Arts & Culture

Kissing and Reading

Let’s start today by talking about kissing. A kiss can be the most incredibly erotically charged gesture… or, when planted perfunctorily on the cheek of a great aunt, a mere gesture of familial affection. The reason the distinction is real … Read More

By / November 19, 2008

Let’s start today by talking about kissing. A kiss can be the most incredibly erotically charged gesture… or, when planted perfunctorily on the cheek of a great aunt, a mere gesture of familial affection. The reason the distinction is real is that the thing itself – the kiss, the pressing together of four lips – is basically an empty box… but a particularly strong one capable of bearing an exceptional amount of passion. That may be true – actually, it is true – but the difference between a strong empty box and an flimsy empty box isn’t really that profound or even that interesting. Or maybe it is profound in a certain sense, but not in a way most people will find all that important. Almost always, gestures are neutral acts capable of being invested with great or scant meaning. The kiss depends on the kisser! No one wants to receive an empty box as a present no matter how much weight it could theoretically bear.

The same thing is true about books. There are way more books in the world – works of fiction, I mean – than there are great plots. How many story lines are there, after all? Love thwarted and love consummated. Violence squelched or given in to. Justice administered or perverted. Children obeying or disobeying their parents.  Contests real and artificial yielding productive results or mere malign competitiveness. The difference between a great novel and a less great one is only very rarely that the great one presents the reading public with a story line that is totally new. (Even Moby Dick, the greatest American novel, had its anterior sources, incidentally.) That’s not to say that there’s never anything new under the sun…but how many examples can you name of books that present totally novel story lines?

So that brings me to my work in The Boy on the Door on the Ox. What’s "great" about great literature, as noted, isn’t that it presents plot lines no one has ever thought of before. Nor is does the greatness of great literature lie in the author’s ability to invent new words or a new kind of grammar. (Books like that do exist, but they mostly exist to irritate readers, then to live on as undergraduate reading assignments.) To my way of thinking, what makes books great is their authors’ consummate ability to commune with readers by investing even banal story lines with so much of their own personalities, of their own enduring presence, that readers even decades (or centuries) later can somehow commune with them through the medium of the written word. In other words, the point of reading Moby Dick isn’t to meet up with Ishmael or Queegqueg (fictional characters, both of them), but to meet Melville. And to transcend knowing of him and then to move on to knowing him in the intimate way great authors’ ghosts inhabit the minds of those who take their books to heart, who attempt to decode the text to turn it first into a mirror, then into a road, then finally into a door.  That’s gives the reader an edge (and, at that, a huge one) over the tourist. To meet the man Melville, you could, I guess, camp out on East Twenty-Sixth Street in Manhattan and hope that his ghost might float by to honor your vigil (Melville lived at number 104 from 1863 on). Or you can undertake to step outside of time entirely… and meet the writer through the medium of the written word.

It took me a long time to realize that the point of Mishnah study isn’t to learn this or that thing about ancient times, but to commune with the spiritual masters of antiquity through the medium of the literature they left behind. My own contribution to the effort is to have noticed that these books are studded with stories. Not long complex ones, to be sure. Most of the stories I write about are a sentence or two long, some less than that. The personalities depicted in them, however, are wan and incredibly alluring, somehow, at the same time. They hardly do anything.  None is given a name. Most are not heard to say a single word. They appear formally in the text to illustrate some point–usually some incredibly arcane point–of the law. But by taking them seriously as literary characters according to the method I worked out and tried to apply, it turned out to be possible to commune not with the characters themselves, who don’t exist any more really than Queegqueg or Ishmael, but with the authors of the texts in which they are preserved.  And, really, that’s what my book is about. Reading ancient books like the Mishnah as literary works usually means subjecting them to the kind of withering analysis only a graduate student could love. My contribution is to have noticed that taking books like the Mishnah seriously as literary works can also mean using their stories, even the incredibly brief ones I like the most, as a means of communing with the authors of those stories. I suppose I’ll find out later on if I was successful. But I think I was. And I wrote the book to explain why I think that…and how I think that others, possibly, could profitably follow me in this and find their own guides on their own journeys by mining in the same quarry that I did… and do.

Martin Samuel Cohen, author of The Boy on the Door on the Ox, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.