I Want to Start Again: The Schlemiel, Bad Luck, and the Desire for a New Life (Starring Walter Benjamin)

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The desire for change and a new life is fundamentally human.  And oftentimes the desire to start a new life is based on the fact that one is beset by bad luck.  To be sure, this is a theme which many Jews are familiar.  Bad luck seems to follow Jews around.  And, as a result, Jews have been forced – for centuries – to move from town to town or country to country.  But, despite this negative reality, the Talmud tells us that if one changes one’s place one changes one’s mazel (luck).

Schlemiels are often beset with bad luck.  And most of them go on journeys in search of a new land and a new life.  To get out of their predicament, they often dream of starting anew.   We see this in the classics of Yiddish literature such as The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim, Mendel the Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem, and I.B. Singer’s Gimpel stories.  We see the schlemiel’s journey for a new life in Kafka’s Amerika.  And we also it in Jewish American literature, such as A New Life by Bernard Malamud, Stern by Bruce Jay Freidman, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and every novel by Gary Shteyngart.

We also see the schlemiel’s desire for change in movies like Annie Hall, where Woody Allen ventures to California (albeit with great skepticism), Whatever Works, where Larry David consents to live with a young woman, or Greenberg – where Ben Stiller plays a schlemiel character who goes to California in search of a new life.

In just about all of the above-mentioned stories and movies, the schlemiel’s hopes for a new life are shown to be deluded or misguided.   And as we observe the process of their fictional journey, we experience the juxtaposition of hope and failure.  The affect, especially in Freidman and Auslander’s novels, can be unsettling.  But the process can also suggest some kind of balance between being naïve and being realistic.

The question, for all of these novelists and filmmakers, is fundamentally human and particularly Jewish: how do we realistically address bad luck and our desire for change?  Can we simply believe that our desire for a new life is realistic?  Will moving to another place change our luck or is that a misguided hope?  Is it better to just be reminded of how bad things are by virtue of a character who is out-of-touch or naïve about reality?

We see a fascinating analogue of this in the real life experiences of a living schlemiel named Walter Benjamin.  Near the end of his life Walter Benjamin met up with Hannah Arendt in Paris.  Both of them fled Germany but in leaving they looked for a new life.  But, of the two, Benjamin was the schlemiel.  Regardless of the fact that he looked to live a new life (and he was offered to leave Europe for America or for Israel by good friends of his), he still had bad luck.  And he knew it.  His life, in other words, didn’t change much: it seemed to be one bad thing after another.

Hannah Arendt, in her introductory essay to his work, entitled the first section “The Hunchback.”  She recalls that Benjamin failed to become successful in his lifetime.  He always had failure at his back.  Since he was a child, the “hunchback,” a figure of bad luck, was with him: “The hunchback was an early acquaintance of his, who had first met him when, still a child, he found the poem in a children’s book, and he never forgot”(6, Illuminations).   Arendt quotes the poem:

When I go down to the cellar

There to draw some wine,

A little hunchback is there

Grabs that jug of mine

When I go into the kitchen,

There my soup to make,

A little hunchback who’s in there

My little pot did break.

Arendt goes on to argue that Benjamin was obsessed with childhood figures that threatened failure and death: “His mother, like millions of other mothers in Germany, used to say, ‘Mr. Bungle sends his regards’ whenever one of the countless little catastrophes of childhood had taken place.”

According to Arendt, the “child knew of course what this strange bungling was about.”  It was about falling and failure:

It was he who had tripped you up when you fell and knocked the thing out of your hand when it went to pieces.  And after the child came the grown-up man who knew what the children was ignorant of, namely, that it was not he who had provoked the “little one” by looking at him…but the hunchback who looked at him and that bungling was a misfortune.  (6)

Arendt is right regarding the constant misfortune that Benjamin experienced.  But while her reading is telling, Arendt misses something fundamental; namely,  Benjamin didn’t simply have bad luck (“the hunchback looked at him”); rather, he was a schlemiel.  He “bungled” and discovered, as a man, that his bungling – which was with him since he was a child -was congenital.  It was a part of his existential makeup.  He was a man-child.  So, regardless of his desire for a new life, Benjamin knew, in the back of his head, that he would likely “bungle.”

Regardless, near the end of his life he looked at this foolishness as his only salvation.  For, as Kafka knew, “only the fool can help.”  So, even if the fool is misguided in thinking that a change of place will foster a new life, in the end it gives him, as Irving Howe might say, a “margin of hope.”   Commentary, Benjamin also argued, redeemed Kafka from total failure, but not completely; since the text he was commenting on was “unknown.”   In reality, both foolishness and commentary (another foolish endeavor, if it isn’t based on a real text) gave Benjamin a very small margin since all he did was tainted, in some way, by failure.  It seems he wanted to believe, like a schlemiel, in the good, but what he couldn’t forget was failure.  His foolish desire for a new life, in other words, was tainted by the memory of failure.

An American-Post-Holocaust Schlemiel: Another Note on Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake”

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Woody Allen’s Zelig traces the path of a character (of the same name) that, Irving Howe suggests (in one segment of Allen’s film), is based on the passionate drive of American Jews in the early 20th century to assimilate into American society.  Zelig, to be sure, is a schlemiel. But he is what I would call a post-historical-American schlemiel.  His Jewishness or his past is not his primary feature; his drive to assimilate is.  To assimilate, Jews – like many immigrant groups fresh to America – would act “as if” they were not Jews.  Instead, many Jews would act as if they were Americans. The act of hiding Jewishness and “passing” is nothing new.  Sander Gilman and Steven Aschheim, amongst other scholars, have drawn up historical documents from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries to show how prevalent this was in Europe.   In a book entitled Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Gilman dedicates a chapter to Jews who acted as if they were German but who ultimately failed to be accepted.  He entitled this chapter “Living Schlemiels.”  Indeed, for Gilman, a “living schlemiel” is a person who tries his utmost to be accepted but in reality cannot.  In Allen’s film, Zelig is accepted wherever he goes, but, in contrast, many of the “living schlemiels” that Gilman discusses were not.   They learned the hard way.  Even though Woody Allen’s Zelig suggests that assimilation is something all American’s celebrate and that it doesn’t matter whether Zelig is Jewish since, ultimately, he is the everyman (a man, literally, of all occasions), Bernard Malamud suggests that a Jew can still try to pass and fail.

But there is more to the story.  In the “Lady of the Lake,” Bernard Malamud, shows us that what will (or perhaps should) trip a Jew up when he or she tries to pass is history.  To be sure, it is the memory of the Holocaust.  This is a lesson that Allen doesn’t take into consideration in Zelig since, quite simply, Zelig seems to have no history.  He just happens to live in the Jazz Era.  Malamud, in contrast, suggests we situate the schlemiel after the Holocaust. For Malamud, the post-Holocaust-American-schlemiel learns a lesson about what it means to be Jewish.

In the last blog entry, I introduced and discussed the basic plot of Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake.”  As I noted, Henry Levin changes his name (and identity) to Henry R. Freeman.  After receiving in an inheritance, he leaves for Europe in pursuit of Romance. As a New York Jew, Romance is a European and a non-Jewish experience since Romance is not a central trope of Judaism. (In fact, as Daniel Boyarin points out in his book Unheroic Conduct, humility, hard work, and diligent study are the greatest traits, not pride, power, and masculinity, which go hand-in-hand with Romance and what he calls, following a medieval tradition, “Goyim Naches”).

When he arrives in Europe, he experiences beauty and mystery.  He is taken into what the theologian Will Herberg, in his book Judaism and Modern Man, thinks is antithetical to a tradition that eschews mystical fusion and forgetfulness.  When he meets a mysterious woman named Isabella, he does his utmost to win her over. But, as I pointed out in the last blog, she seems to see through his ruse when she asks him, immediately upon meeting him, if he is Jewish.

He denies his Jewishness and hides his secret.  But right when he is about to kiss her, he is accosted by a tour guide who likes like a “sad clown” and carries a “rapier.”  This is a key interruption since he hits Freeman in the crotch and says that what he is doing is a “transgression.” To be sure, what makes the story meaningful are these interruptions since they, apparently, disclose a tension between the Jew and the non-Jew.  To be truly free, Freeman believes that he must eliminate the tension.  He cannot stand being a “stranger” any longer.  And this incident “embarrasses” him.

This prompts Freeman to think about how different her history is from his:

And she was different too….Not only in her looks and background, but of course different as regards past…Her past he could see boiling in her all the way back to knights of old, and then some; his own history was something else again, but men were malleable, and he wasn’t afraid of attempting to create daring combinations: Isabella and Henry Freedman. (102)

As one can see from this passage, he respects her history and tradition and sees it “boiling in her all the way back to knights of old.”  It is a stable history that lives on and, apparently, doesn’t change too much.  As for his own history, he sees it as something that is “malleable.”  He doesn’t wish to keep it so much as change it and make a new, “daring combination.”  This is his main thought.  He will conceal his Jewishness to accomplish this experiment of sorts.

After sending a letter requesting to see her again, he is ecstatic to see that she wishes the same.  But before he goes, he is told that her family is known for “trickery.”  Following this, the theme of concealment and trickery comes more and more to the fore.

To be sure, Freeman, though exuberant and confident that he will trick her, sees more and more signs that something is amiss.  When he arrives on the island where she lives, she tells him that all of the paintings that he sees on the walls are copies (109) and this “slightly depresses him.”  This suggests that he wants something original and sees himself as a “copy” of sorts; after all, he is trying to copy a gentile.

Immediately after feeling this disappointment, he notices an image of a leper that catches his attention.  Freeman asks why the leper “deserved his fate?” Isabella’s answer hits at the main theme: “He falsely said he could fly”(110).  In response, Freeman asks, quizzically, “And for that you go to hell?”  She, however, doesn’t reply.  To be sure, she leaves him to ruminate on the lie.  Did Freeman also claim he could fly when, in fact, he couldn’t?  In other words, was Freeman really free?

What follows is a series of scenes that show Freeman on the edge wondering whether or not he should tell her the truth; that he is a Jew.  His excitement about her is interrupted by the lie he has kept to himself about his identity.  All of this annunciated by one word: “no”:

If Isabella loved him, as he now felt she did or would before long; with the strength of this love they would conquer problems as they arose….No, the worry that troubled him most was the lie he had told her, that he wasn’t a Jew.  He could, of course, confess, say she knew Levin, not Freeman, man of adventure, but that might ruin all, since it was quite clear she wanted nothing to do with a Jew, or why, at first sight, had she asked so searching a question? (112)

This worry and his interpretation of her earlier question stay with him to the very end of the story.  But it all begins to break down when, traveling into the alps, she asks Freeman whether the peaks “those seven – look like a Menorah?”

Hearing this, he thinks that she has called his bluff.  He is in shock, but he tries his utmost to cover it up, thinking he will pass a test:

“Like a what?” Freeman politely inquired. He had a sudden frightening remembrance of her seeing him naked as he came out of the lake and felt constrained to tell her that circumcision was de rigueur in stateside hospitals; but he didn’t’ dare.  She may not have noticed.  (115)

Following this, he narrowly averts questions regarding Jewishness. However, at this point, she reveals to him that she has tricked him: she is not nobility, she doesn’t come from a noble line; rather, she is the daughter of a caretaker.  The island that Freeman went to was not owned by her family.

After saying this, she was hoping he too would confess to some kind of trick.  However, Freeman still insists on being quiet about his Jewish identity:

“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. He wanted to say more but warned himself not to.”

In response she says, “That’s what I was afraid of.”  Her reply is odd; however, he doesn’t notice, all he can think about is how Italian she looks: “She was a natural-born queen, whether by del Dongo or any other name. So she lied to him, but so had he to her”(116).  However, he is avoiding the one fact: he didn’t tell her the truth.

To be sure, he only sees her as an Italian he can have a romance and a “future” with. When, near the end of the story, he sees her all in white, he imagines her as his bride.  He fails to notice, however, that she is now more hesitant toward him than ever.

In the final scene he kisses her, but she “whispers Goodbye” to him.  In response he says, “To whom goodbye?…I have come to marry you”(117).  Upon hearing this, she asks, once again, the question that pains him the most: “Are you a Jew?”

Although his mind tells him not to lie, he overcomes this and says: “How many no’s make never?  Why do you persist with such foolish questions?”

Her reply discloses the fact that Freeman’s denial of Jewishness – in order to experience romance and start a “new life” – was his downfall:

“Because I hoped you were.”

Malamud then brings the clincher. When she opens up her top, he sees, written on her breasts, “a bluish line of distorted numbers.”  In other words, she is a survivor of the concentration camps who had been marked by the Nazis for extermination.  She cannot deny her Jewish identity and, in fact, was looking to marry a Jew and thought that Freeman was, in fact, a Levin:

“I can’t marry you. We are Jews.  My past is meaningful to me.  I treasure what I suffered for.”

As she goes away, he says that he is really Jewish and grasps at her breasts.  She disappears and he feels as if he is grasping at a “moonlit stone” (a “lady of the lake”).  In other words, he was duped.  He is a schlemiel, in this scenario, because he lets his freedom get the best of him.  Malamud’s lesson is that Levin brought his bad luck on through his masquerade.  At the end of the story, we learn that Levin is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel like Zelig.

To be sure, Malamud would like to let his readers know that there is no reward for the Zelig-like denial of history and Jewish identity.  The Jew, for him, is not a freeman.  The post-Holocaust-American Jew is bound by history, suffering, and memory.  But, as the story notes, the European Jew has a better understanding of this while the American Jew doesn’t.  For Malamud the American-Jew is a schlemiel who is more interested in an improvised, free, and new life than a historical one.   He is, as Hannah Arendt would say, the “lord of dreams.”  But these dreams, in this story, are the dreams of someone who cares more for freedom and romance than history and Jewish identity.

Walking Like Charlie Chaplin and His Orphan Sister: On Delmore Schwartz’s Poem “Time’s Dedication”

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The poet Charles Baudelaire has written several poems in which the poetic voice or the narrator (of many prose pieces from Paris Spleen) wages a battle with TIME.  He wages his fight in the name of Timelessness and intoxication; however, many of those battles ring out with the sound of despair.  To be sure, Baudelaire was very pained by the fact that he had to constantly battle with time.  And, more importantly, he was all alone in this fight against Time.

Delmore Schwartz, no doubt, read Baudelaire.  And in many ways, he also struggled with Time.  However, he didn’t do it all alone.  In his poem “Time’s Dedication,” he calls on “you” the implied reader or some other to join him in this battle.  And, unlike Baudelaire, the battle doesn’t end in despair or tragedy.  Rather, it has a comic ending which includes a key reference to Charlie Chaplin (who, lest we not forget, Hannah Arendt saw as the last schlemiel of what she calls the ‘hidden tradition’).  Schwartz’s comic ending does what Baudelaire can’t: it redeems time by way of taking it away from the trajectory of death and realigns it with what Emmanuel Levinas would call the “time of the other.”  And what makes this so novel is that the poem is “time’s dedication” – not his.

“Time’s Dedication” starts off with a meditation on the self and its bout with the Time:

My heart beating, my blood running

The light brimming,

My mind moving, the ground turning,

My eyes blinking, the air flowing,

The clock’s quick-ticking

Time moving, time dying,

Time perpetually perishing!

Time is farewell! Time is farewell!

To be sure, the last words of this stanza bespeak the relation of time to death: Time will kill the poet.  However, the next stanza asks that an implied “you” stay with the voice of the poem and “stand still”:

Abide with me: do not go away,

But not as the dead who do not walk…

Quit the dance from which is flowing

Your blood and beauty: stand with me. 

But then the voice of the first stanza returns and insists that “we cannot stand still” because “time is dying” and “we are dying.”  This all translates into the same last words of the first stanza: “Time is farewell!”

In the face of this voice, the last stanza counters and insists that the voice obsessed with death and time to “wait for me”:

Stay then, stay! Wait now for me,

Deliberately, with care and circumspection,

Deliberately

Stop. 

This countering voice suggests that what “we” need to focus on, with deliberation, is “walking together.”  And this walking should be in a comic manner “like Chaplin and his orphan sister”:

Walking together,

Controlling our pace before we get old,

Walking together on the receding road,

Like Chaplin and his orphan sister,

Moving together through time to all good.

The last stanza suggests that “walking together” like “Chaplin and his orphan sister” – with their odd walk – is a manner of  “moving together through time to all good.”  Moving toward the good together is something we find in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III.  We also see it in Gimpel the fool who, it seems, is always walking toward the good even though it doesn’t seem to be in sight.  These characters, it seems, are not affected by a fatalistic approach to death.  They avoid it by way of trusting the other and the good.

The idea that one is moving toward the good, as the future, appears in Emmanuel Levinas’s work.  To be sure, he ends his book Totality and Infinity with a section entitled “Being as Goodness – The I – Pluralism – Peace.”

Goodness does not radiate over the anonymity of a collectivity presenting itself panoramically, to be absorbed into it.  It concerns a being which is revealed in a face, but thus it does not have eternity without commencement.  (305)

The word “commencement” is interesting as it suggest a meeting and a movement of two people.  Levinas goes on to describe goodness as an “absolute adventure” which is “transcendence itself.”  But this is the not the transcendence of an isolated “I.”  Rather, “transcendence or goodness is produced as pluralism” and it “proceeds” from me to you.   Elsewhere, Levinas calls this relation of goodness the “time of the other.”

What I like about Schwartz’s poem is the fact that it is “time’s dedication.”  The poem is dedicated to the poet by the time of the other.  And it ends with that time rather than dedicating it to the time of the self and death.  Most importantly, this dedication is translated into a comedic kind of walking down the road.  It isn’t exactly “heroic” in the Heideggarian sense of being-toward-death; rather, it is innocent and naïve.

This poem suggests that Schwartz would rather you “wait” for the poet than rush off to death.  And once you arrive, we can walk off together “like Chaplin and his orphan sister through time…toward the good.”

The Schlemiel of Wall Street: A Review of Martin Scorsese’s Latest Film

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When I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), I knew there would be comic elements.  But I had no idea that Martin Scorsese would draw on and reinterpret the schlemiel by way of the plot and main characters of this film.   To be sure, all of the critics of the film thus far have noted that this film is a quasi-critique of capitalism.  And, in the end, the tragic overshadows the comic.  That’s obvious.  But what’s more interesting is how Scorsese pulls it off; namely, by way of drawing the viewer in through a large doses of schlemiel comedy.  (And, let’s be clear here.  Scorcese is not recognized for the comic element in his films; on the contrary, his use of humor is rarely foregrounded as it is in this film.)

Indeed, it seems Scorsese has done his homework on the schlemiel and schlemiel comedy.  Perhaps he has done this through viewing the films of Woody Allen and Judd Apatow.   (Before I go into detail about how the schlemiel works in this film, I’d like to foreground the links to Woody Allen.)

Woody Allen, to be sure, is one of the greatest popularizers of the schlemiel in American film.  Films such as Bananas, Take the Money and Run, or Annie Hall – to name just a few – are prime examples.  Although their work differs in so many ways – and you would be hard put to find a schlemiel in a Scorsese film – Martin Scorsese’s interest in Woody Allen’s work is not a secret.

They directed the film New York Stories together and have known of each others work for decades. But they differ in many ways.  In this film, for instance, there are a few.  Here is a clip of Allen and Scorsese talking about their differing views of New York in New York Stories (Scorsese differentiates his view on New York, through the films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, to Allen’s, in Manhattan.)

In a telling interview-slash-hosted-discussion by The New York Times in 1997 entitled “The Two Hollywoods,” Lynn Hirshberg begins by noting that they “hardly know each other” but are “contemporaries.”  Her interview is great because it shows the dynamic between the two and, at least in the beginning, shows us their shared interest in comedy.

Near the end of the discussion, Allen and Scorsese reflect on the failed (schlemiel) moments in their comedy.  Scorsese notes that The King of Comedy, his big attempt at working through the comic genre, was adored by the critics but, at the same time, it was one of his biggest failures.  Allen, in contrast, notes that he would rather not pay attention to the success or failure of his films.  He notes that he diminishes his sense of failure by way of throwing himself into the film.

The theme and responses to failure in this discussion are interesting because Allen and Scorsese address the core of the schlemiel character and schlemiel comedy by way of their perspectives as filmmakers: failure.

But one of the most interesting moments in the discussion deals with the question of whether or not they like watching their films after they are made.  Scorsese says he cannot see his films ever again after they are made because he will get overly emotional while Allen says he has a hard time seeing his films because he will always think of them as not good enough and in need of improvement.

What I find so interesting about this reflection on past films is the fact that though Scorsese may not look at his films again he obviously thinks about how to improve upon his past film ventures.  On this note, I think his comment on The King of Comedy is telling.   As he notes, the film critics may have liked it (and this pleases him) but it failed at the box office.  This is where The Wolf of Wall Street comes to the fore.  To be sure, this film is the only other major film since The King of Comedy that utilizes the comic element in such a major way.

Now let’s turn to The Wolf of Wall Street and its uses of the schlemiel.

I’d like to start by way of definition.  Hannah Arendt, in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” notes, right off the bat, that “innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel.”  And that it is out of “such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born”(278, The Jewish Writings).    The schlemiel, for Arendt, is an outsider who, in his or her innocence, doesn’t fit into society.  They are simpletons who aren’t cultured, yet these simpletons speak to the people.  Their comedy inheres in the fact that they are blind to certain cultural norms and live in their dreams.

In her line of schlemiels, Arendt includes the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the characters of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Rahel Varnhagen, the awkward host of a German Salon in the 19th century, and Charlie Chaplin (who she calls “the little Yid”).    Some are “living schlemiels” (as Sander Gilman might say) others are fictional.  Regardless, Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse see the schlemiel as posting a challenge to either the “political and philosophical status quo” (Ruth Wisse) or to the “political status quo” (Hannah Arendt).   The schlemiel, as the innocent lord of dreams, is also a guard against the realization that, in this or that dominant society, one (historically, the Jew) is a loser.  As the wisdom goes, it’s better to live in dreams and innocence than in a horrible situation.

What I found so fascinating about Scorsese’s film is that he turns this on its head since the schlemiels in this film – which include Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and Jordon’s group of friends (I didn’t include Jordan Bellfort – played by Leonard DiCaprio – because he goes in and out of being a schlemiel throughout the film). What makes them all schlemiels is not simply the fact that they are innocent dreamers but the fact that they all deal drugs, do drugs, and are outsiders in the 80s and 90s.    They don’t know how to make a normal living and live a normal life. In Hannah Arendt’s sense, they are pariahs.

However, the twist is that even after they make money and become successes, they still remain schlemiels.  This is a twist because, often times, when a schlemiel becomes a success (say, in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, too name only two of many films where Allen employs this formula), they become a “man.”  Indeed, in The Wolf on Wall Street, drugs and endless parties celebrating the accumulation of exorbitant wealth illustrate a new way of viewing the schlemiel – one, to be sure, I (a schlemiel theorist who runs a blog on the schlemiel and publishes on this character) have never seen.

To be sure, Scorsese is using the schlemiel to show how innocence can go wrong when it is combined with drugs and wealth.  Indeed, the first time we see Jonah Hill, who plays the schlemiel in the majority of the films he stars in, he and DiCaprio have a comic-schlemiel-like dialogue which ends behind the restaurant, smoking crack.

Although the combination of drugs and the schlemiel can be seen in many films today – such as Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and Super Bad – these moments are divorced from anything consequential.

The innocent drug use of marijuana by Apatow’s characters is laughable.  But it is not disturbing as it is in Scorsese’s film because, as we all know from recent history, which is alluded to throughout the film, the drug use (of qualudes, crack, and cocaine) of Scorcese’s schlemiels enables them or is based on the exploitation of people and manipulating the market.

Throughout the film, I noticed many people laughing (myself included) yet the laughter was mixed up with moments of disgust.  What I like about Scorsese’s tact, here, is that he draws viewers in; but once they are in, he teaches them a lesson and subjects us to an emotional rollercoaster.

Watching this film, I felt as if he was offering a corrective to all of Apatow’s films – on the one hand – and making a nod to Allen’s recent Blue Jasmine – on the other.   But what Scorsese does here is something Allen didn’t do in Blue Jasmine; namely, use schlemiels to bring us to the same conclusion about our era and its overly corrupt relationship with wealth.

I find it ironic that Scorsese and not Allen did this; after all, Allen has made use of the schlemiel throughout his career.  Nonetheless, what I find in Scorsese is a new way of viewing this character, one which makes it relevant in ways that Judd Apatow or even Woody Allen cannot (or doesn’t want to do; as I argue in two recent book essays about Allen).   In lieu of this, I would say that the name of the film is wholly ironic.  I wouldn’t say he is a “wolf” on Wall Street so much as a schlemiel in wolf’s clothing.  In the end, however, we see the schlemiel turn into a wolf when the drugs and the wealth are taken away.  But, by then, it’s too late.

Walter Benjamin, Leon Shestov, and Heinrich Heine’s Senses of Humor

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Walter Benjamin paid very close attention to the work and life of Leon Shestov.  Shestov was a Russian émigré to Paris whose critical writings on literature and Judaism Benjamin had great respect for.  In one of his saddest (and last) letters to Gershom Scholem, written in 1939, Benjamin writes about Kafka’s legacy to his readers by focusing on Leon Shestov’s.  To be sure, Benjamin believed Shestov’s lifetime work, Athens and Jerusalem was a masterpiece.  (He often mentions this to Scholem in his letters.)  However, he didn’t know how it would fare in the future.  In his reflection on its legacy, following Shestov’s death, Benjamin notes how Shestov’s wife, deep in mourning, cannot deal with the question of what to do with his legacy.  Benjamin tells us that she lives in an apartment full of Shestov’s work (his manuscripts and unpublished essays).  He muses about how one day a housekeeper will likely see that Shestov’s widow has neglected her surroundings and, while cleaning up, will throw away all of Shestov’s writings.  To her, they are only pieces of paper.

Benjamin likens this to the fate of Kafka’s work and adds, in addition to this, that Max Brod (the keeper of this legacy) made Kafka into a fool.  To be sure, this suggests that Brod and the widow show the futility of passing tradition on.  But there is more.  What is passed on, by way of Benjamin, is a ruined yet comic kind of tradition.  These ruined traditions (of Kafka and Shestov), fails to get properly transmitted, and their fate is comical (in a bittersweet way).  In all of this, the failure of tradition is – in a way- redeemed through a comical reflection.

Since Benjamin spoke so highly of Shestov and wrote of him in a tragic-comical manner, I wondered if and how Shestov would regard the comic modality.  To this end, I decided to read through his collection of his literary essays entitled Chekhov and Other Essays (these articles were published while he was alive and were translated into English in 1916 – for a London press – and republished in 1966 by the University of Michigan Press).

Many of these literary essays are very serious – they address the work of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, but they also address different philosophers.  In these essays, Shestov reserves the comical to this or that anecdote.  (His reflections, here, seem to have more of an existential tone – one that Sartre and others took to.)  However, one essay in particular caught my eye as it addressed the comical.  This essay was entitled “Penultimate Words.”   Within this essay, the section on Heinrich Heine addresses humor.

Shestov notes, right off the bat, that the German’s misunderstood Heine’s sense of humor:

I think that if the Germans were mistaken and misunderstood Heine, hypertrophied self-love and the power of prejudice is the cause. (119)

With this in view, Shestov explains the meaning of Heine’s humor.  He notes how it moves from seriousness to sarcasm:

Heine’s usual method is to begin to speak with perfect seriousness, and to end with biting raillery. Critics and readers, who generally do not guess at the outset what awaits them in the event, have taken the unexpected laughter to their own account, and have become deeply offended.  Wounded self-love never forgives; and the Germans could  not forgive Heine for his jests. (119)

Shestov tells us that the twist is that Heine’s humor was directed at himself; it was self-deprecating.  He wasn’t looking to “attack others”:

And yet Heine but rarely attacked others: most of his mockery is directed against himself. (119)

Drawing on this observation, Shestov says that same thing happened with Gogol.  Like Heine, Gogol “confessed that he was describing himself” and was not mocking the Russian people in his fiction.  According to Shestov, Gogol wasn’t certain of himself and, for this reason, it was simply not possible for him to contrast himself – as better off – to his fellow-Russians.

On this note, he points out that Heine also had an “inconstancy of opinions”: “He changed his tastes and attachments, and did not always know for certain what he preferred at the moment”(119).   He could have “pretended to be consequent and consistent,” but he didn’t.

Rather, he played the fool and said too much:

Heine’s sincerity was really of a different order.  He told everything, or nearly everything, of himself.  And this was thought so shocking that the sworn custodians of convention and good morals considered themselves wounded in their best and loftiest feelings.  It seemed to them that it would be disastrous if Heine were to succeed in acquiring a great literary influence, and in getting a hold upon the minds of his contemporaries. (121)

Shestov points out the hypocrisy that goes with the will-to-preserve culture.  The anger of the Germans at Heine’s honesty, humor, and self-deprication was a case in point.  In talking too much, he failed publically.  But that failure was – more or less – turned into a killing of sorts.  Heine was, as the French artist and playwright Antonin Artaud might say, a man “suicided by society.”

Heine’s humor, Shestov tells us, discloses a man who is “divided.”  His words are a “mockery of himself.”  Out of some of his comic poems and writings, we can hear “Heine’s misplaced laughter”(123).  This laughter is “indecent and quite uselessly disconcerting.”  Shestov puts Heine’s “sincerity” in quotation marks because Heine was laughing and at the same time embracing the possibility of sincerity.

In addition, Heine laughs “at morality, at philosophy, and at existing religions”(126).  In a fascinating turn, Shestov says this may have to do with Heine being a modern Jew who was out-of-place (the odd one out).  To be sure, Heine was the popularizer of the schlemiel in Germany.  He saw the poet as a schlemiel.  Hannah Arendt points this out in her essay “The Jew as Pariah.”  And she situates Heine as the first schlemiel in a tradition of schlemiels.   (A tradition I am writing about in my book on the schlemiel.)

Reading Shestov and knowing that Benjamin read him lovingly, I wonder if Benjamin came across this gloss on Heinrich Heine and the comic.  It would make perfect sense since Benjamin, in one of his last letters to Gershom Scholem, wonders about the “comic aspects of Jewish theology.” There is something very Jewish and very modern in Heine’s failure.  It is the same failure that Benjamin comically apprehends in Kafka and Shestov.

And it is the failure of the schlemiel which provides the greatest insights for them as they all realized the degree to which they themselves had failed.  And, if anything, the sad laughter Benjamin had when reflecting on Shestov and Kafka was his own.  It, strangely enough, gave him hope.

On an Aesthetic of Redemption or The Problem With Historicizing Walter Benjamin (Take 1)

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I’m not an intellectual historian.  And while I enjoy reading intellectual history, I always worry about the problem of periodization.   Like any historicization, the risk is to say that on this or that date everything changed with this or that thinker.  The problem with such claims is that – in a Derridian sense – something always remains.  Many intellectual historians, in an effort to make a coherent historical narrative, often leave things out or argue that this or that element of said thinker’s thought took a turn.  While much of this may find support in this or that prooftext, oftentimes one can find counter-texts (and counter-memories, as Michel Foucault might say) to challenge this or that genealogy.   For me, the case in point is the intellectual history of Walter Benjamin.

What makes him such an interesting figure for intellectual history is the fact that he, himself, was an intellectual historian of sorts.  But his history was oftentimes focused on the intellectual history of different mediums (although they would focus on the shift as found in this or that writer, poet, or filmmaker).  In many essays, such as “The Storyteller,” “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” or “Some Motifs of Baudelaire” or in his book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin clearly demarcates the shift from one era to another which can be found in different mediums (the novel, storytelling, film, and poetry).    But although Benjamin made rigorous demarcations, these demarcations were not absolute.  One can see overlap.  For instance, although Benjamin announces the end of the aura in one essay, he still notes that it lives on in others.  And when he argues that storytelling has been displaced by the newspaper, this doesn’t keep him from reflecting on it and bringing out it’s modern proponents (such as Kafka, Walser, or Proust).

To be sure, Benjamin, who read much Freud and incorporated his work into his own, believed that we are haunted by the past. In addition, there are many examples in his work where the past permeates the present and serves as an index of the future.   We see this in his Arcades Project, The Berlin Childhood, One Way Street, his essays on Baudelaire and Proust, his Kafka essay, and his essays that address the Messianic.

Moreover, in his personal reflections he also takes note of what remains.

And although there is room to argue that he was noting his own personal-historical shifts (as we saw in yesterday’s blog entry), he still sees these moments as lingering in the present.    Nonetheless, some intellectual historians choose not to take this into consideration.  One such intellectual historian is Peter Osborne, who argues that Benjamin, after writing his essay on Kafka, turned wholeheartedly to the political and turned away from the aesthetic.  Were one to read Benajmin’s letters to his dear friend Gershom Scholem, however, one would find another narrative.  In that narrative, Benjamin’s interest in the aesthetic and Kafka remain right up until his untimely death.

Richard Wolin’s intellectual history also chooses to leave a few things out, but, at the very least, he does what Osborne doesn’t: he shows how certain elements of Benjamin’s work cling –from the beginning to the end – to the “aesthetic of redemption.”  Wolin’s focus is commendable and merits closer reading.  I would like to point out, however, where he draws the line and what this implies.  (I will be commenting on his book on and off in this blog, so this reading is based on the beginning of his book where he addresses Benjamin’s “origins.”)

In the first chapter of Wolin’s book, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, he makes a reading of Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900.   This reading reflects, on the one hand, an acute sense of how Benjamin looked to “redeem” his past via the aesthetic; on the other hand, it looks to periodize this work and leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that Benjamin had left this behind.

One of the things that caught my mind was Wolin’s selection of texts to illustrate Benjamin’s vision of himself in the past and how it relates to the present:

He speaks of the unclear vision of intellectuals which results from an innate tendency toward flight from reality; a tendency he claimed to have detected in himself at an extremely early age which in his eyes manifested itself in his staunch refusal to form with others in a united front…”My habit of seeming slower, more maladroit, more stupid than I am, had its origins in such walks (through the city), and has the great attendant danger of making me think myself quicker, more dexterous, and shrewder than I am.”(3)

Commenting on this, Wolin argues that Benjamin “turned to the theme of childhood memories in a time when all possibilities seemed to be blocked”(3).  In other words, Wolin historicizes this line (and the whole book) to argue that if Benjamin wrote about the past, so as to find something hopeful (or even helpful) in it, he did so because his life (when he wrote it, in the 1930s) was bleak.   But, given that reading, we could argue that everything he wrote was prompted by the fact that he saw himself as a loser and was looking, as Wolin suggests, for reasons as to why he produced such bad luck.  In other words, he was looking for how he had become such a schlemiel.    To be sure, in this passage, Benjamin is trying to explain why he appeared so belated and slow (seemingly more stupid than he was): the very characteristics of many a schlemiel who is often too late or too early for this or that thing and who, like Gimpel the Fool, appears stupid when he is not.

Although this seems negative, Wolin, at the very least, notes that Benjmain derived something meaningful from his childhood experience (but, for Wolin, this has nothing to do with the fact that he has many comic and child-like aspects to himself):

What he attempted to capture in these reflections was, above all, a capacity for lived experience associated with an upbringing in Berlin at this time, whose last vestiges were in the process of being extinguished by the world-historical march of the forces of disenchantment. (4)

In other words, the only thing that Benjamin was interested in saving from the past was his “capacity for experience.” The experiences themselves, however, are left behind forever. As Wolin notes, “Berlin existed once upon a time, as it will never appear again.”   This implies not only that this book was a commemoration of a city that is no longer, but that Benjamin cannot go back.  His book was, more or less, a movement away from the childhood and toward maturity and adulthood.  The only thing worth salvaging is something that would always be there: the “capacity for experience.”

While I find the notion of such a “capacity,” interesting, I find it elides too much.  This capacity may be something gleaned from youth but it is ultimately abstract and seems to transcend history like Aristotle’s notion of capacity and potentiality.  Rather than make this move, I’d like to suggest – as I have throughout this blog –that Benjamin was acutely aware of how all of his capacities were haunted by failure.  This historical aspect isn’t redeemed; it is a remnant from his past which pops up in most of his work in the 1930s and in his letters to Scholem.  But this failure has a comic rather than a tragic note.

The problem with intellectual history is that it might find this element to be in competition with the narrative of maturity.  And it is right for thinking this because it is; and Benjamin knew this well.  It remained with him to the end.  And even Hannah Arendt, in her introductory essay to his work (to an American audience), noted the specter that remained with him to the end: she gave it a figure, the “hunchback.”  This figure –the figure of bad luck –haunted his maturation process and it should haunt any intellectual history of his work.  It reminds us that no matter how much there is evidence of evolving thought, something, in Benjamin’s work, remains.  But for Arendt, this has more to do with bad luck as such.  To be sure, in her view Benjamin is more of a shlimazl than a schlemiel (a topic that I will be addressing in my book and in forthcoming essays).

World(less) Jews: A Note on Hannah Arendt’s Descriptions of The World, Worldlessness, and Jewishness

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Reading through a 1964 interview between Hannah Arendt and Gunter Gaus, I was struck by Arendt’s responses to Gaus regarding the question as to whether or not Jews were apolitical and worldless.  Gaus was prompted to ask these questions because of Arendt’s comments on her relationship to the “Jewish people.”  With this in mind, Gaus (who is Jewish) asks Arendt the following question regarding politics and the “commitment to a group”:

As a politically active being, doesn’t man need commitment to a group, a commitment that can then to a certain extent be called love? 

In response to this, Arendt notes that belonging to a group is a “natural condition.” And as I pointed out in my last blog entry on Arendt, the “second birth” is (for her) greater than the first birth (or what she calls here a “natural condition” – namely, the fact that she was born Jewish).   By “second birth” Arendt means an “act” in which we “insert ourselves into the world” and become a “who” rather than a “what.”

On this note, Arendt says that the “act” of “joining or forming” a group is “something completely different” from the “natural condition.”  And in doing this, one enters the world: “The kind of organizations (one forms or joins) has to do with a relation to the world.”   But in contrast to this, both love and friendship are not worldly.  They are more natural, and, by her clock, less important.  She notes the worldlenssness of love in The Human Condition when she writes of the Christian “political principle” which is a “bond of charity between people”(53).  This founds a “public realm of its own” but is “worldless” because it is based on love. Arendt goes so far, over there, to say that this “bond” “is admirably fit to carry a group of essentially worldless people through the world, a group of saints or a group of criminals, provided it is understood that the world itself is doomed” and that every act is provisional.  As she points out there, this is antithetical to the Greek (pre-Platonic) understanding of action and it’s relationship with the world.

Hearing Arendt’s reading of the worldless apolitical nature of love and community, Gaus pushes her to further explain what she means.  In response, Arendt describes the Jewish people in the same way as she describes the Christian community’s worldlessness (which we cited above):

I admit that the Jewish people are a classic example of a worldless people maintaining themselves through thousands of years.  (17)

In response, Gaus asks if by “world” Arendt means her “terminology for the space of politics.”  Arendt agrees to this formulation but Gaus pushes her to explicitly say that the Jewish people were “an apolitical people”(17).   But she won’t.  To be sure, she revises her original formulation of the Jewish people as worldless and shows that her reading of the “Jew as Pariah” has limits and conditions:

I shouldn’t say that exactly, for the communities were, to a certain extent, also political.  The Jewish religion is a national religion. But the concept of the political was valid only with great reservations.  The worldlessness which the Jewish people suffered in being dispersed, and which – as with all people who are pariahs – generated a special warmth among those who belonged, changed when the State of Israel was founded. (16)

Hearing this, Gaus makes a smart move and asks her what was “lost” in this transition from (for lack of a better word) “partial worldlessness” to political worldliness (with the founding of the Jewish State).    This, to be sure, is a sharp question because, as I have pointed out in the last blog entry (and above), Arendt prefers political worldliness to apolitical worldlessness in The Human Condition.  In fact, we find no such lamentation of loss there.

But at this moment of the interview Arendt does lament the loss of some kind of Jewishness:

Yes, one pays dearly for freedom.  The specifically Jewish humanity signified by their worldlessness was something very beautiful.  You are too young to have ever experienced that.  But it was something very beautiful, this standing outside all social connections, the complete open-mindedness and absence of prejudice that I experienced, especially with my mother, who also exercises it in relation to the whole Jewish community.  (17)     

What I find so striking about her reflection is that she speaks as if she has a strong grasp of what Jewish “worldlessness” – before the founding of Israel – felt like.  And instead of citing the pariahs and schlemiels she brought together in her famous “Jew as Pariah” essay, she talks about her mother and takes on a romantic kind of reflection on worldlessness: where everyone was “standing outside all social connections” and where there was a “complete open-mindedness and absence of prejudice.”

Read against this talk in the 1960s, her thoughts on schlemiels and Jewish ahistoricity takes on another dimension.   In an earlier essay entitled “The Enlightenment and the Jewish Question,” Arendt doesn’t lament the lost world.  She deplores it.  She notes that Jews, such as Moses Mendelssohn, had no grasp of history and the world.  For him “all reality – the world around us, our fellow men, history – lacks the legitimation of reason. The elimination of reality is closely bound up with the factual position of the Jews in the world.  The world mattered so little to him that it became the epitome of what was unalterable.”  He was “indifferent” to the “historical world.”

And in her essay on the “Jew as Pariah” – as well as on her work on Rahel Varnhagen – Arendt notes that Rahel, like other schlemiels, clung to “such universal things as the sun, music, trees, and children.” In other words, they clung to nature (to their primary birth) but not to history and politics (a second birth they couldn’t experience).

Although Arendt’s words on Varnhagen, Heinrich Heine, and Charlie Chaplin (amongst others) seem to be charming, they are ultimately for the dustbin of history.  She doesn’t want to go back.  She may find the worldlessness of Jews and Christian communities to have their charm, but their loss is what she ultimately calls the “price for freedom.”  And, for her, that price is paid with the founding of Israel as a Jewish State.

Regardless of what she says, however, I think that Arendt is missing something.  In her formulation, all worldlessness must be sacrificed in the name of the world and politics.  But can worldlessness ever be sacrificed?  Is the worldlessness of the Jews – which she thinks of as a thing of the past – gone?  If that is the case, why do we find so many Jewish-American writers, filmmakers, and comedians – after the founding of Israel – drawing on it in their schlemiel routines?  Are Arendt’s formulations of Jewish worldlessness and the end of such worldlessness too extreme and intolerant of any possibility of being both worldless and worldly at the same time?  Or is (political) history the ultimate judge?  And is the price unmistakable?