Chronicle of Current Events

I never learned to type


By Philalethes

I never learned to type. Fitzgerald’s “the moving finger writes,” and, precisely, just one finger, is more like it; but one may add to the eminent Victorian’s Englished Khayyam, “and having writ, deletes.” There, the computer with a single keystroke distances one from the clatter of typewriters, from sticky white-out liquid, from carbon copies. But the sound of typewriters, the staccato tap, was the music of creativity once. Now there is a malign silence to which we will return shortly. 

Never took driver’s ed, either: you didn’t need to in The City That Never Sleeps– whose Subway, also, never slept. (As a student in England I learned to ride a motorcycle. That gave one a sense of freedom that these four-wheel cages don’t.) Did make sure to get a proper adult library card, though, as soon as I reached what the New York Public Library had determined was the age of reason. That was my driver’s license, my ID, my passport. 

Our branch library was on the north side of the street, way east towards Audubon Ave., and the walk there was always, like the opening scene of “Manhattan”, in black-and-white: cold days and urban grit, and the grinding rattle and stentorian din of trucks coming off the George Washington Bridge and merging with the Cross-Bronx, in the smoky, multi-lane chasm the other side of the road. Inside the building, though, a hush pervaded the library, half sacerdotal, half schoolmarmish. Fluted stone, polished wood, heavy tables, lemony light perfect for reading, and yours truly, over half a century ago, brandishing his grownup card.

It has become very difficult to evoke the feel of that lost time. It is not just the demise of the typewriter or the phone booth: libraries have lost the sanctity with which our sense of a civil free culture imbued them. I have lived to see the lingering and sordid death of our nation’s liberty, with the end of freedom of the press, of conscience, of assembly. I cannot escape the tactile sense that it started when the dustjacket-clothed, hardcover book itself began to lose its authority. Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy: who now would even care about their cat fight? Without their volumes weighing in at opposite ends of the spot-lit boxing ring, without the cigar smoke, the great mental wars of the West Side shrink to the words of a twitter and are carried off like a driven leaf. It takes time, the commitment of attention, a kind of high seriousness, to sit down with a book and read its reasoned argument through, to approach a whole set of ideas you may not agree with and even find repellent— and to do it with clarity, openness, and the integrity of respect for oneself and another. It can’t happen now: the book must be self-censored before the frightened publisher will touch it.  

Branch libraries began closing long ago, even though they obligingly installed computers in an attempt to stay useful and relevant. One can now read nearly as widely and deeply as one wishes without ever touching a printed book. But there is no serendipity, none of the loafing and inviting the soul that library stacks draw one into, the timeless quiet of a calm sea, the many voices on the spines of the books. I first learned of pre-Islamic Iranian religion by wandering into the wrong stack at Columbia’s Butler Library and feeling a bit scared, then intrigued, by the completely unknown script impressed in gold on heavy bindings. (The binding was Indian; the books were in Parsi Gujarati.) 

Libraries were sanctuaries shielded by Athena’s aegis: the Soviets censored and banned books, while the Nazis had publicly burned them. The New York Public Library was the First Amendment in the flesh; and the great edifice on 42nd Street, flanked by recumbent stone lions, was its Temple to America— the idea of a place where you do not censor, cancel, ban, burn, indoctrinate, re-educate, interdict, or impose. Loaf and invite my soul, yes. 

In our Washington Heights branch library I read the transcripts of recent show trials of Russian dissidents, as well as the books satirizing and exposing Soviet totalitarian repression that they had been arrested for possessing. Many years later, at the home of my friend Zhenya Beshenkovsky, a Russian scholarly archivist, I met one of those men, the son of the Soviet Jewish diplomat Maxim Litvinov. Now an émigré teacher in a private school in Riverdale, he had abandoned Samizdat and instead cultivated la vie intérieure as she was practiced in the narcissistic 1980s. He talked about his jogging schedule and the brand of sneakers he liked. The conversation felt insubstantial, perhaps an intimation of shallow social media exchanges to come. There was none of the Pavel Litvinov who had been my hero in hard covers. One wanted to meet the other him, the younger and defiant one, committed to the cause of civil liberty, facing the droning judges in some grim, dilapidated Moscow courtroom with beautiful, dedicated wives and girlfriends staring down the police goons. The noble opponents of Soviet totalitarianism glowed with something of the majestic light of the star of revolution that was reaching us long after its source had dried to a dead, frozen husk. 

 (What has one lived to see? The promise of Russian liberty at last— freedom of the press, of conscience, all stolen by a cunning secret police thug, a murderer, a tyrant, a poisoner, a thief whose traitorous career will end on a cold morning with a noose around his neck in an empty prison yard. And there is the kangaroo court, the hero Navalny drawing a heart for his wife on the glass wall of his cage, while outside in the cold the lawless police mob assault the citizens of Russia. Some have honor there still. But there is nothing left, here.)   

The Romantics of the early 19th century waved tricolors from barricades, penned proclamations and manifestoes by candlelight, faced down the muskets of the ancien régime, and sang the Ode to Joy. The guns went off, the candles guttered, and party hacks appended codicils to the manifestoes. The poor aging Romantics, or their wayward, gloomy grandchildren metamorphosed into Symbolists. The film reverses, the brilliant butterfly folds her wings, is sucked back into the cocoon, and a gauzy darkness of indistinct feelings and half-seen hues enfolds the sleeping caterpillar once more. Instead of Beethoven and La Marseillaise, the soundtrack is now Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune. Or, if you please, Litvinov fils delivers his brave oration, serves his sentence, flies unshackled to the land of the free­– and that is all. No apotheosis to be rendered on a canvas of palatial dimensions, by David, in oils. He takes up jogging. 

T.S. Eliot warned long ago that Clio has cunning turnings and that the world will end with a whimper. She does and perhaps it will. All the above and many other stupid thoughts blew windily through the empty spaces of my young head as I walked home, so many times, from the library. Never once did I imagine as I crossed Fort Washington Avenue, then turned north past the little synagogue on 179th and Pinehurst with its inscription from Psalm 100 (“Come into His gates with thanks; His courts, with a song of praise!”) that the time would come when I would see the George Washington Bridge only in the memories of an anguishingly unrecoverable past. A time when there would be no more dinner ritual: my parents, my brother, and me sitting down in the little dining room, while the jeweled catenaries of the Bridge dipped and rose in the calm evening above the great river. The synagogue was torn down and replaced by a faceless block of condos. That home is gone, sold to strangers, and I may never see my parents in the land of the living again. That joyful Psalm though, that sings to me and I sing back.

 Inspiration comes to us in the three B’s: bus, bath, and bed– when the mind is free of the usual bother of disturbances, the crowd of tradesmen from Porlock banging at the door. Coleridge was fortunate to live in an age and place where they came singly. That, too, one experiences: the flash as wires connect and you see the whole shape of a mythologem, the ghostly path of a concept in mysticism, the words of a Psalm that are hoary yet pulsing with life. Those are the inner fires, the finer lights and wonders that come your way as you do scholarship, and all unnoticed, decades pass. 

Khayyam: “When we were young, some went to study a master;/ Some then were happy in our mastery./ But listen to the end of the tale, to that which reached us then./ We rushed upon existence like a torrent but were carried off by the wind.” (Be-kudáki yek chándi az má be-ostád shodím/ Yek kándi ba ostadí-ye khish shád shodím./ Payán-e fasáne be-shnó, be ma ché rasíd:/ Chun áb bar ámadim o bar bád shodim.)  Romantic youth, Symbolist adulthood, and then, what? Standing in astonishment and looking back at the distractions, they multiply and grow louder and louder, and then comes the moment, Seferis says, pos ksafniká ke óli mazí sopénun ta dzidzíkia, “when suddenly, and all together, the cicadas fall silent.” Silence. 

There are many kinds of silence. The comforting silence of a library (but you can hear many thoughts). The awe-stricken silence of the grave (where did they go, it is a silence of absence which we all shall know). “I was raised among wise men and have never found anything better for a person than silence (shetiqah),” said Rabbi Simeon the son of Gamaliel in Mishnah Avot. This is a gracious silence of listening, and of circumspection in measured judgment. There are fifty gates to possible human understanding of the Torah: forty-nine can be known in this world, but the fiftieth is in the Otherworld and has to do with silence. The Hebrew letter N, nun, the number fifty, is absent from the most important alphabetic song, Psalm 145. It is silent. It is so silent that it cries out its presence. It has to do also with the end of time, when the Messiah, the Man of Sorrows bent under His burden in the shape the nun has at the beginning of a word, will straighten and lengthen as the letter does at a word’s end. In another acrostic Psalm where there is an N verse, it enjoins a kind of positive silence: Netsór leshon-khá me-rá‘, “Restrain your tongue from evil.”

Silence as relief. Heinrich Böll wrote a story about a radio employee who cannot bear the platitudinous idiocies of pompous German intellectuals of the Adenauer era on the air. He secretly snips and splices together bits of recording tape where they are not speaking, and plays it back to himself at home, his Gesammelte Schweigen, “Collected Silences”. (It is heartbreakingly funny when you know German scholarly titulature, heartbreaking because of my father’s and Hilda’s Germany, the Germany we, humanity, lost when the Nazis came; and today Deutsche Welle is the humane voice of freedom in Europe and that makes me cry, too, like a father welcoming back a prodigal son and choking back the question “Why? Why?”)

The silence of not being able to breathe anymore. In the branch library I read a book on psychoanalysis in the Third Reich.  It included a story where a patient told his therapist about a dream in which his favorite reading lamp, the one near his comfy chair at home, informed on him to the Gestapo.  This is how it feels when “informants” are watching or listening in on your every word or step.  This is the silence induced by fear. The fear of being “canceled”, when every paper and radio station broadcasts lies and drivel and you scream back but know that nobody will listen, when reason is branded as “hate speech”. 

Perhaps it was this fear that led to a dream I had last night: a woman who teaches something called “pagan seminar” (God help us) at the state college where I give a few part-time classes opens a ledger. She shows me hostile denunciations by a mediocre art historian of the comments I had penned on the margins of my students’ essays. She dismisses my query about privacy as an absurdity. “We are here to help, she soothes me: you can go to a nice re-education camp in Vermont (cloud, castle, lake) and teach pilot classes where we will assist you to feel the right things.” The stifling silence of the terror and indignity of America today invades one’s subconscious. That is not the silence of the fiftieth gate in the Academy on high where Moses, Akiva, and Christ unfold the missing verse of Psalm 145. It is not even the natural stillness of an old graveyard: slate tombstones decorated with winged hourglasses, skills and bones, 18th-century dates in quaint script. This is another silence altogether, the silence of the hell of now from which I withdraw into the past. “I hate it,” sang the Russian Jewish dissident singer Vladimir Vysotsky in his gravelly, unhappy, challenging voice, “when they crawl into my very soul; all the more so, when they spit at her.” I want to spit this new America out of my soul, out of the world, to tear the muzzle off.

And the end of silence. The true silence, E.M. Forster, understood, is a positive quality that has nothing to do with the absence of sound; just as, the Tibetans explain, voidness is not at all emptiness: 

“He leant back against the rock, breathing deep. Through all the blue-green reflections I saw him colour. I heard him say: ‘Silence and loneliness cannot last forever. It may be a hundred or a thousand years, but the sea lasts longer, and she [the Siren] shall come out of it and sing.’ I would have asked him more, but at that moment the whole cave darkened, and there rode in through its narrow entrance the returning boat.” 

I used to go up to the roof of our building to read Forster on summer afternoons when I was in college. You did not want anybody to see you had a copy of Maurice, then. All his stories encoded the same message, so you did not want anybody to see you with those Penguin paperbacks either. It was 1973 and Stonewall had barely happened. For most of those for whom it was the beginning of liberation, much of life was still concealment, fear, shame, peril, loneliness, and there was not yet a Siren to break the silence.   

But the best place to read was the sloping, shingled roof of my parents’ big house on Fire Island, a forested stretch of sand between Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Late on a summer afternoon there was a salt breeze, the lush greenery, the smell of cookouts, the sound of the surf, and I was above it, reading Konstantin Dmitrievich Balmont’s poems and feeling as only a teenager can that my emotions were unique in the whole world and so intense that nobody could possibly ever have felt them before or share them now, but that they were also so intricate and obscure that words could but hint at their meaning: Romantic meets Symbolist. But then I’d go down to dinner, feeling like Beethoven and Mallarmé both. I did not know that the actual marvel was Mom, Dad, Josh, and me around the table (fettucine, a salad, red wine).  

Once I woke up in the island house, it was a lazy hot morning and Mom gave me blueberries and milk for breakfast, and I read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story. The hero, Herman, has a mistress in the Bronx and she keeps a little room for him in the apartment where she lives with her mother. The room has a window that looks out on a yard with a tree. Herman Broder, a survivor of the war, is the ghost writer for an American rabbi and books and manuscripts with Herman’s doodles are scattered all over the tiny room. Even in his sleep, Herman writes: kabbalistic treatises and revelations on yellowish paper, in Rashi script. Now I read the Hasidic treatise Likkutei Amarim Tanyabefore going to sleep, in the improbable room of an unimagined age: a corner of the house, with cypresses shading either window, here in California, thousands of miles away. 

The island house had belonged to the actor Alan Arkin, whose character in Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders” is perfectly and darkly insane, American Jewish Kafka. He’s also great as the commander of the little grounded submarine Sproot in “The Russians Are Coming!” I was on the Russians’ side. One of the sailors was kind of cute. And the soundtrack included the Soldiers’ Chorus of Shaporin’s opera, “The Decembrists”. Friends are demonstrating now on Senate Square in Petersburg where, nearly two hundred years ago, the Decembrists fell. Red diaper babies: we play a schizophrenic balancing match. On cold nights on Fire Island when we had a fire going I’d slip out of the warm bright house to go for long runs in the pounding rain on the beach, with the power of the ocean in the dark menacingly close and overwhelmingly real. 

That was around the time one read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and discovered numinous terror and all its eschatological possibilities: mix Symbolism, Messianism, and the catalyst of adolescent sexuality and you have H.P. Lovecraft’s promise that Cthulhu will come out of the thundering waves, from the city under the sea where Poe put him. Poe knew all about krakens, and it all fits together: you want a Midrash on the Necronomicon? The great creature emerging from the sea! Trees clap their hands, waves laugh! Come before him with joy! Loneliness, Forster promised, cannot last forever. “Iä-R’lyeh! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! No, I shall not shoot myself—I cannot be made to shoot myself! I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.”

Wonder and glory forever! It sounds like a Psalm. It is a Psalm. For years, before they bought the beach house, my parents used to rent a bungalow upstate on the shores of Lake Champlain. The Crown Point, NY locals, who were polite but distant, called the cluster of cabins the Jew Colony: most of the vacationers were New York City schoolteachers and their young families, and we socialized only with each other or with guests who drove up from the City or the Catskills. Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks are the end of the world: nothing past there but Canada. 

Mr. Daniels, who was Principal of a Brooklyn high school during the year, was an ordained Orthodox Rabbi. Before dusk on Friday he sang out In shul herein “Come to synagogue!” but as one word, Inshulerein!— the Yiddish becoming like the sweet call of the muezzin from the minaret summoning the faithful to prayer. The shul was a simple, white-painted room whose windows faced the towering trees and the sparkling, dancing surface of the vast lake. Champlain is long, wide, and very deep, and teems with life, from beavers, snapping turtles, and perch to the catfish Arbie hooked that was so big it smashed in the side of the wooden rowboat and he had to climb into ours. Once we were Bar Mitzvah age, my friend Arthur and I counted for the minyan, the quorum of ten adult men; and I was as proud of this as of my grownup library card in the city. 

The Psalms recited to greet Shabbat have a supernal, cosmic ecstasy: the many islands will rejoice… then all the trees of the forest will burst into song… (and in Rav Daniels’ Galitzianer-flavored Hebrew), Lifnei Adonoy ki vaw, ki vaw lishpeyt ho-oretz, yishpeyt tevel be-tsedek, ve amim be-emunawsay “Before the Lord, for He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the universe with fairness; and the nations, with His faithfulness.” The pages of the worn prayer book, the thick, spiky Hebrew letters and the lines and dots of the vowel signs, ever so quiet till you read them and they merge with a landscape in singing upon the inner ear of cosmic joy. Many islands, waters, singing trees, the coming: and there it was, the trees laughing, Lake Champlain rejoicing, and God is about to come out of the water to us, because loneliness cannot last forever. 

Roman Vishniac before the war photographed the little wooden cheders, or schoolrooms, of the Jews of Poland. Those are gone and the wide-eyed children went to an end we all knew, it was much closer in those days, too close to talk much about, now there’s too much talk, but still, who can understand? The white room where we davened— prayed— was like one of those. It was in a larger building that in the 1850s had been a hotel. Now the Big House, the owners of the property, the Popovits family, lived there. Another room was a general store where Sadie Popovits, or one of the ladies, gave change in big silver half-dollars: either the Liberty Bell and bald Ben Frankin, or the older one, with striding Eagle and standing Liberty. I still have one of the latter, worn smooth as a lake pebble, its date erased. 

The Big House is gone without a trace; the bungalows, also. Google Earth surveys the landscape. You can pore over it like a map of the devastated Temple Mount after the Roman destruction. Arthur and I talk of going back, but the people are a place and the people are gone. The children grew up, some had children and grandchildren of their own; most of the parents, where, what has happened? The lake glows as mysteriously as then, and the deep ones in wonder and glory sing the Hebrew Psalms, and, trying not to think about the parents gone and the Big House gone and the various cabins we stayed in gone, gone, all gone, Gate gate, paragate, parasvamgate, Om, Svaha! I promise I will return to them, because loneliness cannot last forever. There is light in the depths. The lights of the Bridge, there are Hart Crane, Esenin, and Mayakovsky singing the Shabbat Psalms, praises of the Brooklyn Bridge; the Siren sings. 

I know her, the Siren. I never set foot on the islet where she stands, tall and green,  but Dennis and I passed her endless times on the Staten Island ferry, the ferry where Edna St. Vincent Millay was very merry, and three of my four grandparents saw her loom to greet them when the overcrowded ships they were on, the grimy, crowded Hamburg or the Megali Hellas (Grandma: it was like half a walnut shell in the ocean and we were sick the whole way here) chugged the last sea mile to Ellis Island (the fourth grandparent, Grandpa Sidney, was born on Sheriff Street, which no longer exists, but from there he could easily run to the quay to look at her). I never learned to type. Banged out on the keyboard all with one finger, these memories about the books and whom I loved, the books and what I felt, the books and where I grew up, the Biblical books that became songs and prayers and married the landscape, the books and hope, the books and dream, I loaf and invite my soul in this life that is going, in this country that existed once and is now lost, this one solitary American life. Still we will all together someday thank the Master of the Universe for it all in joy. “Your Kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; and Your reign shall endure from generation to generation.” (Psalm 145) The silence will end. Hear her, your Siren:

The New Colossus.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887)

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