The Nation
November 17, 2005 (December 5, 2005 issue)


The Tower of Babelá

Lee Siegel


There are two Isaac Babels: Lionel Trilling's Babel and Cynthia Ozick's Babel. The critic's and the novelist's two interpretations of the great Russian-Jewish writer--who rode with and wrote about the Cossacks, and who was murdered by Stalin in 1940, in gratitude for Babel's allegiance to the Revolution--are also two different versions of American Jewishness.


If you're the type of person given to lamenting the deterioration of serious reading and writing, here's one way you can lift your spirits: Read Trilling's famous introduction to the 1955 English translation of Babel's Red Cavalry, a collection of short stories inspired by Babel's experiences with the Cossacks. Trilling's offering has got to be one of the most obtuse literary essays ever written. It would never have made it into print today.


Of course, Trilling had a prodigious and unique literary mind. Essays like "Reality in America" and "On the Teaching of Modern Literature" make you recall that there was a time when literary critics didn't just review books; they rubbed their intellect against society until the sparks flew. Sincerity and Authenticity, Trilling's masterpiece, is a brilliant intellectual synthesis and an outpouring of original ideas. But maybe that book is so memorable because it was animated by Trilling's own problem with authenticity.


In his short and impressionistic, but essential, biography of Isaac Babel--the only one we have--Jerome Charyn writes appreciatively about Trilling's essay on Red Cavalry, and he never tries to refute or correct it. What interests Charyn is the way Trilling used Babel to try to escape from the burden of being Lionel Trilling. Such psychological delving fits nicely into Savage Shorthand, which is an attempt to excavate Babel from his own concealing nature, from the secretive times he lived in and from the enigmatic circumstances of his death. Charyn is a wonderful novelist, and his brief speculations about Trilling's buried motives is a deft leitmotif in his almost novelistic account of Babel's life.


As Charyn observes, Trilling's whole career seems to have been one long flight from Jewishness into his impersonation of an Oxford don--"an Anglo-Saxon golem," as Charyn mordantly puts it. Charyn refers to Trilling's well-known regret over not being able to make a career as a novelist, and to his struggle with depression. He alludes to Trilling's avowals, in his now-published journals, of timidity, sexual repression and despair. In Charyn's view, Trilling displaced his longing to be a creative man of action--a novelist rather than an intellectual--onto Babel.


There is indeed something to the idea that Trilling was projecting onto Babel vicarious fantasies of macho artistic freedom. According to Trilling, the Cossacks enthralled the Odessa-born writer, who first made his name with wonderful stories about that Black Sea city's Jewish gangsters. Babel, Trilling wrote, admired "the boldness, the passionateness, the simplicity and directness--and the grace" of the soldiers in the so-called Red Cavalry. Not only that, but Trilling astonishingly argued that "in the stories of the Red Cavalry Babel submits the ethos of the intellectual to the criticism of the Cossack ethos [and] intends a criticism of [Babel's own] ethos not merely as an intellectual but as a Jew."


And why was Babel so drawn to such qualities in the first place? Trilling draws his answer straight out of the Freudian playbook. Reading Babel's short story "First Love" as the recounting of a real event, Trilling attributes Babel's enchantment with the Cossacks to that tale's central event. "Babel had seen his father on his knees before a Cossack captain on a horse, who said 'At your service,' and touched his fur cap with his yellow-gloved hand and politely paid no heed to the mob looting the Babel store." Trilling's diagnosis: "The sons of such men have much to prove, much to test themselves for, and, if they are Jewish, their Jewishness is ineluctably involved in the test." Ineluctably, no less. For the Jewish don this was the fundamental reason that Babel sustained his admiration for the Red Cavalry, despite the fact that he witnessed the Cossacks murdering and raping Jews, and pillaging their houses and synagogues. In Trilling's eyes--there is no delicate way to say this--Babel was a self-hating Jew and a self-hating intellectual who, as Trilling na´vely did, located the source of artistic creativity in feral vitality.


It's hard to contest Charyn's subtle insinuation of Trilling's projection onto Babel of Trilling's own shame-ridden self, hidden under the British manner, beneath the defensive, sniffy, faux-Edwardian prose. Charyn accepts Trilling's embarrassing self-exposure as a valid means of doing literary criticism and goes on to call the introduction "dazzling." Unfortunately, he never mentions Cynthia Ozick's attack on Trilling; in fact, he barely mentions Ozick at all.


Ozick had briefly been Trilling's student at Columbia, and she has written with some passion about how she felt Trilling snubbed her--maybe her origins in Brooklyn rather than Bloomsbury had something to do with it. "He was a Jew of the ghetto," Trilling writes of Babel, adding distastefully, "As a boy--so he tells us in his autobiographical stories--he had been of stunted growth, physically inept, subject to nervous disorders." But as Ozick pointed out in a brilliant, corrective essay published in The New Republic a decade ago, Babel was not at all the figure Trilling thought he was. Trilling's former student had something that the teacher lacked at the time he wrote his essay on Babel: Babel's private journals.


Babel had been "rehabilitated" by the Soviets in the 1950s, and his daughter Nathalie had immigrated in 1961 to the United States, where she spent the next decades overseeing the publication of everything Babel had written that she could get her hands on. Among the things she shepherded into print were Babel's journals--or his "diary," as they're sometimes called--excerpts of which were first published in 1975 and appeared in English in their entirety in 1995, when they provided the occasion for Ozick's essay.


Reading the journals, Ozick discovered that Trilling had been wrong on several counts. For one thing, Trilling believed Babel had joined up with the Cossacks to fight, but in fact Babel rode with them as a correspondent for a Soviet newspaper. For another, far from being a "Jew of the ghetto," Babel came from an affluent family, a fact he was understandably reluctant to mention as an ardent supporter of the Revolution. And his stories were hardly "autobiographical." As Charyn points out--a little too emphatically--Babel was a mythomaniac who loved to make up stories about his life. The Cossack captain's humiliation of Babel's father couldn't have happened the way Babel described it in his fiction. As Ozick tersely puts it, "There was no Babel store." Babel's father sold agricultural machinery, which he kept locked away in a warehouse.


Most important of all, Ozick learned that Babel didn't think very highly of the Cossacks. He did not regard the figure of the Cossack, to borrow her quote from Trilling's introduction, as "'the man as yet untrammeled by civilization, direct, immediate, fierce...the man of enviable simplicity, the man of the body--the man who moved with speed and grace.' In short, 'our fantasy of the noble savage.'" Rather, the Cossacks' brutality appalled him. "They all say they're fighting for justice and they all loot," Babel wrote. "I ride along with them, begging the men not to massacre prisoners.... I couldn't look at their faces, they bayoneted some, shot others, bodies covered by corpses, they strip one man while they're shooting another, groans, screams, death rattles." "We are destroyers...we move like a whirlwind, like a stream of lava, hated by everyone, life shatters, I am at a huge, never-ending service for the dead...the sad senselessness of my life." And again: "I am an outsider.... I don't belong, I'm all alone, we ride on...five minutes after our arrival the looting starts, women struggling, weeping and wailing, it's unbearable, I can't stand these never-ending horrors." The Cossack "ethos," Ozick rightly concludes, was something that repelled Babel. It was not a way of being that he wished to emulate, let alone a "criticism" of Babel's own nature.


But after giving Trilling a taste of his own professorial tweeds, Ozick proceeds to construct another fantastical projection of Babel. For her, "Babel's journal is a Jewish lamentation." It is a conscious record of "the calamity (to say it in the most general way) of Jewish fate in Eastern Europe." For Ozick, the lesson of Babel's bloody, disturbing sojourn among the Red Cavalry is twofold: Jewishness is fate, and Babel got suckered by the Revolution into thinking that the Bolsheviks were about to create a new world in which the old persecutions would disappear.


As for why Babel chose to ride with the Cossacks in the first place, she reiterates Trilling's interpretation even as she revises it. Babel, Ozick writes, was an "intrepid wanderer; as trickster, rapscallion, ironist; penniless, slippery, living on the edge, off the beaten track, down and out; seduced by the underlife of Paris, bars, whores, cabdrivers, jockeys. All this suggests Orwellian experiment and audacity. Babel relished Villon and Kipling and was delighted to discover that Rimbaud, too, was an 'adventurer'.... For Babel, lamp oil and fearlessness were not antithetical. He was a man with the bit of recklessness between his teeth." Intellectuals and bookish Jews can fight, too! But like Trilling, Ozick can't imagine that Babel rode among the Cossacks with his eyes open, blinded neither by insecurity nor by schoolboy yearning for adventure.


Babel is certainly a problematic figure, and too often his bedeviling qualities get passed over as the colorful traits of a picaro. Probably part of the reason writers spare Babel when trying to make sense of his life and work is that, at a certain moment, Babel struck a daring, subtle blow for truth during the height of Stalin's terror. At the Soviet-sponsored International Congress of Writers, held in Paris in 1935, Babel ironically quipped that in the Soviet Union the only right denied to authors was "the right to write badly." He himself had won early fame in 1924 with some stories from the Red Cavalry, and also with his tales of the fictional Benya Krik, king of the Jewish gangsters, who held sway in Odessa's Jewish quarter, the Moldavanka, where Babel was born in 1894. (Charyn himself writes wry, gripping, offbeat novels about gangsters in the Bronx.) Shortly after Babel's birth, his parents moved the family to nearby Nikolaev, where Babel witnessed the notorious pogrom of 1905.


Although, as Charyn writes, Babel had become so celebrated that people in Moscow began to imitate Benya Krik's Odessan slang, by 1928 he had almost completely stopped writing. Stalin had brought his fist down on artists and writers, and Babel seemed cowed into silence. But there were forces besides Stalin's repression working on Babel's psyche from within the writer himself. During several long stays in his beloved Paris, Babel rejected opportunities to exile himself to France, even though he spoke and wrote French beautifully, and was so admired by the cognoscenti there that Malraux insisted to Stalin that Babel be allowed to participate in the 1935 writers' congress. Yet instead of fleeing Russia, Babel left his wife and child in Paris, and returned to Stalin's inferno.


As Charyn tells it, Babel said that he needed the Russian atmosphere to write, but he wasn't writing, except for a brief burst of industry in 1937. What really seemed to dismay him was that his fame had not extended to France, beyond rarefied literary and intellectual circles. In Russia celebrity had gone to his head. From the mid-1920s on, he had been running with a fast crowd. By 1937 he had his wife, Zhenya, and daughter Nathalie in France; an ex-mistress and a child--whom his former paramour, a famous actress, forbade him to see--in Moscow; and a third child with a third woman, whom he called his "second wife," also in Moscow. Perhaps this emotional chaos was the overflow of blocked artistic energies, or the greedy egotism of a coddled man, or the desperation of a doomed man. But this vexing aspect of Babel's life is nothing compared to his relationship with the Cheka, Stalin's secret police.


What really unsettles you about Babel is that he did not seem able to resist close proximity to power. Most likely, as Charyn surmises, he planted the seeds of his demise when he began an affair with Evgenia Gladun, an adventuress and opportunist. Not long after Babel took up with her, she became romantically attached to Nikolai Yezhov, whom she married in 1931 and who became the head of the Cheka in 1936. It's not clear whether Babel's time with Gladun overlapped with Yezhov's, but Gladun's continuing efforts to help Babel professionally--which he stupidly accepted--roused Yezhov to a permanent state of jealousy. You wonder whether Babel stayed close to Gladun in order to form a connection to Yezhov; after all, Babel had cultivated a friendship with Genrikh Yagoda, Yezhov's predecessor, accepting invitations from Yagoda to tour the torture chambers in the bowels of the Lubyanka--even, according to one of Stalin's biographers, sitting in with other writers to eavesdrop on interrogations. Vulnerability, egotism, malice, ambition? No one will ever know what Babel's motives were. Yezhov poisoned Gladun in 1938. He was arrested the following year by Stalin and almost immediately "confessed" that Babel had been plotting against the state.


What we do--or can--know is the extent of Babel's artistry. It isn't necessary to go to the journals to understand his moral position in Red Cavalry. On the evidence of the Red Cavalry stories, Babel was more resourceful, more diabolically ironic and subversive than either Trilling or Ozick suspected. You can't fully understand Babel unless you grasp the special strategy of Odessan-Jewish humor, the way it achieves its revenge on the world by proclaiming an ideal and then bringing down the roof both on the ideal and the joke teller. Trilling liked to associate Babel with Hemingway, Ozick with Kafka, but the more accurate comparison is with the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who loved to floridly express a romantic or heroic sentiment and then violently pull the rug out from underneath it. Heine, however, remained standing. The Odessan comedian tumbles along with the high sentiment, as if the only honest and convincing criticism of life were one that left nobody standing, including the critic.


Exploring Babel's story "My First Goose," Trilling quotes Babel's description of Savitsky, the Cossack brigade commander. Trilling writes that Savitsky's "male grace is celebrated in a shower of epithets--we hear of the 'beauty of his giant's body,' of the decorated chest 'cleaving the hut as a standard cleaves the sky'...of his long legs, which were 'like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots.'" For the pathetically projecting Trilling, Babel is writing in a spirit of "admiration and envy." He adds: "Savitsky's grace is a real thing. Babel is not ready to destroy it by any of the means that are so ready to the hand of the intellectual confronted by this kind of power and charm." By academic passive-aggression, that is.


May I suggest that any readers who once took a course with Trilling and got a C-minus or something like that go immediately to the Columbia registrar and have your grade changed? Savitsky is in charge of a group of anti-Semitic thugs who are raping and murdering Jews and Poles--who themselves are raping and murdering Jews--all through their campaign. How could Babel possibly associate this kind of homicidal madness with "power and charm," much less admire and envy it? He doesn't. He "destroys" it, if that's the right word, not by intellectual means but by artistic ones.


Babel is a Russian imagist, a prose poet who embeds meaning in a single swift phrase, or in repeated words, or in cognate incidents. In one famous Red Cavalry tale, a Cossack cuts an old Jew's throat. He gently puts the Jew's head under his arm, and (in Peter Constantine's superb new translation) "the Jew fell silent and spread his legs." Then the Cossack "carefully slit the old man's throat without spattering himself."


Commentators always drone on, when confronted with this passage, about how stunningly Babel exposes the sexual element in violence, and vice versa. This is nonsense--modernist boilerplate. Throughout the Red Cavalry stories, politically incorrect as it might strike some readers today, Babel turns the he-man Cossacks into sexually repressed men who sublimate their desire to fuck other men into acts of atrocity. Babel has the Jew spreading his legs to imply that the Cossack's murder is really a perversion of his desire to sexually penetrate his victim. Right at the start of the story, a Cossack commander is portrayed as being dressed like a woman, his cape vainly flung over his shoulder.


And how "ladylike" to worry about getting a little blood on your tunic! Throughout the story, too, Cossack singing is associated with an unmasculine quality, and so is the Cossack commander's absurd talk--feminine chatter--to plundered Jews and peasants about the shiny new agenda of the Comintern's Second Congress. In contrast, the old Jew submits to his fate silently, voicelessly, like--in the story's hidden perspective--a man. The tale ends with an old letter the narrator says he's found, written by the wife of one of Napoleon's invading soldiers and describing the birth of their son. In Babel's eyes--emotionally violent misogynist though he might have been--Russia's enemies create life, unlike Russia's current leaders.


The same "ethos" is expressed in "The Death of Dolgushov," whose narrator refuses to kill a dying Cossack who has begged Babel's persona to put him out of his misery, and also to take his personal effects and write a letter to his mother. Critics usually see this along Trilling's lines, as Babel's lacerating exposure of his own cowardice. Babel "means to speak adversely of himself in his Jewish character," the self-loathing Trilling absurdly writes. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the narrator rides over to the wounded man and stops and waits for him to hand over his effects, he will be killed by a barrage of machine gun fire. The story begins with a Cossack commander "seeking death," and all through it the Cossacks are associated with extinction; a man named Grishchuk asks: "What's the point of all the matchmaking, marrying, and in-laws dancing at weddings?" What's the point of life itself, in other words. The narrator thinks differently. The story ends with Grishchuk offering the narrator "a wrinkled apple" to eat. Death is the Cossacks' food.


In "My First Goose," Babel's revelation of the inner girl hidden deep inside the Cossacks' machismo reaches Dantesque heights of artistry. In another story, the narrator describes himself--also famously--as "begging fate for the simplest ability--the ability to kill my fellow man." Trilling predictably applauds this sentiment for its freedom from the intellectual's pitiful ironic undercutting."The necessity for submitting to the test is very deeply rooted in Babel's psychic life." And this poor guy had tenure.


In fact, the narrator has expressed this odd desire in exasperation, after a Cossack upbraids him for absent-mindedly riding into battle with an unloaded gun. The narrator responds sarcastically. This so angers the Cossack that he threatens to shoot the narrator, who knocks his tormentor--an epileptic--to the ground and nearly kills him. Now, why would the narrator beg fate for "the simplest ability" if on the one hand it was so simple and if on the other he had already shown how easy it would be to kill the epileptic Cossack? The fact that Babel establishes the narrator's sarcastic tone earlier drives home the irony of his peculiar exclamation at the end of the story.


But Trilling and other critics read "My First Goose," in which the narrator kills a goose to eat, as Babel's demonstration to the Cossacks of his newfound ability to kill a man. From the beginning, however, Babel depicts Savitsky as a girl; in other words, as the very antithesis of the Cossacks' image of themselves. The Cossack leader "smelled of perfume and the nauseating coolness of soap." The narrator does write that he "envies" Savitsky's "steel and bloom," but by the end of the story, the bloom will be that of a woman, which will have undercut the steel. Savitsky is a classic case of homophobic projection. "So, you're one of those little powder puffs," he says to the narrator. "So, you think you can live with us, huh?" The Cossacks' hut has "garlands painted on it." The Cossacks themselves sit on "bundles of hay, shaving each other." One of them, a young man "with long, flaxen hair," like a young girl's, throws the narrator's suitcase into the street and then "turn[s] his backside to me" and farts. Another has some advice to the narrator about how he can win the Cossacks' hearts: "Ruin a lady, yes, the most cleanest lady, and you're the darling of the fighters!"


Men who smell like women, men who present their posteriors to other men, men who loudly advertise their ability to rape women as a test of manhood. No wonder Budenny, the renowned leader of the Red Cavalry, attacked Babel's stories about the Cossacks by trying to turn the tables on him and calling Babel a woman and a coward, among other similar epithets. As Charyn so intelligently quips, Budenny was a better literary critic than Trilling.


In the end, it turns out that the narrator can live very nicely with Savitsky's men. The story's subtle hilarity is that he wins their respect after merely killing a goose. Not other fighters. A goose--as if the narrator were objectifying the Cossacks' unconscious hatred of all things feminine or feline, or hinting at his possible skill as a rapist, like the rest of them. At the end of the story, the narrator reads his illiterate comrades a speech by Lenin from the newspaper. He "rejoic[es] in the mysterious curve of Lenin's straight line"--in Lenin's hidden meaning--but the Cossacks fail to grasp it, just as they would fail to grasp the meaning concealed in the artful folds of this tale, or fail to grasp their true nature as men. Finally, the narrator and the Cossacks go to sleep in a hayloft: "Six of us slept there warming each other, our legs tangled...." The narrator "dreamed and saw women in my dreams." The Cossacks, presumably, dream their repressed desires for each other.


Trilling could not accept his origins; Ozick seems to want to remain sentimentally rooted in hers. But Babel was neither Trilling's humiliated, insecure, self-hating Jewish weakling who harbored fantasies of cruel power, nor Ozick's comic-book adventurer incongruously driven by a parochial attachment to his Jewish heritage. He followed the Cossacks because he believed in a revolution that promised to end persecution of the Jews--that is, to end, in Babel's perspective, the suppression of his genius because of the fact that he was a Jew. He grew angry and disillusioned when he saw that nothing was going to change. Once upon a time, a Russian-Jewish writer, in Stalin's Russia, in an environment that melted thought and feeling, attained in his art a poise of identity that, eighty years later, eluded free and skeptical minds in a very different place.