Calendar of Events

Spring 2014

Friday, March 7, 2014
Jonathan Freedman (English, University of Michigan)
Movie Poster: A Serious Man
The Figural Jew and the Undecidability of Art: From Sartre to Proust to the Coen Brothers and Back Again
3:00 pm Curtin 118  Note the early start time!
Cosponsored with the Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies

Sarah Hammerschlag’s recent book, The Figural Jew, provides a splendid account of the interplay, in French theory, between the insistencies of Jewishness and the play of meaning. The discursive battle over defining the nature of the Jews becomes, in the hands of postwar French intellectuals, a battle over the meaning of identity itself, fought through the question of figuration. After the Jew was transformed into a figure of the alienated universal condition by Sartre, and then constructed as the bearer of a transcendent ethic into human history by Levinas, a subsequent generation questioned the process by which Jews and/or Judaism might be seen as vehicles of an essential meaning (without abandoning a commitment to the process of thought that brought Sartre and Levinas to such totalizations). Their work leads, Hamerschlag shows, to the literary as a place where the figurative/non-figurative dilemmas posed by Jewishness could be worked out, whether valorized as an abstract ideal, as by Blanchot, or instantiated in a dazzling linguistic sleight-of-hand, as by Derrida.

While reading Hammerschlag’s account of these theoretical fireworks, it occurred to me that one way of resolving them, or at least translating them into a different key, might involve turning to actual works of literature. The novels of Marcel Proust, for example, put the identity of the Jew (and for that matter, any category of identity at all) into radical play: the figural Jew—in Proust’s case, the identity-markers that have come to accrete around the figure of the Jew and are attached, promiscuously, to both Jewish and non-Jewish characters—and the actual vulnerable, desiring, aging, Jewish body come to be pit in a shifting, undecidable relation to each other. For example, his most famous character, Charles Swann, is never more “Jewish” in the stereotypical sense, than when, his assimilated body wracked by cancer, his cheeks sunken and and his nose swollen to enormous proportions, he claims the status of a Biblical prophet; yet at that moment he is never more painfully, pointedly an individual subject granted an amazing amount of dignity in the face of the aristocratic egotism of his best friends, M. and Mme. Guermantes. Proust, it could be said, got to a place of fruitful Derridean undecidability a century before Derrida did—a proposition, it seems to me, with which Derrida would have had little argument.

There are, of course, reasons for this consonance: Derrida writes at the end of a literary as well as a philosophic tradition that produced Proust and to which Proust himself makes a crucial contribution. So I want to turn here to a different form and a different tradition entirely to test the currency of Hammerschlag’s analysis. Does it work, in other words, as an exposition of a certain national tradition of thought, or does it have broader (I quiver to call it “universal”) applicability? My proof-text here will be the recent film by the Coen brothers, A Serious Man. I want to show how the play between a figural and a non-figural Jewishness leads, in their hands, to an undecidable structure in which the Sartrean or Levinasian ambitions for the Jew—the Jew as bearer of universal and/or transcendent religio-ethical meaning—are placed into vibrant juxtaposition with the actual, day-to-day historical experience of real, live Jews, in ways that produce a productive undecidability that extends from the local conditions of Midwestern Jews into the universal in a way that echoes Sartre without falling into his essentializing trap.

Background reading for the lecture: Sarah Hammerschlag, "Introduction," The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 1-24.

Brown Bag Lunch with Jonathan Freedman
Friday, March 7
12 noon Curtin 939
For discussion: Jonathan Freedman, "Strether Through the Looking Glass: The Ambassadors and the Culture of Optical Illusion" (work in progress)

Also of interest:
Jonathan Freedman
Transformations of a Jewish Princess: Salomé and the Remaking of the Jewish Female Body
Thursday, March 6
7:30 pm Congregation Sinai
8223 N. Port Washington Road, Fox Point
Free and open to the public

Jonathan Freedman is professor of English and American Culture at the University of Michigan. His research interests include late nineteenth-century British and American literature, and Jewish and multicultural literature. He is the author of The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America (Oxford, 2000) and Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture (Stanford, 1990), and is co-editor (with Sara Blair) of Jewish in America (Michigan, 2004).

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