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

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