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.

In Memoriam: Aharon Appelfeld’s Schlemiel/Schlimazl Characters and the Power of Memory

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It was with great sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of Aharon Appelfeld. He is one of my favorite Israeli novelists and some of his novels have, literally, changed the way I think about the novel and its relationship to history.  It also changed the way I looked at the schlemiel character.   Strangely enough, however, I couldn’t find words to articulate what he had done with the character vis-a-vis the Holocaust.   What Appelfeld does, better than the majority of Jewish American writers, is to illustrate the power of the retrospective gaze.   It is easier to understand Nathan Englander’s short story, “The Tummlers,” and the story’s main goal, which was to illustrate that I.B. Singer’s Chelm characters don’t fit into the world of the Holocaust but are at odds with it.   It’s message is clear (which is not to say it is correct).  The parody is obvious.   But when it comes to Appelfeld’s characters, those who are schlemiels are harder to place.    Appelfeld’s schlemiel characters have a depth that is lacking in most of I.B. Singer’s characters or Englander’s, for that matter.

In today’s New York Times obituary,  Joseph Berger hits the nail on the head when he describes Appelfeld’s characters in terms of a kind of childish naiveté that bears marked contrast to the harsh realities taught to him by the Holocaust:

As someone whose mother was killed at the beginning of World War II, and who escaped a labor camp to hide among hostile peasants, Mr. Appelfeld made the Holocaust his great subject. Yet he told his stories from a seemingly naïve eye, a baffled child’s eye, working by indirection and intimation. The horrors, as critics pointed out, happened offstage; his novels rarely identified the threat explicitly as storm troopers with whips or concentration camps with poison-gas showers.

This ironic contrast brings the tragic into a tension with the comic and, for this reason, shows us how the schlemiel character – strangely enough – can give us an insight into the depth of evil.    Berger notes that Appelfeld saw himself and his most “ingenious” characters – writers, for instance, like the main character of The Age of Wonders, who was a lover of Kafka – as “schlimazels.”

“The ingenuous person is always a shlimazl, a clownish victim of misfortune, never hearing the danger signals in time, getting mixed up, tangled up and finally falling in the trap,” Mr. Appelfeld told Philip Roth in a conversation published in The New York Times Book Review in 1988. “Those weaknesses charmed me. I fell in love with them. The myth that the Jews run the world with their machinations turned out to be somewhat exaggerated.”

The oddity of Appelfeld’s statement, however, is that he mistakes the “shlimazl” (as per the New York times transliteration) for the schlemiel.   The schlemiel is not – like the shlimazel – solely a victim of circumstance.  He makes decisions.  And these decisions – in Appelfeld’s case,  not to heed the warnings that the German and Austrian people didn’t care for Jews or that the Holocaust was coming – have enormous consequences.  They are – in part – to blame for “falling into the trap” (as Appelfeld says).

All schlemiels have blindspots – which is something that Englander and Singer well know – but the blindspots of Appelfeld’s characters are much more powerful because of 1) the depth of their assimilation (which is something many Jews, who live in what is called the “post-assimilation” era know well); and 2) their misunderstanding of what is to come.

Appelfeld was “charmed” – like Arendt was “charmed” (she uses the same word in relation to the schlemiel in her celebrated “Jew as Pariah” essay) – by the “weaknesses” of these schlemiel characters.  He “fell in love with them” – in much the same way millions have fallen in love with Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, Amy Shumer, Charlie Chaplin, Sholom Aleichem, etc etc’s characters.

As he suggests, the schlemiel character – with all his and her blindspots – effaces the myth that “the Jews run the world with their machinations.”  The schlemiel character, as Sander Gilman notes, can’t control his or her world.  She misses much of it.    While Englander suggests that the schlemiel died in the Shoah, Appelfeld suggests something else.   It is true that most of the schlemiel characters that Appelfeld represents do end up going to Auschwitz (whether in Badenheim 1939 or The Age of Wonder, etc), but what remains most touching for him is their humanity (their weaknesses and blindspots).

Memory is a key motif in Appelfeld’s work.  He wants us to remember the schlemiel.   Yet, on the other hand, he wants us to be shocked by his or her blindspots.  Does that mean – as some people would interpret his books – that this kind of naiveté must be negated at every turn by post-Holocaust Jewry?  Or does it mean that there is something worth salvaging about Jewishness – its weakness and charm is that which is figured in the schlemiel?  Both questions exist side by side.

While some – like Englander and many Israeli writers (see Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s Booking Passage – want to pronounce the death sentence of the schlemiel, the character lives on not only in film and TV today (as this blog details, in depth) but in the post-Holocaust memory.   Like Marcel Proust, Appelfeld was charmed by his memory and drawn to it.  And the memory he cherishes most can be found in his memory of real-life schlemiels who live on…in his fiction.  These things are past, but schlemiels are still worthy of our love and memory.  What – after all – would humanity be without its blindspots?  Ask Alexi or Google?  They have that answer.  In fact, they are that answer.

May Aharon Appelfeld’s memory be for a blessing and may we turn to his novels to understand the shock and meaning of the Holocaust as seen – in retrospect – through the schlemiel character.

Chaplin’s Fork Dance: Modernity, Disenchantment, and Re-enchatment Through Smallness

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The schlemiel character often stumbles over the smallest things.  While most of us would never pay attention to or miss such little things, they are the cause of his or her bad luck. The response to these little things is what gives the schlemiel its childlike, small character. These little stammer-ings and stumbl-ings are what make the many schlemiels played by Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Gretta Gerwig, or Amy Schumer so – as Arendt said of Chaplin’s schlemiel – “charming.” These little stammering and stumblings – because they are so absent minded – redeem the schlemiel character.

Recently I saw a Chaplin clip that, to my mind, gave a comic figuration that illustrates the aesthetic redemption smallness. In Goldrush (1925), and in so many of his films. He turned small stumblings and stammerings into a dance – a fork dance.

His comedy redeems more than something personal; however.

As Aubrey Glazer, notes, in his recent book on Leonard Cohen, Tangle of Matter and Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-secular Songbook Mysticism(s) Jewish and Beyond: if spirituality is to matter any more it must address the disenchantment of modernity. He cites the philosopher Charles Taylor – the foremost thinker of “post-secularism” to explain what is at stake with modern disenchantment:

In “Disenchantment- Reenchantment,” Taylor draws out the distinctions between existence in the enchanted world that precedes modernity and the disenchanted world that lies at the core of modernity and how it has indelibly shaped the modern mind….Yet amid all of the remarkable discoveries and insights that mark modernity, it is still accurate to claim that the demarcating line “between personal agency and impersonal force” has led to the complete elimination of the unimagiable depths of the cosmos? Perhaps not.

…What appears to be emerging from the depths of secularism is what Taylor sees as a rapproachement, albiet somewhat unconscious at this juncture, between the religious and the materialist. (208-209)

How is this possible? What prompts this rapprochement? Glazer sites a passage from that essay that suggests smallness is the way of rapprochement. I’ll site a part of the Taylor passage to illustrate:

The new cosmic imaginary adds a further dimension to (this buffered identity). Having coming to sense how vast the universe in time and space, how deep the micro-constitution goes into the infinitesimal, and feel ing thus both our insignificance and fragility, we also see what a remarkable thing it is that out of this immense purposeless machine, life and then feeling and thought emerge. (209)

Glazer reads this passage in terms of an awe that emerges through marking the “difference between personal agency and impersonal force” which is at the “precipice of the infintesmial”(201). Glazer reads this difference in relation to Leonard Cohen, prophesy, and poetry.

One of the main tasks of Glazer’s book is to suggest that the “bard” (the poet) has replaced the prophet. According to Glazer, we see this illustrated in Cohen’s poems: especially his song/poems: “Story of Issac.”

And the “Window.” Both songs/poems traverse Judaism and Chrisiantiy through a “syncretism” of Jewish and Christian elements. They bring the individual up and then down into matter and a collective fallen community of “post secular” fallen angels – in a “new Jerusalem” (up there) and an “runied one” (down here). Its a reversal of directions into a spiritual kind of dialectical materiality :

This reading of the difference that is prompted by the infintesimal focuses more on poetry as redemptive by pronouncing the awesome divide between individual freedom and spiritual transcendence and collective ruin in Jerusalem. The meaning of this collective Jerusalem needs to be understood as an imaginal figuration of spirituality in the post-secular age. This is a brilliant reading of Leonard Cohen and it is a reading that Glazer suggests – like Elliot Wolfson and James Diamond – a subject of Jewish philosophy.

What I’d like to do – building on Glazer and Charles Taylor’s reading of re-enchantment – is to suggest that smallness is a figure for Jewish philosophy. It prompts not just the “bard” but the comedian and the comic figuration of the schlemiel. The schlemiel turns us to the imaginal space of small things that are redemptive. Chaplin shows us that the schlemiel can turn the small things into a fork dance.

Chaplin brought us closer not so much to these little machines, than the schlemiel’s response to them. They animate smallness; they become smallness.

As we jettison into the future, things are getting even smaller. And so are we.

The more apps we have, the more questions we have answered by google (“hello google”), we are going to feel the need for comedy and Chaplin’s “dance of the forks.” Without it, what spirit is left? To be sure, smallness seems to have the key. The imaginal figure of the schlemiel may be the last thing that can bring us down to earth with its stammerings and stumblings. Who knows? The schlemiel knows. He’s dancing with forks to make you smile about smallness.

American Schlemiels: On Gomer Pyle and Forrest Gump

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After learning that Jim Nabors died yesterday, a flood of impressions I held within me – from many years watching re-runs of The Andy Griffith Show – washed over me. Like many Americans, I used to come home and watch reruns of shows that had comic figures – ranging from Leave it to Beaver, Little Rascals and The Three Stooges to Gilligan’s Island and…The Andy Griffith Show (11Alive – the New York station that came to me in my small Upstate New York town – filled my after-school-afternoons with these re-runs). With all of these shows – save for Gilligan’s Island – I felt as if I were living in a different post-WWII America. I loved the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges more than any show. To be sure, I felt something very similar to my own life. After all, it had a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik in every show and that, to be sure, comes not only out of Jewish humor but also out of Jewish life. My family had this trio of bad luck and comic antics, as did the families of many of my Jewish friends. However, it was shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show that made me think more about the meaning of American humor. What, I wondered, is the difference between the schlemiel character and the American variety of the fool? Are there any similarities? Was the innocence or the comic antics of the American fool different?

Daniel Itzkovitz – in an essay entitled “They All Are Jews” – argued that with films like Forrest Gump (1994), the schlemiel character was Americanized. It became a part of the American mainstream and, at that point, the schlemiel became the American everyman. It was no longer unique to Woody Allen or Philip Roth, etc. However, last night, after watching several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, it struck me that, long before Forrest Gump, Jim Nabors was already Americanizing the schlemiel through his Gomer Pyle character.

I looked through several videos, but this one – entitled “Gomer the House Guest” – really struck me as a good case for the Americanization of the schlemiel character. What I love about this episode is the fact that it’s comical plot is based on the hypothetical question: What happens when a homeless schlemiel becomes a house guest? The answer to this question is obvious for anyone familiar with the character: the house will become a mess and everything will be thrown off kilter. And that is exactly what happens. But what makes it comical is the fact that the schlemiel character – he played by Gomer Pyle – can’t see how what he is doing is wrong. He has good intentions. But he is worldless and doesn’t understand how “normal” people live.

Gomer – in one scene after another – is too loud, stays up too late, and has no sense of what Andy Griffith feels. What is interesting about this version of the schlemiel is that, Nabors plays a man-child who is given a lesson. Andy lets him know that although he has good intentions, Gomer’s actions are disturbing the host. But this doesn’t stop it from happening. It goes on. Griffith and the viewer find his innocence and stupidity charming because Gomer – at his core- is happy with his lot – much like Rabbi Nachman of Breslau’s simpleton (who Ruth Wisse and David Roskies call a schlemiel character). Gomer – also like Rabbi Nachman’s schlemiel character – is always happy and seldom down.

But what differentiates the schlemiel from Gomer’s character may be this. Ruth Wisse argues that the eponymous simpleton in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” knows that people are taking advantage of him but he gives them a second chance to prove their humanity. They never do. But the point is not so much for Gimpel as for us. The fact that he knows he is being duped is not the central point; it is the fact that society doesn’t become any better. In the Andy Griffith Show, Gomer doesn’t seem to ever know that he is being duped or that he is a dupe. Even so, Andy Griffith, unlike any of I.B. Singer’s characters in his story, does the opposite. He opens his home and his life to Gomer. And in doing so, we see American society as friendly and kind to the innocent.

Singer’s goal was to show – in the wake of the Holocaust – the cruelty of humanity. And he did this through the schlemiel character, Gimpel. The Andy Griffith show conceives of a different kind of schlemiel character. The community embraces him. He is one of the family despite the fact that he can’t function in society. In fact, his innocence gives him a kind of freedom that he lacks because the Griffith character is – after all – the sheriff in town. He needs to maintain law and order. Griffith needs to be the adult. But he is the kind of adult who doesn’t scold the man-child. He gives him a chance and makes a space for absent-mindedness and what a film critic like A.O. Scott would call something uniquely American: “perpetual adolescence” and the “end of adulthood.”

Today’s schlemiel characters – ranging from Seth Rogen to Lil Dicky – are caught up in this perpetual adolescence, it seems. But at its root is a kind of faith and love for the Gomer Pyle/Forrest Gump kind of character which may have its origins in American folklore or Mark Twain. In this character, there is a rejection of English formality and adulthood. It’s not just that stupidity is a challenge; it is also an affirmation of something distinctly American. However, that affirmation – in this show at least – would be null if it weren’t for the relationship between Gomer Pyle and Andy Griffith. The relationship is oddly reminiscent of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote since one character is more in the world than the other. But what is most important is their relationship. In America the message is that the Americanized schlemiel has a seat at the family table; despite how much he upsets the house he stays. And in this there is something similar to the original schlemiel character who – despite his absent-mindedness – will always be a part of the (Jewish) family.

Rest in Peace – Jim Nabors. Your character, Gomer Pyle, prompted me to think about what comedy and national identity. It demonstrated that in America the schlemiel character – or a variant of it, rather – though homeless, as Gomer in this episode, has a home.

Theodor Adorno’s Force Fields and Camille Paglia’s Killing Fields

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The majority of people don’t go around every day thinking about what art is. Few think about why the definition of art may change not only the way we think but also the way we act in the world.   Today, I was surprised to hear, in a discussion between two very controversial voices in contemporary North American culture – Camille Paglia and Jordon Peterson – that what “post-modernists” and “post-structuralists” have done is destroy the meaning of art by turning it into “text” or dissecting it (9:37).  The “true” meaning of art, says Paglia, has been distorted by the academy because it is populist, not elitist. 

For Paglia, not only post-modern artists but also academics (who she calls “academe” – suggesting something snobby and elitist), who go “hand in hand” with the artists – are a “fraud” because they believe that opposition to history and culture (via the avant garde) is alive when it is – post-Warhol – dead.  They act “as if” they are like these avant garde heroes, but they are really “infantile.”  Paglia suggests that the real art and left politics is populist and – together with Peterson – attacks the postmodern academy.  All of this name calling, note, is done over the meaning of art and leftism.  Art is not, rages Paglia, superior to the people.  It’s the other way around.  Postmodern art, which for Paglia also implies the academy, is the problem.  Paglia suggests, in her rhetoric, that it must be exposed as a fraud by the voices of the people (such as Paglia, herself, and Jordan Peterson):

It’s madness…teaching that everything is mediated by language…even gender….it’s absolute madness.  I am teaching people whose majors are ceramics, are dance…who understand the world in terms of the body…sensory activation…Everything about Andy Warhol was ‘wow’ it was about admiration.  What happened immediately after that, in the 70s was a collapse into a snide sort of postmodernism….this happened in the art world…there was an  utter misunderstanding of culture in the art world…Oppositional art in my view is dead.   What postmodernism is…is a pathetic attempt to continue the heroism of the avant garde.  The avant garde was genuinely heroic…Pop art killed the avant garde…It (the postmodern art world) feels it must attack, attack, attack the simplistic beliefs of the hoi polloi.  From the moment Andy Warhol….embraced the popular media – instead of having the opposition to it, which the serious arts had – that was the end of oppositional art….So we have been going on like this for 50 years….Postmodernism and academe going hand in hand with the stupidity and infantilism that masquerades as important art in galleries everywhere….With this idea that the art world has a superior view on reality. Authentic leftism is populist.  It is based in working class style, working class language, working class direct emotion…in an openness and brusqueness of speech.  Ok.  Not this fancy contorted jargon of this leftism of academe who are frauds.

 When Paglia takes aim at postmodernism, it seems like she is also taking aim at the 20th century European thinker, Theodor Adorno’s reading of art and culture.  After all, he sees art as going against the grain of history and culture. It is different and, for him, better because it is a form of critique (albeit momentary) when it doesn’t proclaim itself as art but something other.

In his book Aesthetic Theory, Adorno argues that “art is no fixed set of boundaries but rather a momentary and fragile balance, comparable to the dynamic balance between the ego and the id in the psychological sphere.  But artworks become bad only because they objectively raise the claim of being art”(300).    According to Adorno, surrealism had potential but it failed because it was rejected by “an anti-art deportment that never achieved its goal of becoming a political force.”  He suggests that the rejection of surrealism by this anti-art deportment was a mistake because it, itself, failed to become a political force.

The “force field” – created by art – is something to be reckoned with. The immanence of art, its totality, creates a force-field.:

All the same, origin is not radically external to the work.  It is an implicit part of the artworks that they are artifacts.  The configurations sedimented in each address the context from which it is issued.    In each its likeness to its origins is thrown into relief by what it became.  The antithetic is essential to its content.  Its immanent dynamic crystallizes the dynamo external to it and indeed dow so by virtue of its aporetic character.  Regardless of their individual endowments and contrary to them, if artworks are unable to achieve their monadological unity, they succumb to real historical pressure; it becomes the force that inwardly dislocates them.  This is not the least of the reasons why an artwork is adequately perceived as a process. If however the individual artwork is a force field, a dynamic configuration of its elements, this holds no less for art itself as a whole.  Therefore art cannot be understood all at once, but only in terms of elements, in a mediated fashion.   One of these elements is that by which artworks contrast with what is not art; the attitude toward objectivity changes.  (301)

The force field is inherent in this “dynamic configuration of its elements,” and this dynamic is what contrasts with what is not art.   If, on the other hand, it “succumbs to real historical pressure,” than the force of history “inwardly dislocates it.”  In other words, the force of history can destroy the force field of art.

And perhaps that is what distinguishes Adorno from Paglia.  He would argue that it is only through the opposition to history that art can be a force field – that is, a true force, with a dynamic of it own.  But the anti-art movement, which fails to become political, suggests that the killing field wants to destroy the force field.   The people – history – can and, as Paglia suggests, should dislodge it.  Because art – and by implication – academia have become a negative force that goes against the grain of true leftist history, which is populist, it must be derided and destroyed.

What Paglia suggests is that since postmodern art is not from the people but from the elite, it must be exposed as a fraud.   Only true art, in other words, comes from the people not from academics or artists. But will the people produce a force field that goes against the grain of history or will history (synonymous with the people) – embodied in, as Paglia says, in the “working class style, working class language, working class direct emotion…in an openness and brusqueness of speech” – destroy “art”?  Will the killing fields destroy the force fields?

Questions: Food for Thought

Has art – as Adorno understood – now become impossible after Warhol?  Is it really dead?  Are we living in an age when it must be killed because it is taking us from who we “really” are, as Paglia suggests?  Why is this struggle of forces over the meaning of art, as the meaning of the academy, so important today?  Will the academy be forced to address these claims made by Peterson and Paglia simply because they are so popular (this video, itself, has nearly 700,000 views and Peterson has recently scared the University of Toronto by suggesting that a website be built which designates which classes are “postmodern,” which means, as we see here, contrary to the people)?  Is this the contrast – the dynamic – that Adorno was looking for or is it something he wouldn’t expect?