‘We’re living in a tyranny of like-mindedness’

Howard Jacobson on Jews, comedy, dystopia and why ‘agreement is terrifying’.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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‘Writing’s good. Writing’s in very fine fettle. There are a lot of very good writers around. But reading is shit. The art of reading is gone. People have no patience for it. People haven’t the vocabulary for it…These are wild generalisations, but since we’re here, having a cup of tea, why not?’

Howard Jacobson, like contemporary writing as he has it, is in very fine, Mancunian-burred fettle, be it chiding James Joyce for being ‘drunk on his own lyricism’, relaying a heartrending, comedy-spliced anecdote about a gay Lutheran priest drunkenly apologising to Jacobson for the Holocaust – the incident appears in Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights – or bemoaning the culture-averse trajectory of education. ‘We used to read whole books, not like now. What are kids being given at school? They’re being given bloody Ben Elton.’

And so Jacobson’s fettle should be fine. Now in his seventh decade, he is finally being recognised as one of the great novelists of our era. The Finkler Question, a profound and profoundly funny journey into Jewishness, and its close friend, anti-Semitism, won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. And his latest, J: A Novel, a disturbing, emotionally wrenching post-Holocaust dystopia, with ‘bass notes of comedy’, should have won this year’s prize.

That it’s taken Jacobson this long to be accorded the recognition his writing deserves – the first of his 13 novels, Coming from Behind, was published in 1983 – is largely down to a critical suspicion of the comic. Because if there’s one thing that Jacobson inescapably is, it’s funny. His writing up until J, during which he says he had to ‘sit on his hands’ each time a comic twist presented itself, is positively exuberant, inverting and subverting readers’ expectations with punchlines from the depths. A particular scene in The Finkler Question comes to mind, in which Julian Treslove’s latest amour, a woman lighting candles in a church, turns out not to be tragically bereft, but pyromanically happy. ‘Some critics went hysterical over that… At one time, that scene was threatening the book!’, he says. And that’s the problem: for some critics, Jacobson’s comic spirit pollutes literature’s ‘sacred flame’. He is just not serious enough to be taken seriously, runs the thinking.

Jacobson has a rather different perspective. ‘Comedy is such a marvellous thing – in fact, it’s the most serious thing you can do’, he tells me. ‘If you’re a Jew, you’re meant to get it. Because we know that life is tragic, vile, disgusting. You don’t joke because life is amusing. You joke because life isn’t amusing. And all the great jokes are those which celebrate the unamusingness of life.’

Indeed. One only has to look back at some of the greatest writers from that most unamusing of centuries, the twentieth, to see how closely allied was a sense of the comic with an uncompromising, godforsaken vision of the condition humaine, from the absurdist agonies of Albert Camus to the narrative ironies of Joseph Conrad. ‘Absolutely. The Secret Agent is, I think, one of the world’s great comedies. Black as hell, but it is funny’, says Jacobson. ‘And then there’s Kafka. Kafka is extremely funny, and he means to be funny. He complained to his friends just before he died, “Why don’t people know I’m funny?”’

‘The great jokes are blood-drenched’, Jacobson continues. ‘And that’s why Jews are good at it. People always ask why Jews have a great sense of humour. Because life ain’t funny. And no one knows that better than a Jew.’

Perhaps it’s no accident, then, that some of the most desolating insights offered by J’s characters are accompanied by a ‘crazy laugh’. It’s an index of just how deadly serious J is. Set in the near future, in a non-specified place – ‘I never thought I was writing a novel about England’ – J rests on an event that dare not speak its name, referred to only as ‘what happened, if it happened’. It’s an absence that haunts the text, from the refusal to spell out the ‘J’ of the title, to the insistence of the novel’s protagonist Kevern Cohen (everyone has Jewish names now) that he cross out his Js as he speaks. It is a future in which ‘the past exists in order that we forget it’, as one character puts it, a place in which ‘danger lurks in nostalgia’, and where ‘never again’ is never again to be uttered.

There is a reason for this erasure of the past, this wilful forgetting of the crime upon which the world of J is founded: the attempt to create a completely ‘prejudice-free’ society. After all, if the most hated section of the populace has been purged, then what is there to hate? But that is precisely what J, a novelistic inquiry into the persistence of hatred, establishes as a problem in this post-Semitic order. For people to know who they are, they need to know who they’re not. Without that ‘dialectic’, as Jacobson calls it, without the existence of ‘necessary opposites’, as the sympathetically sinister Esme Nussbaum calls it, people lose a sense of themselves – they become rootless, empty, and in need of some form of affirmation. This need, lacking an external outlet, lacking the Jew, is turned inward, which in J takes the form of domestic violence and anti-social behaviour. As Esme puts it: ‘How could it have worked out otherwise? You can’t have a poisoned stomach and sweet breath. You can’t lop off a limb and expect you will be whole. You can’t rob and not make someone the poorer, and when it’s yourself that you rob then it’s yourself you impoverish… we are the poorer by what we took away.’ Esme, as readers will discover, comes up, not with the final solution, but with the penultimate solution.

‘The first impulse was here is something that will not go away’, says Jacobson of the central theme of J. ‘Anti-Semitism is something that will not go away. So out of that comes the generalising thought about hatreds not going away. And then thinking about Jew hatred, and asking why won’t it go away. There seems to be something necessary about it. What is the necessitousness of it, which is therefore also the necessitousness of the Jew?’

Christianity is key here, says Jacobson. ‘Muslims have needed the Jew less [historically], although there’s a lot of Muslim anti-Semitism now due to the Middle East. [But] Christianity’s had to leave [Judaism] behind, so it’s had to hate it, it’s had to say, we are not that, we are not that anymore, and then to say we were never that – so that’s a necessary hatred.’

‘And then out of that grew a sense of the possibility that all cultures have to have someone to hate. Not just a scapegoat. It’s more essential than that. Who am I, what am I? I am not that. To the degree you know that, you know who you are.’

This is why the character of Esme, employee of a corporation called Ofnow, ‘nonstatutory monitor of the Public Mood’, is so central to J. ‘She’s my favourite character’, says Jacobson. ‘Not that she’s always lovely. She has sinister beneficence. But she’s at the centre of the book, the centre the book moves towards.’ He reveals that when he started writing J, he had no idea Esme was going to exist. He had to find that character, he says. ‘I thought “I need somebody now who is going to move this thing along”. I knew I had the theory of necessary opposites. I knew I was thinking about that. And that’s what this book is about. I knew I was going to write a book about a world that has got rid of its necessary opposites. That’s all I knew, really; that was my subject. And I was interested in it not just from a sociological, historical perspective, but from a personal point of view.’

This is one of the most interesting aspects to J. While it is motivated by an experience of resurgent anti-Semitism, while its premise is another Holocaust, it also dramatises the need for intellectual conflict, for people to have something to argue against, and to fight for. J’s prejudice-free world is also a stultifying world, in which everything is agreed upon and conformism reigns. It wants the vitality that contestation brings. The theory of necessary opposites is not just bleak wisdom; in Jacobson’s hands it has a value, too. This is what Jacobson means when he says he was interested in it from ‘a personal point of view’.

‘I often talk in my newspaper columns of the necessity of arguing with yourself. Not to know what you think. You’re finished when you know what you think. In our views and our beliefs, we’re no good. I’m a believer in that Keats’ thing, that you don’t know, that you’re always struggling. A lot of writers, like DH Lawrence or Milan Kundera, say a writer should not have beliefs. You shouldn’t know what you think. Outside the novel, what you think in your private life, that’s different. But the whole point of making art is that this is a terrain on which you don’t think – you do something grander than think – where you explore, where you should be in constant disagreement with yourself.’

And J is a world in which individuals are no longer able to be in disagreement with themselves. ‘Yes, I also wanted to write about that, about what it does to people to empty themselves of that necessary dialectic of the heart.’

J is particularly interesting in this regard. J’s world may be one of wilful forgetting, of cultural shrinkage and soul-narrowing conformism, but the source is not some totalitarian state; rather, it’s the tyranny of custom, a mass-induced ‘moral hypnosis’, as one character puts it. ‘[Blues records were not] banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude. Popular taste did what edict and proscription could never have done, and just as, when it came to books, the people chose rags-to-riches memoirs, cookbooks and romances, so, when it came to music, they chose ballads.’ The dialectic of the heart, that self-questioning, self-doubting spirit, has been expunged not by a state censor, but by the self-censor. This may be a dystopia, but it is one very distinct from George Orwell’s.

‘I don’t think it’s anything like Nineteen Eighty-Four‘, explains Jacobson, ‘which I think is quite a simple-minded [dystopia]. J is dealing with the tyranny of like-mindedness, not the tyranny of the state. I’m not worried about a tyranny of the state like Nineteen Eighty-Four – I don’t think that will happen. But we’ve got the tyranny of like-mindedness. We’re living it.’

The creeping conformism of the present clearly bothers Jacobson. He frequently peppers our conversation with entertaining criticisms of today’s cultural recession, the absence of different voices, be they past or present. ‘Like-mindedness is the killer. Where ever three people agree, what they’re agreeing about will almost certainly be wrong. Agreement is terrifying.’ The reasons for this tyranny of like-mindedness are manifold for Jacobson, drawing as it does on the unifying nature of social media – ‘what happened, if it happened’ was partly facilitated by something he calls ‘Twitternacht’ – and a culture of forgetting, of wilful ignorance, of historical amnesia, of presentism. The past is a foreign country that more and more view with disdain.

‘I’m a visiting professor at AC Grayling’s New College of Humanities, and I was telling the students there about the programme I was making about Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Clive James and Barry Humphries, all of whom arrived in England at the time I went to Australia. And some of the girls had heard of Germaine Greer. But that was it. Major cultural figures. Forgotten. No one’s made them forget. There is a culture of forgetting to do with an absorption in now, a throwaway sense of now.’

‘The love of the now’, he continues, ‘the belief in the judgement of the now, the not subjecting the judgement of the now to any questioning, and the seeking of unanimity. You try on subjects like racism or sexism… you try speaking out on any of those things, and you’re jumped on. You just can’t do it. You’re not allowed.’

That such conformism is far from benign is especially apparent in relation to the current mainstream proclivity for demonising Israel, and the accompanying lapses into anti-Semitism. To defend Israel today is the equivalent of belching at a dinner party – it’s a political faux pas. In J, allusions to this present-day conformism are plentiful, with a librarian at one point telling Kevern that the academic institution at which he works had played its part in what happened, if it happened, by ‘soften[ing] up the population’ with its ‘boycotts and its defamations’. Jacobson is clearly vexed by the comingling of anti-Israel sentiment and, the spur for J, anti-Semitism.

‘Trying to say a word in favour of Israel is very difficult right now’, he says. ‘Amos Oz – who’s a wonderful man, and a wonderful writer – for years he was the darling of the left in this country. He said “I live in Israel and I love Israel, but I don’t like the way Israel is bad with the Arabs”. And the left loved him. But the moment Oz backed the first Gaza blockade, the minute Oz did not say what the left wanted him to say, no one wants to know. It’s like saying “we only want to hear what we want to hear”. Others, too, such as David Grossman – they’re all left-leaning, they don’t like Netanyahu, they’re critical of aspects of Israeli policy, but they don’t dislike it enough for the left here. They see some justification for Israel’s actions, and the left can’t take any justifications. There’s only one thing you’re meant to think: it’s colonialism and so on.

‘Amos Oz says it’s a tragedy what’s going on there. And what makes it a tragedy: “two people are in the right.” You have to start from that – two people are in the right. So when I hear fanatics on either side saying there’s not a thing to be said for the Palestinian point of view or for the Israeli point of view, they have no sense of tragedy, no idea what tragedy is. Ideology is the enemy of tragedy. Ideology is the assertion of a certain set of beliefs. Tragedy won’t allow that.’

But why, I ask him, is there such a focus on Israel? After all, there are many states acting aggressively and militaristically around the world, yet they receive a fraction of the opprobrium heaped on Israel. ‘I’m controversial in saying this, but I do think some form of anti-Jewishness is at the heart of this. A lot of the left were saying this year that Israel is shit, but that doesn’t mean there is anti-Semitism in Europe. And that’s a very naive view, because that view of Israel as shit is already anti-Semitic. And they’ll say “just because I’m critical of Israel, that doesn’t mean to say I’m an anti-Semite” (if I hear that one more time I’ll scream). Of course it doesn’t. But they’re not being critical of Israel. They’re being hysterical about Israel.

‘I as a Jew feel I have the right to ask why is it as bad as this. Why are you talking about Jews in language which would not be out of place in medieval Europe? You saw it on BBC Newsnight. The presenters would get Israelis on, who wouldn’t look at the pictures that were coming out of the conflict; I couldn’t look at them. But the assumption was that Israel wanted to kill Palestinian babies. So we’re back where we were in the 1400s – Jews kill non-Jewish babies.’

The left hasn’t always been so anti-Israel, but, according to Jacobson, the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 changed things. ‘Israel won. And the minute Israel won – and I’m not saying Israel did everything right when they won, I’m sure they didn’t – everything changed towards it. It was now a power.’

The turn against Israel wasn’t instantaneous, of course. Jacobson says it took the fall of Communism and the subsequent disorientation of the left for Israel to emerge as an international bete noir. ‘After 1989, the left had nowhere to go. It had no cause. And then it found this cause. And it was perfect. It’s got a power, an oppressor and an oppressed. (The Palestinians are oppressed – no doubt about it – but they play into this narrative.)

‘The power is Jewish. No left-winger is going to admit what he feels about Jews, but nonetheless you see the language of money, of influence, and you even get quite sophisticated people, who know they can’t talk of a world conspiracy any more, talking about lobbies. “Israel has lobbies”, they’ll say. But everybody has lobbies. Every organisation has a lobby. But an Israeli lobby… The language is so reminiscent of those old-world conspiracies. And this conspiratorial group is supported by America.

‘So you can get anti-power, anti-America, anti-colonialism, anti-money all in one hit, and you’ve got an oppressed people. It’s perfect. The left have found something to gather around.’

J doesn’t address any of this head-on. Why would it? It’s a novel, and, as Jacobson tells me, ‘novels are not meant to be statements’. But J does draw upon these political and social currents, reflecting and dramatising the trajectory of the present. ‘You’re always writing about now. But there’s a sense that you can write with more intensity about now if you set a book in the future, because the future has happened because of what we are responsible for. It can assault now with a real kind of grievousness. Look what now has done, look what now has resulted in. And I think forgetfulness, and racial forgetfulness, is part of the now. For many, many people, the lesson of anti-Semitism has not been learned. The fact that it can still be here. The fact that you can still hear people talking like that, about Jews killing non-Jewish babies and so on, after all that happened. Give us a break. Give us a hundred years at least. Give Jews a hundred years or more and then start it up again, if you must. But quite so soon, in quite the same places?’

J offers its own plaintive rejoinder: not again.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

J: A Novel, by Howard Jacobson, is published by Jonathan Cape. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: PA Images.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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