Implications of Faith
HE PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL weight of the recent past now lifted, Ludwig began that summer of 1948 to focus more sharply on the work his newly liberated life could allow. Even before leaving for Brandeis, he had begun to plot several new projects and to see the usefulness of others, among these the Goethe volumes, now almost completed. He was quite pleased with the work that he and Louise had produced—“quite dazzling—an incomparable human story”—and with the relative ease with which it had progressed. Though he found Goethe, as always, a “fascinating” subject, the project had required little of the concentration he had given so many other books in recent years. “The labor does not tire me unduly [six thousand words a day], because, charmed as I am by both the man and the poetry, as I have always been, the whole effort proceeds from my head and my aesthetic sensibilities. Nothing deep is involved. If it were a creative book, if, above all, it were a Jewish creative book—ah, that would be another matter!” Similarly fascinating for Ludwig was the book’s unexpected potential benefit to the university he so happily anticipated calling his new home, certain as he was that Sachar would use this first faculty publication to promote the institution as a seat of significant higher education—a purpose for which Ludwig gladly lent his tacit approval and blessing. “There’s something providential about it all. The thing popped into my mind quite a year ago. Now, as things have oddly enough turned out, Sachar, whose middle name is public relatzie, is well aware of the advantage of Brandeis having its name at once connected with a massive piece of literary scholarship.”1 When the two-volume, thousand-page work appeared early the next year, Sachar, as Ludwig anticipated, would issue a promotional brochure, selling copies as a fund-raiser. “Brandeis University are [sic] pleased to announce the publication of an important work,” it read,2 as if the work had been jointly published with the cooperative Farrar, Straus.
On July 22, in the midst of preparing for the move to Brandeis, perhaps as he began to pack his scattered writings, Ludwig outlined two anthologies consisting of an assortment of published and unpublished, as yet to be written, essays and stories. Jews, if completed, would consist of historical sketches—Moses “In the Desert,” the one-act play A Night in Alexandria, Spinoza and Uriel Acosta, and a section concerning “The Return,” not in Zionist terms, but regarding the larger Jewish renaissance, incorporating the now destroyed Haskalah (Eastern European Jewish Enlightenment) with an essay on the Yiddish poets (about whom he would later publish an article in an attempt to bring some of their work to an English-only audience). He would include, as well, his own Jewish poems of recent years.3 Though this volume would never appear, The Magic Word, a study of the poetic process, also sketched that day, would, though with a content altered from that initially intended. Absent would be a discussion of the great sweep of Jewish literature, from the Talmud to Yiddish poetry to Jewish writers in Western literature, and the more direct attacks upon T. S. Eliot’s “Highest Antisemitism” and Arnold Toynbee’s contribution to the perpetuation of this bigotry.4
In late September, Ludwig and Louise left New York for their new home. The five-room apartment they were to occupy in Brandeis’s expanding, medieval castle-like stone building was not yet fully renovated, so they settled temporarily into the Continental Hotel in Cambridge.5 Since Ludwig was unfamiliar with the Boston area despite many visits to lecture there since the 1920s, a relative of Louise’s friends from her hometown of Des Moines greeted them upon their arrival and provided a tour of the city and suburbs. Others in the area, excited by his presence, feted them during their first days while they awaited the opening of the university.6 Ludwig reported to Spiro on the twenty-eighth that all was pleasant, that they had bought a cat (Cupcake) who was now boarding at a veterinarian’s clinic, and that Jim was bored with his new school, though the presence of a girlfriend might relieve the tension for them all. While Ludwig’s days were filled with anticipation over this new venture, the wait would soon be over as the university’s official opening was to be celebrated at a formal academic convocation over which he, not Sachar, would preside on October 8. With full cynicism, as always, Ludwig pictured the processing “of the trustees (none of whom have ever seen the inside of a college). [They] will wear a cap and gown and I understand the little darlings are in quite a flutter. Since they’re all rich … you can see that the ‘public relations’ department has been very busy.”7
Opening ceremonies began on the evening of October 7 and continued for the next two days. Three thousand guests, among them hundreds of university presidents and other delegates from learned institutions in the United States and abroad, gathered in Boston’s Symphony Hall to celebrate the inauguration of the first Brandeis president. “We were gratified to be host to one of the largest university convocations of the twentieth century,” Sachar recorded years later. That evening he spoke for thirty minutes, outlining the guiding principles of the university in its attempt to steer its own course. “Brandeis will be a school of the spirit—a school in which the temper and climate of the mind will take precedence over the acquisition of skills, and the development of techniques. Brandeis will be a dwelling place of permanent values, those few unchanging values of beauty, of righteousness, of freedom, which men have ever sought to attain.” Never would Brandeis welcome “pagan concepts of the utter relativeness of truth, of life’s meaninglessness and perishableness.” The world had too recently and too graphically witnessed the consequences of such a picture to countenance it as yet. Nor would Brandeis act as had so many other institutions—educational, business, and otherwise. “Brandeis will offer its opportunities to all. Neither student body nor faculty will ever be chosen on the basis of population proportions, whether ethnic or religious or economic.” All practices of establishing quotas based upon “genetic … distribution” were condemned, though many in the audience of invited educational leaders freely and consciously still exercised them. “Such arbitrary categories are based on the assumption that there are standard population strains, on the belief that the ideal American must look and act like an eighteenth-century Puritan, that the melting pot of America must mold all who live here into such a pattern.” In truth, Sachar maintained, America was more a “symphony” than it was the clichéd melting pot. “The precious groups that have come to these shores must not disappear into an assimilative cauldron, they must retain their uniqueness which has come out of their special heritage.” Such “diversity of instrumentation” would yield not “a dreadful cacophony,” as others feared, but the “richness and profundity of this human symphony.”8 Four years later, Ebony, an African-American journal, would note that “America’s newest university … operates on a set of democratic principles which could easily serve as goals for every other university in the United States.”9
Others rose that evening to second Sachar’s good words. Hindus later recalled how Sachar’s carefully prepared speech, though well received, was immediately overshadowed by Ludwig’s extemporaneous remarks of five minutes’ duration.10 Few could match the powerful delivery mastered through years of writing and lecturing. If Sachar feared Ludwig’s possible dominance of the faculty and his probable championing of Zionism and a more traditional religious stance than was held by most others associated with the university, this brief display of his persuasive powers must certainly have fueled that fear. So, too, must have Ludwig’s more formally prepared challenge to all in attendance at the academic conference over which he presided the following day. In time, Sachar and Ludwig would move further apart on the issues which dominated the brief talk he gave that morning, though Ludwig for the moment at least spoke of them in more universal terms, saving the specifics for his Jewish colleagues whose fascination with assimilationist goals appeared to him as a clear turn in the wrong direction. Addressing university presidents and professors, Ludwig chose to speak not of teaching methods, as did others ascending the podium that day,11 but of the “moral implications” of their efforts. “With quite sincere humility,” he spoke of the confluence of two destructive trends in the contemporary West which threatened its foundations and which the world of higher education was uniquely placed to counter. Ludwig’s own words bear repeating for the contemporaneity of his concerns.
I, for one, find undeniable the simultaneity of two groups of phenomena. The one group consists of the gradual abandonment of certain permanent values both in education and in the practical life, the negation of the metaphysical validation of ethics, the neglect of the works of those masters who sum up the quality of the experience of man, the complete loss of the assurance, amid the pursuit of speed and effectiveness in the world of matter, that there is, or was, a consensus of mankind which was mankind’s highest achievement, that it was, not so long ago, understood ubique, semper, et ab omnibus, that you cannot, so to speak, prefer Irving Berlin to Bach or make mere effectiveness, however murderous, the criterion of truth, or deny the central duty of man long ago formulated by the Hebrew tradition—v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha—(and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself)—the deep assurance that you can not do these things and still be numbered among civilized men. Such is the one group of phenomena, the emergence of which we have all witnessed. And the second and simultaneous group may be summed up as the unrivalled moral deterioration of Western man. Few people know to this day, despite fullest documentation in many languages, what went on in Europe from 1933 to the end of the war. Human speech is inadequate to portray such horrors. Not many can permit themselves to know or dare take upon themselves the full measure of anguish and despair and go on living. Yet in the great world of public interest and public discussion, above all, in the debates of the United Nations and the Security Council, there has not yet been heard one word of the confession of guilt, of the necessity of expiation, if man is to remain man and therefore—therefore—the world seems destined to slide into other wars and disasters yet unheard-of.
Could “the simultaneity of these two groups of phenomena be denied?” he asked rhetorically. And if not, might “the content and method of our teaching” have played some role in “the confusion or obliteration of values,” so that in “the abandonment of the classics, not necessarily those of Greece and Rome,” could be found the root cause of susceptibility to demagogues of whatever stripe, “Hitler today … Stalin tomorrow…some third pagan scoundrel on the day after”? What they had all witnessed in the last decades, and were witnessing still, was “a total failure in critical judgment, a total blunting of the higher sensibilities, so that any demagogue, however wicked, stupid, cruel, is able to prevail without the solid resistance of a great mass of educated men who can stigmatize him with complete intellectual and moral assurance.”
In the place of pedagogical and moral stagnation and regression, Ludwig called for the “re-arising of the educated man” who has “some awareness of historic processes,” who knows that freedom “is not easily achieved by the devices of unfree spirits,” and who will know that “an ethic without metaphysical validation has no compulsive force”—that there exists “an eternal justice and … a righteousness which was not of the vain invention of man.” Above all, this educated person will come to appreciate “the great paradoxes [and responsibilities] of the moral life, that you must literally lose your life in some higher cause of interest in order to preserve it, that the devaluation of values leads to utter boredom, that even taste has its moral aspects and that the perversion of democracy by which the common man, instead of being raised by education above his commonness, is made the measure of all things in his unredeemed commonness, is not only to treat that common man with the contempt of hopelessness in him, but to bring about the deterioration of society and the death of freedom.”
Was such a return of the educated in America possible? “I trust so; no, I almost believe so. Our necessities will compel us.” Ludwig insisted upon the cultivation of “this man of faith in the permanent and eternal and of skepticism in the winds of doctrine of a brief and transitory day, this man of taste in both the moral and aesthetic spheres, this man of discernment in the affairs of the world.” He had come to Brandeis because of “the firm assurances” that it would “be dedicated to this end.” He would hold the university to its pledge, and to the tradition to which it was “deeply allied” and by which alone it could fulfill its mission, that “Jewish tradition and the Jewish faith—which have never wholly yielded to the follies and the cruelties of a pagan and unredeemed world. In sorrow and in anguish, often in homelessness and daily terror, we have always guarded the sacred flame of disinterested learning, of learning for its own sake—of learning for two things alone—consecration and wisdom.”12
In the years ahead, he would argue strenuously and repeatedly that this pledge be kept, raising the opposition of so many of his younger colleagues, and of Sachar himself, who would later recall Ludwig with bitterness and, yet, with a sense of awe. “That’s the kind of complex character Lewisohn was, you admired him immensely, [but] I don’t think anybody ever loved him really.… He must have shaved with that tongue it was so sharp, and [yet] you were so fascinated, he dominated conversations, not only that voice and appearance … but his pontification was never offensive because everything he said was so delightful and so profound.” Sachar accused him of being “a very selfish man” who stood in awe of no one, loyal only to himself, and without proper gratitude toward those who had taken him in. “He owed us an awful lot,” Sachar claimed, and yet he “criticized the University for not being Jewish enough.” But Sachar never really understood Ludwig’s belief in the role he had assigned to the Jewish tradition for the salvation of a moral civilization in the West, and in the Jewish people’s responsibility toward both its tradition and the prophetic task it placed upon them. “His return to Judaism had absolutely nothing to do with faith or ritual,” Sachar angrily maintained long after Ludwig’s death. “Rhetorically he would talk about Orthodoxy and its beauty, the Hasid and its mysticism, and all the rest of it. That was all sheer crap, because in his personal life he didn’t change one wit.”13 How wrong Sachar was would never become evident to him throughout the battle Ludwig waged to keep Brandeis on course in the years he would walk its campus. These were years that would leave an impression strong enough to warrant his voice being recalled nearly four decades later when a Brandeis student publication once again raised the issue of the “reality and fiction of Jewish life at Brandeis.” In an article titled “Where Are We?” the Watch recalled Ludwig’s declaration that “a Jewish university must and should radiate the spirit of Judaism itself, should live and breathe and exist by virtue of that spirit.”14
Ludwig’s days at Brandeis, in fact, remained as they were from the first. Despite his ongoing dispute over the commitment of Brandeis to its Jewish roots, they were throughout pleasant and fulfilling. “I enjoy my work thoroughly,” he reported to Spiro on October 30, “and on the faculty there are several agreeable and learned people.”15 In January he would continue to assess his move to Brandeis as a positive step in his life. If not as stimulating as he had hoped, he found it opening new doors to the classroom and to nature. With Cupcake he would sit in his apartment and look out upon a portion of the still mostly treed hundred-acre campus, or walk about enjoying an out-of-doors life he had long craved. Among the students he met, he felt a strengthening of Jewish identity that cheered his spirits, “the most interesting and in a sense the most heartening phenomenon in American Jewish life.”16
Only Jim’s apparent inability to control his emotional outbursts now seemed to stand in the way of Ludwig’s sense of contentment. Sent to a military school, Jim had run away and was back home at Brandeis by late November, forcing Ludwig and Louise to move into a larger apartment in the Castle. He was now to enroll in the local Waltham High School, with a plan for the coming summer to attend a Zionist youth camp, where he would prepare for a life in Israel. There Ludwig hoped Jim would work through his psychological problems.17 But only weeks into his return home, Jim had already become what Ludwig described as the campus mascot, following after students older than himself, involved in their activities to the total exclusion of his own schoolwork. Disrespectful, verbally abusive, and clearly antiauthoritarian, Jim caused Ludwig to yell at him in an attempt to correct his behavior. “He is a one hundred percent extrovert with a neurotic and immoral streak,” Ludwig wrote Spiro in January 1949.18 By February, Ludwig was planning to send Jim to a more structured camp in Israel where there would be no way out of his responsibilities.19 Not until May would Ludwig find some relief from this concern when Jim enrolled in another private school.20
Nor would Ludwig readily find himself with much control over academic matters much beyond his own classroom. The postwar period, as Sachar characterized it, was a time in which “the whole field of education, its objectives as well as its techniques,” was being questioned. “The college world was dizzy with proposals for experiment, for scrapping, if need be, much that went by the name of education,” particularly “the time-honored curriculum that emphasized the classical humanist tradition,”21 the very thing in support of which Ludwig had spoken in his opening remarks to the academic conference in October. In discussions formal and informal, he pushed for certain minimum requirements, particularly foreign languages, as a mainstay of the educated man.22 At times successful, he was more often listened to and then disregarded by Sachar and the younger faculty who recognized the need to strike a compromise between traditional educational goals and the cry for “more potential preparation for ‘the world of reality.’”23 While Sachar and the others carried out their task of making the new university viable, Ludwig saw his responsibility as the maintenance of immutable values and the standards needed to support them, a position rarely appreciated by those needing to strike a compromise, Sachar among them.
Above all, the University was still a very small family. There was no faculty senate, not only because of the very limited size of the school, but because, to use scientific terminology, we had no “critical mass” with a career commitment to Brandeis. Governance meant informed consensus. A small group of faculty and administrative officers met frequently with me at the President’s House or in my office, or, most often, at lunch for casual off-the-record discussions with no motions and no resolutions and no minutes. The conversation ranged over the expansion of faculty as the classes grew, changing strategies of recruitment, problems of facilities, and, above all, the reforms that were everywhere under scrutiny in educational orientation. Ludwig Lewisohn pontificated, and probably no more outrageous or reactionary proposals in education were ever put forth in such magnificent literary style.24
Almost immediately upon his arrival in the Boston area, Ludwig found himself engaged by numerous Jewish groups as a speaker.25 His acceptance of these many invitations was seen by him as a part of his larger participation, beyond Brandeis, in the renewal of Jewish life in America, and in the search for a new home for the survivors of Hitler’s murderous plan, particularly those displaced writers with whom he could so easily empathize. “I have a personal and literary problem on which I would deeply appreciate your advice,” he wrote Roger Straus, seeking a translator for Soma Morgenstern’s next novel for the Jewish Publication Society. Financial considerations and family obligations had made it impossible to spend so much of his own time on the translation (“pretty much a losing business”). Nor did he have “the strength for that.” Instead he was attempting to assist in the search for a good translator, while asking Straus to put a word in with the Guggenheim Fellowship people on Morgenstern’s behalf.26
What time and strength he had remaining after his responsibilities at Brandeis had to be devoted to either more lucrative or more personally satisfying work. “Up to the eyes in work,” he rushed to answer his correspondence as one request after another began to arrive, including an invitation to address the New England Association of Professors of English on the “Man of Letters in America” in late November. He was even more pleased to receive a request from the American Jewish Congress for an article in its Congress Weekly, for which he offered to do the piece he originally “had intended to write for the first number of the projected American Zionist Review… a thorough and reasoned review of the Schocken Library [of German-Jewish authors in translation] … and the function it can perform in America” toward the renaissance he envisioned.27 In it, he would speak again of the failure of Emancipation in the Diaspora, and of the need for a “subjective” change among Jews, as well as for an objective reappraisal of the role of the state in the future of an American Jewish community. Clearly, only a total “Separation of State and Culture” could free the Jews to be themselves and enable them to promote their own heritage without the fetters of assimilationist demands.28 On January 1, 1949, he restated the problem in his journal, seeing Jews “Today!… Squeezed between the two poles, between adherence to a Christian culture and total abandonment of the past in nihilism.” Though the “Horrors of Enlightenment [had been] unforeseen” there was little reason now not to set out on a different path.29
With everything else to care for in his life, and at a time when most others were already retired, Ludwig took upon himself the ever increasing amounts of work the promotion of this Jewish renaissance demanded of him. Few had yet explored the world of Yiddish literature in any English-language venue (Ludwig’s friend and fellow Opinion editorial board member, Maurice Samuel, was among the handful who had, publishing The World of Solem Aleichem in 1943 and Prince of the Ghetto in 1948). Fewer still had spoken of its poetry. In April 1949, Ludwig published “Notes on Yiddish Poetry,” explaining how in his earlier years he had searched for “authenticity” in this work, finding mostly “wilted re-writing of German poetry” until at last coming upon “Yiddish literature in a high sense” in the folk songs that derived from Hasidic influence in the late eighteenth century. In the years since, he had read widely in this literature, spreading word of its achievements in broader circles. His claim that contemporary Yiddish poetry was at least as important as American and French had been met “with the air with which people treat an otherwise sane man’s private eccentricities.” Translating a selection of these poets’ most recent work into English, Ludwig offered their vision of the Holocaust to an audience largely unaware of their existence and of their power to communicate an experience which would bear increasingly upon those who had personally remained largely untouched by it. “The triumph of the spirit has not often been more powerfully illustrated,” he offered. “Sing me no sad songs / Of sorrow never / they say all.” In bringing forth such thoughts from Sutzkever’s wartime writing, Ludwig anticipated by thirty years the symbolic recognition that would come to this entire body of writing with the awarding of a Nobel Prize to prose writer Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978. “Who will do justice to these poets and to the poetic movement of which they are a part in the great world of literature and literary values?” he asked in criticism of his fellow critics, even those Yiddishists who looked only at an earlier period, as if to avoid the pain. “Perhaps it is a kind of inverted provincialism in me that is sore at heart at the world’s ignorance of so much nobility and talent.… And so, a mere dilettante on the whole subject, I have done my poor best to rectify this situation.”30
Though now absent from the whirlwind of Zionist politics, Ludwig could not allow himself to remain outside its circle. Fully aware of the profound changes wrought by the Holocaust on the Diaspora’s attitude toward the Yishuv, he saw in the founding of the state of Israel the makings of a radical change for the future Jewish world. Three days after the new year of 1949 had begun, he asked Canfield to send a copy of Chaim Weizmann’s recently published memoirs (ghostwritten by Ludwig’s friend Maurice Samuel) for review in Congress Weekly (while reminding his former editor that it was he who had first put writer and editor together many years earlier).31 Remaining opposed to the current ZOA leadership, Ludwig happily consented in early April to be named to the oppositional Committee for Progressive Zionism’s “Executive Committee in Formation.” Founded in 1947 in an effort to democratize the ZOA from within and to keep it from exercising undue influence upon the internal governance of the Yishuv (by limiting the ZOA’s activities to fundraising and progressive investments in Palestine), the committee had chosen to remain dormant during the struggle for independence from Britain. With that goal now accomplished, the committee began to revive its efforts, finding a willing participant in Ludwig, who now joined with old comrades, among them Wise and Weisgal, threatening a split within the American Zionist camp at the upcoming ZOA convention on April 17.32 A month later, the furor over Zionist politics subsiding, Ludwig would address the Combined Jewish Appeal of Boston, continuing his efforts to raise funds for the State of Israel as it recovered from unsuccessful Arab attack, and for a variety of local Jewish projects.33
Yet, with the recent death of its editor, Stephen Wise, Ludwig resigned his own position on the editorial board of Opinion, one that he had held intermittently since the 1920s.34 His commitments now lay elsewhere. In his January 1949 letter to Canfield, Ludwig had spoken of his new life at Brandeis, advising him of the Look magazine article about to appear, in which he was included within the story of the newly opened university. By spring he was feeling quite at home in this new environment. A prospective student’s parents later recalled that during their visit to the campus, Ludwig had stopped while on his way “to the library … and showed us around and seemed very happy with his professorship there.” Not that he wasn’t critical of certain elements. It would have been uncharacteristic if he had not been displeased with something. “We began to talk about the teaching of psychology,” when, “incensed at the modern ways of psychology,” Ludwig complained that, “in my day, we studied philosophy and theory. But our students go down to the corner drug store and ask questions! That’s what they call Psychology? Phoo!”35
Ludwig displayed a similar vigorousness of body late that spring during a visit by Bennett Cerf to his apartment in the Castle. Still somewhat awed by the elderly man’s gutsy display, Cerf wrote about it soon afterward in his Saturday Review column.
Ludwig Lewisohn was in the middle of telling me how he had finished his scholarly two-volume “Goethe: The Story of a Man” (Farrar, Straus) on Goethe’s 199th birthday, when his wife, Louise, uttered a shrill cry of alarm. Cupcake, the Lewisohns’ outrageously spoiled cat, just had knocked over a priceless Ming vase and escaped through the casement window. Ludwig was in hot pursuit before you could say Mister Crump. Around the campus at an ever madder pace sped Cupcake and her pursuer. Suddenly the playful feline shinnied up a Massachusetts variety of Giant Redwood tree. Ludwig went up after her—and captured her, too—on the highest branch, while students, faculty, and Cerf cheered a brilliant maneuver, faultlessly executed. Of course, there remained the minor formality of getting Ludwig and Cupcake down from the tree. The student body was equal to the emergency, producing the tallest ladder I ever saw to facilitate the descent. “You handled that well,” I told the boys. “We ought to by this time,” answered one. “After all, this is the third time we’ve done it since Saturday.”
His new Abercrombie & Fitch sport jacket torn beyond repair, and with deep gashes in his arms, Ludwig returned home in triumph, cat in hand,36 a measure of his love for her as much as it was of his will.
That spring of 1949 brought with it, as well, an ironic combination of successes. Long in preparation, the two Goethe volumes were at last published with much fanfare on May 24, including a large celebratory dinner at Brandeis in Ludwig’s honor as the first faculty member to publish a book while at the university. At the same time, Crump, as The Tyranny of Sex, and Stephen Escott, retitled The Vehement Flame by Farrar, Straus when similarly repackaged with a sexually suggestive cover the previous year, were now doing exceedingly well at the corner drugstore.37 There was again talk in New York and Hollywood of a theater or filmed version of Crump, with Albert and Francis Hackett, screenwriters for Dashiell Hammett’s “Thin Man” series and later of The Diary of Anne Frank, considering the project. A year later, Straus would try to induce Lillian Hellman to take on the project. “I just think it would make a hell of a play.… I do believe this is a honey.” In the end a good story would be passed by.38 But whatever satisfaction this resurgent recognition among the general public provided, it was the publication of his work on Goethe that offered the greater fulfillment.
For Ludwig, the volumes further testified to the close and loving relationship he had established with Louise after so many previous marital failures. In presenting the manuscript of the Goethe book to Brandeis that evening, he inscribed it not to the university, but “To My Dear Wife, without whose devoted and untiring collaboration this book could never have been written.”39 Yet beyond this private marker, the book was Ludwig’s first substantial contribution to scholarship since Expression in America had appeared seventeen years earlier. Even before its publication, Ludwig had been certain that it was a solid piece of work. John Farrar, his publisher, though largely uninvolved with the project and unfamiliar with Ludwig’s text until it arrived completed, had found himself more excited by it than he could have imagined. “I spent most of last night with your Goethe,” he had written Ludwig the previous September. “What a man, Goethe! What a man, Lewisohn!… The shrewdness of your translator’s rhythm awes me…. The pleasure of surprise to those as ignorant of Goethe’s life as I was will be enormous.” He went on to acknowledge Ludwig’s technical and artistic skills in “put[ting] the book together with wit as well as love…. The experience of last night as I finished those staggering final pages and the final verses goes along with the reading of the manuscript of John Brown’s Body, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and a few, a very few others.”40 Thomas Mann seconded this appraisal, writing Roger Straus in January that “this is an important and gratifying publication … [that] will belong with the most original, attractive and fruitful contributions to the literary celebration of this Goethe year.”41
When the volumes appeared in late May, the reviewers were nearly unanimous in praising his efforts. “There is a real chance that Goethe’s genius will at last be appreciated in America,”42 asserted the Saturday Review of Literature. One critic, however, objected to Ludwig’s harsh assessment of “the nation that brought forth the genius of Goethe,” seeing it as misplaced “revenge for the ignominious persecutions of Jews staged by the Hitler gang.”43 Ludwig in the opening lines of his introduction, had given ample reason for mounting this defense.
The two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Johann Wolfgang Goethe finds that German people, of whom he came, in a state of self-inflicted ignominy and decay. Devoid of recognizable lineaments, like men robbed of a human countenance, incapable of the contrition and expiation which alone could heal and restore them, the Germans are the despair and horror of this hour in history. Relentlessly they persisted in that course which in the forever memorable words of Thomas Mann “caused their millennial history to be invalidated, reduced to the absurd, proved by the event to have been an accursed aberration and mistake and brought it thus to issue in chaos, in despair, in an unexampled bankruptcy, in a descent into hell, around which flames of thunder danced.” In this long aberration and secular sin Goethe had no share. A moderate conservative, as became his period and his station, an aristocrat, a lover of the best, of quality, like most authentic artists, he looked with sharp distrust and prophetic shame upon even the earlier, more pardonable and more amiable manifestations of German separatism, of German arrogance, upon the whole German cult of pride and blood and death.
Refusing to support his state’s desire to war against France, Goethe had been “accused … of cold indifference to his country’s fate,” and only reluctantly thereafter, Ludwig maintained, did his “unrivalled greatness” force itself upon his countrymen, who, in turn, created a “rigid … image of the official national poet and froze this most variable, sensitive, anguished and visionary man.” It was this greater Goethe, untouched by the hands of nationalistic distortion, that Ludwig wished to restore to the world, “a personality, a human being of incomparable power, intensity and ever renewed significance.”44
Perhaps, given his own affinity for much of German culture, Ludwig needed to restore for himself the one individual whom he had so long held to be its greatest son, the one whose vision enabled him to transcend the “cultural tradition or formal medium that,” as he had noted in a 1921 review of a biography of the poet, “time is beginning to tarnish. All the other great poets lived in a fixed and finished world, in a cosmic or a moral system in which the fate of every action and quality was assumed to be foreknown”—a world as self-assured and unquestioning as that which accepted the Nazi hierarchy of values. But “Goethe was the first realist in the modern sense,” Ludwig had written a dozen years before Hitler’s assent to power, an assessment with which the older Ludwig would later concur. Noting in 1921 that Goethe had “surveyed himself and mankind and human life not under the guidance of preestablished ideas, but as they are in their own nature … [and] created ideas in life and vision in art through passion and action themselves,” Ludwig had further pointed to Goethe’s realization that “man creates false moral absolutes out of his own narrow and special propensities” rather than allow for the “creative self-direction” of the individual “within that process of creative change which is the universe.” For this, tolerance, not denial of difference, was the hallmark against which the followers of Hitler would soon announce their struggle. “I know of no other aim,” Ludwig quoted Goethe, “than to realize myself, in my own way, as far as possible, in order that I may partake of this infinite in which we are placed in an ever happier and purer way.”45
Untarnished by Nazi atrocities and nationwide German complicity, this image of Goethe, central to Ludwig’s own lifelong quest, had to be rehabilitated by him so soon after the war had ended. In the shadow of the Holocaust, Ludwig would write in 1948, perhaps thereby denying the humanity of those who had perpetrated this cataclysmic event, that “whatever such a being as man has done, hoped, suffered, aspired to, doubted and believed is all summed up, is all suffused with the interpretative power of the spirit, within the compass of this man’s faring between birth and death. And he was, in the accurate meaning of that word, a modern man. He is near us; he is ours. His experience is intensely present within our own; his passions are ours, his perplexities, his anguish, his triumph.” For Ludwig, these elements of Goethe’s life were clearly akin to his own, for here was “an exemplary life, exemplary not in the sense of entire virtue, but in the sense of all-inclusiveness, in the sense of that life’s being the symbol of all human lives.”46
Ludwig’s own “sense of all-inclusiveness” would itself soon be tested as a consequence of this work, as suddenly and unexpectedly a friend, long abandoned because of his promotion of Hitler and the Nazi enterprise, reentered his life. While Ludwig was lecturing at Smith College’s Goethe Symposium in early May 1949, Peter Viereck, an historian at Mt. Holyoke College and the son of the Nazi-apologist George Viereck, approached him. “That was a curious experience at Smith College,” Ludwig began his first letter to the friend of his youth after Viereck’s attempt to restore contact had broken the many years of silence between them. “I was rather tired, having driven from here to Northampton and did the polite [thing] to everybody and gave my talk and then people came up to speak to me and, among them, Peter. And, of course, I saw who he was and must be before he told me.”47
Peter Viereck had been expelled from his father’s house in 1940 after publishing his attack upon Hitler and his accomplices titled Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind. In it, he had pointed accusingly at the killings of dissidents and Jews throughout the 1930s, at the cheering crowds of Germans who had witnessed Kristallnacht and the many disappearances that had followed, and at the educated, like his father, who “crusaded” for “Hitler’s shoddy day-dreams.” The original conclusion to the book had been deleted in 1940 by an incredulous editor who judged Peter’s assessment to be an embarrassing exaggeration, disbelieving that such atrocities were occurring with the near universal support of the German people. But Peter’s father had read Metapolitics in manuscript, including his son’s plea that God “forgive them—first defeat them, then forgive them—for they well know what they do.”48 In the years since his expulsion, Peter had reconciled with his father, had passed along Ludwig’s greetings, opening contact between these old friends, and had earned for himself a high level of respect within literary circles as a poet.
Not wishing to open the elder Viereck’s wounds, only just healing following his federal imprisonment for treason as an outspoken supporter and advocate for Nazi Germany, Ludwig still could not allow the moment to pass without some reference to the grave differences that long ago had distanced them from each other, despite the loving relationship they had once shared (and which may have accounted for Ludwig’s decision to respond). In a single-sentence paragraph midway through the letter, he noted, with little relation to what came before or after, that “I should think you’d be able to do something both fascinating and curious with your experiences of recent years.”49 Perhaps he felt as he had a quarter century earlier when he wrote Viereck from Paris, “I have made many, many new friends in various parts of the world. But I find myself always thinking most warmly of a few of the oldest and most tried.”50 During the intervening years, much had happened to them both, and perhaps the years had created in Ludwig a depth of understanding that now allowed him to see in Viereck the person who had been lost amidst the furor of the age they had both come through, both “wandering” in search of what they could only find within themselves, as Goethe had tried to teach them so many years before.51
To his still greater surprise, Ludwig discovered only days after his visit to Smith that it was Peter who was to deliver the evening’s address at the Brandeis dinner honoring the publication of his Goethe study.52 Forty-two years later, Peter recalled how the aging Ludwig “groomed his snowy locks to look like Old Goethe. So did Gerhart Hauptmann when I met him. Looking like Old Goethe is a whole cottage industry in Mitteleuropa. Even Goethe himself occasionally, when briefly getting delusions of grandeur, thought he was old Goethe.” (As for himself, Peter noted, “I’ll be 75 in 5 weeks and I’ve the delusion I’m still alive.”)53 Ludwig, of course, had his impressions of the young Peter, writing to the elder Viereck that he and Louise “were extremely glad to see Peter who, since he agreed with me in many of my fundamental notions, naturally seemed very brilliant and important.” Ludwig went on to tell his prodigal friend that he had written favorably of his son’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volume of poetry in his monthly Palestine Post column on American literature.
The column was just one of Ludwig’s several responsibilities now, as he explained to Viereck, along with lecturing, articles for other journals, and “what you might call the extra-curricular activities to put this college on the map.”54 Brandeis was, in fact, quickly establishing deepening roots in the academic world, which the presence of faculty such as Ludwig enabled it to do. Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, Abraham Maslow, Irving Howe, Max Lerner, Frank Manuel, and other similar lights would soon join this ever-expanding university community. By July 1949 it was announced that a dozen new faculty and 150 additional freshmen would arrive for the beginning of Brandeis’s second year, with new construction for dormitories already under way and a master plan for the campus yet to come.55 It had been an exciting year filled with “all the strains and stresses of [the] experimental … without the discipline of a well-established tradition.” These “first efforts … [were] indeed bedeviled … [by a] plague of locusts and … frogs.” Yet, throughout, the faculty had adhered to the “highest academic standards,” Sachar reported on June 19, “almost as much concerned about the general welfare of the University and the esprit de corps of the student body as about … instruction.”56 Ludwig concurred. “Yes, Brandeis University is a fascinating and fruitful experiment at which to work and I do enjoy it, I am glad to tell you, with undiminished zest,” he wrote Canfield in late July after returning from a month of travel westward and back.57
Clearing his desk in preparation for the trip late that June, Ludwig had written George Viereck to compliment his translations of Heine’s poetry, recently sent for his appraisal. “Your translations are brilliantly skillful—more convincing to me than the damned faked archness of the originals,” Ludwig added, no longer supportive of Heine’s apostasy, as he had been in his youth. Having once used Heine as a model and a mirror for his own life, Ludwig now “dislike[d] him intensely. I don’t believe a word he says. But that’s a long story,” and one which he hinted at in his criticism, for Viereck, of those reviewers who were less than wholly favorable toward the Goethe study, characterizing them as “ignorant as the beasts that perish, malicious as monkeys and all, even those whose awareness is dim, unwilling to admit that a Jew (observant and nationalist) has the station in American literature that I have.” Though accorded a complete bibliography of his critical work in Leonard Spiller’s recently published History of American Literature, Ludwig was angered by the absence in the text of any mention of the “fifteen novels by which I stand or fall.” Realizing that this was to be his “verschiedene Schicksale [distinct fate],” he was “seeing to it that these books are gradually being translated into Hebrew and published in Tel-Aviv. Thus I’m sure of not having written them in vain,” he asserted to Viereck.58 (So convinced was he of this purposeful exclusion that in March he had again noted in his journal the need to publish on the Jews’ influence in Western literature.)59
For Ludwig, the apparently quick dismissal of the Holocaust, in favor of a greater concern for those Japanese who had died in Hiroshima as the consequence of their own country’s initiation of war, was a part of this same continuation of anti-Semitism he had known throughout his years in America. Who better than Viereck, a former Nazi propagandist and ardent Freudian, could appreciate the irony of such repression of guilt and fear for the future as a consequence of what their own silence had so recently helped to perpetuate? In one of the earliest postwar statements raising the Holocaust’s implications for Christendom, Ludwig noted,
I find it funny that people get sloppy about Hiroshima—an act of war against a savage enemy, and seem blithely to overlook Dachau and Teresienstadt and Treblinka and Majdanek and Auschwitz and Warsaw and Vilna and Lublin. I guess youse guys did Jesus in pretty thoroughly there. I don’t think he ought to be mentioned any more—unless and until we see some sign of Schuld und Suehne [Guilt and Punishment]. If that’s not forthcoming in some form, of course there will be hell—literal hell on earth. What else would you expect? As a Freudian you ought to know why people substitute horror at Hiroshima for horror at that which they prefer to repress.60
Louise was already in Chicago visiting relatives as Ludwig readied himself to board a cross-country train that July 5, joining her on his way to Aspen, Colorado, where, together with Albert Schweitzer, José Ortega y Gasset, Thornton Wilder, Robert Hutchins, Luis Borges, and others, he would address the Goethe Convocation being held that summer among the cooling mountains. For “fun,” he had sent each of them an advance copy of his talk before leaving New York, hoping to stimulate a deeper response.61 The conference proved exciting, the stay restful. “I needed a real vacation,” he wrote Canfield when he returned.62 But even before he left, his thoughts were already centering on a new project, a novel tentatively titled Letter to a Lady, to be written for the New American Library, an increasingly successful paperback venture.63
By the time he returned to New York, Ludwig had already added a second possibility, a study of the negative effects of Christianity upon Judaism. In an abortive attempt on August 2 to begin a true “Diary,” and not merely a sketchbook of notes for future work, he speculated on how different Jewish law and custom would have been “had [it] developed freely in a self-sustaining community. But it was and is broken in imitation of the world of the goyim. No concession must be made to that world even for its own sake.” It was not only a matter of “history, self-respect and honor on [the] side of tradition,” but of holiness, of sanctification. “Kedusha [is] separation from the world.”64
Over the next several weeks, Ludwig would develop these ideas more fully, both their content and the format he would use to communicate what on August 11 he saw as “an historical and philosophical summing up of the whole matter.” After first revisiting Israel, he would write “not a book on Israel,” as he had a quarter century earlier, “but a definitive treatise called say, The Jew and the World.” A discussion of “religious humanism,” it would raise “extreme” questions of “good and evil, State and society, Politics and morals … [and] Freedom.” Still somewhat unfocused, his treatise would “begin schematically with the proclamation of the Jewish State in May 48” and end with a discussion of Jewry in the Diaspora and Israel “as of 1950,” what he designated as “Ghetto I [and] Ghetto II,” seeing Jewish life in either setting as separated from the larger context around it.65 The following day he decided on a second book from his proposed trip, Fifty Days in Israel: A Diary, though it was still “too early for organization” of his thoughts on either work.66 Nine days later, the work beginning to take on some cohesiveness, he added an “Important Notation” to his notebook. In attempting to understand Christianity’s role in the Holocaust, he would include a discussion of its relation to Jewry. “Christianity fits psychical pattern of projection of guilt-feeling. Rebellion is against Jewish teachings of Jesus from Gnostics to Harnack [a contemporary German theologian, d. 1930].”67
With this final ingredient for his study in place, Ludwig drew up an outline of twelve chapters, using as his point of departure the “Attitudes to Israel” of men like Toynbee, Eliot, and Gide. “The Phenomenon” of Judaism and Jewry and “The Reaction of Antiquity” to it were to begin the study itself, followed by “The Tragedy of Christianity” and its basis in “The Irrelevance of Facts” at the very heart of anti-Semitism. He would then move on to the development of Jewry to the present, encompassing “The Classical Ghetto; Emancipation;… The New Forms of Life, East and West; Decay and Abrogation of Emancipation [with] Kiddish ha Shem, etc., etc.; Zionism as Reply,” and ending with discussions of “Teshuvah … and Rectification [on] Metaphysical grounds.” To be written with “sobriety and precision,” he had set himself a formidable task, only part of which he would ever complete.68
By summer’s end he was looking forward to the start of a second academic year. What rest he had managed to capture at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, “to recover from the strenuous physical and cultural activities,”69 had been found between numerous engagements beyond his trip to Aspen. A lecture in Chicago, an appearance on the Eternal Light radio show in New York, his work at the Hillel Leadership Institute in Wildacres, North Carolina (where he would lecture each summer until his death), and other commitments merely bracketed periods of work on several writing projects, including an introduction and first chapter to a new collection of essays of literary criticism, The Magic Word, which he would complete on September 10.70
“I can’t say I’m sorry I turned to prose,” Ludwig had confessed to Viereck in May of that year. “At least it has proven more useful—both to others and to myself.” Though he had continued to write poetry and to publish a piece now and then, he could not claim to be a working poet. Instead, he had assumed the role of “poetical handyman, that is, translator, on certain occasions.” Such had been the case with Viereck in their shared youth; so, too, with the Goethe volumes.71 Such willingness to play this role had come from Ludwig’s abiding belief that in poetry was to be found a prophetic voice of truth that no other genre could so consistently offer. The Magic Word, Ludwig’s thirty-second original work, was his paean to its three greatest masters—Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe—composed in the first case of an essay “written some time ago as the record of an old enchantment,” in the second of a lecture series delivered that past spring at Brandeis’s Adult Education Institute, and in the latter of his Smith College address.72 Each chapter carried with it a theme central to his life—Homer, with his depictions of life’s “dearest joys … those sanctities and domestic affections, that married and parental love with its loyalties and delights centering in hearth and home … the one purely good and precious thing in the midst of war and tumult and cruelty and wandering and homelessness and death”;73 Shakespeare, who “drives deep into the human heart and sums up what all have felt … the eternal, natural, pitiful, divided, self-divided, self-tormenting, hot, bloody, ultimately and vainly repentant … the mortal passion, confusion, pity, shame”;74 and, finally, Goethe, whose voice spoke out against the “horrors and miseries derive[d] … from a crude, pagan acceptance of nature and a servile identification of man with nature … [and from] subservience to the machine and to that brutal figment called ‘social forces,’” so recently witnessed in Germany and the Soviet Union. It was Goethe’s voice that was now “so sorely needed” as it “bids the free personality [to] reshape nature in its own image, [to] suffuse nature with values derived from a source beyond itself and to transcend the natural by man’s true sovereign gifts: the gift of goodness, the gift of the pursuit of perfection.”75
“Jangle the harmony: you trouble / The silken surface of each pool,” Ludwig advised his readers in the “Proem” to The Magic Word. Through the voices of his hero-poets, he hoped to do just that, to use poetry as it had been meant in its original mythic form, as “an act redeeming / The soul from chaos and from force. / All speech is purest incantation, / Summoning forth the heart of things; / As on the morning of creation / The magic word both says and sings.” He wished to stir these pools silenced by over a half century of strife and misdirection, using literature, as always, with poetry its most focused expression, as a curative in this darkened age. A witness to man’s deepest rejection of the “realities of the soul” in favor of “the great game of equating man … with his biological make-up,” Ludwig offered, in this time of relative personal peace, one of his darkest visions.
We are in a desperate twilight region—a desert of melancholy muttering, unpierced by a single cry of man’s heart, a single utterance of music or of aspiration. It is this melancholy situation which justifies or, rather, renders imperative, an act of both scrutiny and recollection. When we turn our eyes once more upon man’s real character and that of his expression we remember, undeterred by the materialist fool, that human language is a free and poetic creation by which this human being, torn out of the order of nature, knowing good and evil, stranded inscrutably upon this planet in the depth of space, spoke from the first of the mystery of himself and his being and cried out for his God. He created significant myth in rhythmic measures. Having done so, he achieved varying degrees of redemption from darkness and from guilt. In brief, he started, long before letters were invented, the composition of what was to be called literature. And literature will last as long as he himself lasts unchanged in character and purpose.76
Having focused on this more universal spiritual blindness throughout the summer and early fall, Ludwig returned to Brandeis more intent than before to secure some space on campus, and, if possible, throughout the larger Jewish community, where young Jews could nourish their spiritual lives. Answering Irving Howe’s critique in Commentary of his earlier novels—that his Jewish characters were types, and not individuals, individually drawn—Ludwig countered that what Howe and other Jews of his generation in America really wished to see was “a Jew who is no Jew. No wonder that he has words of sincere praise only for a ‘Jewish character’ delineated by Ernest Hemingway,” Ludwig added in reference to the negative stereotype drawn by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises. “The trouble with the quite young Jewish intellectual in America seems to be his virginity in respect of Jewish knowledge, tradition, faith, historic feeling, and, above all, that AHAVATH YISRAEL [love of Israel] which leads to understanding and Jewish creativity.” Angered by Howe’s attack as a symptom of this younger group’s abandonment of a Jewish focus for other concerns and by its effect upon those now coming of age, Ludwig hit harder still, speaking of their “bland and immediate assumption that everything that is not ours is better and that all of ours must be valued inversely to its authenticity.” If of lesser quality, why had The Island Within (a book he had “long been dissatisfied with … because it does not go nearly far enough”) “in a dozen languages … helped to sustain and comfort Jews”? Of this, clearly, “Mr. Howe has no notion.” Nor that the book “was in the luggage of refugees … [and] in the DP camps. It helped a whole generation to bear affirmatively its Jewish destiny,” as it was continuing to do, witness a new printing in Italian. To Howe’s added claim that he had “confused his will with destiny,” Ludwig answered, sharper still, that his critic “quite writes as though what ‘de-nazified’ Germans would like us to regard as ‘a late unpleasantness’ had never happened.” If he himself could be faulted for anything, Ludwig readily admitted, it was that his darkened “view of destiny [in Island and elsewhere during the prewar years] was not far sterner and more uncompromising.”77
Certainly this would be the case if he were now to write a piece of Jewish fiction. In a short article for the Congress Weekly titled “The Jewish Novel in America,” he noted that in this post-Holocaust, rapidly assimilatory time, whatever he would write would certainly “be immeasurably more trenchant and more uncompromising and could not … sustain them in their equivocal modus vivendi of an unstable equilibrium at all,” as Island had sought to do. To write a novel of Jewish life in contemporary America would be to speak negatively of all that passes for authentic Jewish involvement, deeply criticizing those “good people,” Jewishly affiliated, who “even have a mild though somehow tenacious affection for what they consider their Judaism—a mix of cultural memories and materialistic well-being.” In his imagined novel, a rabbi, “humbly aware of the need which a Godless society has of him,” sustains a breakdown, and sitting alone in his study, “weeps often.” Projecting his own deepest fears for American Jewry, Ludwig presciently drew a picture of a community in rapid decline and of the seemingly few alternatives open to someone seeking to remain a part of a truly authentic Jewish life. With images reflecting accurately upon the discussion of a generation he would not live to see, Ludwig placed his rabbi in a state of spiritual distress.
For what has crept upon him is an ineffable and immeasurable terror. These people of his, these best of the Jews of America, despite their generosity, their goodness of heart, their slight post-Hitler reintegration with the Jewish people, are hurtling down a slope toward extinction and degradation. Two more generations and these two fragile loyalties, unsupported by either faith or knowledge, will have faded. What will remain is a body of people who are called Jews and persecuted as Jews and who will not be Jews. They will be empty simulacra—ghosts, degraded spiritual helots. That—that will be the end of the mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh in America, the blessed land of liberty. The rabbi weeps and weeps. No, he does not go to Israel, as sundry of his colleagues have done. That would save him. But he is thinking of his people—these five million tragic Jews of America. He resigns his pulpit. He moves into a little house in a quarter where very poor orthodox families live. He will practice the Law, the whole Law, the 613 Mitzvoth. He does not presume to say that the future, above all, the future of the people in Israel, will necessarily involve the strict traditional life. What he is certain of philosophically and practically is that here and now, in this place and time of Galuth, there is no other saving or exemplary power, no other immediate redemptive instrumentality than the living of a total Jewish life inspired by the deepest kavanah at every moment. He sits from now on in his klaus. He hopes that people will come to him—a few, a very few, souls truly set upon some sort of redemption, upon a sincere teshuvah.
Might such a novel prove a scandal? Ludwig thought not, for few would even entertain the possibility of such developments. And not just those practicing “good old-fashioned Jewish self-hatred” and who often spoke out of ignorance—but all those other “young Jewish intellectuals [who] associate only with such Jews as are guaranteed to know no more of Jewishness or Judaism or Jewish history, languages, culture, faith, spirit than they do themselves.” Even to the Jewishly involved, at whatever depth of concern or knowledge,
it would be considered too fantastically remote. For it would necessarily include in its texture an ironic treatment of anti-Defamation, of all good-will movements, of all the thousand propitiatory Jewish gestures which mask themselves as “liberalism”; it would denounce tolerance as both concept and practice; it would expose the shame of a people which, having just undergone a supreme martyrdom of which no Christian in all Christendom is wholly guiltless, acts individually and corporately as though nothing had happened, as though it could still afford to imitate in any measure that Godless and unredeemed world within which that ineffable martyrdom took place—a people that still, still runs after those idols on the pagan market-places of the world to whom the six-million were sacrificed.78
A week before Ludwig’s article appeared, Sachar was quoted in Time as saying that Brandeis was “not just another little school, but a symbol of what the Jewish people want to contribute in the intellectual world.”79 It was a position which Ludwig would regard, until his death, as too limited. Where, he would ask, was the contribution to the Jewish world, to its enrichment and perpetuation? Forty years later the New York Times would run a story on this very issue, “In Search for Diversity, Brandeis Is Challenged,” with university administrators quoted as defining its Jewishness in “its reverence for the development of the mind.”80 And again two years later, a sociologist at the university, echoing Ludwig, would begin a long treatment of this same question by noting in “Brandeis in the Balance” that it “has been struggling with the nature of its Jewishness” and needed “to rethink its relationship” to that heritage, and concluded by urging it to abandon “institutional … cultural assimilation,” long its practice, for “its Jewish strengths and beauties,” and thereby “rediscover and enact, at least in part, the magnificence of the prophetic vision.”81
On the day that Sachar’s statement appeared in Time, November 28, 1949, Ludwig wrote the first words of the only real diary he was ever to keep. (Haven was less a diary than a well-conceived defense and apologia.) Returning from a thorough physical examination using “all the beneficent modern devices,” he felt buoyed in spirit by the better-than-expected report (“beyond my hopes”) he had received. “So this would seem a good time to start a diary,” he judged.
The temptation has, of course, been recurrent. I occupy in some not easily definable way a position of some sort in the literature of my time; I am somewhere within Jewish history—or rather, the history of Jewish thought. The very fact that I write these words shows at once that I expect my diary—if I go on with it—to be read. But (except for Pepys) all keepers of diaries expected them to be read. Better be clear and sincere on that point at once. It need not mitigate against the attempt—more no man can promise himself—to be veracious. To be veracious even at one’s own expense.
If the temptation had been “recurrent,” there were quite good reasons for his prior reluctance. With the exception of The Island Within, none of his books, by his own assessment, were “better known” than Up Stream and Mid-Channel, and “they fill me with a strange shame.” Though convinced that certain “fine and memorable” passages had retained their high quality, they could not outweigh the “falsely elegiac” tone of the first book, nor the “exhibitionism” of the second—both resulting from “exasperation and confusions” born of those many “true, sordid and melancholy things [that] happened to me in my youth.” While clearly their victim, he believed now that he himself was not wholly without fault, having given in to “weaknesses, falsenesses, intermittences of judgment and sensibility in me” that are not common to all. “These things happened to me; not everything happens to everyone.” Though he could “trace the reasons … [and] find explanations,” they still “do not suffice.” Rather, the pain of those earlier years “betrays” problems of character from which he had long been painfully recovering. But all this was now in the past. “Yes, I have expiated, perhaps atoned for those miseries. I am confronted by the dry and dignified transmutation of experience into art which is found in The Case of Mr. Crump. Nevertheless.… Well, I am pretty sure that my purgation is complete,” he added with a bit of lingering doubt.
Still, he felt certain that the old life had finally passed. The “agitation” that had given it direction had subsided. He had found a peace beyond his deepest wishes, an inner “balance and tranquility” that had always seemed unattainable. Within a new setting, with the one woman who sought nothing from him, and with some increasing recognition for the role he was playing within the Jewish world, life itself had come finally to be a gift and not an adversary.
There seemed always to be problems both personal and professional, suprapersonal too, like the terrible grief and anguish and throttling indignation aroused by the history of our people between 1939 and the proclamation of the State of Israel—things too tumultuous and vast for notations and apercus.… Now, in spite of the evil case in which the world is, I am more at peace than I have ever been. Louise and I are rounding out our seventh year of unbroken harmony and understanding; my activity here at Brandeis is agreeable and congenial; there are signs—small, odd, sporadic—that my books, old and new, are having a fresh impact. But even if these signs turn out to be illusory, I shall be undisturbed. I’ve settled that question, the question of a Jewish writer in Galuth, with destiny and my own mind.
“What next? A query that has point,” he continued, thinking through the direction his writing should take. “Sorely needed here and now” was a book of Réflexions sur la question juive, but not one “half … brilliant and half almost foolish” as Jean-Paul Sartre’s of that title had been. Was he himself the best person to write such a book? Why were there not others in so vast a Jewish community more qualified than he to write on American Jewry? Why was this community so “poor in thinkers and writers, poorer than were the comparatively tiny exilic communities of the Continent of Europe?”
He knew the answer to be “a long story” concerning “the uncritical acceptance of American civilization—a civilization, despite freedom and prosperity, utterly unsuited to the character of the Jew.” Before the demands of this American civilization, all must compromise. Mordecai Kaplan, so well received by those seeking a “fusion” of these two cultures, was “essentially grovelling” (in addition to being “dreadfully pompous”). Even more so “the hopeless illiterate young men who perform in Commentary.” Such “fusion,” the melding of two civilizations into a new entity, could only bring “moral suicide, ethnic self-liquidation. Why be elegiac about it? Why not prepare to resist?” By all evidence, “even the best [rabbis] are in some fear of their congregants who want, upon the whole, to live lives as undisturbed as possible and refuse to be told that these lives are roads to extinction.” And when these rabbis do write, they write poorly, “a fuzzy woolly pseudo-conceptual jargon—a mixture of pretentiousness and vulgarisms.” In such a state, Ludwig was willing to accept the responsibility of explaining to American Jewry how they were destroying their community and their individual spiritual lives. There was no other choice open to him. “As my father olav hashalom [may he rest in peace] used to say: I’ll have to bite into the sour apple.”82 And sour it was, he would note two weeks later. Something had happened to Jewry in America beyond this assimilation. They had fallen prey to “the vast mindlessness prevalent among the vast majority of people on this Continent. Vast, because for the first time in all history it has made the Jews stupid. Quite an achievement,” he reflected in wonderment and negative admiration for the ubiquitousness of the American culture. “Whatever else they [Jews] have been they have never been that.”83
In preparing to attend a faculty lunch two days after the initial entry in his diary, Ludwig had focused this same analysis upon Brandeis, seeing its confused identity as a symptom of the larger problem within American Jewry. “There is a queer streak of equivocalness … because of the odd contradictions at the very core of our enterprise,” he insisted, though he admitted perhaps feeling this to be the case more than did others on the faculty. Brandeis’s “Jewishness (96% inevitably of our student body) and the pretense that we are not Jewish but American—whatever that may mean under these odd circumstances—that little bit of pretense, hypocrisy or, at least, refusal to see things as they really are and to accept them in their reality, slightly falsifies everything.” There was a fundamental difference—not in terms of basic humanity, but “psychologically, morally, intellectually”—between Jew and Gentile. To maintain that both are “identical … is so flagrantly, so hilariously not true. Fancy trying to establish an identity” on such an obvious error in judgment. “There is operative a boundless ability of self-deception. And, je me demand, what for—what is to be gained?” Rather, there was a whole new generation to be lost. Why, Ludwig wondered, would Sachar permit such hypocrisy? Surely, he was not unaware. “I should think Abe Sachar, who in his heart of hearts knows, would be tempted either to scream with laughter or cringe with embarrassment as he smoothly keeps going this silly and futile pretense.”84
On December 15, two weeks after meeting over lunch, Ludwig would note in his diary, “Days rather cluttered with small things: committee meetings, various propaganda activities for Brandeis. I wish I could join in these latter with more warmth of conviction. The contemptible spirit of propitiatory assimilation runs through everything. If this school is not consciously a school for the future lay leadership of the Jewish community of America, it is just another college and though I like teaching and do it well, merely that has relatively little interest.” For the same reason, he felt terribly “uncomfortable” speaking at fundraising events for the university, “to be, as I am, exhibit number one of and for an enterprise of which the inmost spirit is false.” If only he were freer to speak out. “Here would have been a great opportunity—muffed by cowardice, lack of realism, philosophic nihilism. I must try to take the matter tranquilly and do my best though, as it were, in chains.”85
On December 2, Maurice Samuel had come to Brandeis to deliver a talk on the current state of Jewish literature in America and had spent the previous night with Ludwig and Louise. When Ludwig raised this disheartening issue of “ethnic self-liquidation,” Samuel tried to comfort his old friend “by explaining that both in Israel and here we are in an inter-regnum, that present creativity is not to be expected, nor must we seek to force it, but rather cultivate a deep awareness of the spirit.” Intellectually, Ludwig agreed, but such an admission still left him somewhat spiritually debilitated. He wanted so much more in his remaining years. “Tired,” he wrote at the conclusion of his diary entry for that day. He had taught for “three hours straight, etc., etc.,” and once again had chased after Cupcake, who had “slipped out, climbed to the top of the nearest tree, out on a frail limb and had to be lured back with roast beef at the end of a stick.”86 Did he see this episode as emblematic of his efforts to lure the American Jewish community back from the frail limb it, too, had climbed out on?
Not that Ludwig had so narrowly focused his concerns that the larger world was beyond his interest. The United Nations’ resolution to internationalize Jerusalem, passed with the support of the Vatican (“which knows no changes through the ages and which … is in itself the sign and symptom of the failure of Christianity”), was an indication that the post-Holocaust world still operated on motives which “damned [itself] beyond redemption.” George Orwell’s 1984 was confirmation. “Grizzly in its prophetic horror, utterly convincing and therefore full of dread,” it was for Ludwig “surely one of the few quite important works of our time.” Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published years earlier, “seems almost blithe and gay compared to the massiveness of these supremely sordid horrors. God help us all,” he ended prayerfully, looking out upon a half century’s “deterioration of our world illuminated as by flashes of hell-fire.”87
For a moment, he wondered if he was not, in the end, merely another bitter “aging man,” obsessed with the past, and then concluded that he was not, that the Holocaust, and the long history of the West that had led to it, warranted such vision and repetition—for Christian as well as Jew. Each had his own lesson to take from this event. And if not for those whose task it was to change this direction, then for the sake of their children, some of whom were his students, those to whom he felt the most immediate obligation and with whom the future’s only hope truly rested. Unlike their elders, they could not realize the precariousness of their lives. It was his responsibility to share with them the vision rejected by those who held onto a discredited past.
No Christian and no Jew has a right to live and guide his actions as though the 6,000,000 martyrdoms had not taken place. It was this world, this Christendom, this Jewish Gola, [exile] this—within which it happened. Over this world in which it happened no radical change has come—no change of heart that goes to the core. We are all in that same unspeakable world; we are on the very brink of those innumerable graves. No Christian has a right to live in that world without daily contrition and some effort at expiation; no Jew has a right to live without a daily Yiskor [memorial prayer] in his heart and a steadily conscious ahavath Yisrael [love of Israel] that guides his every action. I say: love of Israel, not hatred of any enemy. And that is true—that is the last truth. I want our students to be happy human beings. But I know that they cannot be happy or whole without that love and knowledge of Israel in their hearts and minds; without—under whatever gaiety of spirit—a hair-shirt next [to] their skins consisting of the knowledge that a few short years ago, tens of thousands of Jewish children, as lovely and sensitive and delicately nurtured as themselves were fed to the crematoria.
Here, then, was his justification for remaining at Brandeis—to educate the young. If it seemed “a little queer … to be involved, up to the very eyes, in education and its problems again after so many years,” it was also “ever so natural…. By and large education is a good calling. There, if anywhere, is hope for any future.” It was, he acknowledged, a daunting task to counter “the anachronistic notions with which these children are infected by the society before they come here. As of, say, 1900. A very good world, Godless (most students) and cheerful (unaware of the contradiction), in which science will somehow tell us what to do and what to think. Unbelievably withered folly, contradicted by every experience,” and none more than the atomic weaponry now arrayed precipitously, a clear sign that the Holocaust’s message had been lost.88
Yet the year for Ludwig had been among his best, with “publishers who encourage me to do what I want to do,” a social life that was pleasant (including a recent visit with Edward Titus—“exquisitely gay dinner-party … a mood of festiveness now so rare”), a son finding more success at his present school and soon to be at home on the twenty-third for the holiday break (“seems—I pray to God it is so—really to present a mens sana in corpore sano”), and a position that afforded financial security and an admirable status along with a sense of usefulness in the community he had chosen as his own. And there was his personal work, the “Reflections,” as he called his projected book on American Jewry, for which he hoped to write the “Introduction” during his vacation, and another book just formulating itself in his mind—a study of Rilke, Valéry, Mann, and Buber, “the contemporary masters to whom I owe so inestimably much. Let others do Proust and Joyce and, descending so many rungs of the ladder—Eliot,” he wrote on December 23. “These four are my men.” It was they alone who “suffice to save both the city of man and the city of God … in this dreadful age.”89
The day before New Year’s Eve, Ludwig sent the “Introduction” to Marie Syrkin for publication in the Jewish Frontier, though he was satisfied with neither the writing nor the presentation. He would aim for something more precise and simpler as the book developed. There was much “re-reading toward the succeeding chapters” yet to complete, though he lamented not having the greater ease with modern Hebrew that he had with the several Western languages he had known since childhood. “No wonder I am bitter against assimilation…. How much more helpful I could have been to my people, if I had been sent to Cheder [a traditional Jewish school] … to any sort of Cheder with any sort of a melamed [teacher]—never mind how big his stick. Too late. Too long ago and far away and historically, I suppose, inevitable.”
Preparation and writing lay ahead for him, and he welcomed the opportunity, for here, again, was a chance to share with his God in the act of creation. This very moment, the half century mark, seemed to echo his belief, signaling the necessity of his own efforts, whatever their ultimate effect might be in the unknowable scheme set out by the Creator. “The secular year of 1949 ends tomorrow. Nothing illustrates to me more clearly man’s co-creation of the universe than the undoubted significance of human chronology, of which nature, of which that universe is ignorant. That one half of the twentieth century—as free a creation of the spirit of man as a poem or a symphony—is gone and the year 1950 at the door has a profound meaning within the historic context of human action and feeling and thought. What that meaning is we do not yet know ourselves. We know only many non-coordinated meanings.”
Such was the depth of his faith that he was satisfied to know of the existence of the unknowable and to add his own “non-coordinated” meaning to the process. Only three days earlier, Einstein had revealed his belief that he had, at last, grasped the unity of all physical forces in the universe. “I have enough of a glimmer of understanding to feel, at least, a foreshadowing of what it may signify,” Ludwig noted in great anticipation. He would do what he could “for the world,” in the shadow of its Creator, this God glimpsed by generations before him and pointed to again, in a new idiom, by Einstein. “Rebbono shel olam [Master of the World]: I utter the Name with all the implications of faith.”90