Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Two lives of tradition

Reading in shul on Saturday instead of listening to the Torah, I came upon this passage in Gershom Scholem:

There is also a life of tradition that does not merely consist of the conservative preservation, the constant continuation of the spiritual and cultural possessions of a community. That, too, certainly is tradition, and education in large part depends on it. But tradition is something else as well. There are domains of it that are hidden under the debris of centuries and lie there waiting to be discovered and turned to good use. There is such a thing as renewed contact with what has been forgotten or has not yet come to the fore. There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to which much of what is best in current Jewish self-awareness is indebted, even where it was—and is—accomplished outside the framework of orthodoxy.[1]It is a measure of how bad a Jew I am that I immediately thought of the literary tradition. Not that I was reading in shul. That’s SOP, even among some rabbis. “How did the writer think of anything but writing?” Wright Morris asked in his autobiography. Or the literary critic anything but literature? Just not in shul.

At all events, I have been making a nuisance of myself lately by arguing that novelists who spend a lifetime in writers’ workshops have narrow experience and knowledge, and it shows in their fiction. I am not against creative writing, as I keep protesting, but only the narrowness.

Scholem suggests how writers’ experience and knowledge might be broadened, without going on safari or to war. They might make contact with what has been forgotten or has not yet come to the fore. They might go on a treasure hunt within the literary tradition, searching for things that were written by someone other than their teachers or peers, things that are more than ten minutes old, things that approach the problem of bringing coherence out of personal confusion in a way that is unheard of, because nobody has read the things or set about trying to recreate a living relationship with them for long decades.

When Scholem spoke of tradition as a domain that is “hidden under the debris of centuries,” lying there “waiting to be discovered and turned to good use,” he was probably thinking of the geniza in Cairo’s Ezra Synagogue, a hiding place for documents that could not be destroyed because they contained the name of God, which was discovered in 1896. Hillel Halkin describes it well:The Cairo Geniza proved to be one of the greatest archival finds in the annals of historical research. Since almost any medieval Jewish document might begin with an invocation of God’s blessing, there was nothing a geniza could not hold. Squirreled away and forgotten for hundreds of years in the Ezra Synagogue were books of which no one had known; known books of which no copies had survived; the lost works of Jewish poets and philosophers; reams of rabbinical responsa; sacred texts and prayers with unfamiliar passages or variant readings; community records and protocols; files of personal correspondences; entire libraries of commercial documents—contracts, legal briefs, orders for merchandise, receipts for payment, bills of lading and of credit, statements of loans and investments, IOU’s, partnership agreements, the letters and replies of far-flung merchants; notes, memoranda, lists, ledgers, title deeds, and account books.[2]The Cairo Geniza changed forever how Jewish history was written, how the Jewish experience was understood. What is not widely appreciated, at least not in the Republic of Letters, is that the Internet has become a worldwide geniza. Many and huge archives, previously open only to specialists, and under practical constraints, have been made freely available. The potentiality if not the effect is the democratization of scholarship.

But it might also foment a revolution in contemporary literature. What if young fiction writers were to learn something about their art and craft, not from the latest shortlist for the National Book Award, but from, say, forgotten Renaissance texts, including character books, hunting guides, dancing manuals, religious tracts, political pamphlets, travelogues, and advice to women? Stanley G. Crawford is one writer who has plundered the literary past for solutions to the problem of writing a novel, but perhaps the obscurity of his quirky and brilliant Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine (1972) and Some Instructions to My Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage and to My Son and Daughter Concerning the Conduct of their Childhood (1978) has discouraged other writers from trying anything similiar.

That’s a shame. The rediscovery of a living tradition, although it might require some research, which is against the religion of creative writing, might deepen and improve contemporary literature, if only by sending a few intrepid writers off in a different direction from the literary pack.

Update: Rabbi Mark Glickman, whose book about the Cairo Geniza will be released by Jewish Lights later this month, wonders in a private message (which he has given permission to quote) whether “the mountains of information now available online [are] more like the historical Genizah–messy, disorganized, and inaccessible–or are they more like a modern archive?” Only now, he points out—now that “the manuscripts are stored in climate-controlled, secure libraries”—are the contents of the Geniza fully available to scholars. But even now, over a century since it was discovered, the Geniza has never be comprehensively catalogued. Rabbi Glickman is of the opinion that the immeasurable size of the Internet, then, “makes it far more like an old genizah than an archive, which is part of what makes exploring it so much fun.”

An excellent point, nicely put. Which means that the “treasure hunt within tradition,” the rummaging around in literature’s attic, is more of an adventure than days spent in the cross-referenced and neatly arranged stacks.

[1] Gershom Scholem, “Israel and the Diaspora” (1970), trans. Walter J. Dannhauser, in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (New York: Schocken, 1976), pp. 253–54. Originally delivered as a lecture in Geneva in May 1969.

[2] Hillel Halkin, Yehuda Halevi, Jewish Encounters (New York: Schocken, 2010), p. 72.


A. J. said...

I think that recovering tradition is a form of pushing back against cultural and literary imperialism.

Miriam said...

I've got Crawford's Some Instructions... sitting on a bookshelf--I really should get around to it. Maybe next week, while I'm watching students take midterm exams.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

The Friedberg Genizah Project is effecting the description and imaging of the entirety of the Ben Ezra Synagogue Genizah. It's an amazing project.