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What's a schlemiel ? [EN]

Dernière mise à jour : 11 févr. 2021

Folklore Juif : Qu’est-ce qu’un schlemiel ? À la découverte des schlemiels d’Isaac Bashevis Singer

Schlemiels: Reflections on Failure and the Ironic Victory of Faith.

“I had a great talent for suffering (...).”[1]

Our analysis of the schlemiels portrayed in the corpus under study will aim at highlighting the paradoxical victory in failure of these characteristically unlucky protagonists. Singer’s schlemiel, though not a hero in the typical sense, is heroic by dint of his moral stature, as he constantly chooses faith over suspicion against all hopes and probabilities. A perpetual victim (of the community, of his wife, and perhaps of his own delusions), the schlemiel is a character whose greatness is proportionate to the suffering he addresses – the more vulnerable (and the more effectively harmed), the more saintlike. Furthermore, as we will underscore, the propensity of schlemiels to spoil things and their “talent for suffering”[2] has consequences and implications on a larger scale: it points to, and is symbolic of, the strategies through which the Jews attempt to survive in hostile environments in spite of chronic failure through the presentation of their flaws and weaknesses as distinctive aptitudes.

To begin with, in order to determine to which characters in our corpus the denomination may apply, we will define the concept of “schlemielhood”. In Yiddish literature and folklore, the schlemiel is presented as a hapless, ill-fated character whose unluckiness is at least partly due to some fault or lack of understanding of his own and not merely to exterior circumstances[3]. Indeed, as specified in the Universal Jewish Encyclopaedia, the schlemiel “handles a situation in the worst possible manner or is dogged by an ill luck that is more or less due to his own ineptness”[4]. The etymology and biblical origin of the words have been extensively discussed: various scholars[5] have argued that the noun “schlemiel” could have been inspired by the figure of Shelumiel, the son of Zurishaddai (Numbers 1:6), who was said to be unsuccessful in battle. The same Shelumiel has been identified by Talmudic commentary[6] as none but the ill-fated Zimri (mentioned in Numbers 25:7) who was slain by Phinehas as a punishment for his unbridled sexuality. Rachel Ertel also put forward that the term “schlimazzel” (a close cousin of the schlemiel, as we will underline) could be related to the German prefix “schlim” (bad) and the Hebrew word “mazel” (luck). Nonetheless, the etymology remains controversial.

The prototypical schlemiel is a man (and indeed there are no female schlemiels in Singer’s works), and, in various early literary representations, he is more specifically a cuckolded husband. Theodor Reik narrated the following medieval story, featuring a character names Shemueliel, which may account for the origins of the figure of the schlemiel:

“Shemuliel returned home after a year of absence to find his wife had given birth to a child. The rabbi decided that the child was legitimate while the neighbours were very dubious regarding the paternity. The man had to accept the rabbinical decision and became the prototype of the Schlemihl who is involving himself in difficult situations from which he cannot extricate himself”[7].

Interestingly enough, the story aimed at satirising both the institutional religion and at deriding the gullibility of cuckolds. Thus, this early representation of schlemielhood may be considered the result of a psychological phenomenon, i.e. the fear of cuckoldry. This interpretation may be applies to Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”: in order to account for the cruel jibes of the community in the short story “Gimpel the Fool”, Sanford Pinsker argues that “the townspeople (...) see the schlemiel as an object of condescending laughter – although often with the implicit realisation that his fate might well have been theirs”[8].

In the course of our effort in characterising the schlemiel, we may add that “he stands in the age-old company of fools, embodying the most outstanding folly of his culture: weakness”[9], which will lead us to enquire briefly into the specificities of the schlemiel’s folly and of his weakness. According to Ruth Wisse, who compared the schlemiels of Jewish literature with Shakespeare’s Touchstone in her key essay on schlemiels, the Shakespearian fool is “harmless and charming”, whereas its Jewish counterpart is “harmless and disliked”, as well as “vulnerable and inept”[10]. Ineptness and physical awkwardness indeed appear to be the most conspicuous characteristics of the personality of Tanhum, the protagonist of the eponymous short story, a ludicrous “idle dreamer” who constantly tries to “maintain a proper appearance”[11] – but to no avail: “a button would loosen and dangle by a thread until it dropped off and got lost. His boots were always muddied, his shirt collars frayed”[12]. Tanhum’s own inadequacy is constantly underlined through the comparison with his father-in-law Reb Bendit, who is presented as the paragon of the successful Jew – he is both scholarly, rich, a competent merchant and the head of a large family. Moreover, Tanhum is prone to self-hate and self-reproach (e.g. “he constantly berated himself for not praying fervently enough or devoting himself sufficiently to Jewishness, and he warred eternally with evil thoughts”[13]), which can be identified, as we will demonstrate, as one of the key characteristics of schlemielhood.

Gimpel the Fool[14], one of Singer’s most well-known protagonists, is at first sight a perfectly canonical shlemiel insofar as, like his medieval precursor, he is married to a shrewish wife named Elka who cheats on him throughout her life, repeatedly beaten by her bastard son, ineffectively assisted by the rabbinical authorities, and lied to by the townspeople who see in him the ideal dupe and constantly take advantage of his credibility. Even though Gimpel is directly linked to the medieval tradition, as opposed to the other two schlemiels under study, the tale significantly deviates from earlier traditions in order to convey the tragic implications of schlemielhood. Singer’s re-reading of the tale also articulates various concerns related to the conflict between two contradictory visions of reality : indeed, throughout the “Gimpel the Fool”, the eponymous protagonist strives to assert his own vision of the events that he relates – which runs counter to that of his townsfolk – choosing time and time again faith over mistrust, and unrealistic hopes over the impending despair that threatens to unsettle or shatter his existence.

As opposed to Gimpel who shares various traits with his medieval predecessor, Aaron “Tsutsik” Greidinger, in the novel Shosha, could be considered a modern-day schlemiel: to begin with, he does not dwell in the timeless shtetl – which serves as a backdrop in a majority of Singer’s short stories – but in early twentieth century Warsaw. Aaron (or Arele) is also the only one of Singer’s schlemiels to be explicitly, though indirectly, defined as such (as his friend Feitelzohn observes when Arele confesses that he has refused Sam Dreinam’s generous offer for his play-writing: “you should have taken the whole five hundred. To him that’s a trifle. He’ll think you’re a shlemiel”[15]). He also features some of the traits of the schlimazzel[16], and notably his half-comic, half-embarrassing clumsiness (“I nearly fell into the hole I had sidestepped in the dark the evening before”[17]). His friends frequently reproach him with his lack of lucidity – all the more so after he announces his intention to marry Shosha: as a schlemiel would, he spoils his chances throughout the novel. He is also a would-be writer, but the play that his patron Sam Dreinam expected him to write is a complete failure.

We mentioned previously the Biblical and medieval traditions of schlemielhood. Needless to say, the schlemiels of I.B. Singer cannot be dissociated from later Jewish literary history either – and more particularly from twentieth-century Yiddish literature and its re-conceptualisation of the schlemiel: how do Singer’s schlemiels relate to the other schlemiels in contemporary literature? How typical of literary trends – and, conversely, how specific – are they?

Firstly, we may note that in the early twentieth century, the schlemiel had become a recurrent type figure (or stock figure) of Yiddish literature and folklore. Harry T. Moore argued that the schlemiel was still essentially depicted as a “comic subject”[18] in keeping with the medieval tradition – which is no longer true of Singer’s schlemiels whose misfortunes are both (or successively) presented as comic and tragic. Most of the time, he is little characterised, and this lack in terms of personal history both lays emphasis on the uncertainty of the character’s position and destiny and enables all readers to identify with him. the schlemiel can be construed as a symbol for the Jew (Ertel described him as follows: “Figure du pauvre type qui élève le ratage au rang de mythologie”[19], since, even though his misfortunes are often addressed in the terms of the exaggerated and the grotesque, “at bottom, ghetto Jewry shared his fate”[20]. Moreover, his awkwardness and bad luck encapsulate the attitudes of many Jews in their often harsh encounters with surrounding peoples. According to Ruth Wisse, the schlemiel, “vulnerable, ineffectual in his efforts at self-advancement and preservation, (...) emerged as the archetypal Jew, especially in his capacity of potential victim[21] (my emphasis). Since the attitudes of Jews towards their own vulnerability as a people were complex, and, at times, contradictory, the schlemiel, as a literary figure, was both cherished and rebuked: “sometimes berated for his foolish weakness, and elsewhere exalted for his hard inner strength”[22], he was a symbol of the double-edged nature of victimhood, arousing both admiration and disgust[23]. This status of literary figure and myth (of the sources of Jewish vulnerability and suffering) enabled the schlemiel to become a medium through which these conflicting attitudes could be conveniently voiced and externalised: therefore, as Pinsker notes, “his comic victimhood helped to sustain those who were only partially schlemiels”[24].

The schlemiel is thus a literary myth: but should he be considered, properly speaking, a hero? The question of the characterisation of schlemiels as “heroes” has been a matter of debate[25], but, all in all, we will maintain that schlemiels (and Singerian schlemiels alike) are no heroes – at least not in the traditional sense of the word[26]. To be more specific, “the schlemiel is not a hero manqué, but a challenge to the whole accepted notion of heroism”, for, as we will try and confirm, he never triumphs over his awkwardness and ineptness, but through them. As Singer argued in an interview with Harold Flender[27], Yiddish literature is not “really brought up on ideas of heroes”, for there were “very few heroes in the Jewish ghettos”. This echoes Daniel Boyarin’s analysis[28], which distinguished the typical Gentile heroes (or “Goyishe Nachas”), such as Promethean figures, and other characters endowed with exceptional virtues, from the Jewish ideal of humility (or “Yiddishe Nachas”) and its promotion of socially undistinguished, emotionally and physically vulnerable characters.

As we have established, the schlemiel is both, theoretically, an epitome and a model of humility, and, practically, a victim and a sufferer. This assertion will thus address the following questions: to what – and to whom – are Singer’s schlemiels vulnerable? On what grounds are they victimised and harmed? Through what strategies do they manage to maintain their physical and emotional integrity and to survive in a hostile environment?

Firstly, it appears that the main cause that accounts for the persecution of schlemiels is their gullibility and their innocence (as Gimpel himself admits, “I was easy to fool”[29]. Tsutsik is depicted as naive as well by his friend Feitelzohn as he refuses Sam Dreinam’s generous offer for his play : “you should have taken the whole five hundred. To him that’s a trifle. He’ll think you’re a shlemiel”[30]), their social anxieties (for instance, both the internal focalisation on Tanhum’s thoughts, disclosed to the reader through the question in free indirect speech, and the description of his physical uneasiness are revealing of that: “Who knows, maybe they where making fun of him? The back of his neck felt hot and damp”[31]) and their extreme awkwardness (we may quote, among numerous other instances of awkwardness in the behaviour of Singer’s schlemiels, this description of Tanhum: “he often tripped, caught his clothing, and bumped into things, and he constantly had to be told where to go and what to go”[32]). All these elements seem (at least at first sight) revealing of their radical lack of adaptation to society and to reality.

Our second aim will be to identify their vulnerors, or, as far as schlemiels are concerned, their deceivers. Gimpel, the typical cuckolded schlemiel, falls prey to his shrewish wife Elka[33] who both cheats on him and lies to him repeatedly in order to convince him that she does not. In “Tanhum”, it is Reb Bendit, Tanhum’s father-in-law, who plays the role of the deceiver (“the more glibly Reb Bendit spoke, the more apparent it became to Tnahum that his prospective father-in-law had broken his agreement and had indeed sought to rob Reb Nathan of the profits and even part of his original investment”[34]).

The interaction between schlemiel and townspeople (between the individual and the collectivity) in “Gimpel the Fool” could also be defined as a relationship of persecutors and victims: from an early age on, Gimpel is “cast in the role of group joke”[35] (as he puts is: “I think of myself: Let it pass. So they take advantage of me”[36]), which implies that the community constantly lies to him and tricks him into unsavoury situations – for instance, he marries his wife Elka because he is told that she is a virgin even though she already has a bastard son at home. Gimpel systematically takes the bait, and, while he does have some understanding of the tricks that are played on him (when he is told that his father and mother have risen from the grave, Gimpel comments: “to tell the truth, I knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened, but all the same, as folks were talking, I threw on my wool vest and went out”[37]), he keeps believing (and, at times, pretending to believe) what he is told. His incredible naiveté is a perpetual enjoyment for the townspeople, and “for the victimizers, the cruelty seems to be conscious and only spoiled by the fact that it is too easy”[38].

Thus, the schlemiel is apparently compelled to be a victim and a sufferer – not only (contingently) by others but (essentially) by his own nature. According to Sanford Pinsker, the schlemiel’s mishaps and misfortune can be traced back to his ontological nature: he is etymologically “sheluach min’El”, sent away from God, and, consequently, he is a character “who vacillates between an isolation among his fellows and a terrible isolation from his God”[39], whose ill luck and miseries are attributed by others to his being rejected by his God – as was Job’s case.

It should be noted that the schlemiel’s one and only answer to persecution is passivity and submissiveness, as Gimpel’s anti-pragmatic reactions to pranks that he did not even take seriously display. This passivity was sometimes construed as a symbolical castration: for instance, Ruth Wisse argued that the schlemiel’s masculinity was indeed “undermined by his wife at home and by the aggression of the environment”[40]. The history of Jewish literature provides an interesting insight into the matter, since many Yiddish writers prior to I.B. Singer made use of the figure of the schlemiel in order to lash out (especially for political purposes) against the passivity of Ashkenazic Jews. For example, Y.L. Peretz’s Bontsche The Silent[41], sometimes “misread as a study of sainthood, is actually a socialist’s exposure of the grotesquery of suffering (in) silence”[42]. Nonetheless, this does not apply to Singer’s conception of the schlemiel’s passivity. Singer indeed deflated the ideas and ideals of socialism throughout his literary works, and, more generally, he did not believe in the virtues of taking political action[43]. Thus, the Singerian schlemiel is no political mouthpiece, and the implications of his passivity are altogether different: indeed, in the three works under study, suffering and passivity are (at least partly) (re)presented as positive attitudes.

Therefore, the question of whether the schlemiel really wants his condition to change is to be addressed: to what extent does he enjoy being manipulated? To what extent does he participate in the process through which he becomes vulnerable? It appears that, since tales that feature schlemiels can be defined as “stories created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics”[44], it is essential that the schlemiel should remain unlucky. Thus, scholars have often laid emphasis on the masochistic features of schlemiels, insisting on the fact that “psychoanalysis would characterize the schlemihl as a masochistic character who has strong unconscious will to fail and spoil his chances”[45] . Thus, victim and victimiser could well be the same person: for instance, in Shosha, Betty significantly describes Tsutsik as “one of those men who like to sink”[46]. It must be noted that the demarcation line between schlemiel (a character at least partly responsible for his own sufferings) and schimazzel (a character who seems particularly ill-fated, though not through any fault of his own) thus became increasingly porous in twentieth century Yiddish and Jewish American literature, for “the sheer impact of Freudian psychology made it harder and harder to believe that anybody could really be a schlimmazzel – that is, a character not really responsible for his run of bad luck”[47]. As a consequence, the schlemiel, who was said to be at least to some extent the cause of his own misfortune, progressively merged with the schlimmazzel. It has also been argued that the masochism of the schlemiel reflected the attitudes of the whole Jewish community, which was being, or had been, subject to persecution, and which “rather than (...) turning the sharp edges of their humor against the oppressor, (...) tended to turn it inward”[48].

However, the accusation of masochism may have more complex implications than it appears. Firstly, as Ruth Wisse reminds us, “Gimpel’s antipragmatic philosophy mocks the need for classification and rational explanation of which the tendency to define Gimpel as a masochist is itself a good example”[49]. More importantly, the self-mockery and awareness of schlemiels should probably be construed as a defence mechanism. At the level of the Jewish community, which can be said to have shaped the figure of the schlemiel in order to voice its anxieties and drive out part of its self-disgust, the humour of failure could be something of an ironic triumph. As Freud postulated, “finding a means of withdrawing the energy from the release of unpleasure that is already in preparation and of transforming it, by discharge, into pleasure”[50].

Moreover, we will argue that, despite his apparent passivity and gullibility, the Singerian schlemiel manages to frame a consistent alternative representation of reality relying on his own, personal moral codes. Interestingly, at first, the schlemiel seems to be but a “misrepresenter of reality”[51] who superimposes his own flawed interpretation of events on facts (for instance, according to facts, Elka did cheat on Gimpel throughout her life, as she herself confesses on her deathbed, telling him that her children were not his but other men’s) and reality seems to keep invalidating his judgments and ideals and ruining his projects. For example, in terms of characterisation, Arele is the result of a conjunction between two literary types, the schlemiel and the metaliterary figure of the failed writer (his much-expected play is a complete failure, and he feels like an outcast in the Jewish writers’ club). Most of the time, the schlemiel is also unaware of his own foolishness and stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that he is delusional – even though he is constantly depicted as such by some people or by the whole community. For instance, interestingly, Gimpel “the Fool” begins his tale by denying the consensus opinion (“I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that’s what folks call me”[52]) that the townspeople impose on him, thus immediately questioning the accuracy of the title of the short story (is Gimpel the Fool a fool?) and inviting the reader not to accept this denomination without critical investigation. By doing so, he instantly refuses to be pigeonholed in the category that the Frampolians ascribed him. The question of who we, as readers, are to believe is left unanswered. However, there is no denying that our sympathy goes to the vulnerable, gullible schlemiel.

Moreover, schlemiels triumph, as Ruth Wisse highlighted, “by their reinterpretation of an intolerable situation”[53]: by leaving the doors of imagination open and by asserting that everything is possible (“the longer I lived the more I understood that there are really no lies. Whatever doesn’t happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if doesn’t happen to another, tomorrow if not today”[54]), Gimpel succeeds in proposing (rather than imposing) his own internally coherent vision of reality. As he eventually becomes a wanderer, a storyteller and a mystic, Gimpel – not unlike Tanhum, whose ardent mysticism is more obviously religious as he asserts “My soul years for the Torah”[55] and becomes an ascetic – chooses to substitute his own illusory world for the (so-called) real world – that of lies and deceptions. This choice of an alternative reality where everybody would tell the truth (or no one: the question remains open since Gimpel himself eventually becomes a “spinner of improbable yarns”[56], i.e an inventor of fictions) relies on a paradoxical form of pragmatics. What Gimpel asserts is in fact that it is preferable to believe at all events and against all odds rather than to lose one’s faith and, consequently, one’s reason to survive. The struggle between faith and scepticism is indeed one of the most striking features of “Gimpel The Fool” – as is the eventual triumph of faith in spite of all the obstacles. Thus, Gimpel’s choice can be said to rely on a moral wager: truth should eventually triumph over deception, and good over evil, so Gimpel will live as if this had already happened.

“Face à l’expérience historique de la communauté juive, l’absurdité d’un tel pari ne peut qu’être évidente, comme est évidente d’ailleurs la nécessité de le faire si l’on veut survivre. L’origine de cet optimisme a des racines très profondes dans la tradition juive, le ‘betokhen’, une sorte de foi, de confiance en l’avenir, envers et contre tout”[57].

As a consequence, the schlemiel’s deliberate decision to remain gullible and weak (and thus direly vulnerable to deception) is probably less a symptom of masochism than an attempt at avoiding the despair that could emerge from the confrontation with an intolerable reality: as Arele puts it when considering the possibility of a psychoanalysis, “The patient comes to the analyst to be cured – that is, to become like everyone else. (...) But where is it written that the cure is better than the disease?”[58] (my emphasis).

Thus, the schlemiel must assert his unshakable betokhen not only against all odds but also against all others. Hence the insistence on the existential isolation and alienation of schlemiels: even when they are in a group,