Language note: the possessiveness of the pronoun “our”

The Department of Asian Studies at my university is now circulating a petition which reads, in part:

In response to and strong condemnation of recent expressions of hate directed at Muslim and Jewish communities in Hawaii, we endorse the following statement:

Over the past weeks the Manoa Mosque has been the target of multiple hate messages via social media, email, and voicemail. Individual Muslims have been harassed in public, including children. Also, Temple Emanu-El was targeted with a bomb threat against its Jewish pre-school.

We stand together with our Muslim and Jewish communities and any individuals who are subjected to harassment based on religion, immigration status, national origin, race, gender, LGBTQ+ status or disability. No one should go through this experience alone.

That’s how compassion expresses itself in current academic language: categorically, sorting its intended beneficiaries by administrative identifiers: “religion, immigration status, national origin. . . .” And along with the compassionate categories, as a logically required complement, there are also anti-compassionate categories: for instance, “the US” in a recent contribution from my department titled “The Homes of Zionism: Circuits of White Supremacy between the US and Israel.” There, the Marxist term “the US” functions in the same way as the Republican term “Democrat Party”: as an ugly, unidiomatic locution meant to make its subject sound ugly and alien. But that’s the way my department talks, and the attitude toward Jews represented by conflating Israel with the Klan is what a consensus lexicon sounds like.

Considered that way, as the lingua franca of everybody who matters, it has an important thing in common with the compassion-categories of the petition: it is the vocabulary of a collective mind named “we.” If we were to try thanking that “we” for its compassion for the Jewish community, we might acknowledge the significance of the generous impulse by pointing out that Israel too is a Jewish community — in fact, a Jewish community created expressly to protect against the social consequences of hate. But of course, that time, our gratitude wouldn’t be wanted. It would not only be rejected; it would be misunderstood, uncomprehended, estranged from meaning.

Grammar would have accomplished the alienation. In the instant of its being heard, the possessive pronoun “our” in the petitioners’ phrase “our Jewish community” controls and limits admission to the meaningfulness of the term “Jewish community.” By modifying “Jewish community” to “our Jewish community,” it changes the reference of both “community” and “our” from terms that include to terms that exclude. Modified in that possessive way, the term “our Jewish community” instructs its speakers to think of Jews as theirs to possess — pets, say, who belong where the human community says they belong and nowhere else.


A footnote to the note: William Safire’s The New Language of Politics: A Dictionary of Catchwords, Slogans, and Political Usage (rev. ed., 1972) traces the history of the term “Democrat Party” back to Thomas E. Dewey in the 1940s. During the same era, cartoons in Socialist Camp periodicals like Ogonyok routinely identified villains as American by depicting them wearing the U. S. Army’s “U.S.” lapel badge. The artistic fascination with that un-Cyrillic squiggle lives on in North Korea, even when the artists get it backward:

A poet says “Jew” to another poet

Jews have always stuck in the throat of English literature.

George Orwell’s history of the condition is succinct and accurate. “There has been a perceptible antisemitic strain in English literature from Chaucer onwards,” he explained to an American Jewish magazine just before the end of World War II, and after a long list of examples he concluded: “Offhand, the only English writers I can think of who, before the days of Hitler, made a definite effort to stick up for Jews are Dickens and Charles Reade.” One huge omission from this short roster of exceptions is George Eliot, and if you want to consider James Joyce a writer in an English tradition the list will lengthen from three names to four. A possible fifth might be Anthony Trollope, who vented his hatred of Benjamin Disraeli in racial terms but wrote sympathetically about some of his own Jewish characters. But who else can be added? Israel Zangwill, Edwardian Jewish writer with crossover appeal whose play The Melting-Pot supplied Theodore Roosevelt’s America with a metaphor? Henry Harland, American-born editor of The Yellow Book who in his New York youth wrote Jewish-themed novels under a Jewish pseudonym? Even those minor-indeed writers came to literature’s attention only as traditional Christian Jew-hatred was being reinvigorated by nineteenth-century racial thinking. Before then, Jews in English literature were less a subject than a trait: a diagnostic sign of an author’s unconscious or barely conscious sense of his Christian culture.

So it may be interesting that a Victorian poet with the trait was once put through a rigorous diagnosis by another Victorian poet. No improvement in the patient’s condition followed, but the diagnostician’s notes retain a literary value. They show us one manifestation of the trait communicating with another.

The poet whose trait presented as a case of Jews in the head was Coventry Patmore, his diagnostician was his fellow Catholic Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the specific symptom examined was his poem “1867.” The poem’s title refers to one of Disraeli’s triumphs: his capture on behalf of the Conservatives of the Representation of the People Act of 1867, the second of three Parliamentary reforms (in 1832, 1867 and 1884) that broadened the franchise in Victorian England. Patmore, a Conservative himself, didn’t approve of that, at all. As he indignantly explained to Hopkins in 1883:

I hate (in all charity) Lord Beaconsfield [Disraeli] more, if possible, than I hate Gladstone. . . . Do you remember the details of the passage of his Reform Bill in 1867? How it began by being a real work of defence against the tide of revolution, and how it ended – rather than Mr. Disraeli should go out of office – in actually consummating the revolution wh. the Radicals were only dreaming of? (Abbott 345)

He had been more poignant than that when he published “1867” in 1877. Then he had only cried,

Patmore, The Unknown Eros

“I, Ah, me” is a mere sigh, with the two first-person pronouns stripped of their referents. But now, in 1883, Father Hopkins was trying to make his patient think about the sigh and rewrite it in meaningful words. Logic, said Hopkins; and not only logic but also theology; and not only logic and theology but history as well, all indicated flaws in Mr. Patmore’s processing of language. Implacably, Hopkins’s Scotist prose spooled out onto the page:

As Claude Colleer Abbott points out about the Hopkins-Patmore correspondence, the relation between the two poets was bound to be prickly. They had their conversion to Catholicism in common, but they were mutually rebarbative. Patmore was also 21 years older than Hopkins, and as of 1883 The Angel in the House, the long sentimental poem about marriage that had made him famous in the high Victorian age, was 29 years in the past and beginning to look comical to the young. So it probably isn’t surprising that when Patmore republished “1867” in the third edition of his collection The Unknown Eros in 1890, a year after Hopkins’s death, he refused to alter its position in the calendar of his life. On the contrary, he augmented its title with the superscript that you’ve noticed and then tried to tag it to unchanging history with a footnote:

Patmore, The Unknown Eros

Trailed by the note into the land of the dead, Hopkins was presumably to have considered himself awakened at last to a proper sense of the shamefulness of what he had to say. After all, his education in life had been one long preparation for the experience. One of the many depressing memorabilia in Robert Bernard Martin’s biography is the manuscript of a practice sermon with a line drawn at the point where Hopkins had to stop speaking because his fellow seminarians had begun laughing at him. The Sea of Galilee, he had been preaching when the ha ha ha’s exploded, is shaped like a human ear, and this teaches us . . .

No, Hopkins’s mind and its vocabulary didn’t separate realities from one another the way other minds and vocabularies do. The thought that it might be alarming to lie down in a driveway in order to get the inscape of its sandy surface (another incident from the biography) didn’t matter to him or (take your pick) didn’t occur to him. There was also the time when Patmore wrote to Hopkins that he was proud of his son, and Hopkins solemnly informed Patmore in reply that pride is a sin. In the labyrinth of Hopkins’s language any point is at maximum distance from the exit to daylight and its reflection in a human eye, and in his dark matrix Hopkins couldn’t accept language on any terms but his own. Patmore was suffering, and Hopkins wouldn’t understand.

And then, in his suffering, Patmore wrote into a poem a word so reflective of suffering that it can drive even sober prose crazy. What happened after that suggests that to say the word “Jew” in a way sanely comprehensible was beyond the skill even of that subtle madman Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Up to this point, what you have been reading is a revision of something I wrote in the summer of 2015, when I was concerned about the Modern Language Association’s ideas about the disposition of Israel. Two years later, with the American language being changed in ways that make it increasingly hard to have an idea about anything, the Modern Language Association seems trivial. Its language is going obsolete and the language of Patmore seems set for a return to lingua franca. As once-topical terms like “Boycott, divest, sanction” recede into “What was that about?” incomprehensibility, Patmore’s term “their Jew” seems to be noticeable again in a way once again comprehensible. Its return to the currency of significance is occurring, too, in a Patmore way, not a Hopkins way — that is, not as a concept but as a lyric sound. Hopkins’s corrective letter speaks to the song called Their Jew in prose, but the song sings back only to itself, because it is a song. To those who happen to overhear, however, it adds, “Hey, just sayin’.” And then it also adds:

Once you become one with me in my song, you’ll never again need to think the word Jew, or anything else.


Abbott, Claude Colleer, ed. Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Including His Correspondence with Coventry Patmore. Oxford University Press, 1956.

Martin, Robert Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. Putnam, 1991.

Orwell, George. “Antisemitism in Britain.” Contemporary Jewish Record, April 1945., accessed 20 June 2015.

Patmore, Coventry. The Unknown Eros. Third edition. London: George Bell and Sons, 1890.

I owe my reminder of Trollope to Steven Helmling. See also Ann Marlowe, “Why Anthony Trollope is the Most Jewish of the Great English Novelists,” Tablet 24 April 2015,


The image against the idea


Interviewer Thomas Vašek: You speak of a “metaphysical antisemitism” . . .

Donatella di Cesare, vice president of the Martin Heidegger Society and author of Heidegger e gli ebrei. I “Quaderni Neri” [Heidegger and the Jews: The “Black Notebooks”], forthcoming in English translation: [Heidegger] outlines a metaphysics of the Jew. That is, he doesn’t speak of specific Jews in their individual differences and he isn’t interested in the history of the Jewish people. Rather, he asks: What is the Jew? What is the nature of the Jew? And when he does that he falls back into metaphysics, against which he guards himself at all other times. That’s why I would speak of a metaphysical antisemitism.


Sources: “Heidegger-Enthüllung” [“Unmasking Heidegger”]. Hohe Luft 10 February 2015, Online.

The Warsaw Ghetto in Photographs: 206 Views Made in 1941. Ed. Ulrich Keller. New York: Dover, 1984.

Easterbunny à quenelle

For the churches in solidarity with the Boycott, Divest and Sanction campaign

Source: “Band, Mrs. J. R. with pet rabbit.” Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

That eternity promised by our ever-living poet, part 2

During the summer break that’s about to end for me next week, an ancient classic that I put on the syllabus for the sophomore poetry-and-drama course changed itself in advance. That kind of change is one of the defining characteristics of the classic, of course. The classic is always younger than we are, always growing faster. That’s why every new encounter with it is a different joy. But this fall I’m afraid the joy is going to radiate so intensely from one particular classic, Antigone, that it will blast one of the subtexts my class and I will be reading in its vicinity. The history of events may wind up forcing us to read a modern text in an unanticipatedly ancient way — and at that, a way that isn’t Greek but Jewish.

When I ordered Antigone for the course several months ago, I was interested in trying what for me was a new idea: to teach it in versions from three epochs. The first version of the ancient but ever new myth would be Sophocles’s original, and the third would be a near-contemporary adaptation from 1987, A. R. Gurney’s Another Antigone. In between would come a version I’ve never taught before: Jean Anouilh’s darkly cynical adaptation, written and performed during World War II in occupied France, in which the Creon is a conscientious administrator (like, as Anouilh may have tried to hint between the lines, Pétain or Laval or Anouilh himself) doing his bitter best in an impossible situation.

Another Antigone I have taught several times in the past, and each time it has been popular with the students. For them, Gurney domesticates the myth by resetting Thebes as a contemporary American college where the conflict between Antigone and Creon plays out as a disagreement between a student in a literature course and her professor — a disagreement about the ritual to be performed over the corpus of Antigone. For the student, the classic has done its perennial work once again, and she is now so inspired that she decides to write a play of her own for the professor instead of the required paper. The professor, however, is unimpressed. Because he has lived with Antigone all his professional life, he has seen the inspiration before, and read the undergraduate attempts at dramas written in homage. “Another Antigone,” he sighs — and then he orders the student to go back and fulfill the assignment as written, with the paper specified on the syllabus. In the course of the catastrophe that follows (the Creon-professor launched on his lonely way to forced retirement; the Antigone-student launched on her lonely way to craziness) the professor delivers a lecture about tragedy which provides, per classical model, both instruction and delight. Before Gurney was a playwright he was a professor of classics, and my students who encounter Sophocles at the University of Hawaii have always been grateful for his guidance.

But they’ve also needed a little preliminary orientation. The world of Gurney’s dramas is upper- and upper-middle-class USA, northeastern and (so far as I’m aware) 100% white, and when I’ve taught Another Antigone to my mostly Asian-American students in Honolulu I’ve accordingly had to explain the connotations of terms like Andover and Martha’s Vineyard. More consequentially, most students at the University of Hawaii have never met a Jew and have no idea what a Jew is, and in Another Antigone the Antigone is Jewish and the Creon’s tragic flaw is unrecognized antisemitism. So I’ve explained that too. Until now, at least, that part of the pedagogy was just as easy as the rest. It was only another technical detail.

The play, too, helps with the explanation. Early, in an effort to forestall the catastrophe, the Chorus (a sympathetic woman dean) spells out the plot’s exposition phase this way for the professor’s benefit and ours:

“Henry: this is a free country. And academic life is even more so. You may write four-letter words all over the blackboard. You may denounce the government, blaspheme God, take off your clothes . . . You may do all of these things in here, and most of them out there. But there is one thing, here and there, you may not do. You may not be insensitive about the Jews. That is taboo. The twentieth century is still with us, Henry. We live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Remember that, please. And be warned.” (20-21)

. . .

Well, Another Antigone dates from the twentieth century. One of its topical details is already an anachronism: the binder of printouts (as of 1987 they would have been on large, green-barred sheets of paper) that the dean consults when she discusses enrollment. Another anachronism is a passing reference to the word processor as something new.

A third is a reference to the Modern Language Association’s annual convention as a scene of genteel passion between professors in hotel rooms. Oh yes, the twentieth century was a long time ago. In this year of the twenty-first century, between the time I placed my book order and now, some posts on the members-only website hosted by the MLA for discussing a proposal to boycott Israel were antisemitic in the crudest racist way. This year, too, in the second-largest newspaper in Spain, a distinguished playwright has published feuilletons laced with traditional Catholic Jew-hatred; in Italy, a distinguished Marxist philosopher has endorsed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and in the United States one synod of the Presbyterian Church has informed the Jews that it will decide where, and whether, they are to live. This semester with A. R. Gurney is going to be interesting accordingly.

But here’s one contribution to the idea of a happy ending: it probably won’t hurt A. R. Gurney’s feelings if I file this blog as evidence that he isn’t as good a playwright as Sophocles. Another Antigone has gone old now and I can’t imagine its story will be sympathetically imaginable for much longer, but Antigone (I’ve just opened the book again and checked) remains evergreen.


Source: A. R. Gurney, Another Antigone. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1988.