I…found that my first draft was almost always better than my second. This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time.
H/t Jim Farmelant.
I…found that my first draft was almost always better than my second. This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time.
H/t Jim Farmelant.
All that’s solid melts into air.
Schocken Verlag* was a German publishing house established in 1931 by Jewish department store owner Salman Shocken. In 1939 it was shut down by the Nazis. It slowly made its way to New York, where it eventually became Shocken Books. In 1987 Shocken was acquired by Random House. Eleven years later, Random House was acquired by Bertelsmann.
During World War II, Bertelsmann was the largest publisher of Nazi propaganda, including “The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth.” It also made use of Jewish slave labor in Latvia and Lithuania.
Confronted about the company’s past in 2002, a Bertelsmann spokesman said, “The values of Bertelsmann then are irreconcilable with the company today. The company is now a global player in the media industry.”
Because the one thing the Nazis definitely were not were global players.
“Common sense tells us,” wrote Nabokov, “that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
Writing in last week’s New Yorker about the memoirs of children of famous writers, James Wood raises a question that has been asked before: “Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?”
As Wood points out, George Steiner entertained a similar proposition some 20 years ago, also in The New Yorker. (Steiner had been moved to this suspicion by the prod of Louis Althusser’s strangling of his wife. Of course. It wouldn’t be Steinerian if weren’t just a touch Wagnerian.) And Cynthia Ozick wrestled with it in the 1970s or maybe early 80s in a pair of reviews: one of Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf, the other of R.W.B. Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton.
In Wood’s and Ozick’s case—I don’t have access to Steiner’s piece, so I don’t know—the supposition is the same: the writer lives her life in her work. Her external life—the parties she attends, children she raises, drinks she downs, meals she arranges, bills she pays—is not her real life. It is a shadow of the inner flame that lights every page, every sentence, of her work.
For Ozick and Wood, this is true whether the writer is a woman or a man. It’s also true whether the writer about the writer—Wood considers the children of Saul Bellow, William Styron, John Cheever, and Bernard Malamud—is a woman or a man.
Interestingly, Wood and Ozick find the male progeny of these writers to be less successful memoirists of their parents (or, in Bell’s case, aunt) than the female progeny. Alexandra Styron, Susan Cheever, and Janna Malamud Smith seem to understand and accept what Greg Bellow and Quentin Bell miss or refuse to come to terms with: that their fathers’ and aunts’ most sacred cause was the word, that their first true love was for the work they were creating. (Ozick remarks that Wharton’s most passionate affair occurred in bed: not because of the love she made there but because that was where she composed The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.)
The successful memoirist needs to grant the writer the holy mystery of his interiority, says Wood, to “bestow” on her subject his “independence.” The only trace of the writer’s self that the memoirist, like the biographer, will ever find is in the writing.
Saul Bellow’s most private self was expressed in writing, not in paternity. For any serious writer, the private self is the writing self. That closed study door, which Greg Bellow imagines as a symbolic frontier between “writing” and “living,” was no such thing; for Saul Bellow, the writing was the living. And to write means turning privacy outward. Writing fiction is a kind of publicized privacy; you feel, in the greatest novels, the ghost of the author’s soul rustle into life.
Let’s set aside the question of gender (it strikes me as perhaps not coincidental that it is women rather than men who are able to know these truths, if they are indeed truths, about their fathers). Let’s also set aside the question of whether or not this claim about the writer’s life is even true.
What strikes me in reading these pieces is that they are less about the children (or nephews) of writers than they are about children as such. Do we not, all of us, have to come to terms with the mystery of our parents, to acknowledge that their inner life is neither exhausted nor consumed by the life we know, by the care and devotion they bestow or don’t bestow upon us? That their real life may be the life they lead elsewhere, which may also be on a page, whether a diary, a letter, a legal brief, a memo? Are not all of our parents mysterious writers, composing their poems behind closed doors? And do we not, all of us, have to bestow that independence upon them if we are to have our own?
That, at some level, is the basic conceit of Mad Men, as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in a much noticed review from two years back:
It’s only when you realize that the most important “eye”—and “I”—in Mad Men belong to the watchful if often uncomprehending children, rather than to the badly behaved and often caricatured adults, that the show’s special appeal comes into focus. In the same Times article, [Mad Men creator Matthew] Weiner tried to describe the impulses that lay at the core of his creation, acknowledging that
part of the show is trying to figure out—this sounds really ineloquent—trying to figure out what is the deal with my parents. Am I them? Because you know you are…. The truth is it’s such a trope to sit around and bash your parents. I don’t want it to be like that. They are my inspiration, let’s not pretend.
This, more than anything, explains why the greatest part of the audience for Mad Men is made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts—people who were in their twenties and thirties and forties in the 1960s, and are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties—but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today, which is to say of an age with those characters’ children. The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.
Hence both the show’s serious failings and its strong appeal. If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then. As for the appeal: Who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight? And who, after having that privileged view, would want to dismiss the lives they led and world they inhabited as trivial—as passing fads, moments of madness? Who would still want to bash them, instead of telling them that we know they were bad but that now we forgive them?
The only amendment I would add to Mendelsohn’s analysis is that the life of her father that little Sally Draper is not privy to is not only to be found in Don’s serial affairs or his mysterious upbringing. It may also be found—perhaps even most fully—in those brilliant ad campaigns he crafts, in those heartbreaking speeches about the “carousel” that he makes to the executives of Kodak, in those brilliant little edits he performs on Peggy’s prose.
When it comes to our parents, are we not, all of us, to varying degrees of success, the memoirists of writers?
Update (12:20 pm)
I love things like this, pieces of diaries, pieces of other lives. When I’m on the subway and I see someone writing in a Moleskin, I have to stop myself from looking over their shoulders. In that moment of writing, squeezing in a few lines before school or work, it seems everything they had to say would be of the utmost fascination. When you see something like this, one little fragment for a day of grief, you think of the hours squeezed into that sentence. At one point, he says “I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it- or without being sure of not doing so – although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.”
Of course, it’s even harder for the mothers to tell their stories. Back in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf goes through the names and says, the thing these women all have in common is that they are not mothers. More now can find some insufficient solution to the need for time and solitude, but the ethics of saying what they know remain vexed. A friend told me recently of finding the diary of a great-grandmother, who described not only her desperate unhappiness, but contained detailed portraits of her husband and children in meticulous and unflattering detail. I asked her what she did with it and she said, I got rid of it, of course. There is the responsibility, there are feelings, also. But there is also the urge to record, always equal parts hope and despair.
Someone on Twitter or FB pointed me to this old Paris Review interview with Cynthia Ozick. From the Spring 1987 issue. So many fine moments. Here’s my little annotated version of it. But read the whole thing.
“I wrote about 300,000 words of it.”
Immediately after graduate school . . . ah, here I should stop to explain that there was a very short period in the early fifties when would-be writers were ashamed to go on to get a Ph.D. A very short period! But that was when one tried out teaching for a while after college—as a teaching assistant on a stipend—and then fled homeward to begin the novel. Mine, typically, was immensely ambitious. I thought of it as a “philosophical” novel, and was going to pit the liberal-modernists against the neo-Thomists. I wrote about 300,000 words of it.
Literature, Imagination, and Monotheism
Until quite recently I held a rather conventional view about all this. I thought of the imagination as what its name suggests, as image-making, and I thought of the writer’s undertaking as a sovereignty set up in competition with the sovereignty of—well, the Creator of the Universe. I thought of imagination as that which sets up idols, as a rival of monotheism. I’ve since reconsidered this view. I now see that the idol-making capacity of imagination is its lower form, and that one cannot be a monotheist without putting the imagination under the greatest pressure of all. To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination. I no longer think of imagination as a thing to be dreaded. Once you come to regard imagination as ineluctably linked with monotheism, you can no longer think of imagination as competing with monotheism. Only a very strong imagination can rise to the idea of a noncorporeal God. The lower imagination, the weaker, falls into the proliferation of images. My hope is someday to be able to figure out a connection between the work of monotheism-imagining and the work of story-imagining. Until now I have thought of these as enemies.
The Sentence and the Self
Quentin Bell’s biography told the story of his aunt, who happened to be the famous writer Virginia Woolf. But it was a family story really, about a woman with psychotic episodes, her husband’s coping with this, her sister’s distress. It had, as I said, the smell of a household. It was not about the sentences in Virginia Woolf’s books. The Wharton biography, though more a “literary” biography, dealt with status, not with the writer’s private heart. What do I mean by “private heart”? It’s probably impossible to define, but it’s not what the writer does—breakfast, schedule, social outings—but what the writer is. The secret contemplative self. An inner recess wherein insights occur. This writer’s self is perhaps coextensive with one of the writer’s sentences. It seems to me that more can be found about a writer in any single sentence in a work of fiction, say, than in five or ten full-scale biographies. Or interviews!
Against Lionel Trilling
I was taking a course with Lionel Trilling and wrote a paper for him with an opening sentence that contained a parenthesis. He returned the paper with a wounding reprimand: “Never, never begin an essay with a parenthesis in the first sentence.” Ever since then, I’ve made a point of starting out with a parenthesis in the first sentence.
Cadence is the Fingerprint
Shall we turn to Puttermesser? “Puttermesser, an unmarried lawyer and civil servant of forty-six, felt attacked on all sides.”
Cadence. Cadence is the fingerprint, isn’t it? Suppose you were going to write that sentence with that precise content. How would it come out? It’s short enough for you to give it a try just like that, on the spot.
I might just write “Puttermesser felt attacked on all sides.”
Yes. That’s interesting. It’s minimalizing, paring away. You are a Hemingwayesque writer, then?
A Hemingwayesque rewriter. But to get back to my question: Is the heart of Ozick, the writer, cadence?
It’s one element, not the only one. Idea counts too.
Write About What You Don’t Know
Ah! When I’ve taught those classes, I always say, Forget about “write about what you know.” Write about what you don’t know. The point is that the self is limiting. The self—subjectivity—is narrow and bound to be repetitive. We are, after all, a species. When you write about what you don’t know, this means you begin to think about the world at large. You begin to think beyond the home-thoughts. You enter dream and imagination.
Homebody, Astronaut, Chameleon
In the kingdom of As-If, there are some writers who never leave the house, and some writers who are explorers of the universe.
And some who do both at the same time. Emily Dickinson.
Philip Roth stays close to home, Doris Lessing goes out. In terms of content, some are homebodies, some are astronauts, some are chameleons. Which are you?
None of the above. An archaeologist, maybe. I stay home, but I’m not a homebody. I go out, but only to dig down. I don’t try to take on the coloration of the environment; I’m not an assimilationist. I say archaeologist, because I like to think about civilizations. They are illuminated in comparison. Stories are splinters of larger ideas about culture. I’m aware that there are writers who deny idea completely, who begin from what-happens, from pure experience. But for me ideas are emotions.
I like the bleak day. Bleak days are introspective, evocative. They smell of childhood reading.
Inventors and Impostors
Even when one invents, invents absolutely, one is blamed for stealing real people. You remind me of something I haven’t thought of for a long, long time. One of my first short stories, written for a creative writing class in college, was about plagiarism. Apparently the idea of “usurpation” has intrigued me for most of my life. When I was a small child I remember upsetting my father; I had recently learned, from a fairy tale, the word impostor and I made him prove he wasn’t an impostor by demanding that he open the pharmacy safe, which had a combination lock. Since only my real father, the pharmacist, knew the combination, his opening it would prove he was my father.
I am still hurt by P. S. 71. The effect of childhood hurt continues to the grave. I had teachers who hurt me, who made me believe I was stupid and inferior.
Yes. You’ve written about that. Is your validation your revenge?
I’ve discussed “revenge” with other writers, and discovered I’m not alone in facing the Medusa-like truth that one reason writers write—the pressure toward language aside, and language is always the first reason, and most of the time the only reason—one reason writers write is out of revenge. Life hurts; certain ideas and experiences hurt; one wants to clarify, to set out illuminations, to replay the old bad scenes and get the Treppenworte said—the words one didn’t have the strength or the ripeness to say when those words were necessary for one’s dignity or survival.
Have you achieved it?
Revenge? On P.S. 71? Who knows? Where now are the snows of yesteryear? Where is Mrs. Florence O’Brien? Where is Mr. Dougherty? Alas, I think not. In the end, there is no revenge to be had. “Too late” is the same as not-at-all. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? So that in the end one is left with a story instead of with spite. Any story is worth any amount of vindictiveness.
I am ashamed to confess this. It’s ungrateful and wrong. But I am one—how full of shame I feel as I confess this—who expected to achieve—can I dare to get this out of my throat?—something like—impossible to say the words—literary fame by the age of twenty-five. By the age of twenty-seven I saw that holy and anointed youth was over, and even then it was already too late. The decades passed.
The Most Interesting People
I believe unashamedly that writers are the most (maybe the only) interesting people.
Youth-envy, on the other hand, one can never recover from. Or at least I haven’t so far. I suffered from it at seventeen. I suffered from it at five, when on a certain midsummer midafternoon I looked at an infant asleep in its pram and felt a terrible and unforgettable pang.
Writing Not Writing
The only thing more tormenting than writing is not writing.
Every two minutes on Twitter, someone tweets, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and wrongly attributes it to Edmund Burke. Burke never said any such thing. But the myth persists.
I’ve long wanted to write an essay on this phenomenon of wrongly attributed statements. If you dig, you often find that no one famous ever said anything like it. Obviously someone had to say it, at some point, but whoever he or she is, is lost to memory.
I first came across this phenomenon in 2000 when I was writing a piece for Lingua Franca. You know that saying (or some version thereof): Whoever is not a liberal [or a socialist or a progressive] when he is twenty has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is thirty has no brain? Everyone always says it was Churchill. It wasn’t. No one said it. Or least, again, no one famous. I even called the editor of Bartlett’s Quotations, whoever it was at the time (Justin Kaplan?), and he had no idea who had said it.
Since then, I’ve stumbled upon many more of these. One of my favorites is “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” General MacArthur cited it in his 1962 address at West Point and said it was from Plato. Nope. But the Imperial War Museum and Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down) also claim Plato said it (the museum actually has the words, with the Plato attribution, carved into one of its facades). Still nope. Something sort of, kind of, like this was once said by Santayana, but not this.
At first, the whole thing annoyed me. You think someone said x, because everyone always says s/he did, and then you look it up just so you can get a citation, only to find that you can’t find the citation. So you look and look, only to find that that someone most definitely did not say x (or at least not that anyone knows of). So then, if you’re an obsessive like me, you keep looking because at this point you want to know who said the damn thing. Only to find out that no one knows who said it. And then, and only then, do you realize, once again, but as always too late, that you’ve fallen into the rabbit hole of the Wrongly Attributed Statement (WAS).
But the more I’ve thought about the WAS the more charming I’ve found it. Because in many ways the WAS is a tribute to the democratic genius of the crowd. Someone famous says something fine—Burke did write, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”—and some forgotten wordsmith, or more likely wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it over time into something finer: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Which is really quite fine.
The false attribution: it’s our democratic poetry.
Update (May 6, 9:45 am)
So Santayana did in fact say “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Thanks to commenter Bill for pointing that out. I actually had written that in the footnote of the paper to which I linked above, but for some reason I had forgotten that he in fact said exactly that. In my memory he had said a version of that. I am not immune!
Henry Farrell emails me that apparently Robert Merton, as with so many other things, was there first. In his book On the Shoulders of Giants. From the jacket copy:
With playfulness and a large dose of wit, Robert Merton traces the origin of Newton’s aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Using as a model the discursive and digressive style of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Merton presents a whimsical yet scholarly work which deals with the questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, and the concept of progress.
Update (10:45 am)
On FB, Jeff Shoulson wrote this:
It’s also interesting how the WAS in its democratic form is both different from and related to the renaissance humanist posture of sprezzatura, the fashion of sprinkling your speeches with pseudo-quotations of famous writers that are deliberately inaccurate so as to convince your audience that you hadn’t looked them up the night before to impress them.
Sprezzatura! Sprezzatura! Cue Lee Siegel!
Claire Messud has written a novel that apparently features a character named Nora. Publisher’s Weekly posed the following question to Messud: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud responded:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
Cue Katie Roiphe:
Messud does not say overtly that her interviewer is being sexist, but she implies it, by listing male writers who would never be asked that question (and tacking on Alice Munro “for that matter” to make it clear that her list had been about men).
Though Messud implies that this lowbrow question about liking a character would never be flung at a male writer, this does not seem to be the case.
“Implies” is doing an awful lot of work here—as in a “Marx doesn’t say he hopes the bourgeoisie will crush the proletariat but he implies it” lot of work.
It hardly need be said—though apparently it does—that Messud’s point is not that the question is sexist but that it’s stupid.
The great characters of literature are a varied lot, but some of them fuck their mothers, others their stepdaughters; some of them kill pawnbrokers; some of them are so insistent on their moral duty that they threaten to bring down the whole world upon themselves and the people around them. These characters are histrionic, charismatic, brilliant, hateful, hilarious, charming, violent, vengeful, seductive, righteous, loathsome, impossible. They try our patience and amplify our condition. They expose the extremity of our estate.
What they don’t do is ask for our friendship. And we don’t ask it of them. Or at least we shouldn’t, says Messud.
How does Roiphe extract from that point an accusation of sexism? By claiming that Messud is implying that the writers—for the most part, all men—who created these and other characters would never have been asked this question about friendship. Yet Messud never comes close to saying that or even suggesting it. She simply points out the absurdity of looking for friends in a Roth or Dostoevksy or Pynchon character.
Yes, these authors are men, but the function they’re quite clearly serving for Messud is not to be men but to be the creators of the characters I’ve just described. Not even the creators: they’re the backdrop, the setting (a Roth novel, an Amis novel), in which these characters appear. (The syntax and set-up of Messud’s response also make this clear: not “Would you ever ask Martin Amis if…” but “Would you ever want to be friends with a character in a Martin Amis novel?”) I suppose Messud could have cited Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf or Zadie Smith, but most readers love Lizzy Bennet and might well imagine themselves having coffee with Lily Briscoe or tea with Irie Jones, so the point would have been lost.
Roiphe goes onto chide Messud for missing an opportunity to answer the interviewer’s question in a different, more interesting, way.
It would have been possible for Messud to say something along the lines of “Well that was sort of the point of this character. She is very definitely not giving in to social expectations, she is not nice, not warm, not compromising, she is frustrated, simmering, full of unseemly longing, which is precisely why I was fascinated by her.” She could have turned the question into an opportunity to illuminate the low boil of anger or resentment at the center of the book, but it was perhaps easier, more fashionable, to imply “you would not ask a man that question.”
Yes, she could have. Which is probably why she did.
Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.
And just a bit earlier in that same interview, Messud says this:
So yes, Nora Eldridge is middle aged and yes, she is angry….She has just emerged from a long period of suffering, the care for and loss of her mother to a hideous illness. She is trying—like each of us—to do the best she can.
As any of us approaches middle age, we inevitably come up against our limitations: the realization that certain dearly-held fantasies may not be realized; that circumstances have thwarted us; that even with intention and will we may not be able to set our ship back on the course we’d planned. This provokes different reactions in different people. Nora, thanks to [her new neighbors] the Shahids—or the Shahids and her imagination—has a glorious vision of life as she wants it to be. She feels it’s within her grasp. So you could say she indulges an illusion, for a time. The loss of which makes her angry—not just angry at the illusion, or at its loss, but angry also about the underlying limitations and failures that preceded the illusion, that precipitated it. Nora’s situation is not cozy or pretty, but it’s humanly true.
Now, all of these passages appear in the interview Roiphe chooses to hoist her theory of everything on. Where they don’t appear is in the brief Salon excerpt of that interview that I linked to at the top of the piece and which Roiphe apparently based her musings on. I know it can be a chore to follow the links and read all of a writer’s words before you criticize them—believe me, I know—but if you want to have an ounce of credibility, even Roiphe credibility, you probably should.
Roiphe ends with this:
There is rife right now among writers a very ferocious feeling that books are not being read, that attention is not being paid, that the wrong questions are being asked…the world is full of interviewers who ask the wrong question, of attention paid to the wrong thing, of not being met on one’s own terms.
This one I’ll give to Roiphe: when it comes to being inattentive to a writer’s words, she knows whereof she speaks.
Cynthia Ozick is on my mind. She’s one of my favorite essayists. She has terrible politics when it comes to Israel/Palestine, but hardly anyone writing today can match the astringency of her vision. This, the conclusion to her essay “Who Owns Anne Frank?”, which first appeared in The New Yorker and then in her collection Quarrel and Quandary, gives you a flavor of just how uncompromising she can be.
On Friday, August 4, 1944, the day of the arrest, Miep Gies climbed the stairs to the hiding place and found it ransacked and wrecked. The beleaguered little band had been betrayed by an informer who was paid seven and a half guilders—about a dollar—for each person: sixty guilders for the lot. Miep Gies picked up what she recognized as Anne’s papers and put them away, unread, in her desk drawer. There the diary lay untouched, until Otto Frank emerged alive from Auschwitz. “Had I read it,” she said afterward, “I would have had to burn the diary because it would have been too dangerous for people about whom Anne had written.” It was Miep Gies—the uncommon heroine of this story, a woman profoundly good, a failed savior—who succeeded in rescuing an irreplaceable masterwork. It may be shocking to think this (I am shocked as I think it), but one can imagine a still more salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.
H/t Matthew Hunte for finding this on the net.
No one—not Gore Vidal, not William Styron, not anyone—ever took down Norman Mailer the way Cynthia Ozick did at Town Hall in 1971. The setting: a debate on “women’s liberation,” as it was then called. The players: Mailer v. Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jill Johnston, and Jacqueline Ceballos. (The event was later memorialized as a documentary.)
Everyone focused on the exotic beauty and wit of Greer, the antics of Johnston (which prompted Mailer to say, “Come on, Jill, be a lady”), and the demure, sly presence of Susan Sontag in the audience, but to my mind it was Ozick who stole the show. When she asked, in her neurotic and nervous way, the following question:
This question, I have been fantasizing it for many many years, since Advertisements for Myself. Only I always thought it would take place at the Y, now it’s here. This is the truth, this is a fantasy, this is my moment to live out a fantasy. Mr. Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself, you said, “A good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.” For years and years I’ve been wondering, Mr. Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?
If you want to get to the good stuff, start at 1:18. But I recommend watching all of it.
Long before she became the doyenne of all thing social media, Laura Brahm wrote lovely, crisp prose on an array of topics: Arthur Koestler, memory and the Holocaust, the cultural Cold War, and more. And then, mysteriously, she stopped. Well, I’m glad to say she’s back. This time in the Nation, writing about Amos Oz’s and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s new book Jews and Words. Sadly, the article’s behind the paywall. Happily, I climb walls. Here are some excerpts:
Two millennia ago, some rabbis were having a debate. The details—involving dead snakes, a broken oven, a flying carob tree—were convoluted. Downright Talmudic, you might say, were the argument not already in the Talmud. God himself intervened, siding with one of the rabbis by performing a series of miracles. But divine intervention isn’t why the episode was remarkable. Rather, it was how the other rabbis responded. “When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute,” one said to God, “what have ye to interfere?” In other words: What business is it of yours? The Torah had already been given to Moses at Mount Sinai, he explained, and thereafter “we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice.” The text and its human readers trumped God. God’s response? He laughed, saying, “My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.” Well played, Babylonian sages, well played.
Jews, they claim, have a unique collective identity that is not religious, not biological, but rather textual. From the very beginning, they argue, the Jewish people shared the Hebrew Bible and its laws orally from one generation to the next. But after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 and the subsequent exile of the Jews into the Diaspora, the Jewish people existed only insofar as their texts existed. They possessed no geographical or other unifying identity outside the Torah, rabbinical texts, poetry, and women’s and children’s books. For Jews, literacy and community have gone hand in hand, from ancient and medieval times to today.
Given the title and the book’s focus on survival, its scope is surprisingly narrow. Anyone expecting a more expansive historical or literary survey of the relationship of Jews to words, from King David to Larry David, will be disappointed. European and American luminaries like Spinoza, Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth are discussed, but the focus skews toward the Hebrew Bible, with a leap to modern Hebrew writers (including, on occasion, Amos Oz quoting himself). What of the huge legacy of Yiddish literature? Where is the footprint of American Jewish culture? The book presumes that exile has necessitated and nurtured a text-based tradition, yet it breezes past large chunks of Diaspora history and culture.
Israelis and Hebrew would have been a more apt title: the open and porous notion of Jewish identity and culture that the authors champion ultimately appears more parochial than they intended.
“This book is not about current affairs,” they write. “We are not bringing our take on Jewish history and continuity to bear on the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we cannot ignore the political meaning of our claim to a Jewish textline, and our belief in the superiority of books over material remains.” However, when you make an eloquent case (as the authors do) that “ours is not a bloodline but a textline,” what does it mean if you live in a state whose citizenship laws are in fact based on bloodline? For all the luftmensch talk about a heritage that is “paved with words,” that rhetoric reveals itself to be a tactic in a struggle over actual physical space: between secular and Orthodox Jews within the state of Israel, and between Israelis and Palestinians over the land itself. Those struggles may be why the authors fail to address a question their book fairly demands: If the relationship of Jews to books is largely a product of the Diaspora, what happens when that exile comes to an end in the form of a Jewish state? In a book that extols the virtues of a textual tradition rooted in the asking of questions, this is one that should not be overlooked.
One of the lines of argument about Lincoln that has intrigued me most is this one, which Will Boisvert states over at Crooked Timber:
But the movie’s focus is on…snakey retail politics. That’s what makes the movie interesting, in part because it cuts against the grain of Lincoln hagiography by making him a shrewd, somewhat dirty pol.
Will isn’t alone in this. I’ve seen David Denby, Anthony Lane, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Chris Hayes offer eloquent statements of the same thesis: that what makes Lincoln great is that it shows how his greatness consists in so many acts of smallness. Politicking, horse-trading, compromise, log-rolling, and the like.
What’s interesting to me about this line of argument is, first, that it hardly cuts against the standard historiography of Lincoln. Ever since David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered, which came out in 1947, and Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay in The American Political Tradition (1948), we’ve known about this Lincoln. When it comes to Lincoln, we lost our virtue a long time ago, yet somehow, in 2012, we’re all still virgins. (Pace Pauline Kael.)
But beyond the historiography, there’s a larger cultural question: What is it about this country that makes any description of the moral cesspool of politics seem like the revelation of a brave new truth? Particularly among otherwise sophisticated cultural brokers like Lane et al? I mean these are men steeped in the Western canon; David Denby even wrote a book about that. Yet somehow they’ve never absorbed the lessons of Henry V? Or The Prince? Or Max Weber?
I think it was D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (though my copy is in storage so I can’t know for sure), who first cottoned on to this peculiarly American dynamic whereby innocence gives way to cynicism, without ever achieving anything like a mature and stable or permanent sense of realism. So that every time we stumble across some banal item of reality—Lincoln was a politician! Politicians politick!—we draw back in shock and awe at the haunting truth of it all, as if we had just been handed the tablets at Mt. Sinai. (O’Brien speaks of our “authentic wonderment” at Spielberg/Kushner’s decision to set the saintly Lincoln against “a more detached and analytical surveying of circumstances.”)
Understood in this light, the realism of Lincoln is just the flip side of the hagiography of Lincoln. Only a country steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.
We see these quicksilver shifts, from innocence to cynicism or realism, in the culture all the time—though sometimes they go in the reverse direction. Think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, how the wise-cracking cynic Jean Arthur becomes a true believer. Or Dave, where the Sigourney Weaver character makes the same pilgrimage. (Interestingly, in both cases it’s a woman who loses her cynicism and discovers her innocence via falling in love with a man.)
But whether it’s the cynic discovering or recovering her innocence, or the innocent losing his innocence, the story of politics in this country is always the same, toggling back and forth between two positions that are little more than the competing wisdom of juveniles.
It’s basically the truth of the 5 year old set against the truth of the 15 year old. And any time the 15 year old speaks, we’re expected to murmur, in hushed wonder: brave, bold, true, wow. If you’re a 5 year old, I can see why that would be the case. If you’re a 45-year-old, as I am, it’s a bit tougher. Or at least it should be.