Schlemiels, Women & (In)animate Yo-Yos in Thomas Pynchon’s “V”


Easy Street, Mutual Film Corporation, 1917

by Menachem Feuer

Like human beings who grow and change as they move through time and space, literary characters go through a process of elaboration in which they take on a new look and feel. When it moves from one culture to another, a literary character is translated into new idioms. And, in turn, that character can now articulate new ideas. One of the most interesting comic characters in the Jewish literary tradition – one who has been elaborated and re-elaborated over time, space, and language – is the schlemiel. She has been translated into nearly every European language, has had a tremendous impact on Eastern European and German Jews, and in the early 20th century she traveled over the Atlantic to find a new home on American shores. Since the advent of Charlie Chaplin and the first translations of Shalom Aleichem into English, the schlemiel has become an American icon.  In film, television, and Jewish American literature, we find new American idioms for the schlemiel (think, for instance, of filmmakers and actors like Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, or Seth Rogen or TV stars like Larry David and Jason Alexander or writers like I.B. Singer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Shalom Auslander).  When one thinks of America, now, one doesn’t simply think of a heroic figure; one also thinks of the schlemiel and her antics.  And, to be sure, it was the work of many Jewish-American writers, filmmakers, and actors that jettisoned the schlemiel through Broadway, Hollywood, and the pages of popular novels to become an American icon.

What many literary critics overlook, however, is the fact that the schlemiel has also found its way into the pages of great Anglo-American writers like John Updike (see his “Beck” series) and Thomas Pynchon. Their interpretation of this character is of great interest since it shows us what great American writers (who are on the other side of the divide) accept, reject, or add to the schlemiel character. They give us a deeper insight into how the schlemiel has become an idiom for what it means to be an American. But there are problems. While both Updike and Pynchon elaborate an American schlemiel, Cynthia Ozick has argued that Updike’s reading is more-or-less a caricature of the American Jew (as schlemiel, in the most negative sense). Updike looks at the schlemiel from a theological and cultured distance (which we see fully elaborated in his most famous novels on “Rabbit,” which are all concerned with the Protestant aspects of American culture).  Pynchon’s reading of the schlemiel is much different. He doesn’t take a theological angle and doesn’t look to caricature the schlemiel.  Rather, Pynchon suggests that the schlemiel’s relationship to work, inanimate “things,” and the feminine provides the reader with an acute sense of the schlemiel’s prominent space in Pynchon’s vision of America.  While Updike’s schlemiel seems to be outside the ken of salvation, Pynchon’s does not. But the salvation of Pynchon’s schlemiel, Benny Profane, is comical not sacred. It is, like the comic character, partial or better yet, double. Living a better life is his salvation. But what makes the schlemiel’s path to life unique is that it comes through a relationship to two women, which reflect his own identity which is half-Catholic and half-Jewish. Both women take him from being an inanimate yo-yo who dreads failure and wandering the streets, alone, to an animated schlemiel with a temp job and a (temporary) home.

Benny Profane: A Schlemihl and Human Yo-Yo

At the very outset of his first novel, V, Thomas Pynchon’s introduces Benny Profane and calls him a “schlemihl.” (Pynchon mixes the German – “shlemihl” – and the Anglicized version – “schlemiel” – of the word and spells it “schlemihl.”) In the epigraph to the chapter, Pynchon suggests a plot based on the schlemiel: “In which Benny Profane, a schlemihl and human yo-yo, gets to an apo-cheir”(1). The first words of the novel – following this epigram – describe Benny Profane and situate him in time and space: “Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black Levi’s, suede jacket, sneakers and a big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia”(1).  Profane – given the time-period – sticks out in his eclectic attire. As one can literally see, he is the “odd one out.”

Profane is not just wandering through a city, he is, specifically, “on the streets,” above ground. To be sure, Pynchon suggests that Profane would prefer to be under-ground: “Profane had grown leery of the streets, especially streets like this. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about”(2). The street, in other words, is a place of disappointment and failure for the schlemiel. It is where one must seek work and make a living. Think, for instance, of Charlie Chaplin’s unemployed characters and the hijinks he comes across in the streets or else Robert Walser’s Simon Tanner who wanders from job to job in the streets of the city.

He’s not just in the streets. The schlemiel is in-between. The letter V, in relation to Profane, should be thought of in terms of the schlemiel’s spatial positioning, between things. The book starts off with him in the-midst-of a bar fight amongst sailors – some are his friends most are not. He doesn’t fight; he watches from an angle (V): “He stood in a doorway a moment watching; then realizing he had one foot in the Grave anyway, dived out of the way of the fight to lay more or less doggo near the brass rail”(2). The schlemiel – as we see in Saul Bellow’s Herzog or Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (and in many schlemiel tales) – is not a fighter.  And when he finds himself in-the-midst-of a fight, he finds a way of slipping out. He wants peace. As Paola, a friend in the bar says to him: “Peace,” she sighed. “Isn’t that what we all want, Benny? Just a little peace. Nobody jumping out and biting you in the ass”(11).

When it comes to women, he’s also in a V. Early on in the novel, we see that Profane is what David Biale would call a “sexual schlemiel.”  He may love women but he doesn’t, as Pynchon’s narrator says,’ “get any.” “Truth of it was Profane wasn’t getting any”(11).  However, this doesn’t mean that he lacks a relationship to the feminine or that he doesn’t fantasize about women.  His desire is more spiritual than sexual. And, as we shall see, he doesn’t see himself as someone who women would look at; he doesn’t see himself as desirable. Nonetheless, this doesn’t stop him from moving on.

To be sure, one of the main traits of Pynchon’s schlemiel is movement.  Pynchon calls this motion “yo-yoing”(14). But that movement stops short later in the novel by virtue of two women who seek to make him more stable and they do this by taking notice of him – desiring him. But before that happens, Profane feels invisible.  He feels like a machine or a being that is bombarded by inanimate objects.  He feels like a “yo-yo.”

Rachel Owlglass is also a V (a double character). One Rachel Owlglass – earlier in the novel – is different from the one in the latter half.  The main thing that differes between the two Rachel’s is their relationship to inanimate things.  The first time we meet her in the novel, she is mentioned in relation to a machine. She is depicted as being in love with an inanimate object:

Rachel Owlglass had owned, back in 54’, this MG. Her Daddy’s gift….Here, little, sulky, voluptuous, Rachel would gee and haw this MG around Route 17s bloodthirsty curves and cutbacks, sashaying its arrogant but past hay wagons, growling semis, old Ford roadsters filled to capacity with crewcut, undergraduate gnomes. (15).

After we meet her, we meet other people who are into (passionately into) their machines. The narrator directs us to a man named “Da Conho” who was Profane’s “chief” in the Navy or is it in the restaurant? (There is an ambiguity.) He was a “mad Brazillian who wanted to go fight Arabs in Israel”(15).  Profane recalls how a “drunken Marine” showed up at the restaurant he and “De Coho” worked at “near Liberty, New York” with a “machine gun.” De Conho imagines that the gun had been smuggled, “piece by piece,” which was how “the Haganah would do it”(16). De Conho ends up swapping “three artichokes and an eggplant” for the gun. The narrator poetically links this to something Zionist: “To the mezuzah nailed up over the vegetable reefer and the Zionist banner hanging in back on the salad table Da Conho added this prize”(16).

Like Rachel, De Conho becomes obsessed with this device and integrates it into his life:

Da Conho would assemble the gun, camouflage it with iceberg lettuce, watercress and Beligan endive, and mock-strate the guests assembled in the dining room. “Yibble, Yibble, Yibble,” he would go, squinting malevolent along the sights, “got you dead center, Adbul Sayid. Yibble, yibble, Muslim pig.” Da Conho’s machine gun was the only one in the world that went yibble, yibble. He would sit up past four in the morning cleaning it, dreaming of lunar looking deserts, the sizzile of chang music, Yeminite girls who se delicate heads were covered with white kerchiefs, whose loins ached with love. (16)

And this gives birth to Profane’s revelation about the relationship of man to machines (in general) and to Rachel to her machine (in particular):

Profane had wondered then what it was with Da Concho and that machine gun. Love for an object, this was new to him. When he found out not long after this that the same thing was with Rachel and her MG, he had his first intelligence that something had not been going on under the rose, maybe for longer and with more people than he would care to think about. (17)

Rachel and Da Conho – both Jews who are obsessed with machines – form a V-like convergence. But the schlemiel’s relationship to inaimainte things is much different.  When Rachel, at the outset of the novel, goes to pick him up at the restaurant he works at with Concho, Profane has to dodge her car (like much else in his schlemiel’s life). But – also in schlemiel fashion – he gets hit and…falls (garbage and all):

He met her through the MG, like everyone else met her. It nearly ran him over. He was wandering out the back door of the kitchen door of the kitchen one noon carrying a garbage can overflowing with lettuce leaves Da Conho considered substandard when somewhere off to his right he heard the MG’s sinister growl.   Profane kept walking, secure in a faith that burdened pedestrians have the right-of-way. Next think he knew he was clipped in the rear end by the car’s right fender.  Fortunately, it was only moving at 5mph – not fast enough to breaking anything, only to send Profane, garbage can and lettuce leaves flying ass over teakettle in a great green shower. (17)

Their meeting is romantic. Both are “covered with lettuce leaves.” And she says “for all I know you may be the man of my dreams. Take that lettuce leaf off your face so I can see”(17). And then she says, in comic fashion, “No…you’re not him.” His response is comic: “Maybe…we can try it next time with a fig leaf.” She laughs and then “roars off”(17).

Rachel comes back and invites Profane to ride with her: “Come for a ride, hey Fatso,” she called out. Profane reckoned he could”(17). While he is driving with her, Profane can’t feel any sexual attraction to her because he experiences great fear. Profane feels that he could die in her car and worries he – quite often – put himself in harms way. And this fear gives us some insight into what Pynchon means by a schlemiel; in terms of being “in the way” of “inanimate objects.” To be sure, the schlemiel, in a sense much like Chapin in many of his films (especially Modern Times), has a problem with things (mostly technological things):

It seemed sometimes that he put himself deliberately in the way of hostile objects, as if he were looking to get schlimazzled out of existence. Why was he here anyway? Because Rachel had a nice ass? He glanced sidewise at it on the leather upholstery, bouncing, synced with the car; watched the not-so-simple nor quite harmonic motion of her left breast inside the black sweater she had on….it was all inanimate. (18)

He and Rachel – after stopping the car – drink beers. Profane drinks too much.  And then the narrator turns –in brackets – to a meditation on inanimate objects because Profane imagines that when he pees on the shadow of the sun that he is putting it out: “(Inanimate objects could do what they wanted. Not what they wanted because things do not want; only men. But things do what they do, and this is why Profane was pissing on the sun)”(20).

The narrator and Profane see Rachel in terms of the inanimate objects in her vicinity: “They talked in the car always, he trying to find her own ignition behind the hooded eyes, she sitting back of the right hand steering wheel and talking, talking, nothing but MG words, inanimate words he couldn’t really talk back at”(21). It’s as if the words are like objects being thrown at him. They have a life of their own, and the schlemiel has no control over them: “He never got beyond or behind the chatter about her world – one of objects coveted for valued, an atmosphere Profane couldn’t breathe.”(21).

While he is uncomfortable and dodges things (whether cars, words, etc,), Profane catches Rachel talking to her car in an erotic manner:

“You beautiful stud,” he heard her say,” I love to touch you.” Wha, he thought. “Do you know what I feel when we’re out on the road? Alone, just us?” She was running the sponge caressingly over its front bumper”(22).

Although he is estranged by this kind of relationship, we learn that Rachel comes looking for him – in Norfolk, Virginia – when he flees (28).  Before she catches up with, Pynchon treats us to a discussion with his friend, Dewey, which is interspersed with a phone call he has with Rachel. Profane “felt that invisible, umbilical string tug at his midsection. He thought of long fingers…And it looks like I’m never going to cease. ‘She wants you,’ Dewey said…’I want you,’ Rachel said. He moved his chin across the mouthpiece, making grating sounds with a three-day growth. He thought that all the way up north….there must be earthworms, blind trollfolk, listening in…’Will you just drift, then, ‘ she said.”(29). The desire to flee overwhelms him. He would rather not be seen or loved by another. It seems that, despite knowing how horrible it is to be alone, the schlemiel chooses exile, still.  Even so, Pynchon suggests that Profane is a yo-yo, and the phone cord, like an umbilical chord, will bring him back to Rachel.

She is in New York, now.

In January 1956 (after New Year’s Eve, the date at which the novel starts ), Benny Profane “showed up again in New York”(31) and this suggests that he always returns there (as if this is where the other end of the chord is located).  Profane roams “around the streets late at night” and studies “the classified by streetlight.” And “as usual,” the narrator tells us, “nobody wanted him in particular”(31). It seems as if Profane is the wandering everyman who could care less about being “wanted” or “working.” Profane, apparently, doesn’t like roaming “the street.” It is like many objects since “it and he remained strangers in every way” because the streets teache him that he “couldn’t work a transit, crane, payloader, couldn’t lay bricks, stretch a tape right…hadn’t even learned to drive a car”(31). As a schlemiel, Profane can’t seem to keep any job. His “only function” is not to work but “to want”(31).

Nonetheless, he still looks for something to do (while, apparently, erasing from his memory the existence of Rachel who, perhaps, can help him to do something).

Everywhere he goes and everything he does brings him into a collision course with “inanimate objects.”  He enters into the movement like a yo-yo.  “On a whim,” Profane decides to “spend the day like a yo-yo, shuttling on the subway back and forth”(31). And when he does move, also like a typical schlemiel, he trips over things, cuts himself shaving, and ends up taking a shower either the “handles wouldn’t turn” or when they do “hot and cold” come out in “random patterns”(32).  The narrator tells us that when Profane dresses he often tears his clothes. It takes ten minutes to zip a zipper (32).

All of these things comical encounters with things support the conclusion that “it wasn’t that he was tired or even notably uncoordinated. Only something that, being a schlemihl, he’d known for years: inanimate objects and he could not live in the same space”(32).

But this leaves open another possibility. Will be live better if he finds animate objects, people, instead? And how does he find them? Does he…stumble across them?  He doesn’t know how to find them so it must be that he will have to come on them by…chance.

And he does.

Pynchon has Profane fall asleep and dream while in the subway (32). He is awakened by three “Puerto Rican kids named Tolito, Jose, and Kook”(32).  They “had an act” to make money by using different objects to make music while making the subway train into their playground. The narrator’s description of them is itself musical.  At a certain point, they direct their conversation toward Profane, call him a “yo-yo,” ask him if he is out of job, and suggest that he join them hunting alligators (34).

What is odd about all this job offer is that Profane falls back asleep after he hears the words: “He wants to help Angel kill the alligators”(34). Profane than has a symbolic dream about a “boy born with a golden screw” in his navel (34).  He goes to many different people to get the screw out of his body.  In the dream, the boy is given a potion by a voodoo doctor that puts him asleep (a dream within a dream, no less).  In the dream the boy “finds himself on a street” and travels in the direction that the voodoo doctor told him to go in. He finds a red balloon and pops it to miraculously find a screwdriver with which he can use to take the screw out. When he removes the screw in his navel, the boy wakes up. He is overjoyed. But once he jumps out of bed, his “ass falls off”(35). This is obviously a schlemiel-tale; the punchline subverts the myth of detaching himself from his origins (undoing the screw in his belly; his umbilical).  On the one hand, the schlemiel cannot separate himself from the machine/object and experience an unalloyed kind of joy.  On the other hand, maybe the schlemiel’s umbilical chord leads him to a motherly figure, like Rachel, and he can’t undo that as a schlemiel may be a relational-creature not an individualist.

The narrator clarifies this point by saying that Profane, wandering through the streets, realizes that he “always” seems to be looking for “something” that can make “his own disaster seem plausible as that of any machine”(35). In other words, Profane, a schlemiel, sees himself in a very negative manner, as a kind of machine that is falling apart, and “it was always at this point that the fear started”(35). He starts fearing that this dream was telling him that it “was not only his ass but also his arms, legs, sponge brain and clock of a heart must be left behind to litter the pavement, be scattered among manhole covers”(35).

His great fear, in other words, is that he is a schlemiel machine that is falling apart. He’s not an MG or a machine gun. He is a machine that is breaking down. And the machine breaks down, as Pynchon puts it, “in the street” since that is the place where the schlemiel is reminded that he can’t work or succeed: “Was he returning like the elephant to his graveyard, to lie down and soon become ivory in whose bulk had slept, latent, exquisite shapes of chessmen, backscratchers, hollow open-work Chinese spheres nested one inside the other?”(35).

When Profane awakes he finds “no screwdriver, no key.” He’s stuck with a screw in his navel. But when he opens his eyes, he sees a woman named “Josefina Mendoza, Kook’s sister”(35). The narrator tells us that “she must help him. He had no idea what was happening”(35). This statement suggests that a schlemiel cannot help himself and only some intervention, from outside of his world, can help. And indeed “Fina” helps him. She wants to help him. And this is a novelty because he wants “every woman in the city” but none want him: “here was one who wanted to take him home”(36).

She is portrayed as a miracle worker:

With a frightened little cry she took Profane’s hand and tugged, and a miracle happened. The doors (of the subway) opened again. She gathered him inside, into her quiet field of force. He knew all at once: here, for the time being, Profane the schlemihl can move nimble and sure. (36)

She takes him to the family home of Kook and his family (Fina is his sister) and he sleeps in the bathtub. In the morning, Kook turns on the cold water to wake him up. Immediately on waking, Kook tells him: “Man, you go find a job,” Kook said, “Fina says so.”(37). And with this Profane joins their group (or rather, family) and accompanies them not only to work, underground, killing alligators, but also on their drunken exploits around the city whistling at girls.  What is most interesting about this match is that the narrator tells us that Profane is half Catholic and half Jewish.  The Catholic part is appealed to by Fina and the brothers. But once he loses his job killing alligators, Rachel, a Jewish woman enters the picture.

The narrator likens both women to mothers and suggests that the only thing that will get the schlemiel to work is a mother figure (either Catholic or Jewish). The irony, as we shall see, is that both women not only cry over Profane; they also want him, sexually. But, perhaps because he is a schlemiel, he can’t give it up to either of them.

Pynchon articulates one aspect of the schlemiel’s relationship to women through Profane’s relationship with Fina; the other half through Rachel, who is Jewish. In general, we learn that relationships “happen” to the schlemiel:

Women had always happened to Profane the schlemihl like accidents: broken shoelaces, dropped dishes, pins in new shirts. Fina was no exception. Profane had figured at first that he was only the disembodied object of a corporal work of mercy. That, in the company of innumerable small and wounded animals, bums in the street, near dying and lost to God, he was only another means to grace or indulgence to Fina. (141)

But with Fina, the narrator tells us, he was wrong: “But as usual he was wrong”(141).  He is apparently more than just an object.

Part two of this essay will be published in January.

About the Author:

Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction StudiesShofarMELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in PhilosophyComparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.