American Literature and I don't mix. I used to be absolutely militant on the idea that literary quality is literary quality, regardless of whether a dead white male wrote it or anybody else. Quality is quality regardless of its source, and with enough eons, other people will ascend to the pantheon. Then I realized I had the same problem. Just as so many minorities have trouble in literature with Dead White Males, I have trouble with dead goyim. It's not so much that I can't read non-Jewish authors (even writing that quid-pro-quo makes me cringe), it's simply that when they come from a society that has either complete ignorance of Jews, or complete contempt for them, I simply find that their worldview is so far from my own that I can't get into it. I don't mind reading antisemitic authors, or even antisemitic books, I just find, very often, that their worldview doesn't jive with mine - which is perhaps a clue as to why these authors have so much antipathy toward Jews.
I've written about this problem reasonably often. I was reminded of it recently as I tried to read The Great Gatsby again, or at least listen to it on audiobook. I know, I know, Gatsby is amazing. You know it, I know it, and the American people certainly know it. I've read Great Gatsby at least two or three times before, and it really is as great as people say - or at least I thought so the last few times. This time through, or this failure, I just couldn't get into it.
In so many ways, it's an ideal book. Every word means something, every sentence has direction, every piece of narration is part of a whole. There is not a single empty moment in the book - all that's left of it is a narrative voice who is guiding you securely from one paragraph to the next - secure in the knowledge that every place you go is ventured with a purpose.
But there's just something about it that doesn't jive. We see Gatsby's vitality and pit it against the buttoned up West Egg snobbery of the old money set, and while we see that their lives are full of decadent contempt for anything that stands out, Gatsby's nouveau riche vitality, gauche as it is, is something real and pure. And yet, this time, though I only read a small part of it, the novel simply seems like the myopia of a country club snob who sees the barbarian knocking down the gates while he congratulates himself on fitting in. Trivialities on that level are no way to spend a full novel, you'll get bored by quarter of the way in (as I was...). I don't doubt I'll fall back in love with Gatsby before too long, but it was disappointing to come to it with that feeling so close by. The last time I read it, a few months after I graduated college, it seemed like the best kind of irony, as though he were holding these supposedly attractive people up to contempt. But contempt only gets us so far in this crazy world, and why should anyone have to read about decadence like this? It's like the preacher who inveighs against pornography by showing the congregants a picture of it. No wonder you're/I'm bored!
I can't doubt that it's the Jew in me that's howling in protest. This, no doubt too censorious, voice is shouting at me that this kind of dessicated boredom is the kind of thing which you get from never having encountered poverty and not seeing a world past your spoiled social set.
"Oh really? Says the guy who grew up in Pikesville among Jewish guys who spent tens of thousands on alabaster staircases and vanity plates on their Porsches?" This voice, 'liberal internationalist Evan,' never ceases to make Evan self-critical about Jewish Evan's monstrously Prophet-like urge to denounce everything as an abomination in the sight of the God Evan's brain tells him can't possibly exist.
I had a similar experience a few days earlier trying to read Herman Melville - small excerpts from Moby Dick, the entirety of The Encantatas, and The Bell Tower. Melville, pointedly unlike Fitzgerald, was a philosemite - though I can't imagine that a mid-19th century New Yorker who spent most of his life either at sea or at a writer's desk knew many Jews.
Melville is, how shall we say?.... a little boring. Like Fitzgerald, his prose is absolutely beyond reproach; he writes in the kind of linguistic tapestry you can't possibly recapture in an era when our brains are more shaped by moving images than language - Dickens has that kind of linguistic tapestry too, so does Victor Hugo at his best. Today, the great over-writers go to the avant-garde and make (subject?) us to linguistic experiments. If any writer reached for their particular kind of linguistic feast (or feat) today, we'd just think of that writer as florid.
But to my view, Melville's problem, a common one among the earlier American writers, or perhaps simply artists the mid-19th century, is that he's so interested in the metaphysical striving that he neglects to note whether we're interested too. Wagner certainly has the same problem, so does Dostoevsky, so does Tennyson.
But I have a particular bone to pick with Melville, something to my personal experience that makes his flaws unforgivable in a manner that I can much more easily forgive Tennyson. I had to read the entirety of Moby Dick in the last trimester of high school. My English teacher, the recently deceased and mostly otherwise lamented Mr. Spaeth, made us keep a journal of each chapter to make sure we read the entire fucking thing. And I did, every goddamn page. If you think Moby Dick is agony, try having to read every page of it with the knowledge that if you don't, an abusive high school might mete out one last punishment for you.
But as a novel, Moby Dick's kind of sacrificing everything to distribute vengeance and some sort of perverse justice upon the earth seems, to say the least, futile. It reminds me of a description a great music critic once gave of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony - referring to its 'visionary dreariness.' No doubt, there is something sublime about chasing after the infinite, whether it's in the form of a great landscape, or a White Whale, or building a robot that will serve humankind. But since it's a given that those who wade too far and deep into the water will eventually drown, why are we going in at all unless there's a chance that we'll enjoy ourselves along the way?
What's missing in Melville is that thing that offsets the unremitting bleakness. Any artwork, any city or country, any human being, that ignores comedy at the expense of tragedy (or vice versa) is unhealthy. I may be the only person to believe this, but I believe that there is probably a finite amount of suffering in the universe. For every pleasure we experience, there is someone else who doesn't - whether that someone is the butt of a joke, or whether that someone is a slave-wage worker in Malaysia, or a chicken in North Dakota awaiting its slaughter among millions of other chickens, someone has to pay the price for our privilege and happiness. In a balanced society, the suffering is evenly distributed, with tragedy and triumph being roughly equal in its inevitability. And when that happens, the life cycle can continue uninterrupted. But the more one side profits from another, the greater their comeuppance will be. Nature always finds a way to correct.
...To everything there is a season... A righteous man falls seven times and gets up... Kleig, Kleig, Kleig - du bist a Naar (smart, smart, smart - you're an idiot)... If I am not for myself who will be for me, and if I'm only for myself, what am I...
The duality of Judaism... that idea is what makes it an attractive religion to me. Not the usual 'God is this, God is that...' which you can get in any other religion. No God will ever get my unconditional praise. I don't doubt that in actuality, Judaism is very different from my personal interpretation of it, and probably a lot more boring. But it's my personal interpretation that makes it interesting to me. The tragicomic nature of life, the idea that everything and anything can happen, that the mysteries are there for us to probe, but at the same time, those mysteries are merely to be enjoyed as best we can.
My Conversation with comedian Dave Barry
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