May 2, 2010

Gershom Scholem defends Detective Fiction

Another "rescued"  and slightly revised post from my previous blog; originally published January 09.

I've been looking over a collection of essays by Gershom Scholem, the German-Jewish philosopher and historian known for his extensive study of Jewish Mysticism and his close friendship with Walter Benjamin, and came across an atypical piece he wrote about detective novels. It was a response to an article by Dahlia Ravikovitch, a noted Israeli poet, who attacked the genre for being dismissive of human life and pornographic. Though it's unclear whether Scholem's response was ever published in his lifetime, I still found it amusing that he was so enraged by the poet's critique that he felt he had to defend the honor of detective literature; It's also interesting to find that literary feuds often arise from the most unlikely situations and disagreements. I'm sure Ravikovitch herself, winner of the Bialik Prize (1987), the Israel Prize (1998) and the Prime Minister`s Prize (2005), did not anticipate to be criticized by the great scholar Gershom Scholem for, of all things, her mistaken inclusion of James Bond in the detective genre.

Below is my translation of Scholem's article, which is probably unavailable in any language other than Hebrew (I'd like to point out that Gershom Scholem referrs to "the young Agatha Christie", who was in fact 75 at the time.)

"In Favor of Detective Novels" / Gershom Scholem

From my early days at the university to my late years in Jerusalem I have been reading detective novels. I read them for their powerful stimulation of my natural mental capacities, the keen logic needed to unravel the tangles of plot, and their graceful descriptions of a certain social milieu and forceful dialogues. I’ve enjoyed detective novels when they’ve managed to weave a gripping plot and maintain a steady line of suspense to their final pages. I’ve particularly enjoyed the urbane ones, which mention in a little note in the middle of the story, “from here on you, the reader, have been given all the data needed to solve the problem, and there’s nothing else you need to consider.” These writers did not cheat by not completing their task, nor demand anything out of the ordinary, or ask for completeness in anything outside the literary genre they have engendered. Pornography has no foothold in this literature as long as it remains true to itself.

True, there have been writers who reached a high level of completeness in this writing, without any other pretensions (like the French Gaboriau, Ms. Green who writes in English, and the Swedish A. Heller, who wrote two to four generations ago, and like the young Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers of yesteryear). There were also those who added literary aspirations to their task and made the detective the subject of psychological depth or an existential melancholic, creating works of true value which remain fresh to this day. But these are not the works I’ll discuss here, for it’s not due to their being detective stories that they became successful, but for their virtues outside that field. The satisfaction I attained from these books was not founded upon their oblique glance towards “high” literature.

And here we’ve merited a frontal assault by Dahlia Ravikovitch (in an article published in Haaretz, 02.25.1966), which aims to expose all of this genre’s faults. While reading her words I could hardly believe my eyes. Her claims are only marginally related to the literary genre I have discussed. Conversely, the article’s claims are based on a confusion of fields and concepts as she dedicates much space to Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. What do these works have in common with detective novels? There’s no problem and resolution here. No logic whatsoever. These books are adventure stories spiced with a modicum of pornography – two elements that are entirely alien to the literary genre she assaults. It’s very easy, of course, to attack a soft target and declare that it is in fact the fortress, and anyone who hears it will laugh. It might be said that the tastes of people who consider this type of book are flawed or improper, or that they’re seeking release for darker urges. Maybe. I’m not sure. But don’t tell us that these are “detective” novels.

Back to the issue at hand. Ms. Ravikovitch complains that the victims, who are murdered in these books in their thousands, have no personal meaning; nothing draws us to inquire as to the reason for their murders and hence there is a basic vapidity which marks the genre. The critic’s lament is touching. Why do we remain silent upon hearing this existential complaint? Because it is irrelevant; naturally, the writer does not mean to stir our mercy and understanding for the complexities of the victim’s (or the killer’s) soul, that’s the difference between a detective story writer and Dostoevsky. The question is, do you need a deep existential empathy to read, enjoy, and praise a detective story? Certainly not. The critic relieved herself of the main argument, which she dismissed offhandedly, which is that a good detective story (and only the good ones merit discussion) is on the same level as a chess problem within the world of literature. Do we, the readers and lovers of detective literature, really live in two worlds? A detective story that does not obey the demands of logic is worthless and nothing more than a cheerful adventure story, be it appealing or stupefying. And if the critic has only read the worst of all detective novels, who’s to blame for that?
 - Gershom Scholem, Explications and Implications Vol. II,
 Tel Aviv: Am Oved Publishers, 1989. Pg 505-506.

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