Friday, November 13, 2009

Call It Sleep

Henry Roth’s classic 1934 novel Call It Sleep belongs as much to Jewish as to American literature. Although it dips liberally into modernist streams, it is not primarily a modernist text. Its next-to-last chapter, in which David Schearl “fools around” with the streetcar tracks and is knocked unconscious while his thoughts churn and a chorus jabbers, is routinely compared to the Nighttown episode of Ulysses, though it is probably closer to the pastiche method of U.S.A. The novel’s most striking innovation is its handling of Jewish bilingualism, which places Roth more comfortably in the company of Sholem Aleichem and S. Y. Agnon than Joyce and Dos Passos. And even though Walter Rideout enshrined it among his other examples of The Radical Novel in the United States, calling it “the most distinguished single proletarian novel,” Call It Sleep is not really anything like that either. David Schearl’s father is a member of the working class, first a printer and then a milkman, but his troubles on the job are caused entirely by his own psychological demons and not by exploitation at the hands of the bosses.

Roth is “mostly content with an implied criticism of capitalist society,” Rideout concedes.[1] And it is true that that Roth’s disdain for traditional halakhic Judaism has a quasi-Marxist clang to it. But Roth’s Marxism was never much more than quasi. His lack of political commitment left him unable to finish his next novel, about a one-armed Marxist labor organizer, and he did not write another for six decades. (I am among those who wish he had stopped himself from writing another.) His biography was more indebted to Jewish experience than to politics. His life fell into the basic pattern of the European maskilim, who were “weary and exhausted from studying the Talmud” and devoured secular enlight­en­ment “like the fruits of summer.” His too was the journey out from the Jewish religion to “something new that is rational.”[2] But his young protagonist’s progress is a reversal of the pattern, the rediscovery of a motif that reaches farther back into Jewish literature. David Schearl sets out on a religious search, compelled by a deep unsatisfied spiritual longing.

Several years ago, a literary scholar suggested that Roth’s David is a “hero-messiah” or “prophet-messiah” in quest of “God’s light.”[3] This is suggestive, but inexact. Far more accurate to call David what his mother calls him: the beloved only son. This is a figure who is more common in Jewish literature than the messiah. The book of Genesis might even be described as a genealogy of beloved sons from Isaac to Jacob to Joseph; God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son (yaḥid), whom he loves (Gen 22.2), fixes the image for all time; and indeed, the biblical David is a beloved son before he is anointed the second king of Israel, making him the meshiaḥ (the “anointed one”). The Jews have long understood their special relationship to God in these terms, since Israel itself is called the first-born son of God (Exod 4.22). According to the great biblical scholar Jon Levenson, the career of the yaḥid falls into a recurrent pattern, and gives shape to much of the Hebrew bible: “The story of the humiliation and exaltation of the beloved son reverberates throughout the Bible because it is the story of the people about whom and to whom it is told. It is the story of Israel the beloved son, the first-born of God.”[4]

Consider the scene in which Albert Schearl beats his son with a wooden clothes hanger, which “flayed his wrists, his hands, his back, his breast.” Genya hears his cries, and rushes in, flinging herself between them:

     “With that!” she screamed hoarsely, trying to snatch the clothes hanger from him. “With that to strike a child. Woe to you! Heart of stone! How could you!”
     “I haven’t struck him before!” The voice was strangled. “What I did he deserved! You’ve been protecting him from me long enough! It’s been coming to him for a long time!”
     “Your only son!” she wailed, pressing David convulsively to her. “Your only son!”
     “Don’t tell me that! I don’t want to hear it! He’s no son of mine! Would he were dead at my feet!”
     “Oh, David, David beloved!” In her anguish over her child, she seemed to forget everyone else, even her husband. “What has he done to you! Hush! Hush!” She brushed his tears away, sat down and rock him back and forth. “Hush, my beloved! My beautiful! Oh, look at his hand!”[5]
The binding of Isaac is reenacted as the beating of David. However, Albert is not acting upon God’s command. He flays his only son because he suspects that David is not really his son at all. He has heard the rumors that David may be the illegitimate offspring of Genya’s love affair with a Polish organist, with whom she dallied before she ever met Albert. David may be Ishmael rather than Isaac: not a beloved son at all, but a bękart (Polish, “bastard”).

The suspicions are groundless. Genya met Albert six months after breaking off the affair—and if she had been pregnant with another man’s child, she would not have been able to conceal her swelling from him. Nevertheless, questions about David’s paternity hang over the novel like a threat of violence. When asked his son’s age, Albert invariably adds a year—to magnify his misgivings. At the age of seven, David is enrolled in ḥeder, the one-room school in which Jewish boys are taught to read Hebrew by rote. He is responsive to his very first lesson:For awhile, David listened intently to the sound of the words. It was Hebrew, he knew, the same mysterious language his mother used before the candles, the same his father used when he read from a book during the holidays—and that time before drinking wine. Not Yiddish, Hebrew. God’s tongue, the rabbi said. If you knew it, then you could talk to God. Who was He? He would learn about Him now—    (p. 213).But the purpose of ḥeder is to introduce Jewish boys to Hebrew recitation—not to God. David quickly learns to “read Hebrew as fast as anyone,” although after two months he still does not understand what he reads. Even so, life at home levels out miraculously after he enters ḥeder, “and this he attributed to his increasing nearness to God” (p. 221). Not even the primitive methods of Eastern European rote learning can sour his spiritual hunger.

When he is finally introduced to the translation of the bible, David dislikes it (“And Moses said you mustn’t, and then you read some more abababa and then you say, mustn’t eat in the traife butcher store”), but when Rabbi Penkower breaks from lessons to tell the story of Isaiah 6, he is enthralled:“But when Isaiah saw the Almighty in His majesty and His terrible light—Woe me! he cried, What shall I do! I am lost!” The rabbi seized his skull-cap and crumpled it. “I, common man, have seen the Almighty, I, unclean one have seen him! Behold, my lips are unclean and I live in a land unclean—for the Jews at that time were sinful—”    (p. 227)David is convinced that he too has unclean lips, because he has said “dirty words” like “Shit, pee, fuckenbestit.” (Call It Sleep is one of the first American novels, by the way, openly to use such “dirty words.” The New York Times complained that it is “doggedly smeared with verbal filthiness.” Maybe David is right, then!) He goes in search of the “terrible light” that will cleanse his lips.

A mystical experience by the East River, where a “long slim lath of sunlight burned silver on the water” and David’s “spirit yielded, melted into the light”—the experience of merger with God known to kabbalists as devekut—leads to an even greater discovery. Three Irish boys, to whom David denies being a Jew to avoid getting his “lumps,” drag him to Tenth Street, where the streetcar tracks end at the docks, to show him “some magic.” Acting upon their instructions, he inserts a thin sword of zinc sheet-metal into the crack between the street and the rail:     Power!
     Like a paw ripping through all the stable fibres of the earth, power, gigantic, fetterless, thudded into day! And light, unleashed, terrific light bellowed out of iron lips. The street quaked and roared, and like a tortured thing, the sheet zinc sword, leapt writhing, fell back, consumed with radiance. Blinded, stunned by the brunt of brilliance, David staggered back. A moment later, he was spurting madly toward Avenue D. (p. 253)
What he has done, of course, is to bring the zinc sword into contact with the underground conductor that supplies electrical power to the streetcars. Frightened and thrilled, David runs straight for the ḥeder, eager to tell Rabbi Penkower that he has witnessed God’s light. Finding the school closed, he breaks in through a window. The rabbi is furious when he finds David there, and accuses him of crawling in to steal the silver pointers used in Torah reading. “The book!” David stammers. “I came for the book!” He tries to explain that he wants to read the biblical story of Isaiah again, because he has seen a light “like Isaiah.” “Where?” the rabbi asks. “Where the car-tracks run I saw it,” David says. “On Tenth Street.” The rabbi starts laughing. “Fool,” he gasps at length. “Go beat your head on a wall. God’s light is not between car-tracks.” David falls silent: “The rabbi didn’t know as he knew what the light was, what it meant, what it had done to him. But he would reveal no more” (p. 257).

Still, he is the rabbi’s prize pupil—“a crown in among rubbish.” Several weeks later, Penkower has him recite from Isaiah for a school inspector. He starts to read in a droning voice, but then recognizes the book from its binding. The rabbi mistakenly thinks that David can understand the text:“Beshnas mos hamelech Uzuyahu vaereh es adonoi yoshaiv al kesai rom venesaw vehulav melayim es hahayhel Serafim omdim memal lo.” Not as a drone this time, like syllables pulled from a drab and tedious reel, but again as it was at first, a chant, a hymn, as though a soaring presence behind the words pulsed and stressed a meaning. A cadence like a flock of pigeons, vast, heaven-filling, swept and wheeled, glittered, darkened, kindled again, like wind over prairies. “Shaish kenawfayim shash kenawfayim leahod. Beshtyim yehase fanav uveshtayim.” The words, forms of immense grandeur behind a cloudy screen, overwhelmed him—“Yehase raglov uveshtayim yeofaif—”    (p. 367)The words are the first two verses of Isaiah 6 as they would be pronounced in Ashkenazi Hebrew. The school inspector is impressed: “Blessed is your mother, my son!” he says. At the sound of the word mother, David bursts into tears. How can he explain that his growing distance from Genya, created out of ḥeder and adventures on the New York streets, saddens him? David says instead that his mother is dead and his father was a Christian. “There’s truth in an old jest,” the school inspector says. Rabbi Penkower supplies the punch line: “That a bastard is wise?”

If his bastardy represents his humiliation, David must seek his exaltation—must prove himself to be a yaḥid instead of a bękart, must come into his inheritance as a beloved son—elsewhere. Running away from home to escape his father’s anger, he heads straight for Tenth Street, where he plunges a metal milk dipper into the crack, contacting the underground conductor. The surge of electricity “ripped through the earth and slammed against his body and shackled him where he stood.” Unable to release the dipper, “he writhed without motion in the clutch of a fatal glory,” and is knocked unconscious (p. 419). The power surge is so strong that streetcars on Avenue C are slowed as their lights flicker. Onlookers assume that David has been electrocuted, but he has only been delivered into a prophetic vision:David touched his lips. The soot came off on his hand. Unclean. Screaming, he turned to flee, seized a wagon wheel to climb upon it. There were no spokes—only cogs like a clock-wheel. He screamed again, beat the yellow disk with his fists (p. 427, italics in original)David experiences a confusing jumble of all the images that he has endowed with anagogical significance over the course of the novel. The homely and concrete details of lower-class immigrant life on the Lower East Side become the stuff that prophecies are made of.

Except that David does not see God. What he sees, when he comes to, is his father, “slack-mouthed, finger-clawing, stooped”—that is, visibly distraught—and David feels a “shrill, wild surge of triumph whip within him. . .” (p. 434). The novel ends with a reconciliation of sorts. Albert accepts the blame for what has happened; or at least he comes as close as it is possible for him to accepting the blame. He understands at last that Genya has been protecting their beloved only son from him, and in silent shame he goes for an ointment to treat David’s electrical burns. David hears him go:A vague, remote pity stirred within his breast like a wreathing, raveling smoke, tenuously dispersed within his being, a kind of torpid heart-break he had felt sometimes in winter awakened deep in the night and hearing that dull tread descend the stairs [as Albert went to work]. (p.440)Instead of the familiar progress from halakhah (Jewish law) to haskalah (secular enlightenment), David makes use of religious props to smack up against the reality of modern urban life in “this Golden Land,” the New World. He is not really Americanized; rather, the American scene is Judaized. In the end, David does not find religion, but he gets something almost as good—acceptance at last as his father’s son, as the David he is and could be.

[1] Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), pp. 186–88.

[2] The quoted phrases are from a classic of maskil literature, Moses Leib Lilienblum’s autobiography Hattot Neurim (1876), excerpted in The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, ed. Lucy S. Dawidowicz (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 123.

[3] [August] Lynn Altenbernd, “An American Messiah: Myth in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep,” Modern Fiction Studies 35 (Winter 1989): 673–87.

[4] Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 67.

[5] Henry Roth, Call It Sleep [1934] (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991), pp. 84–85. Subsequent references in parentheses.


Buce said...

Thanks for this. Call it Sleep is one of those novels I haven't dared reread (from c. 40 years ago) because I fear it wouldn't be as good as I remember it. Cf. Jude the Obscure.

Amateur Reader said...

Buce, your greater sophistication and life experience will more than make up for the dimming of your youthful enthusiasm. I swear.

What a book!