Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On the Rise

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, perhaps the greatest critic now alive, turned ninety this year in Germany, where he is known as the Pope of literary criticism. He is also a Jew, whose memoir (Mein Leben) of life as a schoolboy in Berlin in the 1930s and as a young man in the Warsaw Ghetto, from which he and his wife barely escaped with their lives, is one of the most meaningful memoirs of life in the past century. It is fitting that for his service to German letters he should have received the Ludwig-Borne Medal for his life's work, and on the occasion, Hynrik Broder offered what he termed a "Laudatio," a speech in praise of Reich-Ranicki.

The speech is most arresting, however, not for what it says about Reich-Ranicki's accomplishments but for what it urges the great critic still to do. Anti-Semitism, says Broder, is on the rise, and even the man of letters no longer can afford himself a purely contemplative life that remains unengaged with the world. At one point in Mein Leben, Reich-Ranicki claims that he is more a citizen of the Republic of Letters than of any currently-recognized nation-state. In his "Laudatio," Broder publicly urges Reich-Ranicki to put his head out into the street and look at what goes on these days in Europe--the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is reaching an alarming intensity, and all good people, not least those who have lived through the worst of anti-Semitism in the past and therefore know first-hand its potential for evil, need to stand firm against it.

Broder's image of putting one's head into the street is perhaps not accidental. Many of the chilling vignettes of life in the Warsaw Ghetto from Mein Leben itself take place in the street--vignettes of wanton cruelty and disrespect toward Jews by German soldiers on patrol. And Reich-Ranicki writes movingly of the Jews who tried to find some type of retreat from the streets within the walls of private apartments, whether to enjoy live music, until such concerts were banned, or to enjoy the comfort of a form of domestic life with one's wife and family. Indeed, Reich-Ranicki and his wife escape by courageously ducking into an empty apartment block as they are in the queue waiting to board the trains for Auschwitz, and, until the liberation of Poland, Reich-Ranicki managed to stay alive by keeping within the walls of a farmer's house in the countryside. So one can certainly understand his desire to live his life in the salon or the library or the offices of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung where he has plied his trade for many years; one can understand his reluctance to engage in the politics of the street.

The image has further resonances. Several years ago, in an interview that he gave to the Neue Zuricher Zeitung, George Steiner, another eminent Jewish European man of letters, speaks chillingly about the new anti-Semetism and how deeply disturbing it is, particularly one imagines for one who, like Steiner, has persistently asked how so cultured a society as Germany of the 1930s could succumb to such barbarity. While speaking about his life as a professor of literature, Steiner talks with passion about how meaningful literature is, and then he qualifies his vision. He speaks of what he calls the Cordelia Complex, the phenomenon of sympathizing so much with the suffering of characters in literature, like Cordelia in King Lear, that we take the literaay creation for the reality and find ourselves unwilling to help the person whose cries we hear coming from the street just outside our window.

By no means do I wish to fault Reich-Ranicki, a very great writer and brilliant interpreter of others' writing. I wish merely to point to a disturbing trend: the rise in a virulent and hateful prejudice, already responsible for a tidal wave of nihilistic destruction, which we had all perhaps once thought behind us forever. But the old heresies, as Chesterton points out, never quite die--indeed, they remain as the most persistent. Perhaps they even triumph if good people remain devoted less to action than to the quiet pleasures of contemplation. Reich-Ranicki has seen much and accomplished much. So has Steiner. It remains for such as Broder to draw the conclusion that it may not be possible to avoid the street; or, to put it another way, the only way to rest peacefully indoors is to know that, partly through our own good work, the street outside our windows is quiet and safe.

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