Oh, Have I Got a Deal For You! On Woody Allen’s Comedic Myth-Busting

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In comedy there are no sacred cows. And when it comes to mythology, comedy doesn’t hesitate to smash this or that myth.   Jewish comedy is well known for its iconoclasm. And perhaps this has a root in Judaism’s resistance to mythology and idolatry as well as its prohibition of images. It may also have to do with Judaism’s interest in textual interpretation which shows that this or that story poses questions or is linked to another narrative (something we often see in Midrash).   Both Franz Kafka and Woody Allen are, without a doubt, Jewish iconoclasts.  They parody myth by way of their own revisions, but they differ in terms of the insights that they offer to the reader.   While Kafka gives the reader deeper insights into faith, self-doubt, existence, and consciousness with his parodic revisions of myth, Allen gives his readers or viewers a sense of how a New Yorker has better things to do than get caught up in this or that ridiculous myth.   In these comedic revisions, Woody Allen is out to sell a way of life not prompt deep reflection.

In a piece entitled, “Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts,” Allen takes aim at several different kinds of mythological creatures, fantastic places, and myth itself. Like any joke, he starts with a serious reflection, but ends with an ironic punch line:

A wise man in India bet a magician that he could not fool him, whereupon the magician tapped the wise man on the head and changed him into a dove. The dove flew out the window to Madagascar and had his luggage forwarded.

…The magician said that in order to learn the trick one must journey to the four corners of the earth, but that one should go in the off-season, as three corners are usually booked. (178, The Insanity Defense)

In another mythological rewrite, Allen takes aim at an imaginary place called “Quelm,” (which sounds like, Chelm, a place populated by schlemiels).   It is “so distant from Earth that a man traveling the speed of light would take a million years to get there, although they are planning a new express route that will cut two hours off the trip”(178).

In each punch line, Allen looks to ground the listener in the here and now of the New York Jewish attitude toward the hardships of life and getting by:

In addition to these obstacles on Quelm, there is no oxygen to support life as we know it, and what creatures do exist find it hard to ear a living without holding down two jobs. (179)

While Allen’s iconoclasm is funny and grounds us in the here and now, it can be construed in a negative manner since it doesn’t take myth as a basis of reflection. It rejects it wholeheartedly. The problem with iconoclasm is that when it is not done with a proper sense of humility, it could possibly come across (to some) as self-serving or even dishonest. Citing Aristotle, Leo Strauss argues that “irony is a kind of dissimulation, or untruthfulness.  Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice”(51).

But, as I note elsewhere, Strauss doesn’t think that Aristotle is right:

Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth.  If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice.  Properly used, it is not a vice at all.  (51)

Strauss’s qualification of Aristotle is telling.  It suggests that irony is a neutral term and that it has a “proper” use.   Citing Aristotle against Aristotle, Strauss argues that “irony is…the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority”(51).  In other words, humility and irony do not contradict each other; in fact, they aid each other.

Reflecting on this, one can argue that even though Woody Allen isn’t using irony like Kafka (in order to tap into this or that depth while effacing a myth), he is also making a “proper” use of irony since the punch line dissimulates the superiority of myth.   His punch lines convey the humility of the New York everyman who is just trying to survive. The “speaker” in these pieces is the “ironic man” and his “noble dissimulation” conveys his only virtue which is to be a New Yorker.   But let’s not fool ourselves: each punch line is a sales pitch for a way of life which lives in the wake of myth and perhaps even philosophy. After all, both are interested in origins. (As Aristotle also notes in “The Metaphysics,” philosophy and myth start with wonder.)

I’ll leave the reader with a Woody Allen joke that takes both myth and philosophy as its target. Allen’s joke suggests that, in the world of the New Yorker, the philosopher (as much as the myth-lover) doesn’t exist:

Legend has it…that many billions of years ago the environment was not quite so horrible – or ate least no worse than Pittsburgh – and that human life existed.   These humans – resembling men in every way except for a large head of lettuce where the nose normally is – were to a man philosophers.   As philosophers they relied heavily on logic and felt that if life existed, somebody must have caused it, and they went looking for a dark-haired man with a tattoo who was wearing a Navy pea jacket.

When nothing materialized, they abandoned philosophy and went into the mail-order business, but post rates went up and they perished. (179)

 

 

 

Robin Williams: Energy, Comic Improv, and Mystery

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Upon hearing of Robin Williams passing, I, like millions of other fans, felt we have lost one of the best comedians of the last century. I’m not able (nor do I want to attempt) to write up an overview of his comedy career noting its highlights and main themes. However, I would like to say a few things about the energy and the mystery that ran through his improvisational kind of comedy.   Unlike many comedians who would let their mania go out of control, Williams tempered it with a charm and calm.   His comedic energy was infectious and solicited great laughter in his audiences. And his act had a kind of kinetic appeal to it that was new and surprising for many people living in America. But, in its wake, it left us with a kind of darkness or mystery. And for this reason, it touched on a kind of truth that is or may be possible through a kind of comedy that makes the audience “explode” with laughter.

In The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comedy, Phil Berger introduces Robin Williams near the end of the book.   To show how unique he was, Berger points out how different he was from other comedians who were managed by Rollins Joffe & Brezner (a talent management firm).   They managed comedians like Billy Crystal, Woody Allen, David Letterman, and Martin Short. And most of the comedians they managed had a similar shtick. Robin Williams was different, and this had much to do with his energetic style and his uses of improvisation in his act. He would efface the line between himself and the audience and go with whatever he came across:

In the case of Robin Williams, the problem was that his energy-charged act was so different from those of other comics that Los Angeles talent managers couldn’t get a fix on him. Williams lived on the improvised moment, doing takeoffs on Shakespearean plays, cracking up audiences in spur-of-the-moment iambic pentameter. Plucking a flower from a ringside vase: “….and look, a gentle rose, dying here anon…like myself.” He would plunge into the crowd, reacting to what he saw or heard. Lifting a carafe of wine from a patron’s table: “Hello, Laurence Olivier for Ripple wine.” He might even retire to a table in the audience and heckle himself: “I’ve heard all that stuff before. Your material is derivative.”

Williams’ ability to switch roles on the dime made him unique. In Williams, Brezner saw a “manic” energy that had the affect of something like a “wind tunnel”:

With Williams, the challenge was to take his nearly manic, stream of consciousness style (Brezner: “He had comedic energy that rebounded through the room. It felt like you stepped into a “wind tunnel.”) and not let it get out of hand. This meant giving the act structure – a beginning, middle, and an end – that had enough slack in it for Williams to dazzle audiences with his improvisational wit and energy. “If he just did his thing,” said Brezner, “the effect was that people laughed a lot, but they wouldn’t know who he is.”

Brezner’s last line is very interesting. It suggests that Williams, at the outset of his career, didn’t have a persona like Woody Allen. Rather, Williams was trading in a kind of energetics and play that has resonance with Woody Allen’s Zelig – a character who was likened to a chameleon.

In Zelig and Williams there is a mysteriousness that is born out of a transformational and manic energy. It is highly mimetic and performative.   The laughter he evoked, as well, had a mysterious character to it. And it may have this mysteriousness because it touches on something hidden, dark, sad, and even tragic.

Writing on laughter, Jean-Luc Nancy, argues that laughter is a “gaze brought to bear on tragedy itself, in its tragic truth…the laughter is the knowledge of this truth. But it doesn’t know this truth as the content of knowledge”(“Laughter, Presence,” 366).   For Nancy, it is in the moment of laughter and comedy that “it is known, it is in laughing that laughter is the truth.”   And this truth comes forth in energetic “bursts” or “explosions,” which, when they withdraw, leave a mysterious silence.

The one bursts with the other and from the same burst, truth withdraws into laughter, into the “dim glistening of the mystery.” That is why the laughter remains mysterious – more, it is the exposition of a mystery. The burst of laughter reveals that the structure of its truth is to be hidden. (366)

Whenever I saw Williams doing comedy, I always had a sense of this kind of darkness in the wake of his routine which came across as a series of comic explosions. It was as if he pulled back from his laughter – and the explosions – so as to expose us to a dark truth. Sometimes there would be a kind of violence to his “nearly manic” routine. We see it here, in this mime routine within a film.

We also see energetic uneasiness in his earlier routines. The laughter it evokes, like the laughter that Andy Kaufmann would evoke in many of his routines discloses how Americans survive from one rapid change (or “explosion”) to another. The movement from character to character – as Zelig does – evinces a departure from identity and a series of rapid fire changes.

Williams stand-up routine, near the end of his life, brings out a kind of comedy that uses energetics to deal with a series of shocks that are distinctly America.   His comedy reminds us of what many of us share. And it shows us how survival of these shocks, as he presents them, is an American-kind-of-thing to do.

Yet, at the core of this sudden outbursts and shocks, which he comically stages for us, there is a mystery about where all of this is going. He takes us on a journey of sorts through many states, but it is really the future that is the mystery. It is not simply (or only) as Brezner believed, related to Williams’ identity. Not only do we not know who Williams is (in the wake of each of his routines), we also don’t know where we are all going. He reveals something common to us that emerges in the wake of a series of shocks that permeate out time.

Thinking back over all the comedy I saw him perform I now feel as if I understand him better than I ever did. What Williams gave me, as a child, was a way of feeling I was a part of something larger than myself and that the best way to touch that was through exaggerating experience and playing out the things that shocked me. By improvising these things, I felt as if I could touch something real and alive. But the bigger question always lingered – as it did for Zelig – who was he and who are we? And where are all of these changes taking us?

You will be missed, Robin. Thanks for making comedy real and for tapping me in to existential questions that I share with many Americans; questions that emerge out of rapid changes and the flight of history. Thanks for exposing me to the mystery of being alive, now, at this time.

 

 

 

Doofus(es) and Dork(s) in David Eggers’ “The Circle” – Take 2

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Since they sometimes overlook reality in the name of something “good” that they are a part of, optimism and hope have a comical aspect. In certain scenarios, however, overlooking such things can have negative and even tragic consequences.   The blindspots we have, if they deal with fundamental things, like the importance and meaning of privacy and freedom are a case in point.   In the enthusiasm for a utopian kind of project, which promises to transform reality or in which a transformation is actually coming out, there may be a blindness to the meaning of freedom and privacy. We see this especially, today, in our head-over-heels love for facebook, google, and social networking. We are in the midst of a major change in social life in America (and around the world) and we haven’t yet figured out the stakes with respect to freedom and secrecy. We are all to happy to give away our information and make our private life public.

In the last blog entry on David Eggers’ last novel – The Circle – I discussed the often overlooked fact that the novel has comic elements. Although these moments are few and far between, they are very special because they involve a kind of optimism and utopian hope that overlook the meaning of privacy and freedom. The author calls the two main characters out on being naïve fools in the beginning of the novel and so does an old boyfriend of one of the characters (Mae) named Mason.

As I pointed out in the last blog entry, the narrator of Eggers novel makes the comic blindness of these characters evident in the very beginning of the novel. Annie, who gets Mae into “The Circle” (a name for a company like Google), is the first to be comically profiled:

There was a time, only four years ago, when Annie was a college student who wore men’s flannel housepants to class, to dinner, on causal dates. Annie was what one of her boyfriends, and there were many, called a doofus. But she could afford to be. She came from money, generations of money, and was very cute, dimpled and long-lashed, with hair so blond it could only be real. She was known by all as effervescent, seemed incapable of letting anything bother her for more than a few moments. But she was also a doofus. She was gangly, and used her hands wildly, dangerously when she spoke, and was given to bizarre conversational tangents and strange obsessions – caves, amateur perfumery, doo-wop music. (13)

She is also described as a “scattershot” and a “ridiculous person” who carries around a “piece of her childhood blanket around with her in her pocket.” But Annie is not alone. The narrator tells us that most of the three people who founded the circle also have this aspect. He brings this out in his description of a painting of all three of them which is, more or less, a caricature that they may be blind to but the narrator is not:

The painting was awkward, the kind of thing a high school artist might produce. In it, the three men, the founders of the company, were arranged in a pyramid, each of them dressed in their best-known clothes, wearing expressions that spoke, cartoonishly, of their personalities.   Ty Gospodinov, the Circle’s boy-wonder visionary, was wearing nondescript glasses and an enormous hoodie, staring leftward and smiling; he seemed to be enjoying some moment, alone, turned into some distant frequency. People said he was borderline Asperger’s, and the picture seemed intent on underscoring the point. (19)

Ty, the narrator tells us, also sees himself as a kind of outsider, oddball: “Ty realized he was, at best, socially awkward, and at worst an utter interpersonal disaster”(20). He hired the “other two Wise Men, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton” to balance him out. Ty designs the core of the Circle’s system which is called “TruYou” which sounds a lot like Google Plus.  In this novel, the Google system is portrayed as something that streams all of one’s bills, identities, accounts, etc into one system:

One account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person. There were no more passwords, no multiple identities. Your devices knew who you were, and your one identity – the Tru you, unbendable and unmaskable. (21)

While the owner, Ty, and his partners, taken together, may look cartoonish, this system is utterly serious, powerful, and a force on its own. It takes on a kind of moral, disciplinary force: “TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year….the True You wave a was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition. It started with the commerce sites….Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less taken over the internet, were driven back into darkness”(22). The narrator makes sure to mention that TruYou “subsumed” all social media: “Facebook, Twitter, Google, and finally Alacrity, Zoopa, Jefe and Quan”(23).

This new system, TruYou, has the goal of creating total transparency. It will eliminate “identity theft” and unfair and prejudiced practices on the internet. And Ty, in his utopian awkwardness, believes this will be good for everyone and make society a place devoid of crime and malice which, to his mind, are based on hiding things from others.

Following these serious descriptions of TruYou, the narrator completes his description of the other two Wisemen in the picture. Emaon Bailey, “standing next to him (Ty) in the painting, semmed utterly at peace, joyful even”(24). He smiles a lot. His whole body seems to smile: “When he smiled, which was near-constantly, his mouth smiled, his eyes smiled, his shoulders seemed to smile. He was wry. He was funny”(24). Bailey likes to play “Dixieland trombone”(24).

The last of the Three Wisemen is Tom Stenton. Of the three, he is the most serious. He is “unabashed about being wealthy, about being single and aggressive and possibly dangerous”(23).   The law and the government don’t stand in his way: “He was unafraid of presidents. He was not daunted by the lawsuits from the European Union or threats from state-sponsored Chinese hackers”(24).

Taken together the three of them create an odd image as of “mismatched flowers” but in the end the image of them together “worked”: “The three of them, in life and in this portrait, made for a strange bouquet of mismatched flowers, but there was no doubt that it worked”(25). But, the more Mae looked at the image, “the stranger it became.” She, who is also called a fool by the narrator, at the very least notices that there is something odd about this image that may “work” but not for her. She can’t put her finger on it:

The artist had arranged it such that each of the Wise Men had placed a hand on another’s shoulder. It made no sense and defied the way arms could bend or stretch. “Bailey thinks it’s hilarious,” Annie said. “He wanted it in the main hallway, but Stenton vetoed him”(26).

As Annie leads Mae up to their secret room, she sees all kinds of comical things that are juxtaposed to things that are utterly serious. The juxtaposition gives one a sense how, behind all of these smiles and comical gestures, there is something sinister lurking, something they aren’t aware of in their absent-minded (though apparently noble) utopian idealism.

 

…..to be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doofus(es) and Dork(s) in David Eggers’ “The Circle” – Take 1

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When I first picked up David Eggers’ recent novel, The Circle, I had no idea that the novel had any comic elements. To be sure, the majority of reviews suggested that the book was dystopian from start to finish. I was expecting something very grim. But, strangely enough, Eggers includes comic elements. What has not been sought after by any review or reflection I have read is the meaning of these comic elements. I’d like to venture, in a series of blog entries, a sketch of how one can read the presence of comedy in such a novel.

The Circle is a novel that hits home. It speaks to an age that is dominated by Google, Facebook, and Social Networking. Since we are in the midst of rapid shifts in the way we think and do things by virtue of social media and incredible new technology (computers, smart phones, tablets, etc), it’s very hard for us to reflect on what is happening to us. We are changing. We don’t think in the same ways. What does all this mean and how do we reflect on this? Fiction, to my mind, is one of the best mediums that we can use to explore and address the polyvalent meanings of this shift-in-progress. We can see ourselves through characters who are not-ourselves but are strangely similar to us. This is especially prescient when the characters in this novel are in hub of the social-networking business.

Through the two main characters, Annie and Mae (who are both fresh out of college), Eggers explores the hypothetical idea that is floating around most of our heads: what would it be like if I were to get a job at Google or Facebook?   One can imagine the prestige and power that goes along with a job that puts one in a company that is virtually changing the way we look at ourselves and the world. It’s very exciting.

Eggers brings this excitement out in the fact that the two main characters, as I mentioned above, just left college. As one can imagine, they are hopeful and eager to be a part of something that has the capability of changing the world for the good. This is a serious endeavor (and adventure). It seems as if comedy has no place.

However, throughout the novel there is laughter and joking around. What Eggers does is to make that laughter uncanny. He suggests that we pay closer attention to this laughter by virtue of the fact that, at one point in the novel, when he first introduces her, he describes Annie as a “dufus.” And, by way of another character who is not immersed in the world of social networking, we hear Mae described as a “dork.”   Reading these descriptions, one wonders if they should not be applied to just these two characters but to the members of the circle and perhaps ourselves.

Of the two, it is Annie who gets Mae into “The Circle.” And it is her description which should be of great interest to us because she is the character who we would all like to be: someone who goes from college to a place like Google or Facebook and rises to the top of the command. However, the description of her is not enviable. She’s a “doofus.”

There was a time, only four years ago, when Annie was a college student who wore men’s flannel housepants to class, to dinner, on causal dates. Annie was what one of her boyfriends, and there were many, called a doofus. But she could afford to be. She came from money, generations of money, and was very cute, dimpled and long-lashed, with hair so blond it could only be real. She was known by all as effervescent, seemed incapable of letting anything bother her for more than a few moments. But she was also a doofus. She was gangly, and used her hands wildly, dangerously when she spoke, and was given to bizarre conversational tangents and strange obsessions – caves, amateur perfumery, doo-wop music. (13)

The narrator goes on to describe her as a woman-child of sorts. She is a “scattershot and ridiculous person, who still carried a piece of her childhood blanket around in her pocket”(14). He muses, confusedly, about how such a person had “risen so quickly and high through the circle? Now she was a part of forty most crucial minds of the company – the Gang of 40 – privy to its most secret plans and data. That she could push through the hiring of Mae without breaking a sweat”(14).

All of this troubles the narrator because he can’t understand how a “doofus” like Annie could rise to such heights. Something is peculiar about this and his use of a comical descriptor suggests that the reader, like the narrator, should be suspicious. What, after all, does it mean that some of our greatest secrets – circulating on the internet – are in the hands of a “doofus?”

When we meet Mae, however, we think that she is more normal and not a doofus. Mae comes from a less privileged background. Her parents are more blue-collar, her father is dying, and she has a much more realistic sense of reality.

However, something happens to her after she starts working in the company for a few weeks.   Her initiation into The Circle prompts her to become obsessed with social media in ways she never was. At work she has three screens that she has to attend to: one for incoming customer service (which she is rated on), one for messages from her supervisors, and one for social media. She must pay attention to every screen. If she neglects any messages – even the social media messages – she is disciplined in some fashion. Moreover, the companies ethos suggests that the knowledge of all things that have ever happened can be beneficial to humanity. Instead of being judged for what a person is, one is judged by the things said online, by algorithms, and comments of people.   Being obsessed with this makes her into, what she will later be called by an ex-boyfriend, a dork.

But, as Eggers suggests, there is a difference between a “doofus” and a “dork.” Regardless of the difference (which we will explore in upcoming blog entries), Eggers’ use of comical terms to describe Annie and Mae functions to give us a comical distance from the condition we are immersed in.   Where do we fit on this spectrum? What does it mean that we might be a dufus or dork by virtue of being immersed in (or desiring to be immersed in) social media?

….to be continued…..

Psychotic Man-Child Fathers – Schlemiel Children: Marc Maron’s “Attempting Normal” (Part I)

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When I watch comedy, I’m always curious as to what kind of life this or that comedian lived while growing up. Like many theorists of comedy, I do think there is some plausibility to the claim that comedy, in some way, is born out of and addresses some kind of trauma or loss.   Ruth Wisse, in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, claims that schlemiel humor is a response to failure and weakness. After all, Jews were often excluded from history and often related to the countries they lived in from a position of weakness. Given this situation, Wisse argues that the schlemiel and it’s brand of Jewish comedy are a “theoretical reversal” of history and creates what she calls an “ironic victory.” However, the victory is ironic because the memory of trauma, loss, and failure persist. Jews are acutely aware of this. But, at the very least, comedy mitigates the power they have over Jewish life and gives the comedian some kind of freedom. The victory is, at best, minimal.   But, at the very least, such humor provides, as Irving Howe might say, a margin of hope. The comedian, to be sure, gives the audience not something to laugh at so much as a way to address suffering and loss that is not a negation of it so much as a way of facing it with some kind of intelligence which, in turn, bears on our freedom.

When I first started reading Marc Maron’s book Attempting Normal, I was astonished to learn that he grew up in a house with a psychotic father.   Like the comedian Marc Maron, I also grew up in a household with a brilliant psychotic father. And like him, I also felt like, because of my life growing up, I was also “attempting normal.” Reading this book for the first time, I was so excited to learn how he, through humor, addressed the suffering he went through by virtue of being the child of a psychotic. Like Maron, I became very interested in humor. And when I started reading his book, I knew he would approach it in ways that would make perfect sense to me. Through humor he found a way into a way of life he had, since youth, never known.   And although he would never “be” normal, at the very least he could “attempt” it. This very thought is one I know intimately. To be sure, I feel that I “attempt” it in nearly everything I do. And there is something comical and something very sad about that fact.

To be sure, as a result of my experience, I have spent most of my life trying to put the pieces together. Along the way, it occurred to me that, as a result of my odd and brilliant father, and the psychotic experiences I had been a part of, I had, like Maron, become a schlemiel. In one of my first blog entries I called myself a schlemiel and a son of a schlemiel. It stuck me that this is appropriate because, from what little experience I have of psychotic individuals (I was raised by one) I can say that they are, by and large, schlemiels. They dream big and often reinterpret reality to fit into the their psychotic narrative (in which they are the winners and they control the show). However, unlike the schlemiel, the psychotic is far from a nebbish. He or she goes out of her way to make reality conform to his or her vision. The psychotic is not simply living in an imaginary world; they actually change reality.   And this often gets them in trouble. To be sure, my father was arrested several times and was thrown into many mental institutions because of his psychotic actions (and by psychotic I don’t mean violent but…unusual).   In the film Shlemiel (2011), by Chad Derrick, I recount some of these experiences. And, as a filmmaker, Derrick was interested in why I turned to this comic character and how I, like Maron, attempted normal.

Maron’s retelling of his father’s psychosis has a comic element that touches me and inspires me to write my own account. For this reason, I’d like to briefly discuss some of Maron’s stories and bring together what makes them not only a lesson for me but for anyone who wants to understand who humor relates to madness and suffering. Being the children of psychotic parents, and not being psychotic ourselves, we can laugh at the stories and gain some kind of understanding of our parents and ourselves.

Maron begins his account of his father’s psychosis and its relationship to his life by noting the saddest pat of his father’s madness; namely, the times his father had a psychotic episode:

The most peculiar, sad, and entertaining part of living with a manic-depressive is the timing of erratic emotional behavior, whether it is up or down. My father has had some really impressive mood events. (39)

The first event Maron recounts – vis-à-vis his father’s timing – is his graduation from university. He notes how his father – just like mine – was the Valedictorian of his high school class. He also notes how his father was deemed “the center” and the “wunderkind” of the family.   He was, as Maron says, “mythic in the family. The doctor, the genius, the golden one.” I find this description so close to my own, because my father was also regarded in this way. And, to be sure, he regarded himself as a legend as well. (He was a Valedictorian, also, at Columbia University, went on to receive the prestigious NASA fellowship, and went on to a promising career.)

However, Maron, strangely like myself, had to live with his father’s high estimation of himself, his mind, and is capabilities. Like Maron’s father, my father was also highly selfish and erratic. And like Maron’s father, mine could also be abusive. But what I like most about Maron’s account is how he addresses it; he wonders if his father was consciously manipulating things. I wondered the same about my father:

I had lived with my father’s erratic, selfish, sometimes abusive behavior all my life it was always about him. A midlife diagnosis of bipolarity seemed to be his way of taking an easy way out, at least to my mind.   Initially I didn’t buy the diagnosis. Even now, sometimes I don’t know. It’s very hard to determine the validity of a mood disorder when someone is as plain old narcissistic as my dad. I thought he was just a man-child who refused self-awareness and defied wisdom even as his life fell apart around him. When necessary he would blame the “illness.” (39)

His father, in his eyes, was a man-child, a schlemiel. And he sees him as simply refusing self-awareness. This is a fascinating claim because I also thought of myself as more rational than my father and saw him opting out as things went down the tubes.   But although the son of the schlemiel may be the rational one, in the end, he is still deeply affected by the erratic nature of his father’s actions. Nonetheless, by recounting it, in this way, Maron gives the background for the comical events his father would spur on him – namely, in moments that would require the greatest seriousness.

In these moments, the inappropriate things his father does are comical; but seen against the background of his life and upbringing, we see the humor as bordering on sadness.

…to be continued….

 

 

Saint Angela: Philip Roth’s Comic Portrayal of Angela Davis in “American Pastoral” (Part II)

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A good writer like Philip Roth knows very well how desperate situations can bring out things about a character that, as a matter of course, are troubling. But Roth, like Shalom Auslander or the Coen Brothers (in the genre of film), sometimes injects comic elements into troubling situations.  This has an odd affect because, in many ways, this gesture is so audacious and inappropriate.   But this affect is a gift of sorts: it prompts us to think about what we take for granted and, by way of this agitation, it discloses some form of truth.

Roth addresses one of the most radical figures of contemporary American history – Angela Davis – and one of the most difficult eras of America: the radicalism and terrorism of the late 1960s anti-war, anti-imperialist, etc movements.  He does this by way of Swede, a character whose daughter, an upper middle-class white girl from Morristown, NJ, ends up blowing up a building and killing an innocent person.   As I pointed out in the the last blog entry, Swede, Merry’s father, is forced to address her radicalism if he is to find his way back to his daughter (who had, since the bombing, disappeared).

Swede first comes into contact with 60s radicalism by way of Rita Cohen (a friend of Merry and a student of the Wharton school who is researching the leather business for a dissertation project).  In his meetings with Rita Cohen, Zuckerman looks to show us how Swede responds to her rhetoric of radicalism; namely, by way of humor. Swede sees her gestures as a part of a radical chic that has no thought behind it so much as a feeling and a style that is childish and rebellious. As I noted, this humor gives him distance. This distance is challenged when Cohen meets Swede in a hotel room in an effort to seduce him. Zuckerman, the narrator, portrays her attempts at eroticism as comical.   And although this comedy gives Swede (and the reader) some distance from Cohen’s radicalism, this distance is shadowed by something serious and “tempting.”

The interesting plot twist is found in the fact that Roth decides to metonymically (and literally) link Cohen’s (and his daughter’s) radicalism to a prominent African-American figure of radicalism: Angela Davis. This link is fascinating because it links Jews and African Americans (this is something Roth has done in novels such as The Human Stain). In this novel, one needs to look into this relationship because, in it, the Jewish-American women take an African-American woman as their model. And this mimicry is, in some ways, comical. To be sure, as I mentioned above, it has the element of radical chic. And, as I noted in my last blog entry, the figure of Angela Davis’s hair ties this knot between the characters.

Cohen has a Jewfro while Davis has an Afro. But there is more to the story; and that more has to do with Swede’s fantasy about Angela Davis.

Through Swede, we see how a character, who has an aversion to radicalism and hails himself as a liberal of sorts, becomes obsessed with radicalism so as to get closer to his daughter. The fact that he sees it as a means to an end affects how the reader takes in the ideology of radicalism. To be sure, it comes across as dogmatic and Swede’s responses to it come off as comical.

When “Saint Angela” appears to him, he wants her to believe that he is a devotee. But, in the spirit of the best Jewish humor, he shows he is with her while, at the same time, telling us that he doesn’t want her to find out about a few of his reservations. After all, that would ruin the truth effect and spoil the devotion-effect. In other words, this ruins her sainthood and preserves a margin of freedom for a narrator and a character who can’t buy into it all.

As I noted in the last blog entry, the narrator humors Angela’s radical chic. Zuckerman notes how “her hair was extraordinary. She peers defiantly out of it like a porcupine. The hair says, “Do not approach if you don’t like pain”(160). Following this, the narrator notes how Swede “should” relate to Angela’s description of Merry, his daughter. In her view, Merry isn’t a terrorist, she’s a hero, a Joan of Arc of the movement”:

She praises his daughter, whom she calls “a soldier of freedom, a pioneer in the great struggle against repression.” He should take pride in her political boldness, she says. The antiwar movement is an anti-imperialist movement, and by lodging a protest int eh only way America understands, Merry, at sixteen, is in the forefront of the movement, a Joan of Arc of the movement. (160)

Saint Angela, as the narrator calls her, goes so far as to link Merry to “abolitionism” and “John Brown!” This link turns the protest movement into a liberal moment. But, clearly, the radicalism is much different. Swede, however, is told to take this as truth.

Moreover, Davis repeats, over and over again, how Swede should get it out of his head that what Merry did was a criminal act. And for a few pages Zuckerman gives us an experience of the propoganda of the radical movement (in all of its rhetorical flourishes, phrases, and repetitions.)   Swede plays the role of a devotee to the Saint.

But when, in the midst of being lectured by Davis, he hears something that relates to him and his business (which has many African-American employees) he speaks up to vindicate himself:

Obediently he listens. She tells him that imperialism is a weapon used by wealthy withies to pay black workers less for their work, and that’s when he seizes the opportunity to tell her about the black forelady, Vicky, thirty years at Newark Maid. (161)

He goes on to say how, through working for him, he was able to help her to send her kids to medial school and how Vicky stayed with him during the 67’ riots in Newark.   Moreover, he goes into detail how she helped to defer the rioters from burning the leather factory down by putting signs in the window that the business had employees that were, in bold letters, “NEGROES.”   In attempt to win her favor, Swede gives this account to “Saint Angela”(162). If anything, Roth is showing us the nature of Swede’s white guilt. He wants to allay it by saying that he is not like the other white people.

However, although Swede felt good that Governor Hughes had sent in tanks to restore order in the city, he does not tell this to Angela (162). He also doesn’t tell her that he wanted to leave Newark after the riots and take his business elsewhere for fear that it would be ruined – which is what actually happens (162). In other words, he cannot totally agree with her point of view, but he is afraid to tell her as that would create distance between them.

Swede goes along with whatever Davis says because he believes that this “Saint” will bring him to his daughter.   He has a kind of faith and, at the same time, a struggle with the dogma that is based on this faith (a struggle he cannot let show on the surface).

However, in the midst of all this, Zuckerman notes Swede’s greatest fear; namely, that Merry will, ultimately, see him as the enemy. The fact that he has African-American employees and sympathizes with them is not enough for her:

Victimizing black people and the working class and the poor solely for self-gain, out of filthy greed! (163)

This message, playing in the midst of his Angela Davis fantasy, prompts Zuckerman, the narrator to mark a disillusionment with Davis’s radical ideology. It is, in his view, yet another delusion. But…Swede has no choice but to go along with it:

In the idealistic slogans there was no reality, not a drop of it, and yet what else could he do? He could not provide his daughter with the justification for doing something crazy. So he stayed in Newark, and after the riots Merry did something crazier than crazy…The factory under siege, the daughter at large, and that took care of the future. (163)

Yet, with all of this, the narrator points out that, at this point, it seemed that nothing Swede could do would counter the affect of what had already gone down. Swede and his future – it seems – is destroyed by history in general and his daughter’s acts in particular.

But he doesn’t speak his mind as much as his father, Lou Levov, who, the narrator shows us is more sympathetic that Swede is to the plight of African Americans in Europe. Nonetheless, he is angry at the decision that they made to riot. He is angry at how the radicals, in his view, were making life for African-Americans in America more difficult. And sees this all through the downturn his business takes thereafter; workers become apathetic and unfocused and the quality gloves that used to be made with pride become shabby. Everything he has worked for goes down the drain:

A whole business is going down the drain because of that son of a bitch LeRoi Jones, that Peek-A-Boo-Boopy-Do, whatever the hell he calls himself in that goddamn hat. I built this with my hands! With my blood! They think somebody gave it to me? Who? Who gave it to me? Who gave me anything, ever? Nobody! What I have built! With work – w-o-r-k! (163)

The father says he has “conscience” since he made many efforts to help African-Americans in Newark but asks “Where is theirs?” He is astonished and believes that there must be parity. Regardless, Zuckerman tells us about the father’s pain, Swede “stubbornly defies the truth” of what his father was saying (165) because he thinks that his daughter Merry would use it against him.

Zuckerman goes on to show us how, in an effort to gain Angela Davis’s favor, Swede lies about his love of communism and the cause (166). He says “yes” to everything:

So he says yes to her yes, his daughter is a soldier of freedom, yes, he is proud, yes, everything he has heard about Communism is a lie, yes, the United States is concerned solely with making the world safe for business and keeping the have-nots from encroaching on the haves – yes, the United States is responsible for oppression everywhere. Everything is justified by her cause, Huey Newton’s cause, Bobby Seale’s cause…Merry Levov’s cause. (166)

What we find in this moment is a radical shift from radical chic to the utmost seriousness. Swede commits himself, dogmatically, to radicalism. However, Zuckerman underscores the irony of this commitment, which is forced. He even hides this “secret” commitment from his African-American worker, Vicky, because even she thinks Angela Davis is too radical. Zuckerman likens this secret commitment to a kind of religious commitment to a saint, a “secret prayer”:

Meanwhile he mentions Angela’s name to no one, certainly not to Vicky, who thinks Angela Davis is a trouble maker and who says as much to the girls at work. Alone then and in secret he prays…for Angela’s acquittal. And when it happens he is jubilant. She is free! (166)

This is no longer funny. Zuckerman portrays Swede as a devotee by virtue of his desire to see his daughter once again. We see this in the preface and his reaction to Angela Davis’s release. In it, her freedom becomes equivalent to Merry’s freedom. He becomes a devotee, protester, of sorts:

Free the Rimrock Bomber! Free my daughter! Free her, please! Cries the Swede.   “I think it’s about time,” Angela says, “for all of us to begin to teach the rulers of this country a few lessons,” and yes, cries the Swede, yes, it is about time, a socialist revolution in the United States of America! (166)

Zuckerman notes how deluded this is by pointing out how “he remains alone at his kitchen table” because he “cannot do anything that he should do or believe anything that he should believe or even know any longer what he should believe.” In other words, Swede’s devotion is comical and deluded. He is in a state of existential paralysis.

All of these reflections make the narrator angry and prompt him to wonder whether he should have “fucked” Rita Cohen: “I f he would do anything for Merry, why not that? Why did he run?”(167). Regardless of these reflections, we can see that Zuckerman doesn’t take the radical ideology put forth by Davis to be truth so much as a means to an end. He mocks it and the devotion to it; yet, in this situation, he realizes that Zuckerman may have to act “as if” it is true. And this masquerading – of taking on something that is ridiculous for the sake of seeing a lost daughter-terrorist – makes this ridiculousness tragic and debilitating.

Saint Angela and her radicalism may be comically portrayed and parodied but, in the end of the day, no amount of mockery can reduce the tragic effect they this ideology has on Swede’s life.   Comedy, in other words, seems to be ineffectual. And the distance it gives seems, for Zuckerman, impossible to maintain.

Saint Angela: Philip Roth’s Comic Portrayal of Angela Davis in “American Pastoral” (Part I)

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Many critics agree that Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is his best novel.   And there is a consensus regarding the fact that this is a tragic novel, or as Roth’s narrator Zuckerman says the “anti-American Pastoral.” The sections of the novel map this out: “Paradise Remembered,” “The Fall,” and “Paradise Lost.” However, for this reason, critics often overlook or miss the comic elements in the novel. To be sure, Roth uses comedy at very important parts of the novel so as to inject a critical perspective.   Although the novel bears witness to the rise and fall of Swede, the main character, it, at rare moments, offers a critical perspective by way of a kind of distance that is comical or ironic.

What is most interesting about these moments is that they often go from taking an ironic distance to losing it; and, in the process, Swede (or the narrator) becomes embroiled in panic. To be sure, all of the panic is around his desire to find his daughter, Merry, the “Rimrock Bomber.” After she bombs a store in New Jersey, during the Vietnam War, she disappears. And he does everything he can to find her. In the process, he tries to understand her. And this leads him to take in her radical ideology which sees the United States and Capitalism as the enemy of “the people.” Though he at first humors it, Swede starts becoming obsessed with the ideology.  He takes to it because, in his desperation, he believes that it will somehow lead him to his daughter.   But before this takes effect, Roth shows us that, at first, there is a comic distance.

We see an important example of this comical distance (which ultimately collapses) by way of two encounters: one with a Jewish girl named Rita Cohen and the other with a fantasized meeting with Angela Davis. The two encounters – one real, the other fantastic – come together in the figure of the “afro” (or Jew-fro, by way of Rita).   But it is the fantastic encounter with “Saint Angela” that gives us the best sense of how Swede turns to comedy to give himself some distance; yet, in the end, it seems this distance is not enough to keep him from losing his mind.

Before we meet Rita Cohen, Zuckerman, the narrator, provides us with several “conversations” between Swede and his daughter which show us how she, gradually, became more radicalized. He tries to appeal to her by showing that he is liberal, but this is to no avail. The end of the first section of the book, which follows these conversations, tells us what happens in their wake:

After turning Morristown High into a battlefield (from protest against the Vietnam war), she went out one day and blew up the post office, destroying right along with it Dr. Fred Conlon and the village’s general store, a small wooden building with a community bulletin board out front and a single old Sunoco pump and the metal pole on which Russ Hamlin…had raised the American flag every morning since Warren Gamaliel Harding was president of the United States. (113)

There is nothing comical about these last lines. To be sure, they mark the end of an era and the beginning of another; they mark the beginning of the end of Swede’s life.   The following section of the novel is entitled “The Fall,” begins with his meeting Rita Cohen. She comes across as a nice, American girl who attends The Wharton School. She visits Swede with an academic interest: she is interested in how the leather business works and, apparently, is looking to write a dissertation on the topic. Swede gives her a tour of the factory, discusses the ins and outs of the business (in detail), shows her how gloves are made, introduces her to the workers, and, in the end, he gives her a glove made to fit her small hands.   The gloves are finished by Vicky, an African-American worker at the glove factory (131).

At the very end of the section, we learn, by way of a whisper, that Rita is connected to Merry: “She wants her Aubrey Hepburn scrapbook”(132).   Swede drives Rita to the airport, gives her the notebook, and, for the first time, Rita shows another face to Swede. She tells him that his daughter, Merry, hates him (133). And thinks that he “ought to be shot.” Following this, Rita goes on a tirade against Swede accusing him of being a “shitty little capitalist who exploits the brown and the yellow people of the world and lives in luxury behind the nigger-proof security gates of his mansion”(133).   There is nothing funny here.

The narrator notes that “taunting him was the project she had set herself”(133). At this moment, Swede’s world is upside down. But he also starts humoring her. By way of comic jibes at Rita, Swede starts distancing himself from her:

The unreality of being in the hands of this child! This loathsome kid with a head full of fantasies about the ‘working class’! This tiny being who took up not even as much space in the car as the Levov sheepdog, pretending he was on the world stage! This utterly insignificant pebble! What was the whole sick enterprise other than angry, infantile egoism thinly disguised as identification with the oppressed? (134)

He sees her whole of Rita’s radicalism as childish and a fad of sorts. This is what Tom Wolfe would call “radical chic.” With this comical perspective in mind, Swede looks at her hair – modeled, as we will see, on the hair of Angela Davis – as evidence of radical chic:

Yes, the nonsensical hair constituted half of their revolutionary ideology, about as sound a justification for her actions as the other half – the exaggerated jargon about changing the world. (134)

He sees her acts as thoughtless and an act of self-glorification: “Thought just paled away beside their ignorance. They were omniscient without even thinking” (134).   Zuckerman includes bits and pieces of their conversation to show how full it is of “ridiculous clichés.” In response, she maintains her rhetorical exaggerations and insists that her life was all a lie and that she was the product of privilege. Rita claims that Swede and his wife were ashamed of their daughter and “colonialized her…self-image,” “hated her” and turned her into a “piece of shit.” Rita doesn’t hear a word Swede says. He can’t hear a father’s need to see his missing daughter. Rita accuses Swede of thinking of her as a “possession” and misses his plea. In Swede’s mind, she is a “child crackpot.”

He next sees Rita in a hotel and gives her money (as per her request) to see his daughter. But Rita wants more than his money. As Zuckerman relates, she wants to “fuck.” He keeps his distance from her, however. He notes how comical she looks all made up: “She looks like a third grader who ransacked her mothers room”(142). And, to entice him she starts singing a comical song by Groucho Marx: “Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, my encyclo-pid-e-a, oh Lydia, the tattooed lady”(142).

She uses eroticism and comedy to entice Swede, but it doesn’t work. He wonders: “Could this lead to Merry, this onslaught of sneering and mockery? Was she impersonating someone, acting from a script prepared beforehand?” In other words, Swede can’t take Rita’s gestures seriously.

At the very end, Rita sticks her fingers into her vagina, pulls them out, and brings them near Swede’s face to smell. He pulls back, but then Rita makes comical/erotic gestures to herself:

The hand she’s offered him she now carried slowly up to her face, making loony, comical little circles in the air as she approached her mouth. Then, one by one, she slipped each finger between her lips to cleanse it. (147)

Following these comical/erotic gestures, he “bolted the room. With all his strength.” He sees he from a comical angle, yet, he also sees that she is using a comical/erotic strategy to break him down.

In the wake of this encounter, Swede starts thinking more and more of the ideology that inspired them. And, at a certain point, he has a fantasy that Angel Davis, “a black philosophy professor of about Rita Cohen age…a Communist professor at UCLA who is against the war…tried…for kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy”(157). As one can see, Zuckerman (and Swede) make a connection between Angela Davis and Rita Cohen.   And this is brought together by Angela Davis’s hair and her radical chic:

Her hair reminds the Swede of Rita Cohen. Every time he sees that bush encircling her head he is reminded of what he should have done at the hotel. He should not have let her get away from him, no matter what. (158)

In many ways, Rita Cohen (a Jew) and Angela Davis (an African-American) are merged. And both are, to some extent humored. But, as I noted above, this humor diminishes because he becomes obsessed with them. He sees them as his way to his daughter:

Now he watches the news to see Angela Davis. He reads everything he can about her. He knows that Angela Davis can get him to his daughter. (158)

In the drawers of his daughter’s room, he finds the writings of Angela Davis (amongst other radical literature). And, in the midst of his discovery, he recalls how, in the same room, his daughter – influenced by his wife’s Catholic mother – became obsessed with Saints. He remembers how this was a passing fad. He imagines that reading Angela Davis is like reading “those tiny pamphlets” (on the Saints) and “illustrated holy cards.” But “luckily the child outgrew them”(159). Nonetheless, she would still, on occasion, pray to the Saints.   Meanwhile, “Grandma Dwyer…prayed to St. Anne to help Marry stay Catholic despite her upbringing (mind you, Swede is Jewish)”(159).

Immediately following this, Swede has an epiphany of Angela Davis. She becomes, at this moment, Saint Angela:

At the kitchen one night Angela Davis appears to Swede, as Our Lady of Fatima did to those children in Portugal, as the Blessed Virgin did down in Cape May. He thinks, Angela Davis can get me to her – and there she is. (160)

The description of Angela Davis by the narrator, however, is comical. It sets a wedge between the passion and dispassion Swede experiences in his epiphany. She looks “more beautiful than she looks on television”:

Her legs are long and she wears colorful minidresses to expose them. The hair is extraordinary. She peers definitely out of it like a porcupine. The hair says, “Do not approach if you don’t like pain.” (160)

….to be continued….in the next blog entry….