THERE ARE MANY reasons to feel pessimistic about the current state of literary criticism — for a full catalog of ills, see Christian Lorentzen’s recent Harper’s essay — but there are also, thankfully, some grounds for optimism. One of them is Adam Kirsch, the poet-critic and all-around intellect whose engaged and lucid essays on literature and society, published in places like The New Yorker, the New Republic, and The New York Review of Books, have earned him comparisons to Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling. (Kirsch has written a short, sensitive book on Trilling and last year edited a selection of his letters.) Kirsch, who is still in his early 40s, recently published his 11th book, Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?, a collection of essays exploring Jewish-American identity in the work of Philip Roth, Tony Kushner, and Cynthia Ozick, among others. But the book is also, more broadly, a reflection on what Trilling called “the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.”
In his preface to The Liberal Imagination (1950), Trilling argued that “a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time.” Something like this pressure is often at work in Kirsch’s essays. He is a scourge of complacency and flabby thinking. Writing for the Barnes & Noble Review last year, Kirsch took the Dutch philosopher Rob Riemen to task for his book To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism, whose rhetorical simplicity made it “more lullaby than call to arms,” Kirsch wrote. “To really understand where we are and where we’re headed, we need actual thinking, which is usually uncomfortable.” Similarly, his 2008 New Republic essay on Slavoj Žižek, written at a time when the Slovenian philosopher was an irascible darling of certain parts of the young left, has proven to be almost prophetic.
If all this makes Kirsch sound like some cultural throwback, then I’m doing him a profound disservice. For unlike Trilling, who was really primarily a public intellectual — the philosopher Étienne Gilson once told him he “wasn’t really a literary critic” — Kirsch is first and foremost a rigorous and sensitive reader of texts, especially of poetry. If one mark of a good literary critic is the number of writers they’ve persuaded you to read, then he is, for me personally, among the most consequential. I have Kirsch to thank for my first encounters with the poetry of Rachel Wetzsteon, A. E. Stallings, and Joshua Mehigan, among others. When I was 21, I read the works of the so-called confessional poets — Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, and Plath — with Kirsch’s excellent study, The Wounded Surgeon, as a guide.
I recently met with Kirsch at a restaurant near the midtown Manhattan offices of The Wall Street Journal, where he now works as an editor. Over appetizers and Sapporos, we discussed Jewish literary tradition and the role of the poet in the contemporary world.
MORTEN HØI JENSEN: I thought I’d begin by turning the title of your book back on you: who wants to be a Jewish writer?
ADAM KIRSCH: The essay of that title, which is the first essay in the book, grows out of this phenomenon I’ve noticed, which is that Jewish writers don’t want to be thought of as Jewish writers. I first noticed it when I was moderating an event at the Museum of Jewish Heritage with a couple of novelists who had written books I’d reviewed in Tablet and I asked them about it. They both said: No, we’re not Jewish writers, that’s not how we think of ourselves. And then there was a documentary about Philip Roth on PBS and he said the same thing: I’m not a Jewish writer, I’m an American writer. So I thought it would be interesting to ask, why is it that no one wants to be a Jewish writer? And also to think about it from a personal perspective, because I feel like that’s something that I’ve grown to identify with and to accept as I’ve grown older.
You suggest at one point that denying the Jewish writer label may actually be one of the most identifiably Jewish things about being a Jewish writer.
Yeah. I think that Jewishness is something that, for American Jews, can be very elusive sometimes. It’s hard to put your finger on. And I think it’s something you can’t essentialize; you can’t say that a Jewish writer feels, thinks, and writes differently from any other kind of writer because that’s clearly not always true. And so the question is, if it’s not something like that, and it’s not a language, and it’s not living in a Jewish country or a Jewish community necessarily, is there anything there? Or is it just all perspective? You look at it one way and it’s there, you look at it another way and it’s not there. I think maybe it is a little bit perspectival, and for me it’s something I’m interested in affirming and exploring, rather than turning away from it and denying it.
How does it differ from the experience of African-American writers or Asian-American writers, or other ethnic and religious minorities?
I think there was a phase of Jewish-American literature — the great phase of immigrant and first-generation Jewish Americans — whose stories have a certain similarity with immigrant writers of other backgrounds. There are lines that can be drawn between Jhumpa Lahiri or Junot Díaz and writers like Henry Roth and Alfred Kazin, for instance. But the difference is that being Jewish is not just an ethnicity; it’s also a religion. It goes back a long way and you have to decide how you want to relate to that tradition. That’s something that I think has changed in Jewish-American literature, because now people my age and younger are so far removed from that immigrant experience that we don’t have the same kind of stories to tell. So if you want to be a Jewish writer or you want that to be meaningful in some way you have to seek it out more. You’re not just writing about growing up in a Jewish ghetto in Brooklyn — you have to ask: What does it mean to me? Does it mean anything? You see that a lot more in writers of my generation, writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander. They’re much more self-conscious about it and they’re much more interested in the religious aspect of Judaism. People like Bellow and Roth, I think, had absolutely no interest in religion and didn’t know anything about it and didn’t care. To them it was something that was very provincial, sort of shabby, and they didn’t want to be associated with it. That’s something that’s changed, I think.
You write in this book that when you were young, the idea of being a Jewish writer seemed very limiting to you. Obviously you feel differently today, right?
When I first thought of being a writer I didn’t think of myself as being a Jewish writer, although I was Jewish obviously and Jewishly educated in certain ways. It seemed that the things I wanted to write about and the things I was interested in were human things. Saying you’re a Jewish writer if you’re writing about love or you’re writing about nature seems irrelevant to a certain degree. And I do still understand that, but I don’t see it as the same kind of restriction anymore. I have come to realize than my experience of the world and of America and ideas and books is affected by being Jewish. It’s better to reckon with that consciously, and I think I became more conscious of it as I got older and moved away from my childhood and upbringing and realized how it did affect me.
You’ve also written a lot in recent years about Jewish religious practice and Jewish religious texts, especially in your column for Tablet. When did these things begin to interest you as a writer?
I think I became more interested in it when I was in my later 20s. At first because I started to see just how much Jewish history has affected politics, and the way I think about politics and current events and society. And then I started to realize that in order to understand where Jews are and why we are where we are, it’s important to know something about where we came from and how we got here. But the Talmud thing that I’ve been doing for Tablet for about seven years was not so much a religious thing as it was wanting to know about the things our ancestors have been reading for 2,000 years. So in addition to just being intellectually interesting, it is an important historical and intellectual background.
Speaking of current events, there’s a very interesting essay in this book on Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, in which you discuss the political status of Jews in America. In your very striking final paragraph, you write, “[W]e are not wanted by the left or the right […] because both political extremes think in terms of groups and classes, and Jews cannot succeed in America on those terms.” Taking into account recent events like the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and accusations of antisemitism among American politicians, could you say a little bit more about this issue?
Well, when I say the left and the right I really mean the extremes. I think it takes different forms and people tend to focus on the extreme they find most threatening. Obviously, if you look at physical violence, it’s most likely to come from the far right — from racists and nationalists and white supremacists like the Pittsburgh shooter. If you look at anti-Zionism and pressure on Jews to dissociate themselves from Israel, that comes from the left. Broadly speaking, I think Jews’ politics has always been associated with liberalism — not Democratic Party liberalism but liberalism in the sense of a political tradition — because Jews need a society where people are judged as individuals. America, which was founded on these individualistic, liberal principles, was and still is one of the best places Jews have ever lived for that very reason. Historically, the tendency in America to think of Jews as a group or a unit has been something that’s been confined to the margins. And I think that’s still true. For the most, I don’t think that antisemitism is a dangerous problem in the United States. But I think it’s much more visible now than when I was growing up. I certainly think about it and notice it more now than I did when I was younger.
I agree, and it surprises me how often antisemitism crops up now in American political discourse.
I also think that some of it, or the salience of it, is an illusion created by the internet. You hear things that you wouldn’t have heard before. It could be that there were the same number of antisemitic people in the past, but you would just never hear from them, they would be very marginal. Now everyone has equal voice. The place where I encounter this is usually on Twitter rather than in real life.
In the last essay in this book, you discuss the work of non-American Jewish writers like Kafka and Benjamin, and you ask whether there even is such a thing as Jewish literature. Do you think there is a specifically Jewish tradition of writing?
Yes, I do. I think it’s defined by an interest in and engagement with Jewish tradition and Jewish questions. And that can sometimes happen despite a writer’s own intensions. It’s a way of reading and understanding writers who are very different, who come from different societies, different backgrounds, and who write in different languages, obviously. But there’s enough connecting them — I’m thinking of modern European and American Jewish literature from the 1800s to the 2000s — there’s enough that those people have in common; they’re dealing with many of the same conditions and questions. Kafka is a good example. You can read The Trial in one way and not think of it as a Jewish book at all and not know that Kafka was Jewish, but if you do know that and you read it with that in mind it becomes very legibly a Jewish book and a Jewish predicament that lots of other writers also concern themselves with. Kafka’s genius was to hide that, or to just not mention it. And as a result you have this sense of a universal parable, which of course it is because it makes sense to people all over the world and in all different kinds of situations, but I think that the form in which Kafka experienced a lot of those emotions of absurdity, alienation, detachment, and vulnerability had to do with being a Jew.
I want to talk to you about poetry, because you’re not only concerned in this book with Jewish literature, you’re also interested in exploring the role that poetry plays in the world and the relationship between religion and poetry. You write in your preface that poetry and religion are “the most available languages for discussing ultimate questions.” Could you elaborate on that?
One of the things that I like in poetry, both in terms of the poets I like most and what drew me to poetry in the first place, is that it’s a way of investigating thoughts and feelings that other genres don’t allow in the same way. It allows you to think in poetry and to think about things in poetry in a serious way, not with a mind to convincing anyone of anything but simply investigating a thought or a feeling deeply. I think that the kinds of things that can feed into religion can also feed into literature and into poetry. One of the poets I write about in this book, Christian Wiman, is a good example. He’s coming out of a totally different background in religious tradition, but something about the way he addresses religion resonates with me.
In your essay on Heidegger, you make a very interesting distinction between the poetry of the world and the poetry of the earth. Could you explain why those two things are different?
That essay starts off by looking at Heidegger’s essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” a very famous essay in which he talks about how the work of art — in his case not so much poetry as architecture and painting — does two things: it reveals its materials in a new way, so that if you see marble in a Greek temple you understand what marble is, you’re brought face to face with it, with its very tangible quality. And at the same time, a Greek temple provides a worldview; it organizes the way you think about the world. So those two directions that art can go in — earth and world — seem to me an interesting way to think about contemporary poetry also. Contemporary poetry is usually not explicitly religious, or at least not religious in the sense of what Christian poetry was in the tradition of English literature, but I think that those concerns are still there, and the way that people work them out is often through this sense of what does poetry tell us, what can language tell us about the earth and the world, about things themselves and their specificity, their integrity, and also how to behave, how to believe, how to think about things.
In the essay “Poetry and the Problem of Politics,” you make another distinction, this time between poet-legislators and poet-witnesses, which seems to me analogous to the earth and world distinction.
Yes, and it also has something to do with the distinction between modern and postmodern, I think. If you look at the great modernist poets, like Eliot, Yeats, or Pound, they were great believers in myth, and in the re-enchantment of the world through myth; they were often subscribers to fascist myths and fascist ideologies and authoritarian ideologies and nationalism — they were often antisemitic for that very reason. They thought of poetry as something that was taking over from religion in a certain way, it was going to provide myths that people need to live by. After World War II, the great poets turned against that idea, partially because of the discrediting of authoritarianism and fascism. So if you think of the great poets of that postwar period, they tend to be people who are very suspicious of myth, suspicious of ideology. They’re more interested in bearing witness to what they actually see, to the concrete and specific things that are actually seen.
You also bring up the example of W. H. Auden, whose poem “September 1, 1939” is a kind of rebuke of the modernists simply by virtue of its title, which is a direct reference to an ultimate reality, as you call it.
Right. Unlike The Cantos, which are everywhere and all over the place, Auden is saying that in order to understand this poem you have to know what was happening on this date, and what was happening to me and why I was in New York and all those things. So it incorporates the real world into the poem in an interesting way, and that’s something the confessional poets also do, though in a different way. They’re saying that, in order to write poetry I have to tell you the truth about who I really am — I’m not going to assume a persona, I’m not going to write as if I am outside of myself. They say: This is where I live, this is what happened to me, and that’s something I’ve always responded to in poetry.
Speaking of The Cantos, you say very provocatively that it’s not possible to separate the politics of Pound from those poems, and that, in fact, the best poetry in that collection is poetry that expresses fascist or antisemitic ideas.
Often The Cantos are quoted in little bits, which makes sense because the little bits are often the best parts, but the overarching idea or theme of The Cantos is: What is the society that creates great art? One of the great grudges he had against capitalism, and particularly against American and British capitalism, is that he thought that it did not foster art, and, specifically, that it had destroyed a lot of great artists during World War I. He had this idea of a society where art and intellect would be valued by a wise ruler of great spirit, and he thought Mussolini was one such person. In some cases — The Pisan Cantos, for example, which he wrote while he was a prisoner of war at the end of World War II — he can go from very beautiful images and language to straight-out fascist and antisemitic rhetoric. So it’s really not possible to separate the two; they’re on the same page, it’s one thing after another. You have to reckon with both aspects of that; you have to be able to say, sometimes this is great poetry, but also poetry can come from places that are politically and ethically wrong, or that need to be challenged. And that’s something that Lionel Trilling, who is someone I have learned a lot from, wrote about. He asked why it is that American liberals have certain tastes in literature that are so different from what they think about politics. Those great modernist writers that we admire are people whose politics you wouldn’t be able to stand.
In the same essay, you bring up the example of Poets Against the War, a protest by various American poets on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 who had all been invited to a poetry event at the White House. Specifically, you mention Hayden Carruth, whose protest poem “Complaint and Petition” suggests that poetry is somehow aligned with love and honesty and opposed to war and massacre. Yet it is not a very good poem. Do you think that a politically activist poetry of this sort is resurgent now in response to the Trump administration?
I have to admit I’m not in touch with what’s going on in poetry right now. But I do think that it’s been an idea for the last 50 years or maybe even more that poetry is on the side of peace and justice and that writing a poem is itself a virtuous act. And one of the things I’m saying in this essay is that historically that’s not true. Historically, a lot of poetry and even some of the great poetry, is about violence and oppression and things that we wouldn’t countenance in actual life. I quote the Hazlitt essay in which he talks about Coriolanus and asks why it is that Shakespeare makes us sympathize with someone who’s this authoritarian general and who looks down on the common people. And yet it’s thrilling when he’s on the stage because, he says, poetry and power have something in common. Poetry likes things that are vivid and individual and dramatic, and in a way all those things are antithetical to democracy, which is about what is average and true for everyone and universal. It’s more prosaic. So I think it’s just worth keeping in mind that good politics don’t necessarily make a good poem; a good poem doesn’t necessarily have good politics.
You write of Seamus Heaney’s struggle with his own burden of responsibility, the public role he came to occupy and the pressures of being seen as a poet who expressed the Irish national conscience.
I think that in the second half of the 20th century there were a number of great poets who wrote about wanting to keep a kind of distance to politics. I would include in that group, in addition to Heaney, the likes of Czesław Miłosz and Yehuda Amichai and Derek Walcott. They were all poets who were born into situations where politics were very urgent. Claims of solidarity were very urgent. Heaney, in Ireland, doesn’t want to be claimed as a spokesman. He wants to be true to his vocation, himself, and to language, and not enlist on a side in a political conflict. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t on a side, because he was, but he doesn’t want that to be what his poetry wants. He writes about political violence in oblique ways, often from some kind of an angle. And Amichai does that in the Israel-Palestinian conflict; Walcott does that when he talks about being a black poet writing in English after the British Empire; Miłosz does it in relation to communism. They’re all people who were born in parts of the world where it was very hard not to write about politics. It’s very easy for an American to say they don’t want to write about politics. But for these poets it was inescapable, there was a pressure to find these zones of independence.