Hold It All

Philosophy/Poetics/Politics

Category: World Literature

In Praise of Sentimental Slop

Back in the late 90s, when the spring semester ended, and the grades had been turned in, I’d treat myself with another reading of Dostoevsky’s magisterial The Brothers Karamazov.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it. Twice I’ve facilitated readings of the novel with friends (1999-2000 and 2013-2014).

Literary critics scorn the “sentimental slop” of the ending, but I don’t care.  I am posting below a key passage originally posted in a Facebook note after Pete Mosher died and some responses  to it… Read the rest of this entry »

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For All My Friends Who Are Free Spirits

“What is now proved was once only imagin’d.”
–William Blake

Free Spirits desire the emancipation of all humankind
Free Spirits conceive a habitable, harmonian world
Free Spirits know that no revolution has gone far enough
Free Spirits reject cynicism & despair
Free Spirits resolve immobilizing antinomies
Free Spirits dream extravagantly
Free Spirits prepare the negation of capital
Free Spirits meditate social transformation
Free Spirits subvert the culture of regression and death
Free Spirits affirm the power of the imagination Read the rest of this entry »

On the New York Literary Establishment in the Fifties

“There’s no room for youth and vitality in New York. It is a city full of guilty academicians.”
–Gregory Corso

“Too big, too multiple, too jaded.”
–Jack Kerouac

“We want everyone to know that we had to leave the Village to find fulfillment and recognition.”
–Allen Ginsberg

— Interview in Village Voice; in Allen Ginsberg, Journals Mid-Fifties 1954-1958, edited by Gordon Ball

A Poem, a History, a Novel

This fall Dianne, Lynette and I are reading the following books:


Read the rest of this entry »

“I’ll Never Know, in the Silence You Don’t Know, You Must Go On, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On”

Working on a kind of sequel to Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, I am imagining a character named Bella Levenshteyn, who in her twenties devotes herself to learning Yiddish, the language of her ancestors.  At one point, she confides to Perry that she once went on a  five-week reading binge of the essays, poems, articles, and reviews by  Yankev Glatshteyn, the foremost U.S.Yiddish writer in the middle of the 20th century.

I’ve been reading several recent works of scholarship on that period, and found some stimulating provocations in Anita Norich’s work, Discovering Exile:  Yiddish and Jewish American Culture during the Holocaust.

The following  passages may inform, or work themselves—somehow— into my story.

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People are quite familiar with the conventional label for the Nazi genocide of the Jews, “the Holocaust.”  Norich considers the period well before that word assumed its ascendancy: “Under increasing pressure of news from the war front and silence from home, Yiddish writers re-imagined modernism, the Enlightenment, political engagement, literary conventions, and symbolic language.  The destruction of European Jewry was called by its Yiddish name, khurbn, before it was known as the Holocaust, before the numbers of dead were revealed, even before the concentration camps were built. What Yiddish-speaking Jews meant by khurbn … was a long history of disasters into which the rise of Hitler, the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and a host of other disastrous events could fit.  The particularities of Nazism’s rise were not, at the time, perceived as unique, unparalleled, or apocalyptic by the people against whom they were directed.” Read the rest of this entry »

Yiddish Writers/5

I have often felt the instead of writing my autobiography I would like to write the biography of my poems. I mean, tell the life story of some of my poems…

–H. Leivick

A Briiliant Bit of Victor Hugo

My friend Andrew Wimmer has taken on a translation of Hugo’s Les Misérables. He shared the following in this morning’s email…

“If it had not rained on the night of June 17, 1815, the future of Europe would have been different. A few drops more or less tipped the balance against Napoleon. For Waterloo to be the end of Austerlitz, Providence needed only a little rain, and an unseasonable cloud crossing the sky was enough for the collapse of a world.”

Hugo goes on to say that since Napolean’s strategy relied on artillery, and since it had rained the night before and they had to wait until late in the morning for the ground to dry enough to support the cannon, the course of the battle, and so, history, was changed.

I can only imagine what he would have to say about global climate change.

 

Yiddish Writers/3

Isaac Bashevis Singer was the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (Elie Wiesel, whose first book, And the World Remained Silent, was in Yiddish, was awarded the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.) Admitting his penchant for reading masters like Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, Singer didn’t particularly identify with the Yiddish literary tradition: “I consider myself a writer in the Jewish tradition but not exactly the Yiddish tradition…. The Yiddish tradition, in my mind, is a tradition of sentimentality and social justice.” Swearing off any such social ideology, Singer believed that “the basic function of literature, as far as I can say, is to entertain the spirit in a very big way. I mean small literature entertains small spirits and great literature entertains greater spirits.”

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If we reach the time when Yiddish and Yiddish customs and folklore are forgotten, Hitler will have succeeded not only physically but also spiritually.

I’m sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking ghosts will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be, “Is there any new book in Yiddish to read?” Read the rest of this entry »

Yiddish Writers/2

I tried in my book Kiddush Hashem to picture Auschwitz in seventy pages. But I wrote the book over a period of six years, in pain and agony. And writing it I became a changed man. I didn’t sleep night after night.  I lived through everyone’s separate torment. I experienced  over again every happening I described. I was back in Auschwitz.  When I did fall asleep I woke, screaming. I had dreamed I was in the ghetto or in Auschwitz. —Rachmil Bryks

Yiddish Writers/1

If you’re looking to buy something, I’m afraid I’m all out of stock, unless I can interest you in some fine hunger pains, a week’s supply of heartache, or a head full of scrambled brains.

Oh, my dear Lord, I thought: they say you’re a long-suffering God, a good God, a great God; they say You’re merciful and fair; perhaps you can explain to me, then, why is it that some folk have everything and others have nothing twice over? Why does one Jew get to eat butter rolls while another gets to eat dirt?

… unless, that is, the Almighty looks down on us and says, “Guess what, children! I’ve decided to send you my Messiah!” I don’t even care if he does it just to spite us, as long as He’s quick about it, that old God of ours!

–Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman
Translated by Hillel Halkin