A Jeu of a Book: On the Preface to John Updike’s “Bech: A Book”

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Cynthia Ozick argued that hidden inside of John Updike’s Bech trilogy there is a theological reading of Jews. In 1965, Updike, the award-winning American WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) writer – Pulitzer Prizes in 1982 and 1991, National Book Award in 1964, PEN/Malamud Award 1988, etc – addressed what one could call his Jewish question: how does a American writer describe the American Jew by way of fiction? The answer to his question isn’t so simple. Yes, it is through comedy. But is it, as Ozick believed, through a theology that made Jews into the embodiment of Augustine and Pascal’s “carnal Israel?” Or is he just an endearing schlemiel character who has Roth and Singer as his progenitors?

With this question in mind, I started reading the first of Updike’s books on Bech – a Jewish American character, a writer.

Updike begins his narrative with Bech’s voice, addressing John Updike (the author) in a letter that comes in the wake of Updike’s book on Bech…that we readers are about to read:

Well, if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me than about you. Except, reading along in these, I wonder if it is me, enough me, purely me. (9)

Bech notes that in some of Updike’s representations of him, he appears as someone else:

At first glance, for example, in Bulgaria (eclectic sexuality, bravura narcissism, thinking curly hair), I sound like some gentlemanly Norman Mailer; than that London glimpse of silver hair glints more of gallant, glamorous Bellow, the King of the Leprechauns. (9).

Neither of these characters relate to the “real” Bech. Who does? “My childhood seems out of Alex Portnoy and my ancestral past out of I.B. Singer”(9). In other words, Bech sees himself as a cross between two specific kinds of schlemiel characters: one Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, a “sexual schlemiel”; the other, Gimpel, the memorable schlemiel of the story that made him an item in the USA in the late fifties (near the time this novel was written).

Bech says that Updike’s mis-readings of his character come from “something Waspish, theological, sacred, and insultingly ironic that derives…from you”(10). Yet, says Bech, “you are right.” About what? His misrepresentations?

He is right about the writer.

Bech launches into a strange reflection on writers and their demise in America:

Envied by Negroes, disbelieved in like angels, we veer between harlotry of the lecture platform and the torture of the writing desk, only to collapse, our five-and-dime Hallowe’en priests’ robes a rustle with economy-class just-set tickets….Our language degenerating in the mouths of broadcasters and pop yellers…I could mutilate myself like sainted Origen, I could like Jeremiah. Thank Jahweh these bordellos in the sky can soon dispose with the excuse of us entirely; already the contexts of a book count as little as the contents of a breakfast cereal box.

But the question not answered is this: is Updike right about the Jew? Has he answered the Jewish question in his fictional portrayal? Is the “real” me Bech is talking about an American Jew or an American writer? Is he a schlemiel or a writer? Can’t they be both, as Heinrich Heine said of the poet? (According to Hannah Arendt, for Heine, the poet is the schlemiel – the “lord of dreams.)

Bech’s Jewishness sinks in when he gets to the point: “I'[m sure that when with that blithe goyish brass, I will never cease to grovel at, you approached me for a “word or two by way of preface,” you were bargaining for a benediction not a curse”(11). What he offers is a criticism:

My blessing. I like some of the things in these accounts very much. The communists are all good people – good people…..Here and there passages seemed over edited, constipated; you prune yourself too hard….I like some of the women you gave me, and a few of the jokes. (11)

But the jeu, not the Jew gets the last word: “I don’t suppose this little jeu of a book will do either of us drastic harm”(12).

The irony of this final statement works on several levels. First of all, what kind of thing is Bech saying about Jews? By calling Updike’s book on him a “little jeu of a book.” he is making an anti-Semitic kind of statement. However, the word “jeu” means game in French. Is this book a “play”on the meaning of the Jew or on the comical meaning of the writer? Is this about Bech’s Jewishness? Or is this about Updike’s Jewish question?

For me these questions are all important, but as an American Jew it is even more interesting. In reading this book, do I expect Updike to show me what American Jewishness (circa 1967) looks and sounds like? Is the the crux of being an American Jew – as a result of Woody Allen, Philip Roth, and I.B. Singer, amongst others – for Updike, the award winning American novelist – tied to comedy and the schlemiel? Or is this assertion itself, as Ozick notes, a theological caricature of Jewishness?

To be continued…..

Neil Simon – an American Master of Schlemiel Comedy – Passes

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A few weeks ago I was walking through the streets of New York with a good friend, Jessie Freedman.  He’s a young Off Broadway playwright whose new wave Avant Garde theater has been written up in The New York Times and other places.    When the topic of what or who I was interested in these days came up, I said: Neil Simon.  I recalled how many of his plays were cast not just on Broadway, TV, and on the screen but also in Jewish Community centers around America (my mother acted in a few of them in my local Jewish community in Upstate, NY).   I told Jessie that I have noticed that the schlemiels in Neil Simon’s plays have gone un-noticed and have been poorly discussed.  He agreed.  And then we both agreed to not only go back through his work but to even start a reading group between Toronto and NYC.

Today, after I heard the news that he passed, I was besides myself and realized how needed such a study is today.  It seems to have come too late, but now is a good time to figure out what made his comedy work.  As Variety Magazine notes, he was the “King of Comedy Playwrights.”  And – I would add – he was the king of schlemiel comedy (move over Woody Allen and Larry David).

I’d like to make a few cursory observations about his work.   While he is most known for The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, he was the author of countless plays that are equally laudable such as Brighton Beach Memoirs and Lost in Yonkers.   Many of his plays were turned into films and most of them cast the main characters as schlemiels.  To be sure, he saw himself and much of post-WWII American Jewry in this way.  Jewish American men play vulnerable schlemiels in most of these plays.  In Brighton Beach Memoirs – which are a reflection of his own life – we see that the schlemiel, for Simon, was to be seen in the context of the Jewish American family (mainly hailing out of New York).

He also adapted – through screenplay – the schlemiel classic The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which was written by Bruce Jay Friedman.  It casts the schlemiel in a more dark light – as does much of Bruce Jay Friedman’s dark schlemiel comedy (as in his book, Stern or A Mother’s Kisses).

Nearly forty years later, in 2007, the film was redone but cast Ben Stiller as the schlemiel character.  Once again showing how big the schlemiel character has become in Hollywood in particular and America in general.

But there are also moments when Neil Simon sees women as schlemiels as in Lost in Yonkers.   The childlike aspect of Bella – the main character – is endearing.  Like the children she takes care of they all discover things – as it were- for the first time.  This casts a much different, much more positive light on the character and shows that it is not bound to any one gender.

For Simon, the schlemiel character – it seems – gives wonder to American Jewish life and the family.  It shows the beauty of life in America for Jews as they discover how to fit in – in their own way.   It also shows the anxiety of Jews trying to adapt to American culture and the failures by way of the cuckold (an old theme no less, mined by Bruce Jay Friedman, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, Amy Shumer, and many others).

But the important thing to note is that for Simon the schlemiel character – by and large – emerges out of a comical family dynamic and is an endearing character.  (Hannah Arendt saw this as one this characters main features – whether in Heine or Chaplin. The same can be said of what we find in the novels of Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, I.B. Singer et al.)   There is something particular about the schlemiel and its Jewishness for Simon, yet, at the same time, there is something in this character that can appeal to all Americans.   If there is any litmus test for this, his numerous awards, films, TV shows, and performances on and off Broadway show us that his characters were seen again and again by Americans and have – I would argue – become a part of the American sensibility.

Now that he has passed and in the wake of these reflections I realize how important it is to make a deep study of his work.  Schlemiel Theory has its work to do.  Now is the time to figure out why his work has such a deep impact on Jews and on Americans and his legacy to Jewish American theater.  May his memory be for a blessing.

 

 

 

Reading Adorno and Walter Benjamin though Don Quixote and the Schlemiel – New Publication

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Menachem Feuer – the author of Schlemiel Theory (www.schlemielintheory.com) – just published a new essay entitled: “Discovering the Truth of Sancho Panza: The Meaning of Comedy in Adorno and Benjamin’s Divergent Readings of Don Quixote.”  It is a part of a volume for Routledge’s Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy entitled Benjamin, Adorno, and the Experience of Literature.  It includes a variety of in-depth essays by great scholars on the differences between these two thinkers by way of Benjamin and Adorno’s readings of literature.

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Feuer’s essay uses the schlemiel – the “Jewish Don Quixote” – as a central way of distinguishing between the two thinker’s readings of Don Quixote.  According to Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin’s favorite Kafka parable was the “Truth of Sancho Panza.”  Benjamin has written of this parable extensively in his work and especially in his famous essay on Kafka.

The point of Schlemiel Theory is to show – as Feuer has done in this essay – that the schlemiel character is an important figure in Jewish Philosophy and can be used heuristically to understand the role comedy plays in Jewish Philosophy, thought, literature, and culture – a role that has yet to receive its due.

Stay tuned for more publications on the schlemiel by the author of Schlemiel Theory.  They are on the way.

More schlemiel theory!

Notes on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?”

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Comedy opens up our senses.  It helps us to see things differently – with new eyes and ears.  Sometimes, we laugh so hard that there is a revelation that comes – physically – through tears.   In Jewish American comedy, this laughter exposes us to a kind of embodiment.   However, its confusing.  Is this laughter – at things Jewish and by Jewish American comedians – an embodiment of something Jewish, something American, or even something “self-hating” or anti-Semitic?  Where does embodiment fit in Jewish comedy?   Where – in particular – does embodiment fit in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?”

In his book on Jewish Comedy, Jeremy Dauber defines humor in seven different theses.   1) Jewish humor is a response to persecution and anti-Semitism 2) Jewish comedy is a satirical gave at Jewish social and communal norms; 3)  Jewish humor is bookish, witty, intellectual and illusive play; 4) Jewish comedy is mordant, ironic, and metaphysically oriented; 5) Jewish comedy is focused on the folksy, everyday, quotidian Jew; 6) Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself (xiv).  The seventh thesis – which he actually ranks as the fourth – is that “Jewish comedy is vulgar, raunchy, and body obsessed.”

Instead of placing Sacha Baron Cohen in the chapter that addresses this thesis, Dauber places it at the very end of his first chapter, “What’s so Funny About Anti-Semitism.”   He argues that Cohen has a “transgressive delight in displaying (or purporting to display) a hidden and not so hidden anti-Semitism in famously tolerant America.  He does this primarily by means of one of his characters, the Kazakstan journalist Borat, who attempts, in his interviews, to get his subjects to accede to his rabid anti-Semitism”(48).

The response to the character’s song “Throw the Jew Down the Well” or his character, Bruno’s expression “on the train to Auschwitz” is “basically a testament to the docility and occasional inanity of people caught up in the media spotlight; whether it pulls the cover back on anti-Semitism, as some watching have indicated, may be less plausible, especially given the deeply contrived, if hilarious, circumstances, Cohen creates to let his art flourish”(48).

The greater takeaway for Dauber is the “position of confidence and strength Jews have in the American culture”(48).   He assesses this position by way of taking note of a scene from Larry David where he makes an “assault on the Christian majority: his astonishing protestations of ignorance about that culture.  In one episode, in which he stops a Jews conversation to Christianity by disrupting the prospective converts baptism, he claims he doesn’t know what a baptism is, or what it looks like. David’s character’s cluelessness is a comic foil…but suggests two lessons”(49).

The two lessons are two sides of the coin: one positive, the other negative.  On the one hand, David’s schlemiel-like ignorance is an “apotheosis of Lenny Bruce’s approach – I don’t need to know,” a “kind of fuck you to the ostensible majority power”(49).   On the other hand, it is also a reminder to his viewers “that comedians, that Jews, are different, so essentially so that they can know little about the outside world”(49).  The latter, he calls, a “neurotic” stereotype that feeds into self-hatred.

Dauber argues that this prompts the biggest question of all for American Jews who partake in the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen,  Larry David, or Sarah Silverman (who employ humor that makes Jews look odd, different, inept (like schlemiels, in the worst sense): “Is it the safety and security of the American Jewish community that allows David, Silverman, and Cohen the comfort to  wallow in such neurotic (not to say self-hating) comic behavior?”(49, my emphasis).

Dauber gives “one answer” that is disturbing.  He argues – by way of a comment by Israeli illustrator Amitai Sandy – that Jews are better than even anti-Semites at creating “the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons every published.  No Iranian will beat us on our home turf”(49).    The last words of his chapter – following this claim – are hard to accept: “Black times do call, it seems, for black comedy”(49).  Is it the case that the main point that Sacha Baron Cohen is making is that Jews today are – even though Dauber doesn’t like to use the term but does – self-hating  out of a historical pathology to do so? The word “do”sounds odd.  What does it imply that these dark times “do” call for this?  Is Sasha Baron Cohen’s work an echo of a historical perspective tainted by deep anti-Semitism?    This, for Dauber, is the problem because it is a kind of Jewishness that is not simply self-deprecating (and neurotic, think of Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, etc) but self-destructive.

This question has a specifically American focus for Dauber.  After all, all of these comedians are rooted in Jewish American culture or base most of their comedy on it (like Sacha Baron Cohen).  Moreover, Dauber cites an Israeli who notes this self-hating aspect to point out that there is a blind spot in Jewish American comedy that can’t see anti-Semitism or how the caricature of Jews feeds into this.

While Dauber notes that Cohen is trying to expose the naivite and possible anti-Semitism of Americans, he also – as we see above – rejects that thesis because the circumstances that they are put in are bizarre. There is no real revelation of what Americans are (namely, anti-Semitic at their core).  The trick is to believe that such a disclosure is being made.  But this, Dauber argues, only makes American Jews look bad because it is more than a “fuck you” to American culture; its also an act of self-hate that feeds anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Cohen, it seems, is very aware of this issue.  For this reason, in terms of embodiment, Cohen wants us to ask a question: When we see America, who do we see? It is not “what do we see”?   It is “who” is America.  The schlemiel-like mistranslation of the Israeli is telling.  It seems to counter Dauber’s argument.

When we see America through the eyes of someone who is playing a caricatured Israeli, something else comes through.  What does Cohen’s character, Coloniel Eran Morrad show us?

He doesn’t simply show us that America is gullible – as he does in most of his other work – he also shows us that many of the people who meet this character think of him not as a caricature but as a “real” Israeli.  They trust that Israelis know about terrorism, weapons, and self-defense.   What does it mean that we laugh at this trick?   We – as “insiders” to the joke – laugh at his eyebrows, his make up, and so on because we can see that it is a caricature.  It is a fake embodiment.  They can’t see that.  But is it also, as Dauber would say, a sign of entitlement to show how stupid Americans are?

Cohen’s origins are fascinating because he has Israeli parents and a strong connection to the country.   Would this character and his own identity counter what Dauber is saying?  Or is this also a parody of the Israeli masculine stereotype?  This seems to be more than an insider joke.

Who is America is also the question, who is Israel?  What does an Israeli look like? How do they act?  But is it the case that the “who” may transcend both?

One interesting cultural confluence right now is the fact that Fauda is one of the most popular shows on Netflix.   One sees more faces of Israelis than ever as a result of this show, which has a cast that is mostly Israeli.

How is Jewishness embodied in America or Israel?  And how does humor put a new angle on these kinds of embodiments?  With the question “who is,” we come close to something that is more relational.  In our time, this is at the core of our relations.  Jewish American humor can bring this out, but to do so it will have to pass through stereotypes and caricatures of Jewishness.   The question of who one is, of embodiment, must pass through Larry David, Sarah Silverman, and Sacha Baron Cohen as much as through Fauda.  Comedy can either break the stereotype or reinforce it.   That all depends on “who” we see not just “what” we see.  Embodiment has a face.  Perhaps, through humor, we can see it…or fail to see…who is “facing” us.

A Schlemiel in the Park

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Yesterday I was taking a stroll in Central Park when – out of nowhere – a group of young French tourists came up to me and asked if they could take a photo with me.  I asked them why and they told me that I “looked like a New Yorker.”    What does a New Yorker look like, I wondered.  The first thought that came to me was that – in the wake of so many films by Woody Allen and so many episodes of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and so much more media – the image of the male schlemiel has become prominent in the mind of many people around the world (especially in France which loves Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen) as the image of the New Yorker.    One could argue that the “body of Jewish comedy” (something I have written on) is deeply informed by the stereoypical image of the New York Jew (as schlemiel).

While some people may wince at the idea of the Jewish body as a caricature and stereotype, the fact of the mater is that Larry David, Seth Rogen, etc and many others still, to this day, draw on it in order to disarm negativity about Jews and others.    We can’t get away from stereotypes in America, but that is something that these artists worked through.  Even so, New York does and remains, to this day, a city that is identified with Jews.  This has negative and positive implications.  It can tap into something anti-Semitic or its inversion.   The idea of a New York Jew is based in fact.  After all, New York houses the largest Jewish population of any city in the USA and outside of Israel.  It has been the home of Jews since the 19th century (and even before).    Jewish art, culture, and commerce have flourished in New York.  Take a visit to the Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue to see for yourselves the rich history of Jews in this city in all of these aforementioned fields.

I am proud to say that I come from a  few generations of New York Jews.  And, strangely enough, the photo was taken not far from where my father lived part of his childhood: on Central Park West.  I’ll admit that I embrace and have – since I was a child – emulated the image of the New York Jew.   I always wondered what a New York Jew was so when I would visit (I was raised in Upstate New York) New York City to see my relatives I’d always get a good look and pay close attention to their bodies and gestures.

Like Michael  Wyschogrod argues in his book The Body of Faith, Judaism is embodied.  While in the past Judaism was thought of in terms of ideas or beliefs, Wyschogrod argues that this led to the abstraction of Judaism and of God.   He suggests that Judaism (and God – Hashem in Hebrew) is to be found not in this or that idea or distinction but amongst Jews.    What I find so novel about the schlemiel is that its a comical registration of Judaism and that registration has a location in New York. Contrast that to the relationship of the Jewish body to Jerusalem which is embodied in the Temple, the pilgrimages, the priesthood, etc etc.

Judaism is a religion that is grounded in people and places.

With that in mind, I said yes.  Take my photo.  I’m a Jew from New York.  And I embrace the schlemiel.   I am a Schlemiel in the Park.

 

 

On Hollywood Schlemiel Managers: Adam Sandler’s “Sandy Wexler”

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Without a doubt, Adam Sandler is one of the main four actors and screen writers who, over the last few decades, has popularized a new variety of the American schlemiel. That star-studded list includes Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, and Judd Apatow who – in nearly every film – have starred (or casted actors) as schlemiels. They are – so to speak – the next generation of actors and filmmakers who followed the lead of Woody Allen whose film Annie Hall (1976) made the schlemiel into a national staple (arguably because this film, unlike the others, received a bevy of Oscars). One scholar – Daniel Itzkovitz – makes a fine distinction, however, and calls Sandler (and Stiller) a “new schlemiel” because he has displaced the schlemiel’s Jewish character and made it into an American everyman character. The same can be said for Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow.

While there are “new schlemiels” like Sandler, there is another new variety of schlemiel that casts a shade of darkness over this comic character. We find this by filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and the Coen brothers. The Coen Brothers films Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewelyn Davis (2013) are a case in point. J. Hoberman has taken note and has argued that the latter film draws on the dark comedic schlemiel we find in Bruce Jay Friedman’s novel Stern. While Hoberman’s insight is important, it fails to take note of the implications for Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, et al. The stakes are high. The only filmmaker who has a keen insight into what is at stake with this new (dark) depiction of the “new schlemiel” is Noah Baumbach. He has cast not only Ben Stiller – as in the films Greenberg (2010) or While We Are Young (2014) but also Sandler and Stiller in his Meyerowitz Stories (2017) as schlemiels who have more tragic and sad notes than comical ones. Film critics from The New Yorker – like Richard Brody and Ian Parker- are more interested in this darker shade because they find it more sophisticated and intelligent. However, Brody is clearly more in favor of the darker side when it comes to Gretta Gerwig playing – in Frances Ha (2012) or Mistress America (2015) – or casting the schlemiel, as in her recent film Ladybird (2018). For this reason, one need not be surprised by Richard Brody’s negative take on Adam Sandler’s recent Netflix film, Sandy Wexler (2018). I think that Brody’s reading missed the mark and is something of a red herring. What Sandler is recovering – of the schlemiel – in this film is noteworthy.

Brody’s reading of the Sandler film sees it as a poor imitation of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose (1984). For Brody, the master depiction of the “schlemiel talent manager” is mastered by Woody Allen.

The difference between the two is clear. It is not merely because Allen’s film came first. It is because -for Brody – Allen’s film is more intellectual and gritty. The comic failures of Allen’s depiction of the schlemiel manager are more sophisticated and meta. The mismatches are more profound.

What Brody doesn’t see in Sandler’s film is what Sandler’s new project portends about the schlemiel and his/her place in Hollywood, not New York. Broadway Danny Rose is a film that is more connected to the American schlemiel’s roots in New York and the Borsht Belt. For Baumbach (and for Brody, it seems), it has closer ties to New York than to Los Angeles and for that it should be commended. The new schlemiel that Itzkovitz is interested in, however, is to be found in Hollywood not New York. For this reason, Baumbach’s Meyerowitz Stories suggestion that we revisit the schlemiel – and in a darker shade – in New York is noteworthy. The only film that Baumbach cast stiller in – as a dark schlemiel in Los Angeles (albeit as a schlemiel traveling from NYC to Los Angeles) – was in Greenberg.

What is lost in all of this darkness and geography is what Stiller is looking to redeem in this character. Sandy Wexler is a charming schlemiel character whose honesty and humility are commendable. He manages – in this film – to help one of his talents by the name of Courtney Clarke (played by Jennifer Hudson) to become a star. He sees talent in people who Hollywood skips over. In other words, the schlemiel talent manager sometimes gets it right and this earns the love of Clarke in this film. But instead of hitching himself to a star, Wexler goes on to help the needy who are in search of stardom.

Jennifer Hudson – in an appearance on Good Morning America – takes note that what she loves about Sandler is the “family vibe” that he brought to the film. I would argue that this insight is important because the charm of his character is not simply the romantic element but the paternal and family element that Sandler brings to this schlemiel character. The schlemiel – as I have said elsewhere – draws its comedy on this family aspect. It is – like the schlimazel and the nudnik – a family member. To be sure, the classic American Jewish joke about the schlemiel situates him amidst a table with a schlimazel and a nudnik. All are hungry but it is the schlemiel that gets the soup.

Although Brody may not like this family element and find it to mainstream, the fact of the matter is that the charm of Shalom Aleichem’s characters – from which many American schlemiel derive their root – is based on the character’s being situated in a family and in relation to others. The schlemiel cares for others – think of I.B. Singer’s Gimpel – however, sometimes, on the way to helping others he or she stumbles and spills the soup. In Sandler’s film, Wexler’s eye for talent shows that while he cares for others he doesn’t always see things right about their talent. But with Jennifer Hudson’s character, he gets it right. Sometimes a broken clock is right one time a day.

This character gives us what Irving Howe once said of the schlemiel – light and sweetness. If we lose this character to the dark reflections on finitude by the Coen Brothers or Noah Baumbach or the criticism of Brody or Hoberman which looks primarily for the dark iterations of the character as noteworthy, we will lose something very special. Adam Sandler should be commended for this; strangely enough, it is Jennifer Hudson who got it right, not Richard Brody.

My Recent Interview on the “Left In Podcast”

 

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Yesterday, I was interviewed by Matthew Mausner – the host of the “Left In Podcast.”  Our conversation was a breath of fresh air.   The atmosphere he creates in his podcast is conducive to real, honest conversation.  We both believe that open conversations on podcasts can bring us to places we’ve never been.   In today’s world – where most conversation is pre-digested though social and political group think – we are looking for something fresh and new.  Like Socratic, wandering philosophers, we are looking for some kind of truth that can emerge out of dialogue.

The podcast is broken into two parts.

In the first part, we discuss my personal experiences in the academy. Has the new socio-politcal aspect that has become the lens through which to read most – if not all – subjects in the humanities? Has it overshadowed a lot of scholarship? What has happened to what once was called the “diversity of thought,” socratic conversations (in search of truth), and the importance of freedom and singularity in our institutions of higher learning? Is everything political?

In the second part of the podcast, we discuss a new kind of litmus test for testing the dogma circulating these days all around us.  Laughter at oneself is the best place to start; it is the bar of all bars in our post-post-modern culture. Are people who can’t laugh at themselves our greatest challenge today?

Photography, Violence, and Comedy: Reflections on Two Photos (of Goebbels and Woody Allen)

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For a long time, I’ve been thinking about how to read photographs of schlemiels like Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, Charlie Chaplin, etc.  What function do they serve? How do we identify with them?   How do they relate to the lives of Americans and Jewish Americans?  What categories do we use to read them?   But when I recently came across a photo of Goebbel’s – Adolph Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda – staring into the camera of Alfred Eisenstaedt, a Jewish photographer, in 1933 in Geneva, I was hit with some powerful questions about not just the subject of photography, but it’s relationship to identity.  A friend suggested that Goebells’ gaze changed when he realized that a Jew was photographing him.  This reflection from Eisenstaedt seems to have come from himself, in an article from Time Magazine in 2014:

In 1933, I traveled to Lausanne and Geneva for the fifteenth session of the League of Nations. There, sitting in the hotel garden, was Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. He smiles, but not at me. He was looking at someone to my left. . . . Suddenly he spotted me and I snapped him. His expression changed. Here are the eyes of hate. Was I an enemy? Behind him is his private secretary, Walter Naumann, with the goatee, and Hitler’s interpreter, Dr. Paul Schmidt. . . . I have been asked how I felt photographing these men. Naturally, not so good, but when I have a camera in my hand I know no fear.

At another point, Eisenstaedt noted that “this picture could be titled, ‘From Goebbels With Love.’ When I went up to him in the garden of the hotel, he looked at me with hateful eyes and waited for me to wither. But I didn’t wither.”

 On the one hand, it seems as if he has projected this reading on Goebbels; on the other hand, it may be true.  Perhaps Goebbels recognized the photographer as a Jew.   There is an ambiguity to this photograph and its gaze for the not only the photographer, but for myself.   Regardless, the photo communicates a kind of violence that looks back at the viewer.  For myself, as a Jew, I can’t help seeing this as the gaze of death (aimed, particularly, at Jews).    How do I make sense of this?  And how has this violent challenged my view of photos of schlemiels – of “gentle Jews” (as Paul Briens would say in his book Tough Jews) –who confirm a certain and vital aspect of Jewish American identity?

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag takes a very negative position on photography arguing that instead of simply enlarging existence – in a Whitmanesque sense and democratizing the camera – photography has an underlying kind of violence.   Drawing on the 1960 movie, Peeping Tom, she argues that there are “connections between impotence and aggression, professionalized looking and cruelty, which point to the central fantasy connected with the camera…However hazy our awareness of this fantasy, it is named without subtlety whenever we talk about “loading” a camera, about “shooting” a film”(13-14).    This violence, avers Sontag, works on a political and ideological level:

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images.  It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex.  It needs to father unlimited amounts of information, the better to explant natural resources, increase productivity, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them.   Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and an object of surveillance (for rulers).  The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology.  Social change is replaced by a change in images.  (178)

For Sontag, “cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete”(178).     Her insights on violence and photography – as well as its antidote – don’ t seem to address the violence that comes out of the photo and toward the viewer.  The photo may create some distance from the past, yet, at the same time this one reminds us of murder and seems very present.

In his book, Camera Lucida, Barthes suggests something different about photographic violence.  The photograph, for him – as it was for Walter Benjamin – is shocking and surprising:

I imagine…that the essential gesture…is to surprise something or someone (through the little hole in the camera), and that this gesture is therefore perfect when it is performed unbeknownst to subject being photographed.  From this gesture derive all photographs whose principle….is “shock”; for the photographic “shock” (quite different from the punctum) consists less in traumatizing that in revealing what was so well hidden that the actor himself was unaware or unconscious of it.  (32)

When I look at Goebbels’ gaze looking at me, however, I wonder if it would shock him to see that he has a murderous look (possibly) for the Jewish photographer.    The shock is for me.

Barthes argues that the photo is violent for the viewer not so much as the memory it evokes (here, for instance, the memory of Goebbels’ and the evil of the Nazis) so much as the presence of the gaze:

Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, memory….but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory….The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed.  (91)

As Emmanuel Levinas says of the image, it is mythic and the essence of idolatry.  It repeats itself and cannot “become” or transform.  It cannot be refused; it cannot change.  In other words, what might make us uneasy about the Goebells’ photograph is that – regardless of how much we hate it – it “fills the sight by force’ and “in it nothing can be transformed.”  The only way, says Barthes, to transform it is to throw it into the garbage (93).    It isn’t so much a reminder as a mythic persistence that makes this photo so violent.

Be that as it may, Barthes notes that we linger over a photograph because it reminds us that it is there and that we have no power over its there-ness.  Its power is our powerlessness.   Barthes takes note of the “look” at the camera in these terms.  It has a (potential) kind of madness:

The Look is always potentially crazy: it is at once the effect of truth and the effect of madness.  In 1881, inspired by a splendid scientific spirit and investigating the physiognomy of the sick, Galton and Mohamed published certain plates of faces…It was concluded, of course, that no disease could be read in them.  But since all these patients still look at me, nearly a hundred years later, I have the converse notion: that whoever looks you straight in the eye is mad….it (the photograph) brings the effigy to that crazy point where the affect is a guarantee of Being (totality/truth).  It then approaches, to all intents, madness.  (113)

Barthes reading suggests that even a photograph of Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, or any charming kind of schlemiel character, has the same potential as a photograph of Goebbels.  Both gazes cannot be refused and both put forth a potential kind of madness.

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Yet, on the other hand, both photos can be read, as Peter Berger does, in terms of social signification.   When I see Goebbels, I see the anti-thesis of Woody Allen and many a schlemiel character.  I see power and violence in one photo and gentleness and powerlessness in the other.    However, while we see photos in terms of this or that social context, Barthes is right about the madness that they invoke as is Sontag.  They are disease and the cure.   They remind us of our powerlessness and of a kind of “madness” and violence that are inevitable.  Goebbels photo hits on all of these levels.  Whereas a photo of Woody Allen reminds us of Jewish-American vulnerability.   Both speak to the positon of a particular viewer, photo, and subject.

I’ll end with a fragment from a John Ashberry poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” which looks at the gaze of a painting (not a photo) in a different manner and, like Barthes, suggests something shocking that won’t go away and persists in the “space” of our attention:

But there is in that gaze a combination

Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful

In its restraint that one cannot look for long. 

The secret is too plain.  The pity of it smarts,

Makes hot tears spurt: the soul is not a soul,

Has no secret, is small, and it fits

Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.

That is the tune but there are no words.

The words are only speculation. 

(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.

 

 

 

Saving Money, Finding Smallness: On “Downsizing” (2017)

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Marshall McLuhan was the first person to announce how through TV – and its displacement of the book (and the solitude and individualism it proffered for centuries) – we are becoming a part of a “global village.” He had no idea of what was to come. Today, with the internet, social media (such as Facebook and Twitter), and media like YouTube, the world has become much much smaller. Things that were once far away are now in our daily feeds. For instance, some of the most watched videos that circulate on Facebook these days come from NAS – an Arab-Israeli who is traveling around the world with a camera crew and a close friend to show us things most of us have never seen. Things that can prompt us to think differently about the world.

NAS is a humble/small person who has a vision that is growing in each new adventure he takes. He takes the Global Village concept and turns it into something full of discovery and wonder. NAS puts a positive spin on it. And in many of his videos, he shows how – in different places around the world – little things (that we may usually overlook) matter. To be sure, all little people – in his little videos – are stars. While smallness made many modernist artists feel alienated, today, smallness seems to be taking a different turn.

Whether we like it or not, we are all becoming smaller as the vastness of the world and its inhabitants becomes more and more present. What we need to ask – something that has been asked by different religious and secular spiritual traditions (from Judaism to Zen Buddhism) – is what is the meaning of smallness.

How can one – through becoming small or experiencing smallness (the infintesimal) – bear witness to the infinite? Alternatively, what can be learned about morality and living-together, globally (or locally) through the figure of smallness (whether in literature, film, or music)? Smallness has a message for all of us, in general, and for each individual, in particular. (Hence, my love for the schlemiel character and its relationship to smallness.)

What is most brilliant about Downsizing (2017) – a film written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor – is how it brings us through an American understanding of downsizing (to save money and live better) to an existential and geo-political understanding of smallness.

The films opening premise is clearly American. The main character Paul (played by Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) are not fully living the American dream. Paul is a humble American from a small state (Nebraska). He doesn’t need much. But his Audrey wants a bigger house. The problem is that they simply can’t afford it. When they learn about how a Norwegian scientist has discovered how to shrink people – so as to help the planet save its resources – they read it not in terms of its moral goal but in terms of how much money “downsizing” (as the process is called in the film) will save them. Through downsizing, they can live in a big home and live like wealthy people (but instead of a big house, their house will be the size of a doll house, their car, the size of a Matchbox Car, etc).

The twist happens when – after Paul goes through the process – Audrey chickens out. He remains small and must now live a life without her. He is forced to find a new way of life. She divorces him and he embarks on a path of self-discovery (which is, in this film, the path toward discovering the meaning of smallness).

What happens -as a result of the divorce – is that he can no longer afford his (small) luxury home. He downsizes, moves into a small apartment, and takes on a telemarketing job that takes up most of his time. The life he lives in “Leisureland” is nearly the same as the life he lived in Omaha, Nebraska.

Paul is back to square one.

In the midst of his new downsizing and becoming small (without his wife around), he meets a neighbor who has friends from all around the globe who hang out at his place to party and have a good time. Paul feels he is on the cusp of a new world, but he feels small. He doesn’t know how to speak or act in relation to these people from other countries. After the party, in its aftermath, he runs into a Vietnamese woman, named Ngoc – a dissident – who “downsized” in order to escape her tyrannical government. She had to have her leg amputated because she lacked proper medical help after being wounded. (Paul had heard of her in the news – before meeting her.)

Ngoc introduces Paul to another community that lives outside of Leisureland – to be sure – outside its walls. In the global economic scene, they are the third world, they are the smallest. They are the workers in Leisureland. Through them, he learns a different meaning of smallness that is shared (by way of poverty, lack of resources, etc).

The long and short of it is that the life Paul discovers is a “truly” small life. It is a life of humility that is shared with Ngoc who dedicates her life to helping the needy. She thinks little of herself and Paul learns that he, too, has the potential to be small (in terms of being selfless, humble, and loving). The movie suggests that an average American, like Paul, can only learn this if he goes outside the boundaries of his large American life or beyond Leisureland.

This movie suggests that smallness means seeing oneself in terms of a global, post-national community that needs one’s help. Each and every individual – as the movie suggests – can be cared for if and only if one downsizes one’s ego or one’s American-ness. The implications are – obviously – far reaching. It suggests that this film is a critique of American greatness and a moral call for becoming small.

This film is not a tragedy; it is a comedy. Smallness is not demeaning unless, that is, one lives outside the walls of Leisureville and its first world economy. Smallness is – as the film’s writers and directors suggest – an imperative and an antidote to the other kind of smallness. As we the world gets larger and we get smaller, smallness will become (more and more) a theme in our lives. This movie suggests that we make thought about smallness central to not only understanding the world but ourselves. In this scenario, saving money (downsizing) can lead to finding smallness (and saving ourselves).

Shocking Larry David: A Jew from the Bronx Can’t be Complex

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In the wake of rapid changes in technology, media, industry, communications, and transportation, many modernist thinkers and artists – from Freud to the Futurists – were obsessed with the meaning of shock. They were afraid of the consequences. What – they wondered – will be lost that needs to be saved?

This is still with us.

Reflection on shock lingers on in the thought of Susan Sontag – for instance – who argues (in her famous book on photography) that we are so numbed by shock that when real trauma and disaster befalls us, we lack the awareness to properly feel or respond to it. What is most interesting – today – is how artists (especially comedians) use shock to reach their audiences. But in doing so, what can we say about the meaning of shock in art and performance? What does (or can) shock do? What will it save?

In one of his essays on Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin suggests that – in our time – we are shocked into forgetting who we are or what makes us human. Shock sets the wheels of forgetfulness in order – as Freud would say – because the psyche needs to protect itself from shock. This is done – according to Freud – so as to maintain homeostasis. What we have lost – in the process – or what has been destroyed is what Walter Benjamin calls “experience.” For Benjamin, experience has a lot to do with memory and self-consciousness. Benjamin – in one essay on Baudelair (“Motifs”) argues that the average human being in the modern era – because of the shocks of modernity – can no longer “form an image of himself.” If one can do that, however, it may only happen by chance. And that chance is – by and large for Benjamin – provided by way of art and the gift of reflection and experience it may or may not offer.

According to Proust, it is a matter of chance whether an individual forms an image of himself, whether he can take hold of his experience. It is by no means inevitable to be dependent on chance in this matter. Man’s inner concerns do not have their issueless private character by nature. They do so only when he is increasingly unable to assimilate the data of the world around him by way of experiences. Newspapers constitute one of the many evidences of such an inability. (158)

According to Benjamin, art, poetry, and literature (and reflection on it – via thought, criticism etc) attempts to redeem all those little shocks in such a way that one may regain the capacity to “take hold of experience.” Otherwise, the possibility of experience passes us by. Charles Baudelaire figures this in terms of a sword fighter (as the allegorical figure of the modern artist/hero) who, if he loses, will die. He can only live when, according to Benjamin, he or she recovers lost time and history for the sake of saving experience from shock:

Where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past. (159)

Certain “rituals” – argues Benjamin – trigger “recollection at certain times and remained handles of memory for a lifetime”(159). In today’s world, where we lack rituals while possessing an over-abundance of shock, one can have a “poetic experience” if and only if one “accepts shocks”:

The acceptance of shocks is facilitated by training in coping with stimuli and, if need be, dreams as well as recollection may be enlisted….that the shock is thus cushioned, parried by consciousness, would lend the incident that occasions it the character of having been lived in the strict sense. If it were incorporated directly into the registry of conscious memory it would sterilize this incident for poetic experience. (162)

It is very important to redeem these moments. By not doing so, Benjamin suggests that we become endless victims to shock who -as a result – have no capacity to have – at the very least – what he calls a “poetic experience” (or what Agamben calls the “experience of language”). Language or poetry – in other words – can give us some kind of transcendence and consciousness.

We have – already and to begin with – a vulnerability to shock. But it is only art that can make this vulnerability into an experience and give it a kind of margin against the power of shock. Art can – in waging this battle – make us tough and weak (at the same time).

As children, we have time to play. We are vulnerable to shock but remain exposed to and interested in the world. As adults, we numb ourselves to it. Proust suggests in Swann’s Way, that we need to redeem time through reflection if we are to be free or human (and to be human is, for Benjamin, to have the capability of possessing an experience). This presupposes the necessity of poetic reflection for agency and life. Without that, we are victims to modern technology and the shock it brings with every radical change in our daily retinue. Art could – if properly read or accepted – give us a transcendence over shock and endless victimization. It can give us back time. It can also redeem lost time. The irony is that by “accepting shock” – via poetic chance and reflection – we may be given the capacity to experience (once again, which was lost from youth).

Reading Baudelaire, one would think that reflections on the dark, tragic, cynical and the shocking demonstrate what Benjamin means by the redemption of shock in terms of consciousness or poetic experience. But what many people miss with Baudelaire is that many of his works take an interest in comedy. Many of his prose and poetry pieces put forth a kind of dark comedy that sees laughter in terms of falleness. For Baudelaire, when we laugh, there is a moment of shock that he associates with the satanic because it robs one of childish naivite. This satanic kind of laughter – at seeing someone fall or lose innocence – for Baudelaire, seems to have a redemptive quality. But this suggests a disavowal of the past (of childhood naiveté), not its redemption. Baudelaire’s use of shock in his writing creates a dark poetic experience because it is associated with destruction and violence.

Baudelaire’s work presumes that only dark comedy can prompt us to reflect or think. Is that true?

Benjamin – as is evident in some of his notes and essays (including the Baudelaire essays) – was interested in redeeming what has been lost….or broken through not only the medium of poetic and literary reflection, but also light comedy (and not simply dark comedy). (As I have noted elsewhere, Benjamin had great interest in the meaning of comedy and its relationship to reflection.) Does comedy – in retrieving experience and, as Benjamin would say, “accepting shock” – reveal something universal or particular to this or that part of humanity? Since Benjamin sees the redemption of experience in terms of recovering life, does accepting shock, by way of comedy, situate experience as something powerful or (since it is acceptance of shock) something vulnerable? Both?

Watching a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, these questions came to mind. His comedy – unlike Baudelaire’s – may be “dark” but not in the same way. It is dark and light. It is a different kind of parrying shock – somewhere between Chaplin and Baudelaire.

Let’s revise Benjamin and not call what is redeemed “poetic experience” so much as “comic experience” – it is the capacity to see oneself through comedy. For me, however, this capacity is particular to a specific kind of Jewishness that I know very well (since both of my parents and three generations of my family are New York Jews). While there is a general sense that art, literature, etc can redeem shock; comedy shows like Curb show us how particular that redemption from shock is. (I want to note that by the word redemption Benjamin implies a sense of memory and reflection.) “We” don’t – as Benjamin suggests – have the same self-image. America is a large country. Memory and experience differ from culture to culture or group to group. Larry David’s schlemiel – in particular – appeals to a sense of Jewish American experience and memory; it is both tough and weak (in a general sense) in its encounter with shock, which, as David shows us, is necessarily shocking.

Episode six of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 9) prompted this question when Susie Essman (playing Susie Greene) volleys with Larry about why she wants Jeff Garlin (Jeff Greene) to go with her to the the airport.

Does she want to take Jeff to airport because she – according to Larry David – wants to cause her husband pain? In response, Susie says that she is complex and that Larry is incapable of understanding her mind because it is complex. Larry – in other words- is misreading her motivations. To this Larry asks, “Who are you?” (and then laughs openly as if to say she is easy to read: she is a simple, single minded sadistic wife.

“You are a Jew from the Bronx” is a shocking revelation because Susie doesn’t want to be seen as single minded and sadistic. But she is, when it comes to Larry, however, not Jeff. She reminds us that Larry is a schlemiel – in the most negative sense. Larry can’t see when he is wrong, has said the wrong thing, or has done the right thing. He’s blind. As Walter Benjamin well-knew, shock induces a kind of blindness which is, at the same time, when read ironically or comically, a capacity to see oneself.

The schlemiel is always creating shocking revelations about not what we are but who we are.

The revelation is always social.

As always, Larry David acts as if he knows who he is, but he forgets what to do. There is a disconnect between him and the world. In this selfsame episode he doesn’t properly honor a military veteran. One might think that this blindness is an affront to the veteran. However, at the same time it elevates him because the schlemiel character takes the fall.

But there is a greater social lesson to learn.

Larry David’s schlemiel doesn’t know how to say thank anyone for service – whether this service comes from a waiter or a soldier. He doesn’t know how to thank the other. Is this – in contrast to a Jew from the Bronx – the way a Jew from Manhattan acts? In the context of these scenes, and because Larry is a Jew from New York, this particular question arises in this episode.

However, the greatest shock of all – according to this episode – is not simply the difference between a New York Jew and a gentile who serves in the American military – the intra-ethnic difference between him and Susie matters most because it creates a comic experience that evokes – in Benjamin’s sense – Jewish memory and history. The shock – between them – means something.

In the end, as it is with Baudelaire’s modern artist – it is a question of who wins. Who is tougher? Who is more shocking? I would argue that Larry is the winner and the loser of this comical battle of toughness. Is this – to return to the original insight, above – a reflection (as Benjamin said via Proust, a “self image”) of Jewish American-ness in 2018?

Peter Breines in his book, Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry argues that there have two predominant myths or stereotypes or – alternatively – self-images that have been at the core of Jewish American life: gentleness and toughness. Breins asks several important questions. When American Jews look at themselves, do they see themselves as really tough or really weak? Weren’t Jews always victims and averse to warfare and toughness? And wasn’t this meekness and pacifism what made Jews – post-exile – Jewish? This final question is shared by Breines and Daniel Boyarin (in his work Unheroic Conduct and on his essays on Diaspora).

While we find the gentle schlemiel in America in the post-WWII era with I.B. Singer, etc. Breines claims that his presence radically changed in 1967 when Israel beat back the attack of several Arab nations. At this point, he argues, the tough Jew – as the self-image of American Jewry – displaced the self-image of the schlemiel. It was the beginning – as he says – of the “post-schlemiel era.” There was – as Benjamin might say – a forgetfulness of the past and, without that, there can be no recovery of “experience.”

But to say that the displacement was total – as Breins does – is incorrect. What we find in this Curb episode – in 2018, over fifty years after 1967 – is an American Jewish comic reflection that blends both the tough and the gentle Jew self-image. The schlemiel, the schlimazel, and the nudnik (always seen together in Jewish American comedy) come together in these spats between Larry David and Sussie Essman. They produce a memory – in Proust’s sense – of who we were and who we are (a double image, playing on Benjamin). The capacity of Jewish experience – so to speak – can emerge out of comedy in terms of this memory – evoked here, in the present, in this shocking comedy routine.

The real irony of this mixed self-image is that Jews from the Bronx – like Susie – are known to be “tough” while Manhattan Jews – as Woody Allen was want to show – are more “gentle” and self-deprectating. Larry David fuses them all together in these scenes where toughness meets gentleness.

The spat between them, while shocking, is, to be sure, charming.

Moreover, as Richard Lewis illustrates in the end of first scene above, their spats are particular to Jews. They illustrate this family quarrel as the self-image of American Jewry. And they illustrate it though an endless series of shocks that are – so to speak – accepted by each comedian and by us (the viewers) who may or may not see ourselves in terms of this conflict. (As Benjamin notes with Proust, reflection or artistic evocation of memory is not indefinite; it is a matter of chance not necessity.)

In contrast to Benjamin’s reflections on art as redemptive of shock, we can say – as Benjamin says of Charlie Chaplin’s gestures, in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” – that comical gestures (seen via Chaplin’s movements on film) are redemptive. They redeem not only memory and history but the body and a modality that is gentle while – at the same time – being tough.

When we laugh at these scenes in Larry David, the laughter suggests the possibility that American Jews can redeem gentleness, strangely enough, through a comedy that is tough and endlessly shocking. Given the history that Breins suggests in his book Tough Jews, redeemed time would be the redeemed time of the “post-schlemiel era” that, according to him, has been sublated into the “tough Jew era.” Perhaps Larry David is redeeming – in these moments – the post-schlemiel era for American Jews. If the greatest shock, for Benjamin (and even Breins), is the loss of this time, this would make perfect sense.

Does Curb reclaim Jewish American experience for us in a time when experience – as a result of assimilation – seems to have been destroyed or displaced by (tough) American experience? Only by distinguishing the Jew in the Bronx (a woman) from a Jew from Manhattan, can we see that both – today – are really part of one Jewish self-image or experience that is both gentle and tough, male and female, complex and really simple, Jewish and American. This is another way of saying that what may first seem shocking – in comedy – is actually redemptive. In comedy, the viewer can see him or herself and in this episode, in particular, Jewish American’s can see themselves and regain the capacity to experience Jewishness which, in the day to day world, may be lost.