PRINT January 1993


The Way We Were

ON THE PROBLEM of the actor—

And it is really high time to ask: What good actor today is not—a Jew? . . . Finally, women. Reflect on the whole history of women: do they not have to be first of all and above all else actresses?
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882

In his book Spurs or Nietzsche’s Styles, Jacques Derrida works Uncle Friedrich’s Jew-woman moment to comment upon “truth’s abyss, as non-truth.” He points out that while “truth” can only be a surface, or in quotation marks, it still flirtatiously tempts us to lift her veil and possess her.

The Jew is the Thing
Now that middle America has gone into recovery, The Prince of Tides recently offered filmic fast-food for the inner child. The world emerges as a disappointing landscape populated by those who are in denial and those who are in recovery; one suspected that that is the way we are but why does it seem so smarmy here? The film is beautifully shot, and the narrative occurs over the traumatized body of Nick Nolte’s twin sister—a gifted poetess and Holocaust survivor-wannabe(!). As absent cause driving the narrative, she is kept offscreen—literally recovering in a mental ward from a botched suicide attempt. Barbra Streisand is her immaculately groomed therapist, determined to crack her case through Nick Nolte, who is elected by the dysfunctional family to be his sister’s “memory”—the witness of the nasty family-trauma material. The only encounter with trauma is a nonencounter: as “witness” to trauma, the subject is split from herself—she cannot have access to the nasty blotch inaugurating her symptom or personality. The film literally dislocates the sister’s trauma in Nolte. This is all well and good. As the soigne cosmopolitan Über-Jewess shrink, however, Babs ultimately cannot compete with Nolte’s goyish connection to his native soil. Therapists shouldn’t have affairs with their patients, but that is the least offensive aspect of the film. After she returns him to his soft manhood as football coach slash nonbreadwinner, he returns to his family’s blond roots, parting with her in front of her fancy office, where she vows: “Next time I’m going to get a Jewish guy!”

In The Way We Were we first spot Barbra spotting another blond nodding off at a bar: Robert Redford. She takes him home where he throws up and crashes into a drunken stupor. In the middle of the night he makes love to her, still drunk, while she remains alert and vigilant. In the morning he remembers nothing. Throughout the film he has something like 20 cocktails. We see him in his WASP milieu maintaining his cool with alcohol, while the activist Jewess cheers him on to engage in the world in an affirmative way. Barbra, as supportive Jewess and muse, seems to stand for his mushed-up libido. I was keyed into the Jewish/WASP encounter or rather nonencounter when I saw The Way We Were. What struck me is the configuration of the WASP as the sleeping object of history and the Jew as the vigilant, suffering, and somehow tackier subject. Nevertheless the Jewess functions as the lure who can lead the WASP “back” to his numbed desire.

So what’s with the WASP-Jew conjunction over the inner child? The fantasm goes like this: equipped with a hot line to suffering, the Jew enjoys a privileged relation to the WASPS’ trauma and therefore can heal or at least witness or at least package it for them. Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein have demonstrated that no one can imagine and merchandise the fantasy scene of WASP plenitude better than a Jew. In the Barbra films, WASP plenitude emerges as a glossy traumatized shock layer significantly numbing the WASP sensorium and robbing him of subjective experience; he is a blond object to be rescued by the Jew from his own sorry condition.

Jews fill a public service. They simplify things for people—in the anti-Semitic (Western) imaginary, the fantasm of the Jew supports a black-and-white world divided between discrete ethnic “identities,” i.e. “Jew” and “non-Jew.” To paraphrase Lacan, Jew-essence is impossible. Like Truth, like “Woman,” the essence of the Jew does not exist, yet the traumatic fantasy of WASP plenitude is supported and witnessed by the desiring gaze of the Jew. The Jew emerges as a codependent “expert” on and potential healer of WASP trauma: the cool surface congealing, like a photo, over the shock data of tawdry family histories. . . . In the masquerade of the social symbolic, which is in effect “reality,” Jews have a hot line to pathos. They’ve taken over this realm of affect and people envy them for this.

The Way We Were
In the award-winning 1965 TV special My Name is Barbra, Babs is fabulous in a souped-up Empire-waisted glamour gown with a sailor-suit neckline. Coded as virtuosic child sophisticate, she frolics through elaborate crane shots with a full orchestra in black tie. In case we have any doubts about her sassy ingenue status the next sequence borders on kiddie porn: Babs in a modified sailor-suit, anklets, and patent-leather Mary Janes, her glamorous Babhood indicated, however, by the heavy Egyptoid makeup of the period. When she sings in baby talk, swinging her legs from an oversized nursery table, the effect is alarming. Why, you may ask, the child thing? As cross between woman-child and urban sophisticate, Babs is the uncanny power Jewess, a scary composite figure hovering between the insatiable needs of the child and the calculating eye of the expert consumer. In a telling segment, she is loosed on the sumptuous sales floor of Bergdorf’s, singing a “poverty” medley, including “secondhand Rose.” Embodying the formidable avatar of Jewess in her excessive, insatiable desire for goodies, she appears with her big nose in absolutely flawless outfits, delighting and disturbing all of us as singing surrogate for the sublime disproportion between our desires and our capacity to satisfy them.

Let Babs be a lesson to us all. We love the early Babs because she was the desiring subject who somehow didn’t fit onto the scene of glamour plenitude. No matter how sumptuous the mise-en-scène, the nose would puncture the fantasy. The “what is wrong with this picture” effect was endearing: embodying glamour divided from itself, glamour and its own lack-inbeing. The avatar of the pampered Jewess prevails in our cultural imaginary: Donna Karan and Joan Rivers both radiate the smooth patina of the shopping maven. But whereas the supermodel seems preternaturally worthy of commodities because she seems more like them, more like an object, the Jewess emerges as their tortured consciousness, the suffering subject. Shut out from total identification with the commodity, she is doomed to witness the trauma of their inarticulate power. The unitary trait, that little bit of the real representing the mark of ethnicity—like a Jewish nose—sets them apart from total identification with the commodity signifier, e.g., they will always read as JAPs in Chanel. But The Prince of Tides denies this symbolic reality. As the polished queen of the film, Barbra truly becomes the JAP Nightmare. Reaching the goal of Total Princesshood, she becomes grotesque: our sympathy with her as a desiring subject turns to shit. Having “entered the Fantasy,” she smarms through the film as a maudlin melancholic subject in mourning for her sense of humor.

Impossible Jew-Essence
Embodying difference from herself, the flip side of self-identity, the power Jewess operates in the cultural imaginary as a low-end Derrida: she is philosophically dangerous, or at least a threat to the concept of “being” as it is traditionally understood. The Jewish diva is always a limit case, a diva in quotes: it is impossible not to see her acting out the part of diva. Yma Sumac, the singing “Incan princess” and esteemed kitsch goddess, was such a raving simulacrum that an apocryphal myth spontaneously generated about her “origin”—as Amy Camus, a self-styled Jewess from Brooklyn. According to Holly Woodlawn, the Warhol “superstar”: “She made me want to become an Egyptologist.” Rhoda Morgenstern obeyed the law of no Jew-essence in reverse: as Mary Tyler Moore’s Jewess sidekick she was played by a shiksa—Valerie Harper.

With the exaggerated boobies and bawdiness of a drag queen and immunity to even remedial glamorization, Bette Midler exemplified the Jewess as sublime grotesque body. Exulting in lapses of taste as a bouncing bundle of Jewess vitality and wit, the early Bette achieved a kind of Hegelian self-overcoming in which “Spirit” in the form of voice and self-consciousness triumphed with gusto over physical packaging—the inverse of the supermodel effect. It was no accident that her earliest supporters were real drag queen. As the Divine Miss M., she seemed to be a second-order drag queen, simulating a drag simulacrum of a woman. Her destiny seemed scripted by the hand of Fate: as a Jewish girl from Hawaii she was born to be inappropriate. As a lesbian simulacrum of a drag simulacrum of a woman, Sandra Bernhard is the zesty Jewess of the ’90s. Nietzsche saw “truth” as a woman, a Jew, a literary man—all adepts at histrionics and masquerade; truth is a simulacrum, who whines. As one Jewish lady would put it so memorably: “There is no there there.” So shalom Andy Warhol! Oy.

Rhonda Lieberman teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.