Commentary Magazine

Responses and Reactions IV

This is the fourth in a series of commentaries by the distinguished novelist Norman Mailer on selections from Martin Buber’s1 Tales of the Hasidim.


Once Rabbi Mikhal visited a city where he had never been before. Soon some of the prominent members of the congregation came to call on him. He fixed a long gaze on the forehead of everyone who came, and then told him the flaws in his soul and what he could do to heal them. It got around that there was a zaddik in the city who was versed in reading faces, and could tell the quality of the soul by looking at the forehead. The next visitors pulled their hats down to their noses. “You are mistaken,” Rabbi Mikhal said to them. “An eye which can see through the flesh, can certainly see through the hat.”


Reading faces is a frontier art. An honest face may be either honest or a masterpiece of treachery. Consider this: every inanimate form in nature is the record of a war—the shape of a stone reflects the obduracy of the material versus the attrition of the elements. Whereas the meaning of the forms in a man’s face or body is more complex. An honest mouth hints of battles taken against everything dishonest in the world and in oneself, but an honest mouth cannot necessarily be trusted, for humans have the ability to displace the psychic war within themselves. A man can influence the growth of his features, the shape of his body, he may be able to transpose the revelation of his personal forms from the surface of his skin to the function of his organs. An actor can cultivate an honest mouth and suffer in exchange a bad digestive system. An honest man can let his mouth go slack in order to protect the well-being of his stomach. The art of reading faces depends on more than an instinct for the language of forms; one must also be able to sense the dialectic between a face, a temporary mood, and the formal character of the man before one. It is this instinct upon which Mikhal was obviously depending. So a hat could bother him little. Obviously, he would “see through the flesh.”



The Story of the Cape3

A woman came to Rabbi Israel, the maggid of Koznitz, and told him, with many tears, that she had been married a dozen years and still had not borne a son. “What are you going to do about it?” he asked her. She did not know what to say.

“My mother,” so the maggid told her, “was aging and still had no child. Then she heard that the holy Baal Shem was stopping over in Apt in the course of a journey. She hurried, to his inn and begged him to pray she might bear a son. ‘What are you willing to do about it?’ he asked. ‘My husband is a poor book-binder,’ she replied, ‘but I do have one fine thing I shall give to the rabbi.’ She went home as fast as she could and fetched her good cape, her ‘Katinka,’ which was carefully stowed away in a chest. But when she returned to the inn with it, she heard that the Baal Shem had already left for Mezbizh. She immediately set out after him and since she had no money to ride, she walked from town to town with her ‘Katinka’ until she came to Mezbizh. The Baal Shem took the cape and hung it on the wall. ‘It is well,’ he said. My mother walked all the way back, from town to town, until she reached Apt. A year later, I was born.”

I, too,” cried the woman, “will bring you a good cape of mine so that I may get a son.”

That won’t work,” said the maggid. “You heard the story. My mother had no story to go by.”

One could use that anecdote as an introduction to An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Existentialism. Death, despair, and dread, intimations of nothingness, the mystery of mood, and the logic of commitment have been the central preoccupations of the existentialists. In this country, there has been a tendency to add our American obsession with courage and sex. These concerns are the no-man’s-land of philosophy. Insubstantial, novelistic, too intimate for the coiled cosmological speculations of metaphysics, irrational and alien to the classical niceties of ethics, utter anathema to the post-Logical Positivists of Oxford, existentialism remains nonetheless the one non-sterile continuation open to modern philosophy, for it is the last of the humanisms, it has not given its unconditional surrender to science.

The existential premise in “The Story of the Gape” is that we learn only from situations in which the end is unknown. As an epistemological scheme it suggests that man learns more about the nature of water by jumping into the surf than by riding a boat. Certainly he learns more about the nature of water if he comes close to drowning. Restated in a framework of Zen, one might say that the nature of experience is comprehended to the degree it is seen in purity, in the purity of no concept. A career soldier, armed with the professional necessity to be brave, can go through combat without ever entering an existential moment. His duty is simple. It is to fight until he dies or wins. It is only if he goes through enough combat to exhaust the concept of his duty and is thus reduced to a man who may either have the will to continue or the desire to quit, that he will have then entered the existential terrain where one discovers authenticity in one’s desires. Such situations were at the heart of Hemingway’s work until The Old Man and the Sea, which permits no existential moment for the fisherman: the old man is never reduced to the point of debating whether to let the big fish go.

The logic in searching for extreme situations, in searching for one’s authenticity, is that one burns out the filament of old dull habit and turns the conscious mind back upon its natural subservience to the instinct. The danger of civilization is that its leisure, its power, its insulation from nature, so alienate us from instinct that our consciousness and our habits take on an autonomy which may censor even the most necessary communication between mind and instinct. For consciousness, once it is alienated from instinct, begins to construct its intellectual formulations over a void. The existential moment, by demanding the most extreme response in the protagonist, tends to destroy psychotic autonomies in the mind—since they are unreal, they give way first—one is returned closer to the reality of one’s personal strength or weakness. The woman in search of a child goes on a pilgrimage in which her end is unknown—she may find the Baal Shem or she may not, but her commitment is complete, and the suggestion intrudes itself that on the long miles of her march, her mind, her habits, and her body were affected sufficiently to dissolve the sterilities of her belly and prepare her for a child.

Her commitment created her new condition. In giving herself to a concept outside herself, the experience she encountered was able to change her. The second woman having heard the story was trying to cheat an existential demand. She was looking not for commitment but obedience to a precedent. And precedent is the spine of all consciousness which is constructed upon a void. Precedent, it can be said, is the description of an event which occurred in the past, and has therefore altered the present in such a way that the same event could not take place again.




They say that in his youth, Rabbi Israel studied eight hundred books of the Kabbalah. But the first time he saw the maggid of Mezritch face to face, he instantly knew that he knew nothing at all.




1 Published by Schocken Books. Volume I: The Early Masters, Volume II: The Later Masters. Each volume cloth $4.50, paperback $1.65.

2 The Early Masters, p. 142.

3 The Early Masters, p. 286.

4 The Early Masters, p. 287.

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