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Three Short Readings on the Jewish Mind

808 words [1]

One of the problems with getting interested in Jews is that they are, well, verbose. Digging into primary texts can become a sandtrap for spare time. Marcel Proust is notoriously dense, Ayn Rand is unending, Bill Kristol is incredibly repetitive, Philip Roth absurdly prolific, and so on. Really plumbing the Jewish mind through their own fiction is, quite frankly, a timesuck. Unfortunately, I suspect this leads many curious parties to lose interest quicker than they should. So for those busy amateur anthropologists of the Tribe, here are three short pieces of Jewish fiction worth taking a look at that won’t swallow up an entire month of reading.

1. “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” by Saul Bellow, in his collection of short stories, Him with His Foot in His Mouth

The story chronicles a day in the life of Victor’s shiksa, Victor being a cranky Jewish intellectual, a cross between a Frankfurt School theorist and an avant-garde art critic. The shiksa worships him entirely, despite only being the mistress of this married man, but he cannot help but be bothered by her. Victor’s feelings towards her serve as a microcosm of his feelings about society at large. He is well-regarded, respected, and his opinion paid for, but he still finds himself bored and annoyed with the world. Remember, it is a male Jewish intellectual who penned this.

Exemplar passage [2]:

Victor had been invited to address the Executives Association, an organization of bankers, economists, former presidential advisers, National Security Council types. Victor assured her that this was a far more important outfit than the over publicized Trilateral Commission, which, he said, was a front organization using ex-Presidents and other exploded stars to divert attention from real operations. The guys who were bringing him to Chicago wanted him to talk about “Culture and Politics, East and West.” Much they cared about art and culture, said Victor. But they sensed that it had to be dealt with; challenging powers were ascribed to it, nothing immediate or worrisome, but one ought to know what intellectuals were up to. “They’re listened to professors and other pseudo experts,” said Victor, “and maybe they believe they should send for an old Jewish character. Pay him his price and he’ll tell you without fakery what it’s all about.” The power of big-shot executives wouldn’t overawe him. Those people, he said, were made of Styrofoam. He was gratified nevertheless. They had asked for the best, and that was himself – a realistic judgement, and virtually free from vanity. Katrina estimated that he would pick up a ten-thousand-dollar fee. “I don’t expect the kind of dough Kissinger gets, or Haig, although I’ll give better value,” he told her.

2. “Dead Doll Humility” by Kathy Acker, from the first issue of the journal Postmodern Culture

Miss Acker, as the above citation suggests, was one of the ultimate purveyors of the anti-culture we call “postmodernism.” Almost all of her writing was a kaleidoscope of violent sexual fantasies, personal confessions, Marxian political criticism, and deconstructionist literary criticism – all with a feminist bent. Perhaps most noteworthy was her willingness to “borrow” very liberally from other writers. Her texts often quoted enormous passages, repeatedly, from famous books so they could be juxtaposed alongside her commentary, whims, and other quotes from other books. As Wikipedia puts it [3], “She made extensive use of cut-up technique to utilize these appropriated texts in new contexts, often in an ironic manner, focusing on questions of social exclusion and gender role.”

Exemplar passage [4]:

IN ANY SOCIETY BASED ON CLASS, HUMILIATION IS A POLITICAL REALITY.  HUMILIATION IS ONE METHOD BY WHICH POLITICAL POWER IS TRANSFORMED INTO SOCIAL OR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS.  THE PERSONAL INTERIORIZATION OF THE PRACTICE OF HUMILIATION IS CALLED HUMILITY.

CAPITOL IS AN ARTIST WHO MAKES DOLLS.  MAKES, DAMAGES, TRANSFORMS, SMASHES.  ONE OF HER DOLLS IS A WRITER DOLL.  THE WRITER DOLL ISN’T VERY LARGE AND IS ALL HAIR, HORSE MANE HAIR, RAT FUR, DIRTY HUMAN HAIR, PUSSY.

3. “Sphincter” by Allen Ginsberg, in his collection of poems, Cosmopolitan Greetings

This poem serves as an example of where it all leads. As with so many others, for Ginsberg, after all the talk of revolution, all the fights against censorship, and all the radical posturing, in the end, he just wrote poems about his own asshole, literally.

The piece [5]:

I hope my good old asshole holds out
60 years it’s been mostly OK
Tho in Bolivia a fissure operation
survived the altiplano hospital–
a little blood, no polyps, occasionally
a small hemorrhoid
active, eager, receptive to phallus
coke bottle, candle, carrot
banana & fingers–
Now AIDS makes it shy, but still
eager to serve–
out with the dumps, in with the condom’d
orgasmic friend–
still rubbery muscular,
unashamed wide open for joy
But another 20 years who knows,
old folks got troubles everywhere–
necks, prostates, stomachs, joints–
Hope the old hole stays young
till death, relax