Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bruce Duffy

Bruce Duffy [Steve McCurry's Blog]

from Bruce Duffy's The World As I Found It:

Even as they entered, he could feel the place envelop him like a vapor with a smell of heavy, overcooked food, privation and dust. The lady taking tickets, old and wigged, with big bosoms, conspicuously switched from Yiddish to German, putting the interlopers on notice that they had been spotted. Eyeing the overblown placard for the play, showing a giant Jew with maniacal eyes throttling some stricken Gentile, he again wondered, Why did they huddle so, these people? And all the while he kept hearing this coarse, splattery jargon, so animated, with that catarrh as though a fishbone were stuck in the throat. There was a man selling hot tea from a samovar and another vending sticky cakes and ices. And the eating — everybody eating, gnawing apples and chewing sweet crackling dumplings from greasy sheets of brown paper. And that marshy barn-warmth of people huddling. It was too close for him.

Can't we sit down? he asked suddenly.

If you wish, Gretl faced him. You're all right?

This was his chance, but as they entered the little theater, his pride prevented him from admitting that he felt ill. Doubling as a hall for weddings, brisses and bar mitzvahs, it was a dusty little place that had the feeling and smell of a gutted pumpkin, what with the peeling paint and tattered wall coverings. On the stage, behind an open halfhearted curtain, was a crudely painted backdrop of a ghetto scene — listing huts and stoops, a fence.

Gretl, incorrigible guide, was saying: The play is based on the legend — you've heard it, the legend of the golem of Prague? It has a factual basis. In Prague in the 1700s, the Jews were being blood-libeled by Christians. It happened quite routinely. A Christian might swear a Jew had stolen his child to use the blood to make matzos. There would be a pogram or the Jew might be burned at the stake —

Yes, yes, he said suddenly. You needn't rehearse this for me.

Fine! Gretl swung around.

Sorry for his rudeness, he said, I didn't mean to be short with you. Striving for a more conciliatory tone, he said, The golem — it's a kind of beast or something, isn't it?

But Gretl wouldn't answer, and he sat there, feeling impossible even to himself while trying to graciously decline some sort of seed cake that an agreeable but insistent old man was pushing at him. Then, in the din of the outer hall, a man could be heard shouting — the play was about to start. The crowd flooded through the doors. People were squeezing around them, when Wittgenstein suddenly realized he was much too close to the coal stove, which a man had just stoked, giving the grate a good rattle as he spat and clamped it shut. The room was packed. Wittgenstein didn't think he'd be able to stand this heat pulsing along his back as the lights dimmed and the play began. Lumbering across the stage, bent low, a black-bearded butcher with a bloody smock was hauling over his back the papier-mâché carcass of a slaughtered pig. Already Wittgenstein was hating it, feeling a hot constriction. Beast! cried someone in the front row. The audience hissed. Muttering his foul plans, the villainous butcher stole into the graveyard, where he stuffed the body of a Christian child into the pig's carcass, then left it where one of his henchmen would claim to find it — the blood work of the Jew.

The play was bad, but the schtick acting was even worse, as false and buffoonish as the actors' puttied noses, horsehair beards and gestures heavenward at the least provocation. No art here. This was no play, and this was not the famed Vilna Troupe. These actors were only people cut from the herd to act out the fears of the herd huddled here to be told of their humiliations, disasters and small triumphs between disasters. Listing and crooked, billowing with every draft, even the slapdash huts of that ghetto backdrop took on an unintended nightmarishness to Wittgenstein, in whose mind the play paradoxically carried more weight than even the playwright knew, let alone these actors. Unable to take refuge behind critical judgments, Wittgenstein now found himself naked before the legend, the heat licking up his back as Rabbi Loew, known as the Maharal, dreamed of creating a golem who would destroy the butcher, the sorcerer-priest Thaddeus and all the enemies of Israel.

Resisting the onslaught of this stealthy dream, Wittgenstein closed then opened his eyes, felt his hands tingle and the blood slowly drain from his head while the rabbi and his cohorts met in the darkness to create their golem. Sweeping a pile of dust into the form of a man, they walked seven times around the mound, circling from left to right while reciting cabalistic incantations. When the spotlight went out, a woman in the audience let out an involuntary cry; then in the audience there was a nervous buzzing and rattling of paper as onstage, under a growing stain of light, the dust pile began to move.

Behold! howled the Maharal. Behold! trumpeted Isaac ben Shimshon ha-Cohan, clutching his breast the better to upstage the Maharal, as meanwhile Cohen's disciple, Jacob ben Chayyim ha-Levi, tripped on his flowing robes. Rearing back in stupefied grease-paint amazement, they looked up, their fingers like gnarled branches, as he drunkenly arose on woodblocks, a gaping giant seven feet tall.

Yosele Golem, the people called him. Mindless mute idiot. Being without soul. A heavy lump with a fringe of dark hair, the young man who played the golem had no talent, but then the part called for a lifeless nothing. Wittgenstein was overwhelmed. It was not what the actor brought or didn't bring to the role; it was Wittgenstein's own emptiness that brought the golem to life. The proscenium disappeared: down came the screen that shields the viewer from the engulfment of seeing. This was not a matter of disbelief willingly suspended. Wittgenstein was now so inexorably drawn to the golem's pain that there was nothing to hold him back, his mind guttering like a candle as the play lumbered along.

Yosele Golem, he knew nothing, did nothing but what he was told, clopping along so trustingly on clubbed feet. When the Rebbitzen, the Maharal's wife, told the golem to carry water, he carried it, bucket after bucket, until she opened the door and was blown back with a whoosh of imaginary water. Oy! Up went the hands, more schtick. Even for Gretl this was too much. Feeling the heat herself, she nudged him, whispering that she was ready to leave. But he waved her off. Why? she asked. He was staying only to spite her, as the golem predictably caught the butcher red-handed, then exposed the wicked priest Thaddeus.

Ludi, she whispered, giving him a nudge. Can't we go, please?

But he still didn't hear, knowing no more than the golem did why he carried these empty buckets. What happened then? Why did Wittgenstein feel this paralysis when onstage the Maharal said that the golem, having avenged Israel, must return like Adam to the dust. And why was the golem so compliant, showing an almost stupefied relief when the rabbi bade him lie down so they could unweave his frail life. Dump and trusting, the golem just lay there, staring up almost sweetly as they circled him, this time walking in the opposite direction while covering him with crumbling pages torn from old prayer books.

Gretl's first thought was that Wittgenstein was mocking the ending when he lapsed back in his seat with his arms sprawling. Everything stopped then. Looking around helplessly as some men laid him, pale and sweating, across three chairs, Gretl realized that the whole play had stopped. Even the golem was watching, sitting up in his nest of paper, when Wittgenstein finally sat up, saying in a groggy, underwater voice, I'm fine . . . Thank you, I'm fine . . . Please, let me up . . .

For five minutes he was captive to their solicitousness. For five hard minutes he was the play, Yosele Golem. Later, Wittgenstein remembered a bald and bespectacled doctor peering into his eyes as some woman brought up a cup of warming water and a cookie for his blood sugar. Staring into that bower of faces, his ears tipped with piquant mortification, Wittgenstein felt like a figure in a manger. Out of the sky he had fallen in with these queer folk and their play. Happy applause when it was announced that the young man was all right. Under dimming lights, the play then resumed. And then once more the crumbling paper came flaking down, mounting and drifting like old dust, slowly covering the golem's somnolent face as one dream seamlessly merged with the other.

Ludwig Wittgenstein [A Piece of Monologue]

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