POETRY AND TESHUVAH (RETURN)
How great are Your works, HaShem;
Your thoughts are very deep.
A few days before Yom Kippur, I read that the Nobel Prize in physics was being awarded to three scientists who had discovered that the universe, which started expanding from the Big Bang, is not being pulled back together but it expanding at an increasing rate because of “dark energy.” This provoked the following:
Much faster than we thought
Due to dark energy. What else
This scientific news item brought me back to an idea that has haunted me as a writer for many years. .
It just so happens that this discovery about the nature of physical reality mirrors what many of us feel is happening to the human community. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold” – I’m probably not the only one who would consider this line by Yeats to be the prize line of the 20th century. If this is a coincidence, it is a very big coincidence. A saying by Kafka also comes to mind: “The fact that there is only a spiritual world takes away our hope and gives us certainty.”
But Judaism has always had this intuition! One Kabbalistic term for this world (I read it in the Tanya) is “’alma de-peruda,” the world of separation. Israel’s historic exile is a diaspora, a scattering. The related concept of entropy, the direction of time’s arrow, is known to the tradition as “yeridat ha-dorot”, the decline of generations. Opposed to these is the concept of teshuvah, the return from separateness into oneness, from eccentric willfulness into the Will of the Creator, which is to culminate in the re-gathering of exiles, the rebuilding of the Temple as the center of the world. And surely the central statement of Judaism – “Hear, O Israel,” the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One” – is meant to exert a counterforce to the outward momentum of time.
Poetry, also, is intrinsically opposed to the “dark energy” of separation, insofar as it struggles to pull disparate ideas and images together, and to create intimacy among strangers. Poetry has always had a quarrel with Time, that is not just the poet’s desire for “immortality.” In the past century poets have felt the accelerating alienation most keenly, and poetry has been more endangered by it than any other human faculty (unless, indeed, the simple ability to love). Rabbi Ahron Batt z”l once quoted another rabbi to the effect that “yeridat ha-dorot” is not a matter of what we know, but of what we are able to feel for one another. Unfortunately, in recent generations poetry has been infected with the general dissipation of feeling (as manifest in postmodern “irony,” the automatic deflation of pathos, and also in the abandonment of form which often makes it difficult to distinguish between poetry and diffuse rambling). Perhaps these developments are part of what has inhibited poetry from transmitting the call to return that still goes out from the Source.
But -- poetry also bears in itself the impulse toward separation. The poem after all seeks individuation, wants to separate itself from the body of the language. Moreover, Rav Dessler has suggested that Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge out of a desire to be “creative” on their own! And this suggestion is unknowingly echoed by Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading, when he documents poets’ tendency to conceal their sources and to “disunderstand” (a word coined by poet Eva Shaltiel) one another, the better to lay claim to “originality.” For a contrast to this habit, Bloom briefly invokes Pirkei Avot and Rabbi Tarfon’s saying, “You are not required to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it” – the tradition as a single work, to which all contribute but in which there are no “strong” poets in Bloom’s sense of seeming to stand alone, and in which acknowledgment of one’s sources is of prime importance.
I cannot claim to understand fully the paradox of poetry, its ambiguous commitment to both oneness and separation. Yet my own experience as reader-and-poet has suggested to me that, despite Bloom’s strictures, it is possible to create without deafening oneself to other creators. Hence my dream -- and, yes, hope -- that by pledging to hear and acknowledge one another, poets could find a united strength, and could make a contribution toward the Great Return which may yet transform human society --- perhaps even, who knows, our vision of the physical universe.