Washington Diarist: Browbeaten

By Leon Wieseltier

New Republic, November 27, 1989

If God exists, why is there kitsch? The question struck me with the force of the rain that was punching my umbrella. I was outside the Metropolitan Opera, running for my sensibility, a few moments after a dinner-jacketed gentleman in row I had collapsed in the aisle as the mean Germont sang "piangi, piangi" to the lost Violetta. I had come to hear Carlos Kleiber's and see Franco Zeffirelli's La Traviata, but Kleiber bagged it, and Zeffirelli's Paris of the Second Empire looked like it was built by Trump. On my flight to New York, moreover, I had read Tom Wolfe's "literary manifesto for the new social novel" in Harper's and, because we lingered interminably in the indifferent clouds, had opened Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. And so I was testy, as I tramped through the little lakes of Broadway, and worried over the problem of cultural theodicy, or why the vulgar prosper. The worst was still to come.
From Tom Wolfe, I learned that Faulkner was a realist, and that Kafka was a bad writer whose influence has been deplorable. ("As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into . . . a gigantic insect!!!!" There, that's better.) I learned that the fate of American fiction has been sealed by Ronald Sukenick and that Joseph Wambaugh has been "overshadowed in literary terms." And I learned that the hero of 20th-century American letters, the writer most nourishing to writers, is Sinclair Lewis. Of "Balzac, Zola and Lewis." It's a relief, certainly from James Gould Cozzens, who was the idol of the conservative critics circa the first Reagan administration. Wolfe is demanding "realism," by which he means writing as he writes: the gaudy relishing of animosities, the lording of mockery over misery, the substitution of anthropology for the methods of art. Like many conservatives, Wolfe will not quit the 60's; they were good to him. He hates despair, and form, and small towns, and the other. "Status modified by personality" is his idea of the great American subject. American intellectual life is threatened by the tyranny of society, and Tom Wolfe proposes the worship of society. Television and newspapers and magazines are transforming every recess of American experience into journalism, and Tom Wolfe's advice to the writer is report. The vanities of The Bonfire, I guess.
The airport still wouldn't receive me. I turned to Eco and a whiskey. His "thriller" is poorly written and swiftly read, and it wasn't long before I seemed to hold in my hands the most cynical manipulation of knowledge I have ever encountered. Well, not quite knowledge; Foucault's Pendulum is, rather, a monument to knowingness. It was not written, it was compiled. From page 203, typically: "The Great White Fraternity was ultimately responsible for the education of Hermes Trimegistus (who influenced the Italian Renaissance just as much as he later influenced Princeton gnosis). Homer, the Druids of Gaul, Solomon, Solon, Pythagoras, Plotinus, the Essenes, the Theraputae, Joseph of Arimethea (who took the Grail to Europe), Alcum, King Dagobert, Saint Thomas, Bacon, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Jakob, Bohme, Debussy, Einstein. (Amparo whispered that he seemed to be missing only Nero, Cambronne, Geronimo, Pancho Villa, and Buster Keaton.)" The list is one of Eco's favorite devices. It is designed to reduce all things to the condition of information. And the reference to popular culture is the great heartener, the last bulwark against gravity. Eco's fiction is the perfect fruit of Eco's semiotics, of its sporting way with the serious. Maybe the traduction of the kabalah is what wounded me; but the Hebrew epigraph from Isaac Luria (in the Italian edition, I'm told, it is listed more accurately as an illustration) is a passage of extraordinary difficulty, and of enormous consequence for Jewish spirituality. It is not a game. "There is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe," Eco writes, "and developing the habit of believing." How nice for Eco, that decay. He grows fat from it.
But the worst, as I say, was still to come. From the opera I repaired to the movies, to Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, or The Lyin' of Judah. I was overwhelmed by what I saw. Let me be blunt; it is a matter of honor to hate this film. There is not a frame of it that fails to degrade, to debase, and to demean something precious. It is the work of a consumer, a tourist, a peacock, a voyeur, a coward, a philistine, a creep. It is a stain on the culture that produced it. I didn't like it.
It is, for a start, a work of unrelieved banality, in its language and in its themes. It makes you wonder if paperbacks were a good idea, after all. Allen's people awaken "as if from a dream," they face "a black void," they seek "what's real and deep and lasting." A blind rabbi dances, I swear, to "I'll Be Seeing You." More generally, Allen has an undergraduate's notion of narrative: a half dozen softly spoken, highly socialized characters in a couple of plots and you're Chekhov. In fact, he has produced a soap opera, a kind of General Synagogue. Judah the ophthalmologist is cheating on Miriam with Dolores and comes for counsel to Ben the rabbi, whose brother Lester is a television producer whose brother-in-law Cliff is a documentary filmmaker who is hoping that Halley will desire him because he has discovered . . . We'll get to Cliff's discovery in a moment.
Allen is Cliff, and he has never treated himself with more solemnity. His integrity is boundless. It is, not least, the integrity of a man who fails with women. In this world, you pay for your pleasure. More, pleasure is murder. Judah has his lover killed. He might have confessed to his wife and asked for forgiveness, but courage would have been required. Anyway, women do not forgive, which is just as well, since men after Auschwitz would be at a loss for evil. Allen has never made his horror of vitality so plain. The most attractive character in the film is the least attractive character, the television producer. He is cheerful, he bursts with will, he puts his hands on women. He is alive, and therefore he is vulgar. And not only vulgar; Allen compares him, please believe me, to Mussolini. (This film in which the voluptuary is Alan Alda and the saint is Sam Waterston.)
As usual, Allen dishonors his Jewishness. Jewish is smart, smart is ugly, Jewish is ugly. He gives a shul and a seder and a wedding peopled with Jewish grotesques. the fathers are weak and devout, the mothers are mighty and worldly, the sons are pale and doomed. But more than his Jewishness, Allen dishonors a particular Jew. The discovery that is supposed to deliver Halley to Cliff is Louis Levy, a Jewish philosopher, "no limos, no bimbos, no awards, just a thinker, an intellect," about whom Cliff is making a documentary. Levy is "played" by my old friend Martin Bergmann, a wise and learned psychoanalyst in Manhattan with a powerful inclination to philosophy, whom Allen taped in what seems to be spontaneous ratiocination. In the film Louis Levy reflects, and jumps out a window. My friend, in other words, played Primo Levi; and it was Primo Levi's role to help Woody Allen get into a woman's pants. But television is tawdry.
And these people wonder why God won't talk to them.

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