Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lessons in human dignity

Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). 188 pages.

Victor Brombert, who just turned ninety, is one of the last great comparativists in literary scholarship. A younger, more present-minded scholar would decide upon his “approach” before starting a book like this, and whether the “approach” is even relevant to his texts would be of less moment than establishing himself, for a few months at least, ahead of the curve. For Brombert, the first question is what books to read. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Death in Venice, “A Hunger Artist” and “The Metamorphosis,” To the Lighthouse, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Waiting for the Barbarians, The Plague, and Survival in Auschwitz—the historical stretch (from 1886 to 1980 and later), the linguistic range (Russian, German, French, and Italian in addition to English), are why the comparativist is worth listening to.

Musings on Mortality, the eleventh book in an academic career that began in 1949, is like sitting in on a late-afternoon graduate seminar in the oak-paneled honors room with the comfortable chairs. The distinguished professor emeritus from Princeton, author of books on Stendhal and Flaubert, has no thesis to grind; he is blessedly “atheoretical,” as the graduate students who are impatient for their guild cards tend to complain. He describes the “foreshadowing” in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, he speaks of Primo Levi’s “telling what [Auschwitz] was like,” without a trace of self-consciousness. He never quotes a text without giving both the original and the translation (usually his own). Indeed, he will not discuss a book unless he can read it in the original language. This self-limitation is not modesty, although its effect is that, but scholarly integrity. The first commandment of comparative literature is that texts must be studied in the original to be understood properly. He remains faithful to the comparative method from first to last.

There are disadvantages to the method. Brombert’s unfamiliarity with Jewish languages and traditional Jewish sources suspends Primo Levi from a significant portion of his literary heritage, and raises questions about Brombert’s knowledge of Holocaust literature. He explains why Levi “chose to devote an entire chapter [in Survival in Auschwitz] to a canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy”—a literary choice that disturbed his students, Brombert reports—concluding that the “recourse to lines of poetry buried in the memory, but not really forgotten, carried a humanistic message.”

How much the analysis would have benefitted from a comparison to another Holocaust memoir! In The Book and the Sword (1996), the Talmudic scholar David Weiss Halivni tells about the day in Auschwitz when he saw an SS guard eating a sandwich “wrapped in a page of Orach Chaim, a volume of the Shulchan Aruch, Pesil Balaban’s edition.” With tears in his eyes, Halivni begs the guard to give his “this bletl, this page,” as a souvenir:

On the Sundays we had off, we now had not only Oral Torah [to study] but Written Torah as well. The bletl became a visible symbol of a connection between the camp and the activities of Jews throughout history. . . . The bletl became a rallying point. We looked forward to studying it whenever we had free time. . . . It was the bletl, parts of which had to be deciphered because the grease made some letters illegible, that summoned our attention. Most of those who came to listen didn’t understand the subject matter, but that was irrelevant. They all perceived the symbolic significance of the bletl.The comparativist is welcome to prefer the humanistic message, but cut off from “the activities of Jews throughout history,” it begins to feel a little thin and undifferentiated, a synthetic product of the comparativist’s own method. If the reader can accept this limitation—if he can read Brombert’s book in the spirit of its title—Musings on Mortality will succeed on its terms, gently stroking the reader into wonderment.

Thus the confrontation with mortality leads Ivan Ilych “[f]rom self-love to pity and compassion,” a “trajectory” which is “immense.” Thomas Mann warned that the “attraction to the abyss of immensity and darkness, to the unorganized and immeasurable,” conceals a “longing for nothingness.” Kafka toyed with the “idea of liberation through death.” According to Virginia Woolf, art is intimate with death: “It immobilizes the vitally changeable and thereby projects an already posthumous view.” Camus may have been in love with life, but he was forever aware of encroaching death and stressed “the importance of remaining supremely conscious at the point of death.” J. M. Coetzee is “equally elusive and paradoxical” about his own beliefs in the face of death. “I have beliefs,” as one of his characters says, “but I do not believe in them.” Brombert permits his writers to speak for themselves, and if they pull back from the edge of definitiveness, so does he. He excels at summary; he is capable of following the scent of a theme throughout an entire life’s work, flashing the writer’s phrases whenever possible. Each chapter of Musings on Mortality is an education in itself.

Such a book is neither right nor wrong. Although the language breathes heavily sometimes from the academic lifting (“Kafka quickly deconstructs the fabric of his own mythotheological motifs”), this is both unusual for Brombert, who would sooner write in the straightforward tones of paraphrase, and yet also weirdly appropriate. Musings on Mortality is an invitation to learn gladly from a deeply cultured man who would gladly teach. His lesson, to use his own words about Primo Levi, is a “lesson in human dignity.” And among the dignities of man, as Victor Brombert convincingly demonstrates, is the serious discussion of serious literature, which treats it as having something worth saying to those who would only listen.