As the author of Schlemiel Theory, I am always looking for new sightings of the schlemiel in North America and around the world. There is so much work yet to be done on women schlemiels, indie schlemiels, comic book schlemiels, tv schlemiels, Netflix schlemiels, Israeli schlemiels, the gen x vs. the millenial schlemiel, etc. People have no idea how deep the schlemiel character runs through modernity and it is one of the main tasks of this blog to disclose this character and its deeper meanings to the world.
On that note, it gave me great joy to see that a Film company called Schlemiel Films exists and that is has made the news. To be sure, all of the major film companies, from MGM to Warner Bros, and independent film companies have produced films that include schlemiel characters and comedic scripts that are driven by this comic character. However, this is the first time I have ever seen a film company that has taken on the name of the schlemiel and made it explicit that they are, in some way, deeply interested in the greatest icon of American and Jewish comedy since the inception of the film industry.
As per the press release at Deadline, BuzzFeed Studios signed to executive produce their debut film, “The End of Us.”
Here is the summary:
In The End of Us, it’s the night of March 10, 2020 — the beginning of the global pandemic which we are currently in. We follow out-of-work actor Nick (Coleman) and his type-A girlfriend Leah (Vingiano) as they are in the middle of a break-up. However, the split is poorly timed. The following morning, California issues its stay-at-home order for Covid-19 and the exes must continue living together. (This is all too familiar.) As the quarantine drags on, Leah begins a secret courtship with her charming coworker Tim (Derrick DeBlasis), while Nick realizes he’s made a terrible mistake and decides to use the lockdown as an opportunity to win Leah back. The film also stars Gadiel Del Orbe and Kate Peterman.
“When the world was entering lockdown in 2020, we were inspired by Ben’s story of his break up with his long-term girlfriend in the middle of a global pandemic,” said filmmakers Loevner, Kanter, and producer Claudia Restrepo in a joint statement. “As we set out to make an authentic, lighthearted illustration of how young people were dealing with life in quarantine, we decided to make this film with the most talented people we know, who happened to be all our former colleagues at BuzzFeed.”
The characters in this film have played in other BuzzFeed shorts.
Schlemiel Theory wishes Henry and Steven good luck in their new endeavor and is looking forward to speaking with them in the near future. Stay tuned!
As a Jew raised in Upstate New York, St. Patricks Day meant a lot of drinking games, parties, and merrymaking. There is nothing Jewish about these activities. Nonetheless, writers like James Joyce made the main character of his epic novel, Ulysses, an Irish Jew. Bloom, the main character, demonstrates the flow of consciousness. In a fascinating scene in the novel, Joyce has Bloom follow a blind man through the streets of Dublin and Bloom’s descriptions of the way a blind man relates to Dublin, via touch, makes for a fascinating scene of tactile consciousness.
“Mr Bloom walked behind the eyeless feet, a flatcut suit of herringbone tweed. Poor young fellow! How on earth did he know the van was there? Must have felt it. See things in their foreheads perhaps. Kind of sense of volume. Weight. Would he feel it if something was removed? Feel a gap. Queer idea of Dublin he must have, tapping his way round by the stones. Could he walk in a beeline if he hadn’t that cane?”
This passage gives birth to a question which preoccupies the novel. How does Bloom, an Irish Jew, bodily relate to things around him and how is this different from the Irishman? The Irish Jew can do things that neither a Jew nor an Irishman can do. He is a modern figure because he integrates abstract thought and aesthetic perception. He is ragtag and relentless, in an Irish sense, but he is also endlessly distracted by the possible meanings of things and their relationships, like a Jew. He is feminine and masculine.
Published in the same year as Ulysses, but across the Atlantic, in New York City, the Abbie’s Irish Rose (1922) – which was, at the time, the longest running play on Broadway written by Anne Nichols – tells a different story of Jews and Irish. The main character of this play, which was played, originally to Yiddish audiences and in Yiddish, dramatized the desire to assimilate. The marriage of a Jew to an Irish girl is the American symbol of an integration and assimilation. The process of the play is the working out of ethnic differences, but it is more a trajectory away from Jewishness and more towards American-ness. There are winners and losers in this journey.
The ethnic comedy embodied in this production dramatizes the difficulty of assimilation, of becoming American. The insults are central to their relationship and the struggles they face in living an American life. Sacrifices of identity – in this scenario – are found throughout the conflictual drama.
Here’s a summary of the play/movie/radio production:
Abie’s Irish Rose presents a Jewish family living in prosperous circumstances in New York. The father, a widower, is in business as a merchant, in which his son and only child helps him. The boy has philandered with young women, who to his father’s great disgust have always been Gentiles, for he is obsessed with a passion that his daughter-in-law shall be an orthodox Jew. When the play opens the son, who has been courting a young Irish Catholic girl, has already married her secretly before a Protestant minister, and concerned about how to soften the blow for his father securing a favorable reception for his bride, while concealing her faith and race. To accomplish this he introduces her to his father as a Jewish girl in whom he is interested and conceals the fact they are married. The girl somewhat reluctantly agrees to the plan; the father takes the bait, becomes infatuated with the girl, insists that they must marry. He assumes they will because it’s the father’s idea. He calls in a rabbi, and prepares for the wedding according to the Jewish rite.Meanwhile the girl’s father, also a widower who lives in California and is as intense in his own religious antagonism as the Jew, has been called to New York, supposing that his daughter is to marry an Irishman and a Catholic. Accompanied by a priest, he arrives at the house at the moment when the marriage is being celebrated, so too late to prevent it, and the two fathers, each infuriated by the proposed union of his child to a heretic, fall into unseemly and grotesque antics. The priest and the rabbi become friendly, exchange trite sentiments about religion, and agree that the match is good. Apparently out of abundant caution, the priest celebrates the marriage for a third time, while the girl’s father is inveigled away. The second act closes with each father, still outraged, seeking to find some way by which the union, thus trebly insured, may be dissolved.The last act takes place about a year later, the young couple having meanwhile been abjured by each father, and left to their own resources. They have had twins, a boy and a girl, but their fathers know no more than that a child has been born. At Christmas each, led by his craving to see his grandchild, goes separately to the young folks’ home, where they encounter each other, each laden with gifts, one for a boy, the other for a girl. After some slapstick comedy, depending upon the insistence of each that he is right about the sex of the grandchild, they become reconciled when they learn the truth, and that each child is to bear the given name of a grandparent. The curtain falls as the fathers are exchanging amenities, and the Jew giving evidence of an abatement in the strictness of his orthodoxy.
Ultimately, an Irish Jew would, for this generation, seem impossible or more figural of something to come. It is only with Philip Roth’s Swede, in American Pastoral or with Aharon Appelfeld’s, The Retreat, that you see a fusion of the Jew and non-Jew, to such an extent that one swallows the other, and that the Jew nearly forgets what it means to be Jewish. The post-assimilation phase doesn’t have this drama. The Jew and non-Jew in Hollywood films – whether staring schlemiels like Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, or Larry David – put intermarriage or dating between Jews and non-Jews at the center of their plot.
In some senses, Hollywood took over what started in Broadway with Abby’s Irish Rose but gave it, as we see in many Judd Apatow films (like Knocked Up), a happy ending. In the age of post-assimilation, its no longer an issue. It’s a theme. In contrast to Joyce, the theme is not the fusion of Jerusalem and Athens or modern consciousness. It’s identity differences and comical reconciliation. These characters are out of touch with their Jewishness or with the meaning of consciousness and modernity. Those themes are two sophisticated for the melting pot.
With that, I’ll raise my beer and say L’chaim to all the Leprechauns.
Today is the birthday of Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levich). Like Philip Roth and many other great Jewish writers and actors, he was born and grew up in Newark, NJ. Lewis passed away on August 20th 2017.
While there are many arguments about who popularized the schlemiel in America (Hannah Arendt argues that it was Charlie Chaplin; Daniel Itzkovtz and many others argue it was Woody Allen, who in winning multiple Oscars for Annie Hall (1977) made it clear that the schlemiel was an American icon; Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi sees Saul Bellow’s translation of “Gimpel the Fool” in Partisan Review, in the 60s, as pivotal). Be that as it may, there is a lot to be said for Jerry Lewis as an iconic schlemiel. While his Jewishness was not at the forefront of his comic characters (as it was for schlemiel’s played by Woody Allen, etc) the schlemiel character-form was. We can learn a lot from Lewis’s use of the body, speech, and gesture in his articulations of the schlemiel. He broke boundaries in an endearing and physical manner.
Schlemiel Theory has written several articles on Lewis that delve into the nuances he introduced into American schlemiel comedy.
We are living in interesting times. In our times, it seems that comedians are in a hard place. Why? Because comedians are the vanguard of free speech. For most Jewish Studies scholars, Lenny Bruce, was hands down, the cutting edge of comedy in general and Jewish comedy in particular in modern post-assimilation America. He breaks all the rules in the name of free speech. He, the king of comedy, is the archetype of American democracy and a new kind of “edgy” Jewishness.
So when free speech is on the line, as it is today, comedians are in the cross hairs. So what do they do?
On that note, it’s so interesting to watch what is happening to some of the greatest Jewish American schlemiel comedians today; American icons: Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.
Seth Rogen is creating a special ashtray for his weed company. He is on instagram sharing the real proiftability of his pottery making: ash trays for weed. And all the varieties. It’s called, “Houseplant”
And while Seth is becoming a weed smoking creative type, Rogen wants to share what he has created rather than jokes. He’s busy doing something else, something cool and organic.
Meanwhile, Sara Silverman is also not telling any jokes. She’s talking about what it means to be Jewish in a small town in New Hampshire, one of the only Jews in her high school.
Silverman is confessing her Jewishness. She feels alone in her Jewish pain and wants “allies” who aren’t just the Christian American Right who supports Jews going back to Israel because the Jews are a stepping stone to their own redemption, as the evengelical church, etc.
Be that as it may, Silverman is more interested in looking into her Jewishness in a world that is focused on the next moves of BLM, equity, reparations, etc. These are not laughing matters.
The message is the same from both of them. The position of Jewish comedy is to look more into the “Jewish” or more into the organic hipster-ish life (making pottery, weed ashreuas, etc) than into the “comedy.”
Apparently, there is nothing to laugh about right now. This is a rare time when the schlemiel needs to introspect and reflect.
All of this has the air of I.B. Singer’s The Magician of Lublin. Hence, Seth Rogen’s attempt to emulate a schlemiel form of introspection most recently in An American Pickle (2020).
Rogen and Silverman suggest this soul searching trajectory for the schlemiel. That’s what we see on this day of Jewish life in America, March 11, 2021.
Last week, before New Years Eve, I decided to take my chances and Tweet a Question at the biggest Schlemiel Celebrity (other than, say, Larry David or Amy Schumer) in the USA: Seth Rogen. The question I asked Rogen is, to my mind, the ultimate schlemiel question. I framed it in a way so as to make it a trick question: Is Seth Rogen pitiable or endearing? The answer is both. He got it.
His twitter response to my schlemiel question got over 1400 likes.
What is my source for this question?
If you look at the Schlemiels we find in Yiddish literature, from the first major Schlemiel novel by Mendel Mocher Sforim, Tales and Adventures of Benjamin the Third, or to I.L. Peretz or Shalom Aleichem, all of the schlemiels we find are both pitiable and endearing. The same goes for schlemiels in American film and fiction: from Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen and Amy Schumer. That’s the key. We are fascinated with their failure and find it sad and charming.
Writing on the schlemiel in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah,” Hannah Arendt articulates this as a key feature: “Innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel. But it is of such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born.” These characters are also a critique of society since they touch on this innocence and humility that is part and parcel of the everyman and built into nature in its contrast to society: “Confronted with the natural order of things, in which all is equally good, the fabricated order of society, with its manifold classes and ranks, much appear as comic, hopeless attempt of creation to throw down the gauntlet of its creator”(279, Jewish Writings)
Chaplin’s schlemiels, argues Arendt, are similar in that they are endearing and innocent (“warm and convincing”) but is different from that of Heinrich Heine’s in that “Chaplin’s heroes are not paragons of virtue, but little men with a thousand and one failings, forever clashing with the law. The only point is that the punishment does not always fit the crime, and that for the man who is an any case a suspect there is not relation between the offence he commits and the price he pays”(287).
This is what makes him endearing and pitiable, today. Rogen’s schlemiel characters are always getting hit and live out this gap between the offence and the price he pays. But, for Rogen, that is the charm. We identify with this because, in our complex world, we – in all our failures – also seem to get hit for actions that don’t measure up with the consequences. In this wild world of social media, one’s fate can turn on the time. By being humble and endearing, the schlemiel shows us a way which, though pitiable, is redemptive. As Arendt notes, the ultimate innocence of the comical and pitiable victim is the key to Rogen’s success and our adoration of his pathetic characters.
Writing of Kafka’s short stories and parables (which include all kinds of animals from mice and apes to dogs and moles), Walter Benjamin takes note of the reader’s experience as an angle for understanding them: “the reader follows these animal tales for a fair distance without even noticing that they do not deal with human beings at all. Then, when the animal is identified for the first time — as a mouse or a mole — you are suddenly jolted and realize how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings.”(497-8) As in many of his essays, Benjamin is fascinated with the moment of shock in which human perception is jarred and something comes in through the cracks of consciousness.
In the past, I have looked into the relation of Joyce’s schlemiel character, Bloom, to cats and dogs in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I have also looked into the relationship of the Schlemiel to the Werewolf in the Baal Shem Tov’s stories, Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct, and Meir Abehsera’s Possible Man. Here I’d like to take a look at some more “literary dogs” and their effect on narrators and readers.
I’d like to start with a brief look at Robert Walser, who, arguably, can be seen in some way as a major influence on Kafka’s writing. His encounters with dogs are interesting. As Benjamin has suggested with his reading of Kafka, it is advisable to read Walser’s encounter with dogs as creating a kind of otherness in the narrator.
In this short story, “The Walk,” Walser encounters a dog:
“To a good honest jet-black dog who lay in the road I delivered the following facetious address: ‘Does it not enter your mind, you apparently quite unschooled and uncultivated fellow, to stand up and offer me your coal-black paw, though you must see from my gait and entire conduct that I am a person who has lived a full seven years at least in the capital of this country and of the world, and who during this time has not one minute, let alone one hour, or one month, or one week, been out of touch or out of pleasant intercourse with exclusively cultured people? Where, ragamuffin, were you brought up? And you do not answer me a word? You lie where you are, look at me calmly, move not a finger, and remain as motionless as a monument? You should be ashamed of yourself!’”
The dog, unlike himself, doesn’t have a work ethic or a world. The dog is a mirror of sorts or a wish the narrator has. The dog takes him away from himself. Just like children do in many of Walser’s first person narrations of a child’s world.
In A Schoolboy’s Diary, there is a piece called “Two Little Things” in which the narrator loses his sense of himself when he thinks about a dog. He looses his sense of time:
“I was walking just so and while making my way along just so I ran into a dog, and I paid careful attention to the good animal, by which I mean to say that I looked at it for a rather long time. What a fool I am, an I not? For is there not something foolish about stopping on the street due to a dog and losing valuable time? But in making my way along just so I absolutely did not have a sense that time was valuable, and so, after some time, I continued on my leisurely way. I thought, “How hot is it today! and indeed it was really very warm.” (66).
This is, as the title of the piece suggests, a “little thing.” But with Walser, we know to read for irony. This little thing is really quite big. He doesn’t have an understanding of what happened to him and when he starts moving again all he can notice is the temperature. This is a moment of ecstasis. As Harold Bloom notes in his book on Wallace Stevens, climate is an awareness of the space around us that is beyond us. When he loses a sense of time, through the dog, he enters into a relationship with space.
Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog” is a piece that resonates with these two passages. It is about a dog who is very much like the narrator of these two pieces, a cultured dog with a human mind. But what makes this dog – just like the mice in “Josephine the Mouse Singer”or the bug in “The Metamorphosis” – lose his sense of self is a sense of a strange kind of music coming from an encounter he has with other dogs who are like himself yet different:
“They appeared from somewhere, I inwardly greeted them as dogs, and although I was profoundly confused by the sounds that accompanied them, yet they were dogs nevertheless, dogs like you and me; I regarded them by force of habit simply as dogs I had happened to meet on any road, and felt a wish to approach them and exchange greetings; they were quite near too, dogs much older than me, certainly, and not of my wooly, long-haired kind, but yet not so alien in size and shape, indeed quite familiar to me, for I had already seen many such similar dogs; but while I was involved in these reflections the music gradually got the upper hand, literally knocked the breath out of me and wept me far away from these actual dogs, and against my will, while I howled as if some pain were being inflicted upon me, my mind could only attend to nothing but this blast of music which seemed to come from all sides, from the deeps, from everywhere, surrounded the listener, overwhelming him, crushing him, and over his swooning body still blowing fanfares so near that they seemed far away and almost inaudible.” (281, Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories, ed Nahum Glazer.)
The song that he hears, as can be seen, takes him outside of himself and exposes him to the space around him. He loses a sense of time and is exposed to space. When the dog-narrator comes to, he feels like a new being, a different being. He regains his sense of sight:
“And then a respite came, for one who was already too exhausted, too annulled, too feeble to listen any longer; a respite came and I beheld again the seven little dogs carrying out their evolutions, making their leaps; I longed to shout to them in spite of their aloofness, to get them to enlighten me, to ask them what they were doing – I was a child and believed I could ask anybody about anything – bur hardly had I begun, hardly did I feel on good an familiar doggish terms with the seven, when the music started again and robbed me of my wits, whirled me a round in its circles as if I myself were one of the musicians instead of being only their victim, cast me tither and hither, no matter how much I begged for mercy, and rescued me finally from its own violence…gave me a little time to get my breath back.” (282)
Kafka takes Walser to the next level by becoming the dog and having the cultured narrator “investigate” the dogs ways which, like music, take this rational dog outside himself. In the midst of his investigations, he comes to some realizations about the dogs:
“Perhaps there were not dogs at all? But how should they not be dogs? Could I not actually hear on listening more closely the subdued cries with which they encouraged each other….Great magicians they might be, but the law was valid for them too….Because of all the music I had not noticed it before, but they had flung away all shame, the wretched creatures were doing the very thing which is both most ridiculous and indecent in our eyes; they were walking on their hind legs. Fie on them. They were uncovering their nakedness, blatantly making a show of their nakedness” (284-285)
These investigations go on and on and the dog-detective, so to speak, goes back to being more like a Walser character regaining and then losing his composure. Its a back and forth movement – much like the Tzimtzum I wrote on recently on Walser – that both Kafka and Walser share. The movement that goes back and forth between being big and becoming small, between being human and becoming animal. The “investigations of the dog” are based on the question of what it means to be human. Both Walser and Kafka knew that the key is to be found in that movement between the human and animal and the shock that Walter Benjamin writes of is the shock of realizing that one is caught up in that movement. The literary dogs of Walser and Kafka lead us into a literary figuration and experience of that movement which, as Kafka, notes, is like a kind of music that takes one outside oneself, outside time, and into space.
In a vignette dated May 1920, Kafka’s favorite writer, Robert Walser reflects on smallness by way of moods, one in the morning, the other in the evening, that return to smallness. I would like to argue that it can be read as a fascinating reflection on what Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) calls Tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a narrative or metaphor about how G-d created the universe; namely, by contracting Himself and making room – an open space -for humankind to dwell and receive His goodness and have a relationship with Him (for better or for worse, to du, you).
If one were to imitate G-d (imitatio dei) as many Medieval Theologians suggest is the way one becomes godly, one can say that, in terms of the Tzimtzum, the imitation of G-d suggests a backwards movement in which infinite space is created through G-d’s becoming small. In both senses, godliness can be said to be found in the infintesimal, or in becoming small. One becomes G-d, so to speak, by becoming large and small, simultaneously.
God is to be found in the endless movement of becoming small.
For this and other reasons, Franz Kafka really enjoyed the writing of Robert Walser. In reflections like the one on May 1920 we can see why. Walser situates a mystical reflection on smallness in prose. In a fashion that is deeply other oriented (Levinasian or Buberian), he reflects on you and your mood and your presence. The you can be thought of as a reference to G-d peeking (as the Song of Songs suggest) into our world.
Early in the morning, how good, how blindingly bright your mood was, how you peeked into life like a child and, no doubt, often enough acted downright fresh and improper. Enchanting, beautiful morning with golden light and pastel colors.
He compares this to how “you” are at night:
How different, though, at night – then tiring thoughts come to you, and solemnity looked at you in a way you never imagined, and people walked beneath dark branches, and the moon moved behind the clouds, and everything looked like a test of whether you were firm and strong.
While you, during the day, are like a child and wild, at night one contracts.
In such a way does good cheer constantly alternate with difficulty and trouble. Mourning and night were like wanting to and needing to. One drove you out into vast immensity, the other pulled you back into modest smallness again.
The day drives “you” ought into immensity – in lines of flight – the night “pulled you back into modest smallness again.” This is the double movement of tzimtzum, but what is amazing about this reflection is that Walser personalizes it. The last line suggest it is a process of expanding outward and returning to smallness as one is pulled back into modest smallness “again.”
I would argue that what Walser is capturing is the idea that the movement to “modest smallness,” again, is the movement of becoming godly which is given a figure that is deeply embodied in a physical and environmental state of being. Its spirituality is coupled with the day and the night. It is not simply metaphor; it is a personalization and materialization of smallness. However, in his reflection, this movement of smallness is built into existence.
There are many different arguments about when the Schlemiel went mainstream in America. While Hannah Arendt sees that happening with Charlie Chaplin, Daniel Itzkovitz argues that it was the debut of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1978) and its winning of four Oscars that made it clear that the Schlemiel was no longer a Jewish icon; it was an American icon. Itzkovitz argues that, following this film, the schlemiel was Americanized. The New Schlemiel, argues Itzkovitz isn’t even Jewish and has lost its Jewish particularity, such as in shows like Seinfeld or Adam Sandler’s films. However, it can be argued that with Larry David and Seth Rogen that particularity has been retained. Either way, Woody Allen is a major part of that trajectory.
One of the things that sticks out with Woody Allen – something we see in a Woman Schlemiel Character that came before him named Fanny Brice – is the use of Yinglish. That use is often associated with New Yorkers who also happen to be schlemiels (think of schlemiel characters Larry David, Jason Alexander, or Adam Sandler). Woody Allen, to be sure, is a major popularizer of the idea that most schlemiels happen to come from New York and have a Yinglish accent.
This Woody Allen joke, which has all of these elements of a schlemiel…..that happens to be from New York:
While taking my noon walk today, I had more morbid thoughts. What is it about death that bothers me so much? Probably the hours. Melnick says the soul is immortal and lives on after the body drops away, but if my soul exists without my body I am convinced that all my clothes will be too loose fitting. Oh, well….
Oh well, Happy Birthday Woody!
“He adored New York City….”
Woody Allen’s Schlemiel character is of great interest to Schlemiel Theory. Take a look at these blog posts:
The relationship with things and the loss of those things is something that fascinated great thinkers and writers from Walter Benjamin and Freud to Franz Kafka and Elias Canetti. What is the meaning of loss and how does it relates to the character of the person that constantly loses things as opposed to losing things once in a while?
Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for literature “for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.” The Nobel Foundation situates him with the great writers, Thomas Mann and Herman Brock:
“His foremost purely fictional achievement is the great novel, Die Blendung, (Auto da Fé ) published in 1935 and praised then by Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch. But it can be said to have attained its full effect during the last decades: against the background of national socialism’s brutal power politics, resulting in a world conflagration, the novel acquires a deepened perspective.”
In 1979, he published a collection entitled Der Ohrenzeuge: Funfzig Charaktere (Earwitness: Fifty Characters). These short sketches of fifty characters demonstrate his acute sense of gesture and its relationship to character. He is – to so speak – more interested in what he hears than what he sees. The difference between hearing and seeing, to be sure, is a key difference between thought and experience. Hearing gives us access to the esoteric while sight gives us access to the exoteric. Emmanuel Levinas and Leo Strauss delve into these topics in their essays. However, the difference between the Rational Oral Tradition in Judaism and the Mystical Tradition in Judaism is marked between hearing (come and hear = “ta’shma”) in the Talmud and sight (come and see – “ta’chazee”) in the Zohar.
For Schlemiel Theory, Canetti’s character sketch of the loser is of great interest. The schlemiel is often called a “loser” but that doesn’t always have negative connotation. Canetti is a case in point since, for his “ear,” he hears something else, a kind of happiness that the successful human being doesn’t experience. Like many a schlemiel, he loves little things and children are enchanted by him. He doesn’t look after “things” like we do. When he loses them, he doesn’t look for them. And yet, he is surrounded by them:
He succeeds in losing everything. He starts with little things. He has a lot to lose. There are so many places where you can do a good job of losing.
The pockets he has specially made. The children who run after him on the street shout “Mister” here, “Mister” there. He smiles delightedly, and never bends over. He refused to find anything, not on your life. No number of people can make him bend over. He has lost what he has lost, and why did he take it along in the first place? But how can so many things still remain with him? Don’t they run out? Are they inexhaustible? They are, but no one understands. He seems to be in an enormous house full of tiny objects, and it seems impossible to get rid of them all.
The small things are all around him. This makes me think of Robert Walser and Franz Kafka. They see, in these small things, other worlds and entry points into infinite space and the meaning of being human. The secret is in the small. They see wonder through the smallness of things and their relationship to the small.
The loser doesn’t care about things. Canetti says that “he doesn’t experience wonder” at losing things, as if loss of things is the precursor to the philosophical and religious experience of wonder (a deep thought, to be sure).
Perhaps he doesn’t know what happens while he is gone (from his home). He doesn’t trouble himself about it, it doesn’t interest him; if there were nothing left to lose, he would certainly gape in wonder. But he never found himself in such a situation, a man of uninterrupted losses, a happy man.
As opposed to Job, who loses it all in one fell swoop and wonders about G-d and justice, the loser doesn’t wonder as he is always losing.
He notices smallness; he is conscious of himself as losing:
Happy, for he always notices it. One would think he doesn’t notice at all, one would think he’s sleepwalking and does not realize he is walking and losing, it happens by itself, uninterruptedly, all the time, but no, that is not the way he is, he really has to sense it, he sees every little thing otherwise there is no fun, he has to know he has losses, he has to know constantly.
One can say the same for the schlemiel. Although Gimpel appears like he’s sleepwalking through life, Ruth Wisse in the Schlemiel as Modern Hero argues that he is actually conscious of being lied to and losing.
She goes so far as to argue that “the schlemiel is neither saintly nor pure, but only weak.” Like Canetti’s loser, the schlemiel has no power. His consciousness is of endless loss. But this doesn’t make him sad. Like Gimpel, Canetti’s loser is happy. Perhaps the key to this happiness is his/her disinterest in possessing things and not caring about whether or not they are lost. He can’t mourn their loss since this is a constant state of loss.
The schlemiel and Job seem to be on opposite sides. With this in mind, I wonder: Can there be a theology of the loser?
Today is the 100th year anniversary of Paul Celan’s birth. Celan was very fond of memory and its meaning. He was obsessed with dates. He understood how we all live through these dates and relive them in language. The Holocaust is a date that lives on and through his poetry. Language, he says, in the Meridian Speech, lived through it and lives on. In a sense, language has a schlemiel-like aspect to it in that it, much like Samuel Beckett’s characters or IB Singer’s Gimpel, doesn’t stop moving, even after they have been lied to and mocked. The schlemiel lives on and in small things. As in “Conversation in the Mountains,” Gross and Klein (the main character) are wandering in search of a refuge.
The schlemiel is rootless, like Abraham in the Torah/Bible, ordered to leave his home in search of another place. Abraham isn’t promised immortality, he is promised a place and future through future generations. He lives on through them and they likewise wander through exiles and Holocausts. Their world and destination is physical, not spiritual. It is relational.
Reading the schlemiel through Celan’s poem, “Die Teuflischen” and IB Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” in the worlds eyes, the schlemiel is the subject of “devilish toungjokes of night” but those jokes break the way open through the physical world. The schlemiel may be “lord of dreams”(Arendt / Heine) but Celan shows him – just like IB Singer shows him – to be bound to the earth. The world barks us at “us” – at the reader and the character of this poem and of many poems; we are the schlemiels. Just like Klein and Gross in “Conversation in the Mountains,” we are klein (small) and gross (big). We are an odd couple that, with the voice of poem, must move on.
Let’s listen in to our conversation:
tonguejokes of night
lignify in your ear,
what the glances
the sea-ish lightswamp
barks up at us –
(Die Teuflischen, p104,
Fadensonnen, trans Pierre Joris)
Schlemiel Theory has taken a special interest in his work because the characters and voices in prose pieces like, “Conversation in the Mountains” and in many of his poems that address smallness are those of the schlemiel.
One of the great tasks of Schlemiel Theory is to examine and discuss not only the literary or filmic schlemiel, but, even more importantly, the poetic schlemiel. The schlemiel in poetry or the schlemiel as poetry. After all, all poems are “klein” and “gross.”
Here are some of the essays that Menachem Feuer, the author of Schlemiel Theory has written. These have been gathered together in a book chapter of a forthcoming book on the Schlemiel and Jewish Philosophy: