, we can better understand what may have been lost and why the struggle between a European past and an American future for Jews is worth digging up.

Reading A Walker in City recently, a book originally published in 1947, I was struck by some passages of Kazin about Jewishness that came to him while walking through this city. The motif of walking through this city is a romantic one.

During his excursions and movements through this city, memories and feelings flow back to him, which he considers and carefully weighs. What emotions and feelings compel him most and what do they reveal about who he really is or should be?

The epigraph of the book is from Walt Whitman’s famous poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings – on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river.

Whitman discovers the beauty of American as he crosses over on the ferry. He experiences a deep oneness with the immigrants, with sights, sounds and smells around him. The ride gives him an epiphany of America that many poets and writers after him took to heart. The ferry ride touched his heart and inspired this poem about what makes America a transcendental country.

Unlike Whitman, Kazin walks through the streets of the city as a child of Jewish Immigrants. He lives in Brownsville, Brooklyn. When he goes to Manhattan, he sees a much different world that the one he was born and raised in. Near the end of the book, Kazin recounts taking the El Train from Manhattan back to Brownsville. He has an epiphany in Manhattan before boarding the train, but the ephiphany is broken by “the cries of old Jewish women”:

Dusty particles of daylight fell between the tracks of the El; I had never seen anything so right; it was dusk, dusk everywhere in the lower city now all the way to Cooper Square and Bible House and Astor Place, where even the books and prints and sheet music on the stalls were dusty old, and as I went up the black stairs of the El station with the Gold Stripe silk stocking ad teasing my eye from step to step, only the cries of the old Jewish women selling salted pretzels near Union Square broke the spell (98).

These Jewish women “break the spell,” they remind him that he can’t have a Whitmanesque epiphany in Manhattan. Following this, he recounts his Jewish world and wonders about what “broke the spell.” What created the difference that broke up the unity of his vision?

“But why the long ride home at all? Why did they live there and we always in “Brunzvil”? Why were they there, and we always here? Why was it always them and us, Gentiles and us, alrightniks and us?”

From here he recounts the Jewish immigrant vision of Manhattan and the world:

Beyond Brownsville was all “the city,” that other land I could see for a day, but with every next day back on the block, back to the great wall behind the drugstore I relentlessly had to pound with a handball. Beyond the strange world of the Gentiles, all of them with flaxen hair, who hated Jews, especially poor Jews, had ugly names for us I could never read or hear without seeing Pilsudski’s knife cold against our throats. To be a Jew meant that one’s very right to existence was always being brought into question. Everyone knew this….It was what I always heard in the great Kol Nidre sung in the first evening hours of the Day of Atonement, had played on my violin for them Friday evenings in the dining room whenever I felt lost and wanted to show them how very much I loved them, knew them through and through, wouild suffer loyally for them. Jews were Jews; Gentiles were Gentiles. The line between them had been drawn for all time. What had my private walks into the city to do with anything! (99)

Following this, he recalls the day of his Bar Mitzvah and the recitation of the Shema (Hear O Israel) prayer (99-100). What is fascinating about his description is about he felt solitary and apart from his friends when he donned his phylactaries (tefillin) and said the prayer. Its a moment of existential apartness where he sits on the threshold and thinks about who he really is:

But early summer morning in Brownsville: the pigeons rasping in their cages, the kids too young for handball with a regulation black hard ball…the sun so fierce on the iron floor of the fire escape that I had to sit on the windowsill, my bottom prickly on the pebbled stone. Everything in sight looked half-dead…I listlessly picked up my little prayer book, too tired now to even finish the last blessings, and in an agony of surprise, as if I could distinctly hear great seas around me, read aloud to my self…I had never realized that this, this deepness, lay under the gloomy obscurities of Shabbes in our little wooden synagogue on Chester Street; that my miserable melamed with a few dried peas sticking to his underlip and ready to slap my hands at every mistake had known this. When your fathers provoked me! How many fathers I had! (101)

He recalls the Awe of God that he learned from all of these “fathers” and spends time alone with the text and his reflections rather than praying. He recalls the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur prayers, and experiences his unity with his people. “All went through the long catalogue” of sin “in unison, finding its enumeration, as I thought, a kind of purifying ecstasy, for they were summing up the whole earthly life in Brownsville”(102):

Our God, and God of Our Fathers,

Verily, we confess, we have sinned

We have trespassed

We have dealt treacherously

We have stolen

We have spoken slander

We have committed iniquity and have done wickedly

We have acked presumptuously

We have committed violence

We have said falsehood

We have counseled evil


Kazin says that “the voice that spoke in that prayer book seemed to come out of our very bowels. There was something grand and austere in it that confirmed everything I had felt in my bones about being a Jew: the fierce awareness of life to the depths, every day and in every hour: the commitment: the hunger”(102).

This is Kazin’s cosmic epiphany which is particular (to NYC) and universal (in terms of being a Jew and a member of a Jewish people in a long line of tradition).

Reflecting on this, he says that while this is true “there was no gladness in it”(103). He wanted to be a “good Jew” but wondered if there are really Jews “who lived beyond Brownsville?” Strangely enough, this leads him to want to find Hasidim, who find joy in Judaism.

I had read about Chassidim, “the great enthusiasts, dancers, walkers” – poor East European Jews, only poorest, but so full of the Lord that they danced before Him in joy. They were my people! But when you asked around, hoping there had been at least one Chassid somewhere among all your many prayer grandfathers and great grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers – surely there had been at least one….they shrugged their shoulders, said something about old-fashioned customs, mishegoyim, crazy ones, comfortably took another pinch of snuff, first in one nostril, then the nostril, sneezed heartily, and went back to their prayers. (104)

He took this thought of Joy in Judaism with him and hoped to meet “beautiful unmet Chassidim”(104). That joy gave him an orientation. He called it music: “Walking, I always knew how I felt by the music in my head”(104).

However, his book does not tell us about any Hasid he met who changed his life, as we see in a book like 9 1/2 Mystics.

Rather, the Chassidim seem to only exist in his head and in the books he takes with him on the Subway. To be sure, this is what happens to Hasidim through many Yiddish Haskalah writers (like Shalom Aleichem), through Martin Buber, or IB Singer. They all turn these real people into fictional motifs, into joyful thoughts. They were interested in returning and celebrating the joy of Judaism, they were into the idea of the Baal Teshuva who returned through the Hasidim (Kafka also had such an interest). Although they didn’t follow through with that idea, they made it central to their understanding of themselves as Modern Jews.

There is an aesthetic and an experience, here. Kazin is accounting for it in his walk and in his Jewish epiphany. But the threshold he sits on when he is thirteen and a Bar Mitzvah is the threshold between being Jewish and being American. The following passage after this one, demonstrating his walk (so to speak), is how, after he was fourteen, he started to learn more and more about America in his paper delivery route (from the newspapers and the places he went). But, in the end, he returns to that threshold in all his journeys through America. That seems to be the message. He will always be sitting there when he returns from his walks. Its the place where he, like a Baal Teshuva (Teshuva means return in Hebrew), returns.