Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I'm having a moment...

...inspired by this brief excerpt from Howard Sachar's A History of Jews in America:

In their passionate ideological commitments and bristling ten­dentiousness, the New York intellectuals often appeared to validate John Murray Cuddihy’s theory that Jewish intellectuals felt peculiarly afflicted by the “ordeal of civility.” “[They] contained something faintly alien to our native roots and native habits,” admitted Mary McCarthy, an intermittent participant in the group. Yet that “aliena­tion,” a historic Jewish critical stance long recognizable in European culture, manifestly imbued the Jewish component with its avant-gard­ist effervescence. 
Arguably, the New Yorkers left no distinct social or literary “school” behind. Unlike Hannah Arendt and other refugees who had studied with the great minds and had been exposed to the intellectual “systems” of Central Europe, the New Yorkers were eclec­tic. They had learned to extemporize on their feet at City College or Brooklyn College. In their time, nevertheless, these immigrant sons and daughters completed the process of deprovincializing American culture. Bored by the apparent parochialism of native American criti­cism, they re-evaluated American art and literature with a ferocious iconoclasm and a consciously skewed angle of vision that would leave the Volkswesen forever changed.

I'm having a moment, with several impressions converging inside the limited space of my head. I'm reflecting on the historical amnesia about or lack of appreciation for (or outright willful ignorance of) the amazing contribution to culture made on these shores by the Jewish intelligentsia. Those generalists and amateurs of deep immersion in literature, art, and music from back in the thirties, forties, and fifties. And to the above neglects, I would add a dearth of simple fascination concerning that era and milieu. Today, we are mostly fascinated by trivial, shallow, jumped-up stuff.

Also, the image of a New York City (I've never been there) flickers into my consciousness. What an energetic hub of intellectual, aesthetic perception and persuasion it must have been back in those days. When the superficial wildness of American nativism met and mingled with the uncanny depths and traditions of the Jewish émigre!

I find myself oddly nostalgic for a place I've never been, people I've never known, a time I never lived.

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