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Being in Egypt: When Jews Were a Demographic Time Bomb

13 Apr

From the Haggadah:

And they did us evil, those Egyptians. They made us seem malevolent, as it is written: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel has become too many and too massive for us. Let us find a solution for this before they further multiply.

Two points. First, the evil that the Egyptians did to the Jews was to construe them as malevolent, as wicked. Second, their wickedness consisted in becoming a massive nation within a nation. The Egyptians understood the wickedness of the Jews, in other words, by virtue of the demographic challenge they posed to the Egyptian nation.

I’m not big on readings of the Haggadah that seek to extract contemporary political instruction from the text. Often those sorts of exercises seem more facile than fertile. But it’s hard for me not to see a kind of parable of contemporary Israel/Palestine in this passage.

Where a generation ago the Palestinians were construed as wicked primarily in terms of the terrorism they were supposed to threaten Israel with, nowadays the threat is understood to be almost entirely demographic. Even if every Palestinian were to lay down his or her arms, their mere existence as a people within the borders of Israel is understood to be a malignant growth within the nation. Actually, according to Wikipedia, that understanding of the demographic threat has always been there; it just has become more prominent in recent years, perhaps because of the cessation of most forms of violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

This understanding of the demographic time bomb—itself a revealing phrase—is something that unites Zionists of all stripes. A few years ago, writing in Commentary, Michael Oren identified “the Arab demographic threat” as one of “seven existential threats” facing Israel.


Estimates of the Arab growth rate, both within Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, vary widely. A maximalist school holds that the Palestinian population on both sides of the 1949 armistice lines is expanding far more rapidly than the Jewish sector and will surpass it in less than a decade. Countering this claim, a minimalist school insists that the Arab birthrate in Israel is declining and that the population of the territories, because of emigration, is also shrinking.

Even if the minimalist interpretation is largely correct, it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population—one-quarter of the population under age 19–and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs.

Israel, the Jewish State, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.

Ideally, the remedy for this dilemma lies in separate states for Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The basic conditions for such a solution, however, are unrealizable for the foreseeable future. The creation of Palestinian government, even within the parameters of the deal proposed by President Clinton in 2000, would require the removal of at least 100,000 Israelis from their West Bank homes. The evacuation of a mere 8,100 Israelis from Gaza in 2005 required 55,000 IDF troops—the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War—and was profoundly traumatic. And unlike the biblical heartland of Judaea and Samaria, which is now called the West Bank, Gaza has never been universally regarded as part of the historical Land of Israel.

Notice the stress Oren puts on “ideally”—even he thinks a two-state solution to the “demographic threat” isn’t likely— and the challenge he sees in removing the settlers from the West Bank (and the small numbers of settlers he mentions).

Now here’s the more liberal Peter Beinart speaking recently at Columbia:

You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

And it is because of my fear of that that I write much of what I do on this very subject.

Beinart’s more optimistic, I think, about the prospects of a two-state solution. But the same understanding of a demographic time bomb is there.

Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt: Thoughts on Passover

12 Apr

The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!

Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it easy to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).

Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we have to think of emancipation in terms of possession at all. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings from Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer in Granta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”

But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.

So I asked folks on Facebook to make some suggestions for supplemental readings. Jade Larissa Schiff, a political theorist at Oberlin, suggested Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. I’ve taught this text more than a dozen times, to undergrads and grad students. But I’ve always been leery of using it at Passover. There are few things more embarrassing than being at a seder where relatively privileged people talk about being slaves. But I gave it a re-read.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit in the text that’s relevant. I don’t want to steal the thunder from our seder, but here are just a few passages that jumped out at me. I share them with you all, whether you’re going to a seder or not, in the spirit of the holiday. And in the spirit of what Walzer says about the meaning of the Exodus story in the closing passages of Exodus and Revolution:

We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics, and about its proper form:

—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

—and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

1. In this passage from chapter 6, Douglass describes his discovery of the subversive power of reading (in a later passage, he’ll describe the misery that can come with the self-knowledge that reading brings). Reading is on my mind this year for a couple of reasons. First, my six-year-old daughter began reading this past year. In the mornings, she sometimes gets up early, and sneaks a half-hour to read a page or two from one of the Harry Potter books. You can see the sense of autonomy and independence, and the subversion of authority that Douglass talks about (we try to tell her not to get up before 7), at work there.

But, second, New York, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a battle over high-stakes testing, with an increasing number of parents simply opting out of the testing regime. Last week, parents, teachers, and students at my daughter’s elementary school held a rally to protest the latest round of tests in New York. Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of the school, wrote an oped in the Times about the insanity of eight-year-olds being forced to sit for three days as their futures get determined. It’s like the bar exam!

Anyway, reading Douglass, I got to thinking about how this activity—reading—which has been a source of joy and wonder, of subversion and autonomy, for so many children across so many decades, is now being reduced to the most mindless form of drudgery on behalf of a phantom meritocracy.

Here’s Douglass:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

2. In this passage from chapter 8, Douglass describes how his grandmother was treated when she got old and sick, nearing death. Nothing more demonstrated “the infernal character of slavery,” writes Douglass, than the disregard she was shown by her master when she was no longer useful to him. The emphatic nature of this passage—the “base ingratitude” of sending someone who is no longer useful off to die being the signature of slavery—made me wonder about how we often warehouse the elderly in homes. And what kind of slavery we’re sustaining thereby. Here’s Douglass:

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny. And, to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children, having seen the beginning and end of all of them, and her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die! If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great-grandchildren….

The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

3. In this passage from chapter 10, Douglass describes the surveillance regime of one of his masters, Edward Covey. I was struck in reading this by the parallels with so many surveillance systems in the contemporary workplace, whether it be for maids in a hotel or white-collar workers. Particularly the emphasis on not knowing if you’re being watched or not.

Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun.

4. In Exodus and Revolution, Walzer points out (at least I think he does; it’s been a while) that one of the elements that made bondage in ancient Egypt bondage was the fact that the slaves had to work so much. It wasn’t merely the coerciveness, but the omnipresence, of work that they suffered and experienced as slavery. Labor was everything; labor was everywhere. In this passage, also from chapter 10, Douglass makes a similar point. It brought to mind some of the debates that several writers in and around Jacobin have been having over the last several years about the left and the politics of work: should our stance be to reform or reorganize work, to make it more just and share its burdens more equally, or to oppose it entirely, to reduce if not eliminate it? Here’s Douglass:

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.

In Egypt, indeed.

Chag Sameach.

Valentine’s Day

14 Feb

My one requirement: that you stay with me.
I want to hear you, grumble as I may.
If you were deaf I’d need what you might say
If you were dumb I’d need what you might see.

If you were blind I’d want you in my sight
For you’re the sentry posted to my side:
We’re hardly half way through this lengthy ride
Remember we’re surrounded yet by night.

Your ‘let me lick my wounds’ is no excuse now.
Your ‘anywhere’ (not here) is no defense
There’ll be relief for you, but no release now.

You know whoever’s needed can’t go free
And you are needed urgently by me
I speak of me when us would make more sense.

Bertolt Brecht, Sonnet 19

The Poetics and Politics of Time

18 Jan

From Peter Cole’s new collection of poems, The Invention of Influence, comes this little wonder, “Of Time and Intensity”:

Is Time a dispersion of intensity?
For epiphanists, maybe, but not for me—
for whom Time is a transposition
of immensity into a lower key.

The republican tradition of Machiavelli—not to mention political and cultural theories of decadence—is always worried about this problem of temporal distance from a moment of origin. Conservatism is too. Sometimes. In ten words, Cole explains why these concerns may be unfounded.

Peter’s not a political poet, but I always find unanticipated resources for my own thinking in his poems. I really recommend that you buy this latest collection of his.

A Very Bourgeois Post on Buying a House

29 Dec

Last weekend, I was at my parents’ house and I saw a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons on the shelf. I’ve stared at the book since I was a kid, but I never bothered to pick it up, much less read it. In the last several years, though, my friend Adina has been singing the praises of Durrell as one of our great writers of place. So I decided to spirit the book away with me back to Brooklyn. (Sorry, Mom! I also have your copy of Rebecca.)

I’m glad I did. It’s a terrific read. I’ve just finished the chapter on Durrell buying a house in Cyprus. I haven’t laughed out loud, that loudly, in some time. The elaborate dance between the broker, the seller (really, an extended family in a Cyprus village), and Durrell, as they argue about the house over the totem of the house key, had me in tears.

She [the seller] wore the white headdress and the dark skirt of the village woman, and her breasts were gathered into the traditional baggy bodice with a drawstring at the waist, which made it took like a loosely furled sail. She stood before us looking very composed as she gave us good morning. Sabri [the broker] cleared his throat, and picking up the great key very delicately between finger and thumb—as if it were of the utmost fragility—put it down again with the air of a conjurer making his opening dispositions. ‘We are speaking about your house,’ he said softly, in a voice ever so faintly curdled with menace. ‘Do you know that all the wood is…’ he suddenly shouted the last word with such force that I nearly fell off my chair, ‘rotten!’ And picking up the key he banged it down to emphasize the point.

The comedy here is that the wood is not rotten at all—in fact, the broker had just been praising the Anatolian timber as some of the hardest wood in the world—and everyone knows it. Yet they argue as if they don’t.

The Durrell got me to thinking about another literary treatment of buying a house: those hilarious opening chapters in A Hazard of New Fortunes where Isabel and Basel March slowly watch their ballooning fantasy of the perfect home in Manhattan settle back down to earth, and Isabel finds her sense of what is absolutely necessary in a house gradually shrinking to fit the reality of their finances. Adam Gopnick had a smart article in The New Yorker a few years back on this wonderful mis-en-scène.

I’m not sure what it is about the act of buying a house that makes it so amenable to story-telling. It can certainly be funny, almost comically absurd: the elaborate performance of bargaining, the histrionic prices, the outsized battle between fantasy and reality, the marriage of money and home, family and market.

Maybe it’s the last that makes buying a house such a tempting source for literature: it stages a confrontation between one’s sense of what is personal and intimate with some of the most impersonal forces in our society. Buying a house is supposed to be a shrewd move, yet it’s caught up in embarrassing fantasies and all kinds of family romance. (That’s certainly what you find in Howard’s End, another wonderful novel about property. Didn’t Lionel Trilling talk about this?) I suppose in this respect it’s a bit like being a professor in an academic department, which is a literary genre in its own right: on the one hand, it’s just a job; on the other hand, your colleagues are a bit like family, around for a very long time.

Out of curiosity: what are some other depictions of buying a house in literature that you’d recommend?

My Christmas Picks

19 Dec

The American Spectator, which is a fairly right-wing magazine, asked me and several others to make some recommendations for Christmas reading.

I appreciate their insistence on calling it Christmas rather than holiday reading: no pretense that by “holidays” we mean anything other than Christmas. (Whenever anyone tells me holiday season is the time of love and good cheer, I remind them that Hanukkah celebrates the overthrow of occupying forces and the smiting of enemies. My kind of holiday.)

Given the audience, I thought The American Spectator could use some Babeuf and communism. So I recommended, among other texts, Babeuf’s defense at his conspiracy trial and a sympathetic study of Soviet spy Anthony Blunt.

Here’s what I say about the latter:

The other book is Miranda Carter’s Anthony Blunt: His Lives. Ever since he was exposed as a Soviet spy in 1979, Blunt has been the subject of speculation and scrutiny. So great are the contradictions of his story that it almost writes itself. A Communist whose friends were killed in the Spanish Civil War was also the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. An art historian whose job it was to detect the fake and the fraud was himself a fake and a fraud. The cool appraiser of classicism was the hot lover of mystery and intrigue. But where most commentators have taken their lead from George Steiner, who found in Blunt an almost arctic inhumanity, Carter offers a warmer, if more depressing, picture. Among friends and colleagues, Blunt was supportive and caring; in the tutorial, he was passionate and engaged. It was this cloistered fraternity rather than grand ideology that led him to become a spy. As his star rose in later life, long after he had ceased to work as a spy, he distanced himself from his past and ultimately his inner life. Ironically, it was as an ex-communist that Blunt most resembled the stereotypical Communist.

You can read the whole thing, including my other picks, here.

Only Bertrand Russell could ever write something like this

16 Nov

What I Believe:

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.

Speak, Memory

8 Nov

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.”

* I learned of this history in the London Review of Books, and gleaned additional details from Wikipedia and the BBC.

When it comes to our parents, we are all the memoirists of writers

22 Jul

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)

Read this from Laura Tanenbaum:

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.

An Interview with Cynthia Ozick

6 Jul

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.

Bleak Days

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.

Too Late

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.


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