21 April 2006

Please Read This

Don't worry, these are not my words, so you can relax and trust them. This is an excerpt from Anne Michaels' astonishing--astonishing--book (I don't want to call it a novel), "Fugitive Pieces."*
     A parable: A respected rabbi is asked to speak to the congregation of a neighbouring village. The rabbi, rather famous for his practical wisdom, is approached for advice wherever he goes. Wishing to have a few hours to himself on the train, he disguises himself in shabby clothes and, with his withered posture, passes for a peasant. The disguise is so effective that he evokes disapproving stares and whispered insults from the well-to-do passengers around him. When the rabbi arrives at this destination, he's met by the dignitaries of the community who greet him with warmth and respect, tactfully ignoring his appearance. Those who had ridiculed him on the train realize his prominence and their error and immediately beg his forgiveness. The old man is silent. For months after, these Jews--who, after all, consider themselves good and pious men--implore the rabbi to absolve them. The rabbi remains silent. Finally, when almost an entire year has passed, they come to the old man on the Day of Awe when, it is written, each man must forgive his fellow. But the rabbi still refuses to speak. Exasperated, they finally raise their voices: How can a holy man commit such a sin--to withhold forgiveness on this day of days? The rabbi smiles seriously. "All this time you have been asking the wrong man. You must ask the man on the train to forgive you."
     Of course it's every peasant whose forgiveness must be sought. But the rabbi's point is even more tyrannical: nothing erases the immoral act. Not forgiveness. Not confession.
     And even if an act could be forgiven, no one could bear the responsibility of forgiveness on behalf of the dead. No act of violence is ever resolved. When the one who can forgive can no longer speak, there is only silence.
     History is the poisoned well, seeping into the ground-water. It's not the unknown past we're doomed to repeat, but the past we know. Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected. Out of fertile ground, the compost of history.
     Destruction doesn't create a vacuum, it simply transforms presence into absence. The splitting atom creates absence, palpable "missing" energy. In the rabbi's universe, in Einstein's universe, the man will remain forever on the train, familiar with humiliation but not humiliated, because, after all, it's a case of mistaken identity. His heart rises, he's not really the subject of this persecution; his heart falls, how can he prove, why should he prove, he's not what they think he is.
     He'll sit there forever; just as the painted clock in Treblinka station will always read three o'clock. Just as on the platform the ghostly advice still floats: "To the right, go to the right" in the eerie breeze. The bond of memory and history when they share space and time. Every moment is two moments. Einstein: "...all our judgements in which time plays a part are always judgements of simultaneous events. If, for instance, I say the train arrived here at seven o'clock, I mean: the small hand of my watch pointing to seven and the arrival of the tain are simultaneous events...the time of the event has no operational meaning...." The event is meaningful only if the coordination of time and place is witnessed.
* Michaels, Anne. Fugitive Pieces (New York: Knopf, 1997), pp160-162.

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