Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part IV

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One of the key features of the schlemiel, one we see brought out in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” is the fact that the schlemiel – regardless of the situation – doesn’t give up on trusting people. Even if there is reason to judge someone in a negative manner, they overlook or find an excuse to judge it favorably. Although the reader may frown upon the desire to trust the stranger, the fact of the matter is that it is one of the most noteworthy qualities of the schlemiel. And though the schlemiel comically misses the truth of the matter in this or that story, the failure of others to be honest with the schlemiel should trouble us. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” teaches us this lesson. But it does so by drawing on a character who was born in Europe (and who Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi associates with the “virtual ghetto” created by American intellectuals and writers such as Irving Howe, Leslie Feidler, Saul Bellow, and I.B. Singer) . In contrast, and as I have been showing, Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, makes the schlemiel more realistic…and American.   He also shows us how an American schlemiel can be a secular saint, instead of what we often see the schlemiel portrayed as today: as a bro, a dude, a poor loser, or a caricature.

(Indeed, Hollywood does not and should not hold the rights over the meaning and life of the American schlemiel.)

As we have seen over the last three blog entries, Bober trusts Frank. Frank has good intentions but his actions contradict them. He continues to steal although he knows it is wrong. And, to be sure, as the story goes on we learn that he was one of the people who robbed and beat up Bober. For this reason, we can see that he becomes Bober’s “assistant” because he has a conscience. He feels guilty.   And over time, he makes more and more efforts to make things right; but this doesn’t keep him from stealing.

As a schlemiel, Bober doesn’t simply see Frank as a poor stranger in need of a job. He sees him as a person who has turned himself around (in the Hebrew and Yiddish this would be called “teshuva”).   But as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Karp – one of three Jews in Bober’s neighborhood and who also happens to have a business and a daughter he wants to marry off – tells Bober that all of the things he believed about Frank and the success of the store were wrong. Moreover, he deals the crushing blow when he tells Bober that new business owners are taking over a store than will, most likely, run out of business.

Depressed and confused about Frank, Bober goes to bed, has a tormented sleep, but wakes up with many thoughts about Frank. Instead of thinking about how much a fool he was for thinking that Frank was the reason for success, Bober ends up putting Frank in a favorable light. What Malamud has done for us, in this instance, is to provide us with a means of accessing the thoughts of an American schlemiel. But, as I mentioned above, these thoughts are not those of a caricatured schlemiel or a schlemiel who is a poor loser so much as an American schlemiel who is, as Edith Wyschogrod would say, a “sample” of a saint’s “carnal generality.” In these instances, we see Bober rethink what Karp had told him:

As for what he would do with Frank, after long pondering of the situation, thinking how the clerk had acted concerning their increase in business – as if he alone had created their better times – Morris at length decided that Frank had not as he had assumed when Karp told him the news – tried to trick him into believing that he was responsible.   The grocer supposed that the clerk, like himself, was probably ignorant of the true reason of their change of luck. (156)

The narrator tops it off by telling us that “Morris felt” that Frank didn’t know and muses that perhaps he did this “because he wanted to believe that he (Frank) was their benefactor”(156). And “maybe that was why he had been too blind to see what he had seen, too deaf too hear what he had heard. It was possible”(156). In other words, the narrator is trying to figure out, by way of thinking like a schlemiel, why Morris overlooked these things about Frank. And this musing about how this was possible tells us a lot. It tells us that a schlemiel, of Bober’s saintly type and of Gimpel’s type, wants to believe in the others goodness. Moreover, they “feel” before they think; not the other way around. Here, in this moment, we have such a situation where Bober is trying to think about Frank after hearing negative things from Karp; nonetheless, we can see that even though he may see why he is blind, he continues to stay that way be judging Frank favorably.

Nonetheless, Bober is weak and realizes that the store will have to be sold now that there is new competition in the neighborhood. Following this musing, which all happens in the morning, before opening the store, Frank comes down to see that Bober is suffering and confused: “When Frank came down he at once noticed that the grocer was not himself”(157). Frank, to be sure, has his own moral problems. But the narrator tells us that what troubles him most is what Bober’s daughter, Helen, told him; namely, that he must “discipline himself”(157).

While Bober is in the dumps, Frank “makes his mind up,” based on what Helen told him about disciplining himself, that he would “return, bit by bit until all paid up, the hundred and forty-odd bucks he had filched from Morris in the months he had worked for him”(157). Frank wants to tell Bober, for the first time (!), that he stole money from him and that he was going to pay every dime of it back. But when he sees Bober’s suffering face, he “felt it was useless”(157).

Frank, for the first time, contemplates what it would be like to confess the truth to Bober, a Jew. And this troubles him, deeply. An anti-Semitic thought crosses his mind, but this turns into other thoughts that tap into his conscience:

But when he pictured himself confessing, the Jew listening with a fat ear, he could not stand the thought of it Why should he make more trouble for himself than he could now handle, and end by defeating his purpose to fix things up and have a better life? That past was the past and the hell with it. (158)

Taking this as a point of reflection, the narrator, in the most judicious manner, suggests that Frank may have been a “victim” of anti-Semitic thief who cajoled him into doing it while, at the same time, noting that he did rob Bober and must make amends. He did the deed and must pay the price, but the narrator seems to suggest that he can get away with not saying anything while…secretly paying Bober back:

He had unwittingly taken part in a holdup, but he was, like Morris, more of a victim of Ward Minogue. If alone, he wouldn’t have done it. That didn’t excuse him that he did, but at least showed his true feelings. So what was their to confess if the whole things had been sort of an accident? Let bygones be gone. He had no control over his past – could only shine it up here and there and shut up as to the rest. From now on he would keep his mind on tomorrow…He would change and live in a worthwhile way.   (158)

What’s fascinating about this reflection is the fact that, as far as Judaism goes, teshuva (repentance) requires that if a Jew does something wrong they should admit the wrong to the person wronged and ask for forgiveness. Here we see that Frank can’t do that. It is too much for him. He can pay back what he stole, but he can’t face Bober and tell the truth.

Nonetheless, Bober still trusts Frank (or rather, as the narrator suggests, wants to trust Frank) and the door is still open. The schlemiel leaves open the door for teshuva. The question is whether Frank can fully (not partially) follow through.

To be continued……

Becoming-Dog: The Old Beggar, the Miser, and the Return of the Schlemiel as a Dog

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In stories like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son, or I.L. Peretz’s “Bontshe Shvayg,” we don’t always see the positive effect the schlemiel has on people around him.  Or, if we do, that effect is usually minimal. And that is the point: the fact that people don’t change spurs the reader to be disappointed with the society that laughs at the schlemiel.  On the other hand, Peretz’s schlemiel spurs people to realize that they must change their priorities.  Regardless, we don’t often see the effect of the schlemiels magic in Yiddish literature.  However, in Hasidic literature we, from time to time, do.   I would include Meir Abehsera’s parable of the schlemiel in this kind of literature.  However, I would call it, instead, a “neo-Hasidic” kind of literature since it reflects not just on the schlemiel’s impact on people but it reflects on it within the text.  To be sure, the inclusion of philosophical reflection in the midst of the text is a modern practice.  We see it in all of the great modern and postmodern writers such as Lawrence Stern, Hermann Broch, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, etc.  Abehsera includes such reflection to foreground the relationship of the writer to the schlemiel.  And at the end of his parable, he points out what real-life experience spurred him to create and reflect on this relationship.  Abehsera adds the “old beggar” to this relationship.   To be sure, at the end of the parable the beggar – in many senses – stands between the writer and the schlemiel.  Abehsera shows how, of the two, the schlemiel is greater.  The schlemiel can transform others around him in ways that the beggar cannot.   And, in the end, the schlemiel aids the beggar and, in effect, helps the poor and the needy.   He does this by way of transforming himself and becoming-animal.

In the last blog entry, I pointed out how the schlemiel lay dormant in the old beggar and  how the old beggar is reminded of this by way of a dream.  The dream is spurred by the old beggar’s experience of a circus as he begged for money.  As I noted in the last entry, the old beggar meets another old beggar in the dream who tells him about history of the circus and reminds him of the power of joy and laughter – which is at the schlemiel’s core.    The main point of this reminder was to inspire the beggar to go into the world and transform it not so much as a beggar than as a schlemiel.  To do this, he not only has to encounter one kind of joy with another; he also has to sweeten bitterness with joy.   And this last task is the hardest task of all for the schlemiel.

In the last part of the parable, the old beggar awakes from his dream and goes into the world.  But instead of going into the circus, he emerges into a world of angry and solemn people.  If they give anything to him, they “throw” it at him.  The narrator, who seems to have merged with the old beggar, takes on a weary tone and muses on the nature of judgment.  He points out that these people don’t “smell” good.  As I pointed out earlier, the Jewish tradition associates smell with judgment.  And it is the Messiah who it is said, will have the power to smell someone and judge them.  Abehsera plays on this and notes that though the beggar is not the Messiah he, nonetheless, knows what the smell of anger and bitterness is from his own life and experiences.

Using his sense of smell, so to speak, the beggar is able to determine how much a person should give if he/she is to be redeemed.  The implementation of this judgment apparently does wonder.  The narrator notes how “astonishing” it is “how a mere monetary transaction can acquaint the contributor with the reality of redemption.”

The narrator tells us that the old beggar does extremely well and brings home a lot of change.  He helps people to narrowly “avert death” by way of charity and this inspires him to take on the toughest challenge; namely, a miser who never gives money to anyone.

The encounter between the miser and old beggar is telling.  To be sure, the old beggar can do nothing to prompt the miser to give.  The miser is so bothered by the old beggar that he accuses him of “stealing” all of the money he has acquired through begging.   He then proceeds to kick him out of his home.

The old beggar’s response to the miser, strangely enough, transforms him into a schlemiel or rather a playful dog:

As the man lets loose a stream of obscenities, the beggar steps back and begins mimicking his mad behavior, trembling wildly, then falling on all fours, yelping and growling and circling the man who thinks he is having delusions upon seeing the beggar transform into a dog!  The dog barks, and the man panics and kicks it in the head; but the animal grabs the man’s bathrobe and pulls so hard that the miser tumbles, head over heels, crashing to the ground.  (130)

This transformation of the beggar into a dog-schlemiel is fascinating and, as far as I know, has no precedent in schlemiel literature.  Abehsera has the miser and the schlemiel-dog tumble around with each other and, in the end, he “breaks” the miser with laughter:

Man and animal thrash about, knocking over the table, causing plates and dishes to shatter on the gazebo’s marble floor.  The man gropes pitiably among the fragments of glass and porcelain and the remains of his meal.  He reaches for a large bone and flings it across the lawn, beyond the pines.  ‘Go get it!’ he shouts to the dog who, good naturedly, goes scampering after the bone…The latter is delighted. (131)

As all of this goes on, the miser becomes childlike and throws the bone out again.  As he does so, he notices that he is being watched by the community. They cheer and laugh in joy as they watch him and he waves back of them in acknowledgment.  In effect, the schlemiel has won.  By becoming a dog he has endeared the miser and prompted him to give.

But this isn’t the end of the tale.

Abehsera has the schlemiel/dog transform back into the old beggar.  And, strangely enough, the two get into a fight.  The “townspeople stop laughing.” And “absolute silence is interrupted by scattered remarks directed at both the beggar and the rich man.”  Some protest the beating and some encourage it.  But, at some point, the miser let’s himself be beaten up and then it occurs to the audience that they really aren’t fighting: they are play fighting:

The kicks are not truly kicks and the screams are not screams either. It is an unrehearsed drama between two men who, moments before, were antagonists, but through the chemistry of their encounter are about to engender a love so deep as to render it contagious.  (132)

In the end, the miser starts to laugh and the townspeople are dumbfounded.   But it is this dumfoundedness which transforms the community-as-circus into a community that is returned to itself.   Abehsera notes that his parable is drawn from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov since he, like the Baal Shem Tov, writes of a character who acts with foolishness to bring the dead back to life.

And this, says Abehsera, is the wisdom of the fool.  The schlemiel shares this wisdom with the writer and it becomes the “paradigm of a new type of intellect”(133).

What I find so interesting about this “new type of intellect” (and the parable that is used to communicate it) is not simply that it is “relayed” to the writer by the schlemiel; but that it is also relayed by the schlemiel through becoming an animal that makes the bitter sweet and the man into a child.

To be continued….