ROART » The Jewish Student

ROART

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I met the Jewish Student a few months after Matti died – in a room on the second floor of a New York brownstone facing 11th Street: a square room about 4 meters wide and 4 meters long, with bookshelves all around and a large desk with many dictionaries on it in front of a southern window. To the left of the entrance, on the file cabinet facing the desk, hung a reproduction of the last self-portrait of Rembrandt, welcoming the guests.

I met the Jewish Student in Matti’s last notebook; the one he was writing during the last five years of his life, notes for a book he called “The Shabtai”. In it he imagined himself to be one of the followers of Shabtai Zsvi, the false messiah, arriving in Amsterdam in 1656 and meeting Baruch Spinoza and Rembrandt. Matti chose that year for a reason: 1656 was the year Spinoza was excommunicated and Rembrandt declared bankruptcy. He imagined meeting them at the house of Van Der Enden, Rembrandt’s patron, who taught Spinoza Latin and mathematics. In careful detail, he imagined a love story between Spinoza and Van Der Enden’s daughter. He thoroughly researched the life of the Jews in Amsterdam, and studied the lives of Rembrandt and Spinoza. He decided that Rembrandt’s painting, Head of a Jewish Student, is a portrait of Spinoza.

Matti taught my mother poetry. Before I was born, he taught her how to read a poem, that the only way to read a poem is to connect to it, to feel it. If it does not touch you, he said, leave it. I felt that the painting is my poem; my path into Matti’s thought, into his book The Darkened Light, into his understanding of the Zohar, into his life.

I saw the Jewish Student but wanted to meet him in person, to speak with him, to have him tell me about Matti. We finally met in Texas at the wonderful Kimball Art Museum. Facing me, the left half of his face in the light and the right side in darkness, wearing his simple clothes and a Jewish or perhaps a scholar’s head cover. But his eye, the left eye in the light, was not looking at me. Although open wide there was no spark inside it, no revelation, perhaps no life. But the other eye, the one in the darkness, had the spark and looked at me.

Erwin Panofsky, the great art critic, describes the student in a 1920 lecture: “This too is transcendent; there is virtually nothing we can say about this human being, other than he is a human being. These near expressionless features no longer betray anything of that which he as a real person may have experienced, or may still be experiencing, nor anything that we might expect from him were we able to meet him during his lifetime; the eyes seem neither joyful nor sad, nor describable by any psychological term at all. Even words like pensive or ‘lost in thought’ would not suffice. The expression in these eyes has no more empirical meaning than their gaze has an empirical object.”

With the guidance of the student I discovered that 17th century Amsterdam in general, and Rembrandt’s life and the painting in particular, were of great interest to Jewish German intellectuals between the first and second World Wars; they drew attention to the polyglot society of early modern Amsterdam as being a decisive factor in the cultural achievement of Holland’s golden age. Julius Bab, a theater critic and founder of the Teresinshtat ghetto theater during World War II, believed that only in these conditions – of tolerance, acceptance and multi-culturalism – could the Christian Rembrandt and the Jewish Spinoza reach the foundation of their own nature and all human nature.

For Erwin Panofsky “It was not so much a movement but an attitude that can be defined as the conviction of the dignity of man, based on the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty). From this two postulates result – responsibility and tolerance.” For the early 20th century Jews Rembrandt’s openness to the presence of Jews in Holland became an ideal for negating the Anti-Semitism of their time.

Rembrandt lived with Jews and painted them; in his first period he painted them as exotic and paid attention to their unique and different features. In his second period he concentrated on the subject and character of the person (whether an old rabbi or a young bride) and the details of the settings and framework of the events. Panofsky writes of the third period: “In his late style, the Jews become for him the privileged representatives of that spiritual state which lies beyond all immediate emotion and also beyond the purely individual. The contrast of body and soul, repose and motion, space and time, type and individual, are raised sub specie aeternitalis. In this respect the contemporary philosophy of Baruch Spinoza provides a parallel to Rembrandt’s late paintings.”

The literal meaning of the Latin phrase sub specie aeternitalis is “under the aspect of eternity”, or more prosaically, “in its essential form”… but it is also, from Spinoza onwards, an honorific expression describing “what is universally and eternally true…” In the student, continues Panofsky, “we see expressed the timeless and unfathomable depth of the soul which, beyond the borders of the individual consciousness has been subsumed into a consciousness of all, now appearing only as a form of that ancient substance which metaphysics, depending on its standpoint, describes as being divinity. The late Rembrandt gives the human being such depth as to make it give up its individuality in god. Conversely, from this time he discovers god in human being itself.”

A successor to this line of thought and yet a Hebrew-speaking poet and a rebellious student of Gershom Scholem, Matti assumes three languages of interiority. The first one is logic, the abstract language best represented for him by the work of Spinoza, and perhaps most of all in Spinoza’s correspondence and letters with his students and friends. The second is the physical language, represented by the plastic world of sculpture and painting, most of all by Rembrandt and his portraits. The third is a magical mixture of the first two; the metaphoric language of poetry found in the work of the unknown poet of the Zohar.

To explore the relation of these three languages I took a journey through The Darkened Light, Matti’s 1979 book in Hebrew which examines the esthetic values of the Zohar. I concentrated on the three chapters at the heart of the book: The Mystical Story and his Heroes, Rashbi and the Cave; Myth, Tale and their Formation; and the Secret Power of Language.

In the Zohar, the divine characters of the mystical story, the tzadiks, are stripped .of all human qualities, human interests and of any relation to the living. Deeply involved only with their passion for discovery and seeking mystical inspiration, they are emptied of all human action and existence. By mixing and blending historical facts, names and characters (inspired mostly by the bible and The Talmud) and by displacing them from their traditional settings, the poetic author created an imaginary person worthy of telling his words of wisdom, and an imaginary world to accommodate his message.

The tzadik is portrayed over and over as being surrounded by golden fire or sparks of light; his words of wisdom are part of a bright, loud explosion shaking the earth below and reaching the heavens above. Repeated time after time, the theme of light transforms from its original decorative nature to become the essence of the tzadik’s mission; the light emerges from his face.

The mission of the abstract light is to enlighten the world; and yet in the Zohar this magical moment of enlightenment is also the moment of the tzadik’s death. The author resolves this tension by abandoning the world of logic and choosing to communicate through the infinite world of metaphor and symbolism. Instead of explaining the source of the light he uses the Talmudic story of the cave, but with a new twist – for the poetic author the cave becomes a source of light and a metaphor for a process of enlightenment.

Light emerges from the darkness. The cave symbolizes the human body in this world, the dark world of reality and image. The soul of the human being has to reside in the dark cave in order to feel the desire to emerge.. The act of redemption or enlightenment is impossible without an acknowledgment of the darkness and the constant expectation, the concentration of all of the soul’s powers to emerge from the dark. Once the cave becomes the place of the tzadik and at the same time the source of his identity, it has a dual meaning: the glow emerging from the cave represents both the tzadik’s ambivalent role in illuminating the world, and at the same time his responsibility for hiding the light to preserve it for a precise place and time.

Thus leaving the cave is like a separation from the body, and the experience of the divine and higher spiritual life is linked to the occurrence of death and the fear of it. Every discovery is by definition a testimony to the tension in the tzadik’s life; knowing and accepting the limitations of existence yet at the same time devoting his life to conquer and overcome them.

To prevail over the infinite contradictions and tensions between the real word of imagery and the metaphoric world of language, the author of the Zohar had to invent a unique and new language. According to Matti there are two essential qualities to this unique invention; the first is that the language is not only a tool to describe the mystical process but an integral part of the process itself. And second is the tremendous effort by the Zohar’s author to give the language the ability to reveal what it cannot describe; to create sentences and poetic combinations which can discover and hide at the same time.

The author of the Zohar perceives the Hebrew word or, which means light, as the beginning of language. He describes in detail the creation of the letters in a process of light and darkness, and understands words to be the meaning of existence. For him seeing the meaning of existence through the world of letters is a secret accessible only to the eyes of the worthy ones. He conceives of two eyes; the open eye and the closed eye. Yet for him it is the closed eye which sees the reflection of light, while the open eye sees the reflection of darkness. It is the closed eye that sees what a human being cannot say with his words, the closed eye that feels, the keeper of the darkened light.

The darkened light is the light found in a place which locates god and divine processes far from any logical abstraction. The moment when logic fails is the time for the imagination to flourish, battling with the unknown through the world of contradictions and opposites. The silence of the philosopher and the painter are the foundation for the poet’s words; language is the supreme tool to mediate between the seen physical realities and the spiritual existence of the inner eye.

This is the secret of seeing and the essence of the poet; from the images he sees in this world he is able, if he is worthy, to capture a vision of the spiritual world and paint it in letters and words. A poem is a painting realized through the secret of language and the power of each word to enfold within itself all worlds.

Matti was a poet forming a state, one of the generation which gave birth to twins the state of Israel and the secular Hebrew. Yet more than anyone else he understood the danger as expressed in the words of his great teacher Gershom Scholem; “Ancient Hebrew became the language of youth, the only choice of a generation, forming a new place. However the flow of the spoken language became disappointing in front of the childhood babbling of the holy words. Every word, which was not invented, but taken from the good old treasure, is loaded with dynamite. God will not stay silent in the language he has been sworn and asked again and again to come back into our lives.”

I met Matti Megged eleven years ago; we always spoke Hebrew with each other. I think it was his real love. Of all the things he taught me and the words we played with, one will stay with me for ever. It is the word saf, which in Hebrew means either entry or exit, depending on the context of the sentence. A threshold of light; a dangerous yet irresistibly inspiring place for the Jewish student.