Friday, July 27, 2012

Rebbe Nachman's Wisdom

Here it is, Rebbe Nachman in all his shame and glory, for all to see.  Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom is a compendium of his sayings and teachings, taken from a wide variety of sources.  Most come from his students, taking notes while he speaks.  This can become quite post-modern at times.  The note takers will comment on the text, explain that there was more the Rebbe taught, but that they can’t remember it.  At other times they explain that the Rebbe read their notes, and made changes.  What he have is a fluid fusion of texts (of sorts), the very kind of production one can expect from early Hasidic sources.  

(In a way, it is much like the treatises of Aristotle. His two ethical works, the Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics, are notes taken by his students.  Consensus is that Nicomachean is the more complete and fleshed out.  Was Nicomachus a better note taker, or did Aristotle just have a bad lecture day when Eudemus was in class?)

So much for the structure of Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom.  The content varies widely.  There are silly things like the Rebbe’s advice not to eat raw onions.  There are lots of pseudo-scientific theories of health and nutrition.  The Rebbe is against modernity, and not afraid to sound ignorant and bull-headed when on that topic.  His attitudes toward sex in all its forms most people would find abhorrent or at least down right stupid.

Yet for all this, Rebbe Nachman delivers many fresh and new insights into being Jewish.  His ideas about the centrality of the tzaddik, the holy man, and isolation and individual prayer, in itself are a radical departures from standard forms in Judaism. Jews going off into the woods to talk to God?  Yes, that is radical for Judaism where community usually supersedes the individual.   Where group forms of worship are the norm.

It is all here, unadulterated.  Dive right in; this is a rich mine to plumb. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Filling Words with Light

Filling Words with Light, by Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen, is subtitled “Hasidic and Mystical Reflections on Jewish Prayer.”  And that is just what this work is.  This book is meant to be a companion to Jewish Lights My People’s Prayer Book, but it certainly is a stand-alone volume.

Kushner is a particularly adept student of what is now called neo-Hasidism.  He combs Hasidic sources, both old and new, to interpret parts of the prayer book from a  vantage that is decidedly non-dualistic and non-hierarchical.  His work a kind of deeply informed Reform Judaism; it is neither lazy nor dismissive about the need for a connection to the Jewish past.  It is just selective in the use of those sources (just like more Orthodox modern commentators) and aware of the need for new meanings to for old words.   

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

By-Line Ernest Hemingway

By-Line Ernest Hemingway is a sample of the great writer's journalism from his very early days at the Toronto Star, to his articles written for various magazines once he had achieved his literary fame. This is an interesting cross section of Hemingway. We get glimpses of the patented minimalist style in the early work, and some of the material that would be used in such short story collections as In Our Time. There is Hemingway's very odd journalistic work in World War II, where he comes very close to the Gonzo definition of journalism (where he is the subject of the journalism, and not the story). Then there are some pieces at the end that show his decline. Poor mental and physical health make for some rambling and boring pieces written a few years before his life ended.

Overall, this bumpy and uneven collection of pieces gives the reader further knowledge about Hemingway the writer, and probably contributes more to the stereotypes of him as a person than need be.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Devil in Jutland (conclusion)


              Soren Christensen stopped, and took deep gulps of the stew.  In a moment it was gone.  Constable Andersen took the bowl and filled it, making sure Soren got large chunks of fish and potatoes.  Without a word he handed it to Soren.
            “Thank you.  I don’t know how long I stayed there,” Soren continued slowly. “There was no way to judge time.  It was always day, always noon, and always summer.  At first it was pure bliss, or close to it.  But eventually, I began to have doubts.  The world was out there, beyond the clearing in the woods.  There was suffering, violence, privation.  What was I doing here, I wondered, in this fantasy?  One day I kissed Katrina and the children for the last time.  This time, unlike the kiss I gave them on the day they died, before I went to work, and before they walked on the strand, I knew I would never see them again.  It was hard -- very, very, hard…” Soren Christensen began to cry.  The Constable went to the sideboard and poured a glass of schnapps.  He gently nudged the man, and when Soren saw what was being offered to him, he gulped it greedily.  After a moment, and after he wiped the tears from his face, he started to speak again.
            “When I walked out of the clearing and into the woods, I wasn’t surprised to find Wormwood waiting for me.  He was sitting on a stump.  He smiled and shook my hand.
            “‘You have been given a great gift, Soren.  Men do not recover what is lost.  They simply lose with recompense.  But I felt sorry for you.  You are an earnest man, just misguided.  You now have to pay me for my service.’ I knew that this was coming.  I was very frightened.  But what he told me was shocking.
            “‘You must find everything you have written, every scrap, and burn it.  Every word.  Everywhere.’ He then shook my hand again and walked away.  I have not seen him since.
            “That is why I am here, Constable.  I’ve come to burn all my books and papers.”
            “They are in storage,” the Constable answered. “When you didn’t return, and we couldn’t figure out what happened to you, and there was no word, I took your possessions, the portable ones, and put them in storage.  The municipality sold your house.  The proceeds are in escrow.  It’s all yours now.  You just need to sign the papers.”
            “Good,” Soren answered triumphantly. “I need more money to complete my task.  I sold a great many books.  Finding them all will prove difficult.  I can’t believe people still read that drivel!”

            Later, the Constable came out of his bedroom.  Soren had fallen asleep on the hearth stones.  The fire was nearly out.  He laid a blanket carefully over him.

            The next day Soren brought a wheelbarrow full of his writings to the Constable’s house.  Constable Andersen showed him the corner of the yard where he burned his trash.  Soren held up a manuscript.
            “I was working on this the day they died!  I was about to finish it.  The publisher was clamoring for it.  It had taken a long time to finish.  Then Wormwood arrived.  I can’t believe this thing still exists.  It feels like a dream.”  Soren Christensen soaked the papers in kerosene, and laid them on a pile of waste and ashes.  He lit a match and it quickly caught fire.  He then carefully laid his other books and papers atop it.

            The next day Soren prepared to leave.  He shook the Constable’s hand heartily.
            “Thank you for your help,” he smiled shyly, “you have made this so much easier.”
            “On occasion people still come through here looking for you,” the Constable answered as their hands unclasped.  “I tell them I don’t know what happened to you.  I think I will continue to tell them that,” and on hearing this, Soren laughed.  But when the paroxysm of mirth passed though his slim body, he became gravely serious again.
            “I know.  It is inexplicable.  The tale of a madman, perhaps.  I’ll tell you a secret Constable, and if you do not think me mad already, you will then.”
            “I wish you wouldn’t, Mr. Christensen.  I’ve heard enough of your secrets to last a lifetime.”  Soren laughed again, and just as quickly, his mien grew serious.
            “That wasn’t the Devil who came to me, Constable Andersen, that was God.”
            “God?” the Constable raised his eyebrows.
            “Yes.  Perhaps not the God.  But at least the God who created this world.  This place.  This cesspool of matter.  It wasn’t the Devil who came to me.  Nor Satan.  It was just the arrogant deity that created the earth, and the race of beings who think they are created in God’s image.”
            “I don’t think I understand, Mr. Christensen.  I’m no theologian, sir.”
            “I am not either!  No longer, anyway.  All I know is what happened to me.  And how it made me feel.  That is what I base my conclusions on: my emotional intuitions.  Not on the working of my mind.  My mind only sent me down dead ends.  The real God did not create this world.  He is hidden from us.  I don’t know why he hides.  When I have finished my task, and destroyed all my works, I will set out to find him, even if he hides from me.”
            “Good luck to you, Mr. Christensen.”
            “Goodbye, Constable.  Remember me, please.  Remember me.”
            And Soren Christensen turned around and walked away.

            The Constable went into his office and closed the door, which was so uncharacteristic his staff commented on it.  In an hour he opened it again.  Just as he did, he was called out.  He broke up a fight at a tavern down by the strand.  Then he was summoned by a dairyman outside of town who thought two of his cows had been stolen by a suspicious looking man walking along the highway.  The Constable found them an hour later stuck in a bog.  Later still, in the afternoon, the wind kicked up and a report came that a fishing boat had capsized in the channel; the Constable and his men plucked the fishermen from the choppy water in the municipal boat, and when the men arrived at the door of the Constable’s office, the sky had turned black.  The waves tumbled toward the shore.  The rain blotted out the harbor.



Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Devil in Jutland (vii)


              Constable Andersen was a bachelor.  He lived in a small cottage on a bluff overlooking the sea.  It was a cool evening, and a fire flickered in the hearth.  Soren Christensen’s clothes were drying on a line next to the stones.  Constable Andersen stood with his hand against the hearth, smoking a pipe.  Soren Christensen was seated on a low stool near the fire grasping a bowl of stew with both his hands.  The Constable had just asked Soren to repeat his last word.
            “The Devil,” Soren said emphatically.
            “The Devil?” the Constable repeated.
            “Yes,” Soren laughed, “you’ve heard of him, I gather.”
            “Of course,” the Constable answered gravely as he sucked on his pipe. “And I believe he exists, just as I believe in God, his only begotten son Jesus Christ, the Angels, and Heaven and Hell.  I have since I was a boy, and I will die believing it all.”
            “To your credit.  To your credit,” Soren said with a gentile smile. “God will reward you for your faith.”
            “If I’m worthy.”
            “Oh, you are.  I know from hard experience. I tell you, the Devil led me on an odyssey for ten years!  Things happened to me that I would not have believed possible!” Soren laughed and sipped his stew.
            “How do you know that he was the Devil?” the Constable asked as he knocked the tobacco from his pipe against the hearth, and then refilled the bowl with a pinch of tobacco.
            “How do I know?  How do I know?” Soren Christensen laughed again, even slapping his knee in childlike glee.  “Because I did not believe in him.  And when it was all done, he was all I was capable of believing.  If that is not the true test of veracity, I don’t know what is.  If there is anything else in the universe beside him, any good, any God, any higher power, I do not think we can know it.” On hearing this, Constable Andersen shrugged his shoulders.
            “With what you have been through, Mr. Christensen, I can understand why you would believe such a thing.”
            “When I lost my family, I did nothing but take sedatives for months.  I hardly ate or drank.  I don’t think I slept much at all.  I heard voices.  They were happy voices, sad voices, all the things you hear in a family, a house.  I knew they weren’t real, but they sounded real enough to sustain me for a while, and then they stopped and another voice replaced them: the voice of that Australian man, Wormwood, who visited me on the day I lost my family.   
              The scoundrel had black clothes, and a full red beard; he had a sly and appealing manner, but was subtly disquieting.  Have you even read any of my books, the ones I wrote all those years ago?” The Constable shook his head. “That’s good, you would have wasted your time on dangerous nonsense.  I said that there was no evil in the world.  That men often think it exists, but it is only because they lack ‘The Divine Perspective’ -- that was a big concept of mine.  I spent years elaborating it.  It was criticized, of course.  But every new book is; I defending it zealously.  I could not believe that God created a universe where evil exists.  The bad things that happen, I reasoned, must not be bad at all.  It must be a problem with how we see things.  It can’t be a problem with God, or with his work, his creation.  How could God create a faulty thing?   
             Then this man came -- this Wormwood fellow, and none of his criticism was all that new, or even that forceful.  But he left me disturbed.  And right after he left, well, you know the rest…” Christensen stopped for a moment and sipped some stew.  He stared into the fire with great concentration.  The wood crackled softly.
            “When the voices of my family died, my wife, my precious little boy and girl, I started to hear Wormwood’s voice.  He kept saying the same thing: ‘How can you not believe in the Devil, after this?’  One morning I was lying in bed.  I had not slept much that night. I finally dozed off before dawn, just for a few minutes, and I was awoken by the same words.  When I opened my eyes, Wormwood was in the chair next to my bed.
            “‘And how can you continue to live in this house?’ he asked softly, even kindly.  ‘It is like a tomb.’
            “‘Where should I go?’
            “‘If this world is as good as you say it is,’ Wormwood answered gently, ‘it is your duty to go out and live in it.  Not in this crypt.’ I said nothing, and Wormwood laughed. ‘Or maybe you don’t believe in such notions any longer.  Then you certainly wasted a lot of ink and paper.  Is that why you lay here, mired in self-pity?  Because of your loss?  Three coagulated lumps of clay with a tiny spark of light in them have been extinguished, and you lay here like a Chinaman in an opium den, shutting out the light with bamboo curtains.  What does it matter in the grand, the divine scheme you so treasured?  Your emotions, your small perspective mean nothing, remember…’
            “He went on in this vein for some time.  Its odd, but I did not think it strange that Wormwood was in my house, and speaking so coarsely about my loss.  It made sense.
            “‘I feel sorry for you, Soren.  I feel sorry for men who live with a gap between their ideas of the world and the way the world truly is.  You suffer from a pernicious disease: the inability to see the world’s suffering.  And that is why you suffer.  I pity you, and I’ll close that gap, right now.’ Then he touched my wrist, and we were no longer in the bedroom.  We were on the outskirts of this town.  We were in the cottage of the woman who did my laundry.  Her husband was pitilessly beating her.  It left her with a black eye; her cries were terrible to hear.   
             Then we moved to another cottage, not that far from here, along the strand.  A family did not have enough to eat that night, and the father was deciding who would eat supper and who would not.  The father’s agony in choosing who would eat was worse than that of the children, who knew they would not eat that day.  We did this for some time.  And we did not travel to exotic locations.  No starving peasants in China; no teeming slums of Calcutta.  It was all in our own backyard!  He showed me all the suffering.  A wife raped by her own husband; an apprentice beat so hard by his master that his hand was permanently deformed.  Little boys stuffing rocks down a puppy’s throat until the poor beast died… it was horrible, all of it.  I cried so hard I was rocking and moaning.  I couldn’t stop.  I saw one thing; thought I could not cry any more, saw another, and somehow found another fund of tears.   
            I was overcome with grief when my family drowned, but now I was a blithering idiot.  The pain!  The suffering!  The blind cruelty!  And all within a few miles of my house, and this house!  I begged Wormwood to stop.  But he took me to one more scene: a man, some drifter, dying of hunger out in the dunes, about a mile down the strand.  He just fell and died.  It was such an anti-climax after all the suffering he showed me, but something about this annihilated me; it was such a pathetic and lonely death.  He was surrounded by people, mostly very good -- all the people here are decent folks -- but he died alone, on the strand, like a dog, as if no one in the universe cared for him, for anyone.  Suffering was so common – so pedestrian.”
            Constable Andersen stopped smoking his pipe and gazed at Soren Christensen through narrow eyes.  He suddenly remembered that shortly after Soren disappeared, ten years ago, a drifter was found dead near the strand.  The Constable began puffing on his pipe again.
            “Finally, Wormwood stopped.  He touched my arm again and we were on a rocky crag.  I don’t think it was in Denmark.  I don’t know where it was, really.  But we could see the world below us and it was teeming with suffering and pain.  It was crowded with evil.
            “‘This is the world, Soren,’ he stated authoritatively. ‘And you only saw your corner of it.  A hop skip and a jump from your cozy little house and your overheated cottage.  People suffer and die in your yard, and you sing the praises of the world -- this pile of dung.  You are grown in the sewer of the womb and will rot in the sewer of the grave.’ Then he touched me again, and we were in a forest.  It was no longer night but had turned to a beautiful summer day.  He led me to a cabin in a clearing.  Red flowers dotted the field and seemed to genuflect in the breeze.  Katrina was there with the two children.  They were playing with toys.  Katrina was drawing water from a well.
            “ ‘What is this?’ I asked Wormwood.’
            “ ‘A gift,’ he answered, ‘and a rare one at that, given my record.  Dwell here for as long as you wish.  But when you are through, and there will come a time when you need to leave, you must do a task for me.’”