Commentary Magazine


The Dual Image, by Harold Fisch; The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, by Ruth R. Wisse

Noble Fools

The Dual Image: The Figure of the Jew in English and American Literature.
by Harold Fisch.
Ktav. 149 pp. $7.50.

The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.
by Ruth R. Wisse.
University of Chicago Press. 134 pp. $5.45.

Coleridge remarked in 1833 that “The two images farthest removed from each other which can be comprehended under one term, are, I think, Isaiah—‘Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth!’—and Levi of Holywell Street—‘Old Clothes!’—both of them Jews, you’ll observe. Immane quantum discrepant!” Coleridge was always attracted to antinomies, and generally held that the reconciliation of opposites constituted the highest activity of the human mind. Had he followed his customary procedure with regard to antithetical images he might have asked himself whether the Jew engaged in the messianic business of prophetic denunciation bore any relation to the Jew engaged in the business of shmattes. But he was content, as Harold Fisch’s survey of the Jew in English and American literature shows most English writers to have been content, to set the noble biblical figure alongside the contemptible modern one, without exploring the possible link between them. Fisch argues that from the medieval stage, where veneration for Noah, Moses, and the Prophets coexists with loathing for the distinctly Jewish Devils, Vices, and Judases, to the poems of T. S. Eliot, where subhuman creatures with such un-Eliotic names as Bleistein and Rabinovitch reside in compartments hermetically sealed off from the influence of glorious neighbors called Ezekiel and Nehemiah, images of the Jew as pristinely good and radically evil, as sublime and contemptible, as divine and less than human, have simultaneously inhabited the minds of writers who made no attempt to harmonize them.

The disparity between the political success and moral grandeur of the Jews of the Bible, and the political failure and social squalor of those Jews who persisted in surviving beyond 70 C.E. and even into the 19th century did not, of course, go unnoticed by the Jews themselves. For them, the reconciliation of their central place in the scheme of messianic redemption with their beggarly role in the life of modern Europe was a necessity of psychic survival; and one important way in which they went about the task of harmonizing the “dual image” is suggested by the story which is told in Saul Bellow’s The Victim about “a little town in the old country.”

It was out of the way, in a valley, so the Jews were afraid the Messiah would come and miss them, and they built a high tower and hired one of the town beggars to sit in it all day long. A friend of his meets this beggar and he says, “How do you like your job, Baruch?” So he says, “It doesn’t pay much, but I think it’s steady work.”

This anti-activist and anti-apocalyptic response to the suffering which is occasioned by the apparently endless tarrying of the Messiah—of whose coming there is, however, not the slightest doubt—is the ironical solution offered to the contradiction between Jewish hope and Jewish despair by the central figure of Yiddish and of American-Jewish literature, the schlemiel. In her wise, witty, and beautifully written little book on this representative man of the shtetl and its American inheritors, Ruth Wisse demonstrates the relationship between the schlemiel and the Purim fool who was used by East European Jews to express the contrast between the successful statesmanship of Mordecai in the Book of Esther and the pitiful sycophancy of their own leaders trying to intercede with Gentile authorities. She further notes that by the 20th century the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger could make weakness into strength by injecting into the traditional Megilla story and elevating above Mordecai a poor tailor named Fastrigossa who, weak and impotent bungler that he was, tried unsuccessfully to elope with Esther and assassinate the king, and was executed for his pains. With such a story the subversion of biblical tradition was complete: the contrast between the political potency of the Jews of the Bible and the political weakness of the Jews of Eastern Europe had become a matter of reproach not to the ineffectual schlemiels and Luftmenschen of the shtetl but to Solomon, David, and Mordecai.

In his development, as Professor Wisse traces it, the schlemiel grafted onto his original endowments of weakness, self-control, and capacity to endure, the anti-intellectualism of the Chelm stories and the anti-rationalism of such philosophic fool tales as those concerning Hershel Ostropolier. Above all, in the hands of the great Hasidic storyteller Rabbi Nachman, the fool-schlemiel became a spokesman for religious faith, “than which nothing in the modern world seems more foolish.” Henceforth his commitment would be to messianic rather than empirical truth, a commitment celebrated in its extreme form by I. B. Singer’s 20th-century classic, “Gimpel the Fool.”

The enormous burden of reconciling the Jewish knowledge of God with the Jewish experience of misery has in modern times fallen primarily on the frail shoulders of the schlemiel, both in his East European and American incarnations. Such strength as he has for this task he has derived from his irony, which characteristically expresses itself, according to Professor Wisse, in the mixture of affirmation and question: “Thou hast chosen us from among the nations—why did you have to pick on the Jews?” Such victories as the schlemiel wins consist in his continuing capacity to imagine his future, to imagine God, and to imagine himself. Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiels have a powerful sense of their own identities, in despite of circumstances; Kafka’s heroes have become bedbugs, thus succumbing prematurely to an environment in which it would soon become possible for Jews to be exterminated as if they were bedbugs.

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Professor Wisse tactfully acknowledges that the essentially personal and anti-heroic response to the fundamental dualities of Jewish experience will not, and perhaps should not, satisfy everybody. “. . . All activism dismisses the schlemiel. Single-minded . . . dedication to a particular cause or specific goal cannot tolerate a character whose perception of reality is essentially dualistic.” Professor Fisch, whose provocative and wide-ranging survey of the “dual image” of the Jew in literature includes Jewish as well as Gentile writers, may be thought of as one such activist. It is not only the Gentiles who show themselves incapable of achieving, “in place of the dual image, a unified image of Jewish life, in which the Jewish past and the Jewish future find real expression in the Jewish present. It is doubtful whether any Jewish writer has ever to date achieved more than a trembling intuition of such a possibility. In general, the Diaspora Jew is committed, like his non-Jewish colleague, to a version of the dual image.” Fisch does not mean to say that the Jewish version and the Gentile are identical, any more than he has asserted perfect identity between the sympathetic approach to the Jews of a Christian poet like Herbert (of whom he writes well) and the malicious approach of a Christian poet like Eliot. But he does think that the Jewish writer’s dualistic perception of Jewish destiny is, like the Gentile writer’s, a spiritual malady requiring a cure. The name of that cure is the title of Fisch’s concluding chapter, “The Israeli Catharsis.” Here we are told that the writers of the “American Jewish Renaissance” (and their British contemporaries) have “fail[ed] to register the Israeli experience”; that Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler is the apostle of “a dying civilization, that of pre-War Bloomsbury,” who goes to Israel in June 1967 because “violence fascinates him”; and that it is only in Israel that the ambiguities and dualities of Jewish life and literature can be resolved. In other words, Fisch is asking us to judge the literature in question by an extra-literary standard, and that standard is a Zionist one.

Zionism is mentioned only twice in Ruth Wisse’s book. Mendele seems to have thought of the early Zionists as sentimental schlemiels, and Sholem Aleichem, with his habitual skepticism about political movements, sometimes made his characters say tsinism (cynicism) when they meant to say tsionism (Zionism). Yet all our resistance to the literary crudity of a Zionist standard for Jewish writers and its strident insistence upon—to quote Fisch—Jewish “heroism, nobility, and an inner sense of superiority in the face of evil” should not blind us to the fact that it is precisely Zionism which offers the most damaging criticism of the political adequacy of the schlemiel.

One of the many works whose meaning is illuminated by Professor Wisse’s shrewd analysis is Sholem Aleichem’s short story “Dreyfus in Kasrilevke.” When Zaidl, the only Kasrilevkite who subscribes to a paper, reads to his fellow townspeople the account of Dreyfus’s conviction, they in their innocence refuse to believe him: “‘Such things,’” they cry,” ‘cannot be! No, this cannot be! It cannot be! It cannot be!’ “For a Peretz, who had little use for schlemiels, such refusal to face reality was blamable. But Sholem Aleichem concludes the story with a sympathetic question that in effect endorses the shtetl’s faith in divine justice: “Well, and who was right?” The story, Professor Wisse observes, “contains a double irony. The ideal pits itself against reality but is finally vindicated by that same reality. Were Dreyfus not finally acquitted in the human courts of law, the schlemiel insistence on God’s justice would have been less convincing.”

In fact, however, at the time Sholem Aleichem wrote the story (1902), Dreyfus had gained pardon rather than acquittal (he was, as it happened, never properly acquitted under French law), and if Sholem Aleichem derived any satisfaction from the apparent resolution of the affair, he was involving himself in as grave a political blunder as any imputed to his schlemiels. The Dreyfus affair was a dress-rehearsal for the Nazi movement, but the Jews, in their collective schlemielhood, refused to see in anti-Dreyfusism an elaborately organized Pan-European political campaign against them. The Jews refused, that is, with one exception. The only visible result of the affair, says Hannah Arendt, “was that it gave birth to the Zionist movement—the only political answer Jews have ever found to anti-Semitism and the only ideology in which they have ever taken seriously a hostility that would place them in the center of world events.”

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No one can be more sensitive than Professor Wisse herself to the tragic, or rather the disastrous, political implications for Jewish history of the centrality of the schlemiel figure in the psychic life of European Jewry. “Throughout the process of annihilation,” she remarks, “the majority of Jews refused or were unable to face reality. The hymn of the concentration camps was the Ani Maamin: ‘I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he is slow in coming (he is taking his own sweet time) yet even so, I believe.’” But she sees too that a historical judgment is not the same as, or the substitute for, a literary one, and that the consequences of escaping from literature into life may in the long run be as harmful as those of escaping from life into literature.

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