Saturday, December 26, 2009

`Book Working in His Mind'

For Christmas, along with bookstore gift cards, I amassed the usual bounty: We Are Doomed by John Derbyshire, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot by Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (a book I’ve been reading for almost 40 years but have never owned) and Nabokov’s The Original of Laura. Christmas mornings have been like this for most of my life: a solar center of printed matter orbited by negligible satellites of clothing and comestibles (sleep pants, almonds, two salsas). I’m a simple man with simple tastes, and here is my Simple Sampler. First, Derbyshire:

“I happen to believe that the Modern Movement was all a ghastly mistake, like communism, and that, as with communism, it will take a century or so to clean up the mess. Now, in art and literature new things must be tried, old habits challenged, eggs broken in the hopes of making omelets. It is just our bad luck that none of the things tried in the twentieth century worked very well, that the omelets were all inedible. We took a wrong turn and ended up in this cultural Death Valley.”

Himmelfarb, who reads Daniel Deronda as a refutation of the cultural vandals Jean-Paul Sartre and Edward Said:

“For Deronda (as for Eliot), the Jewish identity was not imposed upon them by others. It was not the anti-Semite who `creates the Jew.’ It was Judaism. The religion and the people, that created the Jew. And it was Judaism that created the Jewish state, the culmination of a proud and enduring faith that defined the Jewish `nation,” uniting Jews even as they were, and as they remain, physically dispersed.”

Kenner, in the final sentence of his magnum opus:

“Thought is a labyrinth.”

And Dmitri Nabokov in the introduction to his father’s last novel:

“He looked at the sunny outdoors and softly exclaimed that a certain butterfly was already on the wing. But there were to be no more rambles on the hillside meadows, net in hand, book working in his mind.”


Buce said...

Sounds like you had a great Christmas, but let me invite comment: I thought Daniel Deronda disappointing. I buy Leavis' argument that it is two novels stapled together. But specifically as to the second--the "Jewish" novel--I thought it surprisingly thin. Eliot, for all her industry, didn't seem to understand much about Judaism or the yearning for the Holy Land. I grant that she is writing a full generation before the "invention" of zionism. Still, it seems to me there must have been more with which she could have engaged.

Your thoughts?

William A. Sigler said...

Hi, Patrick-

Just checking back on your posts now that I'm back in computer-land, and I'm glad I did, for in this post I encounter one of your most thought-provoking assertions, that J.P. Sartre was a "cultural vandal" when he famously said "it is not the Jewish character that provokes anti-Semitism but rather … it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew…." Yours is a statement as difficult to agree with as to refute. Sartre does such a good job of breaking down the toxic brew of hatred to its benign parts, it's hard to accept that he took more than he left, that his releasing of the false characterization of the Jew needed a counterweight.

Antisemitism was so pernicious to Sartre because it forced Jews to make a choice between defensively defining Jewish identity as suffering or choosing assimilation at the hands of what Sartre called the democrats, who actually differ little from the anti-semite who "wishes to destroy [the Jew] as a man and leave nothing in him but the Jew [...whereas] the [democrat] wishes to destroy him as a Jew and leave nothing in him but the man." Thus Sartre urged adherence to individual free will before social identifications. In this light, Daniel Deronda the character was on a very Sartrean quest, i.e., he discovered his identity only as a name, a label, and discovered himself in deciphering and ultimately creating the meaning of the word for himself, as part of a larger cause, a duty he accepted through free will.

Politically, of course, "Daniel Deronda" was important, it was to the British upper classes that facilitated it the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of the Zionist movement, full of lofty prose such as "The world will gain as Israel gains. For there will be a community in the van of the East which carries the culture and sympathies of every great nation in its bosom; there will be a land set for a halting-place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East as Belgium is for the West" (of course, they all assumed, in Disraeli's words, that "arabs are jews on horseback" - don't you just love the absurd certainties of those Victorians?).

But to say Eliot needs to be celebrated for her exemplary attitude towards Jews (as if every one else in that age was an antisemite), and make her book into a current-day argument that "Israel is not merely a refuge for desperate people" (as if anyone is actually claiming this) is a bit silly, given that this is a book with fictional characters, and funny ones at that, who do uncooperative things with political agendas. In this I basically agree with what Henry James said, that Deronda's freedom to "stir up the race feeling of the Jews" is "a wonderfully happy invention" because it provides a great opportunity to skewer the trammelled lives like poor Gwendolen's so celebrated in Victorian society. Only an outsider can live a semblance of an authentic life in such a society, because only an outsider could define duty as something natural and freely given instead of imposed by incomprehensible social etiquette.

I share Buce's desire for your thoughts on Dr. Himmelfarb's book.