Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): A few weeks ago, I saw an amateur production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Measures Taken (1930), hosted by Brooklyn Eviction Defense in the outdoor theater in Herbert Von King Park in Brooklyn. It hasn’t been far from my mind since. One of Brecht’s Lehrstücke, or “learning-plays,” it is a straightforward piece of agitprop, its morals imparted through the mistakes of the “young comrade” who is escorting Communist agitators from Moscow as they attempt to foment revolution among workers in China. The play takes the form of a hearing: The young comrade, who will otherwise be captured and tortured by the enemy, has been killed by his fellow comrades and thrown into a lime pit, and they are now recounting the circumstances of his death to the Party, awaiting judgment.
It is plain that Brecht wishes to impart the importance of acting together—of party discipline—which requires the negation of the individuated self. This turn is not subtle: In order to blend in among the Chinese workers, the agitators from Moscow hide their faces under identical masks. (“Then be yourselves no longer . . . You are nameless and without a past, empty pages on which the revolution may write its instructions.” “And so the young comrade demonstrated his agreement by effacing his personal features.”) When the comrades speak, they speak only in chorus; in this production, directed by Lucas Kane, these lines were spoken in perfect unison but in discordant registers; there was real unpleasantness in the sound of them. Every so often, a singular voice would stop the action and provide the moral, often in the form of a quote from Lenin.
Though I knew I was supposed to be identifying with the comrades, I felt a visceral fear and revulsion at the portrayal of this “togetherness.” I heard later that Kane was concerned about the capacity for the masks and the delivery to scare people, which was not his intention. And yet, it seems that it was Brecht’s—that he wanted to make this element impossible to disguise. Revolution is not pretty, and there is reason for discomfort with the discipline it demands. In the wake of the show—and perhaps in the wake of our Soviet issue—I struggled a lot with my feelings about “joining.” For readers of this magazine in its early years, when it was a project of the Communist Party USA, party discipline meant minimizing and excusing the crimes of the Soviet Union. It also, I must say, produced a lot of bad, dogmatic thinking and writing.
And yet, as I’ve continued to chew on the play for the last few weeks, reading it over twice more, I cannot deny its lessons, which speak to arguments forever playing out on the left about purity politics (“With whom would the just man not sit to help justice? / What medicine is too bitter for the man who’s dying?”) and party discipline (“Show us the way which we are to go, and we / Will go that way with you, but / Do not go the right way without us / Without us it is / The wrong way . . . We may be wrong and you may be right; therefore / You must stay with us!”), and the role of the ego in bad political decision-making—even when motivated by righteous urgency (“I can’t submit because I know I’m right. I can see with my two eyes that misery cannot wait.”). In other words, I have learned something from the learning play, and despite its sledgehammer moralism, it still left me wrestling.
David Klion (newsletter editor): Yesterday I got a galley of Emily Tamkin’s forthcoming second book, Bad Jews. I’m obligated to disclose that Emily is my friend and a contributor to the Jewish Currents Soviet Issue, and this is a book that thanks my Diplomacy Slack in the acknowledgments and quotes numerous people I know (including outgoing JC Publisher Jacob Plitman and Contributing Writer Eli Valley), so I’m hopelessly biased. That said, it’s also a book that seems practically custom-made for the JC audience. Based on extensive interviews, Emily has written a reconsideration of American Jews over the century that has passed since the US closed its doors to most Jewish immigration in the 1920s, and has attempted to complicate any static and reductive idea of what American Jewish identity is. I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing in depth, especially for Emily’s insights on neoconservatism and on the contemporary Jewish left, two particular fixations of mine. But I have no doubt anyone reading this newsletter will find something of interest here.
Mari Cohen (assistant editor): Last year, I was struck by a driver in a hit-and-run while on a run near my home in Brooklyn. (Don’t worry—I’m completely recovered now.) I had already been interested both in public safety alternatives to policing and in combating the deleterious effects of car culture, and as I navigated the aftermath of the crash, these questions took on a new urgency: how might we think about preventing traffic violence and holding drivers accountable without relying on the carceral system? Policing the Open Road, by the legal historian Sarah Seo, makes a convincing case that the history of American policing and the history of the automobile are intertwined. It’s easy to forget how completely the adoption of the car transformed American geography and the contours of everyday life, and Seo’s clean prose brings that era of major change to life. As new cars dangerously overwhelmed existing infrastructure not designed to accommodate their speed, states and municipalities passed a flurry of new laws and regulations, and then confronted the fact that few drivers obeyed them. The professionalization and expansion of municipal police forces—bringing with it the increased capacity of the state to enact racialized violence—occurred in part in order to enforce traffic safety regulations. Evidently, the sprawling criminal and legal response has succeeded in establishing a body of law that often protects police overreach, but not in meaningfully protecting Americans from the continual toll of traffic violence. I’m still early in the book, but Seo’s recounting of early debates over the moral and ethical duties of drivers and her analysis of how the “individualism” of the car affected drivers’ sense of responsibility to a community are genuinely fascinating.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Some time ago, I wrote of my love for the Library of America (LOA), the wonderful collection of the greatest American books, beautifully bound and printed on paper that won’t yellow for a thousand years. They have just published a volume of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald that belongs in everyone’s personal library, not least the young among you. This new volume includes, along with previously collected and some uncollected short stories, one of the great works of American literature, The Great Gatsby.
It feels odd recommending a classic like The Great Gatsby. Any serious reader, one would hope, will have read it, but it’s hard to know how classics like this are holding on, so signaling it is not entirely out of line. But even if you have read it, The Great Gatsby is a book that should not be read just once. You can find something new rereading any classic, but Gatsby in particular should be read in the various stages of a reader’s life. The many faces and facets of love in it—Gatsby’s profound and doomed love for Daisy Buchanan; the frivolous affair of the narrator, Nick Carraway, and the star golfer Jordan Baker; Daisy’s husband Tom’s infidelity with the equally unfaithful and doomed Helen Wilson—resonate differently with every reading.
The book’s profound understanding of the human heart, of our failings, of longing, and of moral cowardice all require multiple readings at different periods of our lives to be fully understood and felt. Love and hope and desire are radically different when you’re young than they are when you’re in middle age and then again from the way they’re experienced in old age. It’s Fitzgerald’s genius that while still young—he was 29 when Gatsby was published—he produced a work of fiction that resonates so strongly and so differently across its readers’ lives.
Along with its account of a doomed love, Gatsby is the great novel about self-invention and reinvention, about the emptiness of success, about social climbing and racism and antisemitism—the latter of which rears its head quite disturbingly in the portrait of Meyer Wolfsheim, based on the gambler Arnold Rothstein.
All this is why I particularly recommend this LOA volume to the young among you. The Scribner paperback you probably already have will likely not survive the many readings of The Great Gatsby you owe yourself. It’s a book to be saved, returned to, and passed on to your yet-unborn grandchildren.