Commentary Magazine

Time of Arrival and Other Essays, by Dan Jacobson

The Sense of Fact

Time of Arrival and Other Essays.
by Dan Jacobson.
Macmillan. 198 pp. $3.95.

Toward the end of “After Notting Hill,” one of the essays in this collection, Dan Jacobson makes the observation quoted below. It suggests the quality both of his prose and of his intelligence; but, more than that, it indicates the quality of character which distinguishes his essays. Among social-literary commentators, clean prose, sound essay construction, and genuine intelligence are not so hard to come by. Honesty is—that stubborn, Orwellian honesty which is the best of Britishness.

The liberal hears his own words, distorted and magnified, coming from the lips of people he distrusts and despises. And he conceives a disgust for his own words. He never hears any words but his own; and yet when he looks around he sees that under the words of fairness, kindness and tolerance, there breed unchecked all the old rancours and hatreds and meannesses; all the old lusts for violence. So he turns away, stops his ears altogether, talks about something else.

I happen to believe that there is an element of health in this turning away; that “apathy” is a political weapon that the authoritarian bullies of all kinds are finding it hard to turn to their own purposes; that fatigue and indifference in a time like the present can be positively restorative. But the one thing we cannot afford to be indifferent about is our sense of fact. If we retain our sense of fact, our words might yet regain their meanings.

Well, Dan Jacobson’s words retain their meanings, in no small part because he is not indifferent to his sense of fact—which is to say less modestly, he strives to be true to what he knows.

This honesty is the source of the special excellence of the six essays which are about books or writers. Like any good critic, he is true to his experience of reading the books he is taking about. But this aesthetic experience concerns him less than the life experiences which the books deal with, the moral qualities of the characters (the books he has chosen to write about are prose fiction or autobiography), most of all the truth of the author’s vision. The last two points Jacobson makes about Huckleberry Finn are critically sound, but they are especially interesting because they are characteristic of himself as writer. He insists on the goodness of Huck and Jim as people; and he insists that their life on the raft is no escape from “sivilization,” as Huck the narrator says, but that

the relationship between the two on the raft demands from them both the sacrifices which civilization demands from us all, and which we frequently find most burdensome to make: it demands mutual responsibility, self-abnegation, and moral choice.

In a first-rate essay on The Great Gatsby, he argues that Fitzgerald was able in that one book to transcend his limitations because in Gatsby he created a figure who, like himself, nobly dreamed an ignoble dream. Jacobson then pays Fitzgerald the highest kind of tribute in his power to pay. After asserting that the physical details of characters’ behavior “are somehow weightless and incoherent unless they are allied to a passionate preoccupation with the social depths which the details both reflect and imply,” Jacobson continues:

Fitzgerald’s eye and ear were acute, and when he was fully engaged by his subject, as in The Great Gatsby, he was able fully to project his perceptions, in a way which, more than that of any other modern American novelist, helped to make the United States a country that not only is, but can be seen to be, a place of continuing habitation. Fitzgerald could not live in it, but others can, with greater understanding of themselves, because he tried to.

In an essay on James Baldwin written in 1961, Jacobson gives Baldwin’s rhetorical skill its due and more than its due, and then puts his finger, reluctantly, almost apologetically, on the moral weakness of Baldwin’s position.

Instead of analyzing the consequences of Negro powerlessness, or speculating about the kinds of power [Negroes] may hope to win for themselves, he too frequently contents himself with making moral appeals, or with issuing warnings. The warnings, God knows, are justified; the appeals are indeed those of reason and intelligence and compassion. But does he believe they will be listened to? Does he really believe it?

Had the essay been written after The Fire Next Time, perhaps Jacobson would have been a bit less gentle and have spelled out the implication of his argument. Perhaps he would have pointed out that the effect, and presumably the intention, of Baldwin’s blaming rhetoric is to paralyze American whites in their wrong, to sink them in stagnant guilt. For the worst possible deeds are those of the unjust despot, as Socrates argues in The Republic, and the most wretched of men must surely be, not the victim, but the unpunished and unforgiven criminal. In Gorgias Socrates says:

It is for projects of this kind [seeing to it that a criminal remains unpurged of his crime] that rhetoric seems to be useful, since I really can’t see any great utility in it for a man who doesn’t intend to do wrong, if indeed it has any use at all.

Jacobson says he is qualified to comment on Baldwin’s argument because, being both a white South African and a Jew, he has experience of power both as persecutor and as persecuted. No doubt this double role has aided his understanding, but it is not essential to it. What is essential is an exercise of imagination easily within the scope of men as gifted as either Jacobson or Baldwin—that and the scrupulous exercise of conscience in preserving a “sense of fact.”



But Jacobson’s strength also sets his limits. Speaking of Kafka’s limitations, he suggests his own.

If we set against any of Kafka’s fables the fable of “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov, we have to grant Dostoevsky a kind of nobility as a writer which Kafka is altogether without. Dostoevsky’s fable has the nobility of true protest, of true rebellion, of a spirit trying to beat through the walls of its own limitations, instead of merely walking around within the walls and examining them minutely, fanatically, even lovingly, having lost all hope of reaching the world outside itself. The most one can say about Kafka is that his fidelity to the nature of his own experience is astonishing.

Now Jacobson is no Kafka, either in the strangeness of his imagination or in the rigidity of his limits; he is not obsessed. But just as one can say of Jacobson too that his fidelity to the nature of his own experience is amazing, so one feels that he too is held within the walls of that experience and that fidelity. But he is not trying to beat the walls down, like Dostoevsky, nor has he exactly lost hope of reaching the world beyond. It is more that he reaches out to the world beyond, trying to understand it. When he reaches too hard, he writes less than well. A not very important form of this yearning reaching is an occasional suggestion of incantation in the prose, in the manner of the prophetic Lawrence. One can feel this coming on when the sentences take to beginning with And too often. The other way he reaches too hard is much more important, but so endearing that it would be a shame to inveigh against it; besides, sometimes it succeeds. He loves to generalize. In an earlier book, No Further West, Jacobson generalizes, sometimes wildly, sometimes wisely, about the United States on the evidence of one year in Palo Alto attending Stanford on a creative writing fellowship—a town and an occupation which provide shaky foundations for many generalizations about America. In an essay called “Zion Revisited” from the present collection, he says:

Jews have always been in the very center of the cultural and social and religious history of Western civilization.

The inaccuracy of this claim is so breath-taking (who was the Jew of Athens?) as to render it harmless, no more than irritating.

Indeed, granted this generalizing propensity of his, the extraordinary thing is that many of his large statements are illuminating and exciting. However, most of those that ring true are not so much generalizations rationally abstracting from data as intuitions darting from the obscure depths of Dan Jacobson out into the world. It is in these sudden intuitions that he reaches out beyond his own experience freely and finely, though not for long at a time. He has just arrived in London from South Africa.

And even on that first walk I saw how fine, how subtle, how eccentric, the faces of the English were. Each face seemed to carry within it the shadows, the suggestions, of innumerable others which had neither come to the surface nor been entirely lost.

It is worth noting that, when he reaches inwardly and outwardly at once and shows us a flash of truth, he speaks in strong, quite plain language. His weakness for incantation is suggested in that first, unnecessary, but here harmless And.



The last quotation comes from the title essay, which is both the longest and the best. In it he explores and shapes his experiences during his first few weeks in London. The gifted provincial fresh in the capital—this is one of the set themes of fiction and autobiography. I do not know of a better treatment of it anywhere than Jacobson’s in this essay. The writer represents the youth as arriving with the naïve hope that London will marvelously change him right away. Instead, it seems not to change him at all. The youth sets out to explore London, in the course of which he makes some of that great and hideous city and its great and powerful past his own, part of himself. The youth does not realize as the writer has known all along, that he has been exploring himself as well and that the city has been quietly changing him. Under the writer’s quiet, tactful supervision, both the youth and the reader have been moving to a revelation of this change. One lovely anecdote both accomplishes this and completes the essay formally. He recounts coming home one day so distracted and full of care that he failed to spend the gram of imagination it would have taken him to see that a little girl had need of him; indeed, so preoccupied is he that he does not at first realize that her cry for help is addressed to him. To be sure, because he realizes almost immediately how he has failed her (though not quite soon enough to repair the damage), we are assured that he has not been hardened out of recognition. Moreover, because it is the man himself who shaped the anecdote, we know that, though the great cities harden the heart, Dan Jacobson’s heart will not be hardened against others finally.

There is no sense of limitations in this essay. The formal limits are harmonious with the limits of the experience represented; but more, exploring London turned out to be an experience of the right size for him. Discovering London, he could discover himself without falling among glittering generalities or seductive rhythms. For him, another man’s book is too narrow a realm for this double exploration to be perfectly satisfying, just as such great and pressing social issues as the race problem are too vast (as they have proved too vast for every other writer of the age). Indeed, huge issues cannot be handled as such except by philosophers or historians. In literature, they must be no more than a condition against which a writer presents his more manageable subjects. They must be dealt with indirectly because they are out of proportion to any man’s shapable experience. Jacobson says something like this on the second page of the essay.

In a way, the area the city as a whole covered did not come as such a surprise to me, partly because I could not, and still cannot, grasp it: it is beyond reckoning, beyond the widest span of one’s imagination.

If this is true of London and of himself, how much more true is it of the social issues which he knows are of great importance but whose workings in his experience have not always mattered as much as lesser things. Yet, that he strives to grasp what is beyond imagining is not the least of the reasons one honors him so highly and reads his essays with such pleasure.



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