On the Subject of Judaism, Lionel Trilling Protested a Bit Too Much

Feb. 27 2019

The great American Jewish literary critic and Columbia professor Lionel Trilling long aspired not just to write about fiction, but to produce it. In 1947, he published his only completed novel, The Middle of the Journey, about a group of American middle-class socialists in the 1930s. Reviewing a recently published collection of Trilling’s letters, Joseph Epstein uses one particular review of the novel to shed light on Trilling’s blind spot regarding the Jews :

Of all the reviews of The Middle of the Journey, Trilling was especially aggrieved by that of Robert Warshow in Commentary. Among other deficiencies Warshow noted in the novel was its author’s failing to make any of his characters Jewish, when so many radicals in 1930s America had themselves been Jews. Trilling had a Jewish problem. He was nothing so pathetic as a self-hating Jew. Nor was he of that rarified type, the anti-Semitic Jew, or the superior Jew who looked down on other Jews. The problem was that he just didn’t see how his own Jewishness in any way influenced or had any connection with, or meaning for, him.

This comes up over and over again in his letters. This first time was in 1945 when he turns down the offer of becoming a member of the board of contributing editors of the newly fledged Commentary, [then the magazine of the American Jewish Committee], responding to the offer by saying, “I do not think I am a man who should—let alone could—have a quasi-official position in Jewish life.” He also informed the rabbi who was the counselor to Jewish students at Columbia that he could not accept his invitation to attend services because “I am not a synagogue goer and cannot properly appear as an example of one.”

To another correspondent he wrote that the culture of East European Jewry “has injured us all dreadfully,” adding that “the anti-sexual impulse of Eastern European Jews is extreme.” [Trilling, Epstein notes elsewhere, spent much of his life in psychoanalysis.] He wrote to [the art critic] Clement Greenberg that “I feared and disliked everything I knew about American Jewish life.” If he saw little value in Jewishness, he had little better to say about Judaism, the religion itself. To the English philosopher Alan Montefiore he wrote that “the nature of my alienation from Judaism is in large part an irritable response to the unsatisfactoriness—the dimness—of its theological utterances.” All this can seem, as the English say, a bit of a muchness coming from a man whose middle name was Mordecai.

Lionel Trilling wished not so much to disown or even to deny his Jewish connection as to seem above it or above any parochialism implicit in the connection with religion or ethnicity. He wanted to stake out a position of philosophical detachment, the detachment of a true critic of the culture. This he may have achieved, but at high cost to the would-be novelist. In a letter to Saul Bellow’s editor at Viking, Pat Covici, he praised Bellow’s 1953 breakthrough book The Adventures of Augie March, remarking that it “is Saul’s gift to see life everywhere” and going on to praise Bellow for forging a new style that “is really wonderful in its vivacity and energy, in its fusion of the colloquial and the intellectual tradition.”

It is an irony that critics have noted the uniquely Jewish voice of Augie March’s narrator.

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Read more at Commentary

More about: Arts & Culture, Jewish literature, Lionel Trilling, Literature, Saul Bellow

Despite What the UN Says, the Violence at the Gaza Border Is Military, Not Civilian, in Nature

March 22 2019

On Monday, a UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry issued its final report on last spring’s disturbances at the Gaza border. Geoffrey Corn and Peter Margulies explain why the report is fatally flawed:

The commission framed the events [in Gaza] as a series of demonstrations that were “civilian in nature.” Israel and its Supreme Court, [which has investigated some of the killings that occurred], framed the same events quite differently: as a new evolution in Israel’s ongoing armed conflict with the terrorist organization Hamas. Consistency and common sense suggest that the Israeli High Court of Justice’s framing is a more rational explanation of what occurred at the Israel-Gaza border in spring 2018.

Kites, [for instance], played a telltale role [in the violence]. When most people think of kites, they think of a child’s plaything or a hobbyist’s harmless passion. In the Gaza confrontation, kites [became] a new and effective, albeit low-tech, tactic for attacking Israel. As the report conceded, senior Gaza leaders, including from Hamas, “encouraged” the unleashing of waves of incendiary kites that during and since the spring 2018 confrontations have burned thousands of acres of arable land within Israel. The resulting destruction included fires that damaged the Kerem Shalom border crossing, which conveys goods and gasoline from Israel to Gaza. . . .

Moreover, the incendiary-kite offensive was an effective diversion from the efforts encouraged and coordinated by Hamas last spring to pierce the border with Israel and attack both IDF personnel and the civilian residents of the beleaguered Israeli towns a short distance from the border fence. . . .

The commission also failed to acknowledge that Hamas sought to use civilians as an operational cover to move members of its armed wing into position along the fence. For IDF commanders, this increased the importance of preventing a breach [in the fence]. Large crowds directly along the fence would simplify breakthrough attempts by intermingled Hamas and other belligerent operatives. The crowds themselves also could attempt to pour through any breach. Unfortunately, the commission seems to have completely omitted any credible assessment of the potential casualties on all sides that would have resulted from IDF action to seal a breach once it was achieved. . . .

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Read more at Lawfare

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Laws of war, UNHRC, United Nations