Saying too Much, Or Not Enough: The Schlemiel, Speech, and Bad Timing in Malamud’s “The Assistant”

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More often than not, schlemiels miss opportunities. They are often too late or too early; they either speak too much or too little. Schlemiels do things that make them the odd one’s out. Andy Warhol, an unlikely candidate for the schlemiel, finds a good idiom to express this endless bungling when he points out how, “Whenever I’m interested in something, I know that timing’s off, because I’m always interested in the right thing at the wrong time.” Although it may seem as if Warhol is the odd one out, he is saying something many Americans can identify with. Although many of us don’t like to admit it, because its embarrassing or unprofessional, our timing is often off.   To be sure, relating to the other or to time itself, we often misjudge what to say and what to do. Oftentimes, this has to do with the fact that when we act we often act at the wrong time and take risks in relation to norms that are often not so clear. To be sure, failure is endemic to being human but in the schlemiel it is caricatured to an even greater extent so as to point out what we often choose not to admit about who we are and the meaning of what we actually do.   We tend to overestimate ourselves and others and the schlemiel flies in the face of this misrecognition. But for all it’s failures, the schlemiel is, as I have argued, a deeply moral and even saintly character. But this saintliness – unlike the saintliness of saints in this or that religion – is tainted with missed opportunities, bad timing, and failure.

At the end of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, a book schlemiel theory has blogged on a lot, Frank lives in the wake of Morris Bober’s death. As I pointed out before, he takes on the legacy of the schlemiel. This is emblematized in the moment when, during the funeral, he falls into Bober’s grave. He falls in because he was distracted.   But this doesn’t detract from the fact that Frank wants to do good and make amends for things he has done wrong. Now that Bober is dead, it is a lot more difficult for him to get forgiveness; since Bober didn’t fully forgive him for what he did, Frank has to make appeals to Helen and Ida, who survive Bober.

While Ida and Helen are sitting shiva (mourning), Frank gets to work and helps out:

He had used their week of mourning, when mother and daughter were confined upstairs, to get the store going. Staying open kept it breathing, but beyond that things were rocky. (233)

Lest we not forget, Helen is not on good terms with Frank because of his untimely sexual encounter with her. Ida is on the fence with him. Neither of them know that he was one of the people who robbed Bober. Regardless, Frank works diligently to gain back their trust. He cooks food, makes sandwiches, and works while they are in mourning and, later, away from the store.

Even though Helen stays away from Frank, he keeps on working until, one day, he decides that he wants to tell her that he wants to pay for her education. But the time that leads up to this is awkward since he is unsure of his timing:

He was nearing the library when he glanced up and saw her.   She was about half a block away and walking toward him. He stood there not knowing which way to go, dreading to be met by her as lovely as she looked, standing like a crippled dog as she passed him. He thought of running back the way he had come, but she saw him, turned and went in haste the other way. (238)

Since the timing is off, the situation alters her timing too. And then he “blurts” out what he wants to say: “They shivered. Giving her no time to focus her contempt, he blurted out what he had so long saved to say but could not now stand to hear himself speak”(238).

Frank knows he has, like a schlemiel, said the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Helen is moved by this awkwardness.   Even though his timing is off, she is startled by his tenacity:

Considering the conditions of his existence, she was startled by his continued abilty to surprise her, make God-knows-what-next-move. His staying power mystified and frightened her, because she felt in herself…a waning of outrage. (239)

However, she says the opposite thing of what she wanted to say. She refuses him and says she doesn’t want his help.   However, she is curious. Querying into his “virtue,” she asks him why he is so persistent.   And at this point, Frank puts his foot into his mouth by saying that everything he is doing is because “I owe something to Morris.”   When she asks “for what?” Frank goes into schlemiel consciousness and battles with himself as to whether or not he should tell the truth. And this turns into a question about timing. Is now the right time to speak?

What more could he say? To his misery, what he had done to her father rose in his mind. He had often imagined he would someday tell her, but not now.   Yet the wish to say it overwhelmed him. He tried wildly to escape it. His throat hurt, his stomach heaved. He clamped his teeth tight but the words came up in blobs, in a repulsive stream. (240)

The narrator’s nauseating metaphor for Frank’s speech as “blobs, in a repulsive stream” indicates that Frank says the very things that will lead to him being despised. When Helen learns that Frank was in on the robbery of Bober, which the book began with, she “screams” at him, calls him a criminal, and leaves. Frank’s last words to Helen are, “I confessed it to him.” But this confession doesn’t make a difference. His timing was off. But then again he spoke the truth and in telling her he suffers it.

In the wake of this, Helen realizes that Frank did change into “somebody else” and was “no longer what he had been”(243). And in realizing this she feels that “since he has changed in his heart he owes me nothing”(243). And, in effect, she releases him from his debt to Morris. She does this actively by, for the first time, thanking him and declaring his debt over (243).   He feels that now it is the right time to start all over. However, his timing is off. She refuses. But he learns to let go.

Following this event, Frank goes back to a form of timing he knows well. He becomes, like Bober, bound to the store. In the midst of his first day, after confession, he dreams of Helen and sees himself, in a moment of day dreaming, as St. Francis. He gives Helen, a “little sister” a rose.   He is a saint, but in reality he doesn’t have Helen.

And in the last paragraph of the novel, we learn that he “one day” decided to have himself circumcised. And, following it, his time is filled with the pain of circumcision and the inspiration that he is a Jew. This time, in contrast to the bad timing in the end of the novel, is not, as Warhol would say, the right thing at the wrong time. On the contrary, Malamud seems to be telling us that Jewish time – now marked on his body – will always be a mixture of pain and inspiration.   But this time may always seem wrong and may always seem off. Perhaps that is the virtue of the schlemiel: to show us how time is always right and wrong – how time may be off when it is on and vice versa – or as Hamlet would say “out of joint.”  But that can be funny sometimes…while at other times it can be really painful.

Foolishly Re-turning to Dreams and Places of My Birth

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A birthday is an event, a happening that unfolds in time.  And today is my birthday.  But instead of dwelling on the day or on time, one of the things I always like to do for my birthday is to get in my car and travel to places in the United States where I went through some kind of transformation or rebirth.  (And one of these places is where I was born and raised, for real: Gloversville, New York. Some authors, like Saul Bellow and Ben Katchor, envision it as a “wild” place.)  But there are so many and these places are scattered all over this country.  So I can’t possibly go to all of them; for this reason, I usually stick to driving to different places in New York State (a state where I grew up and where I received my “higher” education).  I foolishly return to these places hoping that some memory or experience of the transformations that went down in this or that area will – once again – come to life.  By simply walking through the streets, breathing the air, hearing sounds, or smelling this or that thing, I imagine that I will be transported, so to speak, back in time.

But, more often than not, nothing happens. And I end up spending a day in this or that “place of (re)birth” aimlessly drifting around.  Instead of a new beginning, I seem to be caught up in a series of movements out into American spaces that are changing at a rapid pace.   But I’m not disappointed.  Like a schlemiel, I just shrug my shoulders and move on.   My expectations don’t meet with reality, and that’s familiar enough.  But that won’t keep me from imagining things that may or may not happen at this or that place.  Even though I may check myself and say myself that “wherever you go, nothing will happen; don’t imagine too much, you will be disappointed,” I still foolishly like to dream that I am going somewhere that something might happen.  After all, something is bound to happen and perhaps I will learn or experience something transformational in this or that place.

Dreaming about places is something I’m good at.   But, in truth, it’s something a lot of Jews are good at, too.  There is something about dreaming about places that is very Jewish; after all, Jews have (and still do) dream of the end of Exile and the Return to Jerusalem (“next year in Jerusalem”) or Israel.   But, on the other hand, Jews in America are good at dreaming about their past, present, and future experiences.  This dreaminess may come out when Jews speak about their experiences.  And this is where the fictional enterprise becomes larger than life and even place.

In truth, when I really think about it, what I care about more than this or that place is this or that story.  In places where I went to, what was most transformational for me was not the place; rather, it was the fact that I bore witness to this or that great story or I myself crafted a great story (or performance) in this or that place.  This or that story – told with the most unexpected nuances – are what kept the dream alive.  The place, oftentimes, was arbitrary.

I grew up with a storyteller.  On a daily basis, my father would tell stories either to me or to his best friend (David Kaplan z’l) about this or that person, place, thing, or event in time.  But, as I realized at an early age, my father didn’t simply animate the thing or experience and make me want to eat, visit, see, hear, or feel this or that thing he talked about; he also made me acutely aware of the language, gesture, and tone he used to animate these things.   His dreams resided in his performances; and I was often his sole audience.  A smile or a look of astonishment from me or those around him was the key to making his dreams come to life.  These were the places he visited.  And though we traveled around the USA, what I remember most is not the place so much as what my father said in this or that place.

And in this, I aver, he was a schlemiel.  The schlemiel animates the place not vice versa.  And he does this by virtue of his dream-like performances of language and gestures.

In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi begins her reflections on the schlemiel by way of a reading of Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the III.  Although the plot is based on a journey that the two protagonists are going to make outside of their small village, we learn that they don’t make it to any fantastic places outside the Pale of Settlement.  They stay within its boundaries.  And what they take in, more than anything, are their experiences. They shine in the telling and retelling.  Indeed, the novel is more about speech and storytelling than in actually going on.  Ruth Wisse and Sidrah Ezrahi agree on this point: language is, during the Exile, a Jews surrogate for power and sovereignty.   Paraphrasing George Steiner, they would say that speech (the text) is the schlemiel’s homeland.

Ezrahi sees this text as the birth of a schlemiel who would, in his travels, end up in America where s/he would do the same thing: live on experiences, things, and stories about them.  In the retelling, everything would be perpetually rediscovered and renewed.  In contrast to this, Ezrahi puts the “desire for place” (homecoming) which is based on a desire to return to Israel.   As I noted above, this desire is very “Jewish” and has lasted for centuries.  It can be argued that it existed prior to the Exile from Jerusalem; in fact, the Torah/Bible tells that story which beings with the promise God makes to Abraham regarding “the land” (ha’aretz).

Ezrahi argues that, with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, this all changes.  Now, the dream is a reality.  (Theodor Herzl once said, in this regard, “will it and it’s not a dream.”)  Israel, says Ezrahi, Is-Real.  She insists that the dream of Israel continue but in terms of re-imagining the relation of the Jewish people to the Land which, with all the things going on right now, is in flux.   The sensibility that does this, by and large, is physically rooted in the land of Israel.

In contrast to this, we have the sensibility of Exile; and the dreamers of Exile are in America.  She calls this country – in the spirit of Hollywood – the “land of dreams.”  And, as I noted above with my father, these dreams are all about finding new experiences and talking about them.  These are the speech (or gestural) “events” that concern American Jews.

On my birthday, I can’t help but reflect on this powerful thesis.  I lived through this allure of experience.  When I think about one of my greatest American experiences, I remember my travels across country: the experiences, the conversations, and the happenings.  And the stories that followed in their wake were the very thing that gave me a sense of life and vitality.  Ezrahi would say that these experiences (and my recounting of them) are an illustration of “Diasporic privilege.”

Until I read her book, I never thought of the enthrallment for experience and its retelling that my father bequeathed to me (as an inheritance of sorts) as a “diasporic privilege.”  Nonetheless, I feel no shame over the fact that I draw life from experience and its retelling.  I don’t derive it from this or that physical place, so much as this or that place in this or that conversation or performance.  This is my world and perhaps this is a world of exile.  Regardless, I think that these are my birthplaces (in the plural).  There is truly something to idea that one can reinvent or rediscover oneself in the telling of this or that experience; and this can only happen when we tell this to someone.  It has a personal dimension.

But the important thing to keep in mind is that there is no guarantee that something may happen; its contingent on many factors.  Nonetheless, one of the important things about the schlemiel can be found in the fact the schlemiel dreams big about the happening.  He hopes that something may happen in time; but when nothing happens, he just moves on to another place.

That’s what Gimpel does at the end of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.”  He constantly puts himself in a situation where people are given the opportunity to be honest to him, but they all lie. And after he exhausts all of the possibilities for trust, he leaves.  He dreams of another place where this will happen.  He goes toward it.  So do I.

And when I find it, that will be my birthplace.  But, ultimately, its not my final birthplace.  As an exiled American-Jew, my birthplace, like my dreams will constantly be in flux.  And, perhaps, as Ezrahi suggests, that would all change if I were to return to my historical roots in Israel and dream of that “real” place.  Perhaps. But, for now, I’m just a visitor.  (And I have been on a few visits.)  Her thesis can only be demonstrated by living there.  But, right now, I’m living here…in the “land of dreams.”

This is where I had my first birthday and this is the place where I have had all my birthdays….This is the place where I dreamed (and dream) of all the places I was born… But in the end, these birth-places that I dream about can only happen between me and you.    Only between you and I can there be an event…that unfolds in time…a birth-day…But, perhaps, nothing will happen…This is the risk I take when I speak or perform before any of you….

As the comedians say, it’s ALL in the timing….

…my last words, regardless of what I say on my birthday, will always risk not being on time…I hope they will arrive, but these are the hopes of a schlemiel who hungers for relationships and birthdays…

THE END

(Applause, Astonishment, or Silence?)

It’s All in the Timing: A Brief Note on Kairos

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After responding to Jeffrey Bernstein’s piece on schlemiel temporality, I have been thinking about the relationship of messianic time (the Augenblick) to schlemiel temporality.  Are they, in fact, opposites?  The key term that Bernstein brought to the discussion was Kairos.  As I noted in the last blog entry, this term was used by Paul to signify a kind of time that is anticipated, messianic.  As Bernstein puts it, kairos is the “eschatalogically charged instant in which the encounter with God and the acknowledgment of messianic time occurs.”  In contrast to this time, Bernstein proposes a time that he calls more “prosaic” as opposed to the time of Kairos which is more poetic and resonates more with a Christian tradition that battles with presence. Jewish time, in contrast, is belated.  As I noted:

Bernstein brilliantly argues that “the schlemiel does not prophesy so much as ‘register prophetically’ what has already happened as what will always already continue to have been happening (Oy, look what I did).”   The schlemiel doesn’t have an “Ahah!” moment so much as an “oh…yeah!” moment.  And this is not by any means an moment of Kairos or messianic anticipation (with all of its poetry and pathos).  Rather, it is quite a prosaic and mundane moment.

This prosaic moment is necessarily comic.  And, as I note in the blog entry, Walter Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism marks such a discovery; however, in it, Benjamin realizes that he is the subject of the joke.  His writing, as the aphorism implies, is always-already childish, but he figures it as a surprise.

Bernstein’s reading of Kairos puts an interesting twist to my reading and it made me think about the other reading of Kairos; namely, the one that both Heidegger and Agamben reject. That reading is the reading of Aristotle.  To be sure, Aristotle’s reading is to prosaic for them.   They would rather have Paul’s reading of Kairos on their side.

I was curious about this reading of Kairos and it struck me that I had, in the past, come across another reading of Karios which I found very interesting and perhaps even relevant to schlemiel theory.   I found this reading in one of Roland Barthes’ lectures which he gave in 1978 in Morroco.  The lectures have been translated and complied in a book entitled The Neutral.

What I find most interesting about Barthes’ readings of Kairos is the fact that he doesn’t even mention Aristotle.  In fact, he mentions two “other” readings of Karios: one coming from the sophists and the other from the skeptics.  I’ll briefly sketch them out and, in the end of this blog entry, I’d like to think about whether or how they can be related to the schlemiel.

Barthes begins his lecture on Kairos by giving its etymology: Ho Kairos: right, appropriate measure.  And then he reads it in terms of time as a “timely moment” or “occasion.”

To illustrate his take on Kairos, Barthes contrasts the Sophist’s reading of Kairos to the Skeptics.  For the sophist, proper speech is always about finding and speaking at the right moment:

The temporality of the Sophist discourse by jolts, zigzags, catches: hunting for the “right moment.”  The tension is continuous, lengthy lookout > discourse of mastery: the “right moment” = weapon of power: today we would say: political swell.

In contrast to the Sophists, the Skeptics are not looking to appropriate time as a “weapon of power” that can be used to win whatever argument.  Rather, the skeptic’s sense of Kairos is about “marking” time and “undoing the time of the system.”  The skeptic:

Puts moments of flight in it (the system and is) about preventing the system from taking.

Barthes mentions how, if there could actually be a “virtual system of Skepticism,” it would be the “devise for undoing mastery.”

However,  regardless of their differences, both the Sophistic and the Skeptical sense of Kairos would agree that “Truth is not the ultimate instance.”  In his discussion of this point, which echoes Marx and Hegel, Barthes brings up Hegel’s words on Skepticism and relates it back to Kairos.  According to Hegel,  both the skeptic and the sophist are stuck on the level of “subjective certainty and conviction and not on the value of absolute truth.”

Skeptic: acts according to laws that don’t have truth value to this eyes: his consciousness is a completely empirical existence; his reality = total contingency; his self-identity – something completely empty.

Barthes builds on this reading and exults Kairos as the time of contingency.  He notes that it has a “humbling” feature:  it is what “prevents the becoming system, the becoming arrogant of worldliness.”  He translates this into a way of avoiding being on time or what he calls “perfectly dodging time.”  To illustrate, Barthes cites a passage about the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales and his avoidance of marriage:

The story is told that, when his mother tried to force him to marry, he replied that it was too soon, and when she pressed him again later in life, he replied that it is too late.

The point of this version of Kairos, which “perfectly dodges time,” is to avoid being taken into any system or even having one’s own system.   Ultimately, Barthes throws out the possibility that Kairos is to be associated with Satori.  But instead of translating this into a timeless spiritual state, Barthes associates it with “an energetic time: the moment insofar as it produces something, a changeover: it’s a force > non-tactical kairos (not meant to trap the other but rather interiorized).  This leads him to claim that, unlike an intellectual “insight,” the Kairos is an energetic “burst of brilliance” – “of the moment in its pure status of exception, its absolute power of mutation.”  And this relates back to the skeptics insofar as, for Barthes, the main mode of perception for the Skeptic is skepsis which he translates as “intense observation.”

And out of Satori, out of this “intense observation” that is Kairos there is an exclamation: “Ah, this!”  This is opposed to a rational apprehension of things: “That’s how it is!”

After reading through Barthes’ reading of Kairos, I wonder: is this “Ah, this!” (Kairos) moment different from the moment of schlemiel temporality which exclaims, as Bernstein puts, “Oh…yeah!”?   I’m inclined to say yes and I do this with the thought that, for Barthes, the Kairos he describes is still caught up with the loss of truth and the experience of time as contingency.  What’s different with the schlemiel is the tension between the hope and skepticism (which is a temporal tension).  The schlemiel – or the viewer of the schlemiel – cannot simply settle for the skeptical.  Its there, as is the tact of the sophist, but there’s more.  And this leads to a kind of irony that is temporal in character.  Perhaps this is the comic aspect that Barthes’ reading lacks.  It wouldn’t make sense to him or to a Sophist or Skeptic – to be caught in such a temporal jam of absent-mindedness.  To state it simply, Jews know very well the meaning of contingency; that’s not the issue.  It’s the relation of contingency to election and to its frustration.

By election  I don’t simply mean the election of the Jews by God as stated in the Torah.  Rather, by election I mean, as Emmanuel Levinas says, that one is elected by the other to be responsible.  (This is something outside of oneself and beyond one’s control.  But it is constantly coming toward one, as it were, from out of the future.  It, so to speak, haunts one’s every move.)  And this creates a different sense of temporality than the temporality of Kairos.  This election comes from out of the future and by way of the other person (and, for the schlemiel, that could be the shlimazel, the audience, etc) and it reminds one that one is always-already indebted to the other and that, most likely, one will fail – in one way or the other – to “properly” respond to the other. And, as in many a schlemiel routine, this always comes as a surprise.  The schlemiel is, in a sense, always belated vis-à-vis the other.  He comes too late.  And this isn’t so much a “perfect dodging of the system” (as we saw above with Thales witty way of dodging marriage) as being dodged.

And on this note, the belated “oh…yeah!” of the schlemiel resonates differently that the “Ah, this!” of the Zen master.  Perhaps this is the temporal key to why the schlemiel is so funny: she will always be to late not because she is simply absent-minded but because she is – so to speak – too late for the other.    And, as I suggested in my title, it’s “all in the timing.”  This timing of the other does have a Messianic aspect to it since, in this kind of time, one is constantly standing in judgment (a judgment that is alway to come).  The awkwardness of the schlemiel and her acknowledgment – stated in the “oh yeah!” –  is constantly repeated.  And this repetition reminds us that the schlemiel, as a Jewish comic character, stands continually in this kind of temporal relation.  It is a relation that Jews have, so to speak, inherited from their tradition and, as Levinas argues, from their acute awareness of an other who – I might add – may or may not laugh at one’s jokes.