July 21, 2022 : Issue #21
WONDERCABINET : Lawrence Weschler’s Fortnightly Compendium of the Miscellaneous Diverse
In the wake of our jumbo issue last time out, and as we forewarned, David and I will be offering a series of leaner issues through much of the rest of this summer. This current one will begin with yet another FOOTNOTE FROM A BOOK YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE READ, this one involving an achingly resonant parable by the Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), interspersed with photos of Eastern European shtetl life from just before the Holocaust by Roman Vishniac, with a brief postscript on the latter. Then, in the INDEX SPLENDORUM, a trio of guys getting just a wee bit overexcited (a sort of convergence, come to think of it), followed by a fourth, a sort of afterspurt on the theme.
* * *
The Main Event
FOOTNOTE FROM A BOOK YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE READ, OR EVER READ, AND FOR THAT MATTER CAN’T YET HAVE READ BECAUSE IT’S STILL NOT OUT (DON’T GET ME STARTED) BUT WILL BE (THEY SWEAR) THIS FALL…
Those of you who’ve been following this Cabinet from the start will recall how at the outset I included a whole series of footnotes from this mysterious future book I’ve been talking about, and though I haven’t been doing so for a while, I thought I might revert to the practice with this issue and a couple of those still up ahead. (I don’t envy anyone trying to figure out what the book in question could possibly be about given the wild heterodoxy of its endnotes—see Issues number 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12 —but then, that may be the point. You will in any case eventually be informed with regard to the entire book’s actual publication, sooner or more likely later). In the meantime, there’s this:
A long time ago, back in my days at UC Santa Cruz, my friend Joel Rosenberg, a grad student at the time in the History of Consciousness program (Go, Banana Slugs, Go!), showed me the typescript of a translation he’d just rendered of a tale (circa 1800) told by the eminent Hasidic rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. The story stayed with me through the decades, and for some reason it comes back to me here and now as well:
THE PORTRAIT OF THE KING
Once there was a king who had a wise man. The king said to the wise man: I know a place where there is a king. It seems he is known as a GREAT and MIGHTY man, and a man HUMBLE and TRUE. I know for a fact he is mighty: the sea surrounds his kingdom, and on this sea stand battleships that let no one pass, and inside the sea is a huge SWAMP surrounding the kingdom, with only one path wide enough for one person to travel, and anyone who tries they SHOOT. Except one who is known to be true and humble. More than this I know not, but I want you to bring me a picture of that king: in his portrait is the portrait of all kings. But no king has his portrait because he is unseen by any person. He is BENEATH IT ALL. He is far from the people of his kingdom
The wise man went to the kingdom. He said to himself: it will be a good idea to get to know the nature of the kingdom, and WHAT BETTER WAY than by its HUMOR? When one wants to know a thing, one must know its humor. For example, sometimes a person really wants to do harm to another, and when the latter cries out in complaint, the person says, “I’m only joking.” And sometimes a person only intends a joke but winds up harming another person with his words.
(Now there is among all countries a COUNTRY that includes all the countries. And within it is a City that contains all the cities. And within it is a HOUSE that contains all other houses. And within it is a PERSON who contains all other persons. And that person is LAUGHING!!!)
So the wise man took his money and went to the kingdom. When he got there, he saw that everyone was playing games. And he learned the HUMOR of the place: LIES from beginning to end. Their JOKES consisted of confusing and misleading each other in their business dealings. And bribing each other in their business dealings. And bribing and corrupting the courts. The wise man went from court to court, each one higher than the next, and in every court he saw their way was bribery, and they betrayed even those who bribed them: one day, they would take a man’s money; the next day they would not know him from Adam.
FINALLY, after going through EVERY COURT IN THE LAND, up to the highest, the wise man came to stand before the king himself.
And in the presence of the king, he said: “Over WHOM are you king? For the country is full of LIES from the beginning to the end, and there is not an ounce of truth.” And he went on to describe all the acts of deceit he had encountered in the country. And when the king (who was behind a curtain) heard his words, he inched his ear to the curtain to listen more carefully. He was astonished that there should be such a man who knew all the lies of his kingdom. And the officials of the kingdom who heard the man grew very angry at him, but he went right on talking and describing all the lies of the country. “And it would be fitting,” he said, “to say that the king, too, is LIKE THEM, that he is a lover of LIES like the REST OF THE KINGDOM . . . but I stop short of this: I see that you are a MAN of TRUTH, and because of this, you stay far away from them because you can’t bear the lies of the kingdom.” And he started to EXULT better the PRAISES of the king, and the king, because he was such a HUMBLE man, whose very greatness was in his humility—and because it is the way of a humble man to grow smaller and humbler the more you praise him; and because of the GREAT INTENSITY of the praise which the wise man rained upon the king—the king grew humbler and smaller until he was virtually shrunk down to nothing. And he could not endure it any longer, and he thrust aside the curtain to look at the wise man: who was HE who knew so much?
And his face was seen. And the wise man saw him. And he took his picture back to the king.
All of that 120 years before Kafka! But more to the point, forty years before the invention of chemical photography. For what else was one to make of that stunning last stanza, “And his face was seen. And the wise man saw him. And he took his picture back to the king.” (How else would he have done so other than by taking his picture?)
Actually, including the story here got me to wondering about all of that all over again, and I sought out other translations, in particular Joachim Neugroschel’s in his authoritative Great Works of Jewish Fantasy and the Occult (1976; pp. 265–67), and Neugroschel has it as follows:
The wise man saw his face and painted his portrait, and then he brought the portrait back to the king.
Which I suppose makes more sense. I called up Joel, who in the meantime has mellowed into the Director of Judaic Studies at Tufts (we’re still in fond semi-regular contact), and he agreed to double back to the original text for me and presently he reported:
As to your query: as you remembered from ca. 1971–72 (!), the tale itself did indeed say that the wise man painted (in Yiddish: hot gemolt) a portrait of the king, and took it back to the (first) king. Arnold Band, in his translation Nachman of Bratslav: The Tales (Paulist Press, 1978, p. 119), renders it similarly: “The wise man saw him, and painted his portrait, and he brought it to the king.”
So, oh well, there goes that frisson. Still, I like Joel’s version better and not just for its photographic misprision, I love its jaunty rhythms and I love the tale itself, all that stuff about knowing the nature of the kingdom through the HUMOR of the kingdom, and the nature of the kingdom being lies all lies, and yet the (second) king’s being a MAN OF TRUTH who stays far away from the lies of the kingdom since he can’t stand all the lies (a neat twist, that, on the causal polarities implied in the Lurianic Tsimtsum). I think Shimmel Zohar would have loved it, too, and who knows, maybe he did (Bratslav not being that far away from the photographer’s native Lithuania).
I wanted to include a portrait of Nachman of Bratslav at this point and went spelunking for same on Google but was informed that no such authenticated image existed. Except that then, suddenly, there appeared to be one after all. Digging a bit deeper, I came upon an article in the VIN-news of March 29, 2009 which reported that a Jerusalem man “by the name Avraham Chaim Biton claimed that Rabbi Nachman appeared in one of his dreams and told him to draw a picture of him,” which Biton proceeded to do. Nachman was the founder of the Breslov Hasidic Dynasty, and when the ten current Breslover rabbis in Jerusalem were shown the portrait, five accepted it as authentic, two rejected such authentication, and three had yet to be shown the painting as of the time of publication. Make of all that what you will, but here it is:
POSTSCRIPT TO THAT FOOTNOTE
Some of you will have recognized the photographs with which I salted that last footnote (they are not in the book version, I inserted them especially for this iteration). They are of course drawn from the extraordinary trove of such images that Roman Vishniac, at the time a Russian Jewish émigré based in Berlin,
compiled between the years 1935 and 1938, at the behest of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the JDC), documenting life among the precarious Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. As such, they would come to constitute the definitive documentation of a teeming civilization on the brink of extinction.
Vishniac himself only barely escaped that Holocaust, repairing to Paris in the late summer of 1940, subsequently getting arrested as a stateless citizen/enemy alien by the Vichy government and remanded to the Camp du Ruchard deportation camp, from which he was only liberated through extraordinary behind-the-scenes efforts by his wife and the JDC, subsequently escaping via Lisbon to the United States the following year.
There he scrabbled together a living, in part as a portrait photographer (his photo of fellow refugee Albert Einstein in casual concentration at home in Princeton was said to be Einstein’s own favorite)
before settling into a second career (or rather a reversion to a childhood passion) as a biological microphotographer, eventually with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
The photographs from that second trove are in some ways no less heart-stopping:
And indeed one, which he himself called “The World From Space,”
put me quite in mind of some of the images getting beamed down to us this very week from the new Webb telescope, and for that matter several of those that have been featured across the previous two entries of our Convergence Contest (see this Cabinet’s previous two issues). Walter Murch last time out put the human ovum at the very center of logarithmic spread from the very tiniest to the most expansive. Across his life, Vishniac’s fervent witness spanned expanses hardly less capacious, with a passionate equivalence no less stirring.
* * *
Three guys getting just a little too excited
You’ve heard of toxic masculinity. What about “ecstatic masculinity”? (Might the two be related?) Let’s just say “enthusiastic masculinity,” acknowledging in the process how the word “enthusiastic,” by way of its etymology (en-theos), wends back to notions of the introjected god, of getting flooded with a sense of divine. (Beauty being, pace Rilke at the outset of the Duino Elegies, “but the beginning of a terror we can only just barely endure, and we admire it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us, Every angel is terrible.”) Anyway, herewith three recent instances of the thunderstruck—one fellow on his own in Yosemite getting walloped by a double rainbow; another on a plane in pursuit of a total solar eclipse; and the last on the 84th day of an Antarctic solo trek to the Pole and back, finding a stash he’d buried for eventual retrieval on his original way in. Happy Summer, everybody!
DOUBLE RAINBOW GUY
SOLAR ECLIPSE ON A PLANE
ANTARCTIC EXPLORER FINDS STASH
* * *
Cartoons by David Stanford.
Animal Mitchell website.
* * *
ADDENDUM TO THE DOUBLE RAINBOW GUY
Finally, in keeping with the generally transcendental tenor of this entire issue, there’s this, Peter Rand’s canny blending of the Yosemite Rainbow Guy’s ecstatic stylings with the video of a visit to a Donald Judd exhibition.
* * *
Another of our somewhat-slimmed-down summer issues, this one starting out with a trip to Brazil…
Thank you for giving Wondercabinet some of your reading time! We welcome not only your public comments (button below), but also any feedback you may care to send us directly: email@example.com. And do please subscribe and share!