On Schlemiels in Thomas Pynchon’s “V” – Part II


by Menachem Feuer

Even though they are always going somewhere, schlemiels seem to never know for certain whether they are coming or going. Wandering and bewilderment aside, this comic character is a figure of difficult freedom. Since he fails to be “normal,” the schlemiel seems to be a cursed pariah. But in truth, the reader, from her ironic angle, can see that the schlemiel is free while those who scoff at him are bound by society. Hannah Arendt admitted this much in “The Jew as Pariah.” In her insightful reading of Heinrich Heine’s schlemiel, Arendt, in this essay, posits his poetic schlemihl as a figure of natural, universal freedom or what she calls “the Lord of Dreams.” But, as the scholar Naomi Seidman has argued, the schlemiel’s freedom is not abstract and universal; it is circumscribed by gender. What, after all, is the role of women in most schlemiel stories? In many celebrated tales of Shalom Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim, schlemiels are often seen at a distance from their wives. As Naomi Seidman suggests in her reading of Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Tales and Adventures of Benjamin the Third, a schlemiel’s freedom is male because it is at the expense of his wife. Even though schlemiels are often seen as endearing dreamers and wanderers, they – at the same time – belong to what Seidman would call a patriarchal paradigm. But is this always the case?

Thomas Pynchon’s V. suggests the schlemiel’s freedom is difficult. For Benny Profane – the schlemiel (which we will spell from here on, like Pynchon, “schlemihl”) of Pynchon’s debut novel – women are not simply beings that the schlemihl flees from in order to be free; on the contrary, women can also, for Pynchon, be the motor behind the schlemihl’s possible transformation. Pynchon’s challenge to Seidman’s paradigmatic reading of the schlemihl suggests both an attraction to and a fear of women. Pynchon’s schlemiel is different because although he wanders aimlessly, he knows that in fleeing women his life may be aimless, repetitive, and mechanical. In contrast to Roth’s Alexander Portnoy who blames his mother for most of his sexual issues, Pynchon’s schlemihl acknowledges his debts to his mother while at the same time feeling the need to be obligated and free of debts to specific women who want him to settle down with them. Since he can’t seem to fall deeply in love with the women around him (besides his mother), Profane’s freedom is double.

The schlemihl has two contrary positions in relation to the feminine and to his difficult freedom: one is mechanical (inanimate), the other is human (animate); one is self-destructive, the other is nourishing. When Profane clings to the feminine, his life is animated; when he doesn’t it is comical and mechanical. Pynchon’s novel suggests that if the schlemiel can do as these women ask him, he can live and work “above ground.” If he doesn’t, he goes back to being self-destructive and lonely. Pynchon calls this aspect of Profane a “yo-yo.” Henri Bergson in his famous “Essay on Laughter,” would read Profane’s comical character in terms of the “mechanical” aspect of comedy since it suggests that the schlemihl cannot repeats certain bad habits and can’t change. It is the opposite of the spirit of life (elan vital) and becoming, which is released when the audience laughs and affirms life and change over the mechanical caricature of human beings found in the comedy of repetition. Pynchon would agree with Bergson to an extent. He would call this aspect of Benny Profane the “inanimate Yo-Yo.” But with the help of these women, Profane can temporarily escape this repetitive movement (as we see with the yo-yo) and his mechanical fate. But to fulling receive their help, he would have to love them and pleasure them, sexually. Strangely enough, he finds sex violent, to masculinist, and too complicated. He opts out because he wants an asexual relationship with women, like he has with his mother. When he doesn’t have this, he leaves. His resistance to women is based on this difficult freedom.

The two women in Benny Profane’s life – who intimate the possibility for change – are Fina (short for Josephina) and Rachel Owlglass. Fina is Catholic while Rachel is Jewish. They match his identity which is half Catholic (by way of his father) and half Jewish (by way of his mother). While Profane has a frustrated relationship with Owlglass in the beginning of the novel, that completely changes in the latter part of the novel. But between these two points of the V, so to speak, dwells Fina. It is because of her prompting – and with the assistance of her brothers – Angel and Geronimo – that Profane gets a job, beneath ground, as a killer of Crocodiles in the New York City sewer system. But when the intense pressure is put on him to marry Fina, he departs and returns to being a schlemiel (albeit, until he meets Rachel again). (However, as we can see with his fumbling around Fina that he may never have stopped being a schlemiel; although did in truth, do exactly as she asked him to do save sleep with her.)


Fina’s brothers are Profane’s second family. He works with them (underground killing alligators) and lives with them (in their apartment). One morning the brothers tell him put on a suit (and this is a big request since Profane’s schlemiel character is tied to his odd wardrobe which consists of a cowboy hat, jean jacket, and sneakers). They bring their sister, Fina – who is also finely dressed – along for a jaunt in the city. Throughout the evening, Profane is struck by her attraction to him. But Profane misses the obvious: that Fina’s brothers – because they are traditional Catholics – want Profane to marry her:

Soon Fina’s eyes changed from sleepy to shiny from wine, and she talked less and spent more of her time smiling at Profane. This made him uncomfortable…. Fina leaned toward Profane till their foreheads touched and whispered, “Benito,” her breath light and acid with wine. (142)

When she asks Profane to dance and he accepts, we bear witness to a Chaplanesque moment:

The world became filled with the sounds of inanimate calluses slapping inanimate goatskin, felt hitting metal, sticks knocking together. Of course, he could not dance. His shoes kept getting in the way…. The music bonged and clattered on. Profane kicked off his shoes….and concentrated on dancing in his socks…He was too tired to yell. He limped off to a table in the corner, crawled under it and went to sleep. The next thing you know there was sunlight in his eye. He lost count of the bars he visited. (143)

Reflecting on the evening, Profane recalls being in a telephone booth with Fina talking above love. “They were discussing love,” but “he couldn’t remember what he said” (143). And “in the next few days Profane came to tally his time in reverse or schlemihl’s light…What was said in the phone booth? The question met him at the end of every shift, day, night or swing, like an evil fog that hovered over whatever manhole he happened to climb out of” (143).

Profane starts putting things together and realizes that the brothers had put him in a situation where he may have to marry Fina. He may have proposed marriage to her that evening. Because he was drunk, he’s not sure. He did know, however, that “one wrong word would put him closer than he cared to the street level” while at the same time realizing that his “vocabulary…seemed was made up of nothing but wrong words” (144).

When Profane rejects her offer to go out to the movies with him, Fina becomes sad and the narrator complains about Profane’s fear not only of intimacy with Fina but with being seen as a “human being”: “Why? Why did she have to behave like he was a human being? Why couldn’t he be just an object of mercy? What did Fina have to go pushing for it? What did she want – which was a stupid question…. But curious, he decided to ask Angel.” (144). Angel plays dumb but he does hint at what’s going on through his mother: “My mother thinks everybody should get married: me, Fina, Geronimo. She’ll be after your ass soon” (144).

On a night out with the boys drinking, we how see that, in trying to be like the brothers, he can chase after girls (“cono”). But when he chases after a girl named Lucille (who seems to like him) he falters and this serves as a wake-up call to him that since he is a schlemiel, he isn’t a “man.” Amid his chase, the boys get in a fight with a gang called the “playboys” (152). As in the beginning of the novel, Profane declines to fight and watches the rumble around him. He then notices that Fina is playing with the Playboys – taunting them in a quasi-sexual manner – and that she “could find herself on the receiving end of a gang bang, having in a way asked for it. She was overdue now” (153). They can offer Fina an aggressive kind of sexuality that is contrary to what Profane, the schlemiel has to offer. They are overtly masculine. Profane is not.

Not long after the departure of this male gang, Fina approaches Profane and tells him that she wants him to sleep with her so that she can lose her virginity: “She said it defiantly. For a minute, it seemed plausible. After all, if it wasn’t him it might be that whole godforsaken wolfpack…Why did she want it to be him?” (153). Profane asks her why him and the narrator wonders” “Who’d have thought Profane would ever be arguing like this?” (154). He may “want” girls but…he can’t seem to follow through. (David Biale’s description of the “sexual schlemiel” in his book Eros and the Jews speaks directly to this failure.) This, Pynchon suggests, is an important trait of the schlemihl. And this thought – that he was being sexually tested and prompted to marry Fina – alienates him. He displaces this sexual frustration on to this job:

More and more Profane was coming to feel a stranger to the world downstairs….it began to look like he was losing contact with a circle of friends. What am I, he yelled at himself, a St. Francis for alligators? I don’t even talk to them, I don’t even like them. I shoot them. (155).

Profane images that he may have had a kind of “covenant” with the Alligators and this suggests his descent into massive self-doubt about his work and place in life:

Profane giving death, the alligators giving him employment: tit for tat. He needed them and if they needed him at all it was because of some prehistoric circuit of the alligator brain they know that as babies they’d been only another consumer-object…. And the soul’s passage down the toilet and into the underworld was only a temporary peace-in-tension, borrowed time thill they would have to return to being falsely animated kids toys. Of course, they wouldn’t like it…When he went down for his now four hours a day he talked to them sometimes. It annoyed his partners. (155)

He then realizes that, after months of killing, there aren’t as many gators and that his job may be over. Fina catches wind of this and tells him: “Benito…you ought to start looking around for another job” (156). Profane agrees and goes on a job search. As he does so, all the inadequacies that come with being a schlemihl come back up to the surface of his consciousness. However, Fina helps the schlemiel to become more confident and give new work a try.

A schlemihl is a schlemihl. What can you “make” out of one? What can one “make” out of himself? You reach a point, and Profane knew he’d reached it, where you know how much you can and cannot do. But every now and then he got attacks of acute optimism. “I’ll give it a try,” he told her (Fina), “and thanks.” She was grace-happy. (156).

When he puts on a suit for the interview, in schlemihl fashion, it is too small for him, but he wears it anyhow. And this brings him, once again, down. He feels as if he “were living in some private Depression days: the suit, the job with the city that would not exist after two weeks more” (157). All around him, says the narrator, people are wearing suits and “millions of inanimate objects are being produced brand new every week” (157). He is becoming, in other words, mechanical by joining society. Where, wonders the narrator, was the Depression? The answer is telling because it suggests that the Depression follows the schlemihl around wherever he goes (it’s built in, so to speak, as if Chapin’s ghost never goes away). It is “concealed by optimism”: “In the sphere of Benny Profane’s guts and in the sphere of his skull, concealed optimistically by a tight blue serge coat and a schlemihl’s hopeful face” (157). In other words, the schlemiel’s outward optimism is just that – it’s a mask of “the Depression.”

The Schlemiel’s Epiphany

Immediately following this reflection, Pynchon places Profane in an employment office marking his isolation and awkwardness. He is alone and “didn’t see Fina.” It’s as if his mother dropped him off. After filling out his employment application, something of an epiphany occurs by way of an African-American “holy messenger.” He wears a similar jacket to the one Profane usually wears (a black suede one): “As he handed the competed form to a girl at the desk, a messenger came through: A Negro wearing an old suede jacket….and for a second his eyes and Profane’s met” (157).

Profane reflects on the mystical messenger and has an epiphany:

Maybe Profane had seen him under the street of at one of the shapeups. But there was a little half-smile and a kind of half-telepathy and it was as I this messenger had brought a message to Profane too, sheathed to everybody but the two of them in an envelope of eyebeams touching, that said: Who are you trying to kid? Listen to the wind. (157)

The fact that “he listened to the wind” suggests something prophetic about this epiphany. It announces a new moment in Profane’s life. And this is marked when, after the messenger leaves the room, he goes to the window and has a vision of the wind and his new, changed life. Now, it seems, he is truly free:

It was as if he could see the wind, too. The suit felt wrong on him. Maybe it was nothing after all to conceal this curious Depression which showed up in no stock market year-end report. ‘Hey, where are you going’, said the receptionist. ‘Changed my mind,’ Profane told her. Out in the hall and going down in the elevator, in the lobby and in the street, he looked for the messenger, but couldn’t find him. He unbuttoned the jacket of old Mendoza’s suit and shuffled along Forty-Second Street, head down, straight into the wind. (157-58)

At this moment, he decides to not take directions from Fina and get a job. But, at the same time, although he seems to be free and a changed man, he still has no job, hasn’t changed, and now no women are guiding him. Mr. Winsome, who he interviewed for, calls him back but when the call comes it is amid a chaotic family event involving Fina (who is being chased down by her brothers because she gave herself over to a gang of men, sexually; as Latino Catholics, Profane portrays their anger at their sister who they proceed to punish). Profane walks away from this scene and the life he led in their midst. And this seems to be the meaning of his meeting with the “messenger” whose message is freedom (a departure from Fina): “He wouldn’t go back to Mendoza’s, he figured. There was no more work under the street. What peace there had been was over. He had to come back to the surface, the dream-street” (160).

Returning to Dream Street

To return to “dream street,” Profane situates himself in-the-midst of New York City, at the “geographical center of the midtown employment agency belt. A weird area it was” (229). But the only thing kept him going, it seems, was not his dream of finding a job so much as his sex drive: “He had an interesting daydream all built up, which went: You’re jobless, I’m jobless, here we both are out of work, let’s screw. He was horny…It kept time moving along” (228). And even though he keeps on getting turned down at job agency after job agency, he keeps moving on. This doesn’t preclude him from reflecting on himself as a schlemihl, it prompts it. And this reflection mixes with a sense of sexual alienation:

Nobody wanted a schlemihl. Laborers were for out of the city: Profane wanted to stay in Manhattan, he’d had enough of wandering out in the suburbs. He wanted a single point, a base of operations…. It was difficult when you brought a girl to a flophouse (which he never did, but only thinks about) …. There is a way we behave around young people excited with each other, even if we haven’t been getting any for a while and aren’t likely to very soon. It is a little cynical, a little self-pitying, a little withdrawn; but at the same a genuine desire to see young people get together. Though it springs from a self-centered concern, it is often as much as a young man like Profane ever does go out of himself and take an interest in human strangers. Which is better, one would suppose, than nothing at all. (230)

Pynchon suggests that the schlemihl’s “interest in strangers,” though vicarious, is “better than nothing at all.” It suggests a kind of alienated humanism that is tinged with sexual alienation. To be sure, this well-intended sexual alienation – which is mixed with his job search and homelessness – is seen throughout the novel. Pynchon gives it a privileged positon. It does no one any harm, since the schlemihl isn’t a sexual predator, yet, at the same time, it puts the asexual man forward as a kind of prototype for the postmodern novel. But the crux of this attitude has to do with Profane’s relationship to the inanimate:

All he believed at this point…was that anybody who worked for inanimate money so he could buy more inanimate objects was out of his head. Inanimate money was to get animate warmth, dead fingernails in the living shoulder blades, quick cries against the pillow, tangled hair, lidded eyes, twisted loins. (230)

Against this, the narrator shows him in his context as alone, unique, and poor. And, as we saw at the outset of V, the schlemiel is not at peace with objects or machines: “He was, they told him, unspecialized. Everybody else was at peace with some machine or other. Not even a pick and shovel had been safe for Profane” (230).

Nonetheless, it is his “erection” at his “daydream thoughts” that guides the way. He puts a newspaper over it to hide it and lets it – like an oracle – tell him where to search for a job: “Okay, thought Profane, just for the heck of it I will close my eyes, count three and open them and whatever agency listing that fold is on I will go to them. It will be like flipping a coin: inanimate schumuck, inanimate paper, pure chance” (231). The presence of chance is found in nearly every Pynchon novel. And, to be sure, the schlemihl – even though he often falls and stumbles – is a creature of chance. He may falter but he often gets lucky.

When he opens his eyes, Profane sees that it is the “Space/Time Employment Agency.” He must go because “a deal is a deal.” To get there, he must “yo-yo” through the city on the subway. And as saw in his meeting with Fina and the Mendoza’s, when he goes on the subway he ends up sleeping and dreaming. He remembers this time and how he was a schlemihl and sinks into “self-pity” (231): “Profane remembers himself on the shuttle back in February, wondered how he’d looked to Kook, to Fina. Not like a king, he figured, more like a schlemihl, a follower” (231).

In the wake of his self-deprecation, the narrator shares a comical schlemihl scene with us that discloses just how low down and depressed he has become (despite his “daydreams”) right up to the last moment when he walks in to the employment agency. He is brought back to the Depression Era – the time of his birth – his schlemihl origins and he has nothing to base his daydreams on:

Got the bottom edge of his suede jacket caught in the doors when they closed; was nearly carried that way out to Brooklyn. He found Space/Time Employment down the street and ten floors up. The waiting area was crowded when he got there. A quick check revealed no girl’s worth looking at, nobody in fact but a family who might have stepped through time’s hanging arras directly out of the Great Depression; journeyed to this city in an old Plymouth pickup from the land of dust: husband, wife, and one mother-in-law, all yelling at each other, none but the old lady caring about a job. (232)

Once again, it is the woman who takes the lead, not the man. The man, Profane imagines, is defeated. But, amid this scene of a schlemiel-ish family, comes Rachel Owlglass who is depicted as a sexy figure (before we even learn her name): “Soon there came the hurried and sex tap of high heels in the corridor outside. As if magnetized his head swiveled around and he saw coming in the door a tiny girl, lifted to all of five foot one by her heels. O boy, o boy, he thought: good stuff. She was not, however, an applicant, she came from the other side of rail” (232).

Rachel Owlglass

Is this the same “Rachel Owlglass” we heard of in the beginning of the novel, who was obsessed with her MG? The fascinating thing is that Pynchon presents her as if she is a different woman who Profane hasn’t met before. Nonetheless, her first words suggest that she is: “It’s about time” (233). Profane slips into “daydreams” about her, sexually imagining how “she had him” (233). The feeling of not having control, of being a yo-yo, is, as we have seen, consistent throughout the novel. But, here, the yo-yo has a loving master. And this changes the schlemiel in ways that Fina and the messenger (who prompts him to “face the wind”) could not do. The symbol of being reconnected to the mother is evoked:

Any sovereign or broken yo-yo must feel like this after a short time of lying inert, rolling, falling: suddenly to have its own umbilical string reconnected, and know the other end is in hands it cannot escape. Hands it doesn’t want to escape. Know that the simple clockwork of itself has no more need for symptoms of inutility, lonesomeness, direction-less-ness, because now it has a path marked out for it over which it has no control. That’s what the feeling would be, if there were such things as animate yo-yos. Pending any such warp in the world Profane felt like the closest thing to one and above her eyes began to doubt his own animateness. (233)

In other words, only she, Rachel Owlglass, can animate Benny Profane and enable him to turn into an animate rather than an inanimate yo-yo/schlemihl (subject to the divergent forces of the street).

Rachel finds the perfect job for him as a “night watchman” at “Anthroresearch Associates.” She asks him to go to the job and return to the agency and confirm that the employer had hired him. When Profane does, he realizes that Rachel is “luck,” and then she says something completely unexpected: “Come home with me,” she said quietly (239). And this prompts him to compare and contrast Fina and Rachel according to his own split Catholic and Jewish identity: “Fina had been devoutly R.C. like his father. Rachel was Jewish, he recalled, like his mother. Maybe all she wanted to do was to feed him, be a Jewish mother” (239). This instance of the schlemiel shows something entirely different from Philip Roth’s “sexual schlemiel,” Alexander Portnoy. Contrary to Portnoy’s hatred of his mother, the narrator suggests a schlemiel who loves women as he would love his mother. Rachel is a case in point for this kind of schlemiel.

Rachel houses and feeds Profane. She introduces him to a group of people who he shares lodging with and amongst them is a friend, who appears at the beginning of the novel, “Pig Bodine.” Mafia, a woman friend of Bodine, also lives there. She takes notes of Profane’s double identity: “You tell me you are half-Jewish and half-Italian…What a terribly amusing role. Like Shylock, non e vero, ha, ha” (241-42). She goes on to say that he has an “aristocracy of the soul” and that “you may be a descendent of kings. Who knows” (242). In response, Profane thinks about his schlemihl genealogy: “I know, Profane thought. I am a descendent of schlemihls, Job founded my line” (242).

Yet, one wonders, if, despite his view of suffering and seeing Job as the founding father of schlemihls, Profane will succeed with Rachel nurturing him into being more independent and confident. His lineage doesn’t seem to suggest royalty, aristocracy, or power. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition that Pynchon is playing on in his depiction of the schlemihl. Either way, the possibility for success is, in major part, related to accepting the graces afforded to him by a Jewish mother type: Rachel.

The job Rachel got for Profane is at Yoyodyne Corporation (which makes a reappearance in The Crying of Lot 49). We learn that the company’s president is named “Bloody Chiclitz.” The company has “factories scattered careless” about the USA and more “government contracts that it knew what to do with.” Before it was Yoyodyne, Chiclitz’s company was the “Chiclitz Toy Company.” But something happened and the company transformed from a kid’s toy company to a company contracted mainly by the government:

For some reason the children of America conceived around this time a simultaneous and psychopathic craving for simple gyroscopes, the kind which are set in motion by a string wound around the rotating shaft, something like a top. Chiclitz, recognizing a market potential there, decided to expand…. Chiclitz started making gyros for the government. Before he knew it, he was also in telemeter instrumentation, test-set components, small communications equipment. He kept expanding…Dyne, one newly hired engineer had told him, was a unit of force. So to symbolize the humble beginnings of the Chiclitz empire and to get the idea of force, enterprise, engineering skill and rugged individualism in there too, Chiclitz christened the company Yoyodyne. (245)

In other words, the company has a quasi-schlemihl ring to it: it is a merger between the child and the adult. Yet, it is a force. As opposed to the schlemihl, who is more forced on. Perhaps one can say that Yoyodyne gives the schlemihl’s yo-yoing a force that the government wishes to employ, ironically, for the sake of power not powerlessness.

Schlemiel Humanoids: SHOCK AND SHROUD

Profane works for Anthroresearch Associates, a “subsidiary of Yoyodyne.” (309). His job is to watch over two humanoids. One is a powerful, Frankenstein creature called SHROUD: “Across one of the laboratory spaces, features lit Frankenstein’s-monsterlike by a night light, facing Profane, sat SHROUD: synthetic human, radiation output, determined” (309). The description of SHROUD is powerful since it maps out new conceptions of humankind that are projected into its cyborg replica:

Its skin was cellulose acetate butyrate, a plastic transparent not only to light but also to X-rays, gamma rays and neutrons. Its skeleton had once been that of a living human; now the bones were decontaminated and the long ones and spinal column hollowed inside to receive radiation dosimeters…In the eighteenth century it was often convenient to regard man a clockwork automaton. In the nineteenth century, with Newtonian physics well assimilated…. many was looked on more as a heat engine…Now in the twentieth century, with nuclear and subatomic physics a going thing, man had become something which absorbs X-rays, gamma rays, and neutrons. (309)

One day, while wandering around the plant, Profane stumbles across SCHOCK, with whom he finds a certain kind of “kinship.” SHOCK is the first “inanimate schlemihl” he has ever seen:

The study now under way had to do with first-aid training, and various versions of SHOCK – synthetic human object, casualty kinematics – got to sit in the driver’s death, or back seat of the test cars. Profane felt a certain kinship with SHOCK, which was the first inanimate schlemihl he’d ever encountered. (310)

Yet, at the same time, Profane feels a “certain wariness” in SHOCK’S presence because “the manikin was till only a ‘human object’; plus, a feeling of disdain as if SHOCK had decided to sell out humans; so that now what had been its inanimate own were taking revenge” (310).

In other words, what is most human, for Profane (and most likely for Pynchon) can be found in the schlemihl. He is an endearing character because the schlemihl is the subject of forces he cannot control (as opposed to SHROUD, which is a machine like being and a force). Now that SHOCK mimics the schlemihl, the schlemihl and its humanity is “sold out.” The schlemihl loses its animation to the inanimate copy.

However, while Profane feels this, SHOCK gives him pause to see himself in some other way. “SHOCK was a marvelous manikin. It had the same build as SHROUD but its flesh was molded of foam vinyl, its skin vinyl plastisol, its hair a wig, its eyes cosmetic-plastic…. And injury to the sex organs could still be stimulated by an attachable moulage, but then this blocked the cooling vent located in the crotch” (311). SHOCK seems to be schlemiel-like in its construction is the fact that it cannot have a “sucking chest wound and mutilated sexual organs simultaneously,” but that is fixed by the “retrofit.” When Profane sees it, however, he is frightened since most of the time his crotch smashed. “But now he’d got used to it.” Doing so, he seems to agree to a vision of himself and to forget the fact that his sexuality has been neutered. This is troubling.

SHROUD speaks to Profane in what may be a daydream (311) and tells him that “Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday. (The skull seemed to be grinning at Profane.) There will be other ways (to die) besides fallout and road accidents” (311).  The conversation between Profane and SHROUD concentrates around this prophesy. Profane wonders if this means that in the future we will all be soulless robots – like SHOCK and SHROUD. The robot is alive but really isn’t alive. And this fact is what puzzles Profane. It parallels his own situation of being and not being a schlemihl.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

V. is two novels in one: one about Stencil and his mystical detective mission and the other about the life and times of Benny Profane. Like Profane, Stencil is also on a journey. Stencil is a man in search of a woman or truth (it’s not clear which) while Profane is not sure what he is searching for because he doesn’t know what kind of man he should be or what life he should live. Although his search leads him to Fina and Rachel, it also leads him back to the streets and away from a woman he could love but doesn’t. Profane’s story and the two-part novel itself are the tale of two kinds freedom. They relate to two different kinds of schlemiels: one that is close to the feminine and other who his close to his dreams.

Benny Profane wants the freedom that is experienced through a relationship with a woman and, at the same time, he wants a freedom which is disconnected from the feminine. The discussion about which freedom is greater is at the end of the novel. There, Profane, who lost the job Rachel got for him at Yoyodyne, meets up with Rachel at a party. Their conversation is all about the fate of the schlemiel.

But the preface to that conversation was a meeting that Profane – now without Rachel – has with his mother! It is prefaced by the feminine. Pynchon’s portrayal of this encounter is that of an epiphany; that is, here, the epiphany of his relationship with his older mother. To be sure, this is a vision of the schlemihl’s return to his mother. It suggests something endearing and innocent about this character. Profane, before his mother, becomes childlike:

Standing before his old door he knocked, though knowing from the sound of it (like we can tell from the buzz in the phone received whether she’s home) that inside was empty. So soon, of course, he tried the knob; having come this far. They never locked doors: on the other side of this one he wandered automatic into the kitchen to check the table. A ham, a turkey, a roast beef. Fruit: grapes, oranges, a pineapple, plums. Plate of knishes, bowl of almonds, Brazil nuts…. A brace of baccale, dead eyes directed at a huge provolone, a pale yellow parmigiana and God knew how many fish-cousins, gefulte, in an ice bucket.

No, his mother wasn’t telepathic, she wasn’t expecting Profane. Wasn’t expecting her husband Gino, rain, poverty, anything. Only that she had this compulsion to feed. Profane was sure that the world would be worse off without mothers like these. (421)

Much like we find in Saul Bellow’s Herzog character, Pynchon is telling us that the love of the mother is the basis for the schlemiel character. But in what way does it influence the way Profane relates to women? For Bellow, the relationship may affect Herzog’s relationship with women. For Pynchon, it’s clearly the case.

When, after seeing his mother, Profane decides to go out since he no longer has a job (he worked the night shift at Yoyodyne) “his nights were now free” (421). He goes to the bar he and Rachel would often occasion “The Rusty Spoon and the Forked Yew.” When he walks in Rachel calls out to him, but he feels he must “put her down”:

Since the night, he was fired from Anthroresearch Associates, it seemed he’d been trying every way he knew to put her down. “Why won’t you let me get you a job? It is September, college kids are fleeing the city, the labor market was never better.” “Call it a vacation,” said Profane. But how do you swing a vacation from two dependents? (421)

Profane tells Rachel that now he is now smoking pot – a motif we find in most novels, especially his latest novel Inherent Vice (2016)- and she isn’t impressed. This is a new distinction between the two; its way of creating a distance from her. He couldn’t talk to her: “He was too still high, too high to argue” (422). He takes off with two new friends he has found on the streets: Charisma and Fu. Meanwhile, Rachel locks herself in a bathroom and cries for a while (422). Amid her crying, she wonders if she loves Benny Profane or if he loves her. As we saw above, however, Profane has the tendency to think that no one loves him. Rachel’s love startles him, but he doesn’t seem to show it. This confuses Rachel:

Indeed, thought Rachel, but does Benny even love me? I love him. I think. There’s no reason why I should. She kept crying. (422)

When they bump into each other the next day, he sees her with “no make-up except for mascara in sad raccoon-rings around her eyes,” and apologizes to her. She says he can love her even if he was pretending (422). But this doesn’t change the way Profane feels.

When after a night of drinking with his friend Stencil, Profane awakes hung over in Rachel’s home, the two have a talk which touches on what Profane really thinks about being a schlemihl. After puking in a toilet, he stands up, looks in the mirror, and sees Rachel behind him who is talking. He is faced with a hung-over schlemihl and a woman who wants to know whether he is now going to stay and love her or leave and return to the streets, homeless:

“On women,” she said, “on what you think love is: take, take, take. Not to me.”

He started brushing his teeth fiercely. In the mirror as she watched there bloomed a great flower of leprous-colored foam, out of his mouth and down both sides of his chin.

“You want to go,” she yelled, go then.” (425)

She confronts him and says what he doesn’t want to hear about the love that he only seems to have for his mother:

“You are scared of love and all that means is somebody else,” she said. “As long as you don’t have to give anything, be held to anything, sure: you can talk about love. Anything you have to talk about isn’t real. It’s only a way of putting yourself up. And anybody who tries to get through to you – me – down.” (425)

What is his excuse? Why can’t he love her? Why can’t he change? He blames it all on the schlemihl, which Rachel suggests, he elevates into a “Universal Principle.”

“I don’t change. Schlemihls don’t change.”

“Oh that makes me sick. Can’t you stop feeling sorry for yourself? You’ve taken your own flabby, clumsy soul, and amplified it into a Universal Principle.” (425)

Profane then precedes to tell her that it was because he saw her, years ago in her MG in the Catskills (see Part I of this essay for that primal schlemiel scene): “I only started to think about being a schlemihl….after I saw you alone with the MG. I didn’t even stop to think it might be perverted, what I was watching. All I was was scared” (425).

In response to this, Rachel says he’s not a schlemihl: “you’re nobody special. Everybody is a schlemihl. Only come out of that scungilli shell and you’d see” (426). Following this assertion about universal schlemielkeit, Rachel points out the gendering of the schlemiel character:

“Anywhere you go there’ll always be a woman for Benny. Let that be a comfort. Always a hole to let yourself come in without fear of losing any of that precious schlemielhood.” (426)

The schlemiel is male. And he wants to retain his schlemielhood. He wants to remain free. When she draws him, in the final scene with both in the novel, into her bed for some “free love” which is “good stuff, no charge,” he doesn’t think about her pleasure or the experience. Rather, he thinks about “Hiroshima the electronics technician, reciting a mnemonic guide for resistor color-coding” (426). He refuses to think of himself as a “bad boy” (427) who is “raping young girls behind victory garden walls” (427). These “resistances” are those of a schlemiel who can’t enter into a masculine relation to Fina or Rachel. He wants to measure them in terms of “ohms” and imagines, in the future, an “all electronic woman.” “Any problems with her, you could look it up in the maintenance manual” (427). Here, more than anywhere else in the novel, he seems to identify with the schlemiel robots: SHOCK and SHROUD.

Conclusion: The Asexual Schlemiel, from V to Inherent Vice

The last words between Rachel and Profane show us that the fundamental blindpsot for the schlemihl is love. To retain his freedom, he can’t fall in love. He has to leave. While he can come close to his mother, he can’t come close to a lover. Nearly three decades hence, we find the same issue in Inherent Vice. Sportello, a schlemihl detective, can’t stay in a relationship. Although he is from time to time in the presence of women who love him, he always maintains his stoner schlemiel distance. He keeps his cool. But this suggests that schlemielhood is not simply about a character’s freedom it also shows us that his refusal to be a “man” and have a relationship has a lot to do with his belief that it’s “scary” and violent. And in this we have neither a male nor a female schlemihl – a gendered schlemihl – so much as an asexual one. Against Bergson who sees laughter as challenging the inability of the comic character to change (and stop being a mechanical caricature), this character refuses to change and “become.” Profane’s character lacks the “elan vital” that Bergson speaks about, which makes one human (it is that which makes the human, human). In being asexual, Profane embraces not just freedom but – playing on the robots at Yoyodyne that he guards- also the symbolic meaning of “shock” and the “shroud.” He is an object in a field that he cannot control. He can’t fit into the world and that has a lot to do with the fact that he is unable to love it back. Without that love, his life – the life of a schlemihl – is a yo-yo. And although he may find help along the way, he won’t stop moving – here and there, repetitively – like a yo-yo. Even though a schlemihl is always moving, he doesn’t know if he is coming or going. But at least he’s free. And because of his relationship with this mother and women, his freedom is engendered, difficult.

Read the first part of this essay here.

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.