P.O.V. No.15 - FUNERAL AT PARC DE FRANCE

'If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing.'
Oren Stern, Bill Shankly and Funeral at Parc de France

Robert Edgar

Bill Shankly, (1913-1981) was the Scottish born manager of Liverpool Football Club in England. Famous for more than just his managing his quotes are often repeated amongst the footballing fraternity across the world. In essence he epitomises a 'philosophy of football' that is embraced by Baruch in Funeral at Parc de France. As Shankly noted, 'people say football is a matter of life and death it is much more important than that.' Yet this is a philosophy that the main character in this film can only aspire to but never reach, for Baruch is a schlemiel and he represents something of contemporary masculinity. If Stern is placing these two alongside each other, then it is a statement that is as worrying as it is very probably true.

The structure of this 24 minute film is simple and effective through its simplicity. A day before a match between the French team and the Israeli team Baruch's father-in-law, Eli, passes away. The funeral is scheduled to take place the following day, precisely when the match is supposed to be played. Baruch tries to persuade his wife to postpone the funeral. This is not helped by earlier refusals to Vivian, his wife, to attend the theatre because of the same match. At the core of the narrative is an old joke. As Baruch finds Eli's radio we know he is going to listen to the football match. As he listens to the match, perspiring under the hot Tel-Aviv sun we know he will cry out, but not when. As he convinces Vivian to return to him at the end of the film during another match we know he will again cry out, but not when. As Shankly noted to the (then) up and coming footballer Ian St John, 'If you're not sure what to do with the ball, just pop it in the net and we'll discuss your options afterwards.'

Baruch is certainly an intelligent and devious character, but who said that schlemiels couldn't be devious or intelligent. It is the facet of having a hand in his own downfall that raises Baruch to the status of schlemiel. Defining the schlemiel is always difficult but Leo Rosten's seven point definition is always an essential starting point: '1. A foolish person; a simpleton. 'He has the brains of a shlemiel.'[1] Certainly not many definitions of the schlemiel would contradict the notion of foolishness but deeming the schlemiel 'a simpleton' is limiting in the extreme. There are many cases where the schlemiel may have a hand in his/her own downfall and yet remains firmly an intellectual (the Woody Allen of Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters being the archetypical examples). Wisse states that 'the schlemiel is the Jew as he is defined by the anti-Semite, but reinterpreted by God's appointee.' [2] This statement addresses the origin of the character in sociological terms. The schlemiel when taken as purely a Jewish character was invented by and for a Jewish community.

The schlemiel is a comic character but the comic does not have to equate to funny nor does it have to equal frivolous. In many ways, serious issues can be identified in the comic in a way that they cannot be identified through the purely tragic. It is a theoretical reverence for Aristotle and his focus on tragedy in the Poetics that has led to an absence from critical debate of the kind of texts that might feature this character. It is the comic that can be identified as perhaps the most pertinent mode for contemporary expression purely in the way that it uncovers the inconsistencies in any discourse or mode of expression. It is schlemiels that typify this as they wade through contemporary life without any recognition that their (il)logical systems are so different from anyone else's. The function of the schlemiel is then not to just identify aporias in life but rather to show everyone else how to negotiate them. However in this instance Baruch is part of a team at the start. He is the schlemiel leader of a footballing team of unfit, overweight, football obsessed nebbishes. His team mates fail to raise themselves to his level because even they would not entertain the possibility of listening to the radio during a funeral. Ironically Baruch is correct in his assertion that Eli would have wanted the mourners to wait and it is with genuine sincerity that he lays the whistle on the back fill. He is perhaps the only mourner who pays adequate tribute in listening to the football match as his father-in-law would have wanted. In his 'foolishness' for contradicting the social and religious rites he succeeds. His actions are far less ridiculous or sacrilegious than his son's mobile phone playing Hava Nagila.

The function that the schlemiel has is of a wider societal nature than being purely textual entities. This in itself necessitates a wider reading of the schlemiel in terms of his socio-cultural location, how his 'being' is constructed and also, in a sense, his history. A clear distinction can be made between different approaches to examining the importance of a historical development of the character, whether Hegel's account of a progression and development accurately describes the history of the character or whether Foucault's notion of epistemes is more applicable to where the character can be seen in the contemporary. If history is in effect cyclical then it is possible to see the schlemiel returning in both abundance and importance to a position that has largely been absent from both academic and social consideration for the last three hundred years. Rather than characters (more broadly) developing progressively there are distinct and identifiable epistemological breaks. This is why the schlemiel can be seen to be more dominant in particular periods than in others, rather than developing from relative obscurity. The character remains largely the same throughout these periods; it is the society in which they are found that changes and it is a change that requires analysis. Traditionally speaking schlemiels appear in shtetl literature from Eastern Europe and later in all artistic and popular forms in America. What is of importance in Stern's work is that the schlemiel appears in Israel; a long way from the villages of Krakow and seemingly in the land where the schlemiel would not be needed. The positioning of this character in this location comes at a point of development of a new episteme, the period of Postmodernity.

Bill Shankly was in typical upbeat form after Liverpool F.C. beat their arch rivals Everton F.C. in the 1971 FA Cup semi-final, 'Sickness would not have kept me away from this one. If I'd been dead, I would have had them bring the casket to the ground, prop it up in the stands, and cut a hole in the lid.' It is this very notion of the absurd that the schlemiel embodies. They in one sense take the journey through the absurd for us and in another show us the way through should we ever have to follow them; and increasingly it seems that we will have to. This being said, it must be remembered that the schlemiel does not fit the patterns of received social signs in the way that philosophical and psychoanalytical theory suggests, and this psychological development is central to explaining Baruch's behaviour. When Harland analyses the absurd he comments on the difficulty of breaking with the socially constructed personality. Although it can be argued that the nature of the social construction of schlemiels is such that they have the ability to accept the world as absurd, never as rational in the first place. They are firmly located within society as fools from the very beginning. He suggests that this is an extraordinary and desperate kind of experience, where it may be unexpected to suggest it is desperate to hold on to enlightenment notions of rationality. [3] Whilst Freud may have isolated something genetic in the development of the social subject, which affects the construction of the self, the character serves a function for society; the schlemiel is recognisable by people from a variety of socio-cultural groups. Therefore, the character can be seen to have been constructed wholly from societal forces and yet operating in opposition to societal norms at all points. Adopting a psychoanalytic approach may suggest more about a society or societies that produce this character than the character themselves. There is a function for the character that denies the 'security' of the promised land from a director who lives in it.

A question needs to be raised: if the human condition in the late Twentieth Century is becoming increasingly absurd, then perhaps the schlemiel increasingly becomes a figure to aspire to rather than a figure who is the object of ridicule. He can negotiate the treacherous seas of twentieth century life quite unlike any other figure. [4] This does not explain the fact that although the contemporary period shows a resurgence of this type of character they have always existed and more often than not have existed more clearly, definably, and strongly within Jewish society. This seemingly points to a convergence between elements of the Jewish condition throughout the ages and the Western human condition today. This in itself would suggest a fundamental shift in attitude and ultimately a point of shared experience for the disparate Gentile communities of the 'enlightened' West with the previously rejected groups who also share the same geographical locations but inhabit a different cultural space. In this instance Stern uses football to identify this and more specifically uses a match between France and Israel with their respective geographical and cultural locations.

Schlemiels exist where society imposes a barrier to progression, and in not 'beating the system' they do not appear as fools but as those who can plough their own furrow safe in their faith. Baruch's faith is in football; his own 'team' devote some of their time to football but have to balance this with the conventions of society; how foolish. Baruch's wise qualities lie firmly in his ability to ignore the aspects of life that the rest of us see as being so important by raising the mundane to a level of importance never before seen - for Baruch football is not a matter equal to relationships with his partner or children, it isn't as important as religious rites, it is far more important than that. Baruch still has faith, but his faith is in football and the sense of belonging and community it brings him.

Perhaps the world would be a happier place if the contentment he has was our goal, with apologies for the pun. To end with someone who certainly was interested in goals; as Shankly commented to an interpreter regarding excited Italian journalists, 'Just tell them I completely disagree with everything they say.'




to the top of the page



1 Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish (London: Penguin, 1978), pp..352-353. (I retain Rosten's spelling of schlemiel here.)

2 Ruth R. Wisse, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p.6.

3 Richard Harland, Superstructuralism (London: Routledge, 1998), p.67. Harland goes on to suggest that Superstructural thinkers do not allow such a 'get out clause', but instead this is a function that is taken up by the fool for the rest of society. In this sense they can be seen to be sent as scouts through the absurd, guiding the way for the rest of society. See pp. 68-69 for this analysis.

4 The term 'absurd' is in itself problematic and pinning it down can be difficult. Rather than traditional notions of absurdity it is used here to denote a return to an acceptance of the human condition as it was pre-enlightenment, when science as a progressive and positive feature of society has gone and also where religion is not the dominant and ordering feature of society that it was.