Monday, July 10, 2017

Reading Now (July 2017): The Finkler Question

Circles of Conformity

The Finkler Question (2010) by Howard Jacobson.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

The Finkler Question (2010), by Howard Jacobson, is an English comic novel that falls short on humour, chiefly because it works too hard to teach and explain rather than make the reader join in on the cosmic joke showing one of life’s many absurdities. The novel’s title refers to the modern age’s “Jewish Question,” which is always about how the world views the Jewish People, as if it were the monolith that it’s not.

Even as I say this, I know that anti-Jewish sentiments exist, and in many forms and in too many places; I also know that it will never go away, since hate and hatreds continues to exist, having as long a half-life as plutonium. These defy rational arguments, since the hatreds feed on the irrational, and people love and enjoy their pet hatreds. This seems, in many cases, to fuel the purpose of their existence—their hatreds are justified in their minds and calloused hearts.

Thus, the novel does not so much answer “the question”as give various modes of expression to the anxiety it produces. What it produces is often overwrought, leading the reader by the hand to the only logical conclusion—run to the bosom of safety behind walls, real or imagined. Yet, this answer does not apply to everyone who is born Jewish, or is Jewish or self-identifies as Jewish.

This question of identity becomes overly complicated today, when various groups, both religious and political, have taken on themselves the “responsibility” to to tell us how to live, even how to think, yet do so in a supercilious manner. This equates to living in a small circle of conformity. While some do, not everyone can find comfort in such a life. This is often based on self-deception and reinvention, but not on an honest assessment of personal history.

Such ways of being are hardly persuasive or appealing. But more important, such essential ideas of how to live are always both individual and personal, and there are many paths to an ethical and morally purposed life. It is important, now as always, to fight against the tyranny of conformity, the tyranny of identity politics and collective think, and the tyranny of class shame. (Mordecai Richler writes about these with humour.)

These persist and many of our present battles are the battles of the past, of our childhood. It often comes down to family ties (or lack thereof), and how these were formed in our early formative years. Such inform how the individual resides in the space of truth and reality. If the individual is under attack, this is the greatest shame of all. It is the right of all citizens, including “the other” with all their “otherness,” if such is their desire, to apprehend and take in the culture of the nation in which they reside (or not), to escape the past before finding a way to make peace with it.

Avoid hanging your hat in places that lack a hat rack for you. 

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