COMMENTARY has asked a number of Jewish writers to take up this problem in the form of a symposium, reporting…
In an article in the May number of COMMENTARY, Leslie A. Fiedler raised the question of the Jew’s relation as writer and reader to a literary tradition which from Chaucer to T. S. Eliot is shot through with the notion of the Jew as a creature of darkness, deceit, and corruption. The fact that this problem is rarely brought into the open only attests, we believe, to its importance; one way or another, every Jew operating within the English literary tradition has had to face it. Most recently, it has confronted us in the controversy over the awarding of the Bollingen Prize for American poetry to Ezra Pound, and in T. S. Eliot’s latest plea for an aristocratic and homogeneous Christian culture.
COMMENTARY has asked a number of Jewish writers to take up this problem in the form of a symposium, reporting briefly on how they deal with it both personally and in their work. About twenty writers have responded and their responses will be published in two groups, the first group appearing below and the remainder to follow next month.
The question presented to these writers was as follows:
As a Jew and a writer working within the Anglo-American literary tradition, how do you confront the presence in that tradition of the mythical or semi-mythical figure of The Jew, as found, for example, in the works of such writers as Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Trollope, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Adams, etc.? Do you find this an important block or barrier to your full participation and integration, as a writer or a person, in the literary or cultural tradition involved? In what ways, if any, does this constitute a problem for you, and how do you deal with it, or think it should be dealt with? If you do not find it a problem or think it a problem, why not?—ed.
I would like to commend Leslie Fiedler and the editors of COMMENTARY for bringing out into the open the difficult and touchy question of anti-Semitism in literature—a question that has been rumbling around behind the literary scene for several years and has been the painful subject of many nocturnal conversations and arguments. Ever since Hitler transformed anti-Semitism into a question of Jewish survival—that is, an inescapable question—I and many other writers I know who are Jews have been brooding about literary anti-Semitism. So far as I know, nobody has come up with a clear-cut theoretical solution to the problem, nor am I convinced it is possible to do so right now, when so many other human issues are still dangling. What writers can do, however, is either to face such problems or to run away from them; and I am afraid part of the difficulty is that we have been doing both.
I recall years ago being aware, like everyone else, of anti-Semitism in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, etc. But the awareness was of something also observed, out of the corner of one’s eye, something marginal, like the fact that writers were neurotic, or irresponsible, or that many of them were humanly despicable in so many ways. What was important was literature itself, the great tradition, or, rather, the cult of the tradition. Then, a few years later, everybody was a socialist, which meant we were entranced by the vision of a new society coming in our time, in which all men would be brothers. Literary anti-Semitism would be swept away, along with poverty, disease, and stupidity—so why bother especially about anti-Semitism beyond the ritual condemnation of it as reactionary? But now that this bubble has been burst, we have finally come to realize that regardless of what the future will bring, it is the present we must live with. In short, until recently something other than anti-Semitism, whether it was literature or progress or a liberal tolerance of anti-Semitism, was always more important. At present, however, I think we are reaching the conclusion that nothing is more important than everything that happens to us, and we are suspicious of any system that overlooks these things. The fact is that as a Jew I am made uneasy by any kind of anti-Semitism, whether I find it in a bar, a summer resort, my friend’s grandmother, or in the avant-garde cadences of Ezra Pound; and I think it a form of weaseling to ignore it or to accept it or to turn somersaults in order to justify it, as some people did in the Pound affair.
What makes things especially difficult is that a Jewish writer has a kind of dual being. He is both a Jew and a Western man. As a Jew, he bears the wounds of the stranger; as a Western man, he is part of the mind of Western civilization, sharing its values and contributing to its advances. And a conflict arises when he finds himself committed to a literary tradition laden with anti-Semitic notions. I have heard people argue that in this respect the Jew is no different from the Gentile, for both of them, as partners in the human tradition, should find anti-Semitism equally offensive. The trouble with this liberal platitude, however, is that the feelings of the victim cut deeper than the attitudes of enlightenment.
I think it would be more fruitful to examine some of the conventions and fetishes that perpetuate literary anti-Semitism. For one thing, we have been oppressed by what might be called a cult of literature, which, by assuming the sacredness of any “ldquo;created”rdquo; object, condones the most backward and vicious feelings. This cult has led to endless moral and aesthetic confusion. It tends to undermine the moral sense, since it assumes that moral values are to be derived from art rather than from the whole of human existence. And it has also had the effect of breaking down aesthetic discrimination, for the distinction between good and bad art, as in the case of the Pisan Cantos, has often been lost in the intoxication with all art.
Another fetish is that of the spoon-fed Anglo-American literary tradition so zealously nurtured in academic circles in this country, and palmed off as the literary tradition. No doubt the early work of T. S. Eliot effected a significant change in sensibility, but the present canonization of his entire being and the attempt to define our tradition as a thin line running back from Eliot through certain select English literary figures has led to literary and moral impoverishment. A literary tradition is made up of those achievements of the past that help sustain our creative needs today, and these creative needs go far beyond the very special visions of Eliot and those English poets who have been claimed as his ancestors, not to speak of those who have set themselves up as his heirs. The fact is, that the literary tradition celebrated in most literary journals in this country is primarily an English poetic tradition, and a restricted one besides, though certain elite talents like Henry James have also been admitted, and it has been given a reactionary twist by emphasizing its genteel, snobbish, anti-urban, and purely formal aspects.
So long as there is social anti-Semitism, so long as anti-Semitism lingers on in Western consciousness, I suppose it is bound to creep into literature, since art is not a sacred precinct, nor are all writers especially distinguished by the purity of their thinking and feeling. But I, for one, will continue to find anti-Semitism odious and a sign of some human and aesthetic failing. From a more positive point of view, however, it might be well for Jewish writers to remember that they have been placed in a position where their own interests to some extent coincide now with those of literature. For a truly cosmopolitan literary tradition that cuts under the shabby myths of anti-Semitism is more likely to go to the heart of all human conflict than some provincial movement filled with nostalgia for an aristocratic way of life that would make literature the property of Christian gentlemen. This is a tradition we can completely associate ourselves with, both as writers and as Jews.
How to confront anti-Semitic literary masterpieces? This problem seems to me factitious. For, first, each great literary treatment makes the myth come alive and be human. A crude stereotype may exist in low-grade imaginations, but Marlowe’s Jew or Shylock are baroque portraits of men, whose individuality and circumstances and color and grand language are essential to their plausibility. A character who speaks heroic and spirited rhythms is not a beast. Creations whose power has proved itself for centuries have a deep humanity and a man may confidently steep himself in them and learn something for his advantage. I am surprised that literary persons should be moved by the stereotype remnants in the fable, deaf to the language; the vice of abstraction is usually restricted to ideologues and professionals. The glancing anti-Semitic caricatures of Eliot or Cummings, again, are sophomoric journalism unworthy of their talents; they could not energize an important work on such premises; such things are culturally trivial (socially often contemptible, in these cases pathetic).
And conversely, a great part of our notion of the truth of life comes from literature, including this literature. Literary masterpieces are a means of communication across the centuries and among ourselves; what other general means is there? By this means (publicly only by this means) passions and difficulties that exist submerged and in symptomatic stereotypes are brought to light and feeling. Frankly, to me, all this culture is important and “ldquo;true”rdquo;—that is, I do not know another standard I would confidently set against it. If our personal wisdom or even our sociology has hit on a new aspect of the truth, we must prove its human bearing by creating a new interpretation that comes alive and exists along with the old wisdom, such as it is. This is hard to do but it is not a “ldquo;problem.”rdquo;
When Leslie Fiedler speaks of “ldquo;building rival myths . . . . K . . . . Swann . . . Bloom,”rdquo; I am at a loss. (But is K. a Jew?) How are these rivals of Shylock? Bloom seems to be the heir of the man who bleeds when you prick him. But what on earth is a rival work of art? A work is not an argument or a hypothesis but the achieved expression and proof of precisely the unity of mankind.
In brief, the literature is so because it is human; and as artists we are, in a special sense, formed by and committed to the literature.
I am not surprised, then, to find that I myself in my writing have drawn heavily on this very “ldquo;stereotype”rdquo; of Barabas and Shylock. (A productive artist has the advantage of being able to examine objects of his subjectivity.) Let me give one instance in detail: the hero of my novel The Grand Piano is an old Jew usurer, no doubt with a knife, ready to sell his son for money. Because our society has so commercialized the goods of the Six Days he is trying to purge himself and the world by changing all value into money (perhaps the incorruptible will survive). Like Spinoza his teacher, he offers a mathematical certitude in morals, dollars, and cents, not the highest but fit for our degenerate days. But war he holds to be goyim nachus, the refuge of the impatient and stupid. Like Shylock and Barabas he succumbs to passionate inconsistent affection for his darlings. He follows Aristotle and Maimonides in insisting on the primacy of material nature, to be scanned by pilpul, and he pours scorn on ideas and ideals as idolatrous foolishness. He is plenty stiff-necked; this gives him a perspective from which he can tell Jewish jokes. He is an Oriental, longing for the palms of paradise, away from this cold Empire City. Like Swann a connoisseur, listening for the creator spirit, but he knows that art-works are mere filth, to be sold for money. He will sell his boy and you and me—with anguish in his fatherly heart . . . .
Why do I bore the reader with such stereotypes? Because, with the addition of diction and rhythm, they are the pattern in which I can communicate something significant to me. But one must not isolate this or that component. One must not take Barabas without his magnificence, and humor, and scholarship, and travels, and religion; and the whole, indeed, is Marlowe’s picture not of a Jew but of the world. If then you don’t like the picture because of certain components—tell me, how would you picture the world?
Shall we describe Father Abraham without the knife and Isaac? (By the way, it is well to emphasize the castration, but one should not understate the threat to the child’s life.) We must also include the faith of Abraham and his familiarity with angels. Also the authoritative father who has influenced us for better and worse. Anti-Semites project this image, of course, but whither they project it, it belongs; their vulgar error is to be blind to Father Abraham in themselves. This is what Freud said.
Your “ldquo;question,”rdquo; being actually a whole series of questions, calls forth rather a reaction than a reply. To begin with, was there, till very recently, anything resembling a powerful anti-Semitic strain in “ldquo;the Anglo-American literary tradition”rdquo;? Certainly the Jew recurs throughout our literature in many ugly (often symbolic) shapes: on the other hand he scarcely resides or looms large there. He is almost never a leading character. Though a stock synonym for usury or sharp practice, he is not, like the crafty foreigner (usually Italian) or the malevolent stranger (frequently gypsy), a stock villain. Till very late—because there were so few Jews in England—he was mainly legendary and exotic: even so, compared with all the horrors and hocus-pocus attributed to witches, necromancers, Oriental fakirs, etc., very little is attributed to Jews or Jewish ritualists. As a menacing symbol, again, the Jew has lagged far behind the Jesuit or the Jacobin or the Machiavellian. And where he has been blackened merely for being a Jew, he is far more of a personification than a person. In modem times, as a symbol of the corruptness of a banking civilization, the Jew has been portrayed with more realism—and with more resentment. But, all in all, the Gentile’s resentment of the rich Jew is of a piece with the Englishman’s of the rich American or the Southerner’s of the rich Yankee—one of social (and sometimes moral) contempt mixed with economic envy.
Hence in any reasonably healthy society, the long-established figure of a Barabas or Fagin can hardly be considered distressing. It is, on the whole, exceptional; it is, to the point of crudity, extravagant. It is not till anti-Semitism grows virulent that the Jew-as-menace in literature menaces the Jew in real life. At that point there is a very grave problem; but the problem is not Barabas or Fagin but Father Coughlin or Hitler. Barabas and Fagin are fuel for a fire that literature itself (in strong contrast to journalistic propaganda) never starts. Indeed, observed inside literary tradition, Barabas and Fagin involve not how anti-Semitic but only how anti-realistic a Marlowe and a Dickens are. Shylock, unfortunately, has leaped—as a name—out of literature into folklore, to become a quick inflammatory device for propagandists: everything considered, there is perhaps less danger in a Gentile’s reading The Merchant of Venice—in tranquil circumstances, of course—than in his not reading it.
For the extra-literary harm they can do, I naturally deprecate all these things; but I find them no barrier to “ldquo;full participation and integration,”rdquo; etc., etc. Mr. Fiedler’s article is a very good literary-historical study, but, it seems to me, rather revives the Jewish problem on an intellectualized Protocols-of-Zion basis. The real problem, surely, is more immediate and realistic, involving not the Beast but the Banker (Byron’s “ldquo;Their cash comes from, their wealth goes to, a Jew”rdquo;). The real problem is not the exuberant creator of implausible Jews, like Marlowe, but the calculating disparager of a vulnerable Jewry, like Belloc. At the moment I am very conscious, also, of a growing American-Jewish popular literature of hack writers and glib humorists whose meretriciousness merits utter contempt. Along with the danger of how viciously the Jew is written about, is there not also the danger of how reprehensibly he writes?
The problem we are asked to discuss is at least as old as Philo Judaeus. It is a subtler problem for us than it was for Philo, for while Alexandrian Greek culture owed nothing to the Hebrew tradition, modem Western culture owes a great deal. The same modern poet who wrote
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws
has also written
In Shushan the palace, in the month of
He served the wine to the king Artaxerxes,
And he grieved for the broken city, Jerusalem.
From the Jewish point of view, Christianity is a Jewish heresy. So long as Christian writers worked in a culture which felt that the Jews, representing the surviving parent body, constituted a standing challenge to the newer religion’s claim to be an orthodoxy, their anti-Semitism could not seriously disturb cultivated Jewish readers. Both Chaucer’s singing boy and Shakespeare’s Shylock represent traditional material supplied by Christian culture. It is only by accepting obstacles—opposed by tradition—to a realistic appraisal of Shylock’s character and fortunes that we can see him (as Shakespeare meant him to be seen) as a comic character at all.
Since the breakdown of Christendom as the Western culture, the problem has been different. Christendom and Jewry have in fact more in common than they have apart (though what they do not share is of immense importance), but each represents a comprehensive way of life, and so long as those two ways of life were opposed to each other as majority and minority cultures, each committed to a total belief in its own truth and value, anyone from either group who sought intellectual nourishment from the other’s literature would have to be prepared for some shocks.
In the modem world, however, we have been moving towards a pluralistic culture, with any given religion regarded as one group’s way of looking at things which may have something valuable to suggest to civilization as a whole even if it is not historically true or wholly viable. In a civilization both pluralistic and humanistic we are (theoretically, at least) prepared to attack individual views but not to create abusive symbols out of Jews or Christians. Those who do so are betraying the pluralistic, humanist culture towards which Western civilization has been moving since the Renaissance. I personally believe that such a culture is the most truly civilized which man has yet envisaged, although I know that we are still far from achieving it. (We seem to be achieving pluralism without humanism, the more important ingredient.)
Anti-Semitism among serious writers today is therefore a symptom of the repudiation of this kind of culture. The Jew who is confronted with anti-Semitism in these writers can comfort himself with the realization that basically he is being attacked not as Jew but as representative and champion of the kind of pluralistic, humanist culture that the Western world has been trying to create since the decline of medieval Christendom. He represents, in fact, a more inclusive and richer Western culture than his opponents, and in so doing he has many friends; so that he need not feel that the attacks should drive him out of Western culture back into the ghetto. Let us understand our relation to Western culture and see our enemies not as those who can dampen our enthusiasm for English or American literature, but as cultural “ldquo;reactionaries”rdquo; who would like to see us again as unbelievers in a closed society. We can resent this attitude without feeling our status as Jewish members of Western civilization in the least threatened—in fact, it is in many ways strengthened.
I don’t think the question is of much importance, speaking comparatively. The anti-Semitism of my neighbors, of shopkeepers and subway crowds, of men as men, and, above all, the anti-Semitism of governments, are of much greater moment to me. I expect to be able to get along as a writer, even if an anti-Semitic tradition in English and American literature does block my full participation and integration in the tradition—whatever that may mean. So they won’t name streets after me. Thus far, I have suffered as a writer much more from the fact that there is a very small market for my kind of writing, that I have to spend valuable time doing other things, such as teaching school, to earn a living, and that, for neurotic reasons, I undergo sterile periods, which can happen to any man, than I have suffered from the fact that I am a Jew.
I deal with the problem in two ways, whether it comes up in my school work or in any public discussion, or whether I encounter it in my own reading, my own reflections. I tell my students (and myself) that there are certain historical conditions to be kept in mind and that, as literature is bound to reflect its time, there are such and such reasons for the presence of anti-Semitism in the work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, or any other writer. But such explanations have never satisfied me because they tend to obscure the pathological aspect of anti-Semitism. I therefore go on to discuss the pathology of anti-Semitism, even though I am better qualified to speak of historical and cultural matters. I regard anti-Semitism as a symptom of a serious, underlying psycho-sexual disease of epidemic proportion in our society; it is a symptom of a serious disease, just as coughing up blood, rapid loss of weight, persistent pain, fever, and swelling are symptoms of serious disease. Sooner or later, the original question, the anti-Semitism of this or that writer, drops out of sight—which is the way, I believe, the discussion should be conducted.
To stick to the subject like a good literary critic, or to admit only historical and social data, is to create a false impression: that the pathological side of anti-Semitism deserves attention only in special cases—e.g., Ezra Pound—when a man can be declared clinically insane. The contrary is true. It is only in the exceptional case, if then, that one can do away with clinical considerations. The biggest mistake we can make in dealing with anti-Semitism is not to recognize the sickness; we dignify it whenever we call it something else. I think it would be a good idea, incidentally, for the various interfaith groups and Jewish organizations that deal with the problem to waste fewer words on brotherhood and let the public know a few clinical facts. Americans hate to be sick.
I am aware that I hold a reductive position, that I would reduce a complex cultural problem to a clinical one, and that this is not the way to conduct literary discussions. Literature teaches us profound respect for phenomena, it holds us among the many details of the surface and keeps us from plunging at once after causes. Admirable as the literary attitude is on other occasions, this is one time when it can be harmful, and must be abandoned. The surface of anti-Semitism has no attraction, and for me, at any rate, respect for this phenomenon died in a concentration camp. Anti-Semitism is not a literary problem. It is a disease.
Stanley Edgar Hyman:
It seems to me that the attitudes and responsibility of the Jewish writer toward the caricatured figure of the Jew in literature do not differ very markedly from the attitudes and responsibility of any writer to any such generalized caricature—we can expect him not to like it, and we can expect him to oppose it with the truth to whatever degree he can. There is this curious parochialism about Fiedler’s otherwise useful article and the symposium question as framed, as though only Negro literary men might be assumed to feel hurt and concerned over the caricatures of the Negro in our literature (a far more prevalent and violent problem in American writing, incidentally, although one would never guess it from Fiedler’s article, than the travesty on the Jew, and one “ldquo;men have died of”rdquo; with equal finality).
The writer’s responsibility, in short, lies in knowing and telling the truth: not the simplistic “ldquo;truth,”rdquo; actually a counter-caricature, of opposing Riah to Fagin or Shylock the persecuted to Shylock the persecutor, but the truth in all its complexity and ambiguity. In the case of the ballad about Hugh of Lincoln, “ldquo;The Jew’s Daughter,”rdquo; this would involve not only Fiedler’s sharp psychoanalytic reading, but an exploration of the reality of the myth (why does Fiedler, like so many others, use “ldquo;myth”rdquo; to mean a damned lie?) in ancient ritual sacrifice, seeing the forgotten ritual figure of the sacrificial priest become identified as “ldquo;Jew”rdquo; by a process of folk rationalization (precisely as the “ldquo;dark men”rdquo; of the summer-winter combats become rationalized as “ldquo;gypsies”rdquo; in another ballad, “ldquo;The Gypsy Laddie”rdquo;), then seeing this “ldquo;neutral”rdquo; rationalization moved in on, consciously or not, for religious, social, and economic ends. Where the writer, teacher, or critic can comprehend and present the lie of Little Sir Hugh in this context of process, he need not censor Chaucer or Wordsworth, nor even encourage the sort of well-meaning bowdlerization represented by Benjamin Britten’s recent arrangement of the ballad, with “ldquo;Jew’s wife”rdquo; altered to “ldquo;school wife”rdquo; throughout. Or we can note critically, as Fiedler does not, that Eliot tends to pull an ironic switch on his caricature of the Jew (so that the point of “ldquo;Burbank with a Baedeker”rdquo; is not that the Jew sullies Venice by trade, but that only the Jew represents the power and passion of trade that was the strength of Venice in its prime), but we are still obligated to add that Eliot is anti-Semitic. (Here my own experience may be instructive: I noted Eliot’s genteel anti-Semitism in The Armed Vision, in context and with a body of evidence, and was reproached by a reviewer in the New York Times Book Review, himself Jewish, with having “ldquo;an area of abnormal prejudice”rdquo; and with being “ldquo;out on a witch hunt,”rdquo; as though not the attitude but remarking on it were the sign of bias and the offense against taste.)
Insofar as the Jewish writer may have a special stake in the problem, or at least a special sensitivity, he has it only to the degree to which he is Jewish (“ldquo;Jewish”rdquo; means such a variety of things, from a total orthodoxy to a concealed descent). Speaking for myself, with a Jewish culture and religious training substantially repudiated, but with a “ldquo;heritage”rdquo; identification, particularly in these days of Israel, somewhat belligerently affirmed, I would say that the degree of exacerbation, of being to some extent “ldquo;alien”rdquo; or “ldquo;outsider”rdquo; to European culture, is probably as artistically and critically valuable as it is hurtful (here I have to face the fact that some comparable aesthetic sensibility seems to recompense a surprising number of epileptics, catamites, and writers in the American South). Thus, although tradition properly has it “ldquo;hard to be a Jew,”rdquo; it must be hard for many writers not to be Jews.
Let the Jewish writer, then, if he is to censor anything, censor his own covert forms of anti-Semitism, among them self-pity and parochialism, which is his special occupational disease (and one not unknown to COMMENTARY’s pages). Beyond that, he can hardly be responsible for the history of literature, except insofar as his own work is part of it. In other words, let him “ldquo;contextualize”rdquo; the Jewish villain for students, oppose it with truth for the rest of the reading public, and keep the fluff from accumulating in his own pockets.
The fact that the Anglo – American literary tradition includes many unjust representations of the Jew does not in itself trouble me very deeply. Of course I am momentarily angered and frightened each time I meet a hostile statement about Jews—that is inevitable. But I feel no more significantly excluded from the stream of literature because it contains anti-Semitic statements than I do because it contains other ideas which I consider false or dangerous. I see no reason to give more weight to, say, Dickens’s anti-Semitism than to his anti-parliamentarianism: the latter is just as much a threat to my security as the former. But it is never suggested that Dickens should perhaps be boycotted because of his animus against the democratic process. The Jewish issue is the only one to which we bring this sensitivity.
Mr. Fiedler would no doubt answer me as he answers John Haynes Holmes, that our readiness to take special offense at the attack upon Jews stems from our realization that Jews have died because of the anti-Jewish myth. But so have parliamentarians—to follow out this instance—died because of the anti-democratic myth, and so have Jews died because they were parliamentarians. The process of cause and effect in history is not so direct as we sometimes like to make out. There is unquestionably a clear path from Shylock or Fagin to Dachau, but is there not also a discernible path between Marx’s formulation of a socialist absolutism and the concentration camp of National Socialism? The course of politics cannot be mapped by a series of fixed points of belief, and it is a dangerous over-simplification to act as if it can. Today’s unmistakable good—for example, a strong trade-union sentiment—may as surely be tomorrow’s evil as the phenomena, like racial prejudice, which we immediately recognize to be evil.
Obviously, I am not asking for an abrogation of all judgment while we await the verdict of time. But certainly our literary judgments must be made in their proper historical context. There is an important distinction between the anti-Semitism of the past, when the general population was not nearly so conscious of the political uses to which racial hostility could be put, and the anti-Semitism of today: a Dickens is to be forgiven as an Ezra Pound is not.
But I also make a sharp distinction between the anti-Semitic formulations of two contemporaries like T. S. Eliot and Pound. Taken in relation to the body of Eliot’s work, his attitude toward the Jew must, I believe, be understood as a figure of speech; the Jew is a metaphor for alienation, for the spirit which stands outside Eliot’s particular design for a good society. Pound’s, on the other hand, has a whole context of social irresponsibility, Even the Jew himself, if he comes to Eliot’s ideas objectively, can learn a great deal from Eliot’s statement of his case, whereas from Pound both Jew and Gentile can only learn hatred.
I think Mr. Fiedler touches the heart of this matter of the Jew and the literary tradition when, in his final remarks, he speaks of the Jew as now “ldquo;the essential myth of the whole Western world.”rdquo; Under our very eyes we see the Wandering Jew become wandering man, the alien Jew generalizing into the alienated human being. We would do well to transfer some of our anxiety about the anti-Jewish myth to all the anti-human myths which contemporary culture is so self-destructively intent upon creating. Kafka’s “ldquo;K.”rdquo; or Eliot’s Prufrock, our whole modem kinship with these bloodless brothers of whatever creed, worry me rather more than Hugh of Lincoln.
I am asked to speak here as “ldquo;a Jew and a writer,”rdquo; and this seems to me a clear invitation to announce the kind of schizophrenia by which I find it possible to live and work. What one hopes of works of the imagination, these days anyhow, is that they shall confuse, cancel, and generally defeat even the cleverest rhetorical propositions about “ldquo;the human condition”rdquo;—I believe that the art I most admire demands irony, evasion, conflict, and doubt as its bases—and even if one wished to go back to the “ldquo;applications”rdquo; of the Gesta Romanorum, this wish would have the intention of mockery and evasion. On the other hand, the fact that I write this piece admits a validity in the question, as well as a desire on my part for clarity.
My intellectual relation to Judaism has been slight compared with my relation to the Christian tradition of Western literature. For some years, until my Bar Mitzvah, I was laboriously instructed in the fluent reading of Hebrew, without however being given any instruction in the translation of that language into English: this early and exact avowal of the letter and denial of the spirit has since seemed significant of a more general dispossession. But as the question is by no means altogether of an intellectual relation, it follows that I am in the unhappy though by no means unique position of willingly suffering embarrassment and some pain from what I love, Western literature; and perhaps also in the position of the Laodiceans (Rev. 3:14-16), though out of whose mouth I shall be spat (the Amen, the faithful and true witness? the late Senator Bilbo?) has never been made clear.
The universalizing tendency of society at present (toward “ldquo;one world”rdquo; wherein the Many is to do duty for the absent One) seems to wish to make life hard for the Laodicean (who would prefer indeed to be called simply an ironical man) by enforcing vociferous and unequivocal choice everywhere in the realm of value: the presentation of such occasions has created a number of intellectual uniforms which, while a little tight at collar or crotch, may so to speak be suffered on parade, and I do not think it possible in making a public statement to avoid wearing a close facsimile of one or other of these uniforms, even in all honesty. With so much, too much, preamble, a statement follows.
- Humanly, and in particular as a Jew, I detest and fear anti-Semitism, but do not find it especially formidable (or in any way an occasion of public action) in the writings of the authors listed in the question.
- I recognize danger in the presentation of anti-Semitic opinion to large and not necessarily adult audiences grouped together, and that any question, regarding future works, of whether (and in whose mind) the art outweighs the hatred may be impossible to solve; but so far as concerns the writers mentioned I cannot feel my occasional twinges to be a sufficient motive of censorship or even censure.
- Should I elect to deal specifically and overtly, in a work of fiction, with “ldquo;the problem”rdquo; of “ldquo;the Jew,”rdquo; I would anticipate a multiplication of ordinary compositional difficulties by a considerable factor of personal pain and anxiety; whether this would be beneficial to the work or not, only the work could show.
In answering your question, I should first explain that I am not a Jew. I have a Jewish maternal grandfather, a German maternal grandmother. I am a quarter Jewish and a quarter German only by blood, that is to say, as my father’s side of my family has been British for over a hundred years.
Nevertheless, even with this amount of Jewishness, I feel Jewish, and your question seems relevant to my own preoccupations in thinking of myself as a writer. Ever since I have known about my own Jewish blood (scarcely ever mentioned in my family) and of the Jew as a mythical figure in English literature and English conversation, I have thought of my self as un-English, different. I certainly am different. I attribute this largely to my being Jewish.
I have become aware of my own Jewishness, almost as though I were a Jew, or as though there were about the Jewish when it is mixed with the English an irreconcilability of strains, perhaps because the English strain is itself so pure: perhaps too (to complicate the matter still further) because the Jews secretly admire the English purity, the English sense of belonging to a favored race. The English country gentleman corresponds to a Jewish aristocratic ideal. The English Jews (the Rothschilds, the Sassoons, the Schusters, the Monds, etc.) have tried harder to become English gentlemen, even when remaining Jews, than Jews elsewhere have tried to adapt themselves to any ideal of national personality in other countries. I would add to your gallery of mythical Jewish figures Siegfried Sassoon’s self-portrait in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, although I do not think Sassoon ever says much about his being Jewish.
I am convinced that the Jew, or the person of Jewish extraction, is different from other people the moment that he is conscious of his Jewishness. Anthropologically this sense of difference may be unjustified, but psychologically it exists. All discussions by Jews beginning with the argument “ldquo;We are the same as everybody else”rdquo; seem to me based on a false premise: for the moment the Jew has said “ldquo;we,”rdquo; in his heart he means that he is different from every non-Jew.
Therefore these projections into literature of mythical Jewish characters are primarily to be considered as interpretations by Gentiles of the fact that the Shylocks, the Fagins, etc., feel themselves to be different. Shylock wants to be treated as a human being with the equal rights of other human beings, but he does not want his daughter to marry a Gentile. This is really what constitutes his Jewishness far more than his wanting his pound of flesh, which is just silly.
The real “ldquo;block or barrier,”rdquo; as you put it, which prevents the Jewish person from “ldquo;full participation and integration as a writer or a person, in the literary or cultural tradition involved,”rdquo; is this sense of being different. Most of the arguments used against Jews and labeled “ldquo;anti-Semitism”rdquo; are unserious, however painful may be their consequences. To accuse the Jews of usury and corruption as does Ezra Pound is like accusing the French of all the crimes of capitalism simply because there are French capitalists. Pound is really a Communist manqué who failed to find his real enemy, which is international capitalism, and who mistook Mussolini for Stalin. Like many other anti-Semites he fastened onto the Jews the crimes of the whole modem development of humanity. This proves nothing about the Jews, it simply reveals a streak of baseness in a fine poet, just as Eliot’s “ldquo;Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”rdquo; reveals a baseness which grieves one for a poet of the finest integrity. The ignoble qualities of Boston should not constitute a mental barrier for the Jews. On the contrary anti-Semitism has ennobled, purified, and made heroic the Jews in our epoch. That some of the writers we most admire should have lent themselves to anti-Semitism only shows that a corruption and squalor which is far from being confined to the Jews disgraces our intellectual life. But although this may be presented as a Jewish-Gentile problem, it really is not one at all. It is part of a far wider problem of moral disintegration.
My point is that the mythical figure of the Jew in literature is an attempt to describe a serious situation which does constitute a problem: namely, the existence of a Jewish self-consciousness; but that mere anti-Semitism does not describe this situation at all and should create no barrier for us. One should thank God for the Jewish blood which saves one from opinions such as those expressed in Eliot’s anti-Semitic early poetry and spares one from conversion to the Catholicism based on hatred of an Evelyn Waugh. But to decide that most anti-Semitism has no relevance to a real Gentile-Jew situation does not remove the real problem, which is Jewish self-consciousness.
How to deal with this problem, you ask? As with most problems, I think: by understanding it in its own nature and then trying to relate it to other things. For example, a result of the Jewish sense of not being integrated into the culture in which one is placed, is a tendency to generalize, to be abstract, to theorize on very broad lines about the society in which one lives, but which one feels outside. For a writer to understand this tendency in himself is to enable him to deal with it through his art. Generalization, abstraction, excessive theorizing makes bad language: as a writer one must be close to what one describes, one must be sensuous, concrete, personal.
In fact, I think that a creative artist is a person cursed with an excessive sensibility to problems and difficulties, and blessed with a miraculous gift of transforming them into objects. The only condition attendant on his gift is that he must really transform his experiences, he must make them hard, fully experienced, articulated lumps of objective life. He must offer experiences themselves, poised in inter-related sensuous words, not just ideas about experiences or emotions about them. If he does this he certainly finds his way back into the tradition, which is not a mausoleum but a community of life. He enters into the life around him by being alive, and into the tradition at that point where tradition is a perpetually changing and developing consciousness of life into which new living forms are forever entering, but where corpses and ideologies and racial grievances are not admitted.
“ldquo;The Jew”rdquo; in literature is a mask. He is created for play, like other personifications. Before such figures—so simple and definite, so plainly what things are said to be, rather than what they are—the mind lets go and the spectator enjoys easy loves and hates. Heartless, money-loving, vengeful Jew; crafty, treacherous, poison-dealing Florentine; bland, witty Chinese—having closed the investigation regarding actual persons, the cliché raises the curtain and starts the music.
From the Elizabethan cliché of Jewish unfeeling and cupidity, Shakespeare created the dramatic image of Shylock in order to give pleasure. The pleasure communicates itself to me when I see or read The Merchant. The villainies of Shylock have never interfered with it. Shylock is not my brother, but brother to those other Shakespearean pigstickers, Iago, Claudius, Macbeth. One is labeled Jew, the others Italian, Dane, Scot. But all are made of the same material, like those dolls in native costume one sees in shop windows. They are made of the pleasurable papier mâché of poetry, not of the human clay of contempt and violence. So Jews enjoy Shylock, Italians the “ldquo;Machiavellian”rdquo; Iago, and no doubt the “ldquo;deaf and dumb Danes,”rdquo; as Joyce called them, appreciate Hamlet and his uncle.
Shylock is not a nightmare figure with a knife—Fiedler is utterly mistaken. Shylock is an actor, and his knife is rubber. To his famous question, “ldquo;Hath not a Jew eyes,”rdquo; etc., the theater gives a double response. One: the Jew is a man like others, he has eyes, and if you prick him he bleeds. Two: this altogether offensive Jew is not a man but an actor, his eyes are painted, his hooked nose is made of putty, and if you prick him the pin folds up. While watching the play, everybody experiences this double and contradictory recognition. If, instead, a fear of being murdered by “ldquo;the Jew”rdquo; were evoked, it would be time to ring for the ambulance.
Moving from the cliché to the theatrical personification, art does no harm. What does the harm is the movement in the opposite direction, from the personification to the cliché. This second movement is made by the propagandist and the sociological critic. With these, the personifications made by artists for pleasure become descriptions of “ldquo;reality.”rdquo;
An illustration is Fiedler himself, though of course he means no harm. He starts with Shylock and ends with “ldquo;the Jew with the Knife”rdquo; as an “ldquo;archetype inhabiting the collective unconscious of the English-speaking people.”rdquo; He begins with art and ends with a cliché (of psychoanalysis) conceived as a reality. I see less danger in a thousand performances of The Merchant of Venice.
A more complete illustration is Fiedler’s 19th-century German critic who “ldquo;returns from a performance full of anti-Semitic fire to jot down the terrible words of Luther, which he felt confirmed by Shylock.”rdquo; This is supposed to prove how dangerous The Merchant is. Now, first, the German is a critic; secondly, he has “ldquo;returned”rdquo; from the performance; thirdly, the personification “ldquo;confirmed”rdquo; a passion he already had. A layman, in the theater, would have experienced the double response of art and would not have regarded this particular semi-comic “ldquo;Jew”rdquo; as evidence condemning an entire people.
But our fellow is a professional opinion-shaper of the kind that uses art to support programs of action, and who translates art into reality. So The Merchant confirms his belief that the Jew is the devil. Hearing “ldquo;Kill him, he’s a poet,”rdquo; in Julius Caesar, this same critic might insist that the good of the state demands the extermination of artists, as demonstrated by such great minds as Plato and Shakespeare.
I “ldquo;confront the presence of the Jew”rdquo; in literature as a series of particular instances, each with its own artistic quality and intellectual seriousness. Why should I resent Eliot’s poem for its Jewish landlord repulsive to the aristocrat who lost his property? Alas, says Eliot, in the modem world there is no entailed real estate, no integrated culture, no “ldquo;roots,”rdquo; no high ritual, nothing but capitalism, Jews, and progress, tsk, tsk. I take this music as I do that of a Hungarian orchestra in a restaurant with atmosphere (the very restaurant of “ldquo;Rachel née Rabinovich”rdquo;). So aristocratic, dancers in genuine ermine, what if the waiter is a White Guardist and an expogromchick? Another chilled vodka, please!
It is quite a different thing when Eliot puts down his harmonica, mistakes himself for the dispossessed Prince Romanoff, and proposes communities with No Jews signs on them. Here we face the fact that there is no cultural tradition that does not contain an enormous amount of stupidity, to say nothing of dope-taking, sexual infirmity, and actual madness. Is this “ldquo;an important block to full participation and integration”rdquo;? It depends on what you mean. To the academician participation means being on the side of all who contribute to literature. A sailor, however, who picks up a beer bottle and starts swinging it in a free-for-all is also participating and integrating. The presence in “ldquo;the Anglo-American tradition”rdquo; of the customary quota of fools and angry men bars no one from full involvement in it in the latter sense.
In sum, “ldquo;the Jew”rdquo; is not a literary problem. It is a social problem relating to the use of literature as a weapon. The question is not one of excluding any image from literature, but of fighting anti-Semitism—including that of literary men who offer this miserableness as a sociology to their fellow citizens.
William Phillips is an editor of Partisan Review. He has edited, among other books, The Short Stories of Dostoevsky. Paul Goodman is a poet, novelist, and critic whose latest book is Kafka’s Prayer. Louis Kronenberger is the dramatic critic for Time magazine and has written and edited a number of books, one of the best-known of which is Kings and Desperate Men. David Daiches is a professor of English and chairman of the division of literature at Cornell University. His most recent book of criticism is A Study of Literature for Readers and Critics. Isaac Rosenfeld, now working on a second novel, is the author of Passage from Home. Stanley Edgar Hyman is on the staff of the New Yorker and the author of a volume of literary criticism, The Armed Vision. Diana Trilling, who writes for the New York Times Book Review, the Nation, and other magazines, has edited The Portable D. H. Lawrence. Howard Nemerov is a poet and novelist, the author of The Melodramatists. He is at present teaching English at Bennington College. Stephen Spender is a poet and essayist. He is on the English faculty of Sarah Lawrence College. An autobiographical work of his will be published shortly. Harold Rosenberg has written a volume of poems, Trance above the Streets, and contributed articles to a number of periodicals.
Part II of this symposium will be published in the October issue of COMMENTARY. Among the contributors will be Saul Bellow, Martin Greenberg, James Grossman, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Harry Levin, William Poster, Philip Rahv, and Karl Shapiro.
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The Jewish Writer and the English Literary Tradition: A Symposium: Part I
Must-Reads from Magazine
Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages