Page 18 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
whelm his composure. He has learned from Houdini what it
means to exist in a world in which space and time are regularly
reorganized and illusion is the truest reality.5
“We had fough t and won the war,” Doctorow rem inds us in
conclusion. By the time we won the second war, the American city
had become imperial. T h e hope it m ight rema in a
polis
was over.
T he chance tha t characters like Augie March could secure the
values o f the urban world for a receptive though reluc tan t mega­
lopolis was ended . When the city becomes a concentration camp
and a death factory, Mr. Sammler knows its possibilities for
expressing the hum an spirit are ended . All tha t remains is surviv­
ing.
Like T a teh ’s films, the rhythms o f Augie’s speech carry the pos­
sibilities o f city life for us. Brash, bountiful, quick and energetic,
he blends the varied rhetorical levels o f the life he encoun ters into
a supple and persuasive prose. T he language o f the city — p e r ­
haps the only one we know — remains to define ou r perhaps lost
opportunities. As Wittgenstein notes, “O u r language can be seen
as an ancient city: a maze o f little streets and squares, o f old and
new houses, and o f houses with additions from various periods;
and this su rrounded by a multitude o f new boroughs with
straight regu lar streets and uniform houses.”6
GREEK POLIS
It is the city as
polis
tha t makes it possible fo r the human being to
be neither beast no r god. For the A thenian who invented it, the
polis was the “space o f appearances” tha t “distinguishes yet binds
men toge ther .” It served “to multiply the occasions o f action and
speech, thereby a ffo rd ing every citizen repea ted oppo rtun ity to
distinguish himself in the eyes o f his fellows.” This was pa r t o f its
political function, and one o f the ways in which it made a full
hum an life possible. For the Greek, “the public revelation o f
m en ’s unique identities th rough action and speech was the very
con ten t o f politics.” This activity defined the Greek sense o f rea l­
ity as it reinforced the conviction tha t city life alone was worth liv­
ing. “Here alone could” the Greek “b rea the the air o f freedom ,
5 E.L. Doctorow,
Ragtime,
New York: Macmillan, 1976, chapter 15, pp. 90-92,
and p. 236.
6 Ludwig Wittgenstein,
Philosophical Investigations,
translated by G.E.M.
Anscombe, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968, entry 18, p. 8e.