A Meditation on Change

In his review of Melissa Hobrook Pierson’s The Place You Love is Gone (Progress Took It Away) (a book given to such observations as, “Change is a violation of personal laws,” and “‘Progress’ is just another word for larceny”), Anthony Swofford observes of Pierson that “change, again,” is “this author’s silent enemy.” Change is, of course, the only reality we’ll ever know, so to declare it your enemy, implicitly or explicitly, is to invite a lifetime of unrelenting suffering. Pierson is right to be suspicious of attempts to portray change positively as “progress,” but she falls into the opposite version of that error when she portrays it negatively as “a violation of personal laws” or “larceny.” Change merely is. To speak of it in normative terms is to be mistaken.

Elsewhere in this week’s New York Times Book Review, Bella Bathurst decribes another front in the delusional war on change, as found in Belinda Rathbone’s The Guynd: A Scottish Journal:

“The disposal of trash is as abhorrent a concept to John as the keeping of trash is to some of us,” Rathbone writes of her husband. “He takes pity on everything. For John is interested in how everything is made and, once it is made, it seems criminal to dispose of it in so callous a way as most of us do. Most of all, he believes that for everything he gives up he should get something in return. Was this Scottish, I wondered, or was it just John?”

John abhorred wastefulness and could find a second use for almost everything, but his determination to preserve meant he believed that nothing should be discarded–so nothing should be altered.

I suppose that, looked at from the proper perspective, this could all be seen as comic, but I’m neither that enlightened nor that capable of irony.

To Make Is To Break

The second half of Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, his meditation on the figure of Yahweh, has as one of its touchstones Bloom’s insight that the title character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the only character in Western literature that we can believe is capable of writing the work in which he appears. This is a strange, or at least strange-sounding, insight, but some reflection would seem to confirm it. Leopold Bloom, as complete a character as he is, couldn’t write Ulysses, nor could Stephen Dedalus, despite the character’s genesis as James Joyce’s pen name. And though the Don is writing his own adventures in Don Quixote de la Mancha, neither he nor Sancho Panza could have written Cervantes‘s novel. Even Marcel, the narrator of Proust‘s largely autobiographical In Search of Lost Time, doesn’t become capable of writing the 3,500 pages across which he has developed until the last of those pages.

Prince Hamlet, on the other hand, possesses cognitive and imaginative capacities beyond those of any of the play’s other characters, and hints at insights beyond even those of the author. It’s not only that Hamlet rewrites and then has The Mousetrap staged in the third act of Hamlet, thereby determining the action of the last two acts of that play. This does allow Shakespeare a voice within the play to speak on matters of theater craft and the like, but the character he created to speak his thoughts actually knows more than Shakespeare himself does, as emerges at the play’s bloody climax. Stephen Dedalus plays with the idea of Shakespeare as Hamlet in the “Scylla and Charybdis” chapter of Ulysses (unintentionally revealing the comparative weakness of Dedalus as Joyce), but it’s Harold Bloom, in Ruin the Sacred Truths, who fully grasps the way in which Hamlet transcends even his author. And it’s that insight, among many others, upon which Bloom bases the “Yahweh” half of Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.

Bloom veers between Yahweh as a character created by the first writer of the Jewish Bible (to whom he refers, alternately, as the Yahwist or the J writer) and Yahweh as the author of the creation that contains the Yahwist and of the Torah that contains her work. He vacillates between aesthetic awe of the Yahwist and religious awe of Yahweh. But at neither end of the spectrum of his reactions does he ever entirely abandon either Yahweh’s divinity or his humanity. Yahweh is as powerful, imaginative, and capricious as reality itself, and yet he’s also the basis of our understanding of what it is to be human (which is yet another blow to the claims of Christ’s originality). This can all become a little disorienting for the reader, and the impulse to be reductive can be overwhelming. To his credit, Bloom forestalls all such attempts. He will brook no nonsense about Yahweh being simply an anthropomorphization of the forces of nature or reality, at least in part because Yahweh is compellingly more human than we are. He keeps the discussion from collapsing into simplicity by examining the diminishment inherent in creation (or zimzum in Kabbalistic terms).

To create anything that was not himself, Yahweh had to contract to allow space for his creation. This could be taken spatially to mean the opening of a void or abyss within which the creation described in Genesis (or the creation posited by the Big Bang theory, for that matter) occurred, but it could also be taken metaphysically. With the creation of man, Yahweh became a self in relation to others. Yahweh was no longer the whole of reality–there were now others, endowed with free will and acting against Yahweh’s intentions and without his knowledge (see Genesis 3 for one such instance). This would have been a profound diminishment for him. Elsewhere, following Bloom’s lead, I reductively posited another way in which the product of creation, and writing in particular, is inherently flawed. In his latest book, Bloom, who seems to have difficulty viewing any aspect of his experience as anything but literature, has merely extended that supposition to Yahweh’s authorship of our universe, so that not only is the object of creation flawed, but the creator as subject is harmed as well. Yahweh had to diminish himself to create our very existence, within which we suffer his absence. We are physically, metaphysically, and psychologically outside of Yahweh, divided from him, as he is from us.

Several times in this book, Bloom mentions that Buddhism escapes him, but it seems to me that he’s tantalizingly close to its primary insights. Buddhists often refer to what we think of as our self as “contracted”–the result of an illusory sundering of luminous emptiness into the dualistic perception that is the root of all suffering. The central Lurianic insight that to create is to diminish is, if not Buddhist, then entirely amenable to Buddhism. Contraction into a subject (or author) is necessary to the creation of an object (or character). To create is to diminish, to divide, to sunder–luminosity is obscured by creation. Usually, the creator will place himself on the fuller side of that duality, but great artists, like Shakespeare, the Yahwist, and Yahweh himself, will more fully empty the vessel of the subject into the object. Or, as Stephen Dedalus puts it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the great artist, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” But even then, even with the greatest of artists, the art of subjects creating objects, even the most aesthetically accomplished of such art, can do no more than reify duality and renew suffering.

It’s Not the End Time

I’ve read the first half of Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, his meditation on the figure of Jesus, and found him at his incisive, dyspeptic best in his critique of what he finds in the New Testament that’s not Jesus:

For Paul, the Resurrection, or Christ event, proclaimed the death of Torah: since the end of all existence was very near, moral law became irrelevant. Two thousand years after Paul, it is a little bewildering to absorb what cannot be termed a mere delay in finalities.

…I am not impressed when scholars argue that James and Paul subtly can be reconciled. Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic diatribe against James counts far more: he reacted with fury to the Epistle’s “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24), a manifest repudiation of Paul’s “a man is justified by faith and not by works” (Romans 3:28).

However one judges the New Testament, whether as literature or as spirituality, it is historically the most totally successful makeover ever accomplished. Since Christians worldwide now outnumber Jews by more than a thousand to one, you could assert (if you wished) that the New Testament rescued the Hebrew Bible, but you would be mistaken. Christians have saved their Old Testament…

…about a third of the New Testament is Pauline. Between his priority, his centrality to the text, and his reinvention of much of Christianity, Paul is its crucial founder. Yeshua of Nazareth, who died still trusting in the Covenant with Yahweh, cannot be regarded as the inaugurator of a new faith.

Can anyone like Paul? Only my dedicatee, Donald Akenson, shows a wry affection for the Apostle in Saint Saul (2000), pointing out accurately that Jesus Christ, in the Gospels, has become a divinity, while Paul “is a jagged, flawed, and therefore totally convincing human being.” …George Bernard Shaw compared Paul to Karl Marx, finding in each a fantastic builder of error that exiled all moral responsibility. That seems about right to me.

Yahweh and Israel, Paul implies, will work out the Chosen People’s Redemption. Did Paul, who must have died still expecting Christ’s return, really believe that Israel would accept Christ at that moment? I have no answer, except that Paul’s Messiah certainly has little in common with what the Jews expected, since they awaited a victorious warrior. But then his Christ also has not much in common with Yeshua of Nazareth, in any of his Gospel versions, even in John. Paul’s delusion (what else could you call it?) is that he lives in the End Time.

Yeshua of Nazareth, descendant of David, habitually addressed Yahweh as father (abba), but stopped short of reducing Yahweh to the single attribute of being “our father who art in heaven.” That reduction is Christian, and Yeshua, as we ought never to become weary of recognizing, was not a Christian, but a Second Temple Jew loyal to his own interpretation of the Law of Yahweh. Above all, Yeshua was not a Trinitarian, a statement at once obvious yet also shattering in its implications.

Were Christianity a Broadway show and these hundred pages its opening-night review, it would have closed almost immediately. Though these issues that Bloom takes with Christianity sound more philosophical or theological than literary, his central motivation is his understanding of literary influence, particularly his trope of “belatedness,” which Frank Kermode glosses as follows:

The secret of the relation between “strong poets” is that one has the misfortune to come after the other, and the belated must seem to establish his own priority. “What is pleasure for a strong poet, ultimately,” asks Bloom in a very revealing sentence, “if it is not the pleasure of priority in one’s own invention?”

Or, as Bloom puts it in this book, “though all of Christian theology… avers otherwise, nevertheless no later text ever has ‘fulfilled’ an earlier one, or even ‘corrected’ it.” And as he resoundingly demonstrates, the New Testament is indeed belated with respect to the Jewish Bible, and even with respect to the Christians’ own reworking of the Jewish Bible as the Old Testament. To convincingly portray Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, which is the founding belief of Christianity, requires a very strong “misreading” (which, according to Bloom, is the response of strong poets to their belatedness) of the Jewish Bible. Bloom makes much of Jesus’ claim that “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) as an attempt at such a misreading. This gets at one of the central questions of Christianity for outsiders (along with the question of how all-powerful God can be murdered): Why did Jesus appear when He did?

If Jesus as savior is necessary for the salvation of all people, why did He appear only after so much human history had passed? Shouldn’t He have been available to everyone, regardless of when they happened to be born? To solve this puzzle, the New Testament “misreads” the Jewish Bible in such a way that Jesus becomes the Son, an aspect of the Yahweh who preceded Abraham. (Interestingly, the literary character of Jesus in the Gospels takes on all that is powerful about Yahweh in the Torah, leaving the Father as a distant and not very compelling character.) The Covenant with Yahweh (who included Jesus) was the salvation of all who were a party to it, which was only the Jews up to that point in history. The Incarnation occurred when it did because Jesus was Messiah, come to announce the End Time and make redemption available to all. In essence, the New Testament sought to remove Jesus from a moment in history and place him at the beginning and end of history, before and after the Jewish Bible.

The New Testament was certainly an audacious misreading of the Jewish Bible, but was it successful? Works like Paradise Lost suggest that the New Testament may have been convincing in its attempt to locate Jesus prior to the creation described at the opening of the Jewish Bible. But the attempt to place Jesus’ coming at the end of history, as Bloom rightly points out, was a gamble that failed. Does this make the New Testament a weak misreading of the Jewish Bible? Ultimately, I think it does, and Bloom seems to think so as well, but that’s a literary judgment. The early Christians picked up this incoherent mass of failed prophecy and other contradictions and, over the last two thousand years, they and their successors have built it into one of the world’s great religions. That it fails as both literature and theology is of no concern to Christians. As far as I can tell, their response to this, after desperate rearguard actions such as the Trinity, is that faith is all that matters–Paul won that contest with James.

As a lifelong outsider to Christianity, I’m left to ask why Christians bother with scripture and theology after all. Christianity cannot be made to work logically or philosophically, as some of the greatest minds in history–from Augustine to Kierkegaard–have demonstrated, without ultimate recourse to faith. Without faith, Christianity can’t be understood, but with faith, understanding is beside the point. Yet faith isn’t the end product of reasoning, discourse, or experience–it’s divinely instilled. What then is the point of all the proselytizers I pass on the streets? If I have faith, their efforts are unnecessary, but if I lack faith, their harangues won’t grant it to me.

I look forward to what Bloom has to say about Yahweh.

What Time Is It?

Harold Bloom has recently published Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, which I’ve purchased, but haven’t read. Jonathan Rosen’s review in Sunday’s New York Times (forgive me, I’m still catching up from my week away) suggests that it’s as fascinating as I had hoped it would be when I got it. It focuses on the intersection of literary criticism and religious thought, an old theme of Bloom’s, one Rosen describes Bloom addressing in a class that Rosen took at Yale twenty years ago called “Counter-Normative Currents in Contemporary Jewish Literature”:

…which included moderns like Freud, Kafka and Babel but began with “the Yahwist,” author of the oldest strand of the Hebrew Bible. Suddenly, being a Jewish writer wasn’t just for post-Enlightenment Johnny-come-latelies, but an ancient birthright. This notion was given bolder expression in a lecture I heard Bloom deliver about how the New Testament was a “weak misreading” of the Hebrew Bible… Bloom punningly referred to the New Testament in Hebrew as “Brit haHalasha” (“weak covenant”), instead of “Brit haHadasha” (“new covenant”).

And then there’s this Jewish lament about Christianity, one my wife has been giggling about since she read the review on Sunday:

Christianity stole our watch and has spent 2,000 years telling us what time it is.

I have nothing to add to that. I’m looking forward to the book. I hope it’s as amusing and provocative as the review.

From Today’s Onion

In order to boost available content, America Online is preparing to offer downloads of old television programs like Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico And The Man. What do you think?

Jesse Glass,
Machinist
“Ah, the memories. Nothing says ‘My parents are getting divorced’ like the Kotter theme song.”

That about sums it up.

Orwellian

The word “Orwellian” is grossly overused in public discourse, but here’s one case where no other word will do. I fully expect a videotape to be released by the White House within the next couple of days in which Scott McClellan can be clearly heard to say “I don’t think that’s accurate.” I would imagine that they’ll explain the discrepancy between the audio on their tape and that on existing tapes by saying that their microphones were better positioned (or something like that).

Members of the Bush administration should all be required (after they’ve attended their ethics seminars) to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, if only so they can stop acting it out so obviously.

Indians are the Jews of East Africa

In Dark Star Safari, his extraordinary account of a trip he made by boat, bus, and train from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux returns to Malawi, a country in which he served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s. He finds the country, as he finds much of the eastern portion of Africa through which he travels, ill used by the passing decades. Throughout the course of the book, he develops a compelling condemnation of the developed nations’ treatment of Africa, which I won’t try to describe here. But in the portion of the book describing his travels in Malawi, he sketches the outlines of an odd theme: the persecution of the Indian immigrants to east Africa. He first touches on this theme when he travels through Karonga, the town he enters after crossing the border from Tanzania.

Indians had been officially hectored in the sixties. The first president, Hastings Banda, had come to Karonga in 1965 and singled them out, berated them, accusing Indian traders of taking advantage of Africans. “Africans should be running these businesses,” he howled. But many of the Indians stayed. In the 1970s the president returned to Karonga and denounced the Indians again. This time the Indians got the message: nearly all left, and those few that hesitated saw their shops burned down by Banda’s Israeli-trained Young Pioneers. Eventually, the remaining Indians either left Karonga for cities in the south or emigrated. Banda had gone to other rural towns and given the same speech, provoking the same result.

The shock to me was not that all the Indians were gone but that no one had come to take their place; that the shops were in ruins, still with the names of Ismailis and Gujaratis on them…

Reading that, I thought vaguely, “Kristallnacht…”

Later, after a thoroughly disheartening visit to the school at which he had taught, Theroux visits a friend from those days in Zomba. At a dinner party at that friend’s house, Theroux is asked about what he has seen during his visit by a former Malawi ambassador in Europe. He returns to the theme of the immigrant Indians and mentions the pointlessness of the abandoned shops in Karonga. The ambassador attempts to excuse the situation.

“We wanted Africans to be given a chance to run the shops. So that Africans could go into business. The shops were handed over. I bought one myself.”

“With what result?”

“Ha-ha! Not much! It didn’t work. They all got finished!”…

“Well, as you know, Indians are good at business,” he said. Then, laughing in dismay as if he had just dropped a slice of bread butter-side down, “What do we know about these things? We had no capital. The shops failed–almost all of them. Ha! They were abandoned, as you saw. And the rest were turned into chibuku bars.” Beer bars…

“[The Indians] sit there, you see, and they have these little pieces of paper, and have these columns of numbers.” He spoke pompously about the Indians as though describing demented obsessive children with broken toys. “And one Indian is running the calculator, and another is counting the sacks of flour and the tins of condensed milk. One two three. One two three.”…

I said, “But that’s how a shop is run. That’s normal business. You make a list of what you’ve sold, so you know what stuff to reorder.”

“Indians know no other life!” he said. “Just this rather secluded life–all numbers and money and goods on shelves. One two three.”

“Recordkeeping is the nature of small business, isn’t it?” I resented his belittling the shopkeeper, yet I kept calm so as to draw him out. “The profit margins are so small.”

“But we Africans are not raised in this way,” he said, nodding to the others for approval. “What do we care about shops and counting? We have a much freer existence. We have no interest in this–shops are not our strong point.”

“Why close the shops, then?”

Here I found myself thinking of The Merchant of Venice

Later still in his southward progress through Malawi, Theroux travelled in a dugout canoe down the Shire River to the Zambezi River and Mozambique with two native guides, Karsten and Wilson, and the theme of the immigrant Indians in east Africa makes its final, most uncanny return.

I caught a few words of a story that Karsten was telling Wilson–“Indian” and “fish” and “money”–and as we paddled across the Zambezi, our dugout pulled sideways by the power of the stream, he told me the story.

Farther up the Zambezi, on the Zambian side, he said, lived Indian traders who made a practice of abducting very young African girls from villages. The Indians killed the girls and cut out their hearts. Using the fresh hearts of these African virgins as bait on large hooks, they were able to catch certain Zambezi fish that were stuffed full of diamonds.

“That is why the Indians have so much money,” Karsten said.

And so finally, we have tales reminiscent of anti-Semitic blood libel myths

Though Theroux clearly lays out the ways in which the persecution of Indians in east Africa parallels the persecution of Jews in Europe, he never actually mentions it (unless the ironic detail that Banda’s Young Pioneers were trained in Israel is meant to be a hint). I find that puzzling. It seems impossible that he wouldn’t have recognized the parallel. Did he perhaps think it too obvious to warrant mentioning? But regardless of Theroux’s purposes, I find it surprising that the same idiosyncratic collection of slurs and calumnies directed at Jews in Europe were elsewhere attached to another ethnic group. Is there some universal subconscious cultural association between commerce and child sacrifice, and if so, why? Are still other ethnic groups thought of in this same way in other cultures?

Incivility

The specter of incivility, currently threatening so much of our media and other shared culture, seems recently to be making alarming inroads in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. Last week, there was this in Clive James’s review of Elias Canetti’s Party in the Blitz:

The translator, Michael Hofmann, has found all the right English words for the wartime detail: the V1 was not a rocket, but that mistake was probably in the original text, whose comparative brevity should be taken, I think, as its chief virtue. We are fortunate that there is no more of it, lest we start wondering whether Canetti should not have received another Nobel Prize, for being the biggest twerp of the 20th century. But a twerp must be at least partly stupid, and Canetti wasn’t even a little bit that.

Instead, he was a particularly bright egomaniac, and this book, written when his governing mechanisms were falling to bits, simply shows the limitless reserves of envy and recrimination that had always powered his aloofness. The mystery blows apart, and spatters the reader with scraps and tatters of an artificial superiority.

This week, there’s this in Bryan Burrough’s review of Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World:

Me, I hated it. I wanted to drop-kick this book across the backyard. If Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough can lay claim to being the Miles Davis of popular history, Winchester is becoming the Kenny G.

And also this week, in P. J. O’Rourke’s review of Leslie Savan’s Slam Dunks and No-Brainers, we find this:

And Savan writes that “exactly when cool jelled into the word we know today is difficult to say.” It is not difficult to say upon looking into The Oxford English Dictionary. “Assured and unabashed in demeanor . . . calmly and deliberately audacious or impudent” dates to the 1820’s. But the O.E.D. is not in Savan’s bibliography, which contains “Jones, Gerard. ‘Honey, I’m Home!: Sitcoms: Selling the American Dream'” and “Moore, Michael. ‘Dude, Where’s My Country?'”

Though these insults are witty and well-formed (and they and quips like them make for an amusing recounting in Gawker‘s “Reading About Reading” feature the following week), they really are no more than insults. As Gawker has diligently documented, the Book Review has become more and more like a middlebrow literary exercise in Crossfire style ridicule and riposte. (See? This insult thing is contagious.) The fact that, unlike with other types of reviews, the reviewer and the reviewed often exchanged roles probably helped (a few notable feuds aside) to maintain a certain level of decorum until recently. But once the balance tipped away from decorum, things seem instead to be playing out as the annihilating denouement of a failed arrangement of mutually assured destruction (as those few feuds had already suggested was possible).

But why has this happened just now? The easy answer is that for whatever reason (the lack of mainstream blood sports, public executions, and the like; the growing disconnection between our opinions and the evidence of their consequences; or a societal affluence that grants us the leisure to indulge in such nonsense), the media audience seems to really enjoy watching people insult and degrade each other. And as a visit to most interactive forums on the Internet shows, a significant portion of that audience seems to enjoy participating whenever they get a chance. That the more popular and populist media is willing to serve that appetite isn’t surprising, but why is the New York Times Book Review succumbing to this impulse?

My guess is that it’s the indirect result of another decision the Times made. Almost two years ago, there was a shift in the editorial policy of the Book Review. The editors decided to “skew” it toward non-fiction. As Bill Keller explained, “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world. Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction.” That may be true, as far as it goes, but it suggests a subtle yet significant change behind in perspective. The contention over ideas had traditionally been the purview of the op-ed page, while the Book Review had been (I naively believed) about the craft of writing. With this change, the line between the op-ed page and the Book Review has become blurred, and I can no longer spend my weekends reading the Book Review in hopes of doing something so quaint as trying to decide which books I’d like to read. Simply put, the New York Times Book Review has surrendered its aesthetic perspective, going from equanimous observer to attached participant. That seems a loss to me.

A Year of Joyce

The reading group I’m in is wrapping up its reading for this year, so at our last meeting, we had a discussion of what we’d like to read next year. Someone suggested that we spend next year reading James Joyce‘s Ulysses. Though it is a long and difficult book (if not as difficult as popularly believed), I don’t think we could spend a whole year reading it. We did, after all, manage to finish all of Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time in a single year. So what I’ve proposed instead is that we read it over nine months, after first reading Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

If we do this, it would be a new experience for me, since I will have read everything before. In past years, there may have a book or two out of the year’s dozen that I’d read before, but never the whole year’s list. I’m looking forward to how that will change the experience for me. There are a couple of very difficult sections (no more than sixty or so pages each) that, reading the book on my own and without a schedule, I just tried to get through. Now that I’ll have a month to read each of those sections and someone to discuss them with once I’ve done that, I hope to get more out of them than the barest minimum necessary to continue.

Would anyone not geographically able to participate in this reading group in person be interested in participating on-line? I’d be happy to post an entry soliciting people’s thoughts about each month’s reading before that month’s meeting (to be shared with the group at our meeting) and then to post another entry sharing the highlights of the group’s thoughts after the meeting. Would anyone be interested in that?

Bookworm

I’m becoming a fan of Michael Silverblatt‘s Bookworm podcast. His guests tend to run the gamut of writers of contemporary literary fiction, which is to say that some are more interesting than others. It’s Silverblatt himself who makes the interviews consistently interesting, regardless of the guest. He talks a lot, which usually isn’t very effective for interviewers, but the range of his references and the depth of his insights are without apparent limit and always seem valid. His guidance of the discussion can make even the dullest of subjects interesting (including Bret Easton Ellis, whom Silverblatt got to admit that by the time he, Ellis, sat down to the process of actually writing, he’s already emotionally detached from his material). At least once in every interview I’ve heard, Silverblatt has offered an insight into his guest’s work that had never occurred to the guest, but which the guest found very compelling.