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hand...passed the border inspection, and began collecting information about his life: his name on a passport under an outdated photo, his unshaven face reflected in the restroom mirror, his address in a telephone book, the gifts for his children in a suitcase...the cigarette he hadn't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.

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