Friday, July 31, 2009

Questioning a Scream to the Infinite

Rather than wasting precious nocturnal silence by sleeping, I'm reading Edmond Jabes' The Book of Questions tonight. The title itself is enough to blog about. Shouldn't there be only books of questions, rather than books of answers? Shouldn't the arrogance and presumptuousness of claiming to know enough answers to build a book out of them be traded for the honesty and insight of one question?

"The light of Israel is a scream to the infinite" (164).

A brief sentence, but it already contains three words to which I always gravitate: Israel, scream, infinite. I could speculate endlessly on the meaning of this sentence, but I suspect that the only thing to remain would be the question(s). Is the scream a silent scream that howls indefinitely? Or is it one primal, gut-wrenching scream that bleeds itself raw?

In a story that follows the above quotation, a character remarks: "Even when she does not scream, I hear her." Another character says: "I do not hear the scream. I am the scream."

And, the infinite. When I think "infinite," I think of infinite responsibility. Is the light of Israel forever connected to the "Here I am" that resounds in the narratives of the Torah? Years ago I took a nineteenth-century American literature class (I know, abrupt segue). I remember the professor always spoke of "the more within the less"--and that's the infinite. What is a scream to the infinite?

It's just one line in the middle of a large book, and yet I keep asking questions.

Monday, July 06, 2009

"How Much of the Earth is Flesh?"

I'm about 50 pages into a new novel, and so far two passages continue to run circles in my mind.

is the perfect disguise. The replica, which is meant to commemorate, achieves the opposite effect: it allows the original to be forgotten," writes Anne Michaels, in her new novel The Winter Vault.

This is Michaels' second novel. Her first was Fugitive Pieces, which may be one of the most perfect novels ever written--let alone one of the most insightful novels regarding trauma and the Holocaust. Considering the work I do, Fugitive Pieces was compelling because of the way it brings trauma to the forefront through focusing on absence and the immense roars of silence, as opposed to diving deep into the traumatic event and attempting to depict it as it really was.

And clearly this theme of allowing emptiness to speak is continued in her newest novel, which has nothing to do with the Holocaust
. This one is about a couple living on a houseboat on the Nile River, moored below the towering figures of Abu Simbel. The main character, Avery, is one of the engineers charged with the task of dismantling and reconstructing the temple in order to rescue it from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam. Avery loves technology, but he is torn between it and his awareness of the destruction it perpetrates.

Michaels remarks on simulation are interesting because they raise critical questions about originals vs replicas, especially in the context
of memorials and commemorations. What, really, do we achieve by constructing a representation of something (an event, an historical period, a feat of nature, etc)? By creating one thing to stand for another, all we really do is distance ourselves from the original that we seek to capture.

But even if Michaels' narrative
is concerned with the creations and upheavals of our physical world, she is also deeply aware of the enterprises of the heart--the intimacy and immensity of the way that emotion functions in our world.

And here is the second passage that I cannot yet forget:

"And she knew
for the first time that someone can wire your skin in a single evening, and that love arrives not by accumulating to a moment, like a drop of water focused on the tip of a branch---it is not the moment of bringing your whole life to another--but rather, it is everything you leave behind. At that moment."

It seems that even in the enormity
of being in love, it is still about what one chooses not to have; it is still about the presence of absence. It makes me think also of Lot's wife, who (according to some of the Midrashim), while fleeing the city of Sodom with her husband, gazed behind her so that she could look back on the two daughters she was leaving behind. And at that moment, she became a monument of her love for them: a pillar of salt.