Somewhere Between Man and Animal: A Note on Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs


One of the most fascinating things Walter Benjamin notes about Franz Kafka’s main characters is that many of them are what he calls “prehistoric.”  Several of these characters are actually animals or insects: they include apes, bugs, and mice.  They exist in a world that is not outside of history, but before it.  Taking another approach, and addressing Kafka’s animals, Gilles Deleuze (in his book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature) has argued that we must understand what it means that many of Kafka’s characters lived in an ambiguous realm between human and animal.  He believed that Kafka’s characters effaced the line between man and animal by way of language.  For, according to Deleuze, Kafka was not interested in creating a metaphor by way of this or that animal who can speak, think, etc. Rather “Kafka deliberately kills all metaphor, all symbolism, all signification, no lees than all designation(22).  Kafka was interested, instead, in “metamorphosis” and “metamorphosis is the contrary of metaphor”(22).  Based on this claim, Delezue, discussing Kafka’s animals, argues:

There is no longer man or animal, since each deterritorializes the other, in a conjunction of flux, in a continuum of reversible intensities.  Instead, it is now a question of becoming…(22)

For this reason, Deleuze suggests we read Kafka’s man-animals in terms of “the crossing of a barrier, a rising or a falling, a bending or an erecting, an accent on a word.”  He takes this to another level by saying that language barks, roams, climbs around, etc:

The “animal does not speak ‘like’ a man but pulls from language tonalities lacking signification; the words are not “like” the animals but in their own way climb about, bark and roam around being properly linguistic dogs, insects, or mice. (22)

Reading this, I wondered how should I read the descriptions of the main character of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Roy Hobbs.  As I pointed out yesterday, Hobbs, at the outset of the novel, has a kind of mythic and prehistoric kind of existence.  He comes out of nothing, but this nothing has a primitiveness to it.

Hobbs stumbles in and out of a kind of primitiveness and comes in and out of prehistoric state.  But rather than read Roy as a metaphor, perhaps we should take Deleuze’s reading as a cue and read Roy as sounding out new tonalities of a wild, American language.  But, how, I wonder, can we separate Roy’s story from this kind of language.  To be sure, his dreams, his blindness, and his absent-mindedness are connected to this language.   His pre-historic state, as Benjamin might call it, is to be found in the America he encounters as he comes face to face with the possibility of being a star. He doesn’t understand it, but he desires it.  He’s simple, as is his language.  And his encounters with physical reality,  people, and dreams bring out a simple and wild American tonality.

At the outset of the novel, before he encounters people Roy gets up bright and early to eat breakfast.  His movements into his clothes are “acrobatic” and highly physical.  Malamud’s language brings out this tactility and animality which, it seems, is ready for anything:

Roy peeled his gray sweatshirt and bunched down the white ducks he was wearing for pajamas in case there was a wreck and he didn’t have time to dress.   He acrobated into his shirt, pulled up the pants of his good suit, arching them high, but he had crammed both feet into one leg and was trapped so tight wriggling got him nowhere…Grunting, he contorted himself this way and that till he was last able to grab and pull down the cuff with a gasp.. (4)

After he is fully dressed, and steps out, Malamud reminds us of the man-animal dialectic:

Dropping on all fours, he peered under the berth of his bassoon case.

Seeing him on all fours hunting for his case, the porter, who comes by asks him, indirectly about the case: “Morning, maestro, what’s the tune today?”  Roy responds, “It ain’t a musical instrument.”  He tells him that what is in the case is something he has “made himself.”  The porter, hinting at the pre-historic and the primitive asks, “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

But in response Roy tells the porter that it is nothing natural; rather, it is “just a practical thing.”  Following this, there is a volley about what’s hidden in the case.  He gives several guesses which, in a  comical manner, mock out the meaning of “practical”: “a pogo stick,” a “foolproof lance” a “combination fishing rod, gun, and shovel.”

Instead of answering, Roy changes the subject to where they are going and how long it will take to get there.  From their discussion, we learn that Roy has only visited two places, both of them in the west: Boise and Portland, Oregon.  He hasn’t been to any major city.

When he tells him that he is going to Chicago, “where the Cubs are.”  The porter perks up and asks, sarcastically, if there are also “lions and tigers there.”  Roy, in response, says that the Cubs are a ball team.  But this is the game.  He’s playing Socrates to Roy and looks for him to say it.

For after saying it, we see the punch line; namely, that the porter asks if you “are one of them” (a ballplayer).  When Roy says yes, the porter bows and says: “My hero. Let me kiss your hand.”

This makes Roy smile but it also “annoys” him.  This foreshadows his ambivalent relation to his fans.  He does and does not want to be recognized as a star.  And this may have much to do with the fact that his relation to others, other humans who recognize him, is different from his primitive relations to things.

He may have a playful relationship with the porter, which makes him smile, but it is based on a set of conditions.  A ball player must be successful; his relations to physical reality, evinced by all of the words and tonalities brought out in his waking movements into clothing, disclose another aspect of language and a different way of life.

This relation to the porter also includes a language with its own rhythm, but this language is based on something historic not pre-historic.  It is based on the fact of recognition and the fact that Roy may make history and be a hero for others.  And this irks him.  In other words, making history is and is not of interest to him.  He is unsure. And this, I would argue, has to do with the fact that his relations to “the ball” are ambiguous. Are they the relations of an animal or pre-historic being to “the ball” or are they the relations of a hero?

The fact that the ball is called a “pill” – later in the novel -indicates that his entering history has to do with entering into a game that feeds addiction.  And, perhaps, this is an addiction to heroes and success.  This is a human and an American addiction which, nonetheless, emerges from something pre-historic.

And this is something both Franz Kafka (in his book Amerika) and Walter Benjamin understood about America.  It was a land where the pre-historic entered history in the form of the “natural theater.”  However, had they read Malamud, one wonders how they would have conceived of the relation of man to animal.  At the outset of this novel, Hobbs, “the natural.” dwells on the cusp of history and somewhere between man and animal.  In this space we can hear the new tones of a new American language that is struggling to speak.

Is Jerry Lewis a Masochistic Comedian or an Unconscious Anarchist?


All anarchists are fully conscious of their will to destroy the law.  The unconscious anarchist would not be; his anarchic “effect” would therefore be an accident. Steven Shaviro calls Jerry Lewis an “unconscious anarchist.”  But what does Lewis’s anarchism consist of?  Before we can answer that question, we need to look at the origin of this discussion; namely, the discussion of Masochism and its relation to humor.  And that brings us three questions: 1) Is the Schlemiel an “unconscious anarchist”; 2) To be an unconscious anarchist must one be a masochist; 3) Can we avoid psychologizing the schlemiel and reducing his political, social, and ethical potential?

In the beginning of yesterday’s blog entry, I pointed out how Ruth Wisse rejects – outright – the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  The reason for this is because she feels that this reading is – more or less – a reduction of the schlemiel to a psychological malady.  This reading obviously casts a negative glance at the schlemiel and it misses the point that Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer were looking to make; namely, that the schlemiel is, as she says at the beginning of her book, a challenge to the “political and philosophical status quo.”  Moreover, in the chapter where she challenges the reading of the schlemiel as a masochistic character – a reading made, primarily, by the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik – she points out that I.B. Singer’s Gimpel is a post-Holocaust character who, in the most ethical sense, looks to challenge the evil wrought by that horrific event by wandering, so to speak, after goodness.

The reason I brought up Deleuze’s reading of masochism was not to challenge Wisse by offering yet another psychological interpretation; on the contrary, I was very interested in how Deleuze reads Masochism (and Sadism) as challenges to the Law.  And by law, Deleuze does not simply imply law as such (although that is on his horizon) so much as social norms.  The point of the masochist’s humor is not to transgress the law (and the Idea of the Good) in the name of the Idea of Evil, which is what Sade’s irony does (according to Deleuze – since irony always rejects one thing in the name of something else; namely, a higher principle); rather the point of masochistic humor is to challenge the law by zealously keeping it in all its details.

I ended yesterday’s blog entry by briefly mentioning Steven Shaviro’s reading of Jerry Lewis, based in major part on the work of Gilles Deleuze, as a masochistic humorist.  I brought in Shaviro because it applies this not to a sexual masochist – as Deleuze does vis-à-vis Leopold Sacher Masoch, the author of Venus in Furs and the founder of masochism –  so much as a real humorist: Jerry Lewis.  I would like to return to Shaviro’s reading in this blog entry because he provides a valuable reading of Lewis and tests Deleuze’s claims for humor against Lewis’s comic performances.  In addition, Shaviro, like Wisse, moves away from the psychological reading and toward a more political or socially oriented reading.  Nonetheless, Shaviro takes his reading of Lewis to a place where Wisse, in her reading of the schlemiel, would not.  And he does this because Shaviro’s reading of humor is oriented according to a post-Marxist framework instead of an ethical framework (which is the basis of Wisse’s reading).

One of the most important distinctions Shaviro makes with respect to Lewis, is the fact that Lewis’s comedy may “mobilize all the affects of masochism” but “his comic personas never possess the will to twist and pervert the law that characterizes the true masochist”(110).  In other words, Lewis is only half a masochist or what Shaviro calls an “unconscious anarchist.”  And, as a critic, he looks to unmask what Lewis cannot see; namely, social and economic forces that his comedy unconsciously embodies and rejects.

Following the thread of Deleuze and applying it to Lewis, Shaviro points out that in many of Lewis’s films “Lewis’s overzealous efforts to obey orders, to mimic models of success, to act pragmatically, and otherwise to accede to the socially defined norm only end in failure and confusion”(110).

Here is an example from  Hardly Working:

What is most interesting about all this is that Lewis is “anarchist…despite his hyperconformism: he disseminates chaos in the course of earnestly trying to do exactly what bosses, psychoanalyists, media specialists…etc want him to do”(110).  This, points out Shaviro, is radically different from a “carnivelesque transgression” that you would find in the pages of Marquis de Sade.

Lewis is a failure.  Whenever he is “faced with responsibility,” he fails.  And when he does, claims Shaviro, he “experiences chaos on his own body.”  This is “disseminated in waves” to everything around him.  But this comic destruction of norms does not, according to Shaviro, issue a “judgment against norms” so much as a judgment “against himself.”  This characterization of Lewis’s failure is fascinating for schlemiel in theory because it is contrary to what we find in the schlemiel.  The schlemiel’s failures preserve some form of hope and do in fact present some kind of challenge to (or judgment against) the status quo; Lewis’s gestures, according to Shaviro, do not.  He, rather, is the sight of judgment and abjection.

Moreover, Lewis’s self-confidence is the main issue.  He is constantly at the mercy of other people who he hopes to impress.  But he fails.  Dean Martin often plays the role of this character.

This, of course, can be read as a psychological issue.  In fact, in the German reading of the Schlemiel (as opposed to Wisse’s Eastern European reading), the schlemiel is guilty of being heteronomous and not autonomous.  He, like women and children (as some Haskalah – Jewish Enlightenment – playwrights and thinkers argued), is too influenced by the other.  To be at mercy of the other is a negative trait that they believed came from the ghetto.  One of the most outspoken voices in this regard was Otto Weininger who saw in Jews (and he himself was a Jew) a masochistic aspect that needed to be addressed if Jews were to be a part of society.  This is stated explicitly in his book Sex and Character.

Although this reading seems to be the “correct” one, it’s not.  As Shaviro points out, this is a negative psychological reading which misses the point that Deleuze was trying to make.  But even Deleuze needs, in his view, to focus more on the social.  For this reason, Shaviro makes a fascinating reading of Lewis that looks into how Lewis’s body – when it breaks down under failure and the desire to please through zealous performances of social norms – is the surface upon which late-capitalism writes:

The social field of American late capitalism is directly invested by the disintegrative movements of Lewis’s physical comedy. In his most striking, intense, excessive moments, a schizophrenic dislocation of subjectivity is linked to bizarre distortions and topographical transformations of physical, corporeal, and social space. (116)

Paying close attention to Lewis’s physical comedy, Shaviro makes a powerful distinction between Lewis and Buster Keaton which characterizes the radical differences between American capitalism in the early 20th and the mid-20th century:

Whereas Keaton’s physical comedy is based on surprising external connections among discrete and solid objects, Lewis’s relies rather on a rush of delirious interpenetrations, in which separate identities of the initial components are lost.   Keaton’s body enters into combination with the wheels and lever of the train (The General) to form a new and complex machine.  (117)

Shaviro further characterizes this difference in terms of gases and solids.  While Keaton works with a “mechanics of solids,” Lewis works with a “mechanics of fluids or gases” since everything bounces and rebounds off of his body; and, as it does, his body loses its “integrity in a series of spastic lurches and twitches”(117).

And instead of reading Lewis’s “dependency” on the other as a lack of self-confidence and autonomy, Shaviro, drawing on a post-Marxist framework, points out that it “dependency” is:

The logical consequence of the Idiot’s typical position as an unskilled laborer and/or a naïve consumer in the American service economy.  

And Lewis’s failure is not a failure of “father figures” so much as “capitalist father figures.”   He can’t “grow up.”  And, since he clings to this infantilization (which we still see in many a Judd Apatow film), Shaviro tells us he offers a contrast to the “commodified form of the self, which can be recognized in the fatuous, overbearing authority figures who populate Lewis’s movies (the hotel manager in The Bellboy, the college president in the The Nutty Professor, etc”

Shaviro states Lewis’s case of remaining a child and not “growing up” (of his “continued abjection, dependency, and maladaptation) in terms of the a refusal of the commodity form: “only an adult can indulge in fantasies of plentitude and autonomy, for these fantasies are produced by the commodity form itself”(124).

Lewis is the “unconscious anarchist.”

What I find so interesting about this claim and Shaviro’s descriptions is how they relate or contrast to the descriptions and characterizations of the schlemiel.  The descriptions we have in schlemiel theory don’t look at the schlemiel’s challenges for failures within a post-Marxist framework.  Nonetheless, they do find the schlemiel’s challenge to be against the “political and philosophical status quo.”  Moreover, if we read Wisse closely and compare what she has said about the post-Holocaust schlemiel, we can see that the ethical pursuit of goodness and trust trumps all.  And it should, as the schlemiel isn’t only to be seen as a challenge the “commodity form” or to be an “unconscious anarchist.”  There is also an ethical component to this challenge and this anarchism.

And this anarchism can also be seen in terms of the “anarchic” relation to the other that Levinas describes in his book Otherwise Than Being.  Levinas places the accent on how open this relation is.  And this implies that there are or could be great surprises as well as great dangers that occur when one is exposed to the other.  And this exposure is itself ethical.  What we decide to do in relation to it, even if we fail, is ethical.  Humor brings this out.

Our awkwardness, which finds one form of articulation in the physical comedy of Jerry Lewis, comes out of our ethical relation to the other.  And although Lewis’s physical comedy indicates how his relations to “things” are more fluid, these relations don’t constitute his humanity.   Something else does, but, in truth, his humanity seems to be squashed constantly by failure.  But this would constitute, according to Shaviro, his “unconscious anarchism.”  I would argue, in addition, that there is another anarchism to this relation, the anarchism mentioned by Levinas.  And this “other” anarchism includes failure as a constant feature of being “exposed to the other.”  It is a failure that is not willed; and if there is any aspect of masochism, it is not intentional or “conscious.”

Shaviro’s exceptional post-Marxist reading of Lewis points out how he is “unconsciously challenging the law.”  What I’d like to bring out is the ethical dimension of Lewis’s comedy.  And, as I am noting above, this will involve a reading which pays close attention to the ethical meaning of Lewis’s physical comedy.  Should it be characterized as anarchic in Deleuze’s sense or in Levinas’s ethical sense?

I hope to address this more in depth in the next blog.

A Note on Paul Celan’s Minor Language in “Conversation in the Mountains”


Although Celan’s “major” language was German (a language he was raised with and wrote his poetry in), Celan’s work was also influenced by “minor” languages.  The contrast between major and minor languages comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.    In the book, the proposal is made that we rethink the writing of authors who, like Kafka, live in a Milleu where more than one language is spoken.  And this background enables (and enabled) authors to “deterritorialize” and “reteritorialize” the major language (in the case of Kafka and Celan, German).  To be sure, both Kafka and Celan lived on the fringe of the German empire.  And both of them played around with different German dialects and styles in their work; this had the advantage of introducing nuance into the major language.

But there is more to the story.  Deleuze and Guitarri are not simply interested in what it means to write as a bilingual author.  They are also interested in looking at the textual alterations of Kafka (and other writers) in terms of new combinations, relations, and speeds, that these writers introduce (what they call the “machinic”).  In other words, they’re writing affects the way the major language speaks by altering textual rhythms and relations.

This is what I see and hear in Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” (although it can be heard throughout his poetry but not in such a pronounced manner as in this text).  The way this alteration is effected in that text is by way of the repetitive “babbling” and “shrugging” of the schlemiels Klein and Gross.  Their conversation introduces a speed that is alien to the German way of conversation.  But, unlike Felstiner (whose reading I discussed in my last blog entry) I would say that this alteration has a positive valance.  For Celan, it’s strange rhythm opens up a new way for Celan to relate to German, himself, the other, and Jewishness.

After the Holocaust, Celan seeks out a new relationship which takes into account what has been lost and what must survive.  But unlike many of his other texts, this one is explicitly comic and was not to be repeated again.  Its style is singular.  And for that reason it is more powerful.  Unlike other writers, performers, and actors, Celan didn’t make the style and rhythms in “Conversation in the Mountains” his “schtick.”

Nonetheless, it stands as a unique moment in his work which calls on his readers to seriously consider how this text was, for him, a milestone.   It helped him to deterritorialize and reterritorialize Mausheln (Yiddish dialect German) and German.  And he did this in a conversation between two schlemiels, on the one hand, and a minor and a major language, on the other.

I’ll end this entry with the first meeting of schlemiels (what Kakfa in “Excursion in the Mountains” called the meeting of “nobodies”) that “Conversation in the Mountains” records.  When Klein meets Gross, there is silence, but as I will show in the next entry, this doesn’t last long:

And who do you think came to meet him?  His cousin came to meet him, his first cousin, a quarter of a Jew’s life older, tall he came, came, he too, in a shadow, borrowed of course – because I ask you and ask you, how could he come with his own when God made him a Jew – came, tall, came to meet the other, Gross approached Klein, and Klein, the Jew, silenced his stick before the stick of the Jew Gross.