Thursday, May 14, 2009

Discovering Agnon and his Doubters and Skeptics

I was recently introduced to the writer S.Y. Agnon by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who also gave a talk last night, which I attended. Agnon has been on my "need to read" list for a few years now, but I kept pushing him back onto the shelves. I've only read a couple of his stories so far, but I'm hooked--he's compelling on so many different levels.

As Rabbi Bouskila suggested, while Agnon's work utilizes the language of the Talmud and Midrash, he explores something that is radically missing from these sacred texts: emotional states of being, and the ambivalence of emotion that often characterizes the authentic human experience. To be anchored in one world, but long for another is a theme dutifully explored by Agnon.

A number of Agnon's stories--including "Fable of the Goat," which we read at the talk last night--play with Talmudic stories, flipping them upside-down and intricately re-telling them in the context of modern/postmodern questions and quandries. And I suppose this is the primary reason I find Agnon so compelling. His grappling with the sacred texts shows (in my reading) his love for them, even if he feels the need to respond to them with literary re-inventions of his own. Rabbi Bouskila called one story a midrash on a prior Talmudic tale--I think he's right.

And here's something I love. In Afar Eretz Yisrael, Agnon writes: "The doubters and skeptics, and all who are suspicious of things--they are the only people of truth, because they see the world as it is." The "truth" is not typically black and white, as I was taught to believe. Truth is always already subject to scrutiny and interrogation, or it is not truth. And it must be so, if only that we might never fall into the trap of thinking that truth does not evolve along with us.

It reminds me of something E. L. Doctorow once said, and to which I return again and again, even on this blog: "True faith cannot answer the intellect with a patronizing smile."


Casey said...

Awesome. I really like what you're saying about the missing strands of emotion... and about how Agnon's texts themselves reveal his love for his sacred sources.

Is it true that emotional states are "radically missing" from Talmud and Midrash literature? That's a little surprising to me... for more than a couple of years I've been very conscious of how disappointing I find contemporary literary criticism -- disappointing because it, too, lacks the emotional state, and it almost never reveals how much the critic loves the original source. I hope our generation can work toward that stuff into our criticism, eventually...

Casey said...

Monica! -- one more thing. Curiosity took me there for a minute... I went to my favorite source, wikipedia -- place for credible information on cleavage and Midrash -- and discovered that Midrash is one of four methods of reading known as Pardes.

I'm sure you know about this. What can you tell me about the fourth method of reading -- reading for the secret/mystery/mystical meaning? Known as "Sod?"

That's especially awesome since I half-know that the Old English word for Truth is "sóþ." I need to find a tattoo artist who can make these terms come together.

I need to read Maimonides, don't I? -- Guide for the Perplexed, is it?

Exciting! (and I'm only on my first glass of wine)

Monica said...

Thanks, Casey. I think you might like Agnon. Read a short story and tell me what you think.

About whether or not emotional states are really missing from Tamud and Midrash--I do believe that's the case from everything I've read, but now I feel compelled to go back and figure out if that really is true in every single case. I will say, though, that the style of Talmudic and midrashic writing has very much to do with the external world. You'll see very few instances dealing with the inner world or any kinds of internal conflict.

It's interesting what you say about literary criticism, because that is nearly identical to a point that the rabbi made about theory and philsophy--that it is often devoid of one of the most pertinent aspects of being human, which is about being emotional and expressing and dealing with emotions, often which are quite complicated.

Let me get back to you re: Sod.

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