In order to understand the genius of a contemporary Hebrew writer such as S. Y. Agnon it is necessary first…
In order to understand the genius of a contemporary Hebrew writer such as S. Y. Agnon it is necessary first to consider the nature of the Hebrew language before it became, once again, a normal means of communication, a language of children playing in the street. Before the present generation, Hebrew was nourished from a different source entirely; it was the language of a great religious tradition, and almost everything written in it made sense in the context of that tradition. This is not to say that the language was peripheral to the Jewish community as a whole. Even after Hebrew (or for that matter Aramaic, which was so closely related to Hebrew that in the Jewish mind it became almost a kind of younger sibling) was no longer in use as a spoken language, it continued to hold its own as a written language, occupying over the centuries a central place in education and in the study of the Bible, the Talmud, and all writings connected with them. Nor did Hebrew remain the province of a numerically small elite, as was the case with Latin. Everyone was expected to have a working knowledge of Hebrew; the study of the Bible and the Talmud was by no means limited to those who intended to become rabbis or judges. In countries where Jewish intellectual and religious life was particularly vigorous—such as Poland, Italy, and Turkey—Hebrew represented the principal means for expressing the spiritual life of an important segment of the male community. It is true that the spark of vitality, which comes to language when it is used and spoken by women, was lacking, and this lack is indeed significant. What remained, however, was of overwhelming richness. Aside from those books intended for womenfolk that were composed in the vernacular, almost all literary works—chronicles, poetry, and even parody—were written in Hebrew. In these works, biblical and talmudic associations were employed to the hilt; the works abounded in witty and surprising uses of old phrases or in playful variations upon them. Quite often the measure of a Jew’s education was not only his command of Bible and Talmud, but his ingenious ability to use the language of these source materials for secular purposes as well.
Modern Hebrew literature, especially in the 19th and in the early part of the 20th centuries, was from the start built on a paradox: it fed on a language of predominantly religious tradition but strove for avowedly secular goals. Writers of considerable talent and some, indeed, of genius, worked mightily to achieve the metamorphosis of Hebrew into a language of secular literature. In its earlier stages this new literature was directed mainly toward criticizing the petrified state of Jewish tradition and the many shortcomings and basic faults of East European Jewish society. Later, however, with the emergence of the Zionist movement, the renascence of Hebrew gravitated toward a more positive goal. A new life was springing up in the old land of Israel and Hebrew literature was to serve as the connecting link between this new society and the disintegrating communities of the Diaspora. Still, even such outstanding representatives of this literary renascence as Bialik, Tchernichowsky, and Shneur, were limited in the means of expression at their disposal. Hebrew had remained a language of literary tradition; despite the fact that these three writers spent their later years in Israel, the spoken Hebrew of the new generation had no formative influence on their work.
Agnon stands at a crossroads in the development of modern Hebrew. Heir to the totality of Jewish tradition, he has given the highest artistic expression to the life of the Jewish people both in the setting of tradition and under the impact of the historic forces which led to the disintegration of that setting. As an artist, Agnon is unequaled, a classical master; but, because of the circumstances of his time and his position, he is also the last of his line. Having spent most of his creative years in the land of Israel, Agnon has witnessed the development of Hebrew as a “natural” language, spoken at first in consequence of a moral decision made by a small number of utopians, and later by youngsters who grew up in Israel and knew no other language. He has been fully conscious of this process, and he knows that the metamorphosis which Hebrew has undergone has involved a decisive loss of form. When language is no longer forged, first and foremost, by the study of texts and through conscious reflection, but rather by unconscious processes in which the power of tradition is a minor factor at best, that language becomes by nature chaotic. Indeed, the chaotic quality of present-day Hebrew was already apparent forty years ago, when Agnon returned from Europe to settle permanently in Israel; one day it may become the vehicle of expression of a new literary genius, but by then it will be essentially different, in its means and potentialities, from the Hebrew language whose forms and cadences are immortalized in the prose of Agnon.
For the most obvious result of the regeneration of Hebrew as a natural language has been the sloughing off of its heavy load of historical overtones, accumulated through three thousand years of sacred literature. Hebrew words have acquired a new virginity; they are ready now to be molded into new contexts, from which the old and sometimes oppressive odor of sanctity has evaporated. This is precisely what Hebrew writers of the last two generations have tried to do. Yet the burdens of history, which these writers feel in their bones, have asserted themselves even in revolt. In this respect today’s writers, for whom the Bible is no longer a holy book but a national saga, and to whom rabbinical and medieval literature is virtually unknown, are in a happier situation than Agnon and his contemporaries. They are free to wrestle with the words in a completely new emotional setting and on a level of freedom previously unattainable. They are, it is true, confronted with dangers of rebirth that are no less awesome than those of birth. Nobody can foretell what will come of this sweep and whirl in terms of literature. For the time being, at least, nothing is audible but stammering. Much of Agnon’s work is contemporary with these first stammerings, and there is even a secret mutuality between the two camps, the one of a writer who defends the most advanced outpost of the Hebrew language in its old forms, and the other manned by pioneers of the unbroken land that stretches beyond. The anarchic vitality, the lawlessness and roughness of the new language, has alarmed and frightened Agnon and appears as an object of scorn and irony in quite a few of his stories. But the reader of Agnon cannot help feeling that a good deal of the master’s work was produced as a kind of desperate incantation, an appeal to those who would come after him. It is as though he were saying: “Since you do not accept the continuity of tradition and its language in their true context, take them in the transformation which they have undergone in my work, take them from someone who stands at the crossroads and can see in both directions.”
I have tried to examine the condition of Hebrew and Hebrew literature so far as it is germane to the task of placing Agnon’s work in our time. But to understand the work we must also take a look at its author. For both, to say the least, are enigmatic. It is small wonder that over the last forty years a considerable literature of interpretation on the meaning of Agnon’s writings has sprung up in which widely differing and even contradictory points of view have been argued. The commentators have indulged in much overinterpretation, some of it invited by the seeming contradictions in Agnon’s writings. These commentators concentrate upon one point: Agnon’s attitude toward the historical, or better, religious, tradition of Judaism. Is he to be considered a spokesman for this tradition, a herald delivering its message in highly articulate form, or should we regard him rather as an accomplished artist who uses tradition to express all the intricacies of the life of a Jew in our time, proffering no easy answer to the old question: where are we going? Is he a great defender of the faith, as the Orthodox have acclaimed him? Is he some kind of existentialist genius, showing the emptiness of all fullness and the fullness of emptiness? Is he like the king of the Moors who filled his palace with portraits of white men, setting up an ideal which he is fully conscious can never be attained in our times? Agnon himself, for all his great conversational gifts, has been very reticent when it comes to these questions. He is not a man to commit himself. He has delivered his work and left his readers the task of coming to terms with it, his commentators the task of fighting it out among themselves; and, I should say, he rather enjoys the spectacle. As a matter of fact, having known Agnon for fifty years, I can testify that his own outlook has undergone great changes over the years, and I doubt whether any single harmonizing view would do him justice. He was not what could be called an observant Jew when I knew him first, but even then he gave the impression of being a bearer of spiritual tradition. Now, in his later years, when he has become an observant Jew, he still gives the impression of being a man of complete intellectual freedom and of utterly unorthodox mind.
This is confirmed by the story of his life. He began writing as a youth, more than sixty years ago. He grew up in Buczacz in Eastern Galicia (now Western Ukraine), an old and settled community of no more than eight thousand Jews and a center of rabbinic scholarship. He came from a family of scholars some of whom strictly opposed Hasidism and all it represented, but some of whom embraced it. His childhood reflected both these worlds, which made up the combined physiognomy of Jewish piety in 19th-century Galicia. He had hardly any schooling outside traditional talmudic education; his father was his main teacher in the study of the Talmud. He spent the years of adolescence in the local study house, which boasted a tremendous Hebrew library. He became an ardent and omnivorous reader of old talmudic tomes, to which he began writing notes and glosses. But at the same time he started producing stories and poems in the style of the writers of the Haskala, the rationalist movement which was attempting to introduce enlightenment and European culture into Hebrew. Galicia was then one of the centers of neo-Hebrew literature, and its writers enjoyed a great reputation as masters of Hebrew style. Still a lad, Agnon joined the ranks of the Zionists, beginning his literary career in local Hebrew and Yiddish journals which have long since disappeared. An older friend, Eliezer Meir Lipschuetz, to whom he remained attached to the end, used to say to him: “Make up your mind what you propose to be, a writer of talmudic notes, hiddushim and pilpulim, or a writer of stories and a poet.” Agnon made his choice early. But Yiddish soon lost its hold on him, and after going to Palestine in 1907 (not in 1909, as is often erroneously stated), he never again resorted to it as a vehicle of literary expression.
His lifelong struggle with Hebrew as both the matter and the form of his inspiration took shape in those first supreme efforts of his literary genius which were published in Palestine in the years preceding World War I. Their impact was instantaneous. The first story by him to be printed in Palestine, a lyrical and melancholy tale called Agunot (“Deserted Souls”), remains a classical piece of imaginative Hebrew writing to this day. Those with an ear for Hebrew prose—and there were quite a few of them in Palestine in those days—realized immediately the unique brilliance of the young writer. Shalom Streit, in 1913, said of Agunot: “An electric current ran through our community at its reading.” No Hebrew writer before had dared begin a short story with a lengthy quotation from what purported to be one of the old forgotten books, or to use that citation as a leitmotif running through the entire story. Even more paradoxical was Agnon’s publishing history in those years. The weekly newspaper of the socialist Hapo’el Hatza’ir, a group strongly influenced by Tolstoyan and narodniki ideas, published Agnon’s first book, Vehaya he’akov lemishor (“And the Crooked shall be made Straight”) in a series of installments. The story develops an Enoch Arden theme in a strictly traditional hasidic framework; it is written not so much in the actual style of the old devotional literature as in the style its authors would have used had they been great artists. Joseph Haim Brenner, a convinced atheist who was the first to recognize Agnon’s literary genius, scraped together his last shillings to publish the story in book form (1912); the man who set it in type was an ardent follower of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, one of the great saints of Hasidism. It is on record that both these men took the greatest delight in the work, thereby anticipating, so to speak, the contradictory attitudes taken by Agnon’s admirers in later years. For Brenner, “And the Crooked shall be made Straight” was the first work of secular Hebrew literature in which tradition had become the medium of pure art, untouched by extraneous factors such as criticism of, or apologetics for, Jewish society. For the typesetter, whom I have known for many years, it was a true embodiment of hasidic lore and spirit.
In the formative years of his first stay in Palestine, Agnon indeed felt at home in both these camps. He lived with ease among the pioneers of the Second aliya who wished to revitalize the Jewish people through the Tolstoyan religion of work and humanistic renewal, rather than through social revolution. He accepted their vision of Zionism as the only hope for a Jewish future. But at the same time he could establish close relations with the representatives of traditional piety. There was, no doubt, a difference of nuance in his attitude toward the two camps. He had consciously left the world of tradition as he had known it in his youth, but he was saturated with the spirit of this world. From the vantage-point of Zionism, a movement which endeavored to transform its essential ethos, this life, and the men and women who represented it, seemed to clamor for someone to give it shape. The charmed world of the old yishuv, the pre-Zionist settlers, in those years certainly held no message for the young Agnon so far as his own vision of the renascence of the Jewish people was concerned, but it provided him with a great store of characters and with an atmosphere of strange excitement. The life of centuries seemed to have been arrested here in a curious mixture of immortality and decay. And the encounter challenged the young artist, who recognized a submerged part of himself in this world.
Having absorbed what Jewish Palestine could offer him at that stage of his development, and longing to dissociate himself as well from the other center of his experience, Galicia, Agnon in 1913 went to Germany. He had meant to stay for a few years at most, but the war overtook him and it was not until 1924 that he returned to settle in Jerusalem. Agnon’s years in Germany were of the greatest importance to his work. German Jews left him baffled. Curious as he was about them, he could not become involved with them in any deep sense, as he had been involved, say, with Galicia. He was an exile who at the same time felt the exhilaration of a man who knows where he belongs. He was still an inveterate reader, and when I first saw him, it was in the excellent library of the Jewish Community in Berlin where, as he told me, he was looking for books he had not yet read. At this time, too, he made his principal contact with European literature. His natural inclination to perfectionism became quite pronounced in this period; he wrote and rewrote his stories six or seven times, a trait which was to become the bane of his publisher. He published very little during those years, but he worked indefatigably both at revising his older stories and at writing new ones. He also wrote a great amount of poetry and a long autobiographical novel in which he took critical stock of his earlier years and the ideas and movements which had shaped them. The only chapter of this work which has been preserved and published contains one of the most bitter and devastating pictures we have of Galician Zionism in the period of Agnon’s youth.
In June 1924, all of Agnon’s manuscripts and papers, together with his wonderful Hebrew library, were completely destroyed by a fire which broke out in his house in Homburg (near Frankfurt). Agnon was never the same after this cataclysmic event; indeed, who can fathom the impact of such a blow on the personality of a great artist? Starting from scratch again, he gave up writing poetry and never tried to reconstruct his lost novel. He simply surrendered what was lost, prepared a semi-final version of his published writings, and turned to new beginnings out of the depths of his creative imagination.
Upon his return to Palestine, Agnon developed a deep allegiance to Jerusalem and an appropriately conservative way of life. In the ensuing quarter-century he returned to the Diaspora only once, after his house in a suburb of Jerusalem had been pillaged by Arabs during the riots of 1929. This time, he went for a short visit to his home town in Galicia, and for a longer stay of nearly a year in Germany to see through the press the first four volumes of his collected works, which had taken five years to prepare. This was his last encounter with Europe and European Jews, and it left a sharp imprint on his mind. In fact, there was no further need for him to travel to the Diaspora—the Diaspora was coming to Palestine, in ever larger waves of aliya. His work now took on wider dimensions.
It is relevant in this connection to mention Agnon’s peculiar gifts as an anthologist. This activity has been much more than a mere sideline in his creative work as a writer. Agnon was never a scholar in the sense of a person dedicated to historical and critical analysis and to the study of phenomena within a conceptual framework. Nevertheless, he has always had a penchant for scholarship, enamored as he is of the study of primary sources. He has a wonderful feel for the significant and the curious in the vast realm of Hebrew literature, and a talent for synthesis. During his years in Germany he edited, in German, two anthologies, The Book of the Polish Jew and The Book of Hanukkah. In Jerusalem, he devoted a considerable amount of work and time to three anthologies which represent a perfect intermingling of his propensities for scholarship and connoisseurship with his ambitions as a writer and a master of form. In their way, these anthologies are also outstanding examples of creative work. The first of them is Days of Awe, “Being a treasury of traditions, legends, and learned commentaries concerning Rosh Ha-shanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between, culled from three hundred volumes ancient and new”; an abridged edition of this work exists in English. With his caustic sense of humor Agnon included in Days of Awe a number of highly imaginative (and imaginary) passages culled from his own vineyard, a non-existent book, Kol Dodi (“The Voice of my Beloved”), innocently mentioned in the bibliography as a “Manuscript, in possession of the author.” The second anthology is comprised of stories and anecdotes about books and their authors—a compendium that reflects Agnon’s unquenchable thirst for the anecdotal side of Jewish bibliography. For some unfathomable reason, the book has never been published except in a private edition. The last of these anthologies is a collection of sayings about the Ten Commandments. Agnon has given years of his life to the preparation of these works; in them, the pure voice of tradition speaks in tones of laconic refinement.
Many years ago Agnon also planned a thesaurus of hasidic stories on which he had agreed to cooperate with Martin Buber. He commenced the work in Homburg, but the first batches of the manuscript fell victim to the flames, and he never returned to it. Yet his forays into scholarship continued unabated. It is noteworthy that the only great Hebrew writer with whom Agnon felt perfectly at ease was the poet, Haim Nahman Bialik, who shared with Agnon a propensity for creative anthologizing. As a matter of fact, Agnon never felt as comfortable in the company of writers as he did in that of scholars who, surprisingly enough, appear as central figures in some of his strangest stories. The calling of the writer seems to have held no mysteries, whereas the utter and largely hopeless devotion of the scholar obviously filled him with sinister fascination.
Many critics have rightly observed the obvious tension between the artist and the traditionalist in Agnon. It is of his essence. When he began writing he himself was far from a traditional Jew, but he deliberately set out to use Jewish tradition as the material of his fiction. This he did in two ways: on the one hand he penetrated ever deeper into the intricacies of this tradition, its grandeur and its ambivalences; and on the other hand he sought to begin, as it were, from the insecurity, the Verlorenheit and alienation of the modern Jew who attempts to come to terms with himself without the guidance of a tradition that has anyway ceased to be meaningful. The ellipse of Agnon’s work moves between two poles, the world of Buczacz and Polish Jewry, and the world of the new settlements in the land of Israel. Both of these worlds are portrayed in Agnon’s work on the two levels I have mentioned above—a circumstance which has proved rather confusing to many of his readers. The world of established Jewish values and the world of utter confusion, which on occasion seem to be separated by two or three generations, in reality partake of many similar characteristics. For all its apparent simplicity, there are great tensions even within the world of tradition; and although disintegration and contusion seem to be the predominant feature of the writer’s own times, here too a delicate equilibrium may be found. A forlorn little town like Buczacz could still contain an entire universe of human passion and ambition, of infinite richness and abysmal tragedy, just as the struggle for a new life in the old land could include all the infinite ambiguities of Zionism.
Agnon began by writing short stories, and it is in this mode that he has achieved a perfection which leaves the reader breathless. More than twenty years of intense productivity passed before he published his first long book, a chronicle of Jewish life in hasidic Galicia nearly a hundred and fifty years ago which in many ways stands on the borderline between a story and a novel, being itself comprised of what the author calls “stories within a story.” Many of these first stories, which gained Agnon a wide reputation and which must be considered classics of their kind, are legends of the Jewish past. The secret of their perfection lies in Agnon’s compression of an infinite wealth of detail into infinitesimal space. Unsurpassed in this respect are his masterpieces of fiction in the third volume of his collected writings; many of these tales are suffused with an atmosphere of immense sadness, while at the same time they hold out a promise of consolation. There is, for example, the story of Azriel Moshe the Porter, an ignoramus who grows enamored of the books in the great library of the Beth Hamidrash and teaches himself the titles of all the books whose contents he will never be able to grasp; this Azriel Moshe becomes the keeper of the library, dying a martyr’s death while shielding the books with his body in the hour of persecution. Another story concerns an impoverished vinegar maker, all alone in the world, who saves up diligently in order to make his way to the Holy Land; uncertain as to where he should hide his money for safekeeping, he places it in an almsbox under a crucifix on the road. Upon coming finally to fetch his cache, the vinegar maker is arrested for robbing sacred funds. He is imprisoned and condemned to die, but is visited in his cell by “that man,” as Jesus is called in Hebrew, who takes him to Jerusalem, where he is found dead by his compatriots.
Through the years Agnon has produced a great number of these stories of short or medium length. Some focus on a single episode, while in others an entire drama is condensed into a dense narrative. I have mentioned some examples of the former. Among the dramatic kind, it is difficult to say which deserves the greatest praise. In my opinion, three such stories by Agnon are of the highest possible merit. They are “The Legend of the Scribe,” “The Doctor’s Divorce,” and “Two Scholars who Lived in our Town.” The first tells of a Torah scribe whose wife yearns for a child and asks her husband to intercede with Heaven in her behalf. But she dies before her hope is granted. The scribe, whose craft is described with much hasidic and kabbalistic detail, writes a Torah scroll in her memory and, having finished it, dies on the night of Simhat Tora in an ecstatic-erotic vision of his wife. The story is told without any psychological overtones but with a full account of the dramatic tension in the life of Raphael the Scribe. It is one of Agnon’s few stories done in a solemn style—as if it were itself a ceremonial narrative written on a sacred scroll. I vividly recall the evening at the Hebrew Club of Berlin, in the spring of 1917, when Agnon read this story in manuscript. I can still hear the mournful and monotonous intonation of his recitation—a tone of voice reminiscent of that used in the synagogue by the reader who recites the weekly prophetic lesson.
The other two stories are quite different. In the one, a Viennese doctor marries a nurse who has told him that before meeting him she has had an affair with another man. He cannot live with this knowledge, and his deep and genuine love for the woman is gradually eroded from within. “Two Scholars who Lived in our Town” follows the lives of two friends who labor under an ever darkening shadow—caused by a slight, unkind remark made quite inadvertently by one of them in the course of a casual conversation. One of the friends, Rabbi Shlomo, tries in vain to placate the silent but inexorable enmity of his friend Rabbi Moshe Pinhas, whose heart has been hurt beyond repair, and whose bitterness grows with every new step taken by his friend toward reconciliation. Both are first-rank talmudists, but the two of them cannot live together in one place, neither in this world nor in the next. The story is told with uncanny logic and psychological insight. Its message—that the light of the Torah is not enough to warm a frozen heart—is brought home not with the scornful bitterness that any earlier Hebrew writer would have injected into the tale, but with a depth of understanding and objectivity which make it one of the greatest monuments of modern Hebrew literature.
Human passions are of central importance in Agnon’s work. Yet, with some rare and remarkable exceptions, Agnon’s writing is distinguished by a singular stillness, by the absence of pathos or exaltation. His narrators hardly ever raise their voice, nor is there the slightest hint in his work of expressionistic hysteria. Not infrequently he describes situations which appear to cry out for such treatment, but he never relinquishes the still, small voice which has become the hallmark of his prose. The overriding sobriety of rabbinic style, as it is evinced in the midrash and the mishna, has of course had a decisive influence upon Agnon’s writing, and the absence of exuberance or emotionalism in his work may in good measure be traced to that influence. This is particularly true of his hasidic stories. The task of describing the impact of mysticism on Jewish life led almost every Hebrew writer before Agnon to indulge in highly charged emotional language; Agnon himself, however, deeply steeped as he is in the unemotional prose of kabbalistic literature, has been able to respond to this challenge in a different way. The highstrung sentimentality that characterizes the hasidic tales of I. L. Peretz, for example, is nowhere to be found in Agnon, who treats the world of the hasidim with a kind of perfect bonhomie and urbanity. In his hasidic stories the realm of the miraculous is closely interwoven with stark reality. Moreover, it is not the saints and their ecstatic raptures who are the authentic objects of Agnon’s interest, but the little man, the faithful member of the hasidic community for whom all aspects of life are at the same time real and full of mystery.
Withal, the ground on which the pious Jew treads is thin enough. Dark powers lurk everywhere, and the magic of the Law scarcely suffices to keep them at bay. Once the ground of belief cracks, any man, be he within the domain of the Law or outside it, becomes prey to the demons which may or may not be extensions of his own uncertainties and confusions. Agnon, who has given great attention to this side of human experience, takes no stand as to the precise nature of the arena in which these strange happenings occur. His stories about such uncanny experiences, told with utmost lucidity and realistic simplicity, are gathered in his Book of Deeds or Book of Happenings, a collection which has aroused much controversy because of its obvious affinities to the tales of Kafka.1 Some see these stories as a direct opposition to those other works of Agnon in which the world of tradition, even in its most ambiguous form, is depicted in sharp relief. Others maintain that they form a complement to his earlier oeuvre, while still others prefer to take no notice at all of this disturbing book. But that it is meant to express something of the greatest relevance to Agnon’s purpose is clear. The paradox which inheres in every step that a man tries to take is symbolized in the utter incongruity of the title itself, for what the book stresses is precisely the impossibility of performing even the smallest deed without becoming enmeshed in an inexorable jumble and confusion from which there is no logical escape; only a deus ex machina, or the act of waking up as from an oppressive dream, can bring the experience described in this work to some sort of resolution. In fact, some of these stories seem to me to be simply that: descriptions of dreams. But the dreamlike quality which they evoke applies to the most elementary happenings in life. The storyteller wishes to mail a letter, for instance, or goes to meet a friend, but these prove to be hopeless undertakings. What impedes him cannot be defined: it may be the simplest obstructions of everyday life, or it may be a nightmare of surrealistic proportions. We can be sure of nothing, neither in real life nor in the spheres of transcendence. That all this should be said by a writer who is in full command of a heritage whose absence or inaccessibility has frequently been noted as the determining characteristic of Kafka’s universe, should certainly set us thinking. But Agnon was not the first to recognize, or to be shocked by, the permeability of tradition. He could, and possibly did, learn much about this notion from the teachings and the famous tales of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav. The “Story of the Seven Beggars,” one of Rabbi Nahman’s greatest tales, could easily have been the work of Agnon; in such a case it would have seemed to the modern eye to exhibit a perfectly Kafkaesque quality.
After his return to Jerusalem, Agnon produced a number of full-length novels. The most outstanding of them might perhaps more aptly be described as chronicles of Jewish life in the one hundred years between 1830 and 1930; in a way they form a trilogy which, for all the diversity of its parts, is bound together by the unity of historical dynamics. I refer to his three novels, The Bridal Canopy (1931), Wayfarer Stopped for the Night (1940), and Not Long Ago (1946). It is a pity that as of now only the first is available in English translation.
The Bridal Canopy describes the adventures of Rabbi Judel Hasid, who wanders throughout Eastern Galicia to collect a dowry for his daughters. Rabbi Judel is the perfect embodiment of hasidism in its prime. He is at home in the Holy Books and in the sayings of the great Zaddikim, and these constitute for him the true face of reality; whatever happens to him on his travels serves to confirm his belief in their truth. (Agnon being a craftsman who takes his details seriously, each and every ceremony or superstition recorded in The Bridal Canopy is in strict conformity with the literary sources. The rabbis who are quoted by Judel are flesh and blood, and their books exist.) Rabbi Judel’s is a serenity of mind which can never be perturbed, despite the most extraordinary events which befall him and his coachman, who plays Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. The assurances of the holy Rabbi of Apta (who has sent him on his way) mean more to him than all the vicissitudes and adversities of life. I noted before that Agnon’s stories, especially those of his early years, are suffused with an atmosphere of great sadness. In The Bridal Canopy, Agnon’s delicate humor comes to the fore. He never offers the slightest criticism of his hero’s conduct, which involves him in an unending chain of absurdities. Dialogue and situation speak for themselves. It is significant that the first stories of Agnon’s Book of Deeds were composed at about the same time as The Bridal Canopy. They are, as it were, two sides of the same coin. Much of the naked absurdity of the Book of Deeds is already present in The Bridal Canopy where, however, the absurdity is redeemed by humor and, finally, by a miracle at which Kafka himself would have been the last to be surprised.
The Bridal Canopy is a rich canvas of Jewish life before the impact of modern times, a canvas painted in precise and colorful detail. But that life was not destined to last. Eighty years later, the scene had changed radically. Yitzhak Kummer, the hero of Not Long Ago, is the grandson of Rabbi Judel. Hasidism, and Jewish tradition for that matter, have now broken up. The magnificent impulse has been exhausted and a new ideal, the reconstruction of the Jewish people in its old land, now arouses the enthusiasm of the young. It is a revolutionary beginning, although it purports to be, at the same time, a continuation of the past. No one knows what the place of religious tradition will be in the new order. Religion, too, is manifestly in a state of crisis. Where it still lingers on—and it certainly does in no small measure—it keeps within closed boundaries and has little or no attraction for the outsider. Hasidism was the last great social reality, the last example of a Judaism powered from within by the living force of a great idea. At the beginning of the 20th century, Zionism was to be the new driving ideology, born out of the crisis of Jewish life in the Diaspora. But the birth-pangs of the new Jewish society were to be cruel indeed.
This is the atmosphere which is brought to life in Agnon’s masterpiece. Everything is in transition and flux. Yitzhak Kummer, the hero, cannot find his place, even though he is prepared to take upon himself any chore required of him in the life of the new yishuv in Palestine. He moves between two societies, the old one in Jerusalem and the new one in Tel Aviv and in the agricultural settlements. The positive aspects of the new society are visible more or less only as background. Agnon in fact planned to make the life of those young pioneers in the new settlements the center of another novel, as promised at the end of Not Long Ago. But the work has not yet appeared. Thus we are left only with the tribulations of a lost soul in a new society, described by Agnon with a keen sense of the melancholy emptiness that lurked behind the busy bustle of life in Jewish Palestine. Kummer is forever seeking some fulfillment whose substance he cannot define. He comes to Jerusalem and is strangely attracted by its haunting atmosphere. His adventures there—adventures of a restless seeker after redemption in a stagnant environment—are the core of the book. He strives to reestablish a genuine relation to the world of tradition, which appears to hold out to him some great promise of comfort. But it is all in vain. The effort is plagued from the start, as is made symbolically clear in the surrealistic goings-on between Kummer and a stray dog, in which an incidental joke ends in tragedy. Kummer is utterly unaware of what he has done to the dog on whose back he jokingly wrote, with the remaining paint in his brush, the words “kelev meshugga,” “mad dog.” This inscription, unknown to the dog, becomes the instrument by which the hero’s life, as well as that of the dog, is destroyed. Yitzhak Kummer’s quest ends in failure and tragedy. A new life had been proclaimed by Zionism, but it would be too much to say that anywhere in Agnon’s work has it been seen to be attained. In fact, Zionism in Agnon’s writings is basically a noble failure, whereas everything else in Jewish life is a sham. As for the old life, with all its past glory, there is, in our own time, no way back. Agnon’s stories and novels move between these two unattainable poles. Nostalgia is no solution. To be conscious of the greatness of our past does not help us unlock our own problems. A key may indeed exist, but the locksmith who could forge it has yet to be found.
Nowhere is this tension between past and future depicted with greater precision than in the last volume of Agnon’s trilogy, the novel Wayfarer Stopped for the Night. Whereas Not Long Ago is placed in the years before World War I, this book chronicles a visit which the narrator, after twenty years of absence, pays to his home town ten years after the close of hostilities. It is the most melancholy book in Agnon’s oeuvre. The Hebrew original appeared in 1939, two years before the community portrayed in the book was physically destroyed by the Germans. But what we see here is the death of a Jewish town before it has drowned in actual blood. The narrator comes for a visit from the land of Israel. That he had once followed the message of Zionism and left his home town was in its time itself a sign of Jewish life in its more positive aspects, for the struggle and polemics of those days had a direction and a meaning. But now, life in Szybuscz—a name which is but a thin disguise for Buczacz—has become empty, idle, and miserable; the town is perishing in resignation and resentment, and even the promises of Zionism have become questionable. It is the year 1930, and the narrator himself has suffered during the Arab riots of 1929 in Jerusalem. There is no ultimate purpose to his visit, and his coming is but that of a wayfarer stopped for the night. Clearly the attraction of his native town, where so much of himself is rooted, has never left him, but he does not find what he has come for. He encounters instead the horror of decline and decay, a horror no less sinister for its ignorance of the murder yet to come.
The narrator arrives full of vivid memories of his town as it was in his youth. It is the utter incongruity of the old and the new which is at the center of his narrative. At every step, remembrance of things past intertwines with the present experience of the visitor. Confronted with the sad reality of decline, he tries to establish a continuity with a past that has gone forever. If, as I have said, Rummer’s efforts in Jerusalem failed, all the more so are the narrator’s attempts in Szybuscz doomed to failure. The illusionary character of his life becomes ironically visible in the course of the narrative. His nostalgia focuses upon the old house of study, whose key is delivered to him with a disdainful shrug by its last keepers just as they set out to emigrate into the wide world. The only people he can attract to fill it again are those who are too poor to heat their own homes during the long winter, and who come to warm themselves in the old place where the heating is paid for by the narrator. Finally, the key will pass from the narrator to a Communist who had gone to Palestine ten years before as an ardent Zionist but after enduring much suffering and disappointment had returned to his old town. The debit side of Zionism—the reign of empty phrases and high-sounding oratory from which no action follows—finds its spokesman in him. The narrator leaves this Zionist-turned-Communist with a new key—the old one having mysteriously disappeared—and sets out on his return trip to Palestine. Upon his arrival in Jersualem the old key turns up rather surprisingly, but perhaps not quite so surprisingly, in the narrator’s bag. In contradistinction to Not Long Ago, then, this novel suggests that there is indeed a key, even though it fits nowhere in the new country. But there is a secret hint, however slight, of messianic restoration and integration, as is indicated in the old talmudic saying: “Even the houses of study and the synagogues in exile are destined to be transplanted to the land of Israel.”
As I have noted, the efforts of the narrator to establish a genuine and living relationship to the people of his town, especially those he has known in his youth or their relatives, are in the main unsuccessful. The reason may be that there is no longer any true reality in Sczybucz and that life there has a somewhat ghostlike quality. But another factor may also be involved: most surprisingly, the narrator’s mind is set on the restoration of the past. He comes as a visitor from the new world but he brings with him no message to lend his visit meaning or effect. It is not only the people he encounters who are slow and inflexible; he himself succumbs to this atmosphere and becomes a part of it. Although he befriends a group of halutzim who are preparing themselves for their aliya to Palestine, his visit to them remains a romantic interlude. The silence and unresponsiveness of most of the other people he meets exercise a much greater attraction for him. His heart goes out to them in love and sincere affection. Somewhere in his tale the narrator says: “When I was young I could see in my mind all I wished to see; nowadays, I do not see either what I wish to see or even what I am shown.” What, then, does he see? That is what the book is about.
I have dealt with some highlights of Agnon’s work before he fully realized the impact and significance of the destruction of European Jewry. The main body of his later work has not yet been collected, but is scattered through various journals and daily newspapers. Moreover, much of what he has written is apparently still unpublished. I should like to stress two tendencies which stand out in many of these later writings. There is first of all the predominant wish to emphasize the ritualistic aspects of Jewish life. Formerly, Agnon took this largely for granted. Now, however, there is an almost morbid effort on his part to preserve each and every detail of ritual in his narrative, an effort which rarely is germane to the progress of the particular story being told. For all their breathtaking perfection of language, these details seem to be of greater relevance to students of folklore and Hebrew style than to readers of literature. We observe here a frenzied endeavor to save for posterity the forms of a life doomed to extinction. It is a sad spectacle.
The second tendency has to do with a curious widening of Agnon’s historical perspective. He no longer is content to tell the story of the last four or five generations, but goes back much further, pretending, for instance, to be editing the family papers of his ancestors and thereby covering important episodes in Jewish history over the last four hundred years; or he may relate, as it were, the autobiography of his own soul through its transmigrations since the days of Creation. He sees himself as being present at all stages of biblical and post-biblical history, and gives us eyewitness accounts of the most arresting events over thousands of years, out of a deep sense of identification with the Jewish people. This meta-historical autobiography is contained in a book, Hadom ve-kissei (“Stool and Throne”), of which large fragments have been published during recent years. Whereas it may be said with regard to all his preceding work that there was never a total identification of the author with the narrator, this tension is now gone. Gone too is the novelistic element of his prose; narrative has been transformed into a forthright journal of the author’s own self. Rather than an unfolding story, we now see events juxtaposed one after the other in separate paragraphs, each under its own heading. It seems to me a most peculiar work, but I would not venture to judge its literary merits before it is published as a whole. One thing, however, is clear. The author’s dialectical attitude to his experience and to his tradition, which was so predominant in his earlier work, has been abandoned, and this is a pity. For, if I were to reduce to one formula what I think is the core of Agnon’s genius, I would call it the dialectic of simplicity.
1 There are no doubt certain traits which Kafka and Agnon hold in common. Max Brod has said of Kafka: “It was almost impossible to talk to Kafka about abstractions. He thought in images, and spoke in images. He tried to express what he felt simply and in the most direct manner possible, but nevertheless the result was usually very complicated and led to endless speculation without any real decision.” This is precisely true of Agnon, as I have had occasion to note over and over again in our fifty years of acquaintance.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Reflections on S. Y. Agnon
Must-Reads from Magazine
Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.