Earlier this week, Daniel Oppenheimer shared the personal inner turmoil reflected in his book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Daniel is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
There’s a moment early in Leslie Fiedler’s essay “Master of Dreams: The Jew in the Gentile World” that reminds me why the essay impressed me so much when I first read it sometime around a decade ago. The great twentieth-century critic is trying to remember when he first really recognized Joseph — the dreamer and dream-interpreter bestowed with a coat of many colors — as the true ancestor of the modern Jewish artist and writer.
It wasn’t in the Bible itself, nor was it in any of the fiction by modern Jewish writers that played with the Joseph story. Instead, Fiedler writes:
It was a chance phrase in a most goyish poet which provided me with a clue to the meanings I am pursuing here, a verse in the Sixth Satire of Juvenal, where, describing the endless varieties of goods on sale in Rome… he remarks that ‘for a few pennies’ one can buy any dream his heart desired ‘from the Jews.’ From the Jews! It was those few words which fired my imagination with their offhand assumption that dream-peddlery is a Jewish business, that my own people have traditionally sold to the world that commodity so easy to scorn and so difficult to do without: the stuff of dreams.
If pressed, before I reread “Master of Dreams” I might have been able to dredge up that it was about Joseph. I may also have said that Freud figured into it some fashion, though whether I would be remembering that from the essay I can’t say, since “Freud is in there somewhere” is a safe prediction for nearly everything by Fiedler — as well as much of what was written by the crew of mid-century New York intellectuals with which he was loosely affiliated.
What I forgot was nearly everything else in the essay: Kafka, Mailer, Delmore Schwartz, Nathanael West, Pharaoh, Jacob, Potiphar and his wife, the ascendance and soon to descend twilight of Jewish-American fiction, the specific ways that Freud figured into it, and so much more. The essay is dizzying in its array of references, its intuitive leaps, its intoxicating sense of life, and its brilliant and seductive and suspiciously convenient assertions.
Worse than all my forgetting, I think, is what my recent rereading reveals about what I never knew in the first place: the story in Genesis, of Joseph and his many-colored coat, around which Fiedler weaves the whole thing.
So this wonderful essay, which has been so important to me, so central to my identity as a Jewish artist and intellectual, is one that I barely remember and never reread until now. And with its renewed inspiration I immediately went out and didn’t read the relatively short section of the Old Testament that was essential to fully understanding it. I probably reread The Lord of the Rings instead.
It would be ironic, except that the whole essay (I recognize now, upon rereading) grants an enormous license to modern Jewish arts to be Jewish artists without doing anything overtly Jewish. We are simply (or not so simply at all, of course) meant to follow the truth of our dreams, and in so doing to narrativize and interpret the half-remembered and barely understood dreams of the gentile world in which we live — and through that bring healing that world, ultimately prosper, and find ourselves celebrated for doing so. As Fiedler writes: “The Jewish Dreamer in Exile, thinking only of making his own dreams come true, ends by deciphering the alien dreams of that world as well; thus determining the future of all those who can only know what lies before them dimly and in their sleep.”
I think it’s fair to say, without diminishing the brilliance of the original essay, that in one respect it’s a very appealing justification myth for all Jewish artists and thinkers whose Jewishness consists primarily of the work we wish to pursue that isn’t necessarily explicitly Jewish in its themes. So the great Josephs of the early twentieth century, for Fiedler, were Kafka, “who never mentioned the word ‘Jew,’ in his published work,” and Freud, whose most enduring myths depend on Hamlet and Oedipus, “two mythological goyim out of the dreams of Gentiles.”
So by following my own muse, for instance, into the lives of some of the most interesting political turncoats of the past century, half of whom are Jewish, and through their lives interpreting the restless dreams of the American psyche, I’m not just doing essentially Jewish work, I’m doing really Jewish work. I’m the ancestor and reincarnation of Joseph. I’m the source of renewal of the creative Jewish spirit.
It doesn’t matter that I’m entirely secular in my religious practice and identity. It doesn’t matter that I married a gentile, or that my children may not identify as particularly Jewish. What matters is my dream-peddlery.
Which is, itself, a lovely dream.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com. He has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and is a Director of Strategic Communications at the University of Texas at Austin. Oppenheimer was born in New York City and currently lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and children.