09 August 2015

Study as Revelation

Geoffrey Hartman says that writing an autobiography “tempts us to invent a clear, even traumatic (therefore fallible) point of origin, instead of considering that we may have drifted into our identity, or that we continue to construct it.” I appreciate his caution; I have long considered that autobiography represents a type of fiction in which the narrator assumes an immediate identity with the implied author, a writer who exists in an absolute relationship with the work’s protagonist. In an autobiography, the narrator describes a life that the implied author has lived and from that life creates a protagonist who lives that life. Wayne Booth’s autobiography, for example, My Many Selves, offers the author’s portrait representing a fragmented self that the work will attempt to bring together into a somewhat unified Self. In the work he will describe at least a self that could be considered resolved, explained, given a unity from the separate selves the unified self defines. Of course, it is only in discourse that this feat can be accomplished and this discursive self¾the protagonist¾represents a construction of the implied author and is not identical to him. I hold that this work is fiction that draws on different materials. Michel Leiris writes that the autobiographer might be compared to the toreador whose art is to stay alive while exposing himself to the greatest danger. “The bull’s horn transforms danger into an occasion to be more brilliant than ever and reveals the whole quality of  . . . style just when he is most threatened.” The autobiographer exposes himself to the public but does so in a style that is meant to be admired: to place himself in view gloriously. Without the danger there is no need for style, but without style the toreador is simply a butcher. Style defines the nature of the act.
            Hartman acknowledges in A Scholar’s Tale that his attempt to write a life remains a fiction. Of course,  one doesn’t describe a drift as merely aimless drifting without acknowledging, albeit implicitly, a trajectory or plan. Construction is exactly what the narrative accomplishes but this construction must be distinguished from the raw materials any more than a building is defined by its concrete, steel and glass. Neither is the autobiography is identical to the process by which it is composed.
            One question Hartman raises concerns his immersion in study. The critic wonders how he might ever realize answers to the questions presented to him (and by him) by the literature with which he is engaged. He considers, that if the Torah was truth, then its study ought yield well, answers, but, in fact, through his study of Torah Hartman seems foiled in his attempt to understand and realize answers. He offers the example of God overhearing Sarah laugh on being told that at 90 years of age she will bear a child. Hartman wonders how he is to understand a God that is “infinitely far away” and yet close enough to hear Sarah’s laughter.
            But Hartman says that he had been comforted by his reading of Judah Halevi’s Kuzari. I had read the book years ago, and Hartman led me back to it: I found comfort in that which had once comforted Hartman. The Rabbi answers Al Khazari’s questions concerning the God of Abraham. The Hebrew God is a personal one and not a transcendent one: the Rabbi says that when Moses spoke to Pharaoh, Moses announces that he has been sent by the God of the Hebrews. This God is “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” That is, this is a personal God. Halevi recognizes that this is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who had led the Israelites out of Egypt with an outstretched arm: this is a God tied intimately to the people’s daily life: in the desert God fed them daily.
            And the Rabbi says to Khazar that though the Israelites experienced God first hand—through the miracles and the revelation at Sinai--subsequent generations knew God through an uninterrupted tradition, “which is equal to personal experience.” That uninterrupted tradition to which the Rabbi refers is textual study!
            Hartman says that Halevi’s statement eased the incipient critic’s seemingly impossible desire (desire is by definition impossible) for truth by offering an approach to revelation through the uninterrupted tradition of literature! Though he was not there at Sinai, Halevi says that study achieves Truth as equivalently as the original revelation: “It was an intense period,” he writes, “in which I felt that not to be thinking, feeling, writing, was sinful.” And so to be engaged in these activities became an almost religious engagement and he wonders if this was “a verson of the perpetual prayer compulsion I later read about?” I wonder if Hartman refers here to the Jesus prayer in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey?
Study begins with question that leads to the text.


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