Posts Tagged 'hitch-22'

Epshtine, Bernsteen, Volfervitz.

As I write this, the results of the British election are rolling in. The question of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism will soon be falling off the front pages and down into the depths of the international section, where the two-paragraph dispatches from Burma and Bougainville languish unread.

Having paid little attention to the campaign, it was only today that I learned of one of the more trivial flurries of indignation stirred up by Corbyn’s clumsiness. In the leaders’ debate, when asked about Prince Andrew’s friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Corbyn pronounced his name as “Epshtine” – in order, claimed his critics, “to emphasise the fact Epstein was Jewish”. To quote a Twitter user named Catherine Lenson:

I’ve seen people call it a microaggression. But this is no microaggression. This is a deliberate provocation. This [is] a man showing his truest colours. It’s taunting. This is racism, pure and simple. And we see it.

I make no claims to knowing what is in Corbyn’s mind. But I’m inclined to judge his gaffe forgivingly, as I do the unnamed BBC interviewers accused by Christopher Hitchens (in his memoir Hitch-22) of microaggressing against his friend Paul Wolfowitz – or, as the name came out after they’d put their “sinister top-spin” on it, “Volfervitz”:

How hard could it be, I would inquire icily … to pronounce the name phonetically or as it was spelled? “Oh all right,” one of them said grudgingly: “this fellow Wolfervitz who seems to be the power behind the scenes, with his neo-con cabal…” I made him stop and begin all over again.

I’ve referred to this anecdote before. As I wrote then:

This might have been, as Hitchens believed, a “clumsy innuendo” on Wolfowitz’s Jewishness; or it might merely have been a misplaced straining for cultural sensitivity. (Compare for instance the German-born composer Kurt Weill who, after moving to the States, was annoyed by Americans who took the trouble to pronounce his name in the German fashion rather than, as he preferred, anglicizing it to “Curt While”.)

That’s from my June essay on Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who was frequently irritated when people, including President Kennedy, referred to him as “Diefenbawker”. Most of these incidents were innocent mistakes; some of them, in the earlier part of his career when the war was fresh in people’s minds, may have been deliberate attempts to draw attention to Dief’s German background.

Diefenbaker was in turn accused by the journalist Peter C. Newman, whom he detested for reporting critically about his government, of antisemitically mispronouncing his name as “Kneeman” or “Noyman”. Newman claimed that Dief would go further in private and refer to him outright as “that Viennese Jew”. I can’t find any independent source for these claims; they certainly contradict Dief’s carefully cultivated reputation as a combatter of racial prejudice.

Catherine Lenson, in the Twitter thread linked above, links to an old William Safire column that lists the composer Leonard Bernstein among the famous Jews who pronounced their last name steen. But Safire was mistaken – as I knew already. [1] When I heard of the “Epshtine” flap, I immediately thought of Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s hilarious account of a 1970 cocktail party hosted by Bernstein and his wife to raise funds for the Black Panthers. Bernstein was known for boisterously correcting anyone who got his name wrong, for instance when the Panthers’ lawyer rose to thank “Mrs. Bernsteen” for her hospitality:

“STEIN!”–a great smoke-cured voice booming out from the rear of the room! It’s Lenny! … For years, twenty at the least, Lenny has insisted on -stein not -steen, as if to say, I am not one of those 1921 Jews who try to tone down their Jewishness by watering their names down with a bad soft English pronunciation.

tom wolfe radical chic

Re-reading Radical Chic reminds us that Corbyn isn’t the first leftist to be stymied by the impossibility of reconciling the interests of well-to-do Jewish liberals on one side and angry proletarians on the other. Wolfe depicts the Bernsteins’ elite set nodding along as Black Panther “Field Marshal” Don Cox declares the United States to be “the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world”. But there are stirrings of unease when Cox refers to the “donations” his party receives from “exploiters of the black community”, i.e., small business owners:

For God’s sake, Cox, don’t open that can of worms. Even in this bunch of upholstered skulls there are people who can figure out just who those merchants are, what group, and just how they are asked for donations, and we’ve been free of that little issue all evening, man–don’t bring out that ball-breaker–

The film director Otto Preminger pipes up with some impertinent questions about Israel, which the Panther delegation would prefer to avoid discussing. Later, when the New York Times prints an article about the soirée (a term Bernstein resents; it was merely a “meeting”, he says) which quotes the composer replying “I dig it!” to some of his guests’ more uncompromising assertions, the backlash from his fellow Jews is so disconcerting that he is forced to issue a public statement clarifying his position. While he supports the Panthers’ right to freedom of speech and assembly, Bernstein explains,

it is reasonably clear that they are advocating violence against their fellow citizens, the downfall of Israel, the support of Al Fatah and other similarly dangerous and ill-conceived pursuits. To all of these concepts I am vigorously opposed and will fight against them as hard as I can.

Bernstein stumbled trying to negotiate what Wolfe called “the delicious status contradictions and incongruities that provide much of the electricity for Radical Chic”. But Bernstein had to go well out of his way to make such an ass of himself. Fifty years later, we all live permanently in that electrified realm, risking a shock every time we utter an unfamiliar name. Which is the safer bet: stein (which looks like you’re drawing attention to the name’s Jewishness) or steen (which would imply that the anglicized version is somehow normative)? Either way you run the risk of being accused of “othering” someone.

My suspicion is that the people who say “Volfervitz” or “Epshtine” or for that matter “Bern-STEIN!” are the same ones who go overboard on the pronunciation of foreign place names like Budapesht and Ibeetha and Lesootoo, refer to Iranians as Ee-rawn-ians, and correct you if you refer to Bombay or Canton. [2] In Kingsley Amis’s unforgettable formulation, these people would be overly pedantic “wankers”, as distinguished from “berks” who mispronounce things out of ignorance. I’m attentive to this division because I have to work hard to suppress my own wankerish tendencies.

Incidentally, until learning about the “Epshtine” controversy today, I had no idea whether Epstein was a steener or a steiner. Going by Jeremy Corbyn’s beard and demeanour, I suspect that he, like me, gets most of his news from printed matter rather than from TV or online videos; it’s possible therefore that when he first saw Epstein’s name he wankerishly defaulted to the more foreign-sounding, ergo “authentic” pronunciation, and his flunkies never bothered to correct him.

M.

1. You can put your trust in Michael Stipe.

2. A friend reports that she was told by an Australian expatriate that the “correct” pronunciation of Melbourne is “Melbin”. I guess we Canadians could begin insisting on “Tronna”, but we’re too polite. We’re happy when someone gets Saskatchewan more or less right.

A couple months back I shrugged at the results of the Canadian election. Last year in a post on immigration I referred to an Anti-Defamation League study on the global distribution of antisemitic beliefs. Way back in 2009 I discussed Jewish overrepresentation in Hollywood.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Crossing over: Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Recently, over breakfast, my girlfriend and I chatted about some of the TV programs that she, having come to consciousness only in the mid-’90s, never had a chance to experience. She’s seen enough Cheers reruns to get the gist, but Family Ties, Night Court, and Newhart, among others, she knows only by reputation.

I told her how, in the final scene of the final episode of Newhart, it was revealed that the whole series had been dreamed by Bob Newhart’s character from his earlier The Bob Newhart Show. This reminded me of St. Elsewhere, and I summarized for her the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis: In outline, since all the events of St. Elsewhere were revealed in that show’s final episode to be the daydreams of a snowglobe-clutching autistic child named Tommy Westphall, and since characters from St. Elsewhere crossed over to a number of other TV shows, including Mash, Cheers, and Homicide: Life on the Street, implying that those shows took place in the same fictional reality, and since characters from those overcrossing shows in turn crossed over to a whole bunch of other shows, it can be argued that the events of all these other shows were also daydreamed by Tommy Westphall. The Tommy Westphall Universe turns out to encompass everything from Mission: Impossible to Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.

Somehow this got me thinking of the connections among some of the books I’ve been reading lately. For instance, Christopher Hitchens in his memoir Hitch-22 crosses over with his old friend Martin Amis in his memoir Experience, providing complementary versions of the evening when Hitchens was introduced to Amis’s “literary father” Saul Bellow. [1]

christopher hitchens hitch 22

As Hitch tells it:

Martin offers a slightly oblique and esoteric account of a trip on which he took me in 1989, to visit Saul Bellow in Vermont. On our buddy-movie drive up there from Cape Cod – he’s almost word-perfect about this bit – he made it clear that I wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel. (“No sinister balls,” which was our colloquialism for a certain kind of too-easy leftism.) I knew I was being greatly honored by the invitation, not just because it was a huge distinction to meet Bellow but because, second only to an introduction to his father, it was the highest such gift that Martin could bestow. I needed no telling that I should seize the opportunity to do more listening than talking.

And yet it’s true, as he reports, that by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and his own foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.

We learn that Bellow had provoked Hitchens by calumniating his friend, the erudite Palestinian radical and literary critic Edward Said (who was later to fall out with Hitchens as they drifted to ever more irreconcilable positions on the morality of Western intervention in the Arab world, and violent Arab reactions thereto). Hitchens’s defense of his friend had inevitably veered into a lengthy diatribe – “a blue streak of sinister balls”, Amis says – about the misdeeds of Bellow’s beloved Israel. Afterward, Hitchens regretted embarrassing his friend, but:

[Amis] suffered more agony than he needed to, because Bellow as an old former Trotskyist and Chicago streetfighter was used to much warmer work and hardly took offense at all. He later sent me a warm letter about my introduction to a new edition of Augie March.

martin amis experience

Bellow makes several other appearances, besides that awkward dinner party, in Amis’s memoir. We hear for instance how Bellow nearly died of a rare neurological infection he picked up dining on a red snapper on a visit to the Caribbean, a story that appears in slightly fictionalized form in Bellow’s Ravelstein.

That novel is about the death of Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom, the professor, philosopher, and author of The Closing of the American Mind. As Amis says,

I know Bellow’s novel far, far better than I ever knew Bellow’s friend. Yet Ravelstein comes close to persuading me otherwise. This book is numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation, and in its pages Bloom lives.

saul bellow ravelstein

In the novel, Bloom-as-Ravelstein importunes the narrator, the Bellow stand-in, to write about him after his death.

“I’m laying this on you as an obligation. Do it in your after-supper-reminiscence manner, when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and you’re laid back and making remarks. I love listening when you are freewheeling about Edmund Wilson or John Berryman or Whittaker Chambers when you were hired at Time in the morning and fired by him before lunch.”

We learn in Hitch-22 that Hitchens, in real life, heard the Whittaker Chambers story from Bellow, on the evening of the awkwardness over Edward Said:

Offered a job as book critic for Time magazine as a young man, Bellow had been interviewed by Chambers and asked to give his opinion about William Wordsworth. Replying perhaps too quickly that Wordsworth had been a Romantic poet, he had been brusquely informed by Chambers that there was no place for him at the magazine. Bellow had often wondered, he told us, what he ought to have said. I suggested that he might have got the job if he’d replied that Wordsworth was a once-revolutionary poet who later became a conservative and was denounced by Browning and others as a turncoat. This seemed to Bellow to be probably right.

Speaking of the “after-supper-reminiscence manner”: both Ravelstein in Ravelstein and his model Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind refer to Plato’s Symposium, that famous gathering of Athenian intellects where Socrates, Alcibiades, and Aristophanes and their friends got drunk and declaimed on the nature of love. Taking a poke at modern critical theory, Bloom writes (paraphrasing Nietzche):

[A]fter the ministrations of modern scholarship the Symposium is so far away that it can no longer seduce us; its immediate charm has utterly vanished.

But for non-scholars, the Symposium will always be seductive because it shows us our heroes just as we want to imagine them – hanging out forever in a Valhalla of the intellect, joshing and quipping and making each other spray wine through their noses.

Which brings us to the Friday lunch. Hitch-22 devotes a few pages (and Experience a passing mention) to the boisterous weekly get-together that Hitchens and Amis shared through the 1970s and ’80s with Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Clive James, and illustrious others. Hitchens identifies James as the “chief whip” of the gatherings: “He needed an audience and damn well deserved one.”

clive james north face of soho

It’s James who gives us the vividest picture of the Friday lunch, in his memoir North Face of Soho, showing us how Amis could improvise a tall story, sustaining the massed laughter with “the economical stroke of the whip that did just enough to keep the top spinning”, while Hitchens’s specialty was the interjection of sarcastic asides:

[I]f someone was being straightforward, he could make them funny, and if someone was being funny, he could make them funnier.

The actual content of the proceedings, as repeated by James and Hitchens, isn’t quite the stuff of a modern Symposium­. Hitchens gives a few examples of the wordplay and concedes that there were “long interludes of puerility”; James credits, or blames, the illustrator Mark Boxer for “discouraging the anecdote as form – he wanted the flash of wit. … Nobody was allowed to take his time …” It sounds like a riot, in the sense that it must have been obnoxious and nerve-jangling, each man contending to make the biggest smash. [2]

Speaking of that lunch, which Hitchens says has “become the potential stuff of a new ‘Bloomsbury’ legend” – the legend would gain momentum more quickly if it had a catchier name than “the Friday lunch”, which is what Clive James also calls it in his memoir. James reports that when he kickstarted the gathering, he liked to refer to it mock-conspiratorially as the “Modish London Literary World”, a dig at the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, who apparently believed such a conspiracy explained why his favoured authors kept getting bad reviews. Unfortunately the Modish brand never caught on. Before they all shuffle off to trade zingers with Aristophanes and Allan Bloom, can we agree on a name for this cohort of legendary British wits? (As with Bloomsbury, MacSpaunday, and the Algonquin Round Table, it’ll help future generations to keep them sorted.) In its heyday the group convened at the Bursa Kebab House; occasionally James calls it the Kebab House lunch. How about the Kebab House Group?

allan bloom the closing of the american mind

In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom mentions a student who fretted to him, after reading the Symposium, that “it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced” in his own place and time. Bloom disputes this: “such experiences are always accessible”; his student “had brains, friends, and a country happily free enough to let them gather and speak as they will”. Most of us will never enjoy after-dinner discussions quite as stirring as the Symposium, or as riotous as the Kebab House lunches. But as Bloom consolingly reflects,

This student did not have Socrates, but he had Plato’s book about him, which might even be better.

M.

1. Amis says of Bellow, “I am not his son, of course. What I am is his ideal reader. I am not my father [Kingsley]’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.”

James mentions in passing, in his essay collection Cultural Amnesia,

On the whole, writers find other writers hard to be enthusiastic about, even when the other writers are safely dead. It takes security in one’s talent on top of generosity of soul. … Martin Amis’s praise of Saul Bellow is especially valuable because the younger writer is continually faced, when reading the older one, with things he himself would like to have said.

2. Hitchens and James both note the absence of a restraining female presence at the Friday lunch: “It was a very competitive scene, though,” James writes, “and therefore very male.” This naturally brings to mind Hitchens’s famously shit-stirring Vanity Fair article on why women aren’t funny. His argument boils down to: because they don’t have to be.

M.

In previous entries I’ve discussed Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and Martin Amis’s relationship with his father.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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