David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: judaism

Portnoy’s Obsolete Complaint

Balaustion has said that Portnoy’s Complaint is the most famous Jewish novel of the last 50 years. Is it? I think its fame may have fled. Here’s my guess as to why.

I first heard about Philip Roth when Patrimony came out, and I wasn’t interested. Then I read Woody Allen’s “The Kugelmass Episode” in high school, where a Jewish schlub enters Madame Bovary and replaces Rodolphe. He then tells the inventor that he wants to enter Portnoy’s Complaint so he can sleep with The Monkey. I asked my English teacher who or what The Monkey was. He didn’t know, but the next day he came back with the answer. He said that he didn’t think it was right that he’d left us high and dry on that question, so he’d looked it up in the library (this is pre-internet) and found the answer, which he wrote on the board: “a voracious, libidinous individual with poor cognitive function in Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint.” He explained that Portnoy’s Complaint was about “a very neurotic Jewish young man and his powerful right hand.”

I read the book later in high school and left it with a shrug. The Catcher in the Rye and The Fall had struck me very powerfully, while I had hated Siddhartha (to name three of those evergreen teenage books), but Portnoy was neither shocking nor obscene, just oblique. I didn’t especially enjoy it, or even grasp the nature of Portnoy’s relationship with his mother. The novel’s concerns were just too distant from mine. Here is Portnoy:

She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I  seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell had sounded, I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers. And then it was always a relief not to have caught her between incarnations anyway – even if I never stopped thinking; I knew that my father and sister were innocent of my mother’s real nature, and the burden of betrayal that I imagined would fall to me if I ever came upon the unawares was more than I wanted to bear at the age of five. I think I even feared that I might have to be done away with were I to catch sight of her flying in from school through the bedroom window, or making herself emerge, limb y limb, out of an invisible state and into her apron.

Yes, I can see it, but it is too overwrought! Not that such mother’s are not incredibly real, but looming over this passage and the whole book are the spectres of HaShem and the fifth commandment. A mother’s tyranny is not sufficient for this level of oppression: a whole cultural-religious apparatus must back it up. And without that force being made explicit, Portnoy’s Complaint loses its reference point in reality.

I think this must indicate a generation gap between those who read Portnoy in the 60s and 70s and those of us who read it today. Not that many people do. As far as Jewish novels go, Herzog is better known among my contemporaries (Malamud has fallen off the map completely).

So while it’s a bit further back, I consider the most important Jewish novel of recent decades to be The Catcher in the Rye. Immediate objection: “It’s not about Judaism! It’s not even about a Jew!” Yes, and I think that’s what makes it so lasting and significant. I pick it with intentional irony because its Judaism is not explicit, Salinger having migrated to some cryptic Buddhism years earlier. Outside of strictly devotional circles, I think that this is American Jewish cultural and literary legacy outside of strictly religious circles: a divestment of a very particular religious and ethical baggage.

This, I think, was a product of the efforts of Roth’s generation and the one or two surrounding generations to emancipate the next generation from their neuroses and from their pasts. Many of them (including Salinger’s father) married Gentiles ; many of them raised their kids as atheists. I’m reminded of a story that philosopher Rebecca Kukla told: “My parents explained to me when I was six – when I came home from school asking if it was true that I was Jewish and what that word meant – that being Jewish meant being a Marxist and an atheist.”

There are a lot of complex issues here surrounding assimilation, secularization, and cultural identity. Without getting into their innards, the outside view still seems to point in one direction: a movement away from the mid-century forms of Jewish consciousness that Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Ozick, and others chronicle. Whatever the motivations and whatever the tactics, the end result was to yield younger generations that would not be bound to that consciousness.

From my experience and the experiences of others I’ve known, those generations succeeded in immense measure. Certain stereotypical neuroses remain, but very rarely in the maniacally oppressive guilt-ridden forms that Roth portrays. It seems that my generation was freed to worry only about the Holocaust rather than about the Holocaust and masturbation both. I think that the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man captures this transition as well as anything. The world is still cruel, frightening, and arbitrary, but it didn’t need to be seen through the prism of the Old Testament. We youths are free to adopt as many unhelpful interpretive frames as we want. (This is precisely the story of The Catcher in the Rye.)

The consequence, however, is that Portnoy’s Complaint has dated poorly and does not mean to my generation what it meant to Roth’s. We were emancipated from its concerns as well as its context. “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!” says Portnoy. Well, they did, not for themselves, but for their children. But as a consequence it’s hard for us to feel what all the fuss was about.

Here’s a parallel: the then-edgy humor of Harvey Kurtzman, Stan Freberg, and Allan Sherman–conflicted but basically conservative sorts who liked deflating pompous asses and having a laugh, but didn’t like the looks of those hippies–no longer resonates, while the Marx Brothers, early Woody Allen, and the Honeymooners still do, all based on enduring trends of absurdity and slapstick that were less vulnerable to the shifting degrees of societal acceptability. (It was always bizarre to find out how much acceptance these counterculture court jesters had had even at the time, sort of like finding out Shel Silverstein was a permanent fixture at the Playboy Mansion.) The legacy of Kurtzman and Freberg produced Laugh-In, Mad Magazine, Weird Al Yankovic, and the perennial  face of excruciating parodic irrelevance, Saturday Night Live. (As a child, I knew instinctively that SCTV, produced in a hothouse of free association with neither provocation nor egomania, was by far the better show.)

So Portnoy’s Complaint screams out from a psychological place that no longer exists. American Pastoral unfortunately reveals the degree to which the next generation was emancipated: the portrait of Weatherman-cum-Jainist Merry is so shallow and unconvincing as to hollow out the whole book. Roth has no idea what he’s talking about. American Pastoral won the Pulitzer because the judges lacked the expertise to realize that the portrait of Merry was a failure, and so assumed, wrongly, that the character was convincing. On the other hand, I assume that Portnoy’s Complaint is quite authentic, yet I cannot verify its authenticity. The substrate has dissolved.

In turn, Sabbath’s Theater succeeds perhaps better than any other Roth novel because its main character realizes he is an anachronism, a dirty old man unable to confront or escape his cultural baggage. Such self-indicting self-parody could only be written once, and Roth’s subsequent work has left me absolutely cold.

What did get passed on was a secularized version of the Ashkenazi, immigrant culture which no longer served as an ethical and spiritual straitjacket. The concrete specifics of the culture, as chronicled vividly by Malamud, did not survive, but a background of intellectual, cultural, and social sensibilities persisted, and you can still detect them in a lot of American science-fiction, stand-up comedy, and quite a few other genres. Roth’s generation was very much transitional, alienated from both their foreign ancestors and their native children, so trapped by the former that they were unwilling (or unable) to trap the latter. So Portnoy’s Complaint is less a monument than a faded snapshot. The Catcher in the Rye was prophecy.


Jan Assmann on Auschwitz and Guilt

I don’t study ethics much because there is already such a high bar in reaching a minimal level of human decency, so slicing and dicing moral principles feels like buying a fuzzy sweater for a dead dog. And at any rate I am suspicious of any moral calculus.

I pay more attention to the question of responsibility and guilt–not in the sense of what responsibility should be borne and what guilt should one feel, but what tendencies people have and what tendencies have good and bad effects. That is, regardless of whether someone should feel guilt or not, what mechanisms of guilt and responsibility tend to cause better behavior in the future, without psychological scarring or deep misery?

I have no quick answer to that question. And I worry about the quick applications of those sorts of principles to socio-political problems. I have grave doubts over such things as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation program, which to varying extents coerced forgiveness from victims:  “The witness’s refusal to forgive or to support the granting of amnesty thus is met with attempts to convince her that her attitude will harm her country’s rebuilding efforts.” It’s possible it was all for the best, but who can sit easily with this sort of institutionalized ethics?

There is a passage in Jan Assmann’s Religion and Cultural Memory collection that captures this for me as well as anything. Assmann alludes to how every memorial for an atrocity also can serve the dual function of distracting others from atrocities their peoples may have committed–a form of scapegoating.

Auschwitz, the darkest chapter of German history, has long since assumed the dimensions of a “normative past” that must not and cannot be allowed to fall into oblivion under any circumstances because its importance goes well beyond the memories of victims and perpetrators; it has become an instance of unviersalized bonding memory and the founding element of a global secular religion that is concerned with democracy and human dignity. Its commandment is “never again, Auschwitz,” and this means not just that there should never again be victims of a German fascism, but that we–and this “we” includes humanity–wish never again to be perpetrators, fellow travelers, or electors of a regime that tramples on human dignity. If we wish to procure world-wide recognition for these principles, we would do well not to repress what we mean by “Amalek,” that is to say, the essence of all that we must reject if we are to secure a better future. Instead we must publicly take responsibility for it, in solidarity with those sections of mankind for whom Auschwitz has become the normative memory of a guilt incurred.

In such acts of recognition of the suffering caused to others through no fault of theirs we can discern the outlines of a universal form of bonding memory that is committed to certain fundamental norms of human dignity.

Jan Assmann, “What is ‘Cultural Memory’?”

The point here is that by identifying the Germans as those who will bear the normative memory of guilt, a non-German forgets whichever tendencies lay dormant within him- or herself that could permit future atrocities were the circumstances right. The non-German is inoculated against critical and humbling doubts about one’s own self and culture. Assmann asks instead for solidarity with those who brand themselves with the collective guilt of the sins of their forefathers–rather than moral superiority. (Chakira has some related thoughts on Shaul Magid.) In other words, “Never again” is facile if not applied as inclusively as possible.

In drastic contrast, there is the hypostatizing moral certitude of Levinas, who exempts an entire nation from such doubts:

Chaim Grinberg brought together articles by several Israeli authors on the relation between religion and State. Reading these texts, which are above all eye­ witness accounts, one is struck by the ease with which the move from religion to ethics is carried out. We do not get the impression of a morality being added to the dogma, but of a ‘dogma’ that is morality itself…Not that belief in God incites one to justice–it is the institution of that justice.

Justice as the raison d’etre of the State: that is religion. It presupposes the high science of justice. The State of Israel will be religious because of the intelligence of its great books which it is not free to forget. It will be religious through the very action that establishes it as a State. It will be religious or it will not be at all.

Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom (1963)

This is precisely the attitude Assmann warns against. Identifying justice, religion, and one’s state is tantamount to exempting that state from any such solidarity and any possible collective guilt. Regardless of one’s feelings about Israel (swap any other country into the passage if you wish), this is dangerous bunk.


The Accident by Mihail Sebastian

I have a new review up at the Quarterly Conversation about Mihail Sebastian’s first novel to be translated into English, The Accident. Sebastian’s remarkable Journal 1935-1944 was published in English ten years ago. His novel, which bears some resemblance to contemporaneous works by the Hungarian writers Antal Szerb and Sandor Marai, is significant when compared against his journal entries of the same period.

The Accident by Mihail Sebastian

The Accident arrives as something of an appendix to the massive Journal of Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945), a record of his life as a Romanian Jewish writer from 1935 to 1944. Though Sebastian is known in Romania for his plays and, to a lesser extent, his novels, to my knowledge nothing of his appeared in English until his Journal was published in 2000, chronicling the horrors and fears of life in Romania during World War II. The Accident is his first translated work of fiction.

Next to the immediacy of the JournalThe Accident initially disappoints….

The greater import of The Accident reveals itself only against the background of Sebastian’s Journal, which described in some detail his writing of the novel. But the greater context is crucial as well. The Journal was not published until 1996 (it was translated into in English in 2000), when its portrayal of Romanian complicity in the Holocaust caused controversy. Over 300,000 Romanian Jews died during World War II, a large percentage by death squads set up by Romania’s own aggressively anti-Semitic government. Sebastian was fortunate to live in Bucharest, which was spared the worst of Romania’s policies, but he witnessed the virulent anti-Semitism and deportations and heard firsthand accounts of the government’s massacres carried out on the orders of Prime Minister Ion Antonescu. Sebastian sensitively, painfully chronicled details of the Holocaust as it was happening that many would not know until after the war. Sebastian survived the war, only to be killed in an auto accident in 1945.


“Jew, Go Back to the Grave!” — A Parable

An abridged tale from Yaffa Eliach’s  Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust:

As Ostrovakas and his people were aiming their guns, Zvi fell into the grave a split second before the volley of fire hit him.

He felt the bodies piling up on top of him and covering him. He felt the streams of blood around him and the trembling pile of dying bodies moving beneath him.

It became cold and dark. The shooting died down above him. Zvi made his way from under the bodies, out of the mass grave into the cold, dead night. In the distance, Zvi could hear Ostrovakas and his people singing and drinking, celebrating their great accomplishment. After 80o years, on September 26, 1941, Eisysky was Judenfrei.

At the far end of the cemetery, in the direction of the huge church, were a few Christian homes. Zvi knew them all. Naked, covered with blood, he knocked on the first door. The door opened. A peasant was holding a lamp which he had looted earlier in the day from a Jewish home. “Please let me in,” Zvi pleaded. The peasant lifted the lamp and examined the boy closely. “Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!” he shouted at Zvi and slammed the door in his face. Zvi knocked on other doors, but the response was the same.

Near the forest lived a widow whom Zvi knew too. He decided to knock on her door. The old widow opened the door. She was holding in her hand a small, burning piece of wood. ” Let me in!” begged Zvi. “Jew, go back to the grave at the old cemetery!” She chased Zvi away with the burning piece of wood as if exorcising an evil spirit, a dybbuk.

“I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in,” said Zvi Michalowsky. The widow crossed herself and fell at his blood-stained feet. “Boze moj, Boze moj (my God, my God),” she kept crossing herself and praying. The door was opened.

Zvi walked in. He promised her that he would spare from damnation both her family and her, but only if she would keep his visit a secret for three days and three nights and not reveal it to a living soul, not even the priest. She gave Zvi food and clothing and warm water to wash himself. Before leaving the house, he once more reminded her that the Lord’s visit must remain a secret, because of His special mission on earth.

Dressed in a farmer’s clothing, with a supply of food for a few days, Zvi made his way to the nearby forest. Thus, the Jewish partisan movement was born in the vicinity of Eisysky.

Zvi Michalowski as told to Eliach

This story has been quoted in a number of places, sometimes as fact, sometimes as folklore. It so perfectly displays the structure of parable (and an ambiguous parable, no less) that it commands attention and memory.

Is it really what happened? Eliach expresses doubt about some of the stories while having confirmed the unlikely truths of others, and at least a couple of the stories rely on such nonsensical coincidences that they seem to have come straight out of folklore.

This one lands somewhere in the middle. The outlines of the tale are verifiable and verified. As for the heart of the tale, the encounter with the widow: well, it’s one hell of a story. Whether it’s true or a brilliant embellishment, it’s a parable and will live on as such.

(Bizarrely, a very, very similarly worded account was published without attribution in Robert Rietti’s A Rose for Reubenthough he does thank Eliach in the foreword. Did he meet Michalowski too? Or is the tale now common property?)

New Horizons in the History of the Crusades

I was unaware of the somewhat dismaying recent trend of Crusades scholarship that emphasizes the “Holy” part of the “Holy War” equation. Unlike Steven Runciman and other earlier historians, some of these scholars are rather sympathetic to the Crusades and the Church of that time. To read this passage by Thomas F. Madden, author of The Crusades: An Illustrated History, is depressing:

Thomas Asbridge’s Pope Urban II, much like Erdmann’s, is a schemer whose primary motivation is to exert his own power. There was, Asbridge contends, no compelling external reason for the First Crusade. One would think the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world might engender some bad feeling.

Given the frequency with which Tyerman refers to medieval anti-Jewish pogroms, one might well conclude that the purpose of the Crusades was to annihilate Jews. Indeed, he uses these massacres as evidence of the brutal nature of the Crusades and the success of the Church in whipping up hatred for “the other.” Nowhere does he mention that these attacks on Jews were isolated incidents in direct violation of Church law and condemned by churchmen and secular leaders alike. Anti-Jewish attacks were seen as a perversion of crusading, and people like St. Bernard of Clairvaux worked hard to keep them from happening at all.

Thomas F. Madden, “Crusaders and Historians”

[Note the passive “were seen” in that last sentence.]

That would be the same Bernard of Clairvaux who said the following:

‘They shall either be converted or wiped out.’ So Bernard of Clairvaux announced the extension of Jerusalem indulgences to the summer campaign of 1147 against the pagan Slavs, or Wends, between the rivers Elbe and Oder. This decision, reached at the Diet of Frankfurt in March 1147, set the tone for perhaps the most radical and effective association of holy war and territorial expansion.

Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades

The nuanced and skeptical Tyerman does maintain that colonialization was not the only or even the greatest motivation for the Crusades, but herefuses to jump to Madden’s redemptive stance. And, belying Madden’s whitewash of the Church’s anti-semitism, he cites the words of Bernard and other clergy:

Overt anti-Semitism dominated the academy of western Christendom in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, often expressed by those unmoved by practical or communal resentment or fear. Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny argued a point very close to Radulf’s; if it is a meritorious act to fight enemies of Christianity in distant lands why are Jews allowed to live undisturbed in the heart of Christendom? If Muslims were detestable, how much more were the Jews? In profiting from Christians, even the church, through usury, they polluted Christendom. Abbot Peter was careful to follow the theologically orthodox line that Jews should not be killed but, he insisted, they should be punished as enemies of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘a decent priest’ in Rabbi Ephraim’s grateful memory, while rejecting simple and violent analogies, lacked sympathy or more than legal tolerance, stating:

The Jews are not to be persecuted, killed or even put to flight… The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered. They are dispersed all over the world so that by expiating their crime they may be everywhere living witnesses of our redemption. Under Christian princes they endure a hard captivity… when the time is ripe all Israel shall be saved [i.e. converted]. But those who die before will remain in death. If Jews are utterly wiped out, what will become of our hope for their promised salvation, their eventual conversion?

Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades

While Bernard took a softer line than most, the general view, at best, was that “killing” was a perversion of crusading, but other attacks on Jews were acceptable.


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