Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The story of Requiem: A Tale of Exile and Return

by Erel Shalit

I.
pp. 1-2:
If anyone would have been present in that clean and tiny room in the small hostel in the heart of New York the day Professor Shimeoni arrived, watching him as he sat almost catatonically on the bed, his legs barely touching the floor, his cap awkwardly sitting on his head as if put there by a caring nurse on a schoolboy rather than a man in his mid-fifties, his small unopened suitcase next to him as if he needed to protect it with strengths he no longer possessed, or as if the suitcase somehow squeezed itself quietly to his side so that it could protect him -- if anyone had seen Professor Shimeoni sitting on the simple bed in the warm but alien room, they would have seen a picture of resigned defeat.
But no one was present. Nobody was there to observe that bitter smile that held back his emotions, when he thought, "how ironic, this bed is hardly better than those that the Jewish Agency, once upon a time, used to provide at the immigrant hostels that had been scattered around the country." "Once upon a time," he repeated to himself, not sure if it was a dream or a nightmare, a fantasy or an anxiety attack.
No, there were no witnesses. The defeat remained the private failure of Eli Shimeoni.

Incidentally, Eli was short for Eliezer. However, since he had never managed to figure out if the meaning of the letters that made up this given name of his was that God would be helpful to him, or if he was to be God's servant in a scheme of contradictions that his philosophical mind could not grasp, he had formally shortened it to Eli.
Requiem: A Tale of Exile & Return


II.
So begins my novella, Requiem: A Tale of Exile and Return, which I wrote to express thoughts, feelings, existential fears, metaphysical reflections and associations, simple convictions, thoughts and wanderings about belongingness and estrangement, rootedness and doubt.

Sonu Shamdasani writes in his accompanying text to the Red Book that the "first few decades of the twentieth century saw a great deal of experimentation‚" in literature and psychology. "Writers," he says, "tried to throw off the limitations of representational conventions to explore and depict the full range of inner experience -- dreams, visions, and fantasies." Moreover, Sonu Shamdasani mentions how psychologists "sought to overcome the limitations of philosophical psychology, and they began to explore the same terrain as artists and writers. Clear demarcations among literature, art, and psychology had not yet been set." He mentions how Alfred Binet and Charles Richet, for instance, wrote fictional works, often under assumed names.

III.
That made me realize that I am not the only psychologist or analyst who is an author in therapeutic exile, enabling others to weave their stories rather than writing his own, and that I probably only repeat the path taken by many before me -- already a hundred years ago, when psychology was still young, they seem to have been drawn into writing their story -- the prime example is perhaps Jung's Liber Novus.

But Gustav Fechner is perhaps no less of an extreme example. On the one hand, he was one of the founders of experimental psychology, but with the pen in his other hand, hiding in the shadow behind the pseudonym of Dr. Mises, he wrote about the soul life of plants, and about the earth as a blue angel.

I guess that I, like most Jungians, am drawn more to the madness of the angels' soul life, than to the seemingly sane reality of experimental psychology, and that is why we end up swimming in Jung's Rosarium of images, rather than on a Freudian couch, analyzing our defenses.

Since I was born in Sweden to parents that arrived as refugees during the war, one from a family of assimilated Yeckes, the other from a Zionist family of rabbis, I am often asked what my mother-tongue is -- Swedish, German or Yiddish that were spoken at home, English in which I write, or Hebrew, the holy tongue of everyday.
   
Usually I say I have no mother tongue, implying in a way that my mother was unable, probably due to the traumata of the war, to give me much of a tongue, and thus I mostly kept quiet.  However, I do believe that the images, perhaps often the images that grow under the roots of words, the image is what constitutes my mother-tongue.

IV.
Some of the fictitious events depicted in the novella are simple deductions from evolving realities, such as,

pp. 27-28:
Israeli roadblocks on the West Bank, which according to the Israelis had for such a long time been instrumental in curbing terrorist attacks, while they bore the insignia of humiliation and oppression for the Palestinians, were stormed by tens of thousands of civilians. While some carried weapons, there was no need to fire a single shot. The soldiers were just trampled down, and in most instances the blockades were removed within minutes.  
Israel responded by sending troops into the Palestinian territories adjacent to Ben-Gurion International Airport, fearing it would come under missile attack. The European Union sent a message to Israel that its response was "out of proportion." The French Foreign Minister condemned Israel of committing "a disproportional act of war with negative consequences."

V.
One may think that the title Requiem refers to what at moments of anxiety and despair sometimes becomes an all too threatening assumption about the fragility of the Jewish State. Would that have been my unambiguous intention, however, I would not have borrowed from the Latin, but I would have stuck with the Hebrew, and called it Kaddish.

I do use Requiem in its meaning of burial prayer, but a requiem for denial; then, requiem as the repose, quiem as in quiet, the desire for some quiet after the hard labour of torn souls, for some human sanity on this archetypal ground so filled with holiness and blood. I chose it with great ambivalence, but felt that merely a tale, even a tale of exile and return, needed a definite statement, even if I then have to take retract it.
   
In the novella, there are numerous associative images of exile and of return, from Yochanan ben Zakai, being smuggled out of Jerusalem in flames, to the difficulty I have with Derrida,

pp. 41-42:
While he had no reason to be arrogant, Eli Shimeoni did feel sarcastic toward the somewhat sad and futile attempts, such as Derrida's effort late in life to come to terms with his Judaism. Truth was, Shimeoni essentially agreed with Derrida on many points, such as his interpretation of Abraham's covenant with God of circumcision. The Divine Father's archetypal scar inflicted by generations of fathers of the flesh on generations of consent-less Jewish boys seemed to Professor Shimeoni, as indeed to Derrida, to be a repetition-compulsion, rather than the profound internalization of memory. He recalled Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's epic work Zakhor, wondering if the Jews don't merely repeat the trauma when they cross the desert every Passover -- outside of the Land of Israel even repeating the hegira a second night, perhaps to ensure that the Jews of the Diaspora do arrive to the Promised Land... "Does not compulsive repetition constitute the dangerous engine of fundamentalism?" he wondered, "in contrast to an enlightened process of internalized memory, in order to liberate the trauma." Is this not the very opposite of that monumental cultural transition when the knife is taken out of Abraham's hand, turning the actual, concrete sacrifice of Isaac into the acculturated representation by his Binding, the akedah? The knife need not actually cut, in order for man to humbly bow before the transcendent image of God. Shimeoni adhered to Einstein's view of God, as when he says that the religious attitude is the knowledge and emotion "of a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty," and when he expresses his belief in the God of Spinoza "who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings."
More than Derrida, I trust Heine, who said that there was no need for him to return, "for in fact I have never abandoned," and Rilke, said it so well, that we need to search for the stranger in order find the way Home.

VI.
There are several riddles in the story, some rather obvious, such as the protagonist being the author's alter ego, and his infinite shortening of his name until almost nothing remains, since taking out God, El, from his name, the "i" that remains is not even a capital "I" that could serve as ego-identity, or the "es" of his initials hardly being an "it", "es" in German, which Ernest Jones transformed into the pseudo-scientific "id."

Other riddles and reflections are more metaphysical, pertaining to the existence of time and the stolen clocks from the Museum of Islamic Art, about predetermined fate versus destiny and free will and determination.

One of the questions I did not raise is, if the people at Amazon read all the eight or ten million or so books that they sell. Requiem is categorized as contemporary fiction, fine, but I was surprised to see it categorized as well as metaphysical literature, which means someone not only took a look at it, but even read it.

The very term metaphysics is one of those curious enigmas in the course of human history -- the editor of Aristotle's work, Andronicus of Rhodes, placed the "first philosophy" as the books that came after physics, which Latin scholiasts thought meant "the science beyond the physical."

Personally, I am certainly more inclined to the speculative, metaphysical reflection on the world than evidence-based empiricism, which as we know from medicine sometimes cannot be completely trusted. However, I do admit that I would not like the car I drive or the plane I fly in to be built solely and entirely on metaphysical speculations.


VII.
p. 58:
Following Baudrillard, Shimeoni, as well, thought the post-modern image had become its own simulacrum, a representation of itself, no longer in need of something 'real‚' that it would represent. According to the same logic, the tangible had become the creator of its own reality, so that a watch did not only represent time, but created time.

I am a great admirer of Baudrillard's criticism of post-modernism. I deal with that more extensively in other writings. However, the epigram to Baudrillard's Simulation and Simulacra reads: "The simulacrum is never what hides the truth-- it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true."

Baudrillard attributes it to Ecclesiastes/Kohelet.

For years there have been efforts to trace this quote, but there just isn't any. It was likely made up by Baudrillard. He seems to say, along with his penetrating critique of the phenomena of our era, that there is no longer any truth hiding behind the persona, that only the persona remains, and is taken as truth in itself.

We can of course contemplate Ecclesiastes 2:14-16, which may be what Baudrillard did, but if so, he certainly claimed the philosopher's freedom for himself.

Ecclesiastes 2:14-16 reads:

14) The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walks in darkness; and I myself perceived also that one event happens to them all.

15) Then said I in my heart, As it happens to the fool, so it happens even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.

16) For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. How the wise man dies, just like the fool!

VIII.
So from a postmodern, psychological and philosophical point of view, we may ask, what is truth, what is truly true, what is the truth, for instance, about the branch of archeology called Moabitica?

I will read you a paragraph from a forthcoming chapter on Jerusalem, my humble tribute to the city, which will appear in a book edited by Tom Singer called Psyche and the City,

Squeezed between the old and bustling Jaffa Road with its mixture of shops, restaurants and marketplace, hooting buses and mixture of crisscrossing pedestrians, and the ultra-Orthodox Meah Shearim ("hundred gates") quarter creeping up from behind, the graceful house [of Anna Ticho] with its garden of olive trees and pines seems to hide away. It seems as if the house does not want to fully reveal itself, comfortable in its seclusion, trying to remain untouched by the surrounding noise and distractions of everyday, set apart in its deep and not so holy secrets. . .

. . . such as the antiquity dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira (1830-1884), who lived in the house a century and a half ago, at a time when the renewed interest in the Holy Land began to breathe life into its archaeological artefacts. The discovery of the Moabite Stone (Mesha Stele), followed by clay figurines, vessels and coins that somehow turned up in Shapira "well-respected antiquities shop gave rise to the new scientific field of Moabitica. He attempted to sell "the earliest text of Deuteronomy ever found" to the British Museum at the price of a million pounds. Shapira "ended his life with a bullet to the head" in Rotterdam shortly after it was disclosed as forgery, probably fabricated by his associate Salim al-Kari.
. . . Yet, the Shapira parchment fragments bear some resemblance to the Dead Sea Scrolls; it seems as if 70 years before their discovery, the dubious forger had in his mind conjured up the caves at Qumran . . .

. . . Religious imagination and archaeological evidence, history, tale and legend, mix and merge like Uqbar and Qumran in the enigmas of Jerusalem.

While the authenticity of the scrolls discovered 1947 in the caves at Qumran, close to the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea, has been proven, Uqbar and the civilization of Tlön is a fascinating fictional story written by Jorge Luis Borges in 1941. Let me just read you a very brief passage from that story,

It is no exaggeration to say that the classical culture of Tlön is composed of a single discipline -- psychology -- to which all others are subordinate. I have said that the people of that planet conceive the universe as a series of mental processes that occur not in space but rather successively, in time. Spinoza endows his inexhaustible deity with the attributes of spatial extension of thought; no one in Tlön would understand the juxtaposition of the first, which is typical only of certain states, and the second "which is a perfect synonym for the cosmos. Or to put it another way: space is not conceived as having duration in time. The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then the countryside on fire and then the half-extinguished cigarette that produced the scorched earth is considered an example of the association of ideas.

IX.
I am not going to tell you how the story I am telling ends, but there is a direct line between the covenant of Abraham, the near sacrifice of Isaac, the abyss of despair and the sense of commitment.

At the beginning of the story, E.S. visits the place of no hope,

p. 2:
The young had left the desert town as soon as they could, leaving their unemployed and worn-out parents behind. Once the little kiosk at the small piazza at the center of town, with coffee, chairs and a lottery machine, had been like a Persian Palace of Hope, a real kūšk.

But the feathers of hope no longer circled the air, as if impatiently waiting to be followed by the lucky and daring ones, departing for the dream of a new life, a better future. No, the feathers had all fallen to the ground, the shaft had lost its barbs. Even the feathers had lost their hope.

At the end of the story, he wakes up from his reverie, and one of the images that crystallizes before him is brings him to a place of tremendously greater horror where, still, the fragile voices of hope rise from the ashes,

p. 98:
the remarkable picture of the Sabbath evening service in Bergen Belsen, a few days after liberation, . . . While the dead and the dying still lie on the ground, the barely living survivors let their voices rise from the ashes into divine Hope, singing Hatikva.

I will play you this astonishing recording, and then just a concluding sentence.
Hatikvah from Bergen-Belsen
http://www.isracast.com/article.aspx?id=766
Requiem: A Tale of Exile & Return
X.
My written story has no definite ending; the end is a beginning, which remains entirely individual -- one's personal way of relating to time, history, culture, politics, identity, the anima mundi and the objective and the collective psyches.


Erel Shalit's Requiem: A Tale of Exile and Return, Enemy, Cripple, Beggar: Shadows in the Hero's Path and his previously published book The Complex: Path of Transformation from Archetype to Ego can be purchased at www.fisherkingpress.com or by phoning Fisher King Press directly at 1-831-238-7799

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