I read a lot of books. About a hundred a year. At the end of the year I go over them all again and many of them, I see, failed to make a deep impression. Some, I know, before I close the back cover, will stay with me. Maybe even haunt me. I count Elizabeth R. Baer’s The Golum Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction among those that will linger long. My regular readers will know of my predilection for monsters, so a golem book will hardly be a surprise. I realized, however, upon completing my academic paper on Sleepy Hollow, that my reading on the golem was rather slim. I’m no longer sure that it’s even a monster. As a goy who’s spent a good deal of his life among the Hebrew Scriptures, there’s a natural resonance, it seems, with those oppressed for being who they are. Golems are created in times of crisis but have unexpected, or at least unwanted, repercussions. Baer offers a thoughtful, intertextual study of the golem, largely through the lens of Jewish fiction.
Having dealt with the Bible as portrayed in Sleepy Hollow, I treated the episode where its significance truly unfolds (“The Golem”) as the entryway into the culmination of the first season. Now it appears likely that season three will be the erasure of the aleph, it seems appropriate to give golems their due. The story begins with the oppression of the Jews in early modern Prague. Rabbi Loew makes a golem from mud to protect the beleaguered community. This soulless, selfless protector becomes an archetype for various superheroes and literary characters ably summarized by Baer. The book put me in mind of my only visit to Prague, too brief and too ill-informed to truly appreciate what I was seeing. To see you have to learn to read.
While some writers have fun with the golem, others understand it in more serious tones. Those who can’t forget the Holocaust see things in a way that others cannot. Not that only Jews can summon a golem, but its origins and reuse have a special place in a community that longs for a protector. I’m reminded of the book of Job, and there’s a good reason for that. While reading The Golem Redux on my commute, I came home to find a copy of Pete Hamill’s Snow in August on my wife’s stack of books to read. As it is one of the titles studied by Baer, I felt an odd synchronicity at play. The book had been recommended by one of the booksellers at our local indie shop just a few weekends back. Tied in with all the other golem-based thoughts in my head recently, I’m inclined to think that this was no mere coincidence.
Posted in Books, Literature, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Elizabeth R. Baer, Golem, holocaust, Pete Hamill, Prague, Rabbi Loew, Sleepy Hollow, Snow in August, The Golum Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction
A truly great metaphor is hard to kill. Despite detractors and naysayers, the zombie has clawed its way into the modern psyche as a denizen of the living death of a world we’ve created for ourselves. Joblessness, environmental disasters, tea parties – just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the dead refuse to stay dead. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve written about the origin of zombies in Voodoo, and I mentioned in passing the connection with the golem. The golem is a mythical Jewish creature that serves the role of protector of the oppressed (one can’t help but think of the Democratic Party). It is strong, dedicated to its task, brainless and soulless (one can’t help but think of the Religious Right). Like the zombie, the golem has no inherent ability to think for itself, and it must be animated by a magical word written on its forehead.
Golem around the corner
One of the most famous golem stories involves the Golem of Prague, defender of the oppressed Jews in that city in the Middle Ages. The Prague connection also forever ties the golem together with robots in Karel Capek’s 1921 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the very origin of the word “robot.” Like the golem the robot putatively has no soul. It too is controlled by a code written precisely for it. Unfortunately on my one trip to Prague back in 1991, I didn’t know to look for the golem – I did find the statue of Jan Hus, however. Right around the corner the golem lurked, standing guard over the oppressed. It is a powerful image when the world is in such a state.
We need a hero
With the recent release of George Romero’s Survival of the Dead, the zombie has been given renewed life. Watching the Republican Party gearing up for a major thrust at the very soul of America, lining up the local BP station to support big oil, spouting false rhetoric about what the Bible says, I think I’d rather take my chances with the zombies. Does anyone out there happen to have a golem for sale, just in case?
Posted in Bibliolatry, Books, Current Events, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Robotics, Travel
Tagged George Romero, Golem, Jan Hus, Karel Capek, Prague, R.U.R., Religious Right, Survival of the Dead, zombies
With all the talk of organ harvesting in New Jersey (see any Jersey paper over the past couple of days — you can’t miss it), my mind naturally turns to zombies. I have to confess to having enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Quirk Books, 2009) very much, particularly when the Bennett girls form the “Pentagram of Death” at a ball. Like most creatures representing humanity’s deepest fears, however, the undead have religious origins.
The evils of the slave trade and missionary work concocted a dangerous brew in the West Indies. Shamanistic “voodoo priests” claimed to have the ability to arrest a person’s soul, making that person an unthinking mercenary of their bidding. (The mind again turns to missionaries!) A similar idea enlivened the golem in medieval Jewish lore, only dirt was used to construct a golem rather than an already occupied fleshy apartment. The concept of the inculpable perpetrator of revenge in West Indian religion was first introduced into popular consciousness by the writing of William Seabrook, a noted traveler and author. Seabrook spent some time in Haiti and his account of zombies in The Magic Island captured the public imagination.
The undead aspect of zombies is largely due to the unexpected success of George Romero’s 1968 cult hit film, Night of the Living Dead. In an interview Romero noted that the zombie idea had been applied to the film rather than having been its driving plot device. The undead are called “creatures” at several points but never “zombies.” The zombie connection nevertheless took off from the movie and landed the undead directly into the supernatural monster pantheon. As people continue to struggle with death and all its implications — one of the largest psychological roles of religion — it may seem difficult to believe that zombies have only been with us since the 1960s. William Seabrook committed suicide after having committed himself to an asylum in his later years. In one of his travelogues, Jungle Ways, he describes in detail the experience of eating human rump roast while in West Africa. Perhaps he was well on his way to becoming a zombie (or at least a New Jersey public servant!)?