Monday, August 29, 2005 +

About Ritual

It is a reproach to our civilization that in commemorating a great artist we must rely on the feelings and thoughts of the moment and the halting words that they provoke. Why are there not some ritual words to mark the passing of the artist as there are in the various churches to mourn the man? For the intention of ritual in rededicating the listeners through the Word is to remind them of certain permanent truths, and surely the conditions of art and more especially the tribulations of the greatest, most innovative, artists have not changed for five hundred years.
—Jacques Barzun, “To Praise Varèse” (1965), in A Jacques Barzun Reader (New York, HarperCollins, 2002), p 354.

Still, this change [in attitude toward Zionism] in Lionel never went far enough to induce him to arrange any form of Jewish education for his son, James, the Trillings’ only child, who at the time of Lionel’s final sickness [1975] was in his twenties. Nor, so far as I could tell, had Diana ever undergone even as mild a transformation as Lionel’s in her own attitudes toward Jewishness. Which is what made it so extraordinary that she should ask me as Lionel’s certain death approached whether I would be willing to teach Jim how to recite the Kaddish, the prayer that a Jewish son is obligated to read at his father’s funeral service. The enthusiasm with which I agreed to his request amazed me as much as the request itself. I simply had not realized that I cared so deeply about this, and I suppose now that the reason was that, when all was said and done, Lionel—just as Diana had maintained, much to my resentment at what I regarded as a piece of vulgar Freudian reductionism—had indeed been a surrogate father to me.

Jim could not read the Hebrew alphabet, and so I set about making an English transliteration and drilling him day after day in how to pronounce the words properly. Lionel died about a week after we had begun these tutorials, and by then Jim had mastered the whole text and could even translate it into English.

Yet for reasons I was never to unearth or to understand, Diana (possibly seconded by Jim) changed her mind about giving Lionel even a watered-down Jewish funeral. The service was held in St. Paul’s Chapel on the Columbia campus and was followed by a cremation. And neither in this Christian building nor in the crematorium did Jim recite the Kaddish. Distressed as I was by this, I was positively offended by Diana’s decision to omit even a eulogy from the funeral services. I knew as surely as I was sitting there that Diana had persuaded herself that this decision arose out of her infinite regard for Lionel: what could a eulogist, or ten eulogists, say in praise of him that would be adequate or commensurate with his greatness? But having so recently been soaked in the Kaddish, I remembered more vividly than I might otherwise have done the reference to God as l’ailah min kol birkhata v’shirata, tushbekhata v’nekhemata (beyond [or above] all blessings, and hymns, praises and consolations). And because I understood this passage to mean that only God was above or beyond them, I thought it a mark of impious and even blasphemous presumption to treat a mortal man as though he were beyond or above them too.

Perhaps out of cowardice, or perhaps because I was still not prepared for the almost certain break it would entail, I never said any of this to Diana. But it continued rankling, and when about eighteen years later, in 1993, she published a book about the early years of their marriage (The Beginning of the Journey), which I, and not I alone, read as a covert attack on Lionel, I found myself borrowing from her own Freudian arsenal and reinterpreting the funeral she had arrange not as a mark of hubris in relation to Lionel but as an unconscious slap at him.
—Norman Podhoretz, Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer (New York, The Free Press, 1999), pp. 93-95.

I was in St. Paul’s that day, and the service was indeed lacking—a reproach to secular civilization. Sometime later, in a fit of cultural criticism I have come to regret, I destroyed Lionel Trilling’s three letters to me.