The Magazine

The Enduring Power of Literature

A cautionary tale about 'change.'

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By RUTH R. WISSE
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The struggle between the Obama and McCain campaigns over who claims the motto of "Change" in the current election campaign brings to mind one of the brightest moments in my university career.

When I arrived at Harvard in 1993, I began teaching a course on modern Jewish literature as part of the Core Curriculum for Literature and Arts. The course proceeds chronologically, featuring twentieth-century works in six or more languages, which let us see how variously Jewish literature interprets history, depending at least in part on the context of the language within which it is written. We read works by Sholem Aleichem, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Primo Levi, and Saul Bellow. Core courses are designed to provide a "general education" for the unspecialized student.

A couple of years ago a young woman came to my office hours after the very first class and introduced herself as a freshman, an African American from an inner city, who knew nothing about Jews and had studied very little literature in high school. She said that without the glossary at the back of the book, she would have understood none of the Jewish allusions that popped up in our first work--Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman. Would she be able to master the course? When we started discussing the book it turned out that she had understood it quite well, if not in all its details. We went over some of the text together and I invited her to come back if she had more questions.

The student--let me call her Joy--began coming to my office regularly, at least once for each book on the syllabus. At first, she would arrive with a list of written questions about the works and the lectures. As the semester progressed, these were supplemented by her own interpretations, argued from copies of the books that were stuffed with as many post-its as the pages in between. I tend to fault Harvard students for not asking enough questions, as though they are more afraid to reveal their ignorance than curious to learn. Joy's eagerness to learn was never in doubt.

Joy's fresh encounters with these works made me realize how truly tough they all were. Tevye is difficult because the traditional Jew of the title needs a glossary as well as translation to convey his wit. Kafka and Babel involve the reader in their own cognitive, psychological, and moral crises. Agnon aspires to encompass all of Jewish experience, synchronic and diachronic, in a single work. Bashevis Singer fears the consequence of having abandoned the civilizing bounds of religious law. Primo Levi is the plainest of writers but he guides us into the hardest territory--Auschwitz. Bellow mixes laughter and trembling in combinations that assume greater maturity than most undergraduates possess.

It gave me great pleasure to follow Joy's progress through the course, but nothing prepared me for the reward of her last visit. During the reading period before exams, she dropped in with a small flurry of questions, and then told me that she had written her mother saying that this course had turned her into an adult. "How is that?" I asked in astonishment. "Well, this was me when I came into the course," she said: "I was go-go-go-girl! I was going to change everything. I was going to change society. I was going to change the world! Well, the course and especially the last book we read, Mr. Sammler's Planet, showed me that I could also change it for the worse!"

I had never consciously set out to convey such a teaching, but in one of his books Saul Bellow refers to Leo Strauss's extraordinary suggestion, "The Jewish people and their fate are the living witness for the absence of redemption. This, one could say, is the meaning of the chosen people; the Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption." Each in his way, the writers in the course reinforce this insight, and pursuing the logic of their writings, Joy had arrived at the same conclusion. This is not to say that she intended to give up her hopes of changing the world, but that she would do it knowing how many hopefuls had changed it for the worse.

Ruth R. Wisse teaches Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University. Her latest book is Jews and Power (Schocken, 2007).