Should Jews be Normal or Exceptional? Hannah Arendt and Gary Shteyngart’s Reading of the Schlemiel and Normality


Judith Butler has, on many different occasions, pointed out that she is taking on the legacy of Hannah Arendt.  And by this she means Arendt’s legacy vis-à-vis her work on the political.  One of the terms Butler uses in her political vocabulary – which also pops up in her work on sexuality – is “normalization.”  When used by Butler, this term has the most negative connotations imaginable.  If anything, she wants to keep this or that regime, political movement, or discourse in check by making sure that it is not normalized.  Hetero-normativity or any normativity for that matter is problematic for her.  But if one were to critically look into one of the most important essays of her predecessor – namely “The Jew as Pariah” – he or she would notice that at the end of the essay Arendt imagines a movement away from the schlemiel/pariah (the outsider) to the insider.  She points out that Kafka – and she herself – dreamt of living a “normal” life (and that his novels illustrate this fact).  This “normal” life isn’t the life of the “parvenu” which, as she points out in her essay, is in tension with the pariah.  Rather, by normality Arendt believed Jews should – at some point – stop being “exceptional” pariahs.  But what does this mean?  Does it imply that Jews will just be like everyone else?  Is the goal normality?  And what would Butler say about that?

Since Arendt doesn’t properly explain what she means by normality, we can only surmise that she associated the schlemiel (as Zionists did) with Diaspora.  (After all, she did write articles for a Zionist Newspaper in Germany for many years and it is plausible to suppose that her writing and thinking was deeply affected by her journalistic engagement.)   A writer who provides a good contemporary illustration – albeit in fiction – of the transition from the “exceptional” schlemiel to the “normal” man is Gary Shteyngart.  As I pointed out at the beginning of this blog series, Shteyngart ends his debut novel The Russian Debutante’s Notebook with what I call a “dad ending.”  It, like Arendt’s ending, is dad/bad because it effaces the “exceptional” aspect of Jewishness (embodied in the schlemiel) in the name of being an American; that is, normal.   To be sure, Arendt never specifies where one will become normal (she doesn’t mention Israel); however, she hints at America when she says that Charlie Chaplin’s “Great Dictator” (for her, the last schlemiel in the “hidden tradition” of the pariah/schlemiel) is replaced by Superman.  (And that replacement happens in America, not in Israel and not in Europe.)  That said, I’d like to look at how Shteyngart’s “dad ending”(which happens in America), reflect on whether it is the best ending, and show how it addresses a problem that Arendt left hanging in her essay.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, Vladmir starts thinking about living a “normal” life by way of an American woman he meets in Prava named Morgan.   She uses the most simple terms to describe the world, which for her is divided into “good” and “bad” people.  She tells Vladmir is good, however, at first, he doesn’t believe it.

The narrator points out that –for all intents and purposes – Vladmir is too sophisticated for this; he is “postmoral”:

Was Vladmir a good person? No.  But he mistreated others only because the world had mistreated him.  Modern justice for the postmorality set. (308)

But the more time he spends thinking about it, he realizes that, in going from a schlemiel to a bad man he has chosen to live an exceptional and abnormal life.    He is a pariah on the run and he wonders if he should remain this way:

Why couldn’t she make this easy for him?  Weren’t his lies and evasions valid enough?  And yet, here she was, Morgan Jenson, a tender but unsettling project, reminding Vladmir of someone he used to be before Mr. Rybakov stumbled into his life…A soft and unsurefooted Vladmir…Mother’s Little Failure.  The man on the run.  (310)

In the wake of her gesture,  he thinks seriously about normality:

Normalcy. What they were doing was inherently normal and right.  The tent (which they were sharing one day) was a special zone in which desire existed as a normal urge…This idea, as clear as the lake glistening outside their tent, cared Vladmir almost to the point of impotence.  (317)

Like Arendt, Vladmir wants to live in the world.  And Morgan is the way into it: not his family, not his new work as a criminal, and not his previous life as a schlemiel.    But his decision to leave is not so clear; in a way, it has to be made for him.

When Morgan meets his boss (The Groundhog) and his boss’s girlfriend at an American restaurant he created, things start changing more dramatically.   Playing on the exceptional kitsch that touches all that the Groundhog does, we learn from the narrator that the name of the restaurant is Road 66 (not Route 66).    After hearing The Groundhog’s story as to how he met his girlfriend – by way of an experience he had at a brothel wherein he heard he grunting and was deeply touched – Morgan, in the most damning terms, tells Vladmir that this man is bad and that Vladmir is caught up in this intrigue:

“He met his girlfriend at a whorehouse!” she was shouting as if that had been the most egregious news of the evening.  “He’s a fucking gangster…And you! And YOU!”(395)

He retorts by pointing out that she has been seeing a political activist named Tomas. To be sure, Morgan has a soft spot for the political and, with Tomas, was planning to blow up a political area in Prava called “The Foot.”  But as the novel comes to an end, she just wants to get it done and leave the country.  Paralleling this, Vladmir also wants to leave.  They both want to return to America.

The straw that breaks Vladmir’s back and spurs him to leave in a flurry is associated with the figure of Skinheads.  Before taking Morgan for dinner with The Groundhog, Vladmir, on an evening out with his American friends, is accosted by a group of Skinheads who take him for a “Turk.” They beat the hell out of him; however, there is little reflection on what this means in terms of the country he has chosen to live in.  The Skinheads return after Vladmir takes Morgan out to Road 66. But this time they are sent by “The Groundhog.”  They are sent because, apparently, Rybakov didn’t get his American citizenship and Vladmir is found to be a traitor.

After being badly beaten, Vladmir goes off to the Hospital.  Meanwhile, the final plan to blow up “the foot” and to get Vladmir out of the country is underway.  The end of the novel is full of action and suspense.  And, like the section of the novel on Jordi and the chase (which was the event that made Vladmir more “masculine” and prompted him to leave America for Europe and a life of crime), this section is intense.  This flight, like that one, is transformational.

The last words of the novel – prior to the Epilogue –end with Vladmir in flight:

He ran – there was not even the time to lie to himself that he would be back.  And lies had always been important to our Vladmir, like childhood friends with whom one never loses an understanding.  (469)

These last words also indicate that Vladmir’s life has been a life of lies.  In contrast, the Epilogue suggests that now, in America, he will live an honest and normal life.  We meet him on his birthday. But in contrast to the first birthday – which the novel begins with – he is not a schlemiel.  In other words, he is not exceptional.  He is normal.  He is married to Morgan, they both have normal jobs (he works for her father), and they have a child on the way.

In America everything is normal:

This is America, where the morning paper lands on the doorstep at precisely 7:30 A.M. – not the whooly dominion (in Prava) Vladmir once ruled.  So he’ll open his eyes and unlock the door.  He’ll put in his ten-hour workday.  He’ll chat up the secretarial pool, etc (476)

In America, he is “free of the fear and madness of…Eastern lands”(476).  Although he carries his memories of being “exceptional” with him, at least – the narrator tells us – he can console himself with the thought that his child will be an American, not an immigrant:

An American in America.  That’s Vladmir Girshkin’s son. (476)

I call this a “dad ending” because that is what it is.  He ends the novel as a dad (rather than a schlemiel or a “bad” man); but it is – ultimately – a bad, Hollywood ending.   Given what was put forth in the first ¾ of the novel; it is odd.  The rush to normality should evoke questions in the reader regarding Vladmir’s identity.  Too much of what he was seems to have been left in the past; his birthday epilogue suggests that he has exchanged the exceptional for the normal; the schlemiel for the everyman.

Over the last decade or so, this formula has been used by Woody Allen,  Judd Apatow, and a few other screenwriters and filmmakers to illustrate a shift away from the schlemiel.  Its odd that Allen started doing this – with his film Anything Else (2003)– around the same time Shteyngart published his debut novel 2002.

Like Arendt, Allen, Shteyngart, and Apatow are all interested in leaving the schlemiel behind – or at least putting him through a process in which he/she goes from being a schlemiel to a normal individual.  Do they illustrate what Arendt claimed Kafka’s novels all point to: a desire for a normal life?  And is this life the “world” that she wanted to be in tune with?

I wonder about Arendt’s turn to the normal, just as I wonder about Shtyengart’s (Apatow and Allen’s turn).  They seem to be taking a German-Jewish reading of the schlemiel to heart. The Eastern European reading of the schlemiel, in contrast, looks to keep the exceptional nature of the schlemiel at the forefront. The reason for this has to do with the fact that they didn’t think a happy ending – with the schlemiel transforming – was the point of this character.  In truth, it has to do with challenging the “status quo” not becoming it.

Although Arendt may have envisioned a world where no one was exceptional and all lived a normal life (and that world may have been in America), the fact remains that she saw normality as the goal.  She had no vision of a perpetual revolt that would be spurred by way of the schlemiel.  For her, it had a historical purpose.  But, apparently, when Jews were given the opportunity to participate in history and politics, its role ended.   Arendt is unclear on this note.  However, she does suggest it in her reading of the schlemiel since it is displaced, in her view, by Superman and has less weight in Kafka’s imagination than the “normal” life.

The question, in all of this, is what is so “exceptional” about the schlemiel.  Arendt uses this term and so does Shteyngart.  And they both define the schlemiel in terms of what they think is exceptional.  And the long and short of it is that what they find exceptional is exile.  They have no need for it, but, in truth, when will it ever end?   Can American Jews end this chapter of history and simply pat themselves on the back?  Perhaps it would be better if there were no epilogue….

The answers to all of these questions, hinge on how we interpret the exceptional nature of the schlemiel: what it is and whether or not it is necessary or desired…today.

Girshkin and Rybakov: Gary Shteyngart’s Comic Duo


There’s nothing quite like a comic duo or what Neil Simon, at one time, called an “odd couple.”  To be sure, it always helps a comic routine when one comedian plays off another.  By witnessing one comedian play off another, the audience gets some kind of “contact buzz.”  One need only think of Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Laverne and Shirley, or Neil Simon’s odd couple – Felix Unger and Oscar Madison – to know what I’m talking about.  If you want a more contemporary example, think of the film Dumb and Dumber (1994) with Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carey) or the 2008  film Step Brothers  which starred Will Farrell (as Brennan Huff) and John C. Reilly (as Dale Doback).

And what would Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm be without their endless procession of different comic pairs in all sorts of interesting combinations and situations?

Literature also has its host of comic pairs. Don Quixote had Sancho Panza and Don Quixote and its Yiddish brother, Mendel Mocher Sforim’s, Benjamin the III, which also had a comic pair.  Even Samuel Beckett made sure to have a comic pair in his classic play Waiting for Godot.   In these comic pairs, there is often a schlemiel and a shlimzael or, otherwise, two schlemiels or fools.  And, although each pair may seem formulaic, there is something that we can learn from their comic pairings.  To be sure, we can, by way of comic amplification, be confronted with tensions that are existential, cultural, historical, or political.  Some tensions, however, are more urgent than others.  In Waiting for Godot, an existential tension is foregrounded while in Don Quixote or Benjamin the III a historical tension is.  Some of these tensions can arguably be called timeless while others are timely.

In Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which I blogged on for the first time yesterday, we have a comic pair which introduces a “timely” tension: this pair amplifies the tensions that may or may not exist between immigrants as they make their way in America.  And it does this by way of a subtle, comic relationship which is fraught with many gaps and blindspots. In their playful relationship, we are prompted to give the schlemiel and his comic foil our full attention.   From the outset, the comic tension in terms of a number of oppositions: old/young; citizen/non-citizen; man-child/man.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, Vladmir is portrayed as a schlemiel. He is the “unlikely” schlemiel hero.  He is half P.T. Barnum, half Lenin.  The Barnum part is the most prominent.

The narrator tells us that on the day we meet him, Vladmir is 25.  And of these years, half of them were spent in Russia; the even half (12 years). The odd half (13 years) is spent in the USA.  This odd half makes the difference when we meet, for the first time, Vladmir’s comic companion: the “fan man,” a man named Rybakov.

We first meet Rybakov by way of an altercation in the Emma Lazarus Immigration Absorption Society’s Manhattan Office.  He screams out in Russian and calls out Vladmir’s last name. This totally takes Vladmir by surprise:

Suddenly, Vladmir heard the frenzied croaking of an elderly Russian out in the reception room: “Opa! Opa! Tovarisch Girshkin! Ai! Ai! Ai!” (5)

In response to this, Vladmir let’s his Lenin-part take over: “It was time to act. Vladmir braced himself against the desk and stood up.”  But this “act” is comically deflated by the narrator.  What we see in this deflation is a tension between a man and a man-child, between P.T. Barnum and Lenin. Vladmir looks big, but he’s really small:

All alone in the back office, with no point of reference other than the kindergarten-sized chairs and desks that comprised the furniture, he suddenly felt himself remarkably tall.   A twenty-five-year-old man in an oxford shirt gone yellow under the armpits, frayed slacks with the cuffs comically coming undone…he dwarfed his surroundings like the line skyscraper built in Queens…But it was true: Vladmir was short. (5)

This dialectical tension between being a man and a child is played out in his meeting with Rybakov.  When he sees Rybakov harassing the guard, he shouts in Russian and asserts a categorical rule that must be obeyed: “Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!…We never do that to the guard.”

After hearing this, Rybakov (“the madman”) turns to face Vladmir and shouts “Girshkin!…It’s you!”  Like Vladmir, Rybakov is a “man of small stature,” but he is more aggressive than Vladmir.  He wears a jacket bearing the weight of many “Soviet war medals.”  And, when he sees Vladmir, he tosses the guard to the side.

Vladmir, upon seeing this, says aggressively: “What do you want from me?” But, in response, Rybakov repeats this question in a quizzical manner and adds “My God, what haughtiness!” And with this gesture, he lifts his crutch and gives Vladmir a “practice jab: On guard!”

This leads to an exchange that shows how Vladmir can also be a “man.”  But this doesn’t last long since he is disarmed by Rybakov’s madness and humor.  This comes across when Rybakov talks about his “fans.”  He has “two.”  Humored by this, Vladmir jokingly (and endearingly) says, “The fan said come over.” And then he realizes that this man is not a threat to him: “Right then, on the spot, Vladmir recognized that this wasn’t a problem client. This was a fun client.  A loop-de-loop client.  The kind of client that turned on your morning switch and kept you brisk and agitated all day”(7).

This moment of realization is a, so to speak, “schlemiel moment”; it is a moment of innocence and trust which makes Vladmir into a man-child of sorts.  And this happens, quite simply, because Vladmir is entertained.  To add to all the entertainment, Rybakov tells Vladmir that he is “psychotic” and Rybakov’s gestures that accompany this declaration are, to be sure, endearing:

His enormous eyebrows twitched in confirmation, and he smiled with false modesty, like a kind who brings in his father the astronaut on career day. (7)

Rybakov then tells a charming story about how he wrote a letter to the President and sent it to the New York Times.  Rybakov produces the letter, reads it, and talks about it.  Hearing this, Vladmir can’t help but think of this man as the most innocent idiot he has ever met.  And then he makes the big mistake; he identifies with him. This prompts him to start feeling sorry for their poor condition.  They are all immigrant-losers.  The narrator amplifies this effect by comparing Vladmir’s world, inside the immigration office (the world of the “poor huddled masses”), to the world outside the office, in the financial district:

Outside the nonexistent windows of the back office, the canyons of the financial district were awash with rationalism and dull commercial hope: suburban secretaries explored bargains on cosmetics and hose; Ivy Leaguers swallowed entire pieces of yellow tail in one satisfied gulp.  But here it was just Vladmir the twenty-five-year old and the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (9)

Coming out of this misty recollection, Vladmir, like a child watching a clown, hears Rybakov speaking about his fans that go “krik krak” and “trikka trikka.”  Noticing this, Rybakov starts treating him like a child and calls him a “little goose”: “Oh, I know who you are, little goose.”

Surprised by this comment, Vladmir is reminded of how, when he was a child (“a diminutive, unsteady creature”), he was called a “little goose.”  This puts Vladmir into a childish state of mind and he becomes childlike.  Rybakov runs with it:

“The Fan sang an epic song for me the other night, said Rybakov.  “It was called “The Tale of Vladmir Girshkin and Yelena Petrovna, His Mama.” “Mother,” Vladmir whispered.  He didn’t know what to say.  That word, when spoken in the company of Russian men, was sacred in itself. (9)

At this point, Rybakov discloses the fact that he knows something about Vladmir’s mother and this wakes him up a little.  But, in the end, “the fan man” has the last word and the last gesture which reduces Vladmir to the status of a man-child:

The Fan Man reached over and pinched Vladmir’s nose between thumb and forefinger, a familiar Russian gesture reserved for small children.   “I’m psychotic,” the Fan Man explained. “But I’m no idiot.” (11)

In this end, Vladmir, the “unlikely hero,” comes across as the “idiot” not Rybakov.  This gesture and these words convey to us a subtle tension between these two.  Vladmir is the younger and the more inexperienced one; Vladmir is a US citizen, but Rybakov is not.  Without Vladmir’s help, Rybakov cannot be a citizen.   And, as we learn later in the novel, Rybakov has something Vladmir doesn’t: money (and lots of it).

The comic relationship between them, with all of its tensions, is first given to readers by way of a subtle sense of how easily Vladmir, with his big heart, can become like a child in Rybakov’s (or anyone’s hands).  The fact that he can go from shouting to cooing in front of Rybakov is a central aspect of Shteygart’s schlemiel and of many schlemiels (such as Saul Bellow’s) whose hearts can lead them into trouble.  Rybakov, as I hope to show, is that trouble.  And what he has to offer Vladmir is easy money.  With that offer comes the American dream and, also, a lot of other things a schlemiel doesn’t know about since, of course, the schlemiel doesn’t understand the meaning of money or, for that matter, evil.

As in many schlemiel comedies, it takes a comic duo to bring out, on the one hand, the schlemiel’s innocence and, on the other, the fact that there are some things that a schlemiel simply cannot see in front of him with his own two eyes.

Instead of being a tall and powerful Vladmir, perhaps he’s really just an innocent little Girshkin.