BWBC 26: Idol Scholarship

Marc Chagall, yo!

Last week this week’s latest Black Water post, this time by Cynthia Ozick, who if you are anything like me you vaguely remember reading an essay by back in university, or at least being assigned an essay by; whether you read it or not is a matter between you and your conscience.

Depending on a number of variables my chances are 50/50 for having done the assignment, but I’m 100% for having forgotten it all.

Anyhow, here’s the story:

The Pagan Rabbi” by Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick’s “The Pagan Rabbi” is on one hand familiar to anyone who’s ever read Machen, Lovecraft, or the like: a narrator meets a person who tells them about another person who was the narrator’s friend, and the second person has a letter from the third person, which they want the first person, the narrator, to read as they hope it explains why everything got as bad as it did, and since this is horror/fantasy the narrator reads the letter hoping to find answers, but instead winds up more alienated from the world.

It’s a style I know and like.

The other part of “The Pagan Rabbi” is heavily steeped in Jewish mysticism and mythology, and that’s where I had to pause and look things up in order to understand the references the characters were making.

The story goes like this…

The Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld has killed himself in an urban park overlooking the bay. His friend, our narrator, goes out to see the tree where Isaac hung himself. He and Isaac grew up together and sought to be Rabbis, but only Isaac succeeded, while the friend opened a used bookstore and became a disappointment to his parents. After seeing the tree the Narrator goes on to pay a visit to Isaac’s wife with the idea of maybe starting to court her. But the widow’s distraught and angry at her husband for not simply killing himself, but for succumbing to idolatry before his death. The narrator’s confused, so the widow presses Isaac’s journal onto the narrator. In the book Isaac records his descent into a pantheistic paganism that saw a free soul in all aspects of the world. In entry after entry, he outlines his proofs explaining the existence of these souls, quoting mythical figures from the Old Testament, and even relaying accounts where he believes he encountered these unbounded souls. He soon looses himself to these visions, spending more time away from home. Finally, in an ecstatic fit, he encounters a dryad in a park near the polluted bay. This leads to his seduction and infidelity as he consorts with the dryad. But he welcomes these transgressions and continues his sport, until the dryad breaks things off, telling him that he has grown too attached to her and thereby his soul has fled his body. When the Rabbi protests, the dryad shows him his own soul wandering the road near the park. The sight of his wandering soul and his abandonment by the dryad sends Isaac tumbling into a despair so deep he hangs himself from the dryad’s tree.

Having read all this the narrator urges the widow to find her husband’s soul where it wanders along the road near the park, but she refuses, and upon seeing how angry the widow is, not at her husband’s suicide but at his idolatry, the narrator forgets about any seduction and goes home to put the whole episode behind him, but not before throwing away all the plants in his house.

Just in case. . .

It’s a good story and the late 1960s Jewish milieu gives the mystic bits familiar touchstones. I mean the story’s plot is literally “young rabbi abandons family to consort with flower child, dooms self”. And the Jewish mystical bits elide seamlessly with ideas from Greek antiquity. The dryad’s a distinct character that might have stepped forth from Ovid or a fairy tale and described in a very tangible way. There’s no doubt that Isaac encountered something numinous and outside the common in that park. And there’s no doubt that the human characters are caught and bound by petty urges and grievances. If you like that mix of the weird piercing the squalidly everyday, The Pagan Rabbi brings a new vantage point to the classic tragic fairy tale of what happens when the mortal seeks to capture the immortal.

Next week, get ready to get wild.

Oscar Wilde!

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