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Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008. His short story "Crazy About Her" appeared in Issue 1.3 of White Whale Review

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Fein on Irreverence

Robert Wexelblatt



“So, how old are you? Five? Six?”

“I’m eleven, actually.”

“As old as that? And you don’t even have your own apartment? Why, at your age I’d been evicted from three of them. Okay. So what’s your line of work?”

“You’re very silly. I go to school.”

“No. Still in school? And you call me silly? By the time I was your age, unless you’re exaggerating about being eleven, I’d already been fired as a stoker on the Queen Mary and was well into the last half of a career as a stockbroker. You don’t mean to say you haven’t failed at anything yet?”

“My grades are pretty good. So, no, not so far.”

“As the Arkansas groom said to his twelve-year-

old bride, time’s a-wastin’. Do you at least have

some prospects of failing?”

“No, but I suppose it’s not unlikely.”

“Not unlikely, eh? Well, I’m not unsurprised you speak not unpompously, what with all those not bad grades. Still, what you said is profoundly true if not truly profound. Like they say in the Bronx, you can’t win ‘em all, but out in Chicago they know you can lose ‘em all. Myself, I’m a perfectionist.”

“You mean you’re a Cubs fan?”

“My dear old bean, the Cubs are like the Church. They haven’t got fans, just devoted flagellants, half-hearted masochists, the kind of people who can’t kick a habit.”


Nowadays Jerry Teitelbaum is a big-shot microbiologist, which means he knows a lot about life from the ground up. I’ve heard that within his field Jerry can’t be surprised. But he can surprise me. For example, it was a shock to learn he didn’t agree with a famous colleague, a doughty ecological campaigner who’s always reminding us polluters

we’re just part of nature. “If that were entirely so,” mused Jerry, “then we couldn’t be responsible for nature, could we?” Jerry’s good at gossip. He told me that at a conference on global warming this celebrated sage opined that the most efficient way to save the planet would be to shoot Americans. “Except himself,” said Jerry. “I asked.” Jerry’s like a heart surgeon who tap dances, an interesting guy. It’s always a treat to grab lunch with Jerry.

We touched base last week at a deli over corned beef on rye and pickled tomatoes. I confessed how, when I was a kid, I thought “kosher” was an ancient Hebrew method for extracting all the flavor from food. This turned the conversation to childhood cuisine and that led Jerry to his Proustianly detailed recollection of a fifty-year-old seder in Albany. The guest-in-chief at his family’s house that Pesach was Groucho Marx. It was a memorable lunch of memories and we both laughed more boisterously than is becoming in middle-aged fathers of daughters.



There was this formidable woman, Viola Malkin, my grandmother’s best friend. She drove a Cadillac convertible, kept all the dietary laws, and wouldn’t touch meat. This she announced proudly to Groucho while passing him the platter of lamb.

“Well, Viola,” Groucho said as if meaning to be gallant, “if I ever become a cannibal I promise to eat only female vegetarians. Orthodox ones.”

Mrs. Malkin giggled nervously. I didn’t think I’d ever seen her giggle before. Her face looked like it might shatter. “You mean your mother didn’t keep kosher, Mr. Marx?”

“Well, we were all bottom-feeders ourselves but, as these things go, I guess Minnie kept fairly kosher. We never had a pork roast. My brothers, of course, are a different kettle of gefilte fish. When he wasn’t chasing shiksas Chico couldn’t get enough Italian sausage, sweet or hot, made no difference to Chico. And Harpo would gobble up Canadian bacon like a lumberjack, even when we weren’t playing Montreal. As for Zeppo, he’d hop the Hindenberg to Westphalia for just one bite of their ham. And we all loved jumbo shrimp, the jumboer the better. Even

Gummo, who’s something of a shrimp himself. So, you see?”

Mrs. Malkin looked scandalized. This suited her better than mirth. “Your mother accepted this?”

“Minnie? ‘You boys break my heart,’ she’d cry

out. She cried it out like Big Ben, every hour on the hour, and we’d cry back, ‘Yeah, we boys, you Jane.’ So, tell me, Viola, do you come here often or just when your husband’s messing around with his secretary?”


Jerry swore he wasn’t making it up, said all these vignettes from that evening flooded back as he talked, that his memory was apparently studded with shallow graves.

I asked how people reacted to Groucho’s performance, how he did.

He grinned. “Well, everybody knew who Groucho was, of course, that all those Marx boys were sex maniacs, allergic to inhibition, anarchists in perpetual rut, hostile to authority. My mother

was completely serene, presiding at the end of the table like a treasure chest watching Long John Silver hector and wheedle and fuss. Treasure chests don’t get hanged; and, while pirates sometimes do, they make entertaining guests. I’d say pretty much everybody went along. I mean the men behaved as if to be insulted by Groucho were a real distinction. As for the ladies, they acted as though getting felt up by him was an honor—or not a disgrace.”

“How about you? You were only eleven. Did you think it was just some kind of floor show?”

“It’s an idea—a floor show for seder. But, look, I’d seen A Day at the Races so I was in awe. No, that’s not right. What I felt was that Groucho was more of a child than I was. Forget the cigars, he had that knack. I wasn’t in awe of him but of his effect on the adults, especially since it was Passover and our seders usually fell somewhere between boringly solemn and downright sanctimonious. In the movie Groucho played a veterinarian passing himself off as a doctor. He was a false authority, a deceiver, an incompetent. There was nothing sweet about him the way there was with his brothers. Harpo and

Chico always had scenes with adoring kids, enchanting them by playing the harp or the piano. Not Groucho. His thing was perforating the grown-ups. In the movies all these adults have it coming. But this was our seder, you know? I expected somebody to object, to stand up and point a finger like Jeremiah; but the truth is they loved getting punctured.”

“So Groucho was invited to be irreverent. Did he at least dial it back during the service?”

Jerry cut a slice of green tomato, forked it into his mouth, and chewed it ruminatively.

“On the contrary. He couldn’t have been more relentless if he were getting paid for it. Since I was sitting next to him during dinner he directed a lot of his wisecracks my way, but always loud enough so that everybody could hear, even deaf Uncle Nathan. I’ll give you an example. After I’d done the Four Questions he said that even if I was the youngest he had four questions too. I remember one was about Elijah. If when I opened the door for Elijah at the end of the service the prophet actually showed up—if he picked Albany for his return

appearance—would he get three glasses of wine to catch up? Then he wanted to know what the Angel of Death did about Egyptian twins and whether manna came both seeded and seedless. Then there was Dayenu. That was another routine. He sang his own version. It went something like this: If He’d sent the Babylonians, Dayenu; if He’d sent the Assyrians, Dayenu; if He’d sent Haman, Dayenu; if He’d sent the Romans, Dayenu; if He’d sent the Inquisition, Dayenu; the pogroms and the Nazis and the Arabs, Dayenu—but why Molly Goldberg and Herman Wouk? Wasn’t dayenu dayenu?”

I told Jerry this story about a priest who accosted Groucho in a hotel lobby and asked for his autograph. “It’s for my mother, Groucho,” said the priest, “your biggest fan.” “Really?” Groucho shot back. “I thought you fellas weren’t allowed to have mothers.”

Jerry chortled. “A little masterpiece.”

It was this lunch with Jerry, who once had a seder with Groucho Marx, that’s gotten me thinking about irreverence.



Like light, political opinion, and complaining, there is a spectrum of irreverence. At one end is profanity, at the other vituperation. Blasphemy is an assault on perfection; irreverence is an assault on the claim to perfection.

By itself, irreverence is feeble and insignificant; that is, it can only flourish in a context of reverence, just as lying requires the expectation of truthfulness. It is no accident that the great age of European irreverence (and pornography) was the end of the Victorian period which gave us Shaw, Wilde, Sacher-Masoch, de Kock, but also Freud and Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is an irreverent picture; The Interpretation of Dreams demolishes the veneration of family life and childhood innocence. Decades of religious and social pieties were required to produce the irreverence of modernism. At its finest irreverence is a corrective; it restores balance. What good is it to run about with a fistful of sharp pins if there aren’t any balloons? Groucho needs Margaret Dumont, a

bearded faculty, a thousand stuffed shirts, and they need him. I expect Jerry Teitelbaum, precocious though he doubtless was at eleven, did not find it so easy to distinguish scurrilous ill-nature from a well-placed puncture wound, to tell the difference between a Groucho-as-Thersites and a Groucho-as-Undershaft. He must have been perplexed by the adults’ licensing of all those insults. No doubt some of them were cowed by the comedian’s celebrity, but at least a few—maybe the serene Mrs. Teitelbaum—sensed his indignation was with humankind and knew there was nothing personal in it. Groucho explodes self-importance, puffed-up Platonic types, unwarranted self-esteem. But at that seder he was not insulting people he actually knew and maybe that is why they could glory in his acidulous attention. The Fool is permitted to mock Lear, but he never denies his master’s royalty. Impersonal irreverence is often entertaining and salutary; the personal kind, less so. This will account for why Groucho Marx’s wives and children do not seem to remember him as kindly as the rest of us.

All reverence is either religious or modeled on religious subordination. But irreverence is not always antagonistic to religion. In fact, irreverence in its very highest form is a religious attitude. Religious people can be magnificently irreverent, especially when provoked by the nominal devotion of sleep-walkers calling themselves believers.

Religious irreverence is not only remedial; it is edifying, as it is aimed at razing the false so as to build up the true. Pious irreverence is almost the last recourse of the believer, the furthest point of a once-moderate argument. That great paradoxophile Kierkegaard complained that it is all but impossible to be a Christian in a Christian country; that is, one where everybody is sure they achieved this status when a few drops of water were dripped on their heads at the age of fourteen days. He is infuriated at seeing what he deems the most difficult of tasks dismissed as the easiest—and, worse, one to be gotten beyond. It is Kierkegaard’s wrath as much as his ideas that made him beget existentialism. It was his fury that drew the attention of his countrymen, an act of public irreverence, his attack on the just-deceased, highly

esteemed Bishop Mynster, head of the Established Church. Kierkegaard said the old man might have been eminently clubbable but he was certainly not, as his eulogist put it, “a witness for the truth.” To Kierkegaard only a felt idea counted, only concepts so passionately lived that they cease to be concepts. Kierkegaard was endlessly sarcastic about Hegel, but he was far more irreverent about the counterfeiters of what concerned him most. One of the last things he wrote, just after he had completed the tenth and final installment of The Instant, is this elegant Parthian shot aimed at the state-supported professional Christians of the tidy Kingdom of Denmark:


The actor is an honest man who plainly says, “I am an actor.”

One never gets a priest to say that, at any price.

No, the “priest” thinks he is the very opposite of an actor. Entirely without prejudice (because he knows that it does not apply to him) he will raise and answer the

question whether an actor may be buried in Christian ground. It never occurs to him (a masterpiece of scenic art, if it is not stupidity) that he is cointerested in the decision of this question, yes, that even if it is decided in favor of the actor, it nevertheless might be doubtful whether it is justifiable for the priest to be buried in Christian ground.


Another sort of religious irreverence is common in Zen Buddhist literature where the masters do not address those who are indifferent to enlightenment, or who simulate it, but seekers going down the wrong path whose reverence is therefore an error. An example, concise even by Zen standards, is the answer of Wen-yen to a novice’s question, “What is the Buddha like?” “A dried stick of dung,” he replied. No doubt the novice was anticipating something rather different—say, “The Buddha is like that white cloud floating above the river.” But such an answer would have divided the world when the point is its unity, that the Buddha-nature is in everything. Conceive it as a cloud—pure, weightless, clean, above the

earth—and the chain is broken. But if the Buddha-nature can be in a stick of dried dung then it is also in the cloud, the river, even in the novice.

The irreverence of the reverent is not mockery but therapy. It is not set up against reverence but misapprehension and confusion. The Hasidic zaddiks are like the Zen masters in provoking sudden enlightenment through conversations with misguided seekers. Consider this reproof from Rabbi Menachem Mendel: “When a man makes a reverent face before a face that is no face—that is idol worship.” Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim is full of this kind of pious irreverence. Rabbi Moshe Leib made a moral point, a typically Jewish one, but did so by praising atheism, which must have startled his kosher-keeping, phylactery-and-yarmulke-sporting davening disciples out of their

self-satisfaction in having found the True Way:


[T]o what end can the denial of God have been created? This too can be uplifted through deeds of charity. For if someone comes to you and asks your help, you shall not turn him off with pious words, saying:

“Have faith and take your troubles to God!” You shall act as if there were no God, as if there were only one person in all the world who could help this man—only yourself.


At the end of Sleeper Woody Allen’s character is asked if he believes in anything at all and offers the reply of an irreverent dramatist, “Sex and death. They both come once in a lifetime.” As death is to tragedy, sex is to comedy. Irreverence about how we get out of here is less funny than irreverence about how we got here. Starting with Aristophanes, no comedian has passed it up. Allen is famously sardonic about people’s sex lives, pre-eminently his own. He is another irreverent New Yorker, Groucho’s heir. His hip, often erudite joking would seem to belie the principle that irreverence requires a context of reverence, since it is his

attitude to revere nothing and to subvert everyone who reveres anything. So he zeroes in on what is most revered. But it is not true that he reveres nothing; in fact, Allen’s many parodies are a guide to those he venerates. Anyone who has attempted to write a parody knows that only work possessing character and distinction is worthy of being

parodied, or susceptible to it. A degree of appreciative sympathy is needed to carry out a proper parody. Allen makes fun of his heroes: Bergman, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Dostoyevsky. This making fun is almost itself a form of worship. The real difference between Allen and a zaddik or sensei has to do with their audiences. The latter speak to errant seekers to set them on the right way while Allen lays down banana peels for all and sundry. His method is not so much to turn the sublime into the ridiculous as to pair sublimity with Upper East Side banality. No one but a scrupulously attentive reader of Buber’s compendium could have written this burlesque of it:


Rabbi Zvi Chaim Yisroel, an Orthodox scholar of the Torah and a man who developed whining to an art unheard of in the West, was unanimously hailed as the wisest man of the Renaissance by his fellow-Hebrews, who totaled a sixteenth of one per cent of the population. Once, while he was on his way to synagogue to celebrate the sacred Jewish holiday commemorating God’s reneging on every promise, a woman

stopped him and asked the following question: “Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?”

“We’re not?” the Rev said incredulously. “Uh-oh.”


The zaddik who reproved his followers by reminding them that what matters is what comes out of their mouths, not what goes into them, is not so different. Allen is just much funnier about it and leaves out the sermonizing: “Why pork was proscribed by Hebraic law is still unclear, and some scholars believe that the Torah merely suggested not eating pork at certain restaurants.” Allen’s films are not cosmic mockeries; on the contrary, his satire sits comfortably beside a humane respect for the absurdity of the urban everyday, the ordinary world which Kierkegaard’s knight of faith gets returned to him by a “movement of the absurd,” the very world that furnishes Allen with a balloon for every pin. “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.”



The kind lady who charged me with false modesty meant, of course, to pay me a compliment, or at least to insist that I accept the one I had been offered. I demurred. “False modesty,” I tried to explain, “is a thing to which I can only aspire.”

Consider somebody who, despite being acclaimed and extolled, cleaves to a relatively accurate self-knowledge and a just self-appraisal. Irreverence for such a person could be a saving grace, a cure for the seduction of seigniorial comportment.

In America irreverence is almost a founding principle. After all, the nation began with an irreverent letter to His Majesty, George Rex. Democracy is not a political arrangement which encourages much reverence. Plato, a descendant of kings, knew how to affect the grand manner and was an aristocrat of the intelligence. Living in the world’s original democracy he wrote of its lack of reverence irreverently: “. . . a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals

alike.” Democracy is entirely compatible with boasting and tall tales (Mike Fink, Pecos Bill) and with serious eloquence (Lincoln, FDR, M. L. King) but it cannot do without irreverence. President Kennedy, asked how he liked his new job, replied, “The pay’s good and I can walk to work.” Any President who can say that is unlikely to subvert the Constitution. Richard Nixon would not have been capable of it. This is because Nixon was too reverent; but what Nixon revered was Nixon.

America is the land of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, and what could be more American than Christian Science? But America is also Elmer Gantry and H. L. Mencken. It is our good fortune to have spawned both Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain and in almost the same generation. The former was a great man who set out to become a Great Man. In the name of Christian virtue he banned Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and thought well of the Philippine War. Twain is the tonic to TR’s dominant. It was he who described a certain Southern blowhard as “a good Christian in the worst sense.” Midwesterners like Twain, Will Rogers, and Kurt Vonnegut sweep from the plains with sharp pins for the grandiosity

of the coasts, the zeppelins of high culture. Toward the end of his life Twain received a state visit from Rudyard Kipling, author of “The White Man’s Burden” and not one to hide his light under a bushel. As the two were international celebrities the press gathered outside the door of Twain’s Connecticut house, awaiting a joint communiqué. At length the authors stepped out on the porch. I don’t know what Kipling said, if anything, but Twain summed up the summit in a couple of sentences that simultaneously heaped irreverence on the press, Kipling, and himself: “Between us we divided all the world’s knowledge. He knew everything, and I knew the rest.”

Marx Brothers’ movies take place in specially constructed worlds where no authority is worthy of respect but all insist they are. About these films the assiduously impudent Antonin Artaud was hilariously reverent: “. . . if there is a definite characteristic, a distinct poetic state of mind that can be called surrealism, Animal Crackers participated in that state altogether.” That’s a French anarchist for you—loads of theory, no sense of fun. “If Americans . . . wish to take these films in a

merely humorous sense . . . so much the worse for them . . .” Even T.S. Eliot, no Gallic dramaturge, corresponded with Groucho. Apparently, brilliant irreverence can inspire a pretty high-toned reverence.

Irreverence is bracing only if it is not perpetual. Even in comprehensive Marxist send-ups like A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races there is always a conventional romance, which the clowns abet. They are on the side of Young Love and so, their own polymorphous libidos notwithstanding, they respect it. Indiscriminate irreverence cannot be a norm without losing its force. Pins are not blunt instruments. Obvious that Lear needs his Fool, a little less so that the Fool needs his Lear.

Inverted irreverence is a sign of health, of proportion and lucid self-assessment. The mad scientist—the mad anything—is only one who suffers from an excess of reverence for himself and all he does. Bertrand Russell understood this pathology very well: “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”



Once upon a time there were magnificent blasphemies, oaths which released great jets of language, the pipe organ of transgression with all its stops pulled out. Certainly there is a music of irreverence, from diapason to sixteenth-note. Here is an example of the latter. Asked to name the greatest poet in the French language the courteous André Gide replied, “Victor Hugo, hélas.” In just trois mots justes Gide burst the blimp of bloated Romanticism and his nation’s amour-propre.

Irreverence tends to be expansive. As an attitude, it has no fixed boundaries so that even an epigram can seem to be a camel’s nose threatening the tent. Theocratic regimes criminalize even minor expressions of irreverence and will not scruple to execute those who use them, at least in public. These governments are as earnest about their dogmas as Artaud is about the Marx Brothers’ putative surrealism. George Orwell, always a salutary guide, sets the tone for his “Reflections on Gandhi” with a general marker of level-headed, cautiously paradoxical irreverence: “Saints should

always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent . . .” Saints may be guilt-ridden by their vast superegos, by all that aggression Freud insists they’ve internalized; but they may also be inflated by their admirers into swollen icons before whom Orwell, an impeccably sane thinker well provided with pins, is disinclined to bow without solid arguments. He knows that, in the end, idols always demand human sacrifice. Reverence, in short, is more lethal than its opposite.

The explosion of outmoded pieties at the end of the nineteenth century proceeded with pin-thrusts, the irreverent epigrams catalogued by Bartlett. Between Wilde and Shaw and their forebears yawned the gap between the buckboard and the Buick. Both gave lectures that resembled stand-up routines and wrote irreverent comedies because humor is an oral art. When you hear a good joke you can’t help wanting to tell it. While Wilde’s irreverence is aesthetic, Shaw’s is decidedly ethical. It is because Shaw thinks big that he deploys a form of irreverence that is agglomerative, swallowing more and more, building like a tsunami or a fugue, accumulating energy before it crashes on the shore

and inundates everything deplorable. These speeches would be sermons if it were not for the wicked joy Shaw got from writing, actors from declaiming, and audiences from hearing them. Where Wilde’s wit moves from paradox to paradox, bon mots set up like pictures in a gallery with the portrait of Dorian Gray at the far end, Shaw’s wit has a theory behind it. Wilde’s humor is pointed; Shaw’s irreverence has a point.

My two favorite examples of the Shavian tidal wave are from the Preface to Major Barbara and Act Three of Man and Superman. While the first is technically not part of the play it might as well be a speech by Undershaft. After all, Shaw’s gigantic prefaces are barely distinguishable from the rhetorical set-pieces delivered by his alter-egos in the plays. Here Shaw characterizes both himself and his society in propria persona:


Here I am . . . by class a respectable man, by common sense a hater of waste and disorder, by intellectual constitution legally minded to the verge of pedantry, and by temperament apprehensive and

economically disposed to the limit of old-maidishness; yet I am, and have always been, and shall now always be, a revolutionary writer because our laws make law impossible; our liberties destroy all freedom; our property is organized robbery; our morality is an impudent hypocrisy; our wisdom is administered by inexperienced or malexperienced dupes, our power wielded by cowards and weaklings, and our honor false in all its points.


Irreverence is here conveyed not by asserting that the most respected institutions of the British Empire are weak and in need of adjustment, but that they produce exactly the opposite of what they promise. With comprehensive irreverence Shaw declares that the Fabian has become the revolutionary, but his way of saying so shows that the public lecturer has merely relocated from the auditorium to the theater.

More rhetorically potent still is Don Juan’s indictment of the ladies and gentlemen of Satan’s Epicurean-Edwardian high society which, with

ascending adjectival gaiety, gathers together everything Socrates might ever have said to exasperate the Athenians, all anyone can say about the contrast between worthy substance and revered appearance:


Pooh! Why should I be civil to them or to you? In this Palace of Lies a truth or two will not hurt you. Your friends are all the dullest dogs I know. They are not beautiful: they are only decorated. They are not clean: they are only shaved and starched. They are not dignified: they are only fashionably dressed. They are not educated: they are only college passmen. They are not religious: they are only pewrenters. They are not moral: they are only conventional. They are not virtuous: they are only cowardly. They are not even vicious: they are only “frail.” They are not artistic: they are only lascivious. They are not prosperous: they are only rich. They are not loyal, they are only servile; not dutiful, only sheepish; not public spirited, only patriotic; not courageous, only quarrelsome; not determined, only

obstinate; not masterful, only domineering; not self-controlled, only obtuse; not self-respecting, only vain; not kind, only sentimental; not social, only gregarious; not considerate, only polite; not intelligent, only opinionated; not progressive, only factious; not imaginative, only superstitious; not just,

only vindictive; not generous, only propitiatory; not disciplined, only cowed; and not truthful at all: liars every one of them, to the very backbone of their souls.





The refusal to respect what is respectable, honor what is honorable, the urge to defile what is innocent—this is irreverence decayed into easy cynicism, the language of the radio talk show. Irreverence misdirected loses its therapeutic value as a corrective and it is merely corrosive, an assertion of egoism, the indulgence of a pose; it is invective rather than satire, with none of Kennedy’s witty humility, Gide’s polite regret, Shaw’s delicious

cataloguing. Even unbelievers should distinguish between irreverence and nihilism.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, was a master of irreverence, certainly of disappointment. He was a proud courtier who put his trust in a capricious prince and ended by writing “Upon Nothing,” a sort of topsy-turvy, grudging ode to Nihilism:


The Great Man’s gratitudes to his best


Kings’ Promises, Whores’ Vows,

tow’rds thee they bend,

Flow swiftly into thee, and

in thee ever end.


A cynic is a reformed idealist who misses seeing the world as it is, by first revering it too much and then too little. Vituperation has a mean mouth and blasphemy generally revenges itself. Proper irreverence is a sovereign restorative, a wellspring of wholesome jollity, a petard to explode pretension, a tool for separating the respected from the respectable, a weapon for humiliating those without humility. Bad irreverence is no use at all.



I like to imagine Groucho at the open door, irreverent to the last, a sort of Elijah in reverse, bidding adieu to the Teitelbaums with this deathless line: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening; unfortunately, this wasn’t it.”




Allen, Woody, Getting Even, New York: Vintage,


Artaud, Antonin, The Theater of Its Double, trans.

Mary Caroline Richards, New York: Grove Press, 1958

Buber, Martin, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters,

trans. Olga Marx, New York: Schocken, 1948

Kierkegaard, Søren, Attack Upon “Christendom,”

trans. Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968

Orwell, George, The Orwell Reader, New York:

Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1956

Plato, The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett, New

York: Modern Library, 1960

Shaw, George Bernard, Major Barbara, New York:

Penguin, 1977

_________________, Man and Superman, New

York: Penguin, 1972

Suzuki, D. T., Studies in Zen, New York: Dell, 1955

Wilmot, John, Earl of Rochester, Poems, London:

Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964




“On Irreverence,” which I discovered in Fein’s folder for 1979, is typed, without corrections or marginal notes, complete with title and even the list of cited works. It is exceptional to find a piece Fein

evidently considered finished among his papers but not unique. I can only speculate on his reasons for abandoning “On Irreverence.” For example, he might have decided what he had written, however finished, was not worth publishing or perhaps he sent it out and it was rejected, then abandoned. In some cases—and “On Irreverence” may be one—I believe what he had brought to completion was not intended for publication at all but was written either for his own diversion or as a kind of occasional essay to be presented to one reader. In this case, there is reason to think Fein intended the essay for the friend who initiated it, the late Gerald Teitelbaum, yeast geneticist and one of the pioneers of recombination technology.

It could be said that “On Irreverence” is less an essay than an anthology, a building made of bricks with Feinian essayism as the mortar holding them together. Fein was obviously fond of subversive Jewish humor, an early fan of Woody Allen and a lifelong one of Groucho Marx. Evidently he liked them for their irreverence. But here he expands that category to comprehend everything from Hasidic and Zen tales to a side of the American

character, from a bon mot from André Gide to theatrical thumpers by G. B. Shaw. The term runs low and high, applied to jokes about sex and the sublimities of religious faith. Indeed, the word’s meaning appears so distended that a reader might wonder if Fein has rendered it useless. I think, however, that what he aims at portraying is not a genre but an attitude, one that he sees, above all, as a corrective. He casts a wide net for his examples but what he admires in each is irreverence wielded as a tool to restore balance rather than as an end-in-itself. As such, what he calls irreverence is distinguished from mere buffoonery, from facetiousness and mockery; that is, Feinian irreverence falls on a spectrum within a still broader spectrum. This is why the tone of the essay is hard to fix—at times serious, at others frivolous, concerned both with the aesthetics of the zinger and the ethics of a humane intelligence that, as he says, is a needle with no dearth of balloons to burst.



Copyright© Robert Wexelblatt. White Whale Review, issue 2.1

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