Commentary Magazine


Topic: fantasy literature

Abandoning Realism to Preserve It

Science fiction has a surprisingly close relationship with realism, Kingsley Amis says in New Maps of Hell (1960). In distinguishing it from fantasy (with which it is often associated and confused), Amis points out that “while science fiction . . . maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these. . . .”

Hence its unexpected didacticism: science fiction carries present trends to their logical (and lesson-serving) conclusion. Dystopias like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Linda Chavez’s recommendation for the holiday season, teach a lesson about current realities by the simple method of showing what might happen if they are not altered or corrected.

“[A] difference which makes the difference between abandoning verisimilitude and trying to preserve it seems to me to make all the difference,” Amis says. And something like this may go far to explain Michael Weingrad’s claim that “Judaism is a science fiction religion” (while, by contrast, “Christianity is a fantasy religion”). In other words, Judaism is a religion that preserves verisimilitude, while Christianity is a religion that abandons it.

Thus even Jewish fiction that seems upon first reflection to be fantasy turn out not to be. Take Steve Stern’s marvelous The Frozen Rabbi (2010), for example. Reissued in paperback by Algonquin earlier this year, the novel has a fantastical premise. A 19th-century Polish tzaddik, lost in a meditative trance while a storm rages around him (“his soul sat in bliss among the archons studying Torah”), does not notice that the pond on whose bank he lies has begun to rise, “inundating his legs to the waist, creeping over his chest and chin and ultimately submerging his hoary head.”

The rebbe remains underwater, “continu[ing] his submarine meditations,” while autumn turns to winter. The pond freezes over; the rebbe is discovered embedded in the ice, “apparently intact even if frozen stiff,” and carted back to the village. The frozen rabbi is stored in an ice house for a few years, and then is passed down like a holy relic from generation to generation. He is transported across Europe and eventually to America, where he ends up in an ice chest in a Memphis basement. One day in 1999 a thunderstorm causes an electrical outage and the rabbi thaws out to find himself at the turn of centuries.

Surely this is the Jewish fantasy (if not exactly the Jewish Narnia) that Weingrad had written in the Jewish Review of Books is nowhere to be found. But no. Stern’s novel respects fact and preserves verisimilitude. Indeed, the novel’s satirical purpose is to comment upon and poke fun at the “Gan Eydn” (Garden of Eden, paradise) that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr believes himself to have awakened to in postmodern America. Stern must have his facts straight for his satire to work. His primary attention is on the social and linguistic detail of contemporary Memphis and its environs. The fantastical premise is simply a device for bringing them into clearer, even exaggerated focus.

Stern is much closer to Kafka than to Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and George R. R. Martin. Kafka invented a special genre of Jewish SF (perhaps more speculative fiction than science fiction). The first sentence of The Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant beetle, launched the new genre. Only in the first sentence — only in its initial premise — does Kafka’s story dispenses with realism. Otherwise it is faithful to the factual and the possible.

The Frozen Rabbi is just one example of Jewish fiction of fantastical premise, which momentarily abandons verisimilitude for the sake of ultimately preserving it. Joseph Skibell’s wonderful A Curable Romantic (released in paper last month) premises that one of the most famous Viennese psychoanalytic patients was not suffering from the sexual hysteria that Freud diagnosed, but from a talkative lovesick dybbuk. And John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, the best Jewish novel of 2011 (to which my January fiction chronicle will largely be devoted), starts from the premise that a modern man who sets out to obey God’s commandments might just (who knows?) be capable of performing miracles. If they are miracles, though, they are miracles that occur in recognizable surroundings to recognizable human beings.

Even at its most fantastical, Jewish fiction is a fiction of realism.

Science fiction has a surprisingly close relationship with realism, Kingsley Amis says in New Maps of Hell (1960). In distinguishing it from fantasy (with which it is often associated and confused), Amis points out that “while science fiction . . . maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these. . . .”

Hence its unexpected didacticism: science fiction carries present trends to their logical (and lesson-serving) conclusion. Dystopias like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Linda Chavez’s recommendation for the holiday season, teach a lesson about current realities by the simple method of showing what might happen if they are not altered or corrected.

“[A] difference which makes the difference between abandoning verisimilitude and trying to preserve it seems to me to make all the difference,” Amis says. And something like this may go far to explain Michael Weingrad’s claim that “Judaism is a science fiction religion” (while, by contrast, “Christianity is a fantasy religion”). In other words, Judaism is a religion that preserves verisimilitude, while Christianity is a religion that abandons it.

Thus even Jewish fiction that seems upon first reflection to be fantasy turn out not to be. Take Steve Stern’s marvelous The Frozen Rabbi (2010), for example. Reissued in paperback by Algonquin earlier this year, the novel has a fantastical premise. A 19th-century Polish tzaddik, lost in a meditative trance while a storm rages around him (“his soul sat in bliss among the archons studying Torah”), does not notice that the pond on whose bank he lies has begun to rise, “inundating his legs to the waist, creeping over his chest and chin and ultimately submerging his hoary head.”

The rebbe remains underwater, “continu[ing] his submarine meditations,” while autumn turns to winter. The pond freezes over; the rebbe is discovered embedded in the ice, “apparently intact even if frozen stiff,” and carted back to the village. The frozen rabbi is stored in an ice house for a few years, and then is passed down like a holy relic from generation to generation. He is transported across Europe and eventually to America, where he ends up in an ice chest in a Memphis basement. One day in 1999 a thunderstorm causes an electrical outage and the rabbi thaws out to find himself at the turn of centuries.

Surely this is the Jewish fantasy (if not exactly the Jewish Narnia) that Weingrad had written in the Jewish Review of Books is nowhere to be found. But no. Stern’s novel respects fact and preserves verisimilitude. Indeed, the novel’s satirical purpose is to comment upon and poke fun at the “Gan Eydn” (Garden of Eden, paradise) that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr believes himself to have awakened to in postmodern America. Stern must have his facts straight for his satire to work. His primary attention is on the social and linguistic detail of contemporary Memphis and its environs. The fantastical premise is simply a device for bringing them into clearer, even exaggerated focus.

Stern is much closer to Kafka than to Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and George R. R. Martin. Kafka invented a special genre of Jewish SF (perhaps more speculative fiction than science fiction). The first sentence of The Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant beetle, launched the new genre. Only in the first sentence — only in its initial premise — does Kafka’s story dispenses with realism. Otherwise it is faithful to the factual and the possible.

The Frozen Rabbi is just one example of Jewish fiction of fantastical premise, which momentarily abandons verisimilitude for the sake of ultimately preserving it. Joseph Skibell’s wonderful A Curable Romantic (released in paper last month) premises that one of the most famous Viennese psychoanalytic patients was not suffering from the sexual hysteria that Freud diagnosed, but from a talkative lovesick dybbuk. And John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, the best Jewish novel of 2011 (to which my January fiction chronicle will largely be devoted), starts from the premise that a modern man who sets out to obey God’s commandments might just (who knows?) be capable of performing miracles. If they are miracles, though, they are miracles that occur in recognizable surroundings to recognizable human beings.

Even at its most fantastical, Jewish fiction is a fiction of realism.

Read Less

Harry Potter and the Rabbi

In the Introduction to Listening to God (Toby Press, 500 pages), Rabbi Shlomo Riskin starts off by quoting the Kotzker Rebbe, a notoriously severe Hasidic thinker, then the Bible, followed by another Hasidic tzaddik and the great biblical commentators Rashi and Nahmanides. After this roster of unsurprising Jewish sources comes an entirely unanticipated reference:

I agree with Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore that it is the decisions we make, rather than the intellectual gifts with which we are endowed, that are ultimately the measure of the human being and the life that one lives.

Riskin is a name to conjure with in Modern Orthodoxy. Founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, he is famous for his outreach to lapsed Jews, winning back many souls for religious Judaism. Listening to God is a collection of inspirational stories very much in the ethos of outreach and “return.” The tone is consistently one of spiritual uplift. Whether Harry Potter belongs in the same category is a question that can only be answered by readers more knowledgeable than I about the books. The “elective affinity,” though, suggests something deeper than cultural fashion and influence.

In the Introduction to Listening to God (Toby Press, 500 pages), Rabbi Shlomo Riskin starts off by quoting the Kotzker Rebbe, a notoriously severe Hasidic thinker, then the Bible, followed by another Hasidic tzaddik and the great biblical commentators Rashi and Nahmanides. After this roster of unsurprising Jewish sources comes an entirely unanticipated reference:

I agree with Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore that it is the decisions we make, rather than the intellectual gifts with which we are endowed, that are ultimately the measure of the human being and the life that one lives.

Riskin is a name to conjure with in Modern Orthodoxy. Founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, he is famous for his outreach to lapsed Jews, winning back many souls for religious Judaism. Listening to God is a collection of inspirational stories very much in the ethos of outreach and “return.” The tone is consistently one of spiritual uplift. Whether Harry Potter belongs in the same category is a question that can only be answered by readers more knowledgeable than I about the books. The “elective affinity,” though, suggests something deeper than cultural fashion and influence.

Read Less




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