In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage
Boston: Mariner Books, 2008
Poking about in the $1 bins at the Strand, I uncovered several copies of a recent book by Joseph Epstein, a collection of essays, In A Cardboard Belt! I recalled reading him in places like Commentary and The New Criterion, but since I haven’t found such outlets tolerable for years, he seems to have slipped from my radar screen. So, I took the plunge.
I highly recommend this book to Constant Readers, and you can get your own copies, even in hardcover, for 1c plus postage at Amazon.
You may be asking why I would promote a book showing all the signs of another self-referential neocon project. Well, Joe is a little different than the usual run, and his book is interesting for several reasons.
As we have blogged here several times, the old books are the best books, and while this is a new book, the author is somewhat old, and shows traces of the Old Ways in his elegant writing and unpopular choices of reading (he seems to have spent 30 years teaching Conrad and James at Northwestern).
Indeed, Constant Readers may recall that it was Joseph Epstein who wrote the defense of our hero, James Gould Cozzens, in the New Criterion, explaining along the way the machinations of the ‘dissentary’ crew to discredit America’s greatest novelist. We’ll see Joe taking on a similar bunch of ‘culture distorting’ critics in this collection.
While the book is a pleasure to read, there are also several of our themes at work here.
The title, of course, comes from Max Bialystock’s outraged lament in Mel Brooks’ The Producers:
Brooks, famously, was demonstrating the cultural dominance of Jews by daring to take on the greatest taboo, Hitler, and asserting his right to use it for his own comic effects (as in the contemporary assertion of ‘nigger’ as ‘our word not yours’). Epstein is likely up to a similar project; his book contain scathing essays on such Potemkin figures of “Jewish Intellect” as George Steiner, Mortimer Adler, and Harold Bloom, of the kind that only an ‘alternative right’ website might dare publish. The rest of the essays are engaging but self-aggrandizing pieces on What Makes Joey Run, as well as serious appreciations of actual writers (as opposed to Judaic blowhards) like Proust, Auden, Beerbohm, etc.
It’s an interesting contrast to his treatment of the faygelehs. While Joe is rightfully scornful of ‘queer theory’ nonsense, he devotes several respectful and insightful essays on non-heterosexual writers ranging from Proust to Auden to Truman Capote, where deviation is treated either not a all, or as merely an amusing foible. This, of course, in entirely in contrast to the Jewish neocon who, in adherence to his ‘traditional [Jewish] family values’ is always on the look out for signs of degeneracy and evaluating literature thereon, as has also become something of a tic on the so-called “traditionalist’ or paleo-Right, as we have documented here several times.
So for those of us who share his disdain for most of the neocon ‘intellectual elite,’ there is much to read and cheer here.
Of course, to get away with it, Joe has to establish his bona fides, which brings up some other interesting points. First, unlike the usual obsessive and repetitive focus on the eternal woes of the Jewish people, and the author, Joe usually simply delivers a paragraph, or even a single line, casually mentioning Nazis or the Holocaust or personally directed anti-Semitism, and leaves it at that. It’s as if he were showing his union card — “here, see, now leave me alone to get about the real business at hand.”
Take this passage from “Why I am Not a Lawyer:”
The great Chicago law firms to which Northwestern Law School was said to provide entrée were not welcoming — there is a nice euphemism — to what we might call [and here is another] Jewish-surnamed Americans. A few large Jewish firms did business in the city, but one had to have been especially brilliant to crash the gates of those others. A fellow I went to high school with, who did patent law, is said to have been one of the first Jews made a partner at Sidley & Austin.
Joe doesn’t mention that somewhere around that time Sidley & Austin brought together those exemplars of True Prep, Barry and Michele O’Bama; the ways of the WASP are inscrutable.
There are a couple of things going on here. First we have the typical rehearsal of the ‘lachrymose history’ of the put upon Jews, sweetened by the subtle triumph in the last sentence: achieving actual control of the biggest firm in the city. However, one might ask why the WASP establishment was so resistant to hiring Jews, even the “most brilliant.” Could there have been a sense that once in, they would, shall we say, take over? How quaint Epstein’s Complaint seems in a world where the Supreme Court is entirely WASP-free!
Now here’s another quote from the same essay:
The son of a friend, after Harvard and Harvard Law School, put in a couple of years at the district attorney’s office in New York City, then cut out for the coast and a job writing for The Simpsons.
Now, either Joe is trying to disguise things, or had a memory lapse (I have been emphasizing his Old Status), or this may have been more common than one would think, for I know the gentleman in question, and he did not work at the DA’s office, but a the same law firm as I did, a “historically Jewish” firm that also welcomed that other Not Quite group, the Irish, to which he and I belonged.
Now, this shared ‘brush with greatness’ raises the issue of ethnic networking — the Irish network that dominates The Simpsons through Conan O’Brien, or the Jewish network that dominates now the legal profession — and a whole lot more.
So while the WASP network may have kept his people down, at least for a while, Epstein himself benefited mightily from its control of another profession: university teaching. Joe narrates, quite innocently, the tale of how his old pal Irving Howe, editor of Dissent, got him a pretty sweet gig at Northwestern, teaching two classes a year for 30 years as a ‘lecturer,’ despite a total lack of qualifications (you know, degrees, publications, that sort of stuff).
Howe probably told the chairman of the department that I was a comer, and therefore a future ornament to the university. I held no degree other than a B. A. in absentia from the University of Chicago, and . . . I had no real scholarly qualifications. Irving Howe’s must have been an impressive sales job.
Indeed. And in the book itself we see Epstein continuing to network himself feverishly, this time in the role of unworthy disciple to the Jewish Guru (the ‘cultic’ nature of Jewish intellectual projects, as frequently studied by Kevin MacDonald) Edward Shils, bringing him in as an example of Intellect and Goodness throughout the book; several times defending Shils from the underhanded attacks of Saul Bellow in his roman à clef, Ravelstein, like a loyal retainer, and even last month he devoted a whole piece in the New Criterion to digging up Bellow’s corpse and pissing on it in the name of Rabbi Shils.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And indeed, it even includes another swipe at ethnic networking —
He was fortunate in that the world lined up to offer him all its rewards and prizes—Nobels, Pulitzers, National Book Awards, medals from PEN, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, honorary degrees, and the rest of it—without his ever having written an entirely successful novel.
— when done by the Wrong People, of course.
In fact, he’s even written a whole book about his Friendships.
So it’s interesting that Joe epitomizes the skills of Jewish Ethnic Networking, while seemingly oblivious to it, even in his own case. In fact, the narrative of his appointment to Northwestern reads quite like a more recent and more outlandish coup, the successful appointment of the entirely unqualified Kagan to the Supreme Court.
The moral is: at one time, poor oppressed jews could only use their ethnic network to get soft jobs in academe; now, the entire legal, cultural and power system is their to exploit (the only kind of ‘farming’ natural to the Jew ). And no one will ever tell the tale — a goy would be condemned as an ‘anti-Semite,’ a Jew would be cut off from the network, like Epstein cuts off Bellow, while Epstein himself revels in his implicit mastery of the network by doing so — until, perhaps, the triumph is complete and some Jewish jester, Brooks-like, is allowed to perform the Revelation of the Method.
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