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Category Archives: American Prose

An Interview with Sara Lippmann

An Interview with Sara Lippmann

I discovered Sara Lippmann’s work when I attended a reading for the New Voices Project online. The New Voices Project includes a book (New Voices from Vallentine and Mitchell) and a series of events where current writers and poets write ekphrasis to images from the Holocaust. The idea is that it is important that we not only hear what the thinkers of the past wrote about the Holocaust but that we keep learning from it and update our understanding of it as we progress as a civilization.

         Lippmann certainly does that in her story ‘Good Girls,’ which is about two Jewish children being rounded up in Vichy France at the Velodrome by nationalistic governmental agents, so they can be sent to the concentration camps. She’s also the author of the recently released novel, Lech, which focuses on people in the Catskills. It is not about the pandemic, but it seems to me that this is a book inspired by it, as it talks about ideas of the dehumanizing effects of isolation. This dehumanization also figures highly in her discussion of the Holocaust, how separating people can lead to the kinds of horrors witnessed there.

John Brantingham: ‘Good Girls,’ the title of the story in New Voices, seems to me to have some level of irony. I was wondering if what you meant was that there is some level of danger in training young girls to be good in a traditional sense?

It’s loaded. What does it mean to be a good girl? Keep her mouth shut. Do as she’s told. Never step out of line, never beat to her own drummer, never resist. It’s self-erasure. Whenever an authority figure levies such an expectation, we better run. In the case of the story, however, it is precisely that self-erasure that is desired. If they keep quiet. If they don’t make a fuss. If they put up with every indignity, every act of violence, if if if – they might squeak through to survival. They might go undetected. 

John Brantingham: That’s interesting then. So the narrative given to us by authority figures is a bluff. If we keep quiet, then we will survive, but that convention is really just a way of causing harm to those who would be obedient. And it seems to me that the potential dangers of following convention is one of the themes that is often in your work. Were you discussing that in Lech in any way?

Not to wade too deeply into politics, or thorny cultural critique, but we can see this pattern manifest, play out and backfire time and again throughout Jewish history: Jews trying to align themselves with the dominant power, as if that might enable them to ‘pass,’ only to be outed and othered, anyway. I touch this gently in the flash piece, but certainly, we saw this with the nationalism of German Jews and the push for assimilation, the cultural antagonism between those who “fit” in vs. those (eastern European) who stand out. And of course, we also see this with the Kushner Jews aligning themselves with evangelical politics and the right wing agenda as if that might somehow “save” them, ignoring the rampant anti-semitisim within their own party.

I agree that one of the common themes of all my work – short stories, the novel – is the false comfort of convention. I look a lot at illusions of safety – whether it’s all the disturbing crap that springs from the suburbs, the truth behind every staged picture, and so on. It’s almost become knee jerk for me to confront the box, the container, the convention, whatever the purported package is – and more, the person/power/system that is trying to fit us into that package.   

John Brantingham:          So then convention is a trap, or maybe a place from where someone or some group might hide to spring a trap. I think in Lech perhaps my favorite character is Tzvi, who seems so human and at the same time seems like a cluster of contradictions. He isn’t contradictory at all, but he doesn’t conform to societal norms. I’m wondering if I’m getting this right about him, if this is what you meant.

The cloak of conformity may have its uses, but not when it suffocates the soul. So yes, this becomes Tzvi’s struggle. I’m so happy to hear you connected with him, as he is such a tender, wounded character — perhaps the only character that doesn’t use humor as a coping or defense mechanism, because he’s been sheltered by the insular Satmar community for so long he hasn’t built up any skin. Born into a world where everything is preordained, where laws dictate, from what you study to what you wear, how you eat, who you marry, how you love, etc, his whole self has been erased by the collective, by ritual. His “going forth” is one of self discovery and acceptance, which takes great courage and inward looking. Who doesn’t want to belong? And yet, at what individual price such belonging?

John Brantingham: The communities represented, both the Jewish community from the city and the non-Jewish residents seem to be insular to some degree. Of course, that’s the nature of community. What strikes me though is that many of those people who have moved from the city for this time seem to have little desire for connection with their neighbors and many of the people from the Catskills don’t especially want to mingle with those from the city. This tendency seems like the danger you are warning us of, and Tsvi seems in some ways to be the character who grows the most and finds what he needs the most. I don’t think you mean to be lecturing the reader on the dangers of this kind of attitude. I think you have just drawn a realistic portrayal of cause and effect in the same way as there is a cause and effect to the girls’ relationship to the community in ‘Good Girls.’ Would you agree with that?

I never write with any set agenda, and I’m certainly not here to proselytize. But I would agree that my characters are looking for connection. And sure, isolationism of any kind breeds distrust and suspicion. We see this playing out in our political arena, in the news, where people seek out echo chambers and surround themselves with like-minded people. And of course, we see this throughout history, religious, cultural, racial and otherwise. Maybe I’m being naive to hope for greater fluidity. As social beings, humans naturally form communities. But the ugly underbelly can be exclusion. If we don’t sit at the table together, we’ll never break down those prejudices and begin to understand each other.

John Brantingham 13th May 2023

A Friendship In Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life by Jack Miles & Mark C Taylor (Columbia University Press)

A Friendship In Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life by Jack Miles & Mark C Taylor (Columbia University Press)

Mark C. Taylor is, according to Wikipedia, ‘a postmodern religious and cultural critic. He has published more than twenty books on theology, metaphysics, art and architecture, media, technology, economics, and postmodernity.’ That means he comes at these things mostly as a philosopher, his theology informed by and dependent upon language and thought and art, more Wittgenstein than study of religious texts. That Wikidescription doesn’t really do him justice: his books include studies of tattooing and piercing, specific conceptual and avant-garde artists, landscape design, the notion of silence, human perception of time, network cultures, pedagogy and the nature of universities, and Imagologies was one of the first books of media philosophy, written collaboratively about the then-developing internet and digital technologies. This man clearly thinks and thinks clearly about everything. 

Since 2004’s Grave Matters there have been a number of publications dealing with death, including Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living (2009), Last Works: Lessons in Leaving (2018) and Abiding Grace: Time, Modernity and Death (also 2018). Like much of his work these are difficult books which deconstruct and process ideas, often using the theories of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Hegel and Derrida (who Taylor knew).  A Friendship in Twilight is perhaps part of this series of books, but it is also something different.

The back cover blurb suggests the book is Miles and Taylor’s ‘plague journal’, a series of ‘raw and searching letters’, which reflect on (American) politics, the pandemic, catastrophe, literature, art, life and death. I’m not sure I’d call the writing raw, but it is intelligent and questioning, and the dialogue is intriguing, with Miles, a professor of religious studies and a former Jesuit, in many ways a more traditional believer than Taylor’s philosophical stance allows.

Neither, however, offer platitude or emotion as a way to talk to each other. If anything, the book suffers from the opposite, to the extent I longed for a bit of everyday joshing along with the high-flying references, allusions and debate. In a discussion about the construction of memory and recall of same, Miles tells Taylor that ‘[y]our intriguing connection of algorithm and olfaction reminds me, too, that in the human brain, the amygdala, controlling olfaction, is close to the memory centre, which is why scent is so powerfully able to evoke memory. Or so it has been argued.’ Well, yes, smell is a strong trigger for memories, along with music.

Elsewhere there is serious debate about Trump [remember him?], the spread of covid, and death. ‘Eternity and nothingness – two sides of the same coin’ says Taylor, before moving his discussion across the topics of black holes, cosmic webs, finite minds and infinity, ending his letter with a brief description of his garden and ‘the harsh winter that lies ahead’. Miles offers a robust reply, noting that Taylor’s ‘intellectual bias is always away from individual agency and toward large processes, either imponderable in principle or else perceptible by a visionary few.’ This, continues Miles, means that ‘rather than seeing fascism as the work of fascists, you [Taylor] elaborated a vision of technological determinism yielding political outcomes.’ Miles ‘own bias’ is ‘toward personal rather than impersonal agency’.

It’s heady stuff, and if at times it is rather elevated and academic, this correspondence clearly offered a lifeline of thoughtful dialogue rooted in long-term friendship which helped offset both the difficulties of life in lockdown, and the awareness that ‘It’s always a question of time. The clock is ticking-ticking for you, for me, for people lying in hospital beds, and ticking for the planet.’ Taylor has been seriously ill in the last few years and it has clearly affected him, along with much that was happening politically, socially and naturally. But Taylor is not simply raging against the dying of the light, he and his friend Jack Miles are still both thinking hard and offering us their opinions, processes, ideas and conclusions to the perplexing questions they feel enabled and challenged to answer.

Rupert Loydell 4th November 2022

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