Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Notes on Norman, 1

I'm reading Norman Finkelstein this morning: NOT Norman Finkestein the ardent anti-Zionist historian, who now teaches at my own school, DePaul, here in Chicago, but Norman the poet-critic, whom I've known and read for a decade or more. (I wonder, parenthetically, how many readers my Norman has lost over the years because of that confusion. Certainly the other one, the Un-Norman, is profoundly and routinely loathed in normative circles--not least, in my experience, by those who have never read him. It all sounds too much like a Philip Roth plot to be true, but there you have it.)

In any case, I'm reading over my notes from years past to Norman's first book on Jewish topics, The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature, along with more recent notes on his more recent work, all with an eye to reading, really READING, his poetry: reading it to write about it, which is a distinctly different experience than reading it simply for pleasure, as I've done so many times before. He's a poet worth knowing, and a critic worth reading--one of the two or three who have opened the field of Jewish American Poetry to serious academic inquiry, in this book and more recently in the essential Not One of Them in Place: Modern Poetry and Jewish Identity. I expect there will be a series of "Notes on Norman" posted here as the blog goes on.

I want to start, though, with this "money quote" (as Andrew Sullivan says) from the opening pages of The Ritual of New Creation, which sets the tone for much of that book and for a good deal of other writing about modern Jewish literature, in poetry and otherwise:

Regardless of what normative Judaism still has to offer, Walter Benjamin's commentary on Kafka remains paradigmatic for all Jewish intellectuals who cannot accept the old ways. "The gate to justice is learning. And yet Kafka does not dare attach to this learning the promises which tradition has attached to the study of Torah. His assistants are sextons who have lost their house of prayer, his students are pupils who have lost their Holy Writ. Now there is nothing to support them on their 'untrammelled, happy journey'" (Illuminations, 139).
Benjamin and Kafka are two of the four Guardian Angels of modern Jewish intellectual life, at least in much of Norman's early writing. (Scholem and Freud are the others.) I'm struck, though, by the contrast between these two Angels, at least in this brief passage. After all, Benjamin tells a tale of rupture, exclusively. Goodbye, House of Prayer! L'hitraot, O Holy Writ! How sad to find yourself with no support on a journey, even (or especially) on a journey to the gate of justice. The Kafka, though, suggests a slightly different story, at least if that's a quote from Kafka at the end of Benjamin's paragraph. He says the journey is "happy" and "untrammelled," which is is to say free, unfettered, unbound.

Now, I know that we could simply say that it's a bittersweet freedom, living this way. In fact, it's almost exactly the same bittersweetness that runs through Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning," a poem which arises from a corresponding Christian crisis of faith. But don't we run a stunting sort of risk if we dwell (as Benjamin does) more on the bitter than the sweet? How much loss do we really feel--especially given the proliferation, in 21st century America, of houses of worship and Holy Writs to choose from? Don't we really feel, honestly, more "untrammelled" than at a "loss"?

Hmm... Who's this "we," though? Time to look at some poems.

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