To the Editor:
The light-years distance between a cultural critic and an imaginative writer is made most explicit in Ruth R. Wisse’s argument that “for those who take Judaism seriously as a cultural alternative, and wish to weave new, brilliant cloth from its ancient threads, the sociological reality of the present-day American Jewish community would seem to represent an almost insurmountable obstacle” [“American Jewish Writing,” Act II, June].
Just this—“the sociological reality”—is what the imaginative writer is least interested in, and sets out, in fact, to bypass.
The difference between fiction and “sociological reality” is precisely that fiction is not sociology, but something else—sprung and nourished from different sources, heading for a different destination. What pervades Mrs. Wisse’s article is an essential disbelief in fiction as fiction. Otherwise she would not fall into the fundamental (and, for a good reader, unforgivable) critical error of taking the narrator’s “I” as “identifiable with the author herself.”
Writing is a double emanation of the imagination: inventive and speculative. When the imagination is more inventive, it inhabits fictive forms; when it is more speculative, it takes the form of the essay. In neither case can the imagination be reduced to a gloss on “sociological reality.” To reduce it to this is not to take literature seriously. And no one who does take literature seriously—or even that lesser enterprise, “writing”—would wish to attach a term like “fortification of art by advertising” to that part of the writing impulse which is lured by imagination’s other nature, the speculative essay.
Fiction and speculative essays dare equally, try things out equally, are reckless equally, hypothesize equally, they make up a kind of poetry. Story-stuff and the stuff of the speculative imagination are composed of flux, based on notions that are always in a state of becoming, always repudiating their old forms and expressions, always correcting themselves, enlarging, regenerating, developing or regressing, discovering. In 1970, for instance, I “invented” New Yiddish, which imagined a “liturgical” Jewish literature, innovative piyyutim in the form of stories, essays, and poems written in English. Half a decade later, worrying an ancient Jewish question—art vs. deed—I began to wonder whether writing fiction itself (i.e., playing at make-believe) was really a Jewish calling. This musing took two forms, both equally “invented”—a tale, and an essay “explicating” the tale, the latter a preface to a book of tales. Which one counts more than the other? Which, in fact, is the real tale, which should be trusted to tell the writer’s heart? It hardly matters. Each is a fiction, each is a speculation; both are made up, invented; both are, in the most serious sense, dreams. Are these newer dreams an “advance” on the dream of 1970? A regression? A foolish contradiction? A self-repudiation? A fresh development? A malicious false messianism? A sign of personal, intellectual, and artistic insecurity?
A person sits alone at a desk and dreams. And then, astoundingly, bewilderingly, the cultural critic comes along and explains that the dreamer is really a “self-styled spokesman,” a “cultural impresario” who “has launched a veritable campaign to promote the idea of a Jewish literary community.” And worst of all, that imagination’s alternate mind, essay writing, is the “fortification of art by advertising.”
Now the reason this is more dangerous than comical (though it is comical too—such public power attributed to such minuscule sales!) is that by not taking literature seriously enough for what it is—play and try-out and hypothesis and dream—the cultural critic tends to take individual writers too seriously: as if a storywriter were a thinker to be reckoned with, or a philosopher of civilization building cohesive thought systems. After all, artists and dreamers shouldn’t be taken seriously, and not only because they are not philosophers; we know what happens when societies are run by visionaries for the sake of an aesthetic ideal—weren’t the Jews and Gypsies a smudge on Nordic loveliness? The poetry of fiction may take up ideas, may resemble ideas—but not “real” ideas, i.e., ideas about reality; like, say, an idea about a political conflict, or a pattern of immigration, or the exact geographical location of a “traditional Jewish environment.” Plato had a point when he threw the poets out—even, it seems to me, a “Jewish” point—what have they to do with reality? All writing is fabrication, including criticism.
If “observation and experience” were the only sources of fiction-making, and the “sociological reality” the only standard, then imaginative writers, because for the most part they fail to transcribe or come to terms with “insurmountable” sociological facts, would be misleaders of society at worst, cultural advertisers at best, and liars and plagiarists somewhere in between.
But Mrs. Wisse’s finicalness lies not, I think, in her trusting what she sees is really there (as who should not?) . It lies in her trusting imaginative writing only enough to let it tell her what she sees, rather than what she might see. It lies in her not distrusting writers enough. It lies in her holding up stasis as the mode of art (to be fair again, she might call it steadiness), instead of flux, movement, freedom, invention, risk. Cultural critics want consistency and steadiness; of course they do. Like nervous photographers, they want the subject to hold still.
Imagination won’t hold still. It goes after night moths and lightning. Worse yet, it is the principle of imagination’s regular diet to have its cake and eat it too—so that the most ordinary stories can encompass both what is seen and what might be seen, admittedly a risky pairing. “I too dislike it,” Marianne Moore once told us, speaking of the imagination of poetry. For what I think are Jewish reasons, I dislike it even more, but unlike Mrs. Wisse will not deny its powers only because they are inconvenient, and fail to serve a literary hypothesis called “sociological reality.”
A letter to the editor, Mrs. Wisse says, is one sign of a cultural impresario or advertiser. Is this letter to the editor the work of a cultural advertiser, or of a private struggler amazed, and alarmed, at being taken so seriously? The whole condition of reading and especially of writing is most appropriately understood when it is rendered as Lewis Carroll did: “reeling and writhing.” In any case, someone here is being, if not high-flown, then a bit too high-minded. Is it the storywriter or the critic?
New Rochelle, New York
To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse’s discussion of My Own Ground got me to thinking critically about the book again; something I haven’t done in months. To my horror, I realized that in Jacob’s dream, which climaxes the novel, I wrote, “Her mouth was smeared with blood,” rather than “Her lips. . . .”
A novel is composed of words. To understand one, Mrs. Wisse must get rid of her sociological preconceptions—theories of what fiction should be—and learn to read. If she wants to know what My Own Ground is about, she should begin by studying its “network of images,” as an astute critic in the daily New York Times suggested.
New York City
To the Editor:
In Ruth R. Wisse’s “American Jewish Writing, Act II,” there are two quotations attributed to me. No further source is given. The effect is of supportive agreement, on my part, with Mrs. Wisse’s ideas. In fact, the opposite is the case, but this can only be established by referring to the antecedents of these quotations.
The quoted sentences originally appeared in my article, “The Holocaust and the American Jewish Novelist,” published in the October 1974 issue of Midstream. In the course of that article, I ruminated about the oddness of the prevailing tone of American writers who were Jews. Despite the fact that they had been writing during the period of Holocaust knowledge, the tone (with the outstanding exceptions of Bellow and Malamud) was by and large comic and satirical. I wondered about why that should be so, and about Jews and writing in America, and about whether the literary tone they had developed could serve to treat ideas that were central to Jewish experience. I wondered also about the Jewishness of writers who wrote “with the eyes alone” and ended with a hope—or a plea or whatever it was—that Jewish writers who wrote about Jews as the material nearest at hand would educate themselves in Jewish ideas. What about the lost (if lost) aspiration of Jews? What about the memory, however debased, of the injunction to be a kingdom of priests? Jewish writers, I said, must educate themselves so that they would never again see merely what they saw around them, but also the penumbra of what might be.
This lengthy piece, all of whose connecting links I have had to omit in this crude summary, was quoted from at length in a paper Mrs. Wisse read at the 1975 Northeast Modern Language Association meeting in Montreal. Her paper was called “New Directions in Jewish American Literature.” . . . [In it] Mrs. Wisse set up . . . a hypothesis of new directions in Jewish writing, and quoted at considerably more length than in her review from my article in Midstream, to sketch in for her paper a background of dissatisfaction among writers with books written about Jewish life based on observation alone. This she apparently saw as the beginning of a trend, and she then cited work by me, by Hugh Nissenson, Cynthia Ozick, and Arthur A. Cohen.
Mrs. Wisse concluded, however, that we four “skirted the actuality of . . . readership. The real Jewish American remains the province of the uncommitted American Jewish writer who can afford, because he waves no national banner, to show him as he is.”
I have no rejoinder to make to such a conclusion except perhaps a shrug, or “How do you know?” or “Why not wait and see?”
However, I wondered then, and I still do, why Mrs. Wisse bothered to set up a hypothesis in which four writers were first discovered to be a group and then, in the next moment, dismissed as a group that would not work out. Apart from the futility (it seems to me) of grouping together dissimilar writers on the strength (or weakness) of a single hypothesis, there is the further arbitrariness of then dismissing these writers as being insufficiently supportive of said hypothesis.
The impression one gets from all this is that for the critic of Jewish writing, the material is running terribly thin. There is no time (for the critic) to wait for flowering, for the individual writers to make their individual growths and turnings. They must be, on the instant, pinned and dissected. . . .
Ideas, of course, are like water or, alas, gas. Meant to pass freely. But I do not want to be understood as being, by implication, in agreement with Mrs. Wisse’s conclusions about trends in Jewish writing, or acts of any number in their progress, or with her comments on the writers whom she reviewed. I think she would better have served the cause of writing, Jewish and otherwise, by responding to the uniqueness of these works by Nissenson and Ozick, instead of bundling them into trends, dividing them into acts, and in general distracting herself and us with so much curtain-raising and lowering.
I do not agree with Mrs. Wisse that sociology yields the best fiction. The writers who interest me most write out of the inside of head and heart. The created self perceives the world. It must be so. How else account for a Bellow and a Pynchon existing in the same time/space frame? Or to narrow the frame, how else account for a Sammler and a Henderson and a Citrine from the same hand? Surely there is a will-to-satire—which willfully ignores much!
It is untrue, therefore, that Jewish novelists (or any novelists) must write satire because the sociological reality yields only that. Moreover, there is satire and satire. One annihilates, the other points to inner possibilities in the very subject of satire. Much is conditioned by what’s inside the head and heart of the novelist. The act of seeing what is not yet there—what sociology cannot yield—is creation.
New York City
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
Jewish writers seem to have inherited from Jewish mothers the problems of letting go. . . .
As if to confirm their shared attitudes and outlook, the three writers, transfixed by the word “sociological” as it appears in the final paragraph of my article, have distorted its meaning in a surprisingly similar way, and stood the whole argument on its head. When I wrote, “for those who take Judaism seriously as a cultural alternative . . . the sociological reality of the present-day American Jewish community would seem to present an almost insurmountable obstacle,” I was hardly saying that writers must address themselves to the ways in which most people in their immediate society live (although why Cynthia Ozick should consider this outside the imaginative writer’s range, I fail to understand; Emma and Dubliners seem to me pretty fair books). I was saying that writers who wish to give positive representation to Judaism or “Jewishness” in any fictional form would have a hard time finding a convincing and congenial fictional atmosphere within the Jewish mainstream—the “sociological reality.” This seems to me to be a fairly obvious and elementary point, and it takes a bad case of “broken telephone” to get from there to an alleged argument for sociology in fiction.
If Hugh Nissenson’s model of astute criticism is Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s graceless review in the New York Times, his dissatisfaction with mine can only be flattering. Since he directs me to his network of images, I shall confess that I find the increasing self-consciousness of his imagery to be squeezing precious life-blood from his fiction. Nor, incidentally, do I fail to notice the repressed aggression in the imagery of his letter.
It is difficult to determine from Norma Rosen’s letter if she is peeved because I quote her too much or because I quote her too little. But in any case she misunderstands the critical process: quotation does not imply agreement, any more than the analysis of literary trends negates the “uniqueness” of individual writers or than the finding of imperfection amounts to “dismissal.” If Mrs. Rosen will read Miss Ozick’s letter, she will learn that I take these writers too seriously. The evolution of a Jewish culture in the English language, of which literature might form a part, is of intense concern to all those who live as Jews in English. If I am not quite as sanguine about the outcome as are some of its heralds—and my article suggested why I am not—at least I will not have to retract my views “half a decade later.”
As for Miss Ozick, far be it from me to inhibit her imagination—especially since I have so often enjoyed the fruits of it—but neither can I accept her comfortable self-image as the guileless purist, a kind of Jewish Peter Pan. The artist, she would have us know, is a different kind of human being, creature of pure play. While we critics, poor dogpatchers of the imagination, may be held accountable for what we write, artists demand a permanent distinction between themselves and all they produce. This distinction extends not only to literature—where Miss Ozick pushes fiction over the brink of the real, and then accuses finicky reviewers of ignoring the boundaries—but to speeches and essays, which, she says, are all fictions in speculative form. Since Miss Ozick’s own playful non-fiction musings have run to visions of extreme Jewish alarm, couched in political terms, as well as to visions of a reconstituted Jewish culture, one might have expected her to hold a more sober sense of authorial responsibility. Her non-fiction, like her fiction, may be fabrication, created by a person sitting alone at a desk and dreaming, but when it assumes the form of real ideas, in public—whether in book reviews, prefaces, or political and cultural analyses—it declares itself steady and responsible, and is so to be judged.