The Schlemiel’s Trust Issues in Sheli Heti’s Comic Novel “How Should a Person Be?”

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Sheila Heti – the author, narrator, and main character of the comic novel How Should a Person Be? – has fears that if she trusts someone, she may hurt someone and hurt herself. But, as we learn from the prologue, she has to if she is to learn how a person should be. She doesn’t look inside herself; she looks to others. This conflict, at the core of her being, makes her experience of herself and the world more fragmented.

To bring out the fragmentation, Heti introduces emails to her narrative and, in addition, she does something odd and irritating with them: she breaks the emails into numbered lines that have no explicit reason for being numbered save for the order.   These emails punctuate the text and complicate the narrative with information which may or may not be relevant. Here is a small snippet of the first email from Margaux, which, however, does have relevance since it shows a tension between actions and expectations that Heti has of others. It also shows major distrust and insecurity:

1. i have always admired a lack of social obligation, in fact, i aspire to it. the number of birthday parties i attend is too many, apart from that, i assumed you weren’t coming to my party and you did not.

2. at my party, you husband, probably being noting but sweet and drunk and feeling generous, and probably having nothing to do with your sentiments, said, “hell, you and Sheila should spend more time together.”

3. and i laughed and thought nothing about it.

4. but then when i saw you in the street yesterday, i was very annoyed and probably annoying. my annoyance was unfair and a little silly.

The email ends with a kind of apology which recurs throughout the text in a certain manner; especially between Margaux and Sheia. Both make “mistakes,” feel ashamed, and apologize (especially Sheila). (Apology, to be sure, is a major part of Toronto culture, the milieu of this novel; wherein the average citizen says “I’m sorry” often in day-to-day life.)

Immediately following this email, Sheila says she is “thrown off” (in other words, the email astonishes her; and, as I have noted above, astonishment is a key feature of the schlemiel).   To be sure, the email makes Sheila feel special. Her excitement and astonishment becomes disturbed. This is evinced by the fact that as she wanders through the neighborhood she “zipped and unzipped my jacket as my body went from hot to cold”(31). She muses that this it is a curse and a blessing to “have a woman,” and she launches into her inability to understand women (herself being one) and their relationships with each other: “I supposed I didn’t trust them. What was a woman for? Two women was an alchemy I didn’t understand….It would have been too easy to count the ways I had been betrayed by girls, all the ways I had been hurt by them. And if I wanted, I could have easily made a list of all the girls to whom I had caused pain”(32)

The schlemiel, to be sure, has trust issues. But usually they are usually the other way around. The schlemiel trusts others and is betrayed. Here, the schlemiel is wary of trust because she has been burned so many times before. Sheila, this schlemiel, is more reflective on the meaning of trust than the character; and, in a postmodern sense, she does what the reader would do vis-a-vis what we find in a story like “Gimpel the Fool”:

Trust has to be won from zero at every encounter. That’s the reason you always see women being so effusive with each other – crying out shrilly upon recognizing each other in the street. Women have to confirm with each other, even after so many years: We are still all right….A woman can’t find rest or take up home in the heart of another woman – not permanently. It’s just not a safe place to land. I knew the heart of a woman could be a landing ground for a ma, but for a woman to land in another woman’s heart? That would be like landing on something wobbly, without form, like trying to stand on Jell-O. Why would I want to stand tall in Jell-O? (33)

In other words, Sheila, at this moment, is thinking about how much a failure and waste of time it would be if she tried to gain Margaux’s trust. However, in an odd follow up to this reflection, Sheila talks about her “first day at typing school”(33). Although the scene is odd, the theme of the text gives us a cue as to how this is connected to the reflection on women. While noting that she smiles at everyone, Sheila says that she regards all of the other people in the class as “liars” but she “wants them on her side.” She wants to be their “hero”(34). She “prayed” that she wouldn’t “create any enemies”(34). However, like a schlemiel, she fails, and realizes that she can’t use “wit” (as many schlemiels do) to win: “By the end of the first afternoon, they were laughing at me….I saw I wasn’t going to outwit them. Those people didn’t deal with wit”(34).

As in Woody Allen’s Anything Else -when Jason Biggs tells Allen that he and Allen can outwit two bullies by wit and Allen retorts that this won’t do – she realizes that she can’t win through wit because she belongs with the “liars and the weaklings”(34); the “jocks” have a different “interior” and have an “integrity that springs from the very center of the earth itself”(34).

This distinction is at the core of the latter day schlemiel. And though, as we can see above, she is wary of having a relationship with Margaux because of what she envisions will happen, she receives two more emails from Margaux that suggest to her that Margaux is a lot like her: she seems to be absent-minded and has a different interior that the jocks; she is a weakling of sorts, too. But, more importantly, Sheila can see that Margaux, in one of the emails, really wants to be her friend. It seems as if she can trust Margaux from email lines like this which Sheila all numbers “1”:

  1. i am surprised at how much i miss you, like a real teenage girl.
  1. hello. I was wondering, if you have red bike lights, could i borrow them tomorrow night?
  1. i’m going to paint your portrait a hundred times and never mention it to anyone – articulately.
  1. yes, I would like to see you. i have all the time in the world. (37)

Following this, Sheila becomes childlike and remembers a poem she used to read in Hebrew school:

Love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

 

Love is like a magic penny!

Hold on tight and you won’t have any!

Lend it, spend it, you’ll have so many,

They’ll roll over the floor, oh!

However, when she reflects on the poem, she becomes perplexed about what it means to give. The central metaphor of the poem distracts her from it’s content:

This seemed impossible to me, just crazy! If you give it away you’ll end up having more? It was the only poem I knew and my favorite one, for it baffled me. I recited it over and over to myself, as if there was something I could learn from it. In my head, in rooms in homes, zillions of pennies rolled over the floors, thick and encompassing like waves. (38)

She thinks these thoughts while “overcome with wonder” and drifts into thinking about something arbitrary: Margaux’s “grade-six graduation ceremony” in Texas (where she lived). She imagines her dressed like a schlemiel, with clothes too big for her. But there is a difference. Though she is laughed at by the audience, Margaux’s “dignity” is “in tact”(38) while, as we can see from her humiliating experience in the typing class above, the laughter at Sheila makes her vulnerable and affects her sense of self.

The dialectical back and forth between taking risks or opting out of them is at the crux of these types of reflections. The end of chapter three drives this home since he see that she, like a schlemiel, lets optimism overtake her cynicism: “For so long I had been looking hard into every person I met, hoping I might discover in them all the thoughts and feelings I hoped life would give me, but hadn’t”(38). She muses on how people have told her, however, that looking to others for hope is a dead end; and that it is better to “find such things in yourself, that you cannot count on anyone to supply even the smallest crumb that your life lacks”(39). This thought, nonetheless, doesn’t keep her from deciding that it is worth taking risks with Margaux, hoping that she would learn something how a person should be: “Although I knew this might be true, it didn’t prevent me from looking anyway. Who cares what people say? What people say has no effect on your heart”(38). The last words are the most telling since these are the words that can only be said by a schlemiel who trusts his heart over his head. This kind of logic is the logic of the schlemiel and one can assume that it will lead only to disappointment or some mistake.   Although trust is the basis of religion and society, the virtue of the schlemiel is to show us the other, more existential side of trust wherein the one who trusts often fails. For Heti, trust is a risk; but one that must be ventured.

The Postmodern Chelm, or The Artistic Community in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” – Part I

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I can remember the first time I ever heard a story about the Jewish fool otherwise known as a schlemiel.   What struck me about the story, when I first heard it (when I was six or seven years old), was that the schlemiel wasn’t an independent agent. He lived amidst other schlemiels – in a town called Chelm.   And the community, I believed, had something to do with his foolishness.   Years later, I looked deeper into the issue to discover that German-Jews often associated the schlemiel with the ghetto while Eastern European Jews associated the schlemiel with the shtetl. And while the German-Jews looked down on this community and its relationship, Eastern-European writers – like I.B. Singer, who translated the fools of Chelm stories into storybooks for children – had a more positive view. But regardless of the place and perspective, we see the same thing: schlemiels are, traditionally, found in communities. And even though the ghetto is gone and the shtetl – following the Holocaust -is a thing of the past, the schlemiel still lives on.   But, in it’s North American incarnation, it doesn’t always live on in a community of schlemiels. To be sure, we can see how the schlemiel lives on – all by himself – in urban settings – as in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant or Saul Bellow’s Herzog – or in rural settings – as in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (and in most of his short stories) or Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy.

At the outset of her book, How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti does something different. She situates Sheila, a female schlemiel, amongst a small community of schlemiel-artists.   What I like most about this is that Sheila is not the only “odd one out” – something we find in the above mentioned novels (save for The Assistant, in which Frank, the main character, slowly becomes a schlemiel; but, when he does, he does so alone, in the wake of Morris Bober’s death).   Woody Allen often situates himself as the only “odd one out,” too. For instance, in the film Annie Hall (1976), he presents himself, at the very beginning of the film, as the “odd one out.”

As far as schlemiel literature, film, and art goes, this is a novel move. It gives us a sense of what Sheila, the main character, shares with other artists. As I pointed out in my first blog entry on the book, Sheila, in the Prologue, states her purpose which is to figure out “how a person should be.” What’s interesting about the first chapter is that we learn that she is not alone. And the people she could take guidance from are, by and large, on the same journey as she is.   What makes this more interesting is the fact that half of the people she mentions, in this regard, have Jewish names. This suggests that she lives in half-an-artistic kind of shtetl. And that shtetl, so to speak, is in Toronto. The schlemiel lives on, albeit in an urban postmodern setting which adds new dimensions to this comic character.

The first Jewish name we see is in the title of the first chapter: “Sholem paints.” (Instead of the Hebrew transliteration, Shalom, we have the Yiddish one; moreover, one thinks of Sholem Aleichem when one sees this name.) The first words of the chapter tell us where we can find him, Sheila, and the other community members:

We were having brunch together. It was Sunday. I got there first, then Misha and Margaux arrived, then Sholem and his boyfriend, Jon. (11)

What’s most important to the narrator is how they feel about the space (“the diner”) which, she notes, had been “repainted” from “grease-splattered beige to a thickly pastel blue and had spray painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup”(11). This new décor “ruined the place somewhat.” And this spurs the theme of the first chapter which is ugliness, art, failure, and selfhood:

I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn’t enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn’t attracted to, Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home. (12)

Since all of them are artists (one is an actor, two are painters, and Shelia is a writer), one can assume that, at some level, they have had to deal with frustration, failure, and disappointment. Heti speaks to these issues directly in her descriptions of Sholem, Misha, and Margaux.   Each of these reflections dovetails into mediations on failure and they spur the idea to have an “Ugly Painting Competition” (this frames the beginning and the end of the novel, which is separated into acts of a play that Sheila never finishes; and although the novel is completed – and we are, to be sure, reading and interpreting the finished work – the fact of the matter is that a novel is not a play; failure, therefore, is built into the clash between the novel and it’s content). The turn to ugliness – in the midst of their conversation – is fascinating since it is an inversion of what artists are supposed to create; namely, beauty.   And this inversion exposes the other side of being an artist today which has much to do with things that are very ugly. What makes this most powerful, however, is that this is delivered in a comic manner, though a community of schlemiels who come up with the idea of an “Ugly Painting Competition”:

Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don’t remember, but once I got enthusiastic suddenly we all were. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I really hoped it would happen. I was curious to see what the results would be, and secretly envied them. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. I wanted to make an ugly painting – pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. (13)

This is, to be sure, the first activity in the Chelm-like community. And the enthusiasm for it betrays a deeper sadness in all of them. When Sholem, for instance, nearly finishes his ugly painting, he gets very depressed and anxious. Like a schlemiel, he bears witness to his failure:

Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged into despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone to the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. (14)

These are the types of reflections we also hear from Bernard Malamud’s Morris Bober. But Sholem’s comments are within a larger competition and community than Bober’s utterances of self-deprecation, failure, and suffering. Sholem, Misha, Margaux, and Sheila are all, as I will show in the next entries, engaging failure.

 

To be continued….

It all started with Menachem Kipnis, one of the first journalists to report on the Schlemiel

I’m reposting this piece, which I saw on facebook on a page called der Shtetl.  It should certainly be mentioned and reflected on in Schlemiel-in-Theory.  The  piece – cited in full below – begins by mentioning Yiddish writer Menachem Kipnis who loved to write schlemiel stories.  He ventured a daring (fictional) proposition: he wrote a series of stories ‘as if’ he were a journalist “reporting from Chelm,” telling, humorously, of its characters, their daily rhythms, and the town’s foolish happenings.

The obvious question and the comic conceit of the Kipnis’s venture is: How could a journalist remain objective in Chelm?  Isn’t it the case that a reporter’s job is to ‘cover’ reality not fiction?  But this evokes another question.  Are there “real” schlemiels who exist in reality and not Chelm?  The answer is yes.  However, the city of Chelm – although a real place and a fictional place in Poland – is ultimately fictional KINDERLAND.

The last lines of this piece hit on what I’ve been discussing in the last blog: the smile.  Remember how Walter Benjamin, drawing on Baudelaire, points out that even the smile is “Satanic.”  Can we say that about Chelm?  When we innocently contemplate such a place like Chelm, will we smile with what Benjamin calls a “Satanic Serenity?”

I would expect a Satanic smile if I said I was reporting on hell. But on Chelm?

Now, can we imagine what would happen if I, like Professor Ruth Bernuth (who also does research on the schlemiel and is mentioned below in this article and in this quote), were to tell people, today,  that “I’m working on the schlemiel?”

Professor Bernuth notes how “when I meet people, especially elderly people, and tell them I’m working on Chelm,” she said, “they smile.”

This addition “especially elderly people,” denotes the fact that they knew of Chelm and we do not – well, only some of us do.

Let’s narrow this down.  The Chelm reporter, Menachem Kipnis, taught his readers that Chelm is on the one side, and the world on the other.

But Kipnis wrote before the Holocaust.   As this article below notes, Chelm and the world tragically collide during the Holocaust. Many of the people who identified with Chelm and called themselves “Chelmers” were, as the article notes, killed in the Holocaust. If anything, this puts a horrific and Satanic-slash-historical twist to the Chelm story.

Nathan Englander, a contemporary Jewish-American author, takes this historical shift as a main focus in his short story, “The Tumblers.” But in his story, the Chelmers survive the Nazis by acting “as if” they are clowns and not Jews – they act as if they are Jews. And this is the tragic irony. But perhaps Englander is telling us that the greater tragic irony is the historical one in which Chelmers died a real death during the Holocaust.

(Here’s an essay I co-authored and published which addresses Englander and the post-Holocaust Schlemiel: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/modern_fiction_studies/v054/54.1feuer.html)

Nonetheless, there is an enigma for us to ponder.  After the end of the schlemiel in Europe, it lives on here in this blog and in Nathan Englander’s story, in Woody Allen’s films, in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in Sasha Baron Cohen, Ben Stiller, etc and has virtually become a “cultural icon,” as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi says, in America. What does this mean? Does this represent, as Ezrahi claims, a failure to mourn or does its “after-life” represent something else? Does the American schlemiel have a, so to speak, different, mission?

And can I, a latter day Menachem Kipnis, still report from Chelm? Can there still be a schlemiel reporter after the Chlemites were killed in the Holocaust?

Schlemiel-in-theory contends that there can be. It contends that Chelmers can still exist and can still be reported on.  This blog post and this writer – who shares the same first name as Menachem Kipnis, the first schlemiel reporter – take on the task of sharing the news and mourning the passing of the European Schlemiel in the Holocaust.

(Note: in Hebrew the name Menachem is associated with the comfort that is offered to those who mourn.)

313311_438283439585119_484591086_nWarsaw, 1926:
By the turn of the 20th century, what originated with a collection of German stories in 1597 had become the literary canon known as Chelm.

In the 1920s, the Yiddish writer Menachem Kipnis wrote a series of humorous articles in the Warsaw newspaper Haynt in which he identified himself as a journalist reporting from Chelm. These dispatches were so popular that a mother from the real Chelm is said to have written the paper begging it to stop printing them — she was afraid she would never be able to marry off her daughter.

This anecdote might be just another Chelm story. But von Bernuth did notice that as the stories gained in popularity people stopped referring to themselves in print as “Chelmers.” Chelm was no longer just the name of a town — it was a joke, one that somehow remained funny even after hundreds of Chelm’s real Jews were marched out of the town and shot by German troops in late 1939 and thousands of others were sent to the death camp at Sobibor.

“In addition to the already mentioned Hersh Welczer, whose widow and his orphans later escaped from Chelm to Wolyn,” reads a description of the events of 1939 in a memorial book later published by survivors, “the following popular Chelm Jews were shot during the slaughter: Dr. Oks, the photographer, Rozenblat, the three Lewensztajn brothers — rich iron merchants, Gamulke, a former lieutenant in the Polish military and Itshe Sznicer, owner of the perfumery.

“Their dead bodies were then handed over to their orphaned families by the peasants who knew them,” the account tells us, and the rest were buried together, 50 to a grave.

It became clear long before that war that the world of the Chelm stories was disappearing, and their role changed — they became less a living culture’s joke about itself than a wry love letter to an endangered species.

The stories might have survived when so much else of Yiddish culture was lost because “their absurd, humorous logic gave them a certain life,” said Yechiel Szeintuch, a Yiddish professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Though interest in Yiddish culture is increasing worldwide and new Yiddish departments are opening up in places like Lund, Sweden, Hebrew University shut its own department down in 2008. Szeintuch calls this “a modern-day Chelm story.”)

Over time, Chelm became popularly seen as one of the purest expressions of Jewish folk traditions from Europe. For German scholars before WWII, on the other hand, the Yiddish stories were derided as foreign corruptions of the original Schildburg fables.

In fact, von Bernuth said, the only way to understand Chelm is as the joint creation of different people who lived in the same place and listened to their neighbors’ stories.

“These stories are one of the most interesting examples of how German and Yiddish culture influenced one another,” she said. “It shows how intertwined they were.”

“To tell the story of Chelm, you need to know about German culture and German literature. Otherwise it’s rootless,” she said.

Von Bernuth is used to raised eyebrows from scholars who hear how she spends her time — “Some of them think I’m crazy,” she said. But there are advantages.

“When I meet people, especially elderly people, and tell them I’m working on Chelm,” she said, “they smile.”
Photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin’s, ‘Khakhme Khelm,’ Warsaw, 1926

KINDERLAND or Chelm?

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Chelm is a real place in Poland that some say has existed since the 9th century.  It is also a mythological place where, legend has it, all the Jews are schlemiels.

From the YIVO encyclopedia, we learn that Chelm-like stories have existed, in print, since 1597.  But the legend itself may go back further.  And as the encyclopedia points out, many Yiddish writers either cited these stories, retold them, or modeled their own mythic schlemiel cities on Chelm.

In America, the most well-known Chelm stories, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, come to us by way of I.B. Singer.  When I was a child, my Rabbi – who presided in a conservative synagogue in a small town in the Adirondacks named Knesseth Israel – used to read them to us every Saturday so as to inspire us before we had the “children’s minyan.”  (He would gather the children around him and either read these stories or a variety of fun Hasidic stories.  I liked these best, however; we all did.  I can remember giggling with my friends as he told them.  Imagine that, I used to think, a town of fools and led by fools!)

I mention the fools of Chelm in this blog entry because this land of Schlemiels relates, however obliquely, to what Benjamin and Dostoevsky (apparently wanted): namely, a KINDERLAND (a land of children) which I discussed in yesterday’s blog.

The term KINDERLAND actually comes from Nietzsche but it became a key word for Georges Bataille, a good friend of Walter Benjamin.

It is well-known that Benjamin and Georges Bataille were friends.  To be sure, Benjamin’s archival material, much of which we have today, was left with Bataille.  (As J.M. Coetzee notes in his 2001 essay on Benjamin for The New York Review of Books,  Bataille hid and preserved the Arcades Project manuscript.)

The two may have spoken of this vision of a land of children.  But we can have no doubt that they discussed their utopian visions as the Nazi spectre hung over Europe and crisis loomed on the horizon.

Bataille takes to the word KINDERLAND in a piece entitled the “Nietzschian Chronicle.” There, he writes (in capital letters) of a Nietzschean KINDERLAND which challenges “every man’s VATERLAND.”

According to Bataille, this KINDERLAND was something of a prophesy which was expressed by none other than DIONYSOS:

The very first sentences come from ‘realms of dream and intoxication’.   The entire message is expressed in one name: DIONYSOS.  When Nietzsche made DIONYSOS (in other words, the destructive exuberance of life) the symbol of the will to power, he expressed in that way a resolution to deny to a faddish and debilitating romanticism the force that must be held sacred.

This prophesy, says Bataille, is wrapped up in the future.  And it bespeaks the renewal of life.  And, like Benjamin, he notes that KINDERLAND will only come about through destruction and “decomposition.”

Elsewhere, in an essay entitled “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Bataille notes that “action alone proposes to transform the world, make it similar to dreams.”  This language of dreams, youth, and action is familiar to this blog.

As I noted in an earlier blog entry, Schlemiels and “Messianic activists” share the same problem: they confuse dreams with reality.  Here, Bataille insists, in the name of Nietzsche and his prophet DIONYSOS, that action will transform the world into a KINDERLAND.

In his “Nietzschian Chronicle” he suggests that this Land would be “without a head.”  This has striking resonance when one thinks about the “Wise Fools of Chelm” who lead the land.  Their judgments are foolish and childlike in nature.  They lead “without a head.”  (But, in I.B. Singer’s version, this is laughable.  Its not real.  And, more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything destructive about this.)

When I was a kid, the fools of Chelm used to make me laugh aloud.  But I could never imagine a KINDERLAND in reality.  And perhaps this is the trick.

Although I would dream of such a land as a child, I’m not so sure I would do so as an adult.  This land of children they envision couldn’t be Chelm.  Or could it?  Would there be any fools in the KINDERLAND?

What exactly did Benjamin and Batialle mean when they (and apparently Dostoevsky) imagined a land of children?  Did they share the same vision of this KINDERLAND or differing visions?

We can hear their call for life, which resonates with the tones of vitalism, but can we imagine the land?  What, after all, would a KINDERLAND look like? If we can’t imagine a KINDERLAND in reality, perhaps we can say that KINDERLAND is a text?  Is it the Derridian text where everything is play or in play?  Is this a land without a head?  A land without a center?  Or is it….Chelm?

And must we destroy the land (and ourselves) to redeem the land, as Bataille and Benjamin suggest we should when the land is lacking “youth”?  Is this the only way to the future KINDERLAND?

(I’ll leave this post, as Paul Celan says with respect to the Other, an ‘open question.’  Celan says that the poem is going toward the other, toward the future, but does this mean we are going towards Chelm, KINDERLAND, or “?”)

But….perhaps the interchange between Dwayne and Alvy Singer bears a clue of where we’re going?