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The Binding of Isaac

Rosenfeld's Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of WritingRosenfeld's Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing by Steven J. Zipperstein

Reviewed by Adam Kirsch
The New Republic Online

"Zetland: By a Character Witness" may not be the best fifteen pages that Saul Bellow wrote, but it is surely the most concentratedly, turbulently Bellovian. "Yes, I knew the guy," the story begins. "We were boys in Chicago. He was wonderful." Instantly the reader is plunged into an accelerated tour of all of Bellow's great themes and tropes: Chicago's strength and ugliness; the bookishness and idealism of first-generation American Jewish boys; the love and oppression of the Jewish family; the tragicomic clash of intellect and sex. We see Zetland grow in a few pages from a precocious fourteen-year-old, reciting Keats on a boat in the public lagoon, to a young husband, delighting in his wife and sex and the world, and inspired by Moby-Dick to become a great novelist: "There really is no human life without this poetry." Then Bellow cuts the story short, as if unwilling to show us what the future has in store.

Whenever Bellow maneuvered his alter egos--Moses Herzog, Charlie Citrine-- through these same obsessions, he never pretended to innocence. Bellow's heroes are smart, but they are prey to anger and resentment, they demand too much, they are thwarted and mocked by the world. But not Zetland, because Zetland was not conceived as another version of his creator. He is, as initiated readers have long known, Isaac Rosenfeld, Bellow's childhood friend and literary rival, whose disappointing career and premature death, at the age of thirty-eight in 1956, threw Bellow's own never-ending triumphs into relief. Having decisively outdone his old friend, in survival and in glory, Bellow preserved his memory with a kind of superstitious piety. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1976, he told a friend, "It should have been Isaac." His loving, mourning remark becomes even more touching when we learn, in Steven Zipperstein's new quasi-biography Rosenfeld's Lives, that in the early 1950s Rosenfeld had brushed off a fawning magazine profile of Truman Capote with the words, "No matter, someday Saul or I will win the Nobel Prize."

But this fraternal ambition seemed to have been betrayed by the antithetical verdicts that life handed down to the two friends. In "Zetland," as the subtitle implies, Bellow writes as though arguing for an appeal in Rosenfeld's case, insisting almost frantically on Zetland's purity and loveliness so as to convince the world to remember him. Already as a teenager, we are told, Zetland patterned himself after Tolstoy, whose portrait hung in the window of a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago: "Great men repudiated the triviality of ordinary and merely human things, including what was merely human in themselves. What was a nose? Cartilage. A beard? Cellulose. A count? A caste figure, a thing produced by epochs of oppression. Only Love, Nature and God are good and great."

Here the reader can already glimpse a fateful divergence between Zetland and his eulogist. Zetland soars above the human plane, to an ideal realm where the spirit is unburdened by things like noses and beards. Bellow, by contrast, is a great physiognomist. He believes that the external discloses the internal--that the spirit is best glimpsed in just those kinds of bodily details. Not even in his later years, when he became enamored of the transcendentalism of Owen Barfield and the mysticism of Rudolf Steiner, did Bellow ever lose his artistic faith in the actual and the concrete. He practices this art on Zetland himself in the first lines of the story: "He had full lips and big boyish teeth, widely spaced. Sandy hair, combed straight back, exposed a large forehead. The skin of his round face often looked tight." It is almost exactly the same as the description that begins his memorial essay on Rosenfeld, which was published in 1962 as the foreword to An Age of Enormity, a collection of Rosenfeld's writings. There Bellow opens not with Rosenfeld's achievements, or their personal relationship, but simply with his face and his body: "Isaac had a round face and yellowish-brown hair which he combed straight back.... He had a short broad figure. His chest was large." There is something devout, even necromantic, about such Bellovian descriptions, as though summoning the body was the first step in resurrecting the soul.

In a sense, then, "Zetland" does not just honor Rosenfeld. It also continues the quarrel that the two friends had in life about the place of spirit and matter, soul and body, abstract and concrete. "In one-hundred-percent- industrial contemporary Chicago," Bellow writes, "where shadows of loveliness were lacking, a flat wheel of land meeting a flat wheel of fresh water, intelligent boys like Zet, though fond of the world, too, were not long detained by surface phenomena." Zetland's genius is for ideas and abstractions and essences. We see him summarizing the evolution of life on earth and predicting the future of society: "to be an intellectual was the next stage of human development, the historical fate of mankind, if you prefer."

But Bellow's prose caresses precisely those unlovely urban surfaces that Zetland impatiently dismissed, and in so doing it achieves the transcendence that Zetland only talks about. No doubt this is why Bellow sets himself the challenge of transfiguring even the most sordid and banal scenes, as when he describes Zetland's first New York apartment: "You could hear the largo of the drain as you drank your coffee, or watch the cockroaches come and go about the cupboards. The toaster spring was tight. It snapped out the bread. Sometimes a toasted cockroach was flung out." And here is Zetland sick on the toilet: "The cloaca was there, the nausea, and also the coziness of bowel smells going back to childhood, the old brown colors. And the dismay and sweetness of ragged coughing and the tropical swampiness of the fever. But there also rose up the seas. Straight through the air shaft, west, and turn left at the Hudson. The Atlantic was there."

Is there a human price to be paid for this kind of mastery? Bellow acknowledges that there is, when he contrasts Zetland's sensitivity with his own hardness. "His cat had a miscarriage," Bellow writes, "and he wept about that, too, because the mother cat was grieving. I flushed the stillborn cats down the boardless grimy toilet in the cellar." It is an example of their contrasting temperaments: "We decided that we were the tender-minded and tough- minded of William James, respectively." Yet Bellow insists that it takes a tough mind to sustain the novelist's open eyes: "James had said that to know everything that happened in one city on a single day would crush the toughest mind. No one could be as tough as he needed to be." And the very fact that it is Bellow writing about Rosenfeld, not the other way around, proves him right. Zetland is introspective, lovable, and a failure, while Bellow is as tough as he needs to be, and therefore great.

'While writing this book, I often found it impossible to picture Rosenfeld without thinking of Bellow's Rosenfeld," Zipperstein remarks, and it could hardly have been otherwise. Rosenfeld's work, to be sure, is not negligible. His autobiographical novel, Passage from Home, was acclaimed by Irving Howe and others when it appeared in 1946, and it remains a significant document of the American Jewish experience. He published several major essays--on Yiddish writers, the Holocaust, the psychology of Gandhi--that rank among the lasting work of the New York intellectuals. Yet there is finally no disagreeing with Howe's verdict in his memoir, A Margin of Hope, that Rosenfeld "never quite found the medium, in either fiction or essay, to release his gift."

Reading the essays and the stories collected in Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader, a big anthology edited by Mark Schechner, leaves no doubt that Rosenfeld had an original and appealing mind. But it is the mind behind the writing, not the writing itself, that one remembers. In the 1940s and 1950s, Rosenfeld was thinking passionately about important questions-- including, as Zipperstein emphasizes, the future of the Jews after the Holocaust, at a time when explicitly Jewish matters made most of the New York intellectuals distinctly uncomfortable. Rosenfeld pondered the meanings of the Holocaust before it was "the Holocaust." It set him thinking about psychology, about the human potential for evil and whether social institutions could abolish it, in ways that might have become very fruitful. But his ideas remained largely undeveloped, except in a handful of book reviews; and Rosenfeld did not have Trilling's gift for making literary criticism a vehicle for universal reflection.

Nor, on the other hand, did he have anything like Bellow's talent for fiction. It is an unfair standard of comparison, of course (and it was unfair of Bellow to suggest it in 1976). Perhaps a more useful contrast is with Delmore Schwartz, whose fiction has a better claim than Rosenfeld's to the (already qualified) praise that Zipperstein awards Passage from Home: "before Philip Roth's stories and novels, this was the most psychologically probing fictional analysis in English of the making of a Jewish intellectual." When, in "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," Schwartz imagined himself watching--and futilely attempting to stop--his parents' courtship on a movie screen, he fused autobiography with a distinctively American surrealism.

Rosenfeld's fiction shares those same impulses, but it does not manage to integrate them. Passage from Home dissipates the momentum of its coming-of-age story with damagingly self-conscious psychological analyses. The novel tells the story of the teenaged Bernard Miller, Rosenfeld's alter ego: his rebellion against his unappeasable, oppressive father, and his initiation into the adult world by observing the destructive love affair between his aunt Minna and Willy, a seductive Gentile interloper in an otherwise Jewish milieu. When Bernard runs away from home to stay with Minna and Willy, he is given a cot in the kitchen to sleep on, and finds to his excitement and disgust that he can hear the couple making love in the next room. He wakes up the next morning to discover that his cot is infested with bedbugs: the bed has been transformed by sexuality from a place of rest to a place of squalor and torment.

As if the symbolism were not blatant enough, Bernard goes on to make it explicit: "The infested cot made me revise my private symbolism of reference to Minna's life.... This evidence, this ruin, implicated her in a history of spoliation." This kind of overt psychological reflection comes to seem like a sign not just of Bernard's adolescent self-consciousness, but also of Rosenfeld's lack of trust in himself and the reader--as though the novel had to deliver itself preinterpreted. (Just before making a shy pass at Minna, Bernard lights a fire in her fireplace: "I had never ventured to touch Minna's fireplace before.") This was the defect that Alfred Kazin objected to in a letter to Rosenfeld that Zipperstein prints in full: "you allow your total realization, your eloquence, your ability to turn experiences into perception, to do your novelist's work for you."

Rosenfeld recognized this shortcoming, and thought that he could find a remedy in the techniques of Kafka. Writing about Kafka in 1947, the year after Passage from Home appeared, he observed that "his symbols must be understood to approach, rather than depart from, and to include, rather than exclude, the whole range of meaning that encloses an object." Kafka presents his symbols as if they were objects, confidently and reticently, where Rosenfeld had all too deliberately turned his objects into symbols. Yet when Rosenfeld attempted to emulate that boldness in his own short stories, he usually ended up simply imitating Kafka. His story "Red Wolf," narrated by a dog in some sort of animal- research facility, takes over the premise of "Investigations of a Dog." "The Party," a satire on the dreariness of Communist Party work, takes an unexpected swerve into a pastiche of "Josephine the Singer." Rosenfeld even wrote a novella with the slavishly Kafkaesque title "The Colony," and won a Guggenheim to expand it into a novel; but the finished manuscript found no publisher. His emulation became something of a joke: "There lives the Jewish Kafka," William Barrett quipped when pointing out Rosenfeld's apartment on Barrow Street in the Village.

Rosenfeld's failure to produce any writing commensurate with what everyone agreed was his genius leaves his biographer in a difficult position. "Literary biography is designed characteristically to provide signposts to achievement," Zipperstein observes. "On the whole, it begins and ends best with the texts it seeks to open up, expand, deepen, or at least better understand with the help of life experiences the biographer comes to know more about than the literary critic." But Zipperstein, who is not a literary critic but a historian of European Jewry, clearly came to feel that the paucity of Rosenfeld's work could not sustain a full-dress biography. He devotes the introduction of Rosenfeld's Lives to his own ambivalence about writing it: "This book has been a struggle to write." He explains that he began by producing a "more standard biography-- more densely detailed and structured in a more strictly chronological way than it now is," only to recast it in its current form as a more episodic "reflection on a writer's sense of what it meant to be immersed in, and also deeply suspicious of, a life given over to books."

Rosenfeld's Lives moves not from year to year or event to event, but from text to text, and so it omits much of what a biography should contain. "Rosenfeld's was a miserable childhood," the first chapter begins, but on the next page Rosenfeld is already fourteen years old, producing his first published story, in Yiddish. We learn little about his childhood that could not be gleaned from his fiction and from Bellow's memoir. Nor does Zipperstein spend much time illuminating Rosenfeld's Chicago milieu, as if in the expectation that any reader of Rosenfeld would already be initiated into that world through Bellow's life and work. This kind of narrative skimpiness is partly a result of the passage of time--almost all the people who knew Rosenfeld are now dead, though some, including Bellow, were alive when Zipperstein started his research. Even so, the more conventional and thorough biography that Zipperstein began would have done more justice to Rosenfeld.

If there is too little of Rosenfeld's lives, there is too much of Zipperstein's lives: his experiences, his ruminations, his likes and dislikes. His introduction includes a long vignette of his interview with Rosenfeld's daughter-in-law Claire in her "emotionally taut apartment" in the Bronx, about which he adds: "Manhattan was only a few miles away but seemed distant, perilously so. A friend told me this was a neighborhood favored by low-level mafia types." We also hear about the author's private life during the writing of the book ("as I re-met and fell deeply in love with the woman who is now my wife"). He does not conceal his personal distaste for several of the people he interviewed for the book, including Lionel Abel ("old, frail, and uncommonly vain") and Alfred Kazin ("a man whose pettiness far outstripped that of nearly anyone in this clamped, envious circle"), judgments that would seem to require a greater personal acquaintance with their victims. And he concludes with the sentimental raising of Rosenfeld's ghost: "I see Rosenfeld now, in a book- filled study, old, and wise, and calm--finally...." These lapses from biographical rigor give Zipperstein's book an awkward, sometimes embarrassing feel.

The biggest problem with Rosenfeld's Lives, however, is that while Zipperstein bases his approach on the reading of texts, he only intermittently captures the inner dynamic that makes Rosenfeld an interesting writer despite, or because of, his shortcomings. Zipperstein does not seem terribly interested in the intellectual and political struggles that defined Rosenfeld's milieu. Thus, considering the importance of the Stalinist-Trotskyist split, at the University of Chicago no less than at City College, it seems insufficient for Zipperstein to sum it up by saying that Stalinists "viewed Trotsky as a dangerous extremist, even, as Stalin would insist, a spy."

If this is misleading, sometimes Zipperstein's paraphrase of Rosenfeld's letters is confusing, as in this passage: "'Our tradition,' declaimed Rosenfeld to Tarcov, 'is remarkably rich taking in a goodly segment of Modern Culture. Dali, Breton, Matisse, Picasso, Mann, Eliot, Huxley, Trotszy [sic] move across the pages of our history.' These men, numbering a dozen or so, had, as Rosenfeld insisted in the same letter, their own 'pantheon' (Farrell, Hook, Norman Thomas, John Dewey, and Irving Janis)." Read as it seems to require, this says that Picasso, Mann and Trotsky worshipped James T. Farrell and Irving Janis, which cannot be what Rosenfeld meant. What he did mean is hard to figure out.

A more important misunderstanding occurs when Zipperstein is discussing Rosenfeld's idealized view of childhood. "He reflected often on the end of childhood, the time before the anguish and distractions of sex gave way to consummation," Zipperstein writes. "As he saw it, spiritual aspirations were sharpest then, just before the onset of lust." But the journal entry that he goes on to quote says just the reverse, praising "the value repression must have had ... the intensity and eagerness it produced, the over-evaluation of knowledge--the political activity, recklessness--in a word, idealism." Rosenfeld is not nostalgic for the time before sex and lust. He is grateful precisely for the unhappiness of puberty, in which desire is first sublimated into "spiritual aspirations."

This is a crucial passage for understanding Rosenfeld, because it documents stirrings of rebellion against the flamboyant sexual-liberationist theories of Wilhelm Reich, which he had followed for much of the 1940s and 1950s. This becomes clear if you look at the full journal entry, included in Preserving the Hunger:

The trouble with Paul Goodman, the anarcho-Reichians, the whole gang ... they forget the value repression must have had in their own lives, the intensity & eagerness it produced, the over-evaluation of knowledge--political activity, recklessness--in a word, idealism. It is always so in the adolescence of intellectuals. The best, the purest, the freest moments occur during the starvation-in-the-midst-of-plenty of the post-pubertal period. Surely, as we look back on our "wasted youth," our experience must tell us to be grateful. But no, the theory says otherwise.

What "the theory," the Reichian doctrine, said is of the first importance for grasping Rosenfeld and his thwartedness. As Zipperstein notes, all the memoirs of Rosenfeld by his fellow intellectuals mention his devotion to the bizarre psychoanalytic teachings of Reich, and in particular his homemade orgone box--the apparatus in which Reich instructed patients to sit in order to accumulate the cosmic orgone energy that fueled orgasms. "Belligerently sitting inside his orgone box," Kazin wrote in New York Jew, "daring philistines to laugh, Isaac nevertheless looked lost, as if he were waiting in his telephone booth for a call that was not coming through." William Phillips recalled that Rosenfeld even trusted to "a little pastoral orgone box to vitalize his vegetable garden ... he kept the seeds in the orgone box before planting them, and he was sure that the orgone rays stimulated the growth of the vegetables."

How did Rosenfeld, who as a philosophy student had kindled to logical positivism, end up believing in such quackery? Zipperstein rightly notes that he was hardly alone. Bellow also went through a Reichian phase, and Zipperstein quotes James Baldwin on Reich's appeal to their disillusioned post-Marxist generation: "It seemed to me ... that people turned from the idea of the world being made better through politics to the idea of the world being made better through psychic and sexual health like sinners coming down the aisle at a revival meeting." This was, in fact, an explicit part of Reich's appeal. The first edition of Reich's Character Analysis appeared in Germany in January 1933, the month in which Hitler took power, and Reich's preface makes clear that he saw his psychoanalytic work as bound up with politics: "it is only a thorough turnover of social institutions and ideologies, a turnover that will be dependent upon the outcome of the political struggles of our century, which will create the preconditions for an extensive prophylaxis of neuroses."

Reichianism, then, seemed to offer a new channel for the energies that had been wasted in the Marxist struggles of the 1930s. Rosenfeld was particularly alert to that waste: his story "The Party" describes an American cadre's growing disillusion with his party cell, which culminates when the younger members start interrupting the leaders' platform speeches with a campaign of deliberate yawning. (Their strategy, Rosenfeld writes, was "'to bore from within'--miserable pun.") But what really seems to have made Rosenfeld place his social hope in Reichianism was the extermination of European Jewry, to which he reacted more quickly and more profoundly than most of the New York intellectuals. He came almost at once to the belief, which in time would become a truism of Holocaust discourse, that the extremity of the Nazi crimes against the Jews went beyond conventional categories of good and evil.

What must replace them, he wrote in Partisan Review in 1949, are the more fundamental forces of terror and joy: "The death of our old culture came about when the evil greater than evil occurred--which is the terror. The good greater than good does not yet exist on earth: it is joy, which wants eternity. Together with terror, joy must replace the old pair of opposites, the old limits, which are now surpassed." Only by transforming human character could the world be made safe from totalitarianism, in both its Nazi and Soviet varieties. Reviewing a book about the Soviet labor camps, Rosenfeld longed for "a politics in which such things as the Soviet Union not only do not occur, but are impossible. But this is as much as to say, a new humanity: a society and a human character structure, proof against outrage. Which is what was once meant by socialism."

That last sentence should have alerted Rosenfeld to the falsity of his premise: if the pursuit of a perfect society through socialism had issued in disaster, why should the pursuit of a perfect humanity through psychoanalysis end differently? Zipperstein writes that Rosenfeld admired "those rare souls ... able to stay their doubts, to harness their neuroses and their damaged souls, to create some basic, credible political good." But while Rosenfeld was groping towards something like this wisdom in his last years, Zipperstein is wrong to suggest that "such themes" led him to his "long-standing preoccupation with Wilhelm Reich," since respect for the crooked timber of humanity is exactly what one does not find in Reich. The doctrines of Reich are conspicuously illiberal and irrational, and nowhere more so than in their insistence on the surrender of individual judgment--to the therapist in this case, as to the Party in the discipline of Marxism.

According to Reich, "character armor" is the psychic and physical rigidity that inhibits sexual pleasure, which Reichian therapy is designed to break down. But it is impossible to avoid the conclusion, reading Reich, that what he means by "character armor" is actually character itself. Any fixity in a person's values and perceptions--the very consistency by which we know our self as a self--is condemned by Reich as a pathological "hardening" of the psyche. "We often hear it said: 'That's simply the way I am.' The implication here is that the person concerned was born that way; he simply cannot behave differently--that's his character," Reich teaches. But the deliberately assaultive techniques of Reichian therapy are meant to annihilate "the way I am. " "Eventually--it usually takes many months (in one case it took a year and a half)," Reich testifies, "the patient begins to buckle under the continual stressing of his emotional lameness and its causes."

If the rigid self is the source of all suffering, then the source of all health and happiness is the obliteration of self that, in Reich's view, we achieve in the moment of orgasm. Then "every form of reserve, holding back, and armoring is abandoned" and "all thought and fantasy activity cease. The organism is 'surrendered' in the purest sense of the word." The notion that the cessation of thought is the acme of human flourishing marks Reich's distance from Freud, whose disciple he once was.

But it also makes the allure of Reich to Rosenfeld a little more comprehensible. In "Zetland," Bellow suggests that Rosenfeld was raised by his domineering father to be all mind, no body: "Old Zet would be the man of the family and young Zet its genius. 'He wanted me to be a John Stuart Mill,' said Zet. 'Or some shrunken little Itzkowitz of a prodigy--Greek and calculus at the age of eight, damn him!'" As an adult, then, it is no wonder that Rosenfeld plunged into unintellectual life--into sexual experimentation--trying to restore the balance between his mind and his appetites. At the same time he came to associate Jewishness and the Jewish family with sexual repression, a theme that comes up again and again in his writing. "I could never form any connection between Jews and sex," he wrote in his journal.

In Passage from Home, in the scene where Bernard is illicitly lighting Minna's fireplace, he expands on the sexual symbolism this way:

I had therefore come to identify the absence of a fireplace as a Jewish characteristic, of a kind with dietary restrictions on the mingling of meat and dairy products, or the taboo on pork. Since Jews did not bring fire into their homes, I thought it forbidden. Fire was the image of that raging, destructive spirit, found also in drunkenness, bloody meat not salted or soaked, life without prayer, the freedom of the world without God, against which we locked our doors.... But I love fire, and that I thought it forbidden only increased the beauty I saw in it.

This passage foreshadows what would become the greatest controversy of Rosenfeld's career: the publication, in Commentary in 1949, of his extraordinary essay "Adam and Eve on Delancey Street." Wondering at the large crowds who came to see a new "kosher bacon" meat-slicer at work in a shop window, Rosenfeld speculated that Jewish dietary laws were really a displaced form of sexual repression. The separation of milk and meat, milchig and fleishig, represented, in Rosenfeld's unsophisticated quasi-Freudian code, the separation of men and women; and the ban on treif was really a ban on sexual contact with non-Jews. To prove his point, Rosenfeld re-told a Jewish joke about "the man with cancer of the penis" who is "advised by the doctor to soak his penis in hot water. His wife, finding him so engaged, cries out, 'Cancer schmancer. Dos iz a milchig teppel!--Who cares about cancer? You're using a dairy pot!'"

To Rosenfeld and his fellow intellectuals, this kind of half-serious, half- mocking Freudianism was a familiar style of discourse. But as Zipperstein shows, in one of his book's best sections, the readership of Commentary was not amused to find a magazine sponsored by the American Jewish Committee telling penis jokes. Rabbis and journalists launched a protest campaign, with one critic going so far as to call Rosenfeld's piece "worthy of the best efforts of Streicher and Goebbels." As Zipperstein observes, the whole incident reads like a preview of the controversy over Philip Roth's work a few years later (and also of Lenny Bruce's outrages to come), and for a time the editorial independence of Commentary, then just four years old, was in jeopardy. Until then a frequent contributor to its pages, Rosenfeld became persona non grata at the magazine for a few years.

The episode is also important for what it reveals about Rosenfeld's emotional life. To say that the laws of kashrut are "really" sexual taboos is meaningless, of course; but the fact that they felt that way to Rosenfeld, and to other American Jews of his generation, is historically interesting. Rosenfeld's flight from what he experienced as Jewish puritanism was so desperate that he flung himself, as if for salvation, into the sexual utopianism of Reich. It was the Jewish intellectual's revenge on Jewishness and on intellect. For if the Rosenfeld we see in "Zetland" is precociously addicted to thinking, the Rosenfeld we come to know in Passage from Home finds that intellect cannot give him self-knowledge or ease his transition to adulthood. It is deeply poignant to contrast Bellow's idealized portrait of Rosenfeld's brilliant adolescence with Rosenfeld's own pained recollection:

[T]he brief period of excitement I had known about a year earlier, when I had first begun to read books that were well over my head, was now entirely dissipated. What exaltation that had been! I remembered how I had read First Principles, all of a fall and winter, had gone over each page several times and copied whole sections in a notebook to force what sense and meaning I could out of the heavy text. I had also read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and had gone about for days in a great wild excitement, feeling there was light in me, strength and courage, an infinite capacity and hunger to understand life.... Now, on a dull summer day, alone in a strange house, I could find nothing to turn to, nothing to call me out of myself, no energy, no strength, no comfort.

The intellectual helpless before his own life was, for Bellow, a figure of high comedy, most notably in Herzog. For Rosenfeld, however, being such a man was no joke. One can measure his unhappiness by the abjection to which he was willing to submit in becoming a Reichian. That difference suggests something important about the selflessness of the artist, which can appear from the outside as a species of egotism. For Rosenfeld, the self, its happiness and its perfection, was the most important problem, as it is for most people; and he gave his best energies to solving it. Kazin captured this fact about Rosenfeld when he wrote that "I could never be sure how serious Isaac was about writing... . He became too busy trying his life out. He lived not like a writer but like a character in search of a plot."

Bellow, on the other hand, accepted his self completely, with what looked at times like carelessness or insolence, so that he could turn his attention to writing. "He's poured everything into his work, which seems to be all he lives for," Rosenfeld wrote about Bellow near the end of his life. "He's really very sad and the 'literary figure' and the self-consciousness don't hide it." But neither does Rosenfeld's mock-pity hide his jealousy of a friend who refused self-consciousness of the parochial or crippling kind, so that he could be conscious of more interesting and important things.

Zipperstein ends Rosenfeld's Lives with a reverie on the books that Rosenfeld might have written if he had lived longer. He is confident that his hero would have produced "a body of literature at home with itself, with a voice as intelligent as Bellow's ... but, perhaps, still more intimately attuned to what it feels like to seek, hard and honestly and uncompromisingly, to be a truly good person and a truly good artist." In this way, Zipperstein's lack of confidence in his subject turns into an unjustified inflation of him-- though even here, the comparison with Bellow follows Rosenfeld like a curse.

The potential is always more alluring than the actual, not least when it can never be tested. But the real lesson of Rosenfeld's story may be that there is a basic conflict between being a truly good--or, as Reich and Rosenfeld might have put it, a fully "genital"--human being, and being a truly good artist. Rosenfeld movingly described the ambition of the great artist--"I want to write so that light spreads from my pages, and every thing I touch takes on reality. I know why people want immortality. You just haven't got time enough in this world, and the possibilities of human perfection and happiness are infinite"-- but its fulfillment was beyond him.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Rosenfeld's Lives: Fame, Oblivion,... New Hardcover $35.50
  2. Moby Dick: Or the Whale (Modern Library) Used Hardcover $12.00
  3. Passage from Home Used Trade Paper $5.95

  4. Character Analysis: Third, Enlarged... Used Trade Paper $16.50



One Response to "The Binding of Isaac"

  1.  
    George S Campbell June 18th, 2009 at 6:49 am

    Great first line by Bellow:
    "Yes, I knew the guy," the story begins. "We were boys in Chicago. He was wonderful."

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