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Refusing

In response to:

Moses and Atheism from the April 1, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

I hope that people will grit their teeth and read on once they have plowed through the bathos of Cameron’s peroration [NYR, April 1], for some fine surprises await them of a kind rarely found in a serious journal. E.g., da Costa was a “Spanish” Jew—which of course he wasn’t (see TR [The Refusers], pp. 163, line 11; 232)—just as “My Father” was never an “undergraduate” at Columbia (p. 272, par. 2). Such silly misstatements do more than define Cameron’s habits: they typify his entire account, which distorts and belies the volume. Limits of space allow me to cite but few from a range of varied examples.

(1) Cameron says he has “no idea why [da Costa] thinks and acts as he does.” (This is but one of several incredible phrases; another: that this book subtitled “An Epic of the Jews” is “preoccupied with Judaism.”) Now if Cameron cares to learn “why,” he should make the acquaintance of all the pages of Book II, especially those that discuss key events in the ceaseless conflict between da Costa’s Mosaic beliefs and those of the Jewish Establishment, i.e., Rabbinic Judaism (TR, pp. 187ff., 259, par. 2ff.); the clash of the Written and Oral traditions (pp. 192-195); da Costa’s Theses, which was banned (pp. 168ff.); his later book that was burned and for which he was jailed (p. 194); his views described in his two excommunications; etc.

(2) Cameron says “the attraction of Bruno’s ideas is never explained,” but the book explains it in full: see TR, pp. 197ff., 227f., 238-240, etc.

(3) If, as Cameron says, “the treatment [of Uriel’s story is] melodramatic,” the guilty party is history: the treatment follows the facts in da Costa’s autobiography (The Remarkable Life of Uriel Acosta, London, 1740) and Carl Gebhardt’s Die Schriften des Uriel da Costa.

(4) Cameron grants “much charm” and about half of his space to the third novel (“My Friend, My Father”), but in time the biases show and misstatements glare. E.g., “His tradition is that of the Jewish Enlightenment.” It was not; Cameron cites the wrong Enlightenment. That “My Father” followed the Great European Enlightenment—which had long preceded the one that affected the JewsTR, pp. 296f., 317 passim, and other pages throughout Book III make utterly clear, notably in the way he handled the bigotry of Voltaire after his principal reminds him that the Great Enlightenment “couldn’t abide your people.”

(5) Cameron’s envoi declares that everything in The Refusers is “addressed to the question of what is [sic] to be a Jew in the modern world,” but he fails to report that the question is answered indelibly in sentences from Freud’s preface to the Hebrew edition of Totem and Taboo, which stand as the capstone to the final Historical Interlude (p. 412).

Cameron has fixed ideas as to how Jews should behave. But his final words (mixing “refusers” with “Hear, O Israel”) passeth my understanding except in recalling his sharp distate for all nontraditional Judaism, evident throughout and brining to mind T.S. Eliot’s classic remark that “any large number of free-thinking Jews” is “undesirable.”

Your reviewer could have saved himself and his readers confusion by stating that each of the three novels exemplifies a different stage in the history of Judaism. Instead he starts with the third, backtracks into the first, then tackles the second. Yet readers ought to be grateful that the epilogue-poem escapes his interpretation. Poetry, one may dare to suppose, is not his métier. But neither is Jewish history.

Suggested antidote: The New York Times Book Review, April 4, p. 18.

Stanley Burnshaw

Key Biscayne, Florida

J.M Cameron replies:

I do not understand why Mr. Burnshaw tells people to grit their teeth and read on once they have plowed through my peroration. If they do this they will find themselves reading Mr. Mazzocco’s piece—enlivening, but not relevant.

I am sorry I made da Costa a Spaniard. Burnshaw makes it quite clear he came from Portugal.

Perhaps the American sense of “undergraduate” is different from mine. In my terminology any student without a first university degree is an undergraduate, even if he is working for a Master’s degree; to be an undergraduate in my sense is a matter of status, not of the courses undertaken. Would one, in the United States, call a student with a doctorate who enters courses for a first degree in a new subject an undergraduate? This would seem odd to me.

I will not argue about all the ways in which I am said to have gone wrong about Uriel da Costa. I have looked again at the passages concerned with Bruno. Showing something in fiction, even in historical fiction, is not a matter of setting out ideas and then telling us that a given character finds them attractive. It is a matter of art. In Daniel Deronda, for example, Daniel’s attraction to Judaism, even before he knows his ancestry, seems well enacted by the author, whereas Mordecai’s apocalyptic visions seem flabby with unreality. This has nothing to do with the content of the ideas; everything depends upon George Eliot’s literary art. My comments on Burnshaw’s account of da Costa have to do with his literary performance. Again, when I call his treatment melodramatic I have in mind such a passage as the following:

[The rabbinical court]: “Accept the holy synagogue rites! Recant, da Costa!”

[da Costa]: “Beg you to drag my manhood’s bones in your slime of dishonor?” he fleered at their scowling faces. “It is you,” he pointed, “rabid with vengeance—you who must ask forgiveness.”

Cameron cites the wrong Enlightenment.” What nonsense! Burnshaw himself tells us (p. 261) that the Enlightenment that came to the European Jews through the work of Moses Mendelssohn was a part of the general European Enlightenment, and this is the view of such scholars as Cassirer and Gay. On p. 267 Burnshaw’s father is made to tell us that when Russian teachers were substituted for German in his Courland school, “we were ordered to spurn the German Romantic ideals that nourished our hopes: to exchange our excited faith in the Sun of Enlightenment for the gloom of the Russian steppe…. But we went on with all that we’d done before but with double the fervor, our reading circle proudly declaiming Schiller, Goethe, and Lessing till the halls of the Russified college rocked with the Enlightenment’s paeans to man.” This is an exact portrait of the Enlightenment as mediated by Mendelssohn.

I don’t see why the passage cited from Freud is indelible, or illuminating. Freud, great and honest man as he was, tells us that it is certainly something for him to be a Jew, even though he has cut himself off from Jewish beliefs and ways of life; but what it is he can’t put into words.

Two things in Burnshaw’s letter stung me. He monstrously asserts that I have “fixed ideas as to how Jews should behave”; there is no evidence for this in what I write. Then, he suggests that I think about Jews in modern society as T.S. Eliot did when he gave the lectures published as After Strange Gods. Burnshaw evidently doesn’t know that I contributed an essay on “The Political Thought of T.S. Eliot” to T.S. Eliot: A Tribute for His Seventieth Birthday (1956). In it I wrote: “…such a remark about the Jews as Mr Eliot permits himself in these lectures [delivered in 1933]… has a peculiar resonance when we recall that the year 1933 was the year in which Hitler and his party made themselves the masters of Germany and called upon ‘reasons of race,’ if not religion, to justify the most cruel and bloody persecution know to history.” I would add, for the sake of Eliot’s reputation, that he told me he accepted my criticism; and he refused to allow After Strange Gods to be reprinted.

The thought that without its religious core Judaism will perish is no doubt open to dispute, and is not original—Moses Hess thought so: see Isaiah Berlin’s fine essay on Hess in Against the Current (1979)—but it has nothing to do with whether or not one is oneself a religious believer.

I cannot admire Burnshaw’s poetry; this is why I didn’t mention it in my review. I am not perhaps an impartial judge, for I write poetry myself (see my work in the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere, from time to time in recent years; and The Canadian Forum published a note on my poetry and a selection of it in November 1980); and when I was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the University of Leeds in 1961 the theme I chose for my inaugural lecture was “Poetry and Dialectic.” I should not have mentioned these things had Burnshaw not remarked that poetry is not my métier.

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