il portale dell'ebraismo italiano

The Unbearable Complexity of Life

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

It’s all lapsing back into senseless violence, anger, fear and militant need for revenge. Once again, I feel this urge to yell at people, to scream at the intrusive aggression of a blade into my consciousness. It’s all surreal. I wake up at 6:00, make myself coffee, make sandwiches for the kids, ride my bike to the rendez-vous with my student Matanya who will give me a ride to Bar Ilan, where I will teach acts 3 to 5 of “King Lear”: in the car I look at my phone and the updates from Ynet (Yediot Aharonot Online), stabbings, cars driven into bus-stops, death.

I’m in class: show time! “Cordelia,” I argue in the small bomb shelter where I teach my course on “Shakespeare and the Philosophical Lexicon,” “Cordelia” I say again with my eyes shut because reality is a major distraction, “Cordelia!” I raise my voice as if trying my best to interrupt myself from rudely interrupting my own thoughts, “is an uncompromising individual who sees the purity of nothingness, and that is exactly what she states out: nothing.” I admire Cordelia, I admire her purity of spirit, her stupid / naïve yearning for whatever is not rhetorical. She is the antithesis, in my eyes, of what Shakespeare calls in “Coriolanus” the “glib and oily art” of rhetoric, the capacity to say things in such a way that words will fashion (manipulate?) reality. Cordelia is not like this. Her father, Lear, on the other hand, believes in the direct relationship between words and things – one can measure reality in words. Cordelia lives one dimension at a time – Lear lives in one dimension.

I close my eyes again. They’re looking at me, I can feel it, the next sentence has to conclude the both the class and a series of five lectures I have dedicated to King Lear, but I am thinking Geoffrey Chaucer, in my next class, I am thinking of the plum Wife of Bath and her husbands, I can see the elegant and refined Prioress with her “brooch of golden sheen” carrying the words “Amor Vincit Omnia”… but there’s also my bike ride from the bus station to my apartment, the rapid eye movements to prevent careless Israeli drivers from running me over, there are the policemen and security men and women standing at every single corner of my city… It’s all very overwhelming. It’s all a bit too much.

I’m on the 422 bus to Jerusalem, my bike is in the trunk, my helmet in on my knees, I can’t sleep because I am over-caffeinated and still on a high from my teaching adrenaline, and once again there’s bad news on the radio. I roll my eyes, as the haredi next to me is reciting psalms and having illegally loud conversations in Yiddish on a “kosher” Nokia phone: I check my email on my smartphone, doing my best to show my loud neighbor the sexiness of technology – congratulations Yaakov, you won a grant to organize a conference on Bible and the Renaissance… Seriously?? The radio is reporting that a 40 year-old man in Petah Tikva was stabbed in the neck, managed to get the knife out of his neck to then stab and kill the 17 year old Palestinian who had attacked him… And here I am rejoicing at my grant, to discuss the Geneva Bible, and the King James Bible, and seventeenth-century English poetry in Jerusalem, the Holy City of Peace… Whatever man, this is all a bit too overwhelming. How am I supposed to live a life that so crudely and drastically mixes different components like life, death, beauty, horror, poetry and so on, all in the span of the short seasons of my life??

Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli author defined by David Fishelov as a “metaphysical poet,” once wrote a poem on “A Man In His Life”:

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

Yes, I know I have ADHD, thank you very much – but reality, my reality, here, is such a frenzy and kaleidoscopic circus… It’s all very overwhelming. Do I have time for all this in my life? Do I have the time? But then again, who cares if I have time in my life? Has anyone asked anyone else if she or he had time in his or her life for all of this? The sting of immediacy hurts, the overlapping of feelings and thoughts and activities forms, in this crazy corner of the earth, a truly multicolored stratification of memories, making lived moments complex, unbearably complex, a slap in the face of commodity and laid-back bourgeoisie. You sure can strut around yapping that things are clear to you (“This is our Land!” or “The Jews must go!”), but they really are not – all that is crystal clear is the fact that the earth is inert, that it is not holy, that it is not inherently charged with Divine presence, and that it is certainly still very thirsty for blood. Maybe, maybe this could be the season for a more creative, compassionate, open-minded and chaotic thinking…?

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.