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.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Which Are Most Precious

And if you ask me which are the most precious things, will they really come into mind so that I may tell you? Or are they maybe too deep for me to name, much less grasp?

But already that you can ask what is precious to me--this is precious, no? this possibility of asking and waiting for an answer. And my hearing you ask and taking time to think how to answer--already these are a gift that is mysterious, hard to define.

Is language a gift or a trap? Is it to have this tool for understanding the world and myself, for constructing the world? Or is it to have been constructed myself, this "tool" that has already made me even as I begin to use it? "Eric," "you," "me," "mama," "no".

Is language, this precious gift, is it also this tool that is a system both flexible and stringent, open and learnable, and that is also a mystery, and a trap? Is it a tool, as I believe, that brings you closer to me, or is it rather one that puts you behind names? "Student," "teacher," "mine," "brother," "you".

And if you ask me about God, is sensing God's presence a gift or a delusion, I would say a gift, and to me precious. That God's presence can be sensed, and that God made himself known in Scripture--again in language, but language that brings one closer to Another; or separates, if one is not careful.

But can we really be careful in this way, careful so as to know when we bring closer and when we push away?

Also the mystery of the Bible that always challenges me: Which of its phrases are true, the voice of the Spirit, and which are those that are human writers trying to speak the voice and getting it wrong? But this mystery--isn't this also a gift? The mystery in all these things--is it not part of what is precious?

Also to have someone to love, and the gift of this love lasting many years: my wife. This is precious to me.

And the mystery of our connections to each other: all of us, all humans, family and others, coworkers and strangers; the mystery that we can communicate and sympathize with each other in language and other ways, even if only a glance. This is a great gift and still always a mystery.

That I can hear the voices of people around me: feel and hear the shape of their voices in different languages. Again: the mystery of the way these different languages have made the world (or trapped it?), in some ways the same world, in other ways different for each language and each person.

Also the gift of writing, that I can hear the voice and feel the shape of the world of others long dead, friends who died hundreds of years ago, friends who left me the gift of their texts, and I, also a friend, give them voice by reading them.

The gift of all my friends, many of whom are my students: watching them develop and try to make sense of the world. Watching them laugh and joke. This is a great gift: something precious.

Of course the gift of health and sustenance, not to be overlooked just because, through undeserved good fortune, I have had them. Many, through undeserved bad fortune, have not. May I learn to do more to help them.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Your English is Suck

September in Taipei. 

After teaching English here for fifteen years, I've gotten to see a handful of my students get into the best university in Taiwan (which is really quite hard) and another handful get into overseas universities and grad schools in England, the US or Canada. Of course this makes me feel good, especially seeing a kid I taught basic English doing grad work overseas. But there's another side to teaching them English. As English ability continues to spread here, I see my recent groups of students memorizing hip hop lyrics and movie tags. And I hear then using more pop English in their conversations.

I'm friends with a lot of them on Facebook. Following their conversations in comments, etc., is good for my Chinese, and sometimes they even break into English. This morning one of my teen students, a girl who doesn't study much, got into an argument with her schoolmate, a girl I don't know. After 20 lines back and forth in Chinese, getting angrier and angrier, they finally got so angry they broke into English:

A: You are shit!
B: You eat shit!
A: No I don't eat YOU. No way girl!
B: You are fucker than shit!
A: Huh? What is fucker than shit???
A: Your english is suck!!
B: You fuck suck shit! Fuck OFF then!!!
A: Learn english, bitch!

Maybe I could work this up into a TV ad for my English school. Voiceover: "Is your English fucker than shit? Well then. . ."

Friday, September 9, 2011


A rhino is anything but a dumb beast.

It stands impassive, always on flat ground, eyeing you like an elder who is too disappointed to speak.

A rhino is a natural gnostic, having been constructed by an amateur god who set out to make a dinosaur.

Knowing it has been welded together from the junk in a minor god's scrap yard, the rhino is under no illusions about mundane being.

Unlike the gazelle, fooled by its own lithe grace, the rhino knows it is trapped in matter.

This makes it resigned, and normally serene. But a rhino is also capable of sudden violence.

Placed low on the sides of its barge-shaped head, a rhino's beady eyes give it 290 degrees peripheral vision. This means it is subject to being annoyed by a wider range of things than you or I.

"I don't mind you hanging around here," those eyes say to anyone keen enough to read them, "but if you start making a nuisance of yourself, I will gore you with my horn and trample you under foot. Sorry."

A rhino is a creature that typically remains unimpressed.

It watches the cheetah's kill with disdain, almost as you would watch a young CEO showing off his Ferrari.

Rhinoceros with Salvador Dali. Photo by Phillippe Halsman.

This and 42 other important public service announcements in my new book Idiocy, Ltd.