Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chic literary disgust

A friend sent me this translation of an interview with Nicole Krauss in the Tel Aviv daily Yediot Ahronot: “American Jewish writer Nicole Krauss offers her insight on Israel: ‘I cannot help but to react furiously to the policies of [Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu and of his anti-democratic ministers; they are almost fascists. . . . I get physically sick when I see the inhumanity of Israeli policy which is incompatible with Jewish or democratic values and pushes the country to the brink of existential abyss.’ ”

Judith Butler is not alone in using her Jewish identity as a human shield for attacks upon Israel. An entire generation of Jewish writers has but one connection to the Jewish people: a chic literary disgust for the Jewish state. What they don’t seem to understand is that the very existence of Israel, and its willingness to defend and take them in as Jews, makes their attacks easier and less costly—to themselves. The final shield is the Jewish state.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Why Judith Butler hates Israel

As someone who is “unambiguously hostile” to the enemies of Israel, I was aggravated but not particularly surprised by Judith Butler’s essay in the March 3rd issue of the London Review of Books (h/t: Jesse Freedman, Books, Inq.).

Several years ago, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum accused Butler of collaborating with evil by resorting to a “hip quietism” that obscures the “difficulty of realizing justice in America.” Since then Butler has begun to emphasize her Jewish identity to give cover to a public critique of Israel, becoming an active collaborator with the evil of Arab irredentism.

Her new essay, entitled “Who Owns Kafka?” and superficially about the legal dispute over Kafka’s unpublished papers, opens with a long and winding libel of the Jewish state, whose National Library seeks possession of the Kafka archive. The very idea of Israel is so scandalous to her that Butler cannot bear to imagine Kafka’s papers being housed there, in a facility open to all researchers.

She is especially upset at the National Library’s claim that Kafka is an “asset” of the Jewish people. The claim, she says, is controversial, because “it effaces other modes of belonging or, rather, non-belonging,” and is particularly galling for Butler, because the library’s “legal case rests on the presumption that it is the state of Israel that represents the Jewish people.”

Perhaps Butler is worried that being known as a Jew will efface her connections to feminism and the Left, but the worry is misplaced. The notion that Jewish identity somehow cancels out any other identification is so numbskulled that only an intellectual ambivalent about her own identity could come up with it. A human being is a convergence of identities; she is the experience in which her loyalties and commitments overlap. My children belong to their mother and me, but they also belong to the Jewish people, the student body of the school they attend, their teams and scout troops, the United States of America. Belonging to a people or an institution is nothing like investing all of your retirement savings in just one stock.

The question whether Kafka belongs to the Jews is an altogether different question, and I won’t even try to offer a definitive answer here. What I will do, though, is to quote the answer of a much greater scholar than either Butler or me. Writing in August 1931 to Walter Benjamin, who asked for a “hint” about his opinion of Kafka, Gershom Scholem said:

I have of course already had “individual thoughts” about Kafka, although these do not concern Kafka’s position in the continuum of German literature (in which he has no position of any sort, something that he himself did not have the least doubt about; as you probably know, he was a Zionist), but his position in the continuum of Jewish literature. I advise you to begin any inquiry into Kafka with the Book of Job, or at least with a discussion of the possibility of divine judgment, which I regard as the sole subject of Kafka’s production [worthy of] being treated in a work of literature. There, you see, are in my opinion also the vantage points from which one can describe Kafka’s linguistic world, which with its affinity to the language of the Last Judgment probably represents the prosaic in its most canonical form.[1]It is most inconvenient for Butler that Kafka was a Zionist, and was thus at odds with pretty much her entire argument, but she struggles to make the best of it. “So far as we’re concerned with assessing the rights of ownership,” she says, “it probably doesn’t matter whether or not Kafka was a Zionist or whether he planned seriously to move to Palestine.”

Except it turns out that it does matter, after all. In contesting the “presumption” that “the state of Israel . . . represents the Jewish people,” Butler advances a distinction between Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, and holds that Israel cannot possibly represent the Jewish people because not all Jews are Zionists. Why, just look at her!

Her problem is the factual one that the overwhelming majority of Jews are Zionists. Oh, there are a few marginal Jews, like Butler and her Berkeley neighbors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, for whom Jewishness is a claim to special status without much in the way of Jewish learning behind it, who are not. But to say no more than this is to be coy and misleading. The kind of Jew that Butler has in mind, who is not represented by the state of Israel, is not merely non-Zionist, but loudly and proudly anti-Zionist. But how then can an anti-Zionist like Butler, unrelentingly antagonistic toward the Jewish state, argue in good faith that Israel has no right of “ownership” to his papers unless she is able to separate Kafka from his well-recorded Zionism?

Here’s how. Butler proposes to divide “Jews who are Zionist [from] Jews who are not, for example Jews in the diaspora for whom the homeland is not a place of inevitable return or a final destination.” On this showing Kafka, who never “planned seriously to move to Palestine,” was no Zionist. (Butler conveniently ignores the historical facts of the Third Aliyah to Palestine. In August 1920, the British mandatory government restricted Jewish immigration to 16,500 a year, and only for those who could prove that they would be employed upon arrival. Two years later, the British stipulated that future immigration should not exceed Palestine’s ability to absorb new immigrants, and adopted a system of granting permits by employment categories. How many Jewish novelists would be permitted into the country is unclear.)

At all events, Butler’s distinction is completely ahistorical. Her classification of “Jews who are not [Zionists]” has never existed in Jewish literature and thought, anywhere, at any time. The more accurate distinction was advanced by Peter Beinert last year in the New York Review of Books. “Among American Jews today,” Beinert said, “there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included.”

Butler would claim the secularized Jews, who throb in sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs, among those who are “not” Zionist (while concealing her belief that non-Zionists are identical to anti-Zionists). It is undeniably true that most of the Jews living in the diaspora will never relocate to Israel, but it does not follow that they are not Zionists. And only the smallest of minorities think like Butler. The American Jewish Committee’s annual survey of Jewish opinion for 2010 found that thirty percent of American Jews feel “very close” to Israel, while another forty-four percent feel “fairly close.” While only twenty percent admit to feeling “fairly distant,” the camp of those like Butler who feel “very distant” includes just five percent of American Jews.

But is it really presumptuous to suggest that Israel represents the Jews? Butler is able to defend her assertion that it does not only by sneaking from one meaning of the word representation to another. It is one thing to say that Israel stands for the Jewish people as the physical embodiment of a spiritual ideal. It is quite another thing to hold, as Butler does, that the state of Israel acts as if it has been delegated to speak for the Jews as a whole. She writes:[I]f it is to represent its population fairly or equally, [Israel] must represent both Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. The assertion that Israel represents the Jewish people thus denies the vast number of Jews outside Israel who are not represented by it, either legally or politically, but also the Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens of that state.But this is nonsense, both politically and conceptually. Israel is not the political deputy of Jews living in the diaspora, and it is not the symbolic emblem of non-Jews anywhere. Because it is a representative democracy in which all of its citizens are empowered to vote and to elect delegates to the Knesset, Israel does, “fairly and equally,” represent its non-Jewish citizens: just as President Obama represents the United States, even though some American citizens dissent from his policies. Even for those who disagree with him, however, the United States represents an image of something larger and more noble than its current policies.

And that is what Butler cannot stomach. In her view, exile is the proper condition for the Jewish people. Although she cites the little-known Israeli historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin in support of her view, a far better-known spokesman is the novelist Michael Chabon. I have already discussed the nostalgia for exile in the last paragraphs of my Sewanee Review essay on him, but perhaps a little more might be said. Israel may not be a perfect state—no state is—but it exemplifies the Jews’ three-thousand-year-old dream of self-determination in their own land. For Jews like Judith Butler, who have exiled themselves from Jewish languages and institutions, perhaps the only warm refuge is to be found in a passionate hatred for the Jewish state.

[1] Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship [1975], trans. Harry Zohn (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1981), p. 170.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The bias of self-selection

The “leftist domination of college faculties,” sighs David French of the Alliance Defense Fund in a post at National Review Online, is “by now inarguable.” The argument has shifted to its cause.

Two new studies by academic sociologists have found that “self-selection” rather than bias accounts for the scarcity of conservative professors on university campuses (h/t: French). “There are just many more liberals than conservatives in the ranks of graduate students," the sociologist Neil L. Gross told the Chronicle of Higher Education. The fact that there are few academic conservatives “does not seem to be the result of bias or discrimination against them,” but appears rather to be the effect of self-selection among those who consider academic careers.

What is left out of account, though, is the way in which self-selection on the part of college faculties is a function of their power. Another term for it is faculty governance, which places exclusive responsibility for hiring and promotion in faculty hands. It is the faculty itself that is self-selecting, and with no outside checks on its power—sometimes the deans who are appointed to oversee the personnel decisions of departments are in collusion with them—why then should it occasion much surprise when the faculty selects more and more of its own kind?

The distinction between bias and self-selection, in other words, is without a difference. Let me illustrate from my own experience in the English department at Texas A&M University.

Every year the professors in the department are evaluated by a committee of their peers on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). A mid-range score of 3 is defined as “meeting departmental expectations.” In 2004, Paul Hedeen and I published Unrelenting Readers, an original anthology of contemporary poet-critics (the first of its kind), with a historical introduction, detailed biographical notes, and a comprehensive index. The next year, the evaluation committee, which was chaired by a full professor notorious in the department for his contempt for conservatives, gave me a score of 2 in research.

Now, perhaps a new co-edited book fails to meet “departmental expectations” in English at Texas A&M. Yet the same year that Unrelenting Readers was published, a leftist colleague co-edited a collection of conference papers with the University of Delaware Press. He received a 5 in research.

When I asked for an explanation, I was told that the presses were not comparable, even though Story Line, which has since gone out of business, was the leading publisher of the New Narrative poetry at the time, with writers like Bruce Bawer, Donald Hall, Mark Jarman, Frederick Morgan, Louis Simpson, and Richard Wilbur on its list. (I hadn’t realized that the University of Delaware’s was such a distinguished press.) When I threatened to file a grievance, the department head bumped my rating to 2.5 and promised me a raise commensurate with an even higher rating. Like a fool, I backed down and took the money. Fool? More like a whore.

There is more to the story. The chairman of the evaluation committee had already divorced his wife of twenty years and married one of his own PhD students at Texas A&M. Although two or three of us voted against her, she was hired on tenure track when she finished her dissertation, and though the same two or three of us voted against her again, she was duly tenured six years later.

Another example of self-selection rather than bias, I suppose.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jabotinsky’s “Samson”

Now that Israeli Apartheid Week has come and gone, and now that the Jews have answered with the holiday of Purim, perhaps there is time to look into Vladimir Jabotinsky’s biblical novel Samson.

Jabotinsky is better known as the founder of “Revisionist Zionism,” a movement in opposition to Labor Zionism, which held that the aim of Zionism should be the creation of a Jewish majority in Palestine and the reestablishment of a Jewish state there; nothing short of that. After being banned from Palestine in 1929 by the British, Jabotinsky organized the Irgun to drive them out, although he died (in 1940, on a fundraising trip to New York) before his hopes were realized. Menachem Begin succeeded him as head of the Irgun. The Israeli Likud Party is the direct descendant of Jabotinsky and his followers.

Born in Odessa in 1880, Jabotinsky was the rare political leader who was also a distinguished novelist. The slim roster includes Benjamin Disraeli, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Mario Vargas Llosa, and who else? When the Guardian gathered the ten best novels by politicians, Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich had to be enlisted, along with an obscure political allegory by Sir Winston Churchill, because otherwise ten could not have been found. Jabotinsky was left off the list, even though the great Ruth R. Wisse had enshrined Samson in The Modern Jewish Canon nine years earlier. Even before that, Maxim Gorky was reputed to have complained that Zionism stole Jabotinsky from Russian literature.

Samson appeared first in serial form in 1927 in a Russian-language journal published in Paris. In book form, it was published in Russian in 1928 and in two separate German editions later the same year. (Whether Jabotinsky, who was fluent in German, rewrote his own novel or it was translated by a second hand is a riddle I have been unable to solve.) At all events, it was the German version that was translated into English in 1930.

As closely as possible, given the scarcity of detail, Jabotinsky follows the biblical tale of Samson (Judg 13–16). What attracted him to the tale is the prophecy that is foretold before Samson’s birth: “He will be the first to save Israel from the Philistines”—the people who conquered coastal Canaan in the twelfth century B.C.E. and occupied it for the next six hundred years, ruling over the descendants of Israel. Jabotinsky’s Samson is transformed by painful experience from a gang leader to a lone “brigand,” gradually developing the rudiments of a political consciousness. He is keenly aware that the Philistines have acquired the knowledge of iron smithing, which is the source of their power. Samson makes it his life’s purpose to obtain iron for the scattered and disunified tribes who are not yet called Jews.

Unlike the Bible’s Samson, Jabotinsky’s is not a chieftain, a settled leader (shofet in Hebrew, misleadingly translated “judge”) with a political seat. What Jabotinsky recreates is the chaotic period between the death of Joshua and the establishment of the monarchy when the Israelitish tribes were led by a succession of champions, who would throw off an occupying power until a new conquerer would descend upon them, requiring a new champion. Jabotinsky’s Israelities live from hand to mouth, having been robbed of “their land, their speech, their customs, their art, their gods, and finally even of the will to live their lives in their own way.” And his Samson is a fighter.

Everyone remembers the “young lion” that roars at Samson out of nowhere when he is on the road to Timnath (Judg 15.5–6). Samson tears
the cat apart with his bare hands. Jabotinsky dwells upon the anecdote, spinning it out into an adventure. In the novel, the young lion becomes a panther, and Samson leaps upon its back, interlocking his limbs with the cat’s:

Sneezing, snarling and howling, they rolled over on the ground together, and it was hard to distinguish the cries of the man from the cries of the beast. But the panther could do no further harm. It struck wildly at the air with its paws, throwing cascades of earth and stones in all directions. Its case was oddly similar to that of a cat with a bell tied to its tail. Its bellows of fury changed gradually to howls of pain, for Samson was slowly wrenching its fore-legs out of joint by turning his elbows outwards and pressing down the beast’s neck with his clasped hands. This took some time, but at length the characteristic sound of cracking joints was heard, and the panther howled in a tone common to all great beasts of prey in their death agony—a tone which makes it difficult to recognize the species of animal. Its fore-legs now hung limp, as though only loosely attached to its body. Once more it reared up on its hind legs, and threw itself backwards in an effort to crush the devil that rode it; but Samson’s fingers were already choking its throat on both sides. Soon the snarls and howls died away, and nothing could be heard but the death-rattle of the throttled beast, the menacing hiss of breath between the man’s clenched teeth and the heavy, regular beat of the long tail.This passage may seem as if it belongs in a boy’s book or a swashbuckler (if there can be swashbucklers without swords), but it has a firm intention behind it, both literary and political. If the Jewish writer, as Isaac Babel wrote at about the same time in his Odessa Tales, is a man with “glasses on his nose and autumn in his heart,” then Jabotinsky wanted to give Jewish writing a good shake, although he too wore glasses. As he wrote in 1938 to a young man who was contemplating suicide over antisemitic bullying at school, “Surrender is the dirtiest trick in creation; and suicide, being the symbol of surrender, is like a call for universal betrayal.” His writing is like a call to action. Jabotinsky wanted to rouse a generation of Jewish heroes, even among the bespectacled intelligentsia. He wanted to dispel autumn from Jewish hearts.

But Samson is also an exciting novel—a heroic novel—because Jabotinsky was not writing a Tendenzroman. Some Jewish critics, according to his biographer Shmuel Katz, were struck by what they detected as a militaristic subtext in Samson’s farewell message to his people:Tell them two things in my name—two words. The first word is Iron. They must get iron. They must give everything they have for iron—their silver and wheat, oil and wine and flocks, even their wives and daughters. All for iron! There is nothing in the world more valuable than iron. . . . The second word they will not understand yet, but they must learn to understand it, and that soon. The second word is this: a king! Say to Dan, Benjamin, Judah, Ephraim: a king! A man will give them the signal and of a sudden thousands will lift up their hands. So it is with the Philistines, and therefore the Philistines are lords of Canaan. Say it from Zorah to Hebron and Shechem, and farther even to Endor and Laish: a king!Jabotinsky was disgusted by the insinuation that Samson was an obvious costume for his political views. “I am getting angry with all the Jewish critics who see in it a tendentious novel,” he wrote to a friend. “Even if the author were a pacifist Samson in his day would have had to dream of iron and a king.”

It may be true that Jabotinsky was drawn to his subject by Samson’s combative antipathy to the Philistines, but once the subject was chosen, the novel Samson is distinguished before anything else by its adherence to the conditions of that particular story. Thus Samson could not be the sworn ideological foe of the Philistines, because—in the words of the biblical book of Judges—his hatred for the Philistines is founded upon a taanah, a pretext for a quarrel (14.4). He was born to fight the Philistines.

In the Bible, Samson’s hatred grows out of a wrong that is done to him. His father-in-law gives his Philistine bride to another man, and offers her younger sister (“more beautiful than she”) in her stead (15.2). Jabotinsky expands this incident with grisly and hair-raising detail. Samson refuses the younger sister, who has always desired him (it is she, not his future wife, whom he had noticed among the Philistine women in Timnath); he kicks her in the face to get away from her; then he seeks out and destroys the house of his rival, while his wife flees in terror and confusion. Samson agrees to leave Timnath after his father-in-law agrees to bring his wife to him in his own village of Zorah. But in reprisal the Philistine who has cuckolded him murders Samson’s wife and father-in-law, rapes the younger sister, and burns down their household.

With that the enmity between Samson and the Philistines is sealed forever. But Jabotinsky slyly weaves in another strand of the story, which otherwise—as in the Hebrew Scriptures—might stand as a separate and unrelated chapter. In Jabotinsky’s version, the younger sister reemerges as Delilah. This is the only twist of his plot that was retained in the 1949 film Samson and Delilah for which Cecil B. DeMille had purchased the rights to Jabotinsky’s novel. After Samson confuses her for her older sister (“Then you didn’t die? Or did you die and come back again?”), she conceives a jealous hatred for Samson. It is her appearance in the Philistine temple in Gaza, many weeks later, after Samson has been captured and blinded, that occasions the final destruction. She is holding his child, and taunts him with it:It will grow brave and strong like its father and I, since my milk has turned to poison, shall teach it to hate its father’s race. And so, out of the judge and protector will come an enemy and destroyer.Instead, in the well-known denouement, Samson pulls down the temple, killing the future enemy of Israel along with his present tormentor and the most prominent of his people’s oppressors. The collapse of the temple is narrated by an Egyptian survivor, who witnessed it firsthand. His conclusion is that Samson possessed “that intangible quality, dwelling in the soul of a whole people, that distinguishes it from all other nations of the earth”—the quality that would come to be known as ahavat Yisrael, the Jews’ love for the Jewish “race,” which would lead them against all odds, and no matter who opposed them, to seek a country of their own, where they could protect themselves against enemies and destroyers. Jabotinsky’s magnificent novel gives voice to the unconquerable spirit within Zionism.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Apartheid Week

The seventh annual “Israeli Apartheid Week” is being held on university campuses across the United States this week to renew the call for destroying the Jewish State—if not by military aggression or by terrorism, then by what its organizers call “Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).”

What is little appreciated by those who toss around the term apartheid so loosely, however, is that the most passionate believers in “apartness” are Arab Muslims. They are so deeply committed to purging “Muslim land” of any Jewish presence at all that they will decapitate a three-month-old child in her bed. Apartheid is the official policy of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which will not permit Jews to reside there; it is the popular custom in the rest of the Arab world:

Egypt73,365,915 Muslims

       200 Jews

Algeria32,333,219 Muslims

       100 Jews

Morocco32,069,316 Muslims

     5,700 Jews

Iraq29,672,300 Muslims

        50 Jews

Saudi Arabia25,731,776 Muslims

         0 Jews

Yemen21,119,004 Muslims

       200 Jews

Syria15,451,798 Muslims

       100 Jews

Tunisia 9,762,350 Muslims

     1,000 Jews

Libya 6,461,454 Muslims

         0 Jews

Jordan 5,702,783 Muslims

         0 Jews

By contrast, at last count Israel was home to 5,839,764 Jews and 1,229,424 Muslims. About 16.5% of the population is Muslim, that is. There are sixty times more Muslims in the Jewish State than there are Jews in the entire Arab League.

Israeli apartheid? No one should expect the Arab propagandists behind the anti-Israel demonstrations on campus to respect the truth, but perhaps the casual observers, students and faculty, might take a second look at the numbers. Or perhaps they might want to consider what the organizers of “Israeli Apartheid Week” really have in mind when they speak of apartheid.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Wharton and the tragic sense

Although it may be wide of the target, Kevin Neilson’s suggestion that there is some “family resemblance” between Edith Wharton and Sigmund Freud—he goes so far as to call them Edith Freud and Sigmund Wharton—is a welcome reminder that the two great writers were contemporaries. As such they were faced by the same historical crisis, and their writings can be read as immediate reactions to that crisis. In fact, the two are far more interesting when their reactions are seen as strikingly different from each other’s, even strongly opposed.

Six years older, Freud was born into the rapidly modernizing and secularizing Jewish middle class in Central Europe. The Jews of the Habsburg Empire were only granted full legal emancipation in 1867, eleven years after Freud’s birth. By then his family had settled in Vienna after his father’s business failure. And Freud had already been enrolled for two years in a competitive and highly respected Realgymnasium, where he established himself as a brilliant student. Although he later said that he “never felt within [his] depth” in Vienna, claiming to yearn for “the marvelous forests of [his] childhood,” the truth is that he had left the past of his Galician Jewish parents far behind.

Freud was thoroughly at home in Vienna, because he was a champion of modernism in a capital of modernism. For him, the crumbling of traditional communal structures, as symbolized by the gluttonous expansion of Vienna in the late nineteenth century, was a happy development. Psychoanalysis was intended to be a great engine of social readjustment for modern man, who found himself cut off and isolated. As Philip Rieff puts it:

The essentially secular aim of the Freudian spiritual guidance is to wean away the ego from either a heroic or a compliant attitude to the community. . . . [Freud] was not impressed by the clerical strategy of confirming faith by strengthening the individual’s identification with the community. Whatever flush of interior health rises on first being received back into any community of belief after the sickness of alienation is quite temporary, Freud held. The old faiths have themselves produced the sickness they still seek to cure. . . . What is needed is to free men from their sick communities. To emancipate man’s “I” from the communal “we” is “spiritual guidance” in the best sense Freud could give to the words.[1]The crisis of the “I” who remains in thrall to the communal “we” despite the emancipatory surge of modernity—there is perhaps no better account of the human problem in their time, as understood by both Freud and Wharton.

The difference is that Freud’s reaction was therapeutic. However the psychoanalytic goal is phrased, the fact remains that Freud sought the reintegration of the neurotic into society. Wharton did not believe any such reintegration was possible. Human society was, as she wrote in The Reef (1912), an island of captivity surrounded by “the wide bright sea of life.” Her sensitive maladjusted characters itch to get off the island “into a life that’s big and ugly and struggling,” as Owen Leath tells George Darrow. But the choice is not so simple. At the end of the novel, after Anna has learned the truth about her husband’s affair with her stepson’s fiancée, she reflects:The truth had come to light by the force of its irresistible pressure; and the perception gave her a startled sense of hidden powers, of a chaos of attractions and repulsions far beneath the ordered surfaces of intercourse. She looked back with melancholy derision on her old conception of life, as a kind of well-lit and well policed suburb to dark places one need never know about. Here they were, these dark places, in her own bosom, and henceforth she would always have to traverse them to reach the beings she loved best!The “hidden powers” that churn “beneath the ordered surfaces of intercourse” are not Freud’s neuroses, however. They are the “chaos of attractions and repulsions,” or what Wharton described in The Age of Innocence as a “battle of ugly appetites.” Society’s “ordered surfaces” may hold man in bondage, but human freedom is a mere “chaos of attractions and repulsions.” And where Freud sees the hope of reconciling man to society, Wharton sees such reconciliation as crossing through the darkest places of human experience forever to reach those a man loves.

Wharton’s reaction, in other words, is tragic. No emancipation of man’s “I” from the communal “we” is possible, and thus no therapeutic adjustment, but no life outside the community is possible either. Man does not live upon a wide bright sea. At best he accepts his imprisonment, for the beings he loves if not for himself. To escape captivity would be to abandon them, and to dwell in darkness alone.

[1] Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Garden City: Anchor, 1961), pp. 361–62. Originally published in 1959.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wharton and dreams

Over at Interpolations, Kevin Neilson suggests that Edith Wharton “shares a family resemblance with Freud.” Granted, my impressions of Freud have been colored by Joseph Skibell’s darkly playful Curable Romantic, which sketches the great psychoanalyst as some combination of Sherlock Holmes—nothing that happens in his presence is lost on him—and a bully who delights in publicly enforcing The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Even so, I am skeptical about the resemblance.

Neilson focuses upon the “language of secret signs” in Wharton, qualifying his argument by saying that “this language emerges in a social context instead of a dreaming state.” Because Wharton’s characters “block their true thoughts and feelings,” Neilson says, their “repressed” desires are manifested as “innuendoes” (“flashing eyes, a subdued tone, a fugitive glance, a clandestine touch, an upturned lip, or a cluster of yellow roses anonymously sent”). Neilson theorizes that these actions and gestures are “[l]ike dreams according to Freudian categories. . . .”

I think Neilson is mistaken, but I want to pick up the knife at the sharp end. How does Wharton represent dreams in her fiction? For Freud, according to Neilson, “Dreams are disguised wish fulfillments.” But is this how Wharton understands the unconscious life?

In The House of Mirth, published six years after The Interpretation of Dreams—the exact difference in the writers’ ages—the word dream can refer either to ambitions for success or to the images and sensations experienced during sleep. There are probably nine occurrences of the latter:

(1.) After watching the tableux vivants in Chapter 12 of Book I, in which Lily Bart had stood as Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd, Lawrence Selden seeks her out. Selden, of course, is already in love with Lily, who is in a daze of pleasure from the effect of her performance. She takes his arm. And then: “Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations.” Selden acknowledges his love for her; they briefly kiss; Lily begs him to love her but not to tell her so, and flees. The encounter is explicitly compared to the “unreality” of a dream, but it is the talk of love and the stolen kiss—not the unspoken and unconsciously denied—that are “dream-like” here. Lily does not repress her feelings for Selden; she knowingly runs away from them.

(2.) The next chapter opens with Lily waking from “happy dreams.”

(3.) She finds a note from Selden awaiting her when she wakes. He must go to Albany for the day, and asks when he might see her the day after. She muses upon his note:

The scene in the Brys’ conservatory had been like a part of her dreams; she had not expected to wake to such evidence of its reality. Her first movement was one of annoyance: this unforeseen act of Selden’s added another complication to life. It was so unlike him to yield to such an irrational impulse! Did he really mean to ask her to marry him? She had once shown him the impossibility of such a hope, and his subsequent behavior seemed to prove that he had accepted the situation with a reasonableness somewhat mortifying to her vanity. It was all the more agreeable to find that this reasonableness was maintained only at the cost of not seeing her; but, though nothing in life was as sweet as the sense of her power over him, she saw the danger of allowing the episode of the previous night to have a sequel. Since she could not marry him, it would be kinder to him, as well as easier for herself, to write a line amicably evading his request to see her: he was not the man to mistake such a hint, and when next they met it would be on their usual friendly footing.The “episode” of Selden’s kiss was the dream. Counterposed to it is the knowledge (or decision) that “she could not marry him.”

(4.) That same morning, in a different house, Selden’s cousin Gerty Farish “woke from dreams as happy as Lily’s.” If they were “less vivid” than Lily’s they were “better suited to her mental vision.” For her emotional life is not as extravagant as Lily’s, and Gerty is not as pretty.

(5.) That evening Selden dines with Gerty. She is unexpectedly saddened when she realizes that her cousin had “come to talk to her of Lily—that was all!” Learning from her that Lily will be attending a musical evening at Mrs Fisher’s house, Selden places a “cousinly kiss upon her cheek,” and goes. Left alone with her cousin’s kiss, Gerty finds her jealousy for Lily flaming up. But what right had Gerty to “dream the dreams of loveliness”? She was plain; Lily was beautiful. And she knew perfectly well that a “dull face invited a dull fate.” For such as her, “dreams of loveliness” must be willfully put away, like childhood toys.

(6.) The doorbell rings, and Lily stands at the door. She confesses that she does not want to be alone; she asks to stay for the night. She tries to explain:       “Oh, Gerty, the furies . . . you know the noise of their wings—alone, at night, in the dark? But you don't know—there is nothing to make the dark dreadful to you——”
       The words, flashing back on Gerty’s last hours, struck from her a faint derisive murmur; but Lily, in the blaze of her own misery, was blinded to everything outside it. . . .
       “Lily, look at me! Something has happened—an accident? You have been frightened—what has frightened you? Tell me if you can—a word or two—so that I can help you.”
       Lily shook her head.
       “I am not frightened: that’s not the word. Can you imagine looking into your glass some morning and seeing a disfigurement—some hideous change that has come to you while you slept? Well, I seem to myself like that—I can’t bear to see myself in my own thoughts—I hate ugliness, you know—I’ve always turned from it—but I can’t explain to you—you wouldn’t understand. . . .”
       Gerty knelt beside her, waiting, with the patience born of experience, till this gust of misery should loosen fresh speech. She had first imagined some physical shock, some peril of the crowded streets, since Lily was presumably on her way home from [Mrs] Fisher’s; but she now saw that other nerve-centres were smitten, and her mind trembled back from conjecture. . . .
       “Lily! you mustn't speak so—you’re dreaming.”
Of all the novel’s allusions to dreaming, this is the most revealing. And what it makes clear is that, for Wharton, dreams do not belong to “unreality,” as Selden and Lily “accept” in the Brys’ conservatory. They are, instead, a different mode of reality, sometimes “happy,” sometimes (as later in the novel) (7.) “evil” and (8.) “dissatisfied,” sometimes even (9.) “incoherent.” They are, in short, visions of another life, a road not taken, or an “ugliness,” a “dark dread,” that one might fall victim to.

Wharton’s dreams are not “disguised wish fulfillments,” then. They are the socially unacceptable options that her characters have deliberately rejected, but that delight them upon occasion like fairies or dismay them upon occasion like furies.

Her men and women live, as Wharton herself put it in The Age of Innocence, in a “hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought. . . .” But what Neilson calls the “secret language of signs” is the despotic social code they live by. Their dreams represent not what they have repressed, but what they have rejected—at no small cost to themselves. If Wharton has a family resemblance to anyone it is to her two-years-older contemporary J. M. Barrie, whose Peter Pan, staged the year before The House of Mirth was published, literalizes the dream-realm in which Wharton’s characters might have lived, but decided not to.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Supersessionism returns

With Christians under attack in the Muslim world—in Ethiopia, in Pakistan, in Egypt—now is hardly the time to start a culture war with their “elder brothers,” as John Paul II described the Jews.

Yet that is exactly what a writer at Pajamas Media did yesterday. Clayton E. Cramer, a software engineer with an M.A. in history, argued that replacing the abbreviations B.C. and A.D. in school textbooks, substituting B.C.E. and C.E. in their stead, will “offend the still-large majority of Americans who culturally or religiously identify themselves as Christians.” The only reason to make the switch, he declared confidently, is to “signal[] one’s sensitivities.” He wondered if the new usage is not a “form of culture war.”

But when I posted a comment observing that the usage is hardly new—the term B.C.E. was introduced into English in 1881—and that it is almost universal among Jewish scholars, I was the one to ignite a culture war. “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” are scholarly terms, I argued; scholars prefer them because they are theologically neutral, and textbook writers are simply following scholarly convention.

The newer terms are theologically neutral even if—as for the Jewish writers who introduced them, and for me as well—C.E. stands for the “Christian era” and not the “common era.” Indeed, the first writer to use the term C.E. in English was Elias Hiram Lindo. In his Jewish Calendar for Sixty-Four Years, published in England in 1838, Lindo spoke openly of the “Christian era.” In an interesting footnote, he did not use the term B.C.E. but rather A.C. without further explanation.

In short, the usage antedates political correctness by many decades. Jewish writers prefer it, not because they wish to “signal” their “sensitivities,” but because the traditional B.C. and A.D. abbreviate a theology, as I put it in my original comment, that they find obnoxious and irrelevant. The name for that theology is supersessionism, although it is sometimes called “replacement theology” or “fulfillment theology.” It holds that the Jews’ role in history was “fulfilled” with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, after which God’s new covenant with the Church “superseded” the old covenant with Israel. Thus all prior history, including Jewish history, was simply “Before Christ”—that is, leading up to the messiah’s arrival. And since then we have been living the years of “Our [sic] Lord.”

Now I did not think that I was saying anything particularly controversial by describing this theology as both obnoxious and irrelevant to the Jews—obnoxious because it writes them out of their own history, irrelevant because to them the messiah has yet to arrive. The reaction to my comments, which ranged from accusing me of falsehood and duplicity to calling me a “Jewish bigot” who displays a “contempt for Christians and Christianity,” only begins to measure the depth of my own naïveté.

But that’s what two decades of teaching Evangelical Christians in the American South will do to you. Let me explain. In twenty years at Texas A&M University, I encountered exactly two antisemites, and only one of them was a believing convert-seeking Christian: and he was a man of my own age. With few exceptions, the younger generation of Christians that I encountered in my classrooms were the sort who would have been condemned for the Judaizing heresy five hundred years earlier. Especially in my course on the Bible in literature—in which I taught only the Hebrew Bible, and from a bilingual Hebrew-English text—they signed up to explore their religion from a Jewish angle. “Studying with you is like studying with Abraham,” a student once said to me reverently. “F. Murray Abraham?” I nearly said, but didn’t.

The younger generation of Evangelical Christians, at least in my experience, are entirely innocent of theological antisemitism. They have never even heard of supersessionism. Most of them appear to attend churches which have been deeply influenced by the doctrine of dispensationalism, which teaches that God has not—could not—revoke his promises to Israel (“God is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change his mind” [Num 23.19]). Thus the “old” covenant remains in effect. Christianity does not supersede Judaism, but adds to it.

This revolution in Protestant Christian thought has been matched by equally revolutionary theological developments within Roman Catholicism. The Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII in 1962, began the work of repudiating the Church’s antisemitism and anti-Judaism and refashioning a new relationship with Israel, founded (as John Paul II later put it) upon “the great spiritual heritage common to Christians and Jews.” Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the repudiation of supersessionism has become Church doctrine. When he visited the Rome Synagogue, Benedict quoted the prayer that his predecessor had offered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, to emphasize their common belief on this issue:

God of our Fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.To make sure that no one overlooked the significance of calling Israel the “people of the covenant” rather than the “people of the old covenant,” Benedict went on to remind his listeners that the Church now officially holds that the principles laid down at Sinai “remain eternally valid,” that the Jews “were chosen by the Lord before all others to receive his word,” that the catechism teaches that the “Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation,” that the Church has undertaken to institute “a renewed respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament,” and that Jews share equally with Christians the task of “preparing or ushering in the Kingdom of the Most High. . . .”

Supersessionism is officially dead in the Evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Even the more recent attempts to resuscitate the theology have foundered on the bold views of Christian leaders. Thus the Rev. Brian W. Harrison has recently argued that supersessionism “was never at any stage abandoned” by the Church. Despite quoting John Paul II to the effect that God’s covenant with the Jews is “irrevocable,” Harrison maintains:Never, in fact, has any papal or conciliar document affirmed that the covenant God made with Israel through Moses, with all its distinctive cultic, civil, dietary and other prescriptions that still form the basis of Judaism, still remains valid and “unrevoked” for Jews after the coming of Christ. It is a great relief, therefore, to see that he United States bishops voted overwhelmingly in August 2008 to eliminate a statement to that effect that had made its way into the new Catechism published with the authority of the episcopal conference. The uncorrected version stated, “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.”But if the Jews’ covenant with God remains “eternally valid for them,” how exactly was it “revoked”? Since I am not a Catholic, I am agnostic on the question whether a “dual covenant” theology is heretical, although an outsider might fairly conclude that the eternal validity of two separate covenants is implied in John Paul’s and Benedict’s views. The new supersessionists insist they are merely moderate supersessionists, taking their stand somewhere between “extreme supersessionism” and “dual covenant theory.” And perhaps even those Christians who are less eager for supersessionism’s return also face the dilemma of reconciling the famous words quoted in the Gospel according to John (“I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me”) with a post-Holocaust respect for the spiritual integrity of the Jews. But that is not my theological problem.

This much I would observe. If God’s covenant with the Jews remains “eternally valid for them,” and if anyone can convert to Judaism, then perhaps there is at least one other way to the Father. But it is precisely when I say things like that that supersessionism raises its ugly head.