Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Zhuangzi for Everyone

The Zhaungzi is one of the two most important Daoist texts in the Chinese tradition, but it gets short shrift next to its cousin, the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing). One of the reasons is the length of the Zhaungzi. It has none of the brevity and conciseness of the Tao Te Ching. It is a collection of many materials, of varying quality and authenticity, often in the same passage.

That is why Burton Watson's translation of the Zhuangzi is so useful. He has culled through the text, and presented us with only the very best material. This, coupled with his fine introduction and notes on the translation, give us a Zhuangzi that is both easy to read, interesting and smooth flowing.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy

Fans of Cormac McCarthy will not be disappointed in The Crossing. It has all the elements we have come to expect from his novels, particularly those that deal with the American West (and by extension, northern Mexico). There is the terse language, interspersed with the strange diction and archaic words that make his prose both familiar and odd. He is a master at creating a suspenseful tension in his narrative, stringing together incidents to create a sense of inevitability.

But there are odd incongruities in the novel. The first part, about the first third, is the narrative of Billy Parnham and the wolf. There is great promise in this part of the narrative, and it ends somewhat flat. Parnham returns home, and after an incident that seems like little more than a bridge to connect the first section with the far longer, second section, we get the narrative of Billy and his brother Boyd in Mexico. McCormac sacrifices plot to do what he wants. We are not sure how or why the boys do what they must do in Mexico.

Despite this, the novel coheres. McCarthy is enough of a master to leave us satisfied in the end, regardless of the seams we felt along the way.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Larches Have Eyeballs

The Larches Have Eyeballs                              

High on their bowers
Single eyes, like Masonic symbols
Crown the trees, like a cherry
Or a bowler hat, their
Garments below shed like
A nightgown, and their needles
A carpet, reflect their eyes
Like fallen lashes and a scowl
A down turned brow of
An earth mumble to the trees

They climb, like Jacob’s angels
Up their own ziggurat, a procession of
Asterisks a smart line of commas
They see with the power of seers
The stark punctuation of the seasons
They inhale the sulphide fumes
Of their Delphi
Their eyeballs stand naked,
In the dim twilight snow
Highlighted in eyes

Thursday, January 26, 2012

If Not Now, When?

Rabbi Teluskin's biography of Hillel, Hillel: If Not Now, When, is a book that is at once profoundly Jewish but also universal in its scope. Teleuskin shows us how a 1st century rabbi can have direct influence over our lives in the 21st century without stretching the comparisons to the point of absurdity. Through Hillel, Teleuskin says fresh and insightful things about halakah in the modern world, and especially the issue of conversion. Judaism has been long wary of converts, and Teluskin makes an excellent argument for a lenient attitude toward them, making acceptance of converts a Torah true practice.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Grunstein's Sabbath (a short story): Conclusion

His first thought: the rags are on fire, call 9-1-1.  But on sitting up, he saw the gas can innocuously on the floor, cold and inactive, just as he left it.  He quickly looked around.  Nothing seemed amiss.  But then there was screaming, and a few minutes later, the distant wail of fire trucks.
Grunstein hurried out of his apartment without a coat.  It had snowed overnight, and his soft dress shoes were quickly cold and soaked.  A dozen people in various states of undress stood outside on the sidewalk of the building next to Grunstein’s -- another Fishbein property.  On the top floor, smoke poured out three windows.  Grunstein recognized a young college woman who sometimes attended High Holidays at his synagogue when she couldn’t return to her parents’ house in New Jersey.  Mary Greenblatt -- another Jew who could act in a passion play.
“What happened, Mary?” Grunstein asked.  Mary was in plaid pajamas and a fuzzy pink robe. 
“A gas fire, Mr. Grunstein.  Some boys in 5F lit a match to light a cigarette even though they smelled gas, and the place went up with a boom.  They are lucky they’re alive.”  She pointed to two young men, shivering beneath towels in underwear and t- shirts.  Grunstein looked up:  flames began to lick out the windows.  Then the fire trucks arrived, and policemen ushered the crowd from the front of the building.
Grunstein limped home.  He felt he might vomit.  A substance like bile clung to his upper pallet, making it difficult for him to open his mouth.  His hands shook more violently than usual, and he had difficulty aiming the gas can at the large aperture of the open toilet.  It took three attempts.  He finally emptied the can, flushed the toilet, closed the lid, and sat heavily upon it.  His hands reeked of gas, but he pressed them over his face anyway, attempting to conceal himself from Ruth.  She had saved him.  Saved him once again from his impulses.  His love for and fear of his first wife rested ball in socket, one almost indistinguishable from the other.  Grunstein pleaded with God not to allow him to live forever in an endless round of sin and redemption.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Grunstein's Sabbath (a short story)

Grunstein slept lightly, but had two well-defined dreams.  They were deeply etched, like inscriptions on some monumental slab.  The first was a dream of the future: he dreamed he woke up, pain-free and limber, pulled some matches from the kitchen drawer, and climbed down the basement steps with the can of gas.  The pile of rags lay near a lattice of dry wood -- supports for the first floor beams.  Grunstein sprinkled the gas liberally on the rags, as if watering petunias on a particularly dry summer day.  Then he lit a match and tossed it into the midden.   He sat on the chipped concrete floor and watched the flame’s speedy ascent.  Let the gonifs die, he thought, deep with rage: with their screaming, their music, their turmoil, their joy.  Thirty or so less college students in the world wouldn’t stop the earth from spinning on its axis.  And it would give that putz Peter Fishbein an awful legal headache.  His Spanish lawyers wouldn’t get a wink of sleep for a year.  And he was saving the college kids from the grand disappointments to come.  He was freezing their youth in charmed stasis, just like his poor boy Jake, who never lived long enough to provide anything but warm memories; he never disappointed a soul; he never broke a single blessed heart.  Better to die young and loved and missed than old and lonely and forgotten trailing failure and sorrow like a wake.
The next dream was different.  His first wife Ruth, Jake’s mother, was holding up a bloodied child’s shirt.  The blood was from Jake and the dream was of the past.  Jake had committed some Sabbath infraction he had been warned about in the past, and Grunstein had grown enraged.  He had never hit the boy, but had done so this time, and it had landed hard and in the right spot.  Blood had poured all over Jake’s good Sabbath shirt.   Jake had run into his room and his mother followed.  There had been much crying, but finally it stopped, and when Ruthie emerged from the room, she had the bloodied shirt in her hand.  She held it wordlessly up to Grunstein, shaking it ever so slightly, a banner to Grunstein’s shame.  That day, for the first time in his life, Grunstein violated the Sabbath:  he fled to a bar on Beacon Street and drank elbow to elbow with the Irish.  He was so drunk on his return that he couldn’t find his keys.  He passed out against the door, and when he awoke at first light, found his keys had been in his pocket all along.  He never struck his boy or anyone else again.  A year later, Jake died of a lung infection.  There was no connection between the blow and his death, but Grunstein conjoined them in his sorrow.  He had hit his son until blood had been drawn.  Then his son died.  Ruth’s admonition lived on like a strong echo, which only grew in intensity after her death:  Arty, if you don’t watch your temper, It’s gonna kill you, or someone else…
The dream rolled by Grunstein like an old newsreel.  It was faded and torn, but the shame was fresh, forty years later, like a patch of newly turned dirt.  Then Arthur Grunstein awoke to a great explosion.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Grunstein's Sabbath (a short story)

Grunstein did not handle money on the Sabbath, for that was forbidden.  But on this Saturday he went home and extracted ten dollars and T fare from his wallet.  He did not usually carry objects, either, for that was proscribed work on the Sabbath, but today he went to the basement and retrieved a dented gas can which sat suggestively next to a pile of old rags.  He stepped onto the C line trolley, another violation, for one is not allowed to travel on the Sabbath, and rode the few stops to Cleveland Circle.  As the trolley rattled down the center of Beacon Street, he ticked off his Sabbath violations on his fingers.  He was climbing to greater heights of sin.  The rabbis in the Talmud would have used him as an example of the compounding nature of evil:  one sin leads to another. 
On alighting from the trolley, he walked the block to the gas station.  He paid an attendant for five dollars worth of gas in the can.   It was heavier than he thought.  Grunstein had no idea how he got in and out of the trolley, down Beacon Street, and up the slight incline to Egremont Road.  Once through his threshold, he collapsed on the bed.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Grunstein's Sabbath (a short story)

Out on the street, Arthur Steinmetz approached Grunstein.  They were the same age, but while Steinmetz’s carriage was erect, Grunstein’s was drawn low and slumped, as if gravity placed unusually heavy demands on him. 
“What’s wrong, Arty?  You were squirming around in there like a grade school kid itching to get out of class.  What gives?”
Grunstein meant to keep it to himself, but found himself giving a disjointed, chronologically unsound version of his struggle with Fishbein and the cats.  Steinmetz listened carefully, without apparent emotion, only pulling at his teardrop-shaped earlobes repeatedly, as if they could be torn off and he was compelled to test them.  When Grunstein finished the rant, Steinmetz frowned and then smiled.
“So what to do, Arty?  At this stage, what does it matter?  You’ve got two wives and a son at Pine Lawn, and may you live to one-hundred-and-twenty, but you aren’t far behind them.  You’ve had a lot of heartache in your life; I’m not saying it ain’t so.  But at eighty-two, are you gonna make Peter Fishbein pay for it all?”
Grunstein stood politely in from of Steinmetz, but was not listening.  His mind was turning.  He had decided:  for the second time in his life, he would break the Sabbath.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Grunstein's Sabbath (a short story)

But as his cats disappeared, Grunstein fumed.   He sat in the synagogue, ostensibly to pray, but he actually obsessively raged against Fishbein.  He was the kind of man who would serve on a Judenrat.  That Fishbein would organize his own people for Nazi slaughter:  arrange ghetto lodgings, order people to train depots, and stage all manners of unspeakable infamies!
 As the cantor chanted the liturgy, Grunstein fantasized about Peter Fishbein’s violent death.  People died in terrible ways every day, he reasoned, why not Fishbein?   It was a small leap from this fantasy to the idea of killing Peter Fishbein himself.  But how could he do it?  Peter Fishbein lived all the way down in Plymouth.  The trip to the South Shore would kill Grunstein before he could get to him. 
As a man read from the Torah, Grunstein placed his hands over his face.  He shook, as if moved by the Holy Words, but actually, he burned with rage.  Now I hate, he muttered to God.  This is what you give me, he pleaded, so late in the game?