The Jump Artist

By – October 25, 2011

A young Lat­vian man and his father are hik­ing in the Tyrolean Alps when dis­as­ter strikes. The father is mur­dered out of sight of the son who is accused, tried, and found guilty of pat­ri­cide. That the accused was a Jew had much to do with the injus­tices per­pe­trat­ed by both pros­e­cu­tor and judge in the anti-Semit­ic Aus­tri­an court. Philippe Hals­man was jailed despite the inter­ven­tion of such Jew­ish nota­bles as Albert Ein­stein, Sig­mund Freud, and oth­er Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als in this Aus­tri­an ver­sion of the Drey­fus Affair, as it came to be known.

Weak, ill, guilt-rid­den in spite of his inno­cence, and filled with anger, Hals­man is par­doned after serv­ing part of his sen­tence by the more sym­pa­thet­ic Chan­cel­lor Johann Schober, and then is released from the wretched jail that had housed and almost destroyed him. The fore­go­ing part of the sto­ry occu­pies more than half of this his­tor­i­cal novel.

Halsman’s recov­ery in Italy, trav­els to France, love affairs, dis­cov­ery of his pen­chant for pho­tog­ra­phy, and escape to Amer­i­ca, and then his rise to fame as a superb pho­to­graph­ic artist, occu­py the sec­ond half of this book, impart­ing a dis­tract­ing imbal­ance to the treat­ment of Halsman’s life. Only the last few pages touch on the sig­nif­i­cance of the title, explain­ing how Hals­man has dis­cov­ered the val­ue of oblig­ing his sub­jects to jump before the tak­ing of their portrait.

Although the nov­el is based on the results of Rat­ners con­sid­er­able research into Halsman’s life and times, it is clear­ly a fic­tion­al work, as the author him­self has not­ed. His pur­pose has been to explore his subject’s inner life, mir­ror­ing what Hals­man has done visu­al­ly in his por­traits of the movie stars, politi­cians, and oth­er notable per­form­ers on the world’s stage.

Exca­vat­ing Moral Psychology

by Austin Rat­ner

Wal­ter Pater said that all art con­stant­ly aspires towards the con­di­tion of music.” That’s true inas­much as all art aims to rep­re­sent emo­tion in the purest and most hon­est terms. But a mil­lion musi­cal notes and paint­ings can nev­er express the breadth, depth, and intri­ca­cy of vision in Ham­let. For me, lit­er­a­ture is the supreme art — and it’s also the supreme­ly Jew­ish art. John Lennon said of the ground­break­ing use of feed­back in I Feel Fine,” It is the first use of feed­back. I claim it for the Bea­t­les.” Since the Hebrew Bible and the work of Franz Kaf­ka may be the two great­est rev­o­lu­tions in the his­to­ry of lit­er­ary art, I claim it for the Jews. 

The Bible stands out as an influ­en­tial moral doc­u­ment, of course, but it also dif­fers from oth­er ancient works in its psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ism. Robert Alter has said, “[T]he Hebrew writ­ers man­i­fest­ly took delight in the art­ful limn­ing of … life­like char­ac­ters and actions, and so they cre­at­ed an unex­haust­ed source of delight for a hun­dred gen­er­a­tions of read­ers.” You find jeal­ousy, hubris, guilt, and fam­i­ly con­flict in Greek myth (and per­haps in every sto­ry) but the Bible is more con­cerned with the intri­ca­cies of men­tal life than say, Home­r­ic epic, or the plays of Aeschy­lus, where emo­tions occu­py a cen­tral posi­tion but are seen at a longer psy­chic dis­tance and are rep­re­sent­ed in more abstract ways. The dilem­ma of Orestes,” A.D. Nut­tall writes, is essen­tial­ly pub­lic: one god says Do this,’ anoth­er god says, Do that.’ There is no ques­tion of attribut­ing hes­i­ta­tion or pro­cras­ti­na­tion to Orestes as a fea­ture of his char­ac­ter (indeed, he can hard­ly be said to have character).” 

By con­trast, when Cain and Abel bring their offer­ings to God, and God snubs Cain, the Bible says of Cain, his face fell” and that God asked him, Why is your face fall­en?” The nar­ra­tion and the fig­ures in the bib­li­cal sto­ries them­selves are more than in oth­er ancient works atten­dant to the inner life, to dis­crep­an­cies between the out­ward man­i­fes­ta­tions of thought and feel­ing and the inner facts, to dis­crep­an­cies between inten­tion and action, even between inner ideas and deep­er lev­els of con­scious­ness. It’s this sort of psy­cho­log­i­cal human­ism that reap­pears in the work of Boc­cac­cio, pass­es through Chaucer into its apogee in the plays of Shake­speare, and resounds across the next cen­turies in the work of the great modernists. 

In writ­ing The Jump Artist, I want­ed to join in this human­ist bib­li­cal tra­di­tion in the exca­va­tion of moral psy­chol­o­gy. My pro­tag­o­nist, Philippe Hals­man, inno­cent of mur­der but afflict­ed with sur­vivorguilt,” is a study in depth psy­chol­o­gy. Peo­ple often ask me why Hals­man rejects his girl­friend Ruth in the book with­out a clear jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and some­times I answer by allud­ing to the Bible, where guilt com­pels many of the most famous char­ac­ters to act in enig­mat­ic ways. For exam­ple, Noah ostra­cizes his son and grand­son after his own trans­gres­sion (appear­ing drunk and naked before his sons) and Sarah ban­ish­es Hagar less because of Hagar’s actions than because of Sarah’s own pain and humil­i­a­tion over her bar­ren­ness. These are entire­ly mod­ern-feel­ing accounts of guilt and jeal­ousy and the way the psy­che tries to purge such emotions. 

The his­tor­i­cal facts of the Hals­man sto­ry also cry out for bib­li­cal method because they so tight­ly inter­weave one person’s anguish with larg­er his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence. Halsman’s false accu­sa­tion and impris­on­ment were a per­son­al ordeal and also chap­ters in the larg­er sto­ries of fas­cism and anti-Semi­tism. I want­ed to emu­late the writ­ers of the Hebrew Bible, and Tol­stoy who emu­lat­ed them in War and Peace; these great writ­ers com­pass the inner­most human thoughts adrift in the chaos and cos­mic ran­cor of history. 

Dream-life and Kafkaesque phan­tasm were also essen­tial to ren­der­ing Halsman’s trau­ma; I see no way to explore the con­vo­lu­tions of the mind ful­ly — or to account for the most irra­tional aspects of human his­to­ry, like the Holo­caust — with­out com­bin­ing real­ism and expres­sion­ism. Where­as psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly naïve forms of expres­sion­ism have been around from Homer to Hierony­mus Bosch, it was the dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al cli­mate of ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Vien­na and Prague that led to the Freudi­an, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed expres­sion­ism of Franz Kafka. 

In my new work, I con­tin­ue to rely con­scious­ly on these endow­ments of the Jew­ish lit­er­ary her­itage. I recent­ly fin­ished anoth­er nov­el, called The Lit­tle Boys Lost after the William Blake poem, about the son of a Jew­ish-Pol­ish immi­grant in post-war Cleve­land. When the son dies young, the nar­ra­tive con­tin­ues with the lives of his sons, who try to make sense of their pasts on a sum­mer road trip in 1999. It’s anoth­er attempt to frame psy­chol­o­gy against the back­drop of his­to­ry, both per­son­al and nation­al. I’m also half-fin­ished with a fan­tas­ti­cal third nov­el that fea­tures a cameo by Kafka’s son. The Jews have been word­smiths for mil­len­nia, and with the sup­port of prizes like the Sami Rohr, they should con­tin­ue to be.

Claire Rudin is a retired direc­tor of the New York City school library sys­tem and for­mer librar­i­an at the Holo­caust Resource Cen­ter and Archives in Queens, NY. She is the author of The School Librar­i­an’s Source­book and Chil­dren’s Books About the Holocaust.

Discussion Questions

1. Why the ref­er­ences to dog breed­ing in the open­ing chap­ter? How does the Prince’s atti­tude to his dogs relate to some of the ideas of the Nazi movement? 

2. Karl Meixn­er asks Philipp in so many words (p. 117), If you’re inno­cent, why did you attempt sui­cide?’ Why might an inno­cent per­son in Philipp’s posi­tion expe­ri­ence feel­ings of guilt and self-loathing? How might his rela­tion­ship with his father account for those feelings? 

3. The Span­ish painter Fran­cis­co de Goya titled one of his etch­ings, The Sleep of Rea­son Pro­duces Mon­sters.” How does this state­ment relate to the sleepy Inns­bruck judge? To the tri­al over­all? To the sto­ry of the Juden­stein? To the his­tor­i­cal Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of per­se­cu­tion? To the Holo­caust? To Philipp’s dis­gust with Kant? 

4. Franz Pessler, Philipp’s attor­ney, says (p. 73), Death can play tricks in the mind.” What do you think he means? How are the words rel­e­vant to Philipp? 5. Why does Philipp push Ruth away? Did he treat her fair­ly? Why do you think he at first acts much the same way towards Yvonne? 

6. In the Hebrew Bible, Noah casts out his son and grand­son for very ambigu­ous rea­sons. How are Philipp and Noah’s ban­ish­ments of loved ones sim­i­lar? How does guilt influ­ence human relationships? 

7. Why does Philipp change the spelling of his name from Philipp Hals­mann to Philippe Halsman? 

8. Trans­for­ma­tion occurs in many ways. How does the char­ac­ter of Philipp change (and not change) over the course of the sto­ry? What role does art play in his trans­for­ma­tion? What role does love play? What role does intro­spec­tion play? 

9. Austin Rat­ner writes (in the guise of the fic­tion­al Andre Gide, p. 182): The coura­geous thing is to be who one always was and to find in the world those peo­ple and places that are like one­self!” Is that true? To what extent does it apply or not apply to Philippe? 

10. The real Philippe Hals­man took many pho­tographs of his sub­jects jump­ing in the air. What’s the sig­nif­i­cance of jump­ing in this book? In Philippe’s life? 

11.The Jump Artist is based on a true sto­ry. Why do you think the author chose to inter­mix fact and fic­tion and write the sto­ry as a nov­el? Is that a con­tro­ver­sial choice? What might have been gained or lost by telling the sto­ry as non-fiction? 

12. Austin Rat­ner is a med­ical doc­tor who does not prac­tice med­i­cine. Do you think his med­ical train­ing shaped the book in any way? In what ways do you think med­i­cine may have shaped his atti­tude to human suf­fer­ing? To sci­ence? To Karl Meixn­er? To Philippe Hals­man? To art?