Doubled Up With Laughter

Jonathan Ames and the emasculated Jewish male

The notion that Jewish men are somehow less masculine than their gentile counterparts is an old anti-Semitic trope: Jewish men menstruate, medieval anti-Semites asserted, and need periodic top-ups of human blood.The ancient Greeks abhorred circumcision, and Antiochus IV, the Seleucid king, tried to have it banned. ‘The castration complex,’ said Freud, ‘is the deepest unconscious root of anti-Semitism; for even in the nursery little boys hear that a Jew has something cut off his penis—a piece of his penis, they think—and this gives them the right to despise Jews.’

No one has done more to spread the notion that Jewish men are not real men than Otto Weininger, the fin de siècle Viennese philosopher who divided humanity into two types:masculine and feminine. His distinction was based not upon biology but temperament, thus the world was peopled by masculine women and feminine men.Weininger (who converted to Christianity) conflates what he calls feminine traits (cowardliness, passivity, amorality, unreason and sex) with ‘Jewishness’. Genius, naturally, is Christian—or, to be more precise, Aryan. He excoriates Judaism, attributing to it all the faults he finds with modernity—capitalism, materialism, Marxism, amorality, decadence, deracination, decline. Avoiding both the ‘biological’ racism of the Nazis that followed in his wake and the religious prejudice that preceded him,Weininger identifies Judaism as ‘a tendency of the mind, as a psychological constitution which is a possibility for all mankind, but which has become actual in the most conspicuous fashion amongst the Jews.’ In his magnum opus, Sex and Character, he describes the paradig- matic feminised Jew. It bears an uncanny, albeit jaundiced, resemblance to The Herring Wonder, the boxing moniker of cult novelist Jonathan Ames.

Jonathan Ames—I hesitate, post-Baudrillard, to say the ‘real’ Ames, so let’s just call him the flesh and blood Ames— made his literary debut in 1989 with I Pass Like Night, the edgy, blackly funny story of Alexander Vine, a young doorman who trawls Manhattan’s underworld for sex.The novel, written in a non-linear ‘mosaic’ style, was published when Ames was 25 and established him as the successor to ultra-cool WASP doomster Brett Easton Ellis—all but inevitable given his age and the book’s hardcore sex scenes. He was compared to JD Salinger and Phillip Roth called Alexander Vine ‘a cross between Jean Genet and Holden Caulfield in the age of AIDS’. A decade later Ames wrote The Extra Man, a novel which catapulted more low-life male casualties into the pantheon of literary characters: Louis Ives, a disgraced cross-dressing schoolteacher, shares a shabby New York apartment with Henry Harrison, a flamboyant would-be playwright who supports himself financially as an ‘extra man’ (a companion to moneyed elderly women). Like Vine, Ives is a sex junkie who spends his nights consorting with transsexual prostitutes. In a further Weiningerian twist, Ives cultivates good manners and aspires to be the perfect English gentleman, ‘a sort of a Jewish Duke of Windsor’. According to Weininger, the English are less manly than Aryans though not as bad as Jews, and, unlike Jews and women, capable of being considered ‘gentlemen’. When Ives ruminates on the impossibility of being a gentleman and a Jew he could very well be talking to Weininger. ‘There were no such Jewish [gentlemen] characters in any of [the books he reads], and to make things worse, all my favourite authors, I always found out, were heart-breakingly anti-Semitic. I worshipped them and they wouldn’t have even liked me. So their anti-Semitism and my Semitism were the major flaws in my young gentleman fantasy, but I tried not to think about these things most of the time.’

A decade later Ames published his third novel, Wake Up, Sir!, in which alcoholic writer Alan Blair checks himself into a Saratoga Springs artists’ colony populated by an assortment of oddballs. Alan Blair is virtually identical to Jonathan A., the hero of Ames’s graphic novel The Alcoholic (drawn by Dean Haspiel), and readers will recognise not only his trademark perversions, afflictions and biographical details (Jewish, New Jersey upbringing) but also his peculiar physiognomy—the pale skin, white, near invisible eyebrows, closely cropped hair disguising a vanishing hairline and curved nose. Like Ives, Alan Blair also suffers delusions of Englishness, although this time it is not the delusion that he is a gentleman but the delusion that he is constantly attended to by a gentleman’s gentleman: a phantom Wodehousian butler called—what else?—Jeeves, who gives him succour and arch, but practical, advice. Once again, the disconnect between the romantic longing for a genteel way of life and the sobering reality of a dipsoma- niacal New Jersey Jew on a self-destructive bender receives satirical treatment. ‘Satire,’ says Weininger, ‘is essentially intolerant, and is congruous with the disposition of the Jew and the woman.’

Ames belongs to a long tradition of self-referential writers and comedians. He credits Kerouac, Hunter Thompson and other writers whose legends precede their art with his own ‘fantasy of being a writer’. Stories abound of Ames living out various writer fantasies, notably his ‘Hemingway phase’, in which his nose got broken in a bar fight, and his Fitzgerald fantasy, in which he adopted the sartorial style and alcoholic excesses of F. Scott Fitzgerald. These fantasies are part of a more persistent hard-man fantasy which Ames plays out through his curious boxing career, undermining the machismo of the violent sport by fighting under the moniker ‘The Herring Wonder’, while his fans waved home-made herrings made from tinfoil and cardboard.

‘The Jew,’ says Weininger, ‘is ready to be witty only at his own expense or on sexual things.’An uncharitable critic might say the same of Ames. Send him on an assignment, as GQ did, to cover the gentrification of New York’s Meatpacking district and he’ll tell you of an encounter there thirteen years earlier with a transsexual streetwalker. Give him a column in the New York Press and he’ll tell you about his pre-teen trouble with an undescended left testicle, or the nice French woman doctor who broke his heart when she smiled as she dipped his penis in brown liquid to get rid of his genital wart, or even the Mangina, a prêt-a-porter prosthetic vagina for men created by his performance artist friend Patrick Bucklew (a.k.a. Harry Chandler). But his emasculation, according to Weininger, begins before all this, in the very moment in which he picks up his reporter’s notebook:‘The congruity between Jews and women,’ he writes, ‘further reveals itself in the extreme adaptability of the Jews, in their great talent for journalism.’

Bored to Death, an HBO comedy series recently broadcast on Sky Atlantic, stars Jason Schwartzman as Jonathan Ames, a troubled writer (drinks, drugs and an overactive libido) who moonlights as an unlicensed private investigator. The show was based on a short story of the same name about a troubled writer named Jonathan Ames whose stint as an unlicensed P.I. ends as darkly as a David Goodis or Jim Thompson paperback. The show and the hardboiled tale were written by Jonathan Ames, a troubled writer who has never worked as a private eye. ‘The psychological contents of the Jewish mind are always double or multiple,’ writes Weininger. As the title of the anthology where you can find the story of Jonathan Ames, the troubled writer who poses as something he is not, puts it, The Double Life Is Twice As Good.

Bored To Death series 1 is on Sky Atlantic at 10pm on Mondays. The new second series will be on Atlantic later in the year


Sean Shapiro is a freelance journalist. He and co-editor Dominic Lee founded the (now defunct) South African culture magazine, MIMIzine. He is currently working on a comic book adaptation of Oliver Onion’s classic ghost story, Benlian
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