Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’: Talking About Religion, Identity, And Culture In A Philosophy Classroom

Last week, the students in this semester’s edition of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class began reading and discussing Chaim Potok‘s The Chosen. (We have just concluded our discussions of Chapters 1-5 i.e., Book One, which details the initial encounters between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, the book’s central protagonists.) I had not read the novel before the semester began, and had placed it on this semester’s reading list–the organizing theme is ‘the religious novel and its intersections with identity and culture’–on the recommendations of some friends who had. Thus far, this has been an exceedingly good move; I can wholeheartedly recommend the book to any other philosophers looking to place fiction on their reading lists.

This is because, as might be suspected, the book provides ample material to spark philosophical discussion in the classroom–Potok was a philosopher by training, and it shows. I had not looked at his biography too closely before the semester began, but once I began reading the book, it was blindingly obvious to me that the author had either studied philosophy extensively or was an academic himself. (The central give-away for me was the mentioning of Russell and Whitehead‘s Principia Mathematica by Danny Saunders as he describes his intellectual interests and career plans to Reuven.) Literary critics might complain about the heavy-handedness of the symbolism employed in these preliminary chapters but philosophy teachers will not complain about the fairly explicit invitation to delve into the questions of how religious faith and practice inform our sense of self, what their limits are, and how intra-group differences can be more sharply drawn than even inter-group ones. Many of my students come from backgrounds where religion has formed an integral part of their upbringing; some have attended Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish parochial schools so they can relate quite easily to the yeshiva-educated central characters of The Chosen. (It does not hurt that the novel is set in Brooklyn itself.). These students have a diverse set of reactions to the influence of their parochial education on their identities; their discussion of the themes The Chosen focuses on lets them draw upon their personal experiences in their reactions to it.

The selection of The Chosen for a philosophy class also makes an acute topical sense in these times, for the opening chapters permit an examination of the peculiar position of a minority culture–one made up of refugees and their descendants–surrounded by a dominant one, one to which it feels it must prove itself in times of war and greater patriotism, even if at the cost of having to make adjustments to its dominant sense of priorities and norms. The use of a baseball game, the playing of which takes up the entire first chapter, allowed for a discussion of the intersections of nationalism and sport too–how and why does the sport field function as a proving ground for ideological claims?

I’ve often written on this blog on how fiction helps my teaching of philosophy; the opening weeks of this semester have offered a gratifying confirmation of that claim.

Fiction On Philosophy Reading Lists

Last week, over at the NewAPPS (Arts, Politics, Philosophy, Science) blog, where I’ve started blogging as part of a group of academic philosophers, I posted the following:

In my post yesterday, I had written of how discussion centering on a classic philosophical debate could be sparked by a reading of fiction. (The upper-tier core class I’m teaching, Philosophical Issues in Literature, is of course, all about that!) But fiction features in another reading list of mine–via Walter Kaufman‘s eclectic anthology, Religion from Tolstoy to Camus–which I am using in this semester’s philosophy of religion class. We talked about The Death of Ivan Ilyich yesterday in class and it induced a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion covering religious feeling, existential crises, metaphysical rebellion, philosophy’s relationship to death, Tolstoy’s critique of organized religion and so on. I have too, in the past, used fiction in my philosophy of feminism class (Ursula Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness). I wrote about that experience over on my personal blog; it was a wholly positive one.

I would be interested in hearing from other folks on their use of fiction in their class reading lists. Where and how did you do so? What was your experience like? Links to sample syllabi would be awesome.

My post triggered a series of very interesting responses, which should be of value to academic philosophers and to anyone interested in the relationship between philosophy and literature. Please do check out the comments thread; you will find many recommendations for reading, pointers to how they may be used in the classroom, as well as an indication of their philosophical significance.

Lord Byron on the Writerly Compulsion

In Oryx and Crake, Crake quotes Lord Byron

What is it Byron said? Who’d write if they could do otherwise? Something like that.

Who indeed? Byron’s supposed description² of writerly obsession is by now familiar to us: writers write because they have to, they must, they can do little other; their activity is as much compelled as chosen.  It is a description that elevates writing to a calling, the answering to an inner voice that must be heeded, that brooks no interference in finding its realization.

This description of writing lends it the beauty of suffering, of the price paid for playing host to a terrible, demanding, desire. It is, as might be evident, part of the self-mythologizing of the writer, a long and honorable tradition of turning yet another profane human activity into something that partakes of divinity, that flirts with infinity. It sprinkles star dust upon the entirely earthy.

Why do writers describe themselves thus? In part because self-mythologizing is narcissistic and writers are nothing if not afflicted by Narcissus‘ disease (What other race of creatures would imagine that anyone else would be interested in its thoughts, its views, its particular rendering of the commonly experienced?); in part because writers are afflicted by the converse too–they are deeply insecure about what they do, always struck by the absurdity of trying to make concrete the unfathomable, of trying to freeze into the written page, all that swirls about within and without. So writers like descriptions like these of their work, because they seem to capture its difficulty well; they dignify its long fallow periods, its flirtations with disaster and sublimity alike, they make bearable the moments–and they occur often–of self-doubt and loathing.

A description of writing as compulsion also helps in understanding the peculiar misery that overcomes those who are unable or unwilling to write but would consider themselves writers anyway; they are so because their lack of fidelity has exacted its punishment.  It makes bearable the discipline that must be imposed in order to write: subject yourself to this chafing constraint because the alternative is worse.

It is also worth acknowledging the flipside of this description of the writer’s state of being: the writer looks longingly at those who do not write; the writer wishes he were not overcome and helpless; the writer dreams of not writing, of putting down the pen (switching off the machine?). It suggests a vivid, animating fantasy of overcoming: to write to the point of exhaustion, to fully spend all that lies within, to purge and bring forth, and then finally, by that writing out, by that expulsion, to be finally freed, allowed to live life in other ways. So at last, the last page written, the fire dies out, the itching stops, and the writing can end. That could be the animating passion; the promise, the dream, of the end of writing.

Notes:

1. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, Anchor Books, New York, page 167

2. I have not been able to locate the original source for this line. Pointers would be appreciated.

Concert at the Corner

The boy with the violin case came around the corner. On time, as always.  Head bowed, feet dragging on the sidewalk, the case drooping by his side, as always. He approached A__’s gang, scattered on the sidewalk, oblivious to their presence.

Till A__ spoke.

‘Hey!’

The boy looked up, alarm running through his body quickly and efficiently, flushing his cheeks and warming his ears, bringing him to attention. He had dreaded this confrontation, accepting its inevitability, and yet was no less stricken by fear when it finally arrived.

“What’s in that case?”

“My violin.”

“Yeah? What’s it for?”

“I play music on it’.

“Yeah. Well, play it for us, maestro. Let’s see what you got.”

It wasn’t an invitation to play; it was a message indicating the penalties for refusing to play. An elementary inference.

The boy picked up the violin. Lessons for the day had ended a while ago; his performances hadn’t. And his taskmaster in the chambers he had left behind was, despite his gruffness, brusqueness and peremptory commands, an infinitely less demanding audience than this one.

He began to play, drawing the bow across the violin’s strings. He always wrapped himself around the strange new beast–violin plus bow–that emerged when horsehairs made contact with catgut, but today, he held on to its familiar shape just a little tighter. As if it could protect him from the beating that lay close by in his future.

He picked the longest composition he knew, the Spring Sonata that would go on and on for twenty-two minutes. He’d enjoy them while it lasted.

The notes rang out clearly and sharply; they moved down the street and around it; they floated up around the gang’s ears.

They reached A__ too. He had heard violins before. He had heard their sound. Sometimes his uncle, his mother’s brother, who lived crosstown and visited for dinner when his father didn’t mind, played the violin as accompaniment to a meal he had finished quicker than the others.

The sound was familiar but still novel. At home, his uncle often played over the sounds of dinner: plates and spoons clanking, babies crying, men shouting, women chattering. At home, the violin was background music, just one more component of an inchoate sound that filled their home in the evenings. It was never allowed to stand out, always relegated to a humble plebeian standing.

This was different.

A__’s gang stood on the street corner, not moving. The maestro stood next to them, playing, not daring to look up. Eye contact might break the spell, might dispel the mood. It was not a chance he was willing to take.

A__ was motionless. He wanted the music to stop. He wanted to get on with the rest of the act: the smashing of the violin on the sidewalk, the flinging of the bow across the street, the punch in the face and the kick in the pants that would propel that little whiner home.

He remained motionless.

The sonata ran out. The boy added a flourish or two and then stopped. The bow came off the strings; the violin dropped to his side.

A__’s boys stared at him, awaiting directives for their deployment.

A__ finally spoke.

“Go home.”

Colm Tóibín on the ‘Real’ and the ‘Imagined’

Colm Tóibín writes of the intimate relationship between facts and fiction (‘What Is Real Is Imagined’, New York Times, July 14 2012), about how the story-teller’s primary responsibility is to the story, about how the novelist may, in creating fiction, embroider the facts, embellishing and enhancing, for being stuck just with the facts is not a good place to be:

If I had to stick to the facts, the bare truth of things, that would be no use….It would be thin and strange, as yesterday seems thin and strange, or indeed today.

But the facts that the writer dresses up and ‘alters’ should only be those that he knows intimately:

If I tried to write about a lighthouse and used one that I had never seen and did not know, it would show in the sentences. Nothing would work; it would have no resonance for me, or for anyone else.

No man can give that which is not his, I suppose.

So the writer may draw freely and creatively upon the ‘known real,’ while not being too fastidious about offending the living:

I feel that I have only rights, and that my sole responsibility is to the reader, and is to make things work for someone I will never meet. I feel just fine about ignoring or bypassing the rights of people I have known and loved to be rendered faithfully, or to be left in peace, and out of novels. It is odd that the right these people have to be left alone, not transformed, seems so ludicrous.

These are all good observations on the art and ethics of writing fiction.

But Tóibín starts off by trying to make a distinction that should have struck him as untenable:

The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.

Tóibín imagines here the distinction to be a clear one, between the hardness of land and the ‘softness’ of water, between the tangible, graspable solidity of land, and the quicksilver, through-your-fingers elusiveness of water. But the ‘universe of what is clear and visible and known’ is a universe infected with the ‘fictions’ of our theories about it. What is ‘clear and visible and known’ springs sharply into focus because of those fictions. And land? Land is shot through and through with water. Dig a little, you hit water. Pick up a handful of dirt – it’ll have moisture. From these admittedly crude imaginings one can arrive at the recognition that ‘fact’ is suffused with ‘fiction,’ just as the bare, solid, visible land is, that what we imagine solid is all to easily revealed to be  squishy and permeable.

The ‘bare truth of things’ that Tóibín speaks of is visible to us because of the stories we have told ourselves about it.  He knows this, surely. Why else would he say that ‘what is real is imagined’?

Ann Patchett is Wrong About the Pulitzers

Ann Patchett has an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times, which waxes angsty over the failure of the Pulitzer committee to award a prize in fiction this year: This decision, besides affecting book sales, might lead readers to think there wasn’t any good fiction around. For as Patchett puts it, the Pulitzers are indispensable in drumming up the excitement that sends readers to bookstores, and play the same role in the literary world that the Oscars play in the world of cinema:

Unfortunately, the world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.

So presumably, having failed to receive a directive from the Pulitzer prize committee on which books to purchase the next time they are at Barnes and Noble or browsing on Amazon, people will read less fiction. Oh, the horror!

I’m genuinely perplexed by this. I can understand Patchett’s angst from the perspective of authors. The Pulitzers do provide a massive marketing boost to a book, and bump up sales. And thus, one easily understands her angst from the bookseller’s perspective. But as a reader, pardon my French, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the Pulitzers. I read plenty of fiction, and I have not once, never, ever, ever, felt more excited or pumped up on reading about the Pulitzer award for fiction. (I watch a lot of movies too, and I remain resolutely unexcited by the announcement of the Oscars.)

I read fiction because, to quote Patchett, I realize that

Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings.

I started reading fiction as a child, and haven’t stopped yet; in my universe of reading  the Pulitzers exert no influence whatsoever. I’m not saying this as a snob; I imagine it is the same for many other readers. Patchett is genuinely confused: The Pulitzers don’t make people read more; rather they channel that reading into particular directions, towards particular locations of influence and connections in the world of writing and publishing (If you imagine the Pulitzers are free of lobbying influence, I have a bridge to sell you.) Readers read fiction for the reasons Patchett cites above; those reasons will not go away just because a Pulitzer was not awarded this year.

Patchett’s argument is an economic one; she should keep it that level, and not make the crucial mistake of imagining that somehow readers’ lives have been impoverished by the failure of the Pulitzer prize committee to award a prize. Patchett should feel free to speak as an industry spokesperson, for the machinery of publishers and authors. But she should leave readers out of it.

Fiction, Non-Fiction, “Popularity,” and “Seriousness”

Back in December-January, I wrote a series of posts on fiction and non-fiction writers, in particular, on the relative endurance of their writings in posterity. I wondered whether essayists and non-fiction writers stood less of a chance of having their work read by future generations than did novelists and fiction writers, what the causes for fiction’s greater enduring power might be (if indeed, that was the case), what the “popular-serious” distinction in writing amounted to, how meaningful the distinction between “essayists” and other “non-fiction writers” was, whether traditional reportage-style essays were particularly susceptible to datedness and so on. (There were three posts in all, titled Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essays and Posterity; Essays and Expiry DatesFiction, Non-Fiction, Essays and Posterity.)

With respect to these discussions, the Letters sections of the first two issues of the London Review Books (Vol 1, No. 1, 25 October 1979, and Vol. 2, No. 2, 8 November 1979) provide some interesting reading. In them, the LRB featured replies from readers to a question posed by the journal: What should a literary journal now be doing, and what else would they like to say about the current state of literary journalism and publishing? 

I am reproducing a couple of letters in their entirety–sans commentary. The LRB Letters archive pages are accessible to paid-subscribers only.

From Vol.1, No.1, 25 October 1979.

Brigid Brophy:

My hope is for justice for fiction.

There is a mythical syllogism that goes: Fiction (or at least fiction in hard covers and with artistic ambition) doesn’t sell; its publishers don’t, therefore, advertise it; papers are therefore doing an act of charity if they allot it review space.

That, however, is to ignore the readers (as distinct from buyers) of books. (In Britain those two are very distinct, thanks to the unique size of our public library service.) All papers depend immediately on advertising, but a paper about books must find itself an ultimate constituency among the people who read books. And the books those people read are, predominantly, fiction.

Puritans, who hate and fear fiction, regularly pronounce ‘the novel’ dead, using the singular because they wish there were only one. But champions of fiction often do it no better justice, with their appeals to pity and duty on behalf of the poor, démodé, tottering old thing.

The old thing is in reality a bounding pop art. Some 65 to 70 per cent of adult borrowing from public libraries is borrowing of fiction. In absolute numbers, 365 or so million volumes of fiction-for-adults a year (or one million a day) are given temporary housing in British homes.

It is regrettable for novelists who want to stay alive, and for readers who want them to stay alive to keep up the supply, that British readers borrow rather than buy their fiction. However, they do it for the most sympathetic reasons: namely, that they want such a lot of the stuff. Fiction is perilously addictive. Even though publishers still keep the average price of a fiction book considerably lower than that of a book-in-general, any addict who bought all he wants to read would be quickly bankrupted, not to mention crowded out of his home.

It is probably true that many of the works that addicts borrow in such mass are not imaginative creations but commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review. But so long as there are misapprehensions about fiction’s standing in present-day society, any squeeze on review space squeezes fiction first, with the result that good novels, too, get ignored or slighted, especially the ones that are written within a given form. Snobs who dismiss thrillers, for instance, because they adhere to a set of conventions, should re-examine their attitude to Greek tragedy.

Even the novels that are reviewed are for the most part treated like dirt – that is, swept up in swathes by whoever can be persuaded to take on the chore. Addicts of fiction positively like having their credulity stretched, but even they balk at the straining symphonic bridge-passages (‘From Amsterdam to intellectual agony may seem a big jump’) of round-up reviews.

A more catholic choice of titles for review; more space; and solo space: these are the least that decency demands for what is at the same time the most popular species of books and the one ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed’.

From Vol. 2, No.2, 8 November 1979

N. F. McDowell:

The first issue of the London Review expresses a concern for the public usefulness of literature, and in three of the letters printed in that issue there was evidence of a distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘commercial’ literature. Mr Hamilton asked if anyone wanted a ‘serious reviewing journal’; Mr Rosenthal made a request for ‘serious poetry reviewing’; and Brigid Brophy distinguished between ‘imaginative creations’ and ‘commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review’. I wonder about these hard-and-fast distinctions.

Byron’s works were best-sellers, but they were hardly ‘commercial manufactures’. In a commercially-dominated world, something might be achieved through a critical, ‘serious’ reading of books written specifically for financial gain. Literature is still part of many people’s cultural fodder: it can also be the antennae of a culture. If arbitrary distinctions between ‘commercial’ and ‘imaginative’ are left unquestioned, we might consume our own antennae unawares. Shakespeare’s genius flourished in the commercial environment of the theatre, and as soon as a piece of writing is for sale it is commercial manufacture. The London Review should encourage critical reading over a wider range of literature than seems to be promised in the first issue.