Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Two Golem Stories

Two famous books about the golem of Prague:
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1914), translated by Mike Mitchell
  • The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague by Yudl Rosenberg (1909), translated by Curt Leviant.
Pursuing my fascination with the development of the golem story, I've recently read both of these books. Each one has an extremely useful and fascinating introduction, offering insights about the authors' originality and background.

I believe that both books had great influence on the huge number of adaptations and appropriations of the Golem story during the last 100 years -- a history that's documented in detail in Wikipedia (accuracy as always unknown and stability of the article unpredictable).

Meyrink's Golem tale is phantasmagorical. The narrator sees words in a book emerge like living creatures. The houses of Prague appear to him to squat like animals. The narrator is never even certain of his own identity.

The appearance of Meyrink's golem is preceded by "eerie portents which presage the irruption of that spectre into the physical world." (p. 59) And people who see the golem are paralyzed with fear at the sight of the hulking figure with a smooth, round head. They are never sure they have witnessed its presence, which manifests only every 33 years.

You can read Meyrink's book as one of those dreams where you keep waking up but you wake up into another dream, becoming more and more disoriented and frightened, and indeed the character of the Puppetmaster, a tale teller in the story, says: "dreams carry within them dark truths, which when I am awake, glimmer faintly in the depths of my soul like the after-images of brightly coloured fairy tales." (p 42)

Yudl Rosenberg's Golem is narrated by an eyewitness to the legendary events in Prague in the days of Rabbi Judah Loew. Rosenberg invented many of the now-classic heroic deeds in which the Rabbi outsmarted the antisemites of Prague by using the Golem to do his bidding. The golem had an invisibility cloak and massive strength, two features that made him especially effective in carrying out his trickster duties and revealing the machinations of Jew-hating evildoers to the more sympathetic authorities. Rosenberg was so effective at making his original tales sound like old legends that most people attribute his creations to folklore.

These two approaches to the Golem as either a figure of fearful danger or as a helpful tool in protecting the Jews are both very fascinating. The straightforward folkish narrative style of Rosenberg contrasts to Meyrink's unreliable narrator: a man who isn't sure of his own identity, much less capable of really explaining what's happening to him. So many other approaches to the idea of a Golem have followed, from serious treatments to those bordering on silliness -- a literary history to savor, I think.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"On the Eve"

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein is a magnificent book but almost unbearable to read. Organized in a fascinating way, the book documents the disintegration of Jewish life in Europe. Each topic is handled brilliantly, in my opinion. The sketches of life in cities with important Jewish populations, the description of the lives of the religious and the assimilated, of luftmenchen, of women, of young people, of various political sides, of scholarly organizations and secular organizations, of social life and work life, and of many other trends are all fascinating. But in each case, the promises of belonging to the greater European society, the promises that Jews had believed in earlier in the twentieth century, were all betrayed as antisemitism took over European thought -- and not solely in Germany.

The Jews' growing consciousness of what was coming, and their ineffective efforts to escape, as well as of the efforts of Jews elsewhere (and the indifference and hostility of so many non-Jews) are harrowing. Wasserstein quotes a number of poems and statements showing how aware and desperate the Jewish people became. For example, a 1938 poem titled "Unser shtetl brent" -- Our town is burning." He quotes both the Yiddish and the translation:
"Everything around is on fire!
And you stand and stare
with folded arms,
and you stand and stare.
Our town is burning."
-- Mordkhe Gebirtig (p. 50)
The last two paragraphs of the book -- unbearable:

"They might be captains of their souls but they were not masters of their fate. Theirs was, for the most part, the agitated ineffectuality of flies sealed in a bottle, slowly suffocating. 
"Wholly defenseless, largely friendless, and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the even of their destruction, waited for the barbarians." (p. 436)
I knew the outlines of this horrific part of history. But the details are important, if you can stand to learn about them.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Nobel Prize

Patrick Modiano has won the Nobel Prize. Although I try to follow French literature a little bit, I had not heard of him. His novels are often set in World War II era France and "themes of memory, alienation and the puzzle of identity." Modiano's father was Jewish, and many of the novels include the big issues of how the French treated the Jews during the war. I plan to read some of his works.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Spinoza House, Rijnsburg

Spinoza's book collection, reassembled by the museum.
During our recent trip to Holland, we visited the Spinoza House in Rijnsburg, near Leiden where we were staying. Spinoza lived in this house from 1661 to 1663; for centuries this bit of history was forgotten, but the connection was rediscovered in 1896, and the museum was established. The Spinoza Society, founded to maintain a museum here, have collected contemporary copies of the books that were listed among Spinoza's possessions.

A corner of the room where
the library is located.
A lens-grinding apparatus, supposedly like that of Spinoza.
Spoon rack from that era.
Portrait of Spinoza, presumably a copy.
Tiled floor and baseboard in hall of the house.
Statue of Spinoza in the garden.
Outside the house -- our friends are getting ready to ride bikes
back to Leiden; we took the bus.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Angel of History

Angelus Novus, or
"The Angel of History" by Paul Klee, 1920
The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem by Stéphane Mosès is a challenging book about the concepts of historical time in the works of three German-Jewish philosophers/historians. "The Angel of History" in the book title refers to the painting Angelus Novus by Paul Klee. The work was alternately owned by Benjamin and Scholem, and is now owned by the Israel Museum.

The Angel of History
by Stéphane Mosès (1931-2007)
Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) are three writers that I find very fascinating, though their works are very difficult. Thus I was tempted by this book, and I found it very interesting. I enjoyed the comparison of the philosophic views of time and how they are reflected in Jewish history, as well as the biographical details that the author provided. I was interested in the comparison of their perspectives with some of the ideas expressed by Kafka. However, I'm not up to attempting to summarize the complex views of history that are covered in the book.

Out of pure laziness, I'm going to violate my usual principles and copy the relevant Walter Benjamin quote from Wikipedia!

"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress." -- Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History", p. 249

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why is anti-Zionism racist?

A great article here about the debate on boycotting Israeli academics, by Robert Fine, Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Warwick University. He read this during a debate on the boycott at Leeds University this month.

A very interesting paragraph from the article:
"I am not against all boycotts, but I am against an academic boycott linked to a political doctrine that treats Zionism as a dirty word. Zionism is a kind of nationalism. Like other nationalisms it has many faces – at times socialist, emancipatory, in search of refuge from horror; at other times narrow, chauvinistic, exclusive and terroristic. It depends which face we touch. For most Jews, Zionism simply means commitment to the existence of a Jewish state and is compatible with a plurality of political views. Zionism is not fundamentally different in this respect from other national movements born out of opposition to colonial and racial forms of domination. Most show the same Janus-face. Consider, for example, the ANC’s African nationalism: on the one hand, it has overthrown apartheid and achieved constitutional revolution; on the other, it reveals its own proclivity to authoritarianism, corruption, violence and class politics. The murder of 34 mineworkers at Marikana was only the most visible sign of a new order in which profits are still put before people. What I object to is heaping onto ‘Zionism’ all the wrongs of nationalism in general, as if this nationalism were all bad while other nationalisms are off our critical hook. It is deeply regressive to turn ‘Zionism’ into an abstraction — abstracted from history (the Holocaust in Europe), abstracted from politics (conflict over land with Arab countries and Palestinians), abstracted from society (including the exclusion of most Jews from Middle East and Maghreb societies). It seems to me that there is some line of continuity between the abstraction of ‘Zionism’ today and the abstraction of ‘the Jews’ in the past."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Defending Free Speech

I recently read the banned-in-India book on Hinduism. I can see why some Hindus are offended, but each time I mentioned this book, I also mentioned that I don't believe in banning speech no matter what the content, even if it offends me. I haven't recently re-thought my commitment to free speech, which I feel is part of my American identity. Since many other countries do criminalize some speech, the concept receives plenty of attention, however, and I just read a very good article explicating why arresting people for the content of their speech is objectionable and also why it's less effective than answering them.

"If You Want To Combat Hate, Don’t Outlaw Hate Speech—Counter It With Better Ideas" by James Kirchick was recently published in Tablet magazine. Quote: "by marking certain speech as politically taboo, the European political establishment has strengthened marginal voices. 'Outlawing the NPD will spare German society having to confront right-wing extremism,' Anetta Kahane, an anti-fascist activist, told the German magazine Der Spiegel last year. 'You won’t get racism out of people’s heads by banning the NPD. You’ve got to confront their attitudes.' In other words, the best weapon to combat offensive and stupid speech is intelligent, nuanced speech."

In the context of the jailing of Holocaust denier David Irving in Austria, Kirchick says: "banning Holocaust denial and throwing those who espouse it into jail hasn’t diminished the political inheritors of Austrian fascism. In fact, prohibiting public expression of neo-Nazism comfortably coexists with widespread nostalgia for Nazism."

I'm very convinced that besides the reasons above, free speech also means that no one gets to determine which ideas are acceptable, and which ones are taboo. In Arizona now, there's an effort to allow the owners of public establishments like bakeries, bars, and motels to discriminate against groups like gays if they claim that their religious ideas dictate this bigotry. Of course this is one step beyond speech, but I think banning speech would only encourage such violations of other people's rights.

Update February 25:
From Facebook

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Anniversary of Gustav Meyrink's "The Golem"

One hundred years ago, Gustav Meyrink began serialized publication of his fantasy novel The Golem. I haven't read it, but I've seen a very bizarre film based on it.

Both the novel and, briefly, the film are discussed in today's Guardian,in an article titled "Meyrink's The Golem: where fact and fiction collide." The author, David Barnett, calls Meyrink's book "one of the most absorbing, atmospheric and mind-boggling slices of fantasy ever committed to print." Some of the interesting material in Barnett's article:
"Although Meyrink's Golem is part of a long line of Prague golem stories which begins with Rabbi Loew in the 16th century, the legend of the golem goes back to Biblical times, the word appearing in Psalms to mean an "unshaped form" in God's eyes. According to the Talmud, Adam was the original golem, created from mud and 'kneaded into a shapeless husk'. The myth of the golem was prevalent in the Middle Ages, and Jakob Grimm of the fairytale brothers fame also wrote on them. 
"In Meyrink's hands, the Golem becomes a strange recurring presence, a being which manifests in Prague every 33 years. It appears with the face of Pernath, a doppelganger who adds to the increasingly unreal quality of the story. There is the sensation of secret machinations in the darkness; of being watched by persons unknown and for reasons unknowable. Events are being directed and shaped by powers beyond our perception."