Page 139 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 49

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BUTOVSKY / IRVING LAYTON: THE INVENTION OF THE SELF
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in every large metropolis in the world?
The hosannahs of the conformist hordes
stinking of money and respectability?
T h e idea tha t the teachings o f the Jewish Jesus have been mis­
read by the Xians, and tha t the rightful heirs to his spiritual
grace are the Jews, derives more from Layton’s persistent di-
onysian conception o f creativity th rough joy than from any con­
sistent religious notions. Certainly, the app rop riation o f Jesus
by the Jews has never been a popu lar issue amongst Jews, no r
has it been espoused in rabbinic o r modern Judaic literature.
Hence, one suspects that Layton’s insistence on reclaiming Jesus
as b ro the r and fellow-poet owes more to his need for the in­
dependen t rebellious gesture — against Xianity and traditional
Judaism both — than to articulating a post-Holocaust theology
based on the sundering o f the historical Jesus from the deeds
done in his name.
For the poetic act o f reclaiming Jesus — the most often-
addressed subject o f his poetry in recent years — does more
than merely add one more figure to the pan theon which in­
cludes the writers and thinkers with whom Layton identifies;
it also illumines his conception o f Jewish tradition and the true
na tu re o f the Jew. Detached from any abiding religious au tho r­
ity, he has assembled a personal tradition, secular in orientation
and eclectic in scope. It accommodates the Hebrew Prophets
and Freud, Spinoza, Heine, and Marx, Jesus and Israeli soldiers,
Babel and Mandelstam. A gathering o f such figures suggests
that their attractiveness lies less with the ir intrinsic Judaism than
with some peculiar trait tha t Layton chooses to identify as Jew ­
ish. From these and o ther sources he has distilled what he con­
siders their essential Jewish qualities: unyielding moral purpose,
and a heroic assertion o f will in the face o f human waste and
decay. Jewish history is a text whose narrative re tu rns time and
again to these themes, pronounc ing on the fate o f the prophetic
seers who articulate divine will in o rd e r to reform social conduct
and value, those whose exemplary behavior proves a constant
rebuke to the ways o f the majority. But, as Layton sees it, such
an account also describes the life o f the poet. Being a minority
people dedicated to a divine calling is to define oneself con­
stantly against the uncomp rehend ing majority; similarly, being
a poet is to contend with the difference between visionary in­