Burn the Happy Rabbi, by Ricardo Nirenberg.
To the memory of E. M. Cioran.
The best-selling products of the publishing industry are regularly touted, “page turners.” Once, however, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol picked a volume of the Talmud, and for a long time sat facing the first page: his disciples wondered if perhaps the Master had encountered some particularly difficult passage or some thorny point never noticed before. They dared not question him. But after dinner, seeing that the Rabbi went back to reading the same page, his disciples plucked up courage and asked him why he had not turned the page in such a long while. “If I am so happy,” the Rabbi replied, “with what I’m reading here, why would I want to turn the page and read elsewhere?”
If you are happy with this, rabbinic reader, please do not feel that you must now turn to the story of the blind man and his dog: you may stay here and enjoy, for all these stories revolve about the same subject anyway, and tell roughly the same thing.
It was on the New York papers a few years ago. A cabby lost control of his vehicle, which went up a sidewalk at a corner in Uptown Manhattan and badly hurt both a blind man who sold pencils and his seeing-eye dog. The blind man was taken to Bellevue Hospital, and while there, received two cards from newspaper readers expressing sympathy and wishing him a prompt recovery. The dog, at a veterinary clinic nearby, received two thousand. People do care, only they don’t care for one another so much. Free will, whether actual or suspected, is not attractive, and may even be repulsive. Among us, I reckon, the dumb loyalty of a dog elicits a thousand times more sympathy than the free will of a man.
A physics team at Livermore labs has given the finishing touches to a time-traveling machine, the first one in human history. They call for volunteers, and three persons show up. They ask the first one, to what time would she like a one-way trip, and she answers, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to move forward half-a-dozen centuries: by then, medicine will be so far advanced that I’ll be able to live healthily much longer.” Dials are adjusted, the machine is turned on, and the woman —swish!— vanishes into the future. The second volunteer comes up: a nature freak, he would like to go back to the Middle Ages, a time when the night sky was more starred, the world less noisy, life not so damn fast. So, off with the nature freak to the long-gone 12th century CE. The third one, a tiny, elderly man, says, “I want your machine to take me—to right now.” “You don’t need any machine for that,” the physicists reply, unanimously surprised; “why don’t you just go on living like the rest of us?” “Don’t you see,” says the tiny, elderly man, “if I use your machine I’ll be the only one—imagine, the one and only one!—who has chosen this fucking time to live in.”
Guilt is the pivot on which Judeo-Christian society turns. Peter denies his Master three times, then the cock crows and he weeps bitterly; Paul is called from on high, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?,” and right away becomes Christ’s champion. Whether this nouveau frisson we owe to Christianity is debatable, but there can be little doubt that guilt is a major ingredient in all Catholic delight. Those who, upon reading the documents judicially pried from the Boston archdiocese, screamed indignantly that the Church seems to care more for sinful priests than for their innocent victims, misunderstood the nature of sacerdocy. Despite the risks of public shame and scandal among the flock, crime and repentance, fall and bitter regret —in one word, guilt— always were and will always remain infinitely more interesting to the Church than vapid innocence.
Both as individuals and as nations, we strive to keep in the bottom of our minds as it were, a nicely harmonious song, a pleasant picture of ourselves and of our time on this earth. Such songs and such pictures are almost invariably a repulsive pot-pourri of molasses and poncif, vulgar and lethal as the devil’s brew, and yet we cling to them as to dear life. Ideally, guilt should function as a kind of immune system of the mind, detecting a dissonance in the song, or a disharmony in the picture, and causing us to become feverish, to go into a crisis, until the disease abates or is cured. In the process, we should be revising the song and the picture lying at the bottom of our mind, trying to modify them, or to change them radically, to make them truer to life. Guilt ought to be œstrus veritatis, the sting that inspires us to truth: above all the truth about ourselves. But so perverse are our tendencies, so strong our fear of light…
No, this requires a different tone, a deeper source. Once, at dawn, when my bodily senses were hushed and my mind soared, I found myself in my father’s bedroom: my father was still alive, lying on his bed, over which hung a portrait of his favorite philosopher, Fichte. Suddenly there was a big commotion. A gadfly had been caught in a spider web, and was making tremendous efforts to break free. Desperately it darted from wall to wall, but the web was so strong and so incredibly elastic that all was in vain. Exhausted finally, the gadfly gave up and stood tremblingly in the middle of a hole in the ceiling, where the spider promptly arrived to retrieve it. I resolved to free the stinger, but with what tools? I ran down to the basement, and after some rummaging in the tool box found a hook of La Rochefoucauld, which might prove helpful, I thought. When I returned to my father’s bedroom, at first I couldn’t find the hole in the woodwork where the spider had its lair; standing upon a chair I looked for it, until I found that it had been covered with bunched-up voile curtain material by my mother, who was standing there, smiling and still, out-topping knowledge. I pulled down the voile, and saw the monstrous, intricate fabric of the spider web, and the spider itself at the center, and the many egg sacks on the sides, and the agonizing gadfly: it was a darkness to appall, a thoroughly repulsive sight. With the hook I pulled out all I could, all I found. Trying to reach deeper, I began feverishly pulling out objects that, by virtue of some occult, disastrous chemistry, looked like fancy dishes: vol-au-vents, caviar canapés, birthday cakes, puddings and compotes. At the top of my voice I warned my friends (the room was now a dining hall, with plenty of guests) not to eat from that which only looked like luxury food but in reality was poison. I knew. No one, however, was paying any attention to me. Mother was still smiling, and Father infuriatingly pretended to be dead.
Always for the subject, occasionally for the world, conversions are momentous events. Paul thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus, Kant arisen from his dogmatic slumber upon reading Hume. Besides being important, genuine conversions are so rare and so mysteriously caused, that we are likely to view them as miracles; forgiveness is a kind of conversion, certainly not the least mysterious or the least momentous, and so is repentance. And yet, I must admit to my own confusion, I find myself more in awe of that phenomenon which may be considered the opposite of conversion, I mean utter constancy of heart. More than once I have met people I was friends with forty years ago but have not seen since, high-school comrades for instance, and each time I have marveled at how little, how infinitesimally little, they had changed, other than physically of course. My feeling of awe was particularly overpowering at a dinner party in 2004, when I mentioned a writer who had lived in Chatham, on the other side of the Hudson, and who had recently died. To my surprise, the old lady who was sitting to my left, a sweet old lady who writes lovely love lyrics, burst out angrily, “He was a traitor, a fascist! A stooge, a lackey of the C.I.A.! Garbage, scum!” The dead writer had fought in the 30s for the Spanish Republic, but later, like Orwell, Koestler and many others, had publicly renounced and denounced communism: this the old lady would not forgive. Her rancor had survived communism itself. She reminded me of Quevedo, the 17th-century Spaniard who composed some of the most impassioned love lyrics in Europe, and whose political hatreds were so virulent and so constant that a modern poet, Jorge Guillén, wrote as a sort of epitaph, “Don Francisco de Quevedo, terriblemente idéntico a sí mismo”—awfully self-identical. Could it be that self-identity carried to such intemporal extremes is that by which human beings most closely resemble God? (“I am that I am,” He uttered; not, mind you, “I become that I become.” And regardless of whether those were His words or not, in a 1794 lecture Fichte taught: “The ultimate characteristic feature of all rational beings is absolute unity, constant self-identity, complete agreement with oneself.”)
There is a special sort of constancy of heart that may be called inversion: it consists in fixing the focus of our hostile attention on a certain object, usually a system of beliefs, and endeavoring to invert its norms and values. The sacred becomes profane, obligation turns into abomination, what was positive is now negative, and the other way around. Thus Moses’ faith inverted Egyptian “idolatry,” Christianity inverted Judaism, and Nietzsche’s Übermensch inverted Christianity. Years ago X, a professor of Spanish literature who had a chair at a prestigious university, consulted me about certain mathematical questions: he wanted to ascertain that Jorge Luis Borges had erred in his essays about Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. My impression was that Professor X was contemplating some sort of detailed refutation of Borges; indeed, X let me know that in his opinion, the world-famous Argentine writer did not deserve his reputation. I did my best to help X understand the theory of infinite series and Cantor’s infinite numbers, but nothing came of it, which cannot surprise any one who has banged his head against the wall separating l’esprit de géometrie from l’esprit de finesse. X, without a shadow of a doubt, was on the side of finesse. He was fond of music, too, and what did surprise me most was his frequently manifested animus against Brahms. I can easily understand that someone could dislike this or that composition by Johannes Brahms, but I find it perverse that a man who loves good music would condemn Brahms as a whole, and so vehemently. I was long perplexed and quite intrigued by this idiosincracy of X, for which only now, many years after his death, I have found an explanation. Reading Borges’ poems and some of the many interviews he consented to, I came across Brahms as Borges’ favorite composer, actually the only composer mentioned in his writings, and then I suddenly understood: Professor X’s hostile attention had been long focused on Borges; Professor X’s loathings were but inversions of Borges’ loves.
Returning to the subject of the Catholic priesthood, here’s a French-flavored story. Toward the end of the 19th century, the Catholic writer and pamphleteer Léon Bloy wrote to a young mathematician who had deplored the depraved ecclesiastic morals: “le prêtre n’est plus qu’un instrument surnaturel, un générateur d’Infini”, the priest is but a supernatural instrument, a generator of Infinity. A priest can be the worst criminal, Bloy pointed out; nevertheless, he has the power to transubstantiate: “Comment ne pas sentir cette Beauté infinie ?” How can one not feel such infinite Beauty?
A generator of infinity: that is something a mathematician should not only be able to sympathize with, but be persuaded that he understands full well. In all likelihood, however, the pamphleteer and the mathematician were speaking at cross purposes, for there is no word more polyvalent, or more frequently misunderstood, than “infinity.” The Hebrew Kabbalistic equivalent, Ein Sof, pointed to the source of all being and nothingness. For Bloy, I am willing to bet, “Infinity” with a capital “I” meant something vague but immense, superhuman, overwhelming, divine. That’s the way the term is meant, most often, by mystic, baroque or romantic souls; and even for someone who had studied some math, like the French teacher of Vedanta René Guénon, “infinity” had to mean the totality of all that is—the All—, and on that basis he wrote a book denying the validity of Infinitesimal Calculus, because Calculus’ “infinity” definitely does not stand for the All. For mathematicians, the notion of infinity means primarily that they are always allowed to say, “one more step,” or, “go to the following,” or, “add one.” This is something they can easily do at home, by themselves, without going to church or calling a priest. Bloy did not realize that he was defeating his own purpose, which was to persuade his young mathematician of the evils of Protestantism and of the necessity of the sacraments administered by priests.
“Aha!,” Bloy, or you, rabbinic reader, or the Philosopher himself might object at this point, “But this possibility of always going one step further is merely what we call a ‘potential infinity,’ not the real McCoy, not the ‘actual infinity’ to which Bloy and Guénon were referring.” Wait, I say, for I was coming to that.
Another French Catholic pamphleteer had already taken care of that objection. Pascal, whose name, some twenty years ago, was familiar to kids at least as that of a computer programming language —but no more, alas, no more—; Blaise Pascal who was a great mathematician as well as a first-rate rhetorician, had discovered the difficult, elusive passage from potential to actual infinity in his Traité du triangle arithmétique of 1654. There he had used, although without an explicit formulation, the principle which later, under the name of Complete Induction, was to become the foundation of mathematics. Of that principle the French mathematician Henri Poincaré used to say (in the opening years of the 20th century) that it was the only possible candidate left for a synthetic a-priori judgment in the sense defined by Kant. From that we can judge of its infinite import, without my having to add one more word about the subject. In any case, Pascal, who was not a priest, and who seems, at least in retrospect, closer to Geneva than to Rome, was doubtless the most effective générateur d’Infini who ever lived — and here I mean self-service infinity pumped by unaided reason. How stupid and wrong-headed Paul Valéry could be, we begin to understand when we read the case he made against Pascal, lamenting that he became infatuated with religion and so did not procure for France the glory of the invention of Calculus (which went to Newton’s England and to Leibniz’ Germany).
Get real, Reb, move on. No good dwelling on one page. Keep it in mind, motion is of the essence: if you run no risk, you get no reward. Change means opportunity, and opportunity brings profits, riches, well-being and, last but not least, fun. We need dynamic leaders, not navel gazers, no goddam free-loaders. Make room for life, old man: progress must go on, and the war too. I mean, of course, the war against evil, poverty, natural disasters, diseases and human suffering: I mean the good war. Here, Reb, I will set your beard on fire. Sieg heil!
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