Saturday, January 23, 2010

Aghast But Reverent?

Does this bit intrigue you?

As the Coen brothers did in “A Serious Man,” Ms. Goldstein takes an aghast yet reverent view of the Jewish culture that gives her novel its best ideas and jokes. (One dislikable literary critic is given the extremely unflattering name Nathan Paskudnyak, and the so-called International Style architecture at Frankfurter is said to owe less to Le Corbusier than Hadassah.) The book becomes most deeply immersed in Judaism when it uses flashbacks to explain Cass’s relationship with his grandiose mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper (mother’s name: Klepfish).

Does this?

Klapper is a tyrannical pedant who loves alliteration (he once taught a course called “The Manic, the Mantic and the Mimentic”), expounds on Kabbalistic arcana with a level of detail Dan Brown would envy, and leads this novel to the place where its heart lies: a Hasidic community in the Hudson River Valley. This setting is a place that sounds very like New City, N.Y., where Cass would be living had his mother not left the fold.

When Klapper, Cass and Roz, an old flame of Cass’s who is now an anthropologist, pay a visit to this community, they meet an astonishing little boy whose unmistakable genius exerts a strange force throughout the book. This boy is one of Ms. Goldstein’s walking philosophical constructs, insofar as his destiny will be determined by the Hasidic community unless he insists on independence.

And does this?

give Ms. Goldstein a philosophical case to make about potato kugel, Jewish cuisine and Kabbalistic numerology, and she really does soar. It is only half-surprising to find that her background research includes a scholarly article titled “Holy Kugel: the Sanctification of Ashkenazic Ethnic Foods in Hasidim.”
From here.

Well, then read a novel about a Hassidic child who is a mathematical genius and the struggle between the secular and religious worlds for his soul. 36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein


Azarya, a 6-year-old Hasidic mathematical prodigy of transcendent genius who is intended to succeed his father, the rebbe of the Valdener Hasidim. Insulated from the outside world and without benefit of any secular education, Azarya has independently discovered the concept of prime numbers—which he calls maloychim (angels)—and has arrived at the proof (among others) that there is no largest prime.

The otherworldliness of Azarya’s genius and the path that his life will ultimately take serve to bring a kind of resolution (not to be confused with a solution) to the central mystery of human existence that Seltzer grapples with while gazing into the frozen Charles River in the book’s first chapter:

Here it is, then: the sense that existence is just such a tremendous thing, one comes into it, astonishingly, here one is . . . one doesn’t know how, one doesn’t know why . . . and all that one knows is that one is a part of it, a considered and conscious part of it, generated and sustained in existence in ways one can hardly comprehend . . . and one wants to live in a way that at least begins to do justice to it . . . and . . . to live one’s life in a way commensurate with the privilege of being a part of and conscious of the whole reeling glorious infinite sweep. 

That resolution comes to him in the book’s final chapter, when the star atheist realizes that “to be human is to inhabit our contradictions . . . to be unable to find a way of reconciling the necessary and the impossible.” In the face of that primal inability, and of the “brutality of incomprehensibility that assaults us from all sides . . . we try, as best as we can, to do justice to the tremendousness of our improbable existence.” Like the asymptotic relation in which a straight line approaches a curve to which it will be tangent only at infinity, “we live, as best we can, for ourselves, or who will live for us? And we live, as best we can, for others, otherwise what are we?”

1 comment:

J Fine said...

"Like the asymptotic relation in which a straight line approaches a curve to which it will be tangent only at infinity"

Ouch. To anyone with any knowledge of mathematics, a curve approaches its asymptote (tangent line), not the other way around. Saying that the asymptote approaches the curve is like saying that New York is approaching a car, and they will join at noon.