Reviews in Washington Monthly and The New Republic + bonus conversation with my brother / by Daniel Oppenheimer

I recently reviewed Mark Lilla's new book, The Once and Future Liberal, for Washington Monthly. An excerpt: 

As with so much else in The Once and Future Liberal, which is an infuriatingly self-defeating book, Lilla has a good point that is betrayed by its articulation, and is therefore unlikely to be heard or engaged by precisely those who most need to hear it. Who, after all, needs to be persuaded to think, speak, and act differently if the liberal zeitgeist is truly to shift? Who is it that creates and shifts new zeitgeists on the left? Activists, students, teachers, artists, intellectuals, visionaries. Yet the book, depending on the page and chapter, is too abstract for activists, too crusty for students and artists and visionaries, too intellectual for teachers, and too reductionist in its history and theory for intellectuals.

Really engaging any of those audiences, for an old liberal intellectual like Lilla, was going to be hard under the best of circumstances. It would have required that he be as strict with himself, in practicing empathy toward the left, as he wants the left to be in practicing empathy toward the center and right. The Once and Future Liberal doesn’t bear evidence of such an ethic. It seems written too much in haste, and with too much unprocessed emotion. It is too angry at times, too visibly calculating in its empathy at others.

More recently, I reviewed a new biography of Max Eastman for The New Republic (my debut in that august magazine). I write:

Sex, love, romance, and jealousy are not intrinsically uninteresting material. Great novels are made of such stuff. But Eastman’s love life, after a while, wasn’t interesting. It was repetitive and hollow. He liked seducing women. He enjoyed sex. He was good at it. Every so often, until the end, he would fall desperately in love with some fresh-faced younger woman. He would write lyrical letters to her and sometimes even mediocre poems, but he wouldn’t leave Eliena (or later, Yvette) for her. 

When he was young these affairs could be sexy and glamorous. As he aged, they came to seem sad and compulsive. “My love, I would give my soul to lie in your arms tonight,” he wrote to the 24-year-old Florence Deshon in 1917, when he was 34. Twelve years later, at the age of 46, he was making a version of the same speech to the 17-year-old painter Ione Robinson, a protégé of his second wife. A decade later, now 56, he wrote to the 18-year old Creigh Collins: “I want to sit all day in the big arm chair with your head warm between my knees, and poetry, poetry floating around me on your young voice as though thrushes carried its meaning to my ear.” A year later he impregnated his secretary, the 25-year-old Florence Norton. When she asked for his help in getting an abortion, “Max provided a doctor’s address but otherwise became ‘hysterical’ and essentially abandoned her.” While she was getting a “painful, nauseating abortion,” Eastman was at his house in Croton-on-Hudson, safely back in the orbit of his wife.  

My brother Mark and I recently co-authored a dialogue/review about Jeremy Dauber's new book Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. An excerpt:

We can’t answer, then, the question we really want to answer, which is whether Jews have always been funny, and if so, why? But I wonder if we can say something slightly different, less about humor and comedy per se than about the roles that Jews have played, at various times and places, within gentile cultures. And I’m going to refer, as you may have guessed I would sooner or later, to Leslie Fiedler’s great essay, “Master of Dreams: The Jew in the Gentile World.”

The argument is too complex to detail too fully here, but the important point is that Jews in the diaspora, for Fiedler, have compulsively, mostly unconsciously dedicated themselves to understanding their complex Jewish identities in exile, and also their relationship to the lands to which they’ve been exiled, in which they are minorities, often despised and oppressed minorities. The dialectic that results, between the Jewish alien and the culture that sees his as alien, ends up producing not just profound insight into the Jewish soul but into the depths of the alien culture as well. As Fiedler writes, “the Jewish Dreamer in Exile, thinking only of making his own dreams come true, ends by deciphering the alien dreams of that world as well.”