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Entries in Lessons from Saul Bellow (3)

Wednesday
Dec212011

The Temptations of Assimilation: Schilder our Bellow?

In the second part of his essay, "The Jewish Writer in America," Saul Bellow notes that while the Jewish writer will always be a stranger, this doesn't mean he is immune from the ethos and the age.  It is the themes of immunity and assimilation that might interest those of us who identify with some robust notion of "being Reformed."

First note that the "America" of Bellow's title is less a place and more like a Gestalt, an idea, a state of mind and way of being.  Actually, Bellow zooms out even wider than that: he sees something even bigger than "America" at work in the twentieth century: "the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century," Bellow summarizes, "was to suffer the cruelties of nihilistic thought and nihilistic politics."  (This is the Bellow of Ravelstein, it seems to me, more than Augie March.)  In that respect, "America" is just one more outpost of this zeitgeist--but it is the incarnation where Bellow lives.  For Bellow, what defines this "nihilism" is the denial of any substantial "self."

Let's not be distracted by Bellow's claims about nihilism or his reading of Heidegger.  What interests us is his account of how the Jewish writer inhabits this zeitgeist.  Bellow's analysis reminds me of Charles Taylor's account of the "malaise" of modernity that besets us all in our "secular age."  Even if you're religious in this secular age, Taylor argues, you can't help but be religious differently because of the ubiquity of the secular--the contestability of religious belief falls upon the just and the unjust.  There are no isolated enclaves; just different ways of inhabiting the age.

Similarly, Bellow concedes that even if "the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century was to suffer the cruelties of nihilistic thought," this doesn't grant the Jewish writer any immunity:

I did not say that the 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.

(Bellow goes on to point out that neither are Israelis immune.)  So there is no immunity--not even in enclaves and subcultures that seek purity and protection.  They, too, will be "cross-pressured," as Taylor puts it.  Indeed, sometimes sub-cultures, confident in their seclusion and separation, end up replicating the majority culture just with a kitschy veneer of religiosity.  

If immunity is impossible, then it seems we are left with no critique of assimilation. Resistance is futile.  But that's not quite Bellow's conclusion.  Notice the verb above: it is a question of endurance.  

Indeed, Bellow states baldly: "I am not an assimilationist."  But he owns up to the complications: "I am an American writer and a Jew."  It's the how of that "and" he's trying to understand.  Many of his contemporaries, he recognizes, wouldn't even understand the question.  

Nor would many of mine, I fear.  "Being Reformed" is too regularly the banner under which we enthusiastically assimilate to "America."  "Being Reformed" is the warrant and rationale for our cultural engagement to the point that it becomes a license to have our cake and eat it, too.  "Being Reformed" is the badge of our refusal to be fundamentalists or evangelicals or conservatives or "concordists" or what have you, which only gives us permission to happily assimilate to the spirit of the age (there are both "left" and "right" versions of this available).  

If we learn anything from Saul Bellow, we might look for continuing education from Klaas Schilder.  

Tuesday
Dec062011

Learning to be Reformed from a Jewish Novelist

As you'll note from my recent Perspectives article, "A Peculiar People," I've been thinking a lot about the dynamics of immigration and how that intersects with my own experience of being an immigrant--and being Reformed.  That's not just because my Reformed community finds its heritage in an immigrant population; rather, there is something inherent to this expression of the Reformed faith that is poised to appreciate the precarious place of the immigrant and the exile.  This is because the people of God inhabit that equally precarious place between common grace and antithesis--between the persistent affirmation that the whole earth is the Lord's (Psalm 24:1) and the heartbreaking recognition that the whole world lies under the sway of the evil one (1 John 5:19).   We serve the risen, coming King of creation but are constantly aware of the governorship of the enemy in this meanwhile.  And so we are like citizens who return to our homeland only to find it under foreign rule.  We are not so different from Israel, who returned from exile only to find themselves exiles in their homeland now run by the Roman empire.  

At the heart of what I've imbibed from Kuyper and Dooyeweerd and Runner and Seerveld is the sense that the covenant people of God will (and should) never quite be "at home" anywhere; the people of God hold citizenship in a far country which should make us uncomfortable but constructive inhabitants of any culture.  We are called to seek the welfare of the city in which we are exiled (Jeremiah 29:4-7) while also learning to sing the Lord's song in a strange land (Psalm 137:4).   We shouldn't lock ourselves up in ex-pat enclaves, as it were--forming holy huddles and circling the wagons to protect ourselves from "the world." But neither should we gleefully assimmilate to majority cultures characterized by disordered love.  Reformed Christians, for example, should never easily be described as "good Americans," it seems to me.  We should instead by characterized by a kind of immigrant distance, which can also manifest itself as cautious gratitude.

This brings to mind Jhumpa Lahiri's epigraph to her story collection, Unaccustomed Earth.  She cites a moving passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, "The Custom-House":

"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.  My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

This is why my first post looked to Saul Bellow as a resource for those of us in the Reformed tradition.  Bellow's reflections on being "A Jewish Writer in America" are provocative in this regard because the experience and identity of the Jewish writer in America is one of immigrant otherness overlaid with a religious identity.  

Bellow begins his memoiristic reflections by unfashionably appealing to his "first consciousness," which he begins as follows:

So, in my first consciousness, I was, among other things, a Jew, the child of Jewish immigrants. At home our parents spoke Russian to each other, we children spoke Yiddish with them, and we spoke English with one another. At the age of four we began to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, we observed Jewish customs, some of them superstitions, and we recited prayers and blessings all day long. Because I had to memorize most of Genesis, my first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew. I suppose it would be proper to apply the word “archaic” to such a representation of the world as I had—archaic, prehistoric. This was my “given” and it would be idle to quarrel with it, to try to revise or efface it.

Of course what complicates all of this is precisely his placement "among other things."  This "given" in his life is cross-pressured by his location in "America," "modernity," "the West," and more.  Thus Bellow continues:

A millennial belief in a Holy God may have the effect of deepening the soul, but it is also obviously archaic, and modern influences would presently bring me up to date and reveal how antiquated my origins were. To turn away from those origins, however, has always seemed to me an utter impossibility. It would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself. One may be tempted to go behind the given and invent something better, to attempt to reenter life at a more advantageous point. In America this is common, we have all seen it done, and done in many instances with great ingenuity. But the thought of such an attempt never entered my mind. Thus I may have been archaic, but I escaped the horrors of an identity crisis.

I wonder if this doesn't get at something of what it is to be a Reformed Christian in 21st century America.  Of course, of course, there are glaring differences.  I don't mean for a moment to suggest that Reformed Christians are subject to the sorts of persecution and marginalization that has characterized the Jewish experience of anti-Semitism (which Bellow goes on to recount).  I mean rather the inward tension experienced: of inheriting this centering in a cosmos, in a community, and feeling buffetted by competing identities, but never quite able to relinqish that given either--though it would be so much easier.  Bellow even notes the temptation for respect and acceptance when mainting a heroic otherness becomes tiresome and wearying:

On the other hand one can’t always be heroic, and there were times when shades of Brownsville and Delancey Street surrounded Jewish lovers of American literature and they were unhappily wondering what T.S. Eliot or Edmund Wilson would be thinking of them. Among my Jewish contemporaries, more than one poet flirted with Anglicanism and others came up with different evasions, dodges, ruses, and disguises. I had little patience with that kind of thing. If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.

At what point does the Reformed impetus for cultural engagement morph into the assimmilating desire to be accepted and respected?  

Let me close this little installment of "Lessons from Saul Bellow" with a selection from Bellow's essay, and leave it for you to ponder the analogies, until we take this up again:

The condition I am looking into is that of a young American who in the late Thirties finds that he is something like a writer and begins to think what to do about it, how to position himself, and how to combine being a Jew with being an American and a writer. Not everyone thinks well of such a project. The young man is challenged from all sides. Representatives of the Protestant majority want to see his credentials. Less overtly hostile because they are more snobbish, the English want to know who he is or what he thinks he is. Later his French publishers will invariably turn his books over to Jewish translators.

The Jews too try to place him. Is he too Jewish? Is he Jewish enough? Is he good or bad for the Jews? Jews in business or politics ask, “Must we forever be reading about his damn Jews?” Jewish critics examine him with a certain sharpness—they have their own axes to grind. As the sons of Jewish immigrants, descendants of the people whose cackling and shrieking set Henry James’s teeth on edge when he visited the East Side, they accuse themselves secretly of presumption when they write of Emerson, Walt Whitman, or Matthew Arnold. My own view is that since Henry James and Henry Adams did not hesitate to express their dislike of Jews there is no reason why Jews, while full of respect for these masters, should not be free to write as they please about them. To let them (the hostile American WASPs) determine once and for all what the American psyche is, not to challenge their views where those views are narrow, or to accept the transmission of European infections and racial poisons would be disloyal and cowardly.

Wednesday
Nov092011

"Our" Novelist: Marilynne Robinson? Or Saul Bellow?

As an "immigrant" to the Reformed tradition, I have often found that some of the "natives" in the tradition resonate with Chaim Potok's The Chosen--a staple of high school curricula (or at least the Chrisitan school curricula with which I'm familiar).  I think I understand why: the novel paints a picture of a tight-knit community whose identity is a blend of faith and blood, spirituality and ethnicity--a reality very analogous to the Reformed communities of which I have been a part.  Indeed, it is perhaps not entirely ironic when I describe myself to these friends as a resident "Gentile."  

I was struck by a different kind of analogy with the Jewish community suggested in James Davison Hunter's important book, To Change the World.  Criticizing triumphalist and misguided Christian programs for "transforming culture," Hunter points out the disproportionate cultural influence of the Jewish community in the United States.  When I had opportunity to interview Hunter about the book, I returned to this theme:

JKAS: Your analogy to the Jewish community in the United States—an analogy you touch on in the book—is intriguing. For instance, I find myself imagining an emerging school of Christian literature, a sort of Christian parallel to the work of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and others that is mainstream in the sense that their work appears in the New Yorker and is reviewed in the New York Review of Books, but is also constantly struggling with a kind of marginality and difference. That is, it seems like Roth (I’m thinking of The Ghost Writer and the Zuckerman novels) is often dealing with a sense of alienation—being at the center of culture but never quite “in.” Is that the kind of parallel or analogy you mean to suggest?

JDH: I think that is exactly right. Protestantism has been moving from the mainstream to the margins of American society over the last 150 years or so. This reconfiguration in the social world has been especially intense in the last half of the twentieth century. (Christianity, in its broad range of communities, has participated in this.) This marginalization is the source of some incredibly interesting dynamics. For one, it has certainly animated the politicization of evangelicalism and parts of Roman Catholicism in the effort to reverse the trend. At the same time, it has also forced an ecumenism among the orthodox communities in these traditions that would not have likely happened without the structural change.

But most interesting to me is that the increasing marginality of Christianity to the larger culture has also created a tension that is beginning to yield creative energy. This dynamic is similar to that which is described by Thorstein Veblen in his essay, “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews in Modern Europe,” published in 1919. Veblen argued that the intellectual achievement of the Jews was due to being caught between “the conventions into which [they have] been born” and the conventions of the gentile “into which [they have] been thrown.” Their creativity and achievement, in other words, was rooted in their marginal status in an alien world—of never being quite at home anywhere. In my view, there are signs that these dynamics are beginning to have the same effect within the Christian community. We’ve certainly seen this in recent decades in the contribution of Christians to philosophy and American religious history. We’re seeing signs of it in other areas of intellectual life as well—possibly including an inchoate school of Christian literature. But before we get too excited, it is worth noting Veblen’s own cautionary observation that should the Jews ever accommodate completely to the mainstream of culture, the springs of their creativity would dry up.

The history of the Jewish community in America through the twentieth century is a history of a community that was very tactical in its use of social and financial capital on behalf of scientific and cultural achievement. We have much to learn from them, not least from how they have thrived in a world that has been indifferent at times and outright hostile at other times.

Again, aspects of this conversation could equally describe Reformed communities that have a rich cultural vision, animated by a desire to be engaged, creative contributors to the common good.  

Given these analogies and overlaps, I have been an especially interested reader of an unearthed lecture given by Jewish novelist Saul Bellow back in 1988, "A Jewish Writer in America," recently published in two parts in the New York Review of Books (see Part 1 and Part 2).  So over my next couple of posts here at The Twelve, I want to tease out this analogy through some of Bellow's suggestive reflections on the place of the Jewish intellectual in American culture.  Following up on Hunter's intuition, I want to suggest that perhaps we Reformed folk might find more germane wisdom from Bellow and Roth than Updike and Robinson.  In the meantime, enjoy the Bellow pieces and I'll see you back here in a couple of weeks for further reflection on these themes.