Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Same Old Thing

Religion.  Do we know what it is?   A belief in God: is that it?  For many people this is so.  Yet can God really be the cause of faith?  It does not seem possible, for something so strong and long lasting, and yet so nebulous: for ultimately he is our creation, an idea that exists at our behest.  Can something so individual and so abstract be so powerful?  Did God really build the castle that defends the faithful against all attacks; and is he still the handyman, repairing the walls and the creaking gates…  Such a lot of work for him to do; and never suffering from arthritis or a bad back…

It is not facts and arguments, those favourite friends of the philosophers and theologians, that account for God’s vitality, for most people are unaware of them.  They are the weakest part of any religion, though the process of reasoning almost certainly solidifies the faith for those who engage in it; a kind of mental ritual for the priestly caste.  For reason is easily adapted to the needs of any belief; moulded to whatever the occasion demands: a factual statement to commit someone to an act of worship can easily become a symbol to repulse a too insistent truth and threatening doubt; the calling cards of the geologist and historian; those unwelcome guests to the deity's house.  

Why love this God and not that one?  Why not worship in the football stadium rather than the synagogue… 

Is belief, perhaps, just a strong and passionate attachment to an idea, which a particular kind of God objectifies?  Can it all be reduced to some words on a page and a few sentences inside the head we are educated into believing by the culture into which we are born?  Do we learn Christianity like mathematics and English Literature; St Paul passed down like Euclid’s geometry?  The source of the teacher’s script some seer in the forgotten past, a strong and inventive character who indoctrinated a band of disciples; his vigorous personality overcoming their doubts and common sense.  Was Jesus Christ the original Ludwig Wittgenstein? The Gospels a precursor to Philosophical Investigations? Joseph Roth suggests otherwise.  He has an answer for us to consider.

When will it be Sunday?’ thought Mendel.  Once he had lived from one Saturday to the next; now he lived from one Sunday to the next.  On Sunday visitors came – Miriam, Vega, the grandchild.  They brought letters from Sam, or at least news of a general nature.  They knew everything.  They read the newspapers.  They were running the business together, now.  It was still going well; they were all industrious…

Mendel Singer is in New York, having left the Pale of Settlement to remove his daughter Miriam from between the legs of the Cossacks she loves so much; and to live with his son Shemariah, who emigrated to the United States years ago. 

His life has been hard.  A poor religious teacher, Mendel has always struggled for money; and made his own life more difficult by keeping to his religious principles.  And like many Jews the family has had to make large sacrifices to keep their sons out of the Russian army; a death sentence for many at that time.  Because they were poor they could only save one son – Shemariah.  Luckily his brother Jonas was keen to join the army: he wants to be a simple peasant and soldier; for he desires horses, strong drink and lots of women; the Russian girls rich fields for his ripe seed.  Mendel thus loses both sons: Jonas is no longer a Jew and Shemariah lives in a different country.  And Mendel’s wife no longer loves him, and he has lost his desire for her a long time ago.  Mendel is poor, and his life is hard, but in Zuchnow he keeps his faith, teaching the Bible every workday and observing the Sabbath once a week.

He instructed twelve six-year-old scholars in the reading and memorizing of the Bible.  Each of the twelve brought him twenty kopecks every Friday…  On Friday [Deborah, Mendel’s wife] scrubbed the floor until it was yellow as saffron…  Outside, before the door, she aired the furniture, the brown wooden bed, the sacks of straw, the scrubbed deal table, two long, narrow benches…  As soon as the first twilight misted the windows, Deborah lighted the candles in the plated candlesticks, threw her hands over her face, and prayed…

Her husband came home, in silky black; the floor shone up at him, yellow as melted sunshine; his countenance shimmered whiter than usual, and blacker than on weekdays gleamed his beard.  He sat down, sang a little song, and then parents and children sipped their soup, smiled at the plates, and spoke no word.  Warmth rose in the room.  It exuded from the pots, from the platters, and from their bodies.  The cheap candles in the plated candlesticks could not stand it, they began to bend.  Tallow dropped upon the red-and-blue checked tablecloth, and became encrusted immediately.  The window was thrown open; the candles manfully took hold of themselves and burned peacefully to the end.   The children laid themselves upon the straw sacks, near the stove, but the parents sat awhile and gazed with troubled solemnity into the last blue flames which rose up out of the sockets of the candlesticks and wavered back, a fountain-play of fire.  The tallow smouldered, thin blue threads of smoke drew upward towards the ceiling from the embers of wick.  ‘Ah!’ sighed the woman.  ‘Do not sigh,’ warned Mendel Singer.  They were silent.  ‘Let us sleep, Deborah,’ he commanded.  And they began to murmur the nightly prayer.

At the end of each week the Sabbath dawned thus, with silence, candles, and song.  Twenty-four hours later the Sabbath sank into night; the grey procession of weekdays began, a weary cycle.

In New York, under the burden of family tragedy, and the guilt of leaving their disabled son in Russia, Mendel loses his faith.  Would he have lost it in Zuchnow?  If he had followed the same routines, his life sustained by the age-old colours and smells, the voices of his pupils, if he had remained laced up in the corset of his home village, would he have given up on God?  We cannot know, of course, for sure.  But the ending is suggestive: after a miraculous incident he regains his faith and returns to Europe; the source of all his beliefs.  The peculiar quality of America, its centrifugal forces pulling people’s lives apart, separating faith from mundane activity, have helped weaken the walls that secured his ancestor’s religion; which he imbibed with the soup and the songs and the candles of his parents and the daily regime – religion never left the house and workplace; it was ingrained into its routines.  At Zuchnow the rituals of work and prayer would have protected his faith. They would have continued to buttress his Judaism, supporting it through even the hardest, the most despairing, of times.  Of course he may still have lost it.  But such apostasy would have been much more difficult – the rest of the community would make it almost impossibly so.  The rituals would have been too strong, absorbed into the body, into Mendel’s very being, they would have overcome the weaknesses of his mind; like hoops around a barrel they would have held his doubts in place.  In America he has nothing to do, and there are other distractions: the constant change of unexpected things, the newspapers, the business successes of his son and the increasing fissiparousness of his own family (they left Russia so that Miriam would not go with a Cossack; in America they accept she will marry one – an American Catholic).  All the bonds are weakening.  Each day religion takes up a few minutes less; becomes smaller and smaller, until it disappears like the last hairs on an old man’s head.

Is it ritual that keeps the faith alive; embedding religion deep inside one’s habits, imprinting them onto our mind and very body.  Think of the scene above and how the Sabbath is intimately linked with the Friday washing, the warm soup, the songs, the silence and the day of rest; that time of joyous melancholy.  Religion is a strong-bodied wine that is absorbed through the skin like water into fertile earth.  The words are mere decoration: the rote learning itself a ritual, turning the word into flesh and blood.

Religion is part of life and cannot be separated from it.  It is not ideas or words or even a sermon, but our arms and legs and our stomachs.  No wonder it can so easily resist the charms of Bertrand Russell and Charles Darwin; and accommodate itself to other faiths – all religions are themselves a mixture of different ideas and cultural practices, which they have absorbed to create their own synthesis.  Only when the process is reversed, when the intellectuals seek to return the religion to the purity of its original conception, and the body is asked to submit to doctrine, does the religion become metaphysical – fundamentalism is the attempt to reduce our abundant life to a few simple myths.

There are many religions even within Mendel Singer’s own family.  In a marvellous scene Miriam gives herself to the sun; while at the same time listening to the songs of the nearby barracks; imagining all the soldiers are singing to her!  Her beliefs are her own beauty and her finely tuned senses.  Even Mendel himself is touched by the pagan gods: on the first week of Ab all the men go out into the fields to greet the new moon.  Deborah believes in a more mystical Jewish faith, of magic men and prophecy; not the mundane acceptance of one’s fate and a simple trust in God’s work, that is her husband’s.  So many religions held in place by the daily routines, anchored by that weary cycle; of weeks that do not change, reinforcing all that has gone before.  The past has created the present and determines the future. It is therefore quite natural for Deborah, hearing the news that both Jonas and Shemariah have been called to the army, to run to the cemetery and to pray to the dead…  The force that controls their lives, the ritual that shapes their experiences, and holds them in place, was created long ago.  The barrel is an ancient one; and was made to last for millennia.

Break that cycle and faith is no longer supported by the daily round; so that the hoops rust, loosening the staves until they eventually shift and fall.  Not protected by the body’s habits belief becomes a separate part of life; an activity apart; so that it gradually fades, becoming vestigial.  Like cheap tallow candles it bends and bends…  is almost out…

[Then t]he window was thrown open; the candles manfully took hold of themselves and burned peacefully to the end.

Shemariah moves to America, and acquires a new faith.  It is the beginning of the end of his old one.  Now called Sam, he no longer thinks of following his father and becoming a simple teacher of the Bible.  Business will be his religion.  America is a new god with its own august words and rituals: of speed and efficiency; of making money and reading the daily newspapers.  Mendel can see its problems, and refuses to be acculturated; he will not be an apostate to his faith.  Nevertheless, the daily impact of this new world slowly weakens and destroys those old rituals, and his Judaism becomes a rickety house easily blown over by a heavy storm…

It would take a miracle for his faith to be resurrected.  Can it happen here in New York City?  Other novels of Roth offers the possibility of hope: the miraculous interventions of supermen who change the game entirely: Brandeis, Lenz, Zwonimir…  Everywhere there is a messiah who can save you.  In the 19th century they were called geniuses, in the 20th century they are spies, entrepreneurs, revolutionaries and officials of various kinds.  In Job it is a doctor that cures Menuchim, allowing him to find and master his outstanding talent – for music.  It brings fame and prosperity, and gives him the opportunity to find his father.  A miracle! Mendel believes.  The old religion returns.

He looked at the photograph.  Although the picture was worn, the paper dirty, and the portrait seemed about to dissolve into a hundred thousand tiny molecules, it looked up from the programme with vitality.  He wanted to return it immediately, but he held it and stared.  Under the black hair the forehead was broad and white as a smooth, sunny stone.  The eyes were large and clear.  They looked directly at Mendel Singer.  He could not free himself from them.  They made him happy and light-hearted, Mendel believed.  He saw the light of their intelligence.  They were old, and at the same time young.  They knew everything; the whole world reflected itself in them.  It seemed to Mendel Singer, looking at these eyes, that he himself was younger; he was a youth who knew nothing.  He must learn everything from these eyes.

Years ago, when he had begun the study of the Bible, these had been the eyes of the prophets.  They knew all, they betrayed nothing; they were full of light.

No comments:

Post a Comment