(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A student of the European literary tradition and of modern fiction in particular, Robert Alter also commands a knowledge of biblical literature and commentary. This combination, unusual among both literary critics and biblical scholars, allows him to take a fresh approach to his subject in Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem. Like Alter’s earlier study The Invention of Hebrew Prose: Modern Fiction and the Language of Realism (1988), a gem of a book which received surprisingly little notice, Necessary Angels is based on a series of lectures: the Gustave A. and Mamie W. Efroymson Memorial Lectures, delivered in March, 1990, at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In his preface, Alter explains how the writing of Necessary Angels “proved to be an absorbing process of witnessing the self-discovery of a subject. The argument did not end up where I thought it would, and the materials taught me new things about themselves at every step of the way.” Initially, Alter says, he had intended to focus on “the Jewish writer as exemplary modernist.” Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem were all reared in assimilated, German-speaking households; all three rejected the dominant values of that milieu and, in so doing, sought “to realize a serious encounter with the Jewish tradition left behind by their fathers.”

In addition to discussing the ways in which Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem grappled with the characteristic “dilemmas of modernity,” Alter’s original scheme included consideration of “the relevance to the three writers of sweeping theological categories such as revelation, divine language, law, and exegesis.” In the course of study, however, Alter says, he discovered that “the specific biographical data and the concrete historical setting” of the three writers “were more deeply interesting, more revelatory, than all such conceptual generalities, or rather, that the general categories could be understood coherently only by seeing their intricate roots in the lives of the writers.” Moreover, Alter adds, “it became apparent that grand pronouncements about modernity had to give way to observations about the distinctive cultural moment of German- speaking Jewry in the early decades of this century.”

These surprising prefatory remarks, essential to understanding Alter’s project, are clearly disingenuous. Taken at face value, Alter’s preface suggests that only in the process of writing this book did he discover one of the fundamental principles of responsible criticism: that exegesis must begin with intricate, concrete particulars, not with “conceptual generalities.” No one who has read The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) will believe that Alter needed to learn that lesson. And why should a man of Alter’s gifts be tempted to make “grand pronouncements about modernity” in the first place?

This seemingly circumstantial account of the evolution of the book must serve a rhetorical purpose, then. That purpose is not at first apparent as Alter goes on to describe how the book assumed its present form. What unfolded, he says, “was a kind of phenomenological description of the characteristic ’structures of consciousness’ of these intense post- traditional Jews emerging from the modern German setting.” At the same time, Alter’s emphasis shifted from the major works of three writers to their letters, diaries, and notebooks, “gnomic and fragmentary pieces.… In the light shed by these materials, the sheer serendipity of the subject became progressively clear.” What he discovered, Alter says, was a network of correspondences among the writers, not only shared concerns and intellectual affinities but also recurring images (for example, “an odd focus on alphabets and the physical act of inscription”).

All this leads to the key statement of the preface, which sums up the argument of the book:

what I try to do here is to show how the rigorously unsentimental nostalgia of all three writers for the conceptual and spiritual world of Jewish tradition gave at once a distinctive direction to their writing and a special acuteness to their apprehension of modernity.

There are some points here to be taken up later (particularly the phrase “rigorously unsentimental nostalgia”), but what is immediately relevant is Alter’s stress on the distinctively Jewish character of “apprehension of modernity” to be found in the writings of Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem. Finally the rhetorical strategy of the preface becomes clear: Its purpose is to call into question any “universalizing” account of these writers as exemplary modernists. Alter hastens to add that in focusing on the “Jewish matrix” of the three writers he is not denying the relevance of other contexts, especially for Kafka and Benjamin. The argument of the book, however, is not so carefully hedged as this qualifier suggests.

Alter takes his title from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” these lines of which provide the epigraph for Necessary Angels:

Yet I am the...

(The entire section is 2100 words.)