Wednesday, January 30, 2008

`A Witch's Ride'

At age 14, the first fiction writer I consciously imitated was Bernard Malamud. I had just read The Fixer (1966) and brazenly named one of my protagonists Yakov Bok after the novel’s title character. A friend who read my story after reading Malamud’s bestselling novel made fun of the pointless plagiarism. There was plenty more to make fun of. I was a goyische teenager in mid-sixties suburban Cleveland writing stories set in a 19th-century Russian shtetl. The memory is embarrassing but I have no regrets. It was through either The Fixer or Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Spinoza of Market Street,” which I first read around the same time, that I first learned of Baruch de Spinoza. Bok’s reading of The Ethics contributes to his moral evolution, his movement from passivity to action. Asked if he read Spinoza because the philosopher was a Jew, Bok answers:

“No, your honor. I didn't know who or what he was when I first came across the book -- they don’t exactly love him in the synagogue, if you've read the story of his life. I found it in a junkyard in a nearby town, paid a kopek, and left cursing myself for wasting money hard to come by. Later I read through a few pages and kept on going as though there were a whirlwind at my back. As I say, I didn't understand every word but when you're dealing with such ideas you feel as though you were taking a witch's ride. After that I wasn't the same man. That's in a manner of speaking, of course, because I've changed little since my youth.”

Bok starts out isolated but reminds himself Spinoza “was out to make a free man out of himself…by thinking things through and connecting everything up.” Today, I prefer The Assistant (1957) and Malamud’s stories to The Fixer, but I thought about it when I read a poem by Willis Barnstone, “Spinoza in the Dutch Ghetto,” in his collection Life Watch:

“Smoking his pipe he takes a beer with friends
at a close eating place, or back at home
and shop he grinds the glass to make his end
meet needs. Lean life. Then drops down to a dome
of Latin thought and pen. Why ask for more?
He trades his work with Leibnitz who is keen
as calculus to open every door
and wheel him into Germany to teach
and make him known. The lens grinder has seen
that greater world only in spheres that reach
the end of mind, and all mind plus all sphere
is God for him, a take that by itself
could set his life on fire. Baruch is not
a scrapper but all peace, all sky, no fear.
A Spanish Jew safe on his Lowlands shelf,
a bird on the North Sea, floating in thought.”

Spinoza too often is portrayed as bodiless, abstracted into pure mind, so I like the idea of him smoking a pipe and drinking beer with friends. I take “make his end” to be a play on words, for the glass dust from lens-grinding probably contributed to his death at age 44. In his note to “Spinoza in the Dutch Ghetto,” Barstone writes:

“Though close to mathematical Descartes whom he translated, he does not split mind and body which for him are distinct qualities of a single substance he calls God or nature. God is nature in its fullness, suggesting, perhaps by coincidence, the gnostic pleroma (fullness) that represents the gnostic deity.”

Books, like the Internet, are a limitless landscape of links. To add two more to the chain, here are sonnets about Spinoza written by Jorge Luis Borges and translated by Barnstone. First, “Baruch Spinoza”:

“A haze of gold, the Occident lights up
The window. Now, the assiduous manuscript
Is waiting, weighed down with the infinite.
Someone is building God in a dark cup.
A man engenders God. He is a Jew.
With saddened eyes and lemon-colored skin;
Time carries him the way a leaf, dropped in
A river, is borne off by waters to
Its end. No matter. The magician moved
Carves out his God with fine geometry;
From his disease, from nothing, he's begun
To construct God, using the word. No one
Is granted such prodigious love as he:
The love that has no hope of being loved.”

And “Spinoza”:

“Here in the twilight the translucent hands
Of the Jew polishing the crystal glass.
The dying afternoon is cold with bands
Of fear. Each day the afternoons all pass
The same. The hands and space of hyacinth
Paling in the confines of the ghetto walls
Barely exists for the quiet man who stalls
There, dreaming up a brilliant labyrinth.
Fame doesn’t trouble him (that reflection of
Dreams in the dream of another mirror), nor love,
The timid love women. Gone the bars,
He’s free, from metaphor and myth, to sit
Polishing a stubborn lens: the infinite
Map of the One who now is all His Stars.”

ADDENDUM: Buce at Underbelly responds to this post:

“I'm a few years older than you, but I suspect I read The Fixer on the same day--I was down with the flu, sprawled out on the faux-leather couch. It's one of those things I started & thought--oh man, I am not going to enjoy this--but could not let go. The passage about how he came to Spinoza is one that I pretty much committed to memory without trying, because it was there.

“Agreed about the stories. It's partly via Malamud that I came to the view that the most satisfying stories are not the solos but those that come together as a kind of mosaic. Malamud is one of the best examples; Mavis Gallant is another. Faulkner kinda, although with Faulkner even the novels are part of a mosaic. Chekov I suppose except he is so universal he becomes a mosaic of everything."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Notwithstanding Philip Davis's excellent recent Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life (, I wonder why it is that Malamud is just so ignored these days?