It Could Always Be Worse

From William Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job.

Past and Future

I’ve probably received a dozen New Year’s greeting like the following:

“Good riddance 2020. Here’s to better days.”

“Happy 2021. It’s got to be better than last year!”

“2020 – a Year to forget. Let’s make 2021 a year to remember!

So naturally, I’m reminded of the joke:

Two old Jews are sitting on a park bench.

One says: “Nu, how are things?”

The other says: “Better than next year!”

Though the joke draws on clichés about Jewish pessimism, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, it’s hard to think of a year of which I was conscious, that wasn’t worse than the one before.

1962 was bad: The Cuban Missile Crisis ended only when President Kennedy stepped back from the nuclear brink. But 1963 was worse: Kennedy was assassinated.

1972 saw the birth of IMM, a global derivatives (futures) exchange. But the 1973 recession facilitated the neo-liberal revolt (still ongoing) of finance capital against labor.

In 1980, the ex-Beatle John Lennon was assassinated. That was really terrible. But a year later, the ex-actor Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Truly awful.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska, spilling 10 million gallons of oil. But a year later, Bush invaded Iraq in order to secure Mideast oil.

In 2001, there was 9/11 – definitely bad. But 2002 inaugurated the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security and the War on Terror, all arguably worse.

In 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, spilling 210 million gallons of oil. In 2011, CO2 levels reached a record high of 390.9 ppm.

In 2016, Trump was elected president. In 2017, 2018 and 2019…enough said.

And it’s not hard to imagine how 2021 could be worse than 2020:

Instead of deploying executive orders, Biden tries to negotiate with Mitch McConnell.

A new virus emerges, more deadly than Covid-19.

The U.S. rejoins the Paris Climate accords, but nothing changes.

The U.S. provokes a military confrontation in the South China Sea.

CO2 levels rise above 2019 levels, after a slight Covid-19 induced decline in 2020.

Far-right terrorism grows, with attacks against Black churches and Jewish synagogues.

Given the many risks, maybe it’s best to just stay in quarantine and keep our heads down. There’s a joke for that too:

Two Jews are facing the firing squad, rifles drawn:

“Irv, do you think I should ask for a last cigarette?”

“Best not to draw attention to ourselves Izzy.”

American history has become a Jewish joke!

Origins of Jewish Pessimistic Humor

The sources of Jewish pessimistic humor surprisingly predate Jewish persecution. The Book of Ecclesiastes from the Hebrew Bible is grimly humorous. The book is written as a series of aphorisms based on particular themes.

Progress is impossible:

Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. (1:10)

Knowledge is valueless:

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (1:18)

So why bother even to be born?

Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.

Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun. (4:3-4)

But for real gallows humor, the Book of Job can’t be beat.

One day, Satan and his siblings go to visit their dad, God. As they are chatting, Satan tells his father that his precious Job – a pious man blessed with wealth and happiness — would curse God if ever his wealth was taken. God protests that Job is good, but nevertheless accepts that he must be tested. So, Satan goes out and kills Job’s children, servants, oxen, asses and camels. After that, he afflicts Job with boils. That’s when Job really starts complaining, much to God’s annoyance.

God decides he’s heard all the kvetching he can take: “Genug shoyn” (“enough already”)! Actually, God doesn’t say that because he doesn’t speak Yiddish; instead he boasts to Job of his superior knowledge and achievements: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?… Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?” and so on. (38:4, 33) Finally, as if he’d just consulted an attorney, God agrees to pay Job a substantial settlement, though without admitting fault. He grants him long life as well as replacement children, servants, oxen, asses and camels. (The original children and animals, remain dead.) To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one must have a heart of stone to read the Book of Job without laughing.

The main point of the Job, as far as I can discern, is found in that Yiddish word cited above, shoyn; it can mean, among other things, “shit happens,” as in the following joke:

Two Jews are having a chat while walking on the sidewalk.

One falls down a manhole.

The other continues on and says: “Shoyn.”

Pessimism as a Source of Revolutionary Ideas

Jewish pessimistic humor has long been a resource for resistance and even revolution. In 1826, a year before his death, the English poet and artist William Blake published his Illustrations of the Book of Job. Instead of depicting the punishment of a God-fearing man, Blake reveals a Job who is punished precisely because he is obedient the God’s law! In fact, according to Blake, Job’s sufferings are imaginary – a kind of hysteria — and his liberation will only come when he throws off the shackles of rule and repression.

That moment arrives when Job is at the apex of his pain. In plate 11, he is shown stretched out on a slab (really a griddle!), with God’s right hand pointing to the stone tablets of the law, and his left to the flames of Hell below. At just this moment, Job spies God’s cloven foot; God is actually Satan! Job also notices the serpent of materialism coiled around God. Now he understands that freedom requires a rejection of money and greed, and an embrace of sharing, imagination and forgiveness — in short, revolution. The very last plate of Blake’s series, no. 22, titled “So the Lord Blessed,” shows Job’s original family and prosperity restored to him. There are no books or tablets of law anywhere in sight — just love and music making in abundance. What started out as a Shakespearean tragedy ends as comedy.

The ironies of Blake became for future generation the basis for personal and expressive liberation. Where would Allen Ginsberg have been without Blake? “Everything that lives is Holy,” writes Blake. In Howl (1956), Ginsberg writes:

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is Holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!

Like William Blake and Ginsberg, Karl Marx, (the child of a converted Jew), drew upon Jewish pessimism and humor. That’s apparent in all his major writings, but especially The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Marx believed that under the rule of capital, wealth and power became more concentrated every year, and the condition of the working class direr. But this pessimism was also the source of his confidence that a communist revolution would one day come. By virtue of capitalism’s very contradictions, the working class would soon rise up, cast off its chains and establish a classless society.

But in order to do so, workers needed to dispense with all former political models. That’s when Marx deployed a pessimistic Jewish joke, something like the ones cited earlier:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce… People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

In other words, just when people think they are free to change the circumstances of their existence, shoyn!

Reading Marx’s lines from the 18th Brumaire, we might imagine the men and women of 1851 dressed in white sheets staggering forward with their arms extended stiffly in front of them, like zombies from a George Romero movie. But it’s precisely this pessimistic humor that allows Marx to describe the necessity of discarding those sheets, and taking a leap into the open air of the future:

The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its

poetry from the past but only from the future….The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.

“Better than Next Year”

To expect 2021 to be better than 2020 just because the earlier year was so bad is an example of magical thinking, the idea that one event results from a prior event without any plausible chain of causation. On the other hand, there’s also no reason to believe that next year will be worse than this one, though the signs are not encouraging.

But the pessimism that lies behind the joke about the alta kakers on the bench (“Nu, How are things? Better than next year!”) is a more productive way to think about the future than the anodyne New Year’s greetings from friends and well-meaning non-profits filling my email in-box. To create radical change, we need to imagine the worst, break the mental chains that bind us, and cast off the phantoms of prior history. It’s going to be a challenging new year.

A group of elderly Jews gather each day to talk politics. One day, one of them announces:

“You know what? I am an optimist!”

The others are shocked, but one of them asks: Wait a minute! If you’re an optimist, why do you look so worried?”

“You think it’s easy being an optimist?

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), and The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) among other books. His American Fascism Now, with Sue Coe, has just been published by Rotland Press. Eisenman is also co-founder of the non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance.