Golem--The Recipe For Life

 

The best-known–shaped from the clay of the River Moldau, by Rabbi Loew of Prague, to be a servant or protector of the ghetto–is the most dubious, having largely been devised and popularized by a series of novelists and film-makers over the past 100 or so years. The most ancient is Adam, the original lump of earth into which, on the sixth day of creation, the inspiration of the Divine Name was breathed. But the story of the golem has a hundred variants, from the clay calf that was summoned to life and promptly eaten by two hungry rabbis, Hanina and Oshaya, in Babylonia two thousand years ago, to such refinements as von Frankenstein’s golem of quilted corpses, and Gepetto’s wooden son. As I worked on my forthcoming novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, I discovered that its plot would require the famous Golem of Prague to play a small but crucial role. Once this surprising fact had become apparent to me, I went looking for information on golems. What I found was an insight into the nature of novel-writing itself.

All golem hunters inevitably end up at the feet of the brilliant Gershom Scholem, whose essay, "The Idea of the Golem," probes dauntingly deep into the remote, at times abstruse sources of the enduring motif of the man of clay brought to life by enchantment. Enchantment, of course, is the work of language; of spell and spiel. A golem is brought to life by means of magic formulae, one word at a time. In some accounts, the animating Name of God is inscribed on the golem’s forehead, in others, the Name is written on a tablet, and tucked under the blank gray tongue of the golem. Sometimes the magical word is the Hebrew word for truth, emet; to kill the golem, in this case–to inactivate him–you must erase the initial letter aleph from his brow, leaving only met: dead.

There is good reason, in Scholem’s view, to believe that some accounts of the making of golems are factual. Certain rabbis and adepts during the medieval heyday of kabbalah–those who long pondered the Sefer Yetsirah or Book of Creation–culminated their studies and proved their aptitude at enchantment by actually making a golem. There were specific guidelines and rituals; recipes, as it were, for golem making. The rabbis did not expect to get a tireless servant, or even a square meal, out of these trials. The ritual itself was the point of the exercise; performing it–reciting long series of complicated alphabetic permutations while walking in circles around the slumbering lump of clay–would induce a kind of ecstatic state, as the adept assumed a privilege ordinarily reserved for God alone: the making of a world. It was analogical magic: as the kabbalist is to God, so is a golem to all creation: a model, a miniature replica, a mirror–like the novel–of the world.

Much of the enduring power of the golem story stems from its ready, if romantic, analogy to the artist’s relation to his or her work. And over the years it has attracted many writers who have seen the metaphorical possibilities in it. On the surface, the analogy may seem facile. The idea of the novelist as the little God of his creation–present partout et visible nulle part–is a key tenet of the traditional novelist, one that Robert Coover explored and exploded, once and for all, it might have been thought, in his The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. But what gripped me, as I read and re-read Scholem’s essay, was not the metaphor or allegory of the nature of making golems and novels, but that of the consequences thereof.

"Golem-making is dangerous;" Scholem writes, "like all major creation it endangers the life of the creator–the source of danger, however, is not the golem... but the man himself." From the golem that grew so large that it collapsed, killing a certain Rabbi Elijah in Poland, to Frankenstein’s monster, golems frequently end by threatening or even taking the lives of their creators.

When I read these words I saw at once a connection to my own work. Anything good that I have written has, at some point during its composition, left me feeling uneasy and afraid. It has seemed, for a moment at least, to put me at risk.

Of course there have been and remain writers for whom the act of writing a novel or poem is fatal, whose words are used to condemn and to crush them. I just returned from a tour of parts of the former Soviet Union, where I met writers who once had to weigh every word they wrote for its inherent power to destroy them; during my stay I was reading the stories of Isaac Babel, imprisoned and executed not only for his words but also, according to Lionel Trilling, for his silence, too. Compared to the fate of a Babel, the danger I have courted in my own writing hardly seems worthy of the name.

For me–a lucky man living in a lucky time in the luckiest country in the world–it always seems to come down to a question of exposure. As Scholem writes, "The danger is not that the golem... will develop overwhelming powers; it lies in the tension which the creative process arouses in the creator himself." Sometimes I fear to write, even in fictional form, about things that really happened to me, about things that I really did, or about the numerous unattractive, cruel, or embarrassing thoughts that I have at one time or another entertained. Just as often, I find myself writing about disturbing or socially questionable acts and states of mind that have no real basis in my life at all, but which, I am afraid, people will, quite naturally, attribute to me when they read what I have written. Even if I assume that readers will be charitable enough to absolve me from personally having done or thought such things–itself a dubious assumption, given my own reprehensible tendency as a reader to see autobiography in the purest of fictions–the mere fact that I could even imagine someone’s having done or thought them, whispers my fear, is damning in itself.

When I wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I feared–correctly as it turned out–that people would think, reading the novel, that its author was gay. In part it was a fear of being misunderstood, misjudged, but in my apprehension there was a fairly healthy component of plain old homophobia; and the fear of homophobia. Turning in, to the Irvine writers’ workshop where I was working on my M.F.A., the portion of the novel containing a brief but vivid love scene between two men, remains one of the scariest moments of my life as a writer. In Wonder Boys, I presented a character whose feelings of envy, failure, and corroded romanticism, not to mention heavy reliance on marijuana to get the words flowing, seemed likely to amount, in the view of readers, to a less than appealing self-portrait. Again, my fears proved well-founded: on my recent northern European tour, the first question out of one interviewer’s mouth was: "Your Grady Tripp is full of drugs and having sex with many women. Mr. Chabon, how about you?" And there was the writing of "Green’ s Book." This story, of a man whose relations with his young daughter have been gravely damaged by his lingering guilt and shame over a childhood incident of baby-sitting gone awry, took me years to finish, so troubled was I by the conclusions I felt it might lead readers to come to about my own past and my behavior as a father.

Since reading "The Idea of the Golem," I have come to see this fear, this sense of my own imperilment by my creations, as not only an inevitable, necessary part of writing fiction but as virtual guarantor, insofar as such a thing is possible, of the power of my work: as a sign that I am on the right track, that I am following the recipe correctly, speaking the proper spells. Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed. Telling the truth, when the truth matters most, is almost always a frightening prospect. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves; if she doesn’t court disapproval, reproach and general wrath, whether of friends, family, or party apparatchiks; if the writer submits his work to an internal censor long before anyone else can get their hands on it, the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth. The adept handles the rich material, the rank river clay, and diligently intones his alphabetical spells, knowing full well the history of golems: how they break free of their creators, grow to unmanageable size and power, refuse to be controlled. In the same way, the writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s, is at once terribly imperfect and filled with astonishing life.


Originally published in The Washington Post Book World