22 June 2014

Writing and Action

It was a wonderful dream. That is, as the dream ended, in the dream I was smiling, and I from the dream feeling content and fulfilled. Now, as I sit in the coffee house and recollect the dream in moments of tranquility in order to consider the import of the dream, I feel it reduced to mere cliché. Of course, the possibility exists that the dream itself was reflective of the ordinariness I have spent years trying to (unsuccessfully) rise above but into which now my dream and its interpretation situate me. And hours from the dream, I can now only reconstruct and narrate it as I wish it to have been and not necessarily as it was then when I would not awaken from it. In fact, all I can remember at this instant is the punch line: “All writing is deferral,” and even that memory might be inaccurate. But it is that on which I must reflect for that is all that I can recollect.
            I think that writing, yes, defers action. Thoreau, who penned millions of words years ago noted this interesting irony: somewhere in his multi-volume journal he said we could not live and write about our lives at the same time. We must do or observe our having done! This is a situation similar to the problem with engaging in life and photographing it: one can only do one thing at a time. Ross McElwee, the director of Sherman’s March, narrates that perhaps he is photographing his life in order to have one, and his documentary positions him as the quintessential voyeur, watching the world through the lens of his camera. I can write a life, but I cannot enact that lilfe at the same. But I am not Marcel Proust who wrote from his bed from which he rarely arose, and there rests not lightly in me the ever-present tension between the desire to act and the desire to write about the action.
            Which is not to say that writing is not living for it is a way of life, but it is a deferral of all other action,: I cannot write about baseball and play it simultaneously. And though I might learn through my writing, it is my life that proves the effectiveness of the learning and hence, of the writing.  I can use the writing to plan the action but not to do the action itself. In the writing I plan but defer commitment. This is true for Roth’s Zuckerman who retreats from the world so that he might write it. Or I can use the writing to reflect upon action, even to plan it, but not to enact it. Writing in this sense becomes both action and its deferral. As long as I write I need not attempt, and following the attempt I return to the writing to consider the action.
            And so the opposite is true as well: that if I defer the writing I defer reflection and can continue to act and produce the raw materials about which I may write and therefore, upon which I can reflect. And what it was in the dream that must have been so satisfying was the acceptance of this tension. I awoke content: it is ok to act and it is ok to write. There is no hierarchy.

15 June 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

I did not yet read the book, though someone left the novel lying on the floor by the bedside. The Fault in Our Stars is young adult fiction and so I am certain the reader was one of my young adults. I will now read the book because I want to understand how the experience of the movie differs from the experience of the book though the subject/plot of both must possess great affinities. I was deeply affected by the movie but I suspect for reasons separate from the way my lovely daughters (and even their friends) will see it.
            The film’s protagonists are teens suffering and dying of cancer. I attended an early show on a chilly, cloudy afternoon in mid June, and the sparse audience consisted mostly of young adults. They were very quiet. I wondered how the film they viewed was different than the one I screened. Augustus Waters, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Isaac (no last name given or remembered) suffer from cancer. Isaac has lost one eye to cancer before the film had begun and his other eye must be removed before the film concludes. Issac’s girlfriend cannot bear his pain and she ends their relationship.  Hazel’s cancer is under medical control, but her condition remains seriously volatile and critically affects the quality of her life; and during the film Augustus Waters dies from the cancer that had already taken his leg and that eventually stops his heart. He had been a trophy winning basketball player. He is, of course, adoringly cute, personable and unreservedly witty.
            Certainly, these young adults comprise an unusual assortment of leading characters. From the outset the audience knows that none of them will survive their teen years. A terrible pall hangs over the film. But The Fault in Our Stars is also an odd love story, a rather perverse romantic teen-flick played out on a background of disease and mortality. Augustus and Hazel establish their relationship despite their illness; their relationship allows them to transcend their illness. Finally, though the film must end in death, Augustus and Hazel affirmatively speak the final words of the film: “OK!” And perhaps as sad as the film must appear to the teens and young adults to whom the film is directed, there was triumph at the end in the love that survived death.
            But not for me. To my mind the film represented my ultimate nightmare: the death of a child. Not like Broken Circle Breakdown, a film that also concerned the death of a child but was more about the effect of the death on the relationship of the parents, The Fault in Our Stars was a portrayal of the unnatural imminent (and not immanent) mortality of three beautiful youths in the midst of a life that appeared otherwise without any sense of tragic dimension. And though the three adolescents remained strong and stalwart throughout, there was no attempt to disguise the threat under which each lived, and there was nothing that the adults could do—doctors included—to relieve the condition of the children. The adults were rendered helpless, and I sat in the audience as one of those helpless parents.
            From the film’s beginning it was clear that someone was going to die, but it was also clear that Augustus and Hazel were going to fall in love and that there love was going to not save them but would allow them to overcome the reality of their separate deaths. In the midst of the sufferings they experienced, love triumphed over death.
            But my adult cynicism took no comfort; I was Willem Dafoe, the embittered writer to whom Hazel and Augustus travel to Amsterdam to see, who did not survive the death of his eight year old daughter from cancer. Along with his daughter he had lost his life. I think The Fault in our Stars was two movies: one for young adults and the other for parents. If we both wept, I think it was for different reasons.

10 June 2014

On Prayer

I have been thinking a great deal about prayer. Heschel says that prayer is an expression of awe and wonder: an acknowledgement that the world is so much grander than I could ever conceive. I tend to agree with Heschel. When I pray I situate myself in the grander scheme of things; I address the ideas that extend beyond me and to which I look. That is, when things go well, I move outside my mundane existence, transcend my physical limits and achieve a loss of bodily tension and separation. Once, on a summer’s day I stepped out of doors and felt that the there was no space separating my body from the air. I was the air. When prayer works well that is how I experience it. As the cliché goes, I am one with the universe.
I think of prayer as community. Prayer is what brings people together for some common purpose that seems not at all instrumental but communal. Heschel remarks that ‘we never pray as individuals, set apart from the rest of the world. The liturgy is an order which we can enter only as a apart of the Community of Israel . . . every act of adoration is done in union with all of history, and with all beings above and below . . .” Only in community can I pray, and I pray to belong to community.
I represented the University at the inauguration of Rabbi Aaron Panken as the 12th President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Hebrew Union is the largest organization of Reform Judaism in the United States, and the servicesthe classical one I attended on Shabbatstruck me as both sincere and cold. I felt similarly during the entire inauguration service. I was in community but not in prayer.
This is not the place to explore the history of Reform Judaism; it grew out of the assimilative desire of German Jews to belong integrally to German society without having to first convert to Christianity. And at least in part Reform Judaism assumed some of the trappings of Christian church service: the choirs, the musical instruments, the architectural style of churches and sometimes even of mosques. The sanctuary of the Plum Street Temple where the Inauguration took place is an inspiringly magnificent and beautiful edifice, constructed in the 19th century by the Reform Jews of Cincinnati under the leadership of Isaac Meyer Wise looked and felt to me like a Roman Catholic cathedral. Where the great cathedrals were constructed out of stone, Plum Street Temple sanctuary was created in fine wood, its walls intricately but respectfully patterned in paint.
But wait, I wanted this post to be about prayer and not place . . .  
The space above my head in the sanctuary was high enough to allow my prayers to rise, but the space for my prayers seemed to have little place in the sanctuary. The serviceon both Shabbat (in a different space not even designed as a sanctuary/chapel) and the Inaugurationwas more about performance than about prayer; I felt in both places treated more like an audience of prayer than a participant in praying. Oh, the voices—almost all soprano and alto were exquisite, but they supplanted and did not enable mine. Their sounds kept me grounded and did not let me transcend because the voices were, perhaps, not human enough. They were perfect. It was to their sound I was meant to attend, and not to the universe beyond of which they spoke. It was of their voices that I was in awe and not the heavens and earth of which they sang. Well, perhaps that was my failing . . . but it was a cold beauty I experienced. And despite all the talk of God, I did experience the possibility of a transcendent presence. It is, I think, my flawed human voice that expresses the awe and wonder that makes prayer honest, even as it is all the volumes in the library that makes me humble. Though there might have been joy in those who sang the words of the prayers, it was joy of their voices I thought I was meant to experience. My thoughts remained below.         
Though there was a great deal of community in these spaces in which there was prayer, but I felt more an audience rather than a congregant, and I felt alone.

06 June 2014

On Hobby Horses, Part I?

There is little that comes to the reader directly (or even clearly) in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Yes, it is a novel narrated by one, Tristram Shandy, who apparently means to write, as it were, his autobiography . . . but he remains easily distracted and heads easily (and I might say, somewhat happily) off on a digression. Indeed, he says, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;--they are the life and soul of reading;--take them out of this book for instance--you might as well take the book along with them--one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it . . .” And for this reader, particularly, trying to follow any single plot line is frustrated by the author’s continuous movements away from it. “--This is a vile work--For which reason, from the beginning of this, you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has kept a-going . . .” That is, there is so much going on in every which way that somewhere something is happening to keep the whole book moving. A mind looking for any semblance of linearity will soon go as mad as Uncle Toby!
            Finally, Tristram Shandy concerns at least on one level the power of human peccadilloes and obsessions as the means by which one organizes a life.  What Tristram Shandy  depicts so evidently is that our lives are hardly governed by rationality: that would demand a discipline our attraction to our hobby-horses would disallow. Hobby-horses? They are the obsessions that direct our lives: “By long journeys and much friction, it so happens that the body of the rider is at length fill’d as full of hobby horsical matter as it can hold; so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other.” A man is his hobby horse, or hobby-horses, (though probably it is best to keep them to a minimum), and we all ride them. To understand a man’s hobby-horse is the clearest way to understand the man.

            Sterne remarks that Momus mocked Hephaestus for not building human beings with doors or windows in their chests so that their thoughts might be better seen. Thus, “our minds shine not through our body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood; so that if we would come to the specific characters of them, we must go some other way to work” Hence, we study the hobby horses of others. Isn’t that really what literature often concerns? And isn’t that what Freud suggested might be an avenue of insight into human behavior.

01 June 2014


I think it was a very quiet film but for an unsettling one. The highest decibel level seemed to come from the alto saxophone in the jazz band playing Coltrane at the Polish town’s 500th anniversary. The band was comprised, of course, of Polish musicians, probably all in their twenties. They had not experienced the war but they had lived through the Communist regimes of the fifties and early sixties. The band gave no evidence of any awareness of the town’s most recent history. Their jazz suggested a move into a modernity that I believe the film’s story denied.
            I am speaking of Ida, the Polish film directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Anna is a young novice prepared to take her final vows, but as she does so, she is called into the Mother Superior’s office and told that she has a single relative whom she must visit before she assumes her final position in the convent. The Mother Superior insists that Anna make the journey, and so she packs her simple suitcase (what does a young novice put in a suitcase?) and travels to this unknown aunt’s apartment. And the first thing Anna learns when she arrives is that she is Jewish, that her real name is Ida, and that she was given to the convent when she was an infant and her family was threatened by the anti-Semitic environment prevalent in the town and made virulent by the actions of the Germans. Her aunt tells Anna/Ida that in all probability her entire family was murdered during the war. Ida sets out on a road trip with her aunt, Wanda, who had once served as a powerful prosecutor for the Communist regime but who seems now to be a low level and unhappy judge, (who had, she informs Ida, sent a few people to their deaths). The two women seek to find out exactly what had happened to her family and where they have been buried. During the journey they discover that Ida’s family was first protected in the woods by a neighbor and soon murdered by the neighbor’s son who then appropriated the Lebenstein’s house and land. One of the victims of the massacre was the aunt’s young son. The Pole offers to show them where he buried the family if they will give up all rights to the house and land of which he has assumed ownership.  When Ida asks why she, too, wasn’t in the grave, the son says she was tiny but that the boy was dark skinned and circumcised. Ida was left with a priest.
            Ida and her aunt recover some of the bones of the family and re-inter them in the Jewish cemetery; it is overrun with weeds, vegetation and decay. The two dig a shallow grave at the family plot and deposit the remains of their family that had been murdered not by Nazis but by their Polish neighbors.
            I think that in its outline the film tells a very familiar story, but I think that what the film means to document is not the usual narrative concerning the Holocaust but Ida’s growing awareness of the world’s evil from which her life in the convent has protected her. Returning to the convent after her experiences with her aunt, Ida admits to herself that she is not yet ready to take her final vows. While the other novices become initiated into the convent as nuns, Ida watches and weeps: but I am not clear if the tears are for her disappointment or for her awareness of the life that has been lost to her.
Her aunt’s experience in the war and in the government has left her disillusioned and dissolute. Finally, no longer able to tolerate either herself or the world, she commits suicide by throwing herself out of her window, and Ida once again returns to the world outside the convent, this time to bury her aunt. After the funeral, Ida returns to her aunt’s apartment, puts on her aunt’s clothes and high heels shoes, and heads out to the club where the jazz band continues to play. After hours she dances awkwardly with the saxophone player with whom she then spends the evening, but in the morning she awakens, and quietly leaving the bed and the young man, dons again her novitiate habit and returns to the convent where it is clear she will take her vows and spend the rest of her life. In bed, the saxophone player (he has remained nameless!) had invited her to join with him and the band as they travel: they have a scheduled gig in Gdansk. he had offered her marriage, children, a home . . . and when she says what else, he responds “Life.” But I think that Ida has come to know that this is neither a world made for Jews; nor for people, like her mother, sensitive and soft; this is not a world where justice and right will triumph. This world is not where she would find any Life in which she would participate, and so Ida chooses the convent. And perhaps it is not God she seeks there but a peaceful sanctuary from the world.
            I departed the theater very sad.