Who Woulda Thunk? Ozick Praises Baeck

Other than both Cynthia Ozick and Rabbi Leo Baeck being Jewish and being writers, I never in my life connected the fiction writer with the philosopher and theologian.

Well it turns out that the young Ms. Ozick was profoundly influenced by Baeck's essay on "Romantic Religion." And now as she reflects back on her formative years, she reminisces about this influence in a NY Times Book Review essay.

The Baeck essay is the last chapter found in Judaism and Christianity. Leo Baeck - author, Walter Kaufmann - transltr. Leo Baeck Institute. New York. 1958.

It contains many worthy insights such as:

But it is not only the position here conceded to subjective experience, it is rather this very experience itself which threatens romanticism as a dangerous cliff. The experience which "comes out of faith and becomes faith" is supposed to mean everything; it becomes the cornerstone of religion. Yet it is found in the soul only in rare festive hours. Man does not live on moods alone. And here we find the critical point of Pauline, as indeed of every romantic, religion: it can never do without the living experience, yet this experience does not want to and cannot come continuously, nor can it be brought to everybody; it "bloweth where it listeth." It is supposed to be the one and all of religion, that power without which religion cannot do; but the gates to it do not open every day, nor to everybody. Only one solution is possible: a way must be found for making the extraordinary constant; and the gift of the festive hour a gift of the weekday, too. The experience must be brought down to earth.

The history of religious romanticism tells of many different phenomena in connection with this quest, nor are all of them religious; the sublime and the vulgar appear alongside each other. The Indian romantic mortifies and hypnotizes his senses to attain this experience; he practices Yoga, the difficult art of achieving absorption. His brother, the Persian Sufi, more cheerfully inclined toward sensual enjoyment, raises his cup that "the fire of the tavern may consume the house of the understanding"; through earthly drunkenness he seeks the sacred intoxication. And in German romanticism, too, we encounter this word.
Walter Kaufman translated the essays (and he also translated some other great and provocative German writers, e.g., Nietzsche) and wrote a brief bio of Baeck that starts out lauditory and escalates from there:

When Leo Baeck died in 1956, he was widely hailed as one of the most saintly men of our time; but few indeed realized that he was the author of one of the most important polemics ever launched against Christianity--and very probably the most interesting one written from the point of view of another religion. Unlike Kierkegaard, in his Attack on Christendom, Baeck did not merely criticize the millions of indifferent Christians, but the Christian religion itself. And unlike other critics, he did not attack religion in general but only what he called "romantic religion."

A few days before publication, in 1938, Baeck's critique of "Romantic Religion," and the whole book of essays of which it formed a part, was destroyed by the secret police of the Nazi state. Less than ten copies survived. Soon after, World War II broke out. And Baeck survived it. He resolved that his essay should be translated and published in English, along with the other essays in the present volume, which he himself selected. In time to come, he may well be remembered as much for this book as for anything else.
Ozick clearly has great affection for this essay. I thank her for calling it back to our attention.

A Youthful Intoxication

In my late teens and early 20s I was a mystic. It was Blake and Shelley who induced those grand intoxications, and also Keats and Wordsworth and Coleridge. At New York University, where Thomas Wolfe had once taught freshman composition, his shade — O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again! — sometimes still flickered. Dylan Thomas, not yet in his cups and not yet renowned, came to a handful of students in an ordinary classroom and chanted, as if to a hall of hundreds, The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, syllables instinct with divine afflatus. Meanwhile I was writing an undergraduate thesis on the Romantic poets, and though I knew neither the word nor the concept, I was at that time seriously antinomian. Nothing was distinct, or of its own indivisible nature, nothing was fixed, nothing was demanded: all was wavering spirit and intuition. Rapture and ecstasy, ecstasy and rapture! — these were imagination’s transports, abetted by the piercing sweetness of melancholy. The sage was withered from the lake, and no birds sang; or else they chorused thrillingly, like celestial choirs.

Besides being a mystic and an antinomian, I was also a believing monist: all things were one thing, watercolor worlds leaching and blending and fading into porous malleable realms. Yearning and beauty were the heart’s engines, shocking the waiting soul (mine, anyhow) into a pulsing blur of wonderment. In Xanadu, where Alph the sacred river ran, you might actually see the Blessèd Damozel leaning over the bar of heaven! As for where the Spirit of God dwelled ... well, where else but in you and me? (Primarily, of course, in me.) The Ten Commandments? In Xanadu nobody had ever heard of them.

At 24 I blundered, I no longer recall where or how, into “Romantic Religion,” a book-length essay — or manifesto, or scholarly credo — by Leo Baeck. His name, his stature, his personal history, his transcendent learning were all unfamiliar. That he was of that remarkable German Jewish generation which included, among many other humanist eminences, the historian Gershom Scholem and the philosophers Martin Buber and Walter Benjamin, I had yet to discover. Nor did I know that Baeck was a rabbi consumed, beyond the vastnesses of his own multifaceted tradition, by Greek and Christian thought; or that he was of that minute fraction of Jewish humanity to have come out of Theresienstadt alive. When I stumbled into the majesties of “Romantic Religion,” I was as one (so it seemed to me afterward) who had conversed with Socrates while ignorant of Socrates’ origins and identity.

Not that Baeck was Socratic in his tone or approach. The essay was a formidable looking glass. In a dissenting voice more analytic than scornful (though scorn seethed behind it), he told me off. For the romantic, he wrote, “everything dissolves into feeling; everything becomes mere mood; everything becomes subjective. ... Fervently, the romantic enjoys the highest delight and the deepest pain day after day; he enjoys the most enchanting and the most sublime; he enjoys his wounds and the streaming blood of his heart. ... Experiences with their many echoes and billows stand higher in his estimation than life with its tasks; for tasks always establish a bond with harsh reality. And from this he is in flight. He does not want to wrestle for his blessing, but to experience it, abandoning himself, devoid of will, to what spells salvation and bliss.” And again: “Everything, thinking and poetry, knowledge and illusion, all here and all above, flows together in a foaming poem, into a sacred music, into a great transfiguration, an apotheosis. In the end, the floods close over the soul, while all and nothing become one.”

In the hundred energetic pages of Walter Kaufmann’s translation from the German (Kaufmann was himself a Princeton philosopher), under headings such as “Ethics,” “Humanity,” and “The Sentimental,” Rabbi Baeck had me dead to rights. I had been surrendering my youth to Weltschmerz, to Schwärmerei, to Welttrunkenheit, all those unleashed Wagnerian emotions which, Baeck pointed out, Hegel had once dismissed as the displacement of “content and substance” by “a formless weaving of the spirit within itself.” The opposite of all that besottedness was “the classical, ethical idea of history” as manifested in “the Kantian personality who confronts us as the bearer of the moral law” — the law of act and deed that is itself “an essential part of that honesty which man owes to himself: the test of criticism.” Who could criticize a dream? And what was that dream but immersion in fantasy and illusion? “Ethics evaporates into exaltation,” Baeck declaimed. “Justice is to be reduced to a mere feeling and experience; the good deed is effected not by human will but by divine grace; man himself is a mere object and not a personality. The will becomes supernatural, and only concupiscence remains to man. ... Something more diametrically opposed to ethics than Romanticism would be hard to find.”

And reading on and on in a fever of introspection, I was beginning to undergo a curious transformation: not the spirit’s visionary turning, but one willed and chosen. I had become the Ancient Mariner — only in reverse. Gazing down at the water snakes writhing below, Coleridge’s mystical sailor is all at once seized by a burst of joyous sanctification: to his transfigured senses the repulsive creatures of the sea are now revealed as blessèd things of beauty. But I, pursuing passage after passage of Baeck’s reprise of the incantatory romantic — its transports and exultations, its voluptuously nurtured sorrows, its illusory beauty anchored in nothing but vapor — I came to see it all as loathsome, no different from those mindlessly coiling water snakes. What did it lead to? The self. What did it mean? Self-pride. What did it achieve? Self-delusion and delirium. That way lay Dionysus. I chose Rabbi Baeck.

More decades than I wish to admit to have fled away since I first looked into “Romantic Religion.” And just recently, when I revisited my old copy — battered from many coerced lendings (it was I who did the coercing), and almost always returned unread — I was still impressed by its bold intellectual and moral cogency. But its power seemed somehow diminished, or, if not exactly that, then a tiny bit stale. I had, after all, assimilated those ideas from multiple sources over the years (not counting the Bible), and by now they were locked, as we have learned to say, into my DNA. “Romantic Religion,” with its emphasis on humane conduct over the perils of the loosened imagination, remains an essay to live by. It is not an essay to write stories by; stories crave the wilderness of untethered feeling. But once — even though I wanted then more than anything on earth to write stories — it left me dazzled and undone.

No comments: