Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On the Mundane and the Profound: One Day in Dublin

What to make of Ulysses, that towering work of modernism that has been seen as both the hallmark of the age, and an impediment to later generations of writers trying to get out from beneath Joyce’s long shadow?  

Ultimately, the worth of the novel can’t be questioned, even if you do not ‘like’ the book.  Perhaps no novel in the 20th century exerted (and continues to exert) so great an influence over the written arts.   Lots of ink has been spilled about the novel.  On this, my third reading of it after twenty years, I have this to say:

Part of the challenge and thrill of the novel is Joyce’s chameleon like ability to thrown on literary guises, while at the same time being intractably, even stubbornly, Joyce.  He had few illusions about his genius, and wrote a work from that lofty standpoint.  Although loaded with humor, dirty jokes, and common place incidents, Ulysses is an intellectual’s novel, meant not to be read but re-read.  It is nearly Talmudic in its dimensions.  Dig deeper into a passage and you find multiple layers of meaning.

Part of the challenge (and frustration for some) of this novel is its incredible restlessness.  The first third of the novel features Joyce’s famous stream of consciousness technique.  Characters are minds in bodies, thinking a stream of thought, occasionally interrupted by some external datum. 

Here Joyce creates a kind of hyper-naturalism.  It is as if he wishes to show readers that the naturalism of the preceding generations was nothing more than a fictive mask.  Here is the closest we can get to the workings of the human mind in its social and psychological settings.  He bends language get this.  He coins new words.  He leaves words dangling off and thoughts unfinished.  In other words, he tries to reproduce how our halting minds actually think their thoughts.

Once Joyce has accomplished this, he appears to repudiate it.  We then get a variety of chapters written from certain literary standpoints (often mockingly so).  It is as if Joyce is saying: this is literature too, a series of guises that we throw on and off at will.  This is the lens through which people see the world.  They are more than encapsulated minds.  They also structure their worlds.

So, Ulysses keeps the reader off kilter, and with a sense of sheer delight on the part of Joyce.  We start over and over again, chewing on the same material and spiritual conditions of one day in Dublin over a hundred years ago.

In the process much that is profound happens surrounded by a spectacle of mundane happenings.  In other words, just another day.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Master and Man

The Penguin Classics edition of Tolstoy’s Master and Man and Other Stories contains some short story gems we would expect in Tolstoy collection.

Most have the religious sensibility of Tolstoy’s later years, and only stories like “Neglect a Spark and the House Burns Down” is somewhat obvious and thereby heavy handed. The others are masterpieces of storytelling and message melded into one. “Three Hermits,” “Two Old Men,” “How Much Land Does a Man Need” are all famous Tolstoy stories, part fable, part wish-fulfillment, all fully crafted and realized.

Tolstoy at this best shows how short fiction can be an excellent vehicle to express religious and theological ideas without getting overpowered by them. The best of his stories in this vein walk a fine line between the power of the idea and the magic of storytelling.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Million Writers Award

My story, "The Incorrupt Body of Carlo Busso," published  by Eclectica in 2010, was the runner up in the Million Writers Award.  Thanks for all who read and voted.  And thanks to Tom Dooley for taking the work.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the Worship of an Ass, VIII, Conclusion


But most remained and joined Amichai ben Dovid and Rubin of Hebron at the altar of conversion. Once again, rumor filled the breech of fact. It was said that the Gentile lord had offered Amichai the choice of death and Judaism or life and Christianity and without wavering the Messiah chose life and the Cross.

His followers whispered other tales: it was all part of the God’s great plan: Amichai ben Dovid must descend the rungs of sin before he climbs to the heights of glory.

The conversion of so many Jews was a feather in the Gentile lord’s cap, and at the baptismal font he was godfather to Amichai ben Dovid. All the nobles in the region clamored for their own Jew to godparent. These converted Jews took on the names of their gentile hosts. Amichai ben Dovid became Peter Ktzowlski, after his lord. For many generations, these converts were treated as special guests of the royalty and bred with them, both within the bonds of marriage and out, until most of the nobility of this nation could lay claim to some Jewish blood in their lineage.

But listen: there was more: Amichai ben Dovid, or Peter Ktzowlski, did not amend his ways when he traded in the Torah for the Cross. He learned Latin and Greek and began to read mystical texts, made hints that he had heard the voice of God, and that voice had told him wondrous things. He sang and danced with a cross half his size when elated, and when plunged in melancholy, he strippled his back with a switch till he drew blood.

Then one muddy spring day the Jews of Demblin were treated to a curious sight: Peter Ktzowlski, the former Amichai ben Dovid, in disheveled, filthy clothes, and in his stocking feet, carrying the head of an ass he had procured from a slaughter house on a good sized pole.

He held it aloft over his head and a great deal of blood poured down from its open skull and onto his head and jacket. He taunted the Jews in Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, and even Greek and Latin, to come out of their homes and worship their god. All the Jews of Demblim, every man, woman, and child, flung stones, mud and dung at Peter Ktzowlski. But before anyone could lay a hand on him, the Gentile lord’s guard seized him and carried him away, the head of the ass and all. The lord had had his fill of his godson and locked him away in the province jail, in the most abhorrent conditions he could arrange. In a month Peter Ktzowlski was dead.

It was just after his death, nearly three years after the birth of the red heifer, that Issur the cattleman noticed a sizable patch of white hairs growing near the udders of the heifer’s belly. The red heifer was red no more. Her ashes would not be fit for use in the rebuilt Temple. But no one needed that sign to tell that the Messiah would not yet come. It was an anticlimax, but one of note.

So what did the poor Jews of Demblin do? They peddled their wares, planted their crops, birthed their babies, and buried their dead, went to the study house, immersed themselves in the ritual bath. What else was there to do? No one speculated that the Messiah would come any time too soon. Everyone hoped in silence and waited in patience. They prayed for a new wind to blow them through this province and ferry them away to the Promised Land.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On the Worship of an Ass, VII


Amichai ben Dovid’s arrest sent most of his of his most fervent followers into hiding. Those who remained repented and were forced to lay prostrate on the threshold of the synagogue, so the heel of everyone’s boot would trod them, as a symbol of the penitence. Only then were they allowed back into the community of Israel.

After a few months, Amchai ben Dovid’s followers were hunted down by the gentle lord and forced to live on his estate. They numbered nearly three thousand, and lived in cottages near a brook, well within the old wall of the lord’s compound. For many months they neither saw nor heard of their messiah.

And then one confounding day Rubin of Hebron appeared at the camp; he had shaved his beard, so at first no one recognized him. He announced that a wondrous event was about to unfold. And then he disappeared up the slope to the Gentile Lord’s manor house.

Then one Saturday before Easter, there was a freak storm. The Dovidic camp was smothered in a wet, early Spring snow. The inhabitants were in a foul mood. They had thrown their whole lot in with Amichai ben Dovid and his sycophant, Rubin of Hebron, and here they were, chattel on the Gentile Lord’s estate.

Just then, a man arrived in the camp. He wore the kind of tunic which supplicants to the Christian Church don in preparation to conversion. His hair was close cropped, even tonsured like a monk’s, and his face was clean-shaven. It took a few moments to realize that it was Amichai ben Dovid. A gold cross hung around his neck. Rubin of Hebron followed behind him, similarly dressed. For the first time in many months, Amichai ben Dovid addressed his followers:

“God has instructed me to covert to the religion of Edom,” he said in a loud but wavering Yiddish. There was no need for Rubin of Hebron to translate.

As after the abrogating of the law of Moses, a portion of his followers repented and returned to the community of Israel. They took their place on the threshold of the synagogue door, and were allowed once more to dwell in the tents of Jacob.

Friday, July 8, 2011

On The Worship of an Ass, VI


It goes without saying, that Amichai ben Dovid did not come out and utter such a blasphemy, but as usual, his deeds carried more weight than his subtle words. Most cloak their sins in darkness and lies, but Amichai ben Dovid paraded his around in the light of day. He ate pork on Yom Kippur. He fasted on joyous festival days. He turned the very world upside down, by toppling its foundation stone, the Holy Torah.

The anti-Dovidic rabbis, upon seeing these abominations, immediately excommunicated him and his followers. Some of his followers returned to the Jewish fold, but most remained with their Messiah. They explained away his “sin” bit by bit, one supporting quotation from the Torah at a time, until after a while they had constructed an edifice of lies which, like a house made of sand, they believe to be as solid as stone.

For a while, the Dovidic community and the Torah true Jews existed side by side in Demblin and beyond, but there was great tension, and even some violence. On several occasions, the Gentile authorities had to restore order in the streets, the study house, even the synagogue.

Amichai ben Dovid was little seen in public, but rumors about him spread wildly, both among his supporters, and the loyal Jews of Demblin. He had supposedly married a young Christian woman of dubious repute, and the outrage did not end there. It was said that he “married” her to his immediate followers under mock wedding canopies, to appease the Heavenly Couple, God the King, and his Bride the Shekinah. He also took the wives of his immediate followers for the same nefarious purpose. And of course, the old calumny pursued him: his true god was the head of an ass, in some tellings gold, in some silver or copper.

The final outrage occurred one Yom Kippur, about a year after the Red Heifer was born to Issur’s herd. Some the Dovidic Jews flung pig’s dung into the Great Synagogue during the chanting of the Kol Nidre, and a riot ensued. Jews in their white Yom Kippur prayer shrouds struggled with Dovid’s followers in the streets.

The Gentile guard was called out, and this time, the local lord had Amichai ben Dovid carried away to his estate. For a month, no one saw hide nor hair of this new Messiah to the Jews. Many thought he was dead.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

On the Worship of an Ass, V


Amichai ben Dovid was a paragon of hope. He forbade all the Jews of Demblin to utter an evil word against God’s most glorious creation, mankind, including Gentiles. Who are we to know the plan of the Most Powerful of Names, he said through Rubin of Hebron.

But one day, as if a dark cloud had descended over his soul, he became deeply gloomy. His expression was foreboding, as if he would lash out and throttle all those who surrounded him. He quoted passages from holy writ where men were compared with worms, and their days on the earth to flitting shadows.

He raged against the people around him, just as yesterday he had proclaimed his love and devotion to them. At other times, he appeared on the verge of tears. Rubin of Hebron took out a small harp, and gently played it a few feet from his master’s ears; this seemed to assuage his sorrow, for Amichai ben Dovid’s tears would dry, and he would sway and hum to the little melodies.

But most of the time he sulked and raged. He had taken two rooms in an inn, and refused to see all the dignitaries who came to him with their various petitions, disputes to settle, lawsuits to judge, ritual matters to elucidate.

Rubin of Hebron stood outside the door of his master’s chambers, and prevented all  from entering. When they asked him why they could not see the master, he spoke much like Amichai ben Dovid, with learned quotations from the Pentateuch, the Gemara, or the responsa. He hinted that it was all of God’s preordained plan.

The Jews of Dembin were in a quandary. Many had already begun to whisper that Amichai ben Dovid was Elijah the Prophet come to herald the coming of the Messiah. A few others, at the level of a deeper whisper, speculated that perhaps Amichai ben Dovid was the Messiah himself, and would soon cast off his disguise and raise the sword of vengeance and smite the enemies of Israel and return the people to Jerusalem in a cloud of glory.

Factions formed: those who doubted that Amichai ben Dovid was sent by God, that he was anything more than an exotic, but learned Jew, or worse yet, some huckster ready to defraud the community. Then there were those who speculated about all of Amichai ben Dovid’s words and actions, and they fit each one into a pattern of their liking, finding Divine support for the man with every one of his gestures.

For those who wished to believe that the redemption was at hand, they became so convinced that Amichai ben Dovid was the anointed one that even his arrival and departure time from the study house had great importance. Even the soup he ate and how much he left in the bowl had import.

With time, the factions polarized and their simmering, secret feud came out to the light of day. Even those who could not decide were denounced by those in favor of Amichai ben Dovid as the Messiah: to not believe was tantamount to denial, to disowning their share in the World to Come.

Throughout all the growing controversy, Amichai ben Dovid remained circumspect. His words continued their elliptical path, but his actions became even more erratic. One day it was noticed that his beard was trimmed, in violation of the Torah. When Tish’b Av came, the day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, and mourned with a fast, he was seen feasting in his lodging with his closest of followers.

It was at this time that the natural world appeared to mirror the confusion of the human: a deluge of snow blanketed the earth in late May, killing the early crops. Then a sudden warm spell arrived, with torrents of rain, flooding the province. An unexpected lunar eclipse one clear night cast a strange, flitting shadow over the blue-green light of the night world.

It appeared, to those who sought such confirmations, that the world was in the last pages of its final chapter. A red heifer had been born; strife and turmoil were let lose in the world and even in the House of Israel in Demblin. And in the midst of this terrible travail, Amichai ben Dovid announced that the strictures of the Torah had been abrogated.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On The Worship of an Ass, IV


No one knew where Amichai ben Dovid was from, but when he arrived in Demblin, he was an imposing figure. He was tall, a full head and foot above any other Jew in the province, and his hair was as golden as a Gentile.

But there was no confusing him with a Christian: he was as Jewish as Elijah. His mother tongue was not Yiddish, and anytime he tried to speak it he badly mangled both its grammar and diction. Most of the time he spoke a melodious Hebrew of an accent and syntax that no Jew in Demblin had ever heard before.

He arrived with a companion, a small, stooped retainer by the name of Rubin of Hebron, who had a facility for languages, and translated Amichai ben Dovid’s words into a Yiddish heavily inflected with a Lithuanian accent. With his bushy black beard and fuzzy, skewed eyebrows, the proximity of Rubin of Hebron to Amichai ben Dovid made the latter all the more handsome, as a bright sun will dim the moon in the daylight.

Amichai ben Dovid wandered about the province and listened to countless tales of woe. Mothers, daughters, wives, husbands, sons, brothers, killed or maimed or raped; synagogues burned to the ground; Torah scrolls shredded and used as paper in latrines; aged matrons carried off to military brothels… There was no end to the horrors.

Although Amichai ben Dovid could not speak Yiddish, he appeared to understand what was spoken. He only asked Rubin of Hebron, every now and again, to clarify a word. The sorrow of the stories reflected on his mild, placid face, but not enough to mar his splendid beauty. He sat and stroked his long blond beard, sighed and looked to heaven with great frequency.

He was very knowledgeable about the Torah, and he quoted from it freely, along with the Psalms, Proverbs, the Gemara, the commentaries and the responsa. As he made his way through Demblin and its provinces, word spread of this mysterious stranger who  spoke an exotic Hebrew, and crowds gathered around him in towns, and sometimes even on the roads leading up to them, before his shadow even darkened the village gate.

At first the rabbis and sages in Demblin paid little heed to Amichai ben Dovid. Jews from exotic locales often came to Demblin, collecting alms for this or that yeshiva in the Holy Land. They came and begged in broken Yiddish for shekels for the scholars of the Land of Israel, and moved on. But Amichai ben Dovid collected no alms and remained in Demblin and its provinces. He became a regular in the grand study house off market square. When a particularly thorny question required an answer, the students would not go to their teachers, but to Amichai ben Dovid. They would ask him in Yiddish, and he would answer in his deep, melodic Hebrew. The effect elevated Amichai ben Dovid beyond the status of respect scholar.

He also spoke in elliptical riddles, parables and metaphors, seldom answering a question directly. He left broad hints that the redemption was at hand, that the recent wars, pogroms, and famines were the beginning of the birthpangs of the Messiah.

He said that God’s anointed one was chained in a savagely wild mountain range in the east, but that he would soon be set free, and accompany a triumphant army of the Lost Tribes of Israel to set their brethren of Judah, Levi and Benjamin free. The Sabbath River, which had kept them corralled behind its wild cataracts, would soon run dry at God’s command.

Then the Messiah would led the Ten Tribes on a rampage of plunder and carnage against the enemies of Israel, Edom and Ishmael; its 500,000 men strong, infantry and cavalry would march under the banner of a United Israel to avenge the crimes and calumnies of the Christians and the Muslims, and restore Israel to its land and ancient glory.

Of course, he said none of this directly, but through allusion, with pious and learned quotations from the most holy of holy books. And these words fell on the ears of the desperate and grieving.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On The Worship of an Ass, III


Just before Amichai ben Dovid declared himself God’s chosen one, the world heaved and belched as if its very end was imminent. There was a disastrous war in the lands just to the east of Demblin. The Army confiscated all the horses, cattle, sheep and goats from the Jews of the province, stole all their stores of grain and potatoes. In June, an unexpected snow storm blanketed the region, and the freshly planted crops died in the fields. Famine gripped the province, and then the host of diseases which accompany it like helpmates to the Angel of Death: typhus, cholera, fever.

Soon, one of the armies was routed, and they retreated through Demblin. They were more like a fleeing band of brigands and criminals than a well trained army. They stole whatever was left to steal in the already denuded region.

Then, gentile peasants, under the leadership of a charismatic monk, rose up in revolt against the government and the landowners, and once again the Jews in Demblin took a drubbing. Some of the wealthier Jews acted as tax collectors for the government and warders for the landowners, so in the peasant uprising all the Jews were made to suffer. There was looting, rape, and murder. Countless atrocities were committed in the full light of day. Jews fled to the mountains, often leaving the aged and sick to be torn apart by the Gentile wolves.

When the government finally restored order, and the Jews returned to Demblin, the sense of shock was enormous. How could God allow his children to suffer so in the jaws of jackals? Jews mourned their dead; some wore sackcloth and smeared ash on their foreheads in penance.

Learned rabbis, scribes and scholars, sought an explanation for the terrible misfortune which befell the House of Israel. There was much fighting and bitterness. Unable to turn on their oppressors, the Jews turned on themselves. One evil chapter on the history of the community of believers in Demblin was closed only to open another. For it was then that Amichai ben Dovid arrived in the village and suddenly, where they had been nothing but darkness and gloom, there was light and hope