'A lucky life'

"'A lucky life'" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq: The other caucuses," Jan. 31, 2004

WORLD: Your stories and essays probe character, and WORLD readers tend to think that character reflects religious belief-but religion as such seems to play little role in your writing. Why is that?

JE: Religion in the strict sense of the word, biblical reading and ritual, prayer and theology, play a negligible, almost nonexistent role in my writing. I consider myself a pious agnostic: I haven't, that is, been able to make the leap to faith yet I have great respect for those who have. In Envy, a little book I recently wrote on that lugubrious subject, I speak of having faith envy. Although I do not claim true religious faith, I frequently find myself asking God to look out for those whom I love, especially my three grandchildren, and I frequently send up brief but heartfelt prayers of gratitude for the lucky life I have been allowed to live.

I hope you are right in saying that my stories and essays probe character, though I would emend that slightly to say that they attempt to probe the mysteries of character, which to me are unending. My sense is that many of my stronger characters resemble their creator, not God, but me, in not stressing their belief in God but in trying to live their lives as if God existed and kept a strict accounting of those who have and have not lived in a morally decent way.

WORLD: How much has Jewish culture shaped your worldview? Does your wife, who is non-Jewish, see things in a different manner than you? (For that matter, what does she think of your description of marriage as "one year of flames and 40 years of ashes"?)

JE: I think my being Jewish has given me my irony, some of my humor, my ability to distance myself slightly from the main flow of life in America. I recently wrote an essay called "Funny But I Do Look Jewish," in which I make the point that, whatever his pose of confidence, in the back of the mind of every Jew is the slight (sometimes not so slight) fear that someone will ask him, "What are you doing here?" The world just now, you will notice, seems to be asking this question of the entire State of Israel.

My wife is superior to me. She is more refined, elegant, generous, kind, and morally sound. She grew up going to Methodist and other Protestant churches. She attempted, in the 1970s and then again in the 1980s, to return to church-going, this time, specifically, to Episcopalian churches, but found too little there to interest her and too much that was off-putting. (At one such church, in the '70s, an Episcopal priest offered a prayer for "Patty Hearst and her associates"; after that God was gone and so was my wife.)

I wonder if an interviewer has ever broken up a marriage? I hope this interview of yours will not be the first. Lest my wife debar me permanently from her bed, let me quickly say that the sentiment that marriage "is one year of flames and 40 years of ashes" is uttered by one of my characters, and is not the view of the author or, so she informs me, his wife.

WORLD: You edited the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, which has a membership of kids who got good grades, but I've read that you were not an academic hotshot. Do universities these days tend to look for facile students who can respond quickly but not deeply? If you were trying to build a new college that in the absence of offering social prestige might at least try to provide an education, what would you emphasize?

JE: I was a completely uninterested high-school student and a fairly mediocre college student. (My wife is the Phi Beta Kappa in our family.) During my years of teaching at Northwestern, I encountered a good many smart and even intellectually passionate students. But I also discovered many who had no intellectual shame-that is, they didn't feel the embarrassment that I did when young at deep ignorance. My suspicion is that most of the students one finds at the so-called better universities these days have been trained to take SAT and ACT exams. That they score high doesn't mean much more than simply that: that they have been well trained to take SAT and ACT exams. Only a small number of students, then as now, have a genuine passion for books, ideas, culture.


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