The Arbiter is a new weekly column dedicated to revisiting canonical works of art, high and low alike, in an attempt to reevaluate their merit. All media are considered; none are pitied. As an homage to the greatest Jewish guardian of memory, Marcel Proust, each work will be rated on a scale of one to five madeleines, with one pastry meaning the work should be forgotten posthaste, and five arguing for a spirited recollection.
The summer of 1991 was a transformative one in my life. With my father freshly imprisoned and my lust animated, I was stumbling into adulthood in that state of dumb ecstasy inhabited by maniacs, poets, and pubescent boys: Nothing was true, everything was permitted.
The season’s event was a late August party at Ella’s. Sweet Ella—at 15, not yet stripped of her innocence—decided that hers would be a costume party, and that the theme would be the 1960s. To my friends, that meant bell-bottoms and afro wigs and necklaces with the peace sign and other glittering clichés. I showed up wearing a dress shirt and a tie.
I spent most of the evening sitting on a couch in Ella’s living room, staring at her family’s snapshots scattered all around, feeling sweaty and sullen. The sight of Adi approaching made nothing better. She was the alabaster-skinned girl, the grinning, hard-faced beauty all the boys wanted to fuck. I despised her, which, in the tubular logic of high school, meant that I wanted to fuck her more than most. I’m certain that she knew. She sat on the sofa’s sunken arm and playfully yanked at my tie.
“And who are you supposed to be?” she asked.
I muttered the first words that came to mind: “Alfred Kazin.”
I had no idea why I said that. For one thing, while Kazin enjoyed a long and storied career, the pinnacle of his fame as a literary critic came in the 1940s and 1950s; by 1966, he disapprovingly referred to much of the American literary scene as “the usual twaddle.” For another, I knew very little about Alfred Kazin at the time. A few weeks earlier, at a small Tel Aviv shop that was one of the few in town to carry books in English, I had picked up a used copy of his autobiography. I bought it on the strength of the title alone—New York Jew.
That, I thought, was what I wanted to be: For numerous reasons, I felt ill-suited to life as an Israeli Jew, but perhaps my overactive mind might pave the way to a loftier existence among my pensive tribesmen in America. I knew nothing of Edmund Wilson, Delmore Schwartz, and the other men and women who were Kazin’s friends and colleagues, but I was ready, on faith, to admit them as my heroes. They, and Kazin first and foremost, seemed to have tamed the world with their intellects, to offer foundations where before there was nothing but words and ideas, swirling and clashing.
The publication, last month, of selections from his journals was an invitation to revisit Alfred Kazin. Now that I am a Jew residing in New York, rereading Kazin threw me for a loop. “Every original Jew turns against the Jews,” he wrote in his journal on July 24, 1951, a typical entry. “They are the earth from which his spirit tries to free itself. … The vice of Jewish solidarity—it is an unexpressed compassion without love. The glory of being in the truth, Jewish or not Jewish, is to find a love higher than solidarity.”
If his journals are any indication, that kind of love eluded Kazin throughout his life, but he never stopped looking for it. The writers he admired were his trusted guides, Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular. The Concord sage appears frequently in many of Kazin’s works, like a shaman, demarcating the sacred and the profane. In Emerson, Kazin found everything he felt himself not to be. “The Jew’s God,” he wrote in his journal on April 26, 1969, “is hidden and the Jew’s fate is always mysterious. By contrast, Emerson is open, radiant, a poet of unlimited perception as possibility.” Kazin returned to this dichotomy frequently—the Jew obsessed with his past, Emerson with the future; the Jew bound by the others, Emerson cheerily insisting that “that is always best which gives me to myself.” Reading Kazin on Emerson sometimes feels like watching a child push his nose against the thick glass of an aquarium, wishing desperately that he, too, could grow gills and jump in with the magnificent fish inside. “Emerson,” Kazin wrote elegiacally in the summer of 1974, “made me a Jew.”
That may be the case, but not for any reason Alfred Kazin might have consciously understood. In his books—the journals but also God and the American Writer, On Native Grounds, Writing Was Everything, and New York Jew—he tells another, subtler, far more radical story: Emerson made Kazin a Jew not because he was so different from anything Kazin might have recognized as distinctly Jewish, but because the Transcendentalist faced the very same problems as Kazin, the son of Gedaliah from Minsk. So, despite the occasional anti-Semitic statement, had Herman Melville. So had Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne and others Kazin helped induct into the pantheon of American letters. Like a talented tea-leaf reader, Kazin peered into the pages of American literature and saw there men and women just like himself, lonely geniuses who hailed from families of faith and found, in their own truth and in their own passions, a calling louder than community and stronger than religion.
What, after all, separates Kazin’s description of Hawthorne’s lack of faith “in salvation through the extraordinary, complex, and ultimately inexplicable will of God that kept the Puritans snug and safe (despite predestination) in this world,” from his bafflement at his own aunt, who refused to flee into the forest even when she realized the Nazis were at her doorstep, wondering if the upcoming annihilation might simply be “God’s will”? The author of The Scarlet Letter and the author of New York Jew are deeply similar in this sense; they observe with disbelief the tradition that had spawned them but that insisted on seeing the whole existence as divinely ordained and ultimately unknowable to Man.
Of course, few intellectuals can accept such a premise; mindful men, even the more fatalistic among them, like to think that their thinking orders their surroundings. Kazin was aware of Alexis de Tocqueville’s stern warning that unprecedented faith in the individual could “make every man forget his ancestors” and “confine him within the solitude of his own heart,” but he ignored it nonetheless, as did his literary heroes. But whereas Emerson et al., were writing America at the moment of its rebirth from the furious thrusts of the Civil War and the emergence of market capitalism, Kazin was observing postwar society re-invent itself via mass production. Emerson’s private religion and personal faith might have made some sense in the Massachusetts of the late 19th century, but in Manhattan of the mid-20th it was farcical, doomed to generate nothing but pain.
It did, at least for Kazin. His yearnings for women are well-documented, but also entirely congruent with his wider beliefs. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to realize that the man who’d written that “the aim of literature has always been to reconcile us to life by showing that it is not limited to the actual data of existence” might feel the same way about sex and that he might be disappointed when he realized—as he did, again and again—that passion eventually evolved into relationships, just as writing eventually evolved into literature.
This was too much for Kazin to take. Emily Dickinson, he wrote, “would have liked Simone Weil’s ‘Attentiveness without an object is the supreme form of prayer.’ ” Kazin was enormously attracted to Weil’s thought (although relieved not to have met her in person) because it suggested a world at once self-referential and pure, a world in which the disappointment that is the key element of politics—or, for that matter, of any form of human interaction—didn’t exist. Like Weil, Kazin was hungry for epiphanies in a world moved by organizing principles; it was a dissonance that drove Weil to an early death and drove Kazin to women. He refers to himself in his journals as a “prisoner of sex! Prisoner of women!” In sex, he found Transcendence; in women, the possibility of reproducing “some early bliss, to be at home with myself.” But never for long; like any religious device, the tremors of consummation soon led to the strictures of commitment, which in turn bred resentment. Kazin wanted to be alone together with other people in the world, and he realized that this yearning wasn’t feasible in a world of mass movements.
One of the charms of reading Kazin today—the superb prose and the pleasures of the company of a first-rate mind aside—is the realization that his very American and very Jewish form of unease may be in the midst of a renaissance in our digitally mediated world of friending and liking, following and being followed, and advertising our favorite bands and relationship status. With the aid of William Blake and Dickinson and Emerson, Kazin found a way of reimagining loneliness as a social activity, of making life tolerable in absence of community and absolute faith, of avoiding solipsism and resisting despair. He was perhaps our most skilled non-belonger and no stranger to the mad desire of our age, the desire for immediate connection without real human bondage, for communication without commitment, for “friending” without friendship—the desire, in other words, for ecstasy, which is a state of simultaneously being at one with the world and intensely inside one’s own mind. He muddled through the swamps of uncertainty to emerge with answers as complex and tentative as the problems he faced. He took solace in lines like this one, from Blake: “Do what you will, this life’s a fiction /And is made up of contradiction.” If that’s true, and if we want to make any sense of life regardless, we need a guide. Kazin had Emerson, Dickinson, Melville. We have Alfred Kazin.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.