Time and Being
Thank you to the Queen for inviting us to her royal palace. Good good to be in a new place this year with new people because we’re tired talking to ourselves. There are not that many of us and we tell our stories to each other over and over, now we are referring to them by numbers only, or punch lines, or sometimes just a glance and we know what the story is. In some circles this is considered an advantage and a gift, but generally not here. We always think more indicates better. I am not troubled by this at all.
Generally in these kinds of places you kind of want new people to hear your stories, etc., so it’s good good to be in this space this year, a new space, the Queen’s royal palace, with some new people so here come the old stories that you have never heard. New stories for you. The Queen knows of course all stories, but there are not that many to know.
How many stories are there anyway – two three four five six stories and variations thereof, that’s it.
I asked my friend Howard who was actually compiling a book of all the Jewish stories and he wanted to start with a kind of grid in which to fit the stories into: he began with ten. That’s how he developed his book. He identified ten basic stories and then he fit all the variations of those stories into those ten basic categories. I love the way Howard thinks. It would not occur to me to begin with ten stories, or ten categories, but that’s just how Howard developed his book.
I asked Google how many stories are there? There are as few as three and often ten, with an infinitude of variations, but three or seven or ten, that’s it. Seven basic plots, there are many opinions that cite seven basic plots in all of world literature.
The rags to riches is one, like Cinderella, Joseph in Egypt. The hero returning home, like the Odyssey is another. Beowulf, a big monster terrorizes a town and is beaten back by a local hero, like Jaws. The ancient Greeks pretty much laid out all of them. I asked Aristotle and he agreed: we had them all, he said, that’s what I was describing in the Poetics.
I read the Poetics in the original in Arizona the same year as I learned how to juggle. I was a young man then, I’m so much younger than that now. The man who taught me the Greek of Aristotle has long ago died. He held student hours lying down on the floor of his office on an old sleeping bag. I acquired, I think, the old sleeping bag habit from him. He traveled the Old West with his father who stopped in saloons and recited the Classics. Now that’s good academic training.
Rome added a little to the Greek pantheon of stories, after all before the United States Rome was the only Republic to become a world power. Where did Shakespeare get his material? I asked him: I was a good reader, he said. The Greeks, the Romans. He had a good working knowledge of the classical world, was familiar with Ovid, and the historians of his own time, and some little known sources that he elevated such as Othello and Hamlet. Some good poets. He was a natural. And of course the Hebrew Bible.
The Hebrew Bible has been the greatest source of Story for millennia. Torah you know means teaching. There is more story than law in Torah. Deuteronomy lots of laws. Leviticus story and laws. Genesis story. Exodus story. Numbers story. Torah is heavy heavy with story.
Then there is commentary. We have more commentary than we do story. My teacher sat in front of the class with two books before him, the Chumash (the Torah) the written tradition and the Talmud which is the oral tradition. What’s Juda—ism? he asked. He tapped the Talmud; This is Juda–ism, he said. He meant there is more commentary than there is Source. The written tradition is closed, these words I am speaking to you right now are part of the oral tradition. The written tradition is behind those doors on the eastern wall of the Queen’s royal palace. Right there.
Everything we say tonight, and everything we don’t say and will leave for the future, will enter the oral tradition. My teacher used to call it tapping the mind of God, and then he did not tap his own head. Though I did see him blow the clouds away one day as we were walking down the street in southwest Ohio. Or maybe somebody told me the story.
The Written Tradition is called Torah she’bich-tav, written, and the oral Torah Torah she b’al peh, Torah of the mouth. I am a great contributor to Torah of the mouth, not because I’m a big yenta but because I love to write. Everything I write is Torah of the mouth, Torah she b’al peh, even though it’s written; Torah she-bikh-tav is closed and everything I think I am creating probably fits into one or another of the categories anyway. Seven stories, ten by Howard’s count, etc.
Most of my stories are in the category of I am stupid and I learned something fantastic from my teacher and what I learned saved me. I return to the place of my learning, I am disappointed and saddened by the passage of time, I mourn the passing and realize that I have come a long long way since then but there is always some sadness in growing up. These are coming of age stories.
I also call them dying into life stories. Something has to die for something to be born. They are all over the Hebrew Bible, in the stories of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs, prophets and crazy people, and in the Talmud our holy rebbes and their sacred preoccupations. A lot of my stories have to do with the underbelly of the merit of the ancestors: the messes those who have been before us have left. I often feel as if all of us are trying to clean up the messes from the past.
That’s another large category in my stories: we are cleaning up the messes we have made, or inherited, some of us for generations. This is the dark side of z’khut avot; what we inherit from the past that we do NOT pass on. It ends with me. We don’t talk about that side that much. I do.
Thank goodness this is a new crowd otherwise I might do nothing but tell my own little stories and those who know me might look at each other and say, number 3, or just look at each other make a face and know the whole story before I’ve finished the second line.
Arthur Hibbert, genius medievalist, gave Salman Rushdie a piece of advice when he studied under him at Cambridge: You must never write history, he said, until you can hear the people speak.
I am always listening and I think that’s excellent advice for any kind of writing: don’t write until you can hear the people speak.
I’m going to wrap this up now. I am walking around ideas in a circle, pointing to the center which I honor more by pointing to it from all sides. Once I walked 360 degrees all around the ruin of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, before it became a monument and after it became a graveyard, from midnight to three AM and it was not until I finished the circum-ambulation did I have a sense of the horror and the wonder of that place. Every year I unpack the story to remind myself.
Here it is another year. We have done a similar circum-ambulation in time. We have circled the center; I would like to respond to Yeats by claiming the center holds but something is moving and it’s more than my legs. Everything is in flux.
I stumble over the phrase “Happy New Year” saying and hearing because I don’t celebrate this seam with noisemakers, confetti and resolutions. Instead, I sense the movement. The most I do is strike a posture, assume an intention: I enter the year with this intention, this posture, this direction it’s called a kavanah in the holy tongue. A direction, It is somewhat rising, I suppose, but it’s more like the circus elephant I used to wash who had that inexorable movement that somehow suggested to me even then when I was young and it hardly mattered – time.
That elephant moved in such a way that communicated more to me about time than I will ever articulate. I thought it then, I think it now. Go watch an elephant sway and feel how that’s time and being intersecting. I often find myself moving that way when I am listening for someone’s voice or when I pray. Always when I pray. When I sing or play the oud. That sway.
Everything moves. The center elusive, does it hold? What is it slouching toward Bethlehem and why is Israel always the omphalos, the belly button? Let Ashtabulah be the omphalos for a while. It was from Ashtabulah that Meyer Lansky taught my Uncle card tricks and embarked onto Lake Erie and took the pleasure boat customers for their hard-earned dollars. Nobody in the world knows that story except me.
There, now you know everything I know: time, the elusive center, the secret of bathing elephants, that sway, the fact that there is no such thing as organized crime, the desire to be peripheral and not central, the ascent of our lives the gentle sway as we move up the spiral towards the comfort of irrelevance.
Have a nice year.
He was beginning to see that this. . . would be his real subject, the one he would worry away at for the rest of his career: the great question of how the world joins up—not only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live.
In his notebook, he wrote, “How does newness enter the world?”
— Salman Rushdie