Monday, October 17, 2011
The grandmother lived in Sea Bright, New Jersey, in a not-to-large house between the ocean and the river. Whenever the river rose and flooded this strip of land, she’d be evacuated by helicopter. Sea Bright is a summer resort town, but the old lady lived there throughout the year. She was about five nine, a real beauty with violet eyes. Her hair was tinted blue and she had meticulously trained her three poodles to bark like German shepherds. They were small, irritable, and well groomed. She made a habit of spraying them with fine French eau de cologne. She called her house Malgre Tout, which in French means ‘in spite of it all”.
Her last husband, or perhaps it was the one before last, had been a peacetime general who like most of the generals of the time didn’t know how to shoot and had lived with her for a few years in an American camp in the south of France. She was renowned for her escapades in her youth; for instance, a famous duel was fought because of her between a betrayed lover and a cuckholded husband and had been the talk of the town in Philadelphia, once upon a time. She had had several love affairs in her lifetime and had been ostracized by Philadelphia’s high society. And despite the fact that there was a Scots nobleman in her own family tree – Mary Queen of Scot’s right-hand man , in fact – she called the Puritans who fled to America in the seventeenth century “riff-raff” because her own ancestors, when they came, came as noblemen – not to seek refuge but to reign over the land. When Miranda’s mother and aunts got married, the old lady hadn’t been allowed to attend the weddings. She was obliged to hide outside the church windows and peek in.
Her blend of arrogant nobility and ignorance seemed to be a legacy from several generations’ worth of relatives who did nothing but live lives of self-indulgence and alcoholism and tennis and cricket, and then the crash of 1929 pulled the rug out from under them. Her somber cuckholded husband, who owned a distinguished bank, lost everything in a single day, then climbed up his favorite oak tree and shot himself with a gun gripped in white-gloved hands. She kept the ancient pennant of a savage Scottish clan to which she felt kinship in her house in Sea Bright. She had a French companion living with her, an orphaned named Nina, whose huge eyes blinked through the fog in her brain at the woman she worshiped and with whom she lived and of whom she was absolutely terrified. During an angry phone conversation the old woman told Miranda’s mother that it was inconceivable for Miranda to marry a Jew. She said - so Miranda’s mother told me – that she had never met a Jew in her entire life, and Miranda’s mother added that there was no need for me to go out to see her, but I wanted to and someone let us borrow their car so we drove out to see the old lady.
The windshield wipers struggled heroically against a heavy rain, the road was virtually empty, Miranda sat beside me in silence. I thought about Penn, after who the state of Pennsylvania is named – Pennsylvania meaning, more of less, "the woods of Penn” – who was one of her ancestors, likewise one of Theodore Roosevelt’s wives, who was herself the descendent of Jonathan Edwards, who had been an important philosopher and theologian and had been one of the first presidents of Princeton University, and whose grandson Aaron Burr had been Washington’s Vice President, who in turn dueled with and shot dead America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who was in fact one of Miranda’s father’s forebears.
I was wearing a suit for the second time in my life. I had borrowed it from Miranda’s younger brother, and I wore a tie at the advice of Miranda’s mother. We were shown in a stood shivering in front of a blazing fireplace. Nina brought a tray with drinks while the old lady lurked upstairs. We could hear the rustling of her dress up there. She was waiting for the right moment to make an entrance. Nina was nervous and stared at me in alarm from the staircase. She apparently knew that she was supposed to ignore me, but the water dripping from me was the same water that was dripping from Miranda. The sound of the ocean intensified outside, becoming a roar and then abating, and at last the old lady started coming down the stairs. Her enormous conceit was perfectly encapsulated in her staged descent down those stairs, in perfect confidence. Even with her blue hair , she looked like an ancient Greek goddess of Vengeance. Even from the topmost stair, she had already done everything she could to show me her scorn. Her every step was angry. Her height was emphasized by a light that shown directly down on her. When she reached the bottom step, she didn’t even glance in my direction; she opened her arms and waited for Miranda to fall into them. She embraced her granddaughter as you might embrace a recently widowed woman.
After this embrace, she simply stared at Nina who was standing and trembling and shooting frightening glances at me and the old lady said aloud: You! – she used a quite correct tone of voice, she must have practiced for hours – you can see how difficult this is for me because of you. Please wait for me in the morning room, and Nina led me into a small room overlooking the ocean. Attractive old paintings. Books bought by the yard. Large windows that seemed to tame the storm. A cabinet and several old armchairs, and a large table with a huge jigsaw puzzle on it. She let me wait for a while and I heard the barking dogs outside the door and then she entered.
She sat with her better side facing me. She asked me what time it was and I told her that it was twelve noon. And she waited a moment. Then she picked up a small silver bell and tinkled it gently. Nina came in carry a tray with a bottle of bourbon, a small pitcher of water, and a glass with ice cubes. The old lady mumbled, poured a little water into the glass that she filled with bourbon, and swirled the glass gently so the ice cubes clinked. I looked at her glass and smiled. The great lady turned towards me and looked at me directly for the first time since we arrived. Something in my appearance disturbed her and I could see the furrows on her forehead deepen uncomfortably. She said, But you people don’t drink, do you? I said, If you people drink them sometimes we drink too. She gestured with her hand and Nina ran out of the room and I could hear weeping. Nina returned with another glass that had apparently been prepared in advance and mixed bourbon with water without asking me how I liked it. Then the old lady, who had apparently forgotten what she’s said before, grumbled that Jews probably drink first thing in the morning. Silence fell because I didn’t respond. She allowed Nina to leave and suddenly rose from her chair, went over to the table with the puzzle, picked up a piece, looked, found a place for it in the appropriate space, looked at me with a sense of triumph, and sat down again.
She waited for the right moment and said: I don’t understand why a Jew wants to force himself into our family. There’s never been a Catholic in the family, let alone a Jew. You’re the first Jew I’ve ever met. She sounded angry and afraid as she said it. Something about me didn’t set well with her expectations. She looked disappointed and drank bourbon. She leveled a glance at me, an almost personal glance I’d say, and said, You don’t look like you should. I told her that perhaps her education as to Jews was lacking and she didn’t respond. She began trying to make it obvious that she wasn’t listening to me. She began naming the presidents and generals and distinguished people and inventors that her family had been blessed with. She said she was proud of her pedigree. That sort of thing couldn’t be bought with sycophancy or new money. She talked about the ear-locks of ultra-Orthodox Jews and their crooked noses and all the thieves and cheats who were my people and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She said nothing would help, we’d never be really respectable, that we had no brains or honor or heroes or leaders and now, she said, you’re pushing yourselves where you are not wanted.
She called Jews “Hebrews” and spoke to me only in the second-person plural. However, there was something off about her performance. I was getting a kick out of being referred to as “you people” straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but at the same time she sounded a little embarrassed and wonderstruck. She kept asking if “you people”, namely me, if we weren’t by any chance French, if we weren’t perhaps Frenchmen impersonating Jews. She didn’t want me to marry her granddaughter, but if I were French, even a Catholic, she would reconsider, and since I looked French to her, But why are you people trying to infiltrate us, pretending to be Jews?
I told her I had to be excused for a moment. She asked me where I thought I was going. I asked her if her bathroom had running water and toilet paper because otherwise I’d have to asked Miranda for some tissues. She tried to get angry, restrained herself, and said of course there was. She was serious. She wasn’t going to rise to my banter. In the bathroom I made an effort not to make a sound. I tried to make sure not a single drop dripped on the floor. With the tips of my fingers I took some of her soft pink toilet paper and then worried that maybe she’d prefer that I use some other paper just in case she or Miranda had to go in eventually and powder their noses.
When I returned she seemed deep in thought. The storm out the windows had intensified and it was raining in sheets. She said that even the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word Jew as thief. You’re all thieves. your Talmud is packed with lies and malice. What would happen if you wanted to drink Miranda’s blood on your Jewish Easter? She looked at me again. She couldn’t understand where the nose from the illustrations in the Dickens books and the newspapers she had seen all her life had disappeared to. I was supposed to have a dirty straggly beard, a crooked nose all the way to my mouth, but I didn’t. At last she said, And where’s that nose? She said, Your Talmud is packed with agitation against Christians. She said that her best friend, Mr. Freedley, who produced the Ziegfeld Follies and was an aristocrat and an honest man, was going to send his Rolls-Royce for her to take her to New York to buy clothes, but not in the New York of the Jews; not the New York where Miranda’s parents lived with the Communists and the Jews. She’s spend a few days with Freedley. He always knew how to make a woman feel like a lady. The last of the great cavaliers in America is courting me and yet here you people come wanting to marry my rare flower, my Miranda.
I sensed her defeat long before she herself sensed it. She was already actually looking at me every time she addressed me. She admitted sadly that she like me. That was why she suddenly told me about Mr. Freedley, because he was supposed to protect her from the truth she saw on my face with her own eyes that wanted to be strong and had now become weak. She no longer spoke so passionately about her hatred of ‘you people”. Hatred was apparently the only intellectual virtue she had been blessed with. She waited for me to say something. I decided not to speak, not yet. I wanted to hear more from her. He asked how I intended to support Miranda and I told her that I was a partner in a factory for frozen falafel. Wanted to help her and told her that I was twenty-eight and divorced, that I was a man of no means, but like all Jews I was sure to get a windfall from one shady business or another. I thought that the frozen falafel would be sufficiently rare and mysterious for her. It was apparent that she was trying to understand what frozen falafel was without revealing her curiosity. She said, You know very well how to cheat the innocent. I saw the contempt oozing out of her eyes, you could see it from miles away. She didn’t want to waste any emotion on me, but she was legitimately concerned. She suffered in silence and drank more bourbon and again forgot to offer me some.
I was surprised at how little she annoyed me. She didn’t get anywhere near the place inside me where I’m an angry Jew, my grandfather’s grandson. I was having fun. I was young. I could see that, unwillingly, and despite her meticulous planning, she was liking me more and more. She went on drinking and her look softened. We stood up and went to the bell room where we joined Miranda and where Nina was nervously waiting for us next to the gong to call us in for lunch.
What the grandmother actually wanted was for me to fall in love with her like all the men in her life. All her dreadful words about the inferior Jewish race, those Jews who trample over decent people and drink all the time and take revenge against good Christians and then run back to their ghettos, about how the Jewish character is irrevocably twisted –despite these words, or perhaps because of them, she wanted to steal me away from her granddaughter. It was all she knew how to do. Throughout her life she had stolen men’s hearts left and right and then stranded her suitors at the starting line; they seldom if ever really caught her. What she had learned in the enormous house on Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia up to the age of seventeen was all she had at her disposal for the rest of her life.. That was it. She’s learned nothing since. The loathing she felt for me was too abstract for it to touch me. I had to leave revenge to luck. I thought, “Luck be a Lady Tonight.”
I wasn’t sufficiently angry to know so early on how to get her back. She fought with a pathetic, ancient enthusiasm, like seltzer that had lost its bubbles. The bourbon also did its part to slow her down. She waited for the gong and Nina rang it and then we went into another room to eat lunch. She looked tired and sleepy as we started eating. Nina served eagerly. After making a huge effort to finish the meal Miranda’s grandmother stood up and went upstairs, saying that she had to rest. Miranda and I went out into the storm and were swallowed up into it.
At dinner, for which she had changed her dress, she drank coffee and wanted to know about my family. There was a seductive tone in her voice now. Her eyes were veiled. After a few more words about the inferior Jewish race, I said I was a descendant of Joseph. She asked who Joseph was. I told her he was Jesus’s father. She stifled a shriek of alarm and said, Yes, yes, and added that due to the distress I was causing her she would have to watch some television. I don’t watch television very much but this evening its important, she said in a bracing voice. I already knew before we came, from Miranda’s mother, that the old lady was addicted to Scrabble and television. I told her Miranda and I would join her. She yielded with disinterested dignity. She went upstairs with restrained enthusiasm. She switched on the television and watched her first program. She stole a glance towards Miranda and suddenly appeared childlike. It was the Jack Benny Show.
She immediately laughed because she remembered what had happened at the end of the show the previous week, and told us all about it. And then she stared at me in contempt. The program gave her strength. Benny was a real person, not like me. Shedding all the Jewish problems she’d been having that day, she said, I’m crazy about him, just wait until he plays the violin. I waited a moment and said, Yes, he really is a wonderful Jew. Her face caved in a kind of a twitch and she wanted to protest, but I could see she was running out of weapons to use against me – though her anger reinvigorated her. She waited for the next program. This one was with Danny Kaye, who was her favorite, so she said, and then on another channel they were showing The Postman Always Rings Twice, with the magnificent John Garfield, as she called him, and then we went on to watch a program about a man she called her genius, Gershwin, and then a short movie with Tony Curtis, something with Lauren Bacall, an old Josef von Sternberg film, and then a late-night conversation with Irving Berlin, as she flicked from channel to channel (though there were only three in those days); hours passed, she gradually wilted like a flower in the hot sun, and I didn’t show her any mercy: a Jewish God had gone into battle this night to destroy the poor woman. It hurt me and it hurt Miranda, but I was caught up in the battle: it wasn’t me who was fighting, the Good Lord spared me that, no, it was Melvyn Douglas and Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar, and she drank one glass after another. She reeled again and again from the impact of my words, “Also a Jew.” Kirk Douglas was beneath the belly, as was Eddie Fisher. She sat defeated and stunned.
And then, late a night, in her defeat, she suddenly looked cheerful- though the bourbon made her cheerfulness somewhat melancholy. I knew what she was waiting for. I had looked through the TV Guide while she waited to ambush me. There was a sad smile on her face. She smoked one cigarette after another, her blue hair speckled with light from the wall lamp, and Miranda fell asleep. Nina also fell asleep. Three of us remained – Miranda’s grandmother, me, and the God of Israel. We sat tensely. Waiting for the last movie of the night. Then, at one o’clock in the morning, hours past the time she was accustomed to retiring, the movie she was waiting for was finally shown: The Scarlet Pimpernel with Leslie Howard. She wanted Leslie Howard on her side, you see, more English than the English, more British than the British, she needed him for one victory over my loathsome race, she needed him in order to vanquish me. She said, Look at the funny Englishman. Charming. Witty. Astute. Elegant. Athletic. He was her lifeline. Her last chance. And she said in a tone saturated with compassion, Now you can’t possibly tell me that he…but I silenced her with a laugh. The blow had to be a painful one. I waited for the right moment, I didn’t want her smile to vanish at once, I wanted t see her blood, and then I drew out the words, Leslie Howard Steiner, that’s right, his mother’s English, but Jewish, and his father’s a Jew from Hungary. And then the old lady burst out laughing too and Nina woke up and rushed out to fetch a glass of cold water. She switched off the television.
I told her the name Leslie comes from Lazlo and that he was a distant relative of my mother’s. He wasn’t really, but I wanted a personal stake in the old woman’s defeat. Now, her deep sorrow was without anger. She stood up, stretched her body and slowly and proudly went to her room. All her beloveds were Jews. One cold night the God of the Jews who hadn’t defeated Hitler managed to defeat Mrs. Anderson Elliott Brooke of Sea Bright, New Jersey. Now she is sitting in Heaven with all her beloved Jews, singing all the songs she loved so much and that were written for her by Jews. With her ancient ignorance, where else could she have gone? God probably treats her like an honored prisoner of war.
Friday, October 14, 2011
A paradox is more than the coexistence of opposing propositions or impulses. It signals the possibility – and sometimes the arrival – of a third term into a situation that otherwise appeared to consist of but two opposing forces. Roland Barthes elaborates this third term – which he calls the Neutral - with the utmost beauty and intelligence in his 1977 – 78 series of lectures titled The Neutral . Barthes’s Neutral is that which throws a wrench into any system ( doxa) that demands, often with menacing pressure, that one enters conflicts, produce meaning, takes sides, choose between binary oppositions (i.e. “is cruel/is not!”) that are not of one’s making, and for which one has no appetite.
As it disrupts such demands, the Neutral introduces responses that had heretofore been unthinkable – such as to slip, to drift, to flee, to escape. In a world fixated on the freedom to speak and the demand to be heard, the Neutral proposes “a right to be silent – a possibility of being silent… the right not to listen…to not read the book, to think nothing of it, to be unable to say what I think of it: the right not to desire.” It allows for a practice of gentle aversion: the right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one’s attention to rarer and better things.
Preserving the space for such responses has been one of this book’s primary aims. Of equal importance has been making a space for paying close attention, for recognizing and articulating ambivalence, uncertainty, repulsion, and pleasure. I have intended no special claim for art and literature – that is, no grand theory of their value. But I have meant to express throughout a deep appreciation of them as my teachers. For, as Barthes suggests, insofar as certain third terms – however volatile or disturbing – baffle the oppressive forces of reduction, generality, and dogmatism, they deserve to be called sweetness.