There was a chapter of the Bible that people were afraid to read, I told the little girl. I want to know why they were afraid to read it.
Her name was Rebecca, and she was eight years old and the daughter of a friend and colleague of mine, a scholar of Islam who taught at a nearby university. It was 1982 and I was 34, a young professor embarking on the writing of a book that I expected—correctly, as it turned out—would get me tenure at mine. Rebecca wanted to know what my book would be about. I could have said, oh, it’s too complicated to explain, but I believed then that if you can’t explain what you’re doing to an 8-year-old child in words they can understand, you probably don’t understand it yourself.
I still believe that.
The chapter I had in mind was the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, the fantastic vision of what later generations would call the merkavah, the “chariot” of God. Still later generations would call it a UFO. The ancient rabbis of the second through sixth centuries put up a fence around that chapter, with signs posted all around saying Danger! Keep out!
What was there in the merkavah they were so afraid of?
It’s an odd idea, to be afraid of a book. Yes, there are books that challenge establish authority, that the powers that be want to keep out of people’s hands. There are others that these powers believe, or pretend to believe, are false and therefore dangerous in their falsity. But the rabbis didn’t question that Ezekiel really had seen the “visions of God” that he claimed. And if his supremely weird vision, eluding reason and even imagination, challenged anything in ancient Jewish society it wasn’t obvious.
Contemplating the infinite, one of my professors had told me long before, drives you mad. But does it really? At worst, it seemed to me, it would give you a headache.
In 1895, Robert W. Chambers published a book of short stories called The King in Yellow, which had as a running motif the idea of a play, written in Italian Renaissance style apparently—a “beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth”—which was so horrifying that those who read it went insane. The Talmud hints at something similar about Ezekiel’s merkavah. I tried to read Chambers’s stories, about the time I was writing my book on the merkavah. I couldn’t get through them. They weren’t terrifying, as the “King in Yellow” play was supposed to have been. “Dull” was more like it.
The problem was partly that Chambers was a pretty mediocre writer. But also he had set himself an impossible task. Talk about a beautiful, stupendous, terrible creation, make that central to your story, and sooner or later you’ve got to put up or shut up. What could that creation have been? Chambers hadn’t the slightest idea. He could only trot out banalities about black stars and twin suns and “the Pallid Mask,” all of them furnishings of the place he called “Carcosa.”
Yet I can think of two books, both of them masterpieces, which have on me something of the effect that Chambers ascribes to his impossible play. They suck you in, your eyes riveted (as Chambers says) to the open page. You read them tensely, caught up in their terror, wishing that what you’re reading were different from what it is but unable to stop before you’ve finished. At the end there’s no catharsis. You’re shaken, and remain so. Your world is never quite the same. The books are Orwell’s 1984 and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.
I should say, for me those are the books. For what a book will trigger depends on what you have inside you to be triggered.
I first read 1984 when I was in high school. Occasionally I’ve dipped into it since then; the experience is so disagreeable that I’ve resolved never to do it again. I’m prisoner in Winston Smith’s experience, so ordinary until it becomes terrifyingly extraordinary. Then I can’t stop reading, can’t shake myself free.
I know that what Smith is feeling is what I would feel in that situation, that what he does is what I would do. The secret of Room 401 of the Ministry of Love, which contains “the worst thing in the world” is utterly banal. (Rats.) But Orwell makes us feel it as the ultimate horror.
I put the book down knowing: this is real and this is awful. The awareness that 1984 came and went a long time ago, and that the world didn’t bear the smallest resemblance to Orwell’s nightmare, is no comfort at all. The year 1984 is past; the book 1984 is eternal. It sprang to fresh life after last year’s election.
The Island of Dr. Moreau I read even younger, when I was in seventh grade. That was nearly sixty years ago. I’ve hardly looked into it since, beyond the chill masterfulness of its ominous prologue, with its evocation of a small island in the middle of the ocean that might or might not have been Dr. Moreau’s. (“A party of sailors then landed, but found nothing living thereon except certain curious white moths, some hogs and rabbits, and some rather peculiar rats.” Rats again.) Like one of the readers of “The King in Yellow,” I know I’d better not go any farther.
The story is about a vivisectionist, possibly not quite sane, who undertakes to turn animals into human beings. His experiment is a stunning but imperfect success. It’s in the imperfection that the tale’s dread lies.
It was sixty years ago that I encountered its eerie and indefinable yet pathetically human “beast-men”—their chants of “Oola baloola,” their cry of “Back to the House of Pain, the House of Pain, the House of Pain!” What they evoked went beyond the straightforward chills of The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine to unsettle me at my deepest levels. It put a question mark beside who I was, what the culture that enveloped me might be. Wells’s narrator has similar feelings when, rescued at last from the island, he walks among civilized humanity.
Even at age 12, I sensed the book was about religion. It was about my religion. Dr. Moreau is the Creator and Lawgiver of the Hebrew Bible. His beast-men’s litany, “Not to eat flesh or fish—that is the Law. Are we not men?” echoed another Law, given at Sinai, which also had a list of foods not to be eaten and which purported to reshape its not-quite-willing recipients into something more than they were. “Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” Leviticus 19:2.
In my tiny suburban Levittown home we had separate dishes for milk and meat, a taboo that felt so absolutely natural I never would have thought to apply the word “taboo” to it. “My soul hath not been polluted … neither came there abhorred flesh into my mouth” (Ezekiel 4:14); and I couldn’t have said why pork or shellfish were “abhorred” or soul-polluting but the conviction that they were, and that I stood firm against being contaminated by them, gave me a sense of security and more important of meaning and purpose. Now a mirror was being held up to all that. The mirror’s name was The Island of Dr. Moreau.
What I saw in that mirror didn’t exactly drive me mad. But it did unsettle me deeply. Like 1984, I still have The Island of Dr. Moreau on my bookshelf. I think it will be there until I die. But I will never read it again.
My own book, The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel’s Vision, came out in 1988. The answer to the question I told little Rebecca I was writing about turned out to be a great deal more complex than the question, and I’m not sure I could have summarized it for her.
Essentially it was this: that the ambiguities in Ezekiel’s vision set the minds of its early readers moving toward frightening ambiguities in the God in whom they put their trust, whom in a hostile world they needed to trust.
Their ancestors had worshiped a golden calf in the wilderness, and that was the supreme act of rebellion against their God. Yet what if that same God had instigated their act subtly, sneakily, by showing them a merkavah like Ezekiel’s, which sported an ox’s face and a calf’s foot—encouraging them to peel off that calf-element, bring it to life and then worship it, because in essence it really was divine?
And then He punished them for what He’d brought on Himself.
If this doesn’t seem to you especially horrific, worth censoring the first chapter of Ezekiel over, that’s because the Golden Calf has no emotional weight for you. Like me, you probably don’t believe it ever existed. I’d guess that God’s emotional weight for you is also fairly light, even if you believe He exists; and the notion of divine treachery feels like an amusing mental game rather than an earthquake that devastates all that gives you meaning and hope. Without his loathing of rats, Winston Smith’s experience in Room 401 would have been a minor unpleasantness.
Orwell understood: “the worst thing in the world” may be a small accident, not even fatal. It varies according to you and me, and what we carry inside us.
The Talmud, in one of its Danger Keep Out signs for the first chapter of Ezekiel, tells the story of a boy who studied Ezekiel in his teacher’s house, contemplating the mysterious “color of hashmal” that Ezekiel sees at the beginning and end of his vision. The word hashmal means “electricity” in modern Hebrew, but of course that can’t be what Ezekiel intended. They didn’t know about electricity back then, and in any case electricity has no color. (Most translations give the word as “amber” or “electrum.”) The boy contemplated the hashmal and understood the hashmal, whereupon “fire came forth from the hashmal and burned him up” (Talmud, Hagigah 13a).
That’s what happens when you stick your finger in an electric socket.
But of course there was no electricity and no socket. The fire that burned the boy up came from inside him. The horror of the merkavah, of Room 401, of Dr. Moreau’s island, which unsettles us and at the extreme can make us crazy—it’s our own.
by David Halperin
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