Wednesday, November 30, 2011

World's Fair

World's Fair: a NovelWorld's Fair: a Novel by E.L. Doctorow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was asked by Moment Magazine to write about a book by a Jewish writer who had influenced me, and I chose Doctorow's charming and cunningly straightforward World's Fair, which won the National Book Award in 1986.  Click here to read the article.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Grand Cathedral

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the AgesThe Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harold Bloom has a valid gripe with the "School of Resentment" as he calls it--i.e. the group of academics who are actively destroying the notion of a canon of great works, of classics.  The real virtue of this book, however, is in Bloom's wise and warm-hearted discussions of the art of the great works themselves.  He'll send you back to your favorite classics reinvigorated to discover them again or inspire you to tackle great works you've heard of but never read.  Either way, Bloom will arm you with much helpful wisdom about the books, their narrative strategies, their themes, and their relation to one another.  His approach is in my view the common sense one--to think about the writers not as vessels of impersonal cultural-historical forces, but as individual human beings, as artists acutely aware of, indebted to, and competitive with their predecessors.  It's a history of literary artists since the Renaissance as if they've all been working on the same piece, like architects inheriting the job of building a grand cathedral and passing the job on to the next generation.

The only disappointments for me were chapters 10 (on Jane Austen and Wordsworth) and 20 (on Kafka)--Bloom lapses into excessive abstraction in these.  But this book is an essential for any library.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

The Golem and the Blood Libel

The GolemThe Golem by Isaac Bashevis Singer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By a long shot, this is the funniest book I ever read about the blood libel.

Caveat: despite illustrations by Uri Shulevitz that look suited to children, this is not a children's book.  It's about some gentiles who libel an innocent Jew for the murder of a child in 17th-century Prague.  German folklore, of course, really did depict Jews as demonic figures who used Christian children's blood in their matzah.  The legend is gruesome enough, but its demonization of Jews is even more troubling given the catastrophic consequences of such racism in the real lives of European Jewish families as recently as sixty years ago.  Golem folklore, meanwhile, emerged from the Jewish ghettoes of Europe and, at least in Singer's telling, serves as antidote to the racist folklore known to Jews as the blood libel.  Golems are pretend, as are demonic cannibal Jews, as is the arch distinction between heroes and villains in this and other fairy tales.  (Singer surely painted the righteousness of the Jewish victims and the venality and mendacity of their gentile accusers in stark terms so that the charges of cannibalism in the story would be understood as unambiguously false.)  But it's important to note that Isaac Bashevis Singer didn't make up the notion of the blood libel.  The blood libel appears in Chaucer's poetry and in the original edition of Grimm's fairy tales.  In The Golem the judge uses the frequency of the accusation of cannibalism as evidence of its validity.  That is surely one of the ways that rumors propagate--people believe hoax emails today for the same reason--and the Jews of Europe, an ostracized minority, were powerless to resist the damage the legend wrought.  They dealt with it as the Jews had previously dealt with hardships: they told stories about it.

Part of what makes Singer's story so funny and unusual is that it shifts from tragedy to comedy half-way through, when the Golem, having solved a major problem for the Jews of Prague, starts acting crazy in a very childlike way, doing unexpected and yet harmless things like climbing the bell tower and running around the bell and kissing a girl (who finds "his lips were as scratchy as a horseradish grinder").  The Golem, an earthen clay giant shaped by a rabbi with the name of God engraved on his forehead, seems to function like a work of art in the life of the Jews--like an Isaac Bashevis Singer story--alleviating tragedy through might and also through comedy.  The Golem is the creative life-force of the Jews, called up from the sacred depths of the spirit at their darkest hours with pious intensity, and then blundering past tragedies with actions bent implacably upon the earthly and profane.  The Golem doesn't listen to the rabbi and becomes preoccupied with childish games and the sort of quotidian needs that can look so trivial and absurd in the context of tragedy.  And by suggesting absurdities, the Golem performs a magic act like the one that called him into being: he summons laughter out of us like a genie out of a lamp, and our laughter in turn calls us back to the necessity, the joy, and significance of daily life.

One indicator that the Golem does not belong to the Gothic story tradition of self-destruction is his attitude to wine.  Boris Karloff as Dracula: "I don't drink ... wine."  Frankenstein's effete monster too specifically disapproved of wine.  The Golem: "Golem like wine!"  Even Manischewitz, apparently.

Isaac Bashevis Singer has a master's intuition and lightness of touch.  Uri Shulevitz's illustrations are perfect: funny, sincere, a little sad, big, and strange.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Non Serviam

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On June 15, 1917, a U.S. marshal and 12 New York City policemen entered the Lower East Side offices of the radical magazine Mother Earth and placed its editor under arrest.  The U.S. was mobilizing to enter World War I, and the famous anarchist Emma Goldman had been charged with conspiracy to obstruct the draft in violation of the Selective Service Act passed earlier that year.  She brought with her to the jailhouse, according to Vivian Gornick, only two things: "a small toilet case" and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.

Joyce's novel was a rare object at that time (though, admittedly, not so rare as Emma Goldman's toilet case).  At the time Goldman was arrested, Portrait had been in print for little more than six months in an edition of less than a thousand.  Yet it’s fitting, even if surprising, that she had a copy and attached such importance to it, since Joyce wrote the quintessential book against "the spirit of unquestioning obedience" that Goldman deplored.

While Goldman rebelled publicly against governments, armies, corporations, and churches in order to even the scales of justice, Joyce ignored a political bagatelle such as World War I.  He wrote not of the struggle to liberate a people but of the individual’s struggle to liberate himself—if need be, from his people.  In his book on the adolescence of Stephen Dedalus—the best book ever written on male adolescence, I think—Stephen liberates himself above all from his own twisted conscience.  And that is hard enough.  To overthrow a government of the people is not so hard, perhaps, as to overthrow the government of the heart.

Plato confused conscience with reason, but Freud, the ultimate analyst of corrupt conscience (a.k.a. neurosis), did not.  He knew that for some it could be a catalogue of hysteric, childish dangers with sometimes pitiless, bullying, and sophistical methods for enforcing its prohibitions.

Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus rebels against such irrational conscience, conscience that rules not by reason but by incantations and scare tactics, a sovereign conscience that “force hath made supreme / Above his equals” as Satan says of God in Paradise Lost Book I, ll 248-249.  At times Stephen shares the apostate angel’s “unconquerable will” and “courage never to submit or yield,” as Milton puts it.  When the priest names the cardinal Satanic sin—“non serviam: I will not serve” (Portrait p 117)—and says you burn in Hell for it, Stephen cowers and chastens himself.  But reason, courage, and self-sympathy prevails; in the novel’s last pages Stephen twice echoes Satan’s famous line, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” (PL I, l 263); he tells his friend Cranly “I will not serve” on p 239 and “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church” on p 247.  Dedalus soars over Hell with self-made wings, over the Irish Sea to Europe, hoping “to fly by those nets” of church and homeland (p 203) which are the aliases by which demonic conscience makes itself known.

This inner conflict, which shapes Portrait, in turn takes its shape from the family conflict in which its template was cast.  Just like in Paradise Lost, where the many crises of conscience turn on relations between God the Father and his curious, jealous children, Portrait is all about fathers and sons.  Patrick Parrinder, author of a great essay on the novel called “A Portrait of the Artist,” says of Stephen Dedalus: “his father’s voice plays a crucial part in the novel.  Portrait begins (as we have seen) with his father’s words and ends with a cry addressed to an imaginary father.”  It’s battle and rapprochement between father and son, rebellion and submission, resentment and idolization, and a vacillation between these two positions, conducted wholly in the realm of language.  While writing my college thesis on Portrait I counted instances of the word ‘father’ and came up with 193 (including ‘governor’ three times and ‘Papa’ once) in 253 pages.  (Since this was before the internet and e-books, I counted by circling ‘father’ whenever I came across it and then I went back and tallied them up on notebook paper with hash marks in sets of five!)

There’s a beautiful triangle form inside of Portrait, with sin at one end of its base and piety at the other, and a conciliation between the two at its glorious flying vertex.  Only Joyce could inscribe this abstract form onto a novel of such incomparable specificity and naturalism.  He does it with three motivic lines on Stephen’s approach to reality.


"It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin." p 103


"In vague sacrificial or sacramental acts alone his will seemed drawn to go forth to encounter reality." p 159

And then:

"I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." p 253

There at the windy vertex Stephen throws off the yoke of oppressive conscience by replacing it with a conscience he made himself en route to maturity.  That is self-governance, no?  That is autonomy, and it enables "detachment from parental authority, a process that alone makes possible the opposition, which is so important for the progress of civilization, between the new generation and the old," as Freud says in “The Transformations of Puberty,” the third of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

I’ll soon be forty years old.  I’ve been done with puberty for months.  Now, if I could just move past this nasty, moody adolescence.  Well, here I go with my wax wings on, to set sail over the abyss, muttering to myself, “ ‘Indigestibly byronic’?  I find that incontestably mo-ronic, Mr. Kenner….”  Shit, it’s a long way down there.

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Old Deuteronomy

Old Possum's Book of Practical CatsOld Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It somehow does not surprise me that T.S. Eliot was able to see the world so well through the eyes of a cat.  His created cat personas are charming, especially their names:

The Old Gumbie Cat (a.k.a. Jennyanydots)
The Rum Tum Tugger
Old Deuteronomy
The Great Rumpuscat
Macavity the Mystery Cat
Gus the Theater Cat
Bustopher Jones
...and more

I love that cat "Gilbert" inconspicuously stuck in there.

It makes me squirm a bit, however, when T.S. refers to a group of Siamese cats as "Chinks."  And then Eliot writes of Growltiger:
But most to Cats of foreign race his hatred had been vowed;
To Cats of foreign name and race no quarter was allowed....
Far be it from me to spoil the enjoyment of poetry with politics, but the date of first publication--1939--for me tends to compound rather than explain Eliot's moral tone deafness when he writes so casually of his cat protagonist's racism.  I feel in T.S. Eliot some shortage of charity toward human beings, which his lavish empathy for cats only emphasizes.  It reminds me in some way of Donald Pleasance as super-villain Blofeld in the James Bond movies sitting there with that hideous scar on his face and plotting world domination while stroking his white Persian.  Or of the witches in Macbeth with their cat--"I come, Graymalkin!"

Surely it's I who's being bigoted--toward cats--when I endorse the ages-old propaganda that felines are the suited companions of witches and demons like Donald Pleasance.  And yet I've seen some corroboration of their notorious stand-offishness; as well as of T.S. Eliot's.  His poetic personas are morbid--deliciously so, I would say.

But if you skip the fifth stanza of "Growltiger's Last Stand" and just say "cats" instead of "Chinks" in that same poem, I think it's inspired poetry for children.  I have two editions.  The one illustrated by Axel Scheffler is more kid-friendly and helps to disguise the faint odor of moral defect.  The other is illustrated by Edward Gorey, who is himself charming but also macabre, so the Gorey is probably somewhat better attuned to the macabre temperature of T.S. Eliot.

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