Who is the Master? Who is the Slave? The Schlemiel as Masochist in Italo Svevo’s “Confessions of Zeno”

Theodor Reik was one of the founders of psychoanalysis in America and, in Europe, was one of Sigmund Freud’s closest confidants. He argued, in his book on Jewish Wit, that the schlemiel is a masochistic character. In Masochism and Modern Man, Reik goes beyond the Jewish context of this character and says, at the end of his introduction that “Man is a masochistic animal!” The schlemiel is a “kind” of masochistic character. Reik thinks of masochism as the inversion of sadism; it is ironic, in and of itself because its act of submissiveness is actually an act of rebellion.

The description of the masochistic character as weak, dependent, easily influenced, helpless, continues to amaze us. All these features serve the purpose of concealing the utmost determination and stubbornness. What the masochist has to say to the existent ruling forces sounds like slavish submissiveness. It is, however, a scornful “No” to the world of appearances that has become dominant. He submits – in order never to yield. He remains in opposition, especially where he is servilely devoted.

For Reik, the masochist experiences a kind of freedom that those who laugh at him or her don’t: “Under the mask of the constant “yes man,” he remains the spirit of eternal negation. By fully submitting he remains independent. Humiliated a thousand times, he is inflexible. Defeated again and again, he stands his rights.”

Theodor Reik (1888-1969)

Under the mask of the constant “yes man,” he remains the spirit of eternal negation. By fully submitting he remains independent. Humiliated a thousand times, he is inflexible. Defeated again and again, he stands his rights.

This is more or less a literary interpretation of the masochist and has great value insofar as it shows how masochism is, in itself, ironic. Be that as it may, Reik goes out of his way to argue that the masochistic character be read through a psychological lens. Like Freud, he sees it in terms of something that starts in childhood with respect to the father-child relationship. The child has a confused relationship with the father that oscillates between love and aggression. The child is not conscious of this aggressivity or of what he calls the “negative idea.” It comes out – like all energy comes out, without him knowing it – through some ironic activity. For Reik, that ironic activity would be found in masochistic self-punishing, self-sabatoging activity.

This is what we find in the schlemiel character. Ruth Wisse has addressed Reik’s reading of the schlemiel through the psychological lens and finds it wanting. Nonetheless, she would agree with his reading of the character in terms of its success in defeat, in terms of what she would call its “ironic victory.” The only way to get this is if you get the joke or if, in reading literature, the attentive reader sees through the weaknesses, powerlessness, and failures of the character to something more defiant and powerful. Irony is a mode of awareness but it requires a keen eye to notice the, so to speak, code.

Zeno, the schlemiel character in Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, is a submissive character. As I noted in the last blog post, he punishes himself for his need to smoke cigarettes. He recalls his primal schlemiel scene, with the trickery of his father, his dirty little secret, in which he steals one of his father’s cigars. When one day the father thinks he’s going mad, because the cigars he has left on the edges of chairs are disappearing, Zeno hears it all, but says nothing. He experiences a moment of joy thinking that his mother, with a smile, indicates her joy at causing pain to the father (knowing that her son is the one stealing the cigars). But this is all in the mind of Zeno, so to speak, since the mother never confides the meaning of her smile with him.

It gives Zeno hours and hours of pain, regret, and shame (and, as Reik would note, pleasure; since, for a masochist, pain is twinned with pleasure) to think that he is doing something at the expense of his father. But it also, as the reader can see, gives him some pleasure (vis-a-vis the smile from the mother, who he identifies with, as Reik says masochists always identify with the feminine).

Reik would see this irony as a kind of distancing from Zeno’s own addiction. While still practicing it, he knows how bad it is for him, since he gives himself a “resolution” to stop smoking. He dreams of the “last cigarette” as he falls prey to smoking another one after briefly abstaining. He fails the ideal and his pleasure is to be found in inability to stop.

Zeno recalls a conversation he had with a “great fat man,” who exerts great will power to realize his ideal of losing weight:

He was a great fat man, and I knew that he was very energetically undergoing treatment for getting thin. In very short time his success was such that people made a point of walking besides him on the street, in order to enjoy the contrast between their own robustness and his emaciation. I envied him his strength of will, and so long as his cure lasted I was going to see him. (37)

Zeno lacks the will power to stop smoking and when he sees his friend shows anger and jealousy and not having the will to stop his addiction. His “fat friend” – note he calls him this out of spite, now, since his friend is thin – advises Zeno to stop punishing himself and give up his resolution to stop smoking! This, in itself, is ironic since he is described as “emaciated,” that is weak. Be that as it may, Zeno knows he is powerful because he willed this transformation. The friend, strangely enough, sounds a lot like Theodor Reik in pointing out a kind of dialectic between two parts of Zeno: one that is a master and the other that is a slave. The solution to the problem seems like a solution to the problem of masochism:

My fat friend, now so much reduced, was silent for a while. He was a man of method and first he had to think it all out…he explained that I was really suffering from my resolutions much more than from cigarettes. I ought to try to and curve myself without making any resolutions. According to him my personality in the course of years had become divided in two, one of which gave orders while the other was only a slave which…disobeyed the master’s orders out of sheer love of liberty. So that what I ought to do was to give it absolute freedom and at the same time look my vice in the face as if it was something new and I were meeting it for the first time. I must not fight it, I must first forget it and treat it with complete indifference, turning my back on it as if it were not worthy to keep my company. Simple, wasn’t it? (38)

The idea, here, is to become conscious of it and indifferent to it, seeing it as not oneself. But, as Zeno notes, it wasn’t so simple. When he returns back to a kind of “infant state,” the desire recurs. He fell back into his habit; something like the repetition of the original defiance of his father, stealing cigars and smoking them. He is, to paraphrase Freud, caught in a repetition compulsion and remains a “slave,” as it were:

I managed to refrain from smoking for several hours. But when my mouth was cleansed from the taste of smoke i t had an innocent feeling like that of a new-born baby, and I felt a longing for a cigarette. Directly I smoked it and I felt remorse and again began making the very resolution I had tried to suppress. The way was longer, but the end was the same. (38)

Following this return to his addiction, Zeno recalls how, after this, Olivi, the person who looked after the estate for his father (and overlooked Zeno to make sure he was taken care of) makes a bet with him “in order to strengthen” Zeno’s “resolution”(38). The ironies, as we shall see, deal with a Master/Slave relationship. Although Zeno, resentfully, calls him a “wretch” and notes that he is their “servant,” Olivi is the master. The inversion gets at the heart of what Reik called masochism. Olivi is solid, while Zeno sees himself as weak and constantly in flux:

I think that Olivi must always have looked exactly the same as he does now. I always see him like this – rather bent, but solidly built; and to me he always looks just as old as he does today, when he is eighty. He always worked for me, and he still does; but I don’t really like him, for I always think he has prevented my doing the work he has done himself. (38)

He is resentful of “the wretch,” Olivi just like he is resentful of his “fat friend” because, unlike them, he has no resolve and cannot improve himself and change. They have realized their ideals, Zeno has fallen short of them and continues to do so. The failed “bet” he makes with Olivi illustrates the difference between them as a difference between Master and Slave, Father Surrogate and Son:

We made a bet: the first who smoked was to pay and then we should both be released from all obligation. In this way my agent, who was appointed to oversee my father’s fortune, was doing his best to diminish my mother’s, over which I had complete control!

That bet proved excessively damaging to me. I was no longer alternately master and slave, but only slave, and to Olivi, whom I hated. I immediately began to smoke. then I thought I could cheat him by going on smoking in secret. But in that case why have I made a bet at all?…But I continued to rebel, and smoked so much that I got into a state of acute mental agony. In order to shake off the burden, I went to Olivi and confessed.

The old man smiled as he pocketed his money, then immediately drew from his pocket a huge cigar which he lit and smoked with immense enjoyment. It never occurred to me for an instant that he might possibly be cheating too. Evidently I am made quite differently from other people.(38-39)

Based on what we have learned from Reik, we can read this passage in terms of Olivi being a surrogate of the father. Instead of Zeno taking things out on his father, he blames his failure on the father’s surrogate. He claims he is protecting his mother’s fortune from the surrogate (read father). But the hard thing for us to see, since he is a masochist, is that he actually enjoys failure. But is his failure, framed in these accounts, an ironic victory? Is his confession to Olivi a part of the game he has created and endlessly repeats or is it we, the reader, who experiences the transcendence of the schlemiel?

The schlemiel is “made quite differently from other people,” but as Reich suggests, he’s not so abnormal. He is actually a representative of, as he argues, “modern man.” That is the case if, we, like Zeno, enjoy failure and using failure as a weapon against the representatives of authority. The only problem, as I pointed out in the last blog (through Zeno’s words) is that this failure repeats, endlessly.

The “last cigarette” is always being deferred because each resolution or bet he makes with himself fails to end his condition:

In order to make it (his idea of the last cigarette) seem less foolish I tried to give a philosophical content to the malady of ‘the last cigarette’. You strike a noble attitude and say: ‘Never again!’ But what becomes of the attitude if you keep the word? You can only preserve it if you keep on renewing your resolution. And then Time, for me, is not that unimaginable thing that never stops. For me, but only for me, it comes up again. (34)

Is Jerry Lewis a Masochistic Comedian or an Unconscious Anarchist?


All anarchists are fully conscious of their will to destroy the law.  The unconscious anarchist would not be; his anarchic “effect” would therefore be an accident. Steven Shaviro calls Jerry Lewis an “unconscious anarchist.”  But what does Lewis’s anarchism consist of?  Before we can answer that question, we need to look at the origin of this discussion; namely, the discussion of Masochism and its relation to humor.  And that brings us three questions: 1) Is the Schlemiel an “unconscious anarchist”; 2) To be an unconscious anarchist must one be a masochist; 3) Can we avoid psychologizing the schlemiel and reducing his political, social, and ethical potential?

In the beginning of yesterday’s blog entry, I pointed out how Ruth Wisse rejects – outright – the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  The reason for this is because she feels that this reading is – more or less – a reduction of the schlemiel to a psychological malady.  This reading obviously casts a negative glance at the schlemiel and it misses the point that Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer were looking to make; namely, that the schlemiel is, as she says at the beginning of her book, a challenge to the “political and philosophical status quo.”  Moreover, in the chapter where she challenges the reading of the schlemiel as a masochistic character – a reading made, primarily, by the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik – she points out that I.B. Singer’s Gimpel is a post-Holocaust character who, in the most ethical sense, looks to challenge the evil wrought by that horrific event by wandering, so to speak, after goodness.

The reason I brought up Deleuze’s reading of masochism was not to challenge Wisse by offering yet another psychological interpretation; on the contrary, I was very interested in how Deleuze reads Masochism (and Sadism) as challenges to the Law.  And by law, Deleuze does not simply imply law as such (although that is on his horizon) so much as social norms.  The point of the masochist’s humor is not to transgress the law (and the Idea of the Good) in the name of the Idea of Evil, which is what Sade’s irony does (according to Deleuze – since irony always rejects one thing in the name of something else; namely, a higher principle); rather the point of masochistic humor is to challenge the law by zealously keeping it in all its details.

I ended yesterday’s blog entry by briefly mentioning Steven Shaviro’s reading of Jerry Lewis, based in major part on the work of Gilles Deleuze, as a masochistic humorist.  I brought in Shaviro because it applies this not to a sexual masochist – as Deleuze does vis-à-vis Leopold Sacher Masoch, the author of Venus in Furs and the founder of masochism –  so much as a real humorist: Jerry Lewis.  I would like to return to Shaviro’s reading in this blog entry because he provides a valuable reading of Lewis and tests Deleuze’s claims for humor against Lewis’s comic performances.  In addition, Shaviro, like Wisse, moves away from the psychological reading and toward a more political or socially oriented reading.  Nonetheless, Shaviro takes his reading of Lewis to a place where Wisse, in her reading of the schlemiel, would not.  And he does this because Shaviro’s reading of humor is oriented according to a post-Marxist framework instead of an ethical framework (which is the basis of Wisse’s reading).

One of the most important distinctions Shaviro makes with respect to Lewis, is the fact that Lewis’s comedy may “mobilize all the affects of masochism” but “his comic personas never possess the will to twist and pervert the law that characterizes the true masochist”(110).  In other words, Lewis is only half a masochist or what Shaviro calls an “unconscious anarchist.”  And, as a critic, he looks to unmask what Lewis cannot see; namely, social and economic forces that his comedy unconsciously embodies and rejects.

Following the thread of Deleuze and applying it to Lewis, Shaviro points out that in many of Lewis’s films “Lewis’s overzealous efforts to obey orders, to mimic models of success, to act pragmatically, and otherwise to accede to the socially defined norm only end in failure and confusion”(110).

Here is an example from  Hardly Working:

What is most interesting about all this is that Lewis is “anarchist…despite his hyperconformism: he disseminates chaos in the course of earnestly trying to do exactly what bosses, psychoanalyists, media specialists…etc want him to do”(110).  This, points out Shaviro, is radically different from a “carnivelesque transgression” that you would find in the pages of Marquis de Sade.

Lewis is a failure.  Whenever he is “faced with responsibility,” he fails.  And when he does, claims Shaviro, he “experiences chaos on his own body.”  This is “disseminated in waves” to everything around him.  But this comic destruction of norms does not, according to Shaviro, issue a “judgment against norms” so much as a judgment “against himself.”  This characterization of Lewis’s failure is fascinating for schlemiel in theory because it is contrary to what we find in the schlemiel.  The schlemiel’s failures preserve some form of hope and do in fact present some kind of challenge to (or judgment against) the status quo; Lewis’s gestures, according to Shaviro, do not.  He, rather, is the sight of judgment and abjection.

Moreover, Lewis’s self-confidence is the main issue.  He is constantly at the mercy of other people who he hopes to impress.  But he fails.  Dean Martin often plays the role of this character.

This, of course, can be read as a psychological issue.  In fact, in the German reading of the Schlemiel (as opposed to Wisse’s Eastern European reading), the schlemiel is guilty of being heteronomous and not autonomous.  He, like women and children (as some Haskalah – Jewish Enlightenment – playwrights and thinkers argued), is too influenced by the other.  To be at mercy of the other is a negative trait that they believed came from the ghetto.  One of the most outspoken voices in this regard was Otto Weininger who saw in Jews (and he himself was a Jew) a masochistic aspect that needed to be addressed if Jews were to be a part of society.  This is stated explicitly in his book Sex and Character.

Although this reading seems to be the “correct” one, it’s not.  As Shaviro points out, this is a negative psychological reading which misses the point that Deleuze was trying to make.  But even Deleuze needs, in his view, to focus more on the social.  For this reason, Shaviro makes a fascinating reading of Lewis that looks into how Lewis’s body – when it breaks down under failure and the desire to please through zealous performances of social norms – is the surface upon which late-capitalism writes:

The social field of American late capitalism is directly invested by the disintegrative movements of Lewis’s physical comedy. In his most striking, intense, excessive moments, a schizophrenic dislocation of subjectivity is linked to bizarre distortions and topographical transformations of physical, corporeal, and social space. (116)

Paying close attention to Lewis’s physical comedy, Shaviro makes a powerful distinction between Lewis and Buster Keaton which characterizes the radical differences between American capitalism in the early 20th and the mid-20th century:

Whereas Keaton’s physical comedy is based on surprising external connections among discrete and solid objects, Lewis’s relies rather on a rush of delirious interpenetrations, in which separate identities of the initial components are lost.   Keaton’s body enters into combination with the wheels and lever of the train (The General) to form a new and complex machine.  (117)

Shaviro further characterizes this difference in terms of gases and solids.  While Keaton works with a “mechanics of solids,” Lewis works with a “mechanics of fluids or gases” since everything bounces and rebounds off of his body; and, as it does, his body loses its “integrity in a series of spastic lurches and twitches”(117).

And instead of reading Lewis’s “dependency” on the other as a lack of self-confidence and autonomy, Shaviro, drawing on a post-Marxist framework, points out that it “dependency” is:

The logical consequence of the Idiot’s typical position as an unskilled laborer and/or a naïve consumer in the American service economy.  

And Lewis’s failure is not a failure of “father figures” so much as “capitalist father figures.”   He can’t “grow up.”  And, since he clings to this infantilization (which we still see in many a Judd Apatow film), Shaviro tells us he offers a contrast to the “commodified form of the self, which can be recognized in the fatuous, overbearing authority figures who populate Lewis’s movies (the hotel manager in The Bellboy, the college president in the The Nutty Professor, etc”

Shaviro states Lewis’s case of remaining a child and not “growing up” (of his “continued abjection, dependency, and maladaptation) in terms of the a refusal of the commodity form: “only an adult can indulge in fantasies of plentitude and autonomy, for these fantasies are produced by the commodity form itself”(124).

Lewis is the “unconscious anarchist.”

What I find so interesting about this claim and Shaviro’s descriptions is how they relate or contrast to the descriptions and characterizations of the schlemiel.  The descriptions we have in schlemiel theory don’t look at the schlemiel’s challenges for failures within a post-Marxist framework.  Nonetheless, they do find the schlemiel’s challenge to be against the “political and philosophical status quo.”  Moreover, if we read Wisse closely and compare what she has said about the post-Holocaust schlemiel, we can see that the ethical pursuit of goodness and trust trumps all.  And it should, as the schlemiel isn’t only to be seen as a challenge the “commodity form” or to be an “unconscious anarchist.”  There is also an ethical component to this challenge and this anarchism.

And this anarchism can also be seen in terms of the “anarchic” relation to the other that Levinas describes in his book Otherwise Than Being.  Levinas places the accent on how open this relation is.  And this implies that there are or could be great surprises as well as great dangers that occur when one is exposed to the other.  And this exposure is itself ethical.  What we decide to do in relation to it, even if we fail, is ethical.  Humor brings this out.

Our awkwardness, which finds one form of articulation in the physical comedy of Jerry Lewis, comes out of our ethical relation to the other.  And although Lewis’s physical comedy indicates how his relations to “things” are more fluid, these relations don’t constitute his humanity.   Something else does, but, in truth, his humanity seems to be squashed constantly by failure.  But this would constitute, according to Shaviro, his “unconscious anarchism.”  I would argue, in addition, that there is another anarchism to this relation, the anarchism mentioned by Levinas.  And this “other” anarchism includes failure as a constant feature of being “exposed to the other.”  It is a failure that is not willed; and if there is any aspect of masochism, it is not intentional or “conscious.”

Shaviro’s exceptional post-Marxist reading of Lewis points out how he is “unconsciously challenging the law.”  What I’d like to bring out is the ethical dimension of Lewis’s comedy.  And, as I am noting above, this will involve a reading which pays close attention to the ethical meaning of Lewis’s physical comedy.  Should it be characterized as anarchic in Deleuze’s sense or in Levinas’s ethical sense?

I hope to address this more in depth in the next blog.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deleuze uses a spatial metaphor to illustrate:

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

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

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

This speaks directly to the Masochist since:

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

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

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

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

The Odd Couple: Kairos and Masochism


Going through Roland Barthes lecture notes (for his lectures in Morocco in 1978), I came across an odd relationship, one I have never seen posited by any scholar; namely, the relationship between Kairos and Masochism.  Giving some thought to it this morning, it occurred to me that timing may in fact have something to do with masochism if, that is, one doesn’t try to master it.  On the other hand, I wondered what this has to do with the schlemiel or humor.  To be sure, Leopold Sacher Masoch, the father of masochism, did write a novel or two about Jews who he lived side by side with and who, some argue, taught him about the masochism.  Gilles Deleuze, in his book Masochism, posits a relationship between humor and masochism and contrasts it to the relationship of irony to mastery.  Although he discusses the relationship of masochism to contingency (something Barthes is interested in), he doesn’t discuss the relationship of masochism to time.

How does Barthes approach this topic?  And can we learn anything about the schlemiel’s relation to time by way of addressing it?

In a sub-section of his notes entitled “the Perishable,” Barthes notes that the “right moment” that informs his notion of Kairos is one that “passes” and that, in terms of the subject, it is a “perishable quality” of this passing moment is “accepted, wanted.”  But, says Barthes, desire is not an act of “resignation” – rather, it is an act of “consecration.”  But this consecration is not the creation of monument to one’s mourning of the passing moment.  It is, instead, an “acceptance” of the moment’s contingency, fragility, and perishability. And it exists, says Barthes, in the parenthesis.  In other words, it is not something that can be affirmed or denied; it is neutral.  But if this is the case, how do we understand what he means by desire or acceptance?  Isn’t that an affirmation or an act of the will?

Anticipating this question, Barthes looks to create a notion of acceptance that has nothing to do with the will.  And all of this, for Barthes, is a preface to his claim that masochism is related to Kairos.  To this end, Barthes evokes a non-western concept so as to challenge the western notion of the will which, as anyone who has studied 20th century philosophy knows, is a central concept that has met with much debate and discussion.

(To be sure, the assumption of the will is an ancient notion which finds its culmination in Nietzsches’s idea of the “will-to-power.”  The German philosopher Martin Heidegger argues that Nietzsches’ notion of the will-to-power marks the end – or the completion – of metaphysics.  Barthes, in the spirit of Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and other Continental thinkers is also putting the notion of the will and its metaphysical foundations into question.)

The non-western concept that Barthes brings to the fore is “Wou-Wei” – a concept drawn from the Tao.  He contrasts it to the “will to live,” but says that it is “not the opposite”:

It’s not the will-to-die: it’s what baffles, dodges, disorients the will to life.  It’s therefore, structurally, a Neutral: what baffles the paradigm.

Continuing on this line of reasoning, Barthes says that “wou-wei” privileges the “spontaneous” to the “detriment of” the “voluntary.”  It is something that doesn’t come from us.  But it also involves “not-doing”:

Wou-wei: not to direct, not to aim one’s strength, to leave it marking time in place.  For example the Melting of Breath (lianqi) is superior to the Control of Breath (xingqui).

This also includes not using one’s strength, intelligence, wisdom, or knowledge or “to use it to the minimum, within the limits of a pure concern for protection, for prudence.”

In the face of Wou-wei, Barthes points out that the West is baffled since it is a “subversion of all our moral values, and notably of the “progressive” ones.”  The wise person, notes Barthes does not “strive” or struggle.”  Citing a Taoist, Barthes notes that the wise man has a “tranquility in disorder.”  This, of course, goes against what Barthes calls “the moral ideology of the will,” which he defines in terms of the will to “dominate, to live, to impose one’s truth.”

In terms of temporality and time, the will is in accord with the individual who looks to dominate and shape the moment.  In contrast, Barthes notes that Wou-wei is not a moment dictated by the individual “but according to what one says of him.”  Citing Freud’s work of Leonardo DiVinci, Barthes associates this with a “feminine sensibility” which did not “abstain from the world.”  DiVinici’s gesture is non-western – it is an illustration of Wou-wei – since he exposes himself to the sensory world and judgment.

And this is where Barthes brings in the relation of time/Kairos to masochism.

Citing a passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Barthes points out a moment in the text where the main character is, so to speak, experiences his hopelessness.  This experience, because it is narrated and makes extensive reference to time, has a temporal quality.  In addition, it illustrate a state of non-action and non-striving of the will:

During his journey he, as it were, considered his life afresh and arrived at his old conclusion, restful in its hopelessness: that is was not for him to begin anything anew – – but that he must live out his life, content to do no harm, and not disturbing himself or desiring anything.

This “disenchantment,” says Barthes, has a “slightly masochistic tonality.”  I find this suggestion to be very telling as it implies that the Kairos, for Barthes, has a lot to do with acknowledging one’s hoplessness in relation to the other.  Unfortunately, Barthes spends more time thinking about the “surprise” of these moments and of accepting them and not enough time on the masochistic element.  Nonetheless, he does celebrate the fact that, in these states, one is “good for nothing.”

I find it fascinating that Barthes can see a link between Kairos and masochism.  But that the link to the other is displaced by the reflection of the self’s relation to the event while Deleuze thinks about masochism in terms of this relation but without thinking the relation to time (save for the claim that masochism exposes one to the contingency of terms and relations).

What I would like to suggest is that we address the temporality of the schlemiel in terms of a masochism that is temporal and relational.  However, as Ruth Wisse suggests at the outset of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, in the midst of this gesture there is a reversal victimization and, as I would argue, masochism.   I would like to look more into the presence of masochism in the comic but I want to juxtapose it to the irony we also see. Deleuze insists that we separate irony from humor, but as I would like to show in future entries, how they often work together in schlemiel comedy. And, more importantly, this is not simply a matter of relation; it is a matter of timing.

The schlemiel is and is not a masochistic figure and the communication of that paradox is all in the timing.  Kairos and masochism are an odd couple…like Felix and Oscar….

Perhaps that is what makes schlemiel comedy so (un)timely.