An Unfamiliar Look at Jewish-American Writers
More than once I’ve protested the limited sense of Jewish writing in America, for instance noting that Sephardic writers are routinely omitted and, for another, that few publicists acknowledged Gertrude Stein as, yes, Jewish.
The initial surprise of Lightness and Soul (Seraphim Books, Woodstock, Ontario), subtitled “Musing on Eight Jewish Writers,” is J. S. Porter’s selection: Alberto Manguel, Robert Lax, John Berger, Simone Weil, Muriel Rukeyser, Leonard Cohen, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and, greater surprise, Edward Said. (The last, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem don’t forget, wrote about European Jewish thinkers toward the end of his life.)
Lax, a great minimal poet, converted to the Catholicism of his college buddy Thomas Merton without ceasing to be Jewish. Though Sontag was born Susan Lee Rosenblatt, she rarely mentioned Judaism anywhere in her voluminous writings. Manguel was born in Israel, the child of the Argentine ambassador. Residing in Canada for most of his adult life, he has published many books reflecting his awesome literacy and gut enthusiasm for books, books, and more books.
Since Porter is a Canadian, Lightness and Soul includes an obligatory chapter on Leonard Cohen, whose significance has always puzzled me, credit though I now do Porter with discovering significances that have escaped me.
His real hero is the British art writer John Berger (pronounced not Berg/er but Bir/ger), born of a Jewish father, whom I’d not seen acknowledged as Jewish before. Another Porter chapter is devoted to Simone Weil (pronounced not “while” but “whey,”) who like Lax converted to Catholicism with results quite different from Lax’s.
Otherwise, know that Porter is a fluent and engaging writer, often aphoristic, who takes pride in staking unfamiliar intellectual territory. I review this book initially because I liked it, but then because I doubt if anyone else south of the Canadian border will.
S.T. Georgiou on Lightness and Soul
Your book is a fine read. I like your casual-precise-witty-candid-introspective-wide ranging-ever percolating style. An excellent choice of writers, and all marvelously interconnected. Your nicely arranged informative chapters provoked me to do a quick Wiki-Scan on most of the writers. I just wish you had a photo of each author, but I understand this increases the cost of production.
Very much liked your first chapter. Your love of books is wonderfully palpable, tactile, and brings to light the wonder of the book. I like the phrase “built by books” (good for a T-Shirt!) & the “slow dreaming that accompanies the turning of the pages,” sadly absent in today’s e-book (the slow dreaming that accompanies the scrolling of the document…? And is there time enough to dream in a world wired to the internet?). I liked your father’s influence in the book, helping you to appreciate thoughts such as “Read as though all your ancestors were living again through you.” “Carry on your back the poetry you have listened to.” Regarding the Jewish connection to the mystique of the book, pages 23-25 are profound.
Your second chapter (on Alberto Manguel) is likewise stirring, inspiring. That books are leaves of blessing, rich pulps of inner illumination is evident throughout. Really dug pages 28-31, sacral is the book indeed, sacred the journey through the long library stacks, how much can be gleaned simply by stroking the bindings. Brings back such happy memories of hunting for books in grad school, physically finding them, cracking open the dusty covers, then later bearing the best of the horde to the check out stand and bringing the choice volumes home, pouring over them atop a bed illuminated by a single amber-toned lamplight, already dreaming before the dreams had begun. And again, the contrast between book & e-book/internet sources: “The Web promises eternity but delivers ephemera.” Nice quotes throughout: “The Web has the document but not the soul of the document…” “Reading and writing are affairs of the whole body…” “Generation after generation of librarians wander through the library in an attempt to find the Book…”
Chapter 3, on Lax, once again a powerful read. Good synopsis, analysis. You do see (even very familiar) things new after reading/listening to Lax. “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” a fine story in relation to the innocence & holiness of the dreamer-sage-poet who ever falls into grace as he waits on the God of the Heart… Lax’s poems are indeed “little boxes of spirit & magic,” and surely because “he fusses over each word, as though it were an icon.” And yes, there’s Lax, putting lone words and syllables on a page, just as he similarly placed himself in the distant poverty of Patmos, emptying himself, happily becoming poor because he is rich in God, rich in the sacred beauty of a sea-world spun out of the core of the Creator, listening-searching for the first sounds of the cosmos, the light-word that began life. And yes, Lax is indeed the “one indispensable commentator on Merton’s life & work, the one who sees a hidden wholeness & holiness.” Pages 53-55, so nice.
Chapter 4, on Berger & Weil, a great tapestry highlighting the fabric of their being. Awesome quotes, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently” (Weil) and “The number of lives that enter into anyone’s life is incalculable” (Berger). In a sort of infinitely deep way, both selections profoundly interrelate and imbue a mystic holiness.
In Chapter 5, on Rukeyeser, I like much her purposeful attempts to leave out words, making the untouched words shine out of the night sky of consciousness like stars. Page 82 real good summary analysis of her work. Mythic, transcendent.
Chapter 6, on Leonard Cohen, well, I discovered Cohen in GTU grad school (a Pakistani friend gave me a tape & I was totally seduced by the poetry-music of this sleight of hand artist). How many times did I hear his songs crossing the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge going to Berkeley then back to San Francisco? Songs that, as one critic said, draw the listener in, like a moth to flame. We know we will die listening to Cohen, yet the dying is sweet. Pleasurable melancholy in the least; and most profoundly, well, let me put it this way: blossoms open in fire. Yes, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” so awesome. “It is in love that we are made; it is in love we disappear.”
In Chapter 7, on Harold Bloom, I like how he balances his “slouching toward Nazareth” with “If you are to grow in self-knowledge, become more introspective, discover the authentic treasures of insight and of compassion and of spiritual discernment and of a deep bond to other solitary individuals.” Thus Bloom turns toward (is subliminally-overtly drawn to) the incarnate Author of Life.
Chapter 8, on Sontag-Said, most of the info was all new to me, quite absorbing. I think a lot of writers can relate to not wanting to sleep much, lest they lose something in their creative output; yet perhaps the creative drive thrusts them out of their slumber in a perfectly natural manner. Lax would rise at 2-3-4AM and write “flashlight poetry” (or notebook writing), couldn’t help himself. But he was comfortable to go with the flow of things, wherever sleeping-waking would take him. On Said & the Intellectual, pages 121-123 illuminating.
Like how you chose Cohen’s song title “Closing Time” for the book’s conclusion. You sing of Berger through the pages, but that last line by Berger, “A likeness, once caught, carries the Mystery of Being,” brings to mind the first part of your book; it returns my thoughts, at least, to Alberto Manguel. And yet, in an even wider scope, these final words delicately interweave every chapter of your fine & rewarding book. Thank you for celebrating the mystery of the written (printed) word through writers emanating from a tradition wherein the word is so highly revered. The reader is left with a marvelous sense of wholeness and integrated holiness. Words can indeed brings things to life. After all, they created the universe. “Let there be Light!”
Steve T. Georgiou is a lecturer in Religion and the interdisciplinary Humanities at San Francisco City College, San Francisco State University and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California; author of _The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit-Lessons with Robert Lax, Mystic Street: Meditations on a Spiritual Path, and The Isle of Monte Cristo: Finding the Inner Treasure, all published by Novalis.
John Porter’s new book. It’s his manifesto.
Book Review by David Cohen
Originally printed in Hamilton Arts and Letters, Four.2, Fall/Winter 2011
“I read. I dream. I take notes. I write,” go the first words of poet-essayist John Porter’s new book.
The priority given to reading is no accident. John Porter is a reader, originally by inheritance, now by long-established habit. His father read poetry, theology, biography and philosophy “in that descending order of significance.” For “Dad and me, the book, in Ezra Pound’s … phrasing was ‘a ball of light.’ ”
“Reading is what I do,” Porter’s manifesto-like statement goes. “Reader is who I am. I write books on my readings, books on other people’s books, and construct sentences from other people’s sentences.”
Reading, like eating, satisfies a hunger. Citing Daniel Coleman’s In Bed with the Word, Porter endorses the idea that reading is akin to eating. Reading is primary. All else (presumably including criticism) trails in its wake.
So, here we have Porter’s latest readings. From the book’s title, one might gather that Jewishness in these writers somehow defines them, or at least represents a common element in their work. This is not the case. Alberto Manguel, Robert Lax, John Berger and Simone Weil, Muriel Rukeyser, Leonard Cohen, Harold Bloom, and Susan Sontag were born into the Jewish faith (Edward Said, the “plus,” was not Jewish, but…). That they have in common; but in none of these writers can Jewishness be said to be the defining feature of their work. It is rather a fact — a biographical fact — that they share.
Yes, the “Jewish homeland is the book … the transportable book, bound neither by place or time,” (George Steiner). But, as Porter himself illustrates, plenty of non-Jews share this homeland. This is the real “Israel, not a chunk of geography or a spot in time….” Yes. But….
J.S. Porter and Jewishness
By Eric Mader
Originall published on Saturday, September 17, 2011, at Clay Testament…
A new book by J.S. Porter is always something to celebrate. His Lightness and Soul, just out this month, does not disappoint. Full of surprises and keen insights, Porter’s book takes on a difficult and long-debated subject: the literary character of Jewishness over the recent seventy-odd years. Subtitled Musings on Eight Jewish Writers, the book doesn’t shy away from throwing very different figures into the ring: some of the chosen writers are avowedly Jewish, others deny their Jewishness, and one, as I will indicate below, can only be called Jewish in an oblique or ironic way.
If like me you’ve long cherished Jewish literature, this is a book you should read—for the sheer joy of it. Porter is one of our great expositors of the pleasures of reading. Like Alberto Manguel, considered in one chapter here, Porter teases out and explicates the multiple physical joys of book reading: the tactile attractions of the printed word; the magnetic draw that shelves of books or stacked volumes on a windowsill have for zealous readers. As in his Spirit Book Word (2001), he recounts his personal relationship with the books in question; this proves a particularly effective starting point for getting at what is singular in each writer he chooses. What we get as a result is eight in-depth readerly appreciations, eight critical portraits that give us what we, as readers, are really after: new insights into writers we already know; reasons to take up new writers we might not be familiar with.
For myself, Porter’s chapters on Leonard Cohen and Harold Bloom were especially enjoyable. I found echoes of my own readings as well as new assessments I hadn’t considered (both Porter’s own assessments and those of the many people he quotes: this writer is a great collector of critical remarks). Probably most worthwhile for me, however, was the chapter where Porter, strategically, put John Berger in conversation with Simone Weil. Berger, the ever down-to-earth British art critic, and Weil, the doggedly idealistic left-wing Neoplatonist (I’m aware how odd my characterization is) illuminate each other as they illuminate what a commitment to the underdog can mean in terms of life and literary practice. What was especially useful for me here was the new introduction to Berger, a writer I haven’t read since university and one I will now spend some time getting to know.
The problematics of what is Jewish make for only part of the intellectual interest of this book. Given that Porter’s concerns are mostly readerly, the question of how and why these writers are Jewish, though repeatedly addressed, must finally be answered by the reader—and answered on what are perhaps mainly literary or textual grounds. That there are no easy answers should be no surprise: What, after all, do figures like Harold Bloom and Simone Weil have in common beyond a certain amount of DNA going back to the ancient Near East? Weil probably would have found Bloom a bombastic aesthete. As for Bloom’s assessment of Weil, I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure it’s pretty grim.
Does the Jewishness of these writers reside in a certain spiritual register, a certain half-tangible something inherited even against the grain of what may have been the writer’s very secular family history? Or does it reside rather in a particular deep-seated respect for texts and debate—a tendency to take the written register as something nearly as important as the real world? As George Steiner wrote in My Unwritten Books (and as quoted by Porter in his first chapter):
The tablet, the scroll, the manuscript and the printed page become the homeland, the moveable feast of Judaism. Driven out of its native ground of orality, out of the sanctuary of direct address, the Jew has made of the written word his passport across centuries of displacement and exile.
Whatever the Jewishness at issue here, it probably can’t reside in a religious identification. Of the eight writers considered, only Leonard Cohen claimed to be a practicing Jew, and even he was occasionally called upon to defend his Judaism against other Jews who didn’t appreciate his Zen practice or the often Catholic symbolic register of his work. His words to these doubters, which Porter quotes, are magisterial:
Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this decision
I use the word magisterial to characterize these lines. And it is apt. Who if not Leonard Cohen possessed majesty in his artistic struggle—in its brutal honesty, its questing up and down the scale of high and low, in its utterly authentic spiritual need?
Much of Porter’s chapter on Cohen is dedicated to the novel Beautiful Losers. Porter brings out the scattered brilliance of this work: its annoying side and its undeniable genius; he quotes critics who were maddened by the book even as they sought to put a finger on its power. Here, one feels, is perhaps the closest Porter’s book gets to defining Jewishness. Jewishness as a kind of openness that nonetheless answers back; a willing spiritual wrestling with the many perverse angels of the day-to-day. Clearly discernible in Cohen’s work, is this not also the Jewishness that, in part, made for the greatness of the first books of the Bible? Is it not this willingness to admit in writing to what is unassimilable? To always portray the here and now along with the painful elements that don’t fit? This, I believe, is a large part of what is “Jewish” in significant Jewish writing.
In considering John Berger’s essay on Simone Weil, titled “A Girl Like Antigone,” Porter gets at what may be an important element of Berger’s style, and again approaches what I sense as the Jewishness that really underlies Porter’s book. I will quote at length:
Near the close of [Berger’s] meditation on Weil’s short life of thirty-four years, he returns to her … apartment on Rue Auguste Comte where, when writing, she could see the rooftops of Paris. In a single sentence, he captures the unity of her conflicting tensions with the insertion of a conjunction: “She loved the view from the window, and she was deeply suspicious of its privilege.” The word and holds the tension and reintegrates the splitting of love and shame. They belong together
On a previous occasion Berger made similar use of the and. I’m quoting from memory. He said once about a farmer in his French village that the man loved his pig and ate his pig. And joins, it honors; it doesn’t resolve or excuse. You can love a pig and eat it. You can love a window and feel ashamed for having a privilege that many are denied. But is a different kind of conjunction. It qualifies, prioritizes. Berger prefers and; he prefers it stylistically and morally. (67-8)
In the blank space after these sentences, as I sat reading Porter’s book on the Taipei subway on my way to work, I scribbled the words that came immediately to mind: “As does the Old Testament.” Berger prefers the and; he prefers it stylistically and morally—as did the J writer and, to a degree, as did the redactors who wove the J text into Genesis, Exodus and so on. The and is one of the great stylistic supports of ancient Hebrew prose (and poetry).
Above I indicate that Porter’s book treats of eight Jewish writers, but this isn’t quite true. Included as well, as somehow “Jewish,” is Edward Said, the great Palestinian activist and intellectual. Said himself, toward the end of his life, joked that he was perhaps the “last Jewish intellectual.” The ways in which this may be apt underline the degree to which Jewishness, as viewed in a literary-intellectual light, may indeed be a particular comportment toward difference, an openness to debate: again, Jewishness as a stance similar to something I believe Leonard Cohen has in spades—the willingness to wrestle, and to do so in words, regardless of whose hip may get dislocated.
A Treasure Trove of Wit
Published Saturday October 8th, 2011-10-08
Michael Higgins for the Telegraph-Journal, Saint John, New Brunswick
Porter loves to read; he reads himself into reality. And he loves those whom he reads; they are his companions to integration and wholeness.
And so his musings centre around the following literati and cognoscenti: Alberto Manguel, Robert Lax, John Berger, Simone Weil, Muriel Rukeyser, Leonard Cohen, Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag. He also throws in for good measure the eminent Palestinian savant Edward Said - whose credentials as a Jewish intellectual he takes pains to establish. Unconvincingly, in my view.
The Magnificent Eight are as dissimilar as they are similar but what they hold in common is a passionate commitment to the word, to the power of language and to the humanizing, nay divinizing, of the alphabet, the cord that unites us over the centuries, unobstructed by boundary, tyranny and the politics of erasure.
Porter’s musings constitute the primal text: he scours for meaning, delves into hitherto unexplored areas of spiritual and theoretical interpenetration, and proclaims robustly his love for them all. But the subtext is as, if not more, interesting: the making and remaking of J.S. Porter.
The writer is formed in conversation, his dialogue with Weil and the troop ever percolating. His probes are as much autobiographical as historical. That’s what makes this book a lively, endlessly allusive love affair wherein Porter brings to the table (in fact, Lightness and Soul is a fictional table talk) such a treasure trove of wit, oracular utterance, discreet disclosure, unnerving epiphany and sheer fun that the book itself becomes a companion to conversation.
Porter delights in his subjects and there is no critical edge. He eschews the qualified and lifeless judgement of the expert for the effusiveness of the lover.
And he masters the aphoristic style he admires in so many of the writers under the scope of his fealty. Of the “logocentric and bibliocentric” literary critic Harold Bloom he notes: “He is a Seussian geyser of gab.”
And he succinctly defines his own Christian faith in a book on eight Jewish writers when he observes:
“I celebrate the Jewish Jesus and the cosmic Christ, the Jesus of Nazareth and of Hamilton, the wine-drinker, the storyteller and the embracer of strangers.”
His Jesus can be found in his city, Hamilton, Ont., because as the master spinner of tales, the outlier who identifies with the rejected, Jesus weaves a narrative of salvation open to all.
Porter likes that kind of inclusiveness and Lightness and Soul reads as his spiritual testament.
Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is a former president of St. Thomas University.
from an e-mail by Ellen S. Jaffe, July 26, 2011, regarding the cover image
I’ve now looked closely at the cover, and also looked at the correspondence about this image. I like this cover — the clear, bright pastoral image of the field and the man in a business suit, reading, his face hidden by the book. The image itself is arresting —a bit like a Magritte painting — and asks the viewer to enter this curious world; we (I ) are drawn in, not put off. And it also says something about the “Jewish writer” — choosing books, reading and writing, even when in the midst of nature. Good colours, too.
from an e-mail by Helen McLean to Maureen Whyte, the publisher of Seraphim, Sept. 15, 2011
I wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed Lightness and Soul. It’s a beautiful book. A word or a phrase would catch my brain or heart or some such important organ and I would have to read it again two or three times and stop to meditate about it.
from an e-mail by Eric Mader, Sept. 17, 2011
It was a great pleasure reading you on Cohen, Bloom and Weil. These are writers I know quite well; and here I have a brother in spirit, a reader that notices and values many of the same elements, bringing them out in such engaging jargon-free prose. There is much of Hemingway in your style.