Commentary Magazine


A Passage in the Night, by Sholem Asch

The Interfaith Temperament
A Passage in the Night.
by Sholem Asch.
Putnam. 367 pp. $3.75.

 

A Passage in the Night is not a good novel, but it does make all the talk heard for years about Asch’s “apostasy” seem mere partisan claptrap. To call A Passage in the Night a work of religiosity rather than of religion in no way impugns either Asch’s sincerity or his piety, both of which seem to me beyond question. However, it points to a failure of intelligence which is all the more depressing in a mellow, even-tempered, tolerant novel that has the air of flowing from the rich accumulations of an old man’s experience.

Actually, A Passage in the Night isn’t a novel at all, but a fable. That is to say, its main intention is to point a moral. The characters have just enough life to make the plot interesting; all that Asch’s purpose requires is that they be plausible. Beyond that, he isn’t particularly concerned with them, except as sociological types or psychoanalytic abstractions. The plot is contrived as a vehicle for many reflections on human destiny and the nature of God. Isaac Grossman, a millionaire born of Orthodox parents on the Lower East Side, suffers terrible pangs of conscience in his old age over having stolen $27 from a Pole named Kovalsky when he was a very young man. As a child, Grossman had been taught by his father (a Jew whose faith is almost indistinguishable from Calvinism) that God cannot forgive the sins committed by man against man: only the victim has power to forgive the sinner. To ease his soul, Grossman determines to seek out this Kovalsky and make restitution. His family, afraid of a scandal and convinced that Kovalsky is a creation of Grossman’s sick mind, succeeds in having the old man committed to an asylum. In the end, however, Grossman is vindicated— Kovalsky really exists—and with the help of a rabbi’s “spiritual psychotherapy,” he achieves a new and more comforting relation with God.

This book, then, traces the story of a man who has rejected his father’s God, and who learns ultimately that he must find his own God. We are given to understand that a business civilization makes this supremely difficult to do: “You have turned your work into the sum of your spiritual life; your work is your worship and your faith. And you’ve never felt how enslaved you’ve become to materialism, the modern Moloch.” Asch’s businessmen, lawyers, and psychiatrists are so spiritually obtuse that they declare a man insane when his conscience troubles him. So that, on the one hand, we have those who deny the reality of spirit, and on the other, those who claim too much for spirit (the religious fanatics). Isaac Grossman, representing all the tremendous creative energy of the industrial world (he’s a great builder), squirms helplessly between the two crushing forces until the folksy home theologian, Moses Silverstein, and the non-sectarian spiritualguidance counsellor Rabbi Zimmerman (who finds it hard to draw a line between the job of a psychoanalyst and the job of a rabbi) join forces to lead him into a sweet humanitarian conception of God.

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Asch is a very good raconteur, and his novel has the effect of a well-told anecdote. Yet even at his best—in the flashbacks to Grossman’s childhood on the East Side—everything seems to drift in a void. The East Side, a Connecticut town, Florida—all are static backdrops. Our final impression is one of extreme flatness and bareness: shadows floating through a cardboard world in absolute silence. This kind of atmosphere is nothing less than a marvel of incongruity in a novel about a crucial upheaval in a man s soul and the agony of a family conflict. A Passage in the Night, it will be noticed, has certain affinities with Death of a Salesman.

But this book is so obvious a failure that it would be pointless to dwell on its faults as a novel. As a document, however, it has its own kind of interest, being an unusually dignified expression of an important contemporary phenomenon—what we may call the interfaith temperament. There is nothing political about Asch’s religiosity, nothing that smacks of public relations or promotion. It’s based on the feeling that in an age of “materialism” (Asch’s favorite word for describing the modern ethos) all theological distinctions pale beside the overwhelming necessity of faith— any faith, so long as it is truly and personally held. “It’s hard to believe in God, but not to believe in Him is impossible.” Asch never quite says that we all believe in the “same” God, but he apparently attributes differences in religious doctrine to biographical accidents. If you were born Jewish and you feel the need for God, then the best way to find him is through some form of Judaism—not because Judaism is the true religion, but because your psychological necessity will express itself through the religion of your father.

I call this attitude religiosity since it conceives the ultimate objective of the religious quest to be peace rather than truth. There was a time when men were asked to submit to Christianity (or Judaism) because Christianity provided a true account of reality; only the truth could make men free. Asch is not alone in showing himself indifferent to the question of religious truth, though he at least has the virtue of connecting his indifference with his own inability to know much about God: if I can’t know, there isn’t much point in troubling myself, Asch seems to be saying. But the interfaith temperament insults man by assuming that his need for “security” is greater than his need for truth. It is the theological face of that political cant which is always proclaiming that whereas we civilized people really care about liberty, the Asians are capable of caring only about their bellies.

The great ironic paradox is that the partisans of religion, who have lately been insisting that for the purposes of the cold war we need to recognize the religious sources of our democracy in order to guard against the relativism of democratic thought, should have become so relativistic about their own subject. Not only do they politely suppress theological distinctions for the sake of forming a popular front against “materialism,” but they also persist in recommending faith in terms of expediency rather than truth: peace of soul and mind, cold-war tactics, world views for writing poetry—anything but truth. It’s the old story of being corrupted by the enemy you struggle against most fiercely.

Asch is no exception to this rule. His view of the “materialism” wrecking our civilization is identical with the superficial ideology of those who want to reestablish the kind of orthodoxy he hates even more than he hates psychiatrists; his own case would have been strengthened if he had been willing to recognize how much more complex our “materialistic” spiritual life is than mere “getting and spending.” In fighting what he thinks is a tendency in Freudianism to deny the reality of moral conflicts, he reveals an astonishing ignorance of psychoanalysis:

Mr. Grossman [says Asch's mouthpiece, Rabbi Zimmerman] is a victim of ‘the book.’ . . . I mean, of the theory of the complexes into which doctors divide our various psychic sicknesses—like the ‘father-complex,’ the ‘mother-complex,’ the ‘Hamlet-complex,’ the ‘Oedipus complex.’ You’ve taken the patient and you’ve put him into a cage which was prepared for him beforehand. This time it’s the ‘guilt-complex.’ Certainly there is a guiltcomplex. But it’s not a delusion. It is a reality, doctor, a factual thing which goes by the name of ‘conscience.’ Nobody dared to admit the possibility that Mr. Grossman had in fact committed that act, that error, which had to be corrected; such a possibility would have destroyed the ‘complex’ into which he was fitted, not only by the doctors but by his own son.

What real Freudian would refuse to take a moral conflict seriously because it can be “reduced” to a “guilt complex”? And can Freud be seriously accused of dismissing the fact of conscience?

Asch’s theology, such as it is, exhibits the same confusions as his criticism of the modern ethos. He sees religion, as I have said, in psychological terms, in terms of need and peace; the mark of its truth is the extent to which it brings the right psychological results. This, of course, is a pragmatic interpretation, deriving from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. Once we have perceived the indebtedness of Asch and others to James, it becomes clear that the interfaith temperament was born of an alliance between theologians and that onetime most hated enemy of theology, Pragmatism. Priest and Pragmatist unite to defend the reality of spirit against crass utilitarian “realists” and Freudians. A more ill-fated alliance it would be difficult to conceive, unless it is the one between religion and Freudianism against Pragmatism.

Asch and others are like medicine men: their main argument seems to be that clergymen can do a better job than psychoanalysts. Does this mean that the validity of religion is to rest on whether it cures more patients than the analysts do? Theologians once asserted that they could do a better job of interpreting the world than philosophers, but in an age of science it becomes necessary for religion to parade its claims as applied science. One wonders when it will parade its claims as religion again.

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About the Author

Norman Podhoretz has been writing for COMMENTARY for 56 years.




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