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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Maurice Blanchot: Reading….Writing, Nothing to Laugh About

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Maurice Blanchot is an odd figure in Continental Philosophy and literary criticism. He regarded his writing as meaningless; nonetheless, he was honored as the source of an entire generation of philosophy and literary criticism. Michel Foucalt, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean-Luc Nancy have all written essays on him and clearly acknowledge their debts. Nonetheless, in her introduction to The Space of Literature, Anne Smock reminds us that, in America, literary critics like Geoffrey Hartman stated that “Blanchot’s work offers no point of approach whatsoever”; and even in France, George Poulet said that Blanchot is an even greater waste of time than Proust.” Nonetheless, Smock praises Blanchot for making criticism a lot like what she defines as literature. His work, like much of literature, is “wasted time”:

It presents the literary work as that which permits no approach other than wasted steps; it uninterruptedly expresses the incomparable passion which literature commands.

Her reading suggests, much like Blanchot, that proper readings of literature should admit that they are really “wasted steps” and that all literary criticism is, at bottom, a lie if it doesn’t admit to this experience. This is hard for me – as an American-Jew who loves to read and make sense of things – to believe. Literature is not a waste. I actually see it as a treasure trove of meaning.  Yes, the text, in a Midrashic sense, is inexaustable, but meaningful interpretations can and should be made.  The Rabbis don’t experience dread when they read, they experience joy.

I’ll be honest with you. I admit that I spent several years reading Blanchot and taking on his texts as Derrida or Foucault suggested I or anyone who read their reading of him would. But, in the end, I realized that I had been duped. The reason why I felt this way was because I realized that although his writing may be filled with irony, it lacks a sense of humor.   And in short: there is nothing to laugh at in his work. And that has to do with the excess of dread, failure, and powerlessness that his texts obsess over, at length.

Dread ruins everything: but, most importantly for himself – a reader and writer of literature – it ruins reading and writing. As Martin Heidegger says in his essay “What is Metaphysics,” “The Nothing nihilates” everything. And this is disclosed via Dread/Angst. It ruins the world; in The Step/Not Beyond (Le Pas Au-Dela), Blanchot tells us it ruins reading and writing:

Dread makes reading forbidden (the words separated, something arid and devastating about them; no more texts, every word useless or else foundering in something I do not know, attracting me to it with resistance, understanding as an injustice). To write, then, the effect of a negative hallucination, given nothing to read, nothing to understand. (63)

What gets me is the ban that he insists on. If I am forbidden to write or read by virtue of Dread that means, I am powerless to derive any meaning from writing or reading. But Blanchot goes on to say that “dread forbids dread.” Does this mean that dread can’t even be experienced?

When dread forbids dread, preventing my being abandoned to it in order to better hold on to me. “You will not transgress me.” – “I will not sanctify you.” The unsureness of certain dread. (63)

Does this mean that, in a Kierkegaardian sense, because of Dread I may be confused as to whether I have something to resist or obey?

Blancot uses a literary type of reflection to illustrate (is that the right word) this non-experience of dread:

It is like a figure that he doesn’t see, that is missing because it is there, having all the traits of a figure that would not figure itself and with which the incessant lack of relation, without presence, without absence, is a sign of a common solitude. He names it, although he knows that it has no name, even in his language, this beating of a hesitant heart. Neither of them lives, life passes between them leaving them on the edge of space.

Wordless in the midst of words.

As one can see, there is nothing to laugh about in Blanchot or, for that matter, literature. But is that literary experience? Would Blanchot say the same for a comedic line from…let’s say Samuel Beckett? What would he say about what Beckett would call the “laugh that laughs at the laugh?”

One wonders. Oh well.

Here is a line from Beckett that is humorous and a little dreadful.

But suddenly I was descending down a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set afoot in my lifetime. But soon realizing I was going downhill I turned about and set off in another direction. For I was afraid if I went downhill of returning to the sea where I had sworn never to return.   When I say I turned I mean I wheeled around in a wide semi-circle without slowing down, for I was afraid if I stopped of not being able to start again, yes, I was afraid of that too. (“The Calmative”)

This fear, this neurosis, makes fun of dread. So does Woody Allen in his short story “My Philosophy.” In the last section, entitled “Aphorisms” he speaks to the theme of dread in Continental Philosophy and laughs it off the page:

It is impossible to experience one’s own death objectively and still carry a tune.

Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you’re dressed for it. 

Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.

And some people say reading Woody Allen is a “waste of time.”   We report, you decide. (That is, if you are not, at-this-moment, (non)experiencing Dread. If you are, well, that’s …nothing to laugh about.)

When in doubt, always ask Groucho:

 

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….

Almost Communicating, or What Happens When a Middle-Age Schlemiel Falls in Love With a Korean Girl – Part I

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Over the last decade, we have seen countless films about “middling” or aging schlemiels. Think of Ben Stiller’s roles in Meet the Fockers (2004), Greenberg (2010), or The Heartbreak Kid (2007), Seth Rogen’s Neighbors (2014) or Guilt Trip (2012), or of Judd Apatow’s 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), or This is 40 (2012).  Apatow, more than any filmmaker, has made something of a cottage industry based on middle age schlemiels.

Also think of Sarah Silverman’s latest work for her youtube channel, Jash, where she is constantly looking into what her character, a 40 plus year old woman, goes through as she ages. The task of documenting the aging schlemiel is nothing new, however. One need look no father than the popularization of this in Woody Allen’s films – especially Annie Hall (1977).   

While the filmic exploration of the aging schlemiel is widespread and noticeable – to such an extent that the middling schlemiel is becoming something of an American cultural icon – the literary equivalent is less noticed by the everyday American. To be sure, books like Stern, by Bruce Jay Freedman, Herzog, by Saul Bellow, A New Life, by Bernard Malamud, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti – to name only a handful examples which span over four decades – take the aging schlemiel as their theme.

What’s most interesting about these literary treatments of the middling/aging schlemiel is that they give us an acute sense of how the schlemiel – and we ourselves – are becoming more and more out of sync with the times we are living in. After repeated failure, the schlemiel eagerly tries to carve out a “new life.” But as s/he ages s/he comes to realize that she hasn’t succeeded and that now, with age, things are more difficult than before. This creates a desperate situation and character whose new failures are much worse than before. Yet, with all of this failure and repeated failure, there is a kind of charm that comes through in this or that missed encounter, missed social cue, or belated response. Most charming is the middling schlemiel’s failure to communicate when love is on the table and cultural differences are front-row-center. The conceit of the narrative is to be found in how the middling schlemiel navigates these gaps.

We see an exceptional illustration of this middling schlemiel’s attempt at bridging the gaps between youth and middle age as well as between Korean and Jewish in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.   The fascinating thing is that one gap challenges another in his novel. The middling main character Lenny Abramov – a Russian-American-Jewish son of immigrants – stumbles across Eunice Park, falls in love with her, and does his most to deal with this gap and win her over. But his failures show the desperation of this gesture; nonetheless, she also fails. And the way she fails – with her family’s expectations and her own expectations – transforms her into a character who, though Korean, shares much in common with the schlemiel. Regardless, the communication gap, the age gap, and the cultural gap challenge this commonality and make for a fascinating read on the middling schlemiel which solicits culture, love, and communication as relevant to being (and understanding) a schlemiel.

For now, I just want to touch on the communication gap when they first meet. It becomes the foundation for the ensuing struggle to bridge it. When he leaves with her, after a party that he and she occasion in Rome, Italy, he feels she left with him because she really likes him and that, in some way, he is her hero. In his mind, he has saved her from another middling man – a physically intimidating sculptor – who, aggressively, challenges Lenny when he tries to talk with Eunice, his Korean love interest. He is snubbed by the sculptor but, in the end, he wins a kind of indirect victory when she leaves with him not the sculptor.

Notice the comedic rhetoric that is used to describe his movements in relation to hers. He thinks of himself as a hero, but comes across as an anti-hero:

Eunice Park and I marched ahead. She marched, I hopped, unable to cover up the joy of having escaped the party with her by my side. I wanted Eunice to thank me for saving her from the sculptor and his stench of death. I wanted her to get to know me and then to repudiate all the terrible things he said about my person, my supposed greed, my boundless ambition, my lack of talent…I wanted to tell her that I myself was in danger….all because I had slept with one middle-aged Italian woman. (21)

But telling her wouldn’t matter. Eunice could care less about the situation Lenny was going through.

Feeling young and hip – although he is middling – he tells her of a cool “Nigerian” restaurant in Rome to go to following the party: “I stressed “Nigerian” to underline my openmindedness. Lenny Abramov, friend to all”(21). But this doesn’t get through to her.

She calls him a nerd and throws several three letter abbreviations – hip in youth culture – at him to show the gap between them. And this “hurts” him:

“You’re such a nerd.” She laughed cruelly at me.

“What?” I said. “I’m sorry.” I laughed to, just in case it was a joke, but right away I felt hurt.

“LPT,” she said, “TIMATOV. ROFLAARP, PRGV, Totally PRGV.”

The youth and their abbreviations. I pretended like I knew what she was talking about. “Right,” I said, “IMF. PLO. ESL.”

His abbreviations emerge out of a different era and show what things that were of interest to him, then: ESL (fitting in to American culture), PLO (being a Jew whose Russian parents were very concerned with Israel’s future), and IMF (which shows he may have had interest in activism against globalization, when it first started emerging)

The gap is pronounced and the pain that comes with the missed encounter and communication lag show us the life of a middling schlemiel who desperately tries to overcome what, in fact, may not be possible to overcome. After all, age is existential. So is culture….

Charm…that’s another issue…. Can it bridge the gap?

….to be continued…

 

 

The Postmodern Chelm, or The Artistic Community in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” – Part I

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I can remember the first time I ever heard a story about the Jewish fool otherwise known as a schlemiel.   What struck me about the story, when I first heard it (when I was six or seven years old), was that the schlemiel wasn’t an independent agent. He lived amidst other schlemiels – in a town called Chelm.   And the community, I believed, had something to do with his foolishness.   Years later, I looked deeper into the issue to discover that German-Jews often associated the schlemiel with the ghetto while Eastern European Jews associated the schlemiel with the shtetl. And while the German-Jews looked down on this community and its relationship, Eastern-European writers – like I.B. Singer, who translated the fools of Chelm stories into storybooks for children – had a more positive view. But regardless of the place and perspective, we see the same thing: schlemiels are, traditionally, found in communities. And even though the ghetto is gone and the shtetl – following the Holocaust -is a thing of the past, the schlemiel still lives on.   But, in it’s North American incarnation, it doesn’t always live on in a community of schlemiels. To be sure, we can see how the schlemiel lives on – all by himself – in urban settings – as in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant or Saul Bellow’s Herzog – or in rural settings – as in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (and in most of his short stories) or Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy.

At the outset of her book, How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti does something different. She situates Sheila, a female schlemiel, amongst a small community of schlemiel-artists.   What I like most about this is that Sheila is not the only “odd one out” – something we find in the above mentioned novels (save for The Assistant, in which Frank, the main character, slowly becomes a schlemiel; but, when he does, he does so alone, in the wake of Morris Bober’s death).   Woody Allen often situates himself as the only “odd one out,” too. For instance, in the film Annie Hall (1976), he presents himself, at the very beginning of the film, as the “odd one out.”

As far as schlemiel literature, film, and art goes, this is a novel move. It gives us a sense of what Sheila, the main character, shares with other artists. As I pointed out in my first blog entry on the book, Sheila, in the Prologue, states her purpose which is to figure out “how a person should be.” What’s interesting about the first chapter is that we learn that she is not alone. And the people she could take guidance from are, by and large, on the same journey as she is.   What makes this more interesting is the fact that half of the people she mentions, in this regard, have Jewish names. This suggests that she lives in half-an-artistic kind of shtetl. And that shtetl, so to speak, is in Toronto. The schlemiel lives on, albeit in an urban postmodern setting which adds new dimensions to this comic character.

The first Jewish name we see is in the title of the first chapter: “Sholem paints.” (Instead of the Hebrew transliteration, Shalom, we have the Yiddish one; moreover, one thinks of Sholem Aleichem when one sees this name.) The first words of the chapter tell us where we can find him, Sheila, and the other community members:

We were having brunch together. It was Sunday. I got there first, then Misha and Margaux arrived, then Sholem and his boyfriend, Jon. (11)

What’s most important to the narrator is how they feel about the space (“the diner”) which, she notes, had been “repainted” from “grease-splattered beige to a thickly pastel blue and had spray painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup”(11). This new décor “ruined the place somewhat.” And this spurs the theme of the first chapter which is ugliness, art, failure, and selfhood:

I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn’t enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn’t attracted to, Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home. (12)

Since all of them are artists (one is an actor, two are painters, and Shelia is a writer), one can assume that, at some level, they have had to deal with frustration, failure, and disappointment. Heti speaks to these issues directly in her descriptions of Sholem, Misha, and Margaux.   Each of these reflections dovetails into mediations on failure and they spur the idea to have an “Ugly Painting Competition” (this frames the beginning and the end of the novel, which is separated into acts of a play that Sheila never finishes; and although the novel is completed – and we are, to be sure, reading and interpreting the finished work – the fact of the matter is that a novel is not a play; failure, therefore, is built into the clash between the novel and it’s content). The turn to ugliness – in the midst of their conversation – is fascinating since it is an inversion of what artists are supposed to create; namely, beauty.   And this inversion exposes the other side of being an artist today which has much to do with things that are very ugly. What makes this most powerful, however, is that this is delivered in a comic manner, though a community of schlemiels who come up with the idea of an “Ugly Painting Competition”:

Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don’t remember, but once I got enthusiastic suddenly we all were. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I really hoped it would happen. I was curious to see what the results would be, and secretly envied them. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. I wanted to make an ugly painting – pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. (13)

This is, to be sure, the first activity in the Chelm-like community. And the enthusiasm for it betrays a deeper sadness in all of them. When Sholem, for instance, nearly finishes his ugly painting, he gets very depressed and anxious. Like a schlemiel, he bears witness to his failure:

Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged into despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone to the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. (14)

These are the types of reflections we also hear from Bernard Malamud’s Morris Bober. But Sholem’s comments are within a larger competition and community than Bober’s utterances of self-deprecation, failure, and suffering. Sholem, Misha, Margaux, and Sheila are all, as I will show in the next entries, engaging failure.

 

To be continued….

Deconstructing the Deconstruction of Zionism: Gianni Vattimo’s Myth Making and Misreading of Jewishness and Jewish Humor

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The “Yale School,” which included such academic personalities as Paul deMan and Harold Bloom, gave America its first taste of deconstruction. What deMan and Bloom popularized, in particular, was the rhetorical reading of texts.  The point was to find, as deMan once said, their keystone (or it’s “center”). By locating it and taking it out, so to speak, the entire text falls to pieces and is exposed.  But it was Bloom, or rather Freud (his antecedent who he draws on extensively), who came up with the greatest phrase to articulate the task of deconstruction: namely “misreading.”   Bloom taught us that every “misreading” holds a secret.  Namely, that one lies for a reason.   Nonetheless, the lie “acts” as if it is absolute truth and bears no contradictions.  And Bloom, like Freud, wished to cultivate a “hermeneutic of suspicion” so as to expose the contradiction that is at its core. Although criticism does the work of such exposure, Bloom, like Freud and many Jews before him, also understood that one of the best ways to expose contradiction is through the “witz” (through humor).   To be sure, every misreading is ironic.

The irony of Gianni Vattimo’s essay, “How I Become an Anti-Zionist,” which is his contribution to the volume he edited with Michael Marder entitled Deconstructing Zionism, is that Vattimo acts “as if” what he is saying about Jews, Zionism, and the Holocaust is the disclosure of unalloyed truth.  In a rhetorical fashion, he claims that he is not giving a misreading, but “the” reading of Zionism; it’s ugly secret which he, through a process paralleling the post-Zionist Israeli thinker Ilan Pappe, discovered over time: namely, that he had been duped.  He believed in a “myth” about Israel’s purity but now he knows and must spread the gospel of truth.  There is nothing ironic at all in this revelation.  It has the feel of truth.  And that’s the effect he’s after.

What I’d like to do is employ the hermeneutic of suspicion to his text and expose his misreadings and their affect. In addition, I want to stand back and think about what it implies that he, a notable Continental philosopher, identifies with Ahmejenidad, thinks that the threat from Iran is make believe, and that even though the destruction of Israel is desired a better word for it is “transformation.”   To not expose these misreadings would be a travesty.

But my goal is not simply to show that he is not deconstructing Zionism and creating or rephrasing the mythologies of anti-Semitism, but that he is misreading the Jewish joke to accomplish this end. And this misreading shows us how he forces the text and reality to conform to his narrative; something a deconstructionist, as a rule, shouldn’t do.

At the end of his piece, he misreads Jewish humor (as evinced by Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers). The result of that misreading is an account of Zionism that is deadly serious.  By tracing Vattimo’s rhetorical reversals and codings we can better understand his strategy to create an old/new “myth” of Zionism. And in doing so, he gives deconstruction a bad name.

To begin with, Vattimo begins by making a division between a “true” and a “false” Judaism. He argues that true Judaism has nothing to do with Israel!  Those who identify with it are, apparently, missing the true spirit of Judaism (despite the fact that the Torah speaks repeatedly of Israel and Jews have yearned for centuries for a homeland, he makes this statement).  Following this, he exposes an anti-Semitic vein when he argues, by way of citing a Jew (cloaking his opinion in a Jew’s opinion) that “Israel” is “one of the harms produced by Hitler’s politics and the Holocaust” (to this he adds “one can also list the creation of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948”).   In other words, he sees Israel as an evil created by Hitler and the Holocaust rather than as a blessing to those who sought a homeland in the wake of the Holocaust.

The mention of the Holocaust here is key because Vattimo’s goal is to use it as his keystone: like a few anti-Zionist thinkers, he argues that the “myth” of Zionist is given legitimacy by the use of the Holocaust.  And this, in his view, is one of Israel’s gravest sins.  In other words, Israel should, in his view, bear no mention of the Holocaust..as if it’s memory cannot be publicly mentioned, as if it weren’t a part of Jewish history…

But before he gets to this clincher, he provides his personal story of self-discovery (that he is, in his essence, an “anti-Zionist”).   He argues that he, like many Italians, grew up with two myths: the anti-fascist “myth” and the “myth” of Zionism.  He argues that this myth was provided by way of film and media. And, in the process, he likens Israel’s relation to Palestians to what he saw in American Westerns (namely, “the conquering of the West by nineteenth century Yankees”):

The last “cinematographic” reference appears somewhat forced, but it comes to mind for good reason, since no viewer of Westerns, except in recent years, has ever been concerned with the fate of Native Americans exterminated by the advance of white settlers and their cowboys – in a way complete analogous to the absolute forgetting endured by Palestinians in the epic of the birth of Israel.

The analogy also suggests that the Jews exterminated the Palestians (or are trying to).  In fact, this is his point.  But, in a cloaked fashion, he says that a Jew and not a non-Jew makes the discovery of the ugly secret; namely, that Israel is no different from Nazi Germany; it is committed to genocide.   He identifies his epiphany with that of the Jew, Ilan Pappe.  And this makes it “real”:

It was precisely the discovery of the Nakba in his second year of high school – that is, of the “disaster” represented for the Palestinians by the ethnic cleansing exercised by Israel from 1948 onward (and up until today, I must add) – that pushed Ilan Pappe from his initial leftist Zionism to his current, and radical, polemical stance against Israel.

Pappe’s “addition” (or rather additions, in the plural, to Pappe) suggest that he sees everything that Israel does in relation to the Palestinians as genocidal (as if he were watching the Holocaust in the present tense).   He now switches is rhetorical position from an “I” to a “we.”  He basically is saying he is in solidarity with Pappe and other Jews who are against “genocide” and who want to “deconstruct” the myth of Israel’s purity.  But the twist is that he and Pappe are pure. In a few sentences, he gives us a hagiography of sorts when he tells us of the process he has gone through to arrive at his epiphany:

It was, and it is now for many of us, a complex process that involved the whole of our socio-political, and in the end also our ethical, religious, conceptions, such that even our long friendships are put into crisis, along with other aspects of our private lives (starting from a certain ostracism by most official and mainstream mass media).

Here’s the narrative: He has been excluded. He is the other who is banding together with other’s who have been excluded and he is banding together with them to live and die in the name of truth. To do this, one must fight against Zionist mythology which is hiding evil (the genocide of the Palestinian people). This is, if anything, a religious narrative based on “truth.” There is no irony here.

To express his passion for the truth and to provide the map of his pilgrimage, Vattimo discusses how, over history, he was duped. Over time he realized he had been duped and that, in being duped, Israel was allowed to “continue the genocide, in Gaza and elsewhere, and also to reinforce themselves militarily in every way.”

From here, Vattimo expands his rhetorical we to include and “welcome” “Ahmadinejad.” This welcome, says Vattimo, has “emblematic value and goes far beyond the particular significance of his visit” (to Brazil). This “far beyond” suggests something transcendental for Vattimo, a greater truth: “never before was it so evident (at least it seems to us) that what is up for grabs in Palestine is the destiny of oppressed peoples who try to avoid the rule of the new colonialism.” In other words, “we” saw the truth, the “destiny of oppressed peoples” in the Palestinans.  The language is, to be sure, Epic and expresses a kind of meta-narrative which, to be sure, deconstruciton…ought to deconstruct not construct.  But who needs irony when we have Ahmadiniejad as our friend and comrade?

But the irony doesn’t stop there.  To be sure, Vattimo goes out of his way to reread Ahmadinejad’s calls for the destruction of Israel.  And his rereading – or rather misreading – exposes something rotten.  First of all, he says that the threat posed by Iran to erase Israel from the map is a myth by putting the words “disappear” and “threat” in scare quotes.  After doing this, he says that “its sense may not be completely unreasonable”(!).  His rereading is that its really not the destruction of Israel that Ahmadinejad wants so much as it’s “transformation” into one state (not for Jews, of course).  He justifies this rhetorical substitution (or misreading) by way of Ilan Pappe (a Jew-said-it-not-me tactic).    He ends his rhetorical flourish by arguing that all Ahmedinejad does is express “a demand that should be more explicitly shared.”

In other words, disregard everything negative said about Ahmedinijad; he has no hatred, doesn’t support terrorism, and forget about how he treats his people.  Rename him, pace my deconstruction, and call him your friend.  “We” (radical leftists) all share his sentiments.

But the irony of deconstruction doesn’t end there. He goes on to make yet another rhetorical misreading and substitution.  He claims that Israel suffers from an “irredeemable sin” and to say this “is not so excessive.”  In fact, its appropriate, in his view, to impute this as truth. That sin, as I suggestive above, is the “utilization” of the Holocaust.  It has turned the Holocaust into a “permanent weapon” against anyone who questions them.  To begin with, this claim is ridiculous.  I don’t have the space to address how this myth has been appropriate to agitate many left-leaning radical anti-Zionists in the past (and present).  Its simply another myth.  Regardless, for Vattimo it’s a truth that, in his view, is the basis for maintaining the myth of Israel as a Jewish State. And it is an “irredeemable sin.” It cannot be atoned for. Israel is, in other words, evil.

At the end of his essay, Vattimo posits yet another analogy and rereading by claming that Heidegger and deconstruction, like the Palestinians, is being “ethnically cleansed”(!)    After making such a rhetorical association – by way of it making it a self-evident truth that Israel ethically cleanses (after all, it is the basis of his analogy!) – Vattimo let’s his anti-Semitic beast loose.

He claims that the real core of the problem is not the appropriation of the Holocaust to legitimate the myth of Zionism so much as the myth of Jewish exceptionalism.  He states that people have this “suspicion” (himself included) by virtue of Isreal’s use of power. This “mythology,” says Vattimo, includes “divine election, the Covenant, the purity of a race.”  In other words, Zionism is really about the myth of Judaism and this coming from a “scholar” who, at the outset of his essay, separated “true” Jews (who don’t identify with Israel) from false Jews (who do). The suggestion of this rhetorical strategy (the “suspicion” as he says) is that Zionism is based on the mythologies of Judaism!

Vattimo doesn’t end his essay with this misreading. Rather, he ends with a misreading of Jewish humor.  He argues that the Rabbis in Woody Allen and the Coen Brother’s films show us who, at the core of Judaism, is a power that is corrupt and power hungry. This misinterpretation, if anything, totally misses what Woody Allen and The Coen Brothers were after.   To be sure, Allen, in films like Bananas and Annie Hall includes Rabbis in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with showing corruption so much as in insider joke.  The greatest irony is that in Annie Hall, Allen has his girlfriend’s grandmother look at him as an anti-Semite would; namely, as a Hasidic Jew in disguise.

As Freud would note, every misreading discloses some kind of secret.  And that secret, for Freud, is a desire.  For Vattimo, I think it would be fair to say that he wants to see every Rabbi as a co-conspirator in the creation of genocide and the “myth” of Jewish exceptionalism.   This desire is ultimately anti-Semitic.   It’s a shame since, by doing this, he isn’t “ethnically cleansing” deconstruction so much as giving it a bad name; after all, he sees himself as an heir to deconstruction.  But, it seems, he is more an heir to anti-Semitism.  We need better heirs to its legacy. On the other hand, it would also help if Vattimo knew a little about Judaism and Jewish humor. His misreading is not funny.  It’s tragic.

The Schlemiel-as-Criminal? On Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run”

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While someone like Jean Genet – in books like The Miracle of the Rose or The Thief’s Journal – makes the criminal into a highly masculine larger than life (even priestly) man,  Woody Allen’s “directorial debut,” Take the Money and Run (1969), presents us with a parody of the masculine criminal and the hard-boiled crime thriller.  It is chock full of schlemiel comedy and presents us with something of the anti-thesis of violence and masculinity.

Merv Griffin, in this interview (:57) jokingly calls Allen a “sex symbol” but Allen wittily responds: “But the question is what I am a sexual symbol of…”  And even goes so far as to comically describe himself – as a child – as a “young budding pervert.”  In other words, he was a “sexual schlemiel.”  (See my recent post on Harold Ramis on this topic.)

Take the Money and Run is a parody of the life of a schlemiel-criminal who also happens to be a sexual schlemiel by the name of Virgil Starkwell.  There are several exceptional comedy skits in the film.  One celebrated scene has Virgil volunteer to take an experimental vaccine at the prison.  The punchline is that the vaccine has a “side-effect”: it turns him into a rabbi.

And in the most popular scene in the film, he slips the teller a note telling them that he has a “gub” and that they better hand the money over.  His bad handwriting (he couldn’t clearly write “gun”) is discussed by the bank workers and before he can get the money and run he has to get a few signatures at the bank.  After all, it’s the procedure.  This schlemiel displacement renders the crime and the criminal ridiculous.

Throughout the film, his Jewish parents, who wear Groucho Marx glasses and nose, discuss what happened to him showing us that he is a disappointment to his kvetching Jewish parents.

Louise Lasner plays Kay Lewis in the film and through her we learn that she was duped by Virgil Starkwell.   Toward the end of the film, we learn that she thought he was a schlemiel, but, to her chagrin, she learned that he was a criminal.  But that’s the irony of the film.  He isn’t really a criminal; he’s a schlemiel: “Everybody thought he was such a schlemiel but it turns out that he’s a criminal…”

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/224552/Take-the-Money-and-Run-Movie-Clip-Schlemiel.html

In the final scene, we see Virgil in an interview carving his soap gun.  He asks if it’s raining outside. For if it is, his gun will turn into bubbles again.  This ending marks Virgil as the schlemiel-criminal. Nobody is duped.  A schlemiel can’t be a real criminal; he’s too innocent, charming, and effeminate for that.