The editors of COMMENTARY asked twenty writers to discuss their reactions, as writers and readers, to the continuing presence of…
The editors of COMMENTARY asked twenty writers to discuss their reactions, as writers and readers, to the continuing presence of the sinister “Jew” in English literature, a problem discussed in Leslie Fiedler’s article, “What Can We Do About Fagin?” in our May issue. The question to which they were asked to address themselves was phrased thus:
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?
In our September issue the comments of the following writers appeared: William Phillips, Paul Goodman, Louis Kronenberger, David Daiches, Isaac Rosenfeld, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Diana Trilling, Howard Nemerov, Stephen Spender, and Harold Rosenberg; this is the second and concluding instalment of the symposium.—ED.
Twenty or even ten years ago the problem posed by the editor of COMMENTARY might have struck most of us as rather far-fetched, to say the least, if not altogether worked-up in an artificial way by over-wrought Jewish nerves. At this time, however, this problem can no longer be shrugged off. Anti-Semitism is patently on the increase in the literary world; and it is the neo-Christian revival in literature, as Leslie A. Fiedler indicates in his recent article, which has given new life and vigor to the Shylock-Fagin image of the Jew. To be understood properly, that revival must be seen in the perspective of the general reversion of writters in this decade to traditionalistic and intellectually regressive attitudes. Mr. Fiedler is also right, of course, in his view that the entry of the Jews into Western culture is coincident with its secularization. But to complete that historical proposition one must go on to state that to the degree that this secularization is weakened, debilitated by the reanimation of the Christian myth, precisely to that degree does the position of the Jew become precarious and in the long run intolerable. I agree with Sidney Hook and other analysts of anti-Semitism who see it as “integral to the Christian epic.” To be sure, it is by no means integral to the rationalized religiosity (anti-theological and anti-mythic) of a Tolstoy; but it is integral to the kind of religiosity professed by writers like T. S. Eliot, whose chief stress is on the value of traditions and ecclesiastical institutions. (This can be said quite apart from the question whether Mr. Eliot is personally infected with anti-Semitic feelings: that is not the issue.)
Of course, nothing could be more presumptuous and more foolish, too, than for Jews to demand of the Gentiles that they desist from seeking to rediscover their Christian faith on the ground that it would eventually prove harmful to the Jews. What can be done, however, is to conduct a struggle against the new religiosity, along with those non-Jewish intellectuals who refuse to abandon the progressive and secular outlook. The struggle must be waged on wholly non-sectarian grounds, such as that the new religiosity is hostile to the best interests of the mind; that it tends to divide rather than unite humanity; and that it is historically vacuous and metaphysically permeated with a romantic nostalgia making it easy to evade the truly urgent problems of contemporary man.
Jews functioning within the Anglo-American cultural milieu are destroying their own future when they try to accommodate themselves to the current literary enthusiasm for myth and tradition. For their future obviously lies with an even more radical secularizing and internationalizing of culture than has been known in the past. Both our intellectual dignity and emotional security depend on the promotion of the unity of mankind. Nor is it true that the secularizing and internationalizing of culture must necessarily involve us in that nihilistic rejection of national and religious traditions of which the old-time Marxists and rationalistic liberals have been rightly accused. It is entirely possible to maintain a fairly complete sense of the meaningfulness of myth and tradition, Christian or otherwise, while transcending them in a secular spirit.
Mr. Fiedler’s notion of constructing “rival myths” of the Jew, myths of a positive nature that will compete with the negative myths, is appealing but scarcely feasible. Effective myths are the product of the infinitely slow processes of unconscious creativity and mass experience; they are not to be conjured into existence by improvisation and calculation. What Mr. Fiedler proposes is a local remedy to a universal disease. The remedy, as I see it, is to bring a halt to the de-secularization of culture so frivolously attempted by the reactionary intellectuals, and if possible to reverse the current. Here in America we are in an especially favorable position to proceed along these lines, since the American concept of nationality is built on political rather than on ethnic or religious foundations. The ethnocentric propaganda so typical of anti-Semitism in Europe, with its nationally homogeneous populations, is far less likely to succeed here. The American concept of nationality, political to the core, needs emphasis and elaboration; and in literature that can only mean strenuous opposition to all attempts to assimilate the American literary mind to the British literary mind, particularly the British literary mind of the past, with its aristocratic, xenophobic, and class back-ground.
The questions asked by the editors of COMMENTARY seem to me to assume that everywhere in our literature, or at least in enough writers to be significant, a single persistent image of the Jew can be found. The assumption is reasonable, and once made is irrefutable, but still may not be worth making. We are committed to the proposition that events must have some meaning and some sufficient cause, and there must exist therefore a nightmare of fantasy about the Jews corresponding to and causing the nightmare of reality in the treatment of them through all of the Christian centuries to the present, the days after Hitler.
Once we posit the existence of the fantasy and decide that it must have left its traces in literature, it is of course possible to see them there, for we can always see in art what we look for if we only look imaginatively enough. Mr. Fiedler’s recent article in COMMENTARY is a brilliant exercise in this kind of creative criticism, assembling as it does a number of apparently unrelated unpleasant Jews in books and displaying them as a single mythic beast, the castrator with a knife, an entity more horrible than the sum of its parts. But to bring into the light the hidden meaning of the old stories which the stories themselves dare not tell is not so much to discover the underlying myth as to invent it. Literally, the mythic castrator’s knife is present in the story of Hugh of Lincoln and of Shylock only because a critic has just seen it there, and following him we can only now see as he does, until we are taught to see otherwise.
Myths cannot be refuted logically, for they only purport to be statements of what men have fancied, and they are particularly convincing when, as they so often do, they speak ill of men. There is for modern man an ontological proof of the existence of evil if not of good; whatever wickedness men have imagined of themselves must, we feel, be true. If there is any test of truth for a myth, it is in the universality of its application: the true myths, such as the great one about the fall of man, speak harshly of all men; the false of only a few. (Mr. Fiedler’s article recognizes the truth of this in its suggestion that whatever truth there is in its apocalyptic vision of the man with the knife is a truth not about Jews but about all men.)
Whatever our duty may be in life to face reality (including the reality of what others think of Jews), in the practice of literature our duty of evasion seems clear. As writers we should never imagine some special evil of some special few, even in the form of stating that this is what others think of these few. If the mythic Jew exists in literature, he is not likely to be destroyed by direct confrontation. Any direct dealing with him should above all be avoided by the Jewish writer, who is almost certain to find in him new terrors and to breathe new life into him. If the mythic Jew of literature is ever to be destroyed, it can only be by his being displaced by other myths, which it seems to me will not, as has been suggested, be other myths about Jews, but other myths about mankind itself, for literature is after all not about some men but about all of us.
The strong anti-Semitic tradition in English literature only serves to pose more nakedly the problem of my relation as a Jew to that literature, but does not itself constitute the problem. French and German Jews too were forced to consider their relation to the French and German literatures, although these are not nearly so anti-Semitic as the English. “Full participation and integration” in a literary tradition is not one of the Rights of Man; it is not only Shylock and Fagin who debar me from it, but my own consciousness of being a Jew.
I am conscious of a different provenance and, possibly, a different destiny. I am conscious of being different. The Gentile’s relation to his literature is, generally, self-evident and unproblematic—he will not be invited by a magazine to consider the matter in a symposium. Whereas a Jew’s consciousness of difference introduces an element of the equivocal into this as into many things. The equivocality, for me, is simple enough: I use a language, English, but I cannot call it mine; I live with a literature that I do not wholly possess. To use a language and not to own it, to live with a literature and not to possess it—this is only to say that I am a Jew.
Latterly, a good deal has been said by Jewish writers about “alienation” and particularly, in almost a boastful vein, about Jewish alienation; Mr. Fiedler himself refers to the “rich alienated art” of modern times. Well, we Jews are also “alienated” from the language we use and the literary tradition we are a part of, though at this point, where the matter passes from the abstract to a very touchy concrete, our complacency deserts us. Mr. Fiedler says that “if we want to call the culture in which we live our own, we will have to come to terms” with the mythic Bestial Jew. I detect here still a reluctance to accept that alienation which otherwise is described in tragic honorifics. The truth is, I believe, that we can look Shylock in the eye from now till Doomsday and still not be able to call English literature our own. This is something we simply must suffer; here, in any case, sufferance is still “the badge of all our tribe.”
Nothing essential is lost by such an attitude, I think, and an essential candor is gained, the candor that enabled Kafka to write some of the finest prose of modern times. He, surely, ought to be our example. And his example moreover indicates to us how this particular alienation can be overcome; he of all people shows us the way out of our equivocal position. By his creative act the German Jews (ironically, on the verge of their extinction) came finally to possess their language. By a creative act English-speaking Jews may come finally to possess theirs.
The mythical image of the Jew that your question presents is, to some extent, a myth of your own devising. The portrait has inevitably varied with the vicissitudes of English history, and with the marginal role that the Jews perforce have played in it until the past century. Under the theological odium of the Middle Ages, or during the centuries of total exclusion, stock characters and racial generalizations were bound to prevail. But the process of cultural enfranchisement that made a Jewish novelist Prime Minister, and entrusted a Jewish Shakespearean scholar with the editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography, made it possible to treat Jews as individuals in literature as in society. Modern writers have depicted all sorts and conditions of Jews: to assume that the least admirable depictions are the most typical is to fall into a trap which anti-Semitism has baited. With ampler justification, and with a much bloodier background of actual conflict, the Irish can accuse the English of libel. And if—without pushing the issue to its German extreme—we ask ourselves where the Jews have stood in French culture, we find both a higher degree of literary participation and a much more explicit anti-Semitic reaction.
By listing together “such writers as” Chaucer and . . . Thomas Wolfe, you go some-what out of your way to darken the picture. You arbitrarily omit the brighter touches of, say, George Eliot’s or Browning’s portraiture. Even Marlowe and Shakespeare, considered in the flickering light of their period, make out a surprising case for their Jewish villains; while later stage tradition, from Cumberland’s Jew to Shaw’s Mendoza, is on the whole friendly. Dickens’s sympathy for the underdog would not allow him to rest content with the crude and early Fagin, but moved him-with the maturity of Our Mutual Friend—to create the counterbalancing figure of Riah. Such conflicting impressions, produced upon various Englishmen by a limited number of Jews, are less significant in the long run than the clear affinities that bind British culture to the Old Testament. This is attested not only by Milton and Blake, but indeed by Anglo-Saxon poetry, as well as by the Biblical intonations of English prose. The Puritans, in both old and New England, were constantly appealing to Hebrew precedent. When Matthew Arnold sought a name for that ethical outlook which he specially discerned in his compatriots and ours, he called it “Hebraism.”
There is thus no reason why writers of Jewish ancestry should not feel at home within the broad perspectives of Anglo-American literary tradition. Times which revive the blood-myth and multiply the pogrom have, not unnaturally, made us apprehensive; but we shall not enhance our security by proscribing great authors as Nazi fellow-travellers. Caricature, though it exaggerates grossly, usually plays upon elements of truth. Who shall deny that Shylock or Bleistein bears any resemblance to any individual, living or dead? that Jewish behavior, under stress of circumstance, has tended toward legalistic patterns and materialistic values? It might be answered that instances stand out, not because Jews behave differently from others, but because they deviate so far from their traditional laws and spiritual allegiances. Gentiles have not denounced them more severely than their own prophets have, than Proust has done. Perhaps the worst condemnation of all is the slick venality or the self-pitying sentimentality that Jewish writers frequently expose and all too frequently exemplify. A semi-detached position offers us, along with certain disadvantages, some chance of viewing things objectively. To write off criticism as persecution is to trade that advantage for a mess of subjectivity.
Your questions came while I happened to be reading some of Theodore Dreiser’s papers. Dreiser has the reputation of having liberated American writing from gentility and of having fathered the American naturalistic social novel. In his last years he considered himself a radical and at the time of his death was a member of the Communist party. Yet he was also an anti-Semite; and though I knew of his anti-Semitism in general, I still found myself pained and shocked by his advice to a friend that only Americans, and not Jews, should be trusted in business. Why, one wonders, in all the tributes paid Dreiser, has this vicious, not exactly secret, streak of prejudice so seldom been mentioned? And why do not those present-day novelists who hail him as the liberator of American fiction consider how his anti-Semitism may affect the role they assign to him?
I think the occasional, unsystematic, even unmalicious anti-Semitism of some modern writers is far more reprehensible than anything to be found in Chaucer. There is no reason for surprise at Chaucer’s vilification of the Jews; he was merely expressing a point of view universally accepted in the Christian world of his lifetime. But from Chaucer’s time to our own there has been progress at least in what the intellectual minority considers the desired norm of civilized conduct—which is why a passing reference to “clever” or “grubbing” Jews by a modern writer is far more distressing than the Prioress’s Tale.
We must distinguish between dramatic representations of Jews, even those intended as unfavorable generic representations, and direct statements of abuse. Shakespeare was probably not exempt from the common anti-Jewish attitudes of his time, but he has given his Merchant of Venice a dramatic tension impossible in the kind of anti-Semitic diatribe that can be found in Pound’s Cantos or Céline’s political books. Whether because Shylock “got the better of him” or because he really intended to create a credible human portrait, Shakespeare did not let Shylock be a mere Jewish villain. At least in part, we can identify ourselves with Shylock, and therefore can accept him.
Much the same is true of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. The first two acts of this play allow the Jew Barabas a certain subtle and impressive humanity, while the last three merely wrench him into a creature of total evil in order to fulfill the requirements of the Machiavellian play. But for me the play is redeemed by two lines that Marlowe puts into the mouth of Barabas after his fortune has been expropriated by Malta’s Christian rulers: “What? bring you Scripture to confirm your wrongs?/Preach me not out of my possessions.” It is just this touch of dramatic reality that the modern anti-Semite will not allow the Jew.
Still, whatever their historical origin, the gross caricatures of Jews in English literature make it impossible for one to be totally at ease with its tradition. But then why should one be totally at ease with it? Only in recent years, as a consequence of a certain academization of our literary life, has one heard talk about “absorbing” the tradition. I think the literary tradition is there for us to struggle with—so that we may both accept and reject. And there is much in it that we cannot accept with honor.
There is, however, nothing we should “do” or wish to “do” about Fagin or the Prioress’s Tale or Eliot’s landlord spawned in Antwerp. They are to be forever with us, a stab of pain, a reminder of evil. The important thing is not to let any notions about the inviolability of literature or the sacredness of art sway us from expressing our spontaneous passionate feelings about those contemporary writers who succumb, willingly or not, to anti-Semitism. We must beware of what Clement Greenberg has rightly called the culture-sickness of this age, the sickness which permits people to excuse or justify the most dreadful behavior and the most vicious ideas in the name of culture. It is not only necessary but right that we say exactly what we feel about the anti-Semitic remarks or passages of even the greatest modern writers. Indignation is often insufficient, but sometimes it is the only condition of dignity.
Although my feelings about being a Jew and writing in the English or American language have undergone great alterations over the years, I cannot say that I have been impeded in my efforts by the various portraits of Jews that exist in English literature, except in so far as they have practical consequences in persecution and discrimination, neither of which I have ever experienced directly in a serious form. I began reading English literature intensively and writing poetry when I was about fourteen in the halcyon days before Hitler. Since I had no religious upbringing and no Jewish cultural training, I promptly identified myself with the authors I read and, by means of the emotional algebra of adolescence, counted myself out of the group they scorned or caricatured.
It was not long before I came down out of the clouds and realized that, like it or not, I was included. Now it is perfectly possible to keep oneself emotionally outside a group in which one is placed by a system of social classification and even to determine to resist such a classification. It is a response that I might have made, had I not found myself sharing nightmares, fears, rages, and sympathy with the Jewish group as a whole. In the decade after 1933, I wrote little because I could not see that writing made any sense at all under such conditions and I contemplated political activity of various kinds or going to Palestine—neither of which had any fundamental appeal to me. At the same time, I found myself engaged in trying to find answers to a whole host of related questions: Which traits were specifically Jewish? Which specifically English? American? Which actually composed my own character? Which English, American, and Jewish traits did I like or dislike? Which were valuable or deplorable in general moral terms?
The tentative answers are too complex to give here. I do think that the most important conclusion I came to was that I suffered more from not being a Jew, so to speak, because so large a part of the Jewish heritage never got to me and because so much of it is historically exhausted, than I did from the difficulties of being a Jew. I think a similar predicament affected large numbers of Americans because of the collapse or inadequacy of their respective traditions and I think my particular generation went or is going through a crisis because of it. Briefly, what happened was that anyone with a certain amount of vitality found that all the traditional wisdom, standards, methods of control, etc., available to him did not provide him with the minimal equipment necessary for life or a minimal raison d’être. One had to begin at the very beginnings or stagnate or rot.
The sense of instinctive historic discontinuity which America is acquiring as a consequence of this experience is bound to exercise, I think, a steadily disintegrative effect on anti-Semitism and Jewish exceptionalism. It is the most important factor in vital American art at the moment. It reduces the significance of the traditional image of the Jew, changes the cluster of attitudes about it, and makes it possible for the first time, I think, for Jew and non-Jew to share what is left of their respective traditions.
As to the literary portraits of Jews, considering the circumstances in which they were made and the fact that the harsher ones issued from harsh pens, I find that they have a certain amount of representational truth but are morally deficient because they came out of an inadequate and now bankrupt moral scheme. I am likewise not so much outraged by the traits the anti-Semite ascribes to Jews as by his evaluation of them, his refusal to face himself, and the brutality, hypocrisy, and stupidity of his politics.
I am also not very much impressed by Mr. Fiedler’s values and those whom he considers the best and worst representatives of the Jewish people. I think there is considerable truth, for example, in the portraits of Shylock and Barabas, if one subtracts the element of caricature and remembers that Shakespeare and Marlowe were not fully equal to the task of understanding men with the special fortitude, magnificence, and historic depth of the Renaissance Jewish merchant. I think they were very great men operating under a great moral code. Shylock puts up an instinctively heroic defense of the most important principle of Western civilization—the sanctity of contracts.
By and large, defects and all, I regard the Jewish businessman as the best human type produced by the Jews and wince more at the portraits of refined, moribund, angelic Jews than I do at those of the scoundrels. Every group produces scoundrels in about an equal number; the Jews are a trifle too rich in martyrs and pure spirits for my particular taste.
To speak of “entering into an inheritance” as Leslie Fiedler does shows that something has happened to the idea of culture for which he of course is not to blame. There is a great and still increasing idolatry of culture, an object-and property-making tendency that has nothing to do with the creativity we summarize as “culture.” The property brings with it a power struggle; there are legal heirs and, inevitably, false claimants. The Jews, as often when there is something to share, are disqualified. But what is it that disqualifies the Jew? Well, “culture” is aristocratic and the Jew has risen with democracy and “mongrelization.” One of the aims of democracy is the aristocratization of everyone, and that, for the aristocrat of culture, means wider degradation, rather. Evil stimulant, heartless rationalist, Magian among Faustians, revolutionary agitating among people he can never understand, clever man of the industrial city, stupid financier blowing his cigar smoke over Venice, American of the days of decay—this is the way the Jew is characterized by those who have first call on tradition by right of birth and upbringing. And, as Mr. Fiedler brilliantly shows, tradition amply supports them. But is this characterization of us true? And in the great writing of the past is there something that rejects us such as we are now? Or is it the idol-and object-making heirs that reject us, assisted in their veneration by a dislike of us that lets them feel a closer union with their great past? But the answer is obvious: it is impossible for men to be rejected in great literature.
Great things always give pain; they can never be taken smoothly. Can we read Lear without the pains of parents and children? Or Job without the pain of the evil that man doesn’t bring on himself? These pains are perhaps not the same for everyone and vary as people do in the development of their humanity. And for us the pain of Shylock may be greater than for others because we are Jews, but it has fundamentally the same meaning as these other pains. It doesn’t drive us from nature, from human nature, from our own nature, any more than Lear’s cry about woman drives women from theirs. It shocks, it punishes us and finds out unwanted alliances with our deepest impulses. But this is the primitive work of literature, which is not decent, modest, or remedially social.
We say to ourselves, “In Christian England of the 16th century a play about usury couldn’t have been written in any other way. But what about modern Jew-despising writers?” For they are studiously and analytically historical. Many of them have been converted to Catholicism, Anglicanism, or to Social Credit and other things. A man isn’t converted without taking thought, so they are thoughtful men and their anti-Semitism is that of people who weigh theological, political, and historical evidence. Their single great advantage over the past is the historical advantage; they know more history. This knowledge makes their dislike of the Jew more terrible if they are right, stupendously horrible if they are wrong. Modern reality, with the gases of Auschwitz still circulating in the air of Europe, gives us an excellent opportunity to judge whether they are right or wrong.
“Culture” as conceived by some of them, aristocratic, classical, the concretized, memorial culture has received an awful blow from modern reality. “Il y a des mensonges qui sont inséparables de la culture et de la civilisation,” writes Berdiaeff. A culture doesn’t hold things to be true because they are true but because they are established things. Though the modern reality has made our nakedness greater it has also made these lies plainer. Should we continue to wrangle with the “heirs” for whom these lies are a very valuable part of the estate? History has given us the means to act more wisely.
When God made the Jews, He ordained them to be bearers of witness to the human condition. This, as we know now, meant not that we should become like the others, but that the others should become like us. Unfortunately, He did not reconcile them to a minority’s lot, as He has long since reconciled us. So, by a curious irony, some of the most gifted among them (as well as the least), spiritually the most isolated from their kind, hate us in proportion as they begin to resemble us.
This makes it very difficult for us, for damn it, their art is our morality. And except for this small matter, that they are always stupid about us, and insult us, and that some, like Pound and Céline, have even called for our deaths, we cannot let them go, nor can they let us go, for they imitate us, they are obviously fascinated by us. Notice how Pound slips into Yiddish even in The Pisan Cantos, how feelingly he impersonates a Jew. Think how Henry Adams’ letters rail against “Jews” and “bankers” . . . of whom he considered himself one. Think how many protest they are even “Jews at heart.” And think how, in our turn, we are fascinated with their resemblance to us. How else explain the great community our intellectuals feel with the most divided among them? After all, it is not to the “naive,” the “simple” believers and humanists that we go, not to the truly Christian, like Bernanos and Mauriac. But precisely to the nasty ones, the clever modern ones—a Dostoevsky, a Henry James, a Henry Adams, an André Gide, a Santayana, a Cummings, a Céline, an Eliot, a Pound. How we love them, though they love us not! How we squirm and strain to get into Eliot’s City of God—that state religion of forced faith, less hope, and no charity—though he has barred us from it in advance! Yet the community is there; they feel it and we feel it. In fact, if it were not for their unfortunate attitude about the Jews, some of us would be indistinguishable from them, if we are not that already.
What to do? We have told them repeatedly that we are not the evil they hate, but in fact suffer it just like them. But it is hard for them to understand. They are gifted, but superstitious. They have lost solidarity with that majority to which we never belonged, but they cannot bear to endure their loneliness, and so turn against us. What to do? Of course we try to protect our dignity as best we can, but we are peevish at times, we fall back into the pathetic myth of our superiority, and complain: “We understand you better than your own folk do! We set you up, you ungrateful wretches!” This is no good. What to do? The stupider ones among us would even exile us from them-as if we are not all exiles together! This is a joke on us. For we do understand them, too well. If we were to read only those who love us, even among ourselves, our intellectual diet would be thin indeed. It grows dull to live only with Jews. It is unnatural. This is not what He intended us for, to judge from our stubborn appetite for the whole living world.
So we go back to these writers, and sighing at their unreasonableness, quietly skip over a line here, close our eyes to a really disgusting passage there. It is of course a bitter kind of treason to ourselves; there is something horrible about it, if only you allow yourself to think on it. Here we are, we who read them and admire them because of our general kinship in the world, yet they refuse to recognize the bond, and, indeed, rail at us out from the very books we admire most. Oh, not the “classic” writers; even at their worst, they are comparatively innocent, for they lived before Hitler, and described Jews as exotics. But precisely the clever modern ones, the ones we imitate most, the ones who live among us in apprehension of their future. What insane self-humiliation this would be if we did not know why they are so! What irony that we forgive them because they unconsciously know what they do!
Or do we forgive them? Yes and no, but somehow “forgiveness” is not of the question, only endurance and understanding, even for so evil a genius as Céline, whose words helped to light the gas chambers. As well forgive ourselves for not loving our condition. As well shut ourselves off from the world again. No, no: there have been too many books banned and burned already. We have been too long on the index expurgatorius to make one of our own. If we wrote of Pound as he writes of us, who would pass judgment on anyone and give him a prize? No, we and the Eliots are all in this together, as he has virtually acknowledged, and we must show the others exactly why this is so. We must read them and endure—angrily so, of course; without toadying; not afraid to call ignorance and heartlessness by their right names, even if they do come from our literary dictators, those on whom we have modelled ourselves to sound as ungenerous as possible on every question.
Your questions seem to imply that anti—Semitism is an essential characteristic of the literary tradition of England and America. But of course it is not—it is but an accidental characteristic. I have therefore never felt the necessity of defining my relation to the tradition. For me to do so would be not unlike a tailor’s son undertaking in 19th-century England to examine the state of his feelings before writing novels because tailors were traditionally mocked in English literature. A literary tradition is after all remarkably unlike a club or an “exclusive” community in which one proposes oneself for membership.
This leaves, then, only the question of how I respond to the anti-Semitism of particular writers whose work, apart from their anti-Semitism, commands my admiration and respect. It is not a question I can answer categorically. The hostile representations of Jews by writers before the middle of the 19th century is for me the occasion of only an objective-as it were, an anthropological—interest. With writers of later date the situation is of course much more complex. I naturally meet hostile statements about Jews with hostility. But this doesn’t necessarily destroy my relation with the writer who makes them. I like to like writers, but I am no longer of an age when I must like every writer who interests and profits me; nor do I feel that every writer I respond to must like me. I even get a kind of intellectual pleasure from maintaining an attitude of ambivalence toward writers who interest me. Anti-Semitism is, as Nietzsche said, a vulgarity; it is indeed remarkable how often notable minds of our day can support their quanta of vulgarity; but it would be foolish not to take from them what they have to give. There’s no need to be in a passive relation to a writer, expecting him to be a guiding saint. D. H. Lawrence’s anti-Semitism was not his sole absurd extravagance; one deals with him properly only if one thrashes his absurdities to make them yield the truth that lies in them.
I do not believe that all adverse statements about Jews necessarily are anti-Semitic in the usual meaning of the word. Thus I distinguish between, on the one hand, Eliot’s symbolic use of the Jew in his poetry and, on the other hand, his remarks about Jews in his prose. Eliot’s ideal of a homogeneous culture with a strong religious cast does not attract me—although it attracts many Jews, who, indeed, have put it into practice—but I do not think that it is necessarily a wicked idea, and if its development involves the adverse characterization of the cultural tendency of Jews, I do not think that this is in itself hateful, although I think it mistaken. After all, I was brought up to suppose that predications about Jews were permissible and extraordinarily interesting. In the intimate culture of my childhood, remark was always being made of the superiority of Jewish morality and intellect, of the Jewish freedom from alcoholism, insanity, prostitution, and crime. And as I grew a little older I became aware of the intense Jewish preoccupation with the refinements of cultural difference; Jews were then fascinated not only by what might follow from the large “Jews are . . .,” but also by the subtleties which might be drawn from “German Jews are . . .,” “Frankfurt Jews are . . .,” “Polish Jews are . . .,” “Lithuanian Jews are . . .”—perhaps no people has ever had a profounder belief in the effects which cultural circumstance has upon character. As a consequence of this training, when I began to encounter unpleasant predications about Jews, I thought they were untrue but not intellectually illegitimate. And I feel now that if the Jews consider themselves a cultural entity, which they are, they exist as a fact and an idea about which it is inevitable and legitimate that generalizations should be made.
This, of course, doesn’t settle the matter for me. At the same time that I think that Jews may legitimately be the subject of generalization, I find that I dislike the generalizations—the flattering ones almost as much as the hostile ones. In this I share the paradoxical position of almost all Jewish communities of the Diaspora—and, I gather, of Israel too—which holds that Jews are different at the same time that they are just like everybody else. I feel sure that this contradiction represents the actual truth.
Yet if we stand for a cultural pluralism we must suppose that each of its components has enough reality to tempt discourse. And we must expect tension between the various elements of the pluralism—we can’t, unless we befuddle ourselves with piety, expect a cultural loyalty to define itself except by a certain amount of aggressiveness to other cultures, not if you suppose that culture really goes deep, right down to the bottom of temperament. I don’t like Thomas Wolfe, but I cannot hate or despise this man of the artisan class of North Carolina for his extravagant response to the Jews of New York. He represented a certain past and they represented a certain past, and something more than a bow was appropriate to the meeting of these two embodied ideas. It is needless to say that an acceptance of the implications of cultural pluralism does not suggest the abrogation of decency, the rules of evidence, and the ideals of common humanity and civil peace.
When I consider my relationship to English literature, two questions rise in my mind. Am I a part of the literary tradition of England and of Europe or a foreign element working against that tradition? Does my American identity absolve me from my cultural allegiance to Europe, and, specifically, England?
Ten years ago I would have answered, “I am a product of European history and literature, as is every American writer.” But today, with the consciousness that from hour to hour Europe is voiding itself of its residuum of Jews, I answer differently. “I am foreign matter to the European tradition of life and letters, and if I do not believe in a new and separate American civilization, I shall have no other cultural identity. Today I have even lost my desire to visit the physical Europe.” Implicit in this new answer is my wish to dissociate myself from the scene of our horror, as well as my refusal to draw any closer to the Jewish community than I feel is consonant with my aims as poet, American, and Jew.
The scene of our horror, as Mr. Fiedler has ably shown, is reflected in the British literary imagination as well as in German history. And yet I have always been able to “understand” Chaucerian and even Shakespearean anti-Semitism as lingering concepts of the medieval mind. Naturally, I make no such concessions to the modern literary anti-Semite, however great an artist he happens to be. And I find literary anti-Semitism particularly revolting among intellectual Christian converts. Thus when Eliot perpetuates the myth of the Bestial Jew, without taking the pains elsewhere to mollify this image, he commits an outrage against his Jewish contemporaries and against the modern literary canon of which he is so significant a part. Still it would be careless to try to lump all literary anti-Semites together. Cummings and Henry Miller, for instance, lampoon the Jew cruelly but without the basic viciousness and the divine right of converts. Lawrence’s anti-Semitism is again not Christian anti-Semitism but something far more profound, even though some of Lawrence’s provincial prejudices stuck with him all his life. To call the author of The Man Who Died an anti-Semite is to miss the force of his shattering anti-Christianity.
I take it that most of the Jews who are contributing to this symposium, myself included, are of a sect to themselves. We are Jews by popular consent of the Judeo-Christian community and not by choice or ambition. We accept our Jewishness because to reject it would be a betrayal not of our electors but of ourselves. In the same way I felt when I was conscripted that to avoid military duty would have been a betrayal of my identity as an American. If this is negative Americanism then I can also call myself a negative Jew. But my election to America and to Israel gives me my total identity, the kind of identity which has never been permitted to survive in all of Europe’s history.
Nothing will destroy the literary myth of the Bestial Jew except the creation of countermyths out of our modern exilic culture. I will not speculate on what such myths will be, but I feel it to be part of the work of American Jewish intellectuals to further this task. I see stirrings of a counter-mythos in the poetry of young Jews, and I pride myself on having a part in its inception. I believe with Mr. Fiedler that expurgation is dangerous and impossible, and I think Jewish propaganda of the professional kind may do more harm than good.
A frontal attack on the intellectual and artistic sensibilities of the best writers and thinkers of our time, with true works of art as our weapons, will surely pervade the consciousness of the anti-Jew who has not reached the pathological level.
Philip Rahv is an editor of Partisan Review; a collection of his critical essays, Image and Idea, was recently published by New Directions. James Grossman Is the author of a forthcoming book on James Fenimore Cooper in the “American Men of Letters” series. Martin Greenberg Has contributed to COMMENTARY and Partisan Review, and is the translator of the second volume of Kafka’s Diaries. Harry Levin is a professor of English at Harvard, well-known for his critical study of James Joyce. Irving Howe Is a free-lance writer and critic, now preparing a critical study of Sherwood Anderson. William Poster is a poet and a critic who has contributed to Poetry and other magazines. Saul Bellow is the author of two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim. Alfred Kazin is the author of On Native Ground, a study of American literature, and is at present working on a personal documentary of New York life, A Walker in the City. Lionel Trilling is the critic and novelist, the author of The Middle of the Journey; he is a professor of English at Columbia University. Karl Shapiro, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, has published several volumes of poetry, one of which, V-Letter and Other Poems, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The Jewish Writer and the English Literary Tradition: A Symposium-Part II
Must-Reads from Magazine
Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.