Monday, June 29, 2009

Silence after the Holocaust

In the letters section of the latest Commentary, a time-honored intellectual debate is rejoined. Was there or was there not a “two-decade silence” about the Holocaust in the years following the defeat of Hitler’s Germany?

The phrase belongs to the Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz, who declared that the period from 1945 to 1965 should be known as “the two-decade silence.” “Not until the mid-1960’s, twenty years after World War II, did the Holocaust become a central topic in Jewish religious thought,” he wrote.[1] In her new book We Remember with Reverence and Love, Hasia Diner counters that the postwar “silence” is a myth. American Jews responded to the Holocaust in all sorts of ways. Only in comparison to “the undertakings of the later period,” which are fundamentally different in kind and scope, can the early responses be dismissed as “silence.”

Nonsense, scoffs Jonathan Tobin, who reviewed Diner’s book in the April issue of the magazine. For two decades there was no “memorial culture” in the U.S. Only with the “sea change in American Jewish life” that occurred in the ’sixties and ’seventies, when American Jews became politically active “on a host of issues—most prominently Soviet Jewry and support for the State of Israel”—did the Holocaust become central to Jewish thinking.

Thus Tobin recapitulates, perhaps without being fully aware of it, the argument of Peter Novick’s polemical and deeply flawed account of The Holocaust in American Life (1999). Novick begins his book by asking “how Americans became so ‘Holocaust conscious’ ”—asking “why now?” and “why here?”—and ends by blaming the Jews. The Holocaust has “loomed ever larger in American culture,” he explains, because it has proven politically useful to the Jews. It has become “the central symbol of oppression and atrocity,” because the Jews have “defined themselves as the quintessential victim community.” They “were intent on permanent possession of the gold medal in the Victimization Olympics,” and the Holocaust was their ideological equipment of choice.[2]

Both Tobin and Novick agree that political motives were behind the flowering of Holocaust commemoration in America. They differ only in whether they approve of the politics. Tobin celebrates the “Jewish activism” of the ’sixties and ’seventies, saying that it provoked American Jews “to think seriously and draw conclusions about the Holocaust in a way that they had never done before.” Novick laments the fact that they were thinking about the Holocaust at all, saying that it has led American Jews to abandon their longstanding commitment to “the more equal distribution of rewards which had been the aim of liberal social policies.”[3]

Although I share Tobin’s politics, in this dispute I side with Diner. In her letter to the editor, she points out that it is ahistorical to hear a “two-decade silence” simply because the early responses do not compare to the later.

The historical error is that the current situation is specified from the outset, and the Holocaust’s reception in America is read backwards from the present. All the different ways in which the Holocaust was represented and remembered are melted down and absorbed into a single dominant image (a “memorial culture” for Tobin, a “Victimization Olympics” for Novick). The earlier period is found wanting (Tobin), or preferred for its deeper commitment to political liberalism (Novick), because it is being judged by criteria altogether different from those that were applied during the period itself.

What is ignored is that the idea of the Holocaust also has a history. Rather than inquiring into that, scholars have simply taken for granted that the Holocaust has always meant what it means now. But the meaning of history is never given. Events do not dictate how they are to be interpreted; they await men and women to give an account of them. What is now called the Holocaust is the product of interpretation, and it has changed over time. It is a distinct and particular version of events, which arose at a specfic stage in history, took shape gradually, and eventually eclipsed its historical rivals. Instead of being passed over in a two-decade silence, the Holocaust was tossed by a two-decade fitfulness of interpretation, a period during which no version commanded enough assent to get the full attention of the culture, until finally one version came out on top.

Let me give an example. One of the first American novels to witness the Holocaust was Irwin Shaw’s 1948 war novel The Young Lions. Late in the book, a U.S. infantry company enters an unnamed death camp. The smell, “beyond the tolerance of human nostrils,” reduces the soldiers to silence. The dead are “sprawled at the gate and behind the wire,” and the surviving prisoners are unable either to smile or weep at the arrival of their liberators, because they are “too far sunk in a tragedy which had moved off the plane of human reaction onto an animal level of despair. . . .” But these are as nothing compared to what awaits Michael Whitacre and Captain Green inside the barracks:

In the murky air, pierced ineffectually here and there by the dusty beams of spring sunshine, Michael could see the piled, bony forms. The worst thing was that from some of the piles there was movement, a languidly waving arm, the slow lift of a pair of burning eyes in the stinking gloom, the pale twisting of lips on skulls that seemed to have met death many days before. In the depths of the building, a form detached itself from a pile of rags and bones and started a slow advance on hands and knees toward the door. Nearer by, a man stood up, and moved, like a mechanical figure, crudely arranged for the process of waking, toward Green. Michael could see that the man believed he was smiling, and he had his hand outstretched in an absurdly commonplace gesture of greeting. The man never reached Green. He sank to the slime-covered floor, his hand still outstretched. When Michael bent over him he saw that the man had died.[4]This can hardly be described as silence about the Holocaust. Shaw explicitly offers it, in fact, to break the silence that the American soldiers are reduced to by the horror of the camp. What does remain silent, within this scene, is the experience on the other side of the wire—the experience of the “scarecrows in tattered stripped suits,” whom later Holocaust writers would teach the world to call Muselmänner. Shaw does not know their later name, cannot begin to imagine their experience, and out of respect for the limits of human knowledge and imagination, he confines himself to the G.I.’s reaction. And I am not sure that the attempt can be described as a complete failure, even in comparison to the later successes of Holocaust literature, because Shaw reaches for something beyond the immediate sensory reaction:The center of the world, something repeated insanely and insistently in Michael’s brain, as he kneeled above the man who had died with such ease and silence before their eyes, I am now at the center of the world, the center of the world.Although it would be too much to claim that Shaw anticipated how the Holocaust would become “the central symbol of oppression and atrocity,” it is clear that he was grasping for the words to establish what would later become common knowledge.

The charge that American culture in general and American Jews in particular maintained a “two-decade silence” about the Holocaust is just what Hasia Diner says it is—a myth. An earlier generation was not silent about the Holocaust, but merely constructed its meaning differently.

[1] Eugene B. Borowitz, Choices in Modern Jewish Thought: A Partisan Guide, 2nd ed. (West Orange: Behrman House, 1995), p. 188.

[2] Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 1–2, 194–95.

[3] Novick, p. 183.

[4] Irwin Shaw, The Young Lions (New York: Modern Library, 1982), p. 140.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Literary ideology of adultery

Like everyone else in the country, I have followed the revelations of Gov. Mark Sanford’s on-the-job adultery with stomach-turning fascination. The most striking thing about the story so far, though, has been the dignity and good sense of Jenny Sanford’s prepared statement to the press.

“I believe enduring love is primarily a commitment and an act of will, and for a marriage to be successful, that commitment must be reciprocal,” Mrs Sanford said, exposing the gulf between her and her husband, who believes instead in the Stendhalian passion that sweeps a man away against his interests. The whole sorry episode reveals not that Sanford is a hypocrite, as some political antagonists will chortle, but on the contrary: he lives by the same literary ideology of adultery that rivets pretty much the entire Western world.

All the literary world loves a lover, especially if passion overwhelms his commitments and will. I dare you to name a single work of literature that focuses upon the sufferer of adultery, detailing her grief, loneliness, shame, self-loathing, and dejection. The injured party in the literature of adultery is more likely to be Othello, driven mad by jealousy. Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel The Good Soldier is narrated by a cuckold, but John Dowell’s narrative function is to be a man whose lack of passion sets off by contrast the passions of others. The “saddest story” of the first sentence—Ford’s original title for the novel—is not Dowell’s, but those who are made to suffer for their passionate rejection of commitment and will.

The word passion originated in Latin as a Christian theological term, referring to the sufferings of Jesus. Thus it is related by blood to the word passive, which originally meant “subject to passion or emotion, capable of suffering or feeling.” The literary ideology of the Western world is that the adulterer is subjected to erotic passion, as if he were the unwilling victim of a power outside his control.

The Jews have a word for this. The word is idolatry. Why novelists find such an experience dramatically compelling is beyond me. I am far less interested in Gov. Sanford’s five days of “crying in Argentina”—for that phrase alone he deserves to be banished from public life—than in what Mrs Sanford and her four children were going through. But then I am not a novelist, but only a poor literary critic. Although it would going too far to say that literature celebrates adultery, it is fair to say that only the adulterer’s viewpoint is represented in literature.

When a woman’s experience of adultery finally breaks into literature, the woman simply becomes the adulterer and enjoys the passion earlier reserved for men. Neither Madame Bovary nor Anna Karenin lifted the taboo on the grief of betrayal. When the shattering incomprehension of loss is fully dramatized, as in Graham Greene’s End of the Affair or Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children, the sufferer is the unmarried lover, not the abandoned spouse. And the effect on children is entirely absent, but then, as I have noted before, American literature (and English too) is largely a literature without children.

The only novel I can think of that admits the reader into the experience of what Denis de Rougemont calls “active love, or keeping faith,” is Janet Lewis’s chaste and lovely Wife of Martin Guerre. I have discussed Lewis’s slim novel at length. Bertrande de Rols, who is victimized by a double of her missing husband, loves deeply the man she knows as Martin Guerre, but when she becomes convinced that he is not her husband and has seduced her into adultery, her passion withers in the act of will by which she reasserts her marital commitment. The very fact that Lewis’s novel is not merely another example of propaganda on behalf of erotic passion makes it stand out from nearly every other novel ever written.

But even it is not an account of adultery from the other side. As a literary kind, the novel’s preference for the adulterer over the wife and children he has discarded like soiled rags is perhaps the best measure of its social position. Perhaps the itch to épater la bourgeoisie was of some slight social value when “decency” and “respectability” were the dissembling of political coercion by means of class, but in the postmodern world almost exactly the opposite is the case. The literary ideology of adultery is a means of control by those who dread the responsibility of keeping faith. I will never understand the fuss that my fellow conservatives kick up over gay marriage. A few homosexuals who wish to enter into monogamous relationships is not the biggest social problem facing us. The biggest social problem facing us is marriage. If a few homosexuals can restore commitment and fidelity to the institution, then I am firmly on their side, although I am skeptical that they will be any more successful than the rest of us in resisting the literary ideology of adultery.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jewish hipsters do exist—but not for long

I had not even received contributor’s copies of the July/August issue of Commentary including my essay “The Judaism Rebooters” before I was attacked for it at the triumphantly inane Tablet magazine site.

Well, not me exactly. Marissa Brostoff—watch closely, Marissa, so you can see how this is done—declined to quote me by name, for she had a bear to hunt; she attributed my phrases to the “stalwart magazine” instead. A Wesleyan graduate with “an interdisciplinary degree in history, literature, and philosophy,” Brostoff apparently does not understand the function of an intellectual Jewish monthly like Commentary, perhaps because Tablet so miserably fails at fulfilling it. As Eliot E. Cohen wrote in the editorial statement upon launching Commentary in November 1945,

It goes without saying that the best magazine in the world will not solve our problems. But we have faith that a good magazine can help—by fairness, by searching out the truth, by encouraging fresh and free-ranging thinking, by bringing to bear upon our problems the resources of science, philosophy, religion, and the arts, by seeking out authentic voices and giving them open-house in which to be heard.Cohen wrote in the shadow of the Holocaust and just six months after Germany’s surrender had put an end to the war in Europe. “With Europe devastated,” he wrote, “there falls upon us here in the United States a far greater share of the responsibility for carrying forward, in a creative way, our common Jewish cultural and spiritual heritage.”

Commentary has flourished for sixty-three years, because it has given open-house to many different and sometimes contradictory voices who uniformly accept only one thing—the responsibility of carrying forward the Jewish heritage. John Podhoretz, who became its fourth editor this year, has built upon the magazine’s success and ushered it into a new era, overseeing a design overhaul that has made it more appealing to the eye. His editorial mission is much the same as Cohen’s six decades ago. In an editorial headnote to the first issue of the magazine that he edited in full, he wrote that Commentary would continue its “singular approach to matters Jewish,” concentrating primarily on “[h]ow Jews live and the role their heritage plays in the lives they make for themselves.” It would also maintain its defense of the “traditions of Western civilization, of which the Hebrew Bible is the wellspring.” And among other things, he said, this would require “taking up polemical arms against many of the flippancies of the present moment.”

Which is where my essay on “The Judaism Rebooters” comes in. My essay is a historical description of Jewish hipsterism, a movement (as I write in my opening sentence) of “young urbanites in their twenties and early thirties whose identity consists almost entirely of the assurance that it is cool to be Jewish.” Although hipster Jews like to imagine they are engaged in a daring maneuver “to rewrite Judaism in conformity with the current fashions,” they are nothing new on the Jewish scene. Jewish hipsterism is merely the latest variety of a perennial temptation in Jewish life—the temptation to believe that Jewish culture can be divorced from the Jewish religion and then passed on in the same condition to a receptive new generation. Except that it never works out like that. Secular Jewish movements have no latter-day disciples. They die out, to be replaced by a new generation of secularists who believe they can rewrite Judaism in conformity with the current fashions without losing the divine spark that keeps it alive.

“That must be why there are no urban liberal Jews left on God’s green earth,” Brostoff scoffs, “except for the ones in this article.” Yes indeed—the Bund remains a vital and viable political outlet for young Jews, as does its rival Poalei Tziyon; Yiddish theater remains vibrant in New York City, as do other institutions of Yiddishism (Brostoff herself, described as “a veteran of the Forward,” must surely contribute to the Yiddish-language blog of the Forverts); young Jews continue to extol the study of philosophy and the natural sciences as the highest form of worshipping God, just as the early maskilim did two centuries ago. The enduring monuments of Jewish secularism are many; I just can’t think of any.

There are plenty of urban liberal Jews left on God’s green earth, but urban liberal Jews of the next generation will not be their children, because (to paraphrase the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, whom I quote to close my essay) the Jewish content that the urban liberal Jews want to transmit—or are competent—is too meager to sustain a meaningful Jewish identity. Their Jewishness is haskalah without any sekhel.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Five Books of boxing

Light blogging today, because I have been doing something with books other than reading them—building a new bookcase for myself, using the new Bosch router that my wife presented me for my birthday.

My Five Books of baseball elicited a lot of commentary, though. So I thought I’d follow up with the Five Books of my second-favorite sport—boxing. Two of the five will come to mind even for those who are indifferent to the sport. The remaining three are treats to be discovered and rolled around on the tongue, by fan and non-fan alike.

(1.) A. J. Liebling, The Sweet Science (1956). The Library of America made a regrettable mistake in binding Liebling’s classic collection of boxing essays together with his press criticism, food writing, and character study of Gov. Earl Long. A better volume would have included the essays posthumously collected by Fred Warner and James Barbour in A Neutral Corner (1990). Anyone who reads Liebling on boxing is converted to Liebling or the sport or both. “Ahab and Nemesis,” his account of Rocky Marciano’s heavyweight title defense against light-heavy champion Archie Moore, has the taste and consistency of a good French sauce—the perfect blend of literary sophistication, inside knowledge, and an appreciation for a great man (Moore) and greater fighter (Marciano). This is Liebling at the top of his game, but anything he ever wrote about boxing is worth tracking down and reading without waiting.

(2.) W. C. Heinz, The Professional (1958). Like Liebling, Heinz was a reporter who prided himself on understanding the sport from the inside, and that includes the seamier side, including crooked managers and mob control of purses and crowns. The firsthand knowledge wards off the romantic virus that infects so much baseball fiction. Eddie Brown is a middleweight contender, and Heinz tells the story of his quest for the title without ornamentation or lyricism. Although the prose is stripped down to names, places, and straightforward dialogue—just like Hemingway said it should be—his style could hardly be described as “hard-boiled.” Heinz does not pretend to hardness and disillusionment; he lets his characters achieve them.

(3.) Leonard Gardner, Fat City (1969). The novel everyone expects to be on the list. Denis Johnson testifies to his love for the novel in words that I cannot hope to rival. All I can add is that I first read the novel a couple of years after it came out at Raymond Carver’s urging, and suddenly I saw Carver’s own fiction in a new light. If Gardner had gone on to write more fiction, Carver would not have needed to. Fat City is set among the underclass of boxing—the dead-end club fighters who never dream of glory because they don’t have enough time to dream. Robert Ryan created the role, so to speak, in Robert Wise’s 1949 film The Set-Up. John Huston’s 1972 film of Gardner’s novel, with Stacy Keach unforgettable as Tully, is less about boxing than the underworld the boxers inhabit. But it is brilliant nevertheless.

(4.) Hugh McIlvanney, The Hardest Game (1996). McIlvanney covered boxing for the Sunday Times for thirty years. His collection of fight reports opens with an essay that must be read by any hysteric who calls for boxing’s abolition. Boxing is a risky game, he acknowledges, but the risks, which every boxer knows too well, are central to the sport’s appeal. “[I]f the game loses its rawness,” McIlvanney writes, “it is nothing. If it ever became a kind of fencing with fists, a mere trial of skills, reflexes and agility, and not the test of courage, will and resilience that it is now, then it would lose its appeal for many who are neither sadists nor seekers after the trappings of virility.” The rest of the book abundantly demonstrates his case that boxing is a test of courage, will, and resilience. Yet the book also contains a sad account of the death of Welsh bantamweight Johnny Owen, who never regained consciousness after being knocked out by Lupe Pintor in September 1980. McIlvanney reminds me that you can judge a boxing writer by the fighter he admires most. For him it is Joe Frazier.

(5.) George MacDonald Fraser, Black Ajax (1997). A historical novel, not part of the Flashman series, although Flashman makes his appearance as a fan, about the early nineteenth-century bare-knuckle heavyweight Tom Molineaux, an ex-slave who fought in England. Fraser tells the story of Molineaux’s last fight, when the former great is aging, a mere shell of his former self, and near death. He uses the technique of multiple and shifting points-of-view, as if taking testimony at an inquest, to great effect. And as always with Fraser, the historical reenactment is exacting and persuasive. A tragic story about an impossibly brave man, whom history afforded no other means to display his courage—as is true of so many boxers—than in the four-cornered ring.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Five Books of baseball

(1.) John R. Tunis, The Kid from Tomkinsville (1940). Roy Tucker, a rookie pitcher who wins fifteen straight for the Brooklyn Dodgers, suffers an injury that leaves him unable to pitch again, but painfully works his way back to the majors as a .300-hitting outfielder. In a famous passage in American Pastoral, Philip Roth calls it “simply written, stiff in places but direct and dignified,” about the game of baseball back before it was “illuminated with a million statistics, back when it was about the mysteries of earthly fate. . . .” He also says that it is “gripping to boys”—it is a boys’ book—but grownup men will read it with surreptitious absorption.

(2.) Mark Harris, The Southpaw (1953). Some readers prefer Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), which served as the basis of the best baseball movie of all time, but the sequel is even better after reading the original Henry Wiggen novel. A small-town rookie lefthander makes it to the Bigs—and in New York to boot! He “don’t speak the King’s English,” Harris wrote in a later preface, “nor the Queen’s neither.” And half the fun is the book’s language. Although a comedy, it is a surprisingly exciting account of a tight pennant race: a combination that almost no baseball books are able to bring off.

(3.) Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It (1966). An oral history, although you would swear it isn’t. Ritter, an economics professor, interviewed twenty-two ballplayers who appeared in the majors between 1898 and 1946, and then edited the transcripts—lightly, he says in the preface. From the first paragraph what strikes you is the style of the players’ conversation. Here is Rube Marquand, opening the book: “My nickname what it is, you probably automatically assume I must have been a country boy. That’s what most people figure. But it’s not so. Fact is, my father was the Chief Engineer of the city of Cleveland, and that’s where I was born and raised.”

(4.) Philip F. O’Connor, Stealing Home (1979). No connection whatever to the Jodie Foster movie of the same title. O’Connor’s novel is about Little League. That’s right. Little League. The theme is now familiar: a man turns his life around by coaching a team of boys. (Hoosiers was not filmed until seven years later.) Even so, the treatment remains fresh, because O’Connor was the first, and because he does not sentimentalize it. More amazingly yet, his game accounts are unexpectedly heart-pounding. The novel is set in a small city south of Toledo, hardly the center of the American literary universe, and the main character is a longtime Mud Hens’ fan.

(5.) The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (1988; new ed., 2001). James is the one who is always blamed when those who are more interested in baseball mythology complain that the game is being buried under a million statistics. As I have tried to explain, James is a dedicated myth-buster who seeks to study baseball as if it were as important as any other human activity. What is rarely understood about him is that he is primarily a writer, and a good one. He excels at the brief sketch. Perhaps his best-known comment is what he wrote about Danny Ainge, who tried to play second and third base for the Toronto Blue Jays (1979–’81), after starring as a point guard on the Brigham Young University basketball team. James’s evaluation of Ainge’s promise as a ballplayer? “Dribble, dribble.” The Abstract is full of quirky information, and quirkier writing, and is endlessly fascinating for the true baseball fan. It’s a good introduction to the game for new fans too.

No such list would be complete without naming the worst baseball book of all time. Hands down it is Michael Chabon’s Summerland (2002). Permit me to quote from my own essay on Chabon: “In an interview with Salon, Chabon explains that he wanted to ‘get at baseball’ through this novel, but he fails because for him baseball is merely an occasion for lyricism. He quotes a sentence from Summerland that his daughter pronounced ‘nice’ when he read it aloud: ‘A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.’ No, it isn’t, any more than cream cheese is a ready smooth device for measuring the contours of a bagel.”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

On being a father

To recognize the day I wanted to reel off the Five Books of fatherhood, but I came up nearly empty. There just are not five books—at least not five books about good fathers. If I’d wanted to canonize the twentieth-century literature of bad fathers, ranging loosely from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) to “Daddy” (1962), Sylvia Plath’s appalling triumph of self-pity and self-aggrandizement, I could have kept banging away at it all day and still not have compiled an exhaustive list.

But books about good fathers? Far less common, and almost unheard of when written from a father’s perspective. The book everyone thinks of is To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel’s last words offer a strong and memorable image of the good father. After Bob Ewell injures Jem in an assault, Atticus Finch puts his son to bed: “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” So important are these words to finishing the portrait of Atticus that Robert Mulligan also ends his 1962 film with them, spoken in voiceover by ten-year-old Mary Badham, who played Scout. Challenged to name a father in literature to rival Atticus Finch, though, most people can’t. At least my wife couldn’t. And the best I could come up with was The Chosen, in which the critical scholar David Malter and the Hasidic rabbi Isaac Saunders are both good fathers in their own ways. Indeed, The Chosen popularized the cultural practice among the Modern Orthodox, now widespread, of children’s calling their father “Abba” (Hebrew for Daddy).

Neither of these books is written from a father’s perspective, however. Scout is Harper Lee’s narrator, and her father is recollected in tranquility. Chaim Potok’s focus is on the sons. Don’t get me wrong. Most fathers would prefer to be known through their children. But the experience of fatherhood almost never makes it into the pages of literature. A notable exception is John Williams’s classic Stoner (1965), which I listed among the Five Books of professors. Williams explicitly connects his experience as a father to Stoner’s literary scholarship, suggesting that the two activities demand the same moral qualities—patience, concentration, responsibility, self-effacement, renunciation, authority, and a willingness to let someone else (a child, the author of a literary text) speak for himself.

The best novel ever written about fatherhood, though, is not even written about a father. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is probably the least read of George Orwell’s books. It was not even published in the U.S. until twenty years after the English edition, and then only because of the huge popular success achieved by Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Orwell began his third novel when he was thirty-two and finished it almost exactly a year before he traveled to Spain to cover the Civil War and gather material for his first “major” work, Homage to Catalonia (1938). Critics have consistently misread and undervalued the earlier novel. They describe it as a thematic preview of the conformist ’fifties, a warning about the threat posed by middle-class respectability to individual freedom, a confession of the inner turmoils and obsessive fears of a young novelist struggling to support himself by literature.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is none of these. It is a satire of the literary life, or at least the romantic conception of that life secretly banked up in every sad young literary man’s heart. Gordon Comstock is twenty-nine and “rather moth-eaten already.” On the strength of his first book of poetry (TLS said that Mice “showed exceptional promise”), he has chucked over a post as a copywriter for an advertising agency and signed on as a clerk in a used bookshop. The plan was to give himself the time and freedom to write London Pleasures, “two thousand lines or so, in rhyme royal, describing a day in London.” But what Gordon had not counted upon—what most young writers, dreaming of poetic glory, do not count upon—was money:

Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club. With the same instinct that makes a child waggle a loose tooth, he took out [from the shelves of McKechnie’s bookshop, where he works] a snooty-looking volume—Some Aspects of the Italian Baroque—opened it, read a paragraph and shoved it back with mingled loathing and envy. That devastating omniscience! That noxious, horn-spectacled refinement! And the money that such refinement means! For after all, what is there behind it, except money? Money for the right kind of education, money for influential friends, money for leisure and peace of mind, money for trips to Italy. Money writes books, money sells them. Give me not righteousness, O Lord, give me money, only money.This bitterness makes up his mind and determines his actions, even toward Rosemary Waterlow, “his girl, who loved him—adored him, so she said.” Gordon has declared war on “the money-god and all his swinish priesthood.” For behind the desolation, emptiness, and secret despair of the modern world stands the worship of money. Gordon will not consider anything that smacks of entering the money-god’s service, including anything that might provide the secure economic foundation of a future with Rosemary. The fault lies with money, not with him: “because he had no money Rosemary wouldn’t sleep with him. Social failure, artistic failure, sexual failure—they are all the same. And lack of money is at the bottom of them all.” The lack of money, Gordon is convinced, has even “robbed him of the power to ‘write.’ ”

Gordon struggles to stay afloat financially, but only sinks deeper into the “slime of poverty.” He behaves atrociously and alienates most of his friends, but Rosemary stands by him for some reason that he cannot fathom. The sale of a poem to the Californian Review for fifty dollars bankrolls a night on the town, which ends with Gordon, drunk on chianti, shoving Rosemary back against a wall and thrusting his hand down the front of her dress. “You’re going to bed with me,” he commands her, but she flees from him instead. He fancies that he is a “damned soul in hell.” He latches on to a prostitute, who steals the last of his money after he blacks out. He awakens the next morning in a police cell. He loses his job, his lodgings, and what little is left of his dignity.

When she learns what has befallen him, Rosemary returns to Gordon—with some advice. Why not go back to the advertising firm, where he has a standing job offer? Gordon is aghast: “Go back to the New Albion! It had been the sole significant action of his life, leaving the New Albion. It was his religion, you might say, to keep out of that filthy money-world.” Rosemary does not understand his scruples, but accepts them because they are his. “You’re letting yourself go to pieces,” she says. “You don’t seem to want to make any effort. You want to sink—just sink!” “I don’t know,” Gordon replies—“perhaps. I’d sooner sink than rise.” He longs to sink “down, down into quiet worlds where money and effort and moral obligation did not exist.” There at least he would enjoy freedom: “No more blackmail to the gods of decency!”

Perhaps because she pities him, perhaps because she is finally prepared to admit that their romance is doomed, Rosemary goes to bed with Gordon at last. And a most awful thing happens (the words are hers). She gets pregnant. When the news is delivered, Gordon feels nothing except dismay: “He did not think of the baby as a living creature; it was a disaster pure and simple.” He is resigned to marrying her; there is no alternative, he says. But of course there is, and Rosemary reminds him what it is. She could have an abortion:That pulled him up. For the first time he grasped, with the only kind of knowledge that matters, what they were really talking about. The words “a baby” took on a new significance. They did not mean any longer a mere abstract disaster, they meant a bud of flesh, a bit of himself, down there in her belly, alive and growing. His eyes met hers. They had a strange moment of sympathy such as they had never had before. For a moment he did feel in some mysterious way they were one flesh. Though they were feet apart he felt as though they were joined together—as though some invisible living cord stretched from her entrails to his. He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating—a blasphemy, if that word had any meaning.That pulled him up. Gordon marries the mother-to-be of his child, takes the job at the New Albion, where he creates a successful ad campaign for foot deodorant, and even buys an aspidistra, the symbol he had long derided of “mingy lower-middle class decency,” installing it in the front window of their apartment for all the world to see. Although he tells himself wryly that his “long and lonely war [against the money-god] had ended in ignominious defeat,” he ends the novel on his knees, his head pressed against the softness of Rosemary’s belly, listening for the sounds of their child. The posture is significant, because Gordon has been converted to a new religion, and as the Christians say, he is a new man.

Becoming a father pulls a man up, up into the noisy world where money-earning and effort and moral obligation make him a man. No one has recorded the miracle better than Orwell in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. It should be on every man’s reading list for Father’s Day—to remind him, if nothing else, of what his own father had to become to become his father.

I love you, Dad.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hidden influence of anthologies

Yesterday Buce took up Terry Teachout’s challenge to name fifteen mind-forming books in fifteen minutes. The most striking entry on his list, for my money, was The Portable Faulkner, originally published in 1946. Malcolm Cowley’s selection may have done more than any of Faulkner’s own book-length volumes to establish the writer’s reputation. As Caroline Gordon wrote in her New York Times review, Cowley edited the Portable to demonstrate that “all the books in the [Faulkner] saga are parts of the same living pattern.” After sampling the abridged version, most readers—including Buce and me, for the Portable was my introduction to Faulkner too—went on to explore the entire saga.

Anthologies exercise a far more profound influence upon the formation of our minds than we are prepared to acknowledge. We rarely think to give them any credit because we rarely conceive of them as books. They lead us to books, and then they are discarded.

Thus I compile my intellectual autobiography and honor the writers who built up my mind, such as it is. But it never occurs to me that I first encountered many of those writers between the covers of an anthology. Michael Oakeshott, for example, whose modal logic changed for all time how I think of human knowledge, was a writer whom I discovered in another of the portable anthologies published by the Viking Press—Russell Kirk’s Portable Conservative Reader (1982). The same goes for Levinas. Not only did I first read him in some anthology or other of literary theory. But what is more, the book title that I included on my list of fifteen books in fifteen minutes was a portable volume in all but title (Seán Hand’s Levinas Reader [1989], although I tried to distance myself from the anthological shame of not being able to name one of Levinas’s own books).

In an article written for the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1954) and never reprinted, J. V. Cunningham remarks upon the “enduring popularity of this long-established form which serves as a convenient and adaptable framework into which can be fitted a variety of material.” A few anthologies, he goes on to point out, have even achieved “considerable literary significance in themselves, an example being Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), in which were published for the first time the major poems of Sir Thomas Wyat and Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey. . . .”

The most famous example, of course, is the Greek Anthology, dating from ca. 700 B.C.E. to 1000 C.E. As Cunningham says, “[I]t illustrates the continuity of Greek letters for almost 2,000 years, since the works of the latest period are in language, style and feeling not too distinct from the works of the earliest; and it has had a persistent and considerable influence on later literature.” The same might be said, to take much later examples from another country, of The Best American Short Stories, published annually since 1915, or the annual volume of O. Henry Award-winning stories, published since 1919. These (or anthologies modeled upon them) are likely to be the first story collections ever encountered by young students of creative writing. Indeed, Raymond Carver assigned Short Stories from the Literary Magazines (1970), including a more voluble version of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” before Gordon Lish got his blue pencil on it, when I took creative writing from him during my sophomore year at Santa Cruz.

“The typical modern anthology in the sense of a collection of poems of a given period or nation selected for their excellence and representativeness seems to be an invention of the Latin Renaissance,” Cunningham says. The nineteenth-century introduced the innovation of arranging the texts in chronological order. Some students of literature know the subject only in this form. The Norton anthologies have much to answer for. The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990), which sought to substitute a multicultural glop for the standard roster of dead white males, only succeeded in prodding Norton to revise its anthologies to include more “minority voices.”

But that is not the only reason that I refuse to assign anthologies when I teach survey courses in American literature. The more significant reason is that few writers conceive of their texts as anthology pieces. And even if an entire novel is included, its structural integrity—its hope to stand on its own—is sacrificed to the dimensions of a much larger volume. Besides, anthologies are ugly, expensive, and awkward to read. As I tell my students, one of my purposes is to assist them in acquiring the rudiments of a library. And no one displays his college anthologies proudly on his shelves in later years.

There is, however, at least one good word to be said on behalf of anthologies. Some texts, mere slips of paper, like an epigram, or a squib by a writer who wrote nothing else worth saving, or nothing else at all, would be lost forever unless preserved there. Sir Henry Wotton’s epitaph “Upon the Death of Sir Albert Morton’s Wife” is an example of one such text.

But I am thinking especially of anthologies of literature from the Holocaust. In fact, the Oyneg Shabbes Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, the collective activity to record every possible aspect of Jewish life under the Nazis (“to grasp an event at the moment it happened,” as its director Emanuel Ringelblum said), might be described as a massive participatory anthology. The archive was hidden from the Nazis, buried in the rubble of the ghetto and only dug up after the war, in order that “no important fact about Jewish life in wartime shall remain hidden from the world,” Ringelblum wrote. (For an impressive account of the illegal archive see Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007].)

Brilliant writers like Peretz Opoczynski and Chaim Kaplan and lesser writers like Shimon Huberband, Nehemia Titelman, Yehiel Gorny, Nathan Koninski, Estera Karasiówna, Jerzy Winkler, and Hirsh Berlinski were rescued from oblivion and can still be read because of the anthological fury of Jews who refused to grant Hitler a posthumous victory, who believed (in Ringelblum’s words) that “the work was too sacred” and the “social function of O[yneg] S[habbes] too important for the project to be discontinued.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

15 books in 15 minutes

Via his co-blogger Carrie Frye, Terry Teachout passes on this quick game. Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Slight revision proposed: instead of the future tense (books that will always stick with you), use the past perfect. Name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.

Here goes:

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet
Philip Roth, American Pastoral
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Francine Prose, Blue Angel
Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre
J. V. Cunningham, The Collected Essays
—————, Collected Poems and Epigrams
Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes
Emmanuel Levinas, essays including “Ethics As First Philosophy” and “Art and Its Shadow” (both included in Seán Hand’s Levinas Reader)
Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith
Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World

Except perhaps for de Rougemont, not a single work of criticism comes to mind. In college I wrote under the spell of Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, but by the time I graduated I preferred the earlier essays in An End to Innocence. (A post title from yesterday alluded to that book.) The earlier Fiedler led me to the New York intellectuals, of whom I have been a distant relation ever since.

Update, I: J. V. Cunningham did not classify his essays as literary criticism but as philology. I accept his self-designation.

Update, II: Patrick Kurp joins in the fun, accepting my stipulation. (May the LORD bless thee and keep thee.) “This makes [the game] more interesting than so pallid a criterion as ‘favorite’ or ‘best,’ ” he says, implicitly cold-shouldering our earlier collaboration in drawing up a list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998, which brought us so much opprobrium. At any rate, Kurp’s list is more diverse and wide-ranging than mine, including only two works of fiction—and those by a Russian and an Australian!

“If such a list constitutes a Rorschach test,” he asks, “what have I learned?” This is a question I neglected to ask myself. I believe, though, that I can pinpoint the exact influence of each book on my list. I owe my personal happiness to de Rougemont, for instance, who permanently altered my conception of marriage. Orwell taught me to recognize the true ambition and threat of totalitarian regimes. Not merely do they seek to assume total power, but also to take control of their subjects’ minds. After the “election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian government moved quickly to disable Twitter and prevent blogging.

Update, III: Over at National Review Online’s Corner, Jonah Goldberg quotes the views on an internet expert about the problem of restoring heavy-volume traffic to Iran. Goldberg also has a striking graph, displaying how internet traffic in that country fell off a cliff on the night of June 13.

Winton wins Miles Franklin

For the fourth time. Australia’s leading literary award went to Tim Winton, whose surfing novel Breath manages the rare feat of being both exciting and contemplative.

In recent days it had been suggested that Christos Tsiolkas had overtaken Winton as the favorite after his novel The Slap won the Commonwealth Prize. In the end, as rarely occurs with literary prizes, the better novel won.

In an interview, Winton described Breath as being about people who have “no moral compass about the consequences of living.”

“We live this bizarre abstract life,” he went on to say. “We think someone can come in with therapy or analgesia, that can relieve us of the consequences, and it’s about not taking the flesh seriously, as though there’s no discomfort in corporeal existence, as though someone—your mum, the state or your lawyer—will fix you up.”

Winton also took home the award in 1984 for Shallows, 1992 for Cloudstreet, and 2002 for Dirt Music. The last two are his best-known books, but as I said in my review of it, Breath is a good introduction to his body of work. Perhaps now Winton win begin to receive the attention he deserves from American critics and readers.

Update: Stephen Romei has invited an “in-depth discussion of Winton’s work. Tell me if you love him, and why,” he blegs his readers. “Tell me if you think he’s overrated, and why. Tell me which of his novels are your favourites.” Romei prefers the earlier novels.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An end to readings

In an article reprinted from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the literary scholar Mark Edmundson (Department of English, University of Virginia) wishes for a one-to-five-year moratorium on readings. You know, “the application of an analytical vocabulary—Karl Marx’s, Sigmund Freud’s, Michel Foucault’s, Jacques Derrida’s or whoever’s—to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art.”

By “judge,” however, Edmundson does not mean evaluate. “[T]o enact a reading means to submit one text to the terms of another,” he says; “to allow one text to interrogate another, then often to try, sentence and summarily execute it.” But the industrial-scale practice of academic reinterpretation is far worse than that. It pumps out a uniform (and substandard) product. You read a different book every day, and cuddle up with the same meanings every night. For there is nothing wrong with interrogation as such. What is wrong is interrogating only some texts, and never those by the currently dominant authorities, whose word is gospel.

Although he acknowledges that the well-quoted source for an academic reinterpretation is always “assumed to be a superior figure,” Edmundson misses altogether the category mistake that is involved with “applying an alternative set of terms” to a text as if it were a coat of lacquer. The problem is that, even if the vocabulary was originally “analytical” (itself a dubious assumption), its use in academic reinterpretation is not. The theoretical text, whether by Homi K. Bhabha, Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek, or whoever else is currently hip, is treated as the primary text, the literary text, set apart from probative inquiry, and the canonical work ostensibly under discussion becomes merely the occasion for aesthetic appreciation of the theorist.

Now, Edmundson says that his objection is not to “theoretical texts themselves. If a fellow professor thinks Marx or Foucault or Kristeva provides a contribution to the best that has been thought and said,” he concedes, “then by all means read and study the text.” But it is not at all clear what Edmundson intends by the phrase read and study. Theoretical texts require an approach that is different in kind from fiction, because they go about building their case in an entirely different way. The question of validity—or, God forbid, truth—can never be held in abeyance while reading a theoretical text.

The literary question, as I have said again and again, always comes down to the question of how good a text is. Or, if you prefer, how plausible it is. (Plausibility is a special category of success in writing fiction.) You do not read a novel to discover the truth about the world. You read a novel, as Hilary Putnam says, to discover what the world would look like if the novelist’s vision were true. And you can do that if and only if the novel is good enough to persuade you that it might be true.

Edmundson’s prescription for an end to readings is vague:

We need to befriend the texts we choose to teach. They, too, are the testaments of human beings who have lived and suffered in the world. They, too, deserve honor and respect. If you have a friend whose every significant utterance you need to translate into another idiom—whose two is not the real two, as Emerson says—then that is a friend you need to jettison. If there are texts you cannot befriend, leave them to the worms of time or to the kinder ministrations of others.But you do not need to befriend another human being to respect his utterance as having its own integrity and meaning—as not being yours. Or Derrida’s or Judith Butler’s, for that matter.

Once upon a time I wrote a long essay in which I set out an ethics of interpretation. In short, I argued that, since a literary text is a human event and not the product of unseen forces, it demands an ethical response that must precede interpretation and serve as its basis. In reading literary texts, I wrote, a critic must act upon “the assumption that events (including exchanges between human beings) demand a response which is neither arbitrary nor predetermined, but self-willed and adjusted to circumstance; that human events are not signs to be deciphered, but occasions to be respected.”

All well and good, but I described that ethic ten years ago. While I am smug enough to believe that my account is less vague than Edmundson’s, it is vague enough to provide small guidance to young critics and scholars. Perhaps it is time to be a little more concrete.

Instead of joining the assembly line of academic reinterpretation—the reinterpretation of the same familiar canonical texts, over and over—perhaps critics might return to the difficult and time-consuming work of sorting through the English-language texts of the past fifty years, deciding which are worth keeping, which should be permitted to sink into oblivion. Perhaps scholars might return to the pleasures of narrative literary history, widely honored at present, but rarely pursued—including the history of magazines, publishing houses, “schools” or “groups” of writers, literary styles and genres.

Perhaps what is needed is not to befriend literary texts, insisting even then upon elbowing our way into a conversation already in progress, but to understand where the text stands, what other texts it is in dialogue with, why it assumes the form it has taken, how it understands itself. Perhaps it needs to be treated as any other new acquaintance that we make—as having a life, including a place in a culture, that is foreign to ours.

We need to return to the strangeness of literary texts.

Update: Stupidly left off a tip of the hat to the Elegant Variation. I apologize, Mark.

Five Books of professors

(1.) Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925). Critics complain that the middle section, and the whole two-stories-in-one approach, does not work. Maybe so. But the first and last sections of the novel—a portrait of Godfrey St. Peter, author of an eight-volume history of the Spanish in America and professor at a small Midwestern university—is a study in the loneliness of scholarship and a spirited defense of the liberal arts, or what Cather calls “purely cultural studies.” She admired scholars deeply. Her earlier sketch of the classicist Gaston Cleric, whose lectures on Vergil’s Georgics supply Jim Burden with the exemplar and theme for My Ántonia, was a marvelous warmup for this more lingering and loving examination of the scholar’s life. The novel might have been called A Man of Fifty Looks at the World, Cather suggested—because she believed that a scholar has a unique way of looking.

(2.) May Sarton, Faithful Are the Wounds (1955). Based on the American literary scholar F. O. Matthiessen. A brilliant Harvard professor is abandoned by friends who break ranks with the radical Left. When his colleagues refuse to protest the firing elsewhere of a scholar who had campaigned publicly for a political liberal, Edward Cavan commits suicide. The effect upon his ex-friends, who must examine their consciences and reexamine their beliefs, is profound and lasting. So is Sarton’s prose. A better way to memorialize the book’s model than with the F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality at Harvard.

(3.) Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (1957). His next novel after Lolita, and in my opinion, his second best. Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, assistant professor of Russian at Waindell College (pronounced Vandal by Pnin), is a figure of ridicule in his tight tweed jacket and bright red socks, his wrestler’s torso balanced on spindly legs, butchering English with misapplied slang and laughing helplessly at private jokes. Beneath the absurdity, however, is the sad story of a political refugee from pre-Revolutionary Russia whose true love died in Buchenwald. That Nabokov resembles Pnin in crucial respects, as he did not resemble Humbert Humbert, only increases your admiration for the balance of lampoon and pathos that the novel successfully strikes.

(4.) John Williams, Stoner (1965). Based on the life of J. V. Cunningham and especially his disastrous marriage to Barbara Gibbs. Easily the best novel ever written about the determined renunciations and quiet joys of the scholarly life. Stoner suffers reversal after reversal—a bad marriage, persecution at the hands of his department chair, the forced breakup of a brief and fulfilling love affair with a younger scholar—but he endures because of two things: his love for his daughter, who wants nothing more than to spend time with her father while he writes his scholarship, and his work on the English Renaissance. His end is tragic, but Stoner does not experience it that way. A genuinely unforgettable reading experience.

(5.) John Cheever, Falconer (1977). A professor in the least likely of settings. Ezekiel Farragut, 48, has attained sufficient prestige to have been invited to a symposium at the White House. But he is also a heroin addict who has been sentenced to prison for the murder of his brother Eben, whom he bludgeoned to death with a fire iron. The prison is the Falconer of the title. Like his namesake, Farragut becomes the prophet of this punishing exile. His learning is small defense against the brutality he encounters, and yet, through it all, Cheever’s prose retains its quality of iridescence.

In preparing this list, I ran across a novel by Theodore Weesner, whose 1972 novel The Car Thief was named by Patrick Kurp and me as one of the best American works of fiction in the thirty-year period from 1968 to 1998. Weesner’s Novemberfest (1994), which I haven’t read, sounds enticing. It is the story of a German professor whose life is repeatedly influenced by events in German history, including the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. (That’s what the title refers to, incidentally.) At one point, Weesner explicitly invokes Death in Venice, suggesting that he is trying to do for the university what Mann did for that beautiful and storied city. I’ve got to read Novemberfest.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Censorship’s last gasp

The microchip and the birth-control pill were introduced fifty years ago, and a new age dawned. So says a new book reviewed by Edward Kosner in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Fidel Castro grabbed power in Cuba, the first U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam, the Los Angeles Dodgers became the first West Coast team to win a major sports title, Motown Records was founded, and the American automobile market was vouchsafed a glimpse of the future when the Ford Motor Company put the Edsel out of its misery while Toyotas and Datsuns first appeared on these shores—Fred Kaplan’s 1959: The Year Everything Changed defends its subtitle by narrating the remarkable confluence of events.

Despite Philip Roth’s debut with Goodbye, Columbus, and despite the release of new books by Bellow (Henderson the Rain King) and Nabokov (Invitation to a Beheading), the year’s main literary event was not the publication of a new book. The event that changed everything was the campaign by Arthur E. Summerfield, President Eisenhower’s postmaster general, to prohibit Lady Chatterley’s Lover from being mailed anywhere in the U.S. Summerfield’s failure was the last gasp of censorship in America. Although the federal government tried again two years later to ban Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the effort was half-hearted and lasted all of four days. Forever after, the threat of censorship would be a hyperventilating accusation leveled against political opponents with no force of reality behind it at all.

In March 1959, Grove Press announced that it would issue an unabridged and unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, edited from an autograph text by the literary critic Mark Schorer, in an edition of 10,000. In his New York Times review, Harry T. Moore called the book “our century’s greatest romance.” Lawrence believed that the liberal use of four-letter words was therapeutic, Moore explained. Almost immediately the authorities began making ominous noises. The chief of the vice squad in Washington, D.C., said that he had got ahold of an advanced copy to see whether it was fit to be read by residents of the nation’s capital. If he decided that the novel was obscene, local bookstores would have twenty-four hours to pull it from their shelves.

To force the issue, Grove Press deposited 164 copies at the New York post office in late May to be shipped off to booksellers. Postal officials promptly seized them. On June 11th, Summerfield ruled that the new edition could not be mailed. A former chairman of the Republican National Committee who had made his fortune as a GM dealer in Michigan, Summerfield determined that “taken as a whole,” Lawrence’s novel is “an obscene and filthy work.” Any literary merit it might have is “far outweighed by the pornographic and smutty passages and words,” he said. “The book is replete with descriptions in minute detail of sexual acts engaged in or discussed by the book’s principal characters.”

Summerfield relied upon a two-year-old Supreme Court decision by Justice William J. Brennan, who had held in Roth v. United States that the test of obscenity—what became known as the Roth test—is “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interests.” After reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover for himself, Summerfield decided that it did. “The contemporary community standards are not such that this book should be allowed to be transmitted in the mails,” he said in a formal opinion.

“One cannot wholly condemn Mr. Summerfield’s concern for American morality,” Harry Golden wrote in the Carolina Israelite. “He feels if people read about men and women sleeping together, they might be inspired to sleep together, too. This is an idea that the Postmaster General would like to keep out of American life.” The consequences of his decision were no laughing matter, however. Within days, the airport director at Washington National, a facility run by the Federal Aviation Agency, removed Lady Chatterley’s Lover from the bookshop concession.

Meanwhile, the “authorized” and “unemasculated” version of Lawrence’s novel, as Grove called it, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list in the ninth position, trailing Exodus, Doctor Zhivago, The Ugly American, Taylor Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician, and Lolita, still selling briskly a year after its publication under the mainstream Putnam imprint. A week later, Lady Chatterley’s Lover had climbed to just behind the five front-runners.

On the advice of counsel, however, the Times declined to carry any advertising for the novel, worrying that its mailing privileges might be endangered. Barney Rosset, the owner of Grove Press, was “shocked and dismayed,” accusing the paper of lacking the courage of its convictions. In an editorial published fifty years ago today, the Times had abused Summerfield’s ban, arguing that “there could hardly be a poorer occasion for the Postmaster General to exercise his power.” Since the book was being sold freely in bookstores around the country—except, of course, at Washington National Airport—Summerfield was “protecting no one by a foolish gesture that must in the end be upset by the courts,” the editors wrote.

Indeed, Summerfield’s ban was widely scorned—not that it required much courage to scorn it. Robert R. Kirsch, the Los Angeles Times book critic, said the ban “makes about as much sense as the post-Restoration hanging of the bones of Oliver Cromwell. It is a gesture devoid of intelligence or understanding.” Malcolm Cowley scoffed that first-time readers of Lawrence’s novel would find “not a word in the book that had not been printed in American novels (nor an idea, one might add, that was not being expounded by marriage counsellors).” Archibald MacLeish, the poet and former librarian of Congress then serving as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, was grandiloquent in conclusion: “Only those to whom words can be impure per se, or those to whom ‘certain subjects’ cannot be mentioned in print though they are constantly mentioned in life, or those to whom the fundamental and moving facts of human experience are ‘nasty,’ could conclude on the evidence of the text itself that Lady Chatterley’s Lover, as Lawrence wrote it, is obscene.”

And just as the Times predicted, Summerfield’s ban was overturned in court. In late July, Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan, who had been appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by President Eisenhower three years earlier, ruled the ban “illegal and void,” holding that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene. Moreover, he called into question the postmaster general’s power “to determine whether a book is obscene.” Judge Bryan went on to praise Lawrence’s novel (“The book is replete with fine writing and with descriptive passages of rare beauty,” he said. “There is no doubt of its literary merit”). But though it closed with a ringing endorsement of the First Amendment, which even at the time was beginning to sound like a formality, Bryan’s ruling was most noteworthy for placing limitations on the government’s power to censor literature:

No doubt the Postmaster General has . . . qualifications on many questions involving the administration of the Post Office Department, the handling of the mails, postal rates and other matters. But he has no special competence to determine what constitutes obscenity within the meaning of Section 1461. . . . The determination of such questions is peculiarly for the courts, particularly in light of the constitutional questions implicit in each case.And with that, the post office ceased to be an effective mechanism for censoring any kind of printed materials.

Not that the government yielded without a fight. U.S. Attorney S. Hazard Gillespie Jr. appealed Judge Bryan’s ruling to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. “We are not here to argue the obscenity or non-obscenity of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” he said. Instead, the U.S. argued that “[t]here is no justification in law for the substitution of [the court’s] view for that of the Postmaster General.” In the mean time, reprints of a Protestant churchman’s attack upon Lady Chatterley’s Lover were express-shipped to every postmaster in the country with instructions to display it prominently. And in December, confident that Judge Bryan’s curtailment of his authority would be overturned, Summerfield created a nine-member Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Literature to provide advice “where questions of obscenity arise.”

Three months later, the government’s appeal was rejected. Summerfield vowed to press on to the Supreme Court. The decision of the appeals court “must be highly revolting to mothers and fathers and unbelievable to countless members of religious and civic organizations dedicated to high standards of decency,” he said. By June 1960, though—one year after the ban was first promulgated—the Justice Department decided not to ask the Supreme Court to reinstate it. Government lawyers did not believe that the post office fight against Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a Supreme Court case, and the general opinion among them was that the novel just was not obscene.

Since then, the U.S. has never made another serious attempt to ban a work of literature. On the Left, though, the bogey of censorship will not die. Only a year and a half ago, Ohio State University boasted that communications professor Andrew Hayes was studying the response to “to the U.S. government's attempts to censor” photos of caskets arriving in the United States from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan:The researchers said that, in the strictest sense of the word, the Bush administration policy is not censorship. All the policy does is limit the access of journalists to locations where caskets can be photographed when the remains of soldiers are brought to the United States. Publication of photos is not prohibited or punished. However, restricting access to places where the photos can be taken has the same effect as censorship, in that it limits the dissemination of information to the public, Hayes said. [emphasis added]A distinction without a difference, in other words. Only the government can impose censorship, because only the government enjoys a monopoly of force. The effect of censorship, however, can be enjoyed by anyone. Such is the impoverished conception of it in a country that last sought to practice official government censorship half a century ago.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The ideal of the gentleman

On his lunch break, Patrick Kurp has been reading Shirley Robin Letwin’s philosophical study of The Gentleman in Trollope (1982). “[T]he morality of a gentleman offers a more complete and coherent understanding of a human condition than any other known to me,” Letwin writes in her preface.

The gentleman appeals to Letwin because he represents an ideal of morality that is not easily reduced to rules. It is not an abstract or theoretical ideal. It cannot be written down in black and white. And as Cardinal Newman made clear in On the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852), his morality is nearly indistinguishable from his good manners: “The true gentleman . . . carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast—all clashing of opin­ion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at his ease and at home.” The gentlemanly ideal—for Newman, never inflicting pain—is not the product of a self-consistent ethical system at all. It is a literary construction, and as such represents one of the great triumphs of English literature.

If the OED is to be believed, the word gentleman had ceased to refer strictly to a man belonging to a family with social position and had come to be extended to his qualities as early as the late fourteenth century. Chaucer is the quoted source, but perhaps the best account is given two-and-a-half centuries later by Walton in The Compleat Angler. On the first day, Piscator sets out to praise angling—first for its antiquity, although it need not claim an ancient origin “to be, like virtue, a reward to itself.” Antiquity to angling is like social position to the gentleman:

I would rather prove myself a gentleman, by being learned and humble, valiant and inoffensive, virtuous and communicable, than by any fond ostentation of riches, or, wanting those virtues myself, boast that these were in my ancestors; and yet I grant, that where a noble and ancient descent and such merit meet in any man, it is a double dignification of that person. . . .To establish his dignity, a gentleman needs only learning, humility, valor, inoffensiveness, virtue, and plenty of conversation. Birth into the ranks of the genteel is a bonus.

By Austen’s day, the term had come so firmly to connote moral behavior that anyone who used it to make a social distinction, like Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion, exposes himself as a strutting buffoon:Wentworth? Oh! ay—Mr Wentworth, the curate of Monkford. You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property: Mr Wentworth was nobody, I remember; quite unconnected; nothing to do with the Strafford family. One wonders how the names of many of our nobility become so common.The feminist objection to the term is little better than Sir Walter’s in confusing social status with moral behavior. Years ago, when I committed the error of publicly defending the English ideal of the gentleman, a feminist who also happened to be a very good writer said in reply:I cannot strive for this ideal. I cannot be a gentleman. Had I lived [in the nineteenth century] I could not have so aspired. A “lady” had or aspired to very different qualities—some of them overlapped, but the ones that didn’t would have overshadowed the ones that did. . . . And yet which of these many qualities [of a gentleman] could not equally be aspired to, or attained, by a woman in reality? The continual repetition of the term gentleman obscures this possibility from even the modern reader; think how it must have rendered invisible the efforts, and even the successes, of women then. The ideal is fine. The identification of it with this particular name, Gentleman, is untrue to its own high universality. That was true then and it’s true now.Shirley Robin Letwin, who has no problem aspiring to the ideal, suffices to refute the feminist objection. The ideal of the gentleman, in Cynthia Ozick’s language, belongs to culture and not biology.

A better critique is that the gentlemanly ideal belongs to a particular culture. To be specific, it is an English ideal to which Americans cannot (and ought not) aspire. Some such critique is advanced by Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Every reader of the novel will recall, with a mixture of laughter and wincing, the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, which provides a “right smart chance of funerals” and has been carried on for so long that no one remembers the original cause. For Huck, though, the feud ends badly. From a perch in a tree, he witnesses the ambush of two Grangerford boys:All of a sudden, bang! bang! bang! goes three or four guns—the men had slipped around through the woods and come in from behind without their horses! The boys jumped for the river—both of them hurt—and as they swum down the current the men run along the bank shooting at them and singing out, “Kill them, kill them!” It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. I ain’t a-going to tell all that happened—it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn’t ever come ashore that night to see such things. I ain’t ever going to get shut of them—lots of times I dream about them.Twain goes out of his way to emphasize that the pointless violence of the feud is closely associated with the gentlemanly ideal:Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and pap he always said it, too, though he warn’t no more quality than a mudcat himself.But gentlemanliness was not merely a question of birth. It also revealed itself in Col. Grangerford’s toilet (“he was clean shaved every morning” and “every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it”), his manner (“There warn’t no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn’t ever loud”), his concern for others (“he was sunshine most always—I mean he made it seem like good weather”), and his moral qualities (“He was as kind as he could be”). What starts as gentlemanliness, however, ends in the nightmare that Huck is not “ever going to get shut of.”

The duke and the dauphin pretend to be gentlemen, but they do not travesty the ideal so much as they establish that the ideal, like the Shakespearean soliloquy mangled by the duke, is twisted beyond recognition when it is “torn from [its] high estate” (in the duke’s words) and transferred from England to America. In their most elaborate con, the duke and king impersonate the long lost brothers of the late Peter Wilks, a man of property who had “houses and land” and “three or four thousand in cash hid up som’ers.” The first thing they do, when they get their hands on the estate, is to sell the slaves for cash, breaking up a family by seeking to convert their new assets into quick cash,the two sons up the river to Memphis, and their mother down the river to Orleans. I thought them poor girls [Wilks’s daughters] and them niggers would break their hearts for grief; they cried around each other, and took on so it most made me down sick to see it. The girls said they hadn’t ever dreamed of seeing the family separated or sold away from the town. I can’t ever get it out of my memory, the sight of them poor miserable girls and niggers hanging around each other’s necks and crying. . . .The violence is accomplished without a single shot’s being fired, but the nightmare quality is very nearly the same as with the Grangerfords.

The other true gentleman in the novel, distinguished by his title, is Col. Sherburn. Huck encounters him deep in Arkansas. Sherburn is abused as a swindler and a hound by the town drunk, “the best naturedest old fool in Arkansaw—never hurt nobody, drunk nor sober.” Even so, Sherburn refuses to endure the insult to his honor. A “proud-looking man” and “the best dressed man in that town, too,” Sherburn warns the drunk that he has until one o’clock: “If you open your mouth against me only once after that time,” he says, “you can’t travel so far but I will find you.” The drunk continues his tirade, and Sherburn guns him down (“Bang! goes the first shot, and he staggers back, clawing at the air—bang! goes the second one, and he tumbles backwards on to the ground, heavy and solid, with his arms spread out”). A lynch mob forms and swarms to the shooter’s house. Sherburn steps out to confront the mob with a double-barrel shotgun in his hand. He says:The idea of you lynching anybody! It’s amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a man! Because you’re brave enough to tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women that come along here [i.e. prostitutes], did that make you think you had grit enough to lay your hands on a man? Why, a man’s safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind—as long as it’s daytime and you’re not behind him.This proud little speech offers something like the reverse of the feminist critique, because what Sherburn is affirming (“Your mistake is,” he tells the mob, “that you didn’t bring a man with you”) is what used to be called virtue. Sherburn is unmasking the word’s origins by translating it from Latin into English.

The idea of virtue derives from the Nicomachean Ethics, but Aristotle’s areté was corrupted when it entered the English language during the Renaissance. Consider, for example, Joseph Hall’s Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608). A truly noble man, Hall says,stands not upon what he borrowed of ancestors, but thinks he must work out his own honour; and if he cannot reach the virtue of them that gave them outward glory by inheritance, he is more abashed of his impotency than transported with a great name. Greatness doth not make him scornful and imperious, but rather like the fixed stars; the higher he is, the less he desires to seem; neither cares he so much for pomp and frothy ostentation as for the solid truth of nobleness. Courtesy and sweet affability can be no more severed from him than life from his soul; not out of a base and servile popularity, and desire of ambitious insinuation; but of a native gentleness of disposition, and true value of himself.Despite Hall’s out-of-date style, you can recognize in this description much that is familiar—even common—in English notions of virtue and how they are associated with gentlemanliness. Thus virtue is not inherited, but attained. A name is its effect, not its source. “Greatness” is not exactly synonymous with virtue, but unsurprisingly accompanies it. It is not an outward show, but an inward disposition. When it shows itself, it is indistinguishable from good manners. But in the end it is a man’s “true value of himself.”

All of these qualities can be glimpsed in Sherburn’s account of manliness. For the English, the virtuous man is the truly noble man, the gentleman. For Twain, though, he is the cold-blooded murderer of a harmless old fool or the patriarch of a family that asks its youngest sons to risk getting shot in a feud. The ideal of the gentleman can never be disentangled from a man’s social position, Twain is saying—drunks, illiterate boys, and ne’er-do-wells need not apply (unless they pretend to be gentlemen for the sake of a flim-flam). The gentleman may represent man at his highest level (the most complete and coherent understanding of a human condition, in Letwin’s phrase), but as Twain wrote elsewhere, man is the lowest animal. It is no accident that the noblest creature in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the slave Jim, who is not considered fully human even by his friend Huck.

You don’t have to be, like Twain, a misanthrope to see the basic foreignness of the gentlemanly ideal. Even James was constrained to acknowledge that it belonged to the customs of Europe, which were at sixes and sevens with American customs. In Daisy Miller (published six years before Huck), Winterbourne tries to warn Daisy about flirting with Giovanelli: “[W]hen you deal with natives you must go by the custom of the place. Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here.” And when he finally meets Giovanelli, he realizes that the Italian is “not a gentleman,” but “only a clever imitation of one.” Winterbourne, however, is a Europeanized American. Daisy, who has arrived from Schenectady only a few months before, is still tightly bound by American customs. Consequently, she is incapable of “knowing the difference between a spurious gentleman and a real one.” She is incapable, because the knowledge is a cultural knowledge that she lacks.

In the end, I am self-divided over the question of the gentleman. On the one hand, the gentlemanly ideal serves as a welcome reminder that moral conduct is rooted in good manners. Every father knows this: the moral instruction of his children starts with teaching them to be polite. Waiting your turn, taking no more than your share, saying “please” and “thank you”—this is the beginning of wisdom, or at least the recognition of the moral autonomy of other people. On the other hand, the more closely moral conduct is identified with good manners the more easily it becomes confused with a particular code of manners. The English gentleman may, as Newman says, “carefully avoid whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast—all clashing of opin­ion, or collision of feeling,” but the Jewish intellectual seeks those out. Does it follow, then, that the Jewish intellectual cannot be a gentleman, or does it mean rather that conceiving a clash of opinions as unmannerly is to put the gentlemanly ideal beyond the reach of Jewish intellectuals, rendering their argumentative efforts, and even their success at arguing without gloom or resentment, invisible?

The trouble is that, when the Jew is represented in English literature, he is rarely shown to be a gentleman. And since the gentleman is a composite literary sketch of an agreeable man in a particular setting, since the gentlemanly ideal is what passes for good or noble or excellent in a specific culture at a specific time and in a specific place, the danger is that adherence to the local customs (dressed up as virtues) will be the loudest demand, even if it does violence to the unremarked subtleties of moral conduct.

Five Books of academe

I am introducing what I expect to become a regular feature of this Commonplace Blog. Taking a hint from the Wall Street Journal’s occasional list of “Five Best” books in this or that category (the latest is Alan Furst’s roll of the Five Best Spy Novels), I am going to name, from time to time, the Five Books in a genre that most deserve to be read. Rather than ranking them, I will arrange them in chronological order. My hope is that the Five Books will provide a “short list” for those who want an introduction to the best that has been thought and said on a subject.

The first will be the academic novel. In a comment to an earlier post, Jake Seliger cordially disagrees with my choice for the best of its kind. Better five suggestions than one, then. Here they are—with short summaries.

(1.) Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1953). The first of the kind—a postwar genre. Jim Dixon takes a job teaching medieval history, because “it looked better to be interested in something specific.” He socializes with proto-PC professors, “the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd,” can’t get unstuck from his lover Margaret Peel (one of the great bitches in English literature), and worries about being reappointed to a college he doesn’t want to be at.

(2.) Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution (1955). Based on Mary McCarthy, who took a teaching job at Bard College in order to get a novel (The Groves of Academe, 1952) out of it. The result is Gertrude Johnson, who “always saw the worst.” (She is another of the great bitches in English literature.) As the title suggests, the book is more a series of tableaux than a story with a plot. The language, however, cuts like a Cuisinart blade.

(3.) Malcolm Bradbury, The History Man (1975). The best portrait ever written of the academic left. A radical sociologist at one of the new British universities founded in the ’sixties—an academic superstar who has been “on television a good deal” after writing “two well-known and disturbing books, urging new mores, a new deal for man”—beds a colleague and pursues a chaste English professor while his wife heads the Children’s Crusade for Abortion.

(4.) David Lodge, Nice Work (1989). If you can get it. A Marxist feminist at a red-brick university (modeled on Birmingham) falls in love with a factory manager. The third of Lodge’s academic satires, following Changing Places (1975) and Small World (1984). Just as funny as the first two, but after bigger game. Some critics recommend coming to it only after reading the first two, but I think it is strikingly different and stands better on its own.

(5.) Richard Russo, Straight Man (1997). One-book novelist Hank Devereaux is interim chairman of the English department at a nondescript branch campus of Penn State, a commuter school in the rusting industrial town of Railton. He tries to keep his colleagues from killing one another, battles the administration’s efforts to slash his budget, and regularly makes a fool of himself. Little plot, but many comic scenes and witty dialogue.

Seliger also names Nabokov’s Pnin as one of the best, but I consider it to belong to a different kind—the novel about a professor or scholar. That will be the subject of my next Five Books.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

So you want to read a book?

In a comment on my review of Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, Shawna asks whether I have “must-reads in any genre” to recommend.

Here is one possible list, by genre:

Best academic novel
Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution (1954).

Best alien-abduction novel
Christopher Buckley, Little Green Men (1999).

Best baseball novel
Mark Harris, The Southpaw (1953).

Best boxing novel
W. C. Heinz, The Professional (1958).

Best Clinton novel
Charles McCarry, Lucky Bastard (1998).

Best detective spoof
Thomas Berger, Who Is Teddy Villanova? (1977).

Best existential-despair novel
Walker Percy, Lancelot (1977).

Best false-messiah novel
Arthur A. Cohen, In the Days of Simon Stern (1973).

Best foetus novel
Thomas Keneally, Passenger (1979).

Best graduate-school novel
Larry McMurtry, Moving On (1970).

Best Jewish day-school novel
Cynthia Ozick, The Cannibal Galaxy (1983).

Best Jewish intellectual novel
Johanna Kaplan, O My America! (1980).

Best Jewish refugee novel
Lore Segal, Her First American (1985).

Best Korean American novel
Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker (1995).

Best lesbian novel
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002).

Best literary-biography novel
Steven Millhauser, Edwin Mullhouse (1972).

Best mechanical chess-player novel
Thomas Gavin, King Kill (1977).

Best opera novel
Richard P. Brickner, Tickets (1981).

Best political correctness novel
Philip Roth, The Human Stain (2000).

Best preacher novel (comic division)
Peter DeVries, The Mackerel Plaza (1958).

Best preacher novel (serious division)
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004).

Best prep-school novel
Louis Auchincloss, The Rector of Justin (1964).

Best professor novel
John Williams, Stoner (1965).

Best regular-guys novel
Charles Willeford, The Shark-Infested Custard (1993).

Best saint’s-life novel
Frederick Buechner, Godric (1980).

Best slavery novel
Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990).

Best small-town diner novel
Richard Russo, Empire Falls (2001).

Best spinster novel
Maureen Howard, Bridgeport Bus (1965).

Best stigmata novel
Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy (1991).

Best unlikely love story
Evan S. Connell Jr., Double Honeymoon (1975).

I could lengthen this list a good deal more, but thirty titles seem like enough to start.

Only during stays

Perhaps the basic question about The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick’s little pair of stories originally printed in the New Yorker and released as a stick-thin seventy-page book in 1989, is whether it represents “women’s experience” in the Holocaust. The question whether Holocaust experience can be differentiated by sex has divided scholars and writers into warring parties.

Ozick has said things that suggest she would reject the notion of a distinguishable “women’s” Holocaust experience. In an interview in the Atlantic, for example, she said:

People often ask how I can reject the phrase “woman writer” and not reject the phrase “Jewish writer”— a preposterous question. “Jewish” is a category of civilization, culture, and intellect, and “woman” is a category of anatomy and physiology. It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.The rejection of the biological is, in fact, something of a commonplace in Ozick’s thought. In defending the so-called “uniqueness thesis,” the argument that the Holocaust was a historically unique genocide and that the Jews were its unique victims, Ozick summarized its liberal opponents, who like to say that the Holocaust must never be represented as if it were “merely” Jewish: “[T]o assert that Auschwitz is ‘merely’ Jewish would in effect raise doubts as to whether it is truly anti-human.” Liberal universalism emphasizes what all human beings have in common, while Jewish particularism—the insistence upon the uniqueness thesis—differentiates human beings. But what all human beings have in common is their biology, she observes, and “if being a Jew is being only what is universal, then a Jew is no more than his organs . . . and then what matter cremation?”

For Ozick, the differentiating fact about Holocaust victims would seem to be their Jewishness. And yet The Shawl seems to emphasize their sex.
To begin with, Ozick prefaces the book with two lines from Paul Celan’s Todesfuge—untranslated, as if she were unwilling to dilute their strength:dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith
In the standard interpretation, these lines are said to differentiate a golden-haired Aryan, perhaps the girlfriend of a camp Kommandant (the poem’s “man [who] lives in house [and] plays with serpents”), from an ashen-haired Jewish victim. Significantly, though, Ozick elides the man, reducing Celan’s poem to a two-line differentiation between women. The man’s actions—“whistl[ing] his Jews out,” ordering them to dig a grave, “strik[ing them] with leaden bullets”—disappear altogether. Although male agency can be assumed, it is not the indispensable, the narrated, fact; the Holocaust is sharpened to the point of women’s response.

And isn’t this the work of Ozick’s two stories? The whole purpose of the book, divided into two stories, is to differentiate between Rosa Lublin, who must witness the murder of her daughter in a Nazi camp, and her niece Stella, who also survived the camp and wishes now to live in the present. The title story focuses upon the death of Rosa’s infant daughter Magda. After her cousin Stella jealously steals her “magic shawl,” which “wrapped” her and kept her “hidden away,” which was both her mother’s breasts and her “own baby, her pet, her little sister,” Magda wanders outside the barracks into the roll-call arena, searching for it. There, while Rosa looks on, horrified, she is murdered. But the agency of the murder, although it can be assumed, is barely narrated:[Magda] was high up, elevated, riding someone’s shoulder. But the shoulder that carried Magda was not coming toward Rosa and the shawl, it was drifting away, the speck of Magda was moving more and more into the smoky distance. Above the shoulder a helmet glinted. . . . Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence. . . . All at once Magda was swimming through the air.And she “splashe[s] against the fence.” In plainer words, an SS guard picks up the child, strides to the electrified fence, and throws her against it. But the SS guard is nothing more than a shoulder, a helmet, a black body, and a pair of black boots; and what is more, this accumulation of features is not the agent of the little girl’s destruction. “All at once Magda was swimming through the air”—Ozick’s use of the passive voice refocuses attention on Rosa’s response.

And on Stella’s. The second story in the book, entitled “Rosa,” takes up the afterlife of these two women. After having smashed up her own antique shop in Brooklyn and relocating to Florida, Rosa has moved, although only fifty-eight, into a hotel for the elderly, where she spends all her days in her room (“I like my own room, that’s all”), writing letters to Stella, which she never mails, and to the dead Magda. “Stella was alive,” she thinks, “why not Magda?” She clings to Magda’s old shawl. Stella is disgusted, calling it Rosa’s “idol” and telling her toGo on your knees to it if you want. You make yourself crazy, everything thinks you’re a crazy woman. Whoever goes by your old store gets glass in their soles.This seems to hint that, in Stella’s eyes at least, Rosa has made her own life, just as she made her Brooklyn store, into a Kristallnacht. “[M]y God!” she cries. “It’s been thirty years, forty, who knows, give it a rest.”

To Rosa, however, it is Stella who suffers from “a strain of dementia.” And why? Every vestige of former existence is an insult to her. Because she fears the past she distrusts the future—it too will turn into the past. As a result she has nothing. “She wants to wipe out memory,” Rosa says later. In other words, The Shawl differentiates what might be called two strategies of response to the Holocaust—one that insists upon preserving memory, the other that seeks to wipe it out. But are these uniquely women’s responses?

My own view is that Ozick means to revalue sex, “a category of anatomy and physiology,” by reinterpreting it as motherhood, a moral category. Opposing herself to Stella’s fear of the past, Rosa writes in a letter to Magda thatMotherhood . . . is a profound distraction from philosophy, and all philosophy is rooted in suffering over the passage of time. I mean the fact of motherhood, the physiological fact.Yet her entire existence seems a distraction from philosophy, because it is entirely given over to Magda—to keeping her alive through memory. “[Y]ou’re always prodding me for these old memories,” she writes to Magda. “If not for you, I would have buried them all, to satisfy Stella.”

Someone else might accuse Rosa of being obsessed with Magda, with the Holocaust, with (as she puts it) the theft of her life. The accusation that American Jews obsess over the Holocaust was popularized by Peter Novick’s faux-history The Holocaust in American Life (1999). Since obsession is a mental disorder, the implication is that American Jews need treatment to get over it. (In a mordant anticipation of such insipidity, Ozick has Rosa receive a letter from a psychologist who is studying “Repressed Animation,” or R.A. for short, in Holocaust survivors.) Rosa, however, is Ozick’s evidence that, instead of obsessing over the Nazi genocide, the living may have an obligation to the Holocaust dead. For as she tells Persky, the retired button manufacturer who tries to pick her up, Holocaust survivors know three lives:     “The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born.”
    “And during?”
    “This was Hitler. . . .”
    Persky speculated. “You want everything the way it was before.”
    “No, no, no,” Rosa said. “It can’t be. . . . Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays. . . .”
For those who lived through the Holocaust—perhaps for anyone who lives in its aftermath—life can never again be the same. “Only during stays.”

And that could be the motto of motherhood. Once a mother, always a mother; even though Magda was murdered, Rosa remains a mother forever after. Motherhood stays and stays. Persky asks quietly whether the Germans killed Rosa’s entire family.Rosa held up all the fingers of her two hands. Then she said: “I’m left. Stella’s left.” She wondered if she dared to tell him more. . . . “Out of so many, three.”Persky is confounded. If Rosa holds up two fingers—if only she and Stella remain alive—why “three”? Because Rosa keeps Magda alive: “A mother,” she reflects, “is the source of consciousness, of conscience, the ground of being. . . .” As long as she continues to remember the Holocaust—to obsess over it, as Novick would scornfully say—she keeps Magda alive in her conscience, her consciousness.

In the biblical book that bears her name, Ruth is praised by the “chorus”—the women, the elders, the townspeople—for “building up the house of Israel” when she gives birth to Oved, the grandfather of King David. Something like this, Ozick seems to be saying, is the religious value of motherhood. She hints as much by calling Magda at one point a “lioness,” which is probably an allusion to Ezek 19.1–9. There Israel is praised as a lioness who raises up her whelps to become princes. Motherhood is a building up of Israel.

But if a mother is a building up of Israel, and if (through Rosa) Ozick has shown motherhood to be what Novick disdains as “obsession”—keeping memory alive in conscience, in consciousness—then the conclusion follows as a kiss follows a confession of love: memory builds up the house of Israel. To memorialize the Holocaust is not to “obsess” over it, but to discharge an obligation.

And women are suited to the obligation, not by the “physiological facts,” but because of their experience of motherhood—that is, their long training in the truth that “Only during stays.”