Thursday, February 17, 2005
Been on something of a Jewish kick lately, reading-wise. I re-read Portnoy's Complaint after John Derbyshire declared it the funniest novel he'd ever read. (My recollection was that it was pretty side-splitting as well; re-reading, it was, frankly, just OK. I mean, you get the idea after a few pages, and Roth never tops the early line about his mother standing over him with a knife to get him to eat. And the ending - not the punchline coda but the actual ending, the business with the Israeli girl - is both really obvious and really false. And really dumb.)
Then I read The Family Moskat, Isaac Bashevis Singer's purported masterpiece, a multi-generational Jewish family saga set in Poland from the beginning of the 20th century to the start of World War II. I felt like I was still hanging out with Portnoy! Roth thinks that his sex-obsessed narrator is the product of the collision of Old World neurotics with New World pneumatics, but here are Singer's recent migrants from the shtetl to Warsaw behaving in just the same way - running around, having serial affairs. Practically everyone in the novel gets a divorce or abandons their wife or husband by the end of the book. The whole society as depicted is both utterly unbelievable and, frankly, very unattractive. I've read a bunch of Singer and the more I do the more convinced I am that what's really worth reading are the short stories, much more than the novels.
Then I read the fascinating but maddening new book by Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century. I'll have to spend a bit more time on this one. The book has achieved what one would think is impossible: positive reviews in the Jewish press and the paleocon press, basically because Slezkine has written the kind of book that Kevin MacDonald would write if he were a philosemite rather than (as he appears to be based on descriptions of his work, which I haven't read) an anti-Semite. He has written a book about the Jewish people as *actors* in history, rather than merely *victims* of history. He hasn't fallen into the trap of having to either say "the Jews" did this or did that, or, on the other hand "anyone who talks about 'the Jews' as such is 'objectively anti-Semitic.'" Rather, he talks about the Jews as we talk about other people: not as sinister conspirators or utter innocents, but people, a group of people, with a certain degree of family-feeling as well as a certain degree of *commonality* which, even in the absence of any family feeling, predetermines a certain degree of common behavior.
The "big-picture" argument of the book is that the 20th century was the Jewish century because it was the century when everyone (in the West, at least) became Jewish: when we all abandoned our roots and became protean (his term is Mercurian) moderns. Anti-Semitism is just a particuarly spectacular species of anti-Mercurianism: the suspicion that peasant/warrior cultures have for the tinkers/traders who live among them but are not of them, and with whom they have an uncomfortable interdependence. And the 20th century saw such a murderous outbreak of anti-Semitism because the rise of liberalism empowered Jews by vastly increasing the rewards to Mercurian behavior even as the rise of nationalism made traditional Mercurian "difference" very politically problematic.
This argument is, frankly, not very new and only somewhat interesting. At one level it is obviously true - there is a reason that the Indians and Arabs are known as the Jews of Africa, the Chinese known as the Jews of Southeast Asia, and so forth: because this whole business of Mercurian minority trading cultures living in wary tension among Apollonian peasant/warrior majorities describes a reality. But this isn't really news, is it? And Slezkine doesn't do much to advance the argument other than invent a new terminology. And the thesis lacks explanatory power in that it lays off on someone else the problem of explaining why, for example, America, Britain and France handled the growth of their Jewish populations, and their unexpectedly spectacular success, rather differently than Germany did - or, for that matter, Russia did. And that strikes me as a much more interesting quesiton.
The other problem with the book is that Slezkine has such a way with the pregnant anecdote and the persuasive generalization that you sometimes fail to notice that the actual *evidence* of the book is relatively thin. That's not especially a problem in a work of cultural criticism, which this is in part. It's a bigger problem in something that purports to be a work of history. There's ample precedent for this kind of writing; Hannah Arendt and Camille Paglia come immediately to mind. But these writers have also been justly criticized, and I think Slezkine deserves the same criticism.
But what *is* interesting about the book is the later chapters, the material about the trajectory of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union. Again, the material Slezkine covers isn't really new: if you've read Isaac Babel - and if you haven't, you should; he was a marvelous, luminous writer - you've got the necessary literary background (Slezkine moves probably too smoothly between fact, fiction and his own reading of fiction in telling his story; that makes for very good reading, but you have to keep watching him to make sure whether he's talking about real people or characters in a novel) for the Jewish "romance" with Russian culture and the "rebellion against Jewishness" that fuelled enthusiasm for Communism at least as much as hatred of Tsarist-era discrimination; and if you've read good histories of the early Soviet Union, you're aware of the heavy over-representation of Jews in the Communist elite, and particularly in the Cheka and its successor, the NKVD. But while the information isn't new, it isn't so well known, especially in the United States, and Slezkine ties it all up in a neat and very poetic package. And, again, he does something rare in discussions of the Jewish people: he describes them as *actors* rather than *victims* or, at best, *reactors* to others. About the only Jewish enterprise that gets that kind of treatment generally is Zionism, but as Slezkine points out, Zionism was much less popular than Communism among pre-WWII Jews.
(And Slezkine is correct to call this involvement with Communism as an enthusiasm. There's a conversation in Moskat between a Polish police interrogator and a Jew arrested - mistakenly - for Communist activity. They get into a conversation about why so many Jews are Communists, and the Jew basically blames it on anti-Semitism. To which the Polish interrogator intelligently replies that this response is not very smart on the part of the Jews, since nothing inflames anti-Semitic feelings more than Jewish involvement with Communist movements. But the true answer, which Slezkine correctly makes much of, is that Communism was appealing at least as much because it was a revolt against *Judaism* as because it was a revolt against the Tsar.)
Slezkine is careful to say that Communism was not a Jewish enterprise and that most Jews were not Communists, both true statements. He nonetheless winds up suggesting that, at least in its early phase, Communism was to a considerable extent *about* a Jewish revolt against Jewishness, if only because there were so many Jews among the top Communist leadership, and this revolt was what motivated *them* to be Communists. But I wonder to what extent this is true. Jews were, after all, also over-represented in the top ranks of Italian Fascism. But it's a considerable stretch to see Fascism as in any way *about* a Jewish revolt against Jewishness, or even a manifestation of a modernity that is essentially Jewish. Don't mistake me: Italian Fascism was *profoundly* modern - certainly as modern as Leninism if not more so. But if you want to make an argument that the Modern Age was quintessentially *Jewish*, Italian Fascism is a strange place to start. So if Italian Fascism attracted Jews, but was in no meaningful way a Jewish "project" then what does that say about Soviet Communism (which, admittedly, attracted many more Jews than Italian Fascism did, but still the point remains).
Slezkine is writing important history about Jewish participation in the Soviet experiment. But while I think this history is very important, his emphasis may nonetheless distort his perception of the rest of Jewish history in the 20th century. For example: Slezkine makes much of Jewish American warmth toward the Soviet Union, in marked contrast to mainstream American perceptions of the Communist state. But is Slezkine right? Anecdotes about the New York Jewish Intellectuals aside, how did the typical Jew in Cleveland view the Soviet Union? How did Harry Truman's Jewish haberdasher partner feel about the Soviet Union? (And remember: Harry Truman - *the* indispensable man at the genesis of the West's response to the Soviet challenge - as late as 1950 was heard to say that he liked "Uncle Joe.") Who's ultimately more representative of American Jewry in the 20th century - Irving Kristol or Irving Berlin?
What I'm saying, I guess, is that the history Slezkine presents doesn't say what some people may read into it. Jews have been very successful in the modern world, and that may indeed have to do with the way the requirements of modernity dovetail with the cultural strengths of the Jewish people. They've been successful in America, and over-represented in the American elite, and they were successful in the early Soviet Union, and over-represented in their elite. Both successes involved something of a revolt against traditional Judaism and an eager embrace of modernity. But the involvement with Communism was an involvement with evil, while the involvement with America was an involvement with, I would certainly argue, something basically good. So it's not that the Jews made modernity but that modernity empowered the Jews, individually and collectively. And *what they did with that power varied a lot* depending on where and when and by whom that power was wielded.
I thought a lot about another book about the Jews, an utterly different sort of book, when I was reading Slezkine. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin wrote a book some years ago called, ambitiously, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism. Their argument, ultimately, is a religious one. The Jews were chosen by God, and what we were chosen for was to be His witness. Generally, this means to reject idolatry; specifically, it means to be an inevitable thorn in the side of idolators throughout the ages. This enables Prager and Telushkin to draw a straight line from Nazi-era racial anti-Semitism back to Imperial Rome's campaign against the rebel Jewish kingdom. (The Greco-Roman world was actually quite ambivalent about the Jews, viewing them sometimes as a nation of philosophers, other times as people whose beliefs were monstrous, and other times quite simply as dangerous rebels with possible connections to the enemy Parthians. It's notable, though, that prior to contemporary America and with quixotic exceptions like the Khazar kingdom, the only society that featured any significant number of conversions *to* Judaism was Imperial Rome.) It also enables them to indict Soviet Communism as another idolatry that inevitably turned on the Jews. But of course, this skips over the rather prominent role that Jews had in building that particular idol.
Nonetheless, as a believing Jew I think Prager and Telushkin are expressing something important, even if mixed up with some unpersuasive apologetics. *Judaism*, even in its quietistic variants, expresses a witness, a critical witness with respect to the world as it exists. And this has both necessary consequences for actual Jews as well as additional inevitable consequences inasmuch as this critical attitude, as part of the Jewish cultural baggage, can remain even as the rest of the baggage is discarded.
The question I think that should be asked, apropos of the Jewish involvement in the Soviet enterprise, is not *why* did so many Jews become Communists (there are many reasons, one of which is that Jews the world over were trying to succeed and the Communism was one of the few routes in Russia but one of many routes outside of Russia to that success), nor *whether* "the Jews" have something to apologize for, collectively, with respect to the Communist experiment (as the Jews have, for example, demanded collective responsibility of the Germans or of the Catholic Church), but *how* did Judaism fail. *Judaism* after all is the moral framework within which the Jewish critical atttitude, so useful in modernity, is embedded. And Judaism failed, spectacularly, for a whole generation of Jews - if not many generations. How did it fail? How were so many Jews left spiritually defenseless against the Communist temptation? (For that matter, this is equally a legitimate question for European and Russian Christians to ask with respect to both Nazism and Communism: how did *Christianity* fail in the face of radical modern evil?)
Anyhow, I'm continuing the Jewish kick. The next book I'm reading is Saul Bellow's combination love-letter, obituary and fictionalized kiss-and-tell story of Allan Bloom, Ravelstein. I could not finish Humboldt's Gift, but maybe that's because I have no interest in Delmore Schwartz. Allan Bloom seems like a more important figure to me. So I'm interested to see what I make of this particular Jew who tried to shore up the (in his view pagan) foundations of moral sense in the United States. I'll let you know what I think.