Monthly Archives: March 2013

On Peeps, Soap Operas, and (Yawn) Mental Illness

ImageI wanted to like Jeffrey Eugenides’ most recent book, The Marriage Plot.  I really did.  I actually enjoyed reading it, most of the time, but it was like eating Peeps: you put them in your mouth, they taste sweet, but there’s nothing there.  And then you want another one.

To be clear: I don’t want to read another book like this.  But I found it hard to put down, even though I didn’t really like it and was often thinking about all the things that were wrong with it while I was reading (intellectual multitasking I learned in grad school).  Then I started thinking about why I couldn’t stop reading it even though I didn’t really like it: what else could I compare it to?  Well, Peeps, obviously.  But the best cultural equivalent I could think of was the soap opera.  The Marriage Plot is a literary soap opera.  A soap opera set in 1982, whose characters are over-privileged recent college graduates (from Brown, Eugenides’ alma mater, natch), and therefore have a lot of sex, do a lot of drugs, and narcissistically obsess about who they are.

The twist, or the plot point that Eugenides must have thought would make this into a serious novel, is that one of the characters is mentally ill.  Much of the novel is devoted to how he and those who care about him (well, only one person, really, because his mother is painted as an unremittingly narcissistic alcoholic bitch, and his sister and father are basically absent) try to cope with his mental illness.  I understand why that is the big Serious Thing here, and in 1982 I’m sure bipolar disorder (the mental illness in question) was a much bigger deal than it is now, in the age of XanaxProzacZoloftCymbaltaEtc, but the truth is it’s just not that interesting.  It’s probable that this lack of interestingness is Eugenides’ fault, and not the fault of mental illness, which, it seems to me, could potentially offer something in the way of complicated and fascinating character studies.  There’s just no real exploration of the illness or what it means, other than medication side effects (boring!), relationship problems (boring!), and a brief and pretty sketchy moment from the perspective of the bipolar character (not totally boring, but pretty much what you would have predicted or could have gleaned from any first-person account of mental illness you’ve read, and the fact that I know you’ve read some points to one of the problems with this book right there).

I also found the novel’s treatment of the inevitable class and social differences between its Ivy-League-educated characters predictable and tiresome, as well as (see above) insufficiently explored.  Maybe it’s because I went to an Ivy-League school as a Midwestern public-school graduate who didn’t learn that “summer” was a verb until my first year in college, but my basic feeling about these supposed anxieties on the part of the characters from modest backgrounds was: get over it.  You just graduated from one of the most highly regarded universities in the U.S., you’re basically set up for life, so please stop fretting over how uncultured your parents are or the fact that you grew up in a (huge, beautiful) house where the last inhabitant was murdered in the hallway just because that’s all your dad could afford (seriously – I did not make that up).  The whole thing rang false to me, and I ended up disliking the characters for it, each in their own particular way.

I really liked Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, both as different from each other as they are from The Marriage Plot, but on thinking about Jeffrey Eugenides’ trajectory as a whole, I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that it’s probably sliding slowly downhill.  I will not much look forward to his next book (sometime next decade, at this rate), but I’ll hope to be proven wrong.

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Two New Articles

It just happens that in the last two days I’ve published two articles.  Here are the links:

Why Obama Should Not Visit the Western Wall

Shani Boianjiu and the Past and Present of Jewish Literature

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Up Side of the Down Side

I really have to stop reading books by and about dead young people.  It’s too depressing.

ImageOr maybe not.  According to the premise of David Rakoff’s last book, a collection of essays titled Half Empty, the down side has its up side.  To be honest, this is a truism that I have carried in my bones, or perhaps my DNA, my whole life.  Yet only after reading the first essay in the book, “The Bleak Shall Inherit,” could I put a name to this quirk of my personality: defensive pessimism.  The defensive pessimist assumes disaster in all instances, but unlike the dispositional pessimist – think of Eeyore – the defensive pessimist uses this assessment to take action, therefore generally avoiding disaster and ending up, if not happy, then satisfied.  I would add another neat side effect: if it is a disaster, the dispositional pessimist also tends to be satisfied, since his expectations were fulfilled.

My father is perhaps the most perfect case-study of the defensive pessimist on earth, and suffice it to say I have learned from the master.  A few years ago my husband had a hernia operation, and while sitting with him before he was taken to surgery, chatting and laughing, I suddenly realized that he was not worried about the fact that someone was about to sedate him and cut into his flesh with a sharp knife.  I asked him if he were nervous, and he said no.  Then I got mad.  To me, a lack of anxiety at a moment when it is obvious that something might go very, very wrong represents an insufferable naiveté.  The surgeon walked in.  Glancing at us, he asked, “What’s wrong?”  “I think he’s insufficiently anxious about his surgery,” I said.  “I’m not getting into this,” the surgeon said, and walked out.

So you see that I am constitutionally perfectly suited to love a book like Half Empty, and I did.  Aside from my identification with the topic, David Rakoff’s essays are wonderful, even when they are not being read by him in his slightly nasal Jewish-Canadian-New York voice.  The guy can turn a phrase like no other – to wit, his description of an older woman’s laugh as “the sound of rocks in a blender, a granite smoothie,” or a parenthetical observation about Brigham Young’s requirement that the streets of Salt Lake City be 132 feet wide: “Is this bit of hypertrophic urban planning just a standard issue paleo-Trumpism?  One of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nineteenth-Century Men with Big Ideas?”  As always, Rakoff’s particularly incisive, slightly caustic brand of humor had me giggling and chuckling to myself, stopping to read the funniest bits aloud to my husband.

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David Rakoff

But the humor, though biting, is rarely at anyone else’s expense.  The thing I appreciate most about David Rakoff’s work, and this book is no exception, is its deep, almost reverent sincerity.  “The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot,” which is largely an account of Rakoff’s own struggles to become a writer and take the risks necessary for creative production, is also a kind of extended confession and penance, it seemed to me, for saying something about another writer that he describes as “the only person in my entire life about whom I’ve said something purposely, gratuitously injurious and deeply unkind.”  The way we know what a mensch David Rakoff was (aside from the many, many eulogistic essays on his menschiness that appeared in print after his death) is that the thing he said, the thing it seems like he wrote this whole essay to atone for, isn’t even that bad.  I’m pretty sure I’ve said worse things in my sleep.

I like to think that this menschy quality is related to another of the aspects of Rakoff’s writing that I love: his unapologetic Jewishness, and his dedication to the most expansive and generous interpretation of Jewish identity.  Here, an essay-length meditation on the deliciousness of pork and its particular appeal to Jews becomes a sweet homage to the multiplicity of modern Jewish life (something I have written about on this very blog).  His ode to bacon becomes a kind of pride parade for Jews.  When he eats bacon, he writes, “It is this that I taste: the fact that I do not have to be ‘on the bus.’  I can, in fact, stand by the side of the road with a sign that says DOWN WITH BUSES! – or, more authentically phrased: BUSES? FEH! – and still be able to claim full and proud membership.  Which I do, emphatically.”  This is everything that is great about modern Jewish life in a nutshell – a funny, emotionally honest nutshell.  And that is David Rakoff’s genius.

Despite the charm and brilliance of these little literary gems, almost all of them were painful to read with the knowledge that the voice who spoke them is gone.  Especially painful is the moment in which, discussing his childhood, Rakoff writes, “I always felt that my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between forty-seven and fifty-three years old,” because he barely made it to his ideal age.  Paradoxically, the last essay, about the cancer that would eventually kill him, ends on a hopeful note, the cancer excised, his left arm, which at one point he thought he would lose, intact.  But my knowledge of his death reminded me of another truism dear to all Jews, defensive pessimists, and crotchety old people (two of which I am, and one of which I am probably becoming): half empty is still better than the alternative.

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Jewish Futures

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David Brooks

Last week David Brooks published a column in The New York Times called “The Orthodox Surge.”  Like most David Brooks columns, its broad generalizations, sloppy analysis, and saccharine romanticization of its topic drove me crazy.  Unlike most David Brooks columns, however, I happen to have some expertise on the topic about which he was writing.  After spending almost a decade in a musty library writing a dissertation in the field of Jewish Studies, it irritated me a little more than usual that Brooks wrote something so obviously uninformed after an afternoon of “research” in an upscale grocery store.

Dvora Meyers weighed in on Jewcy about both the silliness and the danger of romanticizing the Orthodox Jewish community Brooks writes about, and I agree that this is a huge problem with the column.  His sense that modern Orthodoxy is “rooted in that deeper sense of collective purpose” while “those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given” sets up a false dichotomy between the virtuous, purpose-driven religious and the rest of us poor schmos with nothing to prevent us from falling into a the den of hedonistic pleasures that is the modern world.

But even more dangerously, Brooks’ comments about modern Orthodoxy and Jewish life in general are made in a historical vacuum that basically ignores the multivalent forms of Jewish identity and culture that have defined Judaism since the haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment, of the late 18th century.  Brooks betrays a childish nostalgia for something that never existed: a pure or authentic form of Jewish life that will somehow point the way forward through the darkness of modernity.

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Hamburg Temple, 1818

Orthodox Judaism is as much a product of modernity as the Reform movement or secularism.  In the 19th century, as the forces of modernization and enlightenment transformed European Judaism, spawning new religious, cultural, social, and political forms, conservative religious forces created their own movement in response: modern Orthodoxy.  In opposition to the forces of reform, the new Orthodox movement declared itself the true arbiter of religious Jewish life, defining the precise mode and method of adherence to Jewish laws and customs whose observance had often varied widely across the broad geographic spread of Jewish residence in Europe.  Although modern Orthodoxy, and to an even greater extent ultra-Orthodoxy (also a modern invention), presents itself in the humble garb of authenticity, it is no more and no less “real” Judaism than the Reform movement, born in Hamburg, Germany in 1817.

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Yosef Chaim Brenner

Likewise, the secular culture Brooks derides, at least secular Jewish culture, which is what I assume he was talking about, is also rooted in the modernizing movements of nineteenth-century Europe, and has a long and honorable tradition in Judaism.  In a 1910 article, the Hebrew writer Yosef Chaim Brenner suggested that one need not continue to be Jewish, in a religious sense, in order to be Jewish in a cultural, communal, and national sense.  Brenner wrote that modern, secular, freethinking Jews like himself “have nothing to do with Judaism, and we are nonetheless part of the Jewish community (klal) no less than those who lay tefillin (phylacteries) and wear tzitzit (ritual fringes).”  This sparked a furious debate in the Hebrew press about the nature of modern Jewish identity, which itself casts doubt on the idea of an authentic, originary Judaism.

In fact, if there is anything authentically Jewish about any of this, it is the very multivalence and variety of Jewish life not only in the modern period, but in every era and in every place Jews have lived.  There is an old joke about a Jewish guy who gets stranded on a desert island.  When he’s finally rescued, after many years of surviving on his own in this remote place, he takes his rescuers on a tour of everything he’s built on the island in his long sojourn there alone.  He shows them the hut that he lives in, his cooking area, the tools he’s created to help him hunt and eat, and even the synagogue he’s built to worship in.  Then one of the rescue party speaks up.  “What’s that building over there?” he asks, and everyone turns to look.  “Oh that,” the Jewish man says derisively, “that’s the other shul.  I wouldn’t be caught dead there.”

I doubt I’d be caught dead in the synagogue of David Brooks’ imagination, but that doesn’t make me any less Jewish, nor does it make him less so in my estimation.  Beginning in the nineteenth  century there were parties and movements of Jewish Marxists, socialists, Yiddishists, Hebraists, Zionists, autonomists, and probably a hundred other things I’ve never even heard of;  in the United States and around the world, at this very minute, there are people worshipping in Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal synagogues, in independent minyans and on mountaintops; if Brooks had taken the subway across town to the Upper West Side he could have dropped in on Mechon Hadar, a traditional, egalitarian yeshiva, or gone downtown and visited the offices of the Arbeter Ring, a Yiddishist group that promotes social justice.  Given all this past and present diversity, I very much doubt what Brooks characterizes as the self-confident assertion of modern Orthodoxy that it is the future.

In fact, it is the uncritical acceptance of modern Orthodoxy, or any one aspect of Jewish life, as the representative of authentic Judaism that does the greatest disservice to the Jewish future, and is a far greater problem than the supposed hedonistic individuality of “secular America.”  Judaism is not monolithic, and visualizing it in those terms just isn’t very Jewish at all.

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March 11, 2013 · 9:49 pm

Hier ist kein warum: on North Korean threats, language, and politics

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Kim Jong-Un of North Korea

Last night I my husband and I were talking about North Korea’s recent threats to attack the United States and South Korea, and I mentioned that I had read that a North Korean official had threatened to turn the U.S. into a “lake of fire.”  I was a little off – the actual quote from The New York Times by Kang Pyo-yong, the vice defense minister of North Korea, is this: “If we push the button [to activate the nuclear weapons], they will blast off and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil, and its followers, into a sea of fire.”  As we spoke, my husband laughed and absently wondered why authoritarian regimes like North Korea always resort to the kind of inflated rhetoric that sounds ridiculous to the outside world. While I quite relish the idea of living in a nest of evil (It sounds so fun! Porn! Drugs! Fattening foods!), I began thinking about the question of language and authoritarianism more seriously.

Manipulation of language for political purposes is not restricted to the realm of totalitarianism, of course, but it is of central importance to the maintenance of any authoritarian regime or regime of terror.  It seems to serve two primary purposes: dehumanization through the devaluation of linguistic meaning, and the establishment of an impenetrable, closed social and cultural space controlled solely by the regime.  George Orwell touched on these ideas in his 1941 speech-turned-essay “Literature and Totalitarianism,” in which he noted the potential for control offered by language and culture.  Of the totalitarian regime, he wrote, “It not only forbids you to express — even to think — certain thoughts, but it dictates what you shall think, it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have no standards of comparison.”

Primo Levi, in his Holocaust memoir Survival in Auschwitz, made this connection between the manipulation and devaluation of language, dehumanization, and demarcation of a new, impenetrable boundary between the world of the regime (in his case, also a literal boundary, marked by barbed wire and electric fencing, between the death camp and freedom) and the outside world.  Upon his initiation into the camp, Levi writes, “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.”  When a particular human condition is so extreme as to be outside language, language must be bent and twisted to accommodate or describe it.

arbeitmachtfreiPerhaps nothing is as clear an example of this abuse of language than the inscription on the gate through which Levi and his fellow prisoners walk each day to work: Arbeit Macht Frei, work makes you free.  This sign has two effects: first, it mocks the prisoners in their utter powerlessness, making a joke of the killing labor they are forced to do; second, and more insidiously, this inside-out claim about work and freedom hollows out meaning, depriving language of its signifying power, further dehumanizing its victims by refusing to acknowledge the reality of slavery and murder to which it mockingly refers.  And if language is, ultimately, the means by which we construct our own identities, express our thoughts and feelings to others, and understand our very selves, its devaluation necessarily contributes to a loss of humanity, not just for those whom the regime enslaves and imprisons, but for everyone.

Rendering language meaningless, the backwards rhetoric of authoritarianism also creates a clear boundary between the world of the regime and everything outside of it.  Levi describes this process through a small detail, noting that after his arm has been tattooed with his number, which is to replace his name, “for many days, while the habits of freedom still led me to look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name ironically appeared instead, a number tattooed in bluish characters under the skin.”  The wristwatch, representative of the order of the civilized world outside the camp, has given way to his number, which itself has replaced his name, literally erasing language and compromising its power to signify meaning.

The rules and mores of the camp are likewise differentiated from those of the civilized world of the wristwatch, as Levi discovers when, thirsty after traveling in a cattle car for more than a day with no water, he tries to break off an icicle outside the window of his new barracks.  A guard snatches it from him.  “‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German.  ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.”  That is the lesson of totalitarianism: there is no why here.  Language has no meaning, so explanation is useless.  The rhetoric of authoritarianism may sound funny, but it’s not a joke. To reduce a country, its people, and perhaps the entire world to a “nest of evil” not only makes it easier to press that button, but it corrupts our understanding of what evil really is.

Even worse, this corruption of language has its parallels in other realms of our culture, far more quotidian and pervasive than the occasional pronouncements of a North Korean dictator.  The other day Rand Paul implied a comparison between Hitler’s rise to power and President Obama’s.  How many times a day do you see an advertisement for something “new” or “must-have”?  To threaten a “sea of fire” may be obvious hyperbole, but how often do we encounter this very kind of hyperbolic language every day?  And to what extent does this corruption of language interfere with our ability to understand and represent our very selves, to, in a sense, remain human?

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Loving Little Women

ImageI can’t remember how many times I’ve read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; at least twice, maybe more; add to that at least one bad film adaptation (Winona Ryder and Gabriel Byrne, anyone?).  When I picked it up this time, I already knew that Beth was going to die and Jo would turn Laurie down, and I assumed that I could read the book from the perspective of a detached observer, concerned primarily with its vaunted feminism, progressive politics, and practical philosophy.  Yet page 390 found me sobbing silently (embarrassed, I didn’t want my husband or kids to ask why I was crying) over Beth’s passing, as did a handful of lesser tragedies; I often found myself comforted by Marmee’s wise words of advice to her girls and empathized deeply with the small indignities of the Marches’ genteel poverty.  Plenty of moments in the book also made me cringe or scoff, but Little Women clearly retains tremendous emotional power, despite its flaws.  I found myself wondering how this nearly 150-year-old book could feel so present and relevant in the age of antibiotics and divorce?

The answer, in more ways than one, is Jo.  Although Little Women is ostensibly about the March family, and dwells in detail on the lives of all the four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—Jo March is the true protagonist and heroine of the novel.  And who doesn’t love Jo?  She’s a free-spirited tomboy who cares little for social graces and mores, values her own independence above all else, and trusts her instincts, even when they run counter to expectation.  She’s also a quick-tempered hothead, but even her supposed faults look like virtues to those of us who—even now—thrill to see a female character speak her mind.

Aside from being one of the most appealing female characters in the history of literature, Jo is also the center of the novel’s socially and morally progressive message.  And it is a message: in a passage that is almost certainly ironic, the editor of a paper to which Jo is trying to sell her stories tells her, “People want to be amused, not preached at, you know.  Morals don’t sell nowadays.”  Little Women seems to consciously challenge this proscription by preaching and entertaining, and the degree to which it remains a beloved book is the measure of its success.  Its moral, played out through the trajectory of Jo’s development, is as appealing now as in the Gilded Age: work confers dignity, poverty is not ignoble, being true to oneself is more important than money or prestige.

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Louisa May Alcott

Sometimes the moral sincerity of Little Women is irritating, but more often I found myself seduced by it.  Perhaps it’s just because I identified with the financial stresses on the March family, most of whom work at noble professions for little remuneration.  Like them my husband and I also work hard at things we love that we feel confer value on society but often struggle to make ends meet and give our kids the comfortable life we hoped to.   But who could fail to be both inspired and comforted by Marmee’s speech to the girls on love and money (and the dangers of their mutual imbrication): “My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world – marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting.  Money is a needful and precious thing – and when well used, a noble thing – but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.  I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”  I felt like Marmee was speaking directly to me.  While it may be silly to take counsel and comfort from a novel, I always have, and reading this I realized that all the choices I’ve made in my life that I question every day were the right ones (for the record, the one choice I never question is my choice of husband, since that was so obviously a good decision – it’s the other ones I worry over).  So thank you, Marmee and Louisa May, for that.

Again it is Jo who embodies this advice and its morality of choice when she confounds the traditional marriage plot by refusing to marry Laurie, the wealthy and handsome friend of her youth.  She tells him, “I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man.”  As it turns out, Jo does eventually marry, accepting the proposal of the older, poor, German scholar Professor Bhaer.  But while marriage to Laurie would have meant a life of leisure, in which the dictates of her high position would have circumscribed her choices tremendously, marriage to the poor Professor necessitates that Jo continue to earn, work, and contribute to both her marriage and her community on her own terms.  In the end, with a bequest from her rich aunt, Jo devises fulfilling work for herself and her husband, setting up a school for disadvantaged boys.  Is it a little disappointing that Jo gives up her literary career, or that she is more concerned with rescuing boys than girls?  Of course.  But does Jo still offer one of the most expansive, rich, and sympathetic characterizations of a woman in all of American literature?  Yes, and for this we can forgive her her faults, and continue to love Little Women.

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