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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.

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