Humor as Prosthesis: On Comic Word Play and Ironic Victories

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Some schlemiel theorists like Ruth Wisse and Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi read comedy as a kind of compensation for failure and powerlessness. Comedic language, in this scenario, is a kind of prosthesis.   The feverish pace of comedy is, in this scenario, structured to give the writer, joke-teller, and audience a false – read fictional – sense of control.

Reflecting on the excessive use of language in Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiel-comedy, Ruth Wisse writes:

Sholem Aleichem generally employs the technique of monologue, of which the epistolary form is but a variation, to convey the rhythms and nuances of character, and to underscore the extent to which language itself is the schlemiel’s manipulative tool. Through language the schlemiel reinterprets events to conform to his own vision, and thereby controls them, much as the child learns to control the environment by naming it. One need only read Menachem Mendl’s joyous, and incomprehensible, explanation of the stock market to appreciate how proficient handling of language can become a substitute for proficient commerce. Moreover, the richness of language in some way compensates for the poverty it describes. There is in the style an overabundance of nouns, saying, explanations, and apposition….The exuberant self-indulgence of…description takes the sting out of failure itself….Maurice Samuel called…it “theoretical reversal.” (54)

In this scenario, all comic language is ironic as is the laughter that goes along with it since, in this view, everyone goes along with the joke. Nonetheless, we know what the schlemiel is doing. He is, as it were, not fully absent minded. And, as Wisse suggests, the schlemiel uses language like a “manipulative tool” so as to reinterpret events and things that they cannot master so that they can “conform to his own vision.”

Writing on the telephone as a prosthesis, Avital Ronell argues that it is “capable of surviving the body which it in part replaces” and it “acts as a commemorative monument to the dissolution of the mortal coil”(88, The Telephone Book). Playing on Freud, Ronell goes on to call the prosthesis a “godlike annexation of a constitutively fragile organ.” It performs a “restitutional service” by going right to where the trauma touches the body.

Ronell argues that Freud anticipates Marshall McLuhan who argues that if the body fails the prosthesis succeeds. However, for McLuhan, the prosthesis is not simply a substitute for a weak or “fragile organ.” It is an extention of our existing organs. Citing McLuhan, Ronell notes that for him the prosthesis will no longer be a buffer between the body and the world. It will directly relate to it. In other words, it is no longer a substitute and it no longer is false. And now when it is shocked or traumatized there is an “auto-amputation of the self.”

Ronell contrasts this new understanding of trauma mediated by a prosthesis which now becomes “real” to Freud who argues that the enjoyment of this false limb amounts to a “cheap thrill.”

Bringing all this together, I’d like to test out the prosthetic theory of humor posited by Wisse, above. If humor is a prosthesis, than wouldn’t our enjoyment of it be, in Freud’s words, cheap? Perhaps this suggests that the schlemiel is understood as a prosthesis and that our “ironic victory” is…ironic. Without that understanding, our laughter would in fact be cheap.

On the other hand, if we read prosthetic humor along the lines of McLuhan there is no false limb. It is not a tool so much as an extention of our bodies. If that is the case, humor – as an extention of our bodies – exposes us to existence. It doesn’t protect us and it can potentially harm the schlemiel. This insight, to my mind, bears some interesting fruit. We see the effects of this more in stand-up comedy than in Yiddish literature. While Sholem Aleichem’s Motl or Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin seem to be immune to existence – by way of their humor – stand-up comedians and some contemporary schlemiel characters, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy or Shalom Auslander’s Kugel are not. Sometimes language can provide us with an ironic victory othertimes the same words can signify, for a schlemiel, defeat.

It all depends on how you read the prosthesis for sometimes the substitution afforded by comedy doesn’t compensate for lack so much as expose us to excess.

I’ll leave you with a clip from Andy Kaufmann since his comic words and his gestures seem to expose him rather than protect him from failure.

 

 

Deconstructing the Deconstruction of Zionism: Gianni Vattimo’s Myth Making and Misreading of Jewishness and Jewish Humor

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The “Yale School,” which included such academic personalities as Paul deMan and Harold Bloom, gave America its first taste of deconstruction. What deMan and Bloom popularized, in particular, was the rhetorical reading of texts.  The point was to find, as deMan once said, their keystone (or it’s “center”). By locating it and taking it out, so to speak, the entire text falls to pieces and is exposed.  But it was Bloom, or rather Freud (his antecedent who he draws on extensively), who came up with the greatest phrase to articulate the task of deconstruction: namely “misreading.”   Bloom taught us that every “misreading” holds a secret.  Namely, that one lies for a reason.   Nonetheless, the lie “acts” as if it is absolute truth and bears no contradictions.  And Bloom, like Freud, wished to cultivate a “hermeneutic of suspicion” so as to expose the contradiction that is at its core. Although criticism does the work of such exposure, Bloom, like Freud and many Jews before him, also understood that one of the best ways to expose contradiction is through the “witz” (through humor).   To be sure, every misreading is ironic.

The irony of Gianni Vattimo’s essay, “How I Become an Anti-Zionist,” which is his contribution to the volume he edited with Michael Marder entitled Deconstructing Zionism, is that Vattimo acts “as if” what he is saying about Jews, Zionism, and the Holocaust is the disclosure of unalloyed truth.  In a rhetorical fashion, he claims that he is not giving a misreading, but “the” reading of Zionism; it’s ugly secret which he, through a process paralleling the post-Zionist Israeli thinker Ilan Pappe, discovered over time: namely, that he had been duped.  He believed in a “myth” about Israel’s purity but now he knows and must spread the gospel of truth.  There is nothing ironic at all in this revelation.  It has the feel of truth.  And that’s the effect he’s after.

What I’d like to do is employ the hermeneutic of suspicion to his text and expose his misreadings and their affect. In addition, I want to stand back and think about what it implies that he, a notable Continental philosopher, identifies with Ahmejenidad, thinks that the threat from Iran is make believe, and that even though the destruction of Israel is desired a better word for it is “transformation.”   To not expose these misreadings would be a travesty.

But my goal is not simply to show that he is not deconstructing Zionism and creating or rephrasing the mythologies of anti-Semitism, but that he is misreading the Jewish joke to accomplish this end. And this misreading shows us how he forces the text and reality to conform to his narrative; something a deconstructionist, as a rule, shouldn’t do.

At the end of his piece, he misreads Jewish humor (as evinced by Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers). The result of that misreading is an account of Zionism that is deadly serious.  By tracing Vattimo’s rhetorical reversals and codings we can better understand his strategy to create an old/new “myth” of Zionism. And in doing so, he gives deconstruction a bad name.

To begin with, Vattimo begins by making a division between a “true” and a “false” Judaism. He argues that true Judaism has nothing to do with Israel!  Those who identify with it are, apparently, missing the true spirit of Judaism (despite the fact that the Torah speaks repeatedly of Israel and Jews have yearned for centuries for a homeland, he makes this statement).  Following this, he exposes an anti-Semitic vein when he argues, by way of citing a Jew (cloaking his opinion in a Jew’s opinion) that “Israel” is “one of the harms produced by Hitler’s politics and the Holocaust” (to this he adds “one can also list the creation of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948”).   In other words, he sees Israel as an evil created by Hitler and the Holocaust rather than as a blessing to those who sought a homeland in the wake of the Holocaust.

The mention of the Holocaust here is key because Vattimo’s goal is to use it as his keystone: like a few anti-Zionist thinkers, he argues that the “myth” of Zionist is given legitimacy by the use of the Holocaust.  And this, in his view, is one of Israel’s gravest sins.  In other words, Israel should, in his view, bear no mention of the Holocaust..as if it’s memory cannot be publicly mentioned, as if it weren’t a part of Jewish history…

But before he gets to this clincher, he provides his personal story of self-discovery (that he is, in his essence, an “anti-Zionist”).   He argues that he, like many Italians, grew up with two myths: the anti-fascist “myth” and the “myth” of Zionism.  He argues that this myth was provided by way of film and media. And, in the process, he likens Israel’s relation to Palestians to what he saw in American Westerns (namely, “the conquering of the West by nineteenth century Yankees”):

The last “cinematographic” reference appears somewhat forced, but it comes to mind for good reason, since no viewer of Westerns, except in recent years, has ever been concerned with the fate of Native Americans exterminated by the advance of white settlers and their cowboys – in a way complete analogous to the absolute forgetting endured by Palestinians in the epic of the birth of Israel.

The analogy also suggests that the Jews exterminated the Palestians (or are trying to).  In fact, this is his point.  But, in a cloaked fashion, he says that a Jew and not a non-Jew makes the discovery of the ugly secret; namely, that Israel is no different from Nazi Germany; it is committed to genocide.   He identifies his epiphany with that of the Jew, Ilan Pappe.  And this makes it “real”:

It was precisely the discovery of the Nakba in his second year of high school – that is, of the “disaster” represented for the Palestinians by the ethnic cleansing exercised by Israel from 1948 onward (and up until today, I must add) – that pushed Ilan Pappe from his initial leftist Zionism to his current, and radical, polemical stance against Israel.

Pappe’s “addition” (or rather additions, in the plural, to Pappe) suggest that he sees everything that Israel does in relation to the Palestinians as genocidal (as if he were watching the Holocaust in the present tense).   He now switches is rhetorical position from an “I” to a “we.”  He basically is saying he is in solidarity with Pappe and other Jews who are against “genocide” and who want to “deconstruct” the myth of Israel’s purity.  But the twist is that he and Pappe are pure. In a few sentences, he gives us a hagiography of sorts when he tells us of the process he has gone through to arrive at his epiphany:

It was, and it is now for many of us, a complex process that involved the whole of our socio-political, and in the end also our ethical, religious, conceptions, such that even our long friendships are put into crisis, along with other aspects of our private lives (starting from a certain ostracism by most official and mainstream mass media).

Here’s the narrative: He has been excluded. He is the other who is banding together with other’s who have been excluded and he is banding together with them to live and die in the name of truth. To do this, one must fight against Zionist mythology which is hiding evil (the genocide of the Palestinian people). This is, if anything, a religious narrative based on “truth.” There is no irony here.

To express his passion for the truth and to provide the map of his pilgrimage, Vattimo discusses how, over history, he was duped. Over time he realized he had been duped and that, in being duped, Israel was allowed to “continue the genocide, in Gaza and elsewhere, and also to reinforce themselves militarily in every way.”

From here, Vattimo expands his rhetorical we to include and “welcome” “Ahmadinejad.” This welcome, says Vattimo, has “emblematic value and goes far beyond the particular significance of his visit” (to Brazil). This “far beyond” suggests something transcendental for Vattimo, a greater truth: “never before was it so evident (at least it seems to us) that what is up for grabs in Palestine is the destiny of oppressed peoples who try to avoid the rule of the new colonialism.” In other words, “we” saw the truth, the “destiny of oppressed peoples” in the Palestinans.  The language is, to be sure, Epic and expresses a kind of meta-narrative which, to be sure, deconstruciton…ought to deconstruct not construct.  But who needs irony when we have Ahmadiniejad as our friend and comrade?

But the irony doesn’t stop there.  To be sure, Vattimo goes out of his way to reread Ahmadinejad’s calls for the destruction of Israel.  And his rereading – or rather misreading – exposes something rotten.  First of all, he says that the threat posed by Iran to erase Israel from the map is a myth by putting the words “disappear” and “threat” in scare quotes.  After doing this, he says that “its sense may not be completely unreasonable”(!).  His rereading is that its really not the destruction of Israel that Ahmadinejad wants so much as it’s “transformation” into one state (not for Jews, of course).  He justifies this rhetorical substitution (or misreading) by way of Ilan Pappe (a Jew-said-it-not-me tactic).    He ends his rhetorical flourish by arguing that all Ahmedinejad does is express “a demand that should be more explicitly shared.”

In other words, disregard everything negative said about Ahmedinijad; he has no hatred, doesn’t support terrorism, and forget about how he treats his people.  Rename him, pace my deconstruction, and call him your friend.  “We” (radical leftists) all share his sentiments.

But the irony of deconstruction doesn’t end there. He goes on to make yet another rhetorical misreading and substitution.  He claims that Israel suffers from an “irredeemable sin” and to say this “is not so excessive.”  In fact, its appropriate, in his view, to impute this as truth. That sin, as I suggestive above, is the “utilization” of the Holocaust.  It has turned the Holocaust into a “permanent weapon” against anyone who questions them.  To begin with, this claim is ridiculous.  I don’t have the space to address how this myth has been appropriate to agitate many left-leaning radical anti-Zionists in the past (and present).  Its simply another myth.  Regardless, for Vattimo it’s a truth that, in his view, is the basis for maintaining the myth of Israel as a Jewish State. And it is an “irredeemable sin.” It cannot be atoned for. Israel is, in other words, evil.

At the end of his essay, Vattimo posits yet another analogy and rereading by claming that Heidegger and deconstruction, like the Palestinians, is being “ethnically cleansed”(!)    After making such a rhetorical association – by way of it making it a self-evident truth that Israel ethically cleanses (after all, it is the basis of his analogy!) – Vattimo let’s his anti-Semitic beast loose.

He claims that the real core of the problem is not the appropriation of the Holocaust to legitimate the myth of Zionism so much as the myth of Jewish exceptionalism.  He states that people have this “suspicion” (himself included) by virtue of Isreal’s use of power. This “mythology,” says Vattimo, includes “divine election, the Covenant, the purity of a race.”  In other words, Zionism is really about the myth of Judaism and this coming from a “scholar” who, at the outset of his essay, separated “true” Jews (who don’t identify with Israel) from false Jews (who do). The suggestion of this rhetorical strategy (the “suspicion” as he says) is that Zionism is based on the mythologies of Judaism!

Vattimo doesn’t end his essay with this misreading. Rather, he ends with a misreading of Jewish humor.  He argues that the Rabbis in Woody Allen and the Coen Brother’s films show us who, at the core of Judaism, is a power that is corrupt and power hungry. This misinterpretation, if anything, totally misses what Woody Allen and The Coen Brothers were after.   To be sure, Allen, in films like Bananas and Annie Hall includes Rabbis in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with showing corruption so much as in insider joke.  The greatest irony is that in Annie Hall, Allen has his girlfriend’s grandmother look at him as an anti-Semite would; namely, as a Hasidic Jew in disguise.

As Freud would note, every misreading discloses some kind of secret.  And that secret, for Freud, is a desire.  For Vattimo, I think it would be fair to say that he wants to see every Rabbi as a co-conspirator in the creation of genocide and the “myth” of Jewish exceptionalism.   This desire is ultimately anti-Semitic.   It’s a shame since, by doing this, he isn’t “ethnically cleansing” deconstruction so much as giving it a bad name; after all, he sees himself as an heir to deconstruction.  But, it seems, he is more an heir to anti-Semitism.  We need better heirs to its legacy. On the other hand, it would also help if Vattimo knew a little about Judaism and Jewish humor. His misreading is not funny.  It’s tragic.

“A Crushed Purple Bug” – Jewish-American Identity Before and After Misha’s (Fictional) Circumcision (Part 1)

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In “The Metaphysics” Aristotle distinguishes “perceptions” from “experiences.”  Men and animals share the fact that they both have perceptions (sensation plus memory).   The first thing that differentiates them from each other is “experience.”  Animals can’t have experiences because, Aristotle tells us, they cannot make inferences based on the totality of their perceptions.    We do.  We infer who we are and what we are by way of our “experiences.”  But, for Aristotle, there is a higher mode than experience and that is thinking.  When we look for the causes of things, we move beyond inferences.  Aristotle acknowledges that scientists may be thinkers but that the greatest thinker is the philosopher since the philosopher looks not for this or that cause so much as the “causes of causes” (that is, the foundation of all things: from which things emerge and return).

But Aristotle makes a concession to experience when he argues that philosophy (always) begins with wonder.  However, it ends with wisdom and knowledge.  To remain in wonder, for Aristotle, would be to remain in the painful state of ignorance.  For him, happiness coincides with leaving wonder behind for knowledge.

To be sure, Aristotle gave birth to a whole line of thinkers who privileged thought over experience (from Descartes and Spinoza to Leibnitz, Kant, and Hegel).   Given this tendency toward thought and away from experience, Immanuel Kant – in the 18th century – thought of the novel as a distraction from the “true things.”  Since the novel was focused on experience it exposed us to things we could only make inferences about.  Dwelling in experience is tantamount with dwelling in confusion, ignorance, and doubt.  It would evince – as Aristotle would say – a lower, imperfect form of existence.

In contrast to Kant, Freud argued that we can learn a lot about “who” we are from our past experience.  Unlike Kant who thought of literature as a distraction, Freud oftentimes turned to literature and novels to understand what it means to be human.  All of our deepest problems and complexes are alluded to in such experiences as we find in dreams and novels.  Nonetheless, Freud believed, liked Kant and Aristotle, that we should work our way through such dreams or literary experiences so as to arrive at knowledge.   And this knowledge would, so to speak, set one free from this or that condition that hindered our being a reality-adjusted ego.   Although the analysis of self was “interminable,” for Freud, it had a goal.

To be sure, Freud would agree that first “experiences,” usually, count for a lot: especially when it comes to one’s identity.  A person’s first experiences of a country, a religion, or a culture, especially if they are a “part of it,” can certainly color his or her a) perception of him or herself and b) one’s identifications in this or that geographical, religious, or cultural context.

Oftentimes our experiences are arbitrary; however, sometimes they are primal or “originary.”  They can become “first experiences” and may, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger might say, alter how things – and oneself – “appear-in-the-world.”   For Heidegger, anxiety was a central mood through which the world was disclosed “as a world” and through which one is disclosed to oneself “as a being-in-the-world” (or as Heidegger would say a “being-thrown,” which suggests a “first experience” of things that was is not familiar with, things one did not know or intend).

In a Freudian sense (vis-à-vis the emergence of repressed materials in dreams), the world can become “uncanny” when buried experiences come to the surface.  Freud called this “primary” or “primal” experiences or scenes.  In this sense, there can be something shocking or even traumatic about first experiences.   And it can certainly be argued that literature is a way of coming to terms with – and perhaps even knowing the “source” of – this shock.

The more schlemiel literature I read, the more I see that sometimes the schlemiel is involved with the literary elaboration of this coming-to-terms with this or that primal experience.  What interests me most –as a schlemiel theorist – is to ask what the schlemiel learns or fails to learn – on the one hand – and what we, as readers, learn – on the other.  What blindspots do we see vis-à-vis the recollection and assessment made by this or that schlemiel regarding their experiences?

To be sure, working through a character’s “first experiences” may involve bearing witness to something shocking that will make a character appear awkward and comical.   The reader may find this schlemiel to be a tragic-comic kind of character since the schlemiel may not know what causes him to err.

In a Heideggarian sense, we may see the schlemiel as a character who is thrown into a situation that he cannot overcome.  And, on this note, the schlemiel may come across as a character that is wounded by a traumatic situation that they may or may not know – a situation that he or she may not be able to overcome.

In Gary Shteyngart’s novel Absurdistan, that situation is Jewishness and it is brought out through the main character, Misha’s first “American experience.”   Strangely enough, his “first American experience” was shocking and traumatic; it was, according to the narrator, circumcision.  Apparently, his first American experience becomes his first Jewish(American) experience.  In other words, it alters his Russian-Jewish experience and his perception of Jewishness.   And although he is aware of this, he is also blind to how it drives his desire to leave “the Mountain Jews” behind for another, more “multicultural” experience that can only be found in the context and arms of his former Latino-Black lover.    This is what I will call the “other” New York; the New York not inhabited by Hasidic Jews – who circumcise him – or “mountain Jews,” who remain in Eastern Europe (in Abusrdistan).

The problem of circumcision is spurred by Misha’s “foolish” love from his father (apparently, a schlemiel/idiotic trait).  In one of my previous blog entries on the novel, I pointed out how Misha committed himself to this painful experience out of love for his father (“too much love”). According to the narrator, this love makes Misha into “the idiot” of Dostoevsky’s novel by the same name: Prince Myshkin.   We follow Misha as he “foolishly” travels to the circumcision.  What happens before, during, and after the circumcision should be duly noted as they trace his trajectory from naivite to an experience that discloses his greatest obstacle, which is branded on his body: his Jewishness.  Circumcision affects how he sees himself, America, and Jewishness.

To begin with, his trajectory is spatial and tells us about what he identifies with.  Although his first American experience is circumcision, he starts off his American journey in an African-American neighborhood.   His observations speak for themselves:

I fell in love with these people at first blush.  There was something blighted, equivocal, and downright soviet about the sight of underemployed men and women arranged along endless stretches of broken porch-front and unmowed lawn….The Oblomov inside me has always been fascinated by people who are just about ready to give up on life, and in 1990, Brooklyn was Oblomovian paradise.  (19)

The descriptions change, however, when he enters into the Jewish parts of Brooklyn and toward his circumcision.   He feels more repulsed by this neighborhood.  He doesn’t identify with it though these are his “co-religionists”:

And that (the “Spanish speaking section”) gave way to a promised land of my Jewish co-religionists – men bustling around with entire squirels’ nests on their heads…velvety coats that harbored a precious summer stink…What the hell kind of Jewish woman has six children?  (19)

This shift in location is a central motif in this novel which many critics have overlooked. This shift is marked by his circumcision, which leaves him with “his crushed purple bug.”  This physical wound is also the limit that separates him from what Hannah Arendt – in her book The Human Condition – would call his “primary birth” and his “secondary birth.”  It seems that, for Shteyngart’s Misha’s movement from his primary birth (his “first American experience”) to his secondary birth (which will, later in the novel, be his “first experience” with Rouenna, an African-Latino-American girl he meets, falls in love with, and lives with).    But this movement, I will argue, seems to be always plagued not only by his Jewishness but by his wounded penis; his “crushed purple bug.”  The proof is in the pudding: if he still thinks about his circumcision and his Jewishness as a burden or wound at the end of the novel, he has not worked through it; if he doesn’t, apparently, he has.  Also, we need to ask whether this defines Misha, at the end of the novel, as a schlemiel or a “reality adjusted ego.”  Can he leave the wound being for knowledge?  Or do we end the novel with a lack of knowledge and a blindspot?  Is he, in the end, distracted by his experiences?  Or has he found his true, post-Jewish/post-schlemiel self in the “other”?

(In the next blog entry I will give address these questions.)

Circumscribed: Circumcision as Dismemberment in Shteyngart’s Absurdistan – Part II

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In the Jewish world, circumcision has prompted many jokes that have found their way into the mainstream.  On the internet you’ll find a lot of these Jewish jokes.   Here’s one from Comedy Central’s Website; its entitled “Circumcision…At Your Age?”

Two men are sharing a hospital room.  “What are you in for?” the first man asks.  “I’m getting a circumcision,” his roommate replies. “Damn,” exclaims the first man, “I had that done when I was born and I couldn’t walk for a year.”

This joke hits on what we left off with in the last blog entry: the fact that Misha sees himself as the but of the joke because he – like Abraham, the first Jew to be circumcised – is to be circumcised at a late age: the age of eighteen.  He likens himself to Dostoevsky’s “Holy Fool” – Prince Myshkin because he feels that his great love for his father led him into bad luck; which, for him, translates into a circumcision.

Whenever I discuss Freud’s notion of “castration anxiety,” I feel very awkward.  How, I always wonder, will the class take it when I tell them that the image of a mutilated penis is constantly at the back of their minds.

To be sure, Freud, in his early work, associates circumcision with castration anxiety.  In “An Outline for Psychoanalysis” he argues that “the primeval custom of castration” is a “symbolic substitute for castration.”  And it “can only be understood as an expression to the submission to the father’s will.”

This submission to the father’s will (which we saw is a major part of Misha’s circumcision) is based on the fear that if he violates his father’s will, he will be punished.   To be sure, the image of the mutilated penis is too much to see. Freud argues, however, that the endangered eyeball can become a substitute for the penis-that—daddy-may-cut-off.   When framed in this manner, Freud’s reading of the “Sandman” story in terms of castration is literally an “eye opener” for my students.  They see how, for Freud and for those psychoanalysts who followed him, the eyeball could relate to the penis in terms of a drive to see a “scopic drive” (or “scopophilia”).  To be sure, vision is one of our greatest powers.  (Aristotle, in the Metaphysics makes it the highest of all our senses; and Plato gives it the highest honor in his dialogues.)

The threat to the eyes is, for Freud, a threat to the penis.  To illustrate, I show Un Chien Andalu, the 1929 film by Luis Bunel.

Paul, centuries before Freud, associated circumcision (and Judaism) with mutilation.  We see this in his epistle to the Philippians 3:2:

Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!  For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh.

Following this, Paul tells of how it is the case that he, as a Jew, has left “the mutilation” (his physical circumcision) behind.  He admits that he –as a Jew – must overcome his “confidence in the flesh” which he associates with circumcision.  By calling it “the mutilation,” he distances himself from it.  And this, as he moves on to something “higher” and more “spiritual” than the flesh (the circumcision) and the law (covenant) that is associated with it.

Freud may or may not have read Paul, but he did read psychologists that did associates circumcision with mutilation.   In The Jew’s Body, Sander Gilman takes the work of Paolo Mantegazza (1831-1901) as an illustration of how these views entered into the medical literature.  Mantegazza, notes Gilman, had a major influence on Freud.

Mantegazza’s words on circumcision suggest that circumcision-as-“mutilation” differentiates Jews from non-Jews and that this difference has political consequences.   To be sure, he insists that the ticket – for Jews – to equality is to stop circumcision:

Circumcision is a shame and an infamy; and I, who am not in the least anti-Semitic, who indeed have much esteem for the Israelites…shout and continue to shout at the Hebrews, until my last breath: Cease mutilating yourselves: cease imprinting upon your flesh an odious brand to distinguish you from other men; until you do this, you cannot pretend to be our equal.  (91)

What’s fascinating about this statement is that though it is said in modern times, it has been around since the Hellenistic period where –for a time period – it was against the law to be circumcised.  Moreover, it reiterates the reading of circumcision as mutilation but in a secular as opposed to a religious context.  Still, it is read as a form of violence and distinction.  It is read as a barrier to “true” equality or spirituality.

This clip from Family Guy reminds us that the association of castration, Jewishness, and mutilation is far from gone.

All of the above is a preface to the close reading I would like to make of Misha’s circumcision in Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan.  He sees his circumcision in Freudian terms (as a concession to his father – as I pointed out in yesterday’s blog) and in terms of mutilation.  This prompts him to feel as if he has been “had” and is a Prince Myshkin (schlemiel) type.  His negative descriptions of his circumcision, which in many ways echo Paul, distance himself from Judaism and form the basis of his literary “circumscription.”  This “circumscription” will, like Paul’s powerful and negative words on Jewish circumcision, form the basis of his movement away from what he considers “prehistoric” Jewishness.    His text marks his off and situates him within a different journey: one that will bring him back to America rather than Israel.  As I will discuss, Misha’s textual journey to his other homeland emerges out of a recognition that he had become a circumcised-schlemiel.  But this recognition is conveyed to Misha (and to us, his readers) by characterizing his circumcision as a form of mutilation.

These descriptions, this “circumscription,” and his recognition that he was a fool who was “had” will be the topic of my next blog entry.

A Note on Jake Marmer’s Poem “Bathhouse of Dreams”

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Jake Marmer’s poem, “Bathhouse of Dreams,” is an improvised poem which is based – in part – on a Mishnah from the tractate Avoda Zarah 3:4:

Proklos, son of Plosphos asked Rabban Gamliel a question in Akko, where he was washing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He said to [Rabban Gamliel], “Isn’t it written in your Torah (Deut. 13:18), ‘do not allow any banned items [from idol worshippers] to stick to your hand’? How then do you bathe in Aphrodite’s bathhouse?” He replied, “One does not respond [to religious questions] in the bath.” Once he exited, [Rabban Gamliel] said to him, “I did not enter her domain, but she entered mine. [Further], people don’t say, ‘let’s make a bath as a decoration for Aphrodite.’ Rather, they say, ‘let’s make a statue of Aphrodite as a decoration for our bath.’” Another reason: Even if someone paid you lots of money, you wouldn’t commence your idol worship if you were naked or sticky*, nor would you urinate before [your sacred object]. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands over the sewer and everyone urinates before it. The verse “these are your gods” (Exod. 32:4) is not said about this case. If a [statue] is treated as a god, then it is forbidden, but if it is not treated as a god, then it is permitted [to be in its presence].

How does this Mishnah relate to the title of Marmer’s poem and the poem itself which addresses a dream-like revision of the Mishnah?   Before we address Marmer’s poem, I’d like to preface my reading with a brief summary of the “Rabbinical” approach to dreams and follow it up with a sketch of Freud’s reading of the dream.  This will help us to understand what is at stake in Marmer’s re-imagining of this Mishnaic scene.

Poets have, for centuries, been interested in dreams.  And dreams, to be sure, have their root in prophesy and religion.  “Pagan” religion and monotheism pay much heed to dreams. As far as Judaism goes, there is an ambivalent attitude toward dreams.  Many of the first prophets in the Jewish tradition communicated with God by way of the dream.  But, according to Moses Maimonides, these prophets are lesser than Moses who communicated with God (so to speak) “face to face.”  Maimonides, in the vein of Ancient Greek and rationalist Islamic philosophy, makes it quite clear in his Guide to the Perplexed that imagination is a deficient mode vis-à-vis the intellect.  And in his view, Moses is the “greatest of all prophets” because, unlike the other prophets who communicated with God via the imagination, his intellect was perfected and his imagination was purified.  And, as Leo Strauss points out in his reading of Maimonides, the imagination, for Moses, had only one purpose at that point and that purpose is political; namely, to communicate to the masses.  Since the majority of people relate better to the imagination than to the intellect, it is the best medium to use for political purposes; however, it is not the highest man can achieve.  Although Baruch Spinoza disagreed with Maimonides on many different points, he agreed with him on the clear distinction between intellect and the imagination.  And Spinoza even found Moses at fault for, in his view, a minimal appeal to the imagination.

Nonetheless, as Sarah Stroumsa points out in her book on Maimonides, Maimoindes didn’t always have a rationalist position on the imagination and dreams.  As she argues, when he was younger he wanted to write a book interpreting images and the imagination which had more resonances with Kabbalah than with the Rationalists.  However, his position changed over time.  Maimonides understood the importance of imagery, the imagination, and dreams in Judaism.  But, as we can see from The Guide to the Perplexed, he ultimately settled with the rationalist reading of dreams and imagery.

On the other hand, poets and Kabbalists give greater weight to dreams. To be sure, exile itself is likened to a dream.  We see this in Psalm 126:

A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song. (126:1-2)

This psalm gives weight to the dreams of exile.  And no amount of rationalism can (or even should) be appealed to so as to eliminate these dreams.  To be sure, the poet understands that dreams are or can be related to perception and desire.  The question, for the Jewish poet and the Rabbi who are concerned with dreams, is how do we interpret the dreams of exile.

Rav Kook reads this Psalm in terms of the “dreams of redemption” which, one day, will disappear.   In his view, this did happen in some way with the founding of the State of Israel.  However, the exile lives on since the “full redemption” has not arrived.   For an American Jew who lives after the founding of the Jewish State, however, the dream seems to live on.

And, as Jake Marmer’s poem on the Mishnah implies, imagining Rabbi Gamliel’s “Bathhouse Dreams” is of great interest to the poet.  The imagination, for the Jewish poet, must be active; it doesn’t simply foster desire for redemption; it also sharpens our vision of the present and relation to the past.  And, in Marmer’s poem, it does so in a comic manner.   This makes it even more appealing to us, today, since one of the most important ways American-Jews have to relate to their Jewishness is by way of humor (as a recent Pew Poll shows).

I’d like to briefly turn to Freud’s theory of the dream to show how this appeal to the dream works on many levels.

If anyone takes the time to understand Freud’s theory of dreams, one will notice that something happens between The Interpretation of Dreams and Beyond the Pleasure Principle.   In the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud looks at dreams through the lens of the “pleasure principle.”  According to this theory, the psyche will go to great lengths to discharge all energy by any means necessary because the buildup of energy within the psyche is “painful.”  And the pleasure principle is, more or less, the principle to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  For this reason, Freud, working on his system of the id, ego, and superego, argues that consciousness censors things that are, according to the superego, detrimental to the health of consciousness.  One such thing would be sexual taboos.  These, Freud argued, must be discharged. And since the conscious mind won’t let it come to the surface, taboos are buried in the unconscious only to be resurrected and discharged in dreams.

But since there is also a “censor” in dreams, these feelings must be hidden in some way. For instance, instead of seeing your sister in your dream (who you may have an incestual desire for) you see a “substitute” who doesn’t look like your sister but feels like her.

This theory of dreams is based on an economy of discharging energy so as to maintain the pleasure principle: in the most Greek sense, happiness/pleasure is the goal.   This theory of dreams changes later on in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Before he wrote this book, he witnessed the dreams of men who were terrorized by experiences they had on the battlefield during WWI.  Their traumatic dreams would repeat over and over again (he calls this a “repetition compulsion”).  And the unconscious seemed to be deriving pleasure from this pain.  And this, for Freud, was troubling; it violated the “pleasure principle.”   His theory didn’t make room for trauma and, as he understood, it had to now; in the wake of his discoveries on the battle field medical tent.

I’d like to posit that Freud’s theory of the pleasure principle has Greek resonances while his later approach to dreams has more of a Jewish resonance.  In the latter theory, the pain of history, the trauma of history, is incorporated into the dream.  It is noted and happiness is not the goal so much as memory.

What I love about Jake Marmer’s poem “Bathhouse of Dreams” is the fact that it draws on Freud’s latter theory, reread the above mentioned Mishnah from Avodah Zarah, and adds a comic dimension to memory that Freud didn’t bring out in his post-pleasure principle theory.

In Marmer’s poem (and its performance), there is an angry (yet comic) tone that the poet takes on as he identifies with Rabbi Gamliel when he responds to the Hellenists’ query as to why he is in the Bathhouse of Aprhodite.     (The “Bathhouse of Dreams” poem starts at 3:55 in the video below.)

The poem starts off with a slightly modified citation from the Mishnah.  But it goes on to put in what is not there; namely, a retort which brings out the insider/outsider status of the Jew in Hellenistic culture: his double consciousness.  And this status is communicated by way of the dream/beard. The music in the piece brings out a dragnet style of sound to the presentation of the Rabbi’s words interspersed by a sequence that seems to be fighting with itself for speech. (Here’s the soundcloud link: https://soundcloud.com/lawrencebush):

Rabbi, why are you here to wash?

The Beard of my double consciousness answered Rabbi Gamliel….Yeah, my beard of double consciousness answered Galmliel…Every morning I wake up to find another split in my beard, and find another hole in my beard, and find another nest in my beard…

After this interlude, the music becomes more erratic to match the dream/ravings of Gamliel.  The increase in speed has the effect of becoming more and more comic as the jazz piece moves on.  At the end, Galmliel makes a pledge to remain a “perpetual dreamboy.” But this is punctuated by the music dropping out.  In this gap, Marmer inserts the words: “in a locked suitcase.”

The music then returns to the dragnet style melody .

I find this modulation and the last words to be telling.  What we find in these movements and words is an awareness of the “double consciousness” of the Jew which is communicated by way of the imaginary personification of the words Gamliel never said.  These words end with a pledge to become a “perpetual dreamboy” (in other words, a poet-schleimel; a “lord of dreams”) in response to the question (read as an insult) made by the Hellenist.  The response punctuates a series of angry retorts that struggle to the poets mouth (this is conveyed by the music).  But in the end, the position is one of withdrawal, a pledge that is, ultimately, to be found in a “locked suitcase.”  This sounds like a pandora box of sorts. But if it were opened up, what we would have is not war or violence so much as rage, comedy, and dreams.

This closing irony, which is the end of a build up of rage, is Jake Marmer’s way of relating to the past vis-à-vis the Mishnah and the present vis-à-vis his retelling and revising it.

The accent on the present brings out the power of the dream to mark the traumatic affect of double consciousness while, at the same time, showing how humor can be used to modulate this consciousness and rage.   Marmer is teaching us how, for American-Jews today, comedy and rage can go hand in hand with memory and poetic speech(that is, if one is willing to own up to one’s past struggles with society rather than forget about it). Indeed, comedy and rage can be employed in our relating to the Jewish past and the Jewish present (that is, if the relation of Jewish to non-Jewish identity is to remain an issue; if “double consciousness” is to remain an issue as it is for this poet who personifies Rabbi Gamliel).

At the end of the poem, I can feel the power of the dream is not to affect a kind of happiness, as Freud would say in his early work: that the day-dream or dream accomplish happiness in spite of things that cause the psyche pain.  Rather, the power of the dream-poem is to effect a sense of how something has not been worked through; comedy doesn’t eliminate rage or double consciousness.  Rather, comedy shows our weakness and our strength.

This is not a dream realized, as Kook would call for.  And this dream is not something that can be rationalized away. Rather, this poet’s dream imaginatively taps into the past from the angle of the present so as to disclose the difficult place of “double consciousness” that Jews speak from in our post-modern age.

Like Marmer, I understand his position very well.  It is the position of the schlemiel. And, for the poet and audience, it is double.  It is the angle of the Jewish Sancho Panza (the poet and audience) who pays close attention to the dreaming Don Quixote (Rabbi Gamliel and the poet), but with a twist: namely, the twist of historical fate which has and continues to make the Jew aware of his/her double consciousness.

The schlemiel, after all, is the lord of dreams.  And we, the readers of the schlemiel, are not.  Yet, when we see or hear the schlemiel, we can’t help but realize that his consciousness is ours.  We are in and out of reality and history.  We are double.  This is a bitter-sweet comedy of Jewishness. But it remains and will remain as long as the dream of exile remains a reality.

Jerry Lewis, Comedy, and Psychoanalysis (Terminable/Interminable)

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What has always intrigued me about the schlemiel is the fact that he constantly fails and that nothing, it seems, can help him.  And one of the things that pops up in modern Jewish-American literature and film to help the schlemiel out of his embarrassing condition is psychoanalysis.  The psychoanalytic cure (aka “the talking cure”) presupposes that there is an “end” to analysis.  As I have pointed out in my readings of the schlemiel, the psychoanalyst appears from time to time in the films of Woody Allen or in Phillip Roth’s notorious schlemiel classic – Portnoy’s Complaint – to offer a cure.  In Allen’s earlier films, the cure often falls short.  But in his later films, like Hollywood Ending, we see the opposite.  In that film, a psychoanalyst holds the key which, at some point, Allen’s main character embraces.  And doing so changes his life and makes him “normal.”  His analysis is, at some point, terminated.  In truth, Allen embraced the cure and has left the schlemiel behind.  (I have written and published two essays on this topic in different Woody Allen anthologies.)

Writing on the schlemiel in Phillip Roth, Sanford Pinsker points out that Roth was very uncomfortable with the schlemiel and the effect Portnoy’s Complaint had on his career and image.   That novel, in fact, is structured on a discussion between a psychanalyst and Portnoy.  With this in mind, Pinsker argues that all of Roth’s novels following Portnoy’s Complaint are aimed at psychologically working through the schlemiel and leaving him behind (for Roth, therefore, literature offered some kind of analysis which had a clear goal in mind: becoming normal).  Although she doesn’t appeal to psychoanalysis, Hannah Arendt, in her essay “The Jew as Pariah,” also sees the schlemiel as a malady of sorts which can and should be cured.  For her, the cure is social, historical, and political normalization.  Writing during World War II, Arendt envisioned a time when the Jew would be accepted as an equal and will no longer be forced to find shelter in being “exceptional” schlemiels/pariahs.

In all of the above-mentioned cases, we see the same logic which, I would argue, has its basis in Germany and central Europe and not Eastern Europe.  In all of these cases, the schlemiel is equated with some kind of abnormality (psychic or political) which can be cured.

In my last few blog entries, I have been pointing out how, for both Ruth Wisse and Steven Shaviro, psychology, though useful, may be too reductive when dealing with either the schlemiel (Wisse) or with Jerry Lewis’s brand of masochism (Shaviro).  Nonetheless, I was very pleased to see, after I posted my blog entry on facebook, that Steven Shaviro read my piece and pointed out how he had recently written yet another two essays on Jerry Lewis.  In the first of the two essays, which are both e-published, Shaviro speaks to the issue of the psychoanalytic cure and its relation to Jerry Lewis’s comedy.  I was very pleased to see this because I have been pondering the tension between affirming the schlemiel (the Eastern European model) and rejecting him (the German model).   As I have noted above, this model has been appealed to by way of this or that use of psychoanalysis in the films and novels of many a Jewish-American writer and filmmaker.

That said, I’d like to go through a few of Shaviro’s points; since his argument, regarding Jerry Lewis’s comedy, resonated well with my own claims for the schlemiel.  He argues, in short, that Jerry Lewis’s comedy is not about affirming a cure so much as challenging the talking cure.  And instead of terminating analysis, Lewis’s comedy leads to what Freud, in one account, would call “interminable analysis.”

The first of the two essays on Lewis is entitled “Smorgasbord.”  The title of the essay is based on Lewis’s original title for his 1983 film whose final title was Cracking Up.  Shaviro starts off his reading by noting the Jewishness of this film which one can find in the emotionally riveting case of the “self-deprecating” comedian.  This act of self-deprecation is a way or strategy for warding off “humiliations imposed upon” the Jew by “others.”  And this is:

A quintessential strategy that has historically been adopted by Jews, by women, and by members of oppressed groups. (7)

Shaviro brilliantly frames this strategy in terms of another “great Jewish invention” – psychoanalysis:

We might well compare Jewish humor to another great Jewish invention that endeavors to deal with unavoidable, internalized suffering: psychoanalysis.  Like humor psychoanalysis gives relief by providing a “safety valve” through which one may give vent to otherwise unmentionable miseries.  (8)

Shaviro notes that psychoanalysis and comedy offer “insights” that are often self-deprecating.  And the “cure” (which Shaviro puts in scare quotes) “consists in recognizing and giving voice to, the most unpleasant things that one can find out about oneself”(9).  However, Shaviro notes (against popular wisdom) that both comedy and psychoanalysis do not “really provide a permanent solution.”  Rather, both are a part of an “interminable process.”  And this is what we see in Lewis’s comedy:

He struggles interminably to come to some conclusion, his well-meaning efforts instead spread chaos far and wide.  Every one of Lewis’s character’s actions seems to have limitless reverberations…Waves of destruction spread outwards, to infect or contaminate other people, and to overwhelm Lewis’s physical surroundings.  (11)

Shaviro points out, in this regard, Lewis’s failed attempts to kill himself in the movie.

Regarding this interminable failure, Shaviro points out who instead of transforming himself (as we see in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris or in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up), Jerry Lewis’s character in this film “reiterates” and repeats things.  In this film, for instance, Lewis tries to give up smoking but keeps on going over and over again through the procedure of stopping – but to no avail.  He can’t quit and is, so to speak, “confined.”

Once again, Lewis’s persona is unable to achieve freedom, even at his machinations have cascading effects beyond the limits of his confinement.  (27)

Shaviro ends his essay with a detailed description of Lewis’s encounter with a psychoanalyst.  The twist is that he is not cured so much as free from the symptoms of neurosis that he transfers to his psychoanalyst:

All of the symptoms that have been excised from Warren’s (Lewis’s) body and mind reappear insteaed in Dr. Petchick.  All of a sudden the psychiatrist has adopted all of Warren’s mannerisms and incompetentcies. He lights a cigarette and gets punched out by Dick Butkis; he flails about, running this way and that, causing cars to crash and structures to topple, spreading chaos around him. (32)

And this, for Shaviro, is the main point.  Lewis’s comedy works by way of transferring his stammerings to others.  Instead of getting rid of his malady, he gives it to others.  The great irony of this, according to Shaviro, is that Lewis, in real life, is an advocate of the laughing cure and comedic catharsis but his films teach the opposite: one cannot be cured.  Comedy, like psychoanalysis, is (ultimately) interminable and that interminability is contagious.  In other words, one cannot simply be cured.

Shaviro’s reading of Lewis – in this instance – has important implications for schlemiel theory.  Lewis’s inability to be cured serve as a reminder to us that, in the schlemiel tradition, the desire to “cure” the schlemiel of its malady was posited by Jews who wanted to leave the past behind and felt that the schlemiel represented that past.  His awkwardness and dreaminess were for Arendt, and many others, remnants of a Jewish population that was “worldless” and unaware of how to act in a society and history from which they had been excluded for centuries.  On the other hand, the Eastern European Jews saw in the schlemiel a challenge to society and to its evils. They clung to its simplicity and honesty.  The only cure – for many of them – would be the end of exile or for society to eliminate all evil from its midst.

But let’s be frank and ask what, exactly, that would consist of.  Would it consist in being accepted by others as an equal? Would in consist in having a “Jewish State”?  Or would it consist in the end of evil?  Of the three options, it is the last one which held a lot of appeal for writers like Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer – but, in truth, they knew it was a utopian hope.  This implies that the schlemiel and its failures would be interminable because evil itself are and will – most likely – be interminable.

What Shaviro suggests is that Jews like Jerry Lewis know that the cure is far off and that it is shared. The healing process will not, by any means, just happen.  And film has an ethical role in the sense that it reminds us that the basis for interminable analysis is something that just can’t go away in a few days or years or, for that matter, in two hours in this or that film.  What Lewis does is expose us to this desire for a cure, its frustration, and its endless reiteration which are all features of the schlemiel and, for that matter, Jewishness in general.