How Can Tevye Forgive Menachem Mendl? On Betrayal, Theft, and Forgiveness in Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In”

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There is nothing worse than betrayal. But there are different degrees of betrayal. Some forms are worse than others. The worst violation of trust occurs when the person who is the betrayer is a close friend or a relative.   The stakes are especially high when the entrusted party is approached by a family member or friend who puts his livelihood, wife, and children on the line. Such a betrayal can destroy a person’s outlook on life and make him or her cynical and bitter.   In betraying trust, one destroys or seriously damages hope…and humanity.

Judaism, to be sure, is based in large part on the notion – germane to “covenantal theology” – that the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d (the covenant between them) is based on trust that neither party will ever betray the other. There is a trust, built into Judaism, that G-d promises and delivers. What makes the Torah so special is the fact that, from start to finish, there are trust issues between the Jewish people and God. As Moses Maimonides and other Rabbinic scholars have noted many times, God is constantly, throughout history, testing the trust of the Jewish people.  But there is a twist. Even though trust may be damaged or even destroyed in the relationship between man and God – which we see throughout the Torah, as in the story of Yosef – forgiveness is possible, trust can be re-established, and promises can be renewed. This works with God and man. But when it comes to betrayal and forgiveness between human beings, it’s a more complex matter.

In Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In,” which is a part of Tevye the Dairyman, we see the playing out of trust, betrayal, and forgiveness between Tevye and Menachem-Mendl.   As many people know from Fiddler on the Roof or from a cursory reading of Aliechem’s most famous book, Tevye is the epitome of the honest, poor, and simple everyday Jew. He is a G-d fearing man who, in his kindness, gives every man and woman a chance.   However, there is a very important chapter (short story) in Tevye the Dairyman which shows Tevye in the most uncharacteristic way – as a cynic.

The story starts off in the wake of a betrayal by his “relative, Menachem-Mendl…a fly-by-night, a who knows what, a wheeler-dealer, a manipulator, may he never find a resting place”(23).   Menachem-Mendl’s betrayal shifts Tevye’s view of life.  Aleichem, by way of these characters, takes his readers through his betrayal of Tevye and leaves us to judge whether or not the conclusion of the tale – and Tevye’s decision – is just.

Tevye starts off his tale on a bitter note. He points out how poor he was and how he had to sell everything he had in order to support his family but…it’s simply not enough. He is in a dire situation and he imagines – as he usually does – what good he would do if he actually had money:

Having sold everything and thrown some hay to my horse, I decided to take a stroll around town. As it is said, Man is but dust – a man is only human. I wanted to see a bit of the world, breathe the air, and look at the find good that Yehupetz displays in its shopwindows….Standing just like that at a large shop window with a pocketful of cons and ruble notes, I thought, God in heaven! If I had a tenth of what I see here, I would never complain to God again. I’d make a match for my eldest daughter and give her a good dowry….I’d see to it that the house of study had a metal roof, not a roof about to collapse any minute. I’d open a religious school in town and hospital and a shelter…so poor people wouldn’t have to lie around on the bare floor of a house of study. (24)

In the midst of his dreaming of the good he will do for his people, he is startled – or rather awakened – by a voice:

Sholem Aleichem, Reb Tevye!” I heard someone call from behind me. “How are you?” (24)

The voice is of his “second cousin once removed,” Menachem-Mendl. After doing their Jewish geography, Tevye embraces him as he would any family member (with love and concern).   Tevye notices that Menachem-Mendl looks poor and ragged and he becomes sympathetic. He tells Menachem-Mendel that a “Jew must have hope” and “faith” that things will get better:

I stole a glance at his shabby clothes, patched in many places, the shoes almost worn through. “You can be sure that God will help you and things will get better. As it says in the Bible, All is vanity. Money,” I said, “is round, one day it rolls this way, another day it rolls away, so long as you live. The most important thing is faith. A Jew must have hope. (24)

Tevye sees that Yehupetz has not been good to Menachem-Mendl and offers him his home to come back to and heal:

“Listen to me, Menachem-Mendl,” I said, “come to my place for a day, and you can at least rest your bones. You’ll be my guest,” I said, “a welcome one too. My wife will be happy to have you”(25).

Menachem-Mendl agrees, goes home with Tevye, and brings “nachas”(joy) to him since there is nothing more pleasurable for Tevye than having a guest. And what is better than a guest who is family? The trust that circulates between them is a given.

We drove home together, and everyone was delighted to see him – a guest! Here was our own second cousin, no small matter. As they say, “One’s own are not strangers.” Golde’s (Tevye’s wife) grilling began: How are thigns in Kasrilevka? How is Uncle Boruch-Hersh?…Who got divorced? Who has given birth and who is expecting?” (25)

Tevye feeds and treats Menachem-Mendl like a Prince. Menachem-Mendl praises and thanks Tevye and his wife for the food and hospitality.   He swears that he has never experienced such kindness.

After they finish eating, Menachem-Mendl starts talking about what happened to him. He tells Tevye how he became rich and lost his money.   Tevye is impressed with Menachem-Mendl’s grasp of how the market works (26). As Menachem-Mendl manically goes on and on about his business dealings and the ways of the world, Tevye starts dreaming about money. The next morning, Menachem-Mendl props him up and makes Tevye an offer he can’t refuse. If he “partners up” with and gives Menachem-Mendl money, Menachem-Mendl assures Tevye that he will become a rich man.   But Menahcem-Mendl goes farther than that and appeals to Tevy’s desire for the good by telling Tevye that by doing so, Tevye will “save his life” and bring him “back from the dead.”

“You now have the chance, Reb Tevye, to make quite a few groschens and also save my life, literally bring me back from the dead.”(26).

Although Tevye tells him he doesn’t have much money, Menachem-Mendl pushes him to give more money than he can afford to give and to trust him fully on this “investment.”

“Really now,” he said, “are you telling me you can’t find a mere hundred, Reb Tevye, with your business, and your reputation, kayn eyen horeh?” (27)

All of the talking overwhelms Tevye, and he entrusts Menachem-Mendl. He starts having hope and convinces himself that Menachem-Mendl couldn’t be a liar. Menachem-Mendl could be a “heaven sent messenger” who could help Tevye live the rest of his life as a “respectable man.”

To make a long story short – why should I carry on? – I developed a yearning, and it was no laughing matter. Who could tell? I asked myself. Maybe he was a heaven-sent messenger…He didn’t strike me as a liar, making up tall tales out of his head. And what if things did turn around as he had said, and Tevye could become a bit of a mensch in his old age? How long could a person struggle and slave day after day, again and again the horse and wagon, again cheese and butter? (28)

Menachem-Mendl seals the deal by invoking God. He tells Tevye that God should “punish him” if he cheats Tevye:

“You can believe me, Reb Tevye,” he said. “I swear to you, let God punish me if I cheat you. I will honestly share everything with you.”(29)

After Menachem-Mendl gets the money and departs, Tevye starts dreaming of all the money he will have and how well the family will live:

We parted like the best of friends and kissed affectionately, as in usual between relatives. Standing by myself after he left, lively thoughts and daydreams entered my head, such sweet dreams that I wanted them never to end, to go on forever. (29)

Menachem-Mendl’s assurances and promises, which feed Tevye’s dreams of a better life are a prelude to the major betrayal.  Tevye’s wife starts worrying and, in the end, she is right. Everything falls to pieces.

Menachem-Mendl disappears and stops communicating with his “partner,” Tevye. Tevye starts realizing that he has been duped and starts, understandably, “going out of his mind.” This passage, of Tevye’s realization, are sad and shocking. They are very unique in Aleichem’s corpus of fiction, which is usually more upbeat and hopeful.

In short, a week passed, and two and three – no letter from my partner! I was going out of my mind, walking about in a daze, not knowing what to think. He could have just forgotten to write, I thought. He knew very well that we were waiting to hear from him. Then I began to wonder what I could do to him if he were to skim off the cream and tell me hadn’t earned anything. Would I call him a liar? I told myself it couldn’t be, it wasn’t possible. I treated the man like one of my own, been ready to take on his troubles. How could he play a trick like that on me?!…. A cold chill ran through my body. Old fool! I said to myself.   You made your bed, now lie in it, you ass! (30)

Following these disturbing revelations, Tevye’s wife prompts him to go to Yehupetz and find out what is going on. As he travels there, he starts imagining what may have happened. Since Tevye loves to only think good thought and would rather not dwell on the worst case scenario, he imagines the best case scenario and imagines what he will say when he confronts him (31-32).

He goes through the city in search of Menachem-Mendl. He doesn’t find him and nearly gives up.   But when he stops to look into one of the store windows he notices, in the reflection of the shop window, is the image of Menachem-Mendl!

My heart hurt when I saw him, so sorry did I feel for him! If ever I had an enemy, and if ever you had an enemy, may we hope to see them in the same state as Menachem-Mendl. His coat, his boots, were in terrible shape. (33)

When they turn to each other, we have an enigmatic scene and many questions that, as readers, we must think through. What will they say to each other? Will Tevye curse him or forgive him?   The representation of Menachem-Mendle as ragged and impoverished suggests an answer.

Menachem-Mendl, we learn, was “abashed to see me, we both stood as if frozen, unable to speak, just looking into each other’s eyes like tow roosters, as if to say, We’re both miserable and cleaned out. We might as well take tin cups and go from house to house! (33)

Menachem-Mendl appeals to Tevye’s emotions by making himself into a total schlimazel who is on the verge of suicide: “Reb Tevye! Without luck, a man shouldn’t have been born! Rather than living, it is better to hang!”(33).   But Tevye, against what one would expect, tells him that he is right: Menachem-Mendl is a disgrace and should be publically whipped. Tevye reminds Menachem-Mendl of how he didn’t just destroy him but his whole family!

“You took a household full of living souls, poor creatures, innocent as lambs, and slit their throats without a knife! God in heaven,” I said, “how can I face my wife and children? Go on, tell me, you slaughterer, swindler, thief!”(33, my emphasis)

Menachem-Mendl agrees that he is a thief, a slaughterer, and swindler.   He says that he deserves Gehennam (hell). Tevye says that Gehennam is “too good for you, fool”(33).   After saying this, Menachem-Mendl “lowers his head” and suggests that he may commit suicide.

But instead of walking away and letting him go, Tevye says he hears “every sigh and groan” he makes. “My heart went out to him”(33).

Tevye ends his tale by saying that he forgave him. He says that, if you think about it, “You aren’t entirely to blame.” Tevye can’t conceive of Menahcem Mendl as a swindler and thief! He also puts himself out there as a guilty party! “To say you did it on purpose would be foolish because we were equal partners, fifty-fifty”(34). After excusing him, Tevye offers to have a drink with him: “Come, my friend, let’s have some brandy!”

Looking back, Tevye notes how “that…is how the roof fell in, and with it all my dreams”(34). In other words, Tevye may have forgiven Menachem-Mendl but there was a price to pay: he can no longer, like a schlemiel, dream of something better. But there is more at stake, here. With the loss of dreams and hope, what happens to the Jew? Hasn’t Menachem-Mendl destroyed the fabric of Judaism? And was Tevye wrong for forgiving him? Tevye muses about the meaning of this experience and differentiates himself from the reader:

And what of hope and faith? On the contrary, the more troubles you have, the more faith you must have, and the poorer you are, the more hope you must have. Do you want any more proof?

But I think I’ve gone on too long today. It’s time to go and tend to my business. As you’ll no doubt say, “All men are false.” Every man has his burden. Be well and have a good life! (35)

These words – the last of the chapter, story – suggest that the reader can leave the story with a sense of cynicism at the betrayal perpetrated by Menachem-Mendl, a relative of Tevye, or let that it go.   Either way “every man has his burden,” and this burden – the burden of betrayal – is perhaps the biggest of all for humans.  Sholem Aleichem shows us how the greatest deeds of kindness of trust can be trounced by the people one would think one can trust. And this, for Aleichem, is not just the greatest challenge to Jewishness but the greatest challenge to humanity. The meaning of justice is at stake in this story. The reader may not agree with Tevye’s choice and would rather leave Menachem-Mendl to die, alone for the evil he had done.   Either way that is the “burden” of the reader or for anyone who has been betrayed by someone they trust.   While God may forgive man, man may not forgive someone who has destroyed his or her life and dreams. That type of forgiveness is a different matter.

And I’ll leave it there…..for you to decide. Would you forgive Menachem-Mendl?

(Un)Happy Endings: Existential Reflections on “It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti”

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David Heti is an (un)timely comedian. His comedy speaks to a time that is becoming more and more unhappy with itself. (And I mean this in a good way since I believe that such unhappiness will prompt us to come out of our dogmatic slumber…and think.) Unlike many comedians whose jokes are purely scatological and childish, Heti’s jokes are thoughtful and deeply probing. He respects the intelligence of his audience and his comedy plays with our most deeply held beliefs which span our attitudes about families, sexuality, religion, and the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, Heti’s jokes hit at the fact that while, in the most philosophical sense, we all want to be happy (an insight that Aristotle saw fundamental to being-human), the fact of the matter is that our desire for happiness originates in (and returns to) a state of existential unhappiness.   And today – perhaps because of the internet, globalization, and withering economies – we are becoming more aware of this state of (unhappy) being. Heti’s comedy acknowledges it while, at the same time, giving us some comic relief.

(To be sure, Heti’s challenge is akin to the challenge posed by Judaism to Greek philosophy and culture.   Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, argues that philosophy starts with wonder (which Aristotle associates with unhappiness; wonder is attended by the feeling of “ignorance”) but ends with knowledge (happiness). Aristotle believes that our desire for knowledge will overcome this ignorance once we know the causes of things. In other words, knowledge makes us happy; ignorance makes us unhappy.   In contrast, Judaism puts a greater emphasis on the limits of knowledge. And instead of focusing solely on happiness and knowledge as the answer, it often focuses on time, suffering, and injustice. Centuries after Aristotle, GWF Hegel went so far as to call the Jews an “unhappy people.”   For Hegel, This unhappiness had to do with the fact that Jews live with uncertainty and many unanswered questions. The English critic Matthew Arnold argued that civilization is based on the tension between Jews and Greeks. I would go further and say this tension is between happiness (rational self-certainty) and unhappiness (existential un-certainty). While the Greek part of our society wants to deny this tension, the Jewish part brings it to our attention. And this is (un)timely because it challenges the notion of progress and truth, which, in the West, are both premised on Greek ideals. In modern society we are supposed to be living better than we did in the past and we are supposed to be smarter – and all of this should make us happy – but are we?)

Heti’s jokes are Jewish in this sense. The punch lines of his jokes may start on a happy, Greek note, but they all have a kind of unhappy, Jewish ending. And this is a good thing because they trick us into experiencing the profound contradictions that underlie our experiences of sex, family, culture, and religion (the buttresses of Western, North American Society). The trick is to have us think differently. His humor hits at our desire for happiness and self-certainty. And, to be sure, Heti’s act has taught me that comedy can do a more affective job than post-Enlightenment philosophy to critique our beliefs and self-understandings.

I have seen Heti doing stand-up comedy and have also had a few private conversations with him about comedy, philosophy, culture, and religion. I have also interviewed Heti and have been intrigued with his brand of comedy. I had an intuition that he was doing something (un)timely in his comedy act. But it wasn’t until recently, when I saw his recent comedy film, It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti, that I was convinced that he had something incredibly urgent and important to offer our troubled times by way of comedy.

I’d like to share a few clips and touch on a few of his jokes to illustrate how (un)timely his jokes are.   I would go so far as to suggest that the movement from unhappiness to happiness we find in them suggests a kind of practice that is instructive on how, today, we can – and should – have a comical awareness of the tension between happiness and unhappiness. It informs, to speak, our comical (rather than our tragic) sense of existence. To be sure, the tragic awareness of existence is just as Greek as the emphasis on happiness. But his humor offers us a tension between the two that is, by all means, necessary. Without it, we will to serious (and tragic) or too deluded (and happy).  (I’d also like to note, before I begin, that Heti’s timing and gesture are the important elements that animate these jokes.  This can be seen in the clips I have included.)

Heti begins his performance with a philosophical joke that plays on the first words of a comic performance:

I know that it’s  convention to be, like, “oh, it’s good to be here.” But the fact of the matter is that I “am” here, you “are” here.  Why ask ourselves how we feel about it?  Let’s just move on.

The underpinning of this joke is clearly existential. Why should we describe our existence as “good” or “bad”? Existence just is….the way it is. Like the title of Heti’s film, we can imagine him responding to the question “How was your performance?” with the existentially neutral: “It was Ok.” Its not great and its not bad. It, like existence, is…not tragic…or wonderful….it’s “ok.”

Following this joke, Heti continues on his philosophical vein by telling his audience to hold back their laughter until the end of the performance. This request is followed by philosophical reasoning. Although each joke “exists unto itself its own particularity,” and can be laughed at, ultimately there is “another, deeper level” which comes at the end where one can laugh at the performance “as a whole.” The joke is not simply on the audience; it’s also on philosophy.   The idea of withholding laugher in the name of a greater laugh – at the end – sounds like a good joke to level at a philosopher like Hegel or Karl Marx who see the “end of history” as the most meaningful moment of all.

But the punch line isn’t here. It’s in the existential insight: “I’m sorry.  I know you come to a comedy show expecting to laugh, and enjoy yourselves…but life isn’t fair.”

Besides playing on existence-as-such, Heti plays on the contemporary philosophical notion – found in Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Martin Heidegger – that the most important thing about existence is relationality.   Heti introduces this idea by pointing out how “I’m here” and you are “over there” and we are “unable to relate” (on the same level). The punch line is that when he was out there, where the audience is, he would think about how he could “do a better job than this fuck!” This comic disclosure brings comedy into an otherwise bland, basic (and oftentimes for Heidegger, a tragic) insight into “relationality.”

On another note, which is equally existential, Heti’s jokes about his family follow along a tradition of many Jewish comedians. But they differ in the fact that they are more reflective on the divide between happiness and unhappiness. In one joke about his mother, Heti says that she and I have a “very strained relationship.”

She says all she’s ever wanted is for me to be happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved and respected. It’s a real stalemate.

Following this, he notes how he recently went home to see that his mother had remodeled his room “into a place where a kid would have been happy growing up.”   He adds a joke about his father that brings out the tension between happiness and unhappiness more explicitly. It also shows a schlemiel-ish aspect to Heti’s relationship with his mother (something we find in the writings and film of Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Bruce Jay Friedman, et al):

It wasn’t easy.  My father was a little…violent. I remember….I recall as a kid, telling my mom, “one day, when I grow big enough, he’s going to beat the shit…out of only you.

The schlemiel character is in effect here because Heti’s character isn’t going to “stand up” to his father when he grows up. He’s just going to leave and his mother will receive the violence of his father. (Note to reader: do not confuse this joke with reality; to be sure, Heti, like many great comedians, loves exaggeration.)

Although Heti tells jokes about his family, his main jokes, to be sure, turn around philosophical and theological topics. As the performance moves on, these jokes are most prominent.   And all of them hinge on the tension between happiness and unhappiness.

One joke which shows how averse Heti is to happiness deals with a scenario he discusses about how he did a comic performance at a music festival. On his way back, he tells of how he rode in a car with musicians for thirteen hours. During this trip they had “an esoteric/philosophical conversation about the nature of art.” Heti, here, points out why he tells jokes, and, in the process he discloses his own way of comic-being:

Basically, we are only here to be happy, really. And so, for me, what’s funniest is when we’re not happy. And it just so happens to be the case that, just, intuitionally, I tend to subvert, for myself, any happy moment which begins. You know, I see what’s terrible in it. And even for the stage, now doing stand-up, I look for what’s awful in every moment, so my life is a series of unhappy instances and that’s why jokes; that’s why I’m a comic.

But this isn’t the punch line. It comes with his response to the musicians answer to the question of what the nature of art is:

And then so…I asked the musician, I was, like, “Why music? Like, why music?” And, he was like, “well. He said, “when I’m actively listening to music or, like, writing or playing it…like, that’s when I’m closest to the universal;  that’s when I’m one with the universe.” And I was like, “ohhhhhhh…You can go fuck yourself! Like FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOUUUUU….!”

Heti’s answer-slash-punch-line (his FUCK YOU! x3) demonstrates, to my mind, a differentiation between a Greek mind, which emphasizes “unity” with the universe, and a Jewish view which emphasizes existential difference and fragmentation.   I would argue that this difference is by no means arbitrary. To be sure, Heti tells several jokes that speak to Jewish identity, history, and religion. These jokes disclose Heti’s comedy as fragmented on many fronts.

Heti’s jokes on circumcision start off with an interesting paradox. Namely, God is thought of as “unknowable and unthinkable” yet with all of this “we can see that He likes circumcised pensises.” Heti goes on to have the audience imagine God with many dicks in his mouth. And this does a great job of exaggerating anthropomorphisms that Jewish theology would obviously reject.

Heti also tells jokes that deal with the Holocaust. He prefaces this part of the show by noting how “there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.” And that he is “unsure of where” he stands on the “issue of genocide.”

Because, on the one hand, undeniable tragic.  But on the other hand, undeniably funny. I guess it’s just one of those things where you really had to be there.

This joke hits at the existential dimension of genocide (of “being there” for the reality…and the “joke”). But it also speaks to something very interesting; namely, the negative sublime of the Nazis who did the killing. Many, in fact, did laugh at genocide. And for this reason, it hits on a deeply troubling issue which needs to be addressed, an issue that deeply complicates our understanding of humanity and evil.

The most complicated joke on the Holocaust is about his grandfather’s relationship to the Holocaust. The very context of the joke brings the audience into a very focused state and into an awareness of how good it is that he has survived it; but the punch line brings us back to the unhappy state of Jews-slaughtered-in-history:

My grandfather was actually one of the few, lucky members of his generation to  grow up Jewish in Europe and avoid the horrors of the Holocaust. Thankfully, several months before the war broke out, he was beaten to death, in a pogrom.

Near the end of his performance, Heti moves from the particularity of Jewish experience to a more general experience of God.   And this joke hits directly at the existential condition and the question of faith:

But what I find most – what I can’t understand most is these people with these extreme physical disabilities…who are nonetheless capable of maintaining religious faith. ‘Cause you’re like – you’d think that…  given what, they are already forced to put up with in this world, God would have at least spared their minds.

This last joke bespeaks the existential state of having a mind that is conscious of suffering. (Indeed, most existentialists find that existential consciousness is afflicted and tortured; especially Sartre and Levinas.) The joke poses the greatest challenge to Aristotle (and Spinoza), on the one hand, who believed that knowledge would create true happiness and on the other to religion which posits faith as an answer.   Heti is perplexed by why God would give these disabled people consciousness. It doesn’t make sense. This is at once a Jewish question and a question that should provoke anyone trying to understand faith in general.

Taken together, Heti shows us – by way of comedy – that true thinking isn’t based on the elimination of perplexity and its attendant unhappiness (which is what Aristotle believed) so much as in dwelling in perplexity. The specificity of Heti’s jokes perform the (un)timely service of reminding us of the existential state of perplexity we inhabit. We need this reminder because we are, so often, distracted by happiness from the true questions of existence that plague us all. Here it is the comedian and not the philosopher or the theologian who can help us to address our greatest questions. And this all happens when Heti delivers the punch line. At that moment, we experience the movement from happiness to unhappiness. And in that moment, we come face to face with our (un)timely comical existence.   And today, more than ever, we need to be reminded. False happiness will only sink us deeper into oblivion. Heti reminds us that comedy can awaken us (as Immanuel Kant once said of David Hume) from our “dogmatic slumbers.”

Go check out David Heti’s website – which has video, tour information, and media – and his new video “It was ok”.

 

 

What Happened to Our Smart Jewish Kids? A Note On Cynicism in Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”

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When Swede, the main character of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, finally makes contact with his daughter Merry – who, as I have pointed out in other blog entries, became a domestic terrorist – he has a few moments of reflection on what “happened to our smart Jewish kids?” Swede’s reflections are worth recounting since they show how, to his mind, cynicism directed at the middle class, assimilated Jewish life is at the core of Merry and Rita Cohen’s radicalism. This cynicism is in dire contrast to the optimism of the two previous generations of American Jews; namely, Swede and his father Lou Levov. Their optimism was based on their successes in the leather industry, sports, and American life.   All of this is trashed by Merry and the third generation of American Jews because they find the source of this optimism – and the optimism itself – to be corrupted by capitalism and inequality. The process of Swede’s coming to this realization shows us what, in part, is at stake for Jews in America.

Swede is astonished when he first sees his daughter because – after engaging in several terrorists acts, killing four people, and also being taken advantage of by people she had encountered in her flight from society – she had become a Jain. As a Jain, she wears a veil and walks barefoot in fear that she may kill an insect. Swede reads her conversion into a Jain as a sign of powerlessness and it eats him up. Thinking to himself, we learn that Swede sees her powerlessness, emblematized in her veil, as destroying the power and optimism of the entire Levov family. It is a rejection and as such has its own power which angers and weakens Swede:

Your powerlessness is power over me, goddamn it! Over your mother, over your grandmother, over everyone who loves you – wearing this veil is bullshit, Merry, complete and utter bullshit! You are the most powerful person in the world! (254)

Zuckerman, the narrator, notes that this rage against his daughter wasn’t going to make him “any less miserable.” Nonetheless, Zuckerman can’t help to spell out the audacity of her gesture: “The viciousness. The audacity. The unshatterable nerves. God alone knew where such kids came from”(254). Reflecting on this, Zuckerman goes into the paradox of Jewish American children become radicals; he can’t believe that this is possible:

They were raised by parents like him. And so many were girls, girls whose political identity was total, who were no less aggressive and militant, no less drawn to “armed action” than the boys. There is something terrifyingly pure about their violence and the thirst for self-transformation. They renounce their roots to take as their models the revolutionaries whose conviction is enacted ruthlessly…They are willing to do anything they can imagine to make history change. (254)

Swede’s father, Lou, after “foolishly watching a TV news special about the police hunt for Underground Weatherman” also chimes in. Astonished, he asks the key question: “What happened to our smart Jewish kids?” What follows his question is a series of observations about how Jewish American kids cling to oppression and seem to flee away from what his generation fled to.

What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? If, God forbid, their parents are no longer oppressed for a while, they run where they think they can find oppression. Can’t live without it. Once Jews ran away from oppression; now they run from no-oppression. Once they ran away from being poor; now they run away from being rich. It’s crazy.   They have parents they can’t hate anymore because their parents are so good to them. (255)

Reflecting on this, Zuckerman wants to get at what “drives them crazy” and he concludes that it is cynicism: “Distrust is the madness to which they have been called”(255).   Distrust led Merry to rebel so as to “bring the world into subjection” but in the end this cynicism led to the opposite. Now, as a Jain, she is “subject to the world.”

Regardless, Swede realizes that she is no longer in his power and perhaps never was (256). And, thinking this, he also becomes cynical:

She is in the power of something that does not give a shit. Something demented. We all are. The elders are not responsible for this. They are themselves not responsible for this. Something else is. (256)

The cynicism spreads to Zuckerman who reflects on how “the bodies of mutilated children and their mutilated parents everywhere” indicate that we are “all in the power of something demented. It’s just a matter of time, honky! We all are!” And, according to Zuckerman, this all comes how to Swede by way of the laughing terrorists:

He heard them laughing, the Weatherman, the Panthers, the angry ragtag army of violent Uncorrupted who called him a criminal and hated his guts because he was one of those who own and have…They were delirious with joy, delighted having destroyed his once-pampered daughter and ruined his privileged life, shepherding him at long last to t heir truth….Welcome aboard, capitalist dog! Welcome to the fucked-over-by-America human race! (257)

This laughter is a kind of satanic laughter. Perhaps it is a variant of the laughter that Charles Baudelaire discusses in his famous essay, “The Essence of Laughter.” I wonder if Slajov Zizek would call this the laughter of cynicism or the laughter of what he calls, following Peter Sloterdijk, kynicism. After all, the laughter of kynicism is a destructive – daemonic (in a Baudelairian sense) – kind of laughter. Regardless, Zuckerman is right to note that this laughter emerges, in some way, out of cynicism. To be sure, this kynical laughter is the other side of cynicism.

In the above-mentioned fictional scenario, Roth shows us the power of cynicism.  It touches everything in this novel: Swede, Merry, and the narrator. It is something that comes not from one’s ancestors, as Swede notes above, so much as from history. This novel has much relevance today. As I have noted elsewhere, cynicism seems to be making a comeback. And the laughter we are hearing is by and large destructive. This would be a good time for the schlemiel who teaches us what Ruth Wisse would call “balanced irony.” This irony maintains a tension between hope and cynicism. However, in American Pastoral, this irony is absent. And that is truly tragic.

 

 

Trust Issues: Cynicism, Post-Nationalism, and Captain America

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Politics and theater go hand-in-hand. One doesn’t have to be an intellectual to know that politicians use words and gestures to gain attention, garner support, or justify this or that agenda. It’s obvious to anyone that the media, film, and the internet can affect this or that political agenda. Within a few hours, a political agenda can be ruined or bolstered. Everyone knows this and we have seen this happen and see it happen on a daily basis.

But while the greatest obstacles to accomplishing this or that political agenda may be created by the media or Hollywood, the opposite is also true.   One of the markers used by this or that politician to measure the success or failure of a project is whether the “public” is optimistic or cynical. To be sure, President Obama has been using these terms a lot in his speeches. He has been worrying that Americans are too cynical and no longer trust the government. And, to address this, he has even turned to comedy and theater to regain confidence. He has played the schlemiel (a character whose charm often acts to win the viewer over). He understands how, without optimism and trust, his administration will lose power and authority. But more is at stake than belief or disbelief in the government.

For many Americans, the greatest stakes have to do with the belief in exceptionalism. Is America unique….anymore? Or is it a nation like all others?   It has become an issue, today, because America seems to be losing it’s standing in the world. We see this issue discussed in the media, in Washington, DC, and in Hollywood.   We also see it discussed in academia. And, as an academic, I can tell you that I have many colleagues who despise American nationalism and exceptionalism. For many of them, there is a conviction that America would be better off it were a part of a larger collective that would work to eliminate racial, economic, sexual, and cultural oppression and inequality around the world. Instead of leading the effort, they would like it if America were more humble. But, to be sure, they just don’t want this to happen; rather, like good post-Marxists, many believe it is already happening and that there is nothing we can do to stop it. Justice, meaning post-nationalism, will prevail. All resistance is futile and, in their view, stupid. Nationalism and patriotism are one and the same thing for many of them. Marx believed that the nation-state would eventually “wither away” and so do many of my colleagues. It’s only a matter of time.

But what will take its place?

This is an interesting question. In a post-nationalist America, what will people turn to for hope and inspiration? There are many answers to this question. I would suggest looking at some of the biggest academic conferences out there these days for an intimation of where academics think the answers may lie. One thing I can say, from what I see within my own academic circle, is that many academics want to leave nationalism and patriotism behind for “justice” and “ethics.” To be sure, nearly all of the post-Zionist thinkers in the field of Jewish Philosophy are post-nationalist. Many envision Israel not in terms of a state but in terms of something “bi-national” where Israelis and Palestinians can co-exist, side by side with each other.   Hence, there is a lot of scholarship in my field that sees the Jewish nation-state as powerful, violent, unjust, and unethical. All resistance to the state (in academia and in the street) is deemed ethical. This, it seems, is a part of a larger political agenda – a post-nationalist one.

If I were to sum up what they are looking for in a blunt way, I would say that what is common to their readings of Judith Butler, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and Emmanuel Levinas (amongst others) is the belief that we can trust each other but don’t because of the nation state or politics (which breed distrust and violence). After all, when Hannah Arendt was accused by Gershom Scholem of not having “ahavat Yisrael” (love of Israel, the nation) in her treatment of Adolph Eichmann, she replied by saying she cannot conceive of national love. She could only understand the love of friends. That, in a nutshell, pronounces the desire of post-nationalism: to live in a world where we don’t need nations or nationalism to define who we are and what we do. All we need to do, to live a just, ethical life, is be friends and agree to coexist. That would be true justice. Nationalism and patriotism, on the other hand, are thought to be the anti-thesis of friendships and trust. Nationalism creates, for them, cynicism and war, while post-national trust creates optimism.  (Slavoj Zizek’s opposition of “kynicism” to “cynicism” provides a model for this project.)

The opposition between some kind of post-nationalist trust and nationalist distrust and cynicism has found its way into Hollywood, but, I would contend, this is by no means a mistake. To be sure, the mood in academia these days finds that American exceptionalism and nationalism have done us no good whatsoever. The latest Captain America film – Captain America: Winter Soldier – is a case in point.   And I have a feeling we will see more of these types of films.

In the film, nationalism is downplayed and distrust and cynicism touches everything. The new, revived, Captain America isn’t fighting so much for America as for trust and hope. He is looking for people he can trust. Unlike Independence Day (1996), saving America is really secondary to the main theme, which is saving trust and hope.

In this film, Captain America is looking for people he can trust. The nation, as it stands, is infiltrated with cynicism and distrust. Hydra has its hand in everything.   And Hyrda is fascistic. America – that is, nationalism – is not the alternative so much as is trust in the other. And this film shows Captain America battling with people inundated with fascist nationalism, on the one hand, and other American’s who have been infected with it (which suggests that fascism and its desire for order and security is the true essence of nationalism). The war isn’t between America and Hydra; it’s a war between trust and mistrust or post-nationalism and nationalism.

The Message: in this post-nationalist world, the most important thing is to know who your friends are. In this world, America, as in the first scenes of the film, with all of its monuments, is merely the backdrop for a larger existential drama. In this film, Captain America dons the same uniform he used during WWII – when American patriotism was at an all-time-high – but it is faded (just like the glory). He is, so to speak, putting new wine (the wine of trust) into an old (nationalist) skin.

I found this movie interesting not simply because it could be read as reflecting or not reflecting the current attitude of Americans toward American exceptionalism, so much as the fact that it is structured to appeal to something post-national. It moves toward a post-national kind of trust. But what does this mean about American nationalism? What does it suggest about patriotism? Is it merely, like Washington, DC, a backdrop for an existential issue?

Cynicism and Hope: On Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”

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Last night I had the opportunity of seeing Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine.  Since I have great interest in the work of Woody Allen and two of the characters he has cast in the film (Andrew Dice Clay and Louis CK), I took an immediate interest in the film and was eager to see it.  I have blogged and written on all of them and I was curious to see how or whether any comic elements could be found in the film that was, as many reviewers pointed out, not comical at all.

Much has been written on this film already.   Reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post (amongst many others) already dot the landscape.

Regarding these reviews, nearly all of them note how Allen, in the making of this film, was very influenced by Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  And they all noted the obvious relation to the Bernie Madoff fallout.  Regarding the reviews, I will briefly defer to the words of the critic David Denby who, in my view, does a fine job laying the plot and themes of the film out.  What interests me most, in his review, is how he reads the comical element.  Denby notes that Jasmine, played by Kate Blanchett,

is a snob and a liar, and, at times, delusional (she talks to herself), but, like Blanche DuBois, she’s mesmerizing. You can’t get enough of her, and Cate Blanchett, who played Blanche on Broadway only a few years ago, gives the most complicated and demanding performance of her movie career. The actress, like her character, is out on a limb much of the time, but there’s humor in Blanchett’s work, and a touch of self-mockery as well as an eloquent sadness. When she drops her voice to its smoky lower register, we know that she’s teasing the tragic mode. That edge of self-parody keeps us close to her, and we need that closeness, because we’re in for a rough ride.

Without this comic element of self-parody, we would despise her.  But, as Denby points out, the harsh element is constant throughout.  This, Denby avers, has much to do with Allen’s outlook on life, as reflected in this film:

Allen, who’s now seventy-seven, has become flintier as he has got older. His men and women tell one another off; the social clashes among people from different ways of life can be harsh and unforgiving.

In other words, with age Allen wants to knit a closer relationship between comedy and suffering.  In effect, Allen’s film shows us how, in his view, class-difference, in our era, taints comedy:

Allen, in his own way, is commenting on our increasingly unequal society: the formerly rich woman and the working-class characters don’t begin to get one another’s jokes and references; they don’t understand one another’s needs—they don’t even see them.

Nonetheless, Denby wants to point out how the comic element survives, albeit in a way that is admixed with the tragic.   Allen now uses the comic element to produce a “miraculous” identification between the audience and Jasmine.

The miracle is that we feel for Jasmine—or, at least, our responses to her are divided between laughter and sympathy. When she takes a job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, and the patients can’t decide when to schedule their next appointment, her irritation at their fumbling is both funny and recognizable.

What I like about Denby’s reading of the film is how he phrases our odd identification with Jasmine.  Our laughter at her way of handling her new work and life take off the edge. And we, for a few moments, see her as something other than a snob.  We can understand how ridiculous her situation is and we identify with her through laughter and tears, which keep each other in check.

Unlike Denby, I would say that, though I identified with Jasmine in this “miraculous” fashion, this identification was momentary and was often overshadowed by the other element which taints all of our identifications in the film; namely, the effect and dynamic of dishonesty and cynicism.

I was very troubled by this overwhelming presence as I stand behind the comic task of the schlemiel which is to maintain the tension between skepticism and hope.  The schlemiel, though foolish, stands on the side of trust and honesty. We see this in many classical schlemiels: from Rabbi Nachman of Breslav and Sholem Aleichem’s simpletons to I.B. Singer’s Gimpels and Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer types.  Although these characters are weathered by reality and lies, the element of trust remains.  It doesn’t triumph so much as remain in the balance.  When this tension collapses, we are in trouble.  It implies that what is best in humanity has been effaced.

At the end of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that in an era in which there is too much optimism or too much skepticism, the schlemiel cannot exist.

Allen’s film illustrates this principle-of-sorts.  To be sure, his film speaks to the cynicism that has grown post-Madoff.  And this overshadows much of the trust and hope we see in the film.  However, the fact of the matter is that although Andrew Dice Clay’s character is ruined by the games of the rich, his ex-wife (Jasmine’s sister, Ginger – played by Sally Hawkins) manages to start a new life.

She plays something of an innocent and hopeful schlemiel character.   Although Blanchett is obviously the focus of the entire film, it is Ginger who, at the very end of the film, retains some element of hope and trust.  She wants nothing to do with the cynicism that goes along with big-money and corruption.

Nonetheless, the best illustration of what is at stake in this film (and with the schlemiel) can be found in Blanchett’s relationship with Ginger’s children.  Although they openly disclose what they have heard from their parents about Jasmine and her husband’s lies and corruption, they don’t understand it.  In a key scene where Jasmine tells it all, they look back at her in astonishment not knowing what she is actually saying.   Her language is not theirs.

In truth, all of the adult characters are tainted by cynicism.  The children are, too.  But they don’t know it.  And, at the very least, I think it is important to note this.  The comic element survives best in them.  They retain the element of a schlemiel in a society which has become inundated with post-Madoff cynicism.

Though the film ends with Blanchett walking the streets alone, homeless, and delirious, this still leaves us with a horrible feeling we cannot forget that while most of us have been ruined by cynicism there are some who aren’t.  Children, in this film, are the schlemiels.  We need to ask ourselves what this implies.

The more we lie to each other, the more our humanity is lost.  Cynicism is the greatest threat to the schlemiel and to our humanity.  I applaud Woody Allen for bringing this out in Blue Jasmine.

He illustrates what Irving Howe, citing Saul Bellow, saw about Sholem Aleichem’s comedy; namely, that what makes Jewish humor relevant is the fact that it oscillates between laughter and tears.  And, as I have pointed out, this oscillation is based on the violation of trust.  Without trust, we can only cry.

Paraphrasing Denby, I would say that the miracle is not simply our feeling for Blanchett; it is the fact that the children don’t totally understand how dishonest people can be.  It’s the last remnant we have.  And, as I would argue, their lack of understanding, like that of any schlemiel, may give us time….time to change our ways and learn to trust one another once again.   Perhaps this is a foolish hope, but, in truth, it is the hope of a schlemiel.

It is our last remnant of humanity in a post-Madoff age.

On the Apocalyptic Tone of Comedy – Take 2

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Slovoj Zizek and Milan Kundera come from the same part of Europe, both experienced communism, and both have a penchant for comedy.  But they differ on two things: their readings of comedy and their identification with Communism.

As I pointed out in my last blog entry, what makes Milan Kundera’s view of the comic so interesting is that he feigns an Apocalyptic tone, brings us to the brink of cynicism, and then confesses his commitment to the tradition of the fool.  He, like Walter Benjamin (and perhaps Franz Kafka), plays the Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.  He, like Benjamin, believes that the “fool can help.”  But what we might forget is that, given this tradition, he becomes Don Quixote and we become Sancho Panza.   His message parallels Benjamin’s; namely, in a world where man is dwarfed by the mass media, technology, speed, and politics, it is through the tradition of the fool that we can be free.

But to come to this conclusion, Kundera realized that Don Quixote was nearly killed by Totalitarianism. And by this he means Communism, which he experienced first hand and has written on in nearly half of his novels.  In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera contrasts the circle of Communism and its joy to the solitude that comes with his suspicion of this circle.  To be sure, his accounts of Communist joy are tainted.  And, reading them, one can certainly hear an Apocalyptic tone. To be sure, in the midst of all this joy, he finds something duplicitous and deadly.  The “lightness” of the Communist circle which dances above the ground has something frightening about it.  And he knows what this is; he lived through it.  And it seems he never wants to go back to it again.

Rather, Kundera opts for movement of a lonestar, Don Quixote.  But his decision to follow him is in the wake of the Apocalyptic.   As I noted, it begins with the passing of God and then with it returns with the purges of Communism.  But on both occasions, disaster is displaced by the arrival of Don Quixote.  To be sure, Kundera concludes that one can always count on the arrival of Don Quixote. He is like the gift that doesn’t stop giving.   In the end, Kundera says that, despite it all, his commitment to the fool is “ridiculous” and “sincere.” Don Quixote rides away from the disaster; he doesn’t ride into it.

In contrast, Slavoj Zizek maintains an Apocalyptic Tone of comedy from the beginning to the very end of his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.   The reason for this has a lot to do with the fact that, even though he takes on the legacy of comedy, it is really the legacy of a comedy that is associated with Marx’s bearing witness to the demise of capitalism and liberal democracy.  To be sure, this comic element which is associated with witnessing the demise of liberal democracy and capitalism is gleeful.

But, as Zizek notes, this is not by any means a passive affair.  Comedy is not, by any means, an end-in-itself.  It should encourage “us” to act.  But this isn’t any ordinary kind of action.  No. It is an act which doesn’t simply go against history; it looks to bring it to a grinding stop.  And, for Zizek, this act of cessation (this “pure act”) is the partisan act of committing oneself to Communism.  And, since it is partisan it leaves Quixote’s form of comedy for the political tones of ridicule and mockery that takes not just the ruling power into account but the left that has affirmed liberal democracy.  In his partisan affirmation of Communism, he accuses them of “blackmailing” the left.  At that point, Zizek leaves the legacy of Cervantes behind for the legacy of radical Communism.  There is nothing funny about this at all.

I would like to touch on a few of these elements in this blog entry and return to them in the near future.

Zizek introduces his book by citing a passage from Karl Marx’s “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right.”   What Zizek cites has to do with coming to an awareness that history doesn’t simply repeat itself.  It first occurs as a tragedy, and then it returns, in yet another manifestation, as a farce.  Marx teaches us the lesson:

It is instructive for [the modern nations] to see the ancien regime, which in the countries has experienced its tragedy, play its comic role as a German phantom.  Its history was tragic as long as it was the pre-existing power in the world and freedom a personal whim – in a word, as long as it believed, and had to believe, in its own privileges.

What happens, in effect, is that there is a difference between one belief and another.  The first crisis in belief is real, it is tragic because the ancien regime really was a “pre-existing power in the world” and “it believed, and had to believe in its own privileges.”  But what happens to Germany in the 19th century – at the moment of Marx’s writing this passage – is a failure of such belief since, as Marx argued, it had no historical reason to believe.  Rather, it made-believe that it was like an ancien regime.  In other words, it acted “as if” it was based on a long history and believed in its principles. And this is the farce:

The present German regime, on the other hand – an anachronism, a flagrant contradiction of universally accepted axioms, the futility of the ancien regime displayed for all the world to see – only imagines that it still believes in itself and asks the world to share in its fantasy.

What one may not notice is that Marx is, in effect, mocking the regime and accusing it of “imagining” itself to “still believe in itself.”  Marx sees this delusion; they do not.  He, so to speak, laughs at it.  And this is the legacy which, I would argue, Zizek must address.  Will he, like Marx, laugh at the delusion of the ruling power?  Does Zizek’s laughter take on an Apocalyptic tone when it mocks liberal democracy and capitalism?

Commenting on this fantasy of belief, Zizek speculates that “during the same period, Kierkegaard deployed the idea that we humans cannot ever be sure that we believe: ultimately, we only ‘believe that we believe’. The formula of a regime which only ‘imagines that it believes in itself’ nicely captures the cancellation of the performative power…of the ruling ideology: it no longer effectively functions as the fundamental structure of the social bond.”

In other words, for Zizek there is a crisis in belief.  He notices this in terms of the economic and social crisis that has been ensuing over the last decade.  But he inverts his reading of this crisis.  Instead of reading it like Marx, he shows that today differs from the 19th century because we know we don’t believe and yet we act as if we do anyway.  This is the same formula Zizek used back in 1989 (in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology) to describe cynicism.  In a blog from earlier in the week, I described Zizek’s challenge to Marx by way of his description of cynicism (gleaned from Peter Sloterdijk).  Here it is in yet another form:

It would be more appropriate to describe contemporary cynicism as representing an exact inversion of Marx’s formula: today, we only imagine that we don’t “really believe” in our ideology – in spite of this imaginary distance, we continue to practice it.

In other words, we know we don’t believe in liberal democracy, yet we believe in it anyway.   And this, for Zizek, is ridiculous. What Zizek looks to do is to show how capitalism has created a world in which wealthy people praise liberal ideals while, at the same time, have noting in common with poor people.  The fact that we know this and yet “go on believing” (or act “as if” we still believe in a system which is corrupt) is, for Zizek, the new farce.

Although the new farce that Zizek notes differs from the old one that Marx describes, the situation is parallel: both Marx and Zizek are watching the farce from a partisan vantage point.  For Marx, they have no idea about their delusion; while for Zizek they do but they sill go on believing.  For both, it’s a comedy that is ultimately tragic and Apocalyptic.

But this is not simply about watching and laughing at the liberal world as it destroys itself.  No.  Zizek, as I pointed out in an earlier blog entry, is kynical.  He not only watches the destruction, he gleefully engages in it by refusing to play the games of the Enlightenment.  As I pointed out earlier, he notes, explicitly, that he takes the road of the ad hominem.  In other words, Zizek, in being kynical, insists on being a partial and partisan.  He spells it out in the introduction to his book:

What the book offers is not a neutral analysis but an engaged and extremely “partial” one – for truth is partial, accessible only when one takes sides, and is no less universal for this reason.  The side taken here is, of course, communism.

As a partisan, Zizek takes sides with Communism against the liberal left.  He mocks deconstruction and liberal ideals because they didn’t go far enough:

Among the contemporary names for ever-so-slightly smearing those in power, we could list ‘deconstruction’, or the ‘protection of individual freedoms’.

He sees both names as indications of failure.  He mocks both by way of a dirty joke told by dissidents in which a peasant’s wife is raped by a “Mongol Warrior.” As a part of the raping, the Mongol Warrior asks the peasant to lift his testicles from the ground while he rapes the peasant’s wife. Since the ground is dusty, the Mongol Warrior doesn’t want to get his testicles dirty while he rapes the peasant.  Strangely enough, the peasant leaps in joy after the Mogol Warrior leaves the rape scene because, in his deluded mind, he has one a victory: “But I got him! His balls are covered with dust!”

The lesson is obvious.  The left, for Zizek, merely criticizes and leaves dust on the testicles of the ruling power that “rapes” the people.  Zizek argues that the “real point is to castrate them.”  Nothing short of totally depriving those in power of power is Zizek’s goal.  This is certainly not a joke.

Zizek teaches us that the first step in doing this is to divide oneself from liberals by openly declaring that which is not permitted. In the wake of Stalin, Mao, the fall of the Berlin wall, and millions of people who were murdered by Stalin, Mao, and others he affirms communism.

Today, our message should be the same: it is permitted to know and to fully engage in communism, to again act in full fidelity to the communist Idea.

Knowing full well that someone could read this and say that Zizek just wants to be obscene and “get off” on being a rebel, Zizek comments that “the very fascination with the obscenity we are allowed to observe prevents us from knowing what it is that we see.”  In other words, he asks us to look past the obscenity to something deeper.  And that something is Zizek’s commitment to Communism is unrepentant. It is proud and demands the other side, that is, the liberals to repent: “our side no longer has to go on apologizing; while the other side had better start soon.”

As a part of his public conversion, Zizek turns on those he had, for years, aligned himself with and literally accuses them of “blackmailing” him.  He demands their apology for taking him hostage to their false belief that they were really challenging the powers-that-be.  How dare they expect him to believe that he was doing something by, so to speak, lightly dusting the testicles of the ruling-elite-rapist!?

To be sure, this is not funny. Zizek is angry and he is engaging in ridicule.   Zizek is, so to speak, manning up in the name of Communism.  He is calling for a fight and insisting that he must castrate power and ridicule “liberal-democratic-moralists.”

Unlike Milan Kundera who aligns himself sincerely and in a ridiculous manner with Don Quixote, Zizek moves from self-ridicule to ridicule. Kundera’s apprehension with regard to Communism must be dismissed and, by way of implication, we would have to say that Zizek would accuse Kundera of blackmailing him.  Kundera is not simply a dupe he is a hostage taker.   The legacy of Don Quixote is not of interest to Zizek; the legacy of Marx and radical communism is.  Humor has one use only: to ridicule those who don’t stand on the side of Communism.

And this is where the Apocoplytic tone can be heard.  Zizek, in effect, is sounding the death knoll by demanding an apology.  He is saying that “we” are taking over.  Let me paraphrase a bit (and please note that I don’t include myself in this ‘we’; I’m just describing it): We are not cynical like you liberal democrats because we know that progress and history are a sham while Communism is the truth (of a variety that is not based on history but goes against history, as I will show in the next blog). We are not cynical; we are kynical.

As I will show in the next blog, the kynical communist is one who rages against history and insists that it stops.  It looks to make an Apocalyptic cessation.  And the first step in that direction is to become a partisan who rejects the farce and embraces what he will call “pure action.”

Here, the Apocalyptic tone of comedy is exchanged for the Apocalyptic tone of the partisan.  The way of kynicsm is the way of the insult and the demand.  As the title of the first chapter of his book rudely exclaims: “Its Ideology, Stupid!”

Here, the tradition is resumed, a tradition which failed.  But this is not by any means the tradition of the fool; it is the tradition of communist partisanship.  And, as such, it is a tradition which is based on ridicule not humility.  It is a tradition that Kundera does not want to uphold.  Kunera’s legacy is that of Don Quixote while Zizek’s legacy is that of Karl Marx.   The difference between them, I would argue, concerns the meaning and tone of comedy.  For Zizek, comedy must serve Communism not vice versa.  To have us believe – or rather go-along-with – that comedy simply challenges power, as deconstruction claims, is to lightly dust the testicle of a rapist.  This belief in comedy is, from the partisan perspective of Communism, a farce.

Hence, for Zizek, Kundera or anyone who believes in the power of comedy to go against the grain, is truly a fool. Zizek, on the contrary is not a fool, comedy, for him, shouldn’t challenge power; rather, it should separate believers in Communism from non-believers and should destroy power not challenge it.

For Zizek, if comedy is to be meaningful in a communist sense, it must take on an Apocalyptic tone.  It must herald the end in which believers will be separated from non-believers.

 

President Obama and Slavoj Zizek: The Kynical Comic versus the Simpleton

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Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about trust, cynicism, and the schlemiel.

Does the schlemiel provide solace? Does the schlemiel restore trust?  There isn’t an easy answer to this question.  I started my thread of blog entries thinking about how President Obama, in his comic routine at the Correspondents’ Dinner, appealed to the self-deprecating simpleton.  He did this in order to end cynicism and gain trust.

The fact of the matter is that at least one variety of the schlemiel – the traditional, Eastern European one – works to endear the viewer, listener, or reader. The key ingredient to comically win over the audience is naivite.   The schlemiel may make mistakes and may try hard to win, but he often fails. 

The President played the schelemiel the other night. The President’s charm, at least in this routine, is to be found in his failure to make his dreams a reality.  And this is an appropriate topic for comedy given the President’s emphasis on hope and change.  The President, so to speak, is a dreamer.  He lives on dreams.  And perhaps many of us entrust him with power because we also like to dream (about a better future).  In effect, perhaps we identify with a schlemiel because we are schlemiels, too.  And this is the message: we can trust a naïve dreamer as only a dreamer can dispose of our cynicism. And The President seems to have been playing that comic role the other night.

But there is more on the table. The appeal of the schlemiel is not simply his or her inclination to dream big. To be sure. The dreamer who wants to make his or her dreams come true is socially awkward. As Adam Kotsko claims in his book entitled Awkwardness, many comedians play on the awkwardness of trying to succeed in a social situation.  We saw this throughout the President’s routine.  And to see this awkwardness in him is to see the everyman.  Perhaps the President’s awkwardness brings us relief; namely, to know that, like us, the President is also trying to be socially accepted and trusted while, at the same time, dreaming of making things better.

Whether or not the President’s routine ends your cynicism, however, is another question.  Perhaps we would all feel better if we believed that the President was a schlemiel like us.  But, as I pointed out yesterday with respect to Zizek, Karl (not Groucho) Marx believed that all ideology is naïve and that it has no idea that it is really doing anything wrong.  Ideology, for Marx, naively thinks it is right.  It can’t understand itself.  It can’t see itself.

In other words, Marx would read ideology as a fellow German of the 19th century would read the schlemiel. To be sure, the German reading of the schlemiel has a similar structure to Marx’s reading of ideology.  The German schlemiel is absent-minded and naïve; he has a blind spot and can’t see it.   We can.  As Sander Gilman points out in his reading of the German schlemiel in the 19th century, the point of the schlemiel in German theater was to show what NOT to be.  We can see what the schlemiel cannot.  And, as a result, we can reject the behaviors that the schlemiel naively repeats ad infinitum.  This is what Marx, analogously, thought with respect to ideology. His job, as a critic, is to “unmask” the naïve aspect of ideology and show what it is blind to; namely, the exploitation that private property and the class system is based on.   This “consciousness” could be used to correct the system and transfer all private property from the exploiters to the exploited.  In effect, consciousness is maturity and its first task is to negate naivite (which, analogously, would equate with the negation of the schlemiel).

Zizek doesn’t buy this.  He says that the notion that ideology is naive no longer holds. Today, Zizek argues ideology is not naïve.  It wears the mask of ideology while knowing full well that it is lying.  Zizek’s perspective, to be sure, is highly suspicious of anyone who purports to believe in this or that ideal.  To do so, especially with a smiling face, is tantamount to being a trick of the ruling power.  Zizek would say that anyone who upholds a principle or Enlightenment ideal is the real cynic as such a person does not truly believe in what he or she is saying but does so anyhow.

To think that the political is naïve, for Zizek, would be a mistake.  For Zizek, everyone acts “as if” they believe in this or that ideology when in fact they don’t.  One could also argue that the simpleton belongs to an ideology.  Using Zizek’s logic, one could say that acting as if one is a naïve simpleton is a ruse since no one can really be naïve today.  For him, this would be equivalent to nostalgia.

But, as I said above, the naïve schlemiel has a different meaning for Americans than it does (or rather, did) for Germans.  To be sure, the self-deprecating naïve schlemiel has more in common with the Eastern European, Yiddish schlemiel than it does with the German one.  In truth, Eastern European Jews (both secular Yiddishists and Hasidim) were charmed by the simpleton.  The foolish innocence of this character is something that they held onto.  It was the last bit of goodness in a world that, for them, was very bleak, dishonest, and violent.  In contrast to their German-Jewish brethren, they were not interested in exposing this naivite in the name of this or that consciousness.

Zizek’s dropping of the naïve in the name of the cynical and the kynical works in two ways.  On the one hand, it casts suspicion on any ideology that purports naivite; on the other hand, it leaves the possibility of goodness behind.

Zizek’s affirmation of kynicism, which he draws from Peter Sloterdijk, has nothing innocent or naïve about it.  In fact, the whole point of kynicism is, as he says, to mock and destroy the cynic who, for Zizek, dishonestly affirms freedom, truth, justice, etc.  As opposed to Marx, Zizek doesn’t believe that consciousness is the answer.  And the kynic doesn’t look to posit an argument.  Rather, the kynic is more interested in the power of mockery to displace those in power.  He could care less about the ideas that are affirmed by neo-liberals.  And this includes the appeal to innocence and simplicity.  For Zizek, these ways of being should not be corrected so much as left behind.

Here’s the question: if you get rid of the naïve, if you disregard Obama’s entire comic routine which makes endless appeals to simpllicity, do you also dispense with trust?

Reading Zizek, I’d have to say that the answer is yes.  Zizek is not interested in that which, for The Enlightenment, forms the basis of society.  To be sure, the notion that trust is the bond of society –as the basis of the social contract – is not simply an Enlightenment ideal.  As David Novak argues in The Jewish Social Contract, the social contract itself, and the trust it embodies, is based on something prior “historically” and “ontologically” to the social contract; namely, the covenant.  The trust in God to, so to speak, do his side of the bargain, is the basis for believing in the promises of any leader or government.

But you dont have to be a philosopher or a poltical scientist to know that if cynicism reigns, this trust and society itself will go down the tubes.  In the Torah, the prophet of all prophets, the law giver, is Moses.  One of his most salient character traits, which he no doubt won the people over with was his humility.

But there is more to the story.  Moses’s humility is inseparable from his faith.  Moses is humble because he knows that, no matter how hard he tries, it’s not all in his hands. He’s not sure if he will succeed. At the very least, he trusts that he is doing the right thing. And this faith, this belief, to be sure, is naïve.  It makes Moses, at times, socially awkward.  (To be sure, there are many occasions when, in speaking to the Jewish people, he feels very awkward and worries to no end.)  A rationalist like Karl Marx would see this belief as naïve since man, not God, is the master of the world.  Man, not God, can create and preserve justice by simply getting rid of such naivite and becoming mature and self-conscious. Putting trust in God or a covenant would, for Marx, be naive. Zizek, on the other hand,  would see this belief in a naïve leader and even the presentation of oneself as a naïve leader to be cynical.  Indeed, he would see this as a form of deliberate self-deception.

Humility and naivite, in other words, are, in Zizek’s view, impossible.  No one, today, can believe that the President is really humble or naïve.  Acting “as if” one is naïve, for Zizek, is an act that is used to legitimate a ruling ideology.

Strangely enough, the mockery of the self-effacing, self-deprecating, and naïve comic character, otherwise known as the schlemiel, would be a kynical answer to cynicism.  In other words, for Zizek, one kind of humor – the one that ridicules – is better than the other (which preserves trust, humility, and goodness).

So, the choice is yours.   Do you want the kynical comic or the naïve schlemiel? Which of the two would be better for society?  Has this question, as Zizek purports, already been decided?  Have we grown up and realized that preserving the naïve is really an act of cynicism or have we, on the contrary, decided to affirm the schlemiel because, without it, hope and trust will never be on the table? Or is this question, quite simply, ridiculous? Does it really matter to us if the President’s comic routine, in which he plays a simpleton, has an element of truth and does, in fact, foster trust while effacing cynicism? If it does, then we will have to admit that the relationship of aesthetics to politics matters to us and deserves greater attention.

(Spoiler Alert: In the next blog, we will look into another type of American schlemiel – the cynical yet naïve kind.)