I Made a Movie Like Seth Ro: Seth Rogen Gets Mentioned by Nicki Minaj

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Seth Rogen’s wildest dream has come true: he’s been mentioned in a song by Nicki Minaj.  Ecstatic and feeling vindicated as a human being, he tweeted about it this morning.

Minaj – in a new Fergie video that she is featured in – “drops” the words “I made a movie like Seth Ro” at 1:39.

 

Watching the video and thinking about what it means, I couldn’t help but think about how “going fast” is synonymous for them with power and elitism that “you” only wish you could have.  Its ironic because a schlemiel – in a traditional sense – is often powerless.  But Seth Rogen is anything but that.  He is branding himself and is reveling in the fact that he is mentioned in this video.   The fact of the matter is that Minaj makes him the standard bearer.  She makes a movie “like” him.  Apparently, he is the master of cinema today.   Despite the fact of how laughable that is, its interesting to see how the stars support themselves and maintain their elite circles via their media.

Rogen jackpoted on this circle in his film This is the End (2013).   Every endorsement or guest spot he gets or provides is more money in his bank.   He’s a wealthy schlemiel.  A lot like Larry David but less funny.   He can say – with the most affected hip dialect – “I’M FUCKING GOOD Y’ALL” because he has been lifted up into the heavens of Hollywood and pop culture while all of us just marvel at how….cool he is.  In the end, we are the real poor schmucks/schlemiels.  Who’s got the money and power through their cool?  Ask Seth, Fergie, and Nicki.

Gendered Luftmensch: Robert Walser’s Dream of Becoming Small

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I am always on the look out for shrinking people and things.  Becoming small is a religious kind of theme.  It is also an obsession of secular writers (with a penchant for the mystical) like Franz Kafka and one of his favorite writers, Robert Walser.   Many of Kafka’s characters are like humans who have become smaller beings like mice and bugs.  His characters – like the Hunger Artist or the “man from the country” – shrink.   They become less recognizable as they age and change.  The man from the country – in his parable “Before the Law” – becomes hunched over at the end of the story and he can barely see.  He literally decays.  But smallness isn’t all about decay.  As Kafka’s Josephine, the mouse singer – in the story of the same name -shows us and as Robert Walser’s dreamer shows us how, when one becomes small, one can see far more than one can then if one were big.  One becomes light, like air and is able to touch things that can’t be seen or felt.

The term luftmensch – which has been used to describe the schlemiel – describes a person who lives on air (on dreams and schemes that never come to fruition).  The term luftmensch is ambiguous – in the most Derridian sense – it can mean something negative or positive.  For Walser, it has a positive meaning.   A human being becomes a luftmensch in the dream when s/he becomes small.  Walser, looking at a painting of his brother, Karl, describes the dream of smallness:

I dreamed I was a tiny, innocent, young boy, more delicate and young that a human being has ever been before, as one can be only in dark, deep, beautiful dreams. (15, Looking at Pictures)

When he shrinks, he loses his father and mother.  In his dream, he isn’t an orphan.  He doesn’t have either parents.  He is without hope or even happiness; He is a dream within a dream; a thought within a thought:

Neither father nor mother did I have, neither paternal home nor a fatherland, neither a right nor a happiness, neither an hope nor even an inkling of one.  I was like a dream within a dream, like one thought embedded within another.  (ibid)

He is sexless.  He has no yearning for the opposite sex.  He has no friends nor does he wish for one.   The dreamer realizes – in his smallness – that “all we have and possess is what we long for; all we are is what we’ve never been.”  He realizes that all we was was “less a phenomenon than a longing, only in my longing did I live, and all that I was was nothing more than longing.” Now he drifts because he is nothing and has nothing.  But this drifting is lovely because, as a small being, he finds a home to “dwell within the human breast.”

Since I cost nothing, I swam in pleasure, and since I was small, I could nicely find a place to dwell within the human breast.   It was enchanting the way I made myself at home in the soul that loved me.  And so I went along.  Was I walking, then? No, not walking.  I strolled in the empty air, requiring no ground to walk on; at most, I brushed the ground lightly with the tips of my feet, as if I were a talented dancer blessed by the gods with the gifts of the dancer’s art.  (54)

By way of a dunce cap, the narrator describes him/herself as fool but this fool is not an ordinary one; s/he is also a mystic floating through space:

On my head, I wore a dainty dunce’s cap.  My lips were red as roses, my hair a golden yellow that curled about my narrow temples in graceful ringlets. I had no body, or had one only barely.  (54)

“Innocence,” writes the narrator, who has become the dream subject, “gazes” from “my eyes.”   He cannot smile because “the smile was too delicate, so delicate I could not smile it, I could only think it, feel it.”   In other words, this smallness because so concentrated that he can only think or feel.  It can’t be expressed on his face.  His body, it seems, in drifting, has become frozen.

But, as Walser can see from the painting, the small being is not alone.  His hand has drifted into the hand of an “enormous woman”(54). She leads him “by the hand.”   His smallness allows him to enter her presence and grace:

So now, dear reader, I was so diminutive and small that I could comfortably slipped into the soft muff of my tall, dear sweet, woman.  The hand that held me as I floated.  (ibid)

In this moment of smallness, he becomes her child, her mouse, and then her husband:

Unspeakably tender, the woman gazed at me: now I was her child, now her little mouse, now her husband. And always I was everything to her.  She was the towering, powerful, large presence, and I the small one. (56)

The relationship of the small being to the large mother resonates though a Jewish American novel like Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses (a quintessential novel dedicated to the schlemiel character).    In that novel, the schlemiel is small in the presence of his larger than life mother.

The end of Walser’s story is a close reflection on how he gradually shrinks in her presence…and this shrinking – perhaps in a Heideggarian sense of the gift – gives him thought.  It gives him a question.  What is the power of woman that she can make me, a male, become so small, become a child. Is the source of that power in our dreams? In our mind? Or in, reality, in the “eyes of men”?

In this way, I was led even farther, even farther, a sort of dainty possession whose own does not hesitate to take it everywhere…All was soft and seemed lost.  Had the woman’s power shrunk me to a manikin?  The power of Woman: where, when, and how does it reign? In the eyes of men?  When we are dreaming? In thought? (56)

Smallness is the question not simply of the luftmensch.  It is the question of what guides humankind.  What power keeps it from drifting off?  Is the power of the feminine – the power to render man small – the source of Walser’s dreams, thoughts, and experiences of smallness?  Are they….ours?  And – because that is the case – will “we” always be schlemiels?

Playing on gender, I wonder, why, then, does Francis Ha (2012), a female schlemiel played by Gretta Gerwig, become small.?  What makes her shrink?  What is the source of her dreams and thoughts of smallness?  Is she a luftmensch too?  She has a dream, after all, about what she…wants in a relationship.   But her prince has not come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of Place: On the Schlemiel and Paul Celan’s Poem: WHERE I Forgot Myself in You

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the schlemiel character is usually located on the edge of the world.  Her place is something people overlook.   S/he stands at the limit.  Whether it is Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Sendrl, Sholem Aleichem’s Motl or Menachem Mendel, I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Shalom Auslander’s Kugel, the schlemiel’s location is always a part of his or her character.   This character is often on the run or found in a place that he or she doesn’t recognize.   For instance, in Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, the main character goes to places – such as a summer camp or a college – that he doesn’t understand of fit into.  His attempt to adapt to these spaces is comical on some levels, tragic on others.   The same goes for Freidman’s character, Stern or Auslander’s Kugel.  Both move from the city to the country.    What is significant about these moves is that they are the condition for the possibility of schlemiel comedy.  They seem not only to be off in terms of their timing or delivery, but also in terms of their spatial location.    Displacement for the schlemiel may happen in space, but it is ultimately brought across in relation to the other.

I recently came across a Paul Celan poem that made me pause and think more deeply about this issue.  The poem is called “WHERE (WO ICH) I forgot myself in you.”  It is found in one of his last books of poetry, LIGHTDURESS (LICHTZWANG):

WHERE I forgot myself in you,

you became thought.

 

Something rushes through us both:

the first of the

world’s last

wings.

 

the hide

overgrows

my storm-riddled

mouth,

 

you

come not

to

you.

The only capitalized word in this poem is WHERE.  The place facilitates the memory of forgetfulness.   The schlemiel – to be sure – is a character who often trusts the other and experience so much that s/he too forgets him/herself in the other.   Celan gives us a deeper reflection on this forgetfulness and suggest that “you” (the other”) become “thought” in this moment and in this place.  The beginning of thought, in other words, is in that place….WHERE I forgot myself in you.   Thought – as Celan suggests –  is not connected to this or that Platonic form or a priori – it is connected to forgetting oneself in the other – in the place where she is.    In this forgetfulness, the other becomes thought – meaning that (as in much schlemiel comedy) there is a split between the other in reality and the other in thought.   One is blinded – so to speak – by the thought of the other.  And this thought happens in a place – WHERE one forgets oneself

The question now is if the “I” of the poem is also “thought.”  After all, they are both in the same place: where I forget myself…in you.  The description – in the next stanza – suggests that the “I” is still able to describe what is happening (even if the “I” has forgotten himself in you).   The I may be able to – so to speak – save the day by bringing you back (here) through a tender (poetic) observation:

Something rushes through us both:

the first of the

world’s last

wings.

The final flight of the world (“the first of the/ world’s last/ wings”), apparently, has gone through me and you.  We are an open space for the passing of the worlds flight.  This is a profound and touching thought.  But will it work?

The next stanza suggests that the voice of the poem – in a schlemiel-like fashion – cannot speak once the world has passed through them or that…these words have failed.  He doesn’t know what to say to you.  And this results in the failure of “you coming to you.”

the hide

overgrows

my storm-riddled

mouth,

 

you

come not

to

you.

What I am suggesting is that there is a wish – perhaps even a mystical one – that may be buried in every schlemiel which this poem touches on in a very deep manner.  The wish is to be WHERE one has forgotten oneself in the other and to recover the other.  But the schlemiel realizes that – as we see in many a Woody Allen movie or Bruce Jay Freidman novel that takes the schlemiel as their focus – although an experience (of the flight of the world) may be shared or described in a touching manner, it may be too late to speak and reach the other.  There is a tragic-comic missed opportunity.   The thought and the person don’t coincide in the place….WHERE I forgot myself in you.

Love isn’t consummated.

The place is marked.

And so is the memory.

It makes me think of the end of Annie Hall (1976) where the places are remembered but the words never spoken.   In the end of Allen’s film, you come not to you.  Here (as Celan might say).  Only the memory of place – and the flight of the world on its “last wings” – remains.   The schlemiel – in other words – leaves us out of place but only after having led us through space.

The schlemiel has a hard time fitting into space and that also means relationships – whether it is a new home, a shared home, or a possible home, the schlemiel can’t seem to say the right thing – as Celan suggests – or, better, the right thing at the right time in the right place.  S/he is a belated wanderer in an awkward space.  But – let us not be mistaken – s/he is always looking for you (whether that you is an intimate other or God).   S/he wants you to come to you – not as thought (alone) or as a recovered memory, but as a presence.      Here.  (Only here can “you come into you.”)  The schlemiel is on the edge of the world, or barely in it.  But s/he remembers where s/he forgot him/herself…in you.  S/he remembers when you became thought.  And because of that s/he didn’t know what to say to you because…you were no longer there.  The schlemiel’s thought sometimes doesn’t match reality and the schlemiel has lost you; just like Alvy Singer looses Annie.

 

 

 

“Mourning Becomes the Schlemiel” – a Guest Post by Jeffrey Bernstein

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I. Psychoanalysis has taught us that comedy—in particular, the joke—is a discourse through which serious issues can be articulated in a manner that can be tolerated by an intended recipient. It has not (to my knowledge) said anything about the relationship between comedy and sadness—in particular, mourning.  Aristotle tells us that tragedy allows for a moment of catharsis—be it intellectual or emotional—in which the audience is able to resonate with the dramatic events being seen.  Can comedy or comedic situations fulfill a similar function?  Can it teach us, or model for us, anything having to do with, e.g., sorrow?  Is the insight of the Kotzker Rebbe to the effect that there is no heart so whole as that of a broken heart relegated to the discourse of lamentation alone?  These fragmentary reflections are a first attempt at exploring this question.  The schlemiel, as a figure of derision, is a particularly apt test case for this insofar as s/he is never simply the fool that s/he appears to be.  Were the schlemiel simply a fool—if we did not learn something from the schlemiel’s all-too-obvious bumbling mistakes—we would have no interest in him/her as a literary type.  There is enough simple foolishness in the world without authors, filmmakers, and playwrights, adding to it.

II.  My hypothesis is that the schlemiel does teach us something about mourning—at least as it is construed in psychoanalysis. For Freud (as he states “Mourning and Melancholia” [1917]), mourning is a response to loss.  While he speaks of mourning mostly in terms of the actual death of a loved one, this is only the most extreme example of situations confronting us all the time.  For we lose loved ones in life as well.  We similarly lose fantasies and ideas that we take for granted as being true or reflecting actual states of affairs.  Whether the situation involves the death of a family member, divorce from a spouse, the breaking apart of a friendship, betrayal of trust, or the collapse of a personal, societal, cultural, or political construal of reality, we are confronted by a choice:  do we attempt to hold on to the past as if it were simply present, or do we come to terms with the fact that we no longer inhabit the same world that we did (and, consequently, what do we do in light of this fact)?  This is true even in cases where the loss is ‘reversed’ (as in the case of apologies, “mending fences,” or gestures of reparation)—i.e., we now no longer inhabit a world where such a reversal is not needed.  For Freud, the attempt to hold on to the past in order to “keep it alive” in simple presence constitutes melancholia—the pathological deformation of mourning; one cannot literally keep alive that which is dead.  Mourning occurs when the personal or collective investments in the lost person or idea are shifted to something else—i.e., mourning entails a divestment of time and energy from the “dead object.”  For Melanie Klein, this divestment takes the form of a taking-in of that object and making it a part of one’s psychic life.  Klein holds that the internalization of the lost object is one way in which the person or ideal stays alive for the mourner—i.e., by becoming a “good internal object” for that person. Hans Loewald makes explicit what (regarding mourning) is underemphasized in Freud and Klein:  mourning is a process occurring throughout life, constituting a developmental achievement when it happens well, and is not relegated simply to the literal cessation of life.  There is nothing inevitably triumphant or redemptive in this achievement; it simply means that one is able to get on with life.  The schlemiel is a figure that is so open to loss that s/he finds it at every turn.  Paraphrasing Rosenzweig, there is nothing about loss that is alien or foreign to the schlemiel.  And yet, s/he persists.  For me, this renders the schlemiel a figure worthy of consideration here.

 III.  My choice of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” (written in 1953 and translated that same year by Saul Bellow) warrants some comment.  That Gimpel always speaks in the first person allows for one to see that he both is and is not the fool that he claims to be.  Insofar as Singer has Gimpel narrate his experience retrospectively, he shows that Gimpel is a fool first and a wise man second.  We might ask ourselves whether human beings in general are schlemiels first and (in the manner of Hegel’s Owl of Minerva) philosophers second.  Whether this bespeaks an intimate connection between philosophy and farce (as Marx might have it) is another question altogether.  But there is a less lofty reason for choosing Gimpel as the privileged example.  Like it or not, Singer has become (after the fact) the major sustainer of Yiddish tales in the English-speaking world.  If we read e.g., Aleichem, Peretz, Ansky, Bialik, Bergelson, or Abrahmovitsch, we inevitably do so in comparison with (and in the light of) the visibility and influence granted to Singer’s work: “Gimpel the Fool” (as translated by Bellow) has become something of an archetype for how we see the schlemiel.  This may or may not be a situation to mourn (i.e., Singer may indeed not be the greatest of the modern Yiddish authors), but it is our situation.

IV. One final mention before beginning to reading Singer’s story: Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi poses a criticism of Singer that has bearing on these reflections.  She argues effectively that Singer’s characters hide out in a Jewish world no longer in existence.  For Ezrahi, Singer’s continual imaginings of Shtetl culture shows that he avoids dealing with the one event that annihilated said culture—the Shoah.  For this reason, she holds that his writing has a disconcerting anachronistic character which fails to accept the loss of the culture which Singer’s characters inhabit.  On this reading, Singer’s writing more accurately reflects the position of the melancholic than the mourner.   This is surely not the place to attempt a defense (if one were warranted) of Singer’s oeuvre.  Neither is it the place to continue the battle over how to characterize the Shoah.  I would simply raise the question as to whether the Shoah is something that can be mourned.  For present purposes, I answer in the negative because the enormity of the Shoah cannot (in the words of Adorno) be made fully conscious; ultimately, one can only mourn what one can think and confront.  Irrespective of whether humankind will ever be able to responsibly confront genocide, it manifestly cannot at present.  However, whether the Shtetl life and culture about which Singer writes can be mourned (and is in fact mourned in “Gimpel”) is a question that is quite relevant here.  For my part, I believe that it can.

V. “Gimpel the Fool” is divided into four sections which we can characterize as (1) Introducing Gimpel and the town of Frampol, (2) Gimpel’s struggles, (3) Elka’s death, and (4) mourning. The main thrust of the story is Gimpel’s trials and ordeals (with the town of his birth) and how he comes to terms with them.  The first four sentences (the ‘prologue’) of Part One let us know immediately how deceptively non-simple Singer’s tale is:  “I am Gimpel the fool.  I don’t think of myself as a fool.  On the contrary.  But that’s what folks call me.”  Questions abound:  Is Gimpel a fool?  If so, is he a fool because he thinks he’s wise?  Or is he actually wise?  He is wise enough, in any case, to know that everyone else considers him a fool.  But would a simple fool have the distance from his community, break with their judgment, and consider himself wise?  Moreover, could a simple fool narrate his own history?  Perhaps these questions miss the focus of Singer’s story; perhaps the important aspect of these questions concerns what they suggest about the men and women of Frampol; perhaps the problem lies with them.  Gimpel expounds:  “What did my foolishness consist of?  I was easy to take in.”  Gimpel’s “flaw” appears to lie in his being too trusting.  He is, thus, the butt of a seemingly endless procession of jokes, tricks, and swindles.  But this “flaw” is only problematic if one accepts the premise that he shouldn’t be the way he is.  But what if Singer’s point is, instead, to indict the people of Frampol?  What if Gimpel’s being a “fool” is simply the result of their collective sickness?  Perhaps Frampol is a town of bullies and thieves.  If so, Gimpel’s “flaw” is less one of trusting any individual of Frampol and more one of attempting to find in Frampol an ideal of human life that is irretrievably lost.

Gimpel seems to have an awareness of this possibility when the townspeople of Frampol force him to marry Elka.  Despite the fact that he surmises her to be unchaste—despite the fact that he “wanted to go off to another town” in order to escape from the town’s prodding (and this desire for escape foreshadows a prominent aspect of Part Four)—he decides that he will marry her.   Whenever he acts in a manner that confirms the town’s perception of him as a fool, he provides a defensive rationalization for it—i.e., “What was I to do?”, “How was I supposed to know?”  In this case, his rationalization is (perhaps) wiser than he knows:  “But when you’re married the husband’s the master, and if that’s all right with her it’s agreeable to me too.  Besides, you can’t pass through life unscathed, nor expect to” (my emphasis).  While he attempts to justify the imperfection (foolishness?) of the marriage to himself, he also utters a truth that will allow him later to mourn his situation.  Put differently, the conditions for the possibility of mourning lie in the recognition of pain, sorrow, and disappointment.  While he here considers it as it relates to Elka, he will later see it as it relates to Frampol.  But this presumes that Singer’s point (as I mentioned earlier) is to indict Frampol—is this true?  Gimpel again seems to indicate this through yet another defensive rationalization.  Right after the marriage ceremony, Gimpel sees two men bringing him a baby’s crib saying “Don’t rack you’re brains about it.  It’s all right, it will come in handy.”  Upon realizing that he was about to become the butt of the biggest marital joke of all, Gimpel says, “I’ll see what comes of it.  A whole town can’t go altogether crazy” (my emphasis). Given that Gimpel’s account is in the first-person retrospective voice, the tacit answer he supplies to readers is either “Yes it can” or “Yes it did.”

VI. Part 2 highlights the struggles that Gimpel has with Elka.  First, Elka gives birth to a child the father of whom is not Gimpel.  Then, upon Gimpel’s confronting her with this, she lies to him about who the real father is.  Finally, Gimpel discovers that Elka is sleeping with another man at Gimpel’s home and in his bed.  Moreover, Gimpel’s interactions with Elka are distinctively one-sided—she berates him.  In response, Gimpel comically (or, at any rate, symptomatically) becomes more attracted to her (at the level of action) but also shows his ability to view the negative as affirmative (at the level of description):  “I didn’t dislike Elka . . . She swore at me and cursed, and I couldn’t get enough of her. What strength she had!  One of her looks could rob you of the power of speech.  And her orations!  Pitch and sulphur, that’s what they were full of, and yet somehow also full of charm.  I adored her every word.  She gave me bloody wounds, though.”  He is surely foolish to enjoy her berating—although we also know, by virtue of psychoanalysis, that the relation between pain and pleasure is (as it were) an intimate one—but his capacity to alchemically transform the negative into the affirmative will help him (after Elka’s death) to finally make her his own.  If we ask why Gimpel puts up with this aggravation, his answer is straightforward:  “I’m the type that bears it and says nothing.  What’s one to do?  Shoulders are from God, and burdens too.”  In bestowing this transformative ability to Gimpel, Singer compels readers to wonder what it would mean for someone to simply reject these burdens?  Would such a person be rejecting God as well?  Or, in a more psychoanalytic register, would such a person be acting in a manner complicit with Frampol’s sickness?

The point is not that there is only a binary opposition between Gimpel’s patience (which is frustrating but somehow morally/religiously good) and Frampol’s judgment/behavior (which is realistic yet sick).  I believe that Singer shows a dialectic at work in Gimpel’s internal struggle; for Gimpel, the question is how one reconciles oneself to a society that lives in a wrong manner—the answer being (in the words of Adorno) that a wrong life cannot be lived rightly.  The first three parts of Singer’s story show Gimpel’s attempt to live in accordance with Frampol’s wrongness—this even to the extent of subordinating his own desires and wishes to those of the community.  Finally, however, upon discovering another man in his bed with Elka, Gimpel’s anger becomes uncontrollable:  “‘Enough of being a donkey,’ I said to myself, ‘Gimpel isn’t going to be a sucker all his life.  There’s a limit even to the foolishness of a fool like Gimpel.’”  Insofar as he recognizes his being taken advantage of, Gimpel shows again that he is not a simple fool.  But if his foolishness has a limit, we still might wonder whether his wisdom has the same limit; for his recognition of his foolishness is itself wisdom.  Gimpel’s self-criticism is a moment of transcendence with respect to simple foolishness.

Gimpel has had enough.  He speaks to the rabbi of Frampol, and the latter tells him to divorce Elka immediately.  In instructing Gimpel thus, what are we to make of the rabbi’s imperative?  From the standpoint of everyday life, it makes sense to divorce a spouse who is so unfaithful.  Does it make sense for Gimpel in Frampol?  The rabbi, in calling for a break, is in some sense calling for Gimpel to mourn a lost cause.  But (in keeping with the dialectic I am pursuing here) if Gimpel does divorce Elka, is he not simply living in accordance with Frampol’s conventions?  The rabbi’s imperative, while incomplete, foreshadows the mourning that Gimpel undertakes in Part Four.  At this point, Gimpel decides not to act out of the ethos characteristic of Frampol:  “I wanted to be angry, but that’s my misfortune exactly, I don’t have it in me to be really angry.”  In the end, he doesn’t go through with the divorce.

VII.   Part Three opens with the discovery that Elka has given birth to another child—also not Gimpel’s.  Again the men and women of Frampol make Gimpel the butt of their ridicule.  And again Gimpel evinces his “foolishness”:  “All Frampol refreshed its spirits because of my trouble and grief.  However, I resolved that I would always believe what I was told.  What’s the good of not believing?  Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God Himself you won’t take stock in.”  Is Singer simply advocating blind and foolish faith for the purposes of religious belief?  Rather, I believe that Gimpel is suggesting that the cynicism that arises from sorrow and pain leads to a more general loss of value that is needed for life to continue.  If we hold (again with Adorno) that despair is simply the reverse side of naïve hope, then the rejection of such hope—the destructive revolt against it—would actually be a perverse or symptomatic manifestation of it.  If we wish to reimagine Gimpel’s claim, it might run as:  “Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow its life itself you won’t take stock in.”  Gimpel’s seemingly foolish acceptance would then amount to a nuanced acknowledgement of the complexities of living.

And sure enough, although Gimpel strangely does not spend time recounting it, we find out that long periods of his life are filled with happiness and success:  “To make a long story short, I lived twenty years with my wife.  She bore me six children, four daughters, and two sons . . . I have forgotten to say that by this time I had a bakery of my own and in Frampol was considered to be something of a rich man.”  One need not go back to Plato’s Republic to consider the imperviousness of discussing the Good; there are no thematic sections in Barnes & Noble dedicated to How My Life Has Always Been Successful And/Or Happy—only to how we might become so (implying that we presently are not).  So it should not surprise us that the twenty years of plenty for Gimpel warrants merely a statement of its fact.  No sooner does Gimpel finish telling us this than he lets us know that eventually Elka develops breast cancer and dies.  It is clear, at this point, that Singer intends to invoke the classical situation of mourning (i.e., the death situation).  To add insult to injury, however, Elka gives Gimpel a deathbed confession which renders Gimpel incredulous:  “‘Woe, Gimpel . . . It was ugly how I deceived you all these years.  I want to go clean to my Maker, and so I have to tell you that the children are not yours.’  If I had been clotted on the head with a piece of wood it couldn’t have bewildered me more.”  Again readers are confronted with the question as to whether Gimpel is simply a fool or something else.  Who believes that they would let such marital deception go unanswered for twenty years?  On the other hand, who indeed believes that they are incapable of self-deception and rationalization in matters of the heart?   Returning to the overall theme of mourning (as I described it at the beginning), this question applies not just to marital situations; it is equally applicable to friendship, political ideals, work-related desires, etc.  Who has not discovered a once-held perception to be a painful deception?  If we were to slip into despair at this point, we might invert Berkeley’s famous dictum (about the metaphysical primacy of perception):  “To be is to be deceived or to be a deceiver.”  And this is precisely the tone adopted by Gimpel in the final lines of Part Three:  “I imagined that, dead as she was, she was saying, ‘I deceived Gimpel.  That was the meaning of my brief life.’”  Such a statement could easily apply to the entire town of Frampol as well.

VIII.  Part 4 begins when “the period of mourning” traditional to Judaism ends, thus reversing the actual progression of (the last section) from despair to mourning.   It is at this point in the story where Gimpel’s struggle transforms from one with external reality to one internal to Gimpel himself; and a sign of this internalization of his struggle is that he begins to dream.  The “Spirit of Evil” visits Gimpel in his first dream after the shiva period and confronts Gimpel with his being deceived.  Had he simply reminded Gimpel of his deception at the hands of Frampol, he would have been uttering a descriptive truth—but he does not:  “The whole world is deceiving you . . . and you ought to deceive the world in your turn.”  The “Spirit of Evil” thus recommends that Gimpel sink to the level of Frampol and renounce any attempt to exceed or transcend the town’s sickness:  “There [will be] no [judgment in] the world to come . . . They’ve sold you a bill of goods and talked you into believing you carried a cat within your belly.  What nonsense! . . . There is no God either.”  The distress that Gimpel feels—being given voice in the form of a destructive internal object—leads him to believe that the proper response to such deception would be to fill the dough in his bakery with urine and sell it to the people of Frampol as revenge.

No sooner does he begin to undertake this vengeful action then (surprise!) he has another dream.  This time, it is Elka who speaks to him:  “You fool!  Because I was false is everything false too?  I never deceived anyone but myself.”  Clearly the real Elka did not (have had the capacity to) speak to Gimpel in this way.  By preserving Elka’s berating voice, but substituting a good message (i.e., one uncomplicit in Frampol’s sickness), Gimpel has created (as Klein might say) a good internal object out of Elka.  This is precisely the move that renders mourning possible.  Gimpel has gone from reacting to the external world as persecutory to internalizing major aspects of that world and making use of them.  In this case, he re-writes Elka’s persona in a manner which pulls him out of his cynicism and despair.  Is this a triumph for Gimpel?  Is it a sign that Gimpel has successfully transcended his past?  Saying this would be, I think, going too far.  It is (in Loewald’s sense) a developmental achievement.  The real Elka did not help Gimpel, but he has taken her in and re-imagined her in such a way that she ultimately comes to his rescue.  What is Gimpel’s achievement?  He is able to persist in the work of mourning and in the process of living.  He immediately destroys the impure dough in the bakery so that he will neither inflict his distress on Frampol nor allow Frampol to inflict its sickness on him.

Having taken Elka in as a good internal object, Gimpel is now able to attain distance from Frampol.  The first thing he does upon destroying the impure dough is to pack his bags and leave to go “Into the world.”  I said before that this leave-taking (the mark of successful mourning) was foreshadowed by the rabbi’s earlier imperative that Gimpel divorce Elka.  How, in fact, are they different?  At stake in this question is nothing less than a response to Ezrahi’s claim that Singer dwells in anachronism and avoids dealing with the Shoah.  Singer has given us a story steeped in a culture that no longer exists only to end it by having Gimpel leave for “the world.”  Is this not precisely a holding-on to a dead culture until the psychic and emotional inconvenience is so great that one must escape to a different world?  Is this not symptomatic of a failure to deal with the Shoah as the catalyst for the death of Shtetl life and culture?  Is this not precisely what Freud calls melancholy?

If Gimpel were simply to have divorced Frampol, he might in fact have shown a failure to work through what he has learned from his experiences there.  Frampol (like any place) is imperfect—but is it not still part of the world?  What can it mean to leave Frampol?  At the very least, it means to leave the illusion that one can simply reconcile oneself to it (either positively through rationalization or negatively by divorce).  To leave Frampol for the world means to leave the ideal of community for the reality of community.  The reality of Shtetl life and culture in Singer’s time was over.  Re-imagining it (in all of its imperfection) while taking leave of it for “the world” is Singer’s way of mourning the loss of it.  Taking leave of Frampol thus entails realizing the radical imperfection of the world without also having to negate the entirety of the world’s value and meaning.  This stance is a result of mourning.  Does it bring back the dead?  Not at all.  But it does allow one to go on living.  Moreover, it shows that one has learned something along the way (what Loewald might call a “deepening” of oneself).  Ezrahi is surely correct in intimating that this is an achievement not granted to the victims of Auschwitz.  But although writers can write about or for the victims, sadly, they cannot write to the victims.  Mourning is our problem, not theirs.

What does Gimpel encounter on his subsequent journey?  “I wandered over the land, and good people did not neglect me . . . I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies.  Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night.”  Gimpel encounters the reality of life—that it is horrible and good.  In the words of Fred Rogers, he finds the helpers.  He similarly encounters deception, but in realizing that “there were really no lies”, he shows his ability to distinguish lies from truth (an ability that his prior defensive rationalizations never accorded him).  And he suggests that the lies and falsehoods (much as Freud speaks of wishes and fears) may indeed be the stuff of dreams.  The world, as Gimpel finds it, is now a complex one—it breaks his heart, but it also allows for him to re-imagine it.  And he finds that the capacity to internalize and re-imagine—i.e., to mourn—is perhaps more real than “the real world.”  Does this mean that Gimpel retreats simply into imaginative construction?  Not at all:  “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world . . . Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception.  God be praised:  there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.”  Gimpel maintains his hope and ideal—and this is the highest expression of the dialectic between his foolishness and his wisdom.   There are moments when we can only entertain ideals in the contrary-to-fact subjunctive voice.  We nonetheless maintain them.  If there is a message that Gimpel bequeaths to us it is, I believe, this:  we are all fools, but we are not so simple.  The schlemiel’s foolishness, in showing us what mourning looks like, is (paraphrasing Leo Strauss) graced with existential grace.


Jeffrey A. Bernstein is Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross.  He works in the areas of Spinoza, German Philosophy, and Jewish Thought.  

 

 

A New York Intellectual’s Jewish Question: Alfred Kazin’s Reflections on Jewishness and Writing

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Alfred Kazin is known as one of the “New York Intellectuals.”  This group of pre and post War Jewish American thinkers – most of which were the children of immigrants – included brilliant budding minds such Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt, Leslie Fiedler, Saul Bellow, Paul Goodman, and Irving Kristol.   While they were all staunchly anti-Stalinist, most of them made it their task to bring Marxist or socialist thinking into the American context via literary criticism, journalism, and political theory.    What many scholars overlook, however, is their engagment with Judaism and Jewishness.

Howe, Bellow, Fiedler, and Kazin looked – in the most personal aspect of their work – to recover their Jewishness.  They didn’t praise the virtues of assimilation.  Each in their own way, saw something unique in Jewishness that they wanted to preserve.     Kazin’s case, in contrast to Bellow, Howe, and Fiedler, is very interesting because he left behind him meticulously detailed and incredibly reflective journals that stretch back to 1938 and end in the early 1990s – when he was diagnosed with cancer.  (Kazin was born in 1915 –  in a Jewish section of Brooklyn called Brownsville and died in Manhattan in 1998.)

His unique struggle is worth recounting because it demonstrates how important the past was for one of the most notable the New York Intellectuals. (Like Bellow and Howe, Kazin was obsessed with Jewishness and the meaning of what they inherited from their Jewish immigrant parents.)  I can only briefly touch on it here.

Most of the New York Intellectuals see their present in terms of their past.   While they may – at certain points in their careers – seem progressive, they are not willing to do away with – as many progressives would suggest in moving forward –  this memory of Jewishness.  Why? Because they think this memory contains the mystery of their Jewishness.   They see in this memory, as well, a kind of resistance to American culture or European culture.  For them, this resistance is definitive.  On the outside, Kazin tells us in one entry (which we will discuss below) they may seem like every other American; but beneath their American garments they are Jewish.   They retain their dialect.  The refuse to give it up.  For Kazin, this is remnant of what he calls “Jewish life.”

In the wake of the Holocaust, in 1946, Kazin begins an entry by looking back at his roots in Brownsville, New York.  Now that he is a recognized intellectual on the American scene (at the age of 31), he feels alienated from his home.  In this entry, he puts home into quotation marks and he shows a strong desire to figure out what happened to what Irving Howe called “The World of Our Fathers.”

Every time I go “home” on a Friday night to Brownsville, it all feels like a foreign country.   The old immigrant Jews remaining, my parents – all these old Jews are my parents! – may look like the inhabitants of the country where I live, but have stubbornly, slyly kept some rich difference in their speech.  Under the plastic aprons, the “Yenkee” dresses and suits, the Woolworth tchotchkes in the kitchen, the old, deeply resistant Jewish life goes on and on.

 Only their bodies are in America.  Their inner lives are still in the caverns of Russian memory and grief.  (51)

This read on immigrant Jewish life also resonates on the pages of Bernard Malamud’s novels and short stories.  It is stubborn.  But what is most astonishing  – for Kazin – is the shock he figures in the image of his dying mother.  She has the last word, it seems:

As always, Mama and Papa are stuck fast, unable to change, getting old.  They break my heart.   Mama, stooped from a lifetime bent over a sewing machine, looks a wreck, still weeps over Asya (a woman he was to marry, but which was broke up due to an affair he had).  Stares at me as if she no longer knew me.  “What happened? How could it have happened? What did you do, what did you do?” (A Lifetime in Every Burning Moment, from the journals of Alfred Kazin, 51)

While Mama was an orthodox Jew, his father was a “good socialist…for whom solidarity with the union is sacred”(51).

Kazin’s life is different.  He is a writer: “Writing is my life, the one steadiness I have”(53).  One would think that this transcends his Jewishness; after all, many writers would see writing as secular and as transcending religion.  But Kazin brings an experience he had with the famous photographer Henri Carrier-Bresson (who was the photographer for a piece that he wrote for an essay about the Brooklyn Bridge in Harpers Bazaar).   What they differed on – fundamentally – was their view of New York City.

Carrier-Bresson is an aristocratic radical – laughs, “I was official photographer for the Resistance” – is gently disdainful of the new mass housing projects crowing the view of the Lower East Side from the bridge….”It breathes!” Cartier says happily about the central promenade.  “See how it breathes!” With his devastating clarity and my zeal for these leftover streets, we bring home the Brooklyn Bridge sill anchored in the Iron Age, the “Swamp” district of leather factories, old gold assayers’ shops, dealers in perfumes and wines….But Paris is his world, New York is mine.  (53)

The contrast is brought out in a moment in Brownsville when Cassier-Bresson goes to snap a shot in Brownsville, home of a large Jewish community:

“The glories” are not much on evidence when Carier-Bresson insists that I show him Brownville, at the far end of Brooklyn.  Brownville, the road every other road in my life has had to cross…We walk about most of the morning and early afternoon in the cold…..Henri stops to snap some cute little boys, and a woman comes rushing out of the yard – a demented face, eyes rolling out of her head like a violently beating heart, screaming that she knows what we is doing, all right, couldn’t fool her.  “Are those your kids? I ask.  “Yah.” “Is your husband around?” Grins.  “I’se married to everybody.”  (54)

In this moment an African American community – which has moved into Brownsville – since he moved away, has overlapped with the Jewish community.  For Kazin, this is the New York Cartier-Bresson can’t understand.  He is too aristocratic.  He is Parisian.  Place is definitive of culture and character.

Kazin plays on this and points out that not all things French are far away from him and his Jewishness.  It is Blaise Pascal’s words on the Jews – which he “scribbled in his ‘night of vision’ and had “sewn into his coat” – that speak to Kazin thinks of Jewisheness, and, by extension a kind of blackness that he saw in Brownsville.  In these words, Kazin finds a “perfect transparency” about Jewishness which brings Kazin to his knees, literally, in a kind of Jewish religiosity:

In a style that already astonished me by its perfect transparency, he brought me to my knees – this in the universe of death that was the war world of the Jews:

 Advantages of the Jewish People: In this search the Jewish people at once attracts my attention by the number of wonderful and singular facts about them.

 I first see that they are a people wholly composed of brethren.   Being thus of all one flesh and members one of another, they constitute a powerful state of one family. This is unique. 

 This family, or people, is the most ancient within human knowledge, a fact which seems to me to inspire a peculiar veneration for it…if God had from all time revealed Himself to men, it is to these we must turn for knowledge of their tradition.  (58)

He calls this insight by Pascal the “gift of life” because “Pascal combined the greatest possible intelligence with the most acute need of God”(58).   In contrast to Pascal, Kazin slights Simone Weil – in her denunciation of Jewishenss and her rejection of the tradition – as deeply troubling.  Yet, at the same time, he admires her leaving – so to speak – the house of reigion:

Weil could not say, like many other a Jewish prophet, “Zeal for they house has consumed me.”  The Jews are not her house.  Neither was the world itself.  But zeal for divinity she absolutely believed in certainly consumed her.  In the ghastly trial of humanity that was Hitler’s war, she to would have been obliterated if her posthumously published notebooks had not revealed her, in all her excess, as a genius of spiritual life.  Representing noting and no one but herself, she was no more with the church than she was with the Jews. (61)

It is this contrast, between being a Jew and being, like Simone Weil, free of all religion that , that informs his central conflict with Jewishness.   At the end of his journals and near the very end of his life, Kazin (in 1995), returns to his reflection on Weil:

Simone Weil said that the only real question to be asked of another is “What are you going through?” And another even more fiercely independent Jew: “the Kingdom of God cometh not with observation.”  No, it doth not.  I know this as a critic of other people’s books, a tiresome moralist even tot myself of other people’s habits and choices, as a spectator; wandering New York all my life in constant amazement of people walking briskly alone talking to themselves, glowering as they sit fiercely alone on park benches, fiercely adopting attitudes as they talk to make a point, then just as surely drooping away from the make believe height as soon as the others are gone.  (340)

In the end, this lonesomeness is the defining trait of the writer and distinguishes him from the scientist.  It is language that is his servant and master, not God.  However, as we can see above, he reads this through the lens of reverence and suggests a rift between literature and science that echoes the rift between faith and reason (Jerusalem and Athens) that we see in Blaise Pascal and Soren Kierkegaard:

Science, seeking confirmation, proof, objective testing and proof, cannot avail itself of human loneliness, but literature can.  And this with language that is always failing and stumbling, breaking the writer’s heart with its mere approximateness ot thing in his mind.  Besides, language is always asserting its primitive authority, is a halting servant but can be a terrible master.   Science progresses over time, literature never.    (340)

What is fascinating about this statement is that the same thing can be said of his Jewishness and of Brownsville.  His place in New York, like the literature he loves, never progresses.  It is always “falling and stumbling” like a schlemiel.   And in back of his language one can hear his Jewish mother crying out in astonishment.   In the end, Kazin is alone with his words and yet…he knows he is a member of a Jewish family.   The Jewish question can be read in the tension between his Jewishness, his family, and his lonely passion for literature which he sees, in his last reflections, in the streets of New York.  In this he’s like a Jewish Walt Whitman.  He is  a schlemiel at heart whose home is somewhere between Brownsville and Manhattan, on the one hand, and between Weil and Pascal or Kazin and Bresson-Cartier, on the other.

 

The World is Messed Up and Jerry Lewis is Dead

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I was doing my thing today, minding my own business.  I was thinking, writing, driving kids to swimming pools, hanging out with friends, enjoying the sun and sipping down a few Perronis, when i learned that Jerry Lewis died.

I was in shock.

I have written articles on Jerry here, here, and here.  But words aren’t enough to express what I feel.  I had to go “live.”   Bye Jerry we will miss you! You were the ultimate American schlemiel!  Without you, what would American comedy be?