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Dizzy With Success: Adam Kirsch on Benjamin Disraeli

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic. His book reviews were one of the main reasons to read the New York Sun‘s books section, which was brutally murdered this fall by our bear economy and already inspires weepy, Brideshead … Read More

By / December 8, 2008

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic. His book reviews were one of the main reasons to read the New York Sun‘s books section, which was brutally murdered this fall by our bear economy and already inspires weepy, Brideshead Revisited-level nostalgia. Nowadays, his journalism appears in Nextbook.com, Slate, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, and the New Republic, where he was recently hired as a Senior Editor.

He has also written many books, of poetry and of criticism, though his latest is a biography of England’s first and only Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, which you can read in two sittings. Despite its concision, the book ropes in a lot of background, especially literary background provided by Shakespeare, George Eliot, and "Dizzy" himself, whose novels and life, Kirsch reveals, concerned themselves constantly with ambition.

I interviewed Kirsch over email.

While reading your book, I got to thinking about writer-politicians, and how few of them there are – though, I realized, there are actually a fair amount. Archibald Macleish, and Winston Churchill. Perhaps Gore Vidal could’ve been a Senator if he’d been straight and further to the right. Even Dante qualifies. But do you reckon that Disraeli was one of the only politicians who used his novels to fantasize about having power someday?

You’re right, once you start to think about it, the list is surprisingly long–you could add Andre Malraux, Theodore Roosevelt, Chateaubriand… What makes Disraeli exceptional even on this list, though, is that he was a writer of fiction who achieved the highest office. I don’t know if there are any other novelists of his quality who rose as high as he did. And because he was a Romantic novelist, who believed in using fiction to create his persona and explore his ambitions and fantasies, there is an unusually close relationship between his writing and his political career. In a sense, his career was a way of doing in reality, over a period of fifty years, what he had already done in imagination at the age of twenty-one: experiencing the excitement of power.

Another writer-politician who has agonized over his identity was recently elected president. What does Disraeli have to do with him, if anything?

There are some parallels between Disraeli and Obama–both pioneers, both writers–but I think the differences are actually more interesting. Obama is a much more conservative figure, in terms of his self-presentation, than Disraeli–who of course was a conservative in political terms, where Obama is a liberal. Disraeli consistently drew attention to the most controversial aspects of his persona–his Jewishness, his "outsider" status in British politics, his idiosyncratic views of English history, even his flamboyant way of talking and dressing. He wanted to be a character, to be fascinating. Obama, on the contrary, is personally reserved, and during the campaign he always deflected attention from his personality and identity onto his platform and ideas. I suspect that he did this precisely because he knew how immensely significant his identity as an African-American would be–the historical significance of his candidacy was obvious, and it was politically smarter for him not to emphasize it further.

I suspect that if Disraeli had lived in the United States, his life would have been called "quintessentially American," because of the self-invention and struggles with assimilation. But he was British! You write that Britain’s aristocracy had this flavor of meritocracy to it, which the continental nobilities lacked. Could Disraeli have pulled off a similar career anywhere else in Europe?

Disraeli as an American! That’s a tantalizing idea. It’s true that this is the home of reinvention, which was Disraeli’s forte. But in an odd way, he was so deeply invested in ideas of aristocracy and hierarchy that it would be hard to translate his politics, or his persona, into American terms. He consistently said that American-style democracy was unsuited to Britain, that an old country needed traditional institutions. And his whole imagination of Jewishness runs counter to American Jewish ideas of equality and pluralism; he didn’t want Jews to have civil rights, so much as he wanted them to be admired and a little feared as a noble, powerful race. Certainly he could not have done what he did in any other European country in his lifetime; England was the only country politically free enough, and comparatively free enough from anti-Semitism, for someone like Disraeli to succeed in electoral politics. What he might have become in another country is an authoritarian conservative like Metternich or Bismarck, both of whom he admired very much–and for a Jew to occupy such a role would have been disastrous for the image of Jews in Europe.

Maybe the most damning part of the book is where you show Disraeli to have consciously presented himself as the "International Jew," cunning and influential, though he intended this to be self-aggrandizing. In other words, he wanted to bring about a sort of "philo-Semitism" in the British but ended up an unwitting ghost-writer of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But how much personal responsibility do you think he bears for circulating these racist cliches? That is, wouldn’t anti-Semites have taken them up anyway?

You’re right, Disraeli can’t be blamed for inventing these ideas–they were "in the air," so to speak, and it wasn’t really until the end of his life that anti-Semitism developed into an organized political force. What he did was give anti-Semites a point of reference–as I mention in my book, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, one of Hitler’s favorite writers, actually cites Disraeli’s novels in support of his Jewish-conspiracy-theories. Because Disraeli was such a conspicuous and powerful Jew, his hints about subterranean Jewish power seemed credible–even though his own career demonstrated just the opposite, that a Jew could only gain power by serving the interests of England’s Christian establishment.

He was also a curious type, the right-wing dandy, who modeled himself off of Byron, though the poet was famous for his hatred of the Tory "Lakers." Yet in contemporary America, conservative politicians rarely find it useful to be openly depraved. Was there as much a clash back then between his politics and libertine persona as there would be now?

Part of the discrepancy between the dandyism and the conservatism is owed to the fact that they represented different phases of his life. He was most dandyish in the 1820s and 30s, when he was in his twenties, and when that was the reigning style in fashionable London; it wasn’t until the 1840s, when he became a Conservative party leader, that he had to moderate his dress and watch what he said more closely. But both Disraeli’s conservatism and his dandyism were products of his novelistic imagination: both were ways for him to imagine himself into the heart of English society.

"Orientalist," in the Said sense of the word, is a term tossed around a lot these days, but Disraeli seems to me to have been a textbook Orientalist – someone who truly couldn’t see the east on anything but fairy-tale terms. Is that going too far?

No, I think that’s exactly right. Especially in his early books, like Alroy and Tancred, Disraeli’s East has almost nothing in common with the actual Middle East; it was a product of his own fantasies and psychological needs. The difference is that, while Said objects to the Orientalist stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims, Disraeli was more interested in stereotyping Jews, in what he considered a positive way, by reimagining them as Arabs. To him, the Arab was a dashing and admirable figure, which is why he wrote that "Arabs are only Jews on horseback"–it was a way of claiming the glamour of the desert horseman for the ghettoized urban Jew.

How sincere was his desire to return to a kind of Merrie England set-up, with the estates arranged in hierarchical order? Surely he knew it wasn’t totally feasible, if at all…

He did know it, and he was never as naive as some of his younger colleagues in the Young England movement, whose nostalgia for the Middle Ages was almost comical. Disraeli wrote Sybil, one of the best books about the Industrial Revolution in England, and he knew that there was no going back. What made his Conservatism so influential, at the time and even today, is that he tried to marry the spirit of tradition with the actualities of modernity–to recreate the old organic society in a world of trains and factories. In that sense, Disraeli’s greatest conservative achievement was to greatly expand the franchise–a measure that most people considered ultra-liberal, but that ended up enfranchising a working class whose sympathies were often with the Tories.

Which of his novels will last?

None of them, I’m afraid, are good enough to be read simply for literary reasons, the way we still read his contemporaries like Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot. But the novels live on because of the windows they open on Disraeli’s times, and on his own psyche. Coningsby and Sybil are important books for understanding the crisis in English politics and society in the 1840s; Alroy and Tancred are essential documents of Disraeli’s proto-Zionism, and should be read by anyone interested in the mindset of emancipated Jews in the nineteenth century.

You recently took on Slavoj Zizek in the New Republic, arguing, in short, that he hides his Stalinism in plain sight. I understand that Zizek has quite a large following for an intellectual. Have you heard from any of his fans since the piece ran?

Not directly, but I’ve read a number of hostile comments at the TNR website and on various blogs. None of them engage with the substance of what I wrote–understandably, because Zizek is really indefensible.

Now that you’ve joined the New Republic, will you be taking up the mantle of James Wood, as the go-to man for reviews of literary novels?

No, not really–I will do regular reviews for the back of the book, but not focused on literary fiction. I will review novels from time to time, but also poetry and other things.

Wood seems to have a critical project, to advance a basic idea, which I might clumsily summarize as, a novel should strive to establish its own intact reality. Do you have a project of your own, and how does it differ from Wood’s?

I admire James Wood’s criticism very much, and I’ve learned a lot from him and his example. When I write about poetry, which I used to do more often than I do now, I tend to value two things–intelligent, surprising handling of form, and genuine risk in ideas and emotions. I find that these things usually go together–that is, a poet who can manage form well and create his/her own music is also more likely to write challengingly about his/her experience. Conversely, there’s a lot of superficially experimental or transgressive poetry that I find both formally and substantively unmoving. I’d say my goal is, in Matthew Arnold’s words, to see the object itself as it really is–to see whether a poem is really moving and exciting, or just "difficult" or sentimental.

Which contemporary writers – poets, novelists, or essayists – would you say should be discussed or read more than they are?

I’ll name just a couple of writers, all of whom I’ve been reading in the last year. Joshua Mehigan is one of the best poets of his and my generation–his book The Optimist is wonderfully intelligent and dark, and his work since then is even better. David Yezzi, whose book Azores came out this year, is another poet I admire greatly–he is wise, sometimes funny and sometimes rueful, and very elegant in his handling of line and sentence. I though Louis Begley’s most recent novel, Matters of Honor, was his best, and most of the reviews completely misunderstood it. And I’ve been admiring Zadie Smith’s series of essays on fiction in the New York Review of Books recently–she’s wrestling with the nature of fiction, and trying to come to terms with James Wood, in a very serious way.

You’re a poet as well as a critic and write journalism on deadline. Could you describe your writing habits? That is, how do you balance the two kinds of writing?

Writing poetry, for me anyway, is largely a matter of letting thoughts and feelings alone, allowing things to work out as it were subconsciously, until the particular subject and form for a poem suddenly boil to the surface. It requires a lot of apparently idle time, a certain relaxation. Writing criticism or journalism, on the other hand, is a mainly conscious process–you decide to take on a certain book or subject, you do the necessary work, and the writing comes when it’s needed. That’s really the main difference–you can’t decide to write a poem, but you can decide to write an essay.

Could you walk me through how you write a review? Do you, for instance, make lots of marginal notes? How soon do you write the piece after finishing the book? Things like that.

If I’m writing a review of 1200-1500 words, as I did every week for the Sun until this year and am now doing at Nextbook.org, I will take notes in the margin of the book or simply turn down corners of pages I want to quote. (Regular reviewing tends to erase the habits of reverence towards books that you learn in childhood.) Usually I will write the review the day after I finish the book, since I tend to write in the mornings. For a longer essay, which involves reading a number of books by an author or on a certain subject, I usually use post-it flags to mark pages I want to quote or remember–especially since I’m often reading library books. Then I’ll go through all the books I consulted and type up a file of quotations or facts, usually dozens of pages long. Making those notes helps me to organize my thoughts and gets me ready to start writing.

At the end of your article in Poetry on literature and the internet, you air the terrifying idea that our age will be remembered more for its Facebook status updates than for its sonnets and epigrams. Am I right in thinking you were being elliptical and polemical in that final paragraph? What I mean is, to quote Scrooge, assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life.

Yes, I was being a little polemical or poetical in that essay. Still, I don’t think it’s impossible that the future will care more about our documents than our literature–or will read our literature primarily as a document, as we often do when studying past ages. What I wanted to dramatize, I suppose, was my sense that the commitment a writer makes to literature is far in excess of any possible reward, even the highest–i.e. "immortality." It is in some sense an irrational commitment, or a religious one.

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