Commentary Magazine


A Question of Civility

To the Editor:

My response to Robert Alter’s . . . “Manners and the Jewish Intellectual” [August] is a mixture of agreement and disappointment with his treatment of John Murray Cuddihy’s . . . The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity. . . . Cuddihy defines “civility” as the Christian or Protestant aesthetic, the “fierce Puritanism of high good taste,” which he contrasts with the vulgarity, exhibitionism, ostentation, materialism, and insensitivity to the canons of social behavior . . . exhibited by the Ostjude, the East European or shtetl Jew.

Using Anselm’s razor with adroit, superficial strokes, Cuddihy cuts away the structural top layers of the three contemporary Jewish “prophets” in the title of his work to expose their brilliant, inventive systems as a disguised apology for the Jewish failure to assimilate to . . . Western civility. . . .

I do not quarrel with Mr. Alter’s recognition of Cuddihy’s “weird inventiveness,” which “ultimately questions the intrinsic validity of any system of thought conceived by a Jew in the past century and a half.” But I fault his failure to nail a major flaw in the work. . . .

For the paradigmatic event which really shatters Cuddihy’s thesis we must turn to the years between 1939 and 1945. Provided with German warrants for murder, the European nations “solved” their “Judenfrage.” Was this done in protest against coarse, shtetl incivility? Had Europe exhausted its patience with the defilers of Emily Post? In that case, then to the long list of Gentile grievances—deicide, defilement of the Host, poisoning of the wells, ritual blood murder, usury, finance capitalism, labor radicalism, disproportionate representation in medicine, academia, communications, the arts—we now add bad manners. What sense does it make to talk about European civility being threatened by shtetl vulgarity when the European representatives of alleged Protestant aestheticism literally bathed in Jewish gore? And when hardly a bell pealed in protest from the stately cathedrals? Cuddihy’s gloss of the most shattering trauma of our time with a preposterous, insignificant thesis, only lends further support to the proposition that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with what Jews do, or don’t do. . . .

Leo Blond
Bayside, New York

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To the Editor:

Robert Alter writes about my book as if it were written with ideas, and stale ones at that, rather than with words. Reader, dear prospective reader of my book, now that I, the author, have your attention, let me warn you: Do not be put off; do not impute to my book the worried, kindly tedium of Mr. Alter’s labored piece.

The article fails to note that my book happens to be intellectually exciting because something actually happens in its pages, and something will happen to you when you read it. It will (I make a prediction) excite, instruct, and involve you; it will please you and make you indignate, just as it did Mr. Alter. But, as for Mr. Alter, he was not about to allow himself to write about all that. Instead, he holed up in his carrel, where he huffed and puffed and huffed some more. The article was his last longest huff. “Cuddihy’s marvelous book,” writes Professor Weisberg, falling down in adoration, in the Summer ’75 “Saul Bellow” issue of Salmagundi. My book: a “reduction,” as Mr. Alter claims? No, it is a translation, like all cultural criticism. I couldn’t have brought it off without—Weisberg once more—”a sense of language beyond the pale of sociological jargon.”

One thing more: thanks to Mr. Alter for the info on Joyce. I hadn’t known that thing about Joyce and the “art-novel.” Kevin Sullivan’s Joyce Among the Jesuits had convinced me that he was only Irish and a climber. Now I know better. It’s never too late to learn.

John Murray Cuddihy
Hunter College
New York City

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Robert Alter writes:

I appreciate the moral indignation of Leo Blond’s letter and the perspective on Mr. Cuddihy’s argument he offers by stressing the Holocaust.

The oddness of John Murray Cuddihy’s response to my critique is instructive. As an author he is surely entitled to think my views wrong-headed, but he must grant that my article raised a series of substantive questions about his notions of historical causation, about the accuracy of his account of Jewish social history, about his interpretation of specific aspects of Freudian theory. Instead of engaging any of these issues, Mr. Cuddihy chooses to write an embarrassingly self-adulatory blurb for his own book, promising the prospective reader what the reading experience will do for him, even quoting a favorable reviewer. I am further perplexed as to what Mr. Cuddihy could mean by claiming that I discussed his book as though it were written with ideas, not words. He surely cannot be claiming any great accomplishment as a stylist. I was mercifully silent on this aspect of his book in my article, though I did attend closely enough to his use of words to note (in a sentence of his on Joyce and Freud) how a characteristic confusion in syntax reflected a confusion in thought.

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