Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thin Line between Visionary and Delusional in Jewish Literature and History

I saw the new Woody Allen film, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, last week and noticed the reoccurrence of a theme I've been noticing: what one might view as delusional behavior, another could view as visionary or genius. The characters in the film that end up being the happiest are the two that to conventional eyes, seem the most delusional: the widow and widower who believe wholeheartedly in fortune-telling and reincarnation.

I just read the fabulous new novel by Joseph Skibell, A Curable Romantic, and throughout its 600 pages one sees this same trope--there is a very thin line between delusion and genius. A Curable Romantic has three sections, or Books, and in each, there is a visionary real-life, historical character, first Freud, then Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, and then the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. Great, creative movements are spearheaded by these men who are powered by visions of a new way of doing things, of living life contrary to how it has been lived before. One might have called these luftmensches mad, but perhaps the only thing that separates genius from madness or being a fool/shlemiel is whether the man behind them finds some measure of success.

Here is an excerpt from the end of my review of A Curable Romantic: "Yet though Sammelsohn [the hero, a shlemiel, of the novel) has experienced the worst of all tragedies that have befallen Jews, by the end, he does not remain trapped by others’ restrictions. Throughout the novel there has been a tension between the dreamers, the shlemiels and luftmensches whose visions of utopias and belief in Jewish mysticism conflicts with the dry realism of science (the successful Freud) and business (Herr Bernfeld), of wealthy men of commerce. At one point, Herr Bernfeld, a wealthy businessman who thinks Sammelsohn is not worthy of his daughter, tells him, “Every person is idealistic in his youth. . .just as everyone in his infancy cannot control his bowels.” When Sammelsohn earlier has a moment of doubt about Esperanto conquering the world, he wonders, “was my father right to turn his back on the world, seeing it for what it was: irredeemably violent, venal, base?” There is a counterpoint set up between men who see the world as it is and men who dare to dream of another world.

In the end, the approach of the dreamer, who does not turn his back on the world, wins out. Sammelsohn escapes Warsaw, telling the reader: “I’d had my fill of myths and dreams. I was walking into a realer world. . .I was heading towards Palestine, towards the Promised Land, and it was only there, I knew, that a man could live as a Jew, and a Jew could live in peace.” We know that what awaits Sammelsohn (despite his certitude) is not certain peace. (Hopefully, Israel will not be the impossible dream that was Candide’s Eldorado). And yet we are not meant to scoff at him and what’s left of his tempered idealism: It’s optimism, hope, call it delusion or vision, that is intrinsic to shlemiels and to survivors, and it’s what made the establishment of Israel, our history and our future, possible."

We can see this trope in our Jewish past: witness the illustrious Rashi, who set out boldly in the 11th century to write the first commentary on every single word of the Babylonian Talmud, the commentary that we still use today. Surely many thought this massive undertaking was crazy, mad, but only one who can ignore the naysayers around him can succeed on such a large scale (and this ability to ignore those around you, to only listen to one's own dreams and visions, can be seen by the outside world as some kind of madness). And witness Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz''s monumental new translation of and commentary on the entire Talmud.