Sarah Silverman, Hannah Arendt, and “The Old/New Lord of Dreams”


Last night, before I went to sleep, I noticed that Sarah Silverman had Tweeted something that had schlemiel written all over it.


In Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Jew as Pariah: The Hidden Tradition,” Arendt argues that Heinrich Heine’s schlemiel initiates the “hidden tradition” of the Pariah.  Heinrich Heine, argues Arendt, was the first notable Modern German-Jewish poet to popularize the schlemiel in Germany.   According to Arendt, this happens in his Hebrew Melodies poems where we learn of the “lord of dreams” which is another name for the poet who is attached to nature and the world of dreams (which it fosters) but not fully to the world (not to “life life”).

Strangely enough, Arendt sees the model for this in Heine’s description of the Jewish Sabbbath and – in particular – in relation to the song “lecha dodi.”  Through the song, sung to welcome the Sabbath, the Jews are transformed:

In his poem, Princess Sabbath, the first of his Hebrew Melodies, Heinrich Heine depicts for us the national background from which he sprang and which inspired his verses. He portrays his people as a fairy prince turned by witchcraft into a dog. A figure of ridicule throughout the week, every Friday night he suddenly regains his mortal shape, and freed from the preoccupations of his canine existence (von huendischen Gedanken), goes forth like a prince to welcome the sabbath bride and to greet her with the traditional hymeneal, Lecha Dodi.

Arendt tells us that this is the only “positive” aspect of Judaism that Heine can find and, to be sure, he uses it for poetic purposes:

This poem, we are informed by Heine, was especially composed for the purpose by the people’s poet-the poet who, by a stroke of fortune, escapes the grueling weekly transformation of his people and who continually leads the sabbath-like existence which is to Heine the only positive mark of Jewish life.

Out of this figure, Heine creates the schemiel (spelled shlemihl in the German).  The transformation of the Jew from a dog to a prince foreshadows the task of the “lord of dreams” since the transformation is a way of telling the world to go to hell.  And for Heine, this is accomplished by the schlemiel poet.

As Arendt notes, by way of her schlemiel genealogy, the schlemiel has no “heroic deeds” to boast of; rather, his greatest trait is his “noble heart.”  To explain what this means, Arendt notes the schlemiel-poet’s “innocence.”  And, in her translation, the secret of the schlemiel’s innocence is not Phoebus Apollo but Rabbi Faibusch (the last name is a comic play on the Greek Phoebus):

Innocence is the hall-mark of the schlemihl. But it is of such innocence that a people’s poets-its “lords of dreams”-are born. No heroes they and no stalwarts, they are content to seek their protection in the special tutelage of an ancient Greek deity. For did not Apollo, that “inerrable godhead of delight,” proclaim himself once for all the lord of schlemihls on the day when-as the legend has it-he pursued the beauteous Daphne only to receive for his pains a crown of laurels? To be sure, times have changed since then, and the transformation of the ancient Olympian has been described by Heine himself in his poem The God Apollo. This tells of a nun who falls in love with that great divinity and gives herself up to the search for him who can play the lyre so beautifully and charm hearts so wondrously. In the end, however, after wandering far and wide, she discovers that the Apollo of her dreams exists in the world of reality as Rabbi Faibusch (a Yiddish distortion of Phoebus), cantor in a synagogue at Amsterdam, holder of the humblest office among the humblest of peoples.

The schlemiel, Arendt tells us, is “the peoples poet”; he is not the poet of the nouveau rich and the parvenu.  On the contrary, he, like the people, are outsiders in a fake society ruled by lies and posturing.  Moreover, the schlemiel stands with the people and with nature, not with culture:

It is but natural that the pariah, who receives so little from the world of men that even fame (which the world has been known to bestow on even the most abandoned of her children) is accounted to him a mere sign of schlemihldom, should look with an air of innocent amusement, and smile to himself at the spectacle of human beings trying to compete with the divine realities of nature. The bare fact that the sun shines on all alike affords him daily proof that all men are essentially equal. In the presence of such universal things as the sun, music, trees, and children-things which Rahel Varnhagen called “the true realities” just because they are cherished most by those who have no place in the political and social world-the petty dispensations of men which create and maintain inequality must needs appear ridiculous.

Arendt’s rhetoric makes it clear that the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams” stands on the side of the “true realities” because they are politically excluded.  In other words, they have no choice but to dream because they have no place in the world which, with all of its inequalities, appears “ridiculous.”

Can we say the same of Sarah Silverman?  In her tweet, she says that she is “crazy busy with dream life.” That’s where her real work is: in the dream world and in producing dreams.  She has “very little time for life life.”  She seems to be telling us that she is the old/new Lord of Dreams.

But here’s the catch.  Arendt believed the Schlemiel would no longer be necessary once the Jews were allowed to live in a world as equals.  At the point, Jews would no longer have to dream.  And Sidra Ezrahi, in Booking Passage, has argued that, while in exile, the schlemiel was appealing because it provided Jews (who were the losers of history) with a “substitute sovereignty.”  But now, after the establishment of Israel, that no longer seems necessary as real sovereignty is within reach.  However, Ezrahi notes that, though things have changed, American artists and writers still insist on what she calls the “trope of diaspora.” In lieu of this, she sees America as fertile soil since it is the “land of dreams.”  And in this virtual world, which comes straight out of Hollywood, the Lords, so to speak, are the “Lords of Dreams.”

What can we take out from this?

Perhaps Sarah Silverman gives evidence that supports Ezrahi’s argument about America and schlemiels.  If that is the case, what does it imply?  Isn’t it the case that the Lord of Dreams passes back and forth between the world of dreams and the world of reality?  Isn’t the schlemiel, the poet of the people who, like the schlemiel, feel like they are in the middle?

If this is the case, perhaps we can say that Arendt was wrong when she said that Superman replaced Charlie Chaplin (the last in her line of schlemiel-pariahs in the “hidden tradition”).  In my book and here, on this blog, I am venturing this possibility.

But we need to ask ourselves, whether or not Sarah Silverman is the schlemiel-poet-of-the-people and whether we can still say that she, like Heine’s Lord of Dreams, speaks from the angle of nature and the people.  Perhaps she speaks from a land of dreams that has no relation to the political or to a utopian dream that nature and culture merge.  Perhaps her work is to dream and nothing more nor less than that.

Perhaps she is just a woman-child, who lives somewhere in-between dreams and reality:




Reggie Watts: A Focused/Unfocused “Lord of Dreams”


One of the things we find in many schlemiels is the character of absent-mindedness.  In her essay on the schlemiel (entitled “The Jew as Pariah”), Hannah Arendt (a Jewish-German thinker from the mid-twentieth century) notes that in the “hidden tradition” (of the Pariah/Schlemiel) the first major modern schlemiel witnessed in the west was the 19th c. German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine’s “lord of dreams.”  For Heine, the “lord of dreams” is not just another name for the schlemiel; it is also the name for the modern poet.  The poet’s dreams don’t match with reality because the poet, like the schlemiel, is absent-minded.

But for Arendt the absent mindedness we find in Heine (and his conception of the modern poet) is driven by a desire for freedom which is frustrated by a world that one cannot be truly “free” in.  As Arendt argues, the source of this freedom is connected to “nature” as opposed to “culture.”  In this sense, the schlemiel/pariah differs significantly from the “parvenu” who, in throwing away their “Jewishness” in the name of being a “cultured” member of society also throws away his/her natural sense of freedom and their pariah status.

Although Arendt doesn’t spell it out, one can surmise that the reason Heine is at the beginning of her “hidden tradition” is because his freedom is not protected by the world.  He, like a poet, lives outside the world.  He is, as Arendt says about the schlemiel, “exceptional.”  But, ultimately, for Arendt being exceptional is secondary to being “normal” and free-in-the-world.  (She argues, strangely enough, that it is Kafka who seeks such normality and desires to leave the exceptional status of the “lord of dreams” behind.)  In other words, Heine may have the right “intention” (which is to be free) but this desire doesn’t fit (not yet, at least) with reality.  That comes later.  When Jews are given the opportunity to have their own state or be recognized, politically, as equals.

What’s most interesting about Arendt’s framework for the schlemiel and the “hidden tradition” is that the “lord of dreams” and his “absent-mindedness” have a cause we can understand yet, ultimately, they have a time and place in history and should be left behind.

Today, with comedians like Reggie Watts, we see that “absent mindedness” and the “lord of dreams” remain.  In fact, this kind of comedy is emulated in a time when people are well integrated.  It seems as if Watts’ very popularity is proof that Arendt was wrong. But here’s the catch: Watts isn’t Jewish.  Nonetheless, the character he plays is without a doubt a schlemiel.  The “lord of dreams” need no longer have a basis in a political reality so much as in the image of a cultural niche or world which is “exceptional” and yet “free” from the world while being in the world.

What I find most interesting about Watts is that he plays the exceptional schlemiel and gives us a more “mystical” (dreamy) sense of being aloof than many historical schlemiels.  He is focused and unfocused.

Punning on this theme, I’d say that we see a great display of this focused/unfocused state in his Ford Focus commercial.

In this commercial, we learn from the narrator that Watts, a “lyrical genius,” is “lacking one thing”: a Ford Focus.   Since the narrator is so nice and wants to fill Watt’s “lack” they “let him borrow a Fusion for three months…which he kind of fell in love with.”   In honor of this “gift,” and bursting with poetic love for the car, Watts, a postmodern “lord of dreams,” gives his “impromptu songamonial” about the car.

The images of Watts, his repetitive humming loop, and the little matchbox model of the car spinning (in slow motion) hypnotically touch the viewer of this commercial.  These effects, taken together, look to create a kind of lord-of-dreams affect.  But this is enhanced by the child-like fascination and love Watts has for the matchbox car.

At one point (:29 seconds in), Watts kisses the car, smiles, and laughs at the camera.  We then see imaginary drawn clouds raining on the car.  Watts lovingly looks at the car (like a concerned lover who doesn’t want to see his beloved harmed by rain) and talks about how the car looks when as it responds to the rain.   He then shows that all is well with a smile: he is happy, the car is sheltered from harm.  After smiling, he looks up to indicate that maybe, in his absent mindedness, this is a miracle from Heaven and not a miracle sponsored by the Ford Motor Corporation (which is the ironic twist).

From here, Watts goes on to talk about the “SONY audio edition” of the car.  He gets mystical and dreamy while focusing on the all the details of the sound system.  Then he links to the GPS system which, he notes, one can talk to.  As he points out how the GPS  will get one to where one wants to go, we see an image with detours and turns (suggesting that Watts is a wandering poet but the car will get him to the focused destination while allowing him to be free and, like a schlemiel, wander).

Then, for the last segment, Watts drops slang terms from Hip Hop Culture as he talks about the “cruise control” and “radar.” Drawn waves, illustrating his words, emanate from the car (1:40-1:46).  These waves continue and suggest a mystical absent-mindedness connected to these hidden radar waves.   While we see this, Watts waxes poetic-mystical and foregrounds the schlemiel poet when he says that the “Fusion can be anything you want…if you use your imagination.”

Immediately following this, Watts uses his imagination (coupled, of course, with drawn images edited in for effect) and says that other cars he had driven were “splooshy” and felt like a “covered wagon” while driving the Focus felt like driving a “spaceship.”

Following this, we see a series of edited absent-minded references to the cars features. The segment ends with Reggie making a hypnotic statement: “watch it roll…watch it spin.”  We see a spinning matchbox car with a flag with the hashtag #backatyou.

And the last image we see is an image that expresses Watts’ crush on the car: Reggie + Fusion in a drawn heart.

The subject of the ad is clear, focused: it is Watts’ exceptional, absent-minded love for the car.  To be sure, his love is focused and unfocused.  This ambiguity makes for a new “lord of dreams.”  And instead of it being based on natural freedom which searches for a world, as Arendt claimed with Heine, we have a freedom that is based on the flights of the imagination, hip-hop culture, mysticism, capitalism, and much else.  As we can see, Watts can be absent-minded and still be guided through the world by his Ford Focus.   It will shelter him from danger.

Arendt would be aghast at a “lord of dreams” who was encouraged to dream not about political freedom so much as the Ford Focus.  With such affluence and so much normality, it seems that comedians like Reggie Watts insist on being eccentric.  Being the exceptional schlemiel is, for Watts, to be  rhythmic, hip, spaced-out, and highly ironic.

Reggie’s schlemiel-like performance in this piece does not serve as a way of “challenging the status quo” so much as creating and marketing a comic-mystical absent-minded sensibility.  This can be used to sell products, as we see in this commercial.  But this is a general trend and as the people who made this video well-understand, there is a large market out there for absent-mindedness and wacky, ironic eccentricity.  In other words, there is a large market for these new types of schlemiels.

The “Lord of Dreams” didn’t die, as Arendt argues at the end of her essay, when Superman displaced Charlie Chaplin.  The schlemiel lived on and it lives on through Watts and many others.  The question is what this means for her thesis about the schlemiel and what she envisioned for Jews in America.

As we can see from Watts, the schlemiel lives on and it is no longer tied to the fate of Jews (as Arendt envisioned) as to capitalism and a large niche culture of Americans who, in this instance, may or may not buy the Ford Focus as a result of the musings of this “lord of dreams.”   It all hinges on how they are affected by the “lyrical genius’s…impromptu songamonial.”  The Focus could be the vehicle they need to become a more focused/unfocused late-capitalist, mystical schlemiel – like Reggie Watts.