Human dignity in Howard Jacobson’s ‘J: A Novel’

by Charles on November 10, 2015

‘J’ is not the title of this novel. The title is ‘J’ with two lines through it, to denote the two fingers that one of the central characters, Kevern Cohen, puts neurotically to his lips whenever he utters the letter ‘J’. For this is a novel about things that are not uttered, and the consequences of that silence.

The backdrop is grey and flat. Officially Jacobson’s England is a peaceful place: indeed to suggest that it is not is dangerous. Yet many of the women in the bleak Cornish village where much of the plot takes place have bruised faces. There is murder and sexual violence.

There is a systematic cult of the anodyne. Nothing is exactly banned – for to ban something would demand detailed examination of the reasons for the ban – and rigour of any sort is feared. But jazz is disapproved of, because it involves improvisation. People like to know at the beginning of a tune how it will end. The cultural diet is bland: people read ‘rags-to-riches memoirs, cookbooks and romances’.

Another marker of this tedious monoculture is the names. Everyone has a Jewish surname. Cornwall is full of Cohens and Goldsteins. This, it gradually emerges, is because of a devastating, near-complete Holocaust. At some political and psychological level the evil of this has been acknowledged: the names have been changed so that never again will Jews be identifiable. If everyone is a Cohen the real Cohens will be safe. Yet at another level the event is denied. It is literally unthinkable that it could have happened. And so it is always referred to as ‘What happened, if it happened.’ There is a ‘non-statutory monitor of the public mood’ which promotes passivity through maxims such as ‘The over-examined life is not worth living’ and ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ For this society, history does not exist: it is unwise to possess old things. Old, improvised things are particularly frowned upon. ‘If someone asks you about Fats Waller’, advises Kevern Cohen’s father, ‘deny all knowledge.’

Two Jews escaped the Holocaust: Kevern Cohen and Ailinn Solomons. They are counter-cultural. They read real literature and listen to Fats Waller. Their meeting is engineered by, and their burgeoning relationship fostered by the State. But why?

It’s because the State realises the dyfunctionality of the society. Society tastes of nothing, and is therefore on a downward ethical slope, because nobody can say of him or herself: this is who I am. Identity is being diluted almost to non-existence. You need to have a recognizable ‘I’ to be a moral agent.

Why can no one say: ‘This is who I am?’ Because there is no defining ‘other’, in relation to whom the citizens can say: ‘That is not me: therefore this is me.’ The Jews performed the crucial function of the defining other. Without them, the Gentiles are less Gentile, and hence less themselves, and hence less human. I note in passing that the notion of the defining other is central to Jewish identity. Why is pork forbidden to Jews? Because, after the settlement of Canaan, there was a self-defining stand-off between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines ate a lot of pigs. (They were also luxuriantly uncircumcised.) To be an non-pork-eating Israelite was, at least in part, to be not a pork-eating Philistine. The Philistines were, if not the principal architects of Jewish identity, certainly very important for its construction and its endurance.

The problem in Jacobson’s dystopic England is that there are only two Jews. They have to be brought together and made to breed. The defining otherness, which is their main gift to the world, has to be multiplied. So Ailinn Solomons’ uterus is a sort of ark. Only if some remnant of human otherness is safely afloat in it will mankind as a whole have a future. Kevern Cohen and Ailinn Solomons are a new Adam and Eve, given a new command – this time by the State – to go forth and multiply.

What does this have to do with dignity?

Well: the main academic criticisms of the notion of dignity – certainly in medical law and bioethics – are to the effect that it is a hopelessly amorphous concept: feel-good philosophical window-dressing: the name that you give to concepts that you have decided on other (probably unexamined, purely intuitive) grounds. There is also a widespread suspicion that dignity is stained to the point of uselessness by theology: that, whatever its proponents say, they necessarily appeal to the notion of the Imago Dei. And one has to say that, if one examines the way that dignity has been wielded, there seems to be a good deal of force in those observations. Dignity has been used, for instance, to defend and denounce abortion and to defend and denounce the death penalty. One can be forgiven for thinking that a principle that has appeared as a mercenary fighter on all conceivable sides is really devoid of principle itself.

Yet dignity is like the proverbial elephant: hard to describe, but wholly distinctive when you see it – or see its absence. And whatever dignity is, Jacobson’s society lacks it. Its lack of dignity, indeed, is the cause of the malaise. That sentence requires far more justification than I have time for here. But assuming it to be true, what can we conclude?

1. That dignity is, or at the very least intimately related to, human flourishing. The citizen on the street in Jacobson’s Cornwall is not being what he or she could or (here’s the normative jump) should be. I have argued elsewhere that dignity is objective human thriving (an assertion that implies that it is possible to ascertain, at least in principle, and very broadly, what is and is not consistent with human thriving. You might choose to call that terrifying paternalism: I choose to call it trite anthropology.

2. That identity is a crucial part of human thriving – and hence of dignity. You need to know who you are in order for there to be a you who is capable of flourishing.

3. That in order to be me – and hence capable of thriving – I need to be surrounded by others who are definitely not me.

Much follows from this. I pick up just one short point.

Monocultures are not cultures at all. The more variegated a society is, the more, not less, distinctive will be its individual components. The Little Englanders are as wrong as they can possibly be. If you want your English fish and chips to taste optimally fishy, chippy and English, there needs to be a kebab van outside the shop.

One of the central planks of the Torah is the injunction to love the stranger. Jonathan Sacks has pointed out that we are commanded only once to love our neighbours, but 36 times to love the stranger. Compliance with this injunction is usually thought of as virtue – and so it is. But virtue and thriving are intimately related. By behaving virtuously and welcoming the stranger – acknowledging and welcoming the defining other – we become more ourselves: we taste of more, and so can taste more. Another way of putting this is by dignifying others, we dignify ourselves: by humanizing others we humanize ourselves. And of course the converse is true too. There’s a (generally unarticulated) tendency to think of virtue ethics and the search for the Good Life as philosophical alternatives. They are not, of course, as Aristotle knew so well. They are two sides of the same coin. It is good for you to be good.

One final note, related more to the general theme of the conference than to Jacobson’s book. Another way of glossing the essentially Aristotelean account of dignity that I have articulated is to say that a dignified life is one which makes as good a story as possible in the circumstances. ‘Good’, here, has ethical, sensual and many other components. Writing a dignified life for oneself, and being a walk-on character in the stories of others, is an essentially literary exercise, or at least an exercise that has a lot in common with the writing of objectively good books. That is one of many reasons why this conference is a good idea.

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