(Un)Happy Endings: Existential Reflections on “It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti”

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David Heti is an (un)timely comedian. His comedy speaks to a time that is becoming more and more unhappy with itself. (And I mean this in a good way since I believe that such unhappiness will prompt us to come out of our dogmatic slumber…and think.) Unlike many comedians whose jokes are purely scatological and childish, Heti’s jokes are thoughtful and deeply probing. He respects the intelligence of his audience and his comedy plays with our most deeply held beliefs which span our attitudes about families, sexuality, religion, and the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, Heti’s jokes hit at the fact that while, in the most philosophical sense, we all want to be happy (an insight that Aristotle saw fundamental to being-human), the fact of the matter is that our desire for happiness originates in (and returns to) a state of existential unhappiness.   And today – perhaps because of the internet, globalization, and withering economies – we are becoming more aware of this state of (unhappy) being. Heti’s comedy acknowledges it while, at the same time, giving us some comic relief.

(To be sure, Heti’s challenge is akin to the challenge posed by Judaism to Greek philosophy and culture.   Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, argues that philosophy starts with wonder (which Aristotle associates with unhappiness; wonder is attended by the feeling of “ignorance”) but ends with knowledge (happiness). Aristotle believes that our desire for knowledge will overcome this ignorance once we know the causes of things. In other words, knowledge makes us happy; ignorance makes us unhappy.   In contrast, Judaism puts a greater emphasis on the limits of knowledge. And instead of focusing solely on happiness and knowledge as the answer, it often focuses on time, suffering, and injustice. Centuries after Aristotle, GWF Hegel went so far as to call the Jews an “unhappy people.”   For Hegel, This unhappiness had to do with the fact that Jews live with uncertainty and many unanswered questions. The English critic Matthew Arnold argued that civilization is based on the tension between Jews and Greeks. I would go further and say this tension is between happiness (rational self-certainty) and unhappiness (existential un-certainty). While the Greek part of our society wants to deny this tension, the Jewish part brings it to our attention. And this is (un)timely because it challenges the notion of progress and truth, which, in the West, are both premised on Greek ideals. In modern society we are supposed to be living better than we did in the past and we are supposed to be smarter – and all of this should make us happy – but are we?)

Heti’s jokes are Jewish in this sense. The punch lines of his jokes may start on a happy, Greek note, but they all have a kind of unhappy, Jewish ending. And this is a good thing because they trick us into experiencing the profound contradictions that underlie our experiences of sex, family, culture, and religion (the buttresses of Western, North American Society). The trick is to have us think differently. His humor hits at our desire for happiness and self-certainty. And, to be sure, Heti’s act has taught me that comedy can do a more affective job than post-Enlightenment philosophy to critique our beliefs and self-understandings.

I have seen Heti doing stand-up comedy and have also had a few private conversations with him about comedy, philosophy, culture, and religion. I have also interviewed Heti and have been intrigued with his brand of comedy. I had an intuition that he was doing something (un)timely in his comedy act. But it wasn’t until recently, when I saw his recent comedy film, It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti, that I was convinced that he had something incredibly urgent and important to offer our troubled times by way of comedy.

I’d like to share a few clips and touch on a few of his jokes to illustrate how (un)timely his jokes are.   I would go so far as to suggest that the movement from unhappiness to happiness we find in them suggests a kind of practice that is instructive on how, today, we can – and should – have a comical awareness of the tension between happiness and unhappiness. It informs, to speak, our comical (rather than our tragic) sense of existence. To be sure, the tragic awareness of existence is just as Greek as the emphasis on happiness. But his humor offers us a tension between the two that is, by all means, necessary. Without it, we will to serious (and tragic) or too deluded (and happy).  (I’d also like to note, before I begin, that Heti’s timing and gesture are the important elements that animate these jokes.  This can be seen in the clips I have included.)

Heti begins his performance with a philosophical joke that plays on the first words of a comic performance:

I know that it’s  convention to be, like, “oh, it’s good to be here.” But the fact of the matter is that I “am” here, you “are” here.  Why ask ourselves how we feel about it?  Let’s just move on.

The underpinning of this joke is clearly existential. Why should we describe our existence as “good” or “bad”? Existence just is….the way it is. Like the title of Heti’s film, we can imagine him responding to the question “How was your performance?” with the existentially neutral: “It was Ok.” Its not great and its not bad. It, like existence, is…not tragic…or wonderful….it’s “ok.”

Following this joke, Heti continues on his philosophical vein by telling his audience to hold back their laughter until the end of the performance. This request is followed by philosophical reasoning. Although each joke “exists unto itself its own particularity,” and can be laughed at, ultimately there is “another, deeper level” which comes at the end where one can laugh at the performance “as a whole.” The joke is not simply on the audience; it’s also on philosophy.   The idea of withholding laugher in the name of a greater laugh – at the end – sounds like a good joke to level at a philosopher like Hegel or Karl Marx who see the “end of history” as the most meaningful moment of all.

But the punch line isn’t here. It’s in the existential insight: “I’m sorry.  I know you come to a comedy show expecting to laugh, and enjoy yourselves…but life isn’t fair.”

Besides playing on existence-as-such, Heti plays on the contemporary philosophical notion – found in Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Martin Heidegger – that the most important thing about existence is relationality.   Heti introduces this idea by pointing out how “I’m here” and you are “over there” and we are “unable to relate” (on the same level). The punch line is that when he was out there, where the audience is, he would think about how he could “do a better job than this fuck!” This comic disclosure brings comedy into an otherwise bland, basic (and oftentimes for Heidegger, a tragic) insight into “relationality.”

On another note, which is equally existential, Heti’s jokes about his family follow along a tradition of many Jewish comedians. But they differ in the fact that they are more reflective on the divide between happiness and unhappiness. In one joke about his mother, Heti says that she and I have a “very strained relationship.”

She says all she’s ever wanted is for me to be happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved and respected. It’s a real stalemate.

Following this, he notes how he recently went home to see that his mother had remodeled his room “into a place where a kid would have been happy growing up.”   He adds a joke about his father that brings out the tension between happiness and unhappiness more explicitly. It also shows a schlemiel-ish aspect to Heti’s relationship with his mother (something we find in the writings and film of Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Bruce Jay Friedman, et al):

It wasn’t easy.  My father was a little…violent. I remember….I recall as a kid, telling my mom, “one day, when I grow big enough, he’s going to beat the shit…out of only you.

The schlemiel character is in effect here because Heti’s character isn’t going to “stand up” to his father when he grows up. He’s just going to leave and his mother will receive the violence of his father. (Note to reader: do not confuse this joke with reality; to be sure, Heti, like many great comedians, loves exaggeration.)

Although Heti tells jokes about his family, his main jokes, to be sure, turn around philosophical and theological topics. As the performance moves on, these jokes are most prominent.   And all of them hinge on the tension between happiness and unhappiness.

One joke which shows how averse Heti is to happiness deals with a scenario he discusses about how he did a comic performance at a music festival. On his way back, he tells of how he rode in a car with musicians for thirteen hours. During this trip they had “an esoteric/philosophical conversation about the nature of art.” Heti, here, points out why he tells jokes, and, in the process he discloses his own way of comic-being:

Basically, we are only here to be happy, really. And so, for me, what’s funniest is when we’re not happy. And it just so happens to be the case that, just, intuitionally, I tend to subvert, for myself, any happy moment which begins. You know, I see what’s terrible in it. And even for the stage, now doing stand-up, I look for what’s awful in every moment, so my life is a series of unhappy instances and that’s why jokes; that’s why I’m a comic.

But this isn’t the punch line. It comes with his response to the musicians answer to the question of what the nature of art is:

And then so…I asked the musician, I was, like, “Why music? Like, why music?” And, he was like, “well. He said, “when I’m actively listening to music or, like, writing or playing it…like, that’s when I’m closest to the universal;  that’s when I’m one with the universe.” And I was like, “ohhhhhhh…You can go fuck yourself! Like FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOUUUUU….!”

Heti’s answer-slash-punch-line (his FUCK YOU! x3) demonstrates, to my mind, a differentiation between a Greek mind, which emphasizes “unity” with the universe, and a Jewish view which emphasizes existential difference and fragmentation.   I would argue that this difference is by no means arbitrary. To be sure, Heti tells several jokes that speak to Jewish identity, history, and religion. These jokes disclose Heti’s comedy as fragmented on many fronts.

Heti’s jokes on circumcision start off with an interesting paradox. Namely, God is thought of as “unknowable and unthinkable” yet with all of this “we can see that He likes circumcised pensises.” Heti goes on to have the audience imagine God with many dicks in his mouth. And this does a great job of exaggerating anthropomorphisms that Jewish theology would obviously reject.

Heti also tells jokes that deal with the Holocaust. He prefaces this part of the show by noting how “there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.” And that he is “unsure of where” he stands on the “issue of genocide.”

Because, on the one hand, undeniable tragic.  But on the other hand, undeniably funny. I guess it’s just one of those things where you really had to be there.

This joke hits at the existential dimension of genocide (of “being there” for the reality…and the “joke”). But it also speaks to something very interesting; namely, the negative sublime of the Nazis who did the killing. Many, in fact, did laugh at genocide. And for this reason, it hits on a deeply troubling issue which needs to be addressed, an issue that deeply complicates our understanding of humanity and evil.

The most complicated joke on the Holocaust is about his grandfather’s relationship to the Holocaust. The very context of the joke brings the audience into a very focused state and into an awareness of how good it is that he has survived it; but the punch line brings us back to the unhappy state of Jews-slaughtered-in-history:

My grandfather was actually one of the few, lucky members of his generation to  grow up Jewish in Europe and avoid the horrors of the Holocaust. Thankfully, several months before the war broke out, he was beaten to death, in a pogrom.

Near the end of his performance, Heti moves from the particularity of Jewish experience to a more general experience of God.   And this joke hits directly at the existential condition and the question of faith:

But what I find most – what I can’t understand most is these people with these extreme physical disabilities…who are nonetheless capable of maintaining religious faith. ‘Cause you’re like – you’d think that…  given what, they are already forced to put up with in this world, God would have at least spared their minds.

This last joke bespeaks the existential state of having a mind that is conscious of suffering. (Indeed, most existentialists find that existential consciousness is afflicted and tortured; especially Sartre and Levinas.) The joke poses the greatest challenge to Aristotle (and Spinoza), on the one hand, who believed that knowledge would create true happiness and on the other to religion which posits faith as an answer.   Heti is perplexed by why God would give these disabled people consciousness. It doesn’t make sense. This is at once a Jewish question and a question that should provoke anyone trying to understand faith in general.

Taken together, Heti shows us – by way of comedy – that true thinking isn’t based on the elimination of perplexity and its attendant unhappiness (which is what Aristotle believed) so much as in dwelling in perplexity. The specificity of Heti’s jokes perform the (un)timely service of reminding us of the existential state of perplexity we inhabit. We need this reminder because we are, so often, distracted by happiness from the true questions of existence that plague us all. Here it is the comedian and not the philosopher or the theologian who can help us to address our greatest questions. And this all happens when Heti delivers the punch line. At that moment, we experience the movement from happiness to unhappiness. And in that moment, we come face to face with our (un)timely comical existence.   And today, more than ever, we need to be reminded. False happiness will only sink us deeper into oblivion. Heti reminds us that comedy can awaken us (as Immanuel Kant once said of David Hume) from our “dogmatic slumbers.”

Go check out David Heti’s website – which has video, tour information, and media – and his new video “It was ok”.

 

 

Insecure Immigrants, Americans, and Jewish Comedians

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Is there a unique relationship between America and Jewish comedy?  And is the immigrant experience the only source of Jewish culture, comedy, and literature?  Irving Howe held that the immigrant experience was the high point of Jewish culture and literature.  And he feared that as the Jewish immigrant experience faded into the past and Jews assimilated, the basis for Jewish fiction, humor, culture, and identity would also disappear.

But as I have pointed out in my blog entries on Gary Shteyngart, this is an issue that concerns us today.  What I found in Gary Shteyngart is something that Lawrence Epstein – in his book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America – also finds in the Immigrant experience; namely, the “insecure immigrant” who lives within the uncomfortable place between being an outsider and wanting to be an insider.

What interests me most about Epstein’s argument is 1) his description of this insecurity and 2) the proof he brings to the fore when he argues that Jewish immigrants to America, who happened to become famous comedians, managed this anxiety.  According to Epstein, Jews drew on their own history, language, and optimism to make a unique contribution to American culture and, in the process, created a new kind of Jewish identity that could only have been devised by Eastern European Jews who were turning to comedy rather than religion for security.  But this identity didn’t come out of a vacuum: Jewish humor evokes, as the title of his book suggests, a “haunted smile.”   Insecure immigrants-who-became-comedians were not just fighting with the insecurity of being an immigrant or with a religion that no longer seemed to grant security; they were fleeing a horrible and impoverished life.  And America motivated them, in Epstein’s view, to address all of these anxieties and create something new.

At the outset of this book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, Lawrence Epstein cites the New York Times columnist Frank Rich who states that the “very basis of American history was that insecure immigrants came to settle that land.”  Adding to this, Epstein notes that the Jews were the “most insecure” and could “serve as a symbol for Americans as they could for no other people.”

Epstein marks out why, historically, Jews were unique.  Epstein thinks that the great generation of Jewish comics emerged from the immigration at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  During that time, the largest number of immigrants came from Eastern Europe (at that time the majority of the world Jewry lived in Eastern Europe and Russia; but that changed with immigration and history):

In 1880, there were 80,000 Jews living in New York. By 1910, that number swelled to 1,250,000.   By one estimate, a typical block consisted of 2,781 people – and no bathtubs. (11)

This wave of immigration emerged out of an insecurity that developed out of thwarted hopes and the horrors of history.  Jews had, since the 18th century, been forced to live in the Pale of Settlement.  Jews were often at odds with the Russians.  And although the Haskalah movement (The Jewish Enlightenment) made its way from central Europe to Eastern Europe and gave Enlightened Jews hope that Russia would one day become a democracy, the laws against Jews and forced conscriptions flattened the optimism of many.  But during the time of Czar Alexander II of Russia, there was a small window of hope (of a few decades in the middle of the 19th century) when Jews were allowed to leave the Pale of Settlement for Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Jews were allowed to enter universities and take on typical professions.  This prompted many Enlightened Jews to imagine that they had finally become equals.

But this was short lived.   Alexander II was assassinated and Jews were blamed and this led to Pogroms and violence against the Jews.  His plan was to solve Russia’s “Jewish problem”:

One third would emigrate, one third would be converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and one third would starve to death. (6)

Following this, Jews were killed in mass during several different pogroms and were forced to give their children over for military conscription.  In the midst of this horror, America offered some form of hope.   Epstein describes the trip across the Atlantic in detail so as to show how difficult it was and how Jewish immigrants were willing to go through all of these difficulties in order to live a better life.

This desire met with an America that was looking for a way to deal with “changes in American society itself.”  Epstein makes the case that Jews used their ingenuity to address American anxieties about these changes:

Searching for a way to deal with the emerging anxieties of the modern age, America turned to the Jews, the masters of handling history’s troubles.  Jewish humor, so useful in helping generations of anxious Jews, was called to action to serve the similar needs of the wider American community.   An immigrant generation found in the Jews a people repeatedly practiced in starting over again in a new place while feeling marginal and scared.  (xii)

Epstein’s reading suggests that Americans and Jews were, at this time of history, a good fit since both were “insecure.”  And what Jews had to offer to a fledgling America (which lacked the history of Europe and its internal coping mechanisms) was a humorous means of dealing with modernity and radical historical change.

Epstein’s account of what Jews bring to this situation – vis-à-vis their history – is worth noting.  He points out that “they drew on their heritage in ways they didn’t always understand”(xiii).  And this act was transformational: “As they used that heritage to find ways to express truths about America, they transformed American culture, making Jews and Jewishness acceptable, even enviable”(xiii).

The greatest feature that Jews can draw from their history is their sense of anxiety that is the product of living on the margins of history: “Jewish comedians could sense majority anxieties early and transform them into humor, giving these anxieties a shape and a name as well as a way to cope”(xiii).

In this situation, Epstein argues that the schlemiel fit perfectly: “One of the most famous Jewish comic types is the schlemiel, a clumsy, maladjusted, hard-luck loser”(xv).  The schlemiel addresses these majority anxieties.  But instead of citing the immigrant comedians of the early 20th century as an example, Epstein turns to Woody Allen:

Sometimes, as in the classical schlemiels created by Woody Allen, this poor character is profoundly neurotic,  His one liners reflect negative emotions (When we played softball, I’d steal second, then feel guilty and go back”) or a sense of being trapped by unfeeling institutions (“I went to a school for emotional disturbed teachers”). (xv)

Epstein says that his body and demeanor were a “standing sight gag” and that his “distinctive New York voice added the effect as he told his audience the story.”  The story he cites is the “moose joke.”

Following this, Epstein turns to the Marx Brothers and describes each of them in detail.  He contrasts them to Allen by noting that they – together – “created a different comic type, the free soul who doesn’t so much criticize all social mores as mock and ignore them.”   Epstein names a few other “types” (that range from the “fool” (Ed Wynn and Rodney Dangerfield), the “observer” (Jerry Seinfeld), and the Social Critic (Lenny Bruce), but ends on the note that all of these types emerge out of a history and culture that is “extraordinarily verbal”:

Words form the center of study, of prayer, and of entertainment. The emphasis of language and on the argumentative patterns of Talmudic reasoning provided Jews with a style of thinking.  (xviii)

And he even goes so far as to say Jewish comedy also emerges out of a “theology” in which Jews were “permitted, even encouraged to question.”  This includes the challenges made to God we find in the Torah, the Talmud, and the Hasidic tradition.  This challenge to authority is the “hallmark of Jewish humor.”  And “Jewish comedians were notable in their willingness to test their audiences’ sense of which subjects and words were acceptable”(xviii).

Taken together, Epstein argues that these aspects of Jewish history were of great interest to the insecure American majority of the post-Civil War and rapidly industrializing America of the early 20th century.  Jewish comedians, who emerged out of the uncomfortable space of immigration, were of interest as they gave Americans new ways of dealing with radical historical change.  And this way became the basis for Jewish-American identity.

Epstein goes so far as to say that Jewish-American comedy offered a new kind of secular Jewish identity that displaced the security offered by religion.  In America, Jews could be secure with their insecurity and use it as a basis of identity.  As a recent Pew Poll shows, Jewish comedy is still a major basis for Jewish identity.

But after pondering Epstein’s thesis which he makes at the outset of his book, I wonder how, historically, it is the case that the comic American-immigrant fiction of Gary Shteyngart is so popular.   Is it because America is and will always remain a country that can learn from “insecure immigrants”?  Will America always be insecure and in need of new ways of coping with crisis?  And will comedy always be in great demand for this very reason?  Epstein seems to suggest that this is so…

If that is the case, the major question for schlemiel-in-theory is to figure out what the every changing basis for “insecurity” is and how comedy comes to address it.   But is it the case that, as Daniel Itzkovitz in his essay “They are All Jews” (in You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern Culture) claims, that Jewish comedy has become so common that it is indistinguishable from American comedy?  And what might this imply about the Jewish contribution to American comedy?  Insecurity may remain in America, but are Jews still really insecure about being Jews in America?  Are comic Jewish-Immigrant writers like Gary Shteyngart an exception?  And is Larry David’s comedy a product of his New York Jewishness which is out of place in Hollywood?  Is he an inter-American immigrant like Woody Allen was in Annie Hall (1976) when he went off for Hollywood at the end of the film and went back with his tail between his legs?

A Response to Zachary Braiterman’s “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics (Kenneth Seeskin)”

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I look forward to reading Zachary Braiterman’s posts every week on his blog Jewish Philosophy Place and I admire and respect the work he has published on Jewish Philosophy, aesthetics, and theodicy.  I have learned a lot from his work.

I was especially interested in the blog entry he posted entitled “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics” since his entry bears mention of the work I have been doing on the schlemiel.  With respect to this blog entry, Braiterman is interested in the work I have written on the schlemiel and the Messianic Idea.  In this entry, he has drawn on it to offer an insightful critique of Kenneth Seeskin’s recent book Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair.

What I find most interesting about Braiterman’s reading is his approach to the Messianic Idea as a schlemiel aesthetic that really has nothing to do with the tasks of rational Jewish philosophy.   This is an interesting wedge since it challenges the use of the Messianic idea in Jewish philosophy (or in contemporary Continental philosophy) by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Ernst Bloch, and Giorgio Agamben.

To be sure, Braiterman and Seeskin are both drawn to a Maimonidean approach to Jewish philosophy.  And this approach is suspicious of the Messianic Idea and prophetic flights of the imagination.  The Guide to the Perplexed, parts of the Mishna Torah, and the “Letter to Yemen” clearly demonstrate that Maimonides was very careful to avoid the dangers that would come by taking the Apocalyptic aspects of the Messianic idea seriously.

What Braiterman wonders about is why Seeskin would still take to the Messianic idea since, for Braiterman, it seems to be derived more from the imagination and the Midrash than from reason.  As Braiterman notes: “Messianism is rooted in the imaginary of biblical, midrashic, and liturgical source material, whereas the introduction of Kantian conceptual-moral frames struck me as off point.”

Braiterman argues that Seeskin misreads the “wilderness generation after the exodus from Egypt” and their “crying and rebellion in the desert for water.”  For Seeskin (and one could imagine, for Herman Cohen – I will return to this), they are giving up hope and are rebelling against “the belief in God and the Messianic idea.”    On this note, Braiterman sides with Emil Fackenheim who, he argues, would see their crying and despair as providing them with a “critical insight into history and the human predicament.”

In the second part of this blog entry, Braiterman addresses the question of why Seeskin would even try to reconcile Kantian ethics with the Messianic idea:

Its not clear why one might need this messiah business if all messianism constitutes is the notion that redemption depends upon human will and act, constitutional democracy, and perpetual peace.  Why do we need such an inflationary and theological word for such a flat and deflationary thing?

This is a very good question.  It’s the same question one could pose to the Jewish-German Philosopher Hermann Cohen.  After all, Cohen insisted that the Messianic Idea was a specifically Jewish contribution.  He associates it with hope.  In contrast to the Greeks, who despised hope, Cohen tells us that the Jewish tradition introduced the Messianic idea of hope:

To the earliest Greeks, hope meant no more than idle speculation.  And it is only after the Persian wars that this emotion is looked on as more than the opposite of fear, or as one of Pandora’s evils…..Nowhere in paganism does the concept of hope suggest a general enhancement of all human existence.  The widening-out into the non-personal, ethical realm, this spiritualization of a basically materialistic-personalistic emotion is the effect and indeed one of the surest marks of the idea of God’s unity or –what amounts to the same thing – of His pure spirituality.

Seeskin inherits the legacy of hope that Cohen espouses in such passages as, on the one hand, uniquely Jewish, and, on the other hand, consistent with Kantian ideas.   Nonetheless, Cohen, like Seeskin and Maimonides, has a problem which Braiterman is acutely aware: the aesthetic aspect of the Messianic idea.

As Braiterman notes “when all is said and done, the messianic idea is “just” an image, and a philosophically foolish one at that. It’s the image that rivets the eye in the prophetic literature, especially as it appears liturgically in the closed off space of the synagogue, on a Saturday night in a candle-lit Havdalah ceremony, or packed tight at the end of the Passover seder, at which point it becomes a figure sung by drunk people.”

The last words of this description of the Messianic aesthetic remind me of Walter Benjamin’s call to “win over the forces of intoxication for revolution.”  Indeed, for Braiterman, the aesthetic qualities of the messianic idea overshadow the philosophical, ethical, or political dimensions of the idea.  They are intoxicating; just like a fascinating object.  Braiterman notes the Messianic idea is “almost like a photograph, you can pick it up and consider it, and use it to this effect and to that.”

Braiterman notes that Seeskin clearly knows that the Messianic idea has “no philosophical use value, at least not in terms of determinate propositional truth contents.”  So, why, he wonders, would Seeskin even try to use it for philosophical purposes?

Musing on this, Braiterman evokes the schlemiel and my schlemiel theory blog (and book) project:

Maybe the messianic idea represents the schlemiel figure par excellence in the history of Jewish thought…How else to explain Seeskin’s book, a serious book about a serious topic written by a serious man ends with a joke.

The point of the joke, says Braiterman, is to show that, in the end, we will all realize that when “all enchantment has been removed from the world…and there is quick judgment, and arrogance are now rare,” we will no longer be enchanted by the Messianic idea.  At that point, anyone who wants to be the messiah can be.

Nonetheless, for Seeskin, it is still necessary to cast hope in the Messianic.

Braiterman avers: “Who gets to be Messiah? Any schlemiel who wants it.  That’s the punchline.”

Following this, Braiterman says that he would resist Seeskin’s claim that the “rational religion” is messianic and “reflects moral teleology.”  Moreover, Braiterman reiterates that he doesn’t accept the notion that our age is an “age of despair.”  Instead of looking toward the future, what is to come, to hope, Braiterman takes the side of the present.  In doing so, it seems that Braiterman is parting with Herman Cohen and Maimonides (who does, in fact, purport a restorative and political reading of the Messianic idea at the end of the Mishna Torah).

Braiterman finishes his piece with a basic rejection of the messianic idea as a schlemiel aesthetic: “Because maybe with this much hindsight in the history of an idea, maybe it’s easier to understand that messianism is an aesthetic, and maybe, after all is said and done, a schlemiel aesthetic at that.”

In many ways Braiterman is correct; the messianic is a schlemiel aesthetic.  To be sure, what makes it so is the fact that the schlemiel is a messianic character who is not oriented toward the present.  Rather, the schlemiel is a character which is oriented toward the future. It mixes dreams and reality and, in its simplicity, it draws its life on our hope.  Sometimes this can have negative consequences, as I have shown in blogs on the schlemiel, the Apocalyptic, and Messianic Activism.  Nonetheless, the best schlemiels, do not simply mix dreams and reality; as Ruth Wisse would say, they juxtapose hope and skepticism.

To be sure, I would argue that the Messianic idea is brought down to reality by way of Braiterman’s skepticism.  Even though he wishes to be rid of an aesthetic idea – which has nothing to do with Jewish philosophy and the concern with the present – he shows how hard it is to just let it go.   In other words, the Messianic idea, like the schlemiel, is, as Braiterman says, “infectious.”  We can’t let go of it.  And this, for Braiterman, is the irony.

Strangely enough, Hermann Cohen argues that irony has nothing to do with hope.  Greek “tragedy is predicated on fear and compassion, its comedy on the very opposite of hope, namely irony.”

Cohen finds nothing ironic about the Messianic idea, but we do.  And this irony goes hand-in-hand with the schlemiel.  The schlemiel discloses the irony of the Messianic idea by way of the juxtaposition of hope and skepticism.   In other words, a rationalist like Cohen would be befuddled by the Schlemiel.  To be sure, this character is meant to disclose a historical tension Jews have with the present and the future.

Regarding this, I wonder: if we were to reject the Messianic idea, would we also have to reject the schlemiel?

At the end of her opus, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse says something very insightful regarding this issue.  For Wisse, in a world that is wholly skeptical or wholly optimistic, the schlemiel cannot exist.  Pertaining to Zachary Breiterman’s review of Seeskin’s book, I would say the same thing.  In a world that is wholly skeptical or optimistic the Messianic idea cannot exist.  In many ways, it seems that the schlemiel and the Messianic idea go hand-in-hand.

However, what I find most interesting about Wisse’s claim about the schlemiel is that, for her, after the founding of Israel, it no longer becomes a character of interest.  She shares this claim with a few other Zionist thinkers.   However, this is another issue which I cannot address here .

Needless to say, I think Wisse and Braiterman would like to exchange the aesthetic for the political and the future for the present.   Nonetheless, I think Wisse’s previous claim remains and that simply having a state does not mean that one is wholly optimistic or wholly skeptical.  To be sure, we still waver between hope and skepticism.  And as long as our skepticism or optimism is tainted, there will be schlemiels and Messianic ideas.

Perhaps, on the other hand, what hooks us up to the Messianic idea or the schlemiel is not hope or skepticism so much as time.  As Levinas or Derrida may argue, as long as there is a future-to-come, there will always be a Messianic idea and, as i would argue, there will always be a schlemiel.

Or perhaps, as Braiterman suggests, as long as we love aesthetics we will be intrigued by Messianic ideas and schlemiels of all stripes and colors.

Perhaps, like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, we love utopia and the messianic idea like we love the circus….

But regardless of how we view the Messianic idea we can all agree that the greatest danger the Messianic idea poses is with Messianic Schlemiels (or what I call Messianic activists) who mix their utopian-slash-Apocalyptic dreams with reality.  Perhaps the greatest of all Messianic Schlemiels was named Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah.  Maimonides, Seeskin, and Braiterman would all agree that what happened with Shabbatai Zevi shows us the greatest danger of the Messianic Idea.  They would all, rightly, note that when a dream or an aesthetic becomes immanent in a utopian political gesture, we have crossed the line; and, as Gershom Scholem suggested with respect to Shabbatai Zevi, this kind of foolishness verges on nihilism and not perpetual peace.

Educating the Next Generation of Schlemiels

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“Think snow and see Boca” – Charles Bernstein

Today, the New York Times announced the publication of a new memoir in 2014 by the Jewish-American writer Gary Shteyngart.   Shteyngart is well known for his best selling novels The Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Story, all of which feature schlemiels as main characters.  The title of his new memoir is Little Failure.   Regarding his new book, Shteyngart writes:

I’ve finally written a book that isn’t a ribald satire and because it’s actually based on my life, contains almost no sex whatsoever. I’ve lived this troubled life so others don’t have to. Learn from my failure, please.

The last line of Shteyngart’s blurb is of great interest to me. It suggests that the fool is a teacher and has something to transmit to his readers.  This suggestion resonates with what I have been blogging.

In a recent blog on Walter Benjamin and Don Quixote, I paid close attention to the end of Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka where Benjamin foregrounds the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Since Panza followed Don Quixote around and, as a witness and student of the fool, learned from him, this relationship hits on the question of education.  In effect, Panza was learning from Quixote’s failure.

In a letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin notes that, for Kafka, the fool has wisdom and that the wisdom of the fool, rather than the wisdom of the philosopher, is “the only thing that can help.”  However, the question is “whether this can do humanity any good.”  This implies that the schlemiel is a teacher.  The only question for Benjamin concerns the value of such an education.

Shteyngart, in the final line of his blurb for the New York Times, suggests that he also has something to teach his readers.  He sarcastically notes that, like Christ, he has lived a troubled life “so others don’t have.”  All we have to do is “learn” from his failure.  The structure of this statement and its implication are the same as the structure that exists between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.   Moreover, Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and his appropriation of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote beckon the same questions: What can we learn from failure?   What kind of wisdom does a fool have to offer us?  Do we simply learn what not to do? Or do we learn something else?

To better understand this, I suggest that we take a look at one of Benjamin’s early reflections on education.  In a letter to Gershom Scholem dated September 1917, Benjamin responded to two lines from an essay Scholem had written on Jewish education: “All work whose goal is not to set an example is non-sense.” “If we wish to be serious:…then today, as always, the most profound way – as well as the only way – to influence the souls of future generations is: through example.”

In response to these lines, Benjamin emphatically states that “the concept of example (to say nothing of that of “influence”) should be excluded from the theory of education.”

Benjamin explains himself by pointing out that “the life of the educator does not function indirectly, by setting an example.”  What does this mean?  For Benjamin, what often happens is that “instruction” is separated from “education.”  He argues that “learning has evolved into teaching, in part gradually, but wholly from within.”  In other words, teaching is a part of a larger unfolding of tradition.

To be sure, Benjamin claims that the “concept of tradition” is more important than the “concept of the example.”  It is more important for a teacher to think of him or herself as a part of a tradition than to think of him or herself as a role model or as the illustration of an idea.

Benjamin sees tradition as the unification of learning and teaching: “I am convinced that tradition is the medium in which the person who is learning continually transforms himself into the person who is teaching, and this applies to the entire range of education.”

Assuming that there is a tradition of the fool (and that Don Quixote is a part of it), Benjamin would see Don Quixote as transmitting it to Sancho Panza.  And within this tradition, Panza would continually be transforming himself into Don Quixote (a fool).  But there is more.  Benjamin insists that “in the tradition everyone is an educator and everyone needs to be educated and everything is education.”  In other words, since Benjamin believes in tradition, he insists that all education be reconfigured within the context of tradition; otherwise, education will have no real basis and will become meaningless.

Knowledge, Benjamin avers, is not independent of tradition.  It can only be transmitted “for the person who has understood his knowledge as something that has been transmitted.”  In this sense, Benjamin believed that if one is to learn from a fool, one must live within the tradition of the fool.  To transmit the comic, one must be within the comic tradition.

Moreover, Benjamin believes that a person who situates himself within this tradition, as opposed to someone who rejects tradition (as in the case of modernity), “becomes free in an unprecedented way.”  In other words, freedom is not something that one is born with and it is not based on the rejection of tradition; rather, it is something that comes when a person submits him or herself to a tradition.

Benjamin likens tradition and the freedom it offers to the sea and a wave:

Theory is like a surging sea, but the only thing that matters to the wave (understood as a metaphor for the person) is to surrender itself to its motion in such a way that it crests and breaks.  This enormous freedom of the breaking wave is education in its actual sense: instruction – tradition becoming visible and free, tradition emerging precipitously like a wave from living substance.

After writing this, Benjamin acknowledges that the source of tradition is religion.  He acknowledges that, for this reason, it is “difficult to speak about education.”  How can there be a secular or modern notion of tradition?  Is this, by definition, impossible?  These are questions that were of great concern to Benjamin in many of his essays which look to gauge the effects of technology, media, and mass production on tradition.

Despite the threat of modernity to tradition, Benjamin insists that any form of education which looks to create future students (and this includes all modern forms of education) must find its roots in the religious notion of tradition: “our descendants come from the spirit of God (human beings); like waves, they rise up out of the movement of the spirit.”

Instruction, says Benjamin, is the “nexus of the free union of the old with the new generation.”   Instruction, in other words, must bring modernity into a relation with tradition instead of negating it.  For Benjamin, the “error” is to think that “our descendents are dependent on us in some fundamental way.”  Rather, the proper way of thinking of his or Scholem’s role in education is to think that it all depends “on God and on the language in which, for the sake of some kind of community with our children, we should immerse ourselves.”

Benjamin’s musings prompt an important question for the schlemiel theory: What is the tradition of the schlemiel and who transmitted this tradition to Benjamin?  Who was Benjamin’s Sancho Panza?  Was it Kafka?

Benjamin suggests this in his letters to Scholem and in his essay on Kafka.  Taking Benjamin to his word, we can say that by immersing himself in the tradition of the fool, Benjamin was, as he says, continuously transforming himself into a fool.  Moreover, Benjamin was also looking to transmit that tradition to his future readers.  Kafka’s work, as an extension of such a tradition, gave Benjamin freedom. It enabled him to break forward like a wave.

This insight, unfortunately, has not been ventured by anyone in Benjamin studies.  Benjamin didn’t spell it out.  Rather, like any good student of tradition, one must learn it out from the teachers hints and actions.  For me, the hints can be found in Benjamin’s obsession with the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, a relationship that also fascinated Kafka.  Moreover, we can see Benjamin’s submission to the comic tradition in his last letters to Gershom Scholem.

Can we say the same for Gary Shteyngart?  Should we take him, as Sancho Panza took Don Quixote, as a teacher?  The irony of this tradition is not simply that it is, as Arendt might say, “hidden.”  Rather the greater irony is the fact that the tradition of the fool is a modern tradition that, according to Milan Kundera (in a chapter of The Art of the Novel entitled “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”) starts with Cervantes.  It starts with the decay of one tradition and the beginning of another, modern comic tradition.  According to Kundera, the teaching of this tradition is the teaching of contingency or what I, in my last two posts, would call “empirical consciousness.”

And like any tradition, we learn most from what the teacher does. We can learn more from the teacher’s gestures and actions that we can from his or her content.  What I look to do, in my readings of Benjamin, is to pay close attention to the gestures that he has left in his work on Kafka.  For Benjamin, one must pay attention to Kafka’s gestures.  For they convey something “pre-historic.”

The comic tradition is pre-historic in the sense that it transmits powerlessness to its adherents.  All those who learn from failure will eventually fail.  Schlemiel education opens the door for that which, in the Jewish tradition, is to come.  By learning from the schlemiel’s failure, we prepare for the arrival of what is to come.  In this sense, Shteyngart’s memoir, his “little failure” is preparatory.  But it belongs to a larger tradition.  Our acute awareness of failure, our becoming failures, literally falls within this tradition.  So, if we were to see Shteyngart’s memoir (or any of his schlemiels) as an “example” of “what is possible,” we would lose what Benjamin would consider the crux of education: tradition.

But, wait, what does it mean that we are educated with the schlemiel tradition?  Is this some kind of joke?  Was Sancho Panza the greatest fool of all for taking a fool as his teacher?  Did he intentionally distract himself?  If so, Immanuel Kant would say that while Quixote was “absent-minded,” Panza was “debilitated.”  However, if we take Benjamin seriously, we would have to say that Panza looked to go from being debilitated to becoming absent-minded. To be sure, for Benjamin “tradition is the medium in which the person who is learning continually transforms himself into the person who is teaching, and this applies to the entire range of education.” This kind of transformation, for Kant, would be one of worst sins one could commit against Enlightenment.  It is, literally, going backwards – toward the distracted and absent-minded innocence of childhood.

In contrast to this regression, the Jewish tradition has made room for the fool.  I have already touched on this in my blog entry on the “Schlemiel as Prophet.”   And I will return to it again in the near future since Benjamin, without a doubt, saw something prophetic in Don Quixote’s transmission of foolish tradition to Sancho Panza and, as a matter of course, Benjamin situated himself within that tradition.  This tradition is at once Jewish (particular) and not (general).  The only question we need to ask is whether or how someone like Gary Shteygart or a blog like Schlemiel Theory is passing the tradition of the fool or the schlemiel on.  For, regardless of the decay of this or that tradition in the modern world, comic failure is something that will still be transmitted from generation to generation….

Not Quite Jewish….Almost American: From Portnoy to Admiral General Alladin

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Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a long discourse-slash-novel that begins and ends on the couch of a psychiatrist.  But the novel is not simply a discourse on the psyche of the schlemiel.  Rather, it gives us a sense of how his identity crisis tarries between sexual identity and national identity.    Is Portnoy a Jew or an American?  Neither?  Does he reject one identity while failing to embrace another?

In a moment of revelation, Portnoy dramatizes his failure to be an American.  Something is getting in the way.  And this something makes him angry:

And its true, is it not? – incredible, but apparently true – there are people in life who feel at ease, the self-assurance, the simple and essential affiliation with what is going on, that I used to feel as the center fielder for the Seabees?  Because it wasn’t, you see, that one was the best center fielder imaginable, only that one knew exactly, and done the smallest particular, how a center fielder should conduct himself.  And there are people like that walking the streets of the U.S. of A.?  I ask you, why can’t I be one!”(71).

Unlike Americans, Portnoy cannot “feel at ease” and have “self-assurance.”  Unlike Americans, he cannot “affiliate” himself with “what is going on.”  Here, we have the basis of a post-WWII schlemiel: He is ashamed of the fact that he is ill at ease, unsure of himself, and is unable to bravely “affiliate” himself with “what is going on” in America.  He has failed to be an self-possessed American male.

Immediately following this, Portnoy says that he is not simply a failure; he is a Jew:

But I am something more, or so they tell me.  A Jew.  No! No! An atheist, I cry.  I am a nothing where religion is concerned, and I will not pretend to be anything that I am not!…And I don’t care how close we came to sitting shiva for my mother either – actually, I wonder if the now if maybe the whole hysterectomy has not been dramatized into C-A and out of it again solely for the sake of scaring the S-H out of me!  Solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy. (71)

Being a Jew, for Portnoy, is not an essence; it is, rather, about being molded by one’s parents “to be” Jewish.  And Portnoy states emphatically that “I” will not “pretend to be anything that I am not!”  His Jewish guilt – or rather resentment – is based on his education and his birth.  To be sure, Portnoy is “told” that he is a Jew, which implies that he was told what to say and what to do.  He had no will of his own.  His whole education had a purpose.   Portnoy flatly states that it was dedicated “solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy.”

In other words, Judaism didn’t help Portnoy to become a man.  He has never been properly raised to live in the world and be independent and self-present.  In other words, he was never taught how to be autonomous.  As a result of his upbringing, as a Jew, he has become a “helpless little boy.”   He has become heternomous and dependent on his mother.   This tension, in fact, has deeper roots in the struggle between heteronomy and autonomy.  This struggle, for the post-WWII Jewish-American schlemiel is a struggle that Jews also had in Germany.  In Germany, the schlemiel was a shameful character.  As Sander Gilman argues in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Jews, in the Enlightenment period (the Jewish-German Haskalah) made plays that satirically target the schlemiel.  His traits – which included being effeminate, over emotional, confused, unable to speak properly (mangling German), and being heteronomous – were to be laughed off the stage.

Like the schlemiels in these German-Jewish comedies, Portnoy is almost a man.

Portnoy’s only way of asserting his manhood is through anger; namely, through being sarcastic about the bad hand he was dealt.  And this is a new tactic, since in German-Jewish theater, the schlemiel is laughed at since he or she is unaware of his or her ‘folly’.  Here, it is different.  Here, the schlemiel “knows” what the source of his problem is.  And what ensues is a kind of impotent rage which is new to the schlemiel.  It is not a trait one would find in Yiddish literature.

As a part of his comic ranting, Portnoy turns on his mother.  She is responsible for making him a “helpless little boy.”

BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO FUCKING MUCH TO BEAR!

Portnoy is in effect revolting against her and humiliating her as a way of “freeing himself” of his Jewish guilt.   He wants to be a man and reverse that education and go from being a child to a man on his own.  In other words, he wants to give birth to himself.  His path from heteronomy to autonomy is based on ridicule.  By destroying his mother, he believes he will be autonomous.  For Portnoy, this is synonymous with becoming an American.

But this is not enough.  He may successfully ridicule his mother and feel free.  However, in reality, he cannot be an American because he is not successful in the sex department.  His failure is measured by a skill.  To be sure, he believes that what he’s good at, and what helps him to give birth to himself as independent, is masturbation: both literal and literary masturbation.  His words ejaculate on the page.  Portnoy takes deep pride in this but he knows, ultimately, that this doesn’t make him an American of the sort we saw above.  Rather, it makes him an American-Schlemiel.

Half the length of the tunnel it takes me to unzip my zipper silently – and there it is again, up it pops again, as always swollen, bursting with demands, like some idiot macrocephallic making his parents’ life a misery with his simpleton’s insatiable needs.  “Jerk me off, “ I am told by the silk monster.  “Here? Now? Of course here and now. When would you expect an opportunity like this to present itself a second time?”(126)

He believes that he must masturbate.  He must be ‘bad’ if he going to PUT THE ID BACK INTO THE YID. But to be a Jewish-American man – living in the shadow of the Jewish State – he must pass the ultimate test: he must have sex with a Sabra.  This leads us to Portnoy’s Final complaint, his final failure.

Since he can’t be an American, what is the model for a self-confident, autonomous Jewish male who can “affiliate himself” with what is going on?  Portnoy realizes that this model would be a Sabra.   But he rejects this model thinking that if he can match her, sexually, that he will finally win.  But what happens is that when it comes to the moment of sex with Naomi, a Sabra, he fails miserably.  As I noted in a previous post on Roth, Portnoy comes to the realization that he can’t be a self-confident Jewish man, that is, an Israeli.  And this is his final complaint.

But this failure and the following verbal compensation for failure (by his calling her names) gives birth to the new Jewish-American Schlemiel.   Although he, like many past schlemiels, is not quite a man and not quite a child, he is, a man-child with a big mouth and a passion for masturbation.

He’s an American schlemiel: he is neither an American nor a Jew.  He’s somewhere inbetween.

But since Portnoy, things have changed. His method of transformation is comic and literal masturbation.  But, when Roth wrote this, it was not considered to be American.  In Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, however, masturbation is a rite of passage for Admiral General Alladin, the Dictator.  Through masturbation, he can become an American.  He can fit in with the others in the Brooklyn Co-op.

From Portnoy to Alladin of Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, we have a comic-sexual lineage of Jewish-American stand-up – or sit-down comedy.   The measure of being an American Schlemiel, his power, for Portnoy was his masturbatory rant.  What Sasha Baron Cohen does is yet another parody of the masturbatory rant.  But in his rant masturbation is no longer “bad” – in fact, it becomes the rite of passage to America.  A rite that Cohen’s character – the Dictator – picks up in the back room of a Brooklyn Health Food Co-op.

Perhaps Sasha Baron Cohen is telling us, in an awry way, that in that space and at this time, the Schlemiel is literally a Modern American Hero.  In other words, Portnoy may no longer have to complain since being a man and autonomous may no longer be a concern for the postmodern American Jew.  It may no longer be a thing that Jews are ashamed of since more and more Americans – at least in big American cities like New York (where the Dictator takes place) – are leaning toward a kind of metrosexuality.

Regardless of what may be the case, we must not forget that at the end of a film like The Dictator, Alladin is almost an American.  And this “almost” is what, still, makes a Schlemiel a schlemiel.   But the game has changed.  The test for the Schlemiel, at least in the Dictator is not sexual, it is political.  The test is democracy not masculinity.  And it seems as if, in the end, by becoming an advocate of democracy, the schlemiel becomes an American or…almost American.

The Schlemiel and the Sabra or Portnoy’s Final Complaint

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In The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and Jewish American Literature, Sanford Pinsker devotes an entire chapter to the work of Phillip Roth.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  Although the chapter is dedicated to Phillip Roth, the majority of the chapter is on Roth’s most popular and controversial novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.  For Pinsker, the other two novels that are mentioned in the last part of the chapter –  The Ghost Writer and Counterlife – do not so much illustrate the schlemiel as put forth a new type of postmodern novel that emerged after Portnoy’s Complaint.  Pinsker suggests that these novels were not so much about the schlemiel as an attempt to leave the schlemiel behind for the novel within the novel and writing as such.

One of the most interesting elements of Pinsker’s treatment of Portnoy’s Complaint is the evidence he marshals to prove that Portnoy is a schlemiel.  Pinsker stages his argument by pointing out Portnoy’s favorite pastimes: masturbation and mouthing off.    To be sure, Portnoy violates all decorum by speaking in detail about his masturbation and mentioning all the places he has left his semen.  Ruth Wisse and Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi would argue that this “mouthing off” is an important trait of the schlemiel. Portnoy’s words give him, as Wisse would say, an “ironic victory.”  But, for Pinsker, this isn’t the only thing that makes Portnoy a schlemiel.

Rather, the key trait of the schlemiel can be found in Portnoy’s memory of failure: “What he remembers most, however, about these masturbatory binges are his darkly comic failures.  In this regard, none is more spectacular that his disastrous episode with Bubbles Girardi.”

As Pinsker recounts, Bubbles made a deal with Portnoy’s friend Smolka to “jerk off one of his friends.”  However, there are two conditions:  1) the individual will have to leave his pants on and 2) she will “count fifty strokes” and no more.  Portnoy is elected to receive the “prize” but “the result is comic schlemiel hood of the first water”(149).

What Pinsker finds comic is that Portnoy is brought right to climax, but Bubbles stops at 50 strokes.  Portnoy cries out:

JUST ONE MORE! I BEG OF YOU! TWO MORE! PLEASE! N-O!”

Portnoy reflects on his failure and decides that he’ll have to finish the job whereupon he cums in his eye: “I reach down and grab it, and POW!  Only right in my eye.”

The greatest insights in Pinsker’s book on the schlemiel – and in his chapter on Roth – follow upon this passage.

Pinsker notes that “Portnoy’s sexual antics are the stuff of which Borsht Belt stand-up is made, but as he keeps on insisting, this is no Jewish joke, no shpritz (machine gun spray of comic material”(150).

And this is the ironic denial that makes him a schlemiel.  Roth is doing Schlemiel Stand Up.  Unlike Lawrence or Joyce, Pinsker tells us that Roth doesn’t take his failures with a “high seriousness”(150). Rather, Roth is a tumbler (an acrobat of sorts): “Roth reduces to the anxious flip.  The cunning of history is to blame here; when Portnoy shouts “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN THE YID! The effect dovetails a domesticated Freudianism into the jazzy stuff of popular culture”(150).

What does Pinsker mean by this “jazzy stuff of popular culture?”  Pinsker notes that what Roth has popularized and made comic is the stuff of tragedy: guilt.  And who else but Franz Kafka is the teacher of how to make guilt a comic affair.  To be sure, Roth said this in his book Reading Myself and Others (1975).  There, he notes that he got his stand-up routine from a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka: “I was strongly influenced by a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka and a very funny bit he does called ‘The Metamorphosis’… Not until I got hold of guilt, you see, as a comic idea, did I begin to feel myself lifting free and clear of my last book (Portnoy’s Complaint) and my old concerns”(150).

Pinsker uses this line as evidence that Roth may have come from Kafka and he may practice the schlemiel, but he wants to lift himself “free and clear” of this character.  For Pinsker, all of Roth’s future books were more mature while Portnoy’s Complaint was all about “enjoying being bad.”  Portnoy’s kvetch, his complaint, and his enjoyment of being bad differ, Pinsker tells us, from Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” since Portnoy is not the man in the sense that Whitman portrayed himself to be.  He is afflicted by his own misfortunes and guilt.  Whitman is guilt free, Roth is not.  Here, Pinsker suggests that Portnoy’s mouthing off doesn’t change his reality.  He is still caught up in his masturbatory dreams and his guilt, which he can’t seem to escape.  His stand-up comedy doesn’t make a difference.  It seems, more or less, like impotent rage.

What Pinsker overlooks, however, is the fact that Portnoy’s greatest humiliation – his greatest and final complaint – comes at the end of the book with Naomi, the Sabra (native Israeli).   This time, he gets to sleep with a woman.  But before he does, he comes to realize that he is no match for her.  This dialogue brings out the crux of the new Jewish-American schlemiel who lives in the shadow of the Sabra.

Naomi deftly describes the difference in her characterization of Portnoy’s stand-up routine in which self-ridicule is the most prominent feature:

You seem to take some pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own peculiar sense of humor.  I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life.  Everything this somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’  All day long the same thing.  In some little way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating. (264)

After Naomi goes on to discuss how powerlessness got Jews nowhere, Portnoy says, flat out: “Wonderful.  Now let’s fuck.”

In response, Naomi calls him “disgusting” and then they engage in a name-calling match in which Naomi puts the nail in the coffin by calling him a schlemiel.  Notice that in the following, “Schlemiel!” (in italics) is the final word:

“Right! You’re beginning to get the point, gallant Sabra!  You go be righteous in the mountains, okay? You go be a model for mankind!  Fucking Hebrew saint!” “Mr. Portnoy, “ she said…”You are nothing but a self-hating Jew.” “Ah, but Naomi, maybe that’s the best kind.” “Coward!” “Tomboy.” “Schlemiel!” (265)

Portnoy, cursing under his breath says, “I’ll show her who’s the schlemiel!”  But he fails, sexually. He’s impotent.

As you can see from these lines, Naomi has the last word. And that word is schlemiel. She is strong and he, a man, is weak. What we have here with Naomi is the new, Israeli Jew (which scholars like Daniel Boyarin, David Biale, and others discuss at length).  In the face of Naomi, the Sabra, all Portnoy has for power is his wittiness and vulgarity.  But the irony is obvious.  Roth is showing that Portnoy’s words are no substitute for her physical power.  Rather, his wittiness differs and competes with her power.  And, like any schlemiel it loses in the end.  What remains in the aftermath of all his verbal acrobatics is his failure.  (The acrobatics metaphor which I mentioned in my last blog on Beckett and Federman fits well here.)

Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi interprets the meaning of Portnoy’s failure in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination.  Ezrahi notes that Portnoy explicitly confesses to his loss when he sings a self-depricating song, which he has created for this specific situation of failure: “Im-po-tent in Israel, da, da, da”(226).  Ezrahi’s interpretation of this moment of failure is telling.

On the one hand, Ezrahi says that the novel demarcates the “very moment when the schlemiel as cultural hero is superceded by what the critics of Zionism call the “tough Jew,” when “images of Jewish wimps and nerds are being supplanted by those of the hardy, bronzed kibbitznik, the Israeli paratrooper, and the Mossad agent.”   On the other hand, she notes that in Roth’s later novel Operation Shylock the schlemiel becomes a competitor: “What has happened to turn powerlessness into a competing cultural claim and Diaspora into the most authentic and secure form of Jewish existence?”(226).

The lines that follow this question, however, demonstrate that Ezrahi doesn’t believe Roth’s project has left the schlemiel behind. The claims he makes in Operation Shylock are still based on powerlessness:  “Once again Roth’s hero is defeated in Israel, but this time in a battle, fought with weapons – the pen and the sword – no less phallic but more consequential.  Israel has become the place where Reality writ large has the same affect on the psyche as Naomi did on the libido”(226-7).

In other words, Roth’s characters are still schlemiels but now Exile, “redefined as “Diaspora,” is no longer limited to the realm of therapy (as it was for Portnoy) but extends to the much larger realm of fiction.”

Fiction and not the libido becomes the resevoir of the dream and fantasy while Isreal becomes Reality (Israel IS-REAL) or the reality principle.  This contrast shows that, for Ezrahi, the schlemiel’s battle is not simply psychological as it was with Naomi.  Portnoy’s problem may be psychological, but the narrator and main character of Operation Shylock – whose names all happen to be Phillip Roth – have a problem with Israel.  In other words, their Jewish identity is ruptured by its very existence.

But, to be sure, we also see that this problem exists in Portnoy as well.  His problem is not merely psychological.  After all, he tries to call Naomi names so as to show he is more powerful, but it is to no effect.  Reading Ezrahi’s take on Roth, one cannot help but think that Roth is fully aware that he is on the side of the dream; and the side of the dream, as even Roth suggests, will always be the side of guilt and failure.

If Roth takes his task from Kafka, as Pinsker tells us, Ezrahi’s observation is very telling.  Roth admits that he saw Kafka as a “sit-down” comedian who took the tragic notes out of guilt by making guilt comical.  As Pinsker argued, Roth believed that by writing he would eventually be done with guilt and the schlemiel. But as Ezrahi argues, this project, inevitably failed.  Why?

For Ezrahi, this project to leave schlemiel-hood can never be completed since there is a competing claim; namely, the claim of reality (the claim of Israel). And this claim demonstrates that the real basis for the schlemiel, for Ezrahi, is the difference between dreams and reality (or as she puts it, Exile and Homecoming).  For her, language, without a land, provides (and has, traditionally, provided) nourishment for the exiled Jew.  The schlemiel’s words, as Wisse would argue, give people a sense of dignity in the face of failure.  But, as Ezrahi suggests, fiction, like the schlemiel, can’t stop dreaming.  Given these premises, I would suggest that Ezrahi can argue that Roth is not simply a schlemiel in the sense that he doesn’t know what is going on in reality.  No.  He is a guilty schlemiel.  We see this above, in the citations from Portnoy’s Complaint.  He, so to speak, enjoys his symptom.

Ezrahi suggests that in Operation Shylock Roth makes it explicit that he may fight with Israel but, ultimately, he will always be a comic failure.  His identity, as a Jewish-American writer will be ruptured.  He knows that his homeland is in a text while being cognizant that Israel is now a reality.  Ezrahi suggests that he knows that he has refused history in the name of fiction.   But do Jewish-American writers share this awareness?  Are they, like Kafka and other pre-Israel schlemiels, not able to properly enter history? To be sure, as a result of this failure, which they were not fully responsible for, Ezrahi tells us that they had to live in a “substitute” land with a “substitute” sovereignty. Today, Ezrahi argues, one no longer has to do this. A Jew can go home and “recover” their history.   But writers like Roth consciously opt not to.  And this opting-not-to constitutes their comical identity.   So, today, the schlemiel and its comic relationship with guilt remains but now it has a different basis.

What amazes me most about all of this is that what Roth and Ezrahi both seem to be saying is that to be an American Jew –and to resort to a constructed identity, fiction, and dreams – is to be a schlemiel.  Ezrahi calls this a “diasporic privilege.”  Based on this logic, one can say that living an ironic, schlemiel-like existence is a “guilty” pleasure that is had at the expense of returning to the land.  American Jews, as schlemiels, enjoy their symptom.   Now, being a schlemiel has a price; but before Israel was Real (for many before 1967), being a schlemiel was, as Ruth Wisse argues, necessary for Jewish survival.

For Ezrahi, Jews are forced to answer a question: What side are you on?  On the side of Portnoy or Naomi the Sabra?   One can brazenly be a schlemiel and deny any guilt, but at what price?  This, I think, is one of the main questions Ezrahi wants American-Jews to ponder.  Unfortunately, no scholar I have met who has read Ezrahi has figured it out.  For some strange reason, they miss this question and, instead, think Ezrahi is praising Diaspora.  This misreading, though unfortunate, is telling.

I won’t make this misreading.  I’m here to ask this question and to reflect on what it means.  Should I read Roth as she does – in terms of his comic acknowledgment of a guilt that is based on saying no to Israel?  Or should I consider myself to be a “New Jew” (see David Shneer and Caryn Aviv’s book New Jews: The End of Diaspora, who, according to these authors, is not bound by the distinction of Diaspora and Homecoming)?

What better time to pose this question than today on the 65th Anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1948?  Ezrahi has every right to ask us to ponder such guilt since she lives in  Israel and knows full well that there is a difference between being Jewish in Israel and being Jewish in America.  I do not see it from her perspective.

I read and write about the schlemiel, but with a difference.  As an American-Jew, I understand that with Israel’s existence, my enjoyment of the schlemiel can be thought of as a guilty pleasure.  And I clearly understand that her reading hinges on Jewish history.  If an American Jew thinks he or she is beyond the dream of having a land of his or her own, he or she is thinking ahistorically.  Though this is possible, and happens often enough (since, unlike Phillip Roth, many Jews lack an acute sense of what is at stake with Israel or how they are a part of a long history of Exile), one needs to ask oneself what is at stake if we totally lose our “Jewish guilt” which, today, is not tied to anything primordial but, quite simply, to Israel.  Can a Jew simply leave the schlemiel behind, which, for Ezrahi, would suggest that one leaves Israel and history behind?  Or are Jewish American novelists – like Shalom Auslander or Nathan Englander (to name only two) – willing to embrace this character and its ironic relationship with the Isreal?  Will the schlemiel remain, regardless of what we do, since Israel and America will most likely remain the two primary places where Jews live and dream?

These questions should trouble American Jews and be so troubling as to make us complain a little and realize the situation we are faced with.  Perhaps, for American Jews -in general – and Jewish-American writers – in particular -Israel is or will be the Final Complaint (as it was for Portnoy and for the author of Operation Shylock)?

After the “YouTubeLoop,” What is the Comic Legacy of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen?

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In yesterday’s post, I made a brief reading of the recent 44 minute video of Woody Allen “stammering” over the span of his career.   The picture I used as a thumbnail for the blog post came from the beginning of Woody Allen’s film Bananas. The reason I chose this image was because it nicely illustrated the mechanistic-slash-comic aspect of the video; in addition, it also illustrated what Henri Bergson believed was the essence of the comic: mechanical repetition. For Bergson, we laugh at the Jack-in-the-Box, or any mechanical repitition, because it is a caricature of life and freedom or what he called élan vital.  Like many in his time, Bergson’s theory is based on an organicist model or what the German’s called Lebensphilosophie (life philosophy). The greatest challenges to life philosophy can be found in meaningless, mechanical habits.  For thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche or Georges Bataille, the source of these mechanical habits was the growing mechanization of society – a society in which everything meaningful or progressive had “utility.”  For this reason, both Nietzsche and Bataille pursued a “vitalism” which looked to act without any meaningful end.  Life, as they understood it, was excessive.  For us to put a determined end on existence, by way of work, mechanism, and habits was, in effect, to say “no” to life.  Saying “yes” to life would be to affirm what Maurice Blanchot would call “un-working.”  Saying yes to life, for Bergson, would be equivalent to saying yes to elan vital and no to the mechanical gesture. To be sure, filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, who lived in and around the time Nietzsche, Bergson, and Bataille lived and wrote on vitalism, knew that the greatest threat to vitalism and élan vital was posed by technology.    America, with its concept of the assembly line and mechanical mass production, became the focal point for many Europeans (including Nietzsche, Batialle, Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, and many others) of what is to come; namely, an existence in which the individual is lost in (and to) the machine. And this is the point: life was at stake – life embodied in the individual (the subject) and his/or her freedom. We see this tension between life and the machine comically elaborated in both Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) and in Woody Allen’s repetition of key scenes of this film (with, of course, some variation) in Bananas (1971): Here is Chaplin’s film: As you can see, Chaplin is the subject of the machine.  However, his comic gesturing (and the absurd nature of the machine – a toy of sorts – he is subject to) make him distinct from the machine.  Both his gestures and the absurd nature of the machine give him some kind of agency. Here’s Allen’s film, Bananas: This film does something nearly identical to Modern Times.  The machine and Allen’s gestural responses to it give Allen agency.   As one can see, Allen believes that such responses are still affective and meaningful. Although 35 years and major advances in technology and history separate them, both of these clips communicate the same message about comedy and its challenge to mechanization.  For both, one mechanism seems to be defeating another and élan vital triumphs (comically). It must be noted that, for many thinkers and film critics of the early 20th century, the source of this scenario (of comedy versus the mechanical), which Allen repeats, is Charlie Chaplin. In his book Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars, Tyrus Miller notes that Andre Bazin, the famous French Film critic, wrote a seminal essay in 1948 about Chaplin claiming that Chaplin’s comedy was a means of ‘brushing aside danger’.  Miller goes on to note that Bazin sees Chaplin’s power as the power of “mimicry” which acts by “reabsorbing time and space”(51).  What he means by this is that Chaplin’s comedy wins time and space back for organic humanity and beats the machine at its own game.  Bazin bases his advancement of mimicry on the work of the surrealist Roger Caillois who claimed that insects, like humans, imitate the environment in order to protect themselves from being killed. Miller reads this in terms of the medium of film: Supplementing Bazin’s claim that time reabsorbs space, then, we might say that Chaplin’s organic body becomes a mimetic extension of cinematic technology, which breaks down movement into constitutive fragments, discarding some while isolating others.  Having incorporated the technical principle of montage into his physical movements, Chaplin is able to mirror it back to the camera in embodied form. (52). Sounding much like Walter Benjamin, Miller argues that Chaplin becomes the “very allegory of cinema in its inaugural phase and the changes in experience it will precipitate”(52). The self survives as a “minimal self: as much technical as organic, and held together by the stiffening bonds of laughter”(52). This presupposes that there is a community between the comedian and the audience and that if we don’t have comedians who can mimic the damage wrought by technology – that is, if we don’t have comedy to laugh at, our agency and selfhood will be diminished to such an extent that instead of a minimal self, there will be no self. It’s fascinating to note that Theodor Adorno also suggests this call for comedy and the minimal self in his book Minima Moralia.   Three decades following Adorno’s plea for the minimal self, comedy and the minimal self are evoked by Jean-Luc Nancy in an essay on Baudelaire in his book The Birth of Presence.  But, as I will show in future blogs, Nancy likens laughter to an explosion.  But the question is this: what does it explode?  Does post-modern laughter – for lack of a better word – explode the machine or the person?  If the latter, then we can surmise that Nancy thinks we can no longer protect ourselves from the machine and might as well celebrate nihilism. Regardless of Nancy’s take on laughter, Allen seems to be more on the side of Chaplin.  He has an optimistic view of comedy and sees it as a “defense” against technology and empty, mechanical repetition. In yesterdays video, however, I wondered about the meaning of the mechanically reproduced stammering which has become a micro-stammering of sorts (concentrated into 44 minutes). Did that video testifiy to the obliteration of the self and absorption into the medium or something else?  How, in fact, do we understand ourselves and one of our greatest defenses (comedy) by way of being looped, re-looped and morphed by new technology?  Has Allen’s stammer exploded and been emptied of all its human (organic) content?  Does such a video evince a subject who is powerless and “defenseless” against the ever expanding field of technology (with all its information and audio and video “flows” and “feeds”)? How does comedy and how do “we” – who are “in the network,” who come after Chaplin and Allen’s comic parody of technology and who now come after the “YouTube-loop” of Woody Allen…stammering – “live on?”