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Democratic repression and the admission of difference: the ethnic strain
by Fay Zwicky
If being a poet means attempting to confront social disorder and disintegration in personal terms and trying to make poetic sense out of it, then I probably have to count certain American novelists rather than poets as the most profound influences on my thought. Insofar as some of these, like Malamud, Roth, and Bellow have given me a sense of community I lacked in the Australian context, their work has taken me out of the vacuum of self in the knotty struggle for personal awareness. The concerns of Australian literature have always appeared as essentially solitary, inward-turning, never outer-directed. The babble of speech masking a dumb void; a landscape without a recognizable human being in it. But the Jewish-American novelist helped to make articulate the awareness of a self that lives alongside others with similar problems of social integration.
I would not have been capable of writing my poem ‘Kaddish’ in Australia ten years ago, so uncertain was I of my identification with the Jewish faith and the legitimacy of its existence in a bland Anglo-Saxon context. Nor would I have dared to insert segments of phoneticized Hebrew for fear of revealing that exotic, interloping status of which I was ashamed and afraid. Not that I can either read or understand that language, but I felt the burden of those harsh, rasping syllables in the prayer for the dead as a personal penance. I was exposed to them only rarely, and then usually on the Day of Atonement, that dark day of fasting and repentance for a year’s sin. As children, we were not taken to feasts of joyful celebration in the Jewish calendar — and these do exist, as I discovered much later in life. I was as unaware of the
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possibilities of happiness as I was ignorant of pardon. I could not reveal a long-kept secret, say prayers for the dead in my own tongue unless helped to find it.
Among the poets, a breakthrough came with the discovery of Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish’ for his mother which I found, given the usual antipodean time-lag, seventeen years after it had been published. I had already written the first section of my own ‘Kaddish’ in January 1976. After reading Ginsberg’s in March of the same year, I felt more free to finish it, stronger and less vulnerable in exposing it to public scrutiny in what had once seemed a hostile and uncomprehending environment. No Australian writer I had read could do this for me. Living and growing up in this country has been an exercise in repression. And breaking through this sense of repression has been central to the impetus behind my work. If I have managed to do so, it is to certain American writers that I feel indebted, and this paper will attempt to describe the nature of that debt.
The lumbering strenuousness of the paper’s title gives a clue to what exactly was repressed and at what stage. If becoming a writer involves making capital out of what once seemed insurmountable handicaps, then I can only be grateful for the once-dubious advantage of having been born into a minority group, controlled by the social obligations of a self-conscious middle-class neighbourhood, and constrained by taboos that had filtered down to me, in attenuated form (though they never seemed attenuated), from the religious orthodoxy of great-grandparents.
Only someone who has recently been exposed to nearly 2000 American academics (many of them Jewish), congregated at an MLA jamboree in mid-Manhattan could seriously come up with such a title. Back in the Australian context, however, it makes me squirm. Why? Because it smacks of contentious solemnity? Because one is afraid of being seen to be earnest? Because it might suggest some narrow ideological commitment, and may therefore be limiting to the existential freedom, to the isolation regarded as obligatory to the contemporary writer’s stance? Does the very portentousness of the diction represent a side of oneself that the ironic side is forced to repress for survival’s sake? Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that there are two selves to be catered for: the morally-concerned, solemn, wordy self, the truth-seeking self with only language as guide; and the ironic, tough-talking survival artist in a community whose speech habits come as close to silence as you can get, and whose guiding principle is that all desirable goals may be reconciled by moderation or the golden mean.
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One of these selves is indirectly descended from Tolstoy and Turgenev; the other, from Hemingway and Faulkner.
Moral dilemmas may involve making difficult choices between incompatible but equally desirable ends, and Australian literature has been short on moral dilemmas of this kind. The Russian novelists of the nineteenth century actually ‘lived through’ these issues in torment, and often in despair in a culture whose life was in the cities. The startling question that Turgenev’s characters put to one another the instant they meet is ‘What are your convictions?’ The questioner requires an answer, and the listener, button-holed indecorously as he is, is not averse to giving one. In an Anglo-Saxon context, the tendency to challenge, as if to hesitate were cowardice in the pursuit of truth, is seen as eccentricity. In the non-Anglo-Saxon world, it is tantamount to a compulsion. And to have compulsions in the Anglo-Saxon world is to be marked out as a freak, an alien and unwanted voice. To a critic who once asked him why his characters all spoke alike, Hemingway answered: ‘Because I never listen to anybody’. In the same way, his characters’ questions don’t demand an answer for they don’t hear each other, making speech of near-silence. It is no accident that he has been so influential on Australian fiction writers, and not surprising that I, as a throwback to apocalyptic terrors and messianic hopes, should have felt his silences to be daunting and destructive.
As Leslie Fiedler said of Hemingway in Waiting for the End: ‘He was, of all eminent writers, the most nearly inarticulate — garrulous, when garrulous at all, like the friendly drunk who claims your ear and at great length manages to say nothing. To the end of his life, ‘articulate’ was to Hemingway a curse word, an epithet applied with mingled admiration and contempt to certain rival writers… He invented, scarcely knowing it, a kind of speech adequate to an age: the age of between-the-wars — when the young delighted in being told over and over (since they prized their disillusion as their sole claim to superiority over the past) that all was nothing, that nothing was all.’
His appeal lay initially in exploiting the self-pity of the first in a long sequence of Lost Generations, plumbing depths of a nihilism which evaded confrontation with the attempts to seek the truth of man’s existence, but which told the kind of truth which a whole generation wanted desperately to believe.
Hemingway’s appeal (and I can’t claim immunity from it when young) was linked with yearning for a youth one never had: the vicarious experience of freedom from certain social constraints — his
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Photo of Saul Bellow
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characters, like Huck Finn, seemed free to travel anywhere, if not to strange wars, to strange lands seeking salvation, getting away from the terrible, bland sameness of things, the drab grey-green colour of home and school. His work might not have emerged from the fullness of maturity; it might not have acknowledged the whole human range, but it provided a sense of adventure, a questing for something, even if that something turned out to be despair. To feel pain was better then to feel nothing. He influenced my generation profoundly but, while I half-admired his bravado, I was also uneasy about that pseudo-toughness, the puerile heroisms, the overriding cop-out of self-pity that lay beneath a style that paradoxically seemed to be rejecting it.
On the level of art and life, his influence was diffuse. It was obvious in both the spoken and written language, and I was only half-aware of his part in my repression. It probably first made its presence felt in the severe pruning of adjectives and polysyllabic words in my childhood essays and stories by teachers imbued with the new puritanism, latter-day Gradgrinds engaged in post-war ideological purification of their little vessels. I committed heresy in late adolescence by preferring Faulkner. Such a preference was considered blasphemous by my literate friends who despised him for his supposedly reactionary political and social attitudes. He, at least, attempted to dramatize the problem of evil, using interaction between white and black as his symbolic medium. And his pullulating density of language was like rain on desert soil to me. Hemingway’s allegiance seemed to be primarily to death and silence, and there was too much of that around in Australia as it was.
It was in the novels of Saul Bellow, a natural heir to the Russian tradition via his first language, Yiddish, that I eventually found something to bite on: his stubborn vision of ambiguity much more in accord with my own painful juggling of dualities than what seemed to me the evasive unreality, the sentimental nihilism of Hemingway and, in the final analysis, Faulkner too. Like Turgenev’s characters, Bellow’s typical protagonist asks: ‘What, after all, is man?’ to which the disquieting answer is given: ‘You are what asks; go on asking’.
At this same MLA conference, I heard a panel (including Leslie Fiedler) discuss the work of Bellow, Malamud, and Philip Roth under the heading: ‘The Life or Death of a Genre’. And I was puzzled because the idea of death seemed unduly premature. How could the death of something as important to the creative climate be contemplated when it had only just begun to live? Was it the same old time-lag, the feeling of never being able to catch up with the movement of history, the
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dispiriting sense that what is dead, or very nearly so, for them, was just drawing its first breath for us? And why did it matter so much? It mattered, I think, in the same way that finding a new friend, only to discover that friend to be dying of terminal cancer, would matter.
There followed a lengthy, heated debate as to whether there was a group that could legitimately be called the ‘Jewish’ school of novelists or whether there were only Jewish-American writers currently writing novels. Or whether there was such a thing as uniquely Jewish experience as distinct from human experience. Predictably, despite the heat, the questions remained unresolved. What emerged most clearly was the intensity of disagreement about what a writer’s ‘Jewishness’ consisted of. The urgency seemed to stem from an awareness on all sides that, whatever it is, it is at the point of extinction. And Bellow, Malamud and Roth were put on trial and judged according to the degree to which they celebrated or deplored this extinction. So the Jewish-American writer obviously was having to face hostility and reproach on grounds other than those on which literary judgement is usually based, and from the very group who might understand what he is saying. Shades of Joyce and Ireland! Shades of the Australian writer who may not happen to see his country in a flattering light!
I was disappointed by the narrowness, the demands made upon literature that it should sentimentalize history, manners and morals in order to disperse guilt, real or illusory. These demands have been neatly nailed down in Theodore Solotaroffs essay in Commentary, ‘Harry Golden and the American Audience’. Golden is a Southerner, a relentless optimist, and homespun philosopher who presents an image of the Jew that leaves Sound of Music for dead. Solotaroff analyzed this image as follows: ‘He [Golden] satisfied both Jewish nostalgia and Gentile curiosity and presents with depressing clarity certain very real problems and conditions of our society in the past decade — a society characterized by its well-intentioned but soft, sloppy, equivocal thinking about itself… Garnished with a little Manischewitz horseradish, the perplexed banalities of the middle class come back to the reader as the wisdom of the ages.’ It was just such sloppy equivocal thinking that was condemning the genre to death at that session.
The danger of parochialism lurks as much for the ethnic minority writer as for the regional writer. If the writer is engaged only with stereotypes, his responses emerge as phony and removed from the core of human experience as the stereotypes themselves. Writing intended to stand for the values and interests of a group which feels itself threatened
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and victimized by the indifference of the larger community may, on the one hand, amount to self-congratulation and reassurance and, on the other hand, may try to become a PR enterprise, attempting to ‘self the values of the group to outsiders. It is assumed that outsiders will only respond sympathetically to affirmative statements about that group — that is to say, bracing, flabby, or simply false depictions of the beleaguered.
One explanation offered by Solotaroff for the appeal of writers like Golden was that he presented to his readers a world characterized by ‘vividness, energy, aspiration, discipline, and finally the warmth of life — that is, precisely those qualities which are said to be declining in the modern middle-class family and suburb’. And there does seem to be some kind of attraction to the notion of minority group demonstrativeness, to open displays of emotion, especially in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon environment. It’s only too easy to allow oneself to bask in the stereotype created by another’s deprivation. Philip Roth, in his essay, ‘Some Jewish Stereotypes’, said: ‘People who have more sense than to go up to Negroes and engage them in conversation about “rhythm” have come up to me and asked about my “warmth”. They think it is flattering — and they think it is true. I do not believe that they think it is complicated; that warmth, when it does appear, does not just radiate itself — at the centre there is usually a fire.’ Another variation on Viktor Frankel’s dictum: ‘What gives light must endure burning’. The fire that warms can also burn and asphyxiate, and more often than not you find Roth’s heroes yearning for what looks like Gentile indifference as a release from the suffocation of their far-from-wonderful family lives.
Bellow’s Charlie Citrine, less hostile and more dispassionate to the fire in which he was forged, probes its childish origins in Humboldt’s Gift:
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It seemed to me that writers like Malamud and Bellow had taken account of the main history of human suffering towards a more universal vision, had escaped the falsifications of parochialism, treating not the special virtues of the group but the fallibility it shares with all mankind. Such writers often appear treacherous to parents, friends, and countrymen. Not just for the severity of their criticism but also because their very desire for universality of theme causes them to destroy from inside the walls of a cultural ghetto which has meant security as well as ostracism from the community that nourished them. I have encountered this resentment myself on a small scale for my apostasy in describing familial relationships less than optimistically in some short stories and poems, so there has been a kind of comfort hearing it directed at others far more illustrious in what one illusorily believes to be a place of enlightenment.
But this resentment doesn’t just function within minority groups. It is reflected in the broader national sphere in that our writers, whether they have stayed or left the country, have remained basically provincial. Even when writing of the city, they write about it as seen through the eyes of someone who has come to it as a wary stranger and to whom it will always be alien soil. In line with the post-Wordsworthian romantic dichotomy, it will always be seen as contaminating, inimical to the truly creative imagination as opposed to the moral uplift and imaginative nurture offered by the rural. I believe that only when the city can enter fiction as a legitimate milieu can the long-term Anglo-Saxon domination of our literature be broken down. The urbanization of American fiction has accompanied the urbanization of American culture with some regularity of movement, but our fiction and poetry seems to be out of phase with the intensive shift to the city which took place after World War II. We still plump for stereotypes grounded in the past because they are reassuring, innocuous, and false representations of our present condition. The emotional account is overdrawn on both sides of the fence.
It only seemed yesterday that I discovered Malamud’s haunting, sour archetypes in a world in which the city streets, the houses, the stores seem, along with the human inhabitants who stand in reveries on windy
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corners, about to vanish, drawn, like Chagall’s donkeys and violins up into a pale sky. The people talk with each other sceptically, as if each felt the other were about to disappear, flitting like shadows in and out of each other’s lives like wakeful dreams. Their tense perceptiveness braced for disaster — as if the book of life were about to slam shut: the desperate and ailing storekeeper; the derelict refugee in Rome, Paris, or New York whose very presence reproached fellow Jews for their hardened disregard; the alienated student seeking love; the American intellectual shackled to his Jewish past.
Even if the snow-covered tenements, the run-down corner stores, the intense brutality of the great American cities were alien, I could identify with the gall and wormwood of Jewish guilt, the bitter dialogues, the release of pent-up feeling condemned to ineffectualness. As an attempt to embody those apocalyptic fears and messianic expectations of difficult but relatively simple times, Malamud’s work harks back to the concerns of my grandparents and their struggle against the new world’s democratic repression rather than to my own displacement. Yet their past is very much part of my present, and if that is threatened with extinction, then so is a part of me.
Nor have I forgotten the impact of Philip Roth’s outrageous adolescent conquest of erotic taboos in Portnoy᾿s Complaint. I can still take a larrikin delight in the verbal and physical pyrotechnics that failed to hide the heart’s despair and the mind’s scepticism, the mysterious yearning, that ‘longing-heart-itis’ spurring his every word and deed. As in this poignant passage, for instance, where Alex watches his father go for a swim:
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And Bellow’s tragi-comic characters, always translating action into the higher reaches of impotent consciousness, as in the following wonderfully comic passage from Humboldt᾿s Gift where Charlie Citrine is being set upon by the small-time hood with the flourishing operatic name of Rinaldo Cantabile:
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Bellow’s protagonists attempt to age gracefully and maybe decently in teeming cities that spawn hoodlums and comically inept intellectual victims whose destinies are locked together in shapeless, sprawling novels like the ‘baggy monsters’ of the Russian writers. The very formlessness seems to testify to a protest against attempts to impose orderly aesthetic designs on a world whose composition is chaos and flux. Like the Russian novelists, ideas come alive in his work. The characters live out these ideas — they don’t merely believe them. They are not a superimposed frill on the ‘serious’ business of life. And in characters like Augie March and Charlie Citrine are mixed, with acute irony, those totally incompatible American tenets of belief: namely, that the answer is just around the corner, and that there is no answer at all
The floundering social man, like Herzog confronting solitude, imprisoned in an impotent privacy, only half-awake to his predicament; the narcissistic, predatory, anxiety-ridden women, the horror of family antagonisms, the pretzel twinings of human relationships, the perpetual failure to reconcile the contraries in the isolation and confinement of painful emotional worlds, only occasionally impinged on by the pain of others. Lives which institutions, groups, religions fail to make cohesive. Nothing to reconcile the spirit with the house of excrement.
And if these aren’t enough to remind one of a home away from home, there are always the critical jeremiads to keep alive guilt for (a) being a Jew at all and (b) being middle-class and reared on a diet of affluence
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and radical notions. For example, in Bellow’s essay, ‘Some Notes on Recent American Fiction’ (1963), he takes to task middle-class writers who want to have their cake and eat it: ‘They are taught to expect to enjoy everything that life can offer. They can live dangerously while managing somehow to remain safe. They can be both bureaucrats and bohemians… They are both conservative and radical. They are not taught to care genuinely for any man or any cause.’
The black, bitter note of American Calvinism seems to have found a bedfellow. And after reading Hawthorne and Melville, I’ve often thought how congenial to the American Jew the harshness of American Calvinism must be. It echoes a similar strain in his own religious ethos even though, large as it looms in Jewish fiction, it is rarely praised as a virtue. But there are several shared aspects of belief: the sense of perpetual moral error, the belief in the sacramental significance of suffering, the intuition of man’s inner depravity, the warning from the survivor about latent violence and its surface banality. All these concern Bellow and Malamud as they concerned Melville in Billy Budd and Hawthorne in Young Goodman Brown. In Bellow’s work there is an obsession with the problem of syntheses as there is in Moby Dick: his main characters can neither reconcile, nor leave unreconciled the conflict of what there is with what there ought to be.
When Augie March paraphrases — and subsequently upends — Heraclitus at the beginning and end of his adventures with the statement: ‘I said … that a man’s character was his Fate. Well, then it is obvious that this fate, or what he settles for, is also his character.’ And this comes so near to what I believe to be a peculiarly Jewish sense of the inseparability of inner- and outer-directed needs that I have been glad to have it articulated when it has been only a half-formed, hazy intuition for so long. Certainly never reinforced by Australian fiction’s inner-directed preoccupations. It is not a theme touched on in our literature for it has little or no connection with our past history. Maybe the inward life of the community has never been sufficiently defined to sustain a major writer, or even to provide him with something substantial against which to define himself in protest.
In America it is only within the last forty years or so that such a definition has been achieved. And Jewish self-consciousness had to undergo certain critical readjustments under pressure from events in the outside world: the rise and fall of Hitler; the consequent dissolution of virtually the entire European Jewish community; the establishment of the State of Israel, and the pressure to re-define the allegiance of
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American Jews as Jews and as Americans. Other less exposed developments have had an influence too: the shut-down on mass immigration to the USA, and the gradual disappearance of Yiddish as a spoken language.
Fiedler claims that the urban American Jew is ‘in the process of being mythicized into the representative American’, and while there may be some truth in this in contexts like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, it surely doesn’t hold water for the whole of the country. As a writer, however, one feels a sense of loss at the rapidity of assimilation, racial and cultural distinctions blurring into the grey sameness of middle-class America. For it was those tensions between the old and new generation, between ghetto and suburb, barmitzvah and ball-game, synagogue and secular university, gabardine and Ivy-League suit, that had spurred the Jewish writer to evaluate his legacy as Jew, American, and as contemporary man.
The humanism of the European Jew lies in literal ash. The voice of the survivor holds a note of desolation; the tower of civilization proved to be no shelter at all so why place one’s faith in it? Ideals and traditions that had perpetuated hope had to be questioned yet again. Perhaps the Jew can’t be anchored in place — only in time, the personal context being no more secure than an inordinately developed sense of history. Striving to take root always seems to end in bizarre exile. As George Steiner said: ‘Citizenship for the Jew becomes not an inalienable right … but a contract which he must re-negotiate, warily, with each host’. This condition of rootlessness has a larger meaning for the writer. Nationalism has been shown up as one of the century’s most insidious poisons. If you proclaim yourself an American or an Australian, you can save yourself a lot of trouble. It saves you from having to unravel what you are, where your humanity lies. You can safely become one of an armed, coherent gang.
When a Jew opposes the parochial bigotry into which nationalism so easily and inevitably degenerates, he’s paying an old debt. But his radical humanism which gave rise to scepticism and which was once a crucial force in moving mankind towards mature independence, is now cast into doubt. As Fiedler has said, in Waiting for the End: ‘There is a weariness in the West which undercuts the struggle between socialism and capitalism, democracy and autocracy; a weariness with humanism itself… with the striving to be men… Let the experiment be over; let the focused consciousness blur into the cosmic night; let the hallucinatory monsters bred of fragmented consciousness prowl that
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night again; let the perilously sustained absurdity of the soul be abandoned; let the demons who once trafficked in souls thrive anew.’ If this weariness is as prevalent as Fiedler thinks, then it portends the dissolution of the old-style Jew.
Less concerned than the Jewish writer of the thirties specifically with the experience of the Jew in America, the best of contemporary Jewish-American novelists explore the larger theme of the man of heart in a mass-produced civilization. The characters and manners of the novel are Jewish only because it is a milieu the writer knows best: hence the plight of the marginal Jew is inferred only indirectly from the larger issue of modern man’s existential stance. The themes of a lost past (as much a part of the curdled American Dream as of the loss of a religious tradition) and the triumph of the human being to feel in the teeth of the computerized blankness of twentieth century existence, recur in the works of the novelists I have mentioned.
Wherever the Jew can survive as guest, wherever he can re-assess the relationship between private conscience and social commitment, making his exercise of national loyalty scrupulous but also sceptical, he may act as a valuable irritant. And it has been through contact with this scepticism, the probing Quixotic honesty of the American-Jewish writer that I managed to find my own voice and the courage to speak. However, the discovery may have come too late. Its value remains an open question.