Commentary Magazine

Responses and Reactions II

This is the second in a bi-monthly series of personal commentaries by Norman Mailer on selections from Martin Buber’s two-volume collection, Tales of the Hasidim.

On p. 293 of The Early Masters is a short story.



The Test

It is told:

When Prince Adam Czartoryski, the friend and counsellor of Czar Alexander, had been married for many years and still had no children, he went to the maggid of Koznitz and asked him to pray for him and because of his prayer the princess bore a son. At the baptism, the father told of the maggid’s intercession with God. His brother who, with his young son, was among the guests, made fun of what he called the prince’s superstition. “Let us go to your wonder-worker together,” he said, “and I shall show you that he can’t tell the difference between left and right.”

Together they journeyed to Koznitz, which was close to where they lived. “I beg of you,” Adam’s brother said to the maggid, “to pray for my sick son.”

The maggid bowed his head in silence. “Will you do this for me?” the other urged.

The maggid raised his head. “Go,” he said, and Adam saw that he only managed to speak with a great effort. “Go quickly, and perhaps you will still see him alive.”

Well, what did I tell you?” Adam’s brother said laughingly as they got into their carriage. Adam was silent during the ride. When they drove into the court of his house, they found the boy dead.

What is suggested by the story is an underworld of real events whose connection is never absurd. Consider, in parallel, this Haiku:1

So soon to die
and no sign of it is showing—
    locust cry.

The sense of stillness and approaching death is occupied by the cry of the locust. Its metallic note becomes the exact equal of an oncoming death. Much of Haiku can best be understood as a set of equations in mood. Man inserting himself into a mood extracts an answer from nature which is not only the reaction of the man upon the mood, but is a supernatural equivalent to the quality of the experience, almost as if a key is given up from the underworld to unlock the surface of reality.

Here for example is an intimation of the architecture concealed beneath:



Upsetting the Bowl 2

It is told:
Once Rabbi Elimelekh was eating the Sabbath meal with his disciples. The servant set the soup bowl down before him. Rabbi Elimelekh raised it and upset it, so that the soup poured over the table. All at once young Mendel, later the rabbi of Rymanov, cried out: “Rabbi what are you doing? They will put us all in jail!” The other disciples smiled at these foolish words. They would have laughed out loud, had not the presence of their teacher restrained them. He, however, did not smile. He nodded to young Mendel and said: “Do not be afraid, my son!

Some time after this, it became known that on that day an edict directed against the Jews of the whole country had been presented to the emperor for his signature. Time after time he took up his pen, but something always happened to interrupt him. Finally he signed the paper. Then he reached for the sand-container but took the inkwell instead and upset it on the document. Hereupon he tore it up and forbade them to put the edict before him again.

A magical action in one part of the world creates its historical action in another—we are dealing with no less than totem and taboo. Psychoanalysis intrudes itself. One of the last, may it be one of the best approaches to modern neurosis is by way of the phenomenological apparatus of anxiety. As we sink into the apathetic bog of our possible extinction, so a breath of the Satanic seems to rise from the swamp. The magic of materials lifts into consciousness, proceeds to dominate us, is even enthroned into a usurpation of consciousness. The protagonists of Last Year at Marienbad are not so much people as halls and chandeliers, gaining tables, cigarettes in their pyramid of 1, 3, 5, and 7. The human characters are ghosts, disembodied servants, attendants who cast their shadows on the material. It is no longer significant that a man carries a silver cigarette case; rather it is the cigarette case which is significant. The man becomes an instrument to transport the case from the breast pocket of a suit into the air; like a building crane, a hand conducts the cigarette case to an angle with the light, fingers open the catch and thus elicit a muted sound of boredom, a silver groan from the throat of the case, which now offers up a cigarette, snaps its satisfaction at being shut, and seems to guide the hand back to the breast pocket. The man, on leave until he is called again, goes through a pantomime of small empty activities—without the illumination of his case he is like all dull servants who cannot use their liberty.

That, one may suppose, is a proper portrait of Hell. It is certainly the air of the phenomenological novel. It is as well the neurotic in slavery to the material objects which make up the locks and keys of his compulsion.

But allow me a quick portrait of a neurotic. He is a sociologist, let us say, working for a progressive foundation, a disenchanted atheist (“Who knows—God may exist as some kind of thwarted benevolence”), a liberal, a social planner, a member of SANE, a logical positivist, a collector of jokes about fags and beatniks, a lover of that large suburban land between art and the documentary. He smokes two packs of cigarettes a day: he drinks—when he drinks—eight or ten tots of blended whiskey in a night. He does not get drunk, merely cerebral, amusing, and happy. Once when he came home thus drunk, he bowed to his door and then touched his doorknob three times. After this, he went to bed and slept like a thief.

Two years later he is in slavery to the doorknob. He must wipe it with his fingertips three times each morning before he goes out. If he forgets to do this and only remembers later at work, his day is shattered. Anxiety bursts his concentration. His psyche has the air of a bombed city. In an extreme case, he may even have to return to his home. His first question to himself is whether someone has touched the knob since he left. He makes inquiries. To his horror he discovers the servant has gone out shopping already. She has therefore touched the knob and it has lost its magical property. Stratagems are now necessary. He must devote the rest of the day to encouraging the servant to go out in such a manner that he can open the door for her, and thus remove the prior touch of her hand.

Is he mad? the man asks himself. Later he will ask his analyst the same question. But he is too aware of the absurdity of his activities. He suffers at the thought of the work he is not accomplishing, he hates himself for being attached to the doorknob, he tries to extirpate its dominance. One morning he makes an effort to move out briskly. He does not touch the brass a second and third time. But his feet come to a halt, his body turns around as if a gyroscope were revolving him, his arm turns to the knob and pats it twice. He no longer feels his psyche is to be torn in two. Consummate relief.

Of course his analysis discloses wonders. He has been an only son. His mother, his father, and himself make three. He and his wife (a naturally not very happy marriage) have one child. The value of the trinities is considered dubious by the analyst but is insisted upon by the patient. He has found that he need touch the doorknob only once if he repeats to himself, “I was born, I live, and I die.” After a time he finds that he does not have to touch the knob at all, or upon occasion, can use his left hand for the purpose. There is a penalty, however. He is obliged to be concerned with the number nine for the rest of the day. Nine sips of water from a glass. A porterhouse steak consumed in nine bites. His wife to be kissed nine times between supper and bed. “I’ve kicked over an ant hill,” he confesses to his analyst. “I’m going bugs.”

They work in his cause. Two testes and one penis makes three. Two eyes and one nose; two nostrils and one mouth; the throat, the tongue, and the teeth. His job, his family, and himself. The door, the doorknob, and the act of opening it.

Then he has a revelation. He wakes up one morning and does not reach for a cigarette. There is a tension in him to wait. He suffers agonies—the brightest and most impatient of his cells seem to be expiring without nicotine—still he has intimations of later morning bliss, he hangs on. Like an infantryman coming up alive from a forty-eight hour shelling, he gets to his hat, his attaché case, and the doorknob. As he touches it, a current flows into his hand. “Stick with me, pal,” says the message, “One and two keep you from three.”

Traveling to the office in the last half hour of the subway rush, he is happy for the first time in years. As he holds to the baked enamel loop of the subway strap, his fingers curl up a little higher and touch the green painted metal above the loop. A current returns to him again. Through his fingertips he feels a psychic topography which has dimensions, avenues, signals, buildings. From the metal of the subway strap through the metal of the subway car, down along the rails, into the tunnels of the city, back to the sewer pipes and electric cables which surround the subway station from which he left, back to his house, and up the plumbing, up the steam pipe, up the hall, a leap through the air, and he has come back to the door knob again. He pats the subway strap three times. The ship of his body will sink no further. “Today,” thinks the sociologist, “I signed my armistice. The flag of Faust has been planted here.”

But in his office he has palpitations. He believes he will have a heart attack. He needs air. He opens the window, leans out from the waist. By God, he almost jumped!

The force which drew him to touch the knob now seems to want to pull his chest through the window. Or is it a force opposed to the force which made him touch the door knob? He does not know. He thinks God may be telling him to jump. That thwarted benevolent God. “You are swearing allegiance to materials,” says a voice. “Come back, son. It is better to be dead.”

Poor man. He is not bold enough to be Faust. He calls his analyst.

“Now, for God’s sake, don’t do anything,” says the analyst. “This is not uncommon. Blocked material is rising to the surface. It’s premature, but since we’ve gotten into it, repetition compulsions have to do with omnipotence fantasies which of course always involve Almighty figures and totemic Satanistic contracts. The urge to suicide is not bona fide in your case—it’s merely a symbolic contraction of the anxiety.”

“But I tell you I almost went through the window. I felt my feet start to leave the floor.”

“Well, come by my office then. I can’t see you right now—trust me on this—I’ve got a girl who will feel I’ve denied her her real chance to bear children if I cut into her hour, she’s had too many abortions. You know, she’s touchy”—rare is the analyst who won’t gossip a little about his patients, it seems to calm the other patients—“but I’ll leave an envelope of tranquilizers for you on the desk. They’re a new formula. They’re good. Take two right away. Then two more this afternon. Forget the nausea if it comes. Just side-effect. We’ll get together this evening.”

“Mind if I touch your door knob three times?”

“Great. You’ve got your sense of humor back. Yes, by all means, touch it.”

So soon to die
and no sign of it is showing—
    locust cry.




1 An Introduction to Haiku by Harold G. Henderson, p. 43. The poem is by Matsuo Basho, translated by Henderson.

Yagate shinu
keshiki wa mei-zo
    semi-no koe

2 The Early Masters, Schocken Books, p. 259.

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