rohmer, art and politics, anti-semitism, & the restorative effects of the mountains

Hello, all!

I have two new pieces out:

One, in Cabinet, is about three of my favorites, Eric Rohmer, Bataille, and Lionel Trilling. I promise, there ARE unlikely connections between the three: https://cabinetmagazine.org/kiosk/rothfeld_becca_1_april_2021.php

One is in Liberties, and it is not online. It is called “Sanctimony Literature,” and it is about the relationship between art, politics, and ethics. I’ve been thinking about it for a long, long time, and it’s sort of my manifesto, insofar as I could ever write a manifesto, in that it amounts to a summing-up of views that have been marinating for at least the duration of my PhD. I strongly encourage everyone to subscribe to Liberties, which is print-only and which is excellent, if I do say so myself. You can do so here: https://libertiesjournal.com/. This issue contains not only my essay but a series of reflections from Agnes Callard—and a lot of other good stuff. If there is a very compelling reason you cannot subscribe (principled opposition to the use of paper in these dire times, destitution, etc), you can email me for a PDF.

If “Sanctimony Literature” were online, people would surely misread it, claiming that I am arguing that art is “not political” (I’m sure people will misread it anyway!), so allow me to clarify proleptically. In fact, the core claim of the piece is that “is art political?” is the wrong question. Of course art is political! A lot of it is explicitly about politics (which isn’t to say it isn’t also about other stuff); all of it is created by and for people, who are political animals operating in political contexts. The right question is:  if art is political, what follows? Does it follow that the best art is the art with the best political consequences? (In my view, no.) Does it follow that art should be judged solely in terms of its political commitments? (In my view, no.) Does it follow that all art can be profitably discussed with reference to its political context? (In my view, yes.) Does it follow that art can only ever be discussed in political terms? (In my view, no.)

Of course, my answers to these questions could be wrong. The important point, for the time being, is that all of the theses in question require independent argument: they don’t follow from the claim that art is political, or at least, they don’t obviously follow. (Maybe if you interpret “political” weirdly enough, they do.) Denizens of both “sides” therefore make bad arguments. Cranks on “my side” (the “you can talk about aesthetics sometimes, actually” side) argue that art isn’t political, which isn’t plausible, and cranks on the “other side” (the “you must talk only about politics or you are part of the alt-right” side) establish that art is political and retreat, smugly satisfied, without having established anything controversial, much less that politics must predominate in every single discussion.

Anyway, having noted that I believe art is indeed political, I go on to explain that this conclusion settles nothing. And I proceed to argue, by way of appeal to Baldwin and Trilling, that political value is not the only sort of value—and that the ubiquitous contemporary tendency to conflate goodness with political goodness, rather than moral or aesthetic goodness, obscures the ways in which moral goodness is related to aesthetic goodness and yields a number of novels that are morally and aesthetically juvenile.

I hope you’ll read the piece!

other pieces I recommend

There’s been a new issue of The Point, and it’s great. (Subscribe to The Point, obviously.) The whole thing is great, but the pieces in it I especially recommend are:

-This piece on Tana French and wistful Zillow-browsing by Nora Caplan-Bricker: https://thepointmag.com/criticism/house-hunters/

-This piece about Lowell, Hardwick, and literary pilgrimages, by Zach Fine: https://thepointmag.com/correspondence/life-studies-hardwick-lowell/

And two pieces that pair especially well with my “Sanctimony Literature” piece and attendant reflections:

-This essay by Greg Jackson about what we lose when we politicize everything: https://thepointmag.com/examined-life/sources-of-life/

-And this absolutely marvelous, unmissable piece by Elisa Gonzalez about Marilynne Robinson, goodness in fiction, and the racism of the American Christian establishment: https://thepointmag.com/criticism/no-good-has-come/

There is so much that is good in the piece, which I won’t attempt to summarize because you should just read it (really, do), but this bit in particular hits on a point that I also try to make in my “Sanctimony Literature” essay:

“Recently, a few essays have derided contemporary fiction that cares about goodness, or being ‘a good person.’ The underlying complaint, I think, is that this is, fatally for fiction, boring. But these critiques conflate the fictionalized search for goodness with the performance of what Robinson would call ‘priggishness,’ which is ‘highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring.’ Robinson’s conception of goodness is, by contrast, a mature one: it is often difficult, conflicting with self-interest or desire; it is ‘a covenant with oneself, which can only be imposed and enforced by oneself.’ Jack does not imagine himself capable of goodness, so he substitutes ‘harmlessness.’ But the Gilead novels as a whole portray the search for a goodness that appears in relationship, not removal from it.”

What Robinson would call “priggishness,” Trilling would call failures of “moral realism.” Priggishness and failures of moral realism do make for fatally boring fiction—but, as I argue, and as Elisa argues, priggish fiction is in fact morally bad fiction.

and to top it all off, a brief rant about anti-Semitism

Finally, brief reflections on an unrelated (ish) matter, more political than aesthetic! I like Jewish Currents a lot and read it regularly—I’ve written for them and will again, if they’ll have me—but I take serious issue with this recent piece: https://jewishcurrents.org/how-not-to-fight-antisemitism/. (After all, what is more Jewish than disagreement between friends?)

Of course, parts of the piece are sensible. It is true that accusations of anti-Semitism are cynically weaponized against reasonable critics of Israel, and of course I object to this. It is also true that many white, middle class, American Jews are quite fortunate. And finally, it is true that there is something tasteless about “centering,” to borrow some of the ugly language of therapy-adjacent corporate diversity trainings, one’s Jewishness at a BLM protest. 

Yet I think this piece is basically misguided. My primary complaint (there are a few subsidiary ones) is this: something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how, as a function of American cultural hegemony, American racial politics are blithely assumed by many to predominate everywhere, when in fact they do not. “Blackness” and “whiteness” have long been the central categories in the American imagination, and thus American discussions of racism and oppression, but they are not the central categories everywhere at every time in history. Anti-Semitism is and has long been a central axis of oppression in Europe and a major force in European politics. (This is not to say that there isn’t anti-Black racism in Europe, obviously.) Jewish Currents concludes, “Though some may regard every oblique—or even straightforward—trope as a track laid on the way to an American Auschwitz, it’s difficult to point to a contemporary state-backed or structural regime of antisemitism to stake it in the ground.” But this is patently false. One need only look to Poland, where the government is playing an active role in anti-Semitic historical revisionism, as Jewish Currents has itself reported (https://jewishcurrents.org/the-polish-governments-war-on-jewish-history/), or to Hungary, where state-sanctioned rhetoric about George Soros is undeniably anti-Semitic, to see that there are “structural regimes of antisemitism” around. I would hope that a government needn’t be laying the tracks to Auschwitz to count as dangerously anti-Semitic, and that we can intervene and object before the tracks are laid!

Now, Jewish Currents is a magazine based in America, and perhaps they only intend their claims to apply in an American context. But, first of all, the excerpt I’ve quoted certainly sounds more general, and second of all, national borders are porous in the age of the internet. Ties between white supremacist groups in Europe and America, cultivated on creepy internet forums, are well documented, and some of the “tropes” that Jewish Currents dismisses have more sinister import in their original contexts. Jewish Currents writes, for instance, “But the marshalling of these resources toward calling out our opponents’ tweets about ‘New York liberals’ or George Soros—as strategic as it might seem in the moment and as righteous as it might feel—threatens to blunt the force of this project and condemn it to the same type of harmful solipsism as that practiced by our establishment leaders.” But much of the Soros imagery originates in Hungary, where it has clearly legible implications (as I learned on my tour of the famous synagogue in Budapest, on one of my last pre-pandemic trips; Hungarian Jews are quite concerned!). I can’t say for sure to what extent the trope’s original implications can aptly be said to have leached into each of its American invocations, but surely its genesis is at least relevant to its derivative meanings and thus to its significance in America.

My subsidiary complaint is that it’s hard for me to imagine that any discussion of racism can be complete or comprehensive without some mention of anti-Semitism, which is after all a major world-historical force. I really enjoyed John Ganz’s insightful musings on this subject here: https://johnganz.substack.com/p/some-thoughts-on-antisemitism. (I will spare you my very niche complaint about my native discipline of philosophy, in which many anti-Semites are still considered canonical and are regularly read in introductory courses: Hegel, Kant, and Nietzsche are just a few of the philosophers to make explicitly anti-Semitic remarks in the very texts often assigned in classes! Now, I love Hegel and Nietzsche, I tolerate Kant, and I’m a Heideggerian to the core, so I would never, ever, EVER in a bazillion years want an anti-Semite or even an actual Nazi to be to be “cancelled” or tossed out of the curriculum, provided the anti-Semite is a good philosopher. But it would be nice if there were any acknowledgment of, to say nothing of theorizing about, anti-Semitism within philosophy and how it relates, or doesn’t relate, to various views we still discuss all the time. Admittedly, Heidegger gets some shit, but it’s usually in philosophy-adjacent disciplines like intellectual history, and there is very little philosophical reflection on anti-Semitism within the discipline itself. There is not even a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page about anti-Semitism! Anyway, I’m glad I have Substack subscribers as a captive audience, so that I can rant about my personal irritations unchecked and unedited and without much pretense.)

Finally, I just got back from hiking in the mountains, and they were beautiful, and even though I am extremely behind on everything I am supposed to be doing, I feel so much better about life. My unsolicited advice is: go hiking!!!! It’s good!!! You’ll want to die less if you do it! (I also saw a porcupine lounging in a tree. I didn’t know that porcupines lounged in trees. Now I do!) Here are the mountains in question, looking like a snack or even a feast: