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It takes great courage to ask the annoying questions that everyone else would prefer to ignore. To do so risks exile — if not physical, then spiritual or social. It puts you at odds with the prevailing mores of your society. It turns you, in other words, into a nudnik, and places you in a similar position vis-à-vis your society to that of the assimilated 20th-century European Jew, a class of people not unfamiliar with being accused of cranky arrogance and disloyalty to the prevailing ideas of the time.
Jonathan Franzen, of course, is not a Jew; he’s a Midwestern boy of Protestant stock, transplanted, willfully, into the cosmopolitan milieu of intellectual New York, but his work embodies — to me, at least — a certain secular Jewish mode of thought.
He claims, more than once, in “Farther Away,” that literature is his religion, and in his criticism and intellectual writings on literature, one can sense his searching the books in front of him for something akin to spiritual guidance. For Franzen, books aren’t commodities or sources of entertainment, they’re the essence of human connection, bringing forth the news of our deepest selves into the world. His method of engagement is less the blind faith of the Christian than the skeptical questioning of the Jew interrogating the Talmud.
You could call what he’s after secular humanism, a belief that by relentlessly asking the right questions, we can live ethical lives committed to the gradual betterment of society.
This can be seen in the very title of his 2001 novel, “The Corrections,” and in the moral contortions that the book’s hero and Franzen stand-in, Chip, undertakes as he flails around in search of a way to live untainted by the crimes of society.
It becomes more explicit, and more explicitly tied to Judaism, in his 2010 novel, “Freedom,” with its plethora of Jewish characters: some secular, some deeply religious, some ominously Zionist of the now-familiar neocon variety. If not for the fact that the book is more in love with birds than it is with people, the sum of its multiple strains of plot could be fairly described as an argument for the necessity of secular humanism, which of course has its roots entangled deep in the history of secular Jewish thought.
And now, again, it can be seen in the very Jewish questions with which Franzen ends his new collection of essays.
What is right action, and how does one live a morally justifiable life? As he asks in his previous essay collection, “How To Be Alone,” “Why bother?” The questions matter almost more than the answers. And Franzen is virtually alone among the crop of American fiction writers of his generation to pose these moral questions to society at large in such a way as to challenge and indict us.
This stance — contentious, skeptical, uncomfortable with the world — was a hallmark of the European Jewish Diaspora that brought us so much of the most important literature and art of the 20th century. It’s a stance that seems by and large to have disappeared. Contemporary literature would be more urgent and relevant if more writers, Jewish or not, were to join Franzen in asking the uncomfortable questions that might force us as a culture to examine the disconcerting answers they beget.
Joshua Furst is a frequent contributor to the Forward. He is the author of, most recently, “The Sabotage Café” (Knopf, 2007).