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the golem

Gustav Meyrink's 1915 novel 'The Golem' is a classic of fantastic and expressionist fiction. Imagine Kafka (a friend of Meyrink's) writing 'Frankenstein' (published only a few years later), and you get some idea of the book's intense, haunting atmosphere. But Meyrink's novel is much more ambitious, weaving elements from Jewish mysticism and mythology to create a complex and highly symbolic story that reads like a dark hallucination.

In Jewish mythology, a Golem is an artificial being created out of mud, a sort of homunculus, part servant, part monster. (The Talmud describes Adam as initially being a Golem, when he was "kneaded into a shapeless hunk" by God.) According to legend, the 16th century Rabbi Loew of Prague created a Golem using Kabbalistic incantations to help defend the Jewish Ghetto against invaders. However, the Golem ran amok and started killing people, forcing Loew to destroy it. Since then, its remains are supposedly kept in a coffin in the Altneuschule, to be summoned again in need.

Loosely adapting this Golem legend, Meyrink brings it to life in late 19th century Prague. Besides being an elusive ghost figure terrorizing the streets of Prague once every generation, Meyrink's Golem also represents the collective psyche of the Jewish Ghetto.

Just as, in thundery weather, the electric tension in the atmosphere will increase to a point past endurance, and eventually give birth to the lightning, may it not be that the whole mass of stagnant thought infecting the air of the Ghetto needs clearing from time to time by some kind of mysterious explosion, something potent in its workings. Something forces the dreams of the subconscious up into the light of day -- like a lightning stroke -- giving rise to an object that, could we but read its riddle, symbolises, both in ways and appearance, the mass-soul, could we but understand and interpret the secret language of forms?

The story itself, framed fittingly within a dream story, is rather hard to summarize. It centers around the search for self-knowledge of one Athanasius Pernath, a gem cutter in the Ghetto, who has no memory whatsoever of his past, apparently after being cured of insanity by a lasting hypnosis.

That reluctance I had to think of the past... the strange recurring dream of being in a house with a series of rooms sealed off from me... the painful inability of my memory to function where associations of my youth were concerned... all these problems had suddenly achieved their terrible solution: I had been mad, and treated by hypnosis. They had, in short, locked up a room which communicated with certain chambers in my brain; they had made me into an exile in the midst of the life that surrounded me.

Pernath's spiritual imprisonment increasingly becomes identified with that of the Golem, who according to legend lives on in the Ghetto in a room without doors. Pernath's first meeting of the Golem coincides with his receiving an old metal-bound book for restoration; it is the book 'Ibbur, or the Fecundation of the Soul', of which the elaborate capital 'I' needs repair. (Just a small example of the density of symbolism going on!)

Pernath gets tangled up in a complicated plot involving a host of strange characters. All are drawn in vivid detail by Meyrink, from the evil junkshop dealer Aaron Wassertrum and the medical student Charousek, who is consumed by a terrible hatred, to Angelina, a damsel in distress whom Pernath falls in love with. On his quest Pernath receives spiritual guidance from the wise Schemajah Hillel and his saintly daughter Miriam, who becomes a kind of guardian angel when he finally ends up in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

It should be said that the fragmentary and meandering narrative is at times difficult to follow. Apparently, Meyrink originally had a much larger story in mind, with almost twice as many characters, but never succeeded in incorporating all his ideas. This may account for some of the loose ends in the story, and makes 'The Golem' essentially a series of spellbinding scenes, alternating between supernatural horrors and mystic visions.

At the same time, the hermetic quality of the story adds to the underlying spiritual mystery, of which the ambiguous Golem figure is only a manifestation. If Pernath often seems a puppet in some larger story, searching for answers but finding only fragmentary hints, perhaps that is the point precisely. As Hillel explains to Pernath:

"Men tread not a path at all, neither that of life nor death. They drive like chaff before the wind. In the Talmud it is written: 'Before God made the world, he held a mirror to his creatures, that in it they might behold the sufferings of the spirit and the achievement that ensue therefrom. Some of them took up the burden of suffering. But others refused, and those God struck out of the Book of Life.' But you tread a path you have chosen of your own free will, even though you know it not. You are self-elected. Do not torture yourself. As knowledge comes, so comes also recollection. Knowledge and recollection are one and the same thing."

As a final note, be sure to get an edition of 'The Golem' that contains the awesome gothic illustrations by Hugo Steiner-Prag (none of which, unfortunately, can be found online).

Update: Here's one of Steiner-Prag's gothic lithographs of the Golem...

The Golem - Hugo Steiner-Prag

craftsmanship

To be a craftsman is to be able to separate the work one is doing at the time from everything else, to know exactly and to hold before one's eyes one thing only: what should be done and how; to disregard whatever has no connection with this; not to care about success, not to think of failure; not to fear anything and not to leave anything to chance; to be always completely absorbed in the particular work one is doing at the moment. If you work like this, everything works with you and everything helps you, every tool is your friend, every change a sign-post and the material obedient under your hands; everything runs without an error or a hitch, or rather every error is set right, every hitch made up for. Then your work must progress, the further - the better; it gains vigour and beauty along the way, because it grows out of itself like a plant from a seed which was selected, properly sown, tended.

From the story 'The Climbers' by Ivo Andrić.

worldmapper

Worldmapper is a fascinating collection of world maps, or cartograms, re-sizing territories on each map according to specific variables. Large amounts of statistical data are thus visualized into different 'world views'. The collection is not complete yet but will eventually contain 366 maps on all kinds of subjects.

GDP Wealth - Worldmapper
Map of wealth (GDP 2002).
Ecological Footprint - Worldmapper
Map of ecological footprint.

Update: Another great data visualization tool is Gapminder, which uses animated timelines to make statistics come 'alive'. (Via Jeroen.)

wooden apples

Wooden Apples

'Appels', Heemraadsingel Rotterdam, by Kees Franse.

hyperreality

All through the 19th and 20th centuries political and economic practice merge increasingly into the same type of discourse. Propaganda and advertising fuse in the same marketing and merchandising of objects and ideologies. This convergence of language between the economic and the political is furthermore what marks a society such as ours, where "political economy" is fully realized. It is also by the same token its end, since the two spheres are abolished in an entirely separate reality, or hyperreality, which is that of the media.

The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction. (...) At the limit of this process of reproductability, the real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced. The hyperreal.

This also means the collapse of reality into hyperrealism, in the minute duplication of the real, preferably on the basis of another reproductive medium -- advertising, photo, etc. From medium to medium the real is volatilized; it becomes an allegory of death, but it is reinforced by its own destruction; it becomes the real for the real, fetish of the lost object -- no longer object of representation, but ecstasy of degeneration and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal.

From: 'Simulations' by Jean Baudrillard.

Cryptic, provocative and apocalyptic, Baudrillard's philosophy, inspired by Benjamin and McLuhan, was criticized for "depicting, though more likely creating, a world embodied by an extremely heightened level of abstraction." His feverishly associative, anti-consumerist rants are still great reading though.

the year of the death of ricardo reis

José Saramago's novel 'The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis' ('O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis') is a classic example of intertextuality, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Ricardo Reis was one of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms (see also this post). Saramago puts this fictional character in a historical arena and recounts the last year of his life.

Set in Lisbon in 1936, Ricardo Reis returns from Brazil where he has lived in exile for sixteen years. Pessoa has just died, and Reis is visited by his spirit, which is allowed to wander on earth for nine months. At the core of the novel is a series of metaphysical conversations between the two poets, the one dead and the other alive.

Saramago's style takes some getting used to, with its dense, meandering narration, long sentences and no punctuation whatsoever except for periods and commas. Dialogues especially can be hard to follow.

Then Fernando Pessoa opened his eyes, smiled, I dreamed I was alive. An interesting illusion. What is interesting is not that a dead man should dream he is alive, after all he has known life, he has something to dream about, but rather that a man who is alive should dream that he is dead, because he has never known death. Soon you will be telling me that life and death are the same. Precisely, my dear Reis.

Reis, a doctor by profession, preached detachment and tranquility in his classical 'Odes', writing for example: "Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world," and "Neither tranquil nor troubled, I wish to lift my being high above this place where men know pleasure and pain..."

By having Reis return to Portugal, Saramago almost sardonically puts this philosophy to the test. Lisbon in 1936, rendered in painstaking historical detail, is a place of political turmoil, with the shadow of fascism looming large on the horizon. Salazar's Estada Novo (New State) is already in place, Spain is on the brink of civil war, and Hitler has just occupied the Rhineland.

But Reis remains aloof, following political events mainly from the newspapers without having any real opinions himself. Even when he gets involved with two different women, Lydia and Marcenda (both names appearing in Reis' poems), they only momentarily upset his tranquility. Ultimately, Reis calmly follows Pessoa to the graveyard to die.

Further layers of intertextuality can be found, for instance, in the book Ricardo Reis is reading throughout the novel: 'The God of the Labyrinth' by Herbert Quain. This is one of the imaginary books discussed in 'A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain', a 'critical essay' by Jorge Luis Borges. And Saramago's novel shares more with Borges, in its theme of mirrors. Practically every element in the novel is mirrored (Reis vs. Pessoa, life vs. death, participation vs. detachment, Lydia vs. Marcenda, fascism vs. communism, etc.), and often what separates them is an opaque wall...

The dead man has the advantage of having been alive, he is familiar with the things of this world and of the other world, too, whereas the living are incapable of learning the one fundamental truth and profiting from it. What truth is that, That one must die. Those of us who are alive know that we will die. You don't know it, no one knows it, just as I didn't when I was alive, what we do know without a shadow of a doubt is that others die. As a philosophy, that strikes me as rather trivial. Of course it's trivial, you have no idea just how trivial everything becomes when seen from this side of death. But I am on the side of life. Then you ought to know what things on that side are significant, To be alive is significant. My dear Reis, choose your words carefully, your Lydia is alive, your Marcenda is alive, yet you know nothing about them, nor could you learn, even if they attempted to tell you, the wall that separates the living from one another is no less opaque than the wall that separates the living from the dead.

See also this article: 'Literature as History: José Saramago's O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis'.

time & perfection

There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stock in all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times. But why do I stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?

From: 'Walden' (1854) by Henry David Thoreau. (Thoreau created this Indian-sounding parable himself.)

the dark eye

Bit of a halting experience, playing the 12 year old cd-rom adventure game 'The Dark Eye', but still great for its haunting atmosphere. Based on three Edgar Alan Poe stories ('The Cask of Amantillado', 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'Berenice'), it is an inspired attempt to bring to life his gothic horror stories in a creepy first person experience.

The Dark Eye - 1

'The Dark Eye' is really more of an interactive story, much like 'Myst' (though without the puzzles), where you move / click around to advance the narrative. An interesting device is that each story can be experienced from two perspectives, of the victim and the murderer. Unfortunately, each narrative strand must be followed strictly and linearly, which makes the game play become quite tedious after a while.

The Dark Eye - 2

Visually, however, it still works very well, with beautiful claymation characters and much attention to detail in the various nightmarish environments. The sound design deserves mention too, with appropriately moody music and eerie whispers coming from the walls. The game also features the voice of William S. Burroughs, doing one of the characters and reading 'Annabel Lee' and 'The Masque of the Red Death'.

The Dark Eye - 3

'The Dark Eye' can be downloaded here (it should still work on modern computers, though be warned it might have some hiccups). The Burroughs readings can also be found separately here.