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.