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.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fashions in forbidden speech

I have begun to blog for Commentary’s Contentions, and my first post of any real substance is up this morning. I posted it there rather than here, because I have already discussed the question here. There I will be more topical, occasionally even political; here I will continue to investigate the occupied territories that once belonged to the Republic of Letters.

Friday, April 15, 2011

It seeks me out that sometime did me flee

I do not want to be melodramatic. I have a white terror of melodrama. But on the other hand, I know that I must serve as a public witness. What little talent that I have probably assigns me such responsibility.

At all events, my cancer has returned. No need to plunge into the concrete particulars of my case. Suffice it to say that, when I was initially diagnosed, my doctors gave me one to three years to live, although there was also a ten percent chance that I would live ten years. Anatole Broyard, who contracted the disease before me, got just fourteen months. My friend Denis Dutton persisted for two years with it. So far I have survived three-and-a-half years. (And don’t ever let anyone tell you there is no such thing as survivor guilt.) My doctors now say that my odds of living another five years are fifty percent. Or, in other words, I have a half-and-half shot being among the ten percent who live ten years.

Not bad. If I write somewhat more than usual about death and dying, though, you’ll understand why. And forgive me, I hope.

Monday, April 11, 2011

“Breaking faith with readers”

On Saturday, when I would rather be doing something else than reading it—okay, not a day goes by when I would not rather be doing almost anything else than reading it—the New York Times came out in editorial support of Bill Steigerwald’s indictment against Travels With Charley. The book, say the editors with barely suppressed anger, is “shot through with dubious anecdotes and impossible encounters.” They are outraged that Steinbeck “misrepresented dates and places and had not spent all that time alone with his dog.”

Their last phrase is precious. It performs the excellent service of establishing just how little is at stake in this whole phony controversy. The logic runs like this. If Steinbeck was not “alone with his dog,” as he claimed to be, how can he possibly be trusted on any other subject? And indeed, the Times headlined its editorial “The Truth About Charley.” The truth, in the paper’s eyes, is that Steinbeck’s book has been exposed for all time as nakedly untrue.

But has it? Here is a passage from Travels With Charley. Steinbeck describes his experience of driving U.S. 90, a “wide gash of a superhighway, multiple-lane carrier of the nation’s goods.” (Sometimes called the Southern 66, it is now identical to Interstate 10 for much of its length.) Although he says that he took this route to make up time, Steinbeck is rattled when the minimum posted speed is “greater than any [he] had previously driven”:

Instructions screamed at me from the road once: “Do not stop! No stopping. Maintain speed.” Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like the blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truth about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders.The passage contains another obvious untruth. Rociante, the truck that Steinbeck drove on the trip (pictured at right), did not even have a usable rear-view mirror! Steinbeck’s view of “the car behind” would have been blocked by the camper. When he goes on to complain, then, that there were “[n]o roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets” alongside the road, it must follow, I guess, that Steinbeck is not to be believed.

In truth, anyone who has driven America’s Interstate Highway System, created by an act of Congress in 1956, will agree with his prediction that, once the superhighways stretched “across the whole country” (the original plan was only completed in 1992, thirty years after Steinbeck wrote), “it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a thing.” Whether the poodle Charley was along for the ride when this thought first occurred to him, or whether he could see any cars in his rear-view mirror while thinking it, is utterly irrelevant. As Steinbeck wrote, as plainly as possible, the journey recorded in Travels With Charley was “designed for observation.” It was not written to leave a faithful “representation” of encounters, dates, and places. Remove the dog from the picture and its charm may be reduced, but not its faithfulness.

Take the following thought experiment. There is no such place as the United States of America, no road called U.S. 90, no coast-to-coast system of superhighways. In fact, there is no earth inhabited by human beings. A science-fiction novelist from Omega Centauri imagines the planet earth, human beings, a place known as the United States of America, a road called U.S. 90, a coast-to-coast highway system. If he writes that it will soon “be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a thing,” he really has (in the Times phrasing) “misrepresented dates and places.” The rest of his book is likely to be “shot through with dubious anecdotes and impossible encounters.” But what is the truth of his remark about driving across the country without seeing a thing?

In a novel—the systematic perfection of a make-believe world—the remark would have truthfulness only in relation to the whole. As I have said elsewhere, a novelist must keep faith with the conditions of his world. It is precisely Toni Morrison’s failure to do so in Beloved that many readers overlook in describing it, wrongly, as a great novel. Because they share her racial politics, they are prepared to forgive Morrison when she breaks faith with her fictional world.

But Travels With Charley is not a novel. And the editors of the Times hotly declare, “Books labeled ‘nonfiction’ should not break faith with readers.” Maybe so, but what the editors fail to grasp is that they take the existence of this country, U.S. 90, and Interstate highways so deeply for granted they fail to notice when Steinbeck keeps faith with them on these subjects. When he fibs to them about being alone with his dog, though—when, to use a more precise terminology, he resorts to a literary device to give shape to his amorphous observations—the editors are prepared to demand the return of his Nobel Prize in literature.

A book like Steinbeck’s depends for its truthfulness on the relation of its observations to the world that its readers already know. The flesh-and-blood poodle that Steinbeck named Charley, the actual poodle who found many things obscure, could have been known to only a few people who knew Steinbeck personally. The editors of the Times are so familiar, however, with the possibility of traveling alone with a poodle they are offended to learn that Steinbeck did not actually travel alone with Charley (or not all the time), instead of being grateful to him for bringing the possibility to life for them. Steinbeck did not break faith with them. What he may inadvertently have done is to expose the inconsequence of the things in which they are prepared to invest faith.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Confusions with Charley

It would be difficult to cook up a literary exposé that is less earth-shattering than Bill Steigerwald’s accusation in the April issue of Reason that Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck’s 1962 account of a motoring trip around America, was “not only heavily fictionalized; it was something of a fraud.” Steigerwald accuses Steinbeck of distorting his itinerary, inventing encounters, and lying about “roughing it,” sleeping arrangements, traveling alone with his poodle Charley, the places he stopped to visit. The book is stuffed with “creative fictions,” Steigerwald concludes. “Maybe Travels With Charley should be shelved with Steinbeck’s novels instead of in the nonfiction section.”

Where the book is shelved does not change what the book is, though. Not that Steigerwald is alone in kicking around a confused idea of fiction. The authorities contacted by the New York Times to comment on the story do little better. “Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out,” says Susan Shillinglaw, a Steinbeck scholar at San Jose State University. “That doesn’t make the book a lie.” Travels With Charley is not not true, then—is that what you’re saying? It can’t be fiction. It’s not not true.

“Steinbeck was a fiction writer,” his biographer Jay Parini allows, “and here he’s shaping events, massaging them. . . . But I still feel there’s an authenticity there.” Authenticity—isn’t that what something is supposed to have when it’s not exactly true, but you want to protect it from being called false? The throwback jerseys that the pros wear to honor their sport’s past are described as “authentic,” which is another way of saying they might make the players look as if they belong to yesteryear, if you squint really hard and use your imagination.

Bill Barich is the only one quoted in the Times with anything intelligent to say about the whole mess. Although his opinions about America were “darker” than he admitted in the book, and though his writing was “colored by the fact that he was so ill,” Steinbeck remained perceptive in Travels With Charley, Barich says. “I still take seriously a lot of what he said about the country,” he adds. “His perceptions were right on the money about the death of localism, the growing homogeneity of America, the trashing of the environment. He was prescient about all that.”

Barich’s comment suggests that Travels With Charley is a specific kind of book in which the emphasis is upon the pronouncements that the author delivers, not the events that he narrates. At issue in such a book is whether the author’s views, observations, and insights are counterfeit or genuine, not whether the events actually happened. This is a kind of book with a long and distinguished pedigree. The genre includes many travel narratives, starting perhaps with Sterne’s Sentimental Journey and gathering in Twain’s Roughing It (an obvious precursor to Steinbeck’s book) before reaching perfection in Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and V. S. Naipaul’s trilogy on India. But the genre also includes hard-to-classify books like Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, Thoreau’s Walden, Finley Peter Dunne’s “Mr. Dooley” collections, Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, and A. J. Liebling’s Honest Rainmaker. It is a genre at which Americans have particularly excelled.

Nock’s description of his Memoirs traces the distinctive lines of the genre: “a purely literary and philosophical autobiography with only enough collateral odds and ends thrown in to hold the narrative together.” Or perhaps even better: plenty of philosophy (views, observations, and insights) with only enough narrative to hold the book together. The narrative is a fiction, a contrivance, a ruse to give the book a coherence that, given its disjointed contents, it would otherwise lack. That is its only fictional quality. It asks to be judged, as Barich judges Travels With Charley, on the value of its wisdom.

Yet Barich also tells the Times he is “fairly certain that Steinbeck made up most of the book.” Did he make up the “perceptions” that Barich finds to be “right on the money”? Is that even possible?

The concept of fiction has been betrayed by its choice of partners. On one hand it is identified with fraud and lies; on the other, it is counterpoised with nonfiction (a concept that, if possible, is even more stupefying). But a book can contain “creative fictions” without being fiction, and can be fiction without being a lie. American literary thought would benefit from abandoning classification by either/or, and beginning to examine the different and distinctive ways that fiction operates in different and distinctive kinds of book—even books as silly and forgettable as Travels With Charley.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Diagnosed with cancer

The biblical scholar James L. Kugel has written a new book on life in the shadow of death. Diagnosed with cancer ten years ago, Kugel doggedly finished The God of Old, a study of the religious experience (as Jack Miles put it) “before the time when God came to seem omniscient and omnipresent,” and only then did he set to work on In the Valley of the Shadow, published in February by the Free Press.

The diagnosis of cancer sent Kugel on a “quest for the foundations of religious belief,” writes Eve Levavi Feinstein at Jewish Ideas Daily. “While Kugel’s previous books focused on Jewish and Christian traditions, In the Valley of the Shadow deals with basic, universal questions and seeks answers wherever they may lie”—including in neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Still, Kugel ends up preferring the God of old. Modern man now has, as Feinstein says in summarizing his views, “so much stronger a sense of power and agency,” which may explain “why true religious experience is so rare today.” Or, as Kugel himself says, “man is very big, and God is very far away.”

The God of the Hebrew Bible, whom Adam and Eve hear moving about the garden, with whom Abraham argues and Jacob wrestles, who permits Moses a glimpse of his backside, could be near at hand for the cancer patient, if somehow he cover recover the ancient belief. As Kugel says on the last page of The God of Old, written in the full awareness of his cancer, “[A]ncient Israel somehow came to believe that it is simply God’s nature to hear the victim’s cry, that despite all the evidence to the contrary and despite all common sense, this was, in Israel’s view, a realistic portrayal of God’s essential nature.”

How surprising to learn from Feinstein, then, that Kugel believes the “sickening question” asked by most cancer patients (How could this happen?) is not the right question. For Kugel the right question is some variation of Who said life is fair? On his own evidence, God said life is fair. It is modern man, a stranger to God’s closeness, who confidently rejects any notion of life’s fairness—until he is diagnosed with cancer.

For someone like myself, though, living for the past three-and-a-half years under the shadow of a Stage IV cancer diagnosis, neither question is right. Both of Kugel’s questions are “sickening.” The first is an expression of self-pity, which may be forgivable as an immediate reaction to overwhelming knowledge, but which shades over into denial the longer it is asked. The second question is a denial of another kind: it denies that there is any pity—any fairness—in the universe.

Both questions, it seems to me, are attempts to ask the meaning of cancer. But cancer is not a text to be interpreted or puzzling behavior to be understood in context. It is an organic process to which the human body reacts as an organism. This is why I am irritated when I am told to “fight” my cancer. Perhaps the drugs which are administered to me can be said to “fight” the cancer. At best I am ringside at the fight.

As an organism, I react to cancer in ways that I am unable to control. As a person, though, I respond to it—and not to an organic process, but to a human drama. My response is entirely within my control. I can elect self-pity or a universe without pity or take an altogether different stance. The right question, then, is How am I going to respond?

A diagnosis of cancer is a life-changing event, and the only question is what changes to make. In his new book, Kugel describes the change movingly:

[T]he main change in my state of mind was that the background music had suddenly stopped—the music of daily life that's constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities. Now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence. There you are, one little person, sitting in the late summer sun, with only a few things left to do.My own change was not nearly so moving. I remember that I was sitting in the back of the house, rocking slowly in the chair that my wife and I had purchased five years earlier for her to sit in comfortably while she nursed our newborn twins, and I was feeling profoundly sorry for myself. I was struggling without success to read some hefty book. Chemotherapy had left me with “chemo brain,” a state of mind in which everything was fuzzy and no idea ever wandered. “I can’t think any more,” I moaned softly to myself; “I can’t think any more.” Suddenly I stopped rocking. “Wait a minute,” I said; “that’s a thought.”

From then on I decided that, if I could no longer think as well as I once did, I could still direct streams of thought over the objects I chose. If I could no longer roughhouse with my boys as roughly as I once did, I could still roughhouse with them. If I could no longer be married to my wife “forever,” as I once promised, I could still be married to her for as long or short a time as remained to me.

The error that so many commit, upon hearing a diagnosis of cancer, is this. Cancer is not the concluding sentence, but a revision in a work that remains unfinished.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Hoffman’s Hunger

Not every Jewish writer who earns international attention is an anti-Zionist. The Dutch novelist Leon de Winter, who makes short work of the whining about “the inhumanity of Israeli policy” and understands only too well what animates Palestinian Arab culture, is famous throughout Europe for his intellectual thrillers. Hoffman’s Hunger, originally published in the Netherlands in 1990, was the first of his twelve novels to be translated into English. (To date only one other, God’s Gym, has been Englished. Both were published by the Toby Press, and remain in print.) In an article written last year for Standpoint, Winter named Franz Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer as his literary influences—Kafka for his depiction of a “world that could not be controlled,” Singer for his “poor and vigorous and colourful Jews.” It is not an exaggeration to say that his fiction is a heady mixture of these two great Jewish novelists’ themes, nor that Winter belongs in their company.

Set in the last months before the disintegration of Communist Eastern Europe, Hoffman’s Hunger follows the adventures of the new Dutch ambassador to Prague. Felix Hoffman is a “twentieth-century nihilist (his view of himself).” A Jew who was orphaned by the Holocaust, he was raised by a Catholic family in Den Bosch, a small city in southern Holland where Winter himself was born and raised. After marrying a beauty who bore him non-identical twin daughters, Hoffman was “deliriously happy,” even though his diplomatic career was not on the fast track. At the age of eight, though, one of the girls develops leukemia and turns before his eyes into a “little wizened crone with gentle eyes.”

On the day she dies, Hoffman “become[s] his own prisoner.” For the next two decades, he does not sleep. Alone at night, he begins to begins to eat, “demolish[ing] plate loads of food with a rapacious hunger” that goes on all night. His wife “gave his hunger a name, along the lines of ‘Parkinson’s’ or ‘Alzheimer’s’—she called it ‘Hoffman’s Hunger.’ ” His fragile self-control breaks down completely. Hoffman subverts his marriage, his career, his health. His other daughter dies of a drug overdose after sinking to pornography. By the time he is posted to Prague at fifty-nine, Hoffman is a “sleepless alcoholic with chronic hunger who had forfeited his right to exist long ago.”

His two-decade insomnia is not merely a waste product of grief. In her final days, his daughter Esther comes to accept her imminent death. And like so many patients with terminal cancer, she offers consolation to her family instead of seeking it:

     “It’s all right, Daddy, it really is all right.”
     “It won’t be all right until you’re better.”
     “No. Just let me be as I am. I know.”
     “What do you know, darling?”
     She smiled, from somewhere beyond the pain.
     “I know, Daddy. . .”
     “But what, Esther darling? What do you know?”
     She said it once more, barely audible this time. “I know, Daddy. . .”
Esther dies before she can tell her father what she knows. Hoffman is haunted by her last words. They keep him awake for twenty years.

He endures the long nights by eating constantly and reading a translation of the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, a treatise on human understanding by Spinoza circa 1662, which Hoffman finds in the attic of the Dutch embassy. As he struggles with the book, he realizes that what Spinoza wants is to devise a method that would “provide perfect knowledge and point the way to supreme wisdom.” Thus it could be, for Hoffman, another means to acquire Esther’s final knowledge.

Hoffman’s Hunger takes its structure from Spinoza’s treatise. After a chapter that feints toward the subplot or parallel narrative, the novel opens with the first paragraph of the treatise, and by the time that Hoffman finishes the book five months later—or, rather, by the time he realizes that Spinoza left it unfinished—his story is almost over (except for a coda in one last chapter).

The novel’s plot is the intertwining of two different stories about men who betray their countries. The men and their stories parallel each other—two fat men who are tormented by a “hungering after repletion,” two cases of bad health, two bad marriages, two acts of treason undertaken to feed the hunger—but their ends are different.

Hoffman finds redemption. Although he decides that he is no patriot, although he has no qualms about paying back the country that had betrayed his parents to the Nazis, he is not motivated by politics. And though he is spared by the Velvet Revolution, which diminishes his crime of passing secrets to the Czech Communists, he does not find redemption in politics. Human freedom is renewed in Eastern Europe, but Hoffman is a “professional outsider, a permanent refugee.” He is excluded from the celebration. For him, “[i]t seemed out of the question that a lasting peace would descend upon Europe.”

Redemption comes from an unexpected quarter. On the run from the KLPD, Hoffman holes up in the family’s summer home in Vught, site of a Nazi transit camp. Unwashed and stinking, he is a “specimen of human despair and arrogance.” He admits that he has “brought destruction upon his own head and was searching for some way of atoning.” He finds the way in Spinoza’s Tractatus. The book “suddenly appeared to him as a kind of liturgy.” While the great philosopher had gone in search of ultimate truth, Hoffman himself is particularly concerned to discover how the average layman might learn to pray again. He is not a believer, but he knows that he must pray if he is to atone for the “stupidity” and “egoism” of his twenty-years hunger—he must “pray, without believing.”

In telling how Hoffman came to pray, Leon de Winter has told one of the great Jewish stories. I don’t mean simply that he has written one of the greatest Jewish novels of the past century, although he has, but also that he has unforgettably captured the predicament of the modern Jew, and how he finds his way out.

Winter’s books include:

Over de leegte in de wereld [stories] (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1976). The Day before Yesterday, trans. Scott Rollins (New York: Vehicle Editions, 1985).

De (ver)wording van de jonge Dürer [“The Corruption of Young Dürer”] (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1978).

Zoeken naar Eileen W [“Looking for Eileen W”] (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1981).

Place de la Bastille (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1981).

Vertraagde roman [“Delayed novel,” travel writing] (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1982).

Kaplan (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1986).

Hoffman’s honger (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1990). Trans. Arnold and Erica Pomerans (New Milford, Conn.: Toby Press, 2007).

SuperTex (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1991).

De ruimte van Sokolov [“Room for Sokolov”] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1992).

Serenade (Amsterdam: CPNB, 1995).

Zionoco (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1995).

De hemel van Hollywood [“The Hollywood Sky”] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1997).

God’s Gym (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2002). Trans. Jeannette K. Ringold (New Milford, Conn.: Toby Press, 2009).

Het recht op terugkeer [“The Right of Return”] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2008).