Trilling, Babel, and the Rabbis

When The Middle of the Journey was published in 1947, one of the criticisms made of the novel was that Lionel Trilling had erred in not making his characters Jewish. The intellectual circles in which Trilling moved in the 1930s and 1940s, where he found the originals of the novel’s fellow-traveling liberals, were largely made up of first-generation American Jews, like himself. While he taught at Columbia, then still a Protestant bastion, Trilling published his essays in Partisan Review and Commentary, the house organs of the New York Jewish intellectuals. Yet “not one of the essential characters is, incredibly, a Jew,” complained Leslie Fiedler, “though much of the flavor of the Communist experience in America is their flavor.”

This may not be entirely correct. There is, in fact, a glancing allusion to Jewishness in the novel, when John Laskell, the character who comes closest to being the author’s proxy, is quizzed about his name by his British nurse, Miss Paine. “‘It sounds quite English,’ Miss Paine said. She spoke it again, as if testing it. ‘John Laskell,’ she said. ‘It sounds like a Lancashire name. Are you English?’. . . No, he was not English. There was a modification he might make—his mother had been born in the first year of his grandparents’ long English visit. But that did not make her English, or him.” This is Trilling’s own history: His grandparents had emigrated from Eastern Europe to England, before moving finally to New York. It seems we are to deduce that, like his creator, Laskell bears a Jewish name that happens to function as Anglo-Saxon camouflage.

The sound of his name helped Trilling early in his career, when he was the first Jew to be hired in the Columbia English Department. As Diana Trilling wryly observed, “Had his name been that of his maternal grandfather, Israel Cohen, it is highly questionable whether the offer would have been made.” But the very Englishness of the name sometimes raised suspicions that it must have been adopted as a disguise—a corollary to Trilling’s reserved, imposing, professorial demeanor.

In fact, Trilling went through life with the name his father and grandfather bore—unlike many of the New York intellectuals, whose family names really had been changed to sound less Jewish. Yet the suspicion of trying to “pass” does not attach itself to, say, Irving Howe (born Horenstein). For Alfred Kazin, part of Trilling’s mystique came from the way he seemed “to be a Jew and yet not Jewish”—Jewish, here, meaning immigrant poverty, of the kind Kazin wrote about in his memoir A Walker in the City. “For Trilling I would always be ‘too Jewish,’ too full of my lower class experience. He would always defend himself from the things he had left behind,” Kazin wrote, himself sounding a little defensive. It would be hard to tell from this description that, as Diana Trilling further explained, Trilling’s father was a tailor, and he grew up in circumstances nearly as humble as Kazin’s.

Yet it is true that Trilling expressed strong resistance to being described as a Jewish writer. In 1944, he was asked to contribute to a symposium in the Contemporary Jewish Record, a magazine that was the predecessor to Commentary, on the subject of “American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews.” His short essay, republished in later collections as “Under Forty,” comprehensively declines any Jewish identification, in a way that seems strange and even suspicious in our own confidently multicultural age. Trilling may have felt it to be a “point of honor” to acknowledge his Jewishness, to make clear that “I would not, even if I could, deny or escape being Jewish”—a gesture of solidarity that was morally imperative, with “the Jewish situation as bad as it is.”  But this kind of Jewishness is strictly formal, not substantive, and Trilling insists, “I cannot discover anything in my professional intellectual life which I can specifically trace back to my Jewish birth and rearing. I do not think of myself as a ‘Jewish writer.’ I do not have it in mind to serve by my writing any Jewish purpose. I should resent it if a critic of my work were to discover in it either faults or virtues which he called Jewish.”

This repudiation is all the more striking given that he actually began his career as an editor and writer for a Jewish magazine, The Menorah Journal. This publication was edited in the 1920s by Elliot Cohen, who would go on to found Commentary in 1945, and it attracted an impressive group of young contributors. Some of Trilling’s earliest criticism, collected after his death in Speaking of Literature and Society, appeared in this Jewish venue, and dealt directly with Jewish subjects. Yet decades later he remembered the magazine, and the effort at “Jewish self-realization” that it represented, as being “sterile at best.”

In this judgment, he is quite faithful to the way he felt and wrote even at the time. In a review, published in The Menorah Journal in 1929, of a novel called The Disinherited, Trilling was already impatient with the way American Jewish novelists wrote as though being Jewish, and accepting one’s Jewishness, is an interesting accomplishment in itself. “As soon as the Jewish writer gets his hero to be a Jew,” Trilling complains, “he wraps him up warm in a talith and puts him away . . . the Jewish hero is lifted out of life and made to goggle his eyes in functionless ecstasy at the fact that he is a Jew.” Trilling believes that the Jewish novel requires “poetry, passion, a little madness. It will support greatness”—as though looking forward to Jewish writers like Bellow and Mailer, whose triumphant “mishigas” or craziness he would later envy.

Kirsch Trilling ImageBut American Jewish writing in the 1920s was not what it would become in the 1950s. In the era of Mann, Proust, and Eliot, Trilling was impatient with a literature that boasted Ludwig Lewisohn as its brightest light. On the other hand, he was too intellectually rigorous to believe that he could be nourished by the legacy of Judaism, when he knew almost nothing about it. It is not unusual for secular Jewish literary critics to wonder if their profession is just the latest incarnation of the Judaic intellectual tradition—the Talmudic tradition—with its emphasis on textual explication and intellectual controversy. Harold Rosenberg, one of the leading New York intellectuals, felt legitimated by the notion that “for two thousand years the main energies of Jewish communities . . . have gone into the mass production of intellectuals.” But Trilling, precisely because he respected the legacy of Judaism, refused to make a spurious claim on it: “I can have no pride in seeing a long tradition, often great and heroic, reduced to this small status in me,” he wrote.

Trilling’s intellectual life, he already saw in the 1920s, would lie among the great works of American, English, and European literature; and while this literature could be Christian, post-Christian, or secular, it was virtually never Jewish. This was the discovery he confirmed to himself in an essay written in 1930 but not published until after his death, “The Changing Myth of the Jew.” This study of the treatment of Jews and Judaism in English literature, from Chaucer to George Eliot, is not one of Trilling’s important works. In fact, it is surprisingly cursory and detached. But then, the verdict of the essay is precisely that English literature has never truly engaged with the Jews, even when it claims to portray them. “The Jew in fiction,” Trilling concludes with some irritation, “was always an abstraction, a symbol, a racial stereotype created by men whose chief concern was obviously much less to tell the truth about the character of the Jew than it was to serve their own political and economic interests and their own emotional needs. In short, the Jew in English fiction is a myth.”

Where Trilling differs from most Jewish readers, certainly today, is in denying that the prevalence of this myth has any effect on the way that a Jew encounters English fiction. A myth, Trilling judges severely, is simply an untruth, a non-being; and the only thing to do with a non-being is to ignore it. “What importance has an account of material which is confessedly merely mythological? The importance to the historian, the psychologist, the sociologist, the political thinker is obvious. But to one interested chiefly in literature, the answer is not so plain.” Perhaps his failure to publish the essay represents Trilling’s final judgment on the whole subject: the question of a specifically Jewish perspective on English literature, and vice versa, is just not worth talking about. 

In this refusal of a parochial attitude towards universal questions—of politics as well as aesthetics—Trilling was typical of the Jewish writers associated with Partisan Review. Looking back on his early Jewish milieu in the 1970s, he valued it mainly for leading him, indirectly, to a broader, quasi-Marxist perspective. “The discovery, through The Menorah Journal, of the Jewish situation had the effect of making society at last available to my imagination. It made America available to my imagination . . . One couldn’t, for example, think for very long about Jews without perceiving that one was using the category of social class.”

The irony, of course, is that in their very repudiation of Jewishness, the New York intellectuals were making a universalist gesture that appears, in retrospect, as the very insignia of their Jewishness. By 1973, Philip Rieff, in his eccentric and passionate polemic against the spirit of the 1960s called Fellow Teachers, could identify Trilling as the archetypal “Jew of culture”—Trilling, who had started out denying that his Jewishness and his culture had anything to do with one another.

But this denial was less absolute than Trilling sometimes made it sound. It is hardly an accident that, in two of his most personal and significant essays, Trilling approached modern literature and the modern spirit from an explicitly Jewish perspective. More important, in both “Isaac Babel” (1955) and “Wordsworth and the Rabbis” (1950), Trilling enlists Jewishness as a central metaphor—perhaps even an explanation—for his divided feelings about the modern, the very division that is the theme and engine of his criticism.

“Isaac Babel,” which Trilling wrote as an introduction to an edition of Babel’s stories, starts out by remarking on the “disturbing” effect that Red Cavalry had on him when he first read it in 1929. Part of the “shock,” Trilling explains, came from the stories’ literary “energy and boldness”—the wrenched, garish imagery and the immersion in violence that still make Babel so challenging today. Another part had to do with the particular ideological climate of the period, when “one still spoke of the ‘Russian experiment.'” To liberal intellectuals like Trilling, Babel’s revelation of the cruelty and savagery that built the Soviet state was unnerving.

But the most personal source of disturbance, and the element that Trilling makes the focus of his essay, was Babel’s interpretation of Jewishness. In the same year that Trilling lodged his complaint about the parochialism of American Jewish fiction, he found in Babel an infinitely more vital and relevant treatment of Jewish identity. Red Cavalry tells, in short, fragmentary episodes, the story of Babel’s experiences in the Red Army during the Soviet-Polish War of 1920, when he served as a war correspondent attached to the front-line cavalry troops of Marshal Budyonny. Babel’s position as a writer and intellectual among violent, often bestial soldiers was only made more uncomfortable by the fact that he was a Jew, while his comrades were Cossacks—traditionally the worst persecutors of the Jews of Russia.

As Trilling writes, “a Jew in a Cossack regiment was more than an anomaly, it was a joke, for between Cossack and Jew there existed not merely hatred but a polar opposition”—a difference not just of ethnicity, but of ideals and values. As Trilling summarizes it, “The Jew conceived his own ideal character to consist in his being intellectual, pacific, humane. The Cossack was physical, violent, without mind or manners.” Of course, this summary of the Jewish character by no means accounts for the full variety of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, or even in Babel’s own fiction. His “Odessa Stories” show that the same contrast between violence and intellect could just as well exist within the Jewish community. The heroes of those grotesque comic tales are Jewish gangsters, whose huge appetites and casual cruelty rival those of the Cossacks in Red Cavalry.

But this Jewish myth—unlike the malign Jewish myths he encountered in English literature—seemed to Trilling a valuable one, because it expressed something of his own temperament and aspirations. He writes poetically about Babel’s face, as seen in a snapshot: “the face is very long and thin, charged with emotion and internality; bitter, intense, very sensitive, touched with humor, full of consciousness and contradiction. It is ‘typically’ an intellectual’s face, a scholar’s face, and it has great charm. I should not want to speak of it as a Jewish face, but it is a kind of face which many Jews used to aspire to have, or hoped their sons would have.”

What does it mean for this lovingly described Jewish ideal, then, that Babel in his writing seems so often to ridicule and abase precisely those qualities in himself that Trilling admires? Red Cavalry is constantly observing the contrast between the tenderheartedness of Lyutov, Babel’s narrator and alter ego, and the coarse savagery of the troops with whom he rides. The Cossacks in these stories are usually to be found feuding over horses, raping women, and casually massacring civilians—especially Jews. In the story “Zamosc,” a fellow-soldier, not knowing that he is talking to a Jew, tells Lyutov: “The Jew is guilty before all men . . . There will be very few of them left when the war is over.”

But even as he is depicting scenes that seem designed to make the reader fear and loathe the Cossacks, Babel himself seems to envy them, and to despise the very ethical scruples that prevent him from emulating them. His most famous story, “My First Goose,” shows him winning the respect of the soldiers—who at first despise him because of his Jewish-intellectual glasses—by brutally killing an old peasant woman’s goose. In “Argamak,” he is given a spirited horse that has been confiscated from a Cossack officer, and shows himself unequal to riding it: “I wore out his back. It became covered in sores. Metallic flies fed on those sores. Hoops of coagulated black blood girdled the horse’s belly.” Argamak’s wounds are the stigmata of the narrator’s unmanliness. At the end of the story, this physical ineptitude is shown to have a moral dimension as well, when the narrator complains that it is unfair for Argamak’s old owner to consider him a personal enemy.
After all, he didn’t ask for the Cossack’s horse to be taken away. “How am I to blame?” he asks the squadron commander. This whine provokes a famous rebuke, which Trilling quotes: “I understand you completely . . . Your aim is to live without making enemies . . . Everything you do is aimed that way—so you won’t have any enemies.”

From the perspective Trilling describes as ideally Jewish, the desire to have no enemies is laudable, since it means wanting to live in peace and commit no offenses. From the Cossack perspective, it is contemptible: Everyone has enemies, and the only safe and honorable way to respond to them is to fight them. The imperative of self-help and martial readiness, in fact, has something in common with the Zionist message, which was spreading through Eastern Europe during the years of Babel’s youth—especially in Odessa, the cosmopolitan Russian city where he was born in 1894. The Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik was living in Odessa when he wrote his great poem “In the City of Slaughter,” which bitterly condemned Jewish men for failing to fight back against Russian pogroms.

Babel delivered a similar message in “First Love,” an ostensibly autobiographical story in which the young narrator watches his father begging a Cossack officer for protection against an anti-Semitic riot. Trilling saw this episode as the key to Babel’s desire to emulate, rather than submit to, Cossack violence: “We might put it that Babel rode with a Cossack regiment because, when he was nine years old, he had seen his father kneeling before a Cossack captain.” But it is not simply physical force, Trilling insists, that Babel finds admirable in the Cossack ethos. It is, rather, the quality of “noble savagery” that Tolstoy had found in them, their “primitive energy, passion, and virtue.” If the Jew was the man of the mind and the book, the Cossack was “the man of the body—and of the horse, the man who moved with speed and grace.” At moments, as Trilling shows, Babel sounds enraptured with the sheer height and strength and good looks of the soldiers, especially as contrasted with the slight, hunched, timid Jews he is constantly encountering.

Yet if Red Cavalry simply endorsed the Cossack and condemned the Jew, it would hardly possess what Trilling called the “intensity, irony, and ambiguousness” that made it so disturbing. Babel may seem to want to emulate the Cossack, yet it is unmistakable that, in his campaign through Poland, he is constantly drawn to the Jews. In “The Rebbe,” he has Sabbath dinner at the court of a Hasidic rabbi in Zhitomir; in “The Cemetery in Kozin,” he records the epitaphs for dead sages: “Wolf, son of Elijah, prince abducted from the Torah in his nineteenth spring.” These two moments converge in “The Rebbe’s Son,” where the writer encounters Ilya, the son of the Zhitomir Rebbe, who himself has been abducted from the Torah—in his case, because he has become a Communist and joined the Red Army. When Ilya dies, his trunk is made a symbol of the irreconcilability of Jew and Cossack, Communist and Hasid: “Portraits of Lenin and Maimonides lay side by side. Lenin’s nodulous skull and the tarnished silk of the portraits of Maimonides . . . in the margins of communist leaflets swarmed crooked lines of Ancient Hebrew verse.”

To Trilling, it is exactly Babel’s refusal to grant victory to one of his warring ideals that makes him a great writer: “the opposition of these two images made his art.” More specifically, it is what made him a great modernist writer. When he first read Babel, Trilling recalls, he was “afraid of the literature of modern Europe, because I was scared of its terrible intensities, and ironies, and ambiguities.” To appreciate modernism, it is necessary to feel the attraction of violence as well as peace, of transgression as well as order. One of the major purposes of Trilling’s criticism, in fact, is to keep the antinomian potential of modern literature alive in the reader’s consciousness—to combat what he calls “the museum knowingness about art . . . our consumer’s pride in buying only the very best spiritual commodities.” To respond knowingly to the horror and confusion in Red Cavalry is to avoid genuinely encountering it, while the “moments when we lack the courage to confront, or the strength to endure, some particular work of art” may be those in which we encounter it most authentically.

In a culture that takes literary transgression for granted, the greatest shock may come from literature that refuses to transgress. That is Trilling’s premise in “Wordsworth and the Rabbis,” his other most explicitly Jewish essay. Written for the centenary of Wordsworth’s death, the essay tries to identify the quality in the poet that makes him “unacceptable to the modern world,” to find out “why . . . he is often thought to be rather absurd and even a little despicable.” This technique, in which his contemporaries’ failure to respond to a classic writer is made to serve as a diagnosis of the age, is one of Trilling’s most fruitful. It is also one of the important uses of his famous “we”: When Trilling asks why “we” no longer appreciate Wordsworth, he is both acknowledging his part in that antipathy, and inviting the reader to admit his or her own.

What is uncharacteristic in this essay is the way Trilling pivots, almost immediately, from
Wordsworth’s poetry to another text, which has no apparent relation to it: the Pirke Aboth (to use Trilling’s transliteration; it is often spelled Pirkei Avot), usually rendered in English as the “Ethics of the Fathers.” This is, as Trilling describes it, “a collection of maxims and pensées” from the rabbinic sages of the first centuries C.E. It is the only traditional Jewish text that Trilling writes about in the whole body of his work, and he is conscious enough of the anomaly to offer some explanation of how he became acquainted with it. As a boy, he recalls, “when I was supposed to be reading my prayers—very long, and in the Hebrew language, which I never mastered—I spent the required time and made it seem that I was doing my duty by reading the English translation of the Pirke Aboth . . . included in the prayerbook. It was more attractive to me than psalms, meditations, and supplications; it seemed more humane, and the Fathers had a curious substantiality.” 

Once again, Trilling is scrupulous in setting out the limits of his claim to Jewishness. He even manages to make his knowledge of the Pirke Aboth evidence of his overall failure to learn about Judaism. And the way Trilling approaches this work shows something important about his writerly method. If he were a literary or intellectual historian, he could not write about Pirke Aboth without describing the background to its composition—above all, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., which turned Judaism from a national and priestly religion into a diasporic and rabbinical one. This context, in which the rabbis tried to sustain Judaism in the face of defeat and exile, helps to explain the feature of the work that most intrigues Trilling—its unworldliness, its principled lack of interest in power.

Trilling only touches on this history in “Wordsworth and the Rabbis”; but then, if he were a more conventional literary historian, he would never have made this unlikely conjunction in the first place. He is, in fact, not entirely at ease with his justification for the decision to read Wordsworth through the lens of Pirke Aboth, which is that “the quality in Wordsworth that now makes him unacceptable is a Judaic quality.” But this assertion, unintelligible as it might be in objective terms, becomes meaningful when it is read subjectively, as an expression of Trilling’s own experience as a reader. Really, the essay is an attempt to identify a certain quality of sensibility that Trilling finds in both Wordsworth and the Rabbis, a sensibility whose common denominator is not Judaism but Trilling himself. As always in his criticism, the logic of the essay is that of the movements of Trilling’s own mind, as it resists and embraces a text.

In this case, the quality that Trilling calls “Judaic” is closely related to the one that he called Jewish in the Babel essay, and once again he defines it by contrast. “We find in the tractate no implication of moral struggle. We find the energy of assiduity but not the energy of resistance.” Above all, he writes, “there is no mention in the Aboth of courage or heroism . . . There is not a word to suggest that the life of virtue and religious devotion requires the heroic quality.” The incompatibility of the Jewish and the heroic—which also meant, to Trilling, the “direct, immediate, fierce”—was what Babel deplored. Trilling sympathizes with him, and in “Wordsworth and the Rabbis,” too, he admits to finding the Rabbis’ lack of interest in “moral struggle” discomfiting: “as much as anything in my boyhood experience of the Aboth it was this that fascinated me. It also repelled me.”

It is this mixed reaction that makes Trilling think of the Aboth in conjunction with Wordsworth, whose poetry also makes “us” uncomfortable. The reason, he suggests, is that both propose a life where piety—with all its implications of submission, tradition, quietness, and reverence—is the supreme virtue. To Wordsworth, Nature is beneficent and all-sufficient, and a being in communion with Nature has no need of heroic efforts: “the soul / Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils / That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts / That are their own perfection and reward, / Strong in herself and in beatitude,” Trilling quotes from “The Prelude.”

It may seem perverse for Trilling to insist on a resemblance between this quasi-pantheism and the faith of the Rabbis, which is aggressively uninterested in nature. In chapter three of Pirke Aboth, Rabbi Yaakov is quoted as saying: “One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, ‘How beautiful is this tree!’ ‘How beautiful is this ploughed field!’-the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.” How to reconcile this with the poet who wrote, “One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man, / Of moral evil and of good, / Than all the sages can”?

What they have in common, Trilling suggests, is the sensibility Wordsworth captured in the phrase “wise passiveness.” Such passiveness is not resignation or apathy, but rather a faith that the world has been ordered to man’s good, so that we do not have to conquer our place in it, but simply accept the place we have been given. As Trilling puts it, “different as the immediately present objects were in each case, Torah for the Rabbis, Nature for Wordsworth, there existed for the Rabbis and for Wordsworth a great object, which is from God and may be said to represent Him as a sort of surrogate.”

What breathes in the Aboth is the Rabbis’ absolute certainty that a life devoted to Torah is the best life. “Exile yourself to a place of Torah,” advises one of them, “do not say that it will come after you.” The rabbis are aware that the life of study has its own pitfalls, and they warn against intellectual vanity, quarrelsomeness, and the temptation to elevate theory over practice. But they have no doubt that no worldly activity can rival the study of the Law, and they warn against every kind of distraction: “one who speaks excessively brings on sin”; “one who excessively converses with a woman [a euphemism for sex] causes evil to himself, neglects the study of Torah, and in the end inherits purgatory”; “desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs.” The whole ethos of Pirke Aboth is encapsulated in its very first line, which advises: “Be careful in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence around the Torah.”

It is this fencing off of so much of life that both repels and fascinates Trilling, since it seems to rule out the aggression and ambition from which modern literature is made. What would that literature
be without its interest in sex, power, and self-expression? Don’t the great modern novelists and poets celebrate the will, and use art to assert their own wills? “The predilection for the powerful, the fierce, the assertive, the personally militant is very strong in our culture,” Trilling remarks, citing everyone from Yeats and Lawrence to Ayn Rand (“that curious underground work The Fountainhead“).

Only by turning away from this literature, which informs modern assumptions so deeply, is it possible to see that an alternative exists. This is what he calls the “sentiment of Being,” the feeling that the world does not have to be remade or struggled for, because it already is, and is good. Happiness is a matter not of becoming, but of being; not of creating, but of studying, whether we study “sermons in stones” or pages of the Talmud. Once again, it is clear, Trilling has made Jewishness the name of a way of being that is “pacific and humane,” and that stands opposed to a seemingly more attractive way that is “fierce” and “militant.” Only now it is not the Cossack who represents that seductive vitalism, but modern literature itself-the very modernism that counts Babel as one of its greatest artists, and Trilling as one of its greatest expositors. To be Jewish, for Trilling, is to stand both inside and outside the modern, to embrace its liberations and mourn its casualties. Or perhaps-since Trilling warned against finding in his work any specifically Jewish “faults or virtues”-to stand inside and outside the modern was Trilling’s own destiny and project as a writer; and everything in his life, including his identity as a Jew, was made to serve it.


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