Suits: The Role of the Intellectual in Henry Kreisel’s The Rich Man

Henry Kreisel’s 1978 essay “Language and Identity” narrates Kreisel’s process of learning English, an emotional experience in which he “learned at once, and in a very practical way, how closely linked identity is to language” (121). Kreisel’s interest in language and communication is dealt with extensively in his 1948 novel The Rich Man, which centres on Jacob Grossman, a Jewish immigrant living in Canada and a long-time employee of a suit factory. The Rich Man follows Jacob’s sole visit to his family in Vienna, one that he feels compelled to take despite the high cost of the trip and his relative poverty. Ashamed of his failure to achieve economic success, Jacob spends the majority of his life savings on extravagant gifts for his family and a white suit for himself. The impractical suit becomes a kind of costume for Jacob, as he begins to masquerade as a wealthy man on the trip over and maintains the illusion in front of his family in Vienna. Jacob’s desire to preserve the appearance of wealth partly motivates his purchase of a modernist painting entitled L’Entrepreneur from Tassigny, a young painter who uses a modernist rhetoric that is difficult for Jacob to understand. Jacob’s facade of wealth has serious repercussions when tragedy strikes his impoverished family in Austria: Albert, the idealistic young husband of Jacob’s sister Shaendl, is suddenly killed and the rest of Jacob’s family turns to him for financial support that he cannot provide.

The most significant communication barriers in the novel are related to ideology and education: Kreisel’s characters struggle to communicate across what are essentially class barriers marked by access to modernist intellectual discourse. The already-marginalized characters struggle to communicate with one another, and their linguistic blockades mirror the impasse in ideological communication. Gramscian ideas about organic and traditional intellectuals speak to anxieties about education and the cultural roles that educated people take on in The Rich Man. The figures of modernist intellectuals in the novel—ranging from Tassigny the painter to Albert the intellectual to Shaendl—struggle to communicate their ideas to characters such as Jacob and his brother-in-law Reuben, who are less invested in the radical culture of the day. As a new and threatening hegemony begins to change their world, the modernist intellectuals in The Rich Man find themselves in increasingly perilous situations that are only exacerbated by their inability to adequately communicate. All of the Grossmans’ political views and social goals are tied to their Jewish identities—Kreisel wrote The Rich Man after the threat of Nazism had become a reality, and the danger of being Jewish in Vienna prior to World War II underlies the actions of all the Jewish characters. Despite the radical and anti-fascist sentiments held by Albert, Tassigny, Koch, and Shaendl, these intellectual characters are (for the most part) constrained by ideas of traditional intellectualism that block them from adequately sharing their radical ideas—their inability (or unwillingness) to become more organic as intellectuals prevents them from creating the social movement depicted in their art and discourse. Of all the modernist intellectuals in the text, Shaendl is the only one to transcend these barriers and enter a kind of Gramscian organic intellectualism, a change impacted by the restrictions and conditions of her gendered identity. The inaccessible communication style employed by the modernist intellectuals negates the radical potential of modernist thought, as the opaqueness of modernism’s message alienates it from a wider audience, thus aligning modernist thinkers with a hegemonic intelligentsia.

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci distinguishes between his ideas of organic and traditional intellectuals: organic intellectuals are emergent—or “elaborated”—from an upcoming social group, while traditional intellectuals are people who participate in a hegemonic and historically sanctioned structure of intellectual activity. Gramsci writes that traditional intellectuals “represent a historical continuity uninterrupted even by the most complicated and radical changes in political and social form” (7), but that this vision of historical continuity is false and merely covers up the hegemonic framework in which traditional intellectualism functions. Organic and traditional intellectuals have very different relationships with the wider public—the organic intellectual, as emergent from or aligned with this social group, is able to both participate in and communicate with society at large, while the traditional intellectual’s association with current and past hegemonies bars them from successful dialogue with others. Steve Jones’ observation that Gramsci’s ideas of organic intellectualism hinge on the ability to “actively participate in practical life” (85) resonates with characters in Kreisel’s text.

This distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals pervades Kreisel’s novel as the figures of modernist thought struggle to convey their social messages, yet constantly find themselves unable to do so. Modernism in the novel is connected to political and social activism, echoing the link between the “cultural front” and modernist thought identified by Michael Denning. In The Rich Man, the intellectual characters function not only as modernist “artists,” but also as proponents of social change within the wider modernist project. While Tassigny’s art and rhetoric mark him as the most obviously modernist figure, Albert, Koch, and Shaendl are also figures of modernism in The Rich Man. Jacob, for instance, notices the similarities between Tassigny and Albert—as he listens to Albert speak, Jacob observes that “there was something about [Albert] that reminded Jacob of Tassigny. His voice, when he was agitated, had the same driving intensity as the Frenchman’s” (89-90). This explicit connection between Albert, the most intellectual of the characters, and Tassigny, the most obviously modernist figure, reaffirms the link between the kinds of intellectual activity that Albert and Koch participate in and the art that Tassigny makes, grounding characters such as Albert in a wider modernist tradition.

In The Rich Man, the modernist project is intimately connected with social activism. Koch says that “every book should be supplied with a bomb” (188), connecting intellectual objects (and their related activity) to potentially explosive change. All of the intellectual figures in the novel speak at some point to their desire for social change: Tassingy describes his motivations behind painting as similar to that of a “prophet” (51), telling Jacob that “I do not paint pictures so people will hang them up to decorate apartments. . . . So long as I have always told the truth, the way I see the truth” (51)—a different understanding of art than Koch’s, but still one that connects modernist intellectual work to a social commitment to change or “truth.” At the Grossmans’ dinner table, Albert reveals his connection to political and social change by asking how he could “afford not to take an interest in politics when it is a matter of life and death” (89). And Koch, forced into hiding for his political goals, still believes that it is possible for a person to be raised “in full consciousness, and [soar]. He has cast out the tyrants that oppress [sic] him before, and he can do it again” (187; emphasis added). The languages of social activism and modernism mix in The Rich Man to produce a discourse that is inherently contradictory: the marginalized men (and woman) who speak this language of modernism and social change in The Rich Man are alternately censured for their intellectual debt to hegemonic structures and yet barred by factors such as religion or gender from the actual powers of hegemony. The liminal state of the modernists in the text— particularly Albert and Shaendl—puts them in a difficult position as far as Koch’s urging to “cross over” goes: the difficulties of reconciling their political position at all makes achieving “full consciousness” problematic.

While Greenstein argues that “the voice of reason in characters such as Albert, Koch, and Tassigny penetrates the facade of false rhetoric while innocent victims like the other Grossmans remain deaf to the language of reality” (274), the “voice of reason” of these characters is not always comprehensible. While Albert and Koch discuss “echoes of Wilhelm Tell,” Jacob “sat there, listening, trying to understand” (187). Albert, Koch, Tassingy—and I add Shaendl to this group—do see through much of their contemporary surroundings and discuss the need for social change more seriously and insightfully than the rest of the characters, but they are not always heard outside of their own closed circles. Despite their insights, the ideas of the intellectuals do not actually reach the Grossmans, nor indeed anyone else who is not a part of a distinct intellectual community. Conversations between Albert and Koch, while illuminating, nevertheless are more discussion than persuasive debate. Shaendl, however, eventually finds a way to transcend the debilitating and hegemonic language that so impairs Albert, Koch, and Tassigny and finds a way to participate in practical life as a kind of organic intellectual.

After Tassigny’s failed attempt to explain L’Entrepreneur, Jacob asks, “[E]f you don’ stand here to explain me these t’ings, how would I know?” (50). Jacob, perhaps unwittingly, speaks directly to the heart of the intellectuals’ difficulty with communicating in The Rich Man: unless the traditional intellectuals are willing to communicate in a way understandable to a wider audience—effectively, to become more organic as intellectuals—then the messages that modernist projects such as L’Entrepreneur are supposed to communicate will go unheard. Albert, as the novel’s most obviously traditional intellectual, struggles to communicate with everyone around him. Albert’s time at university and his academic language aligns him with traditional intellectual communities, and his very language betrays his complicity with hegemony. When Albert first meets Jacob, the older man notices that Albert is “different from the rest of the family. . . . Jacob noticed the quality of his language. He could not easily fit him into the picture [of the family]” (87- 88). Reuben describes Albert as “a great, great talker” (138), but acknowledges that he is “not a practical man. He knows about philosophy and about literature, and about this and that, but all put together are not worth ten groschen” (138). Albert, Reuben says, “didn’t speak so we could all under- stand what he said. . . . [H]e was talking with big words and nobody knew what he was saying” (137). Albert’s connection with a traditional intellectual framework bars him from coherence with the Grossman family.

The interactions between the intellectual and non-intellectual members of the family speak to wider issues about communication. Albert cannot (or refuses to) identify with the Grossmans, shouting at his sisters-in-law Manya and Rivka and Shaendl’s mother Sarah that they are “just a bunch of ignorant fishwives” (102), failing to recognize or respect the traditions from which these women respond. Rather than seeking to understand someone like Manya and attempting to create a dialogue about social change, Albert responds with frustration and derision. Albert has such difficulty communicating that it causes him physical distress: when he is trying to ask Jacob for a loan, Albert becomes so flustered that “the words stuck in his throat. His eyes began to water and everything blurred and swam before them. . . . Coward, he thought. Pride and shame, hell! Why should everything always roll onto Shaendl’s shoulders?” (200). The Grossmans, in turn, see Albert as an outsider: Manya wryly comments that he “should be a prime minister” (94), Jacob is “aware that Albert was different from the rest of the family” (87), and Sarah thinks that Albert has “made [Shaendl] a stranger to the family” (120). Albert’s allegiance to the structures of traditional intellectualism, marked by his language, bars him from entering into meaningful dialogue with the very “masses” that he once hoped to change. However, despite Albert’s talk that “the tragic thing [in society] is that few people really care” (188), he has given up without even really trying to persuade anyone differently.

Koch is slightly different from Albert or Tassigny—an exiled journalist working as a clown, Koch’s life has a degree of performativity and barrier-crossing communication. While Koch’s clown performances do not explicitly convey modernist ideologies or messages of social activism, his willingness to take on the role of clown as a means to interact with a wider public situates Koch as a slightly more effective communicator than Albert. Koch’s fantasy life reveals the lingering barriers that prevent his full transformation into an organic intellectual: while Koch’s willingness to be a clown and to establish communication is a good attempt to break through this linguistic barrier, his fantasies about being part of the “white slave trade” (185) reveal an otherwise unacknowledged kind of alliance with hegemonic structures. Through Koch, Kreisel creates a modernist who wants to reach the people, but is unable to fully see through the hegemonic structures that once legitimized him.

If organic intellectualism is defined by a productive and reciprocal engagement with community, then by the end of the text, Shaendl is the only one of the modernists to enter into such dialogue. As the most intellectually dynamic character in the text, Shaendl moves from a relatively traditional form of intellectualism into a period of change, ultimately emerging in the final scenes as someone beginning to embody an organic intellectualism. While discussing their deceased father with Shaendl, Jacob actually talks about the political climate and its grim reality—Shaendl tells Jacob that she is “glad [their father] died when he did. I’m glad he didn’t live to see Hitler come to power,” and Jacob “wasn’t shocked to hear her say that because the thought had occurred to him too” (175). Jacob realizes that on many matters Shaendl thinks “like Albert thinks” (175), but he can still talk with her about serious matters, such as the anti-Semitism he experienced in Canada. As with Albert, Jacob’s first meetings with Shaendl include a focus on her voice—Jacob notices, for example, that his youngest sister’s voice is “much more cultured than that of the others” (74), but unlike Albert, Shaendl’s intellectual activity does not prevent her from communicating with her family. As the plot of The Rich Man unfolds, Shaendl is increasingly aligned with a more organic model of intellectualism, in opposition to the actions of her husband.

Early in the novel, Shaendl is presented as disengaged from her family and unable to communicate her views to them. Sarah, for example, cannot understand why Shaendl married Albert, and indeed, feels that Shaendl “sometimes . . . is very happy and sometimes she is very unhappy, but [Sarah doesn’t] know why. Shaendl doesn’t tell [her]. It is all Albert’s fault” (119). Shaendl’s connection with Albert, the most traditional of the intellectuals in The Rich Man, is seen as the key to her disconnection from her family. Sarah feels that “Albert has made [Shaendl] a stranger to the family” (120).

After Albert’s death, Shaendl undergoes a transformation hinted at earlier in the text. When Albert wants to ask Jacob for money, for example, he finds himself characteristically unable to communicate with Jacob, and thinks to himself in frustration that it is always Shaendl who must speak the right language and find ways to successfully navigate life—to quote again Albert’s anxiety, everything seems to “roll onto Shaendl’s shoulders” (200). This, combined with the fact that Jacob and Reuben are better able to speak to Shaendl than to her husband, foreshadows Shaendl’s later transformation into an organic intellectual. Between Shaendl and Reuben, for example, there is a makeshift line of communication—Shaendl says that when she “was unhappy, Reuben was the only one I could come to. He seemed to understand. . . . We don’t see eye to eye on many things, but that never made any difference to him” (178). The moment at which she communicates most clearly is after finding out about Albert’s death. “I’ll work,” (292) Shaendl says to Jacob, and Jacob suddenly has a breakthrough, crying out that his “eyes have been opened, but [he] can’t do a thing” (293). In this moment, where she has finally broken through to Jacob, Shaendl is the one figure who believes Jacob’s confession of poverty; her intellectual tendencies have transformed themselves into a more organic model that enables her to not only understand and believe Jacob, but—crucially—to also leave behind the problematic languages of traditional intellectual activity and to communicate in a more accessible way. Shaendl achieves what Albert, Koch, and Tassigny cannot: the promise of successful communication with wider society.

Shaendl was never a full member of the traditional intelligentsia: as evidenced by her lack of college education and reaction to La Bohème, Shaendl was always unable to crack the androcentric hegemony that so closely guarded tenets of traditional intellectualism. She was caught in a liminal position: although she was connected to traditional intelligentsia, her gender and family history prevented her from fully participating. Karin Gurttler’s arguments that the exile experience is the “generative principle” for male characters in The Rich Man (294) also applies to Shaendl’s role as an intellectual woman in the text. Exiled both from traditional intelligentsia and the conservative world of her family, Shaendl eventually finds a middle ground. As an organic intellectual, she finds a mediating identity between her intellectual identity and her affinity for the world of her family.

Despite all of their professed agendas of social change, the figures of traditional intellectualism in the novel—Albert, Koch, and Tassigny—are ultimately unable to communicate their radical ideologies to the very people that need to hear them. Even Reuben, whom Shaendl describes as sympathetic, is unable to comprehend the modernist rhetoric of men like Albert. For Kreisel, however, the radical desires of these characters are not enough. For the modernists to really create change in their worlds, they must be able to communicate with a wider audience. The dangers of refusing to become an organic intellectual are plain: clinging to the structures of traditional intellectual activity renders the modernist figures in the text inaccessible and, ultimately, useless. In a sense, the death of Albert, the arrest of Koch, and Tassingy’s removal to Paris speak to their inability to cross this boundary into a more organic model of intellectual activity: their inaccessible messages and hegemonic ties eventually lead to their removal from Kreisel’s social system entirely.

Kreisel is not, however, dismissing modernism: Tassingy’s painting does actually elicit a reaction—the characters in the novel respond to it, even as they fail to understand it. Modernist art and thought has the potential to effect the kind of social change it so often speaks of, but The Rich Man challenges the inaccessible discourse of modernism, pinpointing the lack of communication as a barrier to social transformation. For intellectual theories to be successful, Kreisel’s text suggests, it must be accessible to the Manyas and Reubens and Jacobs of the world. Inaccessible language not only bars the modernist project from creating social change, but actually unwittingly links modernism to a repressive hegemony that works against many of the social views allied with modernism in the novel. While Jacob throws Tassigny’s painting out of a train window in the closing scene of the book, it is Shaendl’s model of organic intellectual activity that has had the greatest impact on him and creates the biggest inner change: as Jacob rides in the train, he experiences a sense of tragic unity with the other characters. In a moment of self awareness and full consciousness, Jacob acknowledges in an imagined conversation that he “told a lie when he said he is a designer. . . . He is poor like us all” (296).

Works Cited

  • Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Verso, 1996. Print.
  • Gramsci, Antonio. “Selections from the Prison Notebooks.” An Anthology of Western Marxism: From Lucás and Gramsci to Socialist-Feminism. Ed. Roger S. Gottlieb. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.
  • Greenstein, Michael. “The Language of the Holocaust in The Rich Man.” Neuman 269-80. Print.
  • Gurttler, Karin. “Henry Kreisel: A Canadian Exile Writer?” Neuman 293-303. Print.
  • Jones, Steve. Antonio Gramsci. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
  • Kreisel, Henry. “Language and Identity: A Personal Essay.” Neuman 119-30. Print.
  • —. The Rich Man. Calgary: Red Deer, 2006. Print.
  • Neuman, Shirley, ed. Another Country: Writings by and about Henry Kreisel. Edmonton: NeWest, 1995. Print.

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