Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Got to participate in a panel discussion around Jewish studies themes tonight - I imagine most in the audience assumed I was Jewish too, which is a kind of privilege. I never claimed to be, but everyone else in the panel was, and I was the one enthusing about the glory of the University in Exile, swooning about Horace Kallen, and generally declaring the fruits of Jewish experience indispensable for understanding community, pluralism and identity.

À propos Kallen, I'm fascinated by the man, and puzzled that he's fallen out of the narrative of The New School. He was the only one of the founders to stay on long term. (Okay, so he was also a youngster, and they were approaching emeritus status; but still - he was here for fifty-four years!) His courses, notably the recurrent "Beauty and Use" and "Dominant Ideals," defined the New School's distinctive education for decades. When Kallen turned 65, Alvin Johnson (New School's founding president) described him as the soul of the school:

With the development of the institution, Kallen's position, which had at first seemed far off center, came to express more nearly than any other the real meaning and objectives of the New School.

By one of the happy chances that occur every six hundred years, the New School was able to set up a University in Exile, manned by scholars selected from the lists of those thrown out of their chairs by Hitler.
They were selected with a view to their development of creativeness, in the frame of the New School adult education organization. With their selection Kallen had much to do; but Kallenism had more to do with it. Kallenism is the principle that we live in a multiple world, multiple in national and racial characteristics, in art and letters, in religion and philosophy. It is the essential doctrine of Kallenism that out of multiplicity alone, multiplicity accepted with eager interest, can the creative process grow, in matters intellectual and in life itself.

Foreward to Freedom and Experience: Essays presented to Horace M. Kallen,
ed. Sidney Hook and Milton R. Konvitz (Ithaca and New York:
Cornell UP for The New School for Social Research, 1947), xii, xvi

(Not content to be in the shadow of his predecessor, the new president Bryn J. Hovde claimed to understand Kallen better: He is no lover is "isms," and the last thing in the world he hopes for is an "ism" of his own. (Postscript to Freedom and Experience, 331.))

Whether it was an ism or not, was Kallen's idea something he'd have wanted to see discussed in this setting? Yes and no. Best known as "cultural pluralism," he also referred to this idea by other names, including "aesthetic pragmatism," "the American idea," and - yes - "Hebraism." But the point was that these were all the same. Hebraism - a distillation of Jewish experience disconnected from Jewish religion - was, he thought, the inspiration for the Puritans, who in turn made possible the American experiment. And the American experiment is best understood by pragmatists like Kallen's teacher William James, and in the creative arts. Hebraism was worth celebrating and protecting - Kallen was a pioneering Zionist - like any tradition, but also because it was the tradition which helped shape an appreciation of the equality without sameness which defines this many-named American ideal.

I know Kallen in another connection. In 1918, he published a book on Job - reprinted a few times in the interim (my paperback reprint is from 1959). The Book of Job as a Greek Tragedy is a strange and inspired book. The author of the Book of Job, Kallen hypothesizes, was familiar with Greek tragedy and inspired specifically by Euripides. The drama he wrote was unfortuantely buried in transcriptions - later scribes didn't recognize the CHORUS, for instance, and assigned these lines to speakers in new and inappropriate places. Kallen manages to "restore" the original Euripidean Job with minimal amendment.

Whatever merit this has as an account of the origins of the Book of Job, it is certainly very interesting in the context of Kallen's circuitous journey to "Hebraism" and Zionism. The son of an orthodox rabbi (Horace was born in Silesia, but his father was from Lithuania), he abandoned his faith, but found his way to a different kind of appreciation of Jewish tradition through lectures on American literary history delivered by a (gentile) professor at Harvard named Barrett Wendell. There's probably no small number of readers, estranged from religious upbringingings (Jewish and Christian) who have found Kallen's linkage of the profundity of the Book of Job with the Greeks liberating permission to re-engage at least this Biblical text as a work of "universal" significance.

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