My Lexicon - Sholem Asch
Under all the writers in this private lexicon there are given various dates for when they moved and travelled. Only under Asch--who moved, perhaps, more than anyone and travelled more, if not farther, than anyone--nothing more than his birthplace and year? For this, there are two answers. The first, shall we say, answer is that it would require dozens of lines to list all of Asch’s residences, and so it’s better to just leave the matter be. The second answer, however, is that Asch never left Kutne…
“What?!” I can hear the aggregate (kondensirt) reader crying with disgust and a strong desire to hit me.
But there’s much less to be afraid of from an aggregate, symbolic reader than from one actual, individual reader, so I gather up all my courage and answer: “Yes!”
And the aggregate reader begins listing the seventy-seven cities and the seventeen countries and the forty centuries which constituted the backdrop to the 28 volumes of Asch’s work, including the second volume of his novel At the Abyss (baym opgrunt).
But I stick to my guns: “Kutne”--and I pronounce it in the most immaculate Kutne accent you’ve ever heard, making it sound something like /ˈkɪtnɘʏ/ (קיטנעו).* The aggregate reader simply cannot restrain themself any longer and go completely out of their gourd.** They’re ready to murder me. “What on earth do you mean?!”
Recognizing that I’m playing around with the reader’s life, I offer a small, strategic and diplomation retort: “But Kutne is the world--just like how a drop of water not only reflects the entire world but in fact contains the entire world within itself--a world of unexplored and unexhausted natural secrets, an uncountable world with unknown creatures.”
The aggregate reader gives up their aggressive posture and goes back inside their gourd. I breathe a little more freely.
Asch’s work must be evaluated from the perspective of the future--at least seventy years ahead and no less. From that perspective, his work will either appear to be of truly gigantic stature, if such greatness is indeed within it, or it will dissipate with smoke, vanishing without a trace.
It’s an easy position, that of seventy years in the future, when all of us who write and read and typeset these words will already be long since dead. And the aggregate Asch reader again bares his nails like a cat’s claws: “How dare you.”
“Because in all 28 massive volumes of Asch’s work there isn’t even a trace of humor, and humorless work can never overcome its own time.”
And, at the same time, I feel that what I’m saying isn’t really true, for the Bible, too, is humorless and it has overcome its own time like nothing else…
“Because in all 28 volumes there is no easy likeability (proste gutmutikayt), and people appreciate simple likeability.”
But that’s just the nature of those stubbornly brutal creative personalities--they have no humor or likability. It is for that very reason that they have to be viewed from the distance of seventy years, when Asch will have returned to ash and only his work will remain.
Ash was never likeable (gutmutik)--not in his work and not in his life. Nor was Asch good in his life, but in his work there is endless goodness, stupefying goodness. But it is for that very reason that there isn’t a trace of humor in his work, although in life he’s known to crack a joke. But he has to immediately start laughing after he tells a joke, because no one has realized that what he told was, in fact, a joke and that they should have started laughing. After one of his jokes, the atmosphere becomes so strained that people, beginning to fear bloodshed, immediately depart before the tempest breaks.
Whenever I see someone who is uncomfortable (umheymlekh) to be around, I always exact a quiet vengeance on them: “I am uncomfortable being around you, that means that you are an uncomfortable person, but I’m stuck in my skin so I can leave you whenever I want--but you can never quite manage that trick, you can’t escape your own skin, you must forever be in your uncomfortable company”...That is the quiet vengeance I always take on Asch…
But that brilliant, eternal ill-contentment with his own uncomfortable, world-devouring personality--that running-from-and-never-escaping-yourself leads to his constant taking-hold-of-the-horns-of-the-altar of great works.
That disproportion between his upper-crust, masuline figure and appearance and his voice, so often breaking into a whimper and that tiredness about him, the tiredness of someone who has just barely reached the mountaintop before he collapses, having spent the last of his energy on the ascent. That disproportion between his figure and his cold, soft, white hands, which he extends like a Polish, Hasidic rebbe or an English lord--nothing but fingertips. As if his hands didn’t have anything in the world to do other than being the writing instruments of a man who could never, never leave Kutne, and yet who challenged himself encompass every inch and moment of the Jewish world in his writing.
Whether he succeeded--eternity will be the judge of that.
But that is already a great achievement--to stand trial, judged by eternity. Few writers of the past and few of the present have merited it.
I would like to live to see the verdict in seventy years.
*- This is likely not correct IPA, alas. I am neither sufficiently fluent in the nuances of phonetics nor in a zaftik, kutner yidish.
**- There is a phrase at the end of this sentence that I simply don’t understand and thus did not translate. “Der tsinerer kondes-pushke, glaykh af mir aruf.” Clearly this phrase is emphasizing the anger of the “aggregate reader.” However it doesn’t seem to be an idiom...