Alas, Joseph Epstein

Years ago I had a date with a stunningly beautiful woman. As we sat down to dinner together in a restaurant, we had an unspoken but obvious attraction to each other, and the evening seemed full of promise. Then we started talking. The more we talked, the more uneasy I felt, and the more the light in her eyes appeared to dim. Politics, religion, art, movies, books — you name it, and we not only disagreed about it, we were like soldiers in trenches on opposite sides of a battle line; it was as if we’d been matched by some sort of anti-dating service. When we left the restaurant, there was no need to discuss the one thing we agreed on: that we would never see each other again.

Actually, I made all of that up. It never happened. But if it had, I think I would have felt the way I do now, having read my first book by Joseph Epstein, the essay collection In a Cardboard Belt!

Belt was published in 2007, around the time that Epstein — whose nineteenth book this is — was turning seventy. It starts out with charming reflections on reaching that milestone, which is “an odd thing to happen to a five-year-old boy who only the other day sang ‘Any Bonds for Sale,’” seventy being a time when “middle age is definitely — and definitively — done,” when “not recogniz[ing] that one is no longer living (as if one ever were) on an unlimited temporal budget is beyond allowable stupidity.” From there we’re off to a section of personal essays, including a thoughtful and evocative piece on his father and on fatherhood. Many passages in the section called “Literary” are gems of clarity and power, like this one, in which Epstein paraphrases the poet and critic Karl Shapiro: “The Pound-Eliot Axis has succeeded, with the aid of the academic New Critics, in creating a poetry in which ideas and symbols replace feeling and pure love of language. . . . Looking back on the history of twentieth-century poetry, one realizes that what Pound and Eliot accomplished, along with the building up of their own reputations, was removing poetry ‘from the people’ and delivering it ‘to the classroom.’” The five pieces in “Attacks” are just that — hilarious balloon-puncturing takes on such intellectual blowhards are George Steiner and Harold Bloom. Bloom began his career as “quite a good” critic, Epstein writes, “but his ambition grew and he soon became the intellectual equivalent of the character in P. G. Wodehouse who looked as if he were poured into his clothes and forgot to say when.” Similarly, “what George Steiner has been doing, over the past forty or so years, is an incomparable impression of the world’s most learned man.”

But amidst all this humor and insight, all these impressive dispatches from “that unending work in progress called [Epstein’s] education,” are flashes of other things that made me more and more wary as I read. Epstein is, I don’t think he would mind my saying, a conservative. At its best, a modicum of conservatism lets one choose common sense over the worst excesses of politicized thinking; for example, I cheered the following passage about Epstein’s teaching career: “One year, at the opening of my Conrad course, a student asked ‘how’ we were going to read Joseph Conrad, by which she meant what suppositions we were going to bring to the task: Marxist, structuralist, deconstructionist, multiculturalist, and so forth. I said that we were going to try to discover what Joseph Conrad himself meant to convey in his novels and stories, and that this ought to keep us sufficiently occupied to fill out a quarter.”

And so I am not one who equates conservatism with sexism and racism. (For what it’s worth, Epstein praises Ralph Ellison’s work to the skies.) But there are passages here that beg the question of where one ends and the other two begin. “Even though all the world’s famous chefs seem to have been men . . .,” Epstein writes in a piece about dining out, “my sense is that in general women seem to taste food with greater sensory refinement than do men. (Perhaps women don’t have the first-sergeant, kick-ass personality that is required to run a large kitchen staff).” Or perhaps I should introduce Mr. Epstein to some of the women I’ve met. The book’s concluding essay, “I’m History,” performs the dubious service of validating my suspicions. “In my twenty-three years as editor of The American Scholar,” he informs us, “the title ‘Ms.’ never appeared in its pages. ‘Chair’ or ‘chairperson’ didn’t make it, either. I thought the first unpronounceable, the second patently silly.” There, at least, he gives explanations for editorial policies, as benighted as they are. But he apparently considers the wisdom of a later statement to be self-evident, since he doesn’t bother to explain it. Mentioning “feminism, black history, and gay and lesbian studies,” Epstein writes, “I . . . mostly treated these subjects in The American Scholar by ignoring them.” Is that, in the case of black history, because it’s not part of American history? Are blacks not Americans?

I found most of Epstein’s essays to be funny, illuminating, a joy to read. What a pity that I’ll probably never pick up another one. What did I expect, taking a reading tip from David Brooks . . .

4 thoughts on “Alas, Joseph Epstein

  1. I do not see why disagreeing (even strongly) with some aspects of this man’s critical persona prevents you from appreciating and perhaps continuing to explore those aspects you do find illuminating. Simply because he fails to pass a “political correctness” test? Would you wish to be judged in similarly absolute terms? I know I would not.

  2. An excellent comment, Georges. Responding to it will require thinking about both the nature of being a member of an oppressed minority group and the nature of being an essayist. I will try to tackle the second one first. I have written elsewhere on this blog (in the post “Old Racist Books”) that I feel the need to explore all kinds of works, old and new, despite the risk that what I find in them may offend my sensibilities. I think I have held to that. Once, years ago, I belonged to a group of writers who commented on each other’s work and passed around to each other published work by established writers. I was annoyed when one member of the group, a black lesbian, said huffily about a piece I had passed around, “I didn’t read Philip” – “Philip” being Philip Roth, whose fictional female characters some found questionable. What annoyed me was that she seemed *proud* of her closed-mindedness, which overrode her regard for me as a member of a group she had elected to join; my thinking that there might be something relevant for us in this work by Roth wasn’t enough to change things. I don’t want to be like her. But I think one difference is that I now *have* checked out Epstein’s essays, so my decision not to read any more is at least an informed one.
    The other difference has to do with the nature of being a fiction writer vs. that of being an essayist. When I come across racist sentiments in a novel, I can at least tell myself, even if I don’t believe it, that the narrator is not the author. But while you, Georges, used the term “critical persona,” the material an essayist weaves into his/her art is the stuff of his/her own life, experiences, and views. When I read something in a Joseph Epstein essay that seems to me a racist sentiment, I feel I am dealing with the racist sentiment of Joseph Epstein, and at that point we have left the realm of the critical and entered the realm of the moral. As a black man – and, more importantly, as a human being – I respond with moral indignation. You ask if I would like to be judged in similarly absolute terms. Actually, I already have; some people seriously do not like the things I have written about race. I accept that. Not every writer is for every reader.

  3. It’s true, I have mostly dealt with this in my reading of fiction. I am a great admirer, and have learned a great deal, from the English novel. Yet there are instances of casual anti-Semitism (Laphroaig, in my country, is an old Jewish name) that have given me pause. Rather than attempt to gloss over them, though, I tend to focus even more strongly on these discordant notes. They offer a way in, a way to see past the sometimes forbiddingly smooth facade of a work and understand more clearly how it functions, as a watch’s works can be examined only when the back is pried open. To appropriate what is necessary from one who may despise you is a more satisfying response than simply to exempt him from your personal Pantheon. Such is my philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>