Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rockdale Preview

Norman Finkelstein

My scholar-in-residence gig at Rockdale Temple is coming up in two weeks. The theme for the three talks is “The Jewish Literary Imagination”: “Remembering & Forgetting in Jewish-American Fiction,” “Midrash in Jewish-American Poetry,” and “The Sacred, the Secular, & the Book: The Problem of the Jewish Literary Imagination.” This last one is the most speculative and risky, and I hope the audience, which will be lively and literary but not particularly “academic” or “theoretical” in their orientation, won’t be put off. The first part of the talk has to do with interpretive innovation in traditional Jewish religious texts (Scholem and Bloom are important sources here). Then I move on to the “secular” instance of Kafka, who, of course, isn’t that secular at all. Here are the last few paragraphs, ending with—surprise!—Wallace Stevens:

… Drawing on Bialik and thinking deeply about Kafka, Walter Benjamin observes that “Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its haggadic element. Kafka’s writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables. They do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Haggadah lies at the feet of the Halakah. Though apparently reduced to submission, they unexpectedly raise a mighty paw against it.”

Here we arrive at the heart of our investigation. It is Kafka, more than any other writer, who leads Bloom to assert the incoherence of the view that some imaginative literature is sacred and some is secular. For nearly a hundred years, we have been reading Kafka with something approaching religious devotion. Indeed, for many Jewish readers,and unquestionably for nearly all subsequent Jewish authors, Kafka’s writing—his Scripture—assumes an existential authority and a doctrinal power that becomes stronger the more one thinks about it. And yet the more one thinks about it, the more elusive the message of this Scripture, this new Kabbalah, becomes: in every respect, it is a writing that is more concerned with concealment than with revelation. It’s truth, if it bears truth, remains hidden; it preserves, as Benjamin understands, nothing but its transmissibility, and that is inescapable. I am reminded of the debate between the priest and K. in The Trial, after the priest (who speaks much more like a Talmudic sage than a Christian minister) tells K. the famous parable called “Before the Law.” As they argue the numerous possible meanings of this enigmatic parable, they consider the truth of what the doorkeeper of the Law tells the man who has come to beg admittance. “It is not necessary to accept everything as true,” the priest tells K.; “one must only accept it as necessary.”

What, I would ask, do we accept as necessary? In posing this question, I am asking not only what it is that we require in our search for meaning, but what we acknowledge to be inescapable in our lives, what in effect determines meaning for us. This is a philosophical, if not a religious question. Now, granted, I’m an unusual case, but when I reflect on this question, I come up with a peculiar answer: literature. It is in my experiences as a reader, and eventually, as a writer, that I feel my fate not merely being revealed, but even being shaped. I think many serious readers (there seem to be fewer and fewer of them) share this feeling with me, though they might not put it quite such portentous terms. Secular Jews, educated, middle-class, American Jews, two or three generations beyond the crisis of assimilation, whether or not they belong to a temple, whether or not they are members of some Jewish organization—these Jewish readers in particular still reach for imaginative literature in order to develop a keener sense of who they truly are. As in Kafka, they do not necessarily accept what they read to be true, but they accept that their reading is necessary. Again, this is what is meant by transmissibility. These Jews have gone from the Book to books, a transition through modernity that is analogous to the transition I have been describing in regard to how innovation in Jewish texts, sacred and secular, comes to pass.

To bring this talk to a conclusion in a rather different key, I would like to refer to one of my favorite poems by a most unlikely figure in the present context, Wallace Stevens. It is a late poem called “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” in which, I presume, the muse addresses her poet, after they have come together many times in what she calls “the intensest rendezvous.” “Here, now,” she declares,

…we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…

On one level, it is a scandalous proposition, whether one believes or not. Then again, the two terms that the Interior Paramour conflates, God and the imagination, share at least one thing in common, which is the creative principle, out of which comes “an order, a whole.” Is Stevens’ poem a sacred or a secular utterance? “What difference does that make?,” you may ask—he certainly wasn’t Jewish! Well, no, and I’m not going to retroactively convert him. It’s funny, though: early and late, Stevens’ poetry is sprinkled with references to rabbis. He explains this as follows: “the figure of the rabbi has always been an exceedingly attractive one to me, because it is the figure of a man devoted in the extreme to scholarship, and at the same time making use of it for human purposes.” I think that’s very well said: it makes most authors and critics into rabbis, which has been my intention all along. So with Reb Stevens, I say “Oh! Rabbi, rabbi, fend my soul for me / And true savant of this dark nature be.”


myshkin2 said...

I know this is a bit out of my element, but I'm wondering (when thinking about the role of the parable in Jewish thought and sacred text) whether or not it would be wrong to view the kinds of tales found in works like Ginsburg's monumental "Legends of the Jews" as parables....and thus precursors to Kafka. Or do Kafka's seem to stem a bit more directly from Jesus' Gospel parables, which in some ways seem to be closer in technique, though not meaning, to Kafka's. Was the period before the destruction of the Temple particularly rich in parable-teaching? I guess I'm wondering a bit about the whole history of the genre. And I admit I'm totally out of my element here.

Michael Heller said...

A wonderfully informed post. A couple of thoughts, questions to myself, to you. Benjamin’s formulation of Kafka’s sacrificing truth for the sake of transmissibility (it’s ‘haggadic element”) is rethought by Alter in his Necessary Angel as “lore in quest of Law,” a reformulation that is less binary, one that suggests Kafka’s “sacrifice” is more like method or path, not alternative. Bialik, in “Revealment and Concealment” says "the most dangerous moment—both in speech and in life—is that between concealments, when the void looms." Uncertainty and its effects as prime motivator. Kafka, it strikes me—I’m reflecting on his late aphorisms right now—and maybe this is what Benjamin’s words mean—constantly refuses law, maxim, whatever, for a sort of parable-like showing forth, an image or construct that can not be reduced to a dogma or law, though it has trace elements that any reader could—in a most unKafka-like fashion-freeze into doctrine. (These thoughts, especially on Bialik, are expanded in my “Remains of the Diaspora” essay for the Jewish Radical Poetics volume). So the question and answer as to what is “necessary,” and what determines “meaning,” are, yes, literature—reading and making it—but perhaps even more, our stance or attitude as we do this. All of Kafka is suffused with momentariness, wonderment and shock, and the elusivity of final judgements, which are always the province of others until one’s final moments close up the circle of questing. And even then—I don’t have my Trial with me here in Paris—K.’s having his throat slit “like a dog” reverberates with a horrific critique of questing itself, almost enough to make any Jew become a Buddhist!

et-at-home said...

The Stevens' poem "Soliloquy..."
reminded me of a favorite Dickinson
poem. She spent her life wrestling with the sacred and the secular:

The Brain - is wider then the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You - beside -

The Brain is deeper than the sea -
For - hold them - Blue to Blue -
The one the other will absorb -
As Sponges - Buckets -do -

The Brain is just the weight of
God -
For Heft them - Pound for Pound -
And they will differ - if they do -
As Syllable from Sound -

("God" does not have His own line
in the original poem. The comment
window won't accept sufficient
characters in one line to preserve
Dickinson's lineation)