Negative Theology as Comedy: On Shalom Auslander’s “Somebody Up There Likes You”

Shalom Auslander’s short story, “Somebody Up There Likes You” (in his Beware of God short story collection) opens up a comical side to negative theology and literally turns it inside out. This fictional foray into two realities, one of a schlemiel character (Bloom) who thinks he is saved by God, contrasted with the portrayal of God and his angels hunting this innocent survivor down in the aftermath of his near death experience is literal, “negative theology.” But of an entirely different sort, one much different from the one I came across and studied in graduate school and beyond.

Rather than deal with the limits of language and thought about the meaning of “God,” Auslander’s negative theology uses comedy to open up a comical affect about God and the meaning of death and salvation. It contrasts a Jewish God – of the believer – to a God who behaves like a character in a Martin Scorcese film or the Sopranos. The ridiculousness of it all creates a negative theology that employs comedy to test the limits of faith and experience.

As a graduate student, my academic circle in continental philosophy and comparative literature during the late 90s and early 2000s, had a moment when it was very smart (and fashionable) to have seminars and discuss the work of Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and others on Negative Theology. This conversation was of interest to me at that time since I was writing about the Holocaust and literature. (See here, here, and here, for instance. These articles, and others like it, have been cited in over a hundred academic publications).

The problem with negative theology is the limit of language and speech. How, Derrida and others asked, can one give phrase to the unsayable? Does the speech about God, mark the limit of language?

John D. Caputo, in his book on Derrida and Negative Theology and the Eschatalogical, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion, defines negative theology in the following, some would say, obtuse way (much like Derrida):

Negative theology belongs to the promise insofar as it protests that it cannot say a thing. That is apophataicism’s particular twist, its most particular trait (trait), its special way of being drawn into the trace – by retreating and withdrawing (retrait) what it has to say. Over a long and powerful tradition, negative theology responds to language by promising silence and gives its word not to say a word. It is at its most eloquent just when it says it is at a loss for words. By promising to efface the trace, negative theology traces out its place within the archi-promise. But in Derrida’s view, what happens in negative theology happens to us all, is of “general” import. We are all dreaming of the tout autre, about which we do not know how not to speak, under many names, so we will have to learn negative theology, if not in the “original,” if such a thing exists, at least in translation, in a generalized apophantics. (31-32)

This paragraph leaves a lot of questions. What we can see is that Caputo frames negative theology as a “response” to language that “promises” silence. What does that mean? How can one promise silence? It seems counter-intuitive. Caputo elaborates this by saying that Derrida sees negative theology in terms of something we all share: the “dream of the tout autre,” (total other). In other words, we all dream about God, “about which we do not know how not to speak, under many names.”

Dream speech sounds a lot of like fiction. In fact, it is. The model of speech as dream speech is central to not only Freud but also Jacques Lacan. (Also, note that Heinrich Heine and Hannah Arendt call the schlemiel the “lord of dreams.”)

Caputo goes on to say, paraphrasing Derrida and the tradition of Negative Theology, that it is “both from God and to God….Negative theology is not only a predicative discourse about God, a ‘theology’, what Levinas would call le dit, but also a discourse sent to God, a Dieu, addressed to God, a prayer, (“Oh God”), what Levinas calls dire (“Bonjour”, or better, “adieu”)”(32).

Negative theology is a prayer, words to God, that say hello and goodbye, at-the-same-time.

While it may seem odd, Auslander’s short story – while, quite clearly, heretical for portraying God as a mafia-like killer with his angel henchman – espouses a kind of negative theology in the sense put forth by Derrida and Levinas. But it is comical, something that the seriousness of John Caputo, Derrida, and Levinas seems to contradict.

Because of the excessive ridiculousness, a thinker like George Bataille – who wrote a lot on laughter, surrealism, and transcendence – would see something salvational in comedy. The pathetic, in a sense of becoming abject, is in many ways mystical in a Christian sense. Think, for instance, of The Idiot by Dostoevsky.

But while he associated it with the childish, the Jewish tradition as filtered through Jewish humor, Purim shpiels, Yiddishisms, Yiddish fiction, etc shows us how the ridiculous stops short of the passionate transformation of the fool and brings us to a contradiction between the reality and the dream of God and history, otherwise known as the difficult life of God’s chosen people.

Auslander does this well in his short story. To show the contrast, I’ll quote lines about Bloom, the schlemiel character who I can’t help but think of in contrast to James Joyce’s version of the schlemiel, Leopold Bloom.

In the wonderfully simple (Shalom Aleichem-ish) fictional prose of Auslander, the story starts off with Bloom’s accident. The simplicity of the schlemiel is foregrounded in this manner:

Bloom’s Volvo finally came to rest upside down on the right-hand shoulder of the New York State Thruway. The roof was collapsed, the front end was crushed, and the driver’s side door was torn nearly in half.

The policeman shoot his head.

“You’re very lucky.”

Bloom nodded.

“Somebody up there likes you.”

Bloom nodded.

Whatever dying mechanism was coughing black smoke from the underside of the car soon ignited. The car filled with flames, incinerating Bloom’s insurance papers, his registration, the picture of his deceased grandparents that hung from his rearview mirror….It was a romantic comedy.

The fireman shook his head.

“You’re very lucky” (24)

After bearing witness to this, a religious urge comes out of nowhere:

Bloom was leaning against the guardrail, trying to catch his breath, when from some dark, dusty distant part of his mind, some cobwebbed corner of forgotten phylacteries and skullcaps, came words Bloom hadn’t said or heard or even thought of in thirty years:

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.

In the next section, responding to this (remember, negative theology, for Caputo, Derrida, and Levinas, is call and response), Auslander turns to his comical (anthropomorphic) depiction of God and his angles as mafioso:

“Fuck,” said God.

The angels stood quietly at the back of His office, their eyes nervously on the place where there feet would have been. The Angel of Death – the bearer of the afternoon’s cosmically bad news – wrung his hands nervously as he stood before God’s enormous oak desk. Lucifer stood behind God, calming cleaning his gun.

“What do you mean he waked away from it?” asked God.

Death shrugged. “I don’t know, Boss. Not a scratch on him.”

The angels sang, their sweet melodic voices ascending as one: “Hallelu…”

“Not now,” said God.

He closed His eyes and messaged His temples, trying to stave off the migrane He knew was coming. He was getting tired of this. Tired of the whole damn business.”(25)

Following this section, we see Bloom go into theological reflections on whether “somebody up there really liked him.” Why as he spared? In a schlemiel-like fashion, he ponders God, his accident, providence, etc.

Was it a miracle or was it a warning? And didn’t anybody up there like Luis Soto, the drunk driver they dragged off the bloody hood of Bloom’s car? Surely, Bloom reasoned, if God wanted to kill him, God could kill him. Then again, if God wanted him dead, why the Volvo? If death is predetermined, wouldn’t automobile purchaces be predetermined?

He goes on to wax mystical about numbers and things that happen to him. He starts to see providence all around him and signs of God, a kind of conversation with God (if you will).

The dialectical contrast between God as a savior and God as killer comes out in hilarious dark-comical contrasts throughout the story in a tight kind of literary syncopation.

When Bloom reaches the height of his faith and joy in God, near the end of the story, he thinks of the Yom Kippur Prayer about “Repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of His decree,” which is inscribed above the door of his old synagogue.

At the moment when he decides to give charity, after thinking of these words, so as to acknowledge and accept “God’s judgment.” What, says the narrator, “was the value of money in the face of God’s eternal judgment”(36).

At this moment, “he heard the squeal of tires behind him, but there wasn’t even time to turn around before the car slammed into his back, throwing him up in the air and into oncoming traffic.”

Death checked out the back window.

“Got him,” he said.

Lucifer nodded.

“Got him.” (37)

God’s response, after witnessing the funeral, is interesting. After seeing the mother cry, Auslander repeats the figure of a stressed out God, mafia boss: “God closed his eyes and massaged His temples, trying to stave off the migrane He knew was coming. He was getting tired of this. Tired of this whole damn business”(39).

These are the final words of the story.

Without a doubt, these words pose some interesting theological questions about God, death, and finitude. It is a “negative theology,” but one that uses comedy to pose questions and form a dialogue with a God that seems to be different from the One to whom Bloom was praying. But, more importantly, we readers want to know why God keeps on doing this business if he’s tired of it.

Negative theology, in this sense, is an angry and comical dialogue. But this is laughter through tears, as Irving Howe would say ,as opposed to the “prayers and tears” of Jacques Derrida and the Christian theology of passion and negative theology.

Bloom is a schlemiel caught up in a comical, (call it neo-Midrashic) jagged dialogue with God. When the reader realizes how “somebody up there really likes you,” comes across in a dark-ironic sense, it becomes clear that Bloom is what one might call a schlemiel of “negative theology.”

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