Academic Schlemiels

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In Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, the main character S. Levin leaves New York City for a job teaching at a college in California. He envisions a new life for himself on the West Coast as an academic. Little does he know that the job he has applied for is not the same job he is given. When he gets to California, he realizes that the college he works for doesn’t respect the liberal arts. They don’t want what he has to offer: an English professor who gives students a deeper understanding of literature and humanity. Rather, they want professors who can teach technical writing. When he gets there, he realizes that he is one of several adjunct teachers and will remain so for an indefinite time period. And even though he realizes that he is stuck and that only a few options are open to him in a small, conservative college town in northern California, he still retains some kind of hope that his journey will enable him to start all over again and live a “new life.”

What Levin finds out is that the new life he gets is much different from the new life he expected. And this reality, amongst other things, makes him into a schlemiel. To be sure, a schlemiel’s expectations don’t match with reality. Schlemiels often dream big (Hannah Arendt, by way of Heinrich Heine, calls the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” and in Yiddish the schlemiel is often called a “luftmensch,” someone who “lives on air”). But they are in for a shock when they realize that their dreams paved the way to failure. Nonetheless, schlemiels are often fortunate enough to have the ability to distract themselves from failure and to pursue some other project or dream. Were they to fully gather the meaning of their failure, they would be tragic characters.   Hence, the innocence and absent-mindedness of the schlemiel.

S. Levin, to be sure, fails in many of his encounters at the college. Even before his first day teaching, he ends up in a fling with a girl named Laverne who he meets in town. He goes with her to a barn to have sex and has problems getting his clothes off. When he does, he is immediately interrupted with his pants down. He and Laverne, both naked, run into the street in terror.   This is his first failure.

Moreover, his first day of class doesn’t go according to protocol. He fidgets over his mistakes, while in the midst of teaching, and ends up making a comic performance:

Sweating over the error he might have made…Levin got up and demonstrated on the blackboard types of sentences, as the students, after a momentary restlessness, raptly watched his performance….Levin, with a dozen minutes left to the hour, finally dropped grammar to say what was still on his mind: namely, welcome to Cascadia College. He was himself a stranger in the West but that didn’t matter. By some miracle of movement and change…At this they laughed, though he wasn’t sure why. (85)

The narrator points out how, after saying his piece, they turned away from him yet “in his heart he thanked them, sensing he had created their welcome of him. They represented an America he had so often heard of, the fabulous friendly West”(85). Meanwhile, they are treating him rudely.   Yet he tells them that “this is the life for me”(85). In response they “broke into cheers, whistles, loud laughter”(86). Instinctively, “as if inspired,” Levin “glanced down at his fly and it was, as it must be, all the way open”(85). In other words, they weren’t giving a laugh and cheers of support so much as mockery. Like a schlemiel, he misinterpreted everything that was going on around him for the better when, in fact, it was bad.

In hope of checking out the beautiful California scenery, Levin ends up getting a car; but when he first starts driving it, he feels terror more than joy as he turns the wheel. This changes over time, but the initial experience was not what he expected. And when Levin tries to make waves in the school to get more liberal arts that also backfires. As the novel progresses, we see that he ends up in an affair with a professor’s wife who is desperate for love. This ends up on a bad note, too. He is found out by the professor and is asked, by the dean, to leave the college town. The novel ends with him leaving just as lonely as when he came, but also a little wiser.

However, all is not lost. His failure doesn’t define him. As he moves from new experience to new experience, his life seems to get better (although, in the most minute way).   He may be an existential schlemiel who, it seems, is always getting himself into trouble. But at the very least he gets a better sense of his existential failures as the novel comes to an end. His name, after all, is Levin (the root of the name Levin is “lev,” Hebrew for heart). He is better for all of his failures, he has suffered and become more human, but he is still an academic schlemiel.

Today, the majority of untenured academics who teach in universities and colleges are a lot like Levin. They sign up for a job thinking that they will be a success, achieve tenure, and will gain respect. But what they find, in a job market where non-tenured professors outnumber tenured professors 4:1, is that they were mistaken. Their efforts, it seems, were for naught. Nonetheless, many of them keep at it and endure great suffering so they can, at the very least, live a life that they love. In this sense, they are like Levin. They have great hearts, but the fact of the matter is that the world they are in could care less for them.   They live with humiliation and failure.   And, as a friend on facebook suggested today, this kind of failure has become the new normal.

In this sense, the academic – that is, the adjunct – schlemiel is becoming the norm. Like any schlemiel narrative, this reality is not just a commentary on the person who is foolish enough to pursue their dreams; rather, it is a commentary on the world they believed they knew. In this scenario, the commentary is on the academic world. The academic schlemiel is not wholly responsible for his dreams; if it weren’t for the world that puts out the possibility of success, these dreams wouldn’t exist.

We can see this relation of the world to the schlemiel in many Sholem Aleichem stories, where characters envision America as a land of freedom and success. When they get to America, they see failure all around them. But they do and don’t see it. They remain optimistic when the reader can clearly see that reality says otherwise. That optimism, the conceit of the Jewish fool, doesn’t diminish the cynicism the reader should feel when reading this. This is what Ruth Wisse would call a “balanced irony.”

Strangely enough, Wisse, at the end of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that we should leave the schlemiel and its balanced ironies behind.   In other words, such ironies are not good for Jewish character in modern day America. She wrote this in 1972. Today, however, we need these kinds of balanced ironies because academic and economic failure have become endemic. Cynicism, spurred by failure and neglect, is at the base of daily academic life. In the face of this, we need to balance the cynicism that comes with lost dreams against the hope that one will eventually succeed. To be sure, the current acadmic system should be seen within this tension: it encourages graduate students to dream while, at the same time, showing that those dreams have little reality. And for that, we need the schlemiel figure to challenge what Wisse calls the “political and philosophical status quo.” The sorry state of the academic schlemiel should be an eye-opener. Levin, a character from Malamud’s 1961 novel, is still with us in 2014.

Anyone who stays in academia will identify with Levin’s hopes, failures, and misreadings. In a sense, they have been duped and have allowed themselves to be duped while knowing full well that success, today, is not so easy to attain. Like Levin, the academic schlemiel wants a “new life.” And although they are given a new life, that life may not be the one they expected. But, at the very least, like Levin…they can move on. They can experience, as he says to his class, the “miracle of movement.” Even though, at times, it seems one is going nowhere and even though they are humiliated and disrespected, an academic schlemiel can always leave and go elsewhere. Knowing this, perhaps, is the only hope an academic schlemiel can have.

In a system that dupes graduate students and PhDs into becoming a “lord of dreams” (a dream of tenure and academic success), it seems to be the only consolation.  We see this clearly in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” after he is lied to by everybody – who he trusts time and time again believing that they can be good – he decides to leave the city for some other city. He moves on….and leaves the city, which duped him into marrying a woman with kids and lovers, for some other place where, hopefully, people will be honest.  The real “new life” is elsewhere.

Literature and Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Howard Jacobson’s Description of Literature

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One of the things that really prompted me to look into the schlemiel was a statement Walter Benjamin once made – in a letter to his dear friend, the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem – about Franz Kafka’s literary project. In the letter, dated June 12, 1938, Benjamin describes Kafka’s entire literary project in terms of failure:

To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its particular beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and the beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain about eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.

Scholem did not respond to Benjamin’s reading of Kafka vis-à-vis failure until November 6th, 1938. In the middle of the letter, Gershom Scholem expresses his bewilderment at Benjamin’s claim:

But I would like to understand what you take to be Kafka’s fundamental failure, which you virtually embed at the heart of your new reflections. You really seem to understand this failure as something unexpected and bewildering, whereas the simple truth is that the failure was the object of endeavors that, if they were to succeed, would be bound to fail. Surely that can’t have been what you meant. Did he express what he wanted to say?   Of course.

To be sure, Scholem doesn’t understand what this could mean. He sees Kafka’s work and his life as a success. In response to Scholem’s challenge, Benjamin changes tact. And instead of writing on failure, he writes, in a letter dated February 4th, 1939, on comedy. There he claims that Kafka was not so much a failure as a comic figure. Kafka is man “whose fate it is…is to be surrounded by clowns.”   There is something esoteric in this new claim: it suggests a link between literature, failure, and comedy. That’s the thread. It runs through Kafka’s work and Benjamin’s reading of it.

Years later (and after the Holocaust), Howard Jacobson, one of the greatest Jewish novelists today, has made similar claims in describing his own work. In a 2011 talk Jacobson gave at the New York Public Library, he makes an explicit link between literature, failure, and comedy.

During the talk, the interviewer, Paul Holdengraber, engages the discussion of failure by suggesting that Jacobson’s fiction is “wedded to the idea of failure in some way.” And Jacobson says, flat out, that he loves failure:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And you’re very interested in that, particularly in ideas that come back to haunt novel upon novel, essay upon essay, and we’ll move to that very quickly, the notion of failure. You are wedded to the idea of failure in some way.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What’s so fascinating?

HOWARD JACOBSON: I love failure.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You love failure.

Following this, Jacobson explains that we see failure everywhere. He describes it as a “crack in everything” and argues that “we are not interested in success” in this country or in his home country of England. Rather, he argues that “we” are interested in why the “world is not quite right.” In other words, we tend more towards cynicism (based on the “cracked” state of the world) rather than optimism (and success). That’s why we turn to literature.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, yes. It’s do with this, there’s a crack, a crack in everything. We are not interested in success. You in this country and we in our country—we think we are, and but we in this room are not—the fact that you are, that you and I are here together, and the people in this room are in this room listening to me talking to you means that they are not interested in—all right, I’ve won a prize, and you all well know. But we’re not really interested—you don’t read books if you’re interested in success, as the world knows success. You go to read a book because some way or other you feel that the world is not quite right. If the world is right for you, you become a footballer, you become David Beckham, or you become Donald Trump or something.

Following this, Jacobson adds a punch line and injects some comedy by mocking the position that thinks “I’m going to do all right in this world, I am at home in it.” He doesn’t trust this worldliness. And he says “we” don’t and that’s why we read books. And “we” don’t do this because we are all “wedded to failure.”

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yeah, fine, but there are a million ways in which, you know, you feel the world is okay, “I’m going to do all right in this world, I’m at home in it, Me and this world can enjoy whole relations, completeness. We can be complete. This world will offer me something I want and I will succeed in it.” Whereas we all don’t feel that, so you read books, and I write books, because we are wedded to failure, and we should be proud of that in the best sense, in the best sense. History is written by the winners. Literature is written by the losers.

To be sure, the Talmudic kind of punch line is that the interviewer is wrong. I am not the one who is wedded to failure; rather, you are and so are all of us in this gathering because we all like to read. Moreover, the condition of this “we” is that “we” don’t write history (“history is written by the winners”).   We write literature (“literature is written by the losers”). And, I would add, “we “do comedy. And, to be sure, the New York Public Library portrays Jacobson more as a comedian than as a writer.

What I find so fascinating about this link is that Jacobson is suggesting that we are not happy with our world and that we are no longer making history. This makes us all failures who have, as Ruth Wisse says of the schlemiel, an “ironic victory” by way of literature. This suggests that we, like writers who embrace the schlemiel (like Jacobson in nearly every novel), stand on a tightrope between cynicism and optimism.

And to be “proud” of being “wed to failure” suggests an irony that blasts in the face of a world based on success. It suggests that comedy and literature speak against the world and against power and the makers of history. It speaks from the angle of failure.

Perhaps this was the point that Benjamin understood about Kafka. He saw his literature as wed to failure and comedy. And, I would argue, he threw his lot in with Kafka and the novelists. This, it seems, was something Scholem could not stomach. The fact that Kafka wrote the fiction he wanted to write was a success, not a failure. But seen dialectically, as Benjamin was attempting to do, that success is really based on a failure. And Jacobson reminds us that this is nothing to be ashamed of; it is a badge of honor to write in response to failure and to admit, comically, that “we” are wed to failure.

Another Look at Georges Bataille’s Obsession With Childishness

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After speaking about pride, power, and “striving to be the best,” George Bataille – in his book Inner Experience – basically gives up and surrenders to childishness.  As I have pointed out before, Bataille goes against the grain – as he usually does – and praises childhood as a form of redemption or “deliverance” from the game of being a “man”:

Childishness, knowing itself to be such, is deliverance.  (44)

However, here, Bataille tells us that if one takes childishness “seriously,” one will be “enmired.”   If one takes childhood seriously, one will turn it into one other habit: “dependent on childishness.”  Rather, the right attitude to take with childishness, which, lest we not forget “is deliverance,” is to “laugh at it.”  But if one has a “heavy heart,” one cannot.  And if one is able to laugh at it, “then ecstasy and madness are within reach.”

But isn’t such laughter a laughter of superiority; that is, the laughter of an adult who looks down at and laughs at childishness?

Anticipating this, Bataille argues that “childishness recognized as such” is the “glory, not the shame of man.”  In other words, even though one laughs at, Bataille suggests that such laughter is respectful!

However, Bataille wants to entertain another view on laughter; namely, the view of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who claims that “laughter degrades.”  If one takes this view, and Bataille doesn’t reject it, then “one reaches the depths of degradation.”  To be sure, Batialle also enjoys this shameful state.  And he argues that “nothing is more childish” since it discloses a kind of blindness to the “glory” of man found in childishness.  However, it seems as if Bataille embraces both: the glory of childishness and the blindness to that glory which is mired in degradation.  He wants both, or so it seems.

Bataille takes his final turn toward childishness by thinking of its limit: death.

How, wonders Bataille, do we see the human being in his last moments of life?  (This question is one that Leo Shestov entertains in his essay “Penultimate Words.” And, like Bataille, Shestov is interested in an approach that doesn’t take death with utmost seriousness as well as a position that does.).  To be sure, Bataille sees him or her as a child.

The most serious seem to me to be children, who don’t know they are children: they separate me from true children who know it and who laugh at being. (44)

In other words, the most serious at death are children who don’t know they are children (they have a blind spot).  And these people “separate me from true children who know it and who laugh at being.”  This claim is ironic because Bataille would have us believe that he can’t be one with “true children” who know and laugh in the face of death because there are people out there who don’t know they are children (when they are facing death)!

A child must know, he says, that the “serious exists.” This knowledge is the basis for true child’s laughter which is, as Bataille says, at the “extreme limit.” It is a knowing laughter, a laughter in the face of the “knowledge” that the “serious exists.”

Bataille’s exercise in meditating on childhood is fascinating because by telling himself that those who don’t know cut him off from “true children,” he is suggesting that their blindness prevents him from laughing while knowing that the serious exists.  In other words, the very thing that limits him most is the blindness people have in the face of death – the knowledge of this blindness, which is the blindness to their own childishness, is what irks him most and keeps him from completing his own exercise of laughing and becoming childish in the face of death.  It is his knowledge of the other’s blindness that keeps him from what he desires most deeply.  And, apparently, he can’t seem to get rid of it.  No matter how beautiful his formulation of childishness is, it cannot be enacted because these kinds of people and this kind of blindness exists.

What I find most striking about this formulation is the fact that Bataille is ultimately saying that his childish project is a failure because of the other who separates him from “true childishness.”  Because of the other’s blindness-to-childishness-in-the-face-of-death, his childish project fails.   Deliverance by way of childishness…fails.

How humiliating! It seems that Bataille will never be delivered from the process of becoming a man and perhaps that makes him, in some way, a schlemiel.

Exposure, Failure, and Rhythm: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

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Roland Barthes, the famous French thinker and essayist, is best known for S/Z, Mythologies, A Lover’s Discourse, Camera Lucida, Writing Degree Zero, Empire of Signs, and The Pleasure of the Text.  For many years, these books have had a great impact on critical theory, philosophy, comparative literature, anthropology, sociology, and even the academic studies of photography and cinema.  Although I enjoy these books and have learned a lot from them, my two favorite texts of his are his lecture notes for a course he gave in Morocco in 1978 (entitled The Neutral) and his autobiography Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.

What interests me most about these two books are his reflections on weariness, the neutral, failure, rhythm, gesture, and himself.  Taken together, they disclose something that I also find in Walter Benjamin: an awareness of failure juxtaposed with an aesthetic sensibility that craves intoxication.  As in my readings of Benjamin, I have been reading Barthes with a desire to find his weak point; namely, his sense of vulnerability, innocence, and shame.  I have found this sensibility in a few of Barthes’ passages.  And it is in these passages where Barthes becomes small, humble, and most revealing.

In this blog entry, I will not be focusing on the lecture course; rather, I want to look at a few of Barthes autobiographical reflections which disclose exposure, failure, and a desire for protection, distraction, and aesthetic relief.  Like any good writer with a taste for the esoteric, Barthes leaves it to the reader to connect the dots, so to speak, between one reflection and another.  I would suggest that Barthes wants us to pay close attention to the rhythmic alteration between one reflection and another.  It is in the lacunae between one reflection and another that we can interpret and glean some type of wisdom.

The reflection entitled “Le retentissement – Repercussion” caught my eye.  In this passage, Barthes (who calls himself “him” rather than “I” so as to denote otherness and the fact that he sees his autobiography, as his epigram states, in terms of being a novel of sorts: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”) fears the “repercussion” his words and the words of others about him or his words will or may have:

Every word which concerns him echoes within him to an extreme degree, and it is this repercussion which he dreads, to the pint of timidly avoiding any discourse that might be offered about him.   The language of others, complimentary or not, is tainted at its source by the repercussion it might have…The link to the world is thus always conquered starting from a  certain fear (156).

Barthes’ fear of repercussion is a fear of exposure.  He knows that his words expose him to possible ridicule and rejection.  His words, in the mouths of others, have repercussions -meaning that they are sounded again but by another and in a way that is other.  Needless to say, the re-percussion (in the sense of a sounding or beating-again) makes him fearful and timid.  Such a confession implies that he, a well-known and highly respected writer in Europe, is exposed and vulnerable.  He is not self-possessed.  Apparently, nothing can secure him from this fear since he has no control over the repercussions of his words.  He has no control over how they will echo back to him.  Barthes language implies that, most likely, the recounting of his words will have negative repercussions – that is, they will expose him to possible damage.  He feels that the repercussions of his words will make him vulnerable and powerless.

Immediately following this reflection is yet another which deals with fear and vulnerability.  It is entitled Reussi/rate – Success/failure.  Barthes, here, reflects on Barthes “re-reading” himself. The effect of this re-reading is, yet again, a kind of exposure. This time it is an exposure to failure:

Rereading himself, he discerns in the very texture of each piece of writing a singular cleavage: that of success/failure: in gusts, felicities of expression, good patches, then bad ones, swamps and deserts which he has even begun to inventory.  Then no book is successful throughout? – Perhaps the book on Japan.

In the midst of his reflection on failure, he turns to success as a balm. And what he finds is a discourse that does not doubt itself and does not fear that its words fall flat. Rather, he finds “the continuous, effusive, jubilant happiness of the writing: in what he writes, each protects his own sexuality.”  But, given what he has just written, we have reason to be suspicious of these lines.  They are literally a distraction. The italics don’t change a thing. To be sure, his “sexuality” cannot be protected by his “continuous, effusive, jubilant” happiness of writing.  After all, didn’t Barthes say that he fears the repercussions of his words? And when he reads himself, he sees discontinuity and failure?  Is Barthes saying that writing, in differentiation to reading, is absent minded?  Is he suggesting that writing is distracted while reading is not?

Frustrated with this thought, Barthes turns to a third option, but even this option cannot lift him from being shamed and exposed.  And he, ironically, notes this:

A third category is possible: neither success nor failure: disgrace: marked, branded with the imaginary.

To be sure, his disgrace, his exposure to failure, is “branded” by the “imaginary.”  In other words, writing does not simply distract him from shame, it marks his shame, brands it.  This implies that the imaginary, that is, writing, is not a balm.  Rather, his personal disgrace is in a violent relationship with writing; it is as if writing, which is still a distraction from exposure, has forced itself upon his disgrace.

Writing tries to brand or mark shame. And this suggests ownership.  But can one’s exposure to failure ever escape writing and the distraction it offers?  Given what we have been saying about Benjamin and his interest in distraction, this is a legitimate question to ask.

Interestingly enough, the two reflections that follow are superficial and imaginary. They displace the negative affect of these two reflections by way of distraction.  The first reflection is entitled “Du choix d’un vetement – Choosing Clothes” and the second reflection is entitled “Le rhythme – Rhythm.”  Both of these reflections are, so to speak, escape routes.

In “Choosing Clothes,” Barthes likens the books one chooses to the clothes one wears.  He reads this in terms of “preparing himself to sustain…the discourse of truth starting from an economy which is that of his own body.”  In other words, these books clothe the body and protect it from negative repercussions that will inevitable ensue in “the discourse of truth.”

The reflection entitled “Rhythm” turns to another way of relating to exposure.  Barthes notes that he (that is Barthes) “always put his faith in that Greek rhythm, the succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”   In his 1978 lecture, Barthes also relates Ascesis to the “succession of paroxystic and opposite states: many collective celebrations, but between each of these festivals a period of retention, abstention, sobriety”(84).  In other words, there is a “rhythm” between one extreme state and the other in the “succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”  He contrasts this rhythm to the “banal rhythm of modernity” which alternates between work and leisure.  This rhythm is different.  Barthes refers to a “Slavic or Balkan” custom in which one “shuts oneself up for three days of festivity.”  He then suggests that one go back and forth between this kind of festivity and sobriety.   Or, I would suggest, a rhythm between exposure (reading) and distraction (writing).

The rhythm he speaks of is built into his text.  The reflection that follows this one, in fact, is all about exposure.  It is entitled “Que ca se sache – Let that be known.”  In this reflection, Barthes admits that “every utterance of a writer (even the fiercest, the wildest) includes a secret operator, an unexpressed word, something like the silent morpheme of a category as primitive as negation or interrogation, whose meaning is: “And let that be known!

In other words, Barthes realizes that in everything he writes, even with words written with great conviction (words that are fierce and wild), there is a snag.  There is something that will expose one to judgment.  By noting this, Barthes is, in effect, arguing that no matter how wild or angry he is – no matter how courageous, powerful, or self-possessed he may sound on paper– there will be something in his words – something undetected – that will render him powerless.

But does powerlessness have the upper hand in these reflections?

From what we have seen, Barthes insistence on rhythm and on protection suggests that powerlessness is, at times, sovereign.  In other words, at times one is made to be a fool.  At moments when one feels at the top of ones game, there will always be repercussions.  But, and this is Barthes point, one must know that one is always exposed to failure, judgment, and repercussions, while, at the same time, operating according to a rhythm.  Barthes suggests that style, writing, and sexuality are attempts to pull away from shame and exposure.  They distract us. However, as we saw above, imagination brands shame.  In other words, writing looks to mark exposure with its power.  But, the fact of the matter is that even though shame is marked by the imagination, shame remains.  Nonetheless, it is branded and, so to speak, re-markable.

And this is where the art meets ethics.  The exposure one has to failure, the timidity that comes with writing to others and re-reading oneself, is ethical, but this exposure is always branded by the imagination which looks to protect the body and vulnerability from too much exposure.    Or as Barthes suggests, the terror of reading oneself is tempered by the distraction of writing oneself.

What I find so interesting about Barthes’ suggestions is that they speak directly to the schlemiel and the reader of the American schlemiel.  Even though Barthes often fails to be comical (since he’s much too serious about himself), he does provide a structure which is best exemplified in the comedy of the American Schlemiel.

An American schlemiel, like Phillip Roth’s Portnoy or Larry David, is humiliated and exposed in what they say and in what they do.  But because their words are couched in the imagination, witty gesture, and style, they are innocent and, to some extent, are protected from extreme damage.  But, in the end, these schlemiels are still exposed. They are the subject of ridicule.  Their victories are, by all means, temporary.   As Barthes might say, the American Schlemiel is caught up in a rhythm of distraction and exposure.

To be sure, we love this rhythm; otherwise, we wouldn’t watch Woody Allen’s films, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Andy Kaufmann’s embarrassing comic routines (to take only three examples). These shows invite us to witness how shame, in rhythmic variation, is “branded” by the imagination.   It shows us how distraction and exposure alternate.

Here’s Andy Kaufmann with a few rhythms of his own:

 

Not Quite Jewish….Almost American: From Portnoy to Admiral General Alladin

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Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a long discourse-slash-novel that begins and ends on the couch of a psychiatrist.  But the novel is not simply a discourse on the psyche of the schlemiel.  Rather, it gives us a sense of how his identity crisis tarries between sexual identity and national identity.    Is Portnoy a Jew or an American?  Neither?  Does he reject one identity while failing to embrace another?

In a moment of revelation, Portnoy dramatizes his failure to be an American.  Something is getting in the way.  And this something makes him angry:

And its true, is it not? – incredible, but apparently true – there are people in life who feel at ease, the self-assurance, the simple and essential affiliation with what is going on, that I used to feel as the center fielder for the Seabees?  Because it wasn’t, you see, that one was the best center fielder imaginable, only that one knew exactly, and done the smallest particular, how a center fielder should conduct himself.  And there are people like that walking the streets of the U.S. of A.?  I ask you, why can’t I be one!”(71).

Unlike Americans, Portnoy cannot “feel at ease” and have “self-assurance.”  Unlike Americans, he cannot “affiliate” himself with “what is going on.”  Here, we have the basis of a post-WWII schlemiel: He is ashamed of the fact that he is ill at ease, unsure of himself, and is unable to bravely “affiliate” himself with “what is going on” in America.  He has failed to be an self-possessed American male.

Immediately following this, Portnoy says that he is not simply a failure; he is a Jew:

But I am something more, or so they tell me.  A Jew.  No! No! An atheist, I cry.  I am a nothing where religion is concerned, and I will not pretend to be anything that I am not!…And I don’t care how close we came to sitting shiva for my mother either – actually, I wonder if the now if maybe the whole hysterectomy has not been dramatized into C-A and out of it again solely for the sake of scaring the S-H out of me!  Solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy. (71)

Being a Jew, for Portnoy, is not an essence; it is, rather, about being molded by one’s parents “to be” Jewish.  And Portnoy states emphatically that “I” will not “pretend to be anything that I am not!”  His Jewish guilt – or rather resentment – is based on his education and his birth.  To be sure, Portnoy is “told” that he is a Jew, which implies that he was told what to say and what to do.  He had no will of his own.  His whole education had a purpose.   Portnoy flatly states that it was dedicated “solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy.”

In other words, Judaism didn’t help Portnoy to become a man.  He has never been properly raised to live in the world and be independent and self-present.  In other words, he was never taught how to be autonomous.  As a result of his upbringing, as a Jew, he has become a “helpless little boy.”   He has become heternomous and dependent on his mother.   This tension, in fact, has deeper roots in the struggle between heteronomy and autonomy.  This struggle, for the post-WWII Jewish-American schlemiel is a struggle that Jews also had in Germany.  In Germany, the schlemiel was a shameful character.  As Sander Gilman argues in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Jews, in the Enlightenment period (the Jewish-German Haskalah) made plays that satirically target the schlemiel.  His traits – which included being effeminate, over emotional, confused, unable to speak properly (mangling German), and being heteronomous – were to be laughed off the stage.

Like the schlemiels in these German-Jewish comedies, Portnoy is almost a man.

Portnoy’s only way of asserting his manhood is through anger; namely, through being sarcastic about the bad hand he was dealt.  And this is a new tactic, since in German-Jewish theater, the schlemiel is laughed at since he or she is unaware of his or her ‘folly’.  Here, it is different.  Here, the schlemiel “knows” what the source of his problem is.  And what ensues is a kind of impotent rage which is new to the schlemiel.  It is not a trait one would find in Yiddish literature.

As a part of his comic ranting, Portnoy turns on his mother.  She is responsible for making him a “helpless little boy.”

BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO FUCKING MUCH TO BEAR!

Portnoy is in effect revolting against her and humiliating her as a way of “freeing himself” of his Jewish guilt.   He wants to be a man and reverse that education and go from being a child to a man on his own.  In other words, he wants to give birth to himself.  His path from heteronomy to autonomy is based on ridicule.  By destroying his mother, he believes he will be autonomous.  For Portnoy, this is synonymous with becoming an American.

But this is not enough.  He may successfully ridicule his mother and feel free.  However, in reality, he cannot be an American because he is not successful in the sex department.  His failure is measured by a skill.  To be sure, he believes that what he’s good at, and what helps him to give birth to himself as independent, is masturbation: both literal and literary masturbation.  His words ejaculate on the page.  Portnoy takes deep pride in this but he knows, ultimately, that this doesn’t make him an American of the sort we saw above.  Rather, it makes him an American-Schlemiel.

Half the length of the tunnel it takes me to unzip my zipper silently – and there it is again, up it pops again, as always swollen, bursting with demands, like some idiot macrocephallic making his parents’ life a misery with his simpleton’s insatiable needs.  “Jerk me off, “ I am told by the silk monster.  “Here? Now? Of course here and now. When would you expect an opportunity like this to present itself a second time?”(126)

He believes that he must masturbate.  He must be ‘bad’ if he going to PUT THE ID BACK INTO THE YID. But to be a Jewish-American man – living in the shadow of the Jewish State – he must pass the ultimate test: he must have sex with a Sabra.  This leads us to Portnoy’s Final complaint, his final failure.

Since he can’t be an American, what is the model for a self-confident, autonomous Jewish male who can “affiliate himself” with what is going on?  Portnoy realizes that this model would be a Sabra.   But he rejects this model thinking that if he can match her, sexually, that he will finally win.  But what happens is that when it comes to the moment of sex with Naomi, a Sabra, he fails miserably.  As I noted in a previous post on Roth, Portnoy comes to the realization that he can’t be a self-confident Jewish man, that is, an Israeli.  And this is his final complaint.

But this failure and the following verbal compensation for failure (by his calling her names) gives birth to the new Jewish-American Schlemiel.   Although he, like many past schlemiels, is not quite a man and not quite a child, he is, a man-child with a big mouth and a passion for masturbation.

He’s an American schlemiel: he is neither an American nor a Jew.  He’s somewhere inbetween.

But since Portnoy, things have changed. His method of transformation is comic and literal masturbation.  But, when Roth wrote this, it was not considered to be American.  In Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, however, masturbation is a rite of passage for Admiral General Alladin, the Dictator.  Through masturbation, he can become an American.  He can fit in with the others in the Brooklyn Co-op.

From Portnoy to Alladin of Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, we have a comic-sexual lineage of Jewish-American stand-up – or sit-down comedy.   The measure of being an American Schlemiel, his power, for Portnoy was his masturbatory rant.  What Sasha Baron Cohen does is yet another parody of the masturbatory rant.  But in his rant masturbation is no longer “bad” – in fact, it becomes the rite of passage to America.  A rite that Cohen’s character – the Dictator – picks up in the back room of a Brooklyn Health Food Co-op.

Perhaps Sasha Baron Cohen is telling us, in an awry way, that in that space and at this time, the Schlemiel is literally a Modern American Hero.  In other words, Portnoy may no longer have to complain since being a man and autonomous may no longer be a concern for the postmodern American Jew.  It may no longer be a thing that Jews are ashamed of since more and more Americans – at least in big American cities like New York (where the Dictator takes place) – are leaning toward a kind of metrosexuality.

Regardless of what may be the case, we must not forget that at the end of a film like The Dictator, Alladin is almost an American.  And this “almost” is what, still, makes a Schlemiel a schlemiel.   But the game has changed.  The test for the Schlemiel, at least in the Dictator is not sexual, it is political.  The test is democracy not masculinity.  And it seems as if, in the end, by becoming an advocate of democracy, the schlemiel becomes an American or…almost American.

In Memoriam of Samuel Beckett (and Raymond Federman): The Laugh that Laughs at the Laugh

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In case you may not have noticed, the subtitle of Schlemiel-in-Theory is the “The Place Where the Laugh Laughs at the Laugh.”    The notion of a laugh that laughs at a laugh comes from Samuel Beckett; namely, from his novel entitled Watt.  There, we read:

The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.

In this passage, we see three types of laughter.  The first and second kind of laughter can be seen in the work of Henri Bergson.  In his famous “Essay on Laughter,” Bergson argues that laughter is on the side of élan vital.  The laugh looks to reject mechanical, asocial behaviors from the social sphere.  Laughter, in other words, negates the mechanical while affirming life and change (becoming).  Bergson notes, explicitly, that all laughter is intellectual in the sense that, for life, becoming is true while the mechanical is false.  The same goes for Immanuel Kant who identified, in The Critique of Judgment, humor with incongruity:

In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.

Beckett proposes a laugh that is neither ethical (in the Bergsonian sense) nor intellectual (in either Bergson or Kant’s sense).  Rather, his laugh, the “risus purus” is directed “at the laugh.”  It laughs, as he says, at “that which is unhappy.”

What does this mean?

First of all, I would submit that while the laugh that Kant and Bergson (and even Baudelaire) discuss enjoins one to power and superiority over the thing laughed at, the laugh that laughs at “that which is unhappy” is a laugh of powerlessness.

Theodor Adorno, in an essay entitled “Is Art Lighthearted,” ponders the “laugh that laughs at the laugh” along these lines:

In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo.  They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy.  Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectiveity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential.  A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter.  Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes.  Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair.  This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining.  This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)

Adorno suggests, here, that the laugh that laughs at the laugh bears with it a minimal self.  It is, so to speak, so exhausted and laughs only for the sake of surviving the disaster.  It realizes that laughter can’t do any good and neither can tragedy.  The laugh that laughs at the laugh, therefore, can be seen as a mourning of both tragedy and comedy.

The risus purus, so to speak, is in the shadow of the disaster.

I also noticed this in an interview between the poet Charles Bernstein and the late Raymond Federman (who I was fortunate enough to have befriended and written several essays on).  Federman is best known for his post-Holocaust postmodern literature.  He, himself, survived the Holocaust and witnessed, while hiding in a closet, his parents taken away by the French authorities.  This disaster remained with him throughout his life.  And it is reflected in many of his novels, stories, and poems.

Strangely enough, when Federman left Europe, after the War, for America, he took on a doctoral project at Columbia University on Samuel Beckett.  His scholarship has gained much recognition in field of literary studies.  But his main love wasn’t literary criticism; it was writing fiction.  And, one cannot help but notice, in reading this fiction, that although its topic is horrific and unthinkable, Federman still maintains some kind of sense of humor.

In the interview with Bernstein, Bernstein hits directly on this issue:

But you’re very funny about it (the facts of history) as opposed to terribly solemn and serious memorials that we are perhaps more accustomed to.  Your work seems to mock not only the possibility of accurate representation but also the idea that mourning should be a solemn affair.  Should mourning be funny?

Federman’s reply to Bernstein hits directly on what Adorno reads in Beckett’s laugh at the laugh, yet, he adds another note with regard to laughter and the joy of survival:

And my answer is simple: I am a survivor.  That I survived this is a very happy occasion.  I am still alive.  That is an occasion for, well, if not great laughter, at least some kind of joy…I hope you can hear … the laughter and the nonseriousness of what I do.

Bernstein nudges Federman with regards to this response and says:

But I can hear the sadness and great seriousness, too.

Bernstein then goes on to note that Federman’s humor is certainly not “black humor.” So, what is it?   To explain what it is, Federman cites Beckett:

I…learned it from my great mentor Beckett the same kind of sadness and joy and laughter you find in Beckett.

This is what Federman, in his book Aunt Rachel’s Fur, calls “sad laughter.”

However, this still doesn’t satisfy Bernstein, who pushes him still further by saying that Federman is completely unlike Beckett:

Yes, but unlike Beckett, you are actually more sort of hysterical and more histrionic.

But instead of agreeing with him, and leaving Beckett behind, Federman cites his “mentor” and notes that in Beckett’s Molloy we see a major kind of histrionics and not simply a melancholy laugh.    Federman notes how, in that novel, there is a “Beckettian acrobat who does a beautiful set of somersaults and then falls back on his feet and everything is erased.”  However, Federman distinguishes himself from Beckett, his mentor, when he puts himself in the acrobat’s position:

I am the acrobat who falls down on his face, and so you don’t remember the somersault.   You remember the failure of the guy that falls on his face.  And that’s where you laugh – when the acrobat or the clown does that, that’s where the laughter is.  That’s the kind of laughter I’m trying to achieve.

In other words, Federman sees himself as an acrobatic schlemiel.  The schlemiel has us remember the fall not the somersalt.  Reading this line, I was struck by how oddly resonant it was with Nathan Englander’s post-Holocaust story “The Tumblers.”  As I pointed out in a blog entry I devoted to that story, the characters survive by virtue of being clumsy acrobats. No one knows that they are Jews and yet the irony is that the Nazis officials in the audience say that the klutz acrobats who fall on their faces act “like” Jews.

In retrospect, I can say that Beckett and Federman may both laugh at the laugh, they remind us that now our laughter is after the disaster; however, Federman’s laugh at the laugh puts a personal and a post-Holocaust Jewish accent on survival.  In the end, although his laughter is sad, it is also histrionic, happy, and contagious.   Like many Jews throughout history who know what its like to have survived numerous disasters and exiles, Federman knows what it’s like to survive disaster.  More importantly, Federman, like the creators of the schlemiel, knew how important it was to balance out sadness with the joy of humor.  Everyone who knew Federman personally knew that he wanted us to laugh with him.  He wanted us to laugh at the laugh and, like acrobats, to retain the tension between a skeptical laugh and an optimistic laugh.  His laugh, the laugh of a post-Holocaust schlemiel, does exactly that.  More importantly, the laughter of the post-Holocaust schlemiel is not based on some hidden logos or kernel of meaning; it is based on a kind of acrobatics or movement, the kind that, as Federman tells us, ultimately falls on its face.  Nonetheless, it survives.

The subtitle of this blog (and this blog entry) is in Memoriam of Samuel Beckett.  But it is also in Memoriam of Raymond Federman, who taught us how a Jew named Raymond Federman carried on Samuel Beckett’s legacy and gave it a post-Holocaust nuance.

After the Holocaust, after the disaster, Schlemiel-in-Theory is the place where the laugh (can still) laugh at the laugh.

 

 

The Post-Holocaust Schlemiel (Take 3)

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What happens to the Schlemiel after the Holocaust?

This is a very complicated question.  In one entry, I discussed the end of the schlemiel by way of the story of Menachem Kipinis, a reporter who acted as if he was reporting on the town of Chelm (a real town in Poland, and a fictional town in Jewish folklore). Chelm, as I explained there, is a town of schlemiels.  As the story about Kipinis goes, he, the schlemiel reporter, along with all of the living Jewish members of Chelm, found their end in concentration camps. I suggested, there, that I was here to continue reporting on the schlemiel whose existence now transcends the boundaries of the real or fictional town.

In another entry on the post-Holocaust schlemiel, I noted that, for Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, the schlemiel lives on in America, but not in Israel, because America has not properly mourned the Holocaust and the end of European Jewry.  It lives on in America as a cultural icon; it lives on in a culture dominated by Simulcura.  Here, in America, after the Holocaust, the schlemiel finds its home in Hollywood.  One need only think of Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Larry David, Seth Rogen, etc to get a sense of what she is getting at.

For Ezrahi, the schlemiel takes part in what she calls “Diasporic privilege.”  This privilege is not restricted to the domain of Hollywood and popular culture; in fact, it is found in high, literary, culture.  Regarding this, Ezrahi notes that the schlemiel is bound to a textual homeland not to a real land such as Israel.  It is a figure of endless discovery not, as in Israel, a figure of historical recovery.  It’s trope is the trope of Diaspora not Homecoming.

In today’s blog, I’d like to suggest another route for the post-Holocaust schlemiel; one mapped out by Nathan Englander in his short story “The Tumblers.”  This route takes us into a scenario where the schlemiel lives on, but as damaged by history.

Ezrahi is correct when she claims that, with books like Roth’s Portnoy’s Compalint (and after 1967), American Jews can no longer think of themselves without thinking of Israel.  Jewish identity has changed radically, she says.  We are no longer, simply, schlemiels.  In fact, the American schlemiel battles, as we see in Portnoy’s Complaint, with the Sabra (I will return to this in another blog entry).

However, Ezrahi is not correct on all accounts.  There is a post-Holocaust schlemiel in America, one she doesn’t recognize, one that has yet to be researched.  As I would like to suggest, Englander, someone who has not survived the Holocaust and is far from its origin, recognizes that an American-Jew can’t look to the schlemiel as his predecessors did.  If at all, the schlemiel takes on a new shade.

Englander’s story appears in the book For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.

“The Tumblers” takes place in Chelm at the beginning of the Holocaust:

“Who would have thought that a war of such proportion would bother to turn its fury against the fools of Chelm?”

First off, we learn of the main character, Mendl, who descends from the legendary “Gronam the Ox.”   He inherits Chelm and he carries on this legacy which, as the story goes on, changes.

Before the big changes happen, we learn that “Gronam’s logic was still employed when the invaders built the walls around the corner of the city, creating the Ghetto of Chelm”(28).

This schlemiel logic was used to make light of the difficult things: “they called their aches “mother’s milk,” the darkness became “freedom”; filth they referred to as “hope”(28).  This is the logic of the faithful simpelton (the tam) – who as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – in his stories – taught is the schlemiel.

However, there is a limit to their substitutions and that limit is death: “It was only death that they could not rename, for they had nothing to put in its place. This is when they become sad and felt their hunger and when some began to lose their faith in God”(28).

At this moment, the narrator tells us that “This is when the Mahmir Rebbe, the most pious of them all, sent Mendel outside the walls”(28).

Mendel, although a schlemiel, goes out to learn what is going on.   We witness how Mendel filters much of what he knows through the mind of a schlemiel.  He struggles with what he sees; none of it makes sense.  When he meets up with an orphan friend named Yocheved, she tells him of how she and he will run away to a farm and eat duck.  Like any schlemiel, he dreams his hunger away.

However, he loses his innocence and much of his dream logic when he sees Yocheved killed by a bullet. The description of her death, as seen through his eyes, is a measure of his incomprehension and his new, liminal sense of existence.  As the narrator points out, Yocheved would not have died had she not been startled by the beating of her uncle.  Her death, both real and represented, is mixed with aesthetics, shock, and religious confusion.

The bullet left a ruby hole that resembled a charm an immodest gril might wear.  Yocheved touched a finger to her throat and turned her gaze toward the sky, wondering from where such a strange gift had come. Only Mendel looked back at the sound of the shot: the other had learned the lessons of Sodom. (35)

Mendel is damaged by this memory.  He has seen death.  But he moves on and doesn’t give up hope.

His Rabbi tells him and his group of Hasidim to shave off their beards and to dress like they are secular people.  They all manage to escape and stumble upon a circus train by way of passages built by way of schlemiel logic.

This leads them to the next game they must play.  They are taken to be acrobats by the other circus performs in a train.  They take them for such performers because of their thin, Jewish bodies.  Now, to survive, they must act “as if” they are acrobats.

The rest of the ride to their first performance, Mendel learns how to do a few acts from the other performers on the train and he relays them to his fellow schlemiels.

They learn them as best they can, but when the moment of truth comes, and they have to perform before an audience of high officials, they fail.

However, their failure saves them, since the audience takes them to be acting “as if” they are Jews who “tumble” all over each other.

What bothers Mendel most about all of this is that the world they are performing for – the world the circus performers are performing for – is “efficient” and “orderly” in a violent sense.   In Chelm, where the order was loose and playful, there was no such violence.

Moreover, Mendel realizes that to be ordered, as a performer, one must act as if he or she is something when he or she is not.  He notices that the art of the circus performers is based on a forced kind of duplicity.

At the end of the story, he puts his hands up.  Unlike other schlemiels, the narrator notes that Mendel’s hands are not soft and humble, they are “cracked and bloodless, gnarled and intrusive”(54). These are the hands of a post-Holocaust schlemiel.

Englander ends his story by reminding us that Mendel’s hands, the hands of this accidental entertainer, are different from the hands that have died in the Holocaust:

But there were no snipers, as there are for hands that reach out of the ghettos; no dogs, as for hands that reach out from the cracks of boxcar floors; no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out from chimneys into ash-clouded skies. (55)

As a reader, we now know that we cannot think of the schlemiel without thinking of the Holocaust.  This is the novelty that Englander wants us to come to terms with.  This isn’t a Hollywood Schlemiel and it isn’t a schlemiel whose homeland is the text, as Ezrahi claims with so many other schlemiels.

Rather, Englander teaches us that we American-Jews who live in the shadow of the Holocaust can no longer think of the schlemiel in the same way; regardless, he knows that the schlemiel, Mendel, lives on.  But, as Englander shows us through his creative fiction, he lives on in shame.

His irony – the irony of the schlemiel – is no longer fictional; it is historical.