Looking Awry: On Frans Hals’ Representations of Rene Descartes, Fools, and Child Musicians

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Frans Hals was a Dutch painter from the 17th century.  Many art historians group him together with the school of Mannerism, which developed in the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century.  Hals was a part of what is called the “Northern Renaissance.”  Some mannerist works of art are not simply realistic; many of them are symbolic and allegorical.    And, as many art historians note, Mannerism was transformed into Baroque art.  One of the elements that remains in this transformation is the allegorical.

Hals’s work is often Realistic, but it often errs on the side of the allegorical.  This allegorical dimension, however, is subtle.  It’s not obvious.  In fact, Hals work demands the viewer to pay close attention to subtle gestures, gazes, and movements within the frame (which oftentimes gesture to something hidden and obscure outside of the frame).  The allusions they make suggest multiple meanings.

Hals is well known for his portraits of doctors, aristocrats, and leaders, but he is less known for his portraits of children, fools, and musicians.  Going through many of these paintings, I found that Hals was more fascinated with the gestures of simple people than with aristocrats.  Their gestures are the most suggestive and allegorical; these representations suggest a way of seeing that is based on allusion and movement.

To illustrate the contrast between his representations of aristocrats and simple folk, I’d like to first take a look at his most famous portrait; namely, of Rene Descartes.  After doing this, I’d like to contrast this portrait to the portraits of a fool, a child, and a two child musicians.

In the portraits of many aristocrats and leaders, Hals portrays his subjects in the most serious ways.  Their gestures are simple, their bodies are rigid, and their gazes are focused.  They are in “possession of themselves.”  They are men whose bodies are subject to their reasoning and to civility.  Like those portraits, this portrait of Rene Descartes is of a man who is self-possessed.  The subject looks directly at the viewer with a knowing look. However, the most interesting aspect of this painting is Descartes mouth.  We are not sure if he is smiling or if he is indifferent.  This ambiguous gesture of the father of Modern Philosophy is rich in implication.  It suggests that he is friendly and a part of humanity; on the other hand, it suggests that he is indifferent to – and perhaps even fed up with – humanity.  Perhaps he would rather be thinking than sitting in front of Frans Hals.  After all, Descartes regarded the imagination as inferior to the intellect and associated it with the body and not the mind.

In contrast to this painting of Descartes, the gestural representations of fools, children, and children musicians are much more subtle and suggestive.  I will take a look at a few to bring out this contrast.

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When I was looking for a photo to append to my blog post on Charles Baudelaire’s “A Heroic Death” (which pits a fool against the Prince), I chose Frans Hals painting which the Louvre website calls a “Buffoon With a Lute.”  I found that it nicely illustrated the allure of the fool (and his gambol with death) to which the narrator of the Baudelaire prose piece was drawn.

The Louvre, which owns this painting, estimates that it was made somewhere between 1623 and 1625.

I am struck by look and gesture of the Buffoon.  His head is tilted to the side and he is looking askance at something we can’t see.   His smile is also tilted.   To add to the contrasts, one will notice that his hair is longer on one side and shorter on the other.  The tilting of all these features complicates our reading of the Buffoon.  To be sure, its hard to tell whether he is happy or wary of what he is doing and who he is playing for.  I see this, specifically, in his smile.  The fact that it is pulled up on the edge suggests that something is odd.  In fact, I couldn’t help but sense that in the midst of his apparent joy there may be a feeling of terror.  It seems as if the Buffoon is about to be killed or punished; but to mitigate the threat, he plays on and smiles toward the person (or people) outside the frame.   He is tactful.

This gesture is complicated by the fact that this is not simply an absent-minded fool who lacks any sense of the world outside of him.  He is innocent, a boy, and yet, he is a man facing something we can’t see, something outside the frame.  His smile is cunning and responds to something real; unlike Descartes smile which seems to detest the real or only to deal with it as a matter of course.   Since it deals with possible terror and is riddled with anxiety, this painting is more existential than the Descartes portrait, which is more about an intellectual attitude toward the world.

The buffoon’s face connotes subtlety, but his hands and the instrument connote neutrality.  They are –so to speak – doing their own thing.  It is as if his body, in a Cartesian sense, is on auto-pilot while his soul is caught between fear and joy.

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In this portrait of a child, the child is smiling, happy, and innocent.  He is present to the painter.  Unlike the portraits of Descartes and the Buffoon, the child is not judging the world or dealing with it in a tactful manner.

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In contrast to this portrait is the painting of a “child playing the violin.”  In this portrait, the subject is not present to the painter or viewer.   He is absent-minded.  His head is tilted, but his eyes look heavenward as he plays the violin.  This contrasts greatly to the Buffoon whose eyes look to the side and smile is twisted.  It also contrasts to the Descartes portrait since he, at the very least, is giving some attention to the painter (though perhaps against his ‘real’ interests).

This portrait is haunting in the sense that it seems as if he is about to put down the fiddle and ascend to heaven.  The music, perhaps, is detaching him from the world.  Perhaps he, unlike the Bufoon with the Lute, is the true fool.  His gestures denote a total disregard for the eye looking upon him.  Perhaps he is truly free of the gaze and the world.

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The portrait of the “boy holding the flute” is very odd.  Like the other paintings of musicians, he is also tilting his head and smiling.  But in this portrait, he is looking directly at the viewer.  Juxtaposed to the other paintings, the viewer is no longer thinking about who he or she is looking at or what the subject may be thinking as he plays music.

In this painting, the musician has stopped playing.  He looks directly at you.   There is something odd about this gaze.  It acknowledges the gaze but responds to it in a way that is awkward.  Its as if he has missed a social cue or two.  Moreover, the flute he holds interrupts his smile.  And this creates a kind of confusion in the viewer.   To be sure, his smile is not perfect.  It, too, is a bit askance.  And the fact that he is a child doesn’t mitigate the sense of madness that this portrait conveys by way of subtle gestures.

What interests me most in these portraits is how Hals articulates the subtlety of gesture and its relationship to the world.  As we have seen, from Descartes to the boy with the flute, Hals was interested in the different ways his subjects regarded the world.  The difference between the Philosopher and the Bufoon, the child, and child musicians is telling.  The question I have is what value do these gestures have for Hals.  Did he have more respect for his aristocratic subjects or for his folkish and childish subjects?  Did he value the theoretical bearing of Descartes more than the tactical bearing of the Bufoon or vice-versa?

These questions are relevant since I will be looking into the meaning of gesture in Walter Benjamin in forthcoming blog entries.  For a painter like Hals and for a thinker like Benjamin, the gesture and its performance tell us a lot of things about the nature of what it means to have a relationship with the world.  Benjamin, in his readings of Kafka, was interested in characters who (as schlemiels) had an odd relationship with the world.   He focused on their gestures so as to convey (or even teach) this attentiveness to his readers.  Like Hals, Benjamin does not evaluate these gestures so much as pay attention to them so as to understand their relationality.

So, to be sure, I’d like you to consider this blog entry a ‘warm up’ to the reading of gesture that I will be pursuing in the near future.

Who has the Last Word? Power or Comedy? On Baudelaire’s “A Heroic Death”

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In our culture, comedians are cultural icons and, from time to time, they even come to influence public opinion.  Most recently, for instance, Jon Stewart’s parody of Egyptian President Mursi and the jailing of a comedian reached Mursi and caused a stir.  Sara Silverman, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert have also looked to use comedy to influence politics.  This trend, in fact, goes back to the Enlightenment where Satire was used quite often to influence public opinion and shape political debate.

As Leo Strauss, Peter Gay, and others have pointed out, satire (of the Enlightenment variety) errs on the side of the secular.  It has nothing holy about it.  Charles Baudelaire, however, had a different understanding of comedy and its relation to power.  Rather than put Satire into a conflictual relationship with power, he put the fool in such a relationship.

We see this best in his prose piece, “A Heroic Death.” In his prose piece, Baudelaire puts the fool in a battle with power.  To say that this battle is cosmic would not be an understatement.  To be sure, if one were to take the time to read his journals in tandem with his poetry and prose, one would see that Baudelaire was always looking to evoke and think through the conflict between the sacred and the profane.   More importantly, Baudelaire saw this conflict best pronounced in the fool and by way of irony.

“A Heroic Death” shows us that the tension between art (and for Baudeliare, as for Kierkegaard and Schlegel, comedy was the quintessence of art) and power was one of his greatest preoccupations.  We would be amiss if we were to think that Walter Benjamin, in his studies of Baudelaire, had simply missed this.  To be sure, the tension between comedy and power is something that Benjamin thought about – particularly, in his work on Kafka – right up to his untimely death.

By way of a close reading of Baudelaire’s prose piece, I hope to show what is at stake in the tension between comedy (art) and power.  Moreover, I hope to show how Baudelaire took this tension and its outcome personally.  I’d like to suggest that we also take it personally since, as the prose piece shows, it hits directly on the modern condition that we are all-to-familiar with, a condition that Baudelaire constantly addressed.

Baudelaire begins his prose piece by noting that Fancioulle, “an admirable buffoon and almost like one of the Prince’s friends,” got involved with a “conspiracy” with “certain discontented nobles in the court” to overthrow the Prince.  The narrator, waxing philosophical, observes that “for men whose profession is to be funny, serious things have a fatal attraction.”  In other words, the narrator believes that comedy may likelly lead the fool to politics and thus fatality.  This observation, and the opening plot of the story, suggest that politics and comedy are strange bedfellows.  When they collide, there will be a life and death battle.  “A Heroic Death” illustrates this.

The narrator tells us that once the Prince discovers the plot, “all of them faced certain death.”

But after saying this, the narrator pauses to consider the Prince and his reaction to learning that Fancioulle was a part of the plot.  In this pause, we learn about what kind of person the Prince is.

According to the narrator, the Prince was a lover of entertainment.  In fact, his desire for entertainment has no bounds: “having an excessive sensibility he was in general far more cruel than his fellows.”

To be sure, the Prince was so cruel in his pursuit of pleasure that he was “indifferent enough in regard to men and morals.”  Setting up the battle that will ensue between the Prince and the fool, the narrator calls the Prince “a real artist.”  This suggests that the consumer of art, who will bypass morality and humanity to be entertained, is a “real artist.”  This ironic statement should be disturbing.  First of all, the Prince doesn’t produce art he consumes it.  How, then, could he be called an artist (a person who “makes things” – a technes in Greek)? More importantly, the narrator tells us that a “real artist” is deemed to be someone who disregards morality and humanity.  This means that the “real artist” has no interest in helping or in inspiring humanity to pursue justice. This artist is not interested in art for art’s sake so much as consumption for the sake of ending or at least differing Boredom.

When the narrator points out that the Prince’s most “dreaded” enemy is Boredom, the reader may realize that he or she has a lot in common with the Prince.  In fact, like us, the Prince would go “to extravagant efforts to vanquish or outwit this tyrant of the world.”  These efforts would win the prince the “epithet of ‘monster’” if, in fact, anyone in the Kingdom were allowed to write what they really thought about him and his ways.

The narrator, in a sarcastic manner, notes that the “misfortune of the Prince was in not having a stage vast enough for his own genius.”   This genius is, obviously, Satanic.  And a vaster stage would mean the world.  This discloses the desire of the Prince: to turn the world into a reality TV show of sorts – a laboratory for his perpetual amusement.

The narrator spells this out when he reflects on how the Prince decided to let Fancioulle live and perform for him.  This clemency, the narrator muses, was not simply because the fool was the Prince’s friend.   The narrator said it would be “nice” to believe this; however, he notes:

It was infinitely more probable that the Prince wanted to test the value of the histrionic talent of a man condemned to die.  He wanted to profit by this occasion to make a physiological experiment of a capital interest, to find out to what extent an artist’s faculties might be challenged or modified as extraordinary as this.

The narrator muses to himself as to whether or not the Prince had a “more or less definite idea of mercy”; this, he says, “is a point that has never been clarified.”  This musing hits on the question of good and evil.  With the Prince, this remains a question.  However, the fool, for the narrator, is different.

The fool bespeaks the best in humanity.  And he does this by way of his art.  And this is where the battle ensues; namely, over the question “who is the real artist – the Prince or the Fool?”

The narrator makes this question explicit when he differentiates between a “good actor” and the exceptional actor:

When people say of the actor: ‘What a good actor,’ they are using an expression which implies that beneath the character they can still distinguish the actor, that is to say, art, effort, volition.  But if an actor should succeed in being, in relation to the part he played, what the best statues of antiquity, if miraculously animated they lived, walked and saw, would be in relation to the confused idea of beauty, that would indeed by a singular case and altogether unheard of.

The narrator then tells us that “Fancioulle was that night just such a perfect idealization, so that one could not help believing in the impersonation as alive, possible and real.”

In other words, Fancioulle is the epitome of the “real artist.”  He effaces the line between the real and the ideal.  He is laughter, beauty, comedy, and tragedy in the flesh.  He is holy and the narrator tells us that he, unlike anyone else, can see that the fool has an aura:

The buffoon came and went, laughed and wept, and lashed into fury, with always about his head an imperishable aureole, invisible to all, but visible to me, that blended in a strange amalgam the beams of Art and the glory of Martyrdom.

The narrator further testifies to this revelation when he notes how, in recording this experience, his pen “trembles and tears of an emotion that has never left him.”  In watching the fool, he has found certainty and faith. He realizes that art is greater than death:

Fancioulle proved to me in the most preemptory, the most irrefutable way, that the intoxication of Art is more apt than any other to veil the terrors of the eternal abyss.

But here is the twist.

The Prince notices that the whole audience, like the narrator, is intoxicated.  More importantly, he realizes that he has lost his power over his subjects.  The narrator notes this change when he remembers how the Prince’s face changes: “a new palor spread like snow falling upon snow.”

The narrator notices, in the midst of this, how the Prince whispers to one of his pages and, within a few moments, a “shrill prolonged hiss” is heard.  Upon hearing this hiss, the fool is awakened from his dream, shocked, and his performance ends, literally, with his death.

The end of the prose piece is fascinating because the narrator, instead of lamenting what he saw, poses several questions about whether the Prince knew the hiss would kill the fool.  He wonders whether or not he did it as a prank and whether the Prince regretted what he did: “It is sweet and legitimate to hope so.”

However, the narrator and the attentive reader will realize that regardless of this “sweet” thought, the fool lost the battle and the Real Artist is the Prince.

Baudelaire’s mediation on art is melancholic and autobiographical.  This prose piece is, in many ways, an Oracle of sorts.  It teaches us that he believed that if comedy is put in a battle with Power and politics, power and Entertainment will win.  Reflecting on ourselves, can we say that reality television and its cruel battle with boredom have displaced the art of the “Real Artist”? Each and every one of us, it seems, is the Prince.  And, like him, we will go to any lengths to be entertained and destroy our worst enemy, Boredom.  And, as Reality Television makes clearly evident, all of humanity, the world , is our laboratory.

Nonetheless, the merit of the fool is to give the narrator “evidence” that comedy can be revelatory.   He witnessed this possibility, but he also witnessed its end.   Will we ever see a fool like Fancioulle?  Can we hope for a religious and revelatory kind of comedy?  Can we say that the schlemiel is such a holy fool or is there a distinct difference between Baudelaire’s fool and the Jewish fool?   Did Baudelaire’s holy fool die “a heroic death” or was he murdered for the sake of Amusement (or jealousy)?

Perhaps Baudelaire was saying that the holy fool (not Satire) should steer clear of the political, for if it does not it will find a similar fate.  Like Fancioulle, entertainment and power will win and the holy fool (artist) will lose. The narrator’s sad tone, implies that boredom and the will-to-entertainment are too powerful.  They cannot be defeated.  Or so it seems.  After all, he did have the evidence of the Holy Fool.  But he also saw that Holy Fool murdered.  Nonetheless, he says, it would be “sweet” to think that the Prince was merciful on the fool.  Indeed, it would be “sweet” but its not.   In the end, the real and the ideal remain separate.  And why?

Because the Prince, who loves nothing more than to kill Boredom, killed the Fool. He killed someone who, as the narrator says in the beginning, may have been his friend.

Students and Teachers of The Schlemiel Legacy: From Sancho Panza to Walter Benjamin

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(Enter Walter Benjamin)

To be distracted and become absent minded, is so to speak the condition of the possibility of the schlemiel. Walter Benjamin knew this lesson very well.  He learned if from Kafka, who learned it from Sancho Panza and Don Quixote.

At the end of his Kafka essay, Benjamin notes that he is like a Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.   To be sure, at the end of his Kafka essay he cites his favorite Kafka parable, the parable on Sancho Panza and Don Quixote which ends: “A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and thus enjoyed a great and profitable entertainment to the end of his days.”

In other words, Benjamin, like Sancho Panza, literally spent the “end of his days” following around a schlemiel named Franz Kafka.  And in this, he became very distracted and absent-minded himself.  After all, a reflection without penetration is the manner of the schlemiel.  And in response to it, one will either die laughing or “come laughing.”  Benjamin, near the end of his life, imitated the ways of Sancho Panza who imitated the ways of Don Quixote (a fool).

With Benjamin, we know that he took the modern Don Quixote, Franz Kafka, as his last teacher.  Gazing upon Kafka’s text, Benjamin knew, as he said in one of his last letters to Gershom Scholem, written on June 12, 1938, that Kafka was correct about two things: “first, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second; only a fool’s help is real help.”  However, as Benjamin mused:  “the only uncertain thing (the only question) is whether the fools help will do humanity any good.”

Indeed, that is the ethical question of the schlemiel.  And this is the question I have been asking in the last two blog entries.

Benjamin was the first to reflect on it.   And while Derrida is on to the tragic or comic manner of the schlemiel, unlike Benjamin, he does not pose this ethical question (at least not in his language phase).  Benjamin does.  Benjamin wonders whether the attention given to learning the wisdom of the fool, the manner of the schlemiel, can do humanity any good.   The same question applies to the ways of deconstruction and to learning the manner of the foolish (schlemiel) text.

If such a way of reading of the text doesn’t do humanity any good, will it be rejected?  And in the name of what?  The politician?  The philosopher?  How, Benjamin queries to Gershom Scholem, could they help?  The only one who “can help is the fool.” As Benjamin says in the same letter to Scholem, perhaps the only wisdom “is the wisdom of the fool.”  But, perhaps, as Kafka suggests, Benjamin was wrong.   Perhaps it isn’t wisdom that Sancho Panza gleans from the fool so much as entertainment (which Sancho Panza, a philosopher of sorts, enjoys until he dies…laughing). But, then again, Kafka muses that he may have followed him out of a sense of responsibility. This would imply that following the schlemiel is an ethical act of sorts. So…which is it? Ethics or entertainment? Both?

Let’s ask again: Will the wisdom of the fool, of Don Quixote, the schlemiel, do humanity any good? 

On this blog, it is imperative that we pronounce this question in different ways.   It’s inescapable.  This question emerges out of an endless reflection on the “reflection without penetration.” It emerges out of paying very close attention to the “manner” of the schlemiel. Paraphrasing Paul Celan, who paraphrases Walter Benjamin, who paraphrases Malbranche: attention (to the schlemiel) is the silent prayer of the soul.

Two questions may emerge from the attention of the reader to the schlemiel; that is, the attention of Sancho Panza for Don Quixote:

1) Can the attention that Sancho Panza (Walter Benjamin or Jacques Derrida) gives to Don Quixote (Franz Kafka or the Foolish Text) and his foolish ways do humanity any good?

2) What can we learn from the examples of Sancho Panza and Walter Benjamin? Did they seriously imitate their schlemiel teachers or did they laugh at them and themselves for imitating them?

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.

The Schlemiel and Horror, or Zero Mostel on the Muppet Show

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Zero Mostel z”l (1915-1977), in this brilliant segment from a 1977 episode of the Muppet Show, laughs at the Horror genre (or I would argue, getting spooked by crisis theory). What better example do we have of the laugh that laughs at the (satanic) laugh (or smile)?

This is, as my father’s friend David Kaplan z’l, used to say: “Top notch!”

Zero Mostel was one of the greatest stars in the history of Yiddish theater and performance!  He moved hundreds of thousands of people to laughter and tears.  Mostel was certainly a (perhaps ‘the’?) King of Comedy.   He was a real schlemiel whose performances show us how impassioned physical comedy – though caught up in schlemiel dreams – can trump fantasies of terror and catastrophe.  The fantasies he plays with are the fantasies of fear, terror, and transgression; the fantasies that Baudelaire and Poe found so titillating.

By performing 1,001 terrors, filtered through all his “wide eyed” gestures, Mostel caricatures horror, fear, and spirit possession in a matter of minutes.

Instead of tricking us into being horrified, as Baudelaire believed the “Absolute Comic” should, Mostel tricks horror into being ridiculous.  And he does it in the best place one can to placate horror with comedy: The Muppet Show.

Horror is equivalent to formless Muppet dolls attacking Zero Mostel and driving him Mad.

Does Zero Mostel tear us from fear? Does he defeat it?  Or do Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire have the last word?

The Trick is on the Trickster or Comic Self-Destruction: Traumatized Children and A Ruined Old Clown named Charles Baudelaire

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Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin knew very well of the trickster.  To be sure, they saw themselves as tricksters who, in doing their comic tricks, looked to destroy something and find something else (something new) in the midst of ruin.  By way of shock, they both believed they could arrive at some kind of “hidden” knowledge.  What happens, however, when the trickster is tricked?  What happens when the trickser is the butt of the joke?

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog, Charles Baudelaire, in his “Essay on Laughter” turned to the horrific moment of a child’s shock at the loss of her innocence.  In the ETA Hoffman short story “Daucus Carota, the King of the Carrots Baudealire found this moment to be an illustration of the Absolute Comic.   Before he gets to this shocking moment, he intentionally takes on the role of a children’s storyteller.

Look at all those scarlet figures, like a regiment of English soldiers, with enormous green plumes on their heads, like carriage footmen, going through a series of marvelous tricks and capers on their little horses!  The whole thing is carried out with astonishing agility.  The adroitness and ease with which the fall on their heads is assisted by their heads being bigger and heavier than the rest of their bodies, like toy soldiers…(163)

This delightful narration shifts and becomes dark.  Baudelaire’s voice changes.

The unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by this display of military might. But an army on parade is one thing; how different an army in barracks, refurbishing its harms, polishing its equipment, or worse, still, ignobally snoring on its dirty, stinking camp-beds!  That is the reverse of the medal; the rest was but a magic trick, an apparatuses of seduction.

Baudelaire notes that the girl’s father, a magician (“a man well-versed in sorcery”), tricks his daughter and robs her of her childish innocence.

Then it is the that the poor dreaming girl sees all this mass of red and green soldiery in its appalling undress, wallowing and snoring…In its night-cap all that military magnificence is nothing more than a putrid swamp.

Baudelaire, no doubt, sees himself as a Satanic magician, much like the father in the story.   He delights in tricking his reader (his child) into thinking they get one side of the coin and then he flips it.  This trick, for Baudelaire, is at the core of the Absolute Comic.

As I pointed out, Baudelaire in his May 13, 1856 journal noted that he will have “conquered solitude” when he has inspired “universal horror and disgust.”  To be sure, this is the job of the magician-slash-writer who can flip the coin and shock his readers.  In other words, Baudelaire saw his task as destructive and magical.

As we noted yesterday, Baudelaire identified with Poe’s destructive spirit insofar as he saw in Poe’s destructive drive a vitality that was repressed by civility.  Baudelaire turned this destructive drive on his view of children and fools.  Moreover, I would like to suggest that this was done in an experimental manner and, as I noted in a previous entry, this act of Spleen was aimed at producing a souvenir.  In other words, the magic of Baudeliare was to destroy something yet to cling to what remains.

Notice that for Baudelaire, the “coin” is still there.  It is just turned over.  Baudelaire doesn’t destroy the coin (that is, the child).  She remains but as a damaged child.  And this shock, according to Baudelaire, illustrated the essence of laughter.

The poet, in other words, is a Satanic kind of trickster.  He fools the reader into seeing something he or she does not want to see.  Yet, the revelation of what he or she doesn’t want to see gives the reader some kind of secret knowledge that can only be garnered through destruction.

In my readings of Benjamin, we have seen that this art can also be turned against oneself.     Indeed, Benjamin, in seeing himself as a schlemiel, as duped, traveled down the same road as Baudelaire.  For Benjamin, the trickster is tricked.

Baudelaire understood this lesson very well.  It marks the dark side of the magician who is not simply to be seen as a Satanic devilish poet who lives on vitality.  Indeed, that vitality is often weak.   And the solitude that Baudelaire wished to “conquer” is, to be sure, solitary and pathetic.

Destruction has a negative effect that, for some strange reason, Baudelaire and Benjamin were attracted to as artists.  Solitude has its price.  And in the modern world, the comic – though found everywhere – has no place.

Baudelaire’s prose pieces finely illustrate this.  Today, I will look at “The Old Clown.”

This prose piece, in Paris Spleen, is autobiographical and it teaches us a lesson about the Satanic comedian who is, in essence, a clown.

Underlying the piece is a question: what would it mean to spend one’s life as a clown?  What would happen if, instead of producing vitality, the clown produced nothing?  This is the dark side of Baudelaire’s venture and we see it in this prose piece.  Perhaps the “old clown” has “conquered solitude” by, in his very existence, inspiring “universal horror.”

To emphasize vitality and the end of vitality, Baudelaire starts off the piece with a major emphasis on the life of the carnival:

Holiday crowds swarmed, sprawled, and frolicked everywhere.  It was one of those gala days that all the clowns, jugglers, animal trainers, and ambulant hucksters count on, long in advance, to make up for the lean seasons of the year (25).

Baudelaire tells us that on these days people “forget everything” and they “become like children.”

Baudelaire then goes on to give a fantastic and exciting description of the carnival: “There was a mixture of cries, crashing brass, and exploding fireworks…and dancers, as lovely as fairies or princesses, leaped and pirouetted with the lantern light sparkling their skirts….There was nothing but light, dust, shouts, tumult”(25).

But then, in a Poe-like or Hoffman-like moment, the narrator sees the “old clown” and the shock it sends throughout him was uncanny:

Everywhere joy, money-making, debauchery; everywhere the assurance of tomorrow’s daily bread; everywhere frenetic outbursts of vitality.  Here absolute misery, and a misery made all the more horrible by being tricked out in comic rags, whose motely contrast was due more to necessity than to art.  He was not laughing, the poor wretch!…He was mute and motionaless.  He had given up, he had abdicated.  His fate was sealed. (26)

The narrator then describes his own breakdown at the sight of the clown.  He, the recipient of the sad joke or “trick” of reality, doesn’t know what to do:

I felt the terrible hand of hysteria grip my throat, I felt rebellious tears that would not fall, blurring my sight.  What was I to do?

Instead of talking to him or asking him questions, he decides to leave some charity.  He felt that compassion would redeem him.  However, before he can do this “a sudden surge of the crowd, caused by I know not what disturbance, swept me away from him.”

It is the crowd that robs him of his opportunity to give charity.  But now, as he looks back at the old clown, he can reflect on himself.  He sees an emblem of himself in the clown; he sees (or rather creates) what Walter Benjamin would call a souvenir:

I have just seen the prototype of the old writer who has been the brilliant entertainer of the generation he has outlived; the old poet without friends, without family, without children, degraded by poverty and the ingratitude of the public, and to whose booth the fickle world no longer cares to come! (27)

It’s fascinating how for Baudelaire the destruction of innocence and joy is “magical.”  To be sure, he was fascinated with his own failure and with the destruction of happiness in children.  This piece, though tragic to us, fits into what Baudelaire calls the Absolute Comic.  But here he is the butt of the joke.  He, the writer, is a joke.  He is an “old clown.”   He, the entertainer of children, the child who never grew up, is a joke.

We can have no doubt that Walter Benjamin was very moved by Baudelaire’s “souvenir.”  It is echoed in his own vision of himself as a Schlemiel.  In his own s(c)h(l)ocking discovery, Benjamin, like Baudelaire, was able to retain a souvenir out of his own comic, self-destruction.

Who of the Four Sons is the Schlemiel?

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I.B. Singer and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav both refer to the schlemiel as a “Tam,” which is Hebrew for a simpleton.  Tam also means a person who is “complete.” But this doesn’t make sense. How could a simpleton be complete?  Isn’t the simpleton lacking intelligence, wit, and independence?  How could these “lacks” constitute the simpleton’s – that is, the schlemiel’s – completeness?  Isn’t the wise man or the independent individual the ‘complete one’?  After all, the simpleton is a “schlemiel.”

This question is given visual form in the Passover Haggadah (namely, the story telling portion of the Haggadah which is called Magid).

In his book, Unheroic Conduct, Daniel Boyarin takes a look at a few Medieval Haggadot to point out the difference between “the simpleton” and the “evil son” (the Rasha).  For Boyarin, the point of this comparison is to show that the dominant Jewish male ideal in the Middle Ages was embodied in the character of the simpleton.  Extreme humility is his/her trait.  In contrast to the simpleton is the Rasha.  Boyarin points out that the Rasha is the epitome of what, in Yiddish, is called “goyishe nachas” (the joy of gentiles).  According to Boyarin, the Rasha embodies the non-Jewish “male ideal,” which is much more masculine (prideful, angry, overly physical, militant, etc) than the Jewish ideal.

Boyarin’s reading of the Jewish ideal is consistent, in many ways, with Moses Maimonides’ (RAMBAM’s) understanding of the ethical ideal.  As David Shatz points out in his essay “Maimonides’ Moral Theory,” Maimonides, like Aristotle, strived to live in accordance with a golden mean.  However, when it came to humility and pride, he was in stark contrast to Aristotle. While Aristotle thought extreme humility was a vice, Maimonides believed it was a virtue.  And while Aristotle thought it was necessary to be angry and prideful in the face of one’s pride being denigrated, Maimonides taught that such an extreme was a vice not a virtue.  Maimonides goes so far as to give an example of extreme humility by way of a story in which a man traveling on a ship is urinated on by an arrogant fellow-passenger.   This man, who Maimonides calls a Hasid (since he goes “beyond the letter of the law”) is so humble that he does nothing.  He, like Moses, the “most humble man of the land,” doesn’t waste his time with the Rasha.  More important for the Hasid, Maimonides tells us, is the honor of God.  And this requires extreme non-action in the face of arrogance and violence.  Wasting one’s time with pride and anger, making oneself equal to it, is “goyishe nachas.” Extreme humility, a vice for Aristotle, is “Yiddish nachas”(Jewish joy).

Boyarin’s project is to show that the Jewish ideal of the extreme humility was operative throughout the Middle Ages and existed in the Eastern Europe up the early 20th century – before the Holocaust – however, as Jews became accepted into Modern society, this ideal was displaced by a more Aristotelian type of masculine ideal.  Boyarin goes so far as to suggest that Zionism was deeply influenced by the ideals of strength and power rather than humility and powerlessness.  He cites Max Nordau – the Vice President of the Zionist Congress’ –  concept of the “muscle Jew” as the new ideal.  In addition, he cites Herzl, Freud, and others who espouse this new ideal which despises the Eastern European ideal of extreme humility – deeming it too feminine and heteronomos.

Strangely enough, in all of Boyarin’s discourse, he doesn’t note that how the simpleton was, for many of the early Zionists, the schlemiel.  The simpleton was equated with the powerless Diaspora Jew.  To be sure, a pro-Zionist journal by that name was founded with the purpose of criticizing the Diasporic Jew and affirming a ‘new Jew’.   The Jewish Renaissance, as Martin Buber put it, looked to reach deep into the roots of a Jewishness that was lost (or as Max Nordau would say, “degenerated”) in the Diaspora.  Although Buber didn’t openly degrade the simpleton (after all, he translated Rabbi Nachman’s stories and praised the Simpelton), he, like many Zionists, sought for a “New Jew.”

The question – is the schlemiel a character marred by Exile, a character that was produced by degeneration and powerlessness or was the schlemiel an ideal?

Boyarin’s book prompts these questions and poses them to Jews living outside of Israel.  Must we, in North America, contrast ourselves to Israelis?  Are we the ‘real Jews’?  And is their a real difference between us regarding whether or not we take on or reject an Aristotelian ideal?

Boyarin’s work certainly implies this.  His reading of the Haggadot implies that the Rasha, the evil son, is excluding himself from the Jewish community. Which community would that be?  Is this the American Jewish community or the community of Modern-Orthodox Jews that Boyarin identifies with?

I would add that Boyarin’s reading of the simpleton as an ideal may also include “the one who doesn’t know how to ask” in the Haggadah.  To be sure, the tradition represents both of them in terms of Boyarin’s ideal.

For instance, in a Medieval Illuminated Manuscript from 14th century Prato, Spain, we see Boyarin’s distinction between the Rasha and the Simpleton:

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Here, the Rasha is represented as a Warrior of sorts.  While the simpleton and the son who doesn’t know how to ask are both represented as small – half his height – and humble:

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In fact, they are both very gentle, childlike, and peaceful in their demeanor and in their gesturing.

Boyarin compares Medieval Haggadot to Zionist imagery to suggest that the Medieval Ideal has been abandoned.  Moreover, he suggests, by way of his own example as a “feminist-modern-Orthodox-Jew” that we return to this ideal.  As I noted above this would imply that Jews take on the schlemiel ideal.

But the ideal is not simply about humility – for the Rabbis, this humility which is based on faith in God’s power to redeem the Jewish people and in God’s place in history.  We see this in the two questions and in the answers to them.

The Simple Son asks:  “What is this celebration about?”

You shall say to him: “We are commemorating the fact that with a strong hand Gd took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Exodus 13:14).

As for The One Who Knows Not How To Ask—you must open up [the conversation] for him.

As it is written: You shall tell your child on that day: “It is because of this that Gd acted for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

So, ultimately, the masculine ideal that Boyarin wants to return to is or at least was based on the Schlemiel’s – that is, the Tam’s – simple faith.

To be sure, the simpleton is complete for this reason, but in the eyes of the world faith is ridiculous and the schlemiel lacks intelligence.   That is, at the very least, the perspective of the Rabbis and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.   Boyarin, however, redefines this to state that the completeness of the Tam can be found in the fact that he doesn’t enjoy “goyishe nachas” and prefers powerlessness over a masculine kind of power that, for him, corrupts.  This is not a matter of faith so much as a matter of whether or not Jews take on a masculine or a masculine-feminine ideal.

This is what I would call “Boyarin’s schlemiel ideal.”

The question for us – the so to speak fifth question of the four questions – is why is the night of Passover different from other nights?

Is it the night that we realize that “we” are all schlemiels?  And what would this imply? That we are faithful or that we embody a less masculine Jewish ideal?

(Based on what we have learned from Boyarin, this is a good question to ask.  But there are still other questions we can ask – at the Seder table, with the Jewish community – of his old/new ideal and its political import: 1) Is Boyarin right to reinstate a dualism that the early Zionists insisted on in the early 20th century?  2) Can there be schlemiel-Zionists?  Or only schlemiel post-Zionists? 3) Can one be a “simpleton” in Israel?  4) Is the new Jew an old Jew – that is a schlemiel? Or is the new Jew a Rasha?  Or is the new Jew something else besides these two options?   In other words, where does the schlemiel figure, today?)

Regardless of the answers one comes up with, Schlemiel-in-Theory wishes all Jews – on whatever side of the spectrum – a Happy Passover!