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


One of the greatest things Bernard Malamud provides the reader of The Assistant with is an acute sense of how complicated it is to become a good person.   The schlemiel in the novel, Morris Bober, is the model for goodness. His endurance of suffering, bad luck, and failure show the reader a character who, though comical, is in many ways saintly. But it is not his suffering so much that makes him a saintly-schlemiel as the fact that he trusts the other. We see this most clearly when Bober gives Frank, who becomes his assistant, a chance to do good.

As I have pointed out in the last blog entry, Frank is culpable for robbing Bober with Ward. And this may have prompted him to show up on Bober’s doorstep to help him out and become his assistant. However, as the story goes on, we see Frank struggle with being good. Even though he admits to himself that he has done wrong in the past, he still steals money from Bober. Moreover, he doesn’t speak to him and confess that he has done wrong. This lack of communication is, as I noted in the last blog, the missing link to fully doing teshuva (repentance).   His effort to become good must include being good in thought, speech, and action. As the novel shows, he is partial and until he speaks and stops stealing, his good feelings or thoughts are not enough.

After telling himself that he was a “victim” of Ward’s anti-Semitism, he decides that he wants to have a new beginning. This decision is the seed of his teshuva. After returning money to the register, Frank starts feeling good:

After ringing up the six bucks, to erase the evidence of an unlikely sale he rang up “no sale.” Frank then felt a surge of joy at what he had done and his eyes misted. In the back he drew off his shoe, got out the card, and subtracted six dollars form the total amount he owed. He figured he could pay it all up in a couple-three months, by taking out of the bank the money – about eighty bucks – that was left there, returning it bit by bit, and when that was all used up, giving back part of his weekly salary till he had the debt square. The trick was to get the money back without arousing anyone’s suspicion. (159)

In the midst of his joy of doing good, Helen, Bober’s daughter, calls him up on the phone. As I noted before, he has a crush on her and she likes him. Bober lets this slip by while Ida doesn’t. Helen, in her phone call to him, confesses that she would rather hang out with him that with Nat Perl, a Jewish boy who is likely to become a success in life. Helen’s mother, Ida, would rather she marry or hang out with Nat while Bober trusts, perhaps foolishly, that Frank would be harmless. He believed that Frank was a harmless poor person, like himself.

In this chapter of the novel, we see that Bober’s idealization of Frank is false on two counts. Thinking of when he will meet Helen, Frank realizes that he will need money for the cab to get home from the date. He then decides to steal some money from the register:

Frank had decided he didn’t like to ask Helen for any money – it wasn’t a nice thing to do with a girl you liked. He thought it was better to take a buck out of the register drawer, out of the amount he had just put back. He wished he had paid back the finve and kept himself the one-buck bill. (161)

But when he does this, Bober, for the first time, catches him in the act and decides to confront Frank: “The grocer held his breath for a painful second, then stepped inside the store”(161).   Frank lies to Bober and says there was a “mistake”(161). But Bober pushes him on this lie. Bober says flat out that “this is a lie”(161).   Bewildered, Bober, once again, asks Frank why he lied (Frank, recall, stole rolls and milk at the beginning of the novel without telling Bober, but Bober let it go on account of Frank’s poverty; now, however, Frank is no longer a homeless poor man). But Frank still can’t admit to it and insists that it was a “mistake.” Frank asks for another chance and Bober says “No.” Bober becomes sad and tells Frank to leave:

Frank stared at the gray and broken Jew and seeing, despite the tears in his eyes, that we would not yield, hung up his apron and left. (163)

Following this, Frank goes out to drink before he meets up with Helen, Bober’s daughter.   When Frank doesn’t show up on time, Helen starts to worry (165). And, out of nowhere, Ward shows up.   Ward, drunk, accosts Helen, she turns him away and, in the heat of the moment, he makes sexual advances. Helen fights back:

Struggling, kicking wildly, she caught him between the legs with her knee. He cried out and cracked her across her face… Her legs buckled and she slid to the ground. (167)

Frank emerges out of the trees and hits Ward. Ward runs off. Helen feels saved, kisses Frank, thanks him, and “holds him tightly.” But then Frank does the unseemly thing and although she tells him no, he insists that he loves her so much that he must have sex with her.   He “stopped her pleas with kisses…”(168). However, the last words are hers: “Afterward, she cried, “Dog – uncircumcised dog!”

These are the last words of the chapter. They indicate a separation of Jews and Gentiles that brings back old hatreds and ancient memories of oppression. They also show us how Frank has broken with all possibilities for goodness. He is in a low state and in need of redemption.

In the following chapter, we see Bober, his wife, and Helen mourning Frank’s departure from the store…and the possibility of goodness. They are saddened as they all, with the exception of Ida, had hope that Frank could turn things around.

Frank is deeply hurt. And at home that night the narrator tells us that Frank “cries out”(174). The narrator points out that Frank’s thoughts “stank” and “the more he smothered them the more they stank”(174). This stink is also physical. We learn that his body stank and that it was lodged in his nose. His body is repulsive: “The sight of his bare feet utterly disgusted him”(174). And his thoughts “were killing him. He couldn’t stand them.” Frank then experiences major ambivalence. He wants to leave the city, but he feels he must stay. He wants forgiveness and replays in his mind what he will tell Helen (174). In addition to this, he imagines what Helen will say and this drives him mad. He looks in the mirror and stages this dialogue. He “faces” failure:

Where have you been, he asked the one in the glass, except on the inside of a circle? What have you ever done but always the wrong thing? (174)

The narrator compounds things by noting how he also betrayed Morris and had failed to do the right thing on many occasions. Thoughts about all of these failures leaves him, so to speak, with a stink:

His thoughts would forever suffocate him. He had failed once to often. He should somewhere have stopped and changed the way he was going, his luck, himself, stopped hating the world, got a decent education, a job, a nice girl. He had lived without will, betrayed every good intention. Had he ever confessed the holdup to Morris? Hadn’t he stolen from the cash register till the minute he was canned? In a single terrible act in the park hadn’t he murdered the last of his good hopes, the love he had so long waited for – his chance at a future? His goddamn life pursued him wherever he went; he had led it nowhere….The self he had secretly considered valuable was, for all he could make of it, a dead rat. He stank. (175)

Meanwhile, Helen feels regret for having trusted Frank. The narrator, in a similar fashion, writes a paragraph full of questions about how she had been duped. This leads to her feeling a “violent self-hatred for trusting him”(176).

In the midst of all this self-loathing over mistrust and failure, yet another trauma emerges. Bober goes to sleep in his house, but since he forgot to light the gas he is exposed to noxious fumes. Frank smells the gas coming from Bober’s home and immediately springs up to save him. Frank does his best to revive him and succeeds in saving his life.

Although everyone is angry at Frank, the fact that he saved Bober’s life creates an awkwardness between them. And when he comes back the next day, we can see that Ida is agitated with his presence. But he gives her back all of the money he took and says he wants to visit Bober in the hospital. However, Ida doesn’t let him leave so easily and orders him to stay away from Helen.

When Frank finally faces Bober and confesses to him, we see a different person. To be sure, the whole novel Frank wanted to say something. But now more than ever Frank feels he can speak.   He wants to be trusted by Bober, the honest schlemiel. However, as in the Jewish tradition, Frank’s apology is not enough. It needs to be accepted:

“Morris, Frank said, at agonizing last, “I have something important to tell you. I tried to tell you before only I couldn’t work my nerve up. Morris, don’t blame me now for what I once did, because I am now a changed man, but I was one of the guys that held you up that night. I swear to God I didn’t want to once I got in here, but I couldn’t get out of it. I tried to tell you about it – that’s why I cam back here in the first place, and the first chance I got I put my share of the money back in the register – but I didn’t have the guts to say it…You can trust me now, I swear it, and that’s why I am asking you to let me stay and help you.”(198)

Morris Bober, however, is not astonished. He tells Frank that he figured it out long ago but didn’t say anything! Regardless, Frank’s pleas for forgiveness don’t stop: “But the grocer had set his heart against the assistant and would not let him stay”(200).   It seems that Frank’s efforts to do teshuva will require him to suffer more and this is something he learns from Bober who lives the life of a schlemiel where failure is an everyday reality and where trust is a premium. In effect, Bober’s refusal to accept Frank’s apology is a gift that will, in the wake of Bober’s death, prompt Frank to convert and become a Jew.   What is the meaning of this?  Is Malamud suggesting that to be forgiven and to regain trust, the criminal must become the victim?  Must Frank, in effect, not just become a Jew but…a schlemiel?


….to be continued


The Other is My Teacher: First Thoughts on Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”


When I first started reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I was struck by the title, the first words of the novel, and their speaker, the main character, who is an amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction: her name is Sheila Heti.  Her book, published in 2012, has received great reviews by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and many other reputable publications. I need not go through what has already been said about her wonderful novel by these reviews. Rather I’d like to introduce a nuanced way of reading her novel that taps into the existential comedy of being – which is connected to the comedy of education – that runs throughout the text. The comedy we find with Sheila, to be sure, resonates very well with the schlemiel.

What intrigued me about this confluence between the title of Heti’s novel, it’s first words, and the main character, was the fact that they are all involved, in the most Talmudic way, in a series of questions, tests, and life possibilities that are aimed at learning something and being something. But this education is not a simple one; it is what I would call a schlemiel-education. This is the case because the relationship of Sheila to her experiences is based on an uncertainty as to “how a person should be.” She is a lot like Motl of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son. He leaves Europe with his family to discover America. Motl embraces and attempts to learn from each experience about how to be.   But in learning, we don’t see him commit to any one way of being or another. Motl’s education, it seems, has no end.

And in many ways the other, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would say, is the schlemiel’s teacher.   But Heti’s schlemiel is different insofar as Sheila is a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, the genre of women-schlemiels has, unfortunately, not been explored. But Heti’s book offers us what Edith Wychogrod would call a “sample” of the “general carnality of the (female) saint.” (As I pointed out in my blogs on Malamud and Levinas, the schlemiel is a secular saint of sorts. And Wychogrod offers us an exceptional model as to how we can read the schlemiel who, like the saint, takes the other as her teacher.)

Like children, we learn from others how to live our life and how to be. But for thinkers like Immanuel Kant this  type of education is immature. To learn from others how to live one’s life, as an adult, is shameful. A “mature” individual should, rather, use his or her reason as a guide for how he or she should live his or her life. Kant identified Enlightenment with the autonomy that comes by living one’s life in accordance with one’s reason. But there is more to the story. Enlightenment is not simply based on living one’s life in accordance with reason; rather, it requires that one sacrifice one’s desire to look to others for how one should live one’s life and for how someone should be.   Kant would, for this reason, associate autonomy with the sacrifice of heteronomy.

Nearly a century after Immanuel Kant, a Jewish man (who despised his Jewish identity) named Otto Weininger argued in his book Sex and Character (1903) – which was very influence by Kant – that Jews are effeminate because they are caught up in experience.   Jews are not capable of autonomy, in his view, because they look to experience for the answer to their question “How should a person be?” Writing on Weininger, Freud pointed out that the chapter that most “attracted his attention treated Jews and women with equal hostility and overwhelmed them with the same insults”(77, cited in Sander Gilman’s Freud, Race, and Gender) Arguing against Weininger, Freud calls him a “neurotic.” And, being a neurotic, “Weininger was completely under the sway of his infantile complexes; and from that standpoint what is common to Jews and women is their relation to the castration complex”(77).   According to Gilman, Weininger’s “infantile complex” is an “example of the problematic relationship of a Jew to his circumcision”(77).

What Freud misses about Weininger’s reading of the Jew is that both of them are deemed to be in a constant state of change and their education seems to be endless. For Weininger, neither is guided by reason so much as by experience. Heti’s book, to be sure, is Jewish in a double sense in that its narrator and main character is a woman schlemiel. For Weininger a Jewish woman is guided, to an even greater extent than the male, by experience and the other. To be sure, it wouldn’t be off to say that for Weininger she is the greater schlemiel. The male, in many ways, is really no different from her; but she does it better because she is truly feminine; he is an amalgamation of male-and-female.

Although I don’t agree with Weininger, I find it particularly interesting that I, as a Jewish male, am learning from the story of a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, Kant saw the novel as a kind of distraction and would likely associate it with the feminine.   Given this reading, I could say that as a Jewish male, I am being doubly distracted by her work from being autonomous. This book would, in Weininger and Kant’s view, only distract me from being autonomous and from guiding my life by reason.   However, in defiance of them, I would argue, as I have above, that this book provides us with a schlemiel education. It shows us the comical nature of having the other as a teacher. In involves us with an endless lesson.

Even though there is something laughable and even positive about this, there is also something very sad. The first words of the novel – in the prologue – show us a schlemiel-subject who is always-already in the midst of the question, which situates “the other as my teacher” and evokes questions about which ways of being one should, existentially, take on for oneself:

How should a person be?

For years and years I have asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too….But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose?  

All of these questions – and their possible answers – are at once comical and torturous. These are the questions of a woman-schlemiel named Sheila Heti who takes the other as her teacher.

(Sheila Heti is the sister of David Heti, a comedian Schlemiel Theory has written on recently.   To be sure, they have many interesting resonances as for as the schlemiel character goes.  In upcoming entries, I will dig into the details and travel with the stops, starts, pauses, false starts, and sudden turns in her novel. They all make up a “sample” of schlemiel education.)

It’s All in the Timing: A Brief Note on Kairos


After responding to Jeffrey Bernstein’s piece on schlemiel temporality, I have been thinking about the relationship of messianic time (the Augenblick) to schlemiel temporality.  Are they, in fact, opposites?  The key term that Bernstein brought to the discussion was Kairos.  As I noted in the last blog entry, this term was used by Paul to signify a kind of time that is anticipated, messianic.  As Bernstein puts it, kairos is the “eschatalogically charged instant in which the encounter with God and the acknowledgment of messianic time occurs.”  In contrast to this time, Bernstein proposes a time that he calls more “prosaic” as opposed to the time of Kairos which is more poetic and resonates more with a Christian tradition that battles with presence. Jewish time, in contrast, is belated.  As I noted:

Bernstein brilliantly argues that “the schlemiel does not prophesy so much as ‘register prophetically’ what has already happened as what will always already continue to have been happening (Oy, look what I did).”   The schlemiel doesn’t have an “Ahah!” moment so much as an “oh…yeah!” moment.  And this is not by any means an moment of Kairos or messianic anticipation (with all of its poetry and pathos).  Rather, it is quite a prosaic and mundane moment.

This prosaic moment is necessarily comic.  And, as I note in the blog entry, Walter Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism marks such a discovery; however, in it, Benjamin realizes that he is the subject of the joke.  His writing, as the aphorism implies, is always-already childish, but he figures it as a surprise.

Bernstein’s reading of Kairos puts an interesting twist to my reading and it made me think about the other reading of Kairos; namely, the one that both Heidegger and Agamben reject. That reading is the reading of Aristotle.  To be sure, Aristotle’s reading is to prosaic for them.   They would rather have Paul’s reading of Kairos on their side.

I was curious about this reading of Kairos and it struck me that I had, in the past, come across another reading of Karios which I found very interesting and perhaps even relevant to schlemiel theory.   I found this reading in one of Roland Barthes’ lectures which he gave in 1978 in Morroco.  The lectures have been translated and complied in a book entitled The Neutral.

What I find most interesting about Barthes’ readings of Kairos is the fact that he doesn’t even mention Aristotle.  In fact, he mentions two “other” readings of Karios: one coming from the sophists and the other from the skeptics.  I’ll briefly sketch them out and, in the end of this blog entry, I’d like to think about whether or how they can be related to the schlemiel.

Barthes begins his lecture on Kairos by giving its etymology: Ho Kairos: right, appropriate measure.  And then he reads it in terms of time as a “timely moment” or “occasion.”

To illustrate his take on Kairos, Barthes contrasts the Sophist’s reading of Kairos to the Skeptics.  For the sophist, proper speech is always about finding and speaking at the right moment:

The temporality of the Sophist discourse by jolts, zigzags, catches: hunting for the “right moment.”  The tension is continuous, lengthy lookout > discourse of mastery: the “right moment” = weapon of power: today we would say: political swell.

In contrast to the Sophists, the Skeptics are not looking to appropriate time as a “weapon of power” that can be used to win whatever argument.  Rather, the skeptic’s sense of Kairos is about “marking” time and “undoing the time of the system.”  The skeptic:

Puts moments of flight in it (the system and is) about preventing the system from taking.

Barthes mentions how, if there could actually be a “virtual system of Skepticism,” it would be the “devise for undoing mastery.”

However,  regardless of their differences, both the Sophistic and the Skeptical sense of Kairos would agree that “Truth is not the ultimate instance.”  In his discussion of this point, which echoes Marx and Hegel, Barthes brings up Hegel’s words on Skepticism and relates it back to Kairos.  According to Hegel,  both the skeptic and the sophist are stuck on the level of “subjective certainty and conviction and not on the value of absolute truth.”

Skeptic: acts according to laws that don’t have truth value to this eyes: his consciousness is a completely empirical existence; his reality = total contingency; his self-identity – something completely empty.

Barthes builds on this reading and exults Kairos as the time of contingency.  He notes that it has a “humbling” feature:  it is what “prevents the becoming system, the becoming arrogant of worldliness.”  He translates this into a way of avoiding being on time or what he calls “perfectly dodging time.”  To illustrate, Barthes cites a passage about the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales and his avoidance of marriage:

The story is told that, when his mother tried to force him to marry, he replied that it was too soon, and when she pressed him again later in life, he replied that it is too late.

The point of this version of Kairos, which “perfectly dodges time,” is to avoid being taken into any system or even having one’s own system.   Ultimately, Barthes throws out the possibility that Kairos is to be associated with Satori.  But instead of translating this into a timeless spiritual state, Barthes associates it with “an energetic time: the moment insofar as it produces something, a changeover: it’s a force > non-tactical kairos (not meant to trap the other but rather interiorized).  This leads him to claim that, unlike an intellectual “insight,” the Kairos is an energetic “burst of brilliance” – “of the moment in its pure status of exception, its absolute power of mutation.”  And this relates back to the skeptics insofar as, for Barthes, the main mode of perception for the Skeptic is skepsis which he translates as “intense observation.”

And out of Satori, out of this “intense observation” that is Kairos there is an exclamation: “Ah, this!”  This is opposed to a rational apprehension of things: “That’s how it is!”

After reading through Barthes’ reading of Kairos, I wonder: is this “Ah, this!” (Kairos) moment different from the moment of schlemiel temporality which exclaims, as Bernstein puts, “Oh…yeah!”?   I’m inclined to say yes and I do this with the thought that, for Barthes, the Kairos he describes is still caught up with the loss of truth and the experience of time as contingency.  What’s different with the schlemiel is the tension between the hope and skepticism (which is a temporal tension).  The schlemiel – or the viewer of the schlemiel – cannot simply settle for the skeptical.  Its there, as is the tact of the sophist, but there’s more.  And this leads to a kind of irony that is temporal in character.  Perhaps this is the comic aspect that Barthes’ reading lacks.  It wouldn’t make sense to him or to a Sophist or Skeptic – to be caught in such a temporal jam of absent-mindedness.  To state it simply, Jews know very well the meaning of contingency; that’s not the issue.  It’s the relation of contingency to election and to its frustration.

By election  I don’t simply mean the election of the Jews by God as stated in the Torah.  Rather, by election I mean, as Emmanuel Levinas says, that one is elected by the other to be responsible.  (This is something outside of oneself and beyond one’s control.  But it is constantly coming toward one, as it were, from out of the future.  It, so to speak, haunts one’s every move.)  And this creates a different sense of temporality than the temporality of Kairos.  This election comes from out of the future and by way of the other person (and, for the schlemiel, that could be the shlimazel, the audience, etc) and it reminds one that one is always-already indebted to the other and that, most likely, one will fail – in one way or the other – to “properly” respond to the other. And, as in many a schlemiel routine, this always comes as a surprise.  The schlemiel is, in a sense, always belated vis-à-vis the other.  He comes too late.  And this isn’t so much a “perfect dodging of the system” (as we saw above with Thales witty way of dodging marriage) as being dodged.

And on this note, the belated “oh…yeah!” of the schlemiel resonates differently that the “Ah, this!” of the Zen master.  Perhaps this is the temporal key to why the schlemiel is so funny: she will always be to late not because she is simply absent-minded but because she is – so to speak – too late for the other.    And, as I suggested in my title, it’s “all in the timing.”  This timing of the other does have a Messianic aspect to it since, in this kind of time, one is constantly standing in judgment (a judgment that is alway to come).  The awkwardness of the schlemiel and her acknowledgment – stated in the “oh yeah!” –  is constantly repeated.  And this repetition reminds us that the schlemiel, as a Jewish comic character, stands continually in this kind of temporal relation.  It is a relation that Jews have, so to speak, inherited from their tradition and, as Levinas argues, from their acute awareness of an other who – I might add – may or may not laugh at one’s jokes.

Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufmann and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part IV)


Sanford Pinsker, in his book Schlemiel as Metaphor, points out that Phillip Roth – in one of his autobiographical accounts – thinks of himself in the tradition of Franz Kafka, who he calls a “sit down comic.”  The book that placed him squarely in that tradition was Portnoy’s Complaint.  But what is a “sit down” as opposed to a “stand up” comedian?  What’s the difference?

As Pinsker correctly notes, this book is Roth’s debut as a sexual schlemiel.  (The term “sexual schlemiel” comes from David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews.)  As far as being a man, Potrnoy, the main character, is a half-man.  His only power is to be found in his vulgarity and wit.  But, ultimately, his sexual obsessions and antics are all associated with impotence.  And, strangely enough, he admits to this form of failure.  He can’t “stand up.”

But Portnoy is a different kind of schlemiel and his “sit down” comedy is of a different variety.  Unlike traditional schlemiels, Roth is obsessed with targeting his listeners, his mother, and women who reject him.  And unlike Woody Allen, Roth’s sexual schlemiel is not charming.  He is pathetic.  And this makes him into a target of sorts.  Nonetheless, he targeting of others overcompensates for this and he, so to speak, hits them when they are not looking.  He doesn’t “stand up” to them, but when he does, toward the end of the novel, he is shamed.

Portnoy’s Complaint is structured as a discussion with a psychologist.   Portnoy is telling his story – from youth to the present – to the psychologist.   And this suggests that he wants to “work through” his past.   What we find from the story is that he has many comic targets – his mother, sexuality, his father, and women – which he fires at so as to feel superior.  However, he is a schlemiel insofar as this targeting does nothing to change his situation.   And the more he does it, the more he himself becomes a target of the reader.

In relation to his mother, Portnoy says many angry things.   One exemplary moment comes up when he recalls “Ronald Nimkin’s suicide note” which Nimkin’s mother found “pinned” to his “nice stiffly laundered sports shirt.”  It is the “last note from Ronald to his momma.”  The note is about how Mrs. Blumenthal called and won’t be able to play “Mah-Jong.”  Commenting on this, Portnoy notes, in the most sarcastic way, that Ronald was a “nice Jewish boy” to the very end.  He goes on to mock Ronald’s mother and all Jewish mothers:

Say thank you, darling.  Say you’re welcome, darling. Say you’re sorry, Alex.  Say you’re sorry! Apologize! Yeah, for what?  What have I done now?  Hey, I’m hiding under my bed, my back to the wall, refusing to say sorry, refusing, too, to come out and take the consequences.  Refusing!…Oh..why did Ronald Nimkin give up his ghost…? BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANYMORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHER’S ARE TOO MUCH TO BEAR! (120-21)

Sexual propriety is also targeted since he talks at length about masturbation.  In fact, there is a whole section of the book entitled “Whacking off.”  Let me cite a little:

Then came adolescence – half of my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splay, up against the medicine-chest mirror….

I’ll stop there as the account becomes much more detailed and vulgar.

The biggest target of all is a Sabra named Naomi. He meets her in Israel.  She sexually defeats him and, in the process calls him a schlemiel.  Their dialogue is worth quoting at length since it touches directly on humor and targeting. Naomi’s great insight is that Portnoy doesn’t simply use humor to target others but to target himself:

The way you disapprove of your life! Why do you do that?  It is of no value for a man to disapprove of his life the way that you do.  You seem to take some pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own humor.  I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life.  Everything you say is somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’.  All day long the same thing.  In some way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating.  Self-deprecating?

In response, Portnoy says that the Sabra should appreciate what he is doing since playing the schlemiel is, historically, a staple of Jewish humor: “Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “self-deprecation is, after all, a classic form of Jewish humor.” In response, she notes that this is not Jewish humor but “ghetto humor.” As an Israeli, she is saying that she has gone beyond that kind of humor.  In response to her identification of his humor as ghetto humor, Portnoy says he resembles her remark and mockingly identifies with the “Diaspora Jew” who is “frightened, defensive, self-deprecating, unmanned and corrupted by life in the gentile world”(265).

After hearing her discourse, he sarcastically says: “Wonderful.  Now let’s fuck.”  Disturbed by this reply, Naomi stands up to him and calls him several names: disgusting, a self-hating Jew, a coward, and last but not least, “schlemiel.”  He also calls her names.  But, after she calls him a schlemiel, she leaves him while he carries on.  But at a certain point he tries to prove to her that he’s not a schlemiel but a “man”: “Only I leaped from behind, and with a flying tackle brought this red-headed…dish down with me onto the floor.  I’ll show her who’s a schlemiel”(268).  What ensues is a struggle that turns comic.  When it comes to the moment of sex, he is impotent:

How has it come to this?  “Im-po-tent in Is-real, dad a daah,” to the tune of “Lullaby in Birdland.”  Another joke? She asked.  And another.  And another.  Why disclaim my life.” 

The final pleas of this “sit down” comic are pathetic.  In laughing at him, we aim at a clear target.  To be sure, he takes on the target and says, comically, that he is going home.

We target Portnoy “as” a sexual schlemiel but he doesn’t care.  He sings the song “impotent in Israel” and calls the Sabra names so at to target her and to say that he has won a “verbal victory.”  This victory, however, is ironic.  We see him as a target of his own humor.  Portnoy is blind to the fact that his ironic (and word-crafted) victory conceals his “real” impotence.  This knowledge or insight exposes us to his blindness and to our being better or superior to him.  He’s a schlemiel while we are not.  However, this superiority is at the expense of his verbal victory.  We knowingly exclude him by valuing masculine “normality” over comic abnormality.  And in this we are complicit with Naomi.   We target him and see that he targets himself as a schlemiel (of the negative variety).   However, we are still blinded by this gesture as we are not exposed to our complicity or to our targeting.

The problem with a novel, as Levinas points out in his essay “Reality and its Shadow,” is that it requires an interpretation. Without interpretation, the character, he claims, will be stuck in endless repetition or what he calls “mythology.” The time of the character is what he calls “the meanwhile” or “the interval.”  Instead of changing the character in the novel – here, the schlemiel – will not change (as time requires a movement or a form of becoming from one kind of being to another).  This is consonant with Bergson, but with Levinas laughter alone is not sufficient to pull a story or a character out of the interval or mythology.   Moreover, we, the readers, will also bewitched if we simply laugh at Portnoy.  By laughing at the schlemiel, Levinas would say that we, too, are caught in the interval.

I would deepen this argument to include another element: targeting.  What happens in Roth’s novel is that we are not exposed to our targeting and that is what maintains another kind of mythology; namely, the mythology of superiority and selfhood which makes the contrast between the half-man, schlemiel in the novel and the reader who is not a schlemiel.   In this structure, which is the classical structure of comedy and comic theory, we have no sense complicit.  We know we are “in on the joke,” but we aren’t exposed to this targeting.

I would argue that complicity is harder to read with “sit down” comedy that it is in “stand up” comedy because we can’t see the face of the other in a novel.  (Although I would argue there are comic novels that do in fact expose us to targeting.  Portnoy’s Complaint, however, is not one of them.  It serves, in this blog entry, to make an important point of  contrast.)  For this reason, it’s easier for us to target and judge Portnoy as an impotent failure.  It’s easier for us to subscribe to traditional theories of humor when targeting and judging this sit down comic.

In the next blog entry, I will introduce the case of Andy Kaufman which provides us with the case of a “stand up” comic who exposes us to our targeting and our complicity.  He provides us with an opportunity to bring a Levinasian reading to bear on comedy.  In Roth’s comedy, we find that a Levinasian reading isn’t as prescient as a classical reading of comedy which targets the comic character – here, the schlemiel – as inferior.

Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufmann and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part III)


The last two targeting theories I’d like to look at, before I address Emmauel Levinas, Philip Roth, and Andy Kaufman come from Charles Baudelaire and Paul deMan who, apparently, follows in Baudelaire’s comic footsteps.   (I have written several blogs on Baudelaire and deMan’s reading of comedy.  What I look to do here is to summarize their views and to distinguish their approaches to a Levinas-ian one.)

Like many of the other theorists we have seen so far, the 19th century French Symbolist poet Charles Baudeliare, in his “The Essence of Laughter,” associated what he called “essential laughter” with Satanic superiority and human fallen-ness.  The target of this laughter is innocence and the result of this laughter is a kind of double consciousness of oneself in terms of otherness.  The consciousness of the Satanic – double consciousness – is sufficient to overcome and use the Satanic for social progress because, for Baudelaire, it marks a superiority over nature (one’s one and the world’s). However, in laughing at the fallen, one also feels a loss.  Both are incorporated into one’s consciousness and, taken together, they are for Baudeliare part and parcel of being modern.  The best examples Baudelaire gives come from the world of mime and the comic/horrific world of ETA Hoffman.

The element of blindness and naivite, which is found in the subject of any comic routine, act, joke, or passage, is the key to understanding the Satanic.  With respect to the mime, Baudelaire sees the movements of the mime as bringing out a blindness and a disregard for the civil (but this disregard is blind). We laugh at this disregard for the world and, at the same time, its falleness.  We identify with the excessive and odd gesturing of the mime, yet, at the same time, by laughing at the mime’s gestures we are indicating that we are superior.  And this marks our identification and dis-identification, our double consciousness that one is and one is not caught up in a kind of gestural fallen-ness.

But the fact that Baudeliare turns to the example of fallen-ness that comes to us by way of the German writer ETA Hoffman (as the final example) indicates that something is missing in the mime example.  What’s missing is a greater appreciation of how innocence and its loss play the main role in essential laughter.  The story that interests Baudelaire involves the laughter at a little girl’s shock at learning that the soldiers she has idealized are, ultimately, animal-like.  It is her father, a “magician,” who brings her to this profane revelation.  Her shock at fallen-ness and our laughter at it illustrate, for Baudelaire, our Satanic sensibility.  He calls it a kind of madness, a vertigo at this or that loss.  However, as Baudelaire argues, this madness is followed by a moral awareness of how laughter can be used for progress.  We go into the world with a, so to speak, tainted understanding of our “superiority.”  It is far from perfect and works by way of shocking the innocent.  Nonetheless, without such superiority over nature man would have no meaning.

Further to this last point, Baudelaire’s prose piece, “A Heroic Death,” shows us that laughter is far from progressive and positive; it also creates a wedge between the real artist and the artist of consumption.  The cynical conclusion of this piece is that the consumer, so to speak, has the last laugh while we, the readers, lose our innocence as we are exposed to the cruel truth that power is greater than “real” art (in this case the art of a comic mime).

In “A Heroic Death,” it is the Prince, a being in the position of the power, who embodies the Satanic-comic life.   He is the ultimate consumer.   After he learns that the comic mime (jester) has plotted to kill him with other nobles, he puts him into a test where the Mime has to make the performance of a lifetime.  When he, as Baudelaire notes, becomes one with the symbol and effaces the line between himself and what he is performing, he gives the audience something of a revelation.  They are all enraptured and “intoxicated” with what they see.

However, the Prince is troubled because he loses all of the attention of the people.  The comic mime wins their attention and, in effect, robs the Prince of his power.  In response, he laughs at the true artist who steals his power and this, in effect, leads to the mime’s pathetic (not heroic death).  To be sure, it is the artist and the correlation of acting and symbolism that are the target of modern Satanic laughter.  And we can have no doubt that Baudelaire identified with the comic mime who, in the end, although bearing the truth by way of comedy, is the target of power.  The “real artist” loses, while the artist-as-consumer wins.  The death of the mime is something of a premonition of reality TV since the Prince sees the mime’s acting under duress as a form of entertainment.  As the narrator of “A Heroic Death” tells us the prince turns to entertainment to eliminate his worst enemy: Boredom.  The murder of the artist – by way of Satanic laughter – is in the name of amusement.  It has entertainment value.  This disturbing conclusion shows that, for Baudelaire, the target of humor in the modern world is the artist.  Even s/he cannot escape the daemonic.  S/he becomes its target.

Paul DeMan’s challenge to us, today, is to argue that irony and comedy turn the target back on oneself.  Reading Baudealire, deMan sees humor as leading to madness.   But the madness he looks at is not simply the madness that the girl in the ETA Hoffman story experiences or the madness we witness at the failure of the mime’s art in “A Heroic Death.”  According to deMan, we don’t discover the Satanic in what Baudelaire called “essential laughter” so much as the nothingness of oneself.   Comedy shares nothing inter-subjective with the other.  It has no meaning save the destruction of meaning.  That is what DeMan calls the “irony of ironies.”  Meaning, the self, and the inter-subjective are, for deMan, the targets of irony.

For deMan, what we find in the wake of the Prince’s Satanic laughter, so to speak, is the abyss.  The best things humanity has to emulate – innocence, hope, and art – are the targets.   And the elimination of these targets leaves one alone, abandoned, speechless, and cynical.

I would like to suggest that Levinas’s interest in the relation to the other can be understood as a challenge to deMan and to the tradition of comic judgment and targeting.   As Levinas notes in several of his texts, the notion of the isolated consciousness and “essance” – which deMan and the other comic theorists we have discussed, return us to by way of laughter – are challenged by way of the other.  In relation to the other, I am vulnerable, exposed.  I cannot separate my consciousness from the other.  Using hyperbole, Levinas argues that we must use an “amphiblology” when speaking of our relation to the other because we are assymetically related to the other.  Our words cannot approximate our relation to the other; they fall short of what he, elsewhere, calls infinity.   Our signification in relation to the other is Saying.  And, as I would argue, it is comical.  In relation to the other, we are comical but we are not alone.  The comedy is in the relation and not in the act of targeting.

We risk ourselves when we relate to the other who can accept or reject our love or care.  We are, as Levinas says, “traumatized” and “inspired” by the other.   Although Levinas sees this as a very serious affair, the fact of the matter is that comedy can expose us to vulnerability. More importantly, it can expose the audience to its violence against the other.  Through comedy, we can bear witness to being traumatized and inspired by the other.  But, as I’d like to show in the next few blog entries, this witnessing can invert the targeting that is, as we have seen above, part and parcel of nearly every theory of comedy from Aristotle to deMan.

We can see the oscillation of the comic target in relation to what Phillip Roth would call the tradition of “sit down” comedy and to Andy Kaufmann’s “stand-up” comedy.   In the next blog entries, I’d like to contrast the two so as to show how the schlemiel, as a comic character, can be read in terms of traditional theories of comedy which lay emphasis on targets and superiority and to a Levinasian way of reading comedy – one which looks to show how the comic target is inverted by the other.

‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 2)


We like to repeat ourselves.  And oftentimes we forget what we said before and are reminded by our friends that “we already said that.” Nonetheless, people being people, we forget and do it again.  The people most susceptible to this blindness are older people.  However, sometimes repetitions – which are seemingly absent-minded – are full of implication and meaning.  And one of the advantages of conversation is that these meanings can be teased out; given that the person you are conversing with is compelling enough to do so.

As a child, I was privy to such conversations.  My father and his best friend, David Kaplan (a Jew who went from the streets of Brooklyn to the leather mills of Gloversville New York), used to have such conversations.  They were very repetitive but they were filled with meaning and implication.  David told us that he came from a line of magidim (story-tellers) and this is how they would speak.  After David died, it hit me that his style of speaking, which my father picked up on and practiced daily with him, was not just the style of the story-teller.  It was also a Talmudic style.  His way of speaking was steeped in an ongoing conversation.  And it included moments of skepticism, play, and wit.

So when I read Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” for the first time, I had tears in my eyes and a smile on face.  Since David had passed, my father stopped speaking this way.  He had no one to talk to in such a manner.  After David’s death, it seemed like such ways of speaking were now a thing of the past, a memory.  So when I read Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains,” it hit me that this kind of conversation could and in fact should find its way into the work of one of my favorite poets.  It should find its way into the work of a poet whose work was often full of mourning and loss not comedy.

One of the things I loved about each of David’s stories is that they always included an element of vision.  He would always preface his stories with the words of a street-smart visionary: “I can see it now! Get this….”  These repetitions made us all smile.  And my father would push him to tell more and to tell it better.  And David would always prompt my father to challenge him to do so and add to his story.

The key element of their conversations was the repetition and variation of this or that fragment of information that they claimed to have heard or witnessed.  And in the midst of this, David would often remind us that he had heard this or saw this, so as to assure us of the revelatory aspect of his words.  This way of speaking is something we can see at the outset of “Conversation in the Mountains.”

One evening, when the sun had set and not only the sun, the Jew – Jew and son of a Jew – went off, left his house and went off, and with him his name, his unpronounceable name, went and came, trotting along, made himself heard, came with a stick, came over stones, do you hear me, you do, it’s me, me, me and whom you hear, whom you think you hear, me and the other.

Notice that the Jew, for the speaker, is “a Jew and son of a Jew.”  This is not arbitrary.  There is a tradition of saying that one is ‘A the son of B’ (for me Menachem ben Mattityahu Zev).  And this traditional way of speaking has repetition built into it. Tradition requires that Jews speak of themselves or others in this way if they are being honored or remembered. And in this world, the Latinized world, it sounds comic; Especially to American ears which like to hear shortened names (like Matt, Greg, Bill, Bob, Jr. etc).

The thing about this name, and about being Jewish, is that it implies the speaker.  These Jewish names “come and go” and come “trotting along.”  They come and go, as it were, in ways that are beyond “our” control.  What I think Celan is saying is that the other Jew reminds me that I am a “Jew and son of a Jew” – just as much as he or she is a Jew with a name, so am I.   In response to this dialogical relation, the speaker says: “its me, me, me.”  But following this he notes: “whom you hear, whom you think you hear, me and the other.”  These lines remind the reader that he, the speaker, is not alone in saying me.  Me, so to speak, is not his conclusion.  His woes about being a Jew are shared with the other (Jew).

In Celan’s conversation there are four positions that are returned to constantly: him, me, you (the reader), and the other.  In the above passage, the I breaks through to the listener but then folds back into talking about him:

So he went off, you could hear it, went off one evening when various things had set, went under clouds, went under shadow, his own and not his own – because the Jew, you know, what does he have that is really his own, that is not borrowed, taken and not returned –

For anyone versed in German literature, this line about “him” and his “shadow” appear to be a reference to Peter Shlemihl; the influential and widely read novel of Adelbert von Chamisso’s which was published in 1814.  In the novel the main character ends up in a battle for his soul which originates over a deal with the devil to sell his shadow.  The schlemiel is, from time to time, associated with this novel.  But this is a mistake and, to be sure, this novel makes no mention of Jews let alone an association of the Jews with Peter Shlemihl.

In effect, Celan is bringing the schlemiel back to its source: in a Jewish-styled conversation.  This is where the schlemiel’s “shadow” belongs.  It is situated in relation to that conversation.  The shadow is something that is his and not his; like all things that a Jew “has.”  And this includes what a Jew says. And this is what might be missed.  “His” words, though repeated, are shared with the other.  And we are alerted of this when “he” meets “Gross”(large).

In fact, when “he” meets “Gross,” he becomes “Klein” (small).   And, as I have often pointed out in this blog, the schlemiel is oftentimes humble; that is, small.  And the less one “has” the “smaller” one is.  Nonetheless, Celan’s lesson is not about what the Jew has so much as what the Jew does: the Jew speaks with another Jew.  The Jew speaks repetitively in an effort to speak the truth or rather go toward the truth.  And going towards it, he becomes smaller and smaller.  But, on the other hand, Celan suggests that when he is in conversation, Gross comes along the way with Klein.  And together they go along the road towards the truth…and each other.

I say “go towards” since he, that is Klein, is on the road.  And on the road he meets up with Gross. And once they meet they walk and talk. Before that, “he” is not Klein (he has a shadow, a name, and he walks; but he can’t talk; when he meets Gross he can).

But when they first meet each other, there is a silence.  But, as Celan nicely points out, silence is not the way of the Jew.  Silence, as he well knew, is closer to the traditions of Christian mystics who see language and law as obstacles to communion.

The stones, too, were silent. And it was quiet in the mountains where they walked, one and the other.  So it was quiet, quiet up there in the mountains.  But it was not quiet for long, because when a Jew comes along and meets another, silence, cannot last, even in the mountains.

Celan pronounces silence in this passage, but he undoes it in the repetition.  After making this repetition and undoing silence, the speaker notes that the reason why Jews break silence is because the Jew and nature are not one:

Because the Jew and nature are strangers to each other, have always been and still are, even today, even here.

Besides pronouncing alterity and difference, this passage performs it by putting an accent on time and space when he notes that they are strangers: “have always been and still are, even today, even here.”  This accent, which is enhanced by repetition, brings us into the moment of the telling.  It also gives us an acute sense of the speaker’s words.  We hang on to his words and they open us up to a future that is beyond our grasp.  What will he say next?

In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot associates repetition with the fragment and the “destruction of the present.” What he implies by this destruction needs to be elaborated since it can help us to better understand what is at stake in this text’s emphasis on repetition, time, and space:

There cannot be a successful, a satisfactory fragment, or one indicating the end at last, the cessation of error, and this would be the case if for no other reason than that every fragment, though unique, repeats, and is undone by repetition.  Let us remember.  Repetition: nonreligious repetition….the ultimate over and over, general collapse, destruction of the present. (42)

Although Blanchot is correct in saying that repetition destroys the present, he gives it a negative valence that Celan does not.  By the destruction of the present, I would note that Emmanuel Levinas (a close friend of Blanchot) in his book Time and the Other has the right idea.  It is a destruction of the past-present and the future present and, for Levinas, this implies that a future beyond by control, which is not “present” opens up to me.

The “ultimate over and over” that Celan brings into the “conversation” opens us up, as we shall see in the next blog entry, to something messianic (and not messianic).  Blanchot’s notion of a “nonreligious repetition” finds an interesting counterpoint in Celan because Celan doesn’t open up to a mystical experience that eschews humor. He doesn’t mourn the loss of communion as Blanchot does.  To be sure, as I have been showing, this moment would have to happen within the structure of this conversation – a comic conversation. With all of its repetitions and clumsiness, Celan’s conversation is not only destructive.  It also opens us up to the future; to what is to come.

And this is what I would often hear when my father and David conversed.  In each of their conversations, with all of their repetitions and witty rejoinders, they pushed each other to enunciate the moment in which and the spatial angle from which they were speaking to each other.  And, though it was comic, each of them always enunciated the fact that they were speaking to each other here, in this space, and in this manner.  And in doing so, they enunciated that the words were their own words, yet, at the same time, they were not.  They were shared and replayed to each other.  And that’s were their words were also not their own.  This fact made their words and themselves vulnerable and oftentimes blind.  And this is was what made them schlemiels.  This is what made David and my father, for me, Klein and Gross.  After all, what does a Jew own that is really his own?

What do Louis CK, Andy Kaufmann, Emmanuel Levinas, and The Miriam Katz Project have in Common?

Today, I was incredibly delighted to see a post by the Jewish arts and culture website Tablet on my facebook page with the following tagline and question:

Art historian Miriam Katz thinks of comedians as spiritual guides, and she wants to bring stand-up into the serious world of galleries and museums:


What do you think — can comedy be intellectualized?

As I scanned the tagline, the question, the image, and the post, I was overwhelmed.  I was really excited to see that something I am deeply concerned with in my blog is being echoed “out there” in the virtual sphere and “in reality.”

The “schlemiel as prophet,” as a “spiritual guide,” seems to be catching on.

But it’s confusing. What does this mean?  I could see that the question after the tagline and the responses to it in the facebook thread bore confusion over this question.

What the thread opined on was whether or not a comic could be a spiritual guide. As one can imagine, some thought this idea to be absurd while others did not.  The general response, however, was that this is a question that has yet to be thought through in a thoroughgoing manner.

The image, propped between the tagline and question, also evokes questions as to what the comedian can communicate to us.  To be honest, I found the Louis CK image to be more telling than the question.

What astonishes me about the Louis CK image and the caption is that, taken together, they suggest that the face is linked to comic-spiritual guidance.  This suggestion or allusion hits at something deep: it hits at the relationship of prophesy to comedy and the face.

For me, this is profound because Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher I esteem above nearly all the philosophers of the 20th century, argued that the face is prophetic.  And this prophesy pertains to suffering.    The face, for Levinas, traumatizes and inspires “me” to be-for-the-other.  It takes me outside of myself before I can even think about whether or not I want to help the other.

For Levinas, one is always-already and yet-to-be for the other.  The face tells me, in a prophetic manner, “Thou shalt not Kill.”  Levinas calls my relationship to the other the one-for-the-other.  Which means, I am for the other before I am for myself.  And this is magnified by the other’s suffering which “I” struggle with only because I am always-already affected by it.

Perhaps this struggle bespeaks the bittersweet comedy of being-for-the-other?

The subtitle of the piece bespeaks this in an oblique way: “choose the face that best describes your pain.”

The irony of this image is that none of them describe my pain; rather, they strike me with the pain of the other.  They concern me and I cannot simply choose one over the other.  They all beckon me to ethical concern.   My choice is, so to speak, too late.

After looking at this image and thinking these things, I thought immediately of Andy Kaufmann.

To my surprise, I clicked on the Tablet link associated with the image and found this article by Jessica Weisberg on the art curator Miriam Katz entitled “Andy Kaufmann Isn’t Funny.”  At this point, you can only imagine, I was besides myself.  Astonished.


I decided, nearly two years ago, that I would write the final chapter of my book (a work in progress) on him.  To my mind, he is one of the best illustrations of the schlemiel-as-prophet.

There is a demand in his comedy; namely, the demand of the other.  His pain on stage, while funny to many, solicits the viewer.  As Levinas might say, it traumatizes and inspires her to think about her laughter and about what to do in response to the schlemiel.  (In my book and in a later blog, I will return to this scene on the David Letterman show.):

Notice how the audience doesn’t know whether he is joking or really suffering.  This ambiguity is the basis of the prophetic-comic demand that he makes to the audience.   He does this, quite simply, through his face and his gestures.

I am overjoyed to see that I am not the only one who has been struck by the prophetic demand of Kaufmann’s comedy.  And I applaud Miriam Katz for the work she has done on Andy Kaufmann.

Here’s is a brief overview of the scene she is a part of in NYC. This article comes from The Village Voice.


In my next blog entry, I hope to further address this article and the merits of her artistic project, which, like mine, is to show the world “out there” that there’s more to the schlemiel than entertainment value.