The American Conservative, 9 March 2009

Benjamin Disraeli as a Young Man
Benjamin Disraeli as a Young Man

A review of Adam Kirsch’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli focuses on Kirsch’s idea that because Disraeli realized he could not stop his fellow nineteenth-century Englishmen from thinking of him primarily in terms of his Jewish ancestry, he “did not attempt to disguise his Jewish background.  He embellished it.”   Disraeli purported to be far more deeply involved with that side of his ancestry than he in fact was, even explaining his active membership in the Church of England as an example of his fealty to “the only Jewish institution that remains… the visible means which embalms the race.”  Meanwhile, the Jewish characters and themes in Disraeli’s novels appall modern sensibilities.  Sidonia, a character in the Young England trilogy (Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred,) “looks like nothing so much as an anti-Semitic hate figure.  It is amazing, in fact, how Disraeli manages to combine in this one character every malicious slander and paranoid fear that the anti-Semitic imagination can breed.”  Disraeli’s manipulation of the label his fellows had imposed upon him enabled him to become prime minister of the United Kingdom.  Disraeli’s ability to “outline [an] agenda of radical change to be achieved conservatively, a political program that allowed him to reinvent himself as the representative not only of the wealthy and the working class but of the Tory Party, too” has inspired rightist politicians like Richard Nixon and the neocons.      

If Kirsch is right, Disraeli knotted his contemporaries’ perceptions of him around their image of “the Jew,” using their prejudices to transform  himself from a marginal figure unlikely to make a mark in politics into a figure of England’s national mythology.  Another complex of ideas twists around another such image in Brendan O’Neill’s  analysis of the thoughts of some of Israel’s more fervent defenders in the West.  O’Neill argues that the individuals he cites are less interested in Israel as an actual place inhabited by living people than they are in using a particular idea of Israel as a symbol for the values of the Enlightenment.  “In effect, Israel is cynically, and lazily, being turned into a proxy army for a faction in the Western Culture Wars that has lost the ability to defend Enlightenment values on their own terms or even to define and face up to the central problem of anti-Enlightenment tendencies today.”  This use of Israel as a pawn in cultural struggles centered elsewhere shades into philosemitism.  “[A]s Richard S. Levy writes in his book Anti-Semitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, simple philosemitism, like anti-Semitism, also treats the Jews as ‘radically different or exceptional’…  Where anti-Semites project their frustrations with the world and their naked prejudices onto the Jews, and frequently onto Israel, too, the new philosemites project their desperation for political answers, for some clarity, for a return to Enlightenment values onto Israel and the Jews.  Neither is a burden the Jewish people can, or should be expected to, bear.”    


The Nation, 22 December 2008


Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1916

It’s usually the reviews that feature most prominently in my notes about The Nation.  That’s because the notes are about things I might want to look up again, and The Nation‘s articles and columns are usually of strictly timely interest.  This week’s issue is no exception.

In this issue, Arthur Danto reviews a retrospective of Giorgio Morandi‘s paintings currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’ve always had a fondness for Morandi’s subdued color schemes and restricted perspective.   Danto claims that the objects in Morandi’s still lifes seem much more active than is typical for the genre; sometimes they seem “to interact and jostle” as if competing for space on the table.  He cites this 1961 painting as an especially crowded one.  He may be onto something; for example, this 1914 piece does seem to point forward to the Futurists.  But more often when I look at Morandi I see pictures like the one I’ve posted here, quiet images that neither call out for attention with flash nor resist the viewer with trickery, but, rather, allow those who are so minded to take whatever look they wish.   

Throughout a review of a reissue of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination runs the question of what it might mean for literature to have, as Trilling always insisted it should have, a serious moral purpose.  Trilling tries to answer the question with a remark about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an answer the reviewer finds unsatisfactory:

“No one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the engrained customary beliefs of his time and place.” One response to this might be to say that anyone capable of this kind of “thoughtful” reading is not likely to be a prisoner of social convention in the first place, and vice versa. The passage risks both patronizing the imagined reader and imputing an unrealistic power to Twain’s book. In such passages, the adjective “moral” appears overworked, now indicating the merely conventional social codes, now referring to the wider human vision offered by the critic.

A fair criticism, one must admit.  Humanists from Plato on would have to plead guilty to the charges the reviewer levels against Trilling here. 

Elsewhere in the issue, Katha Pollitt quotes New York University historian Linda Gordon, a founder of Feminists for Obama, calling on feminists to keep up pressure on Mr O, since that’s what their opponents will be doing.  She also quotes an op-ed by economist Randy Albelda calling for increased investment in health, education, eldercare, and other industries that employ many women as part of any economic stimulus plan.  Alexander Cockburn points out that in the aftermath of the Mumbai shootings, several top Indian officials were driven from office in disgrace, a stark contrast with the failure of any senior American to so much as admit error in the aftermath of 9/11.  Stuart Klawans reviews recent films Milk, Australia, and Wendy and Lucy.