A FEW YEARS AGO my wife and I attended a dinner party at my cousin’s house; her husband is a philosophy professor at UC San Diego, and some of his graduate students had also been invited. At one point, I thought I would be a smart-ass and said I’d been reading an author who thought everything in philosophy had gone downhill after Descartes. “A lot of people say that,” said the professor, and looked over at the TAs, his eyes rolling. Still, one of the more powerful vignettes in Benjamin Hollander’s In the House Un-American is the true story of one Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a Harvard lecturer who wrote an essay at the time of the Harvard Tercentenary in 1936 called “Farewell to Descartes.” In it, he accused the 17th-century philosopher of sanctioning a kind of thinking without physical consequence, adding that “When Nobel Prize winners produced poison-gas, their thinking was no longer identified with existence.” Unfortunately for Rosenstock-Huessy, the president of Harvard at the time was James Bryant Conant, who had helped that Nobel Prize winner, Fritz Haber, to develop poison gas in World War I; the lecturer, who had claimed to be “an impure thinker” (presumably unlike Descartes), was fired one year later.
But Descartes isn’t the only authority Hollander questions in his book: I might also have started this review by remembering a famous 1990 essay by Amy Tan called “Mother Tongue,” which deals with how her mother’s broken English has informed her own writing. The first page of Hollander’s book presents us with a young man taking his German mother sightseeing in San Francisco. At one point, she says, “Those nets up in the air, there, what are they?” but the footnote corrects us: “‘Zoze nets up in ze air, zair, vat are zey?’ was what was really asked, in the original language, accented, pointing to the cable car wires.” Tan herself is mentioned a few pages later, but the book’s narrator would prefer not to be compared to someone who writes stories of “inspirational difference,” positing that the real “second language” in America is poetry, “the sounding of a second language within an American culture that does not count it among its facts.”
Or I could have started by quoting Jay Leno, who, after his interview with Barack Obama, said to Lawrence O’Donnell that “Everybody eventually becomes American once they stay here long enough.” In fact, I could spin these various openings out a little longer, but I hope they begin to describe what kind of animal In the House Un-American is: a kind of trickster book, notably impure, part history, part family chronicle, and part tall tale. It’s made up of short vignettes, dialogues (real and imagined), flash fictions, and lots of citations — most notably from Hannah Arendt, referred to only by her first name as if she were a family relation, and some of Bertolt Brecht’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. These hybrid forms combine to interrogate the sameness, shallowness, and supposed universality of America (often spelled, à la Kafka, with a “k”), the mothership for a host of different aliens. Hollander’s prose is sometimes tangled and dense, at times even recalling James Joyce’s multilingual puns. Early on, the narrator and his immigrant friends admit they’ve never come to grips with the American language, “its rootedness, its by rote-ness”; their conversation takes place in a house that’s not a home, “a House on loan.” Indeed, part of what’s under consideration in this book is language itself, which Hollander twists in order to braid these parallel facts and fables.
Let’s return to that footnote on the first page: it announces immediately that this will be a fanciful tale, that the author will take liberties, mess with us, that we’ll have to watch our backs (an idiom that itself comes under examination at the end of the book). The notes aren’t like the ones that another famous immigrant, Vladimir Nabokov, used in Pale Fire, but they do introduce multiple points of view and depths of consciousness — here, the educated, assimilated Jew vs. the old country mom — and the tangled idioms and notions of “shame” that are generated as a result. “It’s the matter and the mother of hearing all this I am after,” says the narrator, Carlos ben [וב] Carlos Rossman (the Hebrew for the word “son” continually reprinted throughout the text). The mother’s question is revisited later, when Carlos “thinks hard” that if immigrants “sound fluency, and we write poetry which appears to articulate that condition […] a reader will not acknowledge wires as nets in a poem as anything but metaphor for the mill.”
This, in turn, sets the table for a dialogue about the nature of language among the narrator and two friends in Chapter 3, “Our Mediterranean.” There, Mordico (the Turkish poet and translator Murat Nemet-Nejat) says that “The true power of language, its well of inspiration, for me, lies in its conscious or unconscious errors, cracks, imperfections. I am a poet, an American poet, because I have a defective ear.” Which raises the questions: Should language sound “fluent” or expose its imperfect roots? Can it do both? More to the point, what exactly is “lineage”? Is it still with us? Are Nazis still with us (wonders Carlos a little later) if we never lived among them? And if they’re not … have we “assimilated” a bit too much?
Emphasizing linguistic conundrums, however, doesn’t give an accurate picture of the genial talkiness of Hollander’s assemblage; some of its mundane concerns include left-handed third basemen, Viagra, corner bar owners without alcohol permits, and the decline of the word “fascist” among ever-smiling hyphenated-Americans. But even though being “un-American” is “a condition that transcended politics,” political comment is never far away: Carlos’s father, we learn early on, looked a little “like the future Henry Kissinger […] who sounded when he spoke much more content, as if he had always just finished eating: bloated, self-satisfied, sovereign, like a perched frog.” Such speculations are woven throughout, so that readers are always forced to compare their lives to the situations of immigrants, aliens, and others, “living between false options” (or, as Bob Dylan had it in “Joey,” “always on the outside / of whatever side there was”). Hollander never lets us forget that “politically, one can determine who belongs to the un-American camp at any time […] and on that opinion the accused lose jobs and reputations for life.” It’s a tough thing to assimilate, he writes: mouthing the lies of pop tunes while swaying with a girlfriend in the dark won’t always cut it.
At one point Hollander invokes the famous opening of Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America […] Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive.” Because the traces of his lineage, and others’, have mostly disappeared from American life, it sometimes feels as if the narrator has fastened himself to a tent pole that isn’t really there, which makes for a few metaphysical problems. However, in the seventh and final chapter, “Just Call Me Al,” Carlos orchestrates a conversation between Herman Melville (characteristically referred to as “Uncle Hermann”) and Muhammad Asad (“Uncle Leopold”), who debate the extent to which “the Heart of Islam is American.” It turns out that there are some similarities — though they have nothing to do with universalism — but it takes Arendt to fully yoke them together:
It was what Hannah in her letters called the problem of beginning, the coming out of nowhere in a specific time at the same time as one was being bound back to one’s beginnings, religare, religion, as in the foundation of the Republic, “an unconnected new event breaking into the continuous sequence of historical time,” and Carlos wondered, where the Heart of Islam is American, could this be where “the unconnected new event” might begin a principle entirely new but present at the Republic’s beginning?
Call me Al or call me Allah. “It was not just reason,” wrote Arendt, but “divinely informed reason” that can intuit such a connection and take up the “unfinished work” of the Republic. Despite the many examples given here about the awful passivity and sameness that the “mundane fact” of equality has brought onto these shores, and despite Carlos being trapped between the two slates of Melville’s The Confidence Man — one saying “Charity thinketh no evil” and the other “No Trust” — the feeling one takes away from The House Un-American, finally, is hopefulness.
Some years ago, I stumbled upon the (for me) astonishing discovery that the great American poet William Carlos Williams had Sephardic Jewish roots, through his Puerto Rican maternal grandfather. I excitedly sent an email to Ammiel Alcalay, the only other writer I knew with a Sephardic background (who, coincidentally, also appears in In the House Un-American, as the narrator’s friend Gingi). So another question raised in the book is why Williams — a central “character” here, with three names like the narrator — didn’t sound like his mom. In that context, one of the sub-themes of the book is Hollander’s own journey away from the clear and “polemically American” language into a more diverse, clashing, and cosmopolitan vision. “It is only the blind groping weirdness I want to relate,” says Carlos in an early part of the book, and he later explains why “we needed to create another real world from the facts on the ground as we could know them.” With its impure thinking wedded to physical existence (so unlike Descartes’s), In the House Un-American creates that other “real world,” one that residents of this one might do well to explore.