Literature and Religion: Brooklyn Bridge

I’m also in the tank with Alfred Kazin, the great literary critic, randy man about town, and New York Jew. A selection of his journals had just been published and they sounded interesting. I first his memoir, Walker in the City (1948), a literary account of growing up in Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1920s and 1930s. Who knew they were going to be so “religious”? And this isn’t just me. Almost all the reviewers took note of this. It’s a funky combination of old ethnic Jewishness, socialism, and some new form of what Harold Bloom calls “the American Religion”  –self-centered, Gnostic, and energetic. Kazin’s American Religion insofar as it is religious comes from Blake, Whitman, Melville, and Emerson.

Spinoza’s famous motto was “God or nature.” Kazin’s could have been “God siva Brooklyn.” I love this entry, and declaimed it to my students today in high dudgeon. They either liked it or were just humoring me.

Here it is. It’s from May 8, 1949 about the Brooklyn Bridge. The italics are meant to be shouted(.)(?)

“Along the River Road. Picking up the old life as I go, walking parallel to the rive, I feel that I march alongside my hidden genius, who sleeps in the river at my side. How slowly and gently he paces me, leading me on.

…As soon as I look up to the coil and swing of the cable, I am threaded through, caught up and threaded through, by millions of lines. Going through the arches of the towers I slowly and unbelievingly make my way through the eye of a needle; then with the lines streaming back and forth, and up and down on every side of me, I am threaded through, I am led on. Into the thousand thicknesses and coiled strength of the lines, I am led on.

 This is my only understanding of the divine…in the continuing, in the apprehension of an interminating [sic] energy, and infinity of suggestiveness. How the lines course back again on every side of me! Plenitude over the river, in the full light of day. I open my arm to the plenitude.

In the day it is the threads that I see, for it is in me that they do their work. At night, in the rain and the mist, it is the towers –the implacable surface of the divine.

…But especially I think of the Bridge as I have walked across it on a hot day…a day when the metal plates that reinforce the worn, wooden floor are glowing  in the hear, when the boards of the promenade seem to come up to meet you, and melting, expanding, warm, the worn gray and sooty, sooted blocks of the promenade clamped  back by your feet. You feel that the whole bridge is fluid, familiar to every sense, its lines, its odors, its deeply engrained familiarity swimming in your blood…”

If this is indeed theology, then its concept or persona works across a “plane of immanence.” I can’t help but think it’s not unlike the anti-supernaturalism of Mordecai Kaplan (who Mel Scult tells us was VERY much under the influence of Emerson, just like Kazin). And it anticipates Deleuze (yeah, yeah, I’ll stop yabbering about Deleuze soon enough. And no, I’m not in the tank with him, just fellow travelling).

Is this really religion or just literature? Sure there are important differences between religion and art, but these differences are not absolute or categorical. Art and religion are types of different things that blend and overlap into each other. I posted earlier about the notion of God as place (makom). I think Kazin gives us a model as to how you might visually picture that kind of place. Yes, yes, God threads and coils into space and through time like the Brooklyn Bridge. Didn’t you know?

Should Alfred Kazin be the new face of American Judaism? This is a pragmatic question. Can American Judaism figure out how to make it work?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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