“A Crushed Purple Bug” – Jewish-American Identity Before and After Misha’s (Fictional) Circumcision (Part 2)

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For novelists and for readers of novels, one of the most complicated issues is to determine what one can learn from the fictional “experiences” and inferences of different characters.  This is of especial interest when the character in question is a schlemiel.  Since the schlemiel’s experiences are often permeated by several different blind spots, we need to figure out 1) what the blind spots are and 2) what is missing.  However, sometimes it is the case that it is the narrator who has the blind spot.  I’m very interested in how this works with Gary Shteyngart’s portrayal of Misha’s circumcision.  To be sure, Misha, the narrator of this novel, depicts his circumcision in such a way as to disclose himself as a character wounded by Jewishness.  Misha’s description, I believe, is his blindspot.   As readers, we can either identify with this disclosure or reject it.  I think it is imperative that we reject this identification of Jewishness with botched circumcision since, as I pointed out in a previous blog, this identification harbors a deeper form of resentment: reading Judaism as a form of castration.   According to his reading, which I reject, Misha is a schlemiel by virtue of allowing himself to be castrated by Jewishness.

To arrive at this rejection, we need to understand how Misha presents his “experience” of circumcision.  That way, we can understand how he presents and interprets that experience of a fictional circumcision.

To this end, I began my last blog entry with a reflection on the difference between “experience” and “thought” as brought down by Aristotle.  And from there, I discussed how this tradition was carried on into the modern era with thinkers like Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, et al.  After doing this, I looked into the challenges posed by Martin Heidegger and Sigmund Freud to this distinction.    Their challenges flip this distinction.  For both of them, experience and thought are deeply intertwined.  And it is not just experience in general that interests them; it is the  “uncanny” experience that, for both, prompts us to reflect on who we are.  However, these experiences can also do the opposite.  Anxiety about this or that thing is a sure sign that the subject is coming close to something that is at the core of his or her identity.

For the narrator of Absurdistan, that thing is Jewishness.  It is associated with a late-in-life circumcision and, as I have argued here and elsewhere, a form of castration.  Misha’s power to assimilate and enjoy the world is, in many ways, curtailed by his Jewishness.  The description of his circumcision is a substitute (prosthesis), in a Freudian sense, for this belief.   We see this in the fact that is it is uncanny.

The word for uncanny in German is un-heimlich (which means not-homely).  The German word is suggestive because it suggests that it is not totally alien (it is also something that we are familiar with).   Drawing on this, I’d like to pay close attention to the narrator’s description of the circumcision.  His familiarity with the Hasidim who circumcise him is juxtaposed to the horrific depiction of the circumcision.  This mixture of familiarity and horror is the literary correlate for the uncanny.

As I noted in the prologue, the narrator looks at Jewishness as old and “prehistoric.”  In his opening description of the Hasidic neighborhood we see this connotation return:

The cab stopped in front of an old but grand house whose bulk was noticeably sinking into its front columns the way an elderly fellow sinks into his walker. (19)

The narrator’s description of the first Hasid he sees is familiar and even endearing:

A pleasant young Hasid with an intelligent expression (I’m partial to anyone who looks half blind) welcomed me in with a handshake and, upon ascertaining I spoke neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, began to explain to me that concept of a mitzvah, meaning a “good deed.”  Apparently, I was about to perform a very important mitzvah.  (20)

Following this, Misha describes the odd but non-threatening experience  of drinking and singing that precedes the circumcision.  They want him to feel “at home” and this, apparently, fosters this feeling:

“Now do you feel at home?” the happy Hasids shouted at me as I swigged from the plastic cup and chased the drink with a sour pickle.  “A tsimis-tov, a humus tov,” they sang, the men branching their arms and kicking up their feet, their remarkably blue eyes drunkenly ablaze from behind their black getups.  (21)

All of this goes awry when Misha suggests that he pay them “seventy dollars” and that they skip the operation:

Please tell my papa I got cut already. He never look down there anymore, because now I am so fat. (21)

They didn’t “buy” his suggestion and they turn it into “their mitzvah”: “This is a mitzvah for us.”  Misha hears the words “redeeming the captive” from them (which is apparently said by them since the Hasidim see him as a “captive of the Soviet Union).  But, in truth, he now sees himself as a “captive.”  In other words, Misha represents himself, at this point, as losing control and being violently taken in by the Hasidim.  It is their mitzvah, not his.  He is their captive.  This is when the familiar aspects of Jewishness because unfamiliar and threatening.

Misha is then pushed into a hospital for the operation and is clearly angry.  He feels duped and in his drunken anger at this realization, he screams out to his father for help: “Papa, make them stop! I cried in Russian”(23).

And when he awakes from the operation, he sees, in horror, his penis and describes it as a “crushed purple bug”:

When I woke up, the men in black hats were praying over me, and I could feel nothing below the carefully tucked folds of flesh that formed my waistline.  I raised my head.  I was dressed in a green hospital gown, a round hole cut in its lower region, and there, between the soft pillows of my thighs, a crushed purple bug lay motionless, its chitinous shell oozing fluids, the skin-rendering pain of its demise held at bay by anesthesia.  (23)

Given this description and the fact that he describes this as a form of capture and imposition, the Hasidm’s blessings following the operation (“mazel tov and tsimmus tov and hey, hey, Yisroel”) are uncanny.  Following these now uncanny words, he writes:

The infection set in that night. (23)

Reading this, I cannot help but see this as an allusion to his Jewishness and not just his circumcision.  Following this operation, Misha sees his Jewishness as diseased (an anti-Semitic connotation that Sander Gilman – and many other scholars – has documented in many of his scholarly studies of 19th and 20th century depictions of Jewishness in Europe).

Although Misha’s feeling of being duped by his “co-religionists” calls for identification, I reject this call.  It’s a blindspot which, without a doubt, gives substance to Freud’s claim that circumcision is a substation for castration.  This passage makes it clear to me that Misha sees himself as a schlemiel-who-agreed-to-circumcision-out-of-a-blind-love-for-his-father.  His maturity consists in realizing that he was duped not just by this love but by Judaism.  And this comes through a description that is un-canny.

The greatness of fiction is to be found that, like much else in experience, we are free to reject the descriptions and judgments of the narrator or characters in a novel.  To simply identify with a character would be a mistake.  In this case, it would lead to reading Judaism as diseased and this, I believe, is set up by Misha’s description of the circumcision – a description that starts with familiarity and being-at-home and ends with horror.

“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.

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

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In Hebrew the word for circumcision is “brit.”  Brit is the same word used for “the covenant” between God and Man.   In fact, the first covenant between God and Man mentioned in the Torah is between Abraham and God.  When Abraham, at his late age in life, circumcises himself, God makes a covenant with him which becomes the foundation for all covenants in the Torah.  In fact, it is associated with the preservation of the Jewish people:

This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and thy descendants after thee, every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised on the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations (Genesis 17:10-12).

Like Abraham, Gary Steyngart’s main character Misha (from his second novel, Absurdistan) is also circumcised at a late age.  But while Abraham would refer back to his circumcision as the site of his greatest promise and the greatest joy, Misha looks at it as the source of his greatest suffering.  It is not his entry into the covenant so much as the sign of his mutilated masculinity (which really isn’t mutilated), his father’s mad obsession with Judaism, his hatred of Hasidim, and his membership in “pre-historic” tradition that he literally finds primitive in contrast to his more modern “multicultural” experiences.

Misha likens his circumcision to a wounded penis.  Although he fulfilled his father’s request by having a circumcision, he is very resentful. But instead of aiming this resentment at his father, he levels it on Hasidim and on Jewishness.  When he negatively describes his penis, his Jewishness is also being trashed.  It’s a world he would like to leave behind.  He’s more interested in living in New York with Rouenna, his Black-Latino lover who left him for someone else.  His love for her and New York is greater than his love of Judaism because, quite simply, he finds little to love in it (besides his father’s love for it).  The source of this problem, I am arguing, is his circumcision.

However, in an interview with Phawker.com Gary Shteyngart, when asked “Why did you decide to use the really kind of horrifying circumcision scene?” says that its not his circumcision that is the problem: it was Misha’s relationship with his father.  Misha’s father – and his “demand” that he be circumcises – is a part of what he calls his “awful” “ethnic circumstances”

The book does take a kind of skeptical attitude towards religion, Judaism, Christianity and even Islam sometimes comes in. The idea of the father wants this; the son doesn’t want this. This is the father imposing his will on the son and the results are not good. In some ways, it’s more about the relationship between the father and the son than it is about the actual act. In the scene leading up to it, is a long discussion between the father and the son about why he has to do this. In a way, a lot of the characters in this book are trapped in ethnic and religious circumstances that they didn’t call for. What’s so interesting about going around the world is that people are just trapped in these awful circumstances.

However, his relationship to these “awful” circumstances not only informs his father’s insistence on Jewishness; it also influences his negative description of the circumcision and, more importantly, his belief that he became a “holy fool” (a schlemiel) as a result of his first American experience of forced circumcision.  In other words, he had “been had” (as he says in the prologue) because he loves “too much” AND because of his “awful circumstances.”  And this makes him the holy-fool-who-agreed-to-a-circumcision.

In the second section chapter entitled “Dedications,” Misha likens himself to Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot:

Like the prince, I am something of a holy fool.  I am an innocent surrounded by schemers. I am a puppy deposited it a den of wolves…Like Prince Myshkin I am not perfect. (15)

However, when he looks more deeply into “how” he became such a holy fool, we readers learn that this cause and the life are so entirely different from Prince Myskin since Prince Myshkin wasn’t circumcized at a late age.  And while Prince Myshkin is a “holy fool,” Misha is something else:

How did I become such a holy fool? The answer lies rooted in my first American experience. (15)

His first American experience was the circumcision.  And this experience was set up by his father: he decided, in 1990, that: “his only child should study to become a normal prosperous American at Accidental College.” But before he went to the college, he would first have to get circumcised.

The description of what prefaced this decision is troubling.  And this casts a curious shadow over the circumcision.   Misha notes how, after his mother had died, he and his father were living together in a “tight, humid apartment in Lenningrad’s southern suburbs.”  And both were becoming something “other” : “neither of us could understand what the other was becoming.”

After writing this, we see what he has become: his penis or “khui.”  He tells us that “one day” when he was “masturbating furiously on the sofa, my legs splayed apart so I looked like an overweight flounder…Papa stumbled in upon me.”   His father tells him to “put it away” and has a “man-to-man” talk with him about his journey to America and the new life he will live:

“Mishka,” my papa said, “you’ll soon be in America, studying interesting subjects, sleeping with local Jewish girls, and enjoying the life of the young”(16).

After sharing a few deep moments with each other, the father asks that Misha do one thing for him.  Misha thinks he means losing weight, but it is something else, something more Jewish:

“Idiot,” Papa said…”You’ll never be an American.  You’ll always be a Jew.  How can you forget who you are?  You haven’t even left yet. Jew, Jew, Jew.”(17)

These last words have the ring of anger to them.  And they imply that his father doesn’t want his son to assimilate.  He wants his son to always think of himself as a Jew.  And to guarantee this, he gives him the “other reason” why “you’re going to America”(17):

“Once you land in New York, go to this address. Some Hasids will meet you there, and they will circumcise you”(17).

At this point, Misha flies into horrific reflections on what will happen to his penis (Khui).  In his mind, he had now developed a big penis and would no longer be picked on by his classmates who considered him a Jew-with-a-small-penis:

The pain was clouding my eyes, the pain of having the best part of me touched and handled and peeled like an orange.  Since becoming gigantic, I had gotten used to a kind of physical inviolability….No one dared touch me now.  Or wanted to touch me, for that matter.  “I’m eighteen years old,” I said.  “My khui will hurt terribly if they cut it now.  And I like my foreskin.  It flaps”(18).

But in the end, he bends to his father’s greatest desire for him.  He realizes that his father is no longer ashamed of being a Jew: he is a Baal Teshuva of sorts.  And Misha’s penis is the sacrifice, so to speak.

At the time, he forgets his terror because his love for his father is too great.  This love is wrapped up in several physical aspects of his father:

Some wags say that men spend their entire lives trying to return to their mother’s womb, but I am not one of those men.  The trickle of Papa’s deep vodka breath against my neck, the hairy obstinate arms pressing me into his carpet-thick chest, the animal smells of survival and decay – this is my womb.  (18)

In other words, when he is near his father he becomes like a child.   And this is what makes him a holy fool of sorts (almost like Abraham). The only question in his mind is “what is a Hasid?”

They are the one’s his father is giving his son over to; they are the gatekeepers of America.  Before Misha can experience America, he must have a Jewish experience: circumcision.  As I will show in the next blog, this is the experience that he must overcome if he is to be his own person.   Unlike Abraham, the circumcision is something he only does for his father and will be something he would rather leave behind.  It brings him more shame than good.   This revised – fictional -reading of circumcision is what I call “circumscription.”

To be continued….

“Russians Are Just a Bunch of Niggaz” – Introducing Multiculturalism to Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

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Every Gary Shteyngart novel addresses multiculturalism.   And they do so by way of articulating the complex relationships of the main characters – who are all Jewish-Russian-Americans – to Eastern Europeans, Latino-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and Non-Jewish-Americans.  To be sure, Shteyngart portrays his main characters as former exchange-students who majored in “multiculturalism” in a mid-western college by the name of “Accidental College.”   In the first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, we are introduced to Vladmir, a twenty-five year old character whose post-college work is to help settle new Immigrants into the American experience.  He works at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society.

But what is most interesting about the novel is not to be found in the relationships Vladmir finds as the Absorption Society, so much as the relationships he forges when, in the face of a deal gone wrong, he flees America for Eastern Europe.  There he meets up with fellow Russians and Eastern Europeans and plots to rip off young-rebellious-American-students.  These relationships teach us how he navigates between one cultural identity and the other.  And this, more than anything, makes for one of the greatest novelties of Shteyngart’s fiction.    It shows us at least one possible way in which a Jewish-Russian-American-Immigrant can live in a growing multicultural, globalized, and Americanized society. This kind of fiction provides readers with an opportunity to, as the philosopher Richard Rorty might say, become more cosmopolitan and less xenophobic.  But Shteyngart’s fiction also shows us “how” prescient and rich this post-nationalist experience is or can be.  And it does this by way of a multi-cultured-schlemiel.

In contrast to The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, which focuses mainly on relationships between the main character, white-Americans, and Eastern Europeans, Absurdistan introduces a new relationship: namely, the relationship of the main character with an African-Latino-American- character named Rouenna.  The novel also introduces, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, an incorporation of rap and African-American culture into the schlemiel’s persona.     In the last entry I outlined how Misha, the main-character, and Alyosha-Bob, his sidekick, composed a rap at party at St. Petersburg and how, in response to the rap, they were chastised by Russians who saw this rapping as uncomely.  Misha and Alyosha-Bob are called out on being the “odd one’s out” (schlemiels in a negative sense); but instead of dealing with the situation, Misha calls his psychiatrist in New York, and, when he doesn’t reach him, he does what is most natural to him: he eats.  And this inability to “man-up,” informs, in at least one aspect, his comical Jewish-Russian-American identity.

But the cultural identification informs his identity as a multi-cultural-schlemiel.  To be sure, Misha’s character has all the makings of a “black-Jew.”   (In using this term, I’m playing on the motif that we find in the film The Hebrew Hammer (2003) – a movie that was out there for three years before Shteyngart’s novel was published. The film is based on a Jewish parody of the Blaxploitation genre; I hope to talk on this at greater length in the near future.)

He is large, loves rap, and he has an African-Latino-American girlfriend who lives in NYC, and his nickname is “snack daddy.”   (The name and character remind me of Rappers like the Notorious B.I.G.)

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And in my blog-entry on the prologue, I pointed out how he yearns to be back in NYC with her rather than Absurdistan (somewhere in Eastern Europe) with the “Mountain Jews.”

We meet Misha’s African-Latino-American girlfriend Rouenna in the first chapter.  And we meet her by way of a conversation; namely, between Lyuba – Misha’s young step-mother (who he sleeps with, after his father dies) – and Rouenna.

The differences between their way of speaking and thinking show us a cultural gap and how Shteyngart navigates it by way of a multicultural narrational style.  To begin with, Shteyngart casts Lyuba and her first attempts to speaks to Rouenna about an “orange towel” that she “thinks” is ugly:

She was having trouble with her tenses: “I think, I thought…I think, I thought…” I sink, I sought…I sink, I sought…(11)

In response, Rounna says:   “Damn, sugar…you’re hard-core.” But Lyuba doesn’t know this word and asks: “What it is ‘harcourt’?”  To this, Rouenna, instead of correcting her grammar, tells Lyuba that she is “hard-core” in her treatment of her housekeepers:

“Talking shit about servants.  Like they got dirty hands and all.” 

Lyuba retorts by saying that, before she met Misha’s father she too was “unfortunate.”  Misha gives more details to Rouenna about this and Rouenna, in response, says: “Is that right, sister?”  Lyuba then opens her arms and hugs Rouenna while Misha says that its “just an African-American expression.”  But then Rouenna adds yet another:

“Cause, as far as I can tell, Russians are just a bunch of niggaz”(11)

Lyuba – and Alyosha-Bob’s Russian girlfriend, Svetlana, who is also present – ask Rouenna and Misha what this means, and Rouenna says it is a “compliment.”  But neither of them get what this means and they get offended.  Rouenna tries to relax them by explaining:

All I’m saying is, you know…your men don’t got no jobs, everyone’s always doing drive-bys whenever they got beefs, the childrens got asthma, and y’all live in public housing.  (12)

This only leads to more confusion which is compounded when Rouenna calls them OG’s (Original Gangsters).  And this leads Svetlana to chastise Alyosha-Bob:

“It’s all your fault, she seethed in Russian, “With all your stupid rapping.  With that idiot ghetto tech.  No wonder people treat us like we’re animals”(12).

She then tells Alyosha-Bob that if he wants to be Russian – he is an American Jew – he will have to “think of what kind of image you want to project.”  And that this kind of “talk” doesn’t work to support the image that Russians need to project of themselves.

Since Svetlana and Alyosha-Bob are saying all this in Russian, Rouenna gets upset and tells them to “speak English already.”  But right about when this is about to spring into a fight, the scene is interrupted by an announcement that the police are coming.

I find this interruption telling because it situates a theme that Misha (aka “snack daddy”) will be dealing with throughout the novel; namely, his relationship (and not just Alyosha-Bob’s) with Rouenna’s African-Latino-American culture.  To be sure, her way of life and way of speaking are something he really respects and even emulates as a Russian-American-Jew.

This is all brought to the fore by what happens late in the novel when we see a Rouenna who goes to college, meets up with another character named “Shteynfarb” (who teaches at Hunter College and who, we learn, is a fellow Russian-American, was friends with Misha in “Accidental College,” and shared a “multiculturalism” major) and loses her slang. As this happens, things change dramatically and with it Misha’s Multicultural-Schlemiel-identity.

But for now she speaks in slang saying that “Russians are just a bunch of niggaz.”   And this kind of talk – though shunned by Svetlana – nurtures Misha’s image of the ideal-American identity, which informs his own Jewish-American identity (at least at the outset).  I hope to come back to this in a future blog entry since Shteyngart’s translation of her language, culture, and relationship to Misha’s Russian-Jewish-American identity into fiction shows us how Shteyngart, in this novel, negotiates Jewish-multicultural-identity vis-à-vis the schlemiel.

Shut yo mouf! Two Schlemiel-Rappers And A Microphone in Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

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Although I am not a wealthy 30 year-old overweight-Russia-Jew who is stuck in Russia and looks to get back to NYC,  I am very drawn to the antics, body, and blindspots of Gary Shteyngart’s Misha character in his novel Absurdistan. His nomadic-translations of American culture into his own way of life are endearing: they bring me – strangely enough – close to a similar comic experience I have had as an American-Jew.  My translations, though different, oddly enough find resonance in someone who is much different from me and where I am located: a Russian Jew who lives in the wake of a post-communist culture and during the upsurge of globalization and urban decay.  What I like most is that this translation is fictional and it is done in jest.  But this format works wonderfully to allow the reader to come into deep questions concerning the meaning of history and Jewish identity.

The novelty of  the Misha character hit me when, in the first chapter entitled “The Night in Question,” he describes a party he was at the night his father was killed.   His description of this evening and the party (in a comic Russian-American dialect) are witty and endearing.  But unlike poor schlemiels – who are down on their luck and are low on cash – this schlemiel is affluent:

On the night of June 15 in the catastrophic year 2001, I was getting plenty of respect from my friends in a restaurant called the Home of the Russian Fisherman on Krestovsky Island, one of the verdant islands caught in the delta of the Neva River…we are standing around the Spawning Salmon pontoon, yelling at our servants, drinking down carafes of green California Riesling, our Nokia mobliniki ringing with social urgency that comes only when the White Nights strangle the nighttime, when the inhabitants of our ruined city are kept permanently awake by the pink afterglow of the northern sun.  (4)

This affluence is situated in a decaying post-Communist culture (“our ruined city”).   For this reason, it is meaningless.  He becomes depressed when he realizes that he is the next generation.  And, like many of the people his age, he cannot and doesn’t want to relive the past and the dreams of his communist parents and culture.  His communist training, since youth, is now meaningless.  And he counts himself, along with all his friends, as failures:

Let me tell you something: without good friends, you might as well drown yourself in Russia.  After  decades of listening to the familial agitprop of our parents (“We will die for you! they sing), after surviving the criminal closeness of the Russian family…after the crass socialization foisted jupon us by our teachers and factory directors….all that’s left is that toast between two failed friends in some stinking outdoor beer kiosk.  (4)

He tells us that he is a “modest person” and doesn’t have many friends.  Of his friends, he notes one who is very close to him (a fellow schlemiel). His other failed friend is named Alyosha- Bob.  Like him, he is Jewish; and, like Misha, he is an odd Jew.  But he is not a Russian-Jew; rather, he is an American Jew who he met at “Accidental College”:

My best buddy in Russia is a former American I like to call Alyosha-Bob.  Born Robert Liptshitz in the northern reaches of New York State, this bald eagle (not a single hair on his dome by age twenty five) flew to St. Lenninsburg eight years ago and was transformed…into a successful Russian biznesman named Alyosha, the own of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable import-export business.  (5)

Alyosha’s face is odd (“pinched” with a “reddish goatee”).   Misha tells us that a “skinehead on the metro once described him as a gnussiy zhid, or a ‘vile looking Yid.”  His choice of terms to describe Alyosha tells us that Misha’s Jewish identity – in part – is connected to how his body is seen by anti-Semites.  This adds to what I noted yesterday regarding his own Jewish identity, which is connected to his body and even his weight. To be sure, he sees his body and Alyosha as sharing a similar kind of schlemiel-body.

But a schlemiel is not a schlemiel by virtue of his/her body; a schlemiel is a schlemiel also by virtue of what he or she does and how she does it.  For these schlemiels, rap is part-and-parcel of their schlemiel character and when done in this Russian post-communist context it comes across in an odd way.

After describing Alyosha Bob in terms of his schlemiel-body, Misha turns toward their “interesting hobby,” which they first engaged in while in university:

We think of ourselves as the Gentlemen Who Like to Rap.  Our oeuvre stretches from the old-school jams of Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Public Enemy to the sensuous rhythms of ghetto tech, a hybrid of Miami bass. (5).

(In this clip, notice how Jews are referred to and the odd confluence an anti-Semitic comment in this rap creates – vis-a-vis – this novel and Misha’s Jewish-identifications with African-American rap-music and culture.)

Using the rhetorical register of an American detective or a policeman (who would be interested in what happened the night his father was killed), Misha introduces the rap he and Alyosha made up.  “On the night in question, I got the action started with a Detroit ditty I enjoy on summer days.”  Misha begins:

Aw shit,

Heah I come

Shut yo mouf

And bite yo tongue.

And Alyosha-Bob adds the rejoinder:

Aw, girl,

You think you bad?

Let me see you

Bounce dat ass.

At the end of this rap, Misha notes that “some idiot” interrupts them and asks them “why they are singing like African exchange students?  You both look so cultured?”  Misha’s translation of these questions to the reader is telling because it shows he identifies anti-Semitism – directed against the Jewish body – with racism:

In other words, like vile-looking Yids. 

In Russia, the Jews are the blacks.  And Misha retorts by saying that if the Russian author Pushkin were around he would be doing rap.  The “idiot” calls Misha and Alyosha “children” and this quip hits Misha hard:

Children? Was he talking about us?  What would an Ice Cube or an Ice T do in this situation? (7)

But instead of taking a stand – in real life (or even in rap) – like these African-American rappers, Misha calls his “Park Avenue analyst, Dr. Levine” for help:

To tell him once again that I had been insulted and injured, once again I had been undermined by a fellow Russian.  (7)

In other words, let me translate: “I (Misha) am a schlemiel; I may tell you to “Shut yo mouf” but I have to “shut my mouf” because I’m too weak to stand up to you; however, I can (and will) speak to my analyst because I am wounded.”   But he comes back to reality when, in comic fashion, he eats some food; namely, sturgeon.  When he eats it, he tells us that he rocks back and forth “as if” he’s in prayer:  “My body fell into a rocking motion like the religious people when they’re deep in the thrall of their god”(8).  This eating, it seems, comes to his rescue when he fails.  In fact, there are lots of ways he can avoid dealing with this negative accusation against him, his comic actions, and, apparently, his Jewish body.

True, Misha feels like he is a man-child and the comment that he is a “child” and not a man (or a real rapper) seems to wound this wealthy, overweight, schlemiel.  And, ultimately, though he does manage to distract himself, he does, at the very least, come to the realization that he must leave his history and the Russian people:

I am not enamored of such people, I must say.  How is it possible to live outside history?  Who can claim immunity to it by dint of beauty and breeding?

He realizes that “you can’t ignore history altogether.”  And this history includes Russian history and Jewish history.  All of these meditations come to him in the wake of this insult directed at him by virtue of his rap with Alyosha-Bob.

But instead of attacking them with words or fists, he wants to understand who he is, who they are, and how he must deal with these different histories.  What he doesn’t understand, however, is how his reading of his body relates to this. And this, it seems, is one of his main blindspots at the outset of the novel.  Another blindspot in his identity is his relationship with his father who, that evening, he discovers was killed.  He learns of this in them midst of this odd party where he is “wounded” and finds solace in his psychiatrist and food.   With all his eating and talking, Misha, though wounded, can’t seem to shut his “mouf.”

And neither can the Jewish-rapper from Brooklyn otherwise known as Necro….

In the next blog, I will discuss how Misha’s Jewish khui (penis) – and his-late-in-life-circumcision – as well as his African-American girlfriend Rouenna – enters into this schlemiel-self-image.     

By Way of Bodily Introduction: The Jewish-Body in Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan – Take 1

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In an essay called “The Mouse than Never Roars: Jewish Masculinity in American Television,” Maurice Berger uses Jack Benny as one of a few illustrations of how the Jewish body appeared in the American public eye.  Calling him a schlemiel, Berger notes that Benny’s body and gestures appear effeminate and that Jews, initially, played on these stereotypes of the Jewish body to gain public attention.  However, as Berger notes, this changes over time as we see more and more masculine Jewish men on TV in the 60s and 70s.   The images Berger uses to illustrate these changes show us, on the one hand, a thin Jack Benny; and, on the other, more muscular and weighty characters in a variety of shows right up to the 1990s.  But this visual-genealogy of Jewish body images is by no means linear or definitive.  The Jewish body – in all its shapes and sizes – remains.

To be sure, we see many Jewish bodies in film and TV – over the last few decades – that are not masculine; such as the bodies of Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, and Larry David (to name only a few Jews who have less-masculine kinds of Jewish bodies in film).  And most of these bodies are thin.  They are not overweight. And if we look back, we can also find heavy schlemiel characters that differ greatly from the thin Jack Benny; for instance, schlemiels portrayed by Zero Mostel.

And lately we have seen something of a physical turn with characters like John Goodman, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill.  These characters show us that schlemiels need not be thin; they can also be overweight or heavy.   To be sure, their weight makes them more charming.  And, as we see with many schlemiels (whether in literature, film, or television), his/her charm has to do with the schlemiel’s body, its gestures, and its demeanor.

As a side note, I find many of the Cartoonish images of Robert Crumb employ this bodily charm.  Indeed, Crumb is fascinated with shapely people.  And while many of these images have erotic connotation, many others have a comic and sometimes a Jewish connotation.  One could plausibly argue that this weight often denotes, for Crumb, a shapely schlemiel as in this piece from his comic, The Snoid.

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In designing the main character for Absurdistan, it seems Shteyngart was acutely aware of this charm.  We see this in the opening lines of the first chapter where Misha, the main character, introduces himself:

I am Misha Borisovich Vainberg, age thirty, a grossly overweight man with small, deeply blue set eyes, a pretty, a pretty Jewish beak that brings to mind the most distinguished breed of parrot, and lips so delicate you would want to wipe them with the naked back of your hand. (3)

Here we see the Jewish body foregrounded.  We also see it in Shteyngart’s first novel.  But over there the focus is more on the main character’s “Jewish” hips and his Jewish “walk” (both pointed out by the main character’s Russian mother).  Here it is the nose (the “Jewish beak”); but in addition to this Misha also sees himself in terms of his weight.  To be sure, his weight is a topic of interest throughout the novel and, in Misha’s eyes, it (and not simply his Jewish features) makes him “the odd one out.”

But there is more to the story. His weight should also be read against the background of his affluence.  To be sure, Misha comes from a very wealthy family and his weight may be an expression of his wealth.  And how we view this wealth, his approach to himself, and to the world he lives – which could be unduly harsh – should be counterbalanced by his weight.  Indeed, his weight – and not his nose – brings out the schlemiel’s charm; and because of this, his weight (and his attitude toward it) becomes one of the main signs of his schlemielkeit. Reading the text against his body can yield some interesting insights.

First of all, in yesterday’s blog entry I pointed out how Misha – in the Prologue – sees Absurdistan as a book about “too much love” and about “being had.”  Read against his representations of his body – in the first chapter – these passages become more endearing.  He is a person who, we can imagine, may be self-conscious by virtue of his weight; given this supposition, his love and bad luck take on another shade. In addition, because Misha’s Jewishness is an issue in the Prologue, we can now see that his Jewishness is also altered by virtue of his weight.

To be sure, there are many folkloric images of heavy people.  They are at the core of this or that folk culture: they often signify joviality and life itself. In the prologue, he notes how he is “writing from” the land of “Mountain Jews” and he conjures up folk images by saying that the community is “pre-historic” (he even likens the community to a dinosaur – a large creature – and calls it, playing on the Jewish name, Haim and the word Heim in Yiddish (which means home), a Haimosaurus).

In a folkloric sense, this village full of diverse kinds of people who surround him and look to help him.  In fact, in a folkloric sense, he comically notes that they are “too hospitable.”  And when we realize that he is a heavy person (from the beginning of the first chapter) who is in need of help, which we see at the outset of the novel (the prologue), Misha’s schlemiel character takes on folkloric proportions. However, the first chapter (as opposed to the Prologue) is not located in a folkloric space; it’s located in the post-modern, post-communist, and globalized space of St. Petersburg.  And after making his “bodily” introduction, we are introduced to this post-city (which has nothing pre-historic or folkloric about it at all):

By the year 2001, our St. Lennisburg has taken on the appearance of a phantasmagoric third-world city, our neoclassical buildings sinking into the crap-choked canals, bizarre peasant huts fashioned out of corrugated metal and…worst of all, our intelligent, depressive citizenry has been replaced by a new race of mutants dressed in studied imitation of the West, young women in Lycra…men in fake black Calvin Klein jeans hanging limply around their caved-in asses. (3)

As you can see, this is not the world of folklore that Misha is describing.  And his way of speaking demonstrates – in contrast to much of the prologue – that he is an intelligent, observant person.  However, as the introduction goes on, we notice that his intelligence is also tainted by affluence and the very culture he can’t stand:

The good news is that when you’re an incorrigible fatso like me – 325 points at last count – and the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia – all of St. Lenninsburg rushes to service you….You are blessed with the rarest treasure to be found in this mineral-rich land.  You are blessed with respect. (3)

In other words, he has a love/hate relationship with the city he was raised in.  He is spoiled by it and his schlemielkeit may also have to do with his affluence.  By being served like a prince and gaining weight, he becomes foolish.  However, at the same time, we see from the Prologue that his weight also has a folklorish aspect (which can be situated in an odd, Jewish context).    The contrast between these two spaces is brought about by way of how his body is situated.    His body seems to fit into both spaces, but, as I have shown, its meaning differs considerably. As I continue reflecting on the novel, I will –from time to time – come back to his (Jewish) body and its relation to his schlemielkeit.   The novelty of this reflection is that it looks to show how important the body and its odd relationship to the world are to schlemiel comedy in general and to this novel in particular.