The Wicked Son

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  • Book Excerpt
  • Reader's Guide
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From the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, filmmaker, essayist, and novelist, here is a scathing look at one of the most destructive and tenacious forces in contemporary life.

As might be expected from this fiercely provocative writer, David Mamet’s interest in anti-Semitism is not limited to the modern face of an ancient hatred, but encompasses as well the ways in which many Jews have internalized that hatred. Using the metaphor of the Wicked Son at the Passover seder—the child who asks, “What does this story mean to you?”—Mamet confronts what he sees as an insidious predilection among some Jews to seek truth and meaning anywhere—in other religions, in political movements, in mindless entertainment—but in Judaism itself. At the same time, he explores the ways that Jews have long been and still remain wicked sons in the eyes of the world. Written with the searing honesty and verbal brilliance that is the hallmark of Mamet’s work, The Wicked Son is a powerfully thought-provoking and important book

Book Excerpt

To me, real life consists in belonging. I’ve spent most of my life in show business, and I never have walked through the stage door, or onto a movie set without the thrill of belonging. On the stage or set, one is surrounded by like-minded people speaking a common language, having a common goal. This group is not opposed to the world but a world-within-the-world—small, contained, cohesive, mutually responsible. I never served in the military, and regret it. Dr. Johnson wrote that every man thinks more meanly of himself for not having been a soldier. I attest to his observation, but have always felt graced in the other hermetic groups to which I have belonged. What have I found in them? Filial piety, humor, language, a responsibility to learn and to instruct, a sense of timelessness and history: “so-and-so’s father was one of the key grips on Love in the Afternoon, his father worked for D.W. Griffith—do you know what happened on the set yesterday?” (this introduction followed by an anecdote which may or may not have happened yesterday, and equally, could have been set—as it was equally likely—in the silent era). This vertical and horizontal community creates incredible solidarity. On the shoot everything is taken away or is about to be taken away: sleep, health, family, comfort—everything except a sense of shared purpose. Show business people share a soft pity for those who would like to join but cannot or have not. For we have, in the dream of the ten-year-old child, run away to the circus, and the poor wistful souls on the outside stayed home. The Talmud compares the love of the Torah to that of a “wife with a narrow womb” —a fairly graphic description. Life on the set eschews wealth and position as beside the point. The powerful may, mistakenly and unfortunately, exercise prerogatives, but those actually involved in moviemaking understand that such behavior deprives the offender of the chiefest joy of participation, which is immersion in the community. Knowledge, courtesy, good-will, stoicism, wit, these moral acts and observances enlighten and spiritualize the set. Each day, the involved, which is to say, observant, goes home having learned a lesson. It may be in mechanics, it is, at least as often, in ethics: how to behave in a difficult situation, how to control fear, anger, sloth—indeed, lust or greed. These lessons—in the larger world, difficult—are made salutary by the respect and approval bestowed by the group on their mastery. Small acts of helpfulness, forbearance, or even silence, are endorsed. It is, to me, that tribe of which one dreams, which many seek in this or that confected enterprise: sports bar, sports rooting, paintball, “bonding” expeditions. The opposite of this tribal life is a life of anxiety, loneliness, and loss. Analgesics include consumption, power and the quest for power, envy, grievance, hatred, as we, in each case, compare ourselves and our state to that of others, and end the comparison either in arrogance or loathing. Or in grief. This love of belonging, as the wife with the narrow womb, impels one to service, attention, and consistency. It prompts one to greater understanding. How wonderful to have such an object of devotion. When I was a child I played the piano. How good, I thought, to know all one could know about the instrument: how to play it, how to write for it, how to repair it, how to build it. And some, in life, are lucky to have such a love. One fellow collects pocketknives. He finds romance in collector’s magazines which are mere columns of figures: “Case, 6265/1.” Ah, he says. Gun collectors, stamp collectors, aviation enthusiasts, gardeners, golfers, these know the meaning of zeal. Collectors see each other at a swap meet, looking for that missing piece. And as we search we are drawn, we are awakened to other possibilities, vertically, across the spectrum of interests, and horizontally, back through time, and forward to the similarly devoted. As our collection takes shape, we muse on or plan a completion, a bequeathal, and rejoice at the discovery or induction of an acolyte. And yet, what is it? The stoics say, “Of what is it made?” The collector’s object of love is only a bent piece of steel, a stamp, a scrap of shaped wood, a colored plate. Ah, but, we say, the romance is not even limited to the actual object. Are we not moved to a similar state of bliss by mere contemplation of its ideal, its description, model number, recipe. It is said there are three happy states of the collector: discovery, possession, and dispersal, each of which, during its period of sway, is supreme: to thirst after, to enjoy, to share; until the burning desire, in the perfected state, is clear of attachment either to the thing itself, or to its contemplation—devotion, over time, having been blessed with a repletion of gratitude, sufficient unto itself. And yet. This love of community, this love of knowledge, this joy of immersion in history, this thirst for group approval, for moral perfection, this endless variety of vertical and horizontal connection, these are all open to the Jew, both his right and his responsibility, and Judaism goes begging.

Reader's Guide

David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, has never shied away from controversy; in fact, he courts it through a dizzyingly wide range of subjects, from Santa Claus and the Golden Calf to gun control and Ariel Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount. In The Wicked Son, Mamet tackles a couple of subjects many writers avoid altogether: anti-Semitism and Jewish self-loathing. Cajoling, provoking, and inspiring, he uses any means at his disposal to convince those who have turned their backs on Judaism to reconsider their tradition. The following questions are designed to help guide a discussion into the issues raised by Mamet’s book. The Wicked Son | Primitive Longings and Tribalism | Belonging | Israel and the Question of Return | Literary Performances The Wicked Son “What does this ritual mean to you?” —The wicked son Who is the wicked son to whom Mamet addresses his book? What are his faults? Might he have any redeeming qualities? What are the similarities and differences between Mamet’s wicked son and the metaphorical wicked son at the Passover seder? What role does the wicked son play at the seder? As Mamet points out, the seder is the feast of freedom; does the wicked son’s role shift if one considers him an integral part of a free society? Mamet closes his forward with the words, “Here is a book from your brother.” What does he mean by this statement? Does it color your reading of Mamet’s arguments to realize that he was once in the wicked son’s shoes? By using the word “brother,” Mamet clearly signifies his own kinship with the wicked son; is there a part of the author that remains “wicked”? Because he is, first and foremost, a son, the wicked son is, no matter how scorned, a member of the family and the tribe. What does this say about how one conceives of family and belonging? “The wicked son is, largely, a phenomenon of twentieth-century America,” Mamet writes. Why is this the case? What is it about our modern circumstances that fuels this phenomenon? Are there examples from history that disprove Mamet’s contention? Jews themselves have been viewed as wicked sons in the eyes of the world, a “stiff-necked people” who stubbornly refuse to accept new ways. What examples of this phenomenon does Mamet cite? Primitive Longings and Tribalism “Civilized life required and requires a great deal of self-delusion.” —David Mamet “The Torah is, among other things, a poetic and philosophic treatment of the trauma of the clan in transition from the primitive to the civilized.” —David Mamet Throughout the book, Mamet alerts the reader to the myriad ways we as a society have failed to leave our primitive longings behind. From our worship of money and celebrities, to our wish to celebrate Christmas, to even the seemingly innocuous figure of Santa Claus, our civilized world has become adept at subsuming pagan desires into ones that appear palatable, even rational. What do you think of Mamet’s analysis? Would it behoove us to acknowledge the sources of our desires, or is it more useful to society to cover them up? Mamet argues that Holocaust and slave films are essentially sadomasochistic fantasies. What does he mean by that, and what do you think of his description? Do you think there are films that rise above such fantasies? Mamet also applies this analysis to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; how is it relevant? Can you cite any recent events in which the dynamics of sadomasochism were evident? Mamet says that the Golden Calf and the extravagant contemporary bar mitzvah are expressions of the same longing. Can you explain the comparison? In what sense is the phenomenon of the lavish bar mitzvah “the sole subject of the Torah,” as he writes? Man is a “constantly, irremediably, deeply superstitious creature,” Mamet writes; even the apostate is constantly worshipping something. Do you think this is true? What examples support Mamet’s claim? Which ones refute it? Mamet holds that many of our problems can be attributed to the belief that the rational trumps the emotional. “The constant battle against personification, rationalization… is not a prerequisite for the practice of religion, it is the practice of religion,” he says. Is this how you view religion? Does it change your understanding of ritual and tradition to consider religion in this light? One can assume that rationality has led to many important advances in our society. Is Mamet being intentionally provocative about reason, or does he truly believe that our society would be better off with less of it? What would our contemporary world look like if Mamet had his way? Belonging “What is it that drives some intellectuals in free countries to hate their native land and wish for its annihilation?” —Eric Hoffer “To me, real life consists in belonging.” —David Mamet Mamet contends that the urge to belong to a world-within-the-world—whether it’s through the military, theater, gardening, or even by tattooing oneself—is evident in nearly every aspect of modern life. What is the importance of belonging? And what makes belonging to the Jewish people so threatening—both to Jews and non-Jews alike? Mamet is best known as an American writer, the author of Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, works that do not include any specifically Jewish content. How does his argument that one is best served by belonging to a world-within-the-world conform to the greater ideals of America? Mamet calls anomie “the sickness of the American Age.” Do you think this is an accurate observation? If so, what is it about American society that engenders a lack of social standards? And what might be done to mitigate that lack? In The Wicked Son, Mamet draws parallels between the Jewish people and other American groups, including blacks, gays, veterans, and the disabled. Do you think these are fair comparisons? What are the limitations of such comparisons? How are Jews, in Mamet’s vision, woven into the greater American fabric? Choice can be corrosive and even destructive, Mamet writes. Why? What are the negative repercussions of having options? Freedom is a hallmark of a modern, democratic society (something, as Mamet points out, that distinguishes Israel from its neighboring countries). How does one combat the negative elements of choice with its clear benefits? Throughout this book, Mamet uses the term “race” when discussing the Jewish people. Do you think it’s accurate to characterize Jews in terms of race? Why do you think Mamet chose to do so? Does his choice make you uncomfortable, and, if so, why? How has the issue of race been used against Jews historically? The issue of intermarriage is of paramount concern to many Jews, and yet Mamet holds that it’s self-loathing that threatens the group at large, not Jews marrying non-Jews. Do you agree or disagree? Why? Is it possible to be a secular, assimilated Jew and not commit race treason? Israel and the Question of Return “I am coeval with the State of Israel.” —David Mamet Mamet points out that he is the same age as Israel. What do you make of this identification, and how does it play into the themes of the book as a whole? Throughout, Mamet takes pains to point out that Israel, no matter what some people might think, is simply a country, and, like any country, it’s capable of making mistakes. How does Mamet’s identification with the Jewish state—personifying it in some sense, making clear that it is capable of weakness and sinning just like Mamet himself—influence your ideas of the country? Mamet unpacks quotes from a variety of sources—including everything from century-old documents to Noam Chomsky—to make the point that criticism of Israel is often veiled denigration of the Jew. What is so threatening about the Jewish state to the world at large, and to assimilated Jews in particular? Is it possible to criticize Israel without falling into this trap? Consider the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah: Did media coverage and public opinion support Mamet’s arguments? How did they diverge from his arguments? Mamet compares the necessity of going to synagogue on a regular basis to an alcoholic’s need to attend A.A. meetings. Do you think this is a fair comparison? Does the self-loathing Jew have a condition akin to a disease? Can that condition be “cured” in other ways, or is attending synagogue the only way to return the self-loathing Jew to the fold? At the end of his book, Mamet points out that the wicked son is not as divorced from Jewish tradition as he may feel: “The entire Torah is a commentary on his situation,” he writes. Can you cite examples from the Torah in which individuals are reluctant to recognize God? How might recognizing God help someone who has strayed return to his community? And how does the depth of the wicked son’s rancor reveal his longing to return? Literary Performances “What can save the self-loathing Jew from this apostasy? … Perhaps shock may work its unfortunately effective way with him.” —David Mamet “The good actor, the good director, understands that the lines must be said exactly as written. Why? Because this removes, from the actor, the possibility and so the necessity of improvisation.” —David Mamet David Mamet is a playwright, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose career in theater has spanned several decades. To what extent is The Wicked Son a performance, one filled with dialogue, soliloquies, and constructed characters? How is our understanding of the book altered when we view it in this light? Using the metaphor of the wicked son, Mamet aligns his book with another storied performance, that of the Passover seder. What role does performance play in the Jewish tradition? Are there other Jewish traditions or texts that Mamet is modeling his book on or borrowing from? Mamet compares worship in Judaism with acting, arguing that a Jew needs to practice his religion in the same way that an actor needs to recite his lines. What are the strengths of such a comparison and what are its limitations? If Mamet’s comparison holds true, how much of our lives is scripted and how much can we improvise? And how does the notion of free will (or lack thereof) fit in with Jewish tradition? From the book’s first sentence, Mamet addresses the reader directly, often asking him to take on roles, from that of the apikoros to that of a prospective car buyer on Western Avenue. What is the purpose of this role-playing? What are the advantages and the disadvantages of using such a method in a book like this? How different would the book be without it? In many respects, The Wicked Son is an intensely personal book. Yet Mamet leaves out many details about his life—his own Jewish upbringing, for example, and whatever prompted him to return to the faith after he had left it behind. Do you wish Mamet had revealed more of himself—or perhaps less? To what extent is the Mamet of The Wicked Son a character, someone constructed for the book’s purposes? Is the author playing with our expectations about the importance of the personal and the self, and about how much (or how little) such things matter?

News and Reviews

Mamet writes valuable perspectives on Jewish passivity

“…by turns bold, courageous, and outrageous – it is a book that calls Diaspora Jews to the table and asks: ‘In or Out?’” Continue reading

Through the hyperreal characters of Wicked Son, Mamet conveys much about contemporary Jews

“Like everything [Mamet] does, [The Wicked Son] is blunt and bracing, honest and provocative, original and gutsy.” Continue reading

The Wicked Son, an intense experience

The Wicked Son is an intense experience, but it’s well worth the effort.” Continue reading

David’s newest book “a sequel to Mamet’s first polemic, The Wicked Son

"In a sense, the book is a sequel to Mamet's first polemic, "The Wicked Son," a 2006 study of "anti-Semitism, self-hatred and the Jews." But where "The Wicked Son" is a wounded cry, "The Secret Knowledge" is a work of liberation." Continue reading

About the Author

David Mamet

David Mamet

DAVID MAMET is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. He is the author of Glengarry Glen Ross, The Cryptogram, and Boston Marriage, among other plays. He has also published three novels and many screenplays, children’s books, and essay collections.