October 19, 2010
Read Adam Kirsch’s review of Robert Alter’s translation of The Wisdom Books (Job, Proverbs, and Kohelet). That they serve as a kind of counterpoint to the world’s narrative as established elsewhere in the Bible is not a new observation, but one that Kirsch does well to point out — he points it out in the context of language — that of Alter’s translation and that of the literary merit of the texts themselves. In terms of surface value, a line-by-line basic reading, they perhaps are contradictory. They are even so in their broader sense — yet they are (and, more importantly, were, millenia ago) accepted as revelatory, just as were (say) the Psalms or the Torah itself.
All of these are, of course, different kinds of revelation: Torah as, in a strict sense, a legal-historical revelation; Psalms as a personal-poetic; then the wisdom books, discussing something more akin to man-in-general, but still a sort of personal-poetic revelation. The question, however, still remains: can you have revelation that contradicts itself? Does this revelation, as it may initially appear, contradict itself? And then what — especially for one who, like me, is inclined to believe that truth is inherent and inhering in these books?
The seeming contradiction and its acceptance by the earlier (now ancient?) generations and its leaders points toward how we can and should (and must, at times?) read the Bible: not as a singular unswerving narrative, but as a mixture of voices, all trying to understand man and God from their position; all of which, the tradition holds, experienced revelation of some kind. The literary truth of Job or Kohelet may seem to contradict the narrative truth of the Creation, as Kirsch notes of Alter’s translations: but this does not mean that neither is true, or that we must choose one or none.
Biblical truth is closely related to the truth we find in art and literature. It is various and multiform but exists nevertheless. What strengthens this truth to something beyond that which is found in art or literature is the idea of revealed truth, if one accepts it. But the composition of the Bible — that it seems to contradict itself; that it leaves gaps and jagged edges; that the truths of the various books shout, at times, against each other and then with their opponent of a moment ago — is a kind of instruction from those who lived before us — from, in essence, the founders of the religion as a religion of a book — as to how we, millenia later, should read it. Let the gaps and rough edges stand and try to understand them, and the whole, as they are, rather than try to sand them over into some immaculate unified whole that in the end becomes wholly uninteresting.
After all — even though Kohelet’s men and beasts are equals, unlike the man who is given dominion over beasts in Genesis, the “mere breath” that is all is merely the air which the same earlier book claims God breathed into Adam’s nostrils. In the end, perhaps, the more interesting truths are those found in the gaps.
October 13, 2010
Writing at Tablet, Eryn Loeb remarks:
And in the end, my Philip Roth binge made it hard for me to think of any one of his books as an individual work. Read together, they left behind a web of allusions and cross-references and authorial obsessions and outbursts and reflections that I’m happy to leave all tangled together in my head, letting the Nathan Zuckerman of American Pastoral touch base with his younger self from The Counterlife, having Swede Levov explain his familial knowledge of glove-making to the nameless protagonist of Everyman (who himself has some expertise in the fine jewelry trade), and letting Alex Portnoy and Goodbye, Columbus’ Neil Klugman swap stories—while all the female romantic interests get together to compare their own notes on this group of tortured Jewish men. Read on a bender like this, the connections between stories and characters and themes all but broadcast themselves, and I got a better sense of the man behind them than I would have had I read American Pastoral by itself, in installments the length of a subway ride.
This runs parallel to some of my feelings about Roth — more than anything, to my feelings about the Zuckerman saga. On their own, the first trilogy are entertaining and literate, and they pose their questions sometimes and irritate you at others — and I can’t help but feel that were it not for the Zuckerman novels that followed, Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift would have preemptively made Roth’s triplet more or less unnecessary. But that monumental, Jamesian middle cycle, as brilliant as it is on its own (and, with respect to each novel, individually) is not nearly as tremendous without having known the younger, manic Zuckerman of the previous three. Exit Ghost, on its own, is middling; as a coda, it feels absolutely necessary. Some day, it will force me to re-read the whole saga, in order to figure out whether there’s anything more to appreciate at its close.
Relatedly, Roth’s portraits of aging — in the later Zuckerman novels, Sabbath’s Theater, Everyman, and so on — become more vivid in mosaic. His project strikes one as less to describe the ideal way to age and die, than to describe how these individuals do age and die, and react to that process, and set them side-by-side. There’s commentary in it, but somehow a far more compassionate commentary than any individual novel would indicate.
September 29, 2010
Just wanted to acknowledge the dearth of activity: been travellin’, been job-interviewin’, been grad-school investigatin’, been post-some-schmuck-hit-and-ran-on-my-car-while-I-was-eatin’-estimatin’, been on 4-day weeks because of yontif and all that lulav/etrog shakin’ it entails. Et cetera. But as I’m finally caught up on Mad Men and am progressing enough in Proust that I’ve started calling the first signals of literary motifs “overtures,” sooner or later I’ll come back to you, long-neglected pixellated web log and you who read it.
September 14, 2010
Well, I guess it really depends on what you mean by “neoconservatism.” It’s Sam Tanenhaus’ description of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, one of his choices for the best five books on American conservatism. His list caught my attention—notably, his willingness to include fiction on his list (and fiction for its own sake, not because it gives insight into Joe McCarthy or Buckley). I don’t have my copy of Mr. Sammler’s Planet on hand, but I can say that I like this choice very much. Despite my wariness about the label “neoconservative” (it seems almost meaningless anymore), something of that impression struck me, too, when I read the novel.
But the neoconservatism of Mr. Sammler’s Planet is almost accidental, and hardly that version which gave us Iraq/Iran/etc. hawks in the last decade. There have always seemed to be two neoconservatisms: that of the 1970s and 1980s, concerned, as is Sammler (and, to various degrees, Herzog, Charlie Citrine, Chick, etc.) with the seeming decay of society—or at least its changes, and ability of the human being to adapt to changes that seem to run on their own energy; and the neoconservatism that strikes one more as Wilsonianism on steroids than anything else. (Maybe it could be put like this: in the earlier incarnation, the demon was already inside the gates; in the present, it must be kept outside at all costs.) I will be honest: I have never found the former, as a social critique, unappealing.
All this talk of neoconservatism and Mr. Sammler’s Planet risks pigeonholing Bellow’s work as something it was not. He was a writer with an agenda, to be sure: but that agenda was nothing more than to describe and diagnose society as he saw it. An old but excellent review of the novel says it well: “Saul Bellow is pre-eminently the novelist of man-in-culture, man swimming in an ocean of ideas in which he often feels near to being swamped.” Whatever such neoconservatism there is does not come from the fear, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “that [the moral degeneracy of modernity has made] the West was too decadent to defeat Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.” Artur Sammler is a man who survived the Holocaust but not unchanged, only to discover that the world in which he now lives is not the same as that for the sake of which he struggled to survive. The verities of his life before rupture—the verities he wanted to live for—no longer exist. (But it is the world he has: it is, after all, Mr. Sammler’s planet.)
Rather than having its roots in anything political, the critique, at its core, is something far more Faulknerian:
I read in The Wall Street Journal about the melancholy of affluence, “Not in all the five millennia of man’s recorded history have so many been so affluent.” Minds formed by scarcity are distorted. The heart can’t take this sort of change. Sometimes it just refuses to accept it. (Humboldt’s Gift, p. 3)
The problem with modernity in Bellow’s novels is this: its curses and its blessings are essentially indistinguishable, and neither could exist with the simultaneous presence of the other.
September 7, 2010
“Let me tell you something. Nowadays, everybody’s gotta go to shrinks, and counselors, and go on “Sally Jessie Raphael” and talk about their problems. What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then it’s dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction ma fangul!”
–Tony Soprano, “Pilot”
There’s a stronger affinity, I think, between Mad Men and The Sopranos than Matthew Weiner and David Chase’s influence on him. Especially if you go back to the first season of Mad Men, something stands out about Don Draper—he’s a man making himself up, a Man With No Name (sorta, if you will), stumbling into Manhattan from no-one-knows-where. He’s the hero of some classic western flick, dropped onto Madison Avenue. He’s the Gary Cooper strong silent type Tony’s talking about above, the real-life version of the movie hero Tony grins at from behind a bowl of ice cream.
Of course, what becomes clear as Mad Men progresses is that Don’s mysterious outsider, strong-silent-type status is just as much of an act as Tony’s “sad clown” shtick. He’s truly broken inside: by his moment in time, by the fact that the society he’s modeling himself for/after no longer exists (and maybe never did), by his complicated past and his (lack of) relations with his biological family. This is also Betty’s problem—notice her reaction to the knowledge he’s not who she thinks. And, more importantly for the purposes of this post, it’s Tony’s problem. There are hints in both shows that this long-for society never did exist—how well do Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper, and the Lucky Strike heir mesh with Don’s idea of what a “man” should be? Christopher stabs at Tony with the statement that “Dickie Moltisanti, my father, your hero, was really just another junkie.”—but Don and Tony have trouble accepting that. (Tony, as time progresses, seems to forget about the meaning of the figures he’s referencing in his complaints, and increasingly fails to live up to his own standards.)
While Tony responds to modernity by increasingly acting as an agent of, if you’ll pardon the expression, the devil (more to come on this later), Don behaves like any red-blooded American western movie hero and turns to the bottle. Although a real American would stop drinking that damn Canadian stuff, but I’ll let it slide for now. If you watch Don’s drinking and Roger’s, there’s a difference: Don drinks to escape (the only other way he can do it is to go to California; this is cheaper, and easier, and more destructive), while Roger drinks because he loves to drink. It’s his hobby, more or less—yes, a bad one, especially for a man who’s had two major heart attacks, yet it somehow seems less psychologically destructive than Don’s utter lack of pleasure from his drunkenness. (Yes, he was amused by Lane getting drunk with him—but that was Lane, not the scotch, making him smile.) Don’s drinking now has caused him to lose the memory of at least one full day of his life—it might as well never have existed, as far as his memory is concerned.
So he drinks for a temporary reprieve from being Don Draper (he gave his name as Dick Whitman to the waitress he can’t remember picking up), but also because Don is trying to adhere to some old honor(ish) system that is clearly having trouble withstanding the late 1950s/early 1960s; that can’t stand up without the support of people who believe in it—but which he can’t stand up. Unlike Tony Soprano, Don Draper is not a sociopath. Hence the show’s transformation into the Long Slow Trainwreck of Don Draper’s Life.
Meanwhile, if Tony Soprano were able to watch Mad Men, all of this leads me to think that he would love it, too; that he would see Don as some sort of desperate hold out sacrificing himself for the cause of the Strong Silent Type. And maybe that is who Don Draper is—a man who, having molded himself and found that the mold has been discarded by society, is struggling to maintain himself just for the sake of all he sacrificed to get there. But if their roles were reversed, and Don could watch Tony talk about the strong silent type and lament the good ol’ days of honor while slowly abandoning more and more of that model—he’d probably be unconditionally disgusted.
And could the Don Draper who once called a drunken Roger Sterling in blackface a disgrace see the vindictive drunk he will become in several years time, one imagines that he, too, would be condemned. Tony Soprano never sees that he has slipped completely away from the standards he claims to revere; Don’s chances for some degree of redemption rest, it would appear, on whether he has the same failing. (Perhaps that moment of physical—of human—contact with Peggy at the end of Sunday’s episode bodes well for him. Or not: just ask the girl who began the season as his secretary.)
Quick note: I’m out of town, and Rosh Hashana begins tomorrow and leads directly into Shabbat, so it might be next week before I get another chance to post. If that’s the case: L’shana tovah and happy football season.
September 6, 2010
I’m no expert on George Soros, and I have no knowledge of the situation in Canada which prompted Ezra Levant to write about him. I know nothing of the financial doings he talks about. None of those are my concern. What I do know—and what is my concern—is that Ezra Levant is accusing a fellow Jew of “moral hollowness” for the crime of having survived the Holocaust. And a quick Google search shows that this perspective—that Soros is not a Jewish survivor, but a Nazi collaborator—is not uncommon.
The facts appear to be this: when the Nazis took control of Hungary in 1944, Soros (then 13) initially served as a message-boy for the Judenrat, delivering letters that contained the lists of those to be deported (not, as Roger Kimball implies with some creative editing, actively rounding them up). His father eventually bribed a government official to pretend that Soros was his (Christian) godson. The official’s job involved confiscating Jewish property. Soros accompanied him and assisted in the confiscation, pretending to be a Christian. What gets him in trouble, or provides cover for those who want to call him a Nazi collaborator, is his admission that he feels neither survivor’s guilt nor guilt at having participated in the confiscation of property.
For Levant, this is evidence that he is a “sociopath”; for Roger Kimball, that he is “evil”; for Marty Peretz, “a young cog in the Hitlerite wheel.” Perhaps, for the sake of conversation, he is evil; perhaps he is a morally hollow sociopath; but that the task of surviving the Holocaust forced a Jewish child into position as a very small “cog in the Hitlerite wheel” proves neither—and can prove neither.
Though the Nazi regime never intended for Soros to have the role he did—an accomplice in the theft of property while they were stealing lives—the incorporation of the Jewish people into the crimes committed against the Jews was one of the truly defining qualities of their evil; if there can be a genius of evil, this was a particularly harrowing and undoubtedly brilliant example of it. Emil Fackenheim speculated that the ideal methods of Jewish destruction were, in descending order, Jewish killing themselves, Jews killing other Jews, and others killing Jews. If Fackenheim is correct (and he admits he may not be), then an incorporation of Jews into the system of destruction was just as important as the destruction itself.
Primo Levi’s essay, “The Gray Zone” is in part an exploration of what it meant to be a Jewish “collaborator.” He writes:
“Behind the pragmatic aspect (to economize on able men, to impose on others the most atrocious tasks) other more subtle aspects can be perceived. This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others—specifically, the victims—the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence. … In fact, the existence of the squads had a meaning, a message: ‘We, the master race, are your destroyers, but you are no better than we are; if we so wish, and we do so wish, we can destroy not only your bodies but also your souls, just as we have destroyed ours.’”
He’s talking, here, about the Special Squads who helped lead other Jews into the gas chambers, who were responsible for taking the bodies to the crematoria, and who were invariably killed every two to three months. They were the only Jews, according to one of their few survivors, whom the Nazis in Auschwitz treated as a kind of being: they played soccer with them, felt them to be equally inhuman. They did things that cannot be compared with Soros’ role; and Soros’ quest for survival in Hungary cannot be deemed equivalent to the hellish novum of Auschwitz. Yet the deportations and property confiscations in Hungary were a part of the same machine of death, the same Holocaust; ultimately, disparate parts of the same event. And the questions Levi says arise from the existence of the Special Squads are the same that Levant, Kimball, Peretz, and others are asking of Soros:
“Why did they accept that task? Why didn’t they rebel? Why didn’t they prefer death?”
Levi’s insistence—and the question that later philosophers and theologians, like Fackenheim, were forced to take up—is that the Holocaust collapsed, within its bounds and for its duration, conventional morality: it was a world where one had to lie, cheat, steal, and condemn others to death by action or omission in order to survive. Yet survival was among the highest possible acts of resistance to a world governed by evil. Levi stole; he cheated; he lied; he was selectively selfish and selectively generous, condemning others to death because of it—yet saving some, and himself. Was Levi a collaborator? An evil man? A sociopath? His guilt, after all, is always tempered by the knowledge that he survived.
So he demands of those who would judge the Special Squads and all others who survived without the bounds of conventional or even post-Holocaust morality: imagine you are them, you have seen what they have seen and know what they know, have been broken down as they have been broken down, and ask yourself how long you would last—not before your body died, but before your ability to resist cooperating for the sake of your own survival died, and ultimately to consider those who did “with pity and rigor, but that judgment of them be suspended.”
People want Soros to feel guilty for having survived in the way he did. Yet his answer about not feeling guilt is understandable—he gives examples from the markets, but another comes to mind, that of Jean Amery sitting in a Vienna coffeehouse in 1935 and reading of the Nuremburg Laws: “To be a Jew, that meant for me, from this moment on, to be a dead man on leave, someone to be murdered, who only by chance was not yet where he properly belonged.” So it was, too, with Jewish property: the confiscation was inevitable. It is not sociopathic that Soros does not feel he was a thief; the crime for which he is condemned sixty-six years later. The property was stolen the moment the Nazis arrived in Hungary; it only by chance was not yet confiscated. Would I feel guilt? I think I would—but I can’t—and nor can anyone—say with certainty unless they lived through the event.
The fact, in the end, is that when George Soros is condemned as “evil”; a “sociopath”; a “collaborator”; a “Jewish Nazi” all that is demonstrated is the scope and efficacy of the Holocaust: it was an event designed so that, if it failed to destroy Jewry, the survivors would be condemned as no better than their attempted murderers. But the fact remains that his mere survival–because he was a Jew–was an act of resistance. They aren’t decrying collaboration; they’re decrying his survival. Levant, Kimball, Peretz, et al. either possess shockingly incomplete understandings of what the Holocaust was—or else they’re just milking the outrage they can invoke in order to score a handful of cheap (and petty) points against a political opponent. Especially Levant — I don’t know how, in good faith, one can claim there has ever been a “Jewish Nazi’ who did not, out of sheer ideological necessity, kill himself.
The severity of the Holocaust as an event — in history, in philosophy, in theology, in humanity — is not only a result of where and when it was born, or the methods and efficiency of its slaughter. It is that, as Levi implies and Fackenheim further argues, it created a moral world unto itself — which, though not our moral world, must affect our relationship to the morality and philosophy that came before it. When Soros is called a “Jewish Nazi” for the crime of having survived but survived blemished and not feeling guilt for that survival, and when this is cheered — loudly and repeatedly, as this claim has been making the rounds in various forms for at least six years, it seems — it implies that the Holocaust has changed remarkably little about the way humanity must understand itself.
The question to ask, then, is this: if survival requires that one take part, in some small way, participate in an evil system that seeks to destroy you, does survival become tainted by that evil? Does survival itself require expiation?
September 3, 2010
I know he’s probably sick of everyone talking about him by now, but E.D. Kain’s recent talk about abandoning the conservative label began to remind me about a similar moment his colleague William had a few years ago (not leading, in the end, to a permanent abandoning of the word), which sent me looking through a bunch of old posts to see my responses to him, and to see what my own struggles with labels looked like then. What William wrote then, I think, deserves being quoted again:
Conservatism, broadly construed, is dedicated to a certain kind of story about our political life, just as the liberalism is dedicated to its own story. To say “I am a conservative” or “I am a liberal” is to endorse a story. And the mainstream of the conservative movement, right now, is advancing a certain interpretation of that story.
So what do you do when the genre turns ugly? You don’t stay silent; you tell a better story. You take the various codes and tropes, and you learn how to make them compelling again.
You reclaim the word by reclaiming the genre.
Changing it through telling stories, through reclaiming the genre, makes it (to my ear) sound easier than it probably is. But I don’t mind that. It’s reassuring—it doesn’t seem impossible.
The story that needs to be rebutted is that which has come out of the weird afterlife of Buckley’s invocation to “Stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!’” While from a certain perspective it’s admirable just as was Hektor’s defense of Troy despite knowing it would inevitably fall. Society changes; someone has to caution—someone has to lay the gadfly. But this requires one to accept that yelling, “Stop!” is an act doomed to failure. History will not stop because it cannot stop.
Without that realization, when the image lapses into dogma, the problem arises, as I’ve said before:
Standing athwart history means standing outside of history. Any successful politics cannot must stand and act within history; within history is where we live. Any successful — or even unsuccessful — conservatism must as well: isn’t it conservatism which eschews the messianic impulse toward perfection, toward removing humanity from the realm of history ourselves? (Again, Buckley: “Don’t immanitize the eschaton.”) And, living and acting within history, for conservatism to be successful, it must be more than yelling, “Stop!” or “No!” (though sometimes it may be justified and called for).
The story that needs to be told now, after all, is one that has already been told. In that regard, I suppose, we’re fortunate. It’s the story of Jack Burden’s hard-won wisdom in the beautiful closing paragraph of All the King’s Men:
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among the trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.
September 2, 2010
1) Did you know there was a small and brief theater of battle in New Mexico? Neither did I. It’s eerie, and reads almost like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s imagination—the Confederate retreat, through miles of dry desert, might well have been pulled from Blood Meridian.
2) Yes, Jackson was brilliant in the Valley Campaign, but between then and Antietam he comes across as so incompetent that one really wonders why Lee stuck by him so strongly. If all of Foote’s anecdotes are to be believed, Stonewall had a remarkable penchant—and ability—to nap in the middle of battle.
3) The telling of Antietam is something marvelous, as terrible as the day was. For one thing, I hadn’t realized quite how elegant Lee’s intercepted plans were—but once Foote gets into the battle itself, it’s something else. It left me, despite knowing how it would end, breathless and exhilarated. If you read nothing else of Foote’s, read this section. (I may amend this by the time I’m done with the whole Narrative—but that probably won’t be for a few more months.)
4) The naval campaigns are just as interesting as the land ones. This surprised me—but it’s on the rivers and sea that there’s a real arms race, and the inventiveness of engineers and captains on both sides is fascinating.
5) I can only hope that by the time Volume Two was published, either Foote or his editor had gotten sick of the phrase “baptism of fire.” Yes, we get it, there’s religious symbolism there. But it’s also a cliché—or was by the time Foote was done with it. The only reason I haven’t taken to striking it out every time I see it is because this book has somehow become my Shabbat afternoon reading.
6) Before reading, just go ahead and look up “defilade” and “enfilade” in your dictionary.
7) If Leonidas Polk weren’t so damned incompetent, the entire Western Theater might have gone significantly better for the South. Then again, that alone wouldn’t have made up for the fact that Grant and Sherman were in the West.
8) This isn’t Shelby Foote, but it is the Civil War: these two posts on Robert E. Lee and slavery, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and his guest blogger Andy Hall, respectively, are well worth reading if you’re into this kind of thing.
I was at work on a post inspired by the discussion at the League of Glenn Greenwald’s post on the Obama administration and the assassination of American citizens, but I’m not going to be able to add anything other than the obvious; and my Akhilles analogies in an attempt to rebut Adam Kirsch on the Classics aren’t quite working out — yet.
And then I realized, that in my year-long blog detox which limited my regular online reading to the Daily Dish and only a few other sources, I had heard nothing of this until today. So I checked, and Sullivan has just a single post about the Awlaki situation — and that was a commentless quotation of Spencer Ackerman.
Now, I really doubt that Sullivan’s going to stumble onto anything I say here (though it did happen once before! Hey — a boy can dream, can’t he?), but this is bothersome, given his stridency in hammering home the Bush administration’s record on torture and civil liberties. Which is to say, I trust him to call out Obama on the same types of issues — and (in a post shortly after the election which I can’t find but recall clearly), he essentially promised to. And I can’t be the only one whose sense of the day’s news is shaped in large part by the Dish.
I worry, in short, that the issue didn’t simply slip under the rug (because how could it?) and that it’s being ignored, for one reason or another. So, from my little barstool in the far outskirts of the interwebs, I’m going to call him out on it and hope that he will, in the future, be just as vigilant now as he was when Bush was sitting at the big desk.
August 31, 2010
“And on one of the longest walks we ever took from Combray there was a spot where the narrow road emerged suddenly on to an immense plain, closed at the horizon by strips of forest over which rose and stood alone the fine point of Saint-Hilaire’s steeple, but so sharpened and so pink that it seemed to be no more than sketched on the sky by the finger-nail of a painter anxious to give such a landscape, to so pure a piece of ‘nature,’ this little sign of art, this single indication of human existence. As one drew near it and could make out the remains of the square tower, half in ruins, which still stood by its side, though without rivalling it in height, one was struck, first of all, by the tone, reddish and sombre, of its stones; and on a misty morning in autumn one would have called it, to see it rising above the violet thunder-cloud of the vineyards, a ruin of purple, the colour of the wild vine.”
—Swann’s Way, “Combray,” p. 48 (2 vol. Random House ed., trans. Moncrieff)