Isaac Bashevis Singer on A Rabbi’s Crisis

In Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s “I Place My Reliance on No Man” (collected with other short stories in Short Friday) Rabbi Jonathan Danziger goes to pray in his synagogue one Monday morning. As he prays, he encounters a crisis:

When the rabbi came to the words, ‘I place my reliance on no man,’ he stopped. The words stuck in his throat.

For the first time he realized that he was lying. No one relied on people more than he. The whole town gave him orders, he depended on everyone. Anyone could do him harm. Today it happened in Yampol, tomorrow it would happen in Yavrov. He, the rabbi, was slave to every powerful man in the community. He must hope for gifts, for favors, and must always seek supporters. The rabbi began to examine the other worshippers. Not one of them needed allies. No one else worried about who might be for or against him.  No one cared a penny for the tales of rumormongers. ‘Then what’s the use of lying?’ the rabbi thought. ‘Whom am I cheating? The Almighty?’ The rabbi shuddered and covered his face in shame….Suddenly, something inside the rabbi laughed. he lifted his hand as if swearing an oath. A long-forgotten joy came over him, and he felt an unexpected determination. In one moment everything became clear to him…

Rabbi Jonathan Danziger then asks one of the congregants, Shloime Meyer, if he can work for him, picking fruits in his orchard. He will no longer serve as rabbi. His mind is made up. That life is behind him.

As the story ends, the rabbi wonders:

Why did you wait for so long? Couldn’t you see from the start that one cannot serve God and man at the same time?

Danziger might have imagined that as rabbi he would spend his days studying the scriptures, engaging in learned debates about their interpretations, dispensing sage advice to the perplexed, and being respected and admired for his great learning and moral rectitude. Instead, his certifications met with disfavor and disapproval, and his parishioners found a veritable litany of complaints to level against him. He might have contemplated a life spent in contemplation of the sacred, but instead he found himself immersed in the profane.

Rabbi Danziger’s resolution of his crisis is perhaps novel, but his crisis is not. He has come to realize like all too many of us, that our exalted visions of our work and our life, are sadly incongruent with the actual lived reality of our lives. (The What People Think I Do/What I Really Do meme often captures this quite well.) Our levels of awareness about this fact can vary. Some rabbis might be just as immersed as Danziger in the all too worldly goings on about them, but might disregard this evidence in favor of holding to their preconceived notions of their imagined life. Such illusions might be desirable too. The mundane realities of life sometimes require, as a palliative of sorts, some elaborate storytelling about what we have let ourselves in for.  But only if they do not create the kind the painful dissonance that finally forced Danziger to put down the holy scrolls and head for the orchards. The maintenance and sustenance of that inner discord can be more damaging than the price paid for a life left behind. In those cases, it might be better to seek the kind of reconceived life that Danziger sought.

No Atheists in Foxholes, My Ass

Here is vignette #7 from Ernest Hemingway‘s In Our Time:

While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out . Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell everyone in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus.

No atheists in foxholes, indeed.

This little bon mot, intended to deflate the pretensions of skeptics and disbelievers has a long and dishonorable history; it is often trotted out, a triumphant smirk spreading across the countenance of the faithful as they surmise they have honed in on the Achilles heel of the atheist. The atheist stands indicted: he is merely a fair weather disbeliever. When the chips fall, he will duck for cover under the shelter provided by the Good Lord, just like the rest of us. (There is another, crafty, way to interpret it, of course: that only believers go to war. But I don’t, ahem, believe that.)

I wonder if the faithful ever stop to think–I know, silly question–about how awful an argument for faith this is. It suggests that our true believing nature will be revealed  when shells are cascading down around us, when, in short, we are possessed by extreme fear, anxiety, and panic.

But why would anyone imagine that a psychological state riven by such extreme sensations and affects is one in which we will rationally come to hold beliefs? One might as well just say that in these states, we witness the breakdown of rational decision-making and belief formation, that the beliefs held by those in foxholes are forced upon them by their circumstances.

Similar arguments are made in other domains, and they are just as silly. Consider, for instance, a familiar claim made about reversions to states of nature–as in post-apocalyptic scenarios:

[A] standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed’….The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true.

But:

There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

To conclude, let me complete my excerpting of the vignette above:

The shelling moved further up the line . We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.

Note: Italics and capitalization of Hemingway vignette as in original 1986 Scribner Classic edition, pp. 67

Concert at the Corner

The boy with the violin case came around the corner. On time, as always.  Head bowed, feet dragging on the sidewalk, the case drooping by his side, as always. He approached A__’s gang, scattered on the sidewalk, oblivious to their presence.

Till A__ spoke.

‘Hey!’

The boy looked up, alarm running through his body quickly and efficiently, flushing his cheeks and warming his ears, bringing him to attention. He had dreaded this confrontation, accepting its inevitability, and yet was no less stricken by fear when it finally arrived.

“What’s in that case?”

“My violin.”

“Yeah? What’s it for?”

“I play music on it’.

“Yeah. Well, play it for us, maestro. Let’s see what you got.”

It wasn’t an invitation to play; it was a message indicating the penalties for refusing to play. An elementary inference.

The boy picked up the violin. Lessons for the day had ended a while ago; his performances hadn’t. And his taskmaster in the chambers he had left behind was, despite his gruffness, brusqueness and peremptory commands, an infinitely less demanding audience than this one.

He began to play, drawing the bow across the violin’s strings. He always wrapped himself around the strange new beast–violin plus bow–that emerged when horsehairs made contact with catgut, but today, he held on to its familiar shape just a little tighter. As if it could protect him from the beating that lay close by in his future.

He picked the longest composition he knew, the Spring Sonata that would go on and on for twenty-two minutes. He’d enjoy them while it lasted.

The notes rang out clearly and sharply; they moved down the street and around it; they floated up around the gang’s ears.

They reached A__ too. He had heard violins before. He had heard their sound. Sometimes his uncle, his mother’s brother, who lived crosstown and visited for dinner when his father didn’t mind, played the violin as accompaniment to a meal he had finished quicker than the others.

The sound was familiar but still novel. At home, his uncle often played over the sounds of dinner: plates and spoons clanking, babies crying, men shouting, women chattering. At home, the violin was background music, just one more component of an inchoate sound that filled their home in the evenings. It was never allowed to stand out, always relegated to a humble plebeian standing.

This was different.

A__’s gang stood on the street corner, not moving. The maestro stood next to them, playing, not daring to look up. Eye contact might break the spell, might dispel the mood. It was not a chance he was willing to take.

A__ was motionless. He wanted the music to stop. He wanted to get on with the rest of the act: the smashing of the violin on the sidewalk, the flinging of the bow across the street, the punch in the face and the kick in the pants that would propel that little whiner home.

He remained motionless.

The sonata ran out. The boy added a flourish or two and then stopped. The bow came off the strings; the violin dropped to his side.

A__’s boys stared at him, awaiting directives for their deployment.

A__ finally spoke.

“Go home.”

Professorship and ‘The Perennial Taker of Courses’

In ‘In Greenwich, There Are Many Gravelled Walks‘ Hortense Calisher writes,

Robert was a perennial taker of courses–one of those non-matriculated students of indefinable age and income, some of whom pursued, with monkish zeal and no apparent regard for time, this or that freakishly peripheral research project of their own conception, and others of whom, like Robert, seemed to derive a Ponce de Léon sustenance from the young.

I have special fondness for the non-matriculate; I began my academic career as one, taking two graduate classes in philosophy before I began formal doctoral studies. And before I registered for them, when I informed my mother that I planned to quit my day job eventually to seek a full-time academic career, her immediate, and immensely gratifying, reaction was, ‘That’s great! If you become a professor you take classes for the rest of your life at your university!’ I hadn’t thought that the opportunity to be an endless dilettante, browsing through each semester’s course offerings and picking one, would present itself as the most obvious advantage of a professor’s life, but my mother certainly thought that way.

I haven’t managed to do so. But I did try. After I returned to New York from my post-doctoral work in Sydney, I sat in on Spanish 101. Learn a language, travel, cook–you know, the standard aspirations. I attended quite a few classes, but found it difficult to keep up with homework given my teaching and service duties (and of course, my own academic interests). I didn’t make it to the end of the semester; sometime shortly after the mid-term (in which I got a decent, but not excellent, grade), I dropped out.

A year later, I tried again. This time around, having convinced myself that the problem the last time around had been the lack of a formal component to my dabbling, and with an eye on a graduate seminar on the Frankfurt School offered through the History department at the CUNY Graduate Center, I registered, taking advantage of the tuition exemption for employees of the City University.

This time around, things went marginally better. I did most of the readings, attended all the classes, and even wrote a  paper on Horkheimer, which was probably quite amateurish, but which was very helpful in making me more familiar with his writings. But again, I found things not entirely to my liking.  I was still busy with teaching and service and writing, and the time needed to travel to Manhattan for the seminar and do the readings seemed onerous. (Perhaps I didn’t enjoy the company of graduate students. Too many of them seemed to instantiate dreaded archetypes of that demographic: the hasn’t-done-the-readings-but-will-still-pontificate-on-it and the can’t-shut-up-and-stay-on-point varietals being the most pernicious. I certainly wasn’t deriving any ‘Ponce de Léon sustenance’ from them.)

So that was my last attempt to replicate the non-matriculate days. I became ever busier with my own writing and confined my dilettantism to unguided, unstructured dabbling on my own. And I had found other outlets for it: teaching new classes or revising syllabi for classes taught previously and blogging being the most prominent among them. Besides, once you’re a full professor, its all pretty much dabbling in any case.

O. Henry on the South (Mainly Nashville)

I’ve only read a couple of short stories by O. Henry but have long owned an omnibus collection of them (presented to me on my twenty-eighth birthday). I’ve finally taken a gander at it, and stumbled on his classic A Municipal ReportHenry was a Southerner transplanted to the East Coast, so I find the narrator’s voice–a supposed ‘outsider’ speaking of the South–of particular interest. This developing ‘attitude’ towards Nashville (and its people) leads to several memorable, witty descriptions. Here are a few of my favorites.

On Southern weather:

Take a London fog 30 parts; malaria 10 parts; gas leaks 20 parts; dewdrops gathered in a brick yard at sunrise, 25 parts; odor of honeysuckle 15 parts. Mix.

The mixture will give you an approximate conception of a Nashville drizzle. It is not so fragrant as a moth-ball nor as thick as pea-soup; but ’tis enough – ’twill serve.

On Southern hotels, hospitality, and history (race and the Civil War too!):

I went to a hotel in a tumbril. It required strong self-suppression for me to keep from climbing to the top of it and giving an imitation of Sidney Carton. The vehicle was drawn by beasts of a bygone era and driven by something dark and emancipated.

I was sleepy and tired, so when I got to the hotel I hurriedly paid it the fifty cents it demanded (with approximate lagniappe, I assure you). I knew its habits; and I did not want to hear it prate about its old “marster” or anything that happened “befo’ de wah.”

The hotel was one of the kind described as ‘renovated.” That means $20,000 worth of new marble pillars, tiling, electric lights and brass cuspidors in the lobby, and a new L. & N. time table and a lithograph of Lookout Mountain in each one of the great rooms above. The management was without reproach, the attention full of exquisite Southern courtesy, the service as slow as the progress of a snail and as good-humored as Rip Van Winkle.

Tobacco chewing:

All my life I have heard of, admired, and witnessed the fine marksmanship of the South in its peaceful conflicts in the tobacco-chewing regions. But in my hotel a surprise awaited me. There were twelve bright, new, imposing, capacious brass cuspidors in the great lobby, tall enough to be called urns and so wide-mouthed that the crack pitcher of a lady baseball team should have been able to throw a ball into one of them at five paces distant. But, although a terrible battle had raged and was still raging, the enemy had not suffered. Bright, new, imposing, capacious, untouched, they stood. But, shades of Jefferson Brick! the tile floor – the beautiful tile floor! I could not avoid thinking of the battle of Nashville, and trying to draw, as is my foolish habit, some deductions about hereditary marksmanship. [links added]

The Southern gentleman, Major Wentworth Carswell:

I happened to be standing within five feet of a cuspidor when Major Caswell opened fire upon it. I had been observant enough to percieve that the attacking force was using Gatlings instead of squirrel rifles; so I side-stepped so promptly that the major seized the opportunity to apologize to a noncombatant. He had the blabbing lip. In four minutes he had become my friend and had dragged me to the bar.

I desire to interpolate here that I am a Southerner. But I am not one by profession or trade. I eschew the string tie, the slouch hat, the Prince Albert, the number of bales of cotton destroyed by Sherman, and plug chewing. When the orchestra plays Dixie I do not cheer….Major Caswell banged the bar with his fist, and the first gun at Fort Sumter re-echoed. When he fired the last one at Appomattox I began to hope.

‘Write As If Your Parents Were Dead’

Phillip Roth is said to have tendered the following advice–on the art of writing–to Ian McEwan : ‘Write as if your parents were dead.’ By this, I take it that Roth meant for McEwan to write with a distinctive  fearlessness, one not courting parental approval, not apprehensive of parental disapproval of writerly indulgence, of liberties taken with characters appropriated from one’s lived life, of events drawn on and embellished, narcissistically, sometimes painfully. The writer then, who writes as if his ‘parents were dead’ is unencumbered by the parental superego, whether maternal or paternal, and is free to let loose his darkest self in the words he puts down on paper. Here, the live parent is a stalker, a deadweight on creativity. In writing as if ‘the parents were dead’ the writer writes without a net. He is no longer worried about whether the characters he creates may be viewed as wishful incarnations of himself, whether their words and deeds may be imputed back to him. The parents disappear six feet under, the writer rises above the ground, suddenly, miraculously, weightless. Three fingers still hold the pen, the body still aches, but it does so free of the backward glance, over the shoulder, at the looming intervention.

That’s certainly one way to think about writing as if ‘your parents were dead.’ There is another way to interpret that piece of advice.

In his feature article on George Saunders in this week’s New York Times Magazine (‘George Saunders Wrote the Best Book You’ll Read This Year‘, January 3rd 2013) , Joel Lovell writes,

A friend I loved very much died recently, and I was trying to describe the state I sometimes still found myself in — not quite of this world, but each day a little less removed — and how I knew it was a good thing, the re-entry, but I regretted it too, because it meant the dimming of a kind of awareness that doesn’t get lit up very much.

 In response to which Lovell notes,

“It would be so interesting if we could stay like that,” Saunders said, meaning: if we could conduct our lives with the kind of openness that sometimes comes with proximity to death.

So, ‘write as if your parents were dead’ can now be understood as: Write as if you are not quite of this world, write as if you are possessed  and lit up by a rare kind of awareness and openness that may be yours with proximity to death. Write as if the special vision given to those who find their deepest, most fundamental link to this world sundered is yours for the keeping. Make that into your muse. Write as if we, your readers, were to find in your writings dispatches from another world, one where by being confronted by death, we grow closer to life. Write as if you have suffered the deepest loss of all, so that you may in your struggles to give it written form, find many other things worth bringing forth. Write as if your parents were dead.

Baltimore Dispatches: The Cask of Amontillado and the Terrors of Immurement

This Columbus Day weekend, I am ensconced in Baltimore, which has meant that, among other things, my thoughts turned to Edgar Allan Poe, the city’s most distinguished literary son, one of a select group of writers whose work I was first exposed to via comic books, and someone who, to put it mildly, gave me the shakes for a very long time. The story that did the most to ensure this clammy place in my heart was the Cask of Amontillado.

One hot Delhi afternoon, as I rode back in a crowded school bus from a fairly typical sixth or seventh grade day, I noticed, next to me, a boy reading a comic book with a lurid cover that spoke of stories of the terrifying, the macabre, the gloomy. I was bold enough to ask to read it when my companion was done, and was soon plunged into its grim world. The first story I read was the tale of Montresor’s deadly revenge. I was horrified by the ending, as Montresor immured Fortunato within the catacombs that lay beyond the wine cellar under his palazzo. I read other stories in the collection, but none of them, including the Murders in the Rue Morgue, had the same effect on me.

The story of Montresor and Fortunato tapped into a childhood claustrophobia, a paralyzing fear of being locked in, of being crushed alive by an invisible weight that drove the air out from my lungs. A recurrent childhood nightmare of mine had been that of somehow suffocating under a blanket. It was one reason I found the winter months especially scary:  sleeping then meant the use of the classic North Indian razai, the heavy, stuffed-with-cotton-wool quilt that made the Delhi winter nights tolerable. Time and again, I would wake at night, shaking, gasping for air, convinced I had been buried by my razai. The razais seemed cavernous, with acres of space beneath them that shrank to enclose me in a woolly grave. I was never able to put my head under one and regarded my brother, who nonchalantly went to sleep with his head shoved under his quilt, with some amazement.

This fear was compounded by the presence of the immurement theme in Indian legend and history. More than one Bollywood movie featured characters walled up alive while plaintive dirges played in the background. One particularly famous instance occurs in the 1960 epic Mughal-e-Azam, which shows the Mughal Crown Prince Salim’s illicit lover Anarkali, immured on the order of Salim’s father, the Emperor Akbar. And immurement didn’t just happen in the movies. The tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, suffered the loss of his two sons to this terrible fate: the nine year old Sahibzada Fateh Singh and the seven year old Sahibzada Zorawar Singh were so condemned on 12 December 1705, by the Governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan. (The two boys had been captured following battles between Sikh and Mughal forces in the Punjab, and ‘asked’ to convert to Islam, a ‘request’ they had refused). It wasn’t just in the realm of fantasy that immurement lurked.

But there was something else about the Cask of Amontillado that made it more than a story about about a man left to die, walled in and alone. It featured treachery and deception, it spoke of unhinged anger, moved to reach out and exact the most terrible retribution of all. And if I had a fear of being crushed, suffocated, and buried, I felt even more terrified by the thought that such a fate would be facilitated and eventuated by an ostensible friend’s deception. Fortunato’s shrieks haunted me for years; for the love of God indeed.