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A Jewish Writer in America–II

[Heidegger] cannot be dismissed: that desolate and empty picture of being he gives us may be just the sense of being that is at work in our whole culture, and we are in his debt for having brought it to the surface. To get beyond him we shall have to live through that sense of being in order to reach the other side.

To this I should like to add that questions that can be closed by philosophic argument often remain open for art, and it is therefore a mistake for writers to accept the preeminence of the philosophers, and write poems, novels, and plays to illustrate, to confirm, to work out in their art and in human detail, the thoughts given to us abstractly by distinguished (and also by undistinguished) thinkers. (Cartesians, Kantians, Hegelians, Bergsonians, Marxians, Freudians, Existentialists, Heideggerians, etc.) Neither the philosopher nor the scientist can tell the artist conclusively, definitively, what it is to be human.

But enough of this for the moment. I was saying earlier that the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century was to suffer the cruelties of nihilistic thought and nihilistic politics. I did not say that Jews—the survivors and descendants themselves—escaped the desolate and empty picture of being that Barrett correctly tells us “is at work in our whole culture.” All of us living in the West must endure this desolation. The feelings it transmits, the motives it instills in us, the human states our surroundings make us familiar with, the invasive force of these states which we are constrained to submit to, the coloration they give to our personalities, the mutilations they inflict on us, the overwhelming shaping powers of a nihilism now commonplace do not spare anybody. The argument developing here, using me as its instrument, is that Jews, as such, are not exempt from these ruling forces of desolation. Jewish orthodoxy obviously claims immunity from this general condition but most of us do not share this orthodox conviction. Closely observed, the orthodox too are seen to be bruised by these ambiguities and the violence that our age releases impartially against us all.

Israelis are also apt to claim immunity, and to a degree the danger of destruction they have to face justifies this. But they too are part of the civilized West. They have necessarily adopted a Western outlook, Western techniques, Western arms, Western organization, Western banking, diplomacy, Western science. The defense of the Zionist state has led to the creation of a mini-superpower, and thus Israel is to a considerable degree obliged to share the malaise we all suffer—the French, the Italians, the Germans, the British, the Americans, and the Russians. Israel is narrowly watched by the West, and the Western press and public try hard to find evidences of Jewish evil and perhaps its aim is to implicate the Jews in its nihilism.

The formation of Israel was a response to the nihilistic rage of the two powerful European states that began the war, and the complicity of the rest who could not and perhaps would not protect their Jews, and Israel’s founders were aware of this. But the Western world now exhibits a certain unwillingness to sanction the Israeli solution—in other words, to let the Jews get away with it. As for Jews in France, England, and the United States claiming a share in the common life of their respective countries, they consent to share also in the desperate sense of non-being-in-being—to experience the gaping hole at the center of the self, that despair arising from the dying heart of every “advanced society.”

After these remarks on the actual situation of the Jew and the civilization from which he cannot now be separated, I should like to look again at the statement I made in 1976, by which that admirable scholar Gershom Sholem was so displeased—I am an American writer and a Jew. Or, I am a Jew and an American writer. Evidently it made him angry that I should see myself as a writer primarily. Most Americans, on seeing my name, probably say to themselves, “He is a Jew,” and then add, “He writes.” Here the priorities hardly matter. But I am not an assimilationist. As a Jew, however, I have long been aware of the political significance of America in world history, of the unparalleled hospitality of this country to all the branches of humanity.

Nevertheless, I am a Jew and as such I am made to understand by Jewish history that I cannot absolutely count on enlightened laws and institutions to protect me and my descendants. I observe the Jewish present closely and actively remember the Jewish past—not only its often heroic suffering but also the high significance of the meaning of Jewish history. I think about it. I read. I try to understand what it may signify to be a Jew who cannot live by the rules of conduct set down over centuries and millennia. I am not, as the phrase goes, an observant Jew, and I doubt that Scholem was wholly orthodox. He was, however, immersed in Jewish mysticism of the sixteenth century, and studied Kabbalism closely, so it is unlikely that he should have been devoid of religious feeling.

I, by contrast, am an American Jew whose interests are largely, although not exclusively, secular. There is no way in which my American and modern experience of life could be reconciled with Jewish orthodoxy. So that my ancestors, if they were able to see and judge for themselves, would find me a very strange creature indeed, no less strange than my Catholic, Protestant, or atheistic countrymen. Yet their scandalously weird descendant insists that he is a Jew. And of course he is one. He can’t be held responsible for the linked historical transformations of which he became the odd heir.

For writers in the West and particularly in the US, it is almost too late to resolve the difficulties described above. Hardly anyone now is conscious of them. Writers seldom give any sign that they are aware of the degree of freedom they enjoy here. Their privilege is to be unrestrained in their destructiveness. They show by this that our giant America does not own them. They are very prickly about not being owned. But then nobody takes them very seriously either. To state the matter more clearly, they are not held to account for their opinions. These opinions are a null dust—weightless.

What does this mean? Can it be said that in our dizziness we are annihilating even nihilism?

Jewish writers, if they wish to exercise their option to reject the nihilistic temper, may do so, but it will be all the better for them—for us all—if they do not get themselves up as spokesmen for conscience or try to give the world the business, as it were, by their moralizing.

I never wished to avoid being recognized as a Jew in order to escape discrimination. I never cared enough, never granted anyone much power to discriminate against me—and now it is too late to bother about such matters. My view, a view widely held, is that there is no solution to the Jewish problem. Viciousness against Jews will never end in any foreseeable future; nor will the consciousness of being a Jew vanish, since the self-respect of Jews demands that they be faithful to their history and their culture, which is not so much a culture in the modern sense as it is a millennial loyalty to revelation and redemption.

A philosopher whose views on the subject of Judaism have influenced me says that those modern Jews for whom the old faith has gone will prize it as a noble delusion.* Assimilation is an impossible—a repulsive—alternative. What is left to us is the contemplation of Jewish history. “The Jewish people and their fate are the living witness for the absence of redemption,” this philosopher writes. And he states further that the meaning of the chosen people is to testify to this:

The Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption. It is supposed…that the world is not the creation of the just and living God, the Holy God, and that for the absence of righteousness and charity we sinful creatures are responsible. A delusion? A dream? But no nobler dream was ever dreamt.

This is not incompatible with Karl Shapiro’s assertion that in the United States the Jewish writer is free to create his own consciousness. In creating it he will find it necessary also to contemplate Jewish history and to attempt to discover its inmost meaning. For a modern man this is perhaps what constitutes a Jewish life.

I said at the beginning of this talk, “My first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew.” After seventy-odd years, some fifty of which have been spent in writing books, I can do no more than describe what has happened, can only offer myself as an illustration. The record will show what the twentieth century has made of me and what I have made of the twentieth century.

—This is the second of two parts.

  1. *

    See Leo Strauss’s lecture “Why We Remain Jews,” included in his Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, edited by Kenneth Hart Green (State University of New York Press, 1997). 

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