In his last posts, David Rosenberg, whose latest books are A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, wrote about the possibility of a Judeo-Christianity bookstore section and writing about writers. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
A little gem, Hotel St. Michel is where we used to stay before we moved down to Florida. It was recommended by poet Yehuda Amichai, who called it “old Tel Avivi.” Around the corner from Books&Books, the most author-centric store in Florida, its owner, along with the manager of the St. Michel, both friends, teamed up to provide a copy of A Literary Bible: An Original Translation for each hotel room, in lieu of a Gideon’s Bible. (You can google the Miami Herald story.)
Although I’d rather recommend the original hotels in Tel Aviv (and wish we were there, too), my point is that literary risk-taking is somewhat out of fashion. It’s stuck to the page, not to real life; it’s not to be found in Bible-less hotels. It’s even hard to imagine anything you can put into a memoir that would seem risky these days; for instance, a literal Oedipus-complex confession—sleeping with mother and killing father—is rather routine, and probably wouldn’t get you on Oprah. The real life of the author is most often bought and spent in university classrooms, so a real risk might be to imagine the ivory tower as nightmare or Kafka’s castle. We’re still waiting for that.
In a recent piece in the L.A. Times, the wonderful writer Dani Shapiro describes “the writer’s apprenticeship” as a soulless slog through “uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment.” Still, although there’s a safety net in academe, Shapiro neglects to mention it, arguing that lawyers and doctors have it easier upon graduation, while “writing school guarantees [writers] little other than debt.” If that were all too true, we might get some riskier writing—and thinking about writing—that walks the edge of financial ruin. Writing that goes against the grain, like the Bible’s Psalm 6, where the poet finds himself in the gutter through no fault of drugs or crime. The authenticity of his or her voice is so startling because the reader who is appealed to is something completely other—God or a soul. What kind of a writer is that, who can create such soul-shaking contrasts?
I’d say he was a lost writer, deeply lost to our culture. A biblical writer whose original Hebraic culture has been erased by tradition, but that a love of real history can begin to restore. Not long ago, after the Holocaust, not only individuals had been erased but also European Jewish culture. And far deeper into the past, after the destruction by the Assyrians of the first Jewish kingdom, the fountainhead of Hebraic culture and its great writers—fundamental to Western art—were erased. So I would ask: Should restoration not be properly called “the Jewish art?” And should not the ironies of loss, as in the Prophets and the great Jewish moderns, be called “Jewish Soul?”
Furthermore, doesn’t the writer of today need the lost Hebraic culture as classical bedrock for contemporary imagination? And isn’t Western culture today, as it is built upon the Renaissance of ancient Greco-Roman culture, or humanism, missing its counterpart: a classic Hebraic culture in need of restoration? If we call it “Judeo-Christianity,” can it become vital again? Or, as David Gelernter responded to me: “If the author of Job were named Sophocles, our whole understanding of classical antiquity and Western civilization would be different.”
I’ve also had a dialogue on this with poet Reginald Gibbons, who teaches classics at Northwestern and who has recently published a translation of Sophocles’ poems, many of them extracted from his dramas. You make a case for the sensibility of Sophocles, I said to Reg, and you’re able to locate it in both the poems and the dramas. Yet when it comes to the Bible, the assertion of an author’s sensibility is considered chutzpah. Instead, it is all explained away as aspects of the “text,” not of human beings.
“Now imagine that there was no Sophocles,” I continued, “but only an anonymous author to the poems you translated. Imagine too that the age of composition, not to mention the methods, was in doubt over a six century span. And further, imagine that Sophocles was mixed in with Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato, Sappho, et.al., with no names, and that it was all considered part of ‘the biblical tradition.’ So you begin to have an idea of what happened to the Hebraic classical period in retrospect, to the degree that a tradition of pious anonymity was invented to take its place.”
And here is one vivid example from the major reviews of the past few weeks: the current fiction bestseller, The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason, enters into the Homeric text at a level of psychological interaction (and reverence) that no secular Jewish writer is known to attempt with biblical text (as in the manner of passages in the Midrash). Surely Agnon, Singer and other lesser writers revere biblical “stories” and text, echoing and retelling, and there can be complexity and “spirit” there, but the complement of Hebraic culture is missing—not only the writers but their colleagues in other arts and ancient intellectual fields, including translators and historians.
Isaac Bashevis Singer tried to account for this—only half-humorously—in the disarming essay I barely coaxed out of him on Genesis (included in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible). Singer identified the Creator as the author of all of us, yet far from writing God out of the Bible, Singer put him more deeply inside, by empathizing with all the mishigas that the Creator endures, when it comes to humans as his collaborators. So there it is, Singer’s trace of lost Hebraic culture, the author-as-creator and the collaborators of history. Today, whatever meshuganah misinterpreters of our own work that we writers have to endure, according to Singer, it’s nothing compared to Genesis, let alone what came after.
In An Educated Man, as in my biblical translation of A Literary Bible, I hoped to build upon Singer’s intuition and evoke the sensibilities of our original Jewish writers. By considering the biblical figures of Moses and Jesus (and the historical authors behind them) as seriously as we consider major writers today, I’m perhaps risking too much. But it’s a risk like a wish: Philip Rieff’s posthumous wish for a bridge of reading between the sacred text and the secular.
So how do you encourage risk—as a writing instructor might wonder—without danger? You can make risk “successful” by turning it into a critique of success, constantly testing it. We have only to look at the Israelis, to consider how any Israeli in their lifelong army service has assimilated risk into his or her normal life. An Israeli “writer” transcends genre: she can be a software writer as well as a poet, yet in either case failure is honored, as it is in the sciences, when a greater success is risked—as it is often in the name of survival. We in North America now seem to honor success in the arts first and foremost; we may have lost our taste for risky failures.
Consider the Israeli poet Michal Govrin’s latest book, And So Said Jerusalem: Poems and Hymns, (Hebrew), published by Devarim/Carmel. It comes complete with subtle drawings by Orna Millo and an attached CD of Michal reading her work. That CD is necessary because her voice risks the allegory of the “Voice of Jerusalem” speaking, echoing the biblical voices of Rachel’s lament, for instance—but more importantly, in Michal’s own physical presence suggesting the flesh and blood Jerusalem authorship of the Bible. I believe she succeeds, though the risk itself is breathtaking enough.
Finally, I’m ready to answer the question I posed in my last post. What we should expect of a general reader’s education is no more nor less than a religious believer expects from the Biblical text: truth, honor, art. The difference for the secular reader may be simply that we tolerate failure to a greater degree. And yet that is something we can transform into sublimely human experience when we risk imagining the struggles of the original writers of the Bible. But allow me to leave you with a travel tip: check your hotel drawer and prepare to deal with failure, whether a Bible is missing or it is there, complete with the buried authors.
Read Jonathan Kirsch’s (Moses: A Life) review of Rosenberg’s An Educated Man in the Jewish Journal here.
David Rosenberg’s newest books, A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, are now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.