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)

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