Sunday, October 09, 2011

Jewish sin and repentance

Another Yom Kippur, another difficult fast. It never seems to get any easier. Toward the end of Avinu Malkenu yesterday, during the Neilah service with just minutes to go in the day, I had one of those brief fugitive experiences of transcendence, a chest-shuddering certainty of God’s presence, which justifies the fast. Maybe I was only dizzy.

Or maybe I was distracted most of the day and only cleared my head toward the end. Just a couple of hours before Kol Nidre on Friday afternoon I read a memoir-essay by Neal Pollack, the comical author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. Its title, “Yom Kippur for Shul-Haters,” caught my eye precisely because the essay was not written for me. I feel at home in shul. A skeptic’s view is always good, though, for concentrating the mind.

Pollack is remarkably open about his dislike for the holiest day on the Jewish calendar:

. . . I simply don’t buy what the holiday has, theologically, to offer. It’s hard to atone for your sins when you don’t believe in the concept of sin, and particularly not in the concept of sin when bundled into a mass confessional before a basically uncaring judge who decides, one day a year, whether or not you’re going to live or die. Perhaps, in a certain cultural context, that made sense once upon a time, but it doesn’t now, at least not to me.And what makes sense to him is really all that matters. As I tweeted in annoyance, Judaism is great when it agrees with him. When it doesn’t, well, you don’t really expect him to dump his personal preferences, do you?

Since Pollack was the one to bring up theology, however, it might do some good to clarify his own. In a word, his theology is confessional. Or, to be less coy about it, his thinking is not Jewish at all, but Christian. It is the Christian who demands prior belief as a condition of performing religious acts. For the Jew, things are rather different. As Arthur A. Cohen explains, “All Jewish beliefs interpret and elaborate the mystery of acts themselves, determining finally that many, even those regarded as critical, derive their justification from no rationalization, no human logic, but merely because they are the will and ordinance of God.”

For the Jew, in other words, the act is prior, and belief trails along afterwards, picking up wrappers and butts of meaning, which usually turn out to be worthless—every Jewish authority interprets the act differently—eventually concluding that it is done because Jews do it. The truth is that Jewish ritual is the enactment, the physical embodiment, of Jewish belief. You don’t have to believe in its educational benefits to read to your children; nor abandon the practice when you learn that it has none. You read to your children to create and deepen a relationship with them.

No real surprise that Pollack’s religious instincts are Christian rather than Jewish. He is a secular Jew who takes his cues from American culture rather than Jewish tradition, although he tries hard to raise a laugh about his own Jewish ignorance:It wouldn’t be fair to call me a non-observant Jew. I lead my extended family’s first-night Passover seder every year. When we light Hanukkah candles, I force my [son] to sing Maoz Tzur. I belong to Jewish cultural organizations and mailing lists and know the meaning of the phrase tikkun olam. Certain scenes in Barry Levinson’s Avalon bring me to tears. But when it comes to the High Holidays, and, in particular, Yom Kippur, I’m about as Jewish as the guy behind the counter at my neighborhood bodega.For those who don’t know, tikkun olam is a favorite phrase among Jewish social activists who hold Judaism in high esteem when it seems to vindicate their activism; less so when it doesn’t. As Hillel Halkin wrote in COMMENTARY in the definitive essay on the phrase:They represent the ultimate in that self-indulgent approach, so common in non-Orthodox Jewish circles in the United States today, that treats Jewish tradition not as a body of teachings to be learned from but as one needing to be taught what it is about by those who know better than it does what it should be about.Add Neal Pollack to their numbers. But what about the Jewish concept of sin? Is Pollack right not to buy into it? On Yom Kippur, Jewish confession is collective—he is right about that—but the reason it is collective is that the sin being confessed on Yom Kippur is collective. Pollack may be laboring under the dominion of the image of the Roman Catholic confessional. The Jewish concept of sin is much closer to the classical belief in the pollution of entire city, brought about by unspeakable crime, which Sophocles draws upon in Oedipus the King. Thus Creon reports the word of Phoebus to Thebes:An unclean thing there is, hid in our land,
Eating the soil thereof: this ye shall cast
Out, and not foster till all help be past. (vv. 110–12)
And the katharsis of classical tragedy is similar to the atonement of Yom Kippur. Moderns sentimentalize katharsis into a satisfying moral belch, a relief from the mild dyspepsia of fear and pity. The ancients conceived it as a cleansing purgation of the defilement that affected the whole society.

So too the Jews. At Sinai, God promised the children of Israel that they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—but if and only if they listened to his voice and guarded his covenant (Exod 19.5–6). God’s promise is conditional; Israel’s collective behavior during the rest of the year calls the if-clause into question; and Yom Kippur restores it.

When I worked out the logic of the day to my satisfaction and got his yuck-yuck prose out of my head at last, I was able to pray, and join in the atonement. Someday perhaps Neal Pollack will do the same. Next year in Jerusalem!

Friday, September 23, 2011

The regional basis of a hard heart

Last night, during the Republican presidential debate in Orlando, Florida, Governor Rick Perry defended his state’s decision to admit the children of illegal immigrants into Texas universities at in-state tuition rates. “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought there through no fault of their own,” Perry concluded, “I don’t think you have a heart.”

Perry’s words have been roundly booed by the right, and even my colleagues at Commentary, who are likely to agree with Perry on the substance, winced at the comment (here and here and here).

What has gone little remarked is that the Texas House adopted the original state law (HB 1403) in 2001 by a vote of 130 to 2, while the state Senate voted 27 to 3 in favor. How can it be that a law which won overwhelming approval from a Republican-dominated legislature has come to be almost unanimously rejected by the national party just ten years later?

If you grow up in California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas, you don’t grow up thinking of your Mexican-American friends and classmates as illegal immigrants or children of illegals. The cultures of the border states are shot through with Hispanic influences. Larry McMurtry says somewhere that the most interesting cities in America are those that are the most thoroughly Hispanicized. You are at home with the influences, because you are home in California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas.

Thus Governor Perry struck a chord with many of us when, in the first presidential debate, he spoke of “Anglos” instead of “whites.” Northern conservatives were disgusted, but I’ve always preferred the spicy ethnic term. “White” erases differences—between Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, for example—while “Anglo” acknowledges the most significant difference in the southwestern states. The counterbalancing term is chicano. Together they identify the inhabitants by their history.

My guess is that Bostonians would consider anyone heartless who wished to stigmatize their Irish classmates, and those who grew up in Buffalo would probably feel the same about their Polish friends. Heartlessness is a regional phenomenon; no one can accept without protest that the people he grew up with are somehow alien. Those from outside the region who speak of them like that—they are the ones whose voice and phrasing sound so strange.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Men and friendship

This morning I heard from a longtime friend who, like me, has recently moved from Houston to another city. “Big community here and easy to get lost,” he wrote. “The wife and kids seem to have plugged in socially, but I’m having a hard time getting excited about meeting folks.”

Me too. Is it a male thing? Or a middle-aged thing? Or both at once? My buddies are scattered around the country—Iowa, Houston, New York, Boston, D.C.—and I am apparently in no hurry to add to their number. On Sunday afternoons I watch the Texans on satellite TV with chile con queso and a beer as my only company. I’m not lonely, but I worry that maybe I should be.

At a certain point, men no longer go out of their way to cultivate friendships. For twenty years, when I arrived in College Station, I would find my heart rising to see Bedford Clark in the office across the hall. We would close the door and trade witticisms and outrages. Now at Ohio State, I have no colleagues—I don’t belong to a department—and it feels strange not even to get the looks of hostility I used to get from leftist English professors. (No one at Ohio State knows that I am a spy from the other side.) But I can’t say that I miss having colleagues. I miss Bedford.

I think men, as they age, come to value the history that they share with their friends—their friendships are repositories of memory—more than they value “shared interests” or whatever else it is that draws younger persons together. Not that men don’t look for excitement. Just not in new friendships. And many men, even when tempted by the excitement of new sexual experience, withdraw into familiarity. The prospect of developing a new history with a new wife, and uprooting and plowing under the old history, is horribly unattractive—no matter how good-looking the new woman might be.

Men aren’t lazy about friendship. They are committed to habit. Come to think of it, this also explains why male friends can go months without talking to each other, and yet neither one will feel as if the friendship has lapsed or even diminished.

Friday, August 12, 2011


It’s the question that everyone has an answer to. What is the most overrated book of all time? The three titles most often cited are Ulysses, The Catcher in the Rye, and the Bible.

That was the case two years ago, when readers of A Commonplace Blog named their least favorites. And it was the case again yesterday, when fourteen writers and editors told Slate the books they didn’t really like. Elif Batuman and Daniel Mendelson both admitted to Ulysses, while Tom Perrotta and Jonathan Rosen came up with The Catcher in the Rye. Matt Weiland, a senior editor at Ecco, tried to be funny by offering the book of Genesis (“its style is so sloppy and varied it seems almost to have been written by committee”). Get it? Critical scholarship has changed our estimation of the Bible for all time! Ha ha.

The only real surprise was Francine Prose’s choice. (Prose continually surprises. That’s one mark of a writer worth following.) Beowulf was her choice. “I felt nothing when Beowulf was killed,” she said. “Mostly, I was grateful that the poem was almost over.” Far more interesting was why she was reading the Old English poem in the first place: for a course on representations of evil. Now there’s a reading list I’d like to have.

On Twitter afterwards, I added to the confusion by challenging friends and other writers to name their most overrated novel. John Podhoretz suggested A Farewell to Arms; Max Boot, The Naked and the Dead; Rachel Abrams, Everything Is Illuminated; David Harsanyi, Infinite Jest; Sam Schulman, The Death of Virgil (a book I suspect Schulman of having invented). More than one person offered One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children (“we already said One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Schulman complained). My own choice is well-documented.

But what’s the goal of the game? I believe in pricking overinflated reputations as much as the next critic, but too often the game can edge over into mockery and envy. The goal should be to encourage readers to put down bad books and pick up better ones—books that succeed where the overrated books fail. John Podhoretz recommended Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy Put Out More Flags (1942), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961) instead of Mailer’s Naked and the Dead. Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) is a better choice than One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In the end, though, what matters is the quarreling and the debate—the partisanship for some books and against others. Down with reading circles, book clubs, and bubbling uncritical enthusiasm for the latest reads!

The tyranny of suspense

A couple of days ago Jonah Lehrer had a provocative squib in the Frontal Cortex, one of Wired’s science blogs. Lehrer reported the outcome of a study by two researchers at UC San Diego, who studied the effect of “spoilers” and concluded that “almost every single story, regardless of genre, was more pleasurable when prefaced with a spoiler.” Lehrer’s title summed up the results: “Spoilers don’t spoil anything.”

Lehrer goes on interestingly to speculate about the significance of the findings, but he misses the obvious. Namely: the research exposes the phoniness of suspense stories. Literature is not a game of suspense. We don’t read to find out what happened, but how—and how it could have ended differently.

In far too much bad fiction, suspense has replaced drama as the motive force of storytelling. There is, in fact, an entire subgenre of fiction dedicated to the ignorant error—“thrillers.” Suspense, however, is the sworn enemy of good fiction.

To create suspense is to induce anxiety—that is, to cause distress. And naturally, then, the craving is for relief. You read as quickly as possible to discover what happens, to allay your uneasiness, to release the tightness in your chest. The outcome is not a literary experience—literature is the freedom to dream up other possibilities—but the unpleasant feeling of being manipulated. Anxiety has a “coercive character,” Karen Horney says. So does suspense.

Why then the widespread lust for thrillers and the obsession (as Lehrer puts it) with avoiding spoilers? My guess is this. Suspense has filled the vacuum left by the abandonment of tragedy in modern literature. Lehrer points out that, “for thousands of years,” the stories that were widely told and widely enjoyed were “incredibly predictable, from the Greek tragedy to the Shakespearean wedding to the Hollywood happy ending.” (That’s quite a jump, from Shakespeare to Hollywood, passing over the novel without a word, but Lehrer’s subject is science, not literary history.) The latest research confirms the preferences of those thousand years, Lehrer says: “We like it best when the suspense is contained by the formulaic, when we never have to really worry about the death of the protagonist or the lovers in a romantic comedy.”

While he’s right about the worry—for reasons I’ve suggested—Lehrer is wrong about the containment. In fact, it’s just the opposite. (He’s also wrong about comedy, which still performs its traditional function.) What we like best is that things might turn out differently; Oedipus might not murder his father and marry his mother, or might not recognize that he has done so; Lear might not mistake a loving daughter for a hateful one. We are afraid for them—afraid that nothing can be done to avert their terrible tragedies—and we pity them when the worst befalls them. Lehrer is right that we usually know in advance what will happen. But how it happens—the accidental errors, the blown opportunities for repair, the avoidable recognitions—plays upon our emotions. The scuffle between inevitability and possibility, between containment and spillage, is the source of what used to be called the “tragic pleasure.”

(Romantic comedy operates on the same principle. As Lehrer says, the lovers’ coming together is “incredibly predictable.” The fun lies in the obstacles that hilariously delay the inevitable.)

By contrast, the resolution of a thriller is usually both pat and far-fetched. I don’t think I’ve ever read (or watched) a suspense story without feeling let down at the end. The difference lies in the emotions. Fear and pity are compliments to human freedom, to the possibility of change and variation in human stories; suspense and anxiety are the taxes paid by an impoverished culture of reading to the literary tyrant that occupies the throne once held by tragedy.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The end of the beginning

Several people have written—friends, readers, the morbidly curious—to ask when I am coming back, if A Commonplace Blog will resume normal operations, whether there is anything wrong.

The truth is that my twin sons and I returned from our five-thousand-mile cross-country trip several days ago. Until now I have written nothing about the trip, not so much because I am no kind of travel writer (although I am not), but because the inhuman beauty of the American Southwest reduced me to silence. According to the National Park Service, the Paiute Indians told the story that the weirdly shaped “hoodoos” in Bryce Canyon were formed when the Legend People, who were not people but huge animals that looked like people, were turned to stone. But no matter how much I squinted, I could not see what the Paiutes saw. The landscape stretching from the Mojave Desert, which the boys and I crossed on the old U.S. 66, north through the Grand Canyon and up past Capitol Reef National Park, seemed the perfect setting for a science-fiction movie on another planet. At a viewpoint overlooking Bryce Canyon, eighty-three hundred feet above sea level, a Dane pointed to the town in the distance and asked if I knew its name. “I want to retire there,” he said when I told him. But I couldn’t agree. I couldn’t imagine human life there. The sheer complexity of the geological history on display swallows up any thought of work or politics, makes humanistic speculation pointless.

Now that I am back home, though, I have a lot of work to do—reviews of Roland Merullo’s novel The Talk-Funny Girl, which I have been enthusiastically recommending to friends and family, in person and tweets, Ron Hansen’s retelling of the Snyder murder case, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, which disappointed me, and a stack of new novels by women—Jean Thompson, Ann Patchett, Dana Spiotta—to get to.

I have not been writing about them here, because next week A Commonplace Blog is migrating to a new host, a new venue. Although I can’t say anything more about the move right now, I am excited about it and the opportunities it will give me to reach a wider audience. Lecteurs fidèles! Just a few more days!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

This evening marks the beginning of the two-day Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the “forgotten festival,” as Michael Carasik describes it at Jewish Ideas Daily. Early the next morning, I am loading my twin eight-year-old sons into the car for a month-long cross-country excursion (California beaches, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon). Despite my better judgment, I have loaded up my Kindle with new novels. I’m traveling light. My blog will be in hibernation for the duration.

In July, when regular book-blogging resumes, you can expect a major announcement about the future and provenance of A Commonplace Blog. Until then, a short summer reading list of recent American and British fiction:

• David Bezmozgis, The Free World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March). I am not convinced that Bezmozgis is nearly as promising a writer as his publicity would lead you to believe, but his first novel—part of a new wave of immigrant fiction in America—is readable and intrinsically interesting. The inter-generational friction between an old Communist Party official and his son, trained by Western culture to pursue sensual adventure, is nicely done. The Jewish stuff, not so much. A good “case,” though.

• Jim Krusoe, Toward You (Tin House Books, March). For those who read Charles Willeford’s Shark-Infested Custard on my recommendation and liked it, another memorable amoralist with an unforgettable voice. The death of a stray dog leads a man to confront his mistakes (not that he cares).

• Linda Grant, We Had It So Good (Scribner, April). The author of When I Lived in Modern Times returns with her fifth novel. In the same vein as Zoë Heller’s Believers, Grant’s energetically written novel follows the lives of a couple from the Flower Generation as they age into a realistic appraisal of their times.

• Bharati Mukherjee, Miss New India (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May). Mukherjee’s eighth novel is not her best, by any means. (Jasmine [1989] holds that honor.) But her latest returns to the theme that Mukherjee has copyrighted—the bloody cultural crossroads between traditional and new India. Here she takes on the rise of the great Anglophone country to which America “outsources” so many of its customer-service jobs that the very idea has become the source of humor. Mukherjee does not play for laughs, although her touch is light and humorous.

• Francine Prose, My New American Life (Harper Collins, May). Like her fifth novel, Household Saints (1981), her latest is completely foreign to Prose’s personal experience. This time around she tells the story of an Albanian immigrant. Her ventriloquy does not make for her best writing, but anything by Francine Prose is better than almost anything by almost any other American novelist now writing.

Enjoy your summer, everyone! Talk to you again in July.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day is not victims’ day

Over at Contentions, I reflect upon Memorial Day by contrasting Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” to Robert Lowell’s thirty-years-later “For the Union Dead.” Twenty years in the South elevated Tate above Lowell in my estimation.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The books we never abandon

Cross-posted from Contentions.

“[T]he end of the physical book may be coming hard upon us faster than anyone ever anticipated,” John Podhoretz warns, reporting the news that Amazon now sells more digitalized Kindle-friendly texts than hardbacks and paperbacks combined.

I remain skeptical that the codex, the paper-and-binding book, will disappear completely. For two reasons. First, there is a distinction between books that are consumed and never returned to—consumer books—and books that are collected, treasured, preserved from destruction. If nothing else, there is the Bible. For someone like me, who taught for two decades in the South, it is hard to imagine Christians abandoning their favorite Bible—the one they read at night, the one they carry to church—for an electronic copy. For many Christians, the first Bible is a major event in their lives. (For Jewish children, the equivalent is receiving their first siddur or prayerbook.) The book is often presented to them in a public ceremony, engraved in gold with their name. (Can you even inscribe a Kindle copy?)

But not only Bibles. Every reader has books that are special to him. Randall Jarrell used to say that he owned several copies of Christina Stead’s Man Who Loved Children (1940), because he so loved the novel that he pressed it upon friends (and friends never return books). Books to be used up and discarded—bestselling fiction, self-improvement guides, popular biographies, books on current affairs—belong nowhere else but on the Kindle. There is, however, another class of books altogether.

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and far more often) worth reading at the age of fifty,” C. S. Lewis said. And that brings me to my second reason for doubting the final disappearance of the “physical book.” Namely, children don’t learn to read on the Kindle, but from the pages that they turn excitedly with their parents. “Talk to it, Daddy,” my son Saul used to say when I opened a book to start reading aloud. When he grew older, he began to acquire his own first books—fine printed editions of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The House at Pooh Corner—which he would proudly take to preschool with him, even though he could not even read them.

“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only,” Lewis also said. I am willing to grant that “literary” readers have always been and will remain a minority, but trained in childhood to love the physical qualities of print on paper, the minority will always insist on a few bound books.

Update: The three-way debate on the question “That ebooks spell the end for ‘physical books’ ” was carried on much of the day on Twitter with John Podhoretz and Terry Teachout for the affirmative and me for the negative. Teachout believes the ebook will have entirely replaced the codex in five years, by which time paper-and-binding volumes will be, in Podhoretz’s words, “luxury items.” God willing, we will all live, as Teachout says, to see who’s right.

The Contentions post above started the free-for-all. I’d like to add only one thing to it. As a literary scholar, I too subscribe to the electronic textualists’ motto “Search Is Everything,” and it is undeniable that etexts are easy to search, but I am not convinced that the gain in speed and convenience is not overbalanced by another kind of loss.

Here is a small example of what I mean. Searching for the quotation from Lewis with which I end the post above, I stumbled upon the earlier sentence about books read at ten and again at fifty. Far more elegantly than I, Lewis makes my point about the books a person returns to again and again; and those books, I remain convinced, will be in tangible form for a long time to come.

Using a search-and-find function on an extext, I would have found the one Lewis quotation and not the other. Because I had to thumb an old copy of Of Other Worlds on my bookshelves, I accidentally found a sentence that deepened my own thought. In a single anecdote, that for me is the advantage of the codex over the extext.

Update, II: John Steele Gordon, another COMMENTARY contributor, weighs in here. On my side, more or less.

Black discs and retrieval machines

Even my conservative friends are enamored of the argument that books are going the way of the vinyl LP. (True, the vinyl LP was introduced in 1926 and largely replaced by the compact disc in the mid to late ’eighties—a history of sixty years—while the codex appeared in the first century C.E., giving it a history of two thousand years. But, hey, technology marches on!)

Replying to my argument that the “physical book” (as he prefers to call it) will not be entirely replaced by digitalized texts for the Kindle and iPad, John Podhoretz alludes to the size of my own personal library, and reassures me: “Don’t worry; the fact that new books will no longer be printed except in the way that, say, new vinyl records are still released for high-end stereo fans will make your own collection far more valuable over time.”

Terry Teachout joins in. He says that John is right. “One generation from now,” he predicts, “the physical book will be for antique collectors only—like black discs.” In a later tweet, he adds: “[T]he same pattern of technological adoption has taken place repeatedly over the past quarter-century.” My problem, he says, is that I am “confusing the container with the thing contained.”

I don’t think so. Several years ago, in an essay on Holocaust writing in Comparative Literature, I began by contesting a bedrock presupposition of serious and thoughtful readers like Teachout:

The study of literature is widely presupposed to be the interpretation of texts. As an object a book can sit around for years, resting comfortably on a library shelf, but as a text it does not exist at all unless it is read, interpreted, understood. A book is printed and bound; a text is worded and meant. The problem, then, is to discover the meaning beneath the words.What Holocaust writing teaches us, I argued in dissent, is that a “literary text makes a claim on its readers that is logically prior to meaning.” And what is that claim? The claim of a person.

Much mischief is caused by disembodying a text from the person who created it. And something similar, I think, is happening among those who prematurely celebrate the “end of books.” The mistake in both cases is to disregard the materiality of reading.

Although I have advanced this argument before, I have been hesitant to make it the centerpiece of my case against electronic texts, because it relies upon empirical research—and not enough research has been conducted into the effect of different reading platforms upon understanding, retention, the ability to immerse oneself in a text. What research there is, however, suggests that print enjoys certain advantages over electronic media. Anne Mangen, a reading researcher at Norway’s University of Stavanger, has found that the “phenomenology of reading intangible text” suffers by comparison to reading from a printed-and-bound book. She writes:The tactility of a mouse click, of touch screen page turning or of a click with the e-book page turner bar, is very different from that of flicking through the print pages of a book. The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions—clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens or scrolling with keys or on touch pads—take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book, or the mobile phone.Because the printed text is tangible, “physically, tactiley graspable,” as Mangen puts it, the difference in reading is enormous. While we scan the text on a screen, we read a paper-and-binding book with our hands and fingers in addition to our eyes. Reading, Mangen observes, requires manual dexterity. It is not merely an activity of mind.[1]

Every parent knows this. Children fall in love with books as physical objects long before they experience them as meaningful texts. As I have noticed before, children’s books celebrate their materiality: there are board books, touch-and-feel books, lift-the-flap books, pop-up books, musical-sound books. These are not the precursors to hypertext; they are early training in the handling of books. Or, as Mangen says with rather more scholarly rigor, they are reminders that reading is a multi-sensory experience.

Older readers know this too. Reading a book requires intense concentration, but it also leaves a physical memory. We recall a passage as falling on a left- or right-hand page, at the top or bottom or in the middle. We thumb the remaining pages and place an incident or argument in a spatial context, not just in time. The multi-sensory aspect of reading a book is an aid to memory, just as language instructors (who teach their students to write and read and speak and listen and pick up objects while translating their name) have always suspected.

And not merely “older readers” in the sense of having grown up in pre-Kindle days. In a recent survey by the Book Industry Group, nearly seventy-five percent of college students—the same youngsters who started using cell phones and iPods from an early age—said they prefer to study textbooks in print rather than on a screen. They too must share the intuition that reading a “physical book” gives them a better chance to understand, retain, and immerse themselves in their reading.

Books are nothing like vinyl LP’s. In reality, the black discs differ only marginally from compact discs or even MP3 files. What Podhoretz and Teachout overlook in their joyful analogy is that the different media simply require different retrieval machines. The hardware has changed—from “high-end stereo equipment” to CD players to iPods and iTunes—but the fundamental mechanism of playback is unaltered.

Indeed, technological progress has made retrieval of the music on the earlier formats increasingly burdensome. I own about a hundred vinyl LP’s that have never been rereleased in another format, but I no longer own a turntable. Without the right machine, I have no way of getting to that music. (I wonder too if Teachout himself has not confused the music with the performance. I’d be eager to learn how scores are being treated in the electronic age.)

At all events, this is a problem that I have worried about when it comes to ebooks, and despite reassurances, I remain worried. Perhaps it is only my personal experience—I am an Orthodox Jew who cannot use electronic devices on Saturday, and I lived through Hurricane Ike and the sixteen-day power outage that followed—but I don’t think it is outside possibility that the loss of a retrieval machine could mean the permanent loss of a text.

But a paper-and-binding book requires no retrieval machine beyond a human being, who reads it with his whole person. The end of mankind’s two-thousand-year adventure with books might be of concern, then, to more than book collectors.

[1] Ann Mangen, “Hypertext Fiction Reading: Haptics and Immersion,” Journal of Research in Reading 31 (2008): 404–19.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Philip Roth and the politics of literary prizes

Cross-posted from Contentions.

The American novelist Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International Prize, a British award handed out every other year for a writer’s entire body of work. Now, literary prizes are nothing more than a means to sell books; only fools confuse them with the recognition of literary merit. There is no shortage of fools in the Republic of Letters, however.

Plans are under way in Australia, for example, to engender a down-under version of Britain’s Orange Prize for fiction by women. Not that the prize itself should be sneered at. The Orange Prize has done what it was intended to do, bringing attention to terrific novels like Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times. Perhaps the Australian prize will have similar good luck.

No, what is foolish are the reasons given for the prize. “What we are concerned with is the systemic exclusion of women writers over several decades,” the novelist Sophie Cunningham told the Guardian. The very idea that the literary marketplace is capable of a system of any kind is crack-brained. Nor is it immediately obvious why publishers would tolerate the “systemic exclusion” of books that appeal to at least half the reading public (and probably, given women’s reading habits, far more than half). Nevertheless, Cunningham went on to say that the new Australian women’s prize would not be needed “if writing by women was rewarded and valued on its own terms, with equal merit to the way that work written by men is.”

All the women’s prizes in the world will not change the fact that literary merit is not equal, nor is it assigned by sex. Those who seem to be calling for a Title IX regime in literature, where praise and prizes and even book recommendations must be split 50-50 between men and women, are not really interested in literature. For them, literature is merely the jurisdiction in which they happen to seek power and privilege.

Such a person is Carmen Callil, the British publisher who founded Virago Press in 1973. Declaring that she does not “rate him as a writer at all,” Callil quit the Man Booker International Prize jury in a huff when it became clear that the other two judges would not bend to her will and award the prize to someone else than Philip Roth. “Emperor’s clothes,” she sniffed. “In 20 years’ time will anyone read him?”

Whether anyone reads Roth in 20 years will not be decided by a literary prize. Perhaps what will decide the question—and perhaps what her colleagues wished to honor Roth for—is the very commitment to literature that Callil rejects so bitterly. In a career that began 53-and-a-half years ago with the story “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” in COMMENTARY, Roth has exemplified what I have elsewhere called the moral obligation to write well, which distinguishes the great writer.

Not the end of books

Over at Contentions John Podhoretz warns that “the end of the physical book may be coming hard upon us faster than anyone ever anticipated.” I don’t think so.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Defending Philip Roth

Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International Prize, and a judge on the prize jury has quit in a huff. “Emperor’s clothes,” says Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago Press. “In 20 years’ time will anyone read him?”

I try to answer her question here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The paradoxical politics of creative writing

Note: Blogger went down some time on Thursday, May 12th, taking down everything posted since the previous evening along with it. To date the missing posts have not been restored. So I am republishing my little essay on the politics of creative writing. And I’ve used the occasion to add a sentence or two.

It took him eight months, but Wednesday in the Los Angeles Review of Books Mark McGurl finally replied in print to Elif Batuman’s widely read onslaught against academic creative writing, “Get a Real Degree,” which appeared in last September’s London Review of Books. As McGurl puts it, Batuman “unloads as many charges against the discipline of creative writing as one can easily pack into 8000-plus words. . . .” But he isn’t particularly exercised by her critique. After all, Batuman writes from the perspective, he says, of a “cultural conservative, reanimating a whole herd of dead horses from the 1980s Culture Wars, when the right began a long, twilight struggle against the ‘tenured radicals’ of the university.”

I’m not at all sure that any such description of Batuman is accurate, and I am more than sure that she herself would find it off-target. One minute McGurl is criticizing her “snarky slurs” against Beloved, the very next minute he is calling her literary journalism’s Ann Coulter. Snark is, like, acceptable only when it comes from one side of the political aisle? When an academic wishes to dismiss a writer from serious consideration, he calls her a right-winger.

Over at The Suburban Ecstasies, Seth Abramson does a good job of exposing McGurl’s errors “great and small” (and says some nice things about me), but he merely hints at the political incoherence of McGurl’s critique.

The incoherence comes through most clearly when McGurl interrogates Batuman’s claim that “Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical.” In reply, McGurl repeats the word democracy several times, as if that will do the trick. Creative writing’s ambition to establish an “aesthetic democracy” can sometimes seem like a “sentimental gesture,” he allows, but it really is a noble ambition. While her elitism would confine most Americans who might otherwise prefer the writing life to “working at the register,” Batuman is not troubled by such economic conditions. According to McGurl, she feels “only contempt for those who have dared to think and act otherwise, in case a more democratic culture turns out to be possible.” (By contrast, his own contempt for commerce is so deeply embedded into his thinking that he barely notices it.) Still, the two of them have something in common:

As even Batuman concedes, creative writing represents something “wonderful about America,” though I don’t think, as she does, that it’s the idea that that “all forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch.” That sounds good, but in practice it is so often a sadistic or self-loathing desire. Rather, I think the best thing about America is the idea of democracy upon which it was imperfectly founded, and I’m happy to see any signs, however conflicted, that we can still imagine, and even facilitate, greater social access to the high pleasures of excellent writing.McGurl is a canny and profoundly learned scholar; I’m a bit embarrassed for him that he would carelessly repeat such phrases without any recognition of their historical provenance. (It also never occurs to him that the difference between them on what is most wonderful about this country may owe more to differences in personal circumstance than politics: Batuman is the daughter of Turkish immigrants, who must have reinvented themselves from scratch in America.) Nevertheless, the politics on display here derives from the same source as creative writing itself. Both are classic expressions of American progressivism.

Although he knows it very well, McGurl did not write The Elephants Teach; I did. He can’t be expected to overhear the echoes of creative writing’s progressive origins, which I detail in Chapter 5 (“The Sudden Adoption of Creative Work”), as readily as I do. Hughes Mearns, a progressive educator who founded it as a school subject, conceived of creative writing as a progressive reform along the same political lines as the enactment of child-labor laws and the uprooting of municipal corruption. His plan was to democratize literary culture—to make it more responsive to more people—because Mearns was every inch the anti-elitist. In an article written for the Saturday Evening Post in 1912, Mearns ridiculed the elitist attitude toward culture:Culture is an incommunicable communion with Nature; it is clean hands and a pure collar; it is the possession of great-grandparents—white, Christian pre­ferred; it is the achievement of tolerance; it is the proper use of “shall” and “will”; it is a knowledge of Hegelian philosophy; it is Greek; it is Latin; it is a five-foot shelf of books; it is twenty thousand a year; it is a sight of truth and a draught of wisdom; it is a frock coat and pearl gloves. . . . No one ever saw it; it cannot be measured or chemically analyzed; the fellow that claims it loudest never has had it; the chap that really has it never mentions the matter; and it can be obtained only by a studious cultivation of one kind of education—my kind!As I have pointed out before, scholars routinely get creative writing wrong through ignorance or neglect of its original conception as a progressive school reform. To treat it as an epiphenomenon of American higher education—as even Batuman does—is to grab a shovel to hammer a board.

Progressivism is encoded in creative writing’s DNA. What is more, this progressive legacy also explains what is at issue in the debate between McGurl and Batuman, and why neither has achieved a victory over the other. Both democracy and elitism belong to the progressive inheritance—their mismatch, as Peter Berkowitz wrote recently in a brilliant analysis in the Policy Review, “reflects an enduring paradox with deep roots in the progressive tradition.” On the one hand, American progressives espoused democratic reforms; on the other hand, these reforms were formulated and installed by an undemocratic elite—the progressive reformers themselves—sometimes against the will of the people. Berkowitz goes further:The paradox of American progressivism, old and new, is rooted in the gap between its professed devotion to democracy, or the idea that the people legitimately rule, and its belief that democracy consists in a set of policies independent of what the people want. The paradox may not inhere in every single progressive utterance or program, but it typifies progressivism as a whole. It certainly receives expression in the disjunction between official progressive aims. On the one hand, progressives proclaim their intention to democratize American politics by making it more responsive to the will of the people and giving the people greater say in government. On the other hand, progressives favor the steady enlargement of the national government’s responsibilities, which increases the distance between the people and government, while supporting the expansion of an educated administrative elite, which reduces government’s accountability to the people.This account will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has eavesdropped on the debates over creative writing. The positions have changed little over the years. As I described them fifteen years ago:On one side are those who blame [creative writing] for an astonishing array of ills: the collapse of literary standards; an overproduction of homogeneously bad writing, the decadence of the age. . . . On the other side are those who defend creative writing as a democratization of culture and a happy awakening of interest in literature and the literary life.If, however, creative writing is recognized as an institutional representation of the paradoxical politics of progressivism, the debates begin to seem beside the question. Suddenly metaphors like Donald Justice’s “pyramid scheme” (quoted in my book) or McGurl’s “Ponzi scheme” begin to seem shrugging guesses; the expansion of an educated administrative elite, enlarging its turf from coast to coast, accounts for the amazing boom in graduate writers workshops over the past half century. And except when they are advanced to justify what Batuman calls “writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum”—progressive aims explain the knowledge vacuum—the democratic slogans of the nationalized bureaucracy that staffs America’s creative writing programs can be seen for what they are. Namely, rhetorical cover for their own privilege.

Literary writing may or may not be inherently elitist, but the creative writing faculty sure is.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

When I Lived in Modern Times

The British novelist Linda Grant is in the States today to tout her new novel We Had It So Good, but with her royal-wedding tweets still chirping in my ears (see here and here and here and here and here and here), I returned to the novel that first caused me to fall in love with the sound of her voice. When I Lived in Modern Times (London: Granta, 2000) was Grant’s second novel (she has now written five). It won the Orange Prize in 2001 for the best work of fiction by a woman, which is the only reason that it came to my attention. I was teaching my annual course on the contemporary novel at Texas A&M University. Every year I would assign the previous year’s award winners. The reading list for spring semester 2002 included Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Pulitzer Prize), Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin (Man Booker Prize), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (James Tait Black Memorial Prize), Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (Governor General’s Award), Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (Whitbread Prize), and Philip Roth’s Human Stain (PEN/Faulkner Award). I later included three of those titles on my roll of the decade’s best English-language fiction, but my favorite was When I Lived in Modern Times.

Grant’s subject is the “great transformation” that occurs in the months after the end of the Second World War—“the world itself,” she writes, “was metamorphosing into something else. . . .” Evelyn Sert, the twenty-year-old daughter of a single Jewish mother—her grandparents emigrated to Great Britain from Latvia—decides to journey to British Mandate Palestine. She is filled with the spirit of Zionism (“Only the birth of our own country can avenge the death of six million,” she cries. “That’s the resurrection”). But the truth is that her mother’s death leaves her feeling even more homeless than before:

Inside my head the kings and queens of England were stacked like pancakes in chronological order going back to the Wars of the Roses but no one I was related to had ever set foot on English soil until forty-five years ago. What could an immigrant child be, except an impersonator? I felt like a double agent, a fifth columnist. And I knew that as long as I lived in this country it would always be the same. I walked among them and they thought they knew me, but they understood nothing at all. It was me that understood, the spy in their midst.Perhaps if she had been a third-generation Jew in America, where everyone feels like a double agent—these days, even the WASP’s—Evelyn might not have felt so out of place. But she knows better. “I was a Jewish child in a country where, unlike America, there was no contribution I could make to the forging of the national identity,” she sighs. “It was fixed already, centuries ago.”

And so to Palestine. Evelyn enters the country illegally, lying to a customs agent that she is a Christian tourist, not a Jewish settler. Her surname is “odd” because her father was from “the Outer Hebrides.” At the Jewish Agency, Evelyn is less successful at passing herself off as something she is not. She has come to build the new Jewish state, she announces; but she has neither military nor agricultural experience; nor has she studied engineering, nor architecture. She is not totally useless, she protests. She is a hairdresser! She gets a laugh and is packed off to a kibbutz.

On the kibbutz she is introduced to sex and hard labor, but she remains a city girl at heart. She misses the chaos of urban life. After a few weeks she leaves for the “white city” of Tel Aviv—“a new Berlin,” as a German Jew later says to her, “a city for the masses and for the intellectuals, where we would build a modern life for ourselves.” Evelyn arrives on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a demobilized British soldier, a native-born Jerusalemite named Levi Aharoni. “But since your Hebrew isn’t so good, and we’re going to be talking in English,” he says, “you can call me Johnny.” He joined the British army to fight fascism, but now that the British have become the enemy of Jewish immigration, Johnny has joined the Irgun, the military wing of the Revionist Zionist movement.

Before she learns this much about him, Evelyn becomes Johnny’s lover. In the mean time, she finds an apartment and a job as a hairdresser, introducing the wives of British colonial officers to the newest styles. Recognized by one of them as the Christian tourist who came over with her on the same boat, Evelyn dyes her hair blonde and takes on a new identity. She becomes Priscilla Jones, married to a soldier posted to Tiberias. As a British policeman complains to her about Palestine, “It’s the worst bloody place for getting people’s identities straight.” Johnny sees her value as a “spy in their midst,” and manufactures a false passport in the name of Priscilla Jones. Information that she passes on enables the Irgun to kidnap a British official.

Thus she enters “the dark center of our struggle against the colonial masters.” The Irgun bombs the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. And Evelyn is whisked to safety underground before the British can arrest her. Johnny is not so lucky. Implicated in the deaths of twenty, he is arrested and quickly convicted and sentenced to death—one of the olei hagardom to be hanged under British rule. Evelyn is suddenly not so excited to be “moving through history.” As the British begin to withdraw from Palestine, she realizes that “Priscilla Jones would have to be folded up and put away,” but with the arrest of Johnny, she realizes that she has no clear and distinct Palestinian individuality either. “The British imperial identity was disintegrating in front of us, the new Jewish one was being born,” she says, “but I was nameless and invisible and my little ego couldn’t bear it.”

Just days before Johnny’s arrest, she had resolved:Whatever happened, I would never leave Palestine, this strange, violent, mixed-up place where things were not always pleasant, indeed rarely so. Where people’s manners were bad and they spoke roughly, but to the point. Where everyone came from somewhere else and everyone had a story to tell and these stories were not always inspiring or lovely. Where life was chaotic, because that is what life is. Where the past was murky and tragic and the future had to be grasped by the throat. Where Europe ended and the East began and people tried to live inside that particular, crazy contradiction.But in the end, she is unable to do so. Evelyn is swept up in the British counter-exodus and borne back to the country of her birth. She leaves Palestine just as the Jews are taking command of their own history and their own political fate. She understands what is happening, even if the British evacuees do not: “They’ve been Jews for absolutely centuries,” one says to her, “and most of that has been spent in exile, one way or another. Why do they want to change their tune now?”

There is perhaps no better book for explaining why—and for recreating the terror and exhilaration of the British Mandate’s final days—than Linda Grant’s brilliant and absorbing When I Lived in Modern Times.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The rhetoric of triumph

Over at Contentions, I use a little literary criticism to compare President Obama’s speech last night reporting the death of Osama bin Laden to President Bush’s speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln eight years ago on the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

Like a trampled corpse

They who behold you stare;
They peer at you closely:
“Is this the man
Who shook the earth,
Who made realms tremble,
Who made the world like a waste
And wrecked its towns,
Who never released his prisoners to their homes?”
All the kings of nations
Were laid, every one, in honor
Each in his tomb;
While you were left lying unburied,
Like loathsome carrion,
Like a trampled corpse
In the clothing of slain gashed by the sword
Who sink to the very stones of the Pit.

                                          Isaiah 14.16–19 (NJV)

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

                                          W. H. Auden
                                          January 1939

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Reading the Holocaust

Today is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jean Améry once said that he would like to “introduce certain Auschwitz books into the upper classes of secondary school as compulsory reading,” although he never named the books he would assign. (His own Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, published in German in 1966 and translated beautifully into English by Sidney and Stella P. Rosenfeld in 1980 under the title At the Mind’s Limits, would have to be among them.)

On Thursday the Forward published its version of such a reading list. Organized in alphabetical order and consisting of twenty-two items—starting off, in fact, with Améry’s book—the Forward bibliography is a convenient listing of essential titles.

I have few quarrels with it. I would not have included Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which has never impressed me as anything more than a derivative account of the Holocaust (its only claim to originality is to narrate Auschwitz in cartoons), but otherwise the list is pretty good. I’d like to re-do it, however, by putting the books in order and making a few different and additional recommendations. The literature of the Holocaust is so vast that newcomers to the subject are disheartened from beginning.

(1.) Elie Wiesel, Night (Yiddish [longer version], 1955; French, 1958; English, 1960). Perhaps the time has come to acknowledge that Wiesel is not a great writer. Nevertheless, there is no better book for introducing first-time readers to the horrors of Auschwitz. Wiesel’s lack of finish—even his occasional “corniness,” for lack of a better word—contribute to the book’s immediacy and lasting effect.

(2.) Otto Friedrich, The Kingdom of Auschwitz (1994). Originally a 1982 article in the Atlantic, the book version is expanded but still astonishingly short at just over one hundred pages. It is an explicitly third-hand account of the Nazi Vernichtungslager, which aims to synthesize an enormous amount of historical and literary knowledge.

(3.) Tadeusz Borowski, The Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Polish, 1946, 1948; English, 1967). The greatest writer of Holocaust fiction was not even Jewish. Borowski was a Polish Communist who was condemned to Auschwitz for political crimes, and witnessed the extermination of European Jewry first-hand. Unlike Wiesel, he does not inflate his language or heighten the emotional appeal. The very flatness of his reporting, in words that could have been chiseled in stone, makes his stories unforgettable. Yale University Press will release Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories translated by Madeline G. Levine in October. Borowski’s stories invented Holocaust literature.

(4.) Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War against the Jews (1975). The fourth English-language history after Gerald Reitlinger’s Final Solution (1953), Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of European Jewry (1961), and Nora Levin’s Holocaust (1968), Dawidowicz’s book is still the best introduction to the history of the Holocaust. At 353 pages, not counting the back matter, it is relatively short and manageable; more importantly, it is well-written; most important of all, it advances a provocative thesis, implicit in the title, which has influenced the study of the Holocaust ever since. Having got this far, the reading can become more focused and intense.

(5.) Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942 (2004). As I have written elsewhere, there is a fundamental distinction between the Holocaust and the Final Solution. The former is the Jews’ name and represents the victims’ point of view; the latter, the Germans’ and the perpetrators’ point of view. No one is better than Browning at tracing the development of the German Nazis’ policy of genocide, although Saul Friedländer’s two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews (1997, 2007) is another compelling historical account of events from within the thousand-year Reich. Browning also champions an influential and provocative position on the Shoah, which stands in opposition to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). Browning’s position is summed up by the title of his earlier book about a police battalion that murdered Jews in Poland: Ordinary Men (1992).

(6.) Primo Levi, If This Is a Man (Italian, 1958; English, 1960). Now available under the misleading title Survival in Auschwitz, Levi’s is an Auschwitz memoir for adults. Unlike Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, Levi does not try to find a “meaning” in the Lager; he does not believe that suffering ennobled the Jews who were gassed and burned there. A chemist by training and profession, Levi turned an objective and analytical eye upon Auschwitz. He became the greatest memoirist of the Holocaust.

(7.) Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits (German, 1966; English, 1980). His position is best summed up by the title of one of the five essays in the book: “The Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew.” Améry is best known, however, for examining the fate of the intellectual in Auschwitz. Primo Levi replied in a chapter of The Drowned and the Saved (1986), his last book.

(8.) David Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction (1996). A great Jewish scholar who pioneered the source-critical analysis of the Talmud, Halivni is an Auschwitz survivor who, like Elie Wiesel, grew up in the Transylvanian town of Sighet. His memoir, published when he was sixty-nine, might have been called “Survival After Auschwitz”—survival not merely of one individual, but of an Orthodox Jewish modus vivendi the German Nazis threatened (but failed) to wipe out.

(9.) Yitzhak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Hebrew, 1990; English, 1993). A gripping memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by one of its leaders—“Antek.” Edited and translated by Barbara Harshav, the book is also enormously informative. It is nearly a reference work in addition to a narrative reconstruction of the most important act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

(10.) Chaim Kaplan, Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary (written in Hebrew from September 1, 1939, to August 4, 1942; published in English translation in 1965). The diary that everybody knows is Anne Frank’s, but Chaim Kaplan’s is the single most important diary to come out of the Shoah. Kaplan lived in the Warsaw Ghetto and participated in the Oyneg Shabes collective history project. A Hebrew teacher and Orthodox Jew, he watched the approach of the German destruction through the lens of Jewish concepts and categories. Bearing witness through his diary was, for him, as for all of the “ghetto scribes,” a holy obligation. Abraham Lewin’s ghetto diary, published in English under the title A Cup of Tears (1988), and Emanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (English, 1958), fill out the picture. If you can find it, Joseph Kermish’s collection of documents from the ghetto’s underground archive, To Live and Die with Honor (1986), belongs in every library. If you can’t find it—or even if you can—Who Will Write Our History? (2007), Samuel D. Kassow’s study of Oyneg Shabes, is an indispensable work of scholarship.

(11.) Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Sacred Fire (written in Hebrew from September 14, 1939, to July 18, 1942; English, 2000). The weekly divrei Torah of the “Piacezna rebbe,” delivered to his Hasidic followers in the Warsaw Ghetto, were first collected and published as Esh Kodesh in Israel in 1950 and quickly became a classic of Orthodox Jewish religious literature. The critic David G. Roskies distinguishes between literature of the Holocaust and literature from the Holocaust. Shapira’s sermons are a unique example of the Jewish response to the monstrous events as they unfolded. Nehemia Polen’s study The Holy Fire (1999) places Shapira in the context of both the Warsaw Ghetto and Jewish thought.

(12.) Etty Hillesum, Etty: The Letters and Diaries, 1941–1943 (written in Dutch from March 8, 1941, to October 13, 1942; English translation, 2002). Hillesum is beloved by Christian readers, who are deeply touched—and reminded of their own religious commitment—by her willingness to be a servant. She is largely unknown to Jewish readers, who avoid her as if she were the exclusive property of Christians. The unabridged edition of her diary was published in this country by Eerdmans, a Protestant publishing house in Grand Rapids. Yet Christians are keenly aware of the dangers of “appropriationism,” showing a respect for her that she has been denied by the Jews. She is one of the best writers to come out of the Holocaust, and among the most deeply moving—even if her religiosity is not traditionally Jewish.

(13.) Moshe Flinker, Young Moshe’s Diary: The Spiritual Torment of a Jewish Boy in Nazi Europe (written in Hebrew from November 24, 1942, to after September 1943; English translation, 1965). The diary of a seventeen-year-old Dutch Jew kept while his family was in hiding from the Nazis in Brussels. Less practical and detailed, more conscious of the approaching end and its place in Jewish history and thinking, Flinker’s diary is more representative of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust than Anne Frank’s.

(14.) Herman Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944 (written in Yiddish from September 6, 1939, to September 17, 1944; English translation, 2002). A monumental and comprehensive first-hand account of the destruction of Vilna, the cultural center of Eastern European Jewry, which records not merely the Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews, but also its war against Jewish culture.

(15.) André Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just (French, 1959; English, 1961). Although the first American novel about Auschwitz was Meyer Levin’s Eva (also published in 1959), the first Holocaust bestseller in America was Schwarz-Bart’s Prix-de-Goncourt-winning novel, based on the legend of the thirty-six just men who, unknown to themselves, keep the world alive.

(16.) Piotr Rawicz, Blood from the Sky (French, 1961; English, 1964). The autobiographical novel of a Ukrainian Jew from Lvov who passes as a Gentile to escape the Nazis, but is captured and imprisoned in an extermination camp.

(17.) Jiri Weil, Life with a Star (Czech, 1964; English, 1989). A slim hard-headed graceful novel about a Jew who pretends to kill himself, then hides from the Nazis in occupied Prague.

(18.) Henryk Grynberg, The Jewish War (Polish, 1965) and The Victory (Polish, 1969; English translation in one volume, 1993). Two short novels about a Jewish family that survives the Holocaust by moving through a series of hiding places, finally pretending to be the family of a Polish officer captured by the Nazis. In the second volume, they desperately await the advance of the Red Army.

(19.) Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939 (Hebrew, 1974; English, 1980). A novel about Austrian Jews gathered in an Alpine resort, unaware of the approaching Holocaust.

(20.) Tova Reich, My Holocaust (2007). A ferocious satire on Holocaust kitsch and possessiveness among American Jews. Not to every taste.

(21.) Miklós Radnóti, Foamy Sky (Hungarian, 1946; English, 1972). Written in pencil in a small exercise book, Radnóti’s posthumous collection Tajtékos ég contains odes to his wife, letters, and poetic fragments.

(22.) Abraham Sutzkever, Di festung: lider un poemes geshribn in vilner geto un in vald, 1941–1944 (Yiddish, 1945; English, 1981). The definitive English-language edition of Sutzkever’s work was published in 1991 under the title Selected Poetry and Prose by the University of California Press. In addition to his ghetto poems, the volume contains pre- and post-Holocaust poems and prose.

(23.) David G. Roskies, ed., The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (1989). A masterful anthology which places the “literature from the Holocaust” in a tradition of Jewish writing about political evil.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The inadequacy of literature

For a long time now, on this blog and elsewhere, I have been hawking the idea that literature is not a special class of human efforts (“Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value,” as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language puts it, or “fiction, poetry, or drama that seeks to be judged by ‘literary’ criteria,” as Daniel Green once preferred), but really nothing more than a particular window on the human parade, a distinct and self-governing arrangement of intelligence, a special method for organizing the data of experience.

On this showing, a book that would not be considered “literary” by most people—Darwin’s Origins of Species was a favorite example of the critic E. D. Hirsch Jr.—is literature nevertheless, because it can be read from a literary angle. English departments would read Darwin one way; history departments another way; philosophy departments a distinctly different third way. If I am right that “Literature is simply good writing—where ‘good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition”—then Darwin would be read, when he is read as literature, for the good writing.

I stand by this definition. Literary critics read the same book differently from historians, philosophers, economists, natural scientists, practical men. Reading a book historically is what turns it into history; philosophically, into philosophy; and so on. The same for literature.

Only recently I have been struck, and damned hard too, by the inadequacy of this view. Not the woebegoneness of the definition. No, I mean the limitation, the built-in defect, of the whole literary approach. Sixty-eight years ago, Bernard DeVoto had gave the deficiency a name. He called it The Literary Fallacy. As I paraphrased it elsewhere, this is the fallacy of believing that human experience can be absorbed, both understood and expressed, wholly in literary terms. In the hands of a literary critic, it is the fallacy of reading a book with no check or control outside, but evaluating it instead wholly on the basis of its “fascinating” subject, its “canny strategy,” the “stunning contemporary facts embedded in the text,” its “astonishing” revelations, the “interesting alternative view” it offers, its “urgency,” its timeliness, its success at provoking conversation.

These phrases are the property of Anna Clark. A week ago, on her blog Isak, perhaps in honor of Passover, Clark demonstrated all the shortcomings of reading a book as literature (and nothing more). Her demonstration, in fact, was a bravura performance, maybe the best example of literary criticism’s inadequacy that I have ever encountered.

The book under her review was John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s infamous Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, first published four years ago and preceded by a London Review of Books essay laying out the authors’ thesis in 2006. Mearsheimer and Walt freshen up the old theories of a Jewish world conspiracy, familiar at least since the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were forged by the Russian secret police late in the nineteenth century, although the two American professors resort to special pleading, the desire to have it both ways, in passages written between the appearance of the magazine article and their book (“it is . . . wrong—and objectionable—to argue that Jews or pro-Israel forces ‘control’ the media and what they say about Israel”).

Clark evinces no knowledge whatever of the background to Mearsheimer and Walt’s book. And though she quotes the “exclamatory blurbs” on the jacket of The Israel Lobby (“The biggest literary controversy for years,” “It detonated an explosion”), she is a stranger to the controversy and the explosion. This is the most basic (and among the literati a sadly frequent) version of the ignoratio elenchi. Because she is ignorant of its refutations, Clark is unable to follow Mearshimer and Walt’s argument carefully enough to understand it as anything more complicated than an autotelic “literary” machine—a well wrought urn, in other words.

Yet the reception of The Israel Lobby was not merely the “biggest literary controversy for years.” The book was widely and extensively refuted. Indeed, its publication was an occasion for political unity, as critics from Left and Right joined together to refute Mearsheimer and Walt. “They quote only those people who basically have this point of view and don’t take a serious look at anything in a more profound way,” Dennis Ross was quoted as saying by the Washington Post. He said the book was “masquerading as scholarship.” In the Los Angeles Times, Max Boot asked why, if the Israel lobby were powerful enough (in the authors’ words) “to stifle criticism of Israel,” it would “allow such a scurrilous piece of pseudo-scholarship to be published?” Even New Yorker editor David Remnick, no reliable friend of Israel, was troubled by the absence of any larger perspective, any outside check, in The Israel Lobby:

It’s a narrative that recounts every lurid report of Israeli cruelty as indisputable fact but leaves out the rise of Fatah and Palestinian terrorism before 1967; the Munich Olympics; Black September; myriad cases of suicide bombings; and other spectaculars. The narrative rightly points out the destructiveness of the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and America’s reluctance to do much to curtail them, but there is scant mention of Palestinian violence or diplomatic bungling, only a recitation of the claim that, in 2000, Israel offered “a disarmed set of Bantustans under de-facto Israeli control.” (Strange that, at the time, the Saudi Prince Bandar told Yasir Arafat, “If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime.”) Nor do they dwell for long on instances when the all-powerful Israel lobby failed to sway the White House, as when George H. W. Bush dragged Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid peace conference.And Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who described himself modestly as an “occasional critic of Israel,” confessed that he was moved by Mearsheimer and Walt to burst into “Hatikvah.” “[T]heir argument is so dry, so one-sided,” he concluded—“an Israel lobby that leads America around by the nose—they suggest that not only do they not know Israel, they don’t know America, either.”

The authors falsified quotations, suppressed facts, advanced unsubstantiated claims, and relied heavily upon dubious and shaky sources. The “revisionist” Israeli historian Benny Morris, whose work on the Palestinian refugee problem was of great value to them, quipped that if Mearsheimer and Walt’s essay were “an actual person, I would have to say that he did not have a single honest bone in his body.” And as Bret Stephens observed in Commentary, the most striking thing about their finished book was the complete absence of original scholarship. “Scarcely any primary source materials cited; no first-hand interviews; no hint that either Mearsheimer or Walt ever bothered to visit Israel during the course of their researches or so much as spoke to an actual member of the ‘lobby’ against which they level heavy charges of working at cross-purposes with vital U.S. interests,” Stephens said. “How many readers will notice this travesty of academic standards?”

Not Anna Clark, for one. For her it is enough that The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is “engrossing and sharp-eyed”; and from the vantage of literature, perhaps it is enough. When a book purports to rip the mask off American support for the Jewish state, however, a literary approach to it will not suffice. Some other means will be required to probe its claims. To praise a book’s literary effect will not be nearly enough, as Clark so amply documents, if it substitutes falsehoods and fantasies for the truth.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Novels about Jesus

On this Easter morning I have been thinking about all of the bad fiction about Jesus of Nazareth written by those who believe in him. Some of it has attained fame (Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, Lloyd C. Douglas’s Robe, Thomas B. Costain’s Silver Chalice), but for a reader outside the church, pretty much all of it is pretty hard to take. Have there been any good novels?

Various non-believers have come at the Gospel story from various non-Christian angles. Probably the most controversial was Nikos Kazantzakis, whose Last Temptation of Christ (1951) was placed on the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. George Moore was determined to leave a realistic account of the life and wrote The Brook Kerith (1916), imagining an entirely human Jesus who nevertheless survived the crucifixion. D. H. Lawrence’s last book was The Man Who Died, published the year before he died in 1930. Resurrected to become a wanderer, Jesus finds himself in an Egyptian temple and falls in love with a priestess there, who believes he is Osiris.

The Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch wrote The Nazarene in 1939, and caused a literary scandal. (He was very nearly written out of Yiddish literature, although Time magazine was quick to reassure readers that “it should not offend Christian sensibilities.”). Robert Graves wrote King Jesus (1946), one of his weakest historical novels (a recent reviewer called it “Graves’s Satanic Verses”). Norman Mailer wrote a novel in the form of Jesus’ autobiography, The Gospel According to the Son (1997), which sounds like a knockoff of Kazantzakis’s novel, if Michiko Kakutani is to be believed—quite a leap of faith in its own right.

The late Reynolds Price wrote a novella, an “apocryphal gospel,” entitled The Honest Account of a Memorable Life (1994), originally published in Theology Today. It may be more interesting as theology than fiction.

Except for Price, though, I am forced to conclude that only someone who is neither a believer nor a non-believer could possibly write a good novel about Jesus of Nazareth.

Update: A reader writes to suggest The Master and Margarita, while adding that he suspects Bulgakov was not “a believing Christian.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

Christians and Passover

A reader of my Reflections on Good Friday at Contentions writes to advise me that not all Christians who celebrate Passover are doing so to “co-op” the holiday or “claim it as [their] own.”

I have every confidence that this is the case. I have written before now of my deep respect and affection for Evangelicals and Catholics who are proud to share a “great spiritual heritage” with the Jews.

At the same time, I must admit that the Christian observance of Passover makes me queasy. I don’t mean those observances that “Christianize” the holiday, which are described so well by Michael Medved in his essay “The Preposterous Politics of Passover” in this month’s Commentary and by Diane Cole in her Wall Street Journal report last week on Passover as the new Christmas. Those are little more than revivals of supersessionism.

I mean that even strictly faithful reproductions of an Orthodox Jewish seder by believing Christians leave me feeling queasy. Perhaps the problem is that I fail to grasp the theology behind such reproductions. Exactly what are these Christians affirming? “B’khol-dor vador hayav adam lirot et-atsmo k’ilu hu yatsa mimitsrayim,” the Haggadah says—“in every generation, a man is to regard himself as if he himself had gone out from Egypt.” In as far as Christendom comes out of Israel, and Israel went out from Egypt, some such affirmation can be faithfully uttered by Christians, I suppose.

But what about the blessings scattered throughout the Haggadah? The melekh haolam, the king of the universe, is thanked for “choosing us from all people and lifting us up above all tongues and making us holy through his commandments [mitsvot].” Do Christians really believe that following God’s commandments, guarding the Sabbath and keeping kosher and observing the laws of marital separation, is what sanctifies them? Or do they not believe, instead, that faith in Christ Jesus is the source of holiness?

Perhaps I will please no one and offend many by saying that Christian Passover seders are in my opinion just as inauthentic and unavailing as the “seder” that my sister-in-law is staging tomorrow night—three and four days after the appointed time—because it is more convenient for friends who work. Offensive or not, I will surprise no one who reads this blog by saying that I am hostile to do-it-yourself religion. To celebrate Passover is to understand that the liberation from Egypt was merely the necessary prelude to receiving God’s law at Sinai.

Passover means nothing unless it means a renewal of the dedication to keep all of those laws, including the obligation to remove the words mashiv haruah umorid hageshem from the daily “Eighteen Benedictions” once Passover begins—something that I would bet not even the most thoroughly Judaized Christians think to do.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Viktor Frankl and Auschwitz

Although it is not widely read or appreciated as such, Viktor Frankl’s celebrated book Man’s Search for Meaning is a Holocaust memoir. When it was first published in German in 1946, it bore the title A Psychologist’s Experiences in a Concentration Camp. In the opening paragraph, Frankl calls his book “the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” But the “great horrors,” he immediately observes, “have already been described often enough”—even though he is writing little more than a year after the Soviet Army had liberated Auschwitz. His intention lies elsewhere. What he wants is to describe “the hard fight for existence” in the camps, the “unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself, for one’s own sake or for that of a good friend.”

Everything that follows must be read in the light of Frankl’s intention. But it rarely has. The Los Angeles Times critic Robert R. Kirsch, who did more than anyone to establish the book’s reputation in English, set the tone of the discussion early on. “This work was more than a narrative of suffering,” he wrote; “it was in fact the kind of response which makes suffering meaningful.” The book was read as an account of triumph against all odds. As talk about the Holocaust began to rise into many Americans’ mouths in the early ’seventies, Frankl began to be consulted as a witness to its meaning for latter-day bystanders. The Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy summed up the message. Frankl, he wrote, “said that often the men who survived were those who had a strong, unwavering reason he survive: ‘he who has a strong enough why can endure almost any kind of how.’ ”

In the words attributed to him here, Frankl is quoting the twelfth maxim in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, a fact that McCarthy conveniently ignores. The full version, translated by Walter Kaufmann, has a rather different effect: “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.” Frankl too chops off the end:

As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygenic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.Although he echoes the Nietzschean doctrine that “Excess strength alone is the proof of strength,” Frankl distorts and sentimentalizes the maxim’s original meaning by quivering Nietzsche’s arrow against the English. Something like that, however, is his method throughout Man’s Search for Meaning.

Compare the story that Primo Levi tells in If This Is a Man. Levi explains “the whole process of introduction to what was for us a new order”—a new order of human existence. In his first days in Auschwitz, he does not understand that the old order has been totally replaced:Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the [barrack] window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. “Warum?” I asked him in my poor German. “Hier ist kein warum,” he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.There was no why in the death camps. Frankl’s entire “search for meaning” was an adventure belonging to an entirely different order of experience.

And once it is understood as referring, not to ordinary experience, but to a world (in Levi’s phrase) from which “the only exit is by way of the Chimney,” Frankl’s advice for “bearing the terrible how of existence” can be seen for what it is—a failure to plumb the depths of the Holocaust. “Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross,” he writes. Required? Yes, by the German Nazis. “One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph,” he writes, “or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.” And in either case, one would almost certainly be gassed and burned and dumped in a mass grave. “[A man] may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp,” Frankl writes. “Dostoevski said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ ” Who is worthy of the gas chamber?

Man’s Search for Meaning infuriates me precisely because my own thought, under the influence of Stage IV cancer, veers dangerously in Frankl’s direction. Here are two things to remember. No human experience is comparable to Auschwitz. There is no possible advice that floats like ash from the crematorium’s chimney. The Holocaust is another world, and any effort to adjust it to the ordinary world of ordinary human experience is a perversion and a lie. Perhaps if he had written a cancer memoir—if he had written about suffering that stops short of human understanding’s limits—Frankl might have offered words of wisdom to those in extremis.

But perhaps not. Although I too have written that the response to affliction is an elective decision fully within human command (and though I too would be superficial and mawkish if I were to write such a thing about the Holocaust), I distance myself from Frankl by disputing the connection between why and how. The search for meaning is not man’s search. The real question is how to do any good, or as Etty Hillesum put it just days after learning for a certainty that the Germans “are after our total destruction,” the problem is one of “offering what little assistance I can wherever it has pleased God to place me.”