Monday, July 18, 2005

Quick Takes (and Corey's Credo)

Just found this over at Josh Corey's blog, "Cahiers de Corey": a familiar credo, but one he articulates quite nicely: is not enough: spiritual feeling depends on some kind of lived
experience of community. And my culture at large provides a (distorted) lived
experience based upon Christian narratives. Strangely enough, I've found a
community oriented toward faith in redeeming the present through knowledge and
imagination, not in shul, but in academia and in poetry. But that counterculture
is fragmented and fractious, never really rising to the level of the religious
as such—which is almost certainly a good thing.

I've sometimes thought that I would eventually seek out some kind of religious community, because I sense that as much as I get out of the community of intellectuals and poets it will never provide the solid foundation we all tend to yearn for (the most committed postmodernists have that in each other, and arguably in the state-sanctioned intellectual cultures of nations like France). Of course not believing in God or G-d is a bit of a stumbling block; and if I'm with a bunch of Unitarians or
Reform Jews who are taking pains to explain that it's all metaphors anyway, I
might as well stay with the poets, who have much better metaphors.
And these reflections, from a day or two ago:
Not sure what the role of the spiritual is in my own poetry; obviously I take a certain amount of language from the Bible, and I'm heavily influenced by the messianic strain in the great modernist Jewish writers: Benjamin, Kafka, Adorno, Jabes. (I have special affection for Benjamin for his this-worldliness, his uneasy affection for consumer culture.....)

I've never set out to write a "spiritual" poem, not one that was any good, anyway; yet my poems are riddled with metaphysical speculation, gestures toward the invisible, and the like. I'm often uncomfortable with how much Christianity has infiltrated my thinking: it's so much the water you swim in as a Westerner that it's nigh-unavoidable, especially in this country where the supposed secularism of our postmodern age is far less visible than the innumerable emblems of the "Buddy Christ." You can't be an assimilated Jew without, well, assimilating.

There are specifically Christian notions—that of being born again, for example—whose emotional power is difficult to deny, even though I'd rather affirm the sentiment on a bumper-sticker I've seen, "Born O.K. the first time." Stories of resurrection and redemption are endemic in our culture, and they reach you when you're young: the fantasy narratives that have meant the most to me are strongly, if latently, Christian (and I'm shivered with ambivalence over the new Narnia movie—it looks fantastic and the books meant a lot to me as a kid, but they're now being celebrated by the same people who made Passion of the Christ a hit). Whereas the ecstatic side of Judaism is only available to initiates and I don't speak a word of Hebrew. Yiddish has always held more appeal for me as the living language of my actual flesh and blood, and for its own remarkable, often deprectaory flavors: schmaltz, schmendrick, schmuck. I loved Leo Rosten's books when I was a kid, and I still remember most of the dumb jokes in The Joys of Yiddish. But see, I'm already straying back across the blurry line between Judaism and Jewishness, between religion and culture. Where I live, more or less, when I'm not just inhabiting the skin of another blundering American.
A lot to respond to in this, some of which I cotton to, some of which feels a little over-familiar, even frustratingly so, to me.

Notice how reading Jewish authors--especially philosophical, meditative ones, who take on "big issues"--becomes a surrogate for lived Jewish community: or not "surrogate," exactly, but a form of "virtual community," a mental minyan that takes the place of the literarily stumbling, all-too-credulous "Jewish community" of the synagogue.

Notice, too, how that virtual community can be mustered against, or at least can counterbalance, the seductions of Christian tropes, Christian fantasy fiction--but only to a point. When actual linguistic difference sets in--i.e., Hebrew, the "secret language of the Jews"--Corey quick-steps back to the heimish, Yinglish side of the line, and back from "Judaism" (foreign, insular, initiatic) into "Jewishness" (dumb jokes, deprecatory or off-color humor). You don't have to be Freud to spot the defensive reaction at work there, surely! It doesn't take all that long, Josh, to learn enough Hebrew to daven. I suspect it ain't the language that's in your way.

Shivkhi ka'mayim libeich, bro--which doesn't exactly translate as "28 days until the Gaza pullout," but it might, for some, eh?


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