The Ecstasy or Anxiety of Influence: On Jonathan Lethem’s Recent Non-Fiction Collection


One would expect that literary voices, especially those who also write for magazines or newspapers like The Village Voice, The New Yorker, or The New York Times, are likely to have a unique and vital voice. Reading Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence, I hear a voice that doesn’t pretend to be unique and, as for vitality, it is almost or rather occasionally excited.   And while Lethem’s Preface to his book suggests something vital in the book, it also suggests something less than exciting.   He sees this as a kind of honesty, but is it really a kind of self-conscious indifference or confusion about what he’s trying to do when he is autobiographical? Regardless, he is aware of a different kind of reader who doesn’t want to hear bravado and high linguistic performance so much as something more popular and…normal.   Since the average person doesn’t like to write, why should Lethem?   To be sure, this idea does affect his text. But it competes with the idea of a cultural critic being someone who is excited or “ecstatic” about this or that cultural phenomenon.

But in this book it’s really more about him that about culture. And he’s not so sure about what image he wants to project. He is very self-conscious about power and being accepted by people around him. He is anxious. In the preface, he tells us that he’s not so crazy about the connotations of power that go with his name. He is aware of it, but he doesn’t want to be deluded by the ecstasy that goes along with it:

The book in your hands wouldn’t be published if I offered it under my Believenik name, Harris Conklin. “Jonathan Lethem,” at least for this tiny blip in literary eternity, gets a cookie. I may seem, in places, herein, exasperated with how the power of the novelist in the twenty-first century is circumscribed, but I do grant that it does consist in power. Vonnegut wasn’t feeling powerful when he made his bitter remark about being in print, but his ability to enshrine the remark in hardcovers and keep in circulation shows me was wrong. (The pretense-of-no-power is a symptom I want to examine, not exhibit.)

The brackets tell us that he doesn’t want such pretense. He just wants to deconstruct the power that comes along with literary fame and just be…one of us:

All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, or the manipulation of symbols rather than the “opening of a window onto life”… We writers aren’t sculpting in DNA, or even clay or mud, but words, sentences, paragraphs, syntax, voice.

Writing well or expressing oneself – being a master of words – is not his goal. He sees his task as “making the giant octopus in my mind’s eye visible to yours…That’s because another name for the giant octopus I have in mind is negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves – the permanent trouble of being alive. (xix)

Hence, his “self-consciousness” is based on the fact that he may fail to negotiate it amongst other people. In other words, he may be getting his audience wrong.   For this reason, near the end of his preface, he warns the reader to skip over much of what he has written since not all of it provides one with an acute sense of “the contemporary intellectual situation for fiction’s writers and readers” or with “kinds of public thinking and talking.”

He is worried that some of his written pieces may get in the way of his “negotiation” of selfhood. He even admits that he wrote some of them when he was annoyed or in a hurry to do other things. To be sure, he makes excuses to the very end. The anxiety and self-consciousness over possible failure are at the core of this work. One way for Lethem to allay his anxiety is to write about himself and his family in an indifferent way, in a way that is averse to power. This, he thinks, might be appealing. For this reason, he presents himself, in the first chapter, as an ordinary guy from an ordinary family; not as a child prodigy who is born to famous (or perfect) parents.

He is closer to failure and powerlessness than he is to power:

I came from dropping out; the only think I knew at the start was to quit before they could fire me.   My mother left college in favor of counterculture. In the legend of Judith Lethem it was a brilliant move with no regrets…My father…threw over a tenure-track gig for work as a cabinetmaker, and commercial Manhattan galleries for cooperative Brooklyn ones. You ran away to make a world. Vanished into a garret and emerged with pages Prometheanly aflame. Thumbed to San Francisco….Your parents are the first memo to come across at your desk, on a page so large you can’t see past it’s edges.

Lethem, like his parents, doesn’t work within the system. But the “system was invisible to me until it was too late. After all, didn’t every novelist work as a clerk in a bookstore until they published their first book?” Lethem’s next piece in the book is entitled “The Used Bookshop Stories.” In all of them, the voice is weary and indifferent. Its ecstasies at meeting interesting or famous people – by way of credit cards or accident – in this or that bookstore in New York or Berkeley are brief.   We can see his love for books in his used bookshop stories but the narration of this love is…almost ecstatic.

The end of the story is about him turning the lights out at a Berkeley bookstore and turning a Dylan song on in order to spur a homeless man to leave the bookstore instead of being locked in. The words of the song bespeak his attitude; namely, that he, like the homeless man, is a man on the run who, like everyone else, better grab whatever little ecstasy he can get before he dies. But, as we have seen, he has to leave things behind and not get caught up in the system. This is the voice that speaks to him in Dylan’s song:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.  But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.

What Lethem knows is that Dylan’s song speaks to many people and can help him to gain popular support. He turns to it not simply out of practical necessity but out of anxiety rather than an “ecstasy of influence.”   He doesn’t want to be taken into the system as Vonnegut did but he also knows, like Vonnegut did, that this is inevitable. Nonetheless, his only way of creating a margin is, strangely enough,by being less than ecstatic and by…as we saw in the preface…by making excused. His humility, so to speak, which he sees as inherited by his family, is based on his fear of becoming liked to much and too popular. But…he already is. Otherwise, why would Vintage publish him?

Perhaps, if one is a known writer, it’s better to be publicly anxious about one’s identity. That way, perhaps, he can counter one of America’s greatest addictions: the ecstasy of influence….fame.   But unlike Harold Bloom, who sees America’s greatest writers as having an “anxiety of influence” that is based on a desire for power and individuation, Lethem seems to be rubbing up against the American grain.

Are all Schlemiels Humble or Just Ridiculous? Kafka on Humility, the Language of Prayer, and Striving


We all love the simpleton.  Her ways are awkward, yet graceful. For all their simplicity, they are the ways of goodness.   But they come to us, as Avital Ronell says in her book Stupidity, by way of the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which is not innate and must be “publicly exposed.”  Perhaps Hollywood inherited the simpleton and its exposure from Yiddish literature.  Or as Paul Buhle might say, perhaps the schlemiel came from the Lower East Side and ended up in Hollywood as the simpleton.  The exemplary American simpleton, Dorothy, of The Wizard of Oz, lives in Kansas with several other simpletons who, like her, love to dream.  She lives on the American frontier and Toto is her companion.  In this American moment, the public exposure of simplicity goes hand-in-hand with friendship and hope.

In Yiddish literature, the schlemiel is often called a simpleton (a tam).  And, like Dorothy, the schlemiel is hopeful and sometimes has animals as friends.  (For instance, Motl, of Shalom Aleichem’s Motl: The Cantor’s Son spends a lot of time with a cow named Pesi.)  In his simplicity, the schlemiel finds a friend in anyone or with anything s/he encounters.  The schlemiel may be absent minded, but his or her way, though often ridiculous and absent-minded, is the way of simplicity and peace.  Although the schlemiel is often more ridiculous than Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, his simplicity is not in any way diminished.

According to many commentaries, Midrashim, and anecdotes of the Jewish tradition, simplicity is not a laughing matter.  It is the most Jewish of all traits.   Simplicity is equated with humility. 

The ultimate source for humility as a principle trait is not in the commentaries; it is in the Torah.  In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described as “a very humble man” the “most humble man on earth.”  And since Moses Maimonides sees Moses as the greatest of all Prophets, he finds his way of being in relation to God and man to be exemplary. And that way of being is the way of humility.

In contrast to Aristotle, who thinks the extreme humility is a negative character trait, which must be countered with pride and even anger, Maimonidies argues that extreme humility is a noble trait.  Using this contrast, David Shatz argues, in an essay entitled “Maimonides’ Moral Theory,” that pride is a Greek ideal while extreme humility is a Jewish one.

This Jewish ideal was commonplace for Jews in the Middle Ages and in Eastern Europe right up to the beginning of the 20th century. Using diaries, Haggadoth, and various letters, Daniel Boyarin shows, in his book Unheroic Conduct, that humility was, during those times, the ideal.

Marking these dates, Boyarin goes out of his way to show how humility became “unheroic” in the modern period.  Besides Daniel Boyarin, people like Marc H. Ellis (in Judaism Doesn’t Equal Israel) and Rich Cohen (in Israel is Real), have made the claim that pride and power displace humility after the Holocaust.  Each of their projects, to some extent, is an effort to recover this character trait which they believe is Jewish and not Greek.  But this effort at recovery, unfortunately, is wrapped up in a political agenda.  They forge a dichotomy between Jews in America, who are humble, and Zionist Jews in Israel, who are prideful.  They would say that, in losing humility, Israelis have become militant.  But is this the right way to approach humility? Has it become too politicized and are things as black and white as these thinkers paint them?

We need not think of humility in this way.  We should certainly take the Torah and Maimonides seriously when they say that one must, like Moses, be humble in relation to man and to God.  But we need not think of humility by way of a political agenda.

Another route to take with humility is by way of Franz Kafka who teaches us that humility has a mystical and ethical resonance.   Kafka calls humility the “language of prayer” which is always shared with others.  More importantly, for Kafka, humility can give one the spiritual strength to “strive” with oneself.

For Kafka, humility is the way; while the self is the obstacle.  The self is deluded and seductive.  And, like Jacob, who wrestled with his angel, Kafka knows he must struggle with himself.  Through such a struggle, Jacob became Israel.  Kafka also, it seems, has this vision.  But, more important for Kafka, is the strength he gains from being humble.   It is his anchor.

He records these thoughts about humility, the language of prayer, strength, and striving in his Blue Octavio Notebooks.

After Franz Kafka’s death, Max Brod – Kafka’s best friend – published several quotes from Kafka’s Blue Octavio Notebooks.  He entitled the book Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way.    According to Brod, Kafka extracted these quotes from his notebooks and numbered them: “the text here follows the fair copy made by the author himself.”   Brod included aphorisms that were crossed out as well (noting them with asterisks).    Although there is much wisdom to be gained by reading the compilation of aphorisms and anecdotes on “sin, suffering, hope and the true way,” I would suggest that we read Kafka’s quotes in their original context; namely, the Blue Octavio Notebooks.  They teach us about the relationship of humility to peace, on the one hand, and striving, on the other.  Taken together, they bring us within arms length of the schlemiel.

The quote that interests me – and which is cited in Brod’s compilation – is found in the Fourth Notebook. It was written on February 24th:

Humility provides everyone, even him who despairs in solitude, with the strongest relationship to his fellow man, and this immediately, though, of course, only in the case of complete and permanent humility.  It can do this because it is the true language of prayer, at once adoration and the firmest of unions. The relationship with one’s fellow man is the relationship of prayer, the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; it is from prayer that one draws the strength for one’s striving.

After writing this, Kafka changes his tone:

Can you know anything other than deception?   If ever the deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.

The dialectical tension between these two aphorisms is worthy of interest.  To be sure, it illustrates what Kafka means by “the relationship of striving.”  In the first aphorism, Kafka goes so far as to say that humility provides humankind with the “strongest relationship to his fellow man.”  Moreover, humility is “the true language of prayer.”

It is on account of this “language of prayer,” that one can “strive” with oneself. Kafka’s striving, which is supported by humility, is illustrated in the second aphorism.

Kafka strives with himself and asks: “Can you know anything other than deception?”

In response to this scathing question, the self is silent.  In the face of this silence, Kafka gives advice with a Biblical Ring: “If ever deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.”

To be sure, Kafka is not simply striving with himself; he is trying to turn himself around.   He is trying to convert himself to humility by way of preaching to himself.  He is pleading with the self to learn something other than “deception”: namely, the truth (which can only be accessed through humility).

When thought of in relation to the schlemiel, the implications of these lines are quite interesting.  A schlemiel like Gimpel is a Tam; he is humble.  Yet, everyone deceives him.  He is unaffected by these deceptions insofar as he remains humble and continues to trust others.  And this is the comic conceit.

Using Kafka’s language, we could say that Gimpel’s life speaks the “language of prayer.”  However, it is us, the viewers, who must strive with deception in the sense that we are the ones who deceive.  We are complicit in laughing at simplicity and publicly ridiculing it for its naivite and stupidity.   This is the message that I.B. Singer was trying to convey in his famous story “Gimpel the Fool.”

Thought of in these terms, Kafka identifies with the schlemiel.  But at the same time he realizes that he is complicit, in his deluded high mindedness and competitiveness, with squashing simplicity.   Kafka realizes that he needs to “strive” with that aspect of himself which destroys the humility he has acquired by means of his relationships with others.

To be sure, Kafka’s struggle is the struggle of tradition.  It is the struggle of Jacob (who is called an Ish Tam – a simple man) with his angel.  It is the struggle that earns Jacob the name Israel.  His strength, which he draws on to wrestle with the angel, is the strength of prayer.

Let’s take this a step further and be a little presumptuous.

Perhaps humility is the “language of prayer” that Sancho Panza learns from Don Quixote? And perhaps humility is the language that Walter Benjamin learns from Kafka?  Humility is the language of the schlemiel and it is the language of Don Quixote.  But it can also be heard as one, among many other voices, in Hollywood.  The language of the Hollywood simpleton is the language of a man-child.

Like The Wizard of Oz, Chaplin’s 1921 film, The Kid speaks this language, too.  After all, humility has its childish and foolish ways.  A humble hobo like “the Kid” can also raise an orphan (albeit it in a strange way).  In each, there is an old/new tradition that is transmitting humility and childishness and perhaps, the language of prayer to those who will “strive” with the self.  Ultimately, however, Ronell is right.  Kafka’s humility would not be possible without the “reliable generosity of the ridiculous” which aims to publicly expose “humility.”  And in this comic exposure, we bear witness to the “language of prayer.”  Given the world we live in, this language appears to us as ridiculous but, for all that, it is still the best we’ve got.