Monthly Archives: September 2014

Atonement

Yom Kippur is my favorite day of the year.  Yes, I know, that sounds strange.  A day of complete fasting, a day spent almost entirely in the synagogue, crowded among the unwashed, a day of recounting all of the bad that you’ve done.  Sounds like a blast, right?

But it is also a day of tremendous catharsis and uplift.  The confession allows us — indeed compels us — to be honest with ourselves about who we are and what we have really done, rather than the haze in which most of us live most of the time, allowing ourselves to think only of who we would like to think we are, and to rationalize the bad that we do.  We literally come clean on Yom Kippur, a cleansing that is amplified by the cleansing of the body accomplished by the fast.

The liturgy itself progresses.  The confession is followed by the beautiful and comforting words of G-d, “I have heard and I have pardoned.”  The concluding service ends with a resounding and stirring tekiah gadolah from the Shofar and our recitation of the first verse of the Shema, the world’s first declaration of monotheism.

But there is one important thing Yom Kippur does not achieve, and that is my focus today.  Yom Kippur is about atonement and, we hope, forgiveness. But the atonement that takes place is only for our sins against G-d.  It is explicitly not atonement for the sins that we commit against each other.

I find this to be an extremely powerful lesson.  Why doesn’t Yom Kippur atone for the sins of person to person?  It could, if G-d wanted it to. After all, as the ultimate arbiter, S/He can do anything.  But refraining from absolving us of this category of sins achieves something very important.

What it does, I think, is compel us to re-engage with the humanity of all people.  It is a very human characteristic to overlook this simple fact, especially when we are angry with somebody, or want something from them that they might be unwilling to give, or simply need to use them as a means of making ourselves feel better.  I’m not talking about the manipulative mass dehumanization that occurred prior to and during the Third Reich, or that gave American southerners some comfort in the horrible institution of slavery.  I’m talking about day to day, the way we talk about other people, the way we think about other people.  This is easiest, of course, when they are not in our presence, easiest to overlook our common humanity, easiest to avoid confronting the possibility that we ourselves are not entirely innocent.

In order to achieve atonement for our sins against one another, we must specifically ask.  This requires that we confront them, face to face, in all of our humanity, and humble ourselves by asking forgiveness.  This is an extraordinary way (one which Hume and Smith well understood) to achieve peace and understanding.

And, as we ask forgiveness, so are we to forgive.  As imperfect — that is to say, human — beings, so as we sin, so we understand the sinner, and grant our own forgiveness.  This is reinforced by the words of the Great Absolver, “I have heard and I have pardoned.”  Forgiving is an act of true grace, one that perhaps elevates us even more than seeking forgiveness.

So, as with every Yom Kippur, I will be atoning for my sins against G-d.  But I also will be seeking the forgiveness of those I have wronged and, of course, forgiving those who have wronged me.

Lawrence Mitchell

The Birthday of the World

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Rosh Hashonah begins at sundown, commencing the ten days of awe that conclude with Yom Kippur.  As is always the case this time of year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it all means.

As all Jews know, on Rosh Hashonah it is written.  On Yom Kippur it is sealed.  The Book of Life, that is, determining who will live, who will die, who will prosper, who will suffer, all as laid out in the beautiful prayer, Unetaneh Tokef.  It is written on Rosh Hashonah.  But repentance, prayer, and charity can still result in redemption before the book finally is sealed.

It is a hugely powerful prayer.  And thinking about it calls for me to mind the Torah portion of the week preceding the holiday.  The Children of Israel are assembled at Sinai.  G-d has dictated the Torah to Moses, who has transcribed it.  And G-d addresses Israel for the last time.  ‘I have set before you this day, life and death, good and evil.  Choose life, that you may live.”

Choose life.  Those are, more or less, His last words to us.  And the injunction to choose life is, perhaps more than anything except our declaration of monotheism, the watchword of Judaism.  Choose life.  At least one interpretation of this commandment is of course the choice of Torah, the choice of the law.  For to choose the law, to choose good, is to choose life.

But the importance of life is so central to Judaism that it clearly means more.  Indeed almost any commandment, no matter how serious, even the study of Torah, can be broken in order to save a life.  So what does it mean to choose life?  And who does the choosing?

First, who chooses?  Judgment, obviously, is quite individual.  Each of us is — or is not — inscribed.  But an interesting dimension of the High Holiday liturgy is that it is almost entirely collective.  Aveinu Malkenu, we pray.  Our Father, Our King.  Or Kol Nidre — may our vows be annulled.  Even the Al Chait – the central confession of sins in the Yom Kippur service — is collective.  We do not pray, forgive my sins.  We pray to forgive the sins we have committed.

So one thing I take from all this — and this is the point I want to make today — is that we are all in this together.  Yes, each of us is born alone and dies alone.  But in-between, during the choosing of life, the choice we make every day, the choice to engage with the world, the choice to persevere, the choice to accept suffering with grace and nobility, and joy with generosity of spirit, all of these choices we make in the context of, and for the sake of, community and others.  We have had a year in which we have witnessed massive suffering, from ebola in Africa to the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by ISIS, to yet another senseless Hamas war.  We have seen the inevitable infliction of death by disease and disaster, and the choice to inflict death brought on by cupidity, selfishness, and intolerance.  And, as always in misfortune, we have seen the all-too-human weaknesses of those who turn away, those who tell themselves tales to justify their refusal to engage in what they know to be right.

So it is for us, now and always, to affirm life, to choose life.  Whether you accept the Torah, some other religious tract, or even a philosophy of decency, there is no greater value than the continual renewal of our life in common.  Life. In common.

We are taught also that we are to live each day as if it is our last. What a powerful incentive to goodness and decency.  Let us choose life knowing that, while death awaits, it is now that matters, not the end

Or so I think.  And so I shall. L’Shana Tovah tikateyvu.  Ayn zysser yor.

Lawrence Mitchell

Civilization and Its (Civilized) Discontents

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Scottish voters have rejected independence from the United Kingdom.  While the margin is larger than predicted (55.3% to 44.7%), the size of the independence vote, removed from the context of the last few weeks, is quite substantial.  And it is even more striking because 84.6% of eligible voters (extended to include 16 and 17 year olds) voted.

What is truly striking, however, is the vote and its immediate aftermath in the greater context of current world events and world history.  A powerful and proud nation — the United Kingdom and, essentially, England — watched while one of its component parts threatened to separate itself.  The citizens of that component part participated in a public debate that touched deep emotional chords and aroused great passions.  Cultural differences between England and Scotland are significant, although the citizens of both countries speak English (well, the Scots after a fashion).  Political differences are real, with Scotland holding more in common with continental Europe than England.  Scottish resentments trace deep in history, and in current politics. Nobody who has visited both countries could fail to see the differences.

And yet the entire matter was conducted peacefully and, for the most part, respectfully.  I apologize that this post more or less states the obvious, but one only need look across the continent to western Asia to see a very different way of handling difference.  There has not been, to my knowledge, any violence in Scotland, let alone beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, or murders by one side of the other.  There was dialogue, and a vote.

Of course there are very significant differences between the Scottish independence campaign and the wars in the Middle East, not the least of which is that Scotland wasn’t torn apart in a foreign war as was Iraq, and its population is more homogenous.  But that is not enough to explain the difference between civilized disagreement and a barbarity not found elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

I guess I’m slowly reaching the conclusion, very much at odds with my liberal inclinations, that the time for cultural relativism is pretty much over.  Westerners of good will have long been apologists for behavior so at odds with our fundamental values because of the very important but sometimes competing value of tolerance.   At some point, however, apology — or explanation, or tolerance — becomes appeasement, or even willfully ignorant.  That point is here.

The great philosopher Richard Rorty pointed out that dialogue stops when the two sides do not share fundamental values.  I would be more reluctant to conclude that the Muslim world does not share the fundamental values of the West if we saw more of it initiating and taking action against the extremists, and if we didn’t see even in the less violent countries violations of our own principles of gender and sexual equality, civilized punishment for crimes, and, yes, tolerance, which appears to be limited if extant at all.

I have often criticized — and will continue to do so — Western failings.  But Thursday’s vote in Scotland and the peaceful acceptance by the losing side of continued union makes me proud of our values, values developed perhaps more in Scotland during the Enlightenment than anywhere else.  (This is an appropriate place for a shout-out to the eponym of this blog and my teacher, David Hume, and his great student, Adam Smith.)  Of course problems still exist, and it remains for Prime Minister Cameron and Parliament to make good on the promises made to the Scots. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to continue to see peaceful resolution.

The Scottish vote is a call to all of us to embrace our Western values, renew our dedication to the principles of enlightenment in which they were forged, and — perhaps most important — accept that they are unique, special, and, dare I say, better than those of much of the rest of the world. They are worth preserving at any price.

And so, for now, the midnight sun still sets in the British Empire.

Lawrence Mitchell

Rejection Slips

I’m not somebody who saves things.  I don’t collect objects, I don’t stockpile memorabilia.  I don’t keep copies of things that can easily be reproduced, like research and papers.

But there is one category of object I sort of wish I’d kept.  Rejection slips.  I know, this sounds really peculiar.  But allow me to explain.

I am a writer.  More than thirty years ago, I started publishing scholarly articles.  And op-eds.  And books.  And now, as readers of this blog know, I have begun publishing poetry, some of which I wrote long ago, some of more recent vintage.  It is this last enterprise which puts me in mind of rejection slips.

You see, I’ve been getting them.  For each poem offered publication, I get at least four or five rejections (and I’ve heard from only a small proportion of the journals to which I’ve submitted, so I expect many more).  And the funny thing is, they still hurt.  It’s not like rejection slips are new to me.  Had I saved all that I’ve received over the course of my career, they’d probably stretch to the moon.  But I haven’t tried to publish poetry before.  So this is a new sort of rejection, even if the form is the same.  And, given what poetry is, this time it’s personal.

So why would I want to have saved these things?  Well, in a sense, the aggregate of my rejections is the backbone of my career.  Of course had I received only rejections, I wouldn’t have a career at all.  But all of those rejections are reminders of imperfection, teachers of humility, groundings in grace, and epistles of perseverance.  Had I succumbed to the first rejections (which I hasten to assure you I received before any promise of success), my entire body of work would not have come into being.  Had I taken refuge in that last of scoundrelly writers — “they just don’t understand me” — I would have skulked off and eschewed responsibility for the fate of my work.  Had I taken them as a refutation of talent, I would have given up long ago.

How should one take a rejection slip?  As just that.  A single rejection.  A decision that a publication outlet doesn’t want the piece.  There probably are dozens of reasons why this might be so.   Perhaps the work doesn’t fit what the editors need.  Perhaps they didn’t like the topic.  Perhaps it wasn’t to their taste.  Only one reason is the following:  the work is no good.  There are too many more for that to be the default assumption.

I’ve been thinking about this perhaps more than usual, not only because, as noted, I have just begun to publish in a new medium, but also because of an unusually kind and thoughtful rejection slip I recently received.  The editor praised my poetic “instincts,” and then went on to admonish me to read more “contemporary poetry,” to let my images speak for themselves and — in that most common of writing critiques, to “show, not tell.”

I was taken aback.  “Instinct?”  I’m pretty sure I have some talent.  “Images?”  I’ve got plenty.  “Show, not tell?”  What is that about?

I was hurt.  A younger me would have become very discouraged, and then reluctantly begun to read and rather more immediately start to change my style.  But then I thought about it.  The editor certainly was right.  Assuming a particular aesthetic.  But what is my aesthetic? I know that my poetry is romantic.  I know that my influences are not contemporary, although they are modern.  Whitman. Frost.  Dickinson.  Thomas. Williams.  cummings.  And, going back- Dante. Shakespeare.  Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth.  There are narrative traditions in poetry.  There are philosophical traditions.  There is the Bard, weaving images with declarations of love.  This is the poetry I like to read.  This is the poetry I like to write.  I philosophize.  Sometimes I suppose I preach.  I weave images.  I tell stories.

And there it is — my ultimate response.  I consider each poem I write to tell a story.  A story that may be emotionally intense.  A story that is always short.  A story with significant imagery.  But a story, nonetheless.  And that story can be told in a variety of aesthetic settings.

So I shall keep to my own knitting, and be lucky to find publishers (as I have) who share my aesthetic.  And I shall be grateful to that editor for, by writing thoughtfully as he did, he evoked a thoughtful response on my part, one that pushed me to think through what I do and why I do it.  And, in doing so, in this case to affirm my own approach, and to take pleasure in a mature confidence I lacked when the first rejection slips appeared so long ago.

Would that every rejection slip were so expressly thoughtful.  But each, in their own way, can teach, and all, as an aggregate, can help to form the backdrop of a literary life.

Lawrence Mitchell

Ordinary Heroes

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Nobody has to be reminded that today is September 11.  This is the first 9/11 I have spent in New York so, recalling my own feelings on that day 13 years ago, I feel a special poignancy, just as I felt deep guilt for not being here 13 years ago.  And that started me thinking.

We consider the victims of 9/11 to be heroes of a sort.  Why?  Certainly there were individuals, first responders included, who performed acts of great heroism simply by showing up.  But undoubtedly there were many other good people whose simple bad fate it was to have been in the World Trade Center on that terrible morning.  We are horrified by the act.  We mourn their deaths. Why heroes?  What makes them different, for example, from the victims of traffic accidents, or street crime, of tsunamis or earthquakes, or even disease?

Reflection has led me to this answer.  They are heroes because they died for their country.  The simple fact is that the attacks of 9/11 were attacks on the United States, and those who died consequently died because they were American.  That, I think, gets us part of the way.  I don’t think it’s enough.  None of the victims chose to die for their country.  But there is more.  As Americans, they died as proxies for all of us.  Simply put, any of us might have been in the Twin Towers that morning.  And any of us would have been perfectly suitable victims for the terrorists. But we weren’t.  They were.  And, unwilling victims as they certainly were, they stood for each of us and all of us.  As deeply individual as was each death, as devastating to each family in ways that we among the lucky cannot comprehend, this is the commonality that binds them all. That is sufficient for great heroism.

It’s a bit like a central concept in Judaism.  We are, each of us,  admonished by Ha’Shem to consider ourselves as having been present and led out of Egypt during the Exodus — not our ancestors, not even really metaphorically, but as if we were there.  That is a powerful notion, one that keeps gratitude alive.  For by considering ourselves to have been led out of Egypt, we put ourselves in the imaginative position actually to experience freedom and the gratitude it brings to the Great Emancipator.  Similarly, by each of us imagining ourselves in those buildings that morning, we create within ourselves even greater identity with the victims and an understanding, of which they were deprived, as to why they died.  They died for us, and it is for us to ensure that they did not die in vain.

One can quarrel with our involvement in foreign adventures.  I was certainly no supporter of the war in Iraq.  But our current efforts against ISIS are not simply about national security, although that is their necessary justification.  It is about our way of life.  Defending that way of life brings honor to our dead.

Lawrence Mitchell

The Pale King

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So, readers of this blog know that I am a huge David Foster Wallace fan, but that only this summer past did I turn from his brilliant essays to his fiction.  A couple of months ago I posted here on Infinite Jest, which I think is one of the best American novels I’ve ever read.  It was, therefore, with a bit of trepidation that I turned to DFW’s final novel, The Pale King.  Trepidation not because it is set in 1985 at the IRS Regional Examination Center  in Peoria, Illinois (although that is frightening enough on all counts).  Trepidation, rather, because the novel was incomplete at the time of Wallace’s tragic death.  Evidently, though, DFW had left extensive notes and portions of the manuscript, and his editor crafted what became The Pale King.

I put it down halfway through my first read.  I didn’t like it, or at least not nearly so much as I liked Infinite Jest.  It wasn’t so much that it took time to get going.  Rather, there was no evident plot whatsoever.  And there were some passages that annoyed me, that I thought had DFW lived to edit them, might not have been quite so glaring.  (One in particular is a lengthy conversation among three agents in which the point seems to be to demonstrate DFW’s mastery of American culture from the ’60s through the early ’80s, including an anachronistic discussion of corporate purpose.  Then there’s the conversation about, well, shit, which is just hilarious).

But I decided DFW was far too brilliant a writer for me to rest on first conclusions.  So I put aside the Kindle edition and bought the book in paperback.  I don’t have any problem with Kindle for the most part (and it has the advantage while reading DFW of allowing you to look up the two or three words per page you don’t know).  But I suspected that the relative shortness of the pages mis-served a writer whose paragraphs can go on for pages.  (I have only read Faulkner, Doestoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Bellow in print as well.)

I’m glad I did.  The book is, as is all of DFW’s work, pure genius.  There isn’t much of a plot at all. But that is part of the point.  As I read it, The Pale King is the fictionalization of DFW’s Kenyon College commencement address, This is Water (and it’s worth noting that he gave that speech while working on the novel).  As such, it is brilliant, funny, and deeply moving.  Do not fail to read this book.

For those who haven’t yet read or heard This is Water (and you do both yourselves and the rest of the world a disservice by failing to do so),  Wallace posits that a liberal arts education is designed primarily to empower students (and thus people) consciously and thoughtfully to choose what they think about, rather than reactively to accept whatever flows through their brains.  Wallace is particularly effective and insightful in imaging our thoughts and reactions to other people in the most dreary and quondam situations of daily life.  In his imagining, it is possible — not likely, he says, but possible — that our reactive interpretations are at least some of the time deeply unfair to those with whom we interact, and completely lacking in empathy.  Indeed it seems that if we choose to think well, we will and must become more empathetic and understanding beings.  We become far better people, or at least we can.  Wallace of course puts it far better than I, but the truth of it is undeniable.

Much of The Pale King is a series of character sketches loosely based on the arrival and orientation at the Peoria Regional Examination Center of a new team of IRS agents, people who engage in some of the most mind-numbing and tedious work imaginable. And the characters are, like all DFW characters, quirky, strange, sometimes downright freaky, always challenging, and, ultimately, loveable, each in their own peculiar ways. For the most part, we see each of the main characters at some earlier point in their development and then at the time of their arrival at the IRS.  (One exception to portraiture, per se, is the revelation of the character of Meredith Rand near the end of the book which occurs during her extended conversation with the obviously autistic Shane Drinion.  This is an extraordinary passage– the pathos of the deeply emotional and tormented Rand finding solace and deep emotional connection with apparently the only person willing to listen to her is at turns amusing, irritating, and heartbreaking.)  Claude Sylvanshine, whose ability somehow to know a seemingly endless number of barely knoweable and almost invariably useless facts plagues him constantly. David Foster Wallace, working at the IRS during a break from college due to his expulsion for writing papers for other students (and who hilariously arrives with great fanfare due to the system’s confusion of him with another arriving David Wallace whose reputation within the Service is legendary).  David Cusk with an uncontrollable perspiration problem.  “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle, whose role in the perhaps real, perhaps staged filming project caused his stultified interviewer to develop a tic. Leonard Stecyk, whose cheerful perfection since childhood has made almost everybody who’s known him want to strangle him (and who — spoiler alert — we later learn was brought into the service to have precisely this effect on people),

The point is that each of these people has a story.  Each of these people has a history, a character, a life, each has loves and losses, each has ordinary concerns.  The IRS seems to provide a place of peace and stability away from the torment, despite the price each pays in the dullness of the work.  And that dullness, with many of the characters working in concert, is depicted in Chapter 25 to absolutely brilliant effect.  Were the chapter music, it would be the worst chamber music ever written.  As literature, however, first rate.

And yet, in a message worthy of Hannah Arendt, DFW lets us know that the work is ennobling.  He makes the point explicitly in a speech delivered by a substitute accounting teacher in a class into which DFW (the character) mistakenly wanders at DePaul.  But he makes the point throughout the book in many other subtle ways.  It is, in fact, precisely the willingness of people to engage in such unsatisfying yet essential work that gives that work its greater glory.  These are the same ordinary people we might be standing behind in the checkout line or driving behind in their SUV as DFW describes in This is Water, and the setting of the piece in the dullest and most anonymous of environments reinforces this.  And yet there is dignity and nobility in service. (Rereading the opening short, poetic — even elegiac — chapter in light of these thoughts shows Wallace making the point from the very beginning, but of course it is far too early for the reader to understand this.)

This being DFW, it goes without saying, although I’ll say it, that his mastery both of the tax code and the workings of the IRS are nothing short of professional.  In addition to his brilliance as a writer, the man was quite the polymath.  Of course that leads to several rather dull passages, but I accept them as necessary to the integrity of the whole.

Only two writers have had profound impacts on the way I think and live.  One is Adam Smith.  The other is David Foster Wallace.  Please.  Read this book.

Lawrence Mitchell