Thursday, May 7, 2009

What made me supplement the endless series of symbols with one more? - Borges and the creative golem, Peretz and the destructive golem

The golem, it really is everywhere. I certainly did not expect it to see its clayey head pop up in Abdourahman A. Waberi's In the United States of Africa (2006), a short, clever alternate history by a novelist from Djibouti, the premise of which is in the title. The progtagonist is a sculptor; sculpture imitates divine creation, see Golem, Legend of - that's the link.

Jorge Luis Borges follows the same thread in his poem "The Golem" (1964), except he's interested in writing, not sculpture:

"Thirsty to know things only known to God,
Judah Léon shuffled letters endlessly,
trying them out in subtle combinations
till at last he uttered the Name that is the Key"*

The resulting golem is a pathetic everyman, mute and uncanny, it's eyes "less human than doglike." It scares the rabbi's cat. Borges admits that he has no textual authority for the cat, "but across the gulf of time I make one out."

This sounds like a parable about creation, the writer's (and in the end, God's) ongoing failure to get things right:

"What made me supplement the endless series
of symbols with one more? Why add in vain
to the knotty skein always unraveling
another cause and effect, with not one gain?"

Sort of an unpleasant question.

I. L. Peretz's tiny story "The Golem" (1893), barely a page, is about destruction, not creation. "Great men were once able to perform great miracles," it begins. No more. Rabbi Loew creates the golem to save the Jews of Prague, and it goes to work:

"Prague filled with corpses. They say it went on like this right through Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, with the clock striking noon, the golem was still intent on its labors."

The Rabbi, a pious man, has in the mean time been studying. His congregation finally requests that he stop the golem's slaughter, because "[s]oon there won't be any Gentiles left to heat the Sabbath ovens or to take down the Sabbath lamps." That's signature Peretz irony, as is the sterile end, where the Rabbi's grandson, long after the golem's deanimation, "still deliberates whether it is proper to include such a golem in a minyan or in a company for the saying of grace."

I mentioned that this story is only a page long, right? One of Peretz's modes is to add layer after layer of meaning to seemingly simple stories. His golem is stored in The I. L. Peretz Reader, a great, great book, which I have not yet written about, probably because it is difficult and slippery.

* The Borges poem is from Selected Poems, pp.192-7. In this stanza, "only," "endlessly," and "trying them out" are inventions of the translator; not a hint of them in the Spanish. Here's a vers libre alternative by blogger James Honzik.

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