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.

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