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The Human Touch

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Irving Fineman is the young American Jewish novelist who leaped into fame in 1930 with a first novel, “This Pure Young Man,” which won the $7,500 Longmans Green award, and, in the current season, received the plaudits of the critics with his excellent, “Hear, Ye Sons,” in which he relives the life of his father in the Old World

It is a commonplace observation that since the World War we have had in every department of civilized life—in literature and the arts, in politics and government, in social conventions, in education, and so on—violent reactions against the past. That reaction, for in sum it is a single reaction, is quite understandable; the reason is clear and simple. For the generation that survived the war perceived with revolting clarity that the guardians of its past—preachers, teachers, politicians, and parents, too, had deceived it, led it astray, exploited its trust in and reverence for the accumulation of civilized values.

As a result of that trust and reverence it had been betrayed into a morass, so bewildering, and in some cases so frightful and hopeless, that the effects can be traced into many aspects of contemporary life—from the Hemingway frustrate (see the true tale of Harry Crosby in Malcolm Cowley’s recent “Exile’s Return”) to Nazism (see Storm Jameson’s introduction to Lilo Linke’s “Tale Without End”). But however various the effects of that betrayal on different groups the common denominator is in all cases a complete discrediting of the past and all its works. The past is either simply ignored, or actively denounced as contaminating and therefore to be carefully avoided.

Now the results of such behavior are curious, often fearful and wonderful, for the equally simple reason that numan life is organic and therefore not discontinuous; it exists by virtue of its continuity, seed bringing forth seed; and whether we wish it or not the past (more inevitably than the poor, since poverty is not organic) is always with us.

And curious it is that the more ignorant we are of the past the more definitely certain aspects of it are likely to influence us. Psycnologically: the man ignorant of his background is less likely to modify congenital traits than one who is aware of them. And metaphorically: what could be more ignorant of the past than the embryo in the womb, yet it goes inevitably through the whole history of the physical development of the species.

To indulge in a fanciful conjecture—the only imaginable way the embryo might avoid any one of the steps in its career, say, the fish stage, would be by taking thought of the past and taking intelligent steps to avoid that part of it. In ignorance it can only react to age-old forces of which it is unaware.

The point of this metaphor need not be labored. Lady Brett—that so modern, so gallantly careless woman in “The Sun Also Rises” and young Harry Crosby, so feverishly pursuing life while engaged in that so modern literary revolt of the magazine transition might have seen their likenesses had they troubled to look back in some mighty tarnished old Roman mirrors, and, doubtless, if we still had them, in some still older Babylonian mirrors.

And those desperate, defeated Germans seizing so avidly upon the leadership of a madman because what he promises seems hopefully new and revitalizing, would they but consider history’s long roll of barbaric tyrants and deluded fanatics and the inevitable end to which they bring their followers, would know they are reenacting an old, a threadbare story in the so oft repeated progress of mankind. Anything you do will seem new if you are naturally ignorant like a child or wilfully ignorant because for some reason—out of disappointment, despair— you have closed your mind to the past. You will repeat the errors of your father as long as you continue in ignorance of those errors.

And Solomon to the contrary, there is something new under the sun; it is not, to be sure, in the rising and setting of the sun, nor in the flowing of rivers into the sea, nor in the blowing of winds around the round earth, but in the progress of human life; for whenever men have considered the ways of men before them and, seeing clearly the good and the evil therein, have said let us have done with this or that evil and build upon this or that good and, by avoiding time-proven error, have made room in their lives for some fresh good, something new has been created under the sun. That this has happened all too infrequently is due to the burden of keeping the past in mind; it is so much easier to ignore it; there is so confusingly much of it to examine.


But we must make our choice! Either we consider the past and use it discriminatingly to our progressive advantage, or we ignore it and reenact it’s errors over and over, to our ultimate degradation. And unless we consider and do it to our advantage all this scholarly gathering of history which goes on will remain as the vain activity of curious and witless gossips.

The present writer took it into his head a while ago to write a story representative of the life of his Jewish forbears, in effect a realization of his own past. As artist he felt it incumbent upon him to give without commentary all the aspects of good and evil inherent in the lives he was depicting. As critic of human life (and what earnest and honest writer is not that) he thought: the reader will surely see what is good and what is evil and will draw his own conclusions as to what in that past is admirable and worthy of survival and what is to be avoided.

What then was his chagrin to receive with the most gratifying commendations of his work praise for his advocacy of a return to the old way of life. For such readers, moved, as the writer himself had been, by the Jewish heritage of civilization and beautiful joy in life, jumped to the conclusion that to regain that heritage one must return literally to the past which had under adverse conditions preserved it and to all the stultifying and oppressive limitations of that past. Such undiscriminating attachment to the past is, to my mind, almost as bad as the equally undiscriminating avoidance of it.

Awareness of the past is man’s great gift. It differentiates him from the beast—even the beast which has intelligence. In man’s application of his superior intelligence to his knowledge of the past lies his only hope of progress.

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