Hold It All

Category: World Literature

Doctor Shmoctor

This afternoon I was perusing Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made, and came across the following skit of Lenny Bruce about Christ and the Jews:

… you and I know what a Jew is–One Who Killed Our Lord. I don’t know if we got much press on that in Illinois— we did this about two thousand years ago—two thousand years of Polack kids whacking the shit out of us coming home from school. Dear, dear. And although there should be a statute of limitations for that crime, it seems that those who neither have the actions nor the gait of Christians, pagans or not, will bust us out, unrelenting dues, for another deuce.

And I really searched it out, why we pay the dues. Why do you keep breaking our balls for this crime?

“Why, Jew, because you skirt the issue. You blame it on the Roman soldiers.”

Alright, I’ll clear the air once and for all, and confess. Yes, we did it. I did it, my family. I found a note in my basement.

It said: “We killed him . . . signed, Morty.”

And a lot of people say to me, “Why did you kill Christ?”

“I dunno . . . it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know.”

We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor, that’s why we killed him.

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Glatshteyn

Janet R. Hadda, Yankev Glatshteyn
Twayne Publishers, 1980

Having read translations of Yankev Glatshteyn from Howe and company’s Modern Yiddish Poetry,  Whitman’s Selected Poems, Zumoff’s I Keep Recalling, and  also Fein’s Selected Poems, I treated myself to this study by Janet Hadda, also biographer of I.B. Singer.  Part of the Yiddish modernist In Zikh movement in the 1920 and 30s,  Glatshteyn later had to face the enormity of responding to the catastrophes that were inflicted on Jews in the 1930s and 40s.   Over the decades I have read  religious thinkers, philosophers, and novelists trying to grapple with the Nazi and Soviet “totalitarian barbarism” (G. Steiner).  Regardless of Adorno’s pronouncement on the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, Glatshteyn has produced powerful works of mourning for his community and of assailing  the fraud of “western civilization.”   To name five: Good Night, World; Our Neat and Tidy Language; Lamentation for the  Souls of Jewish Cities; Reb Levi Yitzhok’s Voice; and I Keep Recalling.

At mid-century Glatshteyn was preeminent in the U.S. Yiddish community; his literary production included  three novels, eight volumes of essays, and ten volumes of poetry.   Yet, writing of him in 1943, Hadda acknowledges: “Everything was doomed: his people, his tradition, its language, his artistic freedom, his chances of contributing to a continuing literature. Even his awesome responsibility as the chronicler of the last days of Eastern European Jewry was infused with an ironic futility: [he would write about it] but who would read it?”  The Yiddish Book Center has made available a Youtube  of Glatshteyn addressing the mission of Yiddish poetry and responsibility a decade after the end of World War II (English subtitles available).

Near the end of her study, Hadda asserts that the poet’s “commitment to Yiddishkeyt as a national, historical, philosophical, geneaological, and even psychological entity—all of which have common borders with theological Jewishness—was total.”  May new generations of readers and seekers find sparks in Glatshteyn’s works,  both in the original Yiddish and their translations.

Hold It All

In [Proust’s] work we come across an absolute absence of bias, a willingness to know and to understand as many opposing states of the human soul as possible, a capacity for discovering in the lowest sort of man such nobility as to appear sublime, and in the seemingly purest of beings, the basest instincts. His work acts on us like life, filtered and illuminated by a consciousness whose soundness is infinitely greater than our own.

–Josef Czapski, Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp
Translated by Eric Karpeles

What Is Vaster

In the early 1980s Harold Bloom noted about his experience of decades at Yale University that “[t]here is a profound falling away from what I would call ‘text-centeredness” among the current generation of American undergraduates, Gentile and Jewish alike. I can detect still some difference between Gentile and Jewish students in this regard, but it is not a substantial difference, and it seems to be diminishing.”

Bloom was on my mind  after having read the stirring memoir by Aaron Lansky, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. The subtitle is negated by Lansky’s own accounts of the many people—his own generation and those much older—who contributed to this undaunted retrieval of books. About text-centeredness, Isaac Bashevis Singer, the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature,  once  imagined, “I’m sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking ghosts will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be, ‘Is there any new book in Yiddish to read?’” Read the rest of this entry »

Minutes & Plans & Moons

I first came to the work of Charles Reznikoff in 2008 when I read his terse “poems” in Holocaust. He had read thousands of pages of war crimes trials transcripts to produce condensed, jarring, essential “scenes of disaster,” like something out of Goya. I returned to him in 2010, and read several volumes by and about him. Reading this Objectivist poet that summer prepared me for a breakthrough in writing the following spring.

I recommend By the Well of Living & Seeing: New & Selected Poems 1918-1973 for anyone who might be interested in exploring the vision and sensibility of this Jewish American poet. To whet your reading appetite, I offer for your consideration the following poems…

If you ask me about the plans that I made last night
Of steel and granite—
I think the sun must have melted them,
Or this gentle wind blown them away.

The Old Man
The fish has too many bones
And the watermelon too many seeds.

Beggar Woman
When I was four years old my mother led me to the park.
The spring sunshine was not too warm. The street was almost empty.
The witch in my fairy-book came walking along.
She stopped to fish some mouldy grapes out of the gutter. Read the rest of this entry »

Bob Dylan Approximately: Summer 2019 Course

“That’s all we did in those days. Writing in the back seat of cars and writing songs on street corners or on porch swings, seeking out the explosive areas of life.”
—Bob Dylan, 1977

“I wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in 10 minutes, just put the words to an old spiritual.”
—Bob Dylan, 2004

“Elusive, oblique, mercurial, and always in motion, he has resisted in both his life and his work being categorized, encapsulated, finalized, conventionalized, canonized, and deified.”
—Jonathan Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews

This summer I invite you to join me in exploring the works and worlds of Bob Dylan, 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature. One critic said that Dylan “brought the linguistic beauty of Shakespeare, Byron, and Dylan Thomas, and the expansiveness and beat experimentation of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti, to the folk poetry of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams.” His influence has been planetary. (One of my favorite Dylan covers is the Magokoro Brothers’ “My Back Pages,” featured in the film, Masked and Anonymous.)

In our time together we will be listening, reading, listing, sharing, interviewing, memorizing, researching, and writing, as we sample a tiny fraction of of Dylan’s work over almost sixty years. Themes we may explore include dreams, aggression, lineage, social injustice, camaraderie, spirituality, impermanence, performance, masks, multitudes, mystery, writing, influence, heartbreak.

We will meet on eight Monday nights, starting June 24 and going until August 12. We will gather at 6:30 p.m., and wrap up by 8:15.

We gather together in the lovely home of Marty and Jerry King at 830 Demun (third floor) in Clayton (63105).

You’ll need the following—
A device with which you can listen to music
A notebook of some kind for writing
A book of your choosing by or about Bob Dylan. I recommend his Chronicles, v. 1 or Cott’s collection of interviews. Pick something you’d enjoy dipping in and out of, and sharing your reflections throughout the course.

His lyrics are available online.

Tuition: $175, payable to me by check or Paypal. Online: $125, if anyone is outside of Saint Louis, and wants to connect with this [somehow], email or message me.

If interested in joining us, let me know by June 17 to markjchmiel@gmail.com.

“Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing”

Mark

Literature has become, for me and many others, a crucial way to fill ourselves with the blessing of more life.
–Harold Bloom, Possessed by Memory (2019)

 

 

Arousing Enthusiasm: Allen the Talker

for Laura Lapinski,
who makes me laugh while lunching at Medina Grill,
walking around the CWE, and hanging out in Left Bank Books

There’s 15 to 20 Allen Ginsberg poems I’ve loved, and shared with friends over the years. Examples: Cosmopolitan Greetings, War Profit Litany, Yiddishe Kopf, Yes and It’s Hopeless. Sure, I acknowledge that Ginsberg’s poetic influence has been world-wide, and I do reread Howl from time to time. But I esteem him even more for being a talker! This is principally because of one book, Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996. What follows are some excerpts which have informed, encouraged, challenged, and delighted me.

On Cuba: The Marxist-oriented people said ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be complaining – look at the advances the revolution has made.’ This was true and I said, yes there have been certain advances here, and I’m on your side and that’s why I’m complaining – don’t fuck up your revolution. 535

People are beginning to see, like household, as a tea ceremony. People begin to do kitchen yoga when they’re washing dishes. People begin to sacramentalizing all relationships, because the purpose of art is to sacramentalize life, I think. That’s a reasonable statement that I heard Swami Bhaktivedanta say recently. He said he thought the purpose of art was to bless and make sacred everything, so that people could see it that way. That is, to reveal the feeling in things, so they become more of a ball. 75

An artist by very definition means penetrating into the heart of the universe, i.e., your own heart, going beyond depression or exuberance. 446

[Since the 60s ] [t]here is a permanent change in civilized consciousness so that it includes the notion of one world, fresh planet, the awareness of the fragility of the planet as an ecological unity, the absorption of psychedelic styles in dress and music into the body politic, the sexual liberation movement, the black liberation movement, the women’s liberation movement, all of those slight, affirmative, permanent alterations in all lifestyles. 462

On meditation: you’re aware of your thoughts and you just observe them: acknowledging them, taking a friendly attitude toward them, not participating, just letting them go by. That tends to lead to a kind of equanimity or peacefulness and, at the same time, some sense of observation of the situation around you in a kind of nonjudgmental peacefulness. 482 Read the rest of this entry »

The Irresistible Power of Natural Powers

Having recently perused Jim Forest’s biography and memoir of Dan Berrigan (Playing in the Lions’ Den), I returned to Berrigan’s collection of poems, And the Risen Bread. If I can find five poems in such a collection that speak to me (and which I can pass along), I’m pleased.

The poem that still stands out for me, above all the others, is his “Zen Poem,” which I cannot help but think was influenced by his time with Nhat Hanh in France after the Vietnam War. However many times I read it, it remains fresh, like Book 6 of The Brothers Karamazov.

The early poems in the book are Christocentric, abstract, Latinate. The middle poems are still mostly pre-political. Like Vatican II brought the Church into the modern world, in the Sixties Berrigan, like so many others, finally got with it. “Certain Occult Utterances from the Under Ground and Its Guardian Sphinx” retains its spiritual relevance after fifty years. The Georgetown Series includes “The Trouble with Our State,” which also speaks to what is called the Age of Trump. (It would be pertinent if Ms. Clinton was president.) Read the rest of this entry »

Beautiful and Toxic Multitudes

Prompted by a recent tragedy, I turned again to the conclusion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I cried as I reread the exchanges between Kolya and Alyosha, thinking all the while of what dear friends have lost. I remembered how, many years ago in mid-May, as a treat to myself after the academic year, I’d reread Dostoevsky’s last novel. Just this morning I began perusing volume five of Jospeh Frank’s acclaimed biography of the Russian novelist. Imagine: An assiduous Jewish academic spending decades of his life writing about the times and life of, yes, a magnificent writer as well as an anti-Semite. This led me to return to Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden, which shifts quickly back and forth from the narrator going to Leningrad to check out the sites of Dostoevsky’s fans to the Dostoevskys as a married couple going to Dresden (Baden-Baden) where we see the extremes of the Russian writer with his gambling, self-loathing, and self-abasement before his bride-secretary, before the narrator ends up visiting an older friend, Gilda Yakovlevna, after which is how the novel ends, with “Tsypkin,” a Russian Jew reflecting on how and why it is that so many Jews like himself are Fyodorophiles, even though Dostoevsky despised Jews. Frank and Tsypkin forego the “all or none” mentality. Rather, they somehow hold it all, recognizing but not freaking out at the “both/and” of the beautiful and toxic in Dostoevsky the person. Of course, so many of Dostoevsky’s riveting characters—Dmitri Karamazov being an obvious example—are charged with just this gripping interbeing of the noble and ignoble. “I loved depravity, I also loved the shame of depravity. I loved cruelty: am I not a bedbug, an evil insect? In short – a Karamazov!” “I understand now that for men such as I a blow is needed, a blow of fate, to catch them as with a noose and bind them by an external force. Never, never would I have risen by myself! But the thunder has struck. I accept the torment of accusation and of my disgrace before all, I want to suffer and be purified by suffering. And perhaps I will be purified, eh, gentlemen? But hear me, all the same, for the last time: I am not guilty of my father’s blood!” I remember Susan Sontag (another Jew obsessed with Russian literature) on Tsypkin’s novel: “If you want from one book an experience of the depth and authority of Russian literature, read this book. If you want a novel that can fortify your soul and give you a larger idea of feeling, and of breathing, read this book.” But don’t stop there. Solzhenitsyn had his manias; is that a reason to avoid One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Is the moral crankiness and dreary dogmatism of the later Tolstoy grounds for passing up Hadji Murad?

“Life Must Be Serious or It Can Go to the Devil”

Naguib Mahfouz, Mirrors [Al-Maraya]
Illustrated by Seif Wanli
Translated by Roger Allen

—March 2005

What an odd book! It can be a goad to do something experimental in the future. It is a series of vignettes, portraits of those who’s known at different stages in his life and it covers relations between the sexes, the political crises of the time (like the ’67 catastrophe, remember, this is an Egyptian’s perspective), various affiliations (Muslim Brotherhood, Communists), individuals’ demons (haseesh, alcohol). I read it in two different periods, and so can’t remember all the characters, though I made a list of their names. It’s a kind of non-linear memoir of an old man, portraits of those whom he’s known.

I can’t say that it is full of profundity, like Proust. I can’t say that it is chock full of hilarity, like Roth. I can’t say that I want to reread it, because I’ve missed so much (and knew I was missing something) the first time around.

Still, as Ginsberg counseled, “Notice what you notice.” Here’s some of what I noticed from this book by the author of The Cairo Trilogy, some of which I read in Gaza and Ramallah…

From Roger Allen’s Introduction: The vignettes are indeed ‘mirrors,’ reflectors of a process of rapid change that has radically transformed Mahfouz’s homeland and its people, and not always to its advantage, during the course of this century.

“I challenge Israel to do to us what we’ve done to ourselves!” 35

I recalled Zuhayr Kamil’s words: “I now believe that people are bastards with no ethics. It would be better for them to admit it and build their communal life on that admission. The new ethical issue becomes how to maintain public welfare and human happiness in a society of bastards and scum.” 52 Read the rest of this entry »