Vay Iz Mir

Vay Iz Mir

Who’d be a Jewish writer?


From the title of this lecture, which I regretted no sooner than I’d suggested it – that being the nature of Jewish writing – some of you may already be thinking this is going to be not so much a lecture as a kvetch – a kvetchture. Well, that isn’t my intention, though I will remind you that complaints do run deep in Jewish culture. What is a Jewish prophet but a complainant, a klogmuter? What have so many of our fallings-out with Ged been, if not expressions of vexation that we cannot stand before Him in order to get what we have to say to Him off our chests? Remember Job:

Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat!

I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.

I wouldn’t be the Jewish writer I am – wouldn’t be a Jewish writer at all – if I didn’t wake each morning with a mouth full of arguments.

To be Jewish is to demur. In one sense the Talmud is the longest and most creative demurral in all literature. The word I use more than any other word – except perhaps the word ‘Jewish’ itself – is ‘but’. Reading gentile writers, I am always astonished at how long they can go without using the word ‘but’. The day breaks, the sun shines, the hero has his breakfast (unless he’s in an Irish novel, in which case he can't afford breakfast), the heroine arrives, they fight, they make up, the sun goes down. Not a ‘but’ in sight. But me – but me – I am constantly demurring. From whom?

Well, from the day breaking, for a start, because it never fully breaks the way you want it to, and from the sun shining for similar reasons of dissatisfaction. But of course what my ‘buts’ are really taking exception to is whatever has gone before them in my sentence. I demur, grammatically, and as a matter of cultural necessity, from myself.

The literary critic E R. Leavis, with whom I studied in the 1960s, used always to describe the critical procedure as one party saying, ‘This is the case, is it not?’ and his respondent answering, ‘Yes, but … ’

Leavis had a Jewish wife and was himself sometimes taken to be Jewish. ‘Leavis’ – it had an austerely Hebraic ring. In fact he wasn’t Jewish, he was of Huguenot extraction, but the something Jewish about his critical practice – rigorous textual analysis, belief that the text itself held all the meanings there were, a marked fondness for disputation, and a certain obduracy which always kept him beyond the pale as far as high-table politics went – explains, I think, why a Prestwich grammar school boy such as I was, an inveterate chooser who felt controversialism to be a sacred calling, found him so congenial. I didn’t realize that at the time. I thought I was escaping the parochialism of Manchester Jewish life; but in fact, without knowing it, I was digging deeper in.


Yes, but … Not just a refusal but an ingrained incapacity to go very far down the line of agreeing with anyone. I don’t doubt I overdo this. It is now constitutional with me, if I encounter upwards of two people of the same mind about anything, to take it for granted they are wrong. Concurrence of any sort makes me physically ill. Jews don't think about hell much; but if I were to put my mind to hell, it would be a place with no wine in it (or only Pesach wine), and where everybody agrees with everybody else.

‘I don’t care what you have to say,’ sang Groucho Marx in the 1932 movie Horse Feathers,

It makes no difference anyway,

Whatever it is, I'm against it!

And no matter how you changed it or condensed it

I'm against it.

Whatever it is, I’m against it, as though some property of profound unintellectualism, some infection of wrong-headedness, inheres in being for it. Very specifically, I get this ‘being against it’ from the half of my family who came from Lithuania. To be from Lithuania is to be numbered among the Mitnaggedim, or opponents, a name that was given to us by the Hasidic Jews of central Russia, Hasidism being the thing we were opposed to most. Uncouth costumes, dancing, drinking, turning cartwheels in the snow, calling ecstatically on the Messiah – none of this was our idea of being Jewish. ‘Moshiach is coming!’ was and still is the rapturous cry of Hasidic Jews. ‘Yes, but …’ was and still is the reply of we Mitnaggedim, we enemies of whatever is not severely rational, not of the intellect, not strictly within the law of God.

The other side of my family, though not Hasidic, come from Hasid country, and still behave at family functions in the Dionysian manner abhorred by Mitnaggedim. They dance, they sing, and if it weren’t for not wanting to split their dinner jackets, would turn cartwheels on the snowy wastes of that great steppe of Tartary we call Didsbury.

So I enjoy in my own person this momentous argument between two branches of Eastern European Judaism. I am at once Apollonian Jew and Dionysian. Add the fact of my choosing to be a Leavisite to the accident of my being born a Mitnagged and a secular Hasid – a congenital opponent to myself – and you get an extreme case.


Extreme or not, I don’t expect you to take issue with me when I say that the butting and demurring I have described, the extravagant stylistics of analysis and disagreement, are characteristic of the way Jews have been thinking since we have evidence of their thinking at all. Call it dialectics, and you can see why people have detected the methods of the Talmud even in the work of such a determined Jewish rejectionist as Karl Marx.

‘The young Marx likes to show off in brilliant antitheses,’ wrote one contemporary commentator. ‘These also indicate the characteristic casuistry of Jewish thought patterns.’ ‘Casuistry’ is a rather poor translation of the German word used to describe Marx’s style here – Spitzfindigkeit – meaning over-subtlety, quibbling, nit-picking, pettifogging.

Of course one man’s over-subtlety is another’s necessary method of procedure. There’s a moment in David Hare's, to me distasteful, one-hander, Via Dolorosa, when the self-aggrandizing playwright explodes with impatience, worn down by the amount of quibbling indulged in by a table-load of Orthodox Israeli settlers putting their wits to the inconsistencies surrounding the age of a particular biblical bride. Is she three or is she thirteen? If she’s three, how can she be strong enough to water the camels, if she’s thirteen … Hare sits there ‘marvelling’ that ‘it never occurs to anyone here that maybe the story is simply wrong’, thereby showing that not only the Spitzfindigkeit – the love of hair-splitting – but also the intellectual conscientiousness of the Jewish mind, will always be beyond him. By ‘intellectual conscientiousness’ I mean a vivid apprehension of a problem no less than the ingenuity to solve it; I mean that extraordinarily dynamic capacity to feel the perplexities of an ancient story as though they are every bit as urgent now as they were however many thousands of years ago, when the story was first told. And I mean that unswerving conviction, essential to any critic worth the name, that the text is the text and nothing else is admissible.

This sort of intellectual conscientiousness, a determination to lay hold of every meaning that a text may hold, because the meanings are of now, because the meanings to now, is one of the distinguishing features of the Talmud. Without doubt the dialectical method of the Talmud – pilpul – can sometimes bewilder itself. Even so distinguished a Talmudic scholar as Adin Steinsaltz cannot resist retelling the famous parody of the exhausting mental dexterity you routinely find in Talmudic dispute:

A rabbi asks his disciple why the letter peh [p] was needed in the word korah. When the disciple replied that the letter peh did not appear in the word korah, the rabbi persisted: ‘Let us just assume, for the sake of argument, that the letter peh is placed in the word korah.’ ‘But rabbi, asks the disciple, ‘why should the letter peh be needed in the word korah?’ ‘My original question precisely!’ replies the rabbi.

But then isn’t this one of the cornerstones of the Jewish joke – an over-subtle acknowledgement of our own over-subtlety? Just think how many Jewish jokes there are which entail torturing the hearer with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations of logic, exactly as one Talmudist would torture another, with the aim of getting to the bottom of God's meaning.

So is a Jewish joke also a way of getting to the bottom of God’s meaning? For the moment, I let that question hang in the air …

Not every Jew likes Jewish jokes. Add the tortuous satires of Jewish comedy to the Spitzfindigkeit and obduracy I’ve been discussing, and then mix in the extreme rationality, the nay-saying, the hypercriticality, the self-consciousness of which this lecture is a shameless example, and you have a version of the Jew which Jews themselves have been squabbling about for centuries.

Behind every argument Jews have had with Jews since the dispersal – what sort of Jew to be, where to be it, how conspicuously to be it, how self-sufficiently to be it, how religiously or secularly to be it – lies this one fundamental question: has our nature been distorted by the fact of exile? Is the ingenious, joking Jew the Jew in essence or the Jew of the ghetto and the galut? Otherwise positioned, out in the world, with a country of our own or assimilated into someone else’s, as we seemed to be assimilated into Germany 150 years ago, would we still suffer these mental contortions, or wouldn't we rather stand up straight and tall and blond, yea-sayers not nay-sayers, lovers of the clean open spaces of the mind rather than its narrow twisting passageways and airless ante-rooms?

In the opinion of the great Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, you could trace much of what was wrong with the pre-Enlightenment Jew to Talmudic study itself:

The perverse course of study pursued by the Jews since the fourteenth century had blunted their minds to simplicity. They had grown so accustomed to all that was artificial, distorted, super-cunningly wrought [sounds like our friend Spitzfindigkeit to me] … that the simple, unadorned truth became worthless, if not childish and ridiculous, in their eyes.

Or you could blame the barbarities of the shtetl, as the critic Ba’al Makhshoves powerfully did in his description of the work of the Yiddish novelist Mendele. Castigating shtetl Jews for the narrow life which they had consented to lead, forever conjuring new fears and placing new yokes upon themselves, believing themselves to be the Chosen but giving themselves up to nothing but child-rearing, ritual and the scrutinizing of sacred texts, an Eternal People dying of hunger three times a day, Makhshoves wonders that the Jew was not able, somehow, to rise above these circumstances, but – but

among his atrophied senses there remained vivid only the sixth one: an overly sharp intelligence which tended to laugh and jeer at the contradictions of the life he was leading... A sharply critical intelligence that hangs suspended over a dead body feels the agonies of life as though in a dream; they pass through the dust-covered sense and reach the mind like some distant flicker of lightning without thunder … In Jewish wit one can hear the voice of self-contempt, of a people who have lost touch with the ebb and flow of life. In Jewish mockery one can hear … the sick despair of a people whose existence has become an endless array of contradictions, a permanent witticism.

The response to which superbly poetical analysis – to the degree that it is true – has, for many Jews, been Zionism. ‘The central purpose of the entire Zionist experiment,’ writes Isaiah Berlin of Chaim Weizmann, ‘was designed to cure the Jews of precisely these wounds and neuroses that only their enforced rootlessness had bred in them.’ Those ‘wounds and neuroses’ being? The usual: cynicism, vulgarity, bitterness, fanaticism, black humour, knowingness; the corrupt and destructive cleverness of slaves, the aimless, feckless, nihilistic restlessness inherited from too long a sojourn in the ghetto.

It fascinates me that whether the perceived remedy is to enter sophisticated society, as the Jews of Germany did, hoping to pass as something you are not, or to sail across the seas to a country which is yours alone and where you no longer have to be or feel a slave, the description of the illness is always the same: over hundreds if not thousands of years of exile the Jew had grown emotionally bent instead of straight, contradictory instead of unified, and the clearest manifestation of this bentness was the highly wrought comedy with which he viewed his condition. The unforgivable element in this comedy, over and above the usual difficulties which comedy poses to serious men, being that it betrayed self-hatred.


Self-hatred, there we have it. You will still hear the charge levelled against Woody Allen or Philip Roth. Would you believe that it has been levelled even against me!

But I ask you which is the self-hating Jew – the Jew who makes a permanent witticism of the imperfect, not to say contradictory, life he leads, or the Jew who winces at such satire, recoiling from an ancient Jewish recourse, and therefore from an important ancient aspect of Jewish genius? Is it a mark of self-love in a Jew to remove all references to Jewishness from his conversation, from his mind, and if only he could – ah, if only he could – from his physiognomy?!

I don’t know whether it’s an unvarying rule of social psychology that whoever accuses a member of his group or religion of self-hatred is in fact only betraying a still deeper level of self-hatred of his own, but I have always found this to be so in my group. When I proposed Roots Schmoots as a travel series for television, why was it that only gentile television executives were interested? And why, when it was made, was it Jewish television executives who told me they wished I hadn’t done it? Was it my conspicuousness they blushed for? Or was there something I had done that made them fear for their conspicuousness? And if so, which of us disliked himself so much he couldn’t bear even a version of himself to be seen?

That there are Jews in our intellectual community who would do anything rather than look or sound Jewish, or who fancy that if they don’t mention it nobody will notice, I find more regrettable (when I don’t find it almost tragically absurd) than perhaps I reasonably should. You aren’t obliged to notice in yourself an endless array of contradictions. If you don't feel them, you don't feel them. And I am certainly not going to embark on a campaign of ‘outing’, though I often think I would like to. Who am I, anyway, to say what a Jew should or shouldn't look like or aspire to look like intellectually? And if I complain that it isn’t strictly Jewish to grow up straight and tall and jokeless, am I not perpetrating that version of Jewishness which every enlightened Jew since Moses Mendelssohn and every Zionist since Herzl has been trying to ditch?

Yes, I am. For the simple reason that that’s the Jewishness I like and admire and value and see the point of and see a future for, most. And this, if you like, is the crux of my lecture. Not ‘Vay Iz Mir – Who'd be an English Jewish novelist whose first concern is not the Holocaust?’ but ‘Vay Iz Mir – Who'd be a Jew of any sort that didn’t want something of the shtetl, of the exile, of the long tragic but also exhilarating experience of negotiating foreignness, to sing in his blood forever?’ If you’d like me to put that more succinctly, Where's the fun in being an unmarginalized Jew?


In fact, I suspect we have no choice. I suspect too much has happened for us to be any other sort of Jew. Israel was meant to normalize us, but what’s ‘normal’ about Israel? And I’m not entirely certain that being a Jew ever was very different to this anyway. Chaim Weizmann, like Heinrich Graetz and Ba’al Makhshoves, put our mental subtlety, our butting and demurring, our subservience to the life of the mind, our twisted laughter, down to a misfortune of history. But who were we before? How do we find ourselves before we were wrongly placed? Putting his mind to Moses – or, more particularly, to the Mosaic prohibition against graven images, the prohibition against bodying God forth as an idol or making any other physical representation of Him – Freud notes that it

elevated God to a higher degree of intellectuality … All such advances in intellectuality have as their consequence that the individual’s self-esteem is increased, that he is made proud – so that he feels superior to other people who have remained under the spell of sensuality. Moses, as we know, conveyed to the Jews an exalted sense of being a chosen people. The dematerialization of God brought a fresh and valuable contribution to their secret treasure. The Jews retained their inclination to intellectual interests. The nation’s political misfortune [and when wasn't there one?!!] taught it to value at its true worth the one possession that remained to it – its literature.

There is much to ponder in this. A God one cannot see may not in Himself explain the sorts of subtlety that came to accrue to the Jewish mind at the time of the Talmud and thereafter, but a theology of invisibility is bound to make some demands on a people's ingenuity. Add to that the pride Freud speaks of, and a certain over-and-above intellectual preening becomes more likely. We all become subtle when explaining what we cannot see, and subtler still in the company of those so lost to sensuality that they can apprehend only what their eyes deliver to them, people for whom a God can only be a God if He looks like a stone animal … or a pop star. As for the contempt we will sometimes feel for those prosaic sensualists our neighbours, and the nostalgia we will sometimes feel for the sensuality we have got the better of in ourselves, all the makings of satire – at our neighbours’ expense and at our own – are to hand. If that means I'm saying that a refined sense of the ridiculous is a natural consequence of monotheism, then that’s what I'm saying. Blame Freud.

The other cause and effect to look for in Freud’s account is that of national misfortune and literature. Would we be less the people of the Book if things had gone swimmingly for us? Do we have a book – the Book – precisely because things were not going swimmingly for us? The Book, after all, is as much the story of our dispossession, of destruction and disinheritance, as it is the story of our creation. Are we therefore bound in some matrix of suffering and hyper-literacy just about from the start, long before we found ourselves in the shtetls of Poland and Lithuania?

Let me throw in another thought from Freud's Moses and Monotheism. Not so much a thought, actually, as an aside. ‘Why the people of Israel,’ he wonders, ‘clung more and more submissively to their God the worse they were treated by him’ – that is a problem which for the moment we must leave on one side.

Submissively’, ‘clung more and more submissively’. Since this is Freud, we wouldn’t expect him to have missed the erotic nature of the figure – the people of Israel, often called the children of Israel, clinging to the feet of a cruel father, or a cruel lover, or both. An act of erotic submission which feeds upon itself, one submission encouraging another. Masochism. Masochism and monotheism – wouldn’t you say there was a connection of inevitability between the two? One God, against any sort of bodying forth of whom there is a prohibition, one invisible God who chooses you but who doesn’t answer when you call, who is all goodness and who therefore cannot be responsible for any harm that befalls you – that being all your fault – how can devotion to such a deity not have, at the very least, particles of masochism in it?

Now masochism, if you will allow it, is just one word for a complex of emotional strategies, is surely what so many of our critics of the twisted shtetl Jew have been complaining of. A lack of any decent sense of self-worth. A desire to see oneself punished. An attitude of mind, a turn of bitter humour, in which one metes out one’s own deserts. The very thing that is meant to vanish when we become sophisticated citizens of the world or go to live in Israel.

I’m interested in masochism. I'm interested in the nexus between belief, masochism, intelligence and the joke. I have found myself reasoning, from time to time, that masochism is the glue of comedy. And when that doesn’t quite work, that masochism is the glue of Jewish comedy at least.

The key text on this subject, if it hasn’t yet been written by me, is Masochism in Modern Man, by Theodor Reik, a student of Freud’s. What Reik is particularly good on are the strategies whereby the masochist turns defeat – a defeat he himself has set about orchestrating – into victory:

The masochist does not accept punishment and humiliation, he anticipates them. He not only demonstrates their impotence to withhold the forbidden pleasure, but he affirms and demonstrates that it was they which helped him to it … By taking the place of authority and chastising himself he suspends it. By punishing and disgracing himself, he transforms punishment into an enticement …

Among the tools of the masochist’s trade, Reik discerns defiance and a sullen derision. It is by these means that the masochist preserves his personality even in surrender, remains stubborn while yielding, stays haughty in his humility:

The derision represents a step beyond defiance. Having become prouder through humiliation, more courageous through pressure, the masochist becomes a spiteful scoffer. His sabotage assumes the form of complete docility. His resistance consists in not-resisting. His blind obedience becomes rebellion. There are nations in whom such a masochistic manner produces the most malicious and most biting jokes against their own national peculiarities and weaknesses, jokes that in their accuracy of aim expose their own communities … However, such self-humiliation and self-derision do not exclude a hidden pride in national merits that are unknown and inaccessible to strangers. The jokes, while deriding the shortcomings of one’s own people, yet secretly praise the virtues of these defects …

In those strategies of scoffing which Reik describes – sabotage through docility, resistance through non-resistance – we may hear the echo of representations of Jewishness we would rather not be reminded of: Shylock, the Jew of Malta, Fagin – the Jew as depicted by those who haven’t read Theodor Reik.

But I think we can also recognize in Reik’s account the modus operandi of the Jewish joke as we enjoy it, when we do. It explains at least why, communally, all together in the right place at the right time, we derive such pleasure from the spectacle of one of our own – a Mel Brooks, a Jackie Mason – taking us, again and again, through every refinement of our national shortcomings. And why the experience leaves us not at all humiliated, but invigorated.

But I also see that if masochism is a neurotic strategy born of too much anxiety, we might not welcome it, however cunningly it turns the tables on its real or imaginary enemies. Better not to be in need of such a resource in the first place. Maybe. Maybe better not to be submitting to an invisible God who seems not to be there when we need Him. Maybe the condition of neuroses to which we give the name masochism is an inevitable consequence not of being pushed historically from pillar to post, but of choosing such to be one’s fate from the moment one commits to the intellectual life as opposed to the sensual. A circle of consequences in which the thing one aspires to be is forever affirmed by the opposition of those who aspire to something different.


These are deep waters. And the aim of this lecture, anyway, is not to establish the irrefragable rules of the Jewish character. I address you as a writer, and more specifically as a Jewish writer, a Jewish novelist, a comic Jewish novelist – a doubly marginalized figure in an already marginalized culture whose taste in literature has declined to books about the Holocaust (now there’s masochism!) and books about food. And marginality, the wonderful marginality of the Jews, is my subject.

Here, in the matter of our self-identity, is the choice as I see it – either we can agree with Martin Buber, who rejects the strategies of masochism and irony, born of centuries of being slapped and not slapping back, who rejects our intellectuality, ‘out of touch with life, out of balance, inorganic’, who abhorred our statelessness, no longer possessing a common language or a natural community, and who saw our only future in a spiritual leap that would unite the dualisms that had beset us for centuries, now exalted, now debased, now illustrious, now shameful, a contradiction which in another part of himself he seems to believe (as do I) is the birthplace of the eternal, or – or – we can wear all our dualities and contradictions with pride and be the sort of heroic Jew, let’s say, that … Leopold Bloom is.

Forgive me going to fiction for my ideal, but I live by fiction. And forgive me going to a non-Jewish writer, but Jews don’t listen to Jewish writers unless they write Holocaust or cookery books. And sometimes a non-Jewish writer, especially if he is word-crazy, God-driven, masochistic and more than a little marginalized himself, will appreciate things about us that we don’t.

I’m assuming you know James Joyce’s Ulysses, but in case it's grown dim in the memory, I will remind you of those bits of it which are relevant to my argument. The hero of Ulysses, the modern-day wanderer whose tribulations last a mere 24 hours – the somewhat wasted 24 hours between leaving his wife’s bed-warmed rump and returning to it – is the Jew, Leopold Bloom. A commercial salesman. At one time in his life a commercial salesman for blotting paper – for absorbent materials – I ask you to keep that in your mind!

Much of the pleasure of Ulysses, for me, comes simply from watching Joyce getting it right – Jewish comedy of the kind we know how to enjoy in Leo Rosten or Joseph Heller. Bloom in the brothel scene, for example, trying to steer an unsteady Stephen Daedalus away from harm: ‘Come home. You’ll get into trouble.’ Schmoozing the watch:

Thank you very much, gentlemen, thank you. We don't want any scandal, you understand. Father is a well known, highly respected citizen. Just a little wild oats, you understand.

The incorrigible respectability of the conspicuousness-fearing Jew, ‘actuated by motives of inherent delicacy, inasmuch as he always believed in minding his own business’. ‘Mistake,’ as Bloom reminds himself, after a moment of relishing the memory of a revenge – ‘Mistake to hit back.’

Except that, as a Jew, argument is his greatest passion. An irony and a complication which Joyce relishes, dumping Bloom in the very lair of his religious enemies and all but in the jaws of the enemy’s hungry bloody gentile dog, and there showing how impossible he finds it to resist a little mental showing off:

That can be explained by science, says Bloom. It’s only a natural phenomenon, don’t you see, because on account of the …

The distinguished scientist Herr Professor Luitpold Blumenduft tendered medical evidence to the effect that the instantaneous fracture of the cervical vertebrae and consequent scission of the spinal cord would, according to the best approved traditions of medical science, be calculated to inevitably produce in the human subject a violent ganglionic stimulus of the nerve centres, causing the pores of the corpora cavernosa to rapidly dilate [ultimately resulting] in a morbid upwards and outwards philoprogenitive erection …

My son the doctor. My son the phallic pedant. Bloom with his argol bargol, not just pedantic but punctilious; not just punctilious but long-winded; not just long-winded but dialectical – ‘but don’t you see? … but on the other hand?’ Arguing, arguing, arguing …

After which, because the gentile dog is now salivating, it’s ben Bloom Elijah and off in a fiery chariot. A messiah ex machina, courtesy of the author. But who will rescue Bloom next time? ‘When you go out you never know what dangers,’ Bloom muses, after Gerty MacDowell has left him with a wet shirt.

It’s hereabouts that he famously confuses the talismanic properties of tephilim with those of the mezuzah:

And the tephilim no what's this they call it poor papa’s father had on his door to touch. That brought us out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage.

Thus mangling the facts no less than the artefacts, since Egypt was the house of bondage. This confusion is often adduced as proof that Bloom is not much of a Jew (taking him to be a real man), or not much of a portrayal of Jew (taking him to be a faulty would-be of Joyce's imagination).

‘Well, the rabbis might not say that Bloom was a Jew,’ David Ben-Gurion is reported to have told Gerschom Sholem, ‘but I do.’ And I do too. Bloom’s mangling and misremembering are deliberate, an act of accuracy in themselves. In Bloom’s languid, associative post-Gerty musings, the dim memory of what it is like to bind the forearm and the forehead with the leather straps of the tephilim – a ritual which strikes me still, on the few occasions when I submit to its performance, as peculiarly sadomasochistic – recalls to his mind, simultaneously, the bondage of the body which the Jews have suffered since the Lord (whose name is commemorated in every mezuzah) brought them out of Egypt, and the bondage of the heart which he, as excessive conniver in his wife’s infidelities, and as reader of Leopold von Sacher Masoch, is only too willing to suffer whenever the opportunity presents itself.

If that simultaneity of association binds what is Jewish in Bloom with what is masochistic, if it gives the masochism a peculiarly Jewish cast, that suits my argument fine. The reference to the works of Leopold von Sacher Masoch at this point in the novel isn’t accidental. Hold in your mind the fact that Leopold von Sacher Masoch wrote not only Venus in Furs but Tales of the Ghetto, and that Leopold Bloom glances at that second title on the porno counter, saying ‘That I had’ before pushing it aside.

A vocabulary of voluptuous detumescence, not a million miles from the vocabulary of Jewish anti-Jewishness, embraces Bloom in his urban travels. Soft about his day he goes, limp-languid, gentle, overpowered, cowed, solitary, mutable, abnegated, yielding, with reason jealous, beyond reason in love with his jealousy, a man – a real man, in Joyce's teasing terms – ‘strong to the verge of weakness’.

In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann – a Jew, of course – unites Joyce and Bloom in a ‘philosophy of passivity in act, energy in thought, and tenacity in conviction’, noting further Joyce's preference for inactive men over swimmers, shot-putters and adulterers. ‘We spend most of the book inside Bloom's consciousness,’ he writes, ‘and never enter Boylan’s, as if coarseness had no consciousness.’

Where did we last hear the Jew described as glorying at once in his own submissiveness and intellectualism, while enjoying superiority to the mere sensualism of his neighbour? If coarseness has no consciousness, then it can no more be at the centre of a novel than a religion.


Standing beside her at the porkbutcher’s counter, where he is able to survey her ‘vigorous hips’, and to remember her (or to imagine he remembers her) ‘whacking a carpet on a clothesline’, Bloom plans pursuit of a girl carrying prime sausages:

To catch up and walk behind her … behind her moving hams. Pleasant to see first thing in the morning. Hurry up, damn it. Make hay while the sun shines. She stood outside the shop in sunlight and sauntered lazily to the right. He sighed down his nose: they never understand. Soda chapped hands. Crusted toenails too … The sting of disregard glowed to weak pleasure within his breast. For another: a constable off duty cuddled her in Eccles Lane...

For another’ – as if he is about to embark on a list of stings of disregard, or as if the sting from one woman will always bring to mind a sting from a second, all masochists being, in the nature of things, serial masochists. Stream of consciousness they used to call it, but in truth, in Bloom’s case, it is sting or prick of consciousness; one piquant reminiscence of disregard prompting another.

Interesting that so early in Bloom’s Odyssey of shames, the sting is felt in a Jewish context. While standing waiting to buy meat, thinking about the vigorous-hipped girl with the strong pair of arms – ‘She does whack it, by George’ – Bloom takes up a page about a model farm in Palestine on the lakeshore of Tiberias. A Moses Montefiore venture. Zionism in the porkbutcher’s. Alive, the question of what as a Jew you may eat and what you may not. What Bloom follows out onto the street are the whacking girl’s hams – her trayf, forbidden thighs. She is non-kosher food; the sting she administers by not noticing him at all is full of gentile poisons. Sweet, those, to any self-disrespecting, horn-mad Jew, of the sort Weizmann and Buber would like to see an end. Disregarded, Bloom walks back home, ‘reading gravely’ the prospectus for the model farm on the shores of Lake Tiberias:

A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea; no fish, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. No wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy’s clutching a naggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity multiplying, dying, being born everywhere.

A touch pre-Raphaelite that may be, and a touch pre-Israel, but no Jew can be unfamiliar with the desolation evoked, or with its transference from place to person, the shouldering of a sort of blame – sins of the fathers, decrepitude of the fathers, sins of decrepitude – for a history that’s gone on too long and still persists. Bloom’s temporary solution is to seek that seemingly most un-Jewish of all sensations – the most prohibited and the most impossible – forgetfulness:

To smell the gentle smoke of tea, fume of the pan, sizzling butter. Be near her ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.

Yes, yes. Worth remembering that Bloom gets in with his affirmation before Molly gets in with hers.

What will soon be sizzling in the pan, meat bought from the wrong butcher and cooked in butter, proves the measure of the apostasy. The maiden of the ample bedwarmed flesh is from among the Midianites, else she would keep a kosher kitchen. You want to know why Jewish men who would be free of the bondage of the phylactery must sometime marry out? It’s all here in Ulysses.

I think it was a bold stroke of Joyce’s to begin Bloom’s day not just with Palestine and pork – that’s easy – but with the concentric circles of Jewish memory and Jewish forgetfulness, of mortification and indulgence, of displacement and adjustment, of submission of the will and tyrannical application of it. In his relations with his wife, most of them conducted away from her and in his head, Leopold Bloom repeats in miniature the relations Jews enjoy with God. She is his scourge and his pleasure. She is largely unavailable to him. Most of the time she is upstairs and unanswering. Her unresponsiveness is the proof of something undeserving, and her infidelities are the proof of something unworthy, in himself. He is therefore, metaphysically speaking, always at the centre of any drama between them. What she does, she does because of him. If we Jews could persuade God to be catechized, as Bloom has been able to catechize Molly – ‘who is in your mind now tell me who are you thinking of who is it tell me his name who … ’ – we would consider our masochistic religious devotions to be consummated at last …

It is well known, because he in detail told a friend, that Joyce spent one whole day working out the perfect order for the following 15 words – ‘Perfume of embraces all him assailed ... With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.’

I'm not surprised their ordering preoccupied him to the degree it did, because for all their promise of infinite rearrangement, their ultimate seduction lies in their perpetual reiteration and re-enactment, shuffle them how you may, of that obsessional self-abnegation which is Bloom’s negative driving force, his strength to the verge of weakness. Every verb, every adverb, every adjective and every noun is in the yielding-to-victimization business. Bloom’s yielding, but also the novel’s. All that Joyce did for the modern novel, and for the modern hero, is encapsulated here. ‘All’ being the operative word. ‘Perfume of embraces all him assailed’ – the degree of Bloom’s submission being the degree of the novel’s own openness to everything, not an assured mastery of experience but an absorption – the blotting paper salesman – in it.

To the practical man of action, the idle, yielding, over-responsiveness of a man like Bloom will seem, if not disreputable, useless. But in art, uselessness has been an important concept this last hundred years. And few dramatic examples of uselessness in action have been more perversely energizing and positive than that of the uxorious Jew Bloom, apparently useless to his Jewishness, apparently useless to his uxor, beginning his day tasting ‘a fine tang of faintly scented urine’ and ending it – his face in his wife's behind – ‘with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation’.

If the Jew has become the idealized figure of the modern novel, the perfect fictional recipient of every cruelty, every hardship, every bewilderment, and every pleasure, Leopold Bloom, waiting to be assailed – waiting to be all assailed – helps us to understand why.


In 1919, while Joyce was finishing work on Ulysses, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen brought out an essay entitled The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe. In this, Veblen argued that Jews did their best work in the gentile world, where they never felt entirely at home, because while the gentiles revelled in tranquillity and peace of mind, the intellectually gifted Jew enjoyed ‘immunity from the inhibitions of quietism’.

Immunity from the inhibitions of quietism. A permanent struggle, a permanent argument, a permanent witticism, the conditions – provided, of course, we survive – for permanent achievement. Veblen was talking of men of science. I have been talking of characters in fiction. But I'm prepared to risk a generality from the particular. What if our genius is our history, what if the distortions of the shtetl and the ghetto and the margins are our nature now? I doubt that Israel is going to make a new Jew of us. And I doubt we cut any prettier a picture than we ever did, garnering knighthoods from the non-Jewish world and imagining we pass unnoticed. What’s wrong with a future of exceptionable receptiveness, a future full of that intellectual turbulence which is both the penalty and the reward for enjoying immunity from the inhibitions of quietism?

If I weren't a comic English Jewish novelist much given to argumentativeness and irony, I'd call that prospect glorious.