A Priest and a Schlemiel Get on the Slowpoke Express: On Sholem Aleichem’s “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah”

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In the United States and Europe, the advent of the train and long distance travel prompted many artists, storytellers, and thinkers to turn the train into a metaphor.   Sometimes the images are exciting and feed utopian visions and cause happiness, other times they feed sadness at the loss of what was and cynicism. Think for instance of Freud who, in Civilization and its Discontents, writes the following:

If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing the mortality of children, when it is precisely this reduction which imposes the greatest moderation on us in begetting them, so that taken all round we do not rear more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for sexual life in marriage and probably counteracted the beneficial effects of natural selection? And what do we gain by a long life when it is full of hardship and starved of joys and so wretched that we can only welcome death as our deliverer?

On the other hand, one of the most celebrated images of trains in the early 20th century can be found in Buster Keaton’s film The Goat (1921) where he escapes the police by way of unhitching a train and drifting away.

The train can be the schlemiel’s best friend. Ten years before Buster Keaton put out his film, Sholem Aleichem put out the Railroad Stories (1911). In his story, “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah,” the main character, a schlemiel named Berl Vinegar – much like Buster Keaton – averts a disaster by way of a train. But he doesn’t do so by way of his will so much as by virtue of…chance.

Sholem Aleichem prefaces this story with a chapter entitled “The Slowpoke Express.”   This train, Aleichem tells us, is built for the type of speed that Eastern European Jews (before the Holocaust) or rather schlemiels like to travel into modernity – slowly.

Would you like to know what the best train of all is? The best, the quietist, the most restful?

It’s the Slowpoke Express. (Tevye the Dairyman and Railroad Stories, 184)

Like Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd and Sendrl, the train doesn’t often reach its destination and is never on time. It’s a schlemiel-train:

The Slowpoke Express is no ordinary train. In the first place, you needn’t ever worry about missing it: whenever you arrive at the station, its still there….I’ve been riding the Slowpoke Express for several weeks now, and I’m still practically in the same place. I tell you, it’s magic! Don’t think I’m complaining, either. (184)

Regarding this train, the Jews in the town (the Bohopolians, Aleichem calls them) feel that the train is so much better than other trains because “there’s no danger of the accidents that occur on other lines. The slower the safer, they say”(185).

Playing on this claim, Aleichem, the narrator, makes his own. Namely, that he has it, “on good faith,” that “the Slowpoke was indeed involved in an accident, a veritable catastrophe that sowed panic up and down the line and set the who district by the ears.   The incident was caused by a Jew and – of all people – a Russian priest”(186).

Aleichem tells us that the “great train accident” happened on Hoshana Rabbah.   The holiday marks the end of a span of time in which the Jewish people can plea for a good new year (which spans Rosh Ha’shanna – the Jewish New Year – Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – and Sukkoth – the festival of the tabernacles). On Hoshanna Rabba one puts in one’s final kvitel (a final, personal note to God for mercy and a good year).

Aleichem tells us that after praying at synagogue and putting in his kvitel, “a Jew” went to stand by an “unchained locomotive.” He was simply curious and wanted to see if anyone would go to the Slowpoke Express that morning. But, what, the narrator wonders, does he expect to see?

Just what does he hope to see that’s so exciting – another Jew like himself from Teplik? Or a Jewess from Obodivke? Or a priest from Golovonyevsk? Jewish pleasures! But it was the custom to go, and go this Jew did. And in those days, don’t you know. The railroad was new; we weren’t used to the Slowpoke yet and were were still curious about it. (188)

At the station, the Jew runs into a “Russian priest from Golonovnyevsk.”   The priest insults the Jew by calling him “Yudko” and asking him what he’s looking at. The Jew “retorts angrily” and tells him that his name is Yudko, its Berko (a nickname).

This comical exchange leads to the topic of how a train works. Since “Berko” is a schlemiel of the luftmensch variety (he makes a sells vinegar but has no formal education) he acts “as if” he knows how the train works (because, after all, he knows how to make vinegar).   The priest insults Berko again and says that he doesn’t know anything about the train. He forgets the Jews name again, but Berko reminds him and this prompts him to be more bold in his assertion of knowledge.

Berko then proceeds to get on to the train with the priest and show him that he knows what he’s talking about.   After tinkering with a few switches, the train starts moving. The schlemiel, excited, thinks he has pulled one over on the Priest. Meanwhile, the onlookers are astonished that the Slowpoke Express is actually moving:

I hardly need to tell you what pandemonium broke out among the passengers in Sobolivke station when they saw the uncoupled locomotive mysteriously take off on its own. (189)

The whole won panics. Meanwhile, the Priest and Berko (“Berl Vinegar”) realize that Berko doesn’t know how to operate the train and can’t stop it from hurtling itself to disaster.

To bring out the difference between perspectives as a topic in the story, Aleichem notes how the people imagine the worst and make up stories about its disaster or what was going on inside of it…while it was still traveling along the tracks!

That’s when the real shindig started. What could be the meaning of it? A Jew and a priest in a runaway locomotive? Where were they running away to? And why? And who could the Jew be? (191)

When they learn that it is Berl in the train, they take the schlemiel for a shlimazel and see a tragic rather than a comic ending. However, what happens flips their tragic expectations on its head.

As they near their impending death, an argument between the Priest and Berl over death and judgment.   Berl has the last word by arguing that on Hohsana Rabbah he accepts whatever God decides.   He prays for the best to happen but…it may not happen if God so decides.

After saying this, a miracle happens: the train runs out of steam.

Berl takes this miracle as a lesson about man: “If he doesn’t get anything to eat…” he “runs out of steam and kaput”(194).   But that seems to be the wrong lesson. If the train didn’t run out of steam the schlemiel and the priest would be dead.   His insight may be off, but it shows us what matters.

The schlemiel’s happiness is contingent on chance; and more often than not, he averts disaster and gets lucky.   And like many a schlemiel, Berl got himself into this mess by thinking that he knew better.   Even so, since he is a good, simple soul, who lives a life based on chance, he survived.     But the real issue is the outcome. The people expected a disaster and the priest looked down on the Jew and his lack of intelligence. In the end, goodness and not negativity and tragedy win.

On this note, Aleichem tricked his reader by announcing – at the outset of the story – that there was a train disaster. He lied because he knows that people are more naturally interested in tragedy than comedy.   The point, for Aleichem, is not to increase our natural cynicism but to challenge it. That way, we can experience the wonder of possibility.   In any situation, something good can always happen and that, in a world full of tragedy (remember Aleichem was writing when the Pogroms were in full swing and Jews were fleeing Eastern Europe for America and other destinations), its harder to entertain this possibility since its not the way of things. Nonetheless, that’s were salvation (hoshana) comes in.   For Aleichem, it’s “Jewish” to believe that good things can happen…despite the fact that reality – like a predator – looks back at you with contempt.

Lest we not forget, all of this happens on a train, on the Slow Poke express.  The irony is that schlemiel – and not a well-trained conductor – gets the train going.  Perhaps that’s what Aleichem dreamed of…a schlemiel at the head of the train. But that dream, it seems, can only come true in fiction….unless we are schlemiels like Berl. If so, perhaps we also get lucky because…the train is speeding fast into the future and it doesn’t seem like it will lose steam. A schlemiel can’t stop the train.   Perhaps, nothing short of a miracle can save us from crashing.  But why imagine the worst? That’s too easy.

How Can Tevye Forgive Menachem Mendl? On Betrayal, Theft, and Forgiveness in Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In”

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There is nothing worse than betrayal. But there are different degrees of betrayal. Some forms are worse than others. The worst violation of trust occurs when the person who is the betrayer is a close friend or a relative.   The stakes are especially high when the entrusted party is approached by a family member or friend who puts his livelihood, wife, and children on the line. Such a betrayal can destroy a person’s outlook on life and make him or her cynical and bitter.   In betraying trust, one destroys or seriously damages hope…and humanity.

Judaism, to be sure, is based in large part on the notion – germane to “covenantal theology” – that the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d (the covenant between them) is based on trust that neither party will ever betray the other. There is a trust, built into Judaism, that G-d promises and delivers. What makes the Torah so special is the fact that, from start to finish, there are trust issues between the Jewish people and God. As Moses Maimonides and other Rabbinic scholars have noted many times, God is constantly, throughout history, testing the trust of the Jewish people.  But there is a twist. Even though trust may be damaged or even destroyed in the relationship between man and God – which we see throughout the Torah, as in the story of Yosef – forgiveness is possible, trust can be re-established, and promises can be renewed. This works with God and man. But when it comes to betrayal and forgiveness between human beings, it’s a more complex matter.

In Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In,” which is a part of Tevye the Dairyman, we see the playing out of trust, betrayal, and forgiveness between Tevye and Menachem-Mendl.   As many people know from Fiddler on the Roof or from a cursory reading of Aliechem’s most famous book, Tevye is the epitome of the honest, poor, and simple everyday Jew. He is a G-d fearing man who, in his kindness, gives every man and woman a chance.   However, there is a very important chapter (short story) in Tevye the Dairyman which shows Tevye in the most uncharacteristic way – as a cynic.

The story starts off in the wake of a betrayal by his “relative, Menachem-Mendl…a fly-by-night, a who knows what, a wheeler-dealer, a manipulator, may he never find a resting place”(23).   Menachem-Mendl’s betrayal shifts Tevye’s view of life.  Aleichem, by way of these characters, takes his readers through his betrayal of Tevye and leaves us to judge whether or not the conclusion of the tale – and Tevye’s decision – is just.

Tevye starts off his tale on a bitter note. He points out how poor he was and how he had to sell everything he had in order to support his family but…it’s simply not enough. He is in a dire situation and he imagines – as he usually does – what good he would do if he actually had money:

Having sold everything and thrown some hay to my horse, I decided to take a stroll around town. As it is said, Man is but dust – a man is only human. I wanted to see a bit of the world, breathe the air, and look at the find good that Yehupetz displays in its shopwindows….Standing just like that at a large shop window with a pocketful of cons and ruble notes, I thought, God in heaven! If I had a tenth of what I see here, I would never complain to God again. I’d make a match for my eldest daughter and give her a good dowry….I’d see to it that the house of study had a metal roof, not a roof about to collapse any minute. I’d open a religious school in town and hospital and a shelter…so poor people wouldn’t have to lie around on the bare floor of a house of study. (24)

In the midst of his dreaming of the good he will do for his people, he is startled – or rather awakened – by a voice:

Sholem Aleichem, Reb Tevye!” I heard someone call from behind me. “How are you?” (24)

The voice is of his “second cousin once removed,” Menachem-Mendl. After doing their Jewish geography, Tevye embraces him as he would any family member (with love and concern).   Tevye notices that Menachem-Mendl looks poor and ragged and he becomes sympathetic. He tells Menachem-Mendel that a “Jew must have hope” and “faith” that things will get better:

I stole a glance at his shabby clothes, patched in many places, the shoes almost worn through. “You can be sure that God will help you and things will get better. As it says in the Bible, All is vanity. Money,” I said, “is round, one day it rolls this way, another day it rolls away, so long as you live. The most important thing is faith. A Jew must have hope. (24)

Tevye sees that Yehupetz has not been good to Menachem-Mendl and offers him his home to come back to and heal:

“Listen to me, Menachem-Mendl,” I said, “come to my place for a day, and you can at least rest your bones. You’ll be my guest,” I said, “a welcome one too. My wife will be happy to have you”(25).

Menachem-Mendl agrees, goes home with Tevye, and brings “nachas”(joy) to him since there is nothing more pleasurable for Tevye than having a guest. And what is better than a guest who is family? The trust that circulates between them is a given.

We drove home together, and everyone was delighted to see him – a guest! Here was our own second cousin, no small matter. As they say, “One’s own are not strangers.” Golde’s (Tevye’s wife) grilling began: How are thigns in Kasrilevka? How is Uncle Boruch-Hersh?…Who got divorced? Who has given birth and who is expecting?” (25)

Tevye feeds and treats Menachem-Mendl like a Prince. Menachem-Mendl praises and thanks Tevye and his wife for the food and hospitality.   He swears that he has never experienced such kindness.

After they finish eating, Menachem-Mendl starts talking about what happened to him. He tells Tevye how he became rich and lost his money.   Tevye is impressed with Menachem-Mendl’s grasp of how the market works (26). As Menachem-Mendl manically goes on and on about his business dealings and the ways of the world, Tevye starts dreaming about money. The next morning, Menachem-Mendl props him up and makes Tevye an offer he can’t refuse. If he “partners up” with and gives Menachem-Mendl money, Menachem-Mendl assures Tevye that he will become a rich man.   But Menahcem-Mendl goes farther than that and appeals to Tevy’s desire for the good by telling Tevye that by doing so, Tevye will “save his life” and bring him “back from the dead.”

“You now have the chance, Reb Tevye, to make quite a few groschens and also save my life, literally bring me back from the dead.”(26).

Although Tevye tells him he doesn’t have much money, Menachem-Mendl pushes him to give more money than he can afford to give and to trust him fully on this “investment.”

“Really now,” he said, “are you telling me you can’t find a mere hundred, Reb Tevye, with your business, and your reputation, kayn eyen horeh?” (27)

All of the talking overwhelms Tevye, and he entrusts Menachem-Mendl. He starts having hope and convinces himself that Menachem-Mendl couldn’t be a liar. Menachem-Mendl could be a “heaven sent messenger” who could help Tevye live the rest of his life as a “respectable man.”

To make a long story short – why should I carry on? – I developed a yearning, and it was no laughing matter. Who could tell? I asked myself. Maybe he was a heaven-sent messenger…He didn’t strike me as a liar, making up tall tales out of his head. And what if things did turn around as he had said, and Tevye could become a bit of a mensch in his old age? How long could a person struggle and slave day after day, again and again the horse and wagon, again cheese and butter? (28)

Menachem-Mendl seals the deal by invoking God. He tells Tevye that God should “punish him” if he cheats Tevye:

“You can believe me, Reb Tevye,” he said. “I swear to you, let God punish me if I cheat you. I will honestly share everything with you.”(29)

After Menachem-Mendl gets the money and departs, Tevye starts dreaming of all the money he will have and how well the family will live:

We parted like the best of friends and kissed affectionately, as in usual between relatives. Standing by myself after he left, lively thoughts and daydreams entered my head, such sweet dreams that I wanted them never to end, to go on forever. (29)

Menachem-Mendl’s assurances and promises, which feed Tevye’s dreams of a better life are a prelude to the major betrayal.  Tevye’s wife starts worrying and, in the end, she is right. Everything falls to pieces.

Menachem-Mendl disappears and stops communicating with his “partner,” Tevye. Tevye starts realizing that he has been duped and starts, understandably, “going out of his mind.” This passage, of Tevye’s realization, are sad and shocking. They are very unique in Aleichem’s corpus of fiction, which is usually more upbeat and hopeful.

In short, a week passed, and two and three – no letter from my partner! I was going out of my mind, walking about in a daze, not knowing what to think. He could have just forgotten to write, I thought. He knew very well that we were waiting to hear from him. Then I began to wonder what I could do to him if he were to skim off the cream and tell me hadn’t earned anything. Would I call him a liar? I told myself it couldn’t be, it wasn’t possible. I treated the man like one of my own, been ready to take on his troubles. How could he play a trick like that on me?!…. A cold chill ran through my body. Old fool! I said to myself.   You made your bed, now lie in it, you ass! (30)

Following these disturbing revelations, Tevye’s wife prompts him to go to Yehupetz and find out what is going on. As he travels there, he starts imagining what may have happened. Since Tevye loves to only think good thought and would rather not dwell on the worst case scenario, he imagines the best case scenario and imagines what he will say when he confronts him (31-32).

He goes through the city in search of Menachem-Mendl. He doesn’t find him and nearly gives up.   But when he stops to look into one of the store windows he notices, in the reflection of the shop window, is the image of Menachem-Mendl!

My heart hurt when I saw him, so sorry did I feel for him! If ever I had an enemy, and if ever you had an enemy, may we hope to see them in the same state as Menachem-Mendl. His coat, his boots, were in terrible shape. (33)

When they turn to each other, we have an enigmatic scene and many questions that, as readers, we must think through. What will they say to each other? Will Tevye curse him or forgive him?   The representation of Menachem-Mendle as ragged and impoverished suggests an answer.

Menachem-Mendl, we learn, was “abashed to see me, we both stood as if frozen, unable to speak, just looking into each other’s eyes like tow roosters, as if to say, We’re both miserable and cleaned out. We might as well take tin cups and go from house to house! (33)

Menachem-Mendl appeals to Tevye’s emotions by making himself into a total schlimazel who is on the verge of suicide: “Reb Tevye! Without luck, a man shouldn’t have been born! Rather than living, it is better to hang!”(33).   But Tevye, against what one would expect, tells him that he is right: Menachem-Mendl is a disgrace and should be publically whipped. Tevye reminds Menachem-Mendl of how he didn’t just destroy him but his whole family!

“You took a household full of living souls, poor creatures, innocent as lambs, and slit their throats without a knife! God in heaven,” I said, “how can I face my wife and children? Go on, tell me, you slaughterer, swindler, thief!”(33, my emphasis)

Menachem-Mendl agrees that he is a thief, a slaughterer, and swindler.   He says that he deserves Gehennam (hell). Tevye says that Gehennam is “too good for you, fool”(33).   After saying this, Menachem-Mendl “lowers his head” and suggests that he may commit suicide.

But instead of walking away and letting him go, Tevye says he hears “every sigh and groan” he makes. “My heart went out to him”(33).

Tevye ends his tale by saying that he forgave him. He says that, if you think about it, “You aren’t entirely to blame.” Tevye can’t conceive of Menahcem Mendl as a swindler and thief! He also puts himself out there as a guilty party! “To say you did it on purpose would be foolish because we were equal partners, fifty-fifty”(34). After excusing him, Tevye offers to have a drink with him: “Come, my friend, let’s have some brandy!”

Looking back, Tevye notes how “that…is how the roof fell in, and with it all my dreams”(34). In other words, Tevye may have forgiven Menachem-Mendl but there was a price to pay: he can no longer, like a schlemiel, dream of something better. But there is more at stake, here. With the loss of dreams and hope, what happens to the Jew? Hasn’t Menachem-Mendl destroyed the fabric of Judaism? And was Tevye wrong for forgiving him? Tevye muses about the meaning of this experience and differentiates himself from the reader:

And what of hope and faith? On the contrary, the more troubles you have, the more faith you must have, and the poorer you are, the more hope you must have. Do you want any more proof?

But I think I’ve gone on too long today. It’s time to go and tend to my business. As you’ll no doubt say, “All men are false.” Every man has his burden. Be well and have a good life! (35)

These words – the last of the chapter, story – suggest that the reader can leave the story with a sense of cynicism at the betrayal perpetrated by Menachem-Mendl, a relative of Tevye, or let that it go.   Either way “every man has his burden,” and this burden – the burden of betrayal – is perhaps the biggest of all for humans.  Sholem Aleichem shows us how the greatest deeds of kindness of trust can be trounced by the people one would think one can trust. And this, for Aleichem, is not just the greatest challenge to Jewishness but the greatest challenge to humanity. The meaning of justice is at stake in this story. The reader may not agree with Tevye’s choice and would rather leave Menachem-Mendl to die, alone for the evil he had done.   Either way that is the “burden” of the reader or for anyone who has been betrayed by someone they trust.   While God may forgive man, man may not forgive someone who has destroyed his or her life and dreams. That type of forgiveness is a different matter.

And I’ll leave it there…..for you to decide. Would you forgive Menachem-Mendl?

Gentle Irresistibility: Adorno on the Promises of Happiness and Truth in Walter Benjamin’s Work

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Religion and philosophy are both interested in some form of ultimate good that results in happiness. Aristotle is often noted for saying that all human beings desire to be happy. Much of what we do is for the sake of happiness. For Aristotle, the desire for happiness is built into human nature and is achievable. But for religion happiness is oftentimes promised. For instance, the Talmud tells us that Jews may be happy in this world but such happiness is incomplete. The greatest kind of happiness will come from God in the final redemption of the Jewish people. It is messianic. To be sure, this happiness, like much else in the Torah (and in all Monotheistic religions), is promised.

In one of his descriptions of Walter Benjamin’s work, Theodor Adorno argues that one of the greatest appeals to be found in Benjamin’s work can be found in two promises: the “promise of happiness” and the “promise of truth.” And what makes these promises so appealing, according to Adorno, is the fact that they are couched in a childlike kind of writing that is digressive:

The deliberate digressiveness of his thought is…matched by its gentile irresistibility. (Prisms, 230)

According to Adorno, this “gentile irresistibility” originates in is the “promise of happiness.”   And this is why Benjamin took so much to fairy tales:

Everything that Benjamin said or wrote sounded as if thought, instead of rejecting the promises of fairy tales and children’s books with its usual disgraceful ‘maturity’, took them so literally that real fulfillment itself was now within sight of knowledge.

There is a childishness in Benjamin’s work that is committed to this “promise of happiness” which echo what he loved so much about children’s stories whose promises, as we can see, Adorno thinks Benjamin took literally.   And this childishness and “gentle irresistibility” were infectious.   Adorno likens anyone who was drawn to Benjamin – and his work – to a child taking a peek at a Christmas tree:

Anyone who was drawn to him was bound to feel like the child who catches a glimpse of the lighted Christmas tree through a crack in the closed door.

The promise of gifts makes a child giddy; the same goes for anyone who was drawn to Benjamin and his work. However, there is more than just happiness that is promised. Adorno tells us that truth is also promised in Benjamin’s work, or, as the analogy goes, in the light of the Christmas tree seen through the crack of the door:

But the light, as one of reason, also promised truth itself, not its powerless shadow.

Adorno gives Benjamin’s thought a religious kind of quality. He calls it a “creation ex nihilo” that had the “generosity of abundance.” Like God, it “sought to make good everything, all the pleasure prohibited by adjustment and self-preservation, pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual.” In other words, “Benjamin’s thought” promised to make sensual and intellectual amends for all of the renunciations people make in order to adjust to society and preserve themselves.   These promises and this abundance, argues Adorno, are something Benjamin shared with the famous writer Marcel Proust. Both of them had a “desire for happiness” and both of them desired it by way of the experience of disillusionment. To be sure, Adorno says that the more they were disillusioned, the more they desired happiness and clung to the promise of happiness.

With this in mind, Adorno argues that Kafka’s remark, that “there is infinite hope except for us” – could have “served as the motto for Benjamin’s metaphysics”(231). This is the motto not because it suggests that Benjamin like Kafka gave in to hopelessness and rejected the “promise of happiness.” On the contrary, Adorno suggests that hopelessness only gave him more hope.   The “gentile irresistibility” of Benjamin’s work, like that of Sholem Aleichem’s fiction, is to be found in the fact that despite hopelessness and disillusionment, Benjamin, like a child (with simple faith), continues to believe in the “promise of happiness” and the “promise of truth.” They are, as in religion, always “to come.” Adorno is suggesting that the belief in these promises is fostered by way of reading Benjamin’s work.

Like Adorno, Gershom Scholem recognized, early on, that Benjamin’s work had a moral quality to it and he also saw the relationship of this moral aspect to religion. In Walter Benjamin: A Story of Friendship, Scholem writes:

For me Benjamin’s ideas had a radiant moral aura about them; to the extent that I could intellectually empathize with them, they had a morality of their own, which was bound up with their relationship to the religious sphere that at that time was quite clearly and openly the vanishing point of his thought. 

Perhaps this moral aura had something to do with the “promise of happiness” and the “promise of truth.” But these are promises that Benjamin drew not just from religion and folklore. He also drew them childhood.   And to read Benjamin, as he wished his ideal reader would, one must give in to a childlike kind of desire that believes that, somehow, despite the horrible world we live in – which is filled with deceit and murder – that happiness and truth are still possible.   In his last letters to Gershom Scholem, he calls this hope the wisdom of the fool rather than of the philosopher.   And for an adult to have such hope and to believe in such promises, is not tragic; it is comical. Adorno, it seems, understood this early on since he realized that whenever he was around Benjamin he became like a child.   In many ways, he believed in what Benjamin’s work promised to deliver.   And years later it seems that many people read him in the same way.

Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part II

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After explaining how the Yiddish writers (“the writers of sweetness”) came out of a world that made “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” Howe and Greenberg define the themes of Yiddish literature which correlated with this Eastern European world: “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured”(39).   Howe and Greenberg are quite cognizant that this world died in the Holocaust. However, what one might miss is the fact that, in making their case for Yiddish literature, they write about these themes as if they could be generalized and used as a counter-valence to the Western and American obsession with heroism in the post war years. The value of this counter-valence comes out in their reading of the main character in Yiddish literature: the schlemiel. Read against western literature, it comes across as the anti-hero:

A culture that has been able to resist the temptations of worldly power – or has been blocked at the threshold of those temptations – will naturally favor an image of heroism very different from the one we know in Western literature. (39)

Howe and Greenberg point out how the movement from “hybris to humility,” which we find in the “Aristotelian formula” is not “organic to Yiddish literature.” To be sure, the schlemiel character is, from start to finish, humble. There is no such movement. In a footnote to this claim, Howe and Greenberg point out how this anti-hero and its lack of progress into history and heroism is antithetical to not only Western literature and Aristotle but also to Zionism:

The prevalence of this theme may also help explain why Zionists have been tempted to look with impatience upon Yiddish literature. In the nature of their effort, the Zionists desired to retrieve – or improvise – an image of Jewish heroism; and in doing so they could not help finding large portions of Yiddish literature an impediment….Having for so long been exposed to the conditions of powerlessness, Yiddish culture could not quickly accustom itself to the climate of power. (39)

From here, Howe and Greenberg argue that the anti-heroic element can be found in the rejection of “historical aggrandizement.”   Tevye, for them, is the “embodiment of the anti-heroic Jewish hero whose sheer power of survival and comment makes the gesture of traditional heroism seem rather absurd”(40).   Not only his language but also his “ironic shrug” is symbolic of this ahistorical, anti-heroism.

Howe and Greenberg point out, however, how Aleichem had more patience with this anti-heroism while I.L. Peretz had less. Perhaps because Peretz was more fed up with anti-heroism and wanted to enter history, they put this in quotation marks, “modern.” This suggests that both Greenberg and Howe have sympathies with Aleichem’s project which, in their view, challenges the modern view of power and heroism.

The character that Zionist and more “modern” Yiddish writers want to leave behind is the little man, the “kleine mentschele”(40).   It is “he, the long-suffering, persistent, loving ironic” character whom “the Yiddish writers celebrate.” He “lives in the world” while the heroes of Western literature conquer it.

Out of the humble, little man come “a number of significant variations and offshoots.” One of these is the schlemiel, par excellence: “the wise or sainted fool who has often given up the householder’s struggle for dignity (think of Tevye) and thereby acquired the wry perspective of the man on the outside”(40).

Howe and Greenberg evoke I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” as an example of the “wise or sainted fool”(41).   Their description of Gimpel is evocative on different registers that are at once religious and secular. He has a “halo of comic sadness”:

He acquires, with the piling up of his foolishness, a halo of comic sadness, and..in the end, his foolishness innocence triumphs over the wisdom of the world”(41).

Although Howe and Greenberg note that “Gimpel is the literary grandson of Peretz’s Bontsha Schweig,” they point out how he is a different kind of schlemiel since Singer, as opposed to Peretz, was more interested in preserving the character.   Howe discusses two other examples of the holy fool, schlemiel in this section, but he ends with a meditation on the child as the ultimate heroic anti-hero.

Hand in hand with the anti-heroic Jewish hero, and more at the center of things than the sainted fool, goes the Jewish child, precocious, ingenious, deprived yet infinitely loved. (41)

What’s interesting about his characterization is that he cites Sholem Aleichem’s Motl as an example. This reading is interesting because for Saul Bellow, Ruth Wisse, and Sidra Ezrahi, Motl is not simply a child; he is a man-child, a schlemiel. Howe and Greenberg’s effort to give him a different category, as an offshoot of the humble anti-hero, suggest that there is something about Motl that is more powerful than all of the other schlemiel types. And that something is love. In contrast to how Dickens, Graham Greene, and Henry James, who have children who are “unloved and brutalized,” the children in Yiddish literature are loved. To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this love for children in Yiddish literature is part and parcel of the love of “the poor, the weak” and the “insulted” that emerges out of the Yiddish world. However, in their description, there is a moment of universalization:

For whatever the deficiencies of Yiddish culture, the power of love remains; for the child, the poor, the weak, the insulted and injured everywhere. It is the power at the heart of the Yiddish tradition. (42).

The word “everywhere” suggests that Howe and Greenberg find the love for the child, the poor, and the injured, which is particular to Yiddish culture, to be its greatest “power.” Howe and Greenberg suggest that the schlemiel – and the Yiddish culture it emerges out of – can present us with a universal that we can, today, learn from…even though the world that gave birth to it is gone. It presents a different, “sweeter” way to look at the world which, though not heroic in the western sense, is compassionate and can give hope.

But, as I noted, what happens when that world is gone? How does this universal live on if there is no world to nurture it? And doesn’t this relation to power emerge, as Hannah Arendt once said, out of worldlessness (not the world)? Instead of making “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” our world does the opposite. Unless, that is, we were to sink into a poverty and powerlessness much like the world of the Yiddish writers and, out of this, to find compassion and love rather than cynicism. It seems as if Howe envisions a world and an attitude that doesn’t emulate “crisis” and harsh realism so much as a “sweet” kind of realism that is based on love. And his examples of such a world are to be found in the aesthetics it produces. They are his guide and are the remnant of a feeling that could speak truth to power.

Lest we not forget, Howe and Greenberg wrote these words in the 1950s. How would they fare today? Are we, in our frustration with power, heroism, and Empire (as Hardt and Negri would say), looking for the schlemiel? Are we looking for the “writers of sweetness” who can give us characters that emerge out of poverty and remain anti-heroes from start to finish? Are we, today, looking for characters that evince compassion or are we looking for, as Howe would say, history, greatness, and heroism? And if Howe is with Aleichem rather than Peretz, would that suggest that his greatest enemy is…history? Are we looking for the world or for worldlessness? After all, Howe suggests that the schlemiel is not interested in heroism or making history so much as being in solidarity with those who don’t make history but are wounded by it: the poor, the injured, etc.   Or is it the case that the schlemiel is not so much a free choice so much as a choice that is made as a result of being….without history and…worldless?

Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part I

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In the 1950s, Irving Howe took it as one of his tasks to introduce Yiddish literature to an American audience. This involved not just a translation project, which he engaged in with Eliezer Greenberg, Saul Bellow, and others, but it also involved writing different introductions to collections and books on Yiddish literature. In the middle of their introduction to A Treasury of Jewish Stories, Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe make the case for Yiddish literature. But unlike the other introductions Howe did, this introduction, written in the 1950s, is special since it argues for Yiddish literature against the then prevailing demand for “intense” literature:

We live in a time when the literature most likely to be valued by serious people is intense, recalcitrant, and extreme; when the novel is periodically combed for images of catastrophe; and the possibilities of life seem available only through ultimates, prophecies, and final judgments. (37)

We are more interested in the true “voice of crisis” since we are “creatures of crisis.” However, Howe and Greenberg suggest that “it would be good if we could also celebrate another kind of literature: the kind that does not confront every moment the harsh finalities of experience, or strip act to its bare motive, or flood us with anguish over the irrevocability of death”(37). This literature, which comes from the “writers of sweetness,” who value those “milder emotions,” is Yiddish literature.

Howe’s characterization of Yiddish writing, against the literature of crisis, is fascinating. It suggests that against the cynicism that comes with modern literature and its obsession with crisis, Yiddish literature offers hope. The “writers of sweetness…do not assume evil to be the last word about man.” And they do not “suppose heroism to be incompatible with humbleness”(37).

These words about heroism and humbleness are the preface to Howe and Greenberg’s introduction not just of Yiddish literature but also of the schlemiel to an American audience. To do this, they make the case for sweetness, which they see as synonymous with the compatibility of heroism and humbleness:

Sweetness is a quality our age suspects. Not many of us are sweet or care to be; and those few who are seem almost ashamed of their gift. (37)

According to Howe and Greenberg, the sweetness they refer to finds its origin in worldlessness:

The East European Jews could be as greedy as anyone else, and as unscrupulous in their pursuit of livelihood; but they were cut off from the world at an all too visible point; they knew that the fleshpots, tempting as they might be, were not for them. Who in the shtetl world was not finally a luftmensch, a trader who deal in air, exchanging nothing for nothing and living off the profits? (38)

Howe and Greenberg characterized this “precarious position” of sweet worldlessness in terms of a “symbolic national gesture” – namely, “the ironic shrug.” Moreover, this precarious position is political; it made a “feeling of fraternity with the poor.”

To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this worldlessness was a virtue since it challenged the status quo and resisted power: “the world of the East European Jews made impossible the power-hunger, the pretensions of aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life”(38).

To emphasize this, they put the following sentence in italics to describe the greatest moral power of Yiddish literature:

The virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured – these, finally, are the great themes of Yiddish literature. (38)

Appealing to a rhetoric of identification and commitment, Howe and Greenberg argue that the “writers of sweetness” “wrote from a firm sense of identification, an identification that was simultaneously inheritance and choice; and this was the source of their moral security”(39).   Their identification and commitment was to the “power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, etc.” This identification, claims Howe and Greenberg, has nothing to do with “shtetl nostalgia” and it is not “uniquely Jewish.” However, it is “only that the Jews – with God’s help – have had more occasion than most peoples to look into the matter.”

Howe’s appeal to the particular and the universal are, in this instance, very interesting. His reading of the “writers of sweetness” suggests that Yiddish writers have something to teach an age that has become to cynical and obsessed with heroism. But, at the same time, he suggests that more people can write in these ways and have solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the injured. Anyone can look into the matter and become a “writer of sweetness.” However, the Jews have an advantage since their history, their worldlessness, has forced them to reflect on their state. The “ironic shrug” and the schlemiel are two figures that emerge out of this reflection.

….to be continued…

Kafka (Benjamin and Brecht) on Facebook: Understanding Astonishment, Discipline, and Guilt on Facebook

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Let’s be honest. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. Although we check it on and off throughout the day, we need to admit that, most of the time, it isn’t a pleasurable experience. We expect to find, each time or at least a few times a day, film clips, articles, images or status updates that are shocking or sensational.   And when we comment or put up a status update, there is always the fear that someone will say something that puts our credibility or image on the line. Sometimes we fear that we will be ignored. In short, half of the excitement of going on Facebook comes from seeing things that are shocking, but the other half comes from the apprehensive feeling that we will most likely be judged.

But why would anyone find this experience so addictive? Why would anyone want to experience shock and judgment on a daily basis and not once but several times a day?

Just yesterday I came across an article from The New Yorker that sketched the problem out for me and gave me a starting point for addressing an experience I have been troubled by since I joined Facebook. Joshua Rothman’s article, entitled “In Facebook’s Courtroom,” draws on Kafka to explain this experience. While I find his reading of Facebook by way of Kafka very interesting, I find his reflections to be preliminary (in a good sense). I would like to build on them by focusing on Kafka’s reading of astonishment and using it to take Rothman’s reading to another level. To this end, I will be drawing on the dispute between Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht over the meaning of astonishment in Kafka’s work. By outlining their differences and applying it to a reading of experience on Facebook, we can better understand our troubling addiction to Facebook shock and the experience of addiction.

Rothman articulates his description of Facebook experience at the outset of the article by describing the omnipresence of the TMZ Video of Ray Rice hitting his wife, Janay Palmer, in a Las Vegas elevator. He notes how, over time, it “grew baroque.”

In my Facebook feed, people hate-liked terrible reactions to the video. Others wrote impassioned posts addressed to supporters of Ray Rice, even if they didn’t know any supporters. Some used the video as a “teachable moment” to share facts about “#domesticviolence,” or helpfully suggested as-yet-unblamed parties who could also be criticized. (“Why is no one talking about the role of alcohol in this?”) A widespread response was meta-outrage: asking, in an outraged tone, why there weren’t an even greater number of outraged Facebook posts about Ray Rice.

Reflecting on this, Rothman notes that, of course, there is a “lot to be angry about” but “at the same time, though, there can be something unsettling about the Web’s communal rage, even when that rage is justified.” He points out how, in Web Culture, “anger is an end in itself.”   This turns into what he calls a “never ending, unpredictable justice system.”

In recent years, the Web’s continuous pageantry of outrage, judgment, and punishment has become an inescapable element of contemporary life. We all carry in our pockets a self-serious, hypercritical, omnipresent, never-ending, and unpredictable justice system.

Drawing on the words “never ending, unpredictable justice system” Rothman makes an analogy between Facebook experience and the experience of Kafka’s characters in novels like The Trial and The Castle.

But Kafka wasn’t writing about the D.M.V.; his novels and stories are actually about justice, which he saw as aloof and possibly unobtainable, and punishment, which he saw as endless and omnipresent. He described an aspect of life that the online world makes more visible and acute.

Echoing Kafka, Rothman astutely points out how, on Facebook, one is likely to come across an “unexpected discipline in progress.” This, I think, hits the nail right on the head. After all, I have not only personally seen this but I have also been the subject of such “unexpected discipline.” Rothman sums up the experience of seeing or being the subject of such experience in these words – which are the same words that can be used to describes K’s experience in The Trial where, like Facebook, “punishment is pervasive.” On Facebook, as in the Trial, we have “a mixture of guilt and innocence, fear and excitement, outrage, pity, incomprehension, revulsion, and prurient interest.”

Rothman dovetails into a brief discussion of how, in Kafka and Facebook, there is a “surreal humor.” What makes it surreal is the fact that the judgment and disciplining are often done by way of exaggeration.   Moreover, he notes that this exaggeration is mixed with “something sexy” and “something childlike.” But the most important Facebook feeling of all, for Rothman, is the feeling of guilt. With all of the judgment on Facebook, regardless of the inflections of something comical, childlike, or sexy, there is this pervasiveness of guilt (for the discipliner and the disciplined and the witness to such disciplining).

Employing an ironic and apologetic tone, which one often sees on Facebook (out of fear of being attacked) Rothman, notes that it’s not always so bad:

It’s not always so grim. Sometimes, when Facebook is in especially fine form, Kafkaesque humor emerges. As you scroll, you wonder, what’s next on the docket? Which outrages and exemplars will confront me today, and how will I react to them? On the one hand, you’re criminally uninterested in a controversy about sexism amongst hedge-fund managers; on the other, at least you’re not one of the “ten celebs who have killed people.” The social-media stream puts moral life on shuffle—and expresses the fact that, while being a good person matters perhaps more than anything, it’s also very unclear how one might go about being good. This gently comic sense of ironic, bitter, and morally exhausted desperation even has its own Kafkaesque emoticon: ¯\_()_/¯.

Rothman ends his reflections on Facebook with a set of questions that hits on the main issue. Why, if we all clearly experience and understand the omnipresence of judgment, guilt, shock, and discipline on Facebook, do we return over and over again? Wouldn’t it be more optimal to live a life without the daily experience of these troubling emotions?

Rothman’s appeal to Kafka to address Facebook is the best I have seen yet. It raises questions I have had, in my own work, about how to read Kafka in relation to our society and ourselves. In my own work, I am very interested in how Walter Benjamin reads Kafka as it informs his reading of the modern schlemiel. One of the most interesting discussions Benjamin has about Kafka’s work is with Bertolt Brecht, a playwright he deeply respected. To be sure, Benjamin struggled with Brecht’s reading of Kafka and brought it into his famous essay on Kafka. All of themes that Rothman touches on in terms of Kafka, to be sure, are touched on by Benjamin in his essay on Kafka.

Benjamin, to be sure, in the spring of 1931 spent time with Brecht in France. In a journal entry, dated June 6th 1931, Benjamin notes how, for Brecht, astonishment was the central motif of Kafka’s work:

He believes that Kafka has just one there, and that the richness of Kafka as a writer is simply the rich variety of this one theme. According to Brecht, this theme, in its most general sense, is astonishment. The astonishment of a man who feels that huge shifts are in the offing in every aspect of life, without being able to find a niche for himself in the new order of things. For this new order…is governed by the dialectical laws that dictate the life of the masses to themselves and to the individual. But the individual as such must react with astonishment tinged with panic-stricken horror to the almost incomprehensible deformations of life that are revealed by the emergence of these laws. Kafka, it seems to me, is dominated by this to the point that he is incapable of portraying any event without distortion.

Benjamin goes on to note that Brecht doesn’t like the astonishment of Kafka’s characters. Brecht found the lack of astonishment of Schweik, the main character of the Czech writer, Jaroslav Hasek’s satirical novel about war, to be better.

Brecht contrasts Kafka – and the figure of K. – with Schweik: the man who is astonished by everything with the one who is astonished by nothing.   Schweik puts to the test the monstrous nature of existence into which he has been placed by making it seem as if nothing is impossible for him.

Benjamin brings many of Brecht’s thoughts on Kafka into his essay on Kafka. In that essay, he posits a difference between two types of fools who have a different relation to astonishment. Benjamin reads astonishment as a gesture and notes that Kafka “does not grow tired of representing the gestus (of the characters in The Castle and America) in this fashion, but he invariably does so with astonishment”(137). This astonishment is the same astonishment as K. who differs from Good Soldier Schwiek: “the one is astonished at everything, the other nothing”(137).

Benjamin also brings in the notion of astonishment to a radio talk on Kafka in 1931. he notes how astonishment at law is a key feature of Kafka’s characters.   And he sees this astonishment as prophetic:

Kafka’s work is prophetic….His only reaction to the almost incomprehensible distortions of existence that betray the emergence of new laws is a sense of astonishment, mixed with elements of panic-stricken horror. Kafka is so possessed by this that he is incapable of imagining any single event that would not be distorted by the mere act of describing it…In other words, everything he describes makes statements about something other than itself”( Selected Writings 1931-1934, Volume II, 496).

Benjamin goes on to note that this is not a “purely poetic prose” but is a direct result of the rapid shift of our lives and the effort to describe it.   Astonishment, in other words, relates to the failure of man to create a new idiom for rapid shifts in one’s existence. This failure – which, without a doubt, has mystical resonance – gives one access to language as such.

To be sure, while Benjamin thought of astonishment as prophetic, Brecht found this aspect of Kafka to be most deplorable. Brecht was very harsh with Benjamin’s obsession with Kafka and thought of Kafka’s work (and Benjamin’s) as “mystery mongering,” and “nonsense”(786).   Astonishment and mystery mongering, for Brecht, go hand in hand.

As Benjamin learned, Brecht saw Kafka as a “Jewboy…a feeble, unattractive figure, a bubble on the iridescent surface of the swamp of Prague’s cultural life, and nothing more”(786).   Astonishment, for Brecht, it seems, came out of Kafka’s Jewish, poor life. For this reason, Brecht, building on his anti-Semitic view of Kafka, told Benjamin “I reject Kafka” and his “depth.” This rejection of Kafka (and Benjamin’s project) had an effect on Benjamin. He even admits that “I could not refute the criticism that it was a diary-like set of notes…I was well-aware that his writings contained a lot of debris and rubbish – a lot of real mystery mongering. But other things were crucial, and my study touched on them”(786-87). These “other things” are things that Brecht, apparently, could not understand because he could not understand the meaning of a schlemiel.

Astonishment, for Benjamin, is the key to the schlemiel and Kafka’s characters’ wakefulness: it is in a constant state of surprise because the schlemiel is always forgetting what it was and, for that matter, who or what it is. Hence, the astonishment goes hand in hand with a vigilant study. The schlemiel, as an exceptional character, is astonished at what “normal” people would consider average and nothing.   It is acutely aware of change.   Unlike Soldier Schweik, who is a cunning trickster much like Odysseus, Kafka’s schlemiels are more astonished and less cunning.

Instead of being self-present, cunning, and self-reliant, (which is what Brecht loved about Schweik) they are open to and affected by alterity. And in this Benjamin differs radically from Brecht and his privileging of reason, will, and freedom. Brecht associated this interest in questions, “depth,” and astonishment with “Jewish fascism,” while Benjamin saw astonishment as a positive, critical feature of the Kafka’s schlemiels. Astonishment, which has its mystical correlate, is pronounced in these moments in the text.

Benjamin relates this astonishment to that of the reader or viewer when seeing one’s own gestures in another medium: this is an astonishment at one’s alienation: “The invention of the film and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation from one another, of unpredictably intervening relationship which became their only ones. Experiments have proved that a man does not recognize his own walk on the screen or his own voice on the phonograph”(137).

And perhaps this is the key to our fascination with Facebook. Contrary to Brecht, we cannot help but be astonished at the surprises we find on Facebook vis-à-vis ourselves and others. Regardless of how cunning and unastonished we try to be (or present ourselves) on Facebook (and I have many academic colleagues who attempt to maintain this image), the fact of the matter is, as Rothman suggests, that – regardless of how sexy or comical it may seem – we are under constant discipline (either as the subject or the agent).  He is correct. Facebook experience is very “Kafkaesque.” And our attraction to it should trouble us. However, the reason for this doesn’t have to do with the medium alone or the age we live in. It may have to do with the fact that we like to experience astonishment. It evinces a deep and mysterious experience (one that Brecht was sickened by) of our own oscillation between power and powerlessness.

But, ultimately, this may be too much for us to handle. Why, after all, would we want to experience this?  For this reason, leaving Facebook for a while may be a good thing; it can make us feel “as if” we are in control of ourselves and outside of judgment, discipline, and guilt.  But the truth of the matter is that, in every modern situation we, like the schlemiel, may always be astonished. On or off Facebook, there will be astonishment. However, on Facebook the experience of judgment is omnipresent and often very troubling.

…..to be continued….

Blindness And Insight: From Paul and Augustine to Woody Allen’s “Anything Else” – Part I

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The movement from blindness to insight is a time honored theme. It has its roots in early Christianity and in the Enlightenment it becomes a guiding principle.   The Christian appropriation of blindness is fascinating. In Corinthians 2 (3:14-16), Paul associates blindness with the Jews and sight with the Christians:

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech – unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in their reading of the Old testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless, when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

Following these lines, Paul associates the vision of God seen by Christians with freedom:

Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image form glory to glory, just as in the Spirit of the Lord.

In other words, insight, which the Jews don’t have, is associated with “freedom.” Hence, if Jews lack insight, they are not just blind, they are servile to materiality (and not the Spirit). This bias finds its way from Paul to Augustine.

In Augustine’s Expositions on the Psalms, Augustine likens the Jews to a blind person who turns to a mirror:

The appearance of the Jews in the holy scripture which they carry is just like the face of a blind man in a mirror; he is seen by others, by himself not seen. “He hath given unto reproach those that trampled on me.”

Reading this, Jill Robbins, in her book Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Alterity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas, argues that the “reproach” of the Jews “consists (1) in their servitude, in their carrying a book they are unable to read because they fail to read figuratively…and (2) also in their self-concealment, their blindness, when they fail to recognize themselves as “the reproach” signified in the figural reading of the scriptural verse.” This suggests, jut like Paul, that the Christian has insight and freedom while the Jew is blind and servile.

The Enlightenment takes this metaphor on as well and situates the critic as a person who unmasks the truth and reveals it to the knowing rather than the faithful. This very same tradition is also taken by Karl Marx who was keen on disclosing the truths hidden by Capitalism. In his system, it would be the Proliteriate who would see the truth and lead the revolution as a result of their insight into what Capitalism had hidden from them.

The post-Enlightenment crowd, however, wasn’t too happy about the blindness/sight metaphor. For this reason, a deconstructive thinker like Paul deMan, in his essay “The Rhetoric of Blindness” argues that critics who claim to move from blindness to insight are blind to their own assumptions and in this blindness they, paradoxically, attain their greatest insight:

Critics’ moments of greatest blindness with regard to their own critical assumptions are also moments at which they achieve their greatest insight. Todorov correctly states that naïve and critical reading are in fact actual or potential forms of “ecriture” and, from the moment there is writing, the newly engendered text does not leave the original text untouched. Both texts can even enter conflict with each other. (109)

In other words, the critical text, without knowing it, doesn’t reveal the text it is examining so much as come into potential conflict with it because, as Todorov suggests, it is naïve and blind to its own assumptions.

But there is more to the story. The deconstructive critic, like a good writer, communicates a kind of blindness to his or her readers. Writing on Derrida, deMan argues that: “Lukacs, Blanchot, Poulet, and Derrida can be called “literary,” in the full sense of the term, because of their blindness, not in spite of it.”

DeMan, in distinction to Paul and Augustine, tells us that blindness is also passed on to the reader. The irony of his reading is that deMan, who is thought of by many (and for good reasons in his early work) as anti-Semitic is actually siding with the Jews that Augustine and Paul is rejecting. He, like Derrida, affirms a “literary” kind of blindness that doesn’t presume to have the “spirit” of the text. And it doesn’t presume to be free in the same way someone with insight considers him or herself to be free. The freedom of the text consists in a certain kind of blindness.

The theme of blindness and insight also makes its way into schlemiel film and literature where, oftentimes, a schlemiel is depicted as a Jewish character who fails to see what is front of him or her. And this blindness, like the blindness of Don Quixote in Western Literature, is not tragic, as it was for Augustine, so much as comical.   However, depending on your approach to blindness, it can be good or bad.

One can read oneself (as an audience member), via irony, as better than the character who cannot see. Or one can, alternatively, identify with the blindness and naivite of the schlemiel. The purpose of such an identification is to admit that there is a problem with society which is blind to the schlemiel’s goodness and not simply the blindness of the schlemiel to society. There is, in this scenario, a double blindness. This is more akin to the Eastern European reading of the schlemiel and has resonance with what deMan means by “literature.”

The German-Jewish reading of the schlemiel takes the opposite view and makes the schlemiel’s blindness into a figure that has more in common with Paul and Augustine.   Like a Christian looking at a Jewish reading of the “Old Testament,” it is something that one doesn’t want to do if one is to be “free” rather than servile to something old (or, in the case of German-Jewish schlemiels, servile to the pre-modern ways of the ghetto).

Early on in his career, Woody Allen clearly took to the schlemiel character. And in films like Annie Hall he decided to create a schlemiel character whose failures had a certain kind of charm. The theme of blindness and insight was not, to be sure, at the forefront of this or any of his films before it.   If anything, Alvy Singer’s awkwardness and failure are the main attraction.

Woody Allen’s Everything Else (2001) shows a different trend. In this film, he has a schlemiel character who explicitly moves from blindness to insight. Moreover, this movement is associated with becoming free and independent (which has echoes with Paul and Augustine) and not just the American spirit of self-reliance.

In this film, Allen plays a reformed schlemiel named David Dobel. He is a veteran comedy writer who, echoing his role in the film, happens to now be an acting teacher. Dobel’s primary role, however, is to play the teacher to Jason Biggs, who plays Jerry Falk – a young aspiring Jewish comedy writer whose biggest problem is that he’s vulnerable, too nice, and can’t say no.

While Dobel, his teacher, has insight into what’s in front of him and what not to do, Falk plays the role of the blind schlemiel who can’t see what’s in front of him and is often unable to act. Dobel’s role is to help Falk leave the schlemiel behind and become an independent agent; he does this by way of several conversations in or around Central Park. In these conversations, Dobel advises Falk. Dobel’s advice prompts the blinded, yes-saying schlemiel to say “no” and, as Allen believes, this magic word, when acted on, will transform the schlemiel into a man.

What makes Allen’s treatment of the schlemiel in this film so interesting is the fact that he shows the audience how, for us today, the schlemiel lives on. And, at the same time, he shows us why, in his opinion, this isn’t such a good thing. Biggs, not Allen, is the new schlemiel. However, Falk, the millennial schlemiel, must be taught how to not make the same mistakes as Allen’s generation of comedians; and for the Woody Allen who wrote and directed this film, one of the biggest mistakes was the adoption of the schlemiel as a model for Jewishness in America. The irony, of course, is that Allen created the problem; after all, he popularized the schlemiel in many of his films and especially in Annie Hall.   Now, in the role of teacher and in the wake of a career playing schlemiels, Allen, playing Dobel, realizes that Falk needs to be educated. He needs a comedic father-slash-teacher. And Dobel has the right to play this role since he has already gone through the process of playing the schlemiel and leaving the schlemiel behind.

His first words of advice and the last words of the film are the words of the film’s title. Instead of being blinded by astonishment (at being lied to, betrayed, or surprised) by things that seem to come out of nowhere one must simply admit that this or that shocking thing is just like “everything else”(a position Bertolt Brecht, in contrast to Walter Benjamin, believed was optimal). The meaning of these words and the attitude that go along with it inform the transformation of the schlemiel (a man-child) into an independent man. And we see this transformation slowly unfold throughout the film. Each major scene shows us how the schlemiel’s hesitations and attitude are eventually displaced by that magic word: no.

At the outset of the film, Doblin tells two jokes which situate him as Falk’s teacher and hit on what Allen understands as the key contrast between a man and a schlemiel:

You know there’s great wisdom in jokes. There’s an old joke about a prizefighter and he’s getting killed, he’s getting his brains beat out, and his mother’s in the audience, and she’s watching him getting beaten up in the ring. And there’s a priest next to her and she says, “Father…father…pray for him.” And the priest says, “I will pray for him but if he could punch it would help.” There’s more insight in that joke than in most books on philosophy.

The comparison of the joke’s wisdom to that of “books on philosophy” is by no means accidental. To be sure, Falk loves existential literature and philosophy. As Doblin understands it, most of these books make suffering, absurdity, and freedom into themes or ideas. While they are interesting, the person reading them, like the prizefighter who is loosing, could do a lot better if he knew how to punch. And this, for Doblin, hits on the problem with Falk’s version of the schlemiel: he doesn’t know how to punch and stand up for himself. Falk hides behind ideas and the book he is trying to write on existential themes. Doblin’s joke suggests that Falk takes the book (and existential ideas) so seriously that his will and autonomy suffers in the process.   To be free, one must act not think. And for this to happen, Doblin suggests that one must eliminate one’s blindness. One must recognize it and say no. We see this articulated in the second joke Doblin shares with Falk:

There is a seminal joke that Henny Youngman used to tell that is perfect…It sums it up perfectly as far as you go. Guy comes into a Doctor’s office and says, “Doc..Doc…it hurts when I do this.” (Dobel twists his hand.)   The Doctor says, “Don’t do it.” Think about that.

The irony of it all is that even though Doblin looks like a schlemiel, he portrays himself and acts like someone who knows how to punch. (He, in a sense, is, like his name, “doubling.”) He portrays himself as someone who can say no.   Falk, in his view, can do neither because, when he first meets Doblin, Falk doesn’t realize that he is blind to his condition; and for this reason, he can’t say no. And that is what, in Doblin’s eyes, makes Falk a schlemiel.

…to be continued….

A Special Article for Berfrois: “On Innocence: Robin Williams and the Comedy of the ‘Little Man’

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Today, a piece I recently wrote on Robin Williams entitled “On Innocence: Robin Williams and the Comedy of the ‘Little Man'” was published in Berforis, a wonderful Arts and Culture magazine.

Here’s the link to the article.  Take a look!

http://www.berfrois.com/2014/09/menachem-feuer-on-innocence-robin-williams-and-the-comedy-of-the-little-man/

The End of Adulthood or the Dawn of the American-Schlemiel? A.O. Scott’s Kvetch About America’s “Devolution”

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America is changing. We are or rather we have gradually become more and more fixated on the man-child or what in Yiddish is called the schlemiel. While academics have seen this coming, journalists and cultural critics are catching up.   In Eros and the Jews (1997), David Biale argued that Jewish-American comedians “neutralized” the negative connotations associated with the man-child slash effeminate male and, over time, it became identified with the American everyman. Most scholars agree that Woody Allen set this trend into the main stream with films like Annie Hall (1976). Sidrah Ezahi, in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination (2000), followed suit and argued that the schlemiel has become an “American icon.” Jon Stratton’s Coming Out Jewish (2000), drawing on Biale, makes a similar claim.   And Daniel Itzkovitz, in his 2006 essay “They Are All Jews,” argues that while Jewishness and assimilation are on the rise and Judaism is in the decline, American audiences have become “Jewish.” And by this he means that they have become enamored with the man-child or what he calls the “new schlemiel.”

Just yesterday, I was astonished to see two articles – one from The New Yorker and one from The New York Times – that focus in on the man-child as the norm. And both of them ask when this happened.  In response to The New Yorker article, which is entitled “The Awkward Age,” yesterday, I wrote a blog/essay.  And today I’d like to write on the New York Times article which is entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture, which is written by the celebrated film critic A.O. Scott.

What both of these articles share is in interest in when things started to change.  They both ask: when did America start becoming “awkward” or “childlish”? The author of The New Yorker essay argues, against Adam Kotsko – who wrote an intelligent book called Awkwardness – that the beginning of the “age of awkwardness” was not the 60s –when traditional values were radically put into question – but after 9/11.   But, as I pointed out in my blog piece, the author of the essay needs to understand Kotsko’s philosophical and sociological approach to awkwardness before she can understand his periodization. Regardless, it’s interesting how, if we look at the dates of the above-mentioned scholarly works, the merger of the schlemiel with American culture are all dated before 9/11.

In his search for when things started changing in America, A.O. Scott, in his article “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” also goes back before 9/11 . Reflecting on Madmen, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, Scott demurs that, with their deaths at the end of their respective shows, “Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.”

But their death, says Scott, is the result of a longer death that was going on since the 1960s: the “slow unwinding” of patriarchy:

In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is finished, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand. I may be a middle-aged white man, but I’m not an idiot. In the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life. But in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.

Even though the rise of feminism “has been understood as a narrative of progress,” Scott tells us that there “may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.”

Scott’s thesis, to be sure, resonates much with what Adam Kotsko says in his book. Men no longer have the same “norms” to live up to and this is what creates what Kotsko calls “awkwardness” and what Scott calls the “end of adulthood.”  And it is not a mistake that all of the examples Kotsko brings for awkwardness are the same candidates Scott has in mind when he speaks of the “end of adulthood.”

However, Kotsko gives this “end” a different, more positive valence.

To point out what has happened as a result of the end of patriarchy and the end of adulthood, Scott notes that “nearly a third” of the books for “Young Adult readers” are read by men and women between the ages of 30 and 44.

And he’s not happy about this:

Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.

Scott doesn’t stop ranting. He goes on to call this “absurd” and “impotent.” And he takes Hollywood as the purveyor of this culture and his target:

God, listen to me! Or don’t. My point is not so much to defend such responses as to acknowledge how absurd, how impotent, how out of touch they will inevitably sound. In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

The last gasps of manhood, according to Scott, can be seen in TV series like The Sopranos and Mad Men, which herald the “end of male authority.” And now “adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.” And this, for Scott, brings up the central question:

Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?

Before Scott answers the question, he points out how America was, historically, born out of a rebellion against authority: “From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of paternal authority and the imperatives of adulthood.” To illustrate, he cites Leslie Fiedler who argues that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously home in the children’s section of the library.” Rip Van Winkle and Huckelberry Fin are our classics.   And as Fiedler argues, the heroes of many novels want to run away from civilization. They aren’t interested, primarily, in “marriage and responsibility.” They are “boyish.”

What sticks out most, according to Scott citing Fiedler, is the American fictional character’s “innocence and instinctual decency” which are “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world.” And, here we should note, the schlemiel has much in common with these kinds of motifs. Like the American fictional character, Sholem Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim’s characters also have an “innocence and instinctual decency” which is “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the world.” For this reason, when I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” was translated by Saul Bellow and first published in The Partisan Review, in the early 1950s, was a hit. And Singer went on to be a celebrated Jewish-American writer and a Nobel Prize winner. The reason: Gimpel is nearly identical with the American fictional character, as described by Fiedler.

Although there is a history of this in American culture, Scott, like Fiedler, considers it “sophomoric.”

Fiedler saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship — for him the great grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction

Scott argues that this American fictional figure is translated into novels in the 60s and 70s about “wild, uncivilized boys” who rebel against authority and express “youthful rebellion.” Scott takes this thread and argues that it is but a “quick ride” to Hollywood which, eventually, ends up in Apatow’s films that celebrate perpetual adolescence.

However, at this point, Scott makes an interesting move and argues that with Apatow’s films and actors -who play man-children like Adam Sandler – we have a “devolution.”

We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from “Catch-22” to “The Hangover,” from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.”

At this point, Scott finally lays down his cards are suggests a choice between good rebellion or giving up on rebellion. Lenny Bruce, for him, is a rebel, an anti-Hero, while Sandler is a caricature and Apatow’s characters…don’t rebel; they just hang out:

But the antics of the comic man-boys were not merely repetitive; in their couch-bound humor we can detect the glimmers of something new, something that helped speed adulthood to its terminal crisis. Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly. Their importation of adolescent and preadolescent attitudes into the fields of adult endeavor (see “Billy Madison,” “Knocked Up,” “Step Brothers,” “Dodgeball”) delivered a bracing jolt of subversion, at least on first viewing. Why should they listen to uptight bosses, stuck-up rich guys and other readily available symbols of settled male authority?

Scott, understandably, can’t stand the “bro comedy” that we find in Apatow’s films, most of which cast Seth Rogen as the ultimate bro:

The bro comedy has been, at its worst, a cesspool of nervous homophobia and lazy racial stereotyping. Its postures of revolt tend to exemplify the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed. But their refusal of maturity also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean. In the old, classic comedies of the studio era — the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo — adulthood was a fact. It was inconvertible and burdensome but also full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.

Scott, it seems, is fed up with these “coming of age” stories that fall flat. He wants men who are counter-cultural rebels (like Lenny Bruce) and a new approach to adulthood. And, at the end of the article, he’s not sure what to say. It rings of cynicism. It seems it may be too late; we, Americans, may be stuck in perpetual childhood:

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.

By ending on this note, we can see that Scott is not happy with what Itzkovitz would call the “new schelmiel.” And while he understands that the “boyish” man-child is a central American literary tradition, he doesn’t know what to do with this history. His appeals to Lenny Bruce echo the reading of Lenny Bruce made by David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews.   But, as Biale notes, these two figures – the schlemiel and the rebel – are what we are left with. Nearly 20 years after Biale notes this, it seems that Scott sees the battle as over. After all, as Scott says, “Adulthood is dead” and now “the world is our playground.” His last notes are comic, but bittersweet.  And they give us the answer to the question he posed above: he is going to mourn the death of adulthood while we, it seems, will dance on the grave.

But as I look to show, in my forthcoming posts on Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness and my reflections on the schlemiel, one can read this turn to perpetual adolescence in a different manner.

On Awkwardness – Part I

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Last year I read Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness: An Essay.   I put it on the backburner as something I would write about in the near future because, quite frankly, Schlemiel Theory has been busy with several different philosophers, books, and comedians over the last year. That said, when a friend of mine tagged me in a post on facebook today – about an article written in The New Yorker entitled “The Awkward Age” – I felt I had to, at the very least, read the article and comment on Adam Kotsko’s book, which is referred to in the beginning of the article. While the article is not that interesting, Kotsko’s philosophical, sociological, and historical approach to the phenomena of awkwardness is. His “essay” suggests a few possibilities for schlemiel theory that may or may not be of interest because they tap into philosophical and historical approaches to one of the most notable features of comedy today: awkwardness.

At the outset, the article from The New Yorker cites and makes the following comments on Kotsko’s book:

As the Eskimos were said to have seven words for snow, today’s Americans have a near-infinite vocabulary for gradations of awkwardness—there are some six hundred entries in Urban Dictionary. We have Awktoberfest (awkwardness that seems to last a whole month), Awk and Pshaw (a reference to “shock and awe”), and, perhaps inevitably, Awkschwitz (awkwardness worthy of comparison to the Holocaust). We have a hand signal for awkwardness, and we frame many thoughts and observations with “that awkward moment when…” When did awkwardness become so important to us? And why?

In “Awkwardness: An Essay” (2010), the critic Adam Kotsko dates our age of awkwardness—embodied by “the apparently ontological awkwardness of George W. Bush” and manifested in television shows like “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—to the early aughts, with a postwar prehistory. (In short, Kotsko writes, the fifties purveyed capitalism into an ideology of “traditional Christian values”; in the sixties, these values were destabilized by the counterculture movement; the ideological vacuum of the seventies led to the paranoia and nihilism, reflected in the metaphysical being of Woody Allen; in the eighties, pure capitalism became its own value system, sustained by opposition to the Soviet Union; and in the nineties nihilism returned, minus the Cold War paranoia, inaugurating the age of irony.

What caused the shift from irony to awkwardness? Interestingly, Kotsko refuses to blame September 11th, connecting the end of irony less with “a culture-wide turn towards earnestness and patriotism” than with irony having “simply exhausted itself.” My feeling, however, is that we can peg the end of irony to September 11th precisely because of the failure of “earnestness and patriotism” that Kotsko describes. We finally had an “evil opponent” again. Terrorists, like Communists, hated “our way of life.” If we neglected our Christmas shopping, Bush said, the terrorists would win. But, this time, the rhetoric didn’t stick. The U.S.S.R. had been a nuclear superpower, with geopolitical aims comparable, if opposed, to those of the U.S. Al Qaeda was nationless, nihilistic, and armed with box cutters. You couldn’t lump it together with North Korea and call it the Axis of Evil—that didn’t make sense.

The problem with this hasty overview and application of his book is that it doesn’t explain the basis of Kotsko’s reading of awkwardness vis-à-vis philosophy and suggests that Kotsko’s book simply historicizes awkwardness. This is incorrect and misleading.

Yes, the “age” we are living in may be awkward, as the author suggests, but she doesn’t understand why and neither does the reader.   To understand how he historicizes awkwardness, we need to first understand the philosophical basis for his project.

Kotsko turns to Martin Heidegger and then Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the philosophical basis of awkwardness.   Regarding Heidegger, Kotsko notes how the “most fundamental mood” that Heidegger “examines in the context of Being and Time is anxiety”(12).   Through this mood, Dasein (being-there, man) has a “special window onto a question that he pairs with that of the meaning of being: namely, the questions of time”(12). When a person “dwells” in a “mood of anxiety” he or she experiences “time” as an “existential urgency”(12).

Besides being interested in anxiety and its relation to time, Kotsko is also interested in Heidegger’s treatment of another mood; namely “boredom”: “Whereas anxiety provides special insight into the question of time, boredom bears specifically on the question of how humanity is related to animal life”(12).   Drawing on Heidegger, Kotsko notes how boredom – like anxiety – brings out what is “truly distinctive about humanity” since it enables us to be “detached” from “an amazing array of stimuli” (or what Heidegger would call the world). This detachment is what Heidegger would call transcendence.

From here, he notes how, for Heidegger sees anxiety as a more “fundamental mood” than boredom because the mood of boredom is still too connected to the world.   While boredom is a “breakdown in our normal relationship to the world…anxiety points toward the ultimate breakdown of death”(14).

Although Kotsko finds the moods of anxiety and boredom to be interesting in terms of understanding our relationship to time and the world (as well as its breakdown), what he wants to find, most of all, is a mood that will tap into what interests Jean-Luc Nancy most: the meaning of relationship as such.   To this end, he asks the question: what mood can this be. And his answer is awkwardness:

Awkwardness clearly fits the general pattern of insight through breakdown, but unlike anxiety or boredom, it doesn’t isolate the person who feels awkward – as I have already discusses, it does just the opposite: it spreads. (15)

In other words, Kotsko is interested in how awkwardness is a contagious kind of mood. Other people, in relation, can catch it (as it “spreads”) can become awkward.

Kotsko adds that “awkwardness is a breakdown in our normal experience of social interaction while itself remaining irreducibly social”(15). By doing this, he opens the door to a sociological and historical reading of awkwardness which is really about being unable to act “properly” in an (ab)normal situation that one is caught in. He brings in the sociological register of “norms” to explain:

Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to “get by,” with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness prompts us to set up social norms in the first place – and what prompts us to transform them. (16)

With a definition like this, how can one say that our post 9/11 age is the most awkward one of all as the writer from The New Yorker suggests? With this philosophical and sociological kind of basis, one can argue that any age that is transitional will be awkward.

However, Kotsko is responsible for the title and theme of The New Yorker article’s periodizing since he focuses on the present and the origins of our awkward time. In fact, he entitles the section, immediately after his philosophical grounding “The origins of our awkward age.”

It should be clear by this point that I believe that we are currently in a state of cultural awkwardness. Contemporary mainstream middle-class social norms are not remotely up to the task of minimizing awkwardness, but at the same time, there seems to be no real possibility of developing a positive alternative….There are many possible reasons that such a condition could have arisen in the first decade of the 21st century….but…I believe we must look to the social upheavals of the 1960s. (17)

What follows is a sociological exercise. Since the 1960s challenged, traditional values the norms changed and America had a hard time adjusting. He discusses changes in terms of civil rights, sexuality, experimentation, and nihilism. Woody Allen, according to Kotsko, emerged as “one of the pioneers of awkwardness” in the 1970s because of this radical social upheaval.   And even though things changed in the 1980s because of the Regan Era (which looked to reestablish tradition and norms and “overcome awkwardness”) the 90s, which marks a fall back into instability, gives us Seinfeld.

But, argues Kotsko, “none of the main characters actually sit and stew in their awkwardness, and I’d propose that that’s because they are all essentially sociopaths. They cause awkwardness in others but don’t truly feel it themselves, because they lack any real investment in the social order – instead they merely attempt to manipulate it”(23).

The only exception to the Seinfeld rule is the schlemiel, George: “His sheer patheticness and vulnerability, his lack of the steady income and social status of Jane or Elaine or the strange self-assurance of Kramer, keep him from being completely detached”(23). In other words, he is awkward because he is not successful in a context where others are.

Kotsko argues that the “seeds of awkwardness” are planted here. And that it is after 9/11 that the we become an “age of awkwardness.”   In this age, Curb Your Enthusiasm and films by Judd Apatow illustrate how awkward we have become.   There are two ways, according to Kotsko, that we can approach awkwardness. Either it is “individuals” who create awkwardness, as we see in the US version of The Office (25) or it is a social order as we see in Apatow’s films. He finds the second position to be of greater interest to his project:

If the social order itself seems to be producing awkwardness, let people indulge in awkwardness on purpose as a way of letting off steam. This strategy is on full display in several Judd Apatow films: if men are afraid to leave behind the awkward state of overgrown adolescence and get married, then build in a space for them to indulge in their awkwardly adolescent pleasures. (26)

Besides “letting off steam” and remaining awkward, Kotsko sees awkwardness as a strategy to challenge the status quo, on the one hand, or as an opportunity to relate to each other in a way that is not based on any norm whatsoever:

When we resist awkwardness, the social order looks good. When we resist social order, awkwardness looks good. But on those rare occasions when we figure out a way to stop resisting the social order and yet also stop resisting awkwardness and just go with it, something genuinely new and unexpected may happen: we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands. (26)

Kotsko calls this “the promise of awkwardness”(26) and argues that “for all its admitted perils and difficulties, awkwardness does contain a seed of hope”(26). To be sure, Kotsko, who does much work in Continental Philosophy, is familiar with Karl Marx, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin who all discuss hope and its relation to opposing the status quo. He is no doubt drawing on this trend by claiming that the mood of awkwardness is a “seed of hope” and a “promise.”   It is not merely a term to describe the “age” we are it – as the writer from The New Yorker suggests.

Kotsko spells it out at the end of his first chapter: “More than describing a cultural trend, then, my goal here is ultimately to point toward what we’re all already hoping for”(28). What Kotsko means by this is that the mood of awkwardness – suggested by Apatow films and…in general – is a messianic or utopian kind of mood that anticipates living in a world where “we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands”(26).

Does Big Bang Theory also project this hope? Is Seth Rogen a messianic figure? If we are to live perpetually in a kind of childhood state, as Apatow’s films suggest, we will be in a perpetual state of awkwardness. And this anticipates, for Kotsko, a messianic state of not living up to an ideal and being an adult.

The suggestions that Kotsko makes about our age have to do with the collapse of norms that we can maintain by not wanting to return to tradition or anything normative. It’s better to just figure out our-relation-to-each-other as we go along. I find this proposal to be very interesting because it suggests something we see with the schlemiel who is often portrayed as an innocent, naïve, and awkward character. In fact, all of the characters that Kotsko looks at could be called schlemiels.

…to be continued….