Bob Schwartz

Tag: Literature

Movies and Fairy Tales: Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”
Joan Didion, The White Album

Joan Didion is one of the great essayists, and The White Album may be her finest essay. It gave title to a superb collection published in 1979. The White Album is about the entwinement of her life and life in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both of which she reflects on as being strange and even surreal.

Los Angeles in the late 1960s is also the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Up a Time…In Hollywood. The center of the film is the event mentioned in Didion’s quote above: the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in the Hollywood Hills by members of the Manson Family. But is about much more than that.

The title of Once Upon a Time gives away just what kind of story this is. It is a fairy tale. Fairy tales are not either absolutely light or dark. As modern scholars now regularly say, fairy tales are meant to reflect something about ourselves—who we are, what we need—and in that sense could not be just light or dark. They are merely true.

The opening paragraph of The White Album is one of the best explanations of story ever written:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

If you are a fan of some or all of Tarantino’s movies, you are already planning to see Once Upon a Time. If you are not a fan, or affirmatively dislike Tarantino, you should consider seeing it anyway. As with other movies that play with Hollywood as story (Robert Altman’s The Player is an excellent example), the inescapable point is that Hollywood makes things up, even as the movies may attempt to reflect actuality, because that is what they do. They tell and sell fairy tales. Light and dark. As long as we appreciate the subtle differences and similarities between actuality and story, we can be entertained and the better for it. We do, as Didion writes, tell ourselves stories in order to live.

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Heart of Darkness: A Flabby Devil of Pitiless Folly

“I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men—men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The Maddening Sound of Guilt: Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart

I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!
Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) is the story of someone who murders an old man, dismembers and hides the body beneath the floor boards, and is then driven to confess by the sound of the still beating heart.

A lesson for those who hide the truth and think they have nothing to fear. Even for the conscience-free, this is how it ends, with the police at the door.


From The Tell-Tale Heart:

As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart,—for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbor during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.

I smiled,—for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search—search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct:—it continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.

No doubt I now grew very pale;—but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!—

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

William Goldman Dies at 87

“As a writer I believe that all the basic human truths are known. And what we try to do as best we can is come at those truths from our own unique angle, to reilluminate those truths in a hopefully different way.”
William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

New York Times:

William Goldman, who won Academy Awards for his screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men” and who, despite being one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters, was an outspoken critic of the movie industry, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 87.

In his long career, which began in the 1960s and lasted into the 21st century, Mr. Goldman also wrote the screenplays for popular films like “Misery,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Chaplin.” He was a prolific novelist as well, and several of his screenplays were adapted from his own novels, notably “The Princess Bride” and “Marathon Man.”

There are plenty of reasons to admire William Goldman—as a writer and as a writer who cast a realistic light on writing—but nothing is higher than The Princess Bride.

The movie, written by Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, is a gem, worth watching at least once a year. But in its own way, his novel from which he adapted the screenplay, is even better.

If you know the movie, it is a comic romance and adventure set in a fantasy kingdom, framed by a grandfather reading this story to his grandson. But the novel is much more meta. Goldman places himself in the novel, as a writer with a fictionalized family, condensing and adapting a book by S. Morgenstern that his father had read to him, which adaptation is…The Princess Bride. The trick that Goldman pulls off is that you come away believing that everything he has told you—about his career, his family, the non-existent book by the non-existent S. Morgenstern—are all true.

The bigger trick—the bigger truth—is that everything he wrote in The Princess Bride is absolutely true. Even though he made it all up. If you are a writer or a reader, and don’t fully understand that, read William Goldman, starting with The Princess Bride.

Tilted Room

Tilted Room

Dreams are the tilted room
In the funhouse of sleep.
Outside (you hope)
The world is still level
But when you exit this way
You feel yourself
Falling over.

©

Note: Writing this poem, I realized that some readers have never experienced a funhouse, or even know what it is. It was an essential part of carnivals and amusement parks, before amusement parks became theme parks (and, presumably, amusement became themes). It is an awesome way for children to learn that things are not what they seem, but that that could be simultaneously fun and scary.

And in the spirit of tail wagging dog, or note wagging poem, note that funhouse also served as a titular inspiration for an important but now pretty neglected work of fiction. John Barth’s collection of short pieces Lost in the Funhouse (1968) is considered “a major landmark of experimental fiction.” Barth is better known for novels (often long novels) such as Giles Goat Boy (“a fantasy of theology, sociology, and sex”), but Lost in the Funhouse is an easy introduction to the early days of what is now called postmodern fiction. (A seriously misleading and meaningless conceit, since Joyce and others had been writing weird and wonderful formally transgressive things for decades, writing that delights and defies total comprehension.)

Anyway, Barth writes that the first piece in Funhouse, Frame-Tale “happens to be, I believe, the shortest short story in the English language (ten words); on the other hand, it’s endless.” Endless because it is a Moebius strip:

The rest of the collection, and his novels, are not so brief, filled with many more words of charged and challenging writing:

“One way or another, no matter which theory of our journey is correct, it’s myself I address; to whom I rehearse as to a stranger our history and condition, and will disclose my secret hope though I sink for it.

“Is the journey my invention? Do the night, the sea, exist at all, I ask myself, apart from my experience of them? Do I myself exist, or is this a dream? Sometimes I wonder. And if I am, who am I? The Heritage I supposedly transport? But how can I be both vessel and contents? Such are the questions that beset my intervals of rest.

“My trouble is, I lack conviction. Many accounts of our situation seem plausible to me—where and what we are, why we swim and whither. But implausible ones as well, perhaps especially those, I must admit as possibly correct. Even likely. If at times, in certain humors—stroking in unison, say, with my neighbors and chanting with them ‘Onward! Upward!’—I have supposed that we have after all a common Maker, Whose nature and motives we may not know, but Who engendered us in some mysterious wise and launched us forth toward some end known but to Him—if (for a moodslength only) I have been able to entertain such notions, very popular in certain quarters, it is because our night-sea journey partakes of their absurdity. One might even say: I can believe them because they are absurd.

From Night-Sea Journey

Frankenstein: The Republican Creature

“The Creature showed unparalleled malignity and selfishness in evil; he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom; nor do I know where this thirst for vengeance may end. Miserable himself that he may render no other wretched, he ought to die. The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed.”
Frankenstein

I was at first touched by the expressions of his misery; yet, when I called to mind what Frankenstein had said of his powers of eloquence and persuasion, and when I again cast my eyes on the lifeless form of my friend, indignation was rekindled within me. “Wretch!” I said. “It is well that you come here to whine over the desolation that you have made. You throw a torch into a pile of buildings, and when they are consumed, you sit among the ruins and lament the fall.”
Frankenstein

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s monumental work of modern literature. The characters and story have been fashioned into hundreds of forms, some truer to the original than others. One basic element is inescapable: the story of a skilled technician trying to create something new, only to discover that the Creature is ultimately destructive of much that is cherished and good.

That is where the Republican Party finds itself with Trump. Admittedly, Trump has more fans than Victor Frankenstein’s Creature ever did, but is similarly an uncontrollable force of twisted nature.

In the final chapter of Frankenstein, Captain Walton concludes the narrative letters that chronicle his passenger Victor Frankenstein’s relating the tale of the Creature he created:

You have read this strange and terrific story, Margaret; and do you not feel your blood congeal with horror, like that which even now curdles mine?…

Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation, but on this point he was impenetrable. “Are you mad, my friend?” said he. “Or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you also create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy? Peace, peace! Learn my miseries and do not seek to increase your own.”…

“Oh! My friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognize me in this state of degradation. Despondency rarely visited my heart; a high destiny seemed to bear me on, until I fell, never, never again to rise.”…

“If I were engaged in any high undertaking or design, fraught with extensive utility to my fellow creatures, then could I live to fulfil it. But such is not my destiny; I must pursue and destroy the being to whom I gave existence; then my lot on earth will be fulfilled and I may die.”…

“He [the Creature] showed unparalleled malignity and selfishness in evil; he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom; nor do I know where this thirst for vengeance may end. Miserable himself that he may render no other wretched, he ought to die. The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed.”…

I entered the cabin where lay the remains of my ill-fated and admirable friend. Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe — gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions. As he hung over the coffin, his face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair; but one vast hand was extended, in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy. When he heard the sound of my approach, he ceased to utter exclamations of grief and horror and sprung towards the window. Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome yet appalling hideousness….

I was at first touched by the expressions of his misery; yet, when I called to mind what Frankenstein had said of his powers of eloquence and persuasion, and when I again cast my eyes on the lifeless form of my friend, indignation was rekindled within me. “Wretch!” I said. “It is well that you come here to whine over the desolation that you have made. You throw a torch into a pile of buildings, and when they are consumed, you sit among the ruins and lament the fall.”

Will Eisner Week

Will Eisner (1917-2005) was a pioneer in the comic art form, the godfather of the graphic novel with publication of A Contract with God (1978), a teacher and theoretician of the medium with publication of Comics and Sequential Art (1985). The major award in the medium is named after him.

This is officially his week.

I see myself age 7, standing on a corner in the Bronx, reading a Superboy comic book I had just bought at the candy store. I couldn’t wait to get it back to our apartment.

I didn’t know then that comic books would shape me as much as any other cultural influence. I didn’t know that comic books would evolve into “real” literature in the form of graphic novels. I didn’t know that by 2018 comic books and graphic novels would end up being the multi-billion dollar backbone of the movie and TV industry.

I didn’t know about Will Eisner either, but I would learn that he, more than any other person, was responsible for the breakthrough that turned cheap disposable entertainment for kids into a major art form of the twentieth—and now the twenty-first—century.

The poster for Will Eisner Week says “Read a Graphic Novel!” If you haven’t ever, you should.

As with all literature, “best” is a matter of taste and interest. For me, and for many others, it is Watchmen (1986) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Time magazine listed it as one of the 100 Best Novels since 1923—that is best novels, not just graphic novels. Like all supreme literary works, it weaves so much into its pages that the reader is mesmerized way after the book is closed for the first, fifth or nth time. And like many works—including now many comic books and graphic novels—the attempt to transform it into film was good but only partly successful, and still not the experience of reading the book. So whether it is Watchmen or one of the many other worthies—Read a Graphic Novel!

To Understand America 2018, Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

We had the best education. We went to school every day. I only took the regular course. Reeling and Writhing to begin with. Then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland now. Again if it’s been a while, and definitely now if for the first time.

Lewis Carroll (born Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898) was famously creative as a mathematician and logician. He wove puzzles and tortured logic all through his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Puzzles and tortured logic seem likely to be a major component of America in 2018, as they were in 2017.

The leadership and the citizens of Wonderland are variously tyrannical, illogical, stupid, or just plain bizarre. Alice literally does not fit in. While she is only a child, she has more sense than everyone she meets combined.

If I had a news network like CNN, I’d interrupt the futile attempts to understand and explain what’s going on by having different news anchors read aloud one chapter from Alice in Wonderland every day. It would actually be more constructive—and more fun—than just listening to their trying to making sense of the nonsensical.

If Trump’s tweets were taken from Alice in Wonderland, would we know the difference? Would he?

Some Trump/Alice tweets:

We must have a trial. Really this morning I have nothing to do. With no jury or judge I’ll be Judge. I’ll be jury. I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.

We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. A dog growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.

Be what you would seem to be. Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

You have no right to think. Just about as much right as pigs have to fly. I give you fair warning either you or your head must be off. Take your choice!

We had the best education. We went to school every day. I only took the regular course. Reeling and Writhing to begin with. Then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.

Umberto Eco: Ur-Fascism

Celebrated Italian author and scholar Umberto Eco (1932-2016)  published an article in 1995 entitled Ur-Fascism .

Eco grew up during the time of Mussolini. In the article, he jumps from memories of that experience to describe some varieties of fascism and other types of totalitarianism. Not all are well-defined fascism, he says, but he does identify the core characteristics of what he calls Ur-Fascism.

I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

Eco goes on to list 14 features of Ur-Fascism. This is the excerpted list; please read the article for an expanded explanation. And as you read it, please consider which of those features you might be seeing now.

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition….As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism….In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection.

4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies….Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm.

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter….Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

Eco closes with this:

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.

A Hanukkah Gift from Isaac Bashevis Singer

The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet—whom Plato banned from his Republic—may rise up to save us all.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize Lecture (1978)

Among his many incomparable stories, Isaac Bashevis Singer left a number that take place at Hanukkah. I had planned to excerpt one of those as a Hanukkah gift—his gift to us.

But then I came across the lecture he gave when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. I’ve included an excerpt below. It is a bit long, but with eight days of Hanukkah, you could just read one paragraph each night.

If you are someone who writes, as a profession or a passion, you naturally wonder whether you are wasting your time, or worse, wasting the time of your readers. Singer suggests maybe not.

Happy Hanukkah!


The Nobel Prize in Literature 1978
Isaac Bashevis Singer – Nobel Lecture
8 December 1978

The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants. Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see that the power of religion, especially belief in revelation, is weaker today than it was in any other epoch in human history. More and more children grow up without faith in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality of the soul and even in the validity of ethics. The genuine writer cannot ignore the fact that the family is losing its spiritual foundation. All the dismal prophecies of Oswald Spengler have become realities since the Second World War. No technological achievements can mitigate the disappointment of modern man, his loneliness, his feeling of inferiority, and his fear of war, revolution and terror. Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence but also in man himself, in his institutions and often in those who are nearest to him.

In their despair a number of those who no longer have confidence in the leadership of our society look up to the writer, the master of words. They hope against hope that the man of talent and sensitivity can perhaps rescue civilization. Maybe there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all.

As the son of a people who received the worst blows that human madness can inflict, I must brood about the forthcoming dangers. I have many times resigned myself to never finding a true way out. But a new hope always emerges telling me that it is not yet too late for all of us to take stock and make a decision. I was brought up to believe in free will. Although I came to doubt all revelation, I can never accept the idea that the Universe is a physical or chemical accident, a result of blind evolution. Even though I learned to recognize the lies, the clichés and the idolatries of the human mind, I still cling to some truths which I think all of us might accept some day. There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures, all the powers and knowledge that nature can grant him, and still serve God – a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.

I am not ashamed to admit that I belong to those who fantasize that literature is capable of bringing new horizons and new perspectives – philosophical, religious, aesthetical and even social. In the history of old Jewish literature there was never any basic difference between the poet and the prophet. Our ancient poetry often became law and a way of life.

Some of my cronies in the cafeteria near the Jewish Daily Forward in New York call me a pessimist and a decadent, but there is always a background of faith behind resignation. I found comfort in such pessimists and decadents as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Edgar Allan Poe, and Strindberg. My interest in psychic research made me find solace in such mystics as your Swedenborg and in our own Rabbi Nachman Bratzlaver, as well as in a great poet of my time, my friend Aaron Zeitlin who died a few years ago and left a literary inheritance of high quality, most of it in Yiddish.

The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet – whom Plato banned from his Republic – may rise up to save us all.

The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language – a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews. The truth is that what the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of The Book in the truest sense of the word. They knew of no greater joy than the study of man and human relations, which they called Torah, Talmud, Mussar, Cabala. The ghetto was not only a place of refuge for a persecuted minority but a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline and in humanism. As such it still exists and refuses to give up in spite of all the brutality that surrounds it. I was brought up among those people. My father’s home on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw was a study house, a court of justice, a house of prayer, of storytelling, as well as a place for weddings and Chassidic banquets. As a child I had heard from my older brother and master, I. J. Singer, who later wrote The Brothers Ashkenazi, all the arguments that the rationalists from Spinoza to Max Nordau brought out against religion. I have heard from my father and mother all the answers that faith in God could offer to those who doubt and search for the truth. In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation. To me the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who spoke it are identical. One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.

There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value. It is a fact that the classics of Yiddish literature are also the classics of the modern Hebrew literature. Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists – rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.

https://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1517