Commentary Magazine


The Goy, by Mark Harris

Jews & Gentiles

The Goy.
by Mark Harris.
Dial Press. 272 pp. $5.95.

When a book by a writer with a large following drops into the void, one wonders why. There may have been one or two other reviews of Mark Harris’s The Goy—his first novel in ten years—but I recall only that the reviewer for the Sunday Times called it “gratuitously venomous” and took note of the circumstance that Harris was born Finkelstein. Otherwise the book has been allowed to sink out of sight almost as if it were a first novel. Yet The Goy is an enterprise which, it seems to me, not only makes large claims for itself, but lays large claims on our attention and our inquiries.

One of these inquiries ought to go to the metamorphosis of the novelist himself: how does it come about that the author of baseball novels, a writer whose fiction has up to now engaged in what must be called WASP impersonation, suddenly bursts out with a book about the nature of the Jewish mind? Is it that something has happened inside Mark Harris, or inside America? That a hitherto frolicsome entertainer-novelist of Jewish origins all at once begins to write seriously about being Jewish is not very remarkable in itself—we have seen it once before, in Ludwig Lewisohn, who turned from the kind of fiction that made him a popular novelist (The Case of Mr. Crump) to the passionate tracts (the novel The Island Within, the lyrical prose essay called Israel) that returned him to obscurity. But Harris with The Goy is not simply abandoning popular subject matter; and besides, in a literary community which celebrates both S. Levin and Mr. Sammler, the problem is not that The Goy represents a conversion, so to speak, from baseball back to being Finkelstein. The problem is that The Goy is purposefully designed, for whatever curious reason, to be a pariah book: its fate is its theme. It is, especially, designed to poison those abundantly philo-Semitic reviewers who mean to bring good will to the fiction of Jewish marginality.

What makes The Goy untouchable, particularly for critics, is that it is an attack on that very Gentile culture—the literature of “humanism”—which produces literary critics. Worse yet, it is an attack on the complex of historical and social attitudes that make up the Gentile mind itself—or call it, more definitively, the Christian mentality. It is this mentality, in its most secularized and liberalized forms, at its apparent pinnacle of clarity and effectiveness, that The Goy is out to get. The Times reviewer mistakenly called Harris’s book “a repudiation of Mr. Agnew’s America.” In fact it is a repudiation of the America of coexistence, accommodation, moderation—of the America, in short, of most American Jews; of the “Judeo-Christian tradition”; even of the good will of the Gentile reviewer himself. It is as if Mark Harris one day in sunny Indiana had fallen upon a cave laden with all the volumes of Graetz’s History of the Jews, Malcolm Hay’s The Foot of Pride, James Parkes’s The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue—as if he had suddenly fallen from St. Augustine and the sublimeness of Chartres into the other side of Christian history, into a vast heap of pre-Holocaust chronicling, and had come up stunned and bloodied. How the author of baseball novels comes to dream the-Jew-of-Europe is itself a dark dream: something has broken, something has imploded at the core, America has turned—for Harris—into the Europe of Graetz.

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Harris begins, then, craftily: he posits Westrum. Westrum is a Christian American, a man of the West in the larger sense, of the Midwest in the local sense. His father is a ferocious anti-Semite. His mother is a decent Christian woman—what is usually meant by that phrase: namely, an onlooker. Long ago she looked on while his father drove a Jewish family from town. The town itself is a bad and backward place: in it children learn that “the poor we will always have, the Indians were savages, the Jews are greedy, the blacks are lazy, the railroad is here to stay.” Out of this backwash of the Reformation Westrum somehow springs fully into otherness; he appears to have grown into the world with the kind of secularized social conscience Jews are notorious for. Harris does not answer the mystery of Westrum’s conscience or his otherness; or, rather, he answers it only as to its bits and scraps—Westrum, a bookish boy isolated by his bookishness in childhood, is therefore drawn to the unselfconscious bookishness of Jews. There is in Westrum that which needs Jews. What planted the need? Out of what pressure does it issue? No answer. When Jews want to be like Gentiles, we know why. We do not know why Westrum needs to be like Jews. In a goy it is perverse; it is abnormal. Heine’s conversion, Disraeli’s baptism—these make pragmatic sense. Those Jewish philosophers—Bergson, Simone Weil—who distort Judaism in order to repudiate it, these make even more sense: they help wash away the idiosyncratic configurations of the minority mythos, they clarify and affirm the claims of the West. But Westrum represents a reversal of everything we have ever known: he is a man acculturating to Jews.

The external signs of this reversal are clear enough: he learns to say shiksa; he marries a Jew. His sons—Westrum has three—are half-Jews. Unlike the Jewish philosophers of Christianity, he can repudiate his inheritance without distortion: seeing it clearly, particularly its historical attitude toward Jews, is the point of the repudiation. But all of this is inadequate. It is not enough to have Jewish friends, a Jewish wife, Jewish children; biology is not Jewish. How then shall Westrum become like a Jew? What is the Jewish “secret”? Westrum hits it precisely: What makes a Jew is the conscious implication in millennia. To be a Jew is to be every moment in history, to keep history for breath and daily bread. How clever of Harris to make Westrum clever enough to clothe himself in history! Thus clothed, Westrum puts on the gabardine. In Philip Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic,” there is a similar removal from the center to the edge: a man of the majority puts on the mien of a man of the minority; but both are Jews. The Jew in the business suit is transformed into the refugee in gabardine. But Harris is even more innovative. In The Goy it is a goy who infiltrates the Jews. Westrum, having perceived the mainstream to be bestial in its ancestral usages, is attracted to prey; in theory it is nobler to be prey than beast.

Under the influence of this attraction he writes a vast book, A History of the Past World, and perversely (for why should it?) it makes him famous, leisured, rich. Through it he learns the quality of Jewish priorities:

. . . Jews . . . had made him think his work made sense. They believed in the perilous world and therefore in every effort, whether history or introspection, to find it out, explain it, clarify it, and maybe even partly solve it. They feared the outside danger. They thought that books, art, history, science, inquiry mattered. . . .

After several editions the title is changed to The History of the Past World, and Westrum, in the shift from the generalized A to the particularized The, at last becomes situated in the locus of peculiarity: becomes Judaized. He works on a Presidential committee for social justice. He is renowned for liberal views. His brother-in-law Tikvah, having begun a history called Potentialities for Fascism in America, can’t finish it. “My coming on the scene,” Westrum explains, “stopped [it] forever. Its thesis is that every goy is a Jew-hater somewhere just below the surface, but as long as I appeared to be the exception to his theory he couldn’t go on, he had no theory, his theory went bust.” Entering Jewish history, Westrum causes it to halt; when the goy ceases to be a goy, Jewish history has no subject matter.

This, then, is Harris’s seeming premise; that on occasion history can reverse itself, that on occasion the majority will be zealous after the minority, that now and then Esau will wish to live in Jacob’s tent.

The usual proposition—Jacob putting on goatskins to impersonate Esau—has often and often flowered in history; frequently enough in the masks of fiction. Cultural impersonation is an ancient artistic risk, and remains interesting. Outside of literature, Jews—a minority treated to resemble the majority—can sometimes be absorbed into the dominant biology, like those mimetic surgical stitches which need never be ripped out; the host-tissue swallows them without a trace. Acculturation—absorption—of the minority into the majority is, after all, almost a definition of civilization; of a civilization’s root energy source. When Matthew Arnold said that he would not like to have been born a Jew or a Socinian (the Socinians were 16th-century Unitarians), he did not mean that he disliked anyone who denied the divinity of Jesus, or even that he disapproved of the denial itself. His objection was pragmatically related to an idea about civilization. He pitied the unassimilable; he thought it “better” to be in the “mainstream”; he wanted to be civilized, by which he meant belonging to the locally prevailing mythos—to the West as Christendom.

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In inventing Westrum, Harris postulates the obverse force of Arnold, a darkened counterpart—one implicated, like Arnold, with the drift of his civilization, owned by it and its owner, but with this difference: he chooses against the Arnoldian thesis. Himself the best of the majority in imaginative power and prowess, Westrum chooses to acculturate to the minority; through a voluntary act either of renunciation or taking-on, or both, he chooses to habituate his life to pariah modes. The thesis in reverse—assimilation into marginality—is a dazzlingly innovative but grotesque meditation: grotesque because it goes against the grain of what really happens, it distorts normal historical expectation. If Harris—or anyone1—could have brought this off, he would have written the novel of the century. But no one can bring it off. In literature it is perilous to be too original in one’s premise—one ends not with a novel but with a fairy tale. And Harris, eschewing fantasy, does not mean to bring it off. Having startled us with his reverse proposition, Harris gradually leads us to discover that he does not intend to make it work; he accepts Arnold’s law of civilization. He is not interested in staging a miracle play.

And so he peels the Judaized clothing off Westrum to reveal the spots beneath:

Westrum is a good father. But once, in a rage, he broke his young son’s back; no one remembers whether, in that rage, he called the boy a Jew. He is a good husband, though not faithful. He is not faithful to his Jewish mistress either, and thinks about taking another, also Jewish. He woos her with a Jewish-sounding slogan: “Football is Fascist.” Once a football player himself, he is still a fanatic athlete, devoted to the upkeep of his body for its own sake. He clocks his daily run—a life’s habit. Invited to join a prestigious think-tank, he broods on Benstock, Weinberg, Silvers, his colleagues: “All Jews here but me”—this silent phrase another life’s habit. He says he does not smoke or drink, but he does both, by stealth; he says he sleeps with no one but his wife, whom he deceives by stealth. Though a humanitarian, he concludes that his typist is an unaware automaton: “he had dismissed her uniqueness,” but she learns from him to deceive him by stealth.

Now he is writing not a general history, but something private, not social but self-directed, in his own mind grander than history or society: a Journal, the confessions of Westrum’s soul; it is Christian to suppose that the individual soul equals the world. He “lives his life twice”—once in the staged happening, once in the shrewd sly malice of writing it truthfully down. It is a work of stealth. Disciplined and introspective as Loyolan exercises, kept up every day for years in an invented secret shorthand, this Journal, already distinguished though undisclosed, has a compulsive criminal honesty. It tells how Westrum lies without point, in small unnecessary things; how Westrum is like his father: he is attracted to prey; how Westrum is not like his father: he hates the Jews by stealth. His son, a half-Jew, Westrum has now made a Jew altogether: with his mended spine the boy can’t run, can’t play football, just like some bookish urban Jew. But the boy is not bookish; his grammar is bad. He is a skilled filmmaker, though, and photographs his father with a corrective intuition: he longs to mollify and flatter his powerful father, so Westrum in his Jewish son’s movie comes out the ideal movie star, a handsome, clean-living, filial, patriotic, churchy, dog-loving, country-humorous WASP. When this son was circumcised Westrum joked about the bill: “Jesus, it costs me money to be a Jew”—his only Jewish joke, because he is serious about prey. He is an infiltrator, an underminer, a corrupter—he has made his wife not like having a Jewish face. He hates the meticulous conscience of her brother Tikvah. All the same she believes in him and takes him at his (public) word—thereby changing from his wife into his public, and betrayed both ways.

Nobody else really and truly understood [thinks Westrum’s wife] that Westrum’s mistrust of himself was greater than anyone else’s mistrust of him, and with less reason; that he tormented himself beyond necessity; that he suffered a moral concern too exquisite. . . . He feared that he carried within himself that seed of moral indifference which had permitted his father and his father’s fathers down the line to take pleasure in war, hatred, and the violent advance of their own interests, all in the name of American duty and service.

If he had done her ill at all it was by giving her so good an opinion of the country. He was not the country.

The burden of The Goy is that Westrum is the country; that like Westrum the country is a lie and a deception, that moral indifference is endemic, and cannot be introspected away; is in fact increased by intellectual application. Ultimately this is a novel (or, rather, it is Tikvah’s treatise completed) about its own apparent premise—which is to say, the premise tested, contradicted, traduced: the goy doesn’t change his spots, even in America. It is a rough, supple, and ingeniously scouted book, as cruel and precise as its title: if goy has become a Yiddishism signifying roughneck and persecutor, it is also the Hebrew word which designates a nation, any nation, including the Jews. At bottom The Goy is not an exploration of the character of “the goyim,” or even of the character of America; it is a novel about the imperatives of Jewish character, defined not by what is “Jewish,” but by what is incontrovertibly not. That there is a cleavage between the Jews and the noblest social ideals of Western civilization is not something we are just finding out, after all; it is not something Matthew Arnold (who dispassionately saw Jews as outside civilization), or even his less disinterested descendant, T.S. Eliot (whose Idea of a Christian State simply and axiomatically excludes Jews), or any other theoretician of culture had to tell us. What makes The Goy provocative in its despair is Harris’s willingness to extend the case beyond Europe to the good goyim of America—to those Puritan consciences, emancipated intellectuals, liberal academicians, liberated allies, friends, wives, husbands, and half-Jewish children of Jews.

And what makes The Goy finally such an extremely curious book—a curio, in fact—is that it reflects with static precision a mentality we had thought America—and certainly the advent of Israel—had at last wiped out: what the shtetl used to call “fear of the goy.” Perhaps this is what has put off the goyim—those Gentile critics who are in fact genuine emancipated intellectuals and liberal allies. It is in the nature of good will to shun those who suspect it of ill.

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Footnotes

1 I know of only two other works of fiction hung on this premise. One is Norma Rosen's Touching Evil (1969), wherein a young woman follows the Eichmann trial on television and becomes Judaized. The other is, of course, Bernard Malamud's The Assistant. Both of these books harbor miracle plays in that the premise is allowed to stand.

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