A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sabbatai Sevi

When I catalog books, I keep a time sheet, but I always have to make adjustments to it. The phone rings, or the doorbell--even the computer rings nowadays. I pop downstairs to make a cup of tea or a bit of lunch. The biggest temptations, though, are the books themselves.

All too often I get caught up reading the volumes I'm supposed to be cataloging. A little bit is necessary research, but sometimes I get carried away. The books are not only esoteric and valuable, but quite rare. I may never see the like of a particular book again.

An autobiography of Marc Chagall, signed by the author across two pages in blue crayon--the signature so familiar to so many people. A prayer book with a heartrending entry on the flyleaf in a woman's childish scrawl, lamenting the death that evening of her only daughter. Nazi propaganda in the form of an album of photographs of tanned, blond and athletic nudes: men, women and children striking poses in the great outdoors. A convoluted numerological "proof" of the type usually done by kabbalists, but in fact by Fascists, showing beyond a doubt that the Jews are the root of all evil. Who could resist dipping into this stuff?

Today I've been cataloging a number of books by the prodigious scholar Gershom Scholem. Possibly his masterpiece--Cynthia Ozick, in reviewing it for the New York Times calls it the "massive keystone" of his powerful oeuvre--is Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. "It is not possible to 'review' such a work, any more than one can review a mountain range," Ozick says. It's one of "certain magisterial works of the human mind that alter ordinary comprehension so unpredictably and on so prodigious a scale that culture itself is set awry, and nothing can ever be seen again except in the strange light of that new knowledge." I'm guessing she liked the book.

Sabbatai Sevi is 1000 pages long, and covers not only the life of the 17th-century kabbalist rabbi who sparked the greatest messianic movement in Judaism since Jesus, but puts the movement in historical context, drawing parallels and contrasts between Sabbatianism and Christianity. Scholem references numerous primary sources, developing a thesis contrary to previous interpretations but so meticulously laid out that all earlier work on the subject is now largely ignored, and all further words are merely derivative.

At a time when so much ignorance and simplistic thinking prevails, it's heartening to see evidence that real scholarship is not dead. Well, it wasn't a generation ago, anyway. Scholem's been gone for twenty-five years. I wonder in which dusty university libraries his successors are at this moment laboring?