Among the many reminders to us that we do not live in the very best of all possible worlds is the fact that the texts that edify do not invariably delight and the tales that are salutary to the soul do not always give the most pleasure. I do think the well-balanced reading life should range over both extremes. Here, then, is an example of each.
The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories, by Cynthia Ozick (Syracuse University Press, 270 pages, 1995)
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Eva Brann, as she considers the nature and purpose of salutary literature through her comparison of two incongruous works.—W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
I want to commend to the attention of the community a pair of books that belong to a series, and a collection of stories. The series and the collection are connected by nothing but their incongruity. Among the many reminders to us that we do not live in the very best of all possible worlds is the fact that the texts that edify do not invariably delight and the tales that are salutary to the soul do not always give the most pleasure. I do think the well-balanced reading life should range over both extremes. Here, then, is an example of each, one a realistic British sea-romance and the other a theological Jewish fantasy.
For the adults among the readers of the Hornblower books who have longed for one more adventure there is relief: Patrick O’Brian’s fifteen-book Aubrey-Maturln series, the best fighting navy novels I have ever read. (Consider that Joseph Conrad writes about commercial vessels, though he wouldn’t have liked so crass a way of putting it.) Like the Hornblower novels, this series follows the rocky rise of its hero through the navy list during the Napoleonic wars. Unlike the Forester stories, this series is an entertainment meant for grownups.
The way I went about it was to get the first and the eighth volume, Master and Commander and The Ionian Mission. I mean to get the fifteenth as soon as it is available in paperback, and then to fill in haphazardly, as if picking up occasional tales about a familiar setting and its likable inhabitants. [Editor’s note: Blue at the Mizzen, the 20th novel in the series, was published in 1999. Mr. O’Brian died in 2000.]
To me, the chief delight of these books is the sea talk. The special vocabularies of all the honest trades—so antithetical to jargon—are always wonderful, but among them the speech of sailors is most wonderful. For one thlng, it is vigorously poetical and exuberantly traditional; for another, it is an essential part of the working life of any boat-skippers who can’t rely on the crew to know the language of their orders might as well go and do it themselves (which is what my skipper, Bert Thoms, our tutor who died in 1978, would often have to do). Naturally not everybody is so fond of sailing speech. In the opening chapter of the voyage to Brobdingnag, Swift inserts a sardonic half page of nautical gibberish—at least, I think it must be that. O’Brian, on the other hand, is persuasively professional, and there are sometimes whole pages of language that I can’t make heads or tails of but in which I have utter faith. For example, Captain Jack Aubrey has just set his Sophies old-fashioned spritsail topsail, edging away another half point:
At the taffrail Mowett was explaining the nature of this sail to Stephen, for the Sophie set it flying, with a jack-stay clinched round the end of the jib-boom, having an iron traveller on it, a curious state of affairs in a man-of-war, of course.
Well, of course. Like most members of this community, I don’t like being subjected to insignificant speech even if I can divine its intention very well, but I love listening to significant speech though I don’t understand a third of it.
The other objects that are lovable about these books are its Captain Jack Aubrey, called “Goldilocks” behind his back by the crew, and his friend, the ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, a hopeless sailor and an indefatigable naturalist. In fact, the most horrifying engagement in the books is the mating of a pair of praying mantises observed by Stephen, a mating that is carried on undeterred by the fact that the female is the while systematically dismantling her mate. The beauty of it is that in this romance the incident is a metaphor for nothing at all—just a well-observed piece of natural history.
Young Jack, as well as middle-aged Jack, is fattish and blond, daring and cautious, insubordinate and Toryish, moody and exuberant, naive and cunning, childlike and commanding, bearlike and delicate. Although he makes love in all ports, he is altogether present only in two places. One is the quarterdeck of his sloop Sophie (and later of his frigate Surprise) before and in battle, the other is in the captain’s cabin, sawing away at his fiddle in concert with friend Stephen’s cello. They both know the music of the “London Bach.” As it happens, Stephen has come across the fact that “Bach had a father,” and has brought some of father Bach’s scores on board. Playing them reveals a side of the amateurishly musical Jack that realigns his figure from lovable to moving.
There is, of course, third among delights, lots of naval action: chases, engagements, slippings-away, bombardments, boardings, love trysts in exotic ports—and very little pretense of plot otherwise. Years of pleasure.
Conservatively speaking, one might say that the people in Cythia Ozick’s book, particularly in the title story, “The Pagan Rabbi,” (1966) are not outdoor folk. The nearest the rabbi comes to the ocean is sewer-straddling Trilham’s Inlet Park, off Long Island Sound (I have reason to think) but not to be found on the going map of New York City and environs. Here he hangs himself with his prayer shawl from the young oak with whose roving spirit he has fallen in love. Hence the tale is fantasy, but it is dead serious fantasy. In the epigraph of the story, taken from the Talmudic Ethics of the Fathers, Cynthia Ozick announces the danger that drives Rabbi Kornfeld to his death:
Rabbi Jacob said: “He who is walking along and studying, but then breaks off to remark, ‘How lovely is that tree!’ or ‘How beautiful is that fallow field!’—Scripture regards such a one as having hurt his own being.”
This saying speaks to me because I was brought up the other way around, to think that total absorption in inward talk while walking through a fallow field—or a field of corn in tassel—is a sin against nature.
Kornfeld’s embittered widow suspects him of studying nature—botany, perhaps mycology. But those Baconian distractions are not his undoing. He develops a mad and beautiful theory of “free souls.” Only the human soul is irremediably indwelling. The souls of natural beings, of trees and animals, can roam free, leaving the natural body at peace, allowing it to see, to witness, to confront its own soul. What has captivated the rabbi is not the science of nature but the souls of nature: water and wood nymphs, the visible spirits of myth. In the fervently God-involved mode of a piously sedentary learned Jew he has surrendered to paganism—to open-eyed wandering about (he joins a hiking club), to visible spirits (he begins by descrying a naiad and ends by embracing a nymph), and to the supersession of God’s will by the free imagination (he thinks that if Moses had told the Hebrews of the doctrine of “free souls” they would have preferred to stay enslaved in Egypt while letting their souls wander at pleasure in Zion).
No one in this story is lovable or even pleasant, not the runaway rabbi, not the bitter rebbetzin, nor the bookseller who tells the tale—not even, or least of all, the rural spirit that seduces him, for in love-battle with a Jew, the nymph proves to be a demon. But they are all reenacting an old and deadly serious antagonism, and thus they command respect.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in October 2015.
This essay originally appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 42, No. 1, 1993) and is republished here with gracious permission. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).
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The featured image is “Talmud Readers” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.