David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: parables

“Jew, Go Back to the Grave!” — A Parable

An abridged tale from Yaffa Eliach’s  Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust:

As Ostrovakas and his people were aiming their guns, Zvi fell into the grave a split second before the volley of fire hit him.

He felt the bodies piling up on top of him and covering him. He felt the streams of blood around him and the trembling pile of dying bodies moving beneath him.

It became cold and dark. The shooting died down above him. Zvi made his way from under the bodies, out of the mass grave into the cold, dead night. In the distance, Zvi could hear Ostrovakas and his people singing and drinking, celebrating their great accomplishment. After 80o years, on September 26, 1941, Eisysky was Judenfrei.

At the far end of the cemetery, in the direction of the huge church, were a few Christian homes. Zvi knew them all. Naked, covered with blood, he knocked on the first door. The door opened. A peasant was holding a lamp which he had looted earlier in the day from a Jewish home. “Please let me in,” Zvi pleaded. The peasant lifted the lamp and examined the boy closely. “Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!” he shouted at Zvi and slammed the door in his face. Zvi knocked on other doors, but the response was the same.

Near the forest lived a widow whom Zvi knew too. He decided to knock on her door. The old widow opened the door. She was holding in her hand a small, burning piece of wood. ” Let me in!” begged Zvi. “Jew, go back to the grave at the old cemetery!” She chased Zvi away with the burning piece of wood as if exorcising an evil spirit, a dybbuk.

“I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in,” said Zvi Michalowsky. The widow crossed herself and fell at his blood-stained feet. “Boze moj, Boze moj (my God, my God),” she kept crossing herself and praying. The door was opened.

Zvi walked in. He promised her that he would spare from damnation both her family and her, but only if she would keep his visit a secret for three days and three nights and not reveal it to a living soul, not even the priest. She gave Zvi food and clothing and warm water to wash himself. Before leaving the house, he once more reminded her that the Lord’s visit must remain a secret, because of His special mission on earth.

Dressed in a farmer’s clothing, with a supply of food for a few days, Zvi made his way to the nearby forest. Thus, the Jewish partisan movement was born in the vicinity of Eisysky.

Zvi Michalowski as told to Eliach

This story has been quoted in a number of places, sometimes as fact, sometimes as folklore. It so perfectly displays the structure of parable (and an ambiguous parable, no less) that it commands attention and memory.

Is it really what happened? Eliach expresses doubt about some of the stories while having confirmed the unlikely truths of others, and at least a couple of the stories rely on such nonsensical coincidences that they seem to have come straight out of folklore.

This one lands somewhere in the middle. The outlines of the tale are verifiable and verified. As for the heart of the tale, the encounter with the widow: well, it’s one hell of a story. Whether it’s true or a brilliant embellishment, it’s a parable and will live on as such.

(Bizarrely, a very, very similarly worded account was published without attribution in Robert Rietti’s A Rose for Reubenthough he does thank Eliach in the foreword. Did he meet Michalowski too? Or is the tale now common property?)

Gene Wolfe Redux

I have never gotten as much flak for an entry as I have for my criticism of The Book of the New Sun, and since people have been reading that troublesome entry lately, I thought I’d add that I do like Wolfe, or at least find him very intriguing. I see him as having a large wellspring of talent that, for a number of reasons, goes off track too frequently to write much that is genuinely successful, even if it is highly evocative and complex. When he avoids the pitfalls, as with “The Death of Doctor Island,” he can be well-nigh brilliant.

So among the world-building riches that his work offers, I think the problem arises in his combination (and misalignment) of narrative (epistemic) subjectivity and factual absolutism. He puts readers through knots trying to figure out what goes on in his novels and stories, but both in the work and in Wolfe’s own interviews, there is no doubt offered that all questions have answers: you just need to figure them out. If you enjoy the puzzles, great, but there is still something unsatisfying to me in knowing that any given question pretty much does have a simple yes/no answer (or, and this is a significant exception, chalked up to divinity as per Wolfe’s Catholicism), and that much of the obscurity is not serving any other purpose other than as “entertainment” for the reader. Take this excerpt from a Q&A between some devoted fans and Wolfe:

5. Do you care to enlighten us as to whether the Enlightenments are purely miraculous or are concurrent with activities of Mainframe or Pas? — They are purely miraculous.

10. What are the dimensions of the Whorl? — I don’t know.

12. Who was Blood’s father? — Patera Pike. [DRL: This was a complete surprise all round, by the way.]

15. Is the Outsider a form of Severian? — No. Severian is a form of the Outsider.

21b. Who is the narrator of the very last chapter …? — I think you mean the Afterward. It was written by Hoof, Hide, and their wives — but mostly by Hide.

Is the Outsider a spiritual God? Or another virtual being? — The Outsider is a spiritual God.

To continue on the issue of divinity in Wolfe’s work, I wanted to point Wolfe readers to Five Steps Towards Briah, an essay by Nick Gevers that is the single best thing I’ve read about Wolfe. Gevers gives a remarkably coherent and comprehensive account of Wolfe’s agenda, interests, themes, and techniques, and more significantly, how they reinforce one another. His analysis is of The Book of the Long Sun, but his points apply more or less to all the Wolfe I have read. Gevers’ key point, with which I agree:

The entire 1400 page text [of The Book of the Long Sun, with its hundreds of characters, scores of voices, and countless veering twists of plot, is an exhaustive proof by Wolfe of the need to obey a simple injunction: transcend the material world. As a very subtle but also very emphatic Roman Catholic propagandist, Wolfe is commanding us to perceive our bodies and our physical surroundings for the pale mortal envelopes that they are, and rise into the divine light. Any godless secular world, he declares, is Hell, a place where any solutions are temporary, partial, empty. The Whorl is a reflection of contemporary Earth, that fallen spiritual wasteland. The way out is not fruitless secular endeavour, but rather an ascent back towards God, an exodus into His Creation.

The ultra-short summary: Wolfe’s tales are Christian parables (or propaganda, if you will) told or retold by acolytes of one form or another with imperfect knowledge, just as the Gospels are.

Wolfe is not quite as explicit about his religious content as James Blish was in his singular novel A Case of Concience (which overtly treats the Manicheistic heresy), but ultimately there is less doubt about Christian doctrine than there is in Blish, and more emphasis on the One True Way, getting past all the false gods to reach the true one. Gevers maintains, and I agree, that beneath all the puzzles and complexities, this is the fundamental purpose and position of Wolfe’s work. Determining the worth of such a message–that anything that can be known in this world will fall short in providing purpose in life and one must look to the transcendent and undescribable–is up to the individual reader.

Oh, and also…

The Gene Wolfe challenge: in response to some of the comments made on my last entry that insisted that all narrative ambiguity in Wolfe was easily soluble by close reading (my thanks to Jonathan Rock for instead answering my questions about the ambiguities), I issue the following challenge: give a coherent and defensible account of the actual events of Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights,” an eerie postcolonial story that, as far as I can tell, collapses into obscurity and narrative indecipherability by its end. I cannot find a commonly accepted account of the plot, but here’s an excerpt of Robert Borski on the Wolfe mailing list trying to figure things out, just to let everyone know what they’re in for:

When the narrative recommences it’s with the passage I quote at the beginning of paragraph 9, wherein Nadan wants us to believe that someone has broken into his room, relocated his journal, and eaten the missing egg. Actually, however, I believe this is being written an entire day later, on the night that concludes Day 6. Nadan makes it seem as if the break-in and the events preceding it are still part of Day 5, but I believe Wolfe provides us with several clues that it isn’t when he has Nadan reprise the evening’s activities. As we expect, Nadan goes to the theater; when he arrives, however, much to his surprise, he discovers that Bobby O’Keene is already there and preparing to go on-stage. “You are free,” Nadan says. But given Nadan’s and Ardis’s previous frustrations with the police (who, remember, seem to believe there’s something more to the alleged robbery than a simple mistaking of intentions), in addition to the sorry state of the prisoners, is it likely that O’ Keene is going to be this well groomed and composed–especially since Nadan describes him as having been beaten to the ground by the crowd that’s witnessed the robbery–and ready to trod the boards?

Ardis, in turn, then asks Bobby, “Was it very bad?” To which the actor responds, “It was frightening, that’s all. I thought I’d never get out.” But if he was arrested late the night before, and released the following day, perhaps being confined, at the most, 16 hours, this hardly seems to warrant a comment about never getting out. In addition, when Bobby says, “I hear you missed me last night,” Ardis responds, “God, yes.” But if Bobby has actually been confined in jail for a day-and-a-half, Ardis may well be commenting on the poor performance of his stand-in (the fact that Bobby has been missed by her is obviously communicated by someone else).

I gave up. But you, Gene Wolfe fan, should not!

The Part of Kafka People Forget

It seemed to K. as if at last those people had broken off all relations with him, and as if now in reality he were freer than he had ever been, and at liberty to wait here in this place, usually forbidden to him, as long as he desired, and had won a freedom such as hardly anybody else had ever succeeded in winning, and as if nobody could dare to touch him or drive him away, or even speak to him; but –this conviction was at least equally strong—as if at the same time there was nothing more senseless, nothing more hopeless, than this freedom, this waiting, this inviolability.

The Castle

It’s not all “Before the Law” and “The Judgment.” Especially in The Castle, K. has his moments of self-determination and freedom beyond anything typically associated with Kafka. It’s still problematic–and then some!–but it’s not the man waiting for the law, and it’s not the country doctor in bed with the patient. It’s as if Josef K. had not been killed at the end of The Trial but was allowed to stay in the open air (I believe the only time in the whole novel in which he is definitively outdoors).

[A scene from the odd but effective Japanese animation of “A Country Doctor.”]

Borges: The House of Asterion

Of Mirrors and the Labyrinth, quoted by Art of Memory, made me remember that crucial Borges story that is not as well-known as some, “The House of Asterion.” It is one of Borges’s more explicit invocations of Kafka, and specifically of Kafka’s parables. I’ll just quote the whole thing, seeing as it’s very short:

And the queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion. (Apollodorus Bibliotecha III, I)

I know they accuse me of arrogance, and perhaps misanthropy, and perhaps of madness. Such accusations (for which I shall exact punishment in due time) are derisory. It is true that I never leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (whose numbers are infinite) (footnote: The original says fourteen, but there is ample reason to infer that, as used by Asterion, this numeral stands for infinite.) are open day and night to men and to animals as well. Anyone may enter. He will find here no female pomp nor gallant court formality, but he will find quiet and solitude. And he will also find a house like no other on the face of this earth. (There are those who declare there is a similar one in Egypt, but they lie.) Even my detractors admit there is not one single piece of furniture in the house. Another ridiculous falsehood has it that I, Asterion, am a prisoner. Shall I repeat that there are no locked doors, shall I add that there are no locks? Besides, one afternoon I did step into the street; If I returned before night, I did so because of the fear that the faces of the common people inspired in me, faces as discolored and flat as the palm of one’s hand. the sun had already set ,but the helpless crying of a child and the rude supplications of the faithful told me I had been recognized. The people prayed, fled, prostrated themselves; some climbed onto the stylobate of the temple of the axes, others gathered stones. One of them, I believe, hid himself beneath the sea. Not for nothing was my mother a queen; I cannot be confused with the populace, though my modesty might so desire. The fact is that that I am unique. I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men; like the philosopher I think that nothing is communicable by the art of writing. Bothersome and trivial details have no place in my spirit, which is prepared for all that is vast and grand; I have never retained the difference between one letter and another. A certain generous impatience has not permitted that I learn to read. Sometimes I deplore this, for the nights and days are long.

Of course, I am not without distractions. Like the ram about to charge, I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor. I crouch in the shadow of a pool or around a corner and pretend I am being followed. There are roofs from which I let myself fall until I am bloody. At any time I can pretend to be asleep, with my eyes closed and my breathing heavy. (Sometimes I really sleep, sometimes the color of day has changed when I open my eyes.) But of all the games, I prefer the one about the other Asterion. I pretend that he comes to visit me and that I show him my house. With great obeisance I say to him “Now we shall return to the first intersection” or “Now we shall come out into another courtyard” Or “I knew you would like the drain” or “Now you will see a pool that was filled with sand” or “You will soon see how the cellar branches out”. Sometimes I make a mistake and the two of us laugh heartily.

Not only have I imagined these games, I have also meditated on the house. All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards pools are fourteen (infinite) in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather it is the world. However, by dint of exhausting the courtyards with pools and dusty gray stone galleries I have reached the street and seen the temple of the Axes and the sea. I did not understand this until a night vision revealed to me that the seas and temples are also fourteen (infinite) in number. Everything is repeated many times, fourteen times, but two things in the world seem to be repeated only once: above, the intricate sun; below Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this enormous house, but I no longer remember.

Every nine years nine men enter the house so that I may deliver them from evil. I hear their steps or their voices in the depths of the stone galleries and I run joyfully to find them. The ceremony lasts a few minutes. They fall one after another without my having to bloody my hands. They remain where they fell and their bodies help distinguish one gallery from another. I do not know who they are, but I know that one of them prophesied, at the moment of his death, that some day my redeemer would come. Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise above the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no longer even a vestige of blood. “Would you believe it, Ariadne?” said Theseus “The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

Hermetic isolation, an invocation of Purgatory as conceived by Dante, and to labyrinths before and after, to the invented worlds of Tlon and the murderous architecture of “Death and the Compass.”

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