Theater and It’s Double or The Schlemiel as Modern Artist

Charlie Chaplin looking into mirror

Dan Miron, one of the greatest living scholars of Yiddish literature, has argued that Yiddish literature took on a project that was consistent with Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment), on the one hand, and the modernist concept of the artist on the other. In his book A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century, Miron convincingly argues that Mendel Mocher Sforim should in fact be regarded as the real origin of Modern Yiddish fiction and that Sholem Aleichem followed Sforim’s lead.

Miron’s brilliant argument starts off with pointing out the main problem for the Eastern European Haskalah; namely, that Yiddish, as a language, was not “beautiful.” It is, in the view of the German Haskalah, an ugly “caliban” language. It is inferior to Hebrew. But if the Haskalah wanted to reach the Jewish masses, so as to educate and improve them, then it would be ridiculous to use Hebrew; after all, Yiddish, not Hebrew, was the language they were most familiar with. That said, many Haskalah writers turned to Yiddish but none succeeded because they didn’t find a way of, in Miron’s words, “dramatizing” Yiddish.

For Miron, Mendel Mocher Sfroim, whose real name was S.Y. Abromovitsch, succeeded because he saw himself as a clown of sorts. He took on an ironic, schlemiel-like narrator who spoke directly to his audience. The irony is not that he is a clown but that he is an actor and can take on any personality. He is and is not one of the people; Abromovitsch is not Mendel Mocher Sforim but he acts as if he is. Sholem Aleichem does the same. And this brings out a kind of irony about everything is said.

By being a comic narrator, Yiddish fiction becomes modern. To be sure, comedy and the presence of the comic artist in the text, for Miron, make Sforim and Aleichem’s fiction modern. And, as a modern critic, Miron points this out for his modern readers. We must, in effect, be aware of the irony behind this; namely, that the artist is “tricking” us.

Citing Y.L. Berdichevski, Miron argues that the modern Yiddish writer needs to be a circus performer of sorts. He is a “mimetic genius” who is able to convey his views while, at the same time, appearing to be one of the people:

First, he is a dedicated artist. To achieve his goal, he must absorb himself in his work, “lose whatever he possesses in it.” Second, he is a mimetic genius. He evokes comparisons from one distinct area, that of theater or even the circus. One may compare him to a tightrope dancer who skillfully keeps his perilous balance between the historical bias of the language toward the exclusive mentality of the “the Jew” and his own intellectual bias toward “foreign” ideas and concepts. One may even compare him to a ventriloquist who is able to assume a voice or voices distinctly different from his own master and with mimetic subtlety, with such accuracy of nuance, as to make them express his own “ideas” without letting his audience become aware of his trick.   (84)

In other words, the schlemiel – like its author – is double. The schlemiel appears naïve and absent minded but in reality is not.   Schlemiels are and are not alienated from the community. They are a part of it and yet they are the odd ones out. In other words, the schlemiel, like the author, walk a tightrope and this provides them with a form of aesthetic freedom in a community that would, otherwise, not accept their “foreign” views.

By walking the tightrope, common Yiddish readers are indirectly exposed to a kind of theatricality. And it is this theatricality that, according to Miron, has an educational and an aesthetic purpose. Comedy, in effect, allows the artist to be an insider and an outsider to his own culture. And this duplicity is something that the artist ultimately would like to inculcate in his readers.   In mimicking characters in the ghetto, one gains a distance yet, at the same time, this mimicry is endearing. It shows that the author wants to be a part of his people and by accepted by them; yet, by way of a dramatic form of comedy (theatricality) the author is free from them. The vehicle of this comic closeness and distance is the schlemiel. His mimetic genius is that of the author. Moreover, for Aleichem and Abromovitsch, who both had a version of the Haskalah project, humor was the best means for teaching “mimetic genius” as a means of becoming…modern.

Given the emphasis on Enlightenment values and thinking, we often don’t see or hear anything about comedy or theatrical mimesis as a key ingredient. Miron is novel in this claim. His claim is interesting when read against Leo Strauss who has argued, in the introduction to Philosophy and Law, that the Enlightenment’s main weapon is mockery. The difference between the two is that the narrators and schlemiels of Sforim and Aleichem’s books don’t mock their characters directly. Their art is the art of indirect caricature. It is the work of the “mimetic genius” who can speak like all of us but who, ultimately, is caricaturing what we all take for granted. It is, as Antonin Artaud might say, a “theater and it’s double.”   The schlemiel’s comedy is his mask.

 

 

 

A Note on Goya and Sholem Aleichem’s Caricatures

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Charles Baudelaire, in his essay “Some Foreign Caricatures,” distinguishes between a “historical” and an “artistic” caricaturist. Writing on Goya, who took the horrors of the Spanish Insurrection and the war with Napoleonic France, Baudelaire notes that Goya opened up the field of caricature by introducing “fantasy” into the comic. And, in contrast to the categories he set up in his famous “Essay on Laughter,” Baudelaire argues that Goya’s brand of comedy fits neither into the category of the “absolute” or the “purely significative comic.” Unlike ETA Hoffman, who is the master of the “absolute comic” (and what Paul deMan, citing Baudealire, calls the “irony of irony”), while Goya may be able to “plunge down” into the depths of grotesque and “soar up to the heights of the absolute,” the “general aspect under which he sees all things is above all the fantastic.”

When an average person, who knows nothing about history, sees Goya’s historical figures, although they may not recognize the historical aspect, he will “experience a sharp shock at the core of his brain.” His works overcome us, says Baudelaire, like “chronic dreams” that “besiege” our sleep.   He calls Goya a “true artist” because in his caricatures, which Baudelaire calls “fugitive works,” he is able to remain “firm and indomitable.”   In other words, the test of the “true artist” is to bring shock to caricature.   And he ultimately accomplishes this, claims Baudelaire, by showing us how the “monstrous” is possible and “credible.”   And this “fantastic” element, because it made so tangible, is what shocks us:

No one has ventured further than in he in the direction of the possible absurd. All those distortions, those bestial faces, those diabolic grimaces are impregnated with humanity…In a word, the line of suture, the point of junction between the real and the fantastic is impossible to grasp; it is a vague frontier.

Reading this, I wonder how would Baudelaire regard the caricatures found in Yiddish literature and Jewish American literature. How would he interpret the choice of writers like Sholem Aleichem or Howard Jacobson who have cast schlemiels as caricaturists? Do they, as Baudelaire says of Goya, “remain firm and indomitable” in their “fugitive works”? And is their goal to make the “monstrous” credible, by way of caricature, or seem less “diabolical”?

To be sure, Dan Miron argues that Motl is not a “diabolical character” and neither are his caricatures. As Miron points out, the caricatures marks a “cold” relation to the past of a desponded and ailing world that he wants to leave behind. But he does this by way of humor.   Motl, to be sure, is the agent and reporter of this distortion. Miron tells us that he doesn’t change while his world does and this sounds like what Baudelaire would say regarding the caricaturist as an artist. However, the main difference between what Miron is saying about caricature and what Baudelaire is saying is that the schlemiel’s survival has more to do with the possibility of a new life and less to do with having an epiphany of the “possibility” of the “impossible.”

Baudelaire’s interest in caricature is focused on jarring humanity by way of shock while Sholem Aleichem’s interest is in providing a figure for Jews to understand how to relate to the past and the new future, promised by America. The schlemiel’s caricatures – rather than the schlemiel as a caricature – provide the vehicle, so to speak, to travel from Europe and arrive in America.   Caricature, for Aleichem (as opposed to Baudelaire) doesn’t suspend identity so much as provide a way of forging a new identity.   And the agent of that caricature is the schlemiel-artist (and not Baudelaire’s version of the modern artist).

Comedic horror, in other words, doesn’t seem to have a role in schlemiel literature and art while for Baudelaire it has a central place.

Progressive Schlemiels: On Dan Miron’s Reading of Sholem Aleichem’s “Motl the Cantor’s Son”

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Dan Miron is one of the greatest living critics of Yiddish and Jewish-American literature today.   His books on these bodies of literature have won him critical claim.  What interests me most is how Miron would approach a schlemiel like Motl (the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son: Writings of an Orphan Boy.   After all, I have written several blog entries on this character and have read Motl in terms of ontological and epistemological distraction.  And in my last reflection, based on a review made by Saul Bellow, I outlined the character’s Jewishness by way of his  “refusal to adapt.”  To be sure, Bellow argues that Motl, like the Jews, had no choice but to refuse since adaptation would be tantamount to giving in to history.  And that would be a complete abdication of freedom.   Like Bellow, Miron is interested in how Motl relates to history.   According to Miron, Aleichem faced his greatest artistic task in creating a character who could properly relate to the sad and difficult history of the Jewish people in eastern Europe:

To say the truth about the crisis of eastern European Jewry in the first decade of the twentieth century that nobody else would dare to say, a truth to be reported only by someone as innocent and guileless as a child…Motl is put forward to say, in his childish way, that the demise of the traditional eastern European civilization is not only unavoidable but also welcome.  (xxviii Introduction to Tevye the Dairy Man and Motl the Cantor’s Son).

Miron’s last point stakes out a historical claim and situates his reading within a progressivist framework.  As Miron suggests, Aleichem wanted to push off from the past and embrace a new Jewish future.  Paraphrasing Aleichem, Miron writes: “it is high time for the shtetl culture to leave the historical stage for something else, no matter how primitive and crass, as long as it is alive and vital; that being an orphan is, under certain circumstances, preferable to being burdened by a moribund ancestry”(xxviii).    In other words, Miron reads the schlemiel in terms of an effort to kindly say goodbye to eastern Europe and the Shtetl and to say hello to  health, vitality, and a new future.   In other words, the schlemiel, in this historical context, embodies a progressive historical force that leaves the past, suffering, and history behind for the new.

To this end, Miron describes Motl, a schlemiel, not so much as a character than as an “attitude.”  He cites Deleuze and Guittari as his theoretical support:

As a fictional character, Motl is what Deleuze and Guittari, in their discourse on minor literature, refer to as agencement, an arrangement of traits and narrative inflections that convey an attitude rather than the reality of a specific fictionalized human being.  (xxviii)

Miron tells us that this “attitude” remains consistent throughout the story.  It is “static” against a background and changing locations that are in “constant flux.”   He is immune to the effect of time: “his character” is “immune to the process of aging and to being reconditioned by drastically changing life situations”(xxix).  In other words, the schlemiel’s blindness to the world and change is not a negative aspect of the character worthy of criticism; rather, it is a part of a kind of force that transcends change, a historical force that is vital: “nimble, energetic, bright, unencumbered by heavy clothes, never seeking the warmth of hearth and home, always Puck-like, need to walk, to run, almost to fly”(xxix).

What I find so original about this reading is that Miron, unlike any commentator on the schlemiel, describes the character as a kind of model of the “attitude” that is necessary to be vital and live on.  In other words, this schlemiel is the model for a kind of Jewish post-European vitalism-slash-historical force.  Miron likens him to a force that can be either “hot” or “cold.”

He flows with all that is vibrant: appetites, vitality, effervescence, motility, optimism, lust for life, and freedom.  On the other hand, he is a keen, unemotional, unflinching observer. (xxix)

The latter part, the cold part, is the part that watches history fade away and distances itself from the “ghettoized” aspects of his mother, brother, family, village, etc.  Miron uses this hot/cold distinction to depict this progressive attitude that looks coldly at the past yet is hot for the future and the new.   The cold part, Miron tells us, finds its best expression in the fact that Aleichem makes Motl’s new occupation, upon landing in the new world, a caricaturist.  He has a “passion for drawing cartoons that emphasize all kinds of unseemly metonymies.”  These “unseemly metonymies” are caricatures of the past.   Miron sees caricature as a “non-Jewish art” because Jews are prohibited by the Torah from making any “graven images.”  And this, for Miron, is the perfect vehicle for rebellion against tradition.  It helps him to become “detached from it” and to see it for how bad it is or has become.  And, in Miron’s words, “Motl’s inclination toward caricature contributes to Sholem Aleichem’s objective to deconstruct shtetl literature, to dismantle its components and to expose it as nonfunctional”(xxxi).

Miron’s claim suggests that schlemiel, as a caricaturist, is really not blind.  He coldly sees and rejects shtetl culture and history.  The blindness is more on the “warm” front where he chases after life in all its “flow” and “vitality.”  This is a reading of the schlemiel that has never been put forward and it is very amusing insofar as it suggests that schlemiel is not totally blind or absent-minded and that the character is the expression of a progressive “attitude.”   He is not, as Paul Celan might say, mindful of his dates.

Miron’s progressivist reading mirrors, in many ways, a Zionist reading of diasporic, European culture.  Aleichem, in his view, reads the diaspora in similar terms. But unlike German-Jews, who viewed the schlemiel as a product of the ghetto and should be abandoned, Aleichem sees Motl as a heroic figure who leaves the ghetto behind.  Miron tells us that Motl may start out as a “prospective victim” (xxxi) but he avoids this negative fate by leaving Europe behind.   He is, as Miron notes, “happy” in the midst of negative conditions since he detaches himself from these conditions and attaches himself to life and hope.  His “child rebellion” is not extinguished by the repressive apparatus of the “shtetl’s oppressive system of education.”    Motl “celebrates his independence” from this system and this “child rebellion” against the shtelt is the key to his survival.  For Miron, this is the “attitude” that left the ghetto behind for “new life.”  He is an “orphan,” a member of an “orphaned people,” which “emerges” from “historical lethargy.”  “Whipped into wakefulness” Motl, like the Jewish people, “gropes for happiness that has evaded it for so long”(xxxii).

Miron’s rhetoric suggests, more than Irving Howe, that Aleichem wasn’t simply laughing and crying over history; he was rejecting it.  This reading of the schlemiel suggests that this schlemiel, the immigrant schlemiel, is premised not so much on the rejection of the status quo (which is what Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse have suggested) as rejecting the shtetl while embracing the new.  The schlemiel must, for progressive reasons, be cold to the past (and caricature it) while being warm to every new experience.

What happens, however, to the new schlemiel. The one who arrives in America?  Will they retain hope, too?  Is the new schlemiel hot and cold?  After all, Motl is an immigrant leaving Europe behind.  What happens to the landed schlemiel?

In my latest readings of Cynthia Ozick’s  “Envy; or Yiddish in America” I pointed out that the landed schlemiel, after the death of eastern European Jewry and its cultural legacy, is not so happy.   Edelshtein is a “master of failure” and, as an older schlemiel, has a much different “attitude” than Motl.   He lives in the wake of the Holocaust, Motl doesn’t.

Miron’s suggested reading, a historicist reading, should be put in context.  Not all schlemiels are like Motl.   And his hot and cold relations may not be found in schlemiels we find in much post-Holocaust literature.  Their attitude toward history and progress is much different from his.  They are more acutely aware of failure than he.  We see this in Malamud, Ozick, and Bellow.

…to be continued….