Saturday, July 31, 2010


I received an interesting piece of electronic mail from a friend who is greatly interested in Friedrich Nietzsche and wanted to respond to my efforts to compare him with Slavoj Žižek. In concluding her argumentation, she provided the disclaimer of unfamiliarity with the concept of chutzpah and then made a final observation based on the Wikipedia entry for the word. Needless to say, it had never occurred to me to check out what Wikipedia would have to say about this word, which might be a bit like a fish consulting Wikipedia to find out about water! However, in the interest of being able to provide a better response to the points she raised, I realized that I was now obliged to find out just what kind of "world model" she had constructed for this little gem of Yiddish wisdom.

For my part, when I have felt it necessary to tease out the finer semantics of the word, I have always turned to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, which is my source for appreciating the rich context of any Yiddish word. I was therefore glad to see that the "wisdom of the Wikipedia crowd" had taken the trouble to consult Rosten; but the article still falls far short of establishing context as well as Rosten did. Indeed, there is a fair amount of material on the Discussion tab, which is prefaced by a statement attesting that the entry has not yet been rated for either quality or importance by the "WikiProject Jewish culture, a collaborative effort to improve the coverage of Jewish culture on Wikipedia." In other words, in true Talmudic tradition, there is a lot of haggling going on over just what to do with this piece of text.

I have no intention of joining that haggling. However, when I say that the current entry does not capture the spirit of Rosten's in The Joys of Yiddish, my primary warrant is that the Wikipedia entry says nothing about wit. To be fair Rosten never uses that word himself; but, in the rather broad palette of usage examples he provides, wit is always present, often as the most salient ingredient. Far more important than the question of whether the word can carry a positive connotation (and I believe that it can) is the question of whether or not wit figures significantly in the account of chutzpah. I may not have always followed this rule as strongly as possible in assigning Chutzpah of the Week awards, but that is a fault of my own judgment rather than a question of semantics and pragmatics.

This provides the perspective for considering what I actually wrote:

Nietzsche took himself far too seriously to admit any spirit of chutzpah in his writing (which may have led to his descent into madness, if I may exercise some chutzpah of my own); but Žižek has no such compunctions.

While Nietzsche's language can be poetic, it is hard for me to read it in any tone other than dead seriousness. Hence, my implication that Nietzsche might have staved off madness had he been more amenable to the lighter touches of wit from time to time. (Jack Point makes this sort of observation in The Yeomen of the Guard, but at the end of that operetta he is so thoroughly devastated that those more romantically inclined might think him capable of suicide.) Žižek is diametrically opposed to Nietzsche where wit is concerned. His wit is so virtuosic that he is positively manic about it, which may yet lead to his own descent into madness. Nevertheless, as John Cage once put it, Žižek has a "sunny disposition;" and that may be sufficient for him to maintain society's arbitrary criteria for sanity!

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