Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Wrestling with Angels

Jacob wrestling with the angel - Gustave Doré (1855)

European Art and Literature are filled with variations on the theme of the Crucifixion, from depictions of the supposedly historical event to unequivocal fictions that are modeled on it. Similarly the Oedipus legend, key to the development of modern psychology; the Lear and Hamlet myths, the latter perhaps a replacement for the Crucifixion as the ultimate symbol of the modern European consciousness; and of course the archetypal teenage myth, the Romeo and Juliet tales, anagrammed into countless soap operas, romantic fictions, Hollywood B-movies.

My own books, without exception, incorporate (I think that is the precise word that I mean) the tale of Jacob wrestling with his alter-ego at Penuel (I prefer Ya'akov and Penu-El, but will go with the traditional English names for the purpose of this essay), and I have long been surprised that other authors have not felt similarly inclined to parse the tale as a synonym of their own inner struggle (the word translates, I believe positively though there are negative connotations, as jihad in Moslem Arabic; and as kampf, rather more unfortunately, in Nazi German, though post-Nazi Germany has been working hard to deal with this). Yes, after writing and reflecting, I definitely did mean "incorporate".

Jacob's "Jewish Jihad" seems to me a much more potently realistic symbol than any of the others: the flawed but still resolute human being, wrestling not with the demon or the daemon or even with the angel inside himself, but simply with his inner self, which is all and none of those, a man sufficiently experienced in cheating - he is, if I may counterfeit a phrase, a man as much cheated against in life as cheating - to know how to manage it, to sustain the struggle until the victory of stalemate is finally achieved (oh yes, in this particular struggle, stalemate is indeed a victory). 

I have often wondered why Samuel Beckett never used the tale; it sums up the Beckettian view of life to perfection ("Try. Fail. Try Again. Fail Better"). Bartleby, of course, would simply have preferred not to take part in such a wrestling-match at all - Hamlet's position too, until circumstance reluctantly propelled him. Camus' Sisyphus would have resigned, rolling his rock along the heath that leads up to the mountaintop, while declaring himself a happy fool for doing so.

Strange, but I can honestly think of no book in the English language for which this extraordinary epic-saga provides the symbolic storyboard, not even among the dialects of English such as American (what, not Arthur Miller, not Faulkner, not Chaim Potok?) or Canadian (not even Bellow?) or South African (I am amazed that J.M. Coetzee in particular never used it) or Indian (Naipaul? Narayan? it would be obvious in both of them); not even in the source-dialects, in Dutch, or German.

So I was delighted when at last I found another author who had done the same, and not at all surprised to find he was a Jew from Poland, very much the Padan Aram of the Ashkenazi world, and very much the era of the kampf.

In the chapter "Dead Season", in Bruno Schulz's "Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass" (Mariner Books, 1997, first published in 1937), we are introduced to a mysterious and enigmatic "distinguished visitor""a powerful demon" – which drops the hint, but willfully the wrong hint; we are now expecting another of the great European symbols, something Faustian – with whom the narrator's father engages in a long and difficult negotiation until

"at about two o’clock in the morning… we looked anxiously into the faces of both men to discern who had won the battle."

The two men "plunged into the black waters of the night", "crossed that black infinity", and then, what in D.H. Lawrence would be mistaken for repressed homosexuality but here is pure Biblical metaphor:

"at some late hour of the night, they found their bodies again on two narrow beds, floating on high mountains of bedding… at some still more distant mile of sleep… they felt that, lying in each other's arms, they were still fighting a difficult, unconscious duel. They were panting face to face in sterile effort. The black-bearded man lay on top of my father like the angel on top of Jacob. My father pressed against him with all the strength of his knees and, stiffly floating away into numbness, stole another short spell of fortifying sleep between one round of wrestling and another. So they fought. What for? For their good name? For God? For a contract? They grappled in mortal sweat, to their last ounce of strength, while the waves of sleep carried them away into ever more distant and stranger areas of the night."

And then, quite wonderfully, the next chapter begins: 

"The next day my father walked with a slight limp. His face was radiant."

And precisely at dawn, the last moment at which the night-spirit of Penu-El (it's hard for me, but ok, let's agree to compromise on Peniel, the Bible's other version) is permitted to be in the living world, he gets, as if by inspiration, the answer to the problem that has been worrying him. The black-bearded man "left before daybreak". And of course, "That was the last night of the dead season. From that summer night onward seven long years of prosperity began…"

Every ounce of text and myth has been squeezed out, squeezed in. And of course the narrator is named Joseph, and of course the entire book is the anthology of this latter's dreams. I wonder if, now that I have been alerted to the methodology, a second reading will illuminate further Bible tales, and if others have already noticed them?

Given that all this was written in the 1930s, there are some remarkable precursors of magical realism in the writing too: the snoring in chapter one of the eponymous tale, for example: 

"His breathing extracted layers of snoring from the depths of his breast. The whole room seemed to be lined with snores from floor to ceiling, and yet new layers were being added all the time… I slowly undressed and climbed onto Father’s bed. He did not wake up, but his snoring, having probably been pitched too high, fell an octave lower, forsaking its high declamatory tone. It became, as it were, more private, for his own use…"

Or the museum, in "A Second Fall", which provides the explanation for seasonal adjustments in the weather:

"which is nothing other than the result of our climate having been poisoned by the miasmas caused by degenerate specimens of Baroque Art… that museum art, rotting in boredom and oblivion and shut in without an outlet, ferments like old preserves, oversugars our climate, and is the cause of this beautiful malarial fever, this extraordinary delirium, to which our prolonged fall is so agonisingly prone."

A more enjoyable explanation of the current state of Planet Earth than global warming, though I can easily imagine renaming that potential cataclysm as "the caramel effect". The translation of course only works in American English, where Keatsian English would insist on "Autumn", but "Autumn" would completely drown the Biblical word-play of "A Second Fall".

But this is magical realism in the tradition of Alice, not Arcadio Buendia, used to generate a psychological rather than a cultural atmosphere. Freud would have loved the mirror in the title piece: 

"I stood in front of the mirror to fix my tie, but the surface was like bottle glass: it secreted my reflection somewhere in its depth, and only an opaque blur was visible. I tried in vain to adjust the distance – approaching the mirror, then retreating from it – but no reflection would emerge from the silvery, fluid mist. I must ask for another looking glass, I thought, and left the room."

After the first production of "Waiting For Godot", in London in 1955, the director Peter Hall made the observation that "cinema is simile", but that "theatre is once again metaphor". It seems to me that, after a century of naturalism and realism in the novel, works like this by Schulz achieve the identical restoration.

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