Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fragment on Bernstein

This is a false start, a fragment, but might be of interest to someone:

Among secular Jews—a fuzzy category, given the atheism, pantheism, Buddhism, and je-m’en-foutism so prevalent even 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 proven deeply inviting. As er darf ringen mit zain Libm Nomen,” declares Sarah Ironson, the deceased Yiddishe-grandma of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: “You should struggle with the Almighty.” "Azoy toot a Yid,” she adds: “It's the Jewish way." In Ruin the Sacred Truths, Harold Bloom translates this struggle into non-theistic terms: a “ceaseless agon within the self,” he calls it, “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 its Jewish roots run deep enough, in both sacred and secular texts, that when we see an identifiably Jewish poet wrestling anything normative—syntax, history, Jewish identity, God-language, a vision of him or herself—we may be tempted to read this as a step along that “Jewish way.”

How useful is this as a reading strategy? Two instances will show its limitations and its possibilities. Consider, first, this passage from Charles Bernstein’s essay “Stein’s Identity”:
Stein did not identify as a Jew she didn’t have to; perhaps there was enough of that being done for her (“May I see your Identity Card, please?”). She takes her place in that line of what Isaac Deeutscher calls “non-Jewish Jews”, going back at least to Spinoza, and, in this, her most immediate company in American poetry includes Louis Zukofsky (who incorporates Spinoza and Stein into “A”) and Laura Riding (her onetime protégé). (This heterodox tradition of Jewish writings is charted in Jerome Rothenberg’s A Big Jewish Book.) Those Jewish-American modernists, like Stein, who turned away from Yiddish or other overt markers of ethnicity did not necessarily adopt an assimilationist cultural program, since the language of assimilation is never neutral, not an arena of ‘human mind’ but of the name/nature-inf(l)ected language of the ascendant culture. Stein never bought into this assimilation, moving entirely in the other direction. In this sense her triple marginalization provided an ontological grounding for her radical forms of nonidentification, just as her affluence and education provided a space to perform them. Stein is one of the least assimilationist of American modernist writers and in this one of the most American if, following Stanley Cavell’s reading of Emerson, we take America to be a movement away from given identities and toward something new, unapproachable, unrepresentable, and unattainable” (My Way, 143).
Bernstein starts with a negative: “Stein did not identify as a Jew.” A moment later, he has turned the tables on anyone who wants her to identify as such, since to do so is apparently to pull on the boots of the anti-Semite. As a gesture of resistance, we then learn, Stein’s refusal marks her as at least as Jewish as someone who deploys “overt markers of ethnicity”: in fact, it places her in a twice-charted territory—mapped first by Deutscher, then by Rothenberg—of heterodox or “non-Jewish” Jews.

What, though, does Bernstein do with this Jewishness of “nonidentification”? In this essay, not much—except, in a delicious paradox, to claim it as not only thoroughly Jewish, but thoroughly American. Note, though, where his vision of America comes from: not Emerson directly, but Emerson as read by a Jewish American philosopher (Stanley Cavell). Just as Emma Lazarus reads Bertholdi’s statue of Liberty Enlightening the World as though it said “Mother of Exiles,” thus declaring the nation not merely to be safe, but home, for millions of Jewish immigrants, Cavell has read Emersonian romanticism as a home for precisely the forms of self-production, self-transformation, and play with identity that a heterodox Jew might most desire.

At which, it breaks off. But as I said, it may be useful someday--here's posting & hoping.

Say, which day of the Omer are we on again? I hate it when I lose count!

1 comment:

Ben F said...

This is good stuff, and I hope you keep going. Nice point about the Jewish provenance of Bernstein's Emerson—and Brando's biker! But I don't quite get the equation of the Bloom/Kushner stance with Bernstein's: To struggle with God over matters of right and wrong is, if not a religious stance, then a stance that keeps faith with what makes religion matter. Bernstein's non-Jewish Jew is something different, no?

Anyway, here's what I've been struggling with, trying to work out my own response to this "secular Jewish culture" project: if we set aside religious observance as our sole definition, what possible path could a Jewish-born writer take that would not be Jewish? Since even antisemitism has its Jewish aspect, as Sander Gilman once reminded us...