Monday, March 20, 2006

I'm Back!

Did I say a two week hiatus? I meant two months, clearly.

It's been a busy time. I've written, what? A fat review essay for Parnassus (on dichtersromane, or novels-about-poets), another NEH grant application, a fistful of lesson plans for high school poetry teachers, each hustling into the queue as the last slipped past.

I'm not likely to be any less busy this Spring, but I've been missing the blogosphere--haven't read it, since I wasn't contributing--and now that I'm back to work on my essay on Norman, this blog seems newly important, somehow. Besides, we're coming up on our one-year anniverary, you readers and me. It seems a decent time to start afresh, afresh, afresh.


I find myself writing several essays on Norman simultaneously. None of them is precisely the one I want to write, yet I haven't figured out yet what they have in common, or how they might fit together into a single piece. Here's the start of one for you all to chew on, while I work on the other:

Azoi Toot a Yid:
or, the Curious Case of Finkelstein v. Finkelstein

To begin, an old joke—a canonical joke, I suppose, since it’s now in the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature. The new rabbi of an old congregation found himself in an awkward situation. Week after week, when the Shema was said, half the congregants would stand, and half stay seated. Each group yelled at the other to sit back down or get up on their feet. Baffled by this cacophony, the rabbi turned for advice to the housebound elder of the shul. “It the tradition to stand during the prayer?” he demanded.
The old man answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”

“Then the tradition is to sit during the Shema!”

The old man answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”

Then the rabbi said to the old man, “But the congregants fight all the time, yelling at each other about whether they should sit or stand….”

The old man interrupted, exclaiming, “That is the tradition!”
The Jewish sensibility, this little tale suggests, prefers argument to harmony, disputation to accord. Even at the moment in the service when everyone bears witness, each to the other, that God is One, “the tradition” endorses endless human bickering. Nothing could stand (or sit, as the case may be) much farther from the radical unity of the Muslim prayer line, say, or the Christian longing to be, as the popular hymn puts it, “one in the Spirit … one in the Lord.”

Now, as Daniel Boyarin has recently argued, there are deep, unspoken limits to this Jewish ideal of dissensus. No one in the joke suggests that the congregants not say Shema at all, nor that after Kiddush, those who wish may share the gospel of Yeshua. Nor can we claim interminable debate as an exclusively Jewish value. Any number of non-Jewish poets, for example, have proclaimed its importance, from Blake’s assertion that “Opposition is true friendship” to the “quarrel with ourselves” that produces poetry in Yeats, and most recently to the “YES & NO” of James Merrill’s Ouija-board. Nevertheless, the Jewish love of argument remains a noteworthy phenomenon, capable of playing out in multiple tones and modes of exposition. If the joke from the Norton embodies it as comedy, for example, a tale from the Babylonian Talmud captures its pathos:
Resh Lakish died, and Rabbi Yohanan grieved greatly.

The talmidei hakhamim said, “Who will go and revive him? Let Elazar ben Pedat go, whose shma’atas are so sharp.

He went and sat before him. To everything that Rabbi Yohanan would say, he would say, “Here is a tannaitic passage that supports you.”

He said to him, “You are [supposed to be] like Ben Lakish?! Ben Lakish, whenever I said anything, would pose twenty-four questions, and I would give him twenty-four responses and the shma’ata would expand. You answer ‘Here is a tannaitic passage that supports you.’ Don’t I know that I am speaking well?”

He would walk tearing his clothes, crying, and saying “Where are you, Ben Lakish? Where are you, Ben Lakish?”

He cried until he lost his mind.

The talmidei hakhamim asked mercy for him:
He found his rest (he died). (BT Bava Metzia 84; qtd in Elon, TKTK)
The former bandit, Resh Lakish, and his teacher, Rabbi Yohanan, who transformed the bandit into a master of Torah, may have been rivals, even enemies at times. But their battles were more life-giving, and more expansive of the text at hand (the shma’ata) than the hapless echo and affirmation supplied by Elazar ben Pedat. Indeed, in the Talmud, even the Holy One prefers a fight to mere assent. “My children have defeated me,” He laughs, on finding that direct divine intervention—a voice from Heaven declaring one side right and the other wrong—will not settle a fractious rabbinic debate (Baba Metzia 59ab).

Among secular Jews—a fuzzy category, given the atheism, pantheism, Buddhism, and je-m’en-foutism so prevalent in synagogues, at least in my own experience—so let’s say, among those Jews who recite the Shema less frequently than they tell Jewish jokes, the notion that God Himself likes a worthy opponent has been embraced, however metaphorically, as defining a Jewish duty to resist the status quo or normative authority, religious and otherwise. Harold Bloom’s definition of “Jewish dualism” puts the case in appropriately sweeping terms: “neither the split between body and soul nor the abyss between subject and object,” but rather “the ceaseless agon within the self not only against all outward injustice but also against what I have called the injustice of outwardness, or, more simply, the way things are” (Ruin, 162). Again, we cannot claim such a stance to be exclusively Jewish—unless, I suppose, we are prepared to attribute a crypto-Jewish consciousness to Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One, ready to rebel against whatever you’ve got. (Is this inconceivable? The film’s director, Laszlo Benedek, was a Hungarian Jew smuggled out to safety by Louis B. Mayer in 1939.) But secular Jews have been happy to claim ontological rebellion for their own, and even, again, to declare it to be the defining characteristic of “the tradition.” Tony Kushner puts the watchwords of this faithless faith in the mouth of two inarguably Jewish characters playing cards in Heaven: Sarah Ironson, the deceased Yiddishe-grandma of Angels in America, and (for the English gloss), the late Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz. "Az er darf ringen mit zain Libm Nomen!" Sarah declares. "You should struggle with the Almighty." "Azoy toot a Yid." "It's the Jewish way."

How might this “Jewish way” play out as a poetics? A variety of models spring to mind: the rabbinic dialogues of Edmond Jabes’ Le Livre des Questions; the stick-and-move parataxis of Charles Bernstein’s work; the self-indicting serial reflections of Alicia Ostriker’s the volcano sequence; perhaps even the plunges and soarings of diction in Aharon Shabtai’s “Love,” although here the Libm Nomen to be wrestled sounds more like Petrarch than HaShem. Few figures, however, have explored the aesthetic possibilities of the “Jewish way” more variously, and with greater awareness of its tangled Jewish and non-Jewish roots, than poet-critic Norman Finkelstein.

Over the past dozen years, Finkelstein has established himself as a significant scholar of both American poetry and Jewish literature, and with the publication of Not One of Them in Place, his groundbreaking study of “Modern Poetry and Jewish American Identity,” he consolidated his position as the foremost critic of Jewish American poetry. During these same years, however, Finkelstein also turned the traditional yeshiva method of chevrusa, or study-through-debate, into a model of literary productivity. By turns proving points in prose and disputing them in verse, staking out poetic voices and abandoning them in subsequent volumes, and deploying assertion, contradiction, and paradox within individual poems with a gusto that would make Ben Lakish blush, Finkelstein has carried on a series of significant, as-yet-overlooked arguments with himself about the role of nostalgia in secular Jewish culture, about the relationship between religion and poesis, and about the place of the Jewish poet vis-à-vis any sort of normative Jewish community. It may be an overstatement to claim, as I have elsewhere, that readers who know Finkelstein only as a scholar know only half his thought on any subject. Frequently the poems track conflicting moods, as much as contrasting ideas. But Finkelstein-the-scholar, who (let’s say) sits during the Shema, has for too long overshadowed Finkelstein-the-poet, who stands up, and sometimes walks out. It seems time to give the latter a chance to claim, and reward, our critical attention.

Not a bad opening, as I read it over. I'm just in the "bang your head against the damn piece to get it started again" phase of the writing process. It's all b'seder, really. I just need to get back to work.


Mark Scroggins said...

Welcome back, stranger! So you've started the foreplay on this NF piece -- when do we get down to business?

E. M. Selinger said...


SOME of us don't finish with foreplay so quickly, buddy.