Thursday, December 09, 2010

Inscribing the Un-Inscribable

I'm reading Nicole Krauss's 2005 novel The History of Love. So far the novel is comprised primarily of one narrator's obsessive list of ideas and moments from her life--many annotated with detailed descriptions, others left to stand on their own.

Item number six reads: "MY BROTHER BELIEVES IN GOD." The description that follows gives us a brief account of a nine-year-old boy called Bird, after he jumped out of a window, trying to fly. Bird finds, among his father's things, A Book of Jewish Thoughts, and soon starts wearing a black velvet kippah each day. He also begins following the janitor around after Hebrew School.

One day Bird watches as the janitor, Mr. Goldstein, buries a number of old siddurs that were torn. "Can't just throw them away," he says, "not if it has on it God's name. Has to be buried properly" (37).

And what does Bird do next?

He writes the four Hebrew letters of the name no one is allowed to pronounce (YHVH) on his homework. On the label of his underwear. Across his class photograph. Across the front door of the family home. On the bathroom wall. And, finally, etched into the bark, with the blade of a Swiss Army knife, of the trunk of a very high tree outside his home.

He strives for permanence. Thou shalt not fade away.

Bird inscribes the un-inscribable. It is G-d's name we cannot pronounce, His face we cannot see. One marvels at the proximity of the notion of G-d and our understanding of death: both unreachable, unfathomable, except in glimmers of recognition here and there.

For Bird, I suppose they are one and the same. Bird--the little boy who flew out of the window and down to the ground, nearly inscribing death onto his body.

Most of us--all of us--wait for death. And many more of us, similarly, simply wait for G-d. We are not Moses, demanding that G-d show His face to us, only to be given His back as he passes us, as we hide in the cleft of the rock. Most of us don't realize that we're waiting. Waiting. Who, anyway, dares cry, "Show me your face!"?

And then there are those, maybe like Bird, who run full throttle into the unknown, aching to break the repetition of the mundane. Isn't it all about repetition, anyway?

I had this conversation with someone last week--the conversation where one person says, "There's nothing new under the sun, nothing unique. Each time we experience a moment of happiness, one that is predicated on our supposition that we have never felt this way before, we are simply being transported back to the first time we felt that brand of happiness. Something has reminded us of a place where we have been before--perhaps only in infancy. There is recognition. There is memory. There are sparks. Nothing more."

And of course I long to break the repetitive emotional cycle that characterizes my pleasure and my pain. Of course I long to imagine that this, right here, is new. That I have somehow escaped the phenomenon of repetition that must characterize being.

And then there is that part in the conversation where one person says: "Death is the only escape from the cycle of repetition. It's the only thing we don't know, the only thing that is new, untainted by human experience."

Do we merely wait for it? Or do we long for it.

And I think to myself later: Death, yes. And G-d. There is G-d. Perhaps they only show up together, death the faithful and effervescent sidekick of one called G-d.

We go no further.

Bird, the narrator suggests, loses his friends because of this weird behavior--this and the fact that he makes noises that sound like a video game, and picks his nose while shielding his face with the side of his arm. As if he can hide from his own shame.

The narrator regrets having taught Bird to sound out the Hebrew letters when he was only five: "It makes me sad, knowing it can't last."

And who would want it to?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Memory and Residue

I've been ill recently, which means I've had the excuse to lie in my bed and watch films on Netflix. One of the films I watched was Summer Hours with Juliette Binoche. I tend to like films that do a fine job of fleshing out the complexity of family relationships, especially when it's a family of multiple siblings. Rachel Getting Married is another one that does it right. But very few films do it in a way that I find satisfying--of course this is probably because I am the oldest of five siblings, and so I feel that I have a strong sense of family dynamics, and am, consequently, overly critical of cinematic explorations of large families.

But this isn't really what I want to talk about. There was one statement, made by the aging matriarch of a French family, as she sits in a dark and quiet room, that I cannot quite forget. Helene has just hosted all her children and their families, and now as she sits alone and contemplates her mortality, she tells her maid Eloise why she is not making the proper arrangements to deal with her material things--which are great in number and value, including many paintings that Paris's Musee d'Orsay has tried to acquire.

She alludes to the possibility that already her children bear too much responsibility for family memories, and that all of these material things would just make matters worse. The things are merely the residue of memory. She says that she desires to burden her children with neither memories or material objects that are simply the residue of those memories. I think it makes sense. I've heard it said that after a loved one dies (or perhaps simply after a divorce), the subsequent fighting over the material objects is not so much about the things themselves, but about what they represent, about the memories.

We fight over memories. We fight for the possibility of being able to touch something that contains memory within it. I suppose we are afraid--afraid that when our hands cannot close around an object, when our fingers cannot trace its lines, angles, or curves, that we will have lost the ability to remember.

I don't mean to be an apologist for materialism. I hate hearing my parents talk about what will happen to things when they die. I don't want material objects. I want my family. I want my mother's laughter to ring in my ears until the day I die. I want to see my father sitting at the head of the table, watching his five crazy children teasing each other relentlessly, erupting in frivolous fits of laughter as they reminisce.

I don't want the table we sat around.

But I also can't deny that there are objects that I can imagine wanting to hold in my hands if I were to lose my parents. My mother collects depression glass--so thoughtfully and meticulously she has collected countless beautiful pieces over the years. We drink from glasses she has collected as we sit around the table, laughing with and loving each other. I imagine that they must carry the residue of my memories of my mother--especially the ones that would rise to the surface if, God forbid, I were to ever lose her.

And this got me to thinking: to what degree are we responsible for memories? Memories are imposed on us by our predecessors, by those with whom we come into contact, by our family--the consequence of our being born into this world. Memories are transferred and transmitted from one generation to the next. But must memory always be anchored to material objects?

When I spent a summer in Ithaca, NY, for Cornell's School of Criticism and Theory a few years ago, I bought an antique dresser with crystal knobs. It's nearly 300 years old, and I cannot deny that there are times when I stare at it and feel a sense of dread. I think about the memories contained in its drawers, and I wonder to whom they belong, from whom I have stolen them.

But then I think about my family sitting around the table, and I realize that it is not the table I need in order to conjure up that memory. It contains nothing but possibility--the possibility of bringing us together so that, together, we can remember. And yet, I think I will never quite know what to do with the residue, how or whether to scrape it away.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Striving to Regret

This year's Kol Nidre service was especially meaningful for me. There's a difference between attending a service because you know you're expected to be there, and actually going and feeling like you were meant to be there--that you're in the right place. I went by myself to a minyan at Beth Jacob, a modern Orthodox shul here in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles; it was called "I Wish I Got More Out of Services," arranged by Michael Borkow, who articulated one of the most interesting ideas over the course of the evening.

In introducing the Ma'ariv, he suggested that one of the most meaningful lessons we can learn from Yom Kippur--or, rather, that we should take the time to consider during Yom Kippur--is how important it is that we strive to regret. And then he took it one step further, and suggested that we should strive for the sensitivity that would allow us to regret.

On its face, it looks and sounds like crazy talk. All sorts of psychologists and self-help books will tell us that living with regret can be lethal. But the trick is to see regret not as a final product, but as part of the process that allows us to truly atone--a place through which we must pass on our way to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and to know G-d. Perhaps regret is the process that allows us to become more human. We bask in the raw emotion that we experience when we allow ourselves to feel regret. Regret breeds remorse, and remorse creates a deeper sense of our own infinite responsibility to others.

Regret, Borkow reminded us, cannot be the stopping point. We are not cut out for a life lived under the shadow of one long shriek of regret. I recently had a conversation with someone about this very idea. I told him there are things in my life--decisions, behavior, actions--that I regret. He told me that he had no regrets. And which of us was right? Which the better human?

Regret functioning as an end point for me, as something better left untapped for him. I suppose we had both missed the mark, which rested somewhere in the movement between our two approaches. It's alway about the ellipses, isn't it?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Her Skin is Wired

"I let just a little bit of fall in through my window this morning," she said. On one of the final days of August, the day parted just long enough to give her a glimpse of what lies ahead. She likes it when the air is sharp and swirling: bits of memory in shards, cutting and falling in turns, working their way in again. Her skin is wired. On the other side of the bay window in her coastal California home, she watches as one small renegade leaf pretends it is dying in upstate New York. Detached and yellowing, it twists and contorts as it makes it first and only descent. Who will sweep it away?

Her skin is wired.

One touch and her skin is wired. Her breath is deep but it is not hers. She remembers. But maybe, just maybe, she remembers what has yet to be. This is what happiness looks like: the beauty of the unknown.

(Photo Credit:

Friday, August 20, 2010


We define ourselves through the lens of tragedy. We see our faces reflected in the wake of disaster. Destruction tells us that we live, and it tells us how to live. Or how we should have lived. And it feels sickening to me--sickening that everything we do, say, and are must be refracted off of a traumatic moment.

This is what I realized today.

I was sitting in an orientation at a university where I'll be picking up a course this fall, and one particular speaker referred nonchalantly to the fact that we are in a post-Virginia Tech era. I had never heard this term before, but I didn't need it to be explained to me. We are post everything, aren't we? In my own work and discourse I comment on our post-Holocaust moment, the postmodern era, post-9/11 ethics, the post-secular. We engage in a discourse about ourselves that is premised on the phenomenon of looking back.

We are all, it turns out, too much like the biblical Lot's wife. We are all looking back on our burning city, indifferent to the consequences. Indifferent to the possibility that we may become like salt and stone. Immovable.

We are concerned with after, when perhaps, as Rosa suggests in Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, there is only during. We look back and imagine we see the climax of our existence. And it is terrible and destructive. We build our lives around it, making meaning out of the meaningless.

Yes, I know--we can only know what came before. We have no access to what lies ahead. But sometimes I fear that we need trauma--or destruction, tragedy, devastation, loss--to form our identities. We don't define ourselves in relation to the positive or celebratory moments in our collective our individual experiences. We don't, for instance, say that we are in a post-emancipation-from-slavery era. And an individual is much more likely to say that he is a recovering alcoholic or a Holocaust survivor even if he is also a successful businessman and father of five happy children.

Happiness cannot cut us to the core, it turns out. We cannot be post-happiness. And who would we be if we were?

Friday, July 30, 2010


I've been reading Ben Greenman's short story collection What He's Poised to Do. I've been reading it off and on for the past week, which one can do because it's almost like a series of letters or dispatches, most of which have nothing to do with each other since they are narrated by different people in different eras. But they're all connected by a similar emphasis on the text, and the possibility that a particular mode of communication can speak volumes more than the content.

One character writes a letter in which he describes his current practice of reading and re-reading a series of letters that he had exchanged with his lover:

I realized that I have skipped from the moment when we became lovers to the moment when we stopped sleeping together. Between that is a gap. I will protect this period, not from shame, not from fear, but from love and from a fierce sense of obligation (48).

What he wishes to articulate, of course, is how much there is to be said about the absence of text during a certain period of the relationship--the period when they were neither up nor down. I love that he is protective of the gap, of the absence. But I can't quite determine why he feels a sense of obligation in this regard.

In an earlier letter the same character tells his lover about his mode of communication with his wife:

"Our conversations then were and invidious reminder of how poorly we were addressing our own needs," my wife once said. She leaves me notes in the morning when she leaves, and I put notes on top of her notes when I go to sleep (45).

In this case, the absence of the absence of text signifies the collapse of their communication. There is no gap, textually speaking, and yet emotionally it is all gap.

And in the very first letter of the exchange, dated 1988 from Chicago, the same character says in the first line: I am not writing to you. I am writing to your letter (41).

How much easier it is to respond to a text, a letter, a collection of words penned. How simple and safe to retreat into one's preciseness of language and its faulty rhythms. Once or twice a year I look at what I've written in my journal over the past so many months, and find that it is littered with gaps here and there--sometimes a couple of months at a time--where I did not write anything. The emotional chaos and neurosis gets documented, while the moments--sometimes long stretches--of simply being and being happy go unreported.

And sometimes when I see that I've neglected to document my own narrative for such a span of time, I feel sick to my stomach, as if I've lost a part of my life that I will never get back. I always fight off an urge to go back into my journal and create entries for dates that somehow fell into the gap. And then the greater horror is the realization that I mean to trick myself into forgetting the absence of text and the meaning of the gap.

There are those of us who can mislead even ourselves, with our careful reliance upon the preciseness of language to articulate our experiences. We forget the ellipses, and we forget ourselves.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Missing Identity: The Unidentified Bonnaroo Couple

Anyone know this couple? The photograph was taken by Jay Karas at the Bonnaroo music festival, and it's such a great photo that he wants to find this couple and give it to them. He's even started a Facebook Group that already has nearly 2,000 members, and now the page has become a bit of a social networking experiment. I've been betting that Monday night (tonight!) would be the night that the couple contacts Jay, and although there are only three hours left (PST), I'm still holding out hope. If you know this fabulous couple, have them send an email to

Spread the word!

Monday, July 05, 2010


I'm sitting at a desk in my hotel room in Toulouse, France, putting the final touches on my presentation for tomorrow: "Interrupting Violence: The Photography of Adi Nes and Zion Ozeri." It always happens, without fail, that I work and write so much better when I leave my own space and sit in a room with only the barest of necessities. With everything removed, I always feel again the joy of writing. And knowing that it is not my world, out the window and over my left shoulder, becomes the perfect interruption to the violence of my mundane life.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fracture for Fracture

I've been working on my presentation for the North American Levinas Society conference, which will be held in Toulouse, France, July 3-9. The conference centers thematically on Levinas's Difficult Freedom--a collection of his essays on Judaism, and a book that gets a reading from me simply because of its magnificent title. It's easier, and cleaner, to long for freedom, rather than experience it. When we have it, we rail against it, knocking our heads against the responsibility that always accompanies it.

My presentation is basically a reading of the photography of both Zion Ozeri--whose work I've been a fan of for many years--and Adi Nes, whose work is interesting but problematic for me. Levinas says that "The face speaks," and when I first encountered the faces in Ozeri's work, I knew that I would one day do a Levinasian reading of his work, which I found so completely and utterly compelling.

But I've been re-reading bits and pieces of Difficult Freedom as I think through this new project. And tonight, as I absentmindedly flipped through the book, I began to read "An Eye for an Eye." Leviticus 24:17 reads:

"He who kills a man shall be put to death. He who kills a beast shall make it good, life for a life. When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured..."

This "eye for an eye" phrase might very well be the most destructive phrase ever, given the way it has enabled and justified vengeance and malice throughout the centuries. We imagine that there's something good about this perverse understanding of balance--that wrongs are somehow righted or obliterated if they are carried out on a parallel plane of some sort. Let's say a man kills my child, and is given a death sentence as a consequence. It still isn't balanced, not with regard to me anyway. He took my child. Who will take his?

What we think is a morality lesson about justice and balance is really a complex moment in Torah that begs another re-reading. Rather than show us how to balance the scale of transgressions, the phrase "an eye for an eye" actually shows us that balance is impossible to obtain.

You blind me, and in turn you are, at my insistence, blinded. Are we equal? Perhaps. But I have now taken something from your lover. I have stolen from her those rare moments when you would gaze on her face--the only moments in which she understood the depth of your love for her. Who will avenge her? Who will give her an eye?

A fracture for a fracture: it ruptures us all to the very core, splitting us wide open.

In a move, near the end of the essay, that sounds dangerously close to the words of the New Testament's Paul, Levinas writes:

We must save the spirit of our codes by modifying their letter. The Bible reminds us of the spirit of kindness. The Bible speeds up the movement that brings us a world without violence, but if money or excuses could repair everything and leave us with a free conscience, the movement would be given a misinterpretation. Yes, eye for eye. Neither all eternity, nor all the money in the world, can heal the outrage done to man. It is a disfigurement or would that bleeds for all time, as though it required a parallel suffering to staunch this eternal haemorrhage ( 148).

There is no balance, no justice, no reparation--not really, anyway. Nothing "can heal the outrage done to man." Perhaps we might look for something other than healing or balance or justice.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

We Are But Replicas

I'm reading Alex Epstein's Blue Has No South:

He never told her that once, he woke up above the ocean without a shred of a memory of who he was. When he landed, he adjusted to local time the watch that he wore on his right hand...passed the border inspection, and began collecting information about his life: his name on a passport under an outdated photo, his unshaven face reflected in the restroom mirror, his address in a telephone book, the gifts for his children in a suitcase...the cigarette he hadn't managed to finish on the sidewalk outside the terminal...His voice was strange to him, but he tried his best to keep it from breaking when he opened the apartment door with the key he said in his coat pocket and said: "I'm here--at that moment he hoped in vain that nobody would be there, and he would have more time to get to know them better--"it's me" ("More on the Return of Odysseus" 17).

Epstein is one of the more interesting young Jewish writers who has recently made his debut in the literary world. He's one of a growing number of immigrants from Russia (to either the US or Israel; Lara Vapnyar, Sana Krasikov, Gary Shteyngart, etc.) who, writing from a post-Soviet perspective, are creating fiction that is vastly different from their contemporary Jewish literary counterparts, and more reminiscent of the likes of Kafka or Babel.

But I also happen to have recently read Etgar Keret's The Girl on the Fridge, which also uses the "flash fiction" format. In other words, both Keret's and Epstein's books are full of 1-2 page stories--entire stories told in just a few sentences. It seems perfect for a generation of people who live for soundbites and brief Internet blurbs.

But that isn't what I really want to talk about.

I happened to read the above passage from Epstein's book just a few days after I had attended a panel on prayer at a local Orthodox shul. During the discussion, one of the rabbis remarked upon the possibility that when we pray, we are merely imitating ourselves. And, of course, in the passage above, we see a man going through the motions of his life, learning to imitate himself, hoping that one day the mimicry becomes the reality.

But what I fear, of course, is that we are always our shadow at best, that reality is but its shadow. We are replicas of something more real than real.

Today, a friend said that he wondered how it would change the behavior of people in a shul, if instead of being made out of concrete or something ornate, a shul was constructed so that it appeared as if we were praying before the Kotel. And then he stopped himself short, taking my thought off of my tongue, and said, "But I know. You don't like replicas."

He's right, of course: I don't like replicas. I find them theoretically and ethically distasteful; they claim to bring us close to something, but really they just drive a wedge in between us and the original. I smiled the kind of smile that only materializes when I feel the intimacy of someone having just read my mind, and I said, "No, I don't."

But I was reminded of Epstein's passage, and of the rabbi's image of men and women davening, struggling to imitate themselves as they pray. And I wondered if I shouldn't learn to love replicas after all.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Learning in Reverse

Just a few days ago was the end of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which marks the giving of Torah, or commandment, to the people. Shavuot has been--at least for the past 3 or 4 years--my favorite Jewish holiday because it is all about two things: staying up all night (literally) and learning Torah and eating cheesecake. That's pretty much it for me in this life.

But...this notion of Commandment being given to us. These days I can hardly think about Commandment without thinking of Kieslowski's The Decalogue--a 10-part film series that aired on Polish television in the 1980s. We're given the Torah, and we don't know what to do with it. In each of Kieslowski's films, one of the Ten Commandments is explored, but often it is difficult to tell which it is that the film seeks to depict. "Thou shalt not kill" bleeds into "Honor your father and mother," and so on and so forth. Ambiguity, in this postmodern context, seems to trump Halakhic specificity.

And I'm grateful that this is so. Kieslowski paints the world as it is, while, perhaps, the biblical Decalogue gives us the framework for how the world should be--that is, how simple it should be to decipher between "right" and "wrong." Today I spent some time re-reading Franz Rosenzweig's On Jewish Learning, which I hadn't looked at in years:

A new "learning" is about to be born--rather, it has been born. It is a learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round: from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah. That is the sign of the time...From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in.

Learning in reverse--that's what we're doing. I suppose the question is whether our actions will take us forward instead of back to where started. But let me spin it again, and say that I'm not quite sure whether it isn't backward that we should be moving. I don't know the beginning from the end, the past from the future: they are all continuous with each other, and with me. Because, you see, if we return to our origins, we return to creation and revelation. But we also return to violence, void, and the chaotic: all the rumblings of birth and change. If I could split myself in two, I would move in both directions until I arrived at the place where my two halves would be conjoined again, this time for good.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Memoriam

I'm moving this week, to be closer to the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Having spent so many years in different grad schools and programs over the past decade--Loyola Marymount, Purdue, Cornell--I've moved back and forth a lot. Moving my life from one community to another has become routine. But even though the movers will arrive tomorrow morning, I find myself just sitting in my place, looking around at all of my stuff, waiting for it to pack itself.

I think it's the fault of a friend who wrote to me yesterday. He said that, for him, the most difficult part of moving is realizing that, as one packs and sorts the material things, invariably there are memories that one begins to sort and unpack. Memories: their tentacles clinging to all sorts of unlikely objects.

A white embroidered tablecloth stuffed in the back of a cabinet, a small blood stain on the corner: reminds me of a dear friend who was dealing with an addiction. He stayed at my house one night many years ago, his nose bleeding right onto my tablecloth.

A framed poster advertising the inaugural North American Levinas Society conference: reminds me of the time and tears our little group put into something that would grow beyond our wildest dreams, taking on a life of its own.

A shrunken silk sweater: reminds me of the girlfriend who shrunk it because she didn't follow the washing instructions; reminds me how angry I was at her for ruining my favorite sweater; reminds me of how much I love and miss her.

But because I've moved so frequently, there aren't many things that remain to cause grief. I discard them with each move.

But, the books. I've been collecting them since before high school, and I would never let one go. I have boxes and boxes of books. I have enough to build a home. And every time I open one as I slip it into a cardboard box, I look for my notes and annotations. And I read the midrash in the margins. "*See Blanchot!" I kept seeing in the margins of one book in particular. It's amazing: I haven't yet found one marginal note that doesn't remind me of exactly who I was and where I was at the time I wrote it.

My entire life is contained in my books. I've written my entire story in the narratives and philosophical musings of others. It's all there, every last second. And only I can read it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Joy Cometh in the Mourning

Every couple of months I return to this moment. Or perhaps the truth is that I perpetually inhabit this moment. The photograph, I fear--taken in New York City--captures the essence of something very close to who I am. Samuel Beckett certainly got it right when he intimated, in Waiting for Godot, that we are all just waiting for the appearance of our own death. Life is comprised only of holding "the terrible silence at bay."

But what if we are not just waiting? What if we are also mourning, without realizing it?

I was thinking, today, about how much of our mourning is displaced. I spoke to a friend this evening. She had recently ended a 2-year relationship, and she found herself grieving the loss in ways she never would have fathomed. But as she mourned, she began to realize that her sorrow was not connected to the man she had just left. She was mourning the man who came before him--a previous relationship that had ended badly. It was his face that haunted her. It was the memory of how his body felt that caused her to crumble. She realized that it had been nearly three years since she had put spinach in her eggs, the way he had taught her. She was finally mourning him.

But, she said, perhaps I was mourning him all along and I didn't know it. Perhaps the man with whom I spent the last two years of my life was just a symptom of my mourning, its fingers closing around my throat.

Let me go.

Her speculation made me return to my own contemplation of mourning. Mourning: more than one can bear. Il y a, for Levinas--the rumbling that comes before all else, preceding creation and ontology both. A sensation that, painful and raw, makes us whole by splitting us at the root. It is revelation: a shattering that somehow preserves the wholeness, precedes the wholeness, provides the wholeness.

Our society exerts so much energy toward achieving and maintaining something we call happiness. We admire those who appear to be happy all the time. We want shadows. We have lost our ability to mourn, our desire to find joy in the mourning. But I mourn. And I wouldn't trade it for all the world.

Last night I had another night terror. I awoke and I saw a face on my wall, a burning face. There was sadness all over it. I screamed and screamed. I was afraid that the sorrow was being burned away, and that there would be no trace of it in the morning.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Only Loss Is Real

I recently noticed the status of a person on Facebook--not one of my "friends"--that I found troublesome for some reason I couldn't articulate. I've been thinking about it all day, as a matter of fact. The status read: "only love is real." It garnered a bit of attention, all sorts of people clicking the "like" button in response to it, and many posting comments that were really quite silly and not worth dignifying with repetition here.

I said out loud to myself, "Who says things like that? Only love is real?" I found it offensive and childish on so many levels. I mean, what the hell does it mean? That "love" is more real than suffering or sorrow? Or, worse, that it is the only so-called emotion that warrants any serious consideration?

But I was also in the midst of re-visiting Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault, which I've written about before. In one scene of the novel, Michaels paints a picture of 1950s Warsaw, when people were desperate with optimism, running around making the most extravagant of claims about all the wonderful things that were going to happen in Warsaw--all the lovers that would find each other, the scientific discoveries that would be made, all the dead that would be raised.

And the narrator responds:

And while people ran about proclaiming such things, I could only think that everything exists because of loss. From the bricks of our buildings, from cement to human cells, everything exists because of chemical transformation, and every chemical transformation is accompanied by loss. And when I look up at the night sky I think: The astronomers have given every star a number.

And then, tearing a piece of paper and crumpling it into a ball:

This is what the world is. A ball where everything is smashed together. I do not know if we belong to the place where we are born, or to the place where we are buried.

And so to the girl who writes, "only love is real," I would say: Look where you are standing. Look at how your feet crush against layer upon layer of loss and memory. Your "love" is nothing without the reality of loss.

I won't tell you that love is not real: one or two rare occasions in my life beg me, perhaps from their graves, to suggest otherwise. But spare me your false consolation, your extravagant claim on love and reality. Show me something more real than what can only be the epidermis of human existence. Show me the real.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Here I Am

I found a new poet today: Cheryl Dumesnil. I was absentmindedly flipping through one of those book catalogues that usually sit, collecting dust, in faculty mailboxes. I read a poem called "If," and it began with an epigraph from Rumi: "Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along."

Then all I have to do is
recognize her, lifting

groceries from a cart into
the trunk of her car or

pulling a muddied garden glove
from her hand as I bike

slowly by. That
simple: a cherry branch

shimmers on puddled
water, and fire torches up

within, after so much rain.

As it turns out, revelation is perhaps nothing more than recognition. A woman meets a man one day--a brief encounter. She experiences recognition. That simple. When she goes home to her lover she knows that she will never be able to touch him again. Without realizing it, she has said: hineni. She has intimated her understanding of the place she has been all along. Here I am. She slides right back into her life, as if she had never gone missing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pull Me Out Alive

Yesterday I had to write a brief essay on Michael Chabon for a larger project, and in doing a bit of research I found a 2008 essay of his in The New Yorker, which I remember reading when it came out. Chabon is an escape artist, an artist of escape, and perhaps even a philosopher of sorts, whose stories teach us that we can escape perhaps only when we realize that we cannot. He recounts the following story from a religious-school class called Jewish Ethics:

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that he tied a red towel around his neck, climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of "UP, up, and away," leaped to his death. There was known to have been such a boy, Mr. Spector informed us--at least one verifiable boy, so enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

But if escape and escapism are problems of the ethical realm, Chabon has no problem engaging with ethical dilemmas, brandishing his knack for storytelling and impulse toward mystery. And, anyway, it was not about escape, Chabon wanted to tell his teacher; it was about transformation.

I think there is a cultural need for this kind of fantasy, this longing to throw a make-shift red cape about our shoulders and be magically transformed. No doubt Linus Steinman, the mute 9-year-old boy in Chabon's The Final Solution who has escaped from Nazi Germany with his only companion, an African gray parrot, would have experienced this very same longing.

I remember back in 2004, browsing an old bookstore in Seattle with a friend. I noticed my friend, a child of survivors, gripping a book with a giant parrot on the cover, staring intently at it (I didn't realize it was Chabon's new book), as if he planned to use it as a weapon of some sort. "What are you doing to the parrot book?" I asked.

My friend, who had a flair for the dramatic, said, "Michael Chabon gets it. He gets it." When I finally read The Final Solution, I realized what he meant. Devoid of the standard, even stereotypical, images of corpses, crematoria, and barbed wire, it's the unlikeliest of Holocaust novels. In fact, it's not even mentioned, but for a few oblique but well-placed allusions to the disaster. We don't ask "why?" in relation to the Holocaust. Instead, we are fixated on who has stolen the boy's parrot and why. In Auschwitz, there is no why, and often, in talking about things that cannot be explained, we run the risk of trivializing or sensationalizing them. Chabon, it seems, gets it.

Our current position in history has placed us in the wake of so many terrors and tragedies of all kinds. And I think that, for this reason, we experience a collective longing to be saved, and to see others be saved, imagining ourselves in turn as savior or saved. Chabon's fiction taps into these needs. There are some events from which we cannot escape, but also from which we cannot help but long to be rescued. Chabon's characters come alive for us because they mirror our own secret desires for fantasy--or, perhaps it is reality that we long for, as an escape from the era in which we stand, an era that feels more like fantasy than reality.

And one more possibility: perhaps, in the so-called real world, in our world, novelists and storytellers are the ones who wear the metaphorical red capes. Perhaps storytellers alone possess the ability to transform us all. Chabon writes: "Now the time has come to propose, or confront, a fundamental truth: like the being who wears it, the superhero costume is, by definition, and impossible object. It cannot exist." But if it can't exist, it's only because our need for it to exist depends on public amnesia, a disavowal of a history in which there have been no cosmic superheroes--only the deafening sound of silence. Perhaps it is literature that has the power and potential to obliterate the desire for the costume. For without the costume, what is revealed instead is the "truth of the story we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation, of our story's recommencement, of our rebirth into the world of adventure, of story itself."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cracks in Everything

Some people never stop reading. It's true. A man puts a book down, closes his eyes, and reads. He opens them again, and reads the arch in his girlfriend's eyebrow, the way she abruptly flicks her wrist as she tosses away the cigarette he can't stand, the way she then closes her own eyes, pretending that she, too, reads. But whereas he has learned to read the darkness against his own closed lids, she sees only a bright flash of light, the backside of her eyelashes feathering across the shadow of a page.

Why do we read? Maurice Blanchot writes:

Apparently we only read because the writing is already there, laid out before our eyes. Apparently. But the first person who ever wrote, who cut into stone and wood under ancient skies, was far from responding to the demands of a view that required a reference point and gave it meaning, changed all relations between seeing and the visible.

"Apparently," says Blanchot. It is only apparent(ly). Magicians--oh, and those people on stain remover commercials--are famous for taunting us with "now you see it, now you don't." Those who deal in either magic or marketing knowingly capitalize on our weakness: our tendency to believe that what see exists, and that what we don't...doesn't. But what if we try to catch the il y a-- the "there is"--on its way from seen to unseen? How do we read what happens in between concealment and revelation?

Blanchot isn't finished:

What he left behind him was not something more, something added to other things; it was not even something less--a subtraction of matter, a hollow in the relation to the relief. Then what was it? A hole in the universe: nothing that was visible, nothing that was invisible. I suppose the first reader was engulfed by that non-absent absence, but without knowing anything about it, and there was no second reader because reading, from then on understood to be the vision of an immediately visible--that is, intelligible--presence, was affirmed for the very purpose of making this disappearance into the absence of the book impossible.

Reading is (only) a "vision of an immediately visible." When we read, really read, we disappear into the absence of the book. When we read others--the face of a loved one, the scowl of a stranger, the back of a former lover--we disappear into their cracks and everything becomes illuminated for us. I suppose this is why I look for fractures: I want to know what it feels like to be suspended, darkly, in between wholeness and fragmentation. What is dark within a person does not discredit him.

A friend sent me one of his poems today, and the idea contained in the poem is what led me down this path. The poem draws on some of Leonard Cohen's lyrics: "There is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." The crack is what divides the seen from the unseen, the visible from the invisible. But how to read it is the most difficult question of all.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

We Should Be Blind

Despite countless looming deadlines for various projects, I decided to do two things this evening. First, I took my dog Eliot for a night-time walk down to the ocean. And when I got home, I decided to pull all of the "books I don't often reach for" out of their hiding places and re-organize them. It was Rilke, of course, that brought both of these moments together.

There was something so strange about the air and the sky tonight, about how they seemed to separate from one another in the wind. I walked, walked, and walked down to the water. I dragged my poor dog who was scared and wanted to go home. I listened to Lykke Li on my ipod and tried to ignore him, throwing my head back in exasperation at one point. And when I did, there was the sky, in a moment at which I felt both warm and cold air swirling about inside each other, intertwining but refusing to intersect.

On this particular street in my neighborhood, there is a ridiculous number of palm trees. And as I faced upward, looking at their branches against the sky, and feeling winds of conflicting temperatures, I felt a bit of vertigo. And then a bit of something else. It felt nothing like Santa Monica. Instead, I experienced physically the memory of being, long ago, on Miami Beach--alone in the middle of the night. Walking, walking, walking. And waking. It was something about the wind, the dark sky, and the colliding temperatures.

But it wasn't my memory I was experiencing tonight. While I've been to Miami a number of times, I've never walked that beach alone in the middle of the night. And it occurred to me that perhaps I had stolen someone else's memory.

I reached the sand. I chose not to go all the way to the water. I turned around and walked home, still dragging my disgruntled little white dog. But my skin felt alive, crawling with energy and excitement.

I'm pushing stacks and piles of books around when I get home. I'd forgotten I owned a Margaret Fuller book. I flipped through the book until I found "Leila," and then turned away. I once gave a talk on "Leila" in Philadelphia, attempting to bring Fuller into dialogue with Blanchot and Levinas, the ones I really wanted to talk about. And then I saw Rilke--my favorite copy with the German and English translation side-by-side. I read "Blind Man":

Watch him make lacunae in the town,
Which his wandering presence makes unseen,
Like a crack of blackness wavering down
Through a shining cup. As on a screen,

World reflected paints itself on him,
But is not admitted to his core.
Sensing only stirs as from a slim
Catch of world in ripples on his shore:

Now a light resistance, now a calm--
Then he pauses (seeming to decide
On some choice) and raptly lifts his arm,
Almost festivelyk, as to his bride.

The word "lacunae" caught my eye, of course. Here we have a blind man creating (or illuminating?) gaps in the space in which he wanders. He's taking something right out of the air, breathing it in and leaving lacunae in its wake. He's stealing memories, I thought to myself, and leaving the town unseen. And yet, he is blind. We should all be so fortunate.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Body Lines

I once overheard a woman crying in a crowded cafe. Something about the texture of her sorrow chilled me inside and out. I remember being physically cold the rest of the evening, unable to get warm despite my piling on of layers. Her voice was filled with horror and regret.

I listened as she told the story of her love affair.

The first morning I awoke in his arms, I pretended to sleep. I silently watched his body lengthen and slide out of the bed we had shared. He, facing away, body unveiled, stretching his arms to the sky, bending them at the wrist. And then he bent forward at the waist and I saw them. I saw the lines on his body. I had never seen anything like them--countless raised, dark lines, stretchmarks of some sort, wrapping themselves around his lower back like rings in the center of a tree trunk. I was terrified by their undulating pattern. But he was flawed, and it made me care for him. If only I had read those lines more closely...if only I had read the history of his body and soul in those lines. If only I had seen the darkness and duplicity hidden between them. If only I had read his body. I would have known that I could never love him.

She made me nervous, this woman, her sorrow and story tinged with a flair for the dramatic. But I was cold all night. And later that same night, I stared at my own body in the mirror and wondered what it had to say, what was worth reading. There isn't an answer. Perhaps what we read into the external surface of the body is just an attempt see ourselves and others according to our own desires.

But I can't help but wonder whether, sometimes, the light or darkness that is part of a man's soul becomes so intense that it begins to seep through his skin, revealing the secrets of his story to those who care to read carefully enough. Today in my Jewish American Fiction class, I told my students about Saul Bellow's tendency to create heavily detailed physical descriptions of his characters--descriptions that are often symbolic of what lies beneath the surface of their fictional skin. Perhaps his impulse is more than a literary device.

Friday, January 08, 2010

An Infinite Conversation

I just read an essay in Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, who is the Co-Director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford.The title of her essay--"It Is Not for Me to Finish the Text, Yet Neither Am I Free to Desist"--jumped out at me for obvious reasons, given my own interests in the work of Emmanuel Levinas as well as in what I call the midrashic impulse. It's that whole Buberian "thou must which takes no account of the thou can" thing again.

I love
things that are neverending--ideas, texts, and emotions that refuse to reveal their conclusions to us. But more importantly, I love such things because they require my active participation. I help to give them life, to make them move, thrive, and evolve.

In the essay
, Fonrobert describes her first encounter with the Babylonian Talmud, when she was studying at a Protestant seminary in Berlin a number of years ago. She was, understandably, seduced by the magic of the Talmud--and, "as with any magic," she writes, " cannot be grasped in its totality lest it lose its hold."

But what
is serious study of any text--sacred or secular--but an attempt to grasp it in its totality? We sometimes think, mistakenly, that in order to make something ours we must master every one of its twists and turns, discern and decipher every enigma and ambiguity. We long for the power and security that we believe such "knowledge" affords. Everyone wants the last word.

As I read
this short essay, I found myself smiling and nodding vigorously to myself at every other paragraph. In referring to a necessary characteristic of the Talmud (and Torah), Fonrobert comments on the:

of the text to remain incomplete, to forsake authority, to leave the final word unsaid; and the insistence of the text that no one, not Rabbi Akiva nor Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi nor Rav Ashi, and certainly no one of us--so many centuries later--will have the final world. . . The truth does not abide with any one person; it is born from the principled discussion between two or more people.

Hello, Levinas.

A person, in
other words, who does nothing more than sit alone in his space and study the text alone is inevitably barred from "the truth" of the text. He is missing the crucial component that would link him back to all the text has to offer. He is missing the company and companionship--and the resulting disagreements--of learning the text among others.

also points out the ways in which the style and rhetoric found in the Talmud confront the rhetoric of early Christianity:

It [the truth
] is born from keeping the discussion going, restaging it. And I experience this intuitive perception of the talmudic rhetoric as profoundly liberating. The Talmud gave me disagreement, dispute, and conversation where early Christian theologians gave me dogmatic claims to the truth.

As proof, Fonrobert
cites pereq heleq, the eleventh chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin. Specifically, she points to a recorded dispute regarding redemption between Rav and Shmuel. She quotes:

Rav said
: All the predestined dates [for redemption] have passed, and the matter [now] depends only on repentance and good deeds. But Samuel maintained: it is sufficient for a mourner to keep his [period of] mourning. ---Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b

As Fonrobert
points out, the viewpoints of Rav and Shmuel are diametrically opposed. In other words, in terms of redemption, are works and good deeds either matter (says Rav), or they don't (Shmuel). The talmudic text, however, refuses to back either one of the viewpoints, instead granting legitimacy to the question/dispute itself, rather than the answer/solution by reminding us of earlier disagreements in the Talmud about this very thing.

text," suggest Fonroberts, "turns us and turns us again as we seek to find everything within it."

I love this
idea of being turned by the text. I always refer to the sages' admonition to turn the text, since everything is contained within it. But what does it mean to allow ourselves to be turned by the text, simultaneously? Perhaps the argument is not so much about allowing the text to transform, but about allowing ourselves to be transformed by this idea and its enactment.