Jewish Comedy and Theft

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Many postmodern writers incorporate the texts of other writers within their own texts, and oftentimes they don’t cite them.  This practice has been called pla(y)giarism by Lance Olsen, Kathy Acker, and others.    These writers take great honor in the fact that they “steal” and retool texts.  One of my favorite theft-texts is Kathy Acker’s Don QuixoteIf anyone were to read this text, one would see that she is not telling the same story as Cervantes.  In fact, the novel she writes plays more or less on the structure of Cervantes’ novel (namely the relationship between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote).  But in her novel, the characters accompany each other in transgressive sexual exploits.  The exploits bring Acker’s Don Quixote to the edge of madness as they go outside of the sexual “norm” into uncharted territory.  That said, Acker, in this novel and in many others, pla(y)giarises and oftentimes has characters who, as in many a Jean Genet novel, steal, murder, and rape.

Although I have given thought to novelists or fictional characters who “steal,” in a fictional or authorial sense, I never gave much thought to authors who were actually thieves and how such thievery could aid their work as novelists.  I recently came across this idea in Lawrence Epstein’s book, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America.   But Epstein uses theft vis-à-vis Jewish comedians, not writers.    He provides evidence that many Jewish comedians were thieves (or had aspects of thievery) and suggests that this had influenced their comedy in some way.  What makes his suggestion interesting is what it brings out about the American dream from an immigrant’s perspective.

Epstein notes that in the Lower East Side, Jews saw an abundance of goods and foods in the streets: a reality that had not experienced in Eastern Europe:

Deprived for so long of the certainty that there would be food for the next meal, Jews embraced the abundance of food in the Golden Land.  Mothers, especially, urged their children to eat.  Food was a living symbol of the Jewish drive for survival.  The aroma of a Shabbes meal sustained many with its rich assurances and its heady promises of even greater success. (13)

But in the midst of all this abundance, there was a lot of poverty.   And although there was such poverty, Jews knew that, in the last resort, they could always find food or a loan.  Espstein calls this “family in a broader sense.”   Nonetheless, Epstein tells us that many Jews would still steal.  And many of them became comedians:

Many of the young immigrants were young thieves.  George Burns always claimed that he took his name from the Burns Brothers coal yard.  He and his brother would steal the coal, and the neighbors would shout: “There go the Burns brothers.”…. He also claimed that he had gone to the Automat with a sister’s hairpin, stood by the stew, and after someone bought the stew, Burns slipped in the hairpin, preventing the door from closing. (16)

And the list goes on:

Phil Silvers stole gum from pushcarts and sold stolen pipe.   Fanny Brice stole gum from her mother’s store and then began shoplifting until she was caught.  Eddie Cantor stole from pushcarts.  At thirteen, he stole a purse.  Burt Lahr stole form local stores and resold the goods at an open market on Saturday mornings. (16)

Epstein notes that “Groucho Marx didn’t exactly steal,” but his mother knew that Marx took the change when he got bread for her.  She let this happen, says Epstein, because “she thought it showed initiative.”  He notes that although they stopped stealing at an early age, it “had an effect.”  According to Epstein “the antiauthoritarian nature of such thievery helped to make them feel apart not only from the rules of society but also from their own Jewish culture and sometimes, even, their Jewish families”(16).

Besides setting them apart from society, Epstein claims that we can find “a sort of assertion” and “transgression” in these acts, which “would in subtle ways influence the Jewish comic voice.”   Following this, Epstein also notes how – when they were children – many Jewish comedians would also skip school.

Epstein is basically claiming that the audacity of Jewish comedians is drawn – in some way – from their “deviant” past.  This is an interesting thesis, but as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Epstein also suggests that the audacity to question also has a “theological” basis since Jews are taught to question (from the Torah and the Talmud).    In addition to this, Epstein also suggests that the Yiddish language has many rude and audacious expressions.

Regardless of the reasons Epstein brings to explain the audacity of Jewish comedy, I find the fact that he saw thievery as a major factor worthy of more thought.  But I do so not simply in the genetic sense (that comedians are audacious because they were once thieves).  I think it is thought-worthy because the relationship of theft to comedy can be read in a number of different ways.

I’ll cite just one.  One interesting way of looking into theft is in terms of smuggling things that are illegal and then brandishing these things.  In Jewish comedy, we often find that a joke is a way of smuggling in views and perspectives.  The very structure of the joke is based on this.  The first part often says something authoritative, while the second part of the joke smuggles something that defuses the authoritative nature of the first part of the joke.  In a sense, it steals the authority away from the first part of the joke and brandishes this theft in plain view.

What’s left in the wake of this is, more or less, an empty shell: something is stolen.  We see this, for instance, in this joke by Woody Allen: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.”

What this joke does is more or less secularize the theological by juxtaposing it with the historical.  In a way, this is a theft.  And although Allen wasn’t a thief when he was a child, at the very least he was exposed to a theft effected by history and radical change.

In relation to this note, Epstein is correct in noting that Jewish humor was not the main staple of religious Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement.  Rather, it was the product of  a theft, so to speak, the theft of the religious life that was affected by the wave of secularism, violence, and massive migration to America.  By way of all these factors, the Jews lost something.  Yet, at the same time, they also gained something: humor.  To be sure, humor helps to deal with this loss and it also presents something in its wake.  And, more importantly, as Allen shows and as Epstein suggests, humor is best when it “steals the rug” from underneath things that have too much authority.   (However, Ruth Wisse rightly associates this kind of humor with the tension between hope and skepticism as it suspends the authority without completely negating it.  However, in her view, sarcasm – extreme irony – makes a total theft and destroys its “target.”)   In the wake of such a theft we may realize that “the emperor has no clothes.”

Insecure Immigrants, Americans, and Jewish Comedians

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Is there a unique relationship between America and Jewish comedy?  And is the immigrant experience the only source of Jewish culture, comedy, and literature?  Irving Howe held that the immigrant experience was the high point of Jewish culture and literature.  And he feared that as the Jewish immigrant experience faded into the past and Jews assimilated, the basis for Jewish fiction, humor, culture, and identity would also disappear.

But as I have pointed out in my blog entries on Gary Shteyngart, this is an issue that concerns us today.  What I found in Gary Shteyngart is something that Lawrence Epstein – in his book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America – also finds in the Immigrant experience; namely, the “insecure immigrant” who lives within the uncomfortable place between being an outsider and wanting to be an insider.

What interests me most about Epstein’s argument is 1) his description of this insecurity and 2) the proof he brings to the fore when he argues that Jewish immigrants to America, who happened to become famous comedians, managed this anxiety.  According to Epstein, Jews drew on their own history, language, and optimism to make a unique contribution to American culture and, in the process, created a new kind of Jewish identity that could only have been devised by Eastern European Jews who were turning to comedy rather than religion for security.  But this identity didn’t come out of a vacuum: Jewish humor evokes, as the title of his book suggests, a “haunted smile.”   Insecure immigrants-who-became-comedians were not just fighting with the insecurity of being an immigrant or with a religion that no longer seemed to grant security; they were fleeing a horrible and impoverished life.  And America motivated them, in Epstein’s view, to address all of these anxieties and create something new.

At the outset of this book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, Lawrence Epstein cites the New York Times columnist Frank Rich who states that the “very basis of American history was that insecure immigrants came to settle that land.”  Adding to this, Epstein notes that the Jews were the “most insecure” and could “serve as a symbol for Americans as they could for no other people.”

Epstein marks out why, historically, Jews were unique.  Epstein thinks that the great generation of Jewish comics emerged from the immigration at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  During that time, the largest number of immigrants came from Eastern Europe (at that time the majority of the world Jewry lived in Eastern Europe and Russia; but that changed with immigration and history):

In 1880, there were 80,000 Jews living in New York. By 1910, that number swelled to 1,250,000.   By one estimate, a typical block consisted of 2,781 people – and no bathtubs. (11)

This wave of immigration emerged out of an insecurity that developed out of thwarted hopes and the horrors of history.  Jews had, since the 18th century, been forced to live in the Pale of Settlement.  Jews were often at odds with the Russians.  And although the Haskalah movement (The Jewish Enlightenment) made its way from central Europe to Eastern Europe and gave Enlightened Jews hope that Russia would one day become a democracy, the laws against Jews and forced conscriptions flattened the optimism of many.  But during the time of Czar Alexander II of Russia, there was a small window of hope (of a few decades in the middle of the 19th century) when Jews were allowed to leave the Pale of Settlement for Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Jews were allowed to enter universities and take on typical professions.  This prompted many Enlightened Jews to imagine that they had finally become equals.

But this was short lived.   Alexander II was assassinated and Jews were blamed and this led to Pogroms and violence against the Jews.  His plan was to solve Russia’s “Jewish problem”:

One third would emigrate, one third would be converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and one third would starve to death. (6)

Following this, Jews were killed in mass during several different pogroms and were forced to give their children over for military conscription.  In the midst of this horror, America offered some form of hope.   Epstein describes the trip across the Atlantic in detail so as to show how difficult it was and how Jewish immigrants were willing to go through all of these difficulties in order to live a better life.

This desire met with an America that was looking for a way to deal with “changes in American society itself.”  Epstein makes the case that Jews used their ingenuity to address American anxieties about these changes:

Searching for a way to deal with the emerging anxieties of the modern age, America turned to the Jews, the masters of handling history’s troubles.  Jewish humor, so useful in helping generations of anxious Jews, was called to action to serve the similar needs of the wider American community.   An immigrant generation found in the Jews a people repeatedly practiced in starting over again in a new place while feeling marginal and scared.  (xii)

Epstein’s reading suggests that Americans and Jews were, at this time of history, a good fit since both were “insecure.”  And what Jews had to offer to a fledgling America (which lacked the history of Europe and its internal coping mechanisms) was a humorous means of dealing with modernity and radical historical change.

Epstein’s account of what Jews bring to this situation – vis-à-vis their history – is worth noting.  He points out that “they drew on their heritage in ways they didn’t always understand”(xiii).  And this act was transformational: “As they used that heritage to find ways to express truths about America, they transformed American culture, making Jews and Jewishness acceptable, even enviable”(xiii).

The greatest feature that Jews can draw from their history is their sense of anxiety that is the product of living on the margins of history: “Jewish comedians could sense majority anxieties early and transform them into humor, giving these anxieties a shape and a name as well as a way to cope”(xiii).

In this situation, Epstein argues that the schlemiel fit perfectly: “One of the most famous Jewish comic types is the schlemiel, a clumsy, maladjusted, hard-luck loser”(xv).  The schlemiel addresses these majority anxieties.  But instead of citing the immigrant comedians of the early 20th century as an example, Epstein turns to Woody Allen:

Sometimes, as in the classical schlemiels created by Woody Allen, this poor character is profoundly neurotic,  His one liners reflect negative emotions (When we played softball, I’d steal second, then feel guilty and go back”) or a sense of being trapped by unfeeling institutions (“I went to a school for emotional disturbed teachers”). (xv)

Epstein says that his body and demeanor were a “standing sight gag” and that his “distinctive New York voice added the effect as he told his audience the story.”  The story he cites is the “moose joke.”

Following this, Epstein turns to the Marx Brothers and describes each of them in detail.  He contrasts them to Allen by noting that they – together – “created a different comic type, the free soul who doesn’t so much criticize all social mores as mock and ignore them.”   Epstein names a few other “types” (that range from the “fool” (Ed Wynn and Rodney Dangerfield), the “observer” (Jerry Seinfeld), and the Social Critic (Lenny Bruce), but ends on the note that all of these types emerge out of a history and culture that is “extraordinarily verbal”:

Words form the center of study, of prayer, and of entertainment. The emphasis of language and on the argumentative patterns of Talmudic reasoning provided Jews with a style of thinking.  (xviii)

And he even goes so far as to say Jewish comedy also emerges out of a “theology” in which Jews were “permitted, even encouraged to question.”  This includes the challenges made to God we find in the Torah, the Talmud, and the Hasidic tradition.  This challenge to authority is the “hallmark of Jewish humor.”  And “Jewish comedians were notable in their willingness to test their audiences’ sense of which subjects and words were acceptable”(xviii).

Taken together, Epstein argues that these aspects of Jewish history were of great interest to the insecure American majority of the post-Civil War and rapidly industrializing America of the early 20th century.  Jewish comedians, who emerged out of the uncomfortable space of immigration, were of interest as they gave Americans new ways of dealing with radical historical change.  And this way became the basis for Jewish-American identity.

Epstein goes so far as to say that Jewish-American comedy offered a new kind of secular Jewish identity that displaced the security offered by religion.  In America, Jews could be secure with their insecurity and use it as a basis of identity.  As a recent Pew Poll shows, Jewish comedy is still a major basis for Jewish identity.

But after pondering Epstein’s thesis which he makes at the outset of his book, I wonder how, historically, it is the case that the comic American-immigrant fiction of Gary Shteyngart is so popular.   Is it because America is and will always remain a country that can learn from “insecure immigrants”?  Will America always be insecure and in need of new ways of coping with crisis?  And will comedy always be in great demand for this very reason?  Epstein seems to suggest that this is so…

If that is the case, the major question for schlemiel-in-theory is to figure out what the every changing basis for “insecurity” is and how comedy comes to address it.   But is it the case that, as Daniel Itzkovitz in his essay “They are All Jews” (in You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern Culture) claims, that Jewish comedy has become so common that it is indistinguishable from American comedy?  And what might this imply about the Jewish contribution to American comedy?  Insecurity may remain in America, but are Jews still really insecure about being Jews in America?  Are comic Jewish-Immigrant writers like Gary Shteyngart an exception?  And is Larry David’s comedy a product of his New York Jewishness which is out of place in Hollywood?  Is he an inter-American immigrant like Woody Allen was in Annie Hall (1976) when he went off for Hollywood at the end of the film and went back with his tail between his legs?

A Curious Arc: On the “Partial” Transformation of Gary Shteyngart’s Vladmir – Part II

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In the beginning of an extraordinary piece of fiction entitled “A Heroic Death,” the 19th century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire noted that fools have a curious way of getting themselves in trouble.  For Baudelaire, the reason for this has to do with the fact that fools don’t often think about the consequences of their actions.  They are most likely more interested in a feeling, dream, or imagining that goes hand-in-hand with an intriguing action.  Baudelaire’s observation resonates well with what happens to Vladmir in The Russian Debutante’s Notebook.   Like Baudelaire’s fool, Vladmir dreams a lot about and his situation and, as a result of these dreams, he gets thrown into a crisis.  But unlike many fools who go on in their foolishness despite what happens to them, Vladmir goes through what I call a “partial transformation.”

In yesterday’s blog entry, I cited the passage where the narrator describes the changing dreams of Vladmir.  All of them, taken together, form a “curious arc”:

All in all, Vladmir’s American dreams formed a curious arc.  During adolescence he dreamed of acceptance. In his brief days at college, he dreamed of love.  After college, he dreamed a rather improbable dialectic of love and acceptance.  And now, with love and acceptance finally in the bag, he dreamed of money. What fresh tortures would await him next? (116)

As one can see, Vladmir’s newest dream about money is what gets him in trouble.  This is foreshadowed by the question at the end of the passage: “What fresh tortures would await him next?”

This passage is the preface to Vladmir’s meeting with Rybakov, his Serbian Bodyguard, and the criminal underlings of Rybakov’s son (“The Groundhog”).  After receiving “gifts” from the “groundhog” (which includes “fifty cartons of Dunhill cigarettes” and a “Rolex”) and some money from Rybakov, Vladmir’s wants more.  And, as I noted in yesterday’s blog, he goes to Baobab.

The narrator provides a sketch of Baobab which gives the reader the impression that he doesn’t properly think through things; he’s a schlemiel.  Nonetheless, Vladmir, in his desperation for money, which he can use to pay off his credit card debt and the rent he owes to his ex-girlfriend Challah, he takes Baobab’s tip.

The tip requires Vladmir to go down to Miami and pose as the son of a man named Jordi.  The masquerade is meant to fool a college admissions officer into granting Jordi’s son admission into the college; apparently, the son’s grades and intelligence are the problem and Vladmir is the solution.  When Vladmir expresses worry that he may get caught, Baobab assures him:

“The place is so gargantuan the interviewer will never see the kid again.  Trust me, it’s foolproof, and I don’t even think it’s terribly illegal.  Impersonating a high school kid: not exactly the crime of the century, just a lame thing to do.  But for twenty thousand…”(139)

When Vladmir arrives in Florida, he is picked up by Jordi who is driving a “peach Caddy.”  When we first meet Jordi, we see a man of Spanish (Catalan) descent who “neither sounded nor resembled the drug dealer out of central casting, which Vladmir was expecting with some dread”(141).  To be sure, Vladmir feels relieved by this appearance and trusts Jordy who looks like a “middle-aged Jew with a textile business.”  In other words, Vladmir feels “as if” Jordy is a fellow Jew although he is not.   This imagining takes on greater power the more time he spends with Jordi.

Strangely enough, Vladmir finds nothing peculiar when Jordi tells him that plans have changed:  “My secretary screwed up our reservations, the cow,” he said. “Would you mind splitting the room with me”(144).  Jokingly, Jordi says that it will be like a “slumber party.”  In the innocent and trusting manner of a schlemiel, Vladmir gets excited about the “slumber party.”

Following this, Jordi and Vladmir start drinking.  Jordi asks Vladmir to shave off his goatee and to go outside and get a tan (so as to look more like his son).  Vladmir does so and starts seeing himself as other (namely, as a man-child).  While he is out tanning, he remembers his mother and his childhood.  He starts crying.  At this point, he is at the height of vulnerability.  After his crying, tanning, and drinking, he returns to the hotel room to find Jordi sprawled out on the bed “watching a show about a modeling agency, grunting along as the feeble bon mots flew and negligees slithered on the ground”(148).

This scene becomes more and more sexualized and Vladmir, in his innocence, doesn’t “get it.”  After a day of heavy drinking, Vladmir starts feeling the alcohol:

The sun had long since disappeared when Vladmir felt the full giddy nausea of champagne drunkenness and ordered himself to stop.  He sat down hard on his bed near the balcony and felt it sway a little in all directions.  Something was askew, and it wasn’t just the physical universe reeling from booze. (150)

He can’t quite put his finger on it.  But Jordi helps him out when he says, flat out:

“Hey, correct me if I am wrong,” Jordi said, swinging his feet between the two beds, his trunks tight with the outline of his shaft, twisted and constrained by the elastic, “but you fooled around with Baobab before, right?  I mean, you’ve been with other boys.”(151)

The narrator’s description of Vladmir’s vision and astonishment is akin to a primal scene of horror.  This scene, I aver, marks a major turning point in the novel and in Vladmir’s life.  From this point, Vladmir takes a leap and transforms from a schlemiel into a (partial) “man” on the run.

Vladmir followed the single horrific spot of wetness along the inseam of Jordi’s trunks.  “Who, us? He said, Jumping off the bed, so unsure of the fact that he had spoken the he repeated himself. “Who, us?” (151)

The modulation of “Who, us” – repetitively -works on several levels and evinces a loss of identity and meaning.  Following this moment of loss, Vladmir insists that he is not interested; and when Jordi approaches him and grabs him, he punches him in the face.  This punch transforms him and is the very thing that will send him out of the country and back to Eastern Europe.  Before reflecting on it, the narrator recalls a memory Vladmir has of Fran, about how she was going “to make him into a human being, an indigenous citizen of the world”(152).  This reflection prior to his reflection on the punch makes it explicit that the narrator equates this punch with becoming a “human being” a “citizen of the world.”  The irony, however, is that one doesn’t become a “human being” by virtue of being a gentle cosmopolitan so much as by way of being a “man” who defends himself when being raped:

He had never hit a person before in his life, or heard the crunch of knuckle bone ramming cartilage…Vladmir ran. (153)

To emphasize the shift from the life of a schlemiel to the life of a man on the run, the narrator gives detailed descriptions of Vladmir’s passionate flight from Jordi, the drug dealer.  The “fear gland” kicks in and takes over.   And the story starts shifting into the masculine mode.  To enunciate this change and make it explicit, the following chapter (chapter 16) is entitled “Getting in Wrong” and the first words, “Everything had changed,” mark the transformation I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry.

To bring this into relief, the narrator makes something of a reading of the schlemiel equating Vladmir-as-Schlemiel with Vladmir-as-Victim:

Everything had changed. His body had been handled by a man whose intent was to hurt….How meager the insults of his childhood by comparison to what had just happened.  All the miserable years of adolescence, the daily drubbing at the hands of parents and peers, had been no more than a dress rehearsal; all those years, it turned out, young Vladmir had been preparing himself for victimhood.  (155)

Although this seems to be a death-toll for the schlemiel and the beginning of something new, I would like to suggest that what happens here is the shedding of one aspect of this character.  It is, as I will show in the next few blogs, a partial transformation.

What I find so interesting about Shteygart’s project is the fact that, for him, the schlemiel’s masculinity is one of his main concerns.  On the one hand, he finds the passivity and masochistic “victimhood” of the character to be deplorable; yet, on the other hand, and as I will show, he doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Shteyngart is looking to strike a balance between the masculine and the feminine and the basis for making such a balance is contingent on how we interpret the comings and goings of Immigrant-Becoming-American-Schlemiel.  As a part of this becoming, Shteyngart decided that Vladmir should have a shocking experience that challenges the schlemiel’s more effeminate and dreamy nature.  The question is whether becoming an American – for Shteygart -implies becoming more masculine.

Strangely enough, however, he doesn’t become masculine in America.  The process starts in America, but it takes full form in Eastern Europe.  I hope to bring out the irony of this process and to show how the transformation out of the schlemiel into something more masculine may seem full but is actually partial.

And, more importantly, this transformation is spurred by the fact that Vladmir, a schlemiel, ends up getting himself into trouble by virtue of the “curious arc” of his dreams.  This trouble spurs his transformation and, because his life changes as a result, he shares less with the traditional schlemiel and more with Woody Allen’s most recent schlemiels.  But he differs from them too, for his transformation is ultimately partial.

….to be continued…..

Jerry Lewis, Comedy, and Psychoanalysis (Terminable/Interminable)

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What has always intrigued me about the schlemiel is the fact that he constantly fails and that nothing, it seems, can help him.  And one of the things that pops up in modern Jewish-American literature and film to help the schlemiel out of his embarrassing condition is psychoanalysis.  The psychoanalytic cure (aka “the talking cure”) presupposes that there is an “end” to analysis.  As I have pointed out in my readings of the schlemiel, the psychoanalyst appears from time to time in the films of Woody Allen or in Phillip Roth’s notorious schlemiel classic – Portnoy’s Complaint – to offer a cure.  In Allen’s earlier films, the cure often falls short.  But in his later films, like Hollywood Ending, we see the opposite.  In that film, a psychoanalyst holds the key which, at some point, Allen’s main character embraces.  And doing so changes his life and makes him “normal.”  His analysis is, at some point, terminated.  In truth, Allen embraced the cure and has left the schlemiel behind.  (I have written and published two essays on this topic in different Woody Allen anthologies.)

Writing on the schlemiel in Phillip Roth, Sanford Pinsker points out that Roth was very uncomfortable with the schlemiel and the effect Portnoy’s Complaint had on his career and image.   That novel, in fact, is structured on a discussion between a psychanalyst and Portnoy.  With this in mind, Pinsker argues that all of Roth’s novels following Portnoy’s Complaint are aimed at psychologically working through the schlemiel and leaving him behind (for Roth, therefore, literature offered some kind of analysis which had a clear goal in mind: becoming normal).  Although she doesn’t appeal to psychoanalysis, Hannah Arendt, in her essay “The Jew as Pariah,” also sees the schlemiel as a malady of sorts which can and should be cured.  For her, the cure is social, historical, and political normalization.  Writing during World War II, Arendt envisioned a time when the Jew would be accepted as an equal and will no longer be forced to find shelter in being “exceptional” schlemiels/pariahs.

In all of the above-mentioned cases, we see the same logic which, I would argue, has its basis in Germany and central Europe and not Eastern Europe.  In all of these cases, the schlemiel is equated with some kind of abnormality (psychic or political) which can be cured.

In my last few blog entries, I have been pointing out how, for both Ruth Wisse and Steven Shaviro, psychology, though useful, may be too reductive when dealing with either the schlemiel (Wisse) or with Jerry Lewis’s brand of masochism (Shaviro).  Nonetheless, I was very pleased to see, after I posted my blog entry on facebook, that Steven Shaviro read my piece and pointed out how he had recently written yet another two essays on Jerry Lewis.  In the first of the two essays, which are both e-published, Shaviro speaks to the issue of the psychoanalytic cure and its relation to Jerry Lewis’s comedy.  I was very pleased to see this because I have been pondering the tension between affirming the schlemiel (the Eastern European model) and rejecting him (the German model).   As I have noted above, this model has been appealed to by way of this or that use of psychoanalysis in the films and novels of many a Jewish-American writer and filmmaker.

That said, I’d like to go through a few of Shaviro’s points; since his argument, regarding Jerry Lewis’s comedy, resonated well with my own claims for the schlemiel.  He argues, in short, that Jerry Lewis’s comedy is not about affirming a cure so much as challenging the talking cure.  And instead of terminating analysis, Lewis’s comedy leads to what Freud, in one account, would call “interminable analysis.”

The first of the two essays on Lewis is entitled “Smorgasbord.”  The title of the essay is based on Lewis’s original title for his 1983 film whose final title was Cracking Up.  Shaviro starts off his reading by noting the Jewishness of this film which one can find in the emotionally riveting case of the “self-deprecating” comedian.  This act of self-deprecation is a way or strategy for warding off “humiliations imposed upon” the Jew by “others.”  And this is:

A quintessential strategy that has historically been adopted by Jews, by women, and by members of oppressed groups. (7)

Shaviro brilliantly frames this strategy in terms of another “great Jewish invention” – psychoanalysis:

We might well compare Jewish humor to another great Jewish invention that endeavors to deal with unavoidable, internalized suffering: psychoanalysis.  Like humor psychoanalysis gives relief by providing a “safety valve” through which one may give vent to otherwise unmentionable miseries.  (8)

Shaviro notes that psychoanalysis and comedy offer “insights” that are often self-deprecating.  And the “cure” (which Shaviro puts in scare quotes) “consists in recognizing and giving voice to, the most unpleasant things that one can find out about oneself”(9).  However, Shaviro notes (against popular wisdom) that both comedy and psychoanalysis do not “really provide a permanent solution.”  Rather, both are a part of an “interminable process.”  And this is what we see in Lewis’s comedy:

He struggles interminably to come to some conclusion, his well-meaning efforts instead spread chaos far and wide.  Every one of Lewis’s character’s actions seems to have limitless reverberations…Waves of destruction spread outwards, to infect or contaminate other people, and to overwhelm Lewis’s physical surroundings.  (11)

Shaviro points out, in this regard, Lewis’s failed attempts to kill himself in the movie.

Regarding this interminable failure, Shaviro points out who instead of transforming himself (as we see in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris or in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up), Jerry Lewis’s character in this film “reiterates” and repeats things.  In this film, for instance, Lewis tries to give up smoking but keeps on going over and over again through the procedure of stopping – but to no avail.  He can’t quit and is, so to speak, “confined.”

Once again, Lewis’s persona is unable to achieve freedom, even at his machinations have cascading effects beyond the limits of his confinement.  (27)

Shaviro ends his essay with a detailed description of Lewis’s encounter with a psychoanalyst.  The twist is that he is not cured so much as free from the symptoms of neurosis that he transfers to his psychoanalyst:

All of the symptoms that have been excised from Warren’s (Lewis’s) body and mind reappear insteaed in Dr. Petchick.  All of a sudden the psychiatrist has adopted all of Warren’s mannerisms and incompetentcies. He lights a cigarette and gets punched out by Dick Butkis; he flails about, running this way and that, causing cars to crash and structures to topple, spreading chaos around him. (32)

And this, for Shaviro, is the main point.  Lewis’s comedy works by way of transferring his stammerings to others.  Instead of getting rid of his malady, he gives it to others.  The great irony of this, according to Shaviro, is that Lewis, in real life, is an advocate of the laughing cure and comedic catharsis but his films teach the opposite: one cannot be cured.  Comedy, like psychoanalysis, is (ultimately) interminable and that interminability is contagious.  In other words, one cannot simply be cured.

Shaviro’s reading of Lewis – in this instance – has important implications for schlemiel theory.  Lewis’s inability to be cured serve as a reminder to us that, in the schlemiel tradition, the desire to “cure” the schlemiel of its malady was posited by Jews who wanted to leave the past behind and felt that the schlemiel represented that past.  His awkwardness and dreaminess were for Arendt, and many others, remnants of a Jewish population that was “worldless” and unaware of how to act in a society and history from which they had been excluded for centuries.  On the other hand, the Eastern European Jews saw in the schlemiel a challenge to society and to its evils. They clung to its simplicity and honesty.  The only cure – for many of them – would be the end of exile or for society to eliminate all evil from its midst.

But let’s be frank and ask what, exactly, that would consist of.  Would it consist in being accepted by others as an equal? Would in consist in having a “Jewish State”?  Or would it consist in the end of evil?  Of the three options, it is the last one which held a lot of appeal for writers like Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer – but, in truth, they knew it was a utopian hope.  This implies that the schlemiel and its failures would be interminable because evil itself are and will – most likely – be interminable.

What Shaviro suggests is that Jews like Jerry Lewis know that the cure is far off and that it is shared. The healing process will not, by any means, just happen.  And film has an ethical role in the sense that it reminds us that the basis for interminable analysis is something that just can’t go away in a few days or years or, for that matter, in two hours in this or that film.  What Lewis does is expose us to this desire for a cure, its frustration, and its endless reiteration which are all features of the schlemiel and, for that matter, Jewishness in general.

Is this the End? Physical Comedy, Style, and the Body

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In a review of This is the End (2013), written and directed (in part) by the often-schlemiel-playing-comedian Seth Rogen, Richard Brody of The New Yorker makes a compelling argument as to the place of physical comedy in this film.  Before addressing the film, he looks into the history and fate of physical comedy, today.

Brody begins by making reference to an article by Max Winter entitled Slapstick Last: Why a Modern Day Harold Lloyd is Unthinkable.  The first words of Winter’s article say it all: “there are no great physical comedians any more.”  However, he makes a distinction: he points out that while physical comedy may be lacking, “physical presence” on stage (with comedians like Louis CK) is not.  Now, today, more people put out something of a “verbal” or cerebral comedy.

The subject of the article, the master of physical comedy, is Harold Lloyd.  He is deemed that king of silent-film slapstick.  His work, unlike the comedians today, says Winter, appeals directly to our bodies and skips over this or that cultural code or popular reference.  Out laughter at his work, says Winter, is “more pure” (that is, bodily) that our laughter today:

The kind of laughing you do during this film, and in fact the laughing you do during most comic films of the silent era, is more pure and often more whole-hearted than the kind of laughing you might do during contemporary comedies. This is because there’s nothing between you and the laugh. Lloyd does a physical stunt, a prank, or a funny face, and you laugh at it: it’s that simple. The humor here is free of pop culture references, or irony, or any of the other triggers we have come to accept as “funny.” It’s almost as if you’re laughing with another part of your brain.

Lloyd’s physical comedy uses the whole body, not just the head or face.  His slapstick relied on bodily gesture:

From his neck up, Lloyd could be a modern comic, with an ever-changing set of expressions that could be seen on TV or in a film today; from his neck down, he belongs to an earlier era, when people waved their legs around, made silly gestures, punched each other in the forehead, and swung their arms wide when they walked. His facial expressions transform this story from a rags-to-riches tale cum love story cum fable of the foibles of industry into a travelogue of a journey through a psychological minefield. In one scene, he’s nervous about knocking on a general manager’s office door; the way he expresses his agitation, with his arched cheekbones, his twitching mouth, and his jumping eyebrows, shows every stage of his thought process, from start to finish. Here, as elsewhere, he caps off his facial gyrations with slapstick: marching up to the door, starting to knock, stopping, starting, stopping, and so on.

Winter’s articulation of how the comedy of the lower body (in one of Lloyd’s scenes) contrasts with the comedy of the upper body (namely his face) brings out a comic/horrific tension that so much of today’s comic does by more intellectual and less physical means.

His swinging legs and arms seem to be telling you to laugh, while his face reminds you just enough of what your own expression might be in such a situation to make you… well… scared. 

Commenting on Winter’s article and physical comedy, Brody argues that today a return to physical comedy would be impossible since today’s American audiences are, in contrast to audiences of the earlier 20th century, morally appalled by the presence of physical danger in comedy.  In his words, “physical comedy…has been moralized out of existence”:

Here goes: a new Harold Lloyd is unthinkable because physical comedy depends on the proximity and possibility of death, which no longer seems acceptable to viewers who are completely aware of the prevalence of stunt doubles and digital effects, and who are repelled by the idea that a performer would actually face death for what is, after all, only a movie. In other words, physical comedy—the kind that made silent comedies famous—has been moralized out of existence.

Brody cites Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis to point out the proximity of their comedy to physical suffering and possible damage.  Lewis, says Brody, built his career as a comedian on his falls, trips, and physical acrobatics.

In contrast to them, Brody lists the great “anti-physical” comedians; namely, “Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and Woody Allen.”  He calls the “great comic cowards” who did all they could to avoid physical comedy.  They are rooted in “stand up” comedy rather than “fall down”(slapstick) comedy.   Nonetheless, Brody adds, with a bit of astonishment, that today, in films like This is the End, physical comedy seems to be making a comeback.

The film, argues Brody, may be filled with lots of slapstick and fall down comedy, but “it’s almost completely unfunny.”  And the physical comedy we see, apparently, is not even done by them.  It is done by stunt doubles.

This isn’t funny because Hollywood has made changes that apparently reflect an audience’s changed “endurance” of suffering:

The world has changed; just as classic-era Hollywood, with its unchallenged prejudices on matters of ethnicity and gender, reflected the dominant presumptions and exclusions of the time, so the endurance of suffering during a rough-and-tumble period when many more Americans did physically hard and dangerous work found its reflection in a comedy of danger.

And This is the End, for Brody is a “superb example of how comedy and comic violence have become subordinated to a conspicuous ethical order.”

What I like most about Winter and Brody’s reflections is the fact that they both point out how the meaning of the body in comedy has altered considerably.  Brody suggests that it has, in fact, been censored for “moral” reasons.  Nonetheless, he doesn’t think a return to physical comedy is possible or necessary.   Winter suggests that we pay more attention to what happened in early physical comedy; namely, a laughter that was “more pure” because it appealed directly to the body.  This, I would argue, could form the basis of a more nuanced ethical argument on behalf of physical comedy that could challenge the new attitude toward physical comedy that Brody makes reference.

To this end, I’d like to end this blog entry with a suggestion.  Roland Barthes’ reading of style in his book Writing Degree Zero suggests that we think of style (and here I would suggest comic style) in terms of the body.  For Barthes, the “imagery, delivery, and vocabulary” of style “spring from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become the reflexes of his art.”   For this reason, style has something “crude” about it since it is the “product of thrust, not an intention”; its “frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical.”  Moreover, style is a challenge to society: “indifferent to society and transparent to it, a closed personal process, it is in no way the product of choice or of a reflection…it is the decorative voice of hidden, secret flesh.”

Style is a “germinative phenomenon, the transmutation of a humour” and has a “carnal structure.”

All of these reflections on style bring us back to a reflection of the body.  Based on them, one can argue that what appeals most to people who have enjoyed physical comedy in the past was its style. The style of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd is not simply rooted in their routines; it actually gives us a deeper sense of their “hidden, secret flesh.”  Barthes sees the mystery of the body – in all its opacity – in style and I suggest we see such style in bodily comedy.

It may be the case that Jerry Lewis’ style of physical comedy has been, to some extent, displaced by Woody Allen’s style of comedy; but, still, it is not entirely cerebral.  This is not the “end” of physical comedy so much as one kind of “physicality.”

We still see a body on stage “standing up” (rather than “falling down”) before us.  We see this, as Winter notes, in Louis CK’s bearish body pacing the stage and, I would add, in his comic style and delivery. The comic body remains.

To be sure, in the film, This is the End (2013), Seth Rogen’s physical gestures and styles convey his comical, bodily way of being.  The question we need to ask is what kind of bodily secrets Rogen conveys as opposed to what kind of secrets Sasha Baron Cohen or Charlie Chaplin.  How do we contrast their styles if, as Barthes says, they come from an opaque place? Are we given, so to speak, “flashes” of (bodily) wisdom when we watch their differing comic styles? Can we use Barthes, so to speak, to better understand how we bear witness to the mystery of physical comedy?  Is there an ethical relation to the body that Barthes was trying to uncover by way of his reading of style?  And would it be worth our while to pursue what Winters alludes to when he says that the laughter of physical comedy was “more pure?”  Was Barthes also seeking for this “purity,” which touched on the origins of not just comedy in particular but also style in general?

A Heated Discussion Over the Schlemiel in Brooklyn

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Like any scholar, I love a good discussion.  I especially love difficult ones.   The best discussions put my arguments and assumptions to the test and, sometimes, alter them.  However, at some point, what at first seems like a good discussion may become a shouting match.  Such angry talk may become a “conversation stopper,” but I always make sure to ask myself what I can learn from these moments of passion.  Regarding such conversation, a recent discussion of the schlemiel I gave was especially interesting because, at some point, the academic became much more mundane and everyday.  The talk I originally planned dovetailed.  And I like this as I often find many academic discussions to be sterile. I often walk away from them the same person.

I grew up with friends who challenged each other on a daily basis, but these moments weren’t academic.  They were thoroughly mundane and through them I learned how to stand up for what I believed in or, at the very least, to test what I believed in.  These challenges helped to me to grow as a human being and left me with questions that I felt deeply and knew I had to work through.  Most of these questions had to do with my identity and breached the issue as to what it means to be Jewish, American, white, and male in small-town America.  The challenges which issued these questions altered how I looked at myself and the world around me.  They were physical and psychological; they were not intellectual or academic (although they became academic questions, their root was the everyday challenges I faced growing up).  So when I find spaces where academic challenges merge with everyday challenges and where these challenges come at me from different – unexpected – angles, I can’t help but smile: I know that I will, hopefully, experience a moment of possible growth and change.  On the other hand, I know that such challenges may also teach one nothing and may only create unnecessary difficulties or even stunt one’s growth.

The challenge I recently faced came up last Thursday night; it was over the meaning of the word and concept of the “schlemiel.”  I gave a talk in Brooklyn entitled I entitled “The Life and Death of the Schlemiel: Why does the Schlemiel Matter?”  As anyone can see from this blog (and from my articles), the “schlemiel” means a lot to me; but as I learned it means even more for people much older than I who grew up (oftentimes in households where Yiddish was one of the spoken languages or references) with the term: some used it to harm others while others were harmed by it; some associated it with humility, others with idiocy.  I knew these possible responses very well from my studies of this character but I had yet to experience the challenges posed by people who, throughout their life, intimately experienced its meaning.

In the talk, I wanted to pose the question of whether the schlemiel was still alive, why peple would want to eliminate this comic character, and, if it still exists, what kind of schlemiel “should.”  After seeing my abstract, the organizer of the evening wanted me to address the Holy Fool in more depth and relate it to my original topic. Here is the edited abstract:

Is the schlemiel a “holy fool” or just a Jewish fool?  Does s/he still exist today and, if yes, should it continue to do so ? Can the schlemiel offer hope to dark times or is simply entertaining?  Dr. Feuer –  a “schlemiel theorist” – will define & explain the meaning of the schlemiel.  To this end, he will contrast the Eastern European Schlemiel to the  Western European Schlemiel, trace its tensions with Zionism, discuss its passage from Europe to America before and after the Holocaust, its new variations in the United States in the post-WWII , and its legacy in film, literature, and TV over the last few decades. This will include a discussion of rabbis, writers, filmmakers, & actors, that span Rabbi Nachman of Breslav,  Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, Phillip Roth, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, and Seth Rogen.  After discussing the schlemiels meaning and history, philosophical and ethical questions will be posed as to whether or not the schlemiel should persist or vanish into the dust bin of history.  What’s at stake in this question?  Is the schlemiel just a secular fool and if not wherein lies its holiness?

As you can see, I wanted to 1) define the schlemiel in terms of two predominant traditions – one from Eastern Europe and the other from Western Europe; 2) trace the history of the character and outline its high points and its low points; and 3) to ask whether the Holy Fool could make a “come back” in today’s increasingly secular Jewish-American environment.

I planned on starting off by telling a few traditional schlemiel jokes and then, after doing this, introduce the cover of the May 2009 New York Magazine which had a picture of Larry David looking down at a pale Woody Allen (the look saying something along the lines of “you’re all washed up”).  Below the photo is the caption: “The Last of the Schlemiels.”  The subtitle had the obvious function of stating an irony; namely, that not only Woody who is washed up, so are you Larry David.  You are both the “last of the schlemiels.”  The statement is a bold assertion or rather ‘death sentence’.  The point of bringing this up was to ask whether these schlemiel jokes or the schlemiel himself had any place today in our American society.  As I looked to show, this statement may have relevance for some but it is not true: schlemiels live on.  But, more importantly, I wanted to show what had become of the schlemiel and how had first called for its death and why.

This would bring me into the topic of comparing and contrasting a German-Jewish view of the schlemiel to an Eastern European view.  The former desired the end of the schlemiel while the latter associated the schlemiel with piety, honesty, and even, for some, the holy fool.

For me, this distinction lives on today; but it is the negative imputations against the schlemiel (which draws on the German-Jewish tradition) which had a long after-life. On the other hand, schlemiels often played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Woody Allen, or Seth Rogen have a charm to them that challenges this view.  Nonetheless, they are far from being “holy fools” or share any resemblance with Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiels.

But before I could even address these contemporary schlemiels or the life and death of the schlemiel, I was met with a major challenge that issued from the distinction between Eastern European and German-Jewish Schlemiels.   Some people in the audience immediately took to one interpretation or the other and a heated argument took place.

I did my best to mediate between the two and explain what the other parties could not accept.  This was a great challenge as one of the people arguing insisted over and over again that there is nothing good that can be said about the schlemiel: she insisted that no one should be a schlemiel.

In response to this, I explained the meaning of the schlemiel in terms of its critique of society.  I explained that if I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool was constantly being lied to it wasn’t his fault that he trusted everyone so much as the fact that everyone lied to him. The point of the schlemiel was to situate us between hope and skepticism (or cynicism). And as Ruth Wisse notes at the very end of her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the schlemiel cannot exist in a society that is wholly cynical or optimistic.  This led me to a discussion of Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine and his extreme emphasis on cynicism.  I asked where, in this film, we could find a schlemiel and about how this kind of film contrasts with Allen’s earlier films which had schlemiels.

This prompted audience members to think about the relationship of the schlemiel to the cynical times we are currently living in America and about how important the schlemiel is as a figure of critique.  But, still, there was a lot of anger in the audience about the schlemiel.  One person, in particular, couldn’t let go of her negative reading of the character and saw nothing redeeming about it.  This prompted other audience members to yell at her and associate her with a certain Jewish-ethnic perspective.  This heated talk led to a lot problems and kept me from continuing my lecture.

After I ended the talk, I wondered whether I did the right thing and whether I met the challenges that emerged out of a discussion of the schlemiel.  I talked with a few friends about this as well as the organizer. Some explained that this is what happens in Brooklyn: people are often very stubborn about their views, love to argue, and are oftentimes rude about it all.  Others explained that the reason there was so much contention was because many people in the room were called schlemiels when they were growing up or, otherwise, called people schlemiels.  Still others explained that some people, had entrenched views about the schlemiel which were based on what Jewish tradition they came out from in Eastern or Western Europe.

All of these explanations makes sense, but what I left this heated discussion with was something else; namely, a task.  I realized, by way of these challenges, that if I’m going to argue for a positive and critical reading of the schlemiel that I will be challenged by people who have deeply ingrained views of this character.  Its hard for me – a “little pisher” – to make such claims as I wasn’t raised in Brooklyn by parents who used this term regularly in a negative manner.  Nonetheless, I have the knowledge and awareness of this characters wider meaning and possible meaning which can challenge deeply ingrained views.  I can offer a new/old reading which can make the schlemiel relevant – once again – and spur people to ask themselves why Woody Allen and Larry David are not only not the “last of the schlemiels” but that there are other schlemiels.  And, more importantly, we need to ask ourselves what schlemiels should live on.  I believe some are not worth our time while other schlemiels are.  And I’m willing to take on the challenge of explaining why.  This, for me, is not simply an academic challenge; defending my reading of the schlemiel, is also a life challenge.  The schlemiel means that much to me, an American-Jew who, though he hasn’t been raised in Brooklyn by parents who speak Yiddish, has every right to defend my reading of this character. For me the schlemiel is not something I don’t want to be so much as a character who can spur me – and others – to stand in the uncomfortable space between hope and skepticism.

Cynicism and Hope: On Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”

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Last night I had the opportunity of seeing Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine.  Since I have great interest in the work of Woody Allen and two of the characters he has cast in the film (Andrew Dice Clay and Louis CK), I took an immediate interest in the film and was eager to see it.  I have blogged and written on all of them and I was curious to see how or whether any comic elements could be found in the film that was, as many reviewers pointed out, not comical at all.

Much has been written on this film already.   Reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post (amongst many others) already dot the landscape.

Regarding these reviews, nearly all of them note how Allen, in the making of this film, was very influenced by Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  And they all noted the obvious relation to the Bernie Madoff fallout.  Regarding the reviews, I will briefly defer to the words of the critic David Denby who, in my view, does a fine job laying the plot and themes of the film out.  What interests me most, in his review, is how he reads the comical element.  Denby notes that Jasmine, played by Kate Blanchett,

is a snob and a liar, and, at times, delusional (she talks to herself), but, like Blanche DuBois, she’s mesmerizing. You can’t get enough of her, and Cate Blanchett, who played Blanche on Broadway only a few years ago, gives the most complicated and demanding performance of her movie career. The actress, like her character, is out on a limb much of the time, but there’s humor in Blanchett’s work, and a touch of self-mockery as well as an eloquent sadness. When she drops her voice to its smoky lower register, we know that she’s teasing the tragic mode. That edge of self-parody keeps us close to her, and we need that closeness, because we’re in for a rough ride.

Without this comic element of self-parody, we would despise her.  But, as Denby points out, the harsh element is constant throughout.  This, Denby avers, has much to do with Allen’s outlook on life, as reflected in this film:

Allen, who’s now seventy-seven, has become flintier as he has got older. His men and women tell one another off; the social clashes among people from different ways of life can be harsh and unforgiving.

In other words, with age Allen wants to knit a closer relationship between comedy and suffering.  In effect, Allen’s film shows us how, in his view, class-difference, in our era, taints comedy:

Allen, in his own way, is commenting on our increasingly unequal society: the formerly rich woman and the working-class characters don’t begin to get one another’s jokes and references; they don’t understand one another’s needs—they don’t even see them.

Nonetheless, Denby wants to point out how the comic element survives, albeit in a way that is admixed with the tragic.   Allen now uses the comic element to produce a “miraculous” identification between the audience and Jasmine.

The miracle is that we feel for Jasmine—or, at least, our responses to her are divided between laughter and sympathy. When she takes a job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, and the patients can’t decide when to schedule their next appointment, her irritation at their fumbling is both funny and recognizable.

What I like about Denby’s reading of the film is how he phrases our odd identification with Jasmine.  Our laughter at her way of handling her new work and life take off the edge. And we, for a few moments, see her as something other than a snob.  We can understand how ridiculous her situation is and we identify with her through laughter and tears, which keep each other in check.

Unlike Denby, I would say that, though I identified with Jasmine in this “miraculous” fashion, this identification was momentary and was often overshadowed by the other element which taints all of our identifications in the film; namely, the effect and dynamic of dishonesty and cynicism.

I was very troubled by this overwhelming presence as I stand behind the comic task of the schlemiel which is to maintain the tension between skepticism and hope.  The schlemiel, though foolish, stands on the side of trust and honesty. We see this in many classical schlemiels: from Rabbi Nachman of Breslav and Sholem Aleichem’s simpletons to I.B. Singer’s Gimpels and Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer types.  Although these characters are weathered by reality and lies, the element of trust remains.  It doesn’t triumph so much as remain in the balance.  When this tension collapses, we are in trouble.  It implies that what is best in humanity has been effaced.

At the end of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that in an era in which there is too much optimism or too much skepticism, the schlemiel cannot exist.

Allen’s film illustrates this principle-of-sorts.  To be sure, his film speaks to the cynicism that has grown post-Madoff.  And this overshadows much of the trust and hope we see in the film.  However, the fact of the matter is that although Andrew Dice Clay’s character is ruined by the games of the rich, his ex-wife (Jasmine’s sister, Ginger – played by Sally Hawkins) manages to start a new life.

She plays something of an innocent and hopeful schlemiel character.   Although Blanchett is obviously the focus of the entire film, it is Ginger who, at the very end of the film, retains some element of hope and trust.  She wants nothing to do with the cynicism that goes along with big-money and corruption.

Nonetheless, the best illustration of what is at stake in this film (and with the schlemiel) can be found in Blanchett’s relationship with Ginger’s children.  Although they openly disclose what they have heard from their parents about Jasmine and her husband’s lies and corruption, they don’t understand it.  In a key scene where Jasmine tells it all, they look back at her in astonishment not knowing what she is actually saying.   Her language is not theirs.

In truth, all of the adult characters are tainted by cynicism.  The children are, too.  But they don’t know it.  And, at the very least, I think it is important to note this.  The comic element survives best in them.  They retain the element of a schlemiel in a society which has become inundated with post-Madoff cynicism.

Though the film ends with Blanchett walking the streets alone, homeless, and delirious, this still leaves us with a horrible feeling we cannot forget that while most of us have been ruined by cynicism there are some who aren’t.  Children, in this film, are the schlemiels.  We need to ask ourselves what this implies.

The more we lie to each other, the more our humanity is lost.  Cynicism is the greatest threat to the schlemiel and to our humanity.  I applaud Woody Allen for bringing this out in Blue Jasmine.

He illustrates what Irving Howe, citing Saul Bellow, saw about Sholem Aleichem’s comedy; namely, that what makes Jewish humor relevant is the fact that it oscillates between laughter and tears.  And, as I have pointed out, this oscillation is based on the violation of trust.  Without trust, we can only cry.

Paraphrasing Denby, I would say that the miracle is not simply our feeling for Blanchett; it is the fact that the children don’t totally understand how dishonest people can be.  It’s the last remnant we have.  And, as I would argue, their lack of understanding, like that of any schlemiel, may give us time….time to change our ways and learn to trust one another once again.   Perhaps this is a foolish hope, but, in truth, it is the hope of a schlemiel.

It is our last remnant of humanity in a post-Madoff age.

“I’m Only Half a Man” – Howard Stern and the Schlemiel – Take 1

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A few friends of mine have, for the longest time, told me that I should write on Howard Stern as a schlemiel.  It’s been on the back of my mind for a while and I do listen to his show from time to time, but I’ve always been a little ambivalent as to how he could be seen as a schlemiel.  After all, schlemiel’s are usually very humble and are not as rude as he.  But then again, we have the Borsht Belt Comedians, Lenny Bruce, Larry David, and, of course, Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (of Portnoy’s Complaint) all of who are considered by this or that scholar to be schlemiels.  That said, I finally had an opportunity to do some in-depth listening to Howard on Satellite Radio as I recently drove across one part of America.  And, lo and behold, I found evidence of the schlemiel on several levels.  Most importantly by way of what Ruth Wisse, in reference to Sholem Aleichem, calls “indirection” and through an identity that is, in many ways, parallel to Phillip Roth’s Portnoy.

I tuned in to Howard’s news part of the program in which Robin Quivers reads a news item and Howard gives commentary.  The first thing I heard was  a report by Robin about how the second in command in Al-Queda, Said al-Shehri was killed by a drone.     Instead of speaking about drones, Howard launches into a reflection about how much he loves films where commandos go in and kill terrorists.  Then he praises the commandos in the American military and says he wishes he could be one of them.  Responding to this, Robin says why don’t you or why didn’t you join the military?  Howard answers: “I can’t.  I’m only ‘half-a-man.’”  He repeats a few times with something of a shoulder shrug and moves on.  To be sure, the claim that the Schlemiel is a mouse and not a man is an American one.  In his essay for the collection Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities edited by Norman Kleeblatt, Maurice Berger writes of how this “half-man” stereotype made its way through TV and film in the 20th century.  But he concludes that the stereotype had nearly disappeared in the 90s and that things had been changing.

Moreover, Phillip Roth’s main character of Portnoy’s Complaint, also sees himself as “half a man,” but, still, he goes on attempting sexual acts to prove he is a man.  As I point out in one of my blogs on Roth and Portnoy, Portnoy is ultimately defeated by a female Sabra.  She emasculates him and reminds him that he is an American Jew, not an Israeli; he is “half-a-man.”  However, as Portnoy shows us, where he wins is with his words and wit.  But, as Roth claims in his interviews, his books which followed Portnoy’s Complaint were efforts to leave the “half-a-man” schlemiel behind to be a man.  (The illicit sexual forays in a book like Sabbath’s Theater – to give only on of several examples – should give one ample evidence of this.)

But the schlemiel as half-a-man lingers on after the 90s.  To be sure, the Schlemiel as half-a-man is also posed by Woody Allen by way of Jason Biggs in the 2003 film Anything Else.

We see a good example of it in this series of scenes.

As you can see, Jason Biggs is the one who says that, in the face of men, Jews have wit.  But it is Allen who turns the car around and does damage to the car of the two aggressive men.  To be sure, Allen, like Stern is also obsessed with being thought of as half-a-man.

But, this is only one part of the schlemiel-complex, so to speak.  More interesting is how Stern deals with the “heavy news” items; he changes the subject to something he’s more interested in: Sharknoado (2013).

Stern loves the name and the B film concept and the absurdity of sharks flying through the air attacking people.  He can’t get it off his mind.   He plays a piece called Tardnado which is a parody of this film that was sent by one of his fans.  As one can imagine, with a title like this, the audio includes screaming people who are mentally challenged who fly at people.

When the “important” news items come up, Stern sometimes launches into his interest in Sharknado.  Other times, he’ll pick out something that is a seemingly arbitrary aspect of the new event and talk about it thereby deflating whatever media-hype it may have.

I’ll make note of a few examples:

When Robin notes that Stevie Wonder has refused to play in Florida, Howard says”mmm hmm” and takes a call from Ralph who talks with him about Sharknado.  They talk about how ridiculous the premise is and enjoy this for a minute or two.  This indirection shows us that film is of more interest to him than Wonder’s boycott.

In response to hearing Robin’s news on Al Sharpton’s National Action tour in the name of Trayvon Martin, Howard also moves by way of indirection and discusses Sharpton’s new girlfriend with Robin.  After doing this, he passes on to how Al looked better when he had more weight.  In other words, aesthetics in the media eye is of more interest to Howard than politics.

After saying this, Howard talks about the heat and air-conditioning and moves on to talking about his mother and her complaints.  He does a few comic imitations of her to drive it home.

This act of imitating his mother has great resonances with Portnoy who basically does the same thing throughout the text.  This routine of struggling with the mother was, according to Donald Weber, one of the main feature of Borscht Belt and post-Borsht Belt schlemiel-comedians.  Weber, like Berger, thinks it has changed with Marc Maron whose comedy is not based on such resentment.  However, as we can see here, it carries on into Howard’s performance.

Most importantly, Howard’s obsession with his mother, Sharknado, or about this or that detail, seem to work to distract him from the world and the political.  And his admission that he is “half-a-man” seem to give us a reason for this need to distract himself.  However, this is, as I have been stating, what seems to be the case. What makes Stern so interesting is that we all know he is living a normal life with a high profile model.  And even though he often jokes about his sexual performance, the audience sees him as a man-of-sorts.

But this is what gets the listener. The overlapping of the distracted schlemiel and the real Howard Stern who has the power to spur millions of his listeners to this or that political action creates a fascinating figure.

The end of this segment, when seen in contrast to what was said before, discloses this figure.

When asked to discuss what he thought of the Rolling Stone cover with Dzhokar Tsarnaev, Stern doesn’t work by way of any indirection.  He comments on the message it communicates to the people and not to academics.   He doesn’t want to see him made into a rock star.  And he takes on the position of the victims to explain his point: “If I had my kid killed or my legs blown off by that kid, I certainly wouldn’t want to see him on the cover of Rolling Stone.”

What I find interesting about Stern is that he moves in and out of the Schlemiel persona.  And he does so for certain reasons.  It seems this above comment on the Rolling Stone cover was his “superman” moment since it is couched in the midst of his self-deprecation (“I am half-a-man”) and his numerous indirections (about Sharknado, Al Sharpton’s girlfriend and how Sharpton appears on camera, and imitations of his mother kvetching).

Regardless of whether or not you agree with what Stern chooses to emphasize, I think I learned and you have seen how, at least in this instance, he plays the schlemiel and what this may imply.

I hope to, in the near future, come back to Howard’s Schlemiel persona.  My friends were right.  Stern does play the schlemiel.  And, as I’ve shown, this performance, when it is at its best, traverses the edge of the political.

After the “YouTubeLoop,” What is the Comic Legacy of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen?

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In yesterday’s post, I made a brief reading of the recent 44 minute video of Woody Allen “stammering” over the span of his career.   The picture I used as a thumbnail for the blog post came from the beginning of Woody Allen’s film Bananas. The reason I chose this image was because it nicely illustrated the mechanistic-slash-comic aspect of the video; in addition, it also illustrated what Henri Bergson believed was the essence of the comic: mechanical repetition. For Bergson, we laugh at the Jack-in-the-Box, or any mechanical repitition, because it is a caricature of life and freedom or what he called élan vital.  Like many in his time, Bergson’s theory is based on an organicist model or what the German’s called Lebensphilosophie (life philosophy). The greatest challenges to life philosophy can be found in meaningless, mechanical habits.  For thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche or Georges Bataille, the source of these mechanical habits was the growing mechanization of society – a society in which everything meaningful or progressive had “utility.”  For this reason, both Nietzsche and Bataille pursued a “vitalism” which looked to act without any meaningful end.  Life, as they understood it, was excessive.  For us to put a determined end on existence, by way of work, mechanism, and habits was, in effect, to say “no” to life.  Saying “yes” to life would be to affirm what Maurice Blanchot would call “un-working.”  Saying yes to life, for Bergson, would be equivalent to saying yes to elan vital and no to the mechanical gesture. To be sure, filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, who lived in and around the time Nietzsche, Bergson, and Bataille lived and wrote on vitalism, knew that the greatest threat to vitalism and élan vital was posed by technology.    America, with its concept of the assembly line and mechanical mass production, became the focal point for many Europeans (including Nietzsche, Batialle, Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, and many others) of what is to come; namely, an existence in which the individual is lost in (and to) the machine. And this is the point: life was at stake – life embodied in the individual (the subject) and his/or her freedom. We see this tension between life and the machine comically elaborated in both Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) and in Woody Allen’s repetition of key scenes of this film (with, of course, some variation) in Bananas (1971): Here is Chaplin’s film: As you can see, Chaplin is the subject of the machine.  However, his comic gesturing (and the absurd nature of the machine – a toy of sorts – he is subject to) make him distinct from the machine.  Both his gestures and the absurd nature of the machine give him some kind of agency. Here’s Allen’s film, Bananas: This film does something nearly identical to Modern Times.  The machine and Allen’s gestural responses to it give Allen agency.   As one can see, Allen believes that such responses are still affective and meaningful. Although 35 years and major advances in technology and history separate them, both of these clips communicate the same message about comedy and its challenge to mechanization.  For both, one mechanism seems to be defeating another and élan vital triumphs (comically). It must be noted that, for many thinkers and film critics of the early 20th century, the source of this scenario (of comedy versus the mechanical), which Allen repeats, is Charlie Chaplin. In his book Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars, Tyrus Miller notes that Andre Bazin, the famous French Film critic, wrote a seminal essay in 1948 about Chaplin claiming that Chaplin’s comedy was a means of ‘brushing aside danger’.  Miller goes on to note that Bazin sees Chaplin’s power as the power of “mimicry” which acts by “reabsorbing time and space”(51).  What he means by this is that Chaplin’s comedy wins time and space back for organic humanity and beats the machine at its own game.  Bazin bases his advancement of mimicry on the work of the surrealist Roger Caillois who claimed that insects, like humans, imitate the environment in order to protect themselves from being killed. Miller reads this in terms of the medium of film: Supplementing Bazin’s claim that time reabsorbs space, then, we might say that Chaplin’s organic body becomes a mimetic extension of cinematic technology, which breaks down movement into constitutive fragments, discarding some while isolating others.  Having incorporated the technical principle of montage into his physical movements, Chaplin is able to mirror it back to the camera in embodied form. (52). Sounding much like Walter Benjamin, Miller argues that Chaplin becomes the “very allegory of cinema in its inaugural phase and the changes in experience it will precipitate”(52). The self survives as a “minimal self: as much technical as organic, and held together by the stiffening bonds of laughter”(52). This presupposes that there is a community between the comedian and the audience and that if we don’t have comedians who can mimic the damage wrought by technology – that is, if we don’t have comedy to laugh at, our agency and selfhood will be diminished to such an extent that instead of a minimal self, there will be no self. It’s fascinating to note that Theodor Adorno also suggests this call for comedy and the minimal self in his book Minima Moralia.   Three decades following Adorno’s plea for the minimal self, comedy and the minimal self are evoked by Jean-Luc Nancy in an essay on Baudelaire in his book The Birth of Presence.  But, as I will show in future blogs, Nancy likens laughter to an explosion.  But the question is this: what does it explode?  Does post-modern laughter – for lack of a better word – explode the machine or the person?  If the latter, then we can surmise that Nancy thinks we can no longer protect ourselves from the machine and might as well celebrate nihilism. Regardless of Nancy’s take on laughter, Allen seems to be more on the side of Chaplin.  He has an optimistic view of comedy and sees it as a “defense” against technology and empty, mechanical repetition. In yesterdays video, however, I wondered about the meaning of the mechanically reproduced stammering which has become a micro-stammering of sorts (concentrated into 44 minutes). Did that video testifiy to the obliteration of the self and absorption into the medium or something else?  How, in fact, do we understand ourselves and one of our greatest defenses (comedy) by way of being looped, re-looped and morphed by new technology?  Has Allen’s stammer exploded and been emptied of all its human (organic) content?  Does such a video evince a subject who is powerless and “defenseless” against the ever expanding field of technology (with all its information and audio and video “flows” and “feeds”)? How does comedy and how do “we” – who are “in the network,” who come after Chaplin and Allen’s comic parody of technology and who now come after the “YouTube-loop” of Woody Allen…stammering – “live on?”  

Woody Allen and his Jack-in-the-Box-Stammer (x1000)

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Last week, The Huffington Post ran a 44 minute clip of Woody Allen stammering.  The clip puts together stammers that span Allen’s career.

When I saw it, the first thing that came to my mind was the Jewish-French philosopher Henri Bergson’s essay on laughter and, in particular, his words on the Jack-in-the-Box:

As children we have played with the little man who springs out of his box. You squeeze him flat, he jumps up again.  Push him lower, and he shoots up still higher.  Crush him beneath the lid, and often he will send everything flying….Now let us think of a spring that is rather of a moral type, an idea that is first expressed, then repressed, and the expressed again; a stream of words that bursts forth, is check, and keeps starting afresh.  Once more we have the vision of one stubborn force, counteracted by another, equally pertinacious (35).

For Bergson, a recurring force is comic because it is mechanical and repeats itself – unlike real life (élan vital).  Real people don’t “naturally” stammer like Woody Allen:

The truth is that a really living life should never repeat itself.  Whenver there is repetition or complete similarity, we always suspect a mechanism at work behind the living…The deflection of life towards the mechanical is here the real cause of laughter (17)

So, what we have here is not simply a stammer but a concentrated one.  But is this mechanical repetition of a mechanical repetition laughable?  Does the clip take the “surprise” out of humor?  Is Woody Allen’s stammer like a “jack-in-the-box” or does this video destroy the toy-slash-stammer?

That, my dear Watson, is the question.