My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

asherReading this book was rather like swimming. I could only dive into a few pages at a time before having to stop and breathe. This is a beautiful book, full of tenderness and trembling. It is a journey through different kinds of anguish, the anguish of a child, and the anguish that fuels a need to create. It is about art as an expression of being, and how such expression inadvertently causes hurt. It is a book about “the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats”, about “dreams of love”, “nights of waiting”, “memories of death”, about things which should be remembered but are forgotten, about love that overwhelms yet cannot find its voice to speak, and most of all about the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world, Asher concludes, cannot be comprehended.

The world – so full of love and memory it is. So full of suffering love and painful memory so powerfully expressed in the aesthetic mould chosen by Asher for his major works. And that mould is none other than the crucifixion, where one mystery is chosen to answer another.

 

It is difficult to pick quotes from this book, because it is so full of poignant running prose that loses its significance when is taken out of context. Nevertheless, I have attempted to jot down some parts for safekeeping:

1. “The fact is that gossip, rumours, mythmaking and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth, those subtle tonalities that are often the truly crucial elements in a causal chain. So it is time for the defence, for a long session in demythology. But I will not apologize. It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.”

2. “Often on Shabbos or festivals, I would see him in the living room, studying Talmud or a book on Hassidus…

‘Why do you study that so often, Papa?’

He smiled faintly and his eyes grew dreamy. ‘My father liked to study it often, Asher’”

3. “‘It’s wrong rivkeh,’ Her sister said. ‘The boy will have scars.’ Then she said, ‘Rivkeh, it is forbidden to mourn in this way.”

My mother was very still.

‘The torah forbids it?’ she said quietly. ‘It is forbidden? Yes?’

‘Yes,’ her sister said.

‘But there are scars everywhere,’ my mother said. ‘And who will hold my pennies?’”

4. “There was his face, very clearly; not truly his face, but the way I felt about his face. I drew his face inside my head. I went to my desk and on a piece of blank white paper drew how I felt about his face. I drew the kaskett. I did not use any colours. The face stared up at me from the paper. I went back to the bed and lay on it with my eyes closed. Now there was ice and darkness inside me. I could feel the cold darkness moving slowly inside me. I could feel our darkness. It seemed to me then that we were brothers, he and I, that we both knew lands of ice and darkness.”

5. “’No one likes my drawings,’ I said through the fog of half sleep. ‘My drawings don’t help’

My father said nothing

‘I don’t like to feel this way, Papa.’

Gently, my father put his hand on my cheek.

‘It’s not a pretty world, Papa.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ my father said softly”

6. “I remember that night very clearly, the texture of it darkness, the echoing resonance of its sounds. I lay in bed in the enveloping night and felt myself one with all the vast and endless arc of the universe, felt myself as raw flesh connected to near and distant pain… to draw, to make lines and shapes on pieces of paper, was a futile indulgence in the face of such immutable darkness…”

7. “’It’s only a taste,’ my father said once, looking out across the buildings and trees. ‘But remember, Asher, some tastes remain a long time on the tongue. A taste of the Ribbono Shel Olom…’”

8. “’The world is a terrible place. I do not sculpt and paint to make the world sacred. I sculpt and paint to give permanence to my feelings about how terrible this world truly is. Nothing is real to me except my own feelings; nothing is true except my own feelings as I see them all around me in my scilptures and paintings. I know these feelings are true because if they were not true they would make are that is as terrible as the world. You do not understand me yet, Asher Lev, my little Hasid…’”

9. “The girl sat very still, bathed in sunlight. I looked at her and worked carefully, translating her body into lines, making choices, each curve, each subtle change in the flow of her flesh, necessitating and interpreting choice of line”

10. “Do not try to understand. Become a great artist. That is the only way to justify what you are doing to everyone’s life.”

11. “I worked for – what? How could I explain it? For beauty? No. Many of the pictures I painted were not beautiful. For what, then? For a truth I did not know how to put into words. For a truth I could only bring to life by means of colour and line and texture and form.”

12. “He listened attentively to what I was saying. But there was nothing in his intellectual or emotional equipment to which he could connect my words. He possessed no frames of reference for such concepts. He could not even ask intelligent questions. My world of aesthetics was as bewildering to him as his insatiable need for travel was to me”

13. “And it was then that it came, though I think it had been coming for a long time and I had been choking it and hoping it would die. But it does not die. It kills you first. I knew there would be no other way to do it. No one says you have to paint ultimate anguish and torment. But if you are driven to paint it, you have no other way.”

14. “I did not know, but I sensed it as truth”

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