Joan Rivers and Holocaust Humor

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During the week of Robin Williams death, I wrote a piece on his role in Jakob the Liar. As I pointed out, Williams didn’t shy away from the challenge of bringing humor to the Holocaust. To this end, he decided to take on the role of the schlemiel, Jakob, who did his utmost to distance the Lodz ghetto from its impending doom.   He and Roberto Bengnini – who wrote and played the main role in Life is Beautiful – turned to the schlemiel and both were duly criticized for this since, “after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno and several Holocaust scholars who follow in his wake argue that humor, much like poetry, might be thought to be unethical when it comes to representing the Holocaust.   However, what makes the schlemiel interesting is, as Sidrah Ezrahi suggests, that its brand of comedy “revolts” against the world so as to preserve hope.   But that revolt is in the name of innocence.

While Bengini and Williams took to the schlemiel in the face of the Holocaust, Joan Rivers took more to a comic style that was in the spirit of Lenny Bruce (who, arguably, made a major impression on Rivers and changed her way of doing comedy).   These jokes do not preserve innocence so much as the spirit of revolt itself.   They strike at the civility that is at the core of the west.   And, as David Biale argues, Lenny Bruce created a new sense of Jewishness as a position that was not so much American as marginal, counter-cultural, and against the status quo. And because Rivers is “Jewish,” perhaps in Bruce’s sense, her Holocaust jokes take on another aspect.

The most recent joke Joan told about the Holocaust was on Fashion Police. In this joke she likens the “hotness” of Heidi Klum’s ass in a dress to the hotness of Germans “pushing Jews into the ovens” in concentration camps:

On CNN she was asked if she regretted telling the joke. She starts off by saying that it’s “just a joke,” notes that a large part of her husbands family died in the Holocaust, and finishes up by saying that her joke prompts this generation to think about the Holocaust (simply because it’s not on their minds and this will spur them to think).   After being asked again if she will apologize, she notes how her Jewishness keeps her from criticism: “Why don’t you worry about Mel Gibson? Why don’t you worry about the anti-Semites out there?” But the clincher is that the main thing is to laugh because if you can laugh “you can deal with it.”

This principle, it seems, is nearly identical to the one used by Begnini and Williams in their use of the schlemiel. It is not simply revolt for the sake of revolt. It seems that Rivers is suggesting this and the fact that it can spur people to think about the Holocaust.

In her interview with WSJ live, she says something a little different. She begins by saying the joke is on the Germans; they and not the ADL and Abe Foxman should be upset.   And she finishes off the discussion by noting what Dick Cavett said via Mark Twain: “Against the assault of humor, nothing can stand. Don’t flinch, Joan.” In other words, comedy is pure revolt.  Perhaos Cavett is suggesting the same thing as Lenny Bruce: Jewish comedy should always be in  revolt. She says it’s a brilliant comment (several times, in fact).

This year Rivers began her appearance on Jimmy Fallon (the first return to the Tonight Show for decades – since she was “banned” from the show) made a Holocaust joke about how if the German’s could successfully kill millions of Jews at least they could make cars that work. Its interesting that, in following up this joke, she told a joke about her getting vagina rings, and then she turned to a joke dealing with ethnicity and emotion. The joke is an inside/outsider joke. She asks Fallon if he is Irish. He says yes and then she says that she and Fallon get this but WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) don’t. (This initial insider/outsider joke hearkens back to Lenny Bruce’s jokes about what’s “Jewish” and “Goyish,” meaning WASPish.

Her Jewish/Goyish kind of routine with Fallon sughests that she us in the same camp as all ethnic comedians who fight to succeed in a WASP culture.  This seems to authorize her to tell jokes about anything, even the Holocaust.

But this is not the first time she has told jokes on the Holocaust.   In her book I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me (2012), Rivers tells jokes about Hitler, the Holocaust, and Anne Frank.

On Hitler:

“I hate people who say they’re ‘workaholics…There is no such thing. Hitler put in a lot of hours. Would you call him a workaholic? People who work 24/7 are not ‘addicted’ to work … they either hate their families or don’t have basic cable.”

On Anne Frank:

“They only order half a chicken, take two bites, then put it in a doggie bag to take home, where it lasts them for six months. Anne Frank didn’t hoard food like this, and that bitch was hungry.”

And in Larry King’s interview with her in 2010, King asks Rivers about Holocaust humor in 5:49.   He asks her if there is any “area you will not go to?” And she says, “No. If I think I want to talk about, it’s right to talk about.” And she goes on to say that if she were in “Auschwitz she would tell jokes just to make it ok for us.”

And she concludes, as she did three years later, that if you make something funny you can deal with it. Both statements are telling, but the first is more telling since it has resonance with the films made by Begnini and Williams. Both of them play characters who also tell jokes to help make it ok for us. But the “us” is different and so are the jokes. The humor that Robbins and Begnini use is the humor of the schlemiel. It’s purpose is to make fool younger people so as to preserve their innocence. In contrast, one can imagine that River’s humor, inside of Auschwitz, would have been much different. Instead of prompting Jews to live “as if” the good still exists (and preserving innocence), one can imagine that her jokes would be anything but innocent. However, they would work in the same way: they would make things ok for us (for fellow Jews who were suffering in the Holocaust). And this suggest that Rivers would use humor to revolt against the world. By saying no to it, things would be “ok for us.”

One may disagree with this approach – and many Holocaust scholars and the ADL have. But one needs to ask not just whether humor is tenable after Auschwitz but whether it is tenable during Auschwitz. This is what Rivers suggests to Larry King. And, unlike Williams and Bengini, she saw the Jewish humor that subscribes to vulgarity as more powerful than the humor that subscribes to the schlemiel when it comes to the Holocaust. And this difference also shows us a difference between two trends in post-Holocaust Jewish-American humor: one leaning toward Lenny Bruce and the other toward the traditional schlemiel that we see in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” In the face of Evil, Gimpel acts “as if” good exists. In contrast, Rivers, in contrast, laughs at Evil. And perhaps her revolt is the demonstration (instead of an acting “as if”) of what’s best in humanity.

And this appeal to comedy – in the face of disaster – harkens back to what Walter Benjamin once said of Franz Kafka: “the only thing Kafka was certain of is that only humor helps. The question, however, is whether it can do humanity any good.”

Humor as Prosthesis: On Comic Word Play and Ironic Victories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Animating the Text: Jake Marmer’s Talmudic Jazz-Poetics

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When it comes to art and poetry, I am very demanding.  And the reason for this has to do with who I am, where I come from, and what I dream about.   But, ultimately, I’m not so unique.  I feel as if there are many Jewish people out there who, like me, are yearning for a poetry that merges music, performance, and comedy with something that speaks to being Jewish, being American, and being close to something indescribable that seems to be coming at us from different directions.  On my search for this kind of poetry, I have come across the work of few poets who, at one time in my life, spoke to my being Jewish, being American, and so forth.   These poets – my poetic Rabbis, so to speak – are Allen Ginsburg, Charles Bernstein, and Jerome Rothenberg.   What I like about all of them is the fact that they all, in some way, bring their Jewishness to bear on a poetry that is performative, musical, and, at times, comical.   But, as I said, their work appealed to me at one time.  Today, I need something different and this is only because I have changed and so have the times we live in.   Unlike the past, I feel now, more than ever, that I – and others of my generation who wish to make Jewishness more relevant and exciting – need to find a new way to animate the Jewish text.  I believe that it can be animated by a new Jewish poetics and culture which can live in the present, draw on the past, and, using the best means it has at its disposal, open itself to a new future.  By opening the text (as the Zohar says in a different context), the new Jewish poet can lead the way into an exciting new form of Jewish life that is comic, poetic, musical, and performative.  And we can, so to speak, dance to this new Jewish tune.

On this (musical) note, I think I have found a new Jewish poet who I can listen to and join with in the project of creating a new Jewish culture.  His performance-poetry speaks to my comic Jewish –American sensibility in the most innovative and inspiring ways.  His name is Jake Marmer.   His first work of poetry is entitled Jazz Talmud.  It was published in 2011 by Sheepmeadow Press.    And, most recently, he has put together a CD entitled Hermeneutic Stomp which takes the poems from his book and brings them to life by way of Jazz. His CD will be released in New York City on October 14th .

For now, I’d like to go through one of these poems so as to point out how he, drawing on the tradition of the poets I have mentioned above (and a Jewish tradition called the Talmud), animates the text in a comic manner.  Fortunately, we have a video from Youtube that shows Marmer at work with his Jazz group.   Seeing this, after I have discussed the poem, can help to give you (my dear reader) an idea of how the performance of his poetry adds another dimension to his work.

At the end of an essay Marmer wrote for Shema: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, entitled Improvised Poetry: Palimpest of Drafts,  Marmer cites a poem from Jazz Talmud (a poem which also appears in his Hermeneutic Stomp CD) and notes to the reader that his poetry plays on the relationship of the Mishnah to the Gemara.  Here is the poem. It’s entitled the “Mishnah of Loneliness”:

Mishnah of Loneliness

There’re three types of loneliness in the world:

green, red, and purple. So says the house of

Hillel. In the house of Shammai, they say: loneliness

is either black or white; all other types

don’t exist and require a sacrifice of a young

goat: your internal goat.

Says Rava: in all of my years, I have not

known loneliness. All day I’m at the yeshiva

with you nudniks, then I come home to groveling

domestic tractates. One day, I stepped

outside and screamed: Master, I want you

in silence, in absence, in wordless music of

our solitude! Right then I saw a great ladder,

reaching to the Throne up high. The Throne
— was empty — but up and down the steps,

there went lost sounds, scales of unused and

discarded words, slip-ups, swallowed hallucinations,

choked on ecstasies — a whole decontextualized

orchestra racing like goats through

the fog.

The voice said: this, Rava, is the room of my

absence, music of our solitude. You like it? Go

home! Stuff your ears with pages of sophistry; eat,

make a bad pun, for that is the meaning of peace.

Writing on this poem, Marmer points out that there is room in what he writes for improvisation and animation:

While the opening and middle sections of the poem are fairly set, the storytelling segment has room to let loose. As I recite it, I’m looking for openings, ideas, associated images, and commentary that I did not think of when I was working on the original draft.

This structure gives him the opportunity to change his poetry (or his way of saying it) while he is in the moment of performance.  And this gives the poetry more life since it is, so to speak, full of gaps and opportunities for play and interaction (with the text, the musicians, and the audience).  Adding to this reflection on the improvisational nature of his poetry, Marmer notes the Jewish dimension by pointing out how he is playing with “Talmudic form”:

In this particular piece, I’m also playing with the historical talmudic form, which combined memorization/repetition (“mishnah”)with discourse/discussion/riffing/tangents (“gemarah”).

Building on his reference to the Talmud to his work, I would suggest that we read the interplay of voices and opinions – in this particular poem – as comical.  To be sure, what I find so interesting about this poem in particular is the fact that it has a very pronounced comic dimension to it which works by way of indirection.  It gives loneliness three colors (none of which are blue). And in the jazz performance, each color also has a different sound.   Playing on the endless Talmudic disputes between two Talmudic schools (Shammai and Hillel), he attributes this reading to the “house of Hillel” (which is usually associated with more lenient and compassionate readings of the law and is associated with the saying that the whole Torah is to “love your brother as yourself”).  In contrast to Hillel’s colorful interpretation of loneliness, he presents Shammai’s reading which is that loneliness can either be one color or another; it can’t be three colors.  And if you appeal to these, a sacrifice will have to be made: “your internal goat.”

This dichotomy between the two Rabbis – and the whole focus on loneliness – is challenged by Rava who says he has never known loneliness.  And the punch line is that he has not known it because he has always been “surrounded by nudnicks” (a nudnick is an irritating person – a person who nags) at Yeshiva.  At this point, the humor really kicks in since Rava prays to God to be left alone.  He can’t take the nudnicks.

He then has a “vision.”  But what he sees is something that the exiled poet, musician, and Rabbi share: words, sounds, and visions that are incomplete.  Marmer animates the words by describing them in a diverse and comic manner: “lost sounds, scales of unused and discarded words, slip-ups, swallowed hallucinations.”

After hearing this, God, sounding much like Woody Allen’s God in he speech to Abraham in “The Scrolls,” asks Rava if he likes the “whole decontextualized orchestra” (which he calls the “room of my absence, music of our solitude”):  “You like it? Go home! Stuff your ears with pages of sophistry, eat, make a bad pun for that is the meaning of peace.”

The last words of the poem suggest that God is spurring Rava to leave this serious room “of my absence” and to turn to comedy: to “stuff his ears with sophistry, eat, make a bad pun.”

This is telling and, ultimately, sounds a comic note.

Here is a video of this poem when it is performed.

What I love about the CD is the fact that what you hear on it is different from what you see and hear in this video.  What makes this so appealing to me is the fact that the structure of the piece gives him another opportunity to say it and find new ways of accenting this comic-Talmudic narrative.

More importantly, this poem (and its performance) speaks to me because it outlines what’s Jewish about his poetry: it looks to challenge the loneliness that goes hand-in-hand with so much poetry. It reminds me of the contrast between the style James Joyce uses to describe Leopold Bloom (the Jew) and Stephen Dedalus (the Gentile). The former style is more animated and comic.  And, as any reader of Ulysses knows, Bloom never seems to be lonely since he’s always relating to something.  He seems to be in a constant conversation with memories, people, things around him, and even animals.

When Marmer recites poetry and his band responds to each of his words with this or that note or sequence of notes, the “Mishnah of Loneliness” becomes the Mishnah of peace.  It tells the tale of how we, as Jews, can speak to each other.  And the fellowship that comes out of this comic-musical-poetic conversation is not what Susan Sontag calls the “fellowship of suffering” so much as a “fellowship of comedy, music, and words.”  This poem is a part of a renewed oral tradition which, as I have pointed out, is comic in nature.  And this tradition, I aver, is the other side of the “fellowship of suffering.”  Rather than surrender to sadness, Jews know how to balance it out (and not laugh it away) with a sense of humor. This shines through in Marmer’s poetry.

This poem and all of Marmer’s poems speak to me – especially when they are accompanied by the music of musicians who respond.  They speak to me in a Talmudic sense and in a Jewish sense.  I love that the music responds to each of Marmer’s notes. That, for me, is what animation is all about.  Moreover, such response is also the basis for peace since peace, as any poet knows, is based on some form of conversation.

As an American and as a Jew, as a person who lives in the present but is related to an ancient past and an uncertain future, I think these parts of myself, which I share with my fellow American Jews, need to engage in more dialogue.  And I think Marmer has found a great way of starting this conversation.  Although Marmer is aware that we have had a Talmud for centuries which has shown us how to live our lives, he knows that today what we need more than ever is a Jazz Talmud. That is a step in the right direction.  A Jazz Talmud can start a new conversation, one that speaks to me and to many of my generation who want to reconcile the differing opinions about what’s Jewish, what’s American, and how the two can converse with each other.

Onward ho!

Check out Marmer’s work on his blog: Jake Marmer’s Bop Apocalypse: Poetry, Philosophy, Existential Rants.   Also check out his new CD and, if you’d like, join him at the CD release party on October 14th at the Cornelia Street Café at 8:30pm. 

 

The Difference Between Sadism and Masochism as the Difference Between Irony and Humor

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One of the most interesting distinctions I have come across, regarding comedy, deals with the distinction made by Gilles Deleuze (a French philosopher) between humor and irony.  According to Deleuze, in his book entitled Masochism, we find irony in Sadism and humor in Masochism (I am capitalizing these words for the sake of emphasis).  As a thinker who is interested in “leaving metaphysics behind,” Deleuze makes the interesting claim that Sadism simply reinstates metaphysics even through it purports to destroy it.   In contrast, Deleuze thinks that Masochism does leave it behind.  Evidence of this distinction can be found in the irony and humor we find in the work of Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, respectively.

The reason this distinction is of such interest to me is not simply that it is unexpected; rather, it is also of interest because, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the psychologist Theodor Reik and the cultural critic Albert Goldman both “psychologize” the schlemiel by claiming that he is a masochistic character or, quite simply, a person who, in fear of reality, finds excuses and “rationalizes” inaction:

‘Psychoanalysis,’ writes Theodor Reik, ‘would characterize the schlemihl as a masochistic character who has strong unconscious will to fail and spoil his chances.’  Explaining the popularity of the schlemiel pose in modern culture, Albert Goldman calls it an excuse, an apology, and a rationalization.  (68)

To be sure, the basis of her reading of the schlemiel – in major part – is based on challenging the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  She argues against the psychoanalyst who “treats the schlemiel concept as a neurotic symptom and tries to determine the causes of a patient’s failure in actual situations.”    In contrast, while the author “may or may not be aware of the ‘masochistic need to fail’ that dominates the subconscious of his (schlemiel) character,” such “knowledge may be irrelevant to the story.”  Wisse claims that, in a story like “Gimpel the Fool,” the “irony…rests on our ability to perceive his failure as a success”(68).  And Gimpel’s “antipragmatic philosophy mocks the need for classification and rationalization of which the tendency to define Gimpel as a masochist is a good example”(68).  This mockery of psychological explanations – namely, the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character – affirms, by way of irony, goodness:

Since the schlemiel is above all a reaction against the evil surrounding him, he must reject more and more as the evil increases; Gimpel is prepared to walk into eternity in pursuit of personal goodness. (69).

Read against Wisse’s take on Masochism, Deleuze’s reading offers another way of addressing the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  I’d like to break his reading down and test Wisse’s reading against it so as to see how or whether Deleuze’s reading has any relevance to schlemiel theory.

Cutting right to the chase, Deleuze writes that “in modern thought irony and humor take on a new form: they are now directed at a subversion of the law”(86).   Both Sade and Masoch (respectively, the founders of what, today, is called Sadism and Masochism), “represent the two main attempts at subversion, at turning the law upside down.”  But the ways they went about doing this and the success in doing so differ radically.

In view of his claim, Deleuze offers definitions of irony and humor in terms of law.  Writing on irony, he states:

Irony is still in the process or movement which bypasses the law as a merely secondary power and aims at transcending it toward a higher principle. (86)

Deleuze’s reading speaks directly to the Socratic practice of irony where “Good” is a principle toward which one transcends one’s “secondary nature” in the name of one’s “primary nature.”   Through irony, one “discovers” one’s “primary nature.”   Sade, like Nietzsche after him, took the Good as their target.  And, as Deleuze notes, they used irony to “overturn” it; or rather reveal that the Good no longer exists and can no longer be used as the basis of law:

But what is the higher principle no longer exists, and if the Good can no longer provide the basis for the law or a justification of its power?  Sade’s answer is that in all its forms – natural, moral, and political – the law represents the rule of secondary nature which is always geared toward conservation; it is a usurpation of true sovereignty.  (86)

Sade sees the law as the basis of all of societies problems.  It is the basis of tyranny.  Deleuze paraphrases Sade as saying: “Tyrants are created by the law alone: they flourish by virtue of the law”(86).  Sade’s hatred of tyranny is the “essence of his thinking.”  And the heroes of his novels speak the “counter-language of tyranny.”

Sade looks to transcend the law, but not toward the Good (as Socrates would do); rather, he transcends the law toward the “direction of its opposite, the Idea of Evil, the supreme principle of wickedness, which subverts the law and turns Platonism upside down”(87).  (Note: The notion or rather language of inverting Platonism was stressed in a several aphorisms by Friedrich Nietzsche.)  By way of such a process, one will discover his or her “primary nature,” which, in Sade’s view is the opposite of tyranny.  Citing Sade, Deleuze notes that, for Sade, law is “inferior” to “anarchy”:

The law can only be transcended by virtue of a principle that subverts it and denies its power.  

This principle is, according to Deleuze, at the basis of the Sadean irony which destroys the law in order to transcend the law.  But, as Deleuze notes, we are still in the realm of metaphysics since one principle (the Idea of Evil) replaces another (the Idea of the Good).

Deleuze contrasts Sade’s ironic challenge to the law to the Masochist’s challenge, which is based, instead, on what Deleuze calls humor.  Although they both take the law as their “target,” the ironist and the humorist, like the Masochist and the Sadist, are fundamentally different.  However, this assertion may rightfully meet with a puzzled look since, to be sure, the Masochist is one who submits (and here, one would say, submits to the law). Deleuze, nonetheless, claims the opposite: a “masochist would not by contrast be regarded as gladly submitting to it (the law)”(88).

So, what is humor as opposed to irony?  And how does it relate to Masochism?

Deleuze uses a spatial metaphor to illustrate:

What we call humor –in contradistinction to the upward movement of irony toward a transcendent higher principle – is a downward movement from the law to its consequences.  (88)

This downward movement of humor is accomplished by “twisting the law by excess of zeal.”  In other words, one mocks the law by way of being “too zealous.”  And this is what Masochism-as-humor does:

By scrupulously applying the law we are able to demonstrate its absurdity and provoke the very disorder that it is intended to prevent or to conjure.  By observing the letter of the law, we refrain from questioning its ultimate or primary character; we then behave as if the supreme sovereignty of the law conferred upon it the enjoyment of all those pleasures it denies us; hence, by the closest adherence to it, and by zealously embracing it, we may hope to partake of its pleasures. (88)

This speaks directly to the Masochist since:

A close examination of masochistic fantasies or rites reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest applications of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be expected (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it).  It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity. (88)

How can we, based on this reading, address the schlemiel?  While for Reik and Goodman, Masochism vis-à-vis the schlemiel has a negative value, for Deleuze, Masochism (and its essence: humor) has a positive value: it challenges the law in ways that Sadism cannot.   By over-observing the law one makes it absurd.

A good example of this is evoked by the film theorist and critic Steve Shaviro.  In his book Cinematic Bodies, he writes on Jerry Lewis as a figure of Masochism.  By being over-zealous and through intense mimicry, Shaviro tells us, Jerry Lewis masochistically inverts the law (or the norm).

In the next blog entry, we will continue on this thread and look into how or whether this reading of Masochism and humor relates to the schlemiel.  After all, Jerry Lewis does play a schlemiel.  But this reading is focused less on the psychologizations that Ruth Wisse criticized than on a different way of understanding one’s relation to “the law.”

An Experiment: What Happens When you Substitute Humor for Poetry?

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Writing on poetry in his book Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes makes the argument that “interrupted flow of the new poetic language initiates a discontinuous Nature, which is only revealed piecemeal.”  It does this by “withdrawing” the natural functions of language.  When this “withdrawal” happens, “the relations existing in the world” are obscured.  And what happens is that now, in poetry, one is faced with the “object” or rather relations: in “it (the new poetry) nature becomes a fragmented space, made of objects solitary and terrible, because the links between them are only potential.”

Reading this, I wondered what would happen if, for “new poetic language,” I were to substitute the word “humor.”   I thought this would be an interesting experiment so as to test Roland Barthes claims.  After all, humor also plays on relations between things and it “withdraws” the natural function of language by surprising us with unexpected combinations of word, gesture, and physical presence.

But, for Barthes, poetic language is surprising in a terrifying way.  As we saw above, nature, by way of new poetry, becomes full of “solitary and terrible” objects because their relations are “only potential.”  For Barthes, nature becomes unhinged by way of the “new poetry” and nothing is projected on to these “potential” links/relations:

Nobody chooses for them a privileged meaning, or a particular use, or some service; nobody imposes a hierarchy on them, nobody reduces them to the manifestation of a mental behaviour, or of an intention, of some evidence of tenderness.

The poetic word leaves one, so to speak, speechless and powerless.   It assaults one with a world of “verticalities, of objects, suddenly standing erect, and filled with all their possibilities: one of these can be only a landmark in an unfulfilled, and thereby, terrible world.”  Moreover, “these poetic words” or rather objects “exclude men.”  They relate man “not to other men, but to the most inhuman images of Nature: heaven, hell, holiness, childhood, madness, pure matter, etc.”    And it destroys “any ethical scope.”

Can we, in all seriousness, replace what Barthes is saying about poetry with humor?  Can we say that humor “excludes” men and relates man to “hell, holiness, childhood, madness, etc”?  What does humor relate us to?  Other people?  Things human or inhuman?

What I would like to do is think relationality in terms of the comic.  Barthes, like the German philospher Martin Heidegger (in essays like “What is Metaphysics,” “Letter on Humanism,” and the “Origin of the Work of Art”) , wants to give poetry the role of making things strange and inhuman.  But why, one should ask, is comedy and laughter excluded from that space?  Are they too human and familiar?  Is comedy or laughter “too social” or “too ethical”?  After all, Henri Bergson thought its primary activity was social.  Comedy excludes that which gets in the way of natural, creative evolution: élan vital.  We laugh at that which is “mechanical” and not natural – at that which doesn’t change and become, that which repeats itself needlessly.

Charles Baudelaire had a radically different reading of humor.  In fact, for him, humor changes our relation to ourselves and others. It estranges us.   And his primary example actually involves revisiting childhood – a broken one – by way of the writer ETA Hoffman, who writes of how a little girl becomes the object of laughter by way of her losing her relations to the world.  He also cites mimes as altering these relations.

But mime is not poetry and neither is ETA Hoffman’s work; nonetheless, Baudelaire found the work mimes and Hoffman did to be invaluable to himself (a poet). Nonetheless, the serious approach to poetics, as the basis of some kind of post-humanism, by way of Heidegger, Barthes, and even Maurice Blanchot, cannot entertain the possibility that humor can make things strange.

What’s interesting with humor is the fact that the shock that may or may not be invoked by this or that joke reverberates with both anxiety and with a sense of discovery.  Moreover, the best comedians disclose a potentiality to us that plays with things we take as “natural” and it does so in a way that is not completely alienating.

I find this fact fascinating since, in a way, it is a utopian kind of language since it appeals to the people and doesn’t simply look to alienate them.  To be sure, comedy’s power is in its ability to challenge nature and accepted relations while, at the same time, evoking something different and surprising.   Barthes himself evokes a utopian language at the end of Writing Degree Zero that relates the new poetry to the Revolutionary and a “new power.”   But, for him (as for Sartre) literature or poetry must lead the way; not comedy.  For both of them, there is nothing funny about revolution or utopia.  Strangely enough, this seriousness and this piety to language and thought are more aligned with mystics than with comics.

And perhaps that’s the rub.  The comical approach to challenging our relations to all kinds of things – such as cell phones, parenting, race, politics, etc etc – are at play in comedy. And the potential of comedy is, in so many ways, more powerful than that of straight up “new poetry” (which, don’t get me wrong, I really love).  Nonetheless, I find it fascinating that someone like Barthes wouldn’t even entertain this. And I think this has a lot to do with the trends that were going on in his time.

I am very influenced by his work and the work of Continental thinkers.  However, what I realize is that the best test for their work, as far as schlemiel-in-theory goes, is comedy.  In this case, substituting comedy for poetry – for purely experimental reasons – can change the way we look at Barthes profound approach to language.  It can also offer us another way to think the comical – minus all that poetic seriousness.  And we can ask, for better or for worse, what the “potential” of comedy is, how it renders us powerless, and how it puts forth the potential for a new distribution of power.   Perhaps we can say, playing on Barthes (and even Blanchot) that comedy has the power of powerlessness behind it. But, as I noted before, comedy is all in the timing.  And this power of powerlessness must, so to speak, stand the test of time.

Cynicism and Hope: On Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”

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Last night I had the opportunity of seeing Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine.  Since I have great interest in the work of Woody Allen and two of the characters he has cast in the film (Andrew Dice Clay and Louis CK), I took an immediate interest in the film and was eager to see it.  I have blogged and written on all of them and I was curious to see how or whether any comic elements could be found in the film that was, as many reviewers pointed out, not comical at all.

Much has been written on this film already.   Reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post (amongst many others) already dot the landscape.

Regarding these reviews, nearly all of them note how Allen, in the making of this film, was very influenced by Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  And they all noted the obvious relation to the Bernie Madoff fallout.  Regarding the reviews, I will briefly defer to the words of the critic David Denby who, in my view, does a fine job laying the plot and themes of the film out.  What interests me most, in his review, is how he reads the comical element.  Denby notes that Jasmine, played by Kate Blanchett,

is a snob and a liar, and, at times, delusional (she talks to herself), but, like Blanche DuBois, she’s mesmerizing. You can’t get enough of her, and Cate Blanchett, who played Blanche on Broadway only a few years ago, gives the most complicated and demanding performance of her movie career. The actress, like her character, is out on a limb much of the time, but there’s humor in Blanchett’s work, and a touch of self-mockery as well as an eloquent sadness. When she drops her voice to its smoky lower register, we know that she’s teasing the tragic mode. That edge of self-parody keeps us close to her, and we need that closeness, because we’re in for a rough ride.

Without this comic element of self-parody, we would despise her.  But, as Denby points out, the harsh element is constant throughout.  This, Denby avers, has much to do with Allen’s outlook on life, as reflected in this film:

Allen, who’s now seventy-seven, has become flintier as he has got older. His men and women tell one another off; the social clashes among people from different ways of life can be harsh and unforgiving.

In other words, with age Allen wants to knit a closer relationship between comedy and suffering.  In effect, Allen’s film shows us how, in his view, class-difference, in our era, taints comedy:

Allen, in his own way, is commenting on our increasingly unequal society: the formerly rich woman and the working-class characters don’t begin to get one another’s jokes and references; they don’t understand one another’s needs—they don’t even see them.

Nonetheless, Denby wants to point out how the comic element survives, albeit in a way that is admixed with the tragic.   Allen now uses the comic element to produce a “miraculous” identification between the audience and Jasmine.

The miracle is that we feel for Jasmine—or, at least, our responses to her are divided between laughter and sympathy. When she takes a job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, and the patients can’t decide when to schedule their next appointment, her irritation at their fumbling is both funny and recognizable.

What I like about Denby’s reading of the film is how he phrases our odd identification with Jasmine.  Our laughter at her way of handling her new work and life take off the edge. And we, for a few moments, see her as something other than a snob.  We can understand how ridiculous her situation is and we identify with her through laughter and tears, which keep each other in check.

Unlike Denby, I would say that, though I identified with Jasmine in this “miraculous” fashion, this identification was momentary and was often overshadowed by the other element which taints all of our identifications in the film; namely, the effect and dynamic of dishonesty and cynicism.

I was very troubled by this overwhelming presence as I stand behind the comic task of the schlemiel which is to maintain the tension between skepticism and hope.  The schlemiel, though foolish, stands on the side of trust and honesty. We see this in many classical schlemiels: from Rabbi Nachman of Breslav and Sholem Aleichem’s simpletons to I.B. Singer’s Gimpels and Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer types.  Although these characters are weathered by reality and lies, the element of trust remains.  It doesn’t triumph so much as remain in the balance.  When this tension collapses, we are in trouble.  It implies that what is best in humanity has been effaced.

At the end of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that in an era in which there is too much optimism or too much skepticism, the schlemiel cannot exist.

Allen’s film illustrates this principle-of-sorts.  To be sure, his film speaks to the cynicism that has grown post-Madoff.  And this overshadows much of the trust and hope we see in the film.  However, the fact of the matter is that although Andrew Dice Clay’s character is ruined by the games of the rich, his ex-wife (Jasmine’s sister, Ginger – played by Sally Hawkins) manages to start a new life.

She plays something of an innocent and hopeful schlemiel character.   Although Blanchett is obviously the focus of the entire film, it is Ginger who, at the very end of the film, retains some element of hope and trust.  She wants nothing to do with the cynicism that goes along with big-money and corruption.

Nonetheless, the best illustration of what is at stake in this film (and with the schlemiel) can be found in Blanchett’s relationship with Ginger’s children.  Although they openly disclose what they have heard from their parents about Jasmine and her husband’s lies and corruption, they don’t understand it.  In a key scene where Jasmine tells it all, they look back at her in astonishment not knowing what she is actually saying.   Her language is not theirs.

In truth, all of the adult characters are tainted by cynicism.  The children are, too.  But they don’t know it.  And, at the very least, I think it is important to note this.  The comic element survives best in them.  They retain the element of a schlemiel in a society which has become inundated with post-Madoff cynicism.

Though the film ends with Blanchett walking the streets alone, homeless, and delirious, this still leaves us with a horrible feeling we cannot forget that while most of us have been ruined by cynicism there are some who aren’t.  Children, in this film, are the schlemiels.  We need to ask ourselves what this implies.

The more we lie to each other, the more our humanity is lost.  Cynicism is the greatest threat to the schlemiel and to our humanity.  I applaud Woody Allen for bringing this out in Blue Jasmine.

He illustrates what Irving Howe, citing Saul Bellow, saw about Sholem Aleichem’s comedy; namely, that what makes Jewish humor relevant is the fact that it oscillates between laughter and tears.  And, as I have pointed out, this oscillation is based on the violation of trust.  Without trust, we can only cry.

Paraphrasing Denby, I would say that the miracle is not simply our feeling for Blanchett; it is the fact that the children don’t totally understand how dishonest people can be.  It’s the last remnant we have.  And, as I would argue, their lack of understanding, like that of any schlemiel, may give us time….time to change our ways and learn to trust one another once again.   Perhaps this is a foolish hope, but, in truth, it is the hope of a schlemiel.

It is our last remnant of humanity in a post-Madoff age.

A Note on Witold Gombrowicz and Simone Weil

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I have been reading parts of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s diary.  I read him and include him in Schlemiel-in-Theory because I think his comic novels (Ferdydurke being my favorite) and many of his comic reflections on himself have schlemiel-like resonances.   He is an exceptional writer who has been recognized by Susan Sontag and others.

For now, I only want to note a few diary entries which caught my eye.  The first is dated 1956. The place it was written in – Mar de Plata (a city in Argentina; since he left Poland for Argentina before WWII – is also noted.

In his “Thursday” entry, he reflects on Simone Weil’s La pesanteur et la grace.   To preface his thoughts, he points out how his generation can’t stomach the metaphyics of Kant or the Theologians. The issue, here, being God:

We, the grandchildren of Kierkegaard, can no longer digest the reasoned God of Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, or Kant.  My generation’s relationship with abstraction is completely in ruins, or, rather, has coarsened because we evidence a completely peasant distrust of it. (212)

After noting this, Gombrowicz reflects on himself.  But this time he notes how he is pushed toward metaphysics although he is disheartened by it:

Life in its very monstrousness pushes me in the direction of metaphysics.  Wind, noise, house, all of this has stopped being “natural” because I myself am no longer nature but something gradually cast beyond its limits.  It is not I myself, but that which is coming to an end in  me that clamors for God, this need or necessity is not in my, but my predicament.

Following this reflection, Gombrowicz brings up Simone Weil’s approach to God and shows how he cannot accept her conclusions about God:

I look at her with amazement and saw: how, by means of what magic, has this woman been able to arrange herself so internally so that she is able to cope with what devastates me? 

He can’t turn to metaphysics even though he wants to, so where does he go with his religious desires?  Gombrowicz takes a comic turn.  He comically notes that he is “amazed” that people lives their lives based on principles that differ from his own.  And then he launches into a meditation on how small he is.  This meditation, it seems, suggests that for Gombrowicz the best response to monstrosity is not to take the religious leap suggested by Weil so much as a comic leap into humility and the accidental nature of arriving at this or that insight in his fiction:

I know no, absolutely no greatness.  I am a petit bourgeois promenader, who has wandered into the Alps or Himalayas.  My pen touches mighty and ultimate issues all the time, but if I have reached them, it was done while playing…As a boy I climbed up iont them and wandered around them frivolously.

Comparing himself to Weil, he points out that she is heroic while he is a coward: “whereas I constantly elude life, she takes it on fully, elle s’engage, she is the antithesis of my desertion.  Simone Weil and I are the sharpest contrast that one can imagine, two mutually exclusive interpretations.”  But, lest we not be fooled here, he is taking Weil and himself as comic targets of this and his following reflections.

The next day Gombrowicz takes an interesting detour which, to my mind, echoes this entry.  The next day he is on the beach and starts off with a meditation on what he sees:

Bodies, bodies, bodies…Today on the beaches sheltered from the southern gale, where the sun warms and roasts, a multitude of bodies, the great sensuality of beaches, yet as always, undercut, defeated.

As you can see, the final note is that he sees himself as a schlemiel or sorts – the “odd one out.”  He can’t fit into this beach scene.  And he can’t assert himself heroically on the page, as Weil does, or at the beach with the multitude of bodies in the resplendent sun.  Rather, sounding much like Portnoy at the end of Portnoy’s Complaint (but with a more tragic tone) he says, “Impotence overwhelms the beach, beauty, grace, charm. They are unimportant: they are not possessive, they neither wound nor engage….This impotence debilitated even me and I returned home without the least spark, powerless.”

He leaves the beach to go home and face the novel he is writing and he sarcastically notes that “I will have to exert myself to inject a little ‘brilliance’ into a scene that is like wet powder and wont’ ignite.”

The next day, the impotent artist turns to Simone Weil and says, quite frankly, that the words of religious passion sound “stupid” on his lips.  He feels like a fool who is trying to be holy.   But then he asks himself if Weil was really beyond the impotence of modernity and he notes, by way of Gustave Thibone’s criticism of Weil, that she wrote of religious passion because she was bored.

(This reading of Boredom and modernity, I’d like to note, sounds much like that of Charles Baudelaire’s which I have been blogging on.)

He also calls her a hermit who didn’t know how to deal with the monstrous world, and in this view he also sees himself or anyone who may turn to the holy out of desperation: “A hysterical woman, tormenting and boring, an egotist, whose swollen and aggressive personality is incapable of noticing others – a know of tensions, torments, hallucinations, and manias…”

Gombrowicz is attracted and repulsed by his own outburst about Weil.  After pointing this out, he writes to himself “calm down.”  The fact that he is excited and angry about Weil show us that he, in his own eyes, falls into a similar trap, a modern trap; but unlike Weil, he doesn’t believe in his profundities.  Instead, he sees himself as a failure who happens to run across things like a child at play.

And in this gesture, which is based on comically targeting a belief that human beings can be heroic (religiously or artistically) he avoids metaphysics.  This turn to childishness is fascinating as it can be found in several modern writers and thinkers – like Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Woody Allen, and Ernst Bloch (to name a few) – that schlemiel-in-theory addresses from time to time.