The Seduction of Truthiness: A Response

May 15, 2022   •   By Daniel A. Segal

DANIEL A. SEGAL RESPONDS to David N. Myers’s Review of Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus (July 30, 2021):

David Myers’s review has many strengths, but also a notable glitch. Repeating a claim presented in the final section of Cohen’s novel (“Credit & Extra Credit”), Myers tells us that Cohen’s novel “is based on a story about an actual job talk given by [Benzion] Netanyahu, which was related to Cohen by Harold Bloom and found its way into the pages of LARB,” with the last three words hyperlinked to an interview of Bloom by Cohen published in LARB back in 2018. The glitch is that there is no mention in that interview of any such job talk nor, for that matter, of any Netanyahu, either father or son.

But what about “the actual job talk” or, as Cohen’s postscript puts it, “the time [Bloom] was asked to coordinate the campus visit of an obscure Israeli historian named Benzion Netanyahu, who showed up for a job interview and lecture with his wife and three children in tow and proceeded to make a mess”? Here let’s ask just where and when that striking event occurred.

Neither Cohen’s postscript nor Myers’s review names the school, but many other reviewers have presumed it was Cornell, where Benzion was a member of the faculty for four years and Bloom had studied. On the basis of these few facts, Cornell indeed seems plausible, but the difficulty is that Netanyahu was hired by the history department in 1971, while Bloom had left the university in 1951 with a BA in Classics — all which (the span of years, the different departments, and Bloom’s undergraduate status at Cornell) would seem to make implausible that the “actual” event took place in Ithaca.

Another possibility is that it occurred at Yale, where Bloom earned his PhD in English in 1955 and then joined the faculty and stayed until his death in 2019. That would seem at least possible, but it would leave the oddity of a faculty member (or perhaps a graduate student) in one department being asked to “coordinate the campus visit” of a candidate for a position in another department. So too, given Benzion’s eventual connection to global fame, we might think that if such a “campus visit” to Yale had occurred — with Benzion Netanyahu’s “wife and three children in tow” (one of them the egregious Bibi!) — there would be some notice of that moment prior to the appearance of Cohen’s novel (exactly as claimed and presumed by Myers’s mistaken citation).

A different possibility is that Cohen’s postscript is not a piece of nonfiction standing apart from the fiction that precedes it, but an element of the overall fiction of The Netanyahus. If this is the case, then Myers’s glitch may be read as symptomatic of how readily fiction can be factualized (just as facts can be so readily fictionalized). And too, his dead-letter citation (to an earlier piece in the same publication no less!) might show us how easily the pleasure of having the “backstory” can seduce us all — authors, reviewers, editors, and readers alike — to engage in such factualization or truthiness.

Of course it is also possible the story is true, and Bloom somewhere and at some time did host Benzion and his family for a campus visit for a faculty position. I would not know. I sent a query to Cohen through a publicist at NYRB, the publisher of The Netanyahus, and the publicist told me that he “always took it that it was meant to be at Cornell” and suggested (inaccurately) that Cohen’s postscript identified the year. He also promised to pass my query on to Cohen, from whom I have had no response.

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Daniel A. Segal is Jean M. Pitzer Professor of Anthropology and Professor of History, Pitzer College.