The mythological Mount Parnassus is not only the home of the arts and literature but the Hall of Fame of learning and culture. The heroes who dwell there are those whose works live on after them and inspire creativity down on earth. Carl Djerassi tells us early in Four Jews on Parnassus that the book’s “underlying theme” is the “desire for canonization,” but its imaginary dialogues between a quartet of deceased thinkers—Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Gershom Scholem, and Arnold Schoenberg—instead betray an anxiety about being remembered. “How did I get here?” and “Do I deserve to be here?” are the questions that seep through all the rather banal talk in this strange little book. Another might be “Are these particularly Jewish questions?”
Djerassi should have nothing to worry about when it comes to his own invitation to Parnassus. After all, he was an enormously successful chemist, whose innovative work led to the birth-control pill. After a lengthy and distinguished career, he took up a second calling as a playwright and novelist. His prolific output also includes three autobiographies, so perhaps it’s not surprising that, in a book ostensibly focused on other men, Djerassi really seems concerned with his own status. Does he belong with these guys?
Four Jews is an audacious book because Djerassi puts words in the mouths of four very well-known cultural figures. In imagining his “geniuses” (and occasionally their wives) conversing on the subjects of fame, marriage and adultery, art, and Jewish identity, he displays an impressive knowledge of their lives and sometimes a keen feel for their intellectual preoccupations. The exchanges between Adorno and Schoenberg, for example, whether they concern Thomas Mann or pathbreaking composition, are lively and apt. Yet despite Djerassi’s thorough research and occasionally clever writing, it turns out that in his hands, these men are little more than stereotypes. Benjamin is a conventionally troubled literary genius, sensitive and thoughtful. Adorno is, by contrast, sharp and occasionally penetrating, aware of his foibles and proud of his theoretical insights. Schoenberg is vain and defensive, a wounded genius who wishes he didn’t care so much about how his achievements have been judged. Scholem is the most caricatured of all, reduced to considering himself the “true” Jew among them and denying that he was a practicing Kabbalistonly a scholar of Kabbalah.
What do four intellectually gifted men talk about when death is no longer an issue? Sex and fidelity come up early and often. They want to know, for instance, whether their wives had lovers in addition to the ones they know about: “Scholem (outraged): You had sex with Hugo Bergman before you and I were even married?” Jealousy remains strong on Parnassus, and it’s not limited to sexual rivalry. Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, remarks, “You geniuses are all alike. You only want to know what other geniuses think of you.” Is there no hope that petty insecurities and a desire for revenge vanish with the reward of immortality? Apparently not.
Djerassi tells the reader that “Jewish identity” is the book’s key theme and that for him this means questioning “what it means to be a Jew in the nonreligious sense.” The dynamic of assimilation is one the author knows well, having fled to the United States in 1939 and Americanized himself through the work ethic of the secular scientific community. In Four Jews, he notes that Teddy Wiesengrund “sanitized” his name in an “American baptism,” becoming “Theodore Adorno.” In their conversation on Jewishness, Djerassi’s characters explore what links one to the past even after integration into a new cultural milieu. But Benjamin’s and Scholem’s complex relationships to Jewishness, to tradition, and to the possibilities of a contemporary Jewish culture do not make it through what Djerassi calls the “fine mesh” of his “psychic filter”—a filter that seems incapable of capturing the nuances of his characters’ connections to Judaism beyond noticing that they shared a typical Germanic disdain for Ostjuden. And though the illustrations that Photoshop features of one man onto another are amusing examples of supposedly Jewish traits, those that explore how Hitler would look as a Jew are not.
In the final conversation, the boys consider what Benjamin might have had in his briefcase when he committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis. We are back to sex, as we are told that the “grip” was filled with his notes for a project on pornography. Alas, it’s pretty lame stuff, but then Djerassi gives Adorno something interesting to say. He talks of “some whose ideas continue to flourish . . . who offer sustenance to generations of thinkers long after their earthly demise. They are not dead.” Adorno is right, and he, Benjamin, Scholem, and Schoenberg do continue to offer sustenance. We can listen to their music and read their books for that nourishment. Stay away from these four Jews on Parnassus, though, for Djerassi has inadvertently shown that their afterlives have added nothing to what they have to say.
Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.