Page 157 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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LOWIN / THE JEWISH ART OF JOSEPH HELLER
145
admit I soon grew more absorbed in the writing of it than in the
fact of the deaths of Saul and his sons and the total victory of the
Philistines. Poetry works like that”
(GK,
p. 217).4 But poetry need
not be Greek poetry, tragedy need not be Greek tragedy, and the
Bible need not be the King James version, which, according to
David, is “Greek to me”
(GK,
p. 171). Speaking of the very Greek
concept of destiny, David asserts “We’re Jews, not Greeks.” For
us, “character is destiny”
(GK,
p.56), and because character can be
changed through
t ’shuva,
destiny can be changed.
God Knows
con­
tains not only biblical criticism, therefore, but the seeds of a Jew­
ish poetics. The Mel Brooks jokes recede into the background in
David’s discussions of the artistic recasting of the biblical text.
PRIMACY OF ART
King David discusses John Milton, author of another text
about a Jewish biblical hero, the judge Samson. “I beg the same
indulgence for [John Milton] that I occasionally require for my­
self. Our art comes first. He and I are poets, not historians or
journalists, and his
Samson Agonistes
should be looked at in the
same fair light as my famous elegy on the deaths of Saul and
Jonathan, along with my psalms and proverbs and other out­
standing works. Adore them as poems. Look to us for our beauty
rather than factual accuracy”
(GK,
p. 30). Here it is not the text
that concerns Heller but the textuality, the art of writing. Heller
in his portrait of David, focuses not on the pious king but on the
poet devoted to and conscious of his art. The implicit plea is that
the reader be no less conscious of Heller’s art, treat him not as a
stand-up comedian but as a serious novelist, using the techniques
of the modern epic poet, that is to say of the Jewish-American
novelist.
According to Wieseltier, the purpose of Heller’s novel about
King David is to “paint the great and holy man as neither great
nor holy.” What Heller and others like him, including Woody
Allen and Mel Brooks, are trying to do is destroy Jewish serious­
ness. They are trying to prove, claims Wieseltier, that the extraor­
4 Bruce Gold’s sister Rose, in
Good as Gold,
caught up in the narration of her own
“Jewish experience in America,” experiences a similar forgetfulness, bor­
dering on catharsis. “Gold remembered her two children with a pang. But
Rose, in the momentum o f narration, was oblivious to the connection”(
GG
, p.
116).