Friday, March 05, 2010

Breaking News: "Elfland is Not Poughkeepise"

In an extremely interesting essay, linked above, Michael Weingrad proposes that by and large, Jews have not written fantasy fiction, making it one of the only areas of literary endeavor to which Jews have not made prodigious contributions.

Let us say, up front, that we think he's mistaken.  But let us also say that the essay is well worth reading anyway.  First off, it begins with a beautiful and touching anecdote:

Although it might seem unlikely that anyone would wonder whether the author of The Lord of the Rings was Jewish, the Nazis took no chances. When the publishing firm of Ruetten & Loening was negotiating with J. R. R. Tolkien over a German translation of The Hobbit in 1938, they demanded that Tolkien provide written assurance that he was an Aryan. Tolkien chastised the publishers for “impertinent and irrelevant inquiries,” and—ever the professor of philology— lectured them on the proper meaning of the term: “As far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.” As to being Jewish, Tolkien regretted that “I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

Moving on:  Weingrad's point is not, of course, that Jews don't write fiction about fantastic themes.  He has read Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick, and in fact his essay is in part a review of two recent fantasy novels by Jewish writers, both of which sound remarkably good.  He doesn't show much familiarity with "genre" writing -- the stuff you buy in paperback at the drugstore, or latterly the comics shop.  This gives the commenters over at io9 some occasion for fun, as they point to the brilliant and trendy Neil Gaiman, or murmur that "Of course there is a complex Jewish fantasy world.  It's called Marvel Comics."  (We'd add that this is just as true of DC, but never mind). 

His main argument is that there is no Jewish Middle-Earth or Narnia, a fact (if it is accepted as a fact) which he explains in several ways:
  • A fictionalized Middle Ages holds little appeal for Jews.  Not their best era.
  • The genre as a genre emerges in Victorian England, as religious response to rationalism, Darwin, etc.  Again, not a big concern for Jews.
  • Judaism is "much warier about the temptation of dualism" than Christianity."
  • After the Holocaust, the very idea of magical powers at work in the real world "must have made redemption seem too easy."
Of these, only the first strikes us as entirely defensible.  A much longer post would be required to explain why, however.  He also attempts to argue that Judiasm is somehow rooted to real-world specifics of person, place and time ("its halakhic core") in a way that Christianity is not, an assertion which actually reveals a deep misunderstanding of Christianity.  It in this context that he quotes Ursula Le Guin to the effect that fantasy, by it's nature, is about otherness:  "Elfland isn't Poughkeepsie."  It's a brilliant remark, but misguided in this application.  

Still, in an attempt to illustrate this false thesis, Weingrad does offer one suggestion which gets us thinking:

Christianity has a much more vivid memory and even appreciation of the pagan worlds which preceded it than does Judaism. Neither Canaanite nor Egyptian civilizations exercise much fascination for the Jewish imagination, and certainly not as a place of enchantment or escape. In contrast, the Christian imagination found in Lewis and Tolkien often moves, like Beowulf or Sir Gawain, through an older pagan world in which spirits of place and mythical beings are still potent. 

Bluntly put, Christianity has been conditioned by its history to be more tolerant of pagan imagery than Judaism -- almost certainly true.  After all, Christianity decisively routed the cosmologies from which those images sprang, and did so early in its history, which made co-opting them for its own purposes easy.  Probably too easy.   And it made its most profligate use of pagan imagery in the early Middle Ages.

But one good point doesn't make a case, at least not a case this broad.  Weingrad is disproven by the sheer volume of fantastic literature created by Jews, over a long period of time and now in many media.  He is disproven, at least, unless one accepts the narrowest conceivable definition of the "genre" in which he says Jews haven't contributed.  Because his essay clearly takes Tolkien and Lewis as the defining authors of "classical fantasy" (his expression, and misleading in many way).  In which case, the question of why there are "no Jewish fantasy writers" has to be rephrased as "why are there no Jewish writers of Christian allegory and apologetics?"  And that, of course, is a silly question.

So the real essay -- the one Weingrad should have written, and to which he has taken an extremely useful first step -- is on a different subject.  It is an essay that asks what the differences are between the use of fantasy, either as a device or as a genre, by Jewish and Christian writers (or, of course, by writers who have been formed by one or the other culturally, but like Philip Pullman disavow faith in either). 

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