A Jew Hiding Behind a Free-man: A Note on Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake” (Part I)

images-1

Several critics have discussed Bernard Malamud’s interest in Jewishness.  My interest in his work, however, is not based solely on the topic of Jewishness in Malamud’s work; rather, it is also based on looking into how Malamud often addresses Jewishness by way of the schlemiel.  Ruth Wisse has made important efforts in this direction in her opus The Schlemiel as Modern HeroSanford Pinsker has also made efforts to address the schlemiel in Malamud’s work in his book The Schlemiel as Metaphor.  To be sure, these two works are the best scholarly accounts of the schlemiel available to us today.   But both of them were written in the early 1970s.  And though they provide great insights into Malamud’s work as it relates to the schlemiel, I feel that these insights can be built on by a scholar from our own time.  To be sure, my reflections on Malamud’s work mark a gap: I am not from their generation of critics (to be sure, I was a baby in diapers when they wrote their books) and I am writing this commentary on the schlemiel in Malamud’s work four decades later.   My insights, at least in this blog entry, look to find something relevant in Malamud’s work.  Does it still speak to us? Does he touch on themes that are still of interest today?  Or are we in a “post-assimilation” era which has “progressed” beyond the themes he once wrote on?

Malamud’s story, “The Lady of the Lake” – which appears in The Magic Barrel -presents us with a good test-case.  To be sure, the story hits on themes that still speak to us, today.  Malamud’s articulation of Jewishness, in this story, bring us into the consciousness of a Jewish character who would like to find out, for himself, if he is really a “free man” or a man bound by history (Jewish history).   This test, to be sure, is played out by a schlemiel since, for Malamud, this kind of a schlemiel is…a schlemiel because he tries to outwit history.  His desire to escape his Jewish history makes him into a schlemiel. To do this, he plays a masquerade which, in the end, fails to cover up his true identity.

The main character of “The Lady of the Lake” is Henry Levin:

Henry Levin, an ambitious, handsome thirty.

He receives an inheritance and decides to leave New York City for Paris “seeking romance.”  And the reason he goes is because he is “tired of the past – tired of the limitations it imposed on him”(94).   At the outset, the reader has no idea whether this “past” is personal, familial, or tribal.

Immediately after noting this problem with the past, Malamud notes that Henry Levin, when abroad, changes his identity.  At the hotel register, he signs his name as “Henry R. Freeman.”  His name introduces his challenge.  Like a modernist artist, he wants to create a “new” life and invent himself anew.  To do this, he goes under an alias. As the story goes on, however, this alias is tested.

To be sure, he so badly yearns to be free that he moves restlessly through Europe and ends up in Italy.  This process of movement makes him feel as if he is a real man (and not a nebbish).  To illustrate, Malamud includes a scene where Levin takes a rowboat out and braves the waters:

He kept rowing though he felt risk.  However, the waves were not too bad and he discovered the trick of letting them hit the prow head-on.  Although he handled his oars awkwardly, Freeman, to his surprise, made good time. (97).

The reader will notice that Levin, now Freeman, is not a total schlemiel (of the nebbish variety).  Although he “handled his oars awkwardly,” he does display skill and perseverance.  And this shows that the narrator sees this change as exemplary of some kind of transformation as Freeman pursues an adventure whose end is romance.

Upon docking on an island, Freeman experience an untold of beauty and although he feels blissful he also has a sad memory:

By now the place was bathed in mist, and despite the thickening sense of awe and beauty he had felt upon first beholding the islands.  At the same time he recalled a sad memory of unlived life, his own. (97)

In the midst of these sad thoughts, he notices, for the first time, a mysterious woman on the edge of his vision.  She disappears and is left with a sense of mystery and romance. This set’s up the plot since the woman he sees takes on reality and represents his biggest challenge: to fall in love with her and have her fall in love with him.  But, to do this, he has to hide his past.

The next day, he goes back to the island and notices that the tour guide and a tour are there.  He describes the tour guide as a “sad-looking clown” who stabs with a “jaunty cane.” This comic figure is by no means arbitrary.

After Freeman, once again, experiences beauty and has a mixed feeling (based on his memory of his “personal poverty), he encounters the “lady of the lake.”  His epiphany displaces his dis-ease:

When he glanced up, a girl in a white bathing suit was coming up the steps out of the water.  Freeman stared as she sloshed up the shore, her wet skin glistening in the sunlight.  (100).

Malamud’s poetic-prose follows up on this moment and articulates the image of an Italian goddess.   However, Malamud follows this up by describing Freeman’s body and the fact that he is a New Yorker. In sizing him up and contrasting his body to hers, the narrator, points out Freeman’s anxiety, yet gives him a pass:

Although he feared this moment, partly because of all he hungered for from life, and partly because of the uncountable obstacles existing between stragers, may the word forever perish. (100)

In contrast, she has no fear.  But when they come into close quarters, she asks him if he is Jewish:

The girl studied him for a full minute, then hesitatingly asked: “Are you Jewish?”

In response, Malamud tells us that Freeman “suppressed a groan” and was “secretly shocked” by the “unexpected question.”  Yet, as the narrator points out, “he did not look Jewish and could pass as not – had”(101).  So, “without batting an eyelash, he said, no, he wasn’t”(101). This moment is central to the text.  He feels exposed but wants to hide this, as he wants to hide his Jewishness so as to find romance.

But right when they are about to kiss, the guide, the “sad-faced” clown appears out of nowhere: “He gazed at them with astonishment, then let out a yell and ran down the stairs, waving his cane like a rapier”(102).  He looks at Freeman and yells “transgressor,” yanked him away, and “whacked him across the seat of the pants”(102).

The narrator notes that this “departure from the island was an embarrassment.”

Malamud’s decision to cast the figure of the “sad-clown” as a character who breaks the moment of bliss up is telling.  It suggests a deeper motif that has to do with Jewishness. The sad-clown with a rapier parries Moses with his staff.  He separates the Jew from Romance and Beauty.  Freeman’s embarrassment is a testimony to the shame he feels.   He feels as if he has lost.

However, the “sad clown” doesn’t return.  But, to be sure, one wonders, following this, if Freeman is the sad clown who doesn’t want to be a sad-clown.  The next day, Freeman does his utmost to make amends and sends the woman, whose name is Isabella (think of Queen Isabella of Spain – who prompted the Inquisition), a letter.

She agrees to meet.  What ensues is a ruse.  The whole time they are together, the narrator points out that she hesitates with Freeman.  She seems to be hiding something?  Is this because of his Jewishness?  Does she distrust him and does she despise Jews? Why would she, immediately, ask if he is Jewish.  This, to be sure, is the lingering question.

In the next blog entry, I will address this question and what happens to Freeman at the end of the story.  As I hope to show, his attempt to defy history (and be a truly “free man”) makes him a schlemiel and this conveys a lesson which should be of interest to Jews today; that is, if history and Jewish identity still matter to post-assimilated Jews…

Vulnerability, Betrayal, Friendship: Robert Walser’s Fritz Kocher On Friendship

DownloadedFile

Since I was a little child, the meaning of friendship has always been on my mind.  Like many people, I was vulnerable and found that by being honest, trusting, and open to strangers I also invited people to take advantage of me.  But, regardless of the negativity I experienced when I was taken advantage of, I still sought for friends I could trust.

For this reason, literature which speaks to the experience of friendship has always been of great interest to me.  On this note, what I love about the Yiddish and Jewish-American tradition of the schlemiel and the work of Robert Walser – which has so much in common with this comic tradition – is the fact that the Yiddish schlemiel and Walser’s simpleton are both trusting.  Both are in search of friendship.   And, from both, we can learn a lot about the relationship of vulnerability and trust to friendship.

For instance, one of the things that has always fascinated me about the I.B. Singer’s Gimpel (who Ruth Wisse takes for a quintessential post-Holocaust schlemiel) is the fact that, though he is constantly lied to, he never stops trusting people.  In truth, Gimpel’s comedy can be found in his desire to make everyone his friend.  Gimpel, according to Wisse, acts “as if” good exists.  That good, I aver, is the trust that comes with true friendship.   It depends on the trust of the other and not just on the desire of the schlemiel-subject.

Since I.B. Singer doesn’t present Gimpel as awkward or vulnerable in any way, the reader is left to imagine what kind of process he goes through each time he meets another person.  By not doing this, one can only assume that Gimpel is either very good at ignoring the ways of people who lie, trick, and betray him or that he is painfully aware of this but goes on “as if” nothing has happened.

Robert Walser’s Fritz Kocher, the subject of his first novel, Fritz Kocher’s Essays provides us with an account of someone who goes through both of these above-mentioned options with regard to friendship.

As I pointed out in my last blog entry on Walser’s book, the best way to read Walser is “between the chapter headings.”  To this end, I presented a reading of the first three “essays” in the novel: “Man,” “Autumn,” and “The Fire.”  I’d like to build on these readings by initially linking “The Fire” essay to the essay entitled “Friendship.”   This will serve as the basis for my reading of the “Friendship” essay, which touches on vulnerability, trust, betrayal, and friendship.

To begin with, “The Fire” essay differs from the previous two essays because it has much more gravitas.  Kocher, a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years of age, is shocked by what he sees in the fire.  He is frightened by the disaster and the suffering of a mother and her child who are on the verge of death.  But, as I noted in my blog entry, this terror is thwarted by a “thin young man in shabby clothing” who comes out of nowhere, saves the mother and her child, and disappears “without a trace.”

The child is fascinated by this kind of heroism because it evinces a kind of humility that he emulates.  It also has a melancholic sense to it since the hero disappears.  The last lines suggest that Kocher saw someone he could trust: he wanted to meet him and befriend him.

I’d like to suggest that this desire finds its way into the next essay.  The first words of his essay articulate his desire for friendship as well as his belief that it is essential to being human:

What a precious flower friendship is. Without it, even the strongest man could not live long.  The heart needs a kindred, familiar heart, like a little clearing in the forest, a place to rest and lie down and chat.  We can never value our friend highly enough, if he is a true friend, and can never run away fast enough if he betrays our friendship.  (9-10)

The end of this reflection is telling: it speaks to the relationship between trust and friendship.  As Kocher thinks about “true friendship,” he also reflects on betrayal.  And this makes him sad:

O, there are false friends, whose only goal in life is to wound, to hurt, to destroy!

These words disclose the fact that Kocher is vulnerable and has – apparently -been hurt by people he took as friends but were, in fact, “false friends.”  Following this, Kocher briefly raves about how these people (10).  But after he raves, he confesses that he doesn’t “actually know any friends like that, but I have read about them in books, and what it says about them must be true since it is written in such a clear and heartfelt way”(10).

This suggests that Kocher wanted to make it seem “as if” he knew what betrayal was.  Like Gimpel, he acts as if he has never been lied to or betrayed.  However, his next words suggest that he may be lying about friendship to make it seem as if he has “true friends”:

I have one friend, but I cannot say his name.  It is enough that I am certain of him as mine, completely mine. (10)

He tells us that this certainty makes him “calm” and “happy.”  But does he really have “certainty” about his friend?  And is he really “calm?”  The words seem a little too much.   And the words that follow suggest that his “true” and only friend may be imagined:

My friend is surely thinking of me during this hour of class, as surely as I am thinking of him and mentioning him.  In his essay (on friendship) I am playing the leading role as much as he, the good fellow, is playing the lead role in mine. (10)

What he see happening in these lines is the fantasy of reciprocity: that because I think of him, he must, in the same way, be thinking of me.  This fantasy, this certainty, brings him calm and happiness.   However, the truth of the matter is that, as Emmanuel Levinas points out, relationships are not reciprocal or symmetrical; rather, they are assymetrical.  We cannot be “certain” of the friend.

With this in mind, we can hear desperation in Kocher’s voice when he speaks of the certainty of this relationship:

Oh, such clear communication, such a firm bond, such mutual understanding! I cannot begin to understand it, but I let it happen all the more calmly since it is good and I like it.

Like Gimpel, Kocher believes that friendship is good and that the good friend will reciprocate.  He, like Gimpel, cannot imagine betrayal (even though he experiences it).  However, this edifice shakes immediately after writing this since Kocher turns to the issue of betrayal as if it is not something he simply reads about in books:

There are many varieties of friendship, just as there are many varieties of betrayal.  You should not confuse one with another.  You should think it over.  There are some who want to cheat and deceive us, but they can’t, and others who want to stay true to us for all eternity but they have to betray us, half consciously, against their will.   Still others betray us just to show us that we were deceived when we thought they were our friends. (10)

This passage shows us that he is extremely vulnerable and knows betrayal, but he doesn’t want to believe in it.  At the very least, he acknowledges that these types of people leave us with “disappointment” and this is “troubling.”  But in an act of defiance, he focuses solely on a friend one can both “love and admire.”   And he suggests that this can only work, however, if the friend admires and respects him, too.  He than repeats, a few times, how he doesn’t want to be despised.  This, it seems, is what his desire of friendship must counteract (as if it is a reality hanging over his head).    And this puts a lot of weight on friendship because, without it, he feels he may be hated.

But his last word addresses the kind of person one must be if he or she is to have friends.  And this reflection speaks to the comic aspect that he and the schlemiel (Gimpel) share:

One more thing: Funny, silly people have a hard time making friends.  People don’t trust them.  And if they mock and criticize they don’t deserve to be trusted either. (11)

These final two sentences hint at two things.  First of all, as we can see from his essays, he is a funny and silly person.  And when he speaks of them, he is really speaking of himself.  Like Gimpel, who is not trusted and is constantly betrayed, he too is mocked.  To be sure, the last sentence gives it all away: “if they mock and criticize” (read, me) “they don’t deserve to be trusted either.”

In other words, we see something different here from what we see in I.B. Singer’s Gimpel.  In Singer’s story, we don’t hear comments like this coming from Gimpel.  It is left for the reader to wonder what he really feels about being laughed at.  Here, in contrast, Kocher alludes to his emotions and suggests that this world – the world that laughs at him in his innocence, his trust, and his good humor – is not worthy of being trusted.   That would suggest the most negative reality.  However, as we can see, he, like Gimpel, still continues to trust the world even though, as he alludes to us, he has a hard time trusting those who mock him.

This trust, I would suggest, is built into our asymmetrical relation to the other.  Yet, as Levinas would be first to admit, it comes with an acute awareness of persecution, uncertainty, and suffering.    The comic relation to the other, to my mind, provides us with an exceptional figure for this double consciousness (which we see at work in Franz Kocher’s essays).    We all act “as if” good exists yet knowing that when we leave ourselves open to friendship we may receive, in return, betrayal, persecution, and mockery.  That’s the risk that Kocher knows he must take but, ultimately, he wishes he could have a “true friend” who would always be there to reciprocate in kind.

A Note on Nietzsche’s Sarcasm: Stupid and Honest Mystics versus Dishonest and Foolish Philosophers

DownloadedFile-4

In the beginning of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that for Rabbi Nachman the Simpleton (that is, the schlemiel) acts “as if” good will triumph over evil.  In his story, “The Clever Man and the Simple Man,” the thinker looks down on the simpleton as an idiot for being so naïve.  The simpleton’s honesty and trust are the object of his ridicule.   In many ways, Rabbi Nachman suggests that the simpleton, like many wise men, is a mystic in disguise.  And for Rabbi Nachman, as well as for many Yiddish writers who followed in his wake, the schlemiel was a character whose simplicity and trust pose a challenge to the skepticism and deceit of a world that laughs at him.  But, in the end, it’s the schlemiel who has the last laugh.

I recently came across an aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche that contrasts philosophers to mystics.  The contrast is brief and Nietzsche spends far more time – as one can imagine – making fun of philosophers.  The resonance between Nietzsche and Rabbi Nachman, at least in this aphorism, gives food for thought.  But would Nietzsche act “as if” good would triumph over evil, or is his mystic “beyond good and evil” and beyond acting as if “good exists?”  Wouldn’t that be too….”stupid” for him?

Nietzsche starts his fifth aphorism by noting that “one regards philosophers half mistrustingly and half mockingly.” Why?  It isn’t simply because they are “innocent…fall into error and go stray, in short their childishness and childlikeness.”  Rather, it is because they “display insufficient honesty while making a mighty and virtuous noise as soon as the problem of trustfulness” is invoked.  In contrast, Nietzsche tells us that “mystics…are more honest and more stupid to them.”   In saying this, Nietzsche privileges honesty and stupidity over dishonesty and feigned intelligence.

By acting “as if” they are intelligent and high minded about truth, Nietzsche believes they make themselves laughable and dishonest.  Moreover, Nietzsche says they lack the courage to admit that they are acting.  Nonetheless, Nietzsche finds this funny.  He associates this lack of courage with “tartuffery.”   To illustrate, Nietzsche caricatures Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza’s acts of deception so as to make them laughable:

Kant…lures us along the dialectical bypaths which lead, more correctly mislead, to his ‘categorical imperative’ – this spectacle which makes us smile.

Nietzsche tells us that he smiles because he is more “noble” than Kant and can see his “tricks”: “We who are fastidious and find no little amusement in observing the subtle tricks of old moralists and moral-preachers.”

Turning to Spinoza, Nietzsche accuses the Jewish philosopher of making uses of the “hocus-pocus of mathematical form.”  Nietzsche puts Spinoza’s “love of wisdom” into scare quotes and sarcastically mimics the rhetoric that goes along with speaking “the truth.”   After exhausting this rhetoric, Nietzsche, sickened, calls out Kant and Spinoza for being sick, timid, and vulnerable:

How much personal timidity and vulnerability this masquerade of a sick recluse betrays!

In other words, Nietzsche sees their arguments in the name of morality as the product of sickness.  They act “as if” they are defending the truth and this act is, for Nietzsche, worthy of a laughter that looks to purge the sickness of the philosophy in the name of health.

But what does Nietzsche mean by health?  Is his health closer to that of the “honest” but “stupid” mystic?  Or is health equated with a kind of intelligence that refuses both the philosopher and the mystic?

To be sure, Nietzsche respects the honesty of the mystic more than the philosopher.  But he finds more of an identification with the fool than the mystic.  In her book Stupidity, Avital Ronell points out that Nietzsche “latches” on to the “buffo” (the Italian word for fool).  Writing on Paul DeMan (who, for her, seems to be a successor of Nietzsche) Ronell argues that “transcendental buffoonery rips the system; it is shown to be propelled by a truly transgressive force that is fueled no so much by a romantic abandon as by a will to rise above that which is limited…bound by law and convention”(136).  This anti-nomian kind of humor – which can certainly be said to be mystical – wears the mask of the buffo/fool which she calls the “crucial mask of ironic destruction.”

The buffo “disrupts narrative illusion.”

What I find so interesting in all of this is that, unlike the schlemiel, Nietzsche’s fool doesn’t act “as if” good exists.   He wouldn’t equate himself with a stupid but honest mystic or fool.  Rather, as we can hear in the aphorism, Nietzsche does act “as if” he is superior to all masks which posit the “as if.”

To be sure, schlemiels and mystics aren’t sarcastic.  This act, as Ronell suggests, is an intelligent act of “ironic self-destruction.”   There isn’t a relationship with the “as if” of goodness, as there is with the schlemiel.  Moreover, while the schlemiel is blind to the abyss, Nietzsche is not.  The schlemiel doesn’t laugh, Nietzsche does.  And this laughter, I would argue, is the laughter of a metaphysics which, through laughter, elevates the subject of laughter beyond the philosopher and the mystic.   It is, for Nietzsche, the most “honest” laugh of all because it is beyond good and evil.  But it isn’t stupid; it’s critical.

In contrast, the laugh that the schlemiel evokes is sad laughter.  It is not beyond good and evil so much as caught between them.  Being on the other side of history, Jews couldn’t afford to laugh in the way Nietzsche could.  And this is reflected in the schlemiel who, though committed to goodness, fails in a world that disregards the good.

 

 

 

 

The Schlemiel of Wall Street: A Review of Martin Scorsese’s Latest Film

images-1

When I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), I knew there would be comic elements.  But I had no idea that Martin Scorsese would draw on and reinterpret the schlemiel by way of the plot and main characters of this film.   To be sure, all of the critics of the film thus far have noted that this film is a quasi-critique of capitalism.  And, in the end, the tragic overshadows the comic.  That’s obvious.  But what’s more interesting is how Scorsese pulls it off; namely, by way of drawing the viewer in through a large doses of schlemiel comedy.  (And, let’s be clear here.  Scorcese is not recognized for the comic element in his films; on the contrary, his use of humor is rarely foregrounded as it is in this film.)

Indeed, it seems Scorsese has done his homework on the schlemiel and schlemiel comedy.  Perhaps he has done this through viewing the films of Woody Allen and Judd Apatow.   (Before I go into detail about how the schlemiel works in this film, I’d like to foreground the links to Woody Allen.)

Woody Allen, to be sure, is one of the greatest popularizers of the schlemiel in American film.  Films such as Bananas, Take the Money and Run, or Annie Hall – to name just a few – are prime examples.  Although their work differs in so many ways – and you would be hard put to find a schlemiel in a Scorsese film – Martin Scorsese’s interest in Woody Allen’s work is not a secret.

They directed the film New York Stories together and have known of each others work for decades. But they differ in many ways.  In this film, for instance, there are a few.  Here is a clip of Allen and Scorsese talking about their differing views of New York in New York Stories (Scorsese differentiates his view on New York, through the films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, to Allen’s, in Manhattan.)

In a telling interview-slash-hosted-discussion by The New York Times in 1997 entitled “The Two Hollywoods,” Lynn Hirshberg begins by noting that they “hardly know each other” but are “contemporaries.”  Her interview is great because it shows the dynamic between the two and, at least in the beginning, shows us their shared interest in comedy.

Near the end of the discussion, Allen and Scorsese reflect on the failed (schlemiel) moments in their comedy.  Scorsese notes that The King of Comedy, his big attempt at working through the comic genre, was adored by the critics but, at the same time, it was one of his biggest failures.  Allen, in contrast, notes that he would rather not pay attention to the success or failure of his films.  He notes that he diminishes his sense of failure by way of throwing himself into the film.

The theme and responses to failure in this discussion are interesting because Allen and Scorsese address the core of the schlemiel character and schlemiel comedy by way of their perspectives as filmmakers: failure.

But one of the most interesting moments in the discussion deals with the question of whether or not they like watching their films after they are made.  Scorsese says he cannot see his films ever again after they are made because he will get overly emotional while Allen says he has a hard time seeing his films because he will always think of them as not good enough and in need of improvement.

What I find so interesting about this reflection on past films is the fact that though Scorsese may not look at his films again he obviously thinks about how to improve upon his past film ventures.  On this note, I think his comment on The King of Comedy is telling.   As he notes, the film critics may have liked it (and this pleases him) but it failed at the box office.  This is where The Wolf of Wall Street comes to the fore.  To be sure, this film is the only other major film since The King of Comedy that utilizes the comic element in such a major way.

Now let’s turn to The Wolf of Wall Street and its uses of the schlemiel.

I’d like to start by way of definition.  Hannah Arendt, in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” notes, right off the bat, that “innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel.”  And that it is out of “such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born”(278, The Jewish Writings).    The schlemiel, for Arendt, is an outsider who, in his or her innocence, doesn’t fit into society.  They are simpletons who aren’t cultured, yet these simpletons speak to the people.  Their comedy inheres in the fact that they are blind to certain cultural norms and live in their dreams.

In her line of schlemiels, Arendt includes the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the characters of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Rahel Varnhagen, the awkward host of a German Salon in the 19th century, and Charlie Chaplin (who she calls “the little Yid”).    Some are “living schlemiels” (as Sander Gilman might say) others are fictional.  Regardless, Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse see the schlemiel as posting a challenge to either the “political and philosophical status quo” (Ruth Wisse) or to the “political status quo” (Hannah Arendt).   The schlemiel, as the innocent lord of dreams, is also a guard against the realization that, in this or that dominant society, one (historically, the Jew) is a loser.  As the wisdom goes, it’s better to live in dreams and innocence than in a horrible situation.

What I found so fascinating about Scorsese’s film is that he turns this on its head since the schlemiels in this film – which include Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and Jordon’s group of friends (I didn’t include Jordan Bellfort – played by Leonard DiCaprio – because he goes in and out of being a schlemiel throughout the film). What makes them all schlemiels is not simply the fact that they are innocent dreamers but the fact that they all deal drugs, do drugs, and are outsiders in the 80s and 90s.    They don’t know how to make a normal living and live a normal life. In Hannah Arendt’s sense, they are pariahs.

However, the twist is that even after they make money and become successes, they still remain schlemiels.  This is a twist because, often times, when a schlemiel becomes a success (say, in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, too name only two of many films where Allen employs this formula), they become a “man.”  Indeed, in The Wolf on Wall Street, drugs and endless parties celebrating the accumulation of exorbitant wealth illustrate a new way of viewing the schlemiel – one, to be sure, I (a schlemiel theorist who runs a blog on the schlemiel and publishes on this character) have never seen.

To be sure, Scorsese is using the schlemiel to show how innocence can go wrong when it is combined with drugs and wealth.  Indeed, the first time we see Jonah Hill, who plays the schlemiel in the majority of the films he stars in, he and DiCaprio have a comic-schlemiel-like dialogue which ends behind the restaurant, smoking crack.

Although the combination of drugs and the schlemiel can be seen in many films today – such as Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and Super Bad – these moments are divorced from anything consequential.

The innocent drug use of marijuana by Apatow’s characters is laughable.  But it is not disturbing as it is in Scorsese’s film because, as we all know from recent history, which is alluded to throughout the film, the drug use (of qualudes, crack, and cocaine) of Scorcese’s schlemiels enables them or is based on the exploitation of people and manipulating the market.

Throughout the film, I noticed many people laughing (myself included) yet the laughter was mixed up with moments of disgust.  What I like about Scorsese’s tact, here, is that he draws viewers in; but once they are in, he teaches them a lesson and subjects us to an emotional rollercoaster.

Watching this film, I felt as if he was offering a corrective to all of Apatow’s films – on the one hand – and making a nod to Allen’s recent Blue Jasmine – on the other.   But what Scorsese does here is something Allen didn’t do in Blue Jasmine; namely, use schlemiels to bring us to the same conclusion about our era and its overly corrupt relationship with wealth.

I find it ironic that Scorsese and not Allen did this; after all, Allen has made use of the schlemiel throughout his career.  Nonetheless, what I find in Scorsese is a new way of viewing this character, one which makes it relevant in ways that Judd Apatow or even Woody Allen cannot (or doesn’t want to do; as I argue in two recent book essays about Allen).   In lieu of this, I would say that the name of the film is wholly ironic.  I wouldn’t say he is a “wolf” on Wall Street so much as a schlemiel in wolf’s clothing.  In the end, however, we see the schlemiel turn into a wolf when the drugs and the wealth are taken away.  But, by then, it’s too late.

A Brief Note on Varieties of Schlemiel Experience: Coen Brothers, Gary Shteyngart, and Judd Apatow

images-1

As far as schlemiel theory goes, I’ve been writing on a variety of the schlemiels this week.  The differences between them are suggestive.  But, more importantly, I’m seeing that I identify more with one variety rather than another.  And the reasons I have for this identification speak most to what I find, today, most important about this character.    I hope that my identification resonates with other people since, to my mind, we now have a rare opportunity to understand how important the schlemiel can be – at this historical  moment -for prompting thought about what it means to be an American.  This thought, as I will argue, engages us in existential questions that are of great urgency.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post on a trailer that Random House posted on Gary Shteyngart.  The point of the blog entry was to address a reading of the trailer made by Slate.   The author of the article claimed that the trailer failed miserably in attempting to make a gay joke vis-à-vis Shteyngart’s performance as a gay author with two husbands (played by James Franco and Jonathan Franzen).  I felt the repeated characterization of this trailer as the product of “lazy” thinking was a red herring.  Instead of presenting an argument it presents that author’s preference for gay jokes told about a James Franco who, in his mind, authentically attempted to embody gayness in a recent celebrity roast.   This aside, I felt that the real issue was the characterization of Shteyngart as a schlemiel (a “little failure”) in this trailer for his book by the same name.

To this end, I looked at how the trailer – by way of the schlemiel -offers a critique of success and masculinity.  This is what I call the “meaning of failure.”  However, the truth of the matter is that the critique is mild.    I wouldn’t exactly call it the product of “lazy thinking” so much as a similar concession to a market that filmmakers like Judd Apatow have taken full advantage.

To be sure, Judd Apatow’s schlemiels – in films like Forty Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Super Bad – may be failures but they are all, ultimately, commercial successes.  And, in contrast to the schlemiel we see played by Gary Shteyngart, his schlemiels end up, at the end of the film, winning.  Regardless, both varieties of schlemiels in Shteyngart’s tailer and Apatow’s films are charming.  Their failure doesn’t hit home to hard.  It isn’t what I’d call existential.  And, ultimately, there is little we can gain from it save for a kind of snarky, comic titillation.   This brand of schlemiel comedy can be seen in shows like Big Bang Theory and in nearly every Will Farell film.   There is little that can be said about this save for the fact that it simply maintains a status quo and instead of prompting change it creates a new norm in which schlemiels-are-one-of-us.  They may not be the likes of James Franco or Jonathan Franzen – “real men” who seek out “truth” and live out the “erotic” – but they are, like all of us, a little deluded by their hopes.  Nothing too disturbing is at work, here.  No.  In the end, all of this schlemiel comedy is feel-good-comedy.  Americans can laugh a little at their schlemiel-keit and still feel good about their misperceptions.  We can face the day without any anxiety or sadness.

In contrast to these varieties of schlemiel, I was fortunate to have seen the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis this week.  In this film, we see another variety of schlemiel that, to my mind, deserves more elaboration.   As I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, J. Hoberman decided to read the film – and all other Coen Brother’s films – in terms of the schlemiel.   His reading of the schlemiel sees this character as the subject of his own demise since he is blind to the things he does and brings on his own bad luck.  However, as Hoberman also notes, he is also is the subject of bad luck that is not of his own making.   To be sure, one might think he is a shlimazel (the subject of bad luck) since he is hit with so much bad luck (indeed, one of my friends tweeted me that he thought Hoberman was wrong: Llewyn Davis wasn’t a schlemiel, he was a shlimazel.)

The reason I identify more with the Coen Brothers film is because the schlemiel they show us is not of the feel-good type.  Davis’s misperceptions, false-hopes, and failures are not laughable in the same way they are with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen et al.  Rather, they are painful to watch.  And, as I noted, yesterday, what makes him a schlemiel is not so much his charm or this or that redeeming quality so much as the possibility that, at the end of the film, he may have hope.  But more to the point, he is a schlemiel because he persists – despite the fact that the odds are against him.  But this persistence is permeated with weariness and failure.

The range of identifications we have with Davis is much more complex than any of the feel-good schlemiel films.  To be sure, I left the film thinking about myself: my false hopes, failures, my family, and the America that helped to foster my dreams.  I didn’t leave any Judd Apatow film with these thoughts.  On the contrary, I could go home feeling good about myself.

One of the great insights I left the film with was that we need to look into what is outside Llewyn Davis (outside the schlemiel) so as to understand what is inside him.  The Coen Brothers cast him in relation to failed artists, his decaying family, outsiders, and a long-journey from New York City to Chicago and back again.  His schlemiel character is defined against this outside which exudes hopelessness, hardness, and decay.  His false hopes, in many ways, are a response to this outside.  They protect him from being destroyed by this outside.  However, this protection is thinned out as the film goes on.

The more weary he grows, the more he realizes that the hopes he had set up for himself were out of tune with what was possible.  However, we see that it is not simply his fault.  The fact that he actually does make an album shows us that his hopes were nurtured by an industry.  But, as we see, this industry could care less about him.  And when he arrives in Chicago this hits home.  To be sure, his long journey there reminds me of what happens to the main character of James Joyce’s classic story “Araby”: the time the character has to wait before arriving at his destination wears away at his passion so much so that when he arrives he realizes that he was running on false hope.

To be sure, during the trip to and back from Chicago Llewyn shows us a schlemiel who realizes that he has failed on many levels. But the twist is that, though this is the case, he still goes on hoping and being a schlemiel (albeit with reduced hopes).

J. Hoberman, in his review of the film, thinks that this film has resonance with Bruce Jay Friedman’s novel, Stern.  But, after seeing the film,  I think the better reference is to Bernard Malamud.  Ruth Wisse points out that Malamud’s schlemiel’s also fail but they go through an existential process of coming to terms with these failures.  Yet, like this film, they still remain schlemiels.

Wisse tells us that Malamud’s “interest” in the schlemiel has “not been sociologically determined.   Alone among American writers he has fixed on the Jews as representative man – and on the schlemiel as the representative Jew.  His Jewish Everyman is an isolated, displaced loner, American in Italy, Eastern in the West, German refugee in America, bird among bipeds”(110).  And there is a challenge to the status quo in his work:  “Malamud sees the schlemiel condition as the clearest alternative to the still-dominant religion of success”(111).   But the alternative is based on becoming cognizant of one’s failure and delusions: “The character courageous enough to accept his ignomity without being crushed by it is the true hero of Malamud’s opus, while the man playing the Western hero without admitting to his real identity – Jewish, fearful, suffering, loving, un-heroic – is the absolute loser”(111).

Wisse’s final distinction can be applied to the Coen Brother’s Llewyn Davis.  Everything he touches “turns to shit,” he is a good musician, but he is not the hero of folk music.  By the end of the film he “admits” to this.  And we see this in the scene where, after leaving the venue where Bob Dylan is playing (for the first time), he is beat up by the husband of a woman-musician he lashed out at when he – for a moment – threw all his dreams away.

Sitting on the sidewalk and watching the cab drive away, with Dylan playing in the background, Davis, for the first time in the film, smiles.  And by doing so, he accepts his “real identity” as a ‘fearful and suffering man” who has no right to take away the dreams of others.

I want to add to this by pointing out that this, in contrast to the possibility of becoming successful with Bob Dylan, is what makes him a schlemiel.  He is a schlemiel because he fails, grows bitter, and accepts it.  At this moment, what is outside Llweyn Davis goes inside.   Still, it is up to us to decide whether or not all of his bad luck is redeemed by the possibility of Dylan.

To be sure, this decision is based on our historical situation and the place of hope and cynicism in our society, today.  The brief moment at the end of the film may, for us, be outweighed by the rest of the film and, in that case, Davis may come across as yet another American casualty.   On the other hand, this brief moment may come across as a moment of hope. This all depends on how we see ourselves in history.  Malamud, it seems, finds the power of freedom – the power to accept one’s bad luck – as the definitive moment.   And this, it seems, would be in defiance of history.  On the other hand, what might matter most is how we, and not the characters, in this historical moment, have to say about hope and cynicism.

Regardless of how you look at it, the fact of the matter is that this variety of the schlemiel – as opposed to the other varieties I have mentioned above – prompts these questions.  To be sure, we need more schlemiels of the Coen Brothers and Bernard Malamud type today.  These other schlemiels simply make us feel good about ourselves; in contrast, their schlemiels prompt us to think, become anxious about who we are, and to seriously address the meaning of hope and cynicism in America. The “land of dreams” gives birth to schlemiels, but it also destroys them and enables them to destroy themselves.  It also gives them an opportunity to ask questions about existence that, in other countries, are simply not possible.

Outside Llewyn Davis: The Schlemiel in the Coen Brothers Latest Film

DownloadedFile

After having read J. Hoberman’s film review of Inside Llewyn Davis in Tablet, I was excited to see the latest Coen Brothers film.   What I found most interesting about the review was the fact that Hoberman uses the schlemiel to interpret the Coen Brothers films in general and this film in particular.  But in his reading of the schlemiel in their films, he employs an interesting strategy: he starts by focusing on the Coen Brothers’ desire to “torture” their characters and from there moves to a description of their “victims.”    Before I discuss the film and my response to it, I’d like to address Hoberman’s strategy since it seems to suggest something contrary to what Ruth Wisse, who he cites in his article, suggests about the schlemiel: while he focuses on the comic character’s “existential victimization,” Wisse argues that the point of the schlemiel is not just to disclose “existential victimization” so much as its tension with those little things about humanity that give hope.  The schlemiel narrowly averts total victimization by way of wit, language, or art.  In her own words, the schlemiel may lose in reality but she ultimately wins an “ironic victory” by way of art.  But, as Wisse well knew, this victory is not complete.  It is marked by the tension between hope and skepticism.

While Hoberman is correct in noting that the main character of the Coen Brothers film is plagued by bad luck, his emphasis on the Coen Brother’s desire to “victimize” their characters and his characterization of the schlemiel as an “existential (read absolute) victim” takes away from this tension.   To be sure, if a character is totally hopeless, he or she is not a schlemiel.  No matter how minimal, there must be some redeeming quality (either in the character, the characterization, or the tone of the medium).  To be sure, the Coen Brothers film tests the limits of the schlemiel and prompts us to ask about why they would do this.  What is at stake with this old/new incarnation of the schlemiel?  How does it relate to how “we” view ourselves in these trying times?

Hoberman begins his reading of the schlemiel in the Coen Brothers films with a reading of Larry Gopnik, the “Job-like anti-hero” of A Serious Man.  He calls Gopnik an “existential victim”:

While most Coen characters could be considered garden variety shmeggeges, Larry Gopnik is something more culturally specific: a schlemiel. A shmeggege is merely a nitwit. The luckless and self-deceiving, well-intentioned but ineffectual schlemiel, defined by the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia as one who “handles a situation in the worst possible manner” is an existential victim—or maybe the embodiment of an existential condition.

Paraphrasing Ruth Wisse and her opus on the schlemiel, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, he argues that for writers like Sholem Aleichem the Jewish people are a “schlemiel people.”   But were he to look closer at Wisse’s book, he would find that though they may be a “schlemiel people,” Aleichem, in Wisse’s view, always maintained that while he saw the Jews as the losers of history, he didn’t see them as “existential” (read absolute) victims.  (I want to note, here, that I don’t equate the word “existential” with absolute, but the way Hoberman uses it – vis-à-vis the “existential victim” – one would think that a fatalism is at work.  And this is not what the schlemiel is about.  His crisis-slash-victimization-by-existence (or history, rather) is informed by his existential condition; however, it is narrowly averted.)  In fact, in Aleichem’s novels we find joy juxtaposed with pain.  And this is accomplished through wit and art.  Both Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse have noted this juxtaposition in their critical analysis on Aleichem.

Hoberman goes on to emphasize the schlemiel’s “existential” (victim) quality in A Serious Man by comparing it to the one of the most bleak American schlemiel novels in the 20th century; namely, Stern by Bruce Jay Friedman:

Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher. (A Serious Man, as outraged Village Voice reviewer Ella Taylor wrote in a memorable rant, was “crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster-Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-toothed, know nothing rabbis.” They are, to say the least, uniformly unlovely.)     

This contrast is telling, and I would love to hear more on the meaning of this difference.  However, from here Hoberman turns to Inside Llewyn Davis to note that the main character in this film “inspires a sympathy beyond the constraints of his creators’ rote contempt.”  If this is the case, wouldn’t Llewyn’s schlemiel character have some redeeming qualities that turn us against the world?  While Wisse would see this as a key feature of the schlemiel (in many a Yiddish novel), Hoberman doesn’t – at this point – make too much of the sympathy inspired by this character.

Rather, Hoberman gives much more attention to the character as existential victim:

Every aspect of Llewyn’s life is absurd. He is the universe’s plaything. For much of the movie’s first half, the Coens contrive to have him in futile pursuit of a benefactor’s pet cat while at the same time fending off the escalating fury of a friend and fellow folksinger’s wife (Carey Mulligan) who claims that he’s made her pregnant. Later, Llewyn goes on the road to Chicago with a feline cat and a human one (John Goodman as a hideous jazz junkie hipster), hoping to land a gig at the Gate of Horn or at least get representation from the owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). A stand-in for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, this imposing figure is singularly unimpressed by Llewyn’s heartfelt and not unoriginal rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” crassly remarking only “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

Hope does peep up, however, at the end of the film.  But it is minimal.  And Hoberman rightly points out that, at the very end of the movie, the appearance of Bob Dylan is kept minimal so as to disclose Llewyn as the schlemiel.  Dylan is the “movie’s structuring absence”:

It cannot have been lost on the Coens that it was a Minnesota Jew like themselves who effectively schlemiel-ized an entire movement of earnest idealists. (Who could top the singer’s “Positively 4th Street” kiss-off: I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you.) Nor could the brothers have failed to see the joke. The magnitude of Dylan’s off-screen success magnifies Davis’ humiliation. Dylan is their movie’s structuring absence: That he is a Jew who is not a schlemiel means he can’t be shown at all.

The last words of Hoberman’s review suggest that the Coen Brothers want to victimize Llewyn Davis by leaving the successful Jew out.  We can only read Llewyn Davis’s failure by way of what is “outside” of Llewyn Davis; namely, the “Jew who is not a schlemiel.”  This suggests that while Hoberman begins his review with a reading of the schlemiel and Llewyn as the “existential victim” with little to no hope, he reads the schlemiel in terms of the tension between hope and skepticism.   The only redeeming quality of the schlemiel is really to be found in our historical understanding that for every Llewyn there is a Bob Dylan.

This last insight is of great interest to me because it suggests that the existence of the schlemiel, today, may be premised on how we understand history.  At the end of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse argues that the schlemiel can only exist in a historical time that is an admixture of hope and skepticism.   If we live in a time that is totally skeptical or totally optimistic, the schlemiel, in her view, cannot exist.

This brings us to the question of what is “outside” Llewyn Davis.  Rather than reading this film (and others) in terms of the Coen Brothers “victimizing” the schlemiel we need to ask why this might appear to be the case for Hoberman..or any of us.  To be sure, the Coen Brothers are providing us with a limit case of the schlemiel that is based on how we view ourselves.  Although Bob Dylan does emerge at the very end of the movie and although we know that he will emerge after the failure of folk music, we also know that history is not over and that it is not characterized by pure progress.

At one point, Ruth Wisse thought that the historical founding of Israel spelled the end of the schlemiel.  But now, in her latest book, she still sees its existence as having some historical use.  The Coen Brothers, to my mind, also see history as a part of their film.  The film, though framed in the early 1960s, should give us pause to ask whether the schlemiel – as they understand it – exists today.

As I watched the film, I realized that the schlemiel does exist; regardless of the successes of this or that Jew, the economy is slumping and many, like Davis, feel as if everything they touch “turns to shit.”  The only redeeming quality of Davis is outside him in the sense that the possibility of success exists.  And although Davids is not a Jew, he is an outsider and an “existential victim” by virtue of harsh, American historical reality.

But if we don’t see the historical possibilities around us, then the appearance of Dylan at the end of the film is meaningless.  Hoberman suggests –at the end of his review – that Davis will likely go up with Dylan to a life of success.  But is this true? Can we read this historical moment in such positive terms?  It all depends on how we read what is outside Llewyn Davis.  And this is where the genius of the Coen Brothers consists: they teach us that the thin line between being a schlemiel and an absolute victim of harsh American reality is based on our historical circumstances.  The power of art is limited by history.

The Yiddish writers, who popularized the schlemiel, knew this too.  And they always foregrounded hope against the existential realities of history.    But even during the worst pogroms, they still found hope.  And many of them, including Sholem Aleichem and even Franz Kafka, saw some kind of hope in America, We live after that hope, after the Holocaust, and after 9/11.  Our view of history is obviously different.  But, in the end, the presence of the schlemiel depends on how we view the meaning of success in America.

As long as there is a tension with the promise of success in America, the schlemiel will exist.  The minimal presence of Bob Dylan against the presence of Llweyn Davis reminds us that the margin between success and failure is growing.

When we compare Llewyn Davis to schlemiels played by Seth Rogen or Ben Stiller you can see that while films by Judd Apatow are popular they are based, ultimately, on the belief that there is lots of hope for the schlemiel and that his failure is laughable.  The Coen Brothers, on the other hand, think otherwise.  And this is what makes their film and their schlemiel more appealing to me than Apatow’s (which fails to balance hope and skepticism in a realistic and existential manner).

The Coen Brothers realistically look into what is outside Llewyn Davis to understand what is inside him.  And our historical situation will determine whether he is a schlemiel or an “existential victim.”  In other words: Dylan’s minimal presence at the end may not be enough to make us smile. In that case, our knowledge of what is outside Llewyn Davis may not change a thing.

Let’s hope he’s a schlemiel.  If he’s not, America is in trouble.

Who is Moishe Pipik? (Take 2)

DownloadedFile-3

In yesterday’s blog entry I quoted a part of Philip Roth’s words on Moishe Pipik.  Here is the full quote.  It gives a sense of how the schlemiel returns to Roth’s later work (challenging Sanford Pinsker’s claim that Roth had spent his entire life trying to leave it behind).  To be sure, as I noted in the last blog entry, Moishe Pipik is the name for the “other” Philip Roth:

Moishe Pipik! The derogatory, joking nonsense name that translates literally to Moses Bellybutton and that probably connoted something slightly different to every Jewish family on our block — the little guy who wants to be a big shot, the kid who pisses in his pants, the someone who is a bit ridiculous, a bit funny, a bit childish… that little folkloric fall guy whose surname designated the thing that for most children was neither here nor there… the sole archaeological evidence of the fairy tale of one’s origins, the lasting imprint of the fetus who was somehow oneself without actually being anyone at all, just about the silliest, blankest, stupidest watermark that could have been devised for a species with a brain like ours.

The other Philip Roth poses a counter to the serious author.  He creates mischief and this speaks to Roth’s own project; which, amongst other things, provides a new language for Jewishness which we can only understand if we play Moishe Pipik’s game.  This is what Roth teaches us in a key moment in the novel when he can’t take Pipik’s mischief anymore.

In Operation Shylock, the greatest mischief of all is Moishe Pipik’s psychotic-slash-messianic idea which, in his mind, will solve the new “Jewish problem” caused by the strife between Israelis and Palestianians.  His inspired idea is the “new Diasporist movement” in which all Jews in Israel should return back to Europe. This kind of mischief sounds like the mischief of Helen Thomas.

But he truly believes – or so it seems -that this will be good for the Jews.  The author, Philip Roth, wants nothing to do with Pipick’s madness.  But when Pipik brings him to the edge, as I mentioned above, the author imitates the madness of Pipik and plays it back to him.  The author, Philip Roth, becomes the psychotic-schlemiel-messiah, Moishe Pipik.   The key is to “say everything” (no matter how extreme) and, in the process, do a little stand-up. This leads him to the new Moses and the “father of the new Diasporist Movement,” Irving Berlin:

On I went, usurping the identity of the usurper who had usurped mine, heedless of truth, liberated from all doubt, assured of the indisputable rightness of my cause – seer, savior, very likely the Jews’ Messiah. 

So this is how it’s done, I thought.  This is how they do it.  You just say everything.

No, I didn’t stop for a very long time. On and on and on, obeying an impulse I did nothing to quash, ostentatiously free of uncertainy and without a trace of conscience to rein in my raving…I was talking about Armenians, suddenly, about whom I knew nothing: “Die the Armenians suffer because they were in a Diaspora?  No, because they were at home and the Turks moved in and massacred them there.”  I heard myself next praising the greatest Diasporist of all, the father of the new Diasporist movement, Irving Berlin.  “People ask where I got the idea.  Well, I got it listening to the radio.  The radio was playing “Easter Parade” and I thought, But this is a Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments.  God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas”…And what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do?  He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. (157) 

What makes Berlin “the father of the new Diasporist movement” – who is on par with Moses – is that he empties Christmas of its religious content.  He secularizes them.  And this, says Roth-as-Moishe-Pipik, is the key to his schlemiel-mania.  He realizes the power of comedy to create all kinds of secular mischief.  American culture, produced by Jews like Irving Berlin, is the source of a new Diaspora in which rooted meanings and traditions (such as Christmas) are uprooted and rerouted into different popular meanings.

The key to Philip Roth’s re-invention of the schlemiel is to “never stop talking.”  But, to be sure, it is a re-invention because the schlemiel has always, as Ruth Wisse points out, talked its way out of war and conflict and into the hearts of Americans.   In other words, for Wisse, the schlemiel tradition finds its greatest moments when it addresses the political by way of talking and winning an “ironic victory.”

Philip Roth’s Moishe Pipik is also a  “political schlemiel” of sorts.  But just because the schlemiel is “political” doesn’t mean its political. Rather, the schlemiel plays with politics and the world. He knows, like Roth does when he becomes Moishe Pipik, that, in the end, it’s all just a comic performance whose main purpose is: Diaspora.  He learned this from the new Moses: Irving Berlin.  Although Roth, the author, might cringe at this, he eventually realizes that he cannot distance himself from Moishe Pipik’s mad claims.

Just as Jews throughout history couldn’t separate themselves from the implications of Moses and the Ten Commandments, now, Roth suggests, they can’t escape from the history of the “new Moses” and the “new Diaspora movement.”

But this is the simple meaning of the text. The deeper meaning is that what Roth-the-author-says-while-he-becomes-Moishe Pipik bears a secret: although Irving Berlin was the “father of the new Diaspora movement,” and may be considered the “new Moses” in Moishe Pipik’s manic-schlemiel-mind*, we can only conclude that Moishe Pipik thinks he’s the real Moses (the Messiah).

But – let’s not fool ourselves – we all know he’s a Pip-ik.

What Happens When a Schlemiel Goes to War? On the Comic Battles Between Hanukkah, Christmas, and Thanksgiving

DownloadedFile-4

What happens when a Schlemiel goes to war?  Not much.  To be sure, there is a large tradition within Jewish humor about the schlemiel-going-to-war.  In a blog entitled “Ruth Wisse’s Political Schlemiel,” I cited and explained two such jokes.  Ruth Wisse, in fact, begins her opus, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, with a reflection on the “political schlemiel.”   The reason why she starts with this humor has to do with what she thinks is most important regarding this character; namely, the fact that through these jokes about the schlemiel at war we can see that the schlemiel’s purpose was to “challenge the political and philosophical status quo.”  However, Wisse qualifies this by noting that this challenge is ultimately more cultural than political: by not knowing how to fight or why one should fight, the schlemiel is showing us cultural dissonance.  Wisse’s qualification is telling since it indicates that the nature of this challenge, in her mind, may appear political but is actually the result of a cultural difference between Eastern European Jewish culture and Western culture, which celebrates war and masculinity.   In other words, the schlemiel joke is involved in what seems to be a cultural kind of battle.  The cultural challenge, however, has its benefits: it gives Jews a sense of dignity and helps them to win an “ironic victory.”

This is an interesting claim.  And how we read it makes all the difference.  Lawrence Epstein, for instance, sees – in his book The Haunted Smile – Jewish humor as a way of getting accepted into American culture while, at the same time, giving it a backhand.  This, for him, is a cultural kind of revolution which uses comedy as a weapon.  But, in the end, the success of the battle is measured by the fact that Jewish comedy became a major basis for Jews – in his view – being accepted into Jewish culture.   Building on this, I’d say that such comedy goes from challenging the status quo to becoming the status quo.

That said, the theme of Jews at war or as militant is still – it seems – at variance with the cultural norm in America.  And in films where Jews are in battle, Jews are often portrayed as schlemiels.  Although these characters may appear more masculine, as in Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008), they are still drawn to peace, their mothers, and the effeminate.  They are not warriors in the Roman, Greek, German, or American (etc) sense.

The main character (Zohan) is an uber-masculine-Israeli who ultimately wants to go to NYC to cut hair.  But he is drawn in to the ultimate mission, which is to battle with the ultimate Palestinian terrorist named “Phantom” – played by John Turturro.

The Zohan engages in a few comic-battles with Phantom.  But, ultimately, he leaves it all for something that most men would never do: cutting hair.  And, while in America, he pursues a peaceful path toward reconciliation with the Palestinians (which is encouraged by his Palestinian-American girlfriend).  His masculinity is curbed as he goes along on his journey and so is his militancy which, Sandler suggests, emerges out of being an Israeli.

In The Hebrew Hammer (2003), we also see this masculine-schlemiel.   In this film, the battle between Hanukkah and Christmas is the theme. And the veneer of masculinity is provided by the Blaxploitation genre which Jonathan Kesselman, the writer and director, exploits to the hilt.   But what happens in the process, as with what happens in the Zohan, is that the battle itself is shown to be ridiculous.

We see this on both sides of the divide. Santa is killed by his son, Damian Claus, played by the comedian Andy Dick.  After the murder of Santa Claus, Damian Claus, looks to eliminate his Jewish competition.  Throughout the film, we see that beneath all of their masculine toughness is a man-child, a schlemiel.   We see this especially with the Hebrew Hammer. He loves his mother and is a good Jewish boy who also likes to daydream.  In the end of the battle (and echoing the actual story of Hanukkah), Hanukkah lives on and the Jews survive possible extinction.  But the task of the battle waged in the the Zohan and the Hebrew Hammer is the same: to comically challenge the notion of war itself.

And just yesterday, I noticed a video on Thanksgiving versus Hanukkah.  And this is apropos of the fact that this year Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fell on the same day (which rarely happens).

In addition to using the battle theme, the genre used in this short was “horror.”  The battle between Jews and Americans in this clip brings out both traditions and, ultimately, does no harm. For a brief moment, however, the question is posed as to the meaning of these traditions. But this is harmless.  In the end, the comic battle is the take away and the premise of sharing a house for the eight days of Hanukkah is the Jewish-American experiment.  And guess what: we all win because we can all drive each other crazy.

This is something we see in today’s animation of “Larry David’s Thanksgiving” with his Jewish family in NYC.  In the end, however, the war is a farce.  This lesson, it seems, has roots in the schlemiel comedy I outlined at the outset of the blog.  Perhaps it would be best if we all, like the original schlemiels-at-war, just played at being soldiers rather than being soldiers.   And perhaps that is what many of the above mentioned film-makers are saying. However, there is a difference: when the first schlemiel jokes about war were written they expressed an opinion from the margins of different military cultures; today, these types of jokes seem to have become the norm.

On this note, I’ll end this blog entry with a parody of Star Wars by Mel Brooks called Spaceballs (1987).  It brings this comedy of war to a universal scale and it brings it, of course, to American audiences. But this battle is no longer between Jews-eager-to-be-accepted and skeptical Americans, but…an American (Star-Wars-Like) battle.

 

Regarding My Blog Entry on the Rogen/Franco Parody

DownloadedFile-2

I’m happy to see that yesterday’s blog post on the Rogen/Franco Parody of Kanye West’s “Bound Two” video has prompted some response.   What I’d like to do in this blog entry is address the questions and concerns of some readers regarding the post.

First of all, in my blog entry I acknowledged that this video was a shot-for-shot parody. That’s obvious.  What I wanted to do was to bring in the extra-added element of the fact that Rogen often plays schlemiels (I have written several blogs on this – see here for more); and, given this fact, I wondered how or if this parody could be fit within the context of his other schlemiel-roles.  Is he still playing a schlemiel?  And what kind of schlemiel?

Next, I never said James Franco was not Jewish in my blog entry.   He is.  But I didn’t discuss his Jewishness because I was focusing mainly on Seth Rogen who, as I noted in the blog entry, plays the greater schlemiel.  Indeed, I do see both of them as schlemiels, but Rogen more so than Franco because Rogen embodies passivity (like many a schlemiel).  To be sure, both are a schlemiel-team which is a lot like the husband/wife schlemiel couple that has a precedent in Yiddish Literature.  Indeed, I suggested this parallel in mentioning Mendele Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the IIIrd.    But perhaps I should be more explicit in saying that in that story, as in this video, both characters are schlemiels and both are Jewish (although, in this video, the Jewishness is obviously not central; I’ll return to this below).  Likewise, in Benjamin the IIIrd, one character, named Senderl, is more “feminine” than the other.  To be sure, he is called, in relation to the other schlemiel, Benjamin, a “housewife.”   Senderl is a feminine man-child.  We see this, clearly, at the first part of the Yiddish novel.  Speaking of Senderl, as a replacement for his wife, the narrator notes:

He also had to peel the potatoes and make the noodles, clean and stuff the firsh, carry the firewood to the stove, just like any housewife – and the folks had in fact nicknamed him die Yiddine, “Senderl the Housewife.”  And it was this Senderl the Housewife whom our Benjamin had chosen as confidant.  Why Senderl, of all people, you ask?  Because Benjamin, for some reason or other, had always felt drawn toward him….It’s quite possible, too, that Benjamin took into consideration Senderl’s lack of resistance; Senderl would be bound to agree to his plan and submit to all his wishes. (39)

This passage shows quite clearly that a schlemiel was and can be portrayed as a “woman” of sorts.  It also shows that, in relation to the other schlemiel, the more feminine schlemiel has a “lack of resistance” and is “bound to agree.”  This passivity is played on in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s book.  But, as I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, it doesn’t predominate at the end. The schlemiel is not entirely passive because the schlemiel (here Senderl) or the narrator (on the schlemiel’s behalf) has witty words to save him from total passivity.

Given this situation, I argued that Rogen’s passivity seems to overshadow that of his Yiddish ancestor.  Some people objected to this by saying that this is simply a parody and nothing more.  In addition, they noted that it is not Jewish.

In response, I’d like to point out the following:  1) we are dealing with what Daniel Itzkovitz would call “new schlemiels” and these schlemiels are more or less “empty shells” of the old schlemiel; instead of challenging the “political and philosophical” status quo – which is what the traditional schlemiel, for Wisse and Itzkovitz, did – they are the status quo; 2) how can one exclude the context of Rogen’s entire career (which is entrenched in playing the schlemiel) as if it weren’t relevant (that’s like excluding the context of a writers work when reading one of his works, and that’s inconsistent); and 3) why can’t parody draw on the schlemiel?  In fact don’t we see parodies at work throughout schlemiel fiction, film, and stand-up?  Take Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) for instance.

Now, regarding these points and rhetorical questions, I’d like to suggest that we are dealing with a “new schlemiel” which – whether Rogen intended this or not – differs from the old schlemiel in Benjamin IIIrd (and a whole tradition of effeminate schlemiels that followed).  Although this schlemiel is an “empty shell” of sorts, it does show a shift, at least in this moment, toward nearly total passivity.  On this note, I’d like to make a suggestion: I’ll grant that Rogen is not simply parodying the video, but if we were to take a closer look, we could see that he is giving a critique of sorts of Kardashian’s passivity in the video. Though she winks and gives sexy looks to Kanye, she is ultimately being ridden.  Perhaps viewers will overlook that, but that will be to the chagrin of many feminists who, for decades, have been making the portrayal of women as passive subjects an issue.

If manliness is no longer an issue in our society – and being a man-child or an effeminate male is accepted – then this video is harmless. If it’s not an issue, than Rogen’s presenting a challenge.

From what I have seen and heard, people just want to read this as a parody of a video. And no one has pointed out this possible gender challenge that has some basis in a Yiddish tradition that Rogen and Franco, most likely, have no knowledge of.  That said, I’m simply noting how their approach to comedy has deeper resonances in the Yiddish and Jewish-American tradition of the schlemiel which often trades with the effeminate male whose dreams (and this video is surreal) don’t mix with reality.

We see something similar in these videos: Kim and Kanye, on the one hand, and Franco and Rogen, on the other, are both on a journey through open spaces and their dreams (or rather, fantasies)  don’t fit with reality.  We see both traits, quite clearly, in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third but in a wholly other, Jewish context.  In America, this kind of narrative, or so it seems, has been generalized and can be had by just about anyone.

The question for me, however, is the same with regards to this schlemiel and that question is: when it comes to the schlemiel, when does passivity become total abjection?  When, in other words, does the schlemiel lose its “freedom” and “dignity?”  Does Rogen mock that freedom or is he just doing parody?  Are his sexy looks sufficient to give the character some agency?

Ruth Wisse’s Political Schlemiel

images-2

A few months ago – when Edward Snowden was leaking information and his story was in the headlines nearly every day for a few weeks – someone went through my blog and wrote an article in which Snowden was characterized as a “political schlemiel.”  The article – authored by John Grant – was written for the well-known left-leaning website Counterpunch.  It was entitled “Whistleblowers as Modern Tricksters.”  In the article, John Grant also cites Ruth Wisse and her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero:

According to Ruth R. Wisse in The Schlemiel As Modern Hero, the schlemiel was a quite resilient character who suffered “vicious, unrelenting harassment” but “whose continuing ability to experience frustration without yielding to desperation or defeatism may be reason enough for winning our interest.”

Further drawing on Wisse, Grant cites the distinction between the schlemiel and schlimazl, associates the schlimazl with the New York Times, and the schlemiel with Bradley Manning (and Edward Snowden):

Jewish tradition, according to Wisse, contains an amazing assortment of mythic and literary fools. Two of them are often used in comparison. The schlemiel is distinguished from the schlimazl this way: “the former spills the soup, the latter is the one into whose lap it falls.” Thus, we might see Bradley Manning as the schlemiel and The New York Times as the schlimazl. The schlemiel/trickster is an active force “in confrontation with reality” notorious for the disruption of authority. As such s/he is a cleansing and positive force vis-a-vis abusive and overweening authority.

Although this example of the “political schlemiel” is a possible application, I think it is worth our time to look deeper into the issue by taking a closer look at Ruth Wisse’s reading of the “political schlemiel.”

To be sure, the first section of the first chapter of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero is entitled “The Political Schlemiel.”  Wisse begins this chapter with a joke:

Sometime during World War I, a Jew lost his way along the Austro-Hungarian frontier.  Wandering through the woods late at night, he was suddenly arrested by the challenge of a border guard: “Halt, or I’ll shoot!” The Jew blinked into the beam of the searchlight and said:

“What’s the matter with you? Are you crazy?  Can’t you see that this is a human being?”

Wisse interprets the joke in the following way:

Outrageous and absurd as his innocence may be by the normal guidelines of political reality, the Jew is simply rational within the context of ideal humanism.  He is a fool, seriously – maybe even fatally – out of step with the actual march of events.  Yet the impulse of the joke, and of schlemiel literature in general, is to use the comical stance as a stage from which to challenge the political and philosophical status quo.

In other words, the schlemiel is political simply by virtue of his being a humanist who doesn’t understand the “normal guidelines of political reality.”  He is “out of step with the actual march of events” (that is, history).  This argument sounds much like the argument that Hannah Arendt makes in her essay “The Jew as Pariah” since she would also see all of the schlemiels as historical pariahs who challenge the “political and philosophical status quo.”   And, if one will read Arendt’s essay closely, there is a point when the Jew will no longer be in this historical position – a point at which the schlemiel’s challenge to society will no longer be necessary.

What many people miss – in their readings of Wisse and Arendt (vis-à-vis the political nature of the schlemiel) is the most important question: do schlemiels challenge the “political and philosophical status quo” because they want to or because they are reflecting the historical fact that Jews did not know how to live in a world of politics and history?  Arendt and Wisse, I think, tend to see these challenges as produced by history and an ill-fit between Jews in the world.   After all, the schlemiel emerges for Arendt, Wisse, and Gilman on the cusp of Emancipation and Enlightenment; a period when Jews were, for the first time, even considered as “citizens.”   When this happens, the relationship of the Jew to the “world,” “history,” and “politics” becomes an issue. Before this time, Jews lived in their own autonomous communities and were always considered second class citizens.

After Wisse tells yet another war joke, she points out that the schlemiels in these types of jokes are not “anti-military” types so much as a “non-military” types of schlemiels (4).  To clarify, Wisse writes: “The responses (of the schlemiels in these military jokes) are not in the spirit of conscious rebellion, but the naïve, wholly spontaneous questions of a different culture.”

Wisse points out, as she did in her introduction to the schlemiel, that there were different ways of looking at this “weakness.”  On the one hand, weakness registers as a form of cultural opposition:

The schlemiel is also used as the symbol of an entire people in its encounter with surrounding cultures and its oppositions to their opposition.  (4)

On the other hand (mostly in central Europe and less so in Eastern Europe), this weakness was seen as a thing to be eliminated.  And what better weakness is there to eliminate – for Jews who wanted to fit into military societies like Germany and Austria – than military weakness?

Wisse sides with the former and notes that the schlemiel was a “model of endurance” in which “his innocence was a shield against corruption, his absolute defenselessness the only guaranteed defense against the brutalizing potential of might”(5)

However, as she notes, with Enlightenment there is “God’s view” of the Jew and “Voltaire’s.”  This may lead to a form of “self-hatred” (5) in which Jews hate their Jewishness (which they associate with weakness).  But it doesn’t, says Wisse, because the schlemiel “does not submit to self-hatred, and stands proudly on his record” (that is, his religious history which is based on serving God and being subject to God and not man’s judgment). This, one might say, is the balance.

Wisse calls this the “inevitable dialectic” and the proof of this dialectic’s effectiveness is “survival”(5).  In other words, by not fully surrendering Jewish history to Voltaire, the Jew makes a “political” gesture.    Building on this claim, Wisse says that “the schlemiel is the Jew as he is defined by the anti-Semite, but reinterpreted by God’s appointee”(6).

What I find so interesting about Wisse’s reading is that on the one hand she says that the political gesture of the schlemiel is “non-military” rather than “anti-military.”  That is not so much conscious, yet, over here she seems to be saying that it is.  More is at stake, it seems, for Wisse.  And what is at stake is the preservation of the Jewish people.

This works with Wisse’s shift to politics later in life; since, as she stated in a talk to West Point Jewish students at their graduation, the schlemiel may no longer be necessary when Jews can fight for themselves.  In other words, once Jews are integrated, and are no longer “weak,” the schlemiel will no longer be necessary.

But is this really the case?  After all, the schlemiel does live on. And is it, from time to time political, as Gordon seems to be arguing?  If it can’t be anti-military and it can only be non-military, how does that work out?  Isn’t Snowden an “anti-military” type?  How could he be a schlemiel?