Mourning Becomes the Schlemiel

I. Psychoanalysis has taught us that comedy—in particular, the joke—is a discourse through which serious issues can be articulated in a manner that can be tolerated by an intended recipient. It has not (to my knowledge) said anything about the relationship between comedy and sadness—in particular, mourning.  Aristotle tells us that tragedy allows for a moment of catharsis—be it intellectual or emotional—in which the audience is able to resonate with the dramatic events being seen.  Can comedy or comedic situations fulfill a similar function?  Can it teach us, or model for us, anything having to do with, e.g., sorrow?  Is the insight of the Kotzker Rebbe to the effect that there is no heart so whole as that of a broken heart relegated to the discourse of lamentation alone?  These fragmentary reflections are a first attempt at exploring this question.  The schlemiel, as a figure of derision, is a particularly apt test case for this insofar as s/he is never simply the fool that s/he appears to be.  Were the schlemiel simply a fool—if we did not learn something from the schlemiel’s all-too-obvious bumbling mistakes—we would have no interest in him/her as a literary type.  There is enough simple foolishness in the world without authors, filmmakers, and playwrights, adding to it.

II.  My hypothesis is that the schlemiel does teach us something about mourning—at least as it is construed in psychoanalysis. For Freud (as he states “Mourning and Melancholia” [1917]), mourning is a response to loss.  While he speaks of mourning mostly in terms of the actual death of a loved one, this is only the most extreme example of situations confronting us all the time.  For we lose loved ones in life as well.  We similarly lose fantasies and ideas that we take for granted as being true or reflecting actual states of affairs.  Whether the situation involves the death of a family member, divorce from a spouse, the breaking apart of a friendship, betrayal of trust, or the collapse of a personal, societal, cultural, or political construal of reality, we are confronted by a choice:  do we attempt to hold on to the past as if it were simply present, or do we come to terms with the fact that we no longer inhabit the same world that we did (and, consequently, what do we do in light of this fact)?  This is true even in cases where the loss is ‘reversed’ (as in the case of apologies, “mending fences,” or gestures of reparation)—i.e., we now no longer inhabit a world where such a reversal is not needed.  For Freud, the attempt to hold on to the past in order to “keep it alive” in simple presence constitutes melancholia—the pathological deformation of mourning; one cannot literally keep alive that which is dead.  Mourning occurs when the personal or collective investments in the lost person or idea are shifted to something else—i.e., mourning entails a divestment of time and energy from the “dead object.”  For Melanie Klein, this divestment takes the form of a taking-in of that object and making it a part of one’s psychic life.  Klein holds that the internalization of the lost object is one way in which the person or ideal stays alive for the mourner—i.e., by becoming a “good internal object” for that person. Hans Loewald makes explicit what (regarding mourning) is underemphasized in Freud and Klein:  mourning is a process occurring throughout life, constituting a developmental achievement when it happens well, and is not relegated simply to the literal cessation of life.  There is nothing inevitably triumphant or redemptive in this achievement; it simply means that one is able to get on with life.  The schlemiel is a figure that is so open to loss that s/he finds it at every turn.  Paraphrasing Rosenzweig, there is nothing about loss that is alien or foreign to the schlemiel.  And yet, s/he persists.  For me, this renders the schlemiel a figure worthy of consideration here.

 III.  My choice of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” (written in 1953 and translated that same year by Saul Bellow) warrants some comment.  That Gimpel always speaks in the first person allows for one to see that he both is and is not the fool that he claims to be.  Insofar as Singer has Gimpel narrate his experience retrospectively, he shows that Gimpel is a fool first and a wise man second.  We might ask ourselves whether human beings in general are schlemiels first and (in the manner of Hegel’s Owl of Minerva) philosophers second.  Whether this bespeaks an intimate connection between philosophy and farce (as Marx might have it) is another question altogether.  But there is a less lofty reason for choosing Gimpel as the privileged example.  Like it or not, Singer has become (after the fact) the major sustainer of Yiddish tales in the English-speaking world.  If we read e.g., Aleichem, Peretz, Ansky, Bialik, Bergelson, or Abrahmovitsch, we inevitably do so in comparison with (and in the light of) the visibility and influence granted to Singer’s work: “Gimpel the Fool” (as translated by Bellow) has become something of an archetype for how we see the schlemiel.  This may or may not be a situation to mourn (i.e., Singer may indeed not be the greatest of the modern Yiddish authors), but it is our situation.

IV. One final mention before beginning to reading Singer’s story: Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi poses a criticism of Singer that has bearing on these reflections.  She argues effectively that Singer’s characters hide out in a Jewish world no longer in existence.  For Ezrahi, Singer’s continual imaginings of Shtetl culture shows that he avoids dealing with the one event that annihilated said culture—the Shoah.  For this reason, she holds that his writing has a disconcerting anachronistic character which fails to accept the loss of the culture which Singer’s characters inhabit.  On this reading, Singer’s writing more accurately reflects the position of the melancholic than the mourner.   This is surely not the place to attempt a defense (if one were warranted) of Singer’s oeuvre.  Neither is it the place to continue the battle over how to characterize the Shoah.  I would simply raise the question as to whether the Shoah is something that can be mourned.  For present purposes, I answer in the negative because the enormity of the Shoah cannot (in the words of Adorno) be made fully conscious; ultimately, one can only mourn what one can think and confront.  Irrespective of whether humankind will ever be able to responsibly confront genocide, it manifestly cannot at present.  However, whether the Shtetl life and culture about which Singer writes can be mourned (and is in fact mourned in “Gimpel”) is a question that is quite relevant here.  For my part, I believe that it can.

V. “Gimpel the Fool” is divided into four sections which we can characterize as (1) Introducing Gimpel and the town of Frampol, (2) Gimpel’s struggles, (3) Elka’s death, and (4) mourning. The main thrust of the story is Gimpel’s trials and ordeals (with the town of his birth) and how he comes to terms with them.  The first four sentences (the ‘prologue’) of Part One let us know immediately how deceptively non-simple Singer’s tale is:  “I am Gimpel the fool.  I don’t think of myself as a fool.  On the contrary.  But that’s what folks call me.”  Questions abound:  Is Gimpel a fool?  If so, is he a fool because he thinks he’s wise?  Or is he actually wise?  He is wise enough, in any case, to know that everyone else considers him a fool.  But would a simple fool have the distance from his community, break with their judgment, and consider himself wise?  Moreover, could a simple fool narrate his own history?  Perhaps these questions miss the focus of Singer’s story; perhaps the important aspect of these questions concerns what they suggest about the men and women of Frampol; perhaps the problem lies with them.  Gimpel expounds:  “What did my foolishness consist of?  I was easy to take in.”  Gimpel’s “flaw” appears to lie in his being too trusting.  He is, thus, the butt of a seemingly endless procession of jokes, tricks, and swindles.  But this “flaw” is only problematic if one accepts the premise that he shouldn’t be the way he is.  But what if Singer’s point is, instead, to indict the people of Frampol?  What if Gimpel’s being a “fool” is simply the result of their collective sickness?  Perhaps Frampol is a town of bullies and thieves.  If so, Gimpel’s “flaw” is less one of trusting any individual of Frampol and more one of attempting to find in Frampol an ideal of human life that is irretrievably lost.

Gimpel seems to have an awareness of this possibility when the townspeople of Frampol force him to marry Elka.  Despite the fact that he surmises her to be unchaste—despite the fact that he “wanted to go off to another town” in order to escape from the town’s prodding (and this desire for escape foreshadows a prominent aspect of Part Four)—he decides that he will marry her.   Whenever he acts in a manner that confirms the town’s perception of him as a fool, he provides a defensive rationalization for it—i.e., “What was I to do?”, “How was I supposed to know?”  In this case, his rationalization is (perhaps) wiser than he knows:  “But when you’re married the husband’s the master, and if that’s all right with her it’s agreeable to me too.  Besides, you can’t pass through life unscathed, nor expect to” (my emphasis).  While he attempts to justify the imperfection (foolishness?) of the marriage to himself, he also utters a truth that will allow him later to mourn his situation.  Put differently, the conditions for the possibility of mourning lie in the recognition of pain, sorrow, and disappointment.  While he here considers it as it relates to Elka, he will later see it as it relates to Frampol.  But this presumes that Singer’s point (as I mentioned earlier) is to indict Frampol—is this true?  Gimpel again seems to indicate this through yet another defensive rationalization.  Right after the marriage ceremony, Gimpel sees two men bringing him a baby’s crib saying “Don’t rack you’re brains about it.  It’s all right, it will come in handy.”  Upon realizing that he was about to become the butt of the biggest marital joke of all, Gimpel says, “I’ll see what comes of it.  A whole town can’t go altogether crazy” (my emphasis). Given that Gimpel’s account is in the first-person retrospective voice, the tacit answer he supplies to readers is either “Yes it can” or “Yes it did.”

VI. Part 2 highlights the struggles that Gimpel has with Elka.  First, Elka gives birth to a child the father of whom is not Gimpel.  Then, upon Gimpel’s confronting her with this, she lies to him about who the real father is.  Finally, Gimpel discovers that Elka is sleeping with another man at Gimpel’s home and in his bed.  Moreover, Gimpel’s interactions with Elka are distinctively one-sided—she berates him.  In response, Gimpel comically (or, at any rate, symptomatically) becomes more attracted to her (at the level of action) but also shows his ability to view the negative as affirmative (at the level of description):  “I didn’t dislike Elka . . . She swore at me and cursed, and I couldn’t get enough of her. What strength she had!  One of her looks could rob you of the power of speech.  And her orations!  Pitch and sulphur, that’s what they were full of, and yet somehow also full of charm.  I adored her every word.  She gave me bloody wounds, though.”  He is surely foolish to enjoy her berating—although we also know, by virtue of psychoanalysis, that the relation between pain and pleasure is (as it were) an intimate one—but his capacity to alchemically transform the negative into the affirmative will help him (after Elka’s death) to finally make her his own.  If we ask why Gimpel puts up with this aggravation, his answer is straightforward:  “I’m the type that bears it and says nothing.  What’s one to do?  Shoulders are from God, and burdens too.”  In bestowing this transformative ability to Gimpel, Singer compels readers to wonder what it would mean for someone to simply reject these burdens?  Would such a person be rejecting God as well?  Or, in a more psychoanalytic register, would such a person be acting in a manner complicit with Frampol’s sickness?

The point is not that there is only a binary opposition between Gimpel’s patience (which is frustrating but somehow morally/religiously good) and Frampol’s judgment/behavior (which is realistic yet sick).  I believe that Singer shows a dialectic at work in Gimpel’s internal struggle; for Gimpel, the question is how one reconciles oneself to a society that lives in a wrong manner—the answer being (in the words of Adorno) that a wrong life cannot be lived rightly.  The first three parts of Singer’s story show Gimpel’s attempt to live in accordance with Frampol’s wrongness—this even to the extent of subordinating his own desires and wishes to those of the community.  Finally, however, upon discovering another man in his bed with Elka, Gimpel’s anger becomes uncontrollable:  “‘Enough of being a donkey,’ I said to myself, ‘Gimpel isn’t going to be a sucker all his life.  There’s a limit even to the foolishness of a fool like Gimpel.’”  Insofar as he recognizes his being taken advantage of, Gimpel shows again that he is not a simple fool.  But if his foolishness has a limit, we still might wonder whether his wisdom has the same limit; for his recognition of his foolishness is itself wisdom.  Gimpel’s self-criticism is a moment of transcendence with respect to simple foolishness.

Gimpel has had enough.  He speaks to the rabbi of Frampol, and the latter tells him to divorce Elka immediately.  In instructing Gimpel thus, what are we to make of the rabbi’s imperative?  From the standpoint of everyday life, it makes sense to divorce a spouse who is so unfaithful.  Does it make sense for Gimpel in Frampol?  The rabbi, in calling for a break, is in some sense calling for Gimpel to mourn a lost cause.  But (in keeping with the dialectic I am pursuing here) if Gimpel does divorce Elka, is he not simply living in accordance with Frampol’s conventions?  The rabbi’s imperative, while incomplete, foreshadows the mourning that Gimpel undertakes in Part Four.  At this point, Gimpel decides not to act out of the ethos characteristic of Frampol:  “I wanted to be angry, but that’s my misfortune exactly, I don’t have it in me to be really angry.”  In the end, he doesn’t go through with the divorce.

VII.   Part Three opens with the discovery that Elka has given birth to another child—also not Gimpel’s.  Again the men and women of Frampol make Gimpel the butt of their ridicule.  And again Gimpel evinces his “foolishness”:  “All Frampol refreshed its spirits because of my trouble and grief.  However, I resolved that I would always believe what I was told.  What’s the good of not believing?  Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God Himself you won’t take stock in.”  Is Singer simply advocating blind and foolish faith for the purposes of religious belief?  Rather, I believe that Gimpel is suggesting that the cynicism that arises from sorrow and pain leads to a more general loss of value that is needed for life to continue.  If we hold (again with Adorno) that despair is simply the reverse side of naïve hope, then the rejection of such hope—the destructive revolt against it—would actually be a perverse or symptomatic manifestation of it.  If we wish to reimagine Gimpel’s claim, it might run as:  “Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow its life itself you won’t take stock in.”  Gimpel’s seemingly foolish acceptance would then amount to a nuanced acknowledgement of the complexities of living.

And sure enough, although Gimpel strangely does not spend time recounting it, we find out that long periods of his life are filled with happiness and success:  “To make a long story short, I lived twenty years with my wife.  She bore me six children, four daughters, and two sons . . . I have forgotten to say that by this time I had a bakery of my own and in Frampol was considered to be something of a rich man.”  One need not go back to Plato’s Republic to consider the imperviousness of discussing the Good; there are no thematic sections in Barnes & Noble dedicated to How My Life Has Always Been Successful And/Or Happy—only to how we might become so (implying that we presently are not).  So it should not surprise us that the twenty years of plenty for Gimpel warrants merely a statement of its fact.  No sooner does Gimpel finish telling us this than he lets us know that eventually Elka develops breast cancer and dies.  It is clear, at this point, that Singer intends to invoke the classical situation of mourning (i.e., the death situation).  To add insult to injury, however, Elka gives Gimpel a deathbed confession which renders Gimpel incredulous:  “‘Woe, Gimpel . . . It was ugly how I deceived you all these years.  I want to go clean to my Maker, and so I have to tell you that the children are not yours.’  If I had been clotted on the head with a piece of wood it couldn’t have bewildered me more.”  Again readers are confronted with the question as to whether Gimpel is simply a fool or something else.  Who believes that they would let such marital deception go unanswered for twenty years?  On the other hand, who indeed believes that they are incapable of self-deception and rationalization in matters of the heart?   Returning to the overall theme of mourning (as I described it at the beginning), this question applies not just to marital situations; it is equally applicable to friendship, political ideals, work-related desires, etc.  Who has not discovered a once-held perception to be a painful deception?  If we were to slip into despair at this point, we might invert Berkeley’s famous dictum (about the metaphysical primacy of perception):  “To be is to be deceived or to be a deceiver.”  And this is precisely the tone adopted by Gimpel in the final lines of Part Three:  “I imagined that, dead as she was, she was saying, ‘I deceived Gimpel.  That was the meaning of my brief life.’”  Such a statement could easily apply to the entire town of Frampol as well.

VIII.  Part 4 begins when “the period of mourning” traditional to Judaism ends, thus reversing the actual progression of (the last section) from despair to mourning.   It is at this point in the story where Gimpel’s struggle transforms from one with external reality to one internal to Gimpel himself; and a sign of this internalization of his struggle is that he begins to dream.  The “Spirit of Evil” visits Gimpel in his first dream after the shiva period and confronts Gimpel with his being deceived.  Had he simply reminded Gimpel of his deception at the hands of Frampol, he would have been uttering a descriptive truth—but he does not:  “The whole world is deceiving you . . . and you ought to deceive the world in your turn.”  The “Spirit of Evil” thus recommends that Gimpel sink to the level of Frampol and renounce any attempt to exceed or transcend the town’s sickness:  “There [will be] no [judgment in] the world to come . . . They’ve sold you a bill of goods and talked you into believing you carried a cat within your belly.  What nonsense! . . . There is no God either.”  The distress that Gimpel feels—being given voice in the form of a destructive internal object—leads him to believe that the proper response to such deception would be to fill the dough in his bakery with urine and sell it to the people of Frampol as revenge.

No sooner does he begin to undertake this vengeful action then (surprise!) he has another dream.  This time, it is Elka who speaks to him:  “You fool!  Because I was false is everything false too?  I never deceived anyone but myself.”  Clearly the real Elka did not (have had the capacity to) speak to Gimpel in this way.  By preserving Elka’s berating voice, but substituting a good message (i.e., one uncomplicit in Frampol’s sickness), Gimpel has created (as Klein might say) a good internal object out of Elka.  This is precisely the move that renders mourning possible.  Gimpel has gone from reacting to the external world as persecutory to internalizing major aspects of that world and making use of them.  In this case, he re-writes Elka’s persona in a manner which pulls him out of his cynicism and despair.  Is this a triumph for Gimpel?  Is it a sign that Gimpel has successfully transcended his past?  Saying this would be, I think, going too far.  It is (in Loewald’s sense) a developmental achievement.  The real Elka did not help Gimpel, but he has taken her in and re-imagined her in such a way that she ultimately comes to his rescue.  What is Gimpel’s achievement?  He is able to persist in the work of mourning and in the process of living.  He immediately destroys the impure dough in the bakery so that he will neither inflict his distress on Frampol nor allow Frampol to inflict its sickness on him.

Having taken Elka in as a good internal object, Gimpel is now able to attain distance from Frampol.  The first thing he does upon destroying the impure dough is to pack his bags and leave to go “Into the world.”  I said before that this leave-taking (the mark of successful mourning) was foreshadowed by the rabbi’s earlier imperative that Gimpel divorce Elka.  How, in fact, are they different?  At stake in this question is nothing less than a response to Ezrahi’s claim that Singer dwells in anachronism and avoids dealing with the Shoah.  Singer has given us a story steeped in a culture that no longer exists only to end it by having Gimpel leave for “the world.”  Is this not precisely a holding-on to a dead culture until the psychic and emotional inconvenience is so great that one must escape to a different world?  Is this not symptomatic of a failure to deal with the Shoah as the catalyst for the death of Shtetl life and culture?  Is this not precisely what Freud calls melancholy?

If Gimpel were simply to have divorced Frampol, he might in fact have shown a failure to work through what he has learned from his experiences there.  Frampol (like any place) is imperfect—but is it not still part of the world?  What can it mean to leave Frampol?  At the very least, it means to leave the illusion that one can simply reconcile oneself to it (either positively through rationalization or negatively by divorce).  To leave Frampol for the world means to leave the ideal of community for the reality of community.  The reality of Shtetl life and culture in Singer’s time was over.  Re-imagining it (in all of its imperfection) while taking leave of it for “the world” is Singer’s way of mourning the loss of it.  Taking leave of Frampol thus entails realizing the radical imperfection of the world without also having to negate the entirety of the world’s value and meaning.  This stance is a result of mourning.  Does it bring back the dead?  Not at all.  But it does allow one to go on living.  Moreover, it shows that one has learned something along the way (what Loewald might call a “deepening” of oneself).  Ezrahi is surely correct in intimating that this is an achievement not granted to the victims of Auschwitz.  But although writers can write about or for the victims, sadly, they cannot write to the victims.  Mourning is our problem, not theirs.

What does Gimpel encounter on his subsequent journey?  “I wandered over the land, and good people did not neglect me . . . I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies.  Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night.”  Gimpel encounters the reality of life—that it is horrible and good.  In the words of Fred Rogers, he finds the helpers.  He similarly encounters deception, but in realizing that “there were really no lies”, he shows his ability to distinguish lies from truth (an ability that his prior defensive rationalizations never accorded him).  And he suggests that the lies and falsehoods (much as Freud speaks of wishes and fears) may indeed be the stuff of dreams.  The world, as Gimpel finds it, is now a complex one—it breaks his heart, but it also allows for him to re-imagine it.  And he finds that the capacity to internalize and re-imagine—i.e., to mourn—is perhaps more real than “the real world.”  Does this mean that Gimpel retreats simply into imaginative construction?  Not at all:  “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world . . . Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception.  God be praised:  there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.”  Gimpel maintains his hope and ideal—and this is the highest expression of the dialectic between his foolishness and his wisdom.   There are moments when we can only entertain ideals in the contrary-to-fact subjunctive voice.  We nonetheless maintain them.  If there is a message that Gimpel bequeaths to us it is, I believe, this:  we are all fools, but we are not so simple.  The schlemiel’s foolishness, in showing us what mourning looks like, is (paraphrasing Leo Strauss) graced with existential grace.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

Jeffrey A. Bernstein is Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross.  He works in the areas of Spinoza, German Philosophy, and Jewish Thought.

Submit a comment