Thursday, April 29, 2010

Farewell to College Station

Earlier today, after twenty years on campus, I taught my last two classes at Texas A&M University. My emotions are mixed. Much of the bad feeling that I am left with is the inevitable residuum of having served a long stretch in a state institution. And there have been the usual disappointments that accompany any academic career, to say nothing of the special challenges faced by an eclectic humanist (who respects authors, intention, and value) in an academic discipline that prefers to read literature—all of human experience—through the prism of race, class, and gender.

But this evening I am thinking of the human relationships that will be lost. When a colleague who daily gave him the cut direct decided to leave North­western, Joseph Epstein said to me, “I shall miss not talking to him.” I too have had such colleagues, including those who will not even return a greeting when I am walking with students. Unlike Epstein, though, I never learned to enjoy the collegial chill, especially since there was no obvious reason for it besides political differences.

Although I will be escaping out from under the history of my relations with certain colleagues, I will also leave behind friends with whom I have shared many hours of intense discussion or relaxed conversation. There are a few men and women in the English department, most of whom are religious in one way or another, who seek out the expression of the past and practice what Pnin called “disinterested, devoted scholarship.” We sometimes felt ourselves under siege in College Station—a humanistic rump in an old technical college that has largely become a vocational school, where students know you by your grading standards, and pressed on the other side by the eager young colleague who is convinced that the novelties to which he subscribes will reign forever—our “bright replace­ment, present-minded,” in Nemerov’s words, who never

For the silly old scholar of the bad old days,
Who’d burn the papers and correct the leaves.
I won’t miss the hour-and-a-half drive from Houston to College Station, except in spring when Texas becomes the most beautiful place in the world, temperate and sunny, and garlanded with wildflowers. As the bluebonnets and Mexican hat begin to yield to the prickly poppies and the small white sweet-smelling blossoms of the ligustrum, spring is nearly ready to give way to summer. And Lord knows that I will not miss the Texas summers.

But what I will miss, far more than anything else, are the Aggies. They endure many jokes at their expense as if they were the Polacks of the academic world. Even Larry McMurtry, in Moving On, could not resist a crack about an Aggie and his tractor. Aggies are badly misunderstood, however. It is true they are not sophisticated, and it is true they are overwhelmingly Evangelical Christian and politically conservative, although the administration has done everything in its power to alter the makeup of the student body and bring A&M into conformity with every other unexceptionally Leftist university in the country. Aggies remain unique, proudly different.

My favorite story, to demonstrate what the Aggies are really like under their traditions of school spirit (“Gig ’em, Ags!”), concerns a student in a course on the history of criticism. He was an agriculture major, finishing off his humanities requirement with a class that fit his schedule. He wore a faded and oil-stained A&M cap to class—it was brown that once had been maroon—and always appeared with a toothpick in his mouth, as if daring you to see him otherwise than as a hick. He spoke with a drawl, of course, and one day in class I asked why Sir Philip Sidney advances two different and contradictory apologies for poetry in the Apologie for Poetry—on the one hand, that “the right describing note to know a poet by” is “that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching”; on the other hand, that the poet “nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.” (He does not affirm the virtues that he teaches?)

I asked the class how this apparent contradiction was to be reconciled. The Ag raised his hand lazily, took the tooth­pick out of his mouth, and said, “Well, he is really talking to two different audiences, who expect two different answers.” “That is exactly right,” I said; “brilliant!” And instead of pride, a look of horror spread across the Ag’s face as if suddenly the safe future he had planned for himself, as a West Texas rancher, had been called into question by the realization that he was intellectually equipped to handle old and sophisticated literary ideas. Although he never forgave me, he became the leader of class discussions from that point on.

Again and again I have had such experiences in A&M classrooms—a Cadet who refutes my lecture by citing evidence from the text that contradicts me, a student who undertakes, all on her own, without expecting to receive a grade for it, independent research into the historical background to Lolita, the NFL player who returns to school after his pro career is over, because he realizes that he was cheated out of an education while he played football for the university; or the young woman who ended my last class at A&M by asking, if an Orthodox Jew could not touch a woman who is not his wife, how she was supposed to hug me in thanks for our course together. I was more deeply moved by her respect for my religious prohibitions than by her misplaced esteem. Only an Aggie would think to say such a thing.

I will miss her, and all of them. God bless you, Ags! Gig ’em!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Return to the authors

It is perhaps appropriate to be questioning the authority of Michel Fou­cault, who famously held that, if the author is not exactly dead, at least he is a tiresome and repressive figure who should be removed from office, by force if necessary:

     We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.
     The truth is quite the contrary: the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works, he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.
The author, in short, is the enemy of freedom, where freedom is identified exclusively (and narrowly) with the “free play” of meaning. Not that the conclusion follows. If and only if limitation and exclusion are the armed enforcers of political repression does it follow that “authors” are the enemies of freedom.

But the exclusion of pork from my kitchen does not prevent its being sold to you. Indeed, you can purchase (and consume) my portion. Feel free! And the limitation of a text’s meaning to its author’s intention does not impede my creation of a different meaning. I can even do so in the author’s name, although I will be mistaken. I will be burglarizing his authority while simultaneously claiming to reject any authority of the kind.

At all events, it is appropriate this morning to question the authority of Foucault, the leading authority for the disregard of the author, because my 3,000-word life-and-works essay “In Praise of Prose”—Francine Prose, that is—has just appeared in the May issue of Commentary. This is the second such essay I have written, after having surveyed the career of Michael Chabon in the Sewanee Review a year and a half ago.

I should like to write more such essays (Stanley Elkin is next on my to-do list), but more immodestly, I should like to persuade other critics to undertake essays that offer a panoramic view of an author’s life and works.

A good book-length model of the genre is William H. Pritchard’s Updike: America’s Man of Letters (2000). In his Introduction, Pritchard explains that he has not written a literary biography. “From time to time I point to facts in the life that seem to parallel or even help to account for certain moments in the writing,” he says. But his subject is Updike’s writing. If his method is not biographical but critical, though, he has built according to biography’s structural plans. “[M]y practice,” he says, “has been to take chronology seriously by using it to tell a story of Updike’s progress from one book to the next.” The ultimate goal is to promote “the discussion of artistic value.” (Pritchard is even more immodest than I.) But what this also means is that “artistic value” is more central to his purpose than is “meaning”:I am not mainly an interpreter of literature; that is, I am less interested in telling someone else what the novel or poem means, what its “significance” is, than in suggesting what the experience of reading it is like, and how that experience is a vital one.I am not sure that I want to suggest what the experience of reading Michael Chabon or Francine Prose or Stanley Elkin is (new readers can discover that for themselves), but I know for a certainty that I am on Pritchard’s side in hoping to end the totalitarian régime of interpretation in literary study.

Criticism needs to recover from the daze of meaning and return to the more difficult and important question of value, from the isolated and naked text to the author and his lifelong work. And why? As William Maxwell said in agreeing to speak to a biographer of John O’Hara: “Good writers deserve to be remembered.” And critics are around to see that they get their deserts.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Foucault is #1

Michel Foucault was the authority most often cited in scholarship published in the humanities during the year 2007, according to Thomson Reuters’ ISI Web of Science. The French historian barely edged out his countryman Pierre Bourdieu, the radical sociologist, by fewer than a hundred citations. Jacques Derrida trailed badly in third place.

You have to drop pretty far down the list to trip over a scholarly authority who wrote longer than ten minutes ago. Max Weber finished seventh, with just over a third of the references to Foucault. At least he edged out Judith Butler, however, whose self-serving obscurity limited her to nine hundred and sixty nods. Yet Butler is now apparently more important to humanists even than Freud, who struggled to top nine hundred.

The list was not entirely devoid of original thinkers. Kant finished ahead of Heidegger, somehow, and Arendt and Wittgenstein both received slightly fewer than six hundred notices—although Edward Said, the late Egyptian Christian, got more than both of them.

Names missing from the list include Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Adam Smith, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Husserl—to name only philosophers.

The “enchanting crisscrossing of names” from France—Foucault, Bour­dieu, Derrida—suggests that humanists remain bogged down in the slough of Theory. They are engaged in a common pursuit, all right, but it is not the pursuit of truth. It is the pursuit of intellectual fashion, even if the fashion is a little worn and threadbare after four decades.

Update: The most frequently cited authors on A Common­place Blog:

(  1.) Philip Roth (164)
(  2.) God (160)
(  3.) Vladimir Nabokov (99)
(  4.) Henry James (78)
(  5.) Patrick Kurp (76)
(  6.) Francine Prose (68)
(  7.) J. V. Cunningham (66)
(  8.) John Updike (62)
(  9.) Toni Morrison (56)
(10.) Saul Bellow (53)

Until today, I managed to restrict any mention of Foucault to just fifteen occasions.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Five Books of Israel

This evening the State of Israel, the reshit tsmiḥat g’ulateynu, will cele­brate its sixty-second anniversary. Although some readers of this blog may be hostile to the very idea of a Jewish state, others might like to acquire a Penta­teuch of the best Israeli fiction.

Israeli writers are usually divided into the Dor Baarets (the Native Generation, to distinguish it from earlier Hebrew-language writers who immigrated to Palestine before Independence) and the Dor Hamedinah (the State Generation, a.k.a. the New Wave). While the first generation was nationalist in politics and realist in method, the second has been cooler and more reserved if not always post-Zionist in its political feelings and self-consciously influenced by international modernism.

Moshe Shamir’s King of Flesh and Blood (1958) is, according to the great critic Gershon Shaked, the “most solid achievement” of the first generation. It was released in London and New York in a translation by David Patterson. A historical novel set during the reign of a Hasmonean king in the second and first centuries B.C.E., Shamir’s book is an alle­gory in celebration of the War of Independence, “in which the author’s admiration for the fighters and the nation’s leaders,” Shaked says, “is projected onto the Hasmoneans.” Although I am a fervent Zionist, I confess that I have small desire to read Shamir’s book.

Although not technically a native, Aharon Megged (born in Poland in 1920 and brought to Palestine when he was five) is, to someone who knows very little of its work, the most interesting of the Native Generation’s fiction writers. His novel Foiglman (1987), published in a superb English trans­lation by Marganit Weinberger-Rotman in 2003, tells what happens to a Yiddish poet and Holocaust survivor in the new state.

Outside of Megged, my literary tastes run to the fiction of the New Wave generation, no matter how much I wince at its politics. The four pillars of the generation are A. B. Yehoshua (b. 1936), Amos Oz (b. 1939), Meir Shalev (b. 1948), and David Grossman (b. 1954).

Oz, who is regularly mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, is hampered by never having written a clear-cut masterpiece. Perhaps the best of his books to read is The Hill of Evil Counsel (1976), a medley of three linked stories set in Jerusalem during the final days of the British Mandate. The problem (and logic) of the generational divide in Israeli culture is nicely summarized by this passage from the volume’s second story:

The residents longed to leave Jerusalem and settle somewhere less extreme. . . . They believed almost without exception that the hard times would soon be over, the Hebrew state would be set up, and everything would change for the better. Surely they had completed in full their term of suffering. Meanwhile, the first children were born and grew up in the neighborhood, and it was almost impos­sible to explain to them why and from where their parents had come here, and what it was they were waiting for.In See Under: Love (1986), David Grossman develops that last sentence into a full-length account of the generational divide over the Holocaust. The novel’s first section is a brilliant reconstruction of a child’s naïve efforts to puzzle out the murder of European Jews from his parents’ half-understood references to it. In the later sections, Grossman resur­rects the tragic figure of Bruno Schultz. Perhaps the only completely success­ful postmodernist novel ever written.

A. B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani (1990) also employs postmodern technique, narrating a family chronicle from the present into the distant past, although within each section of the novel Yehoshua almost writes like a realist. Tracing the (mis)fortunes of a prominent commercial Sephardic family back to the years before emigration to the Holy Land had even begun, the novel is intended as a reinterpretation of Zionism’s entire history. You can ignore Yehoshua’s disputable conclusions, however, and focus on the terrific portraits of the people.

Finally, there is Meir Shalev’s recent novel A Pigeon and a Boy (2006), with a title derived from a poem by Bialik. In all his fiction, Shalev expresses a dry-eyed nostalgia for a less complicated, less riven Israel. Although a typical Israeli Leftist, his fiction is innocent of his political clichés. As Ruth Margalit says in an excellent Haaretz review of his latest novel, A Pigeon and a Boy is based upon the ancient Jewish longing for home, which has only been deepened by the astonishing country the Jews have established in their ancient homeland.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More, please—faster, please

A few days ago, Mark Athitakis replied to a piece on the Newsweek website, which complained that “the Library of America is running out of writers.”

The problem started, you see, when “writers who were anything but canonical began to be included—[H. P.] Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Dawn Powell.” The embarrassing phrase anything but canonical is left undefined.

Athitakis rightly laughs at the complaints, which do little more, he observes, than to consecrate a “constricted view of what makes for a canon.” But then the Library of America seems to share some such view, he says. The 2010 titles include John Marshall’s Writings, Mark Twain’s Tramp Abroad and other travel writings, two volumes of selections from Emerson’s Journals, lyrics from the American song book by Stephen Foster and others, and an anthology of Shirley Jackson’s horror fiction.

A little more impatience to include more writers would be welcome, Athitakis concludes. But that raises a question. What books should be added to the Library of America?

What about The Federalist Papers? Although some of them are scattered through volumes of Madison and Hamilton, they have yet to receive single-volume treatment, which seems a little odd. And though Jefferson has been given a volume, John Adams has not. Even more glaringly, a selection from John Quincy Adams’s Diaries does not even seem to be contemplated.

Except for Henry Adams and Francis Parkman, history is under­repre­sented. How about Bernard DeVoto’s great trilogy The Year of Decision: 1846 (1942), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952)?

Whitaker Chambers’s Witness is an obvious candidate, but probably will never overcome the political objections to its inclusion. Chambers’s criticism—always provocative, always interesting—could bulk out the book.

For that matter, why not an anthology of American literary criticism from Poe to James Wood with special attention to the debates over realism, the New Humanism, and the New Criticism?

Novelists with large untapped bodies of work, and who are likely candi­dates, are fewer and farther between, although I would make a case for Peter De Vries, Stanley Elkin, and (less passionately) for Wright Morris. But a two-volume set of New York Jewish novels, including The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), Call It Sleep, and Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), would be a terrific addition.

Update: Two-and-a-half years ago Patrick Kurp preceded me in calling for nominations to the Library of America. Interestingly, he himself nominated Liebling, Cheever, and Maxwell—all of whom have since been honored with enshrinement. He also urged the inclusion of Gaddis (my heart nearly stopped from shock) and Guy Davenport, one of his favorite writers.

Strat-O-Matic invites their customers to vote on the next historical season to be released in a deluxe version by the company. If the Library of America did the same, Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard would win in a walk!

Ideas and motives

Yesterday, over at Contentions, John Podhoretz attacked David P. Gold­man for writing this last Friday on a First Things blog:

Obama is the loyal son of a left-wing anthropologist mother who sought to expiate her white guilt by going to bed with Muslim Third World men. He is a Third World anthropologist studying us, learning our culture and our customs the better to neutralize what he considers to be a malignant American influence in world affairs.Podhoretz calls this passage “disgusting,” and he is exactly right. Those of us who oppose President Obama’s “fundamental transformation” of America must not totter into such language. Not merely because it is ad hominem. More tellingly, the distinction between “real” motives and what a man publicly professes—the unblinking confidence that “real” motives can easily be identified, even though they are nowhere expressed—has long been a staple of Left dis­course.

Even more disgusting—obscene, in truth—is the arrogant certainty with which Goldman unmasks the sexual motivations of Ann Dunham, the President’s mother, now fourteen years dead. If this is not, as Podhoretz says, “beyond the pale both intellectually, ideologically, and as a simple matter of taste,” then nothing is. The mystery of a person’s sexual life is just that—a mystery, revealed only to intimates, who are their lover’s secret counsel. There is no possible means by which anyone else can know any­thing at all about another person’s sexual experience, and to speculate about it is characteristic of the totalitarian mentality, from which nothing is permitted to be concealed.

But Podhoretz also directs fire at the second half of Goldman’s accu­sation:Casting Obama as a malign foreign influence is a particular and unforgivable intellectual madness on the Right over the past two years. There is nothing foreign about Obama’s ideas or ideology, alas, which can be understood, in my view, almost entirely from the curricula and extracurricular ideas endemic in the American university in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was in col­lege.This too is on target. Obama’s, um, ambivalence toward Israel comes as little surprise, for example, to anyone who is familiar with the fact that he studied at Columbia under Edward Said.

All I would add to Podhoretz’s point is that the “ideas or ideology . . . endemic in the American university in the late 1970s and early 1980s” did not start there and then. Leftist ideas have enjoyed a long and charmed life in America. As early as 1887, after four anarchist leaders were executed for causing the Haymarket riot (and one killed himself the night before), the fifty-year-old William Dean Howells, champion of literary realism in America, wrote: “[T]his free Republic has killed five men for their opinions.” As a consequence, the judgment upon America for “every unjust and evil deed” committed on these shores now “goes on forever,” he said.

That judgment has been installed in the American university curricula for some time. At all events, it is wiser and more instructive, I think, to locate a man’s political sins in the intellectual tradition that he has uncritically embraced. The conservative movement stands for the propo­sition that ideas, not fetid and hidden motives, are the real reality of human expe­rience.

Monday, April 12, 2010

12-day-late April Fool’s joke

The Pulitzer Prize in fiction has been awarded, if that is the right word, to Paul Harding’s Tinkers (“a powerful celebration of life,” intones the prize citation, “in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality”). Harding was trained, you will not be surprised to learn, in the deathless art of creative writing at the University of Iowa.

The novel, which was not even mentioned as a possible winner, consists largely of meandering “meditations” like this one, in the voice of a man lying on his deathbed (quoted from Michele Filgate’s review at the Quarterly Conversation):

I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all of the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else’s frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrange­ment of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great grandchildren nothing they ever know about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped and colored me until back to Adam, until back to when ribs were blown from molten sand into the glass bits that took up the light of this word because they were made of this world . . .Stop me before I disappear into Harding’s navel! It’s official. The novel as a means of saying something public and important (and worth reading) about the human experience is now dead.

Update: I have been asked whether I have read Tinkers. The short answer is that Harding’s novel frustrated my efforts to read it. The prose never gets out of first gear. The device of alternating between narrators does not make up for the lack of a plot. Each section of the novel is a monologue, and exhibits the rambling structure of a monologue. Nor is the defense of the method convincing. Harding seeks to imitate the movement of memory, but as Yvor Winters pointed out many years ago, a writer cannot explore a mental state by being sucked into it, because understanding requires separation: to think otherwise is to fall into what Winters called the fallacy of imitative form.

After a page or two of Harding’s prose, my mind would respond to its summons and wander off on its own accord. And when I set the novel aside, I experienced a strong inner check against picking it up again. I finally gave up, and abandoned it about halfway through.

Update, II: Another good question: If not Tinkers, then what novel ought to have won the Pulitzer Prize? Last year was not, it’s true, a good year for fiction in America. But one novel stood out.

Holocaust memory

Yesterday was Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day. On the Jewish calendar it falls between Passover—which despite President Obama’s confusion, is not a generalized reminder of “our ongoing responsibility to fight against all forms of suffering and discrimination,” but a celebration of the Jews’ specific freedom—and Yom Haatsmaut, Israeli independence day. The Holocaust fell between liberation from slavery and political self-determination.

It was the greatest catastrophe of Jewish exile. Hence its name. The Holocaust was not merely der driter khurbn, as some Yiddish speakers called it—the third destruction, following the twice-repeated destruction of the Temple—but a destruction that redefined the meaning of destruction for all time.

What is little appreciated is that the Holocaust represents, not merely (in Lucy Dawido­wicz’s phrase) the war against the Jews, but also a culture war, a bat­tle for memory.

What is now called the Holocaust is the Ger­man campaign to exterminate European Jewry, but told from the perspective of its victims. There is a funda­mental distinction between the Holo­caust and the Final Solution. Much confusion has been caused by treating them as if they were identical. Die End­lösung der Juden­frage (“the Final Solu­tion of the Jewish Ques­tion”) was the National Socialists’ euphemism for their campaign of extermination. The Holo­caust is not the name for German state-sponsored mass murder, but for the victims’ response to it.[1] Whenever the name of the Holo­caust is spoken, it is the Jewish reaction—not the German action—that is inevitably meant.

The National Socialists pursued an official policy of silence and dissembling about their extermination campaign.[2] As Hannah Arendt would later say, they sought to estab­lish “holes of obli­vion,” working feverishly and from the very beginning “to erase all traces of the mas­sacres—through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing mach­inery. . . .”[3] When they were obliged to admit it, they resorted to abstractions that were designed to conceal the truth, speaking of Umsiedlung (“resettlement”) rather than expulsion, das Jüdisches Wohnviertel (“the Jewish quarter”) rather than the ghetto, Sonder­behand­lung (“spe­cial treatment”) rather than mass murder. As they abandoned the extermination camps in 1945 before the Allied armies’ advance, they dynamited gas chambers and crema­toria and burned documents, seek­ing des­perately to leave no record of their crime.[4]

The Jews sought just as des­perately to create a record; to institute a different and more revelatory language; to dig out the holes of obli­vion. Between Ger­mans and Jews there was, in short, another struggle, distinct from mass murder and survival—a struggle over memory. The German Nazis wanted the world to know nothing of what they had done; the Jews wanted not merely to inform the world, but to horrify it with the information. The Holocaust became known to the world, and installed as the universal symbol of absolute evil, as a result of the massive and widespread effort on the part of Jews to communicate the enormity, the unprecedented and era-defining character, of the German crime.

Within two decades of the war’s end, the Jews had prevailed in the struggle for memory. History according to the victims took the place of history according to the perpetra­tors; the Jewish name (“Holocaust”) eclipsed the German (“Final Solution”). Even after they had come to learn about National Socialist intentions and the bureaucratic functioning of der SS-Staat, Jewish scholars and writers recognized and depended heavily upon the distinction between National Socialist policy and Jewish response. The Holocaust was their name for the latter—history from the victims’ point of view—especially the continuing response of survivors. In 1957, twelve years after the lib­era­tion of Ausch­­witz, the Israeli his­torian Ben Zion Dinur wrote:

The Germans . . . were committed to the total destruction of the Jewish people, the extermination of communities and synagogues, of Yeshivot [rabbinical aca­demies] and schools, of books and writings. And despite the desire of Jews to leave a record for future generations of the horrors they had experienced, of their struggle to preserve the image of God even while in the European purga­tory, of their active and passive resistance to German persecution, their faith and their des­pair, their operations together with the fighters in the forests and the partisan bands, the organization of the underground, the few acts of char­ity on the part of Gentiles in their terrible distress—of all this we have virtually no documen­tary material at all. Indeed often one is left with the impression that one must rely entirely on the evidence of the criminals them­selves. This suf­fices to under­line the significance of the personal evidence of survivors of the Euro­pean holocaust.[5]Dinur and the institution he conceived and directed after the war—Yad Vashem, Israel’s national museum in Jerusalem—were almost solely responsible for esta­blish­ing Holocaust as the official name for the historical event.[6] Starting with the third volume in 1959, “the Holocaust period” became the standard expression for referring to the era in the English-language Yad Vashem Stud­ies, the museum’s annual publication of scholarly research.[7]

Dinur’s words were reprinted from the Studies’ first volume to standardize the expres­sion. And rightly so. For they are a classic account of what the Holocaust signifies to Jewish students of the era, and of how the Holocaust differs from the Final Solution. The Jews were unwil­ling to allow the “criminals themselves” to write the history of Euro­pean Jewry’s destruc­tion. The “European holo­caust” is the name that belongs more prop­erly to the Jewish counter-his­tory—the collective effort to supply “documentary material,” the “evi­dence of survi­vors,” the testimony of Nazism’s victims. The victims and survi­vors who told their stories hoped to bear witness. They wanted to narrate the “horrors” from within. They were prompted by the “desire to leave a record for future generations. . . .” Their ambi­tions, in a word, were literary.

As much as anything, Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day is a day on which the Jews—and, to the extent that they recognize it, the rest of the world—acknowledge their debt to Holocaust literatures.

[1] It might be suggested that “Holocaust” and “Final Solution” are co-referential names. On some such scheme, “Holocaust” might then be considered the event’s neutral name, its rigid desig­na­tor, while “Final Solution” would be a restricted name, to which a predicate may attribute a property only under certain conditions (see Thomas Ede Zimmerman, “What’s in Two Names?” Journal of Semantics 22 [2005]: 53–96). On the contrary, I am suggesting that both “Holocaust” and “Final Solution” are neutral (i.e. official) names, designating two distinct and rival interpretations of history. Switch­ing from one name to the other involves an implicit reinterpretation. “Holocaust” and “Shoah” more closely approximate co-referential names.

[2] See Walter Laqueur, “The Wall of Silence,” in The Terrible Secret (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), pp. 17–40; and Gerald Fleming, “The Art of Dissembling,” in Hitler and the Final Solution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 17–31.

[3] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, rev.ed. (New York: Penguin, 1994), p. 232. Originally published in 1964.

[4] The SS displayed a special urgency to burn documents. According to Lani Yahil, “During its final days, Auschwitz looked like one huge bonfire; throughout the camp’s passages between the huts files and documents were set ablaze, and the wind spread the crackling and smold­ering debris around the camp. Consigned to the flames were all the files in the infirmary and the secretariat as awell as the card file of Soviet POWs. . . . The burning of documents did not stop until the night before January 18 [1945] as the Russians neared the camp” (The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932–1945, trans. Ina Fried­man and Haya Galai [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990], p. 528).

[5] Ben Zion Dinur, “Problems Confronting ‘Yad Washem’ in its Work of Research,” in Yad Washem Studies 1, ed. Ben Zion Dinur and Shaul Esh (Jerusalem: 1957), p. 18.

[6] Dinur, educa­tion minister in David Ben-Gurion’s first Israeli government, drafted the charter of the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority and introduced the law founding it in the Knesset on May 12, 1953. He served as its director from 1956 to 1959.

[7] “The Role of Interviewing in the Research of the Holocaust Period—Three Papers,” in Yad Washem Studies 3, ed. Shaul Esh (Jerusalem, 1959), pp. 77–140.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The exact day

Last year I offered a “small contribution to the correction of literary history.” I pointed out that the “good fight” which opens the ninth chapter of The Sun Also Rises—the bantamweight fight between Charles Ledoux and Francesco Buonagurio, who boxed under the name Kid Francis—did not take place on “the night of the 20th of June,” as Hemingway wrote, but eleven days earlier on June 9th. (Francis won a twelve-round decision at the Cirque de Paris. The bout was memorable as the last of Ledoux’s sixteen-year career.)

The next morning Jake Barnes writes Robert Cohn to say that he and Bill Gorton will leave for Pamplona on the 25th. When he meets Brett Ashley and her fiancé Mike Campbell, he asks if they are coming. “The 25th,” Mike says. “When is that?” “Saturday,” Jake replies.

The trouble is that, in 1925, June 25th was a Thursday. The last time June 25th had been a Saturday was in 1921. But Hemingway was not yet in Paris on June 25, 1921. He did not leave the United States, with his new bride Hadley Richardson in tow, until November of that year. In June he was still living in Chicago. Moreover, Kid Francis did not debut as a professional boxer until 1923. In 1921 the Italian Jew, who would be murdered in Auschwitz eighteen years later, was just thirteen.

If the fight had actually been held on June 9th, however, and if Jake leaves for Pamplona with Bill five days later, then their departure would have occurred on June 14th—a Sunday. Not quite the novel’s time frame, but closer than the calendar that Hemingway muddles between the covers of his book.

“Who on earth wants to know the exact day?” cries Varvara Bolotov, a character in Pnin. She probably speaks for most readers. Her husband, announcing that he is reading Anna Karenin for the seventh time, says he has only now noticed that Tolstoy “does not know what day his novel starts.”

Pnin corrects him. “I can tell you the exact day,” he says:

The action of the novel starts in the beginning of 1872, namely on Friday, February the twenty-third by the New Style. In the morning paper Oblonski reads that Beust is rumored to have proceeded to Wiesbaden. This is of course Count Friedrich Ferdinand von Beust, who had just been appointed Austrian Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. After presenting his credentials, Beust had gone to the continent for a rather protracted Christmas vacation—had spent there two months with his family, and was now returning to London, where, according to his own memoirs in two volumes, preparations were under way for the thanksgiving service to be held in St. Paul’s on February the twenty-seventh for the recovering from typhoid fever of the Prince of Wales.A delightfully preposterous explosion of Pninian pedantry? In plain fact, the discovery of the exact day on which Anna Karenin begins was Nabokov’s own. He makes a gift of it to Pnin—in part because he had nowhere else to dispose of it, but also because he shares Pnin’s scrupulosity with literary fact.

I don’t mean only the objective care with fact to which his students at Cornell (the Waindell of the novel) were treated, and which readers of Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature can still enjoy:The main action is supposed to take place in the 1830s and 1840s, under King Louis Phillippe (1830–1848). Chapter 1 begins in the winter of 1827, and in a kind of afterword the lives of some of the characters are followed up till 1856 into the reign of Napolean III and indeed up to the date of Flaubert’s completing the book. Madame Bovary was begun at Croisset, near Rouen, on the nineteenth of September 1851, finished in April 1856, sent out in June, and published serially at the end of the same year in the Revue de Paris.In their rush to interpretation, most literary critics these days would overlook such niceties. Of course, much of the background work to literary classics has already been performed by scholars greater than they. Most readers, too, are on Madame Bolotov’s side, if not the critics’. Who on earth, they might protest, needs to know this stuff?

But Nabokov believed it was indispensable—not merely to scholarship and criticism, but to fiction itself. Now, this may sound the note of heresy, because as a novelist, Nabokov’s scorn for realism and didacticism is notorious. “For me,” he wrote just over a year after completing Pnin, “a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” And what does aesthetic bliss have to do with exact days? Fiction transports a reader “somehow, somewhere,” and what difference where or when?

And yet, in his fiction, Nabokov takes excruciating pains to specify exactly where or when. Pnin is fifty-two when the novel bearing his name opens. The time is the Fall Semester of 1950. Pnin is traveling “to deliver a Friday-evening lecture at Cremona—some two hundred versts west of Waindell, Pnin’s academic perch since 1945. . . .” The exactitude is maintained throughout the novel. Dates are specified throughout. Places are demarcated precisely in relation to other places. History intrudes (“the course of recent Russian history, thirty-five years of hopeless injustice following a century of struggling justice and glimmering hope”), and is not fictionalized, but rather absorbed into the fictional world.

Indeed, despite the search for Pnin’s “real life” original—one scholar has published an entire book on Marc Szeftel, a Russian professor who taught at Cornell along with Nabokov, and is assumed by many to be Pnin’s original—I am increasingly convinced that der zerstreute Professor with the barrel frame and spindly legs, the “firm-principled exile” with his tears of homesickness and love for America (“my new country, wonderful America which sometimes surprises me but always provokes respect”), the “human surd” with his private sorrows and struggles with English, is a self-portrait under a different man’s identity. The line dividing the campus “joke” from the “prominent Anglo-Russian writer” was perhaps more visible to outsiders than to Nabokov himself.

Obscure pedant and great novelist are conjoined by a passion to know the exact day, and what ultimately separates them may be of lesser moment. Literature thrives on exactitude and abhors approximation.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Passover is over

Apologies to everyone who commented during the last two days of the festival, which are days of rest among the Orthodox. At least I was able to finish a lot of reading, some of which I hope to review here on this Commonplace Blog over the next several days. The baseball season opened while I was incommunicado, and the college basketball season ended in disappointment for this Indiana native, born less than an hour from Butler University.

If nothing else, though, that gives me an excuse to recommend John R. Tunis’s Yea! Wildcats! (1944). It is a boy’s book; it is about Indiana high-school basketball, and was published a decade before Milan High, with an enrollment of only 161, won the state title, an incredible story later fictionalized and filmed as Hoosiers; and the book’s racial theme will seem gently quaint. With all those warnings, it may still be the best basketball novel ever written. Are there any others worth mentioning?

As for Passover in fiction. The less said the better.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The cultural Left, the paper Left

Although I have long held that professors in the humanities and social sciences are overwhelmingly Leftist because utopian visions mirror their idealized image of themselves, Jeff Goldstein of Protein Wisdom complicates things with a brilliant argument, which demands further reflection.

Goldstein points out that, in the modern academy, politics is identified with the politics of the modern Left. Since politics is conceived as a “system in which the State is guarantor of rights and ‘justice,’ ” and since the Right is anti-statist (vide Nabokov’s dystopian novel Bend Sinister, for example), the Right is therefore “outside politics.” “Being on the ‘right,’ ” Goldstein elaborates, “is not considered being ‘political’ at all—except in the pragmatic sense that those on the right somehow, maddeningly, are still allowed to vote, and so upset the inexorable path of ‘cultural evolution’ toward a progressive singularity.”

By the logic of the contemporary university, then, to be on the Left is to be political, Goldstein concludes, “and being political carries with it the heady suggestion of being a serious thinker” (his italics). Since “right wing” or “far right” views are not the product of serious thought—since, as Lionel Trilling famously said in the Preface to The Liberal Imagination, they are not ideas but “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas”—they must be the product of something else, something base: racism, nativism, homophobia, xenophobia, what have you.

So far, so good. But what about non-university intellectuals and cultural types who are beyond the university’s logic? I have suggested before now that they belong to the “throng of fashion,” which is currently Leftist. And one of Goldstein’s commentators seems to confirm my suspicions. “Where are the conservative professors, filmmakers, comics, scientists, actors, artists?” she giggled. “[T]hey don’t exist.”

But I have another idea. In his cover story in the April 12th Weekly Standard, Yuval Levin says that Left and Right agree on the fundamental problem with health care in America: costs are rising too quickly, leaving many unable to afford health insurance. “The disagreement about just how to fix that problem has tended to break down along a familiar dispute between left and right,” Levin says: “whether economic efficiency is best achieved by the rational control of expert management or by the lawful chaos of open competition.”

Nothing perhaps divides Left and Right more exactly. The Left prefers coherent and comprehensive systems that can be worked out ahead of time in careful detail and then written down in black and white; the Right prefers the messy and ear-splitting reality of individual human choices, operating at cross purposes with one another, creating more human opportunity. Once upon a time novelists plunged into the human reality, but ever since literature has retreated into creative writing, our literary intellectuals have resembled professors. They too prefer theory, the elegance of an abstract design, the perfectly intact self-referential system, the paper whole. They drift to the Left, because that is the side of rational control, which is precisely what they seek to apply to their art. Their cultural desires mirror the Left’s political ambitions.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Brophy on experiment

Brigid Brophy (1929–1995) is nearly forgotten today, except by those who wish to claim her for a special-interest subliterature that it would have sickened her to be confined to. The author of seven novels written in what Peter Stothard calls a “sparkling and perfumed prose,” she was better known during her lifetime for her dashing and learned nonfiction books, especially Black Ship to Hell (1962), a wide-ranging study of human self-destructiveness. She also wrote revolutionary reassessments of Mozart the Dramatist (1964) and Aubrey Beardsley (1969), but it is her almost 600-page critical biography of Ronald Firbank, published in 1973, that I cherish most.

Brophy entitled the book Prancing Novelist to play upon the “outrageous title” of Firbank’s 1925 novel Prancing Nigger, a title suggested by Carl Van Vechten, an American admirer. “And, yes,” Brophy acknowledges, “nigger is marked in dictionaries as a term usually contemptuous. But the catchphrase Van Vechten picked from the novel is an efflorescence of the patois, the almost a language of its own, which Firbank so marvellously invents for his Negro world; and the catchphrase is spoken by wife to husband, Negro to Negro.” It is a good question whether she is using the word novelist as she claims that Firbank is using the “term usually contemptuous.”

I first read Brophy’s book, with its delightful subtitle A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank, before I had opened any of Firbank’s own books. Once I did, though, I could not bring myself to like them very much, no matter how hard I tried. Cyril Connolly lumped Firbank among the “happy entertainers,” a camp that also included Noël Coward. But though Brophy assigned this judgment to “the slide of literary fashion,” and insisted that Firbank was “not ephemeral,” I found that I could agree with neither.

Brophy’s account of Firbank, by contrast, is both entertaining and important. It deserves to be more widely read by “great novel-readers,” in her phrase. According to Brophy, the special problem that Firbank set himself was to find some other means than narrative to organize a novel. She herself is dismissive toward the narrative habit:

[A]s a rule the more a novel depends on its narrative thread to attract the reader through the book, the more openly it represents a wish, the more it invites the reader to invest his own wishes in the limited expectancy of limited surprises—the more, in short, it resembles a daydream, the less is the reader prepared to treat it as he treats his own daydreams and the smaller tolerance he shews of going through it again.As opposed to the reader’s, “the novelist’s strongest wish,” she says authoritatively, “is to complete the design according to his ideal conception of it”—what I have described as keeping faith with the particular and self-determined rules of his own particular novel. Firbank, that is, sought to organize a novel via “the logic of the design rather than the logic of narrative and characterisation.”

So far a more coherent and valuable definition of “experimental” fiction than any I have seen. And, indeed, Firbank himself used word—or at least adapted it to what he was trying to do, Brophy says. But she strongly dislikes the label, even though her own novels were indolently characterized as “experimental” by half-asleep critics. The catchphrase, she warns, is “often a false attempt to give an art the kudos of a science.” She goes on:The catchphrase implied that the result of a successful experiment would be not just the artistic success of the individual work of art concerned but, as it is in science, the formulation of a general rule, by knowing which other artists in the -ism group, and indeed art in general, would progress in the sense that science progresses.The term is little more, in other words, than a banner under which certain writers are grouped approvingly. But even worse, its use is a betrayal, not merely of the “individual work of art,” which can never be reduced to a “general rule,” but of art as such.

In short, art does not “progress in the sense that science progresses.” To assume that it does—to treat the history of an art as a Whiggish history of its forward movement, which requires always an avant garde—is to blunder into the fallacy that Brophy, herself an art collector and married for four decades to the art historian Sir Michael Levey, onetime director of the National Gallery in London, attributed to Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth-century author of Lives of the Painters:Vasari, with his vision (itself a false perspective) of the history of painting as a progress towards the Renaissance mastery of naturalistic representation, and with his almost ritual anecdotes of how this or that painter’s goodness was proved when some animal, child or peasant unsophisticatedly mistook the painter’s depiction for the actual object depicted, made it seem as if goodness in painting was the same thing as success in representationalism.The champions of experimentalism commit the same error. The success of being described by them as “experimental” or “advanced” is treated as identical with greatness in writing.

It isn’t: it is merely a succès d’estime, which is not to be confused with a literary or artistic success. Nor was “progress” Firbank’s own measure of success. Experimentalism is the wrong word for his efforts to find a different method for organizing a novel, because he sought to pioneer the novel backwards. His “earliest stylistic pioneering was into the past,” Brophy explains. “To submit yourself to an idiom unfamiliar through disuse is as pioneering an act as to submit yourself to one unfamiliar because it has never been used before.”

The term experimental writer must be given its unconditional release. A good novelist, whose writing is alive, seeks to pioneer an idiom—a style, a method of organization—by which he is able to complete his novel’s design according to his ideal conception of it. But this is no more than to say that he must devise a style and a method that is perfectly suited to his unique and particular conception. And if he is any good, he must do this whether the critics congratulate him for being “advanced” or sneer at him for being “traditional.” To call him a stylistic pioneer is simply to say that he is a good and artistically successful novelist, and like no one else.