Michael Chabon Is Paged Several Times

Michael Weingrad in the Jewish Review of Books:

So why don’t Jews write more fantasy literature? And a different, deeper but related question: why are there no works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian? Why no Jewish Lewises, and why no Jewish Narnias?

My interest in these questions is partly personal. Tolkien and Lewis loomed large in my childhood and, as I read them to my own children, I wonder what they ought to mean to us as Jews. But my thoughts are also stimulated by the recent publication of some apparent exceptions to the rule: from the United States, The Magicians, a fantasy novel for adults by novelist and critic Lev Grossman, and from Israel, Hagar Yanai’s Ha-mayim she-bein ha-olamot (The Water Between the Worlds), the acclaimed second installation of a projected fantasy trilogy, which, when it is finished, will be the first such trilogy in Hebrew.

Asking these questions is hardly frivolous when fantasy, especially children’s fantasy, has today become a multi-billion dollar industry. In addition to the perennial popularity of Lewis and Tolkien, there is of course the publishing tsunami that is J. K. Rowling, as well as the lesser but still remarkable successes of recent fantasy authors such as Philip Pullman and Jonathan Stroud, all magnified immensely by the films based on their books. Fantasy is big business.

Indeed, one wonders why, amidst all the initiatives to solve the crisis in Jewish continuity, no one has yet proposed commissioning a Jewish fantasy series that might plumb the theological depths like Lewis or at least thrill Jewish preteens with tales of Potterish derring-do. Granted, popularity is rarely cooked to order and religious allegory sometimes backfires (a mother once wrote Lewis that her nine year old son had guiltily confessed to loving Aslan the lion more than Jesus). But still, what non-electronic phenomenon has held the attention of more children (and not a few adults) during the last ten years, than Rowling’s tales of Hogwarts? And, as Tom Shippey has shown in Tolkien: Author of the Century, the Lord of the Rings trilogy consistently tops readers’ polls of their most beloved books. Why the apparent aversion to producing such well-received books by the People of the Book?

Some readers may have already expressed surprise at my assertion that Jews do not write fantasy literature. Haven’t modern Jewish writers, from Kafka and Bruno Schulz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick, written about ghosts, demons, magic, and metamorphoses? But the supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature.

The experience of wonder, of joy and delight on the part of the reader, has long been recognized as one of the defining characteristics of the genre. This wonder is connected with a world, with a place of magic, strangeness, danger, and charm; and whether it is called Perelandra, Earthsea, Amber, or Oz, this world must be a truly alien place. As Ursula K. Leguin says: “The point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie.”

To answer the question of why Jews do not write fantasy, we should begin by acknowledging that the conventional trappings of fantasy, with their feudal atmosphere and rootedness in rural Europe, are not especially welcoming to Jews, who were too often at the wrong end of the medieval sword. Ever since the Crusades, Jews have had good reasons to cast doubt upon the romance of knighthood, and this is an obstacle in a genre that takes medieval chivalry as its imaginative ideal.

It is not only that Jews are ambivalent about a return to an imaginary feudal past. It is even more accurate to say that most Jews have been deeply and passionately invested in modernity, and that history, rather than otherworldliness, has been the very ground of the radical and transformative projects of the modern Jewish experience. This goes some way towards explaining the Jewish enthusiasm for science fiction over fantasy (from Asimov to Silverberg to Weinbaum there is no dearth of Jewish science fiction writers). George MacDonald’s Phantastes, thought by some to be the first fantasy novel ever written, begins with a long epigraph from Novalis in which he celebrates the redemptive counter-logic of the fairytale: “A fairytale [Märchen] is like a vision without rational connections, a harmonious whole . . . opposed throughout to the world of rational truth.” Contrast Herzl’s dictum that “If you will it, it is no Märchen.” The impulse in the latter is that of science fiction—the proposal of what might be—and indeed Herzl’s one novel Old-New Land was a utopian fiction about the future State of Israel.

Joe Carter at First Things

Will at The League

Samuel Goldman at PomoCon:

The article has taken heat from fans of the many Jewish fantasy authors. But most of them have missed the point. Weingrad isn’t asking whether Jews write fantasy or enjoy reading it. Instead, he’s concerned with why there aren’t any compelling fantasy “worlds” that incorporate Jewish folklore and tropes the way Narnia and Tolkein’s Middle Earth develop  Christian ones.

But is that really such a puzzle? In the first place, the landscape of most fantasy novels is essentially the numinous forest of the Teutonic Dark Ages. It is not so much a Christian world as a world on the cusp of Christianity: a pagan Götterdämmerung.

Jews can, of course, appropriate this setting for literary purposes. But I don’t think it has the same imaginative gravity that it does for Christians. Similarly, the warrior values that animate a lot of fantasy are not traditionally Jewish. One could, I suppose, write a story around around a learned rabbi–but surely that would not be as interesting as one focused on knights, errant wizards, and chieftains of mounted hordes. Finally, as Weingrad notes, there’s no fantasy without evil. And Jewish teaching on this subject is extremely ambiguous; unlike some Christian doctrines, Judaism tends to deny evil as a force independent of and opposed to God.

For these reasons, Jews drawn to speculative writing may have an affinity for the science fiction over fantasy. The technological rationalism and optimism of much science fiction is also, in a way, more American–and America has offered the broadest field for Jewish literary efforts since World War II.

But Weingrad neglects a “fantasy” genre founded by Jews, and arguably shaped by Jewish preoccupations. That’s the superhero comic book invented in the 1930s by the likes of Robert Kahn–Bob Kane to you. There could never be a Jewish Narnia that would preserve the features many readers find compelling (I confess that I always vastly preferred Tolkein, whose work is richer and less didactic). But the universes of Superman, Batman, and the rest are worthy counterparts.

Spencer Ackerman:

His name is Michael Chabon, you fool. Or Jonathan Lethem. Or, as my friend Sam Goldman insightfully observes, perhaps you ought to pick up a superhero comic. Practically every iconic superhero was created by Jews. Wrap your mind around two Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creating an invincible hero called Superman in 1932.

Probably more accurately, the Jewish CS Lewises are named Stan “Stanley Lieber” Lee and Jack “Jacob Kurtzberg” Kirby. Weingrad is asking the wrong question if he wants a one-to-one transposal of the Christian Lewis to Jewish creators, who are less likely to create direct parables because an impulse to convert doesn’t exist in Judaism, but questions of justice, power and responsibility — stuff that concerns Jews, I hear — are central to the Marvel Universe. Back when Jews still lived in urban enclaves, Lee and Kirby created the Thing, the first Jewish superhero (and probably the first Jew in space), to bring the ersatz-Lower East Side values of “Yancy Street” to the gentile masses and give the Yancy Street kids a relatable hero to look up to — the world scorned him for his appearance, but he was brave and strong and moral and had more heart than anyone. I don’t need to explain the civil rights allegory of the X-Men, but you could make quite the engaging Haggadah out of the “Days of Future Past” storyline. If it’s young-adult fiction you want, practically nothing will get kids into the habit of reading, and reading passionately, than comic books.

Farah Mendlesohn:

Don’cha just love utter rubbish? Simply off the top of my head:
Robert Silverberg; Esther Freisner; Peter Davison; Michael Burstein; Neil Gaiman; Marge Piercy (great grand-daughter of a Rabbi); Peter Beagle; Charlie Stross and Michael Chabon (by pure coincidence I have been reading Gentleman of the Road, set in the ninth century kingdom of the Kazars and, as he says in a post-script “Jews with Swords”, all day today).

I am sure others will add more.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Farah Mendlesohn pours out her wrath on Michael Weingrad’s article “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” in the inaugural issue of Jewish Review of Books, and its assertion that Weingard “cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish, and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note. To no other field of modern literature have Jews contributed so little.”  Allegedly a review of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Hagar Yanai’s HaMaim SheBeyn HaOlamot (The Water Between the Worlds), the second volume in an Israeli YA fantasy trilogy, Weingard treats only briefly with his two subjects and mostly uses them as a backdrop to his theory of Judaism being a far less hospitable environment than Christianity for the development of a fantastic tradition, of “all the elements necessary for classic fantasy—magic, myth, dualism, demonic forces, strange worlds, and so forth.”  Farah responds by listing a dozen Jewish fantasy authors off the top of her head, and commenters to her post contribute quite a few more, but though it seems likely, reading between the lines of Weingard’s article, that these authors are either wholly unfamiliar to him or that he would be surprised to learn of their Jewishness, I’m not sure that this listing accurately addresses the point Weingard is trying to make.

It seems clear to me that the essay’s title is meant in earnest, and that Weingard is specifically hunting for Jewish authors of the same caliber, fame, and influence over the genre as Tolkien and Lewis, of which there are indeed none.  More importantly, when Weingard calls for a Jewish Narnia, he is calling for “works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian”.  As Jo Walton says in the comments to Farah’s post, “I think it’s more useful to ask what Jewish fantasy stories there are than what Jewish fantasy writers,” and again the answer would be that there are precious few.  The most well-regarded, famous and influential Jewish fantasy writer working today is probably Neil Gaiman, but Jewish elements in his fiction are few and far between, and the folklore and myths he draws on in his work are mostly Christian or pagan, with some forays into various Eastern traditions.  Which is understandable when one considers that Weingard’s argument about the relative paucity of the Jewish fantastic tradition is undeniable.  It’s a religion and a culture that is not only less rooted in and concerned with the numinous than Christianity is–the afterlife, for example, is treated in Judaism almost as an afterthought, and receives very little attention in the halacha or in Jewish scholarship–but whose folk tales and traditions seem to have almost no fantastic component.  There’s a reason that the golem and the dybbuk get so much play whenever the Jewish fantastic is mentioned–because there’s not much else out there, and very little that is common currency even among Jews.

None of this is to say that I don’t sympathize with Farah’s exasperation with “Why There is No Jewish Narnia.”  Weingard’s essay is riddled with so many staggering assumptions, sweeping generalizations, and plain untruths that even its most self-evident arguments come to seem suspect.  Chief among these is the fact that though he deftly analyzes the philosophical differences between Christianity and Judaism which render the former so suitable to the Tolkienian mode of fantasy by noting that Christianity is rooted in a dualism between good and evil, whereas Judaism balks at placing any power on an equal standing, or even in opposition, to God, Weingard touches only lightly on the real-world factors that discouraged Jews from exploring the fictional avenues that Tolkien and Lewis did.  To put it bluntly, there is no way that a Jewish writer working in the early decades of the twentieth century could have produced The Lord of the Rings, a work steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world that Jews, who have for various reasons tended to congregate in urban and commercial centers, would have had little or no experience of.  Similarly, the naked didacticism and unabashed proselytizing of the Narnia books is entirely antithetical to Judaism, an anti-missionary religion.  One might as well ask why there is no Jewish Divine Comedy.

Ross Douthat:

Part and parcel of Judaism’s resistance to explorations in the realm of faerie, he goes on, is a discomfort with the semi-dualism that’s necessary to classic fantasy — the idea of a Devil figure, in other words, who seems capable of actually conquering the mortal world (be it Narnia or Middle-Earth, Fionavar or Osten Ard) and binding it permanently in darkness. As Weingrad notes, correctly I think: “Christianity offers a far more developed tradition of evil as a supernatural, external, autonomous force than does Judaism, whose Satan (or Samael or Lilith or Ashmedai) are limited in their power and usually rather obedient to God’s wishes.” Tolkien’s Sauron makes sense in a Christian universe; he makes less sense in a Jewish one.

But once you add up these insights, they jostle uneasily with Weingrad’s professed desire for a Jewish Tolkien, or a Jewish Lewis. What he seems to have demonstrated is that modern fantasy depends on Christianity, or at least a Christian-pagan synthesis, for its forms, conventions, and traditions. This suggests that you could write a novel that embodies a kind of Jewish critique of fantasy — in much the same way that China Miéville’s novels are a kind of Marxist critique of Tolkien, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Mists of Avalon” was a feminist critique of Arthurian-based fantasy, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy is an atheist’s critique of C.S. Lewis, and so on. (And indeed, Weingrad’s essay reads Lev Grossman’s new novel “The Magicians” as a kind of crypto-Jewish critique of Narnia and/or Harry Potter.) But the genre itself will remain irreducably Christian, and a truly Judaic fantasy would have to belong to, or invent, a different genre altogether.

UPDATE: Rod Dreher

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner

Ilya Somin

Charlie Jane Anders at IO9

Razib Khan at Science Blogs

UPDATE #2: E.D. Kain at The League

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Michael Chabon Is Paged Several Times

  1. Pingback: The Tin Man » A Jewish Narnia?

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  5. Sancho

    I was very interested in the responses to Weingrad’s piece, but shut this page because of the frustrating Snap script that forces links open in a pissy little box rather than let let the user choose a new window or tab.

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