27 June 2009


A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

His Wikipedia entry makes a comparative reference to Thomas Pynchon. The back of the book says “He is like Pynchon, Barth, and William Gaddis.” But Harry Mathews is no Pynchon, nor a Barth or Gaddis for that matter.

It was back in late-April that I heard Mathews’ short story Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double) read on the Symphony Space program “Selected Shorts” (and available as an MP3 here; I highly recommend it). I had never heard of him, and after digging up his biography online, I was both comforted in my ignorance and surprised, given the odd pathways of literature that I have followed, not to have found him earlier. I bought three of Mathews’ books, and have just finished Tlooth, his second novel, originally published in 1966 and (in the case of my copy) republished in 1998 by Illinois State University’s Dalkey Archive press. And off we go...


“Fully dressed, Dominique had worn sixteen garments and ornaments. She shed four of them on the first day, three on each of the next four days, and at the end she danced naked, shielded only by her hands and hair. Every piece of her jewelry and clothing had been fastened with an inextricable knot, from which one or several tassels hung. The dancer’s enchantment worked yeastily through her audience while for hours she slowly tried, with shakings and suave caresses, to pamper loose one cluster of dangling strands. When the voluptuous ferment became unbearable, the girl, turning away with a mild complicit shrug, would draw from a scabbard fixed upright near her a wicked blue scimitar, and slice the knot. The sword, always visible to the crowd, gathered terrific significance as the moment of its use approached; and each severing of trivial cords fell on the tormented mass like a scourge, exciting hysterical shrieks, fits, faints, onsets of importance, confessions of speakable crimes, miraculous cures, numberless psychic and physical traumata, and the exchange (settled by the unpredictable time of the event) of millions of francs among the slightly cooler-headed gambling element.” (Pages 151-152)

This might be one of the most inspired, enervating paragraphs I have read in a long time, alive with words not often found in fiction (“yeastily”! “traumata”!), combined with a description of a series of acts of such improbability that it still comes as a surprise to learn in the next paragraph that Dominique the stripper has died on the sixth day of her marathon dance session. One has a sense of Dominique as trapped by these knots she cannot remove, and yet empowered to remove them; she is performing, voluptuously, but also bored, as the shrug suggests This Moroccan stripper’s is, on the one hand, considered so tangential that it is entirely parenthetical. On the other hand, Mathews’ frames her death as of such magnitude that “she was proposed to Rome for canonization.” It hadn’t once occurred to me she might be a Catholic.

If Mathews owes a debt to anyone, it is Georges Bataille and his Story of the Eye. Tlooth is less aggressive (if no less violent) but just as manic in its appetites, and just as absurd in its approach to the same. A long section—at least, long in the context of this story—in the middle of Mathews’ novel is itself another fiction, a living walkthrough of a movie script, highly pornographic, that the narrator has been hired to write. I call it a “living walkthrough” because, as the reader, you lose your own sense of whether you’re reading the script that Mathews’ protagonist has written, or if that same protagonist is now actually in the story.

We get references to how the camera should pan in one direction or the other. We get a mixture of highly specific, scene-setting detail—from clothing to the use of Wedgwood china to the acts being performed and in which locations—and at the same time a glib skipping over of any kind of context that might help the reader establish a genuine point of reference. It doesn’t really matter. And still, at the end of the whole section, after so much absurdist human interaction, it comes as a surprise to find the script completely dismissed by the crazy Count who commissioned it: “It’s interesting. But where is the character development? In the last scene we do not really know anything more about Sister Agnes than we did in the first.” (Page 136)

Indeed, we do not learn much at all about Sister Agnes. The character development is ours, the readers’. We learn something of ourselves from Tlooth, as we do from most difficult (and may I here use the word surrealist?) works. Yes, we learn about ourselves and our ability or willingness to read through challenging literature. More importantly, I think, are what novels like this teach us about our sense of self: whether, in wading through complicated, deeply layered and hidden ideas, we find things at which to smile or laugh, and whether we can see in small, absurdist details, analogies to how most of us also fixate on the little bits of errata in our daily lives. We just don’t normally see such things as particularly absurd—but perhaps we should. We might be happier that way, and more alive.

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12 June 2009

American Jewish Rage

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I recently had the odd experience of being accused (somewhat indirectly) of having a “pathological absence of rage.”

As part of an evening of study for the holiday Shavuot, I found myself among a small group of people listening to a dialogue-cum-diatribe by two American Jews, under the title “The Denial of Hatred and The Hatred of Denial.” The two speakers (whose names I feel no need to reveal here) were addressing what turned into a conflated and conflicted bunch of points. They tried to include some “facts,” such as the claim that anti-Semitism is at its highest point since the World War II era, an unprovable assertion that they tied to a Pew study. They both seemed to believe that American Jews (as exemplified by those of Manhattan’s Upper West Side) are deluded in not seeing or believing the imminent threat of anti-Semitism. They refute any notion that anti-Semitism might be rooted in anything other than the utterly irrational, in no way a response to (perceived) actions by Jews themselves. And at the same time, they suggested that too many Jews walk around fearful of expressing their Jewishness—a ludicrous claim in general, and certainly in New York City!

First, on the so-called fact of the scope of worldwide anti-Semitism: the presenters quoted a study by the Pew Research Center to bolster their claim that anti-Semitism is at its highest point since the holocaust. They were presumably referring to a 2008 study by Pew Research Center that showed that anti-Semitism was on the rise, in some cases strongly (see “Xenophobia on the Continent,” by Andrew Kohut and Richard Wike). Without ignoring the impact of those findings, there is still nothing to support the presenters’ hyperbolic claims, or the implicit sense that Jews everywhere should be on alert. As Kohut and Wike wrote in their article: “While there has been a rise in anti-Semitic opinion in Europe, the percentages holding negative opinions toward Jews in most countries studied remain relatively small.” Moreover, the data collected and presented by Pew explicitly draws connections between anti-Semitism and perceptions about Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians, as well as about the role and (perceived) power of Jews in America.

The speakers also revealed what I would call (to use their own terms) a pathological naivete: a denial of the obvious fact that powerful (or perceived powerful) minority groups have always been targets of one kind or another (e.g., Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Ismaili Shia in many Sunni Muslim countries). Similarly, small states with (again, perceived) out-sized power have also been targets, particularly when they have engaged in the kinds of conflict with their neighbors that trigger reflexive feelings about minority populations and their political or social agendas.

Let me be clear: I am not making excuses for anti-Semitism. But I also believe it’s irrational to think that a minority group that makes up 2-4% of the total United States population, yet controls wealth equal to three or four times those numbers, and which has very, very prominent group members represented in high places in government, finance, etc., isn’t going to face some animosity. Nor am I the only one who thinks this is the case, or that this is a reality that Jews must confront. To go back to additional Pew-funded research, in 2006 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life co-sponsored a talk with Josef Joffe, author of “Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America,” on anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. While rejecting what he describes as “the perception that Jews have ‘conquered’ America and have the most powerful country in the world at their beck and call,” Joffe nonetheless goes on to say “that Jews and Americans have always acted as forces of rampant change that has [sic] rolled over ancient traditions and dispensations and thus threatened traditional status and power structures. If you represent the forces of an anonymous market, you are bound to anger those players who profit from privilege and entrenched position.” In other words: duh. Without making excuses for a kind of murderous, irrationally rooted anti-Semitism, one must nonetheless accept the reality that one’s actions in the world have consequences. Jews, whether in America or Israel, aren’t exempt from this construct any more than anyone else.

Yet none of this makes me fearful. Politically engaged and morally concerned, and desirous of living righteously (and not just to and towards Jews)? Yes. But fearful? No. The presenters’ argument that American Jews are too afraid of being publicly Jewish ran smack into their argument that there is this massive tsunami of hatred coming to get us and that we should, essentially, be afraid to be publicly Jewish. And that, for me, is where it all fell apart: the idea that I suffer from a “pathological absence of rage” about the existence of anti-Semitism, that I should get over my denial, and that in overcoming my denial I will be free—finally free to be afraid.

Lest these two gentlemen be unfairly called out for their views, it is worth noting that they are hardly the only ones to hold this classic mixture of bigoted, fear-mongering views. For example, currently making its way around the internet is an offensive screed by Rabbi Dr. Morton H. Pomerantz, the absurd claims of which can be summarized just from the first sentence: “Our new president did not tell a virulent anti-Semite to travel to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to kill Jews, but he is most certainly creating a climate of hate against us.” That’s a heavy charge—and one that falls flat, because it rests on both the misrepresentation of what President Obama said, and, more importantly, on that classic American Jewish Fundamentalist perspective that there is no such thing as legitimate criticism of Israel. For those with this worldview, President Obama is damned for eternity because he dared to say openly what is so obviously true: that past wrongs against Jews do not excuse current wrongs inflicted by Israelis—and that the forty-plus year Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people must, finally, end.

In retrospect, the tipoff that this Shavuot presentation would be problematic might have come at the very beginning, when one speaker began with a second-hand holocaust story, about his mother’s experiences in the camps and after the war. The purpose, clearly, was to engage the audience and provoke an emotional reaction that would bind the listeners to the presenter, credentialize him as an authority, and simultaneously remind us of that greatest of all acts of murderous anti-Semitism. Such tactics tend to work with Jews; we have been well conditioned. But if my description sounds cynical, it is not nearly as bad as the act of the presenter himself, which reminded me of a character from Tova Reich’s novel “My Holocaust,” in which she so effectively caricatures the second-generation survivors, whose devotion to the cause of the holocaust has often surpassed that of the survivors themselves.

We sat in rapt attention, listening to this compelling story—only to discover yet another Jew sadly abusing the memory of the murdered (and those few who survived), in order to justify the rights and reactions of Jews everywhere at the expense of other humans. To my mind, such “me first” righteousness is counter to the morality, the humanity, that rests at the core of Judaism, and there is no denying that it must be resisted.

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