11/22/2005

a season in hell vs. a year of magical thinking

I've just finished my course of antibiotics and am feeling a lot better, after about a week and a half dealing with tonsillitis. Once again, I've been advised to have a tensillectomy, and will arrange one as soon as I can get my insurance situation straightened out.

It's a gloomy day to emerge from a funk, let me tell you. I don't have any classes this week, either, so I'm really just sitting around with my thumb up my ass.

I have been reading George Steiner's In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture. Chapter 2: "A Season in Hell" is particularly thought-provoking, and struggles to address the question: "why kill the Jews?" He's not advocating killing them, of course, he's asking why Western Culture at its height attempted to. What did they represent that they had to be purged?

Today, it's likely that most non-Jews don't give the Holocaust all that much thought. It's viewed by and large as an instance of genocide, alongside countless other genocides. Genocide, it is granted, is wrong. The Holocaust was, too. And that's about as far as they go. But Steiner argues convincingly that the Holocaust was, and remains, unique, because of the earth-shaking role Judaism--particularly the Jews' "invention" of monotheism--played in forming the very foundation of Western Culture.

Steiner speaks of "the singularity, the brain-hammering strangeness, of the monotheistic idea...[which] tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots. The break has never really knit." Part of the problem, according to Steiner, is the impossibility of a single deity. "How many human beings have ever been capable, could ever be capable of, housing in themselves an inconceivable omnipresence?" (I'll have to admit, I have run into a few who certainly thought they could, or worse, that they themselves were an "inconceivable omnipresense". Let me tell you, inconceivable omnipresences make for very bad dinner dates.)

He goes on: "the Mosaic God has been from the outset, even when passionately invoked, an immeasurable Absence.... It hammers at human consciousness, demanding that it transcend itself." And this is really what got peoples' goats about the Hebrew God. Very demanding. They built up "resentment against the unattainable ideal of the one God. By killing the Jews, Western culture would eradicate those who had 'invented' God." Elsewhere, to bolster this point, he quotes Hitler: "conscience is a Jewish invention."

So, essentially, Steiner's argument is that "the Jew became, as it were, the 'bad conscience' of Western history. In him the abandonments of spiritual and moral perfection, the hypocrisies of an established, mundane religiosity, the absenses of a disappointed, potentially vengeful God, were kept alive and visible."

"The Holocaust," he says, "is a reflex, the more complete for being long-inhibited, of natural sensory consciousness, of instinctual polytheistic and animist needs."

Not the most uplifting stuff, but there it is.

I've also been following the news of Joan Didion's last book, as I am sure it will be, entitled the Year of Magical Thinking. Last week it won the National Book Award. I haven't read it, but I read a lengthy excerpt from it in--it was either The New Yorker or the Times Sunday Magazine. And I was struck by how, despite the heaps of praise it has received, it was utterly banal.

Now, I have long been a fan of Didion. Not a rabid fan, but I have always admired her prose style, and she is a writer of some insight. Not profound, but intelligent, if a little too intellectual at times. I can also relate to people feeling sorry for someone who's lost her life's companion, and the writing community, or whatever you want to call--the publishing conglommerate--rallying around one of its own.

The problem here is really two-fold. First, she has chosen the wrong medium for her topic, in addition to choosing a topic that it is difficult to say anything about that is not utterly banal. It seems self-aggrandizing to write a book about something everyone must go through at some point, and it argues special insight. When my dad was dying I searched in vain for someone or something who could tell me what we were all going through. The fact is, no one could, and no one can. Like physical pain, grief and loss are so intensely personal, so subjective, there is really no way to communicate them without trivializing them.

So that's one thing. Didion struggles admirably for some communicable insight into what is precisely an incommunicable experience. You may pity her, and even grieve with her (and if you have lost someone close to you, you will recognize in her grief something of your own, certainly), but what there is to admire is really the failure of her effort here.

The second problem is the insularity of Didion's world. Quite frankly, she acts and writes as if the Manhatten high life she and her husband were a part of exempted them from the mudane tragedies of life. That the death of her husband was such a revelation to her is truly pitiable. It argues on the one hand for an abiding and all-consuming love between them, but on the other for a kind of blindness to the condition attached to all love. To be blindsided by death at Didion's age is--I don't know what to call it, really.

In a way it's appalling, but it's also typical for the times we live in, where we dare not ackowledge the finality of death, and where a bourgeois culture of entitlement has otherwise reasonably intelligent people suspecting they may, in fact, be exempt from mortality, too. But like Rilke’s Chamberlain Brigge, we all know, intuitively, whether or not we speak of it, that “you have your death inside you as a fruit has its core.”

The stoics counsel us to think about death every day, and it's a good idea, I think. Keeps you from forgetting that regardless of how we feel about it (I'm of Edna St. Vincent Millay's opinion: "I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll"... "Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave/Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;/Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave./I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.") death is real, and imminent.

Didion’s cry is really the cry of Job—the one character in the book that bears his name who does not suffer anything but loss. The Book of Job is for those who are left behind. And the message is clear: we must go on. Perservere. (Our time, too, will come.) In the end Job has a new family to replace the old one he lost. His understanding—that life is for the living—is rewarded with new life, for the living.

What sounds like a plea for justice in Job, or in Didion’s book, for that matter, is really the cry of isolation. Because there is no injustice in death. It is, finally, the only real justice there is. But for the living, admittedly, it's hard. It is the loss of one’s world, a world Life seems to offer up freely in the beginning, but takes back piece by piece, until there is nothing left of it. When there is no one left, alone, we become strangers even to ourselves.

We may sublimate the awesome mystery of our deaths in clinical talk, but medical science will never master the individual death, only poetry has that power, and poetry, as distinct from jibes and jingles is, more and more, precisely what we lack.

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