A Note on Witold Gombrowicz and Simone Weil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Georges Bataille – Childishness, Stupidity, and Salvation

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What does it mean to make “a fool out of oneself” or to act “childish?”  Both terms suggest that imitating a child or acting like a fool is shameful.  Now, imagine that the very thing that society despises most is designated as a spiritual practice.

In our last blog entry, we pointed out that Georges Bataille took Nietzsche’s notion of KINDERLAND and identified it with the future.  As we pointed out, one would have to destroy oneself if one were to get there.  The paradox is that by going backwards to childhood, one can go forwards, to the future, to KINDERLAND.

But, as with many spiritual practices, one needs to know what to do if one is to reach this sacred land of childhood.    Bataille was interested in describing these practices.  As one can imagine, Bataille relished the idea that acting like a child or becoming a fool was hated by civil society. In his book Inner Experience, he not only provides spiritual exercies of childishness, he also describes childishness and foolishness in great depth.

Bataille associates “childishness” with salvation.

The only challenge to becoming childish is not to turn it into a “project,” which would give it a meaning within a coherent totality.  Nonetheless, he insists that becoming a “true child” is the way to “deliverance.”  This path is, necessarily, shameful and self-destructive.  The task for Bataille, was to, so to speak, enact it, without turning it into a project.   The spiritual experience of the movement of the adult to childishness and shame, he believed, would be sufficient to destroy “the project.”  And open us up to a messianic “taste,” so to speak, of the promised land: KINDERLAND.

In Part II of his book, in a section entitled “Torment,” Bataille provides his reader-slash-disciple with intimate (yet intellectual) experiences of childhood and self-destruction.  By refusing to grow up and by returning to childhood, he, in effect, is not entering into the project.  In literary form, he describes or rather “dramatizes” his childhood and his struggle with maturity.

To be sure, Bataille, at the beginning of his book, notes that dramatization is a spiritual exercise: “If we did not know how to dramatize, we wouldn’t be able to leave ourselves…From this way of dramatizing – often forced – emerges an element of comedy, of foolishness which turns into laughter”(11).

Dramatization, for Bataille, distances us from tradition and reduces us to powerlessness. It is another name for acting out ones renunciation of maturity; that is, the project.

Dramatization brings one to an awareness of his or her childishness.

I will cite several lines which describe Bataille’s coming to consciousness that he is a child and the realization that he is, ultimately, “stupid.”  In grand mythic style, Bataille tells us that to return to childhood is to return to one’s origins.  The problem is that “grown ups” don’t get it:

To grasp the extent of knowledge, I go back to the source. First a small child, in every way similar to the madmen (the absent ones) I play with today.  The miniature “absent ones” are not in contact with the world, if not through the channel of grown-ups: the result of an intervention on the part of grown-ups is childishness, a fabrication.  Grown ups clearly reduce being coming into the world, which we are at first, to the level of trinkets.  This seems to me to be important: that the passage to the state of nature (from birth) to our state of reason should necessarily take place through the route of childishness.   It is strange on our part to attribute to the child itself the responsibility for childishness, which would be the character proper to children.  Childishness is the state which we put naïve being….When we laugh at infantile absurdity, laughter disguises shame, seeing to what we reduce life emerging from Nothingness. (42)

Bataille’s lesson to adults, who become children, is the following:

1) Children need to divest themselves from their parents: “The error of children: to derive truth from grown-ups.”

2) Children should not be laughed at.

Laughing at childish behavior is a “grown up” activity which, in his view, belongs to a project.  Rather than laugh at them, we should – seriously – imitate them.  But, Batialle goes beyond such advice.

In the midst of becoming childish, Bataille describes how he, and one who becomes childish, will feel shame and powerlessness.

To be sure, Bataille, craftily, alternates his reflections on childishness with reflections on shame, self-destruction, and salvation.  And this juxtaposition creates the breakdown he desires: “the idea of salvation comes, I believe, from one whom suffering breaks apart.  He who masters it, on the contrary, needs to be broken, to proceed on the path towards rapture.”

Besides being a “spiritual practice” and an “inner experience,” this alternation clearly suggests a link between childishness, self-destruction, and salvation.

Bataille dramatizes this link by shamefully confessing his passion of childishness. But, in doing so, he realizes that taking this childishness seriously may present an obstacle:

Childishness, knowing itself to be such, is deliverance, but taking itself seriously, it is enmired.”  And this “taking itself seriously” is an obstacle to “deliverance.”  To eliminate this obstacle, to dramatize it, one must laugh at it: “The search for the extreme limit can in its turn become a habit, dependent of childishness: one must laugh at it, unless, by chance, one has a heavy heart: then ecstasy and madness are within reach. (44)

As we saw above, Bataille says that one should not laugh at childishness.  But if one takes it too seriously, then Batialle tells us that one must laugh at it!  Because seriousness is too mature and is part and parcel of “the project.”  But isn’t a spiritual exercise too serious?  Should Bataille think it to be ridiculous?

Batialle avoids this reflection.  Instead, he creates a rule, because he sees an opportunity in this kind of laughter: if childishness becomes a “habit,” laugh at it so one can, through despair (a heavy heart), “reach” ecstasy and madness.

Ok, so let’s sum it up.  There are two possibilities for one to be saved from the project and “grown ups”- two, so to speak, KINDERLAND possibilities: 1) salvation through childishness or 2) salvation through the rejection of a “serious” and “habitual” childishness.

After describing these possibilities, Bataille, strangely enough, argues that to be a child one must “know” that “seriousness exists” and if one doesn’t one isn’t a “true child” : “The most serious seem to me to be children, who don’t know they are children: they separate me from true children who know it and laugh at being. But to be a child, one must know that the serious exists…if not, the child could no longer laugh nor know anguish”(44, my emphasis).

This conclusion brings us to the schlemiel and helps us to distinguish Bataille’s man-child the “true child” – from the false one, which, given what we know about this character, is the schlemiel.

“True” children are not schlemiels, since they “know” they are children.  They can “laugh” at being.  To be a child, one must “know” that “the serious exists.”  If they know this, children can laugh and know anguish.   Children cannot laugh or know anguish if they don’t know that the “serious exists.”

This implies that a schlemiel, who doesn’t understand seriousness, is not a “true” child.  A true child suffers and laughs.

But, then again, Bataille turns this around when he writes about stupidity.  Children may know that the serious exists, but they cannot be saved if they don’t “perceive a greater stupidity.”

“My privilege is to be humiliated by my profound stupidity and, no doubt, through others, I perceive greater stupidity.”

The more stupidity, the better.  We see this early on in his book as well: “The great derision: a multitude of little contradicting “everythings,” intelligence surpassing itself, culminating in multivocal, discordant, indiscrete idiocy”(25).

Bataille’s passion is for childhood and stupidity.  His desire is to be the “true child” who knows seriousness, suffers, and laughs.

To become the true child, Bataille confesses that he must dramatize the descent into idiocy.   This will return him to childhood. And it will save him.

But this is not a total loss of the mind.  As he says, the man who becomes a child “knows” as a child does that “the serious exists.”  This is a tragic vision of childhood or becoming-a-child.  He is aware of his stupidity as much as he is aware of seriousness.  He is also aware of what a “true” as opposed to a “false” child is.

Compared to the childishness of I.B. Singer’s Gimpel or Sholom Aleichem’s Motl’s childishness, Bataille’s dramatization of childishness is focused on the spiritual practice of self-destruction as revelation. The schlemiel is absent minded, but Bataille’s child is not.

And the tension between good and evil, between hope and skepticism, which the schlemiel looks to preserve, is effaced by Bataille’s “spiritual exercise” in which life, mad life, childish and idiotic life, ultimately triumphs and laughs at itself in its utter shameful Dionysian stupidity.

The way to KINDERLAND is through becoming a suffering-powerless-idiot-child.  This act of the will greatly contrasts to the simplicity of the schlemiel – the man-child – that we often see in Yiddish or Jewish American literature.  There is no passion of the schlemiel, but for Bataille there is a passion of the man-child.  The schlemiel can’t save himself, Bataille’s man-child can.

And perhaps this is the key: Judaism puts salvation outside of man’s efforts.  In Judaism, man cannot redeem or save himself.  Redemption is in the future.  The schlemiel stands, unredeemed, in relation to the future.  He can’t redeem himself through his foolishness.  (At the end of “Gimpel the Fool,” he simply moves on.  Gimpel has not changed; he is still an unredeemed schlemiel in, and this is the point, an unredeemed world.) Bataille, however, believes that through this “spiritual exercise” he (and perhaps his childish community) can be “delivered” to the KINDERLAND of the future.   A place where we can all make fools of ourselves all the time…a place where we can know, finally, that we are, shamefully, “true children!”

And this is only possible because we know, in the midst of shame and humiliation, that “the serious exists.”

So, here’s my question, is it worth passionately becoming fools and childish if we are to come to this conclusion and the consciousness that we are “true children”?  Or is this, quite simply, stupid?  Is this the point of, as Bataille might say, the “useless” exercise-slash-dramatization of “true” childhood?

Would Bataille regard this scene from John Water’s Pink Flamingos (1972) to be a spiritual exercise in becoming a child?  And does John Waters, who put the film together, know what “true children” are and that “seriousness exists?”  What do we make of these “dramatizations” of childishness?  Are they…and we saved? After all, the daughter who is quelling her mother-in-the-crib is named Divine. Is this where we are going? Is John Waters giving us a prophetic glimpse at the future? A glimpse of KINDERLAND?

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:

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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.

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/theater-and-dance/125181/andy-kaufman-isnt-funny#

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.

http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-03-16/art/have-you-heard-the-one-about-the-art-scene-embracing-comedians/

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.

Here, in America Everyday is Purim!

In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, Sidrah Dekoven Ezrahi begins a section entitled “America is for Children” with the following claim: “Purim is for children, so is America.”

This claim can be found in Ezrahi’s commentary on Sholom Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantors Son.  To be sure, her text is inspired by the following words of the main character (and schlemiel of the hour) – Motl:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.  He earns money every single day.  “Columbus, who can compare with you!

What does Aleichem mean when he has Motl, a schlemiel say that Purim in America is only one day in Europe but everyday in America?  And how does that relate to the next line: “he earns money every single day?”   What does making money have to do with Purim being everyday in America?  Lastly, what does it mean that Motl turns to an American holiday and says: “Columbus, who can compare with you!”

Ezrahi’s answers are worthy of discussion, especially here, in a blog dedicated to the schlemiel.  They broach a discussion on how the American and European schlemiel differ.  It also spurs a discussion of the difference between Israeli and American Jewishness. Ezrahi says, basically, that the American schlemiel leaves the European one behind – in the dust so to speak.  The American supercedes the European schlemiel.  In America, Purim is everyday.  It is the land of dreams.  In Israel if you will it, as Herzl says, its not a dream.

In this interpretative contrast between Israel and America, knowledge of the interpreter’s place makes s difference: Ezrahi is an American ex-patriot.  She has been living in Israel and teaching in Hebrew University for some time now.  Her latest work, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, pivots on the tension between Israel and America, Homecoming and Diaspora.  She writes, literally, from Israel. And this makes a difference insofar as America, to an Israeli like Ezrahi, looks like a foolish, amnesiac land.

Israel is intimately tied to the history of the Jewish people.  In Israel, Ezrahi says, memory and history is “recovered.”  While in America, reality, the present moment, experience itself is being “rediscovered.”   In America, there is endless forgetfulness.

While the land of Israel (ha’aretz) is the basis for Israeli literature, history, archeology, and politics is the land of Israel, the diasporic Jewish literature of America has no basis in history or a land.

For Ezahi, Israeli literature is consequential.  It is about a real land and real people.  Jewish-American literature is not.  Its based on the schlemiel and swims in virtual reality.

For American Jews, “the text (and not Israel) is, as George Steiner once wrote, “the homeland.”  It is, as Ezrahi says, a “substitute” for the land.  It is a “fictional sovereignty.”  In this land, the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams,” (as Heinrich Heine would say) is the king.  In this land, the land of the free, Purim is every day.

But things have changed.  After the land of Israel was established “fictional sovereignty” becomes a “diasporic privilege.”  It is, in other words, not a necessity.  Life in America – inside and outside of fiction – is the disaporic privilege of the few who ignore the land and the “recovery” of Judaism.  The schlemiel is a diasporic privilege. Israelis don’t have time for it.  They are in reality, not dreams (like us).

To be sure, the life of the postmodern American Jew is dwelling in the pages of fiction.  The key character and the author of these texts is the schlemiel.

But there is more to the story.  This is high culture of diasporic privilege, the low culture also celebrates the Schlemiel.  Diasporic privilege – that is the privilege of the schlemiel – is all around America.

According to Ezrahi, the schlemiel is an American “cultural icon.”

But how did he become a cultural icon?  How did this all happen?  And what does it mean?

Ezrahi’s interpretation of Aleichem’s Motl says it all.  To be sure, we can learn everything we need to know about why America is different from Israel by understanding Aleichem’s words on Purim.

According to Ezahi, the main task of the schlemiel in its  Yiddish-European model incarnation was to “turn things over” (ha’hefuch).  To revise the past – turn it over – through language.  Words.  One creates one’s own Diasporic homeland.

The power of the schlemiel is the power of language.  It is the “substitute” for power and for a homeland.

She calls the schlemiel’s wordcraft “the alechemy of words.”

According to Ezrahi, Aleichem’s schlemiel Motl revises history!  His father dies (which she reads as Europe dying) and he refuses mourning by way of speaking to much.  But more importantly, by going to America and substituting America for Europe.

For Aleichem, as for Modernist writers, language becomes everything.  For Ezrahi, his obsession with words is a denial of history and past trauma.  And this is Motl.  The schlemiel loves playing with language.  But, there is more, you don’t have to be a fictional character or author to play with language and create a “substitute sovereigny”(to substitute for one’s lack of a land and real power).  All you have to be is an American and you’re a schlemiel.  (Presto!)

In America Purim is everyday:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.

And why?

Ezrahi argues that the next line tells us: “He (Motl, the schlemiel) earns money every single day!”

For Ezrahi, this means that Purim is everyday.  Because, in America, one can remain a child (like Motl) and just work a simple job, or, as we hear all the time, the American schlemiel can live the dream.

Even though one is a child, at the very least, every day one can (in America) move from thing to thing.  The American-Jew (and the American, in general) does need any grounding in a land or history.  Living the dream is equivalent to Purim every day.  Moving from thing to thing.  Endless discovery, opportunity, and hope are the name of the American-schlemiel-game.

“Though Motl doesn’t grow, he moves, ultimately acting out his capacious dreams in New York’s streets…The child as a site of a Purim sensibility and as a miniature shlemiel…But no less significant, though seldom remarked, is that it is followed by its antithesis: the embrace of an alternative reality, of America as a space of unlimited possibility.”

Motl, in this American moment, “renounces” what Erazhi calls the “Purim privilege as superfluous.”  And he, the new American schlemiel, embraces “virtual reality.”

For Ezrahi, America is Purim.  Continuous optimism is provided by an endless procession of “simulcura.”  Where does it all come from?  It comes from out of the heartland (and producer) of dreams: Hollywood.

One can be American-Schlemiel if one makes a sacrifice. (Or perhaps this sacrifice has already been made to establish a new (yet virtual) diasporic foundation?)  This, according to Ezrahi, is Motl’s teaching.

In the moment of his ‘yes-saying’ to everything, to America, there is an exchange, that is, a sacrifice: “We can trace the process by which the world of the Shtetl is replaced by the world for America: “Vashti” is exchanged for “Harry” and Purim for Columbus, the coinage of Russian poverty for American capitalism and Yiddish for English.”

This portrayal of Motl as the archetype of the American schlemiel is thought-provoking.  Is Ezrahi right?  Is America caught in the grip of schlemiel dreams?  And should American’s come to terms with their “diasporic privilege?”  If Purim is everyday in America, how is this possible?

What few scholars who have read and commented on about Ezrahi’s book note is that she is portraying Exile (embodied in America) in a negative light.  Even though Purim is everyday in America, it is based on a denial of mourning.  America is, for Ezrahi, amnesia.

The schlemiel is too busy having fun, discovering America, to mourn.  And this is, for Ezrahi, the problem.

As one can guess, Ezrahi says that Israel, on the other hand, has mourned the Holocaust.  It’s fiction and its Jewish life is not based on an alternate reality; Israel is based on the land and on real history not on dreams.  As Ezrahi writes: Israel “is real.”

This would imply that my Purim is emblematized in Motl’s sacrifice and optimism.  My Purim is everyday!

And, worst of all, if I were to agree with Ezarhi’s reading, I would have to say that my life is based on forgetfulness and ahistorical. In my American, schlemiel optimism, I live on dreams.  I don’t live on the land.

Is this something I can accept as an American Jew?

I don’t agree with Ezrahi’s claim that the schlemiel’s optimism is based on the inability of American’s Jews to remember a Europe that they have made “virtual” (Ezrahi calls I.B. Singer’s work, Fiddler on the Roof, etc “the virtual ghetto”).

But I do agree , to some extent, with her argument that the schlemiel is an American “child” (of sorts) who is “moving through space and things.”  But what exactly does it mean to “move through space and things?”

Is the American schlemiel (or the schlemiel in general) a phenomenologist?  As Husserl (and Wiliam Carlos Williams) said, is he going “to the things themselves.”

http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/prt/en4405872.htm

Ezrahi cites Walter Benjamin to claim that in America the schlemiel is dazzled by things in space.  For Ezrahi, this fascination with things seems to be a distraction from the real thing; the thing that matters for Jews: the land (ha’aretz).

But is this right?  We are far from the prophetic schlemiel.  There are no “demands of the hour” in Ezrahi’s America.  There are no “demands of the hour” on Purim, either.   Only someone who can hear real – not simulated – demands to their Jewishness, is consequential.  For Ezrahi, ha’aretz issues these demands on Jewish identity.  They are the demands of history and the hour.

Without a land, the American schlemiel is, for Ezrahi, inconsequential.  Israelis have a real sovereignty – American Jews do not.  Their sovereignty is imaginary.  Just like Jewish-American identity, which is constantly trying on new Purim clothes.  Changing in and out of ‘things.’

All American Jews are schlemiels who are dancing the Chameleon with Woody Allen’s Zelig: Zelig, the schlemiel with a million faces.  He has no real land.  Zelig sovereignty is inconsequential.  His, like the  optimism of any American Jew, is based on not mourning Europe.

But is this description or, rather, this Zelig challenge right?

I am not ashamed.  I don’t think I have a “diasporic privilege’.  True, I don’t have to worry about ha’aretz every day because I don’t live there. But this doesn’t mean I don’t care and that I have simply left my Jewish identity (tied to ha’aretz) un-recovered.  

Moreover, I don’t think that my Jewish-American existence, my American dreaming, is based on my inability to mourn or my optimism.  

I love America, where every day its Purim!  In America, we’re all children!

My advice to this suggestion: ha’hafook – do what we all can do on Purim: “turn it over!”  Turn over the notion that American is a substitute for Israel.  Turn over the notion that all American’s are schlemiels because they – and not Israelis – are caught up in virtual-Jewish-reality.

One need not worry if, by turning it over, they are being unethical and not mourning or remembering Jewish history and trauma.  Turning over these ideas can help us to understand what is at stake at this hour.  The oblique prophet, the Schlemiel, especially on Purim,shows the way.

Happy Purim!  Don’t renounce your Purim privilege!  There are still things to “turn over.”   After all, its the “demand of the hour!”  Literally!