Thursday, October 13, 2011

New Year, End Times

The new year seemed as good a time as any to start this blog, and the sermon I gave during Kol Nidre services at Congregation Or Chadash seemed as good a first post as any, since it addresses an issue that has been nagging at me lately. I realize this is lengthy for a blog post, but don't worry -- I won't usually go on for this long! As a sermon, this was written for a specific audience, in this case a community of fabulous, caring, intellectually-inclined, mostly LGBTQ Jews, so please bear that in mind when you run into any use of the 1st person plural.
One evening, Rabbi Israel Salanter passed a tailor still stitching despite the darkened sky, by the light of one candle. When the rabbi asked the man why, the tailor replied, “So long as the candle still burns, it is still possible to do and to mend.” Rabbi Salanter did not sleep himself that night, but paced the floor in a fever of excitement, muttering to himself, “So long as the candle still burns, it is still possible to do and to mend!”
I was reminded of this story when, after novelist David Foster Wallace lost his long battle with depression, a New Yorker article reprinted a point Wallace had made about 10 years earlier:
Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. (
This quote provided me with my own Salanteresque response, in which I walked around repeating to myself, “these may be dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?” The New Yorker article claimed that this problem drove Wallace as he worked on The Pale King, the novel left unfinished by his suicide, but it matters for anyone trying to “apply CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical, that still live and glow despite the time’s darkness.” How does one see this dark and stupid world in all honesty and clarity but still identify, even act upon, the possibilities for being alive and human in it? 
Gary Shteyngart could have had Wallace’s definition in mind when he wrote Super Sad True Love Story, a satire which imagines the collapse our dark and stupid ways will bring upon us, although its dystopic vision might be too total to illuminate what still glimmers in the darkness. In the novel’s disconcertingly not-too-distant future, conversation has been largely drowned out by the constant stream of data coming over the “äpparäts” people wear around their necks. When people do “verbal” each other, they fend off the embarrassment of “emoting” with glibness and reflexive irony, peppering sentences with acronyms like “JBF” or flat “hahas.” Written communication fares no better: at every National Guard checkpoint, you will find misspelled signs advising you that merely reading the sign means that you have consented to deny that it exists. Our unfashionably bookish hero, Larry Abramov, uses a ruler to help him keep his place as he pores over the pages of obsolete “printed objects,” his lips moving to form each word. Larry manages to find moments where he can connect with others, if imperfectly, in this crass, violent, and soul-deadening world, but there is no stopping or escaping from its bloated sickness.
I can appreciate the fact that Shteyngart wouldn’t pull any punches: he pummeled his target the way he thought it deserved. Even as I found myself deeply affected by the novel, however, I wondered if, in giving his cynicism such free reign, he wasn’t actually engaging in the same sort of hip distancing his novel decries. In the 19th century, for example, William Morris claimed that he lived his entire life in opposition to modernity; his novel Erehwon was part of that effort, imagining a utopia that corrected all of the wrongs he found in his society and culture. I doubt a utopic novel like Morris’s would get the same critical appreciation today that Shteyngart’s dystopic one did: such an effort would likely be dismissed as sentimental, unserious, or naïve.
Our current moment is beset by dystopic visions: from every point on the ideological spectrum, people seem to be convinced that we have or are coming to the end of something, and whatever comes next won’t be good. Even Christians who embrace rapture theology indulge in lurid fantasies about what will happen to those “left behind” (as the series with that title puts it) more than they seem to look forward to “ten thousand years” of “bright shining like the sun” with the composer of “Amazing Grace.” But eschatology, the belief that history leads toward some end, doesn’t have to breed morbidity and pessimism. Indeed, the Book of Isaiah contains utopic images that have resonated down the centuries:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare. (Isaiah 2:4)
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
These days, we can imagine the end but not the new beginning; we are fascinated by the tropes of end times because they provide a way to talk about how lost and stuck and hopeless we feel.
So where do we go from here? What do we do, beyond rail against the dark and stupid times in which we live? How do we approach a new year if we are indeed living during some sort of end, or at least a time when it is very hard to have faith in beginnings?
One clue might be found in Dara Horn’s novel, All Other Nights. After two novels which built bridges between the violent erasures of the Holocaust and the quiet uncertainty of the present day, Horn turned to the Civil War, that nexus of American mythology so beloved by reenacters and romantics, and Judaized it, focusing on real and fictional American Jews who were pivotal in the conflict, and also weaving together Jewish and American symbols and themes in her presentation of the period. The war disintegrates the lives and selves of the novel’s main characters. Even Richmond consumes itself in a great conflagration. For the old Jewish men fleeing the city, however, the disaster is just another chapter in a longer story. As the novel puts it, “They had seen the world end so many times before.” The lesson for the younger characters and civilization is that we are rarely masters of our fate and circumstances, and in such a world sometimes the only recourse is to gather one’s remnant and live on as best as one can.
The last few centuries have shown us that secular eschatology, with its dreams of inevitable progress and human perfectibility, has its limits. When these dreams were made manifest in the world, they wrought changes which, alongside their benefits, have had a human cost, as well as an environmental one: from the Gilded Age to our own, industrialized and now globalized progress has consumed human and material resources as well as produced them. These dreams also ignored the intractability of greed, bloodlust, and other elements of human behavior we like to pretend have no place in civilized society, but which we cannot seem to eradicate with rational analysis or notions of social contracts.
In dark and stupid times such as these, perhaps we can only pick up and carry on, knowing the world will end again and again, but that it will also continue after each ending, so long as we are here to persist. In other words, we should combine an understanding that the worst can happen with a faith that things might be made better, or at least bearable, recalling Hillel’s advice that when everyone around you ceases to be human, you should struggle to remain a human being. To desist from the work does not make us or the world any better off. Because if we now know that human nature is not perfectible, that the human appetite for destruction and power will never go away, we know too, or should recognize, that the human desire to create and to nurture will also never go away. If the light will never completely banish the darkness, so too will the darkness never completely extinguish the light. These may be dark times, and stupid ones, but so long as the candle still burns, it is still possible to do and to mend. What other, better choice do we have? Surrender ensures that culture and society will sink under the weight of the ugliness of which human beings are capable.
A story in the Talmud teaches that The Messiah is already present, and we are the ones who must come to understand how to recognize and heed him. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once encountered the prophet Elijah, and asked him, “When will the Messiah come?”
“Go and ask him,” Elijah replied. “You will find him at the entrance to the city, sitting among the poor lepers: the rest of them untie their bandages all at once, and rebandage them together, but he unties and then rebandages each of his sores separately, thinking, should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.”
So Rabbi Joshua went to the Messiah and greeted him, and asked, “When will you come, Master?”
“Today,” the Messiah answered.
Rabbi Joshua later returned to Elijah and said, “The Messiah spoke falsely to me: he said that he would come today, but he has not.” Elijah answered, “This is what he said to you: Today, if you will hear his voice.” (adapted from Talmud Sanhedrin 98a)
Though he may tarry, I cannot help but believe, albeit with an imperfect faith, in the promise implicit in the coming of the Messiah. If not now, then someday – I hope, I pray, someday – and until then, without knowing when, I can only continue the work while the candle still burns.

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