Saturday, September 17, 2011

J.S. Porter and Jewishness

A new book by J.S. Porter is always something to celebrate. His Lightness and Soul, just out this month, does not disappoint. Full of surprises and keen insights, Porter's book takes on a difficult and long-debated subject: the literary character of Jewishness over the recent seventy-odd years. Subtitled Musings on Eight Jewish Writers, the book doesn't shy away from throwing very different figures into the ring: some of the chosen writers are avowedly Jewish, others deny their Jewishness, and one, as I will indicate below, can only be called Jewish in an oblique or ironic way.

If like me you've long cherished Jewish literature, this is a book you should read--for the sheer joy of it. Porter is one of our great expositors of the pleasures of reading. Like Alberto Manguel, considered in one chapter here, Porter teases out and explicates the multiple physical joys of book reading: the tactile attractions of the printed word; the magnetic draw that shelves of books or stacked volumes on a windowsill have for zealous readers. As in his Spirit Book Word (2001), he recounts his personal relationship with the books in question; this proves a particularly effective starting point for getting at what is singular in each writer he chooses. What we get as a result is eight in-depth readerly appreciations, eight critical portraits that give us what we, as readers, are really after: new insights into writers we already know; reasons to take up new writers we might not be familiar with.

For myself, Porter's chapters on Leonard Cohen and Harold Bloom were especially enjoyable. I found echoes of my own readings as well as new assessments I hadn't considered (both Porter's own assessments and those of the many people he quotes: this writer is a great collector of critical remarks). Probably most worthwhile for me, however, was the chapter where Porter, strategically, put John Berger in conversation with Simone Weil. Berger, the ever down-to-earth British art critic, and Weil, the doggedly idealistic left-wing Neoplatonist (I'm aware how odd my characterization is) illuminate each other as they illuminate what a commitment to the underdog can mean in terms of life and literary practice. What was especially useful for me here was the new introduction to Berger, a writer I haven't read since university and one I will now spend some time getting to know.

The problematics of what is Jewish make for only part of the intellectual interest of this book. Given that Porter's concerns are mostly readerly, the question of how and why these writers are Jewish, though repeatedly addressed, must finally be answered by the reader--and answered on what are perhaps mainly literary or textual grounds. That there are no easy answers should be no surprise: What, after all, do figures like Harold Bloom and Simone Weil have in common beyond a certain amount of DNA going back to the ancient Near East? Weil probably would have found Bloom a bombastic aesthete. As for Bloom's assessment of Weil, I don't know what it is, but I'm sure it's pretty grim.

Does the Jewishness of these writers reside in a certain spiritual register, a certain half-tangible something inherited even against the grain of what may have been the writer's very secular family history? Or does it reside rather in a particular deep-seated respect for texts and debate--a tendency to take the written register as something nearly as important as the real world? As George Steiner wrote in My Unwritten Books (and as quoted by Porter in his first chapter):

The tablet, the scroll, the manuscript and the printed page become the homeland, the moveable feast of Judaism. Driven out of its native ground of orality, out of the sanctuary of direct address, the Jew has made of the written word his passport across centuries of displacement and exile.
Whatever the Jewishness at issue here, it probably can't reside in a religious identification. Of the eight writers considered, only Leonard Cohen claimed to be a practicing Jew, and even he was occasionally called upon to defend his Judaism against other Jews who didn't appreciate his Zen practice or the often Catholic symbolic register of his work. His words to these doubters, which Porter quotes, are magisterial:
Anyone who says
I'm not a Jew
is not a Jew
I'm very sorry
but this decision
is final
I use the word magisterial to characterize these lines. And it is apt. Who if not Leonard Cohen possessed majesty in his artistic struggle--in its brutal honesty, its questing up and down the scale of high and low, in its utterly authentic spiritual need?

Much of Porter's chapter on Cohen is dedicated to the novel Beautiful Losers. Porter brings out the scattered brilliance of this work: its annoying side and its undeniable genius; he quotes critics who were maddened by the book even as they sought to put a finger on its power. Here, one feels, is perhaps the closest Porter's book gets to defining Jewishness. Jewishness as a kind of openness that nonetheless answers back; a willing spiritual wrestling with the many perverse angels of the day-to-day. Clearly discernible in Cohen's work, is this not also the Jewishness that, in part, made for the greatness of the first books of the Bible? Is it not this willingness to admit in writing to what is unassimilable? To always portray the here and now along with the painful elements that don't fit? This, I believe, is a large part of what is "Jewish" in significant Jewish writing.

In considering John Berger's essay on Simone Weil, titled "A Girl Like Antigone," Porter gets at what may be an important element of Berger's style, and again approaches what I sense as the Jewishness that really underlies Porter's book. I will quote at length:
Near the close of [Berger's] meditation on Weil's short life of thirty-four years, he returns to her . . . apartment on Rue Auguste Comte where, when writing, she could see the rooftops of Paris. In a single sentence, he captures the unity of her conflicting tensions with the insertion of a conjunction: "She loved the view from the window, and she was deeply suspicious of its privilege." The word and holds the tension and reintegrates the splitting of love and shame. They belong together

On a previous occasion Berger made similar use of the and. I'm quoting from memory. He said once about a farmer in his French village that the man loved his pig and ate his pig. And joins, it honors; it doesn't resolve or excuse. You can love a pig and eat it. You can love a window and feel ashamed for having a privilege that many are denied. But is a different kind of conjunction. It qualifies, prioritizes. Berger prefers and; he prefers it stylistically and morally. (67-8)
In the blank space after these sentences, as I sat reading Porter's book on the Taipei subway on my way to work, I scribbled the words that came immediately to mind: "As does the Old Testament." Berger prefers the and; he prefers it stylistically and morally--as did the J writer and, to a degree, as did the redactors who wove the J text into Genesis, Exodus and so on. The and is one of the great stylistic supports of ancient Hebrew prose (and poetry).

Above I indicate that Porter's book treats of eight Jewish writers, but this isn't quite true. Included as well, as somehow "Jewish," is Edward Said, the great Palestinian activist and intellectual. Said himself, toward the end of his life, joked that he was perhaps the "last Jewish intellectual." The ways in which this may be apt underline the degree to which Jewishness, as viewed in a literary-intellectual light, may indeed be a particular comportment toward difference, an openness to debate: again, Jewishness as a stance similar to something I believe Leonard Cohen has in spades--the willingness to wrestle, and to do so in words, regardless of whose hip may get dislocated.

Check out J.S. Porter's Lightness and Soul at

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