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?