for Dan Remein
by EILEEN JOY
This may be a stretch, but I was cleaning up my website this morning and paused to reread some of the response papers written by students who took my contemporary literature course last spring on the topic of Fantastic/Slipstream/Realism, and I was immediately struck by the apropos-ness, if you will, of a short response paper one of my students, Daniel Ising, wrote on Nathan Englander's heartbreaking short story "The Twenty-Seventh Man" to the SEMA panels on "Eros and Phenomenology," as well as to Justin's "Becoming the Medieval Jongleur" paper [and perhaps other papers presented at SEMA as well that considered the bodiliness of texts and of persons in texts], which we posted here a couple of days ago. Daniel is an M.A. student at Southern Illinois, specializing in creative writing, but he is very interested in medieval and cultural studies, and he attended many of the sessions at the SEMA conference and also helped us with the running of the conference. Many of you will remember meeting him here and there. Since I posted my own paper here last night on "Eros and Event in Malory's Tale of Balyn and Balan," I have been thinking about everything I don't know or understand about phenomenology, but also about that "literary-magic power" which John Caputo says is "astir" in literary worlds--which literary worlds have "causal powers that are released from the constraints of actuality," and here were Daniel's brief remarks on Englander's story somehow bringing me right back to another way of thinking through the being-ness [the phenomenology, but also the ontology] of fictional worlds, and what is possible in them, and why they matter so much. I also felt, in re-reading Daniel's remarks, that something important was also being expressed--both in Englander's story and in Daniel's response to it--regarding the absolute brutality under which authors and artists sometimes have to strive to be creative--to continue writing--even when someone [either figuratively, or more literally] is trying to kill them, to make them stop writing. And it can be hard, then, as Daniel intimates in his remarks, to remain true to oneself, to one's vision, not only of the world, but of the worlds we want to create within this world, worlds in which, perhaps, there is more justice and more compassion. There is an amazing passage in Englander's story when the main character, the Russian writer Pinchas Pelovits, who has been picked up and imprisoned as part of one of Stalin's purges, is being tortured and falls unconscious as a result, and yet, he is managing to do the only thing he has been doing since his first day in prison, compose a story, his last one, short enough to be written entirely in memory:
Pinchas Pelovits was not unconscious. He had only lost his way. He heard the conversations, but paid them little heed. The weight of his body lay on him like a corpse. He worked on his story, saying it aloud to himself, hoping the others would hear and follow it and bring him back.In short, Englander's story concerns itself with the lowly and unknown writer Pinchas Pelovits who, either accidentally or as a direct result of something he has done [although this is doubtful since he has spent his entire life in one room in his parent's inn only writing, and never publishing--constructing "his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers"--and with such fervor that when Stalin's agents first knock on his door his immediate response is, "not hungry"], is arrested by Stalin's agents and thrown in a gulag prison with twenty-six other writers, all of them well-known and some even personal heroes of Pinchas's. The guards proceed to beat and torture all of them every day and there is no doubt that these beatings will end when they are all shot together in the yard. While the other writers worry over and rail against their fate [after all, as one character exclaims, "who would dare to kill the poet laureate of the Communist empire?"], Pinchas, the most frail of all of them and only a "boy" to the others--so much so that he even has to be propped up by two of the writers when he is finally executed, because he has been beaten so badly he can no longer stand--can only think of composing, because that is all he has ever known. Over and over again he composes his one last story so that, just before dying, he can recite it to his heroes. Even while being beaten, Pinchas "had focused on his story, his screams sounding as if they were coming from afar. With every stripe he received, he added a phrase, the impact reaching his mind like the dull rap of a windowpane settling in its sash." His story is short, and goes like this:
The morning that Mendel Muskatev awoke to find his desk was gone, his room was gone, and the sun was gone, he assumed he had died. This worried him, so he said the prayer for the dead, keeping himself in mind. Then he wondered if one was allowed to do such a thing, and worried instead that the first thing he had done upon being dead was sin.And herewith are Daniel's comments. They will remind us, I hope, that, as writers and scholars, we are always something, and somewhere, even without our bodies, and also, that when the sun appears dimmed, and even goes out, take heart--there is still so much work to do, so much writing to be accomplished, so many created worlds still to enter, and to ask, what is to be done here?
Mendel figured he'd best consult the local rabbi, who might be able to direct him in such matters. It was Mendel's first time visiting the rabbi in his study--not having previously concerned himself with the nuances of worship. Mendel was much surprised to find that the rabbi's study was of the exact dimensions of his missing room. In fact, it appeared that the tractate the man was poring over rested on the missing desk.
"Rabbi, have you noticed we are without a sun today?" Mendel asked by way of an introduction.
"My shutters are closed against the noise."
"Did no one else mention it at morning prayers?"
"No one else arrived," said the rabbi, continuing to study.
"Well, don't you think that strange?"
"I had. I had until you told me about this sun. Now I understand--no sensible man would get up to greet a dawn that never came."
"This is all very startling, Rabbi. But I think we--at some point in the night--have died."
The rabbi stood up, grinning. "And here I am with an eternity's worth of Talmud to study."
Mendel took in the volumes lining the walls.
"I've a desk and a chair, and a shtender in the corner should I want to stand," said the rabbi. "Yes, it would seem I'm in heaven." He patted Mendel on the shoulder. "I must thank you for rushing over to tell me." The rabbi shook Mendel's hand and nodded good-naturedly, already searching for his place in the text. "Did you come for some other reason?"
"I did," said Mendel, trying to find a space between the books where once there was a door. "I wanted to know"--and here his voice began to quiver--"which one of us is to say the prayer?"