Humor as Prosthesis: On Comic Word Play and Ironic Victories


Some schlemiel theorists like Ruth Wisse and Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi read comedy as a kind of compensation for failure and powerlessness. Comedic language, in this scenario, is a kind of prosthesis.   The feverish pace of comedy is, in this scenario, structured to give the writer, joke-teller, and audience a false – read fictional – sense of control.

Reflecting on the excessive use of language in Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiel-comedy, Ruth Wisse writes:

Sholem Aleichem generally employs the technique of monologue, of which the epistolary form is but a variation, to convey the rhythms and nuances of character, and to underscore the extent to which language itself is the schlemiel’s manipulative tool. Through language the schlemiel reinterprets events to conform to his own vision, and thereby controls them, much as the child learns to control the environment by naming it. One need only read Menachem Mendl’s joyous, and incomprehensible, explanation of the stock market to appreciate how proficient handling of language can become a substitute for proficient commerce. Moreover, the richness of language in some way compensates for the poverty it describes. There is in the style an overabundance of nouns, saying, explanations, and apposition….The exuberant self-indulgence of…description takes the sting out of failure itself….Maurice Samuel called…it “theoretical reversal.” (54)

In this scenario, all comic language is ironic as is the laughter that goes along with it since, in this view, everyone goes along with the joke. Nonetheless, we know what the schlemiel is doing. He is, as it were, not fully absent minded. And, as Wisse suggests, the schlemiel uses language like a “manipulative tool” so as to reinterpret events and things that they cannot master so that they can “conform to his own vision.”

Writing on the telephone as a prosthesis, Avital Ronell argues that it is “capable of surviving the body which it in part replaces” and it “acts as a commemorative monument to the dissolution of the mortal coil”(88, The Telephone Book). Playing on Freud, Ronell goes on to call the prosthesis a “godlike annexation of a constitutively fragile organ.” It performs a “restitutional service” by going right to where the trauma touches the body.

Ronell argues that Freud anticipates Marshall McLuhan who argues that if the body fails the prosthesis succeeds. However, for McLuhan, the prosthesis is not simply a substitute for a weak or “fragile organ.” It is an extention of our existing organs. Citing McLuhan, Ronell notes that for him the prosthesis will no longer be a buffer between the body and the world. It will directly relate to it. In other words, it is no longer a substitute and it no longer is false. And now when it is shocked or traumatized there is an “auto-amputation of the self.”

Ronell contrasts this new understanding of trauma mediated by a prosthesis which now becomes “real” to Freud who argues that the enjoyment of this false limb amounts to a “cheap thrill.”

Bringing all this together, I’d like to test out the prosthetic theory of humor posited by Wisse, above. If humor is a prosthesis, than wouldn’t our enjoyment of it be, in Freud’s words, cheap? Perhaps this suggests that the schlemiel is understood as a prosthesis and that our “ironic victory” is…ironic. Without that understanding, our laughter would in fact be cheap.

On the other hand, if we read prosthetic humor along the lines of McLuhan there is no false limb. It is not a tool so much as an extention of our bodies. If that is the case, humor – as an extention of our bodies – exposes us to existence. It doesn’t protect us and it can potentially harm the schlemiel. This insight, to my mind, bears some interesting fruit. We see the effects of this more in stand-up comedy than in Yiddish literature. While Sholem Aleichem’s Motl or Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin seem to be immune to existence – by way of their humor – stand-up comedians and some contemporary schlemiel characters, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy or Shalom Auslander’s Kugel are not. Sometimes language can provide us with an ironic victory othertimes the same words can signify, for a schlemiel, defeat.

It all depends on how you read the prosthesis for sometimes the substitution afforded by comedy doesn’t compensate for lack so much as expose us to excess.

I’ll leave you with a clip from Andy Kaufmann since his comic words and his gestures seem to expose him rather than protect him from failure.



A Note on Nietzsche’s Sarcasm: Stupid and Honest Mystics versus Dishonest and Foolish Philosophers


In the beginning of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that for Rabbi Nachman the Simpleton (that is, the schlemiel) acts “as if” good will triumph over evil.  In his story, “The Clever Man and the Simple Man,” the thinker looks down on the simpleton as an idiot for being so naïve.  The simpleton’s honesty and trust are the object of his ridicule.   In many ways, Rabbi Nachman suggests that the simpleton, like many wise men, is a mystic in disguise.  And for Rabbi Nachman, as well as for many Yiddish writers who followed in his wake, the schlemiel was a character whose simplicity and trust pose a challenge to the skepticism and deceit of a world that laughs at him.  But, in the end, it’s the schlemiel who has the last laugh.

I recently came across an aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche that contrasts philosophers to mystics.  The contrast is brief and Nietzsche spends far more time – as one can imagine – making fun of philosophers.  The resonance between Nietzsche and Rabbi Nachman, at least in this aphorism, gives food for thought.  But would Nietzsche act “as if” good would triumph over evil, or is his mystic “beyond good and evil” and beyond acting as if “good exists?”  Wouldn’t that be too….”stupid” for him?

Nietzsche starts his fifth aphorism by noting that “one regards philosophers half mistrustingly and half mockingly.” Why?  It isn’t simply because they are “innocent…fall into error and go stray, in short their childishness and childlikeness.”  Rather, it is because they “display insufficient honesty while making a mighty and virtuous noise as soon as the problem of trustfulness” is invoked.  In contrast, Nietzsche tells us that “mystics…are more honest and more stupid to them.”   In saying this, Nietzsche privileges honesty and stupidity over dishonesty and feigned intelligence.

By acting “as if” they are intelligent and high minded about truth, Nietzsche believes they make themselves laughable and dishonest.  Moreover, Nietzsche says they lack the courage to admit that they are acting.  Nonetheless, Nietzsche finds this funny.  He associates this lack of courage with “tartuffery.”   To illustrate, Nietzsche caricatures Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza’s acts of deception so as to make them laughable:

Kant…lures us along the dialectical bypaths which lead, more correctly mislead, to his ‘categorical imperative’ – this spectacle which makes us smile.

Nietzsche tells us that he smiles because he is more “noble” than Kant and can see his “tricks”: “We who are fastidious and find no little amusement in observing the subtle tricks of old moralists and moral-preachers.”

Turning to Spinoza, Nietzsche accuses the Jewish philosopher of making uses of the “hocus-pocus of mathematical form.”  Nietzsche puts Spinoza’s “love of wisdom” into scare quotes and sarcastically mimics the rhetoric that goes along with speaking “the truth.”   After exhausting this rhetoric, Nietzsche, sickened, calls out Kant and Spinoza for being sick, timid, and vulnerable:

How much personal timidity and vulnerability this masquerade of a sick recluse betrays!

In other words, Nietzsche sees their arguments in the name of morality as the product of sickness.  They act “as if” they are defending the truth and this act is, for Nietzsche, worthy of a laughter that looks to purge the sickness of the philosophy in the name of health.

But what does Nietzsche mean by health?  Is his health closer to that of the “honest” but “stupid” mystic?  Or is health equated with a kind of intelligence that refuses both the philosopher and the mystic?

To be sure, Nietzsche respects the honesty of the mystic more than the philosopher.  But he finds more of an identification with the fool than the mystic.  In her book Stupidity, Avital Ronell points out that Nietzsche “latches” on to the “buffo” (the Italian word for fool).  Writing on Paul DeMan (who, for her, seems to be a successor of Nietzsche) Ronell argues that “transcendental buffoonery rips the system; it is shown to be propelled by a truly transgressive force that is fueled no so much by a romantic abandon as by a will to rise above that which is limited…bound by law and convention”(136).  This anti-nomian kind of humor – which can certainly be said to be mystical – wears the mask of the buffo/fool which she calls the “crucial mask of ironic destruction.”

The buffo “disrupts narrative illusion.”

What I find so interesting in all of this is that, unlike the schlemiel, Nietzsche’s fool doesn’t act “as if” good exists.   He wouldn’t equate himself with a stupid but honest mystic or fool.  Rather, as we can hear in the aphorism, Nietzsche does act “as if” he is superior to all masks which posit the “as if.”

To be sure, schlemiels and mystics aren’t sarcastic.  This act, as Ronell suggests, is an intelligent act of “ironic self-destruction.”   There isn’t a relationship with the “as if” of goodness, as there is with the schlemiel.  Moreover, while the schlemiel is blind to the abyss, Nietzsche is not.  The schlemiel doesn’t laugh, Nietzsche does.  And this laughter, I would argue, is the laughter of a metaphysics which, through laughter, elevates the subject of laughter beyond the philosopher and the mystic.   It is, for Nietzsche, the most “honest” laugh of all because it is beyond good and evil.  But it isn’t stupid; it’s critical.

In contrast, the laugh that the schlemiel evokes is sad laughter.  It is not beyond good and evil so much as caught between them.  Being on the other side of history, Jews couldn’t afford to laugh in the way Nietzsche could.  And this is reflected in the schlemiel who, though committed to goodness, fails in a world that disregards the good.





Are all Schlemiels Humble or Just Ridiculous? Kafka on Humility, the Language of Prayer, and Striving


We all love the simpleton.  Her ways are awkward, yet graceful. For all their simplicity, they are the ways of goodness.   But they come to us, as Avital Ronell says in her book Stupidity, by way of the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which is not innate and must be “publicly exposed.”  Perhaps Hollywood inherited the simpleton and its exposure from Yiddish literature.  Or as Paul Buhle might say, perhaps the schlemiel came from the Lower East Side and ended up in Hollywood as the simpleton.  The exemplary American simpleton, Dorothy, of The Wizard of Oz, lives in Kansas with several other simpletons who, like her, love to dream.  She lives on the American frontier and Toto is her companion.  In this American moment, the public exposure of simplicity goes hand-in-hand with friendship and hope.

In Yiddish literature, the schlemiel is often called a simpleton (a tam).  And, like Dorothy, the schlemiel is hopeful and sometimes has animals as friends.  (For instance, Motl, of Shalom Aleichem’s Motl: The Cantor’s Son spends a lot of time with a cow named Pesi.)  In his simplicity, the schlemiel finds a friend in anyone or with anything s/he encounters.  The schlemiel may be absent minded, but his or her way, though often ridiculous and absent-minded, is the way of simplicity and peace.  Although the schlemiel is often more ridiculous than Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, his simplicity is not in any way diminished.

According to many commentaries, Midrashim, and anecdotes of the Jewish tradition, simplicity is not a laughing matter.  It is the most Jewish of all traits.   Simplicity is equated with humility. 

The ultimate source for humility as a principle trait is not in the commentaries; it is in the Torah.  In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described as “a very humble man” the “most humble man on earth.”  And since Moses Maimonides sees Moses as the greatest of all Prophets, he finds his way of being in relation to God and man to be exemplary. And that way of being is the way of humility.

In contrast to Aristotle, who thinks the extreme humility is a negative character trait, which must be countered with pride and even anger, Maimonidies argues that extreme humility is a noble trait.  Using this contrast, David Shatz argues, in an essay entitled “Maimonides’ Moral Theory,” that pride is a Greek ideal while extreme humility is a Jewish one.

This Jewish ideal was commonplace for Jews in the Middle Ages and in Eastern Europe right up to the beginning of the 20th century. Using diaries, Haggadoth, and various letters, Daniel Boyarin shows, in his book Unheroic Conduct, that humility was, during those times, the ideal.

Marking these dates, Boyarin goes out of his way to show how humility became “unheroic” in the modern period.  Besides Daniel Boyarin, people like Marc H. Ellis (in Judaism Doesn’t Equal Israel) and Rich Cohen (in Israel is Real), have made the claim that pride and power displace humility after the Holocaust.  Each of their projects, to some extent, is an effort to recover this character trait which they believe is Jewish and not Greek.  But this effort at recovery, unfortunately, is wrapped up in a political agenda.  They forge a dichotomy between Jews in America, who are humble, and Zionist Jews in Israel, who are prideful.  They would say that, in losing humility, Israelis have become militant.  But is this the right way to approach humility? Has it become too politicized and are things as black and white as these thinkers paint them?

We need not think of humility in this way.  We should certainly take the Torah and Maimonides seriously when they say that one must, like Moses, be humble in relation to man and to God.  But we need not think of humility by way of a political agenda.

Another route to take with humility is by way of Franz Kafka who teaches us that humility has a mystical and ethical resonance.   Kafka calls humility the “language of prayer” which is always shared with others.  More importantly, for Kafka, humility can give one the spiritual strength to “strive” with oneself.

For Kafka, humility is the way; while the self is the obstacle.  The self is deluded and seductive.  And, like Jacob, who wrestled with his angel, Kafka knows he must struggle with himself.  Through such a struggle, Jacob became Israel.  Kafka also, it seems, has this vision.  But, more important for Kafka, is the strength he gains from being humble.   It is his anchor.

He records these thoughts about humility, the language of prayer, strength, and striving in his Blue Octavio Notebooks.

After Franz Kafka’s death, Max Brod – Kafka’s best friend – published several quotes from Kafka’s Blue Octavio Notebooks.  He entitled the book Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way.    According to Brod, Kafka extracted these quotes from his notebooks and numbered them: “the text here follows the fair copy made by the author himself.”   Brod included aphorisms that were crossed out as well (noting them with asterisks).    Although there is much wisdom to be gained by reading the compilation of aphorisms and anecdotes on “sin, suffering, hope and the true way,” I would suggest that we read Kafka’s quotes in their original context; namely, the Blue Octavio Notebooks.  They teach us about the relationship of humility to peace, on the one hand, and striving, on the other.  Taken together, they bring us within arms length of the schlemiel.

The quote that interests me – and which is cited in Brod’s compilation – is found in the Fourth Notebook. It was written on February 24th:

Humility provides everyone, even him who despairs in solitude, with the strongest relationship to his fellow man, and this immediately, though, of course, only in the case of complete and permanent humility.  It can do this because it is the true language of prayer, at once adoration and the firmest of unions. The relationship with one’s fellow man is the relationship of prayer, the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; it is from prayer that one draws the strength for one’s striving.

After writing this, Kafka changes his tone:

Can you know anything other than deception?   If ever the deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.

The dialectical tension between these two aphorisms is worthy of interest.  To be sure, it illustrates what Kafka means by “the relationship of striving.”  In the first aphorism, Kafka goes so far as to say that humility provides humankind with the “strongest relationship to his fellow man.”  Moreover, humility is “the true language of prayer.”

It is on account of this “language of prayer,” that one can “strive” with oneself. Kafka’s striving, which is supported by humility, is illustrated in the second aphorism.

Kafka strives with himself and asks: “Can you know anything other than deception?”

In response to this scathing question, the self is silent.  In the face of this silence, Kafka gives advice with a Biblical Ring: “If ever deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.”

To be sure, Kafka is not simply striving with himself; he is trying to turn himself around.   He is trying to convert himself to humility by way of preaching to himself.  He is pleading with the self to learn something other than “deception”: namely, the truth (which can only be accessed through humility).

When thought of in relation to the schlemiel, the implications of these lines are quite interesting.  A schlemiel like Gimpel is a Tam; he is humble.  Yet, everyone deceives him.  He is unaffected by these deceptions insofar as he remains humble and continues to trust others.  And this is the comic conceit.

Using Kafka’s language, we could say that Gimpel’s life speaks the “language of prayer.”  However, it is us, the viewers, who must strive with deception in the sense that we are the ones who deceive.  We are complicit in laughing at simplicity and publicly ridiculing it for its naivite and stupidity.   This is the message that I.B. Singer was trying to convey in his famous story “Gimpel the Fool.”

Thought of in these terms, Kafka identifies with the schlemiel.  But at the same time he realizes that he is complicit, in his deluded high mindedness and competitiveness, with squashing simplicity.   Kafka realizes that he needs to “strive” with that aspect of himself which destroys the humility he has acquired by means of his relationships with others.

To be sure, Kafka’s struggle is the struggle of tradition.  It is the struggle of Jacob (who is called an Ish Tam – a simple man) with his angel.  It is the struggle that earns Jacob the name Israel.  His strength, which he draws on to wrestle with the angel, is the strength of prayer.

Let’s take this a step further and be a little presumptuous.

Perhaps humility is the “language of prayer” that Sancho Panza learns from Don Quixote? And perhaps humility is the language that Walter Benjamin learns from Kafka?  Humility is the language of the schlemiel and it is the language of Don Quixote.  But it can also be heard as one, among many other voices, in Hollywood.  The language of the Hollywood simpleton is the language of a man-child.

Like The Wizard of Oz, Chaplin’s 1921 film, The Kid speaks this language, too.  After all, humility has its childish and foolish ways.  A humble hobo like “the Kid” can also raise an orphan (albeit it in a strange way).  In each, there is an old/new tradition that is transmitting humility and childishness and perhaps, the language of prayer to those who will “strive” with the self.  Ultimately, however, Ronell is right.  Kafka’s humility would not be possible without the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which aims to publicly expose “humility.”  And in this comic exposure, we bear witness to the “language of prayer.”  Given the world we live in, this language appears to us as ridiculous but, for all that, it is still the best we’ve got.