The Sad Fate of a Hasidic Schlemiel: On “Menashe” (2017)

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Most films I have seen on Hasidim – save for the film Ushpizin (2004) – are utterly serious and often tragic.  Think, for instance, of The Jazz Singer (1927, 1980), The Chosen (1981) or Amos Gitai’s Kadosh (1999).

We rarely see comic films on or about Hasidim.  (Woody Allen’s little quips in Bananas (1971) or Annie Hall (1977) are mere asides; while his film Fading Gigolo (2013) does address Hasidim, it does so only tangentially.)  Menashe (2017) is different.  It is a tragic-comic film (spoken all in Yiddish, with English subtitles) that takes a Hasid named Menashe and his relationship with his son, his community, and his job as its subject.  Menasche is cast as a schlemiel (comic) and a schlimazel (tragic) character.     What interests me most about this schlemiel character is how it casts a new light on the fate of a contemporary schlemiel in the American Hasidic  (real and fictional) community.

There are two main ways of approaching the schlemiel in American cinema and literature which both fit on the same spectrum.  On the one hand, the schlemiel can be cast as a charming (although, for Jewish American writers, ragged and troubled) character – which is something we see stretching from the Yiddish fiction of Sholem Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim to the Jewish American fiction of I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, and Jonathan Safran Foer.    We see this as well in cinema and in television (from Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis to Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen).    But in the fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman and Philp Roth or in the cinema of Noah Baumbach and the Coen Brothers we see a schlemiel that is more tragic and pathetic than charming.     The Menasche character exists between these extremes.  And the critique he levels is similar to that of Gimpel in I.B. Singer’s celebrated short story, “Gimpel the Fool.”

Menashe is close to the American everyman.

He has a simple job (he works in a grocery store); and unlike his Hasidic companions, he has a simple understanding of Judaism.  Menashe is more a man of the heart than of the head.    (This film depicts the responses of other characters – save his son and, for a slight moment, the Rabbi – to Menashe and the schlemiel character in a negative light.  This is ironic because Hasidim are often more oriented toward the schlemiel character which his simple understanding of God and the world.)

The plot is heartbreaking.

We meet Menasche in the wake of his wife’s untimely death.  He is left with a child who he loves but, because he can’t – in the community’s eyes – make a good living and because he doesn’t have a wife, he is told – by his Rabbi and his wife’s brother – to give the child over to his brother-in-law to raise.  This breaks his heart.  And it breaks the viewers heart as well.

Menashe has our empathy.

Menashe is a charming character.  His childlike (schlemiel-ish) approach to life, his job, and his son are heart-warming.  Menashe is able to relate to his child in ways that neither his Rabbi nor his brother-in-law or sister-in-law can.

The symbol of the innocence that they share – something an adult schlemiel (father) can share with his child – is a baby chicken.  He buys it for his son when he is given a chance to take care of him (after profuse begging before the Rabbi and to the chagrin of the brother-in-law, who is a successful realtor in Brooklyn as opposed to Menashe, who can barely keep his job in the grocery).   This discloses the comic, endearing aspect of the schlemiel.

When Menashe insists on making a special meal in his place – to mark the one year anniversary of his wife’s death (her Yahrzeit) – everything starts to go wrong.   He starts, so to speak, spilling soup everywhere.

When delivering fish, Menasche accidentally forgets to close the door and spills hundreds of dollars-worth of Gefilte Fish across the streets of Brooklyn.  He is chastised by his boss.  In the wake of this mess, Menashe begs his boss for a little money (a loan) for the Yahrzeit.  He gives him a loan, but he can’t take care of his son if he takes it (he will be working overtime, after-hours, moping floors.)

When, on the day of the Yahrzeit (when he visits his wife’s grave with the Rabbi, his brother-in-law, son, and family) Menasha tries to bake a noodle kugel (noodle dish), he forgets that he left it baking in the oven.  The moment of his discovery of the burning kugel marks the time when things start becoming more…tragic.

When he comes home with the Rabbi and the entourage, his apartment and the apartment house are filled with smoke.  The bird is dead.  Even so, he makes the best out of it.   When everyone complains of frozen taste of the kugel, the Rabbi sheds some light by noting that it tastes ok.

But that doesn’t change a thing.

Menashe loses his child; he cannot have him back until he can find a new wife.  However, since this happens at the end of the film, the viewer has no idea as to what will happen next.  Can the schlemiel find a new wife?  Does the schlemiel want to?

The last scenes of the movie are of Menashe dunking in a ritual bath, a Mikveh, juxtaposed to him working in the grocery.   This symbolizes a new beginning of sorts.  But what is that new beginning?

Is he – and are we – realizing the cruelty of the society around him? Do we empathize – as we do with I.B. Singer’s Gimpel – with the schlemiel and his predicament?

At a few points in the film, we are given hints of Menashe’s falling away from the community.  One day, he sleeps too late.  He forgets to wash his hands in the morning.  He also asks about – at one point – why a person without a family is considered a heretic by his community.  Even so, Menashe doesn’t change the way he dresses and he still prays.

When Menashe studies Torah (the Bible and oral tradition with his son) he makes noises that echo a verse from the Psalms.  He is – like Sholem Aleichem’s Motl – closer to animals than to his community.

Put theoretically, Menashe is a child-like schlemiel who is closer to nature than to culture.  As Hannah Arendt said of the schlemiel (vis-à-vis Heinrich Heine), his freedom comes from critiquing the status-quo and his closeness to nature and innocence.  Menashe, in his humanity, by his very nature and his predicament as child-like defies norms; but he is alone.

While this is all fine and good and while we find his innocence charming, Menashe doesn’t seem to have a place with his community and we are unsure whether he wants one. The only thing that seems to keep him in there is his child.    We want to see them together.  But what makes this so fascinating is that the family (and not monotheism) – as the scholar Michael Wyschogrod in this book, The Body of Faith notes – is truly the basis of Judaism.

The schlemiel, it seems, is pit up against this fundamental structure of Judaism.  While he has already raised a child, if Menashe doesn’t immediately get remarried, his child may not have the nurturing that only a Jewish mother (according to the tradition and the Bible itself) can provide. The child will become – like Sholem Aleichem’s Motl – an orphan of sorts.

But in that novel, Motl the Cantor’s Son, Motl loses his father, not his mother.  Perhaps this is the tragic note.  Without a father but with a mother, the schlemiel’s life is nurtured. Without a mother, however, it is more tragic.  Judaism – without mothers  – cannot survive.

For this reason, Menashe is a tragic-comic character.   Gimpel levels a critique against the community (for the reader) because while he trusts them and believes in their goodness, they lie to him.  Here Menashe is punished by a community because he cannot raise his son in the traditional manner.

The schlemiel prompts the question: will the community change?  Will it accept the innocent character who falls on the margins?  Or does it leave no room for the schlemiel?  The irony is that the first sighting of the schlemiel character – as a literary kind of character – was in the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.  The schlemiel is a figure of simplicity and of hope.  When the community squashes that – even if it is in the name of family – what does that imply?

These are the questions I had and still have after seeing Menashe – a film that spans the schlemiel spectrum and prompts its viewers to consider the sad fate of a Hasidic schlemiel.

Between the Emojis: Nicki Minaj’s Response to Seth Rogen

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Within minutes of me  posting Seth Rogen’s response to discovering that he was in a Nicki Minaj song, she tweeted him back, “Seth You’re My Hero!!!”

The emojis around Minaj’s calling Rogen her hero tell an interesting story about her regard for Rogen.  They can – because he likes to efface the line between his life and his comic characters – be read in terms of an ambiguous relationship between the schlemiel and the beloved that we see (time and time again) in many a schlemiel routine.  The schlemiel – as many American versions of the character tell us – is either a cuckhold or a nice guy (but not a lover).  See, for instance, this video by Lil Dicky (someone who works in the same circles of Minaj), which shows this idea is alive in 2017.

Nicki’s tweet begins with an emoji that suggests that she is laughing so hard that she is crying.  And after she says “Seth, you’re my hero!!!” she punctures with one emoji that expresses utter sadness (that this is true) and an emoji with a wink.

In other words the message to Rogen’s “losing it” (as one zine says it) is mixed.  (His tweet – as a side note – had 200,000 more likes than Minaj’s.)

The mixed message is for the schlemiel the two expressions basically say,  “Your not my real Hero” but we are friends.  I’m not really dissing you but I am.  Its the charm of the schlemiel that makes him a friend…not a lover and not a hero.  His heroism is – as Ruth Wisse says at the outset of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero – ironic.     The irony is that he’s not a real man.  Not one that Minaj would call a hero.  But he’s a nice man, a funny guy, she can share a laugh with and have some fun.

Playing on the spoof interview show by Zack Galifiianakis, “Between the Ferns,” I’d say that the message to the schlemiel, from one of the most desired women in the world today, is between the emojis.

 

A Lost Tribe: On “Homoschlepien” Schlemiels and a Nutty Professor in Mayim Bialik’s SodaStream Spot

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Occasionally, I stumble across a performance of the schlemiel that makes me realize that the schlemiel has a great future.   Mayim Bialik – the star of Big Bang Theory and a darling of millennial culture –  has taken a swing at the schlemiel in a recent mini-film-ad for Soda Stream.  The series is delightful and it shows the deep relevance of the schlemiel today.  It pits the anthropologist – and trusted intellectual teacher of millennials, played by Mayim – against the charm of the schlemiel (played by a very big “Homoschlepien” – namely, Kristian Nairn of Game of Thrones).

In this little clip, the schlemiel – in particular and in general – doesn’t understand why plastic bottles (which are everything in their world) are enslaving him (and her, all homoschlepeins) and why they are unnecessary.    He lacks reason.  She doesn’t.   Is he to be despised by the science teacher-slash-anthropologists?  The kids?  The answer to these questions brings the tension between the rational skeptic and naive schlemiel into focus.   One learns from the other and the lesson, Mayim shows us, is for the millennial children in pink shirts (who are straight up rationalists, not a “lost tribe”).  Will they take her love for a “lost tribe” to heart?

Here is the conceit.  While the anthropologist scientist is supposed to be critical of stupid Neanderthal-ish Homoschlepien, she is really charmed by him….and by them.  To be sure, the schlemiel culture is shown to be a lot like ours.  The young and old play games flipping a filled bottle of water.  Perhaps we are all like Seth Rogen’s favorite schlemiel character: the stoner schlemiel.   Like Mayim, we love the dadbod.  And, just like Mayim, we fall in love the subject of Mayim’s “scientific study.”   She is “studying him,” and we see what she is really doing: she is drawing pictures of him.

She is charmed by this cute big man.

To some it up, her demeanor is shared by millions of Americans.  She is in love with the charming schlemiel.  He’s a big lug who doesn’t know any better.  After all he’s schlepping bottles around all day.  He may be an “alpha male,” but he is really a softy.

Is he a part of a “lost tribe” – as the title of the piece suggests?  Many Americans today see themselves as a “lost tribe.”   To be sure, there is a Jewishness to this piece and an American-ness.  Like many a great Jewish American artist, Bialik claims both.

I see two comical narratives that are brought together in Bialik’s gesture.  One is Jewish and the other is not.  Like Cervates’ Sancho Panza, she follows her Don Quixote.  But this has many layers.  The people (or rather, the person) she is studying has a Jewish (scientific) name but posses a non-Jewish body.  The academic result of Bialik’s study of the schlemiel is clear to me: she sees the schlemiel as Jewish and not Jewish.   And she is right. It’s both.  And we don’t just study them, Bialik’s piece suggests that we – like her – embrace them.  These is something unique – and even redemptive – in this gesture.

Did you hug a big-schlemiel today?  Where’s “the fat jew“?

But the episode suggests – scientifically, of course – that death is looming.  After all Mayim’s studies what was, not what is.  She’s tracing the origin of this character.   There may be a death sentence looming in the framing of the this episode.  Artifacts of the past.

Will the schlemiel, as her kids suggest in her clip, continue to exist?  Will we, schlemiels, “Homoschlepiens” – who like to litter and live like large Americans – stop wasting bottles?  Isn’t this a ridiculous question?

Isn’t the real question whether in a very rational, hyper-scientific era, a world of schlemiels (of homoschlepiens) will remain?

Are we (schlemiels) going to be fixtures in the museum?  Objects of study?

These are all good questions.

But the greatest twist of all is that the scientist is really a schlemiel.  She loves the schlemiel’s charm.  Like Sancho Panza, Mayim the anthropologist also becomes a kind of Don Quixote (albeit one that is rational, but also human).   And in effect, this identification makes her one of the “lost tribe,” in makes her one of us: schlemiels.

It’s a lovely message and a hopeful one, especially for me.  I love the struggle she gages between the scientific skeptic and the schlemiel: Rabbi Nachman’s “Simpleton and the Schlemiel” makes this the crux of his tale which, as Ruth Wisse and David Roskies have noted, gives birth to much of Yiddish Literature and is really the first pieces of modern Yiddish literature (since Nachman was so hyper-self-aware and struggling with himself).

In his tale, the schlemiel has the last word.  But one wonders, seeing this, will the schlemiel also be in the museum or will he, always, sneak in (like the wandering eye of the “Neoschleppian” in the museum).  Perhaps the schlemiel will always get the last wink of the eye (winking – that is – at the scientist)?  Let’s hope.

Thank you Mayim for being the nutty professor!  Comedy reminds us that we are human and that the “lost tribe” is – despite millennial dread – a part of “our tribe.”    We, humans. The schlemiel reminds us.

 

 

 

 

 

On Kevin Hart’s Schlemiel Tale: The “Jay-Z Pineapple Juice Story”

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Kevin Hart is well known for his self-depreciating kind of embodied comedy.   His intense facial gestures which come one after another in rapid fire show a person who is struggling not just to articulate himself but to be accepted.  He never misses an opportunity to show that although he is the smallest guy in the group, he can be tough.  He can be not just a “man” but “the man.”  Hart’s comic conceit is that in each of his efforts to be the man he always, at some point, gives up only to start again.  His default position is that of a small man, of the man-child.

Take a look at this clip with Jimmy Fallon where he agrees to Falon’s challenge to go on a rollercoaster.  He is, like a child, terrified of the ride.  He doesn’t want to go and when he goes he – in comparison to Fallon – loses it.    Although he takes on the challenge, he wants to turn back. And when he takes it, he falls back into his default position.  Watching him, I can see that he is playing on the schlemiel character.  However, unlike Woody Allen, in a film like Annie Hall (1976), he takes to his peer’s challenge.  He desperately doesn’t want to be the odd one out whereas Allen doesn’t mind being so.  The default position is an uncomfortable one for Hart.

The thought that Hart is a schlemiel of sorts prompted me to look through some of his videos.  I came across a viral video (over 68 million views) of an appearance he did on Jimmy Fallon in 2014.  The whole piece is an example of what I call, elsewhere, “the comedy of scale.”  In the beginning of the segment, Fallon encourages Hart to talk about how successful he is thereby inflating himself into a great, unparalleled American comedian and filmstar.  Hart makes himself out to be so successful that he got to meet President Barack Obama.  He tells Fallon that no one impresses him more than the President.  He is nonplused by famous people, but with the President he becomes childlike.  This is a moment of slight-deprecation.  But when the President calls him “Kev,” Hart re-inflates himself by saying that he and the President are tight.

Two minutes and forty seconds into it, Fallon asks Hart to tell his “Jay-Z Pineapple Juice Story.”    Hart tells of how close he is with Jay Z and Beyonce.  He sees them in a bar and Jay Z insists that they have drinks.  But the story turns into schlemiel tale.  Instead of spilling the soup on Jay Z’s lap – in the classic schlemiel tale soup is spilled – he spills Pineapple Juice.   Beyonce also gets juice on her.  When Hart apologizes to them, he becomes an accidental nudnick.  He thinks that slipping Jay Z a twenty dollar bill will make it all better.  The punch line is that it only makes things worse.  Hart is a schlemiel who accidentally spills the juice and who mistakenly thinks a twenty will change it all.

Hart moves from accident to accident and, in the end, slips away, like a Charlie Chaplin character.   But his comedy is mostly local to African Americans.   We see this best in his stories and routines where, in terms of masculinity and maturity, he is the odd one out.   His body is much different from the bodies of contemporary schlemiels ranging from the thin body of Woody Allen to the “dadbod” of Seth Rogen.  He is built.  But he is small.  In a way, he is similar to Adam Sandler’s “Zohan” character (who is a schlemiel by virtue of his soft spot for cutting hair and his love for America).

Hart shows how, in America, the schlemiel can be both big and small, masculine and feminine.  The default position of the schlemiel – across American culture – is smallness. But there is a dynamic that moves – as this clip shows – between being big (famous) and being small (embarrassed, clutzy).   It is this dynamic that has become a staple of not only Kevin Hart but also people like Larry David.  One could say that, for both of these contemporary American versions of the schlemiel, one’s enthusiasm is always curbed.  And that’s what makes them so funny for American audiences who love the dynamic that moves between smallness and bigness.  At some point, someone spills the pineapple juice on Jay-Z.

 

 

The Comical Scientist: On Michele Besso, Albert Einstein, and the Schlemiel

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As a term, the word “schlemiel” (“der schlemihl”) had both negative and positive valances in the 19th, and 20th centuries depending on whether  one was in Central or in Eastern Europe and on the intent of the author.   While  many Zionists and Jewish Enlighteners (Maskilim) in Germany and other German speaking countries often used the term in a negative sense,  they sometimes used it in a positive sense.  For instance, while Hannah Arendt notes that Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833) has a negative sense of the term, she argues, with respect to Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) – who occasioned Varnhagen’s Salon in Berlin – that the schlemiel had a positive meaning – since he read it as a figure of the modern poet and the pariah.    In Eastern Europe, the use of the term by storied Yiddish writers like I.L. Peretz and Shalom Aleichem were also divergent.  While it was often used in a biting satirical sense, the term – as used by Aleichem, Heine, and many folklorists – was also used in an endearing sense.    This can also be seen in its everyday usage.  One fascinating and telling instances of this usage, which I have come across, can be found in Albert Einstein’s description of one of his closest friends and colleagues, Michele Besso.

Einstein met Besso when he studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich from 1896-1900.  There they became very good friends and confidants. They frequently corresponded with each other from 1903 to 1955.   In his exceptional biography on Einstein (Einstein: His Life and Universe), Walter Isaacson notes that Einstein was having a hard time finding work after leaving Zurich.  In a letter to his friend (who he later married in 1903 and divorced in 1919) Mileva Maric, Einstein claimed that the reason he couldn’t find a job in German speaking countries was because of anti-Semitism.   This led him, according to Isaacson, to find work in Italy and enlist the help of Besso, a Sephardic Jew.  Their closeness is illustrated in a letter that Einstein wrote to Besso in which he insists that “nobody else is so close to me, nobody knows me so well, nobody is so kindly disposed to me as you are.”

Isaacson notes that while “Besso had a delightful intellect,” he “lacked focus, drive, and diligence.”   Like Einstein, he also had problems in high school.  And, to be sure, Einstein saw him as a kind of twin or double.  He described Besso as an “awful weakling…who cannot rouse himself to any action or scientific creation, but who has an extraordinarily fine mind whose working, though disorderly, I watch with great delight.”   To illustrate this comical kind of disorder, Isaacson retells a schlemiel tale of how, before Einstein caught up with him, Besso had “been asked by his boss to inspect a power station, and he decided to leave the night before to make sure that he arrived on time. But he missed the train, then failed to get there the next day, and finally arrived on the third day.”  Einstein recalls how “to his horror (he) realizes that he has forgotten what he’s supposed to do.”  So what did he do?  “He sent a postcard back to the office asking them to resent his instructions.  It was the boss’s assessment that Besso was ‘completely useless and almost unbalanced.”

Echoing these reflections, Einstein, in a letter to Maric, called Besso an “awful schlemiel.”  But one should not be distracted by the term “awful,” since Einstein means it in the most endearing sense.  He doesn’t correct or chastise his friend for being a schlemiel, as some Jewish German Enlighteners might.  Rather, he loves him and his company.  He enjoys the time he spent speaking and listening to him.   Einstein’s conversations with his dear friend often dipped into science.  Isaacson goes so far as to suggest a link between the discovery of the Theory of Telativity and a conversation that they had.  He points out how, four years before the discovery, the two had spent “almost four hours talking about science, including the properties of the mysterious ether and the ‘definition of absolute rest.’”   To Maric, Einstein noted that Besso is “interested in our research.”  Although he “often misses the big picture by worrying about petty considerations” he had connections that are useful.

Einstein’s long standing relationship with Besso and his characterization of him as a schlemiel demonstrate not only a more endearing usage of the term by a German Jew, but also an important idea.  Even though a schlemiel may be seen as useless to some (as we see in the story above about Besso missing his train, etc), he may actually be much more useful than any of us could ever imagine.  In fact, Besso – a comic scientist of sorts – may even have taken part in the birth of one of the most important ideas of the 20th century.    Einstein, in his brilliance, knew this and threw his lot in with the schlemiel.  In many ways, Einstein’s close relationship with Besso shows us that he was in many ways a schlemiel himself.   His delight in Besso is not contempt; in fact, it shows some kind of affinity.  (To be sure, it would be wrong to think of a schlemiel as lacking in intelligence.  On that note, take a look at Saul Bellow’s Herzog character.)  Perhaps this is one of Einstein’s best kept secrets.  Perhaps it was an open secret.   After all, Einstein, saw himself as a dreamer and had a penchant for the comical.  It all depends on how you read the schlemiel.

 

 

Two Bodies of Comedy: On Friedrich Nietzsche & Robert Walser’s Bodies of Comedy

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Nietzsche was obsessed with the relationship of the body to thought.   And whenever he articulated his reading of the body, he always made sure to put it forth in what Peter Sloterdijk (winking at Diogenes) called a “cheeky” manner.  He looked to offend and this gesture, for Nietzsche, was healthy.    In the beginning of his book, Ecce Homo, he assesses his health in a cheeky manner. He looks to what he has taken, physiologically, from his mother and father* and what this means to his personal (“unique”) fate:

The good fortune of my existence, its uniqueness perhaps, lies in its fatality: I am, to express it in the form of a riddle, already dead as my father, while as my mother I am still living and becoming old.  The dual descent, as it were, both from the highest and the lowest rung of the ladder of life, at the same time, decadent and a beginning….I have a subtler sense of smell for the signs of ascent and decline than any other human being before me; I am the teacher par excellence for this –  I know both, I am both.  (222, Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo).

These claims to being the “teacher par excellence for this” are outrageous.  They are meant to be.  He wants to be challenged.  And he doesn’t stop on the first page to demonstrate how much he knows about the relationship of the body to thinking. Throughout Ecce Homo, Nietzsche discusses the body and its relation to thought and power (or decadence). He takes any tendency to “dialectic” as a “symptom of decadence” and cites Socrates as a sick thinker.   But he is only one enemy, the other is the moral enemy who asks us to pity or feel for the other:

The overcoming of pity I count among the noble virtues: as “Zarathustra’s temptation.” I invented a situation in which a great cry of distress reaches him, as pity tries to attack him like a final sin that would entice him away from himself.  (228)

The “proof” of his strength is to be found in a rejection not just of pity but a kind of humor that goes along with it.  This kind of humor is the anti-thesis of the humor he employs in his endless satire and cheekiness.  He sees this cheekiness as poetic.  His model for this is not just the cynic Diogenes (Nietzsche calls himself the “medical cynic”); it is also Heinrich Heine:

The highest concept of the lyrical poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine…He possessed the divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection: I estimate the value of men, of races, according to the necessity by which they cannot conceive of god apart from the satyr. (247)

Nietzsche saw the health of Heine’s poetry to be associated with his sarcasm. Heine’s strength could be “measured” by the strength of the opponents he chose to target in his satire: “The strength of those who attack can be measured in a way by the opposition they require: every growth is indicated by the search for a mighty opponent”(232).

The irony of Nietzsche’s interest in Heine is brought out in the fact that Heine was, according to Hannah Arendt, not just interested in satire.  He was also interested in the schlemiel, a comic character that Nietzsche would find to be unhealthy and weak since, through its charm, it called on the reader to laugh in a way that was not satirical.

Hannah Arendt saw Charlie Chaplin as the last in a long line of schlemiels that were first introduced into the German bloodstream by Heine.  His vulnerable and clumsy comic subjects of schlemieldom were poor and simple, not clever and cheeky in the Nietzschean sense.

Robert Walser, who had a major influence on Kafka’s fiction, was fascinated with comic characters who many would find pitiable but charming.   They present another body of comedy which, to be sure, differs significantly from Nietzsche’s body of comedy.   In his short story, “Helbling’s  Story,” Walser has the narrator, Helbling, give his view on himself and work world he has decided to enter.  He is the everyman (who Nietzsche despised) and yet he is different in a way that sets him not a height so much as on a comical plane of existence:  “The striking thing about me is that I am a very ordinary person, almost exaggeratedly so. I am one of the multitude, and that is what I find so strange”(Selected Stories, 31).    He finds it strange because he realizes that, unlike them, he is, like Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), unable to work or be like them.

 

He tells us that he is not cut out for work.  He’s too fragile and slow.  Like many a schlemiel, he is belated:

I constantly feel that there is about me something delectable, sensitive, fragile, which must be spared, and I consider the others as being not nearly so delectable and refined.  How can that be so?  It is just as if one were not coarse enough for this life.  It is in any case an obstacle which hinders me from distinguishing myself, for when I have a task to perform, let’s say, I always take thought for half an hour, sometimes for a whole one. (32)

His body, when he works, is comical.   Like Chaplin’s body, it can’t keep up and ends up gesticulating in all different directions:

A task always frightens me, causes me to brush my desk lid over with the flat of my hand, until I noticed that I am being scornfully observed, or I twiddle my cheeks, finger my throat, pass a hand over my eyes, rub my nose, and push the hair back from my forehead, as if my task lay in that, and not in the sheet of paper which lies before me, outspread, on the desk. 

He can’t seem to stay on task.  He seems to be constantly distracted.  And when he is called a “dreamer and a lazybones,” he refuses to accept these descriptions: 

Perhaps I have the wrong profession, and yet I confidently believe that in any profession I would be the same, do the same, and fail in the same way…People call me a dreamer and a lazybones.  What a talent people have for giving me the wrong labels.  (32)

But when he reflects, he realizes that he is a simpleton:

I do not know if I have an intellect, and I can hardly claim to believe that I have, for I have been convinced that I behave stupidly whenever I am given a task which requires understanding and acumen….I have a quantity of clever, beautiful, subtle thoughts; but as soon as I apply them, they fail and desert me, and I am left standing there like an ignorant apprentice. (33)

Unlike Nietzsche’s body of comedy, he doesn’t aim to always win and overpower.  He is, a Michel Serres would say, “inventing weakness” and is calling on us to pity him.  But when he messes up he does so with such charm that we, like millions who were adored by Charlie Chaplin, forgive him.   But Nietzsche would not.

While the body of comedy that Nietzsche favors is tough, invulnerable, rude, and on the offensive, the body of Walser’s comedy is vulnerable, weak, flexible, and self-deprecating.  It fumbles and stumbles when it has to do a task and, for that reason, is more human.  Nietzsche’s body of comedy is that of the overman who looks down at the world it came from and laughs a laugh of health and defiance.  It laughs, as Zarathustra did, from the mountaintops; not from the valley.


 

*Compare Nietzsche’s reading of the relationship of his father and mother legacy to his fate, to that of Gene Wilder (which, to be sure, is completely different because Wilder frames his birth in terms of the schlemiel not the healthy overman.)

 

 

Oh, Have I Got a Deal For You! On Woody Allen’s Comedic Myth-Busting

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In comedy there are no sacred cows. And when it comes to mythology, comedy doesn’t hesitate to smash this or that myth.   Jewish comedy is well known for its iconoclasm. And perhaps this has a root in Judaism’s resistance to mythology and idolatry as well as its prohibition of images. It may also have to do with Judaism’s interest in textual interpretation which shows that this or that story poses questions or is linked to another narrative (something we often see in Midrash).   Both Franz Kafka and Woody Allen are, without a doubt, Jewish iconoclasts.  They parody myth by way of their own revisions, but they differ in terms of the insights that they offer to the reader.   While Kafka gives the reader deeper insights into faith, self-doubt, existence, and consciousness with his parodic revisions of myth, Allen gives his readers or viewers a sense of how a New Yorker has better things to do than get caught up in this or that ridiculous myth.   In these comedic revisions, Woody Allen is out to sell a way of life not prompt deep reflection.

In a piece entitled, “Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts,” Allen takes aim at several different kinds of mythological creatures, fantastic places, and myth itself. Like any joke, he starts with a serious reflection, but ends with an ironic punch line:

A wise man in India bet a magician that he could not fool him, whereupon the magician tapped the wise man on the head and changed him into a dove. The dove flew out the window to Madagascar and had his luggage forwarded.

…The magician said that in order to learn the trick one must journey to the four corners of the earth, but that one should go in the off-season, as three corners are usually booked. (178, The Insanity Defense)

In another mythological rewrite, Allen takes aim at an imaginary place called “Quelm,” (which sounds like, Chelm, a place populated by schlemiels).   It is “so distant from Earth that a man traveling the speed of light would take a million years to get there, although they are planning a new express route that will cut two hours off the trip”(178).

In each punch line, Allen looks to ground the listener in the here and now of the New York Jewish attitude toward the hardships of life and getting by:

In addition to these obstacles on Quelm, there is no oxygen to support life as we know it, and what creatures do exist find it hard to ear a living without holding down two jobs. (179)

While Allen’s iconoclasm is funny and grounds us in the here and now, it can be construed in a negative manner since it doesn’t take myth as a basis of reflection. It rejects it wholeheartedly. The problem with iconoclasm is that when it is not done with a proper sense of humility, it could possibly come across (to some) as self-serving or even dishonest. Citing Aristotle, Leo Strauss argues that “irony is a kind of dissimulation, or untruthfulness.  Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice”(51).

But, as I note elsewhere, Strauss doesn’t think that Aristotle is right:

Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth.  If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice.  Properly used, it is not a vice at all.  (51)

Strauss’s qualification of Aristotle is telling.  It suggests that irony is a neutral term and that it has a “proper” use.   Citing Aristotle against Aristotle, Strauss argues that “irony is…the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority”(51).  In other words, humility and irony do not contradict each other; in fact, they aid each other.

Reflecting on this, one can argue that even though Woody Allen isn’t using irony like Kafka (in order to tap into this or that depth while effacing a myth), he is also making a “proper” use of irony since the punch line dissimulates the superiority of myth.   His punch lines convey the humility of the New York everyman who is just trying to survive. The “speaker” in these pieces is the “ironic man” and his “noble dissimulation” conveys his only virtue which is to be a New Yorker.   But let’s not fool ourselves: each punch line is a sales pitch for a way of life which lives in the wake of myth and perhaps even philosophy. After all, both are interested in origins. (As Aristotle also notes in “The Metaphysics,” philosophy and myth start with wonder.)

I’ll leave the reader with a Woody Allen joke that takes both myth and philosophy as its target. Allen’s joke suggests that, in the world of the New Yorker, the philosopher (as much as the myth-lover) doesn’t exist:

Legend has it…that many billions of years ago the environment was not quite so horrible – or ate least no worse than Pittsburgh – and that human life existed.   These humans – resembling men in every way except for a large head of lettuce where the nose normally is – were to a man philosophers.   As philosophers they relied heavily on logic and felt that if life existed, somebody must have caused it, and they went looking for a dark-haired man with a tattoo who was wearing a Navy pea jacket.

When nothing materialized, they abandoned philosophy and went into the mail-order business, but post rates went up and they perished. (179)